The year was 1979. I was 26 years old, eking out a living doing carpentry and concrete work for a small construction company in central Wisconsin. Luann (not her real name) and I had been married for about a year. We were poor but happy, living in a tiny A-frame cottage in the country. We were a ready-made family. Luann’s two boys, Shane and Jason, and I had bonded even before she and I were officially a couple. In fact, it was Shane who first shocked us by asking Luann, “Mom, could you arrange it so John could be our Dad?” By the time we married I was truly their Dad, they were truly my boys. We had already decided to go ahead and have another child even though I wasn’t making much money. We knew we wanted more children, and we were concerned about the age gap between them. Shane was already 7 and Jason 5.
Luann became pregnant, and before long we knew that there was something very different about this pregnancy, this baby. By the time she was four months along her belly was as big as she was at full term. We could feel the baby move at three months, and by the fifth or sixth month the baby was responding not only to his mother, but to my voice, my touch.
I’d spend hours playing with him. In one of our favorite games, I would lean in closely and talk softly, calling “Ba-aby, wake up.” A few gentle pokes, and soon he’d start moving around. A little push from inside, and on Luann’s belly would rise the clear outline of a tiny foot. I’d tickle it, he’d snatch it away. A moment later the foot would be back, and we’d just go on and on. Sometimes he’d push his back out and I’d just sort of rub it for him. When he’d get restless, I’d lay my head on Luann’s stomach and talk to him, read to him, or sing to him. He would settle down every time.
Although we were excited about the pregnancy, for some reason neither of us ever really got started actually preparing the house for the baby’s arrival. We had a few things, but not much. Mostly what people had given as gifts. We just never sensed that ‘nesting’ impulse that expectant parents usually feel to be ready for the baby’s homecoming.
Luann’s due date came and went. She was two weeks past due when the doctor finally decided to induce. At that time we were living in rural Wisconsin. The local hospital was a basic 40-bed facility, typical of what you might expect in a fairly small town. The labor room was nothing like the comfortable, homey birthing suites that most hospitals offer today. There were no sofas or lounge chairs, no pictures, no televisions or stereos. It was a cold room, not in its temperature, but in atmosphere. A lot of stainless steel and white enamel. I don’t remember any curtains on the windows, and the plain tile floor echoed every sound. Still, we were happy during that time, anticipating the events that we thought were soon to come. A new child, a new chapter in our lives. A new love.
Her labor time was short, only about 45 minutes. When the time grew near, Luann was wheeled across the hall into the delivery room. Another austere, soul-less room. I was told to stand by Luann’s head and hold her hand. When the baby wasn’t coming as fast as he should, the doctor decided to use forceps to aid the delivery. (I hate forceps to this day.) Finally, Joshua was born. Luann and I looked at him, then at each other. We knew immediately something wasn’t right. Even as the doctor was telling us we had a healthy baby boy (he looked perfect) we knew. He wasn’t crying or breathing. He seemed to be trying to take a breath, but could not. When we said that to the doctor. He replied “Don’t worry, sometimes it takes a minute.” He laid the baby face down on Luann’s stomach, facing away from us. That’s when it happened.
Joshua stopped struggling to inhale. Then, with no one touching him, that little baby did something that no newborn should be able to do. Joshua turned himself up onto his side, then raised himself up onto his left elbow. As we watched in amazement, he reached out his tiny right arm and pushed himself up until he was almost facing us. He lifted his head, and opened his eyes.
I have heard it said that all newborns are ugly, beautiful only to their parents. Red, wrinkled, and covered with a variety on substances that would send most of us running to the shower. Not true! Joshua was as perfect, as beautiful a child as one could imagine. His head was perfectly formed even after his difficult passage. His skin was a healthy pink color, clear and smooth. His mouth, his lips were beautiful, just made for kisses! The only mark on that angelic face was an ugly bruise on his forehead, caused by the forceps.
His hands and fingers were flawless, well proportioned with long fingers, slender but strong. Fingers that could one day fit perfectly wrapped around my pinky as we navigated the dangerous waters of a parking lot. Hands that held nothing but promise. Hands that could one day color a picture, write a sonnet, or earn a living for a family. Hands that could one day swing a hammer, paint a masterpiece, or with the gentlest of touches caress the face of a crying infant.The hands of an artist. The hands of a father.
Joshua’s head was crowned with a feathery mop of sandy brown hair, soft and wispy as a cloud. But what held me above all—then, now and forever—were his eyes. As he lifted his face, he opened them for the first time. His gaze locked with Luann’s for a few moments, then he turned his head toward me.
When our eyes met, I felt as though I was no longer looking at a newborn babe. His eyes were clear, his gaze sure and steady. Instantly I was drawn into it. In those eyes shone the wisdom of the ages immersed in the innocent soul of a child who had never known pain, or anger, or hatred. In those eyes I could see a peace that could only be brought of a lifetime of love. But I also saw acceptance. Acceptance of the inevitable. In Joshua’s eyes, in our moment of connection, I saw.
My heart sank as I realized—he was saying goodbye. I swear I saw a sad little smile form on his face as he lowered himself ever so slowly, rested his head, and closed his eyes.
About 10 minutes had passed since Joshua’s birth. While these things were unfolding, the doctor and nurses had been standing, mesmerized. When he closed his eyes, they knew too. They snatched him away and tried everything they could, but it was done. One nurse positioned herself in front of my wife so she couldn’t see the awful things they had to do. No one thought to take us away or to shield me. I stood and watched, helpless. My only comfort was that I knew he was gone. They couldn’t really hurt him any more, no matter what horrible things they did to his little body.
The autopsy showed that he was born without a diaphragm. It was just something that went wrong early on; a cell didn’t divide correctly when he was only a few cells big. Because the abdominal organs grow first, they filled the chest cavity so his lungs had no room to grow by the time it was their turn. As long as he was getting oxygen from his mother, he was fine, but he never would have been able to breathe on his own. There was no way to know in advance. As silly as it might sound, I think that’s why the pregnancy was so special. That was our lifetime together.
I think that all parents want to give the best they can to their children, and we knew we would only have one chance. As the time to lay him to rest drew near, we struggled to think of something, anything, that we could give him, or do for him. It was so frustrating knowing that I’d never again be able to do anything for my child. So I decided to give him a song.
I play the harmonica some, and used to carry with me a very tiny one called a “Little Lady”. It’s about one inch long and has only four holes, but plays a whole octave. At the simple graveside service, I played the old hymns “Just As I Am” and “Jesus Loves Me”, while our closest friends and family sang. The tiny harmonica was placed in his hand, so he would always carry a song from those who loved him. Sometimes when I visit his grave, I bring a harmonica, play again, and imagine him playing or singing along with me. Usually, in my dreams, he’s just smiling at how silly I am to be sad, when I know he’s okay, and we’ll be seeing each other in just a moment anyway.
We bought a tiny gold band that matched our wedding rings and placed it on his finger. Luann and I talked about his name. We had known before he was born that he would be our Joshua. We decided to give him a middle name that would bring to mind nothing but love, as that was all he had ever known or given. So, he became Joshua Valentine.
There is a positive side to all of this. God’s promise is that He will glean good from the worst that life throws at us if only we’ll let Him. Because of Joshua, I’ve been able to minister to many others who have suffered similar losses, at work and elsewhere. I know how it feels lose a child. How it feels to be told again and again things like “At least you didn’t have time to get to know him” or “You can always have another one”.
I also know the comfort of being able to connect with someone who’s been through a similar trial and can understand. My cousin Al and his wife Linda had lost a baby (born too early) not too long before this. They had to fight just to get him from the hospital so they could have a funeral. You see, the hospital didn’t consider him a baby, just a “product of conception”. Linda shared with us a poem entitled ‘A Baby’s Secret’. It is very hard to read (meaning you’ll probably cry), but it has been a very big source of comfort to me and the many other grieving parents with whom I’ve shared it over the years.
A Baby’s Secret
I’m just a little feller
Who didn’t quite make it there
I went straight to be with Jesus
But I’m waiting for you here
Don’t you fret about me, Mommy
I’m of all God’s lambs most blest
I’d have loved to stay there with you
But the Shepherd knows what’s best
Many dwelling here where I live
Waited years to enter in
Struggled through a world of sorrow
And their lives were marred with sin
Now, sweet Mommy, don’t you sorrow
Wipe those tears and chase the gloom
I went straight to Jesus’ bosom
From my lovely mother’s womb
Thank you for the life you gave me
It was brief, but don’t complain
I have all of heaven’s glory
Suffered none of earthling’s pain
Daddy gave me something for you
It’s our secret, Mommy dear
Pressed it tight against my forehead
Whispered in my tiny ear
I’ll be waiting for you, Mommy
And someday I’ll give you this
The day we meet again in heaven–
That’s when I’ll give you Daddy’s kiss
I guess the only thing left to say is that Joshua’s life, though short, was not in vain. Knowing him as I did—the gift of a very special lifetime together—has had a lasting impact on my own life. I want to live so that I will see my son once more, and I can’t wait! Even through this trial, in my sorrow, I am truly blessed. By my sharing this story with others, Joshua can still make a difference in this world. Just maybe, with a little help from me, Joshua’s song can still ring out sweet and clear for all who need to hear it. Maybe through me, he can touch your heart.
Joshua Valentine Vogel
June 26, 1980