“hardest day #3”

​The truth is that they’re all hard days, now. For the last week, every single day has been the hard day, and every single tomorrow has held another variety of the hard day. It was a week ago that Katie learned that Grace died — just 7 days, last Friday, a week ago today. How can that be possible? That day, that Friday, was the hardest day. Saturday Katie was induced. That was so hard. Sunday at 3:08am she delivered Grace and held her, and eventually left the hospital with only Trey’s hand in hers, another hardest day.  Monday, hard decisions to be made. Tuesday, hard errands to be run. Wednesday, a hard conversation to be had. Thursday, hard and painful tasks to do. And here we are at the third in a series of hardest days, the funeral. 

I haven’t been to a funeral in so long, and in fact, I’ve only been to five in my life: Big Daddy’s (my grandfather, who was in his 60s and died of cancer); my father’s (he committed suicide when I was 23); Ruth’s (my sweet former mother-in-law, who died of cancer); Kiki’s (my sweet former father-in-law, who died of Alzheimer’s); and Sue’s (my friend Peggy’s mother, who died of ALS). That’s it. I don’t remember very much about Big Daddy’s funeral; I don’t imagine it was a very big group who gathered in Graham. I remember my father’s funeral, a very small gathering at a lonely graveside in Taylor, TX, and I remember Ruth’s funeral, a huge Catholic mass followed by a great big joyful wake, and I remember Kiki’s funeral, a huge Catholic funeral in San Antonio, crowded with friends and family mourning that sweet man, and I remember Sue’s funeral, a smaller and quite moving service in a lovely church in CT. 

Grace’s service will be very very small, just 10 people — a portion of the immediate family (all of Katie’s immediate family, plus Trey’s parents and one sister). Instead of using the large chapel-type room at the funeral home, we’re using a small room off to the side, the scale appropriate to the size of the little casket as if such a thing is even possible. Small flower arrangements, so as not to dwarf the tiny thing. The impossibly small heart-shaped urn that will hold Grace’s ashes once she is cremated, engraved with her name and the single date, of her delivery. A couple of photographs, one of her profile from the ultrasound, and one taken after her delivery, of her sweet little hand.​ And then us, crowded around. An officiant saying some words. And then we leave and return to Katie’s house. Sherlock and Peggy sent food, and we 10 will sit and put it in our mouths, grateful for the way it will allow us silence in each other’s presence. And then everyone else will leave, and then tomorrow Marnie and Will leave, and then one day soon I will leave.

Temma sent me these beautiful, beautiful words while I was composing this post:​

Sun taunts the mourner.

Blue stuns the
eye.             

A passage has occurred. 

I do feel taunted, and stunned, and I’m still trying to comprehend this passage. ​I do not know how we will endure this morning, even as I know that we will, without a doubt endure it.  We will be isolated in our grief and we’ll be clinging to each other desperately, trying to save ourselves and trying to save each other.  The death of an infant — a stillborn infant — violates everything we think we knew about life and what’s right and what’s possible and what’s fair (even though we also know too much about life and that what’s right has nothing to do with it and that fair happens in a board game where you have a set of rules in your hand). 

​Goodbye, Grace Louise Lowery. I loved you so very very much.

how do you do the next thing after this?

A couple of nights ago, Katie asked Trey before they went to sleep, “How does it get better?” And I loved that specific question, because of all the ways she might have worded it, that version contains the possibility that it can and will get better. There’s a possibility. How do we get there. We can’t see it now, we have no idea how to get out of this terrible room, and if and when we do, we’ll also have to figure out how to feel ok that we left the room……but we think there is a way out.

There are so many layers to moving on. The least important layer is a social one, a kind of pressure that (at this point) isn’t coming from anyone external to me but only from my worries — at some point people will be real tired of hearing about this. It’s awfully soon to even have this thought, and right now it’s nothing more than a thought, a tiny point of anticipatory awareness. Another layer is guilt, obviously; gosh, here we are laughing?! Seriously?! Does that mean we cared so little? How could we be laughing at a time like this — or that, or the next, or the next. Partly because we’re in the lull between things — the funeral is Friday at 10, and there’s not much to be done now but wait for it — I find my mind drifting to other things. I haven’t been able to read, but in Myanmar I read seven books and I’d like to talk about one or two of them here. Right now, the impulse to write about other things is all I have; when I sit down to do it, I just go blank. But one of these days I’m going to be ready to write about other things. As someone wrote me in an email, you get tired of FEELING so much.

Moving on will include allowing there to be other babies in the world, other mothers and fathers of little ones. Moving on will mean being able to see their joy, to ask how the baby is doing, even to be excited over all the little moments. When friends have babies, they won’t balk to tell us, they won’t whisper about being sure not to mention this to them. Then, I guess, we’ll be back in touch with the excitement we all felt. Before. And boy are we not there yet, of course. But one of these days we will….right?

Trey will go back to work, one of these days. He deals with people who are unhappy with their custom installations — first world problems if ever there were any, and so pale next to his pain. He’ll have to do that. Katie will go back to her pre-Grace life, with the beautiful nursery upstairs and no longed-for and deeply loved child tucked into the pretty crib. I’ll go back to New York and try to let my dreams of Grace swim and float away, settle down into the recesses of my beating heart so I can carry them around a little more easily. We’ll laugh again, a few seconds here and there, a longer patch, maybe even a carefree Sunday afternoon. We’ll bear our way through the upcoming holidays, and then 2013 will start. We all have keepsakes, little photographs, notices from the newspaper, cards and condolences, impressions of her footprints, and we’ll find special places for those things so she’s just right there with us in some way as we move on to the rest of our lives.

I’d posted this poem by Ellen Bass here a few weeks ago; it’s explicitly about grief, but I’d found it meaningful in some other context. Here, though, it fits squarely with grief and moving on, our looming and thoroughly impossible-seeming task:

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

No one is spared the experience of death, and almost no one gets away without feeling grief in the face of it.  Even as we secretly think, yeah, but you got to at least hold your baby and hear her cry, or well, at least you just miscarried so early, or at least you got to have your child with you for X yearsor well we all expect to lose our parents/grandparents/friends so at least that’s “normal,” the fact is that death is absolute and shocking in its foreverness, and awful and isolating, no matter what. The most horrible part of it can be that life simply goes on, and that we will, too. 

boundaries

I’m an open book. I have no problem at all talking about how I’m feeling, telling you my thoughts and how I’m dealing and grappling with things. Unfortunately, because the early years of my life were so dramatic and beyond proportion for what most people deal with, and unfortunately since I have no problem talking about them, I can be shocking to others at times, even though I certainly don’t mean to be. I don’t talk to shock, I talk to share and connect. When I try to think about the concept of “boundaries,” I gather I should not talk about some of the things I talk about, but when I think through that issue, I think I have nothing to be ashamed of — others did things to me, I have no reason to be silent, there is no shame in having been an innocent child. So you can see that I ​don’t quite get this issue that’s so clear to everyone else.

And here, in the wake of Grace’s death, my impulse is to talk, to tell the stories of this experience, to share them. I keep writing and deleting, because this time there is a boundary that’s clear even to me. This is Katie’s and Trey’s experience. This is their loss, their grief, their burden, their nuclear impact, it’s not mine to talk about. Of course there are aspects that are mine: I’m Katie’s mother so I’m dealing with my child in pain, and if you’re a mother, you know what that means, the impossibility of just letting it go on (as if I can do anything about it). I also lost someone, a child I’d been dreaming of, a child I’d been longing to see and hold and kiss. A child whose profile I gazed at a dozen times a day; I kept her most recent ultrasound picture on my computer desktop and on my phone, for a quick glance or a long lingering gaze, soaking her into me. So I lost her too — and it’s not the same but it’s my loss.​

I struggle with how to talk about it here, because I’m keenly aware that this situation isn’t about me, and Katie’s experience is not mine to discuss. I’ve tried so hard not to do that here, not to talk about what she is going through in any detail. I’ve tried to keep my talk focused on my own experience, but even that is bounded by my daughter’s experience. There are aspects of what’s been happening that were my experience, and I want to write about them, but I can’t because I respect her privacy and her suffering and don’t want to add a mustard seed to it. So I’ll turn to friends, I turn to my personal support people and will probably talk about it until they’re all tired of it. There are things I need to talk about that will be very very hard to hear, and I need to talk about them. Mainly, though, it’s the basic problem of grief — the length of it, longer than people might think it should take; the oncoming days that are marked in some way to the grieving but invisible to everyone else (this Saturday is Katie’s due date, for instance); the rollercoaster nature of it, taking us out of a moment all at once and without warning; the ways we’ll notice that we’re laughing, or thinking of something else, and then feeling so guilty for that; and then there’s the long-term project of finding a place for the deep emptiness of it.

I’ve had the opportunity to mother my kids during this period and it’s been so sweet. I tuck them into bed, I breathe in their foreheads, I stroke their hair off their faces. I cook them dinner (actually I help them cook dinner for us all), I go grocery shopping with them, I assign them chores, I am probably being too bossy. I fetch drinks and snacks, I suggest ways to pass time — we play cards, we make popcorn and watch tv, our family’s historical ways of passing time. ​Each day Katie and Trey have their list of impossible tasks and Marnie and Will and I try to find some way to help while they’re gone, and failing that, some way to busy ourselves until they return. I try to moderate tiny bursts of internecine squabbles, and I try to see that I am also getting what I need to keep going. I try to notice when Trey is quiet, because he is grieving in the midst (the intense midst) of Katie’s family. We are his family but we are not his family, so he is doing what we’re doing, but with strange people all around. To us, he’s just Trey, our family, but I try to remember that he didn’t grow up with us. Poor Trey, poor Katie, poor all of us.

Thanks again for the great many kindnesses you’ve shown us — words and notes and cards and flowers and even food. 

the fragility of things

  • Marnie said a couple of days ago how awful it is letting people know such terrible, tragic news over email, or in a facebook post, and I’ve also struggled with how you spring our kind of news on people — even in person, or on the phone, there’s just a dreadful moment before you tell someone. I understand Marnie’s point about electronic sharing, and also feel like it’s a blessing, in a way, because we only have to say it once. We can prepare how to say it, and then it’s done. Unlike adult deaths, when a baby is stillborn, there was this great expectation, everyone knows it’s any day now, are you feeling contractions yet, any news? So yes, there is news.
  • Grace Louise died because of a knot in the umbilical cord. That’s all. It was obvious when she was delivered, but the autopsy and tests showed unequivocally that ​nothing else was wrong. While that’s a great thing for future pregnancies, for this one it’s devastating. The if onlys are thick in all our minds. There is a haunting going on inside us, things we think privately that are too hard to share, thoughts and what ifs and wonderings, too impossible to even say out loud, even if we weren’t so desperate to spare each other, in case others hadn’t thought about them.
  • It seems like an outrageously stupid design — bad evolution, bad bad bad bad — putting a baby in a large space filled with fluid and a long rope-like thing on which the baby’s life depends. Ropes get tangled. And tangles get knots. Stupid idiotic design.
  • Of the great many​ cliches that abound, you do see who people are when you’re at one of these existential hinge moments, as I call births and deaths. It’s not as much about the people who hear about it and don’t even acknowledge it (and there are plenty of those) as it is about the enormous grace and compassion of most people. There isn’t anything to say, no one can come up with a magical phrase. There isn’t anything to do, though flowers are thoughtful and cards are sweet. But nothing can affect or transform the reason we’re all here. Nothing at all. I clean and sweep and organize and mow their yard and shop for groceries and make dinner with my kids and big deal. But it’s what there is to do. We’ve all been so touched by people’s heartfelt efforts to say something, anything.
  • My little family is together here, for the first time in years, and it’s the worst kind of gathering you can imagine. And we all came into it at our worst, already exhausted, for our own individual reasons. We are all here without our own support people around us, we are all physically exhausted and it just gets worse, we are all facing something we’ve never faced and have no idea how to do it, we bring our interpersonal histories with each other and some bits are prickly and unsettled, and we are all managing unimaginable grief, each with our own particular flavors. So we are all our worst selves, trying and wanting to be and do our very best.  It took me a while to realize this structure, and after I told Marnie and Will how it seemed to me, I think it helped them. We have to be patient with each other and let things go, try to help each other when our worst self pops up because we’re all just trying so hard.
  • I’ve seen a side of my daughter Katie that strikes awe into me, the kind of awe that leaves you without words. If you were to write a guide, summoning everything you knew about life, bringing in what research shows, what philosophies and religion show, what your best experiences have shown, it would still pale beside Katie, and Trey. Where and how they are gathering the courage and strength they’re managing is a mystery to me. They aren’t looking away, they aren’t running away, they’re standing there together, facing every little thing even though they don’t know how they can do it, or how to do it. Grace’s body will be cremated in the next few days and they will be there together — not because they think they possibly can bear it, but because not being there with her at that time would be even worse. They tell us this and we all balk and quail and draw ourselves in, and they sit there side by side, looking at each other with tears running down their faces but with solidness. I feel very small beside her.

T​hank you all for the words of kindness, for the backchannel messages and emails, and for the way you’ve helped me and my family feel just a little less alone. The funeral will be held on Friday, a very small little service for immediate family only, and Marnie and Will return to their homes on Saturday. It’s good, we’re peeling away slowly from Katie and Trey, rather than all at once leaving en masse. I’ll stay until they’re ready for me to leave, and it will be very hard for me to leave when the time comes but the time will come, one of these days. Until then, I’ll come back here when I can, to my little pillbug palace.

it all can change in a single moment

​My little granddaughter Grace has died. She was just 8 days away from her due date, and for as-yet unknown reasons, she simply died. Yesterday morning I received the unimaginable call from my poor sweet daughter, for whom this is unimaginable-er still. I am flying to Austin, leaving for the airport in less than an hour, and will arrive during my daughter’s labor. My other children are coming too — Marnie arrives half an hour before me and we’ll go to the hospital together, a blessing, and Will arrives tomorrow morning. At least we will all be together for the next stunning days.

I tried to get a few hours of sleep but I just lay in the dark, listening to people laughing on the street — so hollow for me — and my husband snoring, and finally I just got up. While I feel utterly alone, I know I am not. Friends rushed to me yesterday, words of love and comfort have surrounded me, phone calls and emails and texts and messages, all from people who love us and who tried to find words even though there are none.​

Love Sorrow
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
~Mary Oliver

The next days will be among the hardest in my life, and I’m so grateful for all the love around me, and for all the love my family has for each other. Grateful for having had the opportunity to love this little girl with all my heart for almost 9 months, grateful for the hours I got to spend thinking about her while stitching her quilt, and knitting her stocking. Grateful for the little peeks I got at her beautiful profile, from the ultrasound pictures. I hope I get to hold her, and I hope Katie does, for her sake, though it will feel impossible in a way I cannot imagine.

Last dance

This is an inside story, really, though I imagine I’ll tell the whole thing in January. I loved disco, I loved dancing myself into a state of bodyless bliss, getting outside myself. Even still, when I hear the music it automatically sends me there, even if I’m not dancing. Last night I was talking to Marnie about some big things (I’m resisting the urge to capitalize those two words), and she interrupted to tell me that this song was playing in the background, where she sat. You have no idea how perfect it is, but some day I’ll tell you. I’m putting this here as a reminder to myself of how beautifully synchronous the universe can be, on occasion.​ 

family

Family is one of the most important things to me, but also one of the most complicated. The family I grew up with is shattered and permanently disbanded. I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in 25 years. My sister pops up once every 10 years or so and then it’s over after a couple of days or weeks. I haven’t seen or spoken to my brother in 27 years, and until a few months ago, I didn’t even know if he was still alive. My father killed himself 30 years ago, and my stepfather died in prison ~20 years ago. They were never trustworthy people, never safe, never there except as a threat to my life or sanity. My grandfather, Big Daddy, died when I was 12 but has remained large in my life ever since. I had no cousins, one uncle.

me and the kids in 2002-ish

When I had my three children, I finally had a family. It has grown as my kids married — I have two sons-in-law now, and shortly I’ll have a granddaughter, Grace.  And along the way I’ve collected people who fill in the gaps for family — a couple of brothers, a sister, a dad. The role of dad has rotated among a few men, starting with my former father-in-law Kiki. I have a friend now who fills the role.  I’ve never found a mother, though my former mother-in-law was quite good to me and we loved each other very much. Recently, I was talking with a friend here in Manhattan who asked if she and another friend were sisters, and I knew immediately that they weren’t. It’s hard to know why one friend is a family member and another isn’t; it absolutely isn’t about depth of feeling, or importance, or love. It’s more about some kind of feeling of being in the same tribe. Being the same kind of people in some deep way, indescribable — made of the same stuff, holding the same sense of things, very similar sensibilities, sometimes shared memories, but that isn’t necessary. The woman who is my sister is new to my made-up family; she married my made-up brother and she just feels like family, even though I’ve only seen her 4 times. But there’s a deep click, a deep sense of familiarity.

Earlier tonight I had dinner with my Manhattan friend who had asked if she was my sister. We were talking about a man she knew and I asked if he was in her tribe. If you read my old blog, you may remember I have this idea that we have tribes; the crying people are my tribe, as are social psychologists, Texans, serious readers, my family, and people who need to write. These are my people, the identity groups, the people who resonate very deeply with who I am as a person. When I meet someone who is in one of those groups, we have so much shared in common that we can use shorthand when we talk because we share assumptions, understandings, and experiences. There are things I don’t have to explain to a Texan that I’m not even sure I could articulate to a New Yorker.

But I can see how this is confusing to someone who loves me and who I love, to a very important friend, to someone I love to talk to. Why aren’t valued friends part of my family? This friend is in my psychology tribe, even though she’s not a psychologist (she knows so much about it from having written about it for years as a journalist). She’s definitely in my reader tribe, and in my writing tribe. I know I could count on her if I was in trouble — I don’t even have to wonder, I know I could. We hang in there with each other through trouble. I talk to her nearly every day. I know her better than I know the friend who is my sister, than the friends who are my brothers. And yet she isn’t my sister, and I don’t even have to think about it to know the answer. It’s mysterious, family, even if it’s a made-up family. (But she and another of my friends are like sisters to each other!)

Maybe all this is just me. Maybe because I didn’t know what family meant until I had kids, because my original family was so horrible and crazy, maybe I have a strange focus on it, a strange understanding of it. Maybe certain aspects of the way I grew up have led me to look for tribes and family in a way that others don’t. Maybe this isn’t something you even THINK about. I’ll bet you do, though, but maybe you don’t name them in the same way I do. But you know who your people are — “these are my people!”, people say that all the time. And family, you just know it, you just know that she’s like a sister to you, she’s like a mother. Maybe you didn’t need to cobble together a whole family, but you have friends who are family.

I’m such a lucky person. Things didn’t start off very well in my life, but they got better and better, my life got richer, and I collected friends and gave birth to a family and made a family and found my tribes. So very lucky, right?

I hope you have a wonderful Friday, y’all.