Monday, September 27, 2010

Wild Geese

My friend, Sarah Bain, posted this on Facebook today and I was flooded by emotion. This poem has always spoken to me so clearly, and I wanted to share it here.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver

It gives me shivers, and reminds me that everywhere, all the time, people are dying, and people are surviving, and the sun rises, and sets, and rises again, and this is what is supposed to happen. I never think that Charlotte was supposed to die, but somehow this Mary Oliver poem reminds me in such a humbling way that death is just a part of life, and that even in our deepest grief we can search ourselves for what we're made of and rise out of the depths. I almost don't want to say too much about what it says to me, because whoever you are, I know it says so much to you, and I want it to be yours. Read it a few times, over and over. Breathe.

When I was giving birth to Aoife, it was a fast and furious labor. Contractions had begun a little after five in the afternoon, and by seven o'clock I was in full, raging labor. She would be born a little before nine o'clock that evening. As true, hard labor set in, somehow, through the drone of my woman's song, as I rocked on a birthing ball and breathed deeply and slowly, those words came to my mind: Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. It became a mantra, in that absolutely out-of-control way that things just become what they will be while you are giving birth. For hours, as each surge hit me like a Mack truck, I would rock slowly and gently, breathing in, and repeating it inside my head: let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. An image would come to me, then, of the flesh around my middle softening, and almost melting, of myself sinking into the ball with relief and delight, and this was how it went. Again and again, I repeated this to myself. Again and again, I was just doing the thing that women do.

Thanks, Sarah, for bringing me back to that beautiful place and also for reminding me to think the words of that whole poem-- perhaps the only one, now, in the world that I can truly recite from memory-- to remind me of my own gentle place in the family of things.

And, as an aside, but slightly related to dear Aoife's birth, I made this for her half birthday today. Absolutely divine, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Miss Clementine with her wings...Why not let the little guy do the work?
On Aoife's first day of school
And on the topic of food, I believe kids should be allowed to have FUN. So when I saw the Fun Dip in the ice cream store? Nostalgically, I bought it immediately. ALL kids should have intermittent access to awful junk food that is this cool.


I am bringing a speaker to Western Massachusetts the week after next. Cathi Lam.mert, the director of Share, is coming to present "Compassionate Caregiving When A Baby Dies" 3 separate times over the course of 2 days. She will also meet with my group participants and share an evening with them, imparting her wisdom upon them.
I have done everything for this conference absolutely solo this time, because the one remaining person at the local hospital who used to help me out has sadly had to leave on long term sick leave. And so, I trudge forward, absolutely alone, and while the work can be hard, I am also proud to be doing it. So far I have 50 participants for the first session, 22 for the second, and 48 for the third. I'm very pleased and expect to keep getting registrations next week. If you are within driving distance and are interested, I should mention that 3.5 credit hours are available for RNs and LICSWs and the cost is free/minimal (depending on where you work, it's either free or $15).
Today a woman called me, wondering if there was room in one of the sessions. As I began to speak to her I excused myself for a moment to let Aoife know that I was going to be on a work phone call and was not going to be available to answer questions for a few minutes. (Aoife has that typical child's habit of needing me desperately the moment the phone rings, and while I do believe in doting upon her as much as I can, we are working on common courtesy as a rule in our home). When I returned to the phone, Fiona squealing delightedly in the background, the woman on the other end of the phone said, "It must make you feel really happy to have those kids when you're running a conference called Compassionate Caregiving....." Her voice trailed off. It was as if she couldn't even say it, it's that awful. (Which, of course, it is...)
"Oh, yes, I said. I'm missing one here." And I wonder if that somehow didn't register with her, because we began to banter happily about what day she would come, how far it might take her from her small town in southern New Hampshire, and whether or not she would need the CEUs.
Suddenly she said, "It's just wonderful, amazing, that you're doing this. It's so hard to find things like this."
"It's very important to me," I explained. "My baby daughter died in 2003, and I needed this so very much, and I realized what a lack of resources there truly were."
"Oh," she said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to make a flip comment about your other kids a few minutes ago...."
"Please," I reassured her, "Don't worry. You are absolutely right, I do have a different type of appreciation for my living kids as a result of being thrown into this world, and I'm grateful for you to acknowledge that right off the bat."
"Was it your first baby?" she wanted to know, and they all do.
"Yes, she was my first."
There was a pregnant pause, and a breath on the other end of the phone.
"That must be so hard."
And I was the one to take a breath, then, because it is so hard.

I'm so grateful for the work that I do, and I am going to make this organization grow and work and flourish if it's the last thing I do. Somehow I'm going to figure out a way to break even financially so I'm not supporting the organization myself, and somehow, over time, somewhere, somehow, I hope somebody will come out of the woodwork, fiercely determined like I am, and want to throw themselves into the group like I do. This is my greatest wish: that some day I will have an equal partner in this operation; equally willing to push and pull and tug and create space for this in her life, and that I won't only be accepting offers of help, but will be making offers of help to somebody who is wholeheartedly committed to my team.

But for now, the best part about being a one woman show, is that I can smile demurely and say thank you when people say it's an amazing organization. There isn't anyone else I can give credit to, and right now in my life I do flourish on knowing that there is something I created all by myself and that has grown and affected people and will continue to thrive for years to come.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On Change

I remember the paradoxes, and there were so many.
I want time to speed up, I can't stand this pain: but I want time to stop, I don't want to move further away from her.
I want people to care about me! I want them to ask me how I'm doing: I don't want anyone to talk to me.
I don't want to do anything, I just want to sit here and be sad: I need something to do so I don't feel only sadness.
I want everything to change: I want nothing to change.

This was the biggest thing, I think. I can remember this urgency pulling me in two directions with equal force. There was one side of me that wanted everything to stay the same. The little paper with her footprints on it was on the mantlepiece, we had placed it there when we got home from the hospital. It was not to be moved. The nursery was to remain exactly the same. Photos of Charlotte went up around the house, but otherwise things were the same: the same phone I had spoken to the midwife on, the same coffee table I'd put my feet up on while in early labor, the same bed in the same room where my water had broken and it had all began. The same staircase I had thumped down in terror, seized with cramps, running for the bathroom (was that when she died?, I always wonder). Things were static for a while.
But then things began to change. The flowers we had been given, simple, direct ties to our homecoming and to our memorial service, began to die. Our black telephone broke, and the jar of mayonnaise I had opened on the day before she was born was empty. Things I had bought at the grocery store on the last day we'd gone shopping together were beginning to disappear from our shelves. Change was happening, and I couldn't stop it.
This was when the dichotomy began, because there was this small, eager part of me that wanted it. I was so deeply wounded, like a fox who has been freed from a trap but whose leg is still raw and ragged, the bone exposed and flesh weeping, and who is emaciated from weeks in that trap. I could barely peer out from under the blanket of my grief, and under there I tried to cling fiercely to the things that connected me to her, and to that time of the second week of May. But as things did change on me, and I did occasionally peek out from under the blanket, there were parts of me that wanted to try to throw it off and begin again. I wanted to throw off the blanket and begin to run, to run and run and run and not look back. The pain was so engulfing that I felt sure in my heart I could never survive it. Clearly the situation was never going to improve, I reasoned, as every day of my life I would still live with the knowledge of my little dead daughter, and how could that fact ever diminish in its sadness? But many people had told me that the wound heals around the edges, and that over time I would not feel that serrated knife thrusting in and out of my heart with growing intensity. So there was a part of me that was feeling urged to move along, to change things as fast as I could, so I could get to that next place where each breath in and out didn't hurt.
But I knew this was futile: I hadn't done my grief work yet. I knew somehow, even though I'd never done it before, that grief was my job right now, and that in order to come out somewhere that I could carry Charlotte comfortably inside me, like a fond memory, I would have to do this job now, and I'd have to do it well.
As time passed, and I found myself continuing to be torn about whether to embrace or reject change, I began to adopt a new philosophy, one which guides me to this day. And it is that with each step I take, I simply ask myself which direction will feel the most healing for me, myself, personally. Is it going to be more healing for me to leave the May calendar on my wall, so I can reflect on the events that happened that month, or will I feel refreshed by seeing it turn to June? Upon recognizing my first instinct, I would take action, and know that was the right choice for me. Will it feel better for me to stay at home by myself today, or do I want to try to go somewhere out in the open, to call Charlotte's name over a field or stream? Which will feel more comfortable to me at the end of the day? Not, what do the grief books say, or not what do I think my mother would want me to do, or not what do my friends expect me to do, but what will be most healing for me.
And over time, I learned that the things around me that tied me to her weren't actual ties. They were physical reminders, yes, but when they were gone nothing changed between Charlotte and I, and so it became easier for me to make little, and then bigger, and then huge changes around me which felt refreshing and light. By mid summer I was painting my dining room, my living room, and rearranging furniture. I signed up for a horseback riding class because when I was a little girl they had been too expensive and I'd always wanted to learn to ride. And I filled Charlotte's nursery with things that were hers: clothing, diapers, stuffed animals, hospital bracelets, locks of hair, and birth certificates. I went in there every night, without fail. Greg and I would sit on the floor and read each other chapters of Charlotte's Web, we would write letters to her in a journal a friend had given to us, and we'd build with her blocks. We'd sit with her, and became more and more comfortable in this relationship, which was strengthening every day.
I was learning to trust Charlotte, that there was a part of her that could not leave me. She has stuck to me like glue throughout this journey, seven years and four months and seven days of it, keeping my feet rooted in my conviction that I will make the best choice for myself every day to make myself more comfortable and likely to thrive. I grieved long, and I grieved hard, and I still do, in those pockets of time where things are still, and quiet, and a soft piece of music comes on that tears at my heart. Or at the times when my family, my joyous, living family is just loving each other so hard, the grief can sink in quite suddenly, still only seconds from the surface of my being.
But Charlotte is kind to me, she's gentle, and she helps me every day. I do walk hand in hand with her now, knowing how much she has taught me, loving her, and feeling her love. I'm still desperately wishing I could bring her back, but I'm also knowing that I've done well with the rotten lot we got, that her little life inside me was not for nothing.
I carry her with me, I carry her in my heart.

i carry your heart
with me (i carry it
in my heart) i am
never without it
(anywhere i go you go, my dear)
~ee cummings

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On Food

There is a major component of my life that has never come up here, probably because it really hasn't been impacted very heavily by my grief or my living children. But I am a lover of food of all kinds, an enthusiastic chef, and a passionate baker. I grew up a picky eater by nature, despite the fact that my mother herself is one of the best cooks I know. While her palate included all varieties of fruits, vegetables, and spices, perhaps it was her pre-motherhood scorn of those parents foolish enough to coddle picky eaters (you know, the whole, if you give it to them, they'll eat it attitude) that landed her with three girls who would spend hours at the dinner table, looking down our noses at everything that was offered to us. This went on to the point that the pediatrician became alarmed at our failure to gain weight and suggested to my mother that perhaps she should feed us things we would actually eat, and worry less about what it was we were eating. She was still conscientious of being healthy, of course, so that meant home made macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs with cheese, applesauce, cream of wheat, oatmeal, and the occasional banana if we wanted to get really healthy. I can honestly say that as a child I didn't really eat fruit, vegetables, or meat by choice, ever.
And then, somehow, over the years, this began to slowly change. I began to enjoy fruit, first, and then vegetables. I remained a vegetarian until I wanted to go on a trip in the early nineties and do a homestay in New Zealand. The trip coordinator suggested to me, quite politely, that living on a sheep farm in New Zealand is not the best place for a vegetarian. He suggested some other trips that might be more condicive to my diet, and also wondered if my diet was at all flexible. And it was. I was a vegetarian because I didn't like meat, but I wasn't unwilling to try it. Living on a sheep farm it seemed to make sense to eat, well, sheep. So I agreed and was sent off, and while I will never go near a sheep or lamb on my plate ever, ever again, after that experience eating such mild things as chicken or the occasional well-dressed hamburger didn't seem so awful. So as we move along this course, we get to the point where we are now: where I eat everything except blue cheese, olives, and jello. This has transformed my life at home, where I love to cook, and also and especially going out to eat: where I used to have one, or maybe two things available to me on the menu, now that I relish almost everything I have so many amazing choices and I can hardly decide every time.
I am blessed here with an abundance of fabulous local food. We belong to a CSA for all our vegetables, and we have orchards in our town for peaches, apples, cherries and pears, and grow our own blueberries and raspberries. We always buy the milk from our friends' dairy farm, and down the road is a farm where we get our fresh eggs and, just recently for the first time, beef. I have to say that I am not an enthusiastic beef eater by any stretch of the imagination, but as I am not vegetarian and have this source of humanely treated, free roaming, grass fed protein, how could I say no? I'm certain that with enough spices and sauces it will be just great. I'm willing to give anything a try if I can get it right around here and it's grown/raised in a way that is the way nature intended.
Lately, though, it's the sweets that have been getting to me. Being home with my girls all day while Liam and Greg are at school has just upped my sweet tooth, and has gotten me baking up a storm almost every day. My house is always full of ingredients, but I don't ever tend to buy things already made-- e.g. we always make cookies, we snack on veggies or toast, we often make bread. The often complete lack of crackers, cookies, pretzels, granola bars, or other things that one might just grab and snack means that we don't snack often. But it also means that when I really want a snack, and my tummy just really doesn't want an apple or carrot, I am quick to drag out the kitchen aid, put Fiona in the sling, and pull up a chair for Aoife. We have been having so much fun.
I was inspired to write this post after making these chocolate-chip peanut butter oatmeal cookies. I make so many different varieties of cookies and muffins, and last spring I became committed to trying to make varieties that "weren't so bad for you". I cut out a lot of sugar, experimented with varying degrees of whole wheat and white-whole wheat flours, added ground flax, and bran, and millet. I finalized several different new recipes that I liked, and one variety was almost similar to these, which our dear friend Martha Stewart can take credit for. But I love the plethora of peanuts in these and they are so tender and flaky and almost fall apart. I was able to cut the sugar back by a bit (by doing scant cups) but will experiment with a little more the next time. So fibre-full and amazingly delicious, if you are feeling down today you should make a batch right now. The batter is also to die for.
The other thing I have to share is this raspberry ice cream I made. If you have an ice cream maker, the recipe was simply 2 cups milk (and you can substitute up to half of this with cream, if you have it, to make it richer) and about 1/4 cup of maple syrup, and about maybe 2 cups of raspberries which I ran through my food mill. I did dump the seeds and pulp back in afterwards to make it more textured, It was absolutely divine.
Lastly, it's sugar pumpkin season, and I accidentally discovered the most amazing way to make the flesh exactly as beautiful as what comes in a can in wintertime. A few nights ago, after making pizza, I turned down the oven and threw three whole sugar pumpkins on a cookie sheet. I left the oven on at about 375 for an hour, and then turned it off. A few of them were a little hard, but I was going to bed so I just left them in the oven, with the baking stone, as it cooled all night. In the morning I cut the pumpkins open (they sliced like butter) and the flesh was just stunning. Deep orange, dense, and perfectly cooked. Give it a try if you get sugar pumpkins out your way. (sorry Sally, don't mean to be mentioning delicious seasonal things when our seasons are upside down!)
When I think about how I've come to love food, and the preparation of it so much, I realize that much of my own development as a chef and baker has happened in the past seven years-- perhaps an unlikely time period, given the grief and the plethora of small children. But I think my relationship with good food is augmented by the fact that I have become a pleasure seeker in general. Food makes me happy, it tastes good, and hey, you have to eat. So being able to make delicious things soothes me, it brings comfort to me and my family, and perhaps the method and experimentation behind it stimulates my addled housewife's brain.
I feel like perhaps I might develop a habit of sharing interesting things I've come across on this blog. After all, perhaps you like to eat, too.
And by the way? My kids are voracious, enthusiastic eaters. I expected them to be picky, but they eat almost anything. Go figure.
Maybe Charlotte was my picky one.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My New Baby

My new baby isn't new anymore. Oh, my. She's so big, so grown up. But still so cozy, so tiny. I'm still struck, still frozen at times, when my eyes catch that glance of myself cradling Charlotte Amelia in my arms, and I catch myself seeing Charlotte only for the few details of her face that make her look different from her ever-so-similar sister. Shivers run up my spine to imagine that I had this other child, and while there are moments where I can sit and ponder this gigantic concept, most of the time I am moving on, and I see my Fiona Clementine and a rush of warmth flows in to diminish the goosebumps, and I scoop her up.
Fiona Clementine is a baby like all my babies: calm, delighted, highly verbal, and quite sedentary. She's beginning, just only beginning at 10 months of age, to slide around on the floor as she reaches for things. She loves to be carried around, to watch everything that's going on around her, and it's always busy. Drop off time at school is one of her favorite times of the day, she lunges for the floor to sit with the kids, and looks around with this glowing, proud look on her face. It's so early that babies want to be like the big kids.
She's learning new words every week. Ma-ma and Dad-dee have been around for a while, and she uses them both out of necessity and with delight when she greets us. She comments on the dog, the cat, and the ceramic sun on the wall. She can fill in the blanks when we read Goodnight Moon, on the page where there's the old lady whispering...... hush, she says, hush, with a huge, wide grin, her eight little pearls glittering in the lamplight. She waves, and claps, signs for milk, and more, and all done. And she doesn't like to poop in her diapers, so now she goes in the potty, and likes that better. She's figured out how to pee on the potty, too. I guess I better stop looking cross-eyed at people who tout elimination communication. I certainly can't spend my day paying attention to how long it's been since she's last been on the potty, but I've cracked up at my success rate at putting the little potty under her whenever her diaper is dry. One day she used the potty six times in one day.
It's no wonder she usually spends about sixteen out of twenty-four hours sound asleep, there is so much going on in that little brain.
She is turning into a person, and in some ways, I'm trusting her more. I've moved her out of my room at night, which for me is a huge step in trust. That I can sleep without her is very indicative of my own confidence; as if somehow I could keep her going just by being nearby. But still, I examine her little body every day, searching for signs or clues that something might be wrong. Bruises and funny marks of any kind send me reeling. One day I found these two tiny, dark purple blood-blister like marks on her tummy. My heart literally dropped. I was in a hotel room on the way to Ontario and I almost took her to the ER. I was certain this was it, the evidence of leukemia that I had somehow known would present itself at some point. It was only when I looked down, an hour or so later, and realized that the inside of my left arm was covered with the identical bruises from her tiny pincer-grip squeezing my arm as I held her, that I calmed myself down and realized Fiona had pinched herself. It was going to be okay.
I fear for her, and still I am ecstatic at her very existence. I still can't believe I got pregnant after all, that I have this little child who makes me so amazingly joyful all the time. Having a six and four year old rule the roost at most times makes having an eternally-happy ten month old child all the more amazing. To have a child who is always pleased with your decisions, where you go, what you feed her, or what you dress her in is just such a treat.
This is where I just simply can't imagine how to ever tell her how I feel about her. I could never put words to that love.
And so I must stop writing now.

(here's our self-timed photo, Liam as photographer, from this morning)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Windows to the Soul

(p.s.) there is a new post, entitled Violet October, which I wrote yesterday but was holding off on posting pending permission from Violet's mother. Please scroll down below the twelfth and read that post first, if you have not yet.

It seems strange how my story and Violet's intersect, only because of some words I can remember myself saying more than a few times.

It may or may not come as a surprise to you that one thing people say to you, when your baby dies from the act of trying to be born, is that it's a good thing you didn't get to know her. They tell you that it would have been harder if she'd lived for a little while, and then died. That it's probably better this way, and they look at you with deep, sad eyes, as if they've had lots and lots of experience with people whose babies have died both before and after birth, and, believe you me, you got the better end of the deal.

Now, this having been said I do take great comfort, seven years later, in the great peace that surrounded Charlotte's birth. Because she had already died during the labor, and because there was nothing left to do, when she was born it was in some ways a birth like any other birth. There was no panic, no rush, no days of adrenaline and false hope and utter despair, pulling pots of gold out of the air trying to save her. I dream of this scenario, sometimes, only because my mother's brain imagines that perhaps if she had been born alive the days of panic might have rendered a living version of my dead child. But the truth is, had Charlotte survived the clamped cord, and the resulting clotting that occurred in her placenta and her liver, she may well have been born alive only to suffer a massive stroke in the next few days. The heartache surrounding this scenario humbles me; I do sometimes feel as if I was handed some sort of covert gift when she passed away so peacefully inside of me, so that neither she, nor I, had to endure the struggle for life that would end in her death.

This is, however, my story to tell. It is my right, as the mother, to declare that I do feel an element of trauma is added to the stories of my friends who had to watch their babies struggle for their very life, only for them to have to make the choice that the life that remained was not salvageable. I believe this, in my heart, but I do not like to be told it by others. My belief that their struggle runs deeper, that their memories can be more complicated and traumatic, runs simply that far: I do not extend this to say that their babies' deaths were sadder than my own.

Because, after all, is anything more sad to me than the loss of my very own daughter?

But back to Violet October, who for that brief moment, early in her three days between worlds, heard her mother's voice and opened her wide, blue eyes and found her: she found her mother and locked eyes with her, if for only a moment.

This is the moment I wanted, and many times, I can remember myself saying just those words, in response to those who suggested that I was better off having not known her.

Back at home, I would stammer, How could they ever know? Tears choked my every word, my face was soaked, my nose dripping, eyes swollen and red. How could they ever know how much I would give to just have seen life in her eyes, even for just one minute. This is the moment I would return to, again and again, remembering back with near horror at how I had tenderly opened my sweet baby's lids, and had seen the murky, dark blue of her eyes beneath. It was those eyes that separated what she was from the sleeping baby I almost imagined I was holding. There was no life there, and I let them close again, fast. So I imagined this, again and again, this vision of seeing life in her eyes, and I mourned so hard that I had never seen her alive.

Somehow, it seems to me, that Charlotte would seem less imaginary if I had been able to share one experience with her, even if it had been a truly awful and harrowing one.

I am shamed to admit this, because I realize with full consciousness that it is an absurd example of how the grass is always greener on the other side. I do not envy my friends who were forced to make the choice to remove life support. I know that is a choice no parent should ever have to make. But I cannot help but feel some element of awe and admiration, some feeling that they are somehow more real and seasoned parents than I was after the loss of Charlotte. Somehow, just the sight of those flashing blue eyes brings them so much closer.

I am sorry for the pain that those three days brought Violet's family, sorrier than I would ever be able to express. There was little over the course of those days that could ever be called peaceful, at least until the end came. But that little moment when Violet sought out her mother, that was all of the life in her finding her destiny, sealing that bond that would fuel her mother forevermore.

I thank her for it. It was a lovely thing for her to have done.

Today is Violet's birthday, and for the next three days, they are her days.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Twelfth

Tonight I feel the strength of the anticipation of grief, the anticipation that squeezed you with such force that you can scarcely breathe. I look back on the fear, on the unknown, on not knowing how I can be, or will be, on the day that has ceased to be a day.
It is inevitable that I buy milk, cheese, eggs that expire on the 13th of May, it is almost like a warning: it is coming, it is coming.
Now, these years, I feel it come, and it's warm, salty water washing over me, I'm a diluted form of myself, a film over my eyes for several weeks. I know the dim light will warm, and that the day will bring what it will bring. But still I stagger through the world, amazed that they all schedule doctors appointments and plan to grocery shop on the day that isn't a day for me anymore.
But that first year, it was fear I felt, pure and plain, and the fear was of not being able to stop the day from coming. I was paralyzed by the fear, immobilized by my inability to do anything to make anything better. Could it be that if I stopped the day from coming, that somehow the twelfth of May would morph back into the day I realized she was in peril, and the baby was saved?
It is the only day I could have saved her, and by the time I get to the thirteenth, it is too late. It is too late every time.

Violet October

When they arrived at our house last evening, it came almost as a relief. The door opened and it was as if they were forever, old friends, the warmth of their presence immediately comforting as they handed over a beautiful, hand turned salad bowl with a freshly made salad and a soft loaf of fresh wheat bread. We had the lights off, only the dim ones on, throughout the house and it was about the first moment of coziness we'd had since the brightness of summer began.
Our friendship had been nearly eleven months in the making, and it was complicated. When their baby died, friends of theirs from all around called me, asking for advice, solace, ways to soothe the couple and themselves. They were a beautiful pair, we'll call them Sada and Peter, and their beautiful newborn Violet, Violet October, had just died; she'd died after three days, and nobody knew why she hadn't made it. So friends of theirs, and friends of friends, they called me, and finally her number was in my hand, and I called her and the connection was instant. But I was eight months pregnant, so my support was limited to the telephone, and my life was not public for the taking, because I wanted to protect her. When Fiona was born, my heart ached so badly when I talked to her the tears squeezed from my eyes from the yearning I could imagine, all the while my own six pound bundle lay curled on my chest. But our friendship prevailed, and we finally met face to face when I returned to run my meetings in January, and finally, this night, this two-days-before-her-birthday night, they were in our home.
The first part of her story was like mine: she was buoyantly pregnant, blissful, and amazed when her water broke: the baby ceased to move, but in her story Violet lived through that part.
It was only when she was born that she began to fail; like others we know she was whisked away in the confusion and Sada was left to finish off the business of birth while the doctors tried to bring Violet round. When all was tidied up Sada hurried on lame, limping legs, bow legged but determined towards the nursery and upon entering was greeted by a team of doctors, all surrounding her little daughter whose face she could just make out.
Violet, what is going on, girl? Sada said, her voice full of beauty, enthusiasm, encouragement.
The words would prove to be magic: this was the moment that Violet had stayed alive for. She lived through the birth because at that moment her eyes flew open, and they fixed for a matter of a few, long seconds, locked in a stare with her mother, whose breath left her as the love rushed in and threatened to pull her underwater. Their eyes met, for that brief moment, and mother met daughter, and then Violet's eyes closed again and that was it.
They brought her round, and tried and tried, but three days of efforts could not make Violet come back to them in her entirety. Her parents held her as her heart finally ceased to beat, her spirit wrapped tightly around their hearts, where she would stay.
This was a year ago, a year ago today, and now I just ache as I think about what last night brought, that being the night that a year ago when they didn't know. That heavy, longing feeling, of such intense desperation to turn back the clock. To just turn it back and know, and know what to do to undo what awfulness has happened. The anticipation is almost enough to suffocate you. I wanted to drive through the darkness of the night to their house and sprinkle some kind of fairy dust over the house to stop time, then creep in and lower their eyelids so they could have lain quietly in the dark, sweet dreams drowning out the cries of their hearts that urged them to do something, do something, do something.
But I am powerless, as is the rest of the world, to aid them in their grief. Violet's birthday will come, today on the 13th, the day she shares with three of my own sweet ones, and Sada and Peter will live through it with great difficulty, but in the end they will eat supper and wipe their eyes with kleenex and brush their teeth and go to sleep.
My only comfort is in knowing that they are true friends, friends who have shared a meal around our candle-lit table, an inauguration of friendship, of like-minded individuals with a common tragedy. My hope is that our friendship will fuel us for years to come, bathed in the knowing that our daughters have left us with much more than we could ever know.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

It was the best butter

There is often peace here, yes, but I am far from perfect.
The truth of motherhood, for those of us fortunate enough to know the brighter side of it, is messier than we sometimes lead others to believe.
It was of concern to me, rereading my last post, when I saw the vision of myself peacefully stirring the oatmeal pot while my children played quietly, their hair neatly brushed, the house tidy, my son perhaps picking the flowers he was holding in the featured photograph. Some mornings, magically, are like that. But there are other mornings, too. Mornings much less inspiring and real, those I am much less inclined to sit down and write about, much less characterize my life by.
Often these mornings start off with grand ambitions on my part. Like yesterday, when I decided that even though it was a school morning, I was going to get some of those strawberries I froze in June and make some strawberry pancakes for my sweet little cherubs. How many children, after all, are lucky enough to have a mom who will make them home made strawberry pancakes, with real, home frozen berries, syrup from trees grown in their neighborhood, fresh local butter... my idea of heaven, anyway, so being super-mom supported my personal pancake craving, and I set to work. The batter was whipped up in a matter of moments with some wheat germ and ground flaxseed mixed in for good luck, and as the pancakes came off the big iron griddle I put thick slabs of butter on them , and carried the steaming plates into the dining room.
There they were: three, beautiful plates, each with three buttery pancakes and a pool of syrup. The sun was beginning to peek in the window, there were flowers on the table. Even little Fiona had a torn-up piece of pancake on her highchair tray. I slid her into her seat and she began eating in earnest, concentrating fully as her little pincers picked up the microscopic, absolutely unchokeable morsels. Liam dug right in, huge, floppy, dripping bites hanging off his fork. Aoife picked a little, and then her face turned, and she said to me, I'm not eating these. This butter smells like toot.
If another adult had been there, I would have laughed. But another adult was not there, and so somehow this didn't seem funny to me, because it almost seemed like Aoife was seeing right through my supermother disguise and was playing the part of the not-so-perfect child, who turns down perfectly lovely strawberry pancakes just to try on a power struggle for size. And I played right along with her, what with it being 6:45 in the morning and my husband had left an hour and a half ago, I stood up and yelled something about only serving cereal from here on out, and I grabbed the pancakes away from her, and thunked them down angrily in front of me. She looked up at me through a curtain of shiny blond hair, her eyes huge and blue. A smile played on her lips, because I was playing her game. A battle was on.
Why do I get myself into these moments, I wonder while I am in them. Why can't I just casually glance up and say, fine, then don't eat those toot-smelling pancakes, and then quietly finish my own pancakes while the smell drifts up into her little nose, the syrup soaking into the sweet, creamy butter, the thin, lovely pancakes? While my eyes were down, she surely would have begun to eat.
I don't actually remember how it was resolved, except that she did eat the pancakes, and I did not force her to, and while I was sitting there eating the pancakes faster than I had imagined myself while I was cooking them, I thought about the lovely scene I had painted here on the blog, describing myself glowing over the oatmeal pot, and I thought, no, the same thing does not happen every day, because sometimes mommy has a temper tantrum.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Independence, Part 2

Liam on his first day of school, with flowers for his teacher

The mornings go like this: after a nice, longish snuggle in the bed, I creep downstairs with Liam and Fiona and the beginnings of breakfast commence. The kettle boils, the oatmeal pot simmers. I try to find some fruit to put on their plates and fill the glasses with milk. After the telltale creaks on the stairs, Aoife pops her head around the corner and shouts, SURPRISE! I jump, my hand over my heart, Fiona breaks into a cheek-splitting grin, and Liam groans. The same thing happens every day.
We sit down together, sometimes out on the porch and sometimes in the dining room, and we eat together, me and the kids. Greg has been gone for hours by now, having tip-toed downstairs to his timed coffee pot and driven off in the dark to work. We eat our oatmeal and our fruit, and Fiona throws food off her tray and laughs, and the cat rubs against our legs, and the sun rises. When the children are finished they rattle off, in monotone, thankyouforthelovelybreakfastpleasemayIbeexcused and then walk as quickly as they can into the kitchen, bowl and glass in hand, and I hear the dishes clatter onto the counter over the dishwasher, followed by the scuttling of feet and the door opening and closing, and they're off. The sun is high now, and they throw the frisbee, or swing on the swings, or catch insects in the bug box while I scrub out the pot and Fiona eats cheerios off the kitchen floor.
Then, at 7:54, thereabouts, I call to them: time for teeth and shoes. They come in, and each find the requisite equipment (Toms of Maine, strawberry for Aoife, mint for Liam and me) and brush their teeth. Shoes go onto the now dirty feet and we load up into the car.
The car, by the by, is a gold Chrystler Town and Country. Did I just admit that to you? The in-laws passed it down to me, and I've tried my best with it, dousing it with a smattering of liberal bumper stickers ranging from "Strong men don't bully" to "Childhood is a Journey, not a race" and the grand finale, "I make Milk, what's your superpower?". Anyway, the van is ours, which does help with our slew of children plus the extra little girl I babysit for, and we pile in at a few minutes after eight and take off down the backroads.
We pass fields of sweet corn and tomatoes, broccoli, kale and squash. We pass dairy barns, forest, and a reservoir with its ancient dam. We weave along the infamous Mill River and arrive at the place we must go: school, school, school.
My son bounces out of the car, his handmade cloth lunchbag in his hand. He can hardly wait while I unbuckle his sisters and grasp everyone's hand to cross the parking lot, and when we're across he bounds ahead, running through the door and down the stairs. He greets the principal with a hug and dashes across the all-school space and to his room, his little room, his class.
The kids are there, and his lovely teacher is there, and I love them all. I love this school, this special community that we were fortunate enough to luck our son into, and his teacher who remarkably teaches her classroom almost exactly the same way I taught that grade level when I was employed. So I have no complaints, only praise, for the whole school experience.
Except that when I leave, I have to leave Liam there. And I'm sad in the car, with just the girls, as we weave back along the river, past the reservoir, the forest, and the fields. I want my boy with me, but he's so thrilled to be there, learning and changing every day. I could keep him home with me, I could. But with this opportunity there for him, with the wonderful friends and connections he's made, at this point it would be a selfish decision. Liam loves the world, and the world loves Liam. I love Liam, but I'm setting him free (as long as he comes home every day at 3 so I can love him up).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Independence, Part 1

One of the lasting results of my baby's death is that I cling ever so fiercely to the babies I have, in a way that I feel certain I wouldn't have if Charlotte had lived.
One example of this lies in the fact that for the first seven or eight months of her life, Fiona Clementine's preferred place to sleep was tucked up in my armpit, nestled tightly into my side. This is how we slept, all night long, she and I occupying about two-thirds of the bed while Greg cooperatively hugged the side of the mattress on his side, the third wheel in the intimacy of newborn love. Fiona and I slept beautifully together for a time, and I was often heard reporting how well rested I was, since I didn't truly wake to nurse my baby.
Things began to change at the beginning of the summer. With increased mobility, and also perhaps with the increase in the temperature, Fiona Clementine began to demand more space in our bed. Not only this. She was frequently restless, squirming and crying out. Finally, after hours of switching her from side to side, of patting, and cooing, I would sit up in despair, not knowing how to make her sleep. At this point Fiona would stretch her little, chubblet legs into the air, swing them over to the side, and flop down onto the spot I had previously occupied in a tidy little letter 'L'. In an instant, she would be fast asleep. There was no room for me anymore. Many mornings I would wake up curled at the foot of the bed, like a cat, while Fiona alone occupied what used to be our two-thirds of the bed.
In addition to this, while Fiona only slept for an hour or two at a time at night, during the day she would put in two very long naps-- 2 to 3 hours at a time, and she slept alone. Her naps were regular and deep, and when the kids cried and yelled and slammed doors she'd sometimes wake for a minute, and then easily drift back after a few coos. What was this child, seemingly nocturnal, but obviously a good child at heart?
I knew at the beginning of the summer that our time in the bed together was waning, but as we were leading up to two weeks in Alberta without a crib and then five weeks in Ontario, I didn't see the point of separating then. Plus, maybe things would change, no?
They did not.
Fiona continued to log long, luxurious hours during the day, conk out at 7 PM and sleep solidly and deeply until the moment I came into bed, at which point she would squirm and fuss and nurse not so deeply and squirm some more and ultimately take up most of the bed while Greg and I huddled on the edges. It was, in a simple phrase, not so cozy to co-sleep anymore.
So when we came home, I did it. I sat in my bed, alone, the first night, and cried. Well, I wasn't exactly alone. Greg was there, of course, but what good is a husband when it's a dear, sweaty little baby you want to curl up with? Fiona had gone to sleep easily in her room at 7:00, it was now 10. She was always used to nursing around then, and I tossed around the thought of nursing her in her sleep to tide her over. But in the interest of the grand experiment of separation, I decided to wait.
At 3:20 AM, she stirred for the first time. I ran down the hall, practically skipping, and fetched her up as quickly as I could. I lay down on the mattress on the floor in her room, folding her into me, smelling her soft, gorgeous head and stroking her back as she nursed. I decided I would stay there, on the floor with her, and we would finish the night out together.
She nursed on one side, and then the other. And then, she squirmed, and wiggled, and fussed. I reluctantly picked her up, put her in her bed, and she flopped over into a tidy little letter 'L' and fell promptly asleep.
I considered sleeping alone on the floor of her room, but decided I would try to make the break. This was how things were going to be, and my baby was happy. Isn't this what we all want?
I traipsed back down to my room, my feet dragging.
I woke up to the sound of my baby singing to herself at 6:45.
Our first night apart, but this is the beauty of separation from my living children: I jumped out of bed, ran to her, and scooped her up. Euphoria, almost, filled my heart. She was there for me, the night apart having had no impact on her love for me or mine for her. It was just where we were, and as any good mother should, rather than following the recipe in a book, or the wise words of one baby expert or another, I followed the signs my daughter had given me, and we were where we were.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Story

When my baby Charlotte first died, I went over the bridge to Bread and Circus and posted a note on the family board which hung on the wall behind the registers. I know you're out there, I thought, I just need to find you. I was alone. A support group in Springfield had yielded fruitful and compassionate second Wednesdays of the month, but the friends I was making were from Monson, Springfield, and Hampden. I needed here, I needed now. I knew I wasn't really alone.

Silence followed the posting. Silence, to add to the silence that echoed throughout every corner of my life now. A few friends tentatively called and asked after us, wondering if there was anything they could do. I didn't know how to answer. I had never done this before. Silence hung like an iron curtain across the timeline of my life, cutting off the before from the now. I was new, newly born in the death of my daughter, and I didn't know yet who I was. I needed context. I needed someone. There was absolutely nobody in my life, which was full of wonderful, supportive people who were dying to help me, who could break the silence. They couldn't understand what I had to say.

A few months after the posting on the board, I was driving in the car when I heard a name that reminded me of the book plate in the front of a book I'd received when I left the hospital. The book was called "Empty Cradle, Broken Heart" and for four days I couldn't even look at the cover because I couldn't bear that I had become that, just the woman with the empty cradle and the very broken heart. But when I did open it, I read the name of a family here in the valley who had donated the book in memory of their daughter, we'll call her Rose. The mother, we'll call her Jenny Story. And I heard the name Story on the radio, and thought of her, and thought, it would be so strange if I ever bumped into her. I knew she lived in the valley, but she was lost to me. I imagined the scenario, where somehow, somewhere, I'd meet a woman with shining brown hair, and she'd hold out her hand and say, "Hi, I'm Jenny Story." and I'd say to her, "I know who you are. You're Rose's mother." The thought of this gave me chills, because not only would I have then found a model for how my life was to play out, but I would also be able to speak Rose's name aloud, to recognize Jenny as her mother. I wondered if anyone would ever know me as Charlotte's mother.

That night, I was sitting at home, quietly rinsing dishes in warm water, watching the steam grow on the windows over the sink, when the phone rang. I considered whether or not to answer it. This was before the days of ubiquitous caller ID, and the emotional energy that making it through a phone call often required sometimes put me over the edge. But something compelled me to pick it up, to push the talk button. An unfamiliar voice was there.

Is this Carol? She asked. This is Jenny Story.

How the cosmos arranged for that, I'll never know. She had seen the posting at Bread and Circus, and finally thought to call on the very day I'd thought of her. But the next week I walked into the Haymarket and there she was, with shining brown hair, and we hugged and ordered warm drinks and talked for a few hours. She had another daughter now, and hadn't forgotten the first. She was pretty, well spoken, and happy in her life four years after her loss. She still missed Rose terribly, but she had learned to pair her grief with a newly built life, so that she could miss Rose without missing everything. I supposed i could do that, too, when the time came. I didn't end up ever calling Jenny again, but I would see her sometimes, at the Post Office or the Y, and I would smile to myself just knowing she was out there, like me, living here, missing someone. A mother who was minus one, like me. What a hard job to have, but she was doing it with grace, and so could I.