Saturday, January 31, 2009

Standing Still

Julia is remembering A today, two years later. Please remember with her.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


At one point I heard her laughing, jumping on the bed. There were long periods of silence interspersed with murmured discussion between her and her dad. My superman vision looked right through the wall and captured Bella trying on enormous gaudy clip on earrings, obscenely colorful scarves, and testing my husband's knowledge of my family tree while pointing at old black and white photographs. At one point, a loud bump on the thin apartment wall made my grandmother start. "She's in your room. She thinks there's treasure in there." Grandma gave me a bemused smile. "Remember your room in the old house? I used to love your room -- all of your jewelry boxes and trays -- I would spread their contents over the unused twin bed with the white coverlet and just inhale the mystery. I thought there was treasure in there."

She smiled at me, this time with a twinkle in her eye. "There was!"


My grandmother is ailing. She's 89, and lives by herself in an "independent" retirement community, and will need in-home care or moved to a facility with full time care in the near future. Her artificial limbs no longer provide the support she needs to traverse her wee apartment, and her mind is starting to fray around the edges in ways that make us all nervous. Would she have eaten had we not shown up and reminded her that today, Saturday by the way, she would not be receiving food from the service but would have to heat up something in the fridge? My heart broke, clutching memories, made no less bearable when she offered up the (only) table. I demurred saying I didn't have the space, but agreed to take the complicated, dust and junk covered sewing machine.

When she moved from the big 18th century home into the teeny one-bedroom place, I was unable to afford (monetarily or time-wise) to leave my graduate program and go help pack. Although some lovely depression glass was saved just for me, I missed out on the Fiestaware and a few other goodies that got allocated to cousins and (horrors!) the auction block. So the standing joke for the last decade has been to "put a sticky on it!" with your name if you'd like to be bequeathed the cuckoo clock or the roll top desk. Lest you think we're all macabre in front of her, this was her idea and she plays along with us, often with great humor. "Oh, so think that dish is ugly?" (Runs off for the sticky notes.)

I doubt she'd even know what a sticky was anymore, and somehow joking about the future demise of her and avoidance of probate is too close for humor. Tonight out of nowhere, Bella asked me to reaffirm that people don't come back after they die, and then started crying because "I don't want to be an old 100 year old lady. I want to be with my friends!" I tried to explain she could still have friends at 100, and for a few seconds there was a humorous narrative about her and her two best pre-school friends living together as centenarians ("Old people play cards?"). But the slippery slope bombed into an uncomfortable discussion about not wanting to age at all and dying at four.

"Oh Please don't," said as much to the sky and the other and myself as to her.

"Do people who are zero die?"

"Yes, Maddy was Zero."

"I miss Maddy," she said, her voice rising and a fresh well of tears coming.

It's all a bit too fresh this winter.

I also realized during these interludes that if I were to have another child (stop laughing), I would (hypothetically) be an elderly grandma from the get go. I'm not sure what mystery would lie in my bedroom save for miscellaneous bottles of pills.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barren Bitches Book Brigade: Reivew of "An Exact Replica . . . "

The only book I actively researched and purchased for myself after Maddy died was Deborah Davis' "Empty Cradle, Broken Heart." Which I should probably view better than I do (I blame my emotional state at the time), but I found a bit redundant. I kept thinking it would've made more sense to have read it four weeks prior to Maddy's birth, and I really don't know what science fiction would have made that possible. ("Why on earth are you making me read this? This if fucking depressing!") I also turned right over the chapter(s?) on getting pregnant again because Jeebus! Who the hell gets pregnant again after that mess? I shouldn't slam it too hard, though -- there were a few nuggets in there for which I'm deeply grateful.

A friend bought me Elizabeth Edwards' memoir, and I read the relevant chapters, and was overwhelmingly relieved to know someone else (someone famous, even) had also collapsed in a grocery store. Another friend bought me Alan Wolfelt's "Healing a Parent's Grieving Heart," which I actually really, really like(d), and should probably write more about.

But that's it really. I didn't start reading deadbaby blogs until about 6-7 months out when I started my own. And I found them so comforting, helpful, reassuring, validating, thought-provoking, and well written that I never even wondered if there was another book out there I was missing.

No, we're not all published novelists (though some of us are or will be) and yet I found words, themes, feelings, resonating. But mostly I'm constantly pleasantly not even remotely surprised awaiting notice that you -- you! -- have a somber, sarcastic, gutwrenching, off-topic, kleenex clutching, LOL post up and ready to read.

Which is a very round-about way of saying that when I heard about this new contribution to the inanimate method of communication -- dry pages between two covers -- regarding someone's stillbirth I thought "Meh, tell me something I don't know."

I was sent a copy of Elizabeth McCracken's "An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination" to review, but realized three sentences in I should have recused myself: there is no way I can "review" a book about stillbirth any more than I can go all lit-crit on any of your blogs. Were you to write with stilted sentence structure, poor spelling, wandering thoughts, and non-sarcastic channeling of lolcats syntax, I would still read. (I may not come back. I would certainly second-guess paying for the privilege to read.) But I would read. Because I'm not there to chew on why you break paragraphs the way you do (or don't) or why you used a certain metaphor or why don't just fucking tell me what happened already.

Thankfully none of you (!) write like this, and quite obviously, neither does Elizabeth McCracken. In fact, she writes beautifully. Hers was not only an engrossing story, it was well written. It was funny -- to the point I may have snorted out loud a few times. (And perhaps it needs stated explicitly? I like my griefspeak with a sprinkle of the funny.) It left me hanging between chapters even though I knew (pit in the stomach confirming) exactly what lay ahead. The metaphors were just perfect, there were so many one-liners that resonated that they're spinning around the webverse right now, all hot and viral. Do Not Blow Sunshine Up Patient's Ass! Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds -- No, it doesn't, but eventually you'll feel better. Closure is bullshit!

Interestingly and familiarly, McCracken wrote her memoir much like a blog is structured: present, past, short chapter, long one, off-topic (husband! How we met! How much I love him! House!), baby's dead, not yet, now, (but when are you telling me what happened? Will you tell me what happened?). And thusly, I devoured it as if she was one of you. Which is to say, I just read it. Absorbed it. Swallowed it whole. Marveled in her wordcraft. Repeated her one-liners out loud to my husband or dog or whomever was in the room with me.

Of course I vigorously shook my head in agreement with most of the pithy sentences and sat in startled affinity with the passage about smoking and drinking wine after finding out Pudding was still in her, but in fact, dead. I had a very similar moment that haunts me still, finding that taboo cup of coffee in Children's moments after the decision to remove Maddy from life support. And yet there were times I furrowed my brow and thought, "Huh."

Uncovering the differences between myself and others in very similar circumstances is actually a healthy part of the process, I believe. It allows me to stand rather outside myself and focus on a particular issue, and ultimately helps me define the boundaries of my own grief. So when I occasionally stumbled or puzzled over something in "An Exact Replica" it wasn't out of a sense of judgment of McCracken, but more a way to examine my own distinct reaction.

McCracken writes, "I would have done the whole thing over again even knowing how it would end . . . I can't love and regret him both." and I think Well, not me so much, no . . . and Yes, I do both love and regret all that is Maddy. I can hold both of those. McCracken avers, while still in the hospital nonetheless (as so many of you do, too) that she repeated the sentence "we'll have another child," and that it was "like throwing out a towline. It was like believing in the future." And I wonder what kind of sick freak am I. I sat in the hospital and thought, No fucking way. Never again. McCracken opted not to undergo any testing during her second pregnancy and I thought, Woooooweeeee, nuh uh. If I could, I'd roadmap a subsequent baby's color preferences and propensity towards hangnails. I want to know every little thing. No more surprises, thank you.

I understood her potential guilt, I understood why she chose to deal with it how she did, and it's not for me to judge, but to abide. And I do. I made some different decisions (I have pictures -- I regret they're not better; I held Maddy, in fact it was my last request and why I actually wanted to take her off life support rather than let her die connected) but that's because we're different people with different circumstances. It's not a point to critique, and these places where we diverge help me validate my experience as much as the points where we're in total, eerie agreement. And that is truly the sign of an incredible, influential piece of writing.


Which leads me to my Book Brigade Questions:

The author expresses gratitude that she was able to easily conceive and deliver a healthy child after Pudding's death. Even Pudding's story, while distinct in its own right, is told through the lens of a grateful mother holding her happy sleeping baby in her lap. "I am not sure what sort of person I would be if that hadn't happened," she says. While it is impossible to hypothesize what might have been had some other course of events transpired, how has having other living child/ren either before or since your loss affected your grieving process? If you have not lost a child, how has your in/fertility affected how you view other people's losses? And do your views change if the grieving have other living children?

I feel deeply that children are individual entities. The heart swells to accept another when a family expands, and thusly, the heart breaks when any part of that expansion ceases to be. The essence of losing a child doesn't change whether you have none or five already.

However. You've all heard the turn of phrase, "Everyone grieves differently" and that's largely due to what you bring to the table (both internally and externally) and what larger story your grief is part of or becomes. To borrow Loribeth's Shoreline Metaphor, your shore will appear differently if your loss comes on top of other loss, or involves infertility, or reshapes the live family dynamic within your home, or fails to lead to a subsequent successful pregnancy. You may in fact come to grieve more than your child.

I do in fact feel fortunate to have had Bella before Maddy. This is to a large degree based on the medical premise that Maddy may have been a 1:4 genetic fuck up (if our geneticist is in fact correct on this point), and ergo I'm fortunate to have had any live children at all. But. To some degree this is a point of stupid order-of-sequence luck. Bella is not Maddy, and vice versa. It did not mitigate my grief over Maddy remotely to know that Bella was here, alive. She did not bring me joy, and frankly, I do not think that was her responsibility. Bella impacted my grief in the sense that I had a job to do the morning after we removed Maddy from life support (I'm a SAHM), and that I made the decision to go on antidepressants in order to better function as a mother to Bella. I often feel like my attention is split between two children, much like, I imagine, a mother of two living children would feel.


McCracken views "A Figment" as her "calling card" -- the card that says, My first child was stillborn. "I want people to know about it but I don't want to say it out loud." She'll (figuratively) hand it to everyone who asks a stupid or just hard-to-answer question ("Is this your first?"), and everyone she generally just wants to know about her back story without the awkwardness of waiting for the segue and going through it. We obviously all blog -- do you view your blog as your calling card (do you have a calling card)? If you wrote a memoir, would it differ from your blog in any significant way? Do you think it would attract a different audience and would that change what you wrote?

Can I just say, when I read this "calling card" line, I was jealous. I want a calling card! (stamps foot) I fake that my blog is it. I say on my blog, to all the faceless people who will listen, all the things I'd like to say to the idiots in my life who push my buttons. I'd like to wear a "My Baby Died" t-shirt in order to preface every conversation. I'd love to start a global campaign to let people know that asking women about their children is potentially hurtful -- the woman you tease about "Soooo? When????" may be suffering from infertility. The woman you ask about how many may have to account for one not living. Honestly? It's none of your business.

But I don't have the courage, so I blog here under a pseudonym. If I could write/publish a book under my real name knowing that certain people might in fact pick it up and read it? Well. It may actually be more vitriolic than what you read here, not to mention vindictive and seriously unfunny. And I'm not sure who would read that. Part of me would love to start handing out "An Exact Replica," but I have enough differences from McCracken's experience that I'm a bit uncomfortable using it as my personal manifesto. Perhaps the benefits would outweigh the few negatives, but -- just as an example -- I seriously can't imagine the reaction of some of my in-laws reading about McCracken's friends. They'd either re-write history to re-imagine themselves as lovely supportive people, or they'd roll their eyes at the thought of writing about missing a child they never knew. Both reactions are ugly.


On page 94 Elizabeth McCracken writes, "I've never gotten over my discomfort at other people's discomfort" also "I don't even know what I would have wanted someone to say", and I am wondering how you have handled that discomfort when something terrible happened to you (suicide, miscarriage, failed cycle, etc.) Is it better for another person to say something cliche that makes you feel awful or is it better for them to ignore the topic all together?

You know, two years out, you'd think I'd be used to the elephant in the room, the pause, the halted stuttering, the inevitable "Oh I'm so sorry. You know I had a [fill in with distant family member, friend of friend] who lost a [child, mother, dog, aunt]" in an attempt to bridge the gap and offer some semblance of sympathy, followed by the essential change in subject, "Damn it's cold, eh?" But I'm so not.

I have often bit my lip when the opportunity to explain Maddy has arisen because the situation is all wrong. The mother who I really adore, at a child's birthday, who laughs while she says, "Well I wondered why you had two car seats!" It just seems cruel to inform her, it would sound as though I'm pissed at her when I'm really not. So I don't.

And to be frank, I walk a very line between wanting to hear something and wanting to hear nothing. A line that's probably impossible to discern, and moves around depending on my moods and who I'm talking with. I guess I wanted to hear at least "I'm sorry" from the people who said absolutely nothing (and still haven't). I guess I want a follow up from people who originally said "I'm sorry" and can't find anything else to say. But as uncomfortable as the segue is in my head, when I do find myself talking about Maddy it's usually a relief, and I wonder when the next opportunity will arise that I can say -- or hear -- her name spoken again.


Want more? You can read my interview with Elizabeth McCracken here.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hell, frozen

It's snowing. The second (non-accumulating, damn you global warming) snowfall of winter is lightly filtering past the street lights. It's romantic. If getting kicked in the solar plexus by steel-toed shoes is your idea of romance.


Maddy was born on Monday, and died on Sunday. So I woke up Monday morning, without my daughter, honoring? remembering? trying to forget? the one week anniversary of her birth. Like a contraction, there were a few hours in the morning where I could catch my breath, and like a snowball gathering speed, into the four o'clock hour I went, lurching downhill through a week's worth of ghastly memories. I went through the first week without her, with my nerves building and my jaw clenching through the weekend, until I hit Sunday evening again. And then woke up to another Monday. And on I went, Monday, Sunday, Monday, Sunday, every week a cruel testimony to the true measure of a week made up of significant hours.

The twelfth to the eighteenth. The twelves would pass slowly, one, then two . . . six was hard. The eighteens for some reason, after the first, less obvious.

After a few months, the Mondays and Sundays became days again and toward the end of the first year, the twelves and eighteens began to roll underfoot unnoticed. I remember actually being startled one month to look at the calendar and realize I was on the 21st or somewhere having sailed through both without incident. And now they all pass, silently, like mile-markers on a highway, only occasionally catching my eye if I need to pen something on that square or write it on a check, giving me pause and illiciting a resigned "huh." She would've been 14 months. 18 months. 20. I notice today, preparing this post, tomorrow -- a Monday, incidentally -- 23.

What stands out on the calendar anymore is February. All of winter, really. It's an ugly signal flare in the middle of my serene winter snowfall. An torturous electric jolt in my once cozy hibernation. I think I'm doing ok and suddenly I realize I'm teary during a commercial, or an otherwise gooey song on the radio. My patience is thin. My bitter is up. My jaw is starting to ache from clenching my jaw, my heartbeat is slightly on the uptick. Everything spoken makes me wince, everything is meaningful and hurtful. A woman in a school meeting the other day, while trying to make a point about how children learn language, used for her example the word "chop." "What do you think when you hear the word 'chop'?" I'll tell you what I hear, and it's not what I do to onions. It's the acronym for Children's. It's where I spent 48 hours, the last of my daughter's life. It's a shrine, it's a ring of hell. It's where my hope and joy and vision of the future died. It's like approaching the weekend used to be, the final turn into the final curve where I know the collision of memory that lies in wait.

So many Mondays and Sundays and twelves and eighteens have passed underfoot, you'd think I'd be farther than where I am now. That I would've discovered something about myself, or come to some profound conclusion about life -- mine or hers. That the phone might have rung, and someone on the other end might have had an answer. That I'd hurt less. That I'd miss less. That I'd know exactly how I want to handle the upcoming series of twelve and eighteen having passed through it already.

I'm finding I'm simply staring ahead, arms akimbo, crestfallen. Winter is cruel. The lead-up into February and the denouement into March is the sun around which my universe now orbits. I'm assuming one of these days I'll break free from the tug of gravity, and February will pass in an almost unassuming manner, much like the Sundays, Mondays, twelves and eighteens. Perhaps someday I'll come to like to winter again, minus a brief six-day sojourn around Valentine's Day.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


I was farting around on another corner of the web last week when I read that the nominations for this year's Weblog Awards had been announced. I started ticking through categories and did a giddy school-girl squeeeeee! when I recognized someone:

Mel, of the Ever-so-Awesome Sitrrup Queen's (and the informative and supportive Lost and Found ) has been nominated for a Weblog Award in the category Best Medical Health Issues Blog.

You can click on the above links to go vote, and unlike voting for President -- but perhaps if you live in Illinois a bit like voting for someone local -- you can vote daily. (Lighten up, I used to live there. I can poke fun.) I want you to vote daily. Until Tuesday, 1/13. And here's why:

Firstly, you should vote for Mel because her blog is not only wonderful, but a kind of lifeline. She's a fantastic writer in her own right (did you know she has a book coming out this year?), but beyond that, she spends what seems to me to be an impossible number of hours taking care of this community. If you've encountered infertility, pregnancy loss, adoption issues, or infant loss, chances are extremely high you've clicked through Mel's site at one point or another. She not only honestly details her own IF experience, but takes time to answer questions, read other's blogs for inspiration (and provides weekly round-ups), runs a book club of sorts, and started yet another blog which brings together women from under the various headers so we can hopefully all start relating to one another. Building Bridges is what Mel's all about. She's an inspiration.

Case in point: Sometime late in summer, '07, I was reading one of my favorite blogs when she informed the readers she was ditching her blog list. Whu-whu-WHAT? How in hell am I gonna know what all the hip cool tragic blogs are anymore? She said Mel was doing a much better job anyway, so I clicked over to see what the fuss was.

And there it was, almost at the end of the blogroll, the category "Stillbirth, Neonatal Death, Infant Death." There was a whole motherfuckin' GROUP of people like me. And I pretty much decided that day, after clicking around a few minutes, to start my own blog. Mel added me to the list -- in fact, she was one of the first people who wrote me an email.

And that was just me. How many of you read L&F and click over to offer support? Gulp when you see a new addition to this category and go to read the whole story and offer sympathy? You know you do.

Secondly, not to take anything away from Mel here, because she is the Queen in question after all, but I sort of view a vote for Mel as a vote for all of us. I view it as a vote for an issue, a community of people, about whom the world needs to know more about. The world needs to know that there are couples out there right now, who are aching to have children, but have a translocation, or sperm issue, or PCOS. People who are going through miscarriage (after miscarriage). People who have made the decision to do IVF, or to adopt -- domestically or abroad. People who are using surrogates. And finally, people who have lost babies. We're not shunned here, were part of the collective. I see a vote for Mel and a possible win as an announcement to the internets that there's a vibrant intelligent community in here that deserves some recognition and attention.

You're allowed to vote once a day, until Tuesday, 1/13. The Weblog Awards are the big kahunas -- they've been acknowledging blogs since '03 in a variety of categories, and voting trends in the millions. In other words, this is a big deal.

Go vote for Mel. Please tell your friends to vote for Mel. She, and we all, deserve it.