Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Too Dark

As the two-year anniversary of Balthazar’s death approaches, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of redemption. Though Merriam-Webster defines redemption simply as the act of making something better or more acceptable, redemption is still an old-timey, Jesus-y word. It’s invoked in all kinds of contexts in our secular society: Lindsey Jacobellis is looking for redemption in snowboard cross; a former gang member finds redemption directing a center for homeless youth. And yet no matter what the story, the redeemed appear as if bathed in celestial light, touched by the hand of God.

Which makes the obverse also true.

A baby’s death is such an extreme event I’m not sure that it’s appropriate or even possible to talk about it in terms of redemption. Can it be made better? Will it ever be in any way acceptable? Still, from observing the Facebook pages of other mothers I know, having another child appears to be, if not the path to redemption then at least the sine qua non of healing. The parents still suffer, of course, and always will. There’s no taking that away. The lost child can never be replaced. But by virtue of the fact that the new baby would not exist without the loss of the other, he or she creates an entirely new, joyful future for the family.

It’s not a secret that this was the form I hoped that redemption would take. I asked my husband to try again after Balthazar, and he said no. It’s hard to know how I would have reacted to secondary infertility, or miscarriage, or another stillbirth, or any other scenario in which I failed to produce the requisite “rainbow” baby. I suspect not well. Maybe Jonathan’s right and that would have been the path to madness. But that’s all speculation.  

For a long time I wanted to wear a sign that said, “I want another baby, and there’s no medical reason I can’t have one. It’s him!” With a big arrow pointing to the space next to me. But I don’t feel that way so much anymore, maybe because the space next to me is now empty. I’m creating an entirely new future for myself, and I don’t spend as much time thinking about it.  But redemption? I can’t imagine what that would even look like.

Not long ago one of my Facebook moms, someone I met in a research study out of the University of Nebraska, posted a shout out to all of her friends who’ve had “rainbow” babies. Which I can tell you is pretty much every single woman I know who lost a child this way. Every. Single. One.
I usually just “like” the photos of the adorable children and leave it at that, but I must have been feeling particularly beleaguered that day, because I “liked” the post, as usual, but then I also said, “Please also have compassion for babyloss moms who don’t have “rainbow” babies and never will.”

My Facebook friend deleted my comment. That’s the kind of sad story you should just keep to yourself, you know? 

Even if, like me, you lost your Christian faith somewhere along the way, it’s hard not to feel that redemption shines God’s light on you, deserved or not, and that to fail to find it leaves you in shadow, outside the halo of grace.

An alternate scenario was that my memoir would become my rainbow baby. But I’ve had to rethink that as well, because 20 editors have rejected the manuscript, with variations on the same theme:

“It’s hard to bring this subject to the reader unless you’re Joan Didion,” said one, which in translation means: we will tolerate this kind of anguish from famous essayist, but not you. “Other memoirs of this type have struggled to find an audience,” said another. Until they said that I had no idea that Elizabeth McCracken and Emily Rapp had poor sales figures. My personal favorite, though, is this one: “Its readership is limited because it isn’t redemptive enough.”

It’s an interesting situation, to have your life declared too dark for public consumption. I don’t know what to say except that I object.

One of Jonathan’s friends, who is a documentary filmmaker, said that an audience isn’t looking for the Hollywood ending necessarily. There doesn’t have to be a “rainbow” baby, he said, but I have to have learned something by the end, something along the lines of, I’m grateful for what I have.

I’ll tell you this: I am a better person because of Balthazar. I’m more compassionate, kinder, quicker to help others. I am more open, more vulnerable, more emotionally available, more able to receive help. But to sugar-coat it and pretend that the price wasn’t more than anyone should be asked to pay; well, I just can’t do it. To pretend that I’m actually grateful that my son died, I can’t do it. Would I trade it all to be a clueless mom of two, untouched by tragedy, the kind who would unknowingly say stupid shit to someone like me? Yes I would.

I’ve lost a lot. More than my baby. My place in the world, my idea of myself, who I thought I was. I’ve been stripped down to the bone. I’ve been forced to say, well, I have my health and my brains and, for what it’s worth, my heart, and that’s going to have to be enough somehow.

I suspect that I’m not alone. I suspect that many people are experiencing something similar without knowing how to talk about it. Some of them might be interested in reading about those feelings. It might make them feel less alone. How many, I don’t know. Maybe not enough to satisfy the Viacom Corporation, but more than a few.

Maybe the solution is to wait until redemption finds me. Maybe it’s to take the book to a small press, the literary equivalent of indie film. I am going to look at the manuscript and see if I can rewrite it. But I think it would be a disservice to truth and to all the people out there whose lives are happening outside the confines of the acceptable narrative to tack on some saccharine passage or chapter to make other people more comfortable. That’s not me.

I’m grateful for what I have. It’s not easy. It’s day to day. Sometimes minute to minute.

Is that too dark?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Company of Women

A couple of weekends ago I went to a Bollywood dance party with my friend Jessica. This, it should be noted, was extremely out of character. I always feel really self-conscious about dancing because I’m not any good at it, but this was Bollywood dancing, which somehow took some of the pressure off. How many non-Indian people are good at Bollywood dancing, after all? The relentless dance beat underpinned incomprehensible Hindi lyrics and the strobe light blinked and we twisted our hands in a way that on a couple of redheads looked way more Grateful Dead than Bollywood, swaying and jumping like free-spirited idiots.

It felt great to let go, to sink in. It felt safe, too, being with Jessica. Who does not care how stupid she, or anyone else, looks.

On Saturday I went shopping with three girlfriends. Again, what can I say except that I can’t remember the last time that happened. College? Looking for a cow-print dress at Berkshire Mall? The four of us met at Nordstrom Rack and they tried on dresses and I tried on a black leather jacket and Denise teased me that it matched my badass personality and made me blush. And then I went to Laura’s house and put on a sexier dress than I’ve ever worn in my life and we took the bus to The Nines Hotel to drink Blanton’s and eat French fries with our Crossfit buddies.

A little boy who didn’t live has brought women into my life. Not just a few. A multitude. Some of them I knew already and he has drawn them closer. Others I would never have met, had he not existed. He has brought me married moms and single moms and separated moms, young single women, the newly-married, the long-divorced. He’s brought coffee and tea and drinks and lunch and dinner, dancing and weightlifting and parties. Balthazar has brought me friendship.

It’s not as if I’ve never had friends before, but it’s always been a problematic area for me. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: the most important female relationship of my life was, and on occasion still is, dangerous, hurtful, and empty. It left me unable to trust, reluctant to ask for help, without faith that I could count on anyone. Or anyone female.

When it looked as if I were destined for a houseful of boys, it was a relief. A husband, two sons, even a boy cat; all of my primary relationships would be with men. I don’t have a sister; I would not have a daughter. I wouldn’t be responsible for teaching anyone all of the things I had never been taught myself. I would never have to confront those wounds, those fears.

But life had other plans.

Many years ago I was in a therapy group with a young woman who had recently lost her mother to cancer. Most of the time she came to the group and simply sat, crying quietly, for the entire hour. Occasionally she said, “I miss my mom.” This barest of  language was implicitly understood by the other women in the group. They said the sweetest, most heartfelt things to her in an effort to comfort her. “I miss my mom” meant something to them that it just couldn’t to me. I was completely frustrated by my obvious lack and I tried my damnedest because I cared about her, but I couldn’t feel anything when she said that. That part of my heart was locked, or maybe permanently broken, I wasn’t sure.

Later I met a writer who had written eloquently and devastatingly about the loss of her mother, also to cancer. She was helping me write a memoir about the impact of my mother’s mental illness on me and my family. The thing we shared: our mothers had been our world. But such different worlds.

I read the tour de force opening of her memoir and the writer in me was admiring and the anthropologist in me was intrigued but the human in me was in difficulty. There was a flicker; the Christmas tree lights of empathy illuminated briefly, but there was a burned out bulb somewhere on the line and the whole thing went dark.

She wanted to help me with my writing and I wanted to be helped. Also, I wanted her to like me, but there was this chasm between us. Eventually we discovered the place we could meet: our own motherhood. But friendship was an impossible proposition.

Balthazar changed my family, my future, and he changed my heart.

I’m reaching out in all directions right now and sometimes it feels like a rack and sometimes it feels OK and sometimes it’s downright joyful. I know I can’t do any of this alone. And I find I have women friends who can brainstorm mortgages and tenants and jobs, others who can cheerlead, others who can hatch ridiculous Saturday night schemes. My friends design web sites, they call in favors, they listen, they make me laugh.

Thank you, all of you, from my heart, for all that you are doing for me and all that you are teaching me.