Angel of Emergence; Goddess of Knowledge

I felt a bit sick when I first arrived at the retreat center. I had slept 9 hours the night before but it wasn’t enough to make up for the sleepless nights leading up. The 19 hour time difference, combined with the 90-degree heat and high humidity would have made anyone feel ill, but I knew my anxiety was flaring up as well. I arrived and checked in and headed upstairs to meet the 30 strangers I would be living with for the next 5 days. These women and I would walk a path of exploration and healing together. We would share our children’s stories and our own fears and joys.

One of my biggest anxieties centered around the focus on healing and energy. Crystals and messages from the universe have never resonated with me and I worried that I would be stuck halfway around the world with a bunch of hippies dancing around with crystals and singing mantras. I worried about feeling uncomfortable, but I also worried that my negative reaction would ruin someone else’s experience. I did not want my skepticism to make anyone feel badly if they found meaning in something that I didn’t. I decided that I was going to do my best to be open to whatever situations I found myself in. I don’t need to actually believe that I am growing roots out of my spine and wrapping around the core of Mother Earth in order to still be comforted by the idea of support. Crystals may resonate with me or they may not, but either way they are a beautiful reminder of this amazing experience I get to have.

Even with the change in attitude I was nervous. It can be scary and exhausting enough to spend intensive time talking about our dead children with people we know well- it is terrifying to do it halfway around the world with strangers, so far away from my family and with limited options for reaching out to my loved ones for support.

The first morning of yoga was beautiful. All the women arranged their mats in a circle around the table full of candles representing our babies. The doors were open to the morning air. The sky was blue and we could see the mountains in the distance, past the lush greenery. The yoga instructor took us through a gentle practice, encouraging us to care for ourselves and relax. She invited us to join her in three “Ohms” before she sang a healing mantra. I sat on my mat with my eyes closed and tears streaming down my face. I did not necessarily feel that I was being surrounded by healing that came from any external source, but the signing was beautiful and echoed around the room- almost harmonizing with itself. The knowledge that we had all chosen to leave our families and lives behind to travel to this beautiful area and make time and space to honor our grief and ourselves- it was almost overwhelming how sacred it felt.

I had spent the past couple months preparing myself the best I could. I bought a new camera and yoga gear. I packed two weeks early so I could be sure I had everything. I considered getting a mani/pedi and an eyebrow wax so I wouldn’t feel frumpy. I think I knew that none of this mattered but it was the only thing I could control. I understand now that all my efforts to have all the right things were really just a manifestation of my fear of not fitting in, not finding the community I was hoping for. The reality is that nobody cares what my yoga pants look like (well, that’s not entirely true- I was complimented on them today) or if my hair is frizzy. We are all just looking for a tribe of women to hold us and our stories, to listen with compassion when we talk about the worst things that have ever happened to us. I think we have found it. I look forward to seeing what the next few days bring.

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Gratitude

I would like the record to unequivocally state that I am not grateful that my son died. No lessons I have learned and no beauty of which I am now aware was worth it.

Having said that, I have had so. many. situations come up today that have tested my ability to witness someone else’s pain. Situations that would have floored me three years ago. Situations that try to floor me today. Stab you in the gut with the unfairness of life moments.

People I love are in painpainpain. People facing futures in which the only thing certain is suffering. People feeling alienated from their families while carrying huge burdens. The terrifying unknown.

It all hurts so badly.

And not one bit of me wants to run away. Instead I want to jump in my car and drive in three opposite directions at once. I want to split myself into pieces and give the biggest one to each of my friends. I want to sit with them in silence while they cry. I want to throw dishes against the wall to do anything. I want to rail against the cold cold world who could do this to such warm warm souls.

Let me. Let me swallow your pain so it is lessened for you. Let me carry the burden to give your aching back a break. Let me wrap you in linen until you have the strength to fight again. No, I cannot take it away but let me hold it for a while.

There is so much pain that my heart is cracking open and pouring out love. As much love as the world can hold.

This is what my son gave me. He gave me a brain that does not shrink from pain and tragedy. He gave me arms strong enough to carry someone else’s load. He gave me a heart big enough to swallow another’s pain. He gave me a chance to see the world. In all its breathtaking beauty and its breathtaking fuckedupness. To not run away.

Gray Dress

We make our way up the escalator to the third floor- women’s section. It feels weird not to be shopping for maternity clothes, but everything about this feels weird. Weird and heavy. We make our way around the corner to the fancy dress section. I see dresses appropriate for proms and mothers-of-the-bride, but nothing that will work for this. There is taffeta and sequins, bright colors and slinky fabrics. I am looking for somber, quiet. Something that will cover my body but not make me look too dour or dowdy. I want to look the part, a strong young mother saying goodbye to her firstborn child.

My mother-in-law, Carol, is with me. I’m not allowed to drive because of the medication I am on, and I don’t think anyone wanted me to go shopping for a funeral dress by myself. I’m not really allowed to do anything by myself right now, or at least I don’t have the energy to put up a fight for my independence. Everyone is watching me, waiting for me to fall apart. They don’t understand that there is nothing left of me to crumble. I’m already as broken as a person can be.

We walk past the clearance rack. She tries to stop, to find a bargain. I silently resolve to pay full price. I am not going to reduce my son’s life to a clearance rack. I am not just going to throw something on for his funeral. He deserves better and I don’t care what it costs. It’s just money. It turns out it doesn’t matter in the end- money could not have saved him so who cares?

I find the Calvin Klein section, where racks of structured suit dresses hang. I have always liked how the designer fits and appreciate the clean lines. This, this feels appropriate. Not too fancy, but also nothing that had been sitting at the back of my closet.

My eyes light upon a pale gray shift dress with a matching belt. It will be perfect with a sweater to ward off the chill. It is the middle of March and we are in the middle of a wet, soggy month. Forgetting about the baby weight, I grab my usual size and head to the dressing room. I feel proud when the zipper closes, but of course it is too tight and pulls at my widest parts. Just another reminder of what should be.

Carol leaves to get a bigger size and I will myself not to cry. She comes back with the dress and a couple knit things she found. I am not interested in the knit items, I know what I want to wear. The bigger size doesn’t fit perfectly, but it will do. I am already planning to get it tailored when I lose the weight so I can wear it again- I don’t know then that I never will.

Back in my saggy maternity clothes- the only clothes that are comfortable- I make my way to the check out counter. A middle aged woman with too much mascara rings me up. I send her silent messages- ask me what this is for! I want to tell her, a stranger, my story. I want her to know that my son existed and that I love him and miss him. I want her to know that babies die. Maybe if more people knew that babies die people wouldn’t be so awkward around me- they would know what to say or do. I want her to say something stupid so I can correct her, so I can try out new words and phrases that I have been reading and rolling over in my head. I want to TALK about it, but I want the conversation to be initiated by someone else. Please, stranger, give me the opportunity to talk about my son.

“That will be $99,” she says, She runs my credit card and places a plastic garment bag over my new dress, hands it me. Silently, Carol and I walk away.

First Snow

The first snow of the season came sometime during our hospital stay. I am not sure if it was the first day or the last day, or one of the days in between. I remember lying in the bed and looking at the flakes gently falling outside the window, lit up by the courtyard lights against the late night or early morning sky. Time had no meaning aside from the nurses coming to check my vitals and administer medication so I don’t remember what time it was.

I’m not sure if Chris was awake or sleeping huddled under the blanket we had my parents bring from home. The hospital’s attempt at making the partner comfortable fell short, but we still appreciated being together. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to be there by myself- or to think of him alone in our apartment. Much better that we are together even if he can’t get comfortable.

The snow is beautiful but it feels like a betrayal. It is cold and wet and mocks me with its serenity. “Nature doesn’t care,” it tells me. “The world is going to keep spinning and the seasons will come and go and your loss doesn’t matter.” I know I can’t argue with it because it speaks the harsh truth.

Address Book

*Published in Three Minus One*

“Your address book will change.”

In the aftermath of losing my first child at 38.5 weeks gestational age, this is one of the phrases that stuck out to me. My address book will change? Who cares? My baby just died and the last thing on my mind is how my social life will be affected.

I soon learned, however, that losing your child is only the first bad thing that happens. As awful as your child’s death is; it is. It is a complete act. Finished. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to change it. There are decisions about funerals to face, there is the physical act of delivering a stillborn child, there are the phone calls to make, the hearts to break, the hopes and dreams to destroy. And these acts are overwhelming in their unfairness.  But your brain has its defense mechanisms in place that allow you to get through the next second, the next minute.  You can function because you have to. And once the choices have been made, the arrangements have been set, it is then the real work begins.

I could tell you all about my son. His name. That he seemed to like bean burritos and action movies. That he was beautiful and perfect. I could tell you about the fear when he stopped moving. That I convinced myself that he had just run out of room, that nothing could actually be wrong. I could tell you about lying in bed at night willing him to kick me. I could tell you about the sound the world makes when you hear the words “Your baby has no heartbeat.” How still everything gets. How you hear the ocean in your ears, only it is not the ocean, it is your own heartbeat. I could tell you how you hate the sound of your heartbeat in your ears because it reminds you of the other heart that is not beating. I could tell you about the emptiness he left behind. The confusion about my identity as a bereaved mother. The tears. The physical pain of grief. The days that stretch out in front of you when your dreams for the future are shattered. And I could tell you about the day you allow yourself to smile or laugh, and the guilt you feel about finding anything beautiful in a world that killed your child. I love my son, and I am still figuring out what that means. I will likely be figuring that out for the rest of my life. But this is not what I want to tell you about.

What I want to tell you about is how your life changes in the ways you don’t anticipate. How you learn to navigate the world again. How support comes from some of the least expected places. And how your address book really does change.

When we first lost Anderson my husband and I were amazed at the response from our community. We both work for the same youth-services organization and were touched when the office closed early on the day of the funeral so our colleagues could attend. One friend immediately began a Facebook group where others could post messages of love and support; 16 months later the group still has over 200 members. We were loaded down with meals and offers to help paint the house we had bought for our growing family. We felt loved, even though we didn’t know how to feel anything through the shock.

The first indication I had that my social world would in fact change was a couple months after Anderson died. I was at a dear friend’s house. She and I had been close since college, we were in each other’s weddings, and I was her son’s godmother. She was the person I shared things with. And then the moment came when she looked me in the eyes and said, “I hope this doesn’t change you.”

“I hope this doesn’t change you.”

As if the death of a child is something that can leave you unchanged. Something you can get over, bounce back from. As if it doesn’t completely redefine how you view the world, yourself, your relationships, morality, religion, family dynamics, ambition. As if the death of your child doesn’t tear you from where you were, rotate you 90 degrees, and put you back down, so you are looking at the same scenery but seeing it all so differently.

In retrospect, I think our friendship always had an expiration date. It was one of those unbalanced relationships that are amazing when you have the time and energy to put in the effort, but quickly fizzle when real life happens. Anderson’s death was just a catalyst, speeding us along to an inevitable ending. We tried for a while, but my lack of energy to reach out was interpreted as withdrawal. The resources I emailed and posted in social media about how to help grieving friends were not read (I assume. We never discussed them and future conversations led me to believe that she had not looked at them). To be fair, she had many of her own worries to juggle (finishing school, starting a new job, raising a special needs child). Neither of us had the capacity to be what the other needed.

I found this to be true in other areas of my life as well. My relationships shifted. Some faded into the background. Some went through painful seismic shifts and we are still waiting for the dust to settle to see where we are. Some sprouted up from the least expected sources and became a soothing balm. The common thread determining the future of our relationship was the other person’s willingness to witness me going through the grief process without trying to interfere or tell me how I “should” feel. The people who asked me questions, let me talk about what Anderson was teaching me, did not assume they knew what I was going through- these were the people I craved. My tears may have made them uncomfortable but they held me or handed me a tissue instead of turning away or changing the subject. They cried alongside me, letting me know they also grieved this little boy we were all robbed of knowing. They did not say “he’s in a better place” or “you can always have more children.” They understood that I wanted THIS child and that there is no better place for a baby than his mother’s arms. And they understood that those phrases, no matter how well-intended, tell a bereaved parent that there is no space here for their grief. When they did not know what to say, they said, “I don’t know what to say,” instead of offering Hallmark platitudes. They recognized that none of us are experts in this and that the process of working through grief is necessary. And healthy. And the only way I have left to honor my child. And they participated in honoring Anderson by holding space in their lives for him.

Now, 16 months later and just five days before we hope to welcome Anderson’s little brother, I am reflecting on just how many of my relationships have changed. There are some that I mourn, a kind of secondary grief. Some I probably don’t even realize are gone. And some that I rejoice in. Losing my son clarified for me what is important and how I want to spend my time and energy. Anderson has taught me (and is still teaching me) about perspective, and about intentionality, and to see things for what they actually are instead of what I wish they were. In the strangest ways, losing my child has brought me peace that I never expected.

There are some amazing people who have come into my life since Anderson died, and there are some amazing people who no longer fit in my life. My address book changed when my son died and the relationships that remain are the greatest gift from my little boy.

Ferguson

I don’t want to pretend that I am an expert on race relations or on what is currently happening in Ferguson. I will leave that to others. But I do want to discuss how challenging it is to feel safe in a world where violence seems to be all around us. Where we can’t tell the good guys from the bad.  Continue reading