Ethan Maddux James: My Son’s Hundreds of Childhoods without One
People get through tough situations in many different ways. For me personally I’ve learned that writing it all down and hitting publish is what works best for me. This probably won’t be all easy to read and you don’t need to. This is more about my healing than it is about telling you all the details of what the past few days of Heather and my life have been like. The outpouring of love and support that we have already received tells me that you are interested so here we go. The following is raw, personal, extremely emotional at times, extremely rational at others and probably going to be very long. It’s also going to be your typical completely transparent Kyle rant.
The start of an eventful week
Monday, January 5, 2015 I got up right at 7AM and ran 5 miles on the elliptical. All of 2014 I was pretty good about getting 15 miles a week in, but as the holidays came around, like all of us, that number was more like 5 miles most weeks. I was determined to turn that around.
It was my first day back at work. When you work for yourself you never really take time off, but from Thanksgiving through the first of the year it’s a really slow time when your clients are mostly colleges and universities. Usually I run during lunch time or at the end of the day, but at the start of November we got an office so I don’t work from home that much anymore. Getting a physical office for nuCloud was partially a milestone of success for our business, but it was also because I told Todd, my brother and our CFO, that with the baby coming it was going to be practically impossible to work from home. With a 5 and 1 year old he completely understood.
As I’m finishing my run Heather is getting up and tells me that she didn’t sleep much last night. She told me that since about 4AM she’d been feeling light contractions. Honestly I wasn’t really worried. If anything, I was a little excited because we were already past 38 weeks so if Ethan was ready to come then let’s do this!
I’ve always been that person that tries to completely live in the moment, but as I get closer to major life events there is a part of me that kind of clicks over and is ready to be living on the other side of the moment. I was like that my senior year of high school and college, before we moved to Boston (and came home), when we got married and yeah, even when my dad died. The inevitable life change was right around the corner, so let’s just flip that switch and let’s do this! I was always prepared for that moment and was mentally ready for the new set of challenges. At that moment, though, we were told Heather may have these light contractions for quite a while, so it was just time for me to get ready and go to work for the day. Alex, our sales guy, was going to be at the house in a little over an hour. We carpool to the office.
Monday wasn’t really a very eventful day at work. I mean there was the typical returning from a holiday with things to do because you put them off before the break. There is the pile of email, but most of our clients are in the middle of that themselves so it wasn’t that bad. As with most days we leave around 4 to beat the traffic and get home. Once I walk in the door Zack Morris, our first son and Beagle, is extra excited. Heather had stayed home that day and asked if I had seen her text. I hadn’t because she actually wrote it while I was driving home. She told me that she may be passing her mucus plug. It sounded like things were beginning to happen. Ok. Zack is going crazy so I take him out in the back yard and begin to play with him a little. Heather comes out… “Kyle I just started bleeding a lot… we need to go.”
Boom. Just like that it’s that life change moment about to happen and you know what… I’m ready. I’m a calm and collected whirl of actions getting things into the truck and packing up whatever already isn’t packed. Is this it!? Yeah it’s TOTALLY that moment!
It’s 4:50PM and the sun is setting right in my eyes as I’m driving south on I-85 heading right into the eye of Greenville 5 o’clock rush hour traffic. It doesn’t matter because I’m Cool Hand Luke making good time but definitely not being reckless. I have two very precious pieces of cargo. Heather’s worried about all the blood, but I’m assuring her this isn’t really that unusual. “Don’t you remember Mary telling us about this in class?” Class was referring to the ten weekly two hour sessions we took on the Bradley Method. I’m trying to talk to her about how she’s basically been in labor for twelve hours and this is just the mucus plug passing which is part of the process. My calm optimistic position is trying to convince her that this is totally ok, but she doesn’t want to hear any of that. You see, another thing we learned in those twenty hours is that a woman should always listen to her body during pregnancy.
No matter how much you plan sometimes those plans get thrown out the window
Heather and I weren’t just ready for this major life event we were completely ready… until we weren’t. Twenty hours of class was just the tip of the iceberg. The crib was assembled and put up three months ago and the glider too. Heather is an executive assistant, aka uber planner, and I was the kind of guy in college that always had my papers written days in advance. She had multiple copies of a final birth plan typed up on a single page and in protective sleeves. The deposit for the daycare was made months ago. We had toured the pediatrician and the hospital as the star pupils. She was given three baby showers and we had more baby clothes than we knew what to do with. Hopefully you’re getting the picture here that we literally could not have been more prepared as first time parents. I even actually read the whole “Father to be” book. Let’s be honest here, dads… how many of you got that book but never actually read it? Well, I did!
The entire last year has been building for this moment.
We arrive at the midwife’s office, and Susan was on call that afternoon and waiting on us. Yes, we were even using a midwife and a doula for the pregnancy because we were that level of educated and informed on the whole birthing process and confident this was the way we wanted to do things. On the drive there Heather really wanted to head straight to the hospital, but Susan had convinced her to stop by their office first. Their office is just across the street from the hospital so I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal and as Susan said, “Honey, if you’re not ready yet, and I can save you the cost of getting admitted then let’s do that.” She had experienced dozens/hundreds of births and didn’t think the blood was something to necessarily be worried about either. After a few minutes of checking on things she sent us across the street and said she’d meet us in the lobby of the hospital. That was nice because she was able to get us through all the red tape of the admittance process right up into a delivery room with what must have been eight nurses waiting on us.
That many nurses and the immediate admittance should have set off some alarm. They instantly told us how this is what happens when it’s a “slow” time, and I was so sure this was it I didn’t think any more about it until…
They bring in the ultrasound machine and begin examining the baby looking for a heartbeat. 7, 8, 9, 10… still looking… 27, 28, 29, 30… let’s put some more cold goo on her belly and try listening over here… everyone is being quiet, too quiet. At that moment I think we all knew exactly what was happening but nobody wants to be the one to say anything. So of course I broke the silence.
“Look, somebody needs to start telling us what is going on. We know something isn’t right here. Nobody is saying anything.” I say.
“Let me go find one of the doctors and get her to search.”
The conversation no expecting parent should have
I began to understand just how helpless Heather had felt last February. Many of you know this, but Ethan wasn’t our first pregnancy. Addison grew in mama’s belly for 10 weeks. The only time Heather ever went to a baby appointment without me was last February and they couldn’t find a heartbeat then. Nobody told her anything until an awkward doctor she’d never met came in and broke the news to her. I wasn’t there. It was tragic for her, and after that we agreed that she would never go to another appointment alone again.
Addison was too little for us to know the sex but we both know that she was our daughter. The experience of losing Addison wasn’t extremely difficult for me. Yes, it was a few months of building hope and we had started to tell a select few people, but as I told you before I’m an in the moment type of person. The dreaming and planning with her hadn’t really begun yet for me. I wasn’t even sure it was a her yet. It was still 6-7 months away and Heather really wasn’t even showing yet.
As the seconds are passing, my stomach is dropping and my heart has already started breaking.
The doctor came in and searched for a while. …44, 45, 46…
“Ok you have to tell us something. We know something’s not right but we need you to tell us.” I say.
“There is no heartbeat,” she says.
<long awkward moment of silence that felt forever but was probably only a few seconds>
“So to be clear there is no positive outcome we can have, is there?”
“No. I just didn’t want to throw all that at you until you have time to process all this.”
“We already knew before you came into the room. We just need to understand what happens now?”
“This is extremely rare, about 1 in 600, but sometimes this happens. Sometimes we can figure out why but a good portion of the time we don’t know why it happens. We will run tests to see if what we can learn. I’m sorry. I have some other bad news for you though. You still have to deliver this baby.”
Giving birth is supposed to be something you cherish, not dread
All our plans, hopes, dreams… gone.
We still have this undefined amount of time ahead of us where we have to deal with birthing… our dead son…
Months of planning for this moment, what drugs we want to take and which ones we don’t for both the safety of baby and mama and now none of that matters. Heather was going to try and have a natural birth without modern staples like an epidural and Pitocin. We were the super educated parents who understood all the potential side effects and consequences for mama and baby months before the moment. We should be able to do this without all that artificial assistance. After all, women have been doing this since the beginning of time just fine! All of this was written in that nicely typed and laminated birth plan after all. Without the concerns of Ethan’s health in the equation anymore Heather’s health, mental and physical, was our only concerns. We let them feed her the drugs.
With the help of a morphine cocktail we were still able to hold off the epidural quite a while but eventually the Pitocin-boosted contractions got the best of us both. Heather was in tidal waves of pain, and I no longer had the strength to watch her or the throat to keep counting her breathing. We’re both exhausted, but I think most of all our hearts just weren’t in this birth anymore and it was time to quit fighting for a hollow victory. The epidural finally comes around 2:30AM, and she’s completely hooked up and slowly being pulled into its relief by 3AM.
No sleep for a drifting mind
We both needed sleep but I know I didn’t sleep much. My mind was whirling. Most parents will tell you they would do anything for their children. How could I give my life for his? I’ve had almost thirty-four years on this earth. I would give up the rest in a heartbeat for him to have a chance. I knew that feeling and was ready to make that sacrifice. They say no parent should live longer than their children. No parent should be forced to bring their infant home in a casket. I wouldn’t wish this on my deepest enemies.
I thought about how much harder it would have been if he would have been born alive and then died after only a few minutes, hours, days or weeks. Maybe he had some horrible heart problem that would have completely limited his life and the fight was never going to be worth it. At least this way he will always be perfect, right? He’s in heaven.
Besides the simple fact my son died, I think most of all I just mourned, and still mourn, just how much I really want to be a father. I’m sorry to all those fathers out there, but I’m going to be better than you. I’ve always known one of my purposes in life was to be a dad. We’ve kind of taken our time getting to this point because we wanted to make sure that we were at a point in our lives where we could fully commit to it. I firmly believe that great parents are the single most important thing to making the world a better place. If you want to reduce violence or poverty start with good solid parenting. Parents who will fight with every bone in their body to make sure their children’s life is better than theirs. It would create the greatest economic and social exponential growth curves of all time!
I know it’s selfish of me to be mourning “not getting the job,” but this is that one responsibility I’ve wanted for so long and wanted so bad that it hurts. It’s the kind of hurt that has and continues to screw up my appetite days later. For years when people asked about kids I always redirected the question because I knew I wasn’t “ready to apply yet.” Monday I was so close and now the goalpost has been moved down the road to some undefined location. I know it will still happen, but when you’re so completely ready to give your life to something it’s hard to not be able to. You can’t just instantly turn off that feeling.
Ethan’s childhood as I remember it
We also knew that once he was born, stillborn, we’d have the opportunity to hold and spend time with him. I knew this wasn’t something I wanted.
I’d already lived Ethan’s childhood hundreds of different ways. Of course he’s going to love and play baseball?! It wasn’t even a question… the question was is he going to be a lefty or righty? Ninety-nine times he was right-handed except for that one time. A few times he didn’t play baseball that much but got into all sorts of other activities. I picked him up from school countless times. I watched him graduate Kindergarten. He was more of a hotdog than hamburger guy. MacMac was his best friend and they knew each other basically their entire lives. He loved to run around the yard with Zack Morris and the two of them somehow always ended up like a pretzel in the middle of the night. Charlie Anna was his first girlfriend, Samantha his second. He even had a crush on MG for a while. Ethan LOVED watching Braves game with Uncle Wil. When I gave him his own tent you couldn’t get cousin Bentley and him out of it except to play hide and seek with his other cousin Lanah. He was always talking about riding around in Uncle Todd’s newest toy and how yummy Aunt Jen’s latest dessert masterpiece was. He loved dogs so much that when he went to visit Nonni and Popert he would always look for Chipper in the window first and tell him bye last. Nonni taught him how to draw and Popert how to build things with electronics. Ethan loved books so weekend nights at Mimi’s was something he was always talking about, but you had to pick him up on Sunday morning because he couldn’t wait for KidSpring every week. He learned how to fish from Grandpa Z.
Will and Ethan roomed at Wofford together. He took dad’s old ’14 F150 with all his possessions in it and somehow kept the thing running through all four years of school. One time he actually made it to the minor leagues and another he stuck around and worked in the family business. There was even a time that he got the entrepreneur gene and started his own business. Mom and Dad always were proud of him. His brother and sister always looked up to him for advice. Sure he got into a little trouble from time to time, but that was because he was just as stubborn as his dad and controlling as his mom. You know, there was even one time where he told us he was gay and you know what… that was ok too. I still told him I loved him.
Ethan always just had a way of valuing and making everyone he was around feel important and special. He was genuine, a southern gentleman, honest and proud.
How could I look at his lifeless body when I knew his soul was already long gone? People said they understood that attitude for someone they knew for years and that this would be my only chance to see him. I already had lifetimes of memories without a lifetime. I had already seen his entire future and the different possible paths he might follow. I didn’t need to see his lifeless body and have all that taken away from me.
Time to push
Heather was so amazingly strong throughout the whole process. She couldn’t really spend the time to mourn because she actually had to give birth to him. We knew we wanted to stay as far away from a Cesarean as possible. That was the #1 item on the initial birth plan, no Cesarean Section. Being forced to go the C-section path would have added insult to injury. She labored most of the day Tuesday, and by 5PM she was fully dilated, and they were ready for her to start pushing.
She absolutely crushed this part of it and by 6:22PM a 5lbs 8oz and 19.5” Ethan fully arrived. I had always planned on being more up behind Heather during this whole process instead of watching him come out. I just never “needed” to see part of her do that. As her coach, though, I needed to be holding one of her legs and encouraging her from a place with a view. When I first saw the top of his head all you could see was all this black hair. I was born blonde and Heather brunette. We’d gone back and forth placing bets on the color of his hair and how much he would have. She won big. I can confirm that it’s an old wives tale that heartburn means the baby has hair. Heather never had a lick of heartburn.
His head fully came out so calm and peacefully. At that point I couldn’t stay on the watching end any more. Besides, the hard work was done.
The rolling waves of loss fully hit me all over again, and I knew Heather was finally about to let them hit her. We could finally and truly mourn the loss of our son. It hurt. It sucked. It wasn’t fair. It happened.
After finishing up the rest of the process (you moms know what I’m talking about) they cleaned up Ethan and brought him back all bundled up for Heather to hold. I couldn’t look, but that didn’t keep us from telling him how much we love him.
We invited his grandmothers into the room and they were also able to hold him before we asked them to take him to his nursery. They would have left him with us as long as we wanted but his soul was long gone, and they had a very special room made up just for him. We do have a memory box with some pictures they took, locks of hair and footprints, but for me personally none of that matters. All I need are the lifetimes of dreams.
To the staff of GHS
Unfortunately we still had two more nights in the hospital before finally coming home on Thursday. After all that, the last place I wanted to stay was a hospital. I will unequivocally tell you that the staff and nurses at Greenville Memorial Hospital were all amazing. They were super mindful, supportive and heartfelt in handling us and our situation. I never wish that upon anyone, but if you are ever in this situation I can’t tell you how important every little detail becomes to you. I’d be lying to you if I said I was looking forward to the bill, but I don’t have any grievances of their service.
Life goes on
We are still waiting for a call on Monday from the crematory. They called on Thursday, but we needed some time and asked them to call back the beginning of the week. They will pick him up at the hospital and cremate him. We will not have a funeral. Honestly, I feel like a funeral is a little selfish because none of you knew Ethan, and then the funeral would be about us and not him. If you want to do something for us keep reading because I’ll get to that below. We haven’t completely decided what we’ll do with the ashes yet. I might sneak onto a local baseball field and spread them though.
One of the other things I spent a lot of time thinking about on Monday night is how can I be a better husband? You could say I’m adding an additional New Year’s resolution. I hope Heather already thinks I’m pretty awesome, but how can I step that up? I want us to get stronger through this and not the other way around.
The Christmas service at church just a few weeks ago just so happened to be about a couple who lost an infant and the miracle that came next. We kind of knew the story ahead of time because Heather went to college with Elizabeth. After the service I thought it was a little weird. I remember telling Heather how I thought it was a little weird for a Christmas service. I think we only sang one traditional Christmas type hymn and the service had nothing to do with the annual story of that special night in Bethlehem. I also remember telling her how it was something that I felt like we could kind of relate to, because of the miscarriage, but not completely. It’s amazing how a few weeks can change all that. Today that message I didn’t think was totally relevant to me has now become the most important message. I haven’t gotten the chance but I want to go back and rewatch their story. I need to rewatch their story. I know there is a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of this story somewhere and hearing how they persevered fuels me. If you have a similar story I want to hear your story.
I know that God has a purpose for my life and people really close to me know I’ve struggled for years to understand exactly what he wants me to do. Like being a father I know that he’s not ready for me to “turn in my resume” yet on that big adventure, but I never imagined this event happening. Who would? I have to believe there is a happy ending. I know Heather and I will get through this. Like I told her, it’s not like we don’t know how to keep living just the two of us. We’ve done that for years and even though it will never feel completely normal again it’s something we’re amazing at.
Related to parenting for us I’ve always said worst case scenario we would end up adopting. We want three kids. If we need some external support to get that, I don’t feel like that’s cheating. You ask why three? Well the Vulcan in me (Star Trek reference if you’re counting) will tell you the logical common sense guru I am never wanted to put all my eggs in one basket. In a tragic way Ethan is just more proof to that idea. Obviously that’s not the only reason but for me right now it’s the relevant one.
Any child that I’ve camp counseled, coached, mentored or worked with already would hopefully tell you that even if you have other parents that birthed you I’ll always have your back and love you. Kids aren’t perfect. They will make the same stupid mistakes that we made when we were their age but you know what… that’s ok. I’d rather be able to be available and have those conversations than them feel like they have to hide them from me because I’ll be pissed. In a way I feel like I’ve adopted a piece of each of them for the time we spent together.
At this point we’re going to take some time for ourselves. I told Heather with this free time we need to be selfish for a little while. How can we double down and stay busy for ourselves? More and harder working out, weekend day trips and most importantly I think we’re ready to finally dust off that new house hunting dream and do it!
For years Heather has been nagging on and off about getting another dog. Although I absolutely truly believe in the power of a dog to heal I’ve told her instead of getting a second dog we should just get a kid. Maybe it’s time to grow our family that way now and we’ll come back to the other thing in a bit. I mean it’s inevitable we’ll have more than one dog anyway.
We also might get out of town for a few days before heading back to work. I don’t know.
We’ve got too much love and dreams of being parents to give up on kids. I pray we don’t get to strike three but that’s a risk we have to take. I mean in baseball if you hit .300 over your career you will be a hall of famer! We’ve heard from experts that the loss of Ethan and Addison are categorically unrelated but until we ultimately succeed at this we’ll always be nervous going forward. I don’t think we are going to jump right back in immediately again though. Losing them both inside of a year hasn’t been easy for us. Heather has legendary fortitude but her body needs rest.
Ethan will always be in our hearts. My final images of him will always be watching him playing catch with my dad in heaven. Daddy is teaching him that tailing fastball.
I know this story has been heartbreaking, and you have no idea how painful parts of this have been to write. I pray every parent who reads this will hug their children a little tighter and tell them they love them a little louder. I’m jealous of what you might take for granted sometimes.
To our friends
We truly have been humbled by the out-pour of love and prayers. For a little while I tried to keep up with the posts and messages, but it’s too much and things are still so raw. Facebook truly has been overwhelming.
We’ve had many of you ask about what you can do for us. Our family is taking excellent care of us right now with cooking and whatnot. Sooner than later I’ll want to get back in and do the cooking because it will help keep me busy. I can tell you if you want to do something for us make a note on your calendar to catch up with us in a few weeks or even months and let’s spend time together! We thought that we’d be so much busier and now we have all that set aside free time to spend. If you want to cook for us then invite us over in a few months and cook for us while we spend time together. Let’s go on a double date, grab a beer sometime, hit up a Greenville Drive game or whatever. It doesn’t have to be big and elaborate. Simply making the effort to spend time with friends we love is a priceless treasure in itself.
We love you too. I promise I’m not ignoring you, but I also can’t wait to spend some time really catch up with you and your life. Even if it’s been years (decades) I want to know what you have been up to. Thank you for all your prayers. We will get through this and closer and stronger because of it.