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


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.


"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.


"Every time."


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:

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

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

". . . incompatible with life. . ."

"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.

Monday, December 29, 2014


I laid on the table in a hospital gown and a pair of knee high stilletto boots, trying not to breathe as I had been instructed.  There was a series of buzzes, and the x-rays were complete.

"Do you want to see them?" asked the tech. He is flirtatious, but I don't think he can help it and I think he is harmless and I think he is probably flirtatious with everyone, and besides, I'm married and look like I just gave birth to a 9 pound, 11 ounce baby so these things don't happen to me anymore, and so I said,

"Sure." I stood in front of the monitor, holding my hospital gown closed as he brought up the images.
"What do you think?  Do you have a slipped disc?"

"I don't know!  Do I?  I can't read this."

"I can't tell you."

"Because you're not the doctor."

"Right.  I'm not the doctor.  I can't tell you.  But I told you what to look for.  What do you see?"

"I don't know.  I can't tell."

"Well, here are your vertebrae and - Oh.  You have an extra vertebra!"

"No I don't."

"Yes you do.  Look.  One, two, three, four, five, six."

"You're teasing me."

"Hey," he motioned to another tech passing by.  "Count her lumbar vertebra."

"One, two, three, four, five, hey!  An L6.  That's why she's tall."

"She's not that tall.  Look at her shoes."  We all looked down at my boots.

"I'm 5'7"," I shot back defiantly.  "How do you know when to stop counting the lumbar vertebra?" For two and a half years I have been reading x-ray reports in workers' compensation cases, but still didn't know what to look for in the images.

"You stop at the rib cage.  See.  You have six between the sacrum and the ribs."  I tilted my head at the image in confusion.

"Am I done?"

"Yes.  You can get dressed.  And about the L6.  It's uncommon, but not that uncommon.  We usually see it in tall people - I mean, really tall, like over 6 feet.  It's just surprising."

As I drove home I chewed on the irony of it all.  Our spine develops from the neural tube, a flat piece of matter that develops very early after conception and becomes our spine, skull, and brain.  At some point in my fetal development, an L6 vertebra was created.  It's ironic, of course, because I now sit with the knowledge that I have this extra, useless bone, the product of the same part that failed to produce an entire skull in Gabriel.  An extra vertebra is to me like 10,000 spoons, when all I need is a knife.  I would like to sit down with God and say to Him, "Excuse me, but I don't actually need this L6.  Do You think I could instead get a skull cap for Gabriel?"  I suspect there's no real bargaining with God, though.  Even if there was, I'm not sure it would look like that.  Even if there was, it's too late now, isn't it?

The x-rays were over a week ago.  My doctor was on vacation, and we've had a holiday, and the long and short of it is, I still don't have an x-ray report.  To some degree, the findings stopped mattering to me.  A part of me stopped wanting relief from the complaints that brought me into the doctor's office that day.  A big part of me thinks I should suffer, because my son suffered, and there wasn't a damn thing his own mother could do to stop it.

Here I sit, held up by a frame that has more than I need, still missing the biggest part of me.  And isn't it ironic?

Our First Noel(le)

It's been three years since a stinky, 8 week old German Shepherd puppy came home to live with me.  When I picked her out of the litter a month before, I didn't think I would actually get to keep her.  I was surprised when, on Christmas Eve 2011, Ben said to me, "Come on.  Let's go pick up your puppy."  I named her Noelle Marie.  She was my little Christmas pup, the brightest part of a year marked by a deep, deep grief that came with Gabriel's diagnosis and death.

Turned out Noelle would have the responsibility of sustaining me through the dark, empty period that followed.  Ben packed up and moved out three months later.  The dream that our marriage would survive the worst was shattered, and so was the dream of another baby in the bleak near future.

Fastforword three years to Christmas 2014, and a morning spent with my beloved husband Marcos, watching our little girl open her Christmas gifts.  I can still see her, in her black sleeper with silver polka dots and red accents, with little interest in the packages around her.  Her primary focus these days is learning to crawl.  Although I see her every day, touch her soft hair, hold her tiny hands, kiss her sweet face, I still struggle sometimes to believe she is real.  She is just so unbelievable.  She is just so incredible.

Throughout Christmas day I caught myself noticing the empty spaces. On December 19th I quietly acknowledged what would have been Baby Cude's 4th birthday.  On Christmas Day I had to visit my son's ashes in a cemetary.  I wondered what Christmas would be like with a 4 year old Baby Cude, or a 3 year old Gabriel.  I know that the Christmas Day when I do not wonder about my missing children is a long way away.  I know that my beautiful girl, who sits at the top of the growth charts, can never be big enough to fill the empty spaces. It's not her job.  It was never Noelle's job.  It was an unfair responsibility that I placed on a puppy's shoulders, and I have to remind myself not to do the same to my daughter.

As I sat beside my husband, our daughter perched on his lap in her pretty holiday dress and my parents and siblings seated behind us at Mass on Christmas morning, I could feel the difference in this Christmas.  I could feel the lightness in my family's hearts.  I could see the glow that Eden has lit within us all.  I could tell that the clouds had parted from all of us and that the storm we had braved together had subsided.  Eden has colored our world with renewed joy and hope. Christmas will never be the same.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2 in 2,000

I picked up my phone one evening to find urgent message from an unusual source:  "Please contact my friend Missy.  Her baby was just diagnosed with anencephaly and she sees a specialist today to confirm," Josh pleaded with me through Facebook's instant messenger.  "You can find her on my Facebook friends list."

Immediately I found Missy's Facebook profile and contacted her, knowing she would soon be asked to make a decision as to whether to carry to term.  She had already decided that she was going to continue the pregnancy with her daughter, due in March.  She'd already found great peace, and seemed to be coasting along.  After sighing a prayer of relief I took a step back and recognized Missy from an anencephaly support site.  She'd already been doing her research and found the same group that I'd found three years ago.

From there I scoured her Facebook profile, beginning with our surprisingly long list of mutual friends located in our "small" town of 365,000.  My mind started to stretch as I realized Missy and I must have gone to high school together at some point.  I wandered through my memories, trying to recall her.  I pulled my stack of yearbooks from a bookshelf and flipped through the pages, still uncertain of Missy's maiden name, hoping that I would find a clue, all the while remembering the hope and promise that filled the high school version of me that had never heard of anencephaly.

I sent Missy a friend request, and sat back and waited.  Finally one day a post from one of her family members pulled the trigger, when Missy's maiden name, the name by which I would have known her, was revealed to me. As far as I knew, she was Melissa back then, but then again, I didn't know her at all.  We shared friends, and she had a unique name, but she and I had never had much interaction that I could recall.

Still, I started to see the pieces come together.  "Andrea, have you met Missy?" our friend Justin tagged us both one day.  Her interactions with our mutual friends began to pop up on my news feed - her interactions with my good friends, her interactions with my mere acquaintances, the interactions that told me we must have run in the same circles and still, our paths had never quite crossed until now. How had we missed each other those nearly 20 years ago?  What kind of God had brought us together in 2014 through the shared adverse diagnosis of our children?  He must be the same God that whispered to our hearts the words we needed to continue to foster the sweet lives within us, when so many others feel it is a cross they cannot bear.

So here we are:  I am three years post-Gabriel; Missy is three months 'til Imogen.  It doesn't seem fair, really, that we once shared a school, teachers, friends, perhaps even the stage in the auditorium, or a bench at a football game - And now we must share this.  Only 1 in 1,000 women will walk in our shoes, so how did we become 2 in 2,000?  I wish that no one ever had to share this experience. But here we are.

Yes, here we are.  And what a pleasure it has been to get to know this woman, so strong, so full of faith, so in love with her little girl.  And I know THAT'S what unites us.  Our love for our children, no matter what they look like, no matter how brief their lives may be, no matter how afraid we may have been or may be of what it means to love a child that cannot stay.  The world is full of uncertainty and things to fear, but thankfully it's still a small world, and it's still filled with love.