Friday, December 27, 2013

Wake Me Up

I'm drunk. I've entered the wrong PIN into the ATM twice now, but I'm determined. I peak around the corner and see Timothy singing karaoke, and I hope no one's noticed that I'm taking so long in the hallway because it feels SO long, so I try one more time and this time I am successful and the machine spits out several $20s. I curse the whiskey under my breath. I feel his voice on me.

 "Watch your mouth." I turn around and am momentarily confused. He doesn't belong here with the ATM machine. They've never been here at the same time. My head tilts and my brow wrinkles, then relaxes as I recall that he was inevitable. It was all inevitable.

 So I simply say, "Oh. Hey, Sean." The karaoke has stopped, and I hear Otis Redding on the jukebox. I glance to my right, and the jukebox is ten years older, containing a limited selection of CDs. Sean lights a cigarette and leans against the doorway of the men's bathroom. "You're not supposed to. . ." and my voice trails off while Sean looks at me expectantly, but a cloud of cigarette smoke has wafted from the main bar into the hallway where we are standing. I am reminded that we're in Charly's and patrons could smoke in Charly's. "Nevermind. What do you want to do?"

He takes a drag and holds it. I remember the first time I saw him standing in a doorway smoking. I thought he was an amazing sight, like someone out of a movie. It was like something out of a movie. "We can do whatever we want. We have time." But we don't. "Let's finish our drinks." He nods towards the bar and I see in front of the barstool where I first met him a Bud Light, and next to it a Corona which I presume to be mine.

"No, let's not stay. Let's get out of here. Let's just go somewhere by ourselves."

"I want to finish. I'm having fun. We'll get out of here after this one."

"It's just that there's so many people. I can't even really talk to you." "We can talk anytime." Except, we can't. "We're having fun, right? You're having fun. If you're not having fun you can go. I can meet up with you later."

"No. No, I'll stay. I want to stay." Holding the smoldering end of his cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, he turns to open the bathroom door and quickly I begin to panic. "Where are you going?"

"The bathroom. I'm just going to the bathroom. Is that okay? I'll be right back."

"Please don't. Please don't go. Don't go in there. Please stay." Sean cups the side of my face with his empty hand and looks down at me. I see the subtle green hues in his eyes, ringed with brown. I couldn't always see the green, but I could always see that the whites of his eyes were growing red with strain. 9 years later, Sean's vision likely would have been nearly gone. He stares at me for a moment.

"I'll be right back."

And he pushes the door to the bathroom open and disappears behind it. I try to stop him, but I'm paralyzed, I can't lift my arms or my feet, so I brace myself for what comes next. From the other side of the door I hear a gunshot. It rings in my ears, but is still muffled, quiet, absorbed by Sean's brain and the back of his skull. 

The world begins to spin and I am standing outside of his apartment and I sense that something is wrong because his car hasn't moved it hasn't moved for five days and he's not answering his phone and we had a fight but I have to know if something is wrong so here I am but something is wrong so I begin to run but my feet feel so heavy they are so heavy but I drag them along until I am in front of the door but I don't have a key anymore because we had a fight but I see that light peaks through the blinds and I know that can't be right because it's the middle of the day but I look through the blinds and there he is from behind the blinds I see him and it's so terrible and it's not right so I bang on the window and I command him to get up and walk but I see that the gun is right beside him and I see that his legs are stiff and I see that he is not moving and I pull at the cheap windows until they begin to slide open and I push the blinds out of my way and I start to enter through the window but there is blood and I can't keep going I can't see his face because I want to remember his face looking down on me so I call and then there are sirens and they are telling me that he's gone. He's been gone for days. He's been like that for days.

The world spins again, and I am in the hallway again. This time I am at The Wright Place. There is no smoke, and the modern digital jukebox has returned, but it's not on right now because it's karaoke night. I wander back to my seat, now in the middle of the bar, still with a Corona in front of it. I see Gabriel's picture above the register. It's nine years later. Marcos is waiting for me. When I sit beside him he turns to me and kisses me on the cheek and puts his hand on my back and he asks if I am okay and I tell him yes.

I know that the movie is unfolding as it is supposed to. I know that it had to play out as it did, for me to get to where I am now. The dreams are fewer and farther between now, maybe two or three a year, but they still come and they are still haunting, packed with the inevitablity, always like a train car on a track without a brake, always headed for tragedy, even as I try with futility bring it to a halt.

As the world settles down after Christmas I can feel the memories coming back to me in the turning pages of the calendar and the cold night air and sometimes I struggle to breathe. But I know that if I had never been where I was, I couldn't have found my way to where I am. You don't get love without a little pain. You don't get a rainbow without the rain.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Living on a Prayer

We're halfway there. 20 weeks into our 40 week pregnancy, I'm still working on balancing my hope against my fears, but every day seems to be a little easier. My belly is growing, faster than it grew with Gabriel. The growth is at once comforting and unnerving - I didn't grow this quickly with Gabriel, but maybe that's a good sign.


Halfway there, I find myself living on prayers, the silent whispers of my heart that I can't hide from God. I hope for a baby boy, whom I can watch grow and do all of the baby boy things that I never got to see Gabriel do. I hope for a little brother for my son. And I hope for a baby girl to dress in the pretty clothes I've collected in my hope chest over the years. The uncertainty of this rainbow baby's gender has provided me with twice the hope, easing some of the pain from having my hopes crushed at about this point during my pregnancy with Gabriel. Where my dreams for Gabriel's future were destroyed so suddenly, the hope this time is being stretched to its limits as I wait for this baby's birthday when he or she will finally be revealed as my son or daughter.


I have not-so-silent prayers, too. Although Gabriel taught me to live in the moment, his short life also taught me to dream big, and bold, and with specificity. I prayed for five very specific things when Gabriel's diagnosis was confirmed: For his live birth when 25% of babies like him are stillborn; for a chance to formally baptize him in the Church, though Ben and I baptised him with tap water from the sink in our delivery room; for a chance to bring him home from the hospital - my eyes still flood with tears as I recall being rolled in a wheelchair through the halls of Memorial hospital on that sweet summer day, June 12, 2011; for a chance to introduce him to Gideon, my other mighty warrior; and I prayed for hair, locks of hair to touch and stroke during his short life, and to save as a keepsake when my time with him on earth was through. When Gabriel was born with a circle of soft, long, blonde hair covering the parts of his skull that did develop, I distinctly recall thinking, "Well, I guess I never did ask for brown hair."


When Gabriel's diagnosis was confirmed, I stopped asking God if I could keep him, I stopped asking God to spare my son's life. I accepted the cross I had been delivered and said, "If You must take my son, please let me have these things before You do," and I'm so grateful that I changed my prayers because those memories are the ones that carry me when the longing for Gabriel becomes desparate. I'm unashamed now to admit that I hope for a baby, a boy or a girl, who is healthy and whole and will live a long life - and who has green eyes. Since I've wanted to have children - And I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to have children - I've had a vain and superficial wish for a child with green eyes, like my Grandpa's.


God knows my offspring and I tend to beat the odds, but common sense still tells me that I've got to give the odds something to work with. Green eyes are the product of a recessive chromosome. I don't need to have green eyes, nor does Marcos, for Rocco to have them. But we've got to have them somewhere in our bloodline. It helps to be able to point directly to my maternal grandfather and paternal aunt for evidence of the green-eyed chromosome. You can imagine my delight, then, when meeting Marcos' extended family this weekend for the first time at a birthday party, only to learn that he has three aunts and an uncle with green eyes too. My odds just increased.


As the party went on and my social inhibitions faded, I found myself conversing with these people who were not only Marcos' family, but who are Rocco's family too, and now mine through Rocco. Their pride in Marcos and the wonderful man that he is was evident. Their joy at the impending addition to their family was clear, too. I am more confident than ever that Rocco, boy or girl, green or brown eyes, will be surrounded by love. I've learned that love is the only thing we can promise to our children, and Rocco will never be without it. Never.
Still, green eyes would be nice.


Having hit that halfway point, having confirmed that Rocco does not have anencephaly, having verified once again that I am blessed to have Marcos by my side, I can almost feel this baby in my arms. Two and a half years ago I held my heart in my hands and watched it beat for the last time, but before long I will hold my beating heart again, in answer to the prayer that has remained most steadfast inside of me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Sword Will Pearce Her Heart

Luke 1:34-35 - "And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed - and a sword will pierce even your own soul - to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."



In the nearly three years since my son Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly the story has become all too familiar.  Like 1 in 1,000 parents Roxi Harp Shook was told that her daughter had anencephaly, and if she survived birth she would live for only minutes, possibly hours.  Maybe, if she was very fortunate, she would live for a matter of days.  Or she could terminate her daughter's life, no questions asked.  She could extinguish this tiny, helpless child who was seemingly living only to die.

And like less than 10% of mothers do when confronted with this diagnosis, Roxi selflessly told the medical community to shove it.  There wasn't a thing any doctor could tell her to make her give up on her child.

I first "met" Roxi in June 2011.  My son Gabriel, born on June 10, 2011 with anencephaly, had unexpectedly survived long enough to be discharged from the hospital.  We'd been released with no instruction on how to care for Gabriel's opening.  A sister anencephaly mom, Nichole Simmons, recommended I contact Roxi-then-Harp.  Her daughter Pearce was living miracle, then four months old after being born with anencephaly.
I can't remember much about our text message conversation.  We were both so busy trying to figure out this unique situation of motherhood, trying to figure out how to care for a baby who was born to die.

Gabriel lived for ten precious days, the ten most exhausting days of my life.  Without having been there, you can't imagine what it's like to know that your child's life is so very fragile, destined to be so very short, that he or she could leave you any minute, any day.  My sweet little boy died at ten days old, having trampled on the odds given to us when he was diagnosed.

But on the other side of the country, Pearce Cheyenne Harp was living and thriving and causing doctors to throw their hands up without answers, the faithful to be renewed with inspiration, and the skeptical to shake their heads in wonder.  Pearce celebrated a very special first birthday. . . And then a very special second birthday.

Anencephaly mommies like myself, and those who had their babies even longer, or even shorter, and those expecting their babies soon, looked to Roxi and Pearce with vicarious hope.  None of us know how much time we might get.  We choose to give our babies life because we don't believe for a minute that life is a choice, but a gift.  It is not for us to take.  Life is God's for us to place our trust in, and we do place our trust in Him.  We trust Him knowing our mother's hearts will be pierced with a sword leaving a wound unlike any other - The wound of the loss of a child.  We suffer the ache because we love more than we hurt and we know more than most what a blessing every breath and every moment are.

Somewhere along the line, as we watched Roxi and Pearce live and love we also witnessed the transformation of Roxi, who went from a mother who expected her child to die, to a warrior who knew her daughter would not live forever, but would not let her go without dignity, respect, and a fight.  No one would treat her daughter like a lost cause.  No one would treat Pearce like she was already gone.  Because she was here.  She was here, against all odds, for two years and ten months.  In two years and ten months a little girl who couldn't walk and couldn't talk changed the way so many see life, love, and motherhood.

When Roxi asked for prayers for Pearce's relief from suffering, I knew what kind of strength that took.  I know how hard it is to know that the best thing, the only thing left for you to do for your child is to let them go.  I know what it's like to ask your own child to let go of your hand, and take Jesus' hand instead.  My heart ached with the memory of letting my own baby boy go as I joined Roxi and Casey and Jim and the family and the world in this prayer.

On December 10, 2013 when I woke up and learned the news, that Pearce had passed after surviving exactly 2 years and ten months with anencephaly, the tears flowed knowing the pain that a family was experiencing somewhere in North Carolina.  But even as I cried, my heart throbbed with gratitude for this woman and this child who by their example changed hearts and minds, and saved lives.  How many women have decided to continue their pregnancy after hearing Pearce's story?  How many minds have been changed to recognize the value of every life, no matter how short, no matter how small?  We'll never know on this earth, but we know that this earth is a different place because Pearce Cheyenne Harp was in it for two years and ten months.

A sword has indeed Pearced Roxi's heart.  She will never be the same.  But I know that this precious ache she is experiencing is one she would never want to live without.  That child has left an imprint on this world that will survive long after each of us are gone.  I know that Roxi would never again want to live in a world that hadn't been pierced by Baby Pearce.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Lucky


Let's start by stating the obvious:  Once you've been privileged enough to bake with a Kitchen Aid, a spatula, an arthritic arm, and a $10 hand mixer just don't cut it any more.

Then again, there are other things to consider.  Last week I took the second volume of a deposition of a man who, after returning to work following the holidays last year, slipped, fell, had one emergency spine surgery and two subsequent spine surgeries, and lost temporary use of all four of his extremities.  His mobility is much improved since I took his deposition in July, but undoubtedly as his family gathers this year for Thanksgiving they must be remarking at how much their lives have changed.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, of course.  We are probably the people in the world who have the most to be thankful for.  Even my deponent lives in a country where there is a system in place to provide for an injured worker.  That is a privilege.

I will eat today.  I will eat until I feel I may burst and then I will take a break and then I will eat again.  Some time this evening I will say good night to my loving family and venture with my kind-hearted boyfriend to meet my wonderful friends in a bar that I love and we'll sing karaoke and swap food and laugh and I will have a perfect day.  Somewhere else in the world someone is living a life quite the opposite of my own.  They didn't do anything to land themselves there, any more than I did anything right to get so very lucky in life.  We both ended up where we are by the roll of God's providential dice.

Maybe an outsider would look at me and only see the most glaringly unlucky part of my life.  It can be easy to slip into focusing on what I don't have on a day like today.  Gabriel's absence is obvious and painful.  I wonder what kind of picky eating habits he would have developed.  Perhaps unlike his momma he would love pumpkin pie the most.  I would have to require him to take two bites of everything on his plate before he could have pie, and that could take hours, but it would be worth the wait to watch the smile spread across his face at the sight of the burnt orange triangle, topped with Cool Whip.  I've missed my son all morning.  I miss my son every day.

But as I baked a pan of pumpkin cake bars, this year's alternative to one of my less-favored Thanksgiving staples, I could feel Rocco move contentedly inside of me and a feeling of contentment came over me too.  My life is what it is.  I lost my son and I will always feel that loss in my core.  Still, I have so much to be thankful for.  I am grateful that God has chosen to bless me as He has, and I have been so very blessed.  I don't deserve it, certainly not anymore than anyone else I know, but this is the life I've been given and I love it.  I think I just might be the luckiest girl in the world.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

MILFin' It





When Ande Castaneda announced that she was booking for her annual holiday boudoir photo session, I looked down at my belly in its bloated early stages of pregnancy and wondered if I should bother.

Over the past three years, through the course of my pregnancy with Gabriel, over the ten days that I cared for him during his short life, while my body adjusted to post-partumhood, and through the first trimester of this pregnancy, I've discovered a lot about my body.  I've discovered that it is amazing in its capacity to grow life.  I've been angry at my body for what I perceived to be failures in miscarrying Baby Cude and not "properly" developing Gabriel.  I've marveled at how my body stretched to make room for Gabriel.  I've been vainly proud of how my body lost the weight from pregnancy.  I've wondered if anyone would ever look at my body with appreciation again when I found myself single.  And I've willed it to do its job once again in growing Rocco.

After a heated discussion on my page over the term "MILF" I did a lot of reflecting on why it is so important to me to feel attractive, and to feel like other people find me attractive. I've concluded that it's just a natural human want.  I've decided I shouldn't feel bad about that want.

My body has been through so much.  It was violated by a team of rapists.  It's been shared by three, tiny new lives now.  Its arms have held its own offspring while he took his last breath, and handed his lifeless body over to be cremated.  It has functioned even when its brain barely did.  It has functioned even when its heart has been broken.  My body is nothing special, and yet, it is, because the human body is special and wonderous and resilient and beautiful.  It deserves to be spotlighted once in a while.

Besides, Ande told me I would be her first pregnant boudoir subject.  Ande has recently quit her day job to focus on developing a full-time career in photography and make-up artistry.  She's talented, determined, on a precipice that could take her anywhere.  And I had an opportunity to be her first something.  I had an opportunity to have a little bit of involvement in something that could be very big.  So, I seized the opportunity.

This year Ande was not only photographing, but the photo package included hair-styling by one of her professional friends, and make-up by Ande too.  Last year I signed up to have my photos taken by Ande, but elected to do my own hair and make-up so I would feel more comfortable.  This year I was looking forward to taking on a bold look, to reflect some of the bold developments in my life.  Taking a job in worker's compensation law might not seem like a risky move, but it was when it was an area of law I knew nothing about.  Falling in love with a man who is kind and generous and loving and supportive might not  seem very brave, but believing that he really is all of those things and always will be meant taking a chance.  And telling Ande and Sarah, the hairstylist, that I wanted to look like Nancy Sinatra when I was 13 weeks pregnant was kinda risky too.  But it just seemed like the right thing do do.

Of the 30 edited images that came on my disk, I think I was critical of more than half of them.  My tummy looked puffy.  I could see all three of my chins.  My nose is big.  I have new and hideous "agespots" on my legs.  My arms are flabby.  I'm not a model.  But I still felt beautiful.  A baby lives in my tummy. My legs were voted the best in East Bakersfield High School's class of 1999, they've carried me through years of working on them for long hours, and they still look pretty good.  And my hair was huge, and rad.

I am a firm believer that every woman should treat herself to something that makes her feel beautiful.  Every woman IS beautiful.  Once in a while, she has to let herself believe it.

*Ande Castenada's beautiful make-up and photography are featured on her website: http://www.andecastaneda.com/  In addition to boudoir photography she does wedding, engagement and family photos.  I can't encourage local readers enough to consider her for your own photography.




Monday, November 18, 2013

Scanning the Grey



It's been more than 7 years since Elise Broadbent barreled into the recently re-named bar The Wright Place, where I was working the remaining months until I would leave for law school.  She must have been about 23 years old at the time, which means her son Bailey must have been about 2.  She was a single mother, unexpectedly raising a child on her own, barely more than 5 feet tall, with dyed black hair with purple streaks in it.  She'd recently lost her job at the Rockin' Rodeo, which closed after a fatal shooting outside of the nightclub.  She was vibrant, outgoing, and annoying as shit.

Elise was at The Wright Place for an interview, and when she was hired I figured she'd come and go like most bartenders do, but she stuck around for the three years that I was away at school, and for another three years after I returned.  I went back to work at the bar, reluctant to commit to full-time practice, just as Elise was beginning classes at the junior college, determined to build a career for herself after years of bartending and scraping by to take care of her son.  Semester after semester she produced exemplary grades, and toyed with the idea of getting a degree in psychology, until some inspiration struck her and led her in the direction of ultrasound technician.  She began researching programs and figuring out what she needed to do to get into such a program.

Early in the Spring 2011 semester, when was just beginning a medical terminology course, she asked me in the office at the Wright Place what was wrong.  I told her that my unborn child had been diagnosed with anencephaly.  She broke down the word and quickly realized what the problem was.

I had, by that point, learned to tolerate Elise, but going forward we became true friends.  She kept my secret until I was ready to publicly disclose Gabriel's condition.  She put her hands on my belly and felt him move, as vibrant and alive as she was the day I met her.  The day Gabriel was born she came to the hospital to meet him, one of a short list of people invited to meet Gabriel face-to-face.  She was the first to ask if she could remove his cap to look at his exposed defect - She looked even before I did.  On his fifth day of life she brought her then 8 year old son to my home to see Gabriel, unexpectedly holding on days longer than we ever dreamed, to see him again.  She held him, and her son stroked his face lovingly, with Gabriel wearing no cap and his oddity exposed for them both to see.

As my marriage crumbled, as my life crumbled, as I crumbled, Elise was there to nurture me with kindness and cocktails.  She was the conduit for establishing the friendship I now share with Blake and Lindsey, and the three of them are the best things I got from my divorce.  New, real, and meaningful friendships were the last things I expected at this point in my life.  A friendship was the last thing I expected the day I met Elise Broadbent, mistress of colored hair and karaoke.

The day Gabriel was diagnosed with anencephaly, an ultraound tech first detected the defect.  She alerted me that something was wrong, and that the doctor would be in to explain.  My doctor was not in the office, and so her partner broke the news that my child would not survive after birth.  She said to me, "We see this maybe once every five years in our practice."

Months later, my doctor was again out of the office during one of my routine prenatal visits, and the same doctor that had shattered my world saw me instead.  She didn't remember me.  In fact, even when I mentioned that my child had anencephaly, her memory was not triggered.  Instead she said, "You know, most of the time when that is diagnosed the child is just fine."  I stared at her wonderously.  "Hydrocephaly?  Right?" she asked.

"No. ANENcephaly."

"Oh," she said quietly.  "Yes.  Anencephaly is fatal.  I'm sorry."  I couldn't believe that just a few months ago, this woman had brought my world to pieces with a diagnosis that she admitted was rare and infrequently seen even in her business of delivering babies.  I couldn't believe that she shared a moment with me that was so intimate, and so life-changing, and so fucking uncommon, and yet there I was, just another patient.

But in another room of that same clinic, I bet an ultrasound tech remembered me.  If she is like Elise, who will complete her ultrasound program next month and begin her career very shortly, she went home and cried and privately mourned for the patient that she didn't even know.  I know this, because when Elise made her first diagnosis of anencephaly, she cried.

I frequently think that Elise and I are so close because we've each experienced severe trauma, probably more severe than the average person.  No one could blame either of us for just shutting down one day.  But we each pick ourselves up, and push ourselves along, and when we can't do it anymore, the other one does.

It's hard to believe sometimes that for all of its scars, Elise still has one of the biggest, most giving hearts of anyone I know.

Happy birthday, Elise.  You're 31, you're almost done, but the rest of your life has just begun.  And it's only going to get better from here.  These moments are your rainbow.  I love you.  And I'm so proud of you.


And you'd better not cry like a big, old diaper baby. 



Monday, November 11, 2013

The Flood





11:20 couldn't come fast enough. I grabbed a file and performed some obligatory reporting, but the task that should have taken 10 minutes took about 30. I googled "typing speed tests," hit the 'Start Clock' button and began pecking away. Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon. . . 68 words per minute, zero errors. I could do much better. I clicked the button for a new test. After several tests I maxed out at 78 words per minute, zero errors. Satisfied, and noting how much time I had been able to pass, I grabbed another file requiring only perfunctory attention until the clock read 11:00. I plastered a look of false bravado on my face as I told the staff I would be back in a couple of hours, and met Marcos in the parking lot, where we got into my car and drove to the doctor's office.

Immediately I noticed there was no ultrasound equipment in the room, and so I inquired of the tech who said no ultrasound was ordered for the day. When the doctor arrived I asked again.

"No. You won't have another ultrasound for quite a few weeks, until later in your second trimester."
I could feel the tears sting my eyes immediately. "But I thought - I thought that's what we would do today. I - I never would have consented to the last one, if I thought we would not do another one this week. I -" and the words from my last blog began spilling out of my mouth, "I need to know if this baby has anencephaly. It takes a great leap of faith to be pregnant again, but I need to know. I am stressed out wondering. I need to know!" and the tears were rolling and my voice was quivering.

"Everything appeared normal at your first ultrasound. . ." but I cut her off. "Everything appeared normal with my son, too, until one day it wasn't."

"I know. . ."  I wouldn't give her a chance to speak, I just kept pleading with her until she finally agreed that if there were a machine available, until she said with resignation that she would perform the ultrasound. "You're right.  It does take a leap of faith to get pregnant again."  She prefaced the impending ultrasound with familiar language to a lawyer: "I'm not a specialist. I cannot rule out anencephaly, especially not at this stage. I'm still going to send you to see the specialist. I can only tell you if the image appears to be normal, in my experience. I can't diagnose, or not diagnose, anything, and we're not going to take any action no matter what I see." With her waiver of liability having been made I said, unequivocally, "I want you to know it doesn't matter what you say today, or what the specialist says. It's not going to change anything. I'm not going to end this pregnancy. I just need to know." She nodded, and we proceeded.  Marcos held my hand, and I held my breath.

And there it was. You can't imagine how much that bright, round image of a baby's skull, taken for granted in so many pregnancies, means. Not until it's been decidedly missing from your child's ultrasound image. Not until you've wished you could simply take your own skull, saw it off of your own head yourself, to give it to your child. But there, clear and bold on the screen was the distinct image of bone forming a skull. Rocco rolled in response to the ultrasound wand, allowing us to see all angles. "As far as I can tell, within my area of expertise as a ob/gyn, not a specialist, there does not appear to be any grossly obvious deformity." I nodded at her conditional language, knowing it just her clinical training, knowing there was nothing gross about my son's deformity, knowing he was beautiful, and his little brother or sister is beautiful too, each in their own distinct ways.

In that bittersweet moment there was at once a flood of relief, and a wave of sadness as I grieved once again the day my world fell apart with my first lesson in anencephaly.  These moments will always be bittersweet.  Like the top of his own skull was missing, so Gabriel's physical presence will be missing from the rest of my life.  I feel it, deep in my bones.  I always will.  Faith, and a rainbow baby, don't replace the child that I carried, that I gave birth to, that I love from somewhere built into my core.  Faith only givea me the strength to believe that even though he is gone, I'll see my son again, and I'll be okay until I do.

Genesis 9: 13-17 "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.  Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.  Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."  So God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth.

For years I've felt that I was on the brink of drowning.  I don't know sometimes how I managed to keep from going under.  There were mornings when I would wake up, and wonder why I would, why I should live to see another day and it was only by supernatural force that I carried on.  But my rainbow has appeared.  This time it is not an illusion.

Life will keep sending challenges, will keep throwing curves.  There will always be rain.  But now there's a rainbow in the clouds.


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Monday, November 4, 2013

Before This River, There Comes an Ocean

It takes a huge leap of faith to be pregnant again.

I remember the first time someone told me that I was brave for trying again. It was Randy, over a gin and tonic, with his blunt ways who first said to me after the miscarriage, "That takes courage to try again."

He said it again after Gabriel's diagnosis was revealed. Gabriel hadn't even been born yet, but my desire to have children was already evident and I was not at all surprised when Randy if I would try again after Gabriel. And again, I had no reservations about answering "Yes." Randy noted once more the courage that would be required, but added, "You had one flukey thing happen, then another flukey thing happened, but that's no reason to stop trying, they were flukey things." Randy, a fellow member of the California Bar whom I met in a different kind of bar, is as practical as I am and I took no offense to his description of events. I love my children in Heaven, but I know it is by some natural fluke that they are not with me today. Sometimes, these things just happen.

If I had to describe my level of confidence, I am 99% sure that the baby I am now carrying is going to be just fine. The odds are, he or she will be. Besides, I am a woman of faith. I am woman who is confident that between God and statistics, come May I will be holding a healthy baby in my arms.

It's the 1% that troubles me. It's only 1%, but it represents something so frightening that it can feel like it's consuming me. I don't know that I can handle one more heartbreak.

"This is girl season," someone told me recently. "Odds are, you're having a girl."

"I tend to beat the odds," was my response, the stinging nature of which was lost on this unassuming stranger. She couldn't know that only 1 in 1,000 pregnancies will result in an anencephalic infant and my son Gabriel was that 1 in 1,000; or that of those 1 in 1,000 pregnancies, upwards of 90% of them will result in the termination of that child so that less than 10% of those 1 in 1,000 babies will get a chance to live; or that among those children who are given a chance to live, only 25% of them will live for a day or more and so it was indeed a fluke that my sweet anencephalic baby boy lived for ten days, against the odds. She couldn't know that while I've played the odds and sometimes I've scored big and sometimes I've lost big, I have no idea how this pregnancy will play out when of the 1 in 1,000 women who have an anencephalic baby, 4 in 100 of us will have a recurrence. I have faith that it won't be me. But I know that it has to be someone. And it could very well be me.

With tentative faith I will report to my obstetrician one week and one hour from now and I will hope to hear the words that most people never have to consider: "You're baby's skull is perfectly formed." If you've never had to hear that your baby's skull is NOT perfectly formed, or words of similar effect, I urge you to fall to your knees now and thank God because you can't imagine how much it hurts, and be glad you can't. In that "What to Expect When You're Expecting" book you're told that you can generally expect that your baby will be perfectly fine, but you're not told what to expect when he's not. I could write a book on what to expect with terminal diagnosis and infant loss. I maybe already have.

Randy was right. It takes courage to have another baby. I didn't know, until I was doing it. I didn't know it would take strength to love again, until I was loving. I didn't know I would have to be brave in this time of good news, until I realized how scared I am. I didn't know, because I didn't care, because my longing was greater than my fear. But I'm doing it, all of it. Every day is a little bit easier, with a huge milestone yet to come. I can see this baby, I can almost feel him or her in my arms and against my skin. But, before this river, there comes an ocean, George Michael advises me. As I tread my way through the sea of Fear and Hope, sometimes barely keeping my head above water, I'm reminded that I keep doing it because if I want the reward, I've gotta have faith. A-faith a-faith uh.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Messy, Risky Business of Love

There are a few times in a woman's life when she is particularly susceptible to allowing love, or something resembling love, to turn her into a complete fool. The first is when she is 16 years old, and some green-eyed boy catches her eye and just like that, she's gone.

The second, in my experience, is when her son dies and her marriage crashes and burns and she wants desparately to love and feel loved again.

The latter is precisely where I was as I sat on the cooler in my average bar on an average Sunday night, when an average looking guy walked in and turned my world upside down. He ordered a Coors light. I asked him for $2.75.

"Can you just leave my tab open?"

"We only take cash. So, you have to pay as you go. There's an ATM around the corner." I stood there staring at him for a moment until he picked up the cue.

"Oh. Right. Um, okay." And he rounded the corner with his debit card. He returned with one of the regulars, Karaoke Chris, in tow, who introduced me. "This is Andrea. She's kind of a devout Catholic, but she's cool, she's not weird or in your face about it."

"And you?" I inquired of the stranger after I'd taken his $20 and returned his $17.25 in change. "You have a name?"

"Uh, yeah. Sorry. . ." And so I was introduced to Bar Crush. By the end of the night I had indeed been in-your-face with Catholic knowledge. Bar Crush had been able to deduce that I took French in college. I learned that he was a native of upstate New York, and a New York Giants and Yankees fan. Still the attraction wasn't swift, at least not for me.

But as time went on the attraction, and the connection, became obvious to anyone who saw us interact. He said stupid things to me, like "I'm a Civil War guy," and "Every time my daughter smiles, she makes everything bad in the world go away," and my brain would melt and my ovaries would ache and I was just in awe of this fantastic guy that someone foolishly let go of. I was amazed by his capacity to move forward from his former wife, not talking about her, seeming not to think about her or worry about her, except to the extent that they had an excellent co-parenting relationship. And he, he gave me stupid looks and flattered me back, and engaged in the most intimate form of interaction with me that I could imagine - He read my blog entries, with fair regularity. Like an idiot I tumbled head first in lovei wth Bar Crush.

The relationship that I thought should have developed was obvious to me but Bar Crush was reluctant. He was not too far removed from his eight year marriage, and hesitant to start dating again. And I was a mess, recovering from my own broken marriage and broken babies. I was characteristically me, determined, focused, sure of what I wanted, and sure that I should have it. I wasn't quite sure why he was denying himself what I was certain a relationship of 19th century literature proportions. We'd both been released from marriages where we were underappreciated, so why wouldn't we move on with someone who would appreciate us now? Why would we wait? After all, life is short - ten days is a lifetime. Why wait even ten days?

The - uh - friendship? - waxed and waned as we each sometimes accelerated, sometimes pulled back, always at a different pace from the other. I was sure that when the time was right for Bar Crush, he would look to me first. I had, after all, put in the effort. So the words on my computer screen were all the more devastating in the light of my certainty: "I've been hanging out with someone." In the moment, I was grateful for his cowardly, online disclosure, at the time having thought of it as merciful because the tears welled up so swiftly and spilled so uncontrollably that I would have been ashamed for him to see such weakness in me.  Now I know he should have had the guts to tell me to my face.

"Oh." Hanging out? What does that mean? What is this hanging out? We've hung out. . . What was happening?

"It's nothing serious, and I don't know if it will turn into much, but I wanted to be honest with you." He at least recognized that I was fragile enough, and that, whatever the nature of our relationship it was certainly of the type where he should rightfully disclose this information to me.

"Well, I guess whatever it is, you should figure it out." And we ended the conversation on some baseball small talk, and I retreated to the backyard to cry as the pain sunk further and further into my chest.

Ultimately, he cut off contact entirely, and it made no sense for me to ask why, if we were only friends before, we couldn't just be friends now. The truth is, there is no good reason why we can't be. The truth is, he never really saw me as a friend. I still can't figure out of it's because he was simply using me to build-up his ego in the aftermath of a bad relationship, or if, as I believe, the attraction was so strong that it would be difficult to be just friends. Or maybe I'm just the fool who believes that the man who pushed the woman he was married to, the mother of his child, to the back of his mind, would remember me even in passing anymore.

A good person would simply wish him well. But I'm not a good person. I hope he's gloriously happy right now. And I hope that shortly, his heart is ripped from his chest cavity and pounded with a mallet - metaphorically speaking, of course. I hope the Red Sox win the World Series this year, just out of spite, and I hope he cries over it.  There are rebound moments. There are rebound relationships. But any decent person would have seen - SHOULD have seen that I was special. I was to be handled with care, and somewhere along the line, he just stopped caring - He had to have just stopped, because I don't believe for a moment that he never did. And maybe you'd ask - certainly the friends who saw me through the devastation will wonder - why I would give him the benefit of a blog entry, when I never have before? I guess it's because nothing really feels dealt with anymore until I blog about it, and besides, it's not like he'll see it now.

Of course, I can look at my life now, falling more in love with Marcos every day, with a highly anticipated baby on the way, and simply be happy with what I have in front of me. It's just not simple. This love doesn't remedy the hurt. This new baby doesn't replace my son. I just wanted to love, and to be loved, and I wanted that love to stay and I never thought it was so much to ask to have either without taking an emotional beating. I took a chance, on loving Bar Crush, on loving my son. I'm only vaguely sorry for Bar Crush, and I'll never be sorry for loving Gabriel. But they both hurt. They both left me pretty tattered.

Then one day, Marcos picked me out, damaged goods from the bunch. I find myself having to take another chance, trusting that our baby will be okay, trusting that no matter what happened in the past, that Marcos will always handle me with care.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Color


The morning was running smoothly, right on schedule.  I was set for a deposition and already knew what I was going to wear.  The dogs went outside with little fuss.  I'd completed the test, and as I brushed my teeth all I had to do was wait for the Clear Blue response.  Only problem, as I brushed, unmarried, reflecting on my two-month long relationship with Marcos, I wasn't sure what I wanted the answer to be.

Soon, there was no reason to think about what I wanted.  The truth blinked across the digital screen:  "Pregnant 2-3," indicating that a 2 to 3 week old baby was growing inside of me.  I spit.  I rinsed.  I cried.  I prayed.  I thanked.  I begged.  I went about my day.

When I presented the news to Marcos that evening, he smiled, hugged and kissed me, and said teasingly, "I guess we're not going out tonight."

"Yes!  I still want to go to karaoke!"  So we did, and I drank club soda with a lime out of a silly hurricane glass and sang a couple of songs and the night was full of promise and hope.

But by the next day, I resumed my self-admonishment.  I had compromised my principles.  I'd given up and given in to the grief that I'd long been suffering.  I'd stopped binding myself by rules and conviction.  My arms had been empty for too long.  My heart had been broken for too long.  The rules no longer seemed to apply.

Maybe it seems like I took the easy way out of grief.  I can promise that the physical part of this process has been the only thing that's been easy.  True to form and now at nearly nine weeks, I've yet to experience any symptoms beyond fatigue.  It's only the fear and anxiety that handicap me.

Two years of gathering information about anencephaly have informed me that 1 in 1,000 pregnancies will result in an anencephalic baby.  Among us 1 in 1,000 women, 4 in 100 of us will experience a recurrence. As I swallow my handful of folic acid tablets I remind myself daily that I'm reducing even further that already slight risk of experiencing that rare defect again.

So when I first consulted with the nurse, when I first heard the words "high risk" fall out of her mouth, I was stunned.  I had never considered myself high risk.  Miscarriages happen, they're common, even.  Anencephaly just happens.  Sometimes it just happens.  And I'd been reassuring myself, soothing my irrational fears, only to have this nameless nurse resurrect them again.

"Ordinarily, you'd meet with a nurse practitioner for most of your visits, but the doctor may want to see you personally throughout.  You know, because of your history.  We have a perinatologist come down a couple of times a month, and they'll probably want him to scan you.  Also, you'll be getting a call from the genetic counselor."

"Why?"

"Because of your history."  I scowled.  I hated her.  I hated her for reading some segment of some chapter in some nursing school textbook, and thinking she could talk to me like she had a clue.  I guarantee I know more about anencephaly than she does.

I recalled briefly flipping through the pages of my barely-used copy of "What to Expect When You're Expecting" at 22 weeks pregnant with Gabriel.  I had stopped referring to the book when I found that I just didn't need its assistance.  But in the bleak, grey wake of Gabriel's earth-shattering diagnosis, hungry for information, I demanded to know what kind of heads-up this pregnancy bible would have given me and I found only a small gray box with general information on birth defects.  I learned only that anencephaly was a defect that resulted when the neural tube fails to close completely, resulting in developmental failure of the skull and brain.  My doctor would give me the option to terminate my pregnancy.  I learned from other sources that carrying an anencephalic infant posed no more risk to the mother than any other pregnancy.  I learned that anencephalic babies could live for days, weeks, months - I met mothers whose babies had lived for years.  I learned that if I continued the pregnancy, I could plan to participate in Duke's study to learn the causes of anencephaly.

I learned that my baby was a boy.  He was strong-willed and brave.  He's not just history.  He has a name, Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude, and he lived for ten days, and he changed the world.  He is deeply, constantly missed, by many.

And he is going to be a big brother.

Every once in a while, the weight of the experience really comes crashing down on me.  As I sat one evening watching the season finale of "So You Think You Can Dance" with my family, the announcement of beloved contestant Fikshun as America's favorite male dancer brought me to tears.  Gabriel would never win "So You Think You Can Dance." He'd never sit on the Supreme Court, or play in the World Series, or learn the alphabet or to count to ten, or to sit or crawl or walk.  And I don't have the nerve to dream that the baby I am carrying, already affectionately nicknamed "Rocco," will do any of the above.  I can only dream of a round, whole skull, a fully developed brain, a first breath, a first loud cry, a glimpse and a touch of the rainbow I've waited so long and endured so much to see.  Every day without Gabriel has been a challenge.  Every day until I hold Rocco in my arms will bring its own challenges.

My rainbow is on its way.  And the troubles haven't melted like lemon drops.  This yellow-brick road that I must travel to get to the other side of the rainbow has already been harder than I ever anticipated.  Still, it's the road I want to be on, with all of its challenges, with all of my fears.  For the first time in such a very long time, I can finally see in color.




Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shattered

That particular Tuesday night didn't seem to be any different than any other.  A young woman, a fairly regular customer who typically comes in with her boyfriend, came in instead with a girlfriend and ordered drinks at the bar.  Noting my bowl of food  and a notepad set up in front of the two nearest barstools, the girls elected instead to occupy a booth just behind me.  They were joined shortly by two guys, who crammed into the booth with them.  Nothing illicit appeared to be happening.  They were just a group of friends, out for a middle-of-the-week cocktail.  My only qualm was regarding one of the guys, who didn't have money for drinks and kept going back to his friend for cash for drinks and for the jukebox.

I was standing at the other end of the room chatting with a group of friends when I heard yelling coming from the booth.  I looked up to see a woman standing before the "U" shaped booth, her back to me while the two girls in the booth stared in shock and the two guys looked simply dumbstruck.  The subject of her rage was clearly the penniless patron.  Before I could act I saw her fling her arm across the table, knocking the collection of glasses the group had been building for an hour or so into their laps, then she lifted the table and whatever was left fell on them as well.  I started to dash across the bar when I heard her say, "Leave me alone!  I'm six months pregnant!"  Sure enough as I approached I could see her rounded belly resting above the waistband of her sweatpants and protruding from her tight black tank top.

The memory came flooding swiftly back to me:

I was probably about seven months pregnant, waiting at my parents' house for Ben to let me know he was coming home.  There was no response to my messages.  He couldn't be working that late.  The kitchen was closed, and besides, he'd been there since early in the morning.  I excused myself and walked back to my house, where I promptly climbed into my car and drove down the street to Amestoy's.  Ben's truck was parked out back.  

I walked into the bar, and the voices ceased immediately.  A collective breath was held by everyone in the bar as they burned me with their stare.  It was like a scene from a Kenny Rogers song.  Ben was sitting next to the daytime bartender, Jessica, and they appeared to be sharing a pizza.  

By then, the news of Gabriel's condition was well-known.  We were carrying a terminally ill child.  And my husband had lied to me about where he was, leaving me at home to mourn my child's impending fate.  I walked over to him, shaking.  I could feel the sympathetic eyes of Jaron, the night shift bartender, on me.  No one tried to stop me as I quietly but firmly spoke the cruelest words I have ever said to anyone:  "You're a terrible father, and I wish you were dying instead of my son."  I turned, and left. 

I gave the pregnant girl a minute to speak so I could assess the scene.

"You lied to me!  We had a fight, and I find you at the bar with two girls I've never seen?"  I approached and put my hand on her wrist and her boyfriend said to her, "You have glass in your neck."  I looked at the glistening pieces and began to pick them off of her.  She glanced at me and her face began to crumple.  She held strong.  "Who are you?"  she demanded of the girls.

The regular was quick to speak.  "We're friends.  I've known him since high school.  He was just showing me your ultrasound picture."  I grasped her wrist and said softly, "You need to take this outside."

I turned to her boyfriend with blazing eyes.  "Take her outside and fix this." Blood was leaking from his hand, but I didn't care.  I hated him in that moment.  Besides, three other innocent bystanders were sitting under shards of glass that wouldn't have been smashed to bits, but for his lies.

We began putting the shattered pieces of the night back together.  Shane helped me clean up the glass.  The girls picked the pieces off of themselves, and Shane pulled the table back so they could stand and shake off whatever remained.

"She was crazy," one of them said.

"Yes.  But he shouldn't have lied.  Not right now."  The expectant mother had my unwavering sympathy that night.

"No.  He shouldn't have.  But we weren't doing anything wrong."

"I know.  I know.  But she doesn't know.  She's pregnant, and she feels unattractive, and she feels alone, and he lied to her, and you can imagine how that looks, right?"  The girls nodded.

I reflect often on that night at Amestoy's.  I regret my cruelty.  I regret allowing myself to momentarily jump to conclusions about Jessica and Ben.  I regret indulging in "If I could change things. . ." kinds of games, because I couldn't do a damn thing to change any of it.  The path had been set many months before and we were on course and there could be no going back, no do-overs. Whether I was alone at home, in a crowd at the bar, in the aisles of the grocery store, behind the bar or in a courtroom at work, everywhere I went with my son tucked safely in my pregnant belly, Gabriel's condition and the result of that condition were inevitable.

The pregnancy was so public.  Gabriel's condition was so well-known and my blog entries were being closely followed.  I think people must think that they knew exactly what I was feeling.  The thing is, I can say it, or write it as much as I want, but none of us can really begin to imagine what goes on in others' lives and minds when we're not watching.  The grief that weighed on me throughout that pregnancy was greater than I ever let on.  What went on behind the closed doors of my home and my heart was unimaginable, and I'm still trying every day to put the pieces of my shattered life back together.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Profile of a Victim

The atmosphere is tense among women in East Bakersfield.  A serial rapist, who has left a trail of three known victims and perhaps additional unknown victims, is on the loose.  He's broken into his, victims' homes.  In once instance, he restrained her and her child and proceeded to rape her, threatening her with a gun.  He raped another victim in the middle of the day. We've been told, as if we need to be told, that he is armed and dangerous.  We haven't been told if he has a "type," whether he prefers women of a certain build or race or hair color - The only criteria seems to be "woman."

The heightened sense of panic has affected more than just the unfortunate victims.  There are women all of Bakersfield looking over their shoulder, purchasing handguns and pepper spray and large breed dogs and generally living in fear, because women my have come a long way in the last 100 years, but we are still the overwhelming majority of adult sexual assault victims.

I'm situated a little differently.  Having managed in the last twelve years to really tuck the memory of my own rape securely into the back of my mind, I still carry with me remnants of the experience.  I'm always sort of hyper-aware of what's going on around me.  If this armed and dangerous perpetrator and I should encounter one another I would expect a face-off between his violent inclinations and my sheer determination to never be a sexual assault victim again.

As the women of East Bakersfield wait with trepidation for the rapist to be caught, the rest of America continues to discuss Miley Cyrus' performance with Robin Thicke at last week's Video Music Awards.  The footage of Miley flopping her tounge around Gene Simmons-style, motor-boating the butt cheeks of some back up dancer dressed like a teddy bear, stripping down to a nude-colored bikini, thrusting and shaking her butt at Robin Thicke, and grinding against a big foam hand is now famous.

Maybe I'm a hypocrite.  I grew up as a devoted Madonna fan, and seriously believe that she helped form the person I am today. Madonna's own VMA performance of "Like a Virgin" nearly 30 years ago was controversial in its own time.  Maybe I am an even bigger hypocrite because I love the unrated version of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, featuring three women in flesh-colored thongs and nothing else.  I guess the difference between Madonna, the topless girls in the Robin Thicke video, and Miley Cyrus is the confidence with which the former two performed.  Madonna of course famously told us all that she wanted to rule the world, and she practically has. She has never, in my recollection, showed us that she is anything but completely sure of herself.  The same holds true on a smaller scale for the women in Robin Thicke's video.  Their expressions of indifference while the male singers in the video vie for their attention always make me wonder if those girls even know they don't have any clothes on.  They are in charge of themselves, and of what happens to them.

There was nothing bold or confident about Miley Cyrus' performance last week.  She appeared needy and desperate.  And I get it.  I get that she was in a sense used and manipulated and never allowed to develop a proper sense of independence, and now she's clutching at what she thinks is control where she's never had control before.  I get it because I remember a time in my life when I felt similarly, and I remember the needy and desperate ways that I acted out.  I'm scared for girls that I see acting out in the same way because I remember what a long battle I fought with myself to get to a healthy place again.  I remember the hurtful things I did to myself and other people along the way.

I'm not proud of the things I did or the person I used to be.  I'm not proud of the way I handled myself after I was raped, like I was nothing more than a victim.  I was probably more vulnerable in the first few years following the rape than I ever had been in my life.

I'm proud that I'm not that person anymore.  I'm very proud of who I am now, that I am a good mother, daughter, big sister, friend, employee, and attorney.  I wonder frequently if I could have endured the experience with Gabriel so well if I hadn't already been through some adversity and I value the experience of recovery from that horrible violation.

I wish I could tell myself from 12 years ago, and Miley Cyrus today, that there's a big difference between not being forced to do something you don't want to do, and behaving in a way that is completely out of control under the guise of taking control.  That's not brave behavior.  That's not confident behavior.  Bravery and confidence shine through when you act with self-respect, in a way that commands the respect of people around you.  That's when you've become a grown-up.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Unarmed Conflict


I feel conflicted. To say the least.

Marcos and I have been dating for almost 2 months. In that short period it's become routine for us to spend time with his sister, Jessica, and two nieces, Alissa, age 3, and Arianna, age 2. Saturday afternoon we trucked our way to Southwest Bakersfield for another such occassion. Alissa and Arianna were thrilled, as always, to see their Uncle Marc. Immediately, Alissa grabbed me by the hand and pulled me down the hall to show me the makeshift house that had been built out of blankets in her room. I "ooo"ed and "aah"ed before moving to the kitchen to join the grown-ups at the table.

Alissa scaled the length of my leg and the pub-style chair to place herself in my lap. She's an active child and already I've learned that still moments with her are rare and so I enjoyed the brevity during which she leaned her head against my shoulder before she resumed her squirming and squealing. Arianna, a more introverted sort, watched quietly from Marcos' lap but was quick to join in Alissa's proposal for a game of hide and seek. I was instructed to close my eyes and count. I accepted the instruction graciously and obediently counted to ten before wandering down the hall, loudly acknowledging that I was on my way, ready or not. Both of the girls were curled up conspicuously in the open and shrieked with amusement when I "discovered" them. I was then informed that Alissa would count next, and I should hide.

"There." Alissa pointed to her same hiding space. "Hide right there, okay?"

My forehead wrinkled. I didn't really see how I could win the game if I hid exactly where she told me to. "If I hide there, you'll know where to find me." Alissa regarded me skeptically. At three years old, Alissa's face is well-defined, and so are her facial expressions. She never hesitates to show me that she thinks I'm full of nonsense. "Okay, okay," I concede. "You count. I'll hide." She disappeared in a scurry down the hall and I moved swiftly to wedge myself behind her bedroom door. Arianna followed me behind the door. I looked down at her, and she peered up at me with striking blue eyes, and I ignored the constriction of my heart from the longing for my own son as I tried instead to enjoy this moment with a child who is almost exactly the same age Gabriel would be. I pressed my index finger to my lips in a signal to stay quiet, and Arianna tucked her neck into her shoulders with a shy giggle. I could hear Alissa return to find that we were not where she expected us to be. She finally found us when Arianna, limited to the patience of a two year old, wandered out from behind the door. There was more squealing and more laughter as we returned to the kitchen.

The night before, Marcos and I had taken Jessica out to celebrate her birthday. Her opportunities to go out have been severely limited since she's been home caring for her two children and working on a second Master's degree. She was clearly paying the price for a night of fun with a post-fun headache. I thought to myself about all of the nights that I have been out since Gabriel passed. I thought briefly of the ways that my life would be different today if he had lived. I wondered if I am selfless enough to give up the fun and the friends and the bars for another attempt at motherhood.

That evening I made my Shakespearean trek to Tehachapi to visit Marcos. I was thoughtful as my car climbed its escape from Bakersfield to the small mountain town. I miss my son. I want another chance to share my maternal love with another baby of my own, but I'm afraid. What if it happens ten more times? What if there are ten more miscarriages, or ten more fatal defects? Can I survive?

Can I even survive what might be necessary to get myself to the possibility of another family? I want love, I want to be in love, and I want to be loved, perhaps even more than I want more children. I want someone to grow with. I want romance. I want companionship. I want a partner for the rest of my life. Yet I find myself resisting my chances. I'm scared. I've been abandoned by way of suicide and by divorce, and I don't know what's left out there that can hurt me anymore but I can't help but fear what comes next. The scars I've obtained from the years of faithful trust in the idea of true love have begun to thicken and I find myself guarded. When I think of cold dead eyes and a cold dead body and the pieces of my warm and beating heart that they each stripped from me I, a woman who has never been afraid to feel with abandon, now become closed off.

As I laid with my legs and feet stretched across Marcos' lap while we watched a movie I caught my eyes wandering towards him.  I admonished myself not to mess this up, not to let this man get away. My heart wants to leap, and take any chance to find what I feel I've been searching for my entire life. But my head shakes furiously in warning, scolding me not to put us through all of that again. My body is at war with its conflicting, visceral needs to be both loved and protected. I know that there's a cost of doing battle and a price to being victorious. I know that I will inherently lose if I don't fight for what I desire - and I've always been willing to fight for all of this before, and fearless when it came to laying all I had on the line armed only with an exposed and vulnerable heart. I guess I'm just not sure anymore how much more my weathered heart can afford.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Nine Lives


Valentine's Day, 13 years ago, a tiny gray bundle of fur made her way into my life.  Lily.  She was my companion, even traveling with me to law school and staying for about a month, before her practice of clawing my roommate's couch earned her a ticket back home to my parents' house.  When, on Valentine's Day eight years ago I celebrated the holiday with the discovery of Sean's dead body and a brief police interview, Lily was my comfort as I tried to make the best of a grizzly day by celebrating her "birthday" with her.

"I didn't even know you had a cat," someone mentioned recently.  After she got the boot from my place in Costa Mesa, Lily never left my parents' house again.  Some might say she was no longer my cat; but she was always my cat.

It became evident a few months ago that Lily wouldn't be with me much longer. She'd suffered from stomatitis, an inflammation of the mucous lining in her mouth, for which she was treated with periodic steroid injections.  At what I thought was a routine visit for an injection just a couple of months ago, the vet warned me that the injections were becoming decreasingly effective.  The injections no longer held her over for months at a time, but one month, and each time she came in she weighed less.  She recommended I have Lily's teeth extracted, but at a visit last week for yet another injection, the vet informed my dad, who had kindly taken time off from his vacation to take Lily in, that it was time I start "considering Lily's quality of life."
Those were exactly the words I didn't want to hear, and exactly the kinds of considerations I wasn't ready to make.  The tears poured from my eyes.  She couldn't have many more injections - the next one could kill her, as she was requiring them closer and closer together.  She couldn't undergo surgery - that could kill her too.  Her nine lives were exhausted.  Lily was at my mercy and I was at a loss.

I'd joked for years that if anything happened to Lily, it would send me over the edge.  People would say, "She was always so strong. . . Until Lily."  This would be it.

For a week we observed Lily.  I knew the decision to put her to sleep was impending, but I also didn't want to deny her a few more good days.  On Wednesday night it was clear that Lily was ready for me to let her go.  I spent the night at my parents' house, slipping in and out of sleep and trying to check on Lily, to make the last hours of her life as comfortable as possible.  Wrapped in a towel and my arms, we rode over her vocal objections as my dad drove us to the vet's office.

"It's kinder this way.  You know that though, don't you?"  I sniffled and nodded at the doctor, my hands still stroking her bony, feeble body.  Lily, who had always had a kittenish look to her, suddenly looked old and weary.  She'd been my solace for so many years, but now it was time for me to comfort her.  I whispered into her ear simply, "I love you."  

The procedure was over very swiftly.  I cried until I ran out of tears; I cried the tears I didn't cry and hadn't cried for things maybe I should have cried for sooner.  I emptied myself of a great deal of grief over the soft, lifeless body of my Lily.

I noted a missed call on my phone.  "My Boyfriend Marcos."  I'd so labeled him in my phone because I was so excited by our developing relationship.  My faith that maybe, maybe life had more in store for me in the romance department had begun to waver when we met.

Sometimes I feel so stained by my past that it's hard to imagine there's a normal life left for me to have.  The innocence of an animal's soul is unquestionable to me, and so it is our duty to be kind to them and not break their pure spirits.  But throughout our human lives we have experiences that chip away at our innocence and bend our spirits.  There have been times and events after which I was not quite sure life would go on - Life certainly did NOT go on as it had before, it was changed, and I was marked by these events.  These painful events, like the assault; these beautiful events, like the day that Victoria was born; and the beautifully tragic life and death of my son.  Still, the human spirit is a resilient, amazing thing when we're willing to pick ourselves up and make the most of our nine lives.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Drowning, Slowly.

"Your Aunt Carol is going slowly.  I just want you to know that."  I could feel my dad's eyes linger on me for a moment, as though he were waiting for some sign of humanity.

"Okay."

I know I should care.  I know I should be sad, or maybe I should pray, or maybe I should shed a tear, or feel some pang of regret, or something. . . I should feel something.

But I don't.

My dad's sister is dying.

I've never been particularly close to that side of the family and in recent years the relationship has become more strained - And I've become colder and colder, and less and less capable of the kinds of feelings that evoke tears or whatever else one is supposed to feel in these instances.

On the one hand, I feel with this deep, frightening intensity.  And on the other, I feel little at all.

A secretary brought a letter in for me to sign today.  It's still odd to me that someone brings things in for me to sign and I blinked, as I do, to adjust to the notion.  My phone rattled in between us with a number I did not recognize.  I blinked again at Suzanne as I grabbed the phone and looked her in the eye while I answered.

It was some woman from the church, wanting to know if and when I would be willing to volunteer with the youth group.  Suzanne wandered respectfully out of the room.

"I'm at work.  I can't talk." And we hung up and I began pecking away again at the computer keyboard when Suzanne came back.

"I just sent. . ." Suzanne held my edited letter up for me to see. "Oh.  You got it.  I just sent the other to print, too."  She stepped out for a moment and returned with the second, edited copy.  "I didn't mean to be rude and answer the phone in front of you.  It's just that my aunt is dying, and I thought the call might be related.  Here."  I scratched my name across the signature space - in blue, just like my mother taught me.

Suzanne left my office and started to close the door behind her.

"It's fine.  I don;t need the door closed."

It's very lonely with the door closed.

I flipped absently through the file in front of me.

"Your Aunt Carol is dying.  You're going to have to decide what you're going to do."  I refused to meet my mother's admonishing eyes.

"Okay."

Would I go see her?  Why would I?  Would I kneel in the church on the night of her rosary, murmuring the words cemented into my brain, while I recalled my cousin Eric's words:  "You're not living together until you're married?"  I recall shaking my head.  I recall his eyes rolling in his head at my silliness.  Looking back, it does all seem rather silly.  It seems silly to have a wedding that I intended would bring our family together in joy, rather than in mourning, or at a surprise baby shower for a 15 year old cousin.  What the hell was any of it for?  

Today, my Aunt Carol is surrounded by her four children, and their children, and their children's children.  She's dying.  But her life is full.  Her kids, my cousins, they fucked up a lot - but they gave her grandchildren that have kept her hanging on, through the amputation of both of her legs, through widowhood, through divorce.  Her deathbed is surrounded.  And I know that her impending death pulls at my father's heart but it is still nothing like the void that was left when his grandchild, Gabriel, the baby I couldn't grow "right" left this world.  When it's his turn - when it's my turn - who will be there?

I'm not afraid of dying.  I'm just afraid of dying alone.

And tonight, while my Aunt Carol, who out of stubborn pride I haven't spoken to in well over a year, dies after a long and painful battle with her health, I can't help but wonder what it would be like to trade places with her.  What would it be like to walk away from the long and painful battles I have lived through?  What would it be like to be reunited with those I fought those battles for?

I know that I am strong, that I've willed myself through the kinds of things that shatter other people.  I know that I'm different, that I'm not like everyone else, and that I'm special.  Where others sink, I swim.

But tonight, as I contemplate my empty home, the empty rooms, my empty bed, the empty crib, the tightly packed hope chest, and my empty arms, I can't help but feel like I'm drowning, slowly.  I can't help but feel anything but strong.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Shining Light




On a Monday morning in January 2011, one doctor shed a frightening light on my son's fate:  If he survived delivery, he would die soon after. 

And suddenly I was where I never want to be - In the dark. 

I had never heard of anencephaly.  I didn't know what a neural tube defect was.  I'd only skimmed my copy of "What to Expect When You're Expecting," thinking women had been having babies since long before I'd ever have one, and I'd probably figure this pregnancy thing out too.  Upon later review of the book's section on neural tube defects I found only a short blip about the freakishness of the occurrence of such defects, and my options to end the pregnancy if my child were determined to be non-viable. 

I didn't even know that my child was a boy.  He was a sweet, baby boy, and I quickly learned that there wasn't a single thing that a doctor, or 100 doctors, could tell me that could make me stop loving my son. 

So I desparately searched the internet for answers, finding haunting images, endearing stories, support groups where I found women who I clung to throughout the duration of my pregnancy, and ultimately, information about the Duke Center for Human Genetics Neural Tube Defect Research Study. 

Through my studies of the information found on the internet I discovered that my son's death as a result of his having anencephaly was inevitable but I was determined to show anyone who was observing us that his life had value, like all human lives have value, even if it would be short.  We volunteered to donate Gabriel's umbilical cord blood, and samples of his parents' blood, to Duke University's Center for Human Genetics. 

Somehow the answers provided by Duke had to be enough.  It had to be enough that through research we could be assured that we didn't do anything wrong; that sometimes anencephaly just happens; that the chances of a reccurrence were slight, but that there were things we could do to reduce even that slight risk (see January 31st's entry on folic acid).  It had to be enough to know that through the donation of our son's blood, someday we might have more answers.  Someday some parents might not have to hear the words "incompatible with life" because when we heard them two years ago we chose not to run from them, but to confront them.

It wasn't enough.  I couldn't stop there. 

For the last two months I have been selling t-shirts with a logo representing Gabriel and anencephaly awareness to raise funds for Duke Center for Human Genetics.  Thanks to the generosity of our friends and family, the first installment of the funds raised is being sent in today's mail.  You all, through your kindness and charity, have helped me to raise $360 dollars thus far to send to Duke in honor of a little boy who changed your world.

Rest assured that the journey I have taken has been difficult.  I promise you, I don't look at your children without thinking of my own.  I don't hear your stories of learning to tie shoes, losing teeth, academic honors, athletic victories, or graduation, and fail to think about what I won't experience with Gabriel.  Still, you have made my son's life even greater than I ever imagined.  You've taken the darkest time in my life, and turned my son Gabriel into this shining light of hope burning brightly in so many hearts. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Record of Events



"There is nothing special about me. . . My story is a story of very ordinary people during extraordinarily terrible times.  Times the like of which I hope with all my heart will never, never come again.  It is for all of us ordinary people all over the world to see to it that they do not."

-Miep Gies, Anne Frank Remembered:  The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family

"A memoir?  I thought memoirs were written by old people or celebreties."  That was how I was recently answered when I shared with someone that I would like to write a book.  I'd like to write a memoir. I don't believe that such books are only supposed to be written by someone famous, or someone old, or someone who did something huge and important.  According to Dictionary.com, a memoir is "A record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation."  Memoirs are for someone with a story to tell.  And if I've learned one thing over the course of my life, it's that everyone has a story to tell. 

Maybe I'm a bit lofty, or even arrogant, for opening this entry with a quote from the woman whose family helped to hide the Frank family.  Anne Frank and Miep Gies are two people whose stories have had a tremendous impact on our sense of history.  Still, they were just two people, living in the circumstances that found them.  They were just living their lives, lives that happened to take place in a time of atrocity that is burned into our impressions of the 20th century. 

I'm not especially special, except in the sense that we're all special, and I'm no hero.  But I happened to be the one woman in 1,000 who was told her baby had a fatal neural tube defect.  I happen to live in a time when babies like mine can be "terminated" just because they happen to be unborn, and they happen to have a certain condition.  I happen to be among that ten percent or less of the one in 1,000 women who receive this terminal diagnosis for their child and still carry that child to term.  And from there, I happened to be that  anomolous mommy who got to keep her terminally ill baby for ten days and have the privilege of sharing in an experience that has touched countless lives.  I happened to be part of an experience that's caused people to think twice about what it means to be alive, what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a hero - I'm no hero, but my son is.  With all of my heart I firmly believe that the day will come when we view abortion with the same regret and disgust that we view the Holocaust, every human genocide, every instance of human slavery.  If my son's sweet, dimpled smile has an impact on that transition in our American and human spirit, then I've simply been blessed to have happened to be a part of it. 

I happen to like to write, and I happen to be fairly good at it.  I've got many stories to tell, not the least of which is Gabriel's.  Through the course of my life I've been fortunate to meet many people who have stories too, whose stories have touched me and changed the way I look at things.  Just about anyone has something to share that can touch your heart and change your life, if you let them. 

For two years this blog has served me in healing from the death of my son Gabriel.  Nearly two years ago, I attended his funeral after holding him while he took his last breath.  Nearly one year ago, I watched his father, my husband, fade from my sight as he drove down the street where our family lived for the last time, our recently signed divorce papers waiting on my kitchen table to be filed at the courthouse.  I've spent the last two years here, healing, letting an audience of knowns and unknowns witness my healing and through it all I've been told it's helped to heal them too. 

I've still got more healing to do.  I've still got more to say.  But I've decided it's time to take a break.  I'll be limiting my blog entries for a while, in exchange for working on a manuscript for my memoir.  I hope to have a rough draft by Gabriel's birthday next year.  I hope to have it published by the time I am 35, and with my 32nd birthday creeping up on me I'll have just over three years to accomplish the goal. 

I'll still need your help.  The appeal of maitaining the blog for me has largely been in the instant feedback.  So as I set about working on the book, I hope you'll share with me which entries you've found most interesting, which writing styles you've like the most, and which "characters" - who are all real people - you would like to know more about.  Thank you in advance for your responses, as they'll be invaluable in helping me craft this book.  And thank you for having taken this two-year long walk with me.  



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Let Him Fly



Some days, I think it looks easier than it is. 

Living without Gabriel, that is. 

Every once in a while I have an opportunity to talk about pregnancy and motherhood as though my experience was just like everyone else's.  While at a hearing in Long Beach on Monday, I talked with another lawyer who also happens to be an expectant mother, and we compared experiences.  I had fun, until she asked the natural follow-up questions. 

"Did you have a boy or a girl?"

"A boy."

"Oh!  What's his name?"

"Gabriel."

"How old is Gabriel?"

"He would be two.  He passed away when he was ten days old."

"Oh. . . Do you mind if I ask what happened?" 

"He had anencephaly, a neural tube defect."

"What does that mean." 

I went through the routine explanation of Gabriel's condition.  She deduced that I made a choice to carry him to term in spite of his diagnosis and asked a few questions about that too. 

"How old are you?" 

Knowing what would follow, I responded, "Thirty-one." 

"You're still young; you can have more."  It's true.  God-willing, I can and will have more.  But I will never stop missing Gabriel.  And when people tell me, "Having another baby won't fill that hole in your heart" I know that they are right - no one knows that better than me - but I want them to know that the hole is so very big and deep that I can't just let it be.  If I'd made no attempts to begin to fill it in, I would have died.  What is left to do when your child has gone before you?  What is left to live for? 

I could feel this woman's eyes on me as I flipped through the file in front of me.  "I'm really impressed by you.  You must be so strong."  I looked at her, weakly, and I could see the sympathy in her eyes.  Don't crack.  Don't break.  Don't cry.  I pressed my lips into a smile.

"Do you know where the dismissal forms are kept?"  She pointed to a shelf behind her, and we went about talking law. 

Make no mistake:  Every day is a struggle.  If you've never experienced the strange blessing of witnessing someone's dying before your eyes, it's nearly impossible to explain the residual feelings.  One moment my son was alive, in my arms.  The next moment, his heart stopped beating, and mine did too, and I had to make it beat again.  I had to make myself keep breathing because I didn't want to.  I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that my son's soul was at peace, but I missed him immediately.  I know that there must be some reason that I'm still here; still, every day I have to look for that reason. 

In just a few hours, family, friends, and I will release balloons in celebration of Gabriel's "Angelversary."  The balloon release is of course symbolic of the flight of the soul upon death.  We will watch the balloons as they make their way towards Heaven, like we did with Gabriel's birthday cupcake last week, fading away until they disappear.  Having watched Gabriel die, though, I know now that his passing didn't really work like that.  He was here, struggling, dying - But instantly, he was gone.  You could have nothing but faith in Heaven in a moment like that, feel nothing but certainty that Heaven is real and that's where Gabriel's soul was swiftly taken, and you could do nothing but want to be there too.  Somehow, though, you have to find a way to stay here and a reason to go on. 

Lord knows I think about more babies too much.  I think about silly television shows.  I think about Jodi Arias.  I think about the dogs.  I drink too much.  I eat too much.  I function the best I can. 

But Gabriel is still at the heart of what drives me to carry on.  Spreading his message is, right now, the most important thing I do.  Being his mommy is the most important part of me.  So, when those balloons are released this evening, a little box will be tied to their strings.  Inside that box will be a link to this entry, and a request that anyone who finds the box please log on and tell us where it was found.  With luck, we'll get some participants, and we'll be able to see how far this message has gone, and how many more people have been touched today by the baby boy who, against all odds, lived ten days and changed the world. 

If you are logging on to share that you've found a balloon, please know that Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude was born on June 10, 2011.  He had anencephaly, and at 21 weeks gestation we learned that he would not live long after his birth.  Doctors told us we'd be fortunate, if he were even born alive, if he lived for one day.  Gabriel died on June 20, 2011.  He touched lives. He melted hearts. 

He is my first and only born child, and he is missed deeply.  And you logging in today - and you who have logged on for two years now - you give me hope that even though my son is gone, life isn't over. It has gone on, it will keep going on, and there is always a reason to live.