Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tragedy Mom

At the beginning of the last school year my friend Gwen and I were on the playground at Glencoe, watching our boys run around and talking about fate.

"Do you realize," I said, doing some quick calculations, "that, say, two of the families at this school are going to have something really tragic happen to them? We just don't know which ones yet."

"Where'd you get that math?" Gwen asked skeptically.

I admitted that I had pulled it right out of my ass. Still, she agreed that the premise was sound. Tragedy was going to strike. Not a tsunami, probably not an earthquake that would flatten the school and kill everyone inside, like in China. But statistically speaking, someone was fucked.

"Someone here is going to take a bullet for the rest of us," I said.

I am pretty certain that I'm not the only person to do that kind of mental calculus. Still, it felt pretty creepy when the someone who was doomed was my baby, and the person who was fucked was me.

I'm shy. It isn't easy for me to strike up conversations, make small talk, cultivate casual friendships. But when my son started kindergarten and I was standing in the hall outside his classroom every day waiting to pick him up, I made an effort. I cooed over little brothers and sisters and listened to stories about hoof and mouth disease and the crazy neighbor and the best contractor for a kitchen remodel. I contributed my own anecdotes of questionable interest: the trip to Louisville, the barking dogs that keep us up at night, how the kale was doing. I did it for my son, to help make a place for him in the school and in the community, and thank God I did, because when Balthazar died, those (mostly) mothers were who I had.

Balthazar was born on Tuesday night. I went back to the playground Friday afternoon. I was bleeding and incontinent, but I had to go. I knew if I hid I might never reappear and I couldn't live my life like that, afraid to go to the grocery, forced to switch to a different hair stylist who would never get my color right. Jonathan went with me and I brought a camp chair to sit in. It made me feel conspicuous, but there was no way to blend in anyway. Everyone at the school knew who I was. I was famous. I was Tragedy Mom.

Being a writer means trying to connect with people by going into a room by yourself and closing the door. There is exposure, yes, but also a measure of protection in being a step removed from people. Being Tragedy Mom is more like being an actor whose sex tape was just leaked to the internet. The way the air shivers when you walk into a room. People smell a charge in the atmosphere and turn around to look. All of the eyes are on you.

I don't like eyes on me. I had to take a Klonopin to make it down the aisle.

Being the locus of so many people's attention, for the brief time that I was, forced me to ask myself what it is that I'm hiding from. Am I afraid I will break down in tears on other people? Am I afraid the other people will break down in tears on me? Am I afraid to accept help? Am I afraid to be vulnerable, to be human? I think what I am most afraid of is reaching out my arms for help and there being no one there.

What I encountered instead was an outpouring of generosity and grace. Flowers. Food. Cards and trees and donations to charities. Women I didn't recognize (and I'm good at recognizing people) showed up at our door with things. Women whose names I didn't know hugged me in the halls. Almost everyone tried, in some way, to show their concern. I cried on some people's shoulders, and some of them shed tears for me. It was all awkward and painful and of course it wasn't enough. But it was more than I ever could have imagined.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Visitation


I've been thinking about God more or less continuously for the past four months and trying to write about the subject for weeks now. It's always a complex and fraught subject for me, but these days my thoughts are tangled, an intractable knot of a hundred fine gold chains balled up at the bottom of a jewelry box.

Where is God? What is God? Is there a God? If so, where the fuck was He on April 3?

I was raised in a liberal Protestant household where the existence of God was assumed and Christianity was the framework for everything. How I subsequently lost my faith is a long and complicated story, but it was already gone by the time the labor and delivery nurse asked me if I wanted her to call a clergy member. Or, I thought it was. But every time I think I've reached a place of peace with the absence of God, I realize that I am clinging to some aspect or vestige of my earlier, unthinking belief. I think I've reached the ground, and then the floor gives way underneath me.

When the nurse asked me the question I said sure, and I gave her the name of the church where I am (still) a member. My membership for the last four or five years has involved writing a check for $100 so I don't get kicked off the rolls, and sometimes flipping through the newsletter that comes in the mail. Still, in grief you tend to fall back on deeply ingrained habits. My thinking was as follows: someone dies, you call the minister. Very sophisticated.

Laurie, one of the assistant pastors at the church, came within an hour ("During Easter week!", my mom exclaimed, impressed, as if God himself had showed.). I think we might have prayed, but I really don't remember. Which is not to say that Laurie wasn't a help, or that David, another minister who came the next day, didn't offer any comfort, because she was and he did, though perhaps more just by their human compassion than anything.

Later, I got a few notes and books from my relatives that conveyed a deep concern that I would blame God for what happened. The same people told me that the only way to consolation and peace was through Him. I read the dust jackets and then I put those books on a high, high shelf.

In my early twenties I worked at Westminster/John Knox Press, which is the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church USA. While I was there we published a book about God and the Holocaust which put forth the idea of a God who was completely loving but less than omniscient. Basically, God was not able to stop the Holocaust, because God made us and then set us free to do what our violent and brutal or weak and misguided or selfish and nasty hearts require, but he sure was sad about it. It was an example, to me, of the mental gymnastics required to keep believing if you are not so stupid and callous as to believe that God wanted those millions of innocent people to die for some mysterious plan of his own. But as these things go I thought it was probably the best anyone could come up with, and I adopted the stance as my own.

But when my son died, for the first time, I glimpsed, not a world in which a sorrowful, half-strength God let me down, but a world without God. God, I saw, was invented, by human beings, to explain things like what happened to me. I felt the full power and force of Nature, heartless, brutal and inevitable, working against me, and God was not there. Sometimes in a New-Agey, squishy, intellectually fuzzy way, I realized, I had conflated the two. God, however, is not Nature, and Nature is not God. The idea of God softens, personalizes and attributes love and compassion to a fundamentally ruthless process.

Many times since, though, I have wished that I still had my faith. My sister-in-law tells me that she knows Balthazar is with God, and that he's OK. It's just the rest of us, she says, who are sad. I wish I could believe it. I wish I could believe that my beloved grandfather is up in Heaven, holding Balthazar in his arms. That my aunt Ellen and my aunt Barbara and grandmother Elsie and grandmother Clara and great-aunt Annamae are gathered around him.

I can't.

But then the bees came.

I don't believe in signs. A rainbow, a bird perched outside the window, these are not messages to me from my dead son, they're just natural phenomena. A certain tiny stunted pink parrot tulip that came up this year reminded me of him, but the flower was tiny and stunted because we never replanted our bulbs and in this, the seventh year they've come up, they don't have the strength to produce large, healthy blooms. I don't consider that flower a sign, it was just a connection I made. That's what I do: I make connections. It's what all writers do. The fact that I had such a thought may have been a message to me that I was still alive, but it was not from Balthazar.

We've lived in our house for almost eight years, but for some reason it was this summer that we came home from the gym one afternoon to find a swarm in the box hedge by our front door. Scout bees invaded our kitchen, finding a chink somewhere in the wooden cladding. A beekeeper my husband contacted said they were looking for a place to start a hive. Our kitchen did not seem to be the ideal location, for them or for us. Once all 15,000 bees were inside, to get rid of them we'd have to kill them. But we liked the bees. We didn't want to hurt them. Luckily, Portland is chock-full of beekeepers, and people who want to keep bees. At nine o'clock in the evening, eight hours after we first noticed them, the beekeeper and three assistants were in our front yard, coaxing the queen into a container. Most of the bees followed; those that didn't would die. The person at the top of the 150-person waiting list would get to keep them, and they would make honey, and pollinate, just somewhere else.

They are a visitation, I thought, uncharacteristically, the minute I saw them.

In Christianity, the Visitation is when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. When they embraced, the fetal John the Baptist leapt in the womb in recognition of his Savior.

Like Mary to Elizabeth, the bees came to me. Like her, they are the mediators between me, a mortal, and in my case, not God but Nature. They came to give me a message. They came to say that there is a reason that Balthazar died that is larger than my understanding. It is not because he was too perfect for this world. It is not because I have bad karma or because my fire sign clashes with the black water dragon or because I believe in abortion and full equality for gays and lesbians. There isn't a purpose, to teach me something or to prevent some future evil, but there is a reason. I just don't know what it is.

One other thing I realized. Whether I believe in God or not is in some ways beside the point. I look at the world through the lens of Christianity, and I always will. The narratives make evocative connections. And connections are what I do. Still.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


One year ago today I found out I was pregnant. It took a lot to get to that moment, but not in the way you would think. I did not struggle with infertility. I didn't have to do iui, or ivf, or have shots of Clomid. I didn't have multiple miscarriages. All I had to do to conceive Balthazar was convince my husband to try for another child. Once I did that, I was pregnant in four months.

The convincing, however, took years. Jasper was born in 2005, and raising him was much harder on our marriage than either of us expected. It took awhile for things to calm down. Then the economic collapse of 2008 dovetailed quite nicely with a total drought in our writing careers. With no money coming in, no jobs to be had, living off of a bequest from my aunt, it seemed foolish to have another child until things improved.

Except they didn't. I waited. I squirmed. I worked on a memoir. I tried not to bring it up. Sometimes I couldn't help but bring it up. My husband wrote a thriller and then another thriller while we fought about what to do. I waited some more. And then the spring of 2011, when I turned 40, I decided I couldn't wait any more. In the very near future the decision was going to be made for us by the passage of time and the realities of biology, and I wanted to talk about it before it was irreversible.

He had to make up his mind, I said. We could get a cat, and he could get a vasectomy. Or we could try to have another baby. It might not work, I said. Not everyone can get pregnant at 40. A lot of things could go wrong: miscarriage, Down's syndrome. We would be sorry if we didn't at least try, I said.

I said those things to ease my husband into the idea, the way I ease him into anything he's afraid of. Let's just go look at the house. Let's just see what the hotel is like. Let's just try and maybe nothing will happen. But I knew it would work. I knew I could still get pregnant. He thought about it for awhile and then he said he would do it. I didn't force him, I didn't manipulate him, but I did push him.

When I said we'd regret it if we didn't try, I wasn't blind the fact that something could go wrong. But if I am honest I must admit that I believed in the pregnancy from the very first. I believed in Balthazar, and I believed in myself. I believed in my body and my health. I believed in the law of averages and in Western medicine. I must have believed, too, in the protective power of my own privilege. I'm white. I have health insurance. I'm not overweight, I exercise, I have no underlying health conditions. It isn't something to be proud of, that presumption, though I don't think I assumed any more than any other woman with an uneventful pregnancy who wakes up on the 264th day thinking she will soon be bringing home a live baby.

I could make a list as long as John Lennon's of all of the things I've stopped believing in over the course of my life. But, like him, at the core I've always believed in myself. Now I'm not sure I have that anymore. It's one thing to fail, to not get the fellowship, to be rejected by the publisher, to have toxic sales figures. It's another thing entirely when your failure, involuntary as it may have been, takes someone else out.

Now I can't decide if I am sorry or not, that I pushed my husband so hard to conceive Balthazar. I thought that there could be nothing worse than living the rest of my life with the regret that I didn't have another child. But this, this is possibly worse. If I regret it, though, then I am sorry that Balthazar was ever born, which is the saddest thought of all.

I didn't mean to bring darkness and tragedy into our lives. Balthazar certainly didn't mean to. He was just a little boy trying to be born. But now that's where we live. In darkness.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dresser

Until today the nursery was still just as it was on April 3, a room suspended in time. Jasper's old crib is in there, made up with new Dwell Baby owl-print sheets. There's a stuffed animal tucked in where Balthazar would have slept. His blabla lions and face pillows are propped up along the side. Jasper's wooden rocking chair is next to it, with a pillow with an owl embroidered on it. I was so excited to find a cute print to perfectly match the Caribbean blue walls, and if I do say so myself, the decor rocked.

The diaper genie is ready to go. All of the clothes and towels and sheets have been washed in Dreft and folded and put away. Most of the things are Jasper's, but there are a couple of tea collection footie pajamas in Japanese prints and a onesie and a little hat with a gray print like tiny bird footprints. I bought them at Christmas so he would have something that was his own.

But he's not coming.

When Balthazar died my sister-in-law offered to fly out from Cleveland and take down the nursery for me. Her offer was well-meaning, but at the time it seemed inconceivable. Seeing the nursery, which I pass through several times a day because it is at the top of the stairs and the easiest path to our bedroom and Jasper's bedroom, didn't make me sad. Or, it didn't make me any sadder than I already was. Balthazar's ashes are there, in a wooden box from Ukraine that I found on Etsy. All of the cards that we received, the ultrasound photographs, the six pound eight ounce heart-shaped pillow a charity sent. I didn't need or want anyone to do anything to his room. As long as it stayed the way it was, it was proof that he had lived. I figured I would know when I had crossed over from being a bereaved mother to being a crazy lady. I would know when it was time.

Then for awhile I hoped that I would get pregnant with another baby right away, and he or she could just slide into Balthazar's place with little alteration necessary. But my husband doesn't want to try.

It's probably faulty thinking anyway. Even if I got pregnant and carried to term and delivered a healthy baby, it would not be Balthazar. And as it turns out, the crib has been recalled, so no matter what happens in the future it is not sticking around.

Today, four months and one week from the day that he died, I removed Balthazar's dresser from his room. Jasper and I have been sharing a closet for a long time now and it isn't big enough for both of us. We don't have enough furniture to leave something useful sitting idle for someone who is never going to use it. I took out all of those onesies and hats and hanna andersson baby socks and put them on the floor. Then I moved the little plastic dresser downstairs to my office and put all of Jasper's clothes in it. Maybe it's because it's not an heirloom but a $69 job from Storables, but it wasn't as awful as I feared. I only cried a litle when I asked Jonathan if it was OK to do.

Strangely, considering how much he talks about moving on and moving forward, he has had as much or more trouble with it than I have. He hasn't wanted anything in there to change, either. I'm not moving anything else in there. Not for awhile. I think we're at least agreed on that.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sports Are Not Life

I haven't swum competitively in twenty years, but every four years I get sucked into the Olympics. I've spent the last few days thinking about Michael Phelps, trying to see if there are any lessons I can learn and apply to my own life. To my own situation. Frankly, I wanted to find lessons to apply. Like many Americans, I grew up with an absolute faith in sports as a metaphor for life.

So in his first race at the Olympics, Phelps finished 4th. In his first relay his team got 2nd. Then he got outtouched in the 200 fly. I was really curious to see how he would respond. After all, he doesn't lose at the Olympics. He almost never loses anywhere. Would he be able to shake it off, or would he fall apart?

That guy's mental toughness is second to none. He took responsibility for the result, admitting that his conditioning was a little less than optimal, that he'd been lazy on some walls in practice. He also acknowledged how much luck played a role in Beijing, where the stars aligned for him and he was on the winning side of some miraculous touches. But he didn't beat himself up. His confidence wasn't rattled. And then...he rocked his last four races, getting gold in all of them. What a satisfying narrative that is. Even more satisfying, maybe, than winning eight golds.

The problem is, a baby dying is not a botched 200 fly. How can I take responsibility for what happened when I don't know what went wrong, and when I did everything I could? I took my folic acid. I exercised, but not too much. I gave up drinking alcohol and coffee and eating raw cheese and raw fish. I was healthy. I had all of the tests. None of it helped.

I can recognize that I got very, very unlucky. 1 in 200 pregnancies end in stillbirth in the U.S. Not that many. But enough that there are a lot of heartbroken families out there. But there's not another race, another Olympics. Most likely there won't be another baby for me, and even if there is, it won't be this one.

I've always been a hard worker. To the extent that I succeeded in swimming it was my work ethic and my determination that got me there, not my talent. At Lakeside Swim Club I was Most Improved four years in a row. But I never made the Olympics. I never even made Junior Nationals. You'd think that would have clued me into the fact that all of this sports hoohah that we think says so very much about the human spirit, about anything being possible if you work hard and dream big and give it your all is complete bullshit. But it hadn't. Which is why, on April 5, two days after my son died, I was ready to get back out there and have another baby. A bigger, better baby than before! It would be a triumphant return to top reproductive form for a once-great performer! You can almost hear Bob Costas narrating.

In sports, this is where you redouble your efforts. Cut carbs from your diet, increase your yardage, add pilates and massage to your regimen. And that's what I wanted. I wanted to fight. I wanted to do anything but be with my own sadness and loss. I wanted my baby to have a terrible disease, so that I could fight against it and he could beat it. The truth is, I can't stand to lose. And the game was over before I even knew I was playing. Before I had a chance to fight. That's cheating, and I want a fucking rematch.

Some things are impossible, no matter what NBC says. My child will not come back to life, no matter how hard I work, how determined I am, how steadfast my will. I have to do something other than fight, something I've never done before: I have to accept. I hate the very word, but it doesn't matter if I hate it. There's no other word for it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Captain Zimbo

At Sunnyside Medical Center there's a protocol for an intrauterine fetal demise. They put a card on your door with a picture of a leaf with a raindrop on it, so everyone who comes in knows not to ask you giddy questions about nursery color schemes. A social worker comes. They give you a lot of things, too: a packet of literature, a bead bracelet with your baby's name on it. One of the things they gave me was a teddy bear for my about-to-be seven year-old son Jasper. It was white and its arms and legs were seamed to give it the jointed quality of a more expensive Stieff bear. It had kind, sorrowful eyes and a red bow around its neck.

I thought it was both superflous and staggering in its inadequacy. Jasper already has a primary stuffed animal, a gray dinosaur, Finley, given to him when he was a year or so old by my aunt Barbara. Finley has been everywhere, to Louisville and Los Angeles, to Dubrovnik and Munich and Vancouver. He has been left behind in a Best Western in John Day, Oregon, and returned to us by mail at great expense. No stuffed animal could ever supplant Finley. And the unspoken sentiment behind the gift irritated me. 'Sorry you don't get a brother, but here's a lump of cheap polyester plush and fill, made in China by some kids your age, that ought to cheer you up!'

When Jasper said he wanted to name the bear Balthazar my heart froze. Jonathan said no. I don't think he could have endured it, giving the bear Balthazar's name. But then Jasper said he wanted to name the bear Zimbo, which was our nickname for Balthazar when he was in utero, given to him at Thanksgiving by his cousin Phillip. I told Jonathan we had to let him. The name was soon amended, for some reason, to Captain Zimbo.

I was not prepared for how attached I became to Captain Zimbo. I'd heard the thing about bereft mothers' arms actually physically aching for want of a baby to hold, and though that didn't happen, exactly, I did cuddle that bear in a way that I found embarrassing but couldn't help. Every night I would curl up on the couch, wrap myself in the fleece Star Wars blanket and hold Captain Zimbo while I watched Eureka.

Captain Zimbo became Balthazar's avatar, and something about calling him "Captain" set off a chain of associations, of connections. Balthazar became a pilot, in a Sopwith Camel, wearing a leather cap and flying goggles, flying away from me. Like the Red Baron, or Snoopy. He was as intrepid as the World War I flying ace, and as lovable as a cartoon dog, but as unreachable as either. As my yoga teacher Michele had said, he couldn't stay. He'd flown away in his little plane, on a mission I couldn't know or understand. The trouble was, instead of living in my heart as all the supposedly comforting books had said he would, he'd taken half of my heart with him and I was left on the couch gasping for breath, holding a ridiculous yet sympathetic toy.

On Easter Sunday, five days after Balthazar's birth/death, Jasper came down the stairs in the morning eager to find all of the eggs that he knew the Easter Bunny had hidden around the house. Jonathan and I had gone to the toy store on Hawthorne after we picked up Balthazar's ashes from Holman's, trying hard not to look at the jack in the boxes and the blabla lions with their yarn manes. I thought I was doing well, filling that basket. But I had forgotten the eggs.

I broke down and cried when I saw Jasper's disappointment. Poor Jasper came and sat on my lap and patted my arm. "I love you so much and I just want you to be happy!" I wailed. "It's hard times when babies die," said Jasper, sounding more like an elderly lady from Kansas than a six year-old boy. Pat, pat went the hand on my arm.

We sat like that for a few minutes and then tried to get on with Easter morning. Jasper got a new stuffed animal, a Tiger he named Tigy, in his basket and about five minutes later there was violence in the stuffed animal kingdom. Finley, jealous of Tigy's appearance, shot him and was immediately punished with a hard beating with a book. The chocolate lambs, the chocolate bunny and a monkey hand puppet we call Monkey Doctor performed immediate emergency surgery in an attempt to save Tigy's life.

"Finley's been dead for two years," Jasper announced during the surgery. "He's a robot."

"He's dead?" I said, trying to keep my voice neutral in the face of so much carnage. "I had no idea."

"When his mom found out, she didn't even cry," he told me. Finley's mom lived at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. We had taken Jasper and Finley there at New Year's.

I knew he was contrasting her brave, stoic behavior with my own. After all, all I did was cry. I wanted to hold it together for my son; also to let him know that it's OK to be sad. But at that point, to be honest, the whole thing wasn't entirely under my control.

"Let's get Tigy stitched up," I said, turning my attention to the crisis at hand. Tigy was saved, Finley forgiven, his zombie status forgotten for the moment. We ate chocolate and later went to the beach.

Apparently we both had to work things out on plush toys, just different ones. Thank God for cheap fill and polyester.