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.