28 August 2017

High School Orientation

Grace,

Today your older sister went to school to welcome the freshman for high school orientation. You missed it. You didn't show up. Did you forget to go?

I was going to wake you up to remind you that you had to be there at 8:00, but then I couldn't find you. I looked in your sister's room, but I just saw clothes strewn across the floor. There wasn't even a second bed. So then I went upstairs and looked for you--I thought maybe you'd crawled into one of your brother's beds, but alas, no Grace.

Dammit. I can't even find your bedroom. Why don't we have a bedroom for you?

I glanced at our checking account; there were no recent purchases at Forever 21 or H&M, not even American Apparel. I suppose if you don't have any new clothes, you can't really start your freshman year, can you? And I don't even have the list of school supplies for your classes. What are you taking?

Your sister would tell you to register for AP Human Geo but I'm not sure they are even offering that class anymore. She has all kinds of advice for you. She's excited because you'll be taking Honors Chemistry, and she'll be in AP Chem which means you'll have the same teacher, different periods.

Speaking of periods, it doesn't seem like I've even bought you any tampons lately. Are you running out? I'd go to the store tonight for you? I'd even change back out of my pajamas and into clothes to get them for you. Really! I don't mind. What else do you need? Do you have enough sharpened pencils to start the year? Did you get a pencil bag at Sephora like your sister did. She'd tell you that makeup bags are way better pencil bags then the lame ones they sell at Walgreens or Target.

Grace, why aren't you answering me when I text you on your cell phone? It's just silent. No read message or text back, just emptiness. Too much emptiness.

You'd think after 14 years I'd get used to this silence from you, but I don't. Silence would be welcoming. Instead, the words in my head keep knocking around inside of me:

You should be starting high school.

You are a freshman.

Did you register for band? Are you playing the flute like your sister? You'll be marching at football games with her. She'll even tell you all about Mr. Loupe. She's the best advice giver ever.

Grace? Grace?

Answer me, dammit.

Grace?

I miss you.

Mama



25 August 2017

Year two - the answer to all your questions

It's true. The second time isn't as hard as the first time. But don't let the underlying ease of saying goodbye, putting my son on a plane (this time alone) back to college, washing the dishes he left in the sink for the last time this summer, stripping his bed, and finding the pair of socks he accidentally left behind make it seem easy.

It's an internal battle this time.

It's sitting on the couch while writing this watching him sit at the table with his laptop writing God knows what: a letter? a novel? an email? an application for a job? I really don't know, and I won't ask because asking could be akin to an answer such as "It's none of your business." That answer still stings.

My 11-year-old sits next to me eating a snack and watching a Netflix show. He reaches out across the space between us and asks me to hold his hand. This is actually the thing that undoes me, that makes my eyes water at the edges of my eyelids.

This week passed quickly--much quicker than the four month summer he's been home. So I take advantage of what I know I can do this week: when my oldest son is standing near me, I walk up to him and put my arms around him from behind. He knows this week he can't pull away. I tell him it's only this week I get to embrace him like this. He's pretty good about letting me do it. I already prepare myself for when my daughter leaves and bristles a bit harder against the hug. She's only 16 but already so entirely ready to leave this pedestrian city behind her.

I wonder if I'm in the stage where all my kids are leaving for 10 to 15 years, or are they leaving this city behind them for good? It's a fair question. I have enough friends with older kids who are returning home with wives and children in tow, understanding that living in Spokane offers a kind of ease and familiarity to it that can't be found somewhere else. (Also, where else can you buy a starter home for $200,000?) But my children assure me over and over, they won't be coming back. (By the way, I am pretty sure my friends' children did the same, so I cling a little bit to their broken promises.)

There are things I'm actually not going to miss: the leaving at 10 pm at night and returning at 2 am which happened 2 or 3 times a week all summer long, the standing at the stove making his favorite dinner only to discover he's not home tonight to eat it, the push and pull of parenting at this stage: "Mom, I can handle it myself." ... "Um, will you still pay for my haircuts?"

School for everyone starts on Thursday, and I long for the predictability that fall brings: the alarms going off at 6:30 am, the packing of lunches and dropping off at school, the FaceTime calls on Sunday afternoon--the four of us sitting around the kitchen table talking to our oldest son on the phone, hearing the happiness in his voice.

And that's the thing really: He's happy. He likes his college he chose, his friends he's met, the classes he's taking. In between the large question marks of adulthood and how will I support myself, I see him becoming the person that I saw in him at four years old when he stood on the edge of the couch, arms waving and him shouting "Watch me mama" as he leapt off of the edge, his Superman cape waving behind him. His confidence in knowing what classes to take without my advice, his confidence in stepping onto the plane without me packing him a lunch, his confidence at leaving us, reminds me of my own confidence at 20.

I am filled with a kind of pride and joy that's really indescribable in this moment. I'm also filled with a kind of sorrow that his childhood really is behind us. But I think he says it best himself in this two and a half minute retrospective he put together last month.



Though I do disagree with parts of the song: "But in the end, the only steps that matter are the ones you take all by yourself..." Having someone by your side helps.

And even though we are 2,000 miles away, we, your parents, Carver, will always be by your side in whatever form you let us. We don't mind being in the back seat when we have to be, but we will always be watching from a distance, our hearts expanding with every step you take!


15 October 2016

Honeysuckle plants

This blog, it was born of grief, born of a deep love for my daughter who left too soon. Born of a sadness always there, always tucked away and I wonder when the sadness first arrived? Was it when I was five and my father died or was it long before that? Did it arrive when I was four months old, taking in the sounds and smells and sights around me and the first diagnosis came in: You have cancer. 

Did it arrive then? When the adults around me were trying to process what this meant? I have seen it so many times since. The cancer diagnosis. The hopes falling away and the fears arriving. The darkness descending. How bad is it? And then the hope kicks in and the fight arrives. We will beat this. And the fighting starts--the chemo, the radiations, the surgeries.

Four months turned to one year, a single candle upon a cake. The parents hovered around singing the birthday song. Then two years pass. Remission. Hope rises. Fear falls. Sadness gets tucked away.

Three years and three candles, and the cancer returns and the remission fades. More surgery. More radiation. More hope. More questions. Fear returns. The eyes and ears of a three-year-old see things that others can't. I know this because the eyes and ears of the five-year-old saw so many things that I tried to protect him from. He saw the masks come off. He wrote about that. He heard the voices of his parents shouting. He wrote about that.

And I saw too as a child things you should never have to see. The father screaming when the pain was too much and the medicine wasn't working and the screaming to get out of the room. I saw the hole in his back where the radiation burned him and ate away at his flesh. How is it that I can't remember the kindness of a man that so many talk about, but I can feel deep into my core the yelling to get out of the room? How is it that I cannot picture the hole on a body, but I can feel the hole burning into the backside of my rib cage making it hard to breath?

These memories are not just memories of some distant pain. These memories create the people we become. These memories are why when I step into a hospital my stomach twists and my throat catches because too many days from four months old to five years old, my father lived there and I was sneaked in to see him. These memories of ultrasounds and "I'm sorry, there is no heartbeat" is why driving by the hospital where she was born still causes me sharp pains in my lower belly.

And now this:

Our son has left for college. It's been eight weeks since I've seen him, and I know he's not gone forever. I know he's not dead. But this inability to touch and hold and see just inches away from me feels all too familiar. It feels so different. I worry about the sadness I feel because sadness feels all too familiar. Sadness feels too much like pain. Sadness feels too much like death.

So I have to learn to sit with the sadness more. To sit with the joy beside it when I see how happy he is, how thriving he is, how tired he his, how much distance there is between his five-year-old self and his 19-year-old self.

Today someone wrote to me because his devotion was about thanking a teacher, and he wrote to me to say that it made him think of my father who was one of his teachers. And I hold that note from him in my hand and I turn it over and over again grateful for its arrival. Overjoyed that my father's memory still lights up someone else's life. And I turn it over again and weep for everything I've lost, for this deep and everlasting sadness that I cannot pick up the phone to hear his voice, that I can't sink into his embrace when this sadness and longing feels like too much.

And I remind myself that this is the sadness I need to sit with. This is the sadness I am grateful for.

In two weeks, I will get on a plane to go visit my son. And I will hug him and see him and be in his presence. And this sadness I feel today will give space for the joy that feels tucked too far back at the moment but is still there.


Before we moved from my first home after my father died, I had a playhouse in my own private yard. It had a ladder so that I could climb to the flat rooftop and sit on it. There was a honeysuckle plant that grew up against the fence along the side of the playhouse. Sometimes I laid down on the roof and would try and make myself as small as I could so that no one could find me. I'd pretend to disappear and cry silently so that my body shook but the noises coming out of my mouth were muffled. The salty tears would fall into my mouth. And then I'd sit up and reach into the honeysuckle plant and pull out the long, thin white 'string' and suck on the end of it, letting the sweet nectar drip down into my throat. I did this over and over again until the bitter taste of the tears gave way to the sweetness of the honey.

There is so much to be thankful for.

31 May 2016

One the eve of your 13th birthday except not

Grace,

It is the evening before your 13th birthday except not. You see, it's always been a confusing and complicated time for me, not really filled with clarity on which day to call your birthday.

Is it the day of your birth that I should consider you 13? Tomorrow? Because on that day, the day you were born, you were wholly silent. Fully formed. And wholly silent.

So then, is it the day you died instead? Would that technically be your birthday? You know that moment before death and then death on the same day? Except that language is complicated and technically your birth day, is in fact the day you were born, yet you died two and a half days before your birth so is that the day I'm supposed to call your 13th birthday?

Do you understand my dilemma? Because each year, I feel confounded and confused by this complex situation. There is not a day. There is not two days. There is not: this is the day she was born, eyes wide open, she lived, she breathed, she was and was met and held and greeted. And then this is the day she died. There is instead, these series of days and images of heart stopping, of dopplers utterly failing me, of faces falling, and then the long and hard reality of induction and labor and birth so many days later into this cold and silent and dark world. And silence. The deafening cacophony of silence.

And the days are all jumbled and wrong. Because you died and then you were born. Do you understand my dilemma? You died on May 29th. You were born on June 1st. I've never been great at math but what does that make you at birth?  Minus three days old? Is that even possible? Can you be minus three days old? See that doesn't make sense. How can a person be minus three days old?

I want the plus three not the minus three, and I want the plus thirteen and I know we are taught not to be greedy, but I am and I want the celebration dammit. I want the balloons and cake and happy birthday songs and turning 13 years old.

I want it all. But mostly I just want you. Here. I want the 18 year old and the 15 year old and the 13 year old and the 10 year old. Because look how normal and right that looks:

18
15
13
10

And look how wrong this looks:

18
15
(-3)
10

Do you see my confusion? Or is it this:

18
15
(-13)
10

But really, it feels like this:

18
15

10

See that space between. That hole? That's what it feels like every time someone says how old are your children? And I pause and I say 18, 15, 10 and they look at me and say, "Oh, that's quite a gap." And I think, if you only knew. Yes, that's quite a gap.

That gap is the hole in my heart, the silent tears that fall, the endless tug inside, the catch in my throat, the darkness that lingers, the breath that I hold, the stillness of the air, the emptiness in my belly, the longing inside, the ache in my bones, the gap in my day, the space between all of it...

Grace.

my unfinished sentence

love,
mama





18 February 2016

March 4, 10 years old, an upcoming birthday

Dear Sawyer,

So tonight at the dinner table when you had that terrible meltdown, when all of us put two and two and five together to realize that on this upcoming tenth birthday, your eighteen-year-old brother will not be home for your family birthday dinner that we've had every year since the beginning of time for each one of you because he will be performing in the second night of his school play. Yes, that meltdown that we all felt? Remember how you cried and cried and insisted that he MUST be home for your birthday dinner and anything else was unacceptable and then you stormed off and slammed the door and proceeded to cry some more? I remember.

I remember my entire body feeling cold, and the tears welling up in my eyes, and the unbelievable sorrow and grief that rose up inside of me when you returned to the table and said, "well, how would you feel if Carver couldn't be at your birthday dinner in the last year that he was home?" And that's when the tears started falling from my eyes too, and I couldn't speak and I was barely able to whisper, "I would feel really, really sad," before I had to leave the dinner table and head to the bathroom to grab some tissue and sit on the toilet and sob for five minutes.

Oh, my dear, dear, growing up too fast son. I wish that I could tell you that this gets easier. I wish that I could take you into my arms and fix it all. I wish that I could find a way to tell you that this grief and sadness you feel will ease. I'm afraid that it won't. It won't get any easier. But I can tell you that what I learned from my dear friend Joanne Cacciatore is that our grief muscles grow stronger. I can tell you that as this difficult year goes on, as each of us tries to absorb the meaning of Carver's leaving all of us, what it means, how it changes the dynamic of our family, and how it mostly will change you too, that these days will go on, and we will learn how to live with this sadness.

I know that we don't always talk about it very well. I know that our emotions overcome all of us, and we hide into our corners of our home weeping because grief is so very hard for all of us to talk about very well. But I also know that we can share this grief together. And we can remember that our grief is so intense at times because my goodness, how lucky are all of us, that we love and adore each other so much.

The fact that you are so upset tells me that your love is deeper than I even realized. That what your brother means to you and represents is bigger perhaps that I give it credit. And for that I am sorry.

I am sorry that I cannot fix this. That when you shout over and over again, "it's my last birthday with him" that I can't take those feelings away. I know you don't want to hear me tell you right now that it will be okay. I don't even know what to tell you. I'm no longer certain that it really will be okay.

So just know that I feel sad too. And I feel overwhelming love for all of you, for how much you love your brother and sister, for how much we all love each other. And I just have to believe that our love will carry us through this very hard and amazingly wonderful time.

love,
mama

10 February 2016

Six Months...

Dear Carver,

Your first six months we sat on the couch together and watched a lot of baseball while you drank a lot of milk. You cooed. I cooed back. You gurgled. I watched in awe. In those first six months, you learned how to focus your eyes, you learned to smile, you lifted your head, you started following me with your eyes. These were huge milestones and yet rather ordinary ones because every healthy baby does those same things in good time. And still. You were my baby, my child, my first born.

I find it remarkable now, no, astounding that here we are staring down at your last six months before you head off to college. There is much we still don't know. What colleges will accept you? What kind of money will they offer? Ultimately, where will you decide to go? Will you be in New York, Bellingham, Seattle, Walla Walla or Baltimore? These are huge decisions to be made and yet rather ordinary ones because thousands of high school graduates find themselves wondering the same thing.

And I cannot help but reflect. On everything. On the joys of raising you, watching you become and coming into your own, and on my regrets (yes, there are a few because my regrets mean I am flawed, thank goodness.)

These tears you see in my eyes on an ordinary day are not going to be hidden away. You will see them more often in the coming months because whenever I try to imagine our lives here in Spokane without you, the tears rise and then fall. I cannot help it, nor do I want to help it.

My grief at your leaving is huge, but it should not be any kind of deterrent to your leaving. It is my love explored, my love felt, my love learning how to find a way without. I know you see it in all of us. Especially in Papa and Sophia. Sawyer's will come differently, more slowly, less fully realized perhaps until he is older. Or I could be wrong. It may be just as fully realized now.

This is your time. This is one of so many moments for you to be out into the world and become. We are not here to hold you back. We are here to launch you, and it has been one of my greatest privileges in this life to launch you.

Just know that my tears, each one of them represent love, deep abiding love and awe for you and who you are becoming.

I am filled with a desire to give you advice over the next six months; there is a rush inside of me to hurry and teach you everything I've failed to teach so far: please oh please wipe the counters and the stovetop when you clean a kitchen, your future love will forever be grateful. Open doors for anyone--a love, the elderly, a child, your mother, the cat. Hang your clothes immediately after they come out of the dryer or they will wrinkle. There are so many things that swirl through my head and yet...the truth is I have done all that I can already. So really all I can say is just continue to be the remarkable person that you are; all I can do is watch. Love and allow yourself to be loved. And read every novel you can get your hands on.

The rest will fall into place. (and eventually we will be okay)

love,
mama


31 January 2016

End of the first semester of the last year

Today was the last day of the first semester of my oldest son's final year of high school.

He is a senior. He will be graduating in June. With flying colors. With all kinds of accomplishments under his belt. With all kinds of changes between that first day of freshman year when I dropped him off at high school, and he didn't know a single soul, to today. Not. A. Single. Soul. On that first day.

My mama heart ached for him that first day of freshman year.  The quiet one, the one who was likely to sit alone silently at lunch observing the crowds of kids who were reconnecting from the area junior high schools he didn't attend, the quiet one who I left on the steps of that high school while I drove away with tears streaming down my face.

He wore a brave face those first few days, saying very little, as I tried to pummel him with questions. "Slow down," inside my head said. But those of you who know me, know that resisting saying what's on my mind is difficult. So I kept pummeling, and he kept remaining silent.

I still pummel all my kids with questions.

"How was your day?"
"What did you do today?"
"Do you have homework?"

And while I rarely get answers (you ask too many questions all at once, they claim), they too have their own set of questions: "What's for dinner tonight?" (Okay perhaps not a set, but a question nonetheless!)

It doesn't take much to make me cry these days.

I can literally close my eyes and remember pushing Carver out on the day he was born, 18 years and just a few months ago. I can still smell the top of his head. I can hear his sighing as he moves up onto my chest and settles in.

These are perhaps the greatest clich├ęs of all: It will go by in the blink of an eye. He'll grow up so quickly. Before you know it, he will be off to college. 

But I didn't believe them because of course it's not really a blink of an eye. After all on a day when your baby is three months old, and you are home alone with him, and he won't let you set him down for a moment, and you desperately need a shower, there is no time that moves slower than in that day before your husband arrives home to take him out of your arms so you can dash off to rinse the smell of spit up out of your own hair, and you can stand in the shower for just a moment alone and think, this, this is what alone feels like. And then that moment alone ends.

But here we are 18 years later and staring down at that final semester of high school.

There is not a single school within 150 miles that Carver has applied to. In fact, one of the colleges he applied to is 2,637 miles away. (Yes, of course, I google mapped it!)

When I think about him as a baby, as a three-year-old flying through the house in his Superman outfit, as an 11-year-old making videos with his best friend Will, last week when he dashed in from school to grab a sandwich and dash back out to work, my throat catches, and the tears well up in my eyes, and I find myself on the verge of a kind of grief I haven't experienced before.

This is no child dying grief; this is no parent dying grief (and god knows, I know those griefs with an intimacy all too well). No, this is a new kind of grief that hardly makes any sense at all because I want him to grow into an adult, of course. I want him to go off to college and grow into the person one can only become when off at college. I want him to experience all of the wonderful and terrifying and life-changing things that happen when you leave your home.

But dammit, I do not want him to leave us.

This is my grief.

Because, this now. This parenting thing, I've kind of finally gotten down after 18 years. I can do it pretty well now.

And the worst part of the grief?

I like him. I really, really like him.

I like the man my son is becoming, and I want to continue to experience him on a daily basis. I learn from him every day. I'm a better human being when I am around him.

And so I grieve. Pretty openly as those of you know who have found me accosting you as I walk past. Especially those parents who have gone before me, and I grab the sleeves of your shirts to tell you, "This is Carver's last year. He's going to leave us." And each of you give me the all-too-knowing look of kindness as I desperately search your eyes.

I have lumped people into two categories now:

1. Those who respond appropriately: "I'm not going to pretend with you. It's awful. I cried for the first month when my daughter left home."

"I'm so, so sorry. It is so hard."

2. And those who don't respond appropriately: "It will be great." "You'll love recapturing your life."

Go to hell, I want to tell those number twos. Fuck you. 

I'm not looking for you to tell me how I'll feel two years from now. In fact, I'm not at all looking for you to tell me how to feel. I'm looking at you for a little bit of empathy, a little bit of I've been in your shoes, and it totally sucks and I'm sorry kind of empathy.

And don't tell me that my husband and I should have done a better job of being on our own without because we have consciously decided to be fully present for our kids and forgo the weekly date nights. (And this is not what the books say you are supposed to do, but I could give a fuck about those books.)

I will tell you that I have not, for one single moment, regretted not going on a date night or not going overnight with my husband instead of all of us being together. (And I'm pretty sure that my husband would say the same thing.) Because I think I've known this all along. I think from the very beginning, that I've known this truth.

That these years with our children, these 18 years and some months will be just a piece of our entire lives, this time will be just a quarter or a fifth (with any luck, God please!) of our lives, and then it will be over, and I will have the time to sit on the couch and pen these words as he steps out into the night.

"Goodbye, mom," he says, with confidence. "Can I take your car?"

And I sit here on the couch with the tears streaming down my face feeling the ever so sweet milky breath of his mouth as we lie on the couch napping so many years before when every moment of his life depends upon the ability of me to simply be present to make sure when his feet touch the ground to go running, that he is indeed firmly planted.

My grief. My tears. His best years of his life still ahead of him.

18 December 2015

The distance between my grief...and remembering

It's true. The grief does change over time. It ebbs and flows like a river, some years because the season before was a mild one, the river does not overflow, but other years, the river rages on and on spilling over the edges of the land because the snowfall in the mountains was so great that there is no way to contain it.

And why would a person ever want to contain their grief? Why do we try so hard to reign it in? What are we afraid of if people see our grief? I ask myself this question often because so much of my grief is private, so many of my tears are private. I cry a lot, but I most often cry alone. I think because I was raised to put on a happy face, hide your tears, cry in silence. I was an excellent silent crier by the time I was ten.

My own father died just before my sixth birthday, and I learned quite young that crying wasn't really okay. We needed to hide our sadness because we might make our mother sad, and our job was to try and make her happy. So I hid my tears.

I found that if I cried into my pillow while rocking, I could simultaneously comfort myself and keep my crying muffled. It helped sometimes to have two pillows, one on each side of my face so I could create a little well of air in which to breath.

And sometimes I found that hiding in the closet, covering my ears and rocking would make me feel better.

But no matter what I did to try and stop the crying, I couldn't. And so, over time, I found that if I cried hard enough and rocked faster, that eventually I would just fall asleep, sometimes curled up in a ball. The rocking would prevent me from thinking about anything at all; it would block the sound, block my thoughts and I could just rock over and over again while counting--1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 until the counting in my head became a chant, a kind of mantra on which to focus.


The distance between my grief and remembering my father grew until I'm pretty sure one day, when I was 11 or 12, I could no longer remember ever having a father except for the feeling of not having a father and the emptiness that came with it. I couldn't conjure up an image of him in my mind; I couldn't remember a time when he was in my life, only the vast amount of time he wasn't.

And this is only a piece of what the emptiness feels like. It's only a piece of how grief evolves and changes. It's only a piece of the river that rages inside of me.




11 May 2015

Finding Grace

Read at Listen To Your Mother, The Bing Theater, Spokane, WA, May 10, 2015




The story goes that my dad was so happy on the day I was born (his first three babies were boys) that he left the hospital soon after the doctor came out to the waiting room to announce my birth, and he didn’t return until the next day.  He’d gone home to paint my room pink, and buy dresses to hang in my closet.

I was four months old when my father was diagnosed with cancer. My memories of those years are mostly blank, filled with other peoples’ stories of me and my dad.

But I remember this: I was picked up early from kindergarten one day and brought home to a house filled with people I didn’t want to see. The father who thought I was the center of the world was dead.

Grief settled into my bones.

What I craved most in my childhood was to be loved like my father loved me. I still do. Sometimes, I just want someone to buy me dresses and paint my room pink.

I grew up. I found love. I got married, then pregnant, had one and then two babies, a boy and a girl. When I was pregnant with our third child, it struck me that I was 36-years-old, the same age my mother was when her husband, my father, died, and like me, my son was five.

I looked at my son and the reflection of my 36-year-old self in the mirror, and I did what I was taught to do since I could fold my hands. I prayed. I prayed to a complicated God with whom I’ve had a complicated relationship that He protect me from the death of my husband. I prayed every night and went about my days as my belly grew from its second trimester into its third. Though I never said it out loud, I wanted this child to be a girl because I never had a sister, and I wanted to give my two-year-old daughter the sister I could never have. Also, I wanted to paint two rooms pink.

My prayers became fiercer as the due date loomed. Please, God, please keep my husband alive I whispered into the night. Then just like the world does sometimes, it tilted, and I discovered I’d been praying the wrong prayer. 

She’s dead.

What? I lean in because I can’t understand what the technician is saying as she pulls the Doppler from my belly.

I’m so sorry. Her heart is not beating.

My body goes numb, and a kind of hollowness and sorrow seeps inside unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I search my mind for a roadmap. I reach back 31 years to see if there is anything recognizable in this place of grief. 

My five-year-old self cannot help me. The death of my child feels nothing and everything like the death of my father.

On the night that labor is induced, my husband goes home to take care of our two living children because neither one of us can imagine them with anyone else, and while my other labors were short, we’ve been told that forced labor can take days. I lie alone in my hospital bed and put my five-year-old thumb in my mouth, squeeze my eyes shut and rock myself back and forth like a baby to try to stop the world from spinning. I can’t stop the spinning.

The worst part is not the grueling 24-hour labor after they’ve induced me and told me that I have to deliver my dead daughter vaginally. It’s not the falling asleep at night with visions of Grace’s body burning at ungodly temperatures until they eventually return her ashes to me in an urn so small it looks like it’s made for a hummingbird instead of a person.

It’s not the funeral.

The worst part, at least for a while, is that split second upon waking in the days and weeks and months afterwards when I have a joyful moment as I reach a hand toward my belly. But then I remember. And all joy falls away.

Joy is a terrible thing to lose along with your child.

My joy doesn’t disappear forever. It returns 2 ½ years later in the form of a healthy newborn son who spills into my arms on the way to the hospital. Over time I recognize that this joy I feel is larger than anything I’ve ever felt in spite of and because of the sorrow that I carry.

This sorrow becomes my roadmap for love.


And sometimes all it takes is seeing a closet full of dresses or a pink room to remember that this life can change in a moment.

Me and my dad in the picture

01 March 2015

The poetry book that saved my life!

A couple of different friends posted this powerful essay on Facebook today from the New York Times about a mother trying to reach out to her daughter when she was going through a difficult and dark period while she was in school.

At first, I was just reading it as I do any kind of essays that I find links to, and then I started weeping, and a kind of jealousy started to seep inside of me:

I wish someone put poetry inside my shoes when I was in high school.

I wish someone had seen in me the darkness I felt and tried to reach out.

I wish anyone believed in me back then.

But then, I remembered. Someone had. It was my sophomore English teacher who handed me my first book of poetry and told me I mattered.

My sophomore year of high school I took an English class from Mr. Tagami. I loved the way he made me feel as if I mattered--as if I was smart, as if I had something to contribute to the class. It was in his class that I felt my writing start to come alive.

Mr. Tagami made me feel like there was something within me worth holding onto.

Because of his faith in me and because I so desperately needed to feel like I mattered, I became his TA my junior year of high school. I'm not even sure they let students do that very often especially as a junior, but I think he knew I was on the verge of dropping out, and he made special arrangements to let me TA in his class. And...I loved it. I thrived in that class. He made me feel almost like a teacher to those sophomores who were only a year younger than me but felt a generation apart. On some days, it was Mr. Tagami's class that was the only thing that got me out of bed.

And it was right before our Christmas break that he handed me a book wrapped in paper. "Something to put under your tree," he said. Of course, I was barely out of the classroom when I tore the wrapping paper off of it.

It was a book. Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics.



And he inscribed it with something like this: To Sarah, who needs to just keep writing. Mr. Tagami.

Those weren't the exact words--because the book was stolen when I was in my late 20s when it was in storage in an apartment complex where my husband and I lived just after we got married. But I'd read over those words enough as a teen to know they are close. He told me to keep writing. He made me feel as if I mattered.

Like the daughter in this NY Times essay, I was lost. I was lost and on the verge of death most days. I fantasized about suicide, wrote poem after poem about death, was certain I was valued more dead than I would be alive because the thought of someone missing me felt as if someone would care.

"The most optimistic people often struggle the hardest. They can't quite square what's going on in the world with their beliefs, and the disparity is alarming.

"She was temporarily swamped at the intersection of grief over a bleak political landscape, transition to a mediocre high school, and the vast existential questions of a curious adolescent." -Betsy McWhinney

I was steeped in grief throughout high school, but I didn't know it then. I didn't understand it nor did I have words for it. My father had died ten years earlier, but we never talked about his death in our home. We didn't have conversations about him over dinner. I just knew that something was wrong with me. "A bastard child," is what some kids had called me, and I didn't even know what that was, but it felt so wrong that I knew something was wrong with me. And my oldest brother who stepped in as a father figure had left for college a few years before, and while he promised to stay in touch and come back to visit, his promises fell short of my expectations.

And then my middle brother left home too. He was five years older than me, so when I started eighth grade, he was gone. He too made promises he couldn't keep and rarely returned.

So as I understood it back then: Men leave.

It was in high school when my grief really manifested into unhealthy behaviors. Experimentation with food. I could go fourteen days on just a can of peaches and some zwieback crackers for breakfast, vegetable broth for lunch, a can of vegetable soup for dinner. Or I could eat nearly an entire pizza and then try my damndest to get rid of it quickly. Only I was terrible at vomiting so I'd heard someone once talk about Epsom salts, and I tried those. Fasting was easier, but there were times when I got terribly hungry.

When none of that worked to appease my grief, I turned to harder substances.

All of that to say, that none of it made sense in my brain, and while I tried to make sense of it, I also felt like I was dying on most days.

Mr. Tagami and a few other key people back then kept me alive without even knowing that they kept me alive. Or maybe they did know. I clung to that book at night and often fell asleep with it tucked under my pillow.

I know a hundred ways to die.
I’ve often thought that I’d try one
Lie down beneath a motor truck
Some day when standing by one.

Or throw myself from off a bridge—
Except such things must be
So hard upon the scavengers
And men that clean the sea.

I know some poison I could drink.
I’ve often thought I’d taste it.
But mother bought it for the sink,
And drinking it would waste it.


I imagined that motor truck again and again in my nights as I lie awake and made my lists of all the ways I might die. But it was that pen and that paper and Mr. Tagami who each day when I left would turn to me and say, "And I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow, Sarah," that kept me alive.

I can still remember the bleakness of life back then, the longing for things to seem better except that I had no understanding that it could be better. The days spilled out ahead of me toward loneliness and darkness.

It was this poetry book and Mr. Tagami's faith in me that somehow propelled me forward.

For that, and for so much more, I am eternally grateful.



19 January 2015

Driving

My seventeen-year-old is close to getting his driver's license. He is late to the party though as I understand it, many teens these days don't get their license until much later, some into their 20's. But he is nearly ready now. Class taken. Written tests passed. Fees paid. Only the driving test remains.

And...and...I realize I've been dragging my feet. He even called me on it a few weeks ago: "Mom, why are you so opposed to me getting my license?"

Is it that obvious?

What I wish I could tell him, what I wish I could really say has so much more to do about me and my own emotional state than his. It is my fears that rise up in me as I see him slipping away.

It is not that I am opposed to his driving; in fact, on many levels it would be helpful. A run to the grocery store? Sure. Can you drive yourself to the gym tonight? Okay. Can you take your little brother to soccer practice? Well...maybe not.

But here's the real truth of my own fear. It is the memory of my own license that clouds my joy for him:

On the day I got my license, I drove across town, staring down at the map my mother always left in the car. You know the kind: the Thomas Guides, large books that had page after page after page of streets on them. I carefully had it laid out on the passenger seat, trying to navigate across town to the cemetery I'd called earlier in the day.

I was on a mission. I was looking for my father's grave.

Ever since I remember, I counted the days to getting my license so that I could visit my father's grave. I hadn't remembered ever going before as a child; I don't remember if I ever went back after we lowered him into the ground when I was five years old. We rarely talked about him. My mother always believed that going to his grave was not going to visit him. She didn't believe he was there. For me, his grave was the only physicality I had, the proof that he ever existed.

I knew to never speak about him at the dinner table or in our house because it might make my mother sad. Was I told to not mention his name or was that just the obvious state of things in our house? I don't know. Though my oldest brother has told me that if we brought it up, we'd make her sad and so maybe what all of us were doing was trying to project one another from sadness. Though now, I realize how ridiculous that is.

So on my sixteenth birthday, I drove and drove up and down hills, through the cemetery, stopping at the information kiosk trying to keep it together as I was handed a map of the cemetery and my father's grave was circled in pencil. I drove up the winding road to the bluff overlooking the ocean and walked over to where my father had been for the last eleven years. Buried in the ground. On a hill. Overlooking the ocean.



It was my sixteenth birthday.
I had gotten my license that day.
I drove to my father's grave, laid on top of it and wept for nearly an hour. Those hard core sobs that rise up inside of you from places unknown and make your ribs hurt for days afterwards.

That is my memory of getting my license.

That is why, I realize, on an ordinary Sunday in the middle of winter that I have been dragging my feet about my oldest son's driver's license acquisition. I have been avoiding that memory of the day I got my license until he brought up his own. My own throat tightened, my memories of that darkness rose up, and now it's time to let it go.

This is not his story.
This is not what he will do on his first day.
This is not my license.

This is his license. And it will become his story to remember.





12 April 2014

Spring




Grace,

Don't think I don't remember. Don't think for a moment because it's been a couple months that I've posted anything that you aren't on my mind. Don't think that I'm not aware, because I am. It's spring and with those beautiful flowers, that sense of hope pushing through the earth, comes the realization that one more year is passing without you. One more spring, one more blooming of the crocuses, one more three or four inches on your tree that each year grows taller and stronger. But nothing fades. Not the memory of your four pounds against my chest, not the memory of your kicks inside me, your face scrunched up into protest. No. What fades is the way you come toward me now, not in a bad kind of fading, but you are more deeply entrenched in me. And this gives me hope.

Over the last decade, scientists have been studying the crossing of cells from the placenta to the mother and have discovered in fact that decades later, that your cells remain inside of my body.  And this gives me unbelievable joy, knowing in fact that you and all my children truly do reside inside of me, that you are in fact here and that we are in fact still connected in ways that I cannot really describe.

And so today even, at your brother's soccer game, as he ran back and forth across the field, as your other brother and sister sat on the sidelines watching him, as your father walked back and forth across the grass, you were there too, watching. I could feel your presence. There is always the still, the but, the other sense that your physical presence would still be my choice, that your ten-year-old self could also be there, sitting in a chair next to me, cheering on Sawyer, shouting at the top of your lungs, "Go Sawyer," because I am sure you would have strong lungs. But there is a sense of comfort settling in too, a sense of peace, in a way I cannot quite describe. It is not a sense of resignation mind you, not a sense of giving up, but a sense of falling into this journey, giving in to the rise and fall of emotions, the rise and fall of the tears and the sighing, the rise and fall of day and night.

This journey, this space I am in, contains you in ways I could not have imagined. Spring. It is rising inside of me. The space of moving back toward you, back toward that darkness, that heavy feeling, that  space where life and death collide to create something inside me that I could never imagine. That space where particles collide to create something greater than I could ever imagine. I will give myself fully and completely over to the emotions of this season. I will give into the shift toward this eleventh year, with and without. Always pining, always wanting more, always feeling so much, always with love.

love,
mama





07 February 2014

Pilgrimage Through Loss

Thank you Linda Lawrence Hunt for this great blog entry both on the MISS Foundation and how I have personally been impacted by my grief, my Grace and by MISS help.

There is so much work to be done, so many places to go with our grief, so many lessons still to learn.

And I look forward to the reading at Auntie's book store this weekend for your new book: "Pilgrimage Through Loss." 

So much beauty through so much pain.

02 December 2013

What the sixteen-year-old brother reveals about grief, loss and his missing sister...


Written by Carver Bain, age sixteen, on the reflection of the death of his sister ten years ago.


Deaf Five-Year-Old Ears

I think I knew that something was wrong when I woke up to familiar but unexpected faces. Doubtless I was glad that my best friend Will had shown up unexpectedly with his mom, yet it was the tone of his mother’s voice and the absence of my parents that clued me in that something was going on.

At the age of five, I had a two-year-old sister and another sibling on the way; as I recall I was not pleased when I discovered that the incoming child was to be another girl. Everything was normal and good. I was as content with my life as any five-year-old could claim to be content with anything. I cannot speak for my parents, for adults tend to put on masks in front of children, but it can’t be too much of a stretch to say they were happy, preparing for the arrival of their new daughter.

Why is that always when things go terribly awry?

It started the day I awoke to my best friend and his mother. I asked Angie, Will’s mother, where my parents were. I cannot remember how blunt she was about the malign shroud that had enveloped our house the previous night, but I at least gleaned from her that my mother was in the hospital, and my father had gone with her; I don’t know whether I knew it was because of the baby.

Whether this news was particularly jarring to my five-year-old ears or not, I do not remember.

Regardless of how I felt, it wasn’t long before I went to visit my parents in the hospital.

My mother lay in her bed, draped in hospital sheets; my father sat beside her, eyes weighed down by exhaustion, worry, and desperation. As with all hospitals, there was a thick film that permeated the room, dampening the fluorescent lights and wilting the plastic flowers outside the door, and everything was gray.

I won’t ennoble death by giving it any sort of magnificent description or detail.

She died on May 29th. She was born on June 1st.

People seem to cluster death and black together, but I think gray is a far more fitting candidate.

They gathered like flies to a light, the family and friends, with their “I’m sorrys,” and, “I understands.” These empty comforts slammed into my parents like a waterfall, and dripped off them like tar.

I did little to support my parents through the stillbirth, as I don’t think I fully understood what had happened. I waited in rooms with televisions. I visited my mother. The adults adorned their masks and reassured me everything was fine. Someone gave me a Batmobile. That was exciting. I’m pretty sure I knew what was going on in a very basic way, but the implications and the impact of the event fell on deaf ears. Deaf five-year-old ears.

I remember being there when she was born, the sister I would never learn to begrudgingly love, or inspire with my older-sibling-perfection, or see with flush, rosy, life-filled cheeks. I just wanted to see her. They asked if I wanted to hold her. I did.

I said no.

“We named her Grace,” my dad told me outside the hospital while we waited for my mother to come out. Grace Susie Bain, he said. As we sat there, freezing in June, I imagine you could see the ripples of cold steam rising off of us, under the hot sun. My dad hugged me closer, warming me, or perhaps I was warming him.

The toll this event took on my parents is at a level I hope I won’t ever fully understand. When they didn’t think I could hear them, they would take off their masks and be sad and cry and even yell. I could sense a heavy sheet, stitched with iron that had drifted down to enfold our household, and the walls slowly beginning to crack.

It went like this for some time. But as time tends to want to do, it kept on, rolling through days, then weeks, then months, then years. But despite the dullness that time brings with it, ten years later Grace never left. Though strange it might seem, being that she never arrived, she is still here.

My mother would tell me that it was a gift. That God works in strange ways. (This God I keep hearing about does seem to work in the most—eccentric—ways.) She would say that if it had not been for Grace’s preemptive tip of the hat and slam of the door, our lives would be very different. My now seven-year-old brother probably would never have been born, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to feed another mouth at that time, and maybe if she hadn’t died my mother would have. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Maybe.

All this can be boiled down to, we just don’t know and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, so quit your blubbering and move on. But humanity demands a little blubbering, which is just fine.

I will never know Grace. Of course this still saddens me, even more so than it did ten years ago, but if I were to walk around my house right now and talk with my parents and my sister, I wouldn’t see any negative consequences. What I would see is my little brother, and my dad cracking a joke, and my mom rolling her eyes, and all because—and in spite of—Grace’s death. Good and bad are far too black and white for something like this, and Grace found life in that gray area.

24 November 2013

Testimony to the Washington State House Health Care & Wellness Committee on Friday, November 22, 2013, 1:30 p.m.

Working Session: Birth Defects, Premature Birth, and Stillbirth.

Testimony on TVW in the Archives. 

Madam Chair and members of the committee, Thank you for allowing me to speak today as a mother and a MISS Foundation Facilitator about how stillbirth has affected so many of our lives. I flew over from Spokane, Washington solely for this working session. The MISS Foundation is an international organization dedicated to providing support and advocacy for families after the death of a child from any cause.


Ten years ago, I was eight months pregnant with my third child when I didn't feel her moving. My worst fears were confirmed a few hours later.
My daughter Grace died on May 29, 2003.
She was born on June 1, 2003.
After my daughter died, I experienced a level of trauma that I was unprepared for: loneliness and isolation, prolonged depression, PTSD, disenfranchisement from my family and friends, marital problems, problems at work, prolonged health issues, financial difficulties and the list goes on.
I was required to file a death certificate, but I was not given a birth certificate. To say Grace died but was never born was a contradiction around which I could not wrap my mind or heart.
When I was five years old, my father died of cancer. I am here today in part because we never spoke about his death when I was growing up. The affect of that silence has been palpable on my life. Ten minutes after I found out Grace died, I turned to my husband and said, “Her life cannot remain silent. Something good must come from all of this.”
Two days after Grace was born, my grandmother, 91 years old at the time, called me and said, “My first child, a son, was stillborn in 1934. I never forgot him though I felt I could never speak about him. I didn’t even get to go to his funeral. You will never forget her.”
While some things about stillbirth have changed in those 70 plus years since my own grandmother delivered her son, there is much to do around this often-taboo topic. So much so that the prestigious medical journal the Lancet dedicated an entire series to stillbirth, putting out a public health warning and a call for more research and improved public policies which support grieving parents.
My 16-year-old son, Carver, who has worked with Rep. Riccelli in the the YMCA youth legislator recently wrote a reflective essay for an English assignment. Reflecting on the time when he was five years old, he wrote: “The toll this event took on my parents is at a level I hope I won’t ever fully understand. When they didn’t think I could hear them, they would take off their masks and be sad and cry and even yell. I could sense a heavy sheet, stitched with iron that had drifted down to enfold our household, and the walls slowly beginning to crack.” I hope you will take time to read the essay in full. It is a reflection on how this affects so many families in Washington State and in particular our own.
One in 110 births in this country result in stillbirth—10 times more common than SIDS, yet SIDS is a continual public health conversation while stillbirth struggles to find space among policy makers, clinicians and society in general.
I facilitate a support group in Eastern Washington through the MISS Foundation for bereaved parents. A new mother recently shared her story: When her son Michael was stillborn, she immediately asked the doctor if it was a cord accident because she’d had a dream about that during her pregnancy. He said no, definitely not. However, when she received her son’s death certificate, despite the coroner’s finding of no cause of death, the doctor listed cord accident as cause of death. When she investigated this further, she discovered that the doctor didn’t want to list unknown. The impact of these words on her son’s death certificate has been traumatic for the parents. And the fact that their trauma is increased by a professional who should have known better is unconscionable.
We need to continue to explore policy changes, education, research and advocacy to give voice to our grief that is often misunderstood and marginalized.
My daughter was born dead, but her voice rises up inside of me and deserves to be heard on behalf of our family and on behalf of all the infants born too soon and too still.
Thank you.