Thursday, April 28, 2011

After the Before and After

Thanks, everybody, for reminding me that it's okay for me not to be "over it" or better or less sad at this point.  Or ever. 

These past months have dragged on forever for me and I think I have aged a million years and grown a long white beard to match my hobbled gait, but I know it's really only been a short time.

And thank you for remembering Eliza.  That goes for everybody who reads this even if you are the strong but silent types or the text or e-mail me privately types.  Since I cannot demonstrate my love for my baby by investing in her wardrobe, I feel compelled to keep stating for the record that she is loved and wanted and valued and missed so desperately (hence the broken record...). So thank you for remembering her with me.

David is home from fourth grade camp and man-oh-man I am happy about that.  Maybe not as happy as he is.  I think I should err on the edge of caution when I talk about David's work stuff, but it seems safe to say that over the last three days he spent hours outside, tromping around in rubber boots in the POURING rain, had to have a "come to Jesus" meeting with his cabin group of fourth grade boys who had serious aiming issues in the restroom, and was awakened almost every hour of the night for various reasons while sleeping in a cot in the central room of the cabin.

(Note to self:  I hope to never see the the toilet in a bathroom shared by a bunch of ten year old boys.  From what I hear, it ain't pretty.)

Last night he got in bed while I was still brushing my teeth and shutting down the computer.  By the time I got to the bedroom, he was sound asleep with the light on and the TV blaring.  I scheduled a massage for him on Friday evening.  I kind of think we should submit the receipt to his school district, but that's just one person's opinion. 

As for me, I just might get a massage myself.  And I have a few other pleasant distractions going on at the moment--dinner plans with a friend, the busyness of the end of the semester, and thrilling professional and personal news for friends who are defending dissertations and getting jobs and getting married.

Here's something of interest: 

So I was thinking the other day about my students and my blog and the potential risks of putting my guts out on the internet for anybody to see and so I googled myself.  You know, just to see what popped up.  Well, guess what?  Someone who shares my first and last name is famous.  She was the star of an HBO show called Cathouse and, according to Marie Claire magazine, "By 26, Brooke was America's most famous hooker."

Excellent.  From what I can tell, we're nearly the same age but she has way better abs.  Also she is a whore.  Professionally speaking.  So basically we're just alike.  Except different.

I really hope my students just don't care enough to google me.

* * *

Since I spent my last post lamenting over my sorry state of affairs and wondering how to fit my old self into this new, sad life, I really want to say how much all your comments and e-mails helped. 

One dear friend of mine e-mailed me a quote from one of the Hunger Games books.  It is when Katniss visits one of the other districts and she's glad that she didn't wear the make up or clothes that had been suggested to her: 

The damage, the fatigue, the imperfections. That's how they recognize me, why I belong to them.

The thing is, I so desperately wanted my life to work out perfectly according to my very detailed plan.  I planned to cross off everything on my checklist of husband, PhD, vacation(s) in Europe, and baby before 30.  Losing my vision of my perfect life was a painful side effect of losing Eliza.  But I am slowly realizing that my idea of a perfect life didn't really matter to anyone but me.

Nobody ever loved me for trying to be perfect.  Checking off things on my list of life goals didn't win me any friends.  Nobody but me really cares about what I'm accomplishing when.  They just like me for the nerdy little freakazoid that I am.  And that certainly hasn't changed.

Right now, I have to remember that I don't necessarily have to be fun or happy or even all that pleasant for people to keep liking me.  Those who care about me are willing to forgive imperfections and embrace the broken parts of me and let me take my time to heal.  It's true that some people will find that awkward and difficult, but those issues are theirs, not mine.

Just as this loss has brought David and me closer together, it has also introduced me to funny and smart and wonderful women I would never have met otherwise, and it has brought me unexpectedly closer to friends I already had.  This is no silver lining or Pollyanna moment--it just is what it is.  And I can see the good in that.

It might seem crazy to pour out my guts online where anyone could google me and then wonder if America's most famous whore ended up going to grad school and marrying a neatfreak elementary school principal and having a stillborn baby.

(Answer:  No.  In fact, I have never starred in a show called Cathouse, nor do I want you to contact me about scheduling a "girlfriend experience."  Although I would watch a show called Cathouse if it were on HGTV and featured people who designed and decorated their homes around their pets because that would be AWESOME).

But I guess the point is that I'm writing this stuff and showing my scars Mockingjay style because there's nothing to be gained from pretending everything is fine or that my life will ever be perfect (or that it ever was, for that matter).  And when somebody else sees my fatigue, and my imperfections, they just might recognize it as their own, whatever their hurt.  None of us has to be alone in this.  In fact, we have each other.  And wine.  And young adult fiction.  And the occasional ray of hope.

And if all else fails, today you can be glad you're not sharing a toilet with twenty fourth grade boys.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Before and After

I can clearly remember who I used to be, before I was a bereaved mother.

I was pretty smart.  I liked to learn about new things.  Except music.  I was always terribly out of the loop when it came to cool music.  I think I was sometimes funny.  Sometimes sarcastic.  Someone who gestured wildly while she talked and who made her eyes get huge to emphasize a point.  I think my most redeeming quality was that even though I'd get really worked up about stupid things, I had no problem laughing at myself later.

I know I felt lucky.  Lucky to have such a great husband who was smart and funny and tidy and kind and looked really cute in a baseball uniform.  Lucky to have two parents and a brother and many friends.  Lucky to have extended family I loved to visit.  Lucky to be pregnant.  The world seemed to me to be full of good things--swimming pools and baseball games and friendly neighbors and bottles of wine and pedicures and novels and etsy shops and Macy's sales and fat babies and cute dogs and seasonal decor and Christmas music and peonies and friends with witty facebook status updates.

I was the sort of person who remembered birthdays, shopped well in advance, and gave thoughtful gifts with the perfect card.

I was the kind of teacher who wore high heels and lipstick everyday.

I was a wife who wasn't a great cook but was always willing to help with after-dinner clean up.

I loved to go shopping and could spend an entire day searching for bargains and then I'd come home and make David guess what I paid for each item, then announce the original price and the sale price so he'd know how much money I'd saved us.

I watched very little TV because I was always busy with "projects."  Sewing.  Writing.  Exercising.  Shopping.  Experimenting with tempeh recipes.  Reading.  Planning our next big vacation.  Researching (read: googling) my latest interest (examples:  puggles, natural birth, Mary Shelley, Paris, juicing, Banksy).

I started planning our summers months in advance.  Barbecues and weekends at the lake and summer vacations and family get-togethers and Shakespeare in the Park and outdoor musical theater and jazz in the botanical gardens.  Could we squeeze in a canoe trip?  A weekend in Louisville?  A visit to KC?

I listened to NPR and started far too many conversations with, "So, I heard on NPR..."  The world was full of information!  And I wanted to share it!

I loved planning parties and showers for other people.  I spent hours looking for the perfect invitations, finding just the right pen to address the invitations in my fancy-style-writing, planning the silly games.

Details mattered.  I delighted in things like tea towels and coasters and ink pens and notepads and perfume and face lotion.  I thought I deserved things like glasses of wine and new shoes and magazine subscriptions.  Clean sheets felt like heaven and I read fashion blogs and I cared about what nail polish color was in.  If I was on top of my teaching/grading, I went to bed at the end of the day feeling content and satisfied and grateful.

And now everything feels different.

The things that used to make me so happy have lost their luster.

I don't feel smart or funny or like a good friend.  I feel broken, like a jagged shell of myself, twisted up so tightly inside that I'm small and mean and I resent being wished Happy Easter (or happy anything) because EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW I HAVE NOTHING TO BE HAPPY ABOUT.

Catch me at the right moment, and the mere mention of a baby, or a pregnancy, or that preview of that new Disney movie that shows mama lions with their lion cubs, makes me feel like someone with Freddy Krueger fingernails is ripping apart my insides.

Instead of filling up my planner with lunch dates and happy hours and coffee dates and girls' nights and plays and date nights and lectures and poetry readings and pretentious indie films (or play dates and mommy & me classes and baby swim lessons), I schedule therapy sessions and acupuncture appointments.

If I go shopping, I dread trying things on for fear they won't fit right on my post-baby body.  I can't get the same rush from scoring a great bargain.  I miss that superficial, satisfying, materialistic joy.

Instead of hugging David the moment he walks in the door and making him laugh with a funny story about my day or telling him something I heard on NPR or gossiping about people we know, I'm usually on the couch when he gets home.  When he hugs me, I often start crying because I'm so tense from holding myself together all day and now that he's home I finally feel like I can relax a little, but letting my guard down usually means tears.

When I walk the dogs, I don't think about how the gorgeous weather is and how I'm lucky to be alive at this moment in this place.  I think about that red stroller packed away in our garage.

Things that used to be interesting are  unable to hold my attention because ALL I can think about, no matter what I am thinking about, is how much I miss Eliza.

I don't want to do projects because all my recent projects were baby-related.

I don't want to listen to the news.  Either the pain in the world is too much for me to handle, or I can't stand to hear about things that seem so insignificant compared to my loss.

When I get invited to parties, I can't RSVP because I won't know until that day, that moment, whether or not I'll feel up to going.  Or I think maybe it was a pity-invite and I shouldn't go because people will feel awkward and uncomfortable around me.  Also when I don't get invited to parties, I assume that people feel awkward and uncomfortable around me.

My facebook hiatus is ongoing.

Sometimes I ignore my friends' phone calls because I have absolutely nothing to say.  I don't want to be fake, but I don't want to be honest either.  I crave their sympathy and then I find it unbearable.  Sometimes I'll let their calls go to voicemail.  Then later I'll call a friend who doesn't answer her phone and I feel hurt and abandoned.

I no longer send the funny e-mails, the quick texts, the just-because note in the mail.  And yet I wonder why everyone I know can't text me or call me or e-mail me EVERY DAY to say what I want them to say:  I'm remembering Eliza.

I want to talk about Eliza.  But I find it's easier for me to talk about grief than to talk about her.  What is there left to say?  The broken record of this blog.  I miss Eliza.  I want my baby.  I love her so much.  I just want my baby.  At least I can discuss my grief in a sort of objective way.  When I talk about Eliza, my heart just melts and I always cry.  Sometimes I just can't stand to hear my voice break when I say her name, or I don't want to feel my throat get all thick with tears, so I don't talk about her.  And then I wish I would have.

I used to think I was lucky to be me.  Now I am the person everyone pities.

I miss my old life.

I don't feel like I'm a different person, really.  I feel like a broken, damaged, unpleasant version of my old self.

I'm close enough that I can remember how I would have felt or responded before.

I can still imagine so easily what life would have been like if.

I just can't quite figure out how to live in this now.

And I don't know how I can ever hope to regain all of the ridiculous enthusiasm for life that I had back when I still thought my future held everything I'd ever want.

* * *

I hesitate to publish this because even though it's all absolutely true, the truth is that it changes all the time.

In a single conversation, I can laugh, make plans to see a funny movie with a friend, and then cry because I miss my baby so much it's hard to breathe.

Glancing back over it, everything I've written sounds melodramatic, exaggerated.  I don't feel utterly miserable all of the time--often I feel quite hopeful and lucky to have the people I have in my life (online and in person).  I know I'm looking at the past with rose colored glasses.  I'm sure I was not THAT grateful or funny or enthusiastic before my daughter died.  I'm sure I bitched and moaned and hated life and irritated the people who love me.  

But I did it with much more energy.  I never felt afraid of life before.

I guess that's the difference. It just wasn't so scary before.

And I miss her so much.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thankful for TV

My husband is absent for the next three days.  At a camp.  With a bunch of fourth graders.  In the rain.  Without cell phone reception.  Suffice it say that he's not the happiest of campers.  And neither am I, for that matter.  I really miss him.

I am keeping close company with Cooper, however, who is completely spastic about this weather.  Thunder turns him into a shivery, trembling, panting, drooling mess, who needs to be on my lap and under a blanket, which is very endearing except for the dog breath and drooling part.

But because I am such a good-natured, open-hearted, delightful gem of a person, I am currently thinking about all I have to be thankful for.  The list goes pretty much like this:  Family, friends, dogs, television, ability to walk.

I'm really loving TV right now because it offers a brilliant escape from my own life and, best of all, entertains me without requiring any exertion on my part.  Here's my top 5 countdown of favorite ways to waste my time.

5. Hoarders: Buried Alive

I have one rule about this show:  I won't watch any episodes that involve live rats or dead cats.  That's just too traumatizing.  But for the most part, I find this show fascinating.  David HATES it.  He says it will give him nightmares.  As for me, it just inspires me to scrub my kitchen appliances and clean out my closet.  Plus I have to confess that it kind of makes me feel good about myself.  No matter how slatternly I feel, or how unwilling I am to get out of bed or off the couch some days, even if I have only eaten canned pears and tortilla chips, even if my sofa needs to be vacuumed, well, the truth is that I could be much worse off.  At least my bathroom isn't growing black mold and my family doesn't have to wear face masks in order to breathe in my house. 

4. Beverly Hills, 90210

The original series, mind you.  The clothes are horrendous, the hair is horrendous.  And yet Jennie Garth (aka Kelly Taylor) still manages to look so cool and cute no matter what.  Even in a cropped babydoll t-shirt and high waisted shorts.  And of COURSE the plots are ridiculous.  Fires!  Backstabbing!  Cheating!  Date rape!  Stalking!  Fighting!  Drug addiction!  Dylan's brooding, Steve's being obnoxious, Brandon's taking himself very seriously.  Donna is being aggravatingly nice to everyone, Kelly is fighting with Valerie, Clare is being bitchy to Steve.  What's not to like?  I like to put this show on when I'm not really going to pay attention to it, because it's not so good that I really want to watch it, but it's so great that I can just check in and get a little bit of drama every once in a while.  The high school episodes are okay, but my favorite ones are post-Brenda, when Kelly and Donna live in the beach apartment.  I love watching the reruns out of order when you never know who will be dating whom, but you know they'll all end up dating each other.

3.  Anything related to The Royal Wedding

Hello my new obsession.  What will I do when this week is over?  How long will they recap the elegant nuptials of William and Kate?  I am shamelessly watching every show and every interview with every tangentially related person that they are showing on TV.  Including the made-for-TV movie, William and Kate (I've seen it TWICE) and the documentary, Untold Stories of a Royal Bridesmaid about one of Diana's bridesmaids.  For one thing, this royal hooplah speaks to my love for all things British, and for another thing, I want to know what Kate Middleton does to get such shiny hair.  I am a little sad that the Obamas weren't invited (something about only foreign "royalty" getting the invite--SNOBS!).  But I love that they're getting married in Westminster Abbey, I love that the dress is going to be a huge surprise, and there is SO much speculation about what it might look like.  I love the media commenting on what the Queen approves of or doesn't.  I love how the American media bashes the British media for stalking "Waitie Katie" when really they are exploiting this poor young couple the exact same way.  And Yankee commoners like me are eating it up.  We LUV princesses!  I was even tempted to order the QVC replica of the engagement ring but then I felt like maybe that was a leetle crazy.  (But still awesome.)

2.  Say Yes to the Dress

This show is so great.  David tries to ignore it when I watch it.  He busies himself with his laptop, but the other day I was watching an episode in which a girl buys a dress and then gets home and changes her mind.  The teaser before the break showed the bride saying something like, "I loved that dress, but then I got home and I started to HATE it!"  David blurted out, "Oh NO!" in this totally sincere reaction to the bride's change of heart.  Haha!  It has universal appeal.  I love Randy's eyebrows, I love that one consultant's bangs, I love the crazy brides, I love when they bring their whole freaking family and wedding party and in-laws.  I love when their budget exceeds $5,000.  I love remembering how I felt when I tried on my wedding dress (like Eliza Doolittle in the ballroom scene of My Fair Lady).  I remember how I was choosing between two beautiful dresses and my friend Beth gushed all about the first one and how beautiful it was and how that had to be THE dress, and then I came out in the second dress and her eyes filled up with tears and we were both like OMG THIS is THE dress.  I love how happy the brides are when they say yes to the dress.  And you KNOW that whatever Kate Middleton's dress looks like, it's going to be ALL the rage at Kleinfeld's.  I kind of want a replica of it already and (1) I don't know what it will look like and (2) I have absolutely no use for a wedding dress.  But seriously this show makes me want to have another wedding.  With an unlimited budget.  And maybe a theme...

1. The New Adventures of Old Christine

My all time favorite new (to me) show because it never fails to make me laugh.  Christine's ridiculous narcissism reminds me of myself at my worst.  Only funnier, obvy.  And her total awkwardness in her efforts to be politically correct and her habit of using non sequiturs ("I'm not racist!  I drive a Prius!").  I love her love for wine, her penchant for getting herself into embarrassing situations, and the way she is lazy and doesn't really like to work or clean.  Also her show makes me glad I'm not dating.  I especially like her relationship with her brother, Matthew, who reminds me of my brother, Brandon, in that they are both tall and have very deep voices and unruly dark hair and are smart and weird.  It's mostly the way that Christine and Matthew make fun of each other that reminds me of Brandon and myself. 

Christine and Matthew

Brandon and Brooke.  Here we are, posing in South Korea at Lotte World.  Brandon's hair is covered by a battered Pirates cap, but it could look just like Matthew's if he let it.
So there you have it.  This is what I'm doing when I *should* be doing a zillion other things.  Hey, as long as my bathroom isn't growing black mold and you can see the floor of my living room, I think I'm in good shape.

So...  what am I missing?  Tell me what nonsense shows I need to add to my DVR.  Besides that new one about coupons...  I've already got it scheduled to record.  Has anybody watched My Strange Addiction?  I haven't seen it yet, but based on the previews, it could become MY next addiction...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Memoriam E. T. D.

I couldn't find my copy of In Memoriam A. H. H. when I went to pull it off the bookshelf today.  I KNOW I have a copy because I wrote a (rather terrible) essay on it during an independent study on Romantic poetry when, for some perverse reason, I decided that I wanted to bring Tennyson's Victorian poetry into a paper about Byron and Shelley.  It all went downhill from there.

Anyway, that copy has inexplicably disappeared (did I lend it someone?  but who would want it?), so I had to be satisfied with pulling the Norton Anthology off the shelves and reading the excerpted version, complete with my own earnestly penciled notes from undergrad for a class in which I wrote another (terrible) essay on masculinity and homosocial friendship in the poem (I especially liked the marginal comment in which I compared one stanza to a recent break up that I'd had.  That's right. Because that's what I thought "grief" felt like for a long time--mild disappointment and indignation, best treated with alcohol and going out dancing with friends.  It turns out that's not exactly what Tennyson is talking about.  No wonder my papers were terrible). 

It is dark and dreary here this morning, but my house did not blow away with the tornadoes that roared through St. Louis.  The storms went just north and south of us, so our neighborhood was untouched.

I got up this morning before David's grandparents were awake and spent the morning sitting at my desk, reading Tennyson by lamplight, and empathizing with his struggle to articulate his grief and balance his overwhelming sadness with flickering hope.

Tennyson wrote it after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died suddenly and unexpectedly.  He wrote it over the course of seventeen years, (yeah, evidently you don't just "get over" the loss of someone you love--who knew?) but it sort of tells the story of his first three years of grief after Hallam's death.   

In case you're wondering, grief hasn't changed much since the mid-nineteenth century.

This poem gets quoted fairly often--it's most famous lines are probably, "Tis better to have love and lost than never loved at all," and "There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds."

But most of it is not really about optimism and resilience. Most of the poem is a painfully honest account of how much it hurts to lose someone you love, and how impossible it is to adequately express what that loss is like.  Queen Victoria liked to read it after she lost her beloved Prince Albert.

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the soul within.

The poem is also interesting to Victorian scholars because it reflects some of the significant cultural preoccupations of the time, most notably science and religion.  Even knowing this, and having read it "critically" in college and graduate school, all I could think about when I read it this morning was how it felt timeless and universal to me where before it had seemed out of date and melodramatic.

(Speaking of melodramatic, how about comparing Tennyson's tragedy to your own ridiculous college relationships?)

Of course, like everything else, I'm now reading this through my own experience of grief, with Eliza on my mind.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more: 
Too common!  Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.

Click around enough online, and you know that's true.

Easter is all about hope resurrected and nature renewing itself.  It's all well and good and beautiful and, for the faithful, it's a promise of everlasting life.  It's a hard message for me to swallow this year.  My version of faith at the moment is admitting our inability to know anything for certain, remaining open-minded, and trusting that God knows what's in my heart.  So I give you this year's version of an Easter poem, excerpted from In Memoriam, A. H. H. by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

I've boldly replaced the word "friend" with "daughter" (my apologies to Tennyson) and I just want to say that I love the use of the word "strange" in that line because it doesn't really mean weird, I think, it means something more like distanced, apart, unknown, mysterious.  Those last lines are my new favorite part of his poem.

Behold, we know not anything; 
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last--far off--at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring

* * *

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all
And faintly trust the larger hope.

* * *

Strange daughter, past, present, and to be;
Loved deeplier, darklier understood;
Behold, I dream a dream of good,
And mingle all the world with thee.

Friday, April 22, 2011

And now it's Friday

I'm hot then I'm cold,
I'm yes then I'm no,
I'm in then I'm out,
I'm up then I'm down.

I'm butchering Katy Perry lyrics in my head.

Remember last summer, when Monica's fourteen year old cousin told me I look like Katy Perry?  Favorite compliment of my life.  I could talk about it for years.  Maybe it was because I was wearing this outfit: 


Or not.

Anyway.  Good days and bad days have sort of lost their meaning for me.  I'm back to hour by hour.  Hot/cold.  Yes/no.  Good/bad.  Functioning/sobbing.  Energetic/exhausted.

On Monday night, I'd had dinner and was feeling pretty good and had every intention of meeting up for a bit with some friends at a nearby pub to celebrate one of my friends passing her dissertation defense. 

By 8pm, my chest was heavy and my stomach hurt and I am not sure I would have had the energy to make myself get off the couch if the house were on fire.  So, yeah.  Didn't make it to that celebration.

The highs are higher, the lows are still low, but when they run at you back to back like that, it's kind of unnerving.

* * *

I was flipping through a magazine with cake pictures and recipes.  David suggested that we make one cake per month to try them all out.

I said we don't have anything to celebrate, so why would we want a cake?

He said we don't need to celebrate.  We can just eat cake and be sad.  But at least there would be cake!

I said, Meh.  Maybe when I fit back into my True Religions.  Without a muffin top.

* * *

Today I walked Cooper in the park.  I had to have a Pollyanna moment.

Most of the time, I try to keep myself from thinking too much about what I'm supposed to be doing right now.

I sleep in late and I try not to think that I'm supposed to be getting up to feed a baby.

I go to yoga and I try not to think that I'm supposed to be going to mommy and me yoga.

I walk in the park and try not to think I'm supposed to be pushing a stroller (that pretty red stroller that we had already purchased and put together--so confident!).

You can imagine how successful I am at not thinking.
Hint:  not very.

You remember that part in Pollyanna when she desperately wants a doll but instead she gets sent a pair of crutches?  And she says that's okay, at least she doesn't need the crutches?

I was more along the lines of "OK.  I'm supposed to be walking while pushing a stroller.  But at least I can still walk! Walking is good!  It's like better than sitting here crying!"

You know that things have gotten really shitty when you're so freaking Pollyanna that you're no longer taking walking for granted.  Appreciating the small things.  Yeah, yeah.  I'm like the Olympic gold medalist in that event.

And still kinda bitter about it.  Where is my opportunity to be smug and entitled and self-satisfied?  What happened to THAT life plan?  Where is my chance to cast the pitying glances and say "Bless her heart" about some other poor sod, instead of knowing that people are thinking that about ME?  I never signed up to be Pollyanna!  Why aren't I taking my baby and her jogging stroller for granted as I stroll through the park instead of telling myself to be grateful I can freaking WALK?

I really hope this whole experience doesn't transform me into someone so nice and kind and compassionate and peaceful and hopeful and Pollyanna-like that no one can stand to be around me.  (I can already hear my brother saying, "I don't think you really need to worry about that.")

* * *

David's grandparents are here for the weekend.  We are all currently watching Days of Our Lives.  David and I do not ever watch Days.  David's grandparents call it their "story" and they watch it everyday.

His grandma just explained to me, Stefano was dead but is now alive again!  (Yes, I'm totally wondering why the laws of nature do not apply to soap opera villains).  Also she reports that he's now doing to some guy named Ray what he formerly did to some dude named John, which is steal their mind and lock them in a mental hospital and send some sort of lookalike replacement out into the world.

And now I'm wondering why we don't watch this show...

* * *

It's Easter weekend.  I decided I wanted to do something nice in memory of Eliza for Easter.  As I've said before, I was so appreciative of the donations that many of our friends and family made in memory of Eliza to various charities and organizations.  Last month, when I donated to the Red Cross relief effort for the disaster in Japan, I made the donation in memory of Eliza.  I liked typing her name. 

So yesterday I made a donation to an UMCOR charity called Nothing But Nets.  UMCOR is the United Methodist Committee On Relief.  I like making donations to them because their administrative costs are paid by Methodist churches through tithes and fundraising, so 100% of donations to UMCOR go to relief efforts.

Nothing But Nets is an organization that donates treated nets that a family in Africa can put over their beds to protect them from malaria carrying mosquitoes.  I happen to hate mosquitoes, even though they feed birds and are presumably important to the ecosystem.  (I would venture to say are they really that important?  Like maybe we could just eradicate them completely and see if nature can strike a new balance?)  I get more bug bites than anyone I know.  My blood is like crack cocaine to mosquitoes.  And it's hard to believe that what is hardly more than an irritation or inconvenience to me is potentially life-threatening for some people.  The idea of giving away mosquito nets treated with insect repellent seems so simple, but it's such an important effort.  And $10 buys a net that could potentially save a child's life.

So I bought one today in memory of Eliza.  Such a little thing that can make a big difference.

(Kind of like violets breaking through rocks.  Or me trying to kill off the entire mosquito population, one squished bug at a time.)

If you're interested in buying a net in memory or honor of someone you love, you can click here.

If you're interested in what happened on Days of Our Lives, you'll have to ask David's grandma.  I really have no idea.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Violets in the Mountains

Today I went to lunch with a good friend of mine from grad school.  He's getting married this summer, so we discussed his wedding plans and the rapidly approaching end of the semester.  I was supposed to go to my office for a few hours after lunch, but he was on his way to visit one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in St. Louis  and wanted to know if I wanted to ride along.  He's taking a class there on Saturday to look at the most famous gravesites--Dred Scott, William Tecumseh Sherman, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams--so he wanted to make sure he remembered where they were all located.

It was a beautiful day, so it didn't take much convincing for me to cancel my office hours and go to the cemetery instead.   

William Tecumseh Sherman's grave is touching because next to it there is a small version that marks the grave of his young son, "Our Little Sergeant Willie."  He was nine years old when he died.

Dred Scott's gravestone was covered in pennies, paying homage to Lincoln freeing the slaves.  There were also some mardi gras beads on his headstone but I'm not quite sure what the historical significance of that would be.

Dred Scott and his wife Harriet had a daughter named Eliza.

I saw another Eliza's name engraved on a stone in a lovely family plot.  One of the other gravestones near hers read, "Here lies Ann, wife of Henry.  Likewise their infant daughter Catharine."  The dates had worn away, so I couldn't tell if Ann and Catharine had died together or not, but I held a prayer in my heart for both of them.  I decided that someday my gravestone will also have Eliza's name on it, and I liked that idea very much.

After we saw Kate Chopin's grave, my friend looked over the cemetery map and asked if I wanted to go up to the Shrine of the Infants.

And so we did.

It was pretty heartbreaking, all of these little baby graves on one big hilltop.  Some of them with single dates, many of them with two dates just a few days or weeks apart.  The graves in this section were from the 1960s all the way up through 2010.  I didn't cry as I walked among the stones, but my heart ached for all of families who had walked this path I'm on.

In a weird way, it was also somewhat comforting in that it made me feel like one small part of something greater than my own hurt.  My loss feels so huge, but a big cemetery full of strangers is a reminder that we are all living one short chapter of a much larger narrative.  And in that cemetery I saw the staggering evidence of two centuries of parents who have endured the loss of a child.

We didn't talk much as we walked around the infant shrine.  When we got back in the car, my friend picked up the cemetery map again so that we could locate Tennessee Williams's gravesite.  To get there, we had to drive by the Shrine of the Compassionate Mother.  Since this is a Catholic cemetery, I assumed that refers to the Virgin Mary.

But my friend pointed at the map, and said, "Oh, look.  Shrine of the Compassionate Mother.  That's you."

He said it in the most matter-of-fact tone, an offhand comment that had just popped into his head (and obviously it was sort of a joke since I am not typically one who compares favorably with the Virgin Mary).

But of all the nice things friends have said to me, that comment filled up my heart in a way I can hardly explain. 

I guess it's because we shared an office as grad students and bonded over dissertation agony and teaching difficulties and crazy advisors and a love for literature and cheap Mexican food and beer and trivia, and I thought my life was hard then.  Now, everything is so different and I'm astonished that my friends are still here and my pain hasn't scared them away.  It was even more astonishing, somehow, to realize that he sees me as a compassionate mother.

I haven't been able to put any other adjective with the word "mother" in regard to myself except for "bereaved."

But I want his version to be true, too.  Eliza hasn't just made me sad.  She has made me open and aware and compassionate.  I just didn't know it until I heard him say it out loud.

I still mostly feel like this loss has wrecked my life.  I'm not living the life I wanted, the plans I had have been decimated, and I could scream for years about how unfair it is.

But, for a moment, it seemed possible that Eliza could change my life in good ways, even without being here.

I didn't say anything in reply to his comment.  I guess I pondered it in my heart, which is something like Mary after all.

Then we drove over to Tennessee Williams's gravestone.  His epitaph reads,

The violets in the mountain have broken the rocks.

And I thought about the power of tiny, fragile, beautiful things, and how they can change the course of history.

Broken rocks, broken hearts.

And then I cried a little.  Because, oh, I miss my baby girl more than I can say.

But I know that loving her will make all the difference in my life.

It already has.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks "Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?"

I would tell him, yes, apparently it does. 

ThisThis is the "new normal" that people talk about?  Accepting that my life will always be sadder and drearier than it was before?

I remember when I was nervous about becoming a mom because I did not want it to consume my identity.  I wanted to be sure I could talk about other things and have other interests and still feel like myself.  I didn't know how much having a baby would change me and I didn't want to "lose my edge" (not because I was very edgy, but because there was so little to begin with, I had to guard it carefully).  How ironic that instead of losing my identity to motherhood, I think sometimes that I've lost it to grief.

Maybe I'm not proceeding through the steps of grief after all.  I'd been hoping to check them off neatly.  Do everything expected of a bereaved mother and prove how dedicated I am so that I can magically get my baby back.  Therapy?  check. (check, check, check, et. al). Support group?  check.  Books about grief?  check.  Memoirs about grief?  check.  Blog.  check.  Talk.  check.  Write.  check.  Read.  check.  Resume daily activities.  check.  Pursue other interests.  check.

I've known all the while that doing grief "properly" won't bring her back.  It still should make me feel better, though, right?

You start to wonder what the point of everything is when "better" still feels so shitty.

* * *
Other times, I feel surprisingly light.  My students invited me to join them at Art Hill Friday afternoon, where they planned to create a slip 'n slide out of teflon strips and buckets of water and dish soap.  I politely declined, but the thought of it still made me laugh.

I did a handstand on Friday.  For the first time ever.  In a yoga class.  The instructor had to spot me and I couldn't hold the balance for more than a few seconds, but seriously!  A handstand!  I was high on that all evening.  David commented on how happy I seemed.

I cleaned my kitchen last week.  Like really cleaned it.  I scrubbed all the appliances and vacuumed and steam cleaned behind the refrigerator.  My kitchen--it gleams!

I talked to my brother this morning.  It was Sunday night in Seoul and he was heading to bed as I was having a lazy morning watching Say Yes to the Dress.  Speaking of which, I not-so-secretly hope that he will marry a nice Korean girl some day.  Make our family cosmopolitan with an international love affair!  The Kansas/Missouri thing that David and I have going doesn't really compare.

I loved reading about the stuff you people are buying.  I'm now contemplating slip covers and throw pillows for our awful plaid couches.  I just think slip covers might be a real pain in the butt--always needing to be adjusted and probably difficult to vacuum.  Maybe we need to bite the bullet and just buy new furniture all together.  Now that could probably keep me busy for a while...

So I'm finding distractions.  I feel perfectly okay some times.  And then there are those other times...

The highs are higher these days, but the lows are still terribly low. 

And most of the times in between, I have to agree with C.S. Lewis.  It feels a lot like boredom tinged with nausea.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

By Popular Demand: The Mattress Update

We will all now pretend that people have been e-mailing me and begging me to not only talk more about my mattress, but also post pictures.  All right, already!  You people are persistent! 

I give you...  the mattress transformation.

Before:  Our old, hand-me-down mattress.  A Simmons Beautyrest that had seen much better days.  Like in the 1970s.

After:  Our new mattress!  A Sealy Posturpedic, plush-top (not pillow top).  Can you see how much higher it goes up on the headboard?  It's so thick!  And white!  And clean!  And new!  Not pictured:  the mattress cover that protects against bedbugs.  You know, just in case.
Cooper approves.  He lounges like a woman in a Renaissance painting.
We really are sleeping better on this mattress.  The physical and mental symptoms of grief had blurred together for me for so long that I had not realized that the ache between my shoulder blades was actually from that ancient, sagging mattress rather than emotional tension alone.  I say this is easily the best purchase we've made since David brought Cooper home from the vet's office.  (Little Mac was a gift.  I think perhaps a white elephant gift.)  Runner up best purchases:  David's Prius, the Kitchen Aid Mixer, the Magic Bullet blender, the Dyson, and my "Mrs. Duckworth" bag--a Dooney and Burke purse that is the perfect size.

Money cannot buy happiness.  This I know for sure (although I could probably know more certainly if I had a little more money with which to experiment.  Would anyone care to fund this project?  E-mail me.).  It can, however, buy you a good night's sleep.  And so I'm trying to appreciate that for what it is.

I've been doing so much thinking about big philosophical things--the randomness of the universe, life after the death, the point of a God who doesn't intervene to save babies, why life has to be so shitty, whether there is some kind of balance in the universe, karma, reincarnation, how small dogs can be so stinky, why people can't merge properly on the highway, how old is too old for leftovers, how students manage to sleep through 1pm classes...  all questions for the ages. 

And I'm freaking sick of it.  I want to think about nice, concrete, material things.  Superficial things.  Things with brand names that I can BUY and OWN and feel all nice and materialistic about.

So if you have made a recent purchase lately that made you happy or lifted your spirits momentarily or made your life easier, I want to know about it.   

One of my favorite recent acquisitions was actually a gift--Bobbi Brown lip gloss in a lovely coral color.  It's the "in" color for spring (according to my most fashionable friend).  It brightens my day (and my face) every time I go teach.  Bonus:  it doesn't make me look like a hooker!

So what have you been doing to stimulate the economy and maybe make yourself a little happier as well?  Do tell.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Next to Normal

I have been a little quiet around here, not because there is anything exciting going on.  Honestly, the weather has been nice so I've actually been spending a lot of time outside and school/work has been busy.  The end of the semester is rapidly approaching so lots of grading, planning, etc.

I've been reading other people's blogs but not commenting because I just feel so inarticulate.  I am spinning my wheels, I guess.  Nothing new to say about being sad.  I'm just sort of sitting in the same place.  But when I read about other people's grief (especially if I've been away from the computer a few days and my reader is full) then the sadness can overwhelm me and instead of being helpful or sympathetic, I start to feel numb and silent. 

Last night David and I went to a play at the Fox theater.  It's one of our favorite things to do--get dressed up and go see a show at the Fox.  We saw Phantom of the Opera there the first Valentine's day we were together and since then we've seen about fifteen other shows.  David had never been to a real play or musical before we got together so I really take credit for his interest in theater.

So we dressed up (I wore a cute new Rachel Roy dress that my mom bought me) and we went to dinner at an Italian place near our house and then went to the Fox.  The theater itself is beautiful--all huge ceilings and floral carpets and intricate woodwork and dramatic chandeliers.  The show we saw is called Next to Normal.

I knew nothing about it except it had a song in it about anti-depressants.  I didn't do any research about it because I wanted to avoid plot spoilers and I had heard good things about it and also I forgot about our tickets for a while since I was, you know, rather preoccupied.  I thought my friend Monica had seen it, but now I think she said that her family had gone to see it and really liked it.  For some reason, I also thought it was a comedy. 

It wasn't.

In fact, folks, David and I sat through the one and only Broadway musical I know of that is about a DEAD BABY.

And we were both completely shocked.

Warning:  Plot spoilers abound, so click away if you wish.

So by the second song we'd figured out that the attractive teenage boy on stage is actually dead and only the depressed, suicidal, singing mother can see him.  Meanwhile, the dad is trying to hold the family together and the sixteen-year-old daughter (born after the son died) is a perfectionist trying to get her parents' attention by playing classical piano and abusing her mom's various prescription meds.

Let's just say it wasn't our best date night ever.

So, yeah, I cried during part of the show.  I was really creeped out by the way they made the ghost of the dead baby into a gyrating eighteen-year-old boy who essentially argued for being kept alive in his mother's mind even though it was making her wackadoodle and also talked her into to attempting suicide.  WTF.

David kept complaining that he was hot, but it wasn't that hot in the theater.  It's just that we were both so freaking uncomfortable.

I don't know why we didn't leave at intermission, except I wanted to know what happened next.  How were they going to resolve this? 

Well, they weren't. 

We finally learned in the end (after unsuccessful therapy, medication, and electroshock therapy) that the boy died when he was eight months old from an intestinal obstruction and the mom could never hold the baby born after he died and the mother and daughter sing this touching song about how things will never be normal but maybe they can just be "next to normal" and that would be okay.  But then in the next song, the mom packs up and leaves and the dad cries and the daughter cries and that's basically the end of the musical.

I repeat:  Not a comedy.

David said afterward that the hospital scenes (where the mom is getting electroshock therapy) made him think about our night in the hospital with Eliza--stuff he hadn't let himself think about for a long time.  I'm more haunted by those memories anyway, but I did sort of feel like I got blindsided in the theater.  Not by my own grief, but by a creepy, exaggerated, outsider's perspective on how this could eat someone up from the inside out.

I couldn't help but wonder what the lesson was.  That if you have to betray one of your children, you should betray the dead one rather than the living one?  That therapy and drugs can't fix this kind of loss?  That dead babies will come back as sexy teenagers with six pack abs and convince you to slit your wrists? 

And I couldn't help but think they got it all wrong, even though I realize that everyone's experience is different.  Why would she leave the husband who is the only one who understands everything that has been lost?  Why would she punish her daughter for her own guilt or sadness?  Why would the dead baby be the villain? 

The music was lovely.  The staging was remarkable.  The actors were good.

But I wish we'd never gone to see this show.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Series: The Hunger Games

I might have been the last person on earth to hear about these books.  Is that true?  Maybe you all have read this triology already?  I've been kinda out of the loop, what with the grief and the sadness and the desire spend my spare time watching reruns of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 (Kelly was addicted to cocaine last night!  But she's getting help!  Donna still a virgin?  I can't remember.  Probably.)

Anyway, couple months ago I got a text from my friend Abby telling me I should read a book called The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  She said I could buy it for my kindle for $5 and it was really good.  I trust Abby's judgment (we both like good books and bad TV), and it was easy to let someone else make my decisions.  So I bought The Hunger Games

Then I saw in the book description it was set in the future and I was like "Meh. That doesn't sound like something I would like."

But the day came that I had exhausted my grief books and already re-read Harry Potter and all the Anne of Green Gables series.  So I turned on the Kindle and started reading.

And I couldn't stop.  I seriously read the first book in two days and I immediately downloaded the other two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.  Then I proceeded to ignore the stack of essays I had to grade and do nothing but read until I'd finished both of those books, too.

It was the perfect book for me because it got my out of my own head (which is an amazing feat in itself) but it wasn't just a fluffy distraction.  It was interesting enough that I wanted to think about it even when I wasn't reading it.  It felt so serious and real and all of the characters are familiar with hardship and grief and I guess I needed that in a book.
The Hunger Games is considered young-adult fiction and now I realize that all the books I wanted to re-read after Eliza died were mostly young adult books.  I think it's because they present complicated issues, but without the existential crisis of adult fiction.  There's no question in these novels that life is worth living, even when it's dark and terrible.  Moral truths aren't questionable; they're the only thing that matters.  Good and evil can be drawn in broad strokes and that doesn't mean that people aren't complicated and lines don't get crossed, but it does mean that if people try hard enough, they can make a difference.

Since I do think I was possibly the last person on earth to hear of these books, chances are that you already know about them and have heard about the upcoming movie and all that.  But I will try to give a quick summary without giving any plot spoilers and then tell you why I liked them so much.

The books are set in North America, in the future--a country called Panem.  The country is divided into 12 Districts that are controlled by the Capitol.  Every year, the Capitol hosts "The Hunger Games," a televised event that reminds the districts of the Capitol's power and control over them after the terrible uprising that occurred years before, and also entertains the citizens of the Capitol.  The Games are a Survivor-like reality show in that there are a certain number of contestants and only one of them comes out as the winner.  But in these Games, the contestants are selected by lottery--one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each of the districts, and they are put into a huge arena to battle it out on live TV.  The Games are played until 23 of the tributes are dead and one victor remains.

This was the first new fiction I read after Eliza's death.  It was dark and gruesome and scary and I loved it.  It's a world in which there is loss and death and constant struggle--pain and hunger and grief and injustice.  But in spite of everything, people find ways to stay alive and reasons to do so.    I needed a big story, where the weight of a nation rests on an unlikely heroine, where decisions are literally life or death, and personal sacrifice both is agonizing and necessary.  The Hunger Games trilogy was perfect like that.

The narrator is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen and she's as flawed and imperfect as any sixteen year old (though far more talented with a bow and arrow than most of them).  She remembers a lullaby at one point, and sings it to comfort someone else, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today.

It was a promise I wished for myself as I read that scene.

I don't think I need to point out that Katniss's struggle is completely different from mine.  But it's still about loss and pain and fury and about feeling like a pawn (except Katniss really is a pawn, and I'm just a victim of circumstance, I guess).

In the third book, Katniss is terrified about the potential fate of someone she loves.  She says, my muscles are rigid with the tension of holding myself together.  The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body.  Through my torso, down my arms and legs, over my face, leaving it crisscrossed with cracks. [...]  I could shatter into strange, razor-sharp shards.

And I thought, yes. That is exactly what it feels like.  The tension of holding myself together so I don't fly apart into sharp bits of nothingness.  I'm not playing the Hunger Games, but I'm in a living hell of my own.

She asks someone who has endured similar suffering how he bears it and he says,

I don't Katniss!  Obviously, I don't.  I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there's no relief in waking. [...]  Better not to give in to it.  It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.

Can I get a hell yeah to that sentiment?

Another character speaks pragmatically, painfully, about the aftermath of tragedy:  There's no going back.  So we might as well get on with things.

Our circumstances are totally different, but I kept thinking these were conversations I could be having about my own grief. 

Katniss remarks at one point, I can't believe how normal they've made me look on the outside when inwardly I'm such a wasteland.  I remember having a similar thought when I caught a glimpse of my reflection on the way to class--pants, boots, jacket, sunglasses on top of my head, travel mug of hot tea in my hand, taking long strides past the windows of the library--I looked just like my normal old self.  You couldn't tell that my guts had been shredded, that my life fell apart, that I don't really know how I get through the day.  As long as my mascara is waterproof, most of the time I look just like anybody else.

Katniss's two closest friends are boys who are both in love with her--Peeta and Gale.  Peeta reminds me of David (strong shoulders, kind heart), and I felt like I had a special understanding of the way a shared trauma brings him and Katniss closer together. 

At the same time, Katniss can't let go of Gale, and the life she had once imagined having before the Games, and you can't blame her for wishing she could know what might have been.  I won't say anything about how (or if) all of that works out, but in the end one of them is able to give her something invaluable:

The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.

I loved these books because they offered a small, temporary place not exactly to escape my grief, but to put it into perspective in a really unexpected way.  A work of fiction set in an un-real place and time, it still reminded me that pain is a necessary part of being human, that a meaningful life is always full of risks, and we never escape pain or hardship, but we can always work for something better.  Like Katniss, we do what we can to protect those we love, and as long as we're alive, we seek ways to make our lives worthwhile, no matter the circumstances.

I'm afraid this review hasn't really done the books justice, because (in my narcissistic blogger fashion) I've made it all about me and my grief.  But honestly the books are SO freaking good.  I've read them all twice now.

Also, David and I just had the following conversation as I was typing this blog post:

David:  So something is going on with Dennis's job. There's like a lockout where he can't work or get paid.

Me:  Uh, yeah.  The federal government is shutting down.  Where have you been?

David:  Well, Lindsey can still work.

Me:  She must be more essential than Dennis.  Essential people get to work.  Like people feeding lab animals.  Haven't you been listening to NPR?

David:  I guess not very much.  So, what?  This is like the end of life as we know it in America?

Me:  Well, I heard the Capitol is organizing this thing they're calling "The Hunger Games."  It's like a fund-raiser.

Both of us:  Laughing at my clever joke.

OK, maybe it's only funny if you've read the books.

So...  if you haven't read these books, you should.  You can click here for the Amazon link.

And if you have read the books, you should tell me how awesome you think they are.  (If you don't think they are awesome you should keep your opinion to yourself because it would be embarrassing for you to be wrong on the internet.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Four Month Mark

On December 6th, this day was so far away it might as well have not existed.  Because surely we would never to get April without our baby.  Spring wasn't actually going to come this year.  There was no way to just continue to live after she died.

It turns out there is.  I'm as shocked as anyone about that.

And although the natural world is clearly indifferent to the havoc it wreaks on human life, I now miss the comfort of snow blankets as much as I need the warmth of sunshine.  It was pure coincidence that the winter our baby died was the snowiest winter I can remember, but I was so grateful for the snow that kept people inside.  It felt like an extra layer of protection. 

When we moved to this house, one of the things I loved most about it was a magnolia tree that blooms these huge, exuberant pink blossoms in late March or early April.

picture taken last year - March 2010

This year, they started budding right before our last snowfall.  Then came the snow and it killed all the blooms--they turned from pink to brown and fell from the tree before they ever flowered.

It was sad because I love that tree.  But it also kind of made me love that tree more.  Yards on our block are frilled out with the white flowers of Bradford pears, but our tree is all bare, brown branches and ugly, dead flowers.  Thank you, Tree, for having the good sense not to bloom happy pink blossoms all over our front yard.  Thank you for wearing your ugly, wilty, brown mourning clothes for my daughter.

* * *

It has been four months and I know that I am doing better than I was.  When I leave the house, I don't feel raw and exposed and fragile the way I used to.  I mostly feel like I can deal with the ordinary requirements of life.  Stuff makes me laugh.  David makes me laugh.  I don't think strangers who meet me have any idea that I am still mired in grief.  It is manageable enough that I can push it down or push it away at least for a little while.  I often repeat one phrase from a country song to myself:  Hold yourself together like a pair of bookends.

I am getting pretty good at holding myself together.

But sometimes the grief takes over still.  And the unfairness still suffocates me and leaves me reeling and gasping.  These last few days have found me crying harder and longer than I have in weeks--those deep sobs that sound like they are coming from somewhere else and that threaten to choke you when you try to cut them off.  I don't know if it's because of the anniversary or because my cycles are still kind of wonky or because four months is such a weird moment--a moment of feeling better and worse.

The worst days might be behind us, but the anniversaries are looming and holidays abound in all the months to come.  I tell myself I don't care about the dates and the 6th of the month is really no worse than the 5th or the 7th but I don't know.  I don't know how we'll get through the rest of this year any more than I know how we got through these last four months.

I know that I can now go to yoga class with a friend and chat with her and smile and feel genuine about it.  I know that I can teach class and come home without having to burst into tears in the car from the sheer exhaustion of keeping up a facade of competency.  These measures tell me that things have gotten easier.

So how can it still be this hard?

* * *

Today is my mom's birthday.

I sent her a card that I bought over a year ago.  Is that crazy?  I totally buy birthday cards out of season for people.  One time I bought a birthday card months ahead of time for my friend Jamie.  It was because she had told me a story about a high school class she'd taken in which they had to do Lincoln-Douglas style debates about whether or not to have premarital sex (Catholic high school, they'd declared a winner before the debate began).  The one team presented as an argument, "Why buy the cow when you're getting the milk for free?"  The Jamie's friend got up for the rebuttal:  "Would you buy a car before test driving it?"  (This debate was clearly a teaching moment, I'm sure the priest made the most of it.)

Jamie told me this story and we both died laughing.  I don't know...  maybe you had to be there.

So I was at the grocery store one day and I spotted this card that said something like,  

My mother always said why would a man buy the cow if he's getting the milk for free?

and the inside of the card said,  

Well, I always say, why buy a pig when all you want is a little sausage?

This had me CRACKING up in the aisle at the grocery store and I think I laughed even harder than Jamie did when I gave her the card at her birthday party.

The point of that story is, when I see a card I can't resist, I purchase it right then and save it for the perfect occasion. 

And I did that over a year ago with a birthday card for my mom.  I found one that said,

Everyone wonders what kind of mom they'll be.

[and on the inside]   

You're the kind they're hoping for.

We were trying to get pregnant at the time and I thought it would be perfect to give her if I was pregnant or had a new baby on her next birthday.  So I bought it and put it away to save for later.

Because, you guys, it's so true.  When I imagined the kind of mom I wanted to be for Eliza, I didn't have to think very hard.  Everything I would want to give a child was exactly what my mom gave me--unconditional love, lots of laughter and silliness, immeasurable patience, an easily impressed audience ("Watch me, Mom!  Watch me!"), homemade Halloween costumes, elaborately themed birthday parties, really special Christmas dresses, and bedtime stories every night, even when I could have read them myself.

So this year I sent my mom that card.  Because I still want to be a mom just like her.

And I want to see her be a grandma.

When we were still early pregnant and hadn't told anybody else yet, we were making plans to tell my parents when we saw them in June.  David said to me, "You know what I'm really excited about?"  I said, "What?"  And he said, "How your parents are going to be really awesome grandparents."

I was so touched that he thought that, and of course I agreed completely.  Our Baby Duck was going to be so lucky.

* * *

I got a letter in the mail several weeks ago that was not a sympathy card.  It was a "Your Mom is Awesome" card and it was from the principal at my mom's school.  It had a photo of my mom at her desk and a handwritten note telling me how great my mom is.  Which of course, I already knew, but it was still such a treat to receive that unexpected note in the mail and to know that my mom is loved and appreciated by her co-workers.

I am always glad to hear when someone has expressed their condolences to my parents because I know that Eliza's death broke their hearts too.

* * *

None of this is how it is supposed to be.  And I've been struggling and fighting with the truth of it for four long months.

My goal now is to try to do more looking forward.  More appreciating what I have in this moment instead of being scared I'm going to lose it all any second now.  More hoping that better days are on their way.

A little more living, a little less crying.

But you know what?  Today is really hard.  I think I might have to start all that tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thank You Notes

When I was a little kid, my parents insisted that we send thank you notes.  Most of my aunts and uncles lived out of town, so when they would send Christmas or birthday gifts, they weren't there to thank in person.  And we would have to sit down and write thank you notes.  As a kid, I always dreaded doing it even though it was never so bad once I got started.

As I got older, I actually liked writing thank you notes.  I'm still a big fan of hand written correspondence (even though I don't practice it all that often) and I liked taking the time to write out my appreciation for people who had taken their time to think of me.  After David and I got married, I wrote almost all of our wedding gift thank you notes myself (while watching TV and drinking wine, sure, but my penmanship is pretty good when I'm buzzed).  I like the little process of using a favorite pen and sealing the envelope and sticking on a cute stamp.  I still think the postal service is kind of a marvel and it amazes me that you can pay a relatively small sum to send almost any object anywhere in the world.

In fact, I kind of pride myself on sending thank you notes if I receive a gift and I cannot thank the giver in person.  I choose cute stationary and I send notes in a timely fashion.  It's like a throwback to the simple etiquette of the nineteenth century, when people wore gloves and left calling cards, and the Victorian part of me really enjoys that little ritual (the note writing, I mean.  I'm not in the habit of wearing gloves and leaving calling cards.  Although I'm not ruling it out entirely...).

To tell the truth, I was also kind of judgy about thank you notes.  If I didn't receive one for a wedding gift I'd give, I thought that was "super tacky."  But mostly I was more interested in sending than receiving them. 

I had two baby showers before Eliza died.  I'd ordered cute baby duck stationary from Etsy and I'd just mailed the last of the thank you notes two days before I went into labor (six days after the shower).  It was fun.  I loved going down the list of useful and adorable things we'd been given, imagining Eliza dressed up in all her cute clothes, or wrapped up in her swaddling blankets, or listening as we read from one of her many books.  I remember writing, I can't wait for you to meet Baby Duck!  in a thank you note to one of my cousins.

from Bumblebee Press

And then it all fell apart.

Our baby was dead and all of those gifts got put away and suddenly we weren't celebrating a new life, we were figuring out how to keep living with this great emptiness inside us.

And while I sat on my couch and alternated my time between staring into space and fits of wailing and sobbing, many people did really nice things for us.  Dropped off casseroles and lasagnas and soups.  Sent over veggie trays and edible fruit arrangements.  Had lovely flowers and plants delivered.  Made thoughtful donations in Eliza's name to scholarship funds, the Methodist church, the March of Dimes, children's hospitals, a program for bereaved parents at our hospital, the National Share Organization, and other charities like Blessings in a Backpack.  Sympathy cards stacked up in our mailbox everyday for weeks and I sobbed gratefully over each one.  People sent us angel figurines and books and personalized Christmas ornaments.  It was overwhelming and such a great thing to feel surrounded by the love of people who care about us and about Eliza.

My friend Monica kept a list for me, of who gave what, just as she'd done at my baby shower two weeks earlier.  I knew that eventually I would want to send notes, thanking everyone who had been so kind and thoughtful.

But I never sent a single thank you note.

I am thankful.  I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who sent a gift, or made a donation, or stopped by the house, or mailed a card, or uttered a prayer.   I can think of no greater gift you could give us than to do something good in memory of Eliza, and then tell us about it and write or speak her name.

I should make sure to send a note to everyone who did that.

I keep thinking even now that it's not too late.  I want to tell people how much I appreciate it all they did for us.  Obviously I am capable of expressing myself in words, and I want to tell people who reached out to us that the darkest time in my life would have been even worse if I hadn't heard from them.

But I can't bring myself to do it.  It's not the tedium of the chore, it's the emotional exhaustion I feel when I even begin to contemplate doing it.  It's just too hard.  I don't want to do it.  I just don't want to.  I bought cards to send.  The package is still unopened.

I feel terrible about it because maybe it's tacky not to send notes and I don't want anything associated with Eliza to be tacky.  And I feel terrible about it because in some ways the donations that people sent after her death were even more significant than the gifts we received before she died.  The donations told us that she still mattered and that her life was meaningful, that she was loved and wanted and missed and that her memory was honored by people who cared about us.  Nothing could have been more comforting in those days (or now, really) than to know that other people were thinking about her and typing or writing her name.  I want people to know that it made a difference to me, I want them to know that it is so important to make that effort to buy a stamp and send a card and that the donation they made in Eliza's name was truly an honor to my baby's life.

My mom said that people don't expect thank you notes for this kind of thing, and I know that even the judgy part of me wouldn't care if someone failed to acknowledge a gift when they were in mourning.  But I've gotten thank you notes from grieving people acknowledging donations I've made in honor of their loved one and it makes me feel guilty that there were so many people I never thanked. 

I'd like to say that I'll do it someday, but I know that's not true. 

I don't want to write cards that try to strike a balance between sounding hopeful and sounding sad.  I don't want to figure out a way to say "we're doing okay but our new definition of okay is shittier than I would have ever dreamed possible for still fitting into the realm of okay."  I don't want to make it sound as though I'm still in the not-eating, not-sleeping, barely-existing phase of December, but I don't know how to adequately explain where I am now in a few handwritten lines in a thank you card.  And I know a thank you card doesn't require all of that--I could just say, "Thank you for your donation to ____ in memory of our Eliza.  It meant so much to us."  I just feel like that doesn't even begin to cover it--how much it meant, how much we love her, how much we still can't believe that this is our life and it doesn't have our baby girl in it.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from a thank you note.

Maybe I just know that writing every single one would make me cry, no matter what I put down on paper.

The fact is that I am eternally grateful to everyone who reached out to us.  But I still don't know whether I'll ever send this set of thank you notes.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Series: Resilience

First I want to say that I love, love, loved reading the posts about your babies' names.  Such well-chosen names.  We all have such good taste.  (Also, I do really like the name Daphne--another one that doesn't work with Duckworth.  And Vahjeena?  SERIOUSLY?)

So here's another post about books.  I was glad to see that Glow in the Woods has a new "bookshelf" on their website with a list of several recommended books specifically about baby loss.  I won't be writing about any of those here (although I've read most of them--I read so many in the weeks immediately after we lost Eliza, as though one of them would tell me the secret to getting her back.  None of them did.).  Instead, I'm going to write about other kinds of books that I've found helpful.

This week:  Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards.

Mercy.  If there is a woman who defines resilience, she's probably Elizabeth Edwards.

This book was written after her sixteen-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident from which his passenger limped away with nothing but a sprained ankle.

It was written after she found out the cancer that had responded well to her initial treatments  was back.  With a vengeance.

It was also written after she (and everybody else in the world) found out about her husband's affair with what's-her-name.

In some ways, I think Elizabeth Edwards is proof that if you are untouched by grief in this world, you are incredibly freaking lucky.  Because bad things don't happen to people who deserve them.  They just happen.  And to some people, they happen again, and again, with terrible variety and equal senselessness.

Edwards's book is amazing because it's not oozing self-pity (which is more than I can say for this blog), but it's also not relentlessly optimistic or annoying.  She doesn't sugarcoat anything, but she also writes from a perspective of someone who has continued to have a full life after her loss, in spite of her cancer, and in the midst of her husband's publicized infidelity.

She opens with a description of what seems like a perfect life--married to her law school sweetheart, successful careers, two great children, a kitchen filled with friends and family.  She says,

It would have been easy for life to have played itself out from that kitchen, and I don't know that, if it had, it would have occurred to me that I had never taken in the fullest breath I could. [...]  For all of the times that followed those carefree day sin my kitchen, for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned in the years that followed what it meant to breathe for myself, and I learned, too, what it meant to scream.  

She writes about her life after her son Wade's death, and her desire to turn back time and bring him back.  And she writes something that I know is true, even though I have a hard time accepting it:

This is the life we have now, and the only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation, is first to accept that there is a new reality.

We miss our old lives, of course, but she insists, these old lives no longer exist and the more we cling to the hope that these old lives might come back, the more we set ourselves up for unending discontent.

Last night I was the definition of "unending discontent."  I was beyond sad.  I was well into meltdown and as I was crying and crying, I kept saying to David, "I don't WANT this life!  I don't WANT IT.  I want the life we were SUPPOSED to have!"

Elizabeth Edwards isn't pretending that resilience is easy, or that accepting this new reality is a simple thing.  She writes:

Each time I fell into a chasm--my son's death or a tumor in my breast or an unwelcome woman in my life--I had to accept that the planet had taken a few turns and I could not turn it back.  My life was and would always be different, and it would be less that I hoped it would be.

This is undeniably true.  But I think her book also demonstrates how terrible events and deep grief can also have the power to make our lives both less and more than we hoped they would be.  The big message in her book is that we all have to keep doing what we can--making plans and preparing for the life we want to have.  But if something happens--cancer, loss, betrayal--we don't just give up.  We salvage the parts we can and we put them together as well as we know how.  And there is something meaningful in that, something beautiful, even though it is always less than and other than we would prefer.

She describes her grief after Wade's death and all of her efforts to memorialize him.  One sentence really struck me:  I did not yet trust his constant presence in my life.

I caught my breath at that because I know that, always under my grief and my pain and my wishes to undo everything that's happened since December 5th, there is the constant fear that Eliza will disappear into nothing.  Her name unspoken, her tiny life forgotten, nobody to remember how much that baby girl matters to us, her memory fading even for me.  I want to trust her constant presence in my life.

Edwards recalls that for so long, she just couldn't accept the truth of Wade's death.  She kept waiting for a moment when everything would be put right:   It was months later, that I recognized there were no right answers, no elixir that would return me to the world where unbridled happiness was possible.

And she recalls the terrible, aching emptiness of grief, but also its strange comfort, the all-too-familiar feeling that the only way to be close to a lost loved one is to welcome the heart-shredding grief, even to invite it: 

I fell willingly into the grief.  I think I actually wanted it; I think I reacted to the song on the radio or the cola on the grocery store shelf as a trigger precisely because I needed his company.  It was not a hairshirt the way it might have seemed to someone outside my family; it was a warm enveloping comforter, it was a close as I could be in this life to my boy.  But that comfort, I had to learn, was an impediment to being able to live as fully as possible after Wade's death.

She talks about parenting Wade's memory to the best of her ability, but also about her reluctance to do anything that would bring her solace:  Why should I have solace when he hasn't breath?  I remember vividly the physical pain of recovering from labor, the tension of tight muscles and the physical ache of grief that I was so reluctant to let go of through exercise, through massage, through soaking in a bathtub.  This terrible pain was all I knew of loving Eliza after her birth.  Why should I do anything to feel "better"?  It seemed like a betrayal.  Edwards talks about her struggle to come out of that, and her realization that if she remained stuck in her grief, then Wade's life wouldn't matter--he would be reduced to his death, the one thing that continued to affect the world through his mother's pain.

She also writes about her experience with an online community of bereaved parents and I was truly glad to see that her experience was so similar to mine:

These people...reached their hands out of the darkness and drew me to a ledge where I could get my footing again.  I would fall and they would reach.  They would fall and I would reach.  They sent me poems when I needed poems and hugs when I needed hugs.

She's right about this--there is no substitute for that kind of mutual understanding.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that her understanding of God aligns pretty well with mine.  She explains that she didn't want to be angry with God, but that meant that her perception of God had to change.

My God, my new understanding of God, is that he does not promise us protection and intervention.  He promises only salvation and enlightenment.  This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is.

This means that, as a woman dying of breast cancer, Edwards doesn't pray to God for her health.  She prays for strength and for courage, but she has learned the hard way that God does not choose who lives and who dies.  There is no great master plan that will reveal divine design and purpose behind a child's death or a mother's pain.  So if there is God, there is also nature and science and medicine and random chaos and human beings who strive to do the best they can given the circumstances--the beautiful, wonderful, terrible circumstances that make up this world and the lives we lead.  We have free will--we are not puppets and we can choose to make the most of what we have.  But we also can't expect divine intervention.

(Which makes me think of how much I cannot STAND this kid on Survivor talking about his faith and how he will stay on the island as long as God wants him to.  As though God sits back and lets babies die, and yet gives a shit about controlling the outcome of Survivor.  It's a good thing that they haven't sent me to Redemption Island.  I think I'd kick him in the teeth.)

Edwards is writing about some of the harshest realities of life, but she's never mopey about it.  Even when facing the trifecta of shitty life events (dead son, cheating husband, untreatable cancer) she writes,

All that is in my control is how I live now.  I could fill the days with fears--there are plenty of those--or I could fill them with the best joys I can cobble together.

She insists that there is no perfect.  We only have a choice about how we integrate the imperfect into our lives.  And she quotes Leonard Cohen (one of my faves):

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

Her book discusses events in her childhood, the death of her father, her cancer, and touches on the aftermath of her husband's affair.  But it is mostly a book about a mother whose son has died. 

I think Elizabeth Edwards is classy.  Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting down with a professor I admire and someone I would aspire to be like.  I think that in telling her story, she managed to make me feel a little bit braver without pretending that any of this is going to be easy.  I wish I would have had a chance to meet her because I would have liked to tell her that Wade's story touched me in such a significant way.

Her story is tragic, but it is never pathetic.  She loses so much, but she never loses her dignity.  And she never quite loses hope, either.

May we all be so resilient.

If you're interested in a copy of her book, it's available on Amazon.  I personally ordered a used copy from 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Feeding Time at the Zoo

Cooper and Little Mac have been the source of more than a few blog posts (the former is a pan.tyfreak and the latter in need of an exorcism) but lately they have been a much-needed source of comfort and laughter for us.

Sister, as we have nicknamed Little Mac, has a bit of a split personality issue, a habit of attacking her own ass when she feels stressed out, and a weakness for any sort of people food (if you drop it, she wants it--including raw asparagus and lettuce leaves).  Her personal ad on a dating site would read something like, Deceptively adorable-looking Pek-a-poo with intimacy issues seeks lover who respects boundaries.  Enjoys car rides, popcorn, and Parmesan cheese.  Does not like baths, haircuts, the vacuum cleaner, or unsolicited affection.  Do not f*ck with me or I will bite ur ass.

I destroyed mah bed and I will destroy u.

If Mac is our fighter, then Cooper is our lover.  This dude was born to snuggle and is happiest when he is on the sofa leaning on or lying on top of someone (he's not particular about who it is as long as you're not our mailman).  His personal ad would read, Snuggly Puggle seeks constant companionship with a loving, affectionate, enthusiastic partner who has few personal boundaries and lots of doggie treats.  Enjoys the finest pleasures in life:  eating, sniffing peed-on bushes, rolling in nasty-smelling things, and cuddling afterward.  Hates mailmen, cats with claws, and being bullied by Sister.  Seeks a partner who values loyalty but is open to sharing the love. 

The ladies be crazy 'bout a barrel-chested man with twig-legs. 

I know, our dogs are ridiculous.  But we love them.

Since we've returned from our trip (a week during which the dogs stayed with my parents and terrorized my mom's already-emotionally-fragile cats), I have come to realize that dinner for our dogs has become a ridiculously elaborate exercise in catering to their high-maintenance issues (as I'm sure my parents would agree.) 

To start with, they eat twice a day.  David feeds them when he gets up in the morning, and I feed them again in the afternoon.  Coop gets one scoop in his bowl and one scoop in his treat stick (more on that later).  Mac gets one scoop in her dish. They also they eat two different kinds of food.  Little Mac is eleven years old so she eats food specially made for "mature, small breed" dogs.  She prefers to graze and when she was our only dog, that was fine.  However, Cooper is a bottomless pit whose metabolism does match his appetite.  So we have him on low-calorie diet dog food.  Additionally, we have to keep him occupied while Little Mac eats, or he will wait for her to get distracted and gulp her entire meal in just a couple of bites.

This has resulted in an elaborate procedure that consists of sprinkling Parmesan cheese on Little Mac's food so that she will be interested enough to eat it before Cooper gets a chance (do you know what Parmesan cheese on top of dog food smells like?  Barf + body odor + dog breath.  Ah, what an aroma.) and putting Cooper's serving in a "treat stick" that he has to push around on the floor, rolling it to release one piece of food at a time (No, he likes it!).

(Ignore my voice--why do I have to sound like that when I talk to the dogs?  I swear I don't talk like that in real life.)

Meanwhile, since we have gotten home, Little Mac has suddenly developed a new (and irritating) habit of inexplicably demanding three meals a day instead of two (she's getting nearly 1/2 a cup OVER the daily recommended serving for her weight--and yet she remains so slim!).  This is how she communicates that she wants us to fill her dish:

Believe me, she is incredibly persistent.  I inevitably give in to her demands.

Cheese.  I lurves it. I lurve to lick it off my chin.

I swear these two dogs are total pains in the butt but who could resist those faces? 

I might not have responded to their personal ads, but I would be totally lost without them now.