Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Death

A Time to Say Good-Bye

When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.

Until recently.

The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.

It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.

It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.

Fine.

There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.

No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.

Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.

Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.

By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.

And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.

It’s a dream, right?

Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”

“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.

“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.

“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”

“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.

Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.

“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.

“It’s not about you,” he repeats.

He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.

“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.

“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.

Laughing!

The nerve.

“Dad?”

“What?” he says.

I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.

But I don’t have the words anymore.

All I have is the grief of his loss.

The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.

And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)

My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.

I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.

And he starts weeping.

He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.

He just weeps with me.

We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.

Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.

And I don’t have to be okay with that.

I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.

No, the anger is gone.

Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.

Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.

But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.

But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.

The only way to Peace is through the Pain.

***

I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.

It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.

It felt like a space to catch my breath.

A moment to hold on with all I have.

A moment to decide to let it all go.

It felt like my chance to say good-bye.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
 
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.

with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you

“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli

On Rising Again: A Remembrance of Alyssa

Alyssa,

We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.

True warriors, right?

But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.

Here is my favorite one.

In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.

Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.

While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.

Yes, howl.

You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.

I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
Oh-OH-oh-oh
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!

Young. Wild. Free.

I think that is how I will remember you best.

***

Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.

Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.

Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.

Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:

The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.

In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.

Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?

Hard to think of one.

You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…

You kept rising.

For that is the true Measure of a Life.

It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.

It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.

And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.

That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.

***

You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:

That line haunts me.

We are almost there.

There.

***

How could any of us have seen this coming?

How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).

Yes. It truly is.

Even to live 80 years. A vapor.

In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.

A vapor.

And yet, what we do matters.

How we live our lives matters.

And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.

Every damn moment of it mattered.

But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.

The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.

It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.

And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.

When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.

When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.

When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.

And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.

Love is the whole point.

It’s all that has ever mattered.

***

A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.

One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

We went canoeing.

And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.

With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.

Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…

He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?

But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.

You sang with him.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…

Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.

To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.

***

I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.

But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.

And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.

May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.

Rising again.

Young. Wild. Free.

Home.

***

If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.

Alyssa and her siblings: two younger brothers and her younger sister.
Some of the people you loved most: Your siblings. (2009)

5 Years

Dad and Sharon 1982

“I Will Be Blessed” by Ben Howard

 

Heaven is a place we hold.
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
If you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
I will be blessed

 

On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

PoP # 14: “Daystar”

Four years later. Still hard.

Dad and Sharon 1982

My father and me (at 15 months), 1982

One of my father’s favorite songs was, “Daystar.”

He particularly loved it as sung by our small church’s music minister, Darrell Sproles.

Lily of the Valley,
Let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me
How to grow in beauty in God’s sight
Fairest of ten thousand
Make me a reflection of your light
Daystar shine down on me
Let your love shine through me in the night

When it was sung at his funeral in June 2014, it meant a lot to me that my name was in the first few lines.

If I could talk to him now, what would I say?

After I’m sorry for ever causing you pain and I love you,

I probably would tell him that his grandchildren would have loved to have known him.

He always had a very tender way with kids aged 2-5.

Love you, Dad.

Miss you.

The Thing We Hope Never Happens (a call to help a hurting mother)

My absolute worst fear is suffering the death of one of my children.

I can imagine coming to grips with the death of anyone in my life.

Except my children.

cementerio-948048_960_720

***

Last Friday, I was reading my Facebook feed and read a horrific post from a member of my church.

Her daughter-in-law, Britney, was driving on a two-lane road with her five-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, and two-month-old son, Jonah, in the backseat.

You already know how this story ends.

An oncoming car illegally crossed the center to pass a car.

It hit them head on.

crash

It killed the little girl.

The mother and baby boy survived.

In the picture, Jocelyn was balancing on one foot, as if in the midst of dancing. She was posed proudly with her baby brother. Smiling. Blond and smiling. Happy. Just like my daughter.

Jocelyn 2Jocelyn and JonahJocelyn

There at my desk, I cried.

Britney was me. Her kids were my kids.

And my heart was broken for her.

All of this happened just days before Mother’s Day.

***

It was too cruel and unfair for one person to bear.

How could Britney face life and the world, now knowing, now feeling every day, that horrific things like that can happen?

Just like that.

How?

How could she keep going?

But of course I know how.

We all know how.

She’s a mother.

Britney

This is stuff that mothers are made of.

Loving through pain.

Living while part of you is dying.

Believing through despair and doubt.

Resiliency beyond measure.

Pure grit and strength.

***

Britney has already undergone several surgeries to repair her broken bones, including her pelvis. She has been moved out of the ICU and into the trauma unit. (And let’s not forget the fact that she’s just three months postpartum.)

Her newborn son also suffered extensive injuries. Two broken femurs and a broken arm.

Noah

He is currently being cared for around the clock by his grandmother, Lanae, who works as a surgical nurse. He couldn’t be in better hands while his mother is recovering.

***

I made myself imagine what I would do if I were living Britney’s reality.

What would I do?

I would sob and ache and grovel and resent and rage.

For a Long Time.

I would lash out and blame and despair.

I would be out for blood. I would crave Revenge. I would want to hurt and crush and obliterate. I would want to empty the life of the person who didn’t think first, who would rather take a risk, who thought the laws didn’t apply to him.

(Because I think first. Because I don’t want to take the risk. Because I don’t think the laws don’t apply to me.)

And while I would be going through this, I would still have to Get Back Up.

Although I would want to take time off from Life to mourn and process and make meaning, I would have to immediately Get Back Up.

For my son.

Because he would still need to eat and sleep and grow.

He would still need my arms to tell him that he is safe, even though I had just seen how unsafe the world can be.

I would need to decide every hour to keep on practicing the appearance of Love even though I’d be simultaneously steeling my heart from the possibility of Future Pain.

Because Love would have just killed off a part of me.

Love had created a trove of beautiful moments of my little girl — but now there would be no more. And the more time that would pass, the more those memories would lose their clarity. And if I forgot any part of those memories, it would be like losing her all over again.

All I really would want to do is climb into the ground with her so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark.

I would be like this for a Long Time.

***

But I also know that One Day, through the crisis and search to find meaning, I would finally choose Love again.

Because Love is the only path to Peace.

I would keep walking.

Still vulnerable.

Still hurting.

But alive.

And courageous.

***

I used to pray that Life Would Be Okay and Get Better. But I’ve stopped doing that.

Because that’s not what Life is for. The life worth living isn’t a life without pain because the pain is what shows us life’s worth.

When I say prayers now, it is in moments for others who are in pain.

And the prayer is that they keep moving

And keep walking through the pain

And that if they fall, that God will reach a Hand down to help them get back up.

***

Britney,

Our hearts ache with yours in your time of hurting and grieving. My prayer for you is that you keep walking through the pain. Keep moving. And keep believing that there is good in the world even though it is also so very bad at times. In fact, perhaps the world is good because it is bad.

Years from now, I hope that you can look back at these dark hours of your life and see all the light that people are shining on it. It’s always the people who have suffered and cried and walked the Path of Pain that will be the first to reach out their hands to you. Take those hands. Let them help you get back up. And don’t feel guilty about it. You are not a burden.

Because Some Day, it will be you who is the one reaching out and saving someone else.

You are not alone.

And you are Loved.

***

If you would like to help this family financially as they cope with medical and funeral expenses, you can contribute through their GoFundMe fundraiser here.

No gift is too small and you can give anonymously if you prefer.

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If you would like to provide financial assistance to Lanae as she takes care of Jonah full-time, you can donate here.

Lanae

 

Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.

***

Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.

***

We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.

***

Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)

***

About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.

***

After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.

Sway

It was one of those unusual days that turned into an unusual night.

Work was hectic. I was getting geared up to travel in a few days. I was attending an in-town conference that included networking dinners.

And the grocery shopping still needed to happen.

So there I am at Kroger at 9:30 on a Friday night, nodding my head to “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls, which I find oddly comforting. It takes me back to a world where my chief concerns were learning how to write a thesis statement and whether or not that boy in geometry would ever want to talk to me about more than just my homework answers.

Then, I groan as I put it all together. I’ve entered the phase of my life when I’m part of the most heavily marketed demographic for advertisers: young mothers.

Wonderful.

I load the cart with the fruit collection (apples, pears, oranges, bananas, and berries of all kinds), the veggie collection (broccoli, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes), a bunch of food from the “hippie section” because my husband is allergic to X, Y, and Z, then I swing by the health and beauty section to pick up travel size contact solution.

I’m tired. I’ve been getting up at 5:00 a.m. so I can work out before the day begins rather than coming home luxuriously at 3:00 p.m. to exercise before I pick up my daughter from daycare. My FitBit reads 11, 534, 11,355, 11, 536.

As I draw near the checkout lanes, a lady turns her register’s light on and beckons me. Her short hair tapers and ends against her neck, just barely brushing her collar. She adjusts her dark-rimmed glasses and starts sorting my groceries. Even though it’s late, she still rapidly types in the codes of all my produce–from memory of course.

“And are you having a fantastic night?” she chirps.

I roll my eyes. “I mean, where else would I rather be?” I joke.

She laughs. “Well, at least it will be over soon.”

“I can’t wait. This day just keeps going and going…”

We laugh together, but then I instantly feel the need to dial back my complaining. I wonder how many hours she has been on her feet today. I remember how hard all those hours of cashiering at Target were on me–and I had a teenage body during those years.

“What about you?” I ask. “When do you get off?”

“I’m off at 11:00,” she smiles, “And then I’ll get a good six hours before I get up and go to the nursing home.”

She tells me that she has been volunteering at a nursing home in downtown Dayton for the last twenty years, mostly as a companion. She even brings her daughter, who is now in high school.

“It’s hard sometimes, you know…” she says, “When you get to know the residents, all about their lives and their families. Nothing really prepares you for when they transition.”

I nod along as she talks, until she gets to that word, transition.

I know what she means, of course, but I’m struck by the word. I’ve never heard of someone refer to death in this way. But she keeps on going as if what she has just said is completely mainstream. She talks a little more, but I’m still stuck on how she has framed the concept of death.

We say good-bye to each other and I look down at her name tag.

It says Sway.

***

After four days at the TESOL 2016 Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, I’m sitting in the airport with three of my colleagues, all of us eager to get back to our normal lives.

As I’m sitting at the gate waiting for my plane, I flip through four days of notes and start to make lists of things to do, things to read, and things to consider. A complete distillation of what I’ve learned in the past four days–at least as much as I can manage before my memories fade too much.

But then I hear applause.

And then more applause.

And then more applause.

I stand up to see if I can figure out what’s going on. I see a few American flags and I think, Oh, some soldiers are coming home. That’s sweet.

I go back to my notes. But then there’s more applause. And more. And more.

A crowd gathers.

“What is going on over there?” I ask my colleague, Olena.

“Just go and see, if you want.”

As I draw near the gathering crowd, I see that a few hundred people have gathered around a gate and a line of formally attired soldiers are each shaking hands with an old man who is being pushed in a wheelchair.

I think I understand, but I want to make sure. I ask a stranger next to me.

“It’s an honor flight,” she says. “For World War II veterans.”

One by one, about forty veterans travel down this corridor of applause, as these young soldiers reach out to shake their hands. People cheer and applaud. They take video and pictures. One of the veterans buries his head in his hands and the audience responds with even more cheers.

It takes time and a lot of corralling, but the lead organizer of the honor flight manages to take a group picture.

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Photo taken by Nathan Erhardt

***

Sunday afternoon. Back at the grocery store. Since we only need to get a few small items, I let my daughter push the just-right-for-her-size kid’s cart through the maze of Sunday afternoon shoppers. I leave a hand on the edge of the cart to make sure she doesn’t plow over someone else’s foot by accident.

When we finally approach the registers, I fall into a line that is three customers deep, which seems to be typical for this time of day.

The line advances. And that’s when I see Sway.

She smiles when she sees me. I tell her that I just got back from my trip and she asks how it went. I tell her about the honor flight and the World War II veterans and her face lights up.

“It’s funny,” I say. “I was hoping that I could tell you about it and here you are.”

“Well, it makes sense,” she says. “It’s all connected.”

I turn this idea over and over again on the way home.

20 Years in Songs

1993

“Weak” by SWV

I am in middle school. And I have a crush on a boy. Let’s call him John Smith.

He’s in my reading class and he sits in the back left corner of the room. I sit in the front right corner.

One day, as I enter the room, our eyes meet for a moment. We don’t smile at each other. It happens so fast, I can’t even tell if he’s just looking to see who it is or if he actually intends to look at me.

Terrified, I look away and take my seat.

I spend the rest of class wondering if he wanted to look at me. Me. Just another overweight girl who was too shy to talk to anyone besides her close friends.

When the bell rings, I look around the room and catch his eye again. We still don’t smile at each other, but he doesn’t make a face or look away.

When I hear this song on the radio as I’m doing my homework, it strikes me. Maybe I’m in love.

I don’t feel like it’s safe to write about this in my diary, so instead, I write I love John Smith over and over on each of my biceps. It’s winter, so my sweaters will cover it up, I reason. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to write this on my arms. But I feel like this is what a girl does when she falls in love. She covers herself with the one she loves–until he’s the only thing she sees in the mirror.

 

1995

“Black” by Pearl Jam

I listen to the radio on my very own CD/cassette player that I’ve bought with my own babysitting money. I don’t have enough money left over for CDs. So in the afternoons, I turn on the radio and press down the play, record, and pause buttons on the cassette tape deck. Then, I wait for a good song to come on.

But I miss this one.

This song is deceptive. It comes on softly, like a ballad, and at first, I don’t think it’s for me. It’s too slow and I can’t understand all of his words, but then he sings out a line that strikes me.

And now my bitter hands… shake beneath the clouds… of what was everything

All the pictures had… all been washed in black… tattooed everything.

I wonder what it’s like to have your heart broken like this. To be so in love that losing it turns your world to black.

It makes me believe that to be so in love is the best and worst that can ever happen to me. And I want it to happen to me.

But I doubt that it would ever happen to a pudgy girl like me.

 

July 2004

“Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessionals

I’m driving in my 1990 Geo Metro with the windows down because this car doesn’t have A/C (or power steering, for that matter). My hair is pulled back to keep it from flying in front of my eyes. And this song is blaring out on the radio.

I am flawed.

But I am cleaning up so well.

I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself.

I’m in love.

I have become interesting. I am loved for my intelligence and drive. My ambition and my doubts. I have become a person with depth, even views on politics. As we talk, my thoughts and curiosities and unspoken plans come flooding out and I shock myself. I’m not putting on a face. I’m not acting a part. I’m finally articulating everything that I’ve been feeling deep in my soul.

I stop obsessing about which jeans and shirts make me look the thinnest. I start enjoying food rather than seeing it as what stands in the way of me being fully loved.

And I am loved for it.

It makes me cry. It makes me feel that I’ve been lying to myself for years. That I’ve been trying to be “the girl that guys love,” some amalgamation of images and insinuations from TV and movies and books about what makes women desirable.

I feel cheated that I’ve lost so many years playing this game.

 

October 2006

“Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”

I’m at a funeral for a friend.

Her family gathers around her casket at the burial site and a soulful older woman begins singing this song. Soon, the whole family is singing together, a hymn that I know intimately, one that I had sung hundreds of times in my Southern Baptist Church.

In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever

’til my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.

It feels like a lie.

My friend didn’t believe in Jesus. I haven’t seen her in years, but I know that much. She loved the idea of magic and truly wished that it existed in this world. She believed in the beauty of a phoenix rising from ashes. She loved symbols and ideas. But religion? Never.

She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t tell anyone what her plans were. She just did it.

With her father’s gun.

On a Friday night.

It’s not until this moment, as her body is lowered into the ground, while her family sings a song that she would have hated but is the only comfort that they can find in this day, that I begin to reconcile this stark contrast.

I begin to believe that people believe what they find comforting–or at least what validates or supports how they want to live life.

And when they can’t live out their beliefs, they destroy themselves. Or others.

And so I think that wherever she is, she is happier than she was on earth.

 

June 2010

“Idumea”

I’m leaving Piqua, Ohio, driving on I-75 South, leaving another funeral.

This time, it is my husband’s close friend and co-worker. A guy he had shared a desk with for the past three years.

It’s one of those deaths that makes you think, Really? Bled to death from a burst vein in his throat? The doctors couldn’t do anything about that?

It feels like a cruel, cruel mistake. Like he went through the wrong door and it slammed behind him before he could turn back. On one side of the door is him. On the other side is his wife, his two stepchildren, and his three-year-old daughter.

True, he wasn’t in great health. He chewed tobacco and subsisted on a diet of cheesy, meaty Penn Station sandwiches that he called heartstoppers. And, yes, he bragged about never touching vegetables.

But he was only 33.

On the way home, I continue listening to the Cold Mountain soundtrack that I’ve just bought. When “Idumea” comes on, I feel my heart tighten in my chest.

And I am I born to die?

To lay this body down!

Soon as from earth I go

What will become of me?

I think about my own mortality.

I want to know that I’m more than a collection of emotions and memory, fueled by food and organs, all covered in skin. I want to be more than all the decisions that I’ll spend my entire life either being proud of or rationalizing.

I want to believe that some part of me is more than brain and body. That part of me is immaterial. Immortal. Impossible to fall into ruin and decay.

I think about whether it’s possible for me to believe in no afterlife. But I’m not sure I have it in me to believe in nothingness after life. My mind cannot even fathom it. But I still think about it the rest of the day.

The thoughts circle in my mind for two more days.

Then, I decide to live.

In the following week, I decide to truly learn about how to portion my food, how to balance what I eat and how much of it to eat. I start drinking water all day every day. I buy a cardio kickboxing program on DVDs.

I drop from 175 pounds to 135 pounds in the next ten months.

 

January 2012

“Swim” by Surfer Blood

My husband and I are driving on the Hana Highway that runs along the northern coast of Maui when we see dozens of surfers out on the waves. We’re riding in a Mazda5 with four of our friends: Ryan, Cate, Ben, and Sarah. It’s the second day of our week-long vacation away from cold, gray Ohio. Our plans for the days are eating and doing whatever looks interesting.

And this looks interesting.

We pull over at an overlook and pile out of the car. Ryan, Cate, and I lean against the railing, pointing at the surfers’ daring moves. They paddle like fiends toward the incoming waves. We watch them stand up on their boards, wobbling until they find their balance. The waves are high. They are tunneling rolling monsters that swallow the surfers over and over again, only for more surfers to replace them. After a wave takes a few of them down, one or two of them escape the wave and skid away safely onto calm waters before they sit back on their boards, looking for the next one. Always the next one.

Holy shit! Did you see that? Get that guy! Ben points out to Doug, who is attached to his camera, angling for the best shot.

We laugh.

Somewhere nearby, a car blares this song over its speakers and it’s all too perfect.

I. Am. So. Happy.

Six months later, I hear this same song at an outdoor music festival in Columbus, Ohio. Instantly, I’m back in Maui.

 

August 16, 2013

“Taking You Home” by Don Henley

It’s 2:00 a.m.

I am in the Mother & Baby room after giving birth to my daughter. All the nurses and doctors have left. My husband sleeps on the couch next to my bed. My new daughter sleeps in her glass bassinet next to my bed. Aching and hurting everywhere, I lie on my side and watch her sleep. No music is playing, but from somewhere in the recesses of my memory, this song comes forth.

I had a good life, before you came. 

I had my friends and my freedom. I had my name.

Still there was sorrow and emptiness, ’til you made me glad.

Oh, in this love, I found the strength, I never knew I had.

I am utterly amazed by myself. That I could grow this perfect human being. That I could survive something as painful and soul-testing as birth–and then live to talk about it.

I know that everyone calls this love, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that what I’m feeling is something completely different.

It’s humility.

It’s awe.

I know now what it costs to bring life into the world.

For the rest of the night, I slip in and out of consciousness as I play this song over and over again in my mind, watching her sleep.

 

“Heartbeats” by The Knife

September 2013

I’m on maternity leave. My one-month-old daughter sleeps in her bassinet upstairs while I’m washing dishes downstairs. Next to the kitchen, the washer is whirring in the laundry room. Late summer sunlight peeks through the blinds. My eyes are so heavy. I find it funny that sleep is not like other things in life. When it presses down on you, you feel light. But when it leaves you, you feel heavy.

This song comes up on Pandora and I’m bobbing my head to it. Then, my hips are swaying. I drop the dishes in the dishwasher over and over again, almost mechanically, getting lost in the song. But that is my life now. Mechanical, repetitive movements chugging along at regular intervals. I close the dishwasher as the song heightens.

I turn it up. And up. And up some more.

It’s in my ears, in my mind, in my limbs, filling me up until I’m nothing but the notes of this song. I close my eyes and I’m pivoting on my toes, twirling and sliding, arms uplifted like the ballerina I never was.

I am lightness.

I’m in the living room, the dining room, I’m everywhere. I’m nowhere. I’m beyond this life that is now mine: endless repeating tasks, punctuated by a face that I’m desperately in love with. One that I’m forever tied to.

I’m my former self.

I’m a self that I have never been and probably never will be.

I’m above.

Until the song slows and quiets and ends. Until its heartbeat stops.

In the silence, I sit down on the ground, resting back against my heels.

Then, I cry.

 

“You’re All I Need to Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

October 5, 2014

I’m at Ryan and Cate’s wedding.

The air is chilly, but we’re warm in the party barn at Polen Farm in Kettering, Ohio. We have danced and danced. We have taken this reception by the arms and spun it around. Melt With YouCareless Whispers, Tongue Tied, Jackson 5’s ABC. I dance the shit out of this reception with Cate and Julie and Katy and Suzy. Even Sarah dances. Jason and David spend the hours knocking back beers and mixed drinks and wine. Ben and Chris are reminiscing. It’s a glorious four hours.

Then, this song comes on and we separate into slow-dancing couples. As I dance with my husband, I look over at my newly married friends, feeling beyond happy for them.

Josh pulls away from Suzy and tugs at Sam’s sleeve. He says something to him. Then, he’s on Ben’s sleeve. Then, Sarah’s. Soon, he’s got everyone gathered in a circle around Ryan and Cate.

And that’s how we finish the song. Dancing in a circle around these good friends, Cate’s face pressed against Ryan’s chest, trying to cover her tears.

I. Am. So. Happy.

For them.

 

January 2016

“Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons

It’s 20 degrees outside and I’m running.

It has been two weeks since the miscarriage. The bleeding is over. The healing begins. I start exercising again, but the dance/cardio-kickboxing doesn’t feel right. I suddenly realize that I need to feel at least a little sexy to want to dance.

And I do not feel sexy in the slightest right now.

So I put on layers, a jacket, and gloves. If I could run in a sleeping bag, I would.

My eyes watch out for ice and snow along the sidewalk as I run past an apartment complex, the post office, and several doctors’ offices. Past the body shop and the Donato’s. My breathing hits its rhythm and the burning in my legs has numbed.

In these bodies, we will live.

In these bodies, we will die.

And where you invest your love,

You invest your life.

And that’s it.

That simple truth makes this all the more bearable.

We love. We lose. We feel pain.

And if we’re really lucky, we find our truest selves along the way.

All of it is beautiful.

Because all of it is life.

Life_quotes

Through Miscarriage

December 3, 2005

And so today, I give myself to you, to share our lifetimes together, be it the best times or the worst.  And if I ever want out, I promise to you to remember today.  To remember you, to remember the first time that I ever saw your face, to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain.  I promise to never give up on you, on us, or our life together.

***

When you love someone who is hurting, your first thought is to find a way to make their pain go away. But as you live with someone who is hurting, you begin to understand that covering the pain doesn’t help them. And erasing it is impossible.

The only way out of pain is to go through it.

All you can do is listen.

Wait.

And be ready with open hands when they finally reach out.

***

December 31, 2015

We step off the elevators and round the corner.

Maternity Unit, the sign reads.

A hospital employee scans her ID and the doors open for us.

“This way,” she passes another sign. Maternity Triage.

I think, Here? This is where we’re going?

While my nurse prepares a space for me, I sit on a bed across from a curtained area where a woman breathes and moans. It sounds like she is nearly in active labor. When she is silent, I feel jealousy. When she moans, I feel compassion.

“Why are we here?” my husband asks. “Just to kick you in the teeth while you’re down?”

***

I knew what kind of guy I was falling in love with when we ended one of our first dates by sitting on the monkey bars of his old elementary school.

We were 21 years old, enjoying that hazy week of post-Christmas and pre-New Year freedom. Life was full of movies and eating out and driving nowhere in particular while listening to Radiohead.

We climbed to the top of the bars, our breath coming out in white puffs. The night sky was clear and studded with stars. I was freezing. Absolutely freezing.

And I didn’t care.

We held hands.

Then he said, “I forgot the specific heat of steel was so low.”

I laughed. And laughed.

He was the one. I already knew.

***

 “We just need to get your IV started, draw some blood, and do some paperwork,” my nurse says as she taps away on the computer’s keyboard. She has mercifully moved us to the back of triage, away from the laboring women. “And then you’ll be all ready.”

I lift my hand to my lips and close my eyes. Start an IV… Here we go.

“Are you okay?” she asks in a tone that really means, Are you feeling a lot of emotions right now?

But I’m not thinking about the fact that my baby has died. Not right now. Instead, I’m wondering how hard it’s going to be for her to find a vein.

“So my veins are really small and they roll…” I warn her.

“Let me just take a look.”

She places the tourniquet high on my left arm, rubbing, prodding, tapping. She examines my forearm, somewhere comfortable. Then to the right arm. Repeat.

“Okay, I see what you mean,” she says.

Back to the left forearm.

The cool alcohol swab. The stick. The immediate sting, the burn. I squirm. I yell. The needle pulls away.

I know she hasn’t found a vein.

As I start sobbing, I reach out for Doug and bury my head in his neck. All of my emotions rush forward. All of my thoughts from the past two weeks explode in my consciousness and I let them run wild.

Our baby has died.

Two and a half weeks ago.

I want to let it go.

I don’t want to be its tomb anymore.

Isn’t it enough that I’m ready to let it go?

I don’t want to hurt anymore.

My nurse rubs my knee through the blanket covering my legs. With my eyes squeezed shut, I can hear her sniffing. That is how I know that she is crying too.

***

Shortly after we started dating, Doug saw his mother for the last time.

Lost to her delusional world of paranoia and conspiracy, she cut everything and everyone loose. Parents. Siblings. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. As she slithered away from everyone who loved her, she curled into herself as a last means of self-protection.

In a last ditch effort, Doug tried to talk to her one last time. That was thirteen years ago.

When it ended badly, I held him and his tears darkened my sleeves. I cried with him as he mourned the loss of his living mother.

It was just one of the first emotional storms that we weathered together.

***

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But after I came to grips with the words no cardiac activity, I was ready to let go.

The nausea left. The fatigue lifted. My metabolism picked up.

But no blood.

No spotting.

My body held on. It refused to let go.

So I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

How do you find your way into a body that doesn’t want to open up?

***

My nurse re-examines my right arm starting at the forearm. She rubs and prods my arm, moving down until she is gripping my fingers. She rolls my fingers this way and that, my knuckles moving in waves. The cold swab, the sting of the needle again.

So much hotter and sharper.

I yell. I cry.

She pulls the needle out. “I’m so sorry, hon… I’m going to ask someone else to take a look.”

My teeth start chattering. I start shaking. Doug continues to hold me as I heave.

***

I remember the True Love Waits campaign of my teenage years. Our church’s youth group strongly supported sexual abstinence before marriage.

Sex is the most special gift you can give your partner, a speaker crooned on one of the free promotional VHS videos that our youth group received, along with a catalog to purchase TLW rings and attire. Don’t you want to give your partner the best?, the speaker asked.

As if sex with your spouse is always sacred.

As if sex with your spouse is never selfish or disconnected.

Bullshit, I say.

Sometimes, sex is Oh my God, I need you right now. Sometimes, sex is I love you so much. Sometimes, sex is well, it’s been a while so… Sometimes, it’s we better do it tonight if we want to conceive in this cycle. Sometimes, it’s we’re not going to be able to do it again for the next six days so…

So, bullshit, I say.

Sex isn’t the most intimate gift you can give your partner.

The most intimate gift you can give your partner is your vulnerability. Taking the risk to show the face that you hide from everyone else.

That’s intimacy.

Sex in marriage is a given.

But vulnerability in marriage is not.

***

A second nurse comes to my bed. She rubs her hands together as she circles me, searching for opportunity. She goes for the crook of my left arm.

Burning, pain, more tears.

Then she goes for the soft underbelly of my left wrist. Hot, searing pain sends me shouting and swearing. My legs and feet brace against each other, rubbing up and down, trying to feel anything besides the searing pain in my wrist until she finally pulls the needle free.

“Is it always this difficult to find a vein?” the second nurse asks sensitively.

I shake my head. “It’s because I’m so dehydrated. I always drink a lot of water before a blood draw, but I had to fast for the anesthesia.”

The nurses talk quietly of calling in anesthesiology.

I wonder if we can just leave. Just pick up our things, get the Cytotec on the way home, and spend the night cramping and making bloody trips to the toilet. Even if my body doesn’t want to do that, at least it would be familiar with the process. At least maybe it would let that happen.

I continue to cry into my husband’s shoulder, where a dark circle of tears grows.

***

The last time I cried this much was when my father passed away.

On the night before the funeral, I tried to explain to Doug how I was feeling.

It’s like our family has been holding onto this rope for the past ten years and life is spinning us around. Everyone’s letting go, and flying out in different directions. And soon, no one will be holding on anymore. There will be nothing left of this thing that held us together for so long. And it makes me wonder what family really is when you all let go of the rope.

***

The anesthesiology nurse brings in warm compresses. My first nurse brings in more blankets. Your hands are so icy. Maybe the warmth will help.

More prodding, more rubbing, more tapping, more discussion.

Here? This one looks promising. Oh, what about this one? Wait… is that a tendon? Are you kidding me?

Through my tears, I start laughing. A delirious, dark laugh. I open my eyes to see both of the nurses eyeing my husband’s hands.

“He’s got some nice veins,” I say. “That’s why I married him.”

They chuckle with me.

“Too bad we can’t do him,” one of them says.

The fifth stick—in my right hand.

The sixth stick—underneath my left arm.

My arms are throbbing. My physical pain peaks. My emotional pain flatlines.

Then miracle of miracles—the seventh stick.

The vein that finally accepts the IV, just above my right wrist.

Ecstatic to have finally accessed a vein, the anesthesiology nurse immediately threads it, forgetting to draw the blood.

“Does that mean you’ll have to stick her again?” my husband asks.

My first nurse nods.

He uses his fingers to wipe the sides of my face.

“Let’s give her a break,” my nurse whispers.

***

The cool IV fluid snakes its way through my veins. The image starts a train of thought.

I think about the anthropology unit that my students were studying just before we left for Christmas break. We learned that in the Mayan world, snakes were symbols of transcendence, creatures that could cross easily between two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead.

I wonder how I can become like them.

I wonder why it has been so difficult for me to cross back into the land of the living.

At night, my mind replays and replays the silent, motionless figure, floating on the ultrasound screen. Those definitive words, No cardiac activity.

During the day, I feel the weight of simply living while carrying the dead with me. Everywhere I go.

I think about letting go. The prayers, the wishes, the ways that I have resumed my old life. Wine, coffee, sushi, deli meat.

Hoping the mental clarity would speed things along.

Hoping for blood.

***

I open my eyes for the first time in thirty minutes. My blanketed legs are covered in empty needle packages, gauze, and tape. My arms are bandaged here and there. My first nurse pulls a new needle from its package and lets it fall among the rest of the debris on my legs.

I don’t even care anymore. I just want this to be over. I give up.

I go slack in Doug’s arms.

But with the eight stick in the right hand, I tense and cry out, “Mother fuck!”

“Look, she can’t do this anymore,” Doug says. “I’m shocked she hasn’t passed out yet.”

Back to my left hand, the ninth stick. It slides in, no sting.

“Okay…” I mutter. I lean back against Doug’s shoulder. “Okay… This isn’t awful. I don’t like this one, but I can do this one.”

A silence in the room.

“It’s not coming out fast, is it?” I ask.

“No, but it’s fine. Just relax,” Doug says.

“Deep breaths, Sharon. Relax,” my nurse says.

A whole minute passes.

“Try making a fist if you can,” she encourages me.

I try, but closing my hand knocks my fingers against the needle. I imagine not having hands or arms. I imagine sliding out of this moment and slipping into the future.

Another minute passes.

I loosen my grip and focus on being empty.

Because that is what this is.

A complete emptying.

Of emotions.

Of plans.

Of life.

Of death.

Letting it all go.

And hoping that there is something left at the end of it.

***

To move like a snake, you need to give up your arms, your ability to hold on to anything. That’s how snakes flow seamlessly from one world into the next. They don’t cling to anything.

At the same time, nothing can hold on to them. Snakes need to dodge and evade. They need to slip through fingers. They don’t linger in memory or balk at the future. They exist only in the present. They can move easily between both worlds because they don’t love. Nor can they be loved.

But I have loved. Even if my arms could not hold, I have loved.

This is the pain of miscarriage–to love without reward. There is no newborn cry. No tender face or fingers or toes. Perhaps not even the knowledge of knowing the gender of your child. The pain of miscarriage is to love without the possibility of a future. There is nothing but love and pain.

My journey back to the land of the living will not be seamless. I will not slide smoothly past all of these memories, emotions, doubts, fears, and uncertainties.

Because I have loved.

The challenge, then, is to learn how to move through the pain even though I still love.

***

“So this is the consent form to have the procedure of dilation and curettage,” my nurse holds a paper on a clipboard. I carefully lift my right IVed hand to sign it.

Dilation. From Latin, dilatare. “The process of becoming larger or wider.”

Curettage. “A surgical scraping or cleaning by a curette.”

Curette. From French, curer and from Latin, curare. “To cure.”

To enlarge and cure.

***

Staring at the overhead lights in the OR, my anesthesiology nurse clicks a vial of medication into my IV.

“You’re going to start to feel light now.” She rubs my forehead, my hair. Her eyes are bright, but sad. It makes me think she has been through this, too.  “You’ve been through a lot, so just rest now. We’ll take good care of you.”

A final tear slips out of my right eye. She wipes it away.

What I think is, This isn’t working. I wonder when this stuff will finally kick in.

***

Loving is easy. Even natural.

It’s living with love that is hard.

The only way to avoid heartbreak is to choose not to love.

But if you choose to love, grief will take you down into the land of the dead. As you struggle with the grief, you will bleed. If you panic, your struggle will tear away pieces of you. If you panic too much, you will rip yourself to shreds, like an animal caught on barbed wire.

But if you can lift your head when the blood comes, you will see that the bleeding comes from hooks, buried deep in your flesh. Hooks to everyone who loves you. Hooks to your spouse. To your children. To your family. To your friends.

If you can lift your head while you are still bleeding, you can see who is still holding on to you. Then, you can reach up and take the hand that is reaching out for you.

You can move together.

You can climb out.

You will be scarred. You will be stretched. You will be larger, wider, and more flexible.

But the next time you’re caught in grief, you’ll remember to stop and see who is holding on to you.

And who you need to let go.

***

“Sweets?”

I know that voice.

“Hey, baby girl.”

His warm hand on my face.

“Doug?”

“Hey, Sweets. It’s all over. You did great.”

What I remember is

… to remember every tear we shed in joy to cover every tear we’ll someday shed in pain.

What I think is

We can get through this. I promised him I wouldn’t give up.

What I say is, “My wedding vows.”

“What? What Sweets?”

“My wedding vows,” I say louder. My eyes flip open. Light and shapes.

“What about them?” he leans closer.

“I meant them.”

He rubs my hand. “Sweets…”

“I meant them. I want you to know that.”

Design by Franchesca Cox, 2010

Design by Franchesca Cox, 2010

 

 

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