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Unbearable grief is transformed by West Valley couple's decision to honor late daughters through service

WEST VALLEY CITY — With each pass of the sponge, Tony Parks revealed his oldest daughter’s beauty.

It would be the only bath he’d be able to give her, so he took in each moment with a kind of desperation and awe that allows him to summon every detail of the experience whenever he needs it. When he finished bathing and dressing Brooklyn Tiersa Angel Parks, he held her close and shared what was in his first-time father’s heart.

“I had about a 15-minute conversation with her,” the 34-year-old West Valley man said. “I made some promises to her that I’ve fought like crazy to live up to. I asked some things from her that I’ll need from her. I let her know how I felt about her. I did everything I could just to be a dad in that moment. I mean, this was the first conversation I had with my daughter.”

Then he took the little girl, now dressed in a pink dress and hat and sporting a pink bow, in to meet her mother. Natalie Parks learned from a paramedic that Dec. 20, 2013, would be both the day she became a mother and the day she lost her first born.

“I’d just delivered my baby girl,” Natalie Parks said through tears, “and (a paramedic) who was taking care of me said, ‘You probably already know, but your daughter didn’t make it.’ ”

A broadcaster for KJZZ and sports talk radio host for 1280 The Zone, Tony Parks laughs at the contrasts that having two daughters has brought into his life. Nowhere is that irony more evident than seeing the man who covers the Utah Jazz, Salt Lake Bees baseball and high school football move about in the room he and his wife decorated first for Brooklyn, and then, last year on Jan. 26, for the second daughter they lost in a stillborn birth, Siobhán Jocelyn.

Tony Parks, who has lost two daughters, one to stillbirth and one shortly after birth, points to photos that decorate the girls' room at home in West Valley City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This room has become a sanctuary,” Tony said. “Their grave site is a reminder of their death. This room is a reminder that they live.”

Parenthood has been nothing like Natalie and Tony Parks expected. Married on Aug. 18, 2007, the couple found out they were going to become parents in September 2013 when Natalie began hemorrhaging while working in the salon she operates out of the basement of their home.

While doctors assured her the baby was strong and growing normally, they also had concerns because of the bleeding and eventually put her on bed rest. On Dec. 19, 2013, she began having significant pain that worsened throughout the night. About 6:30 the next morning, she felt so sick, she went into the bathroom, and once again, began hemorrhaging.

She called for Tony, who rushed to her aid.

“At that moment we realized, this is happening,” Tony Parks said. “It was insanely quick.”

He’d called paramedics, who arrived moments after Tony delivered Brooklyn. He handed her to firefighters, wrapped in a towel emblazoned with the logo of his favorite football team — the Chicago Bears. Rescuers took her into an adjacent room and began working on reviving her.

“It was crazy,” Tony said looking at a Christmas tree in the couple’s living room that’s decorated in memory of Brooklyn. “In an instant, I watched her gently fight and lose and die. … It was the most stunning thing to hear them actually pronounce her dead, officially dead, right there in our home.”

A firefighter turned to him and said, “Are you the father? It was the first time anyone had addressed me like that. I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s me. I’m the father.’ ”

Sometimes the pain of losing children in the way the Parks couple did can be isolating. It is difficult and, sometimes, daunting trying to explain how or why they feel the way they do. Natalie said that they’ve enjoyed immense support from their families, but Tony’s siblings, Dalton Parks and Tiersa Jones, both 22, seem to have a special connection with her and the girls.

“The confusion I think, for a lot of people,” Tony said, “is that they think this is about having kids. What they don’t understand is this is about THAT kid. They think this is about achieving some goal of raising a child. It’s not. It’s the fact that that kid is lost.”

Adds Natalie, “It’s a void.”

That void is filled with all of the things they can’t know about their girls and all the experiences they won’t have.

“I am never going to brush her hair,” Natalie said. “I’m never going to know if she was really shy like me or really outgoing and strong-willed like (Tony).”

After Tony jokes about what that might mean for them, he adds, “It’s the actual human being. … It’s about the moons in her fingernails, her hair … (Natalie interrupts, “Her elbows.”) Her little muscles … her beautiful face. I see her face in my dreams. … It’s not just the absence of something. It’s the absence of knowing what would have been there.”

And it is the reality of the loss. Instead of dancing with his daughter at her wedding, Tony Parks has the memory of finding the tiny pink casket that he would carry, alone, to the front of their LDS Chapel for a funeral service.

Tony Parks, who has lost two daughters, one to stillbirth and one shortly after birth, points to the accent on his late daughter's name at their home in West Valley City on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Pain brings some details of losing their daughter on the day she was born into sharp focus. It makes others fuzzy, almost obscures them. Like every day since then, joy is inextricably joined with sorrow.

“I just kept looking at Natalie and Brooklyn, and I was so heartbroken and yet so proud,” said Tony of the day they spent with Brooklyn in the hospital. “I felt like such a proud dad and husband. I don’t know how to explain it … I knew we only had this day, and that it was going to be hard going forward, but I wanted to appreciate what I had, when I had it.”

Tony not only bathed and dressed her, but he was able to bless her in the LDS tradition of welcoming a new member into the religious community. A professional photographer spent a few hours with them, giving them a tangible remembrance of their time together.

Tears roll down Natalie’s face as she recalls one of her most vivid memories, that of Dalton’s reaction to learning of his niece’s death.

“He just put his hand over his face, and (slid) down the wall,” she said. “To know someone else felt that connected …”

She doesn’t finish that sentiment. Sometimes that happens when the emotion swallows the words. It is the reality of grief that it is more an endless ache than a pain through which one travels and eventually abandons. It is a tender mercy, however, that lifelines come in many forms, large and small, seemingly when they’re needed most. One of the most significant came when Tony suggested they celebrate Brooklyn’s first birthday with a party that would benefit other children.

“To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to make my daughter happy.’ ”

That party — B is for Brooklyn — was the most tangible way they felt of connecting with their daughter. It’s become an annual celebration of their love for her, and this year, her third birthday, will be their largest effort. On Saturday, Dec. 17, at Highland High School, the Parks family invites anyone to come to Brooklyn’s birthday party for either $10 or an unwrapped toy. The money will be split between two charities — Spencer’s Wishes and The Road Home. The toys are for the homeless shelter’s Candy Cane Corner, which is a toy store where families can choose gifts for children staying at the shelter.

Losing Siobhán was nothing like losing Brooklyn last January. The pregnancy “was flawless,” Tony said. So the shock was substantial.

“The weird part about it was people thought, well, you’ve done this before,” Natalie said. “It will all be the same. No, it was very different. Not a different set of emotions, just different.”

When they went to the same mortuary to buy another tiny pink casket, they learned that was something unique and unavailable. They decided to exhume the casket and bury Siobhán with her sister.

“To me, that was God’s way of saying, this is the way it was supposed to be,” he said, adding that his faith has sustained both of them throughout the last three years and it helps them strive to live their best lives. “It’s different when your kids are watching you.”

The Parks said it is through acts of service that they have found a way to connect to their daughters. A Jazz executive suggested they get involved with the Sons of Baseball, a charity that brings families with special needs children to Major League Baseball games for what has to be the ultimate fan experience.

“Being part of all of these things like ‘B is for Brooklyn’ and ‘Sons of Baseball’ … it’s very therapeutic,” Natalie said, adding how thankful she is for her husband’s out-going personality and connections in the world of athletics. “When we do these things, you really put yourself aside. …That’s how I bond with my daughters, just being of service to others.”

They found solace in the fact that out of their deepest sorrow, they have found some of their most significant joy.

“The moment you think that you may need someone or something is the very moment you’re needed most by someone else,” Tony said. “That’s what’s happened to me. I never thought I could feel heartbroken, and at the same time feel like one of the luckiest, most blessed people in the world.”

He said he’s learned in the deepest aspects of human suffering there is still hope. That hope is born of emotional empathy, something Tony said he continues to learn about every day thanks to the love he feels from his daughters when he serves others and loves and cares for their mother.

“I hope that everybody can feel that kind of love at some point,” he said. “It’s remarkable. There are some really tough days. But there are some really amazing days. I find the more emotionally unselfish I continue to be, the closer I feel to my daughters, the better I feel about my relationship with them.”

Both of them said the experiences of the last three years have strengthened their faith and their relationship. Over and over they’ve learned that their burden is transformed when they trust God. Still, Natalie admits that sometimes it feels as if the loss is more difficult the longer she lives without her girls. It’s then that their efforts to serve others because the way she honors that relationship.

“I don’t want them to think of me,” and then she stops. “I mean, it’s a normal emotion to be sad. You feel like you just want to crawl in a corner and not talk to anybody because you’re like, ‘Why me?’ But then you think about it, about them, and you know you want to live the best life you can so you can see them again. But you also want them to look down and say, ‘Thanks, mom. Thank you so much. I can tell how much you love me (because) you’re doing this.’ ”