Hemorrhage

Earlier this week I hemorrhaged into a toilet at my office.  Hours later at the emergency room I was told by a doctor that despite the D&C I had had a week earlier, there was still pregnancy tissue in my uterus.  My body was trying to expel what remained.

This miscarriage has lasted for weeks, when I think about it.  It started soon after I discovered I was pregnant.  Bright red blood and the existence of a hematoma in my uterus in week 5.  Heavy bleeding and clotting the weekend after.  Despite the miracle of a viable fetus, a silent heartbeat in week 9.  Spotting.  Nearly two weeks later, surgery – a D&C.  Cramping and bleeding, fever and fatigue the weekend after.  A hemorrhage a week later.  Six hours in the emergency room.  4 pills in my cheeks the next morning to get my uterus to contract and push out what was left.  Cramping and bleeding.  I won’t know if everything is gone until an ultrasound next week.  If it’s not, another D&C.  Really?

And that’s just what’s been happening to my body.

I’m a reflective person who thinks deeply about how I feel, why I feel, what I feel, yet I was surprised a few days ago when the rush of blood and clots in the bathroom led me to hemorrhage tears too.  I was shaken by the blood loss – I looked like a ghost, my head was throbbing, I felt disoriented – and as I sat outside a conference room trying to get a hold of my doctor, several of my colleagues surrounded me.  I had told some but not all what had happened.  I obviously wasn’t well.  “Are you okay?  What’s going on, Rachel?” they asked.  I looked up from my seat, clutching the phone, waiting for the doctor to call back, suddenly needing to put it all out there.  “I had surgery last week.  I had a miscarriage.”  The tears began.  “I just had a massive bleed in the bathroom.  I’m waiting for my doctor to call me.”

Their words enveloped me: “What are you doing here?” “You need more time to heal.”  “I’m so sorry that you lost a baby.”  Soon the sobs began.  I said, “I’m so sad.  I haven’t cried this much since the day I found out that the baby’s heart stopped beating.”  One colleague sat down next to me and wrapped her arms around me.  I fell into her right shoulder and breathed in her long blonde hair.  “Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be sad because I have my children – I’m lucky.”  I pulled myself up and looked around.  “I don’t deserve to feel this way.”  They all leaned in and touched me and shook their heads.  “I’ve already taken time for myself after the surgery – I have so much work to do.”

My eyes were blurry as the tears came down, and my head fell into my hands, but I heard: “You need more time to heal.”  “Of course you deserve to feel the way you do.” “The work will always be here; what’s important is taking care of yourself.”  “You need time to heal.”  “Get her some water.”  “We are taking you to the emergency room.”  “She needs to eat – go see what you can find in the vending machine.”  “You need time to heal.”  They rubbed my arms and held my hands and let me fall into their shoulders and cry and bury my wet, red face over and over again.  They didn’t go anywhere.  They took care of me.  A motherless daughter, I felt the nurturing of many mothers all at once when I desperately needed to.

With the release of so much blood from my body came the release of intense emotion.  I felt like a dam had broken, and I could hardly control what I said and how it came out.  I was like a baby – vulnerable, wailing, afraid of being alone.

fetalposition

I know that I need time to heal but what does that look like?  I don’t know how to show myself compassion.  In the moments when I have curled up in the fetal position with no desire to move, the voices of my children have startled me.  I can’t completely succumb to my grief, can’t go down that long, quiet road of reflection.  I have waffles to warm and homework to correct and books to read and lights to turn on and groceries to buy.  And I go back to work on Monday.  My girls need me, and I look at them – the miracle of their beautiful bodies, their distinct profiles, their probing eyes, their birthmarks and dimples, their long lively hair – and I tell myself that I can’t be down for long.  But at times I want to be alone and sad.  I need to be alone.  I am sad.  I am confused.  Am I depressed?  I haven’t wanted to curl up in the fetal position in a very long time.

This journey is real, and I am lost.  One day at a time.

 

The Painful Silence of a Silent Miscarriage

When I turned 40 a couple of months ago, I enjoyed a few potentially foreseeable surprises: a beautiful dinner with my family at one of our favorite restaurants, an adults-only night out with my husband at a dimly lit speakeasy, an afternoon at a comfortable spa, and to top everything off a surprise party!  I’d never had a surprise party, and when I walked into our apartment feeling loose and relaxed because of the massage I’d just had, I was so excited to see the festive decorations hanging from our living room ceiling and to hear my family and friends yell, “SURPRISE!”  Within minutes of arriving, I was handed a glass of champagne and began to flow from one easy conversation to the next.  It was perfect.  The next day, as I thought about the details of my jam-packed birthday weekend, I was a little sad to know that all of the surprises were over and that it was time to resume normal life.

That is, until a week later, when I was confronted with a surprise I had not foreseen: a positive pregnancy test.  It was a Monday morning at 4:30 am.  My period had not been quite right for the past week.  I finally succumbed to the nagging feeling I’d been having and took a pregnancy test I’d buried deep in one of my drawers a few days before.  While waiting for the result, I put the test on the white rug in the bathroom, sat on the toilet seat, clutching my bent legs to my chest and rocking back and forth.  It didn’t take long for a strong positive sign to appear in the window.  “Oh shit, oh shit” is what I said, continuing to rock back and forth.  My stomach was in knots.  I had just turned 40.  I had three daughters.  My husband and I weren’t planning on expanding our family.  My mind fast forwarded to the responsibilities another child would bring.  We are making it work in NYC with three kids – not an easy thing to do for a middle-class family – but did we have the resources we’d need to take care of someone new?

That morning was the beginning of a fast-moving and emotionally charged roller coaster ride that hasn’t quit for the past six weeks.  Within days of the positive pregnancy test, I was being told by a doctor that the pregnancy probably wouldn’t end well – I had gotten an early ultrasound because I suddenly saw a lot of red blood and the ultrasound detected a tiny gestational sac in the uterus surrounded by an amorphous hematoma.  The blood clot looked like the wavy shell of a giant oyster closing in on a little pearl.  I left the doctor’s office and walked back to work along 2nd Avenue in a daze.  Seeing the tiny sac in my uterus made me feel something.  There was a little boo inside me.  All of my girls had started out that way.  I rubbed my belly through my shirt and moved slowly.

Sure enough, two days later, I started bleeding.  A lot.  I passed a big blood clot and studied it before dropping it into the toilet.  Was the sac inside it?  I took a sick day from work and assumed it was officially over.  Within a week, I had found out I was pregnant and had miscarried.  That was pretty efficient.

Yet as the days wore on, I felt more and more pregnant.  My breasts were sore.  My appetite increased.  I gagged when I scrambled eggs for my girls.  After lunch every day, I felt tired, like a zombie.  At the next ultrasound, which was performed simply to confirm the miscarriage, a miracle: we saw a teeny tiny heartbeat, and the blood clot was completely gone.  The sac was still there, and it was developing.  The doctor said, “I can’t believe this, based on what we saw before, but this appears to be a viable pregnancy.”  There was a second sac in my uterus – undeveloped, potentially a “vanishing twin,” the doctor said.  Maybe the blood clot had formed because that sac was not viable, but there was still something inside me, and I could feel that my body was working hard to nurture it.

I had felt fear and trepidation when I first learned that I was pregnant, but as time passed my emotional landscape changed.  Sure, I was still scared about our financial future.  We count every dollar every month, and we were going to need more dollars.  But with this potential new life I was beginning to fantasize and hope: I imagined cradling a newborn baby again, something I haven’t done in almost four years, pinching baby toes and gently rubbing baby cheeks; I looked forward to breastfeeding; I wondered if we might have a boy – he would have Stephen as a middle name, for my father.  I looked at my girls and imagined what life would be like with a fourth child.  Roxy wouldn’t be the baby anymore.  Our home would be even noisier.  Gigi’s Facetime conversations with her friends would be punctuated by an infant’s cries.  Simone would be old enough to help me take care of the baby.

As my thoughts about the future got more and more involved – every pregnant woman I saw represented what I would look like months from now, every mother carrying a baby in a front carrier symbolized the future me on my afternoon strolls during maternity leave (maybe I would take four months off instead of three…) – my body started to change too.  Even though it was early, I had done this before.  My lower belly started to pop just a little.  My pants became tight, and I wore loose-fitting shirts to disguise what was happening.  My husband and I decided that we wouldn’t tell many people that we were pregnant.  In 2011, before our youngest daughter was born, we lost a pregnancy to trisomy-13 at thirteen weeks, so we knew enough about the risks to want to wait.  But I still kept fantasizing.  And my husband started to think about possible names: “When we saw that heartbeat,” he said, “I figured it was meant to be.”

Two days ago, on a beautiful Friday afternoon, I reported to the doctor’s office for a third ultrasound.  I sat in the waiting room with my eyes closed.  What a pleasure it was to rest in the middle of the day, when my body is usually begging me to get into a ball under my desk and fall asleep.  The technician said, “Stephenson,” and I eagerly bounced out of my chair and followed her into the examination room.  The temperature wasn’t exactly right.  She took a minute to adjust the thermostat until we suddenly felt the cool air rushing through the ceiling vent.  Just as the technician began the examination, I thought I saw the familiar flicker of a teeny tiny heartbeat, but then I lost it.  Maybe the technician had to get closer and focus again.  I could see that the baby had gotten bigger – I recognized the shape of the body and the oversized head.  The technician stayed quiet and moved like lightning: taking measurements of the baby, my ovaries, my uterus.  Meanwhile the fuzzy form of the tiny baby stayed in my view – I noted that it was perfectly still, and I squinted to see the heartbeat again.  Suddenly the technician was done, and she said that she’d be back with the doctor to discuss the results.  I sat alone, waiting, and literally talked out loud to myself.  I said that it could go either way.  Had I seen a heartbeat?  The baby had clearly grown.  Maybe the technician moved quickly because everything was so routine.  Or maybe not.  The doctor came in and said that she wanted to take another look.  My stomach sank.  “Did you see something funny?” I asked.  “Yes, that’s why I want to look again,” she said.  “Can you tell me what you’re looking for?”  I smiled.  “Not yet, give me a minute,” she responded.  The ultrasound image appeared on the screen.  I asked, “Is it a heartbeat thing?”  “Yes,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”  “How long ago did the heartbeat stop?” I asked.  “Sometime last week.”  A silent miscarriage.

ultrasound

With that, all of my recent hopes and fantasies burst into a million pieces.  There would be no fourth baby.  No afternoon strolls during maternity leave.  No baby toes or cheeks to pinch.  No breastfeeding.  This was a familiar feeling.  When the doctor told us in 2011 that the 13-week ultrasound had revealed a catastrophic brain deformity, indicative of a chromosomal abnormality, that pregnancy abruptly ended too.  Was this really happening again?  In the back of my mind, I had acknowledged all of the risks of this pregnancy over and over.  I was 40.  The pregnancy started with a massive blood clot.  We had a history of early pregnancy loss.  But I thought that the odds were probably in our favor.  I thought that this surprise pregnancy, this baby that had miraculously survived a giant, threatening hematoma and that was taking its beautiful, exhausting toll on my body, was meant to be, just like my husband had said.

Now I am no longer pregnant, but the silent, still fetus is still inside me.  My body doesn’t realize what has happened yet.  Maybe I’ll start bleeding within the next few days, or maybe I’ll have to have surgery to officially remove the pregnancy.  Like I did in 2011: it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, as I lay wide awake in the procedure room, tears running down my cheeks, while the doctors manually opened my cervix with some kind of metal contraption (I felt like I was in labor while they did it) and then removed the “pregnancy tissue” from my uterus with what sounded like a vacuum cleaner. I am stuck in cruel limbo, knowing that my pregnancy has ended but carrying the remains of what could have been inside me.  My pants are still tight.  I don’t want to eat when I am hungry: the baby deserved to be fed and taken care of, but do I?

I have chosen to write about this today because I haven’t been able to talk about it.  This is a little ironic, because for months now, through my grief work, I have been talking about the importance of telling the truth about death and talking openly about loss and making yourself vulnerable with others when you are struggling with grief.  All of that is hard to do when most people in your life don’t know what you’ve lost and don’t realize that someone is gone.  Early pregnancy loss is uniquely hard, because only a few people in the world have been touched by the life that might have been.  Only a few people have started imagining a real body, a real baby, and what it would feel like, what it would look like, how its being in the world would change the rhythms of life and love and family.  This is all about the future, and not everyone can or should feel the pain of losing a fantasy.

I am sad, but I will be okay.  I am lucky because I have three children, a supportive partner, a life full of interesting challenges that we all bring to each other.  There is plenty of work to do, and plenty of precious moments with my girls for me to savor.  Each of them is a miracle, and I see that today.  I saw it last week too, but somehow today I appreciate it more.

But there was someone else, someone new, inside me whose heart stopped beating last week.  I will never see or touch this new person.  I will only remember what I imagined could be for him or her, and for me.

 

 

Through My Own Eyes

My mother died on March 1, 1981.  I turned five years old just four days before.  I will never forget what happened that night.

I woke up in the middle of the night.  The light in my grandmother’s bathroom was on.  My grandmother leaned into my face and said, “I have to go.  Your mommy’s sick.”  The next morning, my father and grandmother floated through the front door.  My dad sat on the living room sofa.  He said, “Your mommy’s in heaven now.  She’s with the angels.”  My grandmother said, “You can call me mommy now.”  I said, “No, you’re not my mommy.”  I walked in circles over and over and stomped my feet.

My memory of this night is stronger than any memory I have of my mother in life.  Yet this memory does not capture what happened that night to her, why she was suddenly gone. My lived experience that fateful night was in my grandmother’s apartment, as I waited for everyone to get home from wherever they were.  I sat awake most of the night mulling over the image of my mother in a sick bed, a thermometer hanging off her lips, because all I knew was what I had been told: “I have to go.  Your mommy’s sick.”  When my dad delivered the devastating news that my mother was “with the angels,” he sat alone and stared at the floor.  My grandmother offered to replace my mom in name, to normalize things.  But no one told me why my mother was dead.  Everyone assumed that the truth would be too hard for me to handle.

The memories of my earliest years are hazy and disjointed, like a dream I am desperately trying to remember.  In one memory, my mother saves me from a swimming pool where I sunk to the bottom after plummeting off a water slide.  She was dressed in long jeans.  She was angry at my father for putting me on the water slide alone.  In another memory, my mother and I stand next to a pond overrun with thick algae while my father saves our dog Shadie, who had jumped in and started to sink because the algae was strangling his legs.  In another, I was climbing all over my mother’s body in a booth in a restaurant while she giddily laughed and talked to someone – a friend, my father?  She accidentally burned my arm with her cigarette, and she held me and apologized and called me her baby.  In another, I sat in my mother’s lap in the front seat of our car while she and my father argued.  We pulled up to our house on Arthur Drive, and my mother and I went inside.  She slammed the door.  I sat by the front window while she walked to the back of the house and I watched my father pull away.

I once read that the way a mother shows her own children affection is directly linked to the experience she had as a child.  What she felt as an infant in her mother’s arms, what rocking, all-consuming cuddles she knew to expect (or not) in the nighttime when she cried out, she gives her own.  If the theory about a mother’s affection is right, I have all the evidence I need of the realness of the love my mother once had for me.  It was a physical love.  When my oldest daughter, who is almost twelve-years-old, was a newborn and I sat with her alone, I discovered what it must have felt like to be held by my mother.  My daughters — in their most intimate and earliest moments with me — helped me to find/shape/create (who knows?) a most profound memory of being a daughter, one who was taken care of, caressed, and gazed upon.

Some memories tell what really happened.  Others paint a hazy picture, an impression of people and places and experiences, an interpretation of the life we lived.  Still others are created because we are desperate to hold onto something, to fill in the gaps.

My story of loss is a public story now, which I have shared both in the debut episode of “Memory Motel” and in a TEDx Talk – my search for the truth is a public search.  My memories are only part of the story.  I’ve seen only a sliver of the truth through my own eyes.

A Loud Voice

My talk was released two weeks ago.  I’ve said in person, in writing, over and over again, that it represents the start of a new chapter.  Reactions from people in so many places have confirmed the importance of its message – that we need to talk about our grief, that we need to the tell the truth, that grief needs to be validated and heard.  One person wrote to me and said that “a loud voice is what we need,” and another thanked me “for putting a voice to so many who are still held captive in silence.”  I am invigorated, emboldened, inspired.  This is the beginning.

Yet a few members of my own family prefer the silence.  This opening up is not welcome by everyone.  It can be uncomfortable.  I get that.  During a phone call last week with someone important to me, I was told that my message “could be more positive,” that it’s “not healthy to dwell” on the negative, that perhaps I would soon get this “out of my system,” and that I should remember that despite my losses I have “so much to be grateful for.”

Silence is not always self-imposed.  Sometimes those of us who want to grieve out loud feel immense pressure to stay quiet and move on.  This pressure can be communicated to us in so many ways – when people look away, when words are whispered across quiet rooms, when we are explicitly told not to dwell on negative things.  When the people we love most and want to protect seem to fall apart when we talk about the dead.

When I was in the 3rd grade, my teacher walked around the classroom with a thick packet of construction paper.  Every child chose a colored piece of paper and a handful of crayons.  It was the Friday before Mother’s Day.  I sat at my desk a little perplexed with my assignment.  I consciously thought about the fact that my mother was missing from my life and I looked around at the children surrounding me, who started drawing rainbows and flowers and writing sweet messages to their mothers without hesitation.  After a few minutes, I put crayon to paper and wrote, “I MISS YOU, MOMMY.”

rainbow

Two days later, my grandmother – my father’s mother, who had stepped in to raise me after my mother’s death – accepted the card with the biggest, most approving smile.  She positioned it in front of her face so that she could read it more easily.  I fixed my eyes on the back of the paper, which I had folded unevenly.  Within seconds, I watched the card flutter to the living room floor.  I looked up at my grandmother.  Her head had fallen into her hands, and her shoulders shook hard.  She stayed that way for awhile.  I picked up the card and threw it away.  My grandmother and I never talked about what happened or the fact that I put the card into the garbage, where I had decided the evidence of my longing for my mother belonged.  My grandmother was taking care of me now, and I needed to reciprocate.

I think it’s possible for reflective human beings to feel more than one thing at a time: sadness and happiness, longing and fulfillment, regret and gratitude, grief and hope.  Yes, of course I am grateful for my husband and my children and the life that we have created for ourselves in New York City.  Every morning when I drop my kids off at school and say “I love you” as they walk through the building’s front door, I think to myself that we are lucky to be alive and healthy and together, and I know as I walk away that anything can happen.  My gratitude for my family, and the joy I feel because they are in my life, intensifies my regret: if only my mother and father were here; if only they could see how much my youngest daughter looks like my dad; if only they could celebrate my upcoming 40th birthday with me.

I can be a voice among the bereaved – a loud voice – and still be grateful for what I have.  I can long for what I’ve lost while recognizing what I’ve gained.  I can explore the memories and missteps that make my family and me who we are, spotlighting the most poignant moments we’ve shared and saying out loud what I needed then and what I need now, and still love everyone deeply.  This isn’t about casting judgment and saying what should have been.  It’s about finding empathy now and truly connecting and encouraging bereaved families everywhere to openly listen and openly speak.  I am invigorated, emboldened, inspired.  This is the beginning.

PodcastDay2

 

 

What does grief look like?

Sometimes I have wondered if I’ve cried enough tears for the people in my life who have died.

Death has been a part of my life since I was a child: my mom died when I was barely 5 (car accident); my maternal grandfather, when I was 20 (cancer); my paternal grandfather, when I was 22 (cancer); my paternal grandmother, who raised me, when I was 26 (cancer, caused by hepatitis C); my maternal grandmother, when I was 29 (natural causes); my father, when I was 37 (“liver failure due to ethanol abuse,” wrote the medical examiner on his death certificate).  I’m the oldest person in my direct family line still standing, and that’s a strange feeling to have, especially when you’re only on the cusp of 40.

In some ways this has liberated me.  Nothing – and no one – is holding me back.  Memory is all I have.

I remember driving my grandmother’s car just a few days before she died.  She was home, in her bed, fading away – she knew it and so did I – and she sent me to get her some ice cream at Baskin Robbins, where we had eaten together so many weekend afternoons when I was a kid.  In the passenger seat, the ice cream melted underneath its clear plastic dome.  I drove really fast down Veterans Boulevard in New Orleans and listened to loud music on the radio.  My grandmother had stepped in and stepped up the morning after my mom died, and I was her everything.  She had told me that so many times.  But being her everything could be hard, and part of what I thought about as I raced to bring my grandmother what would turn out to be the last food she was able to swallow was how free I would feel once she was gone.  No more checking in every day, no more needing to explain my every move, no more feeling guilty about her loneliness and my life away from her in New York City.

The morning after she died, I collapsed in a heap on her bed.  After returning from the hospice where she took her last labored breath with her sister and me at her side, I walked into her bedroom, where she had spent the previous few weeks dying.  The bed sheets and pillows smelled like she had: hair unwashed for too many days, matted to the back of her head, salty and sour and sweet all at the same time, pajamas soaked with sweat all the way through.  The air in her bedroom was hot and still.  Her scent lingered heavily, and when I breathed it in, I remembered that she was no longer breathing and I threw myself on her smelly sheets and pillows and sobbed, “This was really hard, Maw-Maw.  This was really hard.”  Aki, whom I would marry later that year, worked around me as I cried, opening the window shades and the windows, letting in the spring breeze, placing the bedding (piece by piece, eventually sliding the fitted sheet from underneath me) on a pile on the floor, and washing everything.  Eventually I stopped crying, and Aki made the bed, and I fell asleep where my grandmother had lain her head night after night for weeks.  I didn’t cry for her again.

MawMaw

[Ruthie, my paternal grandmother, and me, circa 1979]

I was standing in my office in New York City when I learned that my father was dead.  My husband had shown up at my job unexpectedly, with our third daughter (just 9 months old) in tow.  He called up from the building lobby, and I waited for him impatiently at the elevator bank.  The doors opened, and our oldest girls weren’t with him.  “Where are Gigi and Simone?  Where are they?” I asked desperately.  “They are fine,” he told me as he motioned for us to get into my office right away.  My office door closed, and my husband looked at me and cried, “Your dad is gone.  He’s gone.”  I froze – I was standing straight up, with my arms at my side, my elbows slightly bent, my fingers extended.  I looked like a mannequin, but in this state of paralysis I felt the pulsating of heat and energy through my body.  Through my arms, my stomach, my legs.  I was tingling everywhere.  My eyes stared straight ahead.  I couldn’t say anything.  “Sit down,” my husband said.  “Sit down.”

The tears did not come that afternoon – in part, because I had lost my father long before his body succumbed to alcoholism.  The tears did not come to the degree I thought they should in the days that followed either, when we spent time with family and friends in New Orleans and mourned him.  One afternoon, after my husband and I authorized my father’s cremation and picked out his urn, we drove through the parking lot of the funeral home up to the crematorium.  My father’s body was inside.  We had been advised not to see him: “You should remember him the way he was,” they had told me.  I couldn’t believe that after months of estrangement and hundreds of miles between us, he was just a few feet away.  I wanted to run inside and look at his body and see what had happened but I didn’t.  I felt numb.  I sat behind the steering wheel of the car.  My dad was gone – officially gone – but I didn’t feel any different about him than I had the week before.  He had disappeared already.  But now he could never come back.

PawPaw

[Dad, 2008]

Was something wrong with me?  Had I been hardened by so much loss?  Why wasn’t I a mess of tears?  Was I really capable of love, or was I always readying myself for losing someone?  Was I cursed?  Could I feel anything?

Not long ago I had the privilege of recording a Podcast about my relationship with my father.  Stories I hadn’t told in years came pouring out of me.  I left the recording booth truly spent.  Almost three years after my father’s death, by finding the words to describe my loss and his, I started to believe that I might find him again.  The numbness I once felt began lifting.  A few nights ago, I had a dream about my dad.  He said, “Hello, sweetheart.”

Grief doesn’t have a particular look or a right way.  We all wonder sometimes if we’re doing it wrong:  Feel something.  Feel nothing.  Feel everything.  Rest your head.  Open your heart.  Be afraid.  Cry.  Speak.  Write.  Be angry.  Be grateful.  What’s wrong with me?  Why do I feel this way?  Am I sick?  Am I dying?  They are gone.  Life goes on.  See a picture.  Go back in time.  Remember anything.  Make plans.  Embrace the moment.  Tell stories.  Find meaning.  I’m alive!  My heart is racing.  Am I okay?

“You have a FINE life.”

Two days ago my oldest daughter – an 11-year-old preteen who doesn’t hold back her strong opinions – challenged me.  That’s a good thing.  We all want our kids to feel the confidence to question authority and assert themselves, especially in private moments when we can have a real conversation about why we disagree.

I will confess that what she challenged me on startled me.  We sat together, skimming through various social media outlets on my phone.  She hovered over my shoulder, her long dark curls tickling my cheek.  Her fingers work so much faster than mine, and she clicked away on the device in my hands, at one point opening the new Facebook fan page I started.  “You should read this stuff,” I said.  “I’m writing a lot since my TED talk.”  She’s definitely plugged into a range of platforms, though she’s not on Facebook.  I want my oldest daughter, of all people, to have a window into my thinking right now.  We should share this journey.  I sat quietly to give her a minute with my words.

She scrolled quickly through some recent posts and stopped at the one devoted to my new year’s resolution: “I plan to get the most out of 2016, creating and telling stories about living fully with grief, reaching people who have suffered loss, opening up conversations about life and death and everything in between,” I wrote.

“Oh no,” she said.  “Uh uh.”  And she popped up from the back of the sofa and started to walk away.

“What do you mean?” I replied, wanting to understand her reaction.

“Living fully with grief?” she shot back at me.  “Really?”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “That sums up everything I’ve been talking about recently.  That’s what my TED talk was about.  Living FULLY with grief.  You were there.  What are you saying?”

“You have a FINE life!” she exclaimed.  “Why do you have to live with grief?”

Wow.  I was getting worked up.  This was my eldest daughter, my first-born, the person who started to heal me when she came into the world.  I had longed for a mother-daughter bond my whole life, and she and her sisters have filled me up.  My oldest daughter is a sharp analytical thinker with deep emotional intelligence: she knows how to unpack something she reads and in particular something she hears and comprehend its emotional resonance.  She’s heard a few times that she might want to think about being a lawyer who makes a living making smart arguments.  But she doesn’t necessarily like to spend time unpacking her own (or anyone else’s) feelings.

Once she told me that I overcomplicate things.  Another time she told me that I overstated the description of something we all experienced together.  I get that this will be a conversation we have our whole lives, and it’s okay that we’re not the same person.  I will always push her to talk about her life, and what’s going on in her head and heart, and she will probably continue to roll her eyes and sigh and offer me a sliver of what’s actually inside.

Gigi11

[Gigi at 11]

But a couple days ago, I insisted that we talk more.  She couldn’t easily dismiss something that is bringing me purpose and walk away.  So I asked for more clarification.

I said, “Yes, I have a fine life.  And it’s because I am living FULLY with grief – that’s my point!  Anyone who has lost people they love lives with grief.  It’s unavoidable. What are you saying?  What do you think I mean by living fully with grief?”

“I don’t think people have to be sad and mopey all of the time.”

“Of course they don’t have to be sad and mopey all of the time.  They SHOULDN’T be sad and mopey all of the time.  That’s what I’m saying.  When someone you love dies, it doesn’t have to lead to a lifetime of sadness and depression and isolation.  You can live a FINE life even though you’ve suffered lost, don’t you see?”

“Okay, I guess, fine.”  And she walked away.

I suppose we had resolved this.  I suppose we both understood that we were really saying the same thing.

My oldest daughter is pushing back, and I don’t mind.  I don’t want anything I do here to be overwrought or unnecessarily complicated, so maybe I need to consult with her once in awhile.  I think she gets that my healing continues and that I’m on this path to help myself and others, but we’ll see.  I want her by my side, especially as she gets older.  She and her sisters are my legacy, and as I look at them and see my future and theirs so intertwined, I am hopeful that my own complicated story of loss is woven into our family’s story and that my girls ultimately feel proud of me.

mygirls2

[Mother’s Day, 2015]

Goddess

Today I received a Christmas card from an old friend of my mom and dad’s.  Inside was a picture of KH, dressed as Glenda the Good Witch on Halloween 2015: she wore a long white fitted dress with lace sleeves and knelt down low to the ground snuggling with her two young granddaughters.  She looked beautiful – just like I remember her from the picture she and her husband took on the beach with my parents decades ago.  Her hair is longer now but she has the same youthful smile. The grandkids are new too.

I’ve been more connected to my parents’ old friends lately than ever before: just last week, I recorded a Podcast with AC, who shared a first-hand account of the accident that killed my mom over the phone.  He was in the backseat.  Our conversation was recorded and it will be edited into a 30-minute episode that we both hope will reach people who need to hear it.  I’ve said over and over again lately – after my TED talk in November and after recording this Podcast last week – that my excitement for this opportunity to talk out loud about my parents’ deaths is about making meaning out of what happened.

PodcastDay2

[Podcast recording, Dec 2015]

Losing my mom in a car accident when I was five years old was an awful thing.  Because it happened so long ago, sometimes its awfulness shocks me when I really think about it.  Losing my dad to alcoholism and isolation a few years ago was terrible too.  If I can somehow weave the stories of their lives and deaths into something with reach, if others can listen to what happened in my life and think about their own difficult circumstances in new ways, then perhaps there’s a reason for all of this.

I tell myself that, and it’s certainly true to some degree.  I’ve felt good about what I’ve shared lately, and I am motivated to keep sharing it.  But when I see KH in her long white fitted dress holding her two granddaughters on Halloween, I feel a pain I don’t often let myself feel.  My mother died dressed as a goddess.  She had attended a costume party the night of her death, and she wore a long white dress with baby’s breath in her hair.  What if my mother were still here to dress as a goddess this past Halloween?

babys-breath-crown-diy-7-590x393

The lives of my parents’ friends have gone on.  I know from my conversation with AC and his wife BC just a few days ago that they held onto their grief for a long time and until recently didn’t start to let it out the way they should.  Yet their children grew up, and their grandchildren were born.  My mother will never hold my daughters.  Though our intersecting lives – the touch points between what was, what is, what will be, what could have been, what should have been – will always exist in our hearts and minds and bodies and conversations and meditations, my mother will never dress up on Halloween and pose with her granddaughters for next year’s Christmas card.  That makes me profoundly sad, and it’s the kind of sadness that feels fresh despite the years of separation between my mom and me that I have lived with already.

I am so happy that KH sent my family a Christmas card.  I am now plugged into this old network of friends, and I know that there is healing to do within it.  I think I can help with that.  For a moment tonight, seeing Glenda the Good Witch so beautifully dressed for Halloween, I saw my mother in the costume she wore the last night of her life.  I have tried for so many years to understand who my mother was and what I missed, the everyday things that would have defined us as mother and daughter, but I can’t deny that she is and always will be a goddess to me.  Untouchable.  Out of reach.  Inhumanly perfect.