Thursday, April 19, 2018

Bitches be Starting Shit

Quite inadvertently, I gained a reputation as a badasss.

On an unsuspecting Wednesday night I trickled into Amestoy's for the first time in well over a year.  The bar was busy, the walls rattling from the music of the DJ.  Surprisingly, to me at least, was that most of the patrons were Black.  I don't really care - It's just that I live in East Bakersfield, where most of the population is Hispanic and among them, I barely qualify as Hispanic too.

Most of the crowd was dancing so there were plenty of open places at the bar and as I took one, the bartender grabbed my hand and asked how I had been.  I just stared.

"You don't remember me."

I don't.

"We went to high school together?"

"Oh, yes," I feigned.

"And I know your brother."

"Of course.  Remind me of your name?"

"Tim.  Timmy.  Like your brother."

No bells resound.

"Yes, that's right.  Hi.  Corona, please."

The DJ is sounding off about this mother fucking this and this mother fucking that.  It's Candice's birthday, so let's all give it up for Candice.  I take a sip of my beer as the crowd hollers, then parts.  On the pool table I see a make shift altar, with a poster sized photo of a young, beautiful girl, and candles.  I realize that Candice is dead.  Shortly thereafter, i realize that the DJ is Candice's father.

"Let's go release these balloons for Candice."

The crowd gathers the mylar balloons and walks through the front door.  I observe, drink in hand, as they count down and then I see the streamers part from their hands, moving upwards, as the balloons are released.  I few uncontrolled tears trickle down my cheeks.

The attendants make their way back inside and a man starts shouting at me from across the bar.  The woman with him is trying to calm him, and I am not sure he is talking to me.  There's a man standing beside me, running interference.  I keep asking, "What? What?" and the man keeps shouting.  Finally, I can hear him. "Are you starting shit with me?" The man running interference says, "You should ignore him, he's drunk."  I calculate.  The woman with him seems pretty solid.  There are two other patrons, plus the man next to me, between us.  I;m not trying to start shit.  But if he is, he's got to get over some hurdles.  Ultimately, he defuses, and the night goes on.

Tim comes around the bar and sits next to me with his glass of water, and tells me about life since high school.  He says that he has heard about me having been a bartender at the Wright Place for a long time now.  His customers are last-calling themselves, dissapating as a bartender always hopes.

A drunk woman walks up. "Bitches are always starting shit with me. What am I supposed to do? Ignore them?"

"Yes, ignore them," Tim says, and her boyfriend assists her out of the bar.

"Bitches are always starting shit with me too," I joke. "I'm just kidding.  No one starts shit with me."

"Well, I'm a dude and I wouldn't start shit with you.  Seriously.  You give off that vibe."

I stare for a minute.  "Yeah. I guess not."

"No one wants to start shit with you."

I'm pretty happy with this revelation.  I rarely walk into any place doing anything but pretending to be something I am not.  I am not brave.  I am not tough. Last night I promised Delilah I would rock her for one song.  ONE song.  Three songs, plus one abridged, later, I tucked her in her crib.  A couple hours after that when a frightened Eden called to me from her monitor, I invited her into my bed, where she consumed my pillow and my blankets and generally made me irrelevant.  Nearly any time they beckon, I will be on call. Just a few minutes before, I was slinking into the grocery store ten minutes before close to make sure the girls had flavored milk for their breakfast. They do love flavored milk.

The bar has been almost completely evacuated.  It's just me, Tim, the DJ and one of his friend.  The two of them approach the bar.  I am ready to go, so I turn to the DJ and say, "I am really sorry about your daughter."

"Thank you."

"I lost my son when he was ten days old.  I know it's not the same, but -"

"But you know how it feels." He grabs me, and hugs me fiercely, tears in his eyes.

"She was really beautiful."

"She was.  She wouldn't let anyone see her or take her picture when she had the cancer.  She wanted everyone to see her like this."

"Well, she was beautiful."

He hugs me again, and I leave.  He will not likely remember me tomorrow, but I will remember him.  Perhaps more importantly, I will remember Candice, a beautiful girl that I never knew, who was stolen by cancer, but who is remembered with love and loyalty.

Happy would-be 31st birthday, Candice.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Use Your Words, Use Your Fork

This never happens.

I walked into Delilah's room at 11:30 last night to give her one more kiss before I went to sleep myself.  Sometimes, she'll stir a bit.  Sometimes she will even stand up and reach for me, and I hug her for a moment and lay her down again.  But last night, she wouldn't let me go.  She clung strongly to my neck, her legs wrapped around my waist.  I relented, and sat in the rocker with her for a bit.  I could tell she had fallen asleep, but when I stood to place her back into her crib, she immediately woke and applied that strong grip again.  So we sat some more.

We rocked.  And as we rocked, I stroked the silky hair on her perfectly formed head.  No mother can appreciate a moment like that, unless she's also been told that her child's head did not form so perfectly.  It is a thing, and act, taken for granted by so many, but it's weight is not lost on me.  The tears fell from my eyes and I moved my face to keep them from falling on her, from interrupting this perfect moment. 

Everything about Delilah is perfect, and beautiful, and healthy, and strong.  She is growing fast.  Too fast. 

So I was stunned when a speech pathologist told  me what really shouldn't have been stunning information:  Delilah has a slight speech delay.

I knew this.  I knew that Eden talks too much, and Delilah doesn't get enough attention, and that Delilah wasn't saying as much as Eden said at that age, and that we shouldn't compare, but that at some point we would have to be concerned. 

I knew, but I didn't care.  I wanted my baby.  I didn't want her to have to ask me for anything - I just wanted to give it to her.  I don't want my 2 1/2 year old to transition to a toddler bed from a crib.  I want to lift all 30 pounds of her into that crib as long as I can.  I just want her to be my baby and I know that a good momma would let her grow up, but I am just a broken momma, made from a broken woman, and I am afraid of EVERYTHING. 

I've always felt that she was sent to me because of Gabriel.  Within minutes after her birth, I saw Gabriel in her face.  Eden was my rainbow, but Delilah is my shining star, a twinkle in the darkness that was my postpartum depression after both of the girls were born.  Eden is my girl, a little piece of me.  Delilah was for me. 

She is perfect.  She is alive, and whole, and here, and she's my last baby.  I know she is, no matter how much hope I am encouraged to hold on to, and no matter how young (or at this point, not too old) I am, and no matter how much my heart breaks every single day over this knowledge.  I know it, because it hurts too much to hope, so I won't.  I know that I might not be too old,. but I also know I
ve only got a 50% success rate at growing surviving children. And I know that the longer a heartbreak lasts, the harder it is to overcome, so I'll just speed through it. 

Tonight as I tucked her again, she again requested that we sit a while.  No.  She didn't ask.  She sat in the rocker expectantly, and reached for me as I approached.  I sat, and she curled up against me.  She grabbed the back bars of the rocker and pushed herself back and forth.  "Rock?  You want to rock?  Can you ask momma to rock?  It's okay.  I'll rock you.  Do you want a song?  Momma will sing to you.  Let's cuddle and rock, and I'll sing." 

In two days she will start preschool.  They will make her use her words and a fork.  They will try to potty train her.  She will grow taller, and leaner, as if she hadn't just stretched over night just a week ago.  They can do all of that.  Everyone else around us can do all of that.  I'm going to rock my baby.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

It's D-Day

It might just always be this way. 

Every night I tiptoe into the girls' rooms and expect the worst.  I anticipate that they will not be breathing, that their skin will be cold and their tiny bodies stiff.  Every night, I write them off as gone.  Every night I grieve until I experience that relief - The rise and fall of their tiny chests, a wiggle at my good night kiss, and a sigh when I cover them with the blanket.

This is life post-trauma.  Most people - normal people - will tell you to let go.  Live in the moment.  Stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But when one shoe, your first shoe, the shoe you waited your whole life to hold, the shoe that you imagined would go to the Olympics one day or be a Supreme Court Justice, the shoe that was the love of your life - When you've lost that shoe, you know the other can't be far behind. No matter how long that other shoe sticks around, you know it could disappear in a heartbeat.  That a heartbeat can just disappear.

It is a struggle adverse to the one that I have faced most of my life.  Most of my life has been spent with my head telling my heart not to love so freely.  But when it comes to my girls, my head frequently has to tell my heart, "Now is not the time to shut down."

I have to tell myself to love them.  My brain tells me to leap without looking.  Just embrace them, just enjoy their precious lives.  Just wonder at their intelligence, strength, beauty, and sweetness.  My eyes see them, my hands can feel them, but my heart is guarded.  They have every right to it but through no fault of their own it has been hardened with scars.

One day I went into an exam room full of hope, dreaming with a heart that had been broken many times.  I left that room a new woman, a woman who is very strong and very brave, but one who survives by keeping her distance. A woman who lives caught between Heaven and here. 

From a distance my Eden and Delilah smile at me and I offer a perfunctory smile in return.  Something moves inside of me and I think it is love, swelling from the cracks of my broken heart.  But at the same time I feel the floor shake beneath me, unsteady, ready to give, ready to let me down.  The smile fades from my face, and I return to my skillet.

It's cold.  It's gloomy.  It's lonely.  It's January.  It's D-Day.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Somewhere in the World it's Night

Eden has a book - "Animals Around the World."  It opens, "Somewhere in the world it's night.  Somewhere else it's day.  Animals around the world are waking up to play."  To Eden, the book is about ducks, rabbits, hippos, giraffes, pigs, chicks and another handful of animals, and how they spend their days and nights.  To me, it's about perspective.  As deeply entrenched as we are in the moments of our own lives, somewhere out there, someone else is living in theirs, and the difference may be night and day.

About this time four years ago, a specialist confirmed that Fetus Eden did not have anencephaly, and the sunlight poured into my world, bathing me in its warmth after an emotional winter that had lasted years.  And about this same time, also four years ago, on the other side of the country, the Morales family would learn the devastating news that their daughter Angela, due in March 2014, was diagnosed with the same terminal birth defect that had claimed my son's life.  Their winter was just beginning.

The diagnosis led Angela's mother, Sonia, to join a support group of families of children diagnosed with anencephaly, to which I continue to belong.

I don't remember much about Sonia from the months leading up to Angela's birth.  I wasn't very active in the group at that time, as I was expecting my rainbow baby and felt guilty in my happiness among the grief that permeates our group.  Though the members are always happy for each other's rainbows, there's a sadness that always sort of hangs there.

Angela was born March 23, 2014.  It was not until Eden was born about 6 weeks later that I really noticed that Angela had already defied the odds significantly.  Her parents were reaching out to the community for advice, seeking medical treatment in a world that traditionally resists treating children like ours.  Little by little the collective anencephaly community began to realize that Angela was going to be our next star.  She was going to be one of those anomolies, one of those rare cases of children diagnosed in utero with anencephaly who was going to live months - maybe years.

After her birth and through the course of her treatment, Angela's diagnosis was converted, as anencephaly no longer seemed to fit.  Sonia and the Morales family became targets of harassment, receiving messages from people accusing them of lying about Angela's condition for attention and misleading people into believing that Angela had anencephaly.

Just like any other family in our community, the Morales family was told their daughter wasn't going to live.  They were given the option to terminate their pregnancy, to kill their daughter and sister, because she was going to die anyway.  Armed with a faith that is unlike any I have ever seen, obedient to God in a way that I could only pray to be, well-versed and strong in their Catholic Faith, the Morales family did not make a choice to continue the pregnancy - They simply followed God's will for them.  They only did what was right.

The anencephaly community, as always, came to the defense of our sister in grief.  Through Sonia and the Morales family, and above all through Angela, we were living.  Angela was "ours."  Through Sonia's arms we held our children once again.  Through every one of Angela's achievements, our babies accomplished something too.  Before our children were born we each had hopes and dreams for them, and all of us had our hopes and dreams crushed. But hope was built anew through a little girl in Rhode Island with thick, dark hair and an infectious smile.  The kinds of things people take for granted - sending their children to school - we will never get to do with our babies.  It was with beaming pride that we "watched" Angela attend her first day of schoo. 

Somewhere in the world it's night.  Somewhere else it's day.  While Angela flourished on the East Coast I was in California, staring at my rainbow baby wondering why I still felt so sad.   Everything I could want, I had, but something was still missing.  I was suffering from deep postpartum depression, still suffering from aggravated post traumatic stress.  I would look at my newborn daughter and wonder what I ever did to deserve her, when I couldn't save my son.  I couldn't understand why I had a right to my next breath, when my son would never breathe again.

"Look at her hair," I would tell my husband, showing him pictures of newborn Angela.  "She has twice as much hair as Eden."  As Angela's story unfolded for me and the rest of the world, I took comfort in her triumphs.  My own friends and family began to follow Angela's story, also seeing Gabriel in Angela.

Through the course of her life, which was much shorter than the average person's, but which was tremendous and practically unheard of among those familiar with anencephaly, Angela experienced periods of illness that had the world waiting with bated breath for the outcome.  Would Angela survive this time?  Time and again, she did.

Through all of this, Sonia managed to care for her daughter Elizabeth, who had developed a saintly love for her baby sister. Sonia struggled through a subsequent pregnangy while also suffering from hyperemesis gravidum.  As she carried her son Alejandro, gravely ill for much of the pregnancy, she also waited each day not knowing if Angela's health would take a turn and if she would be saying goodbye to one child even while saying hello to another, and trusting all the while that whatever happened, it was all part of God's great plan.

During Angela's most recent illness, Sonia made it clear to the world that this time, she wouldn't recover.  The world carried Angela and the Morales family in prayer while Sonia, Rony, Elizabeth and Alejandro comforted and loved that precious little girl even as their hearts were breaking.

At approximately 2:45 PM pacific time on saturday December 16, 2017, I laid down to watch a movie and perhaps take a nap while my (now) two beautiful, whole and healthy daughters slept down the hall.  While scrolling through Facebook I came across a particularly poignant post from Sonia, a picture of Angela and her Daddy, who was reading to her for the last time.  I turned off the movie and put down my phone, and prayed.  I never do things like that anymore - I never pray like I should, and most of the time I feel I don't have a prayer left in me.  My mind drifted back to that June day in 2011 that I last held my son while he took his last breath.  Through Angela and her family, I held him once again.  I comforted him once again.  I told him I loved him one last time and I gave him over to the only care better than mine.  I later learned that shortly after, on the other side of the country, Angela took her last breath on earth, and was welcomed in to Heaven.

Somewhere in the world it's night.  Somewhere else it's day. . . .

If you've never been with someone in their hour of dying, you can't imagine what a bittersweet privilege it is.  You see, it is our basest human instinct to cling to life.  The urge to keep breathing and keep our hearts beating and thereby keep living and loving is what we know.  That is why murder, abortion, and suicide are so disordered - It is natural to want to live.  Yet, death is natural too.  And to be with someone as they are both clinging to life, but ready to die, is beautiful.  To be among the last faces someone sees before they see the face of God is an honor. To hold one hand, while God holds the other, is for some parents all we can offer our children, but to that child, it is the world.

The world heaved a collective cry of grief when Sonia announced Angela's passing to the world the following day.  I sobbed and choked with tears flowing when I read the news, and ran to my rainbow baby, my Eden, my piece of paradise, and held her close to me.  Covered in syrup from her pancake breakfast and surprised by my aggressive show of affection, and alarmed by my fears, she said, "Momma, I'm all sticky."  I kissed her forehead and rubbed her beautiful fully formed skull.  Her Daddy, my husband, looked on as I set Eden back in her seat and hugged our youngest daughter, Delilah.  As I took in the picture I noticed, as I frequently do, the face of the 6 year old little boy that was missing from our table, and the empty chair at the breakfast table somewhere in Rhode Island.

Backing out of my driveway to take the girls to Mass that morning, my heart still heavy with the news, the striking lyrics came from the radio speaker, "Every storm runs out of rain, just like every dark night turns into day."

Somewhere in the world it's night.  Somewhere else it's day.  There is a time for looking back, and there is a time for looking ahead, and there are times that we just have to live in the moment.  For the 3 years, 8 months and 23 days, Angela and the Morales family lived deep in the moment, for one moment later, everything could change.  They loved, and they laughed, and they cried, and they suffered.  They lived.  Life isn't always kind or easy, but it is always a gift.  It is always a gift and it should be lived to its fullest.

They have been shining examples of Faith, walking the path that God placed them on in an unconditional display of obedience, prostrate to His Will.  Someday, words like "anencephaly," "incompatible with life," "terminal," and "She's gone" will mean nothing.  All that will matter are the words we should all long to hear:  "Well done, my good and faithful servants."  We are in the throes of night - This world, in all its beauty, can still be a dark place, made brighter by the shining stars among us, but still a fallen world.  But Somewhere Else, it's Day.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Through My Daughter's Eyes

By 5:30 AM last Monday morning, I had already dropped Eden and Delilah off with my parents for the day and was on my way to San Luis Obispo for an 8:30 hearing.   Such mornings are a mixed bag; I enjoy the break in work week monotony and the "alone time" that driving 6 hours in one day affords me, but I miss my hectic, nonstop, tiresome, and beloved morning with my little girls.

The whole world's changed since they were born.  I'd made the trek from Bakersfield to San Luis Obispo dozens of times before May 3, 2014, but now I see everything so differently.   Driving through the city in the early morning hours I could still hear Eden's voice, asking me about the traffic signals.

"Why did we stop?"

"You know why we stopped."

"Red light!"

As I proceeded to the freeway, I imagined her asking, "Which way are we going?"

"North.  We're going north, and then we'll go west."

Contrails of white exhaust streaked the sky, evidence of the planes passing too far away for us to see.

"Airplane!  Momma, I see an airplane!  Do you see it?"  Imagine being so full of wonder that every plane is still so exciting.

Oil derrick pumps pepper the fields of Lost Hills, a small, aptly named town lying between Bakersfield and my destination that day.

"I see oil pumps! They suck the oil out of the ground like this:  *slurp*!  And then we turn the oil into gas to be fuel for our car so we can go."  Alone in my car, I smiled with pride at my little girl's capacity to learn and retain information.

I switched the Sirius XM station to Channel 18, currently hosting a Beatles Channel for the summer.  Thanks to one of her favorite children's shows, Beat Bugs, Eden can be heard singing along with no less than 10 Beatles songs, each hits long before she was born.  "Good day Sunshine!"

Trucks and cars and motorcycles and I passed each other, and I snickered as I thought of Eden's characterization of every pickup truck as a "monster truck."  She thinks "monster trucks" are beautiful.

On the side of the road I spotted five or six cows huddled under a lone tree.  I wish Eden were really there with me to see them.

These days - travel days - are some of my longest.  With the open road laid out before me, the whole world waits for me at home.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When The Stars Go Blue

There are these moments that are so perfect.  The girls fit perfectly in the bend of my elbow, one perfectly seated on each leg.  Delilah turns the pages of the board book with perfect timing, while Eden "reads" along with perfect memorization.  Everything is perfect.

That's when I feel it the most.  That's when Gabriel's absence comes crashing back to me. That's when I am slapped in the face with loneliness that I shouldn't feel, surrounded by the love of my girls, and guilt for feeling lonely when each of them are the world.  I'm filled with regret for not being able to do the impossible, for not being able to heal Gabriel so that he could be here, wrecking these moments with his pleadings to not read any more 'baby' books.

Delilah turns the page.  I can't look.  I suddenly can't stand it.  It's all so beautiful, but the truth is something hideous.  The truth is there is a little boy that will always be missing from these scenes.

I can't look at the stars.  They stand between me and the little boy that I'd longed for all of my life.  Like a beautiful, tangled net, they hold him in the Heavens and all I can do is dream of who waits beyond those stars.  So I can't look at the stars.

Where do you go, when the stars go blue?  What am I supposed to do when no matter where I turn, I'm facing an empty space?

Not so long ago, under those stars at 2:25 AM, a little girl was born who looks so much like her big brother that sometimes I have to look twice.  A little girl with dark, sparkling eyes and a hint of a dimple in her left cheek and a toothy smile that will leave you victim to her charm.  A little girl who still nuzzles her head under my chin, against my neck, unknowingly filling the cracks in my broken heart.  My little star.  "Gabe," she attempts to say, as she tugs at his picture hanging next to the stairs.  I can't look at the stars, but I can't look away, either.

Nearby another not-so-little girl runs and jumps and spins and dances, curly hair flouncing, long limbs bending and flapping.  A not-so-little girl with a not-so-little personality and a not-so-little vocabulary that will lash you with its wit one minute then warm your heart with its sweetness the next.  My piece of paradise.

Outside a pot containing the famous blueberry bush still sits, waiting, hoping against the odds for another sprout of green, another sign of life in defiance of expectations.  I may never see another leaf or blossom or berry.  Maybe all you see when you look at that plant is a bunch of dead branches.  But I see what could have been.  I see what could still be.

Hope is a strange thing.  Hope can break our hearts and let us down and fail us.  Hope hurts.  Hope takes guts.  Hope requires love.  Hope keeps me hanging on, even when the stars are blue.

Gabriel, "I lit a fire with the love you left behind.  And it burned wild."  I miss you.  With every breath, with every beat of my heart, I miss you.  I always will. I'll always see the empty space.  But I'll always be thankful for 10 days that changed the world.  You changed my world.

*Credit to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' song "Stars" and Ryan Adams' song "When the Stars Go Blue" for inspiration.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Double Take

The head of the woman in line in front of me whipped back and forth between me and her twin boys, as our six eyes remained locked in a stare.  I finally broke away to see her smiling at me.

"They're killing me.  I really want another."

She laughed.  "Take them for a few hours.  You'll change your mind."

"How old are they?"

"They'll be two in August."

"They're precious."

As she unloaded her things I looked at my own Costco cart, full of things that I am able to buy because I "only" have two children, including a new outfit for both Eden and Delilah.  If we were to add another to the mix, I couldn't spontaneously make these purchases.  But as it stands, buying things for the two girls that I love so much is one of the little pleasures in my life.

I'm fortunate that putting the girls in a new dress, or a new bow in their hair, can still make me smile.  Just an hour before my Costco run, I had taken my pre-session survey to gauge my depression and anxiety levels.  Survey says I've lost interest in things that used to interest me, and I find little pleasure in life right now.

I don't really have much to complain about.  I have a beautiful family, a good job that I love, everything I need and most of what I want.  But it all feels a bit meaningless these days.
As I leave the warehouse I encounter the woman again, the twin boys still sitting side by side in the shopping cart.  She sees my longing gaze and asks, "How many do you have?"


"And you want more?"  I smile.  She has no idea how loaded my answer really is.

Increasingly I find myself grieving the child that I miscarried.  This always comes and goes in waves, sometimes affecting me more than others.  This wave will pass, but not a day goes by that I don't think about who that child might have been today.  I know that in those two boys sitting side by side, I saw the two children that will never get to be 21 months old.  I saw the future I might never have, the children I still hope to have that may just never come.

In the car the tears stream down my face as Zac Brown sang, "My whole world, it begins and ends with you. . . "  I don't know anymore where the world begins and where it ends, I only know that I'm drowning in it, and there again, I don't know why.

At home I presented Eden with her new outfit.

"It's a beautiful dress!"  I promise her she can wear it tomorrow.  Upstairs, in addition to her closet full of clothes, there are boxes and tubs and cabinets brimming with clothes each girl has outgrown, loving folded in the hopes that I will get to use them again on a child of my own.  Other clothes remain still in their package, a fading ember of faith that one day, I'll have another little boy.  I tell myself that if that day comes I will pat myself on the back for being so prudent.  But day by day I feel a bit more like Ms. Haversham, clinging to a futile dream while the world goes on without me.

Marcos tells me the news, that a terrorist attack occurred at the Arianna Grande concert in England.  19 are dead, which seems comparatively less devastating.  He tells me that online people are commenting, "Too bad Arianna Grande wasn't one of them."  Fleetingly, I think, "Too bad I wasn't one of them."  Very young people attend her concerts, young people with a whole life ahead of them.  Young people who still love to wake up every morning.  Young people who don't have children that are destined to grow up with a chronically depressed mother who never seems satisfied.

I go through the motions of bedtime routine.  I'm in a low, right now, and I know it will pass.  We brush teeth, read stories, say prayers, tuck in stuffed animals, and the girls seem satisfied that I've given them my best, even though my best is far less than they deserve.

I trudge downstairs and between picking up toys and sippy cups and board books I fix myself a drink.  I see tiny shoes, and think about the shoes that are missing.  I sit down at the keyboard and pour out my heart, filling its place with a cocktail and look ahead to a time when the pendulum swings and the
survey says that I love life again.