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.