Saturday, January 29, 2011

My Armor

Now that I am leaving the house on a regular basis, I keep thinking that things should get easier.

In many ways, they have.  To start with, I’m actually leaving the house by myself which, just a few weeks ago, was absolutely impossible.

It takes all my energy to get through the things that used to be the ordinary, automatic parts of my life.  I used to spend a lot of time running errands (a business-like way to say “shopping,” of course).  Now I don’t go anywhere I don’t absolutely have to go, unless I’m going somewhere where there are people who will surround me with love and hug me if I start to cry. 

It’s ridiculous, really, the effort it takes to get up and go.  And I’m not doing it because I’m strong or because I’m ready.  I’m doing it because I simply don’t see the alternative.  Life isn’t very much fun right now, when leaving the house requires a kind of steely determination that results in me being totally depleted by the end of the day, and almost invariably crying by the time I turn down our block to return home. 

But I have found that it is just a little bit easier to walk out the door when I am fully dressed in my armor of jewelry.

On my left hand is my “stayin’ married” ring and wedding band.  It’s no secret that David and I had a rough first year of marriage and I thought for a while maybe we weren’t going to stay married.  This ring is a sparkly reminder that we did.  And we are.  And I love him more now than ever before.

On my right hand is a gorgeous asymmetrical garnet ring that David gave me after Eliza was born, in those dark, silent hours when we got home from hospital before my parents got to town.  For lack of a better term, it was my "push present" (I realize that phrase is problematic for so many reasons).  It was supposed to be her birthstone.  We had (wrongly) assumed that with a due date smack dab in the middle of January, she’d be born that month.  The dark red stone with its uneven shape is a symbol of everything we'd hoped for and all that we lost.  It also reminds me that having Eliza in our lives was a beautiful experience in many ways, though no less painful for that.

On my left wrist is Eliza’s bracelet.  One of those beaded bracelets that spell out her name in silver blocks, flocked on either side by smooth silver beads.  A pearl for remembrance and a small silver heart dangle from it and make a soft clinking sound even when the bracelet is under my sleeve.  I could never forget my baby girl, but I think of this as my visible mourning garb, like a black arm band advertising my love and my loss.

On my right wrist is a bracelet just recently given to me by my girlfriends from college.  It’s a delicate silver chain with a round silver circle in the middle of it.  A tiny silver disk hangs from the clasp and is etched with the word “friends.”  It makes me think of those girls, obviously, the ones I mean whenever I say "the girls," the ones who know me as I was and who still love me as I am.  It brings to mind the old song from Girl Scout Camp, “A circle is round, it has no end, that’s how long I want to be your friend.”  And although it was selected (I’ve been told) by my dear friend Allison, and gifted by her and by Beth and Jamie and Carol and Stephanie, I know they wouldn’t mind that it also makes me think of many other friends--everyone who has been so kind and compassionate in this time of great sadness.

It especially makes me think of those who came and sat with me when my pain was so raw and fresh that I expected everyone I knew to recoil from me in horror.  We were people whose busy schedules had kept us from seeing each other as much as we would have liked and yet there was suddenly enough time to spend an afternoon watching season one of The OC, despite the chaos of end of semester grading and holiday preparations.  And so this bracelet makes me think of Keya and Abby and Cailin and Anna.  It makes me think of Natalie, who has been my faithful long-distance correspondent over the years and who wrote me a sympathy note in a voice so flattened with grief that it didn't sound like her at all, only to recover her voice when she typed a short, sassy comment arguing that I was not Miss Havisham (exactly what I needed to hear).  This bracelet makes me think of friends I hadn’t heard from in years, who sent notes in still-familiar handwriting, and friends who copied out poems and song lyrics by hand to try and express what ordinary prose would not.  It reminds me of Kaley, who gave me a quirky gift that maybe only she and I would really appreciate.  And of Ben, who sent me a text in which he called me his buddy and told me that he’d strike the sun for me.

It makes me think, of course, of my BFF Monica, who rearranged her finals and dropped everything to move in with me for those days when my parents had to go home and David had to go back at work but I still needed someone to tell me to eat and tell me to shower and to wrap her arms around me while I cried.  She has, without fail, checked in with me every single day, to my eternal gratitude.

It also makes me think of friends I have never met in person, with whom I share this powerful, terrible bond.   Eight weeks ago, these grieving mothers were unknown to me and now they are my 3am confidants, friends who know the grief in my heart because it is their grief, too--Sarah N. and Jill L. and Jessica and Tiffany and Brianna and Monique and Amelia and Angie and Lori Beth and B and Eve and the many, many others who have read Eliza’s story and shared their babies’ stories and written to me with words of sorrow and courage and hope that salve this wound in a way that no other kind words could.

It makes me think of Dennis and Lindsey, whose baby boy broke their hearts at the same time his twin sister brought them light.  Of Megan, who e-mailed me tentatively, heartbroken over a similar loss, and inspired me with her faith.  And of Vicky, whose sudden loss was the unbearable repetition of mine.

Some of these were bonds forged by the random chance of geographical location (a small town in southwest Missouri, the third floor of Banks Hall, an English department at a Midwestern University) and others are bonds forged by necessity and technology.   I have named a lot of them, but not everyone, and I would hate to try to do so and inadvertently leave someone out.  Because I need them all.  And wearing that bracelet reminds me that I have them, no matter how alone I sometimes feel.

Around my neck these days, I wear a necklace my parents gave me when I (finally) finished my PhD.  It’s a rectangle engraved with a quotation by Jane Austen:  Where shall we see a better daughter or a kinder sister or a truer friend.

What you have to know about that quote is that it’s from the novel Emma and it's another character's comment describing Emma.  BUT, it’s most important to remember that this is the novel Jane Austen described as having a heroine that no one but herself would much like.  These words about Emma are spoken by her dear friend and governess, who loves Emma so much that she’s blind to her many obnoxious faults (faults that are blatantly obvious to the reader).  Emma Woodhouse is no Fanny Price.  She's far from perfect and this quotation is intended to illustrate less about Emma's actual character and more about how much her governess loves her.

I love this necklace not because I am the best daughter or the kindest sister or the truest friend, but because it reminds me that although I surely am not, my mom still sees me that way.

And so everyday I slip on these sparkly rings and fasten the clasps of these shiny chains to help me remember all of the people I love who are helping me get through the day.

Love and commitment to David on my left hand.

Our shared hope and heartbreak on my right.

A beaded band of grief and love and remembrance that bears Eliza’s beautiful name.

A shining circle of never-ending friendships.

And, close to my heart, the willfully blind, unconditional love of my family.

These are the best things in my life.  And I gratefully wear their symbols every day.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Out of the Everywhere

I have a real resistance to any reference to Eliza as an angel.

Particularly a guardian angel.

She's not an angel.  She's my baby.  She certainly can't be watching over and protecting me.  I'm supposed to be protecting her.  It doesn't work the other way.  It's completely backwards and I hate it.

Call me a "mommy of an angel," and I just might grab the nearest sharp object and make your mommy the mommy of an angel.

Oh, who I am kidding?  More likely, I'll just nod while my eyes fill with tears and then bitch to David about what you said later, but you get the idea.

I used to think of Heaven as a real, physical place.  I imagined it very vividly.  In eighth grade, when my great-grandpa died, there was no doubt in my mind that he was hanging out on fluffy clouds and playing mini golf with Jesus.  As one would do, in Heaven.  Obviously.

I wish I could still believe in that version of Heaven.  I wish I could be certain that Eliza is being held and loved by my grandparents, who trade her off amongst themselves in between games of miniature golf and Crazy Eights and cavorting around on fluffy clouds and sending blessings down from above.

I just can't quite wrap my head around that in any kind of believable way.

A few days after I got home from the hospital, I started re-reading the last few Harry Potter books.  I chose them because they were familiar (no more surprises, please) and because they were nice and fat so it would take me a while to get through, but given that they're kiddie-lit, I wouldn't have to think too terribly hard to get through them.  But I also think I wanted to read them because in Harry Potter, people die.  People who shouldn't die, people who are too young to die, people who are good and loved and wanted.  And when they do, the dead aren't so far away from us.  They can't come back, of course, but they love they shared with those they left behind endures even after they're gone, and that love can affect the living in tangible ways.  It's like they are always around, but behind a kind of invisible curtain we just barely catch a glimpse of every once in a while.

It's a fictional world, of course, with wizards and giants and dragons.  But this idea of death doesn't seem so unbelievable to me.

In fact, these days it seems rather more believable than my great-grandpa playing mini-golf with Jesus (although, who's to say?  Jesus might rock the mini-golf).

I received a baby gift I loved very much from a family I also love very much.  It was a little nightgown and a matching blanket, yellow with big white polka-dots.  Each item came in a keepsake box with a sweet little duck on the front.  And there was a whimsical little poem:

Where did you come from,
Baby Dear?
Out of the everywhere,
into the here!

I had used one of the boxes to store cards from my baby showers, so I'd glanced at the cover a few times and I'd kept the box out to be displayed on a shelf in the nursery when we finished putting it all together (we never finished).

After Eliza was born, the lines of that poem kept running through my head and I couldn't place them.  I couldn't figure out where I had read that or why it was stuck in my brain like song lyrics I couldn't shake.  Where did you come from, Baby Dear?  Out of the everywhere into the here...

It wasn't until I went to get that box to add sympathy cards to its collection that I realized that was the same rhyme I'd been mentally reciting.  And it eventually occurred to me--about the same time the collection of sympathy cards outgrew that box and was on its way to becoming the enormous stack that now towers precariously on one of our bookshelves--that if this poem were true (and it seemed to be absolutely true, just as true as any other fact in my life) then its opposite would also be true.  If Eliza had been everywhere before we'd brought her here, then since she was no longer here, she must have gone back there--back to the everywhere.

I felt a kind of relief in that, a sense that she had returned to a place she'd been before, and that though I missed her so desperately I could barely stand it, she herself must be okay without me.  It wasn't entirely comforting, but it was a new way of thinking about this gaping hole in my life.  I remember lying in bed in the dark, clinging to David's arm and trying to hold my breath as if I might be able to feel her or hear her close to us.

I couldn't be sure, of course, but it made perfect sense to me that if she weren't here with us, then she must be everywhere with us.

It was not the most satisfying revelation.  I don't want her to be everywhere.  I want her to be here with me, where she belongs.  I wish I knew where she was exactly, and what it was like, and whether she knows how much I love her and how much I want her here with me.  It's not enough to be surrounded by love in the abstract when all I want is to hold her in my arms and talk ridiculous baby talk nonsense to her.  I don't want some beautiful metaphysical connection propelling me to do good in her memory.  I just want a warm baby to hold and to love and to take care of.  And I don't know why I don't get to have that.

I certainly don't claim to have any of it figured out.  I don't know why there are so many of us who have had our babies taken from us by a cruel twist of fate or random happenstance.  I don't know if we get to see them again (although I hope so--more than anything I hope that's true).  I don't know what Heaven might look like or whether souls have physical shapes or halos or wings or bide their time in eternity playing miniature golf.  I'm really uncertain about this angel thing and I don't believe for a moment that God snatches souls from earth to join some ridiculous winged chorus.  I think that the reality of nature just might operate independently from the goodness of God.  And I think whatever goodness there is in the universe suffers alongside those of us who grieve.  I don't know whether our love ones truly whisper to us from behind an invisible curtain (although I think it's quite likely that they do).

But I can only believe that when Eliza left us here, she went back into the everywhere.

And I can only hope that it was peaceful for her, that she just slipped away surrounded by warmth and love and the sound of my heart beating for her.

Where did you come from, Baby Dear?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

When Every Good Thing Was Still Possible

At one point, I confessed to David, sobbing, that it would be easier if Eliza had never existed at all.  If we could just pretend that I'd never been pregnant and we were going to start trying to have a baby in the new year and we could just be hopeful instead of heartbroken.

The moment I said it, I felt beyond terrible.  What kind of mother wishes that her baby had never existed?

You may think that was a rhetorical question, but it has a real answer:  The kind of mother whose baby has died.

Which, of course, begs another question:  Would I really wipe it all out if I could?

And that is just a stupid question because of course the answer has to be no.  Her life has to have meant something.  It did mean something.  It meant everything to me.

Shortly after we were home from the hospital, my mom said to us that parenting opens you up to great joy and great pain and it is truly unfair that we get all of the pain and we're robbed of the joy.

Eliza's death does feel like a robbery (and I know Mark Twain thought the same about his daughter).  But even in the darkest moments of those early days, I had to protest when my mom suggested we only got sorrow.  Yes, we absolutely got more than our fair share of that.  But before she was gone, Eliza had brought us joy.  Eight brilliant months of it.

From the moment I got two pink lines on a pregnancy test, we were thrilled.  It was Mother's Day, and I declared that morning to be my First Official Mothers' Day.  And then we went back to installing our new floors, giddy with excitement.

We loved Baby Duck from that moment on.  And we quickly starting stringing together celebrations in her honor...

* The first ultrasound.  We saw her on the screen and the lovely ultrasound tech exclaimed, "There's your little peanut!" as though she truly found our baby as amazing as we did.  We heard Baby Duck's little heartbeat "wow-wow-wow-wow" and I gripped David's hand and stared at the blob screen with a huge grin plastered across my face and tears welling up in my eyes.

* Spreading the news.  We waited twelve weeks before we even told our parents.  I just wanted to be sure, you know?  Once I was obviously pregnant, I never minded people asking me about the baby (a big belly forced me to be more social with strangers than I'd even been before).  I used to tell people that we were almost as excited about the baby as my parents were.

* Finding our she was our girl.  We had this carefully orchestrated plan with the ultrasound tech and the receptionist at the doctor's office and the bakery near our house so that our cake surprise could be ordered without us knowing the color of the frosting...  David and I opened the envelope over dinner at the park that evening, just the two of us, sitting and looking out at the water while the storm clouds rolled over the Grand Basin (I look back now and think of those clouds as a sign of the storm to come, but still that night was pure joy).  I had been saying all along that she was a girl and I was thrilled to be proven right.  A mother's intuition, I told David with delight.

* The fuss of the "Gender Party" with the gender-surprise-cake.  Our friends and my parents helped us much such a big deal out of her, what with the taking of boy/girl votes and the cutting of the cake:  "Pink or Blue, May your wish come true!"  We cut the cake and everyone squealed over the pink frosting and we took pictures.  I gave my parents a pink striped baby outfit that said, "I love Grandma and Grandpa."  And when the party was over, I wrote my first letter to Baby Duck, telling her how lucky she was to have so many people who loved her already.

* The shared excitement with so many of my friends who were also expecting.  In my close circle of friends, four of the girls and I had overlapping pregnancies.  Our babies were going to grow up together, have playdates together, start kindergarten the same year, graduate in the same class.  I love these friends so much and it was so amazing to see all of us embark on this new stage of life at the same time.

* Our trip to Korea.  Baby Duck scored me a seat on the subway at the end of long days spent sightseeing.  We bought her a children's book about Korea at one of the museums, imagining the day we'd read it to her and tell her about the trip she took to the other side of the globe when she was still in her mama's belly.

* Buying baby things, planning a baby registry, decorating the nursery.  I was so particular about everything.  We both were.  Between the two of us, we researched virtually every baby item we purchased.  We were determined to be well prepared and I spent so many hours looking at different cribs, different mattresses, different car seats, and imagining the baby girl who would use them and how it would feel to be a mom.

* The clothes.  Oh my word, the baby girl clothes were so much fun.  I tried to restrain myself from going totally overboard but by the time we got through two baby showers, a few clearance sales, and three enormous hand-me-down boxes from her cousin, we might never have had to go shopping again.

* The baby showers.  Surrounded by my best friends and then a week later by the women in my family, I felt so happy and so loved.  I hoped that some day my baby would have such amazing girlfriends.  I couldn't wait for her to be part of our family.  I knew how lucky I was.  I really did.

* Prenatal yoga.  It was an hour a week that I didn't want to miss, no matter how much grading I had to do.  One hour to spend feeling connected to the baby, to laugh with other women about pregnancy symptoms, to stretch and relax and feel like I was doing something positive and healthy for myself and my baby.  Oh, yes.  I was smug about it, too.  I felt like I was already being a good mom, making her a priority.

* Childbirth classes.  Taking the Bradley classes meant that David and I spent an evening a week focused on the pregnancy and the baby and on working as a team.  We read and learned and discussed options and possibilities.  It helped me feel confident that I was a healthy mother.  I had a low-risk pregnancy.  I was worried about the IV (needles!) and I wanted to avoid an epidural.  My "worst case scenario" was a c-section and a premie.  I was certain that there was nothing I couldn't do, as long as I had carefully researched it and read about it first. 

I truly had a joyful pregnancy.

Of course, I can't pretend that it was all sunshine and rainbows.  I was surprised by how heavy and uncomfortable I started to feel, and I was shocked by the unexpected discomfort of carpal tunnel and the grossness of sensitive gums that would sometimes bleed when I brushed my teeth.  And my feet were freaking tired by the end of the day. Not to mention they had just started getting swollen like elephant feet.

Above all, though, I was so excited about having a baby.  No matter how much I wanted to bitch about pregnancy symptoms, I knew it would be worth it.  The one time I got really pissy about having a double chin in every single photo, David reminded me, "It could be worse.  You could be not pregnant," and I got over myself and my chin(s).  We looked forward to every minute with that baby and I would have endured anything to get her here.

She brought us an incredible amount of joy in those eight months.

But then, so much sorrow.

And then, so much sorrow.

The thing is that the sorrow does not cancel out the joy entirely, although it still feels that way most of the time.  It is incredibly difficult to try and figure out how they can exist side by side.  I can't think about any part of my pregnancy without being overwhelmed with sadness.  But I hope that some day I will be able to separate the pain of losing her from the happiness we had while she was still in my belly and every good thing was still possible.

Monday, January 24, 2011

GROSS ME OUT; Or, Why My Brother Might Have to Sleep Outside in the Snow Tonight

What's a great way to top off a week in which you got a pap smear, got your baby's autopsy results, and nearly passed out from having blood drawn?

How about an infestation of blood-sucking parasites in your home?

Let me start at the beginning.

So my brother is visiting us.

Brandon has lived in Seoul, Korea since September of 2009.  He is an engineer for a big Korean electronics company.  So they have been working on some big project with an interactive TV system and they are interested in getting some American companies to write the software for their hardware.  Seeing as Brandon is fluent in English, he's on the team that they sent to the U.S. to have meetings with various companies.  (We were all relieved to learn that he did not wear the shiny silver suit that he bought at an outdoor Korean market to the business meetings.)

It has been good to have him here.  We hadn't seen him since we visited Seoul in July.  He didn't come home for the holidays this year, which ended up being for the best since pretty much the entire month of December is a dark, horrifying blur and we basically skipped Christmas all together so it would have made for a pretty miserable trip back to the states.  I try not to think too much about the fact that he's supposed to be meeting his niece.  In some ways, everything is just the way it's always been with all of us hanging out (including the fact that each person has his or her own laptop and sometimes we all sit in the same room and use them at the same time because we are uber nerdy).  Except there's someone missing.  And there will always be someone missing. And I'm still figuring out how to live with that empty place and to be perfectly honest, I hate that I will have to get good at living without her.

So anyway.  Brandon flew to LA for a meeting, then went to Boston for another meeting, then flew to New York for another meeting before coming to St. Louis to hang out with us and our dogs and my parents.  (I should add that the fact that he flew all over the country attending business meetings makes him sound far more professional and sophisticated than he actually is.  He's still the same dweeby little brother whose socks are all gray because he doesn't bother to separate lights and darks when he does laundry.)

He arrived Saturday afternoon and after pizza and a movie, Brandon crashed on the futon in our back room since my parents are in the guest room.

The next morning, we went out to breakfast at Uncle Bill's (a restaurant, not an actual person).  We got home and my brother casually mentioned that his arm itched.  He held up his elbow for my mom to examine.

And then all HELL broke loose.


Because my brother has (OMG, be still my gag reflex)... BED BUG BITES on his arm.

Evidently the hotel room he stayed in while in New York must have had F*CKING BED BUGS which he then undoubtedly carried to my HOUSE which has now inevitably become INFESTED with bed bugs.

I heard a whole story about them on NPR.  I'm not sure that link is the exact story I heard, which was about people who had to get rid of all their furniture and use a hair dryer on every page of any book they wanted to keep and throw out all their rugs and towels and EVERYTHING that might possibly hide a bed bug and coat themselves in vaseline before going to sleep.  It was a HORRIFYING story.

At first I thought my mom was joking about bed bugs because it almost looked like his arm had hives or something.  But evidently the school nurse at her school had looked up a picture of the bites online and my mom was pretty sure that's what they looked like.  A google image search confirmed that she was right.

OMFG my brother brought BED BUGS into my HOUSE.

My mom started googling it to confirm that Brandon's arm does indeed look just like the pictures of bed bugs on the internet.  Then she gave him a lecture on how to look for bed bugs in the mattress of a hotel bed.  And also put your suitcases in the bathtub, not on the carpet, until you have checked to make sure that the hotel room is bed bug free.

In the meantime, I shrieked about how disgusting he was and then got to work.  I stripped the bed and thrown all the bedding in the wash with hot water.  Then I made Brandon empty his suitcase into a trashbag until I could wash everything in it.  He emptied his back pack into another trash bag and threw the suitcase and back pack into the dumpster in the alley.  Once all of his belongings were safely encased in plastic, I thoroughly vacuumed the entire backroom, including the chairs and the futon mattress.  Then I pulled out our little Shark steamer and steam-cleaned the mattress and the chair and the rugs and the hardwood floor.  And we did laundry ALL day long.  One load after another, we ignored laundry instructions and washed everything in hot water and full heat in the dryer.  Sheets, blankets, pillows, the futon cover, Brandon's clothes, throw rugs, and anything else that could have possibly come within spitting distance of Brandon's suitcase and would fit in the washing machine.   

The whole time my head was itching like I had head lice. 

It was SO disgusting.  I am STILL completely grossed out.

Brandon has showered and is wearing clean clothes and my mom read online that bed bugs aren't really carried on the human body--they tend to get transported in the crevices of suitcases and in clothes.  Hopefully we have dealt with the potential problem sufficiently.  So I suppose we will let him sleep inside tonight instead of making him go out in the snow.

However, if he RUBS his arm on me one time in an effort to SPREAD the bed bug bites as though they are a contagious rash (because even though they are not, it FEELS like they are), I just might throw him out.

And So Help Me God if I wake up with bed bug bites tomorrow...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blood and Tears

You may be hard pressed to come up with something even more fun than getting a pap smear and autopsy results.  In an effort to max out the fun of the week, I decided to get my blood drawn.

Yay!  Needles!

I had sworn I was no longer afraid of needles.  When I was still in the hospital, I'd had my blood drawn for a few tests and it didn't faze me at all.  I was fearless.

I recently wrote to a friend that losing Eliza made me both fearless and afraid of everything.

I meant that needles don't scare me but life in general pretty much does.   

But... it turns out I am still pretty much afraid of needles.

At least, I'm afraid of them when they are drawing SIXTEEN TUBES OF BLOOD from my arm.

My doctor ordered a battery of tests.  I don't even know what they all are.  But don't get too excited, folks.  These test results aren't likely to explain what happened with Eliza (he doesn't think we'll ever know).  I guess these tests are the first steps in being proactive about a potential future pregnancy.  IF we decide to try again and IF I do get pregnant again, then these tests are part of my doctor being completely thorough.

Of course, I have lots of mixed feelings about possibly getting pregnant again.  The sort of mixed feelings that will keep my therapist in business for a while, I'm sure.  (In short:  YES!  A sweet baybee to love and a future that does not look utterly bleak and miserable, please sign me up.  Except NO!  No other baby will ever be Eliza and therefore all other babies are Terrible or at least Not Nearly As Good.  Also, in case you didn't know, babies die and life is horrible and lightning strikes more than once in the same place and I should just adopt another dog or possibly stay in bed for the rest of my life because opening up my heart to that much hurt again would be fatal).  So yeah.  I've been told these mixed feelings are normal and we're just SO not even there yet that it doesn't really matter.

But David wanted me to have the tests done right away.  He likes the idea of covering all of our bases and being "ready to go" if we ever decide we are "ready to go" again.  Or possibly he wants confirmation that I don't have chlamydia.

So I dutifully made the appointment.  And I forced myself to eat before I went so I wouldn't get all lightheaded and woozy.  Once we got there, I politely explained to the lab tech that "I do better with needles if I'm lying down" and we waited patiently in the room for her to gather all of the many tubes to collect the gallons of blood she would be drawing (she assured me it was actually much less than a pint but I am pretty sure it was at least three gallons).

Things got off to a rough start when I said, "So will you be able to do this all at once or will there be more than one stick?" and she replied, "Well, there's a lot to do.  It looks like you have good veins though, so your vein might hold up, but I can't promise."

OMG what?  What exactly does it mean if a vein "holds up"?  It doesn't collapse?  Or explode?  Either way the mere thought of veins made me want to gag.  So then I was having all of these images in my head of veins collapsing and exploding and it was not a good mindset to be in at the start of the blood draw. 

Because the thing about my needle fear is not a fear of being stuck--that's the least of it.  The pain of a needle stick is not the issue at all (I mean really, it doesn't hurt that bad).  It's the idea of goop being shoved into me through a syringe or--in this case--blood being sucked OUT of me.  And also the feeling of the effing needle WIGGLING in my vein.

Every time she switched out a tube, she wiggled the needle and it was kind of painful as well as incredibly GROSS.  I was TRYING to breathe through my nose and David was doing a good job of talking to me and trying to distract me but it was getting worse and worse each time the needle wiggled.  I wanted it to be over and I kept asking how much more but instead of telling me that we needed to switch to the other arm, the lab tech said something like, "Well the rubber stopper in this needle is giving out" and at the mention of the needle, I felt the dark and hot feeling in my head and I managed to whisper, "I think I'm going to pass out."

That got everybody's attention.  And then, instead of passing out, I started crying. 

So the lab tech jumped up to get me an ice pack and David kept patting my hand and telling me that I was doing a good job while I just laid there sobbing with tears running down into my ears and I couldn't breathe through my nose anymore because once I started crying my sinuses got all kinds of crazy.  The lab tech was kind of freaked out by me crying so hard.  But once I had the ice pack under my neck, I felt a little better  and managed to pull myself together.  I wanted to go home, but we'd only filled up TWELVE tubes. 

The lab tech obviously felt bad for me and she really wanted  me to understand that it wasn't her mistake--evidently the needle had a rubber stopper that quit working and it wasn't her fault and she wanted to be sure we knew that.  She said, "Would it make you feel sick to look at this needle?" and I said, "YES" so then she made David look at it so she could explain what messed up on it.  The whole time I was lying there thinking "WE DO NOT CARE for the love of God just finish drawing the blood already!"

She told me to rest while she labeled the first twelve tubes of blood (OMG stop mentioning blood) and then she came back and did the last four tubes with a needle stick in the other arm.  It was comparatively quick and easy.

It seems like almost everyday I tell myself, "At least that's over."  First the due date, then the first day back at work, then the doctor visit, the autopsy results, and then the gallon(s) of blood drawn for lab tests. 

I'm really ready to ease up on the difficult hurdles and just get back to watching TV.

Friday, January 21, 2011


So I went back to work.

I wasn't supposed to be teaching this semester.  Just working on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays at the learning center.  After taking a leisurely eight-ish weeks off for maternity leave.

But University A (the expensive, elitist one) asked me just before Christmas if I'd be interesting in teaching a couple of sections of their English composition class for the spring, and I accepted.  It sounded horrible, of course, but I knew that I needed something to get me up and functioning.

So Wednesday was my first day back and it was double duty--first teaching, then doing the director-of-the-reading-program stuff at the learning center.

Before the start of every semester, I always take a little trip to Sephora and treat myself to something fun--new eyeshadow, nailpolish, whatever--to wear the first day of class.  I had no desire to do that this year, but then when we stopped at Target for a few necessities, I decided to pick up a lip stain that I remembered had been enthusiastically reviewed on someone's blog.

Wednesday morning, I squeezed my way into a pair of jeggings and pulled on a tunic-length sweater to cover the muffin top.  I zipped on boots with heels and armored myself with jewelry--Eliza's name bracelet, the garnet ring that should have been her birthstone, my wedding rings (they finally fit but the engagement ring still feels tight getting on and off), and a "friends" bracelet that the girls gave me recently (I have not yet sent a proper thank-you note for it but I love it).

I managed to avoid interacting with anyone in the English department as I picked up my syllabi and grabbed a cup of hot tea.  I knew if someone hugged me, I would probably lose it, so I kept my head down and went straight to my classroom across campus.  I stopped at the ladies room and remembered that lipstain was unopened in my bag.

Thirty seconds later, my lips are an alarming fire-engine red and I am frantically scrubbing them with a paper towel but the thing about this lipstain is... it's permanent.

Permanent and BRIGHT red.  Crimson.  Like Hollywood glam  red carpet red.  Like totally weird and inappropriate for the first day of class, especially with jeggings and a casual black cardigan.

Rubbing with the paper towel did not help at all.  The lipstain did not budge or lighten but instead the unevenness of my application (and the chappedness of my lips) became remarkably clear.

So then the only thing to do was to fill in the uneven parts with MORE lipstain (counterintuitive, I know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time).  Then I stared at my reflection with its ridiculously BRIGHT RED lips.  It wasn't even a flattering color on me (although it did make my teeth look white).  So then I dug an old neutral lipstick color out of my bag and put it on over the bright red.  That sort of helped mute it a little.  So then I put some brown-tinted gloss on top of that.  Much better.  Nevermind that my lips were coated so thick with make up that I can hardly talk and the gloss was sticky and probably getting on my teeth.  It was almost time for class to start.

I bumped into a good friend on my way there, and I was glad to see him.  He asked how I was, his voice filled with concern.  I had no time for kindness and concern.  "Dude, does my mouth look weird?" I replied. 

"Well, uh, it's really shiny.  But it looks good!"

This friend of mine is not a good liar.  He headed to his own class and I sent a quick text to my best-bereaved-mom-friend and she basically told me to embrace the red lipstick because THIS is my new normal.

So I went into the classroom, smiling and sipping my hot tea.  The carefully applied lipgloss ended up all over the travel mug and my red lip stain shined through and class went just fine.

To be perfectly honest, it was a relief to be in a room full of people who didn't know my story and who weren't feeling desperately sorry for me.

My heart still hurt, but I could function.  I put on my typical first-day show and it was a pretty good performance if I do say so myself.  (My best tricks for the first day of teaching college students:  Wear tall boots and drop one of the least-offensive four letter words during class so they think you are both cool and normal--as cool and normal as any PhD could be, obvy).

After class, I headed to the learning center.  And that was...  much less good.

They'd sent letters home to parents explaining the situation.  And yet, TWO different mothers walked up to my desk and said "Oh, so you had your baby!" or "So was it a boy or a girl?!"

The first time, I thought maybe I would pass out.  The room got dark and hot and swimmy and although I had practiced a couple of things I might say, I found myself totally unable to speak.  I swallowed hard and finally stammered out, "Oh.  Yes.  Um, Nancy sent a letter home about this.  You should speak to her about it."  Then I just kept staring down at the desk in front of me, while this woman's seven-year-old daughter shouted in her loudest, shrillest voice, "What happened?  What's wrong?"  I couldn't speak.  I just gave the little girl a goal for her work and said, "Here you go!" and sent her into the classroom.  The mother said nothing.  I kept looking down at my desk and she finally sort of backed away and into the waiting room.

So, yeah.  Didn't handle that well.  

Then I blinked back tears and sent some frantic texts to friends.  A few minutes later, I was thinking about my best friend from high school pooping her pants on the golf course and pretending the smell was from stepping in dog poop.  I kept this thought in mind all night and managed to hold it together.

Then I asked the front office for a copies of that letter, so when the next parent approached me and asked if it was a boy or a girl, I just threw the letter at her.  I think that she thought it was some kind of birth announcement.  She giggled and then got very quiet.  I continued avoiding eye contact and only talking to the students instead of the parents.

Two parents expressed condolences and I could hardly look at them but managed to say thank you.

It was four exhauting hours.  I hadn't even got to my car before I called David, sobbing.  Pulled myself together and got home to a dinner I couldn't eat.  Poured myself a glass of wine and called my mom, sobbing.  Wrote an e-mail to Nancy telling her the letter was not sufficient and she needed to screen the parents and make sure everyone knows what happened because I can't handle one more congratulatory run-in.  Cried myself to sleep and then woke up at 3am, unable to fall back asleep.

First days back are hard.

* * *

Thursday was a snow day for David's school and he decided not to go in to work because the roads were so bad.  I kept my doctor appointment, though.  Because what's a fun way to follow up your first day back at work?  How about a six week post partum check up and autopsy results?

So we trudged out into the snow and drove to the doctor's office.  And...

Everything was fine.

Both in my exam and Eliza's autopsy.

I'm perfectly healthy.  And she really was perfect.

Measuring right on schedule, all organs appear to be in perfect working order and located in the right place.  No chromosome abnormalities.  No sign of inflammation or infection.  No indication of why she was stillborn.

I felt like my heart was breaking all over again.  I was still so glad that she was perfect (I think I would have directed all my anger and hate at the medical examiner if he had said there was anything wrong with my perfect little baby) but at the same time it almost made everything worse.  We were so close.  34 weeks is viable.  She could have lived!  You know, if she'd only been alive when she was born.

My doctor has ordered a battery of blood tests to be done on me, but he explained that they are really more about being pro-active and covering all of our bases for "next time."  He doesn't think we'll ever know what happened to Eliza.

I asked for a copy of her autopsy results.  It felt a little morbid.  Am I supposed to paste this in her baby book or something?

But you know, a stillborn baby doesn't get a birth certificate.  Or a death certificate.  How do you commemorate a child who never officially lived nor died?  So I sort of clutch at evidence that she was real.

Real.  And perfect.

As we rode the elevators down, David said, "Well, least we know."

I stared at him.  "What do we know?  We know that I can grow a perfectly healthy baby until it DIES?"

Of course I happened to be exclaiming that just as the doors opened to three women waiting to get on the elevator.  Good afternoon, ladies.

It is so frustrating not to have answers.  It's also probably a good thing that I can't obsess over one specific thing that I could have done differently.

The doctor doesn't know why I went into labor so suddenly or why it progressed so rapidly.  Normally this would indicate an abruption or tear in the placenta, but that wasn't the case for me.  It's a medical mystery.

My doctor is a calm, soft spoken man, with very kind eyes.  I had some tears while he went through the autopsy results but I wasn't sobbing out loud or anything.  Still, when he was finished, I struggled to articulate my question.  Finally I asked, "If we don't know what went wrong, then how can we possibly prevent it from happening again?"

And my mild-mannered doctor leaned forward and his eyes flashed and he slapped his desk and said emphatically, "This will not happen again."

He explained the increased monitoring, the pro-active approach to everything.  He seems to think I'll have no problem getting pregnant and we will monitor that baby's every move and at the end, I will be guaranteed a healthy baby.

I want to believe him.  I really do.  But we all know there are no guarantees, right?

So today I teach again.  This morning I'm back to taking it day by day or--as Tiffany says--breath by breath.  My chest still hurts.  I still feel like my at-rest position is on the verge of tears, which is an exhausting status quo.

As Elizabeth McCracken says in her book, closure is bullshit.  David and I will never have answers and we will never truly have closure.  But yesterday, for the first time, even though I'm still not quite ready to do it, I kind of felt like we had permission to look forward.  Cautiously, with those equal measures of hope and dread, but forward all the same.

Last night I told David that it had felt like a healing kind of day.  And then (of course) I started crying all over again.  Not just tears, but the huge, racking sobs.  So much for healing.  David said, "Well, it hurts to heal."  Yeah.  It sure does.

Monday, January 17, 2011


One of my best friends sent me a text the other day:  You are so strong.

I replied:  You are so crazy.

I know she meant well and I know the text was sent with love and I have no hard feelings toward her.

But I feel compelled to announce the following:  I am not strong.

This should come as no surprise.  Even before Eliza died, I was not particularly strong.  I was more whiney, bratty, lazy.  Any appearance of strength was probably stubbornness or dislike of losing.  The thing is, I don't really like to do things that are difficult.  Nor do I enjoy doing things I'm not good at.  I don't even really like to do things that are boring.  Like sometimes I pretend not to know how to make minute rice just because I know David is more likely to do it himself rather than take the time to explain it to me.  I'm the sort of person who wants instant gratification and household servants (well-treated and fairly compensated, of course) and also, while we're at it, salon-brand shampoo and conditioner (which I do not have, to my dismay).

And now?  None of this has changed.  As different as things are, as much as I realize that my life will always be bifurcated by Before and After Eliza Died, I am no stronger at this point than I have ever been.

Which is to say, still not very.

Two months before Eliza died (two months to the day) David's best buddy from college and his wife lost one of the twins she was carrying.  She was expecting a boy and a girl and her forty week due date was just a couple of weeks before mine.  Then life turned horrible and they lost their little boy twin and she had to deliver the little girl early (Baby Mia made it and has now more than quadrupled her birth weight and is at long last happily home with her mom and dad).

When David told me what happened on that day in October, I cried and cried for Baby Max and for his broken-hearted mom and dad.  "Can you imagine?" I sobbed to David.  "If something happened to Baby Duck, I would just dissolve into a puddle of nothing."

I actually said that out loud.  Now it feels like I was tempting fate.  Idiot.

Of course, the worst did happen to Baby Duck.  My baby died and instead of being a puddle of nothing, I'm just...  here.  Myself.  Only dark and twisty and sad and achy.

I keep breathing not because I have some incredible inner strength available only to the bereaved.  I keep breathing because to stop breathing would require a deliberate act for which I have neither the strength nor the stomach.  It's a passive kind of survival, and often it feels like I'm surviving against my will.  I have no plans to die, but not because I'm strong.  In fact, it's really because I remain lazy and whiny and needy and in the midst of my grief people are willing to pour me wine and fetch me glasses of water and tempt my appetite with soft cheeses, which would be really lovely under any other circumstances.  And also because the damn dogs need to be walked and David needs someone to iron his shirts and pick out matching neckties.

So the question is:  If you're not strong, how do you survive having a stillborn baby?  How do you survive something that, when previously contemplated, appeared to be utterly unsurvivable?   

I have no idea.

I certainly haven't made a conscious decision to do so.  I'm not drawing on a special reserve of super strength that I was saving for just this time.

The truth is that I am no stronger than anyone else.  This is shattering me just like it would shatter you.  As uncomfortable as it is to believe this, my reaction to this situation is precisely what your reaction would be (speaking in broad generalities, obvy).  I am sitting here typing this not because I am strong but simply because I happen to be not dead.

I am quite sure that I am actually not strong enough to handle this.  I am coping the way anyone else would cope, which is to say not very well.

My head hurts and my body hurts and when I do have any appetite at all, I feel guilty about it.  I dread leaving my house and if I don't have a friend coming over, I'm likely to not get out of bed until David gets home from work.  I worry about everyone I know dying, I worry about huge philosophical questions that no one can answer, I fret endlessly over every decision I made both before and immediately after Eliza's death, and I also worry about being able to fit into my old pants when I start teaching again.  I have cried everyday for the past six weeks and I can't imagine what a day would look like if a good chunk of it wasn't blurry with tears.

Everybody thinks that if their baby died, they would simply combust or dissolve or turn to stone and cry an endless river of tears.  That's how I imagined it, too.  Believe me, I wish it were so easy.

In reality, most of us wake up the next day and find--to our great surprise--that we are somehow still flesh and blood and snot and tears and somehow we will continue to go to bed and wake up again and again.  And eventually we go through the motions of watching TV.  Eating dinner.  Vacuuming.  Going to the store.  Going back to work.  Having real conversations and superficial conversations and laughing at The New Adventures of Old Christine because that show really is funny and her brother Matthew sort of looks like my brother, which I also find amusing.  We go through the motions and eventually, with time, it's supposed to get a little easier.

We don't do this because we're strong.  We do it because what the hell else is there to do?

I mean, seriously.  If there's another option, I would love to hear it.  If there were a way to opt out of this grieving process, I would totally get on board.

Remember:  you're talking to the girl who is too lazy to make minute rice.  I sure as hell don't want to be working this hard just to get through the day.

So please, don't say I'm strong.  If being strong means that I'm handling things well, I'm not.  I'm hanging in there and getting by.  Barely.  Some days are worse than others.  I'm managing.  But I'm not full of grit or gumption or inner strength.  I happen to be breathing because when all hell broke loose in my life, that's the way things shook out.  My heart's beating and Eliza's isn't and I have no idea why but it certainly isn't because I'm strong. 

I'm surviving for the same reason anyone else does:  because I happen to be alive, despite the fact that I'm actually not very strong at all.  In fact, if the universe could know just how not-strong I am, perhaps I could get my daughter back?  Because clearly I am not well equipped to handle such a loss.  Seriously.

So there you have it.  I'm not strong.  I'm just surviving what I can only hope will be the worst experience of my life.  I'm hoping that things will get better and fearing all the time that they never will.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ordinary Suffering

The internet is a magical beast.  It has brought me a good measure of comfort, it has cost me a great deal of tears.  It allows me to commemorate Eliza, to communicate with family, friends, acquaintances, strangers.  It has brought me in touch with old friends, new friends, friends-of-friends.  It brings together bereaved parents in groups, blogs, message boards.   

I still shudder at the term “babylost parents,” as the community is sometimes identified.  To me, it sounds too vague.  Too ambiguous.

I still prefer the word “bereaved.”

Because she wasn’t lost.  We didn’t mislay her or forget about her.  She was ripped away from us.  By chance, by fate, by accident, by random happenstance.  We are deprived of her and it is unfair.  It is still so profoundly fucking unfair.  

But it is also so ordinary.

It makes me catch my breath, how many people share our pain.

1 in 160 doesn't sound like very many.  But when you think about all the babies that are born everyday, it adds up to 25,000 per year in the United States.  25,000 people out there who feel the way I feel.  It's unbelievable.

* * *

I taught Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to my Introduction to Literature class last semester.  Mary Shelley is pretty fascinating to begin with--she wrote Frankenstein when she was still a teenager, hanging out with romantic poets.  Her father was a liberal political philosopher.  Her mother (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) an eighteenth-century feminist who wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792 and died from complications of childbirth five years later, after giving birth to her only daughter.  Growing up without a mother, Mary Shelley was educated by her father and she fell in love with one of his political followers, the Romantic poet (and political philosopher) Percy Bysshe Shelley.  They had four children together and only one of them lived to grow up.

If Facebook had existed in the early nineteenth century, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley most certainly would have selected "It's Complicated" for their relationship status.  When they first got together, Percy was married to someone else.  But he was a man of big ideas, and one of those ideas was free love.  There was much discussion about free love vs. formal marriage and the idea of an open relationship.  Percy seems to have been much more in favor of this than Mary, perhaps for the simple reason that there weren't any dependable forms of birth control.  Or maybe she just wasn't crazy about the idea of her boyfriend sleeping around.

As it was, Mary ended up pregnant with Percy's child and had a stillborn daughter in 1816.  That same year she married Percy (after his first wife committed suicide) and wrote Frankenstein.

When I taught the novel, I spent a lot of time pointing out the book's obsession with the link between the marriage bed and the death bed.  Over and over again, the novel presents this troubling connection.  Dying parents beg their children to get married to a spouse of their choosing, murders take place on wedding nights, dreams problematically confuse mothers, monsters, and wives, wedding sheets become shrouds.  

I gave my students a brief biographical and historical outline of Mary Shelley's life and talked a little bit about late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century feminism.  I pointed out that the novel was written by an eighteen year old girl whose mother died after giving birth to her and who had recently experienced the death of her own baby, a stillborn girl.  

I remember standing up in the classroom by the dry erase board, saying something like, "This overlap between birth and death and marriage beds in Frankenstein is perhaps less surprising in the context of the nineteenth century, when the rate of women and children dying in childbirth was much higher than it is today."

I paused and then patted my fat pregnant belly with a dramatic sight and said, "Thank goodness, right?" and my students and I laughed.

* * *

Babies died in the nineteenth century because medicine wasn’t good.  Because there was so much people didn’t know.  Because nutrition wasn’t great.  Mothers also died, but not as frequently.  Childbirth was life and death wrapped up in pain and joy. 

That was two hundred years ago.  When doctors inadvertently caused infections that killed people because they didn't know to freaking wash their hands.  Today?  In this age of modern medicine?  Babies aren't supposed to die.  At least not babies that are perfectly healthy, not babies born to mothers who track the grams of protein they eat and take prenatal yoga classes and track their baby's kick count.  Those babies cannot just die for no apparent reason.
But they do.

It is not as common as it was in the 1800s, but it happens.  Babies die.  All the time.  For no reason.  To mothers of every age and every race and every socioeconomic background and all levels of education.  There is no rhyme or reason.  It happens everyday, to so many people.

This is my heartache and David’s.  It is our private, precious loss.  It is the most devastating experience of my life.

But I cannot pretend that we are alone in this.  That we are the only people to have ever felt this way. 

The world should stop.  The ocean should be poured away.  The world has neither joy or light nor peace nor certitude nor help for pain.

And yet our experience is not unique.  It’s horribly, horrifyingly ordinary.  It happened to me and it happens everyday many other people.  The grief that we feel is the same of suffering that twenty five thousand people in this country suffer every year, that people of every generation have suffered, that people experienced in far greater numbers in the past.  In this perspective, it is an ordinary kind of suffering.  No less painful or terrible, just all too common.

But our baby?  Eliza Taylor Duckworth?

She was one of a kind.

Our first child.  Our little girl.  Our extraordinary daughter.

Beautiful, perfect, and dead.

There will never be another like her.

And I will mourn her all the days of my life.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Nobody. Not even the rain.

There is a poem by e. e. cummings that makes me think of Eliza.  I've always loved this poem, and never quite knew how to make sense of it.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers
you open always petal by petal myself as spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or, if your wish be to close me, i and 
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture 
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands 

Like everything else, I see this poem with a different perspective now.  Now that I have a daughter who is somewhere I have never travelled, beyond any experience I've ever had.

Now that I know what it is like to be unable to touch something that is too near.

I've always liked the poem's repetition of enclose-unclose-close.  Now it makes me think of the way I have felt surrounded by love, laid bare to pain, and isolated by grief, all at the same time. 

The power of intense fragility makes me think of her tiny little wrists and the fine eyelashes on her cheeks and the awe I felt holding her tiny little body and knowing that I would die for her if I could.  Nothing which we are to perceive in this world could possibly equal those moments of love, and that terrible, terrible ache.

Most often when I think of Eliza, I remember her beautiful, delicate, pale little hands with their long, slender fingers and the last line of this poem runs through my mind over and over again:  nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

I really, truly loved her little hands.

I miss her so much.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Another Mother

When David started his new job this year, he reported back that one of the teachers at his school was pregnant and due the same day as me.  A few weeks later, we found out we both were having baby girls.  What a coincidence, right?

After Eliza died and David went back to work, he came home and told me how hard it was for him to see this teacher.  She's about the same height and build as me, and also brunette, and he said that seeing her was just a reminder of how I was supposed to look (you know, fat and happy, not shrunken and hollow-eyed and in need of a shower).  He said he could hardly look at her.

I only met her once, when David was giving me a tour of his school back in August.  We made brief smalltalk about our due dates.  But I would ask David about her from time to time (mostly questions like "Is she as big as I am?  Because I feel huge.  Do you think I'm weirdly, abnormally huge?  Or would you say she's about the same size as me?").  Later, I thought about her having her baby girl the same day I should have had my baby girl, and I wished so desperately to be in her position--happy, safe, relieved. 

On December 23rd, David and I had our first meeting with a grief therapist.  David had gotten a voicemail from the principal of his school and so he asked if I felt up to driving so he could call her back.  As I drove, I could only hear David's side of the conversation.

"Hi, Angela.  What's up?"
*short pause*
"Yeah, well, we're doing okay."
*longer pause*
"Oh my God.  Oh, no."
"Oh my God.  Do they know what happened?"
"That's terrible.  Terrible, terrible, terrible."

There was already a pit of grief in my stomach, but a pit of dread managed to open up beside it.  When David got off the phone, he didn't say anything right away, he just looked at me.  I had to ask him what happened.

And would you fucking believe it.  That teacher lost her baby, too.

An umbilical cord accident.  At a regular check up, her baby no longer had a heartbeat.  She had to be induced and had to deliver her daughter at 36 weeks.  Stillborn.  On Christmas Eve.  The baby girl who should have shared Eliza's due date.  Another baby girl who was so wanted and so loved.

"This world is a terrible place," David said to himself.  And then, to me, "Do you need me to drive?"

I shook my head.  It was unbelievable.  But I could keep driving.  As long as I kept driving, I could keep from flying apart. 

In those moments, I felt my own grief move over a bit.  It felt like a physical shift inside my guts, making space next to my own pain to feel so desperately sorry for someone besides myself, someone I'd met in real life.

I'd read stories online--far, far too many of them--about other women whose babies died.  But this was someone we knew, someone I'd talked to, someone who hadn't been there before me, someone who was going through exactly what I'd gone through just two weeks ago.

My grief made space for a sympathetic ache and it was not one bit more comfortable than the nauseated feeling I'd had before.

In the few days after hearing that news, it was harder to bear than I would have thought, given what we'd already endured.  After finding out about her loss, I felt like I was reliving my own.  Those hours at the hospital, that initial shock, the sympathetic expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, the agony of contractions, the unreal moments when I thought somehow everything could still change and go back to normal, the feeling that I truly, truly wanted to die and that my heart would just have to stop beating because surely no one could feel like this and go on living--I felt all of it again, just as vividly as the first time.

Knowing that someone else's heart was breaking did not stop mine from doing it all over again--for her, for me, for both of our babies.

I am in no position to be a guide in this ridiculous business of baby loss.  I am still drowning in my own self-pity, I still haven't hit the bottom of my own bottomless well of grief.  But Liam's mother put out her hand to me and so as Eliza's mother, I reach out to this other mother.  How could I not?

I helped David write a letter.  I mailed her my copy of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.  A few days later, I sent her an e-mail.

I don't know this other mother personally, but I know that she loved her daughter and that she deserves to have that baby here with her.

I don't know why we were connected by due dates and now we are connected by baby loss.  I don't know why our babies are gone.  I'm neck deep in the same suffocating grief she's feeling and I still don't know what to say to her.

I can only hope that she is overwhelmed by love and support, as we have been, and that even when the sympathy cards stop coming and the "Thinking of you" texts become fewer and farther between, that she will somehow know that I am always and forever remembering her baby girl as I remember mine.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nine Years

Nine years ago, David and I went on our first date.

It was 1-11-02.

I had hoped Eliza would be born on 1-11-11.  Because of all the ones, obvs, but mostly because of the first date anniversary.  It seemed real romantical and all that...

Nine years ago, I was home from college and I substitute-taught at the elementary school for some extra cash.  I had recently gotten out of a drama-filled but never-really-official relationship and I had been on a couple of dates with two different guys (not at the same time).  I liked both of them, although not really seriously.  I was looking forward to getting back to school after break and seeing where things went.  Mostly I just wanted to enjoy my last semester of college and start graduate school single and ready for adventure.

Even before I'd gone home for break, I'd heard tales of "Coach Duck," the most eligible bachelor in town.  He was the PE teacher at the elementary school and one of the baseball coaches.  He'd ended up in Nevada because he'd played college baseball with a guy who had grown up there and returned to teach and coach.  When another job came open, that guy encouraged David to apply.  In the short time David had been in town, he'd already dated three girls I'd gone to high school with (and those were just the ones I knew about).

We had lunch at the same time the first day that I subbed and I have to admit I thought he was pretty cute.  He had floppy boy-band hair and a pretty irresistible smile.  Still, I knew we would have nothing in common and I really wasn't the sort of girl who dated guys who wore Adidas pants to work.  As far as I was concerned, PhD students and PE teachers were not a good fit.

So when David picked up my second grade class for PE and dropped off his phone number I rolled my eyes and then immediately called my friend Jamie when I got home that night.  She asked if I was going to call him.  No, I was not going to call him.  First of all, he was obviously totally cocky, AND he was a PE teacher, AND I was going back to school in a week and I already had my hands full with Ryan and John.

Then David called.

He had asked the secretary at his school about me, and since my mom worked at another school, David looked up her name in the school directory and called me at my parents' house.

I called Jamie back the next night.

"Guess what I'm doing?"


"Getting ready to go on a date with Coach Duck."

I mean, I figured if he'd gone to all that work to get a hold of me, and it was kind of boring at home over Christmas break, I mean, it couldn't hurt to go on one date... 

I had no idea where we were going to go to dinner.  Our options were pretty limited in Nevada and I knew that wherever we went, people would talk (Of course they would--hadn't I already heard about the last three girls who'd dated Coach Duck?  I lived three hours away and the gossip reached me.).  But surely he wouldn't take me out of town for dinner...  what would we talk about in the car for an hour?

David picked me up in his sporty new car (he's still driving it nine years later--getting married totally cramped his playboy style) and sure enough--he suggested we drive out of town for dinner.

And the rest is history...  we found something to talk about for an hour there, an hour back, and however much time we spent at dinner.  I broke up with Ryan and John, David got a better hair cut, and then we took turns driving across the state every weekend to be together during the awful long distance dating period.  Finally he moved to St. Louis and proposed on a trip to Hawaii (that proposal is another tale for another post).  So the PhD student and the PE teacher got married, and we've been together ever since.

Nine years is a long time to have dated someone.  It means that David has been around for almost 1/3 of my entire life.  And it's been pretty freaking good life.  Until now.

I never, ever thought for one second that my life would turn out like this.

David suggested last night we could still go to our favorite Italian restaurant for dinner.  He took me to the Olive Garden on that first date and since then we go out for Italian every year.  Of course, we're way too snobby for the Olive Garden these days, given that we live about three blocks from The Hill with its vast selection of delicious family-owned Italian restaurants (Zia's is the best).

I know that we are lucky to have each other.  I still want to celebrate that.  But this year I just don't have the heart.  I'm going to force myself to make pasta for dinner so David doesn't have to come home from work and then cook.  But I can't face the idea of going to a restaurant like we are normal people whose lives haven't been ripped apart.

This morning I told David that nine years ago I would have never dreamed that we'd be here.  He hugged me tight said that nine years from now, we'll still miss Eliza, but we'll also be able to look back and have other things to celebrate and to smile about.

I'm not ready to be so optimistic.  But I cautiously hope he's right.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Other People's Babies

I've always been one of those people who likes babies.  I smile at babies at the grocery store.  I want to hold other people's babies.  I adored my little cousins when they were babies.

One of many things that has scared me since Eliza died is that somehow her loss would make me hate babies.

Or, more accurately, that every baby would become a cruel reminder of the baby I do not have, a "trigger" that would cause me to fall to pieces in an instant, wherever I might be, whatever I might be doing.

One of my best friends had a baby in October.  Owen is three months old.  He looks just like his dad, but with chubbier cheeks.  He is a sweet, happy baby, with brown fuzz on his head and the funniest facial expressions.

I dreaded seeing him again.

So when I did see him, I was surprised.

He was just as cute as I remembered, and even chunkier than the last time I'd seen him (at a baby shower in late November).  He did not make me cry.  I held him and kissed him and played with him.

He didn't make me miss Eliza any more than I was already missing her which made me wonder how I ever thought I could possibly miss her more than I already do?

Owen is just...  Owen.  He's not my baby.  He's a perfectly sweet, perfectly wonderful, perfectly darling baby and I love him.  But he's not the one I want.

I suppose I am jealous of my friend.  She gets to do with him the things I wanted to do with Eliza--the holding and reading and putting to bed, the laughing and playing and showing off to relatives.  When I think about everything I'm missing, it hurts so much.  But that ache is not about my friend and her baby. 

What I mean is, I would be sad and hurt and broken to pieces about what I'm missing regardless of whether someone else is currently experiencing it. 

To some extent, this realization is a relief--I don't need to walk around trying to avoid all babies.

They can't break my heart because it's already shattered.  They can't make me sad because I'm already sick with grief.  They can't remind me of what I've lost because I will have never forgotten.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I did not know that she could go away.

I'm quoting here from a letter Mark Twain wrote to a close friend after the death of Twain's daughter, Suzy.  She was 24 years old and she died of meningitis while her parents were traveling abroad.

* * *

You have seen our whole voyage.  You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail--and the flag at the peak; and you see us now, chartless, adrift--derelicts; battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone.  For it is gone.  And there is nothing in its place.  The vanity of life was all we had, and there is no more vanity left in us.  We are even ashamed of that we had; ashamed that we trusted the promises of life and builded high--to come to this!

I did know that Suzy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.  And I did not know what she was.  To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper.  How am I to comprehend this?  How am I to have it?  Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?

* * *

I still marvel at the fact that we thought Eliza was such a sure thing.

Yes, I worried.  But I never really doubted for a moment that at the end of my pregnancy we were going to go home with a beautiful baby girl.  She was a sure thing.  My baby showers, our decorated nursery, the clothes and diapers we bought, all of these things were proof that she was to be ours.  Like Mark Twain and his wife, we trusted the promises of life.

I did know that Eliza was part of us; I did not know that she could go away.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

This Grief is Your Grief, This Grief is My Grief

I've recently had conversations with several different people about their own losses and grief.  They are always quick to qualify it, to acknowledge that they haven't lost a child and that their grief is not the same as mine (Thank God, right?).  Sometimes people feel like they don't know what to say because they have never been through this experience.  And it's true that talking with women who have been here, who have gone through exactly this experience of stillbirth has been tremendously helpful in a way that no one else could have been.

Some of these women would argue (and have argued) that no one else can understand what they're feeling.  I get that.  I do.  The grief I feel is not quite the same as what David feels.  The way we experience Eliza's loss as her parents is different from the way anyone else can feel about it.  The way it feels to lose a baby is unique in its horror and anguish, yes.  But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that these other kinds of grief are not so different.

A lot of people say, "I can't imagine what you're feeling."  And if they've never lost a child, then sure, they can't exactly know what I'm feeling.  But actually I think most people could imagine it.  Anyone who has ever lost a loved one too soon can pretty well imagine what we're going through.

It feels pretty much like the worst grief you've ever felt.  Amplified and unending.

You feel sorry for yourself, sorry for others who also loved that person, sorry for the person who died, guilty that you couldn't do more to help them, devastated that your future with that person has been wiped away.  You feel lost, angry, confused, shattered.  The idea that the universe is an orderly place where things happen for a reason--maybe you never claimed to believe that anyway, but now you have to face up to the randomness and learn to accept it in a way you never had to before, when only grandparents died and not until they were in their eighties.

Someone outside this can't know the reality of it, sure, but I think anyone could imagine it.  They just don't want to. And who can blame them?

There are people who say, "I know how you feel.  At least a little bit."  And I think it's brave of them to admit that they have felt debilitating grief, that they have been decimated by a loss, even if it wasn't the loss of their baby.  I appreciate it when people share the pain that they've experienced and talk about how they worked through it, when they seek a connection instead of trying to distance themselves from the horror of thinking about a baby dying.

And I understand why someone would be afraid to do that--afraid of offending me, afraid of overstepping, afraid of letting themselves imagine how I might be feeling.  I think I would have been afraid, too.  But I am glad there are people who say to me, "This is what my grief was like.  Eventually it will get a little easier for you, too."

I also understand that some bereaved parents don't want that kind of response.  They need their grief to be recognized as unique and unimaginable.  Anything less would feel like its magnitude was being diminished.  But for me, I kind of need the magnitude to be diminished.  Not the magnitude of my love for Eliza, or the effect she will always have on our lives, but the magnitude of her death.  Of her death being the one thing that defines her and us--I want that to feeling to ease.  She is more to me than just a baby who died.  She's also my first pregnancy, my first daughter, the source of so much joy before all this grief.  And I have to be more than just a mother who lost her baby.  I feel horribly guilty for saying that, but it's true.

Losing a baby is different.  It's different because it's unnatural.  Because it feels rare and exceptional (even if the actual statistics suggest otherwise--1 in 180 births are stillbirths).

It's different because there is both an emotional desire and an instinctive, biological compulsion for a mother to make sure that she keeps her baby safe.  Her failure to do so means that there's probably more guilt mixed in with grief than most people have to experience.

But there are lots of ways to feel guilty--words left unspoken, the fight you had recently, past wrongdoings you thought you'd have more time to make up for, or even a terrible accident that you would have given anything to have avoided--guilt can complicate anyone's grief, even if it's a different kind of guilt.

The shock and trauma might be different, too.  A healthy pregnancy with the worst second worst outcome is incredibly traumatic in part because no one saw it coming.  The physical experience can be incredibly traumatic and the postpartum recovery can be agonizing in ways that are not the same for any other grief experience.  This is unavoidably true.

Still, death is nothing if not often unexpected.  No one expected a blood clot to kill an otherwise healthy woman during surgery.  No one expected a drunk driver to crash into their son's car on a Sunday afternoon.  No one expected their partner to go to bed Thanksgiving night and never wake up again.  Shock and trauma are not regulated to dead babies alone.  Mothers whose babies die at birth are not the only people who want to die when they lose someone they love.

And even if death is to be expected, even if it comes at the end of a long illness, even though we know our grandparents had long and happy lives, even when we admit that the person we've lost is no longer in pain, the aching sadness of loss is still much the same, though it must operate at different levels of intensity.

A friend of mine spoke about the waves of grief she felt after her fiancee left her.  She didn't want to compare her loss to mine, a break up is hardly the same as the death of a child.  I'd be the first to agree with that.  But some of the pain I'm feeling, she's felt that, too.  Because being a jilted by your fiancee is all about losing the future you had planned on.  The dreams and hopes you had, the idea of what your life was going to be like.  All of that is suddenly gone in an instant.

And that is what losing a child feels like--it doesn't just hurt because it's someone you love, it also hurts because it means an unending cycle of perpetual disappointment.  It's not just one instance that you can move away from and get some distance on.  All you planned, everything you looked forward to (birthday parties and prom dresses and wedding receptions and family vacations and reading your favorite childhood books) is suddenly blotted out of your future.  And you're sitting there remembering so vividly what it felt like to be happy just moments ago, days ago, weeks ago, and trying to reconcile the happiness you can still taste with the reality that it will never be yours at all.

I can imagine what it feels like to be the bride who has the dress and who has chosen the invitations and who ends up without a wedding.  The pain would be less and the future would be brighter, but in that moment she still knows what it is to be sad about the loss of someone she loved (even if he did turn out to be a total douchebag) and sad to lose the future that, by all rights, should have been hers.

I have come to think about this as the double edge of grief.  And I think anyone who has lost someone before their time must have felt it.  Not only do you miss that person specifically--her personality, his laugh, the way he would have reacted to a particular situation, the advice she could have offered--you also miss the experiences you should have shared with him or her.  The moments in your life that would have been brighter and sweeter if only you had been able to share them with your mom or your stepdad or your spouse or your big brother or whoever it was who shouldn't have died so soon.

I've written before about how I've been surprised by the fact that when I miss Eliza, I miss more than just the future we were supposed to have with her.  I love her and miss her in a way I did not realize would be possible to feel for a stillborn baby.  Sure, we projected onto her our own ideas of what she would be like when she was still our unnamed "Baby Duck," but there's also a way in which she was so intimately a part of David and me that I miss her.  The kicks and movements that felt like she was really communicating with me--keeping me entertained during jury duty, distracting me while I was trying to lecture about Oedipus Rex, or connecting with me during our yoga classes.  There will always be a place in my heart only she could fill.

We miss our baby girl and we miss what our life with her was supposed to be.  This is the double edge of grief.

And I think most people who have lost anyone they love can understand what that feels like.  I think most people who have any imagination at all can imagine what that feels like.  They can't know our grief, and I don't expect them too.  I wish that nobody had to know what it feels like to have their baby die.

But I don't think people should be afraid to share their grief experiences with someone who lost a child.  Of course it's not the same.  We all get that.  But still, I've had some of the best conversations with people who have started out talking about their own experiences with death and grief, saying things like, "When my dad died, I had to shorten my hours at work so I could cope."  Or, "When my stepdad died, people thought I shouldn't be that sad because he wasn't my 'real dad.'"  Or, "My brother was 21 when he died and I still miss him everyday."  Or, "When I found out my mom had a year to live, I was forty years old, but I still couldn't face it."

These are things that bereaved parents also experience.  Having to face something you never imagined dealing with.  Having to rearrange schedules so you can make it through the day.  Knowing you will miss your baby everyday for the rest of your life.  Sometimes being expected to get over it because you never "really" knew the baby.  (For the record, I have been fortunate enough to escape that kind of asshat comment, but I know other people have heard it.)

Grief is different for everyone.  Losing a parent or a sibling isn't the same as losing a child.  But I really think they are more similar than they are different.  Pain and loss are great equalizers.

If you've ever known anyone who died before you were ready to let them go, if you've ever ached for someone to be part of a celebration they missed, if you've ever had your heart broken by someone you thought you could count on being there for you forever, then no, you don't know exactly how I am feeling, but you've still got an idea.  My grief, your grief, it's not so different.

If there is one thing I have learned from this, it might be that we all walk around with holes in our hearts.

Everyone gets their share, sooner or later.  Because the alternative is to not love anybody.

And as much as we don't want the people we love to die, we also know that if we didn't love them enough to grieve their loss, there really wouldn't be a point to living at all.

So we're all connected by grief.

This is my big discovery:  the heart of the human condition.  I should write a dissertation on it.  Someone should give me a Nobel prize.  I have figured it out.  We are all connected by grief.

But even now, even plunging toward the bottom of what feels like a bottomless pit of grief, I have to admit the other side of that truth:  we're all connected by grief only because we're all connected by love.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Second Worst Outcome

I read recently that the death of a baby at birth is the second worst outcome in a pregnancy.

That's because a dead mother is worse than a dead baby.

For the mother, of course, that's debatable.

My therapist mentioned the other day that one of the major differences between the way mothers grieve and the way fathers grieve the loss of a baby is that the father, in addition to his sadness, also feels intense relief that his wife didn't die, while the mother often wishes that she would have.

The idea of a kind of hierarchy of loss--worst outcome vs. second worst--had not really occurred to me at all until I had a conversation with my brother in which he essentially said the same thing.  I can't remember what his exact words were, but the essence was something like "it is terrible that Eliza died but it would have been even worse if you had died."

It is a strange thing to hear your brother say that he's glad you're not dead.


It sounds so ridiculous and dramatic and juvenile to say "I wish I were dead!"

When I whispered it to David that night at the hospital, I thought I meant it.

I still feel sometimes that there is nothing to look forward to.  I think that my future will always be darkened by this sadness.  I will always be held hostage by this grief.  If we are able to get pregnant again someday, that pregnancy is sure to be plagued by stress and fear and the possibility of getting a live baby at the end of it?  Well it's not a sure thing.

And yet.  There are reasons to live.  People who love me.  Dogs that love me.  People who promise me that this will get easier.

Before Eliza died, I was so ridiculously, blindly, foolishly, naively happy.  The kind of happy where I would actually crawl into bed and say to David, "We are so lucky.  There is nothing I want that we don't have."  I will never feel that way again.

So the best we can do, I guess, is to hope for a different kind of happy.  Our happiness will forever be incomplete.  But we loved Eliza so much that maybe we will eventually find a sweetness in our sadness.  Happy won't ever mean what it did before, but I guess the only thing we can do is just keep stumbling forward, hoping to figure out what it might mean eventually.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Insanity of Grief

I told David recently that I think there should be grief rehabilitation centers.

Some nice institution with quality, high-thread-count sheets and a staff of people in white coats who speak in whispers and don't try to make me eat anything but tea and toast.  There would be thick carpeting and cool tile and also pets would be allowed but someone else would feed them and bathe them and let them in and out and walk them if I didn't feel up to it.

There would be cushy white leather furniture and soft music playing and also salons where someone else could wash and blow dry my hair and make it smell good without me having to expel any energy.  In fact, I would be forced to get spa treatments even if I said I didn't want them.  My therapist would write me prescriptions for facials and mudwraps.  I wouldn't have to make any decisions about anything.  I would have a wardrobe of soft cashmere sweaters and stretchy pants and lots of pairs of those aloe-infused socks.  Friends and family could visit us during regular hours.  We'd have group therapy and individual therapy and couple's therapy and online retail therapy.  Also there would be art classes and yoga classes and jewelry making (all optional).  We would be forced to stay a minimum of twelve weeks, longer if necessary to get through holidays or other objectionable days of supposed celebration.

It would be like a swanky hotel and spa, but even nicer, and with grief therapists on staff.

I imagine an escape like that because I just feel so afraid of life sometimes.

I still feel most days that I want to be shut away from the real world and in a place where I will never have to go to Target or the grocery store.  A place where everyone will know that I am fragile and must be treated with care.  A facility where everyone will not only know that I am grieving, but will accept that as fine and normal and it will, in fact, be their job to take care of me.

It makes sense because someone who feels like I feel should be institutionalized.  Surely I cannot be expected to function in the everyday world.  I am far too broken.  I need therapy.  And high thread count sheets.  And tea and toast.

* * *

The truth is that I do worry about going crazy but more often, I worry about NOT going crazy.

What does it say about me if I'm able to recover from this?  Will it mean I didn't love Eliza enough?  Shouldn't my sanity be the price that I pay for losing her?

These are crazy questions, I realize.

As I said, I really ought to be institutionalized.