Monday, August 25, 2014

First Day

I pulled out of my driveway this morning at the same time a school bus turned down the side street next to our house. All along the sidewalks of our small town, parents walked alongside their children, whose little shoulders hunched forward under the weight of their backpacks filled with new school supplies dutifully purchased off a long list published on the schools’ websites. A few intrepid parents rode bicycles along with their kids, who could often barely keep their front wheels straight, still so unpracticed they are at the art of bicycle-riding. A handful of older kids walked or rode alone, proud to be big enough to go solo.

I can almost see her. An outfit she picked out herself. Pigtails. Or maybe she changed her mind at the last minute and decided on braids. Her own heavy backpack, maybe with her favorite character on it, filled with a change of clothes, pencils, glue sticks, tissues—simple supplies for kindergarten. A lunchbox (although who knows what I would have packed in it). A gangly and knobby-kneed girl, with not the slightest hint of the chubby cheeks that graced her sweet face when last I saw her. Those bright and wise eyes shining right out of her face. A photo of her grinning and holding a hand-drawn sign saying, “First Day of Kindergarten!” with her name and the date. Another of her with arms around the buddies she’d surely have made here in the place her parents call home, all ready to file into school together. Another of her sitting down at her new desk, still grinning like crazy, because She. Is. Ready. She has been waiting for this all summer long.

She’s right there, almost like a floater in my field of vision—I can see her until I try to actually look at her, and then she floats away.

These milestones, like so many others in life, seem so far away for so long, and then, suddenly, they are upon us. And yet they are so unlike other milestones. So many friends are bidding a bittersweet farewell to a chapter in their children’s lives that we never got to finish. And these markers of a life unfinished, of hopes unrealized, of destinies unfulfilled, yawn endlessly in front of me—so many more to anticipate, so many more to endure, so many more to reflect upon, to wonder about, to imagine, and then to chase right out of sight because I looked too hard.

I’ll never stop wishing that one of these days, one of these moments when I try to really see her, she’ll actually be there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

If Only

Ada turned a year old last Thursday (soon I will hopefully find the words I want to say to her in her birthday letter—it is one of the hardest yet). I took her to the pediatrician today for her one-year well visit. I knew some shots would be involved.

I was prepared for the shots.

I was prepared for Ada’s reaction to the shots.

I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to the shots.

The nurse gave me the information sheets about each vaccine—Ada got the hep A, chickenpox, and pneumococcal vaccines today. Surely I’ve seen these information sheets before, but somehow I’d never really seen them.

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) is the vaccine that prevents invasive pneumococcal disease. That is, it prevents what killed Hudson—a bacterial meningitis caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. Strep pnuemo is one of the most common bacteria in the world—it colonizes in the noses and throats of most people all the time, and it usually causes no worse than a cold or a sinus infection.

Some of the information on the sheet I already knew. I already knew that strep pneumo meningitis is fatal in only about 10% of cases. I already knew that there are 93 strains of strep pneumo. I already knew that the prior vaccine, Prevnar (the vaccine that Hudson received) covered only 7 of these strains, whereas the new one, released just after Hudson got her last Prevnar vaccine, covered 13. In both cases, the vaccine covers the strains that cause the most severe infections.

But I learned some new things about strep pneumo today.

Pneumococcal meningitis affects fewer than 1 person in 100,000 each year. I knew it was rare, but I didn’t know it was that rare.

Before the pneumococcal vaccine was available, pneumococcal meningitis caused about 200 deaths per year in children under 5. I knew that death from pneumococcal meningitis is rare, but I didn’t know it is that rare. If it was that rare before vaccines were available, imagine how rare it is now.

Some strains of strep pneumo are resistant to antibiotics. I didn’t know that. That’s why vaccination is so important, apparently. But the vaccine only covers 13 strains.

It has been four years, three months, and eight days since pneumococcal meningitis took Hudson from me. Although I have accepted that she is dead, that she is gone, that she is not coming back, that there will be no “First Day of Kindergarten” photo to share on Monday, I cannot help, yet again, but wonder if only.

If only the strep pneumo bacteria had stopped at giving Hudson a sinus infection.

If only the pneumococcal vaccine Hudson received could have prevented that terrible bacteria from invading her bloodstream, and later, her cerebrospinal fluid.

If only the antibiotics that were flowing into her bloodstream a mere 40 hours after she first woke up with a mild fever could have beaten that terrible bacteria back.

If only Hudson could have been in the 99,999 instead of being the one.

If only Hudson could have been in the 90% who lived instead of the 10% who died.

If only Hudson had lived.

If only Hudson were here.

If only.

If only.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Control"

Back in May, I had the privilege of participating in a national series of live staged readings of essays about motherhood called Listen to Your Mother. There are productions in cities across the country, each one inviting local folks to come and audition a personal story about motherhood. I submitted an essay back in February, auditioned a few weeks after that, and was both stunned and excited when I was chosen for the cast.

My participation in Listen To Your Mother turned on my writing light for good. You can read more about that epiphany in a letter I wrote to my own mother back in May as the show was in production.

One of the most profound parts of the experience was how different it was to share my writing, to share this experience, to share my grief, to share Hudson’s story out loud, live, in front of three hundred people. It was a whole different level of vulnerability than writing here, where I can hide behind the screen.

But it was equally transformative and amazing as my experience writing this blog has been, and I want to share it with you, too.

Below is a video of my reading. I stumbled over two words. I broke up in one place (a completely different place from any where I’d ever broken up before during rehearsals—this kind of interaction is so personal, so dependent upon the feelings and whims of a particular moment in time, upon one’s relationship with the audience). I looked down too much. I felt self-conscious in the dress I was wearing. I hate the sound of my own voice.

But for the first time, I think, as I spoke to all of those people in the audience, as I tried to help them begin to forgive themselves for things that happen to their children over which they have no control, I actually began to believe the words I was saying. For the first time, I think, I actually began to forgive myself.

And my vulnerability turned into strength.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Happy Third Birthday, Jackson!




Dearest Jackson,

Oh, my sweet guy, my buddy, my little nugget, my J-man, my lovebug. How can you already be three?

I started this letter the night before your birthday and planned to finish it yesterday, but we were so busy doing fun things to celebrate that I couldn’t get back to it until today. I hope you’ll forgive the tardiness. And in at least one way, I’m glad I didn’t finish it until today, because this afternoon, you and I got into the biggest mutual giggle-fest that I wanted to make sure to write about it so that I can remember it and you can read about it one day. You were sitting in my lap facing me with your back on my knees and your head on the soft cushion of the ottoman behind you. You were lifting your head and dropping it on the ottoman over and over again, and each time, I said, “Bonk!” You got really tickled all of a sudden and started giggling like crazy, which made me start giggling like crazy, and then we were both laughing so hard that we were almost crying and couldn’t stop. It was the best part of my day, my week, my month.

And that sweet, contagious, uncontainable giggling at something as silly as a “Bonk!” just epitomizes the joyful way you greet everything in the world. Lately, you have taken to narrating your daily life with great gusto and getting frustrated when your enthusiasm is not returned in kind. We’ll be driving in the car, and you’ll say, “I saw an excavator, Mommy!” And you’ll say it again (and again and again and again) until I respond with zeal, “You saw an excavator? Cool!” I’ll never forget the other day when I walked you into preschool through the side yard, which is full of honeysuckle and tea olive, and you said, “It smells AMAZING in here!” You remain one of the friendliest kids I’ve ever seen, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. You greet everyone, stranger or friend, with an excited “Hi!” and a giant grin, including people we pass by at the grocery store or on the street. And with the exception of some smaller kids who don’t quite know how to respond, no one can resist returning your smile and your greeting. It’s such a pleasure just to be in your company, sweet boy, and such a privilege to be your mom. I hope you never lose that sweetness, Jackson—it’s truly one of your best and most special qualities, and I’ll do whatever I can to try to prevent the world from drilling it out of you.

You are growing up so much, Jackson, and getting so brave. Often when we are out in crowds, I let you wander off just to see how far you’ll go before you turn around to look for us. Much to my chagrin, you almost never do! There is part of me that worries over that, part of me that wants you to have at least a little bit of self-preservation instinct. But the bigger part of me is glad and proud that you feel so comfortable on your own. I’m not sure if our parenting has anything to do with it, but I sure hope it does. I worried so much before you were born that I’d never be able to stop myself from hovering over you incessantly as you grew, that I’d be so constantly worried that something would happen to you that my first instinct would always be to say “No.” But with your help, I think I have avoided the worst of that fate. Confidently and effortlessly, it seems, you have learned to trust your own instincts, which has helped me learn to trust them as well. Even though you rarely turn around in a crowd, something tells me it’s because you know I’ll always be there for you if you need me, even if I’m not right behind you. I’m still a work in progress, though—I still say “No” more often than I’d like—but I am working on it. I want you to explore things and try things and fail at them—fail spectacularly—because it’s only through doing those things that you will grow. It’s taken me nearly forty years to figure this out for myself—I’m hoping I can help you learn it as a child.

The other night at your second swimming lesson without me in the water with you, the teacher had you all crawl out of the pool and then jump in to her. Whenever you do this with Daddy and me, you always crouch down on the edge and beg for our hands because you are too afraid to jump in without our help, and you hate going under. We always tell you that we’ll catch you, and if you want us to, we always will. But your swimming teacher won’t make the same promise—she tells you to jump, and she lets you go all the way under before pulling you up so that you get comfortable doing it. You did it once and came up a little stunned but laughing, and when your teacher said, “You wanna do it again?” you said, “Yeah!”

But then you climbed out, and when it was your turn to jump in again, you didn’t want to do it. You walked back over to me and said, “I don’t want to go under again!” You were almost in tears. Oh, my dear boy. You, of course, had no way of knowing this, but this was a watershed mothering moment for me. I have based much of my parenting on a basic philosophy of respecting you as a whole person, which includes not forcing you to do anything you don’t want to do (with the exception of things involving safety). So when you came over and told me that you didn’t want to jump in and go under again, every fiber of my being wanted to pull your wet, quivering-lipped self straight into my lap and say, “Oh, honey, you don’t have to if you don’t want to!” But somehow, I knew that wasn’t the right response. Although I had about two seconds to figure out what to say, something in me during that two seconds knew that I needed to encourage you to try again.

I gave you a hug, steeled myself, and said, “You can do it, buddy! Just one more time!” And because I knew it was the truth, I added, “Once you do it just one more time, you get to play with the rings!” At the first class, the teacher threw weighted colored rings into the shallow water for each of you to collect off the floor of the pool. Although I was simply repeating what your teacher had just said, that you all could play the ring game after you jumped in, I still felt bad about offering you essentially what was a bribe. I didn’t care if the teacher wanted to bribe you, but I generally try to be more direct. But in this particular case, I just felt strongly that the ends would justify the means. You seemed to visibly collect yourself and then marched back over to the edge of the pool and jumped in. And when you came up again, the teacher grinned at you and asked if it was fun, and you grinned back and said, “Yeah!!”

I breathed a sigh of relief. And once I had a moment to reflect, I was so glad I’d fought my instinct to let you off the hook. Here’s the thing, sweet boy. There will be countless, countless, countless times in your life when you will face doing something you don’t want to do. Countless. And sometimes, it will be fine to blow that thing off. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes we all just have to take a deep breath, steel ourselves, march back over to the pool, and jump back in. So I’m really proud of you for doing that, and I’ll keep encouraging you to do it whenever I can, because lots of times, it turns out that the thing you didn’t want to do is not as bad as you thought. Sometimes it can turn out to be really great, and you’ll be so glad that you didn’t miss it because you were busy dreading it so much.

As ever, I am so sad that your big sister isn’t here, bud. As I have watched you become a big brother to your baby sister, Ada, and as I have watched the two of you begin to form a bond that will hopefully last your entire lifetimes, I have realized again, how much you have missed out on and continue to miss out on because she is gone. It’s just so unfair, to you and to Ada and to all of us. Although we talk about Hudson all the time, you still haven’t quite figured out what has happened to her. You know her face and her name and that she is your big sister, but that is about as far as your understanding extends yet. This year on May 13, the anniversary of her death, I tried for the first time to explain to you why we blow bubbles on that day and why we plant flowers in Hudson’s garden. I told you that we were blowing bubbles for Hudson because she can’t be with us. You asked, “Where’s Hudson?” And I said, “Well, she died, buddy, which means that she can’t live with us anymore, but she always lives in my heart and your heart, and she’ll always be your big sister.” And thinking hard with your almost-three-year-old, totally literal brain, you responded and said, “I want to die and live in your heart.” Whew, is abstract thinking hard for a kid your age, especially when you don’t even understand yet what it means to die. I told you that you do live in my heart, but that you also get to live right here with me and that I hoped you would for a really long time. A few days later, as I was snuggling with you when putting you down for your nap, out of nowhere, you stopped me in my tracks when you said, “I want to die in your heart, Mommy.” Oh, buddy. I pulled you close and said, “You are in my heart, buddy, but you don’t have to die to be there. I love you so much.”

What a long journey we have ahead of us exploring this subject together. For now, I’m just glad that you know that Hudson is your big sister and always will be, even if the details are still a little fuzzy. And in some ways, I’m also a little glad that I still get to protect you from some of the worst of the world’s suffering. You will begin to know and understand it all too soon, I’m afraid, so a few more days or weeks or months of fuzzy details is not a bad thing.

Oh, Jackson. You are such a delight and a joy, even when you are testing your limits and driving me crazy. I love you so much, and I’ll always be proud of you, no matter what. So try everything. Fail spectacularly. And even when you don’t want to, jump in the pool again. I promise that more often than not, it will be worth it.

I love you, buddy. I can’t wait for all the adventures yet to come.

Love,

Mommy

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Canvas


We spent most of the fourth anniversary of Hudson’s death clearing out the spaces in the yard we intend to use for her garden. All we managed to do last year was ceremonially break ground in it by placing a beautiful piece of stone turtle art there—I was 6 months pregnant and just scared enough of toxoplasmosis that I didn’t want to play around in the dirt.

On Wednesday, the day after the anniversary, we had 11 cubic yards of beautiful, warm, rich topsoil/compost mix delivered to the house. In case you are wondering, that is a shit-ton of dirt. We had the guy pile about 2/3 of it in the front of the house for flower beds and the other 1/3 in the back for a vegetable garden. Ed spent this weekend building and filling raised beds for veggies, while I spent it moving wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow (after wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow) full of dirt from a huge pile in the front of the house to various beds all across the front yard. I’d originally thought we’d only have enough for the three beds we’d already cleared, but I must have overcalculated, because we ended up with more than enough for those beds plus two more.

I never imagined I could shovel and move so much dirt by myself in just two days. My arms and shoulders and back and legs ache today, but the work itself was rhythmic and meditative and lovely. Each time I rolled the wheelbarrow back to the dirt pile, each time I shoveled more dirt from the pile and felt the warmth emanating from its insides, each time I dumped the dirt into its new home, I felt closer to Hudson. It was almost as if I were chanting her name all day long. I imagined all the bees and birds that will play in the flowers we will grow, all the passers-by who will hopefully smile and feel refreshed by the bursts of color in the warm months. It was hard, physical work, but it was mentally and spiritually uplifting.  

And here’s the result. Five splendid beds, humming with warmth, waiting to be filled. 






This hard, physical, uplifting work has given me a blank canvas, a canvas ready for me to paint with my grief, and my love.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Four Years: A Letter to My Girl

My dearest Hudson,

Oh, my sweet girl. How can it be that you have been gone for four years? Four years. Each year on this day, I try to wrap my head around how long it has been since we said goodbye to you, and each year, I fail. It used to be that I felt like you were just here, like it had been only yesterday since we saw you last. And yet as the years roll on, taking us farther and farther from the time when we had you here with us, it hurts me to say that it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It feels like it has been a very, very long, long time. As I predicted early on in the days after you died, as time continues its relentless march through our lives without you, never stopping to look back for one single second, even when I beg it to, the gaping hole that your death tore into the fabric of our lives has changed. While it has not grown smaller absolutely, more fabric has grown around it, so that by comparison, it seems somewhat smaller than it did during that long, dark, first year after we lost you.

And some days, I just want to grab that fabric and rip it into shreds with my hands and teeth. Some days I want to blow a hole the size of a house into it. Some days I want to go back to the days when you were sick, the day you died, to the days afterward, when everyone was thinking of nothing but you, when you were the center of the world, when no one could imagine how the world could go on without you. Because how could it? How could we? How did we?

It has been a hard year without you, dear one. While I’m not sure anything could ever be harder than that first desperately lonely year without you, this one may be a close second. Watching your brother and sister begin to form a relationship has been such a joy and a delight, but it has also brought into such sharp relief, yet again, how much we have missed without you here. Watching them play together, kiss each other, snatch things from each other’s hands, yell at each other (yes, your nine-month-old sister already yells at your brother), envy each other, laugh with each other—watching them together feels sometimes like someone has taken a tiny loose string of that delicate fabric that is our lives and yanked on it, threatening to unravel it right back to that giant hole. And sometimes, I think, “Good.” Because sometimes, I want the giant hole right back where it was, at the center of everything.

I’ve said once before that you felt more gone than ever. But now you feel as gone as you have ever felt. Before your sister was born, I had somehow finally stopped imagining our life with two children. But now that she is here, I can somehow only imagine it with three—your absence is palpable every day. Two weeks ago, we visited your bench at the Arboretum during a weekend trip to D.C. Your daddy took some beautiful photos of me with your brother and sister and had them made into a gorgeous collage for Mother’s Day. And all I could think when I saw them was how gone you were, how missing you were from them, how much you should have been in them.

Your dad and I have struggled since your sister was born with trying to decide whether to have another child. In our mind’s eye, we always planned to have three. Three seemed like such a good number, not too few, not too many. After you died, I was absolutely intent on having three more, for a number of reasons, but chief among them was because of the fear of something happening to another one of my children—if we had only two more, then one sibling would be left alone to grieve the other, left to deal with aging parents, left alone to deal with grieving our deaths.

And yet, I think we will probably have no more children. To some extent, this is because we both feel very tired, and after doing it three times already, we are very ready to be done with parenting infants. We are ready to move on to the stage of our lives where everyone in the family can start doing things together.

But if I am being truly honest, if I am speaking from that part of my heart that wants to grab that loose thread and pull with all my might and unravel the delicately woven fabric that has emerged around the hole left after your death, that part of me doesn’t want to have another child because that part of me likes the hole just the way it is. I’m supposed to have three children, but I have only two with me. And even though I know wholeheartedly that no fourth child could ever fill that hole where you are supposed to be, that part of me still likes that hole just the way it is. And somehow, it seems that if I had three living children, while the hole would still be there, it would look very, very different than it does now. And that part of me likes the hole just the way it is. Just the way it is.

Last night, before I went to bed, I snuck into your brother’s room and lay down beside him in his bed. I tucked my head into that sweet place between his cheek and his shoulder and laid my hand on his chest. I felt the little rabbit-like thump of his heartbeat and the rise and fall of his ribs as he took the deep breaths of sound sleep. And I thought of you. I thought of the time I spent in your hospital bed, willing you to breathe on your own, to open your eyes, to see the Elmo balloon I’d put at the end of your bed so that it would be the first thing you’d lay eyes on if you would just open them. I wished I’d had the chance to lay in a big-kid bed with you at home, snuggled up just so, listening to you breathe and feeling your ribs rise and fall. For just one instant, I wished it was you I was snuggling with last night. Not that I wish your brother weren’t there—not by the farthest stretch of the imagination—but just for a moment, I just wanted it to be you lying there with me, sleeping softly and soundly while I lay there, feeling so very fortunate to be your mother, to have that moment with you. I’m sure your brother will forgive me this one day—it will never be right that it can’t be both of you, all three of you, sleeping in a grand heap of limbs and runny noses and wispy hair. It will never be right.

It will never be right. And that’s why there’s a part of me that likes the hole just the way it is.

I love you, my dear, sweet, darling girl. I love you and miss you so very much.


Love,

Mommy

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On Mother's Day

I wrote this last year, but I’m sharing it again, with deep love and empathy, for all those for whom Mother’s Day is loaded or fraught.

On Mother’s Day