Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dead Pans and Phantoms

"I still get phantom kicks," Lisa admitted to me about six months after her son was born.

 "What do you mean?" I tried to sound casual, in case she was referencing something completely different than what I was thinking of.

 "You know, I still get these stomach spasms that feel like the baby kicking. I read can get them for like, a year after birth."

 "That's a real thing???!!! Thank God. I thought I was losing my mind."

 Those phantom kicks sometimes seem like the only evidence left that I was really pregnant, that I gave birth to a son, and that Gabriel was really here. When my mind gets dangerously close to the brink of delerium I wonder if it was all a dream. First nature took my child, then the pregnancy hormones and the surplus of shiny, commercial-worthy hair. . . And now time is taking my memories.

Maybe it's the way people respond when I mention Gabriel that leads me to question whether it was real. I see the discomfort in women when I chime in on pregnancy talk too, as if my pregnancy doesn't "count" because it didn't yield a healthy baby. I see the way my colleague pushes her lower lip out in sympathy at the mention of my son. I get the definite impression that many people wish I just wouldn't talk about my child and I try to leave them with the definite impression that I will continue to talk about my child and they should just get comfortable with it. It's not Gabriel's fault that people can't handle what happened.

Or maybe it's me that can't handle it. There are times when a person can't win with me, no matter how hard they try. After the Mother's Day disaster with Ben he made a real attempt to make my birthday special. He had flowers delivered to my office with a card that read, "Happy Birthday! We miss you. Love, Gabriel and Ben."

"That was nice," Elise said.

"Yeah, I guess. But it was uncomfortable too. I mean, everyone was like 'Who are the flowers from?' and I'd say, 'Oh, my ex-husband sent them to me from my dead son,' and everything got all awkward."

Elise looked at me in horror. "You didn't really say that. . . Did you?"

"No. But it's the truth, isn't it?"

How am I supposed to prettily package that ugly truth?

Sometimes I wonder what the parishoners at church must think of me. One week I've got this husband and we've got these rings, then I've got this baby belly, then the baby belly disappears, but there's no baby, and soon the husband disappears too and the rings. . .

Those rings. Those fucking rings.

I hang on to mine because of the pictures of Gabriel holding them, but sometimes I want to take it and throw it off the bluffs. Or hock it for whatever it might be worth and buy something selfish and frivolous. Yet when I was recently approached about selling my wedding gown I couldn't bring myself to do it. Who knows? In a moment of disbelief that I was ever married I might need to see it and hold it again. Or, in a fit of anger I might need something significant to light on fire one of these days.

Two years ago when I learned I was pregnant with Gabriel, I never would have seen this coming. Even after Gabriel's diagnosis, as we approached his delivery and people commented on my strength I knew that I wasn't really strong, but hopeful -confident- that even though I knew I was going to lose Gabriel another baby would be along very soon. I didn't think my nursery would still be empty. I didn't think I would be co-habiting with a roommate that I hardly know. I didn't think I'd be a worker's comp attorney. I didn't think I'd be clinging to a couple of stuffed bears to remember what it was like to hold my child in my arms or waiting for those moments when the muscles in my abdomen twinge and bring back that fluttery feeling of Gabriel moving inside of me.

Some would say I've lived every parents' nightmare. Most days though, I just feel dazed.

I visited my friend Tori and her five day old baby this weekend. Like every new mother I've ever seen she looked tired but blissful. After she passed her baby to me she said, "I'm going to step outside to talk with my mom. My baby is with a seasoned baby-handler." Alone with Wyatt I was surprised by Tori's actions. She didn't treat me like I was going to abscond with her child. She wasn't worried that I was going to fly into a jealous rage and throw him out of a window. She just trusted me, from one mom to another. Someone who has never walked in my shoes might be surprised how rare such an occurrence is.

As I learn the ropes in administrative law it sometimes crosses my mind that my natural talent for speaking to a jury, honed by even more talented coaches in the trial advocacy program at Whittier, are being wasted before an informal administrative board. I like what I'm doing, though; and I'm starting to accept that this may be just a stop along the way but even if it's where I land, I'm okay with that too. I'm trying to convince myself that the same is true of pregnancy. I rocked pregnancy, I was made to do it and I was so damn good at it, I should make it my hobby. But it's one of those things that I just can't force. It's all sort of out of my control and I'm working on accepting that. In the meantime I'll let my dark sense of humor and the occasional phantom kick carry me through.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Birthday Wish

I know that I'm a lucky girl.  It warmed my heart to wake up to so many birthday messages, and to find more and more throughout the day.  I feel very loved today.

It is amazing, though, how I still feel the loneliest I've felt in a long, long time.  It's amazing how little a 31st birthday means when my little boy didn't even make it to his first.  It's amazing how empty and hollow my house feels tonight.  It's still shocking to me that life keeps going on as it always has even though he's not here. There are no words to describe how much I long to have Gabriel back right now.

I simply miss my son.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Facing Fears in The Sandlot

Yesterday afternoon I snuggled up with my Gabriel Bear to watch The Sandlot.  It's a coming-of-age movie about a bunch of boys who are all all boy - the kind of movie that I need something to snuggle to get through now, because it's the kind of movie that leads me to think about what's missing.

Baseball was going to be "our thing."  It was going to be that thing that Gabriel and I watched together.  Gabriel and his Uncle Tim and Grandpa Steve were going to bond over playing catch together. I was going to finally get to Seattle to see the Mariners play with my little boy in tow.

Softball was the only sport I ever played.  I was never very good at it, and never particularly enjoyed playing the game.  What I loved was the way it connected my dad and me.  I loved that he loved to go to games and practices.  I love that going to games is something our family does together even now.  I love that baseball keeps Timothy and I talking.  I love what that game does for our family, and I wanted so much to share that with Gabe.

Before Gabriel was ever born, those kinds of dreams were taken from me. A doctor told me with one word, "anencephaly," that my child would never play professional baseball, would never cure cancer, would never win an olympic gold medal, would never be President, would never graduate from high school, would never need help with his homework, would never play league baseball, would never learn to tie his shoes, would never catch lady bugs in a paper cup, would never build a sandcastle. . . I would be lucky if my child could cry, and swallow. . . I would be lucky if he were born alive.

I wonder if every parent wants their child to be exceptional.  I did.  I wanted my child to be a perfect blend of Scotty Smalls and Benny "The Jet."  I was also concerned that he look like me, with dark hair and dark eyes.  I thought that if he looked like me he would be "more mine," and that if he were brilliant and talented he would be easier to love.

As it happened, Gabriel was exceptional.  He was the one child in 1000 to have anencephaly. Though 25% of anencephalic babies carried to term are stillborn, Gabriel was born alive.  Though another 50% live less than a day, Gabriel lived an exceptional ten days.  He has, since he was introduced to the world as a special little boy before he was even born,, changed lives - maybe even saved lives.  His mission has been my pleasure and my privilege witness. Today, he is a saint in Heaven.  Not many moms can say all of that about their child.

And how little I wouldn't give to have an average 15 month old Gabriel here with me now, with his blond hair and steely gray-blue eyes.  I'd take him babbling through movies, resisting nap-time, pulling on Gideon's ears, dropping shoes in the toilet and generally making life very difficult for me.  I wasn't sure that I could love a child who was a challenge, but now I'm living the challenge of loving an exceptional child who isn't here.

Lately I've been considering that maybe God's plan isn't for me to have more biological children.  I don't think I'll ever give up my dream of being a mother again, but I've begun to consider that maybe that will happen in a less conventional way. I've been considering embryo adoption.  Inevitably the response to that announcement will be "Don't give up yet; you're young!" but I haven't given up.  I'm just considering options. Embryo adoption, like adoption of a born child, is a process that will take time, and requires money; all of that requires advance planning.  It also requires me to consider whether I can love a child who isn't a biological part of me.  One might think that carrying the child alone would be enough to bond us, but what if it's not?

What if, as I fear most of all, I am a terrible mother?  Maybe it's very easy to love a child who only lived for ten days, and doesn't require my sacrifice beyond that.  Maybe it's easy to love a child who isn't keeping me up at night, or consuming my time, or needing things from me.  Maybe after 30+ years of generally doing what I want to do, nine months and ten days was all I had to give to another person.  Maybe the love I have for little Saint Gabe makes any child I have down the road feel that he is always living in Gabriel's shadow.  Maybe I'll unwittingly treat him like he can never measure up.  Maybe another child just can't measure up.

Baseball, what was once the American pastime, doesn't seem to measure up in a lot of books these days.  When I say I like baseball, a common response is "Baseball is boring."  But it's not. One thing I love about baseball is how every pitch has the potential to change the game entirely.  To look at baseball as exciting, a spectator has to appreciate that, and enjoy that anticipation.  Because every pitch ISN'T going to change the game.  Not even every hit is going to change the game.

I truly believe, though, that every person changes the world just by living in it.  Our mark on the world isn't always earth-shattering.  We're not all going to be widely recognized.  We're not all going to become saints. But like every pitch in baseball has potential until it's complete, every person's potential on earth is limited only by the time we're here.  I want so much for another chance to show that I can nurture another child's - any child's - potential.  I want a chance to prove that if I'm blessed with another child, no matter how average he or she is I can find them exceptional too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Growing Pains and Relentless Pursuit

It seems like all I did was blink and Victoria was 14 years old. The 10 pound, 6 1/2 ounce baby with a full head of dark brown hair came promptly into our lives at 8:19 on a Tuesday morning, March 3, 1998, and I was a brand new person too.  In a family whose strength had endured some most delicate situations, Victoria Ruth was our rainbow, our symbol of God's promise that love perserveres and love prevails.  For months I had anticipated and hoped for a baby brother but today I wouldn't trade my baby sister for anything because I had never, never in my life loved the way I love that girl - selflessly, relentlessly - and even now, when my world seems to be coming apart at the seams, she inspires me to hold on.

I remember vividly the day she was born, the day she ccame home from the hospital, her first pigtails, her tiny voice calling me "Anja," her first day of kindergarten and the many milestones between then and now.  Still, somehow I never anticpated Victoria being a Freshman in high school  Now, as I watch her struggle through her 14 year old angst and boldy challenge -defy, even - the long-standing "No-Dating-Until-You're-16" Hernandez family rule, I consider how despite our near 17-year aged difference, Victoria has always taught me more than I could ever offer to her.  And she did it, as she always has, with a couple of simple, poignant statements:  "Life is hard.  Sometimes I just need someone."

My first instinct is to tell her that she doesn't need anyone.  I want to tell her that she is a strong, capable, intelligent, beautiful, independent girl.  She can do anything.  The world is hers to take.  Life hasn't even begun for her.  Fourteen is just the beginnng. She must learn above all to love and respect and have confidence in herself and the rest will come in time.  I want to tell her the words I most wanted to hear at fourteen, "Everything will be okay." 

Victoria, though, has never lacked for self-respect or confidence.  At 5'8" tall as a freshman in high school, Victoria has been nearly a head taller than her peers since she HAD peers.  She has always worn her length boldly.  Everything about her is bold and confident, from the way she wears that coveted defect, a dimple in her left cheek; to the way she accepted her role as the baby in a family of adults; to the way she walks the halls of her schools both new and old. 

But Victoria is right, life is hard.  Life will push you around and throw you curves and will bear its weight down on even the lightest and freest of spirits and lead us to do things we never thought we would do.  I know I owe Victoria that conversation.  I should sit her down and say to her, "Life will never stop being hard.  Life will never stop throwing you curves.  I wish I could tell you it will.  But along the way you will learn to take those curves and that's all you can do.  In the meantime, you have to learn that all you need is you." 

I know the truth in what I write, but I can't help but admire Victoria's vulnerability.  Victoria has always loved freely, has always been more affectionate than the rest of the family, has always been more comfortable expressing her feelings than the rest of us.  Where so many people fear labels like, "desparate" or "co-dependent" or "diaper baby," Victoria has always just been unafraid to love, and unafraid to seek love. 

At heart I think I've always been very much like Victoria.  My place as the oldest of four children meant I wouldn't always get the affection that I craved.  My willingness to open my heart as an adult, only to have it wounded, left me scarred and jaded. 

"You're always looking too hard," says Elise.  "Just relax, and let it happen."  I took the words to mean that I am desparate myself and afraid to be alone.  I know, though, that I can be alone and I'll be fine.  I just don't want to be.  And I don't want to be ashamed to admit that.  I seek love, we all do.  It is one of our most base desires and we try to find it, or its substitute, in ways that can seem irrational or in things that can never measure up but it is our nature to look for love and acceptance. 

In recent weeks the same person has appeared in my dreams many, many times.  The dreams lack any sort of plot, and this person, this "he" has just sort of been there, woven into my life.  I wondered what he was doing there until one day it struck me that it wasn't who he is, but what he represents.  I want love and romance again.  Passion and heat will always be romantic to me but now love translates to me as stability, consistency, and trust that even my own vulnerability won't frighten love away.  I want companionship.  I want to look beside me, confident that love will be there. 

Sometimes we do just need someone.  I feel greedy, knowing I have two parents who love me unconditionally, sisters and a brother who are my closest friends, as well as an abundance of people that I am blessed to call friends too.  I feel foolish sometimes too, for the times I've offered my own heart to people who didn't want it when I already have people who care.  For all the love I have in my life, I want more. Love is something I want too much to quit trying for. 

Among life's difficulties, Victoria cited losing her nephew Gabriel.  Loving him was a risk, one I couldn't imagine NOT taking, one she took with trepidation.  For all the differences in our experiences with Gabriel, I don't think either of us can imagine missing the chance to love him.  I don't think either of us has any regrets.  Because if there's one more thing both of us know about life, it is that life is short.  Life is too short to not love with all that you have.

I am disappointed in the way that Victoria has chosen to challenge the dating rule.  She has abused the trust that we placed in her.  I also think she is a still a minor who broke the rules - and the rules can't bend just because SHE decided they should. As disappointed as I am, as hurt as I am that she didn't feel like she could talk freely with me, my parents, Monica or Timothy, I can't dismiss her attempts as just the coniving activities of a teenager in puppy love.  Love at 14 is every bit as real for her as it is for me at 31.  I admire her tenacity.  I hope I will never be afraid to engage in the relentless pursuit of love. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fighting with Faith

"We all have a deep need to know God," said Fred, the director of Christ the King's RCIA program.  It had been years since I'd sat in a classroom in the hall of a Catholic Church, and as a fully initiated Catholic already I wasn't quite sure what I was doing there.  When Fred and I talked the night before, I told him I wanted to get to know my Faith as an adult, but I knew there was more to it than that.  I didn't have to go to a class to learn about Catholicism, and peering down at the syllabus for the year and seeing headings like "The Sacraments," or "The Trinity," I knew that the class would be so basic I would probably already know most of what was going to be taught.

As a child, I was an attentive student in my Catechism classes, but our teachers were so focused on getting us on to the next stage that they didn't have time for my questions.  I diligently memorized my prayers and did my homework every week, but I was inquisitive and always wanted to know why we were saying certain responses, or what our practices meant.  Peers, and especially my cousins who were in class with me, rolled their eyes when I asked a question, knowing class would take that much longer because of my curiosity. At the end of the day it always seemed the stuttering explanations were not much more than, "That's just the way it is."  By the time I was 18 I became convinced that being Catholic wasn't much more than being a puppet for the Vatican, an old, patriarchal institution that was just trying to oppress me and keep me in line by asserting that it knew what was best for me and I should do it, because "that's just the way it is."  And I, I was a free thinker who wanted to do what she wanted to do and not be bound by rules that wouldn't be enforced until an afterlife that, at the time, seemed so far away.

Like many reverts to the Faith, I was drawn back to the Church by a traumatic event.  A simple statement, in a not so simple time, convinced me.  The afternoon that I found Sean's body, after a police officer had gently prodded me as to the circumstances surrounding my last meeting with Sean, he asked me if I had a religion and if I wanted him to call someone.  I nodded and said, "I'm Catholic."  When a priest I'd never met before responded I wasn't really sure what we were supposed to say to each other.  He must have been even more unsure than I was, because he just sorta rocked on his heels and asked, "So, uh, how did he do it?" and I was relieved when my dad arrived moments later to get me out of that place.  The police still had questions for me, I still needed to talk to the bar manager at work, but when the business had been squared away my dad asked, "Would you like to go see Father Ralph." He took me to the little mission where he and my mom had been married, where my brother and sisters and I had all been baptized, to see the man who had seen me through all of my Sacraments.  Father Ralph sat in the upholstered pews of the church bathed in the colored light filtered through the stained glass windows and said simply, "You need to go back to church."

I didn't know what else to do, so I did.

I was plagued by questions about the status of Sean's soul, and guilt ridden that I hadn't saved him.  Even now, seven years later, I want to believe that there was something I could have done, I CHOOSE to believe it, because if I can shoulder some of that blame I can allow myself to believe that Sean hasn't had to suffer for his choice.  I wanted to take his burden from him.  I still want to.  I became obsessed with Purgatory, prayers that promised to release 1,000 souls from Purgatory every time they were said.  I thought frequently about how that whole system worked, about whether Purgatory is painful, if it's dark and cold like Hell is, or if it's simply knowing that your loved ones are within reach but we're not quite there yet.  Do we have to face all of the people we've hurt over the course of our lifetime?  From his place in Purgatory, could Sean how much we missed him?

Slowly, weekly Mass attendance went from something I did because I didn't know what else to do, to part of my Sunday routine, to something I needed to get through the week.  During my first year of law school I unwittingly signed up for Catholic Match, an online dating site for Catholics, hoping to meet the man of my dreams.  I am still shocked, and blessed, by the many Catholic matches that I found there.  Through the tight-knit CM forums I started to learn more about my Faith and about myself and my place in the Church.  I became active in the pro-life movement, still unaware of how my life would come together and how much I would need my fellow CMers down the road.

Catholic Match policy prohibits married people from being on the site, so I left in January 2010 after I married my non-Catholic husband, but by then many of us had reconnected on Facebook.  Naturally, I turned to them first when I learned that God had come knocking on my door, asking me to be a walking billboard for the pro-life movement by carrying a terminally ill child.

As I was carrying Gabriel, I was sincere in my belief that I had been trusted with a gift, that I had been asked to do something very special, that I was carrying a would-be saint, and that God was carrying me through it all.  I still look back on those days, from the time we announced Gabriel's defect to the time he died and beyond, and I am in awe of what I was so fortunate to be a part of.  Anyone who witnessed Gabriel's life, whether it was through pictures on the internet or face-to-face, must have felt it too.  It was like the world stood still for Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude.  If you know my son, in real life or virtually, you have been changed by him and I couldn't be more proud.

Which is why I was so horrified when Ben said to me, "Stop trying to make him into some sort of martyr."  Of course my son is a martyr, of course he is a saint, because I refuse to believe that he is not here with me today for any reason short of providence.  I couldn't let go of my son's memory, and Ben couldn't face it, and so we were at an impasse, and so the story goes.  For so long my heart was broken for my son, because I felt that he deserved a father that could look at his pictures and smile instead of turn away, and who could talk about him with pride.  It frequently escaped me that I could have been a better Catholic wife, and that losing our son wasn't any more a part of Ben's life plan than it was a part of mine.

I was angry - I'm still angry - at God for placing this man in my life who refused to be the husband I wanted and the father I wanted for my son.  In my angriest moments I felt that God took my children from me just to make a point, that I wasn't meant to be with Ben.

If there was one plain answer that sufficed for me as a child and that I've carried with me into adulthood, it's my mom's explanation that we are supposed to go to Mass every week because God has given us so much and the least we can do is take an hour a week to visit Him in His house. She's right.  I have a roof over my head, food when I want it, friends and family who I can lean on. . . More than a lot of people have.  I try to never forget how very blessed I am.  But I sit angrily in Church, stubbornly defying God, refusing to eat at His table, refusing to follow His rules, thinking to myself, "I did things Your way, and I'm alone.  I'm alone.  Your rules, Your way, suck.  And I don't want my son to be Your saint anymore.  I want him back."

For all the times I have thought about how lonely it must be to not believe in God, I wonder if I'm lonelier now, having all the confidence in the world that there is a God and there is a Heaven, but feeling like He's turned His back on me.

And that's why I made my way to RCIA class last Sunday.  I needed to be around people who are excited about their Faith, people who love God and trust that God loves them too and that He never abandons us.  Maybe if I hear it enough times, I'll believe it again.  Maybe I'll find the words to tell Ben someday that I didn't "let" the Church tell me what to do when it came to Gabriel, that I did it because good things come when we do God's will.  "Seek ye first," and all that.  Maybe even though some days feel like the end of the world, good things are still to come.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Late nights and leisurely mornings had been my norm for so long that I thought waking up early would certainly be the hardest part of my new routine, so I am happily surprised at how easy it is to answer the alarm clock's call.  So many things are changing for me now but I wanted to keep some things as normal as possible. I get up a little earlier than I have to so the dogs and I can still spend our morning coffee time together.  I'm surprised at how much I truly miss them throughout the day.

Noelle is in the early stages of heat, which means she's changing too, along with the dynamic between her and Gideon. They've been best friends and partners in property crime for months now, but Gideon's doggy instincts have alerted him that there's something different about Noelle, who is still blissfully unaware of what's happening to her body.  Noelle is still very much a puppy, and has brought out the puppy in Gideon, but I still can't help but get a little saddened by the idea that she's growing up.  She is still as diligent as ever in her quest to catch a bird, though.

With resignation, I go inside to dress for the day after I've fed the dogs.  Heels and make-up have also become a part of my daily routine, as well as my goal to get to work a little bit earlier every day, until ultimately I'm there by seven.  It's hard to get used to the idea that no one is really telling me what time to be there every day, that I'm responsible for making sure I put the work in to meet my billable hour requirement.  I'm taking my cues from one of the firm's top billers, and my colleague now, Ken.  Ken's there every morning at 7, works through lunch, but is rarely there after five.  Ken makes a billing requirement look not so bad.

Billable hours.  As an aspiring criminal defense attorney, out to save the world from injustices like the death penalty and overly aggressive prosecutors, I assumed I'd spend my professional life with the Kern County Public Defenders and never have to deal with things like billable hours.  The legal profession is the most noble, and we're supposed practice law because we are passionate about it, not because we're getting paid to. But the thing about a bleeding heart is that eventually you bleed dry.  I'm less worried about everyone else these days, and a lot more concerned about myself.

The concern has paid off.  At the end of the day I am exhausted, overwhelmed by the amount of new information being thrown at me. . . and happy.  I'm thinking, and solving problems, and learning new things, and getting excited about an area of law I never would have thought of as exciting.  Slowly, my ability to focus is returning.  Every work day goes by a little bit faster, and I feel a little bit more accomplished.

In the evenings I take time to notice every day how Gabriel's blueberry bush is thriving before greeting two dogs who are overjoyed to see me.  I also usually come home to some new handiwork of theirs - a new hole in ground, a newly destroyed patch of grass, or another shredded geranium.  It's hard to get mad at them, though.

I take that back.  It's pretty easy to get mad at them.  But the anger fades away easily.  "They're just dogs," my mom says, but they've borne the unfair burden of filling the void in my life since Gabriel died and Ben left.  They went from living in a home with two parents, to a single-parent home with a working, emotionally strained mom.  So while I get angry at the broken fence boards and chewed-up water hose, I'm thrilled to be able to unwind with them in the evenings after a long day.

The nights have become harder.  Though getting up early hasn't been a problem, getting to sleep early has been.  I find myself laying in bed, and for the first time since Ben left, feeling lonely in it.  Maybe it's the impending fall and winter months that have me longing for someone to sleep beside.  Maybe the realization that I'm alone is finally sinking in.

But the loneliness is, for now, fleeting.  As my schedule becomes more regular and I scale back my evening shifts at the bar, I look forward to the freedom that having a "normal" schedule will bring: Dinner with the girls, an upcoming weekend visit with my law school roommate in Oxnard, a holiday off from work, and getting to watch American Idol as it airs next season.

My restlessness, coupled with my fear of gaining weight in a sedentary job, keep me moving about the office frequently.  I've welcomed the tips on weight maintenance from others who work in a professional setting.  I park my car in the far end of the lot so I have a longer walk to and from the building, take the stairs when I'm not shadowing another attorney, and stand up as much as I can reasonably get away with.  Once in a while, though, I sit back in MY chair, and look at MY desk, in MY office and think to myself, "Life is pretty sweet.  And I'm a lawyer."