Monthly Archives: March 2016

Cappello Rosa

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I have seen photos of adorable skull-less babies

With perfect hands and match-tip fingernails

Grasping and holding. Saying hello.

Baby, will you be be closed-or-open-eyed?

These babies with fancy hats–

Pink crowns, Santa caps, bonnets of love–

Hiding the horrific known.

I promise you a soft hat and proper bandages.

Babies waving braceleted-arms pink and healthy

Against their white swaddles and reassurances:

Denied ponies, tricycles, and redwagon rides–

yet begifted–bedecked with glories and trinkets of love.

Baby, will you please live a little while?

Let our delivery room hold

A baby simply blowing spit bubbles,

Resting dimple-cheeked in loving arms.

Before leaving, let her

Bellow and caterwaul her opinion

Of all this Unfairness.

Yell, baby. Yell. All you want.  

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Creeping Toward Joy: Rejoicing in Unplanned Pregnancy (Casi la Alegría)

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When my elder daughter told us she was pregnant, my husband and I, both school teachers, took the news well. There was no shouting or cursing. Nothing was broken or smashed. We didn’t call her names, and no one said anything that they will regret twenty-five years from now. Mostly, my memories of that December night are of April’s sorrowful weeping, long hugs, and vague reassurance.

Still, we are school teachers–between us, we possess almost every typical teacher trait. Greg accepts no excuses; I’ll accept your excuses and give you a cookie, too. Greg better not see your cell phone during class, while I’ll loan you my charger. He is matter-of-fact, and I’m a hugging cheek-pincher. In our eighteen plus years in the classroom, we’ve seen students struggle. Struggle a lot, with hard things like depression, drugs, alcohol, and crisis pregnancies. As a result, we have had frequent dinnertime conversations with our daughters about decisions and consequences. We have had the frankest of talks.  Chatting at school with students about their hurts and heartbreaks allows us to freely do the same at home. Teachers are, in many ways, some of the realest people out there. We tried to be real with our daughters.

And, still: Pregnant.

For a veteran South Georgia teacher, an unwed pregnant daughter is a bit of a dilemma. (It was somewhat fortunate that we’d mostly quit going to church–since we were likely considered among The Backslidden, maybe such a faux pas would be more easily forgiven.)  It wasn’t news I wanted to shout from the rooftops, but our family is pretty honest about our battles. I told enough close friends at work to make the early days bearable; at night, I would Google things like “Christian unwed pregnant daughter” and read about grace and sin.

I wasn’t feeling entirely gracious, but neither did I feel like I needed to gather the younger children and talk about their sister’s sin, as one site urged. Greg, of course, felt none of my discomfiture, saying, “I’m not a failure. She’s 21. I raised her to adulthood. I did my job.”

How I wished I had his clarity. I occupied a sort of middle ground, where on one side of the scale I stacked all the talks about birth control and sex; on the other side was my general love of babies. Surprisingly, although my classroom and my Facebook wall are plastered with pictures of my former students’ babies, I just couldn’t get to Baby Excitement. I was stuck, firmly, in quasi-resentment.  Greg and I and our small house had no room for a fifth person, especially one who cried in the night. A two-time cancer survivor, my husband had even confessed, “I just wanted to live out the rest of my life in peace.” We would soon be trading afternoon sweet tea on the patio for bottles and a playpen. Delight just wasn’t there.

Friends took our mixed feelings in stride; they were supportive of all of us when we decided that April would move to The Living Vine and focus on the pregnancy. The space allowed us to begin to regroup. When neighbors put a changing table and toys in the garage, Greg and I both felt our first positive emotion about the pregnancy. Discovering the Christmas clearance rack at Macy’s helped bring out a little of the grandma in me, and later, when I bought the baby a sweatshirt that proclaimed “My Heart Is So Happy,” I prayed that my own heart would soon be.

Although we were often stopping to catch our breath, we were creeping toward joy.

And then–anencephaly–a hurricane in a word. Category five. Everything leveled. Obliterated.

I gathered our girl and her heartbreak and brought them home, where we now discuss cremation instead of child-proofing and funeral services instead of christenings.

Tonight, I texted a dear friend to tell him that April has decided to name the baby Stephanie Grace, after his first wife, who died of breast cancer, and my phone soon rung in my hand.

He was kind. He said the things everyone has, throwing in a few dark-humored jokes that people who’ve gone through Much together can tell one another. We laughed. And then, he said it. The most honest of truths: “Three months ago you couldn’t take her pregnancy for a different reason.”

To think: we couldn’t do delight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inconnaissable

 

We are in the life raft–

Having walked an unexpected plank.

Fallen. Shattered. Piled close.

 

Keelhauling seems kinder.

(Barnacles across our backs

Better than this heartbreak.)

We have no oxygen, at any rate.

 

Months mast-climbing now wasted;

the crow’s nest meaningless.

A formidable, sandless shore

(Still, certainly, with its treasures)

Awaits us now, black-rocked.

We dare not look or think too long.

 

Decades of gathered ballast

Bilge-hidden for such a day

(Godcan/Godloves/Godhears)

Discharge, trickle, and sustain.

 

The cannons boom. “Certainly Lethal.”

Foremast, mainmast, mizzenmast:

All are tangled. Torn, destroyed.

And the wind will show no mercy.

 

135 days of Unknown await.

 

Surely we will again sleep and breathe and eat.

But the waves are high; our vessel weak.

 

And the voyage is so long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angustia/La Cara de Sapo

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A list of things I have survived: hydrocephalus at birth; pneumonia at age six; a childhood marathon of parental alcoholism, prescription drug-addiction, and manic depression; my parents’ divorce; Bullying (note the capital B); the usual heart-breaking string of high school and college love triangles and unrequited/worthwhile loves; two miscarriages; a disrupted adoption; a second, wrenching failed adoption in which relatives showed up at the last moment to whisk the baby away; caring for 93 foster children, including—simultaneously–five under the age of two and a blind, brain-damaged, wheel-chair bound, Daddy-shaken toddler; my husband’s leukemia diagnosis; a cross-country move with two children for Greg’s subsequent bone marrow transplant; bearing witness to the deaths of 21 people–among them children and dear friends–in the Seattle hospital; a DFCS investigation; the death of my best friend from breast cancer; deaths of loved ones; parenting a special needs, autistic daughter;  parenting a profoundly gifted daughter, who insists I include her mental breakdown, incurred after 72 hours with no sleep, because she DID have one; navigating the community resistance to one daughter’s interracial dating relationship; a compound fracture of my leg followed by six bed-bound months of convalescence—a time during which my husband was diagnosed with his second cancer, caused by the treatment of the first; a cross-country flight with a broken leg—and the required groping by the TSA; and, finally, the financial ruin that is the most certain and faithful of companions to cancer. 

      A list of things I may not survive: my elder daughter’s unplanned pregnancy.

 

I wrote those words exactly two months ago, on my elder daughter’s first day in a maternity home two hours away. I was a rank amateur in Dark Days, but I didn’t know that then.

 

Today, I felt my grandchild’s kick for the first time–thrilling, lovely, and sweet.

Yesterday, we were told that this child would live only a few moments, perhaps hours.

 

In late February at our last visit, April said I could accompany her to her anatomy sonogram, when she hoped to find out the baby’s gender. At her initial sonogram, early in the pregnancy, I had gone with her–but, when they called her name in the waiting room, I found that my legs wouldn’t work. With two miscarried babies, I couldn’t bear the pain of hearing, “There is no heartbeat,” spoken to my daughter.

A second sonogram in the second trimester–the gender reveal!–was a joyous lure, a chance to begin to repair some of the rifts and rends initially caused by the surprise pregnancy. The maternity home authorized my presence, and when I arrived, several staffers remarked that my accompaniment of April was “really unusual” and “not something we usually do.” They even allowed me to drive her, since the regular driver was ill.

The drive to the hospital was short; the wait in the sonographer’s lobby was, too. A pretty brunette in yoga gear made small talk with us, drinking from her “It’s a Girl” water bottle that the office was known for distributing. She’d found out her baby’s gender the week before.  As we were called back, I thought to myself, “It can’t be good that she’s back so soon. Poor thing.

The small sonography room was well-lit, with  a large computer screen on the wall opposite the exam table and chairs. Everything about the scan was quick and high def, but I couldn’t see anything that looked familiar or right. There were lots and lots of bones. I commented that I couldn’t see anything but the spine, and the lady replied, “Bones show up brighter.” She was busy and silent. I was clueless. I searched for curves that I knew, and, finding none, watched idly as the words “stomach” and “femur” were typed upon the screen.

Sonographers, of course, are poker-faced, trained to tell patients nothing. But, finally, she said, “April, your amniotic fluid is really low,” and printed a stream of photos, heading for the nearest doctor. Ignoring the multitude of “no cell phones allowed” signs, I began googling. Oligohydramnios. No kidneys?

I was still reading when the contingent arrived with their brusque introductions. The sweet, petite doctor said, “April, I’m not sure it’s anencephaly, but the cranium isn’t completely closed over the brain.” She explained that the neonatologist downstairs had cleared a spot and would see us immediately.

Anyone with the life experiences we have had knows that when you become the building’s instant VIP, your world is about to crumble. We were whisked out a back door and somehow got downstairs, though I still couldn’t tell you if an elevator or stairs were involved.

In the waiting room, April called the maternity home on my cell phone, requesting reinforcements. I forged her signatures on multiple mercifully short forms as she wept in a plush chair. Other people averted their gazes, and we were whisked once again to the back. Away.

April climbed up on the table. The new sonographer was efficient and kind. The screen was larger, and a brutal fact became clearer: what I was seeing that looked so unfamiliar was, in all likelihood, the baby’s face. The cranium trailing behind it was distended.

The femur was measured again. (The baby has beautiful femurs.)

The doctor came in. Earlier, when our day was normal, we had unknowingly ridden alone with him on the elevator, where I’d closed the door instead of holding it for some children approaching in the distance. I’d jokingly said, “We don’t need any screaming children in this elevator. We are praying this baby isn’t a crier. We have a small house.”

Now, this stranger, with his legion of mute sidekicks, was delivering sad news. He matter-of-factly destroyed our hopes.

The first word in his arsenal was “lethal.” We didn’t wither or crack.

“Anencephaly.”

“You can see there is no forehead.”

“The uterus likely created a band restricting the head.”

“Unsurvivable.”

“Perhaps a genetic defect.”

We still were largely unfazed. April was weeping, but there were no histrionics. At some point, the maternity home’s representative appeared, coming in so unobtrusively that even the doctor was a bit rattled. She was just there. Stolid and loving. I continued peppering the doctor with questions, which were reasonably intelligent because of my exposure, via Facebook, to Layla Sky and Shane.

I guess my manner is led this doctor, who had been receiving simultaneous A+’s in Bedside Manner and The Delivering of Devastating News, to look me in the eye and ask, “Do you see the toad face?”

I nodded. In fact, I did see the large eyes. I also saw my grandchild. And my daughter’s breaking heart.

 

I have, in my younger daughter’s baby book, a medical report that noted we “refuse[d] to consider termination.” My older daughter was so swift and firm in her refusal that I imagine the medical stenographer may have typed the words in boldface for her.

 

We returned to the maternity home, where April was hugged and patted and prayed for by her surrogate family. The other pregnant girls were quiet, weeping and reassuring. The staffers discreetly packed and loaded our van. They said right things, and we headed home, where my husband and younger daughter waited. They, too, had blindly expected only the gender–a fact that the baby had refused to share with any doctor. A surprise we still await.

 

April has eighteen weeks or so to go, if she makes it to her due date. Despite the fact that the baby could die at any time, she was singing as she did her chores today, singing just as she always has.

And all the while, the baby, whose cry we may never hear, kicked along inside her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mai scoria

imageYour daughter is not

A feather in your cap.

Even if you read to her

In French every day

Of her shiny toddlerhood.

Drove her to ballet,

Watched her pink-bowed ponytail

Bob. Pirouette. And plié.

Fed her thrice-washed organic apples,

Laundered her clothes lovingly

In homemade, three-ingredient detergent.

 

She is not a star in your crown.

Even if you never missed a

Soccer game or tennis match, cheering

In an embroidered Mom shirt for

Your girl as she won.

Hosted a midnight prom breakfast

Featuring your grandmother’s fine china

And Welch’s sparkling grape juice.

Straightened her honor cords

On graduation day. Curled her hair.

Cheered her name.

 

Nor is your daughter an albatross

Around your neck.

Even if she flunks out of college–

Community college.

Cannot get hired at Ruby Tuesday

Or even TJ Maxx.

Quits wearing white dresses

With three-finger wide, modest straps.

Refuses to sit on your pew at church,

Clouding your illusive (elusive?) family portrait

As she pierces and tattoos and dyes pink.

 

Your daughter is not a pair of cement shoes.

Even if she is pregnant. And knew better.

Having sat through frank talks.

And seen the ninety-three foster children

Parade their battered lives through her childhood home.

Though the waves crash and crash and crash again

And the fish are nibbling, you’re sure, at your heart,

She is not cement shoes, dead weight, dross.

 

And the embroidered Mom shirt you once wore

Is meaningless if you cannot still cheer her name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gleam of the Now

10575320_1675980529318413_6993199641154948756_oToday, I awoke to a Facebook post. It said simply, “It’s a nice day for a white wedding,” and my heart just broke. The bride, Shelby, is young, beautiful, tough–and motherless.

Like most of the children of the Seattle bone marrow transplant patients, her life has been full of continued medical crises, financial hardship, and forced independence. The kids who ran amok in Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Pete Gross House in 2001 are between 16 and 24 now; most are partially orphaned, and all are fairly unjaded stoics. They left fairy tales and hopes of happy endings behind before they were out of toddlerhood. They spent hours in hospital waiting rooms, eating stale Cheetos and sipping warm Sprite while their pincushion parents, dragging bags of TPN, stared at Lake Union and mustered half-hearted hopes for better days.

For cancer patients who are also parents of young children, the goal most often mentioned is their child’s wedding day. The walk down the aisle is the holy grail, especially if they have daughters, as we do. Nurses say things like, “You are going to walk your daughter down the aisle. You’ll see” because when you are living from one misery-filled moment to the next, you can’t even see a day when food will taste right again. A happy wedding day fifteen years hence is an almost impotent goal when your crystal ball currently contains only the day’s methotrexate.  So it is the nurses who speak of future years, while the patients content themselves to survive the days.

And now, 906 miles away, Tammy’s daughter is getting married. The day the nurses conjured is now concrete: March 11, 2016–and her dad, who was on the bone marrow transplant ward with my husband, is (as predicted) fine. But his caregiver, his wife–the one who fundraised and moved the family cross country, and entertained us all from the instant she got there–succumbed herself. To cancer.

Words like ironic and cruel and phrases like twist of fate don’t do justice to such heartache, to fifteen years spent watching first one parent, then another, fight for their lives. Yes, these children gain strength and fortitude, that’s true–but they also are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the PET scan to find a nodule, for the biopsy to be positive, for the graft versus host to flare. They walk the cancer tightrope right behind their wary parents–and when a parent passes away, they walk again, alone. Inching forward, toes curled, lips pursed, chins set, continuing their journey.

Fortunately, children learn a lot while curled up in a hospital bed beside a sick parent. The power of a smile. The fun in a quiet game of cards. The pleasure of a Veggie Tales video shown for the fiftieth time. They learn to lie still and hold Daddy’s hand and look at the trees in the arboretum. They learn to hold the Now and move forward some. They learn that time is both slow and fast: they live through both the longest and shortest of days.

I don’t know much about Shelby’s wedding–who wore what, who toasted whom, what hors d’oeuvres were served–but I do know this: the sparkle in her eyes testifies to the happiness in her heart and the joy of the day. Surely it was bittersweet. There has been so much lost. But in her eyes, I can see the gleam of the Now, and it is beautiful.

More than most, Shelby knows that things scar and fade, batter and become. She’s seen much, but her eyes in the photo dance.

Her mother would be so proud.