God Gave Mama Another Chance

I was born to Hal and Mary Therese Dunham on April 5th, 1967 in Spokane, Washington. I just realized that’s the first time ever I’ve written out my parents’ names together, much less ever walked into a room and said, “Hi Mom and Dad.”  

You see Hal and Mary Therese were married for 19 years but were never fully together by the time they had me, their fifth child. Following years of infidelity, they tried one more time at Christmas following my birth, but it was too late. Too much water under the bridge, Mama said, and a heart that had mercifully hardened after being glued back together, too many times.  

Mama finally gathered up the strength to end the marriage and file for divorce —something hardly anyone did in the late 1960s in a very Catholic town. 

Even though I was only seven months old then, I think one of my greatest strengths was already growing inside me. It started the day that I was conceived, which in itself was a miracle, Mama said. 

At almost 36 years old, she was considered an older mom back then and a high-risk pregnancy. There were other factors, too. Just 18 months before I was born, Mama gave birth to my sister, Mary Cecile. She went in that morning to hear the doctor say that everything looked and sounded good with her impending arrival. Later in the day, though, Mama started cramping, and something just didn’t feel right. She then went into labor. 

Mary Cecile was coming fast, and right before she was born, the doctor sedated Mama, telling her there were some issues they had to deal with. She thought maybe a C-section, as she drifted off to sleep. 

When she woke up, the doctor came and sat by her bedside and started crying. Mama was so taken back by his emotion and reached out for his hand in hopes to make him feel better. She had no idea what was to come next. 

The doctor kept saying how sorry he was before he finally gathered himself enough to utter out the words, “I’m so sorry, Mary. We lost her.”

“What?” Mama gasped out to me, some 25 years after it happened when we were away together at the Oregon Coast. I believe that her tone of shock and broken heartedness was just as emotional and potent as that tragic day all those years later. 

Mary Cecile’s umbilical cord got wrapped around her neck and cut off her oxygen, Mama said, still sounding in utter shock.

“I couldn’t believe it. She was totally fine that morning and still warm when they gave her to me.”

The details got fuzzier for Mama then, but she remembered one very clear detail when describing how beautiful Mary Cecile was when she held her for the next four hours. 

“She looked just like you, Bee Song (my nickname). She had brown curly hair with a cleft chin and big eyes. You looked just like her when you were born. And I knew when I first held you that God had given me another chance.”

I’ve been thinking about that October day in 1965 a lot lately. As we get older and experience our own losses, we gain a greater perspective for what our parents went through. 

When Mama told all of this, I couldn’t fathom how it felt to hold Mary Cecile, knowing that she would never hear her cry, laugh, or smile. Instead, she had four hours to memorize all she could about her face and tiny feet and hands. 

Nowadays there are Cuddle Cots — a refrigerated bassinet that allows parents to keep their child in the room with them for as long as they want before they have to say goodbye.

Instead, Mama had Sister Cecilia, a nun who she had known since high school, by her side. Sister Cecilia bathed Mary Cecile and wrapped her in a soft pink blanket before giving her to Mama to hold. 

My heart swells with ache when I think of how Mama felt when she gave Mary Cecile back to Sister Cecila, knowing it was their first hello and final goodbye before her baby was taken to the funeral home.  Mama couldn’t bear to go to Mary Cecile’s funeral or to see her little white coffin being buried.

“I just didn’t have the strength,” Mama said. “Plus, I still had three babies at home to take care of. So you just go on. That’s all you can do.”

I always wondered what my sister would have been like. We would have been the closest in age on the Dunham side. We know that she had Down Syndrome, but hearing that just made us want to know and love her even more. Even though she was my older sister, I know that I would have been fiercely protective of her. I also know that if she had lived, I may not even be here… a fact that I’ve never taken for granted.

I realized at an early age that life wasn’t about me nor did the world revolve around me. With my parents’ divorce and growing up in a blended family of 11 kids, being the youngest, that was a lesson I learned early on. And I believe that it remains my foundation. 

I quickly learned to share and share a lot, and to always be grateful for what you do get. Gratefulness is our strongest protector and ally against loss, bitterness, and regret. It allows our hearts to survive the unthinkable, and the capacity to search for the silver lining in the darkest of events. 

Family may let you down at times and some of their actions can have the power to adversely affect our lives in immeasurable ways if we let it. But in the end, these people are still our family and no crime, neglect, or harsh word can change the fact that we all got a chance to be born and should make the best of our lives. 

I never knew my parents as a unit and sadly, did not really get to know my father until I was an adult. I told myself growing up that you cannot miss what you never had. My own evolution has taught me that these basic wants and needs come out in other relationships in our lives. But through my Mama’s experience and wisdom, they’ve also taught me to focus on what I do have, always.  

I learned that love has nothing to do with blood, and that more often than not, great relationships can come from tragedy or when a path takes you down what feels like a heartbroken road at the time. I see it in my seven siblings and stepdad Leo, whom I would have never known if Mom and Dad had stayed together. I also see it in my chosen family who I’m lucky enough to call my best friends, too.

From my Mama I inherited a heart of a warrior, and the belief that if I don’t take chances then I don’t stand a chance in this life. 

Mama felt like God gave her another chance. I’m not going to waste mine, Mary Cecile.