We travelled home the Saturday after Thanksgiving and unloaded mountains of stuff from our week in North Carolina. It’s a known fact that the smaller the person, the more items they require while traveling. Pack n’ plays, portable high chairs, diapers, an endless supply of wipes, a personal mattress for said pack n’ play, snacks, bibs, spoons and of course, clothes. Traveling to North Carolina in the fall requires every type of clothing imaginable because the weather is sporadic and always inconsistent with the weather app that I thoughtfully used as a guide while packing. Bags filed with short sleeves, pants, jackets, shorts, dresses, pajamas, vests, hats, mittens and multiple types of footwear piled on our living room floor as we unpacked the car. We came home to a refrigerator that had nothing in it except a Brita water filter and some butter. The pantry didn’t look much better. The next morning I scrounged through our pantry to feed our children breakfast and after the apple sauce pouches and dry Cheerios, I headed off to the grocery with my girls.
This grocery trip was the type where I had to get basically everything in the store. It was like the first time we moved into an apartment after we got married and I loaded my very first adult grocery cart with what seemed like a few hundred items to stock our kitchen. Usually I am a very organized grocery shopper. I make a weekly menu, find all the necessary recipes and list out my ingredients. I then write the food items together in groups based on where they will be in the store and what order I will shop for them. All the produce is listed first, followed by food found in the isles, then refrigerated and last frozen. This is my system. Call it type A or obsessive or drill sargent-y but my goal is to go to the grocery once per week for the full haul and a second time to restock on produce. Intentionality and productivity are the name of the game when it comes to the grocery list system. I’m also not a huge proponent of unnecessary lolly dottlying, dilly daddling or any such nonsense. Anyways, on this day, I had quickly jotted down the list during the apple sauce and Cheerios situation, which included lots of whining because there were no waffles and complaining over cups of water instead of milk. My list was unorganized and incomplete and I found myself running around the store, forgetting items, back tracking down isles several times and trying to do it all at warp speed so that my two little girls wouldn’t start melting down because of prolonged restraint in the shopping cart. For those of you who personally know Emma Grace, my darling middle child, the following will not surprise you. In the middle of this shopping extravaganza I turned around to see that she had grabbed a box of kleenex off the shelf and proceeded to rip it open and make small pieces of “snow, Mommy,” as she ever so cutely described, from the tissues inside. Poor Florida children, creating their own snow from anything they can get their hands on. This kind of stuff doesn’t usually fluster me, maybe because it happens rather frequently and I’m used to it or maybe because I know so deeply how quickly they could be gone and therefore don’t sweat the small stuff. So I just smiled and told her how silly she was and continued to let her make a complete mess in the bottom of the shopping cart. Don’t worry, I cleaned it up and paid for the tissue box as we left.
During this entire scenario with the rushing and forgetting and the tissue snow, I overheard a conversation at the end of the isle. It was between an employee and a shopper. It was obviously a frequent shopper because the employee knew him by name and stopped to chat. “How was your Thanksgiving?” she asked, as he was placing a few items into his basket. “Oh, I don’t celebrate it,” he muttered in a deep voice. I imagine this employee was regretting that she engaged in this conversation, however it would have been rude to stop there, so she was now fully invested. I was intrigued and will admit to acting interested in the ingredients in canned soup so that I could hear the rest of this conversation. “You don’t?” the employee asked hesitantly beginning to walk down the isle next to the man, “why not?” The man was tall, he had on a plain white V-neck and green cargo shorts, he looked to be in his late 50’s or early 60’s. “Nothing to be thankful for,” he said, matter of factly. I’m not really a crier, in fact my family makes fun of the fact that I never shed a tear in any movie, except for Homeward Bound because, well, how can you not? But I stood right there in the middle of Target, staring at the calorie count in chicken noodle soup surrounded by tiny pieces of fake snow, crying. It wasn’t like a total meltdown, just some tears that I quickly got under control, but still, I cried in Target. How horrible must this man’s life be that he has nothing to be thankful for? Nothing? How tragic to go through life with nothing or no one to be grateful for. I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for him. Maybe he did have things in his life to be thankful for, just a terrible outlook, but either way, it made me so sad to think that someone out there feels so discouraged, so traumatized, so beaten down that they can’t even celebrate Thanksgiving.
A lot of times I think that losing Will makes me some kind of expert in heartbreak. Somehow my loss is the greatest of all losses and my grief is the more than anyone else’s. The truth is that everyone has a burden, a loss, a heartache that they carry. Comparing those pains does nothing productive, it only divides and we need each other, especially in mourning. It causes the one who thinks that they carry the greatest burden to feel bitter and the one who is perceived to carry the lesser burden to feel inferior or maybe even weak for not being able to deal with their “smaller” burden as well as the other person handles their “bigger” one. Gratitude combats bitterness. Practicing thankfulness, I believe, is vital.
Ever since we started going to the Church of Eleven 22 in Jacksonville five years ago, we have been encouraged by our Pastor to make a list of things we are thankful for. One for every year we have been alive. There have been multiple times that he has read us his own list during a sermon. So here is my list, 30 things I am thankful for and I could keep going with ease. I pray one day the man I overheard in Target can have a list like this too and maybe then he can experience the joy in celebrating Thanksgiving.
We found out we were having twins in April 2017. We were so excited. I could tell by other people’s reactions when I told them that I was pregnant with twins that a lot of people would have different feelings about that news if it were happening to them. We didn’t feel scared or overwhelmed or disappointed. I was more anxious about the twin pregnancy than actually having two babies. A few months later we found out that there was a boy and a girl. It was perfection. The pregnancy was not much different from my previous two pregnancies until the very end. I was bigger and more uncomfortable but there were no major complications. Every ultrasound and check-up went well and the babies were healthy. I had a c-section scheduled for December 18, which would have been 38 weeks and 1 day. One of the major risks of twin pregnancies is pre-term labor, but since I had never gone into labor on my own during my other two pregnancies I wasn’t overly concerned about it. On the last day of November we were putting together our huge, four seat stroller. Our two older children were testing it out and I remember having to sit down because I had a little bit of pain. It didn’t even cross my mind that it was a contraction. It was not that painful and I was almost 36 weeks pregnant, so little aches and pains were not abnormal. That night I woke up around 2am with more pain, it wasn’t consistent or regular so I thought it was just round ligament pain or braxton hicks contractions. Once my OBGYN opened the next morning, December 1, I called to make an appointment just to get checked and make sure everything was okay.
We took our oldest son to pre-school and my mom came to get my daughter so Taylor could take me to the doctor’s appointment. I was in enough pain that I didn’t think I could drive but I still didn’t think it was labor - smart, huh? So I didn’t think at all that we would be having our babies that day, I thought the most extreme thing that might happen is I would have to go on bed rest - another common occurrence during twin pregnancies. We got to the OBGYN and after a few questions from the doctor he said, “You are in labor, I’m going to get a nurse to take you over to the hospital so we can try to stop it.” I was 35 weeks and 5 days pregnant, so while the babies were not extremely premature, it would still be beneficial for them to grow inside me a few more weeks. As I got wheeled over to labor and delivery the pain started to increase and I realized that I really was having contractions. I got signed in and hooked up to everything and then we waited to see if the medications I was given would stop the labor. I remember being fearful of what would happen if we had the babies that day. They would be considered “late-term preemies,” but I didn’t really know what that meant. How underdeveloped would they really be? Would they have trouble breathing? How small would they be? I kept asking people, the doctor and nurses, and they said that no one would really know until they were delivered but that I was far enough along that they would most likely be okay.
So here’s the thing about labor - it’s really painful. Obviously, right? It’s called “labor” for a reason, but like I said before, I didn’t go through labor with my other two pregnancies so I didn’t know. My first was breech, so I had a scheduled c-section. I tried to have a VBAC with my second, but at 41 weeks with no signs of labor and an almost 9lb. baby inside me the doctor thought that another c-section was the safest way to deliver. So while labor was really painful, usually you have the hope of delivering a baby at the end of it and then it’s all worth it. I had no hope of delivering any babies, I knew if they didn’t stop the labor I would be having surgery. So every hour that went by the contractions got stronger and closer together until finally it felt like one long painful contraction. Needless to say, nothing they did stopped my labor. So finally around 4pm (about 7 hours after we arrived at the hospital) the doctor thought there was no way we were going to get the contractions to stop and he was ready to move forward with a c-section. I was worried about my babies, but after going through hours of what felt like frivolous labor I was ready to meet them. We got moved into a delivery room and prepped for surgery. It was my third time having a c-section in a five year period, so I was very familiar with the procedure. The worst part is getting the spinal, it’s painful but I was exhausted and ready for some relief. The medication always makes me nauseous, so I remember feeling very out of it, sick, worried about my babies and tired. At 5:05pm, “Baby A,” was born. Will was 6lbs., 3oz. and came out crying and healthy. Caroline, “Baby B,” was born one minute later at 5:06pm, 5lbs., 13oz. and just as healthy as her brother. I got a quick look at each of them before they headed to get cleaned up and checked out with the nurse and Taylor. I was relieved and so happy. We had a perfect baby boy and perfect baby girl.
I was exhausted and medicated, so I don’t really remember much between the babies being born and getting to the recovery room. I remember holding both babies, putting their little heads next to each other and just being in awe that they were both living inside me just hours before. That night was like any with a newborn, trying to help them learn to eat every few hours, waking them up, doing all the tricks to help them latch and being so happy when they did. The next day we introduced Caroline and Will to their siblings. Their older brother was so sweet and excited to meet them. He held Caroline first and Will second. Will looked just like him. That day the babies were declared healthy by every doctor and nurse that saw them. I loved holding both of my babies together. I loved holding one while my husband held the other at the same time. I loved laying them next to each other and just taking in how beautiful and perfect they were.
It’s hard to think back on those days in the hospital and know that at some point someone brought a virus into our room that ended up taking Will’s life and almost taking Caroline’s. It's most painful to think that it could have been one of us, one of my kids or even me who was carrying the virus. It really doesn’t matter how they got exposed or who gave them the virus, it is totally out of our control, but it still makes me feel sick to think about something invisible but deadly passing into their little bodies that day. Those first few days with them were some of the best days of my life when they were happening, but looking back they are clouded with guilt and regret and anger. What if they were born just one day earlier or one week later. What if they had waited until my scheduled c-section. I could, and believe me I have, wrestled with “what ifs” but the fact is that God knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew before the beginning of time what day our babies would be born, who would be there and what would happen. He gave us a beautiful, perfect and healthy baby boy and instead of thinking back on everything that went wrong, that was right. So today when I think back to my babies’ birth day, I try to think about what was right and good. I try to remember the feeling I had holding my babies together and how tiny and perfect their little hands and feet were. I try to remember the joy on Joshua’s face when he held them for the first time and how he talked to them and laughed and smiled. I try to remember all that was whole about that day, all that was perfect and good and right and pure. I try to remember Will.
Our mission is to glorify God by supporting children undergoing life-saving heart treatment and creating a caring community for their families in honor of our son, Will.
My name is Courtney Hughes and I am Will's mommy. I am happy that you are here to read Will's story and make a difference with us!