Like a bit of torn lace a hint of memory floats into my path
Caught by busy breezes it moves just out of my reach.
White-knuckles I cling to the place it was.
What do I do now with this handful of empty?
--Debbie Gemmill, 1986
Like hymns in a prayer book, the poems of Debbie Gemmill were interspersed throughout the programs distributed at the Orange County Guild for Infant Survival's annual brunch.
Gemmill is an Escondido mother who lost her baby to sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS. On Saturday at the Orange County Mining Company restaurant in Santa Ana, she met with 142 other mothers who have lost children to crib death. They had gathered for a benefit to raise money to combat the syndrome, which has no known cause, prevention, treatment or cure.
"From the moment we came home from the hospital without our son, I began to put words on paper and read them over and over again, hoping I would come to believe this had really happened," Gemmill said before sitting down with friends.
Four and a half years ago, Gemmill had put her 7-month-old baby, Tyler, down for a nap. "He was perfectly healthy, had no problems health-wise at all," she said. "And two hours later, when I went in to check him, I found him dead.
"It was a terrible experience. We had a daughter who was 4 at the time. And we had our little boy. All we were missing was the white picket fence."
When she prepared to leave the hospital, the emergency room nurse handed Gemmill a card. On it was the telephone number of guild member Chris Elliott, a volunteer parent counselor. "My lifeline," Gemmill said. "Chris understood just how I felt because she'd lost her child the same way. I was helped so much by the guild, I've tried to give something back. I hope my words have helped others understand what they are going through."
Since it was founded in 1974, the guild has offered support to bereaved parents, raised funds--with proceeds distributed nationwide to SIDS researchers--and educated the public.
An average of 45 babies in the county die annually from SIDS, according to the Orange County Department of Health. An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 nationwide die from the syndrome each year, said guild president Lynne Trujillo.
"While our primary goal is parental support--SIDS parents feel very isolated because it's hard for people to understand how a perfectly healthy baby can die so suddenly--we also educate the first responders, the paramedics, the fire department, the nurses," Gemmill said. "We want them to understand a SIDS parent when they come in contact with them."
The Gemmills now have another son, Jordan, 3, born 14 months after his older brother's death. "Nothing can replace Tyler, but Jordan has given us our smiles back," she said. Summing up the closeness within the guild, Gemmill said: "You know the person sitting next to you has cried the same tears, felt the same pain and awakened in the middle of the night feeling their arms ache for their dead baby." Michael Daley, attending the brunch with wife Sandy, also a volunteer parent counselor, said the death of their first-born, Michael Jr., was "catastrophic. It was so soon, so sudden. He was my boy. He was the one who would carry on the family name.
"We had spent nine months preparing for his birth. And nine weeks afterward he was gone. We had been so busy planning, worrying about whether the nursery colors would be right, receiving beautiful shower gifts from family and friends. And after his birth, there had been the picture taking, the movies. Everybody was so involved in the celebration of his life, and no one, especially his parents, knew how to handle his death. And then we learned of the guild."
While it was devastating for Michael, he felt that his wife was a member of the "walking wounded," he said. "There is tremendous guilt across the board. The feeling that maybe you've done something wrong."
The couple now have two children, John, 2, and Lindsey, 4. "And I appreciate every detail of our lives together," Sandy said. "Every second. . . . The hardest thing is, when my little girl is gone for three hours at school, I miss her. I appreciate every detail . . . but I'm scared."
Speaker Judy Duncan, a professor in the University of San Diego's health science department, discussed "surviving siblings" at the champagne brunch.
Trujillo estimated event proceeds at $2,400. The guild has 420 members, with 35 to 50 of them active. For information, call (714) 551-1634.