Friday, July 29, 2011

Empty Nest, Empty Arms

When a couple's children move out on their own, the couple is sometimes said to experience the empty nest syndrome. After 18 or more years of raising a child, a couple sometimes has trouble going back to relating to each other as husband and wife, rather than as a co-parent. Sometimes they find that the children were the only thing keeping them together, or that they are strangers to each other after all those years. While being a dedicated parent is of course admirable, if one or both parents build their whole world around their children, that world is doomed to fall apart when the children are gone. There is danger, then, in making one's children the center or their world.

At the other end there is the empty arms syndrome, the experience that occurs when a couple loses an infant that they expected, in a perfect world, to have to hold.

Ben and I seem to be experiencing a combination of these symptoms. We are each suffering from Gabriel's absence, and we each suffer differently. Ben and Gabriel did their bonding in the early morning, while Gabriel and I tended to enjoy our moments together late at night, even during pregnancy. I find myself missing the feeling of carrying Gabriel during pregnancy, whereas Ben seems to miss Gabriel when he thinks of things they will not get to do together. In addition to missing Gabriel's presence, I find that I had created a world that was centered on Gabriel. Since Gabriel's diagnosis my time has been spent learning about anencephaly, preparing for his birth, and creating a legacy for Gabriel. Ben had slipped into his role as a provider, focusing on work, and I felt alone in my world with Gabriel.

Now we are struggling to again become familiar with each other as husband and wife. We are changed people, a different man and woman than the one we each married. We are still parents, but we are parents without a child, parents with both an empty nest and empty arms and a permanent hollow in our hearts. The experience of losing Gabriel touches us each differently and has made relating to each other difficult, but all the more necessary. The statistics for couples following the death of a child are against us. We know that we must work hard to defy the odds, as hard as Gabriel worked to stay with us for ten days. Yet we are exhausted and sometimes it only takes one day where neither of us feels like putting in the work to undo several days of progress. We are facing an uphill battle.

Last Friday Ben came home from work early to report that he had resigned from his position at the Marriott. Looking back, I suppose I saw it coming. Just one week earlier we had a serious conversation about his desire to find another job. At the Marriott Ben enjoyed a comfortable salary, medical benefits, and discount hotel rates for those rare occasions when we were able to get away. I had the luxury of being picky about which cases I would take and how much I had to charge, and I was able to work part-time in a job that I love. Selfishly, when Ben reported his resignation to me, I immediately thought about how all of the perks would now come to an end. We always knew that when Ben left that Marriott he would take a reduction in pay. I see now that he was under tremendous pressure, to be the husband that I needed, the provider that I wanted, and the employee that the Marriott demanded. He hated doing banquets, but banquets were the lifeblood at the Marriott and he had to focus on them, all while also running a restaurant, and with no sous chef. A 12 hour day was not unusual for him before Gabriel was born. Even while Gabriel was alive, he was touching bases with work, doing food orders and fielding phone calls. He burned himself out, and I stood back and watched.

My first response to Ben's resignation was anger, but I tried to take a step back and find the opportunity in the situation. Thanks to generous donations for Gabriel's care, we were able to hang on to some of our savings, enough to ensure that at least one more month's rent would be paid. Now that Ben had no job, he would be forced to look seriously at what else was out there, but we knew that our savings had bought us a month if we needed it.

Weekends are not an appropriate time to seek employment in the restaurant industry, so Ben took last weekend to formulate a plan. Monday morning he went to the Marriott to clean out his office. He reported that turning closing his office door for the last time saddened him a bit. He was closing the door on his first executive chef position, and as there are few such positions available he did not know when or if he might have one again. He grew considerably at the Marriott, even if the Marriott and Ben ultimately outgrew each other.

But when one door closes, another eventually opens. After leaving the Marriott Monday morning, Ben went to two restaurants to speak with the managers. By Tuesday he was scheduled for two Wednesday interviews. By Wednesday evening, he had a job offer. I cannot express enough how very proud of Ben I was. He moved to Bakersfield and started to develop his reputation as a chef less than three years ago. In that time he has established himself as a valuable asset to a restaurant. Ben starts his job with Moo Creamery, a small, locally owned restaurant with a modern soda-fountain/creamery concept, next Monday. He has been interested in learning more about the operations of Moo Creamery since the first time he set foot in the place and he will learn as much from the experience there as he will be able to bring to them. I strongly believe Moo is exactly where Ben was meant to be at this point in his life, and that what seems to be a step down in title will actually be the catalyst for much future success.

I'm not quite sure how I could have ever doubted that everything would work out just fine. God has held us closely and given us everything we needed especially in the last year.

When Ben starts his new job next week, our empty nest will get a little emptier. After Gabriel's death Ben never did go back to work with the same drive, and accordingly to work the same hours, that he did before, but I know he will approach his new job with full-force. In a perfect world Ben would have Gabriel here and he might be hesitant to work so many hours right now, but in a world where parents lose their babies those parents have to find a reason to go on and Ben has found some reason in Moo Creamery.

I don't know where life will take my professional career next. Nearly three weeks after my interview I still haven't heard from the Public Defender's office and I have lost nearly all hope for a job offer this round. I have faith in the perfection of God's plan, even if it's not my own and I will go where He leads me. He hasn't steered me wrong so far.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Just the Way He Was

A few days ago while we were out, I played a song on the jukebox that made Ben look at me and ask, "Really?"  It wasn't the kind of song that I would normally play, but while I was pregnant with Gabriel the lyrics in the chorus started to stand out to me.  Among the many songs I sang to Gabriel the morning that he died was the chorus to this song, Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are."  Though I'm not normally one to adjust nouns and pronouns in a chorus to suit the situation, I did change this one up for my perfect little boy.  The following are the lyrics I sang to Gabriel early Monday morning, June 20, 2011:

"When I see your face
There's not a thing that I would change,
'Cause you're amazing just the way you are.
And when you smile
The whole world stops and stares for a while,
'Cause Gabe you're amazing just the way you are."

For ten days my world did seem to stop when Gabriel smiled. For ten days at 3:19 PM, Pacific Time, hundreds of people stopped to celebrate another day of Gabriel's too-short life. For ten days we stopped and stared at this little creature who changed so many lives.

Many Christians believe that when Christ comes again, our souls will reunite with our bodies in their perfect form.  I think of Gabriel's form while he was on earth, how beautiful he was. I remember his lips smacking together in rhythm and his eyes, which were not as bulbous as some of the pictures I'd seen but were still the characteristic bulgy eyes of a baby with anencephaly. He didn't open them often but when he did, we could see that they were lighter than both of ours and would be even without the film that sometimes disguises the real color of a newborn's eyes. They were blue, blue enough to stay that way for a while. He had a chin that was unusually defined for a newborn, and the notorious Cude nose, which was smooshed at birth but started to protrude while he was alive. His skin went from the bluish-purple that many anencephaly babies experience to a healthier tone somewhere between mine and Ben's, with a jaundice yellow tinge that we laid him in difused sunlight to treat. The skin around his right eye suffered some bruising during his delivery that never did go away. His limbs were long and slender, and he had long, graceful, perfect fingers and big floppy feet with long, finger-like toes. I was prepared for his open skull, but much less prepared for the shock of long blond hair that he was born with. I still wonder if all of our children will be born with blond hair or if Gabriel will be our lone blond.

Even his exposed brain came to be beautiful to me. He appeared to have suffered no brain-damage in utero (though some developmental failure of his brain seemed to occur) and I was able to see what a human brain looks like and marvel at God's masterpiece. There was a maturity in his face, a sense that he had some wisdom beyond his time on earth. When he stared at what appeared to be nothing, I wondered if he could somehow see God. There was something almost alien to his appearance with his little brain growing outside of his skull, but after a few days even the alien came to appear natural to me. He looked at once like strength and vulnerability. He was quite the conundrum; how could someone look so perfect to me, yet not be perfectly okay?

I sometimes wonder if perfect form for Gabriel means with a skull cap, but often I hope that when I see Gabriel again he looks just like he did in his ten days on earth.  He was amazing, just the way he was.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Proper Way to Grieve

A stranger in the grocery store probably doesn't know that as I put my groceries in the cart, I am missing Gabriel.  When I am shopping in Target and sneak by the baby aisle, they probably don't know that the Gerber onsie set they are looking at is the same one that Gabriel had, the five little onsies that he wore for ten days.  Upon my return to work when patrons say, "It's good to have you back.  How are you doing?" I wonder if they know that my response, "I'm doing okay," isn't completely honest.  And when they see me out having a drink -- or several -- myself, it might not cross their mind that I am just trying to avoid my empty home with its empty nursery.

I miss Gabriel every second of every day.  I pour through his pictures to remind myself of what he looked like, felt like in my arms, even to try to bring back the smell.  I find ways to bring him into conversation just so I can talk about him.  People are uncomfortable asking me about Gabriel, but I wish they would.  Talking about him keeps my memories alive. 

I think a lot these days about Casey Anthony, arguably the most despised woman in America right now.  Some have suggested that her party-girl lifestyle, which continued after her daughter went "missing" (we know that her daughter was never "missing," but dead, and that Casey Anthony very likely knew she was dead), is somehow evidence that she killed little Caylee.  Casey's actions, some say, lacked remorse or sadness, which has lead some to the conclusion that she must have killed her daughter.  But I'm not quite sure how one is suppsed to show remorse or sadness.  If grieving means crying all the time, then I guess I'm not grieving.  I don't cry much at all.  If going out and putting up a front are evidence of wrong-doing, one could conclude I've done something wrong to Gabriel.  These are mostly rhetorical "ifs" but I do have my moments where I wonder if I really miss Gabriel like I'm "supposed to" because I'm not a wreck over his death.  Should a real mom even be able to go on living when her only children are not? 

The truth is, I've carried emotional pain with me for a long time now.  Maybe I've just learned to cope with it.  For years I've served patrons who carry unimagineable pain themselves, and at times I've carried it with them.  An outsider might think we are just a pathetic bunch of drunks.  We're just trying to make our way through this life as best we can.  We don't cry, we just sort of exist.  Maybe some of us are even just waiting to die.  Suffering is not always visible in a way we would expect or in a way we might choose to suffer ourselves. 

Two days ago I interviewed with the Kern County Public Defenders.  After much deliberation, I decided to disclose that I was pregnant at my last interview, and had that morning received the devastating news that my baby had a fatal defect, and that he would die shortly after birth.  I didn't want to exploit Gabriel's life, but I knew the possiblity that someone had noticed my pregnancy either at the courthouse or at the last interview.  I explained that I was not looking for sympathy, rather that I wanted them to know I am the kind of person whose personal life can be crumbling but who can still do the job.  "I can roll with the punches," I said. 

For the rest of my life I will miss Gabriel and Baby Cude, every second of every day, some days more than others.  Gabriel and Baby Cude will always be the something missing, but their absence is not something I can control.  Accordingly, I will spend the rest of my life rolling with the blow that their death dealt to me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beating the Odds

I've been told that the chances of my marriage surviving after the death of our son Gabriel are slim.  Of course, I was told the chances of Gabriel living for more than a day were slim, too.  Wouldn't it be a shame if Gabriel beat the odds, but we did not?

The truth is, Ben and I have struggled a great deal in the first year and half of our marriage, even without the added pressures of losing two children in that time.  I often say that Ben is very much your textbook male, and I am every bit your textbook woman.  Ben is quiet and sometimes withdrawn, I am loud and sometimes too open.    Ben tries to silence his emotions, I am loud and passionate in expressing mine.  When we are good together, we are unstoppable.  When we clash we are each others' worst enemy.

Living so closely with Ben sometimes makes him the victim of my rage.  While I am usually publicly composed, at home I allow myself to fall apart.  I struggle to get out of bed in the morning, struggle to find a reason to face another day.  Then, at night I keep myself up late, dwelling on my guilt and my sadness.  I want someone to blame for what happened to Gabriel.  Sometimes I blame myself for not taking enough folic acid, or for not doing all I should have been doing to absorb the folic acid.  Sometimes I blame Ben, I accuse him of never really wanting a baby or even accuse him of never wanting Gabriel to survive as long as he did.  I know that those accusations also have roots in my own guilty conscience.  There were times during Gabriel's life that I thought, "I didn't know what I was asking for when I asked for time with Gabriel, because I now I am falling apart as I care for him."  I wondered often during my pregnancy if I even really wanted children as much as I said I did, because I missed my life before pregnancy, my freedom to eat and drink what I wanted, to spend money on myself, and to chase my own dreams without "interference."  Sometimes I think that maybe Gabriel's loss was exactly what I deserved for looking back so much instead of looking ahead.  Those thoughts haunt me constantly, even as I am out living again my pre-pregnancy lifestyle, and when they get to be too much I find Ben an easy target to lash out at.

This is not to say Ben does not have his faults and shortcomings in this time.  I want to complain about him, but I guess I still love him too much to smear his name by writing about him knowing he will not take the opportunity to defend himself.  I'm still his wife and while I aim to keep this blog honest so it can be a tool for others facing a similar situation, some things are still private and I know crossing those lines will only put more strain on our marriage.  A strain that we may not be able to bounce back from in this already fragile state.  As much as we have both hurt, and hurt each other, since Gabriel's birth I'm not willing to let us fall victim to the statistics.  There's a reason the numbers are so high, and I am experiencing them now.  The grief process always includes certain emotions and experiences, the variation is in the degree to which people and couples are effected.  At times the process gets to be too much and I want to give up and that's when I have to draw on my son's example.  He defied the odds, and I haven't learned anything if I haven't learned to aim to beat them too.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Finding the Joy

This evening at Mass, Ben and I ran into one of the couples from our childbirth class.  She was carrying twins, and they had troubles during their pregnancy that led them to have to see a specialist in San Francisco.  They expressed that what they looked forward to most about their twins' birth was finally knowing that they were alive and healthy.  When we saw them tonight she was clearly not pregnant anymore, but there were no twin babies with them.  I spent much of Mass, and learned later that Ben did too, wondering whether their babies were okay, hoping that they were.  We caught up to them after Mass and learned that their twin boys were born on May 25th.  They spent about a month in the hospital but were now home with them.  They were okay.

She asked if Gabriel's obituary had recently appeared in the paper.  I told her that it had, and she said she was sorry, but was excited that we had ten days.  We told her that it was more than we ever hoped for.  She had tears in her eyes as we talked, and I know that she understood our fear, maybe even understood our pain as much as anyone can without experiencing it themselves.  She hugged me and then Ben, and he shook Ben's hand and hugged me also.

As we watched them walk away, Ben and I talked about how relieved we were that their twins were okay.  We wish our grief on no one.

I am surprised at the ease with which I am able to be happy for other new parents.  I spent much of my adult life envying friends, family, and even perfect strangers who had and were about to have babies.  I'd cry when I found out about new pregnancies and wonder if I would ever have that opportunity.  I even struggled to keep my thoughts from straying too far, never wanting them to wander to a place where I actually wished them harm but knowing that my mind came close.  If I was incomplete without children, I didn't want to be alone in my incompleteness.

My mom used to remind me to never assume that their pregnancies or their lives were ideal.  You never know what might be going on in the private lives of others, what burdens they might be carrying.  I know this well now, as most people looking at my pregnant belly probably never would have known the pain that came with it.

Now, to my surprise, even in this sorrowful time I am able to find joy in other people's happiness.  Seeing children, especially little boys, is still painful but I can't help but smile.  I truly understand now that every child is a gift, not just to their parents but to me too.  I will always remember that this was the year of the boys, starting with my cousins Danielle and Kaycee giving birth to their sons, Noah and Ezekiel, in January, followed by our family friend Marissa's delivery of her son, Andrew, in February.  This fall my cousin Nicole will have her son.  There will be times when it will hurt to know that Gabriel isn't here to go through life's stages with them.  But they will also help to remind me of Gabriel, a way for me to keep track of how old Gabriel would have been and what he might have been doing.  I will see pictures of them on their graduation day, attend their weddings some day, watch them have children of their own, and smile a sad smile knowing if Gabriel were here, he might be having the same experiences, but that while he was never meant to live that long life he still lived the life intended for him, and his life was beautiful.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Sometimes I can't help but wonder if the world is demanding that I choose:  I can have a career as a lawyer, or I can have children.  But I can't have both.

The feeling started developing a little over a year ago, on May 14.  I was about eight weeks pregnant with Baby Cude, and was scheduled for a hearing that Friday morning.  The hearing was to be my first pre-trial hearing as an attorney, though I'd been admitted to the bar nearly six months before.  I woke up with cramping and bleeding.  The miscarriage of Baby Cude had begun.  I went to the hearing and was out by 9:30 AM.  Ben picked me up at the courthouse and rushed me to my doctor's office, where an ultrasound revealed that there was no longer a sack. Baby Cude was lost. 

That summer the Public Defenders contacted me for an interview in August.  I went to the interview, but found out later when I didn't get the job that there were over 90 applicants to fill four positions.  I couldn't feel bad about my interview or not getting the position when the odds were so against me.  Then one month later, I was pregnant with Gabriel and I thought that I just wasn't meant for the job just yet. 

On January 31st, 2011, I woke with an exciting day ahead of me.  We were 21 weeks along with Gabriel and scheduled for an ultrasound that morning, and that afternoon I had yet another interview with the Public Defenders' office.  Our excitement was cut short when we were given Gabriel's devastating diagnosis.  I was in a daze as I dressed for my interview that afternoon, wondering how I would get through it.  I was just starting to show and unable to button my suit jacket.  Ben told me I didn't have to go, but I insisted, saying this might be exactly where I was supposed to be right then, and that even if I didn't get offered a job this time I couldn't ruin my chances for the next interview by skipping out on this one.  I felt confident in my interview, and even offered to the panel that I had named my dog Gideon Wainwright, after the Supreme Court case that is credited with establishing the Public Defender's office, because I was so passionate about the job.  I knew I'd given the best interview I could under the circumstances and the rest was in the panel's hands.  Again, when I didn't get the position I told myself that I was just supposed to focus on our baby, who we had yet to know as our son, Gabriel. 

I continued taking small cases here and there.  A couple of DUIs, a restraining order, and most recently an unlawful detainer, plus four shifts a week at the bar kept me just busy enough so that I didn't completely lose my mind, but still allowed me plenty of time to think about and get to know and love Gabriel.  Meanwhile, my unlawful detainer case required us to go to hearing, and I foolishly scheduled it for June 20th.  Labor was going to be induced on June 8th, I assumed Gabriel would be born on June 9th, and that by June 20th we would have had a chance to bury Gabriel and there would be no conflict with the hearing.  To my welcome surprise, Gabriel survived ten days, but the morning of June 20th there was a conflict indeed.  I had planned to go to my hearing that afternoon, as Gabriel had been stable and even seemed to be doing well.  But that morning Gabriel took a turn for the worse.  I frantically called the court, and a friendly clerk (they are few and far between, these days) e-mailed the judge but suggested I get someone to appear for me.  I called my client, who had already been made aware of our situation, and then called my mom who told me she would find a lawyer to appear.  All during these phone calls, Gabriel was fading before my eyes.  Before the hearing even took place, Gabriel was gone. 

Today, just four days after Gabriel's funeral, I received a letter from the Public Defenders' Office again offering me an interview.  Some might say this means they really want me, but in fact I have an outstanding application in with the county for this position, and every time one becomes available their computer mindlessly spits out a letter to me, along with multiple other applicants.  Some might say it's perfect timing, but there has been nothing perfect about the timing of legal practice for me. 

I still believe wholeheartedly in the work of the Public Defender's Office.  A criminal defense attorney is the only type of attorney I can see practicing as full-time.  Still, the idea of making such a drastic change in my life, going to work full-time as lawyer, is the least exciting prospect I can think of right now.  In fact, it terrifies me.  Ben and I just experienced the greatest change of our lives.  I don't know if we're equipped to make another significant change.  If I go to work full time, probably twelve hours a day to start, and Ben returns to work also twelve hours a day, how often will our paths even cross?  What is the likelihood, then, of another baby in even a year from now?  The pace of the PD's office is not going to slow down anytime soon for a new hire and I can expect that at least the next five years of my life would have to be committed to that, and Ben's career is just taking off.  This seems to be not an exciting opportunity, but a crossroad, and I don't think I'm ready for it.  It is overwhelming, and scary, and not something I feel prepared to deal with.

Except now the interview has been scheduled.  July 11, at 8:00 in the morning.  Coincidentally, that is the day I will return to work at the bar.  I'm asked often why I would go to the trouble of going to law school just to go back to work there.  The answer is simple:  I love it, and it makes me happy, and I feel that it could make me happy for a long time.  I loved my life before Gabriel was born, and as I try to adjust to life with him in Heaven instead of with me, I am eager to return to my life that I loved.  If it is not a coincidence that this week I received this letter from the Public Defender's Office, it is also not a coincidence that this week the pizza parlor next door to The Wright Place is closing and being vacated, and that Ben and I have been talking more, and in more concrete terms, about what his opening a restaurant would require and what it would mean for our family.  We are both on the brink of something, we're just not sure what. 

So I'll go to my interview, as I feel I owe it to my family to do, and then I'll report for my closing shift that evening.  Ben and I will continue to trek our way through our grief and our new life following Gabriel's birth and death.  But I have a feeling nothing is going to turn out the way we planned before we got married.  We're already too far off course, headed in a direction we never foresaw.  Somehow we have made it through even the things we never anticipated, and I suppose we'll just keep making it, somehow.