Last night, just like the night before, and nights before that, Kat Cooper woke up from the same dream.
"I dream about holding Lucas," she said.
Her son, Lucas Hunt Cooper, was born in the early hours on Feb. 20. Named after Kat's dad, he was born with a fighter's heart, but the smallest of bodies.
One pound, 9 ounces.
Barely 13 inches long.
Three and a half months premature.
Doctors and nurses immediately cocooned him in an artificial womb of IV tubes, monitors and breathing machines in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital at Erlanger. His skin was thin as parchment. His five fingers — measured pinky to thumb — were less than an inch wide. Someone whispered that if you touched him, he might crumble.
To his parents — Kat and Krista Cooper — he was beautiful.
"Beautiful and perfect," said Kat.
Kat and Krista spent years trying to get pregnant. A miscarriage. The emotional and financial fatigue of fertility treatments. Bed rest. Then, in late February, Krista had an emergency C-section.
Before that? As gay women in the Bible Belt South, both Kat and Krista know the ways that family can love and honor — or devastate — the human heart. ("My father was physically and emotionally abusive," said Krista.) Married in Maryland before doing so was legal in Tennessee, they both yearned for motherhood and a family of their own.
"This has been our dream," said Kat, 34.
"To provide unconditional love," said Krista, 29.
Doctors, concerned about Lucas from the beginning, grew gravely so. His underdeveloped intestines leaked toxins into his body. His brain began to bleed.
Five days after being born, Lucas was dying.
So nurses softly unhooked the IVs, machines and monitors, and handed the swaddled infant first to Krista, then to Kat, who each sat in a NICU rocking chair — holding and rocking, holding and rocking — pressing Lucas for what would be the first and last time against their chests, as if somehow trying to permanently imprint him onto their hearts, as if to tell him somehow: It is here where you'll always live.
"I held him and rocked him as he passed away," said Kat.
It is the unbearable pain, the hurt that never stops.
Yet Kat and Krista could not stay with their grief.
A few feet away, in another neonatal unit, was their second son, Isaac.
Lucas's twin brother.
Isaac James Cooper, also named for Kat's dad, was born moments after Lucas, and even was tinier: 1 pound, 8 ounces, and 11 inches long.
Doctors performed procedure after procedure. Bloods clots. Fluids leaking. Underdeveloped intestines.
Yet Isaac stayed alive.
By March, he'd gained a pound. By April, two. He opened his eyes, these baby blues.
Two weeks ago, they held him for the first time, holding and rocking, holding and rocking.
"I want to love on him, kiss him and touch him," said Krista, "but I find myself being sad, because I miss Lucas, and wonder what he'd look like now. Would he be the same or different?"
How do you bury one son while the other still lives? How do you celebrate life, while mourning the loss of it?
How wide and deep are the chambers of a mother's heart, that allow it to carry both death and life at the same time? How are you drowned in darkness, yet also saved by light?
One child, Lucas, dead.
One child, Isaac, alive.
"My heart aches, my chest hurts when I breathe, my eyes fill with tears more than not in a single day," Kat said. "I'm terrified to lose Isaac, but I know I have to love him with everything I have no matter what."
Even before they became mothers, Krista and Kat have been maternal. Kat, a detective with the Collegedale Police Department, made national news in her fight to secure domestic partner benefits. Then she created the Nooga Diversity Center, a safe, loving place for gay, lesbian and transgender youth.
Pregnant with Lucas and Isaac, they bought a new home, with a fence for their adopted dogs and a garden in the back.
Both Kat and Krista — she investigates animal abuse in Hamilton County — deal with crisis every day; their professional lives are built around fearlessness and control.
Yet as mothers, they are helpless.
"I have absolutely no control other than to stand beside him and love him," said Kat.
On the NICU floor, Isaac continues to grow. His tiny fingers, the size of a bundle of eyelashes, can now grasp Kat and Krista's fingers.
He sucks his thumbs, or tries to, when the breathing mask isn't in the way. Once barely a pound, Isaac now weighs nearly 4.5.
His hair — dirty blonde — is coming in. He scrunches up his face, lifting his eyebrows.
"Kat makes the same expression," said Krista.
Friends held a blood drive. A fellow cop had a special blanket made. Grandparents — Hunt and Linda Cooper — dote over their grandson.
"A little warrior," one friend said.
"Comes from tough stock," said another.
"I believe Isaac's going to make it," said Krista.
All across the country this morning, mothers are remembering their children. The premature. The adult. The alive and well. The dead and buried.
A mother's heart always remembers. There is nowhere a child can go where a mother's heart does not follow.
It holds and rocks, holds and rocks, even in our dreams.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329.