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Children's Corner
Books
Reviews
Bob Hoover
Children's Corner
Karen Santorum's letter to ill-fated son express joy, sorrow

Tuesday, June 23, 1998

By Karen MacPherson

When Karen Garver Santorum, wife of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., wrote a series of letters to her unborn fourth child, she never expected to publish them.

The letters, filled with personal details and thoughts, were just her way of expressing first her joy at being pregnant, and then her anguish as she learned that her baby - named Gabriel Michael for the two archangels - had a tiny, often-fatal defect.

Although doctors successfully performed intrauterine surgery to temporarily correct the defect, she developed an infection from the procedure and went into premature labor.

Two hours after he was born on Oct. 11, 1996 - five months before his due date - Gabriel Michael Santorum died in the arms of his parents.

Months after Gabriel's death, his mother - moved by the pleas of her parents, who also had an infant son die - decided to publish the letters in the hope that they could comfort others.

"Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum" (CCC of America, $14.99). It features a foreword by Mother Theresa, written before her death last year, and an introduction by talk--radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

In a recent telephone interview, Santorum said deciding to publish her letters was "the hardest thing I've ever done. "I wrote a lot more letters than appear in the book, but I just couldn't publish them, I just couldn't."

Once the Santorums decided to make the letters public, they had trouble finding a publisher. Even Christian publishers shied away from the book, with one telling the couple that it was "too Catholic," the senator recalls.

It was finally accepted by CCC of America (short for Creative Communications Center), a Catholic-based company in Irving, Texas that produces and distributes videos for children.

"One of the things that parents ask themselves when they lose a child is `Why?'What was God doing here?" Rick Santorum said. "This book helps us answer the question. Maybe it's the reason God put Gabriel on this earth."

"Letters to Gabriel" is a slender volume, 132 pages in all, but it packs an emotional wallop, as the author describes in intensely personal terms how she, her husband and their three children dealt with the grief of losing a baby.

It's both religious and unapologetically sentimental. The letters were edited to eliminate repetition, but the feelings are genuine.

The Santorums'ardent Catholic faith provides the core of the book. Each letter begins with a Bible verse and ends with a personal prayer.

The bereaved mother acknowledges in some letters that neither she nor her husband readily accepted "God's will" for Gabriel.

At the end of the book, however, she firmly states that "the only reassurance for your Daddy and me is our faith in God. I have learned to surrender even more to His protection and care."

The book also gives a glimpse into the Santorums'personal life. Santorum tells how she and her husband wept and prayed together, and even reveals the Christmas gifts they gave each other after Gabriel's death: handmade Italian statues of St. Gabriel and St. Michael.

She also discloses how he coped after the death, saying, "Daddy says it's so difficult when ... he's always having to maintain an outward com posure. On the outside, he smiles and acts like he's fine, but he carries within him a heavy heart and too frequently has to hold back the tears."

After Gabriel died, Karen Santorum also found herself mired in sadness, as she tried to keep life as normal as possible for her other three children, Elizabeth, now 7, Johnny, 5, and Daniel, 3.

At one point after Gabriel's death, she writes to her dead child: "I think I'm losing my mind. I feel kicks inside me that aren't there. . . . I called your brother Daniel `Gabriel'today.

"It's all such a terrible nightmare. How I wish I could wake up and realize that it was all a bad dream. I am numb, exhausted and depressed."

Since the book was published in April, she has received hundreds of letters.

"These are parents going through difficult times, who've said that the book has given them the courage and fortitude to get through it," she said.

Karen Santorum, who was trained as a nurse and a lawyer, is an at-home mom who works part-time for the Pittsburgh communications firm of Brabender Cox. The Santorums have since had another child, Sarah, who is 5 months old.

"Letters to Gabriel" also blends the personal with the political. Santorum uses her own experience with Gabriel to take a stand against partial-birth abortion.

At the time of his family's crisis, Rick Santorum was, by coincidence, leading the fight against partial-birth abortion on the Senate floor.

"There is another way. We know, because we chose it," Karen Santorum writes. "It was to deliver you and allow you to die a natural and peaceful death in the loving arms of your parents.

"Accepting partial-birth abortion as our only alternative to a difficult birth or a potentially disabled infant is to thwart two of our strongest human needs: those of love and memory.

"Giving life and caring for a sick infant - for however brief a period - allows us to express these uniquely human needs."

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Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum

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