Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: loss

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.

download_20160414_161820

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.

Working the Heart

When I first started running a few weeks ago, I made it a mile.

Then, it was two miles.

This past weekend, it was three miles.

Hands and heart

Photo by Rachel Kay Albers: http://www.rkaink.com

 

Okay, really, it’s a mix of jogging and walking. But the stretches of jogging have been getting longer and longer. I fix my eyes on a point ahead of me and say, That far. Make it that far and that’s enough for now.

But then I get there and I feel that I can go on. Just a little farther.

And then I get there, and I feel that I can still go on.

This is how I’ve been running farther and farther.

I don’t tell myself that I’m going to run three miles. I break it up into small chunks. I go at a reasonable pace.

Normally, my thoughts are directed externally. Driving, writing, teaching, talking, fixing dinner, cleaning. My thoughts go ahead of me and my body follows. But when I run, my thoughts turn inward. My body goes first and my thoughts follow. It’s a different way of occupying myself. I think about right now, the pavement, what’s coming up ahead, how I’m feeling. Is it soreness? Is it fatigue? Or is it pain?

If it’s soreness–move on.

If it’s fatigue–slow down.

If it’s pain–stop.

What has always bothered me about running is the breathing. If I run too quickly and can’t get my breath, what kind of a workout is that? I don’t want to burn out before I really have a chance to run. As long as I can breathe, I reason, I can keep going.

So I settle on a slower pace.

And it still works my heart.

It’s kind of poetic, maybe even romantic–this notion of working your heart.

Because that’s how I would describe love: It works your heart. It stretches it. It breaks it. It mends it and makes it.

But none of that happens unless you’re willing to see how far your heart takes you. Maybe it keeps pace as you go down the long path. Maybe it cries out in pain and your journey is cut short. Maybe it brings you back to a path you abandoned long ago, once you have the strength to travel it.

But no matter how far you’ve run, you’ve still moved forward.

As I run, my heart works. And works. It works overtime. It beats and beats beyond what I thought it could handle.

And this is good.

As I slow to a walk, I feel the endorphins surge, a warm wave washing over me. I pull off my gloves and let my fingers cool against the winter air. I unzip my jacket and the wind rushes in. My breathing slows. My heart slows and slows until it’s beating as softly as it would if I were asleep.

But it has not stopped.

This is the feeling I long for–the feeling of a warm river flowing through me. A pillar of warmth, of energy, reaching down into my heart before pouring out of me like a fountain.

This is that light feeling, as if I am helium rising, tethered to the physical world only by this body.

This is spiritual, a kind of alive that no word approaches.

But it only comes if you work the heart.

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.

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