Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jane Eloise

On the morning of April 25, I rolled over in bed to grab my phone as I usually do and found my six-hour-old niece on the screen. She was wearing a winter hat and an enormous, adult-looking diaper. The accompanying text message: Jane Eloise. She looked beautiful and smart, a lot like my sister.

I had not had enough time to contemplate how I would feel about being an uncle because my second semester of business school was too busy for comfort. I wasn't worried. Mentally preparing to be an uncle takes only a few minutes. So I mentally prepared, albeit for a bit longer than a few minutes because my sister had led me to expect a nephew instead of a niece. Then my wife, visiting mother-in-law and I drove through three hours of ill-suited rain from South Bend to Evanston Hospital.

We worked our way through several layers of security before arriving outside my sister's room. My sister's husband, Tim, explained that we would have to wait while Jaylyn nursed Jane, so we patiently sat outside an empty nursery with Tim's parents. Nobody else was around. We appeared to be the maternity ward's only customers.

My dad appeared a moment later after mistakenly searching for us in the downstairs atrium.

"Jane blah blah blah blah," he said, "and Jane blah blah blah blah blah blah."

I was not uninterested in what he had to say about this new person, but I couldn't focus on anything he said other than her name. My brain immediately defaulted to Jaylyn's bridesmaid Jane, the namesake of the baby.

Apparently my niece was more than a nameless model in a diaper commercial or a perpetual balancing exercise for my pregnant sister. She had a name, and we were expected to use it. My original family had grown again to Mom, Dad, Jaylyn, Tim, Melissa, Winnie, Jane and I. Jane was a permanent +1, a brand new Christmas stocking coming to a fireplace near me, and I had not met her.

Minutes later Tim said our turn had come, so Melissa and her mom, my dad and I walked into the room. Jane was in my sister's lap, alternately staring at the ceiling and at her mom. She wasn't crying or uncomfortable with her new world in any way. Jane looked like she knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be. My sister smiled.

My dad and sister retold their stories from the past 12 hours, but I couldn't focus on them. I positioned myself by the head of the hospital bed so I could look at my beautiful niece and let her look at me. I hadn't shaved for a week and silently scolded myself for looking needlessly scary to an infant--if infants dislike facial hair as much as some dogs. Jane didn't seem to mind.

"Do you want to hold her?" Jaylyn asked.

"I don't know how," I said. "I know I'm supp-"

"Babies are resilient," she said. "Just hold her. You'll do fine."

So I put one hand behind her head and my other arm under her body. Then we looked at each other for what seemed like an hour. Jane was a person all her own, not quite her dad and not quite her mom. She had a lot of hair. She moved her mouth as if she was stretching her jaw. Sometimes she sneezed. Her eyes had a unique shape that reminded me of nobody I had ever met. She was gorgeous. I passed her to Melissa and took a few photographs.


In the late spring of 2010, my mom called me at work. She told me she was at the hospital to have her blood drawn. She felt lethargic and somehow believed that her blood test results would come back with bad news. My mom had always been optimistic and healthy, but she sounded different that day on the phone. I was worried.

Hours later we were together at the hospital when an emergency room doctor told my mom she had acute myeloid leukemia. Another doctor was quick to tell us that the five-year survival rate was 50 percent, a rosy forecast compared to today's WebMD. My mom needed to start chemotherapy as quickly as possible.

With my dad and sister in Chicago, my mom and I hung together in North Carolina to take the early punches. We hoped for good news, but it was all bad. My mom asked me to call our family and her best friend. They all had a lot of questions, some of the same unanswered ones I had. I told everyone we were getting treatment as quickly as possible and learning new things every day. We couldn't know the exact, ultimate course of treatment until later.

Several doctors unloaded a lot of medical information on us in the following days. We learned about chemotherapy, AML, stem-cell transplants and the salient metrics from her past and future blood tests. One doctor said something that broke the mold of everything else we heard.

"Our goal is to get you through this in one way or another," he said, "because we want you to be around for a grandchild someday." He nodded in my direction.

Some readers must think I smooth the rough edges of blurry memories, and maybe I do. But I remember that moment well. My mom's moistened eyes darted in my direction, and one corner of her mouth mustered a sad smile. We said nothing. The moment passed.

My mom and I never talked about the things we wanted her to live for. I focused on her survival because the bounties of life, the big moments and the little pleasures we take for granted, would have overwhelmed me. My mathematics education had taught me to simplify, simplify. Or maybe I got that from her.


She stepped off the elevator looking the happiest and healthiest I have ever seen her. Her hunched shoulders, hushed voice and wide eyes gave away her excited anticipation.

While I was unknowing and asleep, my mom had packed her bags in Chapel Hill for a 13-hour drive and indefinite stay in Chicago with her daughter, son-in-law and newborn granddaughter. She had left at 4 a.m. We would have called her with reports from the hospital to keep her awake, but my mom doesn't touch her phone when she drives. She had survived cancer with a stem-cell transplant from her sister. She doesn't take chances.

When we all walked in together, Jane wasn't on Jaylyn's lap. My mom's attention went straight to her daughter, and I think she momentarily forgot who else was in the room. Jaylyn pointed to the nearby bassinet, and my mom walked to it.

She looked and smiled at her granddaughter, Jane Eloise Stenta, for a long time. A week later she wrote:
When I looked at Jane, she was so tiny and real. I loved her so much, as much as I love you and Jaylyn. I never thought it was possible to love anyone else like that. I also thought what a perfect little miracle she was. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.
I do not know what my family did to deserve any of this. The last five years taught me that so much of life is out of our hands. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen. All we can do is let each other know that we love each other.

After all, Jane is only beginning to understand how much we love her. I'd better call my sister to tell her again.

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