I never imagined that I would need to write a post like this. But then the most unthinkable thing happened this week.
Baby Sterling passed away.
I’ve written about Sterling before. I first met her parents, Maddie and Kingsley, at the Ronald McDonald House. Their daughter was in the PCICU while Becky was in the NICU. Often, while Mom and I ate breakfast, Kingsley would be at the table across from us, working on his laptop. Late at night, we would often meet again in the kitchen, the four of us grabbing dinner after a long day in our respective intensive care units. They never failed to ask us about Becky. I can’t quite describe the comradery among these families. I always felt a pressing need to know how other people’s children were doing. And they were equally invested in Becky’s progress. Although our situations were different, we walked a similar journey.
We parents would run into each other in the hallways, taking time to update on our daughters’ conditions and the daily plan of care. We’ve peeked into each other’s rooms and waved from the doors. We’ve passed notes and fabulous headwear and shared pictures. I watched Sterling wheeled out to surgery and they’ve watched as Becky returned from her operations.
Mom and I watched the first time Sterling left the PCICU for the floor. It’s a moment that I will never forget. A celebration 143 days in the making. The emotion-filled hugs from doctors and nurses. The tears of joy. A few days later, Becky was moved to the floor on the exact day that Sterling left the hospital for home. Maggie witnessed both milestones, the bridge between the families that day.
Becky has had many follow-up appointments at the hospital. Each time, I look forward to seeing my friends if they are able to leave the unit for a visit. I bumped into Kingsley last week outside of the hospital. He updated me on Sterling who had been readmitted for a third time. Something was different this time. And more serious. The team wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. But words like “hospice care” began floating into conversations. Maddie and Kingsley were hopeful after a cardia cath seemingly ruled out the most severe problem. However, this hope was not to last.
On Monday, Becky had another visit with the Heart Fab team. As I was leaving Becky’s appointment, I noticed a text from Maggie. There had been an emergency in the PCICU. And it was Sterling. She had coded. Maggie met me in front of the hospital. We hugged and cried. We watched as some of Sterling’s relatives left the hospital. We feared the worst.
Later that night, Maggie told me the team was keeping Sterling comfortable and additional family members were arriving to say goodbye. I received a text in the middle of the night from Maddie. A simple heart emoji. I heard that the night nurses were wearing their Sterling Strong gear, a sign of solidarity from the team that worked so hard to support Sterling’s heart.
The next morning, I received the dreaded text. At 9:22am on Tuesday, May 11, Sterling died in her mother’s arms.
I grabbed Becky out of her crib and wrapped my arms around her. I melted into a chair. And I wept.
Wept for the loss of this beautiful baby. Wept for her parents who are the very definition of loyalty and perseverance. Wept with the confusion and unanswerable questions that surround such a loss.
Why? Why? Dear God, why?
Yesterday, I heard from Auntie Em, one of Becky’s special NICU nurses. She had heard about Sterling. And she texted something profound:
“I felt the grief spread through the hospital via team members who span both units.”
I hope this provides some comfort to Maddie and Kingsley. To know that, although Sterling’s life was short, it was very full. Love for this little baby and this family of three spread outside their hospital room and captured the hearts of countless people. Without speaking a word, Sterling inspired the greatest love.
Since Tuesday, I’ve been in touch with Maddie via text. I wanted her to know that I’ve been thinking of them. I know they read my blog and I’ve been afraid to write this post. Concerned that it would cause more pain. Humbled at the task of trying to capture in mere words the beauty of this story and the bravery of this family. Last night, I saw a bleeding heart plant blooming. I’ve always loved this spring-time perennial. I took it as a sign that maybe now was the time to write about Sterling. I sat in my car and composed a text to Maddie.
She consented to my writing about Sterling, entrusting their story to my care. As always, she included a heart emoji. And she sent more pictures of Sterling. It was wonderful to see pictures of her outside the hospital. Pictures at home. Regular shots of daily life with a baby. Sterling enjoying some normalcy with her parents. And a fabulous pair of sunglasses, heart-shaped of course.
But my favorite picture is of Maddie and Sterling sitting on the lakeshore. An image of a favored memory, an outing with their baby on a sunny day. I imagine them breathing in the fresh air and marveling at the beauty of the sand dunes and crashing waves. They probably took turns holding Sterling and taking pictures to capture the moment. Perhaps they walked together along the shore, holding hands and smiling at their baby, while sand squished between their toes and water lapped at their ankles.
Now Sterling plays on eternal shores, where there is no more pain or suffering. Where there are no more tubes and alarms. While her parents and loved ones grieve her loss, she patiently waits. Anticipating that blissful moment when they will be reunited again in the everlasting kingdom.
Requiescat in pace.