I think we can all agree that death is never easy on the living. Even when my great grandmother died in her sleep at 100 I felt, well, badly. And this was, as far as deaths go, probably the absolute best-case scenario: feisty woman puts in century of life, has scores of descendants who worship her, lies down for her after-lunch repose and never wakes up. If I could choose my end, that would be it. Rest in Peace, Gramma H, hope you're getting Pirates coverage where you are, and sometime I'll catch you up on their cataclysmic demise since, um, yours.
Death, as most of us learn while growing up, happens in a certain order; namely, older people go first. Our first experiences with death usually involve great-grandparents and grandparents. As time wears on, and we enter "middle age" (oh good lord, did I just really say that?) we begin to eye our parents' existence with some trepidation. There are of course aberrations to the pattern, and while unholy to contemplate they tend to follow the script to some degree: young children left without one or both parents. Loved ones succumbing to horrible, painful deaths long before they should have to. Many of you, I know, have lived your childhood and/or adulthood without grandparents, and some of you, without parents or even spouses. It's the way (om), but it's an awful deviation, and I'm so sorry for all of your losses and your precious time lost with these people that you love.
But the order gets turned completely on it's head when children die first.
I'm not going to sit here and say that my experience is worse. I don't like playing those games. I'm very fortunate that I have a living child, a strong marriage, and a supportive family around me which is more than a lot of people who suffer from a close loss of any sort can claim. But I will vehemently state, with no apologies, that losing a child is a very, very different sort of loss with a grief process all of its own. Different to the point where a lot of people don't get and can't fathom what happened to us regardless of the numerous funerals they've attended.
Instead of looking back at a life, when a child dies you're faced with the loss and pain of looking forward. All of the milestones evaporate and you're faced with nothing but emptiness -- empty picture frames, empty "firsts," a black hole of an existence. Trying to grieve without memories to clutch is a downright impossible task. Children don't leave behind lifetimes. They don't leave behind children of their own to carry on and share in the mourning. They leave imprints, which their parents cling to like sand rushing through their fingers. Children are not only robbed of their lives, their parents are robbed of experiencing their children's lives too. It's a two-for-one special, in a way. But wait, there's more. If part of your life has been defined as being a parent, you've just been hosed. Your "job" as it were, is gone, and you're stuck on the metaphoric unemployment line filing forms for a new identity.
There is undeniable comfort in communicating with other parents whose children have died. For once, all of the elephants are in the room together, and actually want to discuss the taboo subject looming in the air. We want to know names, see faces, and hear the stories from start to finish. It's comforting to know that I'm not going crazy, that other people have the demented thoughts that I do, and it's a relief of sorts to hear that stupid people who make inappropriate comments drift in and out of everyone's life.
I must confess, though, I feel great distance even from parents who have lost young children. While I'm listening to another parent describe their heartache I'm simultaneously playing the comparison game. Don't judge: apparently this is totally normal, and helps in defining the parameters of one's grief experience. Frankly, I think if you were to gather a group of women who had all lost husbands to colon cancer that -- despite their overwhelming commonality -- they too would play this game, occasionally concluding the grass was greener ("at least she has children;" "her husband suffered for a less amount of time") and other times releasing a mental exhale ("Jeebus, was his physcian on crack?" "Thank GOD I don't have her mother-in-law"). I have indeed exhaled when comparing my experience to others: our doctors were fantastic, our hospital experiences as textbook compassionate as they could be, and the end of Maddy's life was dignified as possible given the nasty circumstances. But more often I find myself listening to other parents as though they experienced something completely different. Other parents can share holiday photos of their children, muster a smile when remembering a child's smile, note that the child's eyes were "just like mom's" or that their new offspring bears some comforting resemblance to the deceased. Some lament loss in relation to already-happened events: isn't a shame Johnny won't see his sixth grade class move on to Junior High; Susie loved Christmas, this would've been her fourth. Some parents can even reflect and draw on their child's personality: my son was always happy, he would've wanted me to be happy. My daughter was a fighter, she never complained once during her treatment, she'd need me to be strong.
If you lose an infant (or neonate as the case may be) you don't even get those milestones to refect upon, as meager as they may be. Maddy never cried, never opened her eyes. According to the doctors, it is unlikely she ever heard us repeating her name, reading her stories, and telling her we loved her. Given the state of her brain, it's doubtful she felt my hand clutching her tiny fist and smoothing her beautiful head of hair. I can't even claim to be thankful I got to hold her, because I didn't really. She was constantly, increasingly attached to machinery and undergoing examinations that made it difficult, despite the nurses' kind attempts, to hold her next to me. I did, but over the six days I'm willing to guess I held her for a total of two hours, including her death. I'd like to think she was a fighter, that she did her best to exist that week, but this is largely make-believe on my part as the respirator, medications, and two near-death experiences will attest. To be honest, I'm not sure why she was here at all, other than to torture me and to undergo some modest level of confusion and discomfort herself. Rather an existential conundrum, eh? Maddy appears to have been the proverbial tree falling in the woods.
To compound the loss of an infant (as if it could get any worse) (and isn't this turning into a lovely PoMo deconstruction) are the special physical impairments that nature bestows on Mom. To wit: a couple of breasts full of milk. Maddy never ate. They pumped a bit of sugar water into her through a tube, but that was it. What I discerned to be rooting movements of her lips the professionals dismissed as seizure activity (fucking everything was seizure activity. Bella's hour with play dough this morning is suddenly looking incredibly suspicious). But what does my body know? She's supposed to eat, so my breasts filled up with milk. And gamely holding on to some scintilla of hope, I dutifully pumped and froze in the off off off chance that my baby would someday need the sustinance. In the end, I'm left with a dead baby, a freezer full of little bottles (I oversupply, lucky me -- the nurses were downright amazed at my 6-day output), and two very engorged breasts. I donated the milk (who knew? Apparently they homogenize it), and then with no baby to feed, still had to pump every few hours and wear cabbage in my bra to let down. If you think pumping is bad (and boy, I do, and that's with a cheerful smiling happy live baby to feed), try pumping knowing the milk will never feed anyone. Try NOT thinking about your dead child (I read a rather gruesome mystery novel during let-down). You can almost hear the universe cackling while it pokes you in the eye.
And perhaps the most physical reminder of this extremely shitty happenstance is the baby weight. There are tomes devoted to losing the baby fat, many of them humorous and chillingly positive and uplifting, about what a drag it is, and how long it takes, and how breast feeding makes it melt away faster!, and nine months up/nine months down, and blahblahbabycakes, but I'm here to tell you facing baby weight without a baby is a slice of hell. As if you need any more reminding that you actually carried a baby to term that is no longer around, HERE are the 20 pounds and the enormous gut staring at you every damn morning. Just in case you forgot. It doesn't help remotely when your toddler points at your slowwwwwly deflating stomach and asks if the baby is still in there. Maternity wear, never fun to wear after having a baby, is now simply torture. (Remember when you wore these huge pants AND felt the baby move? Yeah, wasn't that great? What? Baby no longer moving? Did I hear those 10-yr. old sweatpants calling?) As difficult as it is to get out of your house and leave your head behind, it's impossible to escape your body. When you're trying to forget that you were ever pregnant, never mind the catastrophe that happened as a result, not fitting into your clothes is about the biggest self-esteem issue you could have. It's a daily physical slap in the face that you made a sacrifice, and got nothing for it. That you did exactly what you were told, and through no fault of your own, your baby is gone and bonus! your clothes no longer fit. As much as I want to lose this weight (see previous post on forgetting this chapter of my life entirely) I have zero motivation to do so. Especially when I see all the trim moms waltzing down my block with their strollers as I peer out through the closed blinds with week-old brithday cake in one hand. When the only reason to get up in the morning is the cup of coffee and a whole lotta cream cheese on a bagel, how on earth are you going to deny your psyche this one thing? How? Do I really feel like joining the gym and slimming down a la Angelina Jolie and joining the ranks of svelte and sexy mommies? Not so much. So here I sit, still unable to wear things that fit a month or two post-Bella's birth, wondering how much longer this body will stare back and torture me.
I don't often use the word "unfair" to describe what happened to me. It's sad mostly, and sometimes it makes me angry on some universal level, but I guess I don't think it's "unfair" as much as fucking "unlucky." But the boobs and body? That's unfair, people. If anything should come without strings attached, it should be death, and perhaps the death of a child most of all. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to examine this bill I received from Children's Hospital who charged me for a meeting where they explained the results of Maddy's autopsy. I know these people need to eat, but come on. Pass the m&ms.