Tag Archives: child loss

The Divide (Rough Draft)

When we were preparing to divorce, the husband went through the apartment that I was no longer living in and took pictures of every single major item that we owned.  He then put them into an itemized spreadsheet that included their original purchase amounts and their current estimated value, as well as a column for who wanted the item.  The idea was that we could pass it back and forth and negotiate digitally.  Neither of us wanted to see the other.  I, in particular, did not want to see him.

I had a hard time draining our life together down to mere things.  The things that I chose to keep line one wall of a storage room.  I don’t even own a bed anymore.  For me, at the time, it was easier to roll over and let him have whatever he wanted than to risk dragging the process out.  Risk making him angry.  Risk going back.  I wanted to be as far away from him as possible.

However, on page 21 of the spreadsheet were the final two items—our son’s ashes and his memory box.  I didn’t know what to do about them.  When I left, I left quickly.  I hadn’t thought to take them.  When I did go back to the apartment to get the things I needed, they were already gone.   I wanted them, desperately.  I wanted to keep the ashes.  He wanted to scatter them.  I viewed scattering as throwing him out into the world.  As forgetting him.

I asked my then-therapist what she thought, and it was then she told me:  he was seeing someone in the same agency.  The same building.  The office.  Right.  Across.  The hall.  I felt betrayed somehow, like he had followed me on purpose.  “We could have a meeting with the four of us.  Discuss who gets the ashes, and the box and its contents.  Talk about who can have what.”  I must have made a face, because she continued, “I know that it sounds weird.  But if you can’t agree on it, the court will decide how the divide will work.  And that may not play out in your favor.  There are no guarantees as to the mood of the judge.”

I pictured that story in the Bible where the child gets cut in half because the two woman cannot agree who is really its mother.  I knew that I wouldn’t be brave enough to speak up in court.  I knew that I wouldn’t fight if it went that far.  I also knew that it was the one thing on the spreadsheet that he WOULD fight for.  I worried what he would do.

I agreed to the meeting.

I didn’t really want to go to the meeting when the day came, two weeks later.  I hadn’t seen him since the day I had left, and I had no desire to see him.  I wore long sleeves, intentionally.  There were some things that he didn’t need to know.

When A dropped me off at the office precisely at two, his car was already there.  When I went inside though, he was nowhere to be seen.  My therapist and I talked for a few minutes before there was a knock at the door.  The husband came in and sat on the opposite side of the couch I was on, and placed a pile of stuff in between us.  A pile that amounted to our son’s life.  I refused to look at him, even when he finally spoke to me.  I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing my fear—fear of him, fear of losing our son.  Fear of myself.

We went through the box item by item, which wasn’t much.  Footprints, handprints, a lock of hair.  Outfits that he had been dressed in for pictures.  The pictures themselves.  Hospital bracelets.  A few things that I had asked for from the storage we had purchased for the baby things: a quilt that was handmade by my grandmother, an outfit handmade by my mother, and a Winnie the Pooh blanket that I had asked for.  It wasn’t the right blanket, but I didn’t want to see him again so I said nothing.  The only items I took were the ones he offered me.  I didn’t not speak up.  I stayed silent.  And then the ashes came out.

I focused on my shoes.  They were black and pink, a sort of plaid pattern.  I wanted those ashes, more than anything.  I was divided on the inside between my loyalty to the son I would never hold again and my fear.  I willed the words to come out of my mouth.  I tried to force myself to fight.  But instead, I said nothing.  I left the office with hardly anything except tears.  A lot of tears.

I don’t regret my decision to get out of the marriage.  But I do regret that I didn’t fight more for my son, that I let go of him (what feels like) much too easily.  I purchased a memorial brick, at a tree that was planted to remember dead children.  A solid reminder, it served as something that I could touch.  It was supposed to be a memorial just for me, but someone told the husband.  I couldn’t decide how I felt about that, about having to look over my shoulder every time I went to visit it.  I didn’t want to share, but it felt like the right thing to do.

The husband (then ex) emailed me much later to inform me that he had scattered the ashes.  Without asking me.  He didn’t tell me where, just that he had done it.  That our son was gone.

I broke inside.  It felt like I’d never had a chance to say goodbye.

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Defining Moments

I’m sitting on the couch tonight watching old SVU’s on-demand, and I saw a commercial for the Olympics that are coming up.  The last Winter Olympics were in 2010.  I know that, because I was in the hospital during them.  Because I watched curling for many, many hours in a row.  Because I used to love the Olympics (Still do, I suppose).  Plus, it’s that time of year.  You know.

So here’s how it was.  That moment when he died.  I remember every piece of it. We all have that moment in our lives that makes us who we are; defines our very essence. This is mine.  Despite things that had happened before and have happened since, I still feel that Carter’s death was a catalyst to several different things within my life.

I was a merchandising manager for a local company, working about fifty hours a week.  I carried an extremely good benefits plan and had been employed with the company for about five months when we found out I was pregnant.  Everything went well with the company at first, and they sent me the appropriate leave paperwork in October 2009.  My due date was March 30th, 2010.  In February of 2010, when I turned in the paperwork for my leave, I was informed that my FMLA could not officially begin until two days before my due date, because that would be my year anniversary.  (They didn’t tell me this in October.).  I would not be allowed to leave earlier, and if I did, I would only be able to take my one week of paid vacation, one week of sick leave, and four week of unpaid personal leave that I would have coming to me.  If I did not return after that, I would have no job.  At this same time, I was placed on a work restriction that stated I had to spend half of shift standing up and half of it sitting down.  The company called me a liability, and a week later forced me into taking my leave early because there “was no reasonable way to accommodate my medical needs”.  The date that was my final day working would put my return date if I wanted to keep the job to be just a few days after my due date–so when I finished work that day, I was uncertain that I would be able to return.  I had an appointment that day with my OB, and I figured that he and could discuss it then.   

I went to my doctors appointment, but I was almost an hour early.  Instead of going in, I went to the grocery store downstairs to get something to eat before I registered with the front desk.  I selected a fruit juice smoothie; I was pissed off at the time that there was no apple juice.  The baby liked apple juice.  I bumped a display of travel mugs, I believe with my giant purse.  Several of them fell on the floor, making a ridiculous clatter.  One of the employees told me not to worry about cleaning it up.  She asked me when I was due, and I told her.  Then I went to my appointment.  I was warm, so I left my coat in the car even though it was the end of February.

I hung out in the waiting room for about twenty minutes playing around on my phone, and then they took me back early. The nurse hooked me up to this machine and then put all of these different sensors around my belly before she turned it on…and couldn’t pick up anything. I shrugged it off. The nurse three days prior hadn’t even known how to properly load the paper in the machine, and this nurse apparently didn’t know how to turn it on. So I sat and waited, still somewhat patiently. The first nurse came back with a second nurse. She messed around with the sensors some and then they both left the room. The second nurse came back in without the original nurse and said they were going to get one of the on call doctors to come in and do an ultrasound because they were having trouble with the machine. I started to feel weird then. I didn’t like the looks on their faces. I asked for my doctor, but it was his day off. No point in calling him in, I was told, for something routine. But it didn’t feel routine at ALL.  

One thing that I can’t remember is when I started to cry. It just happened. I’m not a crier. The nurse must have been told that she had to stay in the room with me until the on call doctor came, because there was a wait for the ultrasound machine and they didn’t know know how long it would be. She plopped a box of Kleenex into my lap and started asking me questions….what did I do for a living….what did my husband do….had I ever left the country? We started talking about the mission trip I took to Jamaica my senior year of high school. At some point the doctor came in. The nurse stood between me and the ultrasound screen so I couldn’t see. I was crying so hard I doubt I would have seen anything anyway. I jumped every time I heard sound come from the machine, but she kept telling me it was the uterine artery, not a heartbeat. They looked for about twenty minutes. And then it came… 

“I think you should call your husband.” 

I knew then. I think I already knew, but I KNEW then.

My doctor arrived about five minutes later. I thought offhandedly that it must no longer be routine. He pulled up a chair in front of me, sat on it backwards, and said those two words that I wish I would never hear again. 

“I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

That was it. That was the moment when my entire life changed. My child, who I had never held, never seen, except on a little screen, was gone. 

And that’s how it was.  The rest has already been written.  This moment, these couple hours of my life, set me up for the rest of…well…everything.

I’m bracing myself, February.  For the first time in these (nearly) four years, I think I’m ready for you.  And that doesn’t mean I’m forgetting.  It just simply means that this has happened, and that I am learning to be okay.

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Tandem

It’s morning, and the light streams in through the window-well.  There’s a cat on top of me, her purr filling the whole room.  I know that I have places to be, but I just want to read a book.  So I do.

 

My son, Carter, is almost four.  The sun isn’t even up yet when he wakes me up, excited about the day.  Breakfast.  Cartoons.  Toys.  I want to read a book, but I can’t.  I don’t have time.  He’s more important.  He’s already running around the apartment.  I won’t have time for myself today, that’s apparent.  And that’s okay.

 

Some days are easier than others.  Today is one of those.  I have some pieces that are out for publication; I’m making plans for my last semester of college and my possible graduate school career.  I took a journey this morning to get an energy drink and cookies for breakfast.  Someone asked me “How are you doing?  How are you feeling about things?” and I didn’t have an easy answer.  Because I don’t know.  I never do.  I wish that I could touch him, just one more time.  Hold him.  But I can’t.

 

I drink coffee now, because it helps me to stay awake.  I like to watch Carter play.  His favorite toy is this little keyboard that plays all sorts of different sounds.  He likes anything musical, really; this is probably because I buy him way more musical toys than anything else.  I hope he’ll be a musician someday, but I’m not sure what he’ll be.  It’s too early to tell really, and he likes so many different things.  I’m planning his fourth birthday party.  I have to ask the husband who I should invite; he has friends I know he will want to come.  I don’t have many friends.  I spend my days at home.  Sometimes I wish I’d gone to school.  Not that I don’t love my son, because I do.  But I wish I could be better for him.  

 

I have the experience of being a mother with no child to show for it.  It’s such a weird place to be in.  And I no longer have a husband.  I’m not tied to anyone.  It’s still odd to not have to ask when I want to do something.  To be able to go out, do what I want, buy what I want.  I order some books off of Amazon and go about my daily business.  The question, “Well, what do you have of him?” rings in my ears.  I don’t have much.  I gave it all up for the sake of getting divorced, getting free.  But there’s one thing.  I pull down the back of my shirt and look at my tattoo in the mirror.  It’s his handprints, and his name.  And the date.  I call it his birthday.  It’s funny really; his birthday was the day after he died.  At least that’s how I consider it.  I used to cry when I looked at the tattoo.  I don’t anymore.  I suppose that means I’m becoming okay.  I wonder in the back of my head if that’s okay.  If it’s okay to be okay.

 

The husband wakes up several hours after us.  The sun is high in the sky.  He scolds me for not making him breakfast, but I didn’t know when he’d be up.  He expects a lot of me, but I do the things that I need to do to make him happy.  Or at least I try.  It seems like he’s never happy though, no matter what I do.  I find myself apologizing frequently.  There are many times where I’m scrambling to figure out what the right thing is to do.  Sometimes I think there is no right thing with him.  He tells me often that he could take Carter away.  I can’t let that happen.  I have to be my best. 

 

When I lay the possibilities of my life out side by side, where I am now versus where I could be, the only thing that is missing is him.  My son.  I often imagine what my life would be like if I had an almost four year old.  I wouldn’t be independent.  I wouldn’t be in school.  I wouldn’t be bettering myself.  I have a hard time sometimes reconciling the difference in these two possibilities, that I had to give him up, so to speak, in order to be where I am now.  Especially this time of year.  It still hurts to be asked if I have any children, to not have an answer.  I wish he was here, but I’m happy with where my life is now.  And the next is step is to be okay with being okay.

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An Irreversible Process (Final draft)

I’m a firm believer that the human brain can only handle so much at a time before it shuts down.  When someone you love dies, you spend a lot of time answering questions.  After a while, you get sick of them and start picking random things just so people will leave you alone.  The woman in the funeral home was the last straw for me after my son’s death.  It wasn’t that she was rude; she was quite the opposite.  There was just too much she needed to know, like there was too much I needed to know.  

When someone dies, many things are unknown.

Her name was Cori.  She was waiting for us when we walked into the lobby.  My mother in law shook her hand, and Cori seemed to somewhat know the situation from a conversation they had had beyond my awareness.  The four of us walked into a tiny room off of the lobby and she began asking questions.  

My son’s entire life fit on a single form; it was the form she would use to draft the obituary.  I stared out the window as she spoke, at a bird fluttering about in the bush.  I wondered what would happen if he suddenly tried to fly inside, if he ran into the window and fell to the ground.  And died.  

Where do we go when we die?

Did I want our son to be cremated?  

No, cremation is forever; cremation happens by fire.  I didn’t want my son to burn.  Someone was pushing a clipboard towards me.  I looked down.  It was an acknowledgement that cremation was permanent.  I hadn’t agreed to that, I never said…

Cremation is a permanent state of being; an irreversible process.

The husband signed the form, so I did as well.  I had no choice.

Irreversible.  As in never coming back.

Cori gave me an enormous binder.  Flip through it, she told me.  See if there was anything I might want to put him in.  Like he was a deceased pet I would bury in the backyard.  The photographs were nice, but I couldn’t tell just by looking at them.  I pushed back from the table and wandered into the showroom.  There were coffins everywhere, but in a smaller room at the back of the showroom there was a room filled with different kinds of urns.  Cori drifted in, explaining the differences between the urns.  The large ones were obviously for adult remains.  But the smaller a person was at the time of their death, the less mass they took up.  Obviously, babies are quite small, she said.  There were urns made for babies, but she plucked something else from the shelf and held it out to me. 

I didn’t see the difference.  The urns for babies were small.  This urn was small.  But this one was special, she said.  It was for cases where siblings or other family may want to divide up the remains of their dead so that they could each take a piece home.  It was morbid, the idea that people would want to split up their dead.  But obviously it happened. 

How did I choose where my son would spend forever?  What makes one urn better than another?  I spotted one that I thought I might like, if it was possible to like such a thing.  It was a tiny bronze one with a red satin case shaped like a heart.  The urn rested in a small niche inside, and the heart could be closed around it.  Like a jewelry box.

If it was on a shelf, you would never know there was a dead person inside it.  You wouldn’t know it contained all that was left of my son.

We went back out to the room and filled out the order forms for the urn and its accompanying red heart case.  A second woman appeared with the first draft of the obituary.  The husband passed the typewritten page to me.  I was the writer, he said, so I should look at it.  I gave the paper a once over and passed it back.  I didn’t really see it at all.  I watched as everyone else in the room finalized the details without my input.  Watching as they finalized his death—a permanent, irreversible process.

He was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen, though I suppose everybody says that about their child.  He was mine.  He was gone.  He was dead.

Irreversible.

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Broken

(Link to Refrigeration-previous piece chronologically)

Building a crib is hard.  Especially when it doesn’t come with instructions.  The cat crawls underneath the bottom piece and presses his face up against the springs.  I swear that he’s laughing.  If cats can laugh, that is.  And I believe that they can, and do.

The husband sits on the floor, various crib side pieces strewn about.  He ponders what goes where, and I shrug.  He tries one piece, and then another.  He tosses them aside on the floor.  “We need a new mattress for this.”

I look at the mattress and nod in agreement; it has minor stains in a few places and has obviously been well loved.  This is something I can do.  I pull out my laptop and look up crib mattresses, trying to figure out which one will be the best.  There are many choices.  It’s hard to choose.

This is all hard.

Getting ready for a baby is hard.

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We are sitting in the parking lot at Walgreens, and I do not want to get out of the car.  It’s not that I’m incapable.  It’s just that I simply do not want to move.  But I need things.  My mother in law comes around and opens my door in an attempt to inspire me to get out.  I wonder offhandedly why the husband is not here.  Why he did not drive me home.  And I don’t get it.  It’s all too hard to think about.  Life is too hard.

We are in my car.  It has taken me the entire drive to realize this.  I look in the rearview mirror and see the carseat base.  Nobody thought to take it out.  A simple little thing everyone forgot, but huge.  No carseat would ever attach to it.  No baby would ever ride back there.  I fight the urge to rip it out and throw it into the snow, run it over until it is shattered and broken.

Dead.

I get out, the maternity pants I’m wearing slipping down around my hips; they’re too big now.  Nothing will fit me; I haven’t been home yet, but I know this.  My feet sink into the slush around the car.  I hate winter.  It seems so awful that the world is still moving, that it has snowed and melted, that Earth is completing these cycles and he is gone.

He is gone.

I follow my mother in law blindly through Walgreens and I throw things into the cart I am using to hold myself up.  Giant bottle of ibuprofen.  Yes.  I hurt everywhere, in every inch of my being.  Extremely tight sports bra.  Check.  Feminine products.  Check.  Caffeine.  Check.  I may never sleep again.  I will need caffeine.

We go up to the register to pay and the clerk flips my credit card over and asks to see my identification.  She looks from the identification to me and back again, and I imagine how horrid I must look for one fleeting second before I realize I don’t give a shit.  It doesn’t even matter.  Not without him.  The clerk asks me my birthday, but I can’t remember it.  My mother in law says something and steers me away with my things.  Back to the car.  I dimly think that I must still be in shock, and I wonder why I didn’t stay longer in the hospital.  Why?  Because it’s expensive.  That’s why.  And it won’t help.

He is gone.

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The husband has gotten two out of four rails properly fastened to the crib.  I am holding the third in place as he attaches it with a screwdriver.

“A few drop rail cribs have been recalled lately.  But this one’s not one of them; I checked.”  When he nods, I let go of the piece I’m holding and hand him the last side.

As he screws it in, he asks, “Why were they recalled?”

“Babies get caught in the drop rail.  A few have died.”  I shudder.  Our baby dying isn’t something I want to think about.

“But not this one?”

I shake my head.

He puts down his screwdriver and shakes the last piece slightly, making sure everything stays together.  “That’s good.  We wouldn’t want to kill our baby and all.”

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The husband is leaning on the breakfast bar when I get home, talking to his father.  And eating pizza.  He didn’t drive me home because he was eating pizza?  I don’t understand this.  I don’t understand anything.  And I don’t want pizza.

I didn’t think it would be this way.  I pictured coming home to be happy.  Tiring, but happy.  Just like I had pictured the delivery ward differently.  No one expects their baby to die.  I certainly hadn’t.  I hadn’t seen this coming.  And suddenly I was back in my life as it had been pre-pregnancy, just expected to move forward.

It hurts to walk.  I move nowhere, let alone forward.  I can’t believe life is expected to go on.  I will not go on.

He is gone.

I sit on the couch.  People visit us in seemingly random spurts, but I don’t remember who they are or when they come.  I remember random details.

A single yellow rose in brown paper.  I think it goes in a vase.

A handful of brownie batches still warm in their pans.  They go to the fridge.

An empty cardboard box.  Something had been inside it.  The cat takes it over.

I do not notice these new things.  I only notice the lack.  When people are gone and everything is quiet, we rent a movie on demand.  “Land of the Lost,” the new version.  It’s absolutely ridiculous, but I am not watching.  I am staring into the side room, the room where the crib and all the things had been.  The things that aren’t there.  The crib that is gone, broken, somewhere else.

He is dead, broken, somewhere else.  Not here.  The lack can never be made up for; the hole can never be filled.

He is gone.

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We put the finished crib into the side room.  One cat climbs inside to investigate while the other sit beneath and sniffs at the legs.

“We can’t let the baby sleep out here,” I say.  “When will we switch this area with the office?”

The husband shrugs.  “After the shower?  Maybe we could do it then.  Get some people over.  Put them to work.  Feed them pizza.”

I imagined how the nursery would look when it was all finished.  How it would evolve as our son aged.  How we could take out the drop rail; how he would become a big boy in a big bed.  How it would be broken down when he was a toddler, put in to storage.

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The room was never used.  His things were never used.  They never will be.

Somewhere in existence, there is a storage shed that is filled with baby things.  Bouncer, car seat, crib, clothes, toys.  Everything disassembled, broken.  I don’t know where these things are; I gave up everything in the divorce.  But I wouldn’t want them anyway.

They’re broken down.  Unused.  Unneeded.

He is gone.

Things can be broken, and broken down.

People can be broken too.  He was broken.

He is gone.

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Grief (An External Force)

The lake is calm today.  This time three years ago, it wasn’t.  I remember sitting in this very spot, staring down into the water, and wondering what the waves would do to me if I threw myself on the rocks.  Wondering, but not doing.  Never doing.

Water, like people, has moods that are based upon external forces.  When the weather is windy, stormy, and powerful, the waves are large and awe inspiring.  They crash across the rocks with a force that cannot be described by words alone.  And after my son died I sat here many days a week, watching the waves take over the shore, pondering the idea that an emotion could take over my life.  I could not have saved him.  There was nothing I could have done.  My entire being was governed by a powerful external force.

Grief.

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It comes in waves.  It is a forest with fifty paths that all cut through the trees, different channels and avenues for handling feelings with no clear direction.  It is a body of water with an undertow that sucks you away faster and deeper than you would suspect possible.  It is that red berry on the ground that looks so sweet and perfect to eat, but will kill you the moment you put it in your mouth.

If you let it, grief will bowl you over.

They planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from this very spot where I watch the shoreline.  It’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between.  It doesn’t seem to grow much, and I’m struck by that fact suddenly—the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up does not grow.  My heart rings with something I can’t describe.  This stunted tree is the perfect tribute.

The tree is surrounded by bricks, and the bricks are surrounded with flowers.  Clumps of purple and red and pink that take away from the fact that each brick is inscribed with the name of a dead child, the brightest of them tries to negate the pain.  Each brick is all that is left of a life.  The flowers are ridiculous to me.  We give flowers to people when someone dies; I had this thought at his funeral that flowers in the case of death are ridiculously ironic because they die.  Everything dies, eventually.

Between the bricks sprout tiny growths.  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, to place a hand on his brick and be able to touch him.  A simple reminder.  But I can’t find it; the bricks are buried under the snow and I didn’t think to bring a shovel.

A snowflake lands on my cheek, wet and cold.  I am crying.  I use the heel of my shoe to scrape at the bricks, but I can’t make any headway in the snow.  I get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only break through to ice.  He is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate.  Death.

I will never locate the brick.  I will never be able to break through.  I will never find him.

The sky is gray.

I cannot ever have him back.

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Motherhood

What makes a mother?

This is a question I find myself asking much too often, practically on a daily basis.  Mostly because I wonder if I qualify.  If I am a mother.  When people ask how many children I have, when I have to fill out a form, when I watch friends struggling with their children or to create children at all…I ask myself.  Because I want to be a mother.  Because I was a mother.

Once a woman is a mother, is she always a mother?

It wasn’t hard for me.  Carter was conceived right off of the birth control.  However, I failed the first several pregnancy tests.  It was pretty late on by the time I actually got a positive home test.  And I loved him right away.  I loved him from the moment I knew he was growing inside of me.  Because that’s what a mother does—she loves her child.

I loved him, therefore I’m a mother.

When he was born, dead, they asked if I wanted to hold him.  My entire life I have been afraid of dead things.  When my goldfish died, I called my then boyfriend to scoop it out of the tank and properly dispose of it.  When my cat died, I couldn’t look at the body.  When my grandma’s dog died, I had to wrap him in a blanket to help her take him to the vet.  I couldn’t touch him; I couldn’t accept that he was dead.  But my son was different.  He was my son.  Of course I wanted to hold him, no matter much it hurt.

I overcame my fear for him, therefore I’m a mother.

When I held him, it was amazing to me how light he was.  I don’t know what I had expected.  At just over four pounds, he was substantially lighter than even my cat.  But 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.  I took in every detail—the tiny bit of hair scattered across his head, the way his fists were clenched, the fingers he had that were just perfect for playing an instrument, the fact that he had ten toes.  I realized that every part of him was there.  And it didn’t seem right, it didn’t seem fair that he could be all there, that he could be intact (for lack of a better word) and still be dead.  It didn’t seem right at all.  The one thing I didn’t look at was his eyes.  I don’t know the color of his eyes.  I never will.  This seems important somehow, like something I should know.  And it kills me that I don’t.  I wonder all the time.

I don’t know the color of my son’s eyes.  Does this mean I’m not a mother?

I’ve begun to forget his face.  It’s harder to remember what he looked like.  I never heard his voice, his laugh.  I won’t ever; I will never know these things.  I can never know these things.  He was burned, his remains put into a little box that fit into the palm of my hand and now 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; now he exists only to me.  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.

I have nothing left of him.  Does this mean I’m not a mother?

I watch my friends, their desires to have and not have children.  I see how much it pains them to not have that; their words break my heart.  On the other side of the coin, I watch my friends who do have children that treat them badly…and I can’t reconcile that.  I have had and lost a child.  And that loss magnifies it all tenfold.  The pain, the joy, that comes with children…I want to feel these things.  I don’t want to feel a loss.

I want to fill the hole.  Does this mean I’m not a mother?

I am almost thirty.  I am not in a relationship; I do not desire to be in a relationship.  I am going to grad school.  It will be many years now before I am in a position to have a family again.  I have had opportunities to have a family that I have let slip away, both by choice and not.  Despite what everybody tells me, I know that I am making choices now that determine the course of my future and mean I may not have a family.

I don’t have my son.  Does this mean I’m not a mother?

What makes a mother?

carter

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The Ultimate Escape

There once was a penguin that lived in the middle of the coldest part of the world.  This penguin built her home on a giant block of ice, and spent all day every day swimming in the water around the ice and catching fish.  One day, the penguin saw a bird flying overhead.  She looked at its beautiful wings and decided that she too wanted to fly.  She saw that she had wings, and she knew that only birds had wings.  She assumed that because she had wings she was a bird, and that because she was a bird, she could fly.  She flapped her wings and flapped her wings but nothing happened.  She couldn’t fly.  She got nowhere.  She was trapped on the ice, but instead of enjoying her life as she had before, she spent every minute trying to escape it.

The penguin had a concept of herself as a happy, swimming, fishing creature.

But when she saw the bird, it was all ruined.

*

“I can convey this on a literary level,” I tell M.  “That’s why I wrote the piece the way I did.  The tense shift in terms of the event itself is really how it is, how it feels.  It’s separated.  Detached.”

She nods and scribbles something down on her pad.  “What happens when you try to talk about it?”

“Talk about it?”

“Like, out loud.  You call it ‘the event.’”

I spin a strand of hair around my finger and say again, “I can convey how I feel on a literary level.  With writing.”

“But not out loud.  What would happen if you did?  If you talked, out loud?”

I have a million or more answers to that question.  First and foremost, it would make it real.  I didn’t want it to be real.  I wanted to rewind to a happier time when I didn’t have to think about these things.  When I didn’t have to wonder if people would hate me.  When I didn’t hate myself.  I deflect her question.  “I’ve been doing better in class.  I talk to people.  I share stuff.”

M refuses to let it go.  “But back to the piece.  What would happen if you said these things out loud?  If you used the words?  If you incorporated the experience back into yourself?”

I would drown.  I would hate myself even more.

I stare out the window over her shoulder and watch the birds flying over the field.  And I wish that I could fly.  If I could fly, things would be so much better.  I wouldn’t be here any more.  I wouldn’t belong to him.

*

There is a common misconception that penguins mate for life.  Many penguins do indeed remain with one partner, just like people do.  Especially during mating season.  However, once mating season is over, many penguins choose to find a new mate.  Once the penguin children are born, the love dissipates.

*

I remember sitting on my bed maybe a year or so after my son died.  A lot had happened in that time. I’d gotten sick; I’d gotten better.  I’d gone bat-shit insane.  And I’d left my husband for totally justifiable reasons.  My crazy was justified.  But as I sat there on that bed, the orange box cutter from work clutched in my fist, I was lost.  It was around three in the morning.  The cat stared at me, swishing her tail back and forth.  The thoughts beat around inside my head.

He hurt because of what I did.  Because of Carter.  That’s why we’re not together.  Because of me.

I had seen another life.  I had seen another way of being, and then I had lost it.  I had lost my son; I had lost my husband; I had lost everything.  It was all because of me, and I couldn’t escape that.  I couldn’t escape myself, no one can.  But there was a way.  There was this way.  I told myself I wasn’t strong enough for anything else.  That was a lie.  It was nothing more than a moment when I realized I could never escape him.  That he would always be part of me.  That I didn’t know how to go forward.

The ultimate escape.  Only not.  Because it’s not escaping anything.  It’s just an end, and not a good one.  Never.

There’s always another way.  There’s always another choice.

*

I am that penguin.  My self concept was shattered.  I spend every waking moment trying to escape.  It’s my life goal.  Escape what?  Escape my thoughts, my past.  Escape my son.  Escape him.

Escape myself.

But I can’t.

I want to fly, but I am trapped inside my own head.  I want to express myself, but I’m missing the words.  I still belong to him.

*

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can feel his hands on me.  I can see his eyes boring into mine, but I can’t turn away.  I don’t like to sit on the couch where he was, or in the car where he was.  I don’t like to walk where he walked.  When I open my mouth, I imagine what he would think about what comes out of it.  I imagine that he would disapprove, and then I disapprove.  And I stay silent.  Still.  Because the belonging is that solid, that deep.  That lasting.  Because I let his disapproval mean more than any amount of approval ever could.

I believe that, even now, it will always exist.  I will always be his.  I will always be here.  Looking back now, I know that I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for.  I almost let him take everything from me, but then I didn’t.  I held on.  I stayed.  But I take the failures hard, and I run away from the truth.  I run away from the things that happened because it’s easier to me than admitting them as true.  It’s easier for me than saying they are real.  It’s easier for me than taking responsibility, because I don’t know where that responsibility lies.  Every ounce of me wants to put it on him, but I know that it doesn’t all go there.

I’m scared that, as hard as I try, I will never be able to fly.  But I still keep going; I keep trying.  I need to remember that I’m a penguin.  I’m okay.  Giving up is a choice I am not willing to make.

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The Fourth Trimester

The fourth trimester is defined in pregnancy books as the idea that the first three months of life should essentially be an extension of life in the womb for the newborn.  It starts in the hospital; it is better for the baby to stay with the mother.  Mother and baby bond and the mother takes her cues regarding establishing new routines from the baby rather than trying to force upon the baby a routine that may not fit.  This gives them both time to adjust to “life on the outside.”  But when the baby dies, this period is missed, glossed over.  The mother does not receive time to adjust as there is no baby to adjust to.  She is expected to pick up and move on as if nothing happened.  They leave her in the labor and delivery ward, because the regular nurses on other floors aren’t specialized in postpartum care.  She stays up all night listening to other babies crying, other mothers taking care of their children, and she is constantly reminded that there is no baby for her.

The other mothers on the floor are starting their fourth trimester, but she is standing still.

*

Someone slid a tray in front of me with soup and water.  I dipped the tip of my spoon into the soup, but the noodles were congealed.  Leaning over the bowl, I sniffed briefly before making the decision that it was not worth my eating.  I didn’t feel like eating ever again.  My cousin had come with flowers, and was talking to the husband and his parents.  I sat in the middle of their conversation, but I wasn’t really talking.  I smiled and nodded in all the right places, but I had never felt so alone in my entire life.  She was gone suddenly, and I couldn’t recall a single word that had been spoken.

People were moving around me and talking throughout the room, but everything was hazy.  The nurse who had been present for the delivery introduced me to the night nurse.  They checked my vitals for what had to be the tenth time in the two hours since the birth, and then they disappeared.  My body and my aftercare were apparently quite important, and yet, I was invisible.

The friends we had picked to be the godparents drifted in.  As they crossed the room, a dividing curtain drifted back to reveal the plastic bassinet next to the bed where a newborn would sleep.  They hadn’t taken it out.

There was no newborn inside.

*

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, 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 they 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 don’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes.  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 they don’t tell 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 your cycle will change forever.  They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body after the baby is gone.  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 walk out of the hospital and throw yourself in front of a bus.

*

The first thing I was able to articulate, once the epidural had fully worn off and the people were gone, was that I had to go to the bathroom.  The nurse helped me to get up by having me grab the bed rail and then swing my legs one at a time over the side of the bed.  They were still tingling from the drugs.

She asked if I wanted a shower.  I nodded.  She guided me into a chair outside the bathroom and then buzzed around hanging up towels and getting things inside the shower ready.  She put some shampoo and soap on the little ledge in the corner, then laid out my new underwear and gown.  As she left, she told me to pull the chain in the shower if I got into trouble.  I nodded, but she had already shut the door.

I stripped out of my gown, carefully depositing it into the hazardous materials bin along with the underwear someone must have put on me at some point.  I shut the lid, hoping I could pretend that the blood on both garments was just a dream.  It took me at least a minute in my daze to figure out how to operate the tap within the shower, but I finally got it on and cranked it as far as it would go.  The noise was almost deafening after the time I had spent removing my clothes in complete silence.  I stuck my head into the water, shampooing and rinsing my hair.  The hot water felt wonderful, rinsing away even for a moment the reality of the situation.  I didn’t realize how hard I was crying until the grief became so overwhelming that I sank down on top of the shower seat.

I turned off the tap, standing and wrapping myself in a towel.  Reaching out with one hand, I rubbed the steam from the mirror.  I dropped the towel and turned first one way, and then the other.  My body looked almost normal.  Heavier most certainly, and differently shaped.  But almost normal in that there was no more pregnancy belly.  Almost as if it hadn’t happened.

*

The biggest thing that no one told me when I lost my son 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 I didn’t have a baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it or make this natural process stop.  I called my OB right away, they made me wear a sports bra that was several size too small with cabbage leaves shoved inside.  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 after having a baby, and no baby to show for it.  I had a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before as well as a plethora of stretch marks.  No amount of exercise would make those things going away, not completely.  I was shaped differently, inside and outside.  I was different.  And this went unacknowledged.

*

The bill from the hospital came a few weeks later.  It cost us nearly eleven thousand dollars to not bring home a baby.  I crumbled the bill up and threw it at the wall before realizing that the husband would want to see it.  I retrieved it from where it had fallen behind the couch, smoothed out the edges, and placed it face down on the coffee table for him to read when he got home.

I paced around the apartment, restless and bored, before turning on the Wii and coming to the decision that this was as good a time as any to begin exercising again.  I had the misguided notion that I could get my pre-baby body back.

I was still doing step aerobics when he got home.  I didn’t want to see his face when he caught wind of the bill.  Eleven thousand dollars.  Who knew?

I burned over five hundred calories doing step aerobics, and I did them every day for a long time.  I started running again.  But I couldn’t get my life back; I couldn’t even get my body back, not the way it had been.  Clothes shopping became the bane of my existence once again.  In the month after the birth, I had an event that required I purchase a dress.  I had just had a baby.  Even though he was gone, I had had a baby.  I had all of the extra weight but nothing to show for it.  I thumbed through the racks aimlessly, attempting to be interested but having an incredibly difficult time engaging.  I pretended to be enthralled with a few choices and vanished into a dresser room.

I stepped into a dress that was the size I had been pre-pregnancy.  It wouldn’t even zip.  I threw the hanger against the wall of the dressing room so hard that it broke and fell to the floor in pieces.

That seemed fitting.  I hated my body, and found myself massively ashamed by my inability to make the clothing fit.

*

A normal fourth trimester:  snuggling with the newborn, feeding on demand, lacking in sleep, and developing routines.  Maybe beginning to exercise.

My fourth trimester:  going home with my son in a box, planning a funeral, and then going back to work and moving on in a society that had a difficult time acknowledging he had even existed.  And exercising.

*

The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project is a photo documentary created by Ashlee Wells Jackson, a mother and photographer from Chicago, Illinois.  After going through a traumatic pregnancy and birth, Ashlee now wants to change the way that women view their bodies postpartum by creating this project to help women learn to love the changes that occur in their bodies.  She is photographing women in the Chicago area, and hopefully other areas as well, to put all of the images into a website, gallery, and eventually a published book.  The tagline of her website is “dedicated to embracing the beauty inherent in the changes brought to our bodies by motherhood, childbirth and breastfeeding.”  I don’t know why it took so long for someone to embrace this idea.

While the project is intended for women with living babies, Ashlee’s mission touched me all the same.  She mentions in her introduction to the project that while women are accepting of the changes that occur in their bodies during pregnancy, it can be harder to adjust to the fact that their body just won’t be what it used to be once the baby is born.  Women carry the scars of childbirth forever, even those who have lost their babies.  And the women who have lost their babies are an often passed over category.  Their fourth trimester is a radically different, yet in some ways the same, period of life.  Many women hate their bodies after.

To a woman who has experienced a stillbirth, her post-pregnancy body feels like adding insult to injury.  It’s hard enough to try to carry on with day to day activities, but to not be able to wear your old clothes is horrible.  Dieting and exercise while grieving is complete and utter torture.  When she looks down, she sees the flabby belly that used to hold a baby.  And sometimes it is easier to deal with those feelings of body hatred over the feelings of loss.  It is easier to just let people assume that because you are not carrying a newborn to show for it, you are simply fat.  That’s just wrong.  It’s wrong to hide.  There is an idea circulating our society that, no matter what the reason, it is wrong to be fat.  It isn’t fair.  Ideas like this just perpetuate sadness in women, particularly those that already hate their body after an infant death.  But in reality, it doesn’t matter what size we are.  We can’t always help the things that happen within our bodies; many things are out of our control.  We are all beautiful, and any woman who is willing to give up her body for almost a year to create a tiny little human is all the more wonderful for that.  Regular birth, traumatic birth, c-section, stillbirth, any birth—all of these women are heroes for their experiences.  This should be recognized, not put down.

The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project is such a beautiful idea because it brings to light the idea that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a post-pregnancy body.  Whether you have a baby at the end or not, there shouldn’t be body hatred at all.  It should be acceptance of the battle; it should be acknowledgement of what was rather than a desperate effort to erase it.  No woman should have to be ashamed of her body after the experience of pregnancy.  No woman should have to be ashamed of her body at all.

(The URL for Ashlee’s website is http://4thtrimesterbodies.com.  This project is an amazing idea.  And you should donate to it, if you are able.)

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