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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.