Wednesday, September 28, 2011

From Pumpkin to Angel

One year ago and ten minutes after I woke up, I learned that my second child was on his way. I hugged Ben and cried anxious, happy, but fearful tears; my previous pregnancy had ended four months earlier in a miscarriage and though I believed this pregnancy would be successful I couldn't help but be a little frightened. Ben and I agreed this would be our little secret for a while, and I smiled throughout the day at the thought of announcing our pregnancy soon.

As I pulled into the gas station that morning with my radio tuned to 96.5, Loggins and Messina's "Danny's Song" played. For perhaps the first time, I listened closely to the lyrics. A boy. We were going to have a boy. Kenny Loggins called it. "Think I'm gonna have a son," he said. It was surely a sign. Or maybe I just wanted a baby boy. As long as I could remember, I wanted my first born to be a son. No matter; he or she would be special either way. My little Pumpkin. But I was pretty sure he was indeed a he. A very, very special boy.

Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude turned out to be more special than I ever imagined. My anxiety and fears from one year ago were justified, but the joy my son brought to me was greater than I could have dreamed. But I also never dreamed that his life on earth would be so short, or that a child who was on this earth but nine months and ten days could so change the world. I never imagined that his loss could cause a hurt that runs so deep, that I feel from the bottom of my heart.

These days seem to be more of a struggle. I find myself wondering how I am getting through the day and I know that I am only putting one foot in front of the other at times because my brain is making conscious orders to will my body to move. Open eyes. Sit up. Put on slippers. Brush teeth. Take steps. Pet the dog. Go to bank. Smile. Greet others. "I'm fine, thank you." "He would be three months old, but he passed away." "His name IS Gabriel." "It's called anenecephaly; it is always fatal."

I feel sometimes as though I am sharing the details of someone else's life. This can't really be my life. I can't really have a baby boy. He can't really be dead. But he is. He died in my arms, I held him while he took his last breath. That was real. He was real. He is real, he's just not here. My little Pumpkin is an angel now. His name is Gabriel, he had big hands and feet and the Cude nose and crazy blond hair and a beautiful brain that we could see. That's right, remember? We could see his brain, and even though everything else about him was normal -- no, not normal, spectacular -- he was missing part of his skull. That's why he couldn't stay. God made him, but not to stay. Gabriel is gone.

My grief now is two-fold. I am consumed in missing Gabriel, but at the same time my whole being also longs for another baby. I wonder how it can be that I long for both Gabriel and Baby Cude AND another baby (many more babies) so completely. How can I want them all with all that I am, and how is there anything left to feel anything else?

I recently purchased some things for my personal nursery collection. That's right; I have a whole collection of clothes, a swing, cloth diapers, a crib, stuffed animals, bibs. . .Some I collected before I was ever pregnant. Other things were purchased in anticipation of Baby Cude, still others I picked up while I was pregnant with Gabriel. A few things have been purchased since Gabriel passed. Although I will occassionally buy things for either a little girl or little boy, usually I buy gender neutral items.

Shopping for these things seems perfectly normal to me. After having fallen apart after my last trip to Babies R Us, I thought I would give it another try. I found what I wanted, along with an "I'm-Sorry-I'm-A-Basket-Case-And-Couldn't-Make-It-To-Your-Baby-Shower" item, and walked them to the checkstand. When the cashier said, "Here's your gift receipt," I nearly lost my mind. "Look lady, these items are for my personal nursery collection," I wanted to tell her. "Don't look at me like I'm crazy! I have a collection of baby stuff, okay? It's filled with all kinds of goodies, in the event that I have a baby I can keep. Or maybe someone will drop one off on my doorstep -- or maybe she'll even drop three of them off like Alvin and the Chipmunks -- and I'll have everything I need. I've got all kinds of stuff, everything but the baby. So don't judge me, okay lady??!!"

Instead, I just told her thank you. I took my new little socks and onsies home and put them with the rest of my collection. I eyed Gabriel's clothes, some washed and folded in a basket, some stuffed in ziploc bags to preserve his smell. Though they were preserved for the moments when I need a whiff just to take the edge off, I've never opened the bags since he passed. I want to save his smell. I'm afraid of losing his smell. And if I lose his smell, maybe I lose him again too. If I never open the bag, I never have to lose his smell, or maybe if it goes I just never have to know.

On this most sensitive of mornings, I walked to the cemetary to visit Gabriel's niche. I expected and found Gabriel's nameplate has been placed since my last visit. With the cemetary's lawn mowers whirring around me, and people gathering for a funeral nearby, I cried and talked to my son. "You changed me. You made me a better person. You changed the world. I love you, my baby."

One year ago, my life changed forever. And even when I'm grief-stricken, tearful, crazy, heartsick, lonely, empty, shaken, longing, shattered and barely able to move, I will myself to go on. Start the car. Put it in drive. Step on the gas. Go to work. Wash the dish. Water the grass. Feed the dog. Eat your food. One foot. Next foot. Keep walking. Your babies are waiting.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sing Us a Song, Piano Man: The Big Three-0

Lindsay and I swayed along as T.J. sang Billy Joel's "Piano Man" at karaoke last night. I was in the mood to share my loneliness with friends and a beer, to "forget about life for a while." My 30th birthday is approaching; it will be here in a matter of hours. I embrace my 30s, look forward to putting my 20s behind me and starting a new chapter of my life. I'm not really afraid of getting older, and think I may have even found my first gray hair this morning, which only made me shrug.

But inevitably, one's 30th birthday will cause some introspection. I have been thinking about the way the last decade has shaped me. Although I think I know myself well, I've still been very unsure lately about where to go or what to do with my life next. I'm the bartending lawyer and while I fantasize about making that a real and lucrative profession the fantasy seems to be ending as I lack the motivation to really make it work. I feel like a hypocrite, having grown frustrated lately that Ben also seems unsure about what kind of career he would like to have and I put pressure on him to be the husband and provider that I need and want. Meanwhile I play bartender, and throw on a suit a couple of times a week, file a document here, make an appearance there, and practice trial objections while watching "The Good Wife." Three long years, thousands of dollars, and hours of practice honing my trial advocacy skills are seemingly wasted, because lately I am most content just serving drinks. Because it's never "just serving drinks." It is the only way I know how to nurse people and make them feel better, in turn making myself feel useful. When I remember what so-and-so drinks, how they like it garnished, and what kind of straw they use, when I ask about their families and their lives out of genuine interest, when I cheer them up and even when I allow them to be the ones to cheer me up, I do something special and worthwhile. I feel wanted, needed, sometimes even like I'm answering a calling. Is it okay to say that tending bar might even be a religious experience? Except, with bad words.

Maybe I'll get a "real" job offer soon. Maybe I'll buy my own bar (With what? I don't know.). Maybe Ben and I will open a restaurant. Maybe we'll move out of town. Maybe I'll go back to school. Maybe I'll start a non-profit organization. Maybe I'll become a motivational speaker -- that sounds like a good, real pretend job. Probably I'll write a book. Certainly I'll spend a few more nights at a bar.

Maybe we'll have another baby. When the thoughts racing through my brain slow down a little, they center on one thing: a family. More babies. Lots of them. I name them and dress them and predict their careers in my mind. My friend used to call these baby-cravings. I crave a baby. I desire children more than anything.

Just under the wire, I met the last of my goals for my twenties. I gave birth to a son, to Gabriel, and though his life didn't play out the way it did in my head, being his mother has still blessed me beyond my wildest dreams. While I am unsure of many things, one thing I am sure of is that I am a mom, and I was meant to be.

Billy Joel's bartender confided in him, "'Bill, I believe this is killing me,' as the smile ran away from his face. 'Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star if I could get out of this place.'" I guess a lot of people think I could also be so much more than what I am. "You ever gonna put that education to use?" they ask. I put it to use every day. "You guys gonna try for another baby?" Of course. I'll never stop trying. "What are you DOING here?" Just serving drinks.

Friday, September 9, 2011


My neighbors just adopted a cocker spaniel puppy named Rusty. He was playing in the front yard with them this evening when I saw him for the first time. Rusty is only nine weeks old, with ears nearly as big as my 94 pound German Shepherd's. He is so cute my head could explode. Everyone loves puppies. Puppies, and. . .

Speaking of babies ('babies' was implied), I tried my hand at baby-gift shopping at Babies R Us today. I do try to avoid places like Babies R Us and Petsmart, as I consider them the kind of places people shop to prove they love their babies and/or pets more than people who shop at Target. But, alas, Gideon's jumbo bag of dogfood cannot be found at my local Target, and a friend has registered for her baby girl at Babies R Us, and so I find myself visiting both.

I have braved the baby aisle at Target a number of times since Gabriel's birth and passing, once just this morning in fact. I thought I was prepared. Armed with my pre-printed registry list with the items I intended to purchase circled, I took a deep breath and walked in. To my great surprise, my head started spinning. I'm not sure why I was surprised. I know there is a clear difference between a baby store and Target. I'd obviously been aware that I would have to brace myself. Still, the forceful shock of it all overwhelmed me.

I took a few moments to admire the beautiful fall Carter's dresses strategically placed to be the first thing seen upon entering, and noted with pleasure that this season's color for baby girl apparel seems to be a deep plum. I toyed with the idea of buying one of them though they were not on my friend's registry. Picking items not on the registry is in bad taste, I reminded myself. The idea passed, and I began instead to consider buying every item on the display in hopeful, desparate anticipation of my own baby girl that I hope to have someday. But then I thought, "No, I can't hide that much stuff from Ben." So, I headed for the back of the store, pausing to admire the cribs and picking out the one I would want for my nursery and when I discovered my intended items in that department weren't easily found, I headed instead to my alternative selections in the baby bath section.

The gifts were found and I could feel the tears coming on. I soothed myself buy eyeing the tag that said my chosen gifts were 40% off, but the sale could only stave off my emotions for a while. I made my purchase, had the good sense to remember to tuck the gift receipt in the bag, then made a dash for the door.

My tears flowed freely when I caught up with my dad, who had also been in Babies R Us with my mom making their own purchase. He hugged me. I sobbed into his t-shirt. He handed me a hankie and I sobbed into that too, comforted by the fact that not only could I rely on my dad but I could rely on his having a hankie too.

I suppose it all wouldn't be so bad if I didn't now have to face the shower that this gift was intended for. Actually, this gift was for a girl, for a friend whose shower is next weekend. The immediate concern is the baby shower I am attending tomorrow. Tomorrow's shower is for my cousin, who is having a baby boy. Her gift was already purchased, and includes a set of caps just like the set I bought for Gabriel. The tears threatened to flow then too but they were guarded in place as practice for the big day tomorrow. I cannot possibly miss Nicole's baby shower. She and I have both had a rough year, she having lost her dad and my Uncle Frank less than two weeks before Gabriel was diagnosed. Her son Jalen is supposed to be our beacon of light, one of the bright spots in a year that has been fraught with bittersweet moments. Nicole is the kind of woman who sends text messages to me the night before her own baby shower saying she would completely understand if I couldn't go tomorrow. It's BECAUSE she is the kind of woman who completely understands that I cannot NOT go. Nicole made the short trek from another town to attend Gabriel's prayer shower and again to attend his funeral, and she didn't make excuses that a funeral would be difficult for her after having to plan and attend her own father's funeral earlier that year. We've made a habit this year of being strong for each other, and of drawing strength from each other, and of my many habits I would consider this one of the better.

Besides, won't there always be babies, and baby showers, and birthday parties, and any number of social situations that are challenging. I recall with regret the year I skipped a friend's wedding because I was so depressed that I hadn't found that special someone of my own. When I saw her empty seat at my own wedding, a namecard still holding her place, even knowing she hadn't missed my wedding out of retribution I couldn't help but be sorry for being so selfish those years ago.

The truth is out now, I suppose. It's not been all rainbows and faith and hope since Gabriel left us. Tomorrow is his three month birthday, and the day will not be spent the way I would have hoped. It will be a painful and difficult day, as much as it will be a celebration of both Gabriel's and Jalen's lives. And it will be another day of learning to live with the loss of my son, a loss I may never get used to and may spend the rest of my life learning to live with.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Soundtrack of a Celebration

While I was pregnant with Gabriel, a number of songs came to mean very much to me on our journey, both before Gabriel's diagnosis and after. A few of those songs were played at his funeral, and will always remind me of my special baby boy and the special adventure we had with him.

The opening procession was silent and solemn, as Catholic funerals usually begin. The first song sung and played was the Psalm played after the first reading. I will share the Psalm in another entry about the scriptures read at his funeral. The next song was played during the offeratory. My brother's friend Daniel played the guitar, and my sister Monica sang along to a traditional Catholic hymn, "Be Not Afraid." The lyrics are as follows:

"You shall cross the barren desert but you shall not die of thirst
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand
You shall see the face of God and live

Be not afraid, I go before you always
Come follow me, and I will give you rest.

If you pass through raging waters in the sea you shall not drown
If you walk amidst the burning flames you shall not be harmed
If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side
Know that I am with you through it all

Be not afraid, I go before you always
Come follow me, and I will give you rest.

Blessed are your poor for the Kingdom shall be theirs
Blest are you who weep and mourn for one day you shall laugh
And if wicked men insult and hate you all because of me
Blessed, blessed are you

Be not afraid, I go before you always
Come follow me, and I will give you rest."

Many of us have heard that funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. This song speaks to that concept. It reminds us that when we have faith, there is no reason to fear. The death of a child is particularly difficult for us to grasp, but the song provides comfort even in a time that seems to make no sense.

Though this song is commonly played at funerals, it is also often played during Sunday Mass. When I hear the song now, I am again comforted.

There was a bit of a mishap, and some of the music was played out of turn. Though I had requested a recording be played during Communion, a bit of confusion led to the following verse being played next:

"People smile and tell me I'm the lucky one
And life's just begun
Think I'm gonna have a son.
He will be like she and me as free as a dove
Conceived in love
Sun is gonna shine above
And even though we ain't got money
I'm so in love with you honey
And everything will bring a chain of love
In the morning when I rise
You bring a tear of joy to my eyes
And tell me everything is gonna be alright."

This song began to take on meaning for me the day I learned I was pregnant, when it came on the radio as I was pulling into the gas station. I was convinced then that the child I was carrying was a boy.

After Gabriel's diagnosis, as Ben and I struggled to stay positive, this song reminded me that from the beginning of this pregnancy, we had this sign, this song, that everything would be fine. I grew to love what these lyrics said about our family, "a family where there once was none." No matter how things played out, we were a family now.

When we were released from the hospital to take Gabriel home, a nurse sat down with me as I held Gabriel and gave me some information on infant care. She asked me if I wanted it, and I know we both knew I wouldn't need most of it. I told her yes, that I wanted every piece of evidence that Gabriel had lived to be discharged from the hospital. She looked me in the eye and said with all sincerity, "You are three of the luckiest people I have ever met."

Without knowing my circumstances, someone might have looked at my pregnant belly and called me lucky, unaware of the struggle the pregnancy presented. Those who learned of Gabriel's anencephaly might say that I was a distinctly unlucky 1 in 1,000. But I know now that I am the lucky one. We were lucky to conceive, we were fortunate for the time we had to just enjoy carrying Gabriel, we were blessed by a network of support that carried us in our darkest moments. Above all we were blessed beyond measure by an amazing little boy who demonstrated an amazing strength in his lifetime and whose spirit lives on and touches lives still. Yes, I am the lucky one, and at Gabriel's funeral Mass, I wanted everyone to know it.

This single verse and single chorus was followed by Selah's "I Will Carry You," a sort of anthem in the infant loss community:

"There were photographs I wanted to take
Things I wanted to show you
Sing sweet lullabies, Wipe your teary eyes
Who could love you like this?
People say that I'm brave but I'm not
The truth is I'm barely hanging on
There's a greater story
Written long before me
Because he loves you like this

I will carry you
While your heart beats here
Long beyond the empty cradle
Through the coming years
I will carry you
All my life
And I will praise the one whose chosen me to carry you.

Such a short time
Such a long road
All this madness
But I know
That the silence
Has brought me to His voice
And He says

I've shown her photographs of time beginning
Walked her through the parted seas
Angel lullabies, no more teary eyes
Because I love her like this

I will carry you
While your heart beats here
Long beyond the empty cradle
Through the coming years
I will carry you
All your life
And I will praise the One whose chosen me to carry you."

As Mass neared an end my aunt and I each delivered eulogies, and then Daniel played one more song for us, called "The Story." The song touched my heart during my first pregnancy and even after that loss. Its meaning grew for me as I carried Gabriel. It is a love song, and I have always found it fitting for my children, because I have never loved as I love them.

"All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true,
I was made for you.

I climbed across the mountain tops
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines and I broke all the rules
But baby I broke them all for you
Oh because even when I was flat broke
You made me feel like a million bucks
It's true,
I was made for you.

You see the smile that's on my mouth
It's hiding the words that don't come out
All of the friends who think I'm blessed
They don't know my head is a mess
No they don't know who I really am
And they don't know what I've been through like you do
I was made for you.

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I've been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don't mean anything
When you've got no one to tell them to
It's true,
I was made for you.

Yes it's true,
That I was made for you."

I have been blessed with a wonderful life. Though I have endured some serious hardships I believe that I have faced them as best I could. I've also had some great successes. But all of it, every struggle and every achievement, seems so small compared to carrying my children and giving birth to Gabriel. Baby Cude and Gabriel are everything to me, and the past means the most when I think of it as leading me to them.

I believe I was made for them. I never felt more at home in my body as I felt when I was pregnant. I never felt more healthy, more beautiful, or more alive. Pregnancy and motherhood are the greatest experiences of my life.

Following Gabriel's diagnosis I began to particularly pay attention to the lyric "I crossed all the lines and I broke all the rules, but baby I broke them all for you." I thought about the lines our culture had drawn, the lines that indicated that when an unborn child is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he or she should be terminated for everyone's benefit. On one side of the line is a "perfect" and healthy child, and one the other side is the terminally ill fetus, whose personhood is somehow forgotten. But my son was not some subhuman freak. He is no less significant than any other child. Each child is alike in his or her dignity. Each child has a right to live. And so Gabriel would live, for as long as God would allow him to live. We would cross all the lines, break all the rules, and I will never regret having done so because I sincerely believe that Gabriel has changed the world.

The rules say we don't talk about miscarriage, we don't tell a mother struggling with the loss of her pregnancy that miscarriage is common, that she didn't do anything to bring the miscarriage on. We tell her to push the memory of that pregnancy and that baby who she will never hold to the back of her mind. We carry those children away in a specimen cup, dispose of them according to the rules for handling hazardous waste, and expect those mothers to grieve silently, because open grief in this instance is weird and uncomfortable and unhealthy.

I cannot live by those rules. I cannot abide by rules that treat my children with anything less then the dignity that they deserve as children of God. They have names. They have birthdays and angel days. They are part of the family that I hope to continue to build.

In his homily, Monsignor Frost declared "Let the world be indignant that we would carry a child like Gabriel to term. Let the world be indignant that we baptized him and brought him home from the hospital. Let the world be indignant that we are here today, honoring his life with a funeral."

Yes. Let the world be indignant. Gabriel is not of the world. And he dared to cross all the lines and break all the rules himself. There is no doubt in my mind that his reward is eternal. I thank God for allowing me to be a part of something so BIG.

Gabriel, Baby Cude, it's true. I was made for you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Could Haves

A man called me over to him while I was working last night. When I approached, he stuck out his hand and said, "I want to thank you." I couldn't imagine what he wanted to thank me for. Just minutes before I was sitting on the other side of the bar, chomping on a sandwich while I let our new trainee run the show for a little while. I hadn't even served him. "I want to thank you for what you did." I must have still looked confused, because then he asked, "You're Catholic, right?" I started to think he must be referring to Gabriel so I asked, "Are you talking about my son?" He said yes, and told me that while I was pregnant he had asked one of my co-workers why I seemed so sad. Those were his words yesterday, but if I had to guess I would bet he actually asked, "Why is that pregnant girl such a bitch?"

He told me that my co-worker had told him about Gabriel's diagnosis. At about the same time, he and his pregnant wife had been told by the doctor that their daughter had a cyst on her kidney which was as big as the kidney itself. The kidney would have to be removed when she was born. It was a dead kidney, they had been told. He said that after learning about Gabriel, their problems didn't seem so bad. "Your problems still matter. She is still your daughter. I am grateful that Gabriel's life helped put things in perspective for you, but you don't have to minimize your own experience." He insisted that it all seemed so small now. Ultimately, his daughter was born in May, and the cyst was no where near as big as the doctors had initially believed. She could keep her kidney.

"I couldn't have done what you did," he said.

"Yes, you could. You think you can't do a lot of things, until you are doing them. Until you have to."

"No. I couldn't have. We wouldn't have. We couldn't have put ourselves through that."

I have heard those assertions often, but I don't accept them as true. I certainly never thought on January 31st, when my world was shattered by the words "incompatible with life," that I would come out stronger in June than I ever imagined was possible. I only knew that for me there was no choice. Any of my "options" were false. They were just a band-aid that might temporarily patch up the hole where my loss would lie, but would only be a quick fix that would never last.

The man shared with his friend, "She carried her baby to term, even knowing what would happen." I've never found the knowledge of what would happen to be reason enough to let Gabriel go earlier than I had to. It was all the more reason to keep him and hold him and love him on this earth as long as I could. Besides, carrying Gabriel wasn't really about me. Carrying Gabriel was right for him, and parenthood is about doing what is right for your child. Sometimes it means letting go, whether letting go happens during college, when we walk them down the aisle to be married, on our deathbed, or even on theirs. We might all be surprised by what we can do for our children.

Someday I will face God, and though I have many faults to answer for I will still be able to say, "When You called, I answered. I did what You asked of me." I pray that God will respond by handing me my child, whole and happy and healthy, and that he will wrap his arms around me and say, "Mommy, you did everything you could."