Breen Richard Armstrong, one year old
Breen crashed to earth just after midnight on January 27th last year. He was too early. He was supposed to come in May, but here he was, after only a pitiful 23 weeks and 5 days of gestation.
So began the most brutal night of all of our lives. Breen, all 1lb 5oz of him fighting like hell to make it to the next minute, make it one more hour, make it long enough for Erin to actually hold him before he died. “It’s not going well” they said that night.
So began an endless endurance of setbacks, infections, perforations, surgeries, slices, desats, codes, withdrawals…
So began the life of Breen Richard Armstrong, pieced together over nine months in two different NICUs until he finally came home just three months ago.
So began a deepening well of gratitude for Erin and me. A depth of thankfulness I never knew was possible for all the incredible people who kept us afloat during a grueling year.
And yet here he sits, and here he laughs. Here he eats, and here he cries. Here he is, Breen Richard Armstrong.
“How did any of this work” we ask ourselves all the time. “They kept telling us this probably wasn’t going to work”.
They built him you know. Those nurses, doctors, surgeons, and therapists. They edged him towards viability one 12-hour shift at a time. Our heroes. Breen’s angels.
This year hasn’t really felt long or short, it’s more like it’s felt outside of everything that came before it. A break in the line. Everything is just so different now.
I grew up near Mount Saint Helens, and would go up there to camp and explore from time to time. During one of those trips I heard about Spirit Lake, which pre-eruption had been a popular tourist spot for summer camping. It sat right below the peak. Saint Helens’ eruption was started by an earthquake which caused the north face of the mountain to slide down resulting in this impossibly massive landslide. When the north face slid down, there was an instant opening, through which all the trapped hot gas and molten lava exploded out. Between the landslide and the explosion, spirit lake was essentially displaced. Like all that debris slammed into the lake, which splashed into a different part of the mountain.
It’s still there, spirit lake, but it’s in a different place. But it’s still spirit lake, right? Well the ph is far more acidic so there’s not much that can live in it, and it’s no longer a fun tourist destination. But it’s still spirit lake. It just got displaced after a violent volcanic eruption.
It’s not a perfect analogy. The Armstrongs aren’t a toxic lake devoid of life. We may not be the tourist destination we once were, but that’s mostly due to COVID.
But the displacement of spirit lake does resonate with me. Our family was pulverized by a seismic and brutal act of God. Our family is no longer where it once was on the mountain. How could it be the same family after the year we all just had?
When you see Breen you see all the people who made him. All the medical professionals who saved him and built him. All the family members who stepped in to keep our family afloat. All the financial and emotional generosity given so freely by friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. All the rivers of prayer from an expanding lattice of caring folks, most of whom we will never meet. It took more than a village to bring him around the sun, it took a galaxy of love.
Breen is an absolutely incredible life. He’s astounding, beautiful, light-hearted, hungry, curious, and strong. To borrow a phrase from the recently deceased Thich Naht Hanh, he’s the gift of the entire universe, the result of much hard and loving work.
Happy Birthday Breen, what a wonderful life you will lead.