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‘Juniper’ a Gripping Story of Local Family and a Girl ‘Born Too Soon’

Tom French’s eyes still well up when he thinks of little newborn Juniper.

Tiny Juniper. Micro Juniper. As in micro-preemie.

Juniper, when she made her first appearance on this Earth that terrifying day in 2011, weighed a mere pound and a quarter. Twenty ounces. Precisely the size of a Starbucks Venti.

Just as little Juniper, micro Juniper, was making moves to exit her mother’s uterus that March day, doctors discovered a massive blood clot nestled next to her. The clot was as big as she was. It was the size of an orange.

Ideally, babies aren’t supposed to emerge from their warm, dark, watery homes — their mothers’ wombs — for 40 weeks. Nine months. Juniper’s haste to exit that safe nest, that sanctuary, was not ideal, not even close, at 23 weeks.

If Vegas touters had been called in to set odds on whether or not Juniper would live, they’d have advised Tom and Kelley French to take a pass.

Yet here we are, five and half years later. Juniper French is alive. She started kindergarten earlier this month. Next month her bare butt will be on the cover of a new book, Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon, penned by her parents.

Tom and Kelley French have begun making the rounds, doing media interviews in support of the book. Time and again they’ve been telling their stories of how the two of them got together, the ups and downs — plenty of downs — of their courtship and their nearly desperate, maddening, frustrating series of attempts just to get Kelley pregnant. Juniper is full of stories.

But the one that still brings tears to Tom’s eyes, even after all the tellings and all these years, is of Juniper’s first day.

***

Kelley Benham French was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times when Juniper — the girl — was born. Kelley still was a Times reporter the next year when it published her series of stories about her daughter’s birth. This year, the year Juniper — the book — will be born, Kelley’s a professor at Indiana University’s Media School (formerly, the School of Journalism).

“Juniper” will be released in mid-September and is currently available for preorder. | Courtesy image

She was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for her Times series. That’s a hell of an accomplishment. Of course, hers was a hell of a story.

Her husband Tom knows a thing or two about accomplishments. He won a Pulitzer back in 1998 for his own series of stories in the Times concerning not life but death, the grisly murders of a mother and her two daughters in Tampa Bay in 1989. (The paper at the time was known as the St. Petersburg Times.)

Tom, too, is a professor at IU’s Media School. He and Kelley strive to impart to their students the importance of the dramatic arc in newspaper stories. A good newspaper story should be as riveting and compelling as a short story or a novella.

Juniper’s story would have made for a smashing full novel. Only it’s true.

***

Tom blames himself for the trials and tribulations of Juniper. The doctors told the Frenches Kelley’s eggs were to blame for their stymied attempts to conceive. Tom admits that may be so but swears there’s a deeper truth. “It was still my fault even though the issue was with her eggs,” he says. “In my dithering and delaying and not being sure what I wanted and running for a while, I’d wasted enough time that Kelley’s eggs were, at that point, no longer suitable. If I had just gotten my act together sooner, I doubt we would have gone through this.”

Kelley flipped over Tom when she met him, for real, as an adult. She’d first met him 13 years before, when she was 15, a high schooler even then dreaming of a career in journalism. He was a guest speaker at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, regaling a classroom full of aspiring young writers. Kelley dug the hell out of Tom, even though, as they both admit, he was a 32-year-old nerd, a geek, wearing oversized glasses, loud clothing, and a shock of prematurely whitening hair. But he told his audience to break walls, to leap outside the box, to find the story, the real story, the one a real writer would find.

She writes:

He told us to see past authority figures with their titles and their passive-voice pronouncements. … He told us to take the reader into the “secret garden” — the back of the nail salon, the corner of the teacher’s lounge, the place where collusions were formed and power was transferred and secrets were shared.

Kelley swooned. No, not romantically. That would be ridiculous. It would be, as they both like to say, a felony. She swooned because he was speaking to her, telling her to do her dream job precisely as she’d hoped to.

“We met briefly, as I met all the other students,” Tom says. “She was a very promising young student. I worked with high school journalism students a lot. Then we met each other off and on over the next few years because she became an intern at the St. Pete Times.”

Romance still would not bloom. “I was married and had two kids,” Tom says. Years passed. Kelley’d gone off to college and to graduate school. “We met again when she was — oh, gosh, I haven’t done the math — I think around 28. By then I was divorced. We had a great conversation and I realized, She’s not 15 anymore; she’s an adult. We talked and we were in a whole different place in our lives. Eventually we started dating.”

Dating, yes. Falling in love, sure. Marrying? Hell no. Kids? Eek. The obstacle? Tom had figured he was finished with the whole wife and kids deal.

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“I loved being a dad,” he says. “I have two sons in their twenties. They were, at that time, finishing high school. I could see the runway, you know? I was going to go off to Europe and follow Springsteen. I was going to float in the blue waters off of Greece. I was looking forward to some free time — and here’s Kelley who was very determined to have a child. Even though I did want a little girl, I was reluctant, to put it lightly.”

The two separately had dreamed of having a little girl one day. With Kelley, it was almost an obsession from the time she herself was a little girl. Her daughter, she writes, would be:

fierce and wild and dirty and drag a kitten under one arm. She would climb trees and sing. … I’d protect her wildness. She’d bring home a stray cat or a rabbit or a baby bird. I’d show her how to care for it, to protect its wildness. I’d teach her when and how to let it go.

As a little girl, Kelley had asked her mother how one might get a baby.

“Well, first,” her mother said, “you have to want one.”

Tom writes: “Even as a boy, I had always longed to have a little girl, had imagined myself grown up and holding her in my arms.”

One evening, Kelley and Tom went out to dinner at a seafood restaurant. He told her of his dream to “cradle a daughter in my arms.”

Kelley was moved. “I picked at my trout,” she writes, “as my ovaries did somersaults.”

***

Seemingly for an eternity, Tom dragged Kelley along, loving her, incorporating her into his own family, but never committing, dodging the marriage and kids issues like a fly zipping away from a swatter’s slap. One night Kelley lay next to him in bed, tracing on his back the words she couldn’t say to him outright. She finger-wrote, I love you. She thought, Asshole.

One day, Kelley decided to wash her hands of him. She embarked on the rest of her life, post-Tom. Post-asshole.

Then the absence of Kelley hit him, like a Florida hurricane, one day in a Target store. He could hardly stand up. He dashed home and wept. He missed her like air itself. Weeks later, he reached out to her via email. “I hope you find it in your heart to read this,” it began. He made promises. This time it’s for real.

(clockwise from left) Kelley Benham French, Tom French, and Juniper. | Courtesy photo

(clockwise from left) Kelley Benham French, Tom French, and Juniper. | Courtesy photo

Kelley ran him through a psychological gauntlet, gauging as well as she might, how real his promises were.

Months passed. Her defenses relaxed. Tom seemed ready. Finally, she let him back into her life around Christmas. She writes:

Ten months later, I was walking down the aisle, holding Nat [Tom’s older son] by the arm. Mike [Tom’s friend], the best man either of us would ever know, stood next to Tom, holding the ring.

***

They went to work trying to conceive the daughter each had dreamed of. Work being the operative word. They tried and tried. Never, it seemed, could they ring the bell. They went to a fertility clinic. They tried this trick and that, one remedy after another.

Tom writes:

Kelley and I had lost track of how many doctors we’d seen. Nothing was working. Kelley was 34 now, and I was 51.

Kelley writes:

First it’s a few tests, maybe some pills, and then there are headaches and mood swings, and then a simple procedure, some mild cramping, a day or two off work, then let’s try this minor surgery, and pretty soon a box of needles and vials arrives in the mail and your fridge looks like a pharmacy and you’re in the middle of a science experiment and you don’t even know how you got there.

Kelley’s ova weren’t up to snuff, the doctors concluded. She had a perfectly fine womb, though. All it needed was a fertilized egg in it. So they decided to find an egg donor.

Kelley, by now an editor at the Times, worked with a reporter named Ben. He was married to Jennifer, a woman Kelley dug the hell out of. Jennifer was “gorgeous, funny, sarcastic,” Kelley writes, “she was intoxicating to me in every way.”

Kelley tabbed Jennifer to be her donor. “You can have my eggs,” Jennifer said.

The two women became close in a way only people who are actively, lovingly trying to create a baby can be. “Kelley and Jennifer, I watched them, they openly fell for each other,” Tom says. “I would hear my wife talking to her late at night on the phone. They just were totally besotted with one another. It was powerful.

“This is relatively new in human reproduction, where you take one woman’s egg and [another] woman’s womb and together with the help of some DNA from the man, they make a baby. … [I]t really makes sense, since they knew each other and cared about each other, that they really fell [for each other] in a rather funny and fresh and quite beautiful way. It was something to behold.”

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Jennifer went on a course of medications to stimulate her egg production. Kelley was similarly prepped. Then several of Jennifer’s eggs were surgically removed and placed in a petri dish along with a smattering of Tom’s DNA, obtained by him, solo, in a small space at the fertility clinic he calls the “Room of Requirement.”

Juniper recently had her first day of kindergarten in Bloomington. | Courtesy photo

Juniper recently had her first day of kindergarten in Bloomington. | Courtesy photo

Thus fertilized, two of Jennifer’s embryos were implanted in Kelley’s uterus in the hope that one of them would take root, as it were. Not much later, Kelley gave her husband the thumbs up — her home pregnancy test showed pink.

The to-be parents were thrilled. Doctors checked and rechecked the growing fetus in Kelley’s belly. The burgeoning human was perfect in every respect, including its gender, at least in her parents’ eyes.

One Sunday afternoon, halfway through a normal pregnancy, Kelley took the Frenches’ dog, Muppet, to a canine speed and skills competition. The dog won a medal and charged Kelley, joyously ramming her in the abdomen with her head. “It hurt,” Kelley writes. “Christ, it hurt a lot.” Before long, she found she was bleeding.

Tom sped over to the dog club. They dropped Muppet at home and raced to the hospital, the pain in Kelley’s gut causing her to cry out in the car. After examining Kelley, the doctors wore grave looks. Kelley was going into premature labor. If she had the baby at this time, it might not survive. Not only that, Kelley was bleeding so much, her own life was in danger. The doctors gave her labor-suppressing drugs and tried to stanch the bleeding. Their ministrations worked. They had to make certain Kelley’s fetus would last another month in her womb, to 24 weeks, “loosely considered the limit of human viability outside the womb,” she writes.

Together, the doctors, Kelley, Tom, and the as-yet unnamed little one made it to 23 weeks. “At a certain point,” Tom says, “when the baby is ready to come, the baby is ready to come.”

Their baby came. Juniper.

At 24 weeks, the doctors would have felt obligated to save the baby’s life. At 23, it would be a crap shoot. “There are many countries where the doctors won’t even try to save a baby at that point,” Tom says. “They told us there was an 80 percent chance that she would die or be born with some sort of a severe disability, which could have included … being paralyzed for all of her life. So it was a serious gamble. But we felt when she was born she showed enough fight and enough color and enough vitality that the doctors told us, well, if you want to go for it, we will support you.”

Juniper was a scant 20 ounces and somehow hanging on to life. “She didn’t look finished,” Tom says. “She was half finished.”

The first 196 days — 28 full weeks — of Juniper’s life were spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of St. Petersburg’s All Children’s Hospital.

The pod in which Juniper first stayed was filled with preemies — micro- and otherwise — and their parents. The memories of the place will stick with Tom for the remainder of his life.

“Babies [Juniper’s] age die all the time,” Tom says. “Babies older and bigger than Juniper were dying around us — like five feet, six feet away from us. We saw the look on one mom’s face. Death was not theoretical. Death was a very real possibility. Just to go down and get lunch in the cafeteria, you don’t know if she’s still going to be there when you come back.”

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Eventually, a private room in the NICU opened up. The Frenches, three of them, moved in. “It was very dark,” he remembers. “They’re trying to replicate the womb. There are a few windows but they’re up at the top. They’re very thin and shuttered so there’s no light coming in. There is the whirring and the beeping and the breathing of the machines. You’re surrounded by technology. And you’re surrounded, more importantly, by people, by human beings, who are working very, very hard, with great expertise, to eke out any advantage for this child. Otherwise, it’s just me and the baby or Kelley and the baby and we’re reading or singing. I played a lot of Bruce. Kelley would play Johnny Cash, singing to her ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ That made me love my wife all the more, hearing that.”

Kelley and Tom passed the weeks, the hours, the minutes, for pity’s sake, singing to their daughter and telling her stories. Kelley writes:

If we made her hunger for an ending, maybe we could keep her with us until dawn.

Tom began to read to her the entire Harry Potter series of books, at that time seven in all. People, including Kelley, looked at him as if he were crazy. He says Kelley asked him, “Why not Goodnight Moon? She doesn’t understand any of what you’re reading.”

Juniper, who has been taking gymnastics since she was two, was recently inspired by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. | Courtesy photos

Juniper, who has been taking gymnastics since she was two, was recently inspired by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. | Courtesy photos

He nodded. “It’s true,” he says. “But she wouldn’t have understood Goodnight Moon, either. She was just edging into consciousness. She could hear but she couldn’t even see when I started reading to her. She could feel our touch. But — I’ve read Goodnight Moon many times — she didn’t know what a bowl of mush was. She didn’t know what three little bears and three little chairs were. So all of it would have been nonsense to her, just a pattern of sound, a rhythm.

“That’s what I wanted. … I just wanted her to feel the sense of expectation, the sense of something unfolding that was worth waiting for. To read those books to Juniper, sitting in that little dark room, holding her hand, and watch the effect of those stories on her — I’ll never forget that. I would stop reading sometimes — I’d read for an hour or so, I was tired — and then her numbers on the monitor would drop when I stopped! The nurses would say, ‘You need to get back over here and keep going!’”

***

Kelley and Tom French tell the tale of Juniper’s survival in excruciating, dramatic, riveting detail in their new book. We know the ending, even as the story continues.

***

Earlier this month, Kelley wrote an open letter on her blog, juniperbook.com, to Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles — a gymnast. Kelley writes that Juniper began taking gymnastics classes when she was two years old. Like world-class gymnasts, Juniper is tiny and fearless. The Frenches — the three of them — watched the Rio Olympics. Kelley let Juniper stay up late so she could see Biles compete. Kelley writes:

When you nailed your floor routine and clinched the gold medal, Juniper rocketed off the couch and screamed.

Juniper’s been dealing with being the tiniest kid in the room of late. Other kids tease her and call her a baby. She cries sometimes. Now she has a role model in Biles, writes Kelley:

You have helped her counter one of the most powerful forces on Earth: the judgment of other girls. You’ve helped her see what is possible.

Soon after Kelley and Juniper discovered Biles on YouTube, Juniper posed a question to her mom.

“Is Simone Biles little like me?”

“Yes. She’s just like you.”

“She is better than me at gymnastics,” Juniper said. After a beat, she added, “That is okay.”

***

Juniper — Kelley and Tom call her “Junebug” — is complete and fully-formed now.

***

Editor’s note: You can listen to Michael G. Glab’s interview with Tom French on WFHB’s “Big Talk!” hereJuniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon, which will be available in mid-September, can be preordered here.

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Michael G. Glab
Michael G. Glab has been an independent writer since 1983 when he wrote his first article for the Chicago Reader about professional wrestlers. His in-depth personality profiles became a staple in the Reader over the next two decades. Today, he hosts a WFHB radio interview feature called “Big Talk” and is the brain behind the blog, The Electron Pencil. WFIU’s David Brent Johnson has described Big Mike as “a hip town crier” who writes “in a colorful, intelligent working class vernacular.”
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