When Dania Edwards and her husband Eric arrived in Little Rock from Denver 18 months ago, their lives were in forward momentum including a new job, a new community of friends and, within a few weeks, news that a second child was on the way. Excitement grew as the autumn due date approached, not only for the young couple but for their three-year-old, Sophie.
But when the time arrived, something was wrong.
“She was due on Nov. 7, and on the 8th I was noticing I didn’t really feel movement,” Dania says quietly. “So, we went to get things checked out. Unfortunately, they didn’t find a heartbeat.”
Noelle Edwards was delivered stillborn the next day, all signs pointing to an umbilical cord accident. In an instant, the couple’s new life listed and heaved onto the rocks of unspeakable grief.
“I didn’t really understand what was going on; I just kind of went along with it,” Dania says. “In that moment, you really can’t think clearly enough to see that far ahead.”
Sarah Adams looks around the Mamie’s Poppy Plates workroom and smiles. She likes what she sees around here, especially on volunteer night when people come together to help produce the colorful plates bound for families grieving the worst loss of their lives.
The best part is that these are some of the times when Mamie herself is closest, so clear in Adams’ mind that she can almost envision her seated among the volunteers, brushing her hair back from her face to reveal the faintest sprinkle of freckles, a smile as bright as backyard fireflies.
“If you had told me I was going to lose a child, I would’ve said I will crawl in a hole and never come out. And just to see what she’s done has been amazing,” Adams says. “Yes, I definitely feel her close to me, and I think that’s because we talk about her all the time, my kids and my husband. We’re always talking about her. And being up here at the office and seeing what such a horrible tragedy has turned into, it’s pretty incredible.”
Mamie would have been nine years old this month, and while she may not have physically lived to see the world just beyond the womb, the organization that bears her name has. Founded in 2010 by Adams and her sister, Britney Spees, Mamie’s Poppy Plates provides grieving families a customized memorial plate bearing the name, birthdate, weight, and hand and footprint of their baby.
“Everybody that’s here has either been personally touched by having their own loss or are very close to somebody who has,” Adams says. “Everybody has such a passion for serving these families and giving back and showing them that we love them and we’re here for them. We have a really awesome group of people who work with us.”
Spees also draws inspiration from the volunteer nights. A woman of bulldog determination in a pretty pink wrapper, she’s shared her sister’s vision from the beginning that Mamie was sent here, however briefly, to inspire her family to do something big in her name. Nearly 10 years later, it’s still being revealed just how big.
“We had to pull in the reins a few years ago because we were having so many requests from all over the world. It was a logistical nightmare and it wasn’t helping us grow effectively,” Spees says. “We’re trying to pace our growth strategically; we want to do what we do well and not grow too fast to where we’re not preserving the good quality that we have.”
Mamie’s Poppy Plates currently partners with 54 hospitals in 10 states with eight on the waiting list until the necessary sponsorship dollars from families or companies can be secured to serve them. Current partnerships range from small community hospitals in Warren and Dumas to a new agreement with Arkansas Hospice to massive health care institutions in New York, California and Texas.
“We partnered last year with Children’s National in D.C.,” Spees says. “We’re only serving their labor and delivery, but at first we thought we were serving their entire hospital. It’s really crazy when you get into these larger hospitals, the huge number of patients they are serving.”
The organization doesn’t really have to solicit new partners; a ready army of nurses who have seen the program in action do most of that for them. As nurses change health care systems over their careers, they spread the word and another partnership springs up. Summer Weston, a nurse in UAMS’ Labor and Delivery Unit, is one such passionate advocate.
“Traditionally, you just didn’t acknowledge a baby that you lost. It was like it didn’t happen,” she says. “Women delivered a stillborn baby and it was just whisked away to Pathology or they were told you don’t want to see your baby, you don’t want to hold your baby, you don’t want to talk about it.
“What I really love about Mamie’s is that Mamie’s seeks to acknowledge your baby is real. They did exist.”
Weston sees very few routine deliveries in her particular role. As part of a team that deals with high-risk pregnancies, she and her colleagues live by the tagline, “When our job is good, it’s very good. When it’s bad, it’s horrid.” She says for many families, the plate is an important starting point in dealing with their loss.
“Being able to provide something lasting to a family who leaves that hospital without their baby is amazing to me. Mamie’s lends them some control in a situation where they have no control,” she says.
“They’ve lost the ability to decorate their baby’s room, to pick out bedding colors. But I can still ask them what color plate do you want? What pattern do you want? Or have them help me weigh their baby or measure their baby or get their baby’s footprints for a plate. It lends some validity to the fact that they did have a baby and there was a birthday.”
Sometime in the haze that followed Noelle’s death, a nurse came into the room and talked to the Edwards family about an organization that provided a memento of their child in the form of a plate. The grieving couple had never heard of the nonprofit. Frankly, Dania hardly remembers filling out the paperwork to this day. Once the couple got home, however, she reread the information and through the fog of loss, a beacon appeared.
“I was excited to see that that was going to be coming in the mail,” she says. “And I was grateful that someone had taken the time to put together something for parents in our situation. You really have no idea what’s going on in that moment or think about what you might want or appreciate later. I was really grateful and impressed that there was somebody out there that had been in our shoes and had taken the time to provide a little something to remember our daughter by.”
The plate that arrived a few weeks later still moves Dania to tears. Displayed such that not a day goes by the family doesn’t look at it in their home, the plate helps inspire discussions with Sophie about her “little angel sister” and helps guests know Noelle, too.
“To have that tangible memento to really remember her by, it’ s just something sweet and subtle to remember her that you can really feel comfortable sharing with other people as well,” Dania says.
As time has passed, Dania has, like the members of the volunteer worknight group, been inspired to give back to Mamie’s Poppy Plates. In May, she and her family participated in the organization’s annual Race to Remember 5K under the banner of Team Noelle, sharing their story and embracing their daughter’s memory along with hundreds of others while raising a little money along the way.
More specifically, she’s giving back to the people to whom she’s now forever linked and who, like her, have seen a sliver of light in the darkest of hours.
“I’d just like to thank Sarah Adams; she even reached out to me, being local,” Dania says. “She’s been a really supportive friend and I appreciate her personally as well as the organization. I know she puts her whole heart into all of this. Unfortunately, we share that same tragic circumstance, but it’s meant a lot to me to have somebody to talk to about everything that comes along with losing a child.”
Mamie’s Poppy Plates distributed more than 660 plates last year, a figure that’s decidedly bittersweet to the founders. On the one hand, that’s 660 families who felt some comfort from a pair of kindred spirits they will likely never meet, but it’s also 660 families entering into a club no one wants to be a part of.
For Adams, it’s a curious bag of feelings that change, yet don’t ease, with time.
“Yes, the grief has changed and you never know what you’re going to get one day after another,” she says. “Certain things do trigger sadness or anger or whatever. But being able to show these families that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that we can survive and we can go on to find joy and hope knowing we’re going to see our children again in heaven has been pretty great.”
She pauses, letting her mind’s eye catch a glimpse of her daughter Mamie, smiling in agreement.
“We definitely leave everything into God’s hands,” she says. “He will take us where we need to go, for sure.”