Archive for December, 2010



December 25, 2010

Last night, in spite of my exectations to the contrary, I found myself sipping whisky with my husband in the kitchen. We even brought out the Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch and read the descriptions of what we were drinking – peat and pepper, a “winter warmer.”

We talked and laughed and daydreamed about traveling. We broke into the raspberry Danish intended for Christmas breakfast. We stayed up later than parents of an almost-eleven-month-old should do. And then, because PBS, bless them, was showing a Jane Austen marathon, we watched the end of Persuasion.

We were merry. In spite of our sadnesses and different ways of seeing the holidays. And now I’m snuggling my Dot who is wearing the world’s most adorable red holiday pajamas and I keep smiling. I hope you get a little merry to go with the bright this year, too.

But if merry is too far a stretch, then I hope some peace finds you.



December 25, 2010

I wish there was a word for the mix of happy and lonely I’m feeling right now. The stockings are filled and draped over the futon, the tree is lit, the baby is asleep, there is Christmas music playing, and I’m about to indulge in a sip of my favorite Scotch. These are all good things. We spent a nice afternoon selecting local wines to send to N’s family – it’s become a tradition, the Christmas wine sent just before Christmas to brighten up some of the other twelve days that don’t get celebrated any more.

But N is holed up in his basement office which is about as far as he can get from me without leaving the house. I come from one of those annoying, happy families who liked to spend time together, and holiday time was always special. He didn’t have that, and so maybe he doesn’t miss it, but I do. I attempted to lure him upstairs with Talisker, and he played along very nicely, said he’d be up in a few minutes, but the guitar music wafting up from the office tells me that by the time he climbs the stairs, I’ll be in bed.

I know that he really just needs some time to think and breathe and be alone, that he doesn’t know how much I wish he were sitting beside me (and I won’t tell him). But I miss him, and I miss my family, and I miss my Teddy who should be listening for reindeer on the roof and having trouble sleeping. There’s snow and love and I remember distinctly that last year at this time I was hoping that this year there’d be three of us here. There are, and there’s something magical in seeing Dot’s eyes light up at the sight of the tree, or watching N dance her to sleep to Christmas carols. We are three, and that is a great gift.

But I miss our fourth, and I can’t help wondering if the distance N needs tonight is connected to the distance between us and our firstborn, who never danced with us under the Christmas lights or tore bows off packages. It’s a beautiful, quiet night, and I realize, again, how much brighter twinkle lights appear when there are tears in my eyes.

I send my love out into the winter air and hope it finds you, my boy, my huckleberry, my Teddy. Merry Christmas, baby. We’re doing okay, but we miss you.


Where I want to be

December 16, 2010

I realize that I write about God here a lot.  I sometimes wonder if I will ever just accept the fact that I’m losing my religion (apologies to R.E.M.), or if I’m just too stubborn to lose it with anything resembling grace and acceptance.  I often think that the only bits of grace and acceptance that have come to me regarding Teddy’s death have come through exhaustion rather than enlightenment.  Maybe I’ll wake up one day and find that I’m worn down enough, tired enough, that I can’t struggle to hang on to my old beliefs, or that I’m no longer capable of trying to shape my religious beliefs to fit with my anger at the fact that babies die, that people all over the world suffer in ways that can and can’t be prevented.

And here’s where I start (again) writing in a way that would be seen by many people, some of them very dear and close to me, as heretical.  I can’t apologize in advance, but I can warn you, so if you find heresy upsetting, there are some very fine blogs out there that you should maybe go read instead of mine at this point.

If I were a medieval mystic, perhaps I’d rejoice in my misfortune and believe that my soul was being tempered and tested and moving closer to God.  I’d probably compare my sufferings to those of the Virgin Mary and to those of Christ, and feel humbly ennobled.  I can see the attraction in that, in the submission,  in relishing and reveling in submission to either God’s will or to the simple acceptance that I can’t control the universe.  But I’m a wayward child of religion, and I’ve never managed to believe that people need deep grief for character-building.  I persist in thinking that if God tortures people for their own good, then he’s a sadistic bastard who isn’t worthy of belief, and that if God even lets people suffer and die before their time, the same applies.  Free will just can’t account for all of the pain.

I toss and turn over these questions in much the same way I did when taking Philosophy 101 in college, only now the stakes, which were always personal, are very clearly personal, and heaven (or whatever) help me, I can’t let go of the questions or the struggle.

I’m too stubborn.  Not persistent, stubborn.  It occurs to me that the one great and un-stubborn act in my life was letting Teddy be taken off ventilation instead of opting for surgery that would have prolonged his life but probably not saved it, and I was only able to do that because my love for him outweighed all of my stubbornness and because N was there to hold my hand.  Maybe I have freedom to just be stubborn about everything else after that.

Life goes on, when it can, and I go on, and it’s been a couple of years now, but I still wrestle with and hammer away at this notion of God that I once thought I had figured out more than, it turns out, I ever did.  And I read a lot.  I work in an academic library, and love much about the work and my environment, but part of me dreams of working with children and young adult readers and literature, and I read a lot of YA lit., which means that I’ve read a few books by John Green, because he’s deservedly popular with YA readers.  I say he is popular instead of just saying that his books are because he puts a lot of time and care and energy in connecting with readers – I recommend peeking at the vlogbrothers on YouTube whenever you can – and he shares more of himself than many writers do.  Which I think is brave. This also makes it easy to learn facts like the following: he has a son who is maybe a month older than Dot, he likes mathematics, he was a Chaplain at a children’s hospital in Chicago.

Which means, he was one of the people you talked to, or couldn’t talk to, after your child died.

He’s a person I’d like to have a conversation with, and also a person I’ll never have a conversation with because I don’t actually know him, and striking up a casual conversation about the death of babies and about theodicy isn’t something I’m capable of, at least not in a sober state.  If I were trapped in an elevator with John Green, I’d at best manage to say something like, “thank you for writing really good books,” or, if I were especially eloquent (and this never happens to me in real life), “thank you for writing really good books and for caring so much about your readers.”  Then I’d stare at my toes and hope the elevator would move really quickly.

One of Green’s books, Looking for Alaska, happens to be a Printz award winner, which is a big deal.  It’s well-written and hilarious and has a lot of things to say about learning and youth and grief that are strike me as true.  While the book doesn’t offer any answers to my struggles with theodicy (and I’m not saying it should – that would be one hell of a narrow way to read a book), it helps, somehow, to know that someone is thinking and writing about grief and loss and religion in a questioning and non-saccharine way.  Green has been interviewed more than once about Alaska. What follows is his response to a question about religion from the Penguin Reading Guide to Looking for Alaska:

Q. Miles learns to take religion seriously. Did you? And, if so, do you still take it seriously?

A. I did learn to take religion seriously, and in much the same way that Miles does: Donald Rogan was an excellent teacher. He was obviously smarter than me, and he found religion interesting, so I came to find it interesting also. Religion concerns itself with the same existential questions that I find interesting and important. I think I probably prefer the study of religion to the practice of it, though. That said, I do consider myself religious now. In high school, I had a classmate who attended a Southern Baptist church, and he was a nice guy, but he would always ask me questions about religion that I felt invaded my privacy. One time, he asked me, “How is your relationship with God, John?” I thought about it for a while, and then finally I said, “Complicated.” It was complicated then, and after studying religion in college and working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and seriously considering a career as a minister, it remains complicated. I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I’m also not embarrassed by my doubt.

This is where I’d like to be some day.  I don’t think I’ll ever see myself as the sort of person with all, or most, of the answers.  I’m pretty sure I’ve lost forever the kind of faith that included the belief that God is some sort of personal friend who cares where my car keys are – I’ll be mourning that aspect of my faith for some time.  But I’d like to get to the point where I could hold faith and doubt in some kind of balance, where I could be honestly thankful when saying grace at the dinner table with my parents and then add my own private ending of  “and fuck you, God – you know why” to the blessing, and have that be okay.

Not that knowing where I want to be means I’ll get there, but maybe it improves my chances.


Santa Baby

December 5, 2010

“Does she have a stocking yet?” my parents ask me during their Thanksgiving visit.

She doesn’t, and she won’t really care whether she has one this year.  The presents, the tree trimming, the trappings of Christmas – they’re pretty much all for the enjoyment of the adults this year.  I have red and green blocks that spell out “Joy” and “Noel’ on my bookshelves.  And there is joy.  And the happiness in my life is outweighing the grief, and this means that I can enjoy the red and green and shopping and baking and music in a way I haven’t for a few years now.

My grandmother knit stockings for my brother and me when we were babies – red with our names and Santa Claus on them, his beard knitted with a special angora yarn so that it’s soft and fuzzy to the touch.  Their moments of glory were few – they never came out until Christmas Eve, our stockings – but I still get a little melancholy thinking that they aren’t together now that my brother and I are living on opposite coasts.

I think we figured out that Santa was “really” Mom and Dad long before we ever let on, but knowing the truth didn’t spoil the fun.  When I visited home for the holidays during graduate school we still put out milk and cookies (and a carrot for the reindeer), wrote a note, and hung our stockings.  No longer having the belief, the memory of the belief and the chance to play a group game of  “let’s pretend” was still magic – strong enough and resonant enough to make the ritual a happy one.

I have mixed feelings about Santa now, though.  I want to be scrupulously honest with my child.  I think I would have wanted this even if Teddy hadn’t died, but I don’t want to hide her brother from her, and that means I will soon be in a position where I can’t hide other things from her, too.  Someday I will be put in a place where she will ask questions about her brother and I will be hard up against the desire to make the world seem safe and warm and good and the need to let her know about the important missing part of our family.  I am steeling myself for someday having to guide her through some facts that I wish were different.  The fact that people die.  The fact that babies and children die, even when they are loved and wanted and ours.  The fact that people are sad.  The fact that we love her like crazy and still love and miss her brother, too.

Because I’m thinking about this, about how not to mess up her brother’s story or terrify her with it or hide things from her, I keep coming back to Santa, to stockings.  I loved believing in Santa and I love having memories of believing in Santa.  Santa is a chance to present the world as I want it to be, where all children get gifts from a kind piece of seasonal magic, where wishes come true.  And I may have read too many Dickens novels because when I think of the possibility of no stockings, of no Santa, all that comes to mind is Mr. Gradgrind and his poor, fancy-deprived children who come to bad ends.

But I have a history and a struggle with magical thinking, and while I may not be able to shield Dot from similar struggles, I’d like to at least not be the source of the struggles.  I want a little magic in her world.  I also want a guarantee that it won’t come back to bite her later.  And I want to tell her the truth, always, even as I plan to break it down into digestible bits.

And most of all I want all four of us to be hanging up our stockings this year.

Make that one come true, Santa Baby, and all my ambivalence will blow away like powdered snow under a reindeer’s hooves.


Milk teeth

December 2, 2010

The day after Thanksgiving, Dot put a plastic toy in her mouth and I heard a soft but distinctive click. She has a tooth. I have named it Bitey and am hoping that the name turns out to be an antonym for what is really a very gentle and mild little milk tooth.

She is now ten months old and we’d become big fans of baby orajel two days before, so the appearance of a tooth or two shouldn’t be that surprising.  She is growing up.  She is getting teeth.  This is what babies are supposed to do.

This is what babies are supposed to do, but my first didn’t do these things.  He’ll never grow up.  He’ll never cut his teeth on plastic toys and messy (but apparently delicious) teething biscuits.  So it still comes as a shock sometimes, the inescapable fact that my daughter is beginning to move from infancy to toddlerhood.  I want to tell her to slow down.  I want to tell time to slow down.  I want to tell her, “Grow, grow!”  I want to see who she becomes, this funny, busy, shrieking pterodactyl baby of mine.

This week I started the process of weaning.  It’s going to be a long process, partly because I’m emotionally attached to nursing her and partly because she turns her little nose up at formula.  Right now the care center is starting to mixing some formula in with her breast milk.  In a few weeks I plan on cutting out one of my two daily pumping sessions, which I’m looking forward to in spite of the fact that I know it’s the beginning of the end.  Because, seriously? I think my breast pump is named Gertrude.  I see her as a strict disciplinarian of the German school who would whack my knuckles with a ruler if she could.  “You must pump!” Whack! “Pump or your baby will starve!” Whack! “Why aren’t you pumping more milk?” Whack!  Whack!  Whack!

I realize, of course I do, that I’m projecting a lot of my own feelings about pumping onto poor Gertrude who has, after all, been a great help to me and to Dot.  The pressure to hook myself up twice a day, the guilt if I miss a session, the worry if I don’t produce enough ounces, the inconvenience of having to schedule my workday around events my coworkers would really rather not know about – these things have probably changed my relationship with breastfeeding for the worse.  I’m grateful I can do it, that I have the means and opportunity and skilz (I think pumping while answering email or ordering books constitutes skilz).  I know lots of moms who’d like to nurse their babies can’t.  I know what it’s like to have milk and no baby to nurse.

So I’m desperately grateful that I have someone to do it for, that my daughter is here and beautifully alive and vigorous and hungry.  But that gratitude feels like a burden sometimes.  How dare I stop?  No, seriously.  That’s an honest question.  How dare I?

I dare because it feels like it’s time.  I dare because my baby is now sprouting teeth and thinking of walking.  She’s happy and healthy and well-nourished, and I feel like it will make me a better mother and happier person to divest myself of pumping-related stress. I’d like to think that these reasons are good and that I won’t feel guilty, but I know that won’t happen.

A couple of my coworkers were joking today about how Dot is “definitely a first child,” and it made me rock back in my chair and hold my breath.  She’s not my first.  I hate it when people erase Teddy that way.  But they’re not entirely wrong; she’s my first living.  She’s the first I get to see grow, the first I can feed, the first I can nurture, the first I can warp for life.  I hope this is the right decision, and it feels like the right decision, but this parenting a living baby is new to me, and it might not be.

Wish me (and Dot and Bitey) luck.