Savannah Aulger will never have snapshots with her father on her first birthday, on Christmas or at a school event.
The only picture she will ever have of them is the one as sweet as it is heartbreaking. Hooked up to an oxygen mask at the hospital, the man she would call dad cradled her in his arms for 45 minutes.
He sobbed. He smiled. And there was no doubt that he loved her.
“He would talk to my stomach when I was pregnant,” Diane Aulger said of her husband. “He was so excited for her.”
The next day, Mark Aulger slipped into a coma.
The Aulger family of The Colony, Texas, had a lot to rejoice about in the weeks before Savannah’s Jan. 18 birth, which was induced two weeks early so her father could hold her.
A home movie on Christmas showed a pregnant Diane Aulger, 31, handing out gifts to the couple’s four children, the oldest of whom is 15. Mark, 52, who had just received the news that he had beaten cancer, played the guitar, providing a soundtrack for the Christmas morning festivities.
On Jan. 3, life threw a curveball.
Mark Aulger was admitted to the hospital, unable to breathe.
Doctors told him that eight months of chemotherapy had ravaged his lungs and diagnosed him with pulmonary fibrosis. “We thought he could get on steroid treatment and oxygen and live for years,” Diane Aulger said.
But on Jan. 16, Mark Aulger found out those treatments would be fruitless. He had one week left to live.
“He was awake and alert, himself. I really didn’t believe the doctor [at first],” Diane Aulger said. “The next day his doctor came in and said: ‘When are you going to have this baby?'”
On Jan. 18, in a larger-than-normal delivery room, Mark rested in his bed, a supportive presence for Diane as their baby girl entered the world.
“The day she was born his oxygen levels were really high,” Aulger said. “He held her for 45 minutes. Him and I just cried that whole time.”
As Diane was recovering, Mark tried holding his daughter again the next day, but was only able to last one minute. “He just couldn’t take it,” Diane Aulger said.
The devoted husband and father of five slipped into a coma. “If she cried, he would shake his head and moan. I put her on him when he was in the coma a few times and his hand would move toward her,” Aulger said.
On January 23rd, with his family by his side, Mark Aulger died in his hospital bed.
“The kids go on as if dad is really still here,” Diane Aulger said. “Mark was a very funny guy. My kids still tell jokes how they would when he was around. He would have been a wonderful daddy to Savannah.”