A Baby Named Michelle

Editor’s Note: A recurring theme in Jim Pence’s ministry is God’s sovereignty in the midst of tragedy. In 1987, Jim and Laurel lost their first child when she was one week old. Michelle Lynn Pence’s short life had a dramatic impact on both Jim and Laurel. After Michelle’s death, Laurel changed her nursing specialty to neonatology, and over the years has been able to minister to many parents who have lost babies. As for Jim, he resolved to write a book about their experience. He never did write that book, but he credits Michelle for setting him on the path to becoming a writer. The article that follows was originally published in 1996 in Dallas Seminary’s Kindred Spirit Magazine. It is one of Jim’s first published pieces, and it tells the story of Michelle Lynn Pence, whose short life changed Jim & Laurel Pence’s lives forever.

A ROAD NOT CHOSEN

by James H. Pence

Unlike most expectant fathers, I did not look forward to the sonogram. I dreaded
it.

Michelle in Baylor's NICU

From the moment Laurel and I walked through the door of the specialist’s office, an uneasy feeling crept through my stomach. The two-hour wait did not ease my fears. Now the doctor’s apparent unwillingness to explain his findings only intensified my anguish. I would have given anything to be somewhere else that day.

How different that sonogram was from the first one. Only two weeks earlier we overflowed with joy, anticipating a brief look at our first child. We drove to the doctor’s office, hardly able to conceal our excitement. In the darkened examining room, lit only by the cool light of a monitor, the obstetrician pointed out little hands and feet on the screen. We held hands and smiled when he told us we were going to have a little girl. Then, as the doctor moved the wand around, examining every detail of our baby’s body, I noticed a small bump on the baby’s head. The doctor made no mention of it. But he had seen it too.

“It’s probably nothing,” he said later, “but I’d like you to have a high resolution sonogram anyway. Nine times out of ten, these things don’t amount to anything. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Despite his reassuring words, when we left his office, our eagerness as new parents had evaporated. Only a gnawing fear remained. Perhaps the perfect child we prayed for might not be so perfect after all.

Changed Perspective

It’s funny how circumstances change your perspective. Before the sonogram, when someone asked us whether we wanted a boy or a girl, we’d say, “It doesn’t matter. All we want is a healthy baby.” We didn’t think that was too much to ask. But over the two weeks between the first and second sonograms, a transformation began to take place. I entered into that period hoping for a perfect child. Now I had to deal with the very real possibility that our baby might have some kind of
disability.

Laurel, a registered nurse, has a medical library. During my private

Laurel and Michelle in Baylor's NICU

Laurel and Michelle / Baylor NICU

moments I would take her books down from the shelf and look up all the possible problems
our baby could have, based on the little I knew. Hydrocephalus, Spina Bifida, Meningocele, and other afflictions filled my head like unwelcome house guests who don’t know when to leave. I wanted to get rid of them, but I couldn’t. Instead,one by one I grappled with each and gave it to the Lord. By the time the two weeks of waiting ended, I had prepared myself for anything—I thought.

After the second sonogram, Laurel and I strolled through a nearby shopping mall. The uneasiness that had begun at the specialist’s office intensified. The doctor had
been too evasive.

Jim's parents holding Michelle

Jim's parents holding Michelle

He had pointed out some obvious problems during the exam. The baby had a duodenal atresia, an intestinal problem that would require surgery. But every time
we asked him to tell us if our baby would be all right, he would dodge our questions. “I have to go home and put all this data in my computer. I can’t tell you anything until it is all analyzed.”

The answer sounded authoritative enough. Why didn’t I believe him?

We returned home and tried to resume some sort of routine. The next

Laurel's mother & Michelle

Laurel's mother & Michelle

day, I went to the church, spread out my commentaries and pretended to study for Sunday’s message. I stared at the books for hours, seeing words and comprehending nothing. Then the church phone rang. It was Laurel. I could tell that she’d been crying.

“What’s wrong,” I asked. “Did the doctor call?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Is everything all right?”

“Not really.”

“I’ll be right home.”

I rushed to my car and drove home like an ambulance driver on a call. I burst through the front door to find Laurel sitting on the sofa with a box of tissues. She didn’t have to say a word.

The news was bad.

“The baby’s going to die,” she said. “The doctor says that when she’s born she won’t be able to do anything at all. She probably won’t even live for a few hours.”

Laurel's father & Michelle

Laurel's father & Michelle

Later we learned that a genetic flaw had caused multiple birth defects. I sat down beside my wife and melted into tears. I wasn’t ready for this. I had prepared myself for every eventuality but the worst. The reality sank in quickly. Not only would our baby die, but for the next sixteen weeks Laurel would carry a child who had no chance of surviving.

Questions and Struggles

Questions began to flood my mind. How could God allow this to happen? How could we face the loss of a child and still glorify Him? How could I as a pastor tell people about God’s goodness when I wasn’t even sure of it myself anymore? Joining hands, we approached His presence. Through my tears, I prayed, “Lord, you’ve asked us to walk this road. Please give us the grace to do it. Please get us through this.”

For the next four months we tried to forget the inevitable. Even though we had committed our way to the Lord, we still struggled. We struggled with well-meaning

Laurel and Michelle at Home

Laurel and Michelle at Home

strangers who would walk up and congratulate us, asking us what we planned to name the child or whether we wanted a boy or girl. Grief stabbed at us every time the baby kicked. With saddened hearts we continued our weekly childbirth classes, preparing for a new life that would never be. We struggled with friends who made well-intentioned but thoughtless statements like, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” We endured the dull ache of a grief process we could not close.

Then came the night when Laurel felt the first contractions. At eight the next morning we packed up our things and headed for the hospital. We checked into the hospital and were ushered into a labor room, like any other new parents. In the labor room, we realized we had never chosen a name for our daughter. We decided to name her Michelle Lynn.

When she was born at 7:06 p.m. on Monday, June 1, we stole a brief glimpse as the nurses rushed her into the neonatal ICU. She was tiny—only three pounds. But she was our baby. Later we visited her and marveled at how tiny she was. She looked like a china doll, her little body dwarfed by the respirator and other equipment. We had requested that her organs be donated, if possible. So, the doctors had connected her to a respirator to preserve them.

When the doctors determined that Michelle’s organs were too small and damaged to be used for transplant, they weaned her off the respirator and the grim wait began. I jumped every time the telephone rang in Laurel’s hospital room, relaxing only when the expected news did not come. After two days, Michelle was still breathing and showed no signs of weakening. Laurel said, “I’d like to take her home.”

Going Home

I expected resistance from the doctors, but they supported us. They made arrangements with a home health service and on Thursday afternoon a caravan of cars left the hospital. Michelle was coming home!

Our home NICU

Our home NICU

Our little daughter required twenty-four hour care. Because she was unable to regulate her own body temperature, we kept her wrapped in blankets. An intravenous drip provided the fluids she could not take in on her own. Laurel’s parents stayed with us and we each took shifts caring for Michelle, holding and rocking a heavily blanketed baby in the sweltering June heat. For four days we held, cared for and cuddled this little child who couldn’t even respond to us. Her eyes never opened except for a startled blink at the flash of a camera. She never cried, never made a sound.

Quickly our home version of ICU became a routine. Friends from the church brought food. Daily visits from the home health nurse brought supplies and encouragement. Laurel’s mother, also an RN, added a touch of both grandmotherly and professional care. But in the midst of the frenetic activity, I still sensed a cloud hanging over me.

Although I was glad to have Michelle home, I dreaded what I knew was coming. I didn’t know how soon it would happen, but I knew she was going to die. What would it be like? I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid. I dreaded being there when it happened; I was also afraid that I wouldn’t there.

“Lord, give me the grace to face that moment,” I prayed.

Not only did God give the grace, but He orchestrated Michelle’s
home-going and held our hands through every step.

The moment came at lunchtime on Monday, June 8th, exactly one week after Michelle had been born. Early that Monday morning, her IV had infiltrated and
the home health nurse came to our house to restart it. We laid Michelle on the dining room table to give the nurse a better working space. She got the IV going again and then went on to her other patients. As Laurel’s mother prepared lunch, we kept Michelle on the table. For the first time since we had brought her home, Michelle’s mommy and daddy sat together, holding her hands.

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Then quietly, as the clatter of dishes colored the background, Michelle quietly stopped breathing. I took Laurel’s hand, drawing her away from the conversation.

“I think she’s gone,” I said, my voice breaking.

Laurel looked at her, then back at me and nodded.

The flood of tears I had held back for four months finally came. It was over. I heard the voice of my father-in-law in the background, offering a halting prayer of thanksgiving.

Michelle had gone home.

How can I glorify God after losing a child? How can I tell people about God’s goodness?

I can speak of God’s grace and how it was always sufficient for us—even in the hardest times. I can praise him for orchestrating the moment of Michelle’s death so that both Laurel and I could be with her, even holding her hand. I can glorify him for the countless doors of ministry he’s opened since that time, allowing us to encourage others who are going through similar experiences. I can thank him for seven unforgettable days with an exceptional child. I can worship him because he truly is in control. And all things do work together for good to those who love him.

When Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor and theologian, died unexpectedly due to complications from a smallpox vaccination, his wife Sarah wrote these words, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. . .. But my God lives; and he has my heart. We are all given to God.”

We, likewise, are given to God. We rarely understand His work while it is in
progress. That is why we must fall back on Scripture and realize that God is at work for our good in all things.

Whatever happens, we must be willing to trust Him every step of the way. That is the only way we can find meaning in what often seems futile. To many people, Michelle’s short life may appear meaningless.

Our sweet daughter

Michelle Lynn Pence 6/1/87 - 6/8/87


To us, it overflows with meaning. And, while it is not a road we would have chosen to walk, God walked with us.

And a baby named Michelle changed our lives forever.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we learned about twenty weeks into the pregnancy that the baby had severe birth defects and would not survive long after she was born. For the second half of my wife’s pregnancy, we were expectant parents who knew that their baby would not live. During those months, I told myself that someday I would write a book about our personal tragedy. I never did write that book, but that experience set me on the path to becoming a writer. The story of our baby is told in full on my website. […]

  2. […] When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we learned about twenty weeks into the pregnancy that the baby had severe birth defects and would not survive long after she was born. For the second half of my wife’s pregnancy, we were expectant parents who knew that their baby would not live. During those months, I told myself that someday I would write a book about our personal tragedy. I never did write that book, but that experience set me on the path to becoming a writer. The story of our baby is told in full on my website. […]