On a clear day in August 2003, Darbi (Fankhauser) ’00 and Mike Johnson ’99 attended two gatherings to honor twin boys born to them a week before. The first was a funeral—the second, a birthday party.
The day symbolized the emotional extremes the couple had felt since last spring, when they first learned that an acute medical condition had put the lives of their unborn sons in jeopardy.
It also closed a two-year chapter during which the couple endured the sudden death of Darbi’s mother, followed a year later by the stillbirth of their first child. The Johnsons never imagined they would be able to handle such adversity, and yet, the devout Christians felt an uncanny peace in the midst of their grief.
“You go through life thinking if that ever happened to me, I could not handle it,” said Darbi. “Then we get this amazing peace that is talked about all over the place from God that carries you through. You don’t know how you handled it, because on your own strength, you definitely couldn’t.”
With God on my side
From the earliest time she can remember, Darbi grew up believing that God was in the business of protecting those who follow Him. It wasn’t a fervent stance, just an unspoken assumption that since she had a personal relationship with God, He would make good things happen for her. And the theory seemed to hold true—for a time.
In what she describes as “a perfect life,” Darbi was raised in Olympia, Washington—the youngest in a family of four—and surrounded by scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom attended the same church, Olympia-Lacey Church of God. She moved away to Warner Pacific College in 1996, studied Human Development, and later married her college sweetheart, Mike, during their senior year. After graduation, she continued to work for the College in the residence life office while Mike taught P.E. at a local Christian school. A year later, they were making preparations to move to Olympia to be closer to family. Life looked very good.
Then the bottom fell out—and God didn’t make the same sense anymore.
In May 2001, Darbi’s mother, Dianne, died suddenly at the age of 53. It was the first major crisis to hit the family, and Darbi initially challenged God for letting it happen. “You first go right back to that whole thing where God is here to please you and then you feel like it’s personal, [and ask], “‘Why did You make my mom die?’” said Darbi. “And of course, if you go into it with that mindset, you’re never going to get an answer.”
Here and gone
A few months later, Mike and Darbi announced they were pregnant with their first child. Perhaps a baby would help soothe the grief caused by Dianne’s death, they thought. In fact, if the child turned out to be a girl, they wanted to name her Dianne.
Then, thirty-two weeks into the pregnancy, Darbi felt the baby go strangely still. A day later, the couple’s doctor confirmed the worst. The child had passed away, with no apparent cause. This time, the support system was already in place, and loved ones quickly surrounded the couple.
And at one of their lowest points, when Mike and Darbi were awaiting delivery at St Peter’s Hospital, in Olympia, Darbi began to rethink what they should name their child.
“I decided I would need a reminder of the hope we have even in the worst of situations,” Darbi said.
The child turned out to be a girl, and they named her Hope. And as awful as it was to lose her, the Johnsons experienced a surprising amount of peace. “You would expect it to be a terrible experience, and it was, but at that time in the hospital, it was really randomly ok,” Mike said. “We held her and she looked like a normal baby. We got to have a little bit of time with her. It wasn’t hopeless. It was very hopeful.”
To honor Hope’s brief life, the couple took up collections from friends and family and anonymously donated $700 worth of baby supplies to new mothers at St. Peter’s on August 27, 2002, Hope’s original due date. In each basket of gifts, the Johnsons inserted a slip of paper that included a simple greeting, a Bible verse, and a photocopy of Hope’s left hand print. The verse, Psalm 71:14, read, “But as for me, I will hope continually, and will praise You yet more and more.” They took leftover gifts to CareNet Pregnancy Center, in Olympia. That’s when Darbi got the idea of calling it the Hope Memorial Project and making it an annual event.
“We had our whole lives set up to be parents, and then our arms [were] empty,” Darbi explained. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do right now? Time is out of my hands. And I can’t sit around and mope and be sad. What am I going to do about my life to make it worth living right now?’’
In the wake of Hope’s passing, the Johnsons received remarkable news last winter. They were not only pregnant, but two heartbeats were heard. The Johnsons were elated. And the temptation was to believe that somehow these two new lives were meant to compensate for the loss of Dianne and Hope. They named the identical twins Blake and Carter. “When we were pregnant with the boys, and found out they were twins, I knew that wasn’t a reward, but it sure felt like one,” Darbi said. “It was a dream come true.”
The pregnancy seemed to be progressing normally until the Johnsons’ sixteen-week check-up. That’s when ultrasound images revealed the boys were in trouble. Due to an imbalance of circulation within the placenta the boys’ shared, Blake was receiving too much blood, and Carter too little. The condition, called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), affects around 6,000 twins a year in the United States. Without intervention, Blake, the larger of the two, would soon die of heart failure, while Carter would die of severe anemia. “Carter was already really behind in development, so he had a long way to go,” Darbi said.
The Johnsons’ first doctor suggested they contact Dr. Martin Walker, a specialist of maternal fetal medicine at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center, in Kirkland, Washington. Dr Walker heads one of only eight programs in the United States that uses laser surgery within the womb to correct complications associated with TTTS. The risks were stark, including the possibility of triggering pre-mature labor or internal bleeding, but the Johnsons were determined to see the procedure through. As it turned out, Darbi would be the first patient ever to undergo the surgery at Evergreen Hospital. The surgery date was set for May 8.
“We made it clear that she was the first case, and [Darbi] said, ‘Go for it.’” said Melissa Dorn, Coordinator of the Fetal Therapy Program at the medical center. “She was very courageous with everything we needed to do.”
During the surgery, Dr. Walker inserted a fiber optic tube—called a fetoscope—through a small incision in Darbi’s abdomen. The fetoscope served as a guide shaft for the thread-like laser fiber he would use to sever the problematic blood vessels. Looking at images from the fetoscope and ultrasound, Dr. Walker scanned the shared placenta to identify vessels that communicated between the twins. Once he had found them, he “lasered” the vessels apart. While the procedure was intended to save both boys, it was clear that Blake’s portion of the placenta was much larger than Carter’s. At least if Carter were to die, his death would no longer threaten Blake’s survival.
“If we had not done anything, I am sure both babies would not be alive,” said Dorn.
Blake stabilized, but Carter lived approximately three weeks longer. The twins were delivered via C-section on August 25, and placed in matching blankets and hats Darbi had made. Blake’s hat was the normal size for a newborn weighing nearly six pounds, while Carter’s was a third the size.
“In my head, [Carter’s] a perfect little baby, and I want to remember him that way,” said Darbi.
A mysterious God
The Johnsons say they’ve learned a host of life lessons over the past two years. They are not bitter, nor disillusioned. They have heard plenty of explanations—some comical, some irksome—by well-wishers attempting to explain the tragedies. In the end, however, Mike and Darbi have concluded that life happens, and, that at times, God intervenes, and other times He seems to hold back. And that’s OK with them.
“Sometimes He’s letting us be out there on our own to experience life in a messed up world, and sometimes He’s willing to actually step into the natural ways things lay out and alter them for the better,” said Mike, who is now working as a firefighter in-training for the McClane Fire District. “But we don’t know when, and we don’t know why any of this happened, and that’s OK. It’s what we’ve arrived at.”
Grief and Joy
On August 31, 2003, Carter was laid to rest in the same plot where his grandmother and sister are buried. About fifty family members and friends came to pay their respects at the graveside service. They wrote messages to Carter on baby-blue balloons, sang “Jesus loves me,” and released the balloons into a cloudless sky.
Later that same afternoon, they gathered again, this time for an all-out birthday bash for Blake. For one day, at least, grief and joy walked hand in hand.
(This is an archived story originally published in 2003. It is posted to accompany Darbi Johnson's 2011 essay "Finding room in heart and home," also available on this website.)