26. New Year’s Day

August’s due date was five years ago today — January 1, 2010. A woman in my writers’ group was pregnant at the same time, due Jan. 2. We used to joke about who would “win” — whose baby would come first. She won; her baby arrived by C-section sometime around his due date. August took till the 12th to arrive, and of course then I lost all over again.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now. I’m grateful they’re open on New Year’s Day. I got up with the kids at 7:15 this morning. Not terribly early, but I’ve been “on” ever since — breakfast, peeing on the potty, playing with Christmas toys, hugging them when they fell, nursing them when they asked for it, cleaning up their messes, making more food since they didn’t eat their breakfast, and on and on and on. As an introvert, I find taking care of kids sort of challenging on the level of energy output; at some point, I need to separate so I can restore myself again. Hence, skipping out to the coffee shop.

In moments when things are especially tough or frustrating with the kids, my husband and I sometimes joke that we’re living the dream. It’s funny because it’s true — we wanted to have living children, we hoped and tried so hard to have them after August died, and it worked! We have two healthy, hilarious, unusual, wonderful, living kids. But it’s also so hard! I feel silly complaining about it, since it’s what I wanted most in the world, but being a parent is just so unrelenting! You hardly get a break. (I think mamas, and maybe nursing mamas in particular, get even less of a break than other parents, since we don’t even get to use the bathroom in peace, for years on end.)

My point is just that we have what we wanted: We have Pearl and Zephyr. But we don’t have August, and there aren’t that many ways to connect with him that feel real to me. Last night I lit a candle for him at midnight, and slipped a little note to him into his Christmas stocking, since I neglected to do it on Christmas Day, as I normally do. They’re just short little notes. “I miss you more than ever. I love you always. Love, Mama.”

Now I’m sitting in the coffee shop, decompressing from being “on” all morning, taking care of August’s siblings. There are a few other people here. A mom and her young toddler, younger than Zeph. Some middle-aged folks at a nearby table playing peekaboo with the toddler and grinning at her mama. At one point, the woman told the young mom, “Our baby is twenty-two years old.” Everyone smiled. I smiled too, thinking about how I already do that — I already sigh over other women’s babies who are younger than my own. A stage of life already gone by for our little family.

Then I started to cry, thinking of August. My first baby. I miss you more than ever, little son. I love you always. Happy New Year.

Love, Mama.

25. Sometimes books make me cry.

The real reason I hardly ever post to this blog these days is at least two-fold. One, it’s like a long overdue phone call to a dear friend who lives far away: I know it’s going to take a long time, and I’m going to want to give it my full attention, my full heart. So I keep putting it off, because there never seems to be enough time or energy in the day or in my body to say, Now is the time — now I am ready. But the longer I put it off, the longer and the more focus it’s going to take to do it justice.

Two, I think about potential blog posts all the time. All day every day. Memories resurface constantly. August’s name plays through my mind as I go about my everything. I want to write all these things down. But the idea of doing so is like trying to grab a leaf that’s swirling in deep, dark water. I imagine myself fumbling, reaching, missing. Again and again. It’s overwhelming. I don’t want to do it.

I’m reading a book called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It’s about a teenage girl who is a terminal cancer patient, and her parents, and her sort-of-boyfriend, Augustus. (Of course. And of course he goes by Gus sometimes, but mostly Augustus.) In the scene I just read, the girl is recalling a time in the recent past when she very nearly died, but somehow pulled through it. In her memory, she’s in the ICU in the hospital, really about to die, and her parents are crying over her, and her mom says, “I won’t be a mom anymore,” and sobs into the dad’s chest.

I was reading that book in the tub, by candlelight — very luxurious, oh my. The book was hard to put down. But that scene made me finally put it down and drain the water out of the tub and blow out the candles. It made me cry. It made me think about how we had August, and then we didn’t have him; we went home from the hospital without him. All of a sudden, we were once again what we’d been before: a childless couple.

I remember I had all these darkly romantic notions about The New Me, post-losing August, and how I would fill my time. See, I’d expected to be a mom to a newborn baby, not a dead one. I’d finished my schooling for the moment (I’d become certified to teach, and had put the rest of my Master’s degree on hold), and hadn’t applied for any jobs since I would be at home with the baby. But then the baby died, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with myself anymore. It was winter. I imagined that I would start drinking a lot of Bushmills Irish whiskey and going out to bars, the way I’d done five or ten years earlier, in my twenties. I imagined I would go to see bands play, and my friends would be there, and they would know what had happened. They wouldn’t say much about August, but they would know he was gone, and that I was missing him with every part of my body, every second.

That didn’t happen. I don’t think I went to even one bar or to see even one band play that winter and spring. What I did do was contact one of my professors, explain what had happened, and ask if there was a course I could take toward my Master’s degree that she thought I might be able to handle, considering that I was freshly postpartum and dealing with a huge shit-pile of grief.

Have I written about that professor on here yet? That was one of those mysterious, divine-guidance-from-the-Universe moments, when I decided to reach out to her. She emailed me back and told me I should register for her class, and she would help me in any way I needed to get through the semester.

And it turned out she had a dead son, too. The first night in class, in late January, just twelve days after August had been born and died, I sat in her classroom at Texas State University, having driven forty-five minutes from home and walked shakily up a sizeable hill to be there. She introduced herself to the class and told us she had two sons: One was thirty-two, and one had died fifteen years earlier, when he was just sixteen years old, in an accident in a car that she had purchased for him.

I’d taken another course with her the previous semester, and she had never mentioned her dead son then.

All semester long, every week after class, she sat with me out in the hallway and counseled me while I cried and talked about August, and about how I didn’t know what to do or how to get through it.

I’ve always been so, so grateful to her for that gift she gave me. She was the first person who told me that this loss would help me become more compassionate toward other people in pain. I got through the semester, got an A in her class, enrolled in five more classes that summer, and finished up my Master’s degree in Education that August. (Of course.)

What was my point? Oh — not being a mother anymore. Being a childless mother. I’d heard the phrase motherless child before, but never the phrase childless mother; but suddenly that was what I was. I hated it. I did not want it. I didn’t know what it meant or how to do, be, it.

I thought of that again tonight, reading that book, and realized how fearful I am that I could become a childless mother again.

Sometimes I make morbid jokes, like, “I always wanted two kids, and then I had three, and now I want more; I never knew you needed spares!” It’s kind of a joke, but it’s also kind of true. I never knew children could actually die. How can that be? And these two other kids I have now, they are going to die too. Someday. That’s the way of it. No one here gets out alive.

Being the mom of a kid with special needs (Pearl having Down syndrome) means you think about lots of morbid things, like whether you hope you will die before or after your children. We think Pearl is doing great now, and expect she will continue to do great in the future, but there’s really no way to know what her adulthood will be like or what kind of support she will need until we get there. And I never, ever want to live through losing another one of my children. And yet… Part of me does want to outlive Pearl, because I want to make sure she has everything she needs, her whole life. I am afraid to leave this place before she does, and leave her to fend for herself. I know there are lots and lots of other people who love her and want to help care for her forever, just like I do. I know I am not her only family member or support person. I also know Zephyr might need support as an adult, too. And I feel the same way about him: I want to be there to make sure he has everything he needs, forever.

And I know that is a lot, too much, for me to take on. I am just their mother. They are their own people, with responsibilities to themselves. And I know that what is most natural is for them both to outlive me. And part of me wants that, very selfishly. Because I am so, so afraid of living through their deaths. Please, please, no.

But I don’t want them to be motherless children.

I guess there is no happy ending to this or any story. In the John Green book I’m reading, a character asks rhetorically whether a story should emulate a morphine drip or a variety of other alternatives that I’m forgetting now. But when I read that paragraph, I thought, No; a story should emulate a true and genuine hug from someone who loves you completely. A story should emulate a mirror that shows you the truth and the beauty of who you are.

After August died, I could not read fiction for a long time — years. I felt like reading a novel was akin to duping myself into believing pretty lies — trying to assuage myself with false promises of true-love-forever-after and stories that are all tied up in nice little bows at the end. And real life just isn’t like that. Everything ends, but not everything has “closure,” or a satisfying completion. Not everything allows you to sigh, as at the end of a good novel, and say, “I’m finished with that. Now I can close the cover, move on and not think of it again.”

24. Sometimes small things set me off.

Sweater There’s this little sweater — a Western sweater, the color of oatmeal, with a brown horse stitched into it and a bright red yoke and cuffs. It has fringe in the same bright red yarn across the chest and back, and down the sleeves. The fringe is matted, slightly felted, because the sweater is 35 years old. I wore it when I was two years old. My mother kept it, and then gave it to me as a baby shower gift when I was eight months pregnant with August.

August died, of course, so he never wore the sweater. Now my daughter Pearl wears it. But only sometimes. Most of the time, it lies folded in her armoire or her closet — wherever I happen to place it. Every time I see it, it pulls at me. I think it is the cutest, sweetest little sweater. I so looked forward to seeing my own child wearing it. But I can only bring myself to dress Pearl in it sometimes, because it makes me feel bad.

As soon as I look at it, I get a knot in my chest, and I start thinking again about The Badness. The thing that will never go away: The loss and absence of baby August.

That’s been happening a lot lately. Yesterday was cold, so I dressed Pearl in the little Western sweater. There was a lump in my throat, my chest, my heart, all day. Finally, in the afternoon, she asked to take it off. I pulled her onto my lap and undid the buttons for her, working in a hug at the same time. I told her how much I love her, and thought about how I think I love my two living children extra because of the one who isn’t here.

23. Sometimes they get it right.

Last night I watched a movie in which one of the characters has a child who died. In one scene, she imagines a conversation with another character that isn’t really happening. In that conversation, the other person tells her, “You lost a child. That’s as rough as it gets. But it’s all about how you move forward from here. You don’t just shut down. You keep living.”

Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words. But I remember the truth of them.

There have been a few movies and TV shows I’ve seen that made me think, Yep, whoever wrote this lost a child in real life, because they just get it, spot-on, in the writing. Sometimes the actor really gets it, too, but more often, it’s in the writing. In the movie last night, it was the detail that this character imagined this conversation with another person. The other person wasn’t actually saying these things to her; these were the things she wanted, needed, to hear from another human being.

I think that is so exactly how it is. When you live through the death of your own child, I think you want other people to say to you, out loud, “This is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to you.” You want it both as acknowledgement of your pain and the enormity of your loss, and also as reassurance — Nothing that ever happens to you again will be as bad as this. Because, if it were possible that something as bad or worse could happen — how could you live through it? It would be like trying to live through a horrendous airplane crash after surviving being shot in the head.

Of course, no one can give you that reassurance, not really. Other terrible things may happen. But hearing those words is still soothing. A balm for this impossible life we live.

And, after an experience like that, you want to be told that the focus now, the meaning, lies in how you choose to move forward. I don’t mean move on. I mean, how you keep living. That is the big question, I think, for anyone who has lived through a horrendous loss. How do you keep going? How do you find joy again? How do you decide there is any worth at all in keeping on waking up day after day?

You want to be told there is a focus because you want to believe there is something important to learn or to do now. Otherwise — if it’s really all just random; if your life really did just go from good to awful in a moment… It’s just too unfair and depressing to contemplate.

A friend-from-afar who reads this blog checked in with me recently, since she noticed I hadn’t posted in a while. (Thank you, friend!) I’ve been remiss in posting because I’ve been busy: We had another baby! Another little boy. I am so glad to have another son. I feel like I’m getting another chance to connect with a little boy-human, a chance I missed out on with August. Not that Zephyr can ever replace August, nor should he. He is his own little boy-human. I’m just really, really glad he’s here, and his sister, too.

22. Sometimes it’s easier to grieve for someone else’s baby than for my own.

Been thinking about this lately. So much baby loss these days. I hate it. My good friend just lost twin girls at 22 weeks gestation. Another good friend’s coworker just lost his baby daughter shortly after birth. Too many babies gone. I cry and cry over each one, mull over the words in the email or the Facebook post that I’m reading. Turn phrases over in my mind, like “With great sorrow we announce…”

With great sorrow.

Right now — it’s 5 a.m., so I may be thinking about this sideways — I believe I cry over these lost babies not just for the sadness of their own stories, and not just because I grieve for what their parents are now going through, but also in order to experience the loss of my own child freshly once again. I never, ever want to go through something like this loss again. Yet, in some strange way, I do want to re-experience the particular loss of August; some part of me wants it to be present again. Some part of me wishes I could send out an email to all my friends: “With great sorrow, I remind you that August died over three years ago, and I still miss the heck out of that baby boy. Please bear witness with me again on this random day. No, today is not any type of anniversary. I just needed to send out the call. Wailing and deep lament gratefully accepted.”

But of course people don’t do things like that. That would be really weird! It would be “milking it,” to say the least. But it’s not like August’s death is just behind me now. It is on the calendar, but not so much in my heart.

21. Sometimes… There’s a video.

Here is the video of my performance in the 2012 Austin Listen to Your Mother Show, for which I read an essay about August and Pearl:

20. Sometimes new old memories resurface.

The night that August died, we had a number of hours at the hospital before his birth, waiting for my labor to pick back up again so I could push him out. We waited and waited. I even snoozed some. I’d been in transition when we got there, and stayed in that state for all those hours; I was totally unaware of most things happening around me, including the fact that Erik had to call our families and tell them what was happening. His parents came up from San Antonio; my mom and stepdad and my siblings and their families all came to the hospital too. I was so out of it; I was alternately apologizing to everyone, as if I’d somehow caused the awful situation we were in, and giggling about ridiculous things, like the fart that slipped out while my mother and mother-in-law both stood by my bed.

August was born late at night. We left the hospital the next morning. My dad rang our doorbell at noon; he had caught the first flight out from Boston, where he lives, to Austin. As soon as I opened the front door, he broke down crying, and I did too. We cried and hugged. It was an awful moment, and also a lovely one. I was so glad he was there; that he’d come as quickly as he could, and was at my house less than twelve hours after August had been born.

I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. Then, tonight, I was thinking about how both August and Pearl were born well after their due dates — August was 11 days past due, Pearl nine — and both times, as my due dates came and went, we had family in town, waiting around for the baby to come. I remember feeling so pressured; I wanted the baby to come too, dammit! And I would go to my prenatal appointments — the 40-week appointment, then another at 41 weeks — and the midwife would check me out and tell me, “No, this baby isn’t coming yet…” and I would just feel so frustrated. (After August was born and died, I remember wishing I’d been more patient and graceful; if I’d only known my pregnancy was all the time I’d have with him, I would have kept him in even longer! I assured myself I’d never be so impatient again, if we had another child. Then Pearl was nine days past due, and I was every bit as frustrated and impatient. I guess that’s just how it goes, when you have that 40-week mark stuck in your head.)

Anyway, tonight I was remembering those days before the two babies’ births, and musing that maybe it would be good just to have the family come after the baby is born next time, instead of before — since clearly I gestate longer than other women… And then I remembered that moment of opening the front door and my dad standing there, breaking down in tears. And it all washed over me again, fresh all over again.

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