Just now I thought to myself, “what would I do without him?”
How about that?
I love you.
Just now I thought to myself, “what would I do without him?”
How about that?
I love you.
Now, you are four. Here are four things your mom has been thinking about.
1. My dad has a friend who has two daughters, each lost a baby. Some time after you died, my dad asked him when his daughters felt better. He said it took about four years until they were anything like themselves again. I scoffed, at whatever point my dad told me this, thinking I would never feel remotely like myself again and certainly not “better”. But here I am. And this anniversary is markedly different. I do feel better and I am a better “me” even. I prefer me now to who I was before you died.
2. I was talking to my best friend in San Francisco and she said, “Wow. After all you’ve been through in the past several years. . . now you are in love and buying a house together. . . Are you happy?”. I scoffed again, “No!” And then I stumbled. “Well, sometimes, I mean, sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m frustrated.” Tripping over myself, “I mean, it’s all relative, right? Compared to where I’ve been I’m happy. I mean, I never thought I’d feel like this again. But, I don’t know . . .we’ve all got somethin, I guess.” I realized after we hung up that I fumbled around while she patiently listened because I’m not trying to be happy anymore. I’m not trying to get somewhere. I’m not trying to find the puzzle pieces of an American life and put them together. I am stumbling and I’m also cobbling. I put things down on the table that don’t really fit and seeing if I might find a way to make them. I’m looking at my pieces in different angles and with new eyes. The path of college, career, home, marriage, children didn’t really work out for me. I don’t have the right pieces for that anymore and, actually never did, when I think of it. I stumbled into love. I found my person by mistake and with exceedingly poor timing. But we’re doing it anyway. We can just about afford this house and it needs work that we’ll eventually do with “car tires and chicken wire” as Ani Difranco croons, with a wing and a prayer. We’re going to cobble together a new little family. Figure out how to stepparent and co-parent and probably fuck it up left and right, like we all do. Or, at least us, interesting ones. But I have great love now. I have rebuilt trust and it has been earned. (Hard earned, poor woman!) And I’m going to go with that. Knowing I have my person with me and we have our girls and the ones that are gone and we have kept going so far and we’ll just keep going. Am I happy? Yes, I’m happy. But I’m also whole now. And that is, at this place in my life, more important.
3. I was texting with your Auntie Jenn yesterday and we were talking about how awesome you are and how much you have changed and influenced us. I was so pleased and content inside myself after the storytelling night I hosted on your anniversary and she and I spoke so broadly and poetically about you, because that’s how far we have come. Somehow, though, as I stood in the kitchen alone but “with” my best friend, I was overcome with longing for you. I texted her, rather desperately, that I wished you were here and that I wished I didn’t have any of the gifts and lessons I’ve received from your death and that I’d trade it all in a hot second to have you back. She wrote back and said she would too in a heart beat. She said she often “thinks about what some alternate universe in which he lives a healthy, long and totally non descript life”. And I felt the truth of that right to my very bones. To the unacknowledged value of a healthy, long and totally non-descript life. We strive to be happy and successful and all the things but looking at the alternative that I have now, this life without you, that sounds like perfection to me. Nothing grand. Nothing special. Just life. Her statement also speaks to your impact on so many of us here, your family and many of my friends and community, who think of you and have been affected by your death and my expression of grief and how lovely it would be to not have any of that and just have a four year old boy instead. But we don’t and we can’t, so the meaning we have made individually and collectively of your life and death and our grief is the experience we now welcomely receive. Or at least receive and do our best with it.
4. I’m buying bunk beds, after all. But not because you are here and we have to squish both kids in one room. I’m buying a new house with my new family and we still don’t need to make any space or plans or accommodations for you. Still. And always. Somehow, I’m still waiting for the end of this. But there isn’t one. I’ll always notice what I’m not doing for you, how you are not here, and wonder would it would be like if you were. You know, that alternate, non-descript universe.
I love you.
My kids have an uncle we call “Tio Loco”. He is their dad’s brother and, also mine, despite divorce and not sharing any DNA. Harvey was born at 6:02am in Portland, OR. Loco arrived from San Francisco not much later than noon that same day. He met me at the car that evening when I returned from the NICU. He nearly had to carry me up the path and the stairs and I felt embarrassed and ashamed. But he held me tight and got me into the house.
He had come to our house straight from the airport while we were at the NICU and he’d walked into a blood bath. I can only imagine what he saw. A home is often chaotic when a baby is born there but this was even more so as we had all abandoned ship as soon as humanly possible to get to the hospital to be with the baby, born there in the bathroom with no heartbeat and no breathes taken, purple and swollen and basically dead. After the EMTs had taken the baby and my then-husband to the ER, my midwives had somehow gotten meinto the bedroom and I laid back on the bed and birthed the placenta. Blood left my body and a lot of it, spilling down the side of the bed. I don’t remember much of these moments but I do remember being worried about the stains, though none of us were able to do anything but either survive and/or their job and we were laser focused on the hospital, so little care was taken for anything else. I am sure there was stuff everywhere when he walked in: the birthing tub still full but cold, medical instruments, padding and bandages, empty dishes and cups, and God only knows what else. With the baby in the NICU and us with him, it must have felt like a crime scene.
He stayed with us. He came to the NICU with us the next day. He re-explained to me what the organ donation lady had said. He held onto his brother. He smiled down and cried over his nephew. He spoke in whispers to my dearest friends and they quietly coordinated and planned, I imagine. He drew the water for the only bath his nephew would take. The water was lukewarm at best and while I worried Harvey would be cold, he had worried that it not be too hot for him. Both of us considering the physical comfort of this brain dead baby we didn’t know what the fuck we were going to do without.
He left the room with the others after the last machine was unplugged and I wonder if they heard my screams after the baby stopped breathing, for the second and final time in his 2 day lifetime. Loco came back in. I remember him there, helping us pack up. I remember him guiding us out of the room as I took one last look at my dead baby, dressed in his little baseball onesie, a ceramic heart tied around his tiny wrist. We couldn’t bear to watch him being taken away from that little room, we were beyond exhausted, so we left the body of our only son alone. I don’t know that I will ever forgive myself for that.
Loco took us home and he stayed with us for days. He fed us, he planned (and possibly paid for) the funeral with my friends, he arranged for the new bed his mom had bought to be delivered, he brought our sons ashes home to us in a tine black tin and, I’m guessing, made all of the arrangements necessary for that to happen. Once, he left the house for one of the many errands he was doing, leavign the three of us alone for the first time. It was awful. Danny and I weren’t even one whole person combined. He lay on the couch and I sat on a table at the window catatonic while Vesta’s normal 3.5 year old needs completely overwhelmed us. I was so relieved and grateful when he returned.
He flew back to San Francisco for a day, maybe two, to retrieve his wife and baby and return for the funeral. When they all left after that and I knew he wasn’t coming back stay, I didn’t think we would make it without him.
One day, after the funeral, Danny, Loco and Vesta were in the kitchen, cooking and teasing and talking and messing around as they do when they are together. I sat on the couch on the other side of the wall, listening and trying to figure out how to breathe. They broke into song: “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. I wanted to run into that room and scream “WE ARE NOT SINGING YET!! WE ARE NOT SINGING YET!! THERE IS NOTHING TO SING ABOUT!!” but I didn’t, thank God. Mostly because I could hardly breathe but also because I knew they were in the midst of what would be a very rare moment of joy for them in the coming months as we all began our new lives as a bereaved family.
For Harvey’s first birthday, Loco and his wife, our sister-in-law, went to the San Francisco Library to record a Story Corps about their nephew and us and them and grief and anger and fear and living on and barely surviving. It is perhaps the most beautiful gift I have ever received. One of the worst things that happens to loss parents is that people stop talking about their kid, out of either discomfort or forgetting or him just not being here anymore, so this gift, them talking about how much they loved and missed him, how his life and birth had affected and changed them, meant absolutely everything to me. I was not the only one. They felt it, too.
On his actual first birthday, Loco and his family flew up to have cake and chili with us, to stand outside in the April chill for his birthday ritual, and to hold us up, especially Danny, yet again.
A couple weeks after our marriage ended, they were up again, visiting in-laws down the road from what was now “my” house. They came over on a Sunday while I was cooking meatballs, still high from the miracle healing I had received, and I greeted them at the door with what I imagine was surprisingly warm smiles and embraces. They came in and we sat together and talked. Loco expressed to me that he was angry and sad and disappointed. It meant so much to me, that he saw me, too. That he empathized with me and felt for me and wanted to have been able to protect me or help me in some way. He and Danny have the most awesome sibling relationship ever. I was grateful that there was love and loyalty for me, too. We cried, as this iteration of family that he and I had shared since we were 22 was also changing. Although he will always be my brother, I his sister and of course, the best uncle in the history of the universe to my kids.
I was thinking about him a lot this morning, all of this stuff and missed a call from him. He had tried to go to work today but couldn’t stay. He left and was out driving the streets of his home town and he called me and I’m guessing his brother, too. That little boy. He changed us all. He brought us together in a way we never would have been without him. We all ache and long for and miss and love him, especially on these days in April. Even and especially, Tio Loco.
In the NICU on the day Harvey died, I held him in the rocker and I started to sing to him. as many of the songs I thought I’d sing everyday to him for years, I tried to sing over and over. My two best friends chimed in and we sang songs they sang to their daughters. I asked Loco, “What’s a song you sing to O at bedtime?”. Looking chagrined,he said “I don’t really know any kid songs so…I just sing America the Beautiful…” So, we all burst into a tear-eyed, smiling lips version of America the Beautiful. Our nurse/angel, Carrie, walked in at the final verse and laughed, “I wasn’t expecting that!”, she said. We all laughed together, me holding our little boy, and had a moment, however fleeting, of joy, of reprieve, of family, of humanness, thanks to my kids’ uncle, who doesn’t know one lullaby.
I was awake last night about the time I was awake 4 years ago writing to my first child as my body began its slow process of laboring with Harvey. Last night, I was awake fretting about news we received that complicates and may end the purchase of the home we fell in love with. I was awake going over the details of the reading I am hosting in 2 days time. I was awake remembering being awake this night four years ago, feeling the emptiness in my belly now, the aloneness, just me in this body, forever more. I was not grieving and crying and longing for my son. Is that over? No, it never is, it never will be.
But I have progressed. Thanks in large part to the trauma therapy I engage in, I am not reliving the events of these days four years ago… I saw the clock at 7:42pm last night and noted that my water had broken and at this point, we were rushing around our friend’s house to head back home to prepare for labor but I did not feel it in my bones or my cells. I was not cast back in time like I have been before. Same for being awake last night. It was a normal memory, not a physiological experience of returning. Today at 1:00pm, I will remember my acupunctirist coming over to help get labor started. And at 3, I will remember the contractions beginning and Vesta’s tiny voice telling her dad she was ready to go to Jenn’s now, after hearing the first of my moaning. But I will stay right here in present day. Her voice will not ping pong in my head as if she were saying those words, now, in my ear, over and over again. This year, I will not be tortured.
Will his birth time and death time be the same? Will the memories of the moments in the NICU be the same as the minutes tick by tomorrow and Friday? Will I feel the bumps in the road and my voice vibrating in my throat as we drove to the NICU on April 28th and I asked Danny if he would be willing to donate our newborn’s organs as I have in years past? I don’t think so. I think I am in a new place. I think I have achieved a level of healing I never imagined.
This was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me (except of course, losing my other child) and it still doesn’t even make sense to me that I can get out of bed, let alone smile, laugh, love and live again. That still remains an impossibility to me despite the clear, primary evidence to the contrary. I am reading a piece on Friday about re-connection, how we re-connect with ourselves after loss, trauma, illness and the like. And even after having prepared my piece, I still don’t know. It is still a mystery: the life force that propels us, the energy that keeps the lungs filling and emptying, the unconscious desire to keep the feet stepping one in front of the other, the will to live despite the most horrific of circumstances. We are amazing animals, we humans. I’m so glad I made it through.
If you are in Portland this Friday April 28th, 2017, please join me and 5 other writers/performers/poets for Begin Again: Stories of Re-connection at the Waterstone Gallery (124 NW 9th Ave) from 7-9:03pm
Today, I had to go to the hospital where Harvey was taken from our home minutes after he was born. The Emergency Room down the road and around the corner from our house. My doctor told me I could get my labs done there, so close to work and free compared to her clinic, and I agreed. I didn’t want to go there and had avoided it for last month’s labs I going to a different location, on the way to my haircut and also free. I had been there before, as well, to meet with the perinatalogist, the first person that told us the rupture in my uterus could certainly be mended surgically and we’d go on to have another child. I cried through that appointment but after four months of grief and dead dreams, I left there hopeful. It wasn’t awful going back there, the loss of my fertility and marriage surrounded in the peace and acceptance I never imagined they would be.
And, honestly, it wasn’t awful going to Providence today. It did not wreck me as it so easily would have had only a couple of years ago. I drove the familiar streets near our old house, took the exit I always took, drove by the Emergency and the East wing of the hospital. My son was in three place in his 39 hour lifetime: our home, Providence Emergency and Emanuel NICU. I have tried to make Providence a place that feels good to go to. I wasn’t there with him as I was being stabilized at home and it was a place he had been, his little half dead, half alive body had been there. His spirit, still inside his body had been there. They had got his heart started again there. The ER doctor consoled me over the phone as we hung up, “I had my kids at home, too. I’m sorry this happened to you.” It was a place of hope. Before we could truly fit “dead child” into our “nothing is going to go wrong” shaped brains. But I can’t do it. That place breaks my heart. Because he was there and now he is gone. Because I wasn’t there. Because I couldn’t save him and neither could his doctors there and neither could his doctors at the NICU.
I had to go there once before. Not long after Danny and I broke up, Vesta fell out of a tree at school and landed flat on her face. Around bedtime, she began to exhibit concussion type symptoms and, of course, this was the closest hospital to our home. This was before I had any awareness of my PTSD or anxiety, neither of which helped the situation. They hurried her through the long ER queue that night on account of her being a child but I think my constant, inconsolable sobbing was also factored in. I was certain that she would die. I was certain that I would lose my only other child to the gaping maw of those ER doors. And I couldn’t bear it. Jenn arrived before Danny and got us both through it as we stared out blankly into the room at moments and I rung my hands and cried at others and Jenn and I both seethed at him, so fresh were our wounds from his wrongdoing.
She was okay. I took her home and woke her up every hour and stayed awake most of the night listening to her breath. I wouldn’t miss my chance this time. God might take her too, but not without my viligance this time. My brain was fully reshaped to “my kid could die” by then. It was me against God, his ambivalence towards me and all other humans as he carelessly took our kids and our spouses and our siblings and our parents and all sorts of people we can’t live without. God was still my adversary then. I was still on guard against Him.
But not today. Today, I parked as far away from the ER as possible. Following signs, relieved to see that where I was supposed to go was not anywhere near where my heartbeatless child was whisked in, coming up on 4 years ago now. But then I found myself in the specialized wing of the hospital: the center for medically fragile children and the cancer center. I asked the lady at the information desk and she directed me through the hallways and out the doors and back into the medical plaza on the other side of the campus. So, I walked through there. Through the hallways his doctors and nurses, part of the precious few people who touched or even saw my boy, walk through every shift. Past the doors where his stretcher (Did they have him on a bed? Did they carry him in? Were they rushing? I don’t even know.) was pushed through. Past the people sitting on pastel patterned couches speaking in whispers. Past the heart broken and the sick and the hopeful. And before I stepped outside, the large red “EMERGENCY” sign illuminating the rainy, gray morning, I saw the lady. Our lady. Our Lady of Providence. Holding an infant who grasps at her robes and looks up at her lovingly. And she, who’s face is more somber, gazes down but not directly at the plump, alive, awake baby in her arms. Maybe the EMTs saw her, I think, as they rushed in. Maybe one of them had a moment to say a little prayer for my baby without a heartbeat. Maybe one of them stopped judging us for having our baby at home for a moment and just prayed for his little soul. Maybe after the doctor called me, consoled my then-husband and sent our child to the NICU on the other side of town, he stood with her for a moment and prayed for a miracle that he knew would not come for us and our boy.
I stood there with her for a moment. Providence: divine care, God’s rule over our earthly happenings, the dictionary says, with “wise benevolence”. And here is our lady of His beckoning, standing at the entrance of sickness and loss and injury and recovery and hope and the instantaneous transformation of lives. In years past, I would have want to hurl that statue across the room, when God was still my enemy, when benevolent would have been the last word I would ever use to describe Him. But not today, not Harvey dying or being dead, but in the way I am healing, in the way I am able to put one foot in front of the other andsome days, most days now, do even more than that. How I have been granted the truest love I have ever felt, the love I have been looking for my whole life. How we are okay, me and Vesta, how we are making it through all of the endless changes, how I am hoping our bond solidifies around our small, little life together. How I can work and laugh and feel joy again. How I am learning to manage my trauma and reorganize myself around living through it and past it. Here is where I feel providence, God’s divine love and guidance, His omniscience. As I stand with this Lady, dressed in the blue and white robes of Mary, the icon I know sport on the inside of my left elbow, representing to me the Great Mother, who has only providence and love and grace. I feel how She has always been with me. I am reminded of that. That there is always something to hope for, even when it is absolutely unfathomable.
I have to live without my son. Every damn day of my whole life. But I don’t have to live without hope or laughter or joy or meaning or gratitude. I do not. And I don’t.
I feel like driving fast. so does Vesta. We are sitting in traffic on the way to school and every time there is room I speed up and she says “oh yeah!”.
I feel like I need to find some order in this chaos. Make lists, that I lose or stop seeing after awhile if they are on my white board. Jenn says that while yes, my mind is crazy and mixed up so are my days, my schedule, my commitments, so write that shit down. And quit doing so much. My bank account agrees.
I ate my lunch at 10am and spilled it down the front of the white shirt I almost never wear anymore.
I spilled cottage cheese in a bag my ex left, all over my client files and computer and an avocado. I emptied it, started to clean it out and then threw the whole damn thing away. Even though it’s the perfect size for my files and computer.
I spilled the whole Britta onto the counter.
I decided I’d break the dishes I don’t want on the cement behind my house. I have three people coming over tomorrow to help pack. All three could use a good smashing of something besides their hearts. All four of us, really.
Tuesday night, I learned my ex lost his job. I still need his money. Terrible shit keeps happening to us. And we’re not even us anymore.
I had spent an hour packing between therapy and work and was angry at him the whole time. Because I’m not supposed to be doing this alone. Packing up all this shit and moving it by myself. I swear there was something in our vows about loading and unloading the car. Wasn’t there? There is some continued violation in me having to carry shit on my own, not even metaphorically.
Also, I miss Jenn. We’d be drinking midday, I’d put on Gloria Gaynor like I did when we cleaned her house in Colorado when we were 17, we’d fill boxes with my shit and she’d go on and on about new chapters and good timing. Which would be annoying but fine. And true. And she never put a silver lining on my dead kid so she can do it on this move. But she isn’t, because she moved away and we both feel like an important piece is missing. Not a limb or a kidney per se but a gall bladder or appendix. Something not essential but everything worked better when it was there.
I buried my kid three years ago today, I keep thinking that and then stop myself. I didn’t bury anyone. My kid is in tiny plastic bag in an ugly tin box on the top shelf of my coat closet. Someday, he’s going to be a diamond I wear around my neck. I’m going to send the handful of ashes to a service who will press him into a diamond. And Vesta can bury me with it around her neck or keep it with her. She misses him, too.
My parents stood up in front of the room and cried. My dad joined my mom and put his arm around his once-wife. I don’t know what they said but my mom held a doll from another child our extended family lost.
My husband stood in front of the room and cried and read the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. He handed it to me that afternoon after I’d gotten home from the hospital and the morphine had worn off and I said “You’re going to read this?” And he said yes and then he did. And he cried in front of everyone. I had never loved him more than in those moments.
My body ached. It had been torn open. My uterus and my perinium and I stood for hours in pain, greeting everyone and talking, accepting their condolences and sad eyes. The pitying eyes that were so glad it was me and not them. Danny’s friends from high school came in after I was seated in the front. They lit their candles and one by one came to hug me and said “don’t get up” so I sat there and let them bend over me. I was glad they came.
Almost weekly, I think to myself, “who would have imagined that at X many years, Y would be happening”. Yes. Who would have imagined that three years from the day I buried my son (there it is again. Where did it come from?) that I’d be barren and broken up and packing our shit to move because I don’t have enough money to stay. It’s awe-inspiring to survive something you were sure you wouldn’t. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it. Who would have imagined?
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye came to the school my sister-in-law works at. She told her about Harvey. So, Naomi Shihab Nye said she will hold him in her heart. So, Naomi Shihab Nye, who I have loved for 20 years and also forgotten about, is holding my son in her heart. My sister-in-law grieves damn near the same as I do. Nearly silently, nearly the same. She hugged me on this very day three years ago and I could feel her grief, how somehow she understood me in a way most others couldn’t.
I double booked massages today so I have to scramble.
All of the essential oils I am using on my clients have labels of shades of blue and orange. No significance. I just noticed.
I buried my kid three years ago today and all of these other things happened, too. Someday, the ashes that were his body will be a diamond around my neck. Someday, I will hold his stardust, diamond body in my hand and think, “who could have imagined…”
You would be three and a half now. First of all, I don’t know how that can be. Frozen as you are in black and white photos, doctored to cover the signs of hospitalization and death: No angry, red irritation on your skin wherever there was tape. No purple nail beds from the pooling of non-circulating blood. No flopping, unresponsive limbs. You could be asleep in the pictures, the way the photographer posed you, propped you, gave us a view of you we never saw. When I think of you now, I often think of your picture since I see it frequently, and not as you really were in your humanness, your animalness, your flesh and blood, dying in my arms.
Papa hung your photo above his desk and realized that that was it. That was the only picture he would have of you. There would be no more. It’s funny how a simple, normal action like that, hanging a photo, reveals so much truth. You will never change. You will always be a baby, an infant, a newborn.
Even as you grow in my mind. Even as you age. Even as I track the progress you are not making. It’s the same, except the exact, horrific opposite. Still.
When you died, your sister was three and a half. I’m trying to put my mind around that. Trying to understand that we would have had you, now, for as long as we had her, then. When the world stopped. There is so much frozen in time for me then. I remember her so clearly. More clearly, then any other time of her life, except for the recent past. I remember clothes she wore and individual trips to the park though it was a daily occurence. I remember the roundness of her cheeks, the bounce of her ringlets, her little hand in mine as we walked the stone path to the playground. As that little three and a half year old, lead me through my life, through the haze of my unrelenting grief. So much of that time of my life is gray and hazy and gone but not your sister at three and a half. It is an age I remember so clearly.
She has lived half her life without you. Half of her life with relatively happy, contented, light parents and half with the bereaved version of us, the broken version, the picking-up-the-pieces parents. I have a hard time recognizing myself still. I can only imagine what that shift from one day to the next in late April of 2013 and all that has followed, must have felt like to her. With no words for it, no real understanding. Just feelings, just sensing and noticing something had gone terrible wrong. Very little felt familiar anymore. I wonder if she felt us trying to make it so, too. And if that just contributed to the confusion.
Your three and a half birthday is another strange milestone that goes unnoticed except by me. I often feel like a baseball statistician as I navigate the days, months, years after your loss: “Wow Bob! This is the first time in baseball history that anyone has gotten on base against a pitcher named Thomas on a Tuesday afternoon at 4:13 in July! Just incredible!”. I see the details. I keep track. I notice. I can’t help but. There are, like all dead people have, birthdays and death anniversaries. For me, there is the 27th and 28th of each month that I track. There is the half birthdays. The due date and, because I happen to know it, the conception date. The around-the-time when you don’t “fill in the blank”: roll over, sit up, eat food, crawl, walk, talk, smile, clap, laugh, fall down, dig in sand, climb a stair, cut a tooth and on and on and on. The day you don’t start preschool. I have friends who know the exact number of days since they held their babies. And there are a million of other dates, silently on the minds of bereaved mothers. We anticipate them, we experience them, we feel the aftermath of their passing. Time and again. For the rest of our lives.
These milestones don’t sting the way they used to. Sometimes, I even smile. Often, I marvel at the acceptance I have accomplished. I find you in my heart, now. That time is so far away now. In the early months and years, I watched other people living out the life I had planned for myself. The one where you have babies and they don’t die. The one where you space your children just the way you planned. the one where you hold your older child’s hand while adjusting the straps of the baby carrier strapped to your chest with your living, breathing baby in it. The one where you didn’t even noticed that you brushed up against death in the dynamic dance of birth. But now that I am so far away from having a second child: no infancy, no toddlerhood, no no no, I can no longer even imagine what my life would be like had you lived. I no longer see myself in the lives of other people who take theirs for granted. It stings when a child is revealed to be three and a half. I try not to flinch. But that’s all these days. I just try not to flinch and move along. It’s amazing.
Tonight though, that 7 year old sister of yours, that 3.5 years plus 3.5 years sister of yours, the one who was the age you would now be when you died, told me a story. She tried to make it elongate post-dinner/pre-bedtime but I insisted she tell me once we were laying in bed for books. And so she did. Her eyes heavy for sleep from the time change but also wide from her imagination weaving it’s own narrative this time. She used words like “eagerly” and “lured” correctly and well which suprised me. She flourished her story by describing tone of voice: “… she nervously said “. She even built suspense with her voice: pausing appropriately, whispering, changing the pace and lilt of her speech. I’d never heard or seen such craft from her. I thought, “We are good with her words, her dad and I, and here are her genes, her proclivities, her leanings, her talents, showing up in a way I have never seen before.” And I loved it. I loved watching her little face, so close to mine, and listening to her words and watching her little brain twist and turn the story around as she went. It was amazing.
But most amazingly was that she stayed in third person the whole time. This was amazing because the story was about a sister and a brother, the sister’s name was Vesta and the brother’s name was Harvey. At 7, she told a story about herself, never veering from third person, never slipping into “I” statements. She created conversations between Vesta and Harvey. When frightened, Harvey crawled into Vesta’s bed. Harvey, being the more mischievous and adventuresome of the two, cajoled and convinced Vesta to sneak out of the house, despite Vesta’s warning that their parents would be “worried sick” if they left to investigate the mysterious flickering lights outside. I fought the tears as the children in the story, my children, both alive and living together for these few moments, talked to each other, doubted the other, encouraged, abandoned, touched, rescued and rejoiced together, for the first time. For the first time, she told me a conversation you had together, an experience you shared, a snuggle you had in her bed. A fiction, and yet we lay there, with you animated in a way you never were, never could be, but there you were all of the sudden. I wondered (truth be told, I longed) to see what you looked like in her mind’s eye. What does his voice sound like? How does his body look as he runs? What does his skin feel like when you lay with him under the covers? How does his hair smell? But I was quiet, holding the tears in for fear that they would stop the story, red eyed and enthralled. Trying to stay present.
From the fiction of a young girl, came a moment in the life of her dead brother. And, I imagine now, that she could commit to third person so easily because it is a fiction. You are a fiction. There is no brother Harvey to get confused with the character Harvey. You, my love, are a character in our lives. A person that we cannot see or touch or feel or smell but who is very much present. Less and less, it is true. Less and less, in a daily manner. But there, none-the-less, as a character, as Vesta’s brother, as a force in her story that encouraged her to be brave, that she was able to stand up to even though she was afraid to, to face the darkness and the flickering lights and the scary dwarves turned werewolves together. Vesta left Harvey there at one point, at the strange cabin with the mythical creatures, to fend for himself and he did. He out ran them, climbed into his bed and fell asleep. But she got back up, and snuck back out without him, against her better judgement, to make sure the coast was clear, to make sure no one was after him. And it wasn’t and they were and she took care of it and then went back to bed in her own bedroom in a house that had a bedroom for each of the children. A bedroom for Vesta and a bedroom for Harvey. You even had your own room.
There is space for you. There always will be. At every age. I will carry you with me and so will she. We won’t forget you. We don’t have stories to tell about you but we will tell them anyway. We will never have even one new photograph but that doesn’t mean you have to stay frozen. We can animate you. We will fictionalize what it’s like to have a brother and a son who is alive and we will tell each other about it now and then. Sometimes, we will take the feeling that is you, in our lives, in our psyches, in our hearts, and we will tell each other about it. In new and unexpected ways as well as the same old, sad, tired ways I love so much.
This will be one of those days that only will I take note of. It’s a baseball stat day: The day your sister brought you back to life. For both of us.
We spent the weekend at Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor water park, with Nona and Papa. On the last day, we played in the wave pool, bobbing up and down, jumping to keep our heads above water, playing tag when the water was calm. We let 1,000 gallons of water pour down over our heads while we squealed. We put our feet over spouting water and dashed between the drops of the fountains. When it was time, we headed for a shower.
As we were washing up together, Vesta, newly 7, said “I’m luck to be alive.”
“You are,”I agreed, emphatically, saying my silent mantra-prayer (please.don’t.let.her.die,please.don’t.let.her.die) to that venegeful God in the clouds that took my son and could take my daughter any time His coffee isn’t hot enough or His pasta too soft.
“We all are,” she stated, stomping her feet in the water that pooled around the drain. The warm water drenching the top and back of her head as she only looks down in the shower. “Harvey was…not so lucky.” Stomp, stomp stomp.
“No, he wasn’t. But we are. You’re right.” Pray pray pray. Stomp stomp stomp. Sensing the warm water on our hair and skin.
Lucky. We are lucky.
Sometimes I forget that fact. Sometimes I forget that I never thought I’d feel “lucky” again after you died. That luck would never apply to me.
Modern medicine saved Vesta and me. She was stuck. Pressing her little neck and shoulder against my pubic bone for hours. The constant pressure, contractions and baby head, swelling my bladder making it even harder, and eventually impossible, for her to get out on her own. I pushed at home for four hours. We got to the hospital and they were “committed to my vaginal birth”, though I no longer was but without the energy or courage to say so, so they put us on Pitocin. I fell to the cold, cement floor as my body responded with ferocious, mechanical contractions. I had been laboring for almost 24 hours at home, unmedicated, and this was by far the worst pain I had ever felt. By far. I felt like a machine had taken over my body. I was unable to have any control. The contractions of seemingly every muscle in my body wracked me and brought me to my knees, to the floor. She was still stuck. No progress. The midwife had had both of her hands inside me at home trying to free her little body from my bones and swollen tissue, to no avail. The hospital tried to force her out with drugs. They offered the epidural I never wanted and I accepted. Maybe she would move down on her own while I rested, numb, but my body continued to force my baby out, stuck and cramped and terrified, I would imagine. I welcomed the relief for myself and felt deep guilt and fear that my baby got no relief as I slept. No progress. So they booked an operating room and wheeled us in there and saved us.
I didn’t see it like that, though. Didn’t realize until weeks later that without modern medicine, we both would have died. Here little body collapsing in the cage of my pelvis and mine collapsing from the complications of a dead baby inside of me. I didn’t count myself as lucky for having a c-section until I began to think about what would have happened if we lived the age before surgery, medication and post-surgical care. Death is what would have happened. The maternal and infant mortality rate back then was astronomical. For someone who uses Western medicine infrequently compared to traditional medicine, I was grateful for their heroic efforts. We were lucky I said. If just for the date of my own birth.
But, of course, humans are not infallible. It took them a long time to sew me up. Longer than it should have. I was so drugged on epidural and morphine and new mama happy hormones that I didn’t really inquire. They had also shamed me enough, subtly so but shamed just as much for laboring at home, that I didn’t inquire. I didn’t want more shame or judgement or answers containing BS because of their based on their opinions of me and my choices. So, I didn’t ask anymore questions. There was some murmuring that I found suspiscious. I had a sense that something went wrong. In the surgeon’s debreifing there was some telling but not telling: “It took us longer than usual to sew you up” (emphasis not mine), “I’ve never seen a bladder so swollen”, “This is why we don’t like to do c-sections after such a long labor”. My incision opened 10 days after her birth. Danny said it was open more than an inch and he could see the striated muscle. We had to irrigate it, rush water through it and stuff it with wads of cotton squares twice a day for months. It was on the left side. I couldn’t walk without a deep pain in my lower abdomen, below the insciosn for 5 months and even after that it still ached with too much movement for months after that.
I waited more than enough time to get pregnant again and I miscarried. By the time I was pregnant with you, I was more than twice as faraway from my c-section than is recommended. So, safe from rupture. Despite my luck during my last birth, despite the brush with death I hadn’t realized I had, I never considered that you would die. Not in the light of day. I woke in the night several times in cold-blooded terror that you were going to die but I told myself that was the darkness, the vulnerability that we experience during sleep and sleep-waking, the irrationality of the mid-night time. By the light of day, I would often say to myself and others “If we have him at home, great. If we end up in the hospital, great. No one’s going to die.” No one’s going to die. Not me, not my baby. Though I said it and woke in terror to the thought of it, it never really crossed my mind that it was an actual threat. That my baby could and would die. I did everything “right”.We’d be saved again, if we needed to be.
Or not. I would have that luck. Harvey…not so much.
Where the rupture was on my uterus was deep below where the incision had opened. Where I had always felt a weakness since her birth. Where, after they went in to sew the area that never healed after the rupture and your birth/death, the “gap” as they called it was deep below where the incision had opened. Where, after I recovered from that surgery, I felt strong again in my lower abdomen, especially on that left side. I realized I had been protecting that area since Vesta was born, that it had felt weak and vulnerable and that now that it was sown up and healed, I felt new again. Something was wrong in there all along. Bad luck. The worst, in fact.
And my mind looks for blame. The surgeons from the c-section: my surgical records could not be found when I called to get them for Harvey’s midwife? My first mid-wife: my doula thought Vesta got stuck because she had asked me too push to soon? Myself for attempting another homebirth? Harvey’s midwife for not seeing signs: even though there were none to find, maybe she missed something?
But no. There is no one to blame. And if there was malpractice or negligence or even just a mistake or something overlooked, which there wasn’t, it changes nothing. Not midwives or surgeons or myself or anyone else. It was series of choices, made by a bunch of people, with a devastating outcome no one intended or wanted or even imagined. It was life. With it’s torturous quality of 20/20 hindsight. Life is a series of events and effects, choices and consequences. We do the best we can. Each of us. And sometimes people die. Sometimes, my baby dies. It’s just life. And some seriously bad luck. The worst, in fact.
Back in the shower, we are lucky. Standing there just having enjoyed a weekend with two of our grand/parents who are in their 70s and healthy and able to play and splash and laugh and love us. We shared a room and meals and quests and pretend games and movies and our hearts with her best friend and my new love. We come from a family who can afford not only a trip across the coutnry but also an excessively fun and expensive weekend. We have our skin with this warm water dropping on it, soothing it, cleansing it. We have these bodies that work, that are healthy and strong and growing and changing and beautiufl. And we have each other. We are missing her brother, she is missing her father. Always always we notice their absence but she and I, we have each other. She didn’t die and I didn’t die and we are lucky. We are so fucking lucky.
Tonight she asked me to help her down off the stool. She’s big enough to climb up there and pick out her dress and climb down and lay out her clothes, like her dad taught her. At his house.
But tonight she called for me to help her get down. So I did. I held her tiny pelvis between my hands and felt the arch of the bones, the soft skin and squishy fat and strong, small muscles sink between my palms. I put my nose into her long hair, breathed in and then held my breathe there, just a split second, for my prayer: please don’t die.
I’ve held that baby. The one who suckled and grew. And I’ve held that baby. The one who died. Here, between these very palms.
Please don’t die. I pray to her, to Him, to anyone who will listen. Please don’t die.
We crawl into bed and we read the stories she has chosen. She is older and grown into snuggling. She runs her tiny hand along my forearm as I read and I am getting used to her touching me voluntarily. Trying not to be too greedy, too overexcited that she seeks it herself now. That she will hug me first and let me hold her when she is hurt, rather than tearing into her room and slamming the door. I close my eyes without closing them and inhale again. She’s here now and I try to memorize how her skin feels on mine, the particular wrinkles of her knuckles, the shape of each nail bed.
I held my boy and I did the same. That was all the time I had. Memorize. Learn him. And quickly. And so I studied and studied. In the haze of shock, I scrutinized. Slowly pulling the blanket away to reveal chest and nipples and ribs and belly and navel and how the diaper top lifted away from his skin and the rolls on his thighs and the slope of the shin and big, big feet, similar in shape to his dad’s and sister’s. I don’t remember any of it now, not one detail that isn’t in a pictutre, except that I tried. To memorize. To remember. My boy. The most important test of my life. And now, I look at his picture as I would a stranger.
And what if I forget her? Her touch, her arcs, her laugh, her voice, how exactly long her hair.
Tonight she stayed awake for each of the three books we have been reading every night for most of her life. Tonight, for the first time in months, she asked for songs. So I sang. I breathed deep and I sang the songs of my mother and my aunt and my grandmother. “Duermete, mi nina”. And I felt the ghost in my throat: the exact way my wind pipes vibrated as I sang to him but that time, it was “nino”. The first time. The last time. Shrill, as I realized. As I caught my breath and sang on anyway, aware but undeterred that the others in the room would have heard my voice crack, the plea in it. I thought tonight of the arc of helpless pain that must been have sent through my dearest ones at its sounding, all sitting in that NICU room, holding their heads, no words, no way. Helpless as we were, at the hand of God.
Like, tonight, as I lifted her 6 year old body off the stool. Her fragile, sturdy self. Will I remember her if she goes, too? Will I never not pray for her to stay? I hope not. I hope I am 82 and reaching for her hand and repeating my silent prayer: please don’t die.
Please let that be.
He was the first to go to college. It was not expected or even encouraged. But he got on a train one day and started a new trajectory for himself and his family, yet to come.
He went to a school he loved. Met friends he still has. Played a lot of cards and got a good job.
He had a son and then a daughter, who, though troubled, grew and left in cars he bought them. For college and then for life.
His daughter had a daughter and then she had a son. Her son died. He canceled his trip to Italy, despite her protests, and flew across the country for the funeral one week after the boy died. He sat at her dining room table and told her college roommate, the first friend she made there, that he would start a scholarship.
He is humble. He told close family only and worked close with a man at his old college, the one in Ohio, the one he took the train to, the one that is full of brand new buildings that look old, the one where he still feels at home. He and the man became friends He and the man made a plan: the Harvey Richard Walker Scholarship for Humans Right.
He flew his daughter and her daughter to the college to see it, to dine with the man and the dean and the president and the other alums. The man arranged a meeting with the director of the human rights center at the university of Dayton, the only one of its kind. The kind that trains not academics but advocates. That teaches responsibility, accountability, compassion and care. That is actually doing something, many things, to stop human trafficking and slavery in the states and abroad. The director assured us, as did the dean, that this was a program that is making a difference. His daughter could feel the ripples.
She had sat holding her dying baby trying desperately to come up with ways to not let this just be a waste, just a loss. They donated his organs. She pumped his milk. What else could be done? What other good could come from his body, from his being here? The eyes, the heart valves, the milk were the first ripples, the front lines. Could there be more? More than personal transformation through fire and hell on earth? There could. Even though it felt meaningless for so long, robbed her of so much joy, no gift or lesson able to even be imagined, there could be.
He could use the money he made, the money his parents made, the money that made money on the market. He could make a difference in this world in the name of the boy who died. Because he was here and he died and we loved him with our whole hearts and wanted him to stay more than anything we’ve ever wanted in our lives, students for years to come will be able to get the education they need and want but couldn’t afford. They will learn real skills, how to negotiate, create policy, evaluate programs, talk to victims and perpetrators, lawyers and law enforcement, travel the world and advocate, research and innovate. They will tell the stories of the most vulnerable. They will change the course of the lives of the most vulnerable. Because he was here, because he died, because he was loved and wanted, this boy and his grandpa will change the world.
They called his name and he and his daughter and her daughter, all arms empty without the little boy to wrangle, walked up to the podium. They told his story. They said the boy’s name. They took a picture. His daughter went back to the table and cried in front of everyone because someone said his name. She so rarely gets to hear it and never from a stranger anymore. Because people are going to type his name and write his name and say his name because of the scholarship, because of the generosity of his grandpa, because there is so much horror in this world that needs light shone upon it and young people will want to do just that and will, under his name.
Read more about the amazing work being done at the University of Dayton’s Center for Human Rights.