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.
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.
“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.