The bitter and the sweet

I have a latte addiction. Over the last month or so I've had three or four chances to reflect on how I got here, on how this habit that is now second nature started, startled and transported without fail every time the memories came.

What you need to know is that I do not take sugar in my tea. I just don't. Black rates a lemon wedge, unless it's one of those fancy flavored black teas (like this one that I brewed a whole pot of the other day), and then it's straight. Herbal, green, white, roobois-- no sweetening any of them, thankyouverymuch. They are what they are, and if I don't like the smell, I don't buy the tea.

What else you might want to know is that I managed to get through both undergrad and good part of graduate school without developing a full blown coffee addiction. Oh, sure,  my first exam week, the one in the winter of my freshman year, was more or less entirely courtesy of chocolate covered coffee beans. But really, who could resist that-- deep dark chocolate goodness over the magic bullet of late night endurance? I had a baggie that I got as a gift less than two weeks prior. I budgeted my stash for optimal performance-- one bean every 30 minutes, or maybe 45, or even an hour, if the night was still young. I thought that was pretty clever-- a steady stream of low dose brain support, not much for peaks or valleys.

Anywaaaaaaay, fast forward seven or so years, and I am finding it a fun part of my morning routine to grab a cup of coffee on the way to lab or office. At the same time, I am finding it incredibly annoying that my period has been MIA for months, and that the hoity-toity doctor at the university clinic has sent me home with a prescription of progesterone and not a word of explanation. So just about when I am starting to think that this coffee thing is a great counterpoint to the windy and bone-chilling walk from where I park to where I work, I get to see the world's best nurse practioner, who, in three seconds flat, delivers the diagnosis of PCOS. I search the internets and learn of the low carb way of life that sometimes help. I read low carb books and websites, and I learn that coffee has to go, at least to start. So it goes.

It took us another year and a half to get pregnant with Monkey. Then it was the pregnancy, and me hyper-paranoid, and nauseous anyway. By the time I had given birth to Monkey I wasn't even missing coffee. Sushi-- now that was something I was keenly interested in getting back to. But coffee? Meh. Whatever.

I picked it up again when I went back to work, but only on as needed basis. And that's really how it remained up until A died-- not usually, but sometimes. I did like to order a cappuccino for desert at restaurants, but again, once in a while.

If you want a coffee lover, though, then my husband is your man. We own two traditional stove top pots for making Turkish coffee. We also own a drip coffee maker that grinds its own beans. JD was entrepreneurial in exploring locally available bean options, but for many years we also belonged to a mail service that sent us coffee once a month, service JD finally and gleefully cancelled last year as the alternative service, one that now sends us coffee pods came online. Sends us what, you ask? Pods. Coffee in the pods, for a one cup at a time machine. We saw the machine on one of the first Apprentice seasons, and the man fell in love. When friends asked what he would like for his birthday that year, I told them to pull their money and make his day. They did, and it did. We made room for it in the kitchen, but still for a long time it was his toy. Don't get me wrong-- I was happy we had it, since running a drip for one cup was a bit silly, and the stove top thing takes time.


So how did we get from his toy to my latte addiction? More or less in one jump. A died. I went to work three weeks later, as soon as I was physically able. Not the brightest of my ideas, I confess, but at the time it seemed like the thing to do. I wasn't exactly happy at work, as you can guess. I wasn't even exactly focused. The project I was doing at the time dragged, and as result, because the boss became swamped after I left, and even though I did leave her a finished document, is still unpublished. Bleh.

Ok, let's call things what they were. Unfocused is way too mild. I didn't want to be there, or anywhere, really. I had great colleagues, but I'd have rather sat on the couch and read blogs. I'd have rather slept. I'd have rather excavated my office, even. That was the project on my to-do list for the last couple of weeks of pregnancy or for when I was on maternity leave. See how well that worked out? (I did tackle the thing, a bit, last year, but it is again in need of major help. Maybe next weekend then...)

So not wanting to be at work, feeling more than a bit guilty for not getting the work done, and more than a bit pissed off that I was there instead of home with an infant, I realized that I needed something in the day to look forward to. Something that was just for me. Something that wouldn't tax me, something that was a reward for making it to work on my worst days, and a way to settle myself and get something done on my best. After a few days of little sleep and necessary caffeine, one of them splurging on a latte instead of my usual black with a lot of room of cream, that's what it became-- my ME moment, my daily latte. 

My lattes are so sweet that JD and a couple of otherwise perfectly lovely bloggers make fun of me. You put how much splenda in there? You let them put how many pumps of that syrup (sugar-free, usually hazelnut, if you care) into your order? A lot, and many (though not together-- one or the other). My latte is to be sweet, plenty sweet to cover the bitter. When it comes to coffee, I am not a connoisseur. I am an escape artist.


That year, when asked what I wanted for my birthday, my first instinct was to say "um, nothing-- what I want I can't have." A flash of inspiration later I started answering "Starbucks cards. No, not kidding." Eventually, we bought a frother thingie and, with an able assist of the pod machine, learned to make lattes at home. Six-seven months ago our pod machine broke. Sputtered water all over the place for a while, and then just gave up the ghost. JD tried to survive for a week or so, gave up, and bought a replacement. A few days later I called customer service, hopeful that maybe they knew of this ailment, maybe there was a part I could buy.

Turns out these suckers have something very close to lifetime warranty. We never registered ours when we bought it, but that didn't seem to matter. They sent us a box, postage pre-paid. We sent them the broken machine. They sent us back a new one with a note on how the old one was well and truly caput. My profit on the deal was that the new one JD bought went to work with me. For a full effect, I need to find a small microwave, to steam the milk in. I already have a spare frother. For now I am drinking coffee with lots of cream and splenda when at work, and proper lattes when at home.

When I drink either, I don't usually think about how this started. But I am not sorry that things this last month conspired to make me think about it-- somehow in this season that has been somewhat unexpectedly hard, I find it comforting to locate this link I have to my boy. In my mind, it's not a present from him, nor a consolation prize. And it goes without saying that I would rather have him than all the lattes in the world. But since this is where I am, I will have that latte with all the splenda I need. So there.


What helps you get through your days? Do you have your 'just for me' rituals? When and how did you acquire them? What do they do for you? Has that changed with time? 

'tis the season

For every adult in the kitchen there appeared to be two or three children running between rooms, blitzed on sugar from the chocolate fountain and marshmallows they were using for dipping. Wrinkled party dresses and cheeks smeared with sweetness, they were enjoying the freedom granted by their parents’ own distraction – mainly champagne and a recently restored vintage jukebox. A head collided with the stem of my glass and kept moving, unfazed, back to his friends all up way past their bedtimes.


'Cardiomyopathy is a chronic and sometimes progressive disease in which the heart muscle (myocardium) is abnormally enlarged, thickened and/or stiffened. The condition typically begins in the walls of the heart's lower chambers (ventricles), and in more severe cases also affects the walls of the upper chambers (atria). The actual muscle cells as well as the surrounding tissues of the heart become damaged. Eventually, the weakened heart loses the ability to pump blood effectively and heart failure or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias or dysrhythmia) may occur.'


One of the younger boys came in, crying over some rough play happening in the next room. He’d been wearing a toque the whole time and now pulled it off as he found his mother. He was soothed with some kisses to his cheeks and bald head before running back to the action.

“Yes he’s bald. He’s got leukaemia, he’s been in remission since March. We’ve got two more years of treatment.”

She went on to tells us about how she worries for his future; as a teen and adult will he lead an incredibly healthy lifestyle, or will he feel invincible having beaten cancer, and abuse his perceived strength?

The hostess, the wife of a friend, went on at length about how scary it must be – the thought of losing a child. How utterly terrible it would be to lose an only child.

It was right around the time the walls began to close in on me.


'Cardiomyopathy is nondiscriminatory in that it can affect any adult or child at any stage of their life. It is not gender, geographic, race or age specific. It is a particularly rare disease when diagnosed in infants and young children.'


He found me on the front porch, trying to regain control of myself, tears streaming down my face. I was as embarrassed as I was upset and wanted to scream when he asked me what was wrong. I stared through the picture window at the enormous twinkling tree he and their two kids had decorated that morning. I forced some deep breaths and pulled out my mobile to call a taxi.


We finally received Sadie’s post mortem report a few weeks ago. Any hope I had been holding on to that it would reveal some extraordinary insight about her condition was dashed. Waiting had given me a reason to tuck that part away; I could put off thinking about future children because I didn’t yet have all of the information I needed. There had to be something else, some tiny scrap of information resembling an explanation for it all. Going through the document with her doctor made me face what I have been refusing to believe since he told me so on the day I met him. We would likely never find out the cause.

With nothing left to wait for I know I should be thinking about what I expect from the future. Our genetic counsellor told us that based on what information they do have, the odds of us having another child with cardiomyopathy are 1 in 10. She chose to pitch it as a 90% chance that any future children will be perfectly healthy.

My husband asked me afterward whether I’d buy a lottery ticket given those odds. My answer was simple. Of course I would. Because I know I would survive losing.

We’ve all become much too aware of the fragility of life, regardless of what took our children from this world. I would like to hear how other babylost mamas who went on to have more children came to the decision to try again. How long did it take for hope to outweigh your fear?

darkness, and light

Within light there is darkness, but
do not try to understand that darkness.
Within darkness there is light, but
do not look for that light.

~ zen quote ~

Settling in for a wait at the chiro's office, I grabbed a copy of the National Geographic and sat back to read the feature article: "Our Vanishing Night" It explores how man's desire and need for light had affected our lives, our reproduction, and that effect is spilling into the animal world, affecting migration, predatory patterns, and our relationship to darkness.

"Light is a powerful biological force", it said, birds get drawn to it and that resulted in heads-on collision onto buildings. Nocturnal animals are at higher risk of being preyed upon because man's urge to have light had resulted in them being more easily exposed to predators.

The presence of artificial light is affecting animals' breeding and migratory patterns, and not to their advantage. Turtle hatchlings are lost by the hundreds of thousands each year because they are confused by the artifical light source and lose their orientation, and thus lose sight of the ocean, where they need to go home to.

In humans, rates of breast cancer has been linked to nightime brightness of neighborhoods.

The article ended on a grave note- with our power to create light, we have forgotten the scale of our being; we have become blind to our place in the Universe... we think we have control, but in fact we may be wreaking havoc, upon our very own world.


I closed the magazine and thought of how light is so often over-rated. Overly esteemed. Overly yearned for. I pondered my evolving relationship with light and darkness...

When I was young, I was scared of the dark. I had to sleep with the light on. Then an adult will come and turn off the light after I have fallen asleep. My grandma had to come with me to use the toilet during the middle of the night, otherwise I would leave a whole trail of lights through the house.

Then, at some point, I finally awakened to the wisdom of my body and of Nature and I realized that my body needs the dark. It needed the dark to be fully rested. It needed the dark to repair itself. It needed the dark to regulate my biological rhythms. Light resembled noise to me at night. They were intrusive, talkative and annoying. At night, I needed the dark. Now I like to sleep under a thick blanket of darkness. It feels safe, and neccesary. And not just me. The plants too, and the animals. Everything needs the dark.

And then of course, once, I saw an entire sea of stars in a black sky. Enveloped by darkness, with no light trying to assert its presence, I felt I saw through and through galaxies and universes and witnessed every single star in my eyes, every single twinkle of light traveled from light years beyond to meet with my mundane being and I was bowed over. Totally humbled. Without the dark, no beauty; no gasping in the face of the power of what just is.


From the moment we learned that Ferdinand had died, it was darkness for me. The nurse dimmed the lights to give us privacy after the horrible news was announced. But I guess symbolically it was a pronouncement of our baby's fate, and a gesture of acknowledgment of how our lives had become from that moment forth- dark, gloomy, sad, oppressively sorrowful.

So often and so many times I have written of sitting in the dark, being in the dark. Strangled by the dark. Suffocated. Blinded. Trapped.

But I also found comfort in it.

The light was too piercing. The light, it represented blatant joy and insensitivy of the other. Like the friend who wrote me about her glorious day with her children, gallivanting with horses and singing to rainbows. That was a blinding light she sent me, piercing into my darkness, saying "Boo!" to me in the throes of my woes. It seemed to me she said, Look! I am in the light. Life is beautiful and gorgeous, can't you see?

And I pulled my blanket closer around me, shut my eyes to the glaring bright, and turned my face to the wall.


The thing is, I need both. Darkness, and light. They are inseparable, and essential.

Darkness is not forever, it will turn around and show its other face, the light.

But, to have darkness turn on its own time is different from me flicking on a light myself. Or someone swaying a kerosene lamp right in my face.

I have seen the light, I have.

It comes from the depths of darkness. It comes from the other pools of darkness. The light comes from fellow bereaved.

And therefore it was welcomed. That light is not glaring, loud or self-righteous. It had nothing to prove. That light, from fellow bereaved, is just the right glow. Like a warm, kind nod to me, acknowledging my grief journey and sometimes, just that, and it flickers off again. But I know then that I am not alone in the dark, and darkness cannot be forever.


To know that light will come again is important. Darkness is vital- for healing, for rest, for solitude and contemplation. For dreams and for beauty. Light provides something different. Like an exhale after a long holding in of the breath. A change in pace and rhythm. An opportunity to evaluate things in a different light.

We celebrate the Winter Solstice. We watch, as the days grow shorter and shorter, and the nights, longer and colder. We hold out till Winter Solstice, then, we turn off the artifical lights and throw a match into the fireplace, welcoming the light back, enjoying the blaze of warmth and glow while darkness still surrounds us. We go out in the cold dark night, bundled up but still feeling the nippy cold. We raised our heads and look to the dark sky, and over the horizon, wondering about the next new day.

This year, I want to sit and wait and watch the first sunrise after the longest night of the year. I want to see the first light come through; I want to witness that promise, for centuries, that the light shall return, even after the longest night. I need to see that the promise will be kept. I will watch the first light crack through the dark, and watch the embracing dance between dark and light as the long night gives way to the new day. I wish to see that intimate connection.


I need both: darkness, and light. They are essential to my being, important to my grief journey. In between are subtle nuances, but I shall not explain.

Photo by Nicholas Hughes, From Verse 1 of the series In Darkness Visible

I loved this photo, the works by this photographer. He seems to have found that transient time and place where darkness and light fuse seamlessly. They need to strike just the right balance as he releases the shutter... so we can see that darkness and light indeed do need each other, and with passion too.

Whatever you need this season, whether it is winter or summer for you now, I wish for you whatever you yearn for and whatever you need, to nourish yourself from the very depth. Be it light, be it darkness.


My husband and I became engaged a few months after moving out of our cohabited rental apartment.  He was visiting me from his new job and temporary apartment on the East coast; I was roughly 900 miles west of him with a one-semester gig, living in a rental room within a house of students.  We giggled nervously about our lack of communal abode, and then I said, with love-struck naivete, "Home is where you are."


It was one of those developments were you got to pick your model, and within, some variables of your new house.  We thought we lucked out with location (down a long driveway off the road, backed up into a grove of trees with a creek and trailhead beyond), and set about selecting tiles and cabinet faces.

It was a unique, open floor plan with quirks -- not your typical prefab house -- and yet, it never felt like ours.  We made decisions with an eye toward resale.  Even though my husband had just started a job here, and I moved my dissertation writing to my new office, we never thought we'd be there forever.  (That said, we had no idea where on earth we might otherwise be.)   We chose white where I would have preferred color; tan where I would have preferred black.  It was pretty, composed, and put together.  I cringed every time I put a nail in the wall for a picture.  It wasn't us.  

From my windows I espied foxes, deer, and turtles.  Woodpeckers, blue heron, cardinals, finches, the occasional hawk.  We welcomed our dog Max into our home here.  The bedroom where I lay despondent after discovering I was miscarrying was a lovely deep blue-gray with high ceilings.  I labored with Bella all night in the living room, my cat Tucker (who had journeyed from the midwest with us) by my side.  We brought Bella home here, through our attached garage.  She had a lovely yellow westward-facing room on the second floor.  We dreamed of another baby here.  And yet, the house lacked soul.

When I pulled out of the driveway for the last time, Bella in the backseat, 12 weeks pregnant with Maddy, I got a little teary, but I realize it was probably stress more than anything.  I left behind no close friends, and save for one, no fabulous neighbors.  The memories that occurred in that house were less tied to the house and its structure as much as they were simply knotted up with my life.


I realized I wanted to live in my current home about 10 feet beyond the front door.  It was warm.  Even though it was enormous, it was comfortable.  It felt like an old sweater. (A one-hundred year old sweater, in fact.)  It had soul.

We moved and I immediately began taking down wallpaper and painting and choosing what I wanted -- this was my forever house.  I picked bold colors.  Defiantly nailed holes in the walls where I wanted my stuff.  To this day I find myself staring at features -- the window on the second floor landing, the arched, leaded windows around the front door.  The dutch doors, the views of the yard out the southern-facing windows.  The beautiful renovated master bathroom we inherited.  And some mornings -- even one I distinctly remember only days after Maddy died -- I often find myself stopping in my tracks, staring out of a window thinking, "I can't believe I live here."


I knew from experience that the baby wouldn't sleep in a separate room until at least six months of age, so we never set one up before she came.  But I had it mind -- the two back to back rooms on the third floor with the cute window seats, funky angled ceilings, and amazing night views would house my children.  We'd re-do the god-awful third floor bathroom, and I could hear bathtime in my heart, bouncing off new white and glass blue tiles.  Tucking one in, padding a few feet over, and then the other.  The big room on the second floor, across from our bedroom, where Bella slept for the moment, would become the playroom.  I envisioned moms sitting on the U-shaped bank of window seats warming their backs in the window while children played on the floor in front of us.

I am thankful I did not have to take anything down, close a door, or redecorate.  My father quickly dismantled the bassinet we had set up next to our bed, and chucked it in the attic.  Thus ended any physical presence of Maddy in our house.

Bella remained in her room, the would-be-playroom, and does to this day.  Maddy's would-be room  is now my husband's office, which was not a difficult transition seeing as we never even painted.  The god-awful bathroom is still god-awful.  Bella's would-be-room is her incomplete playroom, a project I started with a vengeance, but now have trouble finishing, wondering about the permanence of sky blue paint and those pesky nail-holes.

Don't get me wrong, a large part about why I love living here lies just outside of these four stone walls.  My new neighbors are the best I've ever had in my life.  The medical community in my new location is top drawer.  We're closer to family than we were in the other house.  

But when Maddy died there was never a question about whether we were staying or moving.  And a large part of that, was the house.  Maybe it was because she never saw it, she didn't literally die here.  Maybe it's because I was fortuitous enough not to have painted or decorated or moved furniture or even set up a changing station.  Maybe it was because her presence was never given enough time to make this its home, that the house does not make me miss her more.  Maybe it is because home, the dilapidated shotgun version with both doors blown wide open so you can see right through from one  yard to the other, with the wind-stripped walls and craggy, leaky roof, barely covering my family huddled under a table, lies within my heart.

I know people who have moved from their houses when disaster struck, and were blessedly relieved to leave that part of their life behind.  Growing up, I knew a family who designed a home with their two children in mind -- and one died of cancer shortly after they moved in.  They sold it.  I remember thinking I could never live in a house where a room was already designated, if that person had ceased to be.  I know people who would probably love to move from where they are, to escape those ghosts of rooms stark empty, but the current housing market or jobs won't allow it.  (But then, I'm also asking, given the chance, would you move anyway?  Was the death just a push out the door?)  I know people who have moved because it hurts too much to wake up to the familiar, and seemingly cursed, sense of empty.

I feel extremely fortunate that my house welcomed me back from Children's Hospital on a bone-chilling February night, and never let up its embrace.  There should be more footsteps here.  Another voice.  Another occupied room.  More toys littering the stairs.  Maybe it's because she was never here; maybe it's because the house is so full of ghosts to begin with that Maddy gets lost in the cacophony.  

What was your relationship to your house after your child(ren) died?  Had you already created a space for them?  What happened to that space?  Did you move or wish you could to escape the memories that are intricately tied with the space in which you live?