Monday, December 1, 2014

Happy Sixth Birthday, Sweet Hudson

Dearest Hudson,

Oh, my sweet girl. Here we are again. I don’t know how, but here we are again. Today you would have turned six. Five birthdays have gone by without you, and yet we are all still here, missing you, loving you, celebrating you, remembering you. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Daddy and I finally watched the Frozen movie. Ever since it first came out last year, I’d resisted seeing it, even though everyone kept telling me how wonderful it was. I was unable to think of anything except how sure I was that you would love it, as did seemingly every other five-year-old girl I knew. I couldn’t stand it. But your Poppy wants to take your little brother to see the Disney Frozen on Ice in a few weeks, so we thought we might let Jackson watch the movie beforehand so he would know a little about the story. Jackson is pretty sensitive about scary things in movies, so Daddy and I wanted to watch it first. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. But when it was over, all I could think about was how much you probably would have loved it. I imagined you traipsing around the house, singing all the songs by heart. It was too much, sweet girl. I cried in Daddy’s arms for a long time, missing you so much. And today was even harder because the truth is that I don’t know what you would have liked now. I know most six-year-old girls do love that movie, but I don’t know if you would have. And I don’t know what else you would have liked either. When Daddy, Jackson, Ada, and I went shopping today for gifts to take to the children of families at the Ronald McDonald house, I again found myself stumped, trying to imagine what a girl your age would like these days, especially one laid up in the hospital. But all I could do was guess. I wish I knew. I wish you had been there to help me pick those things out. I wish I knew so many things about the person you would have become.

But your birthday dawned unbelievably sunny and beautiful. It was unseasonably warm for December 1. It reminded me of your second birthday, the first one we endured after you died. It rained that day. It was cold and wet when your daddy and I went to the Arboretum to remember you and spread some of your ashes beneath the dogwood trees where we had played with you only months before. The rain on your birthday seemed so wrong to me, so very contrary to everything that you had been in life, to everything that you still are in death. I was grateful for the amazing weather today. It fits you, love. It fits you so well.

Your brother has developed a habit of climbing into Daddy’s and my bed each morning after he wakes up. We love it. We love sharing a few moments just with him before the day begins in earnest and we are all out the door not to see each other again until evening. This morning, he opened the door and said, “Hey, Mom!” I looked at the clock as I usually do, hoping it’s not too early, and it said 7:19. 7:19, sweet girl. The very minute that you burst into our lives six years ago, changing us forever. I can’t help but hope, wish, dream that somehow you nudged him awake at just the right time today. As we laid there in bed snuggling, I thought about how I would have done the same for you on so many birthdays in the future—snuck into your room right at 7:19 and climbed into bed to snuggle with you and tell you again how incredibly grateful I was to you for giving me the gift of being a mother, of being your mother. I thought about how much I miss you during this morning snuggle time, about how much of our big bed should be filled with the long, gangly limbs and long, straight, wispy hair of a beautiful, lovely, amazing six-year-old.

And your baby sister Ada has been unusually generous with her hugs today. While she is often close by, hugging my legs, asking to be picked up, placing her head on my shoulder in just that way that you were so often reluctant to do—that way that you did during those last days I had with you when you were feeling so bad before you were hospitalized, that way I held you so close after they disconnected you from all those wretched machines—she was especially loving today. She spent much of your birthday in my arms, and a not-insignificant portion of it with her head on my shoulder in that special way that reminds me so much of those last days with you. I can’t help but hope that was your doing, too. She is still too little to know much about you, but she recognizes your picture, and I think she tries to say your name. During one of the many moments today when I was crying for you, I was holding her in my arms and she got the most concerned look on her face. She reached up and touched my eyes with her little pointer finger, confused, not understanding what she was seeing, but loving me so much just the same. She is so like you in so many ways and so different from you in so many others.

This afternoon, we spent some time showing Jackson and Ada the pictures and videos from your first birthday party. They both got such a kick out of watching you eat the chocolate frosting on your cake and then smear it all over your face. Jackson in particular laughed and laughed and kept asking me to play it over and over. He looked at the pictures of you with your Grandma and Grandpa and Poppy on your birthday and was convinced that he was looking at pictures of your baby sister. I kept trying to tell him that it was you, but to him, his big sister and little sister look so alike. And indeed you do—Ada doesn’t resemble you in the same way Jackson does, but sometimes I look at her and am so flooded with memories of you that my breath catches in my throat.

Jackson’s three-year-old brain is still trying so hard to understand what it means when we say that you are gone but you are still here. He felt so sad that he missed your birthday party, and he’s still trying to understand why you don’t get to eat your cupcakes. He rubbed his chest and said, “Hudson is coming out of my heart,” because we tell him that you are always there, but he wants you to be here with him, not in him. I understand that feeling so well. He told Poppy that you died, but that he would eat your cupcakes for you.

We spent the rest of this day the way we always do, loving each other and trying to spread a little bit of your joy to some corners of the world that need it. I am so looking forward to the day when your siblings can help us think of special ways to celebrate your birthday, but for now, we are just trying to ease the burdens of others in small ways. And so many, many, many others all around the world were doing the same today, sweet girl. I imagine you touching each of those people, those children, those animals with your precious little fingers, flashing that bright smile of yours, and bringing them the same joy that you brought us with each moment of your 529 days. You are bringing so much joy not only to those being helped, but also to all those doing the helping, and that is an amazing gift, sweet girl, one for which we all, the helpers and the helped, are so very, very grateful. I am so proud of you, Hudson. I am so proud to be your mother. I am so proud.

This evening, I was wrapping up the matching Christmas jammies that I got for your brother and sister so that they could open them and wear them on this first night of December. (I wonder often if you would be mad at me for getting into the Christmas spirit too early, too close to your birthday, but I’m hoping that at least for now, you would love Christmas so much that you wouldn’t care.) I was wrapping those jammies, a 4T for Jackson and an 18 months for Ada, and I was wishing so much that I had a pair for you. A size 6 just for you. And a beautiful six-year-old you to fit into them.

There are so many holes where you should be, sweet girl. So many. Some days, some moments, I don't know how to go on without you. All I know to do is try to make those holes as beautiful as possible. I love you so much, and I can’t possibly say how much I wish you were here. Happy birthday, my dearest little girl.



Monday, November 24, 2014

Do One Good Thing For Hudson’s Sixth Birthday

Somehow, impossibly, it is almost time for Hudson’s birthday again. Next Monday, December 1, will mark her sixth birthday. The fifth one that we have endured without her. So many years have now cycled past that for the first time, her birthday falls on the very day she was actually born, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

And like last year, as the days and weeks have passed, as we have crept closer and closer to her birthday (and Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the other lovely goodness that comes at this time of year), her absence is as palpable as ever. And like last year, this makes me feel closer to her than usual. That grief can be such a foe and such a friend all at one time is one of its many confounding mysteries.

For reasons that I am still trying to understand, this sixth birthday feels different to me. I have spent much of this past year thinking hard about all the ways in which my life has been made so very easy. I was born white. I was born into an upper-middle class family. I was the youngest in my family, so I got the full benefit of my parents’ upward mobility. I was sent to private school. I wanted for nothing as a child, not clothes, not food, not the latest fad. I am college-educated. I have an advanced degree. I am married to a man who not only loves his work but is also well-employed enough that he can support our family while I pursue a career writing full-time. Although I will certainly experience the fear that every mother does when her children leave her presence, worried that she might not see them again, I will never have to fear that my child may be killed as a result of structural racism that is so ingrained in this countrys psyche that it is difficult to see how it will ever be destroyed. These things are only the tip of the iceberg of all of the ways in which my life has been made easy for me as a white, upper-middle class woman. Although we’ve certainly worked hard to get where we are, I know many, many others who have worked far harder than we have and have never even managed to get half as far. And that’s due to the sheer fortune of our birth. My life has been easy in so many ways.

And it has also been hard in one of the hardest ways. Losing my daughter ended my life as I knew it then. A new life began the day she died, and while much of it is very familiar, it is so fundamentally different that it is still sometimes unrecognizable to me. Just this morning, as I was driving my regular route to work, making a left on Weaver Street, I caught a glimpse of a woman walking down the sidewalk past me. I never made eye contact with her, but when I saw her, I felt as if I’d been struck in the face. She looked so normal, so ordinary, so very much like she belonged to this world, like she belonged on that sidewalk. And I suddenly felt so very much the opposite. Did my child really die? Do I really have a dead child? Did that really happen? What planet am I on? 

But even living with the death of my child was made easier for me. We had such excellent health insurance that we paid only a tiny fraction of the enormous charges incurred for Hudson’s stay in the intensive care unit. Our friends gave us money to help cover all our expenses after she died and then some. Friends gave us money just to enjoy pizza and a movie. My colleagues at the Federal Public Defender donated sick days to me so that I could have paid leave while I decided whether or not I could return to work. When I finally decided that I couldn’t go back to work, we were financially able to handle the drop in our income. We had the resources to get grief counseling.

My life has been so easy. And so hard.

But I find more and more that the only thing that brings me any comfort whatsoever anymore is looking for ways to make others’ lives easier, the way others tried to make mine easier when it was at its hardest.

My friend Sarah is a social worker in Raleigh. She put out a call last week for people interested in adopting families for Christmas. I wanted to do it, but I also wasn’t sure how much we should commit right now—we have had a lot of unexpected large expenses coming at us, right before the holidays, and right before I’m about to quit my job. Sarah told me that they usually ask people to get an outfit, a warm coat, and a few fun items for each child, a coat and shoes for the parents, and toilet paper, paper towels, and non-perishable food items for the house.

Toilet paper. I have never in my life had to struggle to buy toilet paper. I have never been without a warm coat when I needed one. Or shoes. I am about to quit my reliable, good-paying, flexible job on purpose to pursue work that may never generate one penny of income, and I am worried about whether we can afford to help this family buy toilet paper.

So we’re going to buy them some toilet paper. And paper towels. And food. And clothes and toys for their kids. And a coat and shoes for the single mom who somehow holds this family together.

And we’re going to do these things while we remember Hudson on her birthday. I haven’t done a very good job explaining how these things are somehow inexplicably entwined for me, but they are. To honor Hudson by trying to care for others like I have been cared for all of my life, like I was cared for when she died, seems to me the only way it makes any sense to honor her. Honoring this hard life without her by trying to make others’ lives easier seems to be the only thing that makes any sense to do.

As we do every year, we invite you to do One Good Thing sometime this next week to remember Hudson’s life. Any good thing, no matter how big or small. It won’t fill the hole that was left behind when she died, but it will make the hole more beautiful. And if you are so inclined, please invite others to join us, too. 

We can’t stop it from coming. We can’t bring Hudson back. But in the spirit of the lesson she taught us, we can continue to help her light shine in the world by finding the One Good Thing, and this week, that means doing One Good Thing. Thank you all so much.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Happy First Birthday, Ada!

Ada at one year! 

My dearest Ada (Ada-bean, Ada-beta, Ada-boo, Bean-bob, Beanie-B, Beebee)

Well, I am late with your first birthday letter. This is in part because I started back to work right after your birthday, but it’s mainly because this letter has been hard to write.

Why, you ask? Well, I’m not totally sure myself, but I think it’s mostly because you are an amazing and enigmatic creature, the likes of which I had not had the pleasure of knowing as a mother until you came along, and trying to put into words what it has been like to be your mother is one of the hardest writing tasks I’ve ever had.

You are such a mystery, dear one, so much so that it’s almost impossible even to explain why. And this both challenges me and charms me—as difficult as it has been for me to so frequently be at a loss to figure out why you are crying (and you cry a lot, my love) and how to help you, it has also been absolutely enchanting to witness the way that your little spirit, your face, your look, your voice, somehow commands a room (and I don’t mean because you are loud, although you are!). There are few things that delight me more than when your face breaks from its normal, serious, peering-down-the-nose-over-the-glasses observation of the world into a grin the likes of which I’m not sure how we ever lived without before we saw it.

I remember once when we were out and about somewhere, a kind woman heard and saw you in passing, and she remarked to me, “That one is determined.” And I said, “You have no idea how right you are.” “Determined” is certainly one appropriate word to describe you—you have been set in your ways since the day you were born. It took your brother and sister a good while to get to the point where they had clear opinions about things, but you have been spirited and opinionated, and yes, determined to get what you want since first we met, it seems.

But here’s the thing, dear one. It’s not your job to be the person anyone else wants you to be, hopes you will be, expects you to be, or thinks you are. It’s your job to be the person that you are and to be the best possible you.

Before you were born, after your dad and I decided to call you “the dolphin,” I bought a beautiful piece of wall art for your room. Hopefully you will still have it by the time you read this letter. It’s a hand-drawn dolphin made up of hundreds of beautifully colored flowers, and underneath the dolphin is the message “Be Wild and Free.”

And there it is. Before you were even born, I was encouraging you, maybe even challenging you, to be your own person, to be wild, to be free. And clearly you have risen to that challenge. And I couldn’t be prouder, Ada. I don’t really know what is in store for us in the future. If you are as hard-headed as a kid and a teenager as you have been as a baby (and sweet girl, even though your infancy has been hard for me, I really do mean that as a compliment), then I imagine we’ll have our share of rough days. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was really hard-headed, too. And my mom and I had our share of rough days, too. We survived. I hope you and I will do more than survive, but I know we’ll at least survive.

You just be you, you hear? Don’t ever let anyone tell you to stop speaking your mind or to be anyone other than you. Ever. And no matter what, I will love and accept you for exactly who you are.

You started half-day preschool with your brother two weeks ago, just a little after your actual birthday. I started back to work full-time the same day, and a new babysitter picked you up for the afternoons. And much to my (very pleasant) surprise, you were amazing through it all. Even two weeks later, you have not cried, not even once, at drop-off or any other time, except once when they wouldn’t give you more bananas at breakfast. Because hello? Ada. And food. Do not get between them.

You don’t cry at all (and don’t get the wrong impression, sweet girl—crying is just fine, and it’s sometimes just what we all need to work out whatever we are trying to work out). Until I get home. When I come to the door at 5:30, as soon as you see me, you SQUAWK with excitement, but if I don’t immediately take you into my arms, you burst into tears. And once I do take you into my arms, if I try to put you down again, you burst into tears, even when you’ve been fussing and struggling to get down. And I don’t mean just your average little fake one-year-old fuss. I mean a throw-yourself-onto-the-floor-and-bury-your-face-in-your-arms kind of cry. And then, when I pick you back up, you keep right on crying and often nothing will soothe you.

I admit, dear one, that I have found this a tad bit vexing, even as I understand the deep impulse and longing for your mother from which it stems. (That is why you’re crying, right?) 

The other day when this happened, when you struggled to get out of my arms but then threw an absolute fit when I actually put you down, here’s what I did. I sat down on the floor next to you and told you that I was right there if you needed me. You kept throwing your fit, and I kept saying, “I’m here, sweetie.”

Because here’s the other thing, baby girl. One of the two most important things, along with “no matter what, I will love and accept you for who you are.”

Here’s the other thing:

I will always be here for you. No matter what. Always. Nothing you ever do will ever change that. I may not always be here for you in the ways that you want me to or the ways that you think I should—sometimes picking you back up is the wrong thing, even though it may be what you think you want. But I will always, always be here for you.

Read one way, these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” could have been written for you, Ada:

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I hear you, darling. I see you, my girl. I am listening. I am working on translating. You keep right on yawping. The world awaits.

I love you endlessly.



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


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.



Sunday, May 18, 2014


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.



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

Friday, May 9, 2014

Bubbles for Hudson

It’s become so that I know when May is near, even without paying attention to the calendar. The world begins to turn a different color. I begin to feel almost as if I’m looking through a fish-eye lens—my perspective becomes distorted, and it’s difficult to see clearly that which is straight in front of me.

But this May opened differently than in years past. This May, I was given a chance to share Hudson’s story in a new and amazing way, and it changed me forever.

And as a result, I’ve never felt more keenly how precious and wonderful and necessary it is for us to blow bubbles for our girl on yet another anniversary of her death. I’ve never felt more keenly the need to send her spirit forth to make bring people together, to make a child giggle, to lighten someone’s burden, to bring beauty into an ugly place.

This ritual began at her memorial service as a sweet and suitable tribute to the life of a cherished child gone too soon. But it has become, for me, one of the most important rituals in our family’s life. I’ve written before that while I’m no longer religious, the definition of the word “sacrament” from the Book of Common Prayer has stuck with me—a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. For me, these bubbles we blow every year on May 13 have become the most lovely outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that is our steadfast effort to keep our girl alive in the hearts and minds of all who knew her and of many, many others who didn’t.

So please join us again, as so many of you have in years past, in remembering Hudson’s too-short but uncommonly beautiful life by blowing bubbles wherever you are on May 13. If you are so inclined, please take and share photos on the Bubbles for Hudson Facebook page. You can also use the hashtag #bubblesforhudson. Please also feel free to invite anyone who could use a little Hudson joy, either by sharing this blog entry or the Facebook event page.

As always, we are so grateful to everyone who helps us remember our girl in this very special way. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Listen To Your Mother

Dear Mom,

I can’t really remember the last time I wrote you a letter. You’ve been gone so very long now, more than twelve years. Have I even written you a letter since you died? How long had it been since I’d written you a letter before you died? You were a big fan of letters—I hope somewhere in some boxes full of my old stuff, I have some of them. The only one I can put my hands on right now is in the top of my jewelry box.

Just now, as I thought of that letter, I went upstairs to read it. I had no recollection of its contents whatsoever, nor can I recall the last time I read it. I read it and wept. And wept. And wept. Not because it makes me miss you, although it does, but because it spoke so very directly to the very thing that I just sat down here to write to you about, after not having written you a letter in who knows how many years. I have been having this conversation with you in my head all week, waiting for a moment to write it all down. And then I sit down to write this letter, think spontaneously of your letter, and then read your letter, written during the summer of 1997 when I was traveling in Kenya—and stunningly and inexplicably, it was almost as if you were speaking directly back to me. How is that possible?

What I sat down to write to you about is this. There have been many, many moments since the day you died, that I have wanted to pick up the phone and call you, or write you a letter, or, as technology progressed, share something with you on Facebook or text a picture of your grandchildren to you or pass along something funny one of them said or did. When I got my scholarship to go to law school just weeks after you died, the first thing I wanted to do was pick up the phone and call you. When I fell in love with Ed. When he asked me to marry him. When I found out I was pregnant. The many times I needed your advice when I was a first-time mom. When Hudson got sick. All during my pregnancy with Jackson when I was absolutely terrified that something would go wrong. When I found out I had cancer. When I found out I was in remission. When I found out I was pregnant with Ada. All during Ada’s early months when I thought I would go crazy from all the crying. There have been so many times that I have needed you, so many things I have wished I could celebrate with you.

But one day early this week, I found myself thinking more about you, and in a deeper and more sustained way, than I have since the first weeks and months after you died. Back in January, I submitted a piece of writing to audition for a live show of essays about motherhood called “Listen to Your Mother.” I was honored and excited to be chosen to participate, even as I grappled with uneasiness about receiving attention or accolades for writing that never would have come to be if my child hadn’t died. My essay was about Hudson, of course, and throughout the process of rehearsing and preparing for the show, all of the emotional energy I sank into it was focused on her.

Until this week. And not because it’s the week before Mother’s Day. Of course, Hudson became ill on Mother’s Day and died four days later, so her death brought a new depth of sorrow to Mother’s Day, a day that I’d already endured without you for eight years before she died.

No, the reason I’ve been thinking about you so much is because of the show itself. As our opening night approached, several of the cast members posted on Facebook that their mothers were coming to town to see them. One mentioned that her mother had brought her a new dress to wear. Amazingly, that was the first time it occurred to me to even think about you in relation to the show. And once I did, it was like a light went on. Not just a light—a lighthouse. It was like the giant beam of a lighthouse shining directly into my eyes. How could I possibly have missed it all before?

One cast member’s essay is about caring for her ailing mother, just like I cared for you before you died. You were much younger at the time, as was I, so I just never made the connection. Another cast member’s essay is about how so many friends and family members took care of her child when she couldn’t, while another essay is by a mother who took care of someone else’s child when his mother couldn’t. It hit me that so many, many people did the same for you, long after you were gone, how many people took care of me when you couldn’t, first when I lost my own child and later when I faced a frightening illness, without the comfort and care of my own mother. Yet another essay is about a mother learning that her young daughter is pregnant, and it never even occurred to me to connect that experience to your own when my older sister told you that she was pregnant at only 18. Still another essay is about a mother finding the right words to tell her children that she has cancer—I’ll never forget the day I called you after you had a CT scan (one that I was certain would reveal just what we suspected: that you needed to get your gall bladder out), and knowing just as soon as you said, “Let’s talk about it after you go home, honey,” that you had cancer, because you were never one to mince words. Seconds later, as the panic rose in my throat as I pressed you for an answer, you said, resignedly, “I have cancer, honey.”

And really, how did I fail to miss the connection between you and my own essay, which is about the illusion of control over what happens to our children, an illusion that fools all mothers? I think about how many times, even as an adult, that I thought your anxiety over where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, and what might happen to me, was completely and totally insane. Yet now that I have my own children, I look back now and marvel at how you were able to let me go in so many incredibly important ways, ways that seem almost impossible to me right now as I look ahead to the future with my kids. I can only imagine how hard it was for you to send me off alone in my car to drive myself all the way to California where I would live alone for the summer when I was only 20. Or the courage it must have taken you to let me fly halfway around the world to live in a hut in the middle of Kenya for two months. Or how worried you must have been, how incredibly hard it must have been to bite your tongue when I was 26 and told you that my first husband had moved out of our house and that I did not want to talk about it, “so PLEASE DON’T ASK.”

How on earth did you survive these things? I can only assume that somewhere along the way, you came to the same conclusion that I am still muddling my way through after Hudson’s death—that you had only so much control over what could or would happen to me, and that at some point, you just had to make your peace with that reality. I wish so much that I could ask you about it now.

But really, more than the content of these beautiful essays from these amazing women, how is it that I failed to miss the biggest, brightest, loudest connection to you of all to emerge from my participation in this show?

I’m a writer, Mom. Just like you.

It’s not that I’ve failed to notice that very obvious connection during these last several years since I began writing in earnest, but this is different. This time, I took a piece of writing and put it out there in the world, a world beyond my blog, which is read by a handful of people who know me well and another handful of amazing souls who don’t know me at all but have followed my journey kindly and faithfully since it began. This time, I put my writing out there to be judged. I risked failing. I risked having someone say it wasn’t good enough.

And this is something that I know you struggled ever to do. What a gifted writer you were, Mom. I still struggle to understand what prevented you from sharing it, but I can only assume that it was fear. In your own eyes, in your family of origin, you were only ever a failure. I think you were so afraid of failing at something again that you just couldn’t risk it. Oh, how very sorry I am that you felt such a burden. Oh, how much worse off the world is without your gift.

What a gifted writer you were. I know in the very depths of my soul that of all the many ways I am like you, this one is the most important. This is the most important gift you gave me, Mom. And I have been afraid, too. In these four years since Hudson died, I have wondered, “Am I only a writer because my child died? Would I have anything to say if she hadn’t? And if not, what business have I to be writing now? Can I write about anything other than sorrow? And if I can, would anyone else want to read that?” I have been fiddling around with a book about my grief for over a year now, and I have yet to truly commit to it. Because I have been terrified. Terrified of failing, mostly, but also terrified of succeeding, because what would success with such a book mean? How can I have stumbled upon the work of my life in the wake of my child’s death?

And then I got up on stage last night with thirteen extraordinary women. And alongside them, in front of hundreds of people, I told my story. I told Hudson’s story. And it took my own breath away. In my blog, I can hide. I can be anonymous. I can read people’s comments. Or not. I can hide behind my fear of failing by just not writing at all. But on stage, I couldn’t hide. And once I got up there, I didn’t want to. I wanted to tell our story. Because I understand, really for the first time, that I have a gift. A gift that you had, too. A gift that you realized and understood yourself but that you were ultimately unable to share with the rest of us, to our great loss. A gift that you gave me. A gift that I want to share. For you. For me. For Hudson.

So I sat down to write this letter, this very long letter (oh, how very much I am like you, Mom), to try and explain all of this to you, how Listen To Your Mother has been prying at this crack that’s been sitting in my soul just waiting for the right crowbar, how much I have come to understand just in the last four days.

I sat down to write this letter, and then I spontaneously went to read the only letter from you that I can put my hands on right now. It’s four pages long, in your very recognizable handwriting, and it flows from the deep sense of relationship you had with God (oh, how very disappointed you’d probably be with your now-agnostic daughter). I was reading, reading, reading, in disbelief at how much you were speaking to me right now, in this very moment, until I reached the paragraph that blew open, irrevocably, that crack in my soul:

Wherever you go, you will make friends. . . because you carry peace with you, and love. This does not mean always bowing and scraping and humbly stepping back—although there are moments when God may call us to do those things—but boldly walking in the light of that peace and that love, allowing it to illuminate the darkness that will always rush at us in a broken world. Some people do this better than others, and I believe that you are at the top of the heap. That could be a heavy burden, but it needn’t be if you trust where it comes from and always seek wisdom in allocating that precious light. 

Oh, Mom. There’s certainly no way you could have known then how dark and broken my own world would become. But somehow, even then, you knew just what I would need you to say to me 17 years later when I am still feeling confused, still feeling scared, still trying to understand it all.

You knew just what I would need to hear.

So I’m listening, Mom. I’m really listening. Thank you. I love you.



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I Didn’t Take Her With Me

Early this morning, I was roused from a long and deep sleep by an insistent buzzing in the bedroom. It took me a second to realize that it was one of our phones. I checked the clock: a little before 5AM. Who could be calling at that hour? As soon as I picked up my phone off the bedside table, I realized it was an alert for a tornado warning. I installed the app only just last night, knowing that tornados might develop overnight and not wanting to sleep through life-threatening weather. I said to Ed, “It’s a tornado warning,” and immediately got out of bed to get ready to go to the basement. I threw on some clothes, not knowing how long we might be down there, and went to get the baby out of the room next door. I dreaded waking her, mostly because I was sure she would not go back to sleep after everything calmed down. I grabbed Ada out of her crib, alarmed that I couldn’t see anything out of her windows due to fog.

I went straight to the basement while Ed got Jackson out of his room downstairs. Jackson was, of course, excited to be up at this hour and crammed into a closet with Mommy, Daddy, and Bess. And there we sat for about 20 minutes until we got an all-clear alert on the phones. We never even heard any thunder or wind—nothing but hard rain.

Ed took Jackson back to his room, and I took Ada back to hers, hoping that the dark would encourage her to go back to sleep for a little longer. I laid her in the crib and then sat down in the glider next to the crib and waited for her to fall asleep or at least to settle down enough that I might sneak out of the room without her noticing.

Only then did it hit me. In my haste to get all of us down into the basement quickly, I’d left Hudson’s ashes on the bedside table. It never even occurred to me to pick them up. Our house might have been torn off of its foundation by a tornado, and Hudson’s ashes would have gone with it.

Many lifetimes ago, I thought it macabre to keep a loved one’s ashes in your house. I had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. While I have no idea how I felt about it around the time Hudson died, after she died, there was no question but that some of her ashes would always stay in or near our house. I had originally thought to sprinkle some at the base of a few trees we’d eventually plant in some special places, but four years later, the only bit of her ashes that has parted from us lays at the base of a gorgeous dogwood tree near her bench at the Arboretum. And even those were very hard to part with.

In the first year after Hudson died, I made sure to take her ashes with us whenever we were away from home for any long period of time during which our house might catch on fire or get damaged in a storm. I did not want to risk losing them under any circumstances.

Sometime between then and now, that changed. I have no idea when. But her ashes have not left my bedside table since I first placed them there when we moved into this house thirteen months ago.

And all I could think about as I sat in the dark next to Ada’s crib this morning, listening to her rustle around as she tried to fall back asleep, was that I had left Hudson’s ashes behind. When I was getting the rest of my family to a safe place, I didn’t take her with me.

It felt like a betrayal. An ultimate symbolic act of leaving her behind as our life hurtles forward without her.

I didn’t take her with me.