After My Baby Girl Died, My Son Was Diagnosed With Cancer

"If I didn't believe in God, I don't know what would have happened."

On a quiet night in October 2007, Maja Arnold contentedly settled down for a snooze while her infant twins, Lukas and Isabella, slept in their cribs. The babies had been home for two blissful weeks after their premature births had kept them in incubators for months.

Born weighing 2.9 and 4.1 pounds, the babies almost didn't survive Maja's pregnancy. "When I was six months along, the doctors told me I could lose one or both of them because my amniotic fluid was low," she says. Terrified, she was hospitalized until she gave birth. When they came home, Maja finally felt safe. "It was all good," she says.

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Maja with Isabella
Maja with Isabella.
Courtesy of Maja Arnold

And then came a panicked cry from her husband, Matt, on that October evening. "I'll never forget that scream," says Maja. Shocked awake, she stumbled into the hall to find Matt crying and holding Isabella. Taking the baby from his arms, Maja frantically attempted CPR while yelling at Matt to call 911. When she looked up, she saw a police officer rushing in, followed by a priest. "In five minutes, my life had become a bad dream I couldn't wake from," says Maja.

Doctors later told her Isabella's death had been due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death for babies less than 1 year old. It was a heartbreaking and frustrating explanation — SIDS has no known cause. Devastated, Maja struggled simply to get out of bed every day for weeks. "I desperately wanted my baby girl back," she says. "I felt so much guilt. I felt I should have done something to prevent this."

She turned to her faith, seeking meaning in her loss and mustering the strength to care for Lukas. "I knew Isabella was in heaven," says Maja. "If I didn't believe in God, I don't know what would have happened." She forced herself to live as normally as possible: "I was grieving, but I pushed myself so I wouldn't go into depression."

In five minutes, my life had become a bad dream I couldn't wake from.

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As they slowly worked toward accepting Isabella's death, Maja and Matt gathered the courage to continue building their family. They had needed in vitro fertilization to conceive the twins, and Maja's doctor warned her that she was again unlikely to conceive without help. But before their first fertility appointment, Maja learned she had gotten pregnant naturally — with a girl they named Ella, in honor of her sister. "It was a miracle," says Maja. "All I could think about was how God had listened to my prayers for another daughter." After a healthy pregnancy, Ella was born almost exactly two years after Isabella had passed away.

Grateful for her new blessing, Maja wanted a personal way to commemorate her children. Calling on her strong passion for fashion (she had been a model and an artist) and a degree in typography she had not yet used, Maja featuring the initials of each of her children — Isabella, Lukas, and Ella. "In my mind, I will always have three," she says. "When I wear the jewelry, I feel completed."

A Second Shock

Life finally felt settled to Maja — until one day in 2010 when she was changing Lukas's diaper. "I noticed a bump on his tummy," she says. "Instantly I had a bad feeling." When she took him to the pediatrician, "all the doctors started coming into the room, tense," says Maja. "Something was wrong." Testing revealed that Lukas, then 3, had a tumor the size of a baseball on his kidney — and he was diagnosed with Stage III cancer. Maja's heart dropped. "But I had no time to be angry," she says. "It would have taken all my strength. I had to save my baby."

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Maja Arnold's son Lukas
Lukas during his cancer treatment. 'We are so thankful to have him with us,' says Maja.
Courtesy of Maja Arnold

Lukas underwent nine hours of surgery to remove the tumor, which had spread to his lymph nodes. For months, he was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. "It was awful, but Lukas was brave," Maja says. "He was still so happy and played with his sister any time he physically could." Fortunately, Lukas has been in remission for more than five years. "We celebrate life every day now," Maja says.

When Lukas started school, other moms noticed her necklace, and she told them the story behind it. "They would say, 'I have a story too … can you design for me?'" says Maja. "I started sketching for these families and found fantastic peace. By creating beauty for a person who is going through something, I felt healed in a way. When you experience something horrible, you have to find a way to get out of it. Some people manage to fix their soul. That was me."

Maja Arnold with her family
Maja with Matt; Lukas, 10; and Ella, 8, in Seattle. 'Their sister is in heaven,' she says.
Inese Westcott

Today, Maja works with a local artisan who handcrafts every custom piece she designs. Each piece in this line, , is unique and reflects the personal story of the person who will wear it, whether it's a story of loss, celebration or simply the joy of life. "It is a way for women to wear their strength, hope and faith daily to visibly honor those they hold dear to their hearts," she says. She donates 3% of sales to Seattle Children's Hospital, which she credits with saving Lukas's life. "I want to empower women and let them know that when they go through a hard time, there's something inspiring coming on the other side," she says, "even if they don't know it yet."

This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of GolfHr.

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