I’ve read at least 50 longform stories to this point this month, and I’ve picked 18 to write about so far. But none of them have affected me as deeply Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go” seres for the Tampa Bay Times. The series is actually three stories — Lost and Found, The Zero Zone, and Baby’s Breath — on the birth of her baby, born four months early, weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces, and the difficult decisions she and her husband Tom faced. Taken together, “Never Let Go” really one long story, woven with deeply personal moments, fears, and thoughts. It’s terrifying, inspiring, suspenseful, provocative, and deeply moving.
Photo by Cherie Diaz for the Tampa Bay Times
I won’t bury the lede: this is the best thing I’ve read all month.
I cried as I read part one on a crowded Amtrak train, then again when I read part two at a coffee shop. I didn’t care.
So, without spoiling anything, why is this so good?
First, it’s honest and open. Right away, the reader understands the gravity of the decision she and her husband had to make:
Few doctors would insist on intervening. The choice was ours to make.
He went through the list of possible calamities, each with its own initials. IVH, PVL, RDS, CLD, ROP, CP. The magnesium sulfate burned through me, sucking the will from every cell. Blood in the brain. Hole in the heart. Respiratory distress. Chronic lung disease. Ventilator. Wheelchair. Blind. Deaf. Developmental delays. Autism. Seizures. Cerebral palsy.
Every part of her was underdeveloped, fragile and weak. Every treatment would exact a toll. She might live, but she would likely have, to use the medical term, profound morbidities.
Odds she would die, no matter how hard they tried: better than half.
Odds she would die or be profoundly disabled: 68 percent.
Odds she would die or be at least moderately disabled: 80 percent.
Second, the story is very personal. The reader is brought into the deepest hopes, dreams and fears between her and her husband. By the time I finished the first story, I felt all-in with the couple, fully invested in their long-shot hopes. The two of them had to often feel very very alone during this experience, but the story puts us right there, intimately with them each step of the way:
We had envisioned a similar path for our daughter — horseback riding, piano lessons and the dean’s list. All that was gone now, and we grappled with the fundamentals. Would we try to keep her alive? If she lived, would she walk or talk? Would she one day give us a look that said, Why did you put me through this?
People always ask me if I prayed. I prayed the way people in foxholes are said to pray. I prayed with every thought and every breath. And I prayed with the certainty that I had no business praying, that I hadn’t earned the right. I’d never been religious. Worse, I knew we had defied the natural order in our determination to have a child. Through so many in-vitro procedures, with so many tests and needles and vials of drugs, we’d created life in a petri dish. To be given a child just long enough to watch her die felt like punishment for our hubris.
Third, the story is simply well written throughout; it’s rich with scenes, details, descriptions, and characters. This story is powerful on its own, but Benham’s writing elevates it. The story is powerful and emotional, but nothing feels melodramatic or sentimental for cheap emotional impact; the story walks through the moments of their experience, and she re-tells the story as it happened. The story is very personal, but she also does the hard work as a journalist of treating it like someone else’s story, digging into research, interviews, and reporting.
The story itself is written a year after much of the events occurred, and Benham went back and talked with many of the staff and doctors they worked with, asking them what they were thinking at the time, what they remember. Benham reveals things she didn’t know at the time; secrets the staff kept from her. It’s also clear that she carefully went back and looked at the places in the story in order to describe them more fully. Here’s an example from early on in the first story, where she describes the hospital, and how it is built for both joy and tragedy:
The Baby Place at Bayfront Medical Center is designed for celebrations. The rooms are private, with sleeping couches and flat screen TVs. Sliding panels obscure all evidence of the mess and peril of birth. Mothers are wheeled out holding fat drowsy newborns, dutiful dads follow with the balloons. Every time a baby is born, the loudspeaker carries the tinkling of a lullaby.
It’s easy to pretend, in that cozy place, that all babies come wailing into the world pink and robust, and are bundled and hatted and handed to teary mothers and proud dads. But sometimes it doesn’t go that way at all. That’s why behind the sliding panels there are devices for oxygen, suction and epinephrine. That’s why there’s a morgue on the ground floor.
Finally, the story reaches beyond their personal experience and explores the broader ethical, societal, medical, and cultural issues it raises. It ponders the increasing impact of science on fertility and childbirth, on issues of abortion, on the perils of health insurance and whether the costs such interventions can be justified. Benham does a great job sharing not only her own experience, but, as a journalist, she puts it into a larger context that has meaning for millions of other parents.
I can’t say much else without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Just don’t miss it. This series is narrative nonfiction at it’s best.
Read “Never Let Go” →