expecting

“I didn’t know you were expecting again,” she says.

 

I put my hands

to my twenty-seven week belly.

 

Expecting

to feel my baby’s last kick,

the deep abyss of stillness that follows.

 

Expecting

the hollow silence

underneath my lone heartbeat.

 

Expecting

every day

my daughter will die like her brother.

 

My friend’s baby—

a rainbow—

over a year now,

pulls on her legs,

gives me a suspicious look

over her shoulder.

 

“Yes,” I say.

 

I rub my hands over the skin where

my daughter sleeps underneath.

Later, she will wake up,

gently kneading hands or feet,

crossing or uncrossing legs,

pushing into my right side

like her brother used to do.

 

For a moment,

I will be reassured.

 

Expecting

her first cry

as she is placed

on my chest,

new and wet.

 

Expecting

to swaddle her,

name her,

bring her home.

 

Expecting

my daughter to live.

 

“Yes,” I say. “Yes. I am

expecting.”

 

*        *         *

One more week. Or less. Expecting–wishful thinking, really–each day to go into labor. Saturday is Week 39, our voluntary induction day. It’s time to meet this little girl on the outside.

 

© Burning Eye

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the babies inside me

At the end of yoga class, I lie in sivasana and think about this baby I still carry inside of me. I wait for the baby to kick. I worry about the blackness that would fill me if this baby, too, died. I squeeze my heart and eyes, hands around my belly, trying to shut out fear. I imagine the birth, holding my new baby on my chest, handing our baby—a living, wiggly miracle—to A.

We are so focused on this baby, on making it, putting one foot in front of the other. Some days Joseph is more present than others. He is a part of me that lives on a parallel plane just below my visible reality; the shadow that grows or stretches or shrinks with the angle of the sun.  I dread the weight of his loss when our daughter is born. The seeing, knowing, experiencing just how much we have lost that I’ve heard other babylost parents talk about. Losing him all over again.

Some days it is too much—the curtains I make for the nursery that I never made for Joseph; the crib we never assembled for him that now sits in the corner of the baby’s room—and I have to close it out. Disconnect the pieces of myself and fill my mind with something else. I cannot indulge the sorrow that wells up in me, as I did those first months after he died. I do not submerge my body in the bath while I weep. I do not sit, hands and fingers covered in charcoal dust, and contemplate the darkness I have just spilled on the paper. I do not read, and read, and read about grief and mourning and all the babies who have died. But sometimes I sit in the glider for a few minutes, just sitting, rocking, holding Joseph in my mind.

The yoga teacher rings a chime. I take her deep breath in, her soft breath out. I rouse myself, sit slowly up and put my hands in prayer position. She says, And bow to honor the babies inside you.

And I smile, an inward smile. I look down at my belly, where my daughter resides, and then at my heart, where my son is. One a temporary home, the other a permanent dwelling. I close my eyes and feel my blood pulsing, carrying with it fetal cells from both my babies mixed with my own genetic material. Endlessly circulating.

I touch my forehead to my fingertips and bow. I carry both of you,I whisper to them.

*               *                *

I am sad today. I sit in the glider and look at Joseph’s portrait. I am reading the poems in To Linger on Hot Coalssome of which are mine. Revisiting some of that early grief. Letting the grief of other mothers in just a little.

And I realize it is the 27th again. Joseph’s fifteen month stillbirthday. I don’t understand how these anniversaries seep into our unconscious. Why today? Two days ago, my anxiety spike as this baby slept peacefully away in my womb, ignoring my increasing pokes and prods. It was the 25th, the fifteen month anniversary of Joseph’s death.

Joseph, I miss you so much.

 

© Burning Eye

Advent

A. turns to me in bed and asks, “How do you explain nostalgia to a child?” I wait to see where she’s going with this. “Like, how are we going to explain to our children why we have so many crèche scenes? Neither of us is exactly religious.”

I wonder in the darkness if I should quibble with her characterization of me. Am I religious now? I certainly used to be. I decide not to derail the conversation and turn it towards my idle curiosity about my own faith since Joseph died.

We have just put up our Christmas tree, strung lights, unwrapped some of our ornaments—there are two new ones this year for Joseph—and found places for the four manger scenes around the living room. The beautiful pop-up crèche advent calendar that A’s dad gave us this year already sits on the coffee table.

A reminds me every year or two that her mother used to put their Wise Men figurines far away from the stable, and move them closer every day. They had several crèche scenes, as did my family. We each bring different childhood traditions to our Christmases together, but this is one thing we have in common.

My parents had a little crèche from Latin America when I was little. Its doors opened and closed on paper hinges. A lover of all things miniature, I was drawn to the ornament and played with it each year, opening and closing the stable doors on the colorful little family.

We also had a larger crèche of hard wax figurines that got unpacked out of a rickety wooden stable year after year. They were old, my grandmother’s, and some of the detailed coloring was scratched off. One of the shepherds was continually losing its head, which I tried multiple times to melt back on. The one angel that ultimately remained was missing her feet and wouldn’t stand. But still, I loved it. I played with it like a dollhouse, arranging and rearranging, strewing dried pine needles across the stable floor for authenticity.

“Well,” I say to A. I don’t really have to think about it, but I am surprised I already know the answer. “It’s about family. A new mother and father, a baby born. Christmas is about family. ”

 

I have always loved the Christmas story. Though from year to year, my relationship to it has changed—I cycle through folktale, pagan origins, Biblical scholarship, fervent religious belief in the birth of a great Light in our world, which I’ve sometimes called Christ. I am drawn to Mary, a young mother pregnant for the first time, afraid, tired, unsure of this burden God has given her. I feel tenderness toward Joseph, the man who has taken Mary and all her controversy into his house to care for her and protect her and be a father to this prophetic child. I admire the incredible faith they both had.

When I found out I was pregnant with our son, I dug out the journal I had been saving for this occasion since I was 18 and turned to the inside flap where I wrote out the Magnificat. My soul magnifies the Lord. I felt blessed. I was so happy. My journal from those months, when I wrote, was full of God. I was full of God, full of love, full of faith. Being pregnant felt like the star on top of the tree, the final piece of my life’s dreams falling into place.

I was pregnant through Advent. Like Mary, expecting a baby. Christmas was exciting. We bought our first real Christmas tree, and dreamed about how this would be our last Christmas without children. Maybe next year we wouldn’t travel, we’d make our family come to us. After all, having a little baby entitles you to certain privileges.

IMG_1504

When we decorated gingerbread cookies with my dad, I did myself as Mary, in her typical blue robe and blue veil. I added a little icing baby floating in my belly. (Decorating elaborate cookies is one of my favorite family tradition.)

 

How different I feel this December, pregnant again a year later. I am tentative, protective of the little sparks of hope I sometimes feel. Nowhere in my journal or my letters to this new baby do I talk about God.

It is painful to think of Christmas as the birth of anything good in the world. My first baby died on Christmas day. It is hard to think about Mary, her joyful song to God, awaiting the birth of her own baby, year after year throughout history. And yet, I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. Remembering that she, too, lost her son. The baby she carried and birthed and raised. Something in this knowledge softens me towards her. Something in this tragedy makes Christmas a little more sorrowful.

 

This year, we buy another real Christmas tree, hang a wreath and stockings. I listen to Christmas music all day. I play my flute for the first time in months, drawn to Advent songs in the Methodist hymnal I grew up with. This nostalgia for the Christmas season is powerful. We are both surprised by how these parts of Christmas come so naturally, so easily.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how to think of Christmas right now. I am afraid of it. I am afraid it will pass like any other Christmas, that I will unintentionally shut down emotionally just so I can hold it together. I am afraid I will be an emotional wreck, that nothing we do to honor Joseph will feel right, that I’ll get angry, I’ll be inconsolable. I am afraid to feel relief when this first stillbirthday passes. I am afraid to remember, afraid I will forget.

 

And in the midst of all this, I wonder what this Christmas means for this new baby who thumps and rolls in my belly. I dare to hope that this time will be different. That the earth will turn again and Light will be reborn in our lives.

© Burning Eye

Learning to Trust and Accepting Help

I just dropped off a prescription for Zoloft. My first psychiatric medication.

I didn’t go to the psychiatrist with the intent of starting a medication. I didn’t even go thinking I wanted immediate help with anything. It was more of a preventative visit. In case later, some vague time in the future, I felt I was ready, felt I needed, medication.

I never leave a doctor’s office feeling confident I’ve made the right decision. Was it even me who made the decision? Or was I just swayed by the doctor’s powers of persuasion, their particular take on a particular strain of research in their specialty? Is it their poise, the number of degrees framed on their wall, the fact that they have the title Dr. in front of their name?

I don’t have a good track record with this. I am a pendulum, swinging between utter trust in Western medicine to a complete mistrust in chemicals and a reliance on acupuncture, more natural things like herbs, or a stubborn refusal to pursue treatment of whatever condition. “I’m taking a break from doctors right now,” I’ve said before.

Until I go to the next one, and try whatever medication they’re suggesting, even as I say, “I don’t like taking medication.”

“Oh, you’ll be a great candidate for molecular therapy, when that is fully developed,” one doctor said to me as he wrote me four prescriptions, one for a narcotic, to knock my chronic cough to its knees.

I got a little excited when he said that. The evolution of medicine is fascinating to me. What we know now that we didn’t used to know, and all that we still don’t know. Molecular therapy. I can only imagine what this doctor meant. I picture, in the sci-fi-sounding style of its name, the fictional journey the healer Madrone made in The Fifth Sacred Thing as she went, in a trance, down to the molecular level to fight a synthetic virus.

And at the same time, part of me rejects fully this tinkering with our bodies in this way, however un-physical we may actually be on a molecular level. This is who I am, all my thoughts and emotions, hormones and neurotransmitters. Do I really want to mess around with who I am?

 

“Tell me about that,” the psychiatrist says when I say my first son was stillborn 9 months ago and I am 12 weeks pregnant now.

Every day I relive Joseph’s death.

            Every day I think this baby is going to die, too.

As I say it, I wonder if I sound crazy. In spite of a firm scientific belief in mental illness, and a family history of clinical depression, I still carry this societal stigma of crazy.

I am sitting in the psychiatrist’s office crying. She comes around her table and hands me a box of tissues. Of course today I am feeling emotional. Of course today I cry at everything. See? Crazy. It was a day like this that my OB referred me to see the psychiatrist. A routine fertility visit to check my ovaries for cysts and everything the OB said, I cried.

I have this habit, anyway, of crying when someone asks me, genuinely, how I’m doing.

We talk a little more, about my emotional history, my family history, my medical history. Do I feel depressed? Well, no, not really, less and less as time goes on since Joseph’s death. But this fear and anxiety? It’s there every day, more and more as this pregnancy goes on. I’m horribly afraid, too, of postpartum depression if this longed-for baby is born alive.

I know all this is normal. I know that what I’ve been feeling, all these emotions that come along with grief, all this fear and anxiety about the future, and specifically about this pregnancy, it’s all normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The psychiatrist doesn’t give me the impression that she thinks I’m crazy.

But as we talk, I start to see that maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe each day doesn’t have to be finding one distraction after another to keep the anxiety at bay. Maybe I don’t have to worry every single day that this baby is going to die, that this baby has already died and I just don’t know it yet. Maybe I don’t have to wish for a sedative, a cave to hibernate in until this baby can be born.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the diagnosis, the psychiatrist tells me. We talk about medications. How what I would prefer—to pop something like a Xanax every time it gets really bad (and I would decide, of course, when it was “really bad”)—is just a band-aid, and won’t help these pervasive feelings. Plus, taking it too often is not good for the baby.

She presents Zoloft like something to try. Start small, increase the dose gradually, check back in to see if I think it’s helping. It takes a while, 4-6 weeks, so it’s not the kind of thing you can wait and take when the anxiety is worse. She warns me that as my blood volume increases with pregnancy, I might find the dose isn’t enough and we’ll have to adjust. She speaks knowledgeably about the drug—she is a medical doctor, after all—and says we a lot. And if it’s not helping, or if there’s some effect that doesn’t feel good, I can stop taking it.

This is the permission I need. To ride the pendulum. To try it for a while—how long depends on the length of the arc of my swing—and ultimately reject it.

It might help with sleep, she says, and I perk up. I have been lucky to be a sound sleeper in my life, and I struggle to accept the realities of pregnancy insomnia. It might help with muscle tension, and headaches, she says. I feel a little spark of hope, too, that it might help me relax at school, and maybe not dread going in to work every day anymore. Maybe it could help me be nicer to my students.

I feel both hopeful and resentful. It’s a familiar mix of emotions, one I always face when starting a new medication.

 

At issue here is trust.

I don’t trust myself enough. I worry I’ve just let myself be talked into something unnecessary. I worry I’m giving in to some strange hypochondriac side of myself that seems to continuously create a need for doctors and appointments.

Don’t get my wrong, the medical issues I’ve dealt with are real—asthma, allergies, migraines, the kinds of diagnoses that require ongoing care, second and third opinions, alternative treatments, new medications.

But my grief counselor said to me, towards the end of our sessions together, that I fully inhabit whatever I’m feeling in that moment and forget that I won’t always feel that way. Emotionally, I am very successful at living in the moment. Including the moments I am sure this baby, like Joseph, will die. I forget that, as a friend put it recently, feelings are temporary.

I hate, too, that I have to trust someone else, albeit a professional, to give me a diagnosis. And one so bland in its name. I could diagnose my whole family, including my in-laws, with generalized anxiety disorder. We are all worriers. It’s what we do. What’s so special about my anxiety?

I have to trust that this psychiatrist is able to take my few words and compare them to everything else she’s seen and say, definitively, yes, this patient could benefit from medication. I have to trust that she might really be able to help me. That Zoloft might actually help.

 

© Burning Eye

Dreams

I dreamed I gave birth to a baby girl. We were in Baltimore, visiting family. I do have family in Baltimore, but in the manner of dreams, it wasn’t the family that actually lives there. I went into labor early, unexpectedly, and they took me to the hospital.

The next scene in the dream, our baby girl was in the NICU, tubes taped to her nose and chest. We took two pictures of her. Then my family drove me home.

All the way home, to North Carolina. We got there late at night. I went to show the photos of our baby girl to my parents.

And then I realized, We left our baby girl in Baltimore.

And, We didn’t hold her!

It’s okay, my sister said. They’ll send her down here to the hospital.

But you can’t mail a baby! I said.

How could we have left our baby girl in Baltimore? How could we have come home without her? How could we have left her in the NICU without ever holding her? All we had were these two pictures on my phone. I swiped back and forth between them, over and over. We’d just have to drive back to Baltimore. Tonight. Right now.

 

I didn’t dream about Joseph being born. Not that I remembered once I awoke, at least. I dreamed once that my belly was transparent, and we could see through into my womb. But wait! I said. We don’t want to know if it’s a boy or a girl! So I didn’t look. I walked around carefully not looking. In the images I remember of the dream, we are all chest-up, like a photograph. So I wouldn’t have seen anyway, even if I looked down.

I also dreamed about houses. These were the most vivid dreams of my pregnancy. Most of them featured a second home we’d forgotten we owned. Empty. Sometimes ramshackle. One, missing a roof. Oh, no, I thought, we’ll have to pay for a new roof. Ugh. Another, we’d forgotten to mow the grass of this second home and I was worried the city would fine us. What would we do with these second houses? I wondered in my dreams. Which one would we live in?

 

I don’t believe my dreams are prophetic. I don’t believe that because I never saw Joseph in my dreams, it meant he was going to die. I don’t believe that because I dreamed this baby was a girl, she will be a girl, or that she will be born preemie.

What are dreams? This, like so many of the things I used to believe, is in limbo. My dreams are sometimes fantastic adventure, sometimes surreal stories where one person melts into another. They are projections of my hopes, and manifestations of my fears.

A whole new set of fears for this pregnancy. A whole new world of worry, and nights, whether dreaming or lying awake, full of unease.

© Burning Eye

8 months/35 weeks

Dear Joseph,

 

I am missing you today. I feel your presence, under my ribs. That warm glow in my heart. It’s cheesy, I know, but I’m glad you’ve taken up residence there, internal, so close to me.

This week is 8 months. 35 weeks that you are gone, the same amount of time dead now that you were alive. What does it mean, this equivalence of life and death?

I have always kept track of time this way. I remember when all of a sudden I had known your mother for as long as I hadn’t known her. Time goes on, and now that balance is tipped, weighted in a favorable direction. I’ve known her more years now.

Time will go on and your death will go on. Unstoppable, unavoidable.

These days feel significant, but they are days just like any other days.

I miss you.

 

We got to see your little brother or sister today. Eight tenths of a centimeter long, a little flicker of a heartbeat. Nothing else distinguishable yet.

I was so nervous, waiting for that appointment. Wondering if the ultrasound screen would give me flashbacks to the day I saw your heart had stopped: the horrible stillness of that tiny black hole. But it was okay. Anti-climactic, actually. I feel both relieved, and suddenly more anxious. I am growing another baby, who is alive today—but life isn’t guaranteed, I am painfully aware of that now.

The ultrasound tech called your little sibling a peanut. But I’m not sure that’s right. Your mother and I search for suitable nicknames. It suddenly seems urgent that we have something to call this one other than Baby, because that was what we called you. It’s silly—of course this one is a baby, too. But you were Baby, and this small creature growing in my womb is not you.

You are underneath every part of this pregnancy. Every physical sensation brings a memory. In every moment of excitement and worry, you are there. I like to think of you as watching out for this little sibling, whispering older brother wisdom in my womb. Your cells are in my blood, which means they are in this new baby’s blood, too.

I put my hand on my belly. We are going to be okay, I think. All of us. You, me, the new baby. I cling stubbornly, blindly, to hope.

 

I love you so much.

Mama

 

© Burning Eye

Building

I feel, in a way, as if my life is starting over. As if, almost seven months after our baby died, I am opening my eyes and starting to look around at what is left of the wreckage. As if I sit in the rubble of my house after a storm has leveled it. Over there, I see a shred of cloth—the color catches my eye, and reminds me of something. And there, a photograph of someone I knew. A family member, maybe. The lid of a box that once held memories. A scrap of paper: musical notes, or words. Did I write them? Were they written to me? Maybe they have nothing to do with me.

The land around me is flat, empty. I have painted this landscape before, terrestrial. I have smeared the charcoal waves of this landscape, aquatic. Anything upright stands stark, conspicuous, against the sky. I can make out figures now, other people. The ones closer to me are clearer, and I am beginning to see who is still here. Some of them are silent. Some call my name. Some call Joseph’s name, and my heart smiles and blossoms and weeps.

 

It is hard to explain, I think. On the surface, the world I dwell in is not empty. I still go to work: I teach, I counsel, I console, I cajole, I entertain, I perform, I listen, I give. I still do the dishes, the laundry, care for the cats, go grocery shopping, keep appointments. I write, and write, and write. I read novels and curl up on the couch and watch more t.v. than I have in all the rest of my life put together, or so it seems.

And I have never been alone. I have A, and a loving family, and friends who have looked me in the eye and been brave in a way that I know I couldn’t have been if this had happened to them first.

But there is this persistent sifting of things. A slow, quiet shuffling of position, seaweed and driftwood in the calm swell of waves, rising, falling out of sight. I am waiting to see what washes onto shore.

 

What do you value? the grief counselor asks me.

I misunderstand. Well, I’m trying to work on my novel.

She explains. That’s more like a goal. The value behind that might be something more like, ‘I value an outlet for my creativity.’

Oh.

Ah.

 

It’s like she turned a light on in my head. I had been thinking, What things can I busy myself with until we are pregnant again, until we have a living, breathing baby?  Now, I have a way of asking myself, What in my life-without-Joseph still has meaning?

A week later, I am still thinking.

The grief counselor gave me a freebie with the bit about creativity. As I sat in her office trying to think fast, like this was some kind of quiz, I came up with, Um, well, I guess, I value A. Wait, is that too specific? I value my family. Ah, yes, that includes A, but it also includes Joseph—the time I spend thinking about him, talking to him, writing, doing art, mourning—and the rest of my family, and A’s, too.

So that’s two.

I recognize that, even in my moments of extreme introversion, I value friendships, too. I value making connections with other people. Having coffee or taking a walk with a friend. Writing long emails back and forth with those far away. My blog is a way of connecting to others, as is my writing at Glow, and the time I spend on forums.

I realize a fourth is currently being fulfilled by my job teaching elementary school: I value working to make the world a better place. On my heroic days, I value saving the world. On my discouraging days, I value ‘each one, teach one.’

A and I have a spontaneous dance party in the back room of our house, just the two of us. It is the first time I’ve danced since Joseph died, and I think, Aha! I value dance! And then I admit to myself that this is a bit narrow, and I need to expand it. I value moving my body in ways that make me feel strong and healthy. Maybe, thinking of it that way, I won’t drag my feet so much on days I go to the gym to exercise.

All of this has given me a sense of building up. Additive, not negative. That I am reconstructing my life one small bit at a time. I am noticing that many of the pieces I need are right there, within my reach. That scrap of paper, that photograph, that shred of cloth.

I don’t know what I’m building.

But at least I am building.

 

© Burning Eye

Right Where I Am: 22 weeks, 6 days

Angie of Still Life with Circles has started another “Right Where I Am.” You can read about the project on her blog.

Impatience swells in me. When will my period come? When will school let out? When will I be pregnant again? When will I get the tattoo? Will when my life start?

As if someone has pressed the pause button and the display is blinking. Only the reel keeps turning and it ends up I am living—a life that is eerily familiar to what my own once was. I have stepped through a mirror and walked into an almost identical house but for the slant of light and an immense echoing emptiness. Everything is still in its place, but I walk by and touch the furniture as if I don’t know this place I inhabit.

Everything is still and heavy here. The slide of the dining room chair under my weight. The rough corduroy of the couch. My heart is made of the same glazed yellow pine as our cool, hard floors.

Impatience makes the clock tick slower. I know this but still I tap my foot, pick at my cuticles, pace from room to room. Screw this living-in-the-moment crap, I tell A when I come home. One-day-at-a-time is too hard. I don’t like this day. I don’t like this moment. I am living for later.

That’s okay, I tell myself. That has to be okay. They say anything is okay, any feeling, any manifestation of grief. Accept where you are.

Where I am: holding my breath.

It’s okay to hold my breath. To watch the display blinking, blinking. To wait for the future.

© Burning Eye