Tag Archives: child death

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t

We were sitting by the pool, draped on a set of decrepit matching white beach chairs—me, B, B’s mother, B’s sister. I was covered in a towel so no one would see my pathetic body in my bathing suit. It was June; the baby had died the end of February. I hadn’t felt much like exercising, and I wasn’t ready to be in a bathing suit, or, rather, I wasn’t ready to see myself and be seen. 

“Have you thought about it?” B’s mother asked. “Having another?”

She said it so nonchalantly, like it was nothing to her when it was everything to me. I couldn’t replace my son just like that, couldn’t snap my fingers and create another, a baby to take his place. Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t? 

B’s sister slipped away, into the pool, completely removing herself from the conversation.

When I didn’t answer, B did it for me, “We didn’t go back on birth control, so if it happens, it happens.”

I thought of them in my purse, the birth control pills I’d refilled but not told him about, the tiny round dots in their little plastic slots; I thought of the endless times I’d said I was on my period over the prior months rather than submit myself to the process of baby creation, baby replacing. I thought of the doctor, and how he said we had to wait six weeks before we could try again, and how we did wait those six weeks, and how we did try again, and again, even when I didn’t want to, even when I said no. 

B’s sister was pregnant, due in the middle of the summer. She was in the pool no problem, paddling slowly back and forth completely unashamed of her round body. She would have the first child of the family, not me. 

Not me. It was like my son had never existed. Everyone was moving on. 

The thought of what I didn’t have, the hole left by my unmentioned dead son, made me brazen in my speech in a way inappropriate for my gender. “We did.” I never talked back. I knew better.

“We did?” B’s brow furrowed.

“Go back on birth control.”

That’s a marriage, isn’t it? Telling each other the difficult things? We were supposed to tell each other the difficult things. 

B’s mother produced pamphlets from her pool bag and started dropping them onto my lap one by one. How to Know When to Have Another Baby. A Women’s Place in the Home. Raising Your Family After Grief. Yadda yadda yadda. I opened none of them, but I saw all of them. “It’s your job to raise a family,” she told me. “Your job to be a mother. You can’t just turn away from that. It’s God’s plan that your son died, and it’s God plan that you have another.” 

I fumbled the keys to our condo out from under my chair and stood up, the towel firmly pressed around my middle. “If it’s God plan that my son is dead, that is not a God I want. I don’t believe God would want me to replace him.” 

B said nothing; he did not speak up for me, but instead chose to follow his mother into the pool to splash around with his sister while I fumbled back to our condo as the sun passed over. He said nothing all afternoon, went to dinner with his parents where I was not invited, and then came home and said nothing all night. But he stood behind me in the bathroom, me at the sink, him with his arms around me and his hands as fists against the counter, while I poked the pills out of the package one by one and let them find their way down the open hole of the drain. Each disappearance another black strike of dishonor to my son. 

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The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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The Dead are Cold (And Other True Facts)

My son is beautiful. He is seven, almost eight years old. Tall for his age, with a head full of brown hair that he refuses to let me cut because he likes it long. His eyes are greenish gray, and they stare right into me with an understanding much beyond his years. He is an avid piano student, but some days he hates playing. He reminds me of myself in that regard—when I was a kid, I told my organ teacher that my hamster had bit me in the finger so I couldn’t play, but then I went home and played what I wanted to play instead of what I was supposed to. 

My son is kind. His favorite toy is a giant stuffed brown bear. He still sleeps with it at night, but he will also share it with other children when they are sad. I worry for the day when he will decide he is too old for toys, that I will cry. His favorite color is blue, and his favorite clothing item is his tiny pair of blue overalls where the straps are so worn that they slip off of his shoulders. 

My son is smart. He’s already in third grade. He went from pre-K straight to first because he already had the fundamentals down cold. They said he was “smart,” and “needed to be challenged.” He brings home a new book almost every day, but he prefers to read it to me rather than the other way around. I only help him when he asks, and he rarely does—and all his books are far above grade level. He can’t draw though. He comes home from school with stick figure drawings that have graham cracker crumbs stuck to the edges, but I am proud of them.

My son is proud of me, and of my writing. Or, at least, I like to think so. 

My first major, national publication was for a parenting magazine called ‘Brain, Child: A Magazine for Working Mothers.’ I wasn’t horribly enthused about it, and I didn’t tell that many people. One I told, a professor in my graduate program, replied, “Oh, are you a parent?” I didn’t know how to answer that question. I never do. 

My son is dead.

*

The first dead body I remember seeing was when I was eighteen years old. I was a new youth leader for a local teen coffee house. It was New Year’s, and Renee and Stephanie were riding home in the back of a station wagon with one of their families—Stephanie’s, I think. A drunk driver came down Highway 120 and plowed right into the driver’s side of their car; everyone inside was killed instantly. I attended Renee’s funeral as both a representative of the coffee house and a friend; we were not that far apart in age. Because she had been on the passenger side of the vehicle, Renee was, for lack of a better term, more intact than Stephanie and thus had an open casket. I waited to see her for over an hour, listening to the people around me cry. By the time I got up to the casket, the line behind me wrapped around the funeral home. I stared down at Renee, her eyes closed, her skin the pasty white of overdone makeup, her hands with fingernails still lacquered in solid black gently folded across her stomach. Her dress was white, and I remember thinking that Renee would not have worn a white dress. I remember reaching out gently, to touch her cheek that was completely devoid of the normal pink color. I remember how cold she was. I remember nothing else until I sat in the driver’s seat of my cherry red Camaro, smacking the steering wheel over and over with my fists and bawling my eyes out because this “little” girl was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. 

And she was cold.

My entire life, I’ve been afraid of dead things. When I came home from work one night to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl that I kept on top of my television cabinet, I called B, my then-boyfriend, to come and scoop it out for me. When my cat Tigger died, I couldn’t look at the body and had to go in another room while someone else took it away. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. My son was different though. His tiny body was still somewhat warm from being inside of me. Stiff though from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30; we would never know exactly. When I held him, it was amazing to me how light he was. I don’t know what I had expected; at four pounds, he was substantially lighter than my jumbo-sized 22 pound cat, and he felt like he was floating in my arms. At the same time, I felt like I was floating above him, like it wasn’t real, and I took in every detail—the tiny bit of hair scattered across his head, the way his fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap his dead fingers around mine, fingers that were long and just perfect for playing an instrument. It didn’t seem right that my son could be there, that he could be whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. 

The one thing I didn’t look at when I held my son was his eyes; I don’t know the color of his eyes. I never will. It seems important somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were.

I’ve begun to forget his face. It’s harder every day to remember what he looked like. I never heard his voice, his laugh; I won’t ever know these things. He was burned, his remains put into a little box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm and later scattered somewhere unknown to me. His things are gone; he is gone. I have no part of him left, nothing physical of him to hold, to see. I have no proof of his existence; he only exists in my head now. When I miss him, it feels like I’m being gutted. There is no way to make it okay. There is no part of him that remains. 

*

The first time I saw my son, he was nothing more than an image on a screen. A strange mix of brown, sepia, that produced a recognizable image—a nose, eyes, even tiny fingers. A human. A baby. It was hard for me to reconcile the image on the screen with me, to believe that I was really growing a baby inside of me. When the technician asked if we wanted a copy of the ultrasound, I eagerly took the picture. I scanned it in with my new iPhone and sent it to essentially everyone I had ever known. It was the first time B, the husband, was at all excited.

The ultrasound spurred me to clean out my junk-mobile of a car. I had the messiest car ever, and I had for years. It started when my commute time to work doubled; I would eat food driving both to and from work and then throw the wrappers into the backseat. The more I traveled for work, the more things appeared—an extra coat, random shoes, pants, shirts, books. For all I knew, there was something alive back there. The pile was so high that it surpassed the center console in height and threatened to spill over into the front. It got to the point where it was just too overwhelming to even consider cleaning. Of course, this meant that now that I needed to install a carseat back there, there was a lot of work to be done. I didn’t dare ask the husband to help me. It was my fault, my mess, and he never even rode in my car anyway. 

I pictured my son while I was cleaning. I imagined that he would grow, grow up, grow out of the carseat. Sit in the front with me after he turned twelve. Starting driving at fifteen and a half. Many times during the cleaning ordeal, I had to wander away. Out of the garage, down the block, getting air. I wasn’t sure how I had driven so long with the car in that condition; I suddenly understood my need to drive with the windows down as at least five bags of trash made their way to the dumpster, with several more bags awaiting their end destination of Goodwill. Exhausted, I never bothered to clean out the trunk. I worked hard enough during my day job that I didn’t want to do anything more than I had to.

I was a merchandising manager for Party City while I was pregnant. Halloween pack-up was well underway, which involved a great deal of ladder climbing and frequent sitting on top of rolling ladders when I got tired—which happened all the time. People worried that I was working too hard, but my doctor supported me. The level of work I was doing was in the same league as what I had been doing pre-pregnancy. Since it wasn’t a new routine, it wasn’t a problem. I almost wished it would be. Ten hours on my feet while pregnant made an extremely long day.

By the time I got home most nights, I was too tired after an entire day of work to do anything else. B had a specific list of daily chores for me: dishes, cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, anything pet related, and anything the husband didn’t want to do. I never got to the dishes or the cleaning or the vacuuming. The cats were like my children, so I took care of them. I cooked meals because I was hungry, but frequently grumbled in my head that the husband should cook for me once in a while. When he bitched that things around the apartment weren’t done, I chucked a pillow at him and called him an asshole. He wasn’t the one working fifty hours a week while growing a human being inside his body. He wasn’t working at all. 

“Do you want to quit your job then? Is that what you’re saying?” He leaned on our breakfast bar.

“I didn’t say that. I just said that I’m tired and need a little rest every now and then. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” I bit my lip. I was crying, again. Damn hormones. 

“I do everything around here,” he replied snidely. “I pay the bills.”

That was all he did. He didn’t have a real job. I was the breadwinner, but I couldn’t quit—I held the medical insurance policy. The husband was wrong, I was sure, but I nodded slowly and got up to make him dinner; I imagined that someday soon I would be cooking for both me and my son, and it didn’t seem weird to me at all that B wasn’t in that picture. 

*

B and I didn’t name our son until we held him. I had just finished The Mortal Instruments, and I was absolutely in love with the name Jace. The husband was in love with naming him after his grandfather and the slew of men on his side of the family who carried the name Erich. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name Erich; it was just so old fashioned. We argued back and forth about it, electing to waiting until the baby came to decide. Somehow then, February 26th, 2010, I looked into my son’s eyes and held my finger in his tiny fist, and I knew his name was Carter. I conceded to Erich as a middle name, because I didn’t have the energy to fight. It didn’t seem to matter anyway.

*

When you are expecting a baby, especially your first, people find it helpful to fill you in on all the little facets of pregnancy and birth. The first thing they tell you is that childbirth will hurt. A lot. They aren’t lying. I’ve heard it referred to as taking your lower lip and stretching it over your head, and though I haven’t tried this particular activity, I can’t imagine it even comes close. I don’t know of anything that does. The pain will go away though, they tell you, once you hold your baby in your arms. Now this is a lie, as it does not take into consideration those who do not get a living, breathing baby; for us, the pain does not vanish. The next thing people tell you is that stretch marks will eventually go away—another lie. Sure, they fade and turn a freaky white color, but they never disappear, not completely. Yet another thing I remember learning is that you burn a lot of calories when you breastfeed, and that many women lose baby weight in this manner. I’m fairly certain this is true, based on research I did pre-pregnancy. For me, however, this was yet another lie. 

Some things people just don’t talk about. For instance, they don’t tell you that one percent of pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is defined as death after twenty-four weeks. They don’t tell you that things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes. No one tells you that babies can die. They don’t tell you that your body postpartum will be irrevocably changed. 

A stillbirth baby, especially at full-term, is such an unexpected and sudden loss that people often forget you have gone through the birthing process and need to recover just like any other woman. You might receive pain killers, but no one tells you what they are for. They don’t tell you that you’re going to hurt like hell as your womb shrinks back to its normal size and shape; they don’t tell you that you might need help with simple physical tasks; they don’t tell you that you will bleed for weeks after and that you cycle will change forever. They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body, since the baby is dead. All of the little details go by the wayside in favor of making sure that you are “okay” and that you are not going to leave the hospital and promptly throw yourself in front of a bus. 

The biggest thing that no one told me when my baby died was that my breasts would still produce milk. It wasn’t really anything I thought about once he was gone, not until it happened. My body didn’t understand that there was no baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it to myself and make the natural process stop. I called my OB right away, and they had me wear a sports bra two sizes too small that I stuffed with cabbage leaves. They apologized for neglecting to inform me, but it meant nothing. To add insult to injury, not only did I not have a baby, I stank like cabbage. My body had betrayed my mind. As a society, we are largely concerned with how we look, and here I was with the body that comes post-baby and no baby to show for it—a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before and a plethora of stretch marks. No amount of exercise would make those things go away, not completely. I was shaped differently, inside and outside. I was different, and this went unacknowledged.

March 2010 was the time that they took the population census. I did not fill out the form when it came in the mail the first time, and I didn’t fill it out when it came in the mail the second time. I never filled it out, instead choosing to rip it into pieces and stuff it in the kitchen garbage like it had never come at all. When May rolled around, the census workers started coming to people’s houses. One rang my doorbell. I went down the stairs into the entry hall and pulled it open. 

“Hi.” It was an older woman with hair like my grandmas and a bright red vest that identified her as a census worker. “I’m here because you didn’t fill out your census form. I just need to collect your information.”

I tried to shut the door, but she stuck her foot in it. “It will only take a few minutes.” She was very persistent, and I left the door open just enough to see her face as she asked, “How many people live in your household?”

“Two,” I said to my feet.

“And they are?”

“Me and my husband.” I tried to push the door closed then, but she wouldn’t move her foot.

She was scribbling on her clipboard. “And how many children?” She didn’t even look up as she asked. 

“None,” I snapped. “None. My son is dead.”

I slammed the door in her face.

*

I constructed a world in the months after Carter died. A world inside my head where the imagined was real and the real was imagined. In that world, my 37 week OB appointment never happened. I was not an hour early. I did not stop at the store for apple juice. I did not leave my coat in the car even though it was the middle of February. The nurse never hooked up the heart monitor; I never heard her say the baby’s heart wasn’t beating. I didn’t watch an ultrasound screen where the baby didn’t move. This world where the nurses asked about what I did for a living and shoved Kleenex in my face and distracted me while we waited for the doctor and the husband; this world where the doctor told us he was “so, so sorry,” where he gave me the option of going home and waiting for labor to happen naturally or going into labor artificially; this world where I laid in a hospital bed in labor for 22 hours to give birth to a dead baby. This world is not the real world, and I know that. 

If I think too hard, what I’ve constructed completely unravels. 

My son is beautiful.

My son is kind.

My son is smart. 

My son is dead. And cold.

Two years after Carter’s death, I purchased a memorial brick by the lakefront. The city planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from the shoreline; it’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between. It didn’t seem to grow much, and I was struck by the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up would never grow—the stunted tree surrounded by bricks surrounded by flowers was the perfect tribute; clumps of purple and red and pink that took away from the fact that each brick was all that was left of a life.

Every year, tiny growths appear between the bricks. Weeds, or perhaps flowers. Signs of life that will be gone come winter, because everything dies. Winter brings snow and ice, coating the ground and making it impossible to remember him. I visit the tree on the anniversary of his death every year I am in the state, to place my hand on his brick and be able to touch him. A simple reminder. If it’s winter, I can never make headway in the frozen-over snow. I can get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only ever break through to ice. Carter is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate. Death.  

On the anniversary of his death, I will never locate the brick. I will never be able to break through. I will never find him.

It’s too cold. I am cold. 

The dead are cold.

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You Are Beautiful

You are beautiful. Your fingers so tiny but so long, nails that won’t grow past their tips; your eyes closed, lids almost translucent and covered in sleep that will never be erased; your head, covered in wispy hair that will never be longer or gain color; your entire essence contained in one black and white photograph that I said I would never want. That’s a lie, I know now. I’d take more if I could. I would cling to your weight, dead in my arms, and not return you, not send you to their fridge, to the van, to the crematorium, to a velvet covered red heart, to be scattered by the ex in an unknown location as a means of showing me how little it all meant. How you were just a pawn in it all. 

I am sorry for that. You can’t know. 



This year, as I grow and learn about myself and reach out more and form more, better relationships, I confront a new reality in which you are not and never can be found, a reality in which you wouldn’t have ever existed. Up until now, I have always whispered that I’d rewind it and take it all back, everything to now, to hold you again and have you live, but I realize now that I wouldn’t. It wasn’t fair.

 
It isn’t fair. 

When you died, you gave me a gift–you showed me the world for what it is. I was in a stage of pretend, trying to force rocks and weeds to be unicorns and rainbows when a rock will always be a rock and a weed will always be a weed. You gave me the greatest gift–my freedom–as a catalyst, you allowed me to finally go, to break away. Every year at this time, I picture you as you would be–a big, genuine smile (I’m told mine is fabulous), a head full of hair (brown like mine, I’m sure it’s brown), an avid piano player who has well surpassed me even at seven (because those fingers, god, those long fingers)–but this year, as I confront reality, I picture a different scene. You, me. Dead. Because could we have survived another seven years in a world that constricted and stifled us beyond a point of recognition? I cannot answer that question. You will never be able to answer that question. He took everything from me, and I think he would have eventually taken you too. 

I think he did take you. 



I don’t know where you are now. But I know where I am. In the city, a modestly successful writer with a graduate degree who trains dogs and is trying to reinvent herself. No, not trying. IS reinventing herself. This is a place I would not have been without you, but also a place I never would have been with you. I am grateful in ways you can’t understand, that I can barely understand, for that brief duration of your life. I hope you understand the love behind all of this, behind every statement and every thought I have of you. 

I’m not saying I’m glad you’re gone, but I think it echoes behind the scenes of everything because I think you’d be gone anyway

Your existence is so much more than a brick in the ground in Wisconsin that’s covered in ice the entire season of your life, so much more than a hospital bracelet and a disc of pictures of people I didn’t love because they didn’t love me holding you for longer than I myself could stand to do so, so much more than this land of new people who do not even know your name, who will never know. 

You never would have been here. 



Happy February, my love, my life. You are my life, in more ways than just existing, and I am eternally grateful for what you gave up so that I could be here. Because of you, I know that I am more. More than a wife who cooks and cleans and earns all the money while being nothing more than a title, more than a physical and emotional punching bag, more than a girl in the backseat of a car in a parking lot in a situation that completely lacks of sense and orientation. I’m worth something, and while I may not always recognize or understand that, I am worth something because of you. 

You are beautiful; I am too. 

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Six Years (The Value of Time)

It’s sunny outside today on the streets of New York, the kind of light so warm it has its own unnamed color. It’s sunny, and you will never see it. I imagine you though, as you would be now, eyes of greenish-gray that stare into me with a wisdom beyond your years; favorite color of blue, the blue of jean overalls like the favorite pair you have that you always refuse to take off; so smart that you skipped from pre-K to first grade because you were just that advanced. You remind me of me, or, rather, I imagine you do. You will never see it, you will never be any of it, and that’s okay—you were meant to do more somewhere else, and I was meant to be here.

I expected your skin when you were born to be like paper, that thin flimsy yet rough texture that cuts you if you touch it wrong; it wasn’t—your skin was like almost like mine with its peach and rosey blood hues, but marred with a translucent quality of never having seen the sun. Hair coated your head in wisps and slight curls, almost brown but not quite, so thin (like mine) that I could see the skin beneath. Everything about you looked normal, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, and it occurred to me that occasionally time just stops us where we are, that we look the same when we die. At least at first. They put you in the fridge to keep you as you were, preserve you, in case I wanted to see you again. I didn’t. I wanted to remember you warm and pink, not cold and blue; I wanted to remember you as alive even though you weren’t.

Growing up, I was always afraid of death and the dead. When I came home from work to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl on top of my television, I called my boyfriend to come and scoop him out for me. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. You were different though, your tiny body still somewhat warm from being inside of me, stiff from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30—we would never know exactly. I felt like I was floating above you, like it wasn’t real, and I tried to grasp every detail: the way your fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap your dead fingers around mine, fingers just long enough for playing an instrument, the way your head listed just slightly towards my chest in a way that made you seem alive. It didn’t seem right that you could be there, that you could whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. The only detail that I can’t recall, six years later, were the color of your eyes. I will never know this about you. It seems important, somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were. Holding you gave new meaning to the word dead weight; your four pounds in my arms felt like the world and the air at the same time, like you were everything and nothing and here and gone, because you were—here, and gone. It is the gone that we don’t expect, that we don’t take pause to consider.

I’ve begun to forget your face. It’s harder every day to remember what you looked like, and so I write it down; I never head your voice, your laugh, and I never will, but I can commit what I saw to memory when it’s on the page. You were burned, your remains put into a little red satin box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm, and you were later scattered somewhere unknown to me. Your things are gone; you are gone; I have no part of you left, nothing physical to hold, to see. I have no proof of your existence, only memories of what I’ve lost, of what I’ve learned.

What I learned from you was the value of time. There is never enough. If I want something, I need to go for it. Get it. Take it. If I want to be the top, I need to rise to it. If I want to climb the mountain, I need to climb it. There is no time. There is never enough time. My roommate has a beautiful clock tattooed from her hip up through her ribs, with hands that spin and extend and get lost as they turn; I imagine that time is like that, that we spin and extend and get lost. Because of you though, with your beautiful piano fingers and your chubby little legs, I am not lost. I will not lose.

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On Being a Mother (2015 Version)

It’s February 26th. And, as I do every year around this time, I am struggling with the definition of motherhood and being a mother.

This year, I’m thinking deeply about what I gave up to be where I am, in graduate school, earning a master’s degree. One discussion on the subject has always stuck with me. I was sitting in my psychology professor’s office, discussing the requirements for getting a graduate degree in psychology. Her background and extended time at the university made her an expert in my eyes. As we sat, she rattled of a lot of statistics—a doctorate in psychology would take me up to eight years. I could get a master’s, but there weren’t many jobs available without the doctorate. She also told me that many people struggle to have or start a family in graduate school because of the demands on their time and person; she knew that I had lost my child, and that the idea of having another was always lurking in some part of my mind. She only brought it up because she cared, because she wanted me to make the best choice for me and my future. But it still hurt to hear it: “If you want to get an advanced degree, and I believe you could, then you need to make peace with the fact that it’s possible you will never have another child.”

I remember sitting on the rolling chair in my professor’s office that day, pushing the chair back and forth with my feet, and wondering what was really the most important to me—did I want to further my education? Or did I want to be a mother? Did I really have to choose? Yes. Yes I did. The world says the women can have everything, but, in reality, it’s really, really hard to have it all. There can’t be one victory without the giving up of another.

People keep asking me what I want to do with my life after graduate school. Here’s the answer: I want to write, and I want to teach. (Though the teaching dream may be in limbo at the moment, but that’s for another post). I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to now; I’m working on getting as many publications as I can under my belt and trying to gain teaching experience so that I can be hired as a professor. The more I publish, (provided I can get experience), the more hirable I become. I can establish myself as a possessor of knowledge, but it’s gonna take time. Time that I don’t have in the grand scheme of child bearing. I watch the people I know, the woman, and when they have children versus when they have solid jobs (aka, I have observed and researched the tenure process). Many women wait to have kids until they have tenure; there’s a whole stigma that women with families are somehow “less than” men. I’m not aiming for a tenure position; if I write enough, I won’t need one. (Apparently I COULD get one if I was published highly enough. Again, that’s another blog). But I still worry about the stereotype, should I try to have kids. I worry that I see that situation only growing worse and worse as time goes on. I worry that I am growing into a world where the whole idea of having a family is lost; I worry that I have already made that choice.

I turn 31 this year. I’ll finish my master’s when I’m 32. (Provided it doesn’t kill me first). Then I’m out in the world, maybe teaching, maybe not. Maybe solid, maybe not. Probably not. It’ll take time to find a stable living out there in the world, and I’m not going to have a baby unless I can provide for it. So my career is a strike against my future child. And here’s the other thing about babies—you can’t make ‘em solo. And I’m just not interested in a relationship with a male. Strike two.

Okay, so, I know that there are other ways to have babies besides the whole sex thing. But those ways take time too. By my estimation, I’ll be in my late 30’s before I even have the opportunity to have children. A good friend pointed out to me this week that she’s in that age bracket and having kids. But for me, in my head, it all goes back to that being established thing. I’m scrambling now to pull it off as much as I can before I graduate, but thesis time is fast approaching, and then there will be no time for anything else.

THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME.

And with that argument, which is, albeit, flawed in many ways, I face the fact that I might never have another child. I might not be a mother. Which brings me back to “What is the definition of a mother?” I looked it up. Here are some highlights:

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth

2. a woman in authority, or, the superior of a religious community of women

3. bring up (a child) with care and affection

4. give birth to

5. a female parent

6. something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale

The next question is, where do I fit into that?

1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth

That’s me. Or rather, that was me. It’s a weird gray area that’s not current, but that’s current at the same time.

2. a woman in authority, or, the superior of a religious community of women

This is definitely not me.

3. bring up (a child) with care and affection

This isn’t me either.

4. give birth to

This, yes. This was me. 22 hours of labor earns me the right to claim this one.

5. a female parent

Again, this one’s a weird gray area.

6. something that is an extreme or ultimate example of its kind especially in terms of scale

I like to think I’m extreme, I guess. But I’m not. I’m not “the mother of all—“ anything.

Really, the only thing here that solidly applies to me is giving birth. But lots of women do that, and they aren’t all great. Or, they are, but they don’t keep their baby for whatever reason. I feel like, on that basis, I have to disagree that to give birth makes a mother.

4. give birth to

This means that I fit nowhere in the definition of being a mother. My situation is just so … gray.

And so ends my yearly reflection on being a mother. I don’t fit into the mother box; I sit outside of it, balancing on its flap and looking inside to the place where I may never go. I wanted to write; I probably left the dream of being a mother, of having another baby, behind when I chose the dream of writing. I let the door to motherhood shut on me when I turned 30, and I don’t know how to reopen it. I don’t know if it CAN be reopened. I had a chance, and I lost it. I wanted to write, and I went after it. And sometimes, I can’t help the idea that I have forever left myself in the gray. That my son is gone, and that I won’t have another. 

Happy February.

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Vaccines and Responsibility

When I was pregnant, I didn’t have a lot of friends, especially friends that were my age. As a result, I didn’t know many people to talk to about being pregnant. I resorted to the internet to answer a great many questions, and the people I knew at church to answer others. When I went to my 20 week OB appointment, my doctor asked if I had gotten my flu shot. More so, he wanted to know about the H1N1 immunization.

“There are a lot of different strains of the flu,” he told me. “But H1N1, or swine flu, as you’ve probably heard it called on tv, is different. Where the flu vaccine may not necessarily target the strain of flu that’s infecting you, the swine flu vaccine knows what it’s looking for and takes care of business. If you don’t have it yet, you should. And if you get, it will save your baby from having to get it when he is born. He will be immunized through you.”

I looked at the husband, and then back at the doctor. “I’d like to think about it. Research a bit first.”

“I understand. But come in as soon as possible if you do decide to get it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

On the drive home, I asked the husband what he thought. His answer was noncommittal, as always. So when I got to church choir rehearsal later that night, I asked around. In particular, I asked the only person I remotely knew on a personal level had had babies. Her response? “Better safe than sorry.” The next day, I called and scheduled an appointment to come in and get vaccinated. I didn’t want my son to die from something as simple to prevent as the swine flu.

I remember lying in my hospital bed at some point while I was in labor. It was late at night. My OB came in in what looked like his pajamas and pulled a chair up to the foot of my bed, twisting it around so he could straddle it backwards.

“Sometimes we don’t know why these things happen,” he began.

“Why what things happen?” I asked.

“Why babies die.”

“He’s not dead. He’s going to come out just fine.”

My response seemed to baffle him. He stammered out his next words. “I…We…We can run some tests, to determine what happened. To get as close to a reason as we can so that when you have your next baby, we are better prepared.”

“There won’t be another baby,” I informed him. “There will be this baby. Because I did everything I could to make sure he would be safe.”

My baby wasn’t safe. He was dead. After twenty plus hours of labor over a very long, sleepless night. And at four o clock in the morning, a nurse appeared. “We need you to make a decision now. About the autopsy.”

The husband was sleeping, so I spoke for both of us. “No. You can’t cut up my child. No.”

So I, at least, never knew for sure what happened to my son.

I went back to church the following weekend. There was a special concert with some special gospel singer whose name I can no longer remember. I stood up in the balcony, watching the other choir members rehearse and debating whether I should join them. My elbows dug into the row of pews in front of me. I wondered whether or not I could fake the songs they were singing, if I knew them well enough. I heard the whispers; I had heard them everywhere.

“Did you see that Sara’s back?”

“Have you talked to her?”

“I don’t even know what to say.”

“I feel so bad for her.”

And then:

“I heard her asking around the choir room about the H1N1 vaccine. I wonder if that’s what did it.”

“I bet it is. You know those vaccines cause autism. And stillbirth. I bet if she wouldn’t have got it, that baby would be alive right now.”

I turned around and walked up the three rows of balcony and out the door to where the two women were standing. I vaguely remembered seeing them in choir, but I couldn’t remember their names. They didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed when they saw me.

“What?” the woman who was farther away said. “It’s true. Vaccines kill children.”

My face flamed red hot with tears I didn’t know how to shed. They didn’t even know me, and I didn’t know them. And yet, the insinuation burned me, deep inside. I didn’t know how my son had died, but he had been in my body. So it made sense that, in some way, I had killed him.

I killed him.

The next morning, the OB’s office called to confirm my post-delivery appointment for both me and my son. “I think I killed him,” I informed the poor woman on the other end of the phone. She was really confused, and I found myself stammering to explain. “I…I mean…He’s dead. He’s…dead.”

The poor unfortunate soul scrambled to erase that appointment and the pediatrician appointment from her computer before I got another phone call.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I could hear her frantically typing in the background. “Yes, of course.”

“Could a vaccine kill a baby?”

“You should ask your doctor that question when you come in. You need to schedule a follow up, yes?”

And so, I asked my doctor. “No, no,” he assured me. “Of course not.”

It occurred to me, as I left his office, that he had given me the vaccine and therefore might be slightly biased. So I turned to the internet. There were studies for vaccines causing everything. Autism. Blindness. You could find a study that showed children who had been vaccinated with any number of diseases. I pored over so many things that it seemed like I could almost say vaccines caused alien abductions; that was how ridiculous the information all was. There was correlation, sure. You can find correlation in anything if you looked hard enough and jam enough pieces together. But no one could prove causation for anything except vaccines helping to prevent disease. Things happened. But vaccines didn’t necessarily cause them.

It bothers me now, to think about that moment. And the ones that followed. An overheard whisper. An article somebody sent to me with the attached message, “This might help you find answers.” The title of the article? ‘When Vaccinations Kill.’

Was everybody talking about me?

The vaccine debate is a hot one as of late. With the measles fast infringing on the Chicagoland, parents are scared. And they should be. Many people choose not to vaccinate their children, for whatever reason. The point is, everyone is entitled to have their opinion. But not at the expense of other people’s safety. And not at the expense of their emotional well being. So share your opinion. But share it only when it’s appropriate to do so. And share it nicely, respectfully. Peacefully. Being mean spirited gets no one heard, and gets the debate nowhere. Nasty comments on any side of an argument just shut everything down. Do your research.

Personally, I think y’all should protect your children, and protect the children (and others) around you who cannot protect themselves. Vaccines are a simple, easy solution to horrible, painful diseases that not all children are equipped to handle on their own. Getting your child vaccinated prevents them from getting the disease, and can possibly prevent any immunocompromised people they may come into contact with from getting it as well. You never know the struggles of the people around you. You’re free to make that choice if you feel it protects your child, just as other parents are free to vaccinate to protect their child. However, if you do choose not to vaccinate and your child has symptoms, keep them home. Be responsible. Keep everyone safe. Let us all look to Disneyland as the case and point on that one. 

If you choose not to vaccinate, if you support the other side of the debate, then share your opinion nicely–and remember that you too have a responsibility. And don’t you dare tell me that my choice to receive a vaccination killed my son. Because I have done my research, and that is a line I will never, ever, buy.

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Forgetting (Never One)

The bathroom floor was littered in black dirt, the kind of dirt that held on forever despite the best bleach scrub. The walls were streaked in mildew and other substances that couldn’t be defined. Numerous customers and homeless people and god knows who had sat in this very spot, in this very bathroom. How many of them cried? My tears burned as they slid down my face, as I sobbed my heart out into the knees I held clutched to my chest. I was bigger, fatter. I was back at work. I was childless.

It was April 4th. 37 days after your death. And the first day where you didn’t consume my every thought.

When you first died, I thought about you every day. I started a Live Journal and blogged about you to the world. Day one. Day two. Day three. Day four. An entry for every day after you were gone. The most blissful moment of the day was when I first woke up, the moment when I pictured you sleeping in your crib in the other room. It was every morning, for a while. And every morning I would lie in bed and suddenly remember, the crush of the blankets too heavy against my skin, and the weight of my tears too much to carry. Every morning. From waking up, you consumed every moment. 

I planned your funeral. Who to invite. What to put you in. I ordered a box to keep your things in. I sat on our giant brown sectional couch and I watched movies. One was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I thought that you might like it, before I remembered that you would never see it. You would never watch a movie. I couldn’t focus on the screen then. My gaze drifted into the den, the place where we had assembled all of your things. Where the crib had sat, fully assembled, ready for you. Your things were gone, not there anymore. I pictured them in a dark, lonely storage place, behind a padlocked door. Cold. Lost.

I wondered where you were.

I fell asleep on the couch and dreamed about you. It was your first day of preschool. I came at the end of the day to pick you up and found you fingerpainting. You held your hands up to me with the biggest grin on your face; one was blue and the other green. The once white paper in front of you was covered in a mash of multicolored handprints, the colors blurring in many places to brown. A stranger would have found it ugly, but it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. We drove home, you in the back in your carseat and me singing along to Muppets songs playing from the stereo. I laid the painting carefully on the passenger seat, and when we got home, you made me put it on the fridge. You wouldn’t eat your dinner till I did.

I woke up the next day, and the first thing I did was jump up and go to the nursery to check on you. Only it wasn’t a nursery. It was an office. And I didn’t have to check on you, because you weren’t there. You never would be. I thought about you all the time—what you would have grown up to look like, who you would have been, what you would have done.

On April 4th, I went back to work. I took the full six weeks of leave to which I was entitled, even though you were gone. I went back, and found a shoebox on my desk in the cash office. It was filled with all of my favorite snacks, a gift from my employees to help me get through the week. I sat in my chair, the chair I hadn’t occupied since the end of February, and I unwrapped one of the chocolate I found in the box. I crinkled the foil and threw it in the trash as I popped the candy into my mouth, savoring the taste of the melting truffle on my tongue. It was delicious; it was glorious; it was—

I blinked. Swallowed. You were dead. You were dead and I was sitting in an office chair behind a desk eating a chocolate candy as if you had never been there. There were no pictures of you to hang with the other manager’s children. No evidence of you other than my physical size and my six week absence. For that moment, as I ate that chocolate truffle, I forgot about you. I forgot that you were dead; I forgot that you were never coming back. I forgot.

How could I do that, forget? How could I move on, how could I never visit the storage unit where your things were, unpack them, love them like I should have been loving you? How could I go to work and move on and have a life and eat a chocolate and … forget?

Forgetting is a regular thing now. When I look at the skyline, I don’t always picture you with me in the city. When I watch a movie with a baby, or I see my friends with babies, I don’t always think of you. Sometimes I do. But sometimes I don’t. I’ve honestly lost track of the time that I don’t think of you. And I’m sorry. For that. For forgetting. And I’m sorry that I’m sorry.

I like to think that you’re somewhere fingerpainting, that your hands grew big enough to do it successfully, and that when you make a painting someone hangs it up on a “wall” somewhere. And someday I will see that wall of all the things you’ve done and be proud of you like I hope you’re proud of me right now.

You were my chance to have a child. I will always ‘have’ you, yet never have you. I will have a child, but never have one, I will say that yes, I was pregnant once. But I will never check the box for my offspring on surveys and online forms and background checks and tax forms. The total will always be zero, never one. You will never be one. And that, I won’t forget.

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Sometimes (In February)

I had the messiest car ever—had for years. It started with my longer commute to the gas station. I would eat food in the morning and deposit the wrappers in the backseat. And I started traveling more for work, additional things appeared. An extra coat. Random shoes. Pants. Shirts. Books. The runner’s badges from a couple walk/runs. For all I knew, there was something alive back there. The pile was so high that it surpassed the center console in height and threatened to spill over into the front. It got to the point where it was just too overwhelming to even consider cleaning. Of course, this meant that when it was time to install a carseat before our baby was born, there was quite a bit of work to be done. I didn’t dare ask the husband to help me. It was my fault, my mess. My obvious fact that I was happier in my car than my apartment.

The husband never rode in my car. I didn’t want him to. The car was mine. But I was more than happy to share it with our son; I just had to clean it first.

I waited as long as I could to tackle the project, ignoring the insistence of the husband, and picked the first semi-warm day in January to camp out in my garage and do what needed to be done. I picked my way, eight months pregnant, through a lot of disgusting items. Many times during the ordeal, I found myself wandering away. Out of the garage, down the block, getting air. I wasn’t sure how I had driven for so long with the car in that condition; I suddenly understood my need to drive with the windows down. At least five bags of trash made their way to the dumpster, with several more bags awaiting a travel destination of either Goodwill or the apartment. Exhausted, I never bothered to clean out the trunk.

When we found out our son had died, this cleansing was a moment I kept coming back to in my mind. That (then) sadly hopeful day, getting ready for a baby. The way I sang as I cleared the trash away, the way I assumed that he would just be there. That he would grow, grow up, grow out of the carseat. Sit in the front with me after he turned twelve. Start driving at fifteen and a half.  The carseat base I had worked so hard to give a clean surface to never actually made it into the car. Nor did the baby. He never rode in the carseat; he never outgrew it. He never sat in the back, or the front. He will never drive. I cleaned my car for him to never ride inside it. Lying in my hospital bed, I pictured that car, in the parking garage, with a clean and empty backseat that my son would only ever see from the inside of a box. I learned then to never assume. To never make plans.

Sometimes, when I see people with children, I get jealous. Not a mean jealous, not angry. Just jealous. I accept what I gave up to get a master’s degree. People tell me all the time, “You never know.” But I do. Know. And it’s okay. I will live vicariously through my friends. Wishing. Dreaming. It is hard not to have a child. Harder still this time of year.

Sometimes, I imagine what my life would be like if my son were here. Sometimes, in February, I like to pretend he’s still around. That he’s just away, at school. Kindergarten this year. That he’s in a big boy carseat, that I sold the newborn one a long time ago. That he will come home with stick figure drawings and graham cracker crumbs stuck to his shirt. Only I didn’t sell the carseat, it’s still in a storage vault somewhere that I have no access to. And my son is not away at school; he’s not in kindergarten; he’s not bringing me anything home. He’s dead. But sometimes, in February, I like to forget that fact. Just for a little while. 

My backseat is empty, and it always will be.

Carter feet

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Childless

I could see a McDonald’s down the street as we sat at the red light.  “I want a chocolate milkshake.  Can we stop?”

The husband’s hands tightened on the wheel.  “Why?”

Because I want a milkshake?  Because I worked ten hours today?  Because I’m seven months pregnant?  Because…because?  Rather than say anything, I shrugged.  

“We’re going to eat at the party.  You can’t wait?”

I shook my head.

He sighed deeply and turned into the McDonald’s drive thru.  I could tell he wasn’t happy.  As if his body language was not enough, he practically threw the milkshake at me when the cashier handed it to him.

I wondered how he would treat our son when he asked for things.  I wondered if he would be different.  Kinder.

It was New Year’s Eve.  Our last year childless.  We wished at midnight for good things, for ourselves, for our son.  For good health.  At least I did.  I don’t know what the husband wished for.  I never asked.

*

Our first year childless.

I ordered a white box online; I thought it big enough for all his things.  The website promised the box would come in just two days time—plenty of time before the funeral.   I had it engraved with his name and the day he died.  Saying his birthday felt weird to me then, though it’s something I do now to make others feel comfortable.  But then, it was the day he died.

I suppose I can say it’s both.  

Sitting in the waiting room of the OB the week after, I was surrounded by a bunch of expectant moms and their husbands and I wanted to stab myself in the eye.  I had dreaded the moment I’d have to come back here, tried to come up with ways to get out of it.  But it was necessary, I’d been told.  To care for myself, after.  The receptionist had called me two days prior:  “I notice you have an after care appointment scheduled.  Would you like to cancel your 39 week appointment then?”   

“Yes.  Yes I would.”

“How’s the little one?”

I wondered why she’d even ask that.  Though I suppose it’s a natural response.  But I still sat quietly in the waiting room that day.  I stared at my lap, my hands folded and my thumbs tapping against each other.  I didn’t want anyone to ask.  I didn’t want to have to answer, to say the same thing I’d said that day on the phone.

“He’s dead.”

I didn’t wish hard enough.

*

Childless is a weird term.  To have no children.  To be without a child.  To have never had children.  To have once had children but not anymore.  It can be used in so many different ways.   There are many things a person can wish for, but this isn’t one of them.

When you fill out forms and they ask if you have children, there is only yes or no.  There’s no line that says “I had a child who died.”  No line to acknowledge a life that is gone.  And when that happens and you have no other children, you are childless.  For a long time, I left that line blank on forms.  At the doctor.  At work.  Taxes.  I never figured out how to say “I had a child and now he’s dead.”  I still haven’t.  I wish I could.

I never will.

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