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Monday, April 28, 2014

Trigger Happy

Dear Josie,

They surround me now.

Hiding in parking lots and television sets, proudly displayed on billboards and protruding stomachs next to me in pharmacy lines. They patiently wait, these triggers, ready to remind me at traffic lights and staff meetings, during routine conversations and while playing freeze tag. Lest I forget, I am different now, brought to my knees by E Trade commercials and UPS packages.  My world is a giant eggshell.  One enormous minefield, every step a test.

Do you know that I still receive the text messages for "BuyBuyBaby" coupons?  In a sick way, they provide some comic relief at various points in my day.  My phone will chime and I will say the name aloud, chuckling to myself.

Is this really happening?  This is who I am now?

I'm the lady who laughs aloud at the morbidity of innocuous puns.  The lady who finds humor in giant neon reminders of her lost baby. 


Your brother and I were at the park last week, and it was gorgeous out.  There were several children on the playground, including Max, a very cute and very curious tow-headed one year old with rosy cheeks.

We followed Max and his father all over the park, your brother leaping to help him wobble across the footbridge, asking to hold his hand.  Max's father was all smiles, thankful for the help.  And then he said it.

"You must be a big brother."

I froze.  The sun was shining so brightly.  I didn't want to clarify, to rain all over his innocent observation slash question, but I didn't want to ignore you either, to breeze over your existence in a sentence or two.  That hurts just as bad. 

Before I could manage a response your brother offered one for me.

"I AM a big brother," he happily declared. 

I swallowed hard.  Max's father gave his apologies as Frank explained that you were not at the park because 'Baby Josie was sick.' I didn't elaborate, and the subject quickly shifted to "Do squirrels eat sausage?"

I walked away deflated.  I had selfishly dodged this bullet, and now there were two more people on the planet who would never know your story.  I imagined Max's father at the dinner table later that night.  Over the meatloaf he would tell  his wife about the charming little boy they had met at the park, his baby sister at home with the flu.

I wish it were simple. The truth is, I will never be able to convey the depths of my sadness, the impact you have had on all of us.  Not in fifteen minutes on a park bench or a lifetime anywhere else.  I loathe being the one who puts the looks on their faces, the one who makes them hug their children tighter. 

I can't control these thoughts of you, this grief that is ever present.  I ride each wave as it comes, kicking and fighting my way to the top, gripping anything I can feel and holding on for dear life until it relents, folding away under rows of itself, crashing and reeling with a promise to return.

Recently your father and I attended a wedding.  Another beautiful day.  After dinner I was standing outside talking with a man I had just met.  We were discussing the Good Samaritan Law, among other things, when he asked about my tattoo. 

I thought it over for a second, picturing myself changing before him.  I would no longer be the pleasant girl outside at the wedding.  I would watch myself evolve in his eyes as I had in countless others, into the the woman who lost her baby.  I could feel the cloud form above me as I straddled the wave, prepared to fall.

I calmly explained how my tattoo was for you, the daughter who left me two months ago abruptly and without warning, before she was even born.  The sadness seeping through my pores as I let it out, this awful thing growing in your place.  I felt it rise, this monster that had been circling my veins in a silent threat, letting it breathe so that I could do the same.  I felt the release as I spoke your name, felt the metal break the skin.

There was a gasp and then an apology.  I watched him politely rush away, cursing myself.

"Seriously, Nora?  You are at a wedding for crying out loud.  Give the guy a break."

Imagine my surprise as I saw him walking back.  This stranger, this father of four I had just met, tears in his eyes.   He wasn't scared of you.  He had only walked away to place his drink down, so that he could hug me. 

With both arms.

Missing you,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Dear Josie,

This is my favorite picture.

I never thought I would say this about any photograph of myself in a swimsuit, pregnant; however I have recently learned that things can change very quickly.

I am a little over six months along here. 

This is my favorite picture because it is the perfect visual of how I choose to remember your life.  One hand just above you, the other around your brother, the smiles on our faces, the storm approaching that I never saw coming. 

There were so many beautiful pictures taken at the hospital by wonderful, caring people.  Your arms were delicately folded into gentle poses.   There was the gorgeous white gown you wore, donated and created by loving hands for babies like you.  Babies whose parents didn't think to bring the clothes.  Babies who weren't ready.  Babies who never made it home.

I have only been able to look at these images a handful of times.  They are indescribably beautiful to me.  Priceless. 
But they show me much more than your perfect, tiny features.  In these pictures of you I see the physical manifestation of everything that was taken from me.  I see flat lines and hands I can't hold.  I see cheeks that will never be squeezed by tickle monsters you will never run from.  Knees forever unscathed, arms that won't fold around a brother's shoulders for holiday pictures.  I see the lips that will never kiss the prom date who will never speak your name.

In these images I can smell the hospital room, hear the sounds of the healthy newborns down the hall.  I can see the nurse coming to wheel you away for the last time like some decadent dessert.  Sweet and forbidden, forever just beyond our reach.

Most days this is all too much.  I like to look at this picture instead.

I like to think of all the smiles you provided from within.  During second hour lab experiments and countless car rides.  I think of the bedtimes stories and dance parties you were privy to.  The yawns and the laughter during  hundreds of "Go Dog, Go!" and Ninja Turtle renditions.  I imagine what our voices sounded like during Saturday morning breakfast, what it felt like to know nothing but love.  A love so pure and fecund; like the ivy that circles and embraces, sending rootlets from the stem.

I like to think that you were perfect, save for one anatomical anomaly.  Without warning or explanation, the heart that set you free. 
When your brother is asked about you he always smiles, straightening his posture.
"Baby Josie isn't in Mommy's tummy anymore.  She's in our hearts."
Then he returns, satisfied, to his hot wheel race. 
As far as he is concerned there are no more questions.  Regarding you, he is content.   There is nothing left to ponder.
Turns out, there's a lot one can learn from a three year old. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Syndication Vindication

Dear Josie, 

In the weeks since you left me I have watched a lot of really bad television.

I blame it on the reality that I had an enormous amount of time to think, and I didn't really want to.  Early on, I was searching for a distraction.  I got several.  

Housewife cat fights and medical dramas provided fleeting moments where I could forget my very real problems, and attempt to focus on something less intrusive.

One particular series has been quite soothing to me, and one evening I found myself engrossed in an episode where there had been a car wreck.  The mother had been pregnant and her baby had to be delivered early in order to save the mother's life.  This baby was a girl, and the doctors did their best to save her.  There were tubes and tears, and in a dramatic ending the little girl survived against all odds.  She was shown several scenes later as a vivacious toddler, her mother proudly watching from a few feet away.

I found it incredibly hard to finish the episode.  Of course I was happy that this beautiful, make-believe little miracle had made it.  Before you, I'm sure this would have been the only emotion I felt.

One week after we lost you I was melting into the couch watching the Academy Awards.  I had tuned in right as Pharrell Williams made his appearance.  I actually laughed out loud at the irony while I mouthed the words, the audience gladly bobbing with the lyrics.

"Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof."
"Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth."

Normally I would be jealous of their toned biceps and Dior handbags,  but this time was different.  I was jealous of their genuine smiles, the joy they were experiencing as he sang.  

Since the Oscars I have heard this song many times.  Through the radio and your father's ipod,  I have watched your brother dance along in the backseat, faking the smiles for him as I fight the urge to change the channel.

Two weeks and three seasons later there was another episode.  This time, a baby born prematurely with a life threatening condition.  I watched as the doctors tried, yet again, to save such a fragile life.  I watched the tubes and the tests; however this time it was beyond their control.  After the boy was taken off the life support, he was handed to his mother, passing away minutes later as she begged,"Please, no!  I'm not ready."  As the baby took his last breath, his mother sobbed. "Your mommy loves you so much.  I love you so much."

Usually this is where I would change the channel, but through my tears I realized something scary.  Somehow, this episode had been easier for me to watch.   I wanted to enter the screen and hold her as she cried.  I could feel her heart breaking.  I wanted to tell her that I wasn't ready either, that we could never be ready for this.  I wanted to hug the writers too.  To thank them for showing that there is not always a happy ending, for the proof that I was not alone.  There are people on couches who need to know that.  

I am not sure that I believe happiness is the truth.  Not always, anyway.  

As a society, we often feel that we need to mask our sadness, our fears.  Most do not want to acknowledge death.  No one wants to admit that babies sometimes die.  It is too painful, too awful to accept.  That is, until you are forced to.

A friend asked me once what motherhood was like.  Instead of the cookie cutter response I'm sure she was expecting, I was brutally honest.  

"It's really scary."  I told her.  

I went on to explain that it's like this huge piece of you walking around outside of your body.  You can't control what happens to this piece of you.   It could be hurt while you aren't looking, which isn't as scary as acknowledging that something bad could happen while you are in close proximity.  Even while it is still inside of you.  

The truth is often ugly and scary.  The truth can hurt.  Really, really bad.   And I don't have the luxury of ignoring it anymore.

The song in my head is no longer upbeat, and I doubt that many would like to dance to it. But realistically, there are some things that can bring you down.  So far down that you don't know if you'll ever get back up again.  There is comfort in that honesty, in the words of grieving mothers hugging me through keyboards and television sets.  For the time being, I find my happiness there.  In the cruel, dark places that accept my pain.  In the arms of those who can no longer change the channel.

I don't begrudge those who can still dance untethered, and there are days where I can feel my lips folding in that familiar way.  Days where a smile feels so good that I wish I could bottle it and stick it in my refrigerator.  But truthfully, some days I just don't have the energy to fake it.  And I can't always hide the scary parts of me under the waterproof mascara.  I've never been a good liar.

Maybe I've had a rough year, but I'm trying.

I'm just really sick of that song.  


Saturday, April 19, 2014


Dear Josie,

They didn't know I could hear them.

I had slipped into the store room to grab my lunch and I heard them through the walls.

"Is she back?!"
"The door was propped open.."
"There's a Starbucks cup on her desk."
"She has to be here."

I hadn't seen them for nearly seven weeks.  I had left them on a Friday afternoon after an uneventful lecture on DNA structure.   I had left them with the basics on base pairing rules and hydrogen bonding.  I had left them with the knowledge that life, for the most part, was fair.  

I had last seen them the day before you died.

I could hear them now, dropping off their things before lunch.  

"It just feels like sunshine in here."
"Damn.  I forgot the roses."


I remember the moment the doctor confirmed you had gone.  Looking back, there was most likely an element of shock involved but I was immediately terrified to face them, to face anyone.  I was a disappointment, a failure.  I was no longer the cheery optimist who stood before them for ninety minutes every other day.  I was scary now.  I was dark.  How could anyone look up to me?  I couldn't possibly go back.

"I'll just get another job, "  I thought to myself as they started the IV.

I can't place the moment when I realized that I would eventually return, the minute I saw that life could somehow resume without you.  I guess that's because it is something I still struggle with.  It remains a mystery to me.

Each day I walk this fine line between wanting to talk about you every second to anyone who will listen,  and needing my life to resemble what it used to be as much as possible.  There is no way to deduce which side of the line I am teetering on at any given moment.  Sometimes I don't even know until it's too late.

In my dreams lately I'm always being chased.  By gunmen, robbers.  Once, a giant seal.  
After a while I started to grow concerned.  But then I realized that I had been robbed.  Hadn't I?

Something had been stolen from me.  Mid day, as birds sang outside.

How could it ever be possible for them to understand, for anyone to?  How is it possible that I could ever relate to anyone again?

During a visit from colleagues a few weeks after your death I unwrapped several beautiful gifts.  Engraved mementos to you, angelic plaques, figurines and flowers.  The last box was rectangular, encased in sparkling blue ribbon.  Inside, hand-made cards from all of my students.

I read no disappointment in their words.  Instead I saw empathy, understanding.    They were honest.  Some offered their favorite scripture writings, song lyrics.  There were illustrations, poetry.  Love in colored construction paper and college rule.

And I realized that they were grieving too.  Every single one.

I read them repeatedly.  Turning the pages until the paper softened and the ink bled into my hands.  I read them until I could picture myself standing in front of them, until I could smell my classroom.  And then I read some more.

All this time I had feared some great divide.  That I had strayed too far from who they thought I was, from the safety of our prepared curriculum.  Surely they couldn't welcome this flawed person, understand her pain.  Surely this was beyond their grasp.

But I was wrong.  My kids had grown with me.  I hadn't left them behind.  And now here they were, consoling me from the depths of their adolescent hearts.  

If you were to ask me how, I couldn't say.  As I write this I'm confused as to how my fingers continue moving in your absence.  I don't know how I can stand in front of rooms of people and discuss cell transport and photosynthesis,  the gravity of losing you pulling at every bone.

But if you were to ask me why, as many have-

Why not take the rest of the year?
Why get up every morning?
Why leave the couch?
Why make the drive?  The lesson?  The pancakes?
Why do you come back?

Most days I have the answer, and I would tell you.

It's because they think I can.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spilled Milk

March 15, 2014

Dear Josie,

Today I wore jeans for the first time since you left me.  Maternity jeans.  Isn't it cruel how these are the only ones that still fit?

It seems vain to think about appearance now.  Actually, most things seem trivial these days.  I am beginning to wonder if I ever really "got it" before you.  And I'm incredibly sorry that I had to lose something so significant in order to learn.

It hit me today.  I thought this would happen at the hospital, but it didn't.  I thought I would understand as they wheeled me out, holding nothing more than a bag of slipper socks and a folder of sympathy.  Staring out a big window into my first day without you.


Today, of all days.  I was pulling into the driveway from the grocery store and I dropped my car keys at my feet.  Instinctively I bent down to pick them up and there it was, the coffee stain from Christmas Eve.  Your brother was having a meltdown, and I had spilled my small decaffeinated cup of sanity.  I remember not being able to bend down to wipe it up at the time, cursing myself for staining the new car.

I could barely bend over to clean it. I was growing bigger by the day, and so were you. A life so limitless, bursting at the seams quite literally.  Apparently I had missed a spot.

It's so unfair the way it works out.  So miserably, incredibly peculiar.  How can someone hold it together so well at the very moments they should be unraveling, only to completely lose control while holding a bag of groceries on a sunny afternoon?

Clearly now I can bend any way that I please, but the damage is done.  This little blemish in an otherwise immaculate machine, one spot in an otherwise ordinary life, destined to remind me forever of a Christmas full of hope.  A lifetime of less than.

How could something so dark and permanent still smell so sweet?

I loathe the comfort of my own body.  I long for the inconvenience of you, for the days where my worries lay in explanations of chocolate colored stains.

Once I gained my composure I noticed the can of pasta sauce broken in the driveway.  I'll get to it later.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Good Grief

Dear Josie,

I should be crying.

There was a pulse.  122 beats per minute.  
But it wasn't yours.  It was mine.

The doctor turned the screen my way.   I thought of all the ultrasounds I had seen before, of all the beautiful movements in  blurred gray.   But this time was different.  You were still, like a portrait.    The flicker that had once burned so brightly in your chest was gone, and I knew that you were too. 

The nurse set some Kleenex on my lap and began to rub my shoulder, tears in her eyes.  And all I could think was, "Oh right."

"I should be crying."

It's how I feel most days now.  I'm having breakfast, changing the channel.  I'm folding the laundry or picking out shoes.   But I should be crying.  Shouldn't I?

I liken this process to that of watching one's brother recover from a traumatic brain injury.  Some days you find that you can smile quite easily.  Some days you are tracing pools of blood on the concrete with the dull sharpie from the backseat of your car.  It's hit or miss.

There is a distinct difference in the two scenarios.  Or so I once thought.

In the initial days after you left me I couldn't.  Suffice it to say that I just couldn't.  Do.  Anything.

With a brain injury there is hope.  Sometimes there isn't much of it, but it's there.  You can cling to a doctor's words or a research study, and you can put one foot in front of the other. 

With you there was none of that.  There were no detectives on the case, no giant mystery to solve.  There would be no finding out your quirks or favorite colors.  I would never know if you'd have been  a bookworm or an athlete, if you would love applesauce and ghost stories.  You were simply a memory now, abruptly and finally.  And forever. 

I felt it when we first came home without you.  I felt it when we gathered your things, gently placing your tiny clothes into Rubbermaid tubs full of lost potential, a lifetime of "what ifs."  I felt it in every guttural sob and nightmare, in direct sunlight and complete darkness.  I felt it alone and when surrounded in rooms of smiling faces.

Apathy.  Nothing.  Hopeless. 

I was drowning in it, love.  Eagerly circling every drain I could find.

One night I found myself alone in your room.  I was staring at the wall quite eerily, tracing its freshly painted contours in the shadows with tired eyes.  I wondered what these walls could have seen you achieve, and all that would happen inside of them without you.  

I remembered something your father said to me shortly after you left us.   I was awake in the hospital, hunched over and holding my stomach.  I was missing you so deeply that it was hard to breathe. 
He climbed into the bed next to me, and he reminded me of your purpose.

Your father welcomed the saddness, assuring me that we would never fear your memory,  never shutter to speak of you.  Instead, we would be better.  A better parent.  A better teacher.  Better people in your name.

In my longing, I had forgotten that the time you spent in our lives was not in vain.  Not for nothing. 

I think of the person I used to be.  To her, brain damage is just a really good Pink Floyd song.  In her world, all babies are born alive.  I used to miss that girl.  The blissful unawareness, the guaranteed results.  But now I shake my head as I watch her rush the bedtime story, check the clock.   Occasionally I catch her naive gaze as she hurries by, leaving the faint scent of sixty dollar perfume as she passes.

Since you left I have been trying to catch up to her, trying to get back to that place she felt safe.  Only that place doesn't exist anymore, and that girl is gone.  In her place, a statue strong as stone.  This girl can stand still.  She can appreciate.  This girl will make you proud. 

And there inside the walls you would never see, hope arrived with the thunder at 4am on a Tuesday morning. 

We planted a tree for you.  The White Fringe.  Its flowers are a beautiful frost color, but its bark is scaly and imperfect.  Like your mother, broken and uneven with a red tinge.   

I read somewhere that once upon a time, people would crush its bark for use in the treatment of wounds. 

Truthfully, there is always hope.  One just has to know where to look.

And I have found that most often, in some capacity,
there is a wall involved. 


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The How

IN case you were wondering, there is no referee.  There is no one who comes rushing in when life gets too physical, too painful.    No one to save you in the moments you are pinned to the mat, squirming and begging and struggling to breathe.  There is no one who stops the world when the doctor says "What I'm seeing isn't reassuring."  
Trust me.  I would know.

I kept looking towards the door, waiting for someone to burst through and say,  Seriously?  No, no.  We're done here.  

I remember things about that day.

I had a bowl of Captain Crunch Berries in the morning.  I watched the movie 'Mulan'.   I was wearing a green shirt.

You left me somewhere between lunch and nap time.

Sometimes I wonder what I was doing at the exact moment.  Was I pouring the orange juice?  Making the bed?  Is it possible that your brother was telling you a story, that my hand was gently atop my belly at the precise moment you passed?  I like to think so.  

You were born at 8:30 am on Sunday, February 23, 2014.  It was a rainy morning.  It was foggy and it was cold.  Unforgivably cold.

You had bright red lips and and skinny toes.   You had lots of dark brown hair and long fingernails.  You were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  And you were gone, along with five pounds and three ounces of my heart.

The closing ceremonies for the winter Olympics were on the television.  You were alive for the opening and gone now.  It was one month until spring.

I remember when you were handed to me vividly.  For one moment I forgot that this was a sad day.  I remember feeling proud of you.  I remember someone saying, "There she is," and almost forgetting.  Forgetting for one second that you were no longer there.  

I remember saying I'm sorry.  Over and over I'm sorry.

Things that once brought me joy now cut like knives.  I find myself giving dirty looks to Sushi resturaunts and wine bottles.  I am doing things I never have before.  Yelling in my sleep and cursing the light that seeps through the blinds, which are closed for now.

There are guessing games as to why this happened to you.  Was it all the horror movies I watched on Halloween?  Was it the caffeine on too many Monday mornings?  Did I worry about you too much?  Not enough?  Was my music too loud in the car?  Was my longing for a baby girl too overwhelming?  Did I jinx you?

I had a dream where I was standing in a courtyard, surrounded by baby turtles.  I was just standing there, arms outstretched.  I felt them moving slow around me.  I felt you pass me by.

Everything is relative to my time with you now.  A date is mentioned and I immediately place it to before or after I found out you were coming, before or after I found out you had gone.

I make mental checklists.  Have I been here since you passed?  Will this place hurt too much?  Can I do it?  Will I cry?  Does he know what happened to me? Can they tell my baby is dead?

People stare and cook and call.

And my only question isn't why.  It's how.
How do you go on?
How does one keep breathing?
How can I contribute to a world that no longer satisfies my existence?

My birthday came and went without you.  I got your name tattooed on my wrist.  Every time my heart beats, life flowing under your name.  Forever.
I won't ever forget you were here, within me.  You are now a part of me, ingrained in my every triumph and mistake.  A part of this body that failed you.

I read and I write, and I read some more.  But I can't relate to anything.  Nothing seems to equate to losing you, and no one understands it like me.
I know it's possible to continue.   But how?
For some reason, I keep waking up every morning.
The sun keeps rising but you are still gone, and none of it makes any sense to me.

I miss you, Josephine.  Show a girl how.

All my love,

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dear Mother

I am with you mother,
As the ground beneath you shakes.
I'm with you as you hold her
And I feel the heart that breaks.

I'm with you up the drive,
empty promises in hand-
there as you collapse inside a house of shattered plans.

I follow you to bedrooms,
pastel alphabets and trees,
And in the torrid silence
I fall with you to your knees.

Your dreams of loss are mine,
and I wake with you in sweat.
My heart bleeds next to yours
For the hearts we've never met.

Can you feel my arms around you as you rock the empty chair?
Do you see that I am crying for the son who isn't there?

I suffer your reminders,
Every milestone and date.
I walk the streets beside you,
In a crowd who can't relate.

I sense your guilt. I feel your pain.
I have no answers, friend
As to why a heart keeps beating
For the life that wants to end.

But I am near in every moment, of this loss we have to share.
Search me in the darkness,
I am with you.  
I am there.