“Mom, the baby’s not breathing!”
My adult son was on the phone. I immediately kicked into take-charge nurse mode.
“OK, start CPR — this is how ...”
“Mom,” he interrupted. “She’s cold and stiff. She’s gone.”
Still in take-charge mode, I told him to call 911. They already had.
I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was hearing. It simply could not be real. I had been sworn into the Utah House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, and now, three days later, on Feb. 3, our baby, Angelia, was dead.
I had just made it to the Capitol when that call came. I turned around immediately and went to pick up my husband, who was working in downtown Salt Lake City at the time. We sped down the highway to get to our home in Utah County, some 45 minutes away. I did not cry on the way home.
At one point, while I was still saying it couldn’t be real, I felt the words, rather than heard them, “I love you, Mom. I’m proud of you.” That was it. I’ve never seen her since she died, not even in a dream; never heard or felt another message, but those two short sentences gave me — still give me — a glimmer of hope in the world beyond ours.
Angelia was always an angel in our home — in fact, her angelic nature is why we named her Angelia. She was born with hydranencephaly, which meant she was missing most of her brain, and had fluid where tissue should have been. We knew that adopting Angelia would mean burying another child. We lost our first daughter, a little girl with Down Syndrome who we had adopted from Romania, in 1995. We lost our second daughter, Elizabeth, who had been born with multiple disabilities, in 2005.
Still, her death at age 3 1⁄2 was shockingly traumatic. She hadn’t been sick, she was seemingly stable, medically, and then she was gone.
Angelia’s first year was hard. She had shunts placed in her head when she was three months old. Her sleep cycle was sleep three hours, be awake for three hours — and when she was awake, she was crying, for nine full months. Once that phase passed, she was a happy baby, one with smiles and giggles that lit up our home.
She was blind, she had seizures controlled with daily medication given through her feeding tube (that was placed when she was two), she never could roll over by herself or even hold her head up.
And, we loved her fiercely. If she was awake, she was in someone’s arms. I wrote many a blog post with Angelia cradled in my left arm. I sang to her, I danced with her, and even knowing she would die, I never shielded my heart from pouring love into her all day, every day.
She had many big brothers and big sisters who absolutely doted on her. The big sisters would paint her fingernails and toenails. They took her on outings in the stroller. One of our family goals when we adopted Angelia was that she would feel loved during her short life. She was. So loved.
We buried Angelia on Saturday, two days after her expected-but-unexpected death. Then, we all went back to “normal life.” It’s weird that we do that in our culture. It’s jarring that the world keeps turning — it seems like it should just stop. But, it doesn’t and especially not the legislative session.
As a legislator, I coped the only way I knew how. I compartmentalized. I knew I could not let myself cry or I would not be able to stop. It did happen once, a week after her funeral when I was at a public meeting in our community. Someone told me they were sorry they had missed Angelia’s funeral. It was enough to break through my very fragile veneer and I ran to the bathroom where I was wracked with great, heaving sobs. The kind that leave you breathless and gasping for air. Nothing dainty about it.
In committee meetings and on the House floor, I tried my best to not allow myself to cry — but I cried in the car every day and all weekend. I sometimes cried in my office. I cried for Angelia and her loss every day for two years. I cry when I talk about her. I cried writing this article.
Angelia’s death broke us. Thirteen years later, we’re mostly put back together, but we will never be the same. Life is like that, you know. Break, grieve, get put back together. Break, grieve, get put back together. Every breaking, though, is the opportunity for a new us to emerge. Softer and stronger. Reshaped. A human version of kintsugi, filling our broken parts with gold.
Do I regret adopting Angelia? Absolutely not. The love she brought was and is worth the price of loss.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.