Category Archives: Motherhood

Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)

 

 

June 2018

I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.

I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.

(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on  my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)

I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”

I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem 


During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”

What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”

I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog? 


September 2018

I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”

But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.

You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.40862229_900181213506411_5640981768501723136_n


That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.

When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.

The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.

During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.


In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.

The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.

(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)

If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.


319704_10151036722415980_65686374_nIt is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.

Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.

To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.

But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.

Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.

 

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Measuring Sticks (Suffering is not a Competition)

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I don’t really like church. I wake up on Sunday mornings and try to talk myself out of going. While I  dilly-dally over breakfast, playing online Scrabble, I tell myself there are other, more productive things I could do,

No one else in my family goes. (I once believed I was destined to be a quiver-full wife, and now, ironically, I am, mostly, alone on the pew.) So it is tempting to stay home and pet cats and drink Dr. Pepper.

But lately, I go, and for the stupidest of reasons. A friend, a handsome, mildly-womanizing good old boy, attends his own church weekly. And once when I teased him about going on Sundays, probably hungover, he said simply, “You always learn something.”

Point taken.


This morning, my first thought upon waking was a PMS-fueled, yet pragmatic, “What is Screenshot_20170917-143848even the point?” But twenty minutes before church was to begin, I mustered the energy to dress, putting on my twenty-five-pounds-ago pants that were, in my favorite aunt’s polite terms, “unflattering” even when they fit. I didn’t brush my teeth.

My husband wandered in the bathroom and asked mildly, “You going? The last thing I heard was you asking the cat if you should go . . . She must have said yes.”

 


The door greeters were, thankfully, non-handshaky, and I made it through the narthex without a hug. The lady behind me had a cough, and I didn’t really like the songs, but I was singing. My mind was everywhere–no one I know is at their personal mental best right now after Hurricane Irma–and I was really wrestling to focus on the lyrics, to leave my hectic week behind me, to feel churchy instead of blah.

The chorus leader began “When You Walk Into the Room,” a song that I like enough that I wouldn’t skip it on Pandora. As we congregants sang, “When you walk into the room/The dead begin to rise/Cause there is resurrection life/In all You do,” from across the sanctuary, there came a joyous shout.

Tina Goble, a mother who, having lost her five-year-old daughter to DIPG brain cancer, fully gets the promise of the resurrection,  rejoiced, shouting praise to our God who sustains.

I looked over and thought, “She is so together. She lost her daughter, yet can worship so freely.”

And, immediately, in my spirit, I heard, “Give yourself some credit. You lost your granddaughter, and you are here.”

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Once again, I was getting out my measuring sticks in church. Thinking: she is better than me. She is more patient, more genuinely kind. Why, she is even able, somehow, to sincerely smile–even with her eyes.

When I see Tina, my reaction is always immediately positive. I give her gold stars for being in public, having makeup on, and being so peppy.  My instinct is adulation.

When I see myself in the mirror now, most days, I’m just surprised–who knew that skin could be that gray or hair could be that stringy? I’m full of judgment and disdain for myself. My instinct is condemnation.

That’s what placeholder Christianity does–it puts Tina here and me there. She’s nearer Jesus because she can smile and curl her hair and raise her hands, and I am much farther from Christ because I am here with unbrushed teeth, I looked at Facebook on my phone during the sermon, and then took my shoe off and gave myself a mini foot massage–in church!!!

And my mind gets full, so full, of all the things that I am not. There are so many things that I am not. Then, the pain at all my lack comes in, followed by the envy of others who are doing life better–who are successfully navigating over and around and through their waves, while I am going under again.

And it is so stupid.

Tina and I both faced certain horror. We both held children who were given death sentences, children who were bombarded with cannots and willnots, and who needed accompanying past them. Precious little girls who needed love on the journey to death, and we gave them that.

Christ allowed us to give them that. 

Now, we both have days where we are empty and aching. Days where the smile of another child isn’t enough. Days where we remember the heartbreaks we witnessed. Days where we touch our lost children’s clothes and blankets–and we want so desperately to kiss our girls’ sweet foreheads again.

That I would take out a measuring stick and want to compare my horror with hers, my coping with hers, my current smile and hairdo with hers–and that I would even SEE or THINK about these stupid, superficial things–having seen all that I have, having endured so much, shows desperately the need we have a revelation of Grace, true Grace.

Our God is not a God of checklists and balanced scales. He does not keep track of which of us was kinder to the greeters. He does not care whose breath is fresher. He does not ever notice our hairstyles.

For God’s Word tells us that He does not look upon our outward appearance, but that He looks upon our hearts, and he sees them Whole. And so, when He saw the two of us talking at lunch, He probably chuckled and said to Jesus, “Look, there’s Rachel–she’s telling Tina that she forgot, for a second, the most important thing . . .

When I look at them, I only see You.”

Mothering (Gray Day) Warriors

If you get the wrong mother, hush.

Never speak of it.

(Maybe she didn’t want you, either.)

 

When you see your classmate with a quiet, lip-sticked Mother

(who is not dancing with the policemen and perhaps never has)

do not want that muted version.

If, at age eight, you play Monopoly at Cynthia’s house and

enjoy brownies, milk, or actual conversation with her Mother

(who framed Cynthia’s artclass hydrangea and hung it in the living room,

shocking you with the power of maternal display)

want what you have instead and be grateful.

When you hear the spectacular anthology of things your mother did

while you were young and insistently ill–your illness precipitating hers

(do not blame yourself, but do not forget that you were the root,

the first pull on her sanity, the initiate seed. That was you.)

accept her warranted beatification without question.

When she now calls at 3:00 AM because her feet are cold and she needs socks

or at noon when her dentures are lost, or at midnight to talk about her sick cat

(you woke her once upon a time, and please do not forget

all of those library trips, which were at least three miles round trip)

listen to her politely. Be kind and good.

(She cannot, after all, be blamed. Tragedy is its own jagged fault.)

If you cannot buy enthusiastic flowers or calligraphed cards

with words of praise and pleasantry on Mother’s Day

(it would be easy to–for one day–feign a right celebration)

do not write the honest words

of hardwood, worthy truth:

She did (every day) the best she could.

(Though you know not how that is not Most Purely Beautiful.)

 

Why not acknowledge that she did (and does) her muddled best

with only the sloppy constant tool of inadequacy and pain?

And chanced to create children who withstand and see and acknowledge and survive

Life. Abundant tragedy. Galore.

(Isn’t it cruel that the world demands a day of silent Hallmark honor

And yellow roses of such warrior offspring?)

The better reward may be

that these resile often-hollow brittled children invite her

to sit on their sofas; bring her cold drinks; answer their phones

rebelliously delighting in the sound of her mothering voice.

They bring long-wrought absolution in

Hopeful cups of over-iced tea; salvation and forgiveness.

Acquitting even the weary gray-bed weeks when, thinking to hide her pain,

she shifted it instead unknowingly to their young clean backs.

 

Society demands plasticine homage.

But she will gratefully sip

even the most lukewarm thimbled water

in mute and reverent celebration of her best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Worst, Best Day

12992368_10209707986039601_374484923_nTuesday evening, the baby was not kicking. She had not kicked in about nine hours, and April was growing concerned. She tried a warm bath, a sugary drink, a cold drink, a Mountain Dew, walking, sitting still, lying down, and playing music. We called her obstetrician’s office in Savannah; the answering service attendant and I strongly disagreed over whether she needed to know precisely what medicine April took at age six. (“I cannot tell you that right now.”/”Let me just write down that you refused.”/”Please make sure you also write down that we are two hours away and the baby is not moving.”) My truculence was punished by my not getting to talk to the doctor, though the secretary did condescend to say, “He said you can go to the Waycross ER.”

The Waycross ER it was.

Like most ERs, our ER is sometimes a place where you have to consider pinching  your children to make sure they wail louder than the drug seekers. Last night, when we walked through the door, the lobby was calm, but they were training a sweet new intake clerk. If you are a waitress in training, spill a coke on me; I won’t say a word. A slow, new cashier? Count that money three times–I’ll wait. Kind and fumbly ER typist? No. I can’t.

I used my Teacher Voice to holler to a triage nurse: “How long’s it going to take to get this baby’s heartbeat seen about?” She asked if April was over twenty weeks, and then gave us the “Get Out of the Waiting Room Free” card: pregnant women over twenty weeks get to go straight to the third floor.

Three nurses greeted us quickly; it was a slow night. One patient had just given birth and was immediately moved to another wing: we then had the entire labor and delivery wing to ourselves. They set about trying to hear Stephanie Grace’s heartbeat using a fetal monitor; it seemed to be there, but faint. They weren’t sure, and wanted to do a sonogram–an expense we wanted to avoid if possible. But sitting there together on that hospital bed, not really knowing whether that was the baby’s heartbeat or an echo of April’s, we decided that one more scan might be best.

I have never seen a stiller sonogram.

I gripped April’s arm too tightly, willing the baby to wake. Once again, I was stunned by my inability to see anything baby about the sonogram. No heartbeat, no feet, no head, no arms. Just spine. It was March 16th all over again–but worse. I looked at the tech and the nurses, trying to sense weakness: who would tell us now? Did we really have to wait an hour and a half for a radiologist in Minnesota or Maine to download and read what looked instantly obvious? They formed a tight huddle, but as April went into the restroom, I pounced, hissing their names and making thumbs up and thumbs down motions with raised eyebrows. Demanding. Now.

I honor their professionalism. None cracked. But in my eighteen years teaching teens, I have learned to read split-second reactions. And although I wasn’t told, although no one’s face changed an iota, I knew.

April did, too. She swaddled herself in blankets and said, “I just don’t feel good about this. I don’t think I saw a heartbeat on the sonogram. Nothing moved.” We sat in silence, and time passed. The nurses and the tech once again entered in a huddle–they took turns speaking, so that no one person broke our hearts. There was no heartbeat.

At 46, my rage, I know is impotent. It will not pay the bills, fix the car, cure the cancer, or start my grandchild’s heart. It’s useless, really, to argue about what we are dealt--but I had continually prayed, hoped, and believed for Stephanie Grace to have a chance to enjoy a few hours on earth. To  ask April to gracefully bear this, too, seemed a most brutal injustice. 

April’s tears were hard and angry, but brief–because, as she points out, “I was given medicine.” As she dozed, I sat wondering about the unfolding day–we’d envisioned Stephanie Grace’s birthday as a summer day in a Savannah hospital with a top-notch neonatal unit. To be in small-town Waycross on a spring work day was unexpected. I knew the day would be long, but I hoped we would be able to proceed with what April wanted–very few visitors, a tight circle of love around sweet Stephanie Grace.

The first sign that the day held possibility: a message brightened my phone about 7:00 AM. “I’m working in the OB today if you need me. I love you.” A former student, Ursy, was checking in. Her firstborn also died from severe birth defects, and she and April had been planning to have lunch one day and discuss what April could expect. A room-brightener by nature, she cheered us greatly. She told us the story of her daughter’s birth; the girls discussed memorial tattoos–April wanted Stephanie Grace’s footprints and the green anencephaly ribbon. Ursy kept telling April, “Get lots of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures!”  

Pictures posed a problem: early that morning, we’d learned that the photographer we planned to use was unavailable on such short notice; others were similarly booked or not up to the task–and who could blame them, with so much unknown? It was anguishing–it was so important to us all that this day be preserved. We’d been comforted by others’ beautiful baby pictures, and April wanted her own. I kept Facebooking photographers, and finally texted another former student, “Help me find someone!” Within thirty minutes, a sweet-voiced stranger named Stacey was reassuring me, “I’m on my way,” and another piece of our day fell into place.

In all of our time enduring medical crises and hospitalizations, I have learned two things: the first is that the right person will ALWAYS show up. I was mildly curious who the day’s right person would be. For us, the Right Person is never a best friend or a favorite relative because second truth is simply emotional distance is ideal in a hospital visitor during the first throes of crisis. (Alternately: helpful acquaintances can be better than friends, who are often better than family.) This second truth seems cold, but it’s a truth we have lived. It is easy to lose yourself to sorrow when a much-loved aunt shows up, especially if her emotions are also running high. A casual friend or coworker can be a more appropriate support; they recognize your sadness,but their presence encourages equilibrium, something a 40-hour stretch without sleep can require.

At 9:35, a Facebook message came through: “I’m wrapping up things here at the church so I can be free for you the rest of the day.” And, just like that, I knew who the Lord had planned to be the day’s right person: Beth, the mother of four of my former students. I’d seen her at a restaurant a few weeks before and told her the news; she invited April to lunch and took her shopping for the baby. And she planned to attend Stephanie Grace’s sad, sweet birthday.

April dozed as the baby’s father slept in a recliner, having come straight from the night-shift. I quietly sent texts to family members, including Abby, who reported that Greg was still asleep after his midnight run to check on us in the ER. I advised her to wake him and arrive by 11:00.

By 11:17, we’d assembled–a small, slightly frightened crew. The nurses had cautioned that the baby, having died, may be discolored or disfigured; they explained privately to me that, for babies like Stephanie Grace, if the baby’s defect was thought too gruesome for the mother to see, the nurses would whisk the child out of the room and “attempt to make the baby presentable, or wrap her so that the mother can at least see the hands and feet.” We all were silently afraid of what we might see, of what the next hours held.

Abby, Beth, and Stacey waited together down the hall as April slept. We’d been told that the mothers of stillborn, preterm babies often slept, then woke abruptly and–whoosh!–gave birth before the nurse call button could even be pushed. As April slept, my prayers were frantic. My mind was frantic. I could not deliver my granddaughter, could not disentangle her from the sheets. Surely that would not be required of me.

(Author’s note: Brown text below may be difficult to read, but no harder than it was for us to live.)

And then it was time. April awoke, and the just-in-time doctor delivered sweet Stephanie Grace at 12:13–and I was overtaken.  Ninety seconds before, I doubted my ability to look at my granddaughter,  but I was now thunderstruck, mesmerized. The nurses were hastening her from the room, and I whipped behind them, literally, completely unable to take my eyes from this perfectly imperfect, tiny child.

“Don’t you want to stay and encourage April?” a sweet nurse suggested, for the defect was horrific. “No, I’m not leaving her side,” I replied, my eyes still fixed on her. Two truths: It was so awful. And she was so beautiful. They took Stephanie Grace to a nearby room and laid her on an empty hospital bed. As she lay on the blue plastic chuck, her perfect mouth open and her tiny hands clasped, I saw what will be the horror of my life–a secret the sonogram had not revealed: the baby was missing her right leg below the knee. My brain screamed and screamed and screamed at God: ALL April had come to want was a footprint tattoo, and she couldn’t even have THAT??? Two feet was too much to ask for? We were to be denied even that???

And then, that quickly, the rage was gone–I knew we would have loved her, leg or no leg. We would have played soccer, gone to therapy, visited specialists–the rage was gone and the wishing returned. I so desperately wanted a well, one-legged soccer player romping through our house. I wanted the hassle of driving to the best pediatric orthopedists.

My breath was gone; I was full of wanting. I was only all the wanting in the world. 

I started taking pictures of the baby, ungroomed, imperfect, untouched. I turned my camera into a sanctuary forever–full of true, if gruesome beauty. She had one leg, a clubbed hand, a deformed arm, and no skull–but also long fingers, a sweet face, a tiny nose, and decidedly un-toadlike eyes (how wrong the doctor had been!)–all of her, unswaddled. Pristine.

Greg came in search of me, and after begging him not to leave the baby for a second, I went to April. She was proud–radiant with pride. I went to get the photographer and Abby–who went immediately to the baby, and then to tell her sister of Stephanie Grace’s beauty. To soothe her as only a sibling can, to say, you will be able to hold and love this baby because she so very far from frightening.

April stuck her hand out, silently demanding my iPhone. She saw the baby’s hands and relaxed some. The baby’s face, her small nose. April relaxed futher, and a flick of her wrist got her more quickly to the other pictures. She brought the iPhone to her face, peering and scrutinizing. I could almost hear her saying to herself, “That’s not too bad.”

And suddenly, holding her baby became possible for her.

The nurses dressed Stephanie Grace in a tiny gown and covered her head in two caps; they wrapped her in a pink lace-trimmed blanket hand-sewn by an 83 year-old woman touched by April’s story. Stephanie Grace, snug and beautiful, was taken down the hall to her mother’s arms.

The only word: transformation. The truth of that word, of every word here–all of the Unknown that had stalked and savaged us for weeks was gone. Removed. East and West became real–the Unknown was so far away and so absurd. The room was reverent–this sounds like hyperbole and romance and overkill, but oh, I assure you, it is so true–the room was far and away and time was frozen and sound was still and there was just that baby, that sweet baby, and all of these people who loved her. 

It was so awful, so beautiful. So terrible, so holy. 

She was our shared treasure, everyone holding her and studying her, marveling at her pin-prick fingernails, and April adoring her tiny ears. Her petite mouth was a mirror of April’s. We held her hands, kissed her forehead. There was no chatter or cooing–looking back, there is so much silence, but there was no need for words. The cries of you’re here and I’m delighted and you’re here, and I’m so sorry, though unspoken, filled the room.

We took so many pictures. The compulsion: capture every instant. Store it up. True treasure. Truth and treasure. The room was filled with these two things. There was no posing, no checking for a camera, no glancing or glimpsing.I did not look at April, Abby, or Greg–I did not worry about any of them. There was no concern for anyone or anything–our time in that room was the most singular time in our lives. We were all alone, so alone with that sweet baby. Her nineteen ounces filled all space.

We held Stephanie Grace throughout the afternoon. At 3:00, the nurses suggested making a pallet for the baby on the sofa, so April could see her from her bed. I told Stephanie good-bye, once, then twice, and, in order to live, I have to know she heard my apologies as well. They are legion.

***************

There is so much that we do that is wrong and ill. We make decisions and say words that are foolish and hateful. We destroy ourselves with anger and rage and all sorts of envy. We self-destruct and immolate and blaze and blaze and blaze. There is so much wrong. There is so much wrong in all of us.

But I have seen the right, and I have seen the perfect. I have glimpsed the glory, and I will tell the tale.

***************

As she went to sleep empty-armed and aching in her hospital bed last night, April said to me through the darkness, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’d do it all again.”

As would we all.

 

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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.