Sunday, January 15, 2017

My Prayer for 2017

This past summer I took on the task of turning the last year of Matilda’s artwork into a collage. I noticed that around the time she turned three her strokes became more deliberate, purposeful, and brilliant. As the year progressed, to my delight she started to draw actual things—dogs, people, the sun. While to most the art would be viewed as mere scribbles, I have become enthralled with the beauty of it. The colors are so vivid, the strokes seemingly perfect, watercolors perfectly pooling like a liquid dream. What captures me even more than the uncanny beauty is the way in which Matilda works on her art. There is no detailed plan preceding her painting, no drawing, erasing, and redrawing. She is not bothered when the paints get away from her or when her trees turn into cars. More often than not she seems to interpret what emerges from her drawings after they are done.

I wanted to find a way to capture this art and this time in her life. Before she learns that she must always have plan, that art isn’t good unless is looks like the actual thing one seeks to represent, before someone tells her that she shouldn’t waste her time on it because it will never make her any money. I wanted to make something for Matilda so that she can look at her art and be filled with pride and possibility. I admittedly also wanted to find something to do with the piles of artwork that started taking over our drawers, closets, and counter tops.

In taking on this task, I decided I would make a huge collage that includes pieces of each painting or drawing. I cut out the most colorful or awe-inspiring portion of each and placed it on a canvas. At first I was nervous. Would I look back and wish that I had left these works in their virgin forms? Would I feel guilty that I only kept pieces of each art work? Would I want to remember the scraps that weren’t lively enough to make it onto the collage? My worries dissipated quickly as I began to cut and organize the pieces on the canvas (and as more and more and more artwork started coming home from school and stacking up around the house). I glued all the pieces down, slightly overlapping so as not to hide any small detail I wanted to be sure to highlight. After the art was down, I decided that I wanted to place a stamped quotation over the top of it. Because I knew I wanted to hang the canvas in her room, I thought long and hard about what words I want to wake her up to every morning and what sentiment could possibly capture the whimsical brilliance of her and her art. I chose a quote from the song “Naughty” from Matilda the musical. As I worked I was overcome with emotion of the task. I was not yet sure why.

In the slip of a bolt, there's a tiny revolt.
The seeds of a war in the creak of a floorboard.
A storm can begin with the flap of a wing.
The tiniest mite packs the mightiest sting.
Every day starts with the tick of a clock.
All escapes start with the click of a lock.
If you're stuck in your story and want to get out,
You don't have to cry, you don't have to shout.
'Cause even if you're little, you can do a lot,
You mustn't let a little thing like little stop you.
-Matilda Wormwood

I loved making the collage so much that I decided to use Matilda and Fyo’s new piles of art to make one for each of our family members for Christmas this year, as well as a little one for each of their teachers for teacher appreciation week. This was 12 collages! Yes, as usual I bit off something larger than I should have been chewing on. However, like I did this summer with the first collage I reveled in this task despite the enormity of it. I was struck all over again by a feeling that there is something ephemeral, spiritual, and magical about the way their little hands use their crayons, markers, and acrylics. I love the process of reading these works of art, hunting for the beauty and mystery on each page. I enjoy thinking about the person for whom I am making the collage, picking out the perfect quote to speak to who they are or what they are going through. I was full of love when recipients were overjoyed upon opening their packages and when their texts came in with pictures showcasing the art proudly displayed in their homes.

Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends,
is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives. - John Galsworthy

I don't know how to be silent when my heart is speaking. - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart. - Proverbs 3:3

The soul is healed by being with children. - Fyodor Dostoevsky

If I know what love is, it is because of you. - Hermann Hesse

Working on and giving these collages as gifts came in conjunction with what has been one of the sweetest holiday seasons on record for me. The pain that often rears its head as a result of celebrating holidays without my angel babies was tempered a bit, perhaps by time, perhaps the pure joy of watching an almost four-year old and almost two-year old unabashedly revel in opening new bikes, a bunk bed, and so many spoils from our families and friends. What I think has made the most difference though is the quality of the time Mark and I have had with Matilda and Fyo. They have two weeks off of school, which typically is a time when I go into survival mode. I often work frantically to get prepared for the upcoming quarter at work, which begins the first week of January. Preparing syllabi for new courses and managing two small children who require the utmost of my attention and patience is enough to leave me weary, counting down the days until I can go back to work and they can go back to school.

Even though I am under this work-life balance stress again this year, in the last week I have enjoyed being a mom more than I have ever before. I admit that I don’t always like it. It’s hard. I often feel like I can never give them enough, with their constant “pick me ups” and “play with mes.” I struggle to find the time to be everything they want me to be to the extent that they would like while also caring for the house and working a job with its own fulltime demands. Often times I’d rather be working than telling someone for the five hundredth time to stop jumping on the couch. I’d sometimes rather be drawing than begging someone to get dressed. I’d sometimes rather be making my old glorious recipes than heating up veggie chicken nuggets again. But this week I haven’t minded those things so much. I’ve actually caught myself doing them with pride as if there was no place I’d rather be. Because there wasn’t. This year Mark had the entire week of Christmas off. This has not happened since having Matilda and Fyo. My sister got Matilda one of my childhood favorites—pop beads—for Christmas. She has been obsessed with making necklaces for the entire family. Fyo hasn’t let us sleep in, but I actually have not minded (as much) his 5:00 wake up calls for snuggling. I don’t even mind that he insists on laying directly on top of me rather than beside me on the pillow. This break together has allowed us more time than we have ever had sitting face-to-face with them, really playing, really listening. I have been left breathless with emotion.

I have been working hard to make sense of it all. This time with my family has brought me face to face with my wonder surrounding the kids’ artwork—the art in its heaps and piles with its seemingly random paint strokes and scribbles. The beauty of it laying there untapped and unimagined until someone takes the time to really be with it. Like my kids who are constantly in need of time and true connection, their art is a prayer—look at me, be with me, see me, hang me on the wall for all to see, give me to others, celebrate me. Of course in theory this has always been my goal as a mother. Really doing these things though is not easy when the schedule is so full and when the stress of day-to-day work and home life is so great. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was more time? What if I said “no” at work sometimes instead of always saying “of course.” What if I didn’t come home at night and immediately start making dinner and putting laundry in the washing machine? What if the weekend grocery shopping, cleaning, and preparing for the upcoming work week didn’t always get done or came second after bike riding and sidewalk chalk? What if I viewed temper tantrums and wet undies as the pieces of the scrap pile and their hilarious conversations about butts and living room dancing as beautiful highlights worth showcasing?

Answering these questions is my prayer in 2017. I don’t pretend to think that changing my practice of constant racing and working and managing the minutia of the day-to-day will be easy. The struggle is so hard. My hope though is that in the new year I might take steps to begin to re-imagine what constitutes the masterpieces of our lives.


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


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Welcoming the Rain(bow)*

July 12, 2015

Dear Fyodor Rain,

Happy happy six-month birthday, Baby Boy! I can hardly believe that only a short year ago we were shocked to find out that we would be welcoming you to our family in January of 2015. After the storm of infertility, miscarriage, and losing Milo after he and your sister Matilda were born on February 8th 2013, you have been our rainbow—a glimmer of joy after a torrential downpour. In honor of your half birthday, I want to share your birth story with you. A couple of months ago I read that after giving birth, a woman’s brain actually grows and rewires, particularly in the reward circuits, those same areas that respond to things like food and drugs. The changes women experience in their brains lead to feelings of intense emotional connection between them and their babies—the sensation of physically falling in love. No wonder I wish I could relive the day you were born over and over again.

I have to be honest and tell you that preparing to give birth to you was quite the task emotionally. When I was 18-weeks pregnant with Matilda and Milo, finding out he would die either before or at birth, as a result of multicystic kidney disease, cast a shadow of fear in my heart that could never be shaken. At every ultrasound your dad Mark and I held our breath, hoping that the doctor would not tell us that your fate would be the same as Milo’s. With each appointment we got a bit more confident that you truly would make it to our arms.

With January quickly approaching, in November I realized that I really should get my act together in preparation for you. To prepare to emotionally take myself through another delivery after giving birth to Matilda and Milo and having to say goodbye to him after he lived only three hours, seemed simply too hard. I wondered how I would manage if some of the same doctors and nurses were there. How would I cope laying there waiting for you while also remembering the trauma of laying on the operating table with tears streaming down my face waiting to find out if Milo would be born dead or alive? Would you look like him? Did I want you to?

One of the many blessings of your birth was that you would be born in the brand new St. Joseph Hospital in Denver that was opening in December. In addition to getting to welcome you to the world in a new, state-of-the art birthing center, we were excited that we would not be surrounded by the same sites and sounds that were the audience of Milo’s death. However, those hallways, those walls, those rooms—those were the spaces that held our beloved boy both as he lived and as he died. Despite our joy about you getting to be born at the new hospital, part of us mourned the fact that you would not be embraced by the same building as your brother and sister on their birth day. Because of these conflicting emotions about your birthplace, we knew that in order to say hello to you, we needed to say goodbye to the old St. Joe’s Hospital.

I contacted Keri who is a social worker at the St. Joe’s NICU to see if she could set something up so we could visit the rooms we were in with Milo. She did so with grace and compassion, never once making us feel like our request was odd or too much to ask. Because having physical memories and pictures have become essential to us in our mourning, we invited our friend, your godmother, and Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep photographer, Katherine Payne, to come with us in order to document our goodbye.

Although it sounds funny to say, for weeks I looked forward to saying goodbye to St. Joe’s. I think this was because I often long for deep meaningful connections not only to Milo, but to my grief. I wish for those days when I am overwhelmed with emotion over missing him, because on those days, he doesn’t seem so far away. I couldn’t wait to experience the sights, sounds, and smells that I expected would bring me back to those first hours of what it was like to hold him and lose him and mourn him.

In the lobby of the hospital, I sat nervously anticipating what we were about to do. As I waited for Dad and Katherine to arrive, I thought about all that the walls of the hospital had witnessed since its construction in 1961—the patients who succumbed to disease and those who were cured only by the grace of a miracle, the family members who raced to bedsides only to find mere remnants of loved ones they once knew, doctors who saved lives and lost lives, nurses whose feet wore tracks in floors as they moved in and out and in and out of rooms to ensure patients were free of pain, and discomfort, and fear.

Dad and Katherine arrived. We chit chatted and then met Keri and she showed us to the recovery room, Room 14, where we were after Matilda and Milo’s c-section. Here I learned to breastfeed Matilda. Here I held her as she screamed goodbye to her twin brother when he died. On this day Dad and I brought with us a picture of Milo and our 2 pound, 14 ounce (the weight he was when he was born)-stuffed heart. We set up the picture and took turns holding the heart as we walked around the room, grasping for memories and for Milo’s presence to wash over us. The room was smaller but warmer color-wise than I remembered (likely the result of our black and white photos). I stood in the space in the room where Milo took his last breath. Dad sat in the chair where he had rested, broken, Milo dead in his arms. We took some time at the sink and counter where Dad gave Milo his first and last bath and where our nurse Jen and one of the NICU nurses, Erin, stood for what seemed like hours in order to get perfect impressions of Matilda and Milo’s feet so they could be turned into molds we could treasure forever. We also visited Room 224 on the Mother and Baby Unit where we stayed with Matilda and spent our last hours with Milo. I was reminded how foolish I felt at one point when we were there. We kept Milo with us for about 24 hours. We wanted to keep him warm because our thought was that if he didn’t get cold, he wouldn’t get stiff. One of our nurses graciously brought in a warmer for him. When it wouldn’t stop beeping, another nurse came in and told us that keeping him warm actually speeds up the decaying process. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know what was best for my (dead) baby. Today, the room was so tidy, so seemingly counter to those days we were there when the joy of our Matilda was muddied with the death of our Milo.

Saying goodbye to the room where Milo died (Copyright Katherine Payne Photography)
Unexpectedly, throughout our goodbye visit I felt myself detaching from the experience. I cried some, but stopped myself from completely coming undone. After all, the day was unfinished, I had things left to do, and I didn’t want to look like a mess picking Matilda up from school. Perhaps out of survival, I began to come out of myself in order to make it through this goodbye that I had so wanted and needed. I felt angry that I didn’t let myself “go there.” In some ways I regret remaining guarded, but as I make sense of this experience today, I try my best to be gentle on myself. Sometimes we must discipline our grief in order to survive.

Maternity Photo (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

Once we were able to get through saying goodbye to the old St. Joe’s, I was able to get my brain and heart around preparing for your birth. Katherine took beautiful maternity photos of us near the columbarium where Milo’s ashes are buried. I decided I needed to get your birth plan together. I returned to our plan for Matilda and Milo’s birth so I would have a template. Doing so activated my grief and my fear of losing you. I ached as I read the words I had written two years before:

We would like to speak to the neonatal team before birth to communicate our preferences for resuscitating Baby B….Given that Baby B is not likely to survive, we prefer that our doula be present in the operating room to provide us with support and that our photographer be present to capture the few moments we will have together…. Based on our current knowledge of Baby B’s predicted limited lung capacity, we prefer that he receive low levels of intervention to sustain him after birth. Given his exact condition is unknown, we would appreciate an explanation of what is happening as it occurs so that we can make informed decisions. Ideally, he will die in my or my husband’s arms.

I wept for the mother who had written these words. How could she have gone through such an experience without dying of heartbreak herself? I felt ill recounting that indeed the mother who wrote this plan was me.

I desperately wanted to give birth to you naturally. Partly as a result of all our struggles with infertility, I have always wanted to experience a natural birth, to feel the empowerment of working with my baby to bring him or her into the world. I also wanted a different experience than I had with Matilda and Milo, who were born via c-section because they were breech. I did not want the reminders of the fear I experienced during their birth to tarnish yours. But, despite my own wishes, about a month before you were born we learned that like your brother and sister, you too were choosing to be breech. We scheduled a c-section for your due date, January 27th, with hopes that you would turn before then so that we could have a vaginal birth. I tried lots of awkward exercises and meditations to get you to turn, but you seemed to be comfortable where you were. I was sure that you would come on or very near to your due date. Given the miraculous way you came to us, I had no reason to assume that you would be nothing but perfectly predictable, despite others telling me you might come early given you were my second birth.

About two weeks before you were due, I frantically worked to mark things off of my to-do list at work. My plan was to give myself a two-week break to prepare myself and rest before your arrival. I felt good physically, despite being uncomfortable and tired. I was having lots of Braxton Hicks contractions, which was normal throughout Matilda and Milo’s pregnancy and yours. On this Friday, January 9th, I got through all of my work tasks except for giving one of my advisees feedback on a draft of her dissertation. I felt like I was in pretty good shape and looked forward to crossing it off of my list on Monday after the weekend. In the middle of the night Saturday at about midnight though, I started having strong contractions. I used the app on my phone to begin keeping track of them. They were occurring every five to ten minutes and lasting about 30 seconds. We called Dorotha, our doula, to let her know what was happening and decided that we would see how the contractions progressed. They went on and then around 3:00 a.m., they finally started dissipating and going back to intermittent Braxton Hicks. In the morning I woke up early and frantically started cleaning the house and finishing up Matilda’s instructions for care for Leah and Nivea who would be watching her if you came before Nana arrived in a week. We went to church and then continued to get everything organized in case the contractions returned.

I thought I might be in the clear, but that night the contractions came back at about 2:00 in the morning. Around 3:30 I called Dorotha to let her know that they again were around five minutes apart and lasting about fifteen to 30 seconds. We decided that we would give it an hour. I let Nivea and Leah know that this might be the day. The contractions got worse, coming about every three minutes and lasting 30 to 50 seconds. We called Dorotha again; breathing through the contractions I told her we needed to go. I called Nivea and Leah and they started on their way to be there when Matilda woke up. I got up and got dressed and managed to put on some make-up. I know it sounds silly, but I felt so ugly during Matilda and Milo’s birth, that I wanted to feel different this time. I was proud that I only yelled at your dad once as we got ourselves together. I was trying to breath through a painful contraction seemingly unsuccessfully and he said, “Maybe you should…,” to which I snapped, “Don’t talk to me!” Thankfully Matilda slept soundly through all our hurrying. Porter Dog sat uncharacteristically calm and looked worried as we raced around. Nivea arrived and told me I looked beautiful. This made me feel ready. She and Mark worked on getting Matilda’s car seat hooked up into Nivea’s car and I tried to manage the pain as best I could. At 5:30 a.m. we were finally ready to pull away from the house (Dad couldn’t find his wallet, surprise, surprise. Good thing it was already in his backpack!).

We got to the hospital and at that point the pain was excruciating. The contractions were relentless as I told the receptionist that I believed I was ready to have you. Dad and I were taken to a triage room so that a nurse could check to see if it was indeed time and if you were still breech. I already knew the answers to both of those questions. Indeed, I was already five centimeters dilated, which means you were just about ready to make your entrance. And yes you were still ready to enter the world feet first. Because I was progressing so quickly as the contractions got stronger and closer together, members of the healthcare team raced in and out of the room to prepare me for a c-section. If they could not get me prepped for surgery and the spinal epidural in quickly enough, they would have to give me general anesthesia, which would not allow me to be awake during your birth. I remember saying to Dad, “If they put me under, get him on your chest immediately.” I wanted you skin-to-skin, not only because of the medical benefits, but because I didn’t want you to be alone; I didn’t want you to think I had left you. I breathed through the pain as best I could as the contractions happened one right after the other. I believe that I was in what is called transition, right before babies make their way through the birth canal. Just before it seemed as if I might not make it through one more contraction, the team got my epidural in place and the pain began to dissipate.

Dorotha was allowed in the operating room just in time. Before we knew it, the doctors began the surgery, tugging away to birth you from me. With Dad and Dorotha next to me, I felt my eyes well, but not like they did that day Matilda and Milo were born. I pushed the scary sights of that day as far away as I could, but they still stood in the shadows, creeping just a bit. Then at 6:21 a.m. that January 12th day, you were born! Dorotha commented on what a big boy you were. Several minutes seemed to pass. A nurse later told me that you were not breathing right away. Dorotha assured me you were okay. I held my breath and prayed, “please let him live, please let him live,” and then finally, you let out your sweet, sweet cry. You made it, my big little bundle of perfectly healthy miracle.

I got to hold you skin-to-skin on my chest as requested, which isn’t always possible with c-sections. You were red and scrumptious and mine. You had more hair than Matilda but not as much as Milo. You looked a little like me, but did not have the mane of curly hair that I had imagined. You weren’t yet quite the replica of Dad and Matilda that you are today. After I was sewn up, we were off to the recovery room. I remember our stay in recovery being so short, so counter to the hours and hours we were there with Matilda and Milo, preparing for him to die. Even more than the short time, the feeling of pure and simple happiness that filled the air was something I could not quite fathom. Dad texted a picture of you to our family members. You immediately nursed like it was indeed your first supper. I remember thinking, “Wow, this, this is what most people feel after having a baby. Who knew?”

We moved to the Mother-Baby Unit where we set up our picture of Milo so he could be present. Later in the day Katherine came to photograph Matilda meeting you. I decided at the last minute that I did not want Katherine to take pictures at the birth. I had a sudden fear that having her do so would feel too much like Matilda and Milo’s birth and that I would feel an incredible sense of loss over having pictures of your birth that reminded me too much of theirs. So Leah and Nivea brought Matilda to the hospital to meet you. She was hesitant as she walked in the room, Wrinkles the stuffed dog under her arm ready to give to you and her bow with Milo’s special symbol on it in her hair. She climbed in bed with me and shyly but forcefully shoved Wrinkles in your face as you lay in your bassinet. I thought she might remain reluctant; after all, Mommy was in a strange bed and gown, there was an audience, and a camera was following her. But all of a sudden, it was if the pure joy of what it means to get a sibling registered in her little mind, and she could not control her elation. She hugged and kissed you, all the while grinning from ear to ear. She squeezed you tightly as if she wanted, like all of us, to hold you and never let go. We posed with our picture of Milo. His presence in the room at that time was stronger than I had felt in so long. I reveled in the feeling of having you and Matilda and him so close to me. I didn’t want it to end. And that is really how I felt for the rest of our hospital stay. It all felt so magical. So counter to our stay two years ago.

Posing with all three kids (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

Welcoming you was truly like learning to walk in the rain while a rainbow beams overhead. I was not surprised when I read that a mother’s brain changes after birth. The emotional connection and bond I established with you so quickly in those first hours and days was truly palpable. To feel that kind of love, wow, I feel breathless thinking about it today. The weeks following your birth were hard though as I came to grips with how truly blissful it was. I grappled with the fact that I did not rightly understand the emotional pain I had been through when Milo died on his birth day until I felt it contrasted with the elation of yours. At times I felt an undeniable sadness over knowing even more clearly how much pain we had suffered. Because it was challenging for me to allow myself to feel the excitement of welcoming you that I had not ever before experienced, I felt myself grasping for the pain that was more familiar to me. I wept over the thought of not knowing if you will be my last baby—that after six years of trying to get pregnant, of losing babies, and profound grief, it all might be coming to a close. What will I do with myself if there are no more ultrasounds, if there is no more hope of actually getting to experience that natural birth, and if there is no more feeling what it is to fall deeply in love at first sight?

These questions will linger for me as I move from birthing you to raising you and Matilda, as I continue to learn what it means to be a mother to Milo without physically holding him ever again. Part of me reads this letter wondering whether I should protect you from the honesty with which I have written your birth story. I want you to know that I share these truths with you so that you might grow to learn the profound love that accompanied you here. Often times the world will expect you to keep your pain hidden, to highlight only those moments that are rid of shame, and sadness, and heartbreak. However, my hope for you my dear Fyo, today and always, is that you will learn that these feelings are just as precious, just as beautiful, and just as true as that love that came falling out of me and into you on the day you were born.

All of my love, Mommy

Fyo five days old (copyright Katherine Payne Photography)

*A modified version of this article was published originally in Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep's 10th Anniversary Magazine.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A House is a Home

I said goodbye to our home this morning after moving into a new house this week. 3060 Cherry St. held us during our darkest and brightest of days over the last six years. I will forever miss you, my friend. I wrote this poem while I sat pumping in Matilda's room before saying goodbye.

Ode to You

I sit here pumping breast milk, ree-ert, ree-ert, ree-ert

In this lilac room
That I thought I might never fill
In this home who held me
In the dark and in the light

I say goodbye to this space where I sat rocking, creak, creak, creak
Preparing myself to say a welcome-goodbye to her and him
On sleeplessness I sat where one crib would not stand and the other would weep 

Outside the door his dog teeth marks gnaw, gnaw, gnaw
I sat waiting for shots leading to broken babies and crying hearts
And then like magic perfection he sprung

In a minute I will bag this milk, slosh, slosh, slosh
And say goodbye to this room, to this house
And thank them for holding us tightly nightly yearly
Asking them to forgive us for filling them so full that we must bid them farewell.

As I drove away, I rolled down my window and listened to this song, "A House is a Home" by Ben and Ellen Harper, a beautiful collaboration between mother and son.  

3060 Cherry St.

Matilda's empty bedroom