October 10, 2019

In my thirty years of life on this earth, I don’t regret much of anything I’ve done. The good and the bad have shaped me and made me who I am today. And nothing has shaped me more than the premature passing of my first daughter.

I haven’t told many people my feelings about the situation, but I think it’s important that you hear it. People say time heals all wounds and that may be true in most cases. But the permanent absence of your daughter is a wound that can never be healed. It’s difficult — impossible, maybe — to get over the guilt, anger, and frustration.

And the sadness.

My wife, Danni, and I found out we were expecting in November of 2015, during the middle of my second year as a pro. I was on assignment in the D-League and Danni was at home, working in Indianapolis.

That season passed without any problems. We were very sensitive to “problems.”

Danni was receiving extra attention from her doctors because of a previous miscarriage a year prior, so she was seeing them a few times each month. Thankfully, everything was checking out -- baby was great, Danni was great, life was great.

The end of the season came around and we couldn’t wait to get up to Michigan to spend some time relaxing at our family’s lake house. Normally, I give myself a week or two of time off after a season. We had been looking forward to hanging out with family for a while.

We arrived at the lake house at the beginning of the week, knowing we had to come back to Indianapolis for a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the week. About a day before we needed to leave, Danni started to feel strange. She kept telling me that she felt “different” and that she was having a difficult time feeling our daughter kick and move. I told her she probably just needed to lay down and rest a bit. I went out on the lake and fished a while longer.

After about an hour or so, Danni called me and said she was worried about Alexa, our daughter. She wasn’t moving like she normally did. She had hit her minimum “kick count” (ten kicks in around an hour), but just barely. Normally, Alexa was kicking and moving well above ten kicks in 20 minutes.

Danni knew something was off. She suggested that we call the doctor or go to the local hospital to check on everything. With our appointment tomorrow, I tried to reassure her that everything was going to be fine and that she should get rest; we would be able to check on Alexa tomorrow. After some more reassuring, Danni started to relax for a bit. The night went on and eventually, we fell asleep.

We woke up early to drive down to Indianapolis, Danni still could sense something was wrong and felt relieved that we were going to the doctor to get a check-up. When we arrived in Indianapolis, I went to our apartment to do some laundry and Danni went to her appointment.

I put a load into the washer and sat down to turn on the TV.

My phone rang. It was Danni.

I couldn’t make out any words during what was about a five-second call. There was just crying and screaming. I knew exactly what it meant. All of Danni’s fears and worries were true. I don’t remember if I said anything or just hung up. I sprinted down the stairs to my car.

The doctor’s office was around a twenty-minute drive. I don’t remember a minute of that drive, but I’ll never forget getting there and seeing the number “333” -- God’s number -- on the building’s entrance. It’s burnt into my memory.

I ran in and asked for Danni. The nurse just pointed and opened an automatic door. She knew what had just happened. I could tell by the way she looked at me. It was a small, community doctor’s office, so we’d seen these nurses and gotten to know them very well over the two pregnancies.

As I walked through the automatic doors, I start to hear Danni’s cries. The raw emotion of everything just left me in shock. I didn’t know how to react and process; I just knew I needed to comfort my wife. I needed to be her foundation when hers was crumbling and breaking away. I didn’t have time to grieve. I had just lost my daughter, but at that moment, I couldn’t break down. It wasn’t my time.

After we had some time alone, I asked the doctor what might have caused this to happen. He explained it was a cord-related incident. With Alexa’s high volume of moment in the womb, the likely cause was the cord wrapping around her neck and knotting, causing a decrease in oxygen flow to her body. That explained the decrease in movement the day before.

What came next was Alexa’s birth.

Not exactly how we imagined it to be.

We were finally able to see our baby girl. I was finally able to hold my daughter. Even in our situation, I felt unconditional love for her and didn’t want to let her go.

Family and friends all visited, saying their hellos...and their goodbyes.

After a while, it was just me, Danni and two of her sisters. While they were talking, I was in the corner of the room, just staring at Alexa. I just broke down. Sobbing, yelling, screaming at God. It was my time to break down, to let out my anger, frustration, sadness and worst of all, my guilt.

Everyone knows there are 24 hours in a day. A day can drag on or it can fly by. Everyone has experienced this kind of sensation. This was the first time that I had ever experienced the sensation of both at the same time. It was a day that seemed like it would never end, and a day that seemed to pass by way too fast.

Holding Alexa for the first time, being a father for the first time...I didn’t want that to end.

During our time at the hospital, we had an odd visitor -- a dove. She sat on the window ledge outside the room and occasionally flew from one window to the next. But she never left while we were there.  The only time we saw her fly away was when we were leaving the hospital. Two days later, I laid my daughter to rest. I carried her one last time.

May 7, 2016 was the day Alexa Kennedy Whittington was born. It’s a date that has been etched into our lives forever. Now, it is not a day of mourning but of celebration. A celebration of the 24 hours we spent with our first-born daughter. We release balloons with our letters about what happened during the year. We celebrate like any other birthday -- cake, a party and “presents.” Alexa isn’t gone to us; she’s watching over us every day. Like the dove at the hospital, she’s watching over us. Every time I see a dove or hear a dove’s call, I send her a little prayer. I ask her how she’s doing. And tell her that her father and mother miss her very much and we wish she could be here with us.

Some people may think it’s weird, but it’s very soothing to talk to her when I’m alone. It helps to ease the sadness, because even though it’s been more than three years, it still hurts to see her tombstone. It still hurts to see her baptism photos. It still hurts to drive past the apartment complex that we lived in when we had her. It still hurts because I still feel like it was my fault it happened. I didn’t take Danni’s feelings as seriously as I needed to. We should have gone to the local hospital when we were at the lake house. I should have listened to what Danni was trying to tell me. I should have been less selfish and cared more about my unborn child.

Danni and I have since had another daughter, Gracie.

Her pregnancy was extremely stressful for us. We probably visited the ER eight-to-ten times -- at any sign of Danni having discomfort or pain -- to make she was perfectly fine. The nurses and doctors thought we were crazy and just wanted more ultrasound pictures of Gracie, but they didn’t know our history. They didn’t know that we had one miscarriage and one stillborn. We didn’t care what people thought this time around, we just wanted to make sure Gracie was safe and sound. I 100% believe this is why I’m a “helicopter” parent today, hovering over my daughter as she runs around like a daredevil. I don’t want anything to happen to her. I wasn’t able to prevent anything from happening to Alexa.

The beginning of fatherhood was a depressing time. Having something you’ve always wanted snatched out of your hands and taken forever is a cruel way to start. I’m a firm believer in “everything happens for a reason.” Maybe we weren’t ready for a child yet, maybe this happened to spare us from an even worse tragedy down the line. Maybe?  

We will never know, but I’m grateful for my 24 hours with my firstborn. She is responsible for making me a father and shaping the way I parent to this day. I wouldn’t be the dad I am to Gracie if it wasn’t for Alexa.

Over the past three years, I have come to terms with what happened. Although no one is really to blame, I still have those feelings of guilt, frustration, and pain. Time hasn’t healed those wounds and probably never will. Part of me doesn’t want those wounds to heal. I don’t want to forget about her. I don’t want to forget about the pain I felt the day I laid her in the earth. Because part of me believes that if those wounds heal, people will forget her. So, I’ll keep talking about that day. I will keep releasing balloons on her birthday. I’ll keep revisiting her gravestone to keep Alexa with me, to keep her memory alive.

It’s the type of wound I don’t want time to heal.  

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