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.


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.


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.