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By Steve Payne


For most, the road of life seems dusty, rough, and mostly uphill. Our scenic downhill strolls never last long enough and often descend into dark and misty valleys. When we are climbing a real hill, we feel pain and discomfort in our bodies. Emotional hills are quite different. They consume our mind, body, and spirit. However, in difficult times if we choose to look to a higher power, what seems like a particularly challenging climb can turn into a verdant plateau. When I reflect on many of my life’s troubling experiences, I found that the suffering I experienced was just a step toward overcoming myself and understanding the true beauty of creation.

Some of the things that we consider most commonplace can suddenly be filled with peril. Take the birth of a child for example. Some women seem born to conception and motherhood, while for others physical and mental obstacles abound. Even those that appear blessed with easy pregnancies have their challenges.

Seven times my wonderful wife and I happily anticipated the birth of a child, and yet, only four of those births were completed without a serious problem. Every wonderful and grand delivery seemed to be followed by a difficult one.

The streets of Denver were nearly deserted at 5:00 am on Christmas morning. It was a long and lonely trip from our home to the hospital where we would conclude our appointment with bitter disappointment. After two wonderful daughters our doctor was about to induce delivery of a son who we knew would not survive his trip through the birth canal. Ultrasounds had shown that he was anencephalic. Anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. It is a type of neural tube defect (NTD). When there is nothing more that you can do, you put it in the Lord’s hands and move on.

We loved our two daughters, and we wanted more children. We did not want to end our childbearing years with sadness. Soon the Lord blessed us with another perfect little girl. Troubling memories were gone, and we were determined to continue having children. Another ultrasound and we were preparing for our fourth daughter.

I remember being in the delivery room waiting for her delivery to begin. Everything seemed normal and then the doctor suddenly said to the nurse while gesturing toward me,” he needs to leave”. After having an endless procession of horrible scenarios run through my mind, I was notified by the nurse that our daughter was hydrocephalic and would have to be delivered by Cesarean.

I was familiar with the term but not the cause. I learned that hydrocephaly occurs when a congenital condition causes an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the brain. It causes enlargement of the skull and compression of the brain, destroying much of the neural tissue.

In recovery our physician explained that our daughter’s brain damage was extensive. Babies in her condition rarely live longer than a year. A short time later we were asked by the hospital if we wanted her treatment to be the minimum or heroic. We chose heroic.

Having a child die during birth is heartbreaking but bringing a physically and mentally handicapped child home from the hospital really tests you. If you have other children waiting at home, you don’t even have time to feel sorry for yourself. I believe that most families faced with these sorts of problems just do what they must. So, we like many others, carried on, while awkwardly embracing a whole new experience.

When your joy vanishes in an instant, is it always replaced by sorrow and disappointment? Those feelings will certainly make an appearance, but they can be swept from the stage. What can sweep away such strong emotions? Emotions that possess even more power, like love, hope and a deep understanding of our transcendent nature.

You might actively seek these emotions, or you could pray to the living God for assistance. We trusted in God and his loving spirit descended upon us and embraced us. My wife and I expected to be changed by our experience, but it was amazing to see the effect our daughter had on others. Through the spirit we were able to recognize that incredible things were happening around our perfectly imperfect daughter.

We decided to name her Sunny. We don’t exactly remember why we decided to call her Sunny, but we recall a sense of optimism and hope that things were going to work out for the best. The name Sunny seemed to express those feelings.

There were many medical challenges from the outset. A shunt had to be installed to drain the fluid buildup from her head. There was treatment for congenital glaucoma. She did not have a sucking reflex, so she had to be fed through a tube. Physical therapy had to be performed on a regular basis to prevent chronic loss of joint motion due to immobilization.

A family can rarely handle such problems without help. On one occasion we would need a babysitter for Sunny and on another we would need a babysitter for our other daughters. We often relied on a neighbor running a daycare out of her home. Her name was Grace.

Grace had a strong Minnesota accent, somewhere between Swedish and a Canadian. Every third sentence seemed to end with a “don’t cha know.” She was a single mother raising three children on her own. She had to be tough, but she was a softy at heart. She had to work long hours with very few breaks and very little help.

After what she called “a particularly grueling week,” Grace told us of an experience she had while caring for Sunny. Financial problems at that time were weighing heavily upon her. The children she was caring for were particularly unruly that day. She felt mentally and physically at the end of her rope. In a moment of despair, she looked upon Sunny lying quietly in her crib. Grace said it was as if Sunny was speaking to her. In her mind she heard Sunny say, “just slow down Grace, you worry too much, everything is going to be fine.” At that moment, a calm came over her and her worries seemed to float away.

Was Sunny a perfect spirit sent to occupy a less than perfect body? A special spirit sent to bless those around her despite her physical limitations. There were certainly more blessings to come.

Anne was the sister of one of my wife’s close church friends. Anne was a member of our church, but her fiancé was not. He came to church with Anne and grew to accept the teachings he found there. He was baptized and became a member of our congregation. They were active in church and very fun to be around. Anne became pregnant and her and Andy looked forward to the birth of their first child. There were problems with the pregnancy and the child was stillborn. This was a very traumatic experience for Anne, and she feared becoming pregnant again.

During the following months we were often in need of a babysitter for Sunny. Anne volunteered to help us out. Months later after caring for Sunny many times, Anne’s fear of pregnancy began to dissipate. She said she felt as if Sunny was telling her everything would be all right. She knew that she wanted to be a mother. Anne went on to have three lovely boys and a girl.

Two of our closest friends in the ward were a couple that had two daughters the same ages as our two oldest girls. We became very close to this family and our wives became fast friends. We even took vacations together. Now that our children are adults, and we live hundreds of miles apart, Niki and Sandra remain in close communication.

After seven short months Sunny returned to her father in heaven. Sandra found her lifeless in her crib on a Saturday morning. With her husband gone from home, who would be the first person for Sandra to reach out to? It was her best friend, Niki. We learned later that Niki had a fear of death and of being in the presence of the deceased. Despite her fears, she did not hesitate to run to Sandra’s side. When Niki entered Sunny’s room and saw her peacefully lying in her crib, her darkest fears began to melt away. Where there had once been fear, there arose compassion and love for her friends. She was strengthened and filled with a desire to do all that she could to assist the people she had grown to love.

To experience the loss of a child is difficult. We expect our children to outlive us. It seems wrong to be crying at their funeral when we have always expected them to be crying at ours. A short life is, however, not necessarily a life without profound effect. The spirit may be strong in little children and even infants. When you feel that spirit for even a short while, you are better for it. Though the loss may be painful, sharing even a little time together is of such great value that it is worth any cost.

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