Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Good Life of a Bunny Rabbit

It was a sunny October afternoon, the fifth, when I brought him home to my sophomore dorm at Middlebury. A friend with a car had agreed to help me with my contraband, a tiny silver rabbit accompanied by a huge cage, a bag of food, waterbottle, and book on house-training a rabbit.

I had gone to the pet store thinking I'd get, perhaps, a hampster or gerbil. I felt lonely in my dorm, not lonely for friends, of which I had many, but for someone to care for and dote on. I had decided that a pet, a tiny pet that could slip under the radar of the dorm-security, would be the perfect solution. However, the gerbil (which would have been useless) quickly morphed into a bunny when I set my eyes on the tiny, soft little creature in the corner of the Village Pet Store in Middlebury, Vermont. The sign stated that he was a dwarf rabbit, and the owner explained that the bunny would only double in size, staying quite small. I reserved him right away, went home and confirmed the "ok" with my roommate, and then got the friend to take me back.

When I first got my bunny home, at the tender age of 19, the store owner had told me that he was a female. I worked for hours to try to choose the perfect name for the first pet that would be truly mine; finally I chose "Abbie", for reasons I cannot remember. She was beautiful, my Abbie, with long, black whiskers, the most gorgeous eyelashes like a jersey cow, and the silkiest ears imaginable. She would leap around the room in circles, picking up objects in her path with her little teeth and tossing them into the air. She was delightful.

Two weeks after Abbie came home to the Pearsons dorm, his testicles descended. Whoops! Certainly this ultra-feminine name would no longer do. We would have to choose another (my roommate was in on this round of naming). "Abbie" had a bad habit of chewing on absolutely everything he could get his teeth on, and the most destroyed current victim of his teeth was my old Simon and Garfunkel record cover. So Simon it would be, Simon the rabbit, and my neighbor Tyler gave the rabbit the middle name "Alkinoos", which is Greek for something I no longer can remember. Simon Alkinoos the rabbit, the tiny little silver bunny who grew into a rather large form of a dwarf rabbit, who was naughty, who chewed on everything wooden, all electrical cords within his reach, but dutifully gave out lots of love and kisses and used his litter box like a kitty cat. We adored him.

Simon stayed with me that year in Pearsons, and then my roommate cared for him while I went abroad to New Zealand the next year, and then he moved back on campus. He lived with me in two more dorm rooms, then moved to a horse farm for a year, was cared for by my family while Greg and I traveled around Europe for six months, moved back to Vermont for a few years to live on an old dairy farm and help run a bed and breakfast, and then finally to the Pioneer Valley where he would live for nine years in three different houses.

Going back to that first year in Pearsons, that neighbor who had given Simon his exotic Greek middle name had a roommate, and the roommate's name was Greg. Now it just so happened that Greg was a real softie and loved animals just as I did, and he started to come over to my room almost every day to visit with the cute little baby bunny. He'd bring his books and read in our room, or come with late-night snacks and hold Simon while he fed him corn chips or nuts. My friendship with Greg grew and strengthened during this time. And over time one thing led to another and, you know the rest. Could we ever have imagined that this little silver bunny who helped to form our friendship would live with us through a six year courtship, our marriage, and the birth of three children? That he'd move with us thirteen times, turning from a naughty little bunny who had to be locked up when we weren't around to one so old and feeble that he lived in a corner of our living room on a folded-up towel?

Simon was a loyal pet, one who we loved so dearly despite all the challenges of rabbit-ownership (I don't recommend a rabbit as a pet, as much as I loved my dear Simon). Today his long, thirteen-and-a-half year life came to a close. He had developed a huge, fatty tumor on his neck several years ago, and at first it had not hindered him greatly. But lately, his kidneys seemed to be failing, he was consuming vast quantities of water, he was completely skin and bones, and yesterday he stopped being able to stand on his own. This morning I found him lying on his side, literally gasping for breath, clearly having been stranded in the same position all night long as I had slept. His eyes were glassy, he was making wheezing noises as he opened his little mouth, and gasped for the life that was escaping him. My heart went out to him, I felt so sad for him and wished I could help him.

I knew the time had come when I felt relieved that our vet was open on Saturday mornings, and so I called and I brought him in and held him in my arms as they injected his little leg with the serum that would end his life once and for all. Greg was able to come with me, as his parents are still staying at our house. We cried together in the vet's office after she left, with our once-again tiny little silver rabbit (tiny save the huge tumor on his neck) seeming hardly different now in death as he had in his aged life.

We had told the children that Simon was dying, and that the vet was going to give him a special shot so that he wouldn't be in pain anymore. They both cried and kissed him, and had said goodbye to him before we left for the vet. When we came home they both wanted to come out in the pouring rain to help us bury him. It was a movie-worthy burial, with cold, slushy snow on the ground, a muddy grave site, and the rain absolutely pouring down. Mist rose from the snow as it melted.

There was a brief moment of comic relief as Greg accidentally exhumed our frog (who died last April, aged 21 years) that was in the plot next to where Simon was to be buried, and then I wrapped him in the little pink towel that I had brought him to the vet in, and slid him into the little wooden house that had been in his cage for nearly 14 years and buried him in the ground.

He was a good pet, our Simon, and I will miss him. But his time had come.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas, Round Six

Sadness usually fills me with words; this year it has rendered me silent, unable to piece together what it is that I think. I feel restless, I am bereft at both ends, yet I am so full and surrounded by bliss.

Our big sister Charlotte has been on everyone's mind this Christmas, beginning with the mealtime blessing that we share each dinnertime. Somehow, on the lead of our smaller daughter, our varied blessings and honorings of Charlotte have changed this month to a very simple and plain want and need: We wish you could come back, Charlotte. Sometimes it is in Liam's clear, honest voice; other times in Aoife's little high-pitched two year old voice. But it is every night now, a sad, quiet plea: Return to us, sister, come back. We miss you here.

On Christmas Eve, we did the things that I always did as a child. Daddy read the Night Before Christmas to the children, we set out the milk and cookies. We kissed the children goodnight, with promises that if they fell asleep quickly, Santa would visit sooner and choose the best presents for them. After laying out the gifts and making sure everything was ready, I went in and kissed their warm little foreheads. I was so happy for them that magic existed in their minds; the truth to them was that somewhere over the Atlantic, a fat man with a white beard was hurtling along, sleigh full of presents, pulled by eight reindeer headed for Massachusetts. They truly believed that this mystical man would visit their home and fill their stockings with gifts. What a Christmas miracle. Could I have one, too?

But I knew I could not. I tip-toed back into my bedroom after kissing Aoife and tucking her fleecy blankets around her little face. Liam was asleep on a little mattress at the foot of my bed, my sister slept on a full-sized mattress right next to him, and Greg was already asleep in our bed. I had a little flashlight, and it was by this light that I did what I always do now 0n Christmas eve, I wrote my daughter a letter. I wrote a letter to my child who would not awaken in the morning, my child for whom there is no magic, and no Santa.

I wrote to her and I told her how much I missed her, how we all missed her this Christmas. I told her of the things we had done as a family and how much her absence was felt. In this year's letter, my focus was on one specific, unattainable wish of mine. I wish I knew what Charlotte might look like. I wish that I knew what she looked like, what she would have been at five years old, so that when I tried to imagine what Christmas would be like with all three of my children, I could do so. I would like to not have this blur-faced five-year-old sized girl child streaming through my subconscious. I only wish I could at least imagine with accuracy, even if I could not have her here.

I finished the letter, and I tip-toed back downstairs past the dark Christmas tree and through the kitchen, and I tucked it into the top of her stocking, where it rested on top of the letter Greg had written to his little girl, and on top of the few gifts and trinkets that we and her grandparents had offered to her. I noted the size of her stocking, its flatness in comparison with her siblings, which were stuffed to the brim and overflowing. I felt sad.

Christmas morning came, and joy settled into our home. Liam was the first one awake and took full responsibility for making sure that everyone else was awake for the grand migration downstairs and into the dining room to see if the stockings had been filled-- which, of course, they had. The delight of the morning were two real, wooden Nutcrackers, "just what we asked Santa for!" and Aoife cradled hers for twenty minutes, trying as hard as possible (I imagine) to look just like Clara from the ballet she had seen the week before. In addition to our family, we had my parents and sister, and Greg's parents, and the mood was very bright. I was pushing the sadness away, like we clear the windshield of water while we drive, so that I could see the beauty before me.

After some time had passed and the children had opened most of their stocking gifts, I felt a small hand on my knee, and it was Aoife standing by my side.

"Charlotte isn't here, so she can't open the presents in her stocking," she said.

"I know, sweetie. You and Liam will have to help and open them for her." I pulled her onto my lap, and she rested her head on my breast, and held onto me.

"I feel sad about that," she said.

"Me, too," I told her, and I held her so tightly onto my chest. She is only two years old. How can she know just what to say?

A few minutes later I ask her if she'd like to see if Liam wants to help her to open Charlotte's things, and so they work together, and they find a little, yellow-haired dolly wrapped in pink tissue, and the book "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf". I wonder to myself if Charlotte would even like little dolls. Aoife clutches the doll to her chest, and returns to my lap. She brings me such peace.

There are moments of sadness, long looks on other family members' faces as we are opening the gifts for Charlotte, but then we move into a big, delicious breakfast and dig into the gifts under the tree, and unaffected joy returns. I am delighted to see the children so pleased with the gifts I have made for them; hand-dyed play silks; new freshly cooked play-dough, a home-made rice table with tiny hand-turned wooden buckets and jars, a felt board, and a Greg-constructed new book stand full of low-quality but well-loved Scholastic Christmas themed books. I am surprised at how they linger; rather than tearing as fast as they can through each gift they stop with each one, trying it out, hugging and thanking its source, and near squealing with delight. There is no greed evident, simply happiness with all that is being unveiled and gratitude for those around them.

The day moves along until finally the pile under the tree has been reduced to a houseful of new surprises being tried out, a pile of boxes, a bagful of ribbon, and a giant sack full of pretty decent looking used wrapping paper to use again next Christmas. There are potatoes and cauliflower cooking in the oven, green beans and an apple-beet puree, and a local ham in the oven to enjoy. A pile of sweet confections waits on the counter. The children read their books, the snow sparkles in the warm winter sun outside, wine is poured. Charlotte is still gone. My first child is still dead.

After dinner has been served, the children are in bed, and I have plowed a path through the living room, I follow the lead that has been set and climb the thirteen stairs to my bedroom. Greg is already in bed. Liam and my sister are sound asleep. The ceiling lights are dimmed to their lowest setting, to allow those not yet in bed to see their way over the sea of sleeping bodies and under the covers for a well-earned rest. I let my clothes fall to the floor, and get into my flannel pajama shirt and blue cotton pants. Stepping out of my slippers, I carefully climb up into our high sleigh bed, crawling over the form of Greg's sleeping legs. I get to my side, and then go to reach over him to switch out the light, and I stop.

Greg is asleep, curled on his side with his back to the door where I came in. His face looks gentle, so peacefully sleeping on the white sheet, and in his arms is curled Charlotte's red and white Christmas stocking. He is holding it in his arms, hugging it to his chest, loving it as if it might bring him a moment closer to his baby girl who he hasn't held but on one day five years and seven months and two weeks ago.

I know it will not, and it makes me sad all over again to live the grief that I feel for my husband, who has lost his daughter, who feels a huge grief in his heart over his own child with whom he would have had his own, very special love and friendship.

I lay down in the darkness, sadness filling my heart. It was the best Christmas in six years, of this I can be certain. There was not one moment of the day that was not just full of so much happiness, delight, and privilege. It felt almost perfect. But there is something missing, someone missing, and I can't let that go, I just can't.

I will always miss her.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I spend almost all my time here brewing and stewing about the family that I've made; when really some focus needs to be placed on my absolutely amazing, fabulous family of origin.
So here's where it's at-- me in the middle flanked by my two "little" sisters Stephanie and Sheila (we are each 2 years apart) all wrapped up in my sister Steph's hood that she received along with her doctorate last week... I am so proud of her!
My wonderful sisters and all the love that we share makes me want to make more and more babies; that's where it's at. I can't get enough of my sisters, and I want my children to be able to enjoy the same wonderful fun that multiplies by the sibling. Yee-haw! Let it happen. Let this be a post of pure optimism.
And congrats to my two sisters... both doctors of one kind or another. Wow.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I have this peripheral friend; I call her this because I know that if our paths crossed more than three times a year for five minutes we would be much better friends than we are, but as our circumstances put us miles and a river apart on a map, this is how it is. She is such a soul-searching, deep feeling person and I am always so happy to see her, fully in my heart.
Her son started at my school the year after Charlotte died; so she wasn't there for the crisis in full, but witnessed the aftermath. I hadn't met her yet, but I would see her husband walk Ben into the nursery classroom every day with their baby girl on his back in a backpack. She had been born the previous March, only eight weeks before Charlotte. Sometimes the baby would make me weep. Birdy was the only baby girl in the school that year.
I wondered about this family, but I didn't know them. I didn't know them at all until one day I visited the school with my newborn Liam and Catherine threw herself at me, tears in her eyes. I didn't know her yet, per se, but knew her as my friend Nicole's friend, but she hugged me anyway and told me that she cried for ten minutes when she heard that Liam had been born safely, and that she thought it was the best news she had heard in a long time.
This, from a stranger, a not-so-strange friend of a friend stranger who became this weird kind of friend who I like so much but rarely see, yet feel so happy and blessed by whenever our paths cross. Part of this connection is undoubtedly the fact that Catherine can say Charlotte's name and talk about her life and death while maintaining direct eye contact, which is rare. Very rare. Somehow she actually gets this.
So this Friday, our paths did cross again, we were both sitting cross-legged at an all-school sing at the school where I used to teach, and where her two children who are now 8 and 5 still go. Catherine started when she saw me, saying that it was so funny as she was about to e-mail me that morning, but had been distracted. She explained that she had just inhaled Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination the night before, and that she just couldn't stop thinking of me as the words dripped off the page and mixed with the other true story of love and loss that she knew so well. And then she said something which made me stop and think for a long time which was, "And I'm sorry, I don't mean to characterize you by this, that it's the first thing I think of when I think of you. "
And I thought-- why shouldn't it be? I said as much, but I couldn't stop thinking about this-- the fact that the very essence of my motherhood is in very many ways completely wrapped up in the fact that my first child was born without a heartbeat. How can it not be? How can every decision I make, every kiss and snuggle and good bye and goodnight not somehow reflect on the fact that there is a missing child for whom I can do none of these things? I think this very idea, that my motherhood is in so many ways defined by loss, is why it is so difficult for me to have a conversation for more than three minutes with someone who doesn't know that I've lost a child. When this happens, I can't turn off the subtitles in my brain:
I look like a normal person to her.
She thinks I'm just like her.
I'm not.
And so I somehow need this, this definition, and it is certainly not something to be apologized for. Imagine if someone who knows me read this book and did not think of me first? Did not wonder, with each page, if this was what it was like for me? That might require an apology. But this, this I can sit with. What almost seems stranger, from my perspective, is that to someone else it might seem somehow offensive for me to be characterized in this way. I think this is where I can see that I have come so incredibly far, that I can be comfortable with having lost Charlotte as part of my very identity. It truly doesn't tear at my heart the way it used to (at least not all the time), and I can hold her very comfortably.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two Things for Today:

First, I must comment on my own previous post, which I tacked up yesterday before my Holiday party because I was dying to post something that I thought was somewhat decent writing and I knew that I would not be allowing myself time to write during the day. But I had hardly glanced it over-- and then, tonight, after reading your comments it occurred to me to read it, and to consider exactly what you were commenting about: and reading it sucked me very, very quickly into a very dark place. Quite honestly I can hardly bear to read the words because it hurts so much to remember feeling that way. Yet it is just that, I remember feeling that way, and I do not feel that way anymore. I hardly ever travel back to my memory of that time, because I almost feel sick with the memory. But, in addition to the truth of that visceral memory and what reading about Clare and her homecoming evoke in me now, reading it also makes me feel more and more convinced that when I do write a book, and I am going to do this next year, it will not be a memoir or a manual, but it will be a story about Clare, about a woman who is another character and not me, because she pulls the memory, and the visceral feeling out of me in a way that I feel my own words cannot express quite so adequately. I love writing about Clare, it feels so much easier than writing about myself. Even though Clare is me. I love this strangeness.

Secondly, and totally unrelated:

So, last year my New Year's Resolution was this: I will not be so lazy. I said it to myself like a mantra, many times a day. I am not actually, by nature, a lazy person, and in fact one might find in my daily life that whether I am out and about or at home I could be characterized more easily as completely hyperactive, rather than lazy. But the things I wanted to cut out were things like leaving the dishes to dry on the counter instead of just wiping them and putting them away. I wanted to try to just get into the habit of completing undesirable tasks all at once instead of dividing them into little, lazy chunks and putting them off. So I said it to myself, I will not be so lazy, and I wiped the dishes dry again and again and put them away, and I did succeed in becoming less lazy. A little.
Tonight I decided what it is I'm going to work on next year, and again, it's trying not to be something that I'm not anyway: I will not be so shy. I am not a shy person, not really. I'm friendly and I love people and I love to talk to people that I know I have something in common with. But I do get that hesitancy to speak up, that fear of talking to people I don't know. I don't even really like to call for pizza, I'd rather have somebody else do it for me. In terms of being brave and making actual conversation with a stranger, that's something I just haven't excelled at. This year I have made a real, conscious effort to make eye contact with people and say hello, just hello, and if I'm in a store or someplace actually interacting with people, I have lately been trying to say more than hello. To make an actual connection. So this has been on my mind, but tonight something totally different happened that made me think it would be fun to just do what I felt like, without worrying about being shy.
There was a candlelighting tonight, in the town next door, at our local Angel of Hope statue. The candlelighting was hosted by our local chapter of the Compassionate Friends, and I had called (feeling nervous, of course) the leader and asked for the date and time and if it would be alright if our group attended. Of course she said yes, and sent me all the information and a group of 10 of us went to the ceremony tonight. As I was driving over, I remembered that the invitation had said that people could bring a poem or say a few words if they wanted to. I suddenly felt sorry that I hadn't brought something, and as I was wondering if I knew any good poems by heart, a song came into my head.
It was a song we sang in the winter of 2004, as Liam grew in my belly, in my chorus. The director had approached me before we began rehearsing and asked me if I would feel okay with singing this song, she had chosen it because it reminded her of me and of Charlotte. I read the words, and said of course, yes, I would be honored. I sang the solo at our concert, and I had felt so proud.
The words came into my head, a patchwork of the verses to this song, and I suddenly had this strong, crazy urge to sing them at the candlelighting:

Circling round this walk on earth
Tears for death and tears for birth
Blessings quilted with the pain
All are woven in the grain

Giving thanks for breaking bread
And for kind words that are said
Giving back what I've received
Simple acts are sacred deeds

Cradle me, cradle me
Oh, dear mother, Cradle me
Earth and Breath and Sky and Sea
All rise up and Cradle me

(you can hear it sung at

They seemed like the perfect words for tonight. But of course I would not sing them. I would never sing, alone, in front of a whole group of people I had never even met before.

Or would I?

It turned out, I did. I felt almost a little crazy doing it, because it was so vastly out of character for me, but I went up with my lit candle, spoke of my daughter's brief life, and then said, I want to sing this for Charlotte. And I sang, my voice quaking slightly through the tears that had been recently flowing. It felt absolutely amazing, completely liberating to do it.

So I walked away, and thought that I must do things like that more often. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Some more Clare....

Clare’s memories of coming home were snapshots, scattered, disheveled images with no distinct chronology or organization. She had described these recollections to somebody once; comparing them to the memories one often has of early childhood, when pictures of faces, smells of grass and apple juice, or the taste of saltwater can tie a person to a frozen moment in time, a memory one can be certain is real even when there are no surroundings to it. Clare felt just this about coming home, although there were so few reminders to tie her there.
Clare had been told that there were probably a multitude of reasons why she could not remember the self that had emerged from the hospital on that warm May afternoon. First was the birth itself. Perhaps as an evolutionary advantage, there is often an amnesic quality to the aftermath of birth, or even the experience itself. Many mothers over time have experienced this; some who have had extremely difficult childbirths cite their hazy memories as the probably cause of their subsequent children whom they had sworn off having during their labors.
But in addition to the birth experience, Clare had been told, her mind was sheltering her from the intensity of the painfulness of her experience. Clare had become, in a heartbeat on that May day, the survivor of an unbearable accident: one that left her alive and her daughter dead. This accident was too unbearable to recall in its full clarity, lest her already gaping wounds begin to bleed again.
But as much as Clare’s mind fought to protect her from her own history, her heart longed to remember. Knowing what her life had been like in the aftermath of her daughter’s death somehow seemed like a tie to her little girl, another way to make Charlotte’s brief life more real to Clare. And so, on the long winter nights of that December and January, Clare fought her subconscious, fishing for the memories that might help her to piece together the remains of her broken heart.
There was the light. It was May, and the days were long, the sun rose early, and their house seemed perpetually filled with light. But the heavens poured with tears, for nearly three weeks after coming home it rained ceaselessly, and so the light in the house was not pure, it was a filtered, bluish light, cold and grey. Clare rarely looked out the window intentionally, but the light was there, casting the reflection of the steel-grey sky onto all the surfaces in her home. For may weeks it was the color of her world as the rain tumbled down.
The sounds in the house were still ones. Clare recalls almost nothing about the way she or Charlie sounded or interacted but she can hear the others. They are padding around in the kitchen, stealing out onto the sun porch over the creaky old floor, they were washing the dishes intentionally, trying not to knock cup against plate or spoon into glass. They whispered in hushed tones, Clare knew they were talking about her but she didn’t care. And every so often, there was music that Charlie put on . There were two CDs they could listen to. Clare liked the sad ones, the ones that gave her a new reason to cry. There was one about cutting down wisteria and another about lost dreams and they had listened to them again and again as the seconds of their new, unwanted life ticked on, and the rain poured down.
Clare could taste the sweet, sticky taste of that May’s strawberries, mixed with a hint of cinnamon and cold lemonade, The smell of lilacs drifted through her mind as she thought back to herself then, a self she could not bear to be.
And Clare could feel her body-- her ravaged, miraculous body, both lacking in the life that had once dwelled within her and swollen with the insatiable desire to sustain that life. Clare could close her eyes and pull herself back to the weakness she felt as she moved, the instability when she rose from her seat, the pain when she lowered herself down. But mostly she could feel the emptiness, the hollowness of her abdomen, the stunning lack of movement, the flatness of her once rounded body. And that body, refusing to believe, not knowing where Charlotte had gone, futilely working, converting Clare’s strawberries and cinnamon buns and lemonade into the rich, perfect milk that filled Clare beyond her capacity, spilling down her front, staining her shirts, and tearing apart her heart like nothing else could. She could still smell that milk.
And Clare remembered herself, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, eyes reaching from her swollen breasts, to the red marks her daughter had stretched across her belly, and up to her face. Clare can remember the shudder she would feel each time she looked in the mirror and it registered that she was the sad, sad woman looking back. It was not a stranger whose hollow eyes revealed unspeakable trauma, it was not someone else’s cheeks chapped by tears, it was not somebody else’s mouth that turned down slightly at the corners. Clare would think, sometimes, when she looked at herself, that she had never seen someone look so sad in her entire life, and that in itself would make her sadder and she would leave the bathroom and return to the sofa and smell strawberries and lilacs and hear the soft voices and feel empty inside and wonder how she would ever make it for the rest of her life.
And it’s in this context, sometimes, of taking herself back to the feeling of lead weight on her chest, to the physicality of a completely broken heart with no supports, that Clare realizes that right now she is making it. It is only when she remembers being paralyzed with pain, too hurt to speak or interact with anyone but Charlie or to walk or eat, that Clare knows that a new part of her has opened. She can never bring herself to say that things are better, because Charlotte is still gone and that won’t get better. But in fighting back the amnesia that separates her and May, she learns that a new part of her has grown, like a new branch on a tree, and that part is beginning to live again.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The news is good...

The world is just whirling by, in that good and wonderful and devious kind of way that it does... thus the many days since I have posted to this place.
I write so often, and it does such good for me-- the truth is that I don't ever even read over my posts, much less edit or plan them in advance. So why am I not just continuing to churn it out?
Oh, and I will....
the truth is I have been sick, and I'm cooking for a holiday party we're having this weekend, and I'm wanting to write good things so instead I'm not writing at all.

So-- instead, I'll post a few pieces of good news. First, the earliest indications are that the cord blood bone marrow transplant is taking in baby Andrew... potentially the first big step in the right direction for him.
Next, and completely unrelated, my dear friend Sara whose darling Henry died almost a year ago, on the 19th of December of 2007, gave birth yesterday to a healthy, beautiful baby girl named Kathleen Avery. Since I'm mentioning her, I may as well tell you the origin of her name: Kathleen comes from Sara's husband's sister, who sadly died of liver cancer last year while Sara was pregnant. And before she died, and before Sara had told anyone she was pregnant, that sister Kathleen dreamed that Sara would give birth to a daughter and name her Avery. So there you go. Kathleen Avery. Isn't that beautiful? What a beautiful tribute.
Congratulations, Sara. We are so happy for you (may I speak for you, too?)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Our first words for Charlotte 5.13.03

When we told our nurse we wanted ten more minutes with our baby, we asked her to bring us a piece of paper and a pen. Then, holding Charlotte, we wrote this poem. We did it so we would not forget her. Little did we know how impossible she would be to forget.
I can still feel my hand penning it, my little, warm, tiny baby nestled in the crook of my left arm with the table moved just so that my left hand could move the pen, scratching the words in messy black ink onto the tiny scratch pad the nurse had brought us.

We love you angel baby
Your long fingers with perfect little fingernails
Your tiny feet with elegant toes
Your tiny round belly
Your flat little bottom
Your little creases here and there
Your rosebud lips
Tiny pert nose
Your downy hair
Tiny wrinkles on your fingers, just like Mama
Little chin just like Daddy
Beautiful eyes that never saw the world
Cute, round ears, chubby at the top. So round, where did they come from?
Sweet, soft nipples
Charlotte, you are a little miracle.
You brought us so much happiness during the nine months you were in our lives
Now we have to let you go
The hardest thing we will ever do.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

There is a park nearby, right on the edge of a pretty little pond. Seven years ago the Compassionate Friends group from a nearby city carved out a little corner and dedicated a Christmas Box Angel statue (also known as the Angel of Hope). There are 100 of these statues nationally, and they are inspired by this beautiful little story called the Christmas Box. (if you like this blog, you would like that book. It is lovely)

Anyhow, the park is very pretty and has dedicated bricks from when it was installed, a pretty gazebo, and scattered benches. Liam and I were waiting there for Aoife and Greg this morning, we were having a rendez-vous after I had taken Liam ski shopping and before he left to help a friend move.
The pond had a thin layer of ice on it, which probably formed last week, and since then the water level had dropped substantially. There was incredible cracking and moaning from the ice as the edges had clung to the surrounding earth and vegetation and were now sinking to meet the level of the water. Liam and I found some steps and went down them, and sat by the edge quietly together and listened to the ice thunder and ricochet. It was very, very cold and crisp.

From where we were sitting, we saw Greg and Aoife come around the corner, so we walked up the steps and back through the little park and statue area. I noticed that the top was off of the trash can, and being rather type-A I wanted to replace it, because it looked disorganized and messy to have the lid off the can. So I walked over, and picked it up as I walked, and put it back on top. It was an Oscar-the-Grouch type of can, metal and rusty, but kind of vintage looking. As I turned to walk away the orange graffiti on the top caught my eye, and I accidentally read it:

No dead babys

This is what it said on the top of the trash can. This is what some teenage asshole decided would be a funny joke in a park dedicated to the memory of people's children. The irony of it all is, since it is a Compassionate Friends sponsored statue, the bricks are primarily dedicated to older children. But this kid decided to focus on the younger lot: no dead babys. It made my blood boil.

I remembered when we placed Charlotte's little stone on the side of the Mill River trail, and Greg worried about this. "What if someone defaces it?" he asked. "What if they put graffiti on it?"

I answered, "Who would do that?"

I didn't mention it to Greg. I didn't want him to see it. Not because it would inspire fear for our own memorial, but just because it lowered my faith in mankind to see those words.

So I went across the street to the studio sale I had been planning to go to and spent $500 on lamps. But they are really cool lamps. Isn't that the type of thing people who make one teacher's salary should do? It made me feel great. I never even buy myself new socks or underwear (I can sew up a little hole here and there) but I bought these beautiful lamps. Is this what they call retail therapy?

I think the next time I return to the park I will bring some paint and paint over that graffiti.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The winter I was pregnant with Liam, I took a pregnancy yoga class. It was with the same teacher that I had taken a class with the year before. I had been apprehensive about re-entering the class, wondering, in fact, if I might actually overlap with some people who had started at the tail end of my pregnancy with Charlotte. I sent the teacher an e-mail, asking her if it was alright if I came to the class, and wondering what I should say when people asked me about my pregnancy. After all, surely I couldn't speak of my recently deceased baby in the presence of a roomful of pregnant mothers?
It turned out I could. Arden, the teacher, was so gracious she made me burst into tears, which I had been practicing very hard not to do. She told me my birth story was a birth story like any other story, with a mother and a birth and a baby, and she told me I should never hesitate to tell anyone what had happened to Charlotte. She encouraged me to be true to myself and my child, and to remind myself that loss and grief are not contagious. I do not think I have heard such honest words since then.
I began the class in my usual location, and enjoyed attending. It was the one time of each week where I actually acknowledged my pregnant body and the new little soul blossoming within. One week, I couldn't go to the Northampton class, so I decided to drop by the Amherst class after work. The roomful of women there did not know my story. When I entered, they were talking excitedly to one another. I unrolled my mat and took off my shoes. I sat down, leaned onto my legs, and breathed.
I was having one of those days where I did not have the emotional energy to take care of other people. You know, if you too are bereaved, what I am saying. When you speak those words, "My baby died," the person looks shocked, then sad, then pitying. They feel terrible for having "brought up" this sad subject, and wonder if they have just ruined your day. So you have to convince them that, despite the dead baby, you are quite fine, (which is actually a lie) and not to worry one little bit. Some days, the emotional energy of facing the guilt and horror that will surely follow the dead baby announcement seems too much.
I was having one of those days, go figure. So I tried to just look like a yogi, breathe deeply, and not interact. But the truth is, I like to talk. So when I heard a question that nobody else had an answer to, I couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer.
"Has anyone here taken the Hypnobirthing Series," a juicy, jolly young woman asked. She looked so full of everything; of life, and hope, and innocence. But I had taken the series, and I had loved it, so I did speak up.
"I took it with my first baby, my daughter, it was wonderful, " I told her.
Suddenly, everyone in the room wanted to know all about it. So I spoke to the advantages of the training in mentally preparing onesself for birth, in creating healthy, productive attitudes towards birthing as a natural process, in thinking of myself as an animal being who knew, inherently, how to birth.
"But did it really help you when you gave birth? What did you think?" They all had their eyes on me, wanting to know. I just couldn't throw my curveball to this room full of innocents.
"I actually had a lot of complications with my birth, " I answered evasively.
"So was it really great to have all those techniques to use?" she asked.
"I didn't actually end up using many of the techniques during the delivery." That, kind of a very vague lie, skirting around the issue that I was actually paralyzed with grief and fear and that all the plans I had made for my birth went down the drain.
"Well, did you feel that having the hypnobirthing made you more prepared for the complications?"
Holy shit, woman. You are going to want to stop right there. You don't know what you are getting yourself into.
But of course I didn't say that.
"My situation was very, very complicated. The Hypnobirthing didn't really play into it at all."
"But do you think that having the more relaxed mindset helped you to be more flexible with what was happening?"
Fuck. Can you not take a hint? There are 16 highly pregnant woman staring at me right now and you are backing me into a corner. If you know what is good for you you will stop right now.
"I had a very difficult experience and the course did not really prepare me to handle what happened."
"So what happened?"
This woman was not giving up. She wanted to know what this Hypnobirthing had done for me, and she wanted to know tonight. I hated to break her heart, but I had evaded the question already as many times as I could. They were all staring at me. I had to answer.
"My daughter actually died during the delivery. I don't think there's a course that could have prepared me for that."
I think not.
All the faces in the room crumpled slightly, and the interrogator almost sprung back, exclaiming, "Oh! I'm so sorry!" There was a flurry of activity as yoga mats were adjusted and items were removed from and replaced into bags. People looked both horrified and pitying, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that not a single mother in that room worried for one single moment that their baby would be born dead. I was the horror story in the room, the person that you would never become, and they all felt awful that they had dragged the terrible truth from me as slowly as possible.
And me? My greatest regret was that I hadn't come out and said it right away, because in my interest in protecting them, I now appeared hesitant to speak of my experience, which I was not. I would have been glad to fill them in on any of the details of my very average, completely normal birth experience. Everything was normal, of course, except for the absence of a pulse. But because I was trying not to burst their bubbles, they now felt awful for "bringing it up".

As if I hadn't been thinking about "it" all day.
"It" has a name, Charlotte. And I never stop thinking about her, even now.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tis the Season

This is the time of year where my world seems to close in on me in a beautiful, magical way. The night settles in as New England goes dark for the winter, the birds are gathering to feast on seed, and my breath goes frosty as I open the door into the morning darkness to let out the cat. Lights twinkle around the house; on the tree in the living room and the candles in the dining room. It is the beginning of winter, where being housebound becomes a privilege, where there is anticipation of all kinds, where love abounds.

For so many people, recently bereaved, Christmas and this entire season is devoid of anything that might mean joy. I had that, once, that awful Christmas where we went to the farm up the road and bought the tree because, damn it, we had planned to and I still wanted to, for her. We put it up and decorated it with shaking fingers, tears streaming down our faces. While Greg went to class in the evenings I sat home and embroidered on two beautiful Christmas stockings, to match the ones my aunt had made for everyone in our extended family. One said "Daddy", and the other, of course, said "Charlotte". I cried as I made them, for the man who did not get to be a daddy to his little girl, and for the girl herself who was robbed of this privilege of life that most of us take for granted. I was so intent, that season, to show her something of myself, to let her see what a good mother I truly was. I put up that tree, and I hung her stocking. I played holiday music and sang along. I needed her to see joy.

I also needed to feign joy for the poor, untended baby in my womb, the child around whom all the hope in the world was wound tightly around, and whom I was almost too terrified to face. I loved my new, unborn child with all my heart, I needed him desperately, but I feared for him. Feared for his life, and also feared that he would be born melancholy and wasted from the sadness that had engulfed him in the womb. I would talk to him, through my tears, as my sobs wracked my body and bent me sideways over the swell of him, "I love you so much, I love you so much." I hoped so deeply that he would know that I would find joy in him, although I had none at that time. And so there were some, intentional times where I would create it out of nowhere, with the sound of my voice singing, or by skipping somewhere instead of walking, so that perhaps the motions of my body would create joy where I could find none.

And that Christmas, there was hope for everyone but me in that swell of my growing belly, because I could not trust that all would be well. I knew there was a chance, but I was still much too wild with grief for Charlotte to acknowledge that somebody else was on the way. They were just too close together for me to truly take pleasure in his presence at times. And I am sorry for that.

But I do not need to explain the joy that swept me with his birth, my saviour and rebirth, Liam Gregory. He was born the day after Easter and it seemed almost like a resurrection to me; I was reborn a new person when his cry split the air. The sadness was still there, so fierce, but this joy that I felt severed the part of me that could not hope and transformed it permenantly because this I could see, good things could happen. I wanted this little boy to feel nothing but love, and not just love for one baby, he would feel it for two, and I would give him anything.

So now, at Christmas, I delight in the joy that my children feel, in the pleasure of giving and the treat for them of receiving my thoughtfully made and selected gifts. I love seeing them surrounded with family members, all smiles, safe and rooted in a loving home.

Our Christmas table has one of those beautiful angel chimes, with the four candles on the bottom that turn the little fan and ring the bells. We all say a wish or hope for Charlotte at supper, by way of our grace, and it brings a strange mix of sadness and pride and joy as my children express what they are grateful for, and what they wish could happen.

"I'm so grateful for our family," Liam says, "and I wish Charlotte could be here."

"I want Charlotte to come back and live with us," says Aoife, the same wish she has made every night for about a month.

My heart swells. I am sorry for them, forced to miss a sister they never knew, but sincere in their wishes because love is contagious and they have caught ours. Greg and I make our wishes, and the bells tinkle gently as we eat our supper, talking and singing while the quiet night falls, icy cold and frosty around our family's home.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Flicker of a Soul

Last night I lay with Liam in the mostly-dark of his bedroom. The sound machine whirred, the walls were reflecting a dim yellow-blue from the glow of his little night light. I lay next to him, my head almost over him, buried in the covers beside his head. Suddenly, he started.

What was that? he said.

What was what?

That shadow. A shadow just went gliding across the ceiling.

I looked, and saw nothing. There was nothing animate between the light and the ceiling, nothing rational to make a shadow.

"I don't know," I said. "What do you think it was?" But inside, I smiled to myself.

Tonight, at dinner, I told him, "That shadow you saw? I think it was Charlotte's spirit."

He looked confused. "But I saw it," he said.

"Sometimes," I told him, "If you are very lucky, you can see a spirit."

He smiled at me then, a knowing smile of pure joy. We said no more.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What I can't relate to

There is another thing that makes me turn red on the inside, while I smile on the outside. Somehow I have never been able to get past carrying on as if an interested participant in the conversation, but I can feel hot liquid oozing out of my ears and from beneath my fingernails. Ants crawl up and down my spine and I want to jump up and run out, out, out... And this is what it is. I'll put six statements in chronological order, and you will understand immediately.

2003: Sometimes nursing can just be really difficult.

2004: They can really just get to be such a handful once they're walking!

2005: It's just such a treat to finally know what he has to say, to see his personality emerge.

2006: Oh, my god. Having a two-three year old presents a whole new set of challenges. I never know what to do!

2007: Can you believe it? She can draw real people! Look!

2008: I am so proud. He can read! It is just so exciting when they figure out the code.

So you get this, eh? These are the people who have the children Charlotte's age, who are talking to me not as the mother of Charlotte, but as the mother of Liam, who is a year younger than their son or daughter. This is a mother telling me, look out! Guess what's coming!

But you know what I hear, don't you?

This is what you are missing right now, this is what you should know, but you don't. You have no idea.

They never mean harm, never ever, never ever. Some go on more than others, but they never even know that I am melting inside, seething with the sadness for what I am missing. I have never said a thing.