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Friday, November 10, 2017

Friends In Low Places.

Two years ago, I stumbled upon a blog post I've since thought about many times. While it may seem harsh to some,  it remains the most honest depiction of the (appropriate) bitterness that can surround the loss of a child, that I've ever read.

Sadly, there exists an expectation with regards to grief.  I remember first sensing a pressure around the six month mark.  Conversations returned to normal topics and I felt the need to suppress it all in talks of the weather and Cardinals playoff games.  I was thinking of her, (and of the pain) all the time, but it no longer felt safe to disclose.  Of course life goes on, and of course no one ever said it to me aloud but I began to feel their assumptions, like a push from behind I hadn't expected.  She's smiling.  She's wearing lipstick again.  She's okay.

It's just that I wasn't. 

It is an impossible pain, to live without your child.  To grow her and birth her and bury her within a years' time, and then return to... what?  Life?  What life?

But it's even more impossible to exist in a world that watched you grow her, birth her, bury her, and who assumes you could ever be the same.

After our next baby was born, these expectations intensified.  Of course we are happy and grateful and relieved that he arrived safely.  Of course I look at him and picture those tumultuous nine months; all the other outcomes I had planned for that could have just as easily happened.  But of course it's still hard.  Life is still incredibly lacking and incredibly prickly and incredibly hard.  And in many, many ways, I am still not okay. 

Last summer I met someone for dinner.   She and I, though years apart in age, became close after our loved ones both suffered traumatic brain injuries.  When my daughter died, she was there for me.  Like, really there. 

There were the friends who asked me to go shopping with them, or out to dinner, and then there was this woman who would sit with me on the phone, messaging for hours, talking about the most difficult things; things that scared me and things I'd been harboring and things that cannot possibly be sorted over lunch on the patio.  This woman wasn't afraid of me.  More importantly, she seemed to understand my grief, my bitterness, my disdain for normal life happenings, more than most people I'd known for decades. 

When we met, we immediately began to catch each other up on the past 8 months.  Terrible two's and retirement and the like and then, her newest granddaughter. 

"I know you're happy for me," she said.  " I didn't send a picture because I didn't want to cause you any more pain."

My eyes and my heart softened, and in that moment I realized something surprising.  I WANTED to hear about her granddaughter.  I wanted to see her picture. 

It's strange how my pulse slowed then; how quickly my hands reached out in connection.  How the moment my eyes met the screen, I felt something that pictures of little girls with little bows in their hair hardly bring me anymore.  I felt happy.  For her. 

I am the farthest from perfect.  In the past four years, I have disappointed more people than I could count on five hands.  There is a stack of invites and unrequited text messages the recesses of my mind could never hope to count.  I have let down my friends, my husband, my sons, but my life is a learning process now. How to breathe without her.  How to stand upright.  How to cope and to accept.  How to forgive.  And most recently, when others can place their feelings aside for what remains of my happiness, how to do the same for them. 

And I'm learning that when your baby dies you need friends. You need friends who will call when you don't, who will reach out when you can't.   You need friends who will tell you that your feelings are valid, and justified, and okay, even when they may not believe this to be true. You need friends who will show up the day after and four years later; who text on her birthday but also on boring Tuesday nights in April.  You need friends who will hold your heart in theirs with every decision, as though it were the most fragile, most aching, most broken thing.

And you need friends who watch as your ice cream falls and melts on the floor, who will savor their cone in another room, for a time, until you're ready.  Until your taste buds work again. 


Sunday, October 15, 2017


In 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared the month of October to be"Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month".  I didn't learn this from a history book or some weary tour guide, I learned of this declaration as I would learn so many things after that morning:  the hard way.  

After a textbook pregnancy in 2014,  I delivered a stillborn baby girl. A girl we'd lovingly named after her great-grandmother.  A girl who'd kicked and hiccupped and turned around inside me for nearly nine months.  A girl with a full head of dark, fuzzy hair.  A girl with her father's toes.  A girl whose lungs would never know the air. 

Eight months later I found myself in the bathroom, staring at two faded lines on a stick.  I remember showing the lines to my husband.   "Okay," he smiled.  "Okay."

"How is this okay?"  I'd asked. 

At our first ultrasound the technician made a face.  I remember the immediate validation, the all too familiar devastation rising up from my stomach.   "There's no heartbeat, right?" 

Her eyes widened, "I'm sorry, I thought I was going to sneeze.  There it is!  There's the heartbeat!"

On the way home he asked how I felt. 

Between the tears I told him the truth.  "I feel like we're either really brave or really fucking stupid."

He laughed and then he said,  "I think we're a lot of both."

There is something to be said for stupidity; for being reckless, for throwing (verified and experienced and extremely valid) concern to the wind.  To be certain, all parents are stupid in this regard, to some extent.   We look to the horrors of the world and demand invincibility.  We convince ourselves that we possess the controls.  We watch the news and we say the prayers and we insist that it could never happen to ours. 

But there is something more to be said for the bravery: for the re-entry into a world that has failed you in the most devastating way; to see every sharp edge and drop off from a place you never, ever wanted to know.  To hold the knowledge that it could happen, because it did happen, and to continue...walking, cooking, working, breathing.

I remember as we told people, it wasn't happy or even anticipatory.  The "telling" was something that grew to become a necessary task, in the literal sense, with each passing day.  To say the words "I'm pregnant" out loud was a betrayal:  a terrifying, dreadful feeling.  People would exclaim "Congratulations!" and it would confuse me, send me running into empty classrooms and restrooms and laundry rooms to cry or catch my breath.  All I could see was the enormity of the task before me, all of the uncertainty and the fear.  And her face, still and silent in my arms.

It is difficult to describe what "awareness" means to me now.  Of course there is the need to inform; to educate and share and comfort and warn.  What began as a sort of reluctant obligation, a willingness to move forward and speak her name, has evolved into more than that; more than buttons on a keyboard.  The awareness is a memory, and a skin, and a weight in my arms.  It has bred a love, and a psychosis, and a marrow all its own.   To be aware, for me, is to breathe anymore. 

And so it is difficult to be reckless.  To push the fear aside in a moment; to trust in a world that has left me on my knees with her ashes in my hands.  It's the bravery that becomes most familiar.  The pits in my stomach and the panic and the palpitations.   The putting one foot in front of the other with the knowledge and experience and memory of all you've lost.  The creeping around walls and counting rising chests at nap time.  And while every moment is a fear all-consuming, there is something in the ability to acknowledge the pain and to forge onward, anyway, towards what you still believe might be possible.  Even for you. 

I know there are some who consider him a band aid; that this unique, whole person independent of the tragedy that befell us serves as some sort of replacement.  It sounds absurd but I can see it, in their faces and through the holes in our conversations, as though one person could replace another.  As though his happy entrance into this world erases the trauma of hers.  As though you could discount the silence of that hospital room, or the absence of pink Legos in the carpet, with even the happiest of things.  

But he is not a band aid, because a band aid stops the bleeding. 

Today those two lines greet me at the door. They laugh and pool their nose in my neck and throw tantrums in the produce aisle.  They tap my shoulder in the middle of the night and leave backwash in my dinner glass.  Today those lines hold life in a pulse all their own, louder and more distracting that any fear I could hope to conjure.  Every day, they open wounds and limbs and parts of me I'd deemed closed long ago, which is more than one could say for any tourniquet.  And, as fleeting as time they achieve the impossible, again and again.

Because although I am very much aware, in these moments I am reckless again. 


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The darndest things

Two years and some change ago,  I was picking up my oldest from school.  

One of the teachers assigned to parking lot duty was very, very pregnant.  As we turned to say goodbye she asked how the baby was doing, in reference to his little brother.  

"He's fine," my oldest answered for me.   "How is your baby?"

The teacher laughed. 

"This one can't get into too much trouble yet," she beamed, gently patting her stomach.

My son shrugged.  

"Babies can die inside their mommies,"  he told her.  Then he handed me his Star Wars backpack and sprinted to the twisty slide.

I'm not sure how long she stood there, mouth agape.  I'm not sure if she told her husband about it, or if she avoided my son until winter break or if it crossed her mind ever again--but I know it must have scared her, if only briefly, to acknowledge this most horrific possibility. 

For a month after that I avoided eye contact, or maybe she did, or maybe both of us did.  It is certainly no goal of mine to walk around: a living, breathing symbol of death; terrorizing every expectant mother in my path for all eternity.  It's just that it was never a second thought of mine.   And every day, most every minute, I wish someone would have scared me too.

I have learned that a child's vocabulary develops much sooner than his tact.  On the way home, we discussed words and their power-- how they make others feel, how his teacher might have felt when he said what he did.  

"I'm sorry, mommy," he said.

I told him he didn't need to apologize; that it isn't his fault babies sometimes die inside their mommies, that he should always try to be honest and to share what he knows with others. 

And then I cried a little behind my sunglasses, because I wished there were someone else in the backseat with him.  And I wished that with regards to babies, he knew no more than the other five year olds on the playground. 

And then we got ice cream.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sticks and Stones.

I quit my therapist.  In my defense, she offended me.

I should have known the first day we met.  I sat down to face her and I explained why I was there; glazed over the most brutal and traumatic moments of my life in five sentences.  I spoke of her hair and how her eyes never opened.  I explained how that winter has never lifted; how the grief, ever so stealth-mode, has stopped chasing me from parking lots and Christmas dinners and has manifested in less tangible ways.  Beneath the skin.  Tearless and fearful and commonplace, like a target on my back.

 She insisted we complete a family tree, and when it came time for names I said the boys first.

 "And the baby?"  she asked me.  "What would her name have been?"

 I cringed, but she never looked up from her legal pad.

Since my daughter died I've searched for validation.  Behind furrowed brows in doctor's offices and double strollers on playgrounds.  From near strangers who speak of a master plan, as though stillbirth were some necessary evil; the only path one could have taken to arrive where one is today.   

I have learned that, unfortunately, not everyone is capable of awarding this to me.  There are people who will never acknowledge my daughter's existence to my face.  There are medical professionals who will say stupid things behind thin rimmed glasses, and there are friends who will shun me for politely and respectfully exiting difficult group text messages.  (I must add an aside here, to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation:  save yourself the months of self doubt and resentment and shame, and heed the words of one of my new favorite writers:  "These people are not your friends.  They are just people you used to know.")

The grief that follows the death of a baby before its birth is unlike any other kind.  I have learned this truth in the aftermath of my own personal tragedy. In remembering my daughter, there are no family pictures in the hospital circle drive.  There is no reminiscing about her first steps at Grandma's on Easter morning; no grade school buddies who visit every year on her birthday.  I don't hyperventilate at the scent of lemon meringue because I don't know what she'd have liked to eat, because she never opened her eyes. 

And so you grieve it all, really--what might have been and what will never be.  You hypothesize, grasping tightly at the ancient, sporadic kicks from within--the only physical memories anyone will ever have of this person, and you grow them as though you have a clue.  You stare longingly at Disney princesses on TV and you take walks around the block at dusk and you say to yourself, she would love this, as if you know.  But you will never know.

Sometimes I am grateful that I may grieve in the abstract.  That this pain, this all encompassing ache spears me daily in less specific ways.  I can sing to her brother at night without breaking down at the parts she used to join in.  I can walk the grocery store, push the cart and never expect to feel her soft hands on mine.  I can say things like, "She never knew anything but love," and almost believe it. 

But then I'm reminded, ever so suddenly and all too often, that the world doesn't know her like me.  Never held her weight in their arms.  Doesn't remember all she might have been.  Hasn't seen her like I have.  Doesn't see her at all. 

In these moments I do what any mother would.  I clear my throat and I shift my weight, and I correct them from their expensive couch.   

 "Her name is Josephine."

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Plight of the Rainbow

I remember the resident's words exactly.  Precisely.  Every heightened syllable and elongation.  The wand was on my abdomen and he hadn't said a word in over a minute.  I could hear my heart on the monitor beside me, beats flying off the paper. 

"She's dead, isn't she?"

These words were foreign in my mouth.  Calm.  They couldn't be mine. 

His lip curled at the side, the way my mother's did when I was five and I asked about the people on the news, but his eyes wouldn't meet me yet.

"What I'm seeing isn't reassuring."

They define shock as the response to a sudden upsetting or surprising event, and I would classify my daughter's death as such.  I remember every second that followed.  The nurse's gasp, the weight of her hand on my shoulder.  I remember how they turned the screen to face me, how she looked like a portrait; a shell of the person I'd seen all those times before, dancing in gray above my head. I remember the beige walls turning to bars.  This box that would hold me now; a permanent separation from all I'd ever known.  I remember how I couldn't taste food for days, and how time seemed to stop for months.  But above all else during those first few days without her, I remember feeling nothing at all. 

In the physiological sense, shock can be life threatening; but from an emotional standpoint, it can actually be helpful.  There are stories of soldiers losing limbs in the midst of battle, their brains not initially allowing for the totality of the pain, so as to ensure they reach safety.  Hikers who fall from trails and suffer debilitating physical injuries, can drag their limp and bleeding bodies for days in search of rescue.   During a traumatic event, endorphins can actually be released, saturating the spaces between cells and essentially preventing the body from realizing, "Hey. This hurts."  In short, we are hard-wired to survive, even in the most trying of times and most interestingly, the brain can override a pain you'd swear would kill you. 

Recently,  I've been wondering if one can exist in a perpetual state of shock forever.  Numb to most all emotions,  joy and anticipation and logic, save for one notable exception:  fear.  Last week our youngest underwent a minor surgery and when the doctor entered the waiting room and proceeded to explain that all went well, I looked to my husband for the clarification.  "This means he's still breathing?"  I asked.

Later, when confronted about my neuroses I told my husband the truth.  It seems after being permanently separated from one of my children against my will, I live in state of absolute certainty that it will happen again. I told him that since before he was born, I've been waiting for him to leave me.   That someone, somewhere is seething at the joy that floods my veins when I hold him, and that it's so scary sometimes I can barely breathe.   First, he suggested we open a bottle of wine, and then he told  me what he's told me more than once since that fateful February night:  There are people who can help me, and I need to meet them. 

I started seeing a therapist, and while I can't say that I love her yet,  she offered something helpful.  During our first visit she asked what I would consider my biggest hurdles, and so I told her.  I told her how I have trouble picturing my children beyond their ages now.  I explained how it feels like impending doom, all the time.  What else is going to happen?  And to whom?  I told her how I can't bear the thought of ever being surprised about anything, ever again.  How I want to be ahead of it, out in front and prepared.  And so I read and I ask and I plan, for the most horrific of events, every day.  How mostly anymore, life with them feels less like a logical sequence of events, and more like a loan. 

She looked up from her paper.  "That must be exhausting."

I began to cry, acknowledging that yes, it is exhausting and that yes, it is potentially ruining every relationship I share, and then I asked her how to make it stop.  How do I allow life the courtesy of regaining my trust?

"You don't have to allow it,"  she said. "Life is trying all the time."

I snorted, mopping the wet hysterics with my fingers.  "Well, it needs to try harder."

She handed me another Kleenex. 

"So do you."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Goodbye Girl

Recently, I spent six hours researching laryngospasm and malignant hyperthermia. When your toddler is about to undergo surgery, many words creep out from the recesses of a Google search or ten, and these were the three that kept me awake.

I don't pretend that I am unique; the only parent who has ever lost a night's sleep before placing her child's life in a stranger's hands.  Bus drivers.  Babysitters.  Soccer coaches and camp counselors and crossing guards.  These routines have proven effective in rendering my neuroses softer, albeit ever present.  Like the hand that remains in the air long after the answer;  never asking a thing.  

It's just that after you bury a child, you've buried a child.  And there is no going back to before you held the shovel.  

Before my daughter died, I'd have thought about these things.  Growing up in the days before the internet, in my spare time I would read the medical encyclopedia.  I would diagnose my siblings accordingly, from the common cold to lupus and brain tumors, ever the attentive medical professional. Once, my little sister remembers waking up to my nose nearly touching hers, just to ensure that she was still breathing.  Eventually, due to a significant amount of communal and self-inflicted anxiety, this book was hidden from me indefinitely.  

The sudden death of my daughter has been absolutely devastating in all of the imaginable ways; however none have proven more debilitating than my intuition that night.  After a lifetime of being told not to worry, she died.  And in my mind, every other logical, possible outcome will always follow. The sound of my phone in the desk is a heart attack.  The thunderstorm, an old tree through their windows at midnight.  The uneven sidewalk is seven stitches and a skull fracture, and a 30 minute field trip to Purina Farms is a panic attack in the parking lot.  Tragedy is not the exception for me anymore, it is the expectation.  Death is no longer inevitable, it is only, always, imminent. 

There were a thousand goodbyes in my mind, before we ever said hello.  Every day I told him, as though it would be our last together.  In the car and at the table, during the movie and the conference and the lunch date.  Sometimes my hand would gently rest atop him and sometimes it lay at my side, paralyzed.  "I love you," I'd tell him.  "Thank you for being here.  Goodbye."   She never heard me say those words, and so I wanted to be sure he did.  Just in case.  

It's hard to live life this way; to maintain composure and dinner dates and friendships around people who don't understand.  What it's like to be told, over and over that everything is fine by intelligent, competent professionals who have no reason to humor the pull in your stomach.  Only to abruptly find that nothing is fine, nor will ever be fine again.  I cannot discount the joke that her death has made of my sanity, and my ability to trust in life again.  Which is precisely why I need to celebrate weeks like this.  

As I sat in the waiting room, counting the minutes (37) before his surgeon appeared in the doorway, I wondered many things.  Was he asleep before he knew to be scared?  Had his doctors skipped their morning coffee and does pacing make the time pass faster?  I looked to his father and I asked if he was nervous, and he assured me for the tenth time that morning, that he wasn't.  

"I am."  I told him.  "I'm really scared."  

He chuckled, looking up from his iPad then.  "And yet," he said, placing his hand on mine,  "Here you are."

There was a conflict in my head just then, as I realized that this time I hadn't said goodbye. In all of my anguish and apprehension that morning, a momentary lapse as the nurses gently took him from my arms.  He was kicking and wailing into the hall, and I had kissed both his cheeks and I'd said, "Be strong, buddy.  I'll see you soon."

And then, I did.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Today I passed Marquette High School on my way home.  While I have made this drive many times since our move last summer, today I felt a pull.   I turned around in a subsequent neighborhood, barely noticing the houses appearing before me with the rain, and then I found myself in the parking lot.  It's strange how the mind can mess with you; harbor memories until all relevance and convenience have passed.  But then, grief is hardly convenient. 

I sat there for a moment, watched the water hit the blacktop and cursed the absence of an umbrella out loud to no one, and then I thought about the last time I was here.  With her. 

It was October.   Post-season high school softball and I, the assistant junior varsity coach had been sent to scout our potential opponents.  There I sat behind the backstop, clipboard and rosters in hand. I spoke to no one, quietly sipping my Sprite as I charted pitches and bunt formation and clean up stances.  I was eighteen weeks pregnant. 

It was the seventh inning when I felt her move for the first time.  I remember it as though it were ten minutes, and not nearly four years ago. There'd been a squeeze play.  It was brave and it was dramatic, and as the players collided at home I had shifted, ever so slightly and there she was. 

I remember because I looked down, hand to my stomach and I'd missed the call at the plate.  Everyone was cheering and it felt like they were cheering for us.  I smiled to myself.  I looked around at all the people I didn't know, and I thought how absolutely, annoyingly perfect my life had become. 

I'm sure people assume that it's difficult to move forward.  Some days it's all you can do to gain an inch either way, but for me it's harder to go back.  She left me and suddenly I could only look ahead, instantly terrified of everything familiar, and all I'd ever known before. 

Looking back is what hurts the most.  The moments you were happiest.  The song on the radio after the ultrasound.  Strawberry milkshakes and sand in toes and pictures in denim smocks.  Chalk stained tennis shoes and sunflower seeds and the smell of glove on your hand. 

Today the air is wet and the stands are empty.  School is out and the grass is tall.  There were no calls from Centerfield and there was no reminder from within.  Just a mom on her knees in the rain, and one too many U Turns.