Promise and Beauty in the Darkness

by Natalie Bacho (Abby's Mom)
It seems surreal to be sharing our experience of loss. With life, loss is inevitable. During our 20 years of marriage, that four-letter word has entered our life in different forms.

We’ve lived through pet loss, the passing of grandparents, and job loss. Then there are the more intimate losses. We had two miscarriages, Steve’s father passed very early in our marriage, his mother 12 years later. My mother passed at age 68 in 2010. Our parents are loved and missed. Each loss was difficult as it carries its own circumstance and journey.
Abigail Gracen Bacho
July 22, 2003 – December 25, 2012
This is how life works in the big scheme of things. However, life wasn’t supposed to unfold the way it did for us on December 22, 2012. Something this horrible doesn’t happen to our family. It shouldn’t happen to any family.

When we were asked to share our experience, it was humbling, to say the least. We are also grateful. We always view any opportunity to speak of our daughter as a gift. Our lives now are very different. Any given day is a mystery as to how it will unfold. Will the day bring tears or triumph? Plans may unexpectedly change because we hit a wall of grief. Nothing is certain anymore. Nothing is as it once seemed. Nothing that is, except for God’s grace. Without this, we can’t fathom how we could live through every parent’s worst nightmare.

Steve and I are the parents of three beautiful daughters. Three girls with very distinct and different personalities. We were always amazed at how children can be related and still be opposites. The same environment, the same rules, nurtured the same, but each has such different spirits. As our daughters grew nothing could be more evident. Our children are just who they are. They are ours to teach, guide, and love. Who they are on the inside is who God has created them to be.
We were thankful. We were also frazzled, hopeful, stressed, and doing the best we could as parents. I’ve always said, there’s no guidebook on how to do this. You follow your heart and pray. Sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you get it right. You have unconditional love from your children and they have yours. There’s promise and beauty in that. There’s promise and beauty in so many things if we are open to it. Even through the darkest moments, if we try and see the light there is promise in this as well.

December 22, 2012, is a day that will never just be 3 days before Christmas for our family. After the hustle and bustle of getting ready for the holidays, we were dedicating a day to be together. My dad had just arrived the day before to spend Christmas with us. The girls were very excited. Steve had been working late hours leading up to the end of the year. We decided to slow down and have a day of fun. First stop, a couple of hours at the skating rink. They were just learning this new activity. Still a little wobbly but they were getting the hang of it. I can see the day play over in my mind like watching a movie. I can see their big smiles, laughter, and excitement for the days to come. A perfect way to start a well-deserved break.

Next came Saturday evening Mass. Our choice to attend church on Saturday wasn’t unusual, but I don’t have an answer as to why we made this decision. Maybe it was one more chance to reflect on Advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth. It was a quiet hour in church together as a family of five. I have a very vivid memory while we sat in our pew. Charlotte was 5 and could fall asleep anywhere. Her tonsils were enlarged and had been for some time. A date had been set to have her tonsils removed after the first of the year. She had fallen asleep on my lap and was snoring like an old man. We received a couple of sideways glances as her snores seemed to echo in the sanctuary. Abby got the biggest kick out of this. Trying not to break into a full laugh, she stifled her laughter to a giggle.

During this time, Abby did something that I will treasure forever. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat side by side. When I sit quietly with my memories, I can feel the beauty of this moment. I can feel the weight of her head as her thick blonde hair brushes my neck.
By this time everyone was hungry. The next stop was dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. We enjoyed our food as we talked about the day. Abby loved this place because it had one of her favorite items on the menu. Anything fried!

We decided to tour a local neighborhood’s Christmas lights before heading home. This was a yearly tradition while listening to our favorite Christmas music. Another decision that can’t be explained, I volunteered to drive. The rationale was that I was more familiar with the neighborhood. Not a decision that I would normally make. As we look back on this night, we know without a doubt, God was with us. He was there and has never left our sides. Even when we pulled away, He stayed.

The next few moments are embedded in my memory. We were not far from the neighborhood. The light was green as we entered the intersection. In an instant, there was a deafening booming sound. Then an immediate extreme hard jolt that caused our bodies to violently jerk as our minivan went into a jarring 360-degree spin. I lost all bearings as to where we were or what had happened. When the car stopped spinning it was smoking but still running. I was disoriented and confused about what had happened. I knew it was horrible. At the same time, I was trying to convince myself everything was going to be ok. It couldn’t be as bad as it seemed.

I instinctively turned to look behind me and the first sight was Charlotte slumped over in her car seat. I called her name with no answer. Then I looked at Steve who was sitting directly behind me. He had blood coming from his mouth. He was making a groan that I had never heard before. I took a quick glance towards his legs and could see pavement. His door was completely crushed. He couldn’t answer me as I kept calling his name to grab Charlotte.

Hannah was in the third row with Abby. She was reaching for me and crying. My dad was moaning in pain as he sat beside me in the passenger seat. Immediately, I started to hear voices. These were strangers who seemed to appear out of nowhere. These voices started yelling at me to turn the car off. I tried, but what my mind was telling me to do, didn’t connect to my hands. After a few fumbled tries I turned off the smoking engine. The passenger side wasn’t impacted and doors started to open. These heroes began helping us out of the van. Someone grabbed Charlotte as she regained consciousness. I was able to crawl across the passenger seat and stand. Hannah was then beside me by the aid of these angels helping us. As I grabbed Charlotte from the arms of a stranger, I began to ask about Abby. I remember a woman coming up to me and as she wrapped her arms around us she started to pray.

I kept checking Hannah and Charlotte and repeatedly asked them if anything hurt. Hannah started to complain of left leg pain. I knew she needed to be examined. My dad was in a great deal of pain with his back. Within minutes but felt like hours, the sounds of blaring sirens arrived. I remember thinking this is very bad but at the same time, this can’t be happening.

I never saw Steve again until I visited him in ICU. In a moment similar to being struck by lightning, in all of the confusion, I suddenly realized I had not seen Abby. I started frantically asking people where is Abby? With Charlotte in my arms and Hannah by my side, I ran back and forth between anyone I could find with a uniform pleading with them have you seen my daughter Abby? A rescue worker told me he thought she was in one of the ambulances. He led me to a rescue vehicle with an open door. As we approached it, I looked inside and saw a sight I will never forget. I saw a team working tirelessly doing chest compressions on Abby’s small limp body. I’m a registered nurse. I knew what that meant. The parental part of me couldn’t comprehend what I was witnessing.
From this moment, it was as if we were thrust into this unfamiliar, unfathomable world with no escape.

When I’ve allowed myself to look back, I can see the light of Jesus guiding us. Some moments more clear than others. The ER nurse’s name was Martha. Not a common name but a name that held a lot of meaning. Martha was my mother’s name. She lost her battle to lung cancer 2 years before. Her presence was very much missed, especially during the holidays. She was there. God was allowing me to feel the comfort of His presence through our nurse’s name.

God provided love and strength as friends and neighbors came to the ER. He was there as the police informed me there were witnesses who had seen a large truck run a red light causing our accident. God was with Abby and Steve as the family waited for their arrival to Atlanta hospitals by helicopter. Something as small as noticing one of Abby’s nurses wore zebra-striped clogs (her favorite print), told me He was there. He was present as the family came while we waited and prayed.

As it became medically clear that the injury Abby suffered was brain death, there are no words to describe what that realization is like. The reality of the situation was crushing. Abby’s inevitable death was being discussed without Steve. While I had 3 days to hold her, pray over her, talk to her, tell her how much we loved her, Steve was fighting for his own life. However, in a strange way, I never felt alone.
Abby was bigger than life. She was determined, strong-willed, and compassionate. She loved being with family and always wanted to be on the go. She craved the spotlight and let her imagination take her from the stage to the classroom as she pretended to be a teacher. Abby admired and aggravated her older sister. She protected and mothered her younger sister. She was a good friend and kids seemed to be drawn to her. Abby had a beauty and smile that lit up the room. Her contagious laugh could brighten the darkest of days. She was discovering the vastness of God’s promises through her weekly religious education classes. She was not perfect. We had our arguments. She could be difficult. Her fiery spirit could leave you fuming. Her compassion for others was just as fierce.

Knowing Abby’s heart and who she truly was under her shell and knowing what only a parent can know of their child, it was never a question that Abby would want to give life to others through organ donation. She would want others to live, to laugh, and to love. With my 2 sisters and aunt (my mother’s sister) by my side, I watched as Abby was wheeled out of the ICU room to give the most precious of all gifts on Christmas Day, the gift of life. Before letting her go, I studied her. I wanted the impression of everything about her embedded in my mind.

It would be 4 weeks before Steve would know we had lost Abby. He had been in a medically induced coma to give his body a fighting chance. There were moments that were unclear if he would survive. Looking back, there is no answer as to why or how I could function. Only the love shown by family and friends and God’s grace can answer that.

Just as there is no guidebook for parenting, there is no reference on how to do this. Nothing to give answers to the heartbreaking questions. It’s true what other parents of child loss share. It is a physical pain. Your mind can’t process much. I believe this is another way God’s grace allows your spirit and body to catch up with each other. Everything is different, family dynamics, relationships, marriage. Steve and I didn’t face this together. Our grief has never been in the same place. He had to recover physically before his grief process could begin.

The one thing we had together was our faith. Who else could we turn to? Who knew our fear and our pain with no words? How could we explain the loss of Abby to her sisters when we didn’t have the answers? Only God could carry us through this, individually and as a family. The generous giving of strangers was a way God provided in many forms. Through financial, spiritual, and personal means our family was being cared for. There are no words for the gratitude we have for so many. These gifts sustained us and gave us hope that through the darkest of days, a light was still leading the way.

This light and force kept tugging at us. Through the rawness of the loss of our daughter, we knew that Abby’s life mattered too much to just end. Our circumstance was out of our control, but we could control what happened next. Lives had to be touched by Abby’s precious life. There was no other option. We would start a foundation to help others in Abby’s honor. Children will know her as their friend and she would continue to make people smile.

With our dedicated family and others who were placed in our lives, for this reason, Abby’s Angels Foundation was created in August of 2013. This foundation encompasses everything Abby and emulates her spirit. Hand made bracelets originally created by Abby’s cousins, whom she adored, are the foundation’s symbol of our faith and Abby’s life. Nothing reflects Abby more than an accessory and a little bit of bling.

Proceeds from the sales of the bracelets help fund the mission of Abby’s foundation. Purchasing a bracelet supports Abby’s Closets. These are special spaces that provide school supplies to underprivileged students. Wearing a bracelet shares Abby’s life and creates awareness of the dangers of distracted driving for all age groups, especially teen drivers. The work will continue to evolve and be on the go, just as Abby was in life. The work will keep her present in our lives and in the lives of others.

Sometimes it’s unclear as to how we got to this place. Other days it is very clear. Moments take shape like hills and valleys. Some parts of the day can be positive and productive. Other parts fall into pieces and are painfully confusing. You can’t anticipate what will bring joy and what might bring tears. You breathe in and out. You take each day literally one day at a time.

Honestly, we don’t know how to be a member of this club called child loss. We didn’t want to join. We want our daughter back to watch grow into who she was meant to be. We want to hear all 3 of our daughter’s voices tell us good morning each day. What we want and what we have planned doesn’t always come to be. We will always miss Abby every moment of every day. It may not be for us to know why this happened and why our lives took such an unexpected turn.
What we can do is mention her name every day and talk about her as we laugh and cry. Through memories, we remind Hannah and Charlotte of their lives together. We can still parent her through the work of her foundation and feel her strong guidance. We can help others through her giving spirit. We will continue to pray and seek God’s grace and light through the darkness. We will turn to our faith and the promise of being together as a family of five, enjoying our days together once again.
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