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Parents of lost babies and potential of all kinds: come here to share the technicolour, the vividness, the despair, the heart-broken-open, the compassion we learn for others, having been through this mess — and see it reflected back at you, acknowledged, understood.

Many thanks to artist Stephanie Sicore for allowing us to feature her little bird in our banner.

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Thursday
Sep172009

Is that Me you're talking about?

"Is she drunk?" and Alicia whispers back, "I think she was drinking in her room before dinner."

::snip::

All through dinner Lucille has been careening wildly from sadness to elation to despair . . . But as we sit down and begin to eat dessert, she breaks down and sobs silently, her shoulders shaking, her head turned away as though she's going to tuck it in under her wing like a sleeping bird.

::snip::

"What's wrong with your mom?" he asks as I carefully arrange myself next to him, trying not to get stabbed by my dress.

"She's manic-depressive."

"Has she always been?"

"She was better when I was little. She had a baby that died, when I was seven, and that was bad. She tried to kill herself. I found her."

-- The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I should probably recuse myself here because I am one of the few people on earth who didn't like "The Time Traveler's Wife." But the point remains the same: I was somehow so completely unsurprised to find out that the drunk-by-dinner emotionally vapid and over-reactive mom of the protagonist had a skeleton in her closet: a skeleton of a baby, that is.

What is it with images of mothers who've lost children in popular culture?

I'm sure in my lifetime I've run across this trope a million times between books, the movies, and the television, and yet for the life of me I can't remember many of them that I encountered prior to my own loss. Dead babies were simply a plot device or (as above) character development -- a throw-away line that explained someone's depression or alcoholism or emotional instability. "Ahhh," I can hear myself saying as I read the line, and then moved on to become engrossed by the story's main theme. Now I feel as though I'm a magnet for these storylines, and depending on my mood, and their presentation, my reaction to these literary doppelgangers has been decidedly mixed.

For some fiction, dead babies and children make great plot devices: it's a crime, a mystery, a turning point. A grief-laden springboard from which the rest of the story flows, a sometimes hidden/sometimes overt source of guilt, a crux in a relationship between parents. Recently and notably, there's been "The Rabbit Hole" (an acclaimed play which revolves around parents coming to terms with the death of a 4-year old who ran into traffic) and "Antichrist" (starring Willem Dafoe as half of a grieving couple, whose young child fell out of a window while unattended, apparently because they were next door having a moment, if you catch my drift). (Disclosure: I have not had the wherewithall to watch either of these two productions.) There's at least one recent "Law & Order" depicting a nutty babyloss mom and a few older ones with dead babies as centerpieces; and there's an MI5 from a season ago where a infant-napping goes awry and parents wind up mourning as the mystery unfolds. As many of you are now aware, the first twenty minutes of Pixar's "Up" include a poignant passing reference to either infertility or miscarriage -- a precursor to the balloons uprooting the house and the adventure unravelling as it does. I'm sure there are countless medical dramas that use this riveting ploy, but I stopped watching those two and half years ago. Too close.

Then there's child loss as character development. Think of the quiet, introverted grief-stricken father -- teetering on divorce, by the way -- who spends his life trying to travel and yet not escape the comforting cocoon of his home in "The Accidental Tourist." You just want to hug him, he looks so sad, and eventually Geena Davis does (apparently his grief just needed some fun-time crayzee!). Or another set of parents, in a movie featuring nothing but a relationship, attempting to channel their grief and save their marriage in "Ordinary People." These are "accidents" that happen to "ordinary" parents -- and we're left watching what we assume would be an everyperson, every family type of reaction.  This could happen to me; I hope if it does I find a fun Geena type chick to help me out of it.  Somehow circumscribing these people by grief makes all the sense in world -- or does it?

Sometimes the personality conclusion from babyloss is a real head-scratcher. In the TV series "Damages," Glen Close deliciously plays Patty Hewes, an evil lawer who eventually is revealed to have a violent streak, especially in regards to one of her young, female employees. In the waning minutes of the season one finale, the mystery explaining Patty's personality is finally unveiled: Her baby died. What are they trying to tell me here? Did she miss her dead daughter, who perhaps would now be around the age of her new hiree with whom she has an intense love/hate(/murderous) relationship? Or was she just fucking nuts thanks to grief? The camera passes over a gravestone, backs up to show Glen Close kneeling over it with tears flowing, and then cuts to a flashback in a hospital where things go horribly and vaguely and fuzzily wrong.   We, the viewers, are suddenly meant to understand her -- and an entire season of her icy, bitchy, wild, calculating, sociopathic and homicidal character -- completely. Just like the mom in "Time Traveler's Wife", where with a few throw-away words we're to summarize her identity, her character writ large. And it's not pretty.

What does this all say about me? Where does society (or the literary half) think I'm headed? For divorce? A murderous rampage? The bottle? Hot sex in the woods with Willem Dafoe?

:::

Maybe babyloss is more common than I'm giving it credit for: maybe it really is widespread, hidden beneath the weeds, and all of these authors and television programs are simply stating the obvious, what happens all the time and what everyone knows. Maybe this is the publicity we all need.

Recently In the New York Times MagazineGina Bellafante wrote about the novels of Jodi Picoult, and how they all seem to center on children undergoing great peril. Picoult is a best-selling author whose books have spawned movies -- but why? Why does she use this outline, and why on earth are people interested in reading it?

I remarked what a miracle it is that any child survives to the age of 6, given the exposed outlets, tumbling kitchen knives and thousand quotidian threats that are, in a new parent’s mind, colluding toward an entirely opposite outcome. Picoult laughed in sympathy. “You can’t make your kids wear helmets, you just can’t do that,” she told me. The real dangers are, of course, the ones we can’t (or refuse to) anticipate.  

So that's it. Point out the stuff I may not have thought of, expand my horizons. Is that what I am to everyone around me, the one who makes them realize and understand danger? To remind them that bad stuff comes from nowhere and can happen to anyone? And what does the reader take away from countless books highlighting a mother's worst fears?

“Maybe the average reader is not facing the daily challenges of a mom whose child is dying of cancer, for example, but she probably had an argument with her teenager that morning about something inconsequential that left her feeling frustrated and certain there’s no middle ground between them,” she told me. Picoult said she hoped in some sense that her books were the way to that middle ground.

Middle ground? Is that what me and my story represent to the general public? I'm wondering here if Picoult means "perspective" ("Things aren't so bad! We could be treating my kid for cancer!") or "gratefulness" ("At least my child is alive to fight about things like her skirt being too short!"). I would like to think that parents around my neighborhood think about me when they begin yelling at their teenagers, and slowly come to understand some nuance about appreciating life, and taking control of what you can. But frankly, I think Picoult is probably a best-seller because Americans love a car-wreck. They love sitting in fear for a brief moment, and knowing it's a fiction and not happening to them or someone they love. According to some of the anonymous comments on our blogs, some people like absorbing stories of woe and figuring they would handle it differently, or better.

That, I fear, is what I represent to many.  Alcoholics and sociopaths.

:::

I watched last season's "Dollhouse" feeling simultaneously insulted as a woman, and mystified that Joss Whedon could come up with this stuff on a weekly basis. In short, the series follows men but mostly women who are confined in a spa-like building (after signing contracts, though the pressure to sign is questioned) for a period of years during which time their memories and identities are erased. When they're needed for a "job," (usually a callgirl-slash-adventure type gig) an imprint is placed into their heads of the person/-ality they are to be for that particular job. Tension mounts throughout the season as bits and pieces of the Dolls' past flit through their consciousness. In one episode, the Dolls retain their original identities for a a few hours, and with those some of their residual memories. And one Doll -- a female sub-character -- stumbles across a baby carriage and says bewildered, "I had a baby."

"Just watch," I immediately said to my husband on the couch next to me, "her baby's dead."

Sure enough, minutes later, we find her stumbling into a graveyard to recall the death of her child. And this is why, we are left to connect the dots, she agreed so wholeheartedly to signing over her identity and memories for a period of years, never to think of them, the baby, it. To escape the grief, to escape her. To enter a mini coma. To forget (even temporarily) that horrible day or event. To let that ubiquitous Time, pass.

Strangely, that bit of character I got completely. 

Where have you stumbled across babyloss parents in popular culture?  How were they depicted?  Did you find the plot device or character development that ensued to be familiar or unrealistic?  How did it make you feel?

 

Tuesday
Sep152009

walking to remember: a GITW meetup

It's set. I'm going to Edmonton again for the Walk to Remember.

Last year I walked through the crowd and saw not just the echo of babies lost, but a cross-section of this gauntlet.

I saw mothers fresh from hospitals, turned inside-out.

I saw fathers cradling new babies but tracking the sky, following the path of a balloon set loose.

I saw brothers and sisters chasing tails, and grandparents holding hands.

I worried I wouldn't be able to talk -- not just because I'd lost my voice the day before, but because I expected, when I got up there, to be hit with a wall of grief. How could I presume to say something useful, or worthy, or fitting, or inspiring? It felt like a tightrope.

Up the stairs to the podium. A microphone waited. Families sat cross-legged on the grass. The sun was brilliant, the leaves golden and crackly underfoot. I apologized for the state of my voice with shallow breaths and then paused to look at all of them, my chest thumping.

They sat there, waiting, looking at me. These people -- hundreds of them -- love babies that died. Held them and counted toes and then drove home with an empty car seat. Some of them shifted, leaning into husbands or shushing cousins or tugging gently on antsy leashes.

Slow down.

Every now and then a father would nod, his chin in his hand. One mother, a loving arm draped across her shoulder, sat there with her face dripping tears. Another glowed with wistful peace.

This day, this event, was a living Glow in the Woods. It was elegant and thoughtful and soul-feeding. It honoured this strange parenthood, this talking to phantoms. It was fresh air and pumping blood. It was a surrounding of exquisite likeness, sameness, getting-it.

I can't wait to be there. To see Jocelyn and Chris, mama and daddy to starborne Lincoln, who work tirelessly to make this day so unspeakably magical and inclusive. We'll go for breakfast again, I hope, and eat sticky buns with tea while we sit together, an invisible fireball of mystery humming between us, a warmth I only feel in their presence and in yours.

If you're in Edmonton, Alberta -- or if you can get there to the absolutely stunning Legislature Grounds on Saturday, October 3 -- please come along. Bring however big of a loving posse you like. Go here to register. See the photographer's lovely captures of last year here, and see my photos, reflections and the speech I gave herehere and here.

Let me know in the comments if you plan on walking. If you do, let's go for a beer afterwards, or hot chocolate, or anything. A Glow in the Woods meetup. Please? Pretty please? Leave a comment here and we'll get an email thread going. We'll walk from the Legislature Grounds to a pub, or some cozy spot, and I'll need a crew of locals to make a recommendation.

+++

Tell me about your own experiences of en masse remembering. Have you walked to remember in your own city? Have you gathered with other babylost parents -- either in large, organized groups or in intimate kitchens? Why, and how does it feel?

Thursday
Sep032009

signs signs everywhere signs

'Is there someone you have who can spot your warning signs?'

'Sorry?'

'Is there anyone who you talk to. Someone who will notice any signs.'

'Can you give me an example?'

I knew exactly what she was talking about, but I wanted to make her say it out loud. I wanted to hear how she would articulate that the emotions I consider normal cohorts to grief are what she considers 'warning signs'.

I had explained upon arrival at her office that I was finished my prescription and was not planning on refilling it. Her first words?

'Oh. Oh, my.'

Ah. Signs.

WARNING: SHE IS LOOKING SAD TODAY.
WARNING: SHE APPEARS TO BE FEELING A LITTLE ANTISOCIAL.
WARNING: LET’S GET HER BACK ON THE DRUGS, IMMEDIATELY.

---

'You mentioned your temper before. And crying often.'

In my mind: ‘OH MY GOD Lady. THAT’S what you call signs? Then I’m fucking CERTIFIABLE, with or without the antidepressants.’

In reality: 'My husband and I are close. My mother and I are close. I have a good friend here now.'

‘That’s good. They’ll know you well enough to spot the signs.’

Next I tried in vain to describe the physical side effects I’d been suffering from over the previous 48 hours since stopping because frankly, I was pretty freaked out. I was dismissed, albeit in a very polite manner.

---

Walking home from my appointment, I realized with a shiver that my bare legs and flops would soon go the way of the closet in order to make room for tights and boots and English wind and rain. Why hadn’t I noticed the temperature two hours earlier? Was it the same reason I forgot to open the window for the dryer exhaust? Or why I left the milk out all day?

I imagined with the seasons changing that I might have an embroidered toque I could pull on, serving the dual purpose of alerting anyone to the difference between these infamous signs and a banal annoyed mood resulting from a hard day at work.

It could be white, with pink letters sewn in. And reversible!

On one side: BAD DAY & BITCHY

And the other: DEAD BABY MAMA

How's that for a sign?

---

I've had to take two days off from work this week after finishing my last pill over the weekend. I'm dizzy; really fucking emotional. I feel dopey and foggy and have tried unsuccessfully too many times to count to describe the weirdo tracer vibe I've got going on. Every blink feels as though it's taking me three steps further than I'd intended. Does that even make sense? I guess I'm Coming Down.

Is there a rehab for this kind of situation? Cause believe me, I'd love to go. Three weeks would be perfect. Goodbye world: I'm taking a well earned breather.

In the end, Doc's only explanation was 'heightened awareness'. I've been dulled profoundly around the edges for almost a year now, leveled out by a magical chemical concoction that has kept me on a relatively even keel.

Don't get me wrong - as opposed as I was to antidepressants in the beginning - my opinion has changed completely. I was several months into our loss when I saw Christmas on the horizon and started to lose my shit all over again. I couldn't cope. I sought medical intervention. It helped - no question. I just wish I'd known how profoundly and physically I'd be affected by the removal of said chemicals from my system.

So far, I'm hanging in there. Five days in, one tentative step at a time.

I am 100%, honest-to-goodness, wholeheartedly of the Whatever Works for You camp. I can't say with certainty I won't go back to this form of help in the future. But right now, fulfilling the promise to myself of weaning back to my 'natural state' (HA, I know) within a year is important to me. The idea of another pregnancy this year plays a huge role in my decision, of course. But more than anything, right now I just need to follow through on ONE thing. With my most basic self.

I worry minute to minute how my revived and heightened awareness will affect my progress in moving forward. How will I cope, just me?

Only time will tell.

.::.

Have you had experience with antidepressant since your loss?  Have they helped you? If so, would you mind sharing what led you to the decision, and whether or not you've decided to continue?

Sunday
Aug232009

after the transformation

Oh, ppphhhhhh… 

What do I do now?

She’s been gone longer than she was here, even counting the time she was inside me.

I’ve passed all of the first anniversaries: her ultrasound, the day she was born, the day she died on both the Jewish and Gregorian calendars.

We’ve anticipated her arrival.

Hoped deeply.

Said hello, welcomed our second child to the big world.

Loved unconditionally.

Taken her outside to breathe fresh real air.

Said goodbye.

Buried her fragile little body in a tiny coffin in the ground.

Her box of memories is full, her photo album is made. Her special soft things in jars, still smelling a little bit like her. Everything put away in the trunk that sits next to me in the sunroom, keeping me company.

Her quilt is coming along, something I am not in a hurry to finish… When I work on it, I feel close to her.

I still haven’t framed and hung her photos, but I will… soon.

Her headstone has been made, set and unveiled. Flowers planted with her placenta. Her DNA and ours stored at the hospital for research. Her birth and death certificate are in a safe place with other family documents, confirming that she really did exist, always a part of our family.

We’ve moved away and settled into our new home across the country.

Our new chapter has begun.

Now what?

*****

Today I watched as two cicadas completely left their exoskeletons and began a new chapter in their new skins, so bright green they were almost turquoise. They hung there from the branches of a tree, clinging still to their old shells, transparent wings spread, contemplating new destinations, new purpose.

It was stunning… I’ve never seen anything like it. For three weeks now I’ve been listening to them singing their songs outside, surrounding me with constant tropical melodies. I’ve just never seen a cicada before, not even in a photo.

Everything changes, nothing stays the same.

Impermanence... I see it when I look in the mirror. I look different than I did last summer. I look different than I did two summers ago. I think I look different than I did a few months ago. I’ve reluctantly left my exoskeleton, sometimes hesitating to leave it completely behind. Longing for it, for simpler times.

My old shell consists of all the mes I’ve left behind, said goodbye to, willingly or not.

It’s this next place I’m not so sure about. This after the transformation place. I can so easily tell you how changed I am from the person I was before I knew Tikva. I can describe in vivid detail how she transformed me, and for the better. But I’m not exactly sure what that means for me now… now that I’ve been transformed by knowing, loving and losing my child. Now that I’ve undergone a change I never in a million years would have chosen. Now that I’ve gotten kind of used to this new person that I am.

*****

How many children did you bring with you to Cincinnati? he asks my husband.

We have two children, but only one living. We’re here after a year off, since we lost our second child last summer, my husband answers.

I say nothing, look away even, let my husband tell him. Then I look at this new acquaintance and see the sadness and searching in his eyes as he looks at me then quickly looks down. I know what he wants to say. After a year, I am so aware of the sadness I’ve held in other people when they look at me after learning about Tikva. Some days I can take it better than others. This time I just notice it, allow the compassion to flow in silence. Nothing needs to be said.

*****

I hoped to be carrying another child by now, but I’m not yet. Still, I can feel that child’s spirit close, waiting. Sometimes I can’t distinguish it from Tikva’s spirit. I don’t think that matters. Baby spirit energy is one and the same. I think it comes from one big well.

I watch my older daughter and feel how powerful is her desire to be a big sister to a living sibling.

I wish I had a sister to play with who wasn’t a spirit, she says.

Me too, I answer. Me too.

She would have a sibling who would be almost two right now, if I hadn’t miscarried in between her and Tikva. Then there would never have been a Tikva… Strange.

Tikva would be 14 months now, would probably be walking. She would be so beautiful, that I just know for sure.

For two and a half years we have wanted to give Dahlia a sibling… One who can play with her.

We still do.

*****

It’s almost the new year on the Jewish calendar. The biggest time of the year. This is supposed to be a time of reflection, of going inwards, of making amends, making peace. I always find this time tumultuous inside, unsettling, unsettled. I guess that’s the point. I don’t know if I’m ready for a big time right now. I’m feeling especially un-Jewish right now, which is ironic as the wife of a future rabbi. Really, I just feel like climbing under the covers and not coming out until October. Until the new year, a new season.

Last year at High Holy Day services, less than two months after Tikva died, I alternated between sitting next to Dave in the sanctuary, crying, and running outside to cry alone. I resented everyone dancing in the aisles all around me. I felt no joy, no peace, no serenity. I felt isolated, empty, lost. Dave wrote angry messages to God in his journal. I did not fast on Yom Kippur. Dave and I got into a fight about something, I can’t even remember what. Afterwards I went with a friend to a candlelight vigil for babies who had died. It was one of the saddest days of those first few months after losing my Baby Girl.

I don’t feel especially compelled to fast this year either. I don’t feel especially inspired to do much that is Jewish, to be honest. Keeping kosher – in the limited way we’ve been doing so for several years – feels kind of trivial after what I’ve lived the past almost two years. That is not how I connect to something bigger, by eating my meat and my dairy separately… by fasting on Yom Kippur.

*****

There is a new layer of sadness churning deeply in me right now, a layer I’m not quite ready to shed. A space I just need to exist in for a while. I’m not entirely sure what it’s all about, but I do know that it’s less tidy, more raw than I’ve felt in many months.

It’s not the part of me that wondered how I would ever survive losing my child, terrified at the thought of forever having to hold that experience. I’ve survived, relatively intact. But I’m not settled. In fact, I’m feeling rather unsettled right now. In a new kind of limbo, an in between place.

Now what?

Now life goes on. Now life continues.

That’s it? It just continues? Just goes on, business as usual, except that I’m completely transformed in the middle of a world that hasn’t really changed much at all?

Yup.

How come I have to adjust to the same old world around me, and no one has to adjust to me?

Because you’re not the majority.

I’m not? I know and know of so many parents who have lost babies, our numbers grow every day, and we’re still just a minority? But this is all I know. What am I supposed to do with the transformation I just went through? With this new self I am sort of used to and still getting acquainted with?

*****

Tikva? Are you there? Are you still close? Is that you in the giant yellow and black butterfly I saw yesterday? In the turquoise under the transparent wings of the cicada? In the tiny bird eating an Oreo cookie outside the ice cream store yesterday?

What do I do now… still without you?

I will let myself cry for as long as I need. There are no rules around how long is enough before being done with the sorrow. You are never really done, are you? Here in this place, we know better than to create those kinds of boundaries. Here we feel what we need, when we need, how we need to.

I miss you, Tikva. I miss you differently now. But oh how I miss you still, my Tiny Love.

.::.

Where do you find yourself now? Are you comfortable here? Is it still new for you? Unsettling? Do you feel like an old hat? Transformed, for better or worse? What do things look like now, here, for you?

Thursday
Aug202009

handling the shattered nutcase

I'm not there yet. Still got a ways to go before the World can pass through me without pain.

Julia talked of toes mashed and unreasonable expectations of accommodating thoughtless acquaintances. Tash spoke of awful, awkward silences and evasions within her own family. It broke my heart to read their words. I've experienced shades of each in various circumstances. Facebook is a series of landmines of super-happy-family-ness I can barely handle. Farmer's markets bombard me with babies and moms and dads with kids on shoulders.

There is no way for them to know what it does when they tell me that he's ten months old, and he's keeping her up every night. I look the toddler in the eye and shatter, but you'd never know it by looking at me.

I'm shattered all the time. I don't have to hide it here.

Thankfully, family and friends have been extremely supportive and understanding. I don't feel rushed in my grief. I don't feel like a total nutcase that must be gently handled. They take us face front and let us tell them--as well as we can-- exactly how we feel and what we need.

Often what we need is space and compassion. But not too much space. If I don't get enough attention I start to freak out. Sometimes I feel the disappearing act I'm trying to pull on my grief is working too well.

And not too much compassion, cause seriously, what the fuck? I can handle it, whatever it is. Obviously I can handle anything because otherwise I'd be long gone by now.

Of course, I'm terrified of what else is out there that needs to be Handled, so be careful with me, okay?

Email, instant messages, txts, posts on messages boards, comments to our blogs, they give me strength. They give me a web of words and understanding that transcends time and space.

We Skyped into a birthday party for our friend out in SF. It was mesmerizing to see the faces of our friends that I can usually only hear in my mind as I read their various written missives or enjoy as their disembodied voices over the phone. This was their presence in a powerful, almost magical way.

Through the digital transformations and subtle human cues I was able to pick up that they loved us so much, and missed us a million times over. We toasted beers through the cameras, but the hugs didn't quite connect. Too many square edges on the MacBook.

It was amazing to be with our friends clear across the country, for even a few minutes. And to know how much they wanted us to be well and happy, it was heartfelt and true.

Should I feel lucky for that? There must be a better word. There should be a word for good-feelings-in-the-middle-of-disaster. Because it is that, still, every day in one way or another. The wrenching wrongness of everything we are not doing with Silas is a brutal and confusing burden to bear. We aim for grace, but like Kate said, sometimes fuck grace.

I just want to get by without breaking anything else.

My heart breaks easily. I feel it as a slice from my breastbone to the deep reaches of my gut where everything falls into nothing.

Baby carriage. Pregnant belly. Offhand baby-talk.

Slice, slip, drop.

I attempt to fall through the vacuum of his absence into a calm acceptance of whatever comes next.

The everyday awful, the sliced gut and bottomless stomach, sometimes it makes the good parts feel especially rare and fragile. When I feel happy I'm often doubly amazed. What's the word for that one? The knowing-it's-good-because-you've-had-it-so-bad?

I also know this post doesn't make much sense. But how am I supposed to make sense of the fact that it has been almost a year and... and... everything? All of this. Every word from here to a year before. Every day we've half-lived wondering what the fuck just happened to us?

But I'm not trying to understand why. What I am trying to understand is what his life and death means to me and to Lu, and how I will navigate the rest of my life with his absence in my heart.

So far, this year, all of the World has passed through that hole. There is no other way into me anymore. He is the lens through which my everything is sharpened and transformed.

I wonder if that will ever change. I wonder if there is a way to ever feel whole and true. I wonder if I want to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Do you?