I miss this space and what it used to be. I’m glad I don’t need it like I used to – I mean, I still need it; I can’t really imagine a time I’ll let it go entirely – but, I’m glad I don’t need it desperately like I used to. I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and what it has meant to me, especially in the first years, because of some research I’m doing for work on the ways in which people use records, archives – paper or digital – as part of a grieving process, as a means of working around and through and with grief, and also as a means of maintaining a relationship or connection with their lost loved one. That was certainly something this blog did for me. It was the space in which I spent time devoted to Anja, and it was a space in which she – in some strange way – grew…people came to know her – or know of her at least. People – other bereaved mothers – missed her and remembered her as I missed and remembered their babies. Now I am thinking about what happens when that space diminishes in importance, when it grows quiet and…still…a loaded word. Why does this happen? Time? Both the passing of time and the always diminishing stock of it in my day-to-day life?

I read two things this week that are causing me to think. One is a post about teaching anthropology where the authors talk about being “aggressively human” – it’s a manifesto, a call for greater humanity in the academy, for kindness, empathy, support. Kindness to oneself and kindness to others. In my own teaching this past year, I have been focusing on two goals: to be kind and to be generous. It’s hard sometimes in a space that has not been particularly kind or generous to me, that has never permitted me to grieve properly, never cut me a moment’s slack. I want to think a lot more about this and about how I might contribute to a kinder, more generous academic space and culture. Maybe this will be how I respond to the bitterness I so often feel. As the authors of the aggressively human manifesto state: “We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.” Maybe I can do that. Maybe that is another way of making space, too, for Anja in the world. Maybe no one else will see her, but I’ll know she’s there, at the centre.

The other thing I read this week was an article on grief and digital ghosts that someone who knows my recent research sent to me. It’s a beautiful piece, but it was this bit in particular that has me thinking: “After he died, Jon’s online presence grew and then faded into the ether. Now, when I Google his name late at night, I see he has slipped further and further down in the search results.” This makes me think of the blogroll at Glow In the Woods, and how it grows, new blogs added, old blogs pushed further down the list, abandoned blogs, the digital ghosts of all these babies. Six and a half years is a long time to keep up a blog and maintain this online space. Slowly, I retreated, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. It sometimes feels like the only place Anja ever lived was here. What happens when this place fades into the ether?

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Big boy / Small girl

He was so timid as a toddler. He didn’t run and climb at playgrounds, but stood next to me, quietly watching. He liked to sit on my knee and cuddle while his sister did gymnastics or swimming. He didn’t go down slides, and when he got his run bike, he would just stand and slowly walk with it. He was thoughtful and sweet, tilting his head and saying, Mommy? Telling me stories, asking questions, wondering about everything in his squeaky, uptalking way. He liked to collect rocks, pinecones, flower petals, sticks and carefully sort and arrange them.

He is still the sweetest thing, but at 5 he is also a big boy and turning wild. His long legs are covered in bruises now that he has decided to run and slide and play with the other children. He climbs the tree at daycare until my breath catches and I can almost not look. He rides his bike like a racer, suddenly skidding out, trying to lay down the longest ‘chopstick’ behind him. He yells everything and screams with laughter with his friends. He leaves a ring of dirt in the tub at night and wants bedtime stories about Tintin or snakes or cranes or firetrucks. He still holds my hand whenever he can, and his hand is warm and small and sure.

Very shortly after he was born, Anja’s spot in the family shifted. She had been the middle child, but he surpassed her, filled a space she’d left; he DID NOT replace her, but he did make her spot less visible, certainly to others, but to me, too. I couldn’t see how she fit in once he was here. There was no way he’d have been here if she’d stayed. None of it made sense to me. I couldn’t imagine her alive once he was a certain age. Where I’d been able to say, she would be months old or years old and she would be like this ______, once he was a year or two old, especially, it just didn’t make sense to imagine her that way: she was gone.

When I was pregnant with her, I’d imagined her with blond ringlets, like her sister had had as a toddler, quiet, but wickedly funny and with a mischievous bent. For a while that image stayed, but as he grows and changes and gets louder and wilder, she gets quieter in my mind. She is a little dark-haired child, fair and slight, hiding a little under the low branches of a cedar tree,watching the others, drawing with a stick in the dirt. Her eyes are dark and thoughtful; she doesn’t say very much – hums a little, just watching, staying apart.

It is the neverending mystery: who would she have been?

My son, five years old, a mane of redgold hair flying out under his helmet, races ahead of me down the forest path on the way home from school, the filtering sunlight  bounces with his gleeful voice off the trees ahead and in between them the tiny slip of my gone girl retreats back into the darkness, watching, always watching as I try – and fail – to chase after them both.

Cracking up

I made it through Anja’s birthday without crying. That was a few days ago. Today, I’ve been crying since noon. Nine hours and 22 minutes. My work is ridiculously stressful. I have more work than any person could reasonably be expected to do and I am basically on probation for 7 years. I’m 1.5 years in and I’m terrified that I won’t make it through this probationary period. Tenure sounds like a dream to many people, but 7 years of constantly feeling like you are not doing enough, not working hard enough, never going to be good enough is exhausting. And I started exhausted. Three years of precarious, term-to-term teaching right after completing a PhD which is no walk in the park in itself. Never mind six pregnancies: one traumatic birth, three miscarriages, one dead baby, one brutally stressful subsequent pregnancy. I’m cracking up. I never know how much to blame grief, but I know it’s not a small part of this. I have marvelled, over the years, at how I’ve kept going. I’ve resented – bitterly resented, if I’m honest – others who have been able to rest, to retreat, even in grief, while I had to go back to work only days after my baby died, to keep working, keep pushing, so that “all my hard work wasn’t for nothing.” But what was it for? This miserable life of feeling inadequate, overworked, and insane with the anxiety that I will not get tenure and thereby lose my livelihood, my home (we live in faculty housing), my children’s schools, my understanding of my place in the world. I don’t really know what to do to help myself. Counselling or therapy is probably the answer but when I think about where I will find the time to find a good counsellor or therapist let alone see one regularly, I just want to laugh and cry and bang my head against a wall.

Six years

Today is the 12th of January. Six years ago at this time exactly, I was lying on a hospital bed in the assessment room, watching my GP’s face as she moved the ultrasound wand across my round belly. You hadn’t moved for hours.

Six years ago.

You weren’t delivered until the 14th. Then I saw your face, your perfect hands and delicate wrists, held your weight in my arms, put my lips to your forehead.

I don’t have it in me to write a long post today. There are so many frustrating, difficult things happening and I find I just can’t do it, can’t summon the words. But I bought some daffodils today and they are opening in water on the kitchen table. And I knew I would write even just a few words here, in this space that is for you, and that has held me up since you’ve been gone. I owe this blog and the mothers who read it so much.

Six years ago. If I really think about it, I will go down under the sorrow…sink under the weight and neverending incomprehension of your loss.

I remember your hands so well, tucked just so under your chin. Your sweet, perfect chin.

I love you, Anja. Forever.

Sibling grief

E and M experience the death of their sister in such different ways. For M, Anja’s death – and Anja herself – is an abstract concept. He knows she was his sister, but it’s clear that also confuses him; he has a living, breathing, running, loving, shouting, laughing, helping, playing sister and Anja is not a sister like that at all. What kind of sister is she, then? He will often give me a stone or shell and say he found it for the ‘Anja jar.’ In the summer, we saw cemeteries on the side of the road throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and he was curious: ‘what are all those stone places, Mommy?’ I explained to him how people’s dead are buried there and he suggested we could put Anja there, too. It was a very polite suggestion. It was clearly intended to help me. He knows that sometimes I’m sad about Anja and he wanted to help me. M is sometimes – maybe often – confused about Anja’s death, existence, and place in our family, but it is a gentle confusion – or seems to be: he is quietly perplexed.

For E, everything is so different. Turbulent, frustrating, unjust. I was upset with E the other day because she and her brother kept screaming and squealing over my attempt to facetime with my sister, who lives in NY. I said to E, ‘she’s my sister and I rarely get to talk to her.’ E snapped back: ‘well, do I ever get to talk to my sister?’ E’s turned into a clam of late; she doesn’t want to talk about how she feels very often, and it’s harder than it used to be to know what she thinks, how she’s understanding her loss these days.

Yesterday on the way to school we talked about Christmas plans and how we would buy gifts for some children whose families couldn’t afford presents this year (through the Christmas Bureau). There’s a Christmas tree at the Granville Island kids market that is decorated with cards saying ‘girl, aged 4,’ ‘boy, aged 11’ which you can choose off the tree and shop for in the market. E wants to do that and choose a ‘girl, aged 6’ – ‘because 6 is the age I most remember being,’ she adds. ‘6 is how old Anja would turn in January, too,’ I said. E’s face changes, and I wonder: is she thinking about what 6 was for her, what it might have been for Anja? I know E wanted to buy a present for a girl Anja’s age, too, but I’m not sure she realized Anja would be 6 and whatever she was thinking, it was clear her thoughts were swirling around, keeping her busy. Her face was a bit crumpled, eyebrows drawn in. For E, the loss is tangible in a way it isn’t for M. She remembers me pregnant. And most of all, she remembers how it was when Anja died. The intense grief that took over our lives and home. That grief – my grief – had such an impact on her. It becomes increasingly clear to me how the period of time where I kind of checked out (it wasn’t very long and it was for my own survival, I tell myself over and over) shook her to her core. She was only 3. She needed her mama. And I was there…but I was also gone. There’s an insecurity in E that I feel sure traces straight back to that time when I wanted nothing more than to run into the forest and cry all day and night amongst the trees or to check myself into a hotel room – in my fantasies it was an all-white hotel room, white furniture, white rugs, white beddings, no art – and be by myself for as long as I needed. I was with her, all the time, but I was far away, too, desperate to be with her sister who had become so completely unreachable, so permanently distant. There’s a desperation in E when she’s stressed that comes, I think, from feeling abandoned in some important ways, and there’s an anger in her when she’s frustrated that comes from the total unfairness of the death of her sister. E was so excited to be a big sister. To have a little sister. She talked nonstop about what she and her sister would do while I was pregnant. She saved dolls and toys for her. She helped organize her room to make space for a sister. I’ll never forget her face when we told her there was a sister for her in my tummy. Her huge, beaming smile. ‘We can call her Balloon,’ she yelled, gleefully. I remember the dance parties we used to have, before Anja died. We’ve never had one quite like those pre-grief ones. Something went missing with Anja and E knows it, felt it, lived it. We don’t dance with the same abandon since Anja died.

On our walk to school yesterday, while we talked about the giving tree at Granville Island and buying presents and Anja, aged 6, M was on his bike. He was thoughtful, but distracted; interested, but not invested in the same way E was. He could ride ahead, wait for us, catch up on the conversation, move in and out. But E was different. She said, ‘we’d have to move again if Anja was 6. She wouldn’t want to share with a little brother.’

‘Well, you two would probably be sharing,’ I suggested, and she thought about that, quiet, in her own head. ‘We’ll never know how things would have turned out,’ I said, gently. ‘Life is so strange like that. You could turn one corner one morning instead of another and your whole life could change completely. Everything changed for us when Anja died. We were going one way, and now we’re going another.’

This is real for E in a a way it is not for M. If I had a nickel for everyone who said, ‘at least you have E,’ when Anja died… I wanted to shout at them, ‘well, what about her? Now she has to figure this out and live with this, too.’ I was – and am – so unequipped to help. And not only does she have to deal with the loss of a sister she wanted so badly, she had to deal with the loss of her mother. I can’t imagine the confusion, the anxiety, she must have felt.

And the other platitude: ‘well, she’ll develop empathy in a way other kids her age won’t; this loss will teach her to look out for others.’ Ok, maybe, but she didn’t need that. She didn’t need to be taught a lesson through the death of her sister and the temporary implosion of her family.

M didn’t experience those things. He gets to experience the loss of his sister as something his family has already begun to process. We’ve established the narrative of her loss. We have ways of telling her story, gentle ways, ways that integrate her into our family, into the world. I can tell her story without sobbing or wanting to scream. I can hug him while I tell him. E lived through the untellable times with us, the times where I had nothing to say but screams and sobs. There was no gentleness for her. We tried, yes, but she wasn’t fooled.

I met someone last week whose first son was stillborn. She said to me, ‘and you had a living child, that must have been so difficult to navigate.’ Something inside me stopped at that statement and listened: I think that was the first time someone started there, with ‘it must have been hard to parent a living child in that grief’ instead of with ‘weren’t you lucky,’ at least in some way. It was never lucky for E, and she was not a consolation prize for me. She was her own little grieving person.

E and I walked the rest of the way to school, holding hands, M just ahead on his bike, in his dinosaur rain coat and with the pink streamers flying on the side of his handlebars. I think she and I were thinking the same things: loss, wonder, grief, love and the terrible/wonderful way that it is all out of our control.

Fall always feels like your time, sweet Anja. Fall 2011 was a time of comfort, coziness, the warm, conspiratorial feeling of growing you, learning to know you, waiting to witness your way through the world. The leaves fall red and golden and the rain imprints them black on the sidewalks. Red, gold, black. Pearly grey skies. Misty rains turn into downpours. I put on the coat I wrapped once around my growing belly, wrap it around nothing, pull it in tight. We make our way to school in a new neighbourhood, where I did not expect to find memories of you. Now I understand they come to me where I am. Your brother speeds ahead on his new pedal bike. Your sister holds my hand and tells me about the new friend she is making. Red and gold leaves drift around us and the mist of almost-rain settles on my hair and cheeks.

First day of school

The first week of school was so busy, and the lead up to it so intense, that I forgot – forgot – until Tuesday evening that it should have been your first day of school, your first day of kindergarten. I never would have thought that possible…

But your sister started a new school, after being terribly anxious about it all summer, and your brother started a new daycare, which for some reason I wasn’t worried about but which ended up being emotionally difficult for both of us. Once again, you get lost – typical middle child, lost between the pressing needs of the eldest and the youngest children. Dead child – lost in the shuffle of the living, the busy, the can’t-be-put-away children.

I feel terrible when this happens.Time doesn’t ‘heal everything.’ But it does change things. If someone could have told me I would forget this type of milestone 6 years ago, or 5 years ago when E started kindergarten and I cried for days about what you miss out on, I wouldn’t have believed it. I simply would not have been able to believe it.

Friday was E’s first Pro-D day. We took the ferry to the Sunshine Coast to be with family and spent Friday morning beach combing. I held my little boy’s hand, my sweet boy who never would have been, while with a stick clutched in his other hand he poked at dead crabs and jellyfish washed up in the tide. “I’ll find you the most beautiful rock for the Anja jar, Mommy,” he said. I looked at the ocean, the mountains, E’s laughing head far up the beach. I’m sorry, my girl, I whispered. And I love you. Always, always, forever, I love you.

 

Duet

I took E to her end-of-term piano recital on Saturday.  I studied the program and knew it was coming up. I didn’t think twice about it. Even as they walked up to the front, the two sisters, and sat down at the bench, I was fine; not the kind of fine where I have to ask myself first, am I fine? is this ok for me? but the kind of fine where I’m fine because it hasn’t crossed my mind not to be.

One was tall with serious eyes and dark hair pulled back in a bun, wearing dark blue pants. The younger one had shorter, thick hair, sprung out about her head and topped with a bow. She was wearing a denim dress with a crinoline skirt, flared out at the knee. They bowed to the audience and I smiled. I thought how lovely they were. It was a genuine, happy thought. And then suddenly, really without any warning, I was stifling sobs. I didn’t even think the grief, didn’t realize it until it was streaming down my face. It was shocking: my body heaved with the effort not to cry out loud. I didn’t want E to look back at me and see me crying. Her turn was coming up and seeing me upset would upset her. I pulled in my rib cage – hard – and stared at the mountains behind the glass as these two beautiful sisters played ‘Heart and Soul’ and willed myself to stop crying.

The song was mercifully short. They stood to bow again, and holding hands they walked back to their seats, smiling conspiratorially, pleased with themselves. In those few minutes, I saw everything I had lost, E had lost, Anja had lost. Heart and soul. Much heavier words than the piano suggested.

Records

I’ve started a project, an autoethnography of grief and recordkeeping. I’m thinking about how records and archives – making them, keeping them, using them – are part of griefwork. I look through my drafts folder and find this from two years ago:

“I open this page and marvel that it has been  two months since I last wrote here. Once this space was a lifeline. Now, I don’t know what it is. I suppose it has become an archive. An archive of my grief, my love for you, of a community that held me up and agreed to love you, too. It is still a place where I can come to connect with you. There are so few of those. You have been such a part of the two months since I last wrote, but it is only here that a record exists. I went to New York for a few days, my first trip away from your brother and sister in over two years. On my first day there, I took care of essentials: a new book for M for his birthday from the NYPL gift shop, an American Girl doll outfit for E. And for you? What could I do for you, I wondered and then remembered St. Patrick’s, which I had walked by on my way to the doll store. I went back, walked through slowly, and found the right place to light a candle for you. I sat in a pew for a few minutes, thinking about my three children: my oldest, my middle, my youngest. Someone asked me about my tattoo at a birthday party for one of E’s friends on the weekend. I was able to tell him, able to explain your life and death, and we talked, really talked about how it has been to lose you. And then we sang happy birthday and ate cake and watched the room full of six and seven year olds go increasingly nuts. I mention my recent research – on the role of recordkeeping in grief and grieving – in class, and speak matter-of-factly about what I am learning. I write a proposal for a book chapter that will consider how your death and birth has affected the trajectory of my research, my thinking about my discipline. You are a part of everything, my love. You are a part of everything, but you leave so few tangible traces. I have to keep writing here, I think, because it is here that I make manifest the space you occupy in my heart, in my life. It is in some ways exactly what I imagined three years ago when I first wrote here –  I have created a place for you, an outlet for the love and longing that has nowhere else to go – and it is more than I imagined, too, for in some real way, I have made you real here. Here, I call you into presence, into the present, and in this space, you have a strange kind of future, too.”

I’ve been thinking about records and grief for a while now, which makes sense: the collision and intersection of my personal and professional lives. At first, I couldn’t work without acknowledging, somehow, the grief. It felt vulnerable and scary and maybe even a little exploitative to make grief the subject of my research, to put Anja and my personal experience at the centre of my work identity and practice. I’m drawn now though to people who work this way, who bring the personal into the professional, who are as incapable as I have been (it would seem) of hiving off the personal from the professional.

It has its risks. I know some people who think the research I do is self-indulgent, or – here’s that word again – exploitative: am I exploiting her memory? Am I trading on trauma? Am I using her for professional gain? I ask myself these questions over and over, but I don’t know how – yet – to move away from the grief, and I feel, too, like bringing it into my work is one way of addressing the silence around stillbirth, of bringing grief into the open. And certainly, I am not gaining anything professionally by this new focus in my work; if anything, colleagues avoid me and don’t ask what I’m working on these days when we meet in the halls or at conferences.

It has other risks, too. A while ago, I requested my medical records. I wanted so badly to find something of her in them that I didn’t yet know, some little detail about her, how she looked, a new piece of evidence to corroborate her existence. I didn’t find what I was looking for. This week, I’ve been reviewing those records again, thinking about them as part of my research study, trying to capture how it feels to encounter such an intense personal experience – and to be searching so intently for a person, my baby – in such an institutional record. Two solid days of reading, taking notes, remembering, going back to journals and this blog, taking more notes. I’m working in a friend’s apartment these days, with a view of the ocean, and I take time to stare out at its ever-changing surface. I watch the seagulls swoop and soar and in the trees to my right sometimes the herons and the crows begin to fight, cawing at each other and diving in circles around the tops of the trees. I remember all of those hospital rooms and doctors’ offices: the one where I first heard her heartbeat, the one where I heard it for the last time, the room where I cried through the 20-week ultrasound, the room where I went to be assessed for decreased movement, the room where her heartbeat could not be found, the room where I laboured and delivered and held my baby, the room I was wheeled to empty cold and so tired. I remember it all so clearly though it seems so far away now. I can’t touch it the way I used to be able to. I remember the first summer after she died, looking out at this same ocean, hearing the herons and the crows fight, understanding that this world existed for other people, but feeling that for me, all there was, still, were those rooms. Those rooms were what was real and the outside world was a mystery. That has shifted, I realize now. But reading those records, all the rooms return. The sound of the doppler searching for her heartbeat, the nurse’s anxious mumbling, trying to be soothing, the breathing of the woman in the next bed, the squeak of another nurse’s shoes on the linoleum, someone closing the bathroom door, a telephone ringing, the doppler, the lid going back on the tube of jelly, another squeak as the nurse turned away from my massive belly, silence.

I put the copies of the records back into the yellow envelope they were sent in. I went for a walk, through my old neighbourhood, where I still come to take the kids to school. I’m in limbo – between a new neighbourhood and an old one, between the past and the present, between memories that I have learned to hold in a particular way and the experience of memories that could not be contained.

Maybe it is self-indulgent. It’s one way to keep her near. It’s one way to get back into that space.

I sit on a bench by the water’s edge and watch the seagulls swoop and soar, the ever-changing surface of the ocean, the yellow envelope in my bag beside me.

And then I come back to the apartment, open a new page on this old blog, start writing, anything, because this is also your space. There was that space, those rooms, and before them, this neighbourhood, our old apartment, the three of us, me, R and E, waiting for you, and then there was this space, these pages, these words, these readers and friends and fellow grievers. Without this space, I think I lose some of that space. I felt more connected to you, my girl, when I was here regularly.

This is a long and rambly post. I’m thinking aloud. Field notes. I know now that someday I’ll be glad to have hit publish.

 

Moving

I lay in bed last night looking at the stars and the lights on the mountain. The same view I had the night I came home from the hospital, knowing Anja was dead inside me, waiting to deliver her, in shock  and such deep sorrow.

This neighbourhood is full of her. I tell the kids, when they ask where she went when she died, that she is in all the world around us; the daffodils that are blooming late and long this year and still accompany us on every walk to school or the store or the library; the tall tall trees in Stanley Park, our ‘backyard,’ where we play after school and into which we look from all our windows; the lagoon, with its ducks and turtles and trailing willow trees. I should have been packing this morning, but I spent an hour slowly walking along the seawall and through the park, soaking in the grey of the ocean and sky and then the incredible green of the park in the rain.

We’re moving and it hurts everywhere right now. I feel like we’re leaving her behind. I worry I won’t be able to find her in our new neighbourhood. We’ll still have tall, tall trees and we won’t be far from the beach, but they won’t be her trees and her beach. What if I can’t feel her there the way I feel her here?

All our memories of her are here. There is nothing special about this apartment except the view and all the memories it holds inside its walls. As I pack, I’m confronted over and over again by memories, good and bad. There is kid art stashed everywhere, drawings and paintings of hearts and flowers and a family that is never quite complete. Photos of E as a baby, of me pregnant with Anja, of E when she was 3 and I was the worst mother she could have had. My heart breaks over and over. I want to scoop that little 3 year old up and hold her and tell her how sorry I am and just keep her in my arms for a year, never let her go, til she’s 4 and her baby brother is born, safe, alive.

I find notes I wrote to myself everywhere. A list I made for Thanksgiving dinner when I was pregnant with Anja, still on the fridge, stuck behind other lists and photos. A card I wrote to her one month after she died, Valentines Day, stashed in a drawer of sweaters. Journals full of her and also of our life before her, which seems like a dream almost now, before we knew this grief, this love, this awful gorgeous neverending contradiction.

I should be packing and I’ll get back to it now. There are four more days here. Four more days to feel all the memories, to find her in all the old places, to drink in the greenness of this rainy spring and all my love for my little lost girl.