Thursday, January 24, 2008

Of Telephones, Signs, and Calculus

Imagine, if you will, that you and your wife had a baby. And for unexplained medical conditions, but certainly through no fault of your own, the baby died when she was six days old.

Imagine, roughly six months later, your only sibling, your brother, has a baby daughter. You have never had a particularly close relationship with your brother -- it hasn't been bad or strained, just sort of there. You call to wish congratulations. He, so excited with his news, does not use his filter to spare you information that would probably hurt. He talks at you for 45 minutes. I think this conversation hurts you considerably, because you bring it up a lot, and save for another brief phone call you make a week or so later, you decide for a while not to call him at all.

At Christmas, you call to chat and get wish list information. Your sister-in-law is extremely pleasant on the phone, even warns you that a Christmas card with a picture of the baby accidentally got mailed to you instead of a generic one, so please intercept it and toss it. Strangely, although you ask to speak with him, your brother is always "not here right now" or "busy." You send a lovely digital photo frame so they can display pictures of their daughter. They, clearly last minute in reciprocation as if they didn't expect anything from you, send you some books off your wish list.

Also at Christmas time, your father and his wife (aka The Asshats) stand you up at a memorial service for your daughter, their granddaughter. The very next morning, they send you a curt email explaining that they already have plans for Christmas, and flippantly wind it up with, "How was the Service?" You take a week to settle yourself, and send them a very mature, well-versed email stating how disappointed you are that they couldn't come. How sad you are that any of this had to happen at all. That you love them. They don't pick up your phone calls on Christmas Day. They don't pick up any of the calls you make a few weeks later when you start missing them.

You finally gather the nerve to call your brother and ask if he knows anything about what the deal is with your father. You have a pleasant chat with his wife for five minutes where you discuss things like getting babies to sleep. She says, "I'll go get him," and puts the phone down. And you wait.

For ten minutes.

You finally hang up and call your mother. Who tells you that your brother is angry with you (and most likely, your entire family) for "not sharing in the joy of his baby." But, you protest, I did! I called. I sat through a painful phone call to share his joy. I even called back. But: You did not send a gift. Your wife, usually in charge of these things, is still too bereft to visit the "Congratulations!" section at Hallmark. She is in no state of mind to surf through baby gifts for a girl. You decide you probably have a year, like weddings, and decide to put it off for a while. Besides, your other relative who had a baby the same week could care less that you haven't given them a gift; when you skirt the subject she gives you that look and arm gesticulation as if to say, "Seriously, are you fucking kidding?" Followed by the arm wave that says, "look at all this baby crap, do you think we need more?" Summed up, by looking squarely at you with tears in her eyes, as if to say, "you know it's not the gift, the fucking stupid pair of pajamas and stuffed animal we really care about, right?" You do not go to visit your brother and his baby. Not only would this be like pouring flaming gas into an open wound, but seriously: you have 4 pets to find care for, and you'd have to take your toddler on a mind-numbing plane trip to see a personality-less infant and make her miss her first week of school. You probably -- scratch that -- you WOULD NOT make this trip had Maddy lived and you had a toddler AND a six-month old to drag onto a plane. Certainly they will eventually bring their 3-person, petless family up here to see people soon enough, and probably when the baby is more interesting to be around anyway.

No matter. In a brief space on Tuesday night you find out that out of your immediate family of four, two are not speaking with you. Your wife, putting two and two together based on some conversations she's had with others, realizes but does not tell you, that your very own mother, the sole person left who will answer your phone calls, likely fanned the flames between your brother and you, her own sons.


This blog is not about Mr. ABF, it's about me. I am not going to interject what he must be feeling here, although I can guess. But this part is about me: I do not have the time, energy, creativity, or metaphoric capacity today to tell you just how much I love this man, but I will simply say that his loneliness this week has been palpable, and I feel his heart breaking like my own.

I am not one to believe in signs, and I don't even know what to make of this one: the morning before the evening Mr. ABF made this series of phone calls, he finally picked up the phone and called an old friend in New York he hadn't spoken to in a year. His friend reacted as though he had won the lottery, and Mr. ABF said he may have even detected a bit of weepage on phone, so happy was he. That same day, I received an email from a friend who hasn't written since her condolence card, to say she saw a job posting and thought of me. She mentioned Maddy in the second sentence. And that evening, while sitting on an empty line for a brother who never bothered to pick it up or even hang it up, friends from the midwest called on the other line and left a message. They also haven't called in a year, and their message, which I didn't discover until the following morning, said almost verbatim: "Just reaching out, wanting to know how you are. We'd love to hear from you if you get the chance."

On the one hand, these instances of reaching out and reconnecting with friends were as if the universe had sent us pillows, anticipating the evening's free fall and softening the blow when hit with the realization that others were summarily cutting us out. They reminded us that some people do in fact possess patience, sympathy, empathy, and thoughtfulness. On the other hand, these pillows put into glaring contrast the reactions of people who are simply "friends," and those who, you thought last week, were your staunchest supporters no matter what, your family.

How this effects Bella is very much about me. Mr. ABF and I are adults. Shit happens, apparently, and we will prevail. We have other people to fall back on, clearly, people who want to be with us, and we will fill our time with them. But Bella has lost a grandfather here, and his wife, whom she adores. They do not want to see her anymore, because of us. Apparently, I'm now convinced, Bella's grandmother was to some degree complicit in fostering the anger felt by Bella's uncle toward her own father. It is highly unlikely she will see any of these people, any time soon.

I am of the school of thought that a parent must tell the truth to their children. I did this before Maddy died, and was somewhat reaffirmed by the hospital counselor who directed me to give it to Bella straight up: don't hide it from her, don't use euphemisms. But these sticky family matters are, quite frankly, not what I think she should hear. And, to be perfectly honest, I don't know what I'd tell Bella if I did want to tell her the truth, because I don't really know why they're upset with us. I go through all the calculations, and use numerous theorems as I churn through the problem, slowly eliminating variables, watching the scrawl funnel down into an inverted triangle toward the bottom of the page, and I always end up with the same, simple, neat conclusion which I cannot fathom telling Bella should she ask why her grandparents don't visit her anymore:

They are mad at us, because our baby died.


orodemniades said...

I...will never understand the reactions of these people to the death of your daughter. Their behavior is unconscionable at best. There is no benefit of the doubt to be given, for they are undeserving of it.

I am so sorry you both have to deal with this on top of everything else. So sorry.

Waiting Amy said...

These complicated family relations are so unfair for the children. My sister is facing a similar thing with her in-laws. Not a loss as sad as yours, but a family drama and her daughters losing out in the end. It is very sad.

I'm sorry that they are such Asshats. But if you've got shit for brains, what else could you be?

Reconnect with those wonderful friends, for they are your family too.

Catherine said...

They're mad at you because they don't understand why you can't put the death of your daughter into a nice neat little box and put it away forever. What they don't understand is that your baby IS's an ongoing state of being...not a past tense event that you move past (I still say this is why people often use the phrase "so-and-so died"...because it makes it a singular event...over and done with).

I hope you find the strength to deal with them.

Megan said...

Why, why, WHY are people so fucking awful? I can't even for a second imagine how they justify this to themselves. At least your sister-in-law sounds like she has the normal complement of compassion.
I am so sorry they're this small, petty and self-centred. I'm so glad your friends reached out at just the right time.
I may be repeating myself but my inlaws didn't bother coming home from their winter home for more than a month after our baby died because they "didn't want to disappoint" my husband's siblings, who were going down to bask in the sun with them.
I was angry with them because I felt like they didn't care about their grandchild. But I was more angry because I felt like they didn't care about their own SON.

Julia said...

I agree with Catherine-- they are angry because you dare to continue to be affected by the death of your baby when you should be fawning over their great good fortune. You dare to pay attention to your grief, you dare to disturb their little perfect world, you dare to remind them that shit happens. You didn't put it in the box.
Our situation is different. Our crappy relative who thinks we should put it in a box, and who I bet you a million dollars isn't going to call us on the anniversary, is MIL. But she won't give up Monkey (in fact she thinks she was torturing her own son the week his son died for the sake of Monkey, but that's another story), so we are stuck letting her see Monkey. You are a much more gracious person than I am, because I actually feel that my daughter would be better off without people in her life who have no compassion. What can she possibly learn from that relationship? That her brother is never mentioned because he died? That the way to deal with hurt is to pretend it doesn't exist? I can't even tell you how much damage I had to undo in those first few months. For me, I cut MIL from my definition of who is in my family on the theory that people in my family know how many children I have. I couldn't get over the fact that she was theoretically one of the few people in the world who was supposed to love him and remember him, and she wouldn't.
But this is not about me. This is about you and Mr.ABF and Bella. What I want to say, though, is that this is a loss. A huge loss. And I am sorry you are in the middle of it. But it is possible that it's a loss of an idea, of trust and faith more than the loss of these particular people because really, have they been there for you before?
All of this said, if you judge it to be more important for Bella to have this relationship with her grandfather and step-grandmother, maybe Mr.ABF or you can send another email, to say that you understand that they are mad at you, and while you do not agree with their interpretation of the situation, you can see that the separation is very hard on Bella, and you ask them to not punish her on your behalf, i.e. that you ask them to find a way to see Bella even if it means drop offs rather than visits.

It also seems like your sister-in-law feels bad about the mess. Too bad she married an unbridled egoist.

niobe said...

I can't speak for everyone else's relatives, but I honestly think that, in at least some cases, it's the fact of the death, not the mourner's reaction to it, that causes the distance.

I am, in some ways a "model" (in quotation marks to underscore that I'm being ironic) mourner. I have put my grief in a box. I don't want people to talk about the twins. I don't want people to remember anniversaries. I sent a baby present to my stepbrother's daughter who was born within about a week of the time the twins would have been born.

Still, despite the fact that my feelings are fairly muted (well, except for the fact that I've cut off contact with my stepbrother -- except to send him gifts), the death of the twins has separated me from my family in ways I never thought possible. The distance is enormous and painful and there's absolutely no way for me to bridge the gap.

I think this is something that no-one tells you about -- that no matter how "good' you are, those who were closest to you will be furious at you because your baby died.

meg said...

I don't know what to tell you, Tash, I am living my own hellish version of this.

My husband is devastated, because his entire family ignore us, our losses and our pain. When it became apparent, that we weren't going to wake up the day after the funeral and be perfectly fine; it was a problem.

They can only see things from their perspective. If it affects them and their perfect life, then it's a problem. They told people we were expecting (though I told them not to). Then they had to tell them that the babies died. Things like this don't happen in his family. And if anything remotely bad happened, then it was promptly swept under the carpet. They are these crusty, British people, who have a charmed life (NOTHING bad, has ever happened). Until now.

Now, they can't deal. They can't speak our babies' names (despite reluctantly appearing at the hospital to watch them die). You think that would have made a difference, but now.

My FIL told my husband, that there was nothing remarkable about what has happened to us (his exact words). Imagine that...nothing remarkable about burying 4 babies in a row.

I don't know what to tell you Tash. I finally came to the conclusion that I don't care to have people like that in my life, but I so hope that your situation does not become that. I swear, my broken hearted husband is still waiting for them to call.

Amy said...

For pete's sakes can't others realize that you don't just GET OVER IT?! Family is one of those things, I believe most are dysfunctional (mine just puts the fun in it!) and don't know how to cope with others.
I am so sorry that you even have to cope with this on top of coping with what you already have to.
Since I am new to your blog I need to add that, I truly have no words to ease your pain but I do wish you peace and you are in my thoughts and prayers.

Beruriah said...

Assholes. What else can I add to the words above? I agree with Niobe, especially, and everyone else. And I want to kick your husband's relatives hard.

kate said...

What the fuck is wrong with these people?

I agree with what the other commenters have said and i am sorry that you have the misfortune to be related to such people. What a bunch of entitled assholes. Shit!

My mother is the difficult one. My parents are divorced, I am an only child, and all her other family is dead, basically. I swallow a hell of a lot of shit just to keep an open line of communication with her. Because it is my responsibility as her daughter. But it took me awhile, and still much effort & pain, to be able to do this. I think after Nicolas died i basically didn't speak to her for more than a year? It was simply too much for me then.

Aurelia said...

Tash, I'm stunned for you and heartbroken.

One idea? Don't say it to Bella just yet. Email or snail mail or talk to the SIL and tell them Bella is still part of the family even if they don't want to talk to you, and for her sake, maybe they could attempt conversation.

These things can change, I've seen this stuff happen over the years, and it's awful and sad, but it gets better, and people start talking again. Bella is young enough that if you just don't mention them and wait a little longer, she might not have to find out about it.

Unlike the death of a baby, this situation can change. (Although I agree, doesn't mean you have to like them and be buddies ever again yourself.)

charmedgirl said...

what a shame about bella, but i think, not really that much? when people reveal themselves, isn't it our responsibility to judge who is honored to be a part of our children's lives? i only hate that we can't do the same for our husbands. and i HATE that the same people who will so callously cut off their family can sometimes just "change their minds" and expect the outcasts to be happy about it. it's just a sickening situation. they suck, and now you know how much.

my mother and MIL have had a very different, yet eerily similar, reaction. they've acted like they lost their own child, therefore making it about THEM.

i've always known people were naturally self-centered. but at the worst of times, it's disgusting to behold. MIL is going around her town (beauty salon, nail salon, a gazillion doc's offices) CRYING to EVERYONE about how her granddaughter died. my own mother told me god had to take the baby so i wouldn't die, and held her hand to my face when i tried to respond and said, "you have to understand, this is what i need to believe to feel better." and then went around to the whole extended family and told them i was "fine" and a "rock" while she took all the attention for herself. oh well.

samill said...

Bl**dy hell - I can't believe some people! Amazing how an event like this shows you true colours of the people around you. I'm only sorry it's family.

Lori said...

I have seen your comments here and there and decided to visit. I am furious and sad over this post. Not only because I hate to hear how it is affecting you, your husband and daughter, but because I can relate. My husband's father essentially cut us off after our twins died because we did not grieve in the way he wanted (I guess). Actually, I'm not sure what we did wrong. I think Niobe might be onto something. That there are some people, who no matter what you do, will never be able to cross over the gulf of loss and reconnect with you.

I am so sorry you have all of this adding to your burden and grief. It is awful.

Which Box said...

I am really sorry about this.

I was relaying my own stupid crazy in law story to a group of friends, and of course brought up how hard it was on my daughter. Other people echoed how they found it so hard on their children, too, when the grandparents were such jerks.

And then one of my friends said, turn it around. Children don't NEED grandparents. Sure, they're nice to have, but you do perfectly fine with no grandparents. But it's the grandparents who need the grandchildren, and who miss out the most.

I'm not sure it helps, and my daughter is young enough she doesn't ask tough questions (or any questions). I am worried it will get tougher in the future. I think my job is to protect her from their craziness.

Carole said...

I am so sorry for all of this. I don't even have words. I just can't believe the crap that they are willing to inflict on you and your husband and Bella.

You didn't send a gift. Why do they have their panties all in a wad about that. I'm impressed that he even called. My dh's brother had a baby a couple of weeks ago...and he cannot call yet. I cannot call yet. I cannot pick out a gift or buy a card. They live far away...which is good because I don't think I could take a live baby right now. It hurts.

If you'd ever like me to whack these asshats upside the head with a sock full of wood know where to find me...

Lisa b said...

Tash it is unfathomable how Mr ABFs family justifies this. I am so sorry.
I feel the same way about signs - but there they are and I am so glad for you.