They say your kids are your heart outside of your body. With Jaya and Navin both, this was never more true than when they were infants, tightly bound and forward facing in their baby carriers. Their chests bound against mine, both of them would bounce and sleep and chatter the distances away, finally getting to hear Daddy’s heart beat like they had always heard Mommy’s. With Jaya gone, that heart outside my body is gone, too. But I’ll always be grateful that we got to share our heartbeats with each other, even if my heart will always be broken for it. Let’s remember her.
Jaya Anita Spencer Saxena was born to us in the Civic Hospital, here in Ottawa, a few days overdue. Not two weeks overdue like her brother, mind you, but still long enough to remind us that we were going to do things her way. We were so excited for the things she would go on to see and do.
We were helpless before her, my tiny Jaya, my little Jaybeeb. She was beautiful from the first day, and instantly charmed everyone who met her. She carved out a place in our hearts. Navin didn’t know a lot of words at two and a half, but the first thing he said when he met her was that “she’s cute”. Sprocket our dog still doesn’t know a lot of words, but she tasted pretty good when he would doggy kiss her.
Her plush animal of choice was a frog that Navin kindly named “Ribbit”, and it became her best friend. When she would lay on the ground to wiggle, Navin would cuddle up beside her and hug her. Navin placed a chair next to the recliner to watch as she nursed, and moved it to her crib to help with her routine. When we passed strangers, it was a coin flip to see who they’d fawn over first, Navin or Jaya, before moving on to the other.
Lesley and I often smiled about how our lives had led to a perfect arrangement : happy marriage, one son and one daughter — with a perfect age gap! — a great dog, our loving families, a ton of friends, and jobs we like. I work for a company called Phreesia, and they were was very supportive in every way about my taking a parental leave to be with Jaya and the family. I couldn’t wait. We planned out adventures — Navin had travelled to Singapore and China before he was 6 months old, and we couldn’t leave Jaya at a disadvantage. In her short life, Jaya climbed mountains with us. She explored volcanos and lava fields. She went to a bee farm. She became acquainted with planes, trains, and automobiles. She played on the finest beaches, and slept through some of the world’s greatest drives. She saw sharks and manta rays and sea turtles up close. She went to a luau, she escaped an escape room, she attended a comedy festival, she went to some of the best BBQ restaurants in the world (but only ate breast milk), and attended an entire medical conference. Nothing can ever take these days away from us, and the memories with them.
Now we would have the perfect summer together to fully bond and appreciate our blessings. Jaya would spend time with us, her extended family, and her grandparents. Perfect.
On a trip to North Carolina that we take every year along with a house full of our best friends, Jaya went down for a nap and never woke up. She was taken from us. We’re afraid our hearts may never be the same.
Lesley checked on her after what would have been a standard-length nap. She bravely attempted CPR, but knew it was too late. Our friend Celine continued trying. They called for help, and sent for me at the beach but my best friend told me it was too late. Lesley and I met just in time to see the first ambulance.
A small army of first responders arrived: 3 ambulances, 2 state troopers, the sheriff’s office, and investigators. But there was nothing left to do for our love, our baby. As befits a tragedy of this sort, Lesley screamed and fought. I tried to keep calm, out of shock, out of horror, out of grief, out of loss, and also maybe to prevent Lesley and I from becoming too trauma-stricken to cope with the overwhelming and sometimes horrifying bureaucracy that accompanied the loss of our helpless love.
Every responder was taken with the sadness of the scene, an innocent life lost to a nap gone wrong. Every parent secretly fears crib death or SIDS on naps that run long or even after getting to sleep in one morning a bit longer than usual.
A North Carolina state trooper straight out of a Hollywood movie told us about being the first responder to the shooting of his brother, a police officer too. He called all the responders together, and insisted that we go into the ambulance one last time to say farewell. We picked her up and cradled her like we had done just hours before, but with the spark of life now departed from her beautiful shell. We wailed about how it was unfair, how she deserved better, and how we’d love and miss her forever. Lesley sang to her.
Finally, we sent her away with some token of our love and family. We got her beloved Froggy, her Ribbit, put it into her tiny arms and sent her off with it. He was our representative to make sure we’d be with her always. She’d never have to be alone, she’d never need to be scared.
Until that moment, I had known how to cry from my head but as we said goodbye, I learned that you can also cry from your chest and from your gut, and the sound is unforgettable.
I pray that none of you ever has or ever will have to identify with that.
Lesley and I called our family and closest friends from a lonely picnic table under an odd-looking tree on the oceanfront as we watched the sun set on our beloved daughter’s last day, our perfect family, and our summer together. We arrived back at the house where our amazing friends were waiting for us. They had kept Navin from witnessing the horrible scene, cared for him while we couldn’t, and ushered us in our newfound days of grief. That night, Lesley and I sat together as she used the breast pump to alleviate the pressure of her swollen breasts, but with no Jaya to eventually take the bottle. We gave it to another nursing friend who was with us.
The following morning we set out to the funeral home, reputed to be the “First Funeral Home on the Beach”. With the help of their caring staff, we signed Jaya’s name to forms, and made decisions that had never crossed our minds. The bureaucracy of death is an insane dark comedy. We opted to have her ashes shipped back to Ottawa by USPS Global Express Delivery. The funeral home also had a weird sense of humour — a novelty knick-knack urn in the men’s washroom read “Ashes of Problematic Customer”. I appreciated a chance to laugh, a pinprick of light against the quickly ballooned tension of unbearable loss and grief.
For her cremation, we sorted through her clothes and decided on a green onesie that featured an acorn and the motto of our hopes and dreams for her: “I Will Be Mighty”. We struggled with the regret that she would never get the chance to live that destiny, but we wanted to remember her as she lived.
All aspects of our lives have been impacted as an intrinsic part of our tapestry was ripped out without grace or mercy. No longer was every car stop a rush to grab one child each. We stepped into a clothing store to get Navin a sun hat and saw a onesie saying “Best Little Sister Ever”. We simultaneously burst into tears.
Navin knows something is wrong but he has been essentially the happy and loving kid we have always known him to be. The second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to sit down with him, just shy of 3 years (his birthday was Wednesday), and explain that Jaya had died. That she was gone and that we would never see her again. Later, back in Ottawa, we gave him Jaya’s spare Ribbit, a final gift from her. We hope that his Ribbit is able to report back to her about how much we miss her.
Other bereaved parents reached out to us, we have bought a few books on the loss of a child, and we are looking into grief counselling. There are physical symptoms to trauma and grief this strong, including shortness of breath, faintness, and vertigo — along with a concussion-like slowness to thinking, and a deep depression-like weight to movement and action. We reconsidered the afterlife — surely our baby love was more than an electrical sequence who ended with her body’s last breath, whose only chance at life was ended for nothing more than a bad nap? Why am I writing an obituary for her, and why is there nobody younger than 40 on that newspaper page? Why are we planning a memorial, and not her six month birthday party? We struggle with grief, with loss, with resignation, with a shattered world view. Lesley and I always try to live generously and with care for those around us. How could something this awful and arbitrary — one bad nap — mean the loss of our beloved daughter? Then we had an epiphany of sorts — kindness is no guarantee of only good things happening, but it does mean that other good people will fight for you when bad things come. Another saving epiphany was the realization that we couldn’t mourn the life that might have been — we could only celebrate the joy inherent to the life she had, and the joy she brought us.
The time we had with her was a blessing, and even the ocean of sadness accompanying her loss can’t blot out the tremendous amount of joy we gained by having her in our lives, the love Lesley and I had for our daughter, and the love Navin had for his sister. I’m grateful to have taken the time off work (courtesy of a great employer who also helped us with Jaya’s loss) to be with my family, especially considering how soon she was taken from us. Remember this, and always hug your loved ones, and live every day as your best self, knowing that lives are abrupt and short and arbitrary.
I can’t say enough about how much we were helped by the outpouring of love, support, emotion, and caring from family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances we hadn’t heard from in years, and strangers. People invaded our house to clean, mow, and distribute flowers and groceries throughout. People helped care for Navin. People offered to help with the cost of Jaya’s memorial service and our upcoming counselling costs.
It means so much that when we lost Jaya, and we fell, more than a thousand hands — I can prove this with math — reached out to pick us up. If you thought we were nice before, you’ve all taught us to be kinder still.
Thanks to everyone for everything they’ve done and continue to do, including helping us remember our beloved daughter who we love and miss so much. We have two additional requests, and they’re both important:
1. Keep socializing with us, even if we didn’t normally before. We may not be able to accept every invite, but give it a couple of tries and we’ll do it. Life is short, and sometimes it’s unfair, and the only thing that really makes it better is each other and being kind to each other.
2. From what we’ve learned from other bereaved parents, Lesley and I worry that that we’ll feel alone and isolated in our grief in the weeks, months, and years to come. We are so grateful for the last couple of weeks when everyone helped us remember Jaya and work through the pain. Please save some kind words, thoughts, deeds, and love for us, and check in with us periodically, even if you have to put up with a few more tears over a few more years than you expected. So many bereaved families I’ve spoken with talk about how difficult it is to carry the weight of grief and mourning for forever after everyone progresses, even if we are struggling quietly instead of outwardly, so please save some love and support for our rainy days.
Through the support and love we have received, we realized the onesie in which she was cremated was right. “I Will Be Mighty”, and that day is today. She was our tiny Jaya, but she was mighty in what she meant to us, and in bringing hundreds of our friends and family — from near and far — together to remember and love her at her celebration of life, and in people reading her story. “Tiny But Mighty” became the motto of Jaya’s short but brilliant life. More than a few trees were planted in her name, and we handed out perennial purple pansies at her memorial for people to plant and remember her by, and we invite anyone reading this to do the same and let us know.
Our little love, taken too soon, and so unfairly. Lesley and I fall asleep when we’re tired of missing you, and we wake up in tears, realizing you’re still gone.
While the medical emergency was unfolding, a speech was rattling through my head, though it took days for me to remember the source (which is a little embarrassing, thank you Coach Taylor):
“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts — that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.”
Lesley, Navin, myself, and our families thank you for taking the time to remember Jaya with us, and to join us in the story of her life, her loss, and most importantly, her love. Jaya, you were tiny but mighty, and I will miss your smiles and cuddles forever. We miss and love you so much.
Jaya’s story in the Ottawa Citizen, courtesy of Blair Crawford and Julie Oliver: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/remembering-jaya-ottawa-couple-shares-their-experience-of-sids
Helping Jaya’s Family: