Columns

Gowns for Grace

She should be turning 16 on June 1.

She should be clutching her newly minted driver’s license and deciding if she wants a big Sweet 16 bash, or to just hang out with family.

She should be so many things, but most important, she should be here. But she isn’t.

Grace Susie Bain died May 29, 2003. She was delivered June 1, 2003.

How do you mark this kind of milestone?

Sarah Bain, Grace’s mom, thought long and hard about ways to honor her daughter’s brief passage through this world. Then she got her wedding gown out of her closet and called Peggy Mangiaracina.

Mangiaracina had a long career in health care, from starting as a labor and delivery nurse to retiring 35 years later as executive director of Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital and vice president of women’s services.

When she retired, she got out her sewing machine and began making “angel gowns” for babies like Grace, who never come home from the hospital.

The Angel Gown program has chapters and affiliates across the U.S. Volunteer seamstresses take donated wedding dresses and create gowns for stillborn infants or babies who die soon after birth.

“I remember being a labor and delivery nurse and not having anything for these babies,” Mangiaracina said. “Parents would ask me what I wrapped their baby in. They wanted to know.”

Last week, Sarah invited me to be with her when she gave her wedding dress to Mangiaracina.

First, the talented seamstress showed us examples of how she used the donated dresses. From a bin she pulled out gowns fit for a princess’ christening and tiny satin tuxedos with velvet bow ties – each creation, like each child, unique.

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Wedding gown trim like tiny seed pearls, satin-covered buttons and delicate lace make each gown a work of art.

“Oh, I would have loved a gown for Grace,” Sarah said.

In addition to wedding wear, Mangiaracina has used prom gowns, handkerchiefs and high-quality linens. She also uses soft, carefully lined flannel to make little “cocoons” for the tiniest and most fragile babies.

At the hospital, nurses offer grieving parents a small selection of gowns to choose from. Infants can wear them for photos and to the funeral home.

Mangiaracina gives the parents of the baby a memory square with a swatch of fabric from their child’s gown, a silver heart charm and a card that reads, “Babies are innocence on earth, a link between angels and man.”

Each woman who donates a gown also receives a memory square, as well as photographs of the gowns made from their donated dress.

Friends help Mangiaracina with the sewing. A group of ladies in Coeur d’Alene knit tiny hats to go with the gowns. Then they are distributed to nine hospitals across the region.

Now, it was Sarah’s turn. Her beautiful ivory satin gown with puffed sleeves, elaborate beadwork and a scalloped lace train hadn’t been taken from the box since her wedding 24 years ago.

She knew the dress wasn’t to her 18-year-old daughter Sophia Bain’s taste, so she decided to use it to honor Grace.

59708414_2312918792080068_1957199751925465088_n[1]Her eyes filled with tears as we opened the box.

“I wore this before I knew babies died,” she said. “This is like donating an organ, like pieces of my heart are being spread out across the community.”

And she told Mangiaracina her story. About the sorrow and trauma that came with the news that her baby had died while safely snuggled under her heart. About the scant few hours she had to hold her. About how the loss of Grace forever changed her and her family.

She also talked about her wedding day, and how she’d felt like a princess in that gown.

“Every dress has a story,” Mangiaracina said.

The story of Sarah’s wedding dress isn’t over. Sometime in the next year, grieving parents will carefully dress their baby in a bit of ivory satin. Tears will likely dampen delicate beadwork. And the gown that Sarah wore with such joy will bring them a measure of comfort and the sweetest whisper of Grace.

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Columns

A Trip to Remember

I’m not going to lie. I cried when I hugged him. And then I laughed when he grabbed his father and hoisted him off the ground in a bear hug.

Derek is 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. No one picks him up – except his second-born son who is an inch shorter and considerably lighter.

Recently, we spent a week in Columbus, Ohio, with our son Alex, his fiancee Brooke and her 4-year-old daughter, Farrah.

We’d planned the trip months ago, hoping to arrive when our grandson was a few weeks old. Sadly, Ian was stillborn on Feb. 23.

I’d wanted to fly out immediately, but now I’m so glad we waited. Alex and Brooke needed that time alone to grieve, to rest and to begin to process the devastating loss.

Our first day together happened to be the one-month anniversary of Ian’s death. We spent time looking at some photos of the baby that we hadn’t seen. Holding the tiny hat he’d worn. Shedding tears over the impossibly light container that held his remains.

“Will we have another Baby Ian?” Farrah asked. “With chubby, red cheeks?”

“Maybe,” Alex answered. “Maybe.”

I was relieved to find how naturally Ian’s name was mentioned – that Alex and Brooke are able to talk about him. While their broken hearts will never be fully mended, talking about their son and his death shows they’re grieving in a healthy way and that will help the healing.

Of course, our visit wasn’t all sad. Derek got to meet Farrah for the first time.

After a few minutes of observation and conversation, she announced, “I love you, Papa Derek.”

The feeling was definitely mutual.

As planned, one of the first things I did was bake an apple pie for my son. It’s been four years since he moved from Spokane – way too long for a boy to go without his favorite treat.

While Brooke rested, and Alex and Derek caught up, Farrah helped me in the kitchen.

She giggled as I sifted flour into the mixing bowl.

“It’s snowing in the kitchen!” she squealed.

And when I rolled out the crust, she eagerly helped “squish” it.

The next day we treated Alex and Brooke to a date night, featuring dinner, a movie, and a long nap, and Derek and I earned our grandparenting gold stars by taking Farrah to Chuck E. Cheese.

When she was pizza’d and soda’d up, we took her back to our hotel for a swim.

Let’s just say Miss Farrah, Nana Cindy and Papa Derek all slept extremely well that night.

Then we hit the road with Alex for a day trip to Cleveland.

Our first stop was the “Christmas Story House,” the actual house where our family’s favorite holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” was filmed.

The home has been restored to its movie splendor, complete with the leg lamp, shining in the window. Visitors can pick up Ralphie’s official Daisy Red Ryder BB gun that’s tucked behind the Christmas tree, and climb into Randy’s hiding spot under the kitchen sink.

Alex, 25, handled the BB gun without shooting his eye out, and squeezed into Randy’s cupboard. However, he declined to taste the Lifebuoy soap that rested in the bathroom soap dish.

Having experienced his own soap-in-the-mouth experience as a child (Irish Spring), he didn’t feel inclined to risk soap poisoning again.

From there we drove to the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located on the shores of Lake Erie. We wandered through several floors of exhibits highlighting the history of rock ’n’ roll and celebrating the artists who influenced its development.

My most pressing question (besides why Bon Jovi doesn’t have its own wing) remained unanswered until I returned home to Google it. Why is there a giant hot dog suspended in the middle of the museum?

Turns out the 15-foot flying frankfurter was used as a prop by the band Phish.

It must have wielded a strong influence over Derek. How else to explain why the following day he ordered the Big Dawg at the famed Thurman Cafe in Columbus? The 1-pound footlong Coney Island features the cafe’s Coney sauce – a secret family recipe that’s been homemade since 1942.

Yes, he ate the whole thing, and didn’t even have heartburn later.

On our last night in Columbus, I made Alex’s most requested birthday dinner – white chicken chili. The fragrance of garlic, onion and cumin filled the townhouse.

“When Nana Cindy’s cooking in the kitchen I am starving!” Farrah said.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye.

We had laughed. We had cried. We’d made memories.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Ian.

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Alex on top of the “E” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Columns

Smells Like Teen Spirit

The nurse in the delivery room smiled as I pressed my nose to the downy head of my newborn son.

“He smells like angel kisses,” I murmured, besotted.

I had a nonmedicated birth, so I couldn’t blame that statement on a drug-induced haze. Nope, this was a love-induced haze.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” said the nurse. “In about 13 years you’re going to walk into his room and gag. It’s gonna reek like ripe goat pen meets Old Spice.”

I stared blankly at her. It was like she was speaking Swahili.

That was many years ago, and of course, now I know that nurse had pretty much called it. However, I can’t attest to the goat pen analogy. In my experience (and I’ve had a lot of experience) the scent of a teenage male’s room is best described as sweaty gym socks meet crushed corn ships, mingled with soccer jersey left to mildew in the bottom of an athletic bag, topped with a cloying cloud of Axe body spray.

The odor could be marketed as a teen-pregnancy-prevention aid.

Baby boys should come with a disclaimer. The heady scent of Baby Magic lotion wears off long before they reach kindergarten and is initially replaced by the smell of dirt. Plain old dirt. Which isn’t bad, it’s a reminder of all their adventures.

Adventure-reminders also include; worms, gravel, sticks and clumps of mud left in pockets. Mud? You may ask. It was for the worms, of course. But that earthy aroma is better than what comes next.

Around age 12, the smell of dirt gives way Eau de Gag. It’s so unfair that by the time they really start smelling good again, they move out.

At one time I had three teenage boys living in my house. Trust me when I say there are not enough Yankee candles in the world to compensate.

Change in body odor is one thing, but the universal shift in attitude as boys transition from teens to young men – well, that’s something impossible to mask.

Eye-rolling “whatevers” often replace heart-to-heart conversations. The chattiest of teens suddenly embraces sullen silence, and sometimes the silence is shattered by angry words and accusations that fly through the home polluting the atmosphere more than gym socks and body spray ever could.

And the things we find in pockets are far more sobering than worms.

Even when you know this necessary bid for healthy separation and independence is coming – when you know this is the natural order of things – it’s still painful.

As they grow, we lovingly support their independence by giving them safe places to explore. But when they can drive and spend long hours away from our watchful eyes, they sometimes explore places we’d rather protect them from.

Now, with just one teen left at home, these pitfalls don’t dismay me and instead of clutching him more tightly, I hold him more loosely than I did his older brothers.

Because I know what comes next. If you can weather those turbulent teen years, a really nice young man may come home to visit you. And he’ll actually choose to spend time with you.

Last weekend, one of those young men came home for dinner. As I reached up and wrapped my arms around my oldest son, he pressed his whiskery cheek against my forehead.

I hugged him, and somewhere beneath the cigarette smoke and shampoo, I caught the faintest whiff of my baby boy. Time blurred, melted and stopped momentarily, as I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and held him tight.

This I know. If someday my eyesight fails, if my hearing declines, if I lose my sense of touch, I will always recognize this man I call my son. His infant scent is embedded in our mutual DNA. To me he still smells like angel kisses.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Columns

My Christmas Miracle

In today’s column for the Spokesman Review, I remember a very special Christmas miracle.
Merry Christmas!

Christmas is all about miracles – about the unexpected showing up in the middle of the ordinary.

Angelic proclamations, a virgin birth, heavenly hosts and a bright shining star beckoning wise men from afar.

For doubters and dissenters, for skeptics and cynics, the ability to embrace the miraculous eludes, but even the most ardent believers need a reminder now and again.

Snow falls as I write, and the white-shrouded world reminds me of another December, 16 years ago, when I received my own much-needed reminder.

Our fourth son had arrived three months earlier. Sam was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A hole had formed in his diaphragm during gestation, allowing his stomach and intestines to move into his chest cavity, crowding his heart and lungs. In Sam’s case, this prevented his left lung from developing.

When he was 3 days old, he underwent surgery to repair the hole in his diaphragm. After a three-week stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sacred Heart, we brought him home. He needed no medication, no supplemental oxygen, nursed like a greedy piglet and had none of the dreaded complications or additional health problems common with CDH.

He also had only one lung.

He did have bits of tissue where his left lung would have grown and doctors told us that lungs continue to grow into a child’s early teens. Even if that didn’t happen for Sam, we were assured it’s possible to live with one lung.

But I worried.

Night after night I sat vigil on the floor next to his cradle, watching his chest rise and fall, counting his respiration rate, often dozing off with my hand on his chest.

Exhausted, I did my best to care for his three older brothers, 10, 8 and 5. When December dawned, I decorated and baked in a fog of fatigue.

We reached a milestone on Dec. 23 – Sam’s final post-op visit. Snow fell heavily as I packaged a plate of Christmas cookies for the surgeon’s office.

Each visit began with a series of chest X-rays, and I’d grown adept at deciphering the shadowy shapes in my son’s chest cavity.

Dr. Randall Holland examined Sam, moving his stethoscope over his chest, listening intently while my baby grabbed his hair and blew spit bubbles. Scratching his head, Holland stood, and then once again bent over Sam, listening, listening …

Then he tickled Sam’s three chins and turned to scrutinize the latest X-rays while I wrestled the wriggly baby back into his winter layers and waited for the surgeon to speak.

But he didn’t say a word. Instead, he let out a low whistle, peering at the images. Running his fingers through his hair, he whistled again, and then said, “Cindy, I’d like you to take a look at these.”

And my heart sank.

This was it. The moment I’d dreaded since the hours following Sam’s diagnosis. The moment when I’d learn the nightmare hadn’t ended. The other shoe had dropped and I didn’t know if I could bear it.

Seeing my stricken face, Holland beckoned me closer.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the image.

“That’s Sam’s right lung,” I answered.

He nodded and pointed to the other side of the image.

“And what’s that?”

“That’s Sam’s left lung,” I dutifully replied.

Silence. Apparently, lack of sleep was making me hallucinate.

“Except he doesn’t have a left lung …” I mumbled.

“He didn’t,” Holland agreed. “But he does now.”

He traced the outline with his finger. “A fully-functioning left lung.”

And the surgeon beamed.

I clutched Sam and sank down into a chair, tears falling, dampening his downy blond head like melting snowflakes.

“I don’t understand. Is this a miracle?”

Still smiling, Holland shrugged. “We don’t like to use that word, but I’ve honestly never seen anything like this before.”

Dazed, I left his office, trying to process the news.

That night as usual, I sat at Sam’s cradle feeling his lungs (lungs!) expand, watching my hand on his chest rise and fall. The clock ticked its way to Christmas Eve and I finally climbed into bed, where for the first time since Sam’s birth, I slept – truly slept.

Today at some point, my 6-foot, 1-inch baby boy will bend down and wrap his arms around me. I’ll lay my head on his chest and feel it rise and fall, grateful for the reminder.

Christmas has always been about miracles.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Columns

A baby changes everything

In the midst of unearthing Christmas decorations, I surveyed the downstairs family room. Actually, “wreck” room is a more apt description. Green and red bins burgeoning with tinsel and ornaments perched precariously on tabletops. Blue bins overflowing with winter garb towered with ominous instability in opposite corners. And stacks of paper on the floor revealed last year’s resolution to stay current with filing has been a dismal failure.

Overwhelmed, I looked for a place to sit. And then I saw it – my rocking chair. Banished to the basement when my youngest grew too big to cuddle comfortably with me in its confines.rocking-chair-cushions[1]

I removed the mountain of snow pants and ski gloves that had buried it and sat down and began to rock. As I swayed, I remembered the first time I saw this chair, on a Christmas morning 20 years ago.

Our first baby was due Dec. 31. We’d prepared a blue and yellow nursery to welcome our little one. A bassinet covered with lacy white netting waited in one corner. Under the window, a changing table stocked with diapers and soft blankets stood ready. But one thing was missing – a rocking chair.

Money had been tight as we prepared to live on one income, and we’d cut back on our Christmas spending. After exchanging gifts, my husband said, “Oh, I almost forgot! I left a present downstairs.”

Bewildered, I followed him to the basement, and there it sat – an oak rocking chair. Derek had purchased it unfinished. Each night after work, he’d lovingly labored on it, smoothing rough edges and coating it with a warm brown lacquer. Somehow, he’d sneaked it into the house without my knowledge.

I threw my arms around him and sobbed. “Better try it out,” he said. So I sat down and began to rock. It was perfect. I don’t think I stopped smiling the rest of the day.

Late that Christmas night, I awoke with that vague discomfort all expectant mothers feel as their time draws near. I heaved my hugely pregnant form out of bed and waddled to the nursery. The rocking chair beckoned, bathed in the glow of the moonlight.

As I sat down and began to rock, the baby responded, squirming, stretching, his small feet doing a tap dance on my ribcage. I whispered words of welcome and wonder to him and prayed for his safe arrival.

I knew life would be different after this child’s birth, but all those Christmases ago I couldn’t have imagined the many ways I’d never be the same.

A baby changes everything.

Through the nursery window on that Christmas night, I watched snowflakes drift lazily down, illuminated by the yellow glow of the streetlight. And I thought of another mother 2,000 years ago, who swayed on a donkey’s back as she traveled to Bethlehem.

Her discomfort must have been magnified by the harshness of her journey. Surely, just like me, she must have contemplated her child’s birth. She must have whispered to him and wondered about him, while her back ached with every passing mile. And like all mothers, she couldn’t have imagined how different her life would be the moment she held him in her arms.

A baby changes everything – sometimes even the world.

Merry Christmas.