this time of year

I’m having a particularly hard day today.

Trying not to think back to those days leading up to Christmas, when I knew something was wrong but didn’t know I knew. Trying not to think about which day was which, what I did on the 22nd, or the 23rd, or the 24th. It’s enough knowing that on the 25th I felt my little boy’s last movements. It’s enough knowing that on the 25th we learned he was dead. Enough knowing it’s been two years now.

No, it’s not “enough.” It’s too much. Some days it’s just too much.

I have a poem up on Glow this week. A small thing. A quiet thing. I have so much to say, but it’s all jammed up in my head. Beginnings of sentences. Middles of tirades. Ends of sobs. None of it feels new. And I am reminded that this is what trauma is–a wound that may heal but leaves a scar that aches on rainy days. And that there are triggers that take me right back there. To the grief. To the loneliness. The isolation. The touch of death in my womb. The fear that I could spread it.

Being there–here–is so familiar.

I guess some days I feel like I’ve really reached a place people call the “new normal.” Our little family is doing well, me and A and baby M and our absent little boy. But “normal” implies somewhat like everyone else, and days like today I remember that we are not like everyone else. We are apart, the babylost. Forever changed.

© Burning Eye

the first year

When Joseph died at the end of 2012, we couldn’t say that 2012 had been the worst year of our lives. It was the year we conceived our baby, the year he grew in my belly, the year we fell in love and felt such hope. It was only the last few days that were a nightmare.

We looked ahead to a bleak year. A do-over. A dark year of grief, disoriented to find ourselves plopped back down in the life we had before Joseph, empty-armed. We thought, “2013 is going to be the worst year of our lives.”

To soften this, we tore strips of pastel papers, decorated a jar, and labeled it “2013: The Year of Growing Things.” All year, we have written on the papers and put them in the jar. Visiting the butterfly house on Joseph’s due date. Planting his camellia. Visiting our friends-turned-family (“frambly” we say) in California. Buying Joseph’s bench. Conceiving our second child.

I can look back on 2013 through this lens. The good things. The small accomplishments. A hug on a bad day. The hope and promise that planting represents.

It isn’t the lens I always see through. It has been a truly hard year. But A. comes home from a Winter Solstice yoga class talking about survival (among other things). She says, “We’ve survived.” And I know this to be true in the deepest part of myself. It’s what we started off saying, when we emerged from our cocoon of winter grief to walk about in the world again, when people asked us, “How are you?” we often replied, “We’re surviving.”

We have survived this year, and we continue to survive. As soon as Anne said it, I heard it as a refrain in my head, saw it written out between moments and memories of this past year. I wrote a poem, and you can read it here on Glow in the Woods.

 

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© Burning Eye

bed rest with bathroom privileges

I come to the hospital to get a chest x-ray. The midwife I have just seen at the office tells me the quickest way to get it read is to come to Maternity Admissions, so I drive over in the rain, call A on the way and ask her to meet me there in an hour with dinner. I expect them to set me in a triage room, run all their tests, and tell me everything looks fine still, it’s still just a virus, and send me home. Hopefully before midnight, because I am planning to get up and go back to work in the morning after a week and a half out.

I have been sick for nine days now, low energy and running a mild fever that seems to creep back in any time I try to stop taking ibuprofen. At first this is my only symptom, that and the aches and chills and muddled brain that come with a fever. The cough creeps in, and I am sure it is just acid reflux, that it’s only the air turning dryer with the coming winter. My lungs start to hurt and I am up more in the night coughing. By Tuesday I am winded walking a few steps and struggling not to cough with each breath.

We have our anatomy scan in the morning. Count the baby’s toes, fingers, ribs. Watch it open and close its mouth and smoosh its face into the placenta. Watch its heart beating (beating!). Watch it turning and rolling and scrunching and stretching. “Baby looks beautiful,” they tell us. Everything is developing normally.

I go home to take a nap before heading in to the midwife for the third time this week. I feel better already, knowing I have an appointment. I feel silly, like suddenly I don’t really need to go in. It’s daytime, and all my middle-of-the-night fears have dissipated. But I remind myself they told me to call if new symptoms developed.

“I’m worried it could be pneumonia,” I tell the midwife. The latest in my series of 1am self-diagnoses. Listeria, toxoplasmosis, mono.

So I feel a moment of triumph at the hospital when the curly-haired nurse who attends me pops her head into the triage room open and whispers, almost cheerily, “You have lower right lung pneumonia. They’re going to admit you!”

Ha! I think. I was right!

And then, as we wait and stillness settles in, I think maybe I’ve misheard. Maybe they got my chest x-ray mixed up with some other woman’s. The nurse comes and starts an iv, eyeing my veins with a gleam in her eye. “What a juicy vein!” she chirps. We wait for the midwife to come in and confirm the pneumonia. I could be in the hospital a few days, she says.

A goes home to sleep, and I spend the rest of the evening and into a sleepless night in shock. At 2am tottering to the bathroom to pee yet again, dragging my iv pole with me, I’m no longer vindicated I have a diagnosis. I’m thinking about what it means to be admitted to the hospital. Stuck in one room. Interrupted every hour or two for a check of my vitals, or medication, or, it seems, just to be interrupted. I’m not really sure of anything at all, the midwife had been so vague and brief. Why am I getting an iv? Why are my legs wrapped up in inflatable compression sleeves? What does it mean I’m on bed rest with bathroom privileges? Do I really have pneumonia? What is pneumonia anyway? Is the baby alright?

I sleep a half hour here, a half hour there. I wake up and watch the sky get lighter. The view is familiar, only 3 windows down from the recovery room where we stayed after I gave birth to Joseph. I remember being wheeled down to the hospital lobby, walking out through the glass doors with empty arms. The memory cuts deep, a sharp knife. If I had any breath, I would cry.

After the anatomy scan, I had gone home and sat in the glider and wailed. Trying not to cry so hard that I coughed too much. I felt awash with stress and anxiety, and relief. A conviction: This baby is going to be okay. Paralyzing fear: There’s nothing we can do to make sure this baby is going to be okay. And grief renewed: This baby is not Joseph, not my firstborn little boy. I’m never going to get him back.

I watch the shadows shorten outside the hospital windows. Car windows glimmer on Green Valley Way. The sides of the buildings brighten. As I wait for A to come visit, to bring me comforting things from home—a blankie, my body pillow, ultrasound photos of our new baby—I rub my belly and think, I wasn’t alone at the hospital last night. I’m not ever alone anymore. I have this living, kicking, growing companion in my belly. I start to talk to the baby. “You and me, baby, we’re going to be okay.”

© 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

Dear God,

We had the assignment in our support group to write a letter. I wrote my letter to God. I read it last night. Not sure how they took it. It was a very emotional meeting, listening to all their letters. Some to their babies, some to relatives. Lots of tears.

 

Hey, God.

This is the way a friend used to start her prayers. Her gentle voice emerging from our silent circle when we closed our Sunday evening gatherings. Hey, God. So familiar, so personal.

This is the way I used to feel about you.

Now I feel more like Margaret in that Judy Blume book, asking, “Are you there, God?”

Where are you, God?

I used to be able to feel you when I needed you. I used to be able to close my eyes and lean back into your arms. Now I close my eyes and I search for you behind me; I begin to settle back, testing… But I stop, pull up short. It’s like those trust falls. I don’t trust you’re there to catch me.

 

Hey, God!

Fuck you.

I am Jacob, ready to wrestle my angel.

C’mon, I’ve got my boxing gloves on, I’m dancing on my toes, back and forth, back and forth. Ready to tear into you. I’ve worked myself up to this, trained for the anger, fed this fire in me and I’m just waiting to sink my fists into you, let my feet fly, yell and scream with all the fury I can summon.

I know you can take it. I know I can rail and rage against you and you won’t feel a thing. That’s why I need you, God. You can contain me. You can fill me when all else drains away.

What the hell, God? Where are you?

 

Hey,

I am trying to find the right metaphor:

Are we still playing Blind Man’s Bluff? I hear you, I sense you out there, dashing just out of reach. I flail my arms out, casting about for you. I’m getting tired. I’m frustrated. I’m ready to take off the blindfold and let someone else be It.

Are you the horse I have fallen off of? Do I just have to pick myself up and get back on? Wait, why did I fall in the first place? Usually one falls off a horse because the horse throws the rider. It hasn’t been long enough that my broken bones and bruises have healed. I haven’t forgotten how much that fall hurt. I haven’t forgiven you yet.

Are you the ocean, and I am a drop of water? Are you everywhere, within me and without?

Are you the waterfall? Has your torrent slowed to a trickle? Or have I been sitting under you so long my shoulders are numb and my lips are blue and I’ve forgotten I’m soaking wet?

Do you come disguised as a visitor, a friend, a listening ear, a few gentle words that arrive by email?

Are you love?

Are you Light?

 

God,

I don’t know what to pray anymore.

I used to pray to you for protection. I used to ask you favors. I used to pray that you would help everything turn out alright.

Now I’m at a loss for words. They feel futile, anyway. The only prayer I can pray since Joseph died is come holy spirit. And I speak it, and I sing it, and I chant, and I wait in silence, and you don’t come to me. You don’t come.

I contemplate atheism. I take comfort in science, in the laws of nature, the cycle of life and death. Yet I still believe in you. I still know you’re out there, creator, sustainer, redeemer.

But I need you to meet me halfway. Or more than halfway. I used to sing your praises, worship you, give all to you. But for now, I am the least of these. I need you to feed me, to give me drink, to clothe me. I need you to invite me in.

 

I am so weary of all this waiting.

 

© Burning Eye

The ground I walk on

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I meant to upload this when I posted my last poem. They don’t really go together, they were done at different times, but they feel similar. This walking on eggshells. It’s pretty abstract, but I see the eggshells as the ground I walk on, and underneath that thin layer of eggshells is darkness. I have to be really careful walking so I don’t fall through.

© Burning Eye

 

My Grief Monster

I’ve been feeling my grief lately more internally. Less like the Grief Monster I envisioned those first few months, less like something outside of myself, or something larger than myself that could consume me. Grief runs through my veins, like oxygen, like water. Yesterday was Joseph’s six month stillbirthday, and I felt him in my heart. Sometimes a warm light, sometimes a little too hot it burns, sometimes a secret tender place.

But I still think of my Grief Monster. It has been useful to personify Grief. Below is my original charcoal rendering. Clearly, it wasn’t enough to draw one, because on different days, I have a different relationship with Grief. Sometimes she is protective (those sharp teeth can keep others at bay). Sometimes she is menacing. Sometimes I get the best of her and can control her. Sometimes I want to escape. Other times she won’t let me in.

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© Burning Eye

Mother of Sorrows

 

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Ten years ago when I was in Assisi, Italy, I went into one of the many churches and encountered a statue of the Virgin Mary I had never seen before. She was made of painted wood, probably, and tall—tall, at least, in my memory—dressed in the traditional blue robes, arms outstretched, face tilting upwards in entreaty. What was so striking about this statue, though, was not Mary herself but the bright silver swords that pierced her breast. A gleaming, metallic cluster extending out into the air around her. Hundreds of them, my memory tells me, though I know this must be exaggeration. Photos I have found of similar statues show only six swords.

I stood beneath the statue, transfixed. This, I thought, was surely the most accurate representation of the loss of a child I had ever seen. Not the sad, demure face Mary usually wears. Not the single tear at the corner of her eye, or running down her cheek. But this: pure, violent agony.

When Joseph died, I thought of this Mary. María de los Dolores, I remember her being called. Mary of Sorrows. Not a passive, pious Mary calmly facing the death of her son, but a raw, grieving mother, mouth open, crying out to God in pain.

I made this Mother of Sorrows icon only a week after Joseph’s death and birth, and still I feel the heavy weight of the swords in my heart. Eight of them, one for every month of his life in my womb. This pain is like a broken rib, a bright piercing when I inhale. Sometimes, if I lie very still, the pain disappears, and I can fool myself into thinking these wounds are healed.

© Burning Eye

Frida

 

 

 

I have been a little obsessed with Frida Kahlo.

After Joseph died, I had a memory of one of her paintings. Naked on the bed giving birth, her miscarriage, the sheets bloody. I looked for it on the internet. It turns out I made up that painting, spliced from her other paintings and a scene from the movie. But I found others that spoke to me. “The Little Deer.” “My Birth.” Paintings that had nothing to do with miscarriage or loss. They were all just so full of pain. So beautiful and brutal. (Most of Frida’s paintings I mention can be seen here.)

“The Two Fridas” captured my attention the most strongly. I thought immediately that I would do my own version of it, my own double self-portrait, hearts connected, bleeding. My before-Joseph self and my after-Joseph self.

I downloaded a picture of the painting and looked at it off and on for weeks. I printed it out and put it on the art table. I looked at the painting, I imagined what mine would look like, and I avoided it. I’d never pull it off. I’m not a painter. All my self-portraits are happy accidents. Not a good combination.

I have a problem with perfectionism in my art. (I’m aware this is not a unique attribute for an artist. My mother is an artist. I grew up with her and know this perpetual dissatisfaction well.) I think this is why charcoal is my favorite medium—it’s sketchy, it’s messy, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and if there is a mistake, it’s easy to smudge away with a finger. Mostly, though, my perfectionism gets in the way. I can picture how I want to do the painting/drawing/sculpture/collage, but I can’t get there. Might as well not even start.

And, the last time I did a painting was in 2005. The one before that was 2001. And those are the only two paintings I’ve done in my life that I felt were worth anything, that turned out just right.

Better to leave Frida to Frida.

In March we went to visit A’s family in Atlanta. We’d all planned to go to the High Museum of Art to see the Frida and Diego exhibit that was up. But A was sick, and her dad was sick. We deliberated. It was cold and rainy outside. A’s dad had a fire going in the fireplace. It would be easy to stay home.

But my heart whispered go see Frida. So A’s mom and I got in the car and drove across town to the High.

The exhibit was intense. (How could it not be?) I cruised through most of the sections by Diego Rivera, and drank in Frida Kahlo’s art. Some paintings I’d seen pictures of before now reached into my throat and grabbed my heart—“The Broken Column,” “A Few Small Nips,” “Henry Ford Hospital.” And then the ones I hadn’t seen before: I stood in front of “Without Hope” and gagged—so full of grief; I contemplated “The Bus”—the still moment before disaster strikes. They had a photograph of her in a body cast where she’d painted her miscarried baby on the plaster over her womb, and next to the photo was a case with the cast in it.

I studied the photographs, too, searching her face for traces of her injury and loss. I searched her face for traces of myself. I once fancied myself a Frida look-alike—I have a photograph from my senior prom in profile, when I had little roses pinned in my hair, where I do look a little like Frida. But this time I didn’t see my own face. Bits of my mother, maybe, my grandmother. I’ve started plucking my eyebrows since high school.

I am not her, I thought.

I thought of the Dar Williams lyric, “I can find an apartment where a struggling artist died, and pretend because I pay the rent I know that pain inside.”

But I am like Frida, I thought, in some little way.

I learned that most of Frida’s paintings were given or sold to close friends. She didn’t exhibit much in her lifetime. Diego Rivera pushed art collectors into buying her paintings. Con razón, I thought. With reason. Her art is too painful. Raw. She didn’t seem to paint for an audience. She painted because she had to. That need to do art is apparent in every painting. Saving her own life with each brush stroke.

In the gift shop, my mother-in-law bought me a book of Frida Kahlo. Now I can look at her paintings whenever I want.

When we got home from Atlanta, I sat down and sketched “The Two Fridas” in light pencil. Before-Joseph on the right, pregnant. After-Joseph on the left, bleeding. I looked at my sketch and cried and cried, losing him all over again. Losing my happy, pregnant self again and again with each glance.

I tucked the sketch behind my print-out of Frida’s painting and avoided it some more.

I rented the movie Frida and watched it on a Monday night. There were a dozen scenes I didn’t remember from when I first watched it, years ago. I held my breath when the bus crashed. I cried when Frida miscarried.

I thought about Death as a woman while Chavela Vargas sang “La Llorona.” Negro, pero cariñoso. Dark, but loving. I hope the Death who has my baby is loving. I hope Death is covering my baby with her shawl, like the song says. Que más quieres? Chavela Vargas barks at the end of the song. What more do I want? I want my baby, alive. Quieres más? Do I want more? Yes, yes, I want more, I want, I want, I want my baby.

On a Wednesday, I started painting. I painted Frida’s stormy sky and empty plain. I took a photo of it and emailed it to my mother, full of adrenaline, excited. The creation of something new. Then I sat down and cried. When A saw it, she cried, too. You’re not supposed to be painting stormy skies and empty plains, she said. You’re supposed to be cradling our baby.

Thursday, I made the dresses. I painted the shape of my baby in my belly. Then I added arms, heads, painted hair and faces. (They don’t look quite like me but it’s not Frida, and that’s good.)

Friday I glued down the last painted-collage pieces and got out the red paint. Darker red for my blood, brighter, newer red for my baby. But it’s all the same blood, really, circulating through the before me and the after me and our baby. My heart may be bleeding, but it’s still beating, pumping my blood and Joseph’s cells round and round to every living tissue of my body.

So here I am, a double self-portrait, homage á Frida. My before-Joseph self and my after-Joseph self. It’s called “Before and After.”

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There are other artists always on my mind.

The evening after I wrote the poem “The Things I’m Made Of,” A and I went to the museum to see an exhibit by Diana al-Hadid. Is there a word for “serendipity” that carries a more somber connotation? I came home and revised the poem to add one word, the material al-Hadid used in her sculptures: gypsum.

Oswaldo Guayasamin is another whose images are never far from me. In particular, “Las manos,” his hands. (I couldn’t find it on the official website, but here is a good photo of the series—although, in real life they are enormous and take up a whole wall in his museum in Quito.) I went to the Museo Guayasamin 11 years ago when I studied abroad in Ecuador, and fell in love with his expressiveness. One of my favorite of his paintings is his Pieta, which also hangs in the museum and takes up a whole wall.

I’ve been thinking a lot of Pietas, and the Virgin Mary, even though I’m not Catholic. But that will have to be the subject of another post.

 

© Burning Eye