Thursday, January 29, 2009
A friend's daughter, all lanky and legs, thin and stretched like a spaghetti noodle, maybe six inches taller than the last time I'd seen her.
Her hair was longer now, it had gone darker, it was cut neatly under her chin and was pulled back out of her eyes with a small barette.
She had grown so much, her body was so elongated and lovely, and her mid-section looked so tiny and thin in her bathing suit as she tugged her little brother's hand and pulled him down the stairs into the little warm pool at the Y. On the bench, her mother had their little sister on her back.
Sister, brother, sister. Just like my family.
And the little girl?
Her mother and I had been friends, we are friends, in a strange, sifted sort of way. We met while pregnant, both of us not knowing any other people with small children or babies on the way. We went to yoga classes together and would sometimes go out for supper afterwards; courting in that way that new mothers do, desperate for company in this new and frightening journey. We were both sure we were having boys, we would talk about the names over dinner.
When Charlotte died, the mother called me. Called me! On the telephone! The bravery that almost nobody else posessed. She had not delivered her baby yet, she was still nine months pregnant and waiting, and she heard my news and instead of lowering her eyes and slinking out to CVS to sign a card she picked up the phone and called me. I was so grateful to speak to her, to tell her about how beautiful Charlotte had been and how profoundly affected I had been by my loss. She cried, and so did I.
Nina, the girl at the pool, her daughter, was born three weeks to the day after Charlotte died, she left the hospital on the day that we held Charlotte's memorial service in the Smith College Chapel. I have seen her, and her family, only sporadically since the girls were born. Each time I see her, while her mother does not bring on that uncomfortable feeling that others do, and while I know she looks at me and sees me as absolutely bereft, and missing one child, I have trouble casting my eyes upon Nina. She is mostly the only girl I know who is just the age of my Charlotte.
And that day at the pool I imagined the little girl of mine, stretched thin by her age and growing like a weed, nearing her sixth birthday and full of so much life and love. I imagined holding her slender hand and wondering how much longer I would be able to get away with it. I imagined her helping me with her younger siblings, her brother and sister that I still imagine even though their births and very existence are inextricably linked to her death.
It catches me, every time, when I see those girls and how they grow. I wish mine could, too.
Monday, January 26, 2009
People ask me all the time, all the time. How did you decide?
We did not decide, it just happened. I couldn't face it not happening. Now clearly the act of conception took some forethought, or at least some proactive action as a step in the direction of deciding to have another baby, but I honestly can hardly remember. I couldn't imagine extending this place I was in, this dreadful, stinking, pit of a childless hell I was surrounded by, by one single day longer than I had to. I could not imagine how I could survive one day longer than I absolutely had to.
And so that was the decision, I wanted the hell out of dodge and another child was the only way I could see doing that. I do not regret this.
Friday, January 23, 2009
A new baby, a fresh breath of life. A soft bundle of warmth, wrapped in blankets. A small, wet mouth, the milkiest sweet breath. A tiny, beating heart. There isn't anything more precious.
But this isn't the ordinary baby you might think he is (we'll call him "he" for the sake of argument here). Oh, no.
This baby comes after a long, long wait. He has three big sisters, two of them are asleep right now in their beds dreaming and one of them is coaching him right now, holding his hand in the place where the souls wait to come down, waiting for his moment. Sophie died two years ago, and after two more miscarriages, this baby's birth finally approaches. She will help him down.
Without doubt, his mother worries. She worries about her baby, about his health and safety, and she worries about herself. How will it feel to hold this baby, to have this baby? This baby that never would have existed, had Sophie lived? His mother harbours all of those feelings we all have, of aching love, of confused guilt, of wonder and concern and disbelief. She cannot imagine what it would be like to hold a baby who lives, who innocently peers up into her eyes with his dark blue, unfocused gaze. Her life has come so far and rounded so many corners since she was last there.
She is still grieving, hard and fast, the family that she lost. The dream that became perfection in the moment it slipped from her grasp; her three girls under four years, three blond little cherubs seated in a row on a front step, their fingernails caked with dirt from the garden, their white wisps flying around their big blue eyes as their mom or dad snapped a photo. She mourns that child, that baby sister, that little one who would not even be so much littler than her sisters by now. She cannot imagine what it will be like to hold someone new.
But all of us who have given birth know this, we know it well. Any of us who have given birth twice know that feeling of holding our huge, swollen middles and wondering if it could possibly be feasible to love this new child as we love our first. We worry about whether it could happen, the thought that the new baby might be slightly less loved than the one who came before.
But the moment that birth cry splits the air, and his cry will split the air, my dear friend, the fear disappates, it dissolves like smoke on a windy summer afternoon, and in its place comes that same love we wondered if we could find, and it comes in hard and fast and sure. (You know this, it has happened to you before.)
But the part my dear friend does not know yet, but some of you do, is this indescribable feeling of giving birth to a child that was never supposed to exist, a child that, given a better outcome for his sister, never would have been born. This child is not a replacement, he is a miracle. He is hard to comprehend, this perfect, beloved human being that, because of his sister, exists. Without his sister, he would not be. So you cannot have one without the other. This takes the moment of birth to an entirely new level. He does not replace, he accompanies. This brings us closer, somehow, to the one we have lost.
I can remember this feeling so intensely, what it was like to hold Liam when he was new and to see his innocence and feel so amazed that he was here, he was here, this child who never could have been made if his sister had lived. I still think this, watching his little body stretch and grow into what is now a boy's body, you are unbelievable, my little son, I can't believe you are here. I cannot believe that led to this. That such sadness gave way to such light. This emergence into joy from a place of darkness is what I think gives this type of birth its own unique quality. The unexpectedness of everything: of the life, of the cry, of the love and instant reorganization of the mind, it takes us over.
Good luck, my friend.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Here it is...
It is a modification of a post from a long while back from this blog, some of you may remember...
She calls for me when she wake up, my daughter, and she will accept no other
The shade pulled, curtain down letting slivers of light cut through to the darkness
She is lying beneath a pile of jumbled blankets, knitted for her and sewn for me and given to us
A patchwork of love and thought
I reach to pull her to me, her slight weight pulling me towards her
And I bury my face in her sweet hair
The soft sweaty creases of her neck
And smell the ever-so magically sweet scent that her own body has
The exact smell
Though I have not had it for years
Every single morning, and every nap she ever took
What a sweet smell my baby has
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
I had to breathe deeply, and think clearly to respond to a comment of Liam's this morning, which was: Was George W. Bush a terrible president?
I took a deep breath, feeling so much less energized on the subject now that he is back in Texas (where he belongs!!)......
George W. Bush tried his hardest to be a good president, I told him, but he made some decisions that a lot of people didn't agree with. But he did try his best to be a good president.
Is there any reason why I would not to instill this hope in the human race in my little son?
I think not.
Second, the thought that was on my mind before I read the comments from last post:
I just returned from a quiet, fire-lit visit with my friend Sara, who welcomed her dear little girl Kathleen last month, only several days before the anniversary of her beloved baby Henry's death. With holidays and such it has taken me this long to get a meal to Sara and her family, and it was such a pleasure to sit with them, in the midst of absolute baby-dom, with swings, and gift bags, and clean, folded diapers, the fire crackling in the background. Her husband chatted to me enthusiastically, showing me video clips of Henry, showing off his album that Sara had finished before Kathleen's birth, and telling me stories of Henry's days in and out of the hospital. They were almost all stories I'd heard before, from Sara, but I let him tell me, so that my ears could hear the stories of Henry's brief life again, to make him a little more real to me, and so that Brian could say the stories again, tugging Henry a little closer in the process. All the while tiny Kathleen was alert and wide eyed, her dimple flashing, her eyes periodically focusing and then staring off, heart innocently beating away, her chest rising and falling. I loved feeling her slight weight in my arms, and hearing her little noises. It was a joy to enter their home, my first time there, and to feel as if I was meeting both of their children at the same time. Two real children for their family, one in arms.
And then I thought, an hour later as I kissed my own dear Liam on the head, how funny that I have this, this biggest boy in my house, this big brother who will rule the roost and boss everyone around and win my heart, while she has lost her biggest boy. And she, in contrast, holds in her arms the big sister, the mother in every single game of house, the doting hen who will call on any future siblings far into the future, ensuring their well-being. She has what I've lost. And while sad, we are both happy. One never knows where life will take us.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
But it is his world, and it is true, isn't it. Charlotte isn't at the sing-alongs. She never has been.
Liam and Aoife in a joy-filled, wildly laughing embrace today
Monday, January 19, 2009
Liam loved Charlotte's Web, and I read him the chapter tonight called Last Day, and in the end of this chapter, Charlotte dies. I could feel him soften in my arms as I read it, his head drooping slightly as my voice wavered.
There is something just about saying it, "Charlotte died," and for the little grey spider, there was a moment when that happened, a peaceful, mystical passing from the here to the there, she was there, and then she was not.
When you see death like this, as a moment, there is something so amazing and magical about it-- we are here, fully here, until we are not. My daughter lived, and then, in a moment, she died.
I wonder when that moment was, and I wish I knew.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
She will always be with you. And yes, I do feel her, and feel comforted by her presence, whether it's a true spiritual presence or simply the ways in which she has permenantly changed me. She will always be with me. But those words, as comfort, said, you haven't really lost her, so grieve less, she will always be with you. There is no need to feel completely bereft. And, also, when the person who proffered the words was of a faith where I knew heaven was in the cards for them, and the life everlasting, I felt as if the words tried to offer a kind of promise that I did not believe in. Yet, in the quiet darkness of my home, when the driveway was once again empty, and the lights dimly illuminated our few mementos of our lost daugher, I did hold onto the fact that I knew she would always be with me. Comforting in my mind, but not when offered by someone else.
Thank goodness you are young, and you can have more children. No kidding! Thank god. This is something truly to be grateful for, absolutely, the possibility that I could, and would, go on to have more children. But from the mouth of somebody else? It read, no worries, we will be able to return you to the bliss you thought you would be surrounded by, we can erase this tragedy. Another child will turn this around for you, will bring you joy.
It will be good for you to go back to work. I will be the first to admit: it was good for me to go back to work. My brain needed a break from the awful eternity that lay before me, this never-ending stretch of vacant life that mocked me every minute of the day while I grieved. But when somebody else offered this advice to me, it felt like it somehow demeaned the quality of my good grief. Their words said, you shouldn't dwell on this tragedy forever, you must take your mind off of it. It couldn't possibly be healthy to think about your loss all day long, it will really be much better for you to be distracted, and to not think about "it" so much. The truth? Yes, the truth, in a way. But I felt my grief was being denied, that the people around me were trying to snatch my right to feel the sadness that was so natural, I wanted them to instead grant me the permission to grieve as I wished.
Then there is another phrase that almost makes me laugh, because it is so well-intentioned, and so absolutely true, but it still stings every time even though I try so hard not to feel the smart. In this situation, I am telling someone new about Charlotte, about how my firstborn died, and around me are my two living, smiling, laughing little children who have come since. And this often comes, is often offered as a response to my tale of Charlotte's death
But look, now you have these two little ones and so much happiness. How wonderful for you that you have them. If this is not the truth, what is? But somehow preceded by the word but, or the often and easily replaced "at least", somehow from a stranger, a person unsure of how to respond to my sad tale, the words say, I will try not to worry so much about the one you lost, because here you have them, two beautiful replacements, and you are happy.
Please don't read this the wrong way. I do not question the intention of any of these statements, and even recognize the truth of them, particularly this one. But I cannot shake my need to simply be acknowledged for the simple, stark truth of my loss: it is sad. It is sad, and will always be a loss in my life, regardless of who is to follow, and regardless of how I choose to travel in my grief journey. I only want to be allowed to, depending on context, be sad, or to recognize the sadness that this has brought to my life.
Yet when I spoke these words to myself, they did offer comfort, they were words that promised me hope in the future. Hearing them did not discourage me or make me sadder, but I simply could not help but feel the sting of a slap. But thinking them helped me (and still helps me) to realize that while much has indeed been lost, all is not lost. There will be reprieve from the sadness, and there will be rebuilding. Life will bring you promise some day.
Monday, January 12, 2009
I must say something, of course, I must say something. What are the words that are the most comforting, when there are no actual words of comfort?
And then I remembered, it's not about comfort. I thought, what is our job when we send a sympathy card? What were the words that actually brought me a positive message?
For me, it was the "words of comfort" that did not feel positive, in fact they set me into a tailspin of accellerating heartrate, a whirlwind of "you don't understand" and frustration.
I'm sure you will find comfort in your family and friends.
I'm sure the memory of Charlotte will bring a smile to your face.
Thankfully you will have your family around you.
All true, all true.
But me, personally, I don't want to hear that. The words that spoke to me?
I am sad.
I can't imagine what you are going through.
I cannot think of any words for what I feel for you right now.
The honesty of just admitting the tragedy, of acknowledging that the unspeakable has happened, and that it must be spoken, is what I could hear, that is what made me feel actually comforted. I wanted the cards to tell me, I am thinking of you, and all that I am thinking is about how broken your life is, how shattered you are inside, and I give you this, I gift you the privilege of feeling this sadness until you are ready to let something else inside.
I wanted my sympathy cards to let me grieve, not to get me better. I wanted to be sad, and I wanted others to affirm that I had something to be sad about.
I still read them, the cards. I have over 300 of them, filed away in two huge drawers in my storage closet. I have separated them into the ones I love to read, the ones I read again and again and again; and those that didn't do much for me, but which I appreciated anyhow.
Because anything, anything, is better than saying nothing at all.
What about you? What kinds of cards actually made you feel supported? What words made you glad, and what words made you mad?
Saturday, January 10, 2009
It stands to reason, and I do not fault myself for this, that when Liam was born I cast myself away, pouring my whole self absolutely into the care of him, never looking back. The frantic nature of my mothering instinct went into full gear, mothering one baby with the energy for two, and I poured and poured and poured out of myself and never once thought about getting a refill. This went on for some time without my noticing.
When did I notice? I cannot recall, but what I do know is that there then came a period where I realized that I wanted to re-visit the old me, the person who used to pursue creative endeavors, who used to schedule coffee dates with friends and spend time exercising alone and hours reading on Saturday mornings (can you imagine the indulgence?). These very things that had made my skin crawl after Charlotte died, I was starting to want them back, and it made me cringe and writhe and want to swat the uncomfortable feeling away. So every time a (quite natural) thought arose, with my two year old and infant underfoot, I want some space, I want some me-time, I would mentally smack my hand, this is what you wanted, this is what you wanted. How dare you.
But I know better, now. Along the same lines as raising normal children who bicker, I have also come to accept that in some ways, I am a normal mother. I am a normal mother who cannot be just that, who cannot be that to exclusion. I enjoy who I am, and to be the true me provides a better person for my children to model themselves after. I have begun to carve time, to work with Greg to see that there is time somewhere in each week built in so that I can do something, anything, that will bring me pleasure, that is decided by me and me alone. It is absolute bliss, and it is also bliss to be freed from the chains of guilt.
And so, it is with great pleasure that at this phase in my life I am once again an avid knitter (working now on two highly patterned matching sweater vests for the cherubs), always involved in at least 3 sewing projects, I'm learning a new piece on the piano, I'm singing in a chorus, and I always, always have at least two good books going at once. I have been cooking with reckless abandon and have been getting more skilled at figuring out ways that the kids can help me-- whether it's really help or just keeping them busy with a butter knife and a chunk of cheese to chop into chunks-- so that I can truly love to cook, like I used to, instead of just thinking of it as something I have to squeeze into my life.
I'm also practicing talking to the kids about how I have certain responsibilities as the head of the household, and that I need some time to accomplish them if I'm going to be fully present to play with them. So instead of half-heartedly playing with them all day long, moaning on the inside about how much "stuff' I have to "get done", I will tell them that if I can have fifteen minutes to do the dishes (sweep the floor, put laundry away, etc.) then I will be available to play without distraction when I'm finished. I find this plan works much better.
This mothering thing really is a learned skill, isn't it, and our children are always changing and growing and so we do, too.
On a side note, it is possible, possible, that Aoife has finally weaned herself. It has been eight days. I would estimate that she's only been nursing maybe two times a week for the past 3 months, but she would always at some point remember and ask, and of course I am absolutely completely not going to say no, and it was always close enough to the last time that there would still be something there. But I don't know, I think maybe this might have done it.
If it is true, then this is the first time in six and a half years that I have not been pregnant or nursing. Aw.......
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Today, driving down an icy hill into my market-town of Northampton, on the way to take the cat to the vet, I had a thought or two on patience. On this particular hill, there are more lanes of traffic than there should be in a small New England town (we are not used to more than 2 lanes here), and the traffic lights and turn heres and no turn on reds at the bottom of the hill make the lane-changes and traffic stops more frequent at this particular intersection. It is, to sum up, the kind of intersection that finds many a person, particularly the locals who actually do know precisely which lane they want or need to be in, allowing their hands to fly off the wheel, recklessly slamming into the ceiling and back onto the wheel with a chorus of profanities to accompany the physical action. Sometimes, the outburst is hard to prevent when you see the line that you need to follow across the dotted lines to the lane you need, and some pokey car from Connecticut isn't sure where to be and prevents you from making the pass so that you can make your green portion of the otherwise five minute light.
So today, quite mellowed from a thirty minute jaunt on an artificial exercise machine (I will post about my thoughts on this later, I promise you, for I have many), and listening quietly to some piano music on the radio while the kitten mewed piteously from the passenger seat, I found myself in precisely this scenario, whereby I was blocked and could not go while the light changed from red, to green, to yellow, and finally back to red just as I had negotiated myself through the throng of confused automobiles in my path. I felt the knot of tension, the annoyance that I could not go, even though while looking at the clock I could see that I would not be late.
And I thought these words, Patience is a choice.
I breathed deeply, and suddenly it was all gone, and I saw it for what it was, some time alone in my car, the heat blowing on my relaxed muscles, an opportunity to people-watch and see the many people crossing at the crosswalk in front of my car, a chance to listen to some quiet music and think about what I felt like thinking about without interruption. This was not a problem.
This is how patience works for me, now, and I have written about this before. After the paramount act of patience and trust that grew and dragged me out of the depths of my prison of grief, commonplace patience in traffic situations, grocery store lines, and the like comes so easily to me, I nearly don't have to think of it at all. It delights me, almost, to be nearly completely free of this stress.
The next step, of course, would be to become so automatically patient with a four year old temper tantrum (so much more difficult to be patient with, what with the relative brilliance and maturity of the four year old over his much more immature and illogical two-year-old counterpart) and with the occasional bickering and I will feel so utterly fulfilled, but perhaps with practice this, too, will come in time.
All is good, though. The sleet and snow pour down and the yard is wet and messy and cold, but the house is warm and my new cookbooks are bringing amazing new meals to our table. The children never cease to amaze me. My bed is high, and soft, and warm. There is much to be happy for.
Tonight as I was bringing Liam up to bed, Greg said, I had a wonderful day with you, Liam. I feel very blessed.
What's blessed? Liam asked.
How could I answer that? It is you, my dear, it is gratitude, it is us being bowled over every single day by your very existence, and by your sisters', and just feeling grateful and glad for every moment we have together. It is what we feel every day.
We are blessed.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
In this instance, I felt humbled in many ways; the author, Peter Godwin, is referring to his homeland of Zimbabwe, where he grew up as a white boy and now returns regularly as a reporter. It does not need to be said that my suffering of one, lost daughter, while it is my greatest tragedy, pales in its magnitude when it is compared to the suffering of many people living in far worse circumstances than my own. I do indeed feel humbled by this, but yet I also stand by my conviction that each man's tragedy is his own worst experience, my own suffering is not lessened by the idea that others have suffered more. We all are bonded by the process of constantly seeking the balance of what is right and what has gone wrong in our lives. I feel so fortunate to be living in a society where it was possible for me to tip that balance once again; where I am likely not to lose another child, and for this I am grateful.
The passage that spoke to me so can be found in Godwin's recent memoir, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, (Little, Brown and Co; 2006) and it is as follows:
In my part of Africa, death is never far away. With most Zimbabweans dying in their early thirties now, mortality has a seat at every table. The urgent, tugging winds themselves seem to whisper the message memento mori, you too shall die. In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal.
Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That's what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life's alibi in the face of death.
Again, I will say that there is a piece of me that finds great discomfort in how deeply I relate to this passage that eludes to a nation in which people are literally dying by the thousands at such a shockingly young age (due to the AIDS epidemic), but there is this neon sign that flashes from Godwin's words that calls to me, this is you, this is your life. You, too, feel mortal, you too know you are only a whisper in the epic tale of the world as a whole.
In thinking about my children of late, this word has continued to come to me, pending, and I thought of this word as I read this passage. My children are pending, they are here, I can see them, but they are in a state of flux, at any moment they could be gone. Oh, you might say, oh what a sad way to live. But no! No, no, no. This is the beauty of it, and it is here that Godwin's words speak to me on such a deep level: because I see my children as also transient, I love them so actively, so presently, so now. I whirl around with them in the sunshine of life because this is today, this is now, and they are here. I love them so fiercely because we are all running from death, all the time, and why run scared? The truth about death is that there is no escape, we all will die. It is only what we do now that matters.
Liam refers to himself, sometimes, "when I grow up..." he'll say, and I think this to myself: he trusts himself. I, too, should trust him, I should believe. And it's not that I don't, it's just that I know what can happen and I hesitate to venture out too far into the sands of time. My heart soars at those words, it soars. "When I grow up..."
And I pray that he shall.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
I am here, it said. Though you can't understand everything around me, I'm here.
Do you know that feeling, when you think about the universe and all that lies beyond? The mind almost shuts down, the enormity of the concept that space just goes on, and on, and on. That there are objects that orbit us and that we orbit; that stars are like the sun and perhaps there are more of us out there.
But the moon, it is a constant companion, closer and more intimate than the stars that twinkle behind it. It wanes and waxes, rises and sets, giving rhythm and predictibility to our night sky. The moon was there tonight, beckoning to me in its giant scale and open posture, reminding me of this: you must have faith, some things just are.
That feeling, that bedraggled, confused feeling that space arouses is where I have sat with what happens after death, with where our spirits go and what might possibly follow. I have never had a truly firm vision of heaven, probably a result of being without a sturdy, organized religion. Before Charlotte died, I don't know that I ever truly contemplated this, and when she did die, I imagined that things might be much easier if I were a staunch Roman Catholic or a born-again evangelical, in which case I would know with great certainty where my daughter had gone.
But I could tell you this, from the very beginning: she was not gone.
I knew this at the start because I had felt her life force only hours earlier and it was impossible that she could simply be gone. For five months she had filled me every day with life, twisting and squirming and hiccuping. She was even naughty, seeming to enjoy the game where she would pluck my ribs with an audible snap with her toes, I would push down on her tiny feet and hold them until they settled back behind my ribcage where they belonged, not tiny toes wrapped out in front and then pulled sharply back in a game of sorts. "Our only arguments," I would later sigh. But she had been there, so there, and so vital-- she was new, for goodness sake, not having even had one day to run through the grass in the warm sunshine, hair streaming behind her, whirling and swirling in circles and falling down in a pool of giggles. Could this being simply evaporate, vanish with a twist of the cord, and the cessation of pulse? To me, this seemed not possible. This energy, this vitality, it had to be somewhere.
I knew this also and for certain later that day, as I held her, because I could feel her in the room. Her energy had inhabited me when I gave birth to her, how else could I have accomplished that impossible task? As we held her, she lifted some of our veil of sadness so that we could be with her, so that we could breathe in her beauty and memorize her softness and come to know her for the baby that she was before we let her go. When we did, when our nurse walked out of the room and took Charlotte with her, I could feel the void where she had left, I felt her tiny, strong grip release and she let go, moving her energy to another place for the time being.
Another place. Another place? For some time, I wondered. Where? Here? Somewhere else? Nowhere? And then I remembered that we don't always know or understand all the answers, and they can still be the answers to our questions. This is the very essence of faith, is it not?
So I believe, I do believe, that there is something left. I don't have to understand the entire universe to know that there is a yellow moon hanging before me, glowing light into the dark winter night, smiling to itself as it sets. So also I do not have to know exactly what happens after you die to be sure that somewhere there is something left of my daughter, and I am careful to watch for signs that she is here.
They are everywhere.