Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Truth?


We never thought it would happen that way.  Odds were, Gabriel was going to be gone by Father's Day, June 19, 2011, 9 days after he was born.  But there he was. 

By that time the Cude household was strained.  We were both tired.  We were both on edge, having had several close calls where we thought we were losing Gabriel. 

"I need to get away for just an hour," I told Ben, who had been in and out at work and running errands for the last week.  I'd managed to get out of the house a couple of times but had otherwise hardly put Gabriel down.  It was the longest ten days of our lives.

"Maybe I should just leave," Ben retorted. 

"No, I mean it.  I need a break.  I'm losing my mind."  But he stormed off that Father's Day, leaving me alone with Gabriel.  Like mothers do, I just did.  I just took care of him, like I had been.  My mom came over and we gave Gabriel his first and only bath that night.  I'd been too afraid of shocking his body, already super sensitive because of the defect to temperature changes, to do more than wipe him with a warm cloth once in a while, but that evening we spread out a towel on the kitchen counter and soaped Gabriel up with Johnson & Johnson baby soap that Kat had given us.  He fussed and squawked in protest, and generally acted like a baby that night.  Smelling of baby lotion, his skin glowing healthily, Gabriel ate better than he had the last couple of days. 

When Ben returned several hours later I set Gabriel on the couch to talk to Ben.  There, in front of our terminally ill child we had one of the worst arguments of our marriage before Ben disappeared to the bedroom for what had become our nightly routine, where he would sleep for a few hours at night before he would relieve me to sleep for a few hours in the morning.

That night as I held Gabriel tightly, I silently prayed to God that if He were going to take my son from me anyway, that He take him soon, before my marriage had been damaged beyond repair.  I didn't think I could stand to lose both Gabriel and Ben. 

The next morning Gabriel started to seize and for nearly five hours I watched him struggle to breathe.  He cried out loud, making the most noise I'd ever heard from him.  I pled with God to take my baby boy from his suffering. 

The feeling, even the memory, of asking God to take your child's life is indescribable. Some people might say its an act of selfless love, loving someone enough to know that their time here is over.  But it doesn't feel like love.  It doesn't feel selfless.  It feels like desperatation.  It feels like helplessness.  It feels like shame that the thing my son needed, a skull cap, sat securely on my own head but it was useless to him and useless to me while I watched his face turn blue as he gasped for breath. It feels like someone is holding your pumping heart in front of your face and squeezing it, stilling its life-giving beat as you stare on with your hands tied.  It feels like you're watching your son die.  And you're not sure how you're going to keep living. 

I'm not ashamed to say that I would trade Ben for Gabriel in a heartbeat today.  Trying to reason with the unreasonable, associating my prayer on Father's Day with Gabriel's death the next day,  only leads to something more unreasonable.  If I was bargaining with God, why did I offer my son instead of Ben?  I guess because I thought someday Gabriel would leave me - to go to kindegarten, to go to college, to get married himsef - anyway, and I needed to preserve my relationship with my chosen life partner. 

I remember leaving Victoria on her first day of day care, aching, knowing after we'd spent the last three months together that I was trusting her to the care of a stranger.  Knowing I wouldn't see her until that evening.  The ache is dull in the wake of the cutting pain of releasing my son, giving him the freedom to go, knowing I wouldn't see him for the rest of my life.  

I burn with fury now when I think of Ben and that night.  I could explode when I think of him driving away in that U-Haul one year later, bound for divorce and South Carolina. How dare he?  How dare he walk away?  How dare he leave when we had both already lost more than any person should ever have to lose?  Did we not owe each other our lives after we watched our son lose his? How dare he allow our marriage to become what I prayed it wouldn't, damaged beyond repair?  And how can I ever forgive him? 

Tonight I'm hiding in a bar, dodging the children who are undoubtedly knocking on my door for a trick or a treat.  I can't face them.  I wish they would't look at me.  I wish that little boy last week, who smiled and giggled and forced me to meet his gaze and smile back to his mother's amusement, had just walked on by.  I wish I had never seen the little boy in the elevator today, who grinned at me as he reached for his mother's hand.  I used to wish to be that person that children were just drawn to, and now I wish I could escape them.  What's left of my heart can barely take it.

Tomorrow I will go to Mass for the Feast of All Saints Day, the annual and universal celebration of my son's soul.  But today as people walk aroundin costumes and masks I think I've got the best disguise of all as I parade around as a woman who isn't missing a piece of herself.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Releasing the Wheel

Today's fortune cookie read "Your place in life is in the driver's seat." God knows that's where I prefer to be, in control of what happens next.

 So while it stings when Ben asks "Do you think if I came back, we could make things work?" it gives me a great sense of control, and accordingly a sense of strength, to say resolutely, "No." As our marriage dissolved I felt a deep sense of helplessness and loss of control. Nothing I did made a difference. Apologies, tears, missed marital counseling appointments, self-help books and prayers all went unresponded to. So now hurt and pride and wounded trust and a commanding need to control the circumstances in my life combine to deny Ben what he denied me: A chance to make our marriage work. I simply won't look back now.

 As we were struggling to save our marriage I was often advised to pray to my angels in Heaven, Baby Cude and Gabriel. That's supposed to be one of the perks of having deceased children, right? I tried a couple of times but it didn't feel right. I am their mother and no matter how unconventional the relationship is I can't bring myself to burden them with my worries. What was I supposed to say? "Hey kids, why don't you patch up Mom and Dad's marriage?" That wouldn't be appropriate if they were here, why should things be any different because they're not? My burdens are not their burdens; they shouldn't have to be their burdens. I know that someday I'll have to face them and I dread explaining to them that their daddy and I didn't make it, but until then I hope they never see me cry, I hope they never see their daddy cry, I hope they never saw us fighting and that they never heard the awful things we said to eachother. I hope they can't see me now, trying to figure out how to open the front porch light fixture to change the bulb, cursing their father under my breath for leaving me to do thse things on my own.

 Sometimes I think I feel them with me. Once in a while I get overwhelmed but I climb into the driver's seat, determined to keep driving, and I hear Kenny Loggins telling me I hold the world in a paper cup and life's just begun and I'm the lucky one and most importantly, everything's gonna be alright. Everytime "Danny's Song" comes on the radio I think Gabriel must be trying to talk to me and I am soothed. But it's not my child's job to soothe me. I couldn't fix him; how can I ask him to fix me now?

Carrying Gabriel to term would have been much more difficult if not for the online anencephaly support groups. Losing him would have been even harder if I didn't have the opportunity to counsel women who were also experiencing the same thing. But now as I read their pregnancy and birth announcements sharing the news of their rainbow babies the pain is almost unbearable. I read the words "My angel is looking out for his mommy and sending us a rainbow." Where, then, is my Gabriel and where is my rainbow? I wonder if he's mad at me for not trying to work things out with Ben. I know it's not fair of me to ask him. I won't ask him.

"Don't miss this opportunity to learn about yourself from this process," said a friend of my divorce. Most of what I'm probably supposed to learn, I don't want to. I know I pushed, and pushed, and pushed for a family. I pushed until I found myself alone. And I can't build one on my own, I can't pluck a family off of a shelf in a store; family is not a commodity to be possessed. Among the many lessons I am trying to take away from this experience is to once in a while throw my hands in the air and let someone else drive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Yellow House

The first time I walked through the yellow house I knew it was home.  We already lived a block and a half away from my parents, on the corner of the same street, and I didn't know how Ben would feel about living in a house even closer.  The yellow house was just three doors down.  But with my hands protectively over my belly I imagined bringing what was then just a three or four week old fetus home to the yellow house someday.There was so much to look forward to then, like the big mulberry tree from which Gabriel's tire swing would hang. The convenience of having my parents three doors down when Ben was working such long hours was also part of the appeal. We would be the first renters that the cheerful yellow house had ever known but we moved in knowing the owner would be willing to sell and we would be willing to buy if everything worked out as well as we expected it would.  

When I was discharged from the hospital to bring Gabriel home under hospice care I thought what all the doctors and nurses thought:  That I was bringing my baby boy home to die.  But he didn't.  He lived for more than one week after our discharge.  After Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly I braced myself for the very real probability that I would never get to bring him home.  By God's grace, though, many of my prayers were answered, including my wish to bring Gabriel home.  For several days the yellow house was full of the family that I had always wanted. 

I wonder if the house would feel so empty today if I had never known what it was like to live there with my family.  It's not the home I thought it would be.  Gabriel died in our living room.  I haven't had a large group of people over since Gabe's funeral.  Ben moved out.  Getting a second large dog has necessitated both of them spending most of the day outide.  I share the yellow house with a roommate who is polite and clean and pays his share of the rent on time every month, but who I hardly know.

Recently I woke up during the night to hear my roommate's son, Jordan, crying.  I haven't completely lost my mind, it's not like I imagined that it was Gabriel or my own child that I heard.  Instead, in my middle-of-the-night stupor the knowledge was still at the forefront of my mind that someone else's child's cries, not Gabriel's, were echoing in my halls. 

Lately I've noticed that my response to things just isn't normal.  I'm angrier, or more sad, or more elated by ordinary things than I should be.  And hungrier.  When I'm not being governed by those emotions, my craving for physical affection is dominating my thoughts.  I feel like I'm just a walking body of impulses holed up in a lonely yellow house. 

"What are you doing?" the woman washing her hands at the sink next to me asked this afternoon as I stood nose-to-nose with my reflection under the flourescent lights of the second floor bathroom.

"I just discovered I've got wrinkle lines under my eyes."

"You look too young to have wrinkles."  I resisted my impulse and willed my eyes not to roll. "Well, get a good wrinkle cream.  And some sunglasses, so you'll stop squinting at the sun."  

I was grateful for her response.  People like to say things like "All those lines just tell your story.  They make you who you are, you earned them."  That's a load of crap.  I'll take smooth skin and a living child any day, no matter how much I publicly try to shrug off how affected I am.  So while big part of me wanted to detour past my office, down the stairwell for a cheeseburger and beer and some sloppy making out with a stranger, her complacency in response to my great revelation calmed me.

I hope she's there when I find my first gray hair.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Feeling Through the Unknown

I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures tonight:  I walked the aisles of the baby section at Target.  I felt like a voyuer, watching as people shopped and feeling as though I was peeking into their private, joyous family lives. 

When I walk the baby aisle, I don't always stop and touch things.  That's crazy.  I certainly don't always buy something, but every once in a while something calls to me and I find myself sneaking it into my basket, then looking around to see if anyone else noticed.  Today, that thing was a bib with a little turtle on it that said "Worth the wait."  Because the promise is that when that day comes for me when I have use for such a thing again, she will have been worth the wait. 

At the checkout stand the clerk scanned the bib and asked, "Do you need a gift receipt?" 

I paused to stare at her.  "No." I answered curtly.  I felt as though she'd analyzed the rest of my purchase and determined that dog treats, tampons, a bottle of wine and a baby bib comprise the shopping list of a lonely, single woman with a baby shower to go to this weekend.  I snatched my bags and huffed to my car, frustrated that she'd recognized something was amiss. 

Once upon a time, I thought I was quite fearless.  At the first faint lines of the first positive pregnancy test back in April of my first year of marriage, I wanted to tell everyone.  Ben insisted we wait a couple of days but I couldn't understand why.  I wasn't afraid.  Even after we miscarried that baby and the doctor advised us to wait three months before trying again, I scoffed at her concerns even while obeying her orders. 

The second time around I was anxious to share our news again, but we held off until we were in the clear, past the point when I'd miscarried the first baby.  Then the doctor gave us Gabriel's diagnosis, a condition I had never heard of described by the frightful words "incompatible with life." While I was afraid of what was going to happen and even afraid how I would feel seeing my child with this strange defect,  I wouldn't let my fear guide my decisions. I had this chance to do something big; I had this chance to give him everything, to give him life when most women would not.  I carried Gabriel up until his due date, struggled through labor as long as I could without an epidural, prepared to meet my son and take his pictures and baptize him because my biggest fear was squandering this opportunity to carry and give birth to my son. 

"Are you going to try again?" people would ask, and I would say "Of course.  I'll never stop trying."  Even as my heart heals from the loss of my son and mends after the death of my marriage, I know that I don't regret opening myself up to the chance to be in love with both Gabriel and Ben.  I look forward to feeling that way again.  The risk scares me, but not enough to keep me from trying again.

Why, then, am I so gripped with fear by the current circumstances in my life?  Why am I so afraid of being alone?  Why does the clock in my head tick so loudly?  Sitting among a group of men at the bar yesterday I took a self-deprecating jab at my family status and three men promptly responded "You're young" and continued to assure me that I would be fine.  And I assured them that I knew I would be, even though I don't really know any such thing.

I tell myself that I am just a product of my circumstances, someone who knows that life is short and  that we're not guaranteed another moment.  But that's not really what concerns me or what frightens me.  What scares me is how little control I have over that part of my life.  It's not something that can be "fixed," not a problem I can solve, not a situation I can make happen.  It's entirely possible that I'll be a single, childless mother for the rest of my life.  I just don't know.  More importantly, I just can't fix it.  I'm just sort of feeling blindly through all of this, anxious and almost desparate to get out of this, and I guess that's what really scares me.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

As Seasons Change

The first yellow leaves have fallen from the mulberry tree and unripe green fruit has started to fill in the orange tree.  Stems from the winterblooming flowers have pushed their way through the summer-baked ground.  In the morning when my mind comes to consciousness I recall having woken up at some point in the night to pull the covers over me, and realizing that I'm alone in my bed.  The sun rises a little later, the dogs sleep a little longer, and the evidence is clear in Bakersfield, the land of just two seasons:  Winter is on its way. 

I chose winter for our wedding because I think it's such a romantic time of year.  I wanted to celebrate every anniversary by a fire next to my husband more and more in love with each passing year.  I'm not the least bit surprised that the loneliness is more intense as the season changes, but there's something almost romantic about the loneliness too.  There is nothing like a break-up to remind you you're alive, with a heart that beats and can be hurt.  And there's nothing like a cold night to bring out the ache. 

With winter, though, comes life's comforts.  A warm blanket, a bright fire in the fireplace, Coffeemate's seasonal Pumpkin Spice creamer, thick socks and beef stew.  I'll spend most of the winter bulked up in sweatshirts and clothes that don't fit or flatter but at least once during the season I'll get to break out my cherished over-the-knee faux suede boots and bask in the attention that they command.  We'll hang our stockings in the bar and Donny will bring in a box of peanut butter Dewar's chews and coffee will brew every day and I'll reminisce over the many holiday seasons I've spent there and how there's nothing quite like Christmas time in a neighborhood bar. 

Winter's romance isn't limited to having someone there to share it with.  I've spent plenty of winter's alone.  Last winter Ben and I were essentially alone in our marriage, having drifted so far apart I think part of us both knew it was beyond salvaging.  The winter ideal, I think, is also built in its promise.  The cold won't last forever.  Our hearts will eventually stop hurting.  Somehow, when the nights are the longest and the coldest it's okay to have dreams and desires and it's safe to believe that the sun will shine again

Friday, October 5, 2012

Diary of an Ex-Wife

Every time I see him, Chuck asks me the same thing while I make his drink:  "Have you become a raging, firebreathing bitch yet?"

"Not quite yet, Chuckles," I answer.

"Well let me know when you do.  When you do, you can represent me against that raging bitch ex-wife of mine."

For years I've listened with sympathy to men experiencing divorce, commiserating with them and marveling about how their ex-wives could go from being the woman they once loved to such bitter, wrathful creatures.  Now here I am, an ex-wife.  And now, I get it.

Break-ups make us do crazy things.  Think, Alanis Morrissette and the "You Oughta Know" Guy; Carrie and Berger and the Post-It note; Left-Eye and the burning house.  Men, especially ex-husbands, make us do crazy things.  A bad marriage can push a person to the edge, but a divorce can send them over.

A friend - an intelligent, beautiful, spirited friend - talked with me today about her divorce.  As we talked, this bright, confident woman started to crumble right in front of me.  Her posture became hunched and her face red and her eyes fought back tears as she talked to me about what an manipulative man her ex-husband is, and how intimidating it is to battle him in court.  I admonished her to take charge of her life, and to stop allowing herself to be his victim, and reminded her that he only gets under her skin because she allows him to.  She was allowing herself to become irrational over this man.

Even as my mouth spoke the words I was struck by my own hypocrisy as my mind drew back to the text message exchange I had with Ben over our cell phone bill.  We've stayed on the same calling plan but talked recently about separating that too.  Although it's clear our marriage is over and he lives on the other side of the country, something about splitting off from our shared calling plan feels like a final nail in the proverbial coffin. And so the following exchange took place:

Me:  I know this is a pain, but I'd like to stay on the calling plan until my name changes.

Ben:  You mean in December?

Me:  Yes.  When our divorce is final.

Ben:  Can't you just get your own calling plan and change your name with the phone service later?

Me:  You have no idea what a hassle it is to change your name!  I only did it because I thought I'd be married forever, not two and a half fucking years!

That was that.  Two days have gone by, and neither of us has mentioned the phone plan again.  Probably because we haven't spoken to each other in two days.  Probably because I still see red when I think about it.

Why should it be that something so petty should get me so wired?  I don't want to stay married to him.  I still wish him happiness.  But sometimes the anger just takes over.  Yes, it makes me irrational.

For every man  who has wondered out loud to me how the woman he once loved became so bitter and angry, there was an ex-wife.  And she was somewhere wondering what happened to their love, what happened to his commitment.  Maybe, like me, she thought about the hours of labor she went through to deliver his son.  Maybe the occasional piece of mail still gets delivered to her mailbox and her anger ignites and burns her again.  Maybe she thinks about all of his socks that she turned right-side-out or the pants pockets she emptied for him before she washed them because he never did.  Maybe she was complaining about how he never paid his child support on time, even while he was tipping me every round and always had money for one more.  Maybe once in a while she finds a t-shirt that he's left behind and she shreds it and it makes her feel a little bit better, and crazy all at once.  Maybe, like Chuck's wife, we can all breathe fire.

In an episode of the Golden Girls, Dorothy is unwittingly conversing with her ex-husband's soon-to-be-bride.  When the woman says, "He's got this ex-wife," Dorothy interrupts and says "Hold it!  I happen to be an ex-wife."  It's like a club.  A club that, like the "Mommies of Departed Children" club, I never wanted to belong to.  And still, when I meet a fellow ex-wife now, I find myself relating to her and understanding every crazy thing she says.  Because we're not really crazy.  We're just getting divorced.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Fairytale, Revised

I've heard every girl dreams of her proposal and her wedding day, but I didn't.  I dreamed of being married and I dreamed of having kids but how I got there wasn't much of a concern.  So, when over dinner one December evening Ben started talking and reaching into his pocket for what turned out to be an engagement ring I was flooded with mixed emotions.

Looking back, I guess I knew it was too soon for us.  But what can I say?  There he was, clearly in love with me, asking me to marry him.  I knew I loved him too.  While it all seemed to happen so quickly, in the grand scheme of things I had wanted to be married for so long that I didn't really have to think about my answer.  Instantly I was looking ahead to what it would mean to finally be someone's wife, and to soon be a mother.

I feel like something has been stolen from me.  Not just my dreams for marriage and motherhood.  I'll always be someone's ex-wife now.  Like a used car, previously "owned."

My trust has been taken too.  I trusted Ben completely, with my heart, with my future.  I trusted him to be there.  After a string of painful experiences I trusted him to never hurt me.  I trusted him to never leave.

But he did.

I struggle to imagine a day when I can ever trust like that again.

"If I ever get married again, it will be on a Tuesday," I told Shane.

"That's selfish.  What if the guy you marry wants a wedding?  What if he doesn't want to get married on a Tuesday?"

"If he doesn't want to get married on a Tuesday, he's not the man for me to marry."

I had a beautiful wedding, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, in a church full of people.  We danced through tears of joy, our own tears and our guests'. We seemed like such an odd pairing but I don't think anyone thought we wouldn't make it.

Now here we are, two and half years later, and halfway through our six month "waiting period" before we get divorced.  Then, I can petition the Church for an annulment.  I'll ask them to declare that my marriage was invalid, that a real marriage never existed.  It's what lawyers call a "legal fiction;" an assumption that something occurred or did not occur, when in fact, it didn't or did.  When it's all over we'll just pretend like the last three years didn't happen. Without my little bit of human evidence here, Gabriel, I suppose it will be that much easier to do.

It's hard to ignore the shame and the guilt I carry with me.  I feel like the last three years are a stain on me.  Like people must look at me and think, "There's that girl, the one who can't have "normal" babies and can't keep her husband."  And I know it's all in my head.  That's just it.  That's what's in my head. 

I know that I don't have to be alone right now.  A girl never really has to be alone. It's crossed my mind that a warm body just to fill the space might not be so bad.  But then one day he'll just be one more stain too.  I don't need a white knight and I don't need a quick fix. I've experienced both, and neither of them lasted. Neither was what they promised to be. 

Being guarded is a switch for me.  My inclination is to allow myself to trust and to care freely and swiftly, no matter how many times I've been wounded.  I guess the trick now is to understand that trust is something that has to be built and affection something that has to be earned.  Though I can't imagine ever trusting in a man again, I have to at least trust that someday I will. I have to believe that someday a man will come around and he'll appreciate me not in spite of my experiences, but because of them. Where right now I see myself as scarred, he'll see me as strong.  For all the times I felt I was expendable and my devotion pathetic, he'll see me as valuable and worthy of his trust and maybe then I can start to trust too.