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What Does Father’s Day Mean When I Was Only a Dad for 19 Days?

My daughter Charlotte was born more than four months premature, and lived less than three weeks. She still changed my life

My baby fever kicked in roughly a year ago. I don’t know what sparked it. It could’ve been the time I noticed a woman in a store pointing at clothes and asking her little boy to name the colors and shapes. It could’ve been the fact that I turned 30 last year, and every day brought an awareness that I wasn’t getting any younger. It could’ve been the revelation that my family, although happy, was still incomplete.

So my wife Erin and I started what we called “not not trying.”

We didn’t have to “not not try” for long. Within a few months — and a few days after our third wedding anniversary — she told me she was pregnant. The first thing I did was pick up a copy of Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. I was especially drawn to the album’s opener, “Welcome to Earth (Polywog).” The whole album deals with parenthood, but that first song is so good. These lines in particular got me really excited to become a dad:

Hello, my son,
Welcome to Earth.
You may not be my last,
But you’ll always be my first.

Now, however, a few days before Father’s Day, I can barely listen to it. It just reminds me of all the things I’ll miss out on because my life as a dad ended mere days after it began.

Erin went into labor at 22 weeks, well before my daughter’s lungs were sufficiently developed enough to give her the breath she’d need to live. The doctors diagnosed the problem as an “incompetent cervix,” which is a slightly insulting way of telling my wife that she’d never be able to carry a baby to term without surgical intervention in the early stages of the pregnancy. To Erin’s credit, even with this news and against all the odds, she fought hard for our daughter, lying in a hospital bed for five days with her head tilted toward the floor, her feet elevated — fighting gravity, her body and creeping dread all at once.

But gravity always wins. And after sitting in pain for the duration of that fifth afternoon, Erin and I made the decision that she should start pushing.

My daughter, Charlotte James Messel, was born at 8:53 p.m. on February 26, 2017. She weighed 500 grams and squawked as she came out. She was immediately passed to a team of nurses and doctors from the hospital’s NICU for confirmation that she was capable of being saved.

Miraculously, she was. The doctors stabilized Charlotte enough for transport to Children’s Mercy Hospital in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, a stone’s throw from our home in suburban Kansas. For the next 19 days, my wife and I made our daily pilgrimage to the NICU there to sit at our daughter’s side, to talk to her, touch her hands and watch over her. My father-in-law spent almost as much time there as we did. He works at a hospital, and Erin joked that he simply couldn’t tell the difference anymore between work and Charlotte’s bedside.

Our daughter had what the doctors and nurses called an extended “honeymoon phase,” during which her vitals exceeded expectations. But after two weeks in the hospital, Charlotte’s lungs finally began to show signs that they couldn’t handle life outside the womb, popping from the pressure of her ventilator. Talented surgeons put in chest tubes to vent the excess air and keep her alive, but after a week of this, it became clear that her tiny body couldn’t handle the pain and the process. Her trial of life was almost done. At 6 a.m. on Friday, March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — the hospital called and explained that her lung had collapsed again, and that inserting another chest tube would be traumatic for everyone, including the physician. With tears in her eyes, the doctor told us that it was time to think about holding our daughter for as long as we could.

A village of respiratory therapists and nurses and doctors moved us to another room in the hospital where we could have some privacy. My parents were there, as were Erin’s. I don’t know how we could’ve managed without them. My wife went first, holding Charlotte in her arms with a blanket over the two of them. I weep when I think about how long she got to hold Charlotte. Forty minutes. Then it was my turn. Her ventilator pressures were unsustainable. The medical team more or less swapped my wife out for me, and I held my daughter in my arms for the first and last time. Charlotte tugged at my beard with her tiny hands, looking up at me with eyes so small that their color to this day remains a mystery to me. But as much as I wanted to, it couldn’t last. She couldn’t stay. And after half an hour of holding her, she was gone.

A chaplain we’d talked to during a palliative care meeting a few days before stayed with us the rest of the morning, walking us through the process of our new lives as grieving parents. Because, she stressed, we were still parents, after all. It was a refrain that had been sung to us by a chorus of friends, family and well-wishers for weeks: No matter what happened, we were — are — that little girl’s parents.

When the time came to leave Charlotte behind, to say goodbye to her once and for all, I nearly fell to my knees at her bedside. She had been under tubes and cables and pads for what had seemed like an eternity, and now, free of all that extra weight, she looked so peaceful. But we had to let her go. We had to leave our little girl. So the chaplain walked us out into the parking garage, said goodbye and told us that we would all be keeping in touch.

No one ever gave me advice on what to do or how to behave when your daughter dies in your arms as you’re holding her. None of the parenting books I thought I’d have more time to read ever mentioned the sound a breathing tube makes when it slips loose from between your daughter’s tiny lips as you’re reading the hospital’s copy of If You Give a Dog a Donut. No one talks about how quickly warmth leaves a tiny body when it’s held against your chest.

Nor did anyone tell me about how much this grief influences future decisions, like where you’d like to be buried, or how to call cemeteries to price out burial plots for three people at once (it’s prohibitively expensive, by the way). On a related note, what’s the accepted response for when a funeral director makes the offhand comment that her day might be as shitty as yours because her sister just had a baby and it made her sad to think about making cremation arrangements for your child?

I wish I could’ve been warned in advance about the panic attacks or the trauma triggers like watching another man push a stroller. Or, perhaps, the guilt that comes with being unable to fully find joy in your best friends’ parenthood because you talked about your little girls growing up as friends.

You’d think I’d take some solace in watching baseball — and yet, I’ve never been angrier about Fox Sports Kansas City’s inability to fill out its advertising slots during Royals games than I have been this year, when every fourth or fifth commercial is a public service announcement about fatherhood. For instance, the Foundation for a Better Life has a commercial with a Rascal Flatts song where a little girl grows up and blows out candles every year for her birthday and ends with the slogan, “Parenthood: Pass it on.”

Another, darker part of this grieving process is coming to terms with the absolute relief of it all. Premature babies are at risk for a whole host of problems, from physical problems to mental difficulties. And with a baby as small as Charlotte, those kinds of disabilities were practically a statistical certainty. Every day comes with the significant, troubling acknowledgement that I’m comforted by my daughter’s death; because she died early, we won’t be bankrupted by costly continual medical care.

But the biggest thing I wish people would’ve told me is just how hard it is to be open and talk to other men about this kind of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another guy fall apart as much as my father-in-law did moments after my daughter died, and yet, neither of us have really talked about it. I’m sincerely thankful for some of my best friends, who have been more patient and understanding than I ever could’ve asked. But even they don’t have the slightest idea of what goes on, like the sheer effort it takes not to run away from any woman with a baby, or juggling the urge to peek over the edge of a stroller to see a tiny face while also wanting to look in literally any other direction.

My wife and I attend a biweekly grief support group for couples who’ve gone through loss, and the stories are all different. It’s refreshing to know you won’t be judged for how well or not well you’re currently coping. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but we’re all tied together in this new, shitty fraternity. So far we haven’t gotten close to the other couples in our group, but for 90 minutes every two weeks, we’re able to have a conversation with other adults who have gone through the same thing.

When I think about grieving my daughter’s death — and about Father’s Day this year — perhaps the biggest thing I’m angry about is the experiences I feel were stolen from me. I mourn the loss of bike rides. Cheering at soccer games. Rock concerts. Teaching our little girl to read and write, and then taking delight in the idea that she would inevitably be a better writer than me. For all the experiences I envisioned for both myself and my child, more than anything else, this last one stings the most. Our friends Cara and Matt gave us a gift bag at their housewarming party, and one of the things inside was a onesie with the text “My Dad Reads to Me.” I nearly wept when I saw it. I cry most often, though, when I think about the stories I’ll never get to tell her.

This Father’s Day, like most days, won’t be easy. I hope I don’t get cards or text messages or gifts. And even as I try to avoid restaurants, television, social media and people in general, there will be the constant nagging sense that 19 days wasn’t enough time to earn fatherhood; that, like other jobs I’ve had in life, my experience was inadequate for the title. Every second of the weekend will be a reminder of what I’ve had and lost.

I imagine that Father’s Day will be continue to be hard for years to come, even if or when my wife and I have other children. Because there will always be that sense of longing — the feeling that our family isn’t really complete. But the key thing to remember, I think, is to cling to the present. To live and fight as much as my little girl did; to not give up. She was little, but she was fierce.

I’m not exactly a religious person. I don’t attend church with any regularity, and my faith in other Christians has lapsed in recent years. But I do hold strong to certain beliefs. And I cling particularly firmly to the idea that I’ll get to hold Charlotte again.

So as much as it hurts, I owe it to my daughter to honor her memory, live authentically and breathe in all the experiences I can. Because when the time comes, I want to have lots of stories to tell her.