On a Personal Note

Delightfully hectic are words that sum up life at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst in Denver, Colorado where I live out my love on a daily basis. Phone calls, scheduling appointments, baking cookies, popping popcorn, braiding hair, moderating life and managing forty-million to-do's constantly popping on the horizon - it keeps me hopping. The day I received the gift that changed my life was one of those days. are words that sum up life at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst in Denver, Colorado where I live out my love on a daily basis. Phone calls, scheduling appointments, baking cookies, popping popcorn, braiding hair, moderating life and managing forty-million to-do's constantly popping on the horizon - it keeps me hopping. The day I received the gift that changed my life was one of those days.

A quick peep at the clock told me that it was almost lunch time, which meant it would soon be mail time. Scarcely would the carrier be out the door before eager residents, clamoring for their mail, would inundate the front desk. Sorting through the daily stack is rather mundane; what never gets old is the transformation on the face of one getting a letter from home. There's nothing like it. Everyone needs to be reminded from time to time that they have not been forgotten.

One of the best decisions I ever made was to accept the position of Concierge at Pinehurst, a mere three minutes from my home. To be sure, there are challenges, but they pale in comparison to the good times. Best of all, in my humble opinion, are the hugs. I love this eclectic group of seniors. Interacting on a daily basis with an abundance of Grandpas and Grandmas has restored my self-confidence, and brought a measure of comfort to my broken heart.

As a family, we have experienced a great deal of sorrow in our lives. I have stood beside too many caskets, dried too many tears, cried too many of my own. During one three-year period, we said goodbye to a number of family and friends who preceded us in death, twenty-one to be exact. Of those twenty-one, eleven were family. Of those eleven, two were bone-of-my-bone and flesh-of-my-flesh.

There are approximately 6 million pregnancies every year in the United States. Of those pregnancies, 600,000 women will experience pregnancy loss through a miscarriage and 26,000 will experience pregnancy loss through stillbirth. I had not considered those daunting statistics until I became one of them.

I don't understand this kind of sorrow. One mother carries her longed-for baby to term, dreading, yet anticipating the difficult labor to come. When her work is done, she holds the fulfillment of her dreams tightly in her arms. She counts tiny fingers and miniature toes, and plants tender kisses on baby’s sweet nose.

Another mother labors in agony, torn, wanting the pain to end, knowing that when it does the baby she has birthed will be lifeless and cold. She will hold, she will weep, she will unwillingly release.

One mother frets, not understanding the privilege of colic, sleepless nights, earaches, and runny noses. Another weeps for lost kisses, soiled diapers, first words, and skinned knees. I am that mother.

I have cradled six precious children in my womb, but I cuddled only four of them in my arms. Only four shared my kisses. I tucked my nose into the softness and smelled the sweetness of only four. Six were mine, but two were gone before we said hello.

An ultrasound confirmed what the lack of movement caused us to suspect - our baby was dead. Not wanting to induce, the doctor advised us to wait for labor to begin spontaneously. So, we waited. We waited for one whole week. Mere words cannot describe the torment and agony of those days. My mother-heart tore in two.

The hours before delivery were long and painful. Unless you've been there, you cannot conceive the anguish of labor without the promise of life. The doctor predicted a speedy delivery, but he was wrong. The painful labor lasted for hours. When at last it was over, we held our tiny son in our hands and struggled to make sense of a loss that seemed so senseless. What possible good could come from this little one's death? He was perfect in every way, except for the umbilical cord wrapped around his right leg. And, except for the fact that he was dead.

We named him William Andrew Knuth, but I called him Billy. A week later, I stood beside the miniature, satin covered white casket holding his body. I was numb with grief, spent to the very core of my being. If I survived, it would be because of the kindness of family and the grace of my God.

What to do with pregnancy loss was a mystery in those days. Some thought you should simply chalk it up to experience and move on, "You can always have another baby." Others were quick to offer pat answers designed to disallow the pain, "God must have needed another little angel." Even a brazen few suggested, "This is punishment for your sin."

I was not sure, based on their remarks, that I even had a right to cry. I had experienced a similar dilemma two years earlier when we surrendered tiny Baby Knuth to heaven’s care. This added grief was unbearable. When the hospital informed me that they had lost the pictures they had taken of Billy, I spiraled downward. Those pictures were the only tangible reminders I had of him and now they were gone. Nothing remained but a scant few memories. I clung to them, replaying them over and over in my mind. I was afraid that if I stopped remembering, my baby would be forgotten.

Finally, unable to assimilate the loss into my life, I gathered my sorrow, placed it in a pretty box with a bow on top, and carefully hid it on a shelf high in the closet of my heart. I shut the door and walked away. I made a conscious decision not to go there anymore. It hurt too much.

Pretending it did not matter did not prevent my unresolved grief from exacting a severe toll. Depression became my constant companion. Years passed, eleven to be exact. I applied for and was offered the position of Concierge at Pinehurst. No one knew the depth of my pain, because I didn't tell them. Some days I did well to put one foot in front of the other. I was grateful for the diversion Sunrise offered. As long as I kept busy, I kept the dark clouds of despair at bay.

Then came a disquieting phone call from a friend in Ohio. “Ronda,” she said, “I have a friend whose baby has been stillborn. I want to get her a gift. Do you have a suggestion?” Without warning, the closet door swung open, and all the painful memories tumbled out. I was surprised at their intensity and equally surprised at my ready response, "Get her a soft baby blanket. One she can cuddle with, and cry her tears into."

Instinctively, I knew that a blanket would be a tangible memento of that baby’s brief life. There are many difficult aspects associated with pregnancy loss, not the least of which is coming home to a silent nursery and empty arms. Arms that should have nestled a newborn baby now hold nothing at all. Although I had not thought of it before, I knew the suggestion I offered was right. I knew that a soft, cuddly blanket would fill her empty arms—not with baby, but with something comforting. "If I'd had a blanket like that," I told my friend before ending the conversation, "I know it would have been easier for me to grieve Billy's death."

Now, a week after that phone call, I sat at the front desk, waiting for the afternoon mail. I enjoyed the opportunity each day to greet the mail carrier. He had been delivering mail to my home for years, and now he was delivering it to my workplace. Usually our friendly exchange consisted of little more than a quick hello and maybe a bit of neighborly news

But this day it was different. He laid the mail on the desk, then turned and placed a parcel in my hands saying as he did, "I thought you might like to have this now instead of waiting until you got home.”

I could hardly wait for him to leave so I could examine the contents of my unexpected package. I wonder who this is from? The return label indicated an address in Ohio, and in an instant, I knew, without even opening the box, what was inside. What I did not know was the impact it would have on my life for years to come.

I removed the brown paper bag wrapping from the outside of the box, carefully loosened the covering and peeked inside. The first thing I noticed was a piece of stationary folded neatly in two. Careful, lest it tear, I unfolded the paper and read the simple words it contained, "A blanket for William . . . for Momma. Trusting it's never too late.”

Laying the note aside, I tenderly folded back the layers of crinkly, white tissue paper. Stifling a sob, I looked for the first time at the gift before me. With reverent awe, I extended a finger and felt the softness of a beautiful, pastel baby blanket. The downy blanket gave credence to the lives of baby Billy as well as Baby Knuth. It validated my losses and acknowledged the brief lives of my children. It seemed to whisper, “They haven’t been forgotten.” I wept then, blessed healing tears.

In time I was able to do what previously had been impossible. I was able to release my babies back into the arms of God. Like Hannah of old, I could finally say, “. . . now I give you to the Lord.” (I Samuel 1:28) So profound was my healing that I knew I had to share it with others and The Billy Project was birthed. Whenever I learn of a grieving parent who has lost a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant death, I want to give them a gift like mine. Not just any blanket, but a soft crib blanket, one that should have snuggled a baby but instead comforts a mother with empty arms or absorbs the tears of a grieving father. And, always I speak the words I wish had been spoken to me, "It's okay to cry."

Some wonder, "Is it such a good idea to give a blanket to the parents after a baby has died? Won’t it remind them of their loss?" My reply is, "Do you really think they have been forgotten?" The ripple effect has taken blankets on a mission to soothe broken-hearted parents from the Bronx in New York, to comfortable Ranch Santo Margarita, California. They’ve winged their way to rural Humble, Texas, north to lazy Kimball, Nebraska, and even as far away as Germany. Other blankets have gone to a missionary, the wife of a popular talk show host, a sorrowing Lieutenant Governor and his wife, and a military couple miles from home. One mother wept when she received a blanket in memory of her son. One young mom told me, “If I close my eyes and hold my blanket to my cheek, for just a minute its softness feels like my baby’s face next to mine.”

What never gets old is the immediate transformation on the face of one receiving a comfort blanket. There's nothing like it. Knowing that their baby has not been forgotten is priceless. Every time I hug a sorrowing father or wipe the tears of a grieving mom, I am reminded of the healing that began in my own life the day the mail carrier delivered my soft, pastel baby blanket. And, I am hopeful that through the gift of a blanket, they will begin a healing of their own.

Such a simple gift, yet it changed my life.

Ronda Knuth
©rjknuth, 2009

http://thebillyblanketproject .com

Ronda served as the Concierge for the first three years of Sunrise at Pinehurst's existence. She returned in March of 2008 after successfully launching her two youngest sons into adulthood.

Mother Shares Family Experience
4th Grade


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