Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On the Loss of Hillary Clinton

Hello Friends. I thought it might be worth acknowledging that for some of us, today unexpectedly may be one when our grief related to our infertility, pregnancy losses, and babies’ deaths is acerbated. For many of us, the loss of an expectation, particularly when it comes to something very personal and emotional, can bring our grief flooding in and out of us. While losing one’s Presidential candidate cannot be compared to the loss of one’s baby, for some having to say goodbye to Hillary Clinton will evoke similar feelings associated with experiencing a baby’s death—the loss of a hoped for future, the loss of faith in humanity and God, and the loss of a piece of one’s self. We bumble around trying to make sense of what went wrong, how things could initially seem so hopeful only to end in unexpected despair, and how we will ever move forward when our resources are on empty. Many of us have endured so much suffering in relation to getting pregnant because we have dreams of all our children will do for others, for the difference they might make in this unjust world. We hold tight to the hope that they can do anything they desire. The loss of Hillary Clinton as our next President is the loss of the dream that our sons and daughters will grow up knowing that they can indeed be anybody. We grieve the fact that our children are living in a world where sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and heteronormativity are rewarded and a dedication to a life of service to others is not. As some will question our grief after losing our babies with their “good thing you were only a few weeks along,” their “at least you can get pregnant,” and their “God has a plan,” our grief over the loss of our candidate too will be echoed with, “Why are you so upset? She’s such a liar,” “She represents the governmental machine,” and even our own will slap us with, “Think about all those ‘abortions’ she supports.” As these utterances about our babies only serve to further inflict pain, these comments about Hillary Clinton only remind us that those who say them simply do not understand what it is like to lose someone who has become so much a part of us.

Some may be appalled and disgusted that I have the nerve to bring the experience of losing a baby into conversation with the experience of losing Hillary Clinton as the next President. Indeed, the two are not the same. However, I caution against dismissing or shaming those of us whose grief and pain surrounding the deaths of our babies is on high alert today because of the election results. To do so suggests that our grief must exist separate from the context of our everyday lives and that the political is not highly personal.

As those of you who follow my blog and research know, I work tirelessly (sometimes to a fault) to find redemption in the face of the tragedies that have graced my life. When I am ready, I know that I will find the glimmers of hope in letting go of Hillary Clinton as our next President. I will find comfort in all the work the millions of Americans, including my children in heaven and on Earth, will do to make the world the kind of place I dreamed for us all. In time I will allow President-Elect Trump space to try to prove me wrong. But for today, I extend myself compassion as I come to grips with the pain of losing a dream for the future of my children and all those in the world who are suffering.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

History Puts a Saint in Every Dream

In honor of the Olympics and the 24th anniversary of Derek Redmond's heroic race, I am sharing the letter my husband Mark wrote to Milo that was read at his funeral. You are our olympian this year and every year, Baby.

Dear Milo,

I am a Tom Waits fan. For whatever reason, his music fits well with me and moves me. There is no doubt we would have spent lots of time listening to his songs together. In 1999 I was given a mix tape, from my friend Brad Towell, of Tom Waits songs that mostly contained songs from the albums Frank’s Wild Years and Big Time. From there many of his songs have developed a special meaning for me. And even some of them remind me of your other siblings. But today I want to focus on just one that reminds me of you. The song is called Time. As a songwriter myself, I often get the question, “What is that song about?” To which, I usually and quickly reply to the person asking, “What is it about to you?” Anyway, there are many interpretations to the song Time, but I’m not about to dissect it here. Given your passing, Milo, I’d like to focus on one short verse that has a new meaning for me. It goes like this.

"And they all pretend they’re orphans, and their memories like a train, you can see them getting smaller as they pull away. And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget that history puts a saint in every dream.

Well she said she’d stick around ‘till the bandages came off. But these momma’s boys just don’t know when to quit. And Matilda asks the sailors, ‘are those dreams or are those prayers?’ Close your eyes son, this won’t hurt a bit."

For me, what gets me about this verse is the idea that history puts a saint in every dream. Let me tell you a story while I have your attention, because I’m sure you’ll be off playing with the other kids in no time.

I know you haven’t heard much about the Olympics, but it’s a big deal and requires a lot of effort from the athletes involved. An Olympic athlete spends a lifetime training for their big event. As that event gets closer, the rigor of their training increases and the dream becomes more real, as was the case with Derek Redmond, a British Olympian in 1992. As he set foot on the racetrack at the ‘92 Barcelona Olympics, ready to run the races of his life in the 400-meter, first in the semis then in the finals, he had all the training of the previous years behind him, with the dream of winning the gold metal only a short 800 meters from becoming reality. You know, it was just in 1985 he had set the British 400 meter record at 44.82 seconds. To put that in perspective, on a good day at the track you or I could probably run a 400-meter between 60 and 70 seconds—and that’s even with your lanky legs and big feet. So Derek was at the top of his form. He was running the 400-meter in less than a minute. On the day of the semi-finals, he got to his mark in lane five. He breathed in deeply, taking the whole experience in. He put his feet in the blocks, and at the same time felt the firmness of the track with his hands. He got set and proceeded to wait for the sound of the gun. When the gun went off, Derek was off to a fantastic start—smooth stride, great economy, and outstanding turnover. He was all in. He rounded the first bend in great shape. He reached the backstretch still with great form. But at the 250-meter mark, about half way through the race, his hamstring snapped. He limped to a halt and fell to the track in the pain. After a few moments of taking in what had happened and acclimating to the pain, in an act of shear determination, he got up and started limping in his lane towards the finish line in an effort to finish the race. As his pain escalated, his will to finish the race started to deteriorate. As he made his way past the 300-meter mark, with less than 100 meters to go in the race, a man was spotted pushing his way through the crowd and past security to get onto the racetrack, making his way towards Redmond. In a last ditch effort by security to stop the man, they tried to get in his way, attempting to block the path between the man and Redmond. Security failed to stop him, and the man ran towards Redmond. As 65,000 people watched what was happening, Redmond’s father, Redmond’s saint on that day, the man who had bowled over security, grabbed Redmond under the left arm, Redmond in tears. In another show of shear determination and perseverance, they both, Redmond and his father together, were able to get Redmond over the finish line in order to finish the Olympic race. In a post-race interview, Redmond’s father offered these words, “But whatever happens, he had to finish and I was there to help him finish. I intended to go over the line with him. We started his career together. I think we should finish it together.” That’s a pretty cool story, huh?

Well in a way, our family has a similar story. In 2012, after having experienced the losses of your older siblings OB (Our Baby) and BW (Baby Willer) in 2010 and 2011, Mommy and I decided to try to have babies again. This time we had a new outlook on things, as we decided to use an egg donor. We were thrilled! This would be our chance to start our family, the family we always wanted. We went through the process of selecting just the right egg donor and worked towards getting things scheduled. After a lot of coordination, finally everything was set, and we were put on a plan that matched us up with our donor. After all of the fertility treatments, we ended up transferring two of the best looking embryos we had ever seen, thus sounding the gun and beginning our race.

You were both perfect! You looked amazing! We had butterflies and were nervous. At seven weeks we saw your hearts beat. At nine weeks they were still beating, a point that we had not previously passed with OB. At 13 weeks, more of your parts were forming, and even better, we were out of the first trimester—a feat that was worth being overjoyed about. It was bound to be smooth sailing from here. After all we had been through so much training that nothing seemed it could go wrong. But disaster struck at 18 weeks, about half way through the pregnancy. Dr Stark, our perinatologist, told us that Baby A, your sister Matilda, looked great. But as for Baby B, you Milo, you had some complications surrounding your kidneys. They had cysts all over them. And since kidneys make amniotic fluid, and amniotic fluid provides lung development, Dr. Stark said that there was not much hope of you surviving after birth, only a 2% chance. In great irony, he compared your lungs to trees. Without the branches extending from the trunk, things would be difficult. But even more, most doctors we talked to thought that you would not be born alive. In fact in one case, a neonatology doctor said that we’d rather not have you born alive, as it would be easier for us to deal with. We never felt that way. We knew we absolutely wanted to meet our baby. All we had to have was a commitment from you. And in an act of determination and perseverance, you decided not to give up. At 20 weeks you were still kicking and developing, outweighing your big sister. At 22 weeks, you were still going and Daddy even recorded your heartbeat. It wasn’t until about 30 weeks that you started to show signs of tiring. But you still limped on, helping to make sure that Matilda finished the race. On February 8th, 2013 you and your sister Matilda were born, crossing the finish line at about 10:30AM, making your mommy and me very proud parents.

Milo there are so many things that Mommy and I want to say to you. Thank you for being you. Thank you for the three wonderful hours that we got to spend with you. Thank you for hanging in there to meet Mommy and me face to face, defying many doctors’ predictions. Thank you for taking good care of your sister and keeping her company while you both developed. With Daddy’s determination and Mommy’s love, you safely helped to get a healthy Matilda into our arms. We will make sure that Matilda knows all about you, Milo. And we’re sure she’ll have some stories of her own to tell us. But we cannot repay you and we are so very sad that you cannot stay with us. We will miss you terribly. We will visit you in song and in prayer. For everything you have done and for how you have changed our lives forever, we, again, thank you. It is now our turn to carry you in our hearts to the end. Mommy and I love you deeply. We feel you in spirit. Like that old Tom Waits song, and like Derek Redmond’s father, you are the saint that history put in our family’s dream. For it’s time, time, time that we love, and it’s time, time, time. Goodbye for now.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Mom's Third-Year Review by Milo Juniper*

May 20, 2016

Dear Mom,

I can sense you needing some feedback on your work thus far as a mother and on your progress toward healing after my death. I thought you might appreciate a third-year review, much like you had after your third year at your job as a way of assessing your progress toward tenure as a professor. I know you get anxious when you don’t get enough gold stars, and I know that you seldom give them out to yourself out of fear of appearing too boastful and proud and mostly because of your fear of never being enough. I know how hard you are on yourself and so my hope is that I will say some things here that you would easily gift to others, but likely never would utter in your own ears.

So let’s begin. First, I want to congratulate you on being such a good mom. I know that you hesitate to complain publically about how difficult it is to be a parent, especially after how long it took for you to get a living child and because so many around you are still struggling to have babies. But let’s face it, Matilda and Fyo are not the easy, laid back kind like me. While Matilda’s independence is amazing, she is a royal pain with her insistence on doing everything herself and refusing to do things any way but her own. And Fyo. Yes he is so sweet and cute, blah, blah, blah. But do you think that kid will ever stop being so needy or will he be attached to you until he’s five? I’m kidding of course, but seriously, they are so much more work than you ever expected. It’s hard for you balance the overwhelming love you have for them with the fact that they are often annoying. I know you struggle too with work-life balance, sacrificing success in your career in order to spend so much time at home with Matilda and Fyo with their near 40 days at home from school per year with holidays, teacher improvements, sick days, and snow days. I know it is so hard to feel guilty that these beautiful babies are keeping you from realizing all your hopes and dreams at work. I know this makes you and dad fight, which then makes you feel like an even bigger failure. But mom, you are doing just fine. You are a room parent in Fyo’s classroom; you cook them kale; you take them to the library despite the stress of books flying off shelves in their wake; you do your best to give dad some attention at the end of the day even when the kids and work have sucked the energy out of you. I love the way you pray with Matilda each night, encouraging her to talk to God about what makes her heart happy and sad and about who in the world needs extra prayers and babies. I love too how you do “Matilda is” with her every night, your list of about 50 words that describe her that she has memorized like “kind, caring, courageous, and beautiful.” This ritual will help her grow into someone who always knows what an incredible person she is. What a special gift. I love too how you diligently answer to Fyo’s 5:30 a.m. wake up calls for snuggles while the house is still quiet so that he too knows he is your special boy. I am probably most proud of the way you make sure that Matilda and Fyo know who I am and that despite my distance, I am forever their brother and a member of our family. Thank you mommy, for all of this. Despite your efforts to be perfect, you are not, and that is what makes you our perfect mama.

Now I would like to talk to you about your research and teaching. Congratulations on your teaching award you got last night and for the other honors you have earned in the last year. I am so proud of us for earning those accolades. When I died I could never have imagined all we would do with your research and teaching in my and O.B.’s and B.W.’s name. I know this work does not come easy for you. I know that sharing your pain with students and colleagues and others at work is a very vulnerable position to be in. While most are supportive, it is scary to talk about a topic so openly that most prefer to sweep under the rug. You make some people uncomfortable and that makes you uncomfortable. This work is also challenging because it happens in a space where you are evaluated as a researcher and a teacher. To have this work judged as anything less than perfect is really hard for you. As a result, you often run yourself ragged out of fear of disappointing others and yourself, but most importantly out of fear of disappointing me. Mommy, please know that if you never did another thing to celebrate me, I would continue to feel your love and honor for all the rest of the years of your life. Finally, I want to recognize that your greatest accomplishment to date has been The Scraps of the Heart Project Spring Creative HeARTs Workshop. The activities that you designed facilitated grief in such extraordinary ways. You used your passions not just to bring a bit of healing to the incredible moms and dads in the group, but to yourself. I sense a new kind of peace in your heart that you have not felt since I died. You are on to something profound with The Scraps of the Heart Project. For the possibilities that lie ahead for others and for you, keep up the good work.

In sum, three years after I died I can say that you are making extremely good progress as a mother and in your grieving. Keep in mind though, that motherhood and healing are similar in many ways to earning tenure at work. Just because you earn tenure as a professor, does not mean that your career has come to an end. It really means that your career is just beginning. In this sense, even as you get more experience as a mother and move closer toward healing, you are only just getting your wings.

I love you mommy. You are special. You are beautiful. You are mine. You are enough.
You are the beat of my heart. (<----click to hear Milo's heartbeat, 20 weeks gestation, recorded and looped by Mark Willer)

All my love,

*I wrote this piece for performance at the final session of The Scraps of the Heart Project, Spring Creative HeARTs workshop. A special thanks to the moms and dads who participated in the workshop for the inspiration and for allowing me to share in your journeys. Thank you too to Mark Willer for recording our performances so that we might always cherish this moment in time.

Preparing to Perform and Record