Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mighty Warrior

"He has a lazy leg," my aunt told me of the last remaining male from her dogs' recent litter of German Shepherd puppies. The puppies, born on July 6, 2009, would be ready to go to homes just about the time I finished taking the bar exam and moved back to Bakersfield. There were only two males in the litter and one had already been promised. I wanted a male puppy, so I accepted the one with the lazy leg.

I named him Gideon Wainwright Hernandez-Cude. He was named for the courtcase Gideon versus Wainwright. I later learned that his name meant "mighty warrior," an interesting observation given that what little I know about Gideon from the Bible suggested Gideon was not exactly a mighty warrior though he won a mighty battle.

My Gideon seemed to get along on his leg just fine, but at one of his early vet visits x-rays were taken that revealed Gideon suffered from hip dysplasia. The vet recommended that we take Gideon to a doctor in Los Angeles, as she suspected he would need a hip replacement and she was unable to do those. Giddy's hip couldn't be replaced until he was full or nearly full-grown, so I postponed the trip until last summer when Gideon's dysplasia seemed to be causing him severe pain. Added to his own pain was my grief from having recently lost Baby Cude. I couldn't bear to watch Gideon struggle to move or to hear him whimper in pain, so I cashed in my quarter collection and took him to Los Angeles for the day where a series of advanced x-rays were performed on him, a diagnosis made, and a surgery recommended.

I had often joked that it seemed to be against God's plan for me to have a healthy pet. Our family dog Twink was put to sleep nearly two years ago after a four year battle with diabetes. Last July I put my cat Mickey, who had always been sickly, to sleep after he was diagnosed with diabetes also and I weighed his quality of life and determined he could not handle the disease the way Twink had. Just one month after that was when Gideon hit the growth spurt that caused the struggle that resulted in enough worry for a road trip.

The surgery recommended for Gideon was not a hip replacement, but a less severe FHO. Surgery was performed on January 3, in anticpation of an eight week recovery. We thought we would get Gideon all fixed up, then enroll him in obedience classes before our little Pumpkin arrived.

Gideon's recovery proved to be very difficult. His hip was, as the doctor described, being held together by suture material, and we were to keep him as confined and undisturbed as possible. Harnessing the energy of a one and a half year old, 90 pound puppy is not an easy task. Little things like taking him to the bathroom became a challenge. He was confined to a carpeted area most of the time because he slipped on our hardwood floors. When we were home, we would permit him to lay on his doggy bed beside the couch to chew a rawhide, but he would often become restless and try to get up to walk around. Taking him to the bathroom was difficult, because he would have to be leashed and then a towel looped under his waist so we could help him support his own hind end. He seemed embarassed at having to potty in front of us, so I gave him the courtesy of looking away while he went. If a dog can have pride and dignity, his was wounded by the care he demanded but he was dependent on us and we were committed to facing this challenge with him.

Less than a month after Gideon's surgery and while he was still in the early stages of recovery, Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly. I started to see our struggles with Gideon as preparation for the even more difficult challenge we were suddenly thrust into. Gideon, who had always been attentive especially during my pregnancies, became the creature that I leaned on and cried on in my private moments. He has seen more of my tears than even my husband has seen, I have held him and wiped those tears on his fur, and leaned on him even while he leaned on us in his recovery.

In March Gideon went for what I hoped would be the last of his follow-up visits, and the vet confirmed what I suspected: Gideon was not improving but digressing. During his surgery he had contracted a staph infection and a new surgery had to be performed to clean up the bone spurs that had started to develop and take a sample of fluid from his joint to determine what type of infection he had and how to treat it. His recovery started all over again and this time I was also head-deep in the emotional turmoil that had come with Gabriel's diagnosis. We had only just announced Gabriel's condition to our friends and family and were dealing with questions and still filling in those who had not heard the news. Every day was a struggle and the last thing I wanted to do was to care for this dog who I loved very much but who was starting to become a burden to me.

But Gideon was trusted to my care for a reason. I wanted a male dog, just like I wanted a son. I wanted Gideon despite his health problems, just as I prayed for a baby boy but failed to pray for a baby boy with a skull cap. I wanted Gabriel and Gideon just as they were, for as long as I could have them and I often think that if they had ended up in another home with just a little less faith, neither of them may have lived as long as they did, have, or will. Many people would have given up on both of them, but I loved them each too much to let them go before I had to.

In the wake of Gabriel's death, I leaned on Gideon more than he ever had to lean on me. There are times when I look into his beautiful light brown eyes and I know that he feels my sadness and that he is sad with me too. Sometimes, Ben would even look at Gideon and ask, "Do you think Gideon might be God?" I have to say he probably isn't. Of course God can take any form, but if God were to come to earth as a dog I don't think He would be the kind of dog who chews up sprinklers and water hoses. God would be better behaved than that. But I think Gideon was sent to us from God, that he is a messenger of God just as Gabriel is. His message is one of compassion. Gideon shows compassion as much as he requires compassion. He has taught us much, and paved the way for our precious boy who taught us even more.

Perhaps one of the most exciting times for me during Gabriel's life at home was the day Gideon and Gabriel met. I didn't know if that day would ever come. I still smile at the photo of my two boys, Gabriel and Gideon, both mighty in their own way.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A New Heaven

The concept of Heaven is one that evolves constantly within us and around us. As a child I remember imagining Heaven the way many children probably do. It was like Care-a-Lot, the world that the Care Bears live in, where the ground is covered in clouds and there are rainbow slides everywhere. The occupants are able to view what is happening on earth and intercede where they are needed. Of course in my childhood imaginings the occupants were humans with wings, people who had become angels and now watched, guided and helped us.

As I got older I began to think maybe my previously held concept of Heaven was boring. Though I might like to slide along rainbows and float on clouds sometimes, I wasn't sure if such activities could entertain me for eternity. My idea of Heaven started to evolve into a world that looked more like earth without the turmoil. After all, life on earth is beautiful, even if there is pain. An eternity that looked like life on earth without the sorrow or hurt seems appealing. I thought that maybe everyone's Heaven is different. Maybe Heaven is a place where you can fulfill your life's dreams.

My Heaven for many years had me working at Charly's/The Wright Place. That idea might seem strange to some -- Why would anyone want to work in Heaven? -- but my Heaven still has stores and restaurants and most of the business that earth has. And I enjoy working. But in Heaven, my feet never get tired. No one ever gets drunk or argues. My friends have more free time to hang out with me, because they don't have to work if that's not part of their Heaven. No one needs money, because in Heaven there's no place for the corruption that wealth can bring. The time goes by quickly and my shifts are only as long as I want them to be, then I can go home to Ben, who only has to work as long as he wants to also. We can vacation anytime we want. We can visit his family in Arizona and South Carolina frequently. Arizona and South Carolina exist not as political entities, but as destinations, beautiful places.

Some might ask why I'm not a practicing lawyer in Heaven, but the answer should be obvious: There is no conflict there, and no need for an adverserial business like legal practice.

Some people say there are no more tears in Heaven, but in my Heaven I can finally cry with abandon, and it feels good because they are tears of love and joy.

My view of Heaven continues to be simple and a bit childlike. I suppose to imagine a world where there is peace requires us to think like children. I look at a drawing made for Gabriel by his young cousin Mackenzie, and I envy her Heaven. The older we get and the more complex our lives become, the further from Heaven we seem to remove ourselves. My Heaven is limited by my world view, distinctly American though it is probably a culture of its own influenced by the many cultures of this world and perhaps the cultures of other planets. There are animals in my Heaven, pets that I long to see again as much as I long to see some of my human friends and family.

Imagining Heaven is always speculative. Though there are accounts of people who claim to have temporarily visited Heaven, if we accept their accounts as truth they are still only telling of Heaven from their perspective. Heaven may take an eternity to explore. I have always looked forward to Heaven.

Then Gabriel happened. Heaven somehow felt more real and within reach. Life got harder, but the desire to reach Heaven got stronger. There was something beyond just Heaven to look forward to. Someone.

I have always believed that we'd see our loved ones again in Heaven and I have lost many people that I hope to see again, but none of them have pulled me towards Heaven the way my children do. When we lost Baby Cude I knew that my baby would be waiting for me in Heaven. Baby Cude is such a mystery. I do not know if Baby Cude is a boy or a girl, though I suspect a boy. I do not know what he or she looks like, if he has blonde hair like Gabriel, or brown hair like his parents. I do not know if he or she has been given a name in Heaven, or if he is known as Baby Cude their too. I know that I am excited to learn.

Gabriel, though, I held in my arms and have already seen face-to-face. I imagine that in Heaven he looks just like he did here. He toddles around, just 19.5 inches tall, wearing the navy blue pants and baby blue onsie that he sports in everyone's favorite pictures. Sometimes he still wears a bandage around his head, and he moves with a sense of importance, as I imagine he has important work that he does in Heaven. Sometimes I imagine him carrying a small file folder under his arm, filled with notes about his important cases that he's been assigned to on Earth. But no matter how important he is to others or how vital his work is, when I get there he will never be too busy or too important for his Mommy. I imagine him crawling into my lap and leaning on my chest, kissing his face and telling him how much I love him. Sometimes, when I go to work in Heaven, I get to bring him with me, and he rides in a sling close to me and we chat with our friends who all love him too. My arms are never too tired to hold him and my back never aches from rocking him. When he can't be with me, Baby Cude is. My arms never have to be empty again.

I dream of Heaven often and I know that my dreams, even if they are close to the truth, are just a glimpse of how spectacular Heaven must really be. Catholics believe that somewhere between Heaven and Earth there is a state of Purgatory, a time for introspection and a chance to cleanse the soul in preparation for Heaven. Purgatory is a gift and because of Purgatory, someone like me may see Heaven someday though I am not worthy as I am. My sister Monica believes that our Earthly life is Purgatory, and indeed the Church teaches that some of our earthly struggles may be a form of Purgatory and have redemptive value. I think of them as credit for time served. My concept of Heaven is informed by my lawyer's brain. In any case, whatever Purgatory is, I know that the hardest part is knowing that Baby Cude and Gabriel are within reach though not attainable yet.

I look for Heaven in the world around me and find it in the beauty of the California landscape, in Gideon's face, in my sister Victoria, in music, in Mass, in my husband's arms. Heaven is not always so easy to see but if we look for it, it will be there. I continue to reach my arms towards Heaven.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Life's Not Fair"

When I was a kid, the cry "That's not fair" was responded to by my mother with, "Life's not fair." I hated that response, but I heard it often growing up. While it never seemed like a very good explanation then, I see now sometimes no other explanation really fits. Now I realize that as harsh as the explanation is to a kid, life will continue to find me in situations that just don't seem fair, and it's not a punishment or a curse. It's life.

Lately some of my fellow anencephaly moms and I have been decrying the injustice in a world where women can abuse their bodies and still have perfectly healthy babies, sometimes babies they don't even want, and we have done everything right to have the babies we long for yet they are not here or cannot stay. I see it everywhere. I see it in the woman who came into the bar last weekend, visibly pregnant, and knocked back a couple of glasses of wine. I see it in the grocery store, where parents' carts are loaded with children and unhealthy foods. I see it on TV. And it hurts.

Without even realizing what I have done, I have developed an attitude of entitlement myself. I don't have a right to a child. God doesn't owe me a baby. Both of my children, who are no longer here, are gifts. I was trusted with them, and I had a duty to do what is best for them but I had no right to keep them. They are God's to give and take and when I am thankful for His sharing I am blessed, but when I slip into a self-pitying moment where I cry "It's not fair! Why me?" I am only hurting myself.

My sister-mommies are an inspiration to me. We build each other up in our weakest moments. I consider them one of the many gifts Gabriel brought into my life. Some of my fellow anen mommies are so young, yet so strong. I am amazed at the selflessness of some of these young women, part of a generation of increasingly self-absorbed people, but themselves a light in a frighteningly dark time. Most of my fellow anen mommies, for one reason or another, never considered giving up on their babies even in their darkest hour. Even those who, like myself, thought about letting go early, reconsidered and proved to be the parent that God was asking them to be. While I have difficulty knowing that there are so many "bad" parents in this world, I shudder to think of our children having been given to someone who would not respect their lives, rather than to those of us who loved our children enough to let them live, even though it would hurt. We took care of our babies and our bodies, knowing that even the best care wasn't going to give them the long life we would want with them. We held them while we could and accepted that maybe we don't always know what's in store for us, why some things happen, and why life sometimes seems so unfair, and when God asked us for them, we gave them back to Him, trusting that only He could care for them better than we could and that he would hold them safe until the day we will see them again.

No, life is not fair. On this day, Gabriel's two-month birthday, I must celebrate without holding him, or kissing his precious face. Still, I celebrate. Because even a life that is not fair, that is short and sometimes painful, is beautiful.

Monday, August 1, 2011


One week ago, Ben and I placed Gabriel's ashes in his niche at Greenlawn cemetary. At 2:00 on Monday July 25, 2011, we met Monsignor Frost at Greenlawn for this private ceremony. Two members of the Greenlawn staff joined us in front of the wall where Gabriel's niche is located. A tent was set up along with about ten chairs for family, but Ben and I were the only members of Gabriel's family there.

Monsignor Frost, who baptized Gabriel, officiated over the brief but beautiful ceremony. A Greenlawn staff member named Sandy, who sat in the second row of seats, sang "On Eagles' Wings." We then took the small box containing Gabriel's ashes to his niche in the memorial wall. I had never taken much notice of these walls on previous occasions at Greenlawn cemetary. With the marble faces removed, the wall was just a cement structure with openings. Gabriel's box was sprinkled with holy water, I gave him one last kiss, and Ben and I placed his ashes in their space, along with a St. Gerard prayer card. We were given a crucifix, which pleased me as I didn't know if we would get one since Gabriel was cremated, and the crucifix was blessed too. The crucifix, which rests on the blanket where Gabriel's ashes laid in our home, will be hung above the door to our nursery, the room that I was only able to rock Gabriel in one time, but which I believe will sleep our babies in the future.

Monsignor sang the first verse of "How Great Thou Art," and Sandy, who has a beautiful voice, sang along.

I cried on Monday more than I have at any one time since Gabriel died. There, in the privacy of our ceremony I finally felt free to let the tears flow for a while, and they did. During that ceremony, which lasted less than half an hour, my mind finally wrapped itself around the idea that my son is dead. Though he took his last breath in my arms, though I've noticed the empty feeling since he's been gone, I didn't dare believe it until that moment.

I will not often cry when talking about Gabriel in public. I want the world to know that I stand by what we did with him, that I believe carrying Gabriel to term was the only right thing to do, and that carrying him gave me a strength I didn't know existed. But making the right decision was not easy -- only easier than the alternative, letting my son go without giving him every chance to live. So I finally cried, with my husband, Monsignor, and two strangers in a cemetary that has seen many tears.

But I would not let the tears flow for long. Before we'd left the cemetary I collected myself. Our day had started early, with Ben having to go to the Marriott one last time to clean out his office, and it would be a long day as I still had a closing shift at the bar ahead of me. Ben and I left Greenlawn and went to Target, where we purchased a gift for my co-worker who had recently learned she was pregnant with a girl. We presented her with the gift, a two-pack of pink sleepers, and learned that we were the first people to give her any apparel for the baby. It was a bittersweet moment as we toasted Gabriel and also celebrated the life of a new baby girl who I pray will be perfectly healthy. Another reminder that life goes on.

Today I visited Gabriel's niche. The marble faces have been put back in place, but evidence that the section that covers his was recently removed still remains. The cement hasn't been filled in completely around the section, though the curtain that covered the empty spaces is long gone. Gabriel's nameplate won't be in for two to three months, so only Ben, Greenlawn cemetary and I know that Gabriel's ashes lie behind that marble. When his nameplate arrives any visitor will know that in that space rests the remains of Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude, who lived from June 10, 2011 to June 20, 2011. They will see that he was just an infant when he left this earth. They will see a third line with a term of endearment, a secret that we are waiting to reveal with his nameplate, which will tell the most important detail of the life of Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude.