A happy ending to a tragedy or a tragic beginning to a blessing?

This is the completely unanswerable question that Amy and I – and in their own ways our three kids – have been unable to escape for the last two days. It’s likely to sit with us for a while.

Before explaining, let me show you something that will melt your soul. This is our youngest, Ainsley Kate, two months shy of five years old.

My sweetest surprise

That stunning beauty is inexplicably half me, genetically speaking. I call her my sweetest surprise and have since I first met her. I explained why in a post I wrote with her on my lap when she was five months old (feel free to read that post, though I can’t go back and read it just yet). We didn’t know we were getting her until she was formed, which is to say we didn’t make plans to conceive her quite like we did her older brother and sister. She was a surprise, and she’s proven to be an even sweeter surprise than I knew almost five years ago.

I’m showing you this picture with her coy little smile to tell you that, although the photo itself was taken weeks ago, I’ve seen that smile – and even a few bigger – several times since Tuesday. The photo is a blog version of the phone call from a family member that begins, “She’s completely fine now, but…”

But on Tuesday we almost lost her. Like really lost her.

There was no prolonged illness. No crashing cars. No gunfire. It was silence that almost took her. Silence created by the most ordinary of events: lunch.

Sitting at the table with her friends, Ainsley was doing what four year-old kids do: she was trying to squeeze a bunch of grapes into her mouth. She realized she’d over done it and couldn’t swallow, and she spit a pile of chewed up grapes onto the table. And then, somehow, one of the grapes that had completely evaded her teeth escaped and lodged itself in her windpipe. Initially as she struggled, her friends and Amy (who hadn’t seen the mouthful of grapes) thought she was ill and about to throw up. Amy then realized it was more serious than that.

I don’t feel the need to rehash the events that followed in excruciating detail here, but it got much worse before it got better. The grape would not move despite Amy doing everything right to remove it. Several minutes passed with Ainsley blue, unconscious, and not breathing as Amy performed CPR on her while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Six other children – Aiden, Ella Grace, and the Douglass kids – witnessed much of what unfolded. It was a scene no child should ever see and no mom should ever experience.

Just before the EMTs entered the house, Amy’s relentless efforts to save Ainsley’s life finally got traction. Ains began to move a tiny amount of air, and Amy thought clearly enough to lay her on her left side. She slowly found more and more air, and the grape showed itself. She regained consciousness, screamed like hell for a long time, and now she’s playing a geography game on the ipad, showing me where Haiti is and doing other normal four year-old things. There was a long afternoon at the hospital, an x-ray, and lots of checking of blood gas levels between then and now, but that’s how the story ends: Ainsley breathing, alive.

Her life, of course, is what ultimately matters. Amy and I are relieved and grateful beyond words that she is with us. Everyone we talk to says, “Thank God she’s okay,” and “Praise the Lord Amy knew what to do.” Yes and amen to both of those and any other possible expression of the same idea. Please feel free to keep those words up. They can’t be spoken (or written) enough. Our deepest sentiment is complete and utter joy that she is alive.

And yet we aren’t completely okay. Not yet.

Amy saw the fear in Ainsley’s eyes as she struggled to breathe. She saw her go unconscious. She held her baby girl, lifeless and limp, desperately trying to do something – anything – to overpower a tiny piece of fruit that was trying to kill her…and succeeding. She frantically searched for a pulse and found none. She knew the odds were against her with every passing second. She didn’t know Ains would sleep soundly between us in our bed later that night. She just knew her child was dying in her arms, and she knew she was out of ways to stop it.

I answered a phone call while standing in the middle of a store holding a package of underwear. I heard chaos and only picked up scattered pieces of what Amy was saying: Ainsley had choked or was still choking. It was bad. I needed to get to the hospital. I dropped the underwear somewhere in the store and ran to my car. I heard a voicemail from my completely wrecked nine year-old son: Daddy, Ainsley’s choking. Please come home. Please Dad. Please hurry.

I spent the next several minutes driving to the hospital with little regard for the law. I didn’t know if she was alive. I assumed if she was, some other awful reality was waiting if she had gone that long without breathing. I thought about a million things and I thought about nothing. I got wedged in at a red light unable to find a way out, and time stopped. In that frozen moment, something became very clear. Nothing will ever be the same. No matter the outcome, this feeling of her being as good as dead as far as I knew would become a part of me forever.

Amy felt – and feels – the same.

Perhaps that seems dark or needlessly dramatic to some. After all, she’s alive and we should be glad and move on.

She is alive. We are glad. We will move on. But we almost lost our baby. A cruel creature named “life without her” invaded our space and sat itself down on our chests, trying to squeeze the life out of us too. It failed, but we’re bruised and bloodied from the fight. The logic of knowing she really is completely okay doesn’t immediately erase or heal that thing that changed in us when we thought she might be gone.

We’re confident that the same life that triumphed in her body will triumph in our spirits. We see resurrection all around us and in front of us. We won’t dwell forever in the shadow of death, where what happened and what almost happened cloud out the light. We can see the land of the living – what is and what will be – ahead of us. That’s where we’ll live, and Ainsley is there with us.

In the meantime, if you see us, don’t hesitate to rejoice with us over Ainsley’s life. We are rejoicing – smiling, laughing, and crying tears of joy. Just remember that we didn’t know the end of the story before the beginning. While the happy ending is understandably the focus of so many who didn’t live through the trauma, the tragic beginning is still sort of lodged in our souls, even as we set our eyes on the horizon of blessing.

So please don’t think us morbid or crazy if we seem like we’re still climbing out of a valley. We are. Feel free to come and climb alongside us. These words about our journey aren’t meant to suggest you can’t understand how we’re feeling. They’re meant to help you understand how we’re feeling. We’re feeling grateful. Undone. Changed.

Speaking of feelings, let me punctuate this by expressing one more thing in the only way that feels like it might come close to capturing the spirit of of what I’m feeling: My. wife. kicks. ass. To hell with you death, you bumbling, feckless, doomed thief. You tangled with a woman who knows better than most the relentless mission of the Giver of Life to swallow you up, and you lost. Get used to it, because there’s more Where That Came From. We’re raising three more – including the one you couldn’t take – with the same Life coursing through their veins and souls. Your day is coming once and for all, and our crew will be up front as Life triumphs, rescues those you’ve taken, and mocks you:

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.