Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Heartbeat Song

I watched the blank screen with still breath, waiting for the signs of life. 

"There's no sack.  There's no heartbeat."  I looked at Ben with horror, searching him for a different answer, as though he could right this hideous wrong.  "These things just happen."  I recall that the doctor had more to say, but every word was cold, her lack of compassion chilling.  

My first child was gone.  I would never hold him or her, never see his or her face, never even hear his heartbeat, silenced on this earth. 

The absence of that first child remains the greatest absence in my life.  The unanswered questions fill my days and have left me with an ever-present longing.  I suppose it was because of the miscarriage that one of the most vivid memories of my pregnancy with Gabriel continues to be November 8, 2010.  That was the day I went for my first pre-natal visit.  I was surprised that they would be able to pick up a heartbeat then, and the nurse practitioner warned me that at that early stage, I should not be disappointed if they could not.  When the Doppler quickly picked up its sound, and its sound filled the room, the tears spilled uncontrollably from my eyes.  That sound was the answer to a prayer.  That memory could never be taken from me.  Not even anencephaly could rob me of that moment.  When I think of that pregnancy, its ups, its downs, its heartache, my mind always comes back to that day when I heard my son's heart beat for the very first time.

Tears of joy have been forced from my eyes with the sound of Eden's heartbeat too, and last Monday, when I heard a heartbeat for the first time this pregnancy.  There's nothing in this world like that moment.  There is nothing like that sound.

Looking back, I suppose I overreacted when, last Tuesday while at work at the bar, I saw the blood.  My mind flashed back to that day back in May 2010, when the miscaige began.  With barely a word I gathered my purse, murmured to the day shift girl that I had to leave, and walked out of the door.  I'd never done that before and my mind felt conflicted, even as I drove across town with the aching in my abdomen, wondering if I should turn back and finish my shift.  If my fears were being realized again, there was probably nothing that a doctor could do.  But I had to know, and I had to know that night, so I kept driving and checked in at the Urgent Care center where I was immediately triaged, then informed I was likely looking at a three hour wait.

I was joined shortly by Marcos, and together we waited until we were among the last three patients to be called.  My mind knew why - All the doctor could do was check for status, but he couldn't "fix" anything.  Even while my heart pled with God, my brain began preparing for the loss and planning what unpregnant Andrea would do with her weekend, defending me from another hurt that might just shatter me.

We were called back to a room sometime around midnight, and were immediately told by the doctor that in 50% of cases where there is bleeding during the pregnancy, the result is miscarriage.  The odds did not seem to favor me, but even when they have, I have a history of ending up on the wrong side of them anyway.  I began saying my goodbyes to my unborn child.

He did a Doppler scan.  Nothing.

"We'll do an ultrasound."   Marcos and I were led to another, brightly lit room.  I was given a hot sheet by a sympathetic male nurse who said, "I know it's cold."  I thought back to the cold of the room five years ago, and the empty screen, as they seated me for the ultrasound.

The doctor began opening drawers and cabinets.  "I can't find the gel," he muttered, presumably to himself.  "Where's the gel?"  He looked out into the hallway, my anxiety growing with every second, and called, "Where's the gel?"  The male nurse returned and located it for him.  I could feel my body shaking under the hot sheet as he squeezed the warm gel across my belly and applied the ultrasound wand.

Immediately, I could recognized the shape of the tiny baby that I had seen for the first time just the day before.  "We have cardiac activity."  The doctor pointed at the screen at a pulsating blur.  At almost the same time, the tiny stump of an arm moved.  I could see the skull, bright, white, with some dark shading where the baby's soft spot will be until sometime after its born.  My body relaxed with relief, tears falling and sobs coming uncontrollably from my mouth.

The bleeding, never as severe as what I experienced during miscarriage, stopped the following day.  The abdominal cramping, never anything more than what I have experienced with every pregnancy, no longer triggers alarm.  I followed up with my nurse practitioner the following day, and she seems to think everything is fine. At 12 weeks, I have begun to feel the earliest flutterings of fetal movement.  We seem to be over last week's hurdle.  I've told my parents, close friends, a couple of co-workers, but have otherwise wanted to gloss over the moment until now, when I feel safe.

It is one of the earliest signs of life, one of the things that makes us alive.  My heart beat for 28 years but I never had a heartbeat song until the day someone else's heart beat inside of me.  This is my heartbeat song.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

These Dreams. . .

Sean pulls into the back parking lot of Charly's and I hop out of the passenger seat.  I know this can't be happening, but I let myself melt into the moment, fewer and fewer these days.  We walk through the back door, through the short hallway that leads to the bar.  Cheri is standing at the well, pressing a cigarette into an ashtray.  I am taken aback to see her here.  She is short and heavy set, but her smile, always truly dazzling despite yellowed, rotting teeth, is now bright white and symmetrical - perfect.  I think I know what is happening, but it is confirmed when, in the corner of the bar I see Nick, James, Krystal, Amy.  They've all got just one thing in common.

They're all dead.

My hand is clasped in Sean's and he pulls me along to a barstool.  "It's fine.  Just sit down."  His deep voice strikes me, and I nod obediently.  I am confused.  "You need a drink," and again, I nod, and instantly Gabriel is walking across the bar towards me, clasping a beer in both hands.  He is 19.5 inches tall, but he skillfully sets the bottle in front of me and squeezes a lime through the neck, then beams at me proudly, like he's been waiting for years to do this for me.  I finally find my voice.

"What are you doing here?"I demand, and his lower lip quivers, stabbing me with immediate regret for how I've handled this reunion that I've longed for.  "Come sit with Momma."  He slides from the bar to stand on my lap, turns himself around, and sits on me, pulling my arm securely around him.  I stroke his bandaged head and tilt his face up to kiss his forehead and my heart throbs.  I rub his slender arms and legs, my chin resting on his head, and I feel like I can stay this way forever.  This is the closest to whole that I've felt in so long.  

The door opens, and Elliott walks in.  Gabriel leaps from my lap, hoists himself onto the bar, and runs to Cheri, who hands him a drink for Elliott.  Beside me, Sean reminds me of his presence with a nudge. "I'll be right back."  He stands.

"No.  No, don't go.  Stay right here."

"I'm just going to the bathroom."

"Don't go. Please."

"I'll be right back."  He cups my face with his hand.  It all feels so familiar.  I watch him walk away, through the doorway, until he disappears behind the door.  I brace myself for the feeling of helplessness that will soon swallow me.  The sound of the gunshot does not surprise me. but I can still feel it all through me.  I sit, my voice caught in my throat, and scan the barroom for comfort.  Only then do I notice that James, Kim and Krystal are all staring in the same direction, a fresh bullet wound in each of their temples dripping down their necks. Amy is lying with her face on the bar, unconscious, and Nick is reaching for her, a syringe hanging from the crook of his elbow, a tie-off wrapped around his bicep.

I don't want to be here anymore.  I'm not done.  I miss them, I miss them all, but this is not what I thought it was.  This is no Heaven.

I begin to wonder. where are the old people?  Where are my grandparents, or Jack or Sue and the others who died of natural causes after a long full life?  That is what I want.  I don't want to be here.

Then I feel a tug at my sleeve.  I turn.  Gabriel is looking at me with the grey eyes that I have missed every day since he's been gone.  It's my job to care for him, but I'm looking to him to save me.  "Momma, it's Eden."  My mouth drops open.  Tears fill my eyes, spilling onto my cheeks, onto Gabriel's arm still clinging to my sleeve.  I can hear Eden's babbling through the static of the baby monitor.  My eyes remain locked with Gabriel's as I teeter on the edge of consciousness, knowing that I must wake up to tend to my daughter, but reluctant to leave the son I can only hold in my dreams.  He leans in to kiss my wet cheek, and I close my eyes until I can't feel him anymore.

When I wake, the hollow in my heart is visceral and real. Just as I allowed Sean to lead me through my dream, I follow Eden's cues, which prompt me to put one foot in front of the other. I navigate another day in the life of a woman torn between Heaven and here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Closing Doors



It all happened so quickly.  In mid-December Marcos and I met with a loan officer to get pre-approved for a home loan.  By the weekend after Christmas, we were viewing homes.  We'd seen four, and were on our way to the fifth when Marcos said, "We need something to really blow us away."  The four previous homes were as different as they could be, each with their own appeal, each livable, but none of them compelling.  None of them were the kind of homes that made us stop and say, "This is it.  I feel it." Not much for this sort of sentiment, I suspected the day would never come when Marcos would feel that way about a home, but I was confident I would know which house was meant for us when I saw it.

As we walked through the doors of the fifth home that we'd viewed, the feeling flooded me immediately.  I took in the simple entryway, the large living room, the kitchen with its new appliances, still decorated for Christmas with the sellers' own style.  To my left was the staircase, and as I absorbed the whole scene in I imagined, briefly, my 16 year old daughter at the very top, dressed for her first prom.  I saw my future, vividly and hopefully.  As we stood in the washroom before the French doors that hide the appliances I looked at Marcos.  "You never should have brought me here if you couldn't buy me this house."

So began the next two months' whirlwind including an offer, a counter-demand, and an acceptance, followed by the intricate dance involved in closing escrow.  Phone calls with my student loan lenders, letters explaining this and that, all serving as a distraction from what this transition would mean:  Saying good-bye to the yellow house.

I remember the first time I walked into the yellow house that I've been renting for the last four and a half years.  I remember walking through the back door into the kitchen where I met the man who would be my landlord through the many stages of my life that would be packed into the next few years, and introducing myself as Andrea Cude.  I loved the freshly waxed hardwood floors, the simple charm of the bright living room, and the cheerful yellow paint that washed the front of the house.

When we signed our rental agreement, I was secretly housing Gabriel, the child I thought would be my rainbow after the miscarriage a few months prior.  This new location, only three doors down from my parents, felt just right for the changing family circumstances.  I didn't know then how many times I would run three doors down to cry, to mourn the diagnosis that wrecked my world, to ease the emptiness of the house that was supposed to witness my son's childhood.

Within those walls, my child died, my marriage died, and a part of me remains.

Within those walls, hope was renewed, by a positive pregnancy test, first for Eden, then with Rocco Strikes Back.  My faith in love was restored that day in the backyard when I looked up from a book to see Marcos on one knee, asking me to be his wife.

The yellow house had long been so much more to me than just a place I rented and kept my things, and I was conflicted by this change.  I'd brought two children home to the yellow house, and with a third on the way, it was hard to imagine bringing him or her home to anywhere else.  But as we completed our final walk-through of the new house, Eden safely in Marcos' arms, and he stood in front of the vanity in our bathroom and said, "See?  This is where Momma's gonna brush your hair as you grow up," I knew that we'd stepped into our future.

Our last night at the yellow house was bittersweet.  Gideon had to be rushed to the vet's office for surgery, and wouldn't be coming home.  I'd spent my first night in the yellow house with Ben, Gideon, and Gabriel growing in my belly, but my last night there felt very different.  Things have changed.

The new home is beautiful, and everything I would have wanted.  The two weeks since we've moved in have seen their share of challenges.  My dad can no longer come to my house every weekday to pick up Eden for daycare, so now Eden and I must work together to get ready every day.  Gideon is still in the hospital, his healing complicated by a brief homecoming during which the changes overexcited him and caused damage which necessitated his return to the hospital.  All of the nuisances of moving, including packing, address changes, and simply adjusting to a new environment compounded on me.  Already wrought with the emotion of the changes, at some point I just shut down.  I couldn't go back to the yellow house, I couldn't keep packing my things, packing my memories, reducing my son to a box of stuff, and washing away the last four years.  I am so thankful that the man who made me Andrea Lopez took it upon himself to pack up the rest of our things and move them.

Last Friday we said good-bye to the yellow house.  I locked the doors one last time and we dropped our keys in the mail slot for the landlord.  We drove towards our new home.

I still pass the yellow house nearly every day when I take Eden to my parents' house for daycare.  The new house is remarkably silent sometimes, still missing the three-year old feet that should be racing through the halls of the home that Gabriel never lived in.  He is still missing from the dinner table that I share with a man that Gabriel never knew.  I've closed the door on a house, but my love and longing for my son could never be contained.

I miss him.  I miss the yellow house.  I miss Gideon, hospital-bound for two more weeks.  I miss, at times, the life I once had.

But, oh, how sweet this new life is.  Love and Eden and Marcos and I fill our new home.  Zeke and Noelle play happily in their new backyard, that Gideon will love too when he gets to come home.  The walls are still bare and one room waits empty for the arrival of Rocco Part 2. The house is indistinct among the other houses in the track, except that inside it holds the only life that was meant just for me.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The End of the World

"Congratulations.  Are you having a boy or a girl?"

I took a moment to realize she was talking to me as I stood before a display of baby clothes, trying to decide what my son would wear for his limited time on earth.  The sands were falling through the hourglass as we spoke.  Gabriel's days were already numbered.

Just a couple of months prior, the world had ended.  The world that I knew had burned up and dissolved, leaving in its place a remnant of the earth that was cold and greyed by three words:  "Incompatible with life."  January 31, 2011 was the end of the world.

Didn't she know?  How could she not see?  How was she still functioning as a normal person in this post-apocalyptic nightmare?

All around me, everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing.  They were shopping and laughing and talking on their cell phones, completely unaware that there was no real reason why would should even be surviving.  The sun rose and set every day, traffic stalled, lights turned on and off, but every morning I had to will my feet to leave the bed every day and order them to take every single step.

There are days when life doesn't seem so bad.  Sometimes it even seems pretty good.  But I know that I've simply learned to live among the ashes.

For the last week I've been marathon-viewing season 2 of "Master Chef Junior." As I watched the finale, tears stung the back of my eyes as I watched the 12 year old boy, ultimately the runner-up, who is the kind of boy I imagine my would-be 3 year old son would be like.  Samuel is a pudgy boy with wavy brown hair with a stunning culinary talent.  He spoke with the vocabulary of an old soul and I couldn't help but think that the child Ben and I had created would be much like this little boy. But I would never stand in the rafters of the Master Chef kitchen and watch my son compete for this title.  I would never listen to him argue a pre-trial motion in a mock trial competition.  I would never stand in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel while he auditioned for American Idol, or sit in the stands when he opened for the Mariners, or watch him receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  I would never even see him ride down the street on the unsteady wheels of his first bicycle.

A world where these things were possible once existed, but it's over, leaving a shell of that world in its place, a world always threatened by the knowledge that everything could come undone in just one day, just one morning, just one doctor's appointment.

I turned to the woman next to me in Target.  "A boy."  She had no idea.  She didn't know.  This was the end of the world.  It ended when I learned that I would have to say good-bye.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Dead Boyfriend Club

I belong to a small, unusual, and undesirable club of women.  I gained entry nearly 10 years ago, when my boyfriend Sean committed suicide, leaving me to wonder all sorts of things, such as how my life might be different if he had not died; would we have stayed together?  What would our break-up be like - It had to have been better than break-up by suicide; even Berger's Post-It note was better than that.  WOuld we have stayed friends?  What is life like for normal people whose 26 year old boyfriends don't shoot themselves?

Having addressed those questions when I was only 23 years old myself, I've lived the last ten years with a simultaneous love for life, weighted by a sadness that is always just sort of present.  I like to think that I love deeper, live bolder, bounce back quicker, and break a little less easily because of that experience.

For years after Sean's death, I felt out of place in just about any crowd.  When Sean died, I remember the way people looked at me when I returned to work at the bar.  They talked to me as though I would shatter with any mention of him, and avoided bringing up his name even to say they were sorry for the loss.  It was easier for them to pretend as though the event never happened, as though Sean's barstool wasn't empty, and as though I'd never seen his lifeless body on the floor of his apartment.  But I couldn't unsee that scene, and I couldn't unfeel what I felt for him, and I was never very good at pretending that his violent, graphic, self-imposed death hadn't left a lasting scar on my soul.

When I returned to law school, looking for work and grateful for every shift that Lynn would give me at the bar, I was surprised to find a new faction of patrons.  I met, one by one, a group of women that had lost their boyfriends or fiancees too.  In my mind I created a bit of an informal club, The Dead Boyfriend Club, and I collected within its membership Natalie, Katrina, and the Amies Montgomery and Hochderfer.  There was something about having the association, whether or not we ever talked about the dearly departed, that helped me to feel less alone.  I felt like less of a freak knowing this freak occurrence had occurred to them as well.

A week ago I was stunned to learn of Amy Montgomery's passing.  Amy, a tiny bit of a woman, had always seemed so much larger than life.  It never really made sense that so much person fit into her tiny body.  She loved deeply, lived boldly, bounced back quickly, and broke a little less easily, much like I had learned to do.  We shared a dark, dry sense of humor, a trademark of someone who's just seen their fair share of dark times.  I'm pretty sure we were the funniest people the other knew.

I know I'm not supposed to talk about the fact that when Amy left Bakersfield, I couldn't wait for her to go.  We'd had a falling out, over something that's none of your fucking business.  I know I'm not supposed to say that when Amy left Bakersfield, she was messy and self-destructive and her death was imminent had she continued on that path and she wouldn't be here today if she hadn't been whisked away to Texas, which is of course, ironic, because she's still not here today.

If I don't talk about that dark time, though, I can't talk about the way she turned herself around.  I can't talk about the beautiful life that she put together for herself when she returned to her hometown of Odessa.  I can't talk about the way I watched her grow and mature.  I can't talk about the way a tiny little girl named Elliott, with curious blue eyes that look just like Amy's, saved Amy's life, and rescued her from herself.

Amy and I reconnected again as only Amy could do - through my dog Gideon's Facebook page.  One day there was a simple message on his profile: "Tell your mommy I miss her."  After a few such messages I dropped my guard a bit and re-opened myself to Amy's friendship, which gave me the pleasure of watching her raise Elliott to be a bright and quirky little girl, just like Amy.

News of Amy's hospitalization spread quickly through the Facebook newsfeed, but even then, I failed to realize how critical the situation was.  Words like "fatal" and "miracle" fell on my deaf ears, my mind certain that Amy and I were going to live to be 100.  And then, an e-mail:  "Amy Montgomery passed away."  Impossible.  Impossible.

Not impossible.

She's been gone a week now, and my mind is still stretching to wrap itself around the fact.  I didn't have words to capture my disbelief, or my grief.  I still don't.  All I have is this story of the ups and the downs and the dark and the light and the crazy, tragic, beautiful parts of this thing that we call life.

It was a good life, Amy Montgomery.


Monday, January 12, 2015

One More Time



As she holds her child, every mother knows that the moment is fleeting.  The days will quickly turn into weeks, and the weeks into months, the months into years. . .

It's been three and a half years since I've held my son in my arms.  Three and a half years since I looked into his face, observed his shallow breathing and ultimately watched that breathing come to a halt.  Every moment since then I have felt as though I am on a treadmill, set at a speed that I did not choose, tied to the rails so that I cannot escape and I can only keep running, or fall.  Ten days rapidly melted into two years and I felt every exhausting step along the way but before I knew it, Eden was on her way.  Those two years melted into nine more months, and those nine months have poured into another eight months.

I have an eight month old daughter who can sit up, can try to crawl, can eat solid food, and can, in rare moments, reach for me in the occasional display of dependency.  My daughter is strong and independent and as sure as an eight month old little girl can be.  When I tuck her into bed at night, she looks at me with a smile, inviting me to leave her alone in her personal space.  But every once in a while she whimpers for me, or startles in the night, or we find ourselves away from home and she needs my arms for comfort and I get to rest my chin beside her cheek, hold her tightly and kiss her soft hair and say to her, "I love you. So much." I love my daughter's strong will.  I love every part of her.  I long for the opportunities to hold her.  She was never much for being held.

But in my arms, through my veins, from deep within my heart an even stronger longing pulls at me daily and has for the last three and a half years.  Gabriel was also strong, independent and determined.  He was just never meant to stay.  He wasn't meant to outgrow my arms, he was given to me so that he could be taken away.  In a bold juxtaposition beside his "baby" sister, who sits at the top of the growth charts, my tiny baby boy fit perfectly in my arms.  His head rested on my chest as though he belonged there, as though we had been made together and in my heart I know that when God made me, He had Gabriel in mind.  There's little I wouldn't do today to rest my chin beside his cheek one more time, to hold him tightly, to kiss the bits of his soft blonde hair, and to be able to whisper in his ear, "I love you. So much."

I do not take for granted the privilege of watching my daughter grow every day.  She is the light of my life.  Still, with every milestone, every accomplishment, I am reminded of what is missing.  When I hold her, when my embrace lingers, when my lips stay pressed to her cheeks my heart is offering to her what I wish I could give to Gabriel just one more time.





Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bulletproof

In an anticipated post-holiday business slump, I played to an audience of one, Blake, during my final hour of my Tuesday night closing shift.  After giving him a ride home, I slipped into the Grenadier for a beer and a chance to review my file for a morning hearing.  With my file in my lap and a beer in my hand, my eyes focused on the game of Candy Crush open in front of me, I pretended not to hear the man to my right.

"Is that an interesting game?  What level are you on?  Are you really playing right now?"  The music was just loud enough that I could get away with ignoring him, until he suggested to his friend that they leave and I sunk back into my stool and relaxed.

"It's a slow night," the man to my left muttered, to no one in particular.  In the background, Big Sean was advising listeners that he don't give a fuck about some stupid ass little bitch.

"At least we have this fantastic music to entertain us," I responded.

"This?" he looked at me, appalled.  I returned his look with my characteristic deadpan stare.  "Oh.  Sarcasm.  That's the most you've said all night!"  I shrugged.  He offered his hand for a shake.  "I'm John."

"Andrea."  Over the course of a beer I learned that John had recently retired after 18 years with the Marine Corp.

"Thank you for your service."

"I don't think you should thank people for doing their job."

"Thank you anyway."

"I don't thank you for your job."

"My job is thankless."

We both shrugged in implied agreement to move on in the conversation.

"What was your title?" I asked.

"Infantry."

"All 18 years?  Well, did they train you in a skill or trade?"

"They taught me how to kill people.  I'm really good at killing people."  I was unsure whether I was supposed to be shocked or scared, but I was neither, so I simply asked, "How many people have you killed?"

John thought for a moment, as I wondered if any number he threw at me would be sincere, if he had to take the time to reflect on it. I would think the answer would roll of one's tongue as easily as if someone asks how many children one has.  Then I recalled that that answer isn't always easy, either.

"Eleven." I rewarded him with another blank stare.  "People ask if I feel bad about killing another person, but I really don't. When someone is standing in front of you pointing a gun and it's you or them. . ."

"If it's you or me, I'm always going to pick me," I interrupted.

"Yes!"

"Every time."

"Yes."

I've never faced the barrel end of a gun, but the times I'd been under fire clicked across my brain like a slide show:

Bang!
"Go ahead and yell for help.  There's three of us here, and we all three heard you yell yes."

Bang!
"Ma'am, he's down.  He's been down for a couple of days.  Should we call someone for you?"

Bang!
". . . incompatible with life. . ."

Bang!
"Andrea, I know this is hard. Did you notice what time it was when Gabriel passed?"

Bang! "I don't love you anymore." Bang! "I'm moving out." Bang! "I'm going to South Carolina." 

As the truck turned the corner from Radcliffe to Haley for the last time, I remained, barely breathing, almost dead, knowing that if I were to rise again, if I were to go on living, I must become bulletproof.

As I returned to the present I realized that beside me, John was still talking about his life after retiring from the military.  He'd found an easy job, where he could just sit.  He hadn't had any problems adjusting to civilian life.  I envied the man that had killed eleven people.  John had survived, and compartmentalized those events.  They didn't trouble him, because they were not, in his mind, choices.  He exhibited no behaviors indicating stress.  He didn't seem preoccupied by the door, or the small crowd, or the trickle of people who came and went.  He was not jumpy, or nervous, or defensive.  Or if he was, he had become very good at hiding it.

I, on the other hand, have yet to grasp the art of resilience.  In a sort of preemptive strike, I test the limits of love and loyalty.  While I want to shed the armor that protects me, its place has a purpose. My heart can't survive one more assault. If it's you, or me, I have to pick me.

That night when I got home I made my way down the hall, into the nursery, to peer into the crib containing the little girl that fills my heart with fear.  Curled up on her side and clinging to her security blanket she hardly looked as powerful as she actually is, but she alone could bring my life to an end.  Upon her, my hopes and dreams and faith delicately rest. Around her, our family is built. She set into motion a life that I had longed for and as she leads, Marcos at her side, I fall behind, still afraid to stand too close. Eden and Marcos are the most powerful people in my world and before them I am defenseless. My only hope is to rely on them, shield myself with their love, and trust that they will never wound me.