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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.