Monday, November 26, 2012

Empty Spaces

Audacity:  "When my children were born, I said to God 'If you're going to take my children from me, take them from me now, before I have a chance to know them and love them and miss them." 

I had to do a double take, and take into account that Caroline had been doubling up on the booze all afternoon.  The human ability to say stupid things when they have been drinking is astounding, offensive, and never ending.

It's hard to explain what it's like to miss someone who was only here for 40 weeks and ten days.  But just like with anyone else, what you notice most is the empty space. 

Missing Gabriel means filling in spaces with "What ifs?"  It means tears roll silently down my face while watching "Where the Wild Things Are" as I miss my little wild thing and wonder where he is and what he's doing.  It means I go to church, to a restaurant, to work, and wonder what my life would be like if he were here too. 

This Thanksgiving the unavoidable smell of turkey crashed into my nostrils, my senses,  every time it was near me with a welcomed wave of nauseousness.  The smell of turkey was the one smell that got to me during pregnancy and to smell it now, to smell the memory it holds, was bittersweetly longed for.  There are moments when I look at the shell of the life I live now, hollow where my family should be, and wonder if it was real.  How can I even be sure it was?  What happens when the tremors in my tummy stop and the scent of Gabriel's blankets gets sniffed away and ten days feel like just a moment in a lifetime of moments that have long since slipped through my fingers and I am still alone with memories and ghosts?

That fear is unshakeable.  That fear dictates what I do and is the root of the biggest mistakes that I make, but it is the most vital part of me as it leads my heart around, grasping and fumbling for something to fill the empty spaces.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Oh Blah Dee-ing, Oh Blah Da-ing

"I can do whatever I want," I boldly proclaimed to Iliana and David, the two colleagues from the firm, also new hires, that I had been cooped up with for three days of training.  "I'm single, and I've got no kids to tend to."

"You just said you had a baby," Iliana responded, barely looking up from her dinner plate.

Rewind. . .

  "When I was pregnant. . ."

. . . I guess I did. . .

"I did have a baby.  Gabriel.  He passed away when he was ten days old."  And I launched seamlessly into my standard speech. "We were very lucky to have ten days.  He wasn't expected to live that long.  Do you want to see his pictures?" 

Iliana regarded me with sympathetic eyes but they both viewed his pictures anyway.

"You and your husband split up after your son died?"  David asked.


David waived his hand at the shot of Jameson that the server had just placed before me at our table.  "Is this you 'coping'? Because, that's okay."

I grinned.  "This is me taking advantage that you offered to drive."

Not everything I do is to cope.  I blog to cope, or eat cheese puffs to cope, or mother the dogs to cope.  But most of what I do is just adjusting.  I thought my life was going to be A, and now it's B.  I'm just trying to adjust to life as B. 

The photos were not me coping.  The photos were me reclaiming myself.

A year ago near my 30th birthday I announced that I was thinking of having photos taken. 

"I'll take them," offered my brother, the aspiring photographer. 

"You don't want to take these."

"Why?  Will they be of the dogs?"

"No.  Boudoir photos.  Of me."

"That's disgusting.  UUUUGGGHHH!  That's gross.  If you want, you can call my friend Ande.  She does those."  And with one last shudder, "Gross." 

I was proud of where I was at 30, though.  I had lost all of my baby weight (which I later went about putting right back on), and insistent that I needed to do this right then, before I had more babies.  The stars never aligned, there were no more babies, and it was a year before Ande announced again that she'd be scheduling photo shoots at a local boutique hotel.  This time, I was quick to sign myself up.

"Aren't those usually for a husband or boyfriend?  What are you going to do with them?"  someone asked. 

The notion that these photos should be for Ben or anyone else hadn't really occurred to me.  I was simply wanting to gather evidence, preserve the record so that someday, if I had to, I could prove that I used to be 31 years old, that I used to be whatever else I'm not when I'm 100 years old.  I just want something good for the obit.

Standing in one of the stylish, one-of-a-kind rooms in the recently renovated Padre, barely covered and quite aware of every one of my phsyical flaws, I listened to Ande talk casually while she adjusted her lights. 

"Someone commented on your blog that you should write a book.  You should."

"You read my blog?"

"Yes.  I used to feel like I shouldn't.  I didn't realize you were so open with it.  Your blog is good.  I read a lot of blogs, but yours rates high."  With that, I relaxed, suddenly comfortabe and confident that I do something well, and there should be no reason why I couldn't just do this too. 

"I bet you never knew you had this sex kitten somewhere inside of you," Ande commented as I began to melt into the atmosphere she had created. 

But I did know I have it in me.  I'm quite aware that part of me exists, and what she is capable of.  She is determined and knows what she wants.  She scares me, though, because she's a loose cnnon.  She wants acceptance, and love, and to be valued and appreciated, and she will readily abandon reason to find it. 

She is afraid - Of being rejected, of being abandoned. . . of violence, still.

After all of this time, eleven years after the assault, I find myself thinking of it more than usual, and thinking about the impassioned, needy girl that would spend her time with people like that in the first place.  At this point, it's unusual to think about it much at all, until very recently.  I guess that's because I know I won't ever let it happen again.

To say 'Let it happen again' implies I had some sort of control over it, that I 'let' it happen in the first place.  I know I didn't, I know it's not my fault, but I guess telling myself it won't happen again gives me confidence and security.  I'm just not that same girl I was then.  That girl was weak.  I hardly know her anymore, and I resent her for trying to sneak back into my life.

I'm reluctant to admit tha tmaybe being married, having this man, this protector in my life, gave me a sense of security.  Could I be that old-fashioned, that needy?  I didn't feel unsafe when I lived alone, but I felt safter when Marcus moved in.  But still not as safe as I felt when I belonged to someone, when I was someone's wife.  I don't feel unsafe when I close the bar.  But I felt safer when someone was waiting for me to come home.

Those thoughts all come on the heels of my parish priests's recommendation that I wait a year before applying for an annulment.  The thought of being married in God's eyes for one more year, for all the security it once gave me, shakes me to my core.

I loved belonging to someone.  I loved being someone's wife, being someone's mother, and having them belong to me.  I say "my husband" or "my son" as much as I say "Ben" or "Gabriel." For all that I didn't like feeling like someone's possession, branded by a ring, I loved the sense of unity of belonging to each other. 

And I can think of no reason why I should belong to my ex-husband, who was so unwilling to belong to me, for one more year.  I see no reason why I should not be free to seek out someone who wants to make me his, someone who wants every part of me, even when life is hard, even when I'm afraid.  Even when I'm weak. I don't see why I should be held to a partner who didn't hold me.

"You need to heal!"  I can almost hear the reader's response as they shake their monitor.  Maybe they even think that things like Jamesn and boudoir photos and a new car and a shredded t-shirt are "coping" mechanisms.  It's a fine line.  When you're getting divorced, people will reason that everything you do is because you're getting divorced.  When your kid dies, people will reason that you're getting divorced because your kid died - like we would ever tell a couple that they're getting divorced because their kid lived.  Sometimes, you're getting divorced just because you're getting divorced.  And you do what you do, whatever you do, because you just can't stand still.

I tried standing stil.  I tried holding on and holding back.  It didn't work.  Everything seems to work out a lot better when I just move. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Mountain View

I just kept driving.  On a whim, I took the road home from church straight to the gas station for a fill-up, then down Alfred Harrell Highway past Ethel's. . . the soccer park. . . C.A.L.M. . . . until I connected with the 178 and I made a left and the next thing I knew I was driving through Kern Canyon headed towards Lake Isabella.

Anyone that's driving this canyon or one similar knows that once you get going, it's tough to stop.  The canyon is a treacherous road, with craggly, deathly-sharp rocks to the south and the ill-reputed Kern River to the north.  The road is narrow, a two-lane road, and it's imperative to stay between it's tightly drawn yellow lines because veering outside them leads every year to certain death.  I'm a nervous Kern Canyon driver, but I'm an even more nervous passenger having to relinquish control of my fate to another driver.  As a driver approaches the canyon signs indicate that slow drivers should use the designated turn-outs to permit the faster, more experienced drivers to pass, but anyone who drives like me -two hands on the wheel and at their own pace no matter who's around - knows that even the turn-outs are scary.  The thing about driving the canyon is that you never know what's aroud the bend.  And that's scary.

I don't want to have to anticipate what's next. I have no idea what's next.  They say that the more you drive the canyon, the more your mind and your arms and the rest of your body get used to its bends and curves.  I find that hard to believe, though.  The canyon's casualties indicate that experienced drivers are no more immune to the hazards of the ride than those who are at it for the first time.  No one's really safe. 

I trucked along in my new-used, mid-sized car with it's average engine, testing its features by clicking my way through the radio stations on my steering wheel before settling on the country station.  It's important when making these sort of reflective, soul-searching drives to listen to country music.  Country music will inspire you to search your soul. 

I've always liked driving.  I don't so much like being alone as I like being left alone.  Anytime I've had a passenger on a long drive I have looked forward to their falling asleep, permitting me to be be alone with my thoughts and some music. 

When Frank demonstrated my car's features I recall asking, "Don't cars have CD players anymore?" 

"Yes.  It's right there."  He pointed to a slit in the dashboard.  "Most people use their Ipods now." 

I don't have an Ipod, mostly because I'm not sure what I would do with it.  I like CDs.  It's true that most albums aren't worth listening to from beginning to end, but once in a while you find one that is - Jewel's "Pieces of You," Joss Stone's "Soul Sessions," Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around," and so on - and I think it's valuable to remember a time when people cranked out consistently good material.

Driving brings tears.  It's true that someone can talk to me about Gabriel, about being raped, about losing Sean, and I will stand stone-faced and seemingly cold and unfeeling not because I don't feel but because I want to demonstrate that we can feel and still survive.  In a car though, on the road, the tears roll freely down my face, along my cheeks and onto my neck, wiped with my sleeves, uninhibited.  Some people imagine Heaven to be a place where there are no tears but I believe that Heaven must be the kind of place where the tears flow with abandon.

Lake Isabella is a nasty little town, full of high meth use and low expectations. I drove for just a minute down its main street before turning around and going right back home. I didn't want anything from the town, i just wanted its drive with its truly stunning views, the majesty of which, in my biased and untraveled opinion, are prime examples of California, the country's most beautiful and diverse state. As I made my way back home it felt right to stop at the cemetary to see Gabriel's space.  I hadn't been since my birthday.  Truth is, I don't go often.   We chose to place his ashes at Greenlawn knowing it was in walking distance from the yellow house, but I still don't go.  I have this fear of becoming obssessed with his resting place.  Today I saw a family with their little, cottn-ball sized puppy skipping across headstones.  I wondered how it would go over if I brought Noelle one day.  I suspect, not well.  She's a turd. 

I wonder if people see his plaque and empty vase and wonder if that poor little baby who lived only ten days has been forgotten.  That's my biggest fear when I pass by the cemetary without stopping.  I want people to look at his nameplate and see the carefully chosen words, "Hero of God." I want them to know that he lived for ten days that changed the world.  He may have only lived ten days, but he still lived. I love him.  I miss him.  His name is Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude.  He only lived for ten days, but he still lived.  And I. . . I am his mother.  And I will miss him for the rest of his life.  And I miss him. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Upside Down and Against the Odds

This week's issue of the The Kernal, East Bakersfield High School's newspaper, featured a set of articles titled "Pregnant and Parenting Teens."  The two featured artilcles were captioned "Couple looks forward to birth of son," and "Young moms face challenges." 

Teenage pregnancy is so common in my hometown that I guess I'm rarely struck that it doesn't happen as frequently in other parts of the country.  When my law school classmate asked incredulously, "You had daycare for the students' babies on your high school campus?" my equally incredulous response was, "You didn't?"  Looking at this week's issue of The Kernal, I see that little has changed at East High in the 13 years since my graduation. 

East High, populated predominately by Hispanic students in a county with the second highest teen pregnancy rate in the state, seems to be a place where stereotypes flourish.  The notion that Hispanics are a bunch of fertile and hormonally-driven breeders just fulfilling their destiny with each teen pregnancy is fostered by the subjects of the first article, which tells the story of a couple whose glowing smiles in their Homecoming dance photos indicate these two really don't know what kind of struggle they are about to face. 

First, I want to take moment to commend teenage parents who carry their children to term.  These days, every unborn human life is reduced by the law to a choice.  Every unborn human life is seen by our culture as expendable, and I applaud young parents and their families who support them for being examples of love and life in this world where we permit the lawful killing of our own children.  None of these teen moms and dads have to be moms and dads; they are given "options" do the wrong thing, and they choose to do the right thing.  I particularly admire the young anencephaly moms and dads who continued their pregnancies despite their exceedingly challenging circumstances.

But we can't ignore the obvious.  Most teen moms will not graduate from high school.  Most teen moms won't go to college or have the types of careers that are likely to put them in a position to provide better for their children than their own parents were able to provide for them - a generally agreed upon requirement for achieving the American dream.  And these facts are the facts not for lack of support, but because being a parent is fucking hard, and it's even harder when you're doing it alone, when you are doing it without a job, with little education, and with little life experience.  I know a lot of people who were teen parents and they all love their children, and none of them could imagine life without those children; but I also don't know a single teen parent who doesn't wish they'd done things differently for the sake of their children.  My hat is off to the men and women I know who not only made it work, but surpassed all expectations. 

I know it's not hip to say this, but teenagers don't have sex because everything in their life is great.  We'd like to chock it up to hormones and impulse, treating teenagers like the only distinction between them and wild animals is their opposable thumbs, but I think our teenagers deserve more credit, and deserve a closer look at what's driving them. 

As adults we realize the emotional complexities of sex, sexual relationships, and what drives us to engage in them.  We know that we find in sex and in our partners something more than just the act.  We find an escape, or release, or acceptance, or affection, or love, or whatever we may be looking for.  We know that we aren't just "doing it" because we simply can't help ourselves; in fact, we've learned that we can control ourselves.  So, why is it so hard to believe that teenagers can do the same thing?  Why is it even harder to believe that as much as their hormones are racing, their emotions are also governing their actions, further blurring the lines between sex and love? 

I'll be the first to admit that I have an evolving view of sex that wasn't always as healthy as it is now - if it even is healthy now.  I managed to escape high school as a virgin (it CAN be done!) primarily because I was too afraid of hell to be anything but.  Since then sex has been forcefully taken from me, freely given for fear of again having it used as a weapon against me, and the act that resulted in the creation of my chidlren which forever changed for the better my views of my body, sex, and love.  Years of experience and reflection have led me to these conclusions - things I simply didn't have when I was 17. 

The local propensity towards teen and early pregnancy continues to influence me in an indirect way.  I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to be a mother; I also can't really remember a time when I didn't feel pressure to become a mother.  Everyone around me was doing it.  College, law school, a professional career sometimes feel like a waste of my "prime" child bearing years - in my community and in my family, about age 16 to age 30.  Common sense tells me this is absurd.  But the intense shame I feel at having miscarried my first child evokes an emotional response that tells me otherwise, as does the shame I feel that my parents each had to be the last of their siblings to become grandparents.  Add to that the shame I feel for not being able to provide them with living grandchildren by this point in my life and I realize that I've put an irrational and tremendous burden on myself, when I know that in reality I've given them reasons to be proud too.

Maybe it's because in my family teenage pregnancy hasn't really been treated like a phenomenon.  We celebrated teenage pregnancies with baby showers and rippled phone calls announcing births, treating each new life like a miracle.

Because each new life IS a miracle. 

The Bakersfield Pregnancy Center is a local crisis pregnancy center that provides support for women facing unexpected pregnancies by giving them assistance in carrying that pregnancy to term.  They do not provide references for abortions.  They do provide assistance in applying for MediCal; information on adoption; counseling and support throughout the pregnancy; and when the center has the resources, necesseties for raising a child such as clothing, carseats, cribs, diapers, and more. Currently the Bakersfield Pregnancy Center has more clients than donation.  Hint, hint.

Crisis pregnancy centers are at the heart of the pro-life movement, for those who think all we do is sit around and condemn women.  The goal is to give love, encouragement and support to the girls and women who aren't so very fortunate to find it in their homes.  The goal is to not just speak, but to demonstrate that every human life is precious, and valuable, and wanted in this world.  Our hope is that as we change hearts and minds, we save lives and change lives. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

City Lights Laid Out Before Me

"It just doesn't look like a lawyer's car," Willie said of my ten year old Mitsubishi. 

"That's a silly reason to get a new car.  It still works," I would always answer. 

"You're a lawyer, sometimes you can do silly things even though they're silly."  I was determined, though, that I wouldn't change my way of life just because I could. 

That car and I drove the grapevine probably a hundred times over our three years of law school.  We drove to Shooters in Huntington Beach at 6 AM twice a week to open the bar and left were one of the last pairs to leave the library after closing it at night over those three years.  We took the bar exam together.

On a bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon, an orderly at Memorial Hospital wheeled me to the curb where the car, fitted with a loaner carseat, waited to take Gabriel and me home.  The orderly kindly turned his eyes and pretended that he didn't notice that Gabriel was never secured in his seat but instead stayed in my arms - I sometimes wonder still if he was instructed to do that. 

Days before Ben was scheduled to move out of our house I got a call from our car insurance agent. "I'm calling for Charles, he asked for a quote on the new truck."

"What new truck?"

"Um. . . I might have the wrong number."

"You're looking for Charles Cude?  Charles Benjamin Cude?"

"I think I have the wrong number."

Ben never spent another night in the house. 

I resented his new truck the moment he pulled up in it.  We'd planned to buy a family car.  We'd planned to stay married.  He'd alleged that the separation was only supposed to be temporary, a cooling off period so we could realize how in love we were and I'd looked forward to his pitiful return on his knees, when I would finally hold the strings and I would finally be in control.  Looking at that truck it couldn't be more obvious that it was over.  It couldn't have been more obvious that he never looked back.

So with my faithful, loyal car I struggled through the summer, doing my best to not let on how tight things had become.  I felt like the protagonist in that Tracy Chapman song "Fast Car." I've always thought the car probably wasn't actually very fast, that the speaker just wanted it to be fast, she wanted to escape. The car didn't have to be fast.  The car was what she made of it.

When I secured the job at Mullen and Filippi I could breathe again, but I was insistent that I wouldn't make any big changes right away.  I crafted a plan to get a new car next April.  I set about stopping strangers in parking lots, asking them what they thought of their vehicle.  I rebuffed my friends' comments that began when I started at the firm. 

"I think I need a tetanus shot," said Blake as he dragged his hand across the rusty spot on the top of my car. "Your car's a bucket."


"It IS a bucket."

"I don't care."  I was committed to stand by my convictions.  My car reminded me of me, a little weathered, but running just fine.  Besides, things, like cars, don't matter so very much to me.  And they mattered to Ben, and maybe that was part of the problem.  The thing I really wanted, I couldn't buy. 

Two weeks ago while riding with Noelle in a backseat that is now fit only for dogs, the window rolled down so she could flap her ears and tongue in the wind, the motor on the back window stopped working.  After fruitless attempts to get the window back up on my own, I enlisted one of the regulars from the bar to help, but we couldn't seem to find the right time to meet up.  Meanwhile, a stream of bird droppings dripped along the side of the car, which couldn't be hosed down or washed without getting into the interior.  Every morning I would cross my fingers as I turned the key, hoping the engine wasn't next to fail.  But the kicker was knowing that everyone on the road to work could hear that I was listening to Belinda Carlisle in the morning.  My delicate pride was suffering. 

"Just go buy a car," said Ken, my colleague at work. 

"Maybe at the end of the month."  Ken rolled his eyes.  When I appeared in his doorway on Friday morning and told him I was thinking of car shopping over the weekend, he responded "Do it."

Car shopping, often cited as a stressful, pressured experience, was one of the most relaxing, empowering experiences of my new single life.  At 6:30 on Friday evening I walked into a quiet Ford dealership showroom practically undetected but for a receptionist, who summoned a salesman to assist me.  Frank was kind and unassuming. 

"Can I help you?"

"I don't know.  You either can, or you can't.  I want an Escape.  Preferably the older, boxy model.  I need space for my dogs.  And I'm not paying more than this much a month.  And that's the only way I'm buying today.  But if you can do that, I'll buy." 

After verifying that I was open to a pre-owned vehicle Frank showed me what was on the lot. 

"35,000 is a lot of miles to put on a car in two years," I said of the car that seemed like the best fit.

"Well, these new cars can go for miles and miles.  Does it really worry you that much?"  I nodded.  He glanced at my car.  "Yeah.  You seem like you keep your cars for a while.  Well, we have another one, it's a year older but it only has 30,000 miles.  It's on the other lot.  It's black."

"But it's on the other lot?"

"They can have it here for you in 15 minutes."

By 9:00 that night I was being handed the key to my new, certified, pre-owned car. 

Ever the planner, there's plenty of cargo space in the rear for the dogs, to preserve the backseat for a couple of carseats someday.  It feels like a family car.  I'll admit, right now it's a little lonely.  There are a few accomodations to be made before the dogs can ride.  Of course, there's no need for a carseat.  Right now it's just me, nothing in the rearview mirror behind me, but everything laid out ahead of me.