Thursday, April 28, 2016

Two Pink Streaks

Some mornings I'm still not convinced my reflection is really me.

I guess the postpartum acne started about two months after Delilah was born.  In the beginning I didn't think much of the few blemishes, but as the few began to multiply, I became horrified.  This wasn't part of our deal.  I had never had acne problems, not even in high school.  I always figured it was part of an unspoken agreement with God.  I had big hair that I didn't know how to control and I wore an A-cup through most of high school, but in exchange I got clear skin and long, beautiful legs.  Seemed like a fair trade, and while probably not how I would have prioritized assets (given the choice, I would have opted for boobs), not a bad shake.

Even after Gabriel was born, I held up fairly well.  My son wasn't here to hold, but my body didn't bear the tell tale signs of childbirth.  No c-section scar, no stretch marks, no acne, minimal weight gain that I shed with ease.  But for the scars on my heart, I could continue on as normal, which was a relief when I found myself single and on the man-hunt again.

Marcos has pointed out that he barely knows me not pregnant.  Indeed, we've been together less than three years, and I've spent 18 months of those three years pregnant.  I know that he doesn't mind the belly that will never go away without surgery, the acne, the 20 extra pounds I'm still carrying from Eden.  He doesn't seem to care that even while my face has erupted like a teenager's, creases are forming at the corners of my eyes and around my mouth.  My hands, constantly at work, look dry and old and are chronically swollen from rheumatoid arthritis, but fortunately are not yet deformed.

When I look back at my reflection, those are the things that I see.  I am not, nor do I think I ever will be, that woman who embraces her imperfections.  I don't affectionately refer to my stretch marks as those of a mommy tiger who has earned her stripes.  The wrinkles are not laugh lines.  They are all just indications to me that I finally look as old as I feel.

My vanity stretched to its maximum, my confidence hanging by a thread, I set out to have a crown replaced.  The crown is part of a dental implant that I got when I was 14 years old.  While the implant is now the standard in tooth replacement, twenty years ago when I was struck in the mouth with a softball, implants were still a fairly new and sexy treatment.  I underwent 14 hours of oral surgery by the then-premiere oral surgeon in Bakersfield, and had my crown done by a prosthodontist of the same caliber.  Neither of these very skilled, very expensive practitioners had the foresight to realize that at age 14, my gums and teeth and bones were still growing and eventually, that crown would recede back into my gums while my other teeth grew longer than and asymmetrical to the crown.  The process was slow and incremental.  Little by little, I noticed that in photos, all I could see was the short crown.

I expressed my petty concern with my dentist, who was able to write up a request for authorization to replace the crown so that half of the cost would be covered by insurance.  After coughing up my co-pay, the dentist and I embarked on what ended up being a 5 visit process.  Today, when he cemented the new crown into place, I felt my confidence immediately restored, even if just a bit.

As "they" say, youth is wasted on the young.  I wish now that I had appreciated things about my body in my twenties - The flat belly, yes, but also the ability to stand on my feet for 8 hours, to have joints that - while not pain free - didn't hurt so much.  I wish that I had recognized that I used to be able to walk into a room and turn heads, not because I was so pretty, but because there is simply something light and easy and beautiful about a woman in her twenties, even a woman who carries the weight of dead boyfriends and dead babies.  I was so busy then, bearing the burden of grief, that I didn't enjoy the freedom of being twenty-something.  And now here I am, mourning my twenties rather than enjoying the ease of being thirty-something.

Woven discreetly into my mass of big, thick hair which I've learned to - if not control, at least manage, are two hot pink streaks of color, extensions that were placed when I had my hair trimmed last week for the first time in a year.  With less than an inch cut, and two extra pieces of hair added, I felt lighter than I had in some time.  I knew that the following week, I would get my crown replaced, and that the acne was clearing day by day.  I'll never be that girl in her twenties again - That girl fell in love with self-destructive men who would rather shoot themselves or move to South Carolina than stay with her, and that girl wasn't equipped to hold down a professional career AND mother two little girls responsibly.  That girl exploited herself to prove that she, and she alone, was in charge of her own body.  She didn't know how to be loved by someone that is kind, and good, and emotionally healthy.  She harbored guilt, way too much guilt, for one man's decision to pick up a gun and kill himself.  That girl made stupid financial decisions.  That girl was a selfish daughter and sister.  I don't want to be that girl again.

I don't want the darkness that came with being young and light and pretty in that way that all twenty-somethings are pretty.  I want love, security, a stable life for my husband and daughters and me.  Sometimes, I want to feel a little rebellious.  Sometimes I want to get pink in my hair, or turn a stranger's head when I've walked into a room.  But what I want most, I've already got.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

He Collected Me

The series finale of American Idol remains unviewed on my Hulu watch list.  For over a decade I watched the series and made a point of watching each season finale as it was broadcast.  Certainly, the show changed television, music, the way we consume music, the way stars are born.  But through the course of the years the show lost its magic.  Between changes in format, changes in judging panels, and changes in the method of voting, the final season of American Idol simply didn't have the sparkle of the first.

Unquestionably, the most poignant moment of the season was when the very first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, appeared as a guest judge and in a very pregnant and very emotional display, sang the song "Piece by Piece."  The song is a tender tribute to her stepfather, the man who took on the role of father for her when her biological dad abandoned her family.

I have no daddy issues.  My father was present, quite present, for my entire life.  He worked nights, and slept during the day while we were at school.  He packed our lunches, took us to the bus stop, went to softball practices, came to award ceremonies, and did everything that could be expected of a father and more.  Now, he watches my daughters five days a week and I know it was the right decision to have him provide care because every day, when he first sees them, he smiles with genuine joy that they are his for the next 9 hours.  He has set a high bar.

So, when I heard Kelly sing "Piece by Piece," I did not think of my own father.  I thought of the man who is father to my girls, and stepfather to my son.

I thought of my days as a single mom, caring for my son's memory and wondering if I would ever find a relationship that could bear the burden of my unusual but very deep relationship with my son.  I wondered if I would ever have a family that would openly include Gabriel.  He was my world, and I wasn't sure if anyone would ever want to live in our world.

Every day, in my home, Gabriel's name is mentioned.  On the wall of our stair case, his picture hangs with his sisters', and framed photos of him also have a place in our living room, family room, my bedroom, and Eden's bedroom.  On holidays, or sometimes just because I feel like it, Marcos treks with me and our daughters to the cemetery where my son's ashes rest.  Gabriel is my son; he is my girls' big brother; and Marcos is his stepfather.

Marcos didn't have to be the man that he is.  He didn't have to welcome both me and my son into his life.  Because of him, my son's memory can live.  Because of him, my girls know their big brother.  Because of him, my girls will know that they have a family history of neural tube defect and take the necessary precautions when they have their own children, because that part of our lives is not hidden.  Because of him, our girls will pray for their brother's intercession throughout their lives.  Because of him, I do not have to tuck my grief away and instead, I can heal.

He took the bits of a broken home, an unconventional mother and son, and he shaped us into a new family.  He refilled my heart with his love, and from that love our daughters were born, so that my heart was not only full but overflowing.  He has made it possible for me to hear someone call me "Mommy" every day - A sound I thought I might not ever hear.  Piece by piece he has taken an unstable, grieving woman, and made her as whole as she has ever felt.  A man can be kind.  A father can be great.  And he is.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Were He Not Romeo Called

In a box somewhere in my garage a baby name book gathers dust, and stuffed within its pages is a sheet of paper I can't bear to part with. Written lovingly on the lines of the paper are the names I first began to consider six years ago, when I was pregnant for the first time. Among them is the name that has always been, Eden; names that are long ruled out, such as Miranda, Violet, or Carolina (for the state where Ben's mom resides); the name we thought we were going to use for Gabriel, before his diagnosis, Jameson; the family-inspired name I finally, internally, agreed to relinquish to my brother, Leo; and the name that never fit with the last name Cude, but which made perfect sense with the last name Lopez - Joaquin.

And so, the story goes.  I lost that first baby.  Gabriel, once Jameson Michael Cude, was diagnosed with the fatal defect that would claim his life, and he became Gabriel, our Hero of God.  Nearly three years passed and my prayers were answered in the form of a baby girl we named Eden, our paradise, followed 17 months later by Delilah.  But before she was Eden, in the privacy of our home, she was EJoaq.  We had narrowed our selection down to Eden for a girl, and Joaquin for a boy, but of course we wouldn't know until the day she was born which name we would be using.  I kept our names private, rarely sharing our choices lest someone else be inspired.  Both were unique enough to make up for the very common last name, but not so unique that they were strange.When we learned we had another baby on the way, we had only to choose a girl's name - Joaquin was already set.  And again, would not be used.

Names are important to me, and I have put significant thought into the names of each of my children.  Joaquin, the Spanish version of the Hebrew Joachim, means "One who is established by God."  Saint Joachim was Mary's father, Christ's grandfather.  It was to be paired with the middle name Joseph, representing the two greatest male influences in the young Christ's life.  There were other connections too - My girls were born at San Joaquin Community Hospital, we live in the San Joaquin Valley, and the San Joaquin Valley is a type of Eden, the place where a great deal of the nation's produce is grown.  I anticipated obvious queries - "After Joaquin Phoenix?" - and weighed the particular negative connections - I was well into pregnancy when Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from a Mexican prison.  Still, this name that I had stored away since the first signs of new life within me was what I wanted for my next son.

I've gotten much better at receiving news of impending birth since the girls came along, and I've even become a better sport when learning a boy is one the way.  When family remembers recently announced they were expecting a baby boy, I rolled with the news with surprising ease.  Maybe, just maybe, I was moving on.  Less than 24 hours went by before I learned that while I have come a long way, I still have a long way to go, when the family announced that this new baby boy is Joaquin.

After a double take, the tears welled uncontrollably, spilling onto my clothes as I drove to meet my mom for lunch.  I couldn't stop them even enough to hide my mother, and when she asked what was wrong, more fell as I sobbed to her about my silly problem.  The tears don't come easily these days, not since the Prozac, but there I was, crying like an idiot - over what?

I guess that's what's been most difficult.  The typical response seems to be, "You don't have a right to that name."  I know that.  "You can choose a different name."  I know that too.  "You can still use the name Joaquin."  Yes. I know. I know, I know, I know.  I know this is irrational, and selfish, and petty.  But it's honest, and the typical responses just seem to be a bit insensitive.  Or maybe I'm just too sensitive.

What were the chances that a name chosen for its relative uniqueness, still ranked in the 200s in terms of popularity for boy's names in the United States, would be chosen by someone in our own family?  And how can I use that name now, too, knowing that it would no longer be unique in our family?  How do I go to a baby shower, to birthday parties - especially if I never have another boy, but even if I do - and bring another Joaquin a baseball, glove, and bat?  What if there are no more boys in store for me? After two losses, I've had to come to terms with the fact that life doesn't go as we want or plan.  I am satisfied with my life as it stands - I have to be, and I have every reason to be, because it's an amazing life. .

What's in a name?  The question is famous, and rhetorical, meant only to demonstrate that our names are not our essence.  If a little boy is in the cards for us some day, he will be so much more than a name.  Still, a part of me will always grieve the little boy that might have been, the little boy who was, and now, the little boy Joaquin who will never be mine.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

One Who Weakens

Things really didn't start out this way.  When I was pregnant with Delilah, I felt the least connected to her of any of my pregnancies.  With Gabriel the bond was instant.  I can't even recall a point in the pregnancy that I didn't feel that bond.  With Eden the connection was guarded, but still strong.  By the time Delilah came around, I was just so busy, and the pregnancy was the most physically demanding, that I struggled to feel bonded.

I had a strong suspicion that Delilah was a girl, or perhaps I was just afraid to believe that I would have another son, but in the last two months of the pregnancy I really started to convince myself that she was a boy.  I recited her boy name in my head and started dreaming of the things my little boy would do.  So when she was born and Marcos said to me "It's a little girl!" my world shifted a bit.

Or shifted a lot.  I felt pangs of regret for the distance I put between myself and newborn Eden.  I was so scared to love her, and so scared to believe she was here to stay, that I often didn't take the time that I should have to hold her and interact with her.  Add to that my sincere disdain for the breastfeeding experience and genuine postpartum depression, and I frequently felt like she was a job rather than a gift.  My mindset has since changed drastically, but I'm still so sorry for my behavior in her first few months of life.

Bound and determined not to repeat those mistakes with Delilah, and to keep her from getting lost in the shuffle of toddler life, I found myself holding Delilah as much as I could.  I seized every reasonable opportunity to let her sleep on my chest, snuggle in my arms, sit in my lap.  It started so deliberately, but over the last almost six months I've found that I need her.

Throughout the day I find my mind wandering to think about her.  I catch myself staring at her pictures on my desktop.  When I see her I feel compelled to hold her, to kiss her, to just be close to her.  I've become rather obsessed.

Oddly, it's been Marcos who has noticed some of the quirky things about her.  She started to favor one side of her head and developed a bit of an asymmetrical head, for which she's had a couple sessions of physical therapy.  I never would have noticed, and when Marcos discovered the issue I insisted he be the one to take her to the doctor, because I wouldn't have the doctor thinking that I was the paranoid parent.  Marcos also noticed the crease in her earlobe, just a slight, inconsequential defect that I had overlooked.

When I look at Delilah, I am drawn by the intensity of her gaze.  Her eyes captivate me, bore into me and leave me weak and raw and exposed.  She owns me with her stare.  When we first lock eyes in the morning, I know that she was rightly named Delilah, one who weakens.  The day that I lifted her from her crib and held her close to me, and she placed her tiny hands on my cheeks and began to chew on my chin, I nearly melted into a puddle of mom-goo.

In her newborn stage I frequently saw Gabriel in her face, but as she grows, she looks more and more like her sister, but with Delilah's signature eyebrows.  Watching her develop is wonderful.  She has incredible dexterity, great strength, an infectious laugh, and a very apparent desire to do new things. Though she's participated in family story time since she was born, we've recently started offering her own story before bed, and she reaches for the pages of the books with curious wonder. She doesn't care to sit still, and I treasure the moments when she'll simply sit in my lap or hold still in my arms.  She'll be off and running in no time.

We are all informed by our experiences, and while my nature is to love very boldly, experience has taught me to harness my feelings and be careful with my heart. Still, all of the experience and all of the hurt couldn't protect me and couldn't stop me.  I couldn't help myself from placing my heart in the tiny hands of my beautiful, brilliant, shining star, Delilah Danielle.