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Monday, December 21, 2015

Sign Language

Dear Josie,

Before you died, I wasn't a firm believer in signs.

Actually, I'm ashamed to say that I felt sorry for those who flocked to the psychics, paid for mediums, analyzed photographs of blurred images and talked to their deceased family members through candles.  I never felt above it all, but somehow, for me there were always more questions to be asked.  

Truthfully I'm still not big on signs.   But also, a lot has changed.

After you died there was that brief period where I watched "Long Island Medium" for six days straight, insisting to your father that she had to be legit.

"Seriously?" was his typical response.

And maybe I wasn't.  I had just learned how it feels when your baby dies, and so maybe I was desperate to feel you.  To see you in something, anything.  And really, what did I  really know about the world anyway...because the week before I was pretty positive my baby wouldn't die, so maybe we'd been wrong about this too.  And so maybe I was clinging to Theresa Caputo for now, and what was so wrong with that?

Usually he would bring me coffee, pat my shoulder and kiss me on the cheek, and then I'd resume my new favorite show.

Last month we had family photos taken.  They're perfect, save for the perpetual, gaping absence I see in every single one.

I made sure to include you.  I brought our Josie Bear along to the shoot and I wore your necklace, the one you wore the last morning we were with you.  It was a really beautiful fall day with picturesque scenery and an amazingly patient, talented photographer.

A few weeks later she sent me a message while editing.  On some of the group shots, a rainbow aura appears next to your little brother. In one of the photos he seems to be staring straight at it. The photographer assured me that this was not a normal lens flare, and that she believes it to be you there, with us in the photos.  When I first saw the picture it gave me chills.  And so I thanked her and I thought about it all day.  And the next.  And the next.

I want to believe it's you.  I want nothing more.  I know so many women who feel their babies in sunsets and butterflies and lilies and ladybugs, and I want that.  I want to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt or critique, that you're here with me.  I want to feel you holding my hand during the difficult day, find you fluttering on my window at the stoplight.  I want to cradle you in a song and I want you to lift me, lift me from this jaded place whenever I'm in doubt.  And I guess my main problem is that I'll never really have that.  I'll never really have the proof, so I'm left to just believe.

The other day I stopped at CVS.  It had been a rainy day.  Not monsoon-esque, just dreary.  Wet.  Gray.

I was running late and I needed to buy a card and some detangler, among a handful of other items and there in the checkout lane I spotted Kim Kardashian.  Some cover shoot on why she named her baby "Saint."

And it came over me then, like it always does.  Suddenly.  Seemingly from out of nowhere.  Why me?  Why you?  I'm not proud of these thoughts, but I own them just the same.


The man behind the counter was foreign, with a green vest and a "Happy Holidays!" pin and for  a moment I caught myself elsewhere.  In that other world that's always just ahead of me.  The one where you're alive and I'm not brought to tears by US Weekly.

"Here comes the sun."

His words startled me.  I looked up to find him, motioning with my detangler towards the automatic door.  The first patch of yellow all day.

"It's better, yes?"

I nodded.

And I felt you then, sure as I ever have.  And he's right. 

It was better.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Merry F*&$#ng Christmas.

Dear Josie,

Right now, my living room is the perfect metaphor for my life. 

The Christmas tree, the presents beneath it.  The stockings and the baby toys strewn across the floor.  The commemorative wedding ornament and the mantle for the dead daughter.

Sometimes I catch myself in such a normalcy about you.  Like it's so mundane now.  Like you're gone and when I look at the living room it's almost too fitting.  Too okay.

I read something once.  A woman whose son was stillborn describing the keepsakes, the only things she has to remember him.  In her case there were no pictures taken, only a box.  Some footies and a blanket.  She said she wished there were pictures, because the other stuff seemed too sanitized.  Inauthentic.

Sometimes I look at my life and it seems too clean.  I look at my living room and I can almost smell the ethanol.

There's a part of me that realizes, of course,  that it's necessary to sanitize.  For the sake of ever becoming a productive member of society again, it is necessary to tidy the memory of you to some degree.  In my mind and in conversation.  My daughter was born sleeping sounds better than my daughter was born dead.  She is always in our hearts is more comfortable than she isn't here and it isn't fair.   There are edited pictures to be shown and blankets to fold and things to say, but sometimes it all seems too comfortable.  And let's be clear, what happened to you, what happened to me, is not comfortable. 

And that memory, the real, raw uncomfortable memory of you is faded.  Blurred now; a defense mechanism to be sure, and  I can only assume it's some evolutionary thing.  To be able think about you.  If I had to relive those exact moments again, smell those same smells and feel those same things, every moment of every day I couldn't function.  I couldn't breathe.

But it bothers me.  Because I'm your mother, and if anyone should be thinking about the unsanitized, uncomfortable version of you, it's me. 

So I try to, every now and then.  I push all the platitudes and the edited images aside and I think of you, just you on my chest that morning.  I close my eyes and I feel your delicate, peeling skin and I run my fingers through your hair.  I feel your weight and I notice how still you are, and I see your gray fingernails and I feel all of it.  The primal longing in that room.  There were no talks of "better places" or guardian angels or what the future held, there was only death.  Death and love and two wailing parents.  It was, absolutely, the single most honest hour of my life.

The other day I was leaving the grocery store.  A slightly disheveled man passed me in the parking lot, mumbling something as we made eye contact.  I stopped for clarification.  "I'm sorry?"

"Merry Fucking Christmas."

And I wasn't sure why but it made me smile. I smiled the entire way home.

I don't want to forget it. I don't want to forget that version of you, or the impact of that day.  It would hardly be socially acceptable, but sometimes when I'm smiling or when I'm saying "Merry Christmas" I'm thinking how it would feel so much better to be screaming, still.   Or that maybe the "F" word would be more appropriate. 

The social graces are necessary, but they make me feel so far from you.  From the real you in that room that morning.  Even these letters  seem too informal.  As if I'm okay that you died.  As if I accept, wholeheartedly, that these are the only conversations we'll ever have.  The ones where you don't talk back.  I'll never hear your response and I'm not okay with that.  It's not okay that your heart stopped beating and that I have a snowman candle in place of a living, bouncing two year old.  It's not okay that your brothers will never pull your hair.  I'm not okay that I had to deliver you after you died, and I'm not okay with what it did to me.

But although these diluted portrayals of you have somehow, necessarily become the norm, I will always have the real thing too.  I will always know the real you.  We will always have that morning and those eight months together.  You and me.  It is something that hurts more than anything else ever will, but it is a love that only I am privy to.  And so I curse it but I also cherish it.  I carry it with me wherever I go.  Into pristine living rooms and calendar-worthy photographs, there is a part of me that will never be clean.  No matter the packaging.  No matter the song. 

A more honest part of me, yearning to hug the vulgar stranger.

Longing to be with you again.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

The bells that still can ring.

Dear Josie,

This morning your little brother awoke at 4am.  Normally, he is an excellent sleeper; however, he currently has a cold.  So I've been up since 4am but I'm okay with it.

This is not to say that I enjoy waking up ninety minutes before my normal, unnatural and inhumane wake-up time.  I like to sleep.  I enjoy it.   But this is to say that I noticed something this morning. 

Eyes barely open, I scooped him up from the pack and play next to our bed.  Yes, he still sleeps in our room at six months old.  My goal is to evict him before college.  I'm semi-confident it will happen.

He was sniffling and half-crying, eyes closed, searching his thumb.  "Maybe he'll go back to sleep," I tell your father as I lay him on the pillow between us.  His eyes open and he beams up at me, the best little baby sounds erupting from the best, biggest smile. 

"No such luck," I mutter in the dark.  And what I noticed was that I wasn't upset.  I was actually smiling too.

Maybe it's for the most obvious of reasons.  Of course I realize how lucky I am to be awake at 4am, pulling snotty, chubby fingers from my unwashed hair.  How could I not be grateful to still be three sizes up? Barging through Kohls at 8:00 at night in an oversized sweatshirt and pajama pants with a baby attached to my hip...because I'm still a size ten six months later and I'm going to buy pants that actually fit. 

Of course I remember the nights when there was no one to wake me. I remember when early evenings were free for prime-jogging time, when I'd have given anything to be tied to a bath or a bottle.  And so it's easy to assume that I'd be grateful for a baby, for any baby really. And I am--- so very grateful for this living, breathing baby boy that I can hold in the dark way too early, but I owe him more than that.

I don't want to discount the appreciation that I have, merely for his every breath.  During all of his many, many ultrasounds I was always shaking, waiting for them to tell me that his heart was still beating over all else.  The tech would breeze through the measurements, abdomen and femur size and length, heart chambers and head circumference.  Once, we were nearly twenty minutes in when I finally asked if there was a heartbeat.  She looked at me like I was crazy, but I needed to hear it.  Every scan.  Every time.

It's just that he has given me so much more than some tangible reminder of everything a baby should be, more than anyone else ever could. 

There is a gratitude that I share with only him, so sacred and unique.  And his eyes can quell so much and ignite so much.  And when I stare at him at 4am I can feel nothing else but that.  I am nothing but awestruck.  Completely awestruck and ruined for every flabby ounce and fold.  For what he is and will become and for what he's made of me.  And when I try to explain it to other people I never can.

For the longest time there were so many "No's."

No problems.  No issues.  No worries.
I'm sorry, there's no heartbeat and no, she won't be coming home.
No answer.  No plans.  No point. 
No second line.  No guarantee. 

And I can only explain the way I feel when I look at him, as the quenching of some infinitesimal part of me that still believes in yes. 

And no matter what he does or where he goes, this will never change.  I will always look at him and I will always hear it.  And he will always be the pulse that came from mine.  The one that clung to the most darkened, fading sound and who forced it from the stands.  Made it loud again. 

He is the debt I could never repay, with the massive blue eyes and the smile to stir me.  Over and over and as long as I live, I look at him and I believe.

I look at him and I'm awake.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Little Black Backpack.

Dear Josie,

My life is my laptop bag.

Seriously, though...

Every Friday I pack it full.  Papers and essay questions and regions of the brain drawn onto swim caps bursting out through the seams, compartments half open and zippers clinging for dear life, barely leaving way for my actual laptop, all for the sake of an intention which will likely be failed. 

I have always hated the proverb, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".  Mostly because I am a huge procrastinator, but also because I think intention matters.  I think it matters a lot. 

Lately,  I don't have the time to grade and plan as much as I'd like.  By the time I arrive home from picking up your brother from school each day, it's nearly time for dinner.  And there are Lego forts to be built and diapers to be changed, baths and showers and a thousand and one bedtime kisses to be given.  Essentially, I don't have the time to grade and plan as much as I would like, but I still bring it home.  All of the unfinished business.  Every week.  Every time.  And as much as it pains me each Monday, lugging the ten pounds up three stories and cursing my way through the sea of potential,  as much as I feel like a failure I try to focus on the fact that I brought it home.  That I wanted to finish, because that has to count for something, right?

During my first year teaching I was so on top of it, and yet I always felt behind because I guess I was.  I didn't know the curriculum like the back of my hand yet.  Didn't know which concepts they'd likely struggle with, which ideas to focus on and which ones could be simply brushed, highlighted.  I wasn't sure which tangents to allow free roam during the lecture, and which ones to quickly, respectfully squash.   When to consciously guide and objectify, when to plant and step away.

Everything was planned for and thought-out because I thought everything could be planned for and thought-out.   My backup lesson plans had backup lesson plans and when they didn't work I went home and spent hours hammering out another.  I was desperate to teach them, desperate for them to learn something from me.  I graded every assignment, brought them home and added stickers and sparkle and was hurt, genuinely offended when they failed.  One night  I stayed up until two in the morning creating a Jeopardy Review game for our genetics unit.  A girl in my fifth hour refused to move seats when it was time to begin, saying it was "stupid" and that she was "definitely" not going to play.  When I got out the referral sheet and hurriedly began to write, she called me a bitch.  And I went home and I cried.

I'm a different type of teacher now.  For starters, the curse words no longer bring me to tears.  All too often I don't know why they're yelled across rooms or mumbled between breaths, but I know it's not about me.   It's not about me. 

Also while of course I still plan, there is an increased focus on the intention. I am willing to take risks that I wouldn't have before because I know the plans will change.  The plans will change in front of my eyes in real time, flip upside down from under me and if my intention is there, if my objective is solid then the route becomes less important.  The goal, the intention is the most important plan.  And so you simply start again another way.  You start again and you don't stop.

It was always my intention to mother you.  Before the ultrasound technician told us you were a girl I intended to love you until the day I died.  I also planned for you.  I planned your nursery color scheme and your first outfit home.  I planned to buy you a pearl bracelet for your baptism.  I planned to go wedding dress shopping with you and to learn to curl your hair into bouncy ringlets for your first day of school.  I planned and I planned and when those plans were ripped from me, all of the little stepping stones gave way to the much bigger picture.  The intention, all pristine and intact, remained.

I intend to be your mother, still.  I intend to love you and to talk about you and I intend to make the world a little better, in my own way, because of you.  I intend to venture out without you, to the brunch and the play date and to dance at the wedding, even though you died because I know you'd want me to.  I have no plans for you here, but there are intentions.  And that has to count for something, right?

Sometimes this proves difficult, paradoxical even.  Sometimes I leave the party perplexed or too soon.  Some days I don't make it past the couch, or I find myself crying on the drive home just missing you.   And I have to shift my weight to balance it all on my shoulders, all of the intentions without the plans. 

And I tell myself that although it may lay there for the weekend, all but forgotten beneath the life outside the bag, it is there just the same.  

Although the work is unfinished, at least I brought it home.  


Friday, December 4, 2015

"There are things known and things unknown, and in between are the Doors."

Dear Josie,

At any given moment I am extremely proud of myself and also, simultaneously, disgusted with myself.

At any given moment I am extremely happy and extremely sad.

At any given moment my world is spinning but my world stopped.

Yesterday, one of my students offered that she hates when people use the phrase, same difference. 

"Mrs. LaFata, it doesn't make sense!" 

And she's right.  It doesn't.

If someone would have told me as I held you on that chilly, February morning, that there would come a time...not twenty years from now....but within two years from that exact moment, where I would find myself complaining about the girl in the Starbucks drive through consistently filling my Venti White Chocolate Mocha halfway...actually taking a sip and parking and going INSIDE because it's Monday and I paid for a large and damnit, I need a large...I would have said they were crazy.


This life after loss, after the death of my daughter, the pain is so normal and welcomed now that I seem to have given myself permission to focus and concern over the stupid things again...and when I think about you on that morning as I'm asking her to please, please fill it up all the way, I feel crazy.

I wanted your death to better me, and in some ways I'm certain it has.  Quieter ways.  Ways that not everyone gets to see.  Like when someone loses a child or a spouse or a friend, and I tell them (or don't tell them) that I'm thinking of them, I'm really, really thinking of them.  For days and for months afterwards I'm thinking of them and I'm hoping they're okay in their strange, oxy-moronic lives.

Or when I catch your father whispering into one of your brother's ears, and it stops me in my tracks and fills me with so much joy that my heart might burst.  Because I was happy before you, with him and with them.  But that happiness doesn't hold a candle to the joy I feel now, in those same moments, with those same faces. 

But in many ways I'm the same.  I'm the same teacher who complains about standardized testing and misguided, adolescent rage and 18 minute lunch breaks.  I'm the same mother who sometimes counts the minutes until bedtime.  The same wife who still bickers with the same husband about missing diaper bag items and who is driving to basketball practice.  In so many ways I'm the exact same person, and how is that even possible?

When you died I took seven weeks off  work.  It was strange, because the time I returned was around the very time I should have been starting my maternity leave.  It felt so backwards, like some blurry succession of movements that didn't really exist.  I wasn't supposed to be there, supervising the hallways between classes and proctoring the End of Course exam.  I was supposed to be at home, with my daughter.  My daughter who was keeping me up at night and who was breathing and who had coordinating little bows for nearly every outfit; these minute, contractual duties in the recesses of my mind because I had bigger fish to fry.  And here I was, frying much bigger fish in a much different way. 

I remember returning on my first day back.  That first time into my classroom without you when I was supposed to be with you, and it was so very new and I was so very confused and so very scared, and when I walked in they were standing.  All twenty four of them, applauding in unison. 

And I remember stopping for a moment, by my desk, in my tracks.  I remember watching their hands move and I remember crying because someone understood.  Someone understood what it took for me to walk through that door without you. 

Since that day I've walked through so many doors, sometimes for the first time and sometimes for the hundredth.  Classrooms and residences and hospitals and gymnasiums, all without you.  And although so much has changed, and although I might complain about the coffee or the traffic it still feels wrong.  Every entrance is difficult.  Each, its own milestone and test and I am always, always disgusted that these doors exist; that I can move and bend and push them in your absence, but I've noticed something.

Each one is a little lighter than that first day, a little more muscle in the access.

And sometimes, sometimes, I can still hear the applause.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Dear Josie,

Last week was Thanksgiving.  This year I was really looking forward to dressing up the boys and heading over to your Great Aunt's house.  Sharing my green bean casserole and celebrating and eating and hugging and laughing.

Only none of that happened because your older brother woke with a fever that morning, because he had strep throat.

Although I was disappointed, because instead of eating all the delicious food with our wonderful family (someone brought us leftovers later;) ...and instead of getting the boys loaded up and venturing out to enjoy the surprisingly warm weather on the drive over with the windows cracked, we remained indoors for the entirety of the day.  Alone.  With ourselves.

While it wasn't my ideal Thanksgiving, all  I could think was how it could be worse.  How it is worse for someone else.   Right now.

It's my current view of most things.  I look at them and I say to myself "I've seen worse."  Lived worse.  Been worse. 

Things that used to dissolve me now offer a glimpse of an old skin.  So thin and fragile, bending and cracking and responding the smallest of stimuli.  And now, now such a glue that holds together.  Such a perspective, a ringing in my ears that proves all else obsolete. 

I remember sitting at the kitchen table that first day home without you.  People sent the nicest gifts, the most delicious deli sandwiches and chocolates and flowers, and I asked your father to pass the mustard because when your baby dies you still have to eat, but I couldn't swallow.  Couldn't choke it down.  Not yet.

And I was afraid.  Of what was to come but also of what everyone would think.  I was eight months pregnant when we lost you, all big and protruding and glowing.  I wasn't given the choice to hide. 

"I'm broken."  I said.  "Everyone will see that."

And I remember looking at your father, and I remember him saying, Okay.

"So what?"

Recently, I read the most beautiful excerpt.  It is from the "Caravan of No Despair" and I cry whenever I read it.  It says:
"Even as I rocked on my knees, howling, I detected soft breathing behind the roaring.  I leaned in, listened.  It was the murmuring of ten million mothers, backward and forward in time and right now, who had lost children.  They were lifting me, holding me.  They had woven a net of their broken hearts, and they were keeping me safe there.  I realized that one day I would take my rightful place as a link in this web, and I would hold my sister-mothers when their children died.  For now my only task was to grieve and be cradled in their love."

I see things differently now.  A strength in the weakness.  A courage in the vulnerability that I couldn't see before but feel now, with each blow. 

And so the day kind of dragged on.  And your little brother wouldn't fall asleep that night because he was too giggly and your older brother woke up really, really early the next morning because his throat was dry and  because he had a bad dream.  And that whole weekend it's a miracle my eyes stayed open, but they are. 


And I can honestly say that I was most thankful on this very Thanksgiving.  More thankful on  this one Thanksgiving than on the twenty-nine prior.

This Thanksgiving when I hardly left the couch.  This Thanksgiving when I didn't shower or brush my hair, when I stayed in my pajamas until 7 pm.  This Thanksgiving when it was in the seventies and we never left the house, when I got spit-up on my new slippers and when I watched the LEGO movie on repeat for seven hours straight. 

It was thank you in my head, on this second Thanksgiving without you but with them.  All day and forever on this Thanksgiving,  louder than the sleep-deprived pounding in my head and more noticeable than the amoxicillin stain on the suede. 

Thank you for this.  For all the arms that held me then, for the catch in the net and the breath behind the howl.  To whoever was there, whoever was listening.

And for these heartbeats that I can touch and chase and soothe, however feverish and whiny.

Really big and really loud and really real.

Thank you. 


Monday, November 23, 2015

Mutually Inclusive.

Dear Josie,

Turkey tastes different now. 

In the past it was easy to be thankful.  I could look around and see the food and the smiles and the faces, and I could stop and appreciate rather easily.  Rather simply because that's all I really felt, awarded to this one dinner.  Thank you for all that I have. 

After you died it became harder to give thanks.  Really, very, a lot harder.

There was a distinct moment last year around the Thanksgiving table when I pictured you there. Sitting on my lap knocking spoonfuls of cranberry sauce onto the floor and grabbing my hair with what would-have-been, should-have-been chubby, dripping, nine month old fingers.  I can remember running mine through the smooth, perfectly de-tangled locks and growing very angry.  Angry that I could do that.  Angry that it didn't need brushing.   

And I tried to be thankful, but I couldn't.  Not in that moment.  Not at that table.  Not at the same time. 

It was the same feeling from earlier that summer.  When we traveled to Montana for a gorgeous wedding 8,000 feet above sea level, and I drank Huckleberry Vodka to my heart's content because I knew that I could sleep in the next morning.   Or when we returned and I took your brother to the pool and I sat, relaxed, in my lounge chair giving dirty looks to all the parents hunched over, inconveniently chasing their toddlers around or toting their babies on their hips, who couldn't sit with me.  Didn't have to. 

SO much of my life was consumed with anger then.  Angry that my jeans fit again because I had the time to work out.  Angry because we had that Sunday to paint the kitchen.  Angry last Christmas, when I did all my shopping online because I didn't want to accidentally walk by some frilly pink dress in some random toy aisle while searching Ninjago figurines.  (People should really return their retail items properly.)  Anger at the fill-in pediatrician who prescribed antibiotics for your brother, and scoffed when I asked her about the mortality rate of walking pneumonia.

"Worst case scenario, much?"  Her eyebrows raised.

Um.  Actually yes. 

The holidays offer an exceptional torture though, because it seems that anger  is every freaking where, because the reminders are every freaking where.  You are different now.  You used to be like this, but now you're not.  Don't you wish you could be like that again?  Here are a bunch of songs that remind you of a really happy and exceptionally tragedy-free twenty eight years.  Don't you miss them? In every store and on virtually every radio station, the old you clashing with the new one. 

And Thanksgiving?  I mean, the name itself...speaks for itself.  How can anyone be thankful when there is such an immense absence at the table?

Some people probably assume that the holidays are easier now, for me and for us because your baby brother is here.  This is true and it's also inherently untrue.   He is love and he is happiness in giggly, squishy 16 pound perfection.  God-willing, this Thanksgiving and this Christmas he will grab and pull and spill as he pleases from atop our laps.  This New Year's Eve I can take pictures of him in an adorable onesie with the drawn-in bow tie and share it with friends and feel slightly more normal.  I can snuggle with him every frosty morning when he greets me with a smile, pull him up to my pillow and just breathe him in and I can really, truly know that he is here.  That he is mine and that he is with me in this moment and last year, I couldn't do that. 

But his presence will never make up for your absence.  My life will never be the one that exists in the Christmas cards, at least not in the Christmas cards I used to stress over and meticulously plan for and send to family and friends.  My life is different and paradoxical now.  Always and forever. And sometimes when I'm looking at them I'm still angry, because we're still so without, and that will never change.

The other day I was straightening  my hair when I came across a tangle.  A vast, seemingly endless mass that was so thick and entwined that it may have had its own blood supply, right in the back above my neck.  And through all the prodding and the pulling and the curse words, there was also a smile because I knew why it was there.  Grateful that it wasn't smooth.  Grateful for the pain. 

That's my hope now, for this life.  I know that there will always be pain because forever, this Christmas and my next birthday and on Flag Day twenty years from now you will still be gone.  I will not feel your hands or see all the messy creations they'd have fostered.  I cannot know your weight on my knee or your hand on my face, and I get to be angry about that.  I get to cry about it and I'm allowed to roll my eyes at the gigantic Christmas tree in the middle of Kohls because I think it's always going to hurt.  And I think I'm okay with that, because that's how much I love you. 

But my hope is to live holding both.  To feel your absence in every twinkle light and to be as angry as I deserve to be, and to also feel the gratitude.  Really, truly be grateful for the food and the turkey and the faces.  Grateful for the catch in the brush.

For the love behind the pain.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Dear Josie,

Sunday was a good day. 

And I don't mean "good" as in a day that was extraordinarily special in any way, I mean good in the way I view the adjective anymore.  Good vs. Bad.

"Bad" days were all too common in the past.  Before you died, a bad day began with a traffic jam on my morning commute.  Spilled coffee on my floral blazer.  A bad day was an especially unruly teenager in first hour and five more in seventh.  Parent phone calls and sub par EOC scores.  Burnt lasagna and fights with husbands about a regretful Target rendezvous.  A fever that spiked a little too high and a midnight trip to the ER.  A bad day was typing sub plans while simultaneously being vomited on.  And after you  it was all too confusing, because these days seem all too "good" now, in comparison.

After you died so many things were redefined without my consent.  For starters, the concept that sometimes, birth happens after death.  Right there, immediately, was the essence of "bad".  Nothing could ever be worse.  Right?

It's just that there has been worse.  Since that day, because grief is not linear.  And it's also not all bad.

There was the day, two weeks after you died where your father asked if I was going to get out of bed because your brother was asking for me.  It was six pm.

"Probably not." I rolled my eyes.

"Are you serious?"  he asked.

"Are you?!!"  I responded.

There was the night when I prayed that I wouldn't wake up.  I understand how selfish this may seem to some people, but it happened nonetheless.  My birthday, three weeks after you died.  I turned 29 and you were dead, and it all seemed rather unfair.  A bad day, to be true.

People were texting me the nicest things, but always with "Happy Birthday" attached and those words were making me nauseous, actually physically sick.  I went to get a tattoo of your name and I remember welcoming the pain, because it was controllable.  And I wondered if I would ever be able to control any other emotion ever, ever again.  When I got home I looked around and I didn't see you. I took the special maternity dress I bought for my birthday dinner when you were still alive and I put it on, and then before I closed my eyes I prayed that I might not wake up.

Only I did.  Wake up.  The next morning, and your father made me breakfast and your brother drew me a picture before they left for the park.  And it was sunny out and seventy five degrees and something on TV made me laugh and I thought okay, okay.  Maybe. 

After you died I considered a "good" day to be one where I didn't want to die.  And honestly that first month there weren't many of them.  I smiled and I participated in conversations and I went to the movies a couple times and I ordered things from Amazon, but there were too many nights where I didn't want to wake up because I didn't want to feel it anymore.  Anything.  The love that I have for you or the pain that comes along with it.    Didn't want to walk alongside it.  Didn't think that I could.  And so many of my thoughts were apathetic, because who really cares if my clothes match or if my bed is made, because you died. 

Apathy is an awful thing.  I wanted to care, about the house or the test grade or story time. I wanted to care that I would open my eyes in the morning, and I knew that I should care about those things..  I just didn't care, because I couldn't see through the pain.

Sunday we went to the park, your brothers and I.  It was a play date with some new friends from school and their incredibly sweet mother.  I wasn't expecting to enjoy this day, because I don't generally enjoy Sundays anymore, because they always remind me of your Sunday.  Only surprisingly, I enjoyed it very much.  Holding your little brother and watching your older one wrestle and run on the pavement, and talking with a new friend.  Truly, a good day. 

I've had several since those bad ones, each with its own acknowledgement.  A lightness.  I can really feel it happening and I can really appreciate each part.  Your death showed me what bad really means, but I also know good. 

I know that for every two friends who couldn't seem to run far enough from me,  there was someone who dug in.  Someone who wasn't running.  Someone to pick up the broken and piercing and jagged versions of myself  and hold them until I was ready to reassemble.  One by one. 

I know for  every thought of giving up I saw a sunrise.  Not because I wanted to, but because my eyes opened and I was forced to see that there is life after you.  And what a lesson.  Truly, what a lesson.

And I know for every apathetic thought there were ten productive ones.  Hugs to be given and arms to be opened that were otherwise closed, because you showed me how. 

And I know that for every ten bad days, there is a day where it's 65 in November.  And there's a park with gravel beads just waiting to fill little, Kindergarten shoes that are going to ask for my help.  I know that there are kind strangers to offer ears on playgrounds and spontaneous brunches to be had.  I know that there are chubby babies to laugh with and six million breezes to fill these lungs, and soft cotton sweatshirts to hug these arms on these days.  These perfect, ordinary, amazingly "good" days that I cannot always see, but are coming, I know.

Sometimes, there is birth after death. 

And if you keep walking, life is there too.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Let's not and say we didn't.

Dear Josie,

The hospital where you were born has a special department for pregnancy loss, with a special RN whose job is to help these special families.  Families like us. 

Let's digest that for a second. 

There are enough babies dying to warrant an entire department, with an office and staff members trained to adhere to this unique pain, at a large metropolitan hospital in the United States. 

Sometimes I still can't believe that this happened to me.  I remember the moment I first read the word, stillbirth.  I actually remember where I was and what I was doing.  And I thought that birth should be anything but still, and that this must be the most awful word that exists in the English language or any other.  And I never understood how someone comes out on the other side, and I never thought it would be me. 

It makes me sick.  At every one of our support meetings I think about her.  The woman out there somewhere who cannot see it coming.  And here we are, waiting for her in this room with our experience and our open arms.  I feel like Ben Affleck in that scene from Good Will Hunting, where he tells Matt Damon that although he loves him (in so many words), he longs for the day where he shows up to drive him to their dead-end job, and Matt Damon isn't there because he's off somewhere better with Minnie Driver.

I want them to be off somewhere.  Better.  With Minnie Driver.

(Okay so not actually with Minnie Driver, but maybe...I don't pretend to know everyone's connections.) 

How can it be that so many babies are dying?  How can it be that this number, this horrible, inconceivably high number has remained so horrible and inconceivably high?  Now?  In the 21st century. How?

Last year in the United States, around twenty four thousand babies were born "still".  Twenty four thousand and you were one of them. 

Your neighbor, your sister, your cousin, your friend.  Your daughter.  Just like that, twenty four thousand people no one will ever know. 

I mean, how is this happening?

I get so mad because we should be doing more to lessen this number.  I sit in the same chair every month and in my head I'm screaming.  Stop this from happening to her.  The lady who is walking in right now or sitting in her car in the parking lot, crying because it's her first meeting and she can barely make it through those rotating doors, turn her around.  Put her at home with her newborn son watching The Real Housewives, bitching about her lack of sleep and the spit-up smell on her shoulder. I want that for her.  I don't want her to meet me and be inspired by me and those like me, I want her to never have to research such an awful word.  I want it to remain this horrid parallel universe where she gets to live inside the luxury of pretending it doesn't exist. 

The numbers should be lessening.  We need to do more.  I know you're not here and I can't change that, but I'm going to try to change other things.

I love my club.  The people in my club are stronger and braver and more resilient than anyone on the planet, and I am lucky to know them.  Everyone is.  In fact, the people in my club should probably just walk around all day saying "You're welcome", to their friends and coworkers and the mailman because anyone should be so lucky as to know them.  To know their stories and their pain, to hear about their children and their goals and their struggles, but I don't want to add anyone else to my club.   The initiation is too demanding.  Too permanent.  Too sad.  With too many ramifications.  So, no more new members.  No more new members. 

People tell me I am strong all the time.  All the time and while I know it's meant as a compliment I can never take it as such because I don't feel strong.  Wise, maybe.  Experienced, sure.  But strong?

Or maybe it's because I would rather be weak.  Scoffing at the word "stillbirth" weak.  "It could never happen" weak. Thinking it would kill me weak.  Writing you a letter on your wedding day weak.  All three of my children in the family picture weak.

I'd give anything not to know.  Not to flex.  I'd give anything for her not to know me.  And I hope, next month, I'm still a stranger. 



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Action Potential.

Dear Josie,

Yesterday I received an email  from a fellow loss mother I have never spoken with or met. Her words were kind, and she made my morning.

..."Your sentiments reflect what I feel, so much that I both savor each sentence I read and move with caution as I read further..."

I was happy and I was also sad.  Happy that there is another person out there who knows about you, and sad that she can relate.  Happy that I am not alone and sad because there are so many like me, walking around every day, contributing and improving and all functional-like, and so desperately missing their babies. 

I love the appropriateness of her statement, too.   In the aftermath of your death, savoring every sentence while proceeding with caution.  In the beginning life was one colossal landmine.  I was walking, helmet in hand, through dangerously unpredictable fields where I'd be feeling almost normal and then abruptly, seconds later I'm laying on my back barely breathing, encased in shrapnel and needing help to stand. 

My only saving grace then were the others like me, that I could glance back or ahead a few yards and see someone in that field, ducking and dodging and soldiering through.  I know that sounds absurd, to be thankful that other people know this pain, but technically I guess that's the truth.  I am angry that I have to know them, that their tired, groggy, tear stained eyes fall upon your letters at five am when they cannot sleep, and so grateful to have them with me, all at once. 

It's a balancing act.  My life.  In every aspect and interpretation.  Having  your little brother handed to me for the first time was one of the most profound and significant moments of my life, and arguably the most rewarding thus far.  I have never, ever felt more relief and I am still exhaling nearly six months later, but there was also a sadness.  So immense and widespread that I would become overwhelmed just staring at him.  This living with and so very without.  This carrying of the happiness alongside the pain, a skill I've yet to master. 

One of my favorite poems  She says:

"If your nerve, deny you-
Go above your Nerve-
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve-

That's a steady posture-
Never any bend
Held of those Brass arms-
Best Giant made-

If your Soul seesaw-
Lift the Flesh door-
The Poltroon wants Oxygen-
Nothing more-"

When I fist read this poem, a high school English teacher clarified that the "Flesh Door" was  the mouth, and that 'Poltroon' meant 'fool'.  The fool wants oxygen, nothing more. 

The night we found out about your little brother I wrote my favorite part on a post-it.  I guess I have a thing for post-its.  And Emily Dickinson. 

I carried it with me for 37 weeks.  I would look at it on a daily basis.  For the first few months it lay in my wallet, pristine.  Atop my license picture, stickiness intact, but soon the paper became crumpled.  The letters, faded, falling out in the rush of the drive through lane while I searched for payment.  Sliding behind the Zoo Membership card and the hoarded Target receipts.  In the quest for a nickel I'd catch the flash of blue and remember, momentarily. 

The third trimester offered an unrivaled terror, though, and so my paper courage mostly took residence in the pockets of the three pair of stretchy pants I rotated throughout the week. During the nearly constant second-guessing of my intentions and the definitely constant checking of your brother's heartbeat, I needed the reminder more often,  why I was doing what I was doing.  And so I would pick it up and turn it over and over in my hands, and I would curse loudly in my head, and I would wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to try.  And I longed for the soft comfort of my little nerves inside their insulated beds, and tried to put one foot in front of the other. 

I mean, here's a thought.  Put yourself there again, try.  We will do our very best and we will run every test but we cannot guarantee this won't happen.  In fact, you are at an increased risk now, so you are slightly more prone to this exact thing happening.  Again.   And you already know how terrible it is, like really, really know that it's very possible and very terrible.  You game? 

When I was nearly 36 weeks along, your father and I attended a wedding.  There is picture of the two of us at this beautiful winery, and my feet and legs are pale and swollen and my hair's a mess and I'm holding my belly, and I'm smiling.  Everyone there was so happy for me and I could see the relief in their eyes, only I wasn't there.  Not yet.  No one thought twice about my twenty trips to our SUV in the parking lot, disguised as bathroom breaks, where I would frustratingly pull the Doppler from underneath the passenger seat and listen, just listen.  And I could hear the music behind me and I knew they were dancing, but those moments in the car were the only times I could. 

Your aunt asked me recently how I did it.  No really, Nora, how did you do that?  And the truth is I don't know.  How anyone does it.  I don't know how anyone says goodbye to their children in such traumatic, life-altering ways, sometimes more than once.   I don't know how they willingly put themselves into such vulnerable positions, time and time again,  walking around, nerves shot and torn and exposed, and waiting.  I don't know.

But I can tell her why.  Why I did it and why I risked it and why I would risk it again.  I love you and I love them. 

And because although I am a scarred and trembling shell of the person I used to be,
I want so much more than to breathe. 



Monday, November 9, 2015

I'm looking at you, Miley

Dear Josie,

Saturday your father and I attended a trivia night.  It was a fundraiser for families of children diagnosed with cancer.  Before the trivia began, one of the fathers thanked the crowd.   Soon, his son would join him on stage, and although most had already started drinking and were having a pretty good time, when he spoke all was silent.

In all honesty, I didn't know what organization this particular night was to benefit until we arrived.   Your aunt invited us and I simply assumed it was for her elementary school, but it wasn't.   The night was for these amazing souls, these little people who have only begun their lives and now must fight to sustain them.  It was for their families, the mothers and fathers and brothers and aunts who sit bedside, helpless and struggling to understand.  And as this eight year old little boy thanked us I couldn't help but be angry.  Really, really angry that he might die.  And that any parent might ever have to do such a thing as to watch.

When you died perhaps the only comfort provided to me was that I never saw you suffer.  I think about it all the time.  People would say how you "only knew love" and "never felt pain".  To be sure, I googled horrible things like "baby heart attacks" and fetal pain reception and "can a baby feel when its heart stops".  I don't think I'll ever know for certain if you felt anything or if you were scared, but I like to tell myself that you didn't.  And that you weren't.  I like to think that, as a baby, you were so much stronger and braver than me, possessing some holy understanding that I'll never have.  It may be dumb and it may be selfish but it helps me, so mostly I go with it.  

I hate when people say I can't imagine.  It's the single most repeated sentence after anyone finds out about you and I hate it.  But when I think about those parents, the parents of the children with cancer that's what I feel.  Like it's so horrible that I can't imagine.  I look at your brothers and I envision all the times they are sick, with a cough or a fever and how I silently beg that their symptoms, no matter how minor, transfer to me and relieve them.  And I think what if it were something like cancer, and what if I had to see, and I just can't imagine. 

After trivia ended we went home.  Your father and I had the night and the house to ourselves for once.  What happens when this happens?  Apparently he falls asleep on one couch while I watch SNL reruns on the other.   What can I say?  We like to party. 

I happened to catch a recent episode where Miley Cyrus was the host and musical guest.  It's not often that I listen to or tolerate Miley Cyrus.  Most of the time I am distracted by her outfits and her seemingly desperate ploys for attention, but this time was different.  I think.

During her second performance, Miley is sitting alone at a piano.  I should note that this piano is clad in some type of "fake cloud" puffy fabric and twinkle lights, and that she is wearing a really long George Washington-esque blonde wig, but I digress.  She begins by describing a dream where "David Bowie taught us how to skateboard" but "he was shaped like Gumby" and I almost changed the channel, but I was intrigued so I didn't.  Then...

"...And I had a dream.  Took a helicopter.  Flew it up too high, got stuck in the clouds.
Don't wanna come down...
And I had a dream that you were dying, but I wasn't even crying,
I just sang you to sleep.  I sang you to sleep...
...But what does it mean?  What does it all mean?  ...I just want to scream."

And she did.  Screamed.  Into the microphone.  Repeatedly.  "What does it mean?"  Over and over again until she was crying and so was I, and when the final verse began she could barely finish the song.

Logically, through the tears my very first thought was that Miley Cyrus must have also lost a daughter, because in the incredibly bizarre and incredibly raw nature of this performance somehow I saw myself, screaming into your curtains that morning; however upon further research I would learn that the "Twinkle Song" was actually written for her deceased dog, Floyd. 

I have watched the video several times now, and I've read the comments people offer.  While some are appreciative, praising Miley for the honesty in her emotion, many accuse her of faking it for the cameras.  Others seem more impressed by the busy decorum or the fact that she kept her tongue in place for the entirety of this performance, and before you,  I may have joined them.

But this time, on this night I didn't care about the distractions because I could only see the pain.   Real or contrived, I kept staring at the husky in the picture frame atop the piano, and I could only see the pain. 

Maybe it's the thought of all those parents somewhere right now, sitting next to their  sick children and stroking their hair.  Or the ones like me who look for their babies in the stars.  Or the many, many people who are forced to say goodbye to a best friend or a sister or a husband, or maybe it was the beer... but I didn't want to make fun of her this time. 

It is quite possible that I am going crazy, but Saturday night I wanted to hug Miley Cyrus.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The opposite of almost.

Dear Josie,

So here's the thing.  Baby girls are hard.

I mean, specifically, newborn baby girls.  Very hard.  For me. 

I have held three since you died.  Drove myself to the respective hospitals and braved the elevators toting pretty pink bags with pretty pink bows and shaking.  Just shaking. 

It's not that I'm not happy for them.  In contrast, I am very, very happy for anyone who has a baby.  Only now do I realize the one million things that have to go right, just so, for a healthy baby to be born.  Alive. 

It's just that I'm also so sad.  For me and for you, because not all one million happened.  Maybe nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine, but that last one...that last one. 

Two months ago your aunt had a baby girl.  A glowing, gorgeous baby girl with a FULL head of dark hair and piercing brown eyes, and I am in love with her.  So completely and so helplessly in love.   I drove to the hospital that night, the same hospital we never brought you home from and I held her.  I held her and I took her in, and I told her I loved her and I kissed her perfect cheeks and her tiny fingers and then I had to leave, because the truth is I can't wait.  I cannot wait to take her shopping and play with her hair, to buy her dresses and the leggings with the frills at the bottom and the matching little girl boots.  I can't wait to marvel at her prom pictures and help her with college algebra and promise never, ever to tell her mother about the guy she likes.  But that doesn't mean it wasn't hard.  Very hard, to say hello.

Someone said to me once, "Well, you almost had a daughter."  And it might have been the shock that caused me to just stand there, mouth open, not saying what I really, really wanted to say to this person.  Or it may have been that it was a work setting and I would like to keep my job.  So I shifted my weight and I changed the subject quickly and I hurried away, nearly running into the wall and probably stuttering a bit because let's be clear, I have a daughter. 

I have a daughter. 

No they cannot hold you, but I have.  As completely and as tangibly as I held my sons, you were in my arms.  And perhaps they cannot see you, but I do.  I see you in them and in me and in everything.  Every day. 

I can remember a time in the night, before your delivery where I looked at your father and I said "I can't do this."  And I really, really felt like I couldn't do it.  Everything was progressing so quickly and doctors and nurses were coming in and taking blood and testing things and saying how it was probably the cord, and all I could think was how you would never open your eyes.  I knew what was coming and I didn't want it to, and I didn't think that I could. 

He told me yes you can, so matter-of-factly.  Like there wasn't a question.  Of course you can do this.  And I appreciate that, because at the time it seemed impossible.  And the way he said it left no room for the question, whether or not I could, and so I did.  Looking back I'm sure that confidence was quite the opposite of what he was feeling.  Because how does anyone do?   That. 

I have done the impossible because of you.  And no, I haven't run a marathon or climbed Everest or created world peace or cured cancer, I have done the impossible.  I delivered a baby, knowing she would never take a breath.  I held her and I handed her away and then I WALKED out of the room.  Two months later I drove to work, taught one hundred adolescents how a cell makes a protein.  I went to lunch and when someone asked me about the weather I smiled.  Smiled. I used the copy machine and graded essay questions and responded to emails.  And then I drove home. 

I have done the impossible.  All of these things, after you and without the potential of you.  Impossible.  The hair brushing, pancake making, dress shopping, road-tripping, Christmas wrapping, wedding dancing, impossible. 

Held a baby. 
Had a baby. 
Held my baby. 

And any one person might think it cannot be, that they couldn't possibly have done all that I have done, after all that I have done.  But I know it to be true, because I could, and because I did.  And I have you to thank for that.  My daughter, the one they cannot see and will never hold, the one that doesn't live but exists in every single impossible thing I do.  The "almost" in their dense beliefs and the "definitely" in mine. 

My daughter, who danced to the Strokes and jalepenos.  Who loved the sound of her brother's voice and who was calmed by NPR.  My daughter, whose pink bear resides in her brother's room, my daughter who definitely lived because she definitely died, whose name we carefully selected and whose toes we definitely counted. 

Definitely missed.  Definitely real.  Definitely loved.  Eight days a week and a zillion times on Sunday.   Definitely, not almost.

I definitely have a daughter.