Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Who Needs Tomorrow?

The opening chords wring my heart every time, haunting me with a combination of regret and relief.  Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" never ceases to stop me in my tracks.  In the first few years after Sean's death, I could barely listen to the song without crying.  The words fill me at once with sorrow for the brevity of our time together and more importantly the untimeliness of his death, and satisfaction that my memories of our last few days together remain so very vivid.  A part of me knew it was all coming to an end - I just didn't know it would end as it did.

Many nights, after all the patrons had left and I had locked the doors, I would play the song on the jukebox at Charly's, now the Wright Place, and saturate myself in the lyrics and the memories.  I always feel Sean's presence most strongly through music, and in that music, when I am alone in the bar.

I didn't know that the last time I closed The Wright Place would be the last time I closed The Wright Place.  If I had known, I would have played that song one last time.

My one night shift a week had become an increasing strain on our marriage.  We are living deep in the trenches of early parenthood.  Our girls, just 17 months apart, are only 2 years old and 7 months old.  We couldn't ask for better children - They are healthy, bright, as well-behaved as we could reasonably ask.  But they are a lot of work.  And we've decided that for now, that is work we must do together, night after night, to strengthen our family.  There are still so many turns that life could take, roads that life may lead us down, and life promises us nothing except that it will keep on going, ready or not.

Still, it was with an aching heart that I resigned my Tuesday night shift at The Wright Place.  The shift has been mine for almost 7 years now, since I returned from law school.  Tuesday nights were waiting for me after three maternity leaves.  I've collected the March Madness brackets by the close of the bar on Tuesday night before the tournament begins for four years.  I trained Leanne on a Tuesday night.  I've been doing the liquor inventory on Tuesday nights for years.  One Tuesday night, several years ago, I broke the weeknight sales record.  The bartender rotation has gone round and round but for the last nearly 7 years, Tuesday nights have been generally consistent.  For nearly 7 years, they have been mine.

Some things never change, until they do.  The decision was sudden and shocking to my bosses; it shocked the shit out of me.  And it is not without sadness that I've not reported to The Wright Place for the last three weeks.  I didn't even get to say good-bye.

Bob Seger begs, "Why don't you stay?"  After all, who needs tomorrow?  Tomorrow is not a guarantee, and I know that well.  I never got to say good-bye to Sean either.  I needed tomorrow, but that tomorrow never came. But as clearly as I heard the words "Let's make it last; let's find a way," I could also hear "I long for love, like everyone else does. I know I'll keep searching even after today."  My burning desire for love couldn't be extinguished even by the sobering sight of Sean's lifeless body.

The world kept on spinning, as the world does, and the sun continued to rise, as the sun will, and at the end of the day somewhere things are ending, and somewhere else they are just beginning.  And we just have to keep moving.

Maybe I'll be back someday. Maybe I'll continue to host my annual Anti-Valentine's Day Party, an event that started in dark remembrance of the day Sean died, but which has evolved into one of the most successful events of the year.  I don't know what tomorrow brings, and I don't even know that I'll have a tomorrow.  I know that I have today, right now, this moment.  I'm doing all that I know how to do to live today, right now, in this moment.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Two Pink Streaks

Some mornings I'm still not convinced my reflection is really me.

I guess the postpartum acne started about two months after Delilah was born.  In the beginning I didn't think much of the few blemishes, but as the few began to multiply, I became horrified.  This wasn't part of our deal.  I had never had acne problems, not even in high school.  I always figured it was part of an unspoken agreement with God.  I had big hair that I didn't know how to control and I wore an A-cup through most of high school, but in exchange I got clear skin and long, beautiful legs.  Seemed like a fair trade, and while probably not how I would have prioritized assets (given the choice, I would have opted for boobs), not a bad shake.

Even after Gabriel was born, I held up fairly well.  My son wasn't here to hold, but my body didn't bear the tell tale signs of childbirth.  No c-section scar, no stretch marks, no acne, minimal weight gain that I shed with ease.  But for the scars on my heart, I could continue on as normal, which was a relief when I found myself single and on the man-hunt again.

Marcos has pointed out that he barely knows me not pregnant.  Indeed, we've been together less than three years, and I've spent 18 months of those three years pregnant.  I know that he doesn't mind the belly that will never go away without surgery, the acne, the 20 extra pounds I'm still carrying from Eden.  He doesn't seem to care that even while my face has erupted like a teenager's, creases are forming at the corners of my eyes and around my mouth.  My hands, constantly at work, look dry and old and are chronically swollen from rheumatoid arthritis, but fortunately are not yet deformed.

When I look back at my reflection, those are the things that I see.  I am not, nor do I think I ever will be, that woman who embraces her imperfections.  I don't affectionately refer to my stretch marks as those of a mommy tiger who has earned her stripes.  The wrinkles are not laugh lines.  They are all just indications to me that I finally look as old as I feel.

My vanity stretched to its maximum, my confidence hanging by a thread, I set out to have a crown replaced.  The crown is part of a dental implant that I got when I was 14 years old.  While the implant is now the standard in tooth replacement, twenty years ago when I was struck in the mouth with a softball, implants were still a fairly new and sexy treatment.  I underwent 14 hours of oral surgery by the then-premiere oral surgeon in Bakersfield, and had my crown done by a prosthodontist of the same caliber.  Neither of these very skilled, very expensive practitioners had the foresight to realize that at age 14, my gums and teeth and bones were still growing and eventually, that crown would recede back into my gums while my other teeth grew longer than and asymmetrical to the crown.  The process was slow and incremental.  Little by little, I noticed that in photos, all I could see was the short crown.

I expressed my petty concern with my dentist, who was able to write up a request for authorization to replace the crown so that half of the cost would be covered by insurance.  After coughing up my co-pay, the dentist and I embarked on what ended up being a 5 visit process.  Today, when he cemented the new crown into place, I felt my confidence immediately restored, even if just a bit.

As "they" say, youth is wasted on the young.  I wish now that I had appreciated things about my body in my twenties - The flat belly, yes, but also the ability to stand on my feet for 8 hours, to have joints that - while not pain free - didn't hurt so much.  I wish that I had recognized that I used to be able to walk into a room and turn heads, not because I was so pretty, but because there is simply something light and easy and beautiful about a woman in her twenties, even a woman who carries the weight of dead boyfriends and dead babies.  I was so busy then, bearing the burden of grief, that I didn't enjoy the freedom of being twenty-something.  And now here I am, mourning my twenties rather than enjoying the ease of being thirty-something.

Woven discreetly into my mass of big, thick hair which I've learned to - if not control, at least manage, are two hot pink streaks of color, extensions that were placed when I had my hair trimmed last week for the first time in a year.  With less than an inch cut, and two extra pieces of hair added, I felt lighter than I had in some time.  I knew that the following week, I would get my crown replaced, and that the acne was clearing day by day.  I'll never be that girl in her twenties again - That girl fell in love with self-destructive men who would rather shoot themselves or move to South Carolina than stay with her, and that girl wasn't equipped to hold down a professional career AND mother two little girls responsibly.  That girl exploited herself to prove that she, and she alone, was in charge of her own body.  She didn't know how to be loved by someone that is kind, and good, and emotionally healthy.  She harbored guilt, way too much guilt, for one man's decision to pick up a gun and kill himself.  That girl made stupid financial decisions.  That girl was a selfish daughter and sister.  I don't want to be that girl again.

I don't want the darkness that came with being young and light and pretty in that way that all twenty-somethings are pretty.  I want love, security, a stable life for my husband and daughters and me.  Sometimes, I want to feel a little rebellious.  Sometimes I want to get pink in my hair, or turn a stranger's head when I've walked into a room.  But what I want most, I've already got.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

He Collected Me

The series finale of American Idol remains unviewed on my Hulu watch list.  For over a decade I watched the series and made a point of watching each season finale as it was broadcast.  Certainly, the show changed television, music, the way we consume music, the way stars are born.  But through the course of the years the show lost its magic.  Between changes in format, changes in judging panels, and changes in the method of voting, the final season of American Idol simply didn't have the sparkle of the first.

Unquestionably, the most poignant moment of the season was when the very first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, appeared as a guest judge and in a very pregnant and very emotional display, sang the song "Piece by Piece."  The song is a tender tribute to her stepfather, the man who took on the role of father for her when her biological dad abandoned her family.

I have no daddy issues.  My father was present, quite present, for my entire life.  He worked nights, and slept during the day while we were at school.  He packed our lunches, took us to the bus stop, went to softball practices, came to award ceremonies, and did everything that could be expected of a father and more.  Now, he watches my daughters five days a week and I know it was the right decision to have him provide care because every day, when he first sees them, he smiles with genuine joy that they are his for the next 9 hours.  He has set a high bar.

So, when I heard Kelly sing "Piece by Piece," I did not think of my own father.  I thought of the man who is father to my girls, and stepfather to my son.

I thought of my days as a single mom, caring for my son's memory and wondering if I would ever find a relationship that could bear the burden of my unusual but very deep relationship with my son.  I wondered if I would ever have a family that would openly include Gabriel.  He was my world, and I wasn't sure if anyone would ever want to live in our world.

Every day, in my home, Gabriel's name is mentioned.  On the wall of our stair case, his picture hangs with his sisters', and framed photos of him also have a place in our living room, family room, my bedroom, and Eden's bedroom.  On holidays, or sometimes just because I feel like it, Marcos treks with me and our daughters to the cemetery where my son's ashes rest.  Gabriel is my son; he is my girls' big brother; and Marcos is his stepfather.

Marcos didn't have to be the man that he is.  He didn't have to welcome both me and my son into his life.  Because of him, my son's memory can live.  Because of him, my girls know their big brother.  Because of him, my girls will know that they have a family history of neural tube defect and take the necessary precautions when they have their own children, because that part of our lives is not hidden.  Because of him, our girls will pray for their brother's intercession throughout their lives.  Because of him, I do not have to tuck my grief away and instead, I can heal.

He took the bits of a broken home, an unconventional mother and son, and he shaped us into a new family.  He refilled my heart with his love, and from that love our daughters were born, so that my heart was not only full but overflowing.  He has made it possible for me to hear someone call me "Mommy" every day - A sound I thought I might not ever hear.  Piece by piece he has taken an unstable, grieving woman, and made her as whole as she has ever felt.  A man can be kind.  A father can be great.  And he is.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Were He Not Romeo Called

In a box somewhere in my garage a baby name book gathers dust, and stuffed within its pages is a sheet of paper I can't bear to part with. Written lovingly on the lines of the paper are the names I first began to consider six years ago, when I was pregnant for the first time. Among them is the name that has always been, Eden; names that are long ruled out, such as Miranda, Violet, or Carolina (for the state where Ben's mom resides); the name we thought we were going to use for Gabriel, before his diagnosis, Jameson; the family-inspired name I finally, internally, agreed to relinquish to my brother, Leo; and the name that never fit with the last name Cude, but which made perfect sense with the last name Lopez - Joaquin.

And so, the story goes.  I lost that first baby.  Gabriel, once Jameson Michael Cude, was diagnosed with the fatal defect that would claim his life, and he became Gabriel, our Hero of God.  Nearly three years passed and my prayers were answered in the form of a baby girl we named Eden, our paradise, followed 17 months later by Delilah.  But before she was Eden, in the privacy of our home, she was EJoaq.  We had narrowed our selection down to Eden for a girl, and Joaquin for a boy, but of course we wouldn't know until the day she was born which name we would be using.  I kept our names private, rarely sharing our choices lest someone else be inspired.  Both were unique enough to make up for the very common last name, but not so unique that they were strange.When we learned we had another baby on the way, we had only to choose a girl's name - Joaquin was already set.  And again, would not be used.

Names are important to me, and I have put significant thought into the names of each of my children.  Joaquin, the Spanish version of the Hebrew Joachim, means "One who is established by God."  Saint Joachim was Mary's father, Christ's grandfather.  It was to be paired with the middle name Joseph, representing the two greatest male influences in the young Christ's life.  There were other connections too - My girls were born at San Joaquin Community Hospital, we live in the San Joaquin Valley, and the San Joaquin Valley is a type of Eden, the place where a great deal of the nation's produce is grown.  I anticipated obvious queries - "After Joaquin Phoenix?" - and weighed the particular negative connections - I was well into pregnancy when Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from a Mexican prison.  Still, this name that I had stored away since the first signs of new life within me was what I wanted for my next son.

I've gotten much better at receiving news of impending birth since the girls came along, and I've even become a better sport when learning a boy is one the way.  When family remembers recently announced they were expecting a baby boy, I rolled with the news with surprising ease.  Maybe, just maybe, I was moving on.  Less than 24 hours went by before I learned that while I have come a long way, I still have a long way to go, when the family announced that this new baby boy is Joaquin.

After a double take, the tears welled uncontrollably, spilling onto my clothes as I drove to meet my mom for lunch.  I couldn't stop them even enough to hide my mother, and when she asked what was wrong, more fell as I sobbed to her about my silly problem.  The tears don't come easily these days, not since the Prozac, but there I was, crying like an idiot - over what?

I guess that's what's been most difficult.  The typical response seems to be, "You don't have a right to that name."  I know that.  "You can choose a different name."  I know that too.  "You can still use the name Joaquin."  Yes. I know. I know, I know, I know.  I know this is irrational, and selfish, and petty.  But it's honest, and the typical responses just seem to be a bit insensitive.  Or maybe I'm just too sensitive.

What were the chances that a name chosen for its relative uniqueness, still ranked in the 200s in terms of popularity for boy's names in the United States, would be chosen by someone in our own family?  And how can I use that name now, too, knowing that it would no longer be unique in our family?  How do I go to a baby shower, to birthday parties - especially if I never have another boy, but even if I do - and bring another Joaquin a baseball, glove, and bat?  What if there are no more boys in store for me? After two losses, I've had to come to terms with the fact that life doesn't go as we want or plan.  I am satisfied with my life as it stands - I have to be, and I have every reason to be, because it's an amazing life. .

What's in a name?  The question is famous, and rhetorical, meant only to demonstrate that our names are not our essence.  If a little boy is in the cards for us some day, he will be so much more than a name.  Still, a part of me will always grieve the little boy that might have been, the little boy who was, and now, the little boy Joaquin who will never be mine.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

One Who Weakens

Things really didn't start out this way.  When I was pregnant with Delilah, I felt the least connected to her of any of my pregnancies.  With Gabriel the bond was instant.  I can't even recall a point in the pregnancy that I didn't feel that bond.  With Eden the connection was guarded, but still strong.  By the time Delilah came around, I was just so busy, and the pregnancy was the most physically demanding, that I struggled to feel bonded.

I had a strong suspicion that Delilah was a girl, or perhaps I was just afraid to believe that I would have another son, but in the last two months of the pregnancy I really started to convince myself that she was a boy.  I recited her boy name in my head and started dreaming of the things my little boy would do.  So when she was born and Marcos said to me "It's a little girl!" my world shifted a bit.

Or shifted a lot.  I felt pangs of regret for the distance I put between myself and newborn Eden.  I was so scared to love her, and so scared to believe she was here to stay, that I often didn't take the time that I should have to hold her and interact with her.  Add to that my sincere disdain for the breastfeeding experience and genuine postpartum depression, and I frequently felt like she was a job rather than a gift.  My mindset has since changed drastically, but I'm still so sorry for my behavior in her first few months of life.

Bound and determined not to repeat those mistakes with Delilah, and to keep her from getting lost in the shuffle of toddler life, I found myself holding Delilah as much as I could.  I seized every reasonable opportunity to let her sleep on my chest, snuggle in my arms, sit in my lap.  It started so deliberately, but over the last almost six months I've found that I need her.

Throughout the day I find my mind wandering to think about her.  I catch myself staring at her pictures on my desktop.  When I see her I feel compelled to hold her, to kiss her, to just be close to her.  I've become rather obsessed.

Oddly, it's been Marcos who has noticed some of the quirky things about her.  She started to favor one side of her head and developed a bit of an asymmetrical head, for which she's had a couple sessions of physical therapy.  I never would have noticed, and when Marcos discovered the issue I insisted he be the one to take her to the doctor, because I wouldn't have the doctor thinking that I was the paranoid parent.  Marcos also noticed the crease in her earlobe, just a slight, inconsequential defect that I had overlooked.

When I look at Delilah, I am drawn by the intensity of her gaze.  Her eyes captivate me, bore into me and leave me weak and raw and exposed.  She owns me with her stare.  When we first lock eyes in the morning, I know that she was rightly named Delilah, one who weakens.  The day that I lifted her from her crib and held her close to me, and she placed her tiny hands on my cheeks and began to chew on my chin, I nearly melted into a puddle of mom-goo.

In her newborn stage I frequently saw Gabriel in her face, but as she grows, she looks more and more like her sister, but with Delilah's signature eyebrows.  Watching her develop is wonderful.  She has incredible dexterity, great strength, an infectious laugh, and a very apparent desire to do new things. Though she's participated in family story time since she was born, we've recently started offering her own story before bed, and she reaches for the pages of the books with curious wonder. She doesn't care to sit still, and I treasure the moments when she'll simply sit in my lap or hold still in my arms.  She'll be off and running in no time.

We are all informed by our experiences, and while my nature is to love very boldly, experience has taught me to harness my feelings and be careful with my heart. Still, all of the experience and all of the hurt couldn't protect me and couldn't stop me.  I couldn't help myself from placing my heart in the tiny hands of my beautiful, brilliant, shining star, Delilah Danielle.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Coming Out with Anencephaly: Five Years Later

I stare at the pill, as I do every morning, considering whether I will take it today.  I've done this every day for about two months.  Some days, I conveniently forget, though I've looked at the bottle and thought about popping that pill.  One day without isn't enough to undo its effects, but I guess skipping it every once in a while gives me a sense of control over myself.

The first change that I noticed was my laugh.  It's always been big and loud, but lately it doesn't take much to get me to do it.  I started laughing frequently, and frequently longer and harder than the situation warrants.  Once I start, I sometimes have trouble stopping.  Eden, ever the clown, loves when I laugh.  She sees my laughter as a reward for whatever she might have done to get me to laugh, and she repeats her antics, hoping that I will keep laughing for her.

Next I noticed an ability to concentrate on my work with a focus that I haven't had since before Eden was born.  Until I started taking Prozac two months ago, my mind wandered in and out of the task placed before me.  I had to stay late just to squeeze in minimal billing because completing simple projects was taking twice as long as it should.  But once I'd been taking the medication long enough to see results, I was plowing through the stacks of files on my desk.

Sounds great.  Right?  Why is taking this medication every day even a matter of choice, when everything seems to fucking dandy since I've been on it?

D-Day, the five year anniversary of the day Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly, came and went, and I stared at an empty computer screen unable to find the words to describe what I was feeling.  Valentine's Day, the anniversary of Sean's suicide, passed as well, with the same result.  The feelings were there, but I couldn't access them, I couldn't pull them from me to empty onto a page.  They were there, but just a dull and nagging throbbing inside of me.  Trapped.

Here we are, on the eve of the day I went public with Gabriel's diagnosis, Timehop dilligently reminding me of the days before I knew of my son's terminal condition, and the days when I lived with the secret of his fate.  Here I am, the emotions simmering inside of me, but like a watched pot, refusing to boil over to release me from the pain that anchors me.  Here I am, "coming out" again, this time with the fact that I take an antidepressant.  I couldn't cry right now, I couldn't force tears if I tried.  But I can laugh my ass off.

Funny thing - I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with needing medication to stabilize mood.  I mean, mental health is something we're supposed to confront, and treat, after all.  It's all the rage right now to support people in their mental illness.  There's nothing wrong with needing a little help.  Except when it comes to myself.  I guess I've become attached to my depression.  I've started antidepressants before, but have always quit just as they begin to take effect.  I enjoy my grief.  It's what I know.  I've earned it - I deserve it.  I don't understand why my heart beats every day when my son's does not.  I don't understand why Sean thought putting a bullet in his brain was better than living on earth.  I don't understand why a young mother with two children in middle school died in a fiery car wreck.  I don't understand why Amy didn't just fucking listen to everyone that loves her.  I don't even understand why Gideon has hip dysplasia, and I certainly don't understand why people go on shooting rampages, or commit suicide bombings, or rape women and children.  I don't understand why I'm still alive, and often, I don't understand how to live. So the least I can do is be miserable.

But I keep taking that pill.  Even when I've skipped a day, the next day I'm right back on track.  As I look at that pill every morning, I can hear Eden telling me that her banana eggs are delicious. I can hear Delilah on the monitor, cooing, or maybe even starting to whimper for someone to retrieve her from her crib.  These girls are here, now.  And they deserve a mother who is checked in, and who laughs with them, and who doesn't seem to sink into despair for no apparent reason.  I will probably always struggle, with all of the above.  I think, given what I've been through, I've coped remarkably well but I am still traumatized.  I'll be in recovery from that trauma for the rest of my life.  But the sun and the stars shine brightly for me in those two little girls, my precious Eden Eliana, my sweet Delilah Danielle.  They deserve the world.  All I can offer, is me.

To (re)read our "coming out" letter:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Silver Threads and Colored Dreams

I scroll through my phone, looking for my favorite picture of Eden, and when I find it I show it to him.

"She's beautiful."

"She really is," I have to concur.  "They both are.  They're so beautiful."  I look at Sean, who is nodding in agreement.  We're seated at the bar and around us, Friday night activity buzzes about at rapid speed, but we are standing still in the moment. My eyes wander to the shelf above the register where Gabriel's photo sits.  Sean puts his hand on mind for comfort, and the tears immediately well in my eyes.  "What is he like?"

"You.  He's like you, and Ben too, but mostly you.  He's got the best of both of you."  I smile as the tears spill.

"Does he miss me?"

"It's not like that.  He talks about you and he follows you and helps where he can.  But he doesn't understand what it means to miss someone.  I don't either, anymore.  It's different there."

I pull my eyes from Gabriel's photo to look at Sean again, knowing this moment won't last long.  He reaches for the top of my head, grabs a strand of hair, and without looking I know what he's got.  "I found it a couple of months ago.  I think there's another, I think there's two now, that I've found."

"Are you going to color it?"

"I don't know.  I'm really lazy about stuff like that.  I don't really take care of myself at all anymore."

"You earned this."  He pulls the strand, then lets it fall from his hand.  "Do what you want.  Color it, or don't.  But you've put in your time."  I stare at him, and he stares back, the unspoken words between us confirming that he is one of the reasons for the lines on my face, the grey in my hair, the sadness in my eyes that never really seems to disappear completely.  He blinks, as if to say he's sorry.

Sean starts to stand, and I start to panic.  The time always goes by so quickly.  I rush to stand, to stop him.  "I have to go to the bathroom.  I'll be right back."  His voice is unconvincing.  "Wait right here.  I'll be right back."

I want to follow, but my feet weight me down and I sink back onto the barstool and wait.  He disappears into the bathroom and I wait for the sound, but there is none.  Time ticks by, I'm not sure how much, because while everyone around me is moving quickly, I am standing still, until I will myself to walk to the door.  I lean against it, knocking softly.


Someone passes by me. "Lady, that's the men's. . ."

"Shut the fuck up," I snap, and he walks away with a drunken shrug.  "Sean?" I say, as I push the door open, knowing.  And there he is, his legs sticking out of the stall, stiff and unmoving.  Next to them is the gun.  The room is spinning around me and all I can do is fall into the whirl of it all, my black hair whipping about and woven with a strand of silver.