Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Letting go

By Meloney Dunning, Special to Real Simple
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meloney Dunning is the winner of Real Simple's "Life Lessons Essay Contest"
  • Dunning's newborn suffered an intra-vencular hemorrhage
  • Dunning held her son in her arms as he died

Editor's note: Meloney Dunning, this year's Real Simple "Life Lessons Essay Contest" winner, describes the heartbreaking day when she decided to say good-bye to her newborn son, who was born prematurely.

(Real Simple) -- Sitting in the newborn intensive care unit five years ago, I could feel my heart pound in my chest and my throat tighten in panic at the sight of my son.

Real Simple: How to make positive changes in your life

The doctor had come to my bedside that morning and told me that Phoenix had suffered through a difficult night. But that didn't remotely prepare me for what I now witnessed. Alarms were ringing, the numbers on his monitors plummeting. All the while, my beautiful boy lay there, apparently peaceful, as chaos surrounded him. What frightened me most was that nobody rushed to his side. This state of frenzy, it seemed, was the status quo for our boy, and it was only my husband, Adam, and I who were distraught.

Real Simple: How to tell if someone is lying

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Phoenix was just three days old. I had developed preeclampsia during my pregnancy and spent the last several weeks in the hospital, desperately trying to keep him inside and growing. Finally, at 27 weeks, my body decided that it could do no more. The doctors rushed me to the operating room, my frightened husband at my side, and delivered our tiny baby by Cesarean section. He was one pound, 12 ounces and just 12 inches long. Although he was very early and very small, I believed in him. I knew that he would thrive.

Real Simple: How to stop procrastinating

Now Adam and I sat at his bedside. After what felt like forever but was only a few minutes, the nurse approached us. She discussed some of Phoenix's challenges and went to get his doctor. We waited, choking back fear and praying for a miracle.

Real Simple: 24 nutritious and tasty snacks

When the doctor came in, she was calm and gentle. I cannot remember her name or her face. But what I remember is this: She began to describe to us the difficulties that Phoenix had faced in the last eight hours, the hours during which I had slept peacefully, aided by pain medicine and a false sense of security. He had suffered an intra-ventricular hemorrhage, or IVH, which is bleeding in the ventricles of the brain. There are four types, or grades, of severity, the doctor said, and she began to explain the complications related to each type.

Real Simple: How to snack smarter

I remember, too, how time warped as she talked on and on about the types. It was like a trick they do in movies, clock hands racing while someone drones in slow motion. Each time she described a grade, I expected her to stop and tell us that this was the type of IVH that Phoenix had had. But she kept going. At last, she mentioned a grade 4 hemorrhage, and she swallowed hard around the words. Fleetingly, my heart ached for this doctor who had to deliver such news to us, who had to tell us about the permanent damage that this hemorrhage was causing our son.

Real Simple: 8 steps to a happier family life

When she was finally, mercifully finished telling us what Phoenix was up against, we just sat there in shock. She gently explained that we could take time to make some decisions about how we would like to proceed with treatment and left us with our son. In the quiet of the newborn intensive care unit, I could feel the sobs building inside me. "Hurry," I begged my husband as he wheeled me back to my room.

Once there, we both collapsed, allowing ourselves to release the grief behind this closed door. It didn't seem possible that this baby could fail, not this little boy who had spent the last many weeks dancing joyfully on my bladder. Not the feisty guy who had such bursts of energy inside my belly each day. Not our son, whom we had named years in advance, after the power of being renewed by fire. And, yet, here we were.

As I was lying in my hospital bed in the weeks before Phoenix was born, I had often talked to him. I told him my fears about his health. I told him about my love for him. I cried many, many tears. One of my biggest fears, I told him, was that he would be born and spend hours being poked with needles and feeling nothing but anguish. While he still kicked inside me, I told him that if he needed to let go, if he wasn't strong enough for this life, I could handle it. Especially if it meant that he could avoid being in pain. It wasn't going to be that way.

Adam and I had never really discussed the worst possibilities for our son, but we had decided a while back that whatever happened, we would be the ones to decide how Phoenix's care proceeded. Now was the time to face that decision.

While Phoenix still kicked inside me, I told him that if he needed to let go, if he wasn't strong enough for this life, I could handle it. Especially if it meant that he could avoid being in pain.

What we both knew was that we loved this little boy more than anything we had ever known before. We discussed the diagnosis we had been given and what that would mean for his, and our, future. And I knew this: My greatest fear for Phoenix was right before me, coming true inside these walls where life-and-death choices were made every day.

The truth is, it didn't take long for Adam and me to decide that what we wanted was to keep our son comfortable. I thought of his tiny body in the incubator, respirator in place, blood-pressure cuff pumping, needles and catheters and scans and transfusions. It was not how we wanted him to live. What we wanted more than anything was for him to live the time that he had left knowing our touch, knowing our love, feeling that we were with him, no matter what.

We called the few people we could bear to speak with and shared the news. We cried and cried and tried to hold each other, though I was too sore from my own surgery and weeks of bed rest to move into any comfortable position in my husband's arms. When we were calm, we went back to Phoenix's bedside.

The doctor returned, and we told her that we did not want to continue his life support. We asked her if we could find a place to sit and rock him, a private place to say our good-byes and hold him tight. She didn't question our decision for one moment. She just ushered us to an empty room and told us that she was going to unhook the baby from his machinery.

When the nurse brought my baby back into the room, it was the hardest moment of my life. Harder than hearing his diagnosis. Harder than making the decision to stop treatment. Here he was, our sweet little peanut, without any of the lifesaving equipment that he needed to keep him alive. Still, he rested peacefully in his tiny blanket and hat.

When the nurse handed him to me for the first time, I fully realized how little, how light he really was. My husband and I held him and rocked him, petted him and cooed over him as all new parents do. The only difference being that our hello would also serve as a goodbye.

I will always treasure the minutes we spent together in that room. I willed my son to know that no matter how hard it was, I was right here. I would not leave his side. Most of those moments—his final moments—I keep inside my heart and have never shared with anyone. They belong to us, Phoenix and Adam and me.

The nurse stayed close by, and, eventually, she let us know that Phoenix had passed. His tiny, little spirit had flown from a body that couldn't hold him. There was no sign from him, ever, in either life or death. Just peaceful release.

In the days and years since his death, I have turned it all over and over in my head. I no longer ask why. Things, bad things, happen to people every day. I have doubted our decision at times, but I know that those thoughts come from fear. In my heart of hearts, I know that we did the best thing we could for our child. And only with this distance can I see that, perhaps, he did the best he could for me, too.

By not listening to me and letting go before his birth, he gave me the gift of being his mother. And that is a gift I would never give up, no matter how much pain came along with the package.

For Real Simple's Sixth Annual Life Lessons Essay Contest, readers were asked: What is the bravest thing you have ever done? Thousands of you responded, with essays that ranged from humorous to heart-breaking. In the end, Meloney Dunning, 39, of Indianapolis, was named the winner, claiming a prize of $3,000.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:20 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. CNN's Michaela Pereira grew up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and eventually reunited with her biological half-sister.
updated 2:39 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
It began for Nickolay Lamm as a question: What would Barbie look like if she had the dimensions of an average woman?
updated 9:16 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Bill Cosby was thought of as a perceptive comedian and genial father figure. Now, that persona pairs with another, much darker image.
updated 12:35 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
If you think 'my teen would never sext,' you might be mistaken. Recent studies suggest it's more common than many parents might want to admit.
updated 6:44 AM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
I pictured myself graduating from college, getting a cool job and even having a cute place of my own. Instead, I wake to the early-morning sounds of my family dog barking and my parents making coffee downstairs.
updated 12:38 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Samantha Futerman and Anais Bordier tease, poke and prod each other like they've grown up together, but they didn't. Neither woman knew she had an identical twin sister until less than two years ago.
updated 9:02 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
A school district in Maryland has decided to remove all references to religious holidays from its school calendar, leaving some in the community frustrated.
updated 12:06 PM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Female veterans often have a harder time finding employment than their male counterparts. But why?
updated 3:19 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
I simply couldn't believe my eyes. At a children's party this year, I witnessed full-on "mean girl" behavior.
updated 12:24 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Several children were sent to the hospital after being sickened by ingesting detergent pods.
updated 9:46 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
There are plenty of times when I literally wish I could take a hammer to the portrayal of girls and women in the media. In a new ad, a little girl gets to do just that.
updated 10:09 AM EST, Sat November 8, 2014
"Playing doctor" and "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" are common rites of passage in childhood sexual behavior, according to the experts.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
A tech startup claims credit for making Alex from Target go viral, but there's skepticism about how involved it was, if at all.
updated 5:47 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
A soft toy for cribs lets babies post pictures of themselves to social media.
updated 11:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Schools are increasingly confronting a controversial question: Should they do more to monitor students' online interactions off-campus to keep them safe?
updated 11:56 AM EST, Thu November 6, 2014
The National Toy Hall of Fame recently inducted three new favorites into its hallowed halls. What's your favorite?
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
We don't know, and may never know, what led to the Washington school shooting, but we have to ask ourselves, following this tragedy, if we are doing enough to help our boys deal with difficult emotions without resorting to violence.
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
The viral video of a New York woman being catcalled on the street has men asking, "So, what should I do?" The answer starts with respect.
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Trick-or-treating and dressing in costume have been Halloween traditions for a good long time now, but it seems we're still struggling to get it right.
updated 4:38 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Yes, there's actually corn in it. Corn syrup, if that counts.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Walmart found itself sending apology tweet after apology tweet after the Twitterverse raked it over the coals for a major goof on its website.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
There aren't too many times when I'm speechless about what I consider an outrageous example of parenting. This is one of those times.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Holy crap, LeVar Burton.
updated 5:38 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Critics pounced on supermodel Gisele Bundchen for advocating a little mommy "me time" recently. When did it become a crime to admit that you -- as a parent -- put yourself first?
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Not again.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
"Breaking Bad's" drug-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White will have to stop making the sale at Toys R Us.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly." But I, and many other women I talked with via email Wednesday, would add some other choice words to the mix to describe the non-stop attention about her appearance: nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
I have long thought millennials, who expect flexibility in the workplace, would be the group that would bring an end to the stigma that is too often associated with flex time -- the belief that wanting a flexible work arrangement means you aren't willing to work as hard. But now I'm thinking it's going to be men who will get us there.
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Say it with us: Kids today have it sooooo easy.
updated 2:29 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
An Atlanta judge reportedly reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing -- a hearing she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave.
updated 11:04 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Monica Lewinsky tweeted for the first time. She called herself "patient zero" of cyber-bullying.
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter with something to prove: "Kids and guns don't always mean bad things happen."
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
strawberry ghosts
We love Halloween season. Sweets. Sweaters. Sipping hot cider (maybe spiked). Halloween can certainly get you in the spirit, and nothing warms our hearts like these healthy Halloween treats that help you stay energized instead of stuck in a sugar coma.
updated 3:23 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Does your baby cry during long flights, causing you to want to disappear from the glares of fellow passengers?
updated 4:14 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
updated 9:13 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
updated 8:56 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
updated 6:33 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
A 12-year-old girl called Dick's Sporting Goods out on its lack of female athletes in the Basketball 2014 catalog.
updated 12:36 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Before he was even born, Shane Michael Haley had already met the Philadelphia Phillies, been to the top of the Empire State Building and shared a cheesesteak with his parents.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read the initial comments from Microsoft's CEO on how women who don't ask for raises will receive "good karma."
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT