Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Trait That Makes Us Human


A couple of months ago Jasper and I were tucked under the down comforter on the "big bed," reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Book six of the Harry Potter series is probably way too dark for a seven year-old, but he has always had a sturdy grasp on the difference between fact and fiction, and he doesn't scare easily. I had just arrived at the part where Dumbledore has died and the members of the Order are huddled together in shock. I looked down at Jasper and saw tears on his cheeks.

"Are you crying, sweetie?" I asked.

He nodded. "I'm crying because Lupin is sad, and he's my favorite character," he said.

And then I cried, too, partly because Mrs. Weasley had just entered the room to discover that her oldest son, Bill, had been horribly disfigured, and partly because it was such a joy and a relief to see that kind of empathy in my son.

Empathy is, Wikipedia says, both the ability to feel what others are feeling and to imagine another's perspective. The American Psychological Association calls it "the trait that makes us human." What empathy is, whether we as a society are deficient in it and, if so, how we can create more of it has been on a lot of minds, including mine, since well before December 14. That grim day, though, has given us all a new sense of urgency.

When you grow up in a house with narcissistic personality disorder, empathy is as rare as rhodium. Which is why, when Jasper was born, Jonathan and I quickly decided that we did not care whether he could do square roots at two or compose a sestina at four or dunk a basketball at ten. All we cared about was that he had empathy. When he was a baby we watched his affect, checking for evidence. Did he cry when others were distressed? As he grew into a toddler we often worked on the cognitive piece, trying to help him understand why Sophie was crying or why Sam had thrown his toys across the room.  We both knew, too well, that there are some people for whom empathy is missing. And then when he offered a crying child his stuffed animal, we cheered.

*

I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Moment. The panicked rush to the school, the wait at the firehouse, the reunions happening all around them until there were forty of them left. Their children's names on a piece of paper. Being ushered into the back room of the firehouse, their minds racing with desperation. Maybe he's hiding in a closet. Maybe she's wounded. Wounded is OK. I'll take wounded. The wait. The prayers and the invocations to God and Jehovah and Allah and the Universe. And then The Moment. The unendurable moment: my child is dead.

There's that moment, and then there's the rest of your life.

I read that the parents' main worry and concern was that their children didn't suffer in their last moments. Were they afraid? Did they know what was happening to them? Every parent who has lost a child has asked themselves these questions. I'm lucky in comparison. I have spent eight months constructing a narrative in which death caught Balthazar unawares and without great pain. I don't know how the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary will be able to tell themselves a story which they can endure. 

*

My intense feelings about the need for empathy and its sorry state in our culture began earlier this year with a spate of tragedies involving children and their coverage on the internet. If you want to retain your faith in humanity you should never ever read internet comments. I realize it's probably unfair to extrapolate the end of civilization from an unrepresentative sample of trolls, but the amount of judging of other people online is stunning.

Marina Krim, the mother whose two small children were murdered by the nanny, was excoriated online for employing someone to help her watch her kids, and explicitly blamed for their horrible deaths. The woman whose children and parents died in a house fire on Christmas Eve was blamed for having a live-in contractor boyfriend who did some work that wasn't up to code and then put some apparently live ashes in a paper bag in the mudroom. The mother of a vision-impaired two year-old who died when she lifted him up to see some African wild dogs and he fell into the exhibit, was tried and sentenced for murder in forums on many sites. How many times did I see the words, "I have absolutely no sympathy for (fill in the name of a person who has suffered a tragedy)". Because of what others perceived to be their errors, their failings, these suffering women had, according to many of their fellows, put themselves beyond the Pale, outside the reach of human compassion.

I can fall into it as much as the next person. When a Kennedy died playing football on skis, I said, well, that was stupid. When Michelle Duggar was pregnant with her twentieth kid despite almost dying with the nineteenth, I shook my head. There's always someone who ties their skateboard to the back of a car, or someone who tries to climb Mt. Hood in the winter by themselves without an emergency beacon. But I'm taking a harder look at myself, and my conclusion is that this kind of thinking is a failure of empathy and a huge moral lapse. Because even if someone made a mistake or suffered a failure in judgment, does that lessen their family's pain? Are the rest of us mistake-free? Whatever happened to "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"

What happened in Newtown, CT is that rare event in which it's next to impossible to blame the victims or their families for anything. Those parents sent their kids to school. Those children went to school to read and sing and make puppets out of paper plates and popsicle sticks. They can't even say that security at the school was lax; they had just installed a security system in which the doors were locked and people had to be buzzed in. Still, there are people out there who say the principal or the teacher should have had a semi-automatic weapon. They were at fault for being unarmed.

When I googled empathy, in addition to coming across an adorable YouTube video of
Mark Ruffalo teaching a puppet about the word on Sesame Street, I found that one of the top entries on empathy was Glenn Beck explaining why empathy is bad.

Empathy is bad, he believes, especially for Supreme Court justices, because it might lead her (it was Sonia Sotomayor he was talking about) to take other people's experience into account when applying the law. I always thought that "justice is blind" meant unprejudiced or impartial, but apparently it's supposed to mean without compassion. Justice, says Beck, doesn't look at the guys in the back of the truck being shot at by helicopters, or the children shot to death with semi-automatic rifles.

I watched an amazing video yesterday made by author and philosopher Roman Krznaric that says all of this better than I can, but one of his points is that empathy is potentially revolutionary. Which, I think, is why some people are so afraid of it.

I don't generally do politics, not because I don't think it's important but because I don't think I'm much good at it. I wrote a paper about racism when I was a senior in high school that only got a B+. My mother thought it was self-righteous, and I have no doubt it was. I'm still not over it. But here's my political statement anyway: Everything follows from empathy; empathy is the beginning, not the end.

With empathy for the victims of gun violence, not just the children and educators of Newtown, CT, but the children of inner city Chicago and women who are victims of domestic violence and moms who attend midnight movies and dads who sell products at mall kiosks, we might change our laws. With empathy for the children of Afghanistan who are blown up while collecting firewood, we might change our foreign policy. With empathy we might reevaluate how we fail to treat and care for the mentally ill.

With empathy, Adam Lanza could not have done what he did. Maybe he was one of those people for whom empathy was always missing. Maybe he had a psychotic break. But I hope and believe that for most of us, empathy can be taught and modeled and encouraged.

*

A couple of months ago my mother said, referring to Balthazar's death, that she was glad that I had not had to confront evil.

"You mean like if someone had murdered him?" I asked.

"I just think that would be so hard to encounter evil," she said. She sounded as if she were comforted by the thought that Balthazar had not died at the hand of another human being. I wanted to say that I was glad for her that she had come to this peace about Balthazar's death, but that her peace wasn't my peace.

When my mother said that, though, she might as well have had the events of December 14 in mind.  Except that I don't believe in evil the way she thinks of it. I believe that we make this world, with our actions, our words, our beliefs, our policies and laws. With our empathy, or lack thereof. And that is why it is way too easy to say that Adam Lanza was evil. Adam Lanza was a product of our world. This is who we are? This is what America has become? Is this the country we have bequeathed to our children, asking them to live (and die) in it? It cannot be.

Lupin dies in Book Seven. Jasper will cry. I will cry. I will thank the heavens for the tears that make us human.





Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Late Parenthood


Yesterday a friend of mine posted a link to a piece in The New Republic about late parenthood, The Grayest Generation. It's been making the rounds for the last couple of days, and it's so hot on the interwebs right now that I had already read a critique of it on Slate before I read the actual article. The title of the critique when I read it: Why It's a Terrible Idea to Wait Until Thirty-five to Have Kids. I've got to hand it to the editors at Slate. From the very beginning of this journey, when we were considering whether or not to try to have another child, their writers have been there, every day of the week, always ready with the fear-mongering and the judgment. Today I see Katie Roiphe has a new screed about the "feminist fertility myth."

How can I blame them, though, when I lap it up? Looking for statistics to bolster my position; looking for arguments that add to my guilt. Late parenthood: yes, I have a dog in this fight, I'm just not sure which dog. Do I defend it, because it's what I "chose"? Or condemn it, because this last time it went wrong?

I use scare quotes around the word "chose" because one of the things Judith Shulevitz, the author of the original essay, seems to be questioning is the extent to which we all choose our choices. Children are conceived, born and raised at the intersection between personal choice and social and economic factors that are outside of our control.

Of course no one likes to think about that. We all believe in personal responsibility, and it's comforting to think we have control over our lives, especially when things go well. It allows us to feel we deserve it. To write about this makes me feel like a big whiner explaining why all of this is not my fault. But I spend every day thinking about how this is all my fault. Today, I will spend at least part of the day thinking about how it's not.

The single most important factor in any discussion of late parenthood is contraception. Talking to Jasper a couple of months ago I realized that he thinks you have to try to have a baby. In his universe, parents make the decision to have a child, then they try to have one. Which is, of course, what Jonathan and I did, both times, so it's no wonder he thinks that. He has no idea how radical a notion that really is. That for most of history and in many parts of the world today, children are something that happen to you, whether you want them or not. Whether you can feed them or not. Contraception has altered everything. And I just want to say, thank God for that. All of the politicians who want to return us to a time when women were at the mercy of men and of our reproductive capabilities can go fuck themselves.

When I was a kid I fully expected to be a young mother. But I noticed a long time ago that the trajectory of my life is much more similar to my father's than to my mother's. I got a graduate degree before marriage. I bought my first house at 34. I had my first child at 34. I had my second child at 41. For my mother, all of those milestones happened a decade earlier, except for the grad school part. She went to graduate school at around the same age I did, except that she was already married with a small child.

I didn't make any of my choices in a vacuum. Based on the massive economic expansion that occurred when my parents were young and their relative affluence when I was growing up, certain risks seemed to make sense. For instance, I married someone I was emotionally compatible with but whose financial prospects were uncertain. My grandmother would not have done it. Charlie was a nice guy, I hear, but Dan was the one who was going places. Which is not to imply that my grandmother didn't love my grandfather. It's just that economic calculation absolutely factored in.

I've already talked about how a writing career never made sense, financially. Someone like my father, who grew up poor at the tail end of the Depression, could not have become a writer even if he wanted to. That choice was made possible, again, by the relative privilege of my upbringing. Not because of actual financial support, but because of the (misguided, it turns out) belief, born of comfort and stability, that things will go well and that, if not, a safety net exists.

I wanted to have a child at thirty. But our writing careers were nowhere at that point and it was pretty obvious that if we had a baby the books we were working on would likely be stillborn. We bickered about it, but neither of us was willing to allow that to happen. The moment I sold my first book, having a child became our top priority.

The books I published didn't sell. Was it bad luck, poor marketing, or the fact that they sucked? It's impossible to untangle the various pieces. Then the economy collapsed, which affected whether or not our subsequent books would sell (or not) and whether or not we could find other work in the absence of book sales. All of which played into our delaying B until 40. There's no guarantee we wouldn't have lost a child earlier, because stillbirth can and does happen to women of all ages. But if he had died when I was 32 there would have been time to recover. There's no time now. And maybe we wouldn't have lost him. Who can say?

I've got no problem, personally, with being an older parent. I don't feel or look old, though maybe that's just because I live in Portland and all the moms are my age. The grandparents don't figure into our equation, child-care wise, but that's a function of distance more than age. I'm not longing for an empty nest. I don't want to spend more time going to the symphony. I'd much rather step on Legos in the middle of the night until I'm 50. When, according to Jasper, I will be officially old. And I'm not sure that my living until Jasper is 70 would really be the boon to him that Shulevitz seems to think.

I'm also not a fan of judging people for how they make their families. Adoption, surrogacy, IVF, single mothers by choice, same-sex partners, child-free, early, late, I'm happy that people have so many choices now. I can't speak to the medical problems that arise with older parenthood. For that I refer you to my brother, the pediatric geneticist. A big issue, though, as Shulevitz identifies it, is that in America today, people are being pushed by economics into later parenthood, which she believes is bad for children, families and society, when it's not even what they want.

It is clear that through a combination of my own (debatably poor) choices and outside forces, I will likely not reach my "intended family size." I intended to have two, and I don't have two. Which may not seem like a big deal in a dangerously overpopulated world. No one will miss the child I didn't get to have, except for me. But on a personal level it's pretty heartbreaking.



Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Iconography


I mentioned several months ago that I couldn't see how I would be able to send a Christmas card. How would I acknowledge Balthazar without being morbid and creepy? How could I send a card if it made no reference to him at all?

Fortunately I've never been a Christmas letter writer, so the dilemma was just about the card and the family picture, if there was to be one. Over the weeks I made some half-hearted efforts at brainstorming, but I didn't get far.

Idea one: a picture of the family with me holding the brass-studded Ukrainian box where Balthazar's ashes reside. See: creepy. It's a nice box and everything, but it's just a box. It's not a baby. Also, how could I smile in that picture? It reminds me of the photographs taken the Christmas my grandfather was debilitated by a stroke. I don't know whose idea it was to take those pictures, but there are way too many of them in the family's box. My grandfather is wild-eyed and slack-jawed; my father and my aunt are absolutely grim. My grandfather died in January. No one should have to sit for a photograph like that. 

Idea two: a picture of the family with me holding Captain Zimbo. I suspect that would make people cringe. More importantly, it would make me cringe. I think I have a problem with me holding anything. It's too much like a stand-in. It's too much like Lizzie Sidall telling her friends to hush, or they'll wake the baby. I can't put anything else in the Balthazar-shaped space.

My friends in the perinatal loss book group have been throwing out suggestions. Some of them have walked this road longer than I, and they've managed to devise ways of honoring their babies that work for them. One woman in my group said she put butterfly stickers on her cards, to represent her baby. I liked that idea. Iconography suits me. It's the art history major in me.

Once my therapist asked me if I wanted to work in the sand tray. I was deeply skeptical of the idea as more therapeutic hoo-hah, but if you feel bad enough you'll try anything, I guess.

It occurs to me that I'm suspicious of things that don't involve language. It's my preferred medium, and where I feel safest.  But I love art, and images are important to me. Almost as important as words.

In the sand tray I built a mountain, and on top of the mountain I placed a crashed Lego helicopter. Inside the helicopter I put a blue glass pebble. Down on the flats I made a lake, beside which three other blue glass pebbles stood together. I felt badly about how unreachable the pebble in the helicopter atop the mountain was, so I built a path around the lake and up the hill out of rocks. Of course that's wishful thinking. In life there is no path. In death, maybe. If you believe in heaven, which I don't.

I found I liked the exercise. It got me out of my analytical brain to another part. The dreaming brain. The image-making brain.

The truth is, Balthazar already has his own iconography in my mind, and has since the early days of Captain Zimbo. It was just a matter of making it explicit to myself. The things that make me think of Balthazar are airplanes, flight, bees, tulips, the color white, owls.

Balthazar's symbol is a snowy owl.

I once read an interior design article in Vogue in which Aerin Lauder, granddaughter of Estee Lauder and an executive with her eponymous beauty company, told the writer that she repainted her sitting room seven times to get the right green. I suppose the Occupy part of me should have been disgusted and shouted "Down with the plutocracy!"  but what I actually said to myself was, I can so easily see, if you had the money, how that could happen. I once told my husband that there was no point in having a house at all, if we couldn't paint all of the rooms.

Do not ask me what I was doing reading Vogue in the first place.

As a result I thought it might be a challenge to find a card that was not just any snowy owl, but the right snowy owl. I figured, though, that the internet has everything. So I Googled. The first image I found that was even close to what I was looking for was this: 


I didn't like it. The owl looks cold and helpless, huddled in the snow like that.

And somehow the cute, graphic owls are too cute. Like this: 


It makes me focus on the fact that the adorable little owl is all alone.

My favorite one was this: 

This owl is alone, but you don't get a sense of loneliness from him. Instead, you get a sense of majesty and power. Those gorgeous white wings could be the wings of a muscular angel. He's in flight, not stuck on the ground. He's about to land, but because he wants to. He's unfurled himself in all his beauty. It's not quite a photograph, which would be a little bit too National Geographic for my purposes, but it's detailed. It's not cheesy, like this one: 


It was even available in card form.

The problem: it's available in card form in the U.K. The British Red Cross does not ship to the U.S. I went so far as to email them and tell them the card reminded me of my dead son, but I stopped short of calling and begging or of flying to England to procure them. I do not have Aerin Lauder's bank account.

I didn't want to settle for one of the wrong owls, though. So I kept looking and eventually found an owl that is not the owl I wanted but is a pretty good owl:


The owl's alone, but he doesn't look lonely. He's cute, but not impossibly so. He could be snowier, but presumably I have many years of Christmas cards ahead. There are lots of snowy owls out there. Now I just have to take a picture of Jasper and Fluffy to put inside. Easier said than done. That cat is not shy with his claws.

Jasper says his symbol is an ocelot.

The only downside to all of this iconography stuff is that I can see how in a few years I could be living in a house crammed with a collection of stuffed animals and ceramic owls and all kinds of junk. And then every little item becomes suffused with meaning and you can never clean your house. 

One of the trees some friends thoughtfully gave us, died. We tried not to dwell on it too much. The plants we received we now have a responsibility to keep alive, because they are Balthazar's. I can't throw out that weird 6 pound 8 oz heart-shaped pillow covered in camouflage flannel even though it's got a hole in it and is shedding its fill, because it's his. I don't want to create a responsibility for any more objects.

Though I think one glass snowy owl Christmas ornament could be nice. With the understanding that if it breaks, we'll just order a new one and not act like he's died all over again. He's not in an ornament any more than he is in a box.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Two Apples on a Table


When we were fourteen years old, my best friend's mother died of cancer.

Becca* and I became friends at the beginning of seventh grade, when her family returned to Louisville from her father's year-long sabbatical at the Sorbonne. In our relentlessly bourgeois environment, the fact that Becca's father was a chemistry professor seemed exotic. Her mother was an artist, which was a jaw-dropping anomaly. There were stay-at-home moms and there were divorced moms who were real estate agents. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the general tendency.

My own mother was also one of the exceptions.  She had just finished her PhD in religion and was doing some college teaching. But even so, she felt required to keep an immaculate house and spend her summer days making chit chat at the country club pool.

Becca's mom's never cleaned the refrigerator or mopped the floor. Her paintings were stacked all over the house. She was not trying to accommodate bourgeois expectations; she seemed, from my perspective, to be rejecting them. It was a breathtaking if somewhat terrifying model. Didn't she care what people thought?

Of course, maybe she didn't clean the refrigerator because she was doing chemo and the smell made her sick. Maybe what I imagined to be her freewheeling bohemianism was a function of illness. But there was a forthright, no bullshit quality to her that made me believe she was exactly what she appeared to be: an artist with her mind on her work, not on the decomposing vegetables in the crisper.

Sometimes Becca's mom sat with us at the kitchen table while we ate Little Debbie brownies straight from the freezer. She laughed at some of the things I said, which embarrassed me. Most of what Becca and I did, though, occurred in a space in which our parents didn't exist. When we became friends Becca's mother must have been pregnant with her sister. I remember discussing amniocentesis on the bus to school. Was the cancer diagnosed while she was pregnant, or afterward? Did continuing the pregnancy cost Becca's mother her life?

This was not the kind of thing we talked about. We made each other friendship bracelets and collages with pictures and phrases cut from fashion magazines. We got perms. We rode our bikes to the pool and let older boys with muscles throw us around the bull pen. We went behind the bushes outside her house and taught ourselves to smoke because she said we would need to, for high school.

The fall that her mother died, Becca and I had just started ninth grade at a new school.  It was clear within the first few weeks that she was succeeding socially in a spectacular way, and I was not. Maybe I had thought that since my mother had been the homecoming queen at that very high school, that it would come easily. Maybe after three years at a small, nurturing private school I misjudged what a big public high school would be like. What I was like. 

I had chosen to go to that school because of Becca. On that basis alone the friendship was probably doomed. Becca was collecting her homecoming accolades and handsome, soccer-playing boyfriends and older friends who would sponsor her for the citywide high school sorority, while I stood awkwardly off to the side hoping she would carry me with her.

One night that fall, when I was spending the night at Becca's house, her father had to call an ambulance. My father came over in the middle of the night to pick me up. That was very close to the end.

Becca's mother died in the early morning. Becca passed me a note in homeroom to tell me the news. All that day people kept coming up to me and asking me about her, because I was her best friend, but I felt like a fraud because already she was moving farther and farther away from me. At the funeral she sat with another girl, a girl I disapproved of, because she was loud and got bad grades and was repeating ninth grade. I also hated her, volcanically, because she was taking my place. 

When you are fourteen it's hard to accept that you are collateral damage in someone else's tragedy. It's hard to be a grownup about it. She had lost her mother. How could anything I needed, or wanted, matter at all? A part of me understood that, but another part of me continued to need and want just the same. Grief and jealousy, love and hurt were all mixed up together and I couldn't tease out the strands. Because of course I loved her. But it was a narcissistic kind of love, and she deserved better.

We were at an age where we desperately needed our mothers. Becca's mother was dead, and mine was not. Even if my mother was, in the deepest, most fundamental way, not able to be the mother I needed, there she still was, making macaroni and cheese that was chock-full of Velveeta, picking me up from swim practice, sewing buttons back onto things. But she was not the kind of woman who would enfold another woman's bereaved child into her arms. It didn't even occur to me until just now that she could have done so.

*

Years later I ran into Becca's old boyfriend Peter at a party. This was when I was back in Louisville for a couple of years between college and grad school. Peter and Becca had dated just before her mother died, nine years before. I hadn't really known him during that time, and I left in the eleventh grade to go to a different school, fleeing the aftermath of what I perceived to be my utter social collapse. I would not have gone up to speak to him, but he came to me.

He barely made it through the obligatory questions about my life before he asked me what I thought had happened, why Becca had broken up with him. In his mind, apparently, we shared a crucial connection, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. We were the people Becca had dumped.

I said I thought that her loss was so great, so excruciating, that she couldn't stand to be with anyone she'd been close to, before. She had to get rid of everything and start over. I felt very wise when I said it, even though I'm sure I was parroting something that someone, probably my mother, had told me. Peter seemed comforted, absolved. Maybe, like me, he had spent all of those years wondering how he had failed her. As he walked away I wondered if I would ever reach a point in my life when men would approach me for a reason other than to ask me what had happened with Becca.

*

I have wanted to write about Becca for years. In fact, one of the first short stories I ever wrote, imaginatively entitled Her Mom, was about a Becca-like character and a me-like character locked in some kind of battle over her mother's legacy. I couldn't understand why it was so important. I just knew that there was more, much more to the story than a lost friendship, sad as that can be. I knew, in some inchoate way, that the story was not even about us, but about our mothers.

There are a lot of people right now whom I never want to see again. Not because of anything they've said or done, necessarily, but just because. My therapist tells me this is normal. In fact, she says, if I'm not having dramatic fallings out left and right then I am doing better than most. Which is why I've been thinking of Becca a lot these days. Maybe I won't always feel this way. Maybe a year will pass, or two, and because a friend occupies a different place when you're an adult, and a year when you're forty is a shorter period of time than a year when you're fourteen, we can pick things up again. Maybe not. We'll see.

*Names in this story have been changed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

One of the Elephants


After I told my parents that I was pregnant with Balthazar, my father sent me an email in which he said that I was very brave but that since he was an optimist he would expect a good outcome.

The email left me irritated in a vague, all over way, like a mild flu. Since my father and I communicate infrequently, parsing his communiqu├ęs requires close reading approaching biblical exegesis. I got to work.

First of all, I mistrusted that word, 'brave'. I mistrusted it absolutely. It seemed to praise but it was meant as criticism. My father was suggesting that what I was doing was so dangerous that it required foolhardiness. I didn't have to ask why he claimed to think I was brave but really thought otherwise. It was because I was forty years old and pregnant.

I didn't feel brave at all. I had no interest in feeling brave. In the southeast quadrant of Portland, OR, where I live, no one told me I was brave. Late motherhood is more the norm here than the exception. In fact, most of the mothers I hang with at the elementary school are a few years older than I am. Many had children while in their forties.

The attitude of my forty year-old midwife, who was trying to get pregnant at the time, was mindful but not fear-mongering. Being forty was like coming into the pregnancy twenty pounds overweight or having a family history of diabetes. It didn't signify anything by itself, and until and unless something came up, it was just a fact.

Second, my father calling himself an optimist is like Mitt Romney calling himself pro-woman. It is absurd on its face. If the major premise of his statement was false and the minor premise was also false, what did that do to the conclusion? If I were a lawyer, like my father, or had taught logic and rhetoric at Columbia I would have known, but I suspected it was nothing good. He was telling me that he believed that something terrible was going to happen.

*

As ridiculous as it seems to me when I examine my mortgage-paying, school-volunteering, flats-wearing life, I am far and away the risk taker in my family.

I moved to New York when I was twenty-four to go to graduate school in creative writing. There is so much wrong with that sentence from the perspective of a cautious person that I don't even know where to begin. New York in 1995 wasn't the crack den it had been in the '80's, and to the housing administrator's annoyance I insisted on living on the west side of Broadway, away from Morningside Park, but even she struggled to pretend that it was safe.

I went into significant debt to go to graduate school, which even then was understood by the sane and sober to be a gamble. I went into debt to get an MFA. No bookmaker at Belmont Park would take those odds.

On the other hand, I have gone to great lengths not to live without health insurance. I do not own a motorcycle, or a gun. I don't smoke, gamble or drink and drive. I will not let my son play football. I believe in vaccinations and carseats. I wash my hands after handling raw eggs or chicken.

From my perspective, having Balthazar was a calculated risk. It was not quixotic. It was not reporting live from Tahrir Square or jumping out of an aircraft from space. It wasn't even riding a bike without a helmet. Still, I tried to be reasonable about my expectations. 'The chances are good that I will miscarry,' I told myself when I found out I was pregnant. 'Forty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.' But then we saw the heartbeat at nine weeks, and the chance of miscarriage went down to something like four percent.

The odds of Down's syndrome increase dramatically after thirty-five, and again after forty. So I tried to steel myself against that. But then the nuchal fold ultrasound combined with the triple screen indicated that the risk of Down's syndrome was 1 in 5,660, which was the risk of a twenty year-old mother. The risk of miscarrying after an amniocentesis was 1 in 200, and so, to my great relief and on the advice of the perinatologist, we didn't have one.

After that I worried about preterm labor. I even went to labor and delivery at twenty-seven weeks, thinking I might be leaking fluid. It turned out to be a false alarm. And then I was in the home stretch, with only stillbirth to worry about. 

Because the risk of stillbirth increases with age, I was told early on that I would be induced at 39 weeks. The prenatal yoga teacher, who seemed to disapprove of everything about me from my choice of Baby Bjorn over another carrier (because it was what I already had) to the fact that I was not planning a home birth, shook her head and said it was a shame that the medical establishment had these rules. I said I didn't mind, and I really, really didn't. I never bought into the idea that I should become heavily invested in my own experience of the birth. I was old enough and had seen and heard enough not to be cavalier about the risks. I didn't really care if the birth wasn't perfect or peaceful or whatever the fuck all the hippies thought it should be. I just wanted everyone to live.

*

My father always thinks something terrible is going to happen; that's the way his brain is wired. Many, many other times he has been wrong. This time, he was right. I had a baby the day after I turned forty-one, and he died. The odds were in my favor, but they were less in my favor than they would have been if I were thirty-one.

Then again, I am the oldest woman in my perinatal loss book group. If age were to blame, you would expect the room to be filled with geriatric mothers. Most are in their early thirties. One, I believe, is twenty-seven. What, exactly, did she do wrong?

I just filled out an online survey that is being administered by the StarLegacy Foundation, to try to pinpoint risk factors for late stillbirth, defined as a pregnancy loss after 33 weeks. As I filled it out, I saw all of the bases they were trying to cover. No, I didn't smoke, or live in a house with a smoker. No, I didn't use drugs, or have even one drink. I was physically active before the pregnancy. I was physically active during the pregnancy. I had no medical problems before the pregnancy. I had no medical problems during the pregnancy. I could tell that I had nothing to offer them, nothing that would help them to develop their screening tools, except my age.

But age isn't a reason. I had assumed that a large part of the risk of having a child later is that many health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, have begun to show up in many women by age 40. I thought that by being extremely healthy I could get around that. I also thought that if a woman's body couldn't handle the pregnancy, it would become clear at some point: her placenta would conk out or her amniotic fluid would get low, her blood pressure would rise or her cervix would collapse. I didn't think I'd find myself sitting in the perinatologist's office to hear him say, "It shouldn't have happened."

Years ago my brother told me that he wanted his wife to be done having all of their kids by the time she was thirty-two. Because he is a pediatric geneticist, and looks at statistics and calculates risk all day long, it was hard not to take him seriously. Because I had my first child at thirty-four and then conceived another six years later, it was hard not to feel judged.

After Balthazar died he surprised me by telling me that he wished I'd just get pregnant again. That he felt strongly that what happened was a one-off. A genetic disaster of some kind that wouldn't be repeated. I was amazed and touched. At that point the "I told you so's" hung in the air like tear gas, but he made me feel like someone who has had something very bad and unforeseen happen to them, not someone who was doomed from the start, not someone who had it coming.

This year three forty-one year-old women of my acquaintance have had babies. Uma Thurman had a baby. What risk did I take that hasn't been successfully taken by many, many others?

Maybe age had something to do with it. Maybe it didn't. It's just the only thing that anyone can find to blame me for.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fifth Circle

Romanian sculptor Mihai Marius Mihu has rendered all nine Circles of Hell in Legos. This is Anger.


During my pregnancy with Balthazar I was filled with rage. I attributed it then, and still attribute it now, to the fact that I was writing a memoir, and the stuff that gets dredged up during that process isn't pretty. Jonathan still talks about how alarmed he was. He shakes his head solemnly and says he was afraid I was going to wreck the car, or stab an unnamed person with a barbecue fork. 

The truth is that I am, and have long been, an angry person. I am never physical and I almost never raise my voice, but I can make my house vibrate with it. I can nurse a grudge like an old Scottish grandmother. The rage I felt in my pregnancy differed from the usual sort in intensity but not in kind. I had to bite my tongue until it bled to keep from doing I didn't know what, but my tongue already had a dent in that place.

I have complex feelings about my anger. I was brought up to believe that anger is dangerous. Well-bred people (and what does that even mean?) and women in particular are not supposed to ever show, or even feel, anger. Anger is unbecoming in a yogi. Anger is undeniably bad for your health. If you displace your anger and take it out on bank tellers and grocery store clerks and your daughter's soccer coach and the people at Kaiser Permanente, it just adds to the negative energy in the world. I don't want to be the person who is pissed off and determined to ruin everyone else's day.

I owe anger my life, though, and it seems ungrateful to completely disavow it. In childhood and adolescence, saving my self, my personhood, required a MOAB. I know jack about weaponry, but my son is obsessed with it. He's the one who told me about the mother of all bombs. Without my anger's explosive power I would have been captured instantly, thrown into the dankest, darkest prison, from which there would be no escape. But like a soldier home from war, I've still got my gun at the ready all the time.

Anger is vigilance. It warns me of impending danger, alerts me to threats. It informs me of patterns, of what I should pay attention to. I trust its voice.

*

For a little while after Balthazar died I thought that I had killed him with my anger, that the toxic stew of cortisol circulating in my body had dispatched him.

When he was gone, all of the anger leached out of me like minerals from tired soil. I just didn't have it in me. For a moment I let go of any expectation or desire for control, and the feeling went away. I ascribed the best motives to everyone, I forgave everyone their failings, I was grateful to everyone for the smallest gesture and word and touch. I thought maybe from the crucible of grief I would emerge as some higher, purer being, free of all the score-keeping and grievance-hoarding.

I'm sure you know how that turned out. When my baby died I didn't lose my anger permanently, because, at least for me, anger is life, and here I am.

When I started the blog, I made a vow to myself that I wasn't going to write angry things about other people. If I found myself being critical or nasty or recriminatory, I would hold the piece until I could get past the anger to a more compassionate place. Anger directed at myself was OK, obviously. Anger at God, also. Everyone else was off limits.

Now I'm not sure I can keep my promise. 

*

When I was in graduate school I read Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion, so my mom did, too. My being in a creative writing program was like a family book group with an endless reading list. The thing that struck her most in that book, she told me, was something Didion said about her profession: "A writer is always selling somebody out." I know that my mom was thinking of me, and of herself, and the future, and wondering how long it would be before I sold her out.

The thing that struck me most was that Joan Didion could think that having to charge all her lunches on her Bloomingdale's card constituted poverty. The ethical quandary of whether writing about my family was selling them out, and whether and/or when I was going to do it, didn't trouble me all that much. I think I knew that I wasn't ready. So I started writing the farthest thing from myself: a piece of fiction about some people who lived in another country a long time ago.

A few years later, when my aunt Ellen was dying of cancer and I had just sold the historical novel I had been working on all that time, she suggested to my mother, her sister, that they pool their resources and pay me off so I wouldn't write about the family. My mom told me about this in the kitchen while she was making dinner. She kind of laughed. So did I. That Ellen, such a jokester. Then my aunt died, and left me $20,000, which I used to pay the closing costs on my house and buy a washing machine. 

Last year I told my parents that I was writing a memoir. It took several weeks for my mother to realize, correctly, that any memoir I wrote would feature her prominently, and that her image would be both public and out of her control. So during our first-ever family business meeting, conducted last Thanksgiving by my father, brother and me, my father delivered a message to me from my mother. It was her request that I not publish the memoir until after she's dead. It would destroy her, he said.

I refused to promise. After all, she might guess a few of the things I'm going to say, what stories I'm going to tell, but how could she know what I will make of them?

Except that she knows about the anger, of course. She knows because, like some demon from the Hellmouth of Sunnydale roused with an amulet, she called it forth, and now here it is, manifest. Couldn't I just run through the town waving my arms and scaring the children, until some slayer comes and fells me with a roundhouse kick? Do I have to write everything down and put it out there?

*

I somehow managed to avoid reading Eat Pray Love for all these years, but I just finished reading it for a perinatal loss book group and research study. I expected to hate it. I don't hate it, but I think it has a fatal flaw, which occurs right off the bat. Elizabeth Gilbert tells us that the impetus for setting off on this journey of spiritual discovery was the end of her marriage, and then she says that she's not going to tell us how or why her marriage ended. She says it's too personal and too sad.

Well, you know, fuck that. I don't think she can expect me to follow her if she is not willing to be honest with me. She cannot expect me to sympathize with all of that crying on the bathroom floor just because she tells me I should. I'm not going to immediately assume that divorce isn't that bad, just because I've never had one. I believe it really could be that bad. But she refused to show me, and I'm not one to take that kind of thing on faith.

When I first started writing a memoir I took a workshop with Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild is everywhere right now. With only a toe dipped in this confessional genre, I couldn't believe some of the stuff she was telling us about: divorce, abortion, heroin addiction. She was empathetic in the telling, even to people who had hurt her deeply, but she was never coy and she was never dishonest. She didn't spare people's feelings, just because they had them.

This blog is personal and it is sad. I don't want it to sink, though, under the weight of whining or ranting or enumerated grievances. Which is why I made my rule about waiting until the anger had dissipated. But as Elliott Smith says, "I'm so angry, I don't think it will ever pass." So maybe it's time to damn the torpedoes.

I guess what I'm saying is some rough stuff is coming. If you are especially sensitive maybe you should stop reading. I'll try to be like Cheryl Strayed, I really will. But that doesn't mean that it won't hurt.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Meet Virginia


When my friend Tanja was pregnant with her son Lincoln, she didn't want to have a baby shower. Our mutual friend Miriam and I talked it over, and we decided we'd host a dinner part at our house and invite a bunch of Tanja's friends: a well-known chef and his new girlfriend, people from the ad agency. We ate caprese salad and chicken from the grill and a coconut cake that didn't really turn out. Then after dinner, when we were all (except Tanja, of course) comfortably tipsy, Miriam and I just "happened" to have some adorable onesies and cup and plate sets and Petunia Pigglebottom blankets wrapped in pale blue paper for her.

I still feel horribly guilty about that shower that wasn't supposed to be a shower. What under other circumstances might have been a minor annoyance perpetrated by two pushy friends now seems like a monstrous crime. And I wondered at the time whether she didn't want a shower because she intuited that he would die. Now I look back over the months and weeks before Balthazar was born and ask myself the same thing. Of course in retrospect it seems that I must have always known, but that sense of inevitability is faulty thinking and it is so prevalent it has a name. It's called hindsight bias.

The evidence suggesting that I might have somehow known is as follows:

1. A crib skirt and five owl wall stickers arrived from Dwell Baby in late March. I did not open the mailing envelope. Everything else in his room was set up, but for some reason I tossed that package in the room and just left it there;

2. I had made an ipod mix for labor and delivery, entitled Babymaker. After he died, I changed the title to Broken Heart, but I didn't have to change any of the songs. Did I really put a song called Goodbye Stranger in the mix? Yes, I did. Also Little Green, Both Sides Now, When the Stars Go Blue, White Winter Hymnal, When the Circus Comes to Town. Now, I have to admit that my musical tastes generally run to the folkie and sad. But still;

3.When the midwife asked Jonathan and me what we were going to do for birth control going forward, the two most obvious options were vasectomy and tubal ligation. If I were going to get my tubes tied after the birth there was paperwork to fill out in advance. Jonathan and I bickered over who would do what. Neither of us wanted to be the one to have surgery. So ultimately we decided to do nothing;

4. I spent most of the pregnancy in a state of rage. To be honest, this wasn't one I put on my own list, but one that was suggested to me by others. There's a whole post about anger to come, but for now I'll just say that this was given to me as evidence that I had some deep intuition that Balthazar would die. Which means that this whole idea that I knew isn't just something I made up to torture myself. I asked myself the same question about Tanja, after all. And now others are speculating about me.

Mothers are supposed to have some profound mystical connection to their unborn babies. It sounds great when everything goes well. I could push on my belly and feel him push back. I could talk to him and imagine he was listening. But when something went wrong, that belief in something almost supernatural between us became just one more cudgel to  use against myself. Some moms who have lost babies say they knew all along, and seem not to blame themselves, but to me, knowing that someone is in danger requires action. I realize now that the flip side of belief in a magical maternal-fetal connection is the expectation that I should have been able to save him with my mom superpowers.

This "knowing" trope is deeply unfair, I think, though it's of a piece with the way our society tends to blame people for their own misfortunes. Our minds have so many tricks to play on us, to make us think we're in control. Better to pile on the guilt, the responsibility, rather than face the abyss of our own powerlessness.

So Tanja didn't want a shower. I didn't open a package. Some people don't like to be the center of attention at a party. Some hugely pregnant people are lazy about opening their mail. Ominous portents, or just things that happened?

I did sense that something was wrong on April 1 and 2. It will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I did act on my fears, just not fast enough. But "knew"? Because of course if I had known in the way we think of knowing, I would have done things differently. I would have sprinted to the hospital in Milwaukie on winged feet, despite the fact that I couldn't successfully lumber to the end of the block. I wouldn't have dicked around with The New York Times or Bridgeport Village or pizza and basketball on TV. I consider myself a very intuitive person. But intuition isn't magic, no matter what the lead singer of Train says.

While I was pregnant I read about the woman who had to spend the last four months of her pregnancy upside down in traction. I felt really bad for her, until Balthazar died. Then I thought, "I would've spent four months in traction, if I'd had the chance!" Of course I would have. Any babyloss mom would have. We just didn't get that choice. 

In September, October, November of last year, when I was mad as hell and Balthazar was the size of an olive and then a lemon and then a peach, I can say with some certainty that I had no foreknowledge whatsoever.  I worried that something could go wrong because I'm an anxious person who's on the internet a lot, but "knew"? I refuse to take that on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Day of the Dead


This Halloween season Jasper has been to an unprecedented number of parties, which means that I have too. Sometimes I know a lot of parents at the party; sometimes I don't know any. Sometimes I see people I've been trying hard to avoid. On Monday a mom who'd just hosted a party introduced me to another mom. "Do you know my friend L?" S asked. "C's mom. She was at my house last night. The one in the blue wig."

"I noticed," I said, smiling…well, I was going to say slightly or politely but really I don't know how I was smiling. It could have been distantly, or coldly, or maybe the smile that I was attempting never made it all the way to my mouth, much less my eyes. What I do know is that as soon as it was decently possible I got as far away from L as I could.

It was true I had never met L, but I knew who she was. I knew her by the baby in a carrier on her chest. A baby boy with blue eyes and light brown hair standing on end like baby chick fluff. Which is bad enough. But it's worse than that. This is a baby who very soon will be seven months old. I don't know if he was born on April 2 or April 7; I was a little bit preoccupied then.

The world is full of babies and I know I have to get used to it. Mostly, it's fine. But this one…this baby shines on the edges of my life like a cruel sun on a house flattened by a tornado.

L didn't come to school much while she was pregnant but I talked to her husband several times about how close our due dates were. I said I was glad there would still be someone I knew at the elementary school in five years and he said that they were probably going to be moving. Too bad, I said.

I took Jasper to a birthday party on April 20 and the dad brought the newborn to the bowling alley. I remember the way my heart leaped when they walked in, the way your heart does when someone you are madly and unrequitedly in love with appears in the doorway.

*

Tomorrow is All Saint's Day. Or, depending on what culture you claim, the Day of the Dead.

If I were Catholic I would go to mass tomorrow. Since Protestants go to church once a week at most, this Sunday is when it's celebrated. Celebrated isn't really the right word. Commemorated is maybe better. Or observed. I have my own WASP-y All Saints tradition: I go to church and sing For All the Saints and cry. I have done this ever since my grandfather died on October 28, 1988 and was buried three days later. This year, if I go, I figure I'd better have a whole box of Kleenex with me.

On the way to school today I was trying to explain to Jasper what a saint is and I realized for the first time that it has two meanings. It's a person in the Catholic Church who has attained exceptional holiness, like St. Patrick or St. Boniface, but it also refers to the dead in a more general way. I guess technically it describes those who have died square with the Christian God and in the hope of the resurrection, but I have decided on a more inclusive interpretation. A saint is anyone you love who has died, I told Jasper. After he heard that he wanted to make sure that I include a photo of our old cat Gerty on our Day of the Dead altar, even though he didn't like her much, because he knows I did.

Before I met Jonathan I never celebrated the Day of the Dead. But he's an Angeleno and a Hispanophile and from him I picked up the tradition of making an altar with photographs, candles, food and drink. I've got lovely framed photos of my grandmother and her sister on their First Communions. I have one of my grandfather as a boy. Jonathan has one of his grandfather, once a member of the Canadian rifle team, pointing a pistol at the camera. I have snapshots of everyone else so that no one in my family is left unrepresented. Jonathan always tosses a group photo onto the table, one of people he knew in Mexico, many of whom are dead now.

Do we put Balthazar in an ornate frame in the middle, the prince of the dead? Or do we let his picture lie casually flat, one among the many? 

When I watched the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the commentators made a big deal out of Pablo Morales's father. Pablo Morales was a world record-holding Cuban-American swimmer and Olympic medalist who was making a swimming comeback after a few years off. His mother had died the year before, and his father brought a picture of his late wife to the natatorium and faced it toward the pool when Pablo raced. The TV cameras couldn't get enough of it; every time Pablo swam they panned up into the stands where that tiny old man held the framed picture toward the water and pumped his fist. My adolescent and Protestant self was completely creeped out by what he was doing. It seemed primitive and fetishistic and I couldn't understand it. Did he understand that his wife was dead? That she couldn't really see her son? That the picture was just chemicals and pigment on paper?

I now appreciate that in Hispanic cultures they acknowledge that the dead remain in some way present with the living. Because of course the dead are with Anglo-Saxon Protestants too, we just try to pretend that we are more rational and scientific than that. I like it that families go to the graveyard on the Day of the Dead and decorate the gravestones and leave, not just flowers, but tamales and tequila and candy.

Pablo Morales's mother was the reason he began swimming, because as a girl in Cuba she had almost drowned. If she had been alive, she would have wanted to be in the stands in Barcelona. Why not make visible the belief that she was present in spirit?

If Balthazar were here he would want to see the lavender bushes outside the school, and the little yappy sweater-wearing dogs, and the bikes and the kids. He would startle at the bell, and smile when he saw Jasper.

*

At a Halloween party S found me and not-quite apologized.

"I totally forgot about the babies the same age thing," she said. "L reminded me."

"I wasn't even sure if she knew," I said. I had assumed they weren't aware of me. I was sure her husband didn't remember talking to me. My hyperawareness of their every move was my own thing. "I hope you don't think I'm a bitch," I went on, "but I just can't be around her." I said her, but I really meant him, didn't I? "I mean, never say never, but for now."

"Yeah, we talked about it and she said it's just going to be awkward," S said.

It's not awkward, I wanted to say. This isn't a job that we were both up for and she got and I didn't. This isn't a boy we both liked asking her out instead of me. It might be awkward for you, I thought, or for her, but I'd choose a different word, like devastating or intolerable. Maybe it's not fair of me to expect her to choose a better word, but I did.

It's intolerable and I'm not going to tolerate it. I'm going to flee every chance I get and not even feel bad about it. But it will burn from a distance. They did move, it turns out, but they're staying at the school.

Every time I see that boy I will think, that's how old Balthazar would be now. That's what Balthazar would be doing now.

Do I dare carry a picture of Balthazar around with me tomorrow? Would I pull it out and show it to someone? Would I show it to L, or to S, even if they thought I was unhinged, or pathetic? Would I hold the picture face out so that he could see the garden? Probably not. But maybe the picture will be in my pocket.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Goodbye To All That


Last June I read a heartbreaking piece in The New Yorker by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, about the death of his toddler daughter from brain cancer. I cried copiously as I read it, though I'm not, in general, a cryer. Afterward I felt wrung-out yet fulfilled, as if after a hard workout. My empathy muscles were stretched and tired. That, I thought, was a great essay.

I hadn't read Hemon's fiction, and my curiosity was piqued. I Googled his bio and looked at the dates and realized that the writer's daughter had died eight months before the essay was published, which meant, factoring in the endless lead times of print journalism, that he had begun to write it almost immediately after her death. How could he do that? I wondered in awe. How was he able to transform his grief into art so quickly?

Now, of course, I know exactly how he did it. I don't know what I thought grieving people did with their time. Stare into space, or claw at their faces, or attend therapeutic seminars.

Elizabeth Siddal was a secondary character in The Wayward Muse, my 2007 novel about the Victorian designer William Morris and his wife Jane. After she gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1861, it was said that Lizzie spent hours rocking herself in a rocking chair, shushing the people who visited her and saying that they would wake the baby with their loud voices. This, and the fact that she overdosed on laudanum a year later, was given by various historians (and, to be fair, by her husband, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti) as evidence of insanity brought on by the baby's death. It sounded plausible to me. Wouldn't giving birth to a dead baby make anyone crazy?

Now that I've had a stillborn baby and managed (so far) not to kill myself or shoot heroin, I see it a bit differently. I would say now that Lizzie's life was a sad mess before the baby died, and the fact that it ended tragically has more to do with drug use, an unfortunate choice of romantic partner, misogyny, and social class than with the loss itself.

We are the people we were before, for better or for worse, and we do the things we've always done. Grieving laudanum addicts take laudanum. Grieving carpenters build things, I imagine. And grieving writers write.

*

By the time Balthazar was conceived I wasn't convinced anymore that I was a writer. In fact, his birth was going to make it OK for me to throw in the towel. The voice in my head had been urging me in that direction for awhile. You're never going to sell anything else, it told me. You’re never going to publish anything else. You had your shot and it got fucked up somehow and now it's over. But hey, it's all right, because you're going to have this baby.

I was ignoring the voice as best I could, working with a mentor and trying to finish a memoir to give to my agent, but, faulty thinking or not, something was hanging in the balance even when Balthazar was still kicking like Lionel Messi. I had never thought of giving up writing when Jasper was born, but back then I had a book coming out and an advance to write a second. I had my whole career ahead of me, which I believed was now behind me. So in my heart I quit writing and I chose Balthazar.

I felt guilty about it. I knew that it was too much to put on a baby, that he could take the place of writing, the thing I'd wanted to do since I was nine years old. But if there was a choice to be made, I decided, I chose Balthazar. And then he left.

In the first days after his death, I found myself lying awake at night replaying the events that composed his abbreviated journey: the birthday party, the vanilla cake with raspberry filling, the Doppler, the nurse, The Voice, the blue blanket, the blessing. I cherry-picked details and snippets of dialogue. The thing about Captain Zimbo would make a great essay, I thought. I wrote the essay in my mind, and then rewrote it. I was partly horrified with myself but I also suspected that it was a sign, the only one I had then, that I would survive.

Five days after Balthazar died, I opened up my journal and started to write everything down. I had to do it in five minute increments because it hurt too much to do more. I just knew that I had to get it all down while I still remembered exactly. I told myself that I would need the journal entries later, when it was time to make something of them.

Then, a few weeks before I started the blog, I decided that I was going to quit writing, whether Balthazar was here or not. I was going to go back to school to be an ESL teacher. I was going to get a job at a Christian adoption agency. I was going to volunteer to run my son's school's art program. But even as I said that I was done, I kept writing.

*

There's a part of me that thinks he knew that I wanted writing more, and he gave that to me instead of himself.

"Babies are selfish," Jonathan says. "He would never have given you writing."

It's a relief to hear him say that. Living, as he does, only in my mind, sometimes Balthazar threatens to become as stiff and gilt-encrusted as a Byzantine baby Jesus in an altar painting. Jonathan reminds me that Balthazar was not a saint or an icon, but just a regular baby. One who would now be eating Legos and pulling the cat's tail and demanding all of my time and attention, not giving two shits whether or not I'd rather be writing.

What Balthazar took, when he left, were the last vestiges of an illusion I'd been sustaining for years. What I had wanted to give up all along, though I didn't realize it, was my "career" as a writer. I never wanted to stop writing; I wanted to stop pretending. That the manuscript would sell this time. That I'd get that big advance that would save us. That the option or the foreign rights would fix our financial situation. It's not just the money, but the praise, the critical validation, the attention. The dream of a National Book Award or a bestseller list, which, if you want to get all self-helpy about it, is just a proxy for parental approval anyway. Fuck it all. I've been clinging to that sheer rock face by my fingernails for a long time and now it's time to let go.

What Balthazar gave back to me were the words.

When I reread the Aleksandar Hemon essay again recently, it was different; or rather, my relationship to it was different. I recognized the tone, a certain plainness of language. He didn't write the essay for the money. He didn't write it for The New Yorker, or to win a National Magazine Award, or to impress an editor who would buy his next book. He wrote it because if he didn't write it he wouldn't survive. It's not anything as pretty as solace. It's just all we have and all we know to do.

My career as a writer is over. I don't know what happens next. Except that I'll be writing about it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Brother, My Pediatric Geneticist



"Why does it matter so much to you to find out exactly what happened?" my brother asked.

We were sitting at a picnic table near Hogan's Fountain while Jonathan and Jasper played in the sprinkler. It was June, and the first time we'd talked in person since Balthazar died. I couldn't tell whether he thought it shouldn't matter to me as much as it obviously did, whether he was being slightly critical, or whether he was just curious. And if it was the latter, was it personal or professional curiosity?

My brother is a pediatric geneticist, which is not a bad thing to have in the family when you are a person who never took statistics, trying to run the numbers on various prenatal diagnostic tests. During the pregnancy I told everyone about my brother the pediatric geneticist. "I'll have to check that out with my personal pediatric geneticist in Columbus, Ohio!" I would say to the midwife and the perinatologist. I'm sure they rolled their eyes behind my back, but it made me feel safer, like I had a guy on the inside. Which in retrospect is ridiculous. Having your own personal pediatric geneticist doesn't do a fuck lot of good, it turns out, when you have to call him from labor and delivery to tell him the baby's dead.

"I feel a responsibility to the child," I said. It was not hard to talk to my brother about the medicine; we'd been back and forth on the phone for weeks. It was excruciatingly hard to talk to him about my feelings. "I mean, if he was murdered, I would try to find out who had killed him."

The number of tests performed after Balthazar died were staggering, and the results trickled in maddeningly slowly. Enough had come in by my six week post-delivery appointment, though, that I could tell the midwife was gently preparing me to never know the answer. She had tears in her eyes as she told me that the autopsy was normal. She also had to tell us that the chromosomal sample taken the day we left the hospital had refused to grow, which meant, because we had not done a cvs or an amnio, that we had no genetic information on Balthazar.

A few weeks later, at our appointment with the perinatologist, he could only run through the sheets of paper, explaining what each test was, and that each one was negative. Balthazar did not die because of Antiphospolipid syndrome, lupus, fetomaternal hemorrhage, parvovirus, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis, preeclampsia, or gestational diabetes. The placenta was normal. The cord was normal. The baby was normal in every way that could be tested. Even I seemed to be normal.

"It shouldn't have happened," he said.

What I told my brother was true; I did feel a responsibility to Balthazar, but one of the ways that manifested is that I wanted some medical proof that I was at fault. Of course I know that fault is an incredibly unfair word to apply. This wasn't a fatal car accident with two opposing auto insurance companies duking it out in court. Even if it was my "fault", I hadn't been driving drunk or texting. I hadn't run a red light, or even been speeding. And Balthazar could in no way be blamed. If it turned out I had an infection, was that my fault? If he had a heart defect, was that his?

But I kept getting a whole lot of nothing. 

Later in the day the perinatologist called back to say that based on some fibrin deposition on the placenta, he thought I might want to be tested for some genetic clotting disorders. My personal pediatric geneticist was dubious, but I went ahead, following my newly-discovered personal philosophy: leave no stone unturned.

That day in the park, my brother told me that his hunch was that there was something genetically wrong with Balthazar, something not obvious at autopsy, something that medical science didn't currently have the means to detect, something that meant that he could not have survived outside the womb. I didn't want to believe him, but I also knew that despite his self-deprecating persona he usually knows what he's talking about. A quality I really hate in him.

Before we both left Louisville I gave him my envelope of fetal demise pictures to look through. I felt for him there, outside the Bristol after Sunday brunch, when I handed him the photographs of his dead nephew and made him select the "best" of them to take back to his colleague. His 18 month-old daughter squirmed on his shoulder. His almost-four year-old son shouted for his attention. And yet I needed him to do his work for me, right there, and then drive his family in their minivan the four hours back to Ohio.

As I waited for the results from the blood tests and for word from my brother I constructed a scenario that made more intuitive sense to me than the one in which something was wrong with Balthazar. My mother has Factor V Leiden, a genetic clotting disorder, and though I already knew I was negative for that one, I could easily have another clotting disorder. A clotting disorder was my body's disorder. I could blame myself for it. Balthazar would remain inviolate.

Of course science doesn't care what makes intuitive sense to you. A few weeks later the results came back and I had tested negative for all the clotting disorders. Though of course there are more clotting disorders than were tested for, the truth did not seem to lie that way.

My brother sent word that based on the photos his colleague thought Balthazar probably didn't have Trisomy 13, 18 or 21. But then, those genetic disorders usually make themselves pretty obvious.

With these pieces of information, I spent the summer trying to absorb the idea that Balthazar's physiognomy was incompatible with life. Obviously I hated the idea, but it eased some of the agony of the what if's: what if I'd gone to the hospital on April 1? Said to hell with the kick counts, this doesn't feel right? What if I'd had a prenatal appointment scheduled for April 2? Maybe he was still alive then. Maybe he could have been yanked out in the nick of time. If he was genetically compromised in some fatal way, none of that would have made any difference.

Then in August I sent my brother all of my medical records from the pregnancy, and after looking them over, he called to tell me what he thought.

"I don't know," he admitted.

He said that there was no red flag, no worrisome pattern that even an ob/gyn might not notice but an eye trained in this kind of thing might see developing. I think he had really thought he would see something, because he is good at seeing. I know he wanted to see something, for my sake.

A moment of compassion here for all of the medical professionals whose job involves telling desperate people that they don't know what's wrong with their dying loved ones. That they don't know why their child died. All these problem solvers, these know-it-alls, these Type A overachievers, having to face the desperate and grieving and admit that they have no answers to give.

I can now add my brother's reluctant "I don't know" to that other trenchant observation that medical science has offered me: "It shouldn't have happened." What, exactly, am I supposed to do with "It shouldn't have happened" and "I don't know"? Because we couldn't both be fine; it's impossible. Full-term fetuses don't die for no reason.

My ob-gyn friend thinks it was a cord accident that wasn't visible at delivery. Lacking evidence for anything else, a cord accident is the perfect gloss. Where do you place blame? It's not really his body, not really mine. It is literally the lifeline between the two. And if somehow it got wrapped around his neck and asphyxiated him, how is that anything but a piece of horrible luck?

I just read an article in the New York Times about a technique that has been developed to quickly sequence the DNA of critically ill babies, with an eye, not to curing them, but to rapidly finding out what kind of fatal genetic disorder they have. The only benefit is to minimize their suffering and to give their families answers. The doctors said they were surprised by how much it helped the families to know what rare genetic defect their dying infant had. It doesn't surprise me. Reasonable people don't expect doctors to save everyone, every time. But even reasonable people want answers, even when there is nothing good about the answers. It's true that Balthazar is gone whether we get an answer or not. Life is about mystery, and living with not knowing, and yadda yadda yadda.

I can live without knowing why some people think homosexuality is a threat to them, why someone dear to me has not been in touch since Balthazar died, why the marketing executive at Atria failed to do her job. I can live without knowing why Balthazar died, if I don't have a choice. But I sure would like to look his killer in the face.



Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Six Months


Last week I picked Jasper up from an afterschool playdate and on the way to the car I asked him how his day had been.

"Mrs. H wasn't there for part of the day," he said. "We had a sub. And do you know why? It almost made me cry when she said it. She was at the hospital. Her friend was having a baby."

I put on my therapist voice. "Did that make you sad?" I asked. He nodded. "You were thinking about Zimbo?" Jasper hates the name Balthazar and only calls him Zimbo.

More nodding. I got him in the car and started driving home.

"I'm different from other kids," he announced a minute later. "I mean, I look like a normal kid on the outside, but I'm really not."

"You think the fact that you had a baby brother who died makes you different from other kids?" I asked, hating my syrupy, condescending active listening even as I employed it. Because wasn't he saying, in the way that children have of cutting to the heart of things, exactly what I'd been thinking too?

Having a baby marks you on the outside, but not forever. I gained 46 pounds during my pregnancy. By the end my friends would smile sympathetically as they watched me lumber up the hill from school after dropping off Jasper. One day the guy at the coffee shop, who hadn't been paying attention to my growing girth, finally noticed it. "Yikes!" he exclaimed, passing me my ham and cheese croissant. Yep, I agreed. Yikes. Pregnancy is a huge physical commitment and sacrifice that is quickly forgotten and totally worth it, unless you did it for nothing.

Now I look like a normal kid. I look like my biggest problem is the chip in my windshield, the dearth of country ham in Portland, OR, or the flying ants trying to invade the living room. If you saw me at the grocery store or the coffee shop, you wouldn't have the faintest inkling. If you hadn't seen me in awhile you might think I had had a relapse in my ongoing struggle with brownie addiction, and that my son's nightmares or my obsession with internet shopping had kept me up a bit too late at night. If I didn't tell you, you would never know.

I try not to look at women who have just had babies. I try not to look at the babies who are always with them. The mothers have giant breasts and flabby midsections too, but the reason is obvious. It is nestled right there on their bodies where everyone can see.

Apparently it's a thing to get a tattoo in memory of your dead baby, for that very reason. You mark your skin to make visible that your baby was here. You display that loss on the outside. I'm just a little too old to be part of the tattoo generation, and I'm from Louisville, after all. As a child I read The Preppy Handbook, and not ironically. Yet I've thought about it. Just his name, I think. On my chest, over my heart? Or do I want it somewhere where people will see it and ask me about it? Do I want a reason to tell that story over and over?

My insides have never matched my outsides anyway. In high school it was often thought that I was snobby. When my husband met me he thought I was a "sweater girl from Connecticut." The weird, the goofy, the shy, the radical; it doesn't necessarily show. Maybe I'm getting tired of the incongruity. I've never been a normal kid, why should I look like one? Maybe now I want it all on the outside.

Honestly, though, a tattoo seems a pallid response to the situation. Really? That's it? A little ink under the skin is all I've got for my dead baby? A shaved head, I could see. Sackcloth and ashes. Some mortification, maybe.

We all understand that you never know what's going on with anyone, but it's easy to forget. The guy I accidentally cut off in traffic who then rolled down his window to flip me off more emphatically as he passed, was his daughter just diagnosed with leukemia? I never think about that, I just think he's an asshole. The checkout lady at Zupan's who didn't smile or make eye contact, did her mother just die? We assume everyone is OK because that assumption makes every transaction easier. Until we're not OK and then we're reminded, brutally, that there are uncounted millions walking around with their guts ripped out. 

*

"Well, stillbirth is very uncommon," Jasper said when I asked him if his brother's death made him feel different from other kids. He sounded about thirty-seven years old. "Do you know anyone else who had stillbirth?"

Oh fuck, I thought, I should have called the Dougy Center. Portland has this great resource for children in grief. But we thought he seemed OK, and we wondered if putting him in a room with kids who'd lost parents and older siblings might make him feel more alone than not.

I told him again about Tanja and the grief group I went to a few times and the blogs I read. Later I asked him if he might like to meet W and O, Tanja's stepsons, since they had been around his age when their brother died, and they would understand what it was like.

"Yeah, I bet they would understand," he considered, looking off into the distance, remembering. "It was horrible."

Everybody's got stuff, a writer said to me a month or two after Balthazar died. This is yours, she said, and I wanted to kill her. She wasn't wrong, her timing just sucked. This is my stuff. This is Jasper's stuff too, and I can't fully know all the ways in which it affects him, all the things he thinks about and doesn't tell me. I hope it doesn't warp his life. At Back to School Night he showed me a book he had written, entitled All About Me. All of the children had done them, and responded to the same prompts. One of his pages said "I feel happy when my mom hugs me. I feel sad when someone I know dies." I imagine he was the only child in the class who finished the sentence that way. But, then again, I don't know. Maybe we are different than the other kids, or maybe not. Maybe we are more like them than we think.