Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A doctor wrote this to me, in response to an invitation to a speaker I'm bringing to Western Mass this fall:

I have been involved with so many losses, and while I hope that I have said and done the “right” thing, I would love to hear from someone with expertise in this area to ensure that I can provide the best care possible.

Can you imagine somebody being so humbly gracious? I am so grateful for this doctor. I'd like to send this doctor flowers. I'd like to serenade this doctor. The last time I ran this training NOT ONE SINGLE DOCTOR CAME (out of 80 attendants). And so I literally almost cried when I got this e-mail.

Isn't it sad that everyone doesn't feel this way? Why does it feel like admitting defeat to some to want to know more?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Where it all begins

I waffle between wanting to focus explicitly on the side of me that is bereaved, and running out and exposing some of what's really happening here in the little pink house. Tonight, I err on the side of the mundane, of an evening where I sit in my Audubon Russet living room, on the sage green couch, listening to crickets and the river, knowing in my deepest happy belly that there are three little sleepies upstairs dreaming away.

Greg and I had dinner on the porch tonight, by candlelight, at the white table my mother gave to me for my birthday this year. I had put together a tomato, mozzerella and basil salad on one plate, and a green salad with fresh corn, red onion, cherry tomato, and red pepper on another plate. All the food was from our CSA (except the cheese) and we had wine. This week, we decided, is a wine week. This week Greg returns to work, and Liam to school. The summer, the divine summer that we love and cherish and milk for all it's worth, is over. Over in the sense that we live it, at least.
We toasted, as always, over Charlotte's candle, and I thanked her for everything that's fallen in her wake. I think sometimes that's the oddest thing about Charlotte having been our first child, and about her having been born right as we moved into this house, and right as we were in just the second year of our jobs, forming and solidifying friendships in a new community. Sometimes it feels like we really didn't have a life to speak of before Charlotte, and so therefore virtually everything in our life right now has something to do with her. As many people with children often do, we have formed many of our friendships around people we've met with children of similar ages: hence, the majority of our friends originated from Liam's birth. His was, of course, a birth that never would have happened without Charlotte. I wonder about the girls, and whether they are the same souls who were destined for me in the first place. Aoife and Charlotte are almost three years apart, and Aoife and Fiona are three and a half. Perhaps this is what I would have had; three girls, three years apart. But I don't know this, and so I think of them, too, as the unusual outcome of an unusual situation.
Even friends who didn't coincide directly with Liam's birth had something to do with Charlotte. People who are in our lives have to be able to understand and accept our first daughter, if somebody didn't allow us to speak her name, or down played her importance, we would not welcome that friendship. The way people interact with their children has a profound affect on whose company we keep. We warmly embrace the friendships with people who celebrate their children, who laugh with them, let them explore and get messy, and find humor in the temper tantrums. People who are wallowing joyfully in the unpredictable mire that is parenthood, those people bring us joy, we see them with a glowing appreciation for what they are blessed with. Likewise, people who are chronically fed up with their children, with parenthood, who harp on their children's weaknesses and ignore their blossoming strengths are sadly crossed off lists for dinner parties; sometimes these are adults we truly like as people, but we can't bear to watch them parent. This, too, happens because of Charlotte.
In some ways, I suppose Charlotte is just a turning point like any turning point. It could have been a job change that sent us moving to Fargo, North Dakota, and then everything would have been different. It could have been a house fire that destroyed everything, starting us over from scratch and changing our perspective in so many ways. But I think that reflecting on Charlotte as the point from which so many things originate somehow gives more meaning to her short life, somehow makes me feel as if she is more here with us than I give her credit for.
(but I'd rather have the child upstairs)

As an aside, we went camping last night at a local state park on a lake, and in the morning I drove down the hill to pick up a friend of the kids' to join us for swimming. She's Liam's age and the three of them are like siblings, having grown up together. As we walked from the campsite to the beach, and played, and returned, I was ever aware of the family portrait that was being painted: That of a family with three girls and a boy; the three older ones and the baby girl, just as it should be. I don't covet this child actually, and have never actually compared her to Charlotte in my relationship with her, even though I've taken care of her for her entire life on a part time basis. But what I'm alluding to is simply what was seen, and I think particularly since the kids are now of an age where a year isn't as easily detectable. When she and Liam were babies, people thought they were twins. Now it's less obvious, and I just had this feeling, almost like when you're a teenager borrowing some designer piece of clothing, walking around knowing that people are looking at you thinking it's yours. Because we were camping in a park where most people come from afar, nobody would wonder if one of the kids wasn't ours, it would be assumed that we were all one family. From the outside, we looked like we did have those three girls and a boy, which we did, but don't anymore. And I was glad, in a sneaky sort of way, to be seen that way.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I've just begun a new book, and I recommend it highly. About What Was Lost, compiled and edited by Jessica Berger Gross, contains eighteen pieces written by published authors on their experiences with pregnancy loss. I haven't even passed the halfway mark, so I won't comment extensively on favorite passages or pieces at this point, except to say that I can't put this one down and I think all of you, bereaved or not, should read it.

One of the things it's gotten me thinking about, not that this is specifically addressed in any one part, is that every year it seems to me like pregnancy becomes more and more of a hallmark, disnified event. I don't know if it's my loss talking, or my mothering talking, or just my outlook on life. But it seems to me, pregnancy and birth are life changing events, huge, emotional, spiritual transitions. And most people celebrate it by buying and gladly receiving things that they don't really need, or at the very least don't know if they'll need. I can tell you that my baby seat doesn't get sat in very often; and my swing doesn't get used ever. The 40 or 50 onesies in the zero to three month size usually don't all get worn, because I own a washing machine. The twenty receiving blankets I have, it turns out, are actually not the right shape to swaddle a baby. And you're actually not allowed to put blankets in a baby's crib anymore, so it's a good thing I have a couple of girls who like to play dolls so those blankets can get used for something. If I had to think of what I would go out and buy, if I was having a baby and just bought the things as I needed them, I can tell you this about a newborn: I would bathe them in the sink, I would only need about 7 outfits total, and the bureau drawer would have worked just fine if the baby wasn't in bed with me. A few big, large swaddling blankets that are essentially commerically unavailable would have also been useful. And then, I would have appreciated stacks of letters, cards, and notes from all the women in my life telling me about when they became mothers. Describing their transitions, the falling in love, the beginning of the journey. About the challenges of caring for a newborn, the shock of the change from somebody with a pretty strong sense of personal autonomy to somebody who doesn't even decide when they get to go to the toilet. As it turns out, I wouldn't have needed the sink, or the blankets, or the bureau drawer, but I imagine those letters would have been read and re-read, forming for me in my mind a vision of motherhood as something I might have had.

It wasn't until after I was pregnant with Charlotte, and had my own requisite shower with all the appropriate gifts (which I greatly appreciated and thought I needed, by the by), that a new concept was born: the registry. The registry! Here now, one doesn't just receive everything that she doesn't really need in stacks and piles, but one itemizes and decides what one is to receive. I know what you're about to say-- doesn't the registry make it simpler, so that if you don't want the swing, you don't get one? And so only 12 onesies arrive, instead of 40? But you haven't read far enough, because what I'm weeping and tearing at my hair about is not the fact that one can carefully choose what one thinks one needs for a baby, but just the very concept that a socially acceptable part of becoming a parent is now signing up on a little computer for which things you'd like to receive. It's all about the stuff, all about the stuff. Most people are so prepared with things they probably don't even realize that there's a huge life change coming. And if they do, they've probably never considered what it might be like.

That being said, when Charlotte died, I was actually grateful for the stuff. It was the evidence of my motherhood: the things mothers need. My love was invisible, and my pain and emptiness were hidden beneath my clothes like the zig-zagging stretch marks that decorated my belly. If I had a house full of things, that made me a mother, right?

But a heart full of love? What does that make me?

Friday, August 27, 2010

This is my home

For almost eight years, we have been crafting a home.
We bought our house, a lovely little cottage-like farmhouse on a little wooded knoll set on the banks of the Manhan River, in December. The snow had already fallen heavy that winter and so it wasn't until spring, until after our Charlotte had come and gone, that we realized that ours was a gem set among hundreds of acres of horse trails, with yet another river a mere 500 yards behind the house through the forest. The pines stood tall, casting long shadows on summer evenings, while the hemlocks provided shadowy density to the woods surrounding us. The house stood, a shell we inhabited, but it was the only place we'd ever had her.
It was home.
When I drive my children to school now, they drive past fields where food is grown; not just crops, but rows of different vegetables that you and I actually eat every day. If you asked my children about broccoli, or tomatoes, or wheat, they would know how this food grew, where they could find it, and probably even how to harvest it. They know that cows must give birth before making milk; they are privy to the sacrifice that mother cows make and that their calves make in order to bring us the mighty dairy industry. The roads snake through this blessed country, where farmland weaves through forests and past rivers, and we breathe as we come up the steep, hemlock-lined drive to arrive at what we've made into home.
A home is not a house, because anyone can live in a house. I marvel at the concept that what we've made could belong to someone else, because it's so very ours. Rooms that we've painted and wainscoted ourselves, nooks that have changed from staircases to desks to pantries. We've thought about and lived in and changed and loved each room in this house. Our children know every detail of their home, they love it and feel its comfort. It takes time, and patience, and some amount of skill to make a home. I feel very blessed.
My children never wear shoes when it's summer, and there's no need to be inside. They flit around the yard, making fairy houses, swinging on the swings, picking blueberries and raspberries and singing joyfully. The fruit trees flower and bloom and fruit, and in the fall things turn orange and drift downward and we wait to move indoors and pass the winter by the fire.
There are spirits here, not just of Charlotte, but of others, too. There is an element of spirit just from the life that this home possesses, just in the beauty of what lies within.
This is how far I've come.
And this is the song we sing, sometimes before we eat, or on quiet nights by candlelight on the porch, while the crickets hum and the river rushes by. This is my home.

(more to come on Dave Carter, a mystical prophet to me, who brought so much beauty with him and left so much here)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nobody ever loves you like your mum

So I wish I was a writer, and so therefore, I must write this blog for real.

I begin again, in earnest, as I did almost three years ago. I love to write. It soothes my soul. It makes me feel alive. I write this for myself, but I love to hear what you have to say.

And so, we begin. From this day forth this blog will be real, and current, and true.


Last night I was tossing around the memory of my mother coming to see me. It's a heartbreaking memory, one I may have written about before. My mother is one of the most level, calm people I know. She's always been incredibly supportive of me, she's been a loyal and amazing friend and companion for my entire life. She is rational, thoughtful, funny, and talkative. But on the list isn't the description of someone effusive with outpourings of love and affection. My mother always showed she loved me through her actions, through her doting care of me, through her attention and true devotion. But we didn't tell each other we loved each other, and she didn't ever fawn over me, stroking my hair and telling me I was pretty. Ours was always a deep and fruitful relationship, but on an emotional level we didn't delve into the details of our own love for each other. It was obvious, but unspoken.
I remember my mother coming into the room as I held Charlotte. Did you know that nobody else ever held Charlotte? In my haze, confusion, trance, I never thought to offer. And they didn't dare ask me to give her over. I was so entranced by the thought that my family was seeing me with my daughter in my arms it did not once occur to me that she belonged to them, too, as a niece, a granddaughter. And so I held her, and it was like a viewing, with them leaning over my half-naked body covered with little Charlotte, admiring her little fingers and beautiful features, and us all feeling sad and proud and amazed and thunderstruck by the awful misfortune we had fallen upon. When my mum came in it was just like this, she came to my left and sat on the edge of the bed, and she leaned over us and hugged me and Charlotte, too, and she just cried and cried. But remember, she's not emotionally effusive, normally, so this in itself would have almost surprised me if I had thought at the time to register the surprise. But her words were what were registering to me, she was saying to me over and over, It's just not fair, it's not fair. You were my baby and you've made me so happy, and she's your baby and it's just not fair that you don't get to keep her. It was the three tiers, she was me and I was Charlotte, only I was alive and Charlotte was not, and so I couldn't be her and Charlotte couldn't be me, and none of this was fair. It was true. And it's also true that the moment Charlotte came out of me and I saw her little face and felt the amazing surge of love I wondered about this: could my mother really love me this much?
The truth is, of course, that she does. She did, and she does, but even if you tended towards emotional outpourings, how would you explain this love to a person? She told me, later, in an intimate moment after I arrived home, how odd it is to be the parent of an adult child, still feeling that intense, deeply attached love, but knowing you must let your child go and be herself out in the world.
But at that moment, my mother clung to me, knowing it was not fair, knowing she could not save me, or Charlotte, and wanting nothing more than for us both to be okay.

Mum with Fiona at the cottage

Thursday, August 12, 2010

At the cottage...

I sat on the dock today, the waves lapping, and relief washed over me.

I was nearly giddy with it, reminded almost of the time I was eleven and found out that another girl I knew also had her period. I wasn't the only one out there, I was like someone else. At that time I knew, of course, that there were other girls of eleven who had their periods. I knew I wasn't the only one, that I wasn't really the only girl going into seventh grade with her period already. But I felt like I was, and I was so afraid of wearing white pants and what to do with my tampon so that nobody would see it in my pocket on the way to the bathroom and what I would do if I got it in the middle of the day and didn't have anything with me. To share those worries with a friend, to know that she shared those same fears, it washed me clean with relief.

And this was completely different, but the same deep breath fell over me, the same feeling of oneness.

So seven years ago, I came to this magical place where I summer, alone without my baby. I say alone, even though Greg, and my parents, and my sisters were here with me, because I could not have possibly felt more alone. I have written about this homecoming before, and it literally almost killed me. Distant from the numbness I had felt upon arriving home from the hospital without Charlotte, here I was arriving at the family homestead without the baby I had conceived here the summer before. It was probably the one thing I had truly imagined myself doing with my new baby for my entire life, even before I knew who I would marry or when I would have children. It was always one of my truths: when I have children, I will bring them to the cottage. I arrived alone.

The beloved family members who have held me, cradled, in this nest of a community since my first visit at age 3 weeks all told me they were sorry. They did hug me and stroke my upper arm and bring me vases of flowers. Some, the mothers especially, came to the service we held out in front of the cottage on my 27th birthday, beneath the tall pine trees where we had been married two summers earlier. But after all those initial formalities had taken place, I was most certainly expected to lift my chin and get on with it. Life carried on for everyone else, and so it seemed it should for me, as well. I had hoped for more. I had hoped that more people would sit quietly with me, and ask about Charlotte. I had wished for more intimate moments with those who had watched me grow from baby to little girl to woman, who would reach out to me as mothers, cry a little at my tragedy, and let me sit with my sadness. This did not happen. I tried not to show my disappointment, but it was very real at the time.

Three years later, I was at the annual regatta celebration where all the family gathers for children's water races, hilarious canoe antics, and a giant dinner and square dance. Liam was with me, he was two, and Aoife was four months old. Always, at this event, there are people from long ago who I haven't seen in some time, and this year was no exception. Among the guests was a woman who I had grown up near, but not exactly with. Her uncle married into the point, and she had spent the summers here as a child but was seven years older than me. At that time, such a gap was obviously too great for us to have any type of friendship, and so she was consequently more somebody I knew of, than somebody I knew. Nevertheless she held some sort of memorable fame in my household because my mother had given my sister the same name as her, having thought it lovely watching this lovely then-nine-year-old frolic upon the commons with her friends.

So there she was, this woman, somebody I knew, but not really. She had three children with her, and a husband. And then somebody says to me, Hey, did you know that the same thing that happened to you happened to Stephanie a few years before you?

It was as if everything went silent, and then blurry, and all I could hear were those words. I was stunned, floored, amazed. These people knew this about her, and about me, and nobody thought to tell me? For the four weeks that I had wandered in a trance, barely able to form a coherent sentence in my grief, nobody had thought to say, You know, you should call Stephanie. Her daughter Alexandra died a few years ago. But here it was, here they were. The words were here now, and we gravitated towards each other, and made that connection we wished we didn't have. Over the course of the next few days we shared our stories in detail, the stories of our daughters, and our subsequent children, and our struggles with friends and family. Our paths didn't cross for long that summer, but it settled me immensely to know that there was somebody in my cottage world who really knew what I had been through.

Which brings me to yesterday, lying on the dock, in the warm August sunshine. Fiona Clementine was at home in bed, and Greg was on the porch listening for her. The kids were wallowing in the shallow water by the dock, and I was pleased to see Stephanie come down to the dock with her two sons and daughter. Aoife immediately engaged her little girl in some drama, while the boys ran off with surfboards to roll in the waves as they came into the shallows. The sun beat down, and we began to catch up from the previous year. At some point, the conversation turned to our children, and one of us mentioned that we have some "issues" with worrying about our children.

I joke about it, I said to her, I call them my mental health problems. But I can't be separated from my children.

It's not a joke, she said. I feel the same way. My boys are 8 and 9 and I've never slept apart from them. I just can't do it, I don't want to.

Suddenly the stories began to flow like melted butter, all the times we'd worried and panicked. I'd never done this before with a friend, not ever. I've made many friends who have lost babies through the group that I run, but they are all bringing up babies right now. Being clingy to a baby and being clingy to a walking, talking, school aged child with friends, and interests, and goals are two completely different things. And it is true also that most of my friends live with some degree of fear that "something might happen" to their child, but I live in fear that once again I will find myself sucked into that vacuum that I know all too well, that feeling of having been knocked flat without a chance of drawing a full breath. I know and remember that void, that pit in my stomach, that feeling of wanting to die from the pain. While they fear the unknown, I am frantically trying to run from what I know too well. So is Stephanie.

We also shared what our children are to us. That they, themselves, are a relief. I told her, when I think about my children, I feel like I am being dipped in warm wax, the relief just floods over me over and over, they are here, they are here, I am somebody's mother for real. She and I have both experienced the loss of our only child; we both know the absolute agony of being desperately, completely alone to lie on the cold bathroom floor in the fetal position, knowing that we can never be healed, not ever. We've both felt the futility of eating, breathing, doing anything to stay alive when our only purpose in life is gone. And so then, now, our living children have reversed this. They are fonts into which we can pour our love, our energy, our time, and our hope. They represent not just what they are, which is here, alive, creative, fun, amazing little people, but they also represent what they are not: they are not pain, emptiness, futility. Our children are huge, they loom over us and wrap us in cloaks of purpose and soak us with torrents of love that we soak up with open hearts. They remind us every day how fortunate we are, and never allow us to forget that little girl that we lost.

I take a big, deep breath even now, knowing that I have had this conversation with another soul on earth. That somebody heard my stories about waking in the night after Fiona Clementine was born, feeling certain she was gone, and she had done that, too. Done it in the same way I had, with adrenaline pumping and the memory of that awful void rearing its ugly head. That somebody could relate to the fact that i don't even really want to go away on a nice vacation with my husband, even if somebody else paid for the tickets and the hotel and everything, and even if my kids were going to be taken care of by all four of their doting grandparents in their own house, because even then the anxiety I would feel being away from them would be too much. It was amazing to know that somebody else weighs every decision with the thought that she might, and could be, the instrument of her child's death, and errs on the side of caution. Somebody else who will halve grapes the long way until her children are teenagers, and who will never let them go on the class trip to the amusement park unless she is there.

It's especially nice because in this place, this ground which is so hallowed to me, this has been the missing piece: somebody, anybody, who really understands. But she is here.