Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Grief

Three Years Gone, Dreaming of my Dad

Maybe it started when I fell while I was running.

That was June 1st.

5:30 a.m.

Maybe that’s when this rough patch started.

While jogging in the dark, my foot must have caught on a piece of raised sidewalk and I fell forward and hit the concrete just as a minivan was passing me.

Left knee, right knee, left hand, right hand. I saved my face. (At least physically.)

The minivan kept going.

For a moment, I just lay there against the concrete, gauging my pain.

I hurt. But I didn’t think I had broken anything. I couldn’t see how badly I was scraped up, but I felt it mostly on the outer edge of my left hand and my right thumb, which was warm and wet. Blood, for sure.

What else to do but keep jogging home with bleeding hands?

***

I’ve only had a few dreams of my dad since he passed away three years ago, but they’ve always come around this time of year.

In the first dream, I walked into a convenience store and was looking for a jug of milk to buy. (Who knows why. I hate drinking milk.) After I pulled it out of the refrigerator case, I saw four men sitting at a small booth, playing a card game. All their heads were lowered, studying their cards.

I walked over and even though I couldn’t see their faces, I just knew that one of them was my dad. I don’t remember what I said to him, but we talked like we always did — our eyes looking at other things, words passing between us that didn’t really resemble anything like what we really wanted to say.

Like, I miss you.

Like, I love you.

Still, whatever we said was comfortable and familiar enough to make us feel like all was well.

It was then that I realized that my ride was leaving.

“I have to go, Dad.”

“Don’t leave,” he told me, still not looking up. Still staring through his cards.

I kissed him on the head, complete with his bald spot, and I told him that I would come back.

“It will be too long. I don’t want to be alone,” he said.

“I swear, I’m coming back, Dad.”

He didn’t lift his head. He just sat there, sad and withdrawn, just as he did for the last few years of his life. Completely alone, even in the midst of company.

I kissed his head again and walked toward the door.

When I got to the door, I turned around and told him, “This is where we can meet, okay? This is where we can find each other. I’ll come back. I promise.”

I woke up feeling empty.

I’ve never been able to get back to that convenience store.

***

A few nights ago, as the anniversary of his death approached again, I dreamed again of my father.

It was a scene I’ve lived a thousand times before — riding in the car next to my dad, his left hand balanced casually on the steering wheel, his elbow resting on the edge of his open window. He was talking a mile a minute about everything and anything, the way he did when he descended into periods of mania. At first, it was normal. Just dad talking and talking and talking while I was looking out the window.

Then, it started to snow. And snow. And snow.

The drifts piled up around the car as we drove. But then he veered into the parking lot of the K-Mart in the town where I grew up. He started driving in a circle, talking faster and faster, the tires kicking up snow around us. I told him to slow down, but he wouldn’t. As the car picked up speed, we spiraled once, twice, three times, four times.

With each pass, I tried to keep my eyes on a fixed point outside of the car. The McDonald’s. The apartment building. The ATM. Anything that would keep me anchored to reality.

Maybe, if I could keep my eyes on something, I could slow us down.

Maybe, this time, I could be the one to anchor both of us.

Maybe, this time, I could keep the world from spinning, keep him from sliding into depression, keep him from falling and breaking his neck.

But we kept spinning and spinning and spinning.

In my dream, I started screaming.

And then I was beside my mother, and we were looking at a calendar. She wrote down her birthday, May 9th. But then she crossed out the 9th and wrote in dark letters, May 10th and underlined it.

“What year?” I asked.

She wrote “1” and “9” very easily, but then struggled to write the next number. It came out looking like a gigantic “9” and then a “0.”

“1990?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Sure. It all kind of blends together.”

And somehow, I understood that we were deciding when we would go back in time.

We were trying to get back to a time when Dad was Dad.

***

I woke up a few hours later and went for a morning run in the dark.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment? Maybe.

I prefer to say it’s because I refuse to be beaten by a bad experience (although, there are plenty of times when I am).

It was beautiful that morning. The moon was full and still high in the sky at 5:00 a.m. I watched the sidewalk much more carefully than before and walked for a few minutes before I started jogging.

full moon

The Head and the Heart played on my Pandora station.

Darling, this is when I met you.
For the third time not the last
Not the last time we are learning
Who we are and what we were.

You are in the seat, beside me.

You are in my dreams at night.

Turns out,

it’s easier to run with bleeding hands than it is to run with tears.

***

I’m like a lot of people — I only want to believe that dreams mean something when they’re good.

I don’t want to believe that the bad dreams mean anything more than the emotions that I’m working my way through when I have them.

But still.

But still.

A Response to the “Heartbeat Bill”: My Letter to Governor John Kasich

heartbeat

December 8, 2016

Governor John Kasich:

I am writing you in regard to House Bill 493, the “Heartbeat Bill”, which would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks of gestation. There are no provisions for cases of incest, rape, or medical complications that put the mother’s life at risk. If this bill becomes law, once there is a heartbeat, no medical facility or clinic could perform an abortion.

I am truly shocked that this bill has passed both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate. But when I learned that this bill was tacked on to a larger bill that addressed child abuse, I just shook my head.

Politics.

I am currently 33 weeks pregnant with my second child. I’m due in January 2017. Our first child turned three years old this past August.

I’m telling you this because I know what it means to carry the life of a child.

I grew up in a conservative Christian household. We attended a Southern Baptist Church. I went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I memorized Bible verses in the AWANA program. I was quite good at that. When I was finally able to vote in 2000, I proudly voted a straight Republican ticket.

I was pro-life. I thought abortion was abhorrent. Women who had abortions must have been heartless, soulless, and godless. They needed to be saved from making the most dreadful, horrifying mistake of their lives. I believed that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. Only then would we be able to stamp out the evil of abortion across this country.

Abortion is murder. Plain and simple. And murder is a crime.

If she gets pregnant, she should suffer the consequences. If she wanted to have sex, she should have at least been responsible.

If she was raped, she shouldn’t make the child suffer. And are we even really sure that she was raped? Getting pregnant from a rape hardly ever happens.

Yes. I had those thoughts.

It was easy to hold these beliefs because they went unchallenged. I socialized mostly with other conservative Christians. At school, I viewed my classmates who weren’t Christians as “the lost.” They didn’t truly have a working moral compass. They needed to be saved.

And as an evangelical Christian, I should be the person who saved them.

I began my college career at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 2000. During my four years there, I met a lot of different people who did not grow up in the same conservative circles that I did. In conversations, I began to realize that some of my beliefs about social issues (same-sex marriage, poverty, race, abortion) were not automatically echoed and supported by others. I was challenged to think critically about my opinions. I was challenged to support what I believed.

I’m so very grateful for having been challenged.

Because I began to realize that the foundation upon which I was basing my beliefs on many issues was flimsy at best. What I had to support my opinions were soundbites that crumbled under the power of even the simplest of questions. Jesus never talked about abortion. But he sure talked a lot about caring for the poor and loving others. Especially those who were on the margins of society.

And then a thought occurred to me.

Why did I think it was my responsibility to restrict someone else’s choices?

Who was I to decide how someone else lived their life?

Was I so inherently right in my beliefs that what I thought about the world should be imposed on everyone else?

Once I posed those questions to myself, I was ashamed of how arrogant I sounded.

However, I have to admit that all of my changed beliefs about abortion were still vague abstractions that didn’t directly impact my life. I had never been pregnant. Privately, I wondered if being pregnant and giving birth would change my opinion yet again. Maybe I would revert to my pro-life stance of years past?

But I didn’t.

In fact, I am more pro-choice now than I have ever been.

Because now, I understand what it means to become a mother.

Becoming a mother is not strictly a physical test of endurance. It’s a mental and emotional marathon that not only requires sufficient financial resources, but also a social support network. Otherwise, you will completely implode.

My husband and I are firmly established in the middle class, yet we still found the costs of having a child to be quite burdensome. It cost us $3500 just to give birth in a hospital—and we had health insurance. We spent another $12,000 on car seats, furniture, diapers, formula, clothing, medicine, and other supplies. Because I wanted to return to work, it cost us another $11,000 per year for our child to be in daycare.

There were days in that first year of motherhood when I wasn’t sure that I could go on—and I wasn’t worried about the financial aspect. There were days when I wanted to be free of the constant 24/7 responsibility—and my husband and I had wanted this child.

Now, can you imagine being a 20-some-year-old single woman with a high school diploma, taking some college classes part-time while you work a job that might bring in $20,000 per year? That’s the most common portrait of a woman who gets an abortion in Ohio that emerges from the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions (p. 9).

Becoming a mother is a huge responsibility and it’s not one that we should force women to take on if they are not prepared to do so. At a time when Republicans want to slash spending on social programs, outlawing nearly all abortions would not only force unprepared, single women into motherhood, it would drive them into years of poverty as they struggle to not only provide for their children, but to do so with increasingly shrinking assistance from the government.

As I review the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions, what strikes me most is that the abortion restrictions in House Bill 493 do not seem to respond to the reality of abortion statistics in the state of Ohio. Here are some interesting facts that I gathered from this report:

  • In 1976, there were roughly 10,000 more abortions in the state of Ohio than there are today (Figure 1, p. 2).
  • Since 2001, the rate of abortions per live births has steadily decreased (Figure 4, p. 5).
  • Since 2001, abortion rates have fallen among women aged 15-34. The sharpest decline in abortion rates occurred among women aged 18-19 (15 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) and aged 20-24 (13 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) (Figure 5, p. 6).
  • Of the 21,186 abortions performed in 2014, there were only 36 instances of post-abortion complications (Table 10a, p. 26). That means 99.8% of abortions were performed with no medical complications.
  • Of all abortions performed in 2014, 53% were performed before 9 weeks of gestation. 31% were performed from 9-12 weeks of gestation. 13% were performed from 13-18 weeks of gestation. Only 2.1% of all abortions were performed after 19 weeks of gestation (Figure 3, p. 2).
  • In 2014, 510 abortions were performed after 19 weeks. Of those abortions, only 1 abortion was performed on a viable fetus. The other 509 abortions were performed on non-viable fetuses. (Table 18, p. 39).

In short, in the state of Ohio…

  • the number of abortions have decreased
  • the rate of abortions has decreased
  • complications of abortion procedures are extremely rare
  • 97% of abortions are performed before 20 weeks
  • after 20 weeks, abortions are almost always performed because the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb.

All of this information makes me question the purpose of the Heartbeat Bill, which now awaits your signature in order to become law.

Is it to decrease abortions?

I doubt it. They’re already decreasing.

Is it to protect women’s health?

Clearly not. Abortions are incredibly safe.

Perhaps passing this law is a moral endeavor?

We should not impose one group’s definition of morality over all residents of this state.

The best conclusion that I can draw is that this bill is purely political. It is a means to appease a vocal and staunchly pro-life segment of Ohio’s population at an opportune moment, presumably to give the U.S. Supreme Court a reason to revisit their decision on Roe v. Wade.

But let’s be honest here.

Many of the people who express such disgust for abortion will never, ever face a reality in which the Heartbeat Bill will ever affect them.

They are men. They are women who would never have an abortion because of their moral opposition. They are women past the age of childbearing. These groups of people can vociferously support anti-abortion laws with no consequence to themselves.

But I am a woman who is affected by this law. I’ve got skin in this game.

As I mentioned before, my husband and I wanted to have a child. We were responsible. We got married, started our professional careers, paid off debt, and made plans for when to have our first child. The importance of my right to have an abortion never occurred to me. After all, we were trying to get pregnant.

But as I held the sonogram pictures from our 20-week ultrasound for our first child, a terrifying thought struck me.

What if we had found out that our child had no brain? Or no kidneys? Or some other fatal abnormality? Would we have been able to have an abortion?

20-week-ultrasound

Truthfully, I didn’t know at the time if the state of Ohio had any abortion restrictions.

The thought scared me. That if we had received devastating news at that ultrasound, that my choices about how to deal with that news might be limited depending on where I lived.

I began to realize that, for me, preserving the right to have an abortion isn’t about “killing babies.”

For me, it’s about offering options for the grieving process.

When you already know that your child will not survive, you fall into this quagmire of grief. The last thing that you need is the government telling you what you can and cannot do in order to move through that grief. Some women find comfort in giving birth and holding their child for however long their child lives. Other women find comfort in ending their pregnancies in the womb, so their child will not be born into a short life of pain.

In Christmas 2015, I had to walk through that path of grief. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I watched the doctor show me our silent, motionless baby, floating on the ultrasound screen. No heartbeat. I do not have the exact words for how I felt in that moment. It was an awful feeling of denial, anger, sadness, guilt, and frustration.

I had the choice to either miscarry naturally or to have a D & C.

I waited for my body to miscarry naturally. But it wouldn’t let go.

After a week of carrying death inside of me, I just could not take it anymore. I wanted to move on. I wanted to let go. I was ready to move through my grief. I called my doctor and scheduled the D & C. The procedure was quick and uneventful. I had no complications. In five months, I was pregnant again.

But under this new law, if my baby still had a heartbeat, even if the diagnosis was terminal, I would not have been allowed to choose that same path. I would be forced to bear that grief for as long as my body wanted. Only then would the government be satisfied.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that all women have a choice. And because of that ruling, no woman is forced to walk a path that she doesn’t want to. No one will make her have an abortion. No one will make her carry her child to term.

In the end, it’s the mother who bears the emotions of her choice. She is the one who cries the tears. Not the advocacy groups. Not the protesters. Not the government. She, alone, lives with her choice.

And with that in mind, I hope that you consider voices like mine above the voices of those who have no personal stake in this issue. Women like me are the ones who will be affected by this law.

I am not a baby killer. I don’t disrespect life. I don’t need to be taught a lesson in personal responsibility.

I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a Christian. I’m educated, thoughtful, responsible, and compassionate. I deserve to be trusted to make my own health decisions.

Please remember that as you make yours.

Respectfully,

Sharon Tjaden-Glass

Dayton, OH 45459

 

 

My Heart is Broken

how-to-break-up-with-someone-0-1024x512

My heart is so completely broken today.

My heart is broken as a woman, who cringes at the words,

I moved on her like a bitch… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

As an academic, who values facts and information and evidence-based decision-making.

I just see how I’m feeling and go based on that.

As an educator, who values critical thinking and acknowledging the limits of my knowledge so I can learn more.

I know more than the generals. Believe me.

As an intercultural communication practitioner, who values the richness, complexity, and benefits of respectful communication between cultures.

(Mexicans) are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

I propose a complete and total shutdown of all Muslims entering the U.S.

As a mother, who wants to support her nation’s leader as a role model.

(About his 1-year-old daughter, Tiffany): She’s got great legs.

If I weren’t her father, I’d be dating her. (his daughter, Ivanka)

 

But most of all…

 

My heart is broken as a fellow American

who now knows that there are enough angry and disillusioned people in this country who would rather upend the whole system than try to fix what’s broken.

(Not paying taxes) makes me smart.

We’re going to completely repeal Obamacare.

We’re going to tear up our trade deals.

We’re going to have a deportation force.

We’re going to build a wall. And Mexico is going to pay for it.

 

My heart is broken as a Christian

who values fighting for the poor and the marginalized

How smart can poor people be?

who values humility and forgiveness

Why should I ask God for forgiveness? I don’t make mistakes.

who values compassion

There are simply too many examples to list here. And they all break my heart.

***

I want to believe that I’m being overdramatic. That things won’t change that much. That our system of checks and balances works well enough to stop this ridiculous man-child from engaging in nuclear war when someone insults him.

But there are enough people in this country that have decided that this

racist

sexist

uneducated

narcissistic

6-time bankrupted businessman

buffoon of a human being

is more qualified to be president of this great country than someone who has spent her life serving the public.

***

I fell asleep at 11:30 last night and woke up at 2:40 a.m. with a pit in my stomach. The baby was going crazy, flipping and nudging and turning inside of me. I tried to go back to sleep.

I couldn’t.

I was so sick with worry.

So at 3:10 a.m., I looked at my phone. Hoping for a miracle.

Instead, I lay there in the darkness, overcome with anxiety, tears coming down my face. Deep denial coursing through me.

It’s impossible, I kept thinking. There aren’t enough people in this country that could possibly think he’s a better choice.

And then the fear.

Replaying all the hurtful, painful, idiotic things that he has said over the past year and a half.

And then imagining all the people in my life who voted in favor of those very words.

All the people who really thought that placing this man in the White House would actually result in benefits in their lives.

(For the love of God, I wouldn’t even let this man into my own house , not to mention in the same vicinity as me or my daughter.)

Listen, Americans who voted for Trump.

Donald Trump cares about no one but himself and his image.

He taught us that when he spent $20,000 on a painting of himself. Out of funds from his “charity.”

Write it down. Carve it in stone if you want.

Americans who voted for this man, he will break your heart.

Just as you have broken mine.

trump-photo

Without a Name: When a Parent has Bipolar Depression

I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.

To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?

Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)

Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.

Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.

Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.

We called it paranoia. We called it depression.

It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.

Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.

***

I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.

His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…

“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.

I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”

But he just kept saying,

“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”

Dad_2005

***

Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.

I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”

I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.

We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodinessWe called it angry old man syndrome.

When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.

The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.

But we all knew that wasn’t enough.

More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.

It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?

Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?

Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?

***

In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.

He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).

The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.

But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.

To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”

“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.

“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”

“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.

“A gun.”

My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”

“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”

God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.

***

My mother. Oh, my mother.

The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.

Sometimes, there are no words.

***

Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.

We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.

“What are you laughing about?” I asked.

She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.

My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.

“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”

He hit the dashboard harder.

Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.

My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.

Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.

“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.

She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”

***

How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?

Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?

There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him? 

Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?

But then… who would take care of him?

Who?

I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.

To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.

To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.

To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:

I promised in sickness or in health.

For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.  

But it was different for my mother.

For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.

But she didn’t.

And that is how my mother has schooled me.

She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.

Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.

And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.

SCN_0046

***

It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.

We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.

But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.

Because this wasn’t my dad.

***

I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.

I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.

I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,

This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.

Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.

Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.

But there were no markers. No maps.

There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.

To move away.

To move away.

Until he was gone.

***

I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.

This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.

You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.

Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.

And then this song came up on Pandora:

Remember when our songs were just like prayers

Like gospel hymns that you called in the air

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…

It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.

I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.

I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!

But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?

Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.

Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.

For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.

And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.

Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.

I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.

Only wholeness.

 

 

The Stories Without the Happy Endings

boat_on_lake

We announced my first pregnancy to my husband’s family at a wake.

True story.

I was eleven weeks pregnant with my daughter when Doug’s grandmother passed away. Her nine children, many of her grandchildren children, and even some of great-grandchildren flew in from all over. We had been planning to tell everyone when I was twelve weeks pregnant but… Everyone is going to be here, he said.

So there, in the funeral home, we quietly shared the news as we greeted his aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, and nephews. I was worried that it would have been wholly inappropriate. That under the great loss of this matriarch, his family would be unable to feel happiness or excitement while deep in grief.

I could not have been more wrong.

I was hugged. Bear-hugged. Kissed on the cheeks.

***

In the midst of grief, gratitude is possible.

It will even save you.

We’d like to believe that emotions are like light switches. Anger and sadness on, happiness off. Some emotions are diametrically opposed like that. And if all emotions were like that, they would be easier to understand.

But some emotions are tricky.

Some emotions make odd companions at different times in our lives.

Pride. Despair.

Love. Grief.

Disappointment. Gratitude.

***

Emotions are more like a rich cast of characters, all vying for center stage. But it’s easy to forget this. When you’re caught up in grief, it’s easy to narrow the emotions that you believe that you’re allowed to feel.

Only the ones that feel appropriate.

Only the ones that you feel you won’t be judged for.

I think if we acknowledged this, we could save ourselves some of the guilt that comes with grief.

Of all people, mothers are acutely aware that the truth is much richer. Much more complex. Much more distressing. That in the midst of your grief, you can feel contentment. Even gratitude. And in moments of gratitude, you can feel resentment and frustration.

Walking with love teaches you that every moment is rich with emotions, even ones that you’d prefer not to acknowledge.

***

Not all stories have happy endings. We know that, of course. We happily acknowledge that fact when it doesn’t apply to us. But it’s harder to own a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Harder to admit.

Harder to make it your own.

But what if we could? What if we could fold the abnormal into the normal? What if our stories didn’t need to have happy endings or silver linings?

What if our stories could be just what they are?

Sometimes joyous. Sometimes painful. Sometimes redemptive. Sometimes humiliating.

What if we could believe that all of our stories–happy or unhappy–are worthy of being told?

Maybe if we normalized the stories that don’t end happily, the ones that don’t end with an “it’s all worth it,” we could feel less blind-sided when we are struck by tragedy. Maybe we would feel less singled out when we are affected by tragedy. Maybe we wouldn’t feel like we are the focus of God’s wrath or indifference, or however we decide to frame our loss.

If more of us can talk about the hard stuff, it becomes more bearable.

Not because it’s less painful–but because we can see that we’re not walking this path alone.

Dealing with loss is more bearable when we can see that the words Why me? are so misguided. Why me? are the words that we say when we believe our stories have never been lived by anyone else.

Why me? is a lonely phrase. It reduces everything to a simple, defined concept. It is heavy and narrow, like a brick. And the more you say it, the higher you build the walls around you. The higher the wall, you reason, the safer you’ll feel.

But a higher wall doesn’t make you feel safer, does it?

The only thing a higher wall does is keep you from seeing outside.

And what a sight it is.

 

Running

I started running this week.

Normally, I stay in the warm back room of our house and work up a sweat doing cardio kickboxing, yoga, or high-intensity intervals.

But nothing has been normal for the past three weeks.

running

Image from Shutterstock

***

Shortly after finding out that our baby had no heartbeat, it was time for all the Christmas festivities. My daughter’s daycare went on a break. No rest for the weary or the brokenhearted. Mercifully, my husband took vacation so that we could share the household chores while we waited for me to miscarry.

Christmas Eve.

Cookie baking. Church. Stockings. Christmas Vacation.

Christmas.

Cinnamon rolls, sausage, eggs, coffee. Gifts. Home Alone. Cookies. Salad. Pierogies. More sausage. Wine. More coffee. More cookies.

And then the long stretch between Christmas and New Year’s. Unstructured hours with a two-year-old. Read: attention span of two minutes. Snacks. Haphazard attempts at potty-training, (No peeing in your panties!). Obvious (yet interesting?) observations. (Mama have eyes? Mi-mouse have eyes? Daddy have eyes?) Repetitive songs (Daddy shark, de-de-de-de-de-de-de, Mama shark, de-de-de-de-de-de). Tantrums (No!!! Go away, Mama!).

The weather was miserable. Warm, torrential rains. Flooding. A deep gray settled over the sky for days. I looked out the window of our kitchen and shrugged. Figures, I remember thinking.

But there was also periodic laughing at our daughter’s new stretches of speech that didn’t quite coincide with the present situation. In Target, looking at the DVD, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, she said, Oh no! What happened to us?–perhaps asking why the Peanuts characters were screaming as they crowded together in a raft.

After the D & C, I rested. I cramped. I bled. I took the Motrin (I never could tolerate Vicodin). I stopped eating cookies and chocolate. I dumped the leftover bottles of wine. Then, I ate sweet potatoes, kale smoothies, salads, and chicken. I started going back to bed at 10:00 and started getting up at 6:00.

Daycare resumed on the Monday after New Year’s. After I dropped my daughter off at daycare, I breathed a sigh of relief. I got in my car, turned the music up, and drove home. I had one more week off before I needed to return to work.

Now, I can really take care of myself, I thought. I went home did some cardio kickboxing for 40 minutes. I felt better. I vegged out with The Office. I finished Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I ate broccoli and salmon and rice for lunch.

And then…

I decided I wasn’t done exercising. I decided to run.

And it. Was. Cold.

But I also didn’t care.

I borrowed my husband’s headphones. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and fleece-lined jacket. I turned on Pandora on my phone. I stretched.

Then, I went for it.

I knew better than to break into a sprint. So I jogged. I made it two minutes. I took a break. I jogged again. Two minutes. Break. Repeat. I watched the house numbers on the mailboxes grow higher and higher.

We live next to a huge, beautiful park and as I rounded a corner, its trees came into view. I picked up the pace. Then, I took a break.

Then, the hill.

I was going to do this thing. I was going to go as far as I could. I was tired of playing the Why me? script over and over again in my head. It was pointless and sucked up all my energy. It was time to start playing a new script.

I can come back from this. 

I won’t let this swallow the best of me.

I have been through worse. I have felt worst.

I can be a real badass when I decide to be.

Even if this happens again, I’m going to be okay.

***

In The Gifts of ImperfectionBrene Brown gives ten guideposts for wholehearted living. As I read through them, two of them struck me as the lessons that I’m learning right now.

  • Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness. (i.e., dumping the cookies, the wine, and the Why me? script)
  • Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty. (i.e., having the willingness to try something new, even if I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it)

***

I pushed into the hill, taking deep breaths, pulling in the oxygen, pushing out the burning in my legs. I kept my eyes on the ground and told myself, one more step, one more, now to the next mailbox, one more step.

When I reached my limit, I was halfway up the hill. I knew today would not be the day that I got to the top.

And that was okay.

I walked the rest of the way up the hill, turned around, and made my way down.

I’m normally a cold person. I’m always seeking warmth.

But as I started descending that hill, I could feel the blood warming my fingers. I could feel the warmth everywhere. It was 20 degrees, but I felt warm.

And I had done that.

In a dark, cold season of my life, I had made myself warm.

Running is not my usual routine, and I probably won’t stick with it in the long run (pun intended). Maybe I’ll go back to kickboxing. Maybe I’ll start swimming (although I’ll need to find a pool to do that.)

I’m open.

But sometimes, to get out of a rut, to change the script, to start over, you need to do something different.

 

 

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

 

 

Underneath Miscarriage

IMG_20160103_134054

A Christmas card we received on the day we found out.

 

Death surrounds new life, but it largely goes unnoticed. It starts in a womb where the death, birth, and growth of cells happen every month. A tiny fertilized egg trusts its fate to this volatile environment. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

About one year ago, I wrote these words in one of the final chapters of my book, Becoming Mother.

I just recently lived to experience the pain of these words.

Truth be told, I had a miscarriage before I was pregnant with my daughter. But it happened immediately after I got a positive home pregnancy test. Just as quickly as the news came, it was taken away. It felt like a mistake. Oops! That wasn’t meant for you.

I was never able to really own that pregnancy.

But this miscarriage, this one that just happened, this one is all mine.

This pregnancy was different. Every pregnancy is different, they all say. But from the day of ovulation to the day this baby’s heart stopped, I felt that something was off. Although I’ve never been one to place much trust in intuition, my radar was on high alert this whole pregnancy.

On the day I ovulated, I felt like I had a war going on inside of me. My right ovary hurt, my right Fallopian tube ached, my uterus contracted and tugged in hot spasms. I had never felt anything quite like this, so my brain settled on the idea that I was miscarrying. Although… how could that be? I’m just now ovulating!

I came home from work, still in pain, still confused. By the next day, the pain was gone, but I was so bloated and swollen I had to wear loose fitting pants.

As timing would have it, my annual gynecological exam was the following week and my midwife told me that it had probably been a ruptured ovarian cyst, especially since the pain was now gone.

Okay, an ovarian cyst… Strike one. But maybe I can still get pregnant.

And I did.

After I got the positive pregnancy test, I calculated my expected due date: August 1, 2016.

Huh… That doesn’t sound right.

I re-entered the date of my last period. Same answer. Of course, it was the same answer, but it didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel right.

I gave the pregnancy test to my daughter and told her to give to my husband. I thought it would be cute. He was still in bed, still groggy. He rolled over, looked at it, and asked if there were two lines there. I said yes.

He seemed underwhelmed, so I asked him what was wrong.

“I’d just feel more comfortable about this if you hadn’t had so much pain when you were ovulating.”

Husband doubting the good news. Strike two.

At five weeks pregnant, I was reeling. I had lost my emotional footing. I was so irritable that I couldn’t stand myself. Absolutely everyone was pissing me off. A colleague belaboring a point. My husband leaving dishes in the sink. My daughter not wanting to get in her car seat. My students not doing the reading. Every time someone pissed me off, I had to talk myself through it. This is a stupid thing to be upset about. You’re only feeling this way because you’re pregnant. Calm down and don’t say something that you’ll regret later.

And then the foggy thinking. I was so much foggier than I remember being at the end of the third trimester with my daughter. One day, my brain switched over from knowing it was Tuesday to thinking it was Wednesday. I rushed to create a lesson plan for my Wednesday class in one hour when I had another day to do it. Only as I was about to walk to the class did I realize that it was really Tuesday.

At six weeks pregnant, the extreme fatigue started. No. Let’s be real. It was extreme exhaustion. Between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. every day, I was utterly useless. I had to work, sure, but I was completely checked out mentally. If I could leave work early, I did. Once I made it into our house, I immediately crashed on the sofa. Not enough energy to get upstairs.

This baby was kicking my ass. And I still wasn’t telling anyone about it, save my  mother.

Then at seven weeks pregnant, on the morning of Monday, December 14th, I was brushing my teeth and looking in the mirror. And I had a horrible thought.

I’m not pregnant anymore. 

I wasn’t reeling.

I wasn’t foggy.

That day, I was tired, but not nearly as exhausted as I had been.

Maybe I’m not pregnant anymore.

What a morbid thought! What the hell is the matter with you! Think positive. Maybe this is just going to be an easy pregnancy. 

That week, my digestion slowed to an absolute crawl. I started eating smaller meals more frequently, and I felt better. Then, the nausea started to kick in and I took comfort in it.

See? There. I told you.

At eight weeks and one day, I went in for the first ultrasound. For days, I had been prepping myself mentally for this.

But why?

I had never had an ultrasound where a doctor had given me bad news. They had always been exciting. I had always left with either good stats or pictures to show off.

Yet in my head, I went over the scenarios.

A baby in a Fallopian tube.

A dead baby.

A baby with no head.

A baby with no legs.

Two babies, both dead.

After each scenario, I would chide myself.

What the hell is the matter with you! What kind of mother are you to be thinking such morbid thoughts? You’re going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re not careful.

Imagining my child dead. Strike three.

***

In the days after I received the bad news that the baby had stopped growing at six weeks and six days (i.e. the day before I had my first thought that I was no longer pregnant), I felt the full gamut of emotions.

Anger.

Sadness.

Frustration.

I wanted to know where I had been when this baby’s heart stopped beating on Sunday, December 13th.

Was I in church? Had I been reciting the liturgy? Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord?

Was I singing “We Need a Little Christmas” to my daughter as we drove home from church?

Was I napping?

Was I doing a prenatal yoga video, my hand resting over my abdomen in shavasana pose?

I was so furious.

***

“How are you doing, baby girl?” my husband asked me on the day after we found out. The house was quiet. Our daughter in bed. Christmas Eve still a day away.

I shrugged.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“Pshhh… You’re not going to like what I have to say.”

“Just say it.”

“What am I thinking? I’m thinking, what a waste of time. What a waste of effort. We had this all planned out so that I’d have the longest maternity leave possible, given the holidays and the academic year. And now, it’s just all gone. All that coping with irritability and the fatigue and the nausea…  All of that time… My birthday, Thanksgiving, our anniversary, and now Christmas… all of it spent emotionally invested in this thing that didn’t go anywhere. That’s what I’m thinking.”

But I held back.

I didn’t tell him that I was also thinking, Let’s just get this over with so I can move on. Let’s cut this thing out of me so I can replace this empty hole with something living. Something more worth my time. Let’s just get on with this so that I can stop being so damned depressed and start feeling happy again. 

Doug leaned back in his chair, a frown on his face.

“It wasn’t a waste of time, Sweets. Don’t think that.”

I shook my head.

“It wasn’t a waste. We made something special. Yeah, it didn’t last very long, but it was something we made together. And I think that’s nice.”

His words cut me. And what I bled was the truth that had been too painful for me to admit.

I had loved this baby.

Yes, this six-week-six-day-old baby, which medical textbooks call a “fetus.”

I loved it.

Me. The pro-choice woman who had also been comfortable using the word “fetus” instead of “baby.”

I loved this baby.

All of my anger and frustration had been window dressing for the simple fact that I was sad to lose someone that I had loved.

And here I was, denying it. Because denial was easier than facing the truth. That I had lost someone that I had loved. That I could feel so strongly about this baby that I would never meet.

I would be the only person on this planet that would ever know this baby the way that I did. And here I was, calling it a waste of timeA waste of effort.

I was so ashamed.

***

I said my good-bye to this baby on Christmas Eve after a long, desperately needed workout. Sweating, lying on the floor in the back room of our house, I rested my hand over my abdomen and cried.

I don’t want you to think that I didn’t love you because you couldn’t live up to my expectations. Just because your heart stopped beating… it doesn’t mean I didn’t love you. You didn’t have to be perfect. You didn’t even need to be fully formed. I still loved you. It doesn’t help me to imagine that you might be better off dead if you had some chromosomal abnormality–because I know I would have loved you no matter what your problems were. I would have taken you in whatever form you came. 

Because that’s love.

Irrational.

Wholehearted.

All-in.

***

This miscarriage has brought gratitude into full view again. When we’re deep in pain, we’re suddenly able to look back and identify all those moments when we should have been feeling gratitude–but we chose to feel a thousand other emotions.

Like it or not, I’m re-learning the humility of waiting. Waiting to heal. Waiting to pick myself back up. Waiting to try again.

But perhaps the waiting will be good for the part of me that foolishly believed that I could just remove death and replace it with life, just like that. A switcheroo before I would have time to deal with the pain of this loss. In a Facebook world brimming with good news and happy times, loss has become even harder to deal with. “Happiness” becomes the new default setting, and everyone seems to be experiencing it. And so it’s easier these days for loss to feel abnormal.

But the truth is, the abnormal is often the normal that we just don’t talk about in polite company.

Perhaps I need to learn that again. Perhaps I need to remember my own words.

Motherhood does take away. But it also replaces. Sometimes our hands are empty and sometimes they are full. And accepting this truth helps me find contentment and joy.

About one year ago, I wrote these words.

But it was just recently that I was reminded of their power.

 

Waiting to Miscarry

Here we have the fetus…measuring at 6 weeks… 6 weeks, 6 days actually.

No cardiac activity.

White outline, dark figure. Too dark.

Head, legs, arms.

Motionless, floating, silent.

You should be at 8 weeks, 1 day…Normally, we’d see some cardiac activity by now… And it’s measuring so small… I just really think this isn’t going to be a good outcome.

A warm tear. Another. Another.

Tissues. More tissues.

These things happen in about 16% of known cases.

Hand on my shoulder. Kiss on my forehead.

Take the time that you need, Sweets.

Pants, then shoes, then laces.

Make an appointment for next week.

Yes, Tuesday’s fine. Anytime. It’s fine. Thank you.

Only one exit out, so back through the waiting room.

Pregnant women, hands on their bellies, their fingers slowly scrolling on their phones.

Tears in the hallway.

Tears in the elevator.

Tears in the parking garage.

Tears in the car.

Hands on the steering wheel.

Tissues.

More tissues.

All the tissues.

Out of tissues.

***

Who do I need to tell? What do I say?

When did I lose it? What was I doing? Where was I?

When will the bleeding start? When will this be over?

I can’t do this again.

But when can we try again?

I knew things weren’t going to be the same this time… but this?

Why?

Why?

Why?

***

A blurry drive home.

My body, now a tomb.

My mother’s car in the driveway.

Her hug.

This is so hard.

My daughter’s hug. Her smile.

Mama sad?

We play.

We eat dinner.

We visit a park lit with Christmas lights.

This is her Christmas now.

We walk the path with everyone else.

Christmas music plays.

It’s the most. Wonderful. Time.  Of the year.

My daughter’s laugh. Her high-five to Minnie Mouse.

Her wide, bright eyes.

Life.

Joy. Delight.

The drive home.

Storytime.

Mama, Row, Row Boat.

Singing.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

Night-night.

A fire in the fireplace.

More tissues.

Dr. Pepper and bourbon.

Heavier and heavier.

Heavier still.

The fire burns, my husband drifts off.

My hand on his head.

Warm.

No more tears.

Numb.

Waiting for pain.

Craving pain.

Pain would complete me.

I am divided.

Half-alive, half-dead.

Partly grieving for what I’ve lost.

Partly grateful for what I still have.

***

My body, a tomb, but there will be no resurrection.

There will be no miracles, not even if I believe.

White outline, dark figure. Too dark.

It’s dark, dark everywhere.

The winter solstice has just passed.

The darkness slowly leaves. The light slowly returns.

I wait for it.

To the Syrian mother of triplets, fleeing from ISIS

GREECE-EU-MIGRANTS

(LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Syrian Mother,

I saw this picture of your two-month-old triplets this morning.

I thought so many things when I saw this picture, and probably in the same order as the concerns that you currently have.

Are they eating enough?

Is their mother eating enough?

Do they have diapers? Diaper cream? 

Where do they go if they need a doctor? Medicine?

Where do they sleep? Are they safe? Are they dry? Are they warm?

Then, my thoughts shift to the emotional.

How is their mother able to sleep when she doesn’t know where they will be tomorrow?

Is their father falling apart because his ability to “be the strong one” is wearing thin?

Syrian Mother, my heart bleeds for you.

I remember having JUST ONE two-month-old baby. I remember that she used 9 or 10 diapers per day. She ate about 25 ounces (about .7 liters) of formula per day. She needed routine to help her sleep well.

She needed me. All of me. There was no room for me to be anything else besides a mother.

And then I think of you. Doing all of this for three newborns. While fleeing from war.

My heart bleeds for you.

Because of this war, you cannot be only a mother.

You are not only divided by three children, but you are divided by competing roles. 

You need to be a fighter. You need to be a doctor, an advocate, a peacemaker, and sometimes a beggar. You cannot nurture when you are looking for food. You cannot soothe when you are trying to secure shelter. You cannot be who you want to be as a mother because you are investing all of your strength into survival.

Thank God, you have family. Thank God, you have friends. This network of humanity is keeping you from falling beneath the pounding waves.

Syrian Mother, I don’t know if you are Muslim or Christian.

BUT THIS DOES NOT MATTER.

Please forgive the insensitive, decontextualized comments of American governors and presidential candidates, all of them fighting to make a name as politicians who are “tough on terrorists.” They are the loudest voices that are heard across the world, and it is embarrassing.

Please forgive the indifference of many Americans who don’t see your struggles as their problem. Many Americans are so busy with providing for their own families that they allow their opinions to be formed by their favorite “flavor” of media, or worse, by the opinions of everyone around them.

But not all Americans are like this. Some of us see these horrific pictures of what has happened to your life and we see our common humanity.

I felt this way especially after I saw this photo.

 

Syrian_boy

When I saw this photo, I cried.

No, I sobbed.

For a horrific moment, he was my daughter.

He lay lifeless in the sand in the same way that my daughter does in her crib when I sneak into her room at night to watch her sleep.

For a horrific moment, I was his mother.

I imagined how desperate and horrible life would have to be for me to get into a boat with my two children and hope for the best. I imagined that I would have to feel like there were no other options than to risk the danger of crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece on a boat packed with other people.

I imagined telling my children that we would be okay. That they should hold my hand and stay close to me as we got in the boat.

I imagined my last living moments on this earth, my children torn from my hands, their screams, their calling for mama, as I would desperately try to swim to them.

I imagined screaming out to God to save them.

If not me, then please save them. I’ll do anything.

I imagined all of this.

It made me sick.

And it made me desperately care about what I could do to help.

It made me wonder exactly what was happening in Syria so I could help other Americans understand your plight. It made me read. It made me question. It made me think, and think, and think.

I am saddened and disappointed in myself that it took this photo to make me truly have compassion for what you are experiencing.

***

Syrian Mother, I am a Christian.

I am a Christian who not only accepts the religion of Islam, but also respects your religious beliefs.

I don’t think you need to change. I don’t think your religion makes you less valuable as a human being. I don’t think you’re going to hell or that God loves me more because I follow the “right religion.” I don’t think you’re misguided or that you believe in a lesser God than I do.

I believe you are a child of God. Just as I am.

As a Christian, it is my duty to love. It is my duty to have compassion and to care for you as I would care for myself. It is my duty to care for your children as I would my own children.

But I realize that I am only able to publicly share these thoughts because I’m not afraid of being murdered by extreme Christians who believe that such proclamations amount to heresy and are worthy of execution, which is exactly what ISIS is doing to other Muslims.

Syrian Mother, if you are Muslim, I can sympathize with you about this movement of extremism within your religion. We don’t have a Christian equivalent of ISIS, but we have radical, extreme, fundamental Christians who speak loudly and seek to bend American laws and policies in favor of their personal beliefs. They feel justified for these actions because they believe they are acting on behalf of God.

Something strange is going on in modern American Christianity. There is a culture of fear and xenophobia that is fueled by a lack of understanding and familiarity with Muslims. Conservative Christians are reading the Bible literally, word-for-word. They have completely decontextualized the words in the Bible from the times and the people who wrote them. Even though we live in a modern, educated era when people should be able to critically think about the issues that face us, many Christians choose to view science and rationality with skepticism.

But perhaps the bigger problem in American Christianity is that many Christians don’t understand Islam. And they don’t think they need to because they already have “the truth.”

So they don’t know Islam.

And we are afraid of what we don’t know.

Many Christians don’t know Muslims. Muslims mostly exist on TV and in news reports. The word “Muslim” is often used in the same line as “terrorism” and “bombing,” and these associations are hard to break.

But I have been blessed to have these associations broken by my Muslim students, many of whom come from Arab countries and who are learning English to earn college degrees. It is through my teaching of Muslim students that I have come to be familiar with the faith of Islam and the lives of my Muslim students.

When we returned to our class after the horrific attacks in Paris on November 13th, one of my Muslim students said,

“Americans don’t understand that ISIS wants to kill other Muslims more than Christians. They want to kill Muslims who aren’t following Islam the way that they think Islam should be followed. Americans don’t hear the news about all the bombings and killings that are happening in mosques. They only hear about the attacks that happen in Western countries.”

Syrian Mother, I am blessed to be able to hear the voices of my Muslim students. They put a face on this war that is happening thousands of miles from where I live. They establish that common humanity between all of us.

Because of that, I am not afraid of you.

I am afraid for you.

I am afraid that fear will paralyze countries from taking action to help. That the possibilities of all that can go wrong will stop us from doing what is right and good and humane.

But more importantly…

I don’t want you and your children to suffer any more.

I don’t want you and your children to feel unwanted and worthless.

***

I know that we live worlds apart. We don’t share a culture, or a language, or a religion. But we share a common humanity.

And so I believe that in our hearts, we want the same things.

I believe that…

we both want to live in a world where everyone feels accepted and valued for who they are.

we both want to live in peace.

we both want enough food and shelter for our families.

we both want good education for our children.

we both want to know that God has not abandoned us in our desperate times.

Syrian Mother, I pray for you.

But I hope that you will pray for me, too.

I hope that you will pray for all Americans who need to remember that we are a country was built by the hands of immigrants who were once as desperate as you now are.

I hope that you will pray for all Christians who need to remember that they are called to live in love, not fear.

With deepest respect and compassion,

Your American Sister

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