When I was pregnant with Vesta, I taught a Nia retreat in Mexico. The retreat center was built 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean. Warm water, soft sand, rolling waves. I think back to that young woman: I didn’t know how innocent I was, how naive, how vulnerable, so I just celebrated. I just enjoyed my pregnancy. I sang to her and talked to her and danced Nia with her and on this day, I waded into the ocean with her, my 3 month old fetus. I told her all about the ocean, how much I loved water and how I hoped she would, too. Though I imagined she already floating weigthless in her little sack of waters, I wanted her to feel her container feel weightless. “This is what it’s like”, I whispered to her as a lay on my back, far from the beach, letting the rolling waves lift me and lower me down. Staring out at the vast sky, gray that day, and the vast ocean, reminding me why people once thought the earth was flat. There is the end, right there. The thin line beyond which is nothingness. Yet, now that we know it goes on, past the point of where we can see, it feels the exact opposite. It feels endless.
I brought my 5 month old baby and my 17 month old baby back to Mexico the following two years. She was a cautious baby and is a cautious child. She did not want to enter that very same stretch of ocean I showed her in utero, even if I carried her. The huge power of the water foaming and roaring towards her was too intimidating and she couldn’t get away fast enough. That’s fair. There is a primal understand that that energy could easily take one down, under and away. So let’s try the pool. She wasn’t even sure of the pool.
I returned home that first year of taking her to Mexico as an infant and enrolled her in swimming classes. My usually happy, smiling and laughing baby became incredible stoic and unsure. Everywhere else in the world, people would stop and engage with her and comment on how happy she was. Not at swimming. “You have such a serious baby”, they would say. After a year of singing, splashing, enticing with balls and rubber bath toys in her classes she began to enjoy herself. We moved to Portland and we go swimming at least once a week in these amazing community center pools with water slides, fountains and rapid rivers. She has so much fun. At the end of my pregnancy with Harvey, we would spend hour after hour after hour there. The weightlessness felt so good to me and she was so happy and entertained there, it was a respite for us both. I was so preoccupied with taking care of Vesta, building my business, preparing for baby and just being irritable and grumpy for most of the 9 months I had Harvey, that I was solely focused on my relief: My sense of ease in the water, how it felt for me to float. WIth Harvey, I so rarely put focus on him. I went 17 weeks before I went to a yoga class and remembered the joy of being pregnant and connecting with my little baby. The pregnancy went on and time kept moving without me paying very much attention to him. Even in yoga classes, I was so uncomfortable this pregnancy, I focused almost solely on relieving my symptoms. I felt so badly about it and felt so stuck in myself and my own needs and demands of parenthood and work and relationships and exhaustion, that I comforted myself with knowing that when he came out, that’s when I would bond with him, I would be so happy to have him, I would focus my attention on him, all after he was born. After he was born, I would fully connect with him. I would show him all of the things: floating, weightlessness, vast skies and endless oceans, when he was on the outside. “I’ll have his whole life”, I thought to myself, I eased my guilt with, I made it okay to be less connected to this baby in utero with. There is nothing wrong with that. Lots of second time moms feel that way. I talked to them, we commiserated, we comforted each other: “We’ll have their whole lives”, we said. What I forgot to say, what I didn’t know to say, was “God willing.”
Nine weeks ago today, I was in the hospital holding my dying baby. I changed his diaper once. We gave him his one bath. We dressed him in the one outfit he wold wear. We sang to him. We caressed him. I drank in every part of him, every wrinkle, every bulge, every hair, every imperfection of my perfect little boy. Nine weeks ago today, I held my newborn baby as he died. Nine weeks ago today, I parented my child as he died. For one day, I was the parent I wanted to be to my son.
But today, nine weeks later, I am at the beach with my stepmother, my best friend and my daughter. It is in the 90s in Portland and 15 degrees cooler at the coast, so we load up lunch and toys and sun-protectant accutrements and head west. The air is a blessing. It is cool and fresh and spacious and reminds me of my home in San Francisco. I live now on the surface of gallons of emotions. I am easily overwhlemed, frustrated, scared, saddened. Today is no exception. Except that today, Vesta has needed me more than I had the capacity for. We are both frustrated and annoyed with each other because she needs more from me and I have nothing more to give. So my stepmother entertains her, my best friend takes her to the water. I look for them. I look for the sihlouette of a grown up in a halter top and skirt near that of a child with a ponytail and a dress, frolicking in the shallow waves. But I can’t find them. The beach is so crowded today and I search and search until, I spot them. Yes, there they are but of course, not frolicking. Being held because, as I say, she is cautious, knows her limits, is observant.
I have this much needed break, they come back to our blanket on the sand and she is ready to go back to the water again. “I’ll go with you”, I say and she is delighted. We run toward the waves. She walks right in. Earlier she saw bigger kids jumping the waves, so even though she has no chance of clearing any of this small waves, she jumps as each one hits her, as if she can. She pulls me deeper, joyfully crashing into the foamy, broken waves as they crash into her. I never expected to be swimming in the Oregon Pacific Ocean so I am wearing a skirt and tank top and not a bathing suit like she is. I am trying not to get wet but as we move deeper in the ocean, I begin to get very wet and also to not care. First my skirt is soaked, then the long ends of the overshirt I am wearing, then the sleeves as I sometimes have to reach down and pull her our of a paticularly larger wave. She is suddenly fearless. Trudging through the water with enthusiasm and determination. Delighted by the feeling of the sand being pulled from under her feet and sinking into the soft earth as the water receeds. Each wave getting us more and more wet, cooler and cooler, elcits wide-faced smiles and elated squeals. She calls to me and encourages me and demands that I engage in this moment. That I hold her hand, that I jump, that I scoop her up, that I laugh and smile and live, standing right next to her, my one, living child. Who is so big now: long legs, sophisticated speech, strong memories. My one, living child who is growing fast, who is quickly becoming her own person. As much as she needs me, I see the exact match of innate drive to not need me. Already. Without Harvey, her first three years have seemed to exccelerate. The past has now gone so fast, not only because my days after his death are so long and slow, but, though I consciously did my very best to enjoy her at each stage and not even say “I can’t wait until she…” so as not to speed up this precious time, I was always counting on having another child. Because, if I’d known, I would have savored even more, I would have watched her grow even more closely, I would have struggled less to get her to sleep in her own bed, to eat the right foods, to wean her from nursing. I enjoyed and participated in her first three years fully, except for the part of me that was sure I’d have the chance again, with our second child, who would first not miscarry and second, not die.
But back to today again. Back to the cool waters of the Pacific and my cautious daughter afraid just minutes ago of the vast powerful ocean, the waves barreling toward her, now running into it, fearless. Suddenly, she is unaware of it’s power to take her down, under and away. On the cellular level that drives us forward in life, she has forgotten (or perhaps remembered?) that she is vulnerable to the tides, that she can easily loose her footing, that she is not in control, that she is subject to the whims of nature. All of the sudden, my daughter is brave and confident in the waves. Waves that to me look tiny as they hit below my knee, but to her are gigantic as the smash into her chest and a time or two right into her face. And beyond that, she’s joyful. She’s elated. She’s delighted and enthuisatic and unbound. She runs forward, deeper and deeper into the ocean, water splashing from her footfalls, arms pumping as she presses against the force of the endless water, calling to me “C’mon, Mom! C’mon!” I have heard this more acutely for the past two months, sometimes joyous, sometimes pleading: C’mon, Mom. C’mon.
“I’m coming!”, I call back and run to catch up with her. I reach out to take her hand because I still believe, on some level, that I can protect her, that I can save her if she needs saving. I still believe that I can parent her everyday of her life the way I want to: the balancing act of guiding and letting go, guiding and letting go, guiding and letting go.
In my reflection of this moment, I look out to that thin line of horizon and with deep desperation, plead with God to never, ever take her from me, too. But that is not how it actually happened. That happened later tonight, when she climbs into my bed with her blanket, her plastic pony and Harvey’s teddy bear, sent to us from the organ donation organization. That happened when she snuggled up to me, my warm, sun drenched little kid smelling of sand and sunscreen, cuddling with this soft, stuffed, sorrowful representation of her baby brother, my 2 month old baby. That is when I pleaded with God, again, fervently, to have mercy on me.
But right now, in this moment in the ocean, watching her run away from me unfazed into the sea, I just grabbed on and let go and fell in love with life again, even just the tiny, tiniest bit.