My daughter was stillborn on July 7. It did not come as a surprise. We knew she was going to die due to an extremely rare fatal neural tube disorder called exencephaly, but we had hoped for a live birth and a few hours with her. A week after the delivery, I spoke about her too-short life for the funeral service at Sunrise Baptist Church in Custer, Washington.
How do you eulogize a girl who never lived? She never crawled, walked, spoke, cried. We don’t even have honest dates for the tombstone, since that clock starts at birth. By the time of her delivery, my daughter had left the building.
Start with her full name, which she would have hated at times because children tease: Cecelia Little Lott.
“Cecelia” is perfectly lovely, so of course my wife Anj came up with it, but that middle name would have dogged her. Have a look at her parents with our wide frames and my truly enormous head. There’s no way our little girl would have been little for long. That part of her name would have been a running joke, like a bouncer named Tiny.
The headstone isn’t ready yet, because those take time. Here is what will eventually be inscribed in granite for future generations to puzzle over: “She danced an Irish jig and was a peek-a-boo champion.” There are a couple of stories there.
We Are Persons Even Before We’re Born
Many philosophers have insisted that every new human is a blank slate, but mothers have always known better. They know that each of their children has a distinct personality that they see manifest even in the womb. Of the three brothers Lott, I was the one who was active at all hours. I rarely slept, in utero or after, to my mother’s great consternation.
My cousin Jenny recently had a healthy baby boy named Aidan. In the womb, he hated intrusions on his space by any but his mother. When doctors put sensors on her belly to get readings, he targeted and successfully kicked them off. I see soccer in his future.
And our little girl Cecilia loved to dance. We discovered this when we were en route to her fatal diagnosis at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. We made some stops along the way, including one in Anacortes. On a whim, we went to a night of Irish music there. She was only 16 weeks old and yet Anj discovered she was kicking, and more or less in time, to the beat.
She loved moving her legs when she heard Irish music. She also grooved to Latin music. And you know she was a true Washingtonian because she seemed to appreciate grunge while bad ‘80s soft rock left her cold.
She responded to other sounds as well. Anj thinks she might have been shy or perhaps intently curious. When there were familiar voices around her, she would be active. In the presence of new voices, she would pipe down and listen.
She knew her father’s voice. When I read books out loud to Anj, she kicked. We attended a conference and Cecelia was getting a little rowdy up in there. So I leaned in to my wife’s belly and said “Knock it off, kid!” She surprised both of us by doing just that.
As For Cecilia’s Peek-a-Boo
But you probably want to know about the peek-a-boo, right?
Ultrasound is an amazing technology. We see by the way of soundwaves and reconstructions on a screen. We could see evidence of a pregnancy before, but now we can see life in the womb. It’s right there on the monitor. You can almost touch it.
One of the things on that monitor that struck many viewers about Cecelia is what she did with her hands. She did intelligent and playful things. She folded and steepled her fingers, as if in thought or prayer. And she liked to put her hands in front of her eyes and take them away as we looked at her. She did this peek-a-boo routine so often that it sometimes made it hard for us to get a good look at her.
When she was still with us, we shared Cecelia’s story with people. The great interest and support—in money and prayer and in so many other forms—was surprising.
Here you have this little girl who would not live for much longer. She would never grow up and make her mark on the world. She might not even see daylight. But people wanted to know about her. They wanted to help any way that they could. As you’ll see from the children’s books on the table at the luncheon after, to be donated to the library in her name, they wanted to commemorate her.
Like so many other things about this pregnancy, Cecelia’s end surprised me. I had assumed that she faded away. But like philosophers, we writers imagine and mothers know better.
Anj tells me it was a bang, not a whimper. As so many things failed her, Cecelia gathered up all of her strength and kicked really hard, in protest, one last time. It was the internal equivalent of “That one left a mark.” And after that, she was gone.
Right now, the news of her ending fills me with great sorrow. But I hope that will eventually give way to fatherly pride. Of course, no daughter of ours would ever go quietly into that good night. She was fierce. And we loved her fiercely. And that’s all we could do.