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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Grief and being needed

My bedroom is where I work; it’s where I sleep; it’s where I grieve; it’s where I hide. This morning, it was also where I ate my oatmeal.

Chestnut blossoms
When I look past my laptop screen out the window, there is a wall of green. A few days ago, I noticed a purple bush splashing itself against that bristly green wall. In another few months, the chestnut trees will extend their blossoms like hands offering bouquets of pink petals.

Not long after eating, an email arrived in my inbox. It was a request from another mom, asking if I could help out during an art lesson at my son’s school. My first reaction was No, don’t want to help out with another art lesson. I am at school enough teaching my own son’s class art. Why would I want to help out another class?

Being a volunteer art teacher for my son’s 4th grade class was not something I wanted to do this year. I had only showed my face at school two or three times when C was in 3rd grade. They were: the day C resumed school after Riley died, for C’s parent/teacher conference, and for his glee concert. That was enough. And on the first day of school this year, it was another anxiety-driven morning of me hiding under my hat away from the faces of other parents scrutinizing me (or at least that’s what it felt like). During “Back to School” night, I stood next to the door, so that I could bolt if need be. I have found that having an escape route makes going to these school things slightly less intolerable.

Dali's "Swans Reflecting Elephants"
But I taught 4th grade art when Riley was in 4th grade. It seemed appropriate to teach it again for his brother this year. So that’s what I have volunteered to do. On the day of our first lesson, I felt my body shaking as I puttered around the art room that feels a lot like the inside of a double-wide trailer, waiting for the other volunteer parents to arrive. I stacked paper and opened plastic buckets with sketch pencils. Cold fingers reached for the school’s copy of Salvador Dali’s “Swans Reflecting Elephants” while nerves moistened the fabric of my blouse.

When the others arrived, I said hello. They said hello back. One mom gave me a long hug; the others just went about their business, asking about set-up and materials needed for the lesson. With the beating of my heart audible in my ears, I watched the clock counting down the last minutes before the children arrived and I would be on. It felt impossible to just pretend everything was normal. I had to say something.

“Hey,” I just wanted to thank you guys for being here,” I said as they covered the tables with bits of plastic cloth. “And I just wanted to put it out there that I’m feeling terrified. Terrified of the kids, terrified of all of you. Since Riley died, I’ve really struggled being around people; all days are hard in their own unique way. I’m doing my best, and please don’t ever take it personal if I’m short or seem angry. I’m just struggling and lost in grief.”

“Thank you for being here, Suzanne. And don’t worry about us,” one mom said. She wandered off to put sketchbooks on desks.

Another mom came over. “Did you realize that this is the same room we taught 4th grade art in last time?” I hadn’t, but she was right. This art room used to be one of the classrooms. It was Riley’s classroom and her son’s classroom when they were in 4th grade together. It felt fitting. A long inhale followed by a long exhale stabilized the off-kilter feelings I had after that realization. How had I not made that connection? It made me feel like Riley was there with me, helping me through. Tears bubbled up at the memory of all the lessons I taught his class three years earlier.

Just then the kids walked in and lowered themselves to the floor near Dali’s painting. After introducing myself, I started talking about the artist and our exciting lesson in which they would make their own magical chimeras with oil pastels and watercolor paint.

Friendly 3rd-grade waiter at Scat Cat Cafe
The memories of that first lesson washed over me as I re-read the request to help out with the other class’s art lesson. What I realized--at least in this very specific moment--is that I’m wanted. Even in grief, I’m wanted. Even in grief, I have something to offer. So often, I feel like a burden, that my grief is burden, that seeing me is a reminder that children die. And no one wants to think about children dying. It's such a downer. And so it’s easier if I’m not around, if I don’t make eye contact, if I don’t remind you of my dead son or just dead children, in general. I feel this way with my friends, with my acquaintances, with my family, with my neighbors, with the parents at school. I feel like eventually everyone will smarten up and realize it's just too much, that this grief-thing just isn't going away, that it's a real drag, and that having a relationship with me just isn't worth their time and energy. And then they will go away, just like I knew they would.

Many months ago I had a conversation with the mother of one of C’s friends. She told about the teacher at her son’s preschool who lost a child. The teacher feared that no one wanted her around. That she was unwelcome, unwanted. The parents reassured her that they did want her around, with her grief, her tears, her unpredictable emotions. I realize that’s how I feel, too. And maybe that’s why I’ve been neglecting my friendships, not responding to texts or invitations to get together. Because even though people are reaching out, I imagine that they can’t really want to spend time with me.

But here is an email requesting my help, even if it's only in this tiny, we-are-short-on-volunteers way. Perhaps, maybe, just maybe, I have something to offer after all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Grief and Puerto Vallarta

child loss
Showing Riley our view in Mexico

It was the day after Christmas in the Puerto Vallarta airport. My husband and I just spent a week in a sleepy beach town known for its gentle waves that entice surfing newbies onto waxed boards an hour north of there. As we sipped lattes while waiting for our boarding time, a familiar face passed as she headed for the restroom.

No, no, no, I panicked, feeling bemused about how there could be an acquaintance nearly 1,900 miles south and two time zones east of our Northern California home. We ran away from the holidays and the merriment of friends and acquaintances and their living children to a remote part of Mexico where I imagined hearing the words Feliz Navidad would feel less painful than hearing their English equivalent. But in that moment, in the busy terminal, there was the chance of no longer being anonymous. Anxiety replaced the serenity I found in the days spent perched above the sandy shoreline, and peppered with my enthusiastic, yet flawed Spanish.

Why would the sight of an acquaintance cause emotional distress? Because I have no idea what that person will say to me if we catch each other’s eye. While I can guess the topic--my dead 11-year-old son--I suppose it’s the approach, rather than the topic itself, that I most dread. Because I love talking about my son Riley.

Just like you enjoy bragging on your kids, I like bragging about him. I want to tell everyone about his quick plays at second base during his seven years of Little League, about the short stories and poetry he wrote, about his love of maps, of his siblings, his interest in penguins, hot sauce, and his desire to open a restaurant one day. We used to joke it would have been called, “Riley’s Salads and Fried Things” or “Riley’s Tofu and Salads.” His favorite dinner from the time he was just two years old was salad. I have photos of him, fork in hand, to prove it. Caprese sandwiches were his favorite. He loved that he had Italian heritage and enjoyed making his family bruschetta and croutons; he liked eating cloves of raw garlic. I can remember sending a little three-year-old boy into the backyard to pick handfuls of basil for batches of homemade pesto that would be spread on to thick slices of crusty bread.

But as a bereaved mother, I have found conversations with acquaintances to be painful, not because I am asked to speak about my son. But because the weight of the conversation is so often plunked down on my wounded heart with good, but flawed, intention. How are you? or even Sheryl Sandberg’s modified How are you today? sounds innocent enough. But in order to answer, I must access myself for this other person, in what ultimately is a passing moment in their daily routine. To me, it is so much more as I frantically scan myself in an attempt to sum up what it is like to live today without my son for a near-stranger. Okfine, or hanging in there are grossly inadequate and false

The moment’s complexity is exacerbated because interacting with humans with healthy, living children in general, is--quite frankly--a skill I have yet to master. You see, I'm still largely terrified of all of you. I'm also confused by all of you; your smiles, laughter, or your annoyance at traffic or the wrong latte at Starbucks. To be fair, I imagine your lives are far more complex than what I catch a glimpse of as I blast through my kid's school with my head down. We share the same roads and schools and grocery stores and oxygen supply, yet it feels as if we exist in parallel worlds. Most of the time I want to be invisible; yet, having you ignore me is a different kind of trauma. You're dammed if you do; you're dammed if you don't. I don't make the rules; I'm just stuck in this miserable grief game of trying to figure out how to exist among the living and having no clue about how to do it

To avoid that potential airport interaction, I turned around, slunk down in my chair, and watched the three kids opposite me--particularly the boy who looked about the same size at Riley who wore a “Most Valuable Player” t-shirt--eat pizza and chips. And I hid under my hat. I’m sure she didn’t recognize me with my short hair in the first place, anyway. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Grief and A Leap of Faith

my child died CHD
Gorgeous art from Issue 3 of Six Hens
* Note to reader: This is the "Letter from the Editor" from my literary magazine Six Hens. Issue 3 launched today. Feeling enormously proud. Read, feel something, share... *

A nurse tapped on the door before turning the handle. “I thought you’d want these,” she said as she approached me. She offered two Polaroid pictures of my newborn. Curiosity or instinct elevated my hand to receive them. “He’s beautiful. Do you have a name?” I shook my head then parted my lips to thank her. My words were reflex rather than gratitude.

She switched to nurse mode, asking when I’d last urinated or if I’d passed any clots larger than my fist and whether I wanted to breastfeed. When I said yes to that last question, she said she’d arrange for a lactation nurse to explain the basics. I didn’t protest, although I couldn’t understand how I could learn to breastfeed without a baby. Then her cool fingertips pressed my doughy abdomen. After her exam, I felt her access me in a different way. “You need to name him,” she said softly but firmly. That wasn’t any of her business. It wasn’t part of her job. But she must have heard about his x-ray, the one that showed his heart on the opposite side of his chest. She must have seen paperwork declaring “probable heart defect.” She must have known it was serious. She must have known that naming a newborn—even one with scrambled up insides—was more important than the possibility of him dying nameless.

Chalky morning light muted pinks and blues on the walls of the small room in the recovery ward of that Northern California hospital. It was before rush hour on April 3, 2003. Blankets and pillows swallowed me, but I was cold for the first time in months. My eight-pound-two-ounce furnace was in the nursery somewhere else on the floor. My fingers gripped the edges of the Polaroid pictures, which were face down on my lap. I flipped them. They were almost identical, showing a round-headed baby, eyes closed, head turned left with a breathing tube disappearing into his mouth. One image showed his torso where the umbilical cord stump had been removed. His skin was orange-red from iodine, which could’ve been mistaken for blood. I had read that a newborn’s stump normally fell off several days after birth, revealing a bellybutton. Our son, who we had yet to name, needed his cut away to use as a place to insert an IV.

I thought back to the moments after he slipped from my warm body into the cool, room-temperature air. As a hushed urgency of doctors escalated to my right, I noticed the baby was silent. “Ken? Is he breathing?” I asked my husband. He was, Ken said with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, “but something is wrong.”

A few minutes later, a nurse asked if I wanted to hold him briefly before they took him to the nursery for more tests. “I don’t think so,” I said unconvinced. After twenty hours of labor, my body was relieved to be free of him.

“You have to hold him,” Ken said. I reluctantly agreed. With my baby wrapped like a burrito in a blue, green, and white hospital blanket, the nurse set him on my chest so that I could see the creature that had been rolling around in my tummy for months. He wasn’t the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. His skin looked ashen, his face was contorted, and he was stretching his neck; it looked liked he was in pain. It felt like everyone waited for me to ooh and aah over him. But I didn’t. I just looked at him, at his twisted expression. The nurse said they had to take him. I didn’t want him any longer anyway. I felt faulty because I was not instantly in love.

When my husband returned to the recovery room, he explained that a neonatal transport team was on their way to ferry our baby to UCSF more than fifty miles south. I gave him the pictures. “You can go see him,” Ken said as he studied the photos, “if you’re ready.” When I didn’t respond, he lowered himself into the plasticky armchair to my left and took my hand. He looked thin, and dark patches underlined his pale blue eyes. It had been nearly nine hours since an initial newborn assessment forked us into separateness; I refused to accept that things were going horribly wrong. Surely he was just exhausted from being born; I was exhausted from giving birth. A few minutes later the nurse returned and parked a wheelchair next to the bed. I hesitated. Did I want to see my baby? A good mother would want to. Surely I was a good mother. Like a sack of rice, I slouched as Ken rolled me along. In a hallway carved of fluorescent light, it felt like we moved forward and backward simultaneously.

When we arrived in the nursery, I don’t remember seeing any other babies or cribs. Instead, the small space was crowded by neonatal transport experts. They prepared a special plastic box—a high-tech mobile incubator that would be placed in their ambulance. Plexiglass and a wall of EMTs separated me from my son. Through uniformed bodies, I could see bits of baby. An hand here, a knee there; so tiny, barely human under the web of intervention. He was enclosed, packaged, foreign. I wish I’d kissed his moist skin, inhaled his mossy smell when I had had the chance. The team assured us that he was stable and would be in the best of hands on his fifty-six-mile ride to UCSF, one of the top pediatric cardiac centers in the country. And then they were gone.

Kneeling in front of me as if he were about to propose, Ken’s warm hands reached for mine and pulled them to his damp face. Holding my gaze for a moment before putting his head in my lap, there was nothing to say. My fingers pushed through his trim brown hair and convulsions began. Unfamiliar sounds built in my diaphragm and erupted from my mouth, penetrating an otherwise quiet corridor. Nurses walked around us. No one asked us to move. We were left to mourn that moment. His birth. The unknown.

Eventually Ken pushed himself from the speckled linoleum and assessed my droopy posture. He brushed matted hair from my eyes. In whispers, we decided he should drive to UCSF, the hospital on a hill in our old neighborhood near Golden Gate Park, instead of waiting three more hours until I was allowed to be discharged. With that, he wheeled me back to our tiny room and helped me into bed.

“We have to name him before I leave,” he said with arms folded. I looked at his body, his denim pants and T-shirt, his waning hairline. Only in a twisted world would I debate pros and cons of naming my baby.

I hugged myself, squeezing my arms, rubbing open palms along my sides and over my vacant, shrunken stomach. “Okay,” I said after a long silence, still unsure. “Where’s the paperwork?”

He grabbed the form from the end table and clicked the end of a pen. The lines were long and blank. Without knowing his diagnosis or prognosis, I thought of the nurse, her prodding, and assumed a named child would be harder to forget than an unnamed child. He picked up the Polaroid photos and put them next to me. I studied the baby’s face and hoped it would tell me what it should be called. The blankets vibrated as my muscles shook. The stack of thin layers over my limbs didn’t seem to make a difference. After sinking down further, my eyes closed.

“We both like Riley,” he said, doing his best to keep me engaged.

My eyelids rose and focused on him. He nibbled at his cuticles as he waited for my response.

“I still like Mackenzie for a middle name,” I whispered eventually. “It means son of Ken. Then everyone knows you’re his dad. No one ever wonders who the mom is.” With that, he pushed pen to paper and our son’s name appeared. I sunk lower, clutching a pillow. He kissed my forehead, gathered his things and left.

It was incomprehensible. Riley was gone. I imagined miles of highway separating us, when nine hours earlier we had been connected. His flesh inside mine, held safe with breath and heartbeat. Nothing felt safe anymore. Ken drove home for a shower and fresh clothing before braving that unfamiliar San Francisco hospital, where he would start learning about our imperfect son, a baby I grew so horribly wrong.

It was just me in that little room. I had labored. I had delivered. But I was alone.

I didn’t know it at the time, but naming Riley despite terrifying uncertainty was a leap of faith. It was me desperately wanting him to be okay, hoping it was all a misunderstanding, a mix-up. It was also the first of many moments that define this mother’s love during my son’s truncated, eleven-year lifetime. He would have turned twelve on April 2.

Check out more powerful writing in the third issue of Six Hens!

Suzanne Galante, Editor in Chief

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Grief and looking

my child is dead
The wall between me and you...
The afternoon was a mishmash of things to do. Thirty seven items returned to the library. Two checks deposited at the bank. Two certified letters retrieved from the post office. Empty shopping bags piled at my feet waited to be weighted with carrots and milk and apples and edamame.

It was just after 3 pm, not long after the last bell launched children from the nearby middle school like a voice through a megaphone. My team usually walks home, but we decided to pick them up before heading to the grocery store so that they didn’t arrive at an empty, locked house. As we turned toward the school, there was a storm of students in every direction. They walked, rode skateboards or bikes, and carried instruments in bulky, oddly-shaped, black plastic cases.

Backpack straps pushed into shoulders and rolled along bumpy sidewalks. Crossing guards blew whistles, waved cars through an intersection, and launched “stop” signs into the air to pause traffic for impatient kids. Cars lined the block near the park -- a popular after-school meeting spot. Kids waited, parents talked, toddlers swung and climbed and slid. Unseasonably cool air reddened cheeks and forced arms into jackets that had hung in closets since the beginning of the year. 

From the passenger seat in my family’s dinged minivan, my eyes searched and my ears listened for the familiar faces and voices of the women I used chat with while I waited for my own crew. In that moment, I knew that somewhere in the last thirteen months, grief had shifted. While much is the same as it was a year ago -- I am not any less sad, for example -- things are also different. The fact that I even was looking beyond the brim of my cap was a change. I could not do that last year. I could not be near school, especially at pick-up. It was as if my fear of other parents and living, healthy children made me afraid of anything and everything. Seeing them doing their normal things was like a paralyzing storm inside of me. My limbs were like downed trees, immobile and broken. My mind was like a clogged gutter, mucky and stuck. 

As we looked for the kids, a longing rose within as I missed the time when I was among the friendly mothers who met their children at the park after school. There are so many things I miss...

After noticing that slight internal shift, that desire to see the community of people I used to move through and among, I considered the errands I had just participated in. They were nothing out of the ordinary. From store to store, my feet carried me. My arms reached for gallons of milk. My mind made the to-do list. But I was not terrified. After Riley died, the world seemed like it was made of make-believe. I felt sidewalks would crumble under my shoes; I feared walkways were obstructed with sheets of glass; walls wobbled; branches angled like arrows aimed at my heart. Moving like a wounded animal, I cowered. I hid behind shelves and scoped safe pathways between myself and the cereal aisle. With arms wrapped around my torso, protecting my weeping organs, I scurried with eyes down. Like a raccoon, I avoided people. Like a deer, I froze as if to be invisible. I imagined people judged me when they saw me, that they believed that it was my fault, that I had killed my son. I imagined they were thinking: Why did you put him in the hospital? Why did you grow him wrong? How could you be out shopping or getting your nails done

Hats still cover my forehead. A spasm still jolts my limbs when a familiar figure is spotted. It’s often (but not always) followed by a pirouette that launches me to a different part of the shop. But like glancing around for familiar parents at the park, I realized I look up a little more often in the first place. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Grief and scowling

mother grief child died
Tile at Riley's elementary school
My husband was not home for dinner Tuesday night. He was at a school meeting. I sat at the table with three loud children. Enthusiastic children. They were excited about the cheesy garlic bread I made. They wanted to grate mountains of cheese onto their spaghetti. They did not like the look of their apple and beet salad with walnuts. But they laughed. They hummed. Told jokes. Asked for seconds of bread and pasta and cups of water. Said please and thank you. They were just being themselves.

I scowled at them.

I couldn’t wait for mealtime to be done so that I could excuse myself and retreat to my quiet bedroom. I spend a lot of time in my quiet bedroom these days. But just before people were done eating, my nine year old caught my eye in a lull in the hullabaloo and said: “Mom, I want to apologize. I know we’ve been acting a little crazy. And it seems like it’s really upsetting you.”


Despite their version of craziness, they see what’s going on. How sweet of him to notice. At the same time, how sad that he’s noticing. How sad that mom was scowling in the first place. Scowling so much that my son felt the need to apologize. I said thank you for noticing. I told him it wasn’t about them having fun; it was just about me feeling sad about Riley.

He was right, though. I was really upset. The things I used to enjoy about my kids are upsetting now. I get mad at them. I scowl. I don’t like fun. Or laughter or any kind. Mealtime used to be a joyful event. A few months before Riley went into the hospital last year while my husband was out of town, we spent an entire meal only singing to each other. As in, anything that needed to be said was sung, not spoken. “Would you please pass the cheese?” was a melodic request followed by: “Yes. I will pass the cheese, pass the cheese, PASS the cheese.” Think Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the best. 

Laughter is now grounds for disgust. I just don’t know how to let things roll off of me anymore. Or really be in the moment. I’m lost in despair because of what happened to Riley; I’m lost in anguish because I have to live this life without him. Most of the time, I feel like I’m in sensory overload. It’s like the whir of a stove fan overpowering most of what’s going on around me. It makes it hard to hear things. It makes is hard for me to concentrate. Before Riley died, I struggled when there was a lot of sensory input around. When the kids were talking and there was music playing and the oven fan was running, my brain was stuffed with too much to process. Now I feel that way all of the time, even in a quiet room. That is my baseline. I’m always running at capacity. Add three enthusiastic voices singing and laughing and talking over each other and my brain feels like it’s going to burst. Hence, the scowling.

If my brain were a balloon, and grief was water, my brain would look strained by the amount of liquid forced into the allotted space. Grief has exceeded its capacity. Each person or sound is like turning on the tap even though the latex has no room for another drop. Even kids’ laughter. Or maybe I should say especially kids’ laughter. My brain cannot take the input. Despite the talks we’ve had about them feeling sad on the inside even though they look happy on the outside, it’s hard to accept. All that laughter feels like a betrayal of the truth. All that laughter is stretching my brain beyond capacity to tolerate my reality.

There are times that I can manage, that I enjoy being with the kids. I like reading together before bedtime. It doesn't happen very often, but I like it when it does. It's a sit-and-be-quiet time. We are together in a way where I don't feel overloaded. We read Riley's favorite books or talk about whether Riley would like this or that in the stories. I can almost imagine that he's there listening, too. Although, I'm sure he was also there laughing at the table, making jokes, singing along, sprinkling hot pepper flakes on his dinner, then lifting his shirt over his head, spinning it around like a lasso, trying to get everyone to laugh.

I really don't know why I manage one, but not the other. I could speculate, but I think I'll just be grateful that there are times when the scowling gives way to togetherness.