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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

Backstops.

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. 









Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Other Mother's Day

When your child dies, so many things change.

Of course there is the obvious, immense absence from all things.  Breakfasts and graduation ceremonies and grocery trips.  Family reunions and spontaneous kickball games and Christmas dinners.  You are always acutely aware of the absence, even when it doesn't look like it.  Even when you partake in the smile or the dance or the conversation, you always feel it.. As though it were a part of you, consistent as any fleshy appendage.

Then there is the wonder.  Who would they be now, in this moment?  What would they look like?  What favorite snacks would line your pantry and which songs would calm them most?  Would she prefer red to pink and soccer to ballet and mushrooms to applesauce?  There are moments when you'd swear this isn't your life, and there are nights when you wake and wonder if she'd be lying next to you now, stubby pink toenails peaking through fleece-lined bottoms, were she here. 

This is not to mention the changes that occur in your every relationship, profession, interaction, and marriage.  Or the ones that take place within you, physically.  The involuntary adrenaline flood and subsequent respiratory distress that kicks in when you receive a shower invitation in the mail, or when your niece asks you to hold her purse, or when the flight attendant mentions her daughter. 

I'm sure many just assume I've gone off the deep end, and in many ways this is certainly true.  How else can one explain bursting into hysterics watching Sesame Street or the general, noncommittal apathy towards all remaining life decisions?  Only in most ways, I am certain these new personality traits are within the normal boundaries of any parent whose child's heart stopped beating, were there boundaries for that sort of thing.

Recently, I was selected to attend a senior soccer game. One of the players referenced me in her speech, as her most influential person.  Her words brought me to tears, but I was already crying.

You see there, in the stands, stammering and hamming around was this little girl, maybe three, maybe less.  She was wearing rainbow Nike shorts and pink tennis shoes, her hair in disarray amid a sea of curls and a scalloped pink bow.  She ran from mom to aunt to unsuspecting crowd member, broken flower in hand.  During the halftime presentation she joined her sister on the field, beaming as she held the lone, red balloon.

When this kind of thing happens now I can mostly hold it together; erase the tear from my cheek in the bleachers, as my vital organs pause.

But I'm no less sad than I was the day she died.   It's no less unfair and despite what my generally upbeat stature might suggest, I feel no less exactly like some gaping, seeping wound for which there is no cover.  No cure.  Only time.

The last three years have altered me.  Many of these alterations I can run from and point to and apologize for, and many I could never hope to explain or survive.   I remember holding her in my arms, her skin growing colder by the second and feeling so far from prepared; already so far from the person I'd been.  But even then I couldn't know how much she would change me. 

I received several messages last week, wishing me a Happy Mother's Day.  The complexity of these words never escapes me.  This day is confusing at least, and debilitating at most because the truth is, I am no longer a happy mother.

I cannot say this will ever change, because when I buried my daughter I buried a part of me, too.  And there they lay for all eternity, together beneath the ground.  And I could go back with my shovel; an attempt to  resurrect what used to be but it's such a fruitless labor.  Because both of them are gone, and because it just leaves dirt on my hands. 

I prefer to  live in the acknowledgement of both, and alongside those who allow me such an existence.  The ones who still care about girl whose heart stopped one unassuming Saturday afternoon, shortly after her daughter's did the same. 

I prefer to acknowledge the beauty that becomes in carrying on.  Even when it hurts, and even when it barely leaves the bed.  Her brothers,  hand in hand on the path to her tree; sharing crackers on the bench.  The oldest, sprinting the moment his feet hit the gravel and the youngest, squealing at the geese and losing sight of his ankles in the grass. 

Pooling laughter in the backseat. Half naked, public baths in muddy fountain water.  Sloppy toddler serenades and chasing dragonflies and snow cones before dinner. 

I am most alive in these moments with them.   I see the parts of her I could feel then; the parts that only my heart was privy to.  And in these moments I am grateful for such a time with her, and for such a time as this. 












Thursday, May 4, 2017

I Am Not A Teacher.

In honor of "Teacher Appreciation Month", I would like to express my gratitude for the many amazing teachers, colleagues, and students in my life (past and present).  In case no one tells you tomorrow, or the day after, THANK YOU for ALL that you do, every day.



I am not a teacher.

I am a judge; an auctioneer; a comedian. 

I am a banker.  And a chef.  And a doctor.   All by nine am. 

I am a stealer of time; a slayer of falsehoods; I am a voice in their heads.


I am not a teacher; I am a shield. 

A steady hand in a lockdown drill. 

I make them feel safe in a world that is never so.  I surround, like a calm in the night; like velvet to a sacred scroll. 

 
I am not a teacher; I am a chorus, and a circus, and a magician. 

I make stars from paper and grit from hands and diplomas from brick walls. 

I bring life to rainy mornings and Pythagorean Theorems.  I tell them to lift their heads, dry their eyes, and then I show them why the leaves change. 


I am not a teacher; I am a madman.

I turn rage into sonnets; reservation to center stage. 

I step into wars; flying fists, lost innocence, and scars.  I take the bullet; every hit, all the blame, and then I return in the morning.


I am not a teacher; I am a mother.

I hold band aids to bloodied knees, and hands across the street.  I feed and I clothe and I protect, with all of me, every day. 

I dream in sloppy cursive and college rule.  I extrapolate and interrogate and allocate, and when they curse me for it I remain.  In their corner always. 


I am not a teacher; I am a limb.

I am a shoulder, and a locked knee, and a heart that bleeds and bleeds. 

I am an ear to greet their wounds; a backbone on a playground, and a brain on a whiteboard on three hours' sleep.


I am not a teacher; I am a rock star, and a jester, and a broken record. 

I show them lines on paper and in hallways, and then I tell them to never stay inside.


I am an torch, and an umbrella, and a first line.

I am a nag, and a punching bag, and a friend.

I am intelligent and intrusive and inadequate.  I am the least revered and the highest of stakes. 


I am determined and ill-prepared and willing, but I am not a teacher, because what I do cannot be held in a word, or a book, or a classroom. 


I am the work that spans lifetimes.

I am the love that waits with a smile,
who cries when they leave me single file.

I am not a teacher. 

I am everything, and everyone else.