When Vanessa, near the end of her second trimester, woke up to a bed wet with amniotic fluid and blood, she was certain this pregnancy was a gamble gone bad.
She and Kevin already had one child - 3-year-old Brooke, a surprise baby who was born on Halloween. Kevin, a police sergeant accustomed to 12-hour overnight shifts, recalls feeling slammed by sleep deprivation. Vanessa missed the freedom they'd had as a childless couple, the days of sipping wine in a gondola on the way to a Napa winery.
Despite the strains of parenting - waking at 5 a.m. so she could drop Brooke at day care before commuting to work in Princeton; barely seeing each other when Kevin worked nights - they were smitten with their joyful, perceptive daughter and wanted her to have a sibling.
After a year of trying - several miscarriages, and nights when Vanessa would meet Kevin at police headquarters so he could inject her with fertility medication - a doctor suggested IVF.
Vanessa was almost 41. "I talked to my mom about it, and she said, 'You should do it. You need to give it 100 percent if this is the last time you're going to try.' "
The doctor transferred four fertilized eggs, with a caveat: All four would probably not implant. But at Vanessa's first ultrasound, she heard a quartet of heartbeats. The following week, though, there were only three. Several doctors advised a selective reduction to boost the remaining embryos' chances of survival.
Vanessa knew there were hazards either way: Carrying triplets to term posed risks for the babies and for her, but selective reduction might harm them all or cause the loss of the entire pregnancy.
"I just couldn't do it," Vanessa recalls. "I rolled the dice and prayed."
The night her water broke, those prayers seemed shattered. Doctors at Abington Memorial Hospital said she would need to stay there for the duration of her pregnancy and warned that her chance of miscarrying in the next 24 hours was nearly 100 percent. Even if she did manage to keep the pregnancy, they said, the triplets were at risk of deafness, blindness, and a host of other disabilities.
That wasn't all. The same mid-January day that Vanessa was admitted to the hospital, her mother, Angela - who had had a double mastectomy just before Brooke was born - learned that cancer had metastasized to her liver. A week later, she, too, entered Abington Hospital.
Each day, nurses would wheel Vanessa to the oncology unit to see her mother. Each night at 7:30, Kevin and Brooke would chat with Vanessa via FaceTime; on weekends, they hung out at the hospital, watching movies and snacking in the cafeteria.
Vanessa was with her mother when she died Feb. 7. "Then they wheeled me back to my room. There was a line of nurses down the hallway, waiting for me. I couldn't go home; I couldn't be with my daughter. I was in a room alone, and my mom was dead, and I didn't know if these babies would live or die."
Hospital staff brought Vanessa dinner, flowers, and sympathy cards. Friends showed up to embrace and encourage her. And then, one dank afternoon, a pattern of white light appeared on the wall of Vanessa's room. It resembled a sideways, elongated figure eight, or maybe dragonfly wings. She called a nurse in to see it; she snapped a couple of cellphone pictures.
"The thing didn't move or bend. It was glimmering on my wall for almost two hours." Her mother had been a woman of faith, and Vanessa felt certain this light was a message: "We were so connected. I know this was her way of letting me know she was still with me."
At 32 weeks and two days, after more than eight weeks in the hospital, Vanessa began feeling contractions. The triplets arrived - tiny and intact, though one had a collapsed lung - via C-section. She and Kevin knew they would name the first one Angela.
The babies remained in the hospital for five weeks. Meanwhile, Vanessa contracted a rotavirus and spent her first week at home vomiting. When she recovered, she would put Brooke to bed, then go to the hospital: out of the elevator, past the oncology unit where her mother had died, on to the NICU where her babies, against all odds, were thriving.
Once they were home, though, and Kevin returned to work, Vanessa realized she couldn't manage a toddler and triplets alone. They ate every 45 minutes round the clock; she was still depleted from pregnancy and grief and 63 days in the hospital.
Someone suggested they reach out to their parish, St. Catherine of Siena, for help. They did, and word soon spread to three other area churches. Volunteers streamed in: retirees who were happy to change diapers and cuddle infants; a mother and her teenage daughter; parents with toddlers Brooke's age to keep her company.
In all, about 50 people visit regularly - a SignUpGenius site helps organize their shifts - to bring food, fold laundry, empty the trash, load the dishwasher, or simply offer a warm shoulder. "I'm still so overwhelmed with responsibility and loss that I break down sometimes," Vanessa says. "They just grab me and hug me."
Kevin says the ordeal has steeled him for whatever life might toss their way. For Vanessa, the year has left a bittersweet imprint: loss and love, gratitude and mystery.
One night not long ago, Brooke woke up crying, and Vanessa brought her downstairs to doze on the couch. "Ten minutes later, she sat up and said, 'Mommy, Mom-Mom loves you, and she's watching you from heaven, and everything's going to be OK.' " She touched Vanessa's face, toyed with her hair, then drifted back to sleep.
"Life is made up of all the things I've just gone through," Vanessa says. "It's just that mine happened to happen all at once."