Thursday, January 30, 2014

Just For One Day

Looking back, maybe it was a mistake for Ben and I to choose David Bowie's "Heroes" as the entrance song to our wedding reception. We like David Bowie, and "Heroes" is twistedly romantic in its own way, a tale of a self-destructive couple who peaked, crashed, and burned.

I don't like to be called a hero. But Ben and I, we were heroes. We were heroes, just for one day.

One day a doctor told us if our child were born alive, he or she would die shortly thereafter. That was three years ago, January 31, 2011. Those words devastated us, terrified us. They changed everything about us. They set us on an irreversible track. But with those words we learned something else: There wasn't a thing any doctor could tell us that could make us stop loving our baby.

One day we sat in Mass and listened to Deacon Dan's homily on late term abortion, an option that we had been offered. Deacon Dan described the procedure wherein a solution is injected into the unborn fetus' heart to stop its beating, and then the forceps are used to remove the baby from its mother, possibly limb by limb. Ben leaned over and said to me, "We are not doing that to our baby." Because there was nothing anyone could tell us to make us hurt our child.

We saw an expert and she confirmed the worst news we'd ever received. We went for another very special ultrasound and learned that our child was our very special baby boy. We named him, and we shared his story with the world.

One day we walked into a hospital to induce labor and welcome Gabriel into the world, knowing our "hello" would soon lead to "goodbye." One day, against the odds, we took our son from that hospital knowing he would die in our home. One day we made a decision to share Gabriel's photographs, even those where his defect was apparent, because there wasn't a thing anyone could say to make us ashamed of our son.

One day we watched our son seize and suffer for five hours. We told him how much we love him. We told him he didn't have to be strong anymore. We told him it was okay to leave us. There was nothing on this earth, not even our own grief, that was worth our son's suffering.

We held him as he took his last breath, we prepared his tiny body for cremation, we announced his passing to our family and friends, and we planned his funeral. One day, one moment at a time.

A hero isn't a hero for simply doing what is right. That's all we did: The right thing. We're heroes because these days, not enough people do the right thing. 92 to 98% of mothers like me elect to terminate their pregnancies on diagnosis. 92 to 98% of families allow the fear to take over and they forget that they, too, love their child more than they fear any diagnosis, more than they want relief from their grief, more than they dread watching their child suffer. They all have it in them to do what Ben and I did. We're not special. We just listened to our hearts above all else.

We're not unshakeable. The choices we made after Gabriel's death are proof. True to the song's protagonists, I was mean and he drank all the time, and sometimes I drank all the time too. We said cruel things. We grew cold. We allowed ourselves to grow apart. We peaked with Gabriel, and then we crashed and burned and ended in a divorce just short of two years after receiving our devastating news.

We live separate lives now, on separate ends of the country, sharing only our experience with Gabriel. But even after it all, we can still say that were heroes. Just for one day.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Sound of Silence

I'm trying this new thing, this thing where I go to bed at a reasonable hour and get up in time to do everything I need to do in the morning, like a normal person. After a year and a half of working the Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 grind, the need for a little routine in my sleep schedule has become pressing, have fallen asleep at my desk one too many times.

Trouble is, years of night owlism have my body trained a certain way. Long days make falling asleep by 10 fairly easy, but find me waking up at about 1 in the morning to spend the next two to three hours wide awake. As I endeavor to put myself on a normal sleep schedule only to be thwarted by my body's habits, I take joy in sharing those quiet hours with Rocco, who also seems to wake up about the same time. It's not unusual for Rocco to be active the entire two to three hours that I am awake. We watch "I Love Lucy" re-runs and roll and kick and play. We listen to the dogs snore and sigh and stretch. We play Candy Crush. We worry about staying awake at work the next day. We just hang out.

"Sleep while you can!" I've been admonished. I'm told sleep and showering and generally feeling like a human are to come to an end upon Rocco's arrival. Perhaps some would even say that Rocco's waking at 1 a.m. now is just a sign of what to expect when Rocco is born. I can only say that I look forward to the day when Rocco's cries wake me up, at any hour. I look forward to a house filled with sound.

On a quiet Friday morning, May 14, 2010 I woke up to the cramping pain of a miscarriage. For ten days I woke up not to the sounds of my crying infant son, but to his muteness. In the silence of the night I checked Gabriel to make sure he was still breathing, still alive. I had to set timers to remind myself to feed him - he couldn't let me know with his cries that he was hungry. Even when he was having a fit, typically during diaper changes, though his mouth opened wide and his head shook in protest, no sounds came from his mouth. The only time he ever made much noise was when he was dying. The sounds that I remember from my son are his death cries. And those memories can wake a mother from her sleep, too.

The silent sounds of my empty home and the empty nursery became haunting, so much so that I hardly spent any time there in the two years following Gabriel's death. The sounds of a running toilet, an agitating washer, or a creaky ceiling fan weren't enough to fill the silence that should have been filled by my son. Though I enjoy my personal time and space I found that too much of it left me longing for the life that I thought I would have. I longed for my children. I longed for nights made sleepless by their needs. I slept well in that time, because I frequently fell asleep boozed up enough to get me through the night. But I woke up in the same empty home with the same gaping heart, missing the things - the people - that were missing.

I worked to embrace the quiet. I found shows that I enjoyed, hobbies that distracted me while I was at home, and little by little learned to enjoy living essentially alone. A full-time job, bartending one night a week, and my commitments to coaching mock trial and serving on the Right to Life of Kern County Board of Directors eventually consumed so much of my free time that deciding how to spend what little I had became a challeng. Do I hang out with friends? Or do I spend this valuable time alone? The alone time became much less frequent. And the loneliness became bearable.

Still, something was always missing.

Sleepless nights will grow tiresome, but I'm told that upon Rocco's arrival they'll be a part of the rest of my life. When he or she has stopped crying to be fed or for a diaper change there will be monsters and nightmares waking me up, and then homework and last-minute school projects, and then curfew violations, and then waiting in antication when Rocco's own children are born.

Twenty minute showers will be traded in for five minute rinse-offs and new clothes will become an even greater luxury and my pub-height table will become a nuisance when Rocco is a toddler - And speaking of pubs, I'll see much less of the inside of them. Most recently I've been told that for the next 12 years I won't eat a piece of chicken that's NOT in nugget form. I hear I will watch a lot of cartoons, though we'll try CNN first and see how that goes.

Unquestionably, life is about to change dramatically. I worry that I'm not ready, that after all of this time I've still moved too quickly. I wonder if I'm selfless enough to devote myself to raising a child. But of course, there's no going back now. And there's no challenge I'd rather taken on. There's no sound I'd rather have filling my sleepless nights than that of the child I've wanted and loved since before he or she was on the way. There's no place I'd rather be than in this moment.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Holding Tight

By my best estimation, it happened eight years ago, in the spring of 2006. I had recently been accepted into law school. A couple came into Charly's on their first date. She knew me, apparently, because she introduced me to her date and informed him that I would be going to law school. I have no recollection of the incident.

Years later I received an e-mail on in response to my profile which indicated that I am a full-time lawyer by day and a part-time bartender one night a week. The e-mail, the second I received from this person, queried "Did you ever work in that little bar in East Bakersfield in the Albertson's shopping center?" In fact I did, and continue to work there to this day.

Marcos and I have communicated every day since he sent me that e-mail. We're more than just in communication - We're in love with each other, and we're having a baby together. Sometimes I feel discouraged by what I perceive to be a lack of romance in the way we started dating - Through a dating site. But when I consider our one-time encounter and subsequent meeting years after that encounter, the whole thing seems sort of fated.

I wonder why our lives couldn't have been more aligned back then. Why did he have to be in my bar on a date with someone else? Why couldn't we start dating then? Why did it take eight years for him to walk back into my life? Of course, I know that I wasn't in the state of mind to love him, or be loved by him the day that we first met. I had my experience with Gabriel to get to. I had eight years of living and learning to do before I would be ready for him.

I love Marcos, selfishly, because of the way he loves me. I love him because I can tell that he loves Gabriel, even though he never met him. When I found myself a single mother of a deceased baby, I thought that maybe falling in love again would mean I would have to put that part of my life away. But the family I'm forming with Marcos has plenty of room for Gabriel.

I love Marcos for what he is. He is a dedicated son, brother and uncle and dog owner. From the moment he knew about Rocco, he's been a dedicated father. He is devoted to our relationship. In his words and in his actions he assuages, daily, my fear of being abandoned by assuring me that he will stick around. It's hard to imagine that he's really only been a part of my life for a brief period, because he's made my life so much more complete and meaningful.

I love Marcos because last week I watched him cradle his dog Zeke while he had a seizure. I know what it's like to watch helplessly as some being that you love seizes. I know what kind of strength it takes to bring comfort to some creature in need. I love his strength. I love his stoicism. I love him, deeply.

Love - The loss of love, the search for love, the relentless pursuit of love - has been a running theme in my story. In my life. I know well how fragile love can be, and how much it means to find love. Sometimes it's still hard to believe that Marcos' love is here to stay - I question him about it regularly, to the point of near sabotage, but Marcos is unwavering. I've done my share of pushing. But at the end of the day, when I look at Marcos all I want to do is cling to him and our love with all of my strength for the rest of my life. I just want to hold him and be held by him, and never let him go.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Faking It; Making It

January 16, 2013 would have been marked the 3 year anniversary of my marriage, except that my divorce decree had arrived in the mail just four days before. I hadn't seen Ben in more than 6 months, since he rolled out of sight towing a U-Haul trailer to South Carolina. In less than three years we'd lost two children and run what was once a bright and hopeful marriage into the ground.

I wasn't quite sure what I was doing with my life anymore. Out of necessity I had taken a job as an associate attorney in a worker's compensation defense firm. I had lucked out - I loved my job. But every day that I was tucked away in an office pushing paper, I couldn't help mourning the fact that my well-honed trial skills were being wasted. When I graduated from law school, a mediocre student but an award-winning trial advocacy competitor, anyone who knew me would have assumed I would be a trial attorney. I loved trial practice. I loved criminal law. I still love them both.

When I was invited to judge the high school mock trial competition on January 16, 2013, I rightfully anticipated that I would be the work comp world's lone representative. In the judge's room I greeted the attorneys that I knew, but was generally a stranger in the close knit community of legal practitioners. I was relieved to be paired with Layla to judge a round. Layla, a deputy district attorney, had been my opposing counsel in the last criminal matter that I handled before accepting the job at Mullen & Filippi. My client and I stood firm in our position that we would take nothing short of a dismissal of charges, or trial. I'd put on a bravado until my client was offered a conditional dismissal, at which point I waived good-bye to my first opportunity to go to criminal trial, and stood by my client as she accepted the deal.

Layla and I sat, this time not as adversaries, as the presiding judge, in-house counsel for Chevron and hardly a criminal trial attorney or judge, introduced herself. The competing teams, West High School and Garces High School, then introduced themselves and the round began.

You cannot watch a high school mock trial competition, and not marvel at the fact that these are high school students, speaking and arguing and objecting like experienced adult attorneys. You cannot love trial like I do, and not feel as though you are watching some penant baseball game. I shared my horror with Layla, an experienced trial attorney herself, as the umpire made bad calls and the players suffered the consequences. I felt alive. I felt like this round mattered, and like I mattered for being a part of it. I felt like I was watching these children blossom before me. I felt like I was watching them change. Someday, some of them might be my colleagues. I felt hopeful, on this day that had three years ago been filled with a hope that was crushed by the sad, sad circumstances of a miscarriage and Gabriel's fatal diagnosis and death. I felt like maybe it was okay to keep going.

When West High's teacher coach asked me to join his team as an attorney coach for the 2013 and 2014 season, I had my reservations. I was a loyal East High alumni, and it was hard to imagine betraying my alma mater to coach at another school. I reminded myself of their team of four attorneys, each Hispanic girls in whom I saw some element of myself, and I agreed.

Beginning in August, and week after week after that, I've watched this talented group of students develop before my eyes. When Gabriel was born, I had an opportunity to see a human brain and watch as it functioned, limitedly, in my son even when the doctors had told me that he would not function, that he would likely not live to leave the hospital. Now, while I practice with the West High team, it is as though I am looking inside their skulls, watching their brains grow before my eyes. Where last year I judged them in a competition round against Garces, a private school with a tremendous rate of graduates who go on to college, and saw them lose, this year I have witnessed them transform that loss into energy to face Garces again. With pride I stood as their coach as they again met Garces in competition. With pride, I learned that this year, they won.

These students are bright, intelligent, college-bound young adults. Of course, they are a breath of fresh air when it seems all we ever hear anymore about American teenagers is their proclivity for drug and alcohol use, teenage pregnancy, and wasting their lives. But these students are more than just smart kids. They inspire me every day, because there's just something about them that makes me think they are going to change the world. They're already changing the world, just because they're in it, and they are going above and beyond just attending their classes every day. They are consuming the high school experience with zeal, with an energy that makes me certain that their lives are just beginning, and they are going to do amazing things with the rest of their lives.

Sometimes I hear the words of Professor Pritikin, my trial advocacy coach in law school, pouring out of my mouth. "Everything that happens in these rounds, you make it look like you wanted it to happen. Don't let the judges see that you've hit a bump in the road. You fake it until you make it. You get objected to? So what? You wanted that objection. You get overruled on an objection? Who cares? You planned it that way. Do not waver. Do not back down. It's all part of your plan. Even if it wasn't." As Pritikin throws his voice in our practices, I admonish myself to live by my own rules, to do what I'm telling these kids to do. Slowly, I'm learning to practice what I preach. I've been faking it and have recently realized that now, I'm making it.

As I've watched them grow in the last few months, I've also found my own life falling into place. A year ago I wondered if I'd get another chance at love - which I desparately wanted - again. Since then Marcos has walked into my life, and just when I was beginning to think that he had completed the picture, we learned that we were expecting even more. Figuring out the shape that our budding family will take has been no easy task. Preparing the mock trial students for competition hasn't been easy either. But they have both been worthy endeavors.

On Wednesday night the West High students, after having won their first round against Garces, were paired up against defending mock trial champions Centennial High School. My sense of competition when it comes to Centennial High's academic programs runs deep, as I vividly recall losing to them in debate competitions during my four years of high school, and most notably having lost to them during my senior year in the Bicentennial We the People state mock congressional hearing competition. I wanted this win.

"It just occurred to me that this isn't just a competition among the students. It's kind of a competition between the attorney coaches," Marcos noted after the Wednesday night round. I was stunned that this had just occurred to him.

"Yes. These attorney coaches, they probably don't think of me as competition. They don't even know me. They've never seen me in a trial. I do administrative law, and I'm in my own world, and I'm no threat to them. But yes, I feel comptetitive. The Centennial coach is a deputy DA, and he's done trials. So yes, knowing my students are competitive with his, it makes me proud. I'm proud of our performance tonight. We played to win. We might have won. These kids, they make me so proud. They're unbelievable."

We lost our round against Centennial. The structure of the competition is such that Centennial will now inevitably be in the final round and may retain their title as the district champions. West High is in the running to take 3rd place, a significant improvement over their 7th place from last season, with the hope of winning the championship next year close enough to taste. We'll only lose one student, a senior who will graduate this spring. We have something to aim for, and much to be proud of.

And I am a changed person. I've spent the last year growing and changing too. I'm learning that sometimes you lose, and losing sucks and I'll always think it sucks. But there's still so much to be gained, even in loss. A loss is an opportunity to try again, to reach even higher, to improve yourself, and to walk away with even more than you started with.

I've frequently thought of myself as a failure when it comes to Gabriel. I failed to grow him "right," I failed as his mother to protect him. But then I think with pride of the way he defied the odds, the way he survived for ten days when the experts told me I would be lucky to have him for ten hours. I think of his death as one of the deepest losses of my life. But the ten days I had with him, they were some of the greatest days of my life. For those ten days, I had it all. For ten days, I was on top of the world.

There will always be defeat. There will always be loss. And there will always be a chance to win again.