Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

"Isn't it beautiful?" Sean asked.  "It's like he's saying goodbye to the world."

We were laying on our backs in his studio apartment, all of the lights off, with just slits of sun shinning through the blinds and a candle burning.  He said that was the only way to listen to Johnny Cash's last recording, "When The Man Comes Around," a perfectly selected combination of one new song, a handful of personal hits, and a few covers.  My favorite Johnny Cash performance can be found on that album, his late recording of "Give My Love to Rose."

Though wise men at their end know dark is right. . .

Even when imagining the darkness, I can still see in my mind the layout of the apartment, the location of the bare furnishings, the book of Dylan Thomas Poetry on the TV stand.  The box of his own poetry, open on the day I discovered his body to a poem he'd written years back - His goodbye.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. . . 

The two years after Sean's suicide when he was just 26 years old were followed by a cluster effect of regulars from Charly's who, one way or another, brought about their own end.  First Scotty, 25, who shot himself; then James, 25, who also shot himself; then Nick, the first guy I dated after Sean, also dead at 25 from a fatal heroin overdose.  After law school my bar exam study partner and Trial Advocacy teammate, Crystal, also shot and killed herself just weeks before sitting for the bar exam a second time.

The ten years since Sean's suicide have left me wondering every day how life would have been different if he had just stayed.

Do not go gentle into that good night. . . 

New attention has been brought to physician-assisted suicide with the very public terminal illness and suicide of Brittany Maynard.  The debate has been framed as though she is somehow different, somehow some exception to what it means to kill yourself.  She's some sort of martyr because she allegedly had all of her mental facilities when she made the decision to end her own life.

I can't accept that framework.  I can't accept that the same world that has been telling me for years that Sean was selfish, now finds Brittany Maynard's decision to check out on her family some fort of selfless act of love.  Maybe it's not the hip thing to say, but Brittany Maynard was a coward.  Brittany Maynard had the gall to go to her parents and say, "I'm going to do this.  I'm going to kill myself.  And I hope you'll stand by me.  And I'm doing this for you."  What is a parent to say to that?  What would I say?  I hope that I would put my every effort into changing her mind.  I hope that I would take her hand, and say to her, "You are not a burden to me.  You could never be a burden to me.  I love you, and I will care for you, always."

"But it's not that simple," the world says.  "She was terminally ill," we maintain, as though that is some excuse for cutting our numbered days short.  "She was dying anyway."  Well so are you, and so am I, because we're human, and that's what we do.  But until we're dead, we're also living.  So where does the line begin and end? It's been dangerously blurred.

She was dying anyway.  Gabriel was dying anyway.  Yet every day that he was here on this earth was another day that he got to feel the Bakersfield June heat on his skin, the warmth of his mother's arms, the strength of his father's hands, the care in his grandparents' embrace.  Every day was filled with love.   Brittany Maynard's life was filled with love, and loved ones.  And she turned her back on them.  She robbed them of the opportunity to care for her, nurture her, look after her in her time of need.  She robbed them of the opportunity to do the things a mother and father sometimes must do for their child.  She stole from her husband the chance to be there, even in sickness.  She stole herself from them.

I resent that Oregon calls its physician-assisted suicide laws the "Death With Dignity Act."  The name implies that to die any other way is to die without dignity.  To die old, or sick, or requiring care makes you an undignified burden on those around you.  Where is the dignity in shirking our responsibility to the ailing?  Where is the dignity in bringing your own curtain down?  Where is the dignity in asking your friends and family to stand by while you kill yourself, purporting that you are doing this both for them, but also to die on your own terms.  Just yours.

She was dying anyway.  He was dying anyway.  And that's supposed to provide us with an excuse to kill.  The willful, deliberate taking of someone's life is no more than killing.  Life is not ours to end at our human whim.  Not yours, nor anyone else's.

I'm not mad at Sean.  I've never thought he intended to be selfish.  I understand his desperation.  I'm just sorry I didn't hear his cries for help because if I had, I would have cared for him.  I would have begged him to fight.  I certainly wouldn't have pulled the trigger.  The doctor who prescribed lethal medication to Brittany Maynard to end her life simply pulled a trigger.

Sean was suffering.  Brittany was suffering.  You suffer.  I suffer.  Gabriel suffered.  THis life is not without its sufferings, and our suffering is not for nothing.  Our suffering is an opportunity to grow in strength.  The suffering of those around us is an opportunity to show compassion.  As a Catholic, I believe that the suffering we experience on earth helps to free the souls of those in Purgatory.  When I recall the suffering of my son during his last day on Earth, I pray that his soul helped set someone else's free.  Maybe even Sean's.

My son suffered.  He struggled for several hours, though he was medicated with compassionate care from our hospice providers to minimize his suffering.  I suffered.  I held him in my hands, as though I was holding my own beating heart, and I comforted him in his hour of dying.  His father and I held him tight and gave him the freedom to go, told him he had been stronger than we ever could have asked, and told him to take God's hand.  He stayed because he wanted to stay, because it's our basest human instinct to hold on to this life, because no matter what you believe happens on the other side of death, one thing is certain and that is that this life is only temporary.  Right here, right now, it's all we've got.

Death will take me kicking and screaming.  Death will take me from my bed only upon a fight, and I pray that's a fight that lasts 100 years and that at the end of that battle I am surrounded by love.  And as my body gives way to death I will pray that I have done enough in this life to see my son again and I will look forward to that moment when our eternity together begins, but still, I will fight for every last breath.  I will fight because Sean didn't.  I will fight because Gabriel did.

Do not go gentle into that goodnight,
Old age should rave at close of day;
Rage against the dying of the light.  

Rage.  Fight.  Live.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Braving Anencephaly

Dear Expectant Mom,

You're so scared.  Your doctor just forced you to consider the unimaginable:  The child you are carrying is not expected to live more than hours, perhaps days after his or her birth.  You are now living a mother's nightmare.

You were so excited.  You have already imagined your baby boy riding his first tricycle.  You have dreamed of him as a starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners.  You're mind has already seen your baby girl in her first dance recital.  You can already see her in her lab coat, curing cancer.  Your dreams have been stolen.  Your heart has been crushed.  You're not really sure how you're going to go on.  You're not even sure how your feet are still moving forward, how your lungs are still taking in air, how your mind was able to tell your fingers to type the word "anencephaly," but your brain is craving answers to your questions.  Your brain wants to know why your doctor has just told you that your child has no brain.

So here you are.  Reading the words of a woman who, nearly four years ago, stood where you now stand. And as you read, perhaps your baby is already moving inside of you.  And his kicks are so strong that you just can't believe what the doctors have told you, that he cannot survive.  One moment, you'll know loud and clear what he is trying to tell you: "I'm here now."

On January 31, 2011 my son Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly.  I didn't make a choice to carry him to term.  Gabriel is not a choice.  He's my son. I carried him for the next four and a half months because I had been charged with his care. I didn't know if he would get to feel the warmth of his mother's arms, the strength of his daddy's hands, the sun on his skin, the cool trickle of baptismal waters on his chest.  But I was going to do everything in my own power for him to have that opportunity.  I carried him, cherishing his precious kicks, his rhythmic hiccups, his growth.  I looked forward to meeting him and after a stubborn 54 hours of labor, he blessed me with ten of the best days of my life.  His brain, fully grown and sitting outside of his deformed skull, was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

You don't feel strong right now, and you don't feel brave, but you are.  You feel helpless, but you're not.  You're a mom.  You can do anything.

I wish I could tell you that if you just take this journey, everything will work out just fine.  A year after Gabriel's passing, almost to the day, his father and I permanently separated, and later divorced.  I looked for comfort in my son's memory, and he looked for it in the bottom of a bottle and the fissure in our relationship that began the day Gabriel was diagnosed, cracked and washed us over until we were drowning in anger and sadness and resentment.  Gabriel's father and I live on opposite sides of the country now.  He is sober.  We've both fallen in love with someone new.  He is remarried; I will be remarried soon.  Life's thrown us some curves. It always will, for him, for me, for you.  But we've braved them.  We're doin' alright.

I miss my son every day.  I feel his absence.  I feel it in my bones.  I feel it in my soul.  And my mind is full of what-ifs.  What if he were here today, 3 years old, with sticky hands and boundless energy?

I look at my 5 month old daughter, Eden.  Her name means Paradise, and she has been.  But even in paradise, something is missing.  Even as she's begun to join us at the table, eat solid food, I see the empty chair where her big brother would be and I ache.  I will ache until the day I die, and I can only pray that what I do on this earth will someday be enough to earn the opportunity to be reunited with my son.

You're scared, because you don't know how you're going to do this, or even if you want to do this.  And I'll I've done is tell you how hard it's going to be. I only told you the truth.

But consider this:  We are only promised life.  We are not promised years, or even days.  We are not promised that this life will be free from pain.  We're not promised life will be good, or easy.

If you're standing where I stood on January 31, 2011, I urge you to give your child what is promised to him.  Give him what only you can give.  Give him life.

And I promise you this:  Whether your child is stillborn, lives for minutes, hours, days, or even years with anencephaly, you will NEVER regret your decision to give him the time that is his.  You will never regret knowing your child, holding your child for as long as you can, giving him everything you can.  In this child that the doctors have told you is hopeless, you will find a great hope. You will find in this experience a strength you didn;'t know you have.  Take it.  It's yours.  You will find peace.  You will find the greatest love you've ever known.

Andrea L. Hernandez
Mommy to Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude, June 10, 2011 to June 20, 2011 - Ten Days That Changed the World.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Dear "Mom 2":

I remember when you first referred to yourself as "Mom 2," in a routine e-mail.  I was taken by surprise; you already thought of me as your daughter.  I was not prepared to think of you as my mom.  Nevertheless, I was warmed by the gesture.  I was going to marry your son.  We were going to be a family.

Somewhere along the way, you disowned me.  Was it when I made the decision that you wouldn't have made, to carry my precious son to term despite his prognosis?  Was it when I urged you to come out for Gabriel's birth, the birth of your first born, and thus far only born grandchild?  Was it when I brought him home and gave him a life and death with dignity, although it hurt to spend ten days wondering how much time was left?

You just don't know - you'll never know - what you missed when you chose to miss out on Gabriel.  You can't imagine the love the filled the room, along with Gabriel's two parents, his two grandfathers, and two of his three grandmothers - but not you.  You'll never know the peace that was given to us, despite our loss, when we had the opportunity to meet that little boy.  You'll never know the most incredible person your son and I have ever met.

I think of your beautiful Southern home that I loved so much to visit, and the pretty details of your decorating, and the fresh scent of your linens and towels, and the family photos that line the hallway.  And I know that mine is no longer hanging there.  And I know that your only grandson's never has.

I know what it is to be a mother.  I know what it is to love your children above anyone else, and desire their happiness above anything else.  But I don't know how you, or your son, turned your back on me so coldly.  You both turned your back on me when I had already lost the biggest part of my world.  He just stopped loving me, and if you ever loved me too, it seems you also just stopped.  I was just a blip in the timeline of your lives.  Blip. After you had the nerve to call me your daughter, to compare our relationship to that lifelong, inevitable bond. And then you turned your back.  Blip.

I recall, fondly, watching you and your son dance to "Simple Man" at our wedding.  Today, the song causes me to swell with mixed emotions as I think of the simple conversation I will never get to have with my baby boy.

You taught your son to tie his shoes.  You taught your son to cook.  You taught your son to respect his elders.

You love your son; and I love mine.  But somewhere along the way you failed to teach your son what I never had an opportunity to teach mine:  You don't leave.  You don't give up.  You don't love with conditions.  You don't run when times get hard.  You brace yourself to face them.  You love your wife, even when it's hard.  Your promise is everything, until it's broken, and then your promises never mean anything again.

You failed to tell him not to hurt your daughter. You failed to feel your daughter's pain.

You called me your daughter.  But you never called me to ask how I was doing.  You didn't offer your shoulder to me to cry on; instead you offered my partner an escape.  You offered him safe harbor to run to when he abandoned me.

You called me your daughter.  But I don't regret that I could never call you my mother.

Today I took the sapphire earrings that you gave to your son to present to me when he proposed.  I opened the velvet box and observed the untarnished glitter of the metal and stones.  I closed the box, and placed it next to me in the passenger seat of my car and as I drove to work, I rolled down the window and threw the box to the side of the road.  I hope someone finds them and hocks them and either has a warm meal or gets very drunk tonight - Whatever makes him or her happy.

I don't need your earrings.  I don't need your "mothering."  I don't need your conditional love and support on your terms.

You called me your daughter, but some "mother" you are.  I suppose, though, we all take lessons from even the worst of mothers.  Thank you, for giving your son somewhere to run when he abandoned me, so that today I could be free to love the people who are worthy of my love.  Thank you for cushioning his blow and leaving me to flail, so that I could grow stronger and love harder and live better.  Thank you, for teaching me the kind of woman I never want to be - It's made me the kind of woman I hope I'll always be.


Sunday, September 21, 2014


Eden Capwell  was the blonde protagonist in the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara.  And she was cool.   So when I was 13 years old I decided that when I had a daughter, I would name her Eden just like the character from the by-then-cancelled soap opera.

The name sorta stuck.  Every time I was pregnant, I considered it for the baby I was growing.  After the miscarriage and while carrying Gabriel, I stumbled across the name "Eliana," "The Lord answers our prayers."  It became Gabriel's selected middle name, in the event he were a girl and my Eden-to-be.  After Gabriel's diagnosis but before he was born, I began to sense that the next time around I would have a perfectly healthy baby girl, and she would be my Eden Eliana; my paradise, and the answer to my prayers.

But paradise was a long way away.  The life I knew was turned upside down before I could find myself living the life I dreamed of.

Although Eden's gender wasn't officially revealed until she was born, I knew in my heart she was a girl.  I was occasionally pricked with doubt as most people said I "looked" like I was carrying a boy.  But then one afternoon as I was walking down the hall from my office to the restroom, when two women, one with a little boy and a little girl in tow, stepped into the hall from another office.  The little boy looked at me and immediately ran to me.  He was probably about three.  He stayed with me even as I passed his mom, offering me the piece of chocolate in his hand, and never taking his eyes off of me.  That moment imprinted on me as the moment of greatest clarity that the baby I was carrying was indeed my sweet Eden.

Sometimes I look at Eden and I still can't believe she is real.  After all of the years, and the ups and the downs, and the hell that was this life without my son, my daughter came along and brought me Heaven on earth.  The baby girl I first imagined when I was 13 years old is here, and sometimes I still can't wrap my mind around her.

She is every bit my little girl - Stubborn, determined, at once independent and needy. I'm never quite sure what to do with her and most days I'm pretty sure I'm doing it all wrong. But until Eden, life never felt so right.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On a Saturday Night. . .

We're in September, and the Major League Baseball Playoffs are right around the corner.  The Mariners are poised to take the wild card slot and compete in the playoffs for the first time since 2001. They've never been to a World Series, but this year devout fans believe that they might.

On a Saturday night Eden was curled up on the floor after a long day of outings.  She rolled over for me for the first time - She'd done it for her daddy more than a week ago and we've been waiting for a repeat since.  It was close to 9:00, past her usual bedtime, but she was content, staring at the TV and sucking her thumb.  The Mariners were playing the A's for a shot at usurping them as the #1 wildcard contender, with a 2-2 score going into the 9th inning, and for the first time, I was "watching" a game with my baby girl. We watched Fernando Riley throw a daring change-up pitch with a 3-2 count.  We watched the A's try to steal second base, only to get thrown out by the catcher in a play that was first called safe.  Lying next to her I muttered, "Don't make me become a supporter of instant replay."  Sure enough, thanks to instant replay, the runner was called out, ending the 9th inning and sending the game into extra innings.

On a Saturday night I laid next to my baby girl and enjoyed a moment that I have waited for.  In that moment, I felt the bitter, and I felt the sweet.  In that moment, I never missed my son more.

With every milestone, every laugh, every back-to-belly roll, my heart floods at once with thankfulness for my baby girl and longing for my 3 year-old baby boy. I lost my son, and that is a hurt that will never go away.  Never.

On a Saturday night I laid beside my baby girl, feeling the missing presence of Gabriel deep within me, but also feeling hope.  With Eden, the impossible feels possible.  Living without my son, which once felt impossible, now feels bearable.  With Eden, despite the Mariners' ultimate loss last night, the playoffs, the World Series even, still feels within reach.  With Eden, though California is suffering in the parched summer of what is allegedly the worst drought we've ever seen, it still feels possible that this winter Bakersfield may still see snow for the first time since 1999.  With Eden, falling in love again with her, with Marcos, doesn't feel like a risk.  It feels safe.  It feels inevitable.  It feels like anything is possible.

Monday, September 8, 2014


It was the Sunday night before Labor Day, and I had unexpectedly been asked to work the closing shift at the bar. With the three day weekend I could sleep in the following day, so I agreed.  The night started out slow.  Jerry sat at one end of the bar and a few stragglers wandered in and out, but until about 8 o'clock business was only steady.

Around that time, my friends started to trickle in.  First Angie, then T.J., Troy, Lindsey, Blake, Shane and Chris.

"What are you smiling about?"  someone asked.

"I'm just so happy to have my friends here."

One day, you might wake up and find that everything has changed.  Your son is dead, and you're divorced, and you're re-building your life after it was blown apart shattered.  The friends who stood at your side on your wedding day are more like acquaintances now, not because of any sort of falling out, but simply because you're different people who live different lives - And because they aren't sure how to interact with you now that you've seen hell.

But there are a handful of friends who have walked with you through it all.  A couple of them, like Angie and T.J., were there when you did the unthinkable and buried your child.  A couple of them, like Troy and Shane, met you out for a drink when you just needed to escape.  They're the friends who knew they couldn't say anything to fix all that was wrong, but they stood there, holding you up when you wanted to fall.

And then there are the friends who chose to become your friends, even when you were at your worst.  Elise, who I'd known for years, but suddenly became one of the first people to whom I spilled the news of Gabriel's diagnosis.  Our friendship started when I thought the world was ending.  Or Lindsey, the friend who listens when I need her, but with whom I can sit in comfortable silence.  She's the friend that just shows up with an orchid on Gabriel's first birthday and makes blueberry lemon cupcakes on his second birthday and meets me for a drink and then comes out to a charity run at 7 on a Saturday on his third birthday.  Or Blake, who used to work with Ben; who had a front row seat as my marriage fell apart; who I got to keep in the divorce.

My life as I knew it disintegrated, but I was built back up again by people who make me better by showing me the kind of person I want to be.  They recognize my strengths.  They teach me how to improve where I am weak.  They do it all just by being there.  It feels weird at the age of almost-33 to say that I've got "new" best friends.  Best friends seem like something for kids.  They've become known to me simply as "the homies," and they're the best friends I've ever had.

They screened Marcos when he and I started dating.  He had to pass the homie test, and now he's been incorporated.  And when we announced that we were expecting our baby, we were greeted with sincere joy.

Friendships made as an adult require a lot more concentrated effort.  We're busy, and our lives are filled with major changes, and we don't see each other every day the way we might have as schoolchildren.  We're establishing careers, romantic relationships, families, homeownership - Grown up stuff. Sometimes, friendship means meeting at Eureka Burger on a Thursday night, and bringing your baby, and knowing you've only got a small window before you've got to get back home, but knowing the friends you will see are worth it.  With Marcos at my side, Eden in my lap, Elise, Lindsey, and later Tori sitting across from me, I knew my night would be stretched thin.  But I also know that no matter how busy life gets or how tired I am I never regret the time I spend just rollin' with my homies.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why Should I Worry?

It was the summer of 1997 when the Hernandez Family, then a party of 5, traveled to the Rosedale area to answer an ad in the Bakersfield Californian for a free terrier dog.  We had recently lost our beloved German Shepherd Crystal, and had only just adopted Twink, a hodgepodge of working dog breeds.  We piled into the family car, a blue Subaru station wagon, to pick up Emily, whose family owned ranch property and horses but had to give Emily away because of her tendency to run between the horses' legs, nearly tripping them.  

Later that summer the station wagon was traded in for a new van when we learned that our family of 5, in addition to growing with the addition of Twink and Emily, would shortly be growing once again with the anticipated arrival of Victoria.  

And so we grew, and we watched Emily and Twink grow right alongside Victoria.  Emily became famous among us for two things: First, her tendency to shoot through a door or gate at any opportunity and run through the neighborhood without slowing down.  She usually had to be chased in a car and it took all available hands on deck to retrieve her.  Next, she was known for her wild fur.  No matter how often she was bathed, brushed or trimmed, she always had this orphaned look about her.  Her appearance reminded us of the character Rosco from Disney's Oliver and Company and when she looked especially scruffy to us, we'd affectionately sing to her "Why should I worry?  Why should I care?"  

Emily was far from an orphan, though.  She was always loved, especially by Monica.  While I took to Twink that summer, Emily quickly became Monica's pet.  The relationship between Twink and Emily was also undeniable and the mix-matched pair of "sisters" brought joy and laughter to the family.  Years later when Twink was diagnosed with diabetes and the illness blinded her and began to effect her temperament, we were stunned to see Twink start to turn on Emily, especially with the introduction of Lola, our family German Shepherd who moved in in October 2007.  Eventually, Twink's illness shut down her internal organs and we had to put her to sleep nearly 5 years ago.  We hoped that with Twink's sad passing, Emily and Lola could live in harmony again.  After a very close-call, Emily, who had always been an outdoor dog, moved indoors. 

We weren't sure, at her advanced age and her propensity for bolting, how Emily would transition, but it was just a matter of time before Emily was very apparently enjoying the life of an only-indoor dog.  She laid where she wanted to, ate when she wanted to, and generally lived a life of luxury.  

Emily and Monica soon became a staple sight around the neighborhood.  Monica took Emily on three walks a day to make sure she had an opportunity to use the bathroom.  She came home on her lunch hour to walk Emily or let her outside.  Once a month she would travel to Fresno to visit with a cloister of nuns whose order she was discerning, but she would call or text reminders to take Emily outside.  Each of those weekends, Emily would wait by the front door, hoping that the next time it opened, Monica would walk through.  

They were to ladies, set in their ways, a stoic pair whose consistency you could always depend on.  When I moved in three doors down from my parents and Monica, I could see her walk by my front yard every evening.  Even when I wondered if my ex-husband would ever come home, I could be certain that Monica and Emily would traverse by at some point before and after the sun went down.  

Emily's walks started getting shorter and shorter.  She struggled to make it around the block, and so they would take a short-cut through the alley.  Then, she could only make it to the end of the block and back.  In recent weeks, Monica and Emily have only paced the yard.  Last night, Emily couldn't even do that much. Through it all she did not whimper, did not cry, did not howl.   

This morning at 7:40 I walked three houses over to say my good-byes to Emily before Monica wrapped her in a towel and carried her to the vet's office where Monica would say her own good-byes.  

I figure, if Emily was a year old when we got her in the summer of 1997, as her former family told us she was, she was about 18 years old when she went to her final rest this morning.  Not a bad run, for a scrappy little dog who tripped horses and battled German Shepherds.  No matter what she was going through, no matter how she looked, no matter her limitations, she just kept moving along as best she could.  And I like to believe that no matter how much she struggled her last few years and especially months and days on earth, today she's running free, her fur a tangled mess, her "sister" Twink alongside her restored to perfect health, singing "Why should I worry?  Why should I care?"