Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Worst

I am about to write what I hope will be the most difficult chapter of this journey to write about (wishful thinking, I am sure). It is hard for me to imagine anything worse than this, and if there is something worse, I don’t want to face it. I’m hoping that by writing about it, it won’t keep thrashing me whenever I think about it (“If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.” Thank you, Anna Nalick).

The worst is this: Why didn’t I take Hudson to the ER at 4AM on Monday morning, rather than 2PM later that day? As I write this, I dread, dread, dread the internal reactions (for I hope no one would be so cruel as to actually respond this way) of all the mothers and fathers, and non-mothers and non-fathers, some of whom will certainly think, “Well, why didn’t she take her to the ER? I would have taken her to the ER.” This is the worst.

Why, after paging the doctor on Sunday, why when the one thing that she said we should be concerned about happened—the fever not responding to medication—why didn’t I pack her in the car that second and take her to the ER? Why, when somewhere inside I knew something was terribly wrong? My mommy instincts had been spot-on during the entire 17 months since Hudson was born. Why, when it mattered the most, did they fail me? I spent agonizing time this morning sobbing and crying out (to no one in particular), “Why didn’t I take her in? Why didn’t I take her in?” This question (and its corollary, “Would it have made any difference?”) lingers in the background of my every waking moment.

My answers? Who knows? Because it was 4AM and I knew the doctor’s office opened at 7, so I figured if I could just get the fever down with a cool bath, we could wait it out until then. Because I was trying not to be an overreactive parent. Because I was only worried about the fever getting too high, not even thinking about what could be causing it, and assuming it was no worse than a really crappy virus that would resolve itself. Because just nine hours before, she was chipper, ate a huge dinner, and seemed like she was on her way to a full recovery from a bug. Because just five hours before, she’d taken the Tylenol, perked up and was chatting in our bed until we decided it was probably time for her to go back to sleep in her own room. Because I mistook her lethargy for being tired from fighting off a fever the night before. Because never, in a million years, ever, ever, would I have dreamed that she was fighting off a rare and frighteningly fatal illness.

When I start to think this way, I try to remind myself that I did take her to the pediatrician as soon as they opened. And the doctor, who had seen Hudson pretty regularly for all the normal daycare illnesses, walked in, saw Hudson lying across my lap, and immediately said, “She is sick.” But even hearing the whole history, including the fever not responding a few hours before, she was ready to send us right back home with more ibuprofen and Tylenol. It was only because I started to cry in the office (again, I knew something was wrong) that she agreed to do a full work-up. And then sent us home to wait. I try to remind myself that the only reason we even ended up in the ER at 2PM when we did was because Hudson was refusing to eat or drink and I was concerned she was getting dehydrated, so I called the doctor again and we decided we should go on to the ER for some fluids. But the doctor assured me they would do no more evaluations because Hudson had had a full work-up already that morning. I try to remind myself that when Hudson left the pediatrician that morning, her white blood cell count was, in the words of the PICU Fellow in charge of our care, “stone cold normal” (meaning it would have been so a few hours earlier at the ER as well).

But even though I know these things, and I know I don’t have a crystal ball, the “what ifs” are still enough to kill a parent. My job was to protect her. My job was to know that something was wrong. My job was to take her to the ER and insist that they figure out what it was. I keep imagining that the ER docs would have been more aggressive, that they’d have seen her slightly swollen eye (a symptom the doctor had said when I called in on Sunday was most likely just related to the same infection, probably an upper respiratory something or other, that was causing the fever), heard about the unresponsive fever, somehow suspected meningitis then, and gotten antibiotics into her 12 hours earlier. And that the antibiotics would have worked then. And then I would have saved her. And then she would be with me now.

Of course, I have no idea whether any of these things is true. And I know there is no point in this kind of thinking. But this is what bereaved parents do. No matter how close they were to, or how far they were from, the catastrophe that befell their children, they wonder what they could have done differently so that their children would still be alive. I know this. So I try most of the time to avoid this kind of thinking. But sometimes the grief just takes me there, and once I’m there, it is hard to climb out. I try to remember what I just read in Elizabeth McCracken’s spellbinding memoir about having her baby die in utero at 41 weeks: “This kind [of thinking] is not so bad, the If I Did One Thing Differently, Then Maybe Everything Would Also Be Different sort, a vague, philosophical itch: yes, if life were different, then life would be different. Such thinking feels like science fiction, stepping on a bug in 20,000 BC and altering the course of history.”

But it doesn’t feel like a vague, philosophical itch or science fiction to me. I was Hudson’s mommy. It was my job to protect her. And the fact that I didn’t, or couldn’t (whichever it is—it doesn’t really matter, does it?) is just the worst.

Fearing Death

I have begun reading rather compulsively. For the first five or six weeks after Hudson died, I had no desire whatsoever to read any books about grief or about bereaved parents, despite the growing stack of them arriving in the mail from thoughtful friends and family. Then, a week or so ago, I picked one up. And started reading it. And had a hard time stopping. This one, When the Bough Breaks: Forever After the Death of a Son or Daughter (horrible title, helpful book) was written by Judith Bernstein, a psychologist who lost her 25-year-old son to cancer. She and her husband, also a psychologist, decided to undertake a research project where they would interview bereaved parents down the road a bit to see how they survived. Although the book leaves a fair bit undiscussed, it was incredibly helpful to discover that everything I am experiencing right now is totally normal. Even though I rationally know that anything I feel right now is OK, there are still days where I can’t help but feel as though I must be insane, or heading in that direction.

One section that struck me is a discussion of how bereaved parents experience changing attitudes about death. The gist of it seems to be that parents no longer fear death, because death is a “place where their child resides” and thus it no longer seems scary and unfamiliar. For these parents, death offers the hope of reunion with their child. They also view later deaths differently, for they envision those loved ones joining their child in heaven or wherever.

My attitude about death has changed, too. But in the opposite direction. I fear death more than I ever did before. Not because I fear being dead or the unknown of death—god, if anything, right now death seems like it would at least offer permanent relief from this unbearable pain (this sentiment is totally normal, too, I was grateful to read). No, I fear death even more because of this unbearable pain. I have now lost my only living grandmother, my mother, and my daughter to death. I know the pain, all too well. The very possibility of losing another loved one, the very idea of my loved ones, especially my Ed or our future children, having to bear the grief associated with my death… well, I can’t even let my mind wander too far down that path.

Obviously, I can’t, and won’t, live my life paralyzed by a fear of death. If anything, losing my sweet Hudson has taught me (in the worst of ways) that we have to live as though we might die tomorrow, not as though we are afraid to die tomorrow. But on the morning of May 10, despite a general malaise about my work, I was blissfully happy, easily the happiest I have ever been in my life. I truly believed that the saddest times in my life were behind me. Twenty-four hours later, swelling in my 17-month-old daughter’s brain had put her into a coma from which she would never wake. For as long as I live (and it will be a lifelong struggle), I will have to work very, very hard to ignore that nagging feeling somewhere in the back of my mind that the other shoe is always just about to drop.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Getting It

For the past two weeks, I have been feeling like my brain just doesn’t get it. I have been utterly unable to grasp the idea that Hudson is gone. As in forever. As in never coming back. As in all that is left of her physical body are the ashes sitting in a ceramic lidded pot on the memorial table where we have all of her pictures, drawings, and favorite books and toys. My brain keeps replaying all those ordinary moments with her—watching her read her books, getting her in and out of the car seat, waking her up in the morning, letting her turn off the hallway light before she goes to bed, turning on her favorite songs—and it’s like I just cannot comprehend that no more of these ordinary moments will ever be. Something up there just can’t, or won’t, accept it. My brain still imagines new moments as if by doing so, they might somehow become reality.

This despite the endless string of subtle reminders: instinctively closing the basement door before remembering there is no longer a need; remembering that I no longer have to keep the “good” dishtowels in a high cabinet rather than in a Hudson-level drawer to avoid having to wash them every other day; turning down a lunch date on a day we’re heading out of town before remembering that it will no longer take me several hours to plan and then pack our bags and the car; automatically pressing the passenger-side door button on the van’s key fob when I head out of the gate before realizing that no one is getting in on that side.

This despite the endless string of not-so-subtle reminders: a cabinet and freezer still full of toddler food; a basement full of toddler gear; a crib perpetually empty; our dear friends’ children who keep growing up while Hudson never will. And worst of all, the intense and persistent ache in my chest.

But for the past two weeks, while my brain continues to deny, I think my heart is starting to get it. My heart has been feeling the weight of the slow realization that we could live many, many more decades and yet this sadness will never disappear. It will recede and lessen, but it will never go away. There will always be a hole in our lives that Hudson once occupied. The hole is cavernous now, as we have no other children and our lives and identities as we knew them have been shredded irreparably. As we labor forward, as we have more children, as we continue to try to find joy where it exists, the hole will grow smaller and smaller until the pain just becomes part of the fabric of our existence. But it will never vanish. It will always be there in the empty chair at the table, in the spaces inside family moments and photos where a big sister should be, in the anguished pause after the question, “How many children do you have?”

Yes, I think my heart is getting it. And it is breaking all over again.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dreaded Questions

This morning before my sculling class began, the other students and I were talking about how hard it was to get up and exercise at 6:15AM. One of the women in my class asked if I just go straight to work afterwards. I have thought a lot about Hudson-related questions I don’t know how to answer, but I had not thought about this question. I was not prepared to answer that I am on a leave of absence from my job because my daughter died six weeks ago and I am barely keeping my head above water. So I fumbled. And then I lied. I just said, “Yes,” even though the truth is that I go straight home and, at least a few days this week, spend half the day crying and the other half having no idea what to do.

The question I have been dreading is “Do you have children?” In the last several weeks, Ed and I have had occasion to chat with several strangers, on Ocracoke, at Tilghman Island, at yoga, and now in my rowing class. Each time, I have spent entire conversations hoping no one will ask and trying to figure out what the hell I will say if they do.

I have a daughter. Her name is Hudson. She was beautiful, smart, funny, loving, mischievous, adventuresome, and precious in every way. And she died. When she was only 17 months old. To deny any of that in any way seems like a betrayal, of both her and myself.

But I know there will be moments when I won’t be able to, or won’t want to, deal with my own emotions after telling a perfect stranger this incredibly intimate fact. And times when I don’t want to deal with that stranger’s reaction to it, either.

And I also have no idea what I would want to tell a stranger about Hudson even if I decide, in an instant, that I want to say anything at all. I don’t know where she “is” now, if she “is” anywhere other than just in all of our hearts. And I can’t say that I have two children, one living (or some other combination of this), because I have no other children. And I can’t just say, “I have a daughter,” because that will inevitably provoke a number of follow-up questions that I don’t want to answer, either.  Part of me will want to tell the person every single cherished detail about my girl, and part of me won't want to say anything at all. 

So I will keep anxiously anticipating these questions, at least until the first time someone actually asks, and I have to decide on the spot what to say. This is only the beginning of a lifelong process of figuring out how to keep Hudson in our lives without being haunted by her death. It is not a process I welcome, but it is one I face nonetheless. And with no small amount of dread.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Stop All The Clocks"

When we were at Ocracoke two weeks after Hudson died, Ed was sad that we did not have our camera. He’s had a long love affair with photography—at one point, it even included developing his own photos. For Ed, the camera and its art are therapeutic. (We only recently upgraded to a digital SLR camera right around Halloween of last year—I’m so grateful for this because it translated to six months of stunning photos of our girl that we would not have had otherwise.)

I was glad we didn’t have the camera—I was not ready to make new memories without our Hudson. It felt awful enough to me that she wasn’t there with us—I did not want photos to document it.

We spent this past weekend (Father’s Day) at Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. We both thought that the water would bring comfort, as it usually does, but this time it did not work its customary healing magic. At a few different points, Ed got the camera out and took a few shots. When he pointed the camera at me, I asked him, for the first time since we’ve known each other, not to take a picture of me. I’m just not ready to make new memories yet without my girl.

I don’t have any room for these new memories in my head or my heart. Not yet. I’m still trying to retrieve and hold on to the memories I have of Hudson. I spent some time last night poring over my Facebook posts from the months leading up to her death, just trying to call to mind the ordinary things we were doing in our days. (I was shocked to find just a few posts in three months having anything to do with her—I hope I was more present with her in real life than my Facebook posts reveal.) If only I had known these would be the last moments I had with her, I would have tried to document them all somehow. Where is the rewind button?

I’m even more consumed with all the memories we will never make. How is it possible that we got to celebrate only one birthday? Only one Halloween? Only one summer trip to the beach? How is it possible that there will never be the magic of lightning bugs? Or the pride of using the potty? Or the joy of a big sister picture with a new baby? This is about as far as I can go in my mind’s eye before I crumple.

I have had the hardest string of days since Hudson died. The pain is so overwhelming and so constant that I feel at times like I simply cannot stand it, like I have no idea how I will make it through this. I long for her in a way that I haven’t so far, or if I have, I haven’t let myself feel it. I want her back so badly that I feel like I am breaking in half. I think my unwillingness to make new memories is in part still a denial that she is really gone. Like if I only wish hard enough, cry hard enough, remember hard enough, imagine hard enough, and don’t take any new pictures, then this will never have happened. And she will come back to us. And we can go on.

“Stop all the clocks.” Please, stop them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father’s Day: “Danae’s Gold”

Several months ago, I reconnected via Facebook with Junko Takeda, an old friend from high school. Junko has always been an incredibly talented artist, but in the past two years has taken her painting to a new level. She began a website, hosted two art shows, and shared her paintings on Facebook. On a whim, I checked out her website and began reading. I learned that she too had lost her mom to cancer at too young an age (for the both of them). It was her mother who originally introduced her to the wonders of art and colors when Junko was just a small child, and her studio is named in her mother's honor. Junko’s ability to channel her emotions surrounding her mother’s loss and the aftermath stunned me. I sent her a message telling her so and we have been writing each other ever since.

One painting in particular resonated with me. Junko painted “Danae’s Gold” after she met and became engaged to her love, Mark, after a whirlwind courtship. She describes the painting as follows: “According to Greek mythology, Danae was shut up in a cell, but Zeus took pity on her and impregnated her, visiting her as a shower of gold. Crazy shit happens. I’m living proof. One minute you’re living your life, alone. Another minute, you’re in love, and engaged."  This so reminded me of how fortunate Ed and I felt about finding each other and having such an amazing child (and the painting itself was stunning)—I decided almost immediately that I was going to buy it.

That was back in February. I figured I would buy the painting on the sly and hide it at my dad’s house until Ed’s and my fifth wedding anniversary in September 2011 or his 40th birthday the following February.

Then Hudson died. Suddenly, like almost everything else in this unfamiliar world, “Danae’s Gold” took on new meaning.

So I changed my plan and gave the painting to Ed for Father’s Day. It will hang in Hudson’s playroom where we will see it every day as we enter and leave the house. Now it is not simply a symbol of all the ways in which we have been blessed, but a reminder that although many dark days lie ahead, we will be blessed again

Happy Father’s Day to my dearest Ed. Hudson was so lucky to have you, and so am I.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A World Forever Changed

It has been a hard few days. No inspiration or motivation to write at all. Writing is cathartic and healing. Moreover, it prompts lots of loving responses that keep me going (and if I’m being honest, that’s at least one of the reasons why I do this so publicly). But writing also means really getting down and being with the pain. So on a day when I am already feeling low, the idea of sinking further in by writing (even though it eventually uplifts me) is daunting.

Last night, Ed and I went to our first Compassionate Friends meeting for bereaved parents. At one point, the facilitator said, “We have a saying around here that when you lose your child, you lose your future.” I had to chew on that for a bit before I could agree, because I have been trying hard to keep visualizing a future for our family—sometimes it is the only way out of despair, even if just momentarily. But I realized that when we lost Hudson, we did lose our future. We lost the future we had imagined for ourselves—a future that did not include a lifetime of remembering and grieving the loss of our child. As I said the night Hudson died, we are learning to live again in a world that is forever changed.

In this world, I can barely stand to keep living in my beautiful city, so full of Hudson memories it is. While I imagine that many parents who have lost a child do continue to live in the city they shared with their child, the instinct to flee is powerful. I have to find a new grocery store because I can’t face the Harris Teeter on Kalorama where I went with Hudson almost every week. I can hardly drive across the Mall without crying as I remember all our many adventures there and in the museums that surround it. I have to steel myself just to walk Bess on our normal route around the neighborhood. Everywhere I go, Hudson should be there. But she isn’t. Not physically, at least, and that’s how I want her.

In this world, many of my favorite songs now hold new meaning that makes them painful to hear. Never again will I be able to listen to such favorites as Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” or, especially, “Seasons of Love” from Rent, without a sharp stab to the heart.

In this world, one of the hardest parts about returning to work (and I haven’t been back since that first day) is the fact that at the end of the day, I will simply go home. There is no day care pick-up, no dawdling in the driveway, no taking pots in and out of the cabinets while dinner cooks, no chatter in the highchair, no splashing in the tub, no Goodnight Moon, no giggle after I whisper “Don’t go to Dook!” at the end of the bedtime alma mater ritual. Not with Hudson, there’s not.

In this world, we will raise children who never knew their oldest sister, and (hopefully) will never understand the grief we will feel forever over her loss. We will have to find a way to make her an integral part of our family while not allowing her siblings to feel overshadowed by her death. In this world, we will never be the same parents for our future children that we were for Hudson.

But, in this world, we are ourselves transformed. In this world, Ed and I have a new and deeper understanding of our love for each other. In this world, we have an extraordinary appreciation of the love we share with our friends and families. In this world, we are grateful for the magic in millions of everyday moments. In this world, Hudson is always with us. In this world, we will never be the same parents, but we will be better parents because we have an uncommon (albeit unwelcome) awareness that life is short.

We have lost one future. But we have gained another. And that is One Good Thing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

One Month: Remembering

I can hardly fathom that we have managed to live a month without our sweetest Hudson. While Ed and I both thought we should do something to commemorate the day, when he asked me this morning what I thought we should do, I admitted that I had purposely avoided thinking about planning anything because to do so would confirm, yet again, that this really happened.

Instead of sharing more observations on my grief today, I decided I would just spend some time with my memories. They are filled with joy, down to the most mundane of moments. It is one of those moments that I have been thinking about all day today.

Every weekday, I left my office right at 5:00 in order to pick up Hudson at St. Ann’s by 5:45, the latest pick-up time we were allowed. I usually squeaked in right at 5:40 and no matter what had happened that day, I always perked up thinking about seeing my girl. I headed up the stairs to the building and crossed through the lobby, usually greeting several mom- and dad-friends along the way. I took the elevator up to the second floor where the infants and young toddlers were, and pushed through the double doors into the hallway to the kids’ rooms.

Usually around this time, the kids were in their own classrooms—poor Hudson was often last or second-to-last waiting in her room, but she didn’t seem to mind. As soon as I turned into the doorway and her little eyes met mine, though, she always cracked a mile-wide smile and usually started to squeal.

Sometimes if she was still in her highchair finishing her afternoon snack, she kicked her feet and squirmed trying to get out so she could get to me. But other times, if she was busy playing, she turned and dashed off, not ready to end her fun even though she was happy to see me. I remembered thinking back to when she was six months old and she used to cry when I left her at day care—everyone told me not to worry, that she would get to the point where she loved school so much that she wouldn’t want to leave at the end of the day. Once we actually reached that point, though, I wasn’t so sure how thrilled I was about it—not because I wasn’t glad that she was thriving and loving school, but because it made it really hard to get her out of there sometimes.

Back when it was jacket weather, I popped her up on top of the cubbyholes so I could put her jacket on. She inevitably started reaching for every item up there—pens, pieces of paper, other kids’ toys or snacks. Once she was ready to go, we said our goodbyes—Hudson was early with waving, blowing kisses, and saying “bye-bye,” so this tradition had gone on for a good long while before she died. She and Ms. Barbara had such a special bond—there’s not really any other way to describe it than that. It was obvious that Hudson had real affection for her gentle, big-hearted teacher.

As the days warmed up, it took longer and longer to get ourselves to the car, as Hudson began to dawdle on her way, remarking at the bushes, flowers, birds, and airplanes. Lots of the older kids had an after-school ritual of playing on the grassy hill by the parking lot, and as Hudson got older, she often tried to make her way to play with them. I remember thinking that I was dreading the day when she and her own playmates stopped to do this every day—it was already such a time crunch getting home and getting dinner ready for all of us to eat together before Hudson’s bath and bedtime. Usually, I hustled her along, sometimes picking her back up so we could get to the car faster. She hated this and let me know so. 

Once we got to the car, it usually took a fair amount of cajoling to get Little Miss to sit down and get buckled in. That girl was busy, and who was I to get in her way? On only a few occasions did these moments turn into all-out meltdowns. Usually a reminder that we had to get home to see Daddy and Bess did the trick.

The five-minute ride home was hit-or-miss. In earlier days, she often cried most of the way—she was never much for the car seat and, again, couldn’t stand to be interrupted in her enjoyment of the world outside. At those times, I started through her animal noises with her (“What does the… DOG say? What does the… COW say?”). This usually calmed her pretty quickly, as she liked to practice and show off her skills. I always exaggeratedly repeated the sounds back to her and she laughed and laughed. But in the later days, she got busier talking to herself and the things around her and just chattered away in the backseat until we pulled into the driveway.

The driveway was my favorite part. She loved everything about the outdoors (“ow-side”) and once I got her out of the car and put her down, she immediately started scrutinizing all of it. Her newest favorite was ants—she squatted down on her heels and peered at their tiny bodies careening every which way and proudly pronounced, “Ann!” (no “t” sound there just yet, either). Then she headed to the crumbling cement under the garage door and picked up pieces of it, saying, “Rock!” I always had to remind her that rocks stay on the ground and most of the time, she dutifully dropped whatever she’d gathered. Most of the time. If she happened to see some flying insect, she said, “Bee!” (every flying insect was a bee). As we headed inside the gate to our backyard, she laughed as the birds quickly scattered from the bird feeder hanging under our crabapple tree. She shouted, “Bird!” and “Tree!” We went through the rest of the words she knew, most of these only by sight (“Hudson, where is the sky?” “Where is the door?” “Where is the house?”), and she excitedly pointed to all the right things. I climbed the stairs to the back door and she lingered in the yard, stooping to inspect the grass, the mulch, the flowers, whatever caught her eye. Again, I usually had to coax her inside so I could get going on dinner. She was working hard on climbing the stairs by herself, but her legs were still just shy of being long enough to manage on her own, so I took one hand and she’d hold the railing with the other and we’d take each step one at a time. We were both so proud when she got to the top.

Now that I no longer have these ordinary moments with her (how totally wrong and incomplete my days feel without them), I regret hurrying through them. While I generally believe that regrets aren’t very constructive, I think these regrets are. They serve to remind me that beauty, joy, laughter—I can find all of these and more in the most everyday moments. And instead of rushing through them, I should stop and pay attention to the bushes, the ants, the blades of grass, the birds. I should find joy in them, just like my Hudson did. She continues to teach me every single day. And that is another One Good Thing I can take from her death.

One month down. Many, many more without her to go. I miss her so much. But these memories sustain me and remind me how lucky we were to have her in our lives.

Friday, June 11, 2010


A few months ago, a Facebook friend posted a quote that went something like this: “Enlightenment is the awareness that you must be and do only exactly what you are being and doing at this very moment.” For the life of me, I can’t remember who posted it or to whom they attributed it (and my apologies to the author, for I’ve probably bungled it, but the idea is clear). Even though I can remember nothing else about it, I’ve thought about this saying many, many times since I first read it. Before Hudson got sick, I meditated on it as I struggled with finding fulfillment in my work. But during the week we were at the hospital with Hudson, it took on a whole other meaning for me, and I repeated it to myself over and over again. As visitors came and went, as we prepared ourselves for the absolute worst, as we said goodbye to our little girl, I wondered if our friends and family were puzzled over how I wasn’t falling apart every second. I wondered if I was falling apart “enough,” falling apart at the “right times,” falling apart the “right way.” It seems crazy, I know, that one would even have room to think about such things, but somehow I did. Again, I realize now that I was more concerned myself about how the hell I was holding it together—what was wrong with me that I wasn’t falling apart every second? During these moments of self-doubt, I took a deep breath and kept reminding myself, “You must be and do only exactly what you are being and doing at this very moment.” I told myself (and thankfully I was actually aware of this) that my body was only capable of falling apart so much at one time and that its way of protecting me was to put itself on autopilot when necessary and let me fall apart when not.

I have reminded myself of this same truth many times since Hudson’s death, and it continues to bring me a great deal of comfort as I navigate a process for which there are no maps. But what  Ed and I also realize now is how incredibly privileged we are to be able to be and do no more than exactly what we are being and doing right now. How many grieving parents can basically take off an entire month of work with no financial repercussions? Ed has short-term disability insurance that covers bereavement and, even more importantly, incredibly supportive and loving colleagues who are shouldering a giant’s burden during this time so that he can take as much time as he needs. Even though I had only been at my office for five months when Hudson died, and even though my colleagues barely know me, they donated enough sick leave for me to take an entire month off and are willing to donate more if I need it. Our health insurance is likely to cover every cent of a very expensive three-day stay in the PICU with only a small copayment. Dozens and dozens of friends, family members, colleagues, and even strangers made personal donations to us to cover expenses related to Hudson’s hospital stay, death, and memorial services. We are very, very fortunate and my heart aches to think of others who suffer such a terrible loss, but carry so many other burdens that they barely have room for their grief.

On top of that, we have experienced an outpouring of love and support that I remain without words to even describe, let alone express our appreciation for. Every single day since May 10, when we first took Hudson to the ER, we have received cards and notes, messages, poems, phone calls, visits, food, and so much more—every single day for more than a month.

So many people have remarked at Ed’s and my strength and grace during this unspeakable time. I said at Hudson’s memorial service in DC that if we are strong, if we are graceful, it is because we have been lifted in love every second by family, friends, and strangers. It is for that reason that we are able to be and do only exactly what we are being and doing at each moment. One Good Thing that the death of our beloved daughter has left us is a new understanding of the breadth of our good fortune and the importance of gratitude. We are so very privileged. And so very grateful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fake It 'Til You Make It

I’ve been thinking a lot the last day or so about appearances. Many times when I sit out in public somewhere, I wonder if people can tell just by looking at me that I recently lost my child. Because I feel like it exudes from my pores. Sometimes when I’m with people other than Ed, I feel like my smile is plastered on my face—my brain, thoughts, and words are on autopilot, but the sadness still just emanates from my person.

I went to the office for the first time yesterday, just for a few hours. I had the weirdest feeling about it. As I sat here contemplating this post, searching myself to try to put my finger on the emotion, I think I’ve figured out that it is guilt. I think one of the (many) reasons I was dreading going back to the office is that it would seem to others like the ultimate act of “moving on,” of returning to normalcy—if Mandy is going back to work, she must be OK. I’ve had a similar concern with Facebook—many times a day, a third-person thought about something I’m doing or thinking pops into my head. In days past, those things would usually end up on my Facebook page. I’m also usually generous with exclamation points when I wish happy birthdays or comment on others’ good news. But since Hudson died, I have not wanted to post my normal chatter on my Facebook status. And I haven’t felt like exclamation points. All this time, I’ve been telling myself that I was worried that my Facebook friends would somehow think I’ve finally “moved on” or that exclamation points just aren’t appropriate for a mother who’s been grieving the death of her child for less than a month.

But I’ve only just this second realized, as I’ve been writing this, that it’s not what other people think that really worries me. I’ve said to Ed several times since Hudson died that I physically feel as though someone is standing on me, stepping right in the middle of my chest. The weight is nearly unbearable. As each day goes on, if I don’t have a good cry, the weight justs get heavier and heavier. When I finally do cry, the weight lets up, at least for a little while. The last few days, that weight hasn’t been the same, or at least, I haven’t noticed it as much. And it scares me. As it turns out, I’m the one, actually, who is worried that I am somehow “moving on” and leaving my grief and my little girl behind. It feels like a betrayal. Rationally, I know that this is totally absurd, but I also know that this is exactly what I’ve been subconsciously concerned about. (And I’ve certainly learned that grief is not rational).

Donna, one of Ed’s dearest old friends from Chapel Hill, spoke at Hudson’s memorial service in North Carolina about “dressing for power.” She suggested we adopt this mantra from the business world as we face a seemingly impossible future. “Fake it 'til you make it,” she said. After the service, she came up to me and gave me the string of beautiful blue beads she was wearing when she spoke (Donna doesn’t know this, but our favorite color for Hudson was blue—Ed always said that, like me, blue was Hudson's best color, too). I have worn those beads on many, many days since then—days when I feel especially vulnerable, like the day we went back to the PICU to pick up the keepsake box with Hudson’s handprints and footprints from the night she died, the day Hudson’s ashes were delivered, the day we saw our grief counselor for the first time, and many others. I wore them to the office yesterday. I call them my “power beads” (thank you, Donna). Wearing them does actually make me feel stronger. But my need to wear them helps me remember, I think, that although I am starting to heal, I’m not “moving on.” The sadness is still overwhelming, but I’m keeping up appearances. “Fake it 'til you make it.” That’s what I’m doing.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Good friends Sherry, Amily, and Caroline invited me along to Busch Gardens yesterday.  It was a great day with wonderful friends—I am, again, so grateful to be surrounded with so much love.

There were tons and tons of toddlers and babies there, many more than I would have thought given that I can’t imagine trying to tote a toddler or baby around an amusement park.  (I mean, really, how would that be any fun for me?)  There were so many little kids that to a great extent, they finally just blended into the background and I wasn’t struck every time I saw one.  For that is how I usually feel now when I see a kid, especially a little girl around Hudson’s age, at the store, in a passing car, or walking down the street.  I feel struck.

Even though I would never take a child as little as Hudson to an amusement park, I still keenly felt her absence, especially whenever we passed an Elmo display, t-shirt, doll, or poster, of which there were many.  In the few weeks before she died, Hudson had just learned the difference between “Elmo” and “elbow” and we would excitedly go back and forth between the two words, me pointing to her Elmo and then her elbow, her reciting and smiling as she practiced her new skill. If she were not gone, I would have brought her some little Elmo thing home as a gift.  How I wished I could.

When Ed and I were alone down at the river house in Belhaven the first few days after Hudson’s memorial service in North Carolina, he spent a lot of time fishing.  I fished some, too, but Ed, who grew up fishing all his life, took particular comfort in being that close to the water, in the rhythm of casting his line.  It seemed to me that to some extent, he was casting his sorrow with it, to be soaked up by the river, the trees, the birds, the marsh grass.  I watched him, so handsome in his fishing hat, sunglasses, and blue windbreaker, reeling in his line, looking like he was born on that dock, and for a fleeting second, I was awash with joy.  I pictured him, several years down the road, surrounded by our future children, teaching them how to hold on to the line and let go at just the right time to cast their lures the perfect distance.  For just that moment, I knew that our lives would be happy again.  For just that moment, I could imagine a future where the pain we feel now, like the little kids at the park, would blend into the background of a lovely day, where it would be part of who we are, but not all of who we are.  For just that moment, I was struck. But for just that moment, it felt good.

Monday, June 7, 2010


There is a metropolitan bus route on the street in front of our house. In the morning rush hour, buses stop at the light two doors down from us every fifteen minutes or so, letting out a low-pitched whine as they brake. Before Hudson died, there were many occasions where I mistook this sound for her waking up—the slightest little moan from the next room as she roused from a long sleep. In the past, I would wait to see if I heard her again, and if not, I knew she was still asleep. This morning, I heard the sound and sat, waiting. Then, inexplicably, I heard what sounded like her feet beating on the mattress (she was prone to kicking the mattress as she was trying to fall asleep at night). For what seems like the millionth time in the last four weeks, I pondered whether this really could be just one long, very elaborate dream. I have had such elaborate, punishing dreams occasionally in the past—I always wake from them relieved, grateful to find I have only been dreaming, but also barely believing I have only been dreaming because the dreams are so realistic. This morning, my heart skipped a beat for just a second —could it be? — but then every detail of these terrible days came washing over me at once and I knew it had not been a dream. A few hours later, as Ed and I got ready to leave the house, I found myself, again inexplicably, checking her room just to make sure I wasn’t wrong about it being real and that I wasn’t about to walk out of the house and leave my child at home alone. She wasn’t there.  I was imagining. 

Joan Didion would call this “magical thinking.” After her husband died, she could not bring herself to part with all of his shoes because part of her was convinced that he would need them when he returned. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would call it “denial”: you know the person is gone, but you just can’t fathom that reality. Ed and I have not even begun to think about doing anything with Hudson’s clothes or her room, nor do I imagine we will for any time to come. But again, inexplicably, for no reason and with no pattern, I have put some things “away,” meaning I have been putting them in her closet or in the basement. Other things I can’t bear to move. I remember when my mom died, I couldn’t bring myself to delete her number from my cell phone. It was as if I still thought I might need it and if I deleted it, I would delete her. It took until I got a new phone before I finally removed it from my contacts. So many of Hudson’s things are the same. Last night, I put “away” her toothbrush and toothpaste, but have not touched her bathtub or her bath toys. They sit on the floor of the bathroom and I look at them every time I am in there. Bath time was one of her favorite times of day—I can’t just put those things “away”—I guess part of me does imagine she might need them. In my purse, I have a small board-book copy of “Put Me in the Zoo,” which I always kept there for emergencies—waiting for food at a restaurant, waiting for the doctor at the pediatrician’s office, waiting in line at the grocery store—when she might get fidgety and need a distraction. It is well-used. It takes up a fair amount of space in my purse. But how can I put it “away”? What if I need it?

I don’t know how long this “magical thinking” will go on. Maybe it will go on forever. Maybe it will come and go. Maybe one day years from now when I am out and about with Hudson’s future siblings, I will look around for my oldest child and have to remember, again, that she is not there. That is a hard future to face. I can only imagine, really.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Looking Down

Jess and I just had a long talk about the possibility of an afterlife. I told her how I wish so badly that I did believe in that—I don’t rule out the possibility, but I don’t really rule it in, either, at least not right now. But I want to. Not only do I want to believe that I will see Hudson again, and that my mom and Jess’s mom are loving her and taking care of her and having fun with her, but I really want to believe that she sees us now, that she is looking “down” on us from wherever she is, smiling, checking in, letting us know that she is okay and loves us. I’ve gotten this feeling a few times, but the one I remember most is when we were sitting out on the deck at Ocracoke a week ago. It was just past sunset, and the sky was dark blue, but not dark. It was still light enough that in the whole sky, I could see only one star, and it was shining so brightly. I just felt her with me right then. She was just there. I guess I can feel that even if I don’t know what I believe about “heaven” or whatever else may follow this life. It certainly feels good to have her with me.

One Good Thing

Although I won't (can't) start at the beginning, for the benefit of anyone who comes here without knowing me or us, I will explain, at least in part, why I began this blog. Our daughter, Hudson Lily Hitchcock Chaney, died suddenly at the age of 17 months after a three-day stay in the hospital due to an incredibly aggressive bacterial meningitis. At her memorial service, I offered the following message. It has unexpectedly become a guiding principle in our lives, and, it seems, in many others.  That is yet another One Good Thing. 

Hudson's One Good Thing

Today you are gone but you should not be. This week, you should have been splashing in your Poppy’s pool every day, but you weren’t. This morning, we should have marveled at the planes that flew over the backyard as you said one of your favorite words, “Ai-pane.” Today my head says I should celebrate your life, but my heart wants only to weep for our loss. There are so many things that should and shouldn’t be today, and there will be so many more in the future as we are forced to live our lives without you.

But of the many things you taught me, one of the most important was not to worry about what should or shouldn’t be, but simply to enjoy and cherish what is. When you got a little older, I was going to start a ritual with you that I was going to call “One Good Thing.” Whenever something bad happened to one of us, we were going to try to think of one good thing that came out of it– to enjoy and cherish what is rather than worry about what should or shouldn’t be. I thought I was going to teach you that lesson, but now I realize it was the other way around. You’ve already taught it to me and so many others.

It’s a lesson that we all know inside, but one that we need to be reminded of often—to love and treasure every moment in this all-too-short life, to hug, kiss, and laugh often, to soften in our anger, to love unconditionally and overwhelmingly, to always tell our friends and family that we love them—to enjoy and cherish what is and stop worrying about what should and shouldn’t be. Your life and death are the most powerful reminder of that lesson that any of us could have received.

You are gone but you should not be. But, following your lead, I will cherish what is— that your dad’s and my lives, and so many others, are changed forever because you were in them. Your smile, joyful laugh, mischievous ways, sweet voice, and wise countenance are indelibly burned on my heart-- I would do anything to hear you say "Mama" just one more time. You are gone but you should not be. Thank you for helping me cherish what is. I love you.


And the One Good Thing we can take from Hudson's death, if there can be such a thing, is the incredible love and support we have experienced during these darkest days of our lives. I've said to some that we've been amazed at how this network has emerged over the last week, but what I've realized, through Hudson's lesson, is that this network has been there all the time-- we've just been taking it for granted. And we never will again.

Beginnings (Again)

I have debated for several few days about whether to start this blog. I started blogging (accidentally, really) two years ago about my pregnancy with Hudson, and was intermittently committed to it through the first month of her life and then gave up and switched over to "FBO" ("Facebook Only"). And while Facebook has been a surprisingly effective tool for community grieving, remembering, and support since Hudson's death, I have found myself wanting to write about this journey in a way that Facebook just doesn't really make room for. And it may be that Hudson's message of One Good Thing should have a wider reach than it can on Facebook. I don't know. But here I am. More than a little afraid, but trying to channel my sweet Hudson's spirit and just go for it.

I don't know how this blog will go. I struggled with whether to start from the beginning, but the idea of trying to catalogue, process, make sense of the roller coaster of emotions we have experienced over the last 4 weeks (can it have been that long since she got sick? And yet can it have been so recent?) is intimidating to say the least. And while I hope to embrace, embody, and pass on Hudson's message of One Good Thing here, it is only part of this journey-- although I have been amazed to find what a huge part it has become. I'm just going to start and see how it goes. My tendency to overanalyze has never served me well in the past-- I doubt it will do so here. So I'm beginning. Again.