A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

letter14me

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her.

 

I know you’re trying so hard, too hard, to make her see you, but she won’t, not now, when you’re blossoming into young adulthood, not later, when you’re graduating or getting married or divorced. She won’t be there helping you get ready for school dances, or ever see you march in the band, or even ask you what you want to do with your life. When she is there, she’ll usually be drunk. It will, now and always, be all about her.

In fact, when you are going through the worst of your divorce and find yourself completely alone, she’ll call you one day, and your heart will leap when she asks if you want to go on a vacation, just the two of you, to Florida. You’ll jump at the chance, though part of you will question her motives right out of the gate. But you’ll push down your doubts and forge ahead into the make-believe land she inhabits.

You’ll find yourself alone, again and still, right there in Fort Lauderdale, as she takes off on the back of a motorcycle with a guy she met on the Internet. She’ll toss a handful of twenties at you as she giggles her way to the door and tells you to get whatever you want for dinner, that you’ll watch T.V. when she gets back, just like the old days when she worked second shift and you’d wait up for her, hoping she’d remember to invite you into the living room before Dobie Gillis reruns started. You’ll wait up for her in that Florida hotel room, but she won’t come back that night or for two more days.

While you wait for her to return, you’ll take the rental car she left you and go to the mall, alone. You’ll cry as you drive down the freeway, real, choking, foolish sobs that are way more about her than they are about your soon-to-be ex-husband. You’ll be 24 and hate yourself for still not being past this, for still needing your mommy, for never allowing yourself to feel justified in your anger toward her. You’ll still be making excuses for her, still apologizing and hiding and wrecking yourself with constant grief, anguish and worry. You’ll force a smile when she finally returns, giddy and still reeking of beer. You’ll pretend to agree with her when she says she thought it would be good for you to have some alone time.

At 30, you’ll be remarried and expecting your first child. She’ll live across the country, and she won’t come. You’ll cry to your helpless, sweet husband while you’re in the throes of labor that no, you don’t want more medicine or a drink, or for him to rub your back. All you want is your mom and nobody can even get her on the phone. She’ll never lay eyes on you when you’re pregnant, either time.

Years will go by, the same, jagged patterns carving out a tired rut. You’ll have insomnia and you’ll blame it on motherhood and being so busy and some kind of anxiety thing, but you’ll know the truth. Nighttime is reserved for worrying about her. You’ll make sure your phone is on because you know that someday, the call will come, and it will come in the middle of the night, but somehow, maybe not, if you don’t go to sleep.

If you don’t sleep, you can keep your world propped up, and hers, too.

Somewhere along the line, she’ll own some of it. She’ll actually admit, in plain terms, that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s fucked things up along the way. She’ll detox. She’ll promise to stay sober, but she won’t for long. She’ll be too far gone, too lonely, too far away from everything she knew and threw away.

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her. You’ll overcompensate and coddle your kids too much, but it will be better than her neglect, which you can recognize in hindsight now.

You’ll realize you’ve given up on her when you don’t even cringe when she has manic, hateful fits on Twitter for all your friends to see. It will be like you’ve already mourned her passing. You’ll cling to the good memories you do have of her, back when you were very young, when she didn’t correct people who thought she was your big sister.

But then when you’re 15, cigarette in hand and smirk on her lips, she’ll casually tell you that you were a mistake, one that ruined her life. You’ll try to brush it off, to find some compassion for the younger version of her, pregnant at 16, only a year older than you. “She doesn’t mean it,” you’ll tell yourself.

And maybe she doesn’t, and maybe she loves you, but she will hurt you. She is your mother and she will hurt you deeply and repeatedly until you’re broken, and then she’ll sob that you care nothing about her. Nothing will appease her and nothing will shake her from the chains of victimhood. You will have to watch yourself so you don’t fall into the same patterns.

But know this, too: On the other side of the pain, when you’re well past 30 and a mother yourself and finally brave enough to accept that you have value, when you’re so far past 14 that you can no longer remember it sharply, there is love. You’ll find it everywhere because you have a big heart and relentless, unrealistic hope, and though you will never fully believe it, you’ll deserve the love that emanates from within you. You’ll hold out hope for her, too, to the end.

And I’ll be here waiting, trying to pass some kind of motherly love back to you through time, because you need it now, at 14, and you don’t even know it.

Natalie Kemp is a freelance writer based in the upper Midwest. She is a daughter and a mother, and feels compelled to share the stories that bind us all.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

ART Doors of Italy

By Cloe Axelson

The waiting room at Careggi University hospital in Florence has all the charm of a Boston bus terminal: dingy, cream-colored concrete walls and steel benches with armrests so sharp they could puncture your skin. A few posters hang neatly. One offers assistance to Italian prostitutes, the others feature diagrams of pregnant bellies with a fetus tucked inside, but I can’t read them because I don’t speak the language. My husband Sam and I are in Italy for an eight-day vacation, our final getaway before we become parents. The hospital wasn’t our list of sites to visit, of course, but I’m thirteen weeks pregnant and noticed blood when I went to the bathroom, so here we are.

When we arrived there was only one other patient waiting on this Saturday afternoon in late July, a very pregnant Italian woman who was accompanied by her husband and four-year-old daughter. She looks unhealthy: sallow skin, swollen ankles, thick toenails painted a horrible metallic gold. She’s also missing teeth and every thirty or forty minutes she excuses herself for a cigarette, which she smokes, slowly, just outside the sliding glass doors. I can’t imagine a similar scene at my obstetrician’s office at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

***

As a kid, I didn’t daydream about having children. I was a tomboy, mostly concerned with how fast I could throw a baseball. In elementary school, I got my hair cut as short as my mom would allow, played on an all-boys little league team and wore a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, like my favorite boy cousins, to family parties. My parents later confessed they suspected I might be a lesbian, but no. I’d just decided that hanging out with the boys was much more interesting than watching them from afar or giggling when they walked by, as many pre-pubescent girls often do. Sam and I began dating our senior year in college. When I got married at twenty-eight, I skipped the wedding boutique circuit and bought a dress on eBay for $89.50.

In my early thirties, I thought childbearing was triggering an epidemic among my friends: suddenly they were giving up big jobs and adventure travel in countries with questionable water supplies for motherhood. My Facebook feed was littered with photographs of my friends’ distended bellies and, eventually, of their infants, red crinkly-looking things that became progressively more adorable and got pricey haircuts. Conversations about politics and career paths were replaced with chatter about nannies, breast-feeding and potty training. Some abandoned city living for the suburbs and bought battleship-sized SUVs. My friends were trading in their old lives for new ones—unrecognizable to me and, perhaps, to them. It was alarming.

And yet having a baby always lingered in the background, as something I would get to eventually, when the time was right. Once Sam finished graduate school. Once I’d run a marathon. Once we’d saved for a down payment. We were also busy: we’d lived in five apartments in three cities and held twelve jobs between us since graduating from college. We’d experienced 9/11 as New Yorkers. I’d traveled solo through Central America for three months. Sam had worked at the White House during the financial crisis. After dating for seven years and being married for five, expanding our twosome meant the end of an era. Having a family was something we’d talked about, but we wanted to be sure we were ready.

When we finally were ready, about three years ago, I discovered that getting pregnant wasn’t something I could do easily. That’s when I started paying much closer attention to my uterus.

I treated my uncooperative reproductive system like I treated any physical challenge, with determination and discipline. I did all the things the books tell you to do: took my temperature every morning to track my menstrual cycle and monitored my girl parts for slippery secretions, which I didn’t even notice I had until I read about them. I also quit eating so much cheese (which supposedly hampers fertility), tried yoga (to relax), drank less wine and, for a while, switched from coffee to green tea. My pillow talk, which was never very good, got worse—I instructed Sam to “plunge me” on more than one occasion.

I was characteristically practical and unsentimental about all the things I was doing, but none of my self-directed treatment seemed to be working. And after a year of trying and failing, it seemed getting pregnant wasn’t going to happen without outside help. I wasn’t ready to think about fertility treatments, so I started to see Lisa, an acupuncturist with an office in my neighborhood. I knew several friends who gotten pregnant after a few treatments and hoped it might work for me, too.

Lisa had a strong Roman nose and bright brown eyes. She’d been an acupuncturist for fifteen years after several years in “quality assurance” at a big pharmaceutical company. The minute I learned she was a national Kung Fu sparring champion, I knew she was the practitioner for me: no nonsense, tough, results-oriented. Once after a treatment she showed me a photo of one of her male sparring partners—his belly was stamped with a yellow-purplish mark exactly the width of her fist.

At every appointment, after I’d positioned myself at the end of her treatment table, she’d ask me a roster of questions about my sleep habits and stress levels and menstrual cycle. I took in the Eastern art hanging on the walls and tried to make sense of the human anatomy drawings with meridian maps overlaid. She told me to watch more television, to relax. When I told her I was training for a half marathon, she implored me to stop running so much and to devote my energy instead to believing my body could be a vessel for new life.  I nodded, but thought she sounded hippy-dippy.

I saw Lisa at least once, sometimes twice a week, for five months. (I even made Sam, an economist and Eastern medicine skeptic, go for six weeks as an act of solidarity.) At eighty-five dollars per visit, it cost us a small fortune. I felt great and could set a clock by my cycle, but it had become a comforting ritual that wasn’t getting me pregnant. With the supposed death knell of a woman’s fertility looming (my thirty-fifth birthday), I had to decide how committed I was to becoming a mom.  Mother Nature was pushing the issue.

***

It’s hour two in the cream-colored holding area and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be examined by a doctor. Especially since when we visited the registration desk, a nurse looked at me and said “La Americana? You sit a few minutes, please.”

I’d started bleeding a few hours after I’d gotten off the plane from Boston. I hadn’t had any medical issues in my pregnancy so far, so my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brain went for my worst fear: miscarriage. Sam forbade me from reading anything on the internet, which has page after page of horror stories, and together we called my doctor in Cambridge, who instructed me to find a doctor in Florence immediately.

I’d rifled through our guidebook for a recommendation and ended up here: the Accettazione Obstretica at Careggi University Hospital, fifteen minutes by taxi outside the city center, away from the tourists and crowds.

The smoking, gold-toed pregnant patient is still here, though her husband and daughter left an hour ago. She doesn’t seem troubled by the long-wait. We’ve also been joined by a couple who appears to be in their mid-thirties, like Sam and me. The woman, an Australian, has bottle-blond hair and looks to be about six months along. Her husband is fluent in Italian, and he tells us there are only two doctors on call and that two women are in the early stages of labor, hence the delay. I’m trying to stay calm. Sam is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson in between games of Scrabble on our iPad.

***

After acupuncture, my first stop in the baby-making industry was my OBGYN’s office. She had to complete several tests before she could ship me off to the fertility specialists, where the real work would begin. She took pints of blood, scraped samples from my insides and dyed my uterus with an eggplant-colored ink. The tests showed nothing: by all measures, my uterus and ovaries were just as they should be. One nurse even exclaimed mid-exam in her thick Boston accent, “Gorgeous, just gorgeous!” Sam got tested, too, after I suspected that his habit of working for hours with his laptop on his lap was frying any potential offspring. But he also checked out as normal. The basic tests completed, we were referred to a fertility clinic with the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.”

Millions of words have been written about the strange and scientific voyage to parenthood taken by the infertile couple. The werewolf-like rage brought on by hormone treatment, the endless blood draws, shots and ultrasounds. The anxiety and heartbreak of failed treatments. I suspect most infertile couples go about their business in silence, but some make art out of their struggles: a photographer in California documented her journey using eggs, rose petals, tampons and pig fetuses as her subjects.

I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening because it was painful and awkward to talk about. When friends and family asked, “Are you guys going to have kids?” I wanted to tell them to fuck off, but instead I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, we’re on it.” I worried about seeing someone I knew at our clinic and I refused to discuss it, even with close friends. My parents knew things weren’t going as planned, but I didn’t share details, lest they start offering advice. They did anyway. One cold late winter afternoon, my dad and I were at the dog park. I was about to toss a tennis ball when, mid-throw, my father, a soft-spoken Midwesterner in his mid-sixties, said: “You know, you and Sam ought to try facing north. That’s what your mother and I did when we were trying to get pregnant.” I thanked him, but didn’t start bringing a compass to bed.

Our fertility clinic was located at an office park in Waltham, MA, less than half a mile from Interstate 95. It had the feel of a nice department store: high ceilings, lots of natural light, bright cloth chairs in primary colors, two flat screen televisions and dozens of magazines. The place was always busy; dozens of people, just like us, waiting to be seen. In spite of its creepy, factory-like feel, there was something awesome about the cool efficiency of it all. I imagined entire wings of the building packed with cabinets of frozen embryos, lined up like computer servers.

The fertility doctor we were referred to, Rita, was in her early forties with shoulder length dirty blond hair, a wandering left-eye and an easy laugh. She made it clear we had garden-variety infertility, a sensibility I found simultaneously reassuring and insensitive. Rita recommended we try artificial insemination first, moving on to in vitro fertilization (IVF) only if three rounds of insemination didn’t work. We agreed.

Sam would “produce” the sperm specimen at home, then race up I-95 to get it there within the sixty-minute limit before semen starts to sour. He started giving his sperm a pep talk before we dropped them off, holding the plastic cup a few inches from his face and rooting them on with a fist pump, as if each one was Michael Phelps swimming for gold. The insemination procedure takes about five minutes. A nurse would summon me to a private room where I’d undress from the waist down, cover myself with a sheet and prop my feet in stirrups. One time I was on the phone while she took a syringe of Sam’s semen and inserted it, turkey baster-style, past my cervix for a potential rendezvous with an egg. Sometimes, I’d feel minor cramping, but nothing painful; the real agony was waiting for the result.

I’d hold my breath for two weeks. The Google-search history on my phone during that time included things like “what does week one of pregnancy feel like?” and “can you feel an egg implant?” Month after month, after a blood test to check for pregnancy hormones, I’d receive a phone call from a nurse telling me I wasn’t pregnant.

Irrational self-flagellation followed. Maybe I shouldn’t have run that half marathon. Maybe there really is something seriously wrong with me. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me I’d be a terrible mother. With each unsuccessful attempt, my attitude hardened: I started to anticipate failure because it made me less vulnerable to the sting of negative results. Preparing for the worst made me feel in control of a situation that was far beyond my influence.

After our third failed insemination attempt, I needed time away from the fertility factory line. I’d started to peer jealously at pregnant women and stare wistfully at the little leaguers in the park. I was resenting people in my life, as if newly pregnant friends and family were conspiring against me. I was angry with Sam for not being able to bear children, a fact he certainly couldn’t control. I’d become just as preoccupied with not being able to get pregnant as my friends with kids were with nap schedules and play dates.

Within three months, though, I decided I was committed enough to becoming a mother that I was ready to go forward with IVF. This time, I told close friends and my parents what we were up to. It felt good to have a team of people pulling for us. We also made our fertility project the priority. Sam canceled a business trip to Miami and I skipped out on my employer’s big annual conference, things we never would have done before because it belied how much was at stake.

I’ve heard stories of women going through three, five, seven, eleven rounds of IVF. I don’t know how they find the strength. We were very lucky. I was grumpy, anxious and bloated, but after just one round, I got pregnant.

***

We’re on hour three in the waiting room and the pregnant Italian woman has excused herself for six smoke breaks. Yes, I’m counting. I can smell it on her clothes when she walks by me and it makes me want to retch.

The Australian couple is much more talkative than they were an hour ago. We’re all chatting, they’re asking about our trip and where we’re headed next. It’s already six o’clock: our first full day in Florence, gone. I’m not in pain, but I am jet-lagged and tired, entering hour forty-two without sleep.

Sam and I are contemplating whether he should run out to grab slices of pizza when I hear the front desk call a version of my name: “Ax-sel-son? Clo-way?”

“Yes!” I say, jumping up. We high-five the Australians on our way out of the waiting room.

The doctor’s name is Ippolita D’Amato. She appears to be in her late-thirties with short, brown hair that falls into her eyes and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. She carries two cell phones, one in each of the pockets of her white doctor’s coat.

Italian is usually a wonderfully lazy language. People take their time, pronouncing every letter, elongating the vowels, every word a song. But Ippolita is on a long, busy shift and her version of the language sounds much less romantic than any Italian I’ve heard before—a rapid bark punctuated by o’s and e’s and heaving sighs. I decide this is probably how real Italians talk. Maybe that’s one bright spot: we’re having an authentic Italian experience.

Ippolita ushers Sam and me into an examination room and instructs me to sit on the edge of a bed that’s hidden behind a blue curtain. A nurse asks me to remove my underwear, hike up my sundress and lie back. I can’t help but think that if I were home, I’d be wearing a gown and have a sheet draped over my naked lower half, the lights would be on, the door closed. Ippolita begins performing a pelvic exam while the nurse revs up an ultrasound machine that, by the size of it, looks to be about twenty years old When one of the phones in Ippolita’s pockets rings, she answers it—”Pronto!” she barks into the receiver—while she’s peering at my cervix. I laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Next comes the ultrasound.  The cool gel on my belly, my bare lower half still splayed out on the table.

“You know you have due, yes?” she says.

“Yes, we’re having twins,” I say.

“One heartbeat and…two heartbeats. Bene, bene,” she says.

There is something miraculous about seeing your child (or in my case, children) inside your body, especially when they’re so tiny you can’t feel them move. But there they are, heartbeats flickering steadily on the pixilated screen. Alive. I feel a tremendous sense of relief. The two peapod-sized, thirteen-week beings are jiggling around in their amniotic sacs, just as they should be. I want to hug her. I briefly consider naming one of the twins after her, then quickly dismiss it. Ippolita is a tough name for a kid.

She says the bleeding I had was normal and that everything looks fine. She thinks it was the result of a long flight, dehydration and exhaustion. I didn’t drink enough water on the plane and I’d worked on my computer almost the entire flight. Our hotel room was being cleaned when I arrived from the airport, so I’d walked around Florence for a couple of hours in 100-degree heat. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought twice about before, but is now apparently beyond my physical limits.

She tells me I must be calm. “No running to the top of the Duomo,” she says. “Don’t get too hot. Drink lots of water.  Clo-way, remember your body is not your own.”

I read once that being pregnant means you are never alone. Sitting there underwear-less, eyeing Ippolita, it occurs to me I have yet to accept my new reality.

***

I’d only told a few people I was pregnant before our trip to Italy. I was still able to fit into my clothes and could hide the growing bulge in my abdomen. For all the pain and hassle I’d endured to get pregnant, actually being pregnant was relatively uneventful: I was constantly nauseous (but not vomiting), cringed at the smell of grilled chicken and craved watermelon, but that was it. After three years of trying and failing, I didn’t quite believe it was happening. And as much as I wanted kids, I didn’t want to broadcast the news because I suddenly didn’t feel ready for it. I was worried how people would react once they found out. It’s only natural that children don’t consider who their mother was before she became their mom. My identity as an independent, ambitious, active person would be beside-the-point to the twins. I wondered if my friends and family would also dismiss the pre-kid me in the same way.

I tried my best to heed Ippolita’s instructions. I let Sam carry my suitcase and sent him up the rickety stairs of every cathedral to take pictures from their domes while I stayed below in the shade, a bottle of water between my knees. He hiked while I sat under an umbrella at the beach. And in the early evenings, before dinner, when Sam went out to explore, I napped or read in our hotel room. I hated not being able to move far or fast.

I was happiest once we escaped the triple-digit heat of Florence for the Cinque Terre, five tiny towns perched on the craggy peaks of Italy’s northwest coast. There, I discovered the one physical activity I could enjoy: floating in the salty Mediterranean. I didn’t mind being still as long as I could be in the water. Our last morning on the coast, I sat on a jetty that cut into the blue-green sea and dipped my feet in the cool water. I can still hear the waves, with their persistent rhythm, breaking against the shore, filling the space between the rocks and making their retreat. I knew it’d be a long time before we’d visit again.

The journey from the Cinque Terre to our next stop, Siena, was about three hours by car. Our rental car was only slightly larger than a golf cart and not nearly as comfortable: the air conditioning blew hot air and my knees hit the dashboard. Making things worse, the waist on my shorts was starting to cut into my stomach, even with the button undone. I was already hot and grumpy when I read this sentence from our guidebook aloud to Sam: “When possible, avoid driving in Siena.”

Unfortunately the guidebook was right: no one should attempt to drive in Siena where the streets, which are pedestrian-only, are little more than fifteen-feet wide. Once we entered the city limits, it took us another three hours to find our hotel. As we drove in circles, I told Sam that the map was fucking useless, that I hated this stupid fucking vacation. I twice ran out of the car on the side of the road, heaving and kicking at the dirt like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I felt myself losing control, but couldn’t stop a frustration that made my whole body vibrate.

By the time we checked into our hotel, I was bleeding again. I hadn’t followed any of Ippolita’s instructions: I hadn’t stayed calm and my babies-to-be knew it.

Sam was exasperated and went out for a walk. I took a bath. Our hotel was a one-hundred year old villa once owned by Sienese aristocrats, and the heavy wooden shutters in our room opened up above the patio that overlooked the picture-perfect Tuscan countryside: a puzzle of vineyards, green hills, winding roads and stone cottages.

I could see patches of the late afternoon blue sky from the bathtub. I cupped the warm water over my growing belly, rubbing it with both hands, back and forth, coaxing calm as I looked at my toes peeking out at the far end of the tub. My iPhone, sitting on the ledge of the antique marble sink, played Bon Iver. “Someway, baby, it’s a part of me, apart from me,” one song began. I was overwhelmed by waves of anxiety, the selfish but real fear of losing myself, of never again being my own person. I wanted to be a mom, but I resented that everything I’d once thought was important might soon feel irrelevant and small, as I shed an identity I knew for one I knew nothing about.

A few tears dripped off my cheeks into the water, as I began to plead with my uterus, the organ that had been defiant for so long, and the tiny beings inside. “I’m sorry,” I said out loud. I promised to keep them safe. To be more gentle with myself. To be vulnerable, finally, to the reality of becoming a mother and all the change that would bring. “O.K., guys. I get it now,” I said, my words echoing off the tile. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the bubbles lost their fizzle and the water cooled. I could see how my body was changing as new life took root.

I didn’t know then that the two beings floating inside me were girls. Or that my body would stretch to an unfathomable size to accommodate theirs. Or that the toughness required to run a marathon is nothing compared to the toughness needed in labor, and to survive the ragged first year of new life.

I didn’t yet know the sense of accomplishment I would derive from tandem breastfeeding and coordinating nap schedules. The delight I’d feel in watching my daughters feel grass or see the ocean for the first time. The pride in looking at their tiny features and seeing my own in miniature. In being someone’s mom.

The things I used to worry about do seem frivolous in comparison to the relentlessness of motherhood. But I now know that is the natural order of things, even as I sometimes miss the body and life that were once mine alone.

Cloe Axelson lives with her family just outside of Boston. She is a student in Lesley University’s MFA program in nonfiction writing and works for a national education-focused nonprofit.

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Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield

adoptionsupporthatfield

I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

 

Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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On Friendship

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life.

Great friends are thrilled for you when you go from the least likely of the bunch to settle down to all-out smitten and engaged in the span of fifteen months. They wonder a little about this fellow you met in the middle of the woods and how you’re only 22, but then they meet him and no one has any questions, just joy.

They agree to hike four miles round-trip to watch you get married in your favorite hiking pants (with a veil thrown in for good measure) on the mountain closest to both your hearts, and then help to remove the blowdowns from the “altar” before the ceremony starts.

Even when most of them are doing more productive things with their lives, they don’t judge you when you decide to put off graduate school for a while to spend too much time in the woods and hang out by the sea.

They are thus super impressed when you adopt a dog, buy your first house, and decide to actually apply for graduate school.

A week after they find a lemon-sized tumor in your 27-year-old husband’s brain, they approach your car in the parking lot after work and hand you a half-gallon jug of homemade “apple pie” comprised of spices, apple cider, and most importantly, 100-proof-liquor. Also included is an offer to make more.

They ask what you need and they mean it.

They don’t doubt you for a second when you decide to become parents and they offer to babysit after the little one arrives.

They mow your lawn, plow your driveway, and take your trash to the transfer station.

They take your daughter overnight when it’s time for the second brain surgery and then drive her down to the hospital when he’s out of the woods; they pick her up from daycare when the chemo treatments run late or you have to travel out-of-state; they take her for a few hours here and there so you can try and juggle nursing school on top of everything else.

They call and it is like no time has passed at all.

They fly a thousand miles to help you survive school and take care of your family like their own, and then accept it despite their effort when you leave school a few weeks later when your husband can no longer safely stay home alone.

They start a fundraiser for your family to use to take a vacation, then for alternative treatments, then for just anything because sometimes that’s how quickly it goes.

No matter how inopportune the timing, they meet you at the local emergency department every time.

Knowing your daughter needs as much love as humanly possible, they give, give, give.

After the oncologist tells you there is nothing left to be done, they fill the house with visitors and love.

When your husband starts hospice two weeks before your daughter’s 3rd birthday, they arrange an enormous, spectacular party for her where all you have to do is show up and try not to cry.

When he becomes home-bound, they come visit with incredible spreads of food and booze, to play with your daughter for hours on end, and with enough meals for the freezer so that you won’t have to cook for months.

After the hospice nurse says hours to days, they stand at your side until family arrives; they hold his hand and say goodbye; they put Patty Griffin on in the background, every album repeating; they shake their heads right alongside you in disbelief that this is actually happening.

They meet you at the funeral home to fill out the cremation paperwork and tentatively look at urns.  When you find a little slate one with a golden tree and say you’re not going to buy it just yet, but look at this, they completely agree.

When he dies, they shower the world with tributes of his good spirit, love for teaching everyone about the woods, and how much confidence, humor, and knowledge he brought to their lives.

They help plan his celebration of life and spill into your neighbors’ house to fill it with love and laughter and stories.

When you turn 30 just over two months after his death, they take you out to a coastal town for dinner and drinks and the comforting smells of diesel fuel and the sea.

They hike 12 emotionally and physically grueling miles with you up your mountain to spread his ashes where they need to be; at the summit they all dip their hands and join you in setting him free.

When you return to nursing school that fall, they are there to support you through and through; when you find that you are miserable and leave the program six months later, all they want is for you to be happy.

As the horror of that first Christmas approaches, they entertain and distract.

They house/pet/chicken-sit so that you can travel for the first time in half a decade.

As the one-year mark nears, they gather with you at his favorite pub to reminisce and love.

When you start to date again, they want to know EVERY. LAST. DETAIL.

Your life is what it is in great part because of these friends, these friends who kept you afloat through the best and worst years of your life, through thick and thin, through marriage, birth, death, and life again.

Oftentimes, especially early in the morning with your first cup of coffee, you wonder where you would be without your friends. You breathe deeply, slowly, gratefully for all they have done, all they have sacrificed and loved. They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. You hope they never experience anything even remotely similar, but because of them you’re there: ready, strong as hell, and by their sides to rally, protect, love, and provide anything they might ever need.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

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History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at www.krisrasmussen.net.

 

 

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The Holes In Us

The Holes In Us

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By Reva Blau

My father did not tell anyone completely about his psychic scars. He did, however, let my mom, sister, and I ogle, occasionally, on his physical ones. Taking off his expensive, leather shoes, he would, very rarely, let us peek the roped mass of roiling purple and magenta skin at the knuckle of his big toe, where, crushing grapes at a POW camp shortly after WWII broke out, he had plunged the pitchfork. The toe bent off crookedly to the left and the nail was gone. The joke in the family was not to drink 1939 Bordeaux. He also would hand me the shrapnel shards that would, once in a blue moon, poke out from his thighs, a result of a bomb that he had tripped while he interrogated Nazis as a German-speaking US Army officer.

Three years before returning to Europe as a soldier, my father, the son of Viennese Jews, fled Nazi Vienna, then Nazi Czechoslovakia, then France on the brink of World War II. He was imprisoned three times and got out three times. He was tortured in a Nazi border patrol. The Nazi’s made him do exercises until he passed out. For meals, he only had lard.

A son of secularized Jews, He didn’t mind really that lard was not kosher; although I am sure that was the border patrol officers intention. He minded that the meat was barely edible and, subsequently could not even look at bacon without going quiet looking off into an invisible space.

From the border patrol, he escaped and made it to Prague, where he lived until the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia as well. Making his way to France to await the processing of his visa, he was rounded up by the French Army for having a German passport, even though it was branded with a red “J.” He was sent to Bordeaux to a labor camp on a vineyard. He stuck his foot with a pitchfork to get out of a French labor camp and onto a French navy steamship that would take him to New York, the white lines of blood poisoning creeping up his leg.

He liked to tell these stories. The stories were a series of lucky breaks: the last train from Vienna to Prague before the Austrian border was closed; the last train to France before the war broke out; the last civilian ship from Europe. He presented himself as the luckiest man alive.

My dad lost both his parents in the Holocaust. He saw them for the last time, taking an illegal detour back into Austria on a night train, on his way to Le Havre from Prague. He didn’t talk about his parents often. He never mentioned his mother at all. I remember maybe once or twice and always in an almost whisper.

Throughout both my sister’s and my life, he searched for what happened to his parents once their letters to him, a newly arrived immigrant in America, stopped coming in 1941. I have many of his inquiries with inquiries to Austria, Germany, and Poland as he tried, over the course of decades, to find out what happened to them. They are written in an oily tone in long, German sentences with long nouns. I have the letters back with conflicting information from each of the embassies and the American Red Cross.

This story about how his trauma affected his being my dad starts in the winter of 1976. Mrs. Kritz, my first grade teacher, told me she liked my poems about rain. The poems were stapled together between two pieces of blue construction paper. I spoke English then with a vaguely Dutch accent because we had spent the previous year in Holland. Back in New York, I went to school a few weeks and then got strep throat. I was at home, burning with fever. My parents were at the university teaching. That morning, my mother had called my new babysitter, an Israeli modern dancer, whose bones poked up, fragile like bird wings, through her translucent skin. She had skipped her rigorous training to come in on a weekday last minute because she needed the income. But she had run out of ideas for games we could play and I had spent the afternoon trying to read in English on the sofa under a blanket. At some point, I got up to wander the large apartment, which still felt foreign after the year away.

I crept into my father’s study with its walls of books, a solid inverted sculpture of brown spines. I sat at his walnut desk diagonal to the typewriter. I fingered the leather encased stapler and the clear dome that held in its perfect bubble one refillable green ink pen and one refillable pencil, both silver. Green ink had stained the small hole in the plastic where the pen stuck out. I found a lined notebook and removed the pen. I started to write my new book, the ink silkily spilling over onto the off-white paper. I planned to show Ms. Kritz my writing.

I heard the measured footsteps of leather sole heavily treading the throw rugs as my father came down the orange hallway. I should have known. It was four o’clock and it was the time for pacing, poring over books with his giant magnifying glass, endless green-inked outlining, peck pecking on the typewriter. The dog had this routine down so well that, lounging in the hallway, she would pull herself even before the elevator doors opened in the outside hallway with its black and white hexagonal tiles. I hadn’t heard the key in the lock. And, suddenly, he was filling the doorway. When he saw me, it took him a moment for him to register a small child was at his desk, that this child was his own, and had broken the biggest rule in the house: Do Not Enter Your Father’s Study. That I had entered the study and used his pen—the only pen he used, ever—and that his green ink was spilling out over the pages, was unthinkable.

It was as if the knob controlling his adrenaline system was on the opposite way as most people’s nervous system. Small things tripped torrents of anxiety, whereas the things that make most people fearful did not seem to phase him at all. When people called the house, for example, he’d thunder into the phone, “ALLO! Who’s there!” like it was on the CB radio in the mud-soaked trenches artillery raining down. Yet, he was immune from fears of his mortality. He drove, for example, fearlessly, without concern for any of our welfare. He would recline in the seat, drive with one hand, gesturing with the other. He would often hold court in the car, lecturing about books or politics, and look over at us, in conversation, for many beats too long.

When I was seven or eight, there was a fire in the building directly opposite our apartment. It happened in the middle of the night. My mother awoke to the smell of smoke then ran through the U-shaped apartment to my room. She shook me awake and I gathered important things as I had read people do in books. It was only minutes later that the super came up and pounded on the door to tell us to evacuate. It took my father an agonizing twenty minutes to dress in his habitual attire of a three-piece suit complete with tie, belt and garter socks. My mother and I stood in the hallway waiting for him, my arms full of thirteen stuffed animals and Noodles, the guinea pig, who dug her claws into my forearm. When the firefighter to come bang on our door to wonder why we hadn’t gotten out yet, my father was looking into the bedroom mirror adjusting his tie.

A year or so later, we were in Athens, Greece at an outdoor table eating salad and whole grilled fish from the center of the table. I was nine, alone with my parents on a trip, and prone to bouts of dizzying boredom if I was not allowed to read my Trixie Belden books, which was another rule: Never Read at a Restaurant Table. We lingered at the table after eating, listening to the old men chattering in Greek around us. I asked my father if I could please borrow his pen to draw. He took it out of his suit pocket and gave it to me. I doodled absent-mindedly on the bill.

Back at the cramped hotel room, my father asked for his silver pen back. He sent me outside to return to the restaurant, but the loud, beefy owner could not find it. “I will run away, I will spend my life hopscotching the archipelago by ferry, perhaps earn my money busking,” I thought to myself imagining my open fiddle case opened out on the hot, white pavement. Instead, I returned to the hotel and my father’s face, a mask of molten rage.

I was not afraid, like most children, of the dark, bugs, ghosts or monsters. I explored the old train tracks under the West Side Highway and peered at the cardboard slum cities in the tunnels. I spoke fearlessly with strangers and felt the safest on an airplane high in the sky above an ocean. Instead I feared bank tellers and police officers, authority figures, the mysterious systems that sent the mail.

After learning that the Noble laureate in Physics, who happened to have emigrated from Maoist China, lived a few a few floors above us, I slept with one eye open. He sometimes left or returned to the building in a motorcade of limousines. This left me deeply suspicious of adults generally. I was concerned to learn that a physicist had been the first to successfully split the uranium atom under the green copper turrets of Pupin Hall at Columbia across the street.

I went to a high school with a dappled quad in which one could sit between classes and read. I adored high school. In European History, Mrs. Bernstein taught us about March 12th, 1938, when Hitler marching into the Heldenplatz to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese. I loved Ms. Bernstein. She spoke in a measured cadence and always in complete sentences. She allowed us to think deeply about history.

At some point, after reading an essay I had written, she had taken me aside in the hallway and asked me if I was a native English speaker.

“Why, yes!” I answered, surprised. “Why?”

“Well because your sentence structure feels German to me. You put the ideas at the end of the sentences. The syntax is just slightly different from English syntax.” She must have known my dad survived this time. It was her way of telling me that she was sensitive to the impact it had on me. We are still friends to this day.

In class, we peered at photos in our dense textbooks. One showed Hitler, a diminutive terror, surrounded by Imperial buildings of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, high above the swarms. Hitler’s lips and mustache were so thin they looked like they could chop you in half. I came home and asked my father if he was still in Vienna when the Nazis marched in and if he went to Hitler’s rally. Did you see him on the streets? I was curious—morbidly—if he had actually seen Hitler himself. He was furious with me.

“What do you think? Do you want me stampeded to death?” Uh, no, dad, I don’t want that.

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It was shortly after the Nazi rise to power that my grandparents and their parents lost their bookbinding business and the building they owned where the Blaus and my grandmother’s family, the Selkas, lived. My dad’s father’s doctorate was revoked and he could no longer teach or publish. The University of Vienna, where my dad was going to pre-medical school, expelled its Jewish students. The family had to move to the poorer section of town. My dad was sent to live in Prague, at which point he was captured and hence the lard episode. But weeks later, he was able to get out from the border office, and later, to America. My aunt was sent away with other children on the kindertransport to England. Sometime later my grandparents were rounded up to the ghetto. In one of the first deportations that signaled the Final Solution after the Wannsee Conference, they were sent to their deaths in what turns out to have been the very first extermination camp.

When my father spoke of this time, it was in the present tense or maybe that was still a trace of his German syntax.

When it came time for the Holocaust Remembrance day, students filed in quietly to the auditorium to hear a survivor speak in somber tones about his experiences. I am sure many of my friends wept. I fled to the bathroom and stuffed paper towels in my mouth while my body wracked itself in panic.

The conversation about what happened to his parents took place mostly in my head, although from time to time I would interview him about my grandparents. I interviewed him about why they didn’t leave. He told me that they first refused. He told me that they might have left later but that he didn’t have money for their visas and he couldn’t find anyone who did or who was willing to guarantee them both. He said that he was only offered one affidavit, for one individual, not two, so how do you choose?

In a photo book I found on the highest shelf of one bookcase in our book-lined apartment, I found and then spoke to my grandmother. In the sepia photo she peered out a zaftig woman with sad, almond eyes and tendrils escaping across her temples. She draped one hand on a baby bassinet, with my aunt as a bonneted, moon-faced baby staring out placidly. Another hand rested on the shoulder of my father, a little boy in short woolen trousers, high socks, with a bowl and scarf bowtie. Standing on tiptoe, I put the photo book away before he caught me with them.

My father and I walked downtown to see the movie Sophie’s Choice together after I read all of William Styron’s novels over a summer. At some point, he jumped up and left. It could have been when Sophie, on line in a crowd of deportees, must make the awful choice between her two children. But I think it was much earlier, perhaps when it becomes clear that Nathan is both obsessed with the Holocaust and mentally ill. People in the audience swiveled. More people turned in their seats to look as light from the lobby momentarily flooded the theater. When I came through the theater’s outside doors, I could see the back of his suit, as he race-walked up Broadway, his fists clenched.

The fall after graduating from high school, I lived in a brownstone with three Columbia friends on the first floor of a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn. I called him up to see if he wanted to meet and go to the exhibit of Anselm Kieffer at MoMA. Walking the air-conditioned white hallways of the museum, I was awed by the heavily worked massive grey and brown canvases. Their impasto surfaces were scarified with grids and lines in paint that climbed to cathedral ceilings describing warehouses, barracks, and imperial buildings—vast and claustrophobic both. Some paintings showed fields and earth strewn with hay or ashy powder and scarred with metal.

In a packed deli between Fifth and Sixth, he sat sullenly reading the menu. Then, suddenly, he looked up and spat, curtly,”I don’t care that this Kieffer is an artist.” Saliva sprayed my face in the cramped booth. “Why would you take me to see this exhibit?”

I recently found the ship manifest of the DeGrasse, the steampship on which he secured passage, on November 10, 1939, from Le Havre to New York in the digital archives at Ellis Island. Its heading reads “List of Alien Passengers.” The information is recorded in neat rows and columns. The list is one thousand names long and takes up several pages. My father’s name is in the very first row, number one, on the register. I can see him making sure to be first on line. He did the same on lines throughout his life. People often just let him cut the line, as if sensing he could not psychologically wait in line.

Reading across the columns, there are boxes where the immigration official marked each person’s reading and writing ability, profession, nationality, religion, marital status, amount of currency held and many other qualifying remarks, such as if the person is an anarchist, cripple, or a polygamist. For him, his nationality was marked German, the place of visa, Prague, his profession, electrician, his destination, the address of the unknown sponsor whose name and contact his high school history teacher had given him. My dad had told us that he had twenty dollars when he left Le Havre. I had somehow assumed that it was a small exaggeration. How could someone have so little money? I routinely spent his twenty-dollar bills going downtown to buy candy at the Citicorp with my friends. But it turns out that was exactly what he had in his pocket.

He was never an electrician, of course. I laughed at that one. He would have made a very bad electrician. There are three columns for which the answers are almost every one of the thousand on the list. Nationality is marked German, religion Hebrew, and, for the “amount of time the alien intends to remain in the country:” all the last answers for this column are marked “permanently.”

When I first saw the towers come down on the news on the morning of September 11, I was, like most people seized with a cold panic, and, immediately, I thought of the many people I knew who very well might have been on one of the planes or in one of the buildings that morning. Then, suddenly, I was awash with a dark, gruesome sense of doom when I realized the impact on my father’s psyche. I felt across the hundreds of miles and decades of time the sting of the humiliation he felt as a young man. For the first time, I saw my dad as terribly alone in his experience at the hands of the Nazis and facing genocide so intimately. An act of war in New York, his island of safety, all those years ago, was too difficult to even imagine him processing at his age. At first the phone lines were down, and I kept trying until I got through. When I had my father on the phone, he didn’t speak about the events in New York. I brought it up carefully and he went quiet and changed the subject.

It was after that, his heart and lungs weakened. The cardiologist said that his lungs had expanded and, actually, pushed up against the wall of the rib cage. Shortly after that, he went into the hospital. I booked the earliest flight I could. My sister, who was in Amsterdam, had taken the overnight flight. Each of us took a cab to hospital. And, within an hour, my sister, my mother, and I were all there. It was rare for us three to be together. But there we were, his existential people, gathered around him, or was it still him, in his ICU room, the screens bleeping, a machine sending rumbling and artificial inhales and exhales of oxygen through his body? And then we said goodbye to him and we were the ones left with this hole in our lives.

Reva Blau-Parlante juggles teaching middle-school, raising two kids, and writing non-fiction with the support of her partner in life Joe and perhaps too much espresso with lemon.

 

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Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water

ART Submerged

By Sarah Bousquet

It happens in a flash, my two-year-old releases my hand and dashes off into a crowd. I chase after her, glancing only once over my shoulder to make sure my mother-in-law has the stroller, which contains, among other things, my wallet and phone. My daughter is heading toward the stairs that descend in front of the sea lion tank. I grasp her hand just before reaches them.

It’s hot, sticky August and we’re not the only people who had the idea to spend the day indoors. The aquarium is teeming with families with small children and summer campers dressed in matching T-shirts. Older kids play inside a giant whale-shaped bounce house, somersaulting onto a mat. A large interactive screen flashes with images of fish.

I’m glad my mother-in-law is here with us, that we outnumber the fast and busy toddler. She scoops her up and together they watch a sea lion break the surface of the water. Droplets spray from his snout sounding like a dog’s sneeze, and my daughter says, “God bless you, sea lion!”

We leave the bustle of the main room and enter the corridor toward the first tank, where sea bass swim with giant loggerhead turtles. As we walk through the cool, dim space, watching the rhythmic movement of the sea creatures, there is a sense of calm and peace. A sense, too, of confinement. It reminds me of the primordial waters of new motherhood. The turtle makes his way toward us, glancing ruefully with one shiny black eye, which seems to say, let me out, before swimming away, the heft of him both cumbersome and graceful.

My daughter runs ahead to the next exhibit, a wide column of water cast in purple light. White moon jellies float up and down. Music is playing and she searches for its source, as if the jellies themselves are emitting sound. I think of the amorphous days of lullabies, day sinking into night rising into day while I watched in wonderment, holding her pollywog form, the newborn body curled into itself.

In the next room a wolf fish lies at the bottom of a tank, thick and grey with vacant eyes and glugging mouth, the ghost of sleep-deprivation and delirium. The accompanying anxiety and nervous feeling that my baby, so fragile and new, was not quite of this world. The nights I wished for sleep. The days I willed her to become a little bigger, a little stronger.

A friend once cooed sweetly to my baby, “Don’t grow! Stay small.” And in my exhausted state, I feared it was a hex. Mothers of older children would look at us with wistful smiles and sigh, “It goes by so fast.” But I did not believe them; life inside the murky sleeplessness seemed to last forever. Newborn care consumed me. The constant rocking, singing, holding, was a world unto itself, both beautiful and fraught, where time seemed suspended and autonomy ceased to exist.

I felt submerged, and sometimes longed to come up for air. Whole weeks would pass without having glanced in a mirror. It was as if I were disappearing. Until I began to learn to breathe underwater. My identity became fluid, our connection borderless. Every time I looked for me, I found us.

Then it seemed to happen overnight, a magical night when she slept all the way through, a slumber so deep that when we awoke she was two-and-a-half years old, and now I wonder how I could’ve wished for those slow days to pass a little more quickly. Now I am the wistful one. It’s easy to become nostalgic looking back through the dreamy water. Easy to forget the anxiety and exhaustion, the tedium, the long hours alone. I hadn’t been able to imagine how it floats irrevocably away, the infant blurring into baby blurring into toddler tumbling toward preschool, away and out of my arms.

We are inspecting an octopus when my daughter disappears. My eyes scan the groups of children and my mother-in-law runs ahead to the next room leaving me with the stroller. I hurry after her and call out my daughter’s name, startled to hear the fear in my voice. She can’t be far away, and yet she is gone. It is too many minutes before they finally reappear, before my daughter returns giggling with delight. I hug her tightly, my heart racing, and remember the security of having her strapped to my body in her baby carrier. So different from the slippery toddler hurling headlong toward independence.

We push through the aquarium doors into the thick summer air and bright sunshine, and follow the path to the butterfly exhibit. Flowering bushes fill the tent and myriad wings flutter all around us. Butterflies alight on our arms and shoulders and heads. Here we are in the frenzied world of busyness and light. My daughter, overwhelmed, leaps into my arms. Together we name the different colors we see. She rests her warm cheek against mine, and inside that moment, it is just us. I wish for the impossible: to keep her right here, to capture what’s fleeting. Instead I will hold her as long as she lets me, set her down when she’s ready to run.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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On Being A Soccer Mom

On Being A Soccer Mom

Soccer player's feet on the ball

By Dawn Davies

There’s that embarrassing mom thing where, if you’re like me, and you’re at a soccer game watching your children play in say, a tournament, and your soft, delicious little child, the one who still sleeps at night with a stuffed horse, is making a drive toward the ball, and she reaches it, pulling ahead of several lesser children, feigning out a slow-thinking defender, putting out an arm to steady herself against the face of said slow thinker, squaring up to shoot, and you are watching her from the sidelines, wearing shorts short enough to allow you to survive the oppressive heat yet long enough to cover the ugly purple thigh veins your pregnancies gave you, pacing and tripping over a cooler full of Capri Suns and orange wedges, and at the same moment your child is about to make contact with the ball, your own foot reaches out and kicks the air like a marionette. You cannot help it any more than you can help gagging the first time your baby has diarrhea, or yelling “fuck” in front of your preschooler when you grate a hunk of knuckle skin into the pile of Monterey jack cheese on Taco night. It is a reflex and you cannot stop it.

Then there’s that thing where, if you’re like me, after you’ve watched a number of children play soccer for a number of years, and although you have never once played soccer yourself, you begin to believe you have developed a nearly psychic coaching gift, and in a series of brilliant illuminations of strategy that assert themselves only after you shingle your hair into the bobbed, highlighted helmet the other soccer moms are wearing, you realize you know exactly who needs to come out and who needs to go in in a given game in order to win it, and you see your husband on the other side of the field, coaching the game, and you pull out your cell phone and dial him up. You watch him reach into his pocket, check to see who is calling, see that it is you, and decline the call. You call him again.

“What?” he says. You can hear him scream this from the other side of the field a portion of a second after it comes through the phone.

“Pull Kristi out. Put Maya in goal. Move Alexis to midfield.”

“Right.” Your husband says and he hangs up. He makes no substitutions and ignores your frantic waves, then as your daughter makes another run for the ball, you kick your foot in the air again, this time screaming, “Shoot it!” as if your telling your child to shoot the ball is what will make her do it, as if she who has played soccer for five years would never think of this on her own when running up on the goal. There is another battle for the ball and you involuntarily kick the air a third time, as if you are a frog on a dissection table in Bologna and Luigi Galvani is electrifying your muscles with a charged scalpel. You can’t stop yourself from looking like a sideline fool. You cannot not kick. It’s a thing soccer moms do, and nearly against your will, you have become one.

When is it you realize you have allowed your children’s accomplishments to begin to replace everything you have ever done? Oh, it’s now. It’s right here on the sidelines of this under-watered, crispy field in the sports complex designed with the maximum legal square feet of asphalt parking lot and minimum legal number of trees. It reaches nearly one hundred degrees here in peak sun, and your naked neck broils like a steak while you watch twenty-two children burn a collective 6,600 calories. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym in three years because you have been too busy washing sports uniforms and returning them to the proper bedrooms, and checking gear bags, and feeding your progeny supper at four in the afternoon in time to get them to their various practices, which you must stay and watch, because that’s what the good soccer moms do. You must appear to be a good soccer mom, even though you fear you are not one. You are barely holding it together, and you just want to go home and take a nap pick the kids up after practice is over, only you can’t do that. The good soccer moms will notice if you don’t stay and they will judge you for it. You know this because you yourself judge the “bad” moms who drop their children off, firing bitter darts of jealousy from your eyes as they drive away to meet a friend for coffee, or grab a massage while they know their child is safe at practice. Even though they tell everyone they have to go “pick up a prescription,” or “take another child to math enrichment,” you know and you judge them.

Your soccer mom status is cemented by a few other behaviors. First, there is the belief that your daughter is an irreplaceable anchor—the star, if you will, even if only in your own eyes, on any given team. Or your son is the star. Or your stepson is. Or it’s not soccer, but lacrosse, or it’s not lacrosse, but football, or basketball or baseball or softball or dance, and at any given moment, two or three or four of your kids play on several different sports teams and you spend your afternoons, evenings and weekends coordinating practice times and carpools with other mothers whose children are not as good as yours, mothers you would ordinarily have no interest in spending time with, though it’s not because their children are boring or average, it’s because their mothers talk too much. You drive to windswept fields teeming with hundreds of other children, and plunk your ass in a folding chair while your children exercise, watching them with the same obsessive interest slower members of society have in reality TV shows. Sometimes you bring snacks. For yourself.

Next is the unhealthy obsession with outfitting your children like professional athletes. Sporty kids need gear, so if you are a regular person like me, you fork over whatever you can swing, handing down cleats and outgrown gloves and gear bags to your smaller children in the gear queue, occasionally shopping at Play It Again Sports in a neighboring town where no one you know will see you buying used sports equipment. You forgo new clothes for yourself, or luxuries of any sort in order for these children to have the extra thick shin guards, or properly fitting Under Armor, even though you remember playing childhood softball and basketball in sneakers from K-Mart and cheap, silk-screened team t-shirts without any ill effects, except for the fact that you did not get a college sports scholarship. You begin to believe that your children need this gear in order to have the athletic opportunity they deserve. If you are rich or a sociopath who cares not one whit about running up the credit card bills, you buy the best of everything you can find at Dicks or Soccer Max, or Sports Authority, thinking, almost against your will, that a $160 shellout in football cleats for a nine-year old now, might translate into a professional football career that will allow your little QB to one day buy you an upscale house and a silver Escalade. As if a pair of cleats will be the thing that turns your child into a winner.

Then there is the schedule juggling. If you are at all like me, after you recover from the cost of the gear, and the league entrance fees, insurance fees, uniform fees and conditioning coach fees, and your children are safely ensconced on their various teams, you use the last of your money to purchase a master organizer they sell for moms who are trying to get a handle on a schedule every bit as complicated as a teaching hospital’s surgical schedule, or the daily flight schedule managed from an air traffic control tower of an international airport. You spread out all the practice times and game times for the Bombers, the Eagles, the Blazers, the Knights, and the Intimidators on the kitchen table and begin to input data into the organizer, carefully orchestrating who has to be where when, and what time dinner needs to be on the table on various nights, and which sports events coordinate with school events that can’t be missed. If you are lucky, your child will not be on both the school team and the travel team of the same sport in a season, as that is a scheduling state so stressful that it has been known to cause mothers to develop trichotillomania. You can easily spot these poor women: they are the ones quietly plucking out their own eyebrows or eyelashes at red lights or in sports complex parking lots. They looked pinched and backed up, because they have had to train their bowels to follow a certain schedule, as they have no time of their own to take a dump from seven am until midnight on weekdays or at any time during the weekend, especially if they still have preschoolers at home.

This schedule reckoning takes a spreadsheet and enough wheedling and favor-trading with other carpooling moms to where the high-stakes détente you manage to sustain are of the kind you might find at an international political summit. If you are like me, this herculean effort makes you cry at least once per season, or drink alone at night after everyone has gone to bed.

Then there is the ill-lighted, miscast pride that comes with knowing that you birthed a remarkable athlete. If you are anything like me, when other parents can’t help but notice your child’s extraordinary athletic ability, your ego swells as if they are complimenting you, and you can’t seem to separate your child’s personal accomplishments from your own. This is the shameful part of soccer momming. It is heady stuff that can weaken the soul. You see your child twist in space in an artful way, and watch them outrun or out-think a competitor, and even though the competitor is a pony-tailed princess who sleeps with her own stuffed animal at night, your mind has reduced her to enemy status. Instead of seeing her as a person, you categorize her as an obstacle for your child, the star, to overcome, and what’s more, you created that star. It came out of you. You did it. It’s yours and there is a dirty aspect of ownership that comes with watching your child play sports, so when you think about it in the heat of the moment, the other child is a dangerous condottiere that you yourself must overpower. It’s awful and thrilling at the same time, because it is the only bit of power you feel in your life. You are triumphing, by proxy, over a nine year-old child. Bully for you. Kick the air and scream “Shoot it!” until your voice is hoarse and you will later need to cool down by overeating at the post-game fast food restaurant after the victory you had nothing to do with.

If you are like me you cannot stop these thoughts and actions, even though you know you are a walking cliché, and it is something you swore you would never become. Like kicking an invisible ball on the sidelines like an idiot, this suburban movement is a part of something that has its own tide, a tide that moves in and out with the seasons, a tide you feel yourself drowning in on occasion, because after all, you were the tattooed, boot-shod rebel who swore she would never live in the suburbs and drive a minivan, and yet you have ended up rocking that minivan hard and living in the burbiest of burbs, which frankly, bores you to tears, but is so, so safe and so good for the children. You are the woman who swore you would stick your kids in daycare the moment your maternity leave was over so you could go back to building your career, but that plan scorched up like a dried leaf the moment your first child was placed in your arms. You quit work “for a while,” planning to go back when the child started school, but here it is ten years later and your second or third or fourth child has yet to start kindergarten and you have found yourself working pro bono as the chief operating officer of a very small, cluttered business that seems, at times, to have no purpose. Others might tell you to check your privilege for complaining about such a luxury, but it is more confusing and complicated than simple middle class wealth. It is the battle between a loss of identity, and its crooked bookend: the promise that women can have it all, the promise that we have choices, yet are looked down upon for choosing this path when we could have done “so much more.”

Maybe, if you are at all like me, you struggle with job skills required for being a soccer mom, and must hide these struggles, because your natural skill set has slowly revealed itself to be the kind that prefers simplicity and order and quiet, and you know you are forgetful, and you know you will make mistakes because you are forcing yourself to do this hard job as best as you can when really, you would be better suited for a different job, a simpler job, say, perhaps as a painter (house or art), or a philosopher, or a clock repairwoman, or a artisanal baker of gluten-free masterpieces which you sell at local farmer’s markets. At times, especially during the middle of a given season, you may remember college, when you had the luxury to write short stories for fun and you wrote one about a married woman with kids who fakes her own death and uses a new identity to start over in the Pacific Northwest, a place that seems cool and woodsy and quiet, a far cry from standing in four inches of palm tree shade on the sidelines of a sports field, or your sour laundry room, or the inside of your sweat-soaked minivan.

You might even attempt to become the best soccer mom in all the land, wearing the bobbed hair helmet, keeping the minivan vacuumed, remembering which child wears which uniform, remembering to never again leave the middle defender on your daughter’s team, who you are responsible for driving home Wednesday nights, at the field like you have done twice before, only you are not naturally organized and become easily overwhelmed by the complex details and responsibilities, often forgetting to bring the orange slices on your assigned game day. This deficit requires you to occasionally dump your kid on the field and race to the grocery store, buy oranges, race home and cut them up, and bag them and bring them back to the field, often missing the first quarter of the game. Or you forget to turn in the cookie dough or gift wrap fundraiser orders in, or worse, you forget to sell the cookie dough or gift wrap at all. You certainly can’t get it together enough to make the t-shirts with your child’s picture on it, and give it to your family slash cheering section to wear on game days, because you can’t remember to tell your family members when the various game days are. There are so many game days.

Why do you suck so badly? If you are like me, it’s because you either didn’t read the job description of what parenting would be like before you signed up, or you were not willing to extrapolate “years of extreme sleep deprivation and constant chaos” from everything everyone has said since the beginning of time about parenting. It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now want out, only there is no way out without going to prison.

Lest I appear to be one-sidedly bitter and negative, let me say this: despite living your life on the sidelines, or setting up mission control from a seven passenger vehicle shaped like a manatee, or listening to books on tape through headphones to protect yourself from soccer mom colloquy, despite your bobbed helmet of hair reducing your sexual attractiveness by a factor of ten, despite worrying about your contribution to the collective cultural anxiety of women’s achievements by staying home and devoting all of your energy to a few non-influential people who don’t even thank you, and despite such an overall uncooperative reality, there is something golden about this time.

It is a time when your children are as beautiful as they have ever been, though you thought nothing could be as beautiful as their babyhood. The flushed, salty cheeks, the hair sticking to the sweat on their necks, their knobby knees, bandaged fingers, their giant protective equipment that seems to dwarf them at the beginning of the season, but which look perfectly fitted by the last game. The effort they give forth that makes you weep at times. If you are like me, you have cried while watching the two teams shake hands after a particularly difficult game.

Your children are doing important work, even though it looks like they are playing games. They are building their bodies, learning how to move, learning how to listen, learning how to take a small desire such as “get the ball” or “stop the ball,” and turn it into a hunger to make something bigger happen. They are learning how to lose graciously, one of the most valuable of life skills, and if they have good coaches, they learn about devotion: to team, to coach, to someone other than you, and this is healthy. It helps them grow up to be the kind of children who won’t live in your basement after college.

This is a time when the children still need you to show them how to be. They won’t always and the assertion of this truth will be increasingly painful as time goes by, but for now, know that, even though they don’t thank you and they leave their God-awful, wet, stinking shin guards on the cloth upholstery of the minivan time after time, they need you to orient them in society. You are training two or three or four little people to grow up and be better versions of yourself, and this is one way to leave your mark on the world, one way to make a difference—to produce people who are consistently good to others despite personal obstacles, ones who will be decent to others despite having menstrual cramps, or being cut off in traffic, or feeling exhausted, or losing something important, like a big game, or a contract, or a job, or a friend. It’s a marathon of slow growth.

You can see this growth transform them, sometimes from week to week. One day, you will see the coach introduce a skill and your child will fumble with it like a puppy, yet improve bit by bit, until one day during a game, when the pressure is on, you will see the child execute the thing perfectly, exactly the way she was taught. Later, you will see the quiet pride on the child’s face when the coach praises her for it in front of the team.

If you are like me, the first time you realize that the effort you invest in making these activities happen is a finite thing, and that one day it will go away, it stops being a chore, and begins to be something precious, like oxygen. You watch them with a different eye while they repeat the same drills for weeks, running, jumping, getting knocked over, failing, laughing, weeping, building friendships, pushing their limits, and for a brief while, all things considered, there is no limit to the hope vested in these beautiful young people of yours. The ones who sit with quiet anxiety during breakfast before a game are the same one who sing “Diarrhea” at the top of their lungs in the back of the minivan after the game, and you see sublime work happening here—a slow burn of something transformative—and you think, if you ae at all like me, as you shove the balled-up, sweaty gear into the washing machine one more time, that like with all things parenting, it’s not about you. It never was.

Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essay collection, Mothers of Spata, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She was recently featured in the Ploughshares column, “The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” She had a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2015, and a Pushcart Prize special mention for nonfiction in 2015. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.

 

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On Car Seats And Crisis

On Car Seats And Crisis

A father putting his baby daughter into her car seat in the car

By B.J. Hollars

In the days leading up to the big event, we received a letter from our sanitation service informing us that Bulk Item Pickup Day was just around the corner. My eyes widened at the news.

In my list of annual celebratory events, “Bulk Item Pickup Day” ranks high, second only to Christmas. And in some ways, it’s surpasses Christmas; rather than receive a bunch of garbage, we get to hurl a bit of it back..

Immediately, I take to the house to prioritize my junk. Which bulk item will I rid us of forever? I wonder. The half-broken bookshelf seems a logical choice, as does the ancient rocking chair. But moments later, as I make a sweep of the garage, my eyes fall upon another item, one I’ve long known would eventually end up on the curb.

It’s my children’s former car seat, a 2012 Graco something-or-other, complete with all the accouterment you’d expect of a 21st century “travel system”—straps, clips, harnesses, all of which, I assume, have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities I’d never quite mastered.

Frankly, I’m impressed I even mastered the buckles. After all, in the days leading up to my son’s birth—back when I was still practice-swaddling his stuffed animals and color coordinating his future bibs—I’d dedicated more than a little time working through the intricacies of that car seat. Yet my preparation hardly spared me from my recurring nightmare, one in which, upon leaving the hospital with our son in tow, I found myself baffled by the tangle of harnesses stretched before me, all of which constricted and elongated in the precise opposite manner I wanted them to. In my dream, it was the car seat equivalent of a Rubik’s cube, a contraption meant to make the user go mad.

Four years removed from the real-life version of that drive home, I find myself staring at the crumb-caked seat—reflecting on the miles logged, the trips endured, the many journeys we took together.

This was, after all, the seat that transported our son to Niagara Falls and our daughter to Duluth, the seat that carted them on endless loops to the library, the children’s museum, and the park.

How many holidays had our children sat strapped in their seat as we drove through the rain and the snow in our efforts to spend some time with our families? And when, I wonder, did we use this seat for the last time?

As best as I recall, that seat has been gathering dust for months, the result of a car seat upgrade for my son, which in turn led to a second-hand seat upgrade for my daughter. Since we have no third child—and there are no plans for one—we have no need for the third seat. And so, I sent it out to proverbial pasture (read: chucked it in the garage) and then conveniently forgot all about it. That is, until “Bulk Item Day” forced us to remember, to ponder, at least for a moment, how our lives might change if we had someone to fill that seat.

Though I’m willing to let the seat go, I have a harder time giving up what it represents: confirmation, at least for me, that there will be no third child, no future need for our second-hand-hand-me down-seat.

It’s just a bulk item, I think as I walk it to the curb. Just some garbage that needs to go.

But I don’t fool myself for a second.

That night, at around 3:00a.m., I wake to my dog’s full bladder. I hear her scratching at the bed, signaling me to rise, groan, and begin my zombie walk toward the front door. I leash her, give her ample time to do her business, and as we turn back toward the house I spot the empty car seat aglow beneath the streetlamp. The sentimental father in me is compelled to give it one last look, to run my hand over its plastic one last time just to remember the feel.

Between the first buckle and the last, I’d grown adept at my buckling skills, the result of the unspoken agreement between me and the seat: as long as I obeyed the owners manual it wouldn’t go out of its way to emasculate me on principle. It was an arrangement that satisfied both parties, ensuring not only my children’s safety, but my pride as well.

“Come on, girl,” I say to the dog as she gives one last sniff to the car seat’s crevices in search of wayward Cheerios. She’s rewarded for her efforts, granting her one last meal courtesy of my children’s shared inability to hold tight to a grainy ring.

“Come on,” I repeat. “Leave it.”

There, under the glow of that streetlamp, it’s all I can do to pull her away from that seat.

All I can do to pull either of us away.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

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So Sentimental

So Sentimental

Art Dollhouse

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Throwing away the little-girl toys doesn’t make me sad this time around.

My oldest daughter is fifteen and my youngest daughter is ten. We recently moved and I’m not a very sentimental mother. I would rather have space on shelves than boxes crammed full of old memorabilia. I would rather make room for sports equipment or downsize than keep buckets of old toys and disintegrating dress-up clothes that don’t fit any of us anymore.

Still, I thought that when the time came to finally get rid of the old stuffed animals and the old dollies and the old wooden dollhouse furniture, that I would feel sad and wind up storing all of it for that one-day-grandchild to enjoy.

There are so many ways I mourn the passing of time as my kids have aged. I miss the pudgy hands grabbing my cheeks and turning my face to force me to look them in the eye. I miss the giggles so easily brought out by a few tickles on the feet. I miss the goofy songs, the post bath slippery toddler streak shows. But I’ve also delighted in each new stage. My sister says, “Rachel says every age is her favorite.” And she’s right. When my kids were two, I loved two. When they were ten, I loved ten. When they were fifteen, I loved fifteen.

Moving is always complicated and living in east Africa doesn’t make it any easier. Few houses have built in closets or storage spaces so unless we want boxes stacked like Legos in our living room, we have to make choices. With each move, we have to consider, what is worth keeping? What would we regret tossing? What would we pay to actually ship to the US some day in the unknown future? So I downsize every time. And in typical American style, within no time at all, we manage to accumulate so much that I need to downsize again.

Our most recent moved required first storing everything in a shipping container for six months while we housesat for another family. This meant we really didn’t have space for extemporaneous items saved merely for nostalgia’s sake. So I started purging. My youngest, at ten, didn’t need the miniature musical instruments or the play clothes that didn’t fit her anymore. She didn’t need the CDs of toddler songs or of kids teaching French through nursery rhymes, she had become fluent in French at school. She didn’t need the board books.

We did keep some toys, for when families with little ones come over to visit and some to bring back to the US at whatever point we return. And we will always keep Legos and American Girl Doll treasures. But, my husband and I fought over the wooden dollhouse we bought in France when I was pregnant with our youngest. It is big and awkward to store, I said. It is precious and unique, he said. He won and it balances on top of our two boxes of stored holiday items.

I like to think that the ease with which I purge has to do with the positive character traits of simplicity and practicality. But, as I thought about it while rummaging through the toy bins and buckets of stuffed animals, I realized I was wrong. I had too high of an opinion of my emotional state and stability.

The reason it was easy to throw or give away these particular toys was because my daughter had never really played with them. I don’t have memories of her holding a My Little Pony or zooming the Matchbox cars around because she didn’t do that.

She is a builder, a creator, a performer, and a people person. Legions of homemade items were scattered everywhere in her room, cardboard boxes turned into American Girl Doll Jeeps, broken pieces of tile from the swimming pool turned into a bathtub, paintings labeled with the names of her school friends. My phone is full of videos of songs she wrote and performed, my computer has a file folder exclusively for the stories she types. Her walls are barely visible through the barrage of photos she has taped up, of all the friends she has loved in America, in Kenya, in Djibouti. These crafted things were much harder to throw away and some of them found their way into boxes and folders to keep.

I look at the dollhouse my husband and I fought over and have another realization. He is just like me. Our kids painted the walls of the dollhouse. They rearranged the interior, they marked it with their personalities.

Turns out I am sentimental, only not for the items purchased as the consumer I am. I’m sentimental for the items designed by the individual, creative child I’m raising.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

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Waiting for Lilacs

Waiting for Lilacs

lilac flowering at the springtime

By Andrea Mullenmeister

A swath of springtime sun filtered through the curtains and bathed my mom in dust motes as she rocked back and forth in the chair. Her yellow skin clung to her cheek bones, and she smiled.

“I’ve decided to put the hospice bed here so I can look out the window and see the lilacs bloom,” she said. Every morning, she looked out to the gangly bushes with anticipation, and every morning their stubborn buds failed to burst.

“Hopefully tomorrow, mom,” I told her, pretending I thought she would make it.

Five days after she decided to live for the lilac bloom, she surprised me.

“Let’s have a party,” she announced. She could barely get out of bed. She hadn’t eaten for days. Her skin was grayish now, and her cheeks were hollow. It really didn’t seem like the best time to host a party.

“Well, we do love parties in this family,” I conceded, “but I don’t know…”

“We’re doing it,” she interrupted. I think she was afraid that the cancer that was killing her body was also killing her legacy – she needed to know people hadn’t forgotten about her, that she still mattered.

So, I began planning my mom’s final party.

We invited everyone she knew to her “living wake.” Would anyone come? Not many people are comfortable with an obvious manifestation of death, and here death was, laying in a hospice bed waiting for lilacs and parties.

The morning of the party mom’s eyes were slits, and her body was motionless. I stared at the long list of RSVP’s and I got nervous. Did we really want 100 people in our house right now? “Are you sure you still want to have the party?” I asked.

“Yes. Party,” she said. Her voice cracked and I sponged water on her lips.

Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.

Long afternoon shadows climbed through the window and the dust danced. Visitors poured through the door. The sound of jokes and laughter mixed seamlessly with quiet reminiscing and tears. Her wake was exactly how she had lived her life, filled with people and activity. But instead of fluttering around, laughing and talking with her friends, mom slept on the hospice bed, breathing but unresponsive to the party that was happening in her honor.

Early the next morning, my brother and sister and I sat next to our mom’s bed. Mom had told us over and over that she wasn’t afraid to die. She was only 53 years old, but had made peace with her early demise. She had lived her bucket list and made amends. During the two years since her diagnosis, she had made the journey to God. She believed in Him and in angels. She felt safe.

As we sat around her, each lost in our own thoughts, she suddenly sat up for the first time in days. Her arms reached towards something we could not see. She frantically grabbed and clawed at the air around her. Was she afraid now that death was closing in? She moaned and reached towards the window.

The lilacs. They hadn’t bloomed yet.

Mom slumped back in bed, defeated. Her labored breathing began to slow…gurgle, huhhh…just when we thought it might be the end, her chest would rise again in a futile rally cry of “please, just one more day.”

I whispered “It’s ok mom. We’ll be ok. You can go now if you’re tired.”

The gentle spring rain splattered the window and eventually, she just stopped. We didn’t realize it at first because it was so peaceful but then a thunder clap rattled the windows and the skies opened up and it began to pour. She was gone. Gusting wind ravaged the budding lilac bushes outside and the curtain of rain couldn’t compare to our tears.

The next morning, I awoke exhausted and red-eyed. I looked out the window and stared at the brilliant purple flowers that bounced lazily in the breeze. The goddamn lilacs had bloomed. I threw my pillow at the window. Once my favorite flower, the lilacs were mean and ugly in the wake of my loss.

Cancer robbed my mom, and me, of so much more than just the lilac bloom.

Four months later, on my wedding day, I laid a white flower on my mom’s empty chair as I walked down the aisle.

Three years after that, I slumped next to my son’s incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit. The sounds of the NICU pierced my soul and a nurse elbowed me out of the way while she tried to convince my one-pound baby to breathe. I slunk into the background and stared out the window wondering if my child would ever feel the sun on his skin or smell the lilac bloom.

I haven’t held you yet, little boy. I haven’t even loved you.

His tiny chest rose and fell with mechanical precision now; the ventilator was doing the work of living for him. His labored breathing…whoosh, wheesh…filled the room and I wished I had ear plugs. I didn’t want to listen to another person die.

The sharp sting of grief scavenged my emotions, tricking me into believing I wasn’t worthy of being a mother anyway. “You can’t do this,” said Fear. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Doubt chimed in with a vengeance. Even if my son lived, how would I raise him without my own mother to help?

I glanced into my son’s incubator, a tangle of wires and tubes hid his face, but each heartbeat lit up his transparent skin with the bright reminder of blood and life. His tiny foot kicked a tunnel through the wires and flailed into the air.

“Just one more day!” his tiny body screamed with a force that knocked the wind out of me. My son was alive. This was not that rainy spring day where life lost. This was a bright summer day where life was winning.

Just yesterday, that same little boy bounced over to me, laughter bubbling from every inch of his healthy, strong body. The gold flecks in his gray eyes shone like the rays of sunshine that streamed through the window. His tornado-like entrance stirred up all the dust and the particles twirled. His pointy chin jutted proudly like mine does and like his grandmother’s did.

Mom was worried people would forget about her after she died. But no one has forgotten, least of all me. The dust settled on the window sill and I ran my finger through the thin coating, leaving a lasting impression.

Butterflies danced in the springtime breeze and fluttered in and out of our view. Even though they disappeared from our sight, we knew they were still there. “Look mom.” My boy pointed to a branch, bursting with fragrance and color.

The lilacs had bloomed.

Andrea Mullenmeister writes about her family’s story of love, hope, and survival at www.AnEarlyStartBlog.com. Her essays about motherhood, prematurity, and parenting a child with extra needs have been featured nationally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Horrible Mother

A Horrible Mother

sad little girl in the car seat

By Holly Rizzuto Palker

Summer camp had just begun and it was the first hot day of the year. The air outside looked wavy. I strapped my child into her car seat and kissed her chubby cheeks. She was my third so I’d learned to take the time to do this. Often. Chelsea was impish and just shy of one-year. She looked up at me with wide eyes and giggled, “Mama.”

On average, 37 children die forgotten in cars each year in the U.S. from heat related deaths. As a 39-year-old stay at home mom of three in New Jersey, I felt constantly overwhelmed with tasks yet I never imagined I could forget my child.

We drove to pick up her older brother from day camp. The car was finally cooling from the air condition that circulated on high for the ten minutes it took us to get there. My mind spilled over with an endless to do list. Camp pickup was a change to our normal routine.

Though Chelsea was almost one, I’d barely slept the night before. I shouldn’t have run to her nursery the moment I heard her screaming but I couldn’t bear to hear her cry. She was my last and I was done Ferberizing. With this child I savored the comfortable feeling of a pudgy little body cuddled up next to me while sleeping. The problem was that once I brought her into my bed, I never fell back into a deep sleep fearing that she could be smothered under the blankets.

“I can do this,” I told myself. I believed I could handle three children with little sleep. Good mothers raised offspring, bought groceries, cooked dinner and kept the house without assistance. I was proud that I could handle it all by myself.

My cell phone rang in the car and it was my mom. She knew my life had been chaotic and my husband had been away for a few days on a work trip. She was aware I needed help since my best sitter was no longer working for me. Her voice switched over to blue tooth and filled my car.

“Do you need me?” she asked.

I glanced in the rearview to see if her tone was too loud for my Chelsea whose thighs folded over the straps at the meeting points of the car seat harness. Her mouth had fallen open, eyes closed she’d been swept away into napping bliss. I spied the rise and fall of her tummy underneath her flowery sundress.

We arrived at camp a few minutes late. I cringed because I knew my son despised being the last kid left anywhere.

“I’m good. I’ve gotta go,” I interrupted my mom who was listing time frames when she could come to New Jersey during the week. She ran her own business and was my grandmother’s caretaker. I didn’t want to burden her.

Watching the other moms walk with their kids swinging racquets on the way to their cars, I got out and locked the doors by remote. I rushed down the path to the camp. I was met with a woosh of ice cold air when I opened the door to the club house. My five-year-old son caught sight of me and ran toward my outstretched arms grabbing his belongings on the way. As I went in for the hug my mind replayed like in a movie when the twist becomes clear. I realized what I’d done. I dropped the racquet and my son’s things. I abandoned him and ran.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” I screamed. I waded through what felt like quicksand and I headed back to the car. How much time had passed? A minute? Maybe a few seconds more? Oh my God, how could I have left my little girl the back seat?

“Chelsea,” I yelled, my face bloated with tears. I flung open the door and unlocked the five-point harness, panting. She wasn’t moving. I shook her, assuming the worst. Had I suffocated my own child?

But then she opened her eyes and stared at me bewildered, a bit miffed for waking her so rudely.

I tore my baby from the car seat and ran back into the camp with her, shaky and lightheaded.

“I need water. I forgot her in the car,” I told a mom I knew, crying. Another mother rubbed my back to console me. The looks amongst the adults ranged from complete empathy to utter disgust. A 17 year-old counselor consoled me, “it was just a minute. Its okay.” Could she comprehend the implications of what I’d just done?

Someone brought my daughter a drink. My son looked on confused. Chelsea sipped the water as she sat on my lap, oblivious that I had just become a horrible mother.

I was embarrassed but I stayed for a few minutes, trying to regain my composure. I convinced everyone I was in good shape to drive home but I was unable to trust myself.

We entered the house and I turned on “Peppa Pig” for them to watch. I called my husband in Europe. He understood, and calmed me down.

Next I called my internist and retold the story. She was sympathetic too.

“How could I have done this?” I asked.

“This happens to parents more often than you can imagine. They don’t always remember quickly like you did.”

I kept crying.

“You’re exhausted, mentally stretched and still hormonal,” she answered.

“I’m not in my right mind,” I argued. I couldn’t accept that I made a mistake this severe. I convinced her to send me for testing to determine if I had some sort of cognitive dysfunction.

I heard a news feature about a man two months later who was being tried for murder because he “forgot” his child in a hot car and she died. I secretly sympathized with his defense because I believed how it might happen. Two of my relatives mentioned the story in disbelief. They couldn’t conceive of ever making a mistake so grave with their own children. I was afraid to tell them my story.

My tests came back negative for any mental impairments. From that day on, I drove with my purse by my toddler’s feet. I do this so I can’t leave the car without something I’m used to always holding. I check the back seat double and even triple times without a child in tow. I’ve finally forgiven myself and I thank God that I had the presence of mind to remember my child was in the car before it was too late. I’ve slowed down and stopped trying to be all things to all people. I swallow my pride and ask for a favor when I need it and If I’m late for camp pickup then so be it.

Holly is a freelance writer and novelist. She teaches drama to pre-school children and she is also raising three of her own dramatic children, a husband, and a dog. www.hollyrizzuto.com

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Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Two People and Their Shadows Walking Down Cobblestone Street

By Joanna Laufer

In a Texas hospital room, my husband and I met her: the birth mother who had asked us to be the parents of her child. She had just given birth to a baby girl. We stood by the hospital bed eager to hold the baby, who was still in the hallway nursery. We knew, before we flew to Texas from New York, that this was the birth mother’s condition of our adoption going through. “I need to see her in the arms of her mother,” she said.

Meeting each other for the first time discharged something deep in us, awkwardness and confessions we didn’t even try to hide. My husband and I gushed out our gratitude, our promise to devote our care and love; she reciprocated with her gratitude, her plans for college and a career. We were raw, open, strangers linked in the most intimate way. She told us, almost apologetically, looking sheepish and crushed, that her boyfriend – the father of the child – hadn’t shown up for the birth.

“Who does this?” she asked me, as if we had known each other for years. “Am I pitiful if I call him?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Maybe he’ll even call you.”

I had no idea whether or not her boyfriend would call. I wanted to say something consoling, and this seemed to put her at ease. Those few words, and others that flew out later, were words I would come to regret.

This had been a recent and rushed adoption match. We had made a connection with this birth mother, through an adoption agency, a week before she was due to give birth. Paperwork had been faxed and over-nighted to us, which covered only the basics. We knew each others ages – she was 20, we were in our mid-thirties at the time – and we received the birth mother’s medical history. The agency had sent her photos of us clipped to a letter we wrote about the love and good life we felt we could give to a child.

We had one phone interview, which seemed to go well. She said she chose us because she saw we love children from the photographs of us hugging our nieces. Photos of the two of us in a rowboat in Central Park convinced her that we’re happy and close. She was sure about choosing us after reading that we’d provide a good education and nurture a love for the arts. She even liked the design of the paper we wrote the letter on, the swirl of pink colors along the border. We’d been advised by the agency to pick paper that would be enticing and stand out. We were told that this would actually make a difference.

“Should I even speak to him?” she asked, and then started to sob. “He’s actually an amazing guy.”

I nodded. I told her I’d give him a chance to explain. I added that it was wrong and unfair that she’d given birth alone, but seeing their baby being born might have been too painful for him to face. “Despite what it looks like right now,” I said, “He might still be that amazing guy.”

She seemed comforted by this, which is what I had hoped for her to feel but, again, this was something and someone I knew nothing about. All my husband and I knew about her boyfriend was that, included in her plans, she wanted to have kids with him in the future.

My husband and I had spent our 20s and part of our 30s sometimes wavering, sometimes adamant about putting our careers before having a child. Once the desire grew strong and we weren’t able to conceive, we went through a year of tests, ovulation kits, and seven months of artificial insemination. Though we felt a great loss, each month, not conceiving a child, we declined fertility drugs and extensive treatments. We weren’t invested in having to have a biological child, so adoption was a choice we welcomed. We cringed when hearing concerns from well-meaning people, their comments about the risks of raising a child with unknown genes and unfamiliar personality traits. We heard a litany of adoption stories gone bad, sensational ones seen on the news, about birth parents returning and kidnapping their children.

We dismissed these warnings as best as we could. We argued that when it came to genes, including ours, there were never any guarantees. As for kidnapping, we went on faith that this wasn’t in the cards. We had all agreed to a closed adoption.

I was dying to hold the baby and kept looking for the nurse. This was a huge moment for my husband and me. We were finally close to becoming parents and to putting a tough adoption process behind us. Just as past or recent breakups are topics to avoid on first dates, we didn’t mention the hardships with prospective birth mothers before her. One woman had a miscarriage. Another woman we had gotten attached to left her premature infant in the hospital and couldn’t be found to sign the consent forms.

A nurse wheeled in the baby on what looked like a changing table. She had thick black hair with a little clipped-on pink bow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, her precious oval yawn. My desire to pick her up was excruciating to restrain, but this was the first time her birth mother was seeing her, too. “Do you want to hold her first?” I asked.

She stayed consistent with what she had requested all along, to see the baby one time only, and only in my arms. “No,” she said. “Just you.”

Holding a child you are going to adopt, even for only a few seconds, is different than holding someone else’s child. My heart opened instantly. I held her head gently against the nook of my throat. I kissed her and she flinched. “That’s a kiss,” I told her. I assumed it was her first. She fell asleep in my arms.

I looked up at the birth mother. It seemed too clinical, at this point, to think of her as birth mother. As she watched me hold the baby she had just given life, her heart opened instantly, too. She was crying, but attempted to stop. Crying was replaced with something like prayer. She kept saying, “I want her to have,” and “I’m grateful she’ll have,” before filling the sentence with her priorities for the baby: two loving parents, self-esteem, a good future without needing welfare. She took a deep breath and nodded, finding strength from these words. Then she said them again to the baby.

She asked not to be called or considered mother, or the alternatives: first mother, natural mother, or real mother. She said it would be unfair and misleading to the baby, and to me. She didn’t mind the woman who gave birth to the baby. I thought she deserved something more, though I’ll admit I was relieved. Being called adoptive mother made me uncomfortable, too. I wanted to love, raise, protect, and nurture my child. If she was the natural or real mother, who was I?

I held the baby close. I inhaled her sweet smell. My husband leaned into me and put his finger in the baby’s tiny hand. I placed her, fast asleep, into his arms.

We had started preparing to bring the baby to our hotel the next day, and home with us soon after. Texas law required us to wait 24 hours, from the time the baby was born, before the adoption consent papers could be signed. We had already bought formula, receiving blankets, onesies, wipes and diapers, and a pink and white stuffed lamb rattle. We’d rented a car with a car seat and had a crib set up when we checked into a residence hotel. As we were leaving to go back to the hotel, her cell phone vibrated. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God.”

She made a hand motion requesting we stay, while she answered the call. She tearfully told her boyfriend (mouthing “thank you” to me first) that she would give him a chance to explain. We listened to her listen, sensing where this was heading. Not because we heard anything her boyfriend said or could tell much from watching her face. We sensed where this was heading because our deep-down fear, as adoptive parents, was that we didn’t earn or deserve a child that was handed to us, no matter how much we wanted a child. We could tell ourselves that we’d leave the next day with a daughter that was ours, but we knew she’d also always, in some way, be theirs.

If it had gone the way it was set up to go, nothing and everything would have changed. She would go on to college as planned and would forever carry on her shoulders that she had a child she didn’t keep. Instead, her boyfriend came to the hospital after we left. When our social worker went to her room with the consent papers the next morning, she brought back only a note. It said: Thank you. We held the baby all night. We’re both really, really sorry.

We called her room several times, but no one picked up. We then went on autopilot while handling loose ends. We returned the baby book our social worker had given to us, a gift for clients to record memories and milestones. My husband called our family and friends, who’d been waiting to hear good news. We returned the car seat to the airport at Dallas-Forth Worth. We barely spoke on the plane ride home.

I imagined what I might have said if she’d answered the phone. It might have been something pleading, urging her to reconsider. Or something stoic, forcing myself to say that she and her boyfriend should follow their hearts if they wanted to raise their child. I actually tried to talk myself into believing that this was true. I moved through grief and anger, seeing, as never before, that being told you were “chosen” didn’t come without a price. You can be un-chosen, without warning, and without a say. A child who is adopted also comes to know what being “chosen” means. If someone chose you and really wants you, someone else out there didn’t or couldn’t.

As soon as we returned to New York, I closed the door to the room we’d set up for the baby. Yet some nights, I found myself walking inside. I’d sit on the rocking chair I had pictured myself rocking her on. I spent many hours there hoping her parents would change their minds. It was a strong desire and one I struggled with, knowing that what I wanted was in no one’s best interest anymore, that I would become her mother only if, after finally coming together, her family would be broken apart.

Three weeks later, after another rushed adoption match, we were back in Texas. The hospital had a room set up for us to sleep in, before the consent papers would be signed. My husband and I knew, discussed, and weighed the risks. The birth parents still had time to change their minds in the morning after we’d have been with the baby all night. It was pain we didn’t want to feel again, but we knew we’d regret declining if this was our child. We agreed, for the sake of what could be our daughter, and what did turn out to be our daughter, that it was a risk worth taking.

We have learned through time that adoption, our greatest gift, is also hard to get right. We might have gone overboard making sure our daughter felt that our ties are as strong as blood ties. That she is our heart and light. Instead of telling her we chose her, we said families form in different ways and ours was meant to be. Whether she fully understood this or not, when she was 9, she told this to a friend and her friend accused her of lying. We were at Parents Observation Day at The Alvin Ailey Dance School, where she studied ballet and West African dance. Most of the kids in class were African American, and my daughter, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired girl, wearing a West African lapa while she danced for the parents, could pass for looking like me.

“You’re not adopted,” her friend said. “You look like your mom.”

I told her friend I was flattered she thought I looked like my daughter, and my daughter and I both smiled. But what I didn’t say, before her friend walked back to her parents was, “Yes, we did adopt her.” I was proud that we did and never hid this fact, but sometimes I just didn’t want the questions and stares. Sometimes I didn’t want to be reminded that she might look like someone in a family that isn’t ours, one that might long for her and wish they would have changed their mind, or might have moved on and tried not to look back. That, despite our fierce love, there’s a missing piece for her, an identity involving blood and birth that we are unable to give her.

At times, I wonder what became of the baby we didn’t take home. What had once been unbearable for us we could now be grateful for. A family was born that day, one we weren’t meant to be part of, and it led us to our daughter. She is 23 now, no longer looks like me, and is finding her own way to make sense of her story. As we have had to make sense of ours.

Joanna Laufer is the author of the book Inspired and of short stories and articles that have appeared in various publications. She lives in New York City with her husband and adorable cat. www.joannalaufer.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.

Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA

“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

False Positive

False Positive

Vector image of an bird's nest on white background

By Genevieve Thurtle

It’s late July, on the cusp of August. The morning sky is golden with an unusual light, strangely honeyed by the ash and smoke of a days-long fire, which is still blazing a hundred miles northeast of us. We can smell the smoke in our bedroom. Rob and I stand on either side of our bed, folding sheets, Ian’s small T-shirts. It’s early, and Ian is not yet out of bed. When the phone rings, I pad into the kitchen and pick up the receiver. From the display, I can see it’s Dr. Yu, my gynecologist, whom I will see later this week for the surgery or the procedure or whatever it is we’re naming it. I wasn’t expecting him to call, so I imagine the surgery schedule has gone awry, that they might have to postpone until later in the summer. I brace myself for a date change.

Dr. Yu greets me, wishes me a good morning in his tentative, halting way. “So, all of your blood work looks good, but I got the pregnancy test results back, and it did detect a low level, very low, of HCG,” he says. He pauses. “But it’s still positive.”

I wedge the phone between my shoulder and ear, and sit on the bed. It takes me a moment to understand him. “That’s impossible. How can that be?” I glance at Rob who continues to fold, his eyebrows raised. Dr. Yu goes on to give a few possible explanations, all of which involve me being pregnant or recently pregnant, despite my age–forty-three–Rob’s vasectomy and my own struggle with infertility years ago.

“Listen, just go back today for a second test,” Dr. Yu says. “We’ll stay the course with the procedure if it comes back negative. It could be a false positive. They’re rare, but they do happen.”

To my friends, I’ve been referring to the procedure, the uterine ablation, as “The Boiling.” It involves circulating hot saline within the uterine cavity to destroy the endometrial lining, which often lessens hemorrhagic periods, or makes them disappear altogether, but there are no guarantees, and considering my history of fibroids, the procedure is less likely to be successful. And my uterus has always played the wild card, which is why I’ve come to resent it, as much as one can resent an organ. It’s an unruly entity, wreaking havoc over the years with its pain and hemorrhaging, its fibroids and irritability. But at its worst, it endangered my pregnancies.

When I was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Ian, my OB noted that he was measuring small and that my amniotic fluid was low. “I think it’s best we deliver as soon as possible. Like today,” she had told me. “He’ll probably grow faster outside of the womb.” And he had. I still carry the guilt of his deprivation, my stingy uterus, only wanting to give him so much space, so much nourishment, my wild new mother’s love not enough to make him grow. Three years later, pregnant with a daughter, my uterus started to contract in the middle of the night, squeezing and squeezing until my water broke. My daughter Olivia, then twenty-three weeks, did not survive the birth.

***

The ablation would make me sterile, Dr. Yu had told me. The uterus, with its destroyed lining, couldn’t support an embryo, which is why he only recommended it for women like me, ones who were older, who were done having their children. Yes, done, I thought. Whatever that means. I use the word “done” a lot when people asked me if we want to have more children. Nope, one and done, I say, my voice vaulting up an octave to suggest lightheartedness. I know it is an overused epigram, but the terseness of it cuts off the follow-up questions, shields me from further probing that might lead to the real story, to our lost daughter at the heart of it all. The child-bearing phase of our marriage ended several years ago when Rob had a vasectomy, but my body was still physically capable of getting pregnant; it was still within my reach, however unlikely at my age and with my history. “I understand,” I say to Dr. Yu, and I do. Something like grief, but more muted, less barbed, hangs in my chest.

As it turned out, part of the pre-op involved getting a pregnancy test, just to make sure we didn’t unwittingly cause a miscarriage. I had complained about the test when the nurse told me to get it done a few days before the procedure. “It’s absurd,” I had told her. “I’m old, and my husband had a vasectomy five years ago.” “I know,” she said. “It’s just precautionary. Something for us to check off.”

The Friday before the procedure, I walked myself into the Kaiser lab and extended my left arm, resting it on a vinyl platform. I let the lab tech, a young Filipina woman tie off my arm with a blue latex band, and made a ball with my fist so when she tapped the thin skin of my inner arm a vein raised to the surface. “Just a quick pinch,” she said, and I nodded as she slipped the needle in.

“You OK?” she asked, waiting for the vial to fill.

“Oh, yeah. I’ve done this lots of times,” I said, and suddenly my eyes began to sting.

“All done,” she said. She pressed a wad of cotton into the punctured skin, and with her other hand, wrapped purple adhesive gauze around my entire arm to secure it.

***

“So you’re pregnant,” Rob says. I sit on the bed with the phone receiver still in my hand.

“Can you believe this?”

“That can’t be right. I mean, it has to be a mistake.”

“He said vasectomies aren’t foolproof. That maybe I was pregnant and miscarried, and the test’s still picking up the hormone, or maybe I’m pregnant now. Except that I’m bleeding. I just don’t know.” We’re silent for a moment. I can tell Rob is measuring the possibilities, the likelihood.

After we lost Olivia, Rob and I had tried to get pregnant again. About a year into trying, the doctor said it was time to go to specialists, to do IVF. Instead, we had opted for Rob’s vasectomy. We knew a pregnancy would be high risk anyway, considering what we had been through the last time, and would need the closest of monitoring from the very beginning, and then months of bedrest, and I was done with monitoring and with control and the fear of more grief. It had taken so much time and talking to get better, and this state of better was fragile, like an eggshell, which made me angry. Looking back now, I see the decision to do the vasectomy came, in good part, from anger. I wanted the universe to fuck off. It wasn’t going to keep us in limbo anymore. We would make the decision for ourselves, even if it meant scorching the land for the loss of a tree.

“This is absolutely insane,” I say. “After everything. I mean, Ian’s eleven.” Then something catches in my throat and I can’t talk, only laugh. An exhalation of disbelief is more like it, because nothing I say can get at that tangle that is Ian, his solitariness, and the sister he was supposed to have. When he was in second grade, he was assigned a Day of the Dead diorama, commemorating someone he’d known who’d passed away. One afternoon, we spent time at the kitchen table, discussing his choices. “I did have a sister who died,” he said, but he decided, instead, to dedicate his diorama to our recently deceased pet rat, Chip, which was a relief.

“So what happens now?” Rob asks. He stands above me, clutching one of Ian’s T-shirts. And in that beat of time between his question and my response, the visions start. Sitting there on that bed, I see them. I can’t stop it from happening. Ian, years older, tall, moppy-haired, as sweet as he is now, with a deeper voice. And her. This new baby. A little girl. I can’t help myself. She’s eight or nine. In elementary school. She’s grubby and wild, still living in leaves and air, a little feral still. I carry her from time to time, tell her she’s too old to be carried, but truth be told, I want to, so I lift her up and her legs wrap around my waist. I throw my hip out to bear her weight, even though she’s light, with her baby bones.

I shake off the dream. “I’m going to Kaiser now,” I say to Rob. “To take another test.” I pull on the clothes I wore the day before and forget to brush my teeth. I wrap my hair in a band and push around the mail on our kitchen counter to unbury my keys. I can’t get there fast enough. I’ll avoid the 101, with its morning traffic, the surge of people heading down the Silicon Valley corridor. I’ll take side streets and get there five minutes sooner.

Outside, the sycamore trees that line our street fan their leaves over me, and the sunlight filters through a blanket of haze. The air smells like a distant campfire, but I know better, and think briefly about the wildfire blazing a hundred miles north of us. In the car, I round the corner onto Ninth, and then, with the next left onto Delaware, the visions come back. There she is again, learning to walk. Ian, now thirteen, is gangly. He spots her from behind, just in case she pitches backwards. He still likes us, wants to spend time with us. His sister is a novelty, a person unfurling before him, and he can’t look away. She’s a fascination. We all watch her, amazed by the cleverness of her growth, her accomplishments. In the car, I smile in spite of myself.

Then he’s a high schooler, and I see him brush past her. He has his driver’s license now, and the world we inhabit with her is becoming a mirage to him, attenuating before his eyes as the world beyond us grows more real. He’ll be gone in a few years. Maybe he’ll never look back. We will be the house he visits during the holidays, and if we’re lucky, during those summers he isn’t working elsewhere. She’ll learn to read, and ride a bike, and make jokes, and swear, and he will be out in the world. As an adult, she’ll talk about her brother. “He was a lot older than me,” she’ll tell her friends or her lover. “It was like we were in two different families.” But our friends will say, “You’re so lucky. Ours are all gone, and you still have her.” We will raise two only children.

***

After the second test, as I’m driving home, I turn on the radio. It’s mid-program, and at first I have no idea what the show’s guests are talking about, but it soon becomes clear. They’re SETI researchers, and they speak with absolute certainty, voicing the belief I’ve heard many times before that the universe is too vast a place not to support life. They talk about coded messages sent into the crushingly dark terrain of space, of two rational species, alien to each other, coming into contact for the first time. The host asks about Hawking’s prediction, how the search for life beyond Earth is our most dangerous human undertaking, with its potential for catastrophe. As they talk, I conjure images of green antennaed creatures I remember from childhood cartoons. The mind tries to fill in what’s not there.

Soon Dr. Yu will call with the results, will tell me I’m not pregnant, that the first test was wrong. I will thank him, put the phone in its cradle, and then start the harangue. Of course, of course, of course, I’ll think. I’ll wonder how I got suckered into the visions, wonder how I could be so stupid. All of my softness will have been spent thinking of the little girl. But until then, the disembodied voices on the radio fill the car with their musings about life beyond our world, and I see her and imagine knowing her, loving her. I grip the steering wheel, making the many turns that will bring me home, and think of all that vastness hovering about us, of all the things real, yet undiscovered, and the unreal, beckoning for us to believe.

Author’s Note: “False Positive” is a companion piece to a recently-published essay about the loss of my daughter when I was twenty-three weeks pregnant. Nine years have passed since then, but I find myself still writing about her, and in the process, exploring how a parent’s imagination works mightily to re-create a lost child, a child she never got to know.

Genevieve Thurtle is a writer and teacher who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Her most recent work has been published in The Sun, Crazyhorse, and Appalachian Heritage. She is currently working on a memoir, Light These Bones.

 

 

 

Will Daddy Die?

Will Daddy Die?

img_1077_2By Lea Grover

“Mommy? Will you still love me when you’re dead?”

My six-year-old asks me this question a lot. She is a little focused on whether or not her parents will still love her once they’ve died. I’m 100% certain this is because her father has brain cancer.

I’m Jewish, and I often think of myself as an atheist, and that means I have pretty complicated beliefs about what happens to a person when they die. I try to be honest about death as much as possible, letting my children know that every single person dies, because life isn’t and can’t be forever, and that’s okay. I let them know that being dead isn’t scary, it’s just what happens when you’re not alive anymore. I desperately don’t want them to be afraid of death, or of somebody they love dying. I don’t say that when she asks me, though. I usually say, “Yes, honey. My love will always be there, and I’ll love you forever and ever and ever.”

My six-year-old and her twin sister both show signs of the strain of living with their father’s astrocytoma. One is fixated on the idea that we will all love each other even after we’ve died, an idea that gives her a great deal of comfort. Her twin has internalized the strain, and instead shows it by becoming hyper-emotional over increasingly minute elements of life she wants to control.

Her kindergarten teachers have taken me aside a few times to let me know she needs help controlling her emotions. I don’t tell them it’s hard to control your emotions when you know something big and scary is happening, and no one is capable of explaining it to you.

As much as I want to, I am doing a terrible job making their daddy’s cancer understandable. What we know as adults is that cancer is never something you can rationalize. I don’t want to scare them, so I tell them he’s getting better, which is only a half truth.

He is getting better, or rather, he’s not getting worse. That’s not what they want to know. What they want to know is what happens if he doesn’t get better? What does that look like? What happens to them? I have told them that lots of people get cancer, and lots of people get better. I haven’t told them that lots of people with brain cancer get better. I have told them that sometimes people die from cancer. I’ve told them that daddy has a device he wears on his head to help his cancer get better. I’ve also told them he probably has to wear it forever.

The looming unanswered and unasked question is, “Will daddy die?” And I have skirted it as much as I can, because I don’t want to answer it with any phrase other than, “Everybody dies, someday, probably not for a long, long time, and that’s okay.”

It’s a hard thing to live with as an adult, the idea that somebody you love is seriously ill, and going to be ill until they pass away. It’s a hard thing to live with when it’s you, when it’s your spouse, when it’s your child. But as adults, we are capable of so much. We can do our own research, we can express our fears and confusions to others in a way that can be constructive. We can run marathons or donate to charities or shave our heads in solidarity, and it makes us feel better to be doing something, anything, to make sense of the helpless feelings that come with this experience.

My children don’t have that, because these are new emotions for them. Learning to live despite constant, nagging fear is something that has taken me years to achieve. My six year old twins hardly stand a chance.

So when the kindergarten teacher tells me my kid had a meltdown about nothing in the playground, that her whole afternoon she was anxious and quick to cry, I don’t talk to her about daddy’s illness.

I wait until her twin sister asks me, as she does whenever emotions run high, “Will you love us even after you’re dead?”

“Yes, honey. I’ll love you forever and ever, even after I’m dead, and after that, and after that.”

Lea Grover is a writer and speaker living on Chicago’s south side. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, on websites ranging from Cosmopolitan to AlterNet, and soon in her first memoir. She speaks about sex positivity in parenting, and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.

Art by Mary Ann Cooper

A Birthday In The Park

A Birthday In The Park

A lone park bench in a botanical garden park

By Lori Wenner

The din of the birthday party seemed to fade as a cloud of primary-colored balloons drifted high above the treetops, slowly disappearing into the azure sky. We’d enjoyed birthday cake, sung “Happy Birthday” in a large circle and then released the balloons. But something was missing: the birthday girl was absent from her party. As the last balloon vanished, I heard a voice whisper, “I’m okay, Momma. I love you.”

The birthday girl was Alexa Christine, my first daughter and she had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a year before when she was eleven weeks old. My husband Rohn and I had decided to observe her first birthday with a gathering at her grave. We couldn’t bear the thought of the day passing unnoticed, as if she’d never existed. But I worried what others would think; I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Rohn had reassured me, with his typical confidence, that our loved ones would approve and attend. He was right. We marked Alexa’s birth as she deserved and received love and support that our friends and family would never have known how to give to us otherwise.

The dazzling summer sun spilled over our gathering and a breeze from the nearby Neches River granted us a reprieve from the southeast Texas heat. The mood was light with laughter, conversation and hugs. Our many guests mingled under the towering pine tree standing sentry over Alexa’s grave. The party also served as a send-off: Rohn and I would depart that afternoon for a Colorado holiday where, pregnant with our second daughter, Caitlyn, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool mountain air.

The cemetery where Alexa is buried is as green and lush as a city park. Pine and live oak trees shade the grounds, which are dotted with picturesque flower gardens. The grave markers are uniform, flush with the ground allowing an unobstructed view as the land slopes gently to the river below. Here, it’s easy to forget you are in a graveyard. When Alexa died, we chose four paired burial plots near the river, arranged head-to-foot. We buried Alexa in the middle of two plots; the other two were reserved for Rohn and me. I buried Rohn in his plot seventeen years later, when, at age forty-eight, colon cancer ended his life.

We celebrated Caitlyn’s first birthday fifteen months after Alexa’s. On that crisp, sunny October day, many of the same guests from Alexa’s party milled about our backyard, laughing and talking. The birthday girl, fashionably late after a long nap, entered the yard with her chubby hand in mine. Rohn videotaped her toddling by my side, capturing her pale pink smocked dress, her lacy socks, her white Mary Janes and the pink bow in her curly blonde hair. I presented the group with the queen of our world, my heart full to bursting.

Our family grew by two over the next six years, as Caitlyn’s sisters Jillian and Zoe were born. Big sisters and an ever-expanding cast of cousins increased the fun as we celebrated first birthdays with elaborate cakes from Beaumont’s best bakery and new dresses for the birthday girl and Mom. We chose Blue’s Clues, Jillian’s favorite Nickelodeon show, for her first birthday theme; the birthday girl wore an aqua, green and hot pink dress to match the chipper puppy and a headband that tamed her thick, black hair. At her own first birthday party, Zoe wore a vintage-inspired linen sundress, white sandals, and a white bow in her blonde hair. Rohn photographed her seated on our dining room table near her two-tiered pink cake, which she quickly devoured with both hands.

After celebrating Alexa’s first birthday with our friends, we honored the occasion each passing year with a dinner with my parents. In the early years, we also visited her grave. But, as time passed, I didn’t feel the need to visit Alexa there. I felt closer to her in our home giving her sisters the love I couldn’t give her.

Following his death, we celebrated Rohn’s birthdays at his favorite seafood restaurant, with his favorite cake: lemon with chocolate icing. Rohn had wanted these flavors for his groom’s cake, but for once, I’d said no to him. I would have been better off suffering through that cake once. When he didn’t get his requested groom’s cake, Rohn felt entitled to a lemon cake with chocolate icing for his next twenty birthdays. We continue this tradition now, reminiscing about Rohn’s other odd food combinations, like Steen’s syrup and cheddar cheese atop pancakes. In her first year away at college, Caitlyn marked her Daddy’s birthday by baking his favorite cake in her poorly stocked dorm kitchen and sharing it with her friends.

Caitlyn’s, Jillian’s and Zoe’s birthdays have always been about growth, hope and life; each represents another year that a child of mine has flourished. Since his death, Rohn’s birthdays have been about remembrance and gratitude. I often mention him to friends on his birthday. We laugh together, remembering the kind, gregarious, creative and unstoppable man we all loved. Rohn’s life was cut short, but he packed everyday of it working hard, playing hard and loving even harder. It is sad to remember Alexa on her birthdays and there isn’t laughter when I do, so I only mention her birthday to a few select friends.

Losing Alexa remains an agony, even after twenty-three years. I can easily recall the happy times in her short life, but I keep the the unvarnished fact of her death hidden away. I know that my daughter is dead, but I rarely access that reality. When I do, I say the words my baby died aloud. The intensity of my grief shocks me. Then I recall Julian Barnes’ thoughts on mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Alexa’s birthdays are not about a baby who didn’t get to grow up. They’re not about what might have been. After the initial devastation of her death, I wrestled with a heartrending question: Would conceiving and loving other children betray my love for Alexa? With time, I have come to believe that each unique child’s conception is only possible at one precise moment in time; a child conceived at any other time is a completely different person. If Alexa had lived, I would not have become pregnant so soon afterward and Caitlyn and her sisters would never have been born. In this way, I have come to believe that Alexa was meant to live for only seventy-seven days. This is a sadness I can bear; what I cannot bear is the sadness and regret of a life not lived.

A nursery RN for thirty years, I usually choose to work on Alexa’s birthday. I recall my first pregnancy, labor and delivery as I walk past room 319, the room where she was born. The babies I care for comfort me. At times, I see a whisper of Alexa’s spirit in their faces and for a moment, it’s as if she’s there with me.

Lori Wenner is an RN/lactation consultant who lives in Beaumont, Texas with her three daughters ages 22, 18 and 15. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, Nursing for Women’s Health and MEDSURG Nursing. 

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Growing Up Is Hard To Do — For Mommy

Art Growing up is hard to doBy Alisa Schindler

Dear Jack (My first born),

You’re not going to remember this because it happened just the other day and it was so ordinary, so unremarkable that there’s no reason you ever would. It was a small moment  that caused my heart to seize with love and anxiety.

We were in the kitchen and I was busy getting dinner ready. You trudged in to join your brothers at the table and finish up your homework, and as you often do, came over for a hug first. We hugged and somehow that hug turned into a sway. Your head rested near my shoulder and we rocked in front of the refrigerator to the sizzles of breaded chicken cutlets on the stove and your brothers arguing over a pencil.

I had a flashback of my wedding 18 years earlier when my husband, your father, danced with his mother. I see them there, rocking slowly, his head of dark waves leaning down against her coiffed blonde; her little boy grown into a man ready to start a life of his own. Wrapped up in my twenty-something self and the day that was all about me — I mean your father and me — I didn’t fully appreciate how bittersweet that moment must have been for my mother-in-law, your grandma, until now, until I saw myself as her in a few years that will be gone before I know it.

Tears dripped down my face and you didn’t even notice, but of course your brother Owen did.

“You’re crying, mommy,” he said, stifling a little laugh.

“Why are you crying?” Leo chimed in curiously, bouncing up and down on his chair.

None of you were in anyway upset or surprised by my emotion, and only mildly curious. Apparently I’ve cried into your hair a few too many times. I actually made the mistake of starting to explain to you all about the dance and your dad and about how fast you were all growing, until Owen interrupted me by cutting right to the heart of the matter.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Me too!” said Leo.

Jack, you gave me a sheepish smile and pulled away. “I’m hungry too.” You agreed and made your way to the table to do your homework.

Well that heartfelt talk passed quickly. Such is the attention span of a seven, ten and 13 year-old. It was back to the usual dinner making and homework doing, but I  couldn’t get the dance out of my head and I sniffled back my bubbling emotions as I dumped a box of pasta into boiling water. Soon you’ll be grown. You’re already in middle school, your bar mitzvah closing in and high school graduation just a hop, skip and a driver’s license away.

I swear it was a blink ago that you and your brothers just arrived. Blink, you’re all walking, talking and potty trained. Blink, you’re all in school. Blink, you’re having sleepovers, playing on travel teams and hanging out instead of going on playdates. We’ve already reached so many milestones together that have been filed away in the photo and video folders on our computer; blink, blink, blink, gone gone gone.

Remember when we went to Disney World when you were three and every time we got on the monorail you asked hopefully if it was going back to Long Island? Remember the entire summer before Kindergarten when yourefused to get on the school bus in September, but on that first day, terrified and so very brave, stepped up and on. Remember how afraid you were that I’d send you to sleep away camp like so many of your friends? You never even liked going to friends’ houses or having sleepovers. You’ve always loved your home and the familiar; so content to sit wrapped in a blanket and a book in your comfy chair, to boss around your brothers and snuggle with me.

But now that you are older, you’re changing every day. This last year has been a giant leap for you developmentally and socially and it’s just the beginning. Now, you love hanging out at other people’s houses. You walk home from school with friends. You recently unceremoniously bagged up the stuffed animals that you cuddled with every night and almost broke my heart. You tell me, “That’s private, mom.” when I can’t stop asking questions.

You’re growing up. Sometimes at night I look at your sweet face relaxed in sleep; your body growing out of boy and into man and cry happy tears for the young man you are growing up to be and sad tears for the baby you will never be again.

All these milestones watching you grow; watching the old you slowly disappear and the new you emerge amaze me. Every stage of you has been a gift, but I’m afraid of the day you leave; how every step of independence is a step away from me. It’s no secret I’m a bit over-attached; that I’ve worked hard to turn you and your brothers into mamma’s boys, although it was certainly your natural tendency anyway.

Growing up has been as hard for you just as it has been for me. Each year, at four, five, six and so on, you’ve wistfully mourned the loss of the passing year and I’ve mourned it with you. We’ve clung to each other with our mutual dependency but I can see by your shy smile and your new walk and talk that you’ve started the process of moving on.

But for the woman who stalked the nursery halls, has been class parent every year in school, has volunteered as often as they’d allow, and has lovingly finagled almost all play dates at our home through fresh cupcakes, a large supply of Wii and X-box games and a lot of balls and boys on the lawn, the idea of you (and then your brothers) leaving me is an inevitable that I don’t like to think about.

But I have to. So for self-preservation, I’ve also started finding myself a bit, branching out with my writing and reconnecting with the world outside my bubble. I’ll admit, somewhat begrudgingly, that I enjoy the time I’m spending on me. Those days where I could barely keep my sleepy head above water; snuggled up on the couch nursing your baby brother, with your younger brother climbing all around us while reading you your favorite Bob the Builder book seems so far away; another time, another place, another me. Another us.

Even though it is still years away, on a crisp autumn day that will be here before we know it, you will be going off to college. You’ve always maintained that you want to stay local and live at home but I’m not naively hopeful enough to believe that. No, you’ll go off to some fabulous school, where you’ll make many friends and the girls will love you (oh, that’s going to be a tough one). And it’s good. It’s so good but still it’s not easy watching your baby grow. It’s beautiful but it’s not easy as one day you’ll see.

“Mama!” Your brother Owen calls to me, interrupting my cutlet flipping and musings. “I need homework help…”

As I make my way to the table, he continues, “I also need milk.” I stop, turn on my heels and grab the container of milk from the fridge.

“I need help too,” Leo pipes in.

“Why are you copying me?” Owen says.

“I’m not!” Leo says, “I need help too!”

Back and forth they go, amusing me and then completely annoying me until I am forced to freak out on them, “Boys! Are you kidding me? Stop fighting over nothing. You know I’ll help you both.”

I place the milk in front of Owen and Leo immediately squeaks, “I want milk.”

And the fighting resumes.

I roll my eyes and look over at you, Jack, your face in your text book, not hearing the commotion all around you.

You don’t need my help to do your homework. You’re busy doing it yourself (Thank God, it’s Latin). And you don’t need me to get you a drink, but I will anyway. Because I intend to enjoy every second I have with you: I will cheer at your baseball games, drive you all over town, help you with homework I don’t understand, sit by your bed at night to cuddle and talk for as long as you let me, and always dance with you in the kitchen when the moment allows.

Love,

Mom (Formally known as Mommy)

Alisa Schindler is freelance writer who chronicles the sweet and bittersweet of life in the suburbs on her blog icescreammama.com. Her essays have been featured online at New York Times Motherlode, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Kveller among others. She has just completed a novel about the affairs of small town suburbia. 

 

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

Feeling the Weight of An Impossible Situation

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

bellow2

Like nearly all parents, I sometimes yell. I don’t like it, but it happens. Usually it’s close to the end of a particularly long or challenging day when the button-pushing preschooler in my daughter overtakes the exhausted mother in me, and for a split second I lose my cool. I yell, then I breathe, then I apologize.

I am grateful that these times are infrequent. I am grateful that I know I am not the only parent this happens to and that I just need to forgive myself and move on. I am also grateful because I know from experience just how much worse it can be.

There was a time in my life when I was stretched incomprehensibly thin, with no hope for recovery in sight, and it felt like all I did was yell or cry.

My daughter was barely three and my husband Steve was dying; one afternoon remains vivid in my memory.

I was trying to transfer Steve from his hospital bed to his wheelchair. His hospital bed was pushed against our bed, which was pushed against the opposite wall, and there was just enough space on the near side to maneuver the wheelchair.

He had not walked in nearly two weeks. The week before, I had signed the DNR order his hospice nurse had slid over the coffee table before she moved across the living room to listen to his heart and lungs. The prior day he had suffered a massive bloody nose and nine seizures, including one that lasted for seven full minutes. We were both exhausted and at our wit’s end.

During the last months of his life, Steve took high doses of dexamethasone, a corticoid steroid, to help control his persistent and insidious brain swelling. At six feet tall, he quickly ballooned from a slim 165 pounds to over 240 pounds.

Always fond of humor, we joked about our matching stretch marks, but it was truly a terrible transformation for him. People who didn’t know Steve before the steroid treatment did not recognize him in the photographs in our home. Though he had never been one to care much about looks, the uncontrollable weight gain and disfiguring side effects pained him, and he especially hated that it made it more difficult for me to take care of him.

I had transferred him hundreds of times. Sometimes the transfers were challenging, but I was strong, he helped as best he could, and most of the time they went fine. I knew from my brief stint in nursing school that no one in their right mind would ever transfer a patient of his size without multiple assists or a mechanical lift, but I also knew that he very badly wanted to stay at home and that I was going to make it work.

The transfer went terribly. He had almost completely lost his ability to use his right side in the preceding hours, a fact that neither of us was aware of until it was too late. I was not strong enough to bear all of his weight as we pivoted and he ended up half in the wheelchair with his right arm pinned beneath his body.

Every time something went wrong—a transfer, a medication complication, an infection, a functional decline—I felt somehow responsible, whether I had any actual control over the event or not. I knew, logically, I was not to blame, but I felt so guilty that I could not seem to manage it all, and all those months of challenges, complications, and of things going wrong had piled up.

In the midst of wrestling him upright and eventually back into the bed, our daughter came into the room. I have no recollection of her action—whether she was in danger of getting hurt as I struggled to move her father or she simply tried to speak to me at that moment—but I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I bellowed. She burst into tears and ran out of the bedroom.

At that point, I felt the weight of everything, unbearably. I so desperately wanted to do everything right: to give Steve the life and death he wanted and deserved, one with as much dignity and as little discomfort as possible; to love and support our daughter through that process; to keep all the little pieces of our quickly crumbling life together for just a little bit longer.

I wanted just a small slice of grace and peace in the throes of my chaos and grief. Instead, my life imploded in a matter of seconds and I unleashed all that fury, loss, and disbelief on my daughter. I felt like the absolute worst mother in the world.

I managed to get Steve back into bed. We were both exhausted and in tears. I called our daughter back into the bedroom. I apologized and told her that I shouldn’t have yelled, that I had been scared and that I was sorry. She hugged me and nodded and climbed into my lap. I kissed her forehead and wiped her cheeks.

On the wall above Steve’s hospital bed was a framed picture of our daughter taken the previous summer on White Head, the island in the Bay of Fundy where we visit family every year. The photograph was the epitome of light and joy: her grin haloed by wispy toddler hair, green fields, and blooming fireweed.

She pointed at the picture and asked if we could go to White Head when the snow melted. Yes, I nodded, of course. She paused and then asked if Daddy could come with us. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t, just yet. Maybe, I said, maybe.

Steve died almost exactly three weeks later, on the second day of spring.

I still sometimes feel guilty about those days, wondering if I could have somehow handled the stress better. I cringe when I think of the times I was frustrated or short-tempered, but I also recognize it was the weight of an impossible situation, exactly where no one ever wants to be: watching one’s life, love, and family disintegrate piece by piece.

I also remind myself that it wasn’t all burning rage and pain, though those memories are sometimes the ones that surface first, especially when guilt is at play. We had a lot of moments of love and light, of sacred time together as a family, and of beauty breaking through the suffering.

Those horrific months that I often wasn’t sure I would survive are now some of the most valued of my life. I was a disaster of a person and a thoroughly imperfect mother and wife, but I was there and I gave it everything I had.

It will always be one of my greatest honors that I was able to take care of Steve until the end, that he trusted and loved me enough to grant me that esteem. Despite everything we were facing, I never for one second considered not accepting that offering.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

16-x-16-x-1-3-4-kraft-corrugated-pizza-box-50-caseBy R.L. Maizes

Mama Jane’s Pizza sign gripping the roof of his silver BMW, Neal pulled up to a small ranch house with a shattered concrete drive. “Could be she’ll have the money, could be she won’t,” Mama Jane had said, handing him the pie. He rang the bell twice and was about to turn around when a boy of perhaps eight opened the door.

“Mom can’t find her purse.” The kid stood with one bare foot on the other, knobby knees pressed together. He had curly black hair Neal imagined girls would one day run their fingers through.

Neal could pay for the pizza. Probably should pay for it, but where did that end. He had never been especially charitable. It would be odd to start now, when he was neglecting his own family. Nevertheless he had the urge to hand over the pizza. He pictured the kid thanking him.

The boy touched the red delivery bag with two fingers.

“What’s your name?” Neal asked.

“Charlie.”

“I can’t give this to you, Charlie, you know that, right? That’s not how it works. Mama Jane has to get paid. Otherwise there are no more pizzas.” It was a crock. Charlie looked like he knew it, too, narrowing his eyes and shaking his head. What was one pizza?

Air conditioning rippled Neal’s frayed Sex Pistols T-shirt as he drove back to the pizza shop. A lifetime supply of mint gum filled a Seven-Eleven bag on the floor of the car. His girls, Allie and Avery, sophomores at Long Island Prep, inhaled the stuff. Used pieces wrapped in foil sparkled beneath the seats, tumbled across floor mats when he took a sharp turn, flattened beneath his sneakers.

He had stashed five thousand dollars in the glove box that morning and now he opened the box to gaze at the loose stack of hundreds. He had no immediate need for the money, but it reassured him they weren’t poor, not yet, which meant he could put off getting a real job. His wife, Maddy, would be furious if she knew he had cashed in a CD. The thought made him smile.

At Mama Jane’s, he slipped the pizza under warming lights to be sold by the slice.

He got home at 10:00. Maddy was in bed, reading a British novel, the kind that would make an unbearably slow movie. They used to watch movies like that together. She set the book on the nightstand and turned off the light. A halo burned around her white silk pajamas before his eyes adjusted. She punched up her pillow. “Landtech is hiring a manager.”

“So?”

“So we’re spending the kids’ college funds.”

The room smelled of the Tom Ford lavender perfume he had put in her stocking last Christmas. In the past, she had worn it as an invitation. He wasn’t accepting invitations from her now, though he sometimes imagined entering her roughly, hearing her cry out. He had always been tender. Maybe that was the problem.

He walked down the hall to his daughters’ room, his footsteps muffled by dense wool carpet. Standing outside, he re-read the stickers on the door: “Enter at your own Peril,” “Quarantine Zone,” and “If We Liked You, You’d Already Be Inside.” Light from the room leaked out beneath the closed door. He knocked.

“Who is it?” Of the two girls, Allie was kinder.

“It’s Dad. Can I come in?” He grasped the brass doorknob. When they remodeled, Maddy had made him look at hundreds of knobs he couldn’t tell apart.

“What do you want?” Sharpness came naturally to Avery, especially when she was talking to him.

He let go of the knob. “Just wanted to say good night to my girls.”

“We’re not dressed,” Avery said and laughed in a way that made him think it wasn’t true.

Since Maddy had gone back to work as a paralegal a month ago, he drove the girls to school in the morning. He had looked forward to spending the time with them. When they weren’t in school, they were off with their friends, kids whose names he no longer knew, and he rarely saw them. But as it turned out they had no problem disappearing in plain sight, riding with ear buds in or furiously texting, as if he wasn’t there.

“Take that thing off,” Avery said, pointing to the pizza sign.

He had forgotten it the night before. “I’ll just have to put it back on later.”

“I’m not riding in the car with that thing on.”

“We’ll help you, Dad,” Allie offered.

It was his fault they were pushy. His and Maddy’s. Always giving them whatever they wanted. He had once taken pride in earning enough to spoil them, and it had been easier than saying no. Now it was too late. He knew from experience to give in or Avery would throw a fit.

Wrestling with the sign, he scratched the roof of the car, cutting a jagged line through the luminous paint. “Fuck!”

“Dad!” Allie said.

“I guess it’s alright to say that now,” Avery said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He drove to school, both girls riding in the back, making him feel like a goddamn chauffeur. They used to fight to sit in front with him.

In the rear view mirror, he stared at them. They were beautiful, even Avery when she didn’t know she was being watched and wasn’t scowling, skin perfect and pale like their mother’s, straight black hair touched only by the world’s most expensive salon products. Allie had recently cut hers in a bob, he guessed so people would stop calling her Avery. Avery’s was past her shoulders. How two such attractive girls could have come from him was a mystery.

After he dropped them off, emptiness took hold of his day. Alone in the house, he started at sounds of appliances breathing on and off, and birds smacking into windowpanes. Maddy had left a printout of the Landtech job description on his desk. When he saw it, his chest tightened. Struggling to breathe, he ran out the back door, sat on the concrete stoop, and put his head between his knees.

The first time it happened, he was in front of a room full of clients, giving a presentation, like hundreds he had given before. As he clicked through his PowerPoint slides. Sweat soaked his forehead and splattered the remote control. He mopped his face with a linen handkerchief. Never had he been so afraid without knowing what he was afraid of. The oak conference table wavered. His clients were a blur of blue suits. Somehow he managed to get through the slides and never-ending questions.

That was five years ago, and hardly a week had passed since then without an episode. They happened at work and occasionally at home if he was thinking about work. When his consulting firm went bankrupt two months ago, he secretly celebrated, filled with relief. He didn’t know how much longer he could have gone on generating reports, attending meetings, currying favor with his CEO., all the while convinced he was having a heart attack and would die if he didn’t get out the building. Ashamed, he hadn’t told anyone about his condition, not even Maddy, who was never happier than when she was straightening his Burberry tie or brushing a piece of stray lint from his Dolce & Gabbana suit.

He had an MBA. How could work terrify him? Early on, he had diagnosed himself on the Internet, ordering Klonopin from a Mexican website, popping two when the panic attacks were at their worst.

When his breathing returned to normal, he went inside. On their monogrammed stationery, Maddy had left him lists of things to do. They had let go of the housekeeper, but if Maddy thought he would scrub toilets or mop floors she was mistaken. She had never done those things, taking golf lessons while the kids were in school. He crumpled the list of household chores and tossed it in the trash, folded a grocery list and put in his pocket.

At 3:00 he picked up Avery. Allie had stayed after school for band practice. They had gone only half a block when she opened the glove box. “Holy shit!”

“Close that!” How had he forgotten to put the cash back in the bank envelope? His heart pounded in his temples.

“I was looking for gum. Are you a drug dealer? Is that what you do all day?”

Glancing over, he saw her counting the money and he grabbed the bills, swerving and nearly hitting a parked car.

“It’s cool. You can hook me up.”

He shoved the money back in the glove box and banged it shut. With the back of his hand he wiped his forehead. “The gum is in the bag on the floor. I’m not a drug dealer. What do you need to be hooked up for, you don’t do drugs!”

“Did we win the lottery?” She had found the Seven-Eleven bag and was stuffing gum in her backpack.

“Leave some for Allie. We didn’t win anything. Don’t tell your mother about the money.”

“Why are you keeping secrets from Mom?” She opened the glove box again and fingered the money. “Can I have a hundred?”

What did she want it for? Did she do drugs? If she did, he didn’t want to know about it. “No.”

“You don’t want me to say anything, right?”

He had raised an extortionist. “Don’t tell anyone. Not even Allie.”

“We hardly talk to each other. She’s a geek.” She peeled a hundred off the stack.

When they got home he offered to make her a snack.

“Yeah, Dad, some milk and cookies because I’m three,” she said over her shoulder. She couldn’t seem to get away from him fast enough, and then he heard the door to her room slam shut.

Neal watched market reports on TV until it was time to go to Mama Jane’s.

He attached the sign to the roof of the car.

“It’s a gag, right?” Maddy had said when she first saw it. “It’s not enough for us to be poor, you want to humiliate me, too?”

Maybe he did. After he was laid off he was using Maddy’s laptop—his had belonged to the firm—and he discovered hundreds of e-mails to Jackson Lohr, the golf pro at their club, about their family, the girls’ social lives and her mother’s deteriorating health. Things she hadn’t even told Neal. But the worst of it was how she mocked him, writing in one: “He’s practically useless in the bedroom.” In another: “He reeks when he comes home from work. It’s like he’s run ten miles, yellow stains under his arms. I have to buy his shirts by the dozen. What’s so strenuous about sitting in an office all day?”

He had positioned the laptop behind his rear wheel and backed over it, thinking about the man in the plaid cap whose red nose Maddy had so often mocked. Then he had laid the machine on her pillow.

When she found it, she brought it to him in the kitchen.

“How are your golf lessons going?” he asked.

Red splotches darkened her cheeks. “I needed someone to talk to.”

He pretended to look at the issue of Sports Car Market he had been reading.

Maddy cradled the computer, trying to keep its shattered parts together. “To talk to. Like a shrink.”

“A shrink you fuck.” He turned the page.

“He never touched me that way.”

“What way did he touch you?”

“In a lesson.”

“Those must have been some lessons.”

To get to the pizza shop, Neal drove through a neighborhood of castle-like homes. Swimming pools liquefied sprawling backyards. Changing rooms the size of small homes pushed up out of the ground. Anorexic teens lay on lounge chairs, sipping lemonade served by Central American maids. Once, he’d delivered to one of those homes, and a man his age had tipped him fifty dollars, a kind of karma payment, Neal figured, so the man wouldn’t end up in Neal’s shoes.

At the shop, Mama Jane wore the same thing every day, jeans dusted with flour that matched the color of her hair, and a chef’s coat. “I got one for you,” she’d say when he came in the door, and he’d pick up the box and the receipt. She never asked personal questions, though she must have wondered about the BMW and the thick gold wedding ring. Or maybe she’d seen it all in her years behind the counter.

He’d applied for the job the day after he found the e-mails. “Long as you don’t mind your car smelling like pizza we can use you,” Mama Jane had said. Neal remembered delivering pizza the summer of his senior year in high school, sleeping until two in the afternoon, getting stoned before heading to work, and flirting with a girl named Melissa who came in for slices. When she learned he was starting Cornell in the fall, Melissa waited for his shift to be over and then blew him in his Camaro among empty soda cups and burger wrappers. “When can I start?” he asked Mama Jane.

No spouse or kids of Mama Jane’s ever stopped by the shop or called. Even without a family, she seemed happy. Perhaps that was the secret, Neal thought.

“Do you mind sharing with me how much longer you’re going to be on your vacation?” Maddy asked, when he returned that night. She muted Jimmy Fallon.

“I go to work every day.” He peeled off his T-shirt and cargo shorts, and dropped them on top of a full bathroom hamper. Delivering pizzas out of his car the past few weeks, open space all around him, he had felt calm.

“What you earn doesn’t pay for our groceries.” She sat up, arranging two pillows behind her.

“We should simplify our lives. People all over the world live on less than a hundred dollars a month.” He half-believed it was possible that the life they had constructed around wealth could somehow be reconstructed around—what? He wasn’t sure.

“You want to pretend you’re in Bangladesh? Do it alone. Explain to our girls why they can’t get mani-pedis with their friends.”

The girls were a problem. Their expectations were too high. “You earn good money. We should sell the house and move to an apartment. I could get rid of the car, buy a beater for the pizza route.”

She turned toward the TV. Gave Jimmy back his voice. The studio audience was laughing at a bit, but Neal imagined even they thought his idea was ridiculous.

“That’s what you want to do? Deliver pizza?” She was shouting.

“Maddy, the girls.” He closed their bedroom door.

She hugged her legs and dropped her forehead to her knees. Her voice, softer now, sounded like it might crack. “Why aren’t you looking for a real job? Just because I sent e-mails to a golf pro?”

Here was his opportunity to confess his malady. She’d have to understand. She was a compassionate person, wasn’t she? When he first met her she was living in an upper west side studio with a one-eyed cat she’d rescued. She was volunteering at a soup kitchen. But it had been years since their lives revolved around anything other than the girls and the remodel and getting into the right golf club, which turned out to be the disastrously wrong golf club. “The corporate life isn’t for me anymore.”

“Not for you anymore. Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

When he picked Avery up after school the next day, she snapped open the glove box. “Where is it?” she demanded.

He was starting to hate her. He still loved her but he also hated her. “None of your business.” As he pulled into a busy intersection, he saw her rummage through the glove box and find the bank envelope. “Leave that alone.”

“I need another hundred.” She slipped it out of the envelope.

“You can’t have it.” He snatched it and stuffed it in his pocket. “What do you need it for?”

“It’s for a friend. You don’t know her.” She pulled another bill out.

“You can’t have it. I’m not kidding.” When he tried to seize it, she lifted her hand against the window, out of his reach. The car swerved but he righted it. “What does your mystery friend need it for?”

“She’s on the golf team and can’t afford the green fees.”

Golf. It was at the root of all of his problems. Or she was making the girl up. “I’m not giving your friend money. She should ask her parents.”

“They don’t have money. She’s on scholarship.”

“We don’t have money, either. Maybe you haven’t noticed but I deliver pizza.”

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I don’t give a fuck.”

Furious, Neal leaned over and grabbed her arm. All he was to her—to all of them—was a paycheck. Once he stopped bankrolling their private school and designer clothes, he wouldn’t exist. Maddy had already replaced him with an alcoholic golf pro.

The sound of the impact wiped everything else out. The interior of the car flashed white. Neal was shoved back in his seat, his eyes closed. When he opened them, the BMW was facing oncoming traffic and Avery’s head was covered in blood.

Later that night, after an ER doctor examined and released him, after an officer cited him for reckless driving and he called a lawyer, Neal stood trembling next to his daughter’s hospital bed thanking a god he didn’t believe in that he hadn’t killed her. Maddy sat on a chair on the opposite side of the bed, clutching Avery’s hand. Avery had broken three ribs and had a concussion. Her hair was a patchwork, shaved in half a dozen places where the doctors had stitched her scalp. A jagged cut furrowed her right cheek. Asleep under heavy doses of painkillers, she didn’t know what she looked like. She would find out soon enough, and she would blame him for destroying her appearance and the status that went along with it and for all the glances she would get that would be curious rather than admiring.

It was his fault. When he had reached for her arm, the light turned red, but he didn’t see it and continued into the intersection. An SUV rammed the passenger side of the BMW.

Allie stood behind her mother, staring at Avery. “Is she going to be alright?”

“Yes,” Maddy said. “It’ll take some time. She’ll need your help.”

“What about her face?”

“We’ll do plastic surgery and tattoo the scar. You’ll hardly notice.”

“Mom?”

“What is it?”

“I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

“That’s okay, baby.”

Allie fell asleep in a chair and Maddy motioned for Neal to follow her into the hall. “What happened?” she whispered. Since the morning, she’d aged. New lines appeared beneath her eyes. She’d run her fingers through her hair so often it looked slept on.

Bright hospital lights bounced off the walls and the linoleum floor. It seemed an appropriate place for an interrogation. “I leaned over to take something from her.” A firebox hung on the wall and Neal was tempted to pull it.

“What was so important you had to have it?”

“Cash she found in the glove box.”

“You should have let her keep it.”

“If I had known this would happen, I would have.” Carrying a stack of clean sheets, a nurse’s aide glided by on rubber-soled shoes. Neal longed to go back in time, uncash the CD, and save Avery.

Maddy had rushed to the hospital from work and still wore her tailored gray suit and narrow pumps. She shifted back and forth, uncomfortable in the shoes or the conversation, or both. “How much was it?”

“A lot.”

She wrapped her arms around her belly. “You’re planning to leave us.”

“No.”

“Then why?”

“It reassured me.”

“If money makes you feel so good, go back to work.”

When he tried to take her hand, she pulled away. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack when I’m in an office,” he said. “Like I’m going to die if I don’t get out.”

“Since when?”

“Since forever.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She shook her head and looked past Neal.

“I was ashamed. And we were doing that goddamn remodel. Everything was so expensive. The fixtures, the windows, the cabinets—they might as well have been made of gold. I didn’t see how I could leave the job, so there was no sense worrying you. I was worried enough for the both of us.” Neal looked down at his bloody T-shirt and shorts. “Besides, you only like me in a suit.”

“That’s not fair. You stopped talking to me. Telling me what was going on inside you. I thought you were having an affair.”

“You were the one having the affair.”

“They were just e-mails.”

“And lessons.”

“And lessons. But I don’t take them anymore. And we don’t e-mail.”

“How’s your handicap?”

“Lousy.”

 Finally, some good news. She didn’t have time for golf.

He spent the next day in the hospital with Avery, who ignored him except when she wanted something. In the hospital gift shop, he bought the copies of Elle and Vogue she had asked for.

“I’ll never look this good. Not anymore,” she said, when he handed them to her.

“Sorry.” What else was there to say? He was sorry. And anything he tried to say, about how she would get through this, she would contradict. That was how it had been lately. She wouldn’t accept comfort from him, neither of the twins would.

She turned back to the soap opera she’d been watching. “Get me a diet coke and a salad. Not from the cafeteria. From the health food store on Lakeville.”

He returned with her lunch and was about to enter the room when he heard her sobbing. If he went in, she’d stop and pretend she’d never started, so instead he sunk to his heels, leaned against the corridor wall, and waited.

“I’m starving,” she said, her voice quieter than usual, when he brought the food in. “You took forever.” Crumpled tissues were scattered across her blanket. Neal gathered them, dropped them in the trash, and washed his hands.

Maddy came over after work and Neal drove her Buick to the pizza shop.

Mama Jane was kneading dough without looking at it, pressing and folding it over itself. The dough looked pure and smelled ripe with yeast. Neal briefly wished he were a pizza chef instead of a delivery boy.

“I got one for you. It’s that woman hardly ever has money. Okay if you don’t want to take it. I could sell it by the slice and save you a trip.”

He picked the box up off the counter. “Maybe tonight they’ll get to eat it.”

“Hope—that’s good.”

But it wasn’t hope. He was betting on a sure thing. When he arrived at the house, he set the pizza down, rang the doorbell and retreated to his car. Driving away, he saw in his rear view mirror Charlie take the box inside.

R.L. Maizes lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, and her dog, Rosie, under the benevolent dictatorship of Arie, the cat. Her stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Blackbird, Slice, The MacGuffin, and other literary magazines. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spirituality & Health, and other national magazines.

Soulmate

Soulmate

By Lexi Behrndt

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I never knew a son could be a soulmate

 

I spent my childhood dreaming of a soulmate. Someone who would be a new oxygen to fill my lungs. I read Wuthering Heights and swooned over the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff, and I knew in my bones that my person was out there. He had to be.

At eighteen, I fell quickly for a boy I thought truly saw me for me, the look in his eyes one of love. I married that boy, and what followed was the opposite of my dream. I spent years cursing myself for my idealistic tendencies, and wishing away the idea that my true love was somewhere out there. Our marriage was over before it was over, my hope for a soulmate long gone.

Together, we had two sons. One and then the other, fifteen months apart. When my first son was born, I was surprised by motherhood, and all that came with it. It was as though I had grown into my true self for the first time, loving and giving all I had to another. I could not get enough. When my son was six months old, on a hot July morning, I took a pregnancy test, and when the two pink lines appeared, instead of the fear I maybe should have felt at a poorly-timed pregnancy, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of joy. I knew this baby would receive all the love I had to give, just like his brother before him.

And when he was born, one cool April morning, he was placed on my chest, the powerful love rushed in, and then, the fear. The room quieted as I asked, “Why is he purple?” I watched as medical team members swarmed around him like bees watching their hive fall. Frantic and hurried, yet calculated and somber. I was forced to say goodbye to him repeatedly over his first few days of life, instead of wrapping him in my arms and holding him close for one, long, never-ending hello.

What followed was six and a half months of living in a pediatric cardiothoracic ICU as he battled congenital heart disease and pulmonary hypertension. Six and a half months of victories, hardships, setbacks, sweet kisses, moments my heart lurched out of my chest with contentedness and love, and moments my lungs deflated, suddenly unable to remember how to breathe. We bonded with cords and monitors, and I sang him songs repeatedly, if only to cover up the noise of the alarms. And when I entered his tiny, sterile hospital room, he always seemed to know, his eyes searched the ceiling, as if they were waiting to lock with mine. I was his, and he was mine. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep him with me, healthy and whole. But then, after 200 days, the fateful day came, and I watched all the dominos fall as I held him in my arms, and while everything screamed and raged within me, I told him it was okay to go.

I left the hospital numb with my mother and my older son beside me, with nothing but a lock of his hair, his favorite socks, his stained swaddle blankets. “This is the end of it all,” I thought.

But it wasn’t.

If you had told me two years ago that inside the sterile walls of a children’s hospital I would be forever changed, I never would have believed you. I gave birth to a little boy I had to give back, and the living and the giving was my saving grace. Somehow, my little boy with sick lungs and crummy veins taught me exactly what I needed.

He taught me to fight. He taught me to love without fear. He taught me to find my voice and stand my ground. Before him, I was stuck and desolate, and I didn’t even know it. He took care of his momma more than I took care of him. A little boy with the biggest blue eyes took my life by storm, and made sure he left me stronger, braver, kinder, and with more love than I realized my heart could hold.

I received a card after my son’s death, from a friend who had also lost her son. Her sentiment was simple yet profound, one lovely sentence that has stayed with me in the year since his death.

“I never knew a son could be a soulmate.”

I never did either, until I met mine.

Lexi Behrndt is the founder of Scribbles and Crumbs and The On Coming Alive Project. She is a single mother to two boy—one here and one in heaven, a freelance writer, and a communications director. Join her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

The Unexpected Grief Of The Unknowing

By Sonya Spillmann

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When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?

 

I didn’t think it would start this early: she is only nine. My daughter is not looking at me, but through me. We’re standing in the kitchen and I have one hand on the counter and the other on my hip. I’m leaning into her as she adjusts her elbows and ankles, getting comfortable for my lecture. She is somewhere beyond me. I know her look, her stance. I perfected it with my own mom.  

As I look back on those years battling with my mother, I find myself wondering: Was I a good child with horrible moments—a typical teenager? Or had I permanently damaged my relationship with my mom? Is there a distinction? Where is the line?

I don’t know the answers. I never had the chance to find out.

My mom died when I was eighteen, at the tail end of my senior year of high school. She was diagnosed with cancer ten weeks before she took her last breath. I was busy planning for my big exciting life away at college while my mother counted out her days.

Growing up, my parents were strict, their rules covered by a heavy blanket of expectation from our church’s traditions. No makeup. No jewelry. No dancing. No dating. Modesty always, especially in church, where pants weren’t allowed and head coverings were worn by women of a certain age to show their submission to God.  

As teens do, I challenged the rules and pushed my way onto roads my parents never expected to travel. I wasn’t a bad kid—I was just hard for them. I challenged the status quo. I wore jewelry and went to prom with my boyfriend, all against their wishes. I fought with them over everything and nothing.

We had too many arguments to remember. Except for one.

My mom and I were standing in the kitchen with it’s new cream, navy, and maroon striped wallpaper. She stood on one side of the room and I was on the other. I don’t know what she wasn’t giving me or not allowing me to do, but she wouldn’t change her mind. I had lost the battle, so I went deep and picked a new prize.

Could I push her enough to slap me?

She walked out of the kitchen to the garage, with it’s yellow textured walls and shelves full of tools. I followed her, relentless.

“But you said…”

“I can’t believe…”

“Everyone else…”

From the garage, she went out onto our deck. She needed nothing in the garage or from the deck, minus an escape. Twenty years later, I realize she was running away from me, in the only way loving mothers can. Hoping diffuse a situation with a quick exit, to anywhere the other person is not—allowing physical space and stolen time to shift the dynamic just enough.

My sharp tongue lashed at her soft skin over and over and over. Until finally, I cut too deep and she slapped me squarely across the face.

Anger. Power. Guilt. Pride. Satisfaction. Limits. The pain and mix of emotions (for both her and myself) stopped my self-centered world for a moment.  

My left cheek stung. And I imagine, as she walked past me through the garage into the house and back to our kitchen, closing the door on me, her hot tears of anger, power, hurt, and guilt must have stung, too.

When does an adolescent’s desire for independence from her mother wane and the longing for restoration begin? When do mothers and daughters reach a tipping point, and the pushing away becomes a pulling towards?  

Last week, I asked an acquaintance if she’d like to get our kids together for a playdate. “You pick the day. I’m free.”

“I’ll let you know,” she said, “we usually get together with my mom a few days of the week.”

When I see a woman flanked by her mother and daughter, creating a chord of generational harmony, a very hard note pounds in my heart. Unable to be that middle participant, I wonder, will I have the chance to do this with my own daughter and her child one day?

For my daughter to be a healthy adult, she and I must become autonomous. I need to accept part of her growing up involves our separation, and this is often hard work. Should the next decade be arduous—requiring me to both set limits and keep arms open while she vacillates between childlike trust and the pulling with unbridled independence away from me—am I willing to hold my ground, not knowing if we will have the chance, the time, to move past this stage of life? If I find myself in my mother’s shoes, dying young, will I regret not making these years more pleasant, though I know it would be a disservice to my daughter in the long run?  

Hope Edelman, in her book Motherless Daughters, writes of the many cycles of grief a woman experiences when she loses her mom:

“A daughter who loses a mother does pass through stages … but these responses repeat and circle back on themselves as each new developmental task reawakens her need for the parent. … At each milestone a daughter comes up against new challenges she’s frightened to face without a mother’s support, but when she reaches out for her, the mother isn’t there. The daughter’s old feelings of loss and abandonment return, and the cycle begins again.”

I grieved my mother at my high school and college graduations, at my wedding, and after each of my children’s births. As much as I could, I anticipated those griefs. But surviving them left me disarmed and vulnerable to the emotions I feel with the first strains of my daughter’s impending teenage years. I did not anticipate grieving the relationship I wish I had with my mother now.

This new grief, I call it the Unknowing, is unexpected.

I grieve not having the privilege of time; a gift which makes no guarantees, but at least offers the possibility of true reconciliation. I grieve not being able to show my mom I was deserving of the forgiveness she so graciously gave me in her last days. I grieve not being able to call her and ask her what to do with this little girl who will soon be a young woman. I grieve not knowing what the future holds, and I cannot help but fear I will be taken from my daughter before we have time to mend our relationship which will inevitably fracture throughout the process of her becoming an adult.

So here I am, feeling like a teenager while I simultaneously prepare to raise one.

After my mom’s diagnosis, she started chemotherapy. Although she only got worse, as a family, we didn’t discuss the possibility of her death. Even so, toward the end, each child was given a chance to talk with her alone. Without being told, I knew she was dying. She was in the hospital, requiring oxygen and hydration, and only days away from hospice care. She was cachectic and the chemo partially paralyzed her vocal chords, making conversations quiet and strained. My dad ushered me into the quiet room and I cautiously sat on the left side of her hospital bed.

Because this would be our last real conversation, I felt an urge to ask for her forgiveness. There are no adequate words to apologize for being a teenager when your mother dies.

As I started to speak, she shook her head. I began again, but she stopped me. She put her frail hand up, palm facing out. The same hand which set a limit on our deck years ago set another that day.

With her hand still up, she said four words I will always carry with me.

“You’re a good girl.”

Through all my self-doubt, and the grief I still experience, I am comforted knowing my mom knew my heart. She understood (more than I could have at the time) how typical, though ill-timed, my behavior was. Nothing changes a mother’s love.

Sonya Spillmann is a nurse and freelance writer who lives outside of DC with her three kids and husband. Her personal essays have been on Huffington Post, Coffee+Crumbs, and others. She was a cast member of DC’s 2015 Listen To Your Mother show and writes at spillingover.com to share stories of grief and grace. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Things No One Told Me About Grief

Things No One Told Me About Grief

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.”

 

No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.

What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.

No one ever told me grief was something you owned (or does it own you?), something that settles in and takes up residence like the lump in my throat and the dampness around my eyes.

No one purposefully neglected to tell me these things about grief. Loss, pain, sorrow, heartbreak, they are all simply topics that aren’t discussed in depth and that are experienced in both unique and universal ways. To say: this is how you will experience grief robs it of the unique, yet to say: this is how we mortals experience grief is to give the gift of not being alone. How do we talk about things for which there are no words, in any language that can capture the whole of it? The pain of tragedy burns so deeply and transformatively that we pander around in art, movies, poetry, flowers, songs, essays, trying to grasp the unfathomable. That’s what tears are for, they are the words of the utterly crushed.

But now I have to talk with my children about grief, about endings, about things that cannot be changed. There are so many difficulties in life but the only thing that cannot, ever, be changed is death. For those with faith, there is hope of life after death but this is not the hope of a miraculous physical resurrection in the days before the funeral, before the burial. Death is final, the last word before eternity.

How do I talk with my daughter about her friend? She hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened or what she is feeling and thinking. She resorts to action in place of words and so I’ve been letting her light candles and stare at them, her eyes full of wonder, confusion, and sadness. She taped photos to her bedroom walls and filled the first pages of her Christmas journal with cutouts from the memorial service bulletin and notes on what their friendship meant to her. She found a small bag of gifts her friend had given her and buried it deep in her dresser drawer. She showed me some selfies they took together.

I’ve told her about how my body is reacting to this sadness, she knows. She sees me crying while I do the dishes or yawning in the middle of the afternoon after a sleepless night. She hears me talk about the messages passed between the adults involved. We share memories of her friend, pictures, words that feel both full and far too empty. I don’t know if, as my daughter grows and faces more loss, she will remember these discussions or her current sadness, she is only ten. She struggles to articulate what she is feeling. Later, she might feel like no one ever told her grief would be so physical, so close to fear, so inconvenient, so exhausting.

Though I don’t know exactly how to talk with her about grief and loss, we still talk. I tell her about the accident, I answer her questions. How is a body transported internationally? What happens at a funeral? What does her friend look like now? I don’t know how to answer all her questions but that’s what I say. “I don’t know.” This is one thing I want my daughter to know. When she experiences sorrow, now and in the future, it is okay to not know everything. It is okay to be surprised by what sadness feels like, or doesn’t feel like.

The friend who died lived in a different country and one day my daughter said, “I don’t miss her today because I didn’t see her every day. But when I go there to visit and she is gone, I think I will feel sad again.” The words had a question mark in them. I think she was asking, “Is that okay? To not feel sad now but to feel sad in a couple of weeks?”

This is another thing no one told me about grief but it is something we all know. There is no timeline, no proper moment to start or end the mourning. It becomes part of our days, woven into the sunrise and the dirty dishes and the photos on our computer screensavers.

C.S. Lewis also said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

It is scary to raise my daughter to love, hoping she will stay tender and vulnerable, in other words able to be wounded. But this wounding love is also what makes us strong. In love we build friendships and communities and when grief takes our breath away, these connections step in and become our strength. We are so easily broken but when there is no strength to stand, the communities that love us move closer, tenderly gather the shattered pieces, and hold us.

No one ever told me that explicitly, either, but I think I’ve known it all along. That love both breaks and heals. Walking through loss with my daughter and sharing our grief is strengthening our relationship. Even though it won’t miraculously heal scars or close up black holes of loss, shared grief is what love looks like.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

Sitting with the Loss of My Daughter’s Sisters

By Melissa Hart

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My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth.

 

At nine, I read a novel in which a boy’s beloved hound dog got mauled by a cougar—ripped open from breastbone to pelvis so that her entrails spilled out and festooned a nearby bush like Christmas tinsel as she attempted to follow her master home. That’s how I felt when my mother and her girlfriend left me on my father’s front porch Sunday nights, and I watched their VW bus disappear down the street for 10 days—like my entrails were cascading from my gashed abdomen, pooling in a pile around my white Keds.

And that’s how I felt 35 years later, watching my nine-year-old daughter say goodbye to her older sisters on our front porch after 24 hours of let’s pretend and coloring books and hiking trails while I wished their adoptive mother a safe journey two and a half hours back down the highway.

My mother lost custody of me in the homophobic 1970s when she left my father for a woman. My daughter lost her mother to addiction at birth. She didn’t miss the parent she’d hardly met. But her sisters with their identical timbre and diction, their shared love for dollhouses and hip hop, their shared trauma—these girls, she missed.

My husband and I adopted her from Oregon’s foster care system. Another family had adopted her sisters—one of them developmentally delayed—and couldn’t parent a third infant with significant medical needs. We agreed to an open adoption, to visits with them when time and schedules permitted. For several years, our meetings consisted of tentative hours at shopping mall playgrounds and children’s museums as we got to know each other, gradually lengthening into daylong playdates and this season, a sleepover.

They tell you that as a parent, you’ll experience all the ages and stages of childhood again vicariously through your kid. I never found this to be true until the moment my daughter stood out on our winter porch with the kitchen vent emanating smells of her favorite macaroni and cheese, and she told her sisters goodbye.

All at once, memory walloped me. The girls clung to each other with goosebumps raised on their skinny arms, called “I love you, Sissy!” with their breath creating smoke flowers in the crisp air. Then, two of them walked to their car and one of them stayed behind, and my insides spilled out.

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Every other Sunday in the eighties, when I stepped through my father’s door, I paused for a moment to take the temperature of the house. Almost always, he sat in his bedroom upstairs paying bills and listening to Vin Scully recap Dodger games on the radio. My stepmother stood in the kitchen describing for my younger siblings the new dessert she’d concocted from crushed Oreos and vanilla pudding or fresh Meyer lemons and cream cheese or bottles of stout poured into chocolate cake batter.

Alone, I sat on the carpet in my room and pillowed my head on the bed. No one came in. If I missed dinner those Sunday nights, if I shook my head at my stepmother, mute with sorrow, she returned to the dining room explaining my absence as “hormones.” I listened to my father’s overloud laughter and pressed my hands against my sternum, wondering how on earth to hold myself together for ten days before I could see my mother again.

Losing a family member over and over becomes a Sisyphean series of cruel small deaths. It would have been easier not to visit my mother every other weekend all the years of my adolescence. It would be easier not to see my daughter’s sisters, to let the girls get on with their lives 100 miles apart. But easy isn’t always optimal.

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This winter on our porch, I left my daughter waving goodbye to her sisters in the car disappearing down the road. I went into the house and sat at one end of our big green couch, legs splayed inelegantly across the cushions, and reached for the warmest, softest blanket I could find. Then, I waited.

How do you help a child through grief and loss? The first few years, I met the moment of the sisters’ parting with a barrage of what I believed to be comforting distractions.

“Let’s go see a movie!” I told my daughter. “Let’s go to the trampoline park! Get ice cream! Go roller skating!”

She took my suggestions, mute, eyes wide and glittering as an animal’s when it’s in pain, and I congratulated myself for avoiding the chilly disregard of my father and stepmother. But last summer, after a playground visit with the sisters ended much too quickly, she hurled these words in my face: “Mommy, I don’t want to do anything!”

I heard her, and thought with a spinning head, what now?

The Buddhists tell us to sit with our pain, to make friends with it. Three decades ago, I sat with the loss of my mother surrounding me until I fell into bed exhausted. I think about what I wanted from the two parents with whom I lived—not space to process the transition as some obtuse child psychologist had counseled my father. Not even the whimsical desserts that my stepmother presented on her silver cake tray and I failed to recognize as reparation. I would have said no to a trip at the cinema or a game of Monopoly. I longed only for someone to say, “You hurt,” so that I could nod and push my insides back in and soldier on.

So this winter, I sat on the couch with a soft plaid blanket on my lap, and I waited. My daughter walked into the living room without looking at me. She closed the door against the 34-degree wind rattling our front yard cedar and wandered into her room.

I’ve failed, I thought. But she returned. Eyes downcast, she walked over to me and sat on the couch, straddling one of my outstretched legs. Then she crawled between them and lay against my chest. I covered her with the blanket and put my arms around her.

I couldn’t tell her it would be okay. Because it isn’t okay.

But if we can acknowledge that, not okay becomes more bearable.

My daughter and I sat there together on the couch for an hour and just breathed. She dozed a little in the warmth from the baseboard heater. I closed my eyes, as well.

For once, maybe I got it right. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with her, the slippery tangle of our entrails surrounding us, and held on.

Sky Pony Press will publish Melissa Hart’s debut middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, in April. She teaches for Whidbey Island’s MFA program in Creative Writing.

Photo: Andrew Pons/unsplash.com

A Namesake for Nonny

A Namesake for Nonny

By Mimi Sager Yoskowitz

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At 32 weeks pregnant, I board a Chicago-bound plane from New York, teary eyed and wary about leaving my husband and traveling this late in my pregnancy. I’m heading back to my hometown to celebrate turning 30 with my high school girlfriends. We planned this getaway before I told anyone I was pregnant, so I never raised my concerns about the timing. But the timing turns out to be a blessing of sorts. My 94-year-old grandma has been in and out of the hospital, and this trip provides me with an opportunity to spend time with her.

Nonny’s apartment in the assisted living facility has a view of Lake Michigan. We stare out at the waters together, and she places her wrinkled hand on my burgeoning belly. Just as she settles in to check for some movement, her future great-grandchild kicks out a giant thwack!

“That’s a boy,” she says chuckling.

“You think so, Nonny? How can you tell?” I can’t help but smile.

“It’s so active.” Her tone is matter-of-fact as she rubs my pregnant middle, seeking out more signs of baby.

“All right Nonny, we’ll find out soon enough.”

I wonder if her old-fashioned stereotype will prove to be true. My husband and I are going the traditional route and not finding out the gender of our baby. And so it will be another few weeks before we know if my grandmother’s prophecy is correct.

After I return to Manhattan, Nonny and I start calling each other more frequently. It’s a mutual check-in; we are each concerned with how the other is faring. It seems that while my baby grows each day, getting ready to enter this world, my grandmother becomes weaker, getting ready to leave it.

“Hello?” Nonny answers the phone.

Cars honk and buses screech in the background as I walk home from work, but her voice still comes through stronger than the last time we spoke. Hopefully that means she is doing OK.

“Hi Nonny. How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, you know, Mimi. I’m waiting. I’m waiting until June 1.”

June 1 is my due date, and soon these words become her standard reply every time I ask how she is feeling. It’s just like Nonny to come up with a clever way of expressing her desire without being too emotional. Her love and determination remain strong, even as her heart weakens.

The special bond I share with my grandma dates back to my infancy when I served as a source of comfort as she grieved my grandfather’s sudden death. There are photos of us snuggling on the couch while she reads to me. Those cozy moments on her lap morphed into shopping excursions, sleepovers, and later, after I graduated from college, evening visits when I’d stop by her apartment after work.

As grandmother and granddaughter, we can do no wrong in each other’s eyes. For both of us, she has to meet her great-grandchild who is growing inside of me.  

On Mother’s Day, my husband and I head to Buy Buy Baby to complete our registry and take one more gander through the mega store that seems to hold all the paraphernalia needed to calm our first-time parent jitters. After combing the aisles filled with every possible stroller, breast pump, burp cloth and car seat known to parent-kind, we hail a taxi and head back home.

“Let’s finalize our boy and girl names and be done with it.” I have my husband cornered in the back of the cab. He’s been avoiding a decision, wanting to wait until we are  closer to the due date. Now I waddle instead of walk, and my belly tightens with Braxton Hicks contractions. It’s time to decide.  

During the course of my pregnancy, our conversations about our baby’s name ranged from calm and funny to heated and frustrating. We’ve combed through multiple baby name books, searched the Internet, and drawn up lists. Our preferences vary from the traditional, like Jacob, to the more modern, such as Talia. We discuss naming the baby for the grandparents we have lost, though I’m too superstitious to even consider naming for Nonny. At this point, it’s been weeks since we last broached the subject in any way. But something about that taxi ride seems to do the trick. By the time we arrive at our apartment building, our soon-to-be born baby has a name.

Once upstairs and giddy about our choices, I call Nonny to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She can’t get to the phone, her caretaker tells me she is sleeping, but I should try again later. For some reason or another, I never do.

My father’s phone call wakes me the next morning.

“She didn’t make it.”

My friend who lives one floor below tells me she heard my wails through the walls.

I beg my doctor to let me go to Chicago for Nonny’s funeral.

“You can’t travel at this late stage of your pregnancy,” she tells me.

We’re too close to that June 1 due date Nonny was trying so hard to reach.

Jewish custom calls for mourners to bury the deceased using a reversed shovel until a mound of dirt forms on the casket. Since I can’t be there in person to say good-bye, my pen acts as the reversed shovel, and my words are the dirt I use to help lay my grandma to rest. My brother reads the eulogy on my behalf, and I listen in from my Manhattan apartment, my cell phone on speaker. It isn’t the same as being there, not nearly, but I hope I’ve given all those gathered a sense of how much Nonny meant to me.

Nonny’s name was Cecelia, though she went by Cel for short. After her funeral, my husband and I toss out the names we finalized on Mother’s Day and come up with a different list of names that begin with “C.” Nonny didn’t make it to see the baby, but my first-born child will be her namesake.

Up until delivery, I debate whether I can name a girl directly for Nonny or if the pain of her loss is too raw for me to call someone else Cecelia, even my own child. But we do choose a boy name, Caleb, which means bold and devoted, two traits my grandmother embodied. She was brave attending law school in the early 1930’s, one of only two women in her class. She was brave when she wed my grandfather in secret at the age of 23. As a medical resident, he was not allowed to be married, but their love transcended the rules. Nonny remained devoted to him up until her last breath, and she always put family first.

It turns out Nonny also was good at predictions. Four days after my original due date, I give birth to a baby boy. Though they won’t ever meet, Nonny and her great-grandson will always be connected by their names that start with the letter “C.”

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz, a former CNN producer, is now a mother to four children ages 10 to 4.  Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, the 2016 “28 Days of Play” series, in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and on her blog, http://mimisager.com.

Mourning Alone

Mourning Alone

By Marcelle Soviero

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“I don’t want to watch Grammy die,” my son said as he got out of the car, dirt-dusted from his afternoon baseball game.

“I know you don’t buddy.” I took his hand and we walked into the house. “But Grammy had a good life. Ninety-two years is a long life.” My ex-husband Larry’s mother was now in hospice care in Chicago, halfway across the country, and Larry wanted the children to be able to have their last good-byes.

I gathered my three children, Johnny, Olivia and Sophia, ages 9, 10 and 11, into the living room; I got a good look at the three of them seated in a row on the couch, each face punctuated with worry. Tear dots on Olivia’s cheeks.

My ex-husband Larry would be here in an hour to go to the airport. Though I had been divorced eight years, I had long adored my mother-in-law, and I was sad of course, but perhaps even more anxious than sad. I was unraveling knowing I would not be a part of what would be my children’s first attendance at a funeral. But this isn’t about me, I thought. Then again, somehow it was. This would be a major event in my children’s life, their first experience with a death, besides our family pet, and I would not be there.

I had asked Larry if I should go, but I knew I would not, our divorce had been court-worthy contentious, and we still spoke only if we had to. No, we would not fly as if a family to Chicago, instead the children would have their father—a no doubt distracted father—to care and console them. Who would really watch the children on the plane?

But it was more than this. Larry did not believe in a heaven of any sort; our misshapen souls do not rise. I knew matter-of-fact answers would be the only consolation offered from father to child—the details of the aorta, collapsed ventricles and how blood circulates through the body. I knew this because just after Larry and I married, my father had died young of heart failure. Mourning his death was made harder by the fact that Larry would not support speculation on an afterlife, while heaven was the only concept that was helping me through it. After a few weeks, Larry had told a tortured me that I needed to move on. I knew then that the marriage would end, not then, but soon.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to Grammy,” I said to the kids now believing each sentence I spoke would invite more questions in their minds. Perhaps I was hoping for that. Evoking questions and memories so they could mourn with me in advance. I knew Larry would get through it, his coping mechanism would be to intellectualize the death.

“She’ll die and we will never see her again?” Johnny said.

“That’s right, but she had a good long life.”

“Will Daddy be busy being sad?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But he will be OK I promise.”

Johnny twirled the fringe on the couch pillow. I sifted my words, deliberately dumbing them down in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

“I believe in heaven,” I said. “Your father may think differently and that is OK. You can believe what you want to believe.” I went on and on, this would be my only chance to ever tell my side of the heaven story. “Every time you think of Grammy she will be alive again in your memory.”

The concept of heaven wasn’t an entirely new idea for my children, we’d lost our dog years back, which had required some explanation on my part. I was able to persuade Larry then that the children did not have to hear the clinical aspects of how our dog died.  

“Grammy will be watching you from another place, she will see you grow. She will watch over you, you’ll talk with her in your mind, not face to face.”

“I love Grammy,” Johnny said.

“Me too buddy,” I said. Then I surprised myself by taking out every cliché I had in my purse—This is for the best, Grammy will be at peace soon—until I was clichéd out.

Larry came to get the kids at 6:00. Again came the clichés, I was so sorry she was nearing the end. How could I help? Polite conversation, then me escorting the children gently to the car, remembering every other time I piled them into the car to see Larry on his weekends.

The Jeep etched out of the driveway, and I went back inside. I cried anticipating the sadness my children would carry witnessing their grandmother’s death. I cried finally too for my mother-in-law. She was a charming character with good intentions, our only contentious moments being my decision not to breastfeed any of her grandchildren, and my decision to divorce her son. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to him,” she once said, my first and only Jewish mother.

An hour later Sophia texted me. They were at the airport—Grammy died. They had not yet boarded the plane. Neither they or Larry would have a chance for that one last visit.

I clenched my hands, which had already begun to sweat, the kids would not get to say goodbye to Grammy after all. I selfishly consoled myself with thoughts that their grief would be closer to home, closer to me now. Grammy was from New York, the services would be here so they would not board a flight and mourn across the country.

The next day Larry texted the particulars. The services would be on Wednesday.  

Nine-year-old Johnny got on the phone next with questions.

“Yes honey, the funeral will be in two days, on Wednesday,” I said.

“Did Grammy go to heaven already or will she go on Wednesday?” he asked.

 

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child Magazine. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Gary Rockett /unsplash.com

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

By Jennifer Palmer

I recently found an image of my husband’s grandmother stashed away, hidden on some forgotten corner of my hard drive. I was purging; after years of simply dragging and dropping files from my camera to my computer without bothering to sort, I had many gigabytes of mediocre pictures needing to find a home in the recycle bin. I was flipping through old memories quickly—next, delete, next, delete—when this particular image jumped out at me, gave me a moment’s pause. It is not good in any technical or artistic sense; the light was dim and I did not use a flash and so the image is grainy, the faces blurred ever so slightly. It should not have survived my sweep, and yet it held my attention, demanded my contemplation. I did not delete it.

The photo was taken six years ago, when Grandmommy was in her early eighties. In it, she is hunched, bent slightly at the waist. Her poor posture is not due to age, though that would certainly be a reasonable excuse; after eight decades on this Earth, one earns the right to stoop. No, she leans forward for an obvious purpose: she has a hold of two of her great-grandchildren, cousins of mine, one small hand clasped in each of her own. The kids are young. The girl sports the holey grin of one recently visited by the tooth fairy; the boy is barely past the age of diapers. Grandmommy’s eyebrows are raised, her mouth open with a hint of a smile, her face forming that expression of excitement and fun adults so often assume when indulging a child they love. They form a circle, two blonde heads and one gray.

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Other photos in the series offer a fuller explanation of what is happening: in one, the three of them are walking in a circle, in another, they’re seated on the floor. Or rather, the kids are. Grandmommy is bent nearly double, feet still planted, her hands touching the ground so that the human chain remains intact. Ring around the rosy, then, played together while waiting for supper to be served. A children’s game, reserved for those who are very young and those who are young at heart, captured in a moment of pure innocence. The participants are unaware of the camera, unaware of the bustle of food preparation in the background, unaware of anything, really, except each other and the circle they form.

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This is a group of images worth keeping, worth sharing.

My hard drive is home to another group of images worth sharing, this set more carefully taken, more lovingly preserved. Five and a half years after the ring around the rosy series, it is now 2014, and, though you can’t tell from the photographs, the intervening half decade has not been kind to Grandmommy. Age has taken its toll. Dementia has set in, devouring memories and leaving nothing but confusion in its wake. A fall and resulting broken hip have made mobility for Grandmommy more of a challenge. But the woman in the photographs does not look much different from the one who played with her great-grandchildren a few years earlier. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think no time has passed at all.

Grandmommy sits in a rocking chair in the corner of a room, the walls behind her a pale green hue found only in hospitals. She holds the tiniest of swaddled bundles in her lap—my daughter, just two days old. There are many photographs of the two of them together, taken one after another; a moment such as this, the meeting of one so very young and one so very old, does not happen every day. Most of the images depict what you might expect from such a moment. The baby lies in Grandmommy’s arms, asleep, oblivious to the world around her. Grandmommy’s head tilts downward, her gaze fixed on her great-granddaughter’s face. The scene is one of tranquility, of peace, of wonder.

My favorite photo in the series, however, is the first—the only one in which Grandmommy is not looking at the baby at all. Instead, she looks up and out of the frame, as if at someone who didn’t make it into the shot. Her mouth tips up in a grin, her eyes alight with an unspoken question, and her hands wrap protectively around the little one in her lap. She is a young child clasping some precious treasure, an heirloom doll, perhaps, or an antique rattle, something far too special for her to hold. She impishly begs an older and wiser adult if she can keep it. The Grandmommy in the photograph does not seem to remember she has difficulty walking, or that her memory is fading, and she is no longer able to care for an infant, even for an hour. She cannot recall the work involved in changing diapers, in middle-of-the-night feedings. She has forgotten much, but the look in her eyes implies that she remembers this, at least: that children are precious, that the world is a fascinating place, that there is plenty in our lives that is worthy of reverence.

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I have other photographs of her, of course, images with her beside Granddaddy at his 90th birthday celebration; of her reading a picture book to a great-grandson, the younger sibling of those who played ring-around-the-rosy; of her wearing a paper headdress clearly fashioned by young hands, made for fun from a child’s imagination and worn out of a great-grandmother’s love. But these two groups of pictures—of her playing ring around the rosy, of her delighted with the baby in her arms—embody Grandmommy to me more than the others. Gracious, gentle, kind. A lover of children. An observer of the world, not afraid to lose herself in wonder.

Grandmommy passed away this week. I did not know her as well as I wish I had, to my shame and regret. Feeble though the excuse sounds in my ears now, modern life got in the way with all of its distraction and obligation, and kept me from making the time I should have made. Still, even as she aged and her memories slipped away, the core of who she was remained true. These photographs, moments frozen in time, were taken when she was unaware she was being watched, when her defenses and masks were stripped away. They capture this woman, reveal her heart and her spirit to those who will take the time to look. Until her final days, she maintained her fascination with the world and her love for children and babies. Though befuddled and confused, she remained cordial and loving, becoming ever more childlike in her wonder for the smallest things and people around her. Though she is gone now, the images remain, a testament to who she was, to the treasure hidden beneath the surface.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Author’s Note: Grandmommy passed away on January 15, 2015, and I wrote this piece shortly thereafter. Though the emotions surrounding her death are no longer fresh, the traits I highlighted here stand out ever more clearly in my memories of her. I hope that who I am at the core, when everything else is stripped away, will be as kind and gentle and loving as Grandmommy was. It seems fitting, somehow, to honor her memory with this essay, one year later, and I’m grateful to Brain, Child for including me in their grandparent blog series.

Jennifer Palmer lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared online at Mamalode, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. She writes about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

My Daughter’s Death Changed Me, But It Did Not Make Me Superhuman

By Mandy Hitchcock

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Being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

 

“Cherish every moment!”  

“It goes by so fast!”

“You’ll miss these days when they are gone!”   

Parents hear these refrains from every corner these days, especially when their children are small.   

I know better than most how fast it can go, how quickly it can be gone. In 2010, my seventeen-month-old daughter Hudson died from a sudden, aggressive bacterial infection. If anyone were going to tell parents to cherish every moment with their children, you’d think it would be me.   

But what I really want to say is this: it’s okay if you don’t.   

In the early days of my grief, I felt a terrible resentment toward parents of young children, even close friends, as their children turned two, or potty trained, or graduated to toddler beds—I was so heartbroken that Hudson would never get the chance to reach any of those milestones. I didn’t want to resent my friends, but I did. I flinched at their Facebook photos, which showed an intact family enjoying a life I would never enjoy again. And now, five years on, I still flinch when I see a family with three living children like I should have, or my friends’ children all turning seven in the coming year like Hudson would be, all of them looking so grown, while Hudson will never be any bigger than the chubby-cheeked toddler I last saw lying on a bed in the pediatric ICU.

What I’ve never resented, though, are my friends’ frustrations about parenting young children. After my daughter died but before my younger children were born—during the long year when I was a childless mother—I often saw Facebook posts or listened to friends’ woeful stories about children who wouldn’t stop crying, or potty-training lessons gone wrong, or strong-willed toddlers refusing to do what they’d been asked. When I heard these stories, I’d first think that I’d give anything to be dealing with these problems myself. But the next second, I’d remember that if I were dealing with these problems myself, I’d have many difficult moments, too. I’d complain and express frustration. It was only when held up against the unimaginable crucible of the death of a child that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood might seem like they should not be so hard. The last thing I ever wanted was for any other parent to feel guilty for feeling frustrated or overwhelmed or short-tempered with their children—solely because my child was not here for me to experience those same emotions.   

Now, seven years into the journey of mothering small children, one dead and two living—Hudson’s younger siblings Jackson and Ada—I can say that the ordinary, everyday experiences of parenthood are unbelievably hard for me. Are they as hard as losing my daughter? Of course not, but just because they are not hard relative to the death of a child does not mean that they are not hard in absolute terms. There are many moments when my kids can drive me to the precipice of fury, when I have to clench my jaw and speak to them through gritted teeth in order to keep myself from flying over the edge directly at them. And during those moments, it’s rarely the memory of my daughter that pulls me back from the brink—instead, it’s the small, warm body right in front of me, my child who, in his or her own exasperating way, is asking for my attention or my love or my help.   

My daughter’s death changed me, irrevocably, but it did not make me superhuman. It did not magically endow me with equanimity in the face of poop smeared all over the crib after my two-year-old decides to remove her diaper during naptime, or in the face of my four-year-old’s nonchalant but persistent “No” when I ask him to take his plate to the sink, or in the face of the rapidly intensifying shrieks of “MINE!” from both of them as they struggle over some suddenly coveted item that neither cared about until the other picked it up.

I’ve been so grateful when others have shared that Hudson’s story has changed how they look at their lives, and their relationships with their children. I say often that the only consolation I have after Hudson’s death is knowing that her life can continue to have meaning in the world that she loved. Sharing her story with others is one of the only ways I can still mother her, so I take great comfort whenever another mother tells me that she thought of Hudson during a frustrating parenting moment and found a way to pull her own child closer. At those times, it feels like Hudson’s spirit is somehow still doing important work.     

And I, too, am grateful to Hudson, every day, for pushing me to be a better, kinder parent. Her absence does help me better appreciate even the most mundane moments with her siblings. And being broken-hearted also makes me more open-hearted and prone to approach every situation from a place of kindness, because l understand better than many that life is short and it is precious.   

But life is also life. A healthy dose of perspective is helpful, but it is relative. There is little value in downplaying our feelings because we think someone else has it rougher than we do. Someone else will always have it rougher than we do. I survived my daughter’s death, but having to clean up poop smeared all over the crib (not to mention all over the child who did the smearing) is still really hard, right now, today, in this moment.   

Living in the moment means actually living in the moment, not taking ourselves out of it or stopping ourselves from feeling our feelings. Among the many things I’ve learned on this long road after my daughter’s death is that it’s not only possible, but totally normal, to experience deeply conflicting emotions at the same time. Extreme grief and extreme joy. Deep anger and deep love. Incredible frustration and incredible gratitude. Parenting both living and dead children at the same time is a constant lesson in that kind of emotional duality.

Mandy Hitchcock is a writer, bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. Her essays also appear in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Modern Loss, and elsewhere, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology So Glad They Told Me. She lives with her family in Carrboro, North Carolina. You can find her at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Sleeping Children of War

Sleeping Children of War

By Betsy Parayil-Pezard

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We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.

 

On Friday night, my son is strewn sideways across my bed, one arm over his head, face buried in a pillow, his foot peeking out from the duvet. I should have put him back in his bed hours ago, but the sight of him sleeping is comforting. It is also resoundingly surreal as I listen to sirens raising welts on the smooth skin of night.

I reach over and run my fingers through his curls. In the places where we sip our coffee, poke our chopsticks into noodles, and listen to concerts, the warm bodies of young Parisians are plunging forward into pools of blood. Slightly buzzed people are dragging their dying friends across the vintage fifties tiling. People are holding their breath in kitchens and crouching behind shiny zinc bars while lipstick-painted glasses of wine shiver with each round of bullets. A concert venue is under siege. The dying children of rock n’ roll are scattered across the floor where we dance. My baby boy sleeps as if none of this were real. He is even dreaming.

My husband is managing an artist tonight, but not at the Bataclan. He calls to tell me that he is stuck. They are not letting anyone out. The show goes on. At the end, people leave in droves, texting frantically. He catches a ride with a colleague and they get back to the office and turn on the TV. At the Bataclan, hostages are being taken. The night stretches itself out into a long, thin, pointing finger of horror.

He takes his usual route when he walks home the next day, and passes over bloody sidewalks. Someone has thrown sand over the area. He arrives at the door with tears in his eyes. The children run and jump on him joyfully crying Papa! then squirm away as he clings to them.

On Saturday, we are restless and withdrawn. I am stuck to my phone, answering questions about our safety from friends and family back home in the US. I scroll mindlessly over my Facebook feed, over and over again, reading bits of articles. My husband cradles his iPad on the couch. We don’t say much to each other. We are like those old couples that speak by moving about the room.

In the evening, I invite some friends over and my husband traipses dejectedly toward the shower. Our friends’ children are all three years old like our oldest. They are gloriously happy to be together, jumping on the beds, screaming and running from room to room. The Big Bad Wolf is chasing them. My littlest patters after them, wherever they go. “The wolf!” she cries with raised eyebrows, giddy with fright.

On Sunday, we go out to buy bread. The temperature is warm for the autumn season. My daughter refuses to walk, then my son refuses too. We end up carrying them. We cross the Avenue de la République and look down the street toward the Bataclan. We won’t walk down there, not with the children, but I sense a deep, grinding silence like an abyss opening.  

When we bump into friends, we ask them if they have lost someone. The answer is yes.

There is a thick, funereal atmosphere as we proceed. People are standing on corners, bread in hand, speaking in low voices. The terraces of the cafes are empty. It is much too warm for November.

What will change, I ask my husband as we walk back.

He shrugs. Then he answers: Maybe now when we go out, we will know that it is possible to not come back. Maybe when I go to concerts for work, you will have that thought in the back of your mind.

On Monday, there is an epidemic of children peeing their pants at school.

In the evening, my son goes to the window with his little sister and looks up at the building across the street. His little head peeks through the wrought iron. He waves, calling out a bright “Hello, soldier!” to an officer smoking a cigarette out of the window. The officer smiles and waves back at him. Since January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, our street has been under continuous patrol. The troops protect the Jewish school and the synagogue on our block. They camp on the third floor of the school building, taping cardboard to the windows for privacy. Sometimes they come back with a pizza. I think they might be bored out of their minds.

Tuesday, I come across a Buzzfeed post with images of Syrian refugee children by Magnus Wennman. Like my baby boy, their sleeping bodies contort into the strangest forms, as if they have been dropped from the sky into the arms of Morpheus. But they are stretched onto dirty, abandoned mattresses, onto a cardboard box on a thin strip of sidewalk, and across patches of grass in the night.

 

Betsy Parayil-Pezard, an American with Indian roots, lives in Paris, France with her French husband and two children. She works on both continents as a professional coach and mindfulness facilitator with Connection Leadership, and blogs about the mindful life at The Paris Way (theparisway.wordpress.com). Betsy is currently working on a collection of recorded meditations for dealing with difficult times.

 

Braving the Impossible Together

Braving the Impossible Together

By Lexi Behrndt

Lexi and Charlie

We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain.

 

We met on the 11th floor of the children’s hospital. It was in the summer, I remember but not because of the weather. It could have been storming or blazing hot outside, but we never would have known the difference. Our entire worlds were wrapped up in those tiny, sterile rooms with the rock-hard, pull-out sofas, monitors beeping at all hours, and the sticky hospital floors. Our children were both inpatient, receiving treatment and care for complications surrounding congenital heart disease. Our “home” was the pediatric cardiac unit.

When it came to other parents, I generally kept to myself. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly; I like to think of myself as a generally extroverted and warm person. But it got old after four months of seeing so many families come and go, sick babies in, generally healthy babies out, all while my infant son lay in the same bed and only moved as far as from floor 10, the ICU, to floor 11, the recovery floor. My friends were the staff. They were the constants I had and held onto, as they cared for my son Charlie; they popped in to visit and check on us day after day.

One morning, my social worker asked me if I would be willing to reach out to another parent on the floor. I had picked up my home, which was two hours away, and relocated to live next to the hospital, so that even when my son was well and discharged, he would be close enough in case of emergency. This mom, with a three-year-old who was a “frequent flier” at the hospital, was in the process of doing the same. I hesitantly agreed to meet her, and she came down to my son’s room.

She walked into his hospital room, and it was like looking in a mirror. Hair thrown in a disheveled ponytail, sweatshirt and yoga pants, dark rims beneath her eyes, and a mixture of ease and exhaustion. Like me, she was young, and like me, she had spent enough time in the hospital to have grown accustomed to the environment. Her name was Makenzie. Her little three-year-old, Jaedyn, a feisty red head, would eventually need a heart transplant. It could be years, but it was her airway issues that were causing her frequent hospital admissions.

Makenzie and I talked that day, and we bumped into each other a couple more times as we met over the community coffee pot in the early mornings, desperate for friendly conversation and caffeine. Jaedyn was discharged a couple weeks later, and they made their way back to their current home in South Dakota to tie up ends for relocation. Meanwhile, my Charlie stayed. Two weeks later, he moved from the recovery floor back down to the Pediatric Cardio Thoracic ICU where there he stayed.

The months went on, and sometime in mid-October, I parked my old minivan in the hospital parking garage. On my walk to the elevators, I ran into Makenzie and Jaedyn, who were leaving after a quick appointment. We talked briefly and casually, completely unaware of what the coming days and months would hold in store. Neither of us understood the weight of those days. We do now.

A quick conversation in passing, and we had no idea the significance it would hold. Charlie passed away the next Monday morning.

Jaedyn was readmitted to the hospital and put on the transplant list in February. Makenzie and I had lost contact, all except for casual conversation through social media. We had never talked much to begin with, besides friendly conversation over morning coffee, but the death of Charlie only created more distance. We were living in two different worlds, she was fighting for her child’s life, and I was aching to have mine back in my arms. She may have reminded me of what I still could have, and I may have reminded her of what she could lose. But when I learned through Facebook that Jaedyn’s condition worsened, and she became critical, I lost it. I texted Makenzie, called her, and I did whatever I could to support her, because Charlie died, but Jaedyn wasn’t supposed to. And I knew the pain, the deep, deep pain, and I did not want Makenzie to feel it. Ever.

I could barely think. It put me right back in Charlie’s hospital room, standing over my child, oscillator running, barely able to hear my own thoughts. ECMO (life support) on, blood being pumped through his body by a machine, oxygenating and giving life and beating his little heart.

And when Jaedyn died, I was there— not there with her physically— but I was jolted right back to the room where I held Charlie for seven hours after he died. I couldn’t let go. I knew Makenzie couldn’t either.

And it was in those moments, after losing Charlie, after supporting Makenzie through losing Jaedyn, that I made a vow. We couldn’t have our babies, but we sure as hell had to make sure the other made it out alive. She was stuck with me. The bond we shared is a bond of pain and loss and heartache, and I vowed to never let her face it alone.

We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain. This is the bond between grieving mothers—the soul tie exchanged between moms who have to kiss their babies goodbye, who have to give them back, who have to walk away, who have to live with the constant ache. We don’t have to face the impossible alone. I’ve seen that with so many strangers who have become sisters along the way, and I’ve seen it especially with Makenzie, the mom I met on the 11th floor.

We stood together on the side of life, while both our children lay in hospital beds, three rooms apart. And now we move forward together, with ashes, memories, slightly morbid senses of humor, and broken hearts, clinging to hope, and holding just enough joy to share with one another when it’s too hard to go on alone.
Lexi Behrndt is a single mom of two boys (one in heaven), a writer at Scribbles and Crumbs, and a communications director. Connect with her on Facebook.

My Son Lived

My Son Lived

By Nicole Scobie

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We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop.

 

Most mom friendships are formed because of a shared mutual experience, like two kids in the same daycare, the same class, or team. The moms get to know each other, first exchanging a few words at drop-off or pick-up, then warming up over a cup of coffee. Over time, they become friends. The shared experience of their children’s similar activity creates a bond that can last for years, as the moms watch their kids grow up together.

Natalie and I met that way, when my son Elliot was 5 and her daughter Zoé was 4 years old.

Our kids had shared the experience of cancer.

Elliot was diagnosed two weeks after starting school. A 6-inch tumor in his abdomen, multiple smaller tumors all over his lungs, making it stage 4. Zoé’s was in her bone marrow, requiring high intensity treatments.

Almost a full year of some of the hardest days (and nights). I held my son’s hand as he asked why this was happening. I talked to him about life and death, telling him how brave he was, while I was shaking with fear inside.

Friendships between two moms born this way are like no other — there are so many things that fall away when you’ve seen each other at your worst, at your angriest, at your most anxious and at your most relieved.

Bizarrely, despite the horrific situation we found ourselves in, the thing that drew us closest was laughing together. Nothing beats watching your child squirt a syringe of liquid at the doctor with another cancer mom there to witness it and laugh hysterically with you later. Laughing is great — I actually think laughter might just be the antonym of fear.

The downside of these friendships is that you now worry for another child. The burden is huge — knowing just how serious the situation is, feeling the fear because it is so bitterly familiar.

And then, the magic word: remission. No cancer left. Clear scans.

Both our kids entered the world of “normal,” where they could play outside with other kids again, where their hair started to grow back, where they, and we, were free of the hospital except for the regular three month checkups.

Natalie and I founded a non-profit organization together, to raise funds for research and help other families. One out of four children with cancer will die — we wanted to change that. We worked endless hours at it but still laughed at some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Speaking in front of large groups, for example, something we both hated, became a regular thing. What a strange path our lives had taken.

And meanwhile, there were always those three month checkups, to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back. The stress of watching Elliot lying on that table, me standing nearby with a heavy lead vest on. The technician telling him over the intercom, “Ok now lie very still.” The table sliding through the scanner. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.” The table sliding back through the scanner. “Ok now breathe.” I’d exhale. “Now we’ll do it again, lie very still…”

And the wait until days later, when my husband and I would be escorted into the oncologist’s office to get the results. Scanning the face of the doctor and nurse for some sign. Relief streaming out of me like hot air from a kettle after finding out all is clear. No relapse. We were free to go, back in three months.

First thing out of the meeting with the oncologist, as we walked down the hallway and before we got to the hospital elevator, I texted Natalie. We were both thrilled, relieved.

And then, a few months later, I got Natalie’s message, when she was in the hallway of the hospital.

But it was not good news this time.

Zoé had relapsed.

The cancer was back.

You are expecting me to write that we cried together and supported each other, like close friends do in the movies. But we didn’t. We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop. And won’t help anyone get through what happens next.

We didn’t cry. We fought back. We rallied. We researched and learned about this cancer, about the treatments. When one treatment failed we were ready for the next. Up until that last day when Zoé had bravely endured a brand new promising treatment and her parents went in for the results to see if this time, it had finally worked.

And I got the message from Natalie. I can’t say what I felt. Empty, I think.

The cancer was still there. The scan showed a little 4-year-old body, full, from head to toe, with cancer cells.

We knew even before the oncologist officially said it that there would be no more treatments.

Zoé died in her mother’s arms two weeks after that text message. I spoke at her ceremony. I couldn’t face the audience so instead I turned and spoke to the big, poster size photo of Zoé on the altar next to the flowers and toys placed there. I thanked her for what she had given me, the chance to have known her, the friendship with her mom, and I thanked her for her laughter. Zoé laughed a lot too.

My son lived. Her daughter died. There was no logical reason for it to turn out that way. It just did. We got lucky with one and unlucky with the other. Despite it all, we are still close friends.   

Almost two years have passed. Elliot has checkups every six months now. I text Natalie right away, and she’s relieved.   

Our non-profit has grown and now funds critical research, and supports families while their child is in treatment. It’s what we always wanted. Even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

Author’s Note: Nicole and Natalie now run zoe4life.org, the non-profit organization that supports kids with cancer and their families.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

Bear Country

BJ_Henry_Bears1

By BJ Hollars

One night as I wandered my empty house, I took to the typewriter in my basement to compose my first and last letter to my mother-in-law.

“Just a brief note to wish you well,” I typed, “as you begin the next round of challenges that lay ahead.”

The “challenges” had a name, but I didn’t want to burden her with the language the doctor’s used.  I doled out platitudes and promises instead, the kinds of things no one ever expects anyone to make good on.

I began by mentioning future visits, future plans, the activities we would one day do.  Next, I thanked her for the birdfeeder she’d gotten me for Christmas, told her I’d come to calling it Caryl’s Bird Sanctuary (even though my most dedicated visitors were squirrels).

It was a difficult letter to write, mainly because while those near to her in Indiana knew she was dying, from my vantage point 500 miles away in Wisconsin, all I knew was that she was still alive.

***

From her place on the front lines my wife kept me abreast of the situation, though the news she shared was always bad news, and the bad news just got worse.

“She’s still here,” my wife whispered one night from her place in her childhood bedroom.  “She’s like 20 feet away from me right now, but…it’s like she’s already gone.”

It was all the motivation I needed to return to my typewriter, hopeful that in my second attempt I’d muster the courage to move beyond filler and type what I’d never said aloud.

“Thank you,” I wrote, “for raising your daughter.  I see parts of you in all the best parts of her.”

My words weren’t much, but they were all I had to convey to her what I felt she most needed to hear: that her legacy would live on in her progeny, and that her job—now done—had been done well. They were a small kindness, one I offered because I feared I wouldn’t have another chance; but also because the words allowed me to be there without being there, thereby sparing me the worst of it.

The typewriter offered no backspace, no correction fluid, no way for me to grow shy and take it back.

As I wrapped up that second draft, my wife called yet again.

“We’re trying to move her downstairs,” she whispered.  “But she doesn’t want to go.  She knows once she does, she’ll never come upstairs again.”

I said nothing.

“I mean, we’ll have to move her tomorrow regardless,” my wife continued.  “Which means this is the last night she and my dad will ever sleep in that bed together.”

I folded the letter and stuffed it into the envelope.

***

A week or so prior, our lives had been quite different.  I was in my office at the university prepping for classes when I received the text from my wife who was home with the kids.

bad news, she wrote—no further explanation required.

For a few days we’d been awaiting Caryl’s test results, and though she’d already beaten back cancer twice, we feared the odds would be against her on a third bout.

I picked up the phone, asked my wife what exactly her mother had said.

“That it’s not good,” my wife repeated.  “That there are tumors all over her body.”

“Like…benign?”

“No.  Not like benign.”

An interminable silence, followed by my wife’s voice:

“Go to class,” she directed.  “You have to teach.”

Five minutes later I entered a classroom.

“Good afternoon,” I said.  “Today we’ll learn about academic register.”

***

Today we’ll learn about stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Which, as I soon learned myself, is the cancer and the stage you want the least.  It’s the one that leaves little room for treatment, and even less room for a son-in-law’s assurances that everything will be okay.

Because statistically speaking, if you are diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, only 6% of you will be okay.  The rest of you will not be.  Pancreatic is often considered to be one of the deadliest cancers, not because it claims the most lives, but because the lives it claims it claims quickly, generally within the first year and often much sooner than that.

Caryl was proof. She was diagnosed on January 28 and died 17 days later.

Hours after receiving my wife’s text message, I walked home in the cold in perfect silence—up a hill, across a bridge, and finally, onto my street.  I passed the elementary school, the outdoor ice-skating rink, then slipped inside my house.

I worked my way down the dark hall—bypassing the dog and my infant daughter, Ellie, until arriving at my three-year-old son Henry’s room. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed my wife’s silhouette alongside him, her body filling in the space where his Berenstain Bears books weren’t.

 

It was all the motivation I needed to return to my typewriter, hopeful that in my second attempt I’d muster the courage to move beyond filler and type what I’d never said aloud.

 

“Hey,” I whispered.  “You up?”

We met at the kitchen table moments later, opening wide the bottle of emergency wine and retrieving a pair of glasses.

Our conversation toggled between stunned silence and logistics, the latter involving who needed whom where and when.  The answer was obvious: my wife’s mother needed her daughter and grandchildren there and preferably now.

I sat helpless at that table as my language skills reverted to a Neanderthal state:

“So…this is bad news,” I said, repeating the text message.

My wife reached once more for the wine.

***

On Valentine’s Day, just days after my family’s most recent return home to Wisconsin, my wife was woken by a phone call from her father.

“You’d better start driving,” he said, “if you want to say goodbye.”

Later, I’d learn the facts surrounding that phone call.  How throughout the night Caryl had repeatedly tried to pull herself up from the bed, her anxiety growing along with her fitfulness.  This went on for much of the night, prompting my father-in-law to sleep with his feet propped on the edge of her bed, a cautionary measure to ensure he’d wake if she did.

There is a name for it—terminal restlessness—but none of us knew that then.

All we knew was what the nurse had told my father-in-law: that it was time to rally the troops.

My wife and daughter made up the first wave, while Henry and I stayed behind to perform all Berenstain Bear-related duties.  By which I mean we distracted ourselves in the books’ colored pages, taking refuge in a wonderland of tree houses, talking bears, and problems that always resolved by the last page.  There was a tidiness to their narratives, an inevitable answer, and no matter what the problem (a dentist’s visit, a messy room), the Bear family always endured.

Throughout that day, Henry and I took one trip after another down that sunny dirt road deep into Bear Country.  We were momentarily bachelors, and since there was no one to tell us enough was enough, we overindulged in the saccharine tales.  Henry sat rapt on my lap until the books ran out, at which point we drove to the library for more.

Since it was Valentine’s Day, we celebrated with a post-library visit to the record store.  There, we searched for records to make us feel good, his small hands flipping expertly through the dollar bins, a perfect imitation of me.

Eventually, he settled on a Broadway production of Peter Pan, while, I—after much deliberation—snagged a Stevie Nicks’ solo album.

My wife called as I walked our loot toward the register.

“Hey,” I said.  “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she said.  “I guess my mom’s been asleep all day.  They don’t think she’s going to wake up again.”

I steadied myself by placing a hand in Henry’s curly hair.

“What are you guys doing?” she asked.

I told her about the record store, about our adventures deep into Bear Country.

“Sounds pretty cooooooool,” she said, her voice offering me a flash of our lives before the night of the emergency wine.  “Well, I better go.  It’s super windy out here.  I love you.”

“Happy Valentine’s,” I said.

***

Last Thanksgiving my wife’s family piled into cars to purchase an obscenely large Christmas tree from the lot just a few blocks away.

“This is our last one, Beej,” said my father-in-law as he slipped on shoes and cap.  “One last real, live tree.”

For the decade I’d known them, my in-laws had never wavered in their commitment to the real, live tree.  Year after year, my father-in-law was burdened with the work that it entailed: hauling it into the living room, screwing it into the stand, then rigging a network of wires to the wall to ensure that it stayed upright.  For those of us who simply enjoyed its pine-scented yuletide cheer, there was no question that the work was surely worth it.  Though I imagine this answer wasn’t so obvious to the man charged with carrying it out.

The rest of my in-laws were out the door when I realized my mother-in-law wasn’t among them.  She had never been one to miss anything, least of all a family tradition.

“I’ll stay back with Ellie,” I called to my wife, nodding to our dozing daughter snoring in my arms.  She nodded, and as I watched the headlights from those cars fade into the night, Ellie and I made our way upstairs to Caryl’s room.

She was huddled in her chair, her space heater just inches from her legs as she stared into the glow of her iPad.

“How’s Dr. Sleep?” I asked, nodding to the Stephen King book stationed at her bedside.

“Oh…it’s fine,” she shrugged.  “I don’t know how much I like it.”

I nodded, continued on with the small talk.

We chatted for twenty minutes or so until the family returned with their tree.

“Well,” I sighed, starting toward the stairs, “I guess we better go check on the damage.”

She didn’t follow me.

That was the moment I knew she was sick; that it wasn’t “our” last tree, but hers.

***

 

Throughout  the evening, my eyes focused not on the screen, but on my son’s fascination with those bears. I wanted to remember him that way: riveted, and not yet burdened by our burdens.

 

While driving home from the grocery store on Valentine’s night, my wife called to inform me of her mother’s death.

“She’s gone,” she said.  “It’s over.”

Stunned, I parked the car in the drive and then proceeded to preheat the oven.  Henry and I had spent the last half an hour or so ranking pizzas in the frozen food aisle, and given the extreme care he’d put into his selection, I felt I could hardly deny him his reward.

I stuffed Henry with supreme pizza, then had him wash it down with a 16-ounce can of peach iced-tea.

Comfort food, I told myself, even if he didn’t yet know he needed it.

That night, Henry and I ventured even deeper into Bear Country, watching a marathon’s worth of Berenstain Bears TV episodes from the DVD we’d checked out at the library that day.

We crowded into bed and wrapped the blankets tight around us, then watched as Too Tall and his gang peer-pressured Brother Bear into stealing a watermelon from Farmer Ben’s field.

Throughout much of the evening, my eyes focused not on the screen, but on my son’s fascination with those bears.  I wanted to remember him that way: riveted, and not yet burdened by our burdens.

Later that night, once the TV was muted and Henry was fast asleep, my wife would recount the details of her mother’s death.

How she, her dad, and her siblings had gathered for dinner around the living room bed, when, in the midst of their taco salad, she faded.

My wife stood to grab a napkin, glanced at the bed, asked: “Why isn’t Mom breathing?”

Life continued: calls were made and dishes placed in the drying rack.

An hour or so later, after the counter had been wiped of Doritos’ dust, the hospice nurse arrived to confirm what was already known.

Meanwhile, back in Bear Country, I guided Henry through his nightly prayers.

“…if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

“Amen,” I said.

“Amen,” he said.

Then one of us fell asleep.

***

In the week’s that followed, grief’s pressure points hit hard and fast and often.  One day my wife diced an onion and began to cry, not for the usual onion-dicing reasons, but because her mother had simply loved onions.  Another day she stared at the toenail clippers and was overcome with the memory of clipping her mother’s nails the week before her death.

Today, while driving, my wife asked:

“Do you want to know the saddest thing?”

“Not really.”

“She just renewed her passport.”

***

There was a time before the cancer—or between the cancers—when everything was fine.  It’s hard to remember that now, even though we have the pictures to prove it. All those photos of all those smiles; we had no reason not to.

At the funeral home, these pictures scrolled past on several screens, giving family and friends a place to rest their eyes.  The pictures had no chronology.  There was young Caryl alongside old Caryl alongside Caryl and her kids.  There was happy-go-lucky Caryl alongside first-bout-of-cancer Caryl alongside Caryl in the front porch family photo.

I’m in that one, too, smiling with a newborn on my lap.

Seven months after that photo was snapped, my wife asked her mother if her life had gone as she’d hoped.

“Sure,” her mother replied from her deathbed, “up until now.”

***

I won’t say much about the funeral, except that I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a front row seat reserved for anything.

I didn’t want it, and thanks to Ellie’s wailing, I didn’t even need it.

Two days later—after the house was filled with flowers and the ashes were placed on the shelf—my entire family was brought down by the flu.

My children puked in unison, my wife following soon after.  For a while, I was our only hope, and in an effort to give my wife a rest, I transported the sick kids to my parent’s house just a few miles away.

That’s when I, too, became sick.

My mom helped out the best she could, but Ellie would have nothing to do with her.  She insisted I hold her continuously—no exceptions—which meant I soon found myself cradling my daughter in my left arm while wrapping my right arm around the toilet rim.

As my body heaved its insides out, it was all I could do to hold tight to her.  I trembled, wiped away my spit, tried hard to block out the smell of stomach acid.  Ellie watched curiously, gave me a grin, then gripped my arm as I gagged awhile longer.

Eventually, my mom swooped in to snag my daughter.

“Don’t worry,” she shouted over Ellie’s wails, ” it’ll be fine.”

She was right; it would be fine for me.  I still had my mom.

***

For weeks, Henry and I sought solace in every Berenstain Bear book we could find, scanning the library’s shelves again and again, hoping for something new. And while we indeed learned a lot about cleaning messy rooms and visiting dentists, those bears remained mum on the subject of dead mother-in-laws. Surely the solace we sought resided somewhere down that sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. But despite our best efforts, Henry and I could never quite find that road, that country. Instead, we took refuge in the only country we had. The terrain was rough, the route unmapped, but we walked every step of it together.

Author’s Note: The week before Caryl died, Henry and I walked into the living room where her bed had been moved. “Grandma, how was your day?” he asked. “Good,” she told him, glancing at me “I received a nice letter in the mail.” Later, I’d find that letter folded on her bedside table. No one’s spoken of it since.

BJ is the author of several books, including the forthcoming From The Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human and a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

 

Breakdown

Breakdown

Boy Getting on a TrainBy Erin Sullivan

Home from college a week, and the boy says he needs to go away, to any city, angry in ways the father cannot fathom. The boy’s mind dances around and around and inward and the boy barricades himself in his room. The father knocks with trays of food. Occasionally the food slips in. At night plumbing sounds through the walls. At night all the doors are locked and no one sleeps.

Soon after Christmas his parents drop him at the train station, right in town. It is noon and gray. They will not stand to watch their son ride away against a window, not watching back.

Soon, on official boards, photographs call him missing.

In some anonymous city he pays for a room. Unpacks his only bag. All his things: six pair of socks, four pairs of pants, two T-shirts, a flannel button down, boots. His parents brought him to the train station with all his things in his bag and that boy said thank you, said so long, said no: don’t stay in this car. No point in watching. I don’t plan on coming back. And angry, angry at his mind caving in, said, don’t think I am coming back.

Words haunt the father. Mornings find him digging around in his own mind to find a good reason why. Why put on clothing, go to work, go forward at all? This, he understands, is how a man fails: across an actual life. Not across a collection of minutes that turn to hours and then to days.

That boy, in his room, counting his small stack of cash, arranging his things. His dirty window shows this unfamiliar city writhing and waiting for him. Sorrow hits him, not for missing home, but for his isolation. Hallucinations fill his voids. At night, full of dim lights, bars call to him. A man buys him a drink, chats him up, is back in his small room. Sometimes this man is kind to him. Sometimes he wakes sore, and sick in the mornings, searching his face in the mirror to see if he is different yet, healed yet. If that thing he has been missing has fitted itself into place yet.

A morning in March: his father picks up the phone and finds the boy calling from Kansas. Too much banging, clanging, talking in the city. And now, Kansas, with its rows of stalks and blooms brushing up and against again and again is too noisy. A morning in March his father picks up and finds his son calling to say so long, such a noisy world, I’m out of money.

In his room at such and such a cheap motel in such and such a town an A/C unit clangs and hums and the boy says he will die from it, from the noise. His father, copying down this information, calls bus stations, trains, and calls him back. Bargains. Instructs.

His parents, back at the station in town, standing hand in hand to watch for the approaching train. It is starting again, the mother says. Yes, the father agrees. Again. But he cannot hide his flooding relief, the joy of recognizing the line of his son’s body stepping onto the platform, even in the face of this grim sentence.

Erin Sullivan is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her work has been published in Salon, Literary Mama, the Independent Weekly, and elsewhere.

 

 

A Last Meal

A Last Meal

By Naseem Rakha 

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Two days after Dad died, he made us dinner.

We sat at my table and we ate a feast of Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, both dishes typical to Hyderabad, India where Dad was born and raised.

Qabooli is a lentil Biriyani made with basmati rice and channa dal. It requires a careful hand washing of the rice, rinsing out all the starch from the grains until the water runs clear. It requires a sorting and picking of the dal (golden lentils), ridding any that may be of poor quality. Then the two, the rice and the lentils, must be drained and let dry. The same must be done with the finely sliced onions, squeezed of excess liquid, they must air dry before they are carefully set in a half inch of sizzling hot oil and stirred to a delicate golden brown. The Qabooli requires garlic and ginger to be peeled and puréed into a fine paste, and then a grinding of spices. It requires a precise measurement of turmeric, cardamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, mint and fresh squeezed lemon. And then, and this is critical, it requires that both the rice and channa dal be par-boiled to a place that is not quite done, so that once the five elementsthe rice, the dal, the golden onion, the garlic/ginger puree, and spices are all layered together, and then drizzled with an infusion of cream and saffronit can be covered, and sealed and baked to the exact point in which when a spoon breaks into the its golden surface, each hand washed grain emerges tender and whole and separate and distinct.

The second dish, Mirchi Ka Salan or Green Chili Curry, is the equivalent of creating a Mole, it is time consuming and complicated to make. The paste itself has more than 12 ingredients. But the end product is unique and flavorful; it is one of my favorites.

When my sister came home on Monday the 12th of January, Dad was in the kitchen preparing to cook. It was 6:30 in the evening, the College Football National Championships were on the TV, and Dad was at his cutting board preparing the onions, his kitchen towel characteristically tossed over his shoulder. When Shameem asked what he was starting, she felt exasperated that Dad had taken on such a big project so late in the day. She had worked all day, she was tired. But, this was her dad. And we all knew his days were limited. There was the kidney disease, the heart problem, the iron build up from transfusions, the fatigue, the pink hospital form taped boldly to his refrigerator: Do not resuscitate. So Shameem set aside her exhaustion and spent the rest of the night cooking with Dad.

What surprised my sister most about the meal, she told me, was how much food he was preparing. This was not just for the two of them. Dad clearly had something else in mind. Perhaps a party the coming weekend. She didn’t ask. Instead they chopped, and stirred, and fried, and mixed, and boiled, and baked their way through the might. Finally, somewhere around midnight, they finished and put it all in the refrigerator for another day.

That day came the following Friday, 45 hours after Dad died from a tumble on a Portland Streetcar. Earlier in the day my family and I had gone to the funeral home and arranged for his cremation. Then, before heading back to my house, we went to Dad’s place, opened his refrigerator and took out the last meal he had ever prepared.

When my father came to the United States in his early 20’s, he had no idea how to cook. In his home in Hyderabad, India cooking was the work of servants, not the family and definitely not the men. Still he attempted to replicate the food he most missed. But trying to cook Indian food in the 1950’s and 60’s in the US, when Indian spices were not as ubiquitous as they are today, made the process of cooking a challenge. Yet he did not give upcollecting recipes and spices and experimenting at every opportunity.

One of Dads favorite things in his later years was to have friends and family over for large meals, even though those meals, particularly as he got older, would often take him more than a week to fully prepare. It frustrated him that his arthritis made it slower to peel and chop, or that the onions would seem to burn more frequently, or that hed forget ingredients, or would sometimes spill an entire meal trying to transfer it from one heavy pot to another. It frustrated him that cooking would make him so tired. Still, just the weekend before he died, Dad told me he wanted to make Shrimp Pulau one last time. It is another time consuming dish, and it is also a dish, due to his very limited diet, he could no longer eat. Yet, that is what he wanted to make, for us, his children, all of us in our forties and fifties now, all watching our father with greater and greater levels of anxiety and sadness and love. 

Unfortunately, Dad never got to make the Shrimp Pulau. Two days after he made the Qabooli and Green Mirchi Ka Salan he had his fall while riding the streetcar. At the hospital he refused treatment. He told us he was going to die that night. We fought him. We wanted him to live. But he knew better. He understood that his fall was a way out from the longer more agonizing death he faced, and then four hours after sunset, with Portlands lights glimmering out the hospital window, he died. His breathing became more and more labored. We could not imagine saying goodbye. And then, he was gone.

We brought the meal to my home after the funeral arrangements were madethree tired, distraught children, heads spinning, knees wobbling, all in need of comfort, and not knowing how to find it. And there it was, seeping into the house from the oven, the scent of rice and dal and ginger and onion. Saffron and chile, turmeric and cardamon. The scent of Dad bent over a stove, cooking for us one last time.

Naseem is the daughter of Mohammed Allah Rakha and Beverly Francis Schafer, both of whom are now gone. She raises her 15-year-old son with her husband in Oregon. She is the author of the award-winning novel, The Crying Tree, and is a journalist and geologist and naturalist. And she spends her free time backpacking, gardening, knitting, reading and writing. Dads recipe for Qabooli Biryani and Mirchi Ka Salan, can be found on Shameem Rakhas blog Scratch: For the love of all things homemade.

In the Absence of My Son

In the Absence of My Son

images-6By Christine Poreba

 

A white fluff drops onto my arm

and a wind from inside the wall of me

almost pushes me over—

 

because the errant milky puff reminds me

of “danaliah,” which my son loves for me to pick for him

on walks, so he can blow and blow the seed pods off.

 

But what has dropped on me

is not a dandelion and my son is not here and the wind

soon carries the mystery gossamer away and I am left

 

to go back to my room to study his drawing,

bold circles dashed in waxy streaks. In my solitude,

the world seems to be moving in slow motion,

 

nobody else to determine what comes next.

The quiet is too quiet but then I can’t get enough,

but my arms are bearing a wilderness.

 

Our goodbye was saved by his being two

and not yet bearing the weight of the knowledge of time,

making this hug and kiss goodbye for him no different

 

from any other. I, on the other hand,

went out on the porch and wept, leaning over the railing

to wait for one more glimpse of him

 

over the mountain with his grandparents,

on their way to pay homage to “the broken boat”

he’d been telling everyone about the whole vacation.

 

Every time we walked up close, there was no

avoiding the fact that the boat was really a charred stack of logs,

remains of a ski lodge burned down last winter.

 

But the illusion for him never seemed broken.

And why shouldn’t one thing become so easily another?

The old ski lift, then, a seat from a Ferris wheel.

 

Which I can almost see turning as I wake this morning

to a room of gorgeous light, to acres of silence, an ache but also a dream

of unsharpened pencils being sharpened.

 

Christine Poreba lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband John and their now three-year-old son Lewis. Her first book of poetry, Rough Knowledge, will be coming out from Anhinga Press this fall.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

Warm Ink

Warm Ink

By Marie O’Brien

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“I want to get a tattoo,” says my 16-year-old daughter Marina.

Careful how you respond. Don’t talk too much, don’t be judgmental, don’t freak out, and don’t overreact. Just. Don’t. Feel. After countless conversations addressing her coming of age questions about periods, mean girls, God, sex, pregnancy and more, I have learned that listening with NO REACTION, while repeating what I’ve heard is the best route.

“A tattoo.” I drone in my best unemotional, non-committal voice. “So you want to get one?”

“A lot of kids are getting tattoos the second they turn 18,” she offers before I can tell her she’s not old enough and 18 is still too young.

Images of websites that beckon “Epic Tattoo Fails, click here!” are flashing through my mind as I struggle to repress the urge to expound upon tattoos with misplaced apostrophes and bad spelling.

Her deliberation continues. “And I wouldn’t have it in a location that’s easy to see.”

As if that would be the ticket to get me to say okay.

I start to tell her about poorly chosen tattoo locations and efforts to cover them during job interviews. I know I’m not supposed to react, but I can’t help myself.

“All of them,” I say as I curl my fingers to mimic quotations, “thought it was a great location at the time.”

Marina tilts her head in that way that says, “OK Mom, I GET IT.”

But her voice is conciliatory. “I know, I know. I’ve thought about that too. It would be somewhere that could easily be covered up—except maybe in a swimsuit of course.”

She persists. “And I don’t want anything trendy, I would think about it a lot before getting one.”

“Have you thought about it?” I ask.

She nods.

“What would your tattoo be?”

I don’t know what I’m expecting her to say, but what she says next makes my breathing stop for a moment.

She twists a ring on her finger and looks down.

“Two hearts linked together.”

And now I know where this is going.

“I want something to remember Matthew.”

The familiar lump catches in my throat.

Matthew is her twin brother that she never got to know—at least not in the way that we define getting to know someone. We gave Marina the ring the year before, engraved with two hearts linked. It reminded me of how at one time their hearts beat, side by side for 9 months, while bumping knees and elbows making space for each other.

She loved it.

Matthew and Marina came crying one-by-one into the world via C-section. We were told before the birth there was a heart problem with one of our twins, but doctors were going to do everything they could to save him. That day, excitement and innocent hope eclipsed my fear. As I lay on the operating table, I heard two hearty cries that buoyed my hopes and dreams. The nursing staff quickly placed Marina and Matthew in my husband’s arms. The four of us posed for a picture—my husband holding each baby, leaning close to my oxygen-mask covered face. Even his surgical mask could not hide the joy in his eyes. I didn’t realize at the time—that would be our only family photo. Medical staff swooped in and whisked brother and sister apart—Marina to a nurse’s arms, a warm sponge bath and swaddle in the nursery and Matthew to a lighted table, cold stethoscopes and probing tubes. He was quickly transferred to Children’s Hospital to a team of specialists. The hours ticked by, doctors came and went, the news, once hopeful, took a sharp turn the next day.

Matthew died 28 hours after saying hello to his twin sister, his family and the world. These memories of their birth come to me in a rush and tears prick at the corners of my eyes but Marina is waging a debate and is at the pinnacle of her argument.

“I wouldn’t get it right away; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”

I walk over to her and hug her close.

Matthew is permanently etched on me, on my soul, through my memories, however brief. Somewhere in the far reaches of Marina’s infant memories are his touches and his birthing cry.

As we hug, I am no longer bursting to share my opinion on tattoos. All my arguments have fallen away.

Perhaps she needs a retrievable memory—her own etching.

“You still have to wait until you are older,” I gently admonish with a smile, “but that sounds beautiful.”

Marie O’Brien is a freelance writer and recently started a blog (runnermomma.com) to share stories about her experiences as a recreational runner and full time mom of three teenagers. Her essays have been heard on Milwaukee’s Radio Show Lake Effect (WUWM-Milwaukee).

Photo: gettyimages.com

I Had A Boy

I Had A Boy

By Carrie Goldman

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I figured it would stop in about five years, when I no longer looked young enough to be adding to my family. It had started a decade ago, during my second pregnancy. First, a quick appraisal of my protruding stomach—taking in the small girl with pigtails already chattering by my side—and then the Question.

“Hoping for a boy this time?” asked the sales clerk, the customer, the grocer, the person in line, the passenger on the plane, the nurse in the doctor’s office.

“We’re not finding out,” was the standard answer I gave, which tossed the ball back into the other person’s court and usually fulfilled my conversation obligations.

The Question, I have learned, is built on automatic assumptions that society holds about a woman’s life, her path to parenthood, and her values, but rarely do those assumptions reflect my truth.

Our second baby was born, and she was another wonderful girl. The Question slightly shifted. People would see me with my two little girls, and ask, “Will you try for a boy next?”

“We are thrilled with our girls,” I would respond. I know The Question is born of curiosity, not malice, and that most people are simply trying to be friendly and make conversation.

But I began to notice the cultural bias behind the curiosity. I grew weary of the gender-based marketing that divides stores into seas of pink and blue and made a point of crossing into the boys’ section to buy superhero shirts and Star Wars toys for my daughters. I stacked little footballs and toy trains alongside princesses and jewelry kits. There are all different ways to be a girl and raise a girl.

When my girls were six and three, I became pregnant again. The Question came at me as soon as I began to show, sometimes in the form of a comment. “I hope your poor husband gets a boy this time!”

I would turn to my attentive little girls and tell them, “You girls are my world, and Daddy’s too. When people say things like that, it shows us how they think, but it is NOT how Daddy and I think.”

Our third baby was born, and we were overjoyed with another little girl. It has been almost five years since she arrived, and our family is complete.

Not a month goes by that a smiling stranger doesn’t comment on how I have three, count ’em, THREE little girls, asking if I will try for a boy next.

For years, I focused my responses on pushing back against the subtle stereotypes behind The Question. It was easier to channel my inner tumult on an external issue than on the additional reason why the question wrenched my heart, the silent response in my head. I had a boy. But something went horribly wrong when his kidneys formed, and he died before he got a chance to live his life.

That silent response erupted unexpectedly into conversation last week, when I was at Trader Joe’s with the trio, and a fellow customer watched my two youngest girls loading up a mini shopping cart with a crazy collection of foods.

She smiled at me and said, “Looks like you have some great helpers. Will you try for a boy next?”

Before I could reply, my oldest daughter said, “She had a baby boy that died and then she adopted me.”

There. There it was. I had a boy. The woman, poor thing, turned pink and beat a hasty retreat. My oldest daughter resumed grabbing cartons of berries. She piled them in the cart that her younger sisters were fighting over.

I tried to make reassuring eye contact with the woman, seeking to let her know that it was okay, that we are okay, but she had fled.

I wondered what led my daughter to speak up with that answer. Perhaps it was nothing more than the blunt honesty—a refreshing quality, really—that we find in children. Or perhaps she was seeking to validate her own place in the family, letting the other woman know that we do not need a boy anymore because we adopted her. Adoption and identity are complicated issues, and our oldest needs frequent affirmation that she belongs.

As we walked through the store, I thought about how simple and freeing my daughter’s answer was. In one sentence, she managed to dispose of the question that always stumps me. It felt good not to have to go through my internal dialogue before coming up with the right response.

It is difficult to reconcile the benign attempts of a stranger to make small talk with the intense thoughts that rush through my head. Do I commit a lie of omission in my response and deny the existence of that baby boy? It feels like a betrayal. Do I breach the unspoken rules of appropriate disclosure by responding as bluntly as my daughter did, thus forcing the other person into an awkward position?

I am not alone in this experience. I have two good friends who lost their first daughters and are now raising little boys. My sweet friends puzzle over how to answer the simplest of questions such as, “How many kids do you have? Think you’ll go for a girl next?” I have two more friends who, like I, lost baby boys and are now raising all-girl families.

The zigzagging of thoughts, the rapid internal dialogue, plays out again and again. I usually make a game-time decision to give a response that opens the door to new thoughts about the value of girls in society, because it does address one of my issues with the Question, while preserving my private pain. But every single time, a voice in my head says, I had a boy. But life is strange, sad and wonderful, and now I am the blessed mother of three phenomenal girls. This is my path.

Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. You can see her work at www.carriegoldmanauthor.com, including her new children’s chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing! co-authored with Juliet Bond.

Photo: gettyimages

Where We Go

Where We Go

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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I knew it would come back to haunt me. I knew that I would wish I had come up with a better, more personally truthful explanation to give my daughter, but at that point it was the best I could do, so when prompted to talk about where Daddy had gone a few days after he died, I took the easy route and answered: heaven.

It felt like such a moment of weakness. Even in the thick of the worst days of my life, I had always told her the truth.

I am a spiritual person, but I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven or hell, angels or demons. While my spiritual beliefs are still evolving, I do know that I believe in love, and positive energy (whatever form that may take, be it prayer, meditation, or simply good juju). I believe there is another aspect of our beings that is beyond the body, but I do not place my belief in God.

My daughter was barely three when her father died, however, and I was at a loss for what to say to her. Death and permanence are difficult concepts to comprehend at that age. After having the “Daddy is dying” talk, I wasn’t sure how much more I was capable of. A tiny part of me still didn’t believe that it was actually happening, that there was going to come a day very soon when my husband’s body would finally fail.

Almost all of the kids’ books that we had read together about death and grief talked about heaven, so she was at least vaguely familiar with the concept, and “heaven” seemed like an easy answer during an extremely difficult time.

Most people would probably struggle with the idea of wanting the love of their life to die, but I have been there and come through the other side. The day before he died, I told my husband he could go, that I loved him and that he could go. He seemed to know we were there briefly that morning and then he was gone again. He was no longer aware of the world, was in constant pain, and had not been able to speak, eat, or move in days.

I laid down with him in his hospital bed, my head on his shoulder and my hand on his chest, the way we used to lay together in the old days, and I gave him my blessing to die. I wanted him to die. The state he was in was not life. He was ready and I was as ready as I was going to be, and it seemed that all that was left in the meantime were varying degrees of suffering.

I called time of death the following night at 9:40 pm.

Fourteen months later at the dinner table, my four-year-old daughter asked me where Daddy went.

“I know it was the cancer that made him die,” she said, while spooning macaroni into her mouth, “but where did he go?”

I started explaining again how when some people die they get cremated and their bodies become ashes. I talked about how we had spread Daddy’s ashes in the places he loved most. This was a conversation we’d had many times before. She knew what had happened to his body, and it became clear that wasn’t what she was asking.

“But where did he go? Did he go to heaven?”

“Some people believe that when we die, we go to a place called heaven,” I said. “And Mama doesn’t believe in heaven, but she believes that Daddy isn’t hurting anymore, and that all he feels now is love.” She nodded.

“We’re always connected to Daddy through our hearts,” I continued, “because we will always love him and he will always love us.”

“We feel him right here,” she said, placing her small hand on her chest.

She was content with my answer and we finished our dinner talking about school, friends, and princess books, but I kept replaying the conversation in my head. Was I saying the right things? Was I giving the right answers? Did right answers even exist?

I don’t know how to explain suffering of that extent to my child, and I don’t know how to explain a religious place where the dead go that I don’t believe in. There will always be difficult questions, and I know that I often won’t have the answers, but I do know that I am doing the best I can.

I have seen and felt my husband since his death: in a sole firefly floating through our bedroom on a dark summer night; in a beautiful Luna moth clinging to a tree when I suddenly felt compelled to turn around mid-step on a trail; in a bottle of bourbon opened the night he died that inexplicably exploded while every other bottle in the cabinet remained intact.

Our daughter will grow up to develop her own beliefs about spirituality, religion, and death, and I hope she does plenty of exploring and inquiring in the process. It’s okay if she doesn’t end up on the same page as me, as long as she finds her own truth in the end.

In the meantime, I teach her about the good in people and about being kind to others. I talk to her about the wonder of life and about the beauty we can find in the world. I give her all of the love and energy I have to give, and then some more I didn’t even know was there.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury outreach coordinator, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine.  You can read more of her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Photo: Kundan Ramisetti

There When I Need You

There When I Need You

By Stephanie Farrell

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.59.26 PMMy mom often joked that the second baby should be called “the nervous breakdown baby.” I’d have found this funnier if I hadn’t been her second baby and if she hadn’t subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Now, with two children of my own, my stepfather reminded me that I am the same age she was when she was hospitalized. It was a gentle nudge, his way of telling me not to take on too much, but it made me feel like my biology has faulty wiring. Now on those days when I feel isolated or exhausted, I picture an old kitchen timer, ticking louder and faster right before the buzzer goes off. Time’s up—this is all you can take, no more.

In the years before her breakdown, Mom put on a fabulous act. She was Supermom. She set up a preschool in our garage and taught all the neighborhood kids. She taught us how to bake cookies, make collages, and collect bugs. She would make up stories about Mrs. Carter, a little old woman in tennis shoes who secretly rode a motorcycle. Much like the fictional character Mrs. Pollifax, created by Dorothy Gilman more than a decade later, Mrs. Carter was often hired by the CIA for international adventures. Mrs. Carter, much like my mom, led a double life.

Every morning Mom would say that she needed to put on her face. She meant her make-up; she’d rarely stray out of the house without it. But my mom put on a face all the time, a happy face that belied what lurked inside. She wore it to Garden Club and League of Women Voters and to Little League games and to my Brownie meetings. She wore it with her neighbors. She wore it with most of her friends. Underneath the face, she was hurting. Despite her joke, I know that we didn’t cause her nervous breakdown (okay, I say that only after a few years of therapy myself), but we probably hastened its arrival.

My mom’s mom, who wore a capable-Mormon-mother-of-six face, became a closet alcoholic. Grandma was recovering from her own childhood; she’d had to raise her siblings in poverty when she was just a kid herself. At her best, she could make a mean lemon meringue pie while at the same time assisting my grandpa, a doctor, with his patient on her kitchen table. At her worst, she said horrible, not-to-be-repeated things to my mother. Since they weren’t to be repeated, my mom didn’t repeat them. She didn’t speak of them. She didn’t laugh at them. She just stuffed them down and put on her face and carried on.

I have learned a lot from my mom. One of the things I learned is that you can be in a great deal of despair and still get up and put cereal on the table and change a dirty diaper. You can take the kids to Monroe Falls every day in the summer, teach them to swim, and laugh at their antics even though you secretly long to die. You can sing silly songs to them, read stories, and comb their long hair, being gentle because it’s so tangled. And you can act like everything is okay and fool most of the people most of the time. But not your kids.

I knew my mom was sad. I knew it at an early age. It was my job in the family to cheer her up, keep her happy, and do what I could do so that on the rare occasions when my dad was home, everything was fine. If that meant keeping my sister quiet, I would distract her. If it meant bringing my dad slippers and his newspaper, I fetched. I was my mom’s cleaning helper. I also became the entertainer, remembering ?funny stories to share? with her.

I also know that each ?of us has a breaking?point. When my mother ?reached hers, she finally got ?help. Though kids can add? pressure to a stressful life,? they are also a tether to ?remain on this side of the? grass. She felt the tug of us even ?when she was in a locked ward making brown-glazed piggybanks and pink crocheted slippers. When she got out, her face wasn’t so firmly on. She would allow cracks to be seen. She would say she was sad. She told us that for years she had tried to be perfect and that it was a mistake—we are not perfect.

My mother taught me a profound lesson. You are allowed to get help, but don’t wait until you desperately need it. I am determined not to follow her lead into the hospital, to sedatives and group therapy with permanent locked-ward residents. So in my own recovery process, I have learned to shed more of the face, to be out there with my feelings. I also find tremendous comfort in my faith. As a Christian, I easily acknowledge my imperfections and rely on God’s grace. I also like the promise that God is not going to give us more than we can handle. (To which my brother likes to quip, “God must sure think a lot of us.”)

When I became a mom five years ago, my mom drove out from her home in Ohio to South Jersey as soon as I went into labor. Our son, Daniel, was born while she was en route. She stopped by the hospital at the tail end of her drive. I looked at his tiny little feet next to my big feet and then over at my mom. “You’ve known me since my feet were this small,” I told her. I was filled with love; I got it for the very first time how intensely a mother can love a child, and I realized that this is how much she cared for me.

She was full of nervous energy that visit and my house seemed to be her best outlet. She scrubbed the bathtub, made the laundry room sink sparkle, polished the wood floors, and swept the driveway. I think she rearranged my cupboards, too. I haven’t been able to find my small bowls since.

Three years later she flew out again, this time not to celebrate a birth but to join me in grieving. I had had two miscarriages in a row. The first one knocked me off my feet. I was at fourteen weeks and the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, so he ordered an ultrasound. The screen showed an empty womb, the baby almost disintegrated. I was heavy with grief and sobbed for days like I had never cried before. But the doctor told me that what had happened was very rare: I could have done nothing to prevent it, and there was just a one percent chance of its happening again. Five months later, I learned something about percentages. I had “vu jà dé”— it’s like “déjà vu” except it has all happened to you before, just a little differently.

The second time, I was eleven weeks, at a regular check-up, and again no heartbeat. I stood in a doorway at the doctor’s office, just where I’d stood before, while they called to order the ultrasound. If it happens again, I told him, I’m going to fall apart. Someone is going to have to come and pick up the pieces. This time there was a fully formed baby, but it was no longer alive. My mom came to pick up the pieces.

She was again there for me, but not in the way I expected. Daniel was then two and a half and ready to be potty-trained, she declared. I said, Knock yourself out. And I meant it. Potty-training was the last thing in the world I cared about. Really, I didn’t care about anything, not eating, not sleeping, not anything. It was the first time in my life when I couldn’t make any kind of decision. And there my mom was having this incredible bonding experience with my son, the trips to the bathroom a special adventure for the two of them. After three days, the job was finished. Daniel was dry through naps and at night. I am still amazed at this, but at the time, I wanted to yell, I am the one who needs help. Every now and then she would show up on the screened-in porch where I planted myself early in the morning and stayed parked all day. She’d let me cry for a minute or two and then would leave again. After a week, I started to make meals. “I put those dishes in the sideboard, not there,” I told her. “Hey, we recycle!” I’d say, pulling a two-liter bottle out of the trash can. She smiled at my irritation, happy to see that I was beginning to engage in life.

Many months later my husband and I somehow summoned the desire to try again, and this time everything went fine. Our daughter, Emily, arrived with lots of hair and bright blue eyes. My mom was thrilled. She loaded her car down in pink packages for her first granddaughter and made the drive out. Yet again, I sat on the porch, this time content to nurse and read and drink lemonade. Mom’s nervous energy returned and this time she attacked my yard. She weeded, mulched, and planted. Perennials and rhododendrons appeared along our side fence, orange hibiscus along the back fence, impatiens and lilies in front of the house.

Despite previous experience, I expected her to take care of my postpartum needs: meals, diaper changes, etc. But again, she just gave me space, this time to bond with my baby on the porch, every day transforming the view of the yard from its state of neglect. Now I could look up from my book and enjoy the view rather than think, “Oh, I should really take care of that” before turning back to my novel. (I rarely let anything get in the way of a good book, especially not housework or weeding.)

On her last morning with us she gave me a pedicure on the porch, gently massaging my still-swollen ankles. With cotton balls between my toes, I cried as I watched her car pull out of my driveway. How could I take care of both of these kids and this house and do all that I am supposed to do? I was overwhelmed, mostly by sleep deprivation and by the feeling that my son had become possessed. Why else would he choose this time to pee in our closets and write on the walls?

It was a crisp fall morning a few months later when my mom called to tell me that she had cancer. The Big C. Not cancer—no one in our family has cancer, I thought. Emotional breakdowns, depression, drunk and disorderly conduct, this we understand. Nothing some rehab or Prozac couldn’t cure. Cancer is a whole different planet, one our family has never visited. My mom had always joked that she didn’t have a moderate bone in her body; she went overboard in whatever it was. Well, this time was no different. It wasn’t a little lump to be removed. It was Stage IV uterine cancer.

It was my turn to pack up the car and drive to her. I made four trips over the next four months, a total of forty hours in the car with my two kids in tow. We drove through thunderstorms, hail storms, a blizzard, and fog. I wondered whether I really knew my mom. I had this desperate need to capture her. I was panicked with a deep nagging fear that her good days were over, that I was going to watch as she slid into a period of illness that she wouldn’t recover from, that she would die. As I was driving I realized that even though she was not there for me the way I thought I needed her to be, she was there for me.

When I got to Ohio, I embraced the opportunity to mother her, for she had taught me how to do it. When she was determinedly positive, I smiled with her even though I didn’t share her optimism. I drove her to chemotherapy in Cleveland, twice through blizzards. We stopped for coffee and bagels on the way, fortifying ourselves. We had always talked about making a quilt together. With no time to waste, we worked on a quilt wall-hanging while we watched the I.V. drip, drip, drip into the hole in her chest for six hours.

She didn’t look like a cancer patient at first. “I always wanted to be a blonde,” she said when she first showed me the wig she’d picked out. She had a head shaving party, inviting her friends to a day at the salon. Later, when her head got itchy at a chemo session, she shed the wig with a smile. “Guess I am having a no-hair day,” she said. Her starkly bald head, more than anything else, made the cancer real.

During the winter of her cancer, we cried together only once. I caught her on the Monday after chemo, when the effects were worst. She was honest about how terrible she felt. I blurted out how much I hated this, hated all of it, that I still needed her and that she absolutely was not allowed to die yet. Not yet, I am not ready. I don’t think I will ever be ready. But maybe when you’re in your nineties and I’m in my sixties, we can talk about it.

We cried together on the phone, my handset getting all wet. I was in the kitchen, leaning over my counter, looking out at a gray winter day. She was in her king-sized bed, confined to it for the next few days by the chemo that had wiped her out. Normally, she was distracted from the pain by the birds who visited her wooden balcony. But that day we didn’t have to talk about the birds and I didn’t have to tell her funny stories about my kids that I had saved up or about how happy I was to have organized my linen closet. I could just say, it stinks. The whole thing. Winter, living far apart, being positive, feeling sick, cancer, death.

Months later, when she had made it through chemo, the strongest stuff they can give you, the kill-ya-to-cure- ya strength, she said, “Just thank God that He has cured me of cancer.” But here’s the problem: you never really know if you are cured from cancer. When you’re on the toxic stuff, nothing is growing. So after she was done with chemo, we were in wait-and-see mode. Her face was back on, adamantly positive. I was a little kid again, knowing that everything was not all right but not allowed to talk about it.

I really wanted to call my mom this morning. There’s a terrible time in the morning when I linger between sleep and alertness—it can be a good fifteen minutes before I remember that she is dead. Our winter of cancer was followed by a spring of false hope. Then on my daughter’s first birthday, right before we cut the cake, she called to tell me that she was in the hospital. The cancer was back and she was terminal.

Our last month together was surreal. It was as if every morning she walked toward her grave, eyes wide open, but upon getting there, she found herself still standing. No? Not today? she’d ask politely. Well, okay, then. There was no more pretending. During that month, she talked about her hopes for us, and she shared how painful it was when her mom died. She gave me tips on finding mom-substitutes.

The week before she died, my mom checked into the presidential suite at the spa. It was there that I saw her for the last time. She treated me and her two sisters to pedicures and manicures, facials and massages. The next day I brought the kids there for a swim in the pool. When we were done, we said goodbye, and she and my aunts climbed into the hot tub. I tried to do our funny goodbye schtick—you say goodbye, walk away, then come back and say goodbye again. But she had already turned after my first goodbye; she was laughing with her sisters and didn’t hear me. I stood there in the hallway, holding my kids’ hands, looking at her. It was as if her trial with cancer had crystallized her, like a fire burning away all but the core. What endured was her strong, joyful spirit, determined to live a full life to the very end. I left, knowing I had just seen my mom for the last time, but I smiled at the kids. In the car, I put on their favorite Sesame Street tape and cranked up the volume so they wouldn’t hear me weeping.

In some way that I can’t fully put my finger on, it feels significant that my mom died just after my daughter was born. When I talked to my ob-gyn about my own risks for cancer—and told him, wasn’t it crazy, but I might want to have another child—he assured me that it wasn’t. The alpha and the omega, he said. The alpha and the omega.

Author’s Note: Since writing this essay, my father’s been physically and mentally ill and I’ve had two more miscarriages. What are you doing to take care of yourself? my mom would ask. I’d tell her that when I can find the words, I pray or write. When the words won’t come, I quilt. I just finished a quilt for my daughter Emily (now two), that is made from her outgrown sleepers and my mom’s flannel nightgowns. It felt like a tangible way to recognize my role in connecting these two generations.

Stephanie Farrell lives in Vineland, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter, and their two children. She does freelance work for her regional newspaper. This was her first essay published in a magazine.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

Big Grief

Big Grief

By Jenna Hatfield

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While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me.

 

I’ve known grief.

I’ve fought it off, angry and afraid in the same breath. I’ve wallowed in it, allowing it to wrap me up in its dark cloak of solitude. I’ve ignored it, pretending it away for a moment, for longer.

I thought the sudden loss of my grandfather and two of my husband’s relatives in quick succession felt unbearable. Different than the loss of my daughter to adoption, these beloved figures in my life were simply gone. I dreamed of my grandfather’s voice, of riding in cars with him as I did as a child.

But grief, as it does, ebbs and flows, and while I missed my grandfather, I felt whole again.

Until my grandmother, his wife, died last June.

I grew up on a farm with my grandparents. They lived just across the driveway for the first seven years of my life, and then down a great big hill when my parents built a new house. I spent my after school hours with my grandma, helping her start dinner, watching television, playing with her dogs. She made my formal dresses as I grew into a teenager, helped me get ready for proms, brought a suit up to college for an important event, and worked diligently on the decorations for my wedding.

Even though it should have occurred to me she would someday be gone, it didn’t.

My grandmother always stood as a strong, positive fixture in my life. Sure, she told me how my brown 1990s lipstick didn’t match my skin tone (she was right) and ragged on my nose ring and tattoos, but she lifted me up in so many other ways. She taught me to sew. She sent beautiful letters when I felt homesick in college. She sat with me in the hospital when I first became sick during my pregnancy with my daughter; her presence during that time calmed me then and soothes me now.

The final diagnosis of renal cancer caught the entire family off guard, but it wasn’t until I made it to the hospital the day before she entered hospice that I allowed myself to believe my grandmother was, in fact, dying. I held her hand in mine and knew she would leave us soon. Two days later, my grandmother passed away.

For ten months I’ve been waiting for it to get better, this grief and grieving, this loss of someone who mattered so much in my life. She too appears to me in dreams, sometimes with my grandfather and often times without. Recently we sat on her back porch and watched her dog chase chipmunks.

I miss those little things.

I cry when I make macaroni and cheese the way she taught me. I feel a heavy weight of sadness when I need help picking new curtains and she’s not there to call. I miss her so much some days I feel a physical pain.

“But she’s just your grandma. It’s not like she was your mom.”

I’ve heard it, and I’ve even whispered it to myself on hard days. My mother is still very much alive, dealing with her own grief of having lost her mother-in-law and mother just four months apart. Yes, my mother is still with me for what I hope is a long, long time.

While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me. In our weekly telephone calls as an adult, she offered me advice on dealing with fussy babies and stubborn toddlers. “You’re doing such a great job raising those boys,” she told me regularly. She listened, she comforted, she mothered.

While walking in the cemetery with my seven-year-old son recently, he asked a series of questions about life, death, and the afterlife. He talked of missing my grandmother, his Big Mamaw, as the boys called her. I let him talk and process, as I do every time we end up here, and added my own bits of understanding, sadness, and question-prompting.

“I just miss her. Like, I BIG miss her. You know, for BIG Mamaw,” he said, never missing a step.

I nodded, a bit too choked up to respond in the immediacy. I let the words he spoke hang over us both as we walked past gravestones of people long gone before either of us entered this world. I assume we all have someone—or even someones—we will Big Miss when they die. It matters not how directly they were related or if at all.

What matters, I suspect, is that we loved them in the first place. Learning to feel the presence of that love without the presence of that person slowly helps the grief feel less Big, what turns the Big Grief into just grief and the grief into missing and the missing into pleasant memories.

For now, I work on getting out of the Big Grief stage by allowing myself to feel, to write, to do what I need to do in this moment. She would be proud of me for that.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo: Breno Machado

 

Counting Stars

Counting Stars

By Amanda Linsmeier

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The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be.

 

“Mo-om!” my son calls to me in the harried minutes before dinner. In haste, I join him and his 20-month-old sister in the living room.

“What is it, sweetheart?” I ask, wooden spoon forgotten in my hand. A bit of sauce drips on the laminate floor. I let the dog lick it up.

“She took my tractor!”

My spirited 5-year-old had us, and all his toys, to himself for almost 4 years. It is a struggle sometimes to share. To learn to give, to let go. And his baby sister can be feisty. As he rips the toy from her tiny hand, she reaches out and whacks him in the face.

Before I even try to handle the situation, my son stomps off, murmuring under frustrated tears, “I wish I didn’t have a sister.”

Usually, my oldest is gentle and patient with her. On a recent afternoon, I walked past the living room with a basket of laundry and there they were, unprompted, sitting close, holding hands. It was one of those cup-runneth-over moments.

However, when one or both of them refuse to share, or are in the way, or something else equally annoying, occasionally that phrase comes out, and I cringe internally. I think about what his father and I went through to have a second child, his baby sister, who looks at him in such adoration, but I don’t say anything.

My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was quick, and straightforward, at 7 weeks. All the same, it broke my heart. When I conceived my son a couple months later, I was terrified. But, he came along, born spontaneously on his due date, beautiful and healthy. After that, I did not worry. I had mastered the secret, I thought. When I conceived shortly after his first birthday I smiled wryly. I was both scared and thrilled he would have a sibling so close in age. It never entered my mind that would not happen.

After dinner, the kids and I dance while their father watches in amusement. Our son is silly, and spins around. Our daughter, taking after me, loves to dance. She wants to be held the whole song—which I repeat three times, so by the end I am sweaty and out of breath. Even as a petite toddler, three dances is work. I peel off my cardigan as we take a rest. She climbs onto the couch, reaching for the stars inked on my shoulder as she has before. Curious, as if she’s asking, what is this? Why is this there?

“Pretty?” I ask and she nods. My son keeps spinning. He knows what the stars mean. Or maybe he’s forgotten. I wonder if he remembers all the times we said we were going to have another baby but didn’t. The last couple of times I didn’t even tell him. I hated to see that look in his eyes when I said, “The baby is gone.”

Perhaps it was just my own grief reflected in his eyes.

The tattoo my daughter likes to touch is a scattering of stars. There is one shooting star—representing my son—and five little stars. Those are blacked out, and small. Their light never came to be. Those are my first five losses. The siblings that never happened. One before my son. Four after him. I haven’t had the second shooting star for my daughter added yet. Or the tiny stars that came after her. I’d like to end this permanent art with one last shooting star, one more sibling for my babies. I’m stubbornly waiting for that to happen, and then I will book my next tattoo after birth and weaning. Somehow one of my fears is my son will not be as thrilled to hear we’d be having another baby as he was when I finally shared I was pregnant with his sister, at over 20 weeks along.

When we had told him the news, he kissed my belly, talked to the baby. He relished the anticipation of his sister’s arrival.

When she was born, he referred to her as “my baby.”

“She’s my baby,” I’d laugh as I soaked up the feel of them both in my arms. “Mine and Daddy’s.”

“No,” his black eyes never wavered, “She’s mine.”

The years in between my two children were fraught with doctor’s appointments, testing, and research. I learned I’m the carrier of a genetic condition, which causes miscarriage about half the time. When I questioned the genetic counselor on my stats, worse than 50%, I was told, “It’s just a numbers game.” Upon receiving my diagnosis, somewhere after loss #3, my husband and I struggled with the decision whether or not to continue trying. Well-meaning friends and family told us to be happy with what we had. And we were. But I didn’t want to let this disorder win, when it had already stolen so much. Damn the genetics. I am glad now we pushed on. Glad I can someday tell my children, who may likely carry the same reproductive challenge, that I didn’t give up. That it was a long, hard road, but I fought. And in the end, I won.

We ease into bedtime calmly. Both children are clean and sweet when we settle them into their shared room, another struggle sometimes. But tonight, they are ready for sleep. My daughter goes right to the crib, with the warm bottle we still allow her. And my son, my sensitive boy, curls into bed with a favorite stuffed animal and the chunk of amethyst I gave him to keep away nightmares. My husband and I kiss them and shut out the light. As the door closes, I hear my son croon to his sister, “Good-night, baby. Love you.”

I smile, and my heart blooms.

Author’s Note: My husband and I are overjoyed to be expecting our third child, due this fall. Our daughter waivers between curiosity and disinterest. Our son is thrilled. Both children occasionally kiss my belly.

Amanda Linsmeier lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two children and works part-time at her local library. Her flash fiction has appeared on the WOW! Women on Writing blog, The Muffin and her debut novel Ditch Flowers will be released by Penner Publishing in the upcoming months. You can find her on Facebook.

 

Image: dreamstime.com

Notes on a Marriage

Notes on a Marriage

largeBy Addie Morfoot

It was 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve when a shot was fired and a car slammed into our front door.

This was as close to a party as my husband and I were going to get.

In the eleven and a half months since giving birth to our first child, I still didn’t feel like myself. I felt more like a bear in hibernation. My cave was a one-bedroom garden apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

My marriage didn’t feel like my marriage either. Each day got off to a hazy start at 6:30 A.M. and came to an abrupt halt at 7 P.M. when my son went to bed. After a trip to Florida, I realized that our family was more suited for a retirement community than The City That Never Sleeps, especially on New Year’s Eve.

The topic of celebrating the end of that tumultuous year never came up between my husband and me. Instead, after we put our son to sleep on December 31, Ross opened a bottle of wine while I found “Friday Night Lights” on our DVR so we could binge watch season three.

Gone were the days when we rang in the New Year overseas or at our local haunt on Elizabeth Street.

We had just endured a year that consisted of far too little sleep and plenty of financial distress. While our freelance jobs had once afforded my filmmaker husband and me—a reporter—the opportunity to travel the world, the minute I got pregnant we seemed to be in a perpetual state of instability. We had become the cliché of the struggling freelance couple: constantly depressed, moody, scared and only on rare occasions, exhilarated.

For the first time in our relationship, we were on a budget. A coffee machine replaced our morning runs to Starbucks. Then, a few days before my son was born, Ross agreed to a film project that would take him to war torn, dangerous areas of the world. Not bringing in any significant income myself, I couldn’t tell him not to go, so he left for weeks at a time while I tried to figure out how to care for an infant.

“Do you really need Pellegrino?” I hissed one evening while preparing dinner.

“No. But it’s cheaper than your $5 bottles of Kombucha,” Ross snapped back.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, we were barely speaking. Our fatigue had morphed into anger. He’d been gone for three weeks that month working on a film and when he returned he had little time for anything but work. Whenever he had a moment to breathe and actually have a face-to-face conversation with me, I invariably got a writing assignment. The only thing we weren’t fighting about was “Friday Night Lights.”

“I gotta go to bed,” I said, two and a half episodes in.

“Come on,” Ross said. “It’s only ten-thirty.”

I was desperate to close my eyes, but before I could reply, a black sedan came flying toward our front picture window, landing with a boom on our stoop. The car, which sat inches from our landlord’s front door, was perched precariously on the stairway railing. Somehow the iron gate in front of our apartment had prevented the sedan from careening into our living room.

The loud crash didn’t wake the baby, so I followed Ross outside to help what we thought was a drunk driver. But all we saw was an empty car.

“Run!” somebody screamed. I couldn’t see a face, but the voice was coming from down the street.

We were too stunned to move.

We heard frantic feet hitting the pavement. As the sound of the footsteps disappeared, we heard a voice coming from the opposite direction.

“Help!” It was a man, holding his neck and walking slowly down the block towards us. “I’ve been shot,” he said, his voice barely audible.

His left hand fell away from his neck and out came a rush of blood.

As the wife of a documentary filmmaker, I’ve seen atrocities, but I never expected to see bloodshed in our pristine, tree-lined, Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Our particular block resembled a movie set. Early 19th century Federal-style houses lined one side of the street, while the mansion where Truman Capote once lived stood opposite. Bankers who wore loafers without socks, bright Lacoste shirts and carried briefcases strode to the subway every morning, and celebrity sightings were the norm.

I ran inside to call 911 while Ross grabbed a bath towel (our nicest, most expensive one) and wrapped it around the man’s neck.

“There’s been a shooting,” I screamed into the receiver.

“Where are you ma’am?” asked the voice on the other end.

“Brooklyn Heights!”

There was a slight pause and then, “Where?”

Back outside, Ross was holding the towel to the man’s bloody neck with one hand and rubbing his back with the other. The man leaned against our busted wrought iron gate. The same gate I walked by everyday. The same gate I opened to bring my baby home from the hospital and the same gate I decorated in Christmas lights every year.

“It will be O.K.,” Ross whispered to the man.

Those were the same four words he always whispered in my ear when I fretted over an assignment. “I believe in you,” he would tell me.

While waiting for the ambulance, the man told us that he was a livery cab driver. He had picked up two passengers who then demanded the car. When he didn’t immediately comply, the carjackers shot him and pushed him out the door. They then proceeded to botch the robbery by crashing the car into the front of the brownstone and taking off into the night.

“Please call my wife,” the man had said breathlessly. “We have a baby. I need to tell my family I love them.”

I felt terrible for him, but now every ounce of sympathy I had was with his wife. The only thing I could imagine that was worse than being a new mother was being a new mother alone.

Sitting upright, his feet splayed in front of him, the livery driver would occasionally jerk his eyes open, like he was forcing himself to stay conscious. I, on the other hand, felt more awake than I had in nearly a year. The fog of parenthood lifted for a moment and I saw Ross clearly, imagining what it would be like if I lost him. The anxiety that once washed over me whenever he traveled had been redirected towards my son. Now what kept me up at night—instead of worrying about him—was making sure the baby was still breathing.

For six years it had been unbearable to be separated from one another. We were a solidified couple in what seemed to be an unbreakable relationship. Then we became parents and the bond that had once been so strong slowly began to unravel. “Can you do the laundry today?” replaced good-bye kisses in the morning. Sleep deprivation mixed with financial fright and role resentment made our pre-baby relationship unrecognizable and our home not so homey.

I kept Ross company as he continued to hold the towel to the livery man’sneck. While only minutes had passed, it felt like hours had gone by without an ambulance. I worried that the man would die before EMTs could save him. The smell of death at our front door meant that for the first time in eleven and a half months there was no reason to fight about money, formula or whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher.

“Where are they?” Ross said, looking up and down the street for the ambulance.

“They’ll be here. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I reassured him.

It was the gentlest, most civil exchange we’d had in months. We turned our focus back to the man, who had one eye open, and told him with confidence, “You’re going to be alright.”

I didn’t know if that was true, and I imagine Ross didn’t either, but it felt good to at least agree on something again.

Author’s note: While Ross and I were told that the man survived, we never spoke to him after the ambulance took him away. Our son is now four years old and while we still struggle with some of the issues raised in this essay, we agree on a lot more than just “Friday Night Lights.”

Addie Morfoot is a freelance reporter who writes frequently for the entertainment media. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Marie Claire, Daily Variety and The Wall Street Journal. She’s currently completing her first novel.

 

Neither Did I

Neither Did I

By Jennifer Palmer

Neither DidI

Those of us who have walked through dark times, through pain, through sorrow. Those of us who are still walking through such things today. We have no special power, no innate ability to survive such things. We are not stronger than you. We are not braver than you. We are not anything more than you.

 

When hearing of our failed adoption, people often express their dismay. “I could never adopt,” they tell me. “My heart couldn’t take it. I don’t know how you survived; I don’t have the strength to make it through something like that.”

Before I lost my daughter, I’m sure I voiced a similar sentiment when confronted with tragedy. It’s a common enough response, one we clutch like a talisman, a ward against pain. Surely only those who are strong enough to survive the heartache of unthinkable situations are forced to do so. Surely those who bear the death of a child or a spouse, who navigate the brokenness of the foster care system, who journey through terminal illness or disability or any number of terrible circumstances have some secret reserve which gives them the ability to stand when anyone else would fall. Or so we hope, for if pain only comes to those who can withstand it and we know our hearts would not survive such sorrow, this must mean we will never be forced to endure the worst. Our weakness is our own protection.

If you haven’t experienced deep loss yourself, you may question your ability to endure in the face of trauma. You might think you just aren’t strong enough to go through serious pain, and you may very well be right. There’s a good chance that right now, you don’t have what it takes to walk through such heartache on your own. But then, neither did I.

Neither did I. Had I known what lay ahead, I doubt I’d have had the courage to say yes when she came to me and asked me to adopt her baby. For four months, as we waited for the courts, as we waited for the judge, as we waited, waited, waited to know whether we would be allowed to keep our girl or not, I was weak. I was scared. I was exhausted. I had no capacity to think of the future. Doing so brought pain, and so I refused to let my mind dwell on anything but what had to be done in any given moment. Prepare a bottle. Change a diaper. Cuddle my baby. I had only the strength for one moment at a time, and even that strength was not my own.

We received the judge’s decision thirteen days before the transfer of custody was to take place. I did not have the courage to walk through those two weeks, caring for the girl who had captured my love, knowing I was about to lose her. Somehow, I managed. My heart couldn’t take it; on the day I said goodbye to her, it shattered, broke into a million tiny shards that still have the power to draw blood all these months later. And yet, here I stand.

My aim is not to invoke sympathy, for though there is deep pain in my past, my life is full and I am grateful for the many blessings I have been given. Instead, my hope is that you will hear this: those of us who have walked through dark times, through pain, through sorrow? Those of us who are still walking through such things today? We have no special power, no innate ability to survive such things. We are not stronger than you. We are not braver than you. We are not anything more than you.

I did not have the strength to survive that interminable summer, did not have the strength to walk through the loss of my daughter, and yet, somehow, I survived. Battle-scarred, perhaps, a bit worse for wear, but whole and alive. I have no explanation for this, except that we are more resilient than we believe ourselves to be, that the hard times themselves sharpen us, build us, give us what we need to continue forward. When tragedy strikes, most of us find the inner fortitude to persevere. To wake up. To put one foot in front of another. To take care of what must be done today. Different people find this strength in different places—in friends, perhaps, or family, in stubborn tenacity, in the desire to be there for a child or a spouse or a parent. I drew on my faith, on belief in a good and loving and present God, though I must admit that on those darkest days, when my own weakness could not find solace in the intangible divine, I relied on friends and family and loved ones whose arms held me up when I could not hold myself, who showed me hope when I could not see it on my own.

I suspect that you too have a strength you do not know, that you too have the resiliency to survive more than you believe possible. I suspect that, should the worst happen, you, like me and so many others, would do what needed to be done, relying on God or friends or family or some as-yet untested inner iron to make it through one moment at a time. I suspect that you would find a way through the pain, that perhaps the tragedy itself would build in you the courage you need. You don’t believe me now; I don’t blame you. Your heart is fragile, your will is weak. You don’t have the strength to survive such trauma. But then, neither did I. Neither did I.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Photo Credit: Diana Poulos-Lutz

Stopping for Death

Stopping for Death

 

WO Stop for Death Art

By Kristen Witucki

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me”

–Emily Dickinson

On a soft spring morning when sunlight dappled us through the trees, my friend, Anita, and I, both blind, took Langston, my three-year-old sighted son, to the playground at the West Virginia School for the Blind where we worked. I braced myself to cross High Street, the busy street near our house. There are no traffic lights on that corner, so the “rule” is that you wait for a break in the traffic and make a dash for it. This meant that Anita and I listened to make sure there was no traffic approaching before crossing the street. The three of us crossed without apparent incident, but I learned that death had, in fact, occurred. As we continued walking toward the playground, Langston told me, “The squirrels laid down.”

“What?” I said.

“The car came, and it ran over the squirrels. They laid down and didn’t get up. It was on its back with its belly up.”

“He must be making up a story,” Anita said.

“No,” I said, feeling myself hurtling toward an empty space even as I continued to walk in an upright position, my son’s small hand in mine. “He never spoke that way before. He saw it.”

I wanted to ask Langston if the squirrels were bleeding, if any bones were broken, but I wasn’t sure he knew what blood was or if he wanted to stare at or recall broken bones. Not seeing the damage made me reluctant to add extra horror to what he had witnessed, yet not knowing these details made me worry that I was unwittingly glossing them over.

To Anita’s credit, though she is devoutly Christian, she did not talk about death, God or Heaven. Maybe, unlike me, she held onto the hope that Langston was making up a story.

As Anita took Langston on the slides and we sang songs on our favorite swing, the weight of our impending walk home pressed on me; I didn’t want Langston to see the dead squirrels again. Maybe, I thought, one of my neighbors had buried them while we were gone.

No such luck. As we crossed back over High Street, Langston stopped in the middle of the highway and screamed. Just one lone shriek, but so different from the usual cry over small childhood disappointments. And he couldn’t move. I panicked, worried that a car would make a corpse out of him next. “Get out of the street!” I shouted. “We have to get out of the street! Now!” I tugged him to the safety of the curb, all the while thinking, “He is staring down at the face of death, and you’re yelling at him to move. What kind of a world is this?”

When we got home, I asked my neighbors to check out the crime scene for me. “Yeah, two squirrels died,” they said. “It’s O.K., Langston. They’re just squirrels.” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but agree. I had never harbored a particular fondness for squirrels, and I was grateful that Langston’s first encounter with death, aside from bugs, was witnessing the end of two squirrels, not the death of a relative, friend or pet. On the other hand, “just” squirrels? All of the adults standing there valued people over squirrels; only the child truly mourned them. I grieved for all the insects I had killed, the meat I would continue to eat. Yet I couldn’t bury the squirrels myself. I did not have the courage to get that close to the decay.

The day passed more or less as expected—nap, playtime, dinner, bath—but it was peppered with death. Langston kept replaying the scenario, running a plastic toy squirrel over with his tractor. I cringed, worrying that by allowing him to run over the squirrel again and again, I was condoning the violent act. But I was too stunned and fascinated by this development to stop him.

The reenactments led to more questions. “What is dead?” Langston asked.

“The squirrels can’t move anymore.”

“Why did they die?”

“They didn’t know you are supposed to look both ways and listen before you cross the street, and a person in a car hit them.” Was this turning into too much of a cautionary tale?

“The squirrels will be fine soon, right?”

“No,” I said, “they’re dead. They won’t get up anymore.”

I am an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. In West Virginia, where we lived, our community predominantly consisted of Baptists and Methodists. They would have told Langston that God had wanted this, or maybe even that the squirrels, having done nothing wrong, had gone to Heaven. At the very least, Anita might have ended the squirrels’ story with more than nothingness. I had been raised a Catholic but couldn’t remember how my parents had explained death to me as a small child. Had they ended our cat’s death with a trip to Heaven? As much as I didn’t believe such an ending was possible, I longed to give my son reassurance that it was all going to be O.K. somehow. Breaking my belief in death as an end would have been an act of betrayal on my part, but sticking to my simple story of nothing didn’t make me feel any better.

I emailed one of my high school English teachers, with whom I am still in touch fifteen years after I graduated and who remains one of my life and parenting inspirations. The subject of my email was “Explaining Death to a Very Young Person: a Parenting Qualification I Don’t Possess.” He wrote back with comforting words, reminding me that Langston’s first encounter “with the profound, the existential, and maybe even the ‘void,'” was not an easy concept to explain to such a young person. He recommended we watch an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a possible way into the experience. I was flooded with relief at the chance to approach the subject again with more than just my fumbling words.

Langston and I watched the “death” episode together. In it, Mr. Rogers discovers that one of his fish has died. He removes the fish from the tank and places it in a separate container of water with extra salt, explaining that he has heard it is a strategy for reviving a very sick fish. When that strategy fails, he explains that the method didn’t work this time and that the fish is “dead,” and he carefully buries it in the yard.

Langston asked to watch the episode many times over in the coming months. It gave him a definition for “death” to which he would turn again and again. He ran over his toy squirrel a few more times and created a scenario in which his stuffed monkey died from an unexplained cause and then came back to life again. Because Fred Rogers’s website said playing about death was “necessary and appropriate,” I kept my misgivings to myself. But I wondered how he could really learn about death if the story had a happy ending and the monkey lived again?

Two months later, on a visit to my friend Soxna’s house in Maine, Langston fell in love with her chickens. He loved to watch Soxna care for the hens and let them out of their coop and to help her feed them chicken feed, meal worms and Japanese beetles.

A few days after our return from Maine, Soxna wrote to tell me that Buffy, one of the chickens, had died. She had wandered away from the flock and been eaten by a fox. “Don’t tell Langston,” she added. I knew that Soxna was trying to protect Langston’s feelings, but I seized on the opportunity to speak further with him about death, one he didn’t have to witness.

“Langston, remember Soxna’s chickens?” I asked him later that day.

“Yes.” Of course, he remembered. He talked about them incessantly, and his toy chickens were his favorite farm animals.

“One of them died. Buffy died.”

“How?”

“She walked away from the other chickens and a fox got her.”

“That’s not nice! Why did the fox get her?”

“He was hungry and needed the chicken to stay alive. We eat chickens sometimes to stay alive, too.”

He ignored the possibility that we weren’t any better than foxes. “The fox was bad. I don’t like foxes.”

Langston began a new play scenario. In it, his chickens walked together in a group. Then one chicken walked away and a plastic fox leaped out of his box of animals to attack it. “Run, Buffy! Run!” Langston shouted as the chicken clambered to safety. “She got away!”he told me triumphantly. “The chicken escaped from the fox!”

Langston tossed the toys to the floor and stood up. “Now I’ll be the fox,” Langston said, “and you be the chicken, Mommy!”

In a way, it was exactly what I deserved. Against my friend’s advice, I had alerted Langston to the chicken’s death. Now I was the chicken. The chase was pretty short because, when in pursuit, Langston easily outruns me. When he caught me, he made eating noises. Fortunately, the eating remained imaginary.

That night, while I lay beside him in bed, Langston asked, “What happens to you? Do you keep growing up like me?”

“Not exactly,” I said, “I guess I just get older.” I thought about the way our minds expand as they take in new information, and our emotions stretch as they envelop new experiences, but at the time, I wasn’t sure he would understand that kind of growth. Looking back, I wonder if I underestimated him.

“And then what?” Langston asked. “Do you become a kid again?”

“No,” I said vaguely. I didn’t want Langston to grapple with my eventual death just yet. Wait, I told myself. Wait until he explicitly asks whether you’ll die, and wait until he’s fully awake! Was that inability to face up to the possibility of my own death in front of my son wisdom or merely cowardice?

Day after day, Langston asked if Buffy was OK, needing me to remind him how she had wandered away from the others and had died. The toy chickens became the favorite toy, but Langston didn’t play any form of Fox and Chicken again; the fox had become so evil that it was banished to the depths of his toy chest where he couldn’t find it easily.

Later that month, I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to stop Langston from jumping and rough-housing with me, but I didn’t want to shoo him off with a vague explanation about not feeling well. So despite all the online advice against it, I told Langston he couldn’t jump on me because I was expecting a baby.

Nine days after the positive pregnancy test, I miscarried. As my cramps sharpened and my body removed those few errant cells, I worried about what to tell my son about the baby who was no longer coming.

Sure enough, he asked me how the baby was doing the next morning. “I’m not having a baby anymore,” I told him slowly.

“Why?”

I choked up. “The baby … died.” I wanted to sob. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you about a baby before it was formed enough.”

Langston climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. “Maybe you can make another one soon,” he said.

His childish optimism lightened me. It reminded me that mothering Langston teaches me as I go. I am learning that I don’t always need to end his narratives for him or even construct them. Rather, we will both participate in and observe each others stories for as long as we continue on this fortuitous journey together. Maybe the squirrels, Buffy, the chicken, and that almost-embryo would never be OK, but Langston was still young enough to end his stories—and mine—with the possibility of renewal.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, is part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series for adolescent emerging readers. Her essays have appeared on Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project, among other publications. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. Learn more at http://www.kristenwitucki.com.

Photo: canstockphoto

Church of the Latter Day Sane

Church of the Latter Day Sane

WO Church of Latter Day Sane Art

By Krista Genevieve Farris

It’s just an old white stucco-covered house on North Loudoun Street, greying and overcrowded. There’s no lawn, just an endless pad of cement from street to a cinderblock porch that’s been painted forest green. I see it every day.That’s my view.

The paint can’t mask the drab. It makes me mad.

When our crepe myrtles bloom, purple blossoms dress the view. And I have to position myself just right to see that ugly porch with the mismatched chairs and random residents chewing their nails and nodding to no one.

In spring, the buds bulge.

I peek my head outside to get the mail. It’s always ads and bank statements
these days—nothing personal. And a man in an alb and a tasseled cincture genuflects, kneels down on that hard porch.

Blesses me—

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Raises a chalice,

a real churchy chalice.

I duck my head and hold-up two fingers “Peace” then double-lock my door.

***

Summer comes, a hazy blur obscured by ivies, humidity and pollution.  No glorious view of the Blue Ridge.  Just days spent on the porch with my son, his lemonade stand, biting insects and the dander of stray cats that makes me itch and sneeze and leaves me cranky.

The priest guy wants a cup of lemonade, opens our iron gate and hands my 6-year-old 10 bucks.

“Keep the change,” he suggests.

I think he can’t or shouldn’t spare the change.  I don’t want it.

“No,” I say.
My son takes it.

The man sits down.  Dry white flakes fall from the wicker and settle under the chair.  He rambles about God and grad school days and then talks incoherently about God some more.  He flits and drones and eventually leaves.

I tell my son there are too many mosquitoes on the porch the next time he wants to sell lemonade. We wait out the doldrums indoors.  I say I’m scared of West Nile and for some reason he believes me.

***

Thanksgiving – the leaves rain from the crepe myrtle and cushion our walk. The guy’s cleric robe is grey at the hem from his constant pacing on the treeless sidewalk across the street.  Back and forth and back again – barefoot- he sucks an endless cigarette smoking out one last stand of mosquitos.  He is bald.

Someone yells something indiscernible from a car window.

He screams, “Don’t fuckin’ talk about Jesus fucking Christ like that.”

I slide on the hem of my yoga pants while racing to my window to see.

A woman walking by on the sidewalk asks him

“You O.K.?”

His face is soft and pink.  He smiles a gentle closed-mouth smile,

“Why do you ask?”

He takes a drag off his cigarette nub.  Leaves it between his lips, clasps his hands behind his back, bows his head, turns away and paces.

 

I’m thankful.

I’m warm

inside

watching.

***

Cigarette smoke hangs over that damn porch across the street like a funky cloud of incense by mid-December.  A barefoot woman with a buzz cut chain smokes in union with him.  I don’t care for her. I really don’t like her being there adding to the haze.

Each Tuesday afternoon at two, after his social worker leaves and the Christian radio station stops preaching on his old boom box and starts playing music, he starts mass.

Every Tuesday he rises from his chair, takes his chalice and walks a few steps away from the porch.  Then he walks back, sits down and lights two cigarettes.  He hands one to the woman.  The two of them sit and smoke- inhaling and exhaling- synchronized for a couple of hours. This goes on for days – this ritual.

Then, she starts rising with him and holds a cup through each mass, following behind him.  She kneels in front of him at the porch and offers the cup.

She trades her jeans for a long dress and the processional lengthens.  Her buzz cut hair is now completely shorn. She’s bald like him.

They cross the street toward me.

I wonder if they can feel my eyes through the window pane.

My son asks me what I’m doing. I say I’m just drinking a cup of tea and tell him to go color in a book.

The next week they come even closer to my home during their processional. They cross the street to the sidewalk right in front of my house, then veer north until they land on the porch of the abandoned house next door to mine. They turn east, kneel together to pray.

I’m a little pissed by the audacity- the trespass.

I’m sure they feel me.  I’ve been staring too long, frozen in my turret window.

I shouldn’t or should look away? I look down.

I see the frayed hem on his robe.  I feel dirty.

My husband asks me what I did today.

Nothing, I say, nothing. Why can’t I say?

***

It’s a New Year, the beginning of the end of the end of the beginning, and he’s wearing black pants and a black leather jacket and she’s wearing a sweater and a short skirt, her hair is growing, and they’re walking arm-in-arm on the south end of town.   I’m in my minivan waiting for them to move it along at a crosswalk- no chalice at that cross. “Move,  fucking move,” I mutter.

“What Mommy?” says a little voice behind me.

Oh God, did I say that out loud?

***

Leap day he sits beside her empty chair.

The plastic seat cracked in the cold.

He’s in jeans

robeless, shoeless, sockless, shirtless

 

He looks toward my house.

I know he sees me

he feels me

sitting at the windows.

 

A crisp draft breathes at me from under a sill.

Snow dusts the tops of his feet.  He rises,

walks past my house

finally out of my sight.

 

When I go to meet my son at his bus stop, a neighbor asks if I know anything about a guy dressed like a priest. I shrug. She says the man paused to pace at this school bus stop at the corner of West Avenue and “what’s up with these creeps anyway? Has the whole world lost its mind?”  So she called the police, who followed his footprints down the sidewalk to our alley, into a snow-covered shed.

 

The man sat in the corner

with some feral cats and

rose peacefully when

they said “come.”

The silence he left is mine

to hear, the empty porch,

my desolation –

his footprints – an order

to witness this gentrification

I think- if it has a pretty,

rational name,  I will be safe from

this purgatory, predatory,

paranoid neighborhood watch.

 

Krista Genevieve Farris likes the liminality offered by a prolonged sit at a window.  She lives in the Shenandoah Valley with her husband and three sons. Krista has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Change from Indiana University and a BA in English and Anthropology from Albion College. Her recent writing can be found on the Brain,Mother blog, Gravel, Literary Mama, Cactus Heart, The Rain, Party and Disaster Society, The Literary Bohemian, The Screech Owl and elsewhere. Please visit her writer’s website – https://kristagenevievefarris.wordpress.com/

 

My Father’s Surgery

My Father’s Surgery

WO Surgery ArtBy Allyson Shames

The before part is easy. There is a diagnosis, a plan, steps to be followed and items to add to a to do list. Airfares and train tickets are compared, childcare found, teachers contacted, dinners to cook and notes written. The little one doesn‘t like peanut butter and jelly. Pajama Day is Friday, but dont send them in light colored ones. You make checklists, minutiae that keep you away from the dangers of the internet and search terms: “open heart surgery,” “valve replacement,” “bypass.”

You decide to take the train, and your father-in-law agrees to fly out to watch the kids because for your husband this is a bad week, an awful week, to be gone. He’ll be working eighty hours and he’ll need the help. It occurs to you that your father-in-law hasn’t watched a child, much less three, on his own in a quarter-century. It occurs to you that he’s never made a school lunch or managed booster seats. You email the school, teachers, friends. Items checked off the list.

By the time you arrive, your father is out of surgery and awake. He’s groggy from the anesthesia and saying things that don’t make sense. “Do you remember my friend from work whose daughter taught you how to ski?” he asks. “Yes,” you reply. “We were eight. You let us go off on our own while you sat in the lodge and drank coffee.”

“He’s dead,” he says, and you don’t know what to say to that.

In the hospital room there are many machines. You were an EMT and have spent enough time in hospitals to know what the squiggly lines mean, but here, after someone’s heart has been stopped, there are more tubes, more wires, more bags of fluid. You notice insulin, but no one will tell you why it’s there. Your father has an IV in each arm, tubes and a central line. His gown has fallen open and if you didn’t force yourself to look away, you’d be able to count his ribs.

It’s not until hours before you’re supposed to leave, your last night there, that you look at the machine and see numbers that don’t make sense. The machine beeps. You look at your uncle, a doctor, and he leaves and comes back with a nurse, who contacts your father’s doctor. They schedule a cardiology consult, but tell you they’re not concerned, that this is normal, these fluctuations in heart rate. Your mother, knitting knitting knitting in a chair next to your father, tells you she’ll drive you back to the train station. On the phone, your husband tells you maybe you should stay but your mother tells you to go and because she looks you in the eye you listen.

On the train ride home you watch your childhood course by out the window, the colonial houses of New England, small towns and white churches and parks shaped like squares. You notice that there’s a Porsche dealership and a trailer park only two minutes apart, but you can’t tease out what to think about that, so you file it away for another time. You enter New York and pull away, the invisible threads of identity pulling you back as the train pulls forward, southward, away.

You thank God for Amtrak wifi and drown in the drudgery of work for nine hours. The architecture changes as you cross the Mason-Dixon line and when you walk in the house the children are fighting, bickering over a Wendy’s Frosty that one child got but not the others, hardly looking up to see you there. One hits another, but your father-in-law, who raised four children of his own, is not bothered. You realize that he did just fine without you and that he might be the only sane, stable person in your orbit, at least until he leaves, which will be soon. You avoid him, avoid everyone, dealing only with quantifiable items like making lunch and driving to play dates, things with start times, end times, definitives.

Over the next few days, your father’s heart rate doesn’t get better. The emails fly, the doctors come and go. You wait for the phone to ring because your mother can’t ever remember to bring her phone charger to the hospital so you can’t call her, she can only call you when she decides to turn on her phone. She is the granddaughter of Russian Jews who fled the Cossacks and staidness is in her blood, but when she tells you she stayed the night in the hospital room you know she’s scared.

It’s now that’s the problem, because the surgery is over and you’ve come home and you can’t worry any more about whether your father-in-law knows how to cook a veggie burger or navigate the school dismissal line. Now all you can do is watch the clock and wait for the phone to ring.

Your father calls, finally, and you get to hear his voice, but it’s strained. He tells you to talk, to not stop talking, but then he’s silent and says, “I couldn’t hear you.” He says, “I held the phone to my left ear but I couldn’t hear anything at all.” He says this with a mix of wonder and fear. You do a Google search and find this can happen after cardiac surgery, it is rare, but it can happen. You do a lot of Google searches. It’s something you can write down on a to do list.

Each day the cardiologist visits, saying he’ll come back again, and finally they decide the cocktails of medication aren’t enough and they’ll have to do another procedure to stabilize his heart rate, which somehow keeps flying to extremes: too high, too low, a roller coaster of beats per minute. If you close your eyes, you can see the machine in the hospital room, blue lines on a black screen, and hear the beeps that call the nurses in when the wave crests too high or falls too low. You go to the fourth grade class play and for half an hour your brain is somewhere else. But then the play is over and you look around and realize you don’t know what to think about anymore.

You get in the car and the phone rings and it’s your dad’s cousin, and she asks about your father. She tells you she’s had health problems of her own, big ones, but she’s okay now, she’s finished radiation, she’s okay. She makes a joke about how if you still have boobs by seventy they’ll sag down to your stomach, and she laughs, and you say, can you call my dad? Because I think he needs to hear from you.

You hang up and there’s an email from your mother that the procedure is about to begin. You think, I should go home, I should wait by the phone because there isn’t anything on the to do list, you’ve done it all, at least all the things that matter. But the iPhone betrays you because you don’t need to go home, no one uses the home phone anyway, so instead you drive to the pool, noticing the gathering clouds and thinking you’re in a cliché, the clouds matching your mood of hovering darkness. You drive to the pool and shove the phone in a locker and swim sprints until you can feel sweat break into the water.

You swim until your legs can’t kick any more and you get out of the pool and there are mothers and babies all over, so young, and you leave, driving home as the rain starts and the wind picks up. At home, you circle the computer, drawn to the blank page and repulsed by it as well, because you know that if you give into it the words will come, and putting the fear on paper will make it real.

You pace, waiting for the phone to ring. The minutes tick by and become hours. The phone doesn’t ring. It occurs to you to eat the entire box of peanut butter Girl Scout cookies that you’ve hidden in your office so your teenager doesn’t eat them all first.

The wind gets stronger. You take the dog out, realizing no one has done that yet today, and you want to praise her for having such a strong bladder but of course she wouldn’t understand. She wags her tail and comes back inside and curls up by your feet and you think she is smarter than many people you know.

The first branches to come down are twigs, many tiny ones, and they fall in the yard like sprinkles on ice cream. You stand by the window and watch the storm, nervous about the big branches on these old trees. Each one hangs over something that can’t be easily fixed: the van, the porch, your bedroom, your daughter’s room. These are old trees with long, creaky branches. They bend too much but not enough and that makes them terrifyingly fragile.

The storm picks up as you wait for the phone to ring and you watch, paralyzed, by the window as the branches sway and bend, but they never come down.

Allyson Shames is an at-home parent and fiction writer. She lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is her first published essay.

The Eddy

The Eddy

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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Sitting in a waiting room full of so many pregnant women, my body is panic personified. A wave of cold washes over me, followed by a surge of heat and sweat. I adjust my shirt and wish desperately that, despite the coolness of the season, I had chosen to wear short sleeves. My heart is pounding and I glance around to see if anyone has noticed.

This happened the last time I was here, too, but I thought it was because I was so emotional: the last time I was in my OB’s office, my husband had just died.

I debate whether to pull out the book from my bag, unsure of the wait time and my ability to focus. Instead, I watch the other people waiting and try to calm myself. A teenage mother complains to her friend about her weight gain. A couple about my age sit across from me, looking down at their phones. Three enormously pregnant women come and go. Another rubs her belly absentmindedly while watching her toddler play.

I sit and sweat, my face flushed. People walk by, and I stare at a stack of magazines, all touting healthy pregnancies and the latest baby gadgets, and I will myself to hold it together.

When my name is called, I rise and smile, follow the friendly medical assistant down the brightly lit hallway. When she takes my blood pressure and notes its somewhat elevated state, I try to explain through my clenched throat and blurred gaze. It feels like I am trying to talk while also swallowing a dry, spiky rock.

“We really wanted another baby,” I whisper, “but my husband died this spring.” She looks at me, tells me she has goose bumps, and then wipes her eyes. We both needlessly apologize.

She leaves to let the doctor know I am ready; I change into the gown and arrange myself on the examination table. My skin is so damp that my legs stick to the paper sheet beneath me. A few minutes later, the doctor comes in; I promise her that, truly, most of the time I’m okay. I have good days and bad days, I say, but I’m doing okay. I swear, I say.

More than anything, I wanted my husband to beat the odds, to survive the brain tumor that would eventually take his life. I also wanted another child with him. We talked about it, waffled with many what-ifs, and talked about it some more. And just as we decided, yes, his body started its last, long downward spiral.

I wanted my husband to live to watch our daughter grow up, for us to have another baby together. For our life together to be just that—together.

I did not want to watch my husband slowly die, to be widowed at twenty-nine. I did not want to be genuinely happy for the pregnant women in my life, only to be hit by a nearly debilitating wave of grief every single time.

At my current age, and in this era of social media and acute semi-connectedness, friends, relatives, and peers frequently post announcements of pregnancy and birth. One by one, the other mothers at daycare reveal their second due dates and with every heartfelt congratulations, I feel more left behind, more empty. With each friend’s pregnancy, my loss that much more acute.

Babies are such happy, vibrant things. They are beautifully vulnerable and exquisitely life-affirming. And yet, every newly announced pregnancy, shared baby photo, and chatter about potential future children leaves me reeling: tear streaked cheeks, disfigured by grief.

In the first few months after my husband’s death, I relived his final moments and last, gasping breaths almost every night. My exhaustion was so pervasive that I often fell asleep quickly (except that first night, alone in the house next to an empty hospital bed). At night as I prepared for sleep, staring at the ceiling and feeling the vacant space next to me, his last hours and minutes would pass before my eyes like a reel of film. After several months, the frequency lessened, then all but ceased.

Every time I lifted the cardboard box containing his ashes, I set it back down on the linen chest at the end of our bed, astonished at the sheer weight in my hands. With the scattering of his ashes on the mountain where we met and eventually married came some relief, like progress, like release. After the mountain, I was knocked sideways a little less often: I was going to have to move on through this life without him by my side.

But, the baby thing. It still gets me every damn time.

This past summer, my husband’s brother and his wife announced they were expecting their second child. After my initial burst of happiness, I was once again overtaken by grief. The baby-to-be was conceived within weeks of my husband’s death and was due a week before our daughter’s birthday. I felt so grateful for something positive to focus on, and so completely eviscerated at the same time.

Grief is not a pretty thing. It is sobbing and face-crumpling and screaming at the sky. It is turning away from the others left behind, returning to them only when you are ready. It is bursting into tears in the grocery store, forgetting your keys, your shoes, yourself. It is uncertainty about whether you are going to make it out of bed or through the day, and then concern that something is terribly wrong when a day passes with something akin to ease. It is questioning everything, and sometimes just not caring anymore how the story ends. And sometimes, often times, it just doesn’t go away, no matter how much you hope and beg and pray.

My daughter and I talk about her father every day. We look at his pictures and tell Daddy stories and she keeps a Daddy “snuggle” (one of his old fleeces) at preschool and in her bed at home for the times when she misses him most.

At school, her friends acquire new siblings, and she sometimes asks if she can have a brother or sister, too. The first time she asked was only weeks after her father had died, and I sank to the living room floor and cried. Now, when she begs me to grow a baby in my belly and is so perplexed by its lack of possibility, I have the strength to deflect. Nearing four, she also sometimes asks when Daddy is going to get better, and when he is coming home. Other times, and with a startling clarity in her eyes, she asks, “But why did our Daddy have to die?”

I have no answers for her, beyond the oft-repeated recommendations of using concrete language to explain that his body stopped working; to repeat “really” or “very” many, many times before the word “sick” so that she doesn’t associate the severity of cancer with illnesses such as a sore throat or the common cold; to assure her that I, her only remaining parent, am healthy and am here.

It still hurts so intensely because we loved so deeply, but sometimes I feel I am caught in an eddy, spinning and bobbing and waiting while I try to keep my head above the water. I see the rock and the river, but I am not really part of that world anymore.

Hard as it is to remember sometimes, I try to believe that this vortex is a journey towards peace. I know the time will come, and I know I probably won’t be ready for it. Part of me believes if I felt the current shift, I might just dive under and grab hold of that rock and never let go.

Eventually, though, I will need to float downstream. Eventually, I will need to let go, to make my own way through this grief. And maybe, someday, on some different stretch of this same river, will come that place of peace.

Read Sarah’s original post here.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

Honoring Our Children’s Desires

Honoring Our Children’s Desires

WO The Gift ArtBy Dianna Bonny

Roughly four hours after my husband’s death, I’m sitting in the county coroner’s office in a small, nondescript room. A friend and my 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are next to me and across the table is the coroner, who happens to be a young, attractive woman. I am having difficulty reconciling her appearance with the words coming out of her mouth because her beauty is in stark contrast to my preconceived notion of a Coroner’s appearance. She is explaining how my husband died.

Looking back, I don’t know why her looks mattered at all; perhaps my mind was more comfortable processing this trivial information than the devastation I faced. I even blurted out my thoughts, asking how she happened to choose this profession. She chuckled and said she would rather be dealing with people here in this condition than on the other end, before they got here. “It’s a crazy world out there,” she said, shaking her head.

We had gotten off to a rough start a few hours earlier when I called desperately trying to find out if my husband was here. I was refused information because the office believed they had already spoken with me. It turned out I had been impersonated by my husband’s mistress and, as a result, I had to prove I was me. This was difficult given the circumstances and my state of mind: only a few moments earlier, a police officer had pulled out of my driveway after confirming the news that my husband had taken his life.

I clearly remember the sense of yelling at the Coroner on the phone. It harkened from a primal place. I was outraged by  this humiliating and preposterous situation, but I do not know the exact words I said.

The coroner greeted us when we arrived, effusive and gushing apologies for the mix up. My head began spinning as she methodically explained the details of my husband’s death. She was nearby working the scene of another death when she received the call so she was at our condo within fifteen minutes. Neighbors had heard the shot fired, so there was no disputing the exact time. She explained the state my husband was in when she found him, as well as her estimation of what happened.

Sitting across from her, I tried to stay present, but my mind wandered along like a curious child as she spoke, evoking vivid images of every detail she mentioned. My husband in his robe, lifeless on the deck of our condominium. The dining table, strewn with papers and bottles. Drops of blood on the white deck.

I was fixated on the neighbors who heard the shot. “Who were they?” I kept asking, but she didn’t have that information.

Slowly, she segued into the business matters of suicide, explaining that although she knew the cause of death, an autopsy had to be performed and a report filed with the county. She handed me brochures for support groups, burial and cremation options and, finally, directions for obtaining the death certificate.

“Do you have any questions?” she asked when she was finished. I had a million questions but I remained silent, knowing she wouldn’t be able to answer the one I desperately wanted to ask. A question that sparked fierce anger in me, making me want to lash out and break things and rant: “Why did he do this to his children?” I shook my head, and then she asked to speak to me privately.

My friend and children stepped outside the room and the coroner leaned in and looked into my eyes to share some of her personal wisdom about the journey I was now on.

“I wish I could tell you differently, but death by suicide can be very difficult for families. It tends to bring out the worst in people. Be gentle with yourself and let me know if I can help,” she said, holding my hand.

Her expression conveyed a compassion that made me profoundly sad for myself, and even more so for my children. I listened to the gentle whisper of her voice and couldn’t help but feel I was being indoctrinated into a secret society that I wanted no part of. She had relevant insight into what we were facing and shared one thing that was particularly enlightening: her encouragement to honor my children’s desire to see the body, if they so wished. One of my children had asked to see him as soon as we arrived, but the coroner had gently explained that it was impossible, due to procedure. I was taken aback by the idea, even somewhat repulsed, but let it sink in as a possibility.

I’d like to think that I would have considered this possibility regardless of her suggestion, but given the various forces that came into play in the post-suicide aftermath, I’m not sure I would have had the presence of mind to follow my instincts and intuition. I am forever thankful for her permission to do what was best for my family.

She explained that in a death by suicide, children often have difficulty believing that their loved one is actually dead. It doesn’t make any rational sense that someone who cared about them would actually choose to leave them behind, so they become lost in a maze of denial and disbelief. Seeing the body offers a concrete and definitive end they can grasp so the work toward healing can begin.

I mustered up the courage to ask my children if they wanted to see their father and four days later we stood in the waiting room of the crematorium. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing so I went in first, on my own. I wanted to protect them and remember feeling I should bear the brunt of this experience; I did not want them to be further traumatized.

The room was a lonely, empty space that swallowed my courage. I sat in the back for a few moments gathering my thoughts and then approached his body with trepidation, half expecting him to come to life in the casket. Since the night in the coroner’s office, my anger had become diluted by sadness and confusion. There was no sign of my rage; rather I was a humbled and frightened mother in search of answers. I stood quietly next to my husband’s body, staring at the silent shell of a man who had once vividly occupied and dominated a quarter century of my life.

I spoke to him, naively asking for answers. “Why?” I said, over and over, willing him to respond. I didn’t understand then how perilous asking that question could be, nor did I grasp the fact that I was standing on the threshold of a very lonely journey that would yield very few concrete answers.

It became apparent to me that I hadn’t fully accepted the fact he was dead. His choice was so foreign to me that it didn’t, and couldn’t, feel real in my world. I understood what the coroner meant when she said that children often live in a state of suspended denial. I was in that state too.

I returned to the waiting room and my children and I seemed to take steps toward accepting their father was not coming back. I walked back into the room with them and  let them take in the scene before them without comment. There was nervous laughter and one of them agreed that he did not look like himself. Thankfully, it was a quick reconciliation with the truth and we were on our way home soon after.

Later, as we drove home up the freeway, I had the sensation of floating, as though there was no safe place to land in my life. Gazing out the window, I couldn’t fathom how everything had changed so radically and irrevocably in just a matter of days. My mind circled endlessly around the thought that I was now a widow and the mother of three children who’d lost a father to suicide. What would become of us?

Mercifully, my mind landed on the most hopeful thing it could find that day, the simple gem offered by the coroner that night, to honor my children’s desires on this journey. I began cultivating and polishing this notion  and it has continued to shimmer brilliantly throughout our journey, like a lighthouse on the shore during the bleakest of nights.

Dianna Bonny was inspired to create a better legacy for her children after her family’s life was derailed when her husband took his life. She is an advocate for those who, like herself, are navigating the silent aftermath of suicide. You can learn more about her work at www.livingonthefaultlines.com.

Worth the Risk

Worth the Risk

By Jennifer Palmer

Worth the risk

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis

We tried to adopt once, my husband and I brought a baby girl home from the hospital a few days after she was born in the hopes that we might be given the privilege of raising her. Those early days of new parenthood were so very sweet, even fraught as they were with the constant fear that they might take her from us. From the first moment we held her, we loved her, and we could not imagine our lives without her.

Our worst fears were realized, however, and that which we could not imagine was forced upon us. Though we had done all we knew to do, though we had followed the advice of our lawyer who was experienced in such matters, though the odds of such things happening were vanishingly small, our daughter’s biological father contested the adoption and won. Five months—five months!—after we brought her home from the hospital, we kissed her for the last time and walked away, leaving our shattered hearts on the floor of the ugly courthouse room where we said goodbye.

One month later, two pink lines made a surprise appearance on a stick in my bathroom, and for weeks, I alternated between anger and excitement, between fear and hope. My second daughter, who will almost certainly never know her older sister, was born in the spring of this year. She is a joy and a delight, a happy and affectionate baby, and, while she could never take the place of the girl we lost, she has brought some measure of healing to our lives.

We hope to give this little girl siblings some day, brothers or sisters as companions and playmates and friends. And despite the pain we suffered, despite our ability to conceive without medical intervention, we hope that one or more of those siblings might come through adoption.

Many people don’t understand how this can be the case; they hear our story and cringe, weep tears on our behalf. “How good that you are able to have children of your own,” they say, as if this child I carried inside of me is any more “my own” than the one who first made me a mother. As is the case for so many of the decisions that change our lives, we have myriad reasons for adoption, many of them inexplicable even to ourselves, but the one underlying them all is the same reason most parents choose to bring children into their lives: love.

This isn’t to say that growing a family through adoption and growing a family through pregnancy are identical experiences; even the best adoptions begin with profound loss, and everyone involved requires support and resources and knowledge to handle that loss in healthy ways. But there is room in our home and in our hearts for another, and there are children out there in desperate need of parents to love them. This seems a match made in heaven.

There are risks involved, to be sure, and there will almost certainly be pain along the way. But then, this is true no matter how we come to be parents, is true whenever we choose to love someone or something other than ourselves. Loving another, be it a child or a spouse or a friend, is a risky business. It invites suffering and hurt and sorrow. But it also invites growth and meaning and joy—joy beyond measure. The deeper the risk, I believe, the greater the potential reward, and the hope and love and healing adoption can bring to all involved is worth chancing the heartache.

Had you asked me before all this happened if I could withstand losing a child, if I could make it through such heartbreak, I would have said no. Had I known what was coming, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to walk the path I did. And yet, while I would never wish such sorrow on anyone, while I wish with everything in me that things had turned out differently, that I was living the crazy, hectic life of a mom with two under the age of two, I did survive. More than that, I grew and I learned and I tapped depths of my faith and of my friendships and of my marriage that I did not know were there. Somehow, through grace and love and the support of those who matter most to me, I was given the strength to weather the storm.

And so, if you’re considering adoption, considering making yourself vulnerable in that way, I pray that my story does not scare you away. I pray that you would heed that voice compelling you forward. I pray that you would be willing to risk the pain and the sorrow, trusting you will find the strength for what comes, and in so doing, that you would be rewarded with a joy that knows no bounds. I pray these things for you as well as for myself; though the need for foster and adoptive parents is great, though the faces of children who have no stability in their lives tug at my heartstrings, the pain is still fresh and I, too, am afraid to open myself up again in such a way.

To you on the other side of this journey, wondering if you should take that first halting step forward, to the face I see in the mirror each morning, I pray you hear me when I say adoption is worth the risk. Parenthood is worth the risk.

Love is worth the risk.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

When Her Life Passed Through

When Her Life Passed Through

By Ann Tepperman

When Her Life Passed Through_BLOG

It’s been 485 days since my mother died.

Four hundred eighty-five days ago I sat next to her on her bed, the only sound in the room the breathing machine and her heavy, thick, watery breaths. Her body was gently propped up with pillows so that she could face the setting sun through her bedroom windows. Her eyes were open and wild and she could no longer move or talk. The blood cancer had seeped into every cell of her. It had won.

I held onto one of her limp hands with one hand; the other rested on my swollen, nine-month pregnant belly. Inside me, swimming in quiet bliss was the daughter who would never meet my mother, her Nonna, except perhaps as spirit floating through the veil into the other world. I recall my mother having two final breaths: the second to last was from this world and the last seemed to be her breathing in the atmosphere from the other. Then she stopped. Then she was gone. And she is gone forever.

We were guarding my mother’s body, sitting next to her until the men in the truck came to pick her up. They wrapped her in a white sheet, preparing her to be taken away, and it was then that I turned my tearstained face to my husband and in agony asked him to help them carry my mother away.

Will the circle be unbroken by and by Lord by and by, theres another home awaitin, in the sky Lord in the sky…”

I watched my husband carry her body away in the most reverent and loving way. Even though we had been together for nine years and had (almost) two children together, at that moment we created a deep, inexpressible bond that carried us through this horrible tragedy and everything that was to come.

Three weeks after the death of my mom, my water broke. It was the middle of the night, and I was awoken by a surge of warm liquid pouring onto the bed from between my legs. We called the midwives and my husband began filling the birthing pool with water. Then we waited. And we waited, and waited. But labor did not come. So with a quiet, desperate longing to meet our baby, we retreated back to bed.

A few days later the midwives called. “We are coming over,” they said. “Today you are having your baby.” I scoffed. I was already past due, walking around with a broken bag of waters. I had decided this baby would stay put indefinitely. How could I possibly give birth without my mother?

When the midwives arrived, they handed me an herbal cocktail to induce labor. We sat together on the floor of my living room and I placed the tinctures in front of me. I closed my eyes and imagined opening up the space between the two worlds, a doorway I had locked, unknowingly trapping my daughter. And although fearful and reluctant, I took the herbs, practiced my hypnosis and waited. Slowly, after several doses and a forced inward focus, I began to feel the first twinges of labor.

I had been laboring for a few hours but my labor was inconsistent. I decided that I needed to be alone. I went upstairs, removed my clothing and sat on my bedroom floor. I began to sing. Slowly and quietly at first, the words of one of the oldest prayers from the Torah moved past my lips: “El na refa na la. Please God heal her. (Numbers, 12:13).” This small and powerful prayer was said by Moses to God after his sister Miriam had fallen ill. Like Moses, I was now surrendering to the most powerful force I could imagine. I, too, was asking for help and healing, and the surges of labor increased dramatically with every word of my heartfelt prayer.

Naked, on my hands and knees, my giant, pregnant belly brushed the white, wool carpet. I was gliding in circles, riding the long, strong surges of labor that arose from deep inside my being. I sang out louder and louder into the Universe, my voice embodied with full power and force.

Then time became surreal. I remember the midwives looking down at me from above. I remember the warm tub water. I remember stumbling deep into my husband’s compassionate eyes as I pushed and pushed and pushed. And just when I thought I could go on no longer, I gave one final push.

And she was born.

I had now stood at the gates of the death and birth of two of the most important people in my life.

I looked down at the baby in my arms. I had no idea who my daughter was. Up until then I had only been able to feel her through the veil of my own perceptions. I didn’t understand that the grief and suffering I had felt from losing my mother had been holding her back from entering fully into this world and into her own being.

It’s now been fifteen months since her birth. She’s talking and running, fiercely independent and full of warmth and compassion. I still grieve the way her birth transpired and often wonder if the loss of my mother and the emotional turmoil I suffered has left a mark on her. But just when I am doubting her strength, she shows me her spirit, her individuality and perseverance, and I am amazed. Independent of my life’s story, of all my grief, sadness, joys and losses, she is her own person and I just need to get out of her way so she can be born into herself and thrive.

Ann Tepperman has dedicated her life to raising the consciousness of others through her holistic psychotherapy practice and personal essays. She lives, loves, parents and meditates in Columbus Ohio. Learn more at www.anntepperman.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain

WO Hawk Mountain ArtBy Campbell C. Hoffman

If I look hard enough, I can make out the faint spring green underneath the still mostly gray tones of winter. Winter is slow to release its grip, and though it is now April we are just beginning to feel the reprieve. The trees have called us to them and we are answering, thankful to not be forgotten after a winter that was too long.

We drive up the winding forest road to Hawk Mountain, and the kids begin to recognize the place. This hike begins high in the mountains and the car does most of the climbing, making it a bit easier for those kid-legs while still giving the spacious views. My ears pop. We pull into the parking lot, not surprised to see it full. This is the first warm weekend; you can see the hibernation from winter is over.

Stepping out, I stretch my legs, tired and cramped from the travel. Mark releases the kids from the back seat and they bound out of the car, energetic to explore once again this mountain and these hiking trails.

Louisa died four weeks ago. That fact hasn’t left my mind since. Without warning, her four-and-a-half-month old body stopped breathing. Four weeks ago, I answered the phone on a normal Monday morning, and things have not been normal since. Then I flew miles in the sky, leaving my own children, crying most of the way at the distance between us, to grieve with family, to shake our fists together, and then to open them, releasing life into the winds.

Who is Louisa, you ask. I could map out my relationship here, tell you how she is my cousin Beth’s only daughter, making her my first cousin once removed. I could explain the bloodlines, draw out the family tree. I could justify how my relationship with Beth is special, how she was one of the first people to hold and touch my third born, when hers—Louisa—was still just an idea, a twinkle. I could write about my time living only miles away from Beth in the mountains of Colorado, and the sad facts of life that make it so we now live thousands of miles away.  But, really, that doesn’t get at it at all. Here’s what you need to know: Louisa was, and is, part of my tribe. She died, tragically and abruptly, though peacefully, when she was four and a half months old, falling asleep for an early evening nap and never waking up again.

I’m here in the wilderness today with this ache in my heart. I’m desperate to receive some beauty from this wild.

At the trailhead, Grant, six years old and with a knack for details and a steel trap memory, reminds us all where to go. This way first to go to the bathroom; that way next to find the trail. He and Renee, his four-year-old sister, each carry a trail map, numbering out the many options for our adventure. Griffin, now two, has gone from a baby-hiker to a little-kid-hiker in the six months since we were last here. This means that instead of being happy to travel in a carrier on my back, he now wants to walk on his own. And who am I to stop him? For this reason, though, it means that we can’t head down the River of Rocks trail, with all its boulder scrabbling and tough climbs. No, today we’ll have to stick to the more populated Lookout trail, with its places to pop through the tree line onto the crest of the mountain and see out over the valley.

We’ve been hiking for about fifteen minutes, though it feels longer, filled with start and stop frustrations. Griffin is being particularly difficult, veering off trail for no other reason than to be chased back. He hasn’t been looking where he is going and has already nearly run into trees, rocks and other hikers. I’m slowly losing my patience and almost run into a rock. That’s when Grant calls out: “Hey, this is the lookout where we saw the snake last year.” I pick my head up to notice that I have stumbled my way to the next lookout, where Grant and Renee are waiting. Grant is pointing to the spot where last summer we watched a snake sunning on the rocks. He is right. He remembered.

When the permanency of most things in my life is questionable, and the delusions I’ve held about security have been pulled from under me, I’m spun in a way that makes it difficult to know what to trust. Being out on the trail, for me, is often about adventure.  It’s about exploring a place, and exploring myself.  But, as I’m learning now, standing on this place of remembering, it’s also about finding stability. It’s landing somewhere that is harder than I am, stiller than I am. More secure. It’s about returning, and remembering last year, the snake and the lookout, coming back to it again and finding it there still, almost unchanged.

I try picking Griffin up to help him through the rocks, but he will have none of it. “Me do it!” he says, swatting my hand away. I have no other option than to let him. Grant pulls out his binoculars and we sit for a moment, looking at the valley. It looks so different from the last time we were here. Last time, it was the end of summer and the valley was swollen and heavy, weighed down with thick green swaths of life. This time, the valley is gray, or light purple even. The trees have yet to grow their leaves and up close look spindly and strong, but in the mass of the valley they look haunting and ghostlike. It looks the way I feel inside, and I take comfort in this landscape that mimics mine.

Four and a half months ago, I was a fairly typical mother of three small children. Of course, I adored them, but I was bogged down with the daily frustrations. How hard is it to get your shoes on, anyway? I’d bark out orders, snapping at them when they needed help or couldn’t get it right. Then I’d be annoyed at myself for behaving this way. I had been rushing through the motions, checking things off lists, getting it all done, but I was missing the joy. Now, this act of mothering in the face of death has me feeling slightly ghostlike, too. I am haunted by the guilt for how I’ve mishandled these lives.

The beauty of the lookout and the valley is unmistakable, evident, but seems just beyond our grasp. We are off to a rough start. Grant complains that it is hot. Renee says she is tired. Or hungry. Griffin is like a drunk and rowdy college kid, albeit a very short one. The trail is crowded. The peace I was hoping to find seems out of reach.

We pull off to the side of the trail to regroup. Mark and I muscle Griffin onto my back. I dole out pretzels while Mark passes around the water bottle. Griffin is not happy about his loss of autonomy, but we quickly gain momentum and are soon lost in the rhythm of our steps and hypnotized by our surroundings. Griffin quiets down. We all do.

The terrain becomes rockier, more rugged, and I start paying more attention to my steps.  The big rocks that had only punctuated this trail earlier become more consistent and the trail climbs higher, steeper. Our family’s chain of hands breaks as we each need our hands for balance. I reach out to grab a thin tree that leans over the trail and feel the bark worn smooth from countless other hikers doing the same thing. The movement of my hand is so slight, but somehow not insignificant when added to the layer upon layer of life that has happened here. How many other hikers have traveled this path? How many eager parents have watched kids revel in the glory of the mountains and the splendor of the snakes?

The sixth century monk St. Benedict reminded his students that they should live in such a way as to “Keep the reality of death always before [their] eyes.” I think of Louisa as I hike. I think of her family, who in their blinding grief, feel the dark edges of this reality.   I think of how my life is small in the ways of the universe, tiny in the eyes of the sun or the shadow of this tree. I glance up and see Grant ahead of me, his strides growing confident and sturdier as we climb. I turn and see Mark behind me with Renee, weary from her fearless exploring, hoisted onto his shoulders. They are all so full of life. The blood pumps through their bodies, the neurons explode, rocket-ship-style, in their brains.  Unpredictable, wild, beautiful. Alive, like the trees growing skyward, like the hawks catching the wind, all but a breath.

Louisa’s death has left me with little option than to keep death before my eyes. And I don’t like what I see—jagged scars, a void, abyss, darkness. Even the very act of living is a step into the scary world, a world where babies die and siblings are lost. With this reminder of mortality, my heart hardens at the prospect of loss, a protective shell against the death of my own children.

As I hike this trail, I keep my eyes a few steps ahead, looking for the best place to plant my feet. I search out the easy path. My feet inevitably find the worn spot where hikers before me have smoothed this rock. This solid rock, concrete and unyielding in a way that my psyche and heart may try to imitate, has been worn down, cut into by the years of life it has witnessed. Even this rock is not immune to scarring, or softening. Maybe I have a choice as to how to let Louisa’s life and death into my heart. I have to allow myself to be both scarred and softened, too.

I, too, am marking this place.  My footprints wear down the dirt and the rocks, keep the vegetation at bay. I am marking these people—my husband, my kids. I’m leaving traces on everything I touch, on my landscape, on the environment of my life. And it is marking me. Insignificant in the scope of the universe, nonetheless entirely significant in the scope of a single life.

The history of this terrain is deeper and longer than I can imagine, with many, many generations having lived in this land. And among them, mothers who have lost babies.  We are not unique in our loss and suffering. These trees have witnessed this grief. At home in my suburban community, it is easy to pretend that we have tamed the wild. I see our gardens, made neatly in square-foot blocks, perhaps arranged by height or color. I see our lawn, sprouting with grasses that are probably not even native to our area.  Being in that space, I am lulled into the false notion that I am in control of these wild things.  Louisa’s death has given any sense of control I have a blow to the gut. I wonder now if we have pushed away the wild in order to bolster our sense of security, to seek immunity from this loss.

At the top of the mountain we sit with other hikers watching the raptors dancing on the wind. I look out at the crest line of the mountain as it curves off to the left and back up again, almost a mirror image of where we sit. There is a trail that follows that line, eventually connecting to the Appalachian Trail. Our trail feels like a tributary to a greater river of trails, stories coming together in a vast history of adventure. A gust of strong wind blows up at us, a brief respite from the unexpected warmth of the sun. The hawks balance in it, tipping their wings slightly to catch the stream. They remind me of the kids, in their wildness and grace, and I want to know: how can we each tip our wings, to catch the wind and balance magnificently in the gusts?

Together, we sit and watch wordlessly. After a while, I catch Mark’s eye, and nod. He steps back from the ledge and together we usher kids back towards the trees.

We choose a different path back down the mountain, this trail a bit more meandering, less steep. Finishing one descent, I turn a corner and stand in front of the flat face of a giant rock, looming twenty feet into the air. This rock is so unique, unmistakable. I call out to Mark and the kids and tell the story, again, of the time on this very trail, more than a dozen years ago, when Mark and I tried, unsuccessfully, to outrun a torrential thunderstorm. It’s one of our favorite family stories, a tale of being young and in love, but in telling it this time I see that it’s also about innocence The kids have heard this story before but here, at this very rock, the past and the present collide and our story becomes part of our children’s history. This is the stability that I have been seeking. I can come back to this place, retell our adventures, consider the change in landscape and mark the growth in time.

With the final steps of the trail in front of me, I let myself, for a moment, imagine that Beth and I have swapped places—that instead of being the one to answer the phone that morning, I was the one making the call. What if her grief was mine? In any moment there is nothing to say that it won’t be. Without the awareness of the absolute fragility of it all, I risk not receiving this moment for what it is: a gift. Can I see the miracle in peanut butter sandwiches eaten at the crest of the mountain? Sometimes it’s easy to see, when my heart feels like it’s floating above my body, and I’m buoyed by my blessings. Other times, it’s harder to sustain. I am being softened, harsh edges of frustration and impatience filed down by the wild gifts of time and life.

Sweaty and dirty, we make it back to the car. The kids climb in the way-back, kicking off shoes and digging around for water bottles.  Soon, the highway hums under our tires, and I turn up the music. We are on our way home.

Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it at tumbledweeds.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds.

One, Lucky Granddaughter

One, Lucky Granddaughter

By Jennifer Reinharz

Gram and me wedding picture

On October 15th, I lost my grandmother to cancer. The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

Three days earlier, when the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home from my hospital visit, gathered my notebook, and made plans to capture my grandmother’s unusually talkative mood.

There were so many possibilities. Perhaps, as my husband’s Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll; or maybe, as a member of her church’s quilting guild, she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I reached my grandmother’s home hospice bedside, she was already in a final sleep. Weeks whittled to hours. Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain-free, and at home surrounded by loved ones. Her last days, passing, and funeral had been a fluid waltz. Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I had to stretch my accordion memory file for tucked away treasures. Two came to mind; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Sixteen was her forever age, the age at which she liked to remember herself.

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

My notebook soon filled up with Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.

Definitely… 

1. Listen for understanding. When talking with other people, don’t uh-huhright, or yes them. Take it all in. Dot was everyone’s ear—mine included.

2. Visit the sick. My grandmother was not afraid of the fray. She recognized that a friend’s comfort was more important than her own. The key to helping those failing feel alive, she had recently told me, was to talk about old times. Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3. Create a warm and inviting home. Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house. Even as the family grew, her apartment was “the place to be”; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table. A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4. Keep an open door policy. Dot always left an empty plate on the table. Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends would traipse through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parmesan, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle. Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them in. No appointment needed.

5. Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest. My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting; she could work any room. From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged. In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology. “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said. It made her sad.

6. Be a good time Charlie. Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing. Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

7. Send cards. I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark. My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise. Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.

8. Watch your television stories but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant. When my grandmother told my husband she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9. Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility. Although my grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties, she loved to drive. With a dashboard tap for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go. But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10. Forge ahead. My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication. Not once did she complain to anyone.

11. Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever you see fit. My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as HomemakerMore so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.

12. Say “I love you.” Dot had a hard time saying “I love you”; showing love seemed easier for her. In the hospital, the last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13. Avoid self pity. Dot was a Depression kid with an estranged, alcoholic father. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to work. These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14. Communicate. My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time. “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised. “Grudges are worthless. Life is too short.”

15. Keep the faith. Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church, attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement. She embraced what spoke to her in this universe, and in the end, it was her faith that helped her to let go.

16. Love well. During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort. At her funeral, it was no surprise that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”

Before Dot’s death, my five-year old said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospital bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came—all too soon and all too suddenly.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine. Her spirit and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Jennifer Reinharz writes for children, and blogs for grownups. She is a teacher, CrossFitter, and most importantly, Mom to Bubbe and The Skootch. Jennifer is the creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? (www.redsaidwhat.com). Follow her on Twitter @redsaidwhatblog.

A Broken Ornament

A Broken Ornament

ART Broken Christmas OrnamentBy Ginny Auer

“I don’t want to go to Nan and Pop’s for Christmas,” Tess said as I sat at the computer making plane reservations. She said it with conviction, her arms crossed and her eyes peering directly into mine.

I tried to put my arm around my daughter to bring her closer. Tess pulled away and plopped down on a chair out of my reach. “I don’t want us to be alone on Christmas day,” I whispered.

“We won’t be alone!” Tess snapped. “You and I will be together! Paul can come too.”

“Paul will be with his family.” Paul was my husband Troy’s best friend and Tess’s godfather. This would be our first Christmas without Troy, who had died of appendix cancer eight months earlier. Four months after Troy died I had had hip surgery. Only 45, I felt 85. I knew I was completely incapable of managing the holiday alone.

Tess ran to her room crying. I followed and sat on the bed beside her. I stroked her hair; she jerked away.

“How about a compromise?”

“What’s a compromise?” Tess said looking up at me from underneath her bangs, her eyes wet.

“We’ll have two Christmases. We can have our regular gingerbread party and winter party at the Science museum and then open presents from Dad’s side of the family before we get on the plane to go to Nan and Pop’s house. Dealio?”

“Dealio,” Tess said quietly. “But I still don’t want to go,” she called as I walked out of the room. Only seven, Tess always had the last word.

The first week of December, Tess and I drove our 12-year-old orange Ford Explorer Sport up the winding road to the Christmas tree farm we always went to. I heard Troy’s voice in my head. “You’re a great mom. You can do this.” I argued with him. “I know I CAN, but I don’t want to! Not without you.” His voice was soothing as he answered, “I know you don’t want to, but Tess needs you. Be there for her.”

High school boys wearing torn jeans and flannel shirts rode around the property on ATVs. A young woman in stylish jeans and impeccable make-up strapped two small children into the back seat of a Suburban while her husband paid.

“Honey, get me a hot chocolate?” she called to him.

“I found one!” Tess danced around a 15-foot Noble Fir. “This is the one we’re getting! This is the one we’re getting!”

“Seriously Tess?” I rolled my eyes at her. “Where do you think we are going to put a tree that big?”

“We’ll just cut the top off,” she said.

We walked through the muddy ruts made by the ATVs. I found a blue spruce tree that was just the right height with a nice shape and good spacing for ornaments. “How about this one?”

“Oooo, no!” She said. “I don’t like that one. It’s ugly!”

We spent another hour tromping through every row of trees on the 10-acre lot, only to go back to the first row. We settled on a 6-foot noble fir. Tess was happy because it wasn’t too “bushy.” Even though I didn’t like it, I was ready to compromise. Troy always cut the tree down himself. Last year Tess “helped.” Now here I was, waving to a strapping teen with acne and blond shaggy hair. He cut the tree down, wrestled it onto the back of the ATV and said he would meet us at the car.

When we got home, I untied the tree and dragged it inside. The pine needles clung to my clothes and made my arms itch. My insides felt like Jell-O as I thought of spiders crawling out of the tree and onto my neck as I lugged it inside. “Damn it, Troy,” I screamed silently. “I need you.”

While Tess settled herself on the couch with cookies and a book, I unearthed the tubs of holiday ornaments in the storage shed. I brought the box full of tinsel, garlands and stockings over to Tess so she could go through it while I looked through the ornaments in the dining room.

I unwrapped a red glass ball with a Santa Claus on one side and 1991 on the other. And then I couldn’t breathe. Troy and I had bought it to commemorate our first Christmas together. Next I found the dozens of purple glass ornaments Troy and I had bought when we first moved to Oregon. We felt so hip back then, decorating an old aluminum tree we got from my parents with purple balls and purple garland.

Troy always sat back and told me where ornaments were needed while I hung them on the tree. We were a team. He had the long view and I was up close. I heard Tess laughing in the other room as she wound herself up in garland dancing to Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You. I pulled out the construction paper ornament Tess had made in kindergarten and took it to show to her. She followed me back into the dining room.

“Where’s the tree topper? I want to put the tree topper on like Dad and I used to do.”

The tree topper: a simple glass ornament with a red ball shape at the bottom and a silver spire at the top. It probably cost all of $5, but each year Troy would pick Tess up in his arms, hold her up to the top of the tree and help her put the topper on. Afterward, he would give her a big hug and a kiss. I would always take a picture of them putting this finishing touch on the tree.

But in my haste to clean up during Troy’s last Christmas, I had not paid attention to how I had packed it away. I could already see the damage. The tree topper was crushed to pieces. My heart sunk into my stomach. I pushed back tears.

Before I could gather my thoughts, Tess bounded over to me. “Look what I fou…” Then she saw the tree topper and stopped in her tracks. She looked at me with a hurt I hadn’t seen in her eyes since I had told her of Troy’s death. We hugged each other and tears streamed down both our faces.

Tess ran to her room and huddled in the corner of the bed clutching her favorite stuffed dog. I stood in the dining room stunned, berating myself for having been so careless. Troy would’ve taken the time to pack the ornaments carefully. But Troy had been dying of appendix cancer. I was undone.

Maybe Paul could do something. I pulled out a sheet of construction paper from Tess’s art cabinet and lay out the pieces of the broken tree topper. The spire and the bottom round half were fairly intact. It was the middle of the ball that was in shattered bits.

I took a picture with my phone and sent it to Paul.

Paul makes props for a prominent regional theater company and can fix almost anything. He texted me back that he would be off work in an hour.

That hour seemed interminable. Finally Paul, 5′ 5″ tall, with a round face, short hair, and wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the middle of winter, arrived with a ball from the prop shop. He had painted it red to match the color of the original ornament. He held it out to Tess.

“I don’t like the red,” she said.

“We can change the color. I just painted it red because that’s the color it was.”

“I don’t want it to be any color,” Tess retorted.

“Go get the container of gesso in your dad’s studio and we can put that on the ball instead,” Paul said. Troy used gesso to prepare and prime his paintings, and Tess and Paul would use it to glue the pieces from the broken ornament onto the new ball.

Paul set Tess to work painting gesso onto the ball. I watched as they huddled together at the kitchen table, a team. Tess was laughing as she painted.

“Put that piece there!” Tess ordered Paul. “And that one needs to go there!” She looked so confident. She knew exactly where each piece should go. They worked together for nearly an hour painting and gluing. Finally it was done. The topper had been recreated. The silver spire, still intact, was glued to the top with all of the red broken bits glued like a mosaic to a white ball in the center.

It wasn’t the same, but it was differently beautiful.

“Mom,” Tess surveyed her work. “This is a good compromise.”

My daughter spent the next afternoon making a paper angel to sit on top of the spire of the tree topper. That night, I lifted her up to the top of the Christmas tree so she could put the angel on the tree topper. I felt Troy’s presence in the room. He was smiling at me. Paul snapped a photo of just the two of us.

Ginny Auer is a widow and a mother. Following her husband’s death in 2012, she founded livehuge.org, an inspirational website designed to celebrate every day. She is also in the process of writing a memoir.

Photo: © Emilia Stasiak | Dreamstime.com

The 95th Day

The 95th Day

By Kim Hamer

IMG_8539

The power of grief, and how a parent can help a child cope with the loss of a loved one.

 

The 95th day after my husband died, my daughter walks into our bathroom where I am leaning, hunched over the sink trying to remember what comes after I wash my face. Moisturizer or that stingy stuff?

My daughter’s eyes are ringed in red, her lids barely able to contain the pools of water.

“What are you doing up?” I say with barely tempered frustration. I have spent my energy today opening up more condolence cards and walking from room to room trying to remember what I keep forgetting, my own private circle of birds, fluttering around my head like the ones in cartoons. I have nothing left to give her.

I turn to her, not in softness but in a “this had better be quick” stance.

“I just realized….sob…. Daddy’s not gon….sob….na be here for my sob 10th bir….sob….thday.” Her tears drop from eyes, as if their lives depended on them reaching the linoleum. “It’s an important birthday.” She looks up at me as if I do not know. “I’m turning double digits.”

I watch her. I don’t gather her to me. I don’t change the subject or ask her to think about “happier times with Daddy.” I hold myself still, giving her the space to grieve, giving me just one more moment in the anger.

What I want to do is to knock her aside and take on the grief. I want to attack it, rip it, and shove it into my mouth, tearing at it with my teeth as pieces drip from my chin. I want to ingest it.

I want to swear and yell, “You have no right to touch her with your loss and desolation and pain. She’s only 9!” I want to flail and punch and scream. I want to make the grief hurt back.

Instead I stare at my daughter as I stand with her in the inky, sticky, black grief and I watch her. I acknowledge her loss—which means I have to acknowledge my own. And I witness how the grief makes her shrink, how it bends her 98-pound body, making it look like it might snap.

Finally, she swipes at her eyes, staring at the bathtub and says. “The kids in my group say it will get easier with time.”

It is then that I embrace her. And from me pours the deep wonder at this person that Art and I have created and her strength. I think, I’m the lucky one. Hopefully, (cause clearly nothing is guaranteed anymore) I will get to see what kind of remarkable woman she will become.

Kim Hamer is a widow and only parent to three relatively well-behaved children as well as author of 100 Acts of Love: A Girlfriend’s Guide to Loving a Friend Through Cancer or Loss, and runs a blog of the same name.  

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Rare Bird: An Excerpt

Rare Bird: An Excerpt

An excerpt from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

anna jack vbs hugI wonder how much to share. I want to be honest about what the first days of early grief are like, yet I don’t want to be cruel. That’s why I don’t think I can move forward in this story if I don’t first tell you what happens when I eventually see Mrs. Davidson in the grocery store.

The grocery store is the absolute worst, most hellish place for me to be after Jack’s accident. Far worse than seeing the ridiculous, empty joke of a creek everyday or driving over the drain pipes or sitting on his bed surrounded by his things but with no Jack. Or even church, where my raw emotions are right on the surface, always, threatening to pour out when I’m just trying to make it through the hour and get back to my car.

The grocery store trumps them all.

When you spend years trying to get two underweight, picky eaters to eat something, anything, every section holds a memory. The dairy case reminds me of the years when all they wanted to eat was cheese. Chicken noodle soup reminds me of tummy bugs and, later, sore teeth from braces. Dill pickles remind me of the time Jack and I froze the pickle juice left in the jar to make a giant “picklesicle” for him. I stagger through the aisles, throwing things in the cart, the pain leaking out in tears, as I try to figure out how to shop for our new reality. It’s where I buy Old Spice body wash for a boy who no longer needs it. I’ll wash myself with it every day, just so I can smell him sometimes.

Yet this place of pain is also where, months after the accident, I see my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Davidson. Her son Kenny died in a car accident at age nineteen, over twenty years ago when I was away at college. I recognize her instantly from her jet-black hair and bright red lipstick. It’s as if she hasn’t aged at all, while I feel like I’m at least 150 years old.

I’m nervous about saying something, but I know, just know, that I must ask her a question. I’m afraid she won’t remember me or won’t have heard about Jack, and I’ll have to tell her about the accident, right here in the middle of Giant Foods.

But in the cereal aisle, burdened by Frosted Mini-Wheats and Reese’s Puffs, but emboldened by desperation and pain, I stop Mrs. Davidson and re-introduce myself to her. She has heard about Jack. I tell her I have a question. “I just have to know: Does it get better?” Without hesitating for even a second, Mrs. Davidson answers,”Oh yes!” I think, even in my shattered condition, I would be able to see through her if she’s lying to me. Her answer is quick. Confident. Assured.

It’s not as if she says it is easy, surviving the death of a child. I’m not stupid enough to ask her that and would call bullshit if anyone dared try to convince me that “easy” is even possible. But there she is, still coloring her hair and putting on her signature lipstick after all these years. Still grocery shopping, which I now know should never be taken for granted. And she confidently asserts that it does get better.

Mrs. Davidson and I are not close. I doubt that we’ll ever see each other again, but I need to share her “Oh yes!” right now because if we are going to look at what the days and months are like following Jack’s death, spending time with these snapshots of grief, if we are going to take brave steps together into the confusion of losing what we love the most, doesn’t it help to hear from the outset that somehow, in some way, it does get easier?

And it’s true. I can assure you, looking back on those days and months now, it does get better.

But not before it gets worse.

*   *   *

As I write about what those days and weeks are like, the what seems less important than the how. How does one wake up the next day and the next? How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous? How do you keep from losing your mind? How do you live knowing the dirty secret that most moms try to stave off as long as possible if they ever face it at all—that control is an illusion?

Because despite my attempts to follow my mother’s example and relax and trust God with my kids, I’d clung to a belief that I could somehow control our futures if I just tried hard enough. And if my solo efforts weren’t enough, there was always God. Surely God could see how we wanted to live our lives for Him. How we had formed our family around loving and serving Him. And praying.

Jack was well prayed for. That he would be healthy and grow. That he would make true friends.That others could see in him what we did. That he would know his own worth. Prayers of courage. Prayers of protection. Was it all a crock?

We made sure we were in church every single week. Not because we believed in getting credit for good behavior, but because we wanted our kids to understand our house was built on something bigger than ourselves, on the solid rock of God, not the shiftings and of money, status, or busyness that was so valued in our society.

Now I can’t shake the image we have on video of three-year-old Jack singing his Sunday school song with motions, some of his r’s coming out more like w’s in his little-boy voice: “The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

How will our house stand in this flood?

 

RARE BIRD Cover Art FinalExcerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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When the Raspberries Come

When the Raspberries Come

Rasberries growing on the bushBy Rebecca Altman

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child but didn’t know it, my husband and I planted three raspberry bushes.

They bore fruit the summer my firstborn was one. He toddled into the brambles and ate straight from the canes. One at a time, he stuck each berry on his pointer finger and let the juice run down his arms.

The following winter I was expecting again, and explained to my son that he would be a brother soon. Like many parents I struggled with how to make something as inscrutable as gestation tangible to a two-year-old.

I couldn’t tell him: in August. Nor did the concept of summer resonate. The regularity of seasons passing one to the next hadn’t been established yet.

The explanation that satisfied him, by which I mean the one that stopped the incessant question—when can I see him?—was this: when the raspberries come. I told him to watch the bushes in our backyard and when the fruit was ready, his brother would be born.

He ran to the window, but there was nothing to see. I had shorn the canes to the ground after their leaves dropped. Snow covered the dormant roots.

Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a fetal ultrasound found a swelling of the right kidney. It hadn’t formed correctly and would never work. I was moved into a high-risk obstetric practice for regular fetal monitoring. Each week, in the darkened exam room, I’d wait for the reassuring cadence of his heartbeat, more rapid and erratic than the steady rhythm of mine.

I would read the technician’s face, like she read the screen, the two of us searching for slight deviations from the norm.

*   *   *

Spring arrived, the first canes sprouted. My son and I wandered out to the raspberry bushes to check their progress. We watched as they grew taller than him during the long days of June and July. As the days shortened again and my belly swelled, they flowered and set fruit.

When the precariousness of my pregnancy felt unbearable, I found comfort in the raspberries growing as they should.

And then, as expected, they arrived at the end of August. And so did my second son, whose birth—and health—we celebrated with berries. We decorated his first birthday cake with them. And then his second. My boys sat underneath the bushes, the canes arched over their heads. They stripped them clean and then, grinning, emerged with berry-stained chins and t-shirts.

*   *   *

Until I had children, I had been out of touch with cycles and seasons, disconnected from the ecological system of which I am a part. But since I’d become a mother, I’d grown into the habit of juxtaposing our lives with the lifecycle of our raspberries. They had become timekeepers, steady and sure during the disordered days of early motherhood.

I began to wonder about other ways to ground us in our place and time:

When the trees bud.

When the acorns drop.

When the snow flies.

But the more I read about the ecology of eastern Massachusetts where I live, the more I discovered that the timing of seasonal events is shifting with a complexity as intangible to adults as a mother’s pregnancy is to a small child.

As we alter the Earth’s chemistry, some seasonal changes no longer sync with the expectations we formed as children about the order of things. Muddied, too, is our sense of seasonal weather patterns, of storms and when to expect them gathering on the horizon. And the very same industrial practices that disrupt ecological systems, scientists tell us may also be interfering with the basic functions of the human bodies—how our children think and grow, and even with our capacity to bear children at all. Uncertainty, it seems, is the new certainty from which we must build our lives.

I learned from ecologist Amy Seidl, author of Early Spring, that lilacs now bloom eight to sixteen days earlier than when I was a child. And when my children are grown, scientists predict they may bloom as much as a month in advance. Someday when the lilacs bloom, when the raspberries come could mean something altogether different. It’s a small shift in comparison to the catastrophic changes other communities face, but this giving way of accustomed seasonal rites signals larger changes that make me question the future. What will the world be like for my children, or their children, or their children’s children? The more I learned about, and witnessed, the changes already underway, the more I worried whether it was selfish to want another child.

But the summer my youngest turned three I was—to my surprise—pregnant again. The raspberries ripened early, small and pale. We ate them in July instead of August. It seemed strange at the time, and in retrospect, foreboding.

*   *   *

On the last night of August, my 36th birthday— when the raspberries should have been in full fruit—the pregnancy went dormant, just shy of the second trimester. It began as a cramp, a few stupefying spots. We had been out to dinner, about to take an evening stroll, when we rerouted ourselves to the hospital. There, the radiologist couldn’t sense life, only its absence. They sent us home. They told me: expect bleeding.

In what few stories other women shared with me, miscarriage was a noun, as in: I had a miscarriage. But no one described it as a verb or, for that matter, in a way that would have helped me understand what to anticipate. I sensed there would be an emotional component—how to let go of the expectations that accompany a pregnancy—and a biological one, and I knew little about either, most especially the latter. How does an expectant body reverse states? What should I expect now that I wasn’t expecting? I arrived at the wrong assumption that a miscarriage would be a withering, slow and solemn. Instead, I found it to be a violent uprooting.

For hours, my body heaved like labor. Each convulsion released fist-sized clots. I retreated to the shower. Blood splattered onto the glass doors against which my husband pressed his hands. This is natural, I told him, I told myself.

But bodies contain a finite quantity of fluid.

It was the unexpected taste of metal on my tongue that made me relent, that convinced me the miscarriage had gone off-course. We raced back to the hospital on vacant, after-midnight roads. Hours later, after another ultrasound, after fainting twice, after hours of waiting in my own blood, I was strapped to a table so the OB could harvest from me what my womb wouldn’t surrender. I left the next afternoon barren, barely conscious, in a body that had betrayed itself.

In the fallow weeks that followed, in the absence of cultural rituals around pregnancy loss, I read how other women have marked miscarriages and coped with the cross of guilt-grief that can accompany the unraveling of a pregnancy and other taken-for-granted certainties. With miscarriage, there is rarely a body to bury. But a friend told me to plant something, as she had done. I hadn’t even known she’d lost a pregnancy.

*   *   *

And so a month later, still white-lipped and disoriented with anemia, my mother and I went to a nursery. By then it was autumn. The sedum had turned burgundy. The nursery was emptier now that the growing season had passed and what plants remained had overgrown their pots and were discounted. She bought me a hydrangea and helped me drive it home. My father and now six-year-old son dug the hole to set it near the raspberries. In the act, I realized burial and planting felt like analogous transactions with the Earth, which receives what we put into it, and in turn, offers the solace that comes with the possibility that life can begin again, enriched by what has gone before.

After they placed the hydrangea in the ground, after I knelt down to pack soil around its roots, I looked up and saw the raspberries had borne a second batch of fruit. In the six years since we planted them, they had never fruited twice.

Maybe everything that happened that summer was the product of erratic fluctuations in fertility, perhaps it was a fluke, or happenstance, or a harbinger of disturbances in complex systems. I would never know, but I needed to find a way to live with the multiple, sometimes subtle, sometimes engulfing uncertainties that have become the hallmark of this era in which I raise children.

On that long-shadowed late September afternoon, after we finished planting, we filled our muddy hands with berries and went inside, thankful the raspberries had come back.

Rebecca Altman is an environmental sociologist. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and sometimes teaches seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. Her recent creative non-fiction has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.  She blogs at http://tothescratch.blogspot.com.

 

Life and Loss in the Neighborhood

Life and Loss in the Neighborhood

 

neighborloss

When my husband John and I moved into our condo nine years ago, one of the first people to learn our names was our seventy-something neighbor, Jack. Our son Brennan was just a toddler, and we hadn’t had time to make a single friend on our street when baby Liddy came along — with a whole host of medical challenges. Jack and his aging chocolate lab, Packie, were a bright spot in those long and difficult days.

Brennan loved dogs and would be first to spot Jack and Packie making their slow, shuffling way down our street or to hear Jack’s unmistakable voice calling out greetings to various neighbors and passersby. Brennan would sit right down on the sidewalk and Packie would lean into him for a hug. And I would get a few precious minutes of adult conversation about Jack’s winters in Florida, his most recent trip to Ireland or his victory in the 5k road races he still relished. “I came in first in my age group,” he’d laugh, having been the only person anywhere near his age who’d competed.

We kept our conversations light, but he must have seen how worn down I was feeling on the day he called out behind him, “You’re a good mother, Karen,” as he headed back to his apartment building, bringing tears to my ears.

As Liddy grew older, she went through a shy stage, taking cover behind me when people addressed her. Unlike other adults, Jack never pushed her to make conversation, but instead slipped her dog treats to win Packie’s affection, knowing that in doing so, he’d eventually win hers, too.

One day John opened the Boston Globe to a photo of Jack’s beaming smile. At age 77, he was about to run his 1000th road race. It did not surprise us to learn Jack was much beloved in the running community. More than a runner himself, he was every athlete’s best cheerleader. His second story porch gave him a view of anyone out for a jog. He started bellowing out hellos at about 5:30 every morning. His voice had a raw rasp to it — but it carried. I remember John shaking with laughter one morning before we were fully awake. “Jack’s back.”

That was a refrain heard around the neighborhood every March or April, when he and Packie returned from a few months in Florida – always in time to cheer on the runners for the Boston Marathon, which he’d competed in himself many times. “Jack’s back,” we would say. “It must be spring.”

My neighbor Tiffany and I took up running ourselves, and Jack was thrilled for us. His cheers bookended our early morning runs. “Go get ’em girls,” he’d shout when we started out, and when we came home he’d point dramatically at his watch and give us a thumbs up, or hold up five fingers and yell, “Did you make it to five?” Once he was already on the street when we were out and he spotted us first: “Hubba hubba,” he called to us, laughing.

When Packie died a few years ago, the whole neighborhood felt it. Brennan and Liddy were old enough to understand that Jack was grieving, despite his cheerful façade. When Jack finally decided he was ready to adopt another senior dog, his condo association refused to allow it, even after his doctor wrote to them that a dog’s companionship was important to Jack’s health. Ever tuned in to the world’s fairness, or lack of it, Liddy and Brennan were furious on Jack’s behalf. After that, Jack filled his pockets with dog biscuits that he offered to every dog in the neighborhood.

This past March, just after John mentioned that Jack would be returning soon, I was stunned to wake up to an email one morning from another friend and neighbor, John Corcoran, telling me Jack had died in Florida. He waited until we talked in person to tell me Jack had been hit by a car on the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day as crossed the street for Mass. He showed me a St. Patrick’s Day card he’d received days before in the mail. “Lucky to be here,” Jack had written. “See you soon.”

I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to Jack’s death. They knew he was getting on in years — they’d even asked once if Packie’s death meant Jack might die soon too. Like all kids, they process the happenings of the world in their own unscripted ways. But when I told them the news Brennan’s eyes went wide with tears before he retreated into silence, and Liddy cried and said, “I’m so mad.”

The ripple effects of Jack’s presence, his kindness, reached into their lives in real and meaningful ways. The first few times we passed his building after he died, Liddy shielded her eyes with her hand, a concrete demonstration of the way we feel in the face of loss, the difficulty we have confronting it face-to-face. “It’s not fair,” she said, speaking for all of us.

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Max’s Eyes

Max’s Eyes

Max's Eyes ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

“Does your husband have blue eyes?” the cashier at the grocery store asks, her brown eyes peering into my equally dark ones.

“Nope, his are hazel,” I say. I paw around in my coat pocket, my fingers reaching for the smooth, thin debit card within. I stifle the urge to make a joke about the milk man being the real father of my child.

“He has such beautiful blue eyes,” the cashier says.  She looks at my five-year-old son Max, who is half-hiding behind me, deciding whether to peek out and flash his ridiculously charming smile.

“Does anyone in your family have blue eyes?” she asks.

I pause for a millisecond.

“His uncle does.” Did.

“Okay,” she says, loading my goat cheese into the bag. Mystery solved.

*                                  *                                  *

When Max was born his eyes were a steely blue, as most babies’ eyes are at first. We all waited for them to turn hazel or even brown.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to turn brown,” my mom said.

“They’re going to be green—I saw a little ring of green around his pupil,” said my husband Scott.

Being an olive-skinned, dark eyed gal, I expected that the fetus who had wreaked havoc on my body for nine months would be a dark little bundle, the male version of me. When my husband handed Max to me for the first time, after three nights of false labor and one night of very real labor, I stared at my new baby. My first thought was that he looked so utterly foreign. The crown of his head was stretched into an enormous cone from all the hours he’d spent trapped in my birth canal. His pale little face and eyelids were swollen, making him cockeyed.

He looked so other, so un-mine.

A beautiful photo of my husband Scott and Max peering into each other’s eyes is perched on our mantle. Max looks like an ancient soul, and Scott looks mesmerized and delighted. “What I was really thinking was, God, all those ugly baby jokes and now I have one,” he admits later.

Swollen and ocean-eyed, coned and tiny, Max looked alien.

With time, he looked more and more familiar.

*                                 *                                  *

“Haha!” Max shouted when he was two, pointing to a picture of my little brother when he was about the same age. It was the kind of ‘standing at the window’ shout Max favored at that age, as if he was an old man railing on about the whippersnappers in the neighborhood. Kids today, he seemed to be hollering.

I followed his gaze and was once again struck by the similarities between Max and my younger brother, Will. Like Max, Will had big blue eyes that seemed to have come from a blip in the gene pool—like me and Scott, my mom has brown eyes, my dad hazel.

“Yeah, that’s your uncle,” I said, trying to keep an even voice. Max smiled at the photo. I took a deep breath. It’s a beautiful photo: my gap-toothed brother, little wisps of hair curling on his forehead as he gazed, smiling at something in his sightline. What Max doesn’t know is that his uncle Will died of a combination of heroin and alcohol at the age of 21. I kissed Max’s forehead, inhaling the earth scent of his skin. I brushed a tendril of hair—medium brown and pin straight—out of his eyes. For a second, I considered the thought that something similar could happen to him, especially given the genetic plague of alcoholism that burns through his bloodlines. I choked on the thought and pushed it aside—or at least as aside as it could go while the picture of my baby brother smiling, unaware of his future, remained visible.

*                                  *                                  *

Fifteen years ago, my phone rang and everything changed.

My mother’s words slipped through the phone: police officer, brother, heroin. Coroner. The words rumbled in my head, black and stilted, colliding into each other. My brain tried to comprehend. “No, no, no,” I said, a mantra. As if I said it enough times, my words could somehow stop what had already happened, what could not be stopped.

*                                  *                                  *

Me, almost three. An only child all this time, forever. The dark comforter of my mom and dad’s bed cool against my legs, bare beneath my nightgown. “Do you want to feel your little brother?” my mom asked. I pressed my palm to her growing stomach, tentatively. Brother. The word sounded wild, yet solid. “Brother.” I tried it on for size. And sister. “Sister” felt like a fur coat, warm and soft and sure. I pressed my palm to her stomach and I felt a small fist or a foot connect with my hand. The orb of her belly where I too had grown, shifted beneath my hand. Everything shifted, or at least it would, very, very soon.

*                                  *                                  *

After my brother’s death, I moved from Maine back to my childhood home in Alaska to live with my parents. I was 24 and blindsided. Flowers crowded our home, turning the air sickly sweet. A box arrived with my brother’s ashes. I sat on the porch and smoked. I watched clouds smudge across the sky and waited for a sign. For the first three months, I slept in bed with my parents like a scared toddler to chase away the dark thoughts that came with nighttime. It was just us three again curled in the dark, and I hated it.

I wrote letters to my dead little brother, and I went to grief groups. I watched my parents suffer and I thought not only is my brother gone, my parents are too. I mourned that the person that should’ve been with me the longest in this life wouldn’t.

“You’ll have good things in your life,” my mom said one day. “You’ll have your own family someday.” I knew she was right. But at 24, I couldn’t picture that someday family. I could only see what was gone.

*                                  *                                  *

I first noticed the resemblance between Max and my brother when Max was several weeks old. He was nursing and I studied him as his eyes darted back and forth, intense with concentration. His almond-shaped, Atlantic-blue eyes were the first part of his face to smile. He looks like Will, I thought. It unnerved me.

When we were kids, people used to bend down to my brother and ask, “Where did you get those big blue eyes?” They’d look from my mom to me, from me to my brother, trying to reconcile the dark hair, eyes and skin that my mom and I had with my brother’s butter-toned hair and big turquoise eyes.

“From God,” he once answered, elevating charming to a whole new level.

Max’s eyes are wide and luminous. A little tease of green still swirls around his pupils. When he’s observing the world, his eyes are big and as round as a quarter. When he’s sad, they crumple and go navy. When he’s happy, they glitter and take on an almost feline shape.

When Max was about six months old, I briefly considered whether he could be the reincarnated spirit of my dead brother. “Will?” I whispered first, then louder. The first months of parenthood were already so otherworldly, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Max kept playing though—he didn’t turn to me with knowing eyes and a wink.

I asked him again when he was a little older, too.

“Do you remember Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?” I’d been asking Scott for some reason.

“Yeah!” Max exclaimed. Scott and I looked at each other and our 21 month-old offspring and started laughing.

“Are you my brother reincarnated?” I asked Max.

“Yeah!” he shouted, just as excited. My eyes widened. I held my breath and thought for a moment.

“Do your toes smell like sour pickles?”

“Yeah!!!”

“Phew,” I exhaled.

And yet, I still sometimes wonder. At five, Max’s temperament resembles my brother’s teenage moodiness. He also inherited my brother’s passion for music. When Max is tossing his body around to “Party Rock Anthem” or thrashing on his guitar while singing “Back in Black,” I’m struck with the image of my brother attacking his own electric guitar, belting out a punk version of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”

And in my dreams, the two sometimes swim together. “Will!” I call out, then realize it’s Max. “Maxie!” I say, and my brother, once again, disappears.

*                                  *                                  *

One of the hardest, most simple parts of grief is the pure and utter goneness of the one who is lost. My brother was here… where is he now? I know his body was scorched and blazed into soft grey sand. We left a sprinkle at a white beach in New Jersey, and folded handfuls into the damp moss beneath the thick pine trees at our old house in Alaska. But how could he just be gone when he was so, so here before? I am speaking of his spirit, the piece of us that is more than our fumbling, fragile bodies. The piece that brings us dreamscapes that later thud into our waking life, the piece that picks up the slick, cool phone to call a friend just as they are calling us, the piece that is utterly certain we are carrying a little boy fetus long before our eyes rest upon the white glow of bones on the ultrasound, the curves and shadows blooming deep within.

Similarly, I find myself asking Max, sometimes out loud, and sometimes in a whispered string of words that brushes my throat, “Where were you?” Because just as my brother is so, so gone—Max feels so, so here. So vivid, so distinct, that I can’t imagine that the sum of him used to lie split and dormant, half within me, half within Scott, waiting quietly among billions of other possibilities. That he is all split cells and coincidence, a random card plucked from our genetic deck.

When Max was not quite five, Scott asked him why he picked us to be his parents.

“There was no one else left,” he said plainly. We laughed, not caring so much how he had gotten here – just glad that he had.

Max brings great joy to my parents. We visit often and my dad, Max’s Papa, lets Max roughhouse with him. Max runs and lunges at my dad, and they both topple over, laughing. My mom, whom Max has coined, ‘Baba,’ hands over her iPad, fresh mango and popcorn to Max, along with most anything else he asks for. When we leave to go home, their knees ache, but they say the pain is worth it. I know that Max doesn’t replace my brother—no one could. But I like to think that he eclipses the pain of their loss a little bit.

Each night when I used to nurse Max before bedtime, I’d watch his lovely eyes and wonder what he was thinking as another day wound down. Sometimes he would look up at me, a smile curving into his mouth and eyes. I held him close and silently asked for help, from the universe, from Will, from whomever would listen. Keep him safe, keep him healthy, keep him happy. I watched his eyes, near-navy in the dim room, sweet slow songs wrapping around us. Keep him here.

Though we’ve been done nursing for three years now, the prayers remain the same. I repeat them in my mind and in whispers that gather around his bedroom door. With a mother’s force and a sister’s ache, I pour my deepest wishes into small words. Let him outlive us. Let him have a long and lovely life.

Let him stay.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the elephant journal and blogs for Huffington Post. Find her on Facebook.

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What The Living Do

What The Living Do

By Emily Rapp

BC_FA2013_Final_layout“Is this your first baby?” Any woman who is visibly pregnant has likely been asked this question by strangers in the grocery store line, other expecting women at the doctor’s office, random passersby in the street.

Pregnant women are often asked deeply personal questions in public: if this is our first child; how far along in our pregnancies we are; if we’re having a boy or a girl; if we have a name picked out. However indelicate these questions might seem, to some degree they make sense. Pregnant bodies are a visible symbol of life andgrowth. People like to engage with women who are expecting to give birth to another human being, which is itself a way of altering the progress of time, of literally changing the world by bringing into it a new life and new possibilities.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I loved answering these questions. As a woman with an artificial leg, I have had a problematic relationship with my body for most of my life, and was accustomed to fielding questions like “what happened to you?” I was well acquainted with our culture’s prurient interest in bodies that are considered “different” or “strange” or “wrong.” When I was pregnant with my son, I felt that my body was doing something right and good in the world; “what happened to me” was no longer an incident of limb loss that required an in-depth explanation. Instead, I was about to be amother. I finally felt normal.

I am pregnant now with my second child and how to fieldthese questions from strangers has become much more complicated since the birth, and then the death, of my first child. My son Ronan died of Tay-Sachs disease in February of 2013 when he was nearly three years old. Tay-Sachs is an always fatal, rare genetic condition that robbed him of all his physical faculties—hearing, sight, movement, and eventually the ability to swallow and process food. Ronan was diagnosed at nine months old, when he was happy and smiling and seemed “normal,” yet he had failed to meet any of his developmental milestones. Some of my most heartbreaking memories are trips to the doctor’s office where a nurse took his pulse with a tiny finger thermometer as he giggled and baby-flirted with her. Many times I watched that nurse’s eyes fill with tears, because here was a doomed child, a sweet baby with red-gold hair and long, pale eyelashes and chubby wrists and ankles who would not live to be a toddler, and whose life would unravel in a devastating way. It is terrible to look at your child and think he will suffer and then he will die.

“How old is he?” people would ask me when I walked Ronan in his stroller on the walking path near my house in Santa Fe before he began to physically manifest the signs of his decline. When I told them they might say, “Oh, it goes so fast,” or “You’ve got so much to look forward to,” and “he’ll be walking and talking soon,” and I would wheel Ronan home, weeping and furious with a horrible raging sadness about the wrenching and ridiculous unfairness of the situation. Sometimes I told the truth. I’d say that he was dying, that he would never talk or walk, and brace myself for the response, if only because I wasn’t ashamed of my son and didn’t want to act as if I were hiding anything. This didn’t matter to Ronan—his cognitive abilities were stalled at a six-month-level before they deteriorated—but it mattered to me. At home I would pluck him from the stroller and hold him and cry and wonder why this was happening to me, how it could possibly be happening to such a sweet and innocent boy. The whole order of the world was reversed—babies dying while the parents lived on.

Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to be entirely helpless as an unstoppable, incurable disease takes a child from you, to be told by a doctor “this child will die,” and then to witness the slow fade of personality and then the body, is a situation that on many days I did not think I would—or wanted to—survive. And yet I did.

My desire to have another child emerged just after Ronan was diagnosed. I wanted to plan for another baby right away. My husband, my supportive parents, many well-meaning friends all questioned this course of action. My therapist, too, cautioned me about having another baby. She warned me about the dangers of having a “replacement child.” I found and still find the idea of a replacement child odious and horrifying although it is a documented term. No child is replaceable. A child is not a couch or a job or a great spot for your next vacation. I was 36 when Ronan was diagnosed. I did not have the resources for the complex fertility treatments that my husband and I would have needed to pursue to make sure that our next child was not affected with Tay-Sachs (both parents must be carriers for Tay-Sachs to manifest, andthere’s a 1 in 4 chance that a child will have the disease when this is the case). When I met with the fertility doctor he cautioned me that the next two years were crucial if I wanted to have another baby. The literature I read online and in magazines assured me that it would soon be too late for me to get pregnant. I was facing the combined loss of my child and my newly formed maternal identity—the future seemed to me a skeletal, miserable existence, a shattered and frightening world.

The only people who encouraged me to have another child in short course were the mothers of other children with Tay-Sachs disease, who understood perfectly. Of course you want to feel life again, one mother told me. I began to argue with my therapist that clinical terms like “radical acceptance” of my difficult situation and “replacement child” were entirely divorced from real-life situations. I wanted another child, in part, to anchor me to the world, to the after life of living without my son, butI never thought a new child wouldreplace him. I would have to live through what happened to him, but did I ever have to fully accept it? What would that look like? Of course these were questions that nobody could or ever will answer.

Although my relationship with Ronan’s father did not continue, we parented and cared for our child until his death. When I look back on those two-and-a-half years of Ronan’s care—the seizures and suction machines and medications and finally, a feeding tube through his nose, it seems thunderous and unimaginable. And yet my imagination conjures up these images with ease and I remember and mourn him all over again. Ronan’s absence in my life is present to me—with varying degrees of force and sadness—every day, and this will be true for the rest of my life. The memory of what was lost becomes its own reality and then lingers. This is true of the leg I lost and it is true of anything precious that is taken from us, any loss that changes our lives on such an epic scale. I don’t believe that people “recover” from loss; we can only hope to absorb it in a way that still allows for daily moments of happiness. Even this is sometimes a struggle, but it is one worth engaging in. We press on. We continue to seek life and love and meaningful experiences. Otherwise, what are we doing?

I met Kent, my current partner, aftermy husband and I had already separated and decided to divorce, putting an end (I assumed) to my hopes of having another baby. At this time, Ronan was still alive but entering his period of greatest and most rapid decline. When it became clear to Kent and me that our relationship was one that we wanted to pursue for the long-term, we immediately talked about having a child together. Both of us were older (I was 38 and he was 58) and we both wanted to be parents, me for the second time and him for the first. I got pregnant four months after Ronan died, in the midst of deep grief but also fully supported and loved by a partner.

*   *   *

I took the first pregnancy test before dawn. When the stick read “pregnant,” I was gripped by euphoria, fear, guilt and surprise, all at once. I ran into the bedroom and woke Kent up to show him the results. All of the competing emotions rushed in: the impossible desire to hold my son again, in real time, with my own hands, to smell his hair and kiss his face and touch his skin; and the great hope that this microscopic, newly formed child in my body would live on, first in the womb, and then in the world. This child would replace nobody, I realized. Ronan existed, and this child would exist. Yet I still wondered: could I find full joy in this new baby when his or her half-brother had died?

A few days later I didn’t think I’d need to worry about it. My first ultrasound at six weeks showed a gestational sac with nothing inside: no heartbeat, no fetal pole, no signs of the beginning of viable life.

“Well, it’s a no-go,” the doctor said, asif I had planned a party that had suddenly been cancelled. “Probably a blighted ovum.” My friend, Elizabeth, who had come with me since Kent was out of town for work, switched off the video she’d been taking to show him the next day.

I blinked at the fuzzy screen, the great space waiting to be filled. Ronan had been driven away from my house in the funeral home van only four months earlier. I would never see him again. This baby had disappeared—but where? The doctor snapped off his gloves and began to make quick marks in my chart. “I see from your chart that your son has Tay-Sachs disease,” he said.

“He did,” I said, still on the table, undressed from the waist down and wearing the flimsy cloth robe. “He died.”

He looked up. “You must be Jewish,” he said.

“I’m not,” I said. The room was cold. My legs were cold. “People think Tay-Sachs is a Jewish disease, but it isn’t.”

“It is,” he said.

“It isn’t.”

“You must be Jewish,” he repeated. Ilooked at him and repeated that I was not.

Elizabeth, sensing my agitation and increasingly annoyed, said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I don’t think you can catch it from over here.” The doctor flushed red, said no more, and left the room. I never saw him again.

The next week I went to a different doctor, who found a strong heartbeat—a vigorous rapid thumping—and a baby forming just where it should be. Kent was with me, and when we saw the tiny form on the screen, we cried. Out of relief, disbelief, fear, happiness, and the idea of these feelings occurring simultaneously.

The pregnancy progressed smoothly, as my first pregnancy had. When I began to show and people began asking me if I was pregnant with my first child, I was determined to remember Ronan in my response, no matter how uncomfortable it made the asker. “No,” I replied. “I had a son and he died.” The conversation often stopped here, the narrative halted. When the questions first began I scrambled to make the awkward exchange a bit easier for the other person. “Sorry to throw that on you,” I’d say, smiling. But now I don’t. My new policy is: asked and answered. Or, as a relative of mine used to say, if you don’t want the answer, don’t ask the question. I don’t elaborate on how or why my first child died when some people go on to ask those questions (and they occasionally do); at that point I tell them that I prefer not to say any more. I don’t want to offer up the details of Ronan’s illness like the pieces of a tragic tale. But I want it to be known—to strangers, to everyone—that he was in the world, that he was fully loved, and that he was my first baby.

I believe that the real danger of having a child in the wake of child loss is the idea that the child who came first and was unconditionally loved will be entirely forgotten. This was an idea I could not and cannot bear. Ronan was singular even after his death. His half-sister will be singular as well, just as loved, just as irreplaceable. She is filling no space; she is creating her own, just as Ronan did, just as every child does. No person’s place is taken by another’s presence. I don’t believe a desire to have another child is a way of healing wounds, or a way of mitigating the great sadness of losing a child. This great joy and sadness can coexist, and in fact they must. This is the responsibility those of us who have lost children have to our living children: to remember. To make known to those we love and live with that each life has a precious place in the world and a significant purpose, no matter how short that life is or might have been.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for all of us, especially parents, because it is so painful to imagine the death of our children; we’d rather not think about it. In general we attempt to avoid thinking about death in this culture, and we pass this culturally sanctioned phobia on to our children. We think they can’t handle it, don’t know about it, but they do. They sense it. They’re humans. They know. It is our job to find an acceptable way to tell them; to make them understand the existence of death and life together. Years before I had Ronan, I met a woman who had framed her stillborn boy’s footprints and hung them on the wall between her bedroom and her living daughter’s. I thought that was just right; I thought that made sense. Death isn’t morbid or unseemly.It’s the inevitable end of any life.

To not discuss Ronan with my daughter, as I will one day,is to devalue both of them in some crucial and profound way. That said, it is not an easy story to tell someone. “Mom had a baby with another man before you were born, and that baby died.” I can see her, years later as a writer, trying to tell that story in a novel, in a poem, in some other book. To whom do these stories belong, and who is in charge of their safekeeping? This is not mine to decide. I can only tell my own truth.

What the living must do is remember.

Author’s Note: Writing about our children is a strange and necessary task as writers who are also mothers. When my son was sick and actively dying, I felt it was my duty to document his life in a meaningful way. I couldn’t save him, but I could save his story. After his death, I am still in the process of trying to make meaning from a situation that felt absent of all meaningfulness. Writing this piece invited me to consider again the strange ways in which chaos works, turning us toward joy and despair, and many times in unequal amounts. This idea of chance, luck, karma, however you name it, is one with which I have long been fascinated, and writing this reignited in me that intellectual interest.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Redbook, O the Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Illustration by Mikela Provost

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How I Lost 4,163 Pounds

How I Lost 4,163 Pounds

minibus on the country highwayBy Rebecca Lanning

My friend Juli once said that driving a minivan was like announcing to the world you’ve got stretch marks and saggy boobs. I swore I’d never drive one, but something happened on my way to turning 40. In the span of one summer, I became practical, succumbing to both the skirted bathing suit and the mom mobile. But little by little, my van grew on me.

Spaciousness was what sold us. A distant cousin to the RV, the van hauled our family of four to destinations near and far. During a thunderstorm one summer night, when our tent proved to be as waterproof as a paper bag, we piled in the van, reclined the seats, and slept in quasi-comfort. We criss-crossed the state in that van, traveled south to Orlando, north to D.C. By the time it hit 100,000 miles, the cloth seats had grown fur. Twenty thousand miles later, when side curtain air bags debuted, we traded it in. For another van.

For fourteen years, I drove a minivan.

I schlepped loads of kids to the pool, Chuckie Cheese, skating parties, soccer games. I drove on countless field trips. To the recycling center, Lemur Center, art museum.

“Settle down,” I’d say.

Gazing at my charges in the rear view mirror, I’d recall my senior year in high school when I drove a school bus. When the state of North Carolina actually thought it was a good idea to let high school students drive school busses. But I loved that job, and the students loved me, bringing me sweet notes and brownies wrapped in cellophane. I’d wave to the gaggle of moms at the bus stop as I closed the door, retracted the Stop sign, pulled slowly away from the curb. Don’t worry. I got this.

That was the hit I got from driving a van. The sense of doing something vital. Serving as chauffeur to the next generation. Taking children places they’d never been or just places they couldn’t take themselves. The designated driver. Captain of a tour bus with a moon roof and front strut suspension.

Even after my sons grew big enough to sit shotgun and refused to go on family camping trips, I still loved driving them around. Maybe more so than ever because sitting next to them in the van was often the closest they’d allow me to get to them. They pulled away from my kisses, ducked from my hugs. But belted in the van, they couldn’t keep me from looking over at them, smiling. Hands on 10 and 2

Only it’s 9 and 3 now. Who knew? Apparently, when an air bag deploys at 150 to 250 miles per hour, it can rip your hands off if they are positioned at 10 and 2. Mr. Phipps, the driver’s ed teacher, told my sons this, and they told me. Good to know.

That my sons were giving me tips on how to drive should have been a clue that my van driving days were numbered, but I vowed to drive this second van until my younger son graduated high school in June of 2016. With a flush of pride, I imagined the odometer hitting 200,000 and beyond. Saggy boobs and stretch marks be damned.

But three months ago, while I was I was driving my younger son to a sports event in a flat, far-flung town neither of us had ever set foot in, the van started making a strange noise. A loud whine during acceleration. I glanced at my son, but he was staring out the window, listening to music, oblivious. And I wondered: Can the engine of a minivan sound like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a brick if only a 51-year-old, post-menopausal woman hears it?

When I described the whining sound to my husband that night, he went outside and started the van. I was standing by the side door when I heard what sounded like an F5 tornado. The dogs went beserk. My husband popped the hood, jiggled wires, shot me a look. I knew what he was thinking: The last thing we needed was a major car malfunction. We’d just put a new roof on the house.

The next day, two different mechanics gave us the same dreaded news: It was the transmission. A repair would set us back $4,500. The van was worth less than that. I felt, oddly, betrayed.

“At least we have a roof over our heads,” my husband said, Neither of us laughed.

With the van disabled in the driveway, I forced myself to test drive several vehicles, but they all felt flimsy. The seats were stiff. The trunks too small. They didn’t have enough cup holders. Nothing excited me. Not the 0% interest. Not the free oil changes for life. After weeks of finding fault with every car in our price range, I finally settled on a station wagon.

On the morning of the deal, I sat for one last time in the driver’s seat of the van, ran my hand along the worn upholstery. When I opened the console where I once stashed juice boxes, I spotted the orange crumbs of Goldfish crackers. Gripping the steering wheel, I gazed in the rear view mirror at the empty seats behind me.

I could almost hear the laughter of children, their corny jokes. I could see the pretty girl who’d had a crush on my older son, the way she slid so close to him in the third row seat when she joined us for a family outing.

I saw my nieces and nephew crammed inside on our way to a seafood restaurant at the beach. Eight of us in a van that held seven. Rose, the youngest, stretched out on the sandy floorboard, hiding from phantom police.

I recalled the swirl of snow that surprised us as we left the movie theater one Christmas Eve and ran, leaping and laughing, to the van. I opened all the doors, even the trunk, remotely, so it looked as if the van were opening its arms, welcoming us in from the cold, the rain at the camp site, a hard day at school.

For eight years, this van had sheltered us like a second home. It was part of our family, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

But I did. I patted the dashboard, closed the door, and went inside the showroom where Fred, the straight-talking salesman was waiting for me, smiling behind a mountain of paperwork.

It wasn’t until I was driving away in my new car that it hit me. I liked this car. The roof rails and raised suspension. Puddle lights and new car smell. It was tight and sporty and nothing like my minivan.

It wasn’t my van I’d been mourning. I was mourning a part of my life—the room parent/carpool/Mom-in-charge phase—that was over. It had been over for a while, and I’d been milking it, driving the van well past its prime, ignoring not just the whine under the hood, but the thin voice inside me saying, It’s time to move on.

As I pressed the gas and felt the kick of the CVT transmission, I sensed a curl of joy in my chest. If my sons needed me less each passing day, then maybe it was time to reinvent myself, hang up my chauffeur’s cap, take up a new cause.

Like that, I was ready for a new adventure. And grateful for new wheels to take me there.

Rebecca Lanning lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. As a former editor and advice columnist at Teen magazine, she admits that writing for teenagers in no way prepared her for the humbling experience of raising two of her own. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Brain Child, The Washington Post, Sunday Reader, Southern Magazine, Haven and Woman’s Own.

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Breathing Lessons

Breathing Lessons

By Rachel Adams

RachelandNoah2

“Oh, darn!” chirps my eight-year-old son Noah as he plays Minecraft, fingers darting across the screen, “I was just killed by a zombie; gotta get back to my bed so I can respawn!” Watching him, I’m once again struck by how unconcerned he is about death. Last year when he developed an obsession with the Titanic, we worried that he might find some parts of the story disturbing. Instead, he rattled off facts about death and destruction as if they were baseball statistics. “50% of children on the ship survived” he would report. “Although only one from steerage. Women and children got the lifeboats first so just 128 out of 776 men were saved.” He watched the movie, replaying the disaster again and again, seemingly oblivious to fear, chaos, and devastation. A part of me wishes Noah were more empathic. Another part is glad death is so alien to him that a horrific maritime disaster might as well be a session on Minecraft, where characters die and respawn none the worse for wear.

I don’t remember ever being unaware of death. When I was four, my mother Ruth was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was told there was no cure and died 18 months later at the age of 42. My earliest memories are of my mother’s illness. I remember when she cut off her long hair because she was too weak to take care of it; oozing sores left by needles that tapped fluid from her lungs; fits of uncontrollable coughing.

One morning not long after Ruth died, our babysitter Molly came to work in tears. Her dog Brindle was missing and she was sure he had been hit by a car and killed. My sister and I loved Brindle. We put our arms around Molly and cried together. Recently I mentioned this incident to my father, who told me that Brindle had been found alive a few days later.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked incredulously. “We were devastated.”

“Because your mother had just died,” he said. “We didn’t want you to think there was any chance she might come back.”

Ten years later, Ruth’s best friend Barbara learned she had lung cancer. I watched her suffer with an awareness I had lacked during my mother’s illness a decade before. At Thanksgiving, my father had to carry her up the stairs to our house. Her dinner was pureed in the blender so she could take it through a straw. When she went to the hospital for the last time, I had tonsillitis and was too sick to visit her.

I know my early experiences of death shape the way I parent my sons. I have trouble saying goodbye, and tend to weep embarrassingly over small transitions like the last day of school or the start of camp. I’m consumed with guilt about missing time with my children while I’m at work. When we’re together, I’m determined to make every minute memorable. There are so few things I can control, but I can spend a week decorating a birthday cake or stay up all night making thank-you gifts for my sons’ teachers. I’m constantly taking pictures and movies, aware of how few mementos I have of the years I shared with my mother. Of course this kind of helicopter parenting isn’t unique, but mine is motivated by awareness of just how short and unpredictable life can be.

The year I turned 42 I worried constantly about my breathing. I had two boys, exactly the same ages as my sister and I when our mother died. Although my doctor said I was perfectly healthy, I was terrified I would die and leave my children to grow up alone. At unpredictable moments, I became convinced that each intake of air might be my last uncomplicated breath. For all I knew malignant tumors were already colonizing my chest. There was no way to tell. My doctor discouraged a lung scan, saying it was likely to cause more harm than good.

Since I passed that milestone I’ve tried to be better about managing my fears. I know it isn’t healthy to be so obsessed with death and dying. In her journal, Ruth wrote resentfully of the hypochondria that drove her mother to bed for the last decade of her life. I want to make the most of whatever time I have, and hope that my sons will remember me for something other than my incessant countdown to my own death.

In the fall, I volunteered to be a guest reader in Noah’s class. I chose a story Ruth wrote for my sister and me. I found the manuscript while visiting my father the summer before. Written in my mother’s neat hand, it’s about our stuffed animals, our cat, and the excitable dog who lived across the street. I loved the thought of my mother sitting down to write for and about us so I had the pages scanned and bound into a book.

While I read to Noah’s class, I felt moved at the thought that I was the connecting link between my son and the grandmother he never knew. Afterwards, I asked him whether he had liked the visit.

“It was okay,” he said noncommittally.

“What do you mean, okay?”

“I don’t know.”  He shrugged, “the kids in my class were kind of bored while you were reading.”

I bristled with irritation. This wasn’t the reaction I had hoped for. How could my son be indifferent to something so meaningful to me? Later, I changed my mind. I decided I was glad the book didn’t fill him with longing for his dead grandmother or awareness that life can be short and cruel. He has plenty of time to learn that lesson. For now, how lucky he is to live as if mothers who die can, like characters on Minecraft, respawn into a world untouched by their absence.

Rachel Adams is the author of Raising Henry:  A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery, as well as essays on parenting and disability in The New York Times, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Times of London, mariashriver.com, and Huffington Post.  She lives with her family in New York City, where she teaches at Columbia University.

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What You’re Left With When She is Gone

What You’re Left With When She is Gone

WO What You're Left With ArtBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

In a box of old things my sister recently sent me I found a photo of my mother from when I was thirteen and my sister was ten, when Mom had just come back from her second cult experience.

She looks thinner than I’d ever known her. Hollows carve shadows under her cheeks and the pallor of her skin is off; her face has a gray tinge to it. She has a faint smile but it doesn’t reach her eyes. My sister dangles from her left arm and I, a little chubby and wearing too much make up for a middle-schooler, have my arm around my mom’s shoulder. I am leaning into her, a big stretched out smile across my face as if everything is normal.

It had been six months since me and my sister had seen my mother and we were grateful to have her back. But tentative. Like if we said the wrong thing or touched her without warning, or got too close, she’d disappear again. We had none of the casual comfort we might have once felt with her. I remember serving her tea, asking for permission to touch the tinsel threaded scarf she wore draped around her neck, offering her blankets and snacks, trying to keep her comfortable so she would stay.

For the longest time my mother seemed like a superhero, she was dazzling to me, which made no sense since she left me and my sister twice: once when she went to live on the ashram in India, and once when she went to live on the ashram in Oregon. I think it confounded my father, too, since apart from a few years of weekends at my mom’s after their divorce, she had left him taking care of us since I was six. Still, I dreamed of seeing her. She was the gift parent, the special occasion; I imagined her appearing like a fairy queen—and changing my life.

She was back this time because the ashram had broken up, her holy man arrested, his ninety-three Rolls Royces confiscated. She and the other followers—sannyasins they called themselves—had given up everything they owned for their guru and were now leaderless, scurrying back to wherever home had been to plan their next moves. My mother had nowhere else to go.

Even though this was the second time she had skipped town leaving my father to care for us, he told her she could stay at our apartment a few days while she figured things out. My sister and I were elated: both of our parents under one roof with us was something we had stopped hoping for. But my father should have known better before he agreed. And my mother should have known better than to ask.

I could feel his agitation soon after he came home from work that first day. After so many cancelled visits, so many missed birthdays, to see my mother curled up cozy on our sofa like she belonged there, a daughter fawning over her on either side, was too much for him. His frustration simmered through the apartment until it swelled into a wave of fury he could not contain. His profane expletives flew and my eyes darted between him and my mother, the panic in me growing, trying to figure out even as he got louder and louder how I could make it go better, how I could make it stop.

He said he wanted the child support money she owed him for all the years she hadn’t paid. But I understood it was much more than just that.

He stormed into the dining room and snatched her purse off the table searching for money. My mother tried to get it but he grabbed it away from her. He swung open the apartment door and she followed, crying out that he should give it back. But he wouldn’t. He threw it onto the stained burgundy carpet in the hallway.

“Where is the money? Where is the money?” he yelled, his eyes blazing, his face burning with anger. But I was so angry with him because after all us kids had been through, all the waiting for our mother to return, he was going to scare her off. It didn’t have to be this way but he was making it happen: he was going to force her to go away.

And that’s when our elderly neighbor Elizabeth from England, whose apartment was right next to the garbage room, opened her door to see what the trouble was.

There was my mother, kneeling on the old matted carpet, clutching at her purse, my father pulling at the handle. My mother wasn’t letting go and so he dragged her along the carpet by it for several feet, her thin scarf trailing, the warm garbage stink of the incinerator room filling the airless hallway, Elizabeth looking on.

I was so sorry Elizabeth had to see this. So sorry because it wasn’t really true, what she was seeing wasn’t our family. I wanted to smile at her to tell her this is not what it looks like, this doesn’t ever happen. But something about Elizabeth witnessing us made it worse, made it harder to convince myself everything was going to be okay.

My mother was gone by evening. She zipped up the two suitcases that she had not yet really unpacked and left.

It’s not easy now to look at that photo of us from before she left again, to remember how careful I was, how hard I was working to keep her with me. When we took the photo I understood I didn’t have my mother in my life. What I didn’t know yet is that I never would.

Ronit Feinglass Plank’s short fiction and essays have appeared on Salon.com, The Iowa Review, Lilith and is forthcoming in Best New Writing 2015. She lives in Seattle with her young family.

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The First Tour

The First Tour

By Christi Clancy

firsttourI never thought that a college tour with my seventeen-year-old daughter would be an emotionally fraught experience. I’m a professor, so I’m used to the campus environment. Our friends who have gone through this process marvel at the ways colleges have changed since we went to school, but I’m not surprised by mindfulness classes and meditation rooms, dining halls with vegan and gluten-free options and gender-neutral dorms and bathrooms.

But there I was on my first campus tour, not a professor, just another mom in a traveling pod of parents, siblings and high school juniors following our guide’s bouncing ponytail. She was a pretty, self-assured co-ed in Cleopatra sandals and Raybans. She pointed out the student artwork in the library, the international studies office and the common room in the dorm where a lonely looking kid in a t-shirt that said WEED banged on a piano. She’d pause occasionally and put her hand on her hip. “Any questions?”

I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t even focus. I was thinking about how old all the mothers and fathers looked, and I was roughly their same age. I’d tripped on one of those age touchstones that launch you into existential angst. Where had all the years gone? Wasn’t I just in college myself? Why didn’t I think about schools in California? Why didn’t I look at small, private colleges? Why didn’t I major in geology? Why hadn’t I traveled abroad? What would it be like to start over again, forging a whole different chain of life decisions, starting with this one?

I looked over at Olivia. I could still picture her in her car seat even though she’s half a foot taller than I am. She was walking with her arms across her chest, the sun glinting in her golden hair. She was far enough away to be mistaken for a student, which was probably her goal. I wanted to shout out that she was mine. I had a vision of her walking happily across the quad to class while I was two thousand miles away … two thousand miles! Going to a college far away sounded fine before, adventuresome. Now I could measure that distance by the inch.

Suddenly I wanted to duck into a bathroom to cry. What was my problem? Olivia had already taken the ACT twice. We’d talked about college, poured over the US News and World Report rankings and researched student to faculty ratios and acceptance rates.

I thought of a story I’d heard from a woman whose child had been born premature but survived. She said that even years later, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her child had been ripped out of her, ripped away. The late high school years are like the final trimester of a second, different kind of gestation. I must have gotten it into my head that we were both developing, approaching a point of ripeness, like an egg timer would ding and she’d be mature enough to leave me and survive, and I’d be ready to turn her bedroom into an office.

Letting go might be easy for some people, but on that college tour I started to think that it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be emotionally prepared for her to leave home than I’d thought. She’d been a horrible, colicky baby, comforted only by the hum of a vacuum cleaner. But over the years she turned into my favorite person to spend time with. We read People Magazine while we get pedicures, have long conversations about politics and religion, watch dumb reality TV shows and do her crazy workouts standing side by side in front of the mirrors at the gym.

It’s not that we have a perfect relationship. I resent the piles of clothes, crumbs on the countertops, the loud blender she uses to make her kale and chia seed smoothies in the morning. I worry when she’s out late, and we go to battle over too-tight, too-low outfits.  But her habits, her days, are braided into my own, and the process of unbraiding will be a challenge— one that seemed unimaginable, or that I really just didn’t understand until we started looking at colleges.

Some of my friends have confessed that they experienced trauma when their kids left home, but I insisted to myself that they were the exception instead of the rule, and that the trauma was short-lived. One friend said she didn’t know how to fill her time anymore, while another friend said she would fold laundry on her daughter’s bed and cry and cry. My friend Susie said it’s not just your kid going to college that makes you sad, but the way your family changes, and you can’t ever go back. “Oh, honey. It’s like jumping off a bridge.”

Maybe the good news is that the jump happens in slow motion, one college tour, ACT test and college application at a time, slow enough that you understand what’s happening even if you can’t quite absorb it. Who knows, in another year I might be ready. But ever since the tours started, I go to sleep at night, thankful that my family is all under the same roof. Our daily drive to the high school seems more poignant. I feel a little rip in my gut every time she gets out of my car and I watch her walk towards the double-doors, one day closer to leaving.

Christi Clancy teaches English at Beloit College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Literary Mama and Wisconsin Public Radio. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two kids, Olivia and Tim.

When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

When You Drop Me Off, Are You Going to Leave?

 

dempsey“How many more days until my soccer camp?” Brennan asks, every day. I cringe inwardly but pretend enthusiasm.

Months ago, he heard about this camp and begged me to enroll him. The opportunity for him to run and play at a park all week with other four-year-olds sounded great idea. I signed him up.

Then I ran into my neighbor, Craig, whose son Drew would attend for the second year.

“You know about this camp, right?” Craig laughed. “It’s kind of…sketchy.”

“Sketchy?”

“Well, it’s run by this crazy bunch of kids from England,” Craig said. He described them as “clueless.” He repeated the work “sketchy.” But, he said, Drew loves it.

 

Sunday

 

Brennan sits on the living room floor, struggling zip up his backpack. “You are going to bring me there and then leave, right?” he asks, beaming.

He appears long after bedtime, too excited to sleep. I tuck him in again. He rolls onto his side, hugs his stuffed gray kitty and smiles at the wall, imagining…what?

I am kept awake, too, imagining less happy things. What was I thinking? An unfamiliar camp at a huge city park, with a bunch of strangers? He’s barely four.

I look over the camp information and realize I forgot to pick up a copy of Brennan’s immunization record. A sign that I shouldn’t be sending him — or some kind of subconscious sabotage.

I’ll have to convince the coaches to let me drop him off and return with the form at pickup. But I fantasize they’ll send him home with a little clap on the shoulder, saying, “Maybe next year, mate. When you’re five.”

Monday

The park sits on a buried landfill framed by a towering housing development and four-lane highway. Waves of kids shriek and run across the turf on their little shin-guard clad legs, pulling at each other and tripping over soccer balls.

Brennan tugs me toward the field, eyes huge with excitement. “Now you leave. And I stay by myself.”

“You stay with your coaches,” I say. But he is already running ahead of me.

I spot a guy of nineteen or twenty swinging a clipboard. “I’m called Paul. Who’ve we here, then? Master Brennan. You’re a big man of four then, eh?” Beside Brennan’s name on the attendance list is a highlighted, glaringly unchecked “medical form” box. I prepare to plead my case, but Paul cheerfully strikes a bold line through the box.

Brennan is wearing an Italian soccer jersey and Paul grabs him by the shoulders. “All suited up, are you? Ready to play some football then?” He spins him around to read the back of his shirt. “Buffon!” he yells as Brennan cracks up. “You’ll be taking care of us then, eh, Buffon?”

Brennan’s coach, a wiry kid with glasses and black curls, is leading a group of preschoolers in a game where he appears to play some kind of British pirate-monster, threatening and growling at kids as they scream, claw and jump at him. Before I can say goodbye Brennan takes off and is absorbed by the pack. They move away, yelling and pummeling the coach with their tiny fists.

Dragging myself toward the parking lot, I spot Ruth, whose daughter Sivan is Brennan’s age. Enviably unflappable, Ruth is the opposite of me. But she says, “I don’t know about this place. Look at that little guy wandering off over there and no one’s even noticing.”

We watch the boy hop around the edge of the field. Then someone waves to me from among the trees — Craig, spying on Drew.

I walk over to him and he shrugs and laughs in an I-told-you-so kind of way. We watch for a few minutes before he says, “Okay, I’m going to stop being an overprotective parent and go now.”

“Me too,” I lie. “See you later.”

Brennan’s group moves across the field. Something in the grass catches his attention and he stops and kicks at it, then squats down to examine it more closely. His group keeps going. He sits down and, within a few seconds, he is enveloped by a different group of kids just as his group blends into a mass of older kids. But then a pony-tailed teenaged girl runs back for him. I see her reach out her hand and they run across the field together.

I leave.

At pickup, kids run all over, tackling each other, taking off to find the bathroom or climb a tree. I spot Brennan: red-faced, exhausted, happy.

“Bye, Buffon,” the curly-headed coach calls. I make a mental note to put him in the yellow Italian jersey all week.

On the drive home, Brennan smiles out the window when I ask about his day. All he says is that he needs to wear a green t-shirt tomorrow, because he is going to play for the green team.

Tuesday

“Right when you drop me off, are you going to leave?” Brennan asks

“Yep!” I say. And really, I plan to. But dark clouds are rolling in and the park has no shelter. I sit in my car in a nearby parking lot until a crack of thunder sounds. Rain falls in a thick curtain. I call Ruth to tell her I’ll take Sivan.

The rain soaks through my clothes as I run to the field. Kids huddle under trees as the coaches try to organize them and call parents from cell phones. One boy sobs as a coach asks, “What’s your name, mate? What’s your name?”

“I’m taking Sivan,” I shout to the ponytailed coach.

“Who?” the girl asks.

I point. She half nods, half shrugs and moves toward some older kids who are wrestling in a puddle.

Brennan, Sivan and I grab hands and run. They are drenched and laughing as I buckle them into their seats.

“Did you leave today?” Brennan asks as we sit in traffic in the downpour. “Was I there by myself?”

“Yep,” I say. “Hey, guys, what’s the name of your soccer coach?”

“Who?” Brennan asked.

“Do you know, Sivan?” I ask.

She looks at Brennan, widens her eyes and shrugs. And then they both laugh as though I’ve said something hilarious.

Wednesday

I will stay for just ten minutes. I peer through the bushes. The ridiculousness of the situation falls on me in its full weight. I am hiding from a four-year-old.

I spy Brennan’s group moving toward a cluster of trees with their bags. Sivan’s eyes immediately find me and she raises an arm to wave. I duck but then give in and wave back, embarrassed. But Brennan is oblivious. He is bringing up the tail of the group, dragging his red backpack through the dirt behind him as he shlumps along heavily in the heat. He plunks down next to Sivan and says something to her, and they laugh together.

I leave.

Thursday

Brennan’s temperature is 102.3.

“Can I still go?” he asks, and cries when I shake my head.

I feel sick myself, with guilt, like I have somehow willed this.

In the afternoon, our babysitter Tasha comes by. She picked up her sister from the camp and mentioned to the coaches that she would be seeing Brennan.

She holds out a huge bag of stuff: Soccer balls, t-shirts, water bottles. “Those guys were so nice! I told them Brennan was sick and they were like, Oh, poor little guy, and they just kept bringing me stuff.” Tasha seems unaware that their attention might have actually been captured by the fact that she is a tanned, twenty-two year old knockout in a tank top and shorts.

A year later

Brennan still talks about soccer camp all the time. Even though he was only there a few mornings, the experience made an impression. This summer, he’ll go to a real, reputable day camp where he’ll swim and hike and play soccer, too.

Maybe I’ll hire Tasha to drop him off. She’ll make more of an impression on the counselors — and both they and Brennan are sure to admire her when she walks away.

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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Family Affairs

Family Affairs

From Brain, Child (Fall 2009)

By Meagan Francis

fall2009_francis_ringFour-year-old Charlie has no idea—yet—what transpired between his mom and dad late last year.

Stationed overseas while her husband was on active duty in Iraq, Charlie’s mother, Stella, began to notice her husband, Tom, becoming distracted and disinterested. A picture of her husband sitting with a young woman on his lap on a mutual friend’s Facebook page aroused her suspicions, and the constant texting and e-mailing when he came home on a break confirmed them. Finally, Tom admitted he’d been having an affair with another soldier and said he was in love with her, though he claimed they’d never had a physical relationship (something Stella doesn’t believe).

As she watched the effects her husband’s withdrawal was having on her son, Stella got angry. “Tom was so disengaged that Charlie started wanting nothing to do with him,” she says. Before the holidays, Charlie’s class was working on a project to send deployed dads a “Christmas hug”; a paper outline of the child’s arms on a piece of paper. “Charlie sat in the time-out cubby all day, refusing to participate,” Stella says. Because Charlie is speech-delayed, Stella explains, figuring out what he’s thinking can be a challenge, but after some questioning, Charlie came out with it. “All done with Daddy,” he said.

Lonely and confused, Stella began spending a lot of time with a longtime male friend. Then, while recounting the story about her son’s school to him, Stella found herself thinking, “My marriage is over.” Soon afterward, things between her and her friend got physical and she began a brief affair of her own.

Stella and Tom are hardly unique—infidelity is one of the oldest of human stories. Chances are good that even if infidelity isn’t part of your own life story, you’re hearing about the affairs of your friends or neighbors or watching it unfold in the life of a public figure. The chatter surrounding an affair almost always seems to focus on what it will do to the relationship under stress—the adult relationship, that is. Will they or won’t they stay together? Can he forgive her? Will she walk?

But what about the children? When they figure into the discussion, it’s almost always as an aside. When the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking, the national discussion was about Hillary and the state of the Clintons’s marriage, with far less attention paid to how the scandal might be affecting Chelsea. Ditto John and Elizabeth Edwards, who have three children, or most recently, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his wife, Jenny, who have four.

Or take the saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC show Jon and Kate + 8. When news emerged that impossibly laid-back Jon—arguably the more likeable of the couple—had had an affair, public sentiment seemed to shift. Sure, the show’s most rabid viewers thought that Kate was still bitchy and controlling, her hair had gotten utterly ridiculous and who did she think she was with the huge sunglasses, fake tan, and designer clothes anyway … and yet … she’d been cheated on. The viewing world seemed to divide into two groups: those who thought Jon was a cheating bastard and worried that those eight kids would grow up in a broken home, and those who thought Kate had brought it all on herself and needed to give up the public life before she drove Jon further away and wound up raising eight kids by herself.

What nobody seemed to be asking was what affect the affair itself would have on the kids. Even if Jon and Kate had stayed together, news of Jon’s infidelity had been splashed across tabloid covers and blogs for weeks. There’s no way the kids can stay sheltered from that forever. So what happens when they figure it out? And what lingering effects might have haunted them even if the marriage had lasted?

Even if you’re not in the public eye—if you’re a Stella or a Tom, say—there are plenty of questions to be asked. Will your little Charlie one day be blaming you in therapy for mishandling the whole affair? Is there a right way or a wrong way to explain infidelity to children? Does it make a difference to the emotional health of the children if they’re told of the cheating right away or kept in the dark? Are they affected differently in the long run if Mom and Dad reconcile or eventually split? And, given how widespread a phenomenon this is, we have to wonder: Why is there so little research on the effects of infidelity on children?

*   *   *

Recent studies from the University of Chicago indicate that one in ten Americans (twelve percent of men, seven percent of women) will have an extramarital affair in their lives—and those are among the most conservative estimates. Researchers at the University of Washington recently found that twenty percent of men and fifteen percent of women under age thirty-five say they have cheated, while twenty-eight percent of men over age sixty say they have cheated. (The actual numbers are likely to be higher, sociologists say, because people tend to lie about sex.) While it’s equally difficult to pin down what percentage of people having an affair also have children, one recent survey provides an eye-opening clue. In a poll of thirty thousand mothers conducted by Cookie magazine and AOL Body in May, 2008, thirty-four percent of respondents admitted having an affair since giving birth to their kids, and more than half (fifty-three percent) said they’d considered an affair.

Thanks to The National Center for Health Statistics, we know how many people marry and divorce each year. And the short- and long-term effects of divorce on children have been tracked through longitudinal studies like the one performed by psychologist Judith Wallerstein, a former senior lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at The University of California, Berkeley. But when it comes to how children are affected by infidelity per se, the research is conspicuously scanty.

Ana Nogales would like to change that. Nogales, a family therapist in Southern California, has watched the effects of infidelity on her patients for years. To synthesize what she was seeing, she designed a study of eight hundred adults whose parents had been unfaithful. In June, she published the study as a book, Parents who Cheat: How Children and Adults Are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful.

What emerges from the survey is a mixed bag:  Some of the long-lasting effects of infidelity on the respondents are what you’d expect, while others are more surprising. Nogales’s respondents skew heavily female—eighty-four percent women compared with just sixteen percent men. (This may be because women are more expressive, Nogales says.) Many more respondents (seventy-three percent) report that it was their father who was unfaithful; only sixteen percent report a mother’s infidelity. About fourteen percent of respondents report that both parents had an affair.

Three quarters of the grown children of adulterers report that their relationship with the unfaithful parent changed as a result of that knowledge. The same percentage report feeling betrayed and even more said they felt angry with or hurt by the cheating parent’s actions. Eighty percent report that their attitude toward love and relationships was affected by their parent’s infidelity. About the same percentage say they now feel that people regularly lie. More than half of respondents are afraid of being betrayed by a partner, and more than two-thirds say they have a hard time trusting others.

Yet almost ninety percent of adults who in their childhood experienced the infidelity of one or more parents still believe in commitment, and nearly eighty percent report that they believe in monogamy. Whether they can carry through with those beliefs is another story, though; forty-four percent report having cheated at one time or another.

*   *   *

All this data seems to mean something, but what, exactly? Nogales is the first to admit that her survey isn’t scientific: Participants are self-selected, and it’s likely that the people who feel most affected by a parent’s cheating are the first to get in line to fill out a questionnaire about it. Participants assess their own mental and emotional health, further adding to the subjective nature of the study. There’s also no comparison data and so no way to know whether adults whose parents cheated are any worse off, emotionally, than kids whose parents stayed faithful. We all screw up and fail our children in some way. Is infidelity statistically worse than our other failings?

Many questions linger on the perimeter of the data. If the parents stayed together, did the infidelity continue? If the parents split, did the offending parent stay involved in the kids’ lives or did he or she disengage? Was the cheating a one-time event or chronic? How did the kids find out, and how did the parents treat one another during the crisis? In other words, did the affair lead to family dysfunction, or did family dysfunction come before the affair? How long ago did these marriages and these affairs take place and in what kind of socio-cultural environment?

In Nogales’s study, fifty-eight percent of marriages survived the infidelity. (National averages may be higher; a recent study of 1,084 people whose spouses had affairs found that seventy-six percent were still married to the same partner years afterwards.) Whether or not the parents divorce after an affair is discovered changes the way kids react to the affair, according to Nogales, but neither outcome is all good or all bad: “When the parents didn’t divorce, the children were better able to trust, but felt more shame and had a harder time forgiving,” says Nogales. “When the parents did divorce, the children had a harder time trusting, but an easier time forgiving. They saw the relationship as something in the past that had come to an end.”

Eighty percent of survey respondents reported that their relationship with the cheating parent changed when parents divorced. Nearly that many—seventy-two percent—reported that their relationship changed with the cheating parent when the parents stayed together. There was no significant difference in the relationship with the betrayed parent, whether or not the parents divorced.

Though those questions aren’t answered via the survey responses, the book is full of personal stories that shed some light on the various ways infidelity plays out in the family.  And from those stories and the conversations I had with people who’ve been there, I learned that the effects of infidelity are as individual and unique as the families themselves.

Take, for example, Jennifer Canzoneri, a twenty-seven-year-old mother in Roanoke, Texas, whom I spoke with recently. Jennifer was not merely a bystander to her dad’s infidelity; she was made an accomplice of sorts. When she was about seven, he began taking her and her sister to dinner with a “friend” of his who worked in his building. “I guess he assumed we wouldn’t catch on,” she says. “We caught on. But as a kid, it’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around what your suspicions really mean.” The infidelity continued. Eventually, Jennifer’s mom and dad split and her dad remarried; he later broke up with her stepmother while he was in another relationship.

Jennifer says the affair made her have some trouble trusting people. “I won’t cheat—I can say that with much certainty—and I won’t stand to be cheated on,” she says. “But trust is difficult. I look at my husband, who’s nothing like my father, and sometimes wonder if he’s keeping things from me. He’s open and honest and has given me no reason to doubt him, but as a child of infidelity, you doubt and fight insecurity.”

Again, not surprising. But digging deeper into Jennifer’s past indicates that it may not just have been her dad’s cheating that affected her so strongly, but the way it played out in her family.

“My sister and I told my mom [about the other woman], and, sadly, we tried to defend him. I remember my mom wasn’t surprised, which saddens me a lot in hindsight,” she says. “The woman we met wasn’t his first mistress, and my mother knew of them all. She stayed with him, she looked the other way, and she didn’t demand that he stop cheating or lying. He convinced her she wasn’t worth being faithful to and so she never said she was worth being faithful to. I needed to see, through her actions, that no woman should allow a man to cheat on her. I didn’t see that.” Jennifer tells me that it took much therapy for her to be able to trust, and even now, she finds divorce devastating: “When I see friends go through it or even some random celebrity couple, it physically affects me.”

With that kind of fallout at stake, it’s understandable that a parent might try to keep an affair completely removed from the kids. “In the military, with so many spouses on active duty for much of the year, there are women who have boyfriends practically living with them—picking the kids up from daycare, even—while their husband is gone,” says Stella. She opted out of that kind of arrangement when her own affair began, trying hard to keep Charlie in the dark. “If I wanted to see [the other man], I got a babysitter and went out. My kid was not around.”

Stella and her husband are attempting to stay together, mostly for Charlie’s sake, and she says they have no plans ever to tell their son about their infidelities. “I think adultery always has been and always will be around, and it’s separate from your kids,” she argues.  “There’s this feeling that once you get married and have kids everything is supposed to revolve around the kids. Honestly, I think that’s why some women have affairs—to have some kind of life that’s outside of the cocoon. But I think it can remain very separate. It depends how it’s all handled.”

*   *   *

I can see her point. After all, we don’t involve our children in our sex lives. Why involve them in our affairs? Is it ever appropriate for them to know all the ins and outs of our marriages?

My own parents split up when I was about five, and soon after, my dad moved across the state to live near a former female co-worker. Within a couple of years, the two were married. (They later divorced.) When I was in my late teens, my mom told me that my father had cheated on her with my to-be stepmother. I remember being remarkably uncurious about it, never asking if she had proof, or why she would believe such a thing. In my subconscious, I probably knew that it was true, but as it was all in the distant past, I didn’t have to grapple with the “what does it all mean?” questions. So I chose largely to ignore this tidbit of knowledge and went right back to worshipping my father.

Now that I’m an adult and see things with clearer eyes, I suppose I could confront my dad and ask if it’s true. I’m sure he’d deny it; I’m not so sure I’d believe him. But at this point, what difference would it make? In hindsight, I can see that nothing is black or white. My dad’s purported affairs weren’t a rejection of me personally (my mother was not an easy person to live with—hell, I left her, too, moving in with my dad at the age of thirteen). My dad is a fallible human being. Mistakes were made.

But if I’d been told about his actions at the age of, say, eleven? I’m not so sure I’d have had the same confidence in my view of human nature or clarity to see my parents as they really are.

Nogales would argue that I’m kidding myself. On some level, kids know about affairs even when they don’t know the actual facts, she says. For that reason alone, honesty is always the best policy. “If you keep lying to your child, the child will have more and more problems,” she argues. “You don’t have to give details, but you have to ask your child if he or she has any questions and respond with the truth.” Even if your child doesn’t exhibit signs of knowing about an affair, Nogales believes they should be told.

That position strikes other family dynamic experts as extreme. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, a family therapist in Burlington, Ontario, thinks children should be told about affairs—but on a need-to-know basis only.

“High stress comes from having a lot of responsibility and little power,” Belleghem argues. “Giving children information that they’re powerless to do anything about increases stress.”

On the other hand, if a child has a sense that something is off, it’s important to validate that knowledge, she says. When kids see something that doesn’t fit into their idea of the world—for instance, they think “Daddy loves Mommy” but then see Daddy kissing the neighbor—they need to know how to make sense of it, says Bellenghem. “When they learn that their perception was right, they say ‘Whoa—what I thought I saw, I really saw!’ It builds their confidence and self-trust.”

Bellenghem suggests that while childhood might not always be the right time to spill the beans, the time will come eventually. Let’s say an affair happens when a child is three, and the parents work through it and agree to stay together. Should the child grow up with the knowledge that one of his parents cheated on the other? No, she argues, but it could be shared when the child has reached young adulthood and is grappling with relationship issues of his or her own.

Emily Brown, Director of Key Bridge Therapy & Mediation Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment (2001), says about affairs, “In most cases, it needs to be part of the family story in some way. It’s not a secret, it just hasn’t been shared yet.”

And if this is the route you’re going—if you’re going to explain the complexities of an affair to your child, it makes sense to have a good grasp what exactly was going on in your own marriage. Why did it happen, after all? Brown, a frequent media commentator on infidelity, has identified five types of affairs, each with its own kind of motivation and potential fallout.

“Conflict avoiders” are the “nice” people who are too afraid of abandonment to resolve their differences directly, she says. The marriage erodes, and so they look outside the marriage for intimacy. “Intimacy avoiders,” Brown says, communicate via intense fighting, and often both partners wind up having affairs. “Split Self” affairs happen when people are so intent on doing their marriage “right” that they deprive their own feelings and needs, and end up getting those needs met in a long-term, serious affair. “Exit affairs” happen when conflict avoiders are looking for a way out of a marriage, and use an affair as a way out. And finally there’s the sexual addict, for whom sex is a compulsion more than a choice.

Within those five types, there are even more differences: serial cheaters and those who have a single, brief affair; those who involve their children and those who work hard to shield them from it. There are cheated-on parents who stand up for themselves and those who allow the infidelity to continue without taking action. There are couples who have mostly respectful, peaceful relationships in which affairs happen and couples who never cheat but scream and throw things at each other. The kids involved can be anywhere from not-yet-born to adults (sometimes, a child is actually a product of the affair, which throws a whole new wrench in the works). But whatever the details, they matter. When it comes to explaining matters of the heart, context is everything.

*   *   *

Like every other issue we face as parents, there’s the ideal, and then there’s reality. No one (well, almost no one) goes into a marriage expecting to cheat or be cheated on—it’s no surprise, therefore, that so many parents find themselves muddling through the aftermath. And whether they get everything out in the open right away or put it off for a later date, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to fumble and fail.

But they’ll also have lots of opportunity to try again until they get it right. Because whether you’re talking with a child about drugs or sex or God or infidelity, no single discussion shapes his or her understanding of the entire topic.

At least that’s what Stephanie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two from Virginia, is banking on. Last winter, while she was struggling with depression and the demands of caring for two closely spaced young children, Stephanie’s first love showed up on Facebook, and the two reconnected. “I told myself I was just catching up with an old friend and gaining some closure, but I knew I was heading into dangerous territory,” says the attorney, who wrote about her affair on her blog, lawyermama.com. “This was a man I had never entirely gotten over; someone I had always loved.” On a business trip to Chicago not long after, Stephanie got together with the man, Mark, in person, and that meeting sparked a five-month affair.

When she returned, Stephanie’s husband figured out something was up right away; the two of them separated but eventually reunited. “I guess you could say that I came to my senses,” she told me. “Even though I was in love with two men, I realized that I had to make a choice. I chose my family.”

The children don’t know about her affair … yet. At only three and four, Stephanie thinks they’re too young to really understand: “Hell, even most adults don’t understand.” But she admits that she learned the hard way how perceptive even little kids can be. “During a car ride with my three-year-old, I was on the phone with Mark, just chatting, but I guess there was something in my voice,” she says. “When I hung up, my son asked me, ‘Mommy was that Daddy?’ I said, ‘No, sweetie that was Mommy’s friend, Mark.’ He was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘But who is he? Is he Daddy?’ After that, I never spoke to Mark on the phone with my children in the room.”

Since the affair is out in the open—and on the Internet—and both families involved know about it, Stephanie figures it’s just a matter of time before her children find out what happened. But whether the news comes from a gossiping cousin or Google, Stephanie and her husband are prepared for the discussion they’ll have one day. “We’ve agreed we’ll talk to them about it together and tell them as much as they want to know,” she says. “We plan to tell them that marriage is really hard work and sometimes we make mistakes, but we’re a family first and foremost and we did everything we could to keep it that way.”

*   *   *

Perhaps the reason there’s been so little research on the effects of infidelity on children in the past is simply due to adultery’s secrecy and the difficulty quantifying an experience that’s largely individual. Studying divorce, by contrast, is easy: Either a couple is divorced or they are not. The life cycle of an affair is a much more nebulous concept. We don’t like to talk about affairs in public to begin with; we certainly don’t want to admit to having had one (or several). We even have a hard time defining an affair: Do you have to go all the way? What about emotional affairs? Internet affairs? Sexting?

Maybe the definition doesn’t matter. Bellenghem is quick to point out that it’s the dishonesty—not the sex—that makes infidelity damaging to kids. “Having an affair isn’t just betraying the spouse, it’s betraying what family is about,” she says. “And a family is usually created on the premise of monogamy.” In open marriages or cultures where infidelity is the norm, Bellenghem suggests that sex outside of marriage wouldn’t have as devastating an effect, precisely because it wouldn’t catch either parent—or their children—by surprise.

It’s that surprise, shame, and confusion that often leads parents to deal with the infidelity in a way that’s not necessarily best for their kids. Trying to normalize or cover up the situation to the kids, the betraying parent will often either deny the obvious or—worse—bring the children into the “secret” (outings with mommy or daddy’s “friend”; keeping secrets from the betrayed parent). As for the cheatee? “Usually the parent who’s betrayed goes through a period of obsessing and questioning, and is unable to stop thinking about [the affair],” says Brown. “There’s no way the kids don’t hear that.” Trying to help children deal with the confusion of the family upset in a healthy way may be easier said than done when a parent him- or herself is in the throes of pain and feelings of rejection.

If there’s a silver lining to the often grim reality of living through the aftermath of an affair, maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more real with their kids about the realities of marriage: the fact that marriage is messy, takes a lot of work, and sometimes, the people we love the most will disappoint us in ways that are both simultaneously shocking and clichéd.

Author’s Note: When I was growing up, secrecy and privacy reigned supreme in families; now, the cultural norm seems to be shifting rapidly toward total disclosure. When it comes to infidelity and kids, I wonder what that will mean for everyone involved. Less shame and isolation, perhaps, but also the potential for an unhealthy dose of TMI. Presumably, it’ll be good for today’s children that we’re more honest than previous generations of parents, but I hope it’s something my kids won’t have personal experience with.

Meagan Francis has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Her website is thehappiestmom.com.

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For Life

For Life

WO For Life ArtBy Sarah Kilch Gaffney

Sometimes it’s tentative and other times it’s brazen, but at some point people almost always ask if my husband and I got pregnant on purpose.

When I was twenty-five and my husband Steve was twenty-seven, he was diagnosed with a large brain tumor that we were told would ultimately be terminal.  We could treat and hope for the best, but due to the tumor’s type and location, there would be no cure.

His doctors optimistically gave him five to ten years because he was so young and the tumor was slow-growing.  As he recovered from his first brain surgery, we started talking about whether we wanted to be parents.  We did, though we also recognized that it was an enormous responsibility to bring a child into this world knowing that Steve might die at any time, and knowing that he almost certainly would die while they were still young.  It’s one thing to end up in that situation as a result of fate; it is entirely another to willingly choose that fate.

Steve and I had met five years earlier on a backcountry trail crew and had been married for just over three years.  We had always talked about having kids someday (when we both had real jobs with benefits, were more financially stable, etc.) but before that time it had never been a pressing issue.  We were young and felt like we had all the time in the world.

One night soon after his diagnosis, we huddled together in front of the wood stove and talked it through.  We made our decision and never looked back.  Less than two months later, I was pregnant with our daughter.  We named her Zoe because it means “life” and we could think of no meaning more fitting for our child.

And so the questions started.  Some people were certain she must have been an accident.  Why on earth would we get pregnant, knowing Steve was going to die?  Others felt similarly to us – it was the best and bravest thing we ever could have done given the situation.

Even after Zoe was born, I was a little quiet about our decision.  I would tell people the truth, but I was not always terribly confident.  I would watch people start to do the math in their heads and then realize she was born long after he was diagnosed.  I could see the moment that the shock unintentionally spread across their faces, and the stunned looks became a predictable conversational theme.

Now, I simply tell people out-right, sometimes before they even get a chance to ask.  We decided to have her after he got sick.  She was not an accident.  We wanted to be parents, wanted Steve to have the opportunity to be a father, wanted to live life with the same options as any other twenty-something couple.  We also wanted to be hopeful, optimistic, and have something other than ourselves to live for.

It is an epic understatement to say that the last few years since Zoe’s arrival have been challenging.  As I write this, she is about to turn three in all her purple-and-princess-loving, world-investigating, temper-tantrum-throwing glory, and Steve started hospice a couple of weeks ago.  We had a blissful several months after her birth when there were no treatments, no bad scans, and where other than the faint trace of scar, we felt something like normal parents.

Shortly after Zoe’s four-month check-up, the first of many scans showed that Steve’s tumor was growing again.  Since then, he has had another brain surgery, six weeks of brain radiation, three different chemotherapies, and a proton beam radiation therapy.  Nothing has worked.  The tumor progressed far faster than anyone could have predicted and the unanticipated severity of radiation side effects caused extensive long-term brain damage.  At this point, it is unlikely that he will make it to five years post-diagnosis, the short end of his original prognosis.

All that said, we both agree that having Zoe is the best thing we have ever done with our lives.  It’s a lot harder to fall apart and give up when you have a baby who needs you.  It’s a lot easier to focus on the positive when you have someone in your life who needs to stomp in every visible puddle, who will sit for hours cutting paper into little tiny pieces, and who has no idea why you wouldn’t want her to draw on the television screen with a pen.  There also seems to be nothing the folks in a cancer center love more than a babbling baby in the radiation wing or a tutu-and-glitter-bedecked toddler telling everyone how much she likes their pretty wheelchairs.

What I still don’t talk about much is our phantom second baby.  Just before Steve’s second brain surgery and when Zoe was around 18 months old, we decided to try for another child.  Though from the beginning Steve insisted I would meet someone else and marry again after he was gone, I didn’t want to think about having children with anyone else.  I wanted to have another child with him, the love of my life.  Steve and I each have a brother, and we both wanted Zoe to get to experience the love, challenge, and companionship of having a sibling.

What I never saw coming was how desperately I would want to have another child.  After getting pregnant with Zoe so quickly, I also never anticipated that we would have any trouble conceiving – at the time it seemed like simply making the decision was the hardest part – a thought that is laughable now.

Almost as soon as we started trying for baby number two, we found out that Steve needed to start chemotherapy, a treatment route he was initially not a good candidate for.  We went to bank his sperm before he started, only to be told that his counts were extremely low.  We banked anyway and then made the difficult decision to try a “mini” IVF therapy.  We utilized our tax return and some of our savings.  Not our smartest financial decision, but one that felt absolutely necessary.  We got to the last step and the eggs didn’t fertilize.  We had to try, though, otherwise I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

Down the road we were able to try a couple of times on the rare occasion that Steve got far enough out from a final chemo dose, but never more than a month or two at a time and never with success.  All the while I was kicking myself for thinking we had so much time, for thinking we had the luxury to space our babies a couple years apart, for believing that, despite the odds, he was going to make it.

When I finally realized and accepted that we would never have another baby was when I truly admitted to myself that Steve was going to die.  For a while, it hit me harder than his impending death itself.  And the thought that I might, even for a moment, grieve the loss of a non-existent child more than the loss of my husband (and existent child’s father) riddled me with guilt.  The double punch of knowing Steve was going to die on top of the possibility that I might never get the chance to be a mother again took the breath from my chest.  My heart was broken, and if it weren’t for Zoe, I don’t know if I would have been able to set my grief aside enough to even function.

When Steve started hospice care, I finally started selling all of the baby stuff.  I had held onto everything, even every last little onesie and bib, a physical manifestation of my hope tucked away in grey bins.  I made a future grandma extremely happy by selling her almost all of our gear for a fraction of the price.  It was devastating to let go, but relieving at the same time.  I still can’t bring myself to start looking through the baby clothes, but I know someday I’ll make an expectant mother very happy with those.

As our days together as a family grow shorter, we’re trying to hold onto them as best we can.  We take lots of pictures.  We put pillows between the hospital bed and our bed so that we can still snuggle as a family.  We let Zoe help as much as she can.

In the months before she was born, I started writing letters to Zoe and I continue to this day.  Hopefully someday she will read them and learn more about her father and I, and about our love for her and each other.  Hopefully someday they will help her understand this path we chose.

Losing her father will affect Zoe for the rest of her life, but I can also see how much his illness has already shaped her in a positive way.  There are moments when her intuition into his struggles stops me in my tracks, and I cannot fathom what it would be like to face the future without her by my side.

Author’s Note: Steven Gaffney passed away on March 22, 2014 after a 4 1/2 year battle with brain cancer.  He was 31 years old.  The following day, this piece was accepted for publication.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter.

Complicated Grief:  The Death of My Granddaughter

Complicated Grief: The Death of My Granddaughter

By Adele Gould

Tali2“Granny!” my granddaughter would shriek, as she leaped into what she trustingly assumed would be my waiting embrace. Her eyes would shine with joy as she anticipated playtime, Granny-style. We would collapse on the floor, surrounded by dolls and other such girlish accoutrements. Sometimes I got to be the mommy and she the daddy, and when she grew tired of parenthood, she would dump her “children” in a box, and we’d dance to the rhythm of “Old McDonald” joined by her two brothers (one of whom was her twin).

Could there be any greater joy?

My beloved granddaughter, Tal Doron (affectionately called Tali) was just four years old when she died on August 26th 2007. A beautiful child, she exuded both childlike joy and astounding maturity throughout the ten months of her suffering.  Diagnosed at age three with a rare form of brain cancer, her chances of survival were slim. Nevertheless—as she endured the unspeakable horrors of chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation—we convinced ourselves that she would beat the odds.

There was simply no other way to think.

Dazed and terrified, we sprang into action, aided by our wonderful community of friends.  The family needed to eat.  The parents needed clean clothes.  And there were two bewildered little boys whose world had turned upside down and inside out.  My heart broke as I dropped my 3-year-old grandson at preschool—without his twin for the first time in his life—and had to leave him screaming because I was needed at the hospital.

How could this possibly be happening to my family?

With heartwarming compassion, the oncologists devised an aggressive treatment regime, which required my granddaughter hospitalization for the better part of six months.  Each day, after work, I alternated between helping out at the hospital, and spending time with the two little boys at home—until my body demanded an end to the frenetic pace as I found myself crying non-stop—and realized that it was time to take a leave of absence from work.

Tali’s hospital room was a veritable “Dora the Explorer” exhibit—Dora being her all-time favorite character.  She had Dora books, videos, posters, stuffed animals, and stickers. She even played Dora games on the computer, which inspired her parents to set up Skype for her, so that she could interact with her brothers—and other family members—when they were unable to visit.  And for me, it meant extra time with her, reading stories or singing together— activities we both loved.

The second phase of treatment—stem cell transplantation— carried with it a significant risk of infection due to her immune system being severely compromised by the treatment. Only Tali’s parents were allowed in—one at a time.  But if one parent wasn’t well, I became the overnight alternate.

After sanitizing everything and anything in my possession, I would peek in—only to be greeted with an excited “Granny!”— sending my heart soaring to the moon. When she displayed typical 3-year-old silliness, my heart would dance with happiness, and when she was ready for sleep my heart would melt as she lay quietly, her huge dark eyes locked with mine as I sang to her.

Discharged home after the last cycle of treatment, she flourished, quickly gaining weight and looking healthy and robust. We dared to be cautiously optimistic, but soon after her fourth birthday came the catastrophic news of a relapse from which she would not recover.

It was unfathomable to imagine a world without this remarkable child.  Words couldn’t possibly capture the depth of our grief.

Her devastated and devoted parents cared for her at home, where I too stayed day and night, terrified to leave. I remember singing “You Are My Sunshine” to her … until I reached  “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”  I could not go on.

She died two days later.

As I tried to articulate my sorrow, I found myself trying to brush aside my grief, since it was a mere drop in the vast ocean of suffocating agony into which her parents had been plunged. Of what importance could my grief be when the parents were facing a future forever darkened by this inconceivable loss?

Yet I could not ignore the screaming voice inside of me, and I had to keep reminding myself that loss cannot be measured …  that my pain—although markedly different than that of Tali’s parents—was real.

Hoping to somehow quiet my sorrow, I began creating a collection of tangible and touchable remembrances. I put together photo albums and videos, surrounded myself with framed photographs, wrote in my journal and listened to “our” songs.

Gradually I began to notice that time was softening the edges of my grief, allowing me to remember moments my granddaughter and I had shared—how she would give me Dora stickers for “good behavior,” make up nonsense syllables or declare her love for me, arms outstretched to show me just how much. She loved “chicken muggets” and “pupcakes” and needed “mapkins” to clean her face. She offered adult-like encouragement when I exaggerated my struggle to master a task (“Good job, Granny!” or “I know you can do it Granny!”). And she was so proud of her long string of bravery beads, one for each painful procedure she endured.

Tali’s surviving twin is now ten years old. His parents, who never stop grieving for their little girl, must make his birthdays special for him, while simultaneously taking time to remember Tali.  And so, each year the family gets together to carry out a ritual in which we write messages to Tali, paste them onto helium balloons and release the balloons  to drift towards the sky. Tali’s twin never lets us see what he has written.

Adele Gould is a retired social worker. She has five children, three stepchildren and four grandchildren (previously five).  Read more of her work on her blog adelegould.com.

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Sarah’s Box

Sarah’s Box

By Lisa C. Friedman

WO Sarah's Box ArtShe lives in a box. Actually, she is the contents of a box. The box is wrapped in a blanket that was a gift from my sister. It was supposed to keep a newborn warm, but now it’s muted pinks, greens and blues warm the box. I look inside once a year, on the anniversary of her birth/death. I have, like a fanatic, kept every scrap of her. Her first ultrasound. Locks of her hair. A card with her foot and hand prints. The doll’s dress that she briefly wore. (She weighed 3.5 lbs, too small even for the preemie wardrobe.) Condolence letters. The autopsy report, detailing her tiny dimensions and the final, inconclusive results.

The contents are about the potential for life. They also mark the end of hopes and dreams. They are the reality of my child, born dead at 32 weeks. No separate birth and death dates mark her headstone; just one date, March 11, 2006.

When you’re pregnant, the countdown to birth starts almost immediately. It is a long but steadily quickening race to the finish.

The first trimester, from the approximate date of inception through week 12. Nervous excitement, and thankfully no nausea, just a strong craving for grapefruit soda. A first ultrasound brings the baby to life. We see and hear her heart beat inside me. My waistline slowly expands, forcing the inevitable shift into maternity clothes. A pregnancy still fresh and special, it is a secret between me and my husband.

The second trimester, weeks 13 to 26. At age 39, the dreaded amniocentesis. The needle draws its fluid and does no harm. Good results, so check that one off. Tell our 3-year-old that she is going to be a big sister. Also tell our family and friends the happy news. Let my employer know that I plan to keep working after the baby comes.

The last trimester, weeks 27 to birth, typically anywhere from 38 to 42 weeks. The end is near. Sleep is getting more difficult. My back aches. But the excitement is growing because soon we will meet our new child.

It is Friday afternoon and it seems as though I haven’t felt the baby move all day. To relieve my anxiety before the weekend, I make an appointment for a quick visit to my obstetrician. I call a friend on the drive over. I say, “I’m sure it will be fine. She’s probably just been sleeping a lot.” And then I add, “But if there’s no heartbeat, come visit me at the asylum.”

My husband, not one to miss a chance to hear and see the baby, meets me at the doctor’s office.

I know very quickly that something is wrong. The doctor is taking a long time to find a heartbeat. My own is quickening and I can sense my husband getting uncomfortable. I ask, “Is something wrong? You can’t find a heartbeat?”

“I’m sorry,” he says in his slight English lilt. “No, there isn’t one.”

The tears want to come but I force them back. He puts down the doppler and looks at us. I am aware that he is really trying his best to be caring, to sound caring.

“This is a tragedy,” he says. “I am so sorry.”

I ask, “But this—has this happened before?”

He says that it is very rare.

Then why me? Why me? Why us?

“We can go to the hospital this afternoon. I think it would be best to take care of this as soon as possible. I would also recommend an autopsy so that we can understand what happened,” he says.

“But I don’t have to go through labor, right? You can do a C-section, right?”

“No,” he says. “A vaginal birth. A C-section is an unnecessary risk to you. The baby is small so it won’t take long. Just call my office and let me know what you decide to do. Take as long as you want in here.”

He leaves. The meltdown can come now. Still in my gown, lying on the examination table, I start sobbing. My big belly bounces with me. The dead baby bounces along inside. My husband leans his head into mine and cries.

But we need to pull ourselves together. I don’t want to go to the hospital now. I want to see my 3-year-old.

On the way home, I ask my husband to stop at the city recreation department—today is the first day to turn in summer camp registration forms. Looking back, I can now see my need for control—to make something turn out right. My 3-year-old daughter would get into the zoo camp.

I’m sure I’ve done something wrong. Was it my ambivalence about having a second child that cursed me? Having suffered severe postpartum depression after my first, I wasn’t sure about having another child. We waited more than two years before even trying.

I must have done something wrong. Was it something concrete? Not taking my prenatal vitamins every day? Drinking too much bubbly water? Sleeping on my back?

We tell our daughter. I hold it together while my husband falls apart on the floor of our closet. She climbs on top of him and puts her face close to his ear and giggles.  

But she will come to ask many questions over time, wanting answers we don’t have or ones we are unwilling to give someone so young.

“But I want to see her. What is she doing now?”

“Why can’t you just open her eyes?”

“If she’s buried, do her eyes have dirt in them?”

“If heaven is above the clouds, why can’t you turn the clouds upside down to see her?”

“It’s better to have boy babies. They don’t die.”

As promised, the labor is fast. The Pitocin kicks in, and I only have to push once and she slides out. Our last faint hopes disappear with her silent arrival. There is no flush of first life; her skin is gray, body limp. Eyes are closed. I count ten fingers and ten toes. A head of dark hair. But she is broken.

Once finished with the task of labor, the doctor sits down to do paperwork. Why doesn’t he leave? I am holding my dead baby you idiot! I want to shout. We wait while he completes the hospital forms. Then he says he is sorry again and will get back to us with the autopsy results.  

I want to feel that she is beautiful. I want to feel like holding her forever. Maybe I’m numb. Or maybe death is ugly.

We cry more. But then we don’t know what to do. No rush to breastfeed, change diapers and make happy phone calls. No flowers, no gifts, no breath, no life.

We name her Sarah. I want a name that has endured.

The nurse is wonderful and caring. At some point, she takes the baby and puts her in a dress, makes an imprint of her feet and hands, and cuts a few locks of hair.

We leave the hospital with our box.

Irrational thoughts come and go. I can diet quickly and lose the baby weight. I can sleep through the night. I don’t need to breastfeed.

But my milk comes in and fills my breasts, my skin is so stretched I want to cry out. I moan into my pillow instead. I’m advised not to pump off the milk because then more will come in. I take lots of Advil. My husband wraps an ace bandage tightly around my breasts to keep them from moving.

It is early morning and everyone is asleep. My mother has flown out from the East Coast to help. I wake her up to tell her about the birth and the baby. I want her to know that it was a real baby—I held her. She was complete. My mother cries with me. In her day, the baby would have been whisked away. A friend’s mother who experienced a similar loss never even saw her baby.

My father does not come. He is a doctor, a researcher published many times over, renowned in his field.

But he doesn’t come. When we talk on the phone, he goes into science mode. He even calls my doctor to try to get some answers. Thankfully, my OB shows discretion and says he can’t talk without my permission.

I tell my father, “I don’t need you to be a doctor. I need you to be my dad.” He doesn’t know what to say. I am angry and sad. He simply can’t do it.

My sister and I had due dates a week apart. Ever the older sister, I try to be strong and supportive. Pregnant with her first child, she can’t let my loss in. I am resentful and pissed.

She gives birth to a healthy baby girl six weeks later. It will take me several years, including the birth of a healthy second baby girl of my own, to really acknowledge my niece—to embrace her and not see the shadow of what we lost.

The cemetery. The rabbi meets us there and fittingly, it is a cold, rainy day. He is wearing a worn yellow slicker. His voice is warm and gentle. The heavy-set man from the funeral home carries the tiny casket. We put a teddy bear inside and a note. We say goodbye.

Word gets around quickly. I am too raw and sensitive to face people. I despise the ones who don’t say anything, too afraid and uncomfortable to acknowledge what happened. Others say things so thoughtless and stupid like, “Don’t you wish the hospital would have just taken care of it?” I don’t even ask what that means.

Then there are the friends who give the pitch-perfect response like the one who wraps me in a hug and says, “What the fuck?” Every reaction either passes the test or feels like an assault.

I have always felt in some way that my worry would protect me from really bad things ever happening. But then it didn’t. There was no heartbeat.

I have a second daughter now. She was born on March 6, 2007, just shy of one year after Sarah. Born with a rare spinal abnormality, she had to have surgery at seven months. Told repeatedly that it was a simple procedure for a skilled neurosurgeon, I was not convinced. I felt sure she would react negatively to the anesthesia and not wake up or that an infection would come and she would be gone. The surgery went fine and she is a perfectly healthy 6-year-old.

But once tragedy hits, it never really leaves. The scars run deep.

I watch my younger daughter as she sleeps, with her favorite stuffed animals—horse and bear-bear—standing guard on either side of her. Then I imagine another trip to the cemetery. The panic subsides and she is once again a peaceful, happy, sleeping child and I am her mother again and not some crazed lunatic.

My older daughter’s anxiety can make us laugh at times. If someone feels unwell, she jumps on it, “Is she going to barf?”

Too often, her worry can escalate to, “Is she going to die?”

I’m not so prickly now. I no longer feel the need to announce my loss. Seeing a very pregnant woman sometimes, not always, makes me sad.

And guilt, a friend of grief, has often come to visit. Maybe I’ve made too much of my story. My neighbor had a stillborn baby at 40 weeks, much worse. A friend lost her daughter at 17 months, unimaginable. Stories of dead children are everywhere.

But as a friend tells me, “This is not a tragedy horse race.”

Sarah’s box sits at the top of my closet and I open it once a year.

Lisa C. Friedman lives with her family in Northern California. 

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

My Son and Five Strangers

My Son and Five Strangers

By Jamie Johnson

ShadowOne beautiful fall day, when my son Joey was seventeen, we drove through town headed to an appointment we couldn’t miss. As we neared the highway, Joey hesitantly broke the silence. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I knew that tone of voice: it meant he had something to tell me that I wasn’t going to like. “Is it going to upset me?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, tilting his head to the side, looking right at me.

This didn’t sound like a quick-fix thing. I answered distractedly, “Well, let’s wait until after our appointment. We’re barely on schedule here.”

Joey accepted that for a whole sixty seconds. Then, with a strange, uncomfortable, almost panicky look, he blurted, “No, I don’t think I can wait. I really need to tell you something.”

I pulled over to the side of the road, and waited impatiently.

He tilted his head down, almost as if he was trying to hide from me.

I am sure the look on my face said Okay, if you need to tell me, then out with it. But the moment he said it, I wished he hadn’t.

In a quiet, sort of shy voice he said, “You keep calling me Joey. People have been doing that all afternoon. I take it he is your son? I don’t know who this Joey is, but my name is not Joey.” His face was dead serious.

As I looked at him, my hand came up to my face. My palm rested on my chin, my fingers covered my mouth and nose. “Well…well, who are you then?”

His eyes dropped to his lap and he shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not sure.”

My son had been battling depression for months. The withdrawal from our family, the sleeping all the time, the mood swings—had worried me more than I can express. But this…this was like nothing I’d ever heard of before. Had his mental condition become too much to bear and his mind was somehow taking a break? I was grateful he had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression so we had someone to turn to for help.

As it turned out that day in the car was the beginning of the most challenging year of my life. My son spent those months sharing his body with five alternate personalities. It was during those crazy, exhausting days that I learned about DID. Most people know Dissociative Identity Disorder by its former name —Multiple Personality Disorder. What most people don’t know is that it is a defense mechanism used by the brain to protect an individual from trauma. When it appears out of the blue in a teen, it is usually caused by a stressful event that brings back old buried alternate personalities. Those old “alters” come back from the teen’s childhood, where they were formed, usually as a way of mentally surviving repetitive abuse.

They are a coping mechanism and resurface when the teen is faced with anxiety he or she can’t handle—a trigger. I wondered if Joey’s trigger had been a day earlier that summer when he’d come home from school to find our dog, apparently dying, lying in a pool of urine and vomit. He had sat there alone with her, waiting for her to die. That had probably been his trigger. It was awful to think that my son may have suffered something horrifying in his youth and I hadn’t been there for him. Not only had he suffered some type of abuse, but it most likely would have been repetitive for this condition to develop. The personalities form so that the child can escape from the abusive situation.

For months my mind ran through terrible scenarios. What type of abuse had he suffered? Had it been at school, while he was with a babysitter, at a sleep-over, in the playground? God, I wished my brain had an off button.

I learned that there is no medication for DID. The key to his full recovery, without risk of his alternate personalities popping up again some year, unexpectedly, was to find that buried trauma and deal with it. I wanted so badly to help my son. I vowed to do whatever was necessary to find the solution. I would walk away from his hospital room for two full months, (yes he was hospitalized for it) the whole while desperately wanting to bring him home, to get him away from the stress of the other patient’s attempted suicides and assorted mental illnesses. I would give our family history to doctor after doctor. When he was released, I drove him to appointment after appointment. I would put aside the fear of what the ominous “hidden memories” were in order to find them and work past them. I wouldn’t give up.

That is…unless I was forced to.

Giving up had not even crossed my mind.  But after a little over a year of therapy, Joey’s DID specialist cut him loose. She hadn’t found the original cause of his condition—the buried memories of abuse. She said Joey had better control over his other personalities since they were beginning to come together. She had done all she could do for him by coaching him on stress management, he would be fine while she left for a six-month trip abroad.

I was in so much shock I didn’t even think to ask for a referral.

We had been deserted. I thought about looking for a new specialized psychiatrist. But Joey was sick of prying appointments. And really, it wasn’t up to me. Joey was eighteen by then, and it was his life.

I tried to convince myself that not seeing a psychiatrist was for the better. Once uncovered, his memories might be horrendous enough to plague him for the rest of his life. Would that be better than learning to deal with stress to prevent a re-occurrence? Definitely not.

My son never did see another psychiatrist, but today he has only one personality, Joey, and he is studying to become a support worker. I no longer have to worry about what to do with a strange boy that looks like my son, but doesn’t call me Mom. My only worry these days is how many bags of laundry he will be hauling behind him when he heads home from college for the weekend. He has learned to deal with stress and anxiety better. He is a compassionate young man that understands how complicated life can get. His goal—to help people. What more could a mom ask for?

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Expectations of the Fall

Expectations of the Fall

WO Expectations for Fall art v3By Kathryn Wallingford

My seasons are shapes. The long tunnel of Winter. The triangle of Spring. The four lines of Summer. We all come together in the Fall. My birthday marks the onset of Fall.

Years ago, for my 8-year-old birthday, my three friends and I watched Bette Midler’s Beaches. It is a terribly sad movie about dying, friendship, and heartache. We cried while my mom popped popcorn, and peered inside the family room to watch this remarkably strange celebration.  But even at that young age I seemed to know that Fall had expectations.

Fall is here again but I can’t remember how to rest, say goodbyes, and prepare for Winter.

Leaves know the cue: they produce less, they let go of chlorophyll. They let themselves fall and they come into the earth.

But this Fall I have a lot to put together, to pack, and to store.  I say goodbye to my house of almost a decade. I moved into this old house right after marriage and sobbed over the 2500 square feet. Each foot seemed burdensome and pleaded for domestication. But each room also found a place and we filled the home with footsteps and dog hair. I am okay taking my family elsewhere.  It is time for a new family to enjoy the creaks and cracks, but I am worried about the plants I leave behind.

In April 2006, I cried ferociously as I planted my coneflowers– mad as hell at my graduate professor. When my first son was born, I carried pieces of limestone from the Kentucky River and formed a vegetable garden. And now my two boys run through the lemon mint, catching its aroma with their superhero pajamas.

This new house will have room for new plants. We will also have to make room for this new baby. Another baby, I think?  “It is no small thing that they so fresh from God, love us,” I recite in my head. I think of my friends struggling to have their own and I surrender myself to guilt. But how can I love a third? I know too much of toxins and disease. I left the summer saying goodbye to a friend.

I met this cancer this Summer, my four walls quickly invaded.

This Summer I also planted marigolds and saw a bear. The marigolds came first. I know marigolds like sun. Marigolds keep bugs away. Marigolds are copious. I counted on this-the sun, the growth of flowers, the ceaseless flow of life.

On these summer days when there was no rain, I pulled a blanket from inside and spread it onto the grass. My boys littered the blanket with peanut butter crackers and slices of bananas. Sometimes the bananas smashed like molasses. And sometimes they would pick the marigolds and throw them on top of the bananas. Fruit and flowers.

I would lie down on top of our creation and stare at the clouds. “There is a rocket ship,” I told them. I saw it in the clouds. But their feet were too quick, too busy to stop. So I searched into the sky alone.

When the sky turned purple, I took my boys inside. I gathered the blanket. That is when life began to feel heavy. It was more than the encroaching dark clouds and the June storms, it was the weight of the world.

It seemed to be the end of everything.

The last night she was in the hospital the parking attendant had said, “have a good night.” He said it steadily and calmly. I wondered how he could pass out goodbyes so quickly, so easily? He had not seen what I had seen.  Her colossal-like strength reduced to nothingness. Where was her silent killer? He did not know the weight I carried.

The end of the colossal-like strength and the death of my dear friend and neighbor actually came before the bear.

The day I saw the bear the air was heavy and thick with humidity. Each summer I visit my parents in the Blue Ridge Mountains and wander the woods alone.  I look up into the trees and remember that bark has faces too. The smoothness of beech. The deep-wrinkles of oak. The muscles of hornbeam.

On that day a grey fog covered Grandfather Mountain. The forest was dark. It was only 11:00 in the morning but it appeared like nighttime. The path was splashed with large rock outcrops and I looked downward. I needed my eyes to see the next step. I rounded a curve and followed the path upward, pulling my legs over a fallen tree. And as my eyes searched for my trail I saw her blackness staring at me.

It was a black bear. I had been around bears before. I had worked and lived in various national parks drowning with grizzly, brown, and black bears, I knew what I should do a when a bear was staring at me beneath a chestnut oak tree and a standing in the patch of solomon seal.  I knew I should walk away slowly, but she was the deepest part of the earth I had seen in a long time. I had to stare.

Neither one of us wanted to be looking at the eye of a stranger and wondering what was next. But she seemed to have all the answers and I suddenly wanted my children to be there too.

Maybe the truth of life would come to them in this instance. The quietness that eludes from looking something unpredictable in the face. Something bigger than you. Quiet with fear. What can you hear when you listen? The cry of a towhee. The heartbeat of a hummingbird. Yes, another robin. Or maybe even a bigger voice? What would she say in her wildness. Had the summer rains altered her patterns too? And would she help me explain death, saying goodbye to the ones we love, the myths of heaven, my hopes for an everlasting spirit?

The depths of death are near impossible to explain to a four and 2-year-old, and yet fundamentally easy. Our bodies just get tired. And there are other theories: we are cursed, God has another plan, we go to a better place, or we give up on life. But what if I did not have to provide any of these rationales and just a glimpse of a bear in the woods?

The bear grew bored with my gaze and eventually retreated into the woods. We parted

I think about my bear now as I try to complete my circle of Fall. Hunkering down for the cold months ahead. Preparing for Spring. Planting new life.

Fall will not let me forget goodbyes.

I don’t make the time I once did for tearful celebrations of life, but I need it this year more than ever.

My birthday has come and gone this year. I did not watch Bette Midler’s Beaches, but I did pack boxes. I see those pictures of my college girlfriends: our midnight swims, all-night road trips, and Friday afternoons getting lost in the East Tennessee Mountains. I see a picture of my mom tubing with me near Sliding Rock, North Carolina in the mid-1980’s. I forgot she had a perm, but didn’t everyone? I see my brother and I, once my own sons’ ages, dressed in superhero gear. I see my husband and I on top of a mountain in Montana.

Life lost, remembered, and stored away. I wrap tape around the boxes.

Kathryn Wallingford is a stay-at-home mom in Lexington, Kentucky. On good days, she writes about religion, mothering, and the natural world. Her most recent work has appeared in Literary Mama and Hip Mama. She can be reached at katjean24@gmail.com.

The Favor

The Favor

By Priscilla F. Bourgoine

0-22For months I avoided the fitness center. I didn’t want to run into Faith who worked there. She had lost her son five years before. She knew what I was going through. I didn’t want to talk to Faith because I didn’t want to join her club.

My doctor had ordered me on Thursday back to the gym.  “Exercise will help you,” she said. The last thing I wanted to do was move.  Dr. Whyte passed me the prescription: “30 min. of cardio, 3x per wk.” I imagined that I turned her to ice. When my middle daughter was young, she loved how Kimberly the Pink Power Ranger froze whatever got in her way. Every morning and every night, since the June day of our horrible loss, I willed superhero magic. I commanded life halted: the summer breeze, the blossomed lilies, the honey bees, the deep oceans, even the orbited planets.

On Friday, at the gym’s entryway, I sat down and put on my sneakers. I glanced up and saw Faith headed my way. Early daylight illuminated her auburn hair. Her slight smile acknowledged me. The twinkle in Faith’s brown eyes misplaced for good somewhere along the sidewalk of her life like a button that never turned up. I looked down and concentrated on making tight double-knotted loops with my laces.

Faith stood in front of me. “I have a favor to ask of you,” she said.

I raised my chin.

That afternoon, back home, with a bottle in hand, I climbed downstairs into our basement to search for the photo Faith desired. I heaved the large Rubbermaid tub with a thud to the cement floor. The photos of my three children shook loose inside the container. Faith knew too well what she had asked of me. I guzzled the Pinot Noir and wiped my lips. Since our own awful afternoon eleven months ago, it was the facts of my middle child’s twenty-three-year life that I clung to like a rescue rope thrown to me in the deep rising waters of grief.  How can I deny Faith the next stone to step on to stay afloat from the thunderous current of despair?

Months before, when the summer sun hung high, the goldenrod bloomed, blueberries hung plump on the lakeside bushes, and the sticky heat weighted down my work dress, a small paper bag had been left in my office mailbox.  Inside was a book of mediations on loss with a postcard, a field of forget-me-nots. Faith had written: “We found this book the most helpful. We hope it gives you some peace. Call me when you are ready to walk.” That’s when I made the connection. Five years before, my oldest daughter had called me from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had cried into the telephone. A wretched ice storm had covered most of New Hampshire and had shut down electricity. I had mistaken her sadness for worry over those of us trapped in the frozen darkness. She told me that wasn’t it, though she was upset for us. There had been a sudden death. That kind and handsome boy with the dark eyes who had been her date for her senior prom had been killed in a car accident on a slippery mountain road.

On Sunday, my husband held his oval glasses in his hand and pressed his eyes close to the newspaper article. “Listen to this French interior designer’s meaning of color: Every color has a psychological effect on a room. Particular color combinations give one another balance. Colors like vibrant vermillion red and chartreuse green, when paired together, properly symbolize survival.” He cleared his throat. “Colors give us permanence.”

 *   *   *

The dampness from our home’s foundation seeped into my flesh and bones. I swigged another sip of bitter wine, and put the bottle down on the cement floor. With both hands I dug through the plastic tub of loose photos. Like someone at a contest, I pulled a photo free and held it up toward the light. There we were. My three children and I had picnicked by the ocean. The day’s brightness had beamed. I remembered the breeze that summer day had fluttered our beach towels and sand had stuck to our bodies, covered in cocoa butter lotion. We had used our sandals to tack down the corners. The endless blue had spread-out above us. Our bare legs had touched. For our lunch we had gobbled our usual homemade bread slathered with butter and sliced bananas, drizzled with honey.

 *   *   *

On Monday, I bought a picture frame for the prom photo I had uncovered at the bottom of the bin. Years before on that spring day, the four teens had stood outdoors beside a stand of pines. My older daughter wore a little black dress with a wrist corsage. The outline of what would become a full moon had peeked out from the dusk. Off camera, my middle daughter had swung on the swing set. Valerie yelled to me, to them, that she would sway high and fly.

At the gym, in my workout clothes, with silence, I placed the package wrapped in bright red and bright green paper with ribbon into Faith’s empty hands, and headed to the treadmill. This will be the only evidence Faith will ever have of her son in a black-tie tuxedo.

Colors remain. People fade.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy. 

Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist outside of Boston and, offers web therapy through a Manhattan company. She earned a MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Priscilla lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. 

Departures

Departures

By Virginia Pye

0-13The TSA attendant hands my children back their boarding passes and before they shuffle over and start to remove their belts and shoes, they look back and wave. “It’s OK,” my teenage son mouths through the glass as his college-aged sister blows a kiss and offers a smile. “They’ll be fine,” my husband says as he takes my hand. I press my fingertips to my eyelids and realize it isn’t our kids I’m worried about. It’s me.

Our son and daughter are leaving the family vacation early, as we had planned it, while my husband and I stay on for another week at the rental cottage up in Maine. The kids are old enough to manage on their own back home; old enough to have anticipated in advance that one week with the whole family would be just the right amount of time.

As we head toward the lone escalator in the Bangor airport, I find myself watching people saying their farewells on the threadbare carpet. I see a somber young man in desert camouflage kiss his girlfriend goodbye. A gangly preteen twirls a cheerleader’s baton with pink plastic ribbons on the ends and calls for her daddy to watch one more time before he steps beyond the stanchion. A young mother helps her father pry his grandson off his leg. The toddler cries and the mother tells him they’ll visit again at Christmas, no doubt a vague eternity to the boy. How, I wonder, do people manage the everyday heartache of leaving?

I remember my father idling in our station wagon in front of Logan airport as my mother and I hugged goodbye on the sidewalk. In my twenties, I was leaving again, far too soon, she said. She brushed back a few tears and complained that they never saw enough of me anymore. I felt a surge of longing as I pressed up against her. Some part of me ached at the thought of saying goodbye to my childhood, but then I pulled myself free. Without pause, I turned and hurried into my new, young life.

My husband and I walk out into a drizzly Maine morning. Almost immediately, the kids call and say their flight’s been delayed. We decide to kill time near the airport: before we drive the hour and a half back to our rental house on the coast, we want to be certain that they are safely on their way. The rain comes in great sheets and we call the airline many times over the next six hours, first to learn about the grounded plane’s mechanical failures, and then about weather delays up and down the East Coast.

We also exchange texts with our children who sit waiting at their gate. They watch movies on their computers and read from their summer book lists. Each time we contact them, they tell us the latest updates, that they’re doing all right. They eat vending-machine snacks and manage. They’re more independent now, with all the glamour that entails. Despite the inconvenience, I sense they’re relishing their freedom. So long as the flight isn’t cancelled altogether, they’ll be fine. The last thing they want is to return with us for another night. We all agree it was a great vacation together, but the kids have places to go now. They’re ready to be on their way.

Years ago, when I had turned from my mother and dashed into Logan, I couldn’t bear the sight of her missing me before I’d even gone. I didn’t yet grasp what she must have already sensed: that even though we would continue to see each other regularly for visits and vacations, this was an ending. I hated the pained look in her eyes and so it seemed best to leave quickly and without a fuss. Back then, with no cell phones, I couldn’t send a text to reassure her that I’d made it to my destination. I might not even have called home for several days. The break was clean and allowed us to experience it separately, and alone. I understand now, it must have been miserable for her.

As the rain continues and we wait for our children to take off, the pain I had blithely tried to avoid back then revisits me full force. My children are departing and my parents are gone now, too. My father died five years ago, but this is our first summer trip to Maine since my mother’s death a half a year ago. As we ate lobster, took invigorating hikes and viewed glorious sunsets from rocky shores, I had a searing urge to tell her all about it. As an adult and a parent myself, I had called her often, especially from wherever we traveled, to reassure her that we had made it and were having a good time. Our kids stranded in airport limbo would definitely have been worthy of a phone call mention. My mother found pleasure in our happiness, or felt concern for our concerns, even when we were far from her. Now, with my own children poised to leave, I appreciate her generous, long-distance attention more than ever. I also understand that she had had little choice. She had to learn to love me from afar.

With her gone, I’m beginning to fathom that I must learn to love her from the greatest distance of all. I notice that without her, and without the kids, I feel rudderless. I hadn’t realized that the ropes that tied me to my mother also helped me set sail in the first place. Because I counted on her to be my pole star, I came and went with some ease.

In our last phone call on New Year’s Day, I told her about the special dinner we’d had with friends the night before. She seemed distracted, even disinterested. I asked if she was feeling tired. “Oh, yes,” she said, “very tired.” Before I could inquire further, she added, “I have to go now.” We said we loved each other as we always did, and then said our goodbyes. When I hung up the phone, I told my husband that something was wrong. My mother had said, “I have to go now,” as if someone on her end of the line was insisting on it. Twelve hours later she died.

The sorrow of departure is woven into family love, although I had wanted to avoid feeling it for as long as possible. My children don’t experience it the way I do, but perhaps they will someday with their own children. I hope to keep them tethered to me, although with a rope that will necessarily stretch longer and grow finer with each next step they take.

Their flight finally leaves Bangor after dark. Later that night, they text and tell us that they made it home. I reply cheerfully, “Great. Have a good time!” From this distance, it’s the only choice I have.

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Her award-winning short stories are in literary magazines and her essays appear in The Rumpus and forthcoming in The New York Times Opinionator blog. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com

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The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

The Myth of the Forever Family: When Adoption Falls Apart

(The names of the adoptive parents and their children have been changed as have some identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of the families.)

Su 2010 FeatureWhen we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—”a forever family.”

That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.

In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.

But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.

The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.

 *   *   *

Like many adoptive parents, Carol fell in love with a picture first. Henry was a chubby-cheeked, brown-skinned boy with a crooked grin and closely cropped hair. In the photo he is sitting on some sort of a wooden bench wearing a striped polo shirt and khaki pants. He is undeniably adorable. While Carol knew very little about him, there was nothing in his orphanage record that made her feel concerned. She knew that he lived at the orphanage with both an older and younger biological sibling and she knew that for some reason he was the target of teasing by the other orphans. Her heart went out to him.

Carol and her husband, already parents to a six-year-old biological child, knew what conditions in his Caribbean orphanage were like because they were already in the process of adopting a special-needs child from the same program, a toddler girl named Lily. Gazing at Henry’s picture online in the photo listings for the orphanage, Carol felt led. Despite their small house, modest lifestyle, and single income, she felt like God was calling her to be Henry’s mother, too.

“The orphanage was so overcrowded,” Carol says, recalling her visit to complete the adoption of Lily. “The children there are so starved for affection and you think, my house is so big! I could afford to take care of more children.”

That’s how she found herself back in less than two years, bringing home five-year-old Henry and his siblings, Isobel and Matthew.

Carol told me that all of her adopted children have histories of trauma. Her newest children raged and fought and struggled to learn how to live in a family. Henry was easier. He was a good kid, anxious for approval and able to show affection. She wasn’t worried about him. Not when her time was taken up in helping the other children who were having a much more difficult time adjusting. Then, one month into their new family configuration, things changed.

“We caught him sexually acting out,” Carol says simply. She and her husband reacted by establishing house rules. Supervision got tighter. No child could be in the bathroom with another child. They talked good touch and bad touch in the children’s native language and stopped having sleepovers. They looked into getting Henry counseling. He didn’t speak English yet, however, so they did their best to create a safe environment for all of the kids. They thought it was working until one of the older children caught Henry in another child’s room and his story didn’t quite add up. Carol sat him down and asked, “Hey buddy, do you have a secret?”

Henry had lots of secrets. He told her that he had been molesting his siblings for the past year. He described his behavior in detail and then told her about the orphanage, about the way he and his crib mate used to play this way. He told her about incidents that happened when she was in the room, when her back was turned. He told her how he got the other children to give in.

“It was extensive,” Carol says. “It was stuff I didn’t even know that a six-year-old was capable of.”

Carol called her state’s child protective services (CPS) department. They told her that unless the children were more than two years apart, it wasn’t considered abuse. At first she was relieved because she had been afraid that CPS would take her children away. She and her husband put the house on lockdown and kept Henry in their line of sight at all times. That is when he became “the angriest boy alive,” Carol says. Without the psychological outlet of the sexual abuse, her son became increasingly violent, raging two to four hours a day and threatening to kill the other children. They hid the knives and bought locks for all the doors. The behavior continued to escalate. Henry would threaten to force Carol to crash the car. He said he would bash her head in with a rock. The other children were terrified. Henry was scared, too. He knew he was out of control but didn’t know how to stop.

Carol looked for services to help Henry stay in their home and took him to experts in adoption and attachment across the state. Her days were taken up with phone calls, paperwork, and more phone calls. She worked their insurance for referrals, begged the school for resources and read up online. She took Henry to see a leading child neuropsychologist specializing in treating adopted children with severe issues. The consensus was that in order to get the long-term treatment he needed, Henry would have to leave.

Carol went back to working the phones until she found a residential treatment center with the ability to work with a six-year-old sex offender. A year and a half ago, Henry went to live at the facility, two thousand miles away. He will likely be there for at least another nine months. No one has told Henry this yet (his therapists say it’s not the right time to explain), but when he’s ready to leave the center, he won’t get to come home. Instead Carol has found another family who will take him, who will adopt him. He will become their son. “He can’t come home again,” Carol says.

 *   *   *

As a mom both biologically and by adoption, I know that adoption is different. It isn’t less than, it isn’t second best, but it’s different. Although we brought our daughter home when she was just three days old, falling in love with her was not the same as falling in love with our son. When the doctor handed my son to me for the first time, there was an immediate recognition that he was of me and that I was of him. With Madison, on the other hand, I felt like a fraud for her first month of life. It took more time to get to know her, and it took more time to trust myself to know how to be her mother.

It’s not something I like to admit; I am still a little ashamed of our challenged beginning. Part of the adoption myth is that you see your baby and you fall in love. Other adoptive mothers tell this story; it led me to wonder what was wrong with me. I went through the motions, staring at her face while I fed her, carrying her everywhere in the sling. Then one day I woke up and she felt like a part of me. It had taken longer but eventually it clicked, just the way it did with my son.

Jean Mercer is a psychologist and president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health, as well as an author of several books on attachment. Healthy infants are hard-wired to encourage their parents to attach to them, she said in an e-mail interview. This is why falling in love with Madison was nearly inevitable. A healthy mother and a healthy child are primed to bond to each other.

“When babies show obvious responses—crying or not crying, taking the nipple enthusiastically, calming when soothed—parents feel that personal communications and responses have been made,” she says. “This encourages the parents to do more caregiving and playing.”

But many children raised in orphanages stop responding to adult attention because they learn that their efforts don’t work. Overwhelmed caregivers may not have time to make eye contact or talk to their charges. Locked into survival mode, the children do not always know how to connect with their new adoptive parents. “We like people who like us,” explains Mercer. “If children don’t look at us much we figure they don’t like us so maybe we don’t like them.”

This is why it can be harder to build attachment with children who are adopted past early infancy. It’s certainly not impossible, of course; most parents are able to get past the bumpy beginnings and forge bonds with their children.

Sometimes things go horribly awry, however. Children who have experienced very difficult beginnings—drug or alcohol exposure in utero, abuse or neglect, a multitude of caregivers—sometimes develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD), which is a daunting diagnosis. Kids with RAD seem to have no conscience and are unable to appreciate the consequences of their harmful behavior. Because they struggle to trust that other people will care for them, they live in a permanent state of fight or flight. Many of these children constantly lash out at caregivers and rage violently at perceived threats. Their deprived beginnings and need for control can cause them to gorge on food until they vomit, go on campaigns of destruction where they destroy entire rooms, and physically attack other members of the family.

Kids with RAD can be hard to like, let alone love. Caring for them is exhausting and demoralizing. Parents tell me that their children with RAD have more energy than the rest of the family combined and need very little sleep. Raising them is counterintuitive; open affection can feel terrifying for such children and can set off a large-scale tantrum. Most of the parents I spoke with have a story that involves waking up and finding their child standing over them, sometimes with a knife. This is one reason many of them install locks on all the doors and alarms on all of the windows.

Paradoxically, sometimes the safer they feel, the more the children act out. Parents sometimes have a honeymoon period during the first trial visit or at the beginning of a placement. These quiet times can last a day or a year, but if the child has underlying issues, the behavior problems will eventually surface.

Patty, who recently adopted an eight-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl from Columbia with her husband, Wyatt, met her children through an agency that sponsors summer foster-care programs. Children come to the United States and are placed in potential adoptive homes for five weeks. Patty and Wyatt’s experience with the kids was such a good one that Patty went to their country to start the adoption process. The children came home right around Christmas; in hindsight, Patty says, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“We thought they wouldn’t be here until January or February,” she says. “We were totally unprepared, but our friends set up their rooms and there were tons of presents. In retrospect it was not ideal because it was just too much for the kids to handle.”

The children spiraled out of control, and the house felt under siege. The children were too angry, too violent. After one attack, Patty had a black eye and scratches on her throat. The police had to be called when one of the children came at her with a belt. Desperate, Patty called the agency that had done their home study to tell them they had to end the placement, meaning that she wanted to legally disrupt the adoption (disruption is the term for ending an adoption before it is finalized; dissolution is the term for an adoption that is terminated after finalization). They would need to send the children back to their orphanage. During the call, however, Patty learned that the program had an adoption preservation counselor on staff. The counselor came over the next day and set them up with a “family preservation team.”

“They said these kids might not have it in them [to be adopted] because they were just that crazy,” Patty said. To qualify for services, Patty and Wyatt had to check off a list of problem behaviors such as lighting fires in the home and wielding knives. “We could check off every single one with our kids.”

The family preservation team spent every waking moment for the first week with Patty, Wyatt, and the children, watching their interactions and interviewing the parents and the kids. In order to help the children be successful in the family, Patty and Wyatt needed to radically change their parenting plans and expectations, the team leader said. Patty used to picture cozy family reading times and romps in the park, but the kids aren’t ready for that level of intimacy. Even a recent quick game of soccer between Patty and her son had to be cut short since the children desperately need her to be the authority figure. They are unable to handle her presence as a playmate.

“I had to grieve—I’m still grieving—the family that I pictured three months ago [when the children first arrived],” she says. “I mean, you think you’re supposed to attach to these people and they have real feelings and real personalities and some parts you’re going to love and some parts you’re not going to love so much. But the objective thing is that I committed to do this, and I wouldn’t give up until I’ve tried everything because that wouldn’t be fair to them. It wouldn’t be right.”

Patty is clear that without the family preservation team’s guidance, she would not be able to parent her kids. Their support is what allowed her children to stay home.

 *   *   *

Adoption termination is the industry’s dirty little secret. It’s especially secretive in international adoption. Studies of adoption termination, as reported by the Child Welfare Information Gateway report, “Adoption Disruption and Dissolution” (2004), usually focus on foster-care cases. This research, done by child welfare academics and advocates, estimates that ten to twenty-five percent of all adoptions terminate either before finalization (disruption) or after (dissolution). It’s hard to say whether or not the numbers in international adoptions are similar, but the kinds of challenges that terminate domestic adoptions are certainly present in many international ones. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in their 2004 research review, “Adoption Stability & Termination,” adoptions fall apart when kids have behavioral and emotional problems that overwhelm parents and when appropriate supports and services are not accessible. There are specific indicators of an adoption that runs a higher risk of failure, such as those in which children have been in foster care for more than three years, have experienced sexual abuse, arrive in a sibling group or have had prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.

Katie Valentino, a licensed professional clinical counselor, worked as an adoption preservation specialist for a federally sponsored program until it lost funding. She is now in private practice in Bloomingdale, Illinois.

“People think it can’t be the child’s fault; it has to be the parent’s fault,” Valentino said. “But I think the commonalities [in adoption terminations] are more the lack of support and the extreme nature of the child’s background. Social workers have to really identify and speak the truth about how difficult these kids might be. If we have the supports in place, these families and these kids could do so much better.”

The other challenge is fitting the right kids to the right parents. Matching families is an elusive art, and hard-pressed social workers in the foster-care system don’t always have the time or the ability to focus on choosing the best placements.

In international adoptions, the matching process varies. Parents may get placed with the child at the top of a list. Other programs match kids to parents who orphanage program administrators think resemble them. Then, too, parents often fall in love with photo listings, like Carol did with Henry’s. It’s one reason agencies use such photos. In many international adoptions, there is little to no history on any given child, yet parents are expected to commit to a specific boy or girl based on a picture (one that’s sometimes months or even years old) and scanty records that are often poorly translated.

“With a lot of kids, especially the foreign adoptions, parents fall in love with a videotape,” says Valentino. “They don’t know they’re falling in love with a child who has been horribly sexually abused.”

Carol says the agency she worked with is a typical “do-gooder” agency whose best intentions for the child sometimes run roughshod over the families who adopt them.  She understands their imperative to get families for needy kids.

“[The agency] thinks it’s better to get the child out of the country and then you can deal with whatever the child’s problems are. But they are so unrealistic,” she says. “You get the child, but you can’t get services for the child. I know of at least five disruptions that have happened from this agency in a three-year time span because the kids are traumatized and the orphanage is crap. But the agency doesn’t care. Their intention is good, but they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.”

In many international adoptions, the legal adoption happens in the child’s country of origin. By the time the new family gets on the plane, they are irrevocably tied to each other. Valentino said many parents who wind up in trouble have doubts in the orphanage, but they don’t speak up because they have already come so far. They have already been through the home study, written the checks, waited for their referral, and now they are here. They are told this is their child. How could they back out now?

Troll online adoption support groups, and you’ll find the stories. Alongside more benign message boards where adoptive parents chat about creating “lifebooks” (adoption-centric baby books) and answering their kids’ questions, there are websites of home-study-ready families willing to take in children who have already failed with one family. The website CHASK.org (Christian Homes and Special Kids) has a page on their site with photo listings and short descriptions of children whose parents no longer feel they can care for them. On the day I checked, there were two children listed, both with severe issues. One was a foster-to-adopt placement whose parents had split up, and the other was an international adoption from an Eastern European country. The text of that one reads, in part:

The main reason we have decided to find a new home for Nick is that he is an expert liar and manipulator, and he acts out. He tells lies about us to others (hurtful) and is very convincing. He is also hostile toward me (Mom). His therapists believe he has RAD, and maybe ADHD.  He needs constant supervision when he is around young children. This has been traumatic to us and combined with his acting out, is more then we can handle.

When I read that paragraph, I wondered about the details the mother is not sharing. I wondered about her frustration and disappointment. I wondered what dreams she had about motherhood that this child could not fulfill. Valentino notes that in families struggling with attachment issues, mothers are usually the targets of their children’s anger and abuse. They are also usually the ones to give up their jobs and social lives to make parenting their troubled children their full-time occupation.

 *   *   *

Laura (not her real name) is a licensed professional counselor in the Midwest working with a legal practice that specializes in adoption. The practice gets a lot of criticism, Laura says, because their services include helping parents terminate adoptions and supervise “re-placements”; she asked that I not use her real name or identify the practice.

While Laura and her husband make their living in part because some adoptive families fall apart, she is sharply critical of the parents who use their services. Laura told me in an e-mail interview, “There should be nothing a child does that would cause a parent to ‘get rid of them.’ There are millions of biological kids out there making bad choices and their parents never get rid of them.”

Laura is making the same assumptions that most of us laypeople make. In fact, some parents do “get rid of” their biological children and for the same reasons that they send their adopted kids away. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (the GAO is the investigative arm of Congress), in 2001, more than 12,700 children were deliberately placed in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Most of them have a diagnosed mental illness. While the GAO report didn’t differentiate between adopted kids and kids living with their biological parents, it’s clear that parents who can’t help their children sometimes give them away to someone that they hope will. Addressing the report, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a grass-roots advocacy organization based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote that families are forced to give up custody of their children when they cannot handle their behavior and when they have run out of resources.

While Laura is critical of families who seek her practice’s services, she does agree that support and education is vital for success. “Sadly, love and commitment can be conditional with adoptive parents,” she says. “Many of the families were not prepared properly, or did not receive accurate information about the child to make an educated decision to adopt. Also, they may not have had the right motivations to adopt or they do not have realistic expectations of the child.”

Arleta James, a professional clinical counselor, is on staff at the Attachment and Bonding Center, a therapy center in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Brothers and Sisters in Adoption (2009) and has done research about disruption.

“Expectations seem to be endless in adoption,” she says. “And psychological fit plays a role in disruption and dissolution. The parents just can’t seem to connect to the child in any way.”

James describes one family who planned to adopt a little girl from an Eastern European country. “They had all girl’s clothing, decorated the bedroom for a girl,” but after arriving at the orphanage discovered they had been matched with a boy.

“They never seemed to recover from their expectation of a girl,” she says. Within two years the family split. The parents divorced, and the family discovered that their son had many sexual and aggressive behaviors. James helped the family through the dissolution process. Eventually, the family placed the child in an open adoption, where his behavior is improving. “The mom now views herself as the vehicle through which the child arrived in this country,” James notes. “So as time goes on, you can see the healing.”

James said that having one parent who feels more committed to the adoption than the other is not uncommon, but in already challenging adoptions, this difference in dedication can be too much.

“I had a case in which the child was adopted ten years ago,” she recalls. “One of the first things the dad said at the assessment was that he never wanted his daughter in the first place but his wife wanted to adopt. The wife has taken this child to more therapy and evaluations than can be counted. She was so tired that she also wanted the child out of the home. The assessment at our office was the first time this dad had gone to any of his child’s services and he was very angry at our office that his presence was required. Ultimately he left the room to talk on his cell phone.”

It’s easy to condemn this man. But then I think about how many women I know who wanted a baby more than their partners did. My own husband let me lead the way when it came to our family planning, both for our biological son and our adoptive daughter. I’m sure that this woman had the same faith I did—that her spouse would fall in love eventually. That worked for us, but whose fault is it when that doesn’t happen? And how do we best serve the kids when it all falls apart?

“From one point of view, I’d say that if a parent has seriously considered disrupting the adoption of a young child, perhaps she ought to go ahead and do it,” says Mercer, the psychologist who specializes in infant attachment. “A disengaged adoptive parent is probably not giving the child what he or she needs. I don’t mean to suggest rushing out to disrupt the minute you feel things are going badly.”

Mercer goes on to say that families considering disruption need to be sure that they have exhausted all of their resources and sought professional help.

She admits that help can be hard to find. “Most parenting coaches and LMFTs [Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists] working with families have had little or no useful training in this area and although they may want very much to help they may not have the skills to do so,” she says. “The mere fact that a practitioner has a professional license does not necessarily mean that they have the right training.”

 *   *   *

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway website—a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—some of the same factors that put a family at risk for adoption termination also put children at risk for abuse, such as the presence of physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities in a child. In their report “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice” the HHS Office on Child Abuse and Neglect says that  “parents who maltreat their children report experiencing greater isolation, more loneliness, and less social support.”

“Is it really realistic to think that every adoption will work out?” asks James, of the Attachment and Bonding Center. “People go to a foreign country and come home with a virtual stranger. And, on the child’s part, they are moved so abruptly from one country to another. There are going to be cases in which the parents or the adoptee simply cannot adjust.”

In April of this year, Torry Hansen, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, put her unaccompanied seven-year old son, Artyem Savelyev, on a plane back to his native country of Russia. She sent him with a note saying she was returning him because he was mentally unstable and she was not prepared to parent him any longer. Russian officials cited the incident as just the latest in a series of adoption tragedies for Russian children. They put the United States’ adoption program on hold.

This is not the first time an official has proposed ceasing American adoptions. After Nanette and Michael Craver killed their adopted seven-year-old, Nathaniel, in 2003, a senator in Russia argued for a ban on foreign adoptions. Speaking to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News, Andrei Sitov, bureau chief for Russia’s ITAR-TASS wire service said, “Obviously, the biggest concern here is that it keeps happening. The latest figures we’ve seen is fifteen or sixteen [children killed] in the last several years.”

Artyem’s plight brought disruption to the forefront of the media. While officials pointed fingers, Hansen was alternately vilified and celebrated in comments on blogs and news reports. While her decision to put Artyem on the plane alone is inarguably indefensible, adoption activists debate who is ultimately responsible. Is it the Russian government for failing to provide adequate care in the orphanages? American agencies for doing a poor job of screening prospective families and supervising them once the children are home? Is it the adoptive parents who expect things to be easy? Or are the children themselves too damaged to parent? Most importantly, how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Jae Ran Kim is a social worker in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was born in Taegu, South Korea, and was adopted by her family in 1971. She has worked in child welfare for several years and is working toward a doctoral degree in social work with a focus on adoption at the University of Minnesota. Her blog, Harlow’s Monkey, takes a critical look at adoption practices and adoptee rights. She says that Artymem’s case highlights the weaknesses in the adoption process, particularly the subjectivity of home studies and the dearth of services.

“I am in no way at all condoning what [Torry Hansen] did,” says Kim. “There were a million better options, but I think that she felt that she was desperate.”

The agency Hansen worked with, World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP), based in Renton, Washington, has posted a document on their website answering some of the questions they’re fielding from the media and worried waiting families.

According to the document, only one percent of adoptions managed by the agency end in dissolution. According to the document “Child Returned to Russia FAQ’s” on the WACAP the agency does provide “older child training opportunities” for families waiting to adopt, maintains an online chat board monitored for a social worker; facilitates post-placement visits (as required by Russia); and is willing to come out for additional visits if requested.

In the case of out-of-state adoptions like Artyem’s, these visits, training opportunities and follow-up may be subcontracted through a partnering agency.

“They [WACAP] weren’t at her home doing the interview; the agency was entrusting another local agency to do the legwork for them,” says Kim. “My guess was that there was miscommunication, missteps and mistakes. Standards among different agencies can be very different.”

I asked Karen Valentino if she thought of her at-risk families when she read stories about abusive parents who abandon or kill their adoptive children.

“Oh yes, of course,” she says. “We had one case where the adoptive parents actually locked two of their children in a shed outside. No food, no water, no bathroom. They had no idea what to do with the kids. This family had something like nineteen adopted children and they needed help. But they never called DCFS to come in because they were so afraid the other children would be removed. Those siblings had such severe trauma [before the adoption], the worst trauma I’ve ever heard about, and they had no idea how to function in a family, and the family had no idea to handle them.”

In other words, sometimes disruption is better than the alternative. The more I talked to the families and the counselors that work with families at risk, the more I began to see disruption as a parenting decision rather than an abdication. Sometimes, perhaps, being a good parent means knowing that you can no longer be this particular child’s parent.

*   *   *

Tiruba and her family are a success story. The pseudonymous blogger at Tubaville, Tiruba, is mom to three children who have all been through disrupted adoptions. Her oldest daughter’s blog name is TTops. TTops, who just turned fifteen, was born drug- and alcohol-affected, and was placed in the foster-care system at birth. She is developmentally delayed and has been diagnosed with RAD.

Tiruba and her husband fell in love with TTops at her therapeutic foster home when the girl was ten years old. They were at the home to visit another child, but TTops charmed them. Like many children with attachment disorders, she was indiscriminately affectionate, climbing into Tiruba’s lap and offering hugs right away. When the adoption of the other child fell through, Tiruba and her husband started the paperwork to adopt TTops.

“We were head over heels in love with her from the second we saw her. It was like love at first sight,” Tiruba tells me. “She’s got this spark in her personality that just sucks you in. You couldn’t see that shining light in her paperwork. If anyone had read it before meeting her, she wouldn’t have had a chance really.”

For six months, Tiruba and her husband visited TTops in the foster home. Before they brought her home, they knew about her rages and her inability to understand the consequences of her behavior. But living with her was different. Six months into their lives together, Tiruba found TTops trying to strangle one of their dogs.

“We went into this with no parenting experience and so we had no expectations. We were completely enamored with our daughter and we just rolled with it,” Tiruba says. “We were really nice to her at first and she would scream for four to five hours at a time. At mealtime she would swallow her food halfway and then vomit it up because family food time was too stressful.

“I thought I’d be all hung up on education and sending my kids to college and doing all that fun stuff that you see on TV,” she says. “I’ve had to readjust my own expectations on a daily basis, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of guilt and feelings that I’m a failure as a parent. I have to remind myself that I didn’t cause this. I didn’t make her what she is. It’s maternal alcohol consumption and brain damage and cognitive disability.”

The family celebrates TTops’s progress even though change sometimes seems glacially slow.

“She has come so far in the last four years that we’ve had her, and for me that’s so satisfying,” says Tiruba. “She’ll never been completely there and it’s been a journey for us to learn how to accept that she’ll never be completely attached to us. But she actually says she misses us when she’s away, and there’s a glimmer. That’s what’s satisfying.”

James, from the Attachment and Bonding Center, sees this ability to find joy in small steps in other successful families, too. “These parents are able to see the ‘good child’ behind all the behavior. They strive to bring that ‘good child,’ as they say, out more often. They enjoy small positive moments and appreciate small gains. They can reflect backwards and see the progress they have made, rather than always looking at how far they have to go.”

Tiruba says she does not condemn the people who tried to parent her daughter and two sons first, who brought them home and then gave them back to the system. For one thing, she says, if she didn’t have the health benefits they do, then they wouldn’t be able to afford to parent them in part because of the medications the children need.

TTop’s first parents had no support and quickly became overwhelmed by her behavior. Three months into the placement, they were already done. They disrupted the placement the day the social worker arrived at their house to start the adoption paperwork.

Tiruba, on the other hand, quickly worked to put together a team of people to help her parent TTops and TTops’s younger adoptive brothers. The team consists of a disability worker, who helps them connect with community resources; a school support team, including a full-time aide and school psychologist who helps with TTops’s individualized education plan; and in-home family services workers, who give them respite care and everyday parenting support. In addition, one or two weekends a month, TTops goes to a therapeutic foster home so that her parents can focus on the boys.

“If you haven’t lived with an attachment disordered kid, how can you judge anyone who can’t do it?” she says. “I don’t judge the people who couldn’t take care of my kids before me. I honestly believe that they didn’t get what they needed for the kids. It’s not always there and it would be impossible to do this without it.”

I asked Tiruba if she grieves for the people her children might have been if their histories had been different.

“Of course I do,” she says. “TTops grieves, too, for the person she could have been. She wonders what her brain would have been like if her mom hadn’t been drinking when she was pregnant. It’s a lifelong struggle for her.”

TTops will never be able to live independently. Tiruba’s goal had been to keep TTops at home until she turned sixteen, when she would need to find a group home. As she’s gotten older and stronger, however, it has become harder to keep her younger brothers protected from her violent outbursts so she will likely move earlier than her mother would like. Tiruba and her husband found a group home that’s nearby, close to their weekly routines so they can visit often and pick up TTops to join them when they’re running errands.

 *   *   *

It’s easy to pathologize children who have experienced trauma and loss, to focus on the stories of Russian children gone bad and foster-care kids who become violent. Social worker Kim, however, says it’s vital to understand that a deprived environment shapes children. Like Tiruba, the parents who are able to successfully parent challenging kids can see the person behind the behaviors and are able to adjust their expectations.

“We do have to recognize that for most kids who have had multiple placements there is tremendous loss and there are tremendous survival skills that these children have developed. They wouldn’t have survived without these,” she says. “Unfortunately when we try to place them in an adoptive home and their parents have this expectation that they can relax and be normal, well, we need to reconceptualize this idea of what a normal child is.”

Citing her work with parents adopting from foster care, Kim says that parents need to be given a “safety plan” before their children come home detailing who they will call if they need help and what services exist in their area. She also recommends that parents connect with a knowledgeable therapist ahead of time so they aren’t searching for an appropriate counselor post-placement when they may already be overwhelmed.

Astrid Dabbeni is the executive director of Adoption Mosaic, an adoption education organization in Portland, Oregon. She is also an adult adoptee who came to her family from Columbia along with her biological sister when she was four years old. She agrees with Kim about the need for parents to let go of their fantasies about what their families “ought” to look like.

We need to be looking at adoption through the lens of the child. It is a normal human reaction to have some serious attachment issues when you are taken from your birth mother and placed in an orphanage,” says Dabbeni. “We need to honor and recognize that adoption is different and not a replacement for birth children we never had. Not until then can we really embrace how adoption really is different and how we need to go about parenting differently. Social workers have to speak the truth about that.”

 *   *   *

Through her networks, Henry’s mother, Carol, found a family who has experience working with boys with histories and behaviors that mirror his. He will be the youngest in the family by several years so there are not other children to prey on. Carol said they will have an open adoption. They will continue contact with Henry, in part because his biological siblings remain in Carol’s home and also because they love him and remain committed to him.

“It sucks, it really does,” Carol says. “There is no other way around it. I don’t see one; I really do not. Nobody worked harder for their kid than we did. But in some ways bringing him home would be like asking an alcoholic to live in a bar. It would not be healthy to ask him to live here.”

Her husband did not want to disrupt the adoption. The experience has been hard on their marriage but they—and their other kids—are healing. Carol told me that recently she pulled out video from the couple’s visit to Henry’s orphanage and this time she saw the scene differently.

“We walked into this room, and there were ten cribs with two babies in each crib. It was mealtime, and about half of the babies were screaming and the other half were totally silent,” she recalls. “The babies that were screaming, they were also rocking, self-soothing and you could see that they were kind of tuning out, you know, dissociating. My husband, he was running the video camera and you see him caressing one baby’s head, a baby that was not crying, and the baby didn’t react. I remember thinking, oh the nannies must be in the back room getting the food ready. What was I thinking? There was no back room. Those babies were hungry. They were hungry every single day.”

Carol is silent a moment.

“How did I not see it? I didn’t see that it was a disaster waiting to happen, a whole brewing ground for attachment disorder waiting to happen.”

Author’s Note: As I worked on this piece I became increasingly frustrated and saddened by the lack of information and support both for pre-adoptive and post-adoptive families. Adoption agency websites usually have glowing stories of new families and pictures of adorable children cradled in their new parents’ arms, but very few have concrete information about preparing for children who have suffered the tremendous loss and trauma that most of these kids suffer. I feel like we’re setting families up. Adoption can be a wonderful thing but unless prospective parents go into it with their eyes open and post-adoption services at the ready, how can we blame those families that fall apart?

Finally I want to thank the mothers who trusted me enough to speak with me. Their stories are difficult, and they are used to condemnation. Trust me, no one is harder on Carol than she is on herself. While I was editing this piece, I discovered that Carol is known for sending gift baskets to other RAD families who she knows are having a hard time. She’s a pretty amazing person.

Brain, Child (Summer 2010)

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Adventures in Fertility and Mortality

Adventures in Fertility and Mortality

By Zahie El Kouri

spring2012_elkouri“Do you believe in an afterlife?” the doctor asks.

I’m lying on an examination table, wearing a sweater and socks, my feet in stirrups. A nurse has given me a folded, translucent square of paper, and I choose to leave it folded to cover my lap effectively rather than unfold it to cover more of my body while leaving nothing to the imagination. The doctor slides a special probe up what the truly educated are now calling the vajayjay. I am about to start my second round of in vitro fertilization, and the doctor is doing a baseline transvaginal ultrasound to see if we can go forward.

For some women, this kind of ultrasound is no big deal, but for me it is so uncomfortable it verges on the painful. I know I’ll be less uncomfortable if I relax, but I can’t do that because the doctor and I are talking about my father’s death.

My husband, John, is sitting by my side, and he squeezes my hand when he hears the doctor’s question. John is sad about my father’s death, sad that I have to go through all this medicalized stripping down, sad that sex has been taken out of our procreative equation. But he is also tired of being sad. That’s why minutes ago, before the doctor arrived, when I was crying while taking off my clothes, he tried to distract me by singing the tune of what he says is the music one finds in porn. Bam ba dah bam bah. Humor is the way he copes with stress and sadness, and the doctor has undone the moment of laughter John and I shared in his absence.

“So, how long has it been since your father died?” the doctor asks. He is looking from my vagina to the monitor and back again, and pushing buttons on a side panel. His glasses are smudged, and through a trick of the light, I can see my reflection in them, even though he isn’t looking at me.

“About six months,” I say, even though I know the answer down to the day.

“Was it a long illness?”

“No, just ten weeks. Pancreatic cancer.”

 *   *   *

In many ways I’m a typical fertility patient, if there is such a thing. I am thirty-six years old. I have been trying to get pregnant for three years. Seven months earlier I lost my first pregnancy, achieved through IVF, to miscarriage. Two weeks before this appointment, I started injecting myself with Lupron, which has put me into temporary chemical menopause, a condition that, ironically, will help me get pregnant through IVF, even though the associated mood swings and headache may also alienate everyone who has ever loved me.

Fertility and mortality are not the only things on my mind. Just a few months after my father’s death, John and I moved to this new city for his new job. My mother is staying with us because she is too sad to be alone, and my in-laws are visiting, and all the parental attention only highlights my father’s absence.

In many ways, I am alone in my grief, and in my mind having a baby has become all tied up with my father’s death. A grandchild was perhaps the thing he wanted most in life, and I feel like a failure for not finding the right person to marry earlier, for not having a baby before his death. I can blame the weepiness and the irritability on the chemical menopause (and I do), but I know that I am sad and desperate because I am still trying to redeem myself.

I want a baby—I have always wanted a baby—but the truth is that, without my father’s death, I might have chosen not to do all of this. I might have chosen adoption. The truth is that, yes, I do believe in an afterlife, in a religious sense, but that belief does not save me from my grief. It does not keep me from missing my father. The truth is that I am loath to start injecting myself with drugs that will hyperstimulate my ovaries. I am loath to go from chemical menopause to chemical super-fertility in ten seconds flat. But the most important truth is that right now, I am willing to do anything to preserve my father’s genetic legacy—other than my memories, the only piece of him I have left.

“Well, do you believe in an afterlife?” the doctor asks.

There is a long pause, and eventually, John answers the question for me.

“Yes,” he says. He takes my hand and squeezes it. “She does. Her priest really helped us through it.” John leans toward agnostic, but he, too, is transformed through this experience of death. He prefers humor, but he knows when to step in and be serious.

I cannot look at John without crying, and I don’t want to answer the doctor’s question, so instead, I spend my time coming up with all the possible reasons for the doctor to ask me this question at this particular moment. I come up with three:

1. The doctor may think that making any conversation will distract me from what is going on with my body, and therefore relax me (like a Caribbean vacation with no hurricanes).

2. The doctor is particularly curious about my unique presentation of the human condition. The doctor has lost a loved one, and has found solace in his belief in an afterlife.

3. The doctor is bored because he has seen too many vaginas.

I begin by considering reason #1. Maybe the doctor has had success with making small talk while doing transvaginal ultrasounds. Maybe, after dealing with thousands of women desperate for a child, he believes that having a conversation about something other than fertility will relax me, reduce stress, and increase my chances of getting pregnant. Maybe he sees himself as part therapist, and knows that I am in desperate need of some therapy before I should be allowed to get pregnant.

This may all be true, but I still rule out rule out reason #1, as it is unlikely that anyone would think that asking about a patient’s father’s illness and death would distract her from a penis-sized plastic probe up her vajajay.

I next consider reason #2. I vaguely remember this doctor mentioning losing his own parents. Maybe he struggles, as a man of science, with issues of faith and mortality. Maybe creating fertility miracles every day has given him the intellectual space to consider the possibility of an afterlife. Or maybe it is the opposite. Maybe he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but he envies those who do?

If I were being rational, I might conclude that I can explain the doctor’s behavior with reason #1 or reason #2. He is a warm and friendly man. Like my husband, he’s sad for me. But I don’t want to dwell on these possibilities because they are just too painful, so I go with reason #3—the doctor has simply seen too many vaginas.

Now, to be clear, my doctor is a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist with an excellent record of successful IVF pregnancies, so he sees more vaginas than say, your average neurosurgeon. He probably also sees more vaginas than your average obstetrician/gynecologist, as your typical patient comes in once a year, takes off her panties, and that’s it. She might get pregnant, in which case, she would be coming in every now and then for exams, and then there would be the labor, where the doctor would see a whole lot of her vagina, but still, most women don’t go through labor more than once a year. Unless they have multiple uteruses, but that might present other issues that might also require a specialist.

It’s not that I think my vagina is anything special, or that I don’t appreciate the square of paper or the fact that my doctor will spend the extra ten minutes talking to me about my IVF cycle or inquiring as to my state of mind and grieving process. I respect the Swedish position on nudity and the time-honored tradition of skinny-dipping. It’s just that I miss the days when the only naked conversations I had about the afterlife were with my husband. I am tired of being physically and emotionally exposed. I don’t know how to talk about my feelings about death while trying to create new life.

*   *   *

In the next year and a half, I manage to get pregnant and miscarry twice more. I travel to another state for even more specialized medical treatment, coming back to the afterlife doctor for early-pregnancy monitoring when I get pregnant for the fourth time. In the appointments, he is still friendly, though he discusses work with John instead of discussing death with me. When I’m eight weeks pregnant, he sends me on to an obstetrician, wishing me the best.

That pregnancy took, and I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in June of that year. Soon after, I see this doctor again, as John and I leave the office of a lactation consultant who shares his waiting room. The doctor’s receptionist sees us walking by and sends him out to see us while we’re trying to get our crying baby into his car seat. The doctor approaches and greets us with a smile. After asking permission, he takes the baby and dances around with him. The baby stops crying and looks at his reflection in the doctor’s smudged glasses.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“I’m great,” I say. “Tired, but happy.”

“That’s good to hear,” he says. “Isn’t that good to hear?” he asks the baby in a sing-song voice.

John and I smile at each other.

“Who do you think he looks like?” the doctor asks, looking from the baby to my husband, and back to me. “I see bits of both of you.”

“He looks like Zahie’s father,” John says. I have never heard him say this before. “It’s nice.”

I stare at the baby with new eyes. I have been so sleep-deprived since his birth, so focused on the work of keeping him fed and clean and making sure he is still breathing, I haven’t really studied his features.

John is right—there are my father’s big brown eyes, his full lips, his round face. I hope to see my father in the afterlife, but I am happy to have these pieces of him here with me now.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: “Once infertile, always infertile.” That’s what my friend used to tell me when she was pregnant and I was still in the midst of my infertility struggle. At the time, I thought she was a little crazy, a little whacked out on pregnancy hormones, but now I know what she means. My ongoing mental state of infertility, which persists despite the presence of my vocal, playful baby, leads me to check the infertility message boards every day, and to pay special attention to any personal essays about infertility or fertility treatments. I’ve noticed a trend lately of comments on these essays saying that women who go through IVF to get a child instead of adopting are selfish. Was my desire to see my parents in my child selfish? I think about this question all the time. I wish more peace in this question for others, and I hope that this essay will give a sense of some of the emotions connected with wanting a child with a genetic link to you—and the ways in which those emotions are so much more complicated than the word selfish might ever contain.

Brain, Child (Spring 2012)

Zahie El Kouri writes about family, fertility, and immigrant culture. As the child of a Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian father and an Italian mother, she has a special interest in the experience of second-generation immigrants, within the family and without. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Memoir Journal, Brain, Child, Garbanzo Literary Journal, and Ars Medica. Her short fiction has appeared in Mizna, a Journal of Arab American Writing and the second edition of Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American literature.  She holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, the novelist and legal theorist John Greenman, and their son. You can read more about Zahie at www.zahieelkouri.com.

Fair Embryo

Fair Embryo

By Ellyn Gelman

Virus and Bacteria CellsI don’t want to get out of bed on my 30th birthday.  My soul feels bruised in some places, fractured in others.  I have been adrift in the sea of infertility treatments for five years.    I have ridden the waves of hope with my husband Dan, only to be pulled down into an undertow of disappointment.  We have come to the end of available procedures, discharged by the specialists.  We are not candidates for IVF.  For us it is over, until it is not over.

“Ellyn, phone call, outside line.” My curt, often abrupt administrative assistant stands in the doorway.

“Ok” I say.  I do not look up from the tedious monthly report due today.

My office reeks of cigarettes, I smoke them one after the other.  I have quit so many times I no longer consider the possibility.  Smoking temporarily fills the cracks inside me.

I hit the button on the phone connecting me to the outside line

“Hello, this is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic in New York.  How are you?”

“Okay?” My heart begins to pound.

“Great.  I’m calling because we have a new IVF procedure and we were wondering if you and your husband are interested in participating.  It is still considered an experimental procedure………” that is all I hear.  My mind shuts down, numb, unfocused.

We have been accepted into their zona drilling experimental program.  The zona is the outermost layer of the ovum (egg) and also worth 13 points in a scrabble game.  It is experimental because they have not yet had any success stories.  This is how it works.  Multiple eggs will be removed from my ovaries.  One sperm will be chosen for each egg and a tiny hole is “drilled” in the zona layer to enable fertilization (no need for a fast moving little tail).  The only thing the egg and sperm have to do on their own is, divide.  This all takes place in a Petri dish during the time an embryo is usually traveling down the fallopian tubes on it’s way to attaching to the uterine wall.

“I can’t do it.  I can’t handle the disappointment anymore.” I say. My head rests on Dan’s shoulder.

“Yes you can.  It’s going to work this time.”  Ever the annoying optimist, he wraps his arms tight around me.  We debate and I cry for hours.

I concede, “Okay one time, I’ll do this one time, promise we’ll stop here if it doesn’t work.”

“I promise,” he whispers into my hair, just above the top of my ear lobe.    Silently, I make a pact with God to never smoke another cigarette.

So it begins.  It turns out that a fast, hard thrust of a hypodermic needle hurts less.  It takes us three days to figure this out.  Dan’s first attempt to inject my butt with the prescribed hormone cocktail takes two tortuous hours.  I lay on our bed, pants pulled down, one butt cheek exposed.

The first hour we stare at the syringe. The needle is sharp and long, meant to reach muscle.  The liquid in the barrel contains all the hope we have for a child.

“You can do it,” I say.  I place the syringe in his hand.  We are both graduates of a one-hour course on “how to give an injection.”  Sweat is visible on his upper lip.  I look at him with as much confidence as I can muster.  His short dark curly hair sticks out in places, a result of his clammy hands nervously combing through it.  I know this is hard for him.  He is completely out of his element, but he loves me and I love him.

“Just do it, jam it in.  I won’t scream, I promise,” I say.  Irritation over time replaces fear.

“Let’s just go to the emergency room and ask a nurse to do this,” he says.

“Are you kidding me? We have to be able to do this. If we can’t do this, we are not meant to have a child.” I say.  I know these words hurt.  I am baiting him.  Maybe if he gets mad at me, he will just stab me with the damn thing.

He doesn’t bite.

“Okay, okay,” he says.  He repeats these same words many times.  I am still lying on my side.  The room smells like rubbing alcohol.  He has swabbed the injection site with alcohol twenty thousand times.

“Just do it,” I say.

Finally, he jams the needle into my butt, and pulls it right back out.  Every drop of liquid is still in the barrel.  We stare at the syringe.

“That’s it, I quit.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, one more time” he says and pushes the needle where it needs to go.  The liquid causes my muscle to cramp but it feels good because it is done.  I roll over.  Dan looks like he’s going to throw up.  He runs to the bathroom.   Bent over the sink, he splashes cold water on his face.

“You did it!” I say.

I follow him and hug him tight from behind.  It is done, only nineteen more days of this to go.

“Thirteen eggs” Dan informs me when I awake from the anesthesia.  My ovaries, once the size of blueberries, are now baseballs. They hurt.

“Everything go okay with you?” I ask

“All good” he says with a laugh. “Let’s hope they pick some good ones”.

I smile.  His part in this is hard too.  While I am in the operating room, he goes alone into a room set aside for ejaculating into a sterile plastic cup. Then he passes the carefully labeled jar to a technician.  Through it all he maintains his sense of dignity and a sense of humor.

We wait for two days.

“You have a call, outside line”

I pick up the phone, “This is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic.”

I am cold, sweaty and silent.

“I am calling to let you know that there is one fair embryo”

“What does that mean?” my voice is barely a squeak.

“Well, it has not divided as many times as we like to see by now, but if it is still viable (able to grow) in the morning, it can be transferred into your uterus.  Don’t get your hopes up though, it is only one fair embryo.”

“Okay” I say.

Dan holds my hand as Dr. Ying transfers the microscopic fair embryo into my uterus. It pinches and I feel my uterus cramp. I like this doctor.  He is a mixture of eastern and western medicine.  He believes in visualization.

“For twenty four hour, think Velcro.  Embryo is like Velcro, needs to stick to uterus.” he says.

I don’t understand at first.  It’s sounds to me like he is saying WelKWo.  I stare at him.  He mimes Velcro. I get it.

“Remember, think Velcro,” he calls after me as I leave the procedure room.  For the next week, I pray and visualize Velcro like it’s my job.

Two weeks later, our pregnancy test is positive.  I am once again reminded by the IVF staff not to get my hopes too high, it is still early and this is a fair embryo.  There is nothing “fair” in the world of infertility.  Hope and faith is plain necessary, because the dream of having a child is too big for science alone.

We are their success story.  Our fair embryo implants and develops into a strong healthy baby boy.  He enters our world on July 11, 1992.  All the cracks in me begin to heal the moment I hold him. I never smoke again.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.