Dear Julian Griffin Ashker and Aria Paige,
You were the most loved and wanted babies that ever graced this Earth. As much as it still hurts, I want to tell you your story so you can take it with you always. Hold it in your hearts like we will hold you in ours.
I met your daddy on a somewhat-blind date at Disneyland in 2011. Your big sister Gracie was 5 at the time, and your big brother Hudson was almost 2.
I’m not sure if I believe in love at first sight, but it was something like that when I first saw your daddy, buying coffee at Panera Bread before we were going to meet inside the park.
We had already talked a lot by text, but 11/1/11 was the first time we actually met. He lived in San Diego and I lived in Thousand Oaks – about 3 hours away.
By the end of that wonderful day at Disneyland, we were already talking about you, and which one of us was going to move. I told your daddy right away that I couldn’t carry a baby myself, but our friends, Dave and Sabrina, who helped us meet, had used a surrogate to carry one of their babies, so he said that sounded okay to him. If we wanted children, we could find a surrogate, too.
After we got married the next year, we talked about having a baby often. Your daddy never had a baby, and he wanted to experience it from the beginning. I have always loved babies and have always had to try very hard to have them. I wanted more, and I wanted to share the experience of a new baby with your daddy. He just seemed made for it, and I knew If I saw him loving on our baby, I would love him even more. We started the process for him to adopt Gracie and Hudson legally, and we started looking into surrogacy to have a baby.
After a lot of thinking and juggling finances and talking to my old fertility doctor, we found out we just couldn’t afford it. It would have wiped us out financially to the point that we could’ve easily wound up broke, bankrupt or homeless. We couldn’t risk that for our family, so we abandoned the plan. I was sad, but back then, I didn’t even know what sadness really was.
It’s just that the wanting you never went away. I missed the time that normal mommies and daddies have together to bond with a new baby. I wanted to experience that with your daddy even more than I had before. I wanted to know what his babies would look like. Gracie and Hudson were long out of the tiny baby stage. I was sad that he wouldn’t get to experience having a new baby with me. I found myself walking though the baby aisles at Target and touching baby bottles, all shiny in rows on store shelves. It was all so fun, but like a far-off dream that couldn’t come true.
One night in early 2014, your daddy and I went to a party and met a whole bunch of wonderful surrogates and intended parents, and I took pictures of all of them to help promote Surrogacy Together. A pretty girl in a red and white polka dot dress approached me when I was taking pictures and chatted with me for awhile. She asked if I was a surrogate, and I said no, I was a photographer and actually looking for a surrogate of our own. She said surrogacy was something she’d always wanted to do when the time felt right.
A couple of days after the party, the cute girl in the red dress wanted to be our surrogate! We were thrilled.
Daddy and I met her and her husband a few days later at a pizza place. Your daddy had just that day had a skin cancer removed from the top of his head, and was wrapped up like a mummy all over his poor head to protect his wound. We were a little afraid we would scare them off with his mummy head, but they were super nice about it.
Daddy and our surrogate, along with her husband and I, hit it off instantly. We told each other about our children, and found out we both had an 8-year-old named Gracie! We also found out we both had four-year-olds, too. They had their daughter, and we had your big brother, Hudson. They also had a third child, who was the oldest. We soon grew to love all of them, too.
After much talking and laughing over pizza and beer with me, your mummified daddy and the couple, we were very excited to get to work on making you. We had the green light to make a baby! Yay!!
Your daddy and I did a procedure called in vitro fertilization, where the doctors take one mommy cell and one daddy cell together and put them together in a tiny dish in a laboratory, and let it grow into an embryo, which is just a tiny cluster of baby cells, smaller than you can see with the naked eye. On the fifth day, the doctors put the embryo into a cozy warm womb like our surrogate’s, and the parents-to-be wait and hope that the embryo will grow into a baby.
We had seven embryos tested for genetic abnormalities, which happened to tell us the sex of each one, too. We had 3 boys and 2 girls, plus 2 more that couldn’t be tested because their equipment failed. But which one to put in our surrogate? A boy? Or a girl? We already had one of each at home, so that didn’t help. Your brother and sister didn’t help us decide, either. Hudson only wanted both a brother and a sister, and Gracie wasn’t all that thrilled about having any new babies in the house.
The night before the transfer, your mommy (that’s me) had a stroke of genius. I told Daddy, let’s put back one of each and see what God decides to give us! Daddy was worried about having to buy a bigger car and buying two of everything and paying for all of it (twice), but I told him to man up. We had already been through a lot and came out on top. If anyone could handle twins and two older kids, it was us. We would figure it out. Two it was. Our surrogate agreed. Two embryos!
You can only imagine the surprise and delight when we discovered you both stuck in our surrogate’s tummy!! The doctor showed us each of your beautiful beating hearts and counted the beats. At 8 weeks, we heard your hearts beating and saw the beginnings of your faces starting to form! Daddy and I had never seen anything so amazing in our lives. We made you guys, and we admired our hard work. We showed you off to anyone willing to look at your pictures or listen to us talk about you.
The four of us met up a lot to check on you two and hang out together. We became fast friends, and then our kids did, too. We went out to eat together and went to the movies together. We went shopping for baby clothes and craft beers. We went to the lake and went boating, too. They were our family, just like you.
In November 2014, we went to see you on a 3D ultrasound at only 10 weeks with your big brother and sister. You guys were so adorable, even at that age!
You had little legs and arms, and we couldn’t help but notice how active you were, Aria. We laughed as you flipped and kicked and waved your tiny hands and feet. Julian, you also gave us a show, but it was your sister always stealing the limelight. We could see you, Aria, poking at your sac where Julian was just on the other side, almost like you knew he was there with you and you wanted to say hello. The kids were delighted by your little baby antics, and we left with some cute photos and a DVD video. We adored you and just couldn’t wait to meet you.
At 12 weeks, you passed all your tests with flying colors and we graduated from the fertility clinic and started seeing a high risk baby doctor in San Diego, closer to where our surrogate lived. At 14 weeks, you really looked like babies, with clearly defined fingers and toes and faces. Just beautiful. Nana and Papi (Daddy’s parents) came to your 14 week 3D ultrasound. They had never seen one before! I sat next to our surrogate on the table and we watched you two again with all the kids, only this place had a huge movie screen! Again, Aria, you were all over the place. Kicking your poor brother in the head, crossing and uncrossing your legs like you were a tiny dancer. Julian kicked back a bit more by then. I think you were starting to annoy him.
Gracie and Hudson got to pick out a stuffed animal and put an audio recording of your heartbeats inside the stuffed animal. Gracie picked a little wolf for your heartbeat, Julian, and Hudson picked out a little lamb to put your heartbeat in, Aria. We will treasure these memories of you always.
It still seemed like forever till we could meet you, although I met you far sooner than I wanted to. But to pass what I thought would be a very long time, I designed the best nursery you’ve ever seen for you guys! You would have loved it!
Daddy and I built you a nice dresser that would double as a changing table. We bought up the entire newborn section of carters clothes one day. And when our friend Emily got a good employee discount at nordstroms, we stocked up on all the baby gear they had. Two fancy swings, two baby carriers, a diaper bag, more clothes, pacifiers and bottles and sterilizers and diapers and formula machines and teething giraffes. All for you! All with love so you would be comfy and happy in your new home. I felt like you both growing in our surrogate’s tummy so perfectly was your gift to me, and your beautiful nursery was going to be my gift to you. I also ordered you a custom metal art moon that lights up and says I love you to the moon and back. And I found a cute shaggy gray rug at pottery barn kids to match your theme. The cribs were on back order until February, so we left the guest room as was until we got all the pieces together.
The Monday before you were born, I went to see you on a 3D ultrasound again. It felt like I hadn’t seen you in so long. You were 20 weeks by then, looking so cute. I was hoping to see what your faces looked like. Daddy had to work that day, so he couldn’t be there, but of course our surrogate and her husband were able to join us, and so did two of our friends.
To my surprise, I could actually tell what you both looked like! It was hard to see your eye shapes on the ultrasound, but you both had your daddy’s nose and mouth for sure. You were gorgeous. You were growing perfectly and still very active in there. You two were always so playful! You must have sensed each other’s presence early on. We watched your little personalities develop before our eyes. I texted all the pictures to your daddy, and your Hamma (my mom) and to Nana and Papi (Daddy’s parents). I even texted them to our fertility doctor to congratulate him on his beautiful work! I also visited my friend Sabrina, who was in the hospital scared she might deliver her baby, Nash, too soon. Her body calmed down and Nash was fine. Sabrina and I think you two had a lot to do with that, and she thanks you both for helping Nash stay inside and grow big enough to be born. All was well, so I drove home to work and be with my favorite people.
On Thursday, January 29, 2015, suddenly everything changed. I was back to work, happy as can be, doing photo shoots and training my new employee.
Our surrogate called me around 5:00 pm and told me she was bleeding. I told her not to panic. Bleeding is very common in pregnancy, especially with twins. I started googling bleeding at 21 weeks with twins while she and her husband drove as fast as they could to the hospital to check on you both. Our surrogate told me she was really scared. I told her over and over to breathe. My best friend just went through this and she was fine, the baby was fine. Sabrina was still upstairs at the same hospital our surrogate was going to so they could check on you. Daddy texted me on his way home from work, to go outside and look how beautiful the sky was. Indeed, it was the most breathtaking sunset we’ve ever seen here. I felt….uneasy…about the sunset. It looked a little too heavenly for my taste. I told him what was going on as soon as he got home.
Our surrogate was checked into the triage unit at the hospital within 30 minutes of her first call. They hooked her belly up to monitor her contractions, which were coming about 2 minutes apart. That’s too many contractions for so early in the pregnancy, so they gave her two medicines that are supposed to quiet the uterus and not allow it to dilate any more. Her labor progressed anyway, and rapidly. I told Ryan what was going on when he got home with the kids, and we tried to stay calm. I started texting with our surrogate’s husband, and everything just happened so fast. Nothing happened the way it should have. Our story should have ended the same way my best friend’s did – with a healthy baby after a premature labor scare. It didn’t.
I heard from our surrogate and her husband that the ultrasound machine came and the doctor on call saw that baby A’s (that’s you, Julian) sac was bulging out of the uterus a tiny bit, and her cervix was dilated 1.5 cm (not much, but not great). At first, it didn’t sound so urgent. They said they had to stop the contractions first, and then they would put it an emergency cerclage in the morning – that’s where they stitch up the opening so you can’t come out early. Your sac had not ruptured. Her husband and I texted each other as I sat in the closet in my bedroom and cried and prayed. You weren’t fine. You were in danger. I quickly grew worried, then scared, then plain terrified. My worst nightmare unfolded in the next hour.
You were both born anyway at 8:11 and 8:13 p.m. that day, in spite of everything the doctors and nurses tried to do to stop it. You both lived for a little while in our surrogate and her husband’s arms. We couldn’t get there in time to hold you while you took your last breaths. I’m so, so sorry for that. I wish I could have told you in person, while your ears were still working, how much we loved and wanted you. How our hearts would never be whole again without you. I wish I could’ve held you in my arms with your Daddy when you first came into this world and then left it, just like a whisper in the dark. I pray you both know how badly we wanted you both anyway. I hope you know that we were connected spiritually long before we ever met or said goodbye. We were yours and you were ours. You were real and you were here. You matter.
I texted my mom that night, when we knew you were coming any minute and you weren’t going to survive. I just said “can you come over?” She texted back “What’s wrong?” And I wrote “I’m so sorry to say. The babies are coming. They can’t stop it. We have to go hold them. They’re not going to make it.” And with those words written, my heart officially shattered into pieces and I just lay on my closet floor and sobbed, shocked. I couldn’t even speak when Ryan came in to ask for the update. I only showed him the text messages. He held me there on the closet floor while I cried and cried, unable to speak at all. Our friend Emily was downstairs making tacos for all of us. I said “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.” About a hundred times. No one knew what to do. I told him we can’t get there in time, that you were going to die before we could make the 3 hour drive. Eventually, your daddy said, “We have to go. Let’s just go now.” I packed an overnight back in a complete fog of shock, confusion, pain…and a strange feeling of guilt I couldn’t put my finger on.
I couldn’t hide my tears when your 5-year-old brother Hudson came upstairs to my bedroom looking for me to tell me dinner was ready. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I told him I had some really bad news about our babies. I said something happened to our surrogate, and the babies were born before they were ready and were too small to survive. I told him the truth. You were already born and you died and went to Heaven to be angels, and how sorry I was to have to break his heart by telling him the news. Daddy and I had to leave right away, so we could come hold you and tell you how much we would miss you. I remember apologizing over and over to my little boy, that we weren’t going to get to bring the babies home to be his little brother and sister like we thought we would. I watched helplessly as his little face crumpled and he started to cry. His tears were the real grieving kind. The raw pain kind of crying that sounds and feels so different from other crying spells. We held each other for awhile there on my closet floor. I told him it was going to hurt for a long time, and we would always miss our babies, but we were still a family. I told him I was so thankful I already had the little boy of my dreams there to hug and kiss, and I felt so lucky to have his sister, too. We couldn’t get up from the closet floor for awhile. We just rocked there in the dark and held each other. Finally, Hudson told me I needed to bring each of you a lollipop to take to Heaven, from him. We decided to go downstairs together and pick out the best two lollipops to give to our beloved babies. I still had to tell Gracie, and Emily, and the rest of the world. I couldn’t eat one bite of our freshly made taco dinner. I wanted to throw up, but I took two anti-anxiety pills instead. I’m not sure those pills even took the edge off the piercing heartache of that night.
Your sister Gracie was happily coloring on the kitchen table when we went downstairs. I had to sit down with her and tell her the same thing. She had just turned 10, and I truly thought she wasn’t as emotionally invested in you as we were, or like Hudson was. I was so wrong. My heart shattered for the third time in 30 minutes when I saw her face also crumple and her big eyes fill with tears. She cried much harder and longer than I expected. She, like many of us, had grown very attached to you two specifically. She asked me if she could come with us to the hospital to meet you and hold you, but we knew we would be gone a long time, far from home, and it was going to be too sad for too long. If we lived closer, I would have let her. Sometimes I still regret not taking them with us. At the time, I didn’t think an adolescent girl with a big tender heart could handle two days of watching her parents in total despair. We told her to stay with Hamma and Hudson and comfort each other until we came back. I kissed her and hugged her and reminder her I wasn’t a mom at all before God gave me her. I reassured her that we loved her, and we would make it through this hard time because our love is so strong.
My mom arrived at our house shortly after. Hudson ran out to her in the driveway and cried “Hamma, our babies died!” and started sobbing all over again. My mom hugged us all and held the kids tight, and Daddy and I left to go meet you. It was the shortest and longest 3-hour drive of my life. I felt like we were actually barreling at light speed toward something unbearable. At the same time, my need to hold you and see you grew enormous. Half of me couldn’t accept it as the new reality, and half of me accepted it immediately and wanted to savor my time with your little bodies, which I knew would be way too short.
When we finally checked in as “visitors” and walked into the hospital room, our surrogate and her husband were both holding you guys, studying your sweet faces. Her husband got up to hug me first, and I thanked him for holding you while you lived and died. Then I climbed right in the little hospital bed with our surrogate and hugged her tight and told her how much I loved her, and how we did not blame her and never would, and how it was not her fault. We cried together, and then, finally, I reached out to hold the two of you.
How can I describe how beautiful you were? I’ve never been a huge religious person, but I felt like I was looking directly at the face of God in your sweet faces. I was so happy that I recognized you from your ultrasound photos. I was so delighted to see you had your Daddy’s nose and mouth like I thought. Aria, your mouth was a little prettier, just like a little girl, and Julian, you just had Daddy’s mouth exactly. You both have his upper lip, and his nose, although your nose, Aria, looked daintier. Your sweet little peaceful faces told me that you had not suffered very much before you died. Even though you had died hours before, you both looked so perfectly content. Aria, sometimes I felt like I was catching you smiling in your sleep. I don’t know what your eyes looked like. You were still so small, your eyes were sealed shut. I wish I knew what color eyes you would have had. I’m guessing blue, but I’ll have to wait until I join you in Heaven to find out.
Julian, my little man. You were perfection. I unwrapped you and checked you out, head to toe. You had little hair on your head! It looked light brown. Your tiny head was bruised because you came out first, but your hairline was cute just like your Daddy’s. Aria, you had peach fuzz lighter-colored hair, and not as much as your brother. I think you may have been one of those kids who would have been born with blond hair that slowly turned to brown hair, and your twin brother would have had a lot of brown hair. I wish I could’ve watched you grow and found out. Even on that sad night, I was surprised and delighted by how perfect you both were. It’s the most amazing miracle that you grew into tiny but perfect human being in just 21 short weeks. You each had tiny eyebrows and eyelashes. When I opened your little mouths, you had a tiny pink tongue and miniature gums! I kissed every one of your ten fingers and toes, and I covered your sweet little faces with my tears and kisses. I touched your tiny ears. I held your hands on my pinky finger. You were the most beautiful babies I’ve ever seen. I did not cry when I held you. My heart was happy. I thought you were worth any amount of pain when I held you in my arms. You both had straight little backs, long legs, your daddy’s feet and other recognizable and precious features. I could’ve kept kissing you for the rest of my life.
Aria, my sweet little princess, your features were dainty, precious, and almost…happy looking. You weighed the same as your brother (13.9 ounces), you were a half an inch shorter (10.5 an 11 inches each), with a slightly smaller nose, eyes, hands and feet. I was so in awe of you both. I bent and straightened your legs and watched your tiny calf muscles move, your ankles flex, your knees moved the same as any sleeping baby. You actually had the most beautiful curvy little legs I’ve ever seen. You were strong. I imagine you would’ve had a strong personality, like your sister, Gracie. I think that’s why Gracie was so excited to be your big sister. She’s the kind of girl who thinks it’s cool to kick your brother in the face and do cartwheels in the tummy.
I could feel God in the room with us that night, holding all of us in His arms through our love for you.
Your Daddy held you for a long time and told you he couldn’t wait to meet you again, either in this life in other bodies, or in Heaven when he can see you again. He told you how much he loved you. Then I took you back. A chaplain came to bless your souls so you could open your eyes for the first time and see Jesus. I know you already had. We passed your beautiful lifeless bodies back and forth for hours that night, and the next day, too. Holding you was actually like holding a piece of Heaven on Earth. I fell in love with you when I saw your faces, but once I held you both, I knew a part of me had forever died with you. They say some people only dream of angels, while others get to hold one in their arms. I suppose that’s true, but holding my own angel babies was more like a nightmare I wanted so badly to wake from. You were worth the hurt, though. I love you so much, and so does your daddy, and your big brother and sister, and your grandparents, and everyone who ever laid eyes on you or heard your story.
You are so loved, little angels. By so many people. Thousands of people all over the world have cried at your loss and are hurting with us. But we will celebrate your life and take the good from it.
I’ll always be your mommy, and I’ll always love you with all my heart. I can’t wait to hold you in Heaven and see you again. Until then, I will hold you in my heart, and I will write to you when I feel far away from you. You will never be forgotten. Thank you for being my angels. I am honored to be the one you chose to be your mom, even though I didn’t get a chance to raise you like I dreamed.
Love you forever and always,