Monday, October 13, 2008

Words Unspoken

Me: (pausing in the middle of one of our favorites, John, Paul, George, and Ben) Did you know that Benjamin Franklin used to near live here? Would you like to go see his house some day?

Bella: Is he dead?

Me: Yes, but sweetie, he was very old when he died, and he died over 200 years ago.

Bella: I'm going to live forever. (Pause, eyes rapidly fill up with tears) Mommy, am I going to die?

Me: We're all going to die, love. But hopefully not for a very, very long time.

Bella: But I'll miss you when I die.


Bella: Mom, what does a brain look like?

Me: (pulls up a picture on the computer): like this, pink, kinda mushy and squiggly. Here's a map of what all the different parts of the brain do. (I touch her head to roughly correspond with what is responsible for seeing, hearing, memory, language.)

Where did you hear about the brain? Did you talk about it at school today? Hear something on tv?

Bella: No. So it would be bad if I hurt my brain, wouldn't it.

(We've never, to my knowledge discussed Maddy's medical problems in front of Bella -- at least not intentionally, and the last phone conversation we might have had where we were doing the talking would've been a year ago August.)


Bella: (pointing at my stomach) Mommy, do you have a baby in your tummy?

Me: No, no I don't.

Bella: Then why are you fat?


Bella (at breakfast, out of the blue): Mom, when are you going to have another baby?

Me: I don't know. I don't know if I will have another baby.

Bella: Why. (Delivered more as a statement than a question)

Me: It's . . . Because I'm old.


Bella (While baking apple cake, again with no segue): Mommy, when are you going to die?

Me: I don't know. Hopefully when I'm very old.

Bella: (voice catching) When am I going to die?

Me: I don't know. I hope when you're very old. Hon, I know it's hard (BELIEVE ME) to think like this, but we can't worry about it. We need to enjoy just being alive, right now. If we keep worrying . . .

Bella: Mom

Me: . . . we won't be happy . . .

Bella: Mom!

Me: . . . maybe you can let mommy worry about it . . .

Bella: MOM!!

Me: Yes?

Bella: When are you going to have another baby?


I remember like it was yesterday, sitting knee to knee across from the social worker at Children's, who was sent to talk to us about Bella. This, 2.5, is the hardest age, she warned us. Any earlier, and she wouldn't remember. Any later, and she'd have some verbal ability to express her emotions. She's going to grow into this grief. One to two years from now, it's going to come up, when it's inopportune, when you least expect it, she's going to start talking about it. That's ok. That's normal. Just know it's coming.


The conversations have been coming fast and furious lately. Out of nowhere, the eyes pool with tears, and suddenly Bella and I are hugging and I'm dredging up words I never use anywhere anymore: "I hope." "Hopefully." But I'm never definitive, never emphatic. I stifle my tears because I want her to know she can talk to me about these things without the fear that she makes mommy dissolve.

And there is an obvious connection that is not lost on me.

School has started, and this year Bella attends five days in a class with 16 or so precocious four and five year olds. At the beginning of the year, two mothers were incredibly pregnant. One, according to the happy notice pinned outside her classroom next to the snack sheet, had a baby girl a week or so ago (and named her, much to my chagrin, after one of my favorite bloggers here. It's a peculiar stab in the heart to see that name on that sign every morning). "Please help us in welcoming X's sister!" I wonder what that paper would've looked like had Maddy been born in the school year. Black, with white writing? Perhaps a crayon drawing of a lily? But I digress: there has been an uptick in discussion of all things pregnancy and siblings and babies. "So-and-so's mommy has a baby in her tummy," Bella announced. "So-and-so has a new baby sister."

We've had discussions with Bella since February '07 on Maddy. And on death. The former trend towards lilac bushes and bracelets, identifying her in pictures and "remembering;" the latter on hearts shutting down, inability to breathe, loss of bodily functions (like eating and running) and the esoteric notion that all living things die. These discussions are always on her timetable, at her discretion, with her permission. But they have been on two separate tracks -- Maddy here, death there -- until now. The rivers of thought have finally converged, and suddenly out of nowhere there are profound discussions on death, siblings, and life all mashed together over a semi-soggy bowl of cheerios, during a cute history read-aloud, or while I'm peeling apples. There is no longer confusion: Her sister, her BABY sister, died. She, Bella, will die someday too. We will all die. Living things die. But we are alive now, and her friends get to bring home LIVE siblings, so why shouldn't she?


Last Friday evening, Mr. ABF and I attended the pre-school parents wine/cheese get-together for Bella's class. All well and good, until the host's husband (who is eternally away on business) asks Mr. ABF if Bella is our only child. To which he responds "Yes." And I hear the regret on his voice while the word is still hanging in the air, and I look down and feel . . . .guilty. I'm so tired of this. I'm so tired of hiding this part of my life, I'm so tired of tip-toeing around others' sensibilities. While our hosts drone on about "Woo boy, we would've NEVER had another had we known what we were in for --- our first was wayyyy to easy!" Mr. ABF shoots me a mental "I'm sorry," and I telepath back that I most likely wouldn't have had the mettle to bring down an evening right from the start, either.

Later, there's a 20-minute discussion where everyone chimes in on how at one point or another they "forgot" their second child -- in their heads, in their arms, in the car -- and through the laughter, Mr. ABF and I mentally prop each other up and wonder how in fuck we're going to get through a lifetime of these inane conversations. We're like aliens standing there, listening to a room speak in Swahili while we stand on the perimeter missing the punchline -- and always will be.

I don't begrudge these people their stories -- hell, I'd be one of those parents that left a kid in a grocery cart -- I just wish I could add to them. But I either have the easiest second child on the planet seeing as how her remains neatly fit into my purse and can be left at home on the shelf while we go to the beach for a week, or the hardest to forget. I'll never forget my second child. She's the fifteen-pound ring around my midsection, the downward gaze of my husband, the circles under my eyes, the bracelet on my wrist. She's the wall between me and every parent in this room. She's the reason I'm choking down my wine with a stony expression. She's the reason I have heartbreaking discussions about death with my child -- anyone else having those?

And we say nothing. Everyone is laughing, dressed up, enjoying time away thanks to the babysitter. We collapse in the car on the way home, grateful to be out of the lion's den, and yet rueful that we missed another opportunity to introduce people to our normal. To our children. It is utterly exhausting to be in public. Still.


Antigone said...

When I read this, I keep thinking that you're an amazing mother and Bella is lucky to be yours.

Sue said...

Exhausting. That's what gets me. We have to go through this for the rest of our lives?

I know, I keep hearing about how we'll be able to integrate it, but I can't imagine it.

As hard as it is, I think it is a testament to your and to Mr. ABF's parenting that Bella can ask you these questions. As painful and exhausting as they are.

Thinking of you.

Another Dreamer said...

I don't know what to say, other than that I am thinking of you.

Kymberli said...

I imagine that all the ways in which the grief changes and transforms over time is just as tiring as the things that have droned on steadily, never changing.

Abiding with you, Tash.

k@lakly said...

And even on the days when I do say something, I often feel that I have not given the loss enough measure if I don't break down and cry and bemoan all of the unfairness of it, which in the end makes me feel worse than when I don't say anything at all.

Oh sweet Bella, such an awful and lasting life lesson to have to try and understand at what should be such an innocent age. Another loss.

Newt said...

Oh, that party sounds like such a treat.

It must be heartbreaking to have those conversations with Bella. My heart goes out to all of you.

Julia said...

I think the social worker was right, and I am sorry you are hitting the second wave these days. Also, that party? Torture. There is not enough wine in the universe to make that a good experience for you.

When we were first entering our school community there were a couple of times when I had to answer that question, but I had no choice in the answer-- Monkey was talking. Though not all parents know still, and I still feel like I want to shout about A at those who don't. The only good thing I can tell you, where good is defined as per new normal, is that there are a couple of moms in the class who know, and understand (and now read the blog), and with whom it is natural and easy to talk about A. I hope you get there too, if only because the part where you are tired of the unspoken would be lifted.

Natalie said...

Oh bugger. That sounds worse than losing my first... having to deal with kids and babies everywhere as a necessity. And dealing with your child's questions. That's just... hard. And the party, oh, jeez. I don't even want to get into that.

Erica said...

I'm just so sorry. Sorry for the pain and the weariness and the sucker punches that just keep coming. And sorry that you have to watch your family hurting, too.

Coggy said...

*sigh* Sometimes I realize that none of this gets any easier. Other times I am almost grateful that J was my first and I don't have to face the grief of a little person as well as my own.
Bella is amazing Tash, I can't imagine how hard this is for both of you but she is tackling things head on even if they are scary to her. Your patience and approach to her questions really does leave me in awe. I think all kids go through a death phase, but not all kids have the naked truth so exposed to them. Give her a big hug from me, even though she has no idea who I am.

I lied for the first time this weekend about J. I was asked if this pregnancy was my first. I said yes and felt bad for the rest of the day. I just didn't have the energy to go into it again with a complete stranger. To watch their face change and their words get clumsy. It is still very much exhausting being in public. I tend to avoid all situations where I have to have these conversations. Only socializing with friends and giving off a general don't talk to me vibe in public in the vain hope that I'll be left alone.

There really isn't enough of anything in the world that can soften these encounters and make them bearable. Let's all go live on an island somewhere, then we won't have to have them anymore.

CLC said...

What heavy stuff, Tash. It's amazing to watch young minds work like Bella's. I know it's tough on you, but I am glad she feels free enough to talk about it, if only on her terms.

Irish Girl said...

This was a beautiful post to Bella. I simply can not imagine the pain of losing a child. I'm so sorry that you know that pain. I can relate to feeling like an outsider, though -- silently wishing to be blissfully ignorant and happy like the rest of them.

kate said...

I don't know. There is no good way to do this thing...but i think you are doing it very well anyway. And, yes, it is exhausting.

charmedgirl said...

i usually DO tell about paige, but i don't like it. i say it, and then i say my "thank you" to their "i'm sorry." i say my "it's ok" to their "i didn't mean..." it's becoming a supremely frustrating exercise. why do i still do it? mostly because i feel like i have to, also because i feel like people think it doesn't happen, also because it's all i have.

sometime within the past six months, my 3y/o son grabbed my poor belly and said, "mom! your belly! it looks like...a RASIN!" it was and still is pretty funny to me, but deep inside it cuts me to think about why it looks like that, and how one didn't make it out of there alive.

G said...

I love Bella. Hearing her through your words, in her sweet little girl voice, it breaks my heart. But, I love that she is working this stuff out, as much as it must hurt to hear it. She will end up being such a smart, sensitive woman.

You are an amazing mother, Tash. To Bella and Maddy. I can't even imagine how exhausting those school nights must be.


Foreverloves said...

Bella sounds just like I did as a little one. What a brilliant little girl.

I don't quite have this "back and forth" since I don't have any living children yet. For me, I was welcomed in to the momma club (and the twin club no less! ooh la la, it's like being a frequent flyer or something) and then summarily discarded when my boys didn't make the "cut". I gained entry in to the deadbabymama club, but beyond that, my life went back to afternoon naps, bottles of wine every Saturday, and trips on a moment's notice.

Now that I struggle to nurture the very beginnings of life inside of me again, I have these mental conversations with Fictional Baby/Child regarding his or her brothers. And I wonder if some of those won't sound an awful lot like Bella.

Hennifer said...

This post is beautiful!

I am sorry for this exhaustion, these ever lingering questions, the discomfort that society really imposes. The unspoken child breaks my heart.

As agonizing as these conversations with Bella are however I think it is beautiful that she feels free and supported enough to have them with you. Our little ones are so sensitive and open to so much. I love this sneak peek into their inner workings. I wish we all could be as free with our questions and beliefs.

You are a truly terrific parent from what I can see through my small window.

Aunt Becky said...

It's got to be torturous to have to sit back and make the proper comments (or not throw up on the speaker) from people who don't mean any ill will.

loribeth said...

Reading about Bella got tears welling up in my eyes. Reading about how you & your dh managed (somehow?!!) to endure those other parents' idiotic remarks sent them rolling down my cheeks. I'm so sorry, Tash. :( I do think it's great that you can talk about these things with Bella, however difficult it must be.

ms. G said...

I related to way too much in this post. Your last line, about it being exhausting in public, yes, exactly, exactly that.

c. said...

Oh, sweet Bella.

You're right, it is exhausting. I have discovered the only time I find it less so is when I've let my dead baby secret out of the closet. It's only when I've been able to stand openly beside my elephant that I find myself feeling a little less alien and more like my old self.

Fortunately, for me, the social opportunites are few and far between. I know this won't always be the case though. I wish I could find a way to have full disclosure about C without the fun-stopping after-effects, without being the freakshow who had a stillbirth. I can't see the innocents ever being that progressive though. I really don't.

Which Box said...

I am so, so sorry you're posting this. I mean, I'm glad to read it, despite the tears it generated. But I'm sad you - and Bella - have these conversations. Except I'm glad you are able to have them and Bella is able to process this in her way. OK, this comment officially makes no sense.

niobe said...

It's amazing how people just forget.

The other day, two coworkers who were very supportive and sent me cards after the twins' deaths were in my office going on and on about various people they knew who had or were expecting twins, laughing and saying how glad they were not to be in the twins' parents shoes. I'm sure they didn't mean anything malicious by it -- they just honestly didn't remember....

Off topic: Though, unlike in Bella's case, there was no particular event that triggered it, when I was preschool-aged, I went through a full-on obsession with death -- other peoples', my own, my parents'. This post makes me wonder what my parents must have thought of it.

Anonymous said...

I know, I dread the same thing. We are in the process of moving and showing our place to prospective tenants. They all ask about our child because we have a high chair and change table(no were to store them, we were lucky to be able to put the crib away) and I have to lie, "Oh yes, my mom had him since were showing the place, he is nervous around to many people". Lying takes all my energy, but somehow it's easier then truth, and yet, I think the truth would suck less of my energy over the long run..if everyone just knew.

janis said...

Tash, I vowed to be only catching up on posts, no commenting, but I have to say something here.
Yes, it is exhausting. And you are amazing, what you have done. So is Bella. My heart aches and breaks, for all of you. This path you have to negotiate, with invisible demons not discernible to others.

Sophia also went through phases of fearing death.... one day she out of the blue cried and told me she did not want to die, she wants to be with me a long, long time... ... so I guess I just want you to know I know how that heart of yours feel and how I understand your fatigue. ((hugs))

Gal aka SuperMommy said...

I have those... discussions with my 4.5 year old about death, about why her sister died so soon, about when she and we are going to die, and how we know when.

I get those questions too, and hate them: Is she your only child? They always come from the most random people, and I don't know how to answer in a way that feels good. Honestly, I don't really care about not wanting to upset them. It's more whether I want to get into it, there, with them.

Still, I think it's time we all got more comfortable being in the presence of each other's pain and loss - acknowledge that we all have it in some way. Learn to just BE in its presence even if it hasn't (yet) touched us directly. Stop pretending that when things go right, that's the normal. All of our normals are different... Why shouldn't ours get their spotlight in public?

ShastaFizzy said...

I just wanted to applaud that last comment and let you know that this post broke my heart. Thinking of you, Tash.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, heartbreaking post. Life goes on, despite all the wrecks along the way, doesn't it? And other people don't even notice, because they don't know what they're looking at. It's not that they're cruel, they're just clueless....

I don't know if I'll ever be able to have a child, but if so I hope that I manage to parent with as much insight, strength and sensitivity as you have shown.

Smiling said...

I too am struck with how incredible you are as a mother. Bella is lucky to have you to keep her company and guide her through this path that no one should have to know. This was a bueatiful, if heart wrenching, posts. Thanks for finding the words to help people like me understand a bit more about something I don't know personally.

Take care

Searching said...

Ugh. Sounds so... Heavy. 500 ton weight around your neck. I'm sorry you have to live with a society like ours. I could go on and on but you know my feelings on the little lives and how each and every one counts.

You are amazing parents. Bella is an amazing child. I never forget Maddy.