Monday, December 29, 2014


I laid on the table in a hospital gown and a pair of knee high stilletto boots, trying not to breathe as I had been instructed.  There was a series of buzzes, and the x-rays were complete.

"Do you want to see them?" asked the tech. He is flirtatious, but I don't think he can help it and I think he is harmless and I think he is probably flirtatious with everyone, and besides, I'm married and look like I just gave birth to a 9 pound, 11 ounce baby so these things don't happen to me anymore, and so I said,

"Sure." I stood in front of the monitor, holding my hospital gown closed as he brought up the images.
"What do you think?  Do you have a slipped disc?"

"I don't know!  Do I?  I can't read this."

"I can't tell you."

"Because you're not the doctor."

"Right.  I'm not the doctor.  I can't tell you.  But I told you what to look for.  What do you see?"

"I don't know.  I can't tell."

"Well, here are your vertebrae and - Oh.  You have an extra vertebra!"

"No I don't."

"Yes you do.  Look.  One, two, three, four, five, six."

"You're teasing me."

"Hey," he motioned to another tech passing by.  "Count her lumbar vertebra."

"One, two, three, four, five, hey!  An L6.  That's why she's tall."

"She's not that tall.  Look at her shoes."  We all looked down at my boots.

"I'm 5'7"," I shot back defiantly.  "How do you know when to stop counting the lumbar vertebra?" For two and a half years I have been reading x-ray reports in workers' compensation cases, but still didn't know what to look for in the images.

"You stop at the rib cage.  See.  You have six between the sacrum and the ribs."  I tilted my head at the image in confusion.

"Am I done?"

"Yes.  You can get dressed.  And about the L6.  It's uncommon, but not that uncommon.  We usually see it in tall people - I mean, really tall, like over 6 feet.  It's just surprising."

As I drove home I chewed on the irony of it all.  Our spine develops from the neural tube, a flat piece of matter that develops very early after conception and becomes our spine, skull, and brain.  At some point in my fetal development, an L6 vertebra was created.  It's ironic, of course, because I now sit with the knowledge that I have this extra, useless bone, the product of the same part that failed to produce an entire skull in Gabriel.  An extra vertebra is to me like 10,000 spoons, when all I need is a knife.  I would like to sit down with God and say to Him, "Excuse me, but I don't actually need this L6.  Do You think I could instead get a skull cap for Gabriel?"  I suspect there's no real bargaining with God, though.  Even if there was, I'm not sure it would look like that.  Even if there was, it's too late now, isn't it?

The x-rays were over a week ago.  My doctor was on vacation, and we've had a holiday, and the long and short of it is, I still don't have an x-ray report.  To some degree, the findings stopped mattering to me.  A part of me stopped wanting relief from the complaints that brought me into the doctor's office that day.  A big part of me thinks I should suffer, because my son suffered, and there wasn't a damn thing his own mother could do to stop it.

Here I sit, held up by a frame that has more than I need, still missing the biggest part of me.  And isn't it ironic?

Our First Noel(le)

It's been three years since a stinky, 8 week old German Shepherd puppy came home to live with me.  When I picked her out of the litter a month before, I didn't think I would actually get to keep her.  I was surprised when, on Christmas Eve 2011, Ben said to me, "Come on.  Let's go pick up your puppy."  I named her Noelle Marie.  She was my little Christmas pup, the brightest part of a year marked by a deep, deep grief that came with Gabriel's diagnosis and death.

Turned out Noelle would have the responsibility of sustaining me through the dark, empty period that followed.  Ben packed up and moved out three months later.  The dream that our marriage would survive the worst was shattered, and so was the dream of another baby in the bleak near future.

Fastforword three years to Christmas 2014, and a morning spent with my beloved husband Marcos, watching our little girl open her Christmas gifts.  I can still see her, in her black sleeper with silver polka dots and red accents, with little interest in the packages around her.  Her primary focus these days is learning to crawl.  Although I see her every day, touch her soft hair, hold her tiny hands, kiss her sweet face, I still struggle sometimes to believe she is real.  She is just so unbelievable.  She is just so incredible.

Throughout Christmas day I caught myself noticing the empty spaces. On December 19th I quietly acknowledged what would have been Baby Cude's 4th birthday.  On Christmas Day I had to visit my son's ashes in a cemetary.  I wondered what Christmas would be like with a 4 year old Baby Cude, or a 3 year old Gabriel.  I know that the Christmas Day when I do not wonder about my missing children is a long way away.  I know that my beautiful girl, who sits at the top of the growth charts, can never be big enough to fill the empty spaces. It's not her job.  It was never Noelle's job.  It was an unfair responsibility that I placed on a puppy's shoulders, and I have to remind myself not to do the same to my daughter.

As I sat beside my husband, our daughter perched on his lap in her pretty holiday dress and my parents and siblings seated behind us at Mass on Christmas morning, I could feel the difference in this Christmas.  I could feel the lightness in my family's hearts.  I could see the glow that Eden has lit within us all.  I could tell that the clouds had parted from all of us and that the storm we had braved together had subsided.  Eden has colored our world with renewed joy and hope. Christmas will never be the same.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2 in 2,000

I picked up my phone one evening to find urgent message from an unusual source:  "Please contact my friend Missy.  Her baby was just diagnosed with anencephaly and she sees a specialist today to confirm," Josh pleaded with me through Facebook's instant messenger.  "You can find her on my Facebook friends list."

Immediately I found Missy's Facebook profile and contacted her, knowing she would soon be asked to make a decision as to whether to carry to term.  She had already decided that she was going to continue the pregnancy with her daughter, due in March.  She'd already found great peace, and seemed to be coasting along.  After sighing a prayer of relief I took a step back and recognized Missy from an anencephaly support site.  She'd already been doing her research and found the same group that I'd found three years ago.

From there I scoured her Facebook profile, beginning with our surprisingly long list of mutual friends located in our "small" town of 365,000.  My mind started to stretch as I realized Missy and I must have gone to high school together at some point.  I wandered through my memories, trying to recall her.  I pulled my stack of yearbooks from a bookshelf and flipped through the pages, still uncertain of Missy's maiden name, hoping that I would find a clue, all the while remembering the hope and promise that filled the high school version of me that had never heard of anencephaly.

I sent Missy a friend request, and sat back and waited.  Finally one day a post from one of her family members pulled the trigger, when Missy's maiden name, the name by which I would have known her, was revealed to me. As far as I knew, she was Melissa back then, but then again, I didn't know her at all.  We shared friends, and she had a unique name, but she and I had never had much interaction that I could recall.

Still, I started to see the pieces come together.  "Andrea, have you met Missy?" our friend Justin tagged us both one day.  Her interactions with our mutual friends began to pop up on my news feed - her interactions with my good friends, her interactions with my mere acquaintances, the interactions that told me we must have run in the same circles and still, our paths had never quite crossed until now. How had we missed each other those nearly 20 years ago?  What kind of God had brought us together in 2014 through the shared adverse diagnosis of our children?  He must be the same God that whispered to our hearts the words we needed to continue to foster the sweet lives within us, when so many others feel it is a cross they cannot bear.

So here we are:  I am three years post-Gabriel; Missy is three months 'til Imogen.  It doesn't seem fair, really, that we once shared a school, teachers, friends, perhaps even the stage in the auditorium, or a bench at a football game - And now we must share this.  Only 1 in 1,000 women will walk in our shoes, so how did we become 2 in 2,000?  I wish that no one ever had to share this experience. But here we are.

Yes, here we are.  And what a pleasure it has been to get to know this woman, so strong, so full of faith, so in love with her little girl.  And I know THAT'S what unites us.  Our love for our children, no matter what they look like, no matter how brief their lives may be, no matter how afraid we may have been or may be of what it means to love a child that cannot stay.  The world is full of uncertainty and things to fear, but thankfully it's still a small world, and it's still filled with love.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

From Gabriel to Eden

Yesterday Catholics across the world gathered to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, acknowledging our belief that Mary, Mother of Jesus, was born without original sin.  Mary and Jesus are the only people we acknowledge as having been born without sin, so born, of course, due to the roles that they were to play in our salvation.

The readings for yesterday's liturgy began with a reading from Genesis, wherein Adam and Eve are hiding in the Garden of Eden, having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, knowing they are about to face God's consequences.  The event is widely known among Christians to be the Fall of Man.

The Gospel reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception comes from Luke, and recounts the revelation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a son who will be the Savior of the World.  Christians believe that this is not a responsibility that was forced on Mary; rather, she chose to accept this responsibility out of her great and pure love and obedience for God.  Because of her role in our salvation, Mary is often considered by Catholics to be the new Eve, the woman whose choice lifted us from the choices that caused our fall.

When I think of my life and the choices I have made in its course, I can hardly consider myself Marian.  I'm sinful and selfish, just like the rest of us.  Still, I know that one unique choice does set me apart from most of the world, while it brings me a bit closer to Our Lady.  THe decision to carry my son to term in spite of his diagnosis is a decision that only 1 in 1,000 American women will have to make, and one that only 2% to 8% of that 1 in 1,000 will choose.  Those are just the facts.  And the fact is, I made the choice to carry my son out of obedience to God's will for me to put my money where my pro-life mouth was and walk the walk that I'd been talking of.  I made the choice out of fear of Hell.  But above all, the fact remains that I made my choice for one very selfish reason, and that is I loved and wanted my son so much that I couldn't just let him go.  I wanted him to stay, and so I would keep him as long as I was permitted.

I named my son Gabriel.  I was confident that he was bringing a message to this earth, that he would change the world, just as the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel the Messenger changed the course of our lives after death.  I named my son Gabriel because the name means "Hero of God," and "God is my strength," and to me our time together epitomized both phrases.  As I leaned on God in the weeks that followed Gabriel's diagnosis and 10 days that followed his birth, I knew that my son was doing great things, heroic things.  I was just the vehicle, along for the ride.

Gabriel passed, and I knew the piercing pain that the sword of her child's death brings to a mother's heart.

Then one day, I was holding my precious daughter Eden in my arms, after a brief but painful labor.  Somehow, I had gone backwards. I had gone from the promise I felt when Gabriel was conceived, to the crushing blow of his diagnosis, to the stabbing pain of his death, to the skepticism of a subsequent pregnancy, to the joy of Paradise. I've gone from Gabriel to Eden

Occasionally discussion arises among Christians:  Was the Fall of Man not necessary, in order for Christ to rise?  If not for a flawed world, would we ever appreciate paradise?

I'd like to think that we would, but I don't know.  This is the only life we know.  This is the only world we know.  Likewise, I only know a world marred by the death of my son, made bright again by my daughter's sweet face.  I only know the road from Gabriel to Eden.

Friday, December 5, 2014

One O'Clock

"I think your window is over there.  Wait here while I check."

I turned to look at the 16 year old girl behind me.  "You're here for your driver's test?"  She smiled, revealing a row of braces laid across her upper teeth, and nodded.  Her excitement shone and I envied her love of life in that very moment.  Her mother flagged her to Window 20, where she stood in line for her appointment, and I turned to Window 1 in front of me, where I was to check in for my own appointment.  "One o'clock," I answered the woman behind the window.

"Fill out this application.  Do you have evidence of your new name?"  I produced my marriage license from the manila envelope in my hand.  "Good.  They'll want to see that at the next window.  Here's your number.  Wait to be called."  I took a seat and could see the young girl exit the building with the examiner, her mother looking on with pride.  I looked at the application before me and carefully filled in the boxes:


I considered for a moment the tremendous piece of myself that I was about to release.  I thought about my accomplishments as Andrea L. Hernandez - A bachelor's degree, law school, admission to the State Bar, even Eden.  I thought about last time I changed my maiden name, to Cude, my Gabriel's last name, only to change it back three years later, the man who gave me that name still unaware of the pain of having merged my identity with his just to ultimately be betrayed.

I thought about the bond I feel with my new husband, the deep, abiding love that I know is pulling us together.  It's a love that's already been tested when my fears and insecurities are hard at work pushing me away from him, my memories of the pain of my heartbreak leading me.  I thought about the courage that it's taken to love again, and the warmth that I have been rewarded with for giving love another try.

With a trusting plunge, I signed away my name and became Andrea Lynette Lopez.

As I exited the building I saw the mother of the 16 year old girl waiting on a bench outside for her daughter to return from the test.

"I think I'll wait with you."  For 20 minutes I stayed with her, until their white Tahoe pulled in behind the back of the building.

The woman looked at me nervously.  "I'd better go see if she passed."  I watched her walk through the building toward her daughter and I felt a surge through my chest as I realized this moment is one I'll someday share with my daughter, but will never share with my son.  A beaming smile stretched across the young girl's face and I could see her nodding, her mother hugging her.  Her mother took her by the shoulders, and I saw her point back at me and momentarily, they both turned and signaled to me with a thumbs up.  I smiled, waved, and headed back to work.  I had just witnessed the opening of a whole new world, a brand new stage of life.

As I walked back to my office I looked at the temporary paper license in my hand, with my brand new name, part of my whole new world. It's a world that feels  like it's where I was always supposed to be and sometimes I wonder what took so long to get there.  I've traveled a bittersweet road. Still, I think it's been more sweet than anything, and it gets sweeter every day.

Marcos Lopez, I, Andrea Lynette Lopez, love you so much.  Thank you for making me your wife.