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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Sweet Disposition

A song I listened to on repeat during my last pregnancy:

"Sweet disposition
Never too soon
Oh, reckless abandon
Like no one's watching you...
Songs of desperation
I played them for you.
A moment, a love
A dream, aloud..." 

But one of my favorites has no words at all.   When Josie died, I thought someone wrote it just for me.  It made me feel sad, (which wasn't hard to do then), but it made me feel hopeful too:  hopeful that I might survive;  hopeful for what was to come.  "September Song", by Agnes Obel.  It's strange how a piano can see your soul like that.

This September I learned something important.  And so I remember all of the things that could happen, those that did, and those which might never, and so I am terrified; a fear I can hardly exist beside, every second.

But I am also hopeful.  I am so very hopeful of what could be, when the leaves are green again. 

Baby LaFata #4,  We love you.  We're dreaming of you.  We hope to meet you soon. 


Friday, November 10, 2017

Friends In Low Places.

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

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

It's just that I wasn't. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 15, 2017


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

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

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

"How is this okay?"  I'd asked. 

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

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

On the way home he asked how I felt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The darndest things

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

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

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

The teacher laughed. 

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

My son shrugged.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we got ice cream.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sticks and Stones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 "Her name is Josephine."

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Plight of the Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She handed me another Kleenex. 

"So do you."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Goodbye Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, I did.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Other Mother's Day

When your child dies, so many things change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

I Am Not A Teacher.

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

I am not a teacher.

I am a judge; an auctioneer; a comedian. 

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

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

I am not a teacher; I am a shield. 

A steady hand in a lockdown drill. 

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

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

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

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

I am not a teacher; I am a madman.

I turn rage into sonnets; reservation to center stage. 

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

I am not a teacher; I am a mother.

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

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

I am not a teacher; I am a limb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am the work that spans lifetimes.

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

I am not a teacher. 

I am everything, and everyone else. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rush Hour.

Last month I awoke to our oldest telling his father about the tears my sunglasses (apparently) hadn't hidden the day before.  We were sitting in traffic and I'd started to cry.

He tried to make a joke then; an attempt to shield our six year old from something we never could have. "Must have been some jam!"

His voice became a whisper.  "Daddy, it's not the cars."

What is there to say about March 31st anymore?  If her birthday is the day we said goodbye, her due date is the stark reminder of the contrast; the life we never got to see.  The one that was close enough to touch, inside a day that passes without pause.  Every year I write the date on the board and pray some unassuming adolescent doesn't enter before I can catch my breath.  I'm aware that this is someone's birthday; someone's anniversary.  I'm aware the absurdity that is to hold your two healthy, beautiful children in your arms and still declare that the world owes you something.  It's just that on this day, it's so very clear to me that it does. 

I've seen exactly one therapist face-to-face since my daughter died.  Four months after her death on a borderline suicidal day in May, I Googled some names and made a list on a paper towel.  The following week  I showered and put on lipstick and straightened my hair and wore pointed flats.  Back then I was desperate to look like the person who inhabited this body before her daughter died inside it. 

She asked why I was there and let me ramble for twenty minutes.  I told her how my daughter's heart stopped beating one Saturday between breakfast and nap time.  I told her that I was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to those around me; that it felt like people thought I was okay because I was smiling or replying to emails or keeping my lunch down.  I explained how the thoughts in my head didn't match my disposition; how I smiled through the department meeting and then wondered about the most painless ways to die at bedtime.  I told her about the friend who sent the shower invitation, and the one who stopped calling, and the one who invited me to the concert.   I told her it felt like the world had already forgotten her; how that hurt more than delivering her lifeless body into a silent hospital room. 

My therapist offered some solid advice.  She told me  that I was at the epicenter of what happened to me, and that no one stands with me there---not my friends, not my sisters, not my husband.  She said it wasn't realistic of me to expect anyone to understand, because they couldn't possibly.  Because no one experienced my daughter's death like I had. 

In the weeks that followed I would see her twice more.  During our last visit she asked me to tell her about that morning. 

"It was bad," I offered, suddenly wanting to be anywhere else.

Her eyes pushed me from across the room and my words became a question.

"Really bad?" 

She told me that my struggles were certainly normal, but especially persistent since I spent the majority of my time trying to make those around me feel more comfortable with the trauma I'd experienced, rather than attempting to process any of it for myself.  She suggested that even if it cost me some friends, I should focus on honesty:  a daily effort to confront the pain and emotional scar that becomes one's life, after holding her dead baby in her arms. 

"I don't think that's accurate," I said, annoyed.

We stared at each other a minute, and then she got up and walked towards me.  She knelt at my feet and looked directly into my eyes, covered my fingers with hers.  It was then that I noticed my knuckles had turned white.  I could feel my stomach in my fists, like knots in my lap.

For nearly five minutes I wept into her shoulder.   I felt found, as if this were some sick game of Hide and Seek and she'd just discovered me, crouched inside the armoire.

Metaphorically, (and cheaply) grief is a weight.  In the wake of immense loss, grief is what follows you home, sits on your chest.  Grief is the unwelcome guest who makes death seem a friend, and then allows the breath anyway.

But the grief is never all you carry. 

People used to tell me it wouldn't be so bad forever.  I would nod but in my mind I grew angry.  My arms would forever be emptier; my smile always kinked.   She would never be here, with me and so nothing could ever be "better", by definition.   Of course it would always be so bad.  I owed her that much. 

The pain never lessens, as some say.  But you do learn to carry it in such a way that in time, you can carry other things too.

Sometimes it seems so perfect here, that I have to remind myself that it isn't.  Perfect.  Here. 

Sometimes, I find myself feeling so nearly complete that I almost forget that I will never be that. 

Sometimes, after his bath he pulls his face close to mine and says "Mommy, Nose!"  And our foreheads touch and he laughs in that infectious way babies do, and I find myself wondering how there could have ever been a version of my life, that exists without him in it.  

And sometimes, when it's seventy two and sunny, or when a smile lasts a second too long, or when there's a standstill and I catch both of them in the mirror behind me I say it out loud, and I pretend it's her voice in my ear. 

It was never up to you.
It's not wrong to be grateful for this.  
It's okay to be happy here.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

My Life As Happiness Thief.

Recently I was accused of taking away from someone's happiness.  I'd like to talk about it.

The other day I was joking with my friend,  Christine.  We were discussing the struggle that is receiving baby-related propaganda in the mail after losing a baby, and I said there are things us loss moms should be granted.  Some of these things are certainly impossible:  the guarantee that the rest of your children will outlive you,  the ability to use the word "complete" in reference to your family, friends who (when you leave a difficult conversation) don't talk behind your back like self-absorbed seventh graders.

But some of these things could and SHOULD be a thing.  Like for real. 

For instance, there should be someone standing guard at every loss mom's mailbox.  His assignment would begin whenever a child dies, and he stands there and reviews all communication prior to its entrance into each respective home.  BuyBuyBaby coupons?  Return to sender.  Pediatric appointment reminder?  Gone.  Christmas card with adorable baby in pastel crocheted hat?  Nope. 

If it sounds bitter that's because it is.  And that's because we get to be.  We've buried our children and we get to be bitter; every one of us, to some extent, forever. 

As a society, we can do much better by the bereaved.  I accept that the world didn't stop when mine did.  Trust me, I feel every turn but why the expectation to return to who I was before?    Believe me when I say that a newborn baby is a happy thing.  The happiest.  Beyond most others, I appreciate and am grateful for each and every time a healthy, breathing baby is placed in someone's arms.  But I am no longer the person you should ask about gender reveals or baby girl clothes or shower d├ęcor or birth plan ambiance.   I wish I were still that person.  I have tried to be her, for me and for you---it isn't possible.  My daughter's baby shower was exactly one week ( perhaps to the minute) before her death.  My concerns are less connected to what is worn home from the hospital and more tied to acronyms like BETA and AFP and NST and BPP.  You don't want me in that discussion anymore.  There are perfectly nice gifts that can be sent through the mail and besides, nobody likes a guest of the "drunk uncle" variety, snorting and rolling her eyes and hyperventilating next to the gingham printed napkins. 

Frankly, I have earned my crazy.   Did you know that I can't buy seasonal clothes for my six year-old more than four months in advance because it feels like a jinx?  Do you feel the catch in my breath at the dinner reservation? The Census survey?  How many will be attending?  What happened to me, and to her, is horrific.   It's as real as a panic attack mid-Target aisle.  Her death is tragic and life-altering and forever, and while I would love to go back to the friend you knew, I make no apologies for who I am today because she made me this person.  Denying that some words still feel like blades is to deny that she happened, and I will do that for no one. 

Your life may not look like mine anymore, and that's okay.   You don't have to visit memorial trees mid-Mother's Day.  You don't have to cherish twelve dollar necklaces or stained sports bras. You don't have to fundraise for CuddleCots or meet the newly bereaved mom for coffee Saturday morning or fall to pieces writing the date on the whiteboard. You don't have to lean in but if we're going to remain friends you don't get to turn away. When I say my daughter's name, you don't get to imply that I'm taking ONE thing, from you. 

I don't get to have her.  I don't get to touch her or see her or hear her laugh.  I don't get to braid her hair for the first day of school or tell her the music's too loud or toast her on her wedding day.  I'll never tuck her in or make her cinnamon toast or sing to her at long stoplights, but I am allowed to love her.  I'm allowed to talk about her, even when it warrants pause and even when it's sometimes uncomfortable.  I make no apologies for telling you it hurts because it does. When I'm honest with you I am extending an olive branch; an opportunity for you to say I see you.  I see you still loving her and missing her and I'm going to let you; even better, I'm going to do it with you.

So to those who see my honesty as a way to literally steal from their happiness, perhaps you should look less at what I'm doing with regards to what pleases you and more at what is actually making you happy.  Is it the beautiful, healthy, kicking baby beneath your shirt or is it the recognition of that beautiful, healthy, kicking baby from the rest of the world? 

Take it from someone who has learned that lesson the hard way:  nothing trumps a heartbeat.  And if it ever feels like something could, let me serve as the lone, devastating reminder that a pulse can be ripped from your hands as quickly as it appeared.   So please, do not mock that lesson by implying that my daughter's name could ever take away from yours. Doing so is almost comical, but it's closer to disgusting.   I cannot take your happiness.  I can barely hold my own.   Can you hear me?   I can barely hold my own.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

The S Word.

This piece was written and performed for Hazelwood West Writers Week, 3/2/17

In the three years since she died I've been called strong more times that I could count on twenty hands.  Most of the time strong is good.  And I know they mean it to be, but what does one say when strong feels like a consolation prize?  She died and I grew stronger.

I would rather be weak.

All three of my children close enough to touch weak.
I would die if my baby died weak.

Weak in the knees, as I watch them all breathe
Just beside me and think how
"I'm glad that wasn't me"


I don't feel strong exactly, but I'll tell you what I am if you'll listen
Of this there isn't a question.

I am brave.

Brave as the mother who places dirt atop her grave and walks away
Who taps her blinker, changes lanes
On the way home. 

Brave is tire tracks on roads you never wanted to know.
Brave is go.

Brave is not being allowed to love someone over bones. 
Brave is loving them anyway.  Loudly.  Publicly.  Uncomfortably. 

Brave is, every day, stepping foot into a world that will hurt you. Mock you.  Fail you.
Brave is telling those who ran "no thank you"
Brave is straightening your coat; locking all the doors behind you

Brave is a claw in a hole.

Brave is weakness.
The kind that catches in your throat with her name, the kind that slays you. 
Pink and blue and pacifies
All you thought you knew

Brave is forgiveness. 
And holding on and letting go.

Brave is an oxymoronic existence.
Brave is persistence. 

Brave is the heart that betrays you.
The one that beats when you beg it not to.
Brave is weakness given voice.

Brave is a choice.

Brave is a courage grown from ashes. 
Dares to risk it all again
For something so fragile, so fleeting, so often unkind
As love can be

Brave is me. 

Brave is now.
This body who gives life after death.
Brave is his every breath.

Brave is a stone's throw from crazy
Memories hazy
The kind that haunt you from dreams

Brave is a scream

And a silence in the night
The perpetual waking to a life that isn't right
Brave is loss.

The black and blue and bleeding kind.  The open, ugly, fester kind
The kind that makes them turn
Brave is a moment, and a silence, earned.

Brave is her.

She is gone and I remain.
Brave is pain.

The kind that swallows and drowns you, and follows and surrounds you

Brave is the hand that swells,
Longs to hold her

Brave is bolder.

Than a life you thought done.
Brave is a fist and tongue, when being brave isn't fun
Brave is a spark in the absence of sun.

Brave is not wanting to stay.
Brave is love.  Brave is yes.  Brave is life

Brave is upright, brave is a heap in corners of rooms
Brave is every moment life resumes.

It is tragic, and tugging, and leaching
It is holding death in your hands and still reaching

Call me dramatic, call me scary, call me sad
I will own them but I won't run

And so you can add just the one.

I am the face of every parent's worst nightmare, for a lifetime

I am her mother.

I am the pulse in the ruins.

I am brave. 


Friday, February 3, 2017

All My Friends Are Healing, Take It Slow

The other day I couldn't breathe.   I was standing in front of a room of teenagers, eyes glazed over and fixed on the window.  One of them said something silly and mildly inappropriate and everyone laughed and I thought, she'll never get this.

Of course I know all of the things she'll never do, but I'm not always aware of them as they happen.  In a lifetime no single awareness overtakes me, but some moments are so visceral and so clear and so cruel.  Some moments I'm lucky to make it out alive. 

Recently I met a newly bereaved mother.  She was crying into her coffee as I held my hand to her shoulder; heaving, falling. 

I wanted to fix her, to reach back in time and save her.  I wished there were a way to place her baby into her arms now; alive and eyes squinting into the florescent light.  I wanted to warn her.  Sometimes a statistic is a comfort and sometimes it is a blindfold, and sometimes you learn the difference too late.

In truth there was nothing I could offer her, beyond a common understanding.  I drove home frustrated, stumbling over words in my head that might have been better.  Six weeks after she died, what was it I needed to hear?

She would be three this month, and for some reason it feels big.  Bigger than one and all the firsts without her.  Bigger than two and what felt like acceptance but wasn't close.  Three is a resolve to what normal looks like now.  Three is three years since I felt her skin on mine.  Three feels like hope but also like betrayal.   

I told this woman that I have a list in my head of all the things I never wanted to know.  At the top is the weight of her ashes in my hands and at the bottom is the utter disappointment life becomes afterwards; the knowledge that if I live another fifty years and desire to be happy for any one second of them,  I must settle.  Every day.  For the rest of my life.  But there are all kinds of things in between. 

What it's like to fear the color pink, polka dots, and pony tail holders. 
How it feels to harbor death, to push and labor and writhe and force it from your insides and realize that it will never be so. 
What it's like to cry in front of your boss, your students, the gas station attendant.  Well-intentioned wedding guests and the mailman.  Your real estate agent and your new neighbors and your son's soccer coach.  Cousins, student teachers, and yoga instructors.  Computer repairmen and photographers.  Waitresses and colleagues and  taxi drivers and the neighborhood boy scout. 
How bone fragments feel  through thick, sealed plastic and what Vodka tastes like on your due date. 
How it feels to pray you'll die by morning.  Which friends you can (and should) do without. 

I told her I never asked for this list; how I curse it and how it curses me.  What it's done to me, this knowledge I'd have run from if given the choice, but we weren't.

There is no going back.  I am no longer the girl who drove herself to the hospital that night.  The one who parked near the front entrance and who struggled with the zipper over her belly as she told herself the truth:  The best thing that happens is you leave here with your baby.  The worst is that you don't. 

This is a sadness one does not move through or over, no matter the days that pass. This is a pain with a marrow.  This is a love that becomes you. 

And not in such a way that you can shut it off or on, and not in such a way that makes anything remotely easier, and not in such a way that you will often have many who will validate what you feel, no matter how you wish they would, no matter how you wish they would. 

But in such a way as a limb would, over time and with practice and care and a blood supply, grow and mature and evolve.  And improve. 
I told her you're not done.  Everything that you've ever known to be true is telling you that you are done, but you are not.  You will walk out of here today and you will breathe heavy and your vision will fray but you will walk, still and upright, and you will add to your list.  Every day until your last.

And one day, maybe five years from now or maybe fifteen, you'll notice that the paper feels less like a filter and more like a lens.  A clarity you never asked for, and one not everyone gets, and one you've been using all this time against your will. And of course you'd trade it back if you could but you can't, and so you take another step as it folds in your pocket, towards the possibility of another day like that. 

She asked me how then, between sobs.  How do I do that?  So I told her the truth.

We do it together.