Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Comeback

When Jasper and I went to visit my brother and his family recently, there was some understandable concern about how I might react to meeting their seven-month-old, Finnegan. Because he’s a baby, but also because he was born on April 1, 2015, the third anniversary of the day that Balthazar died. 

I don’t pretend to understand how an indifferent universe manages to serve up such a painful coincidence, but let me just say that Finnegan was born a month early because of a pregnancy complication. His due date was nowhere near April 1. And his parents weren’t given a choice about the date, because this particular complication is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth. As soon as he passed thirty-six weeks, he was out. 

Could I have told myself a different story about the timing of his birth, seen it as a sort of symbolic reincarnation? Framed it as a lovely connection that honored Balthazar, a day that brought me a gift?  No, I could not have. My turn of mind is not that generous or expansive. 

Finnegan’s birth made this year’s anniversary especially difficult. On Balthazar’s actual birthday I went to the gym to work out and dropped a barbell on my face. The swollen bruise on the bridge of my nose reminded me that I was temporarily not in my right mind and that the best thing to do was absolutely nothing, at least until the day had passed. What I did instead is kind of a funny story. 

For another time. 

Turns out, Finnegan is just your basic infant, wonderful or awful birthdate notwithstanding. His presence elicited no deep grief or sadness. I walked him around the kitchen. He pulled my hair. We stood at the window and watched the movement of oak leaves in the wind. 

His three-year-old sister Mae, though, was another story entirely. She took a shine to me right away. She wanted me to play Barbies, and she wanted our Barbies to take swimming lessons from the Little Mermaid. She wanted to examine all of my jewelry and tell me what I should wear. She wanted me to watch Mary Poppins with her stuffed bear. So, OK, the selfies were my idea, but she was enthusiastic about them. It was a little odd, really. I had the eerie sense that somehow she knew. Knew that there was a three-year-old-shaped space next to me, and she just snuggled right into it. 


There’s an episode of the TV show Louie in which the comedian Louis CK is asked to pitch a script idea to a film executive. “Your life is going to change,” she proclaims. With one wave of her hand she can greenlight his film and take him from moderately successful stand-up act to star. 

He launches into his idea, the story of a guy for whom everything goes wrong. It just gets worse and worse, and then the man dies. The film executive gets up from the table and goes to sit with some other people, leaving him there alone for the rest of lunch. In that moment he’s both making fun of himself for his unrelentingly dark vision and skewering a culture that requires a comeback story. He could’ve made his career if he’d pitched her the tale of a down and out boxer training to win one final bout, or a washed up spaceship captain enlisted to defeat the enemy in the make or break battle. He can’t do it, because he knows it’s total bullshit, and because he can’t his life stays exactly the same.   

It’s not that I am now only interested in championing depressing stories about irreversible downward spirals. Ironically I think I’m more optimistic and positive now than I’ve ever been. It’s just that what’s a lazy cliche in fiction makes even less sense if you try to use it as an organizing structure out here in the world.

A comeback is a performance, whether it’s your life or an episode of Behind the Music. In order for it to work, there has to be some Greek chorus, composed of journalists and fans, friends and family, who don’t think you stand a chance. Who’ve written you off. It’s about confounding other people’s expectations. Or what you imagine those expectations to be. 

If you’re not playing to an audience, what happens to you after a series of more or less devastating setbacks does not have a narrative arc. It’s just your life. If you pass through the world unnoticed by journalists or the public, do you cease to exist? Or, conversely, what if you accomplish something marvelous? You’re never going to arrive anywhere and stay, anyway. It only works that way in Sports Illustrated and on VH1. 

Comebacks don’t just happen to you; they require herculean effort, which our culture celebrates. You have to run the stairs. You have to play the dive bars in Topeka every night for eight years. You make a comeback happen with the sheer force of your will. Things don’t come back around because there’s an ebb and flow.

A comeback does something weird with time. It assumes that time is linear and you have to go back to some ideal moment, not to stay, but to snatch whatever you had then that you don’t have now and bring it to the present with you. 

Publishing books, having a baby: these things were the sine qua non of any comeback I might have made, but they are not answers to the questions I am asking now. Who knows where it will all lead, but whatever happens next won’t be a comeback. 

But it won’t be a place entirely new, either. Recently I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which borrows from Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return to creative a narrative with a cyclical approach to temporality. Pieces of the story take place at various points in history, including the near future and the distant future, but the main character in each time period shares distinctive characteristics with the others. In that book, time liquefies like sand in an earthquake. Like a clock in a Dali painting. I’m no postmodernist, but it finally made sense to me. 


Mae was very attracted to the snowy owl necklace I was wearing during the visit. My B necklace is being repaired, so I was wearing the one my roommate gave me for Christmas last year. My sister-in-law told me I could tell her kids whatever I wanted, and so after she had asked me about it and toyed with it for awhile I told her that it helped me to remember my baby who died.

“You had a baby who DIED?” she said incredulously. I said I did. She scrambled down from the bed and went to her father. “Daddy, she had a baby who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad, and did she want to give me a hug and make me feel better? She did. 

One night I told her there were no girl children at our house in Portland, only boys. This was an unimaginable configuration to her. Did Jasper not have any sisters? she wanted to know. Did he have brothers? Only a brother who died, I said. 

“Jasper had a brother who DIED?” She climbed down from my lap and accosted Scott. “Daddy, there was a brother who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad. Did she want to hug me and make me feel better? She did. 

I suspect I will tell her this story many more times and in many different ways. 

At the zoo she asked me to take her to see the polar bear. We left the others inside and walked to its habitat. Once she saw the bear she decided she was more interested in going beneath the exhibit to look at the fish, so I held her hand as we walked down the ramp. That’s when I felt Balthazar’s absence most acutely. He might have disdained a gorgeous predator in favor of the anonymous invertebrates which would be its lunch, or he might have come up with some other plan of his own. But that’s what I would have been doing with him: listening to him chatter and marveling at his strange and fascinating brain.    

Maybe children are the best metaphor for the circularity of time. Children return. Not the same child, of course. A baby with red hair and hazel eyes. A three year old who likes jewelry and fish. Love returns. Not the same love, but many loves of many different kinds, again and again. Not a line, but a wheel. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Right Where I Am: Three Years, Six Months

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Every month is awareness month for something, and in the larger world it makes barely a ripple, competing as it does against Donald Trump and school shootings and videos of puppies. But for a certain select group of people, it matters, and for obvious reasons I happen to know a lot of them. 

This year I got a Facebook invitation to participate in a project called Capture Your Grief. For each of the thirty-one days of the month, participants can take and post photographs around daily themes: sunrise, memory, dreams, sacred space, music, gratitude. It looks like a really cool exercise and for a second I thought I might want to sign up. Then I thought: do I want to spend the whole month meditating on my grief?

I have to write about socks. I have to write about health care. I have to send invoices. I have to figure out what I need to change to get my performance in the gym back on track. I have to get Jasper ready for Japan. I need to clean the furnace filter. I need to shave the dreadlocks off of the cat’s back because I don’t think brushing is going to cut it. Lots of people and things need my attention. 

I decided that I didn’t want to spend the whole month meditating on my grief. Is that turning a blind eye to work that needs to be done, or is it a step forward in healing?  

One of the themes on the Capture Your Grief list was glow in the woods. When I saw it, I remembered that it’s the name of a blog for babyloss parents that I used to read religiously. So I went back to the site. I read a few pieces, and found my own name on the blog roll. I tried to recall the place I had been, when reading about stillbirth and writing about stillbirth was all I did. When I waited desperately for a new post to appear, something I could connect to in a world that contained nothing else of meaning or interest to me. 

Then I tried to find the other blog that had saved me during the early days. I googled around and finally remembered that the author’s name is Angie. Still Life With Circles. Her writing is lovely and poetic, if always a little bit too New Agey for what I think of as regular me. Stones and feathers and Native American ritual and stars. Though regular me now has a meditation app on her phone, so who is regular me, anyway? 

Angie is the person who initiated the Right Where I Am project. Her daughter Lucia died five years ago, and when I visited her blog I discovered that she hasn’t written in more than a year. 

Such a blunt reminder of how far I’ve traveled, that something that had once been such a lifeline for me had been out of my consciousness for so long. How long? When did I stop reading it? When did I arrive in this new place where I didn’t need it? I don’t remember opening or closing any doors, but here I am in a new room. 


Catch the Wind still catches me, now and then. 

There are several pregnant women in my Wednesday yoga class and because of it my teacher never stops rambling on about pregnancy and birth. I try not to look at them, but I can’t not think about it. That’s over, I think. It will never happen again. Then the tears fall. For a little while. 

At the 24 hour film festival one of the films turned out to be about the death of a baby. The short  films were made over the course of 24 hours by teams of amateurs, and it seemed unbelievably disrespectful that they thought they could do a subject like that justice within those parameters. That didn’t make me cry, it just made me mad. 

Of course that’s what life is. Women in your yoga class have babies and your yoga teacher babbles on about it. People make lazy, thoughtless films about the worst thing that ever happened to you. You never know where or when but you can’t stop doing stuff. You just deal with it when it happens. You cry quietly into your mat, or go to the lobby until it’s over. 

And in between those moments are so many of friendship and connection and humor and humanity. Those moments might hit like a wave of frigid water but they don’t swamp the boat. 

Angie’s last post was about the ways in which her daughter had changed her life. Implicit in that is that her life was changed for the better. Which is the inescapable paradox of loss. 

Balthazar lived and died and the world was changed, a little bit. Not all of the change was bad, even for the people who loved him most. Good things have come. Good things that wouldn’t have come. Momentous things. Profound things. If he had lived there would have been different good things, and different losses and sadnesses. But I live here. All I can do is look to what’s been given and be grateful. 

Today Balthazar would be three and a half. When Jasper was that age we went to Costa Rica. We were on a boat in a muddy river and a bunch of monkeys swarmed our boat. The largest male became very aggressive and tried to attack my father-in-law, assessing, correctly, that he was the leader of our group. Jasper was frightened by the hostile monkeys and snuggled tightly into me. 

That event is Jasper’s first memory, he told me recently. Now that memory gains added resonance for me: a memory of Jasper’s first memory. When I think about that moment the greatest loss seems to be Balthazar’s and not my own: the consciousness he didn’t get to have, the memories unacquired. My life would have been immeasurably enriched by being along for the ride, but the journey would have been his.

On October 15, when I light a candle for Balthazar, Jonathan and Jasper will be in Japan, visiting temples and eating nigiri and taking pictures of neon signs. Which is as it should be. And after a few minutes of quiet contemplation I’ll go find the shears and ask Laura to help me and we can groom the cat, and then maybe sit at the dining room table and talk for awhile.

Monday, August 10, 2015


I’ve been avoiding the topic of dating. It’s primarily, although not exclusively, an issue of tone. The only voice that seems to fit is one of black comedy, which fiction is best suited to support. Because the whole thing is fucking absurd, on multiple levels. Your baby should not die. And should your baby die, you should dissolve quietly and decorously into a family structure, never to be heard from again except in the proscribed places and the acceptable ways: at school pickup, or the gym, or the therapist. Get a journal. Volunteer in the neonatal unit. You are not meant to buy a spandex skirt from American Apparel and go on Tinder.

The situation is akin to a Grace Paley protagonist, sitting on the stoop and greeting her ex-husband as he passes. It’s like a Bible salesman stealing a girl’s artificial leg. It’s Donald Barthelme riffing on his dead father. It’s any Lorrie Moore character ever. 

One of Jonathan’s close friends has a sister who is an ob/gyn, and right after Balthazar died she told Jessica that Jonathan and I would divorce. It wouldn’t happen right away, she said, but it would happen. Then I read that Emily Rapp, who wrote Still Point of the Turning World about her son’s slow death from Tay-Sachs disease, had divorced. Not that I wanted that for her, or anyone, but it made me feel, if not absolved, at least less culpable. A writer, a tragic circumstance involving a child, a divorce. See? I told all of the voices, inside of my mind and out, who were busily judging me, it’s not ALL my fault.

Still, most people who lose a child, despite what you’ve heard, do stay married. I don’t know how any of them do it, except that in the case of stillbirth it seems that most if not all have another baby if they can. But it does make my situation, if not unique, at least anomalous. 

Here is the protagonist of Anne Enright’s remarkable novel The Gathering: “I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar—that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.”


And when and if a death has rendered you unfit to live more or less contentedly at an emotional remove from your own life, you might find yourself out at 2am, listening to a local band play a dive bar, drinking Bulleit on the rocks and kissing someone on the sidewalk. Who is the person who is doing these things? you might ask yourself. Was she in there all this time? Is it good to let her out, or would continuing to suppress her have been the better course? 

I imagine that trying to date in your forties would be fraught no matter the circumstances, and perhaps everyone at this age feels like they are walking beside a palanquin filled with personal disaster, just hoping that some other brave soul won’t be too put off by its weight and the darkness hidden behind its curtains, or at least not enough to take a peek and immediately light out for the hills, where the unbaggaged thirtysomethings Instagram their picnics of locally distilled moonshine and homemade charcuterie while wearing garlands of peonies and significant tattoos, riding their vintage bicycles and saluting the sun on their salt-cured yoga mats.


I began dating two years after Balthazar died, when I was somewhere between crazed with grief and more or less fine, a section of the continuum I expect to occupy forever. I approached it a bit like a sociological experiment, which produced some weirdly meta moments as I texted with men who were ostensibly interested in me, asking how long they’d been doing this, how many other women they were in contact with, how many they’d gone out with, how many they’d kissed, how many they’d slept with. Statistics seemed an important way to manage an unfamiliar, chaotic and frightening system. It was the first and perhaps only time that I will ever seek refuge in math.  

Because I hadn’t dated since Bill Clinton was president, and because things were radically different and because I had been none too good at it before, it was a steep learning curve, complicated by my identity as The Woman Whose Baby Recently Died. The fact of Balthazar still seemed like the most important thing about me, and though I didn’t put it on my OKCupid profile, perhaps I should have. It would have saved some men an awkward, discomfiting experience.

Like a woman in one of those contemporary Harlequin romance novels that were too cloying for me even when I was nine years old and flipping through my great aunt’s stash of paperbacks to find the really good sex parts, I was, at least initially, on a mission of wish fulfillment rather than reality. I was looking for a man who would be able to see all of it, all of my pain and vulnerability and be able to hold it. Not be horrified, or disgusted, or indifferent or uncomfortable. Who would not feel sorry for me. Who would enfold me in his arms. Who would lift the crushing, boulder-filled backpack of it off of my shoulders and carry it himself. 

Instead, there was the man who, upon hearing the story of Balthazar, felt compelled to tell me about the bleeding scare his ex-wife had when she was pregnant with their daughter, now fourteen and a star soccer player. They were so scared. But then everything turned out fine after all! 

Was that an attempt at empathy? I resisted the urge to stab him in the eye with a kitchen knife. 

I got a few versions of ‘shit happens,’ and at least one ‘that’s heavy,’ but no one did or said the things I was hoping that someone would do or say. There was plenty of discomfort, maybe one or two moments of compassion, but nothing like what I was hoping for. 

I now have some measure of compassion for these men. Now I think, bless their hearts, it’s a miracle they did as well as they did. They thought my picture on OK Cupid was cute, or that something I wrote was funny. They were hoping for flirty chitchat, or a frisson of romance, or hot sex. Instead they got a stranger telling them the story of a dead baby and waiting in the dark for them to do or say the impossible.  

The truth is that most people are struggling hard enough with their own stuff that the last thing they want is to take on someone else’s, and if they do want to instantly take it on that’s probably not a good sign. It’s up to me to handle, and deal with, and fix. To dump some of those rocks by the side of the trail. To see myself whole, and hold it all for myself. When that happens, I expect someone better will meet me in the wildflower meadow with a vegan, gluten-free cheesecake and an iced tea. 

Monday, June 1, 2015


I recently went to the ob/gyn for a checkup. The nurse practitioner who knocked softly on my exam room door turned out to be Geri, who was on call at Sunnyside the day Balthazar was born:

“Geri, one of my midwives, rushed into the room, looking stricken. She couldn't seem to get over the fact that I had had an ultrasound six days before. 

‘And your mother was worried,’ she said. ‘She wanted you to move up the ultrasound.’

‘She worries about everything,’ I said, wanting her to leave my mother the hell out of it, shaking off her implication that my mother's anxiety was in any way supernatural. At the time I felt amazement that at such a dramatic and terrible moment I could experience anything as trivial as irritation. But of course what I registered as irritation was no such thing. It went much, much deeper. The invocation of my mother was more than I could bear, and my survival depended on getting her out of that room.

I was pretty sure I would be hearing for the rest of my life how my mother had known what would happen. I could hear her voice in my head, saying 'I knew something was wrong. I've always been intuitive.’ She was going to want an award for being right, and I wasn't going to be ready for that for a long, long time.”

That, honestly, was all I remembered about Geri’s part in the day. I don’t even remember if she checked in, after. All of the medical personnel were a blur to me at that point. They were kind, they were respectful, they did things. And they were nothing to me. I didn’t see them, or hear them, though I spoke to them and did what they asked me to do. 

It had been almost three years since I had seen Geri, but we picked up pretty much where we left off. In the implosion of grief it’s easy to forget that these losses are traumatic for caregivers too. Her blue eyes were filled with tears when she walked into the examination room, where I’d been sitting and scrupulously not looking at the fetal development chart. 

“Elizabeth, how are you? I’m so glad to see you. How does it feel being back here?” she asked, sitting down on a stool next to the examination table so that we were on the same level and so that I could see her kind, angular face. 

“Terrible.” I choked a little bit on the word, the way Jasper does when he’s feeling sorry for himself. 

“I imagine it would be terrible,” she said, and I assured her that I had been back to Sunnyside several times for physical therapy, so it wasn’t as if was my first time back in this kind of office. I didn’t mention that the first time I’d gone back to Sunnyside, they’d had to move me out of the exam room and into the counselor’s office because I couldn’t stop crying.

“I don’t want to make this more difficult for you,” she said. “But I wanted to share how I was feeling with you. How’s Jonathan?”

Then I had to tell her that Jonathan and I had divorced. She said she was sorry, of course. I said that I had wanted to try again to have another baby, that he hadn’t, that we’d been to counseling but hadn’t been able to work it out. Which is an extremely reductive way to describe what happened, but she didn’t have six hours. 

“I remember you both that day,” she said, startling me. “You were so stoic, and his emotions were very much out in the open. You were making decisions right from the start.”

The truth is, you don’t get to decide how to be at such a moment. You are more yourself than you have ever been before or ever will be again. There is no self-consciousness, no analysis, no effort, no superego. There is only you and the horrific thing and your relationship to the horrific thing. 

Here is the parent of a child with cancer, in Lorrie Moore’s story People Like That Are the Only People Here: 
“Everyone admires us for our courage,” says one man. “They have no idea what they’re talking about.” 
I could get out of here, thinks the Mother. I could just get on a bus and go, never come back. A kind of witness-relocation thing. 
“Courage requires options,” the man adds. 
The Baby might be better off. 

“There are options,” says a woman with a thick suede headband. “You could give up. You could fall apart.”
“No you can’t. Nobody does. I’ve never seen it,” says the man. “Well, not really fall apart.”


Later in Moore’s story the man’s statement is undercut by the individual stories of the parents of the children with cancer: divorce, abandonment, job loss, alcoholism. When something terrible happens to your child, the falling apart, it seems, happens later, a slow-motion unraveling. 

For the twenty-four hours I spent at the hospital, it was like I temporarily had Alzheimer’s. All of my intelligence and humor and most facets of my personality were washed away, and what was left was remarkably similar to my great-aunt Elizabeth, who in the last years of her life was a mannerly shell of a person. She had to keep up a running monologue during every fifteen-minute car ride to remind herself of the words for ‘tree’ and ‘dog,’ but ‘may I trouble you’ and ‘if you please’ took no effort at all.

I was really damn polite, I remember that. But there was also this: 

“The Mother has begun to cry: all of life has led her here, to this moment. After this there is no more life. There is something else, something stumbling and unlivable, something mechanical, something for robots, but not life. Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.”

So was it slow, or was it fast? Can it be both? The breaking had its own insistent rhythm. Slow, then fast, then slow. A quiet meandering interrupted by a great percussive smash, followed by a dirge played by a single violin.

Geri later mentioned that her daughter was studying social work and had said something to her about how some couples are able to lean into each other in a crisis while others lean away. The structural weakness must have begun long before, the way the foundations of a building are undermined by water for many years before it becomes apparent. And there is no one moment, of course, but a hundred, a thousand. An accumulation of moments over the course of a marriage that culminate in two people in a hospital room, alone, mourning a child they made together. 

I don’t want to end there. I want to make a deft turn, something about how the two people involved grieved and cried and kept living almost in spite of themselves. How they wrote some things and loved their surviving child and helped other people when they could and saw beauty in the world and at times felt joy. But sometimes you just have to close the curtain and walk quietly away. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Basement

When my house was a Volunteers of America shelter for battered women and their children, some of the more difficult kids were apparently shut in the back room of the basement to ride out their tantrums. That room has a concrete floor, institutional fluorescent lighting, a tiny window. At adult eye level the door has a one way glass panel. It’s undeniably creepy. You wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a poltergeist. Whatever went on down there, it left some of its dark energy behind. 
Until recently the basement was crammed top to bottom with junk, repository of my refusal to accept that the life I used to have, as well as the life I thought I’d have, are gone. There are still bins of “good” china down there, each piece wrapped in newspapers from 2004. Framed Ray Harm wildflower watercolors. Our wedding invitation, which I designed and was so proud of. Jonathan’s books and camera equipment and weights. And, most terrifying of all, Jasper’s baby clothes and toys and paraphernalia. Every last thing he wore or played with or used, saved for Balthazar. 

I guess that’s why the scary basement is a trope in horror movies. The bad guy down there is a metaphor for all the things inside ourselves we don’t want to face. 

So I’ve been spending  a lot of time down there lately, divesting. Trying to face the stuff, and myself, head on. On the Tuesday before Balthazar’s birthday I drove to Northwest Children’s Outreach with five large bins of clothes. I was liberal in allowing myself to keep things of Jasper’s I especially love: tiny Vans printed with orange spiders, a black t-shirt with a panda on it, monster-faced rain boots, tea collection origami and dragon print pi’s. Still, when you have saved every last item, it adds up to a lot. A couple of elderly men helped me unload my car. The capable coordinator transferred everything to garbage bags and gave the bins back to me. And then it was done. Children in need will get those clothes for free. I only cried a little. 

The Tuesday after Balthazar’s birthday I took two high chairs, a stool, a diaper Dekor, some clothes and many, many toy cars, ambulances, firetrucks, garbage trucks and front-end loaders to Goodwill. A woman pulled up behind me at the drop off station and started unloading things from her trunk. 

“Ah, the baby stuff,” she said knowingly when she saw my pile. “It’s so hard to let go of that!”

“I held onto it much longer than I should have,” I admitted, smiling.

“How old?” she asked. Wanting to know just how deep my procrastination, or maybe my sentimentality, ran.

“It’s a long story,” I began. But really it’s not. “My older son is nine,” I said. “And my younger son would be three.” 

There it was, so smoothly done it might have slid right past her. The tenor of my voice, the expression on my face, nothing changed. She didn’t recoil, or even really react. She kept talking. She told a story about her practical husband and how even he had not wanted to let go of certain baby items. And then she said have a good day and I said you too and I drove off. Good for you, she called as I left. 

And that, apparently, is how it’s done. How it will be done. For the rest of my life. 

When I’m finished with this project, when I’ve been to FreeGeek and the hazardous waste dump and the regular dump and Goodwill again, what will be left are things that serve the life I have now or the life I hope to have in the future: camping equipment and Christmas decorations, primarily. I still don’t know where the fifty copies of the Australian edition of The Painted Kiss with the smutty cover fit into my future scenario—a free gift for future airbnb guests? If nothing else, a clean basement will mean less work when, or if, I have to sell the house. 

If I have to sell the house. The current seems to be moving me inexorably in that direction, and all my sleepless nights and all my efforts to prevent it seem to have come to naught.

During a very difficult week not long ago, my friend Emiliee found me sobbing in the locker room at the gym. That night I received this encouraging message from her: Beautiful girl, you can do hard things. 

I’ve already done some pretty hard things. In the last three years I have walked out of a hospital without my baby. I have walked into a funeral home and collected his ashes. I have ended my marriage. I have started freelancing, found a roommate, hung onto my house and for the past year have managed keep the whole enterprise afloat. This was supposed to be the moment when it all began to knit together, when I had a steady job and things were running smoothly. When I could take a breath and think about painting the steps and buying a couple of plane tickets to New York City.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

A creative writing teacher once wrote of a character in one of my stories: “Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of her self-esteem, the floor gives way and you realize there is another sub-basement yet to go.” That’s how I feel about the work/money thing right now. When will I find solid ground? Or will the floor keep giving way underneath me? What does the bottom look like? 

A couple of nights ago I had a dream that the basement had been completely renovated, for free, by some of my friends. It had shiny white tile and natural wood, and was very clean and somehow much bigger. The basement now opened onto a promenade with trees and food carts and the sky was very blue. 

In the dream I was concerned that the unspecified friends who had done all of that work might not realize how much I appreciated all that they had done, and how much I loved it. And it’s true that if supportive friends were companies I would have about eighteen jobs by now.

In December I got a fan letter from Bob in Spokane. I don't get fan mail very often and I tend to move through my daily life assuming that no one cares about my writing, those books were published so long ago, they made no impact whatsoever, etc. So the letter really touched me, especially for the last line: "like throwing a stone into a pond, we never know where the ripples may end.” 

I’m trying to keep in mind that one of the many stones I’ve thrown in the past few months might  have already created a little current that will float me to some as-yet-unimagined place, with plane trees and taco trucks and subway tile and unfinished oak floors and cool air and bright sunshine. 

Monday, March 30, 2015


My roommate Laura and I joke that we like to birth our children in the spring, like ruminants. It seems the appropriate schedule: become pregnant in the summer, stay cool and (relatively) comfortable through the winter, and deliver when the trees begin to bud. Between us we have four boys, all born in March or April, like lambs. In what feels much more like synchronicity than coincidence, we each have only one boy living with us. 

I met Laura at the gym. I don’t remember introducing myself to her, or the first few times we worked out together. What I do remember is standing with her at a party at Ecliptic Brewing, there among the vats and pallets, breathing in the smell of yeast, telling her about Balthazar and listening to her as she told me that she was adopted and had placed a child for adoption when she was a teenager.

Laura’s son is sixteen and living in California. She thinks of him often. She worries about him. She pores over the letters she has received from his adoptive family over the years, looking for clues to his well-being. The adoption agreement stipulated that she not make contact with him until he was eighteen, but last fall he found her on Facebook and they began a tentative correspondence. Contact with him is the thing she wants most in the world, but it is also terrifying, building this new relationship out of what was sundered all those years ago. 

Laura has gathered into her life many women with similar life experiences. One afternoon at brunch, her friend Tamera shared with some of the women congregated in her living room a piece of her own adoption story.

“I left the hospital without my baby,” she said, and in that moment I got it. Connection made, I began sobbing uncontrollably. Placing a child for adoption, I now understand, is an occasion of tremendous loss for the birth mother, not unlike the death of a child. Our stories are not the same, but they loop and intersect and touch at points. A birth mother may leave her baby to be raised by others, but there is notwithstanding a deep grief in the unnaturalness of it, the wrongness. There’s a reason Laura and I are friends. There is a reason the narratives have converged at this moment. 

Laura calls Makani and Jasper the children we parent. Because the other children are present all the time, we just don’t get to raise them. 

I mark the time of the season of Balthazar’s death with the vernal equinox, as I’ve done for my own birthday my entire life. I’m aware of its approach in the changing landscape. Spring has come early to Portland this year. Everyone’s Instagram is full of quince and cherry blossoms, magnolia, dogwood, forsythia. 

I remember the rain the day he was born. The view outside the hospital window was of a parking lot and there wasn’t anything green visible, only gray, everything distorted by the drops sliding down the pane, blurred and disconsolate like a Gerhard Richter painting. Inside the room a post-apocalyptic future of antiseptic white. 

I remember the lilacs at his memorial, cut from a friend’s bush. My cardigan with the missing pearl button was spring green. 

I left the hospital without my baby. 

I don’t worry about him any more. I don’t even dream about him, or I haven’t in a long time. My unconscious mind has not age-progressed him, as I once thought it would. I have no idea what a three-year-old Balthazar would look like, be like. My imagination apparently can’t stretch that far. 

I also mark Balthazar’s time on the church calendar that I don’t consciously follow. Balthazar’s birthday falls on Good Friday this year, though I didn’t realize that until this week. 

I collect Annunciations on the web site Artstack, which allows you to select and save images, the Pinterest of art. I have Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rogier van der Weyden. Depending on the artist Mary looks frightened or smug or preoccupied or overwhelmed. I love this moment, this improbable moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, Hey, guess what? In the Lippi, at least, the angel Gabriel is kind of hot. You can imagine teenage Mary flirting with him a little. Smacking her gum. Umm, I’m going to bear God’s child. OK, whatever you say.

I do not collect Pietas, the classic pose of Mary holding her dead son’s body in her arms. Too overwrought, too baroque. Too gruesome, too Catholic. The sky as dark as night at four o’clock in the afternoon. The curtain of the temple rent in two. The complete absence of hope, when no one, not Mary, not Peter, not the other disciples, not the women, could imagine anything good ever happening again. It’s one thing to reenact that moment in a ritual, already knowing the next chapter in the story. It’s another thing to actually feel it in your own life. It’s not a place to linger, if you can help it. 

In this season of unbearable despair and inevitable renewal, I’m reading Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, about the death of her daughter Quintana at age thirty-nine. It didn’t get as much attention as The Year of Magical Thinking, her book on the death of her husband John Gregory Donne, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it resonates with me much more. 

Before Blue Nights I read Paula, by Isabel Allende, about her own daughter’s death, and liked it much less. Allende is emotionally florid but tends to let herself off the hook. Those affairs I had, the times I left my children for months at a time? They were fine! Look how much we all love each other now! Before she got sick my daughter was perfect! Now she is an angel. 

Didion never lets herself or the reader off of the hook. 

The reviewers all speak respectfully of the book as Didion’s clear-eyed look into the abyss, and in their voices I hear the skittishness of all of the New York editors who passed on my memoir. They are respectful because she is Joan Didion, but they’d like nothing better than to back slowly away, because they don’t want to hear about her Good Friday moment. They don’t want to hear about the loss of self that her child’s death forced her to contemplate, the loss which we all inevitably face. 

Quintana Roo Dunne was adopted. Didion acknowledges that the feelings of abandonment adoptees experience might have played a part in her daughter’s psychological problems, her self-medication, her early death. In Blue Nights she refers to parenthood as “the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable.”

That’s the message of the Pieta. I pledged to protect the unprotectable, and I failed. Because I am human, I failed. Here, in my arms, is the broken evidence of my failure. Is there consolation in the beauty of the composition? For the artist, for the viewer, most certainly yes. For the woman holding her son, there is none. 

I left the hospital without my baby. 

And then we come to Easter. I’m supposed to bake a lemon meringue pie. I’m supposed to fill Jasper’s basket with various iterations of a stuffed tiger. I’ll use the new beanbag chair as a lure to get him to nestle in my lap for awhile, lanky and awkward and smelling of boy sweat and wontons. He will tell me what he thinks we should do about ISIS, and ask me to name my five favorite countries in the world based on their system of government. 

No gaudy trumpet lilies. Just some white lilacs in a glass vase on the bookshelf. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


The day my new mortgage was approved by underwriting, I took an impromptu selfie and posted it to Facebook. One of the comments I got was from a midwife and pelvic care provider I’d been to see after Jasper was born. A pelvic care provider is kind of a personal trainer for your vagina. If you haven’t delivered a baby you might think that is weird or gross. If you have delivered a baby you know exactly why such a job exists. 

I’d also tried to see her after Balthazar was born, but she had just had a baby of her own and wasn’t working much. Which, considering the place she was in and the place I was in, was probably for the best. 

“You look peaceful,” she wrote now. “Congratulations!” 

As they say in yoga, I felt resistance to the word ‘peaceful.’ Which is to say, the word ‘peaceful’ really pissed me off. Because of the nature of our connection I know read a lot more into it than I should have. At first hearing it sounded patronizing. 

Does it mean she thinks I’m at peace generally? I wondered. Or is she making an oblique reference to Balthazar? Does she think I’m at peace with what happened to him? No fucking way. I’m not at peace with what happened. I will never be at peace with what happened. The element of approval implicit in acceptance trips me up every time. Even if I go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and a National Book Award and pilot a doomed aircraft to safety and find a cure for autism, there will be no part of me that believes his death was for the best. 

Furthermore, I’ve never been peaceful in my life. Even before Balthazar died, it was never a part of my self-identity at all; in fact, the opposite. Everything is a struggle and to get what I want I have to fight, tooth and claw. 

A well-worn family story about me: the winter I was eight, I was slated to compete in a Junior Olympic swim meet in Jeffersonville, In., about 12 or so miles from my house. I’d only been swimming competitively a short time, and I thought, falsely, that being in a meet called the Junior Olympics was a big deal. The day of the meet I had a fever, and my mother didn’t want to let me go. After arguing and crying didn’t work, I packed up my suit and cap and goggles and towel and started walking. Knowing full well that I would try to make it to Indiana somehow, my mother finally relented and drove me to the meet. I won one race and got second in a couple more. They gave out really nice medals, as I recall. 

With every retelling, indomitable will became more and more central to my sense of myself, and the keystone in the arch of everything I thought of as positive in my character. But every story can be turned and examined from a different angle, where it reveals truths previously hidden. Every aspect of character has its shadow side. It’s apparently taken the subsequent thirty-five years for me to realize that what worked on my mother when I was eight might not be the right strategy for every single obstacle that appears in my path. 

My thoughts kept returning to what the midwife had said. What did she see, and what did she mean? What kind of peace was she referring to?

Wikipedia says this:

To be at peace is to be free of anxiety or distress and is considered a healthy mental state. Peace of mind is generally associated with bliss, happiness and contentment. In Taoism, being at peace is self-acceptance. Letting go of the past, not holding on to the future.

Inner peace is in some sense not being at war with reality, which is why I have habitually rejected it. Balthazar’s death didn’t make accepting reality any easier, but I’m not sure it made it any harder, either. It was always hard. I’ve never been able to trust that the future could work out, that there could be enough. That things could be OK without a herculean effort. 

And if you had asked me I would have told you, sadly, that I am still that way. But sometimes people who don’t know you well can observe changes that are too subtle or too close for you to realize. Am I really still the person who faces the world like a feral cat that has been trapped in a box and taken to the vet for shots?

A few days after I posted the selfie I ran into my former Pilates teacher at the coffee shop. 

“You,” she grinned as she hugged me, in a tone that implied I had done something clever. I quickly realized that it was because she has been reading the blog. This must be what it’s like to be Cheryl Strayed, I thought, albeit on a very small scale. It’s disconcerting in the best possible way to be jolted by a hit of positive regard you weren’t expecting at all as you sat there looking at the music listings in Willamette Week. 

She told me that beauty was radiating from inside of me. Which is a compliment of a whole different order than “You look beautiful,” as nice as that one is to get. Instinctively I clutched at my heart. Trying to acknowledge how it felt to hear that but also, maybe, because suddenly I feared that my chest was made of glass. Could she see it? It was almost too much. Quick! Let’s talk about your kids! 

I wonder now if the Pilates teacher and the midwife saw the same thing. I wonder if they saw that I’m not fighting so hard anymore. I haven’t given up on anything being possible in the future, but I’m not excruciatingly unsatisfied with the present moment. I’ve always been a strong swimmer and I have fought the current for a long time, but that is not always an efficient use of energy. It hasn’t necessarily taken me anywhere. I haven’t drowned, and maybe for a portion of my life that was important, and enough. But sometimes in order to move you have to unclasp your fingers from the branch you are gripping so tightly. You have to let go and see what happens. 

Sometimes the relief when you do that is so enormous that it shows in your face. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Right Where I Am: Two Years, Nine Months, Two Days

2014 was not a good year, in the traditional sense, but it was a powerfully transformative one. My evolving relationship with gratitude has brought me to the beginning of 2015 with a lot of things to be grateful for. Here are some of them:

Jasper has finally allowed himself to snuggle again. With what will in future years be remembered as legendary stubbornness, he refused to let me hug or kiss him for nine months. He found a workaround in November, when he instigated a game I’ll call Leukemia Patient. This game is in some ways remarkably similar to Funeral, a game he played when he was two, and may be taken as evidence that personality is stable over time. 

“I don’t feel so good,” he says during the ‘game.’ He lolls on my bed with a pained expression on his face. 

“You feel fine,” I say briskly.

“What did the doctor say?” he whispers pathetically, eyes closed, breathing labored. 

“The doctor said you’re fine,” I say. 

He then pretends to choke and die, and lies still. My role is to throw my body onto his, holding him in my arms, kissing him frantically and calling his name. I attempt to revive him, and succeed, for a second. His eyes open wide and he sits up, gasping for breath, until after a moment or two he falls back into the bed again. 

“I don’t feel so good,” he says, and we reenact the scene again, and again. 

Sometime in December he relented completely; not, he said, because he has forgiven me anything, but because he has accepted the truth of what I told him several months ago: everyone needs physical touch and affection, and that it would make him feel better, even if it came from me. He’s so much bigger than he was when he became a refusenik that it was awkward at first to even know how to hold him, but we’re working it out. A corollary: after nine months of calling me “Mom,” that formal, distancing moniker, I have been restored, for the moment, to “Mommy.” My heart is full. 

A few days before Christmas I stopped into a few of the stores on Hawthorne looking for a gift. At the card/gift store Presents of Mind, I was startled to discover that owls have become the motif of Christmas cards, gift bags, wrapping paper and gift tags. Two years ago I was emailing people in the UK trying to get a set of snowy owl cards, and now I could outfit myself for the year with thematically unified paper goods just by popping into the store down the street. Balthazar, is that you? 

Lately I have been meditating. Which is like saying I have been hand-sewing Edwardian costumes for my vintage doll collection, or have begun making and bottling my own vinegar to sell at bluegrass festivals. If you’ve known me for a long time you might have to ask if I’m feeling OK, in which case I would answer, yes and no.  

Around the time that I was habitually waking up in a panic in the middle of the night, worrying about the house, and money, and relationships, my roommate Laura was about to begin Oprah and Deepak’s 21-day free meditation challenge. She suggested that I do it too. Oprah and Deepak! The cynic, the skeptic, rebelled. 

My approach to matters psychological has always been analytical and research-based, because that’s what comes most easily to me. I’ve talked. A lot. I’ve read The Drama of the Gifted Child. I’ve read Trapped in the Mirror. I’ve read Radical Acceptance. But I always ignored the exercises at the end of each chapter because that would have involved a practice that bypassed the thinking mind. What good would that be, the thinking mind wanted to know. Aren’t I in charge here? Nothing can happen without me, right? 

Neocortex, meet your limbic system. 

Meditation has been shown to have all kinds of positive effects: it reduces high blood pressure, increases immune function, and improves concentration, memory and focus. Studies have shown that meditation can actually preserve the length of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Longer telomeres are associated with better health, shorter ones with diseases like cancer and heart disease. 

The part that I was most interested in, though, was the fact that meditation is supposed to weaken certain neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex that are associated with fear, anxiety and stress. If anyone needs those channels filled in and other channels created, it would be me. So I told my thinking brain to shut up, and tried twenty minutes of daily guided meditation. 

It’s been like that dream when you discover a door in your house that leads to a wing you didn’t even know was there. How come no one ever told me I had a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and gleaming wooden ladders, and all these extra bedrooms with parquet floors and billowy silk curtains like a posh Viennese hotel? I could have had some fantastic parties, or at least more out of town guests. Well, now I know. 

I volunteered recently at the Write Around Portland community reading. All of those who had participated in a WRAP writing workshop were invited to come and read: homeless women, elderly men, patients in the trauma unit at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, recovering addicts. I worked the check-in desk, signing in readers and handing them their copy of the printed anthology. Then, when everyone had been checked in, I got to sit in the hall and listen. 

A teenage girl stepped up to the microphone, holding her small daughter in her arms. She buried her face in the child’s hair. The silence grew painful as we waited for her to begin. She was obviously terrified. At last she mumbled a few syllables, but then she stopped. She stood there for a few more agonizing moments. I felt the gathered crowd’s sympathy, but maybe she couldn’t. She ran off the stage and out the side door. 

She reappeared many readers later. This time she had a friend on either side, holding her up. Her daughter was still draped over her shoulder. Haltingly, she read. A poem about that child, and the electrifying, consuming love she felt for her. And I was in tears. 

I was raised to hold myself apart. What had I to do with a homeless teenage mother but offer her my patronizing charity? But I am not that person anymore. When I began volunteering I wanted to facilitate a writing workshop but feared I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Now I truly believe that I can. I no longer feel separate at all. 


I gave my roommate Laura the book Daring Greatly for Christmas. It’s by the research professor Brene Brown, whose work focuses on vulnerability as the key to living a wholehearted life. It was a self-serving gift because I wanted to read it too. While she was visiting family in Idaho I started it. At one point Brown quotes the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit. 

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.' 

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?' 

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.” 

Then I started to cry. Because I’ve written about the Skin Horse before. It’s an important symbol to me. All the things I’ve intuited and been working on for almost three years now are weaving together to create a strong fabric that can support my weight. 

I look forward to that in 2015.