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.

Tired at five years

Sometimes the exhaustion sets in. The exhaustion that comes from carrying on, from patching together a ‘normal’ life and going out into the world every day as a ‘normal’ person. I was never conscious of trying to recreate ‘normal’ in my life or my self, but that seems to be what’s happened. I suppose because that’s what’s needed out there. My work needs me to be ‘normal,’ especially. I found an agenda from the year Anja was born yesterday. Three weeks after she died, I had 100 papers to mark as a teaching assistant in a grad program. I had a chapter of my dissertation due another week later. I remember feeling so angry – not exactly then, but a few weeks later and for a long time after – that there was no time to stop – or not enough time to stop – and sit with the grief, really let myself go deep into it. Of course, there was also a three-year-old big sister, heartbroken and confused, who needed me very badly. I still feel sick over how I must have failed her in those weeks when I just didn’t have enough to go around, and when all I wanted, really, was to close my eyes and get back to that hospital room, that brief brief time with a dead baby in my arms.

I took some time around her birthday, but it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.Sometimes I just feel so worn down and I know it’s in large part from this five-year effort to keep going. To keep heading out into the world and making things work. I don’t have a lot of choice not to do this. We were never in a financial place (in one of the world’s most unaffordable cities) to get by on one of our salaries and I’ve worked so hard in a field where to take a break is career suicide that I’ve felt it was too big of a risk to stop at any point. I’m complaining, I know, and my point here is not to complain: it’s to acknowledge the effort. To acknowledge my own effort – and yours, if you are reading this – because no one else does. No one else ever seems to recognize the huge effort it takes to just keep on going.

I wrote an email to work colleagues saying I couldn’t attend an event – a very important one – on the 14th because it was the anniversary of my daughter’s birth and death. I wanted them to acknowledge how hard it must be to be five years without her, to acknowledge her, but instead one colleague told me it was fine that I couldn’t attend – she wouldn’t be there either; she was having a new washing machine delivered and since the old one had been giving her trouble for so long, and the delivery of the new one had already been postponed once, she really must stay home. New washing machine, dead baby, whatever.

I show up, day after day. For my students, for my colleagues, for my family, my children. These days, I am actually a pretty contented person much of the time – I don’t just show up most of the time: I engage, I enjoy, I take part. But sometimes, and especially at 6 am when I wake up before the kids and drink my coffee and check my email and think about all there is to do to keep going, I just feel so, so tired and want so badly to stop and spend just a little bit of time with my memory of her, those five hours in a hospital room with a dead baby that changed me forever and that matter so little to the way the world moves on around me.

 

Five

Five is the first birthday I didn’t mark with a post.

Five was different than any of the previous four birthdays. In the past, the anticipation of the day has been the worst and then the day itself has consistently been a frustration: it can never live up to what I need it to be – of course, because what I need it to be is a birthday for a living child, not a dead one. How can a birthday for a dead child ever be ok? This year, the anticipation was not nearly so dreadful. I waited for it to get terrible, but it never did. Today, though, the day after her birthday, I woke with a heavy, heavy weight on my chest and shoulders – familiar in its physical manifestation from those early days – and a sense of futility associated with realizing how many more of these dead-baby birthdays there will be.

The days themselves – the 12th, 13th and 14th – were okay. On the 12th, a dear friend, whose son, Toren, would also have turned five this month, and I visited a local cemetery where there is a memorial garden for babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth in the 30s through 60s. Then, babies were whisked away from the mothers, and buried without markers in one section of the graveyard, while families were told to move on and just get pregnant again ASAP. In 2006, the memorial was created: a dry streambed with a stone placed in it for every baby buried. Some families have had stones engraved with names and dates. This year, the stones are buried in snow and as Andrea and I stood and talked about our babies, about grief and how it has changed us, about parenting our living children, about feminism, about the people who have held us up, the people who have surprised us by their kindness and the people who have let us down, we scuffed our boots in the snow, pushing the snow aside and clearing off the names of babies who died long ago, whose families missed them so, 40, 50, 60, 70 years later (of course). It was a surprisingly wonderful way to spend the morning and it was the most right-feeling thing I’ve done yet on one of these anniversary days.

On the 13th, I looked for daffodils to bring home, but it’s been so cold this year and there were none in the stores. Instead, I bought a bunch of tiny pink roses and a white candle. I put the candle in a crystal dish filled with tiny shells and shell fragments that I spent hours sifting out of the sand in Mexico when my parents flew us there two weeks after Anja’s death and birth. Little creamy pink, purple and peach shells, smooth pebbles I remember focusing on so that I didn’t have to think too hard about anything. I worked while the candle burned beside the roses and almost felt peaceful.

The 14th, her birthday, was a Saturday. Swimming lessons for E and then a family walk around the Lagoon, which is completely frozen over today. The Lagoon was full of delights: ice crystals on leaves and branches, huge puddles frozen over to ‘skate’ on, the eerie sounds of the ice shifting and contracting. The sun shone, we were together, and though my heart ached, I let myself be absorbed in the beauty of the lagoon and of E and M. Later, while M napped, E and I went out and bought a beautiful, tiny cake iced in flowers. We put five candles in it, sang happy birthday, and it was all….okay.

I wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared to see beauty, to feel mostly love and awe. There were moments: I woke up several times on the night of the 12th with a feeling of intense dread and feelings of guilt over strange things, like how I don’t do a good enough job keeping E’s nails looking nice – feeling sick about it. I cried in the car the whole way to work on the 10th and 11th. I hid myself away in my office most of the early part of the week and was surly and short-tempered in meetings. But then…the calm of her days. Such a strange change.

We were busy today. My mom in town and E had skating and piano and there were errands to run and then a traffic accident shut down the highway on our way home from dropping my mom at the ferry so we had an impromptu dinner out while we waited for it to clear. And then now I’m up late prepping for my class in the morning. That heavy feeling is there, but so much else has been happening all day that it just sits in the background. If I’ve learned anything about grief, it’s to fear the backlash that comes after feeling well unexpectedly, but maybe things are also changing…we’ll see.

This year, I’ve thought so much of this space, which kept me going for the first two years, especially. And of all the babies, whom I’ll never forget, and their mothers, whose words and love and support have meant to so much. Andrea and Toren. Conner and Molly. Pieces of Me and AKelly and Margaret. Suzanne and Nathaniel. Tash and Liam. Veronica and Alexander. Little sun  and his mamas. Brooke and Eliza. Caroline and Cale. Em and Eva. Aurelia and Chiara.Alwaysmy3boys and her third boy. Burning Eye, A. and Joseph. Typhaine and Paul. Catherine and Georgina. Amanda and Grace. . Allmyprettyones and Avalon. That is already so many babies, and there are more…So many birthdays…so many anniversaries.

So few people remembered Anja this year. Her grandparents, but not her aunt or uncle. Babyloss friends, but only one of my ‘before’ friends, one of my new friends from E’s school, none of my oldest friends. That didn’t hurt as much as it did last year, either.

I think I remembered her well this year. I spent some peaceful moments. I made beauty around me. I pulled the love of my little family in close and held it tight and somewhere in between her sister and her brother, I felt just a little bit who she could have been, where she would have fit, and then she flitted away, into the icy woods around us – I’ll be here, waiting for six, seven, eight, nine, and any fleeting glimpse of my gone girl I can catch.

 

December

I was so anxious the December I was pregnant with you. I was worried about money, and about how I’d finish my dissertation if I didn’t get it done before you were born. I remember walking up and down our street, at a torturously slow pace with your nearly-three-year old big sister, on our way to the library, or playtime, or ballet and mentally calculating: if I spend this much on that…or if I can finish this chapter by then…I worried about every cent I spent. Every time I used my debit card to buy groceries or toothpaste or a bus pass my heart would start to beat and I’d feel flushed and tired. I’d sit down at my computer and type words, type fast and delete, type fast and delete, repeat.

I never talked about it. I didn’t tell R how terrible I felt. I didn’t tell anyone. Before or after you died. Especially after.

I’ve never talked about it before today.

Because of course, after you died, I thought I’d killed you. I thought I’d made you leave with all my worrying. I thought – my deepest, darkest thought – that you knew I  wondered if we were wrong to try again, to want another, if you knew I wasn’t sure we deserved you.

I worried I wouldn’t be able to handle two, wouldn’t be able to afford two, wouldn’t be able to advance in my career with two and all that worrying killed you. In a perverse way, I solved all my problems through worrying.

*

Every December since, my body remembers the worrying. I feel anxious again, each time I hand over my debit card – and guilty, too. I’m trying to let that go this year. I’m trying to forgive myself and also to let myself enjoy spending money, and even to spend a bit more wildly this year when for once we have it. I can go back to being sensible next year, but this year I feel like I need to spoil my kids, my partner, my family, myself. I need to treat myself and everyone around me to whatever beauty and cosiness a few dollars here and there can buy. I need to shake off that worried woman, huddled around her big belly in her winter coat, adding, subtracting, plotting, negotiating, worrying. I need to banish her and banish the feeling that I didn’t deserve what I had, what I was getting. That I wasn’t worthy of being a mom a second time around, to another beautiful daughter.

‘Let’s get a hot chocolate,’ I’ve said to E and M every day this week, sugar bugs and $4 drinks be damned. It seems a strange rebellion, but then, I don’t know, what about this grief isn’t strange?

 

Fall, five years on

I’ve been anticipating this winter, thinking it will be a hard one: five seems such a milestone.

Fall 2011 was a beautiful season. A season of hope and thrilled waiting, talking with my nearly three year old about her baby sister and all we’d do together as a family.

Fall 2016, five years on, has been one of the rainiest on record. It rained 28 days in October. I feel it as both a burden and a gift. Winter seems to have started too soon with the low grey skies and constant damp, but also there have been no cheery crisp fall days to taunt me with memories of the season spent so long ago now.

I feel the low hum of anxiety starting up…the questions about what we will do to honour her short existence, her place in our family, begin to pile up at the back of my consciousness. I never know what do do, and I’m sure I won’t this year.

Five.

A sign has been posted at M’s daycare: kindergarten registration for all children born in 2012.

Not all children born in 2012, I think silently every time I pass it on the way in, on the way out. It will be there through this long grey wet winter, quietly reminding me: Five.

Sending love to all the babies born in 2012 who like my Anja are not registering for kindergarten this year. May five be as gentle as it can be on your parents.

Here we are again, the fifth summer without you, our annual trip to the East coast. I run and play and dig and swim with your brother and sister. I scratch your name on heart-shaped stones and throw them into the Atlantic, in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. Soft red stones, your name scratched easily, and then tossed into the sea – an arc across the blue sky, a momentary splash on the surface and then sinking down, settling in again to the ocean floor, waiting to be tossed up on shore again one day…waiting for me next year and the year after and the year after that.

 

Disappeared

Sometimes it feels like we disappeared her. When M was born, poof! she was gone again, gone differently than the first time, a goneness that sometimes feels more painful, more violent than the cause of her first goneness, her death.

Before M, it was so obvious that she was missing. Before M, everything that happened to our family should have happened to her, with her, too. I saw her always – or saw her absence always – running in the grass with E, sisters playing in the tub together, braiding two girls’ hair and snuggling two girls in bed. Immediately after M, I was disoriented by a second loss of her. Because to my mind, she and he could never be here together and he was incontrovertibly here, so she was incontrovertibly gone. They could never have existed, alive, together, so which one would I choose? Which one would I wish gone?

I get now that it doesn’t really work that way. My mind plays tricks. It bargains and denies and dreams and yearns. The simplest of truths is: she died – he lived – she is gone – he is here – and that’s how it is. It is what it is, as they always seem to say.

This is all clearer to me in my mind than it was then, but for others, for those outside our little family, the arrival of M signalled the almost total disappearance of Anja. A collective sigh of relief went up, I think. It was like M patched over the gaping hole Anja left in our family, and that patch helped everyone else feel better. They didn’t have to look into the hole anymore. They could even pretend it had never been there. Eventually, they forgot about it almost entirely, occasionally remembering, jarred out of their comfort zone by something I might have said: ‘when I was pregnant with Anja…;’ ‘when Anja died….;’ ‘when our baby died….’

It’s such a hard thing to have a dead child. That looks stupid, having written it. Anyone would agree. Except that I don’t feel it from other people. I barely have time to feel it myself anymore. I want sometimes to sink into the grief again, to go down deep and feel it all, and cry myself out. But when would I do that? If she had lived and I had three children now, I could not just ignore one – and if I did, there would be consequences; society would let me know how wrong I was – so why is it considered acceptable, normal even, for me to stuff my dead child into the past, push her aside, let everyone around me forget she ever existed?

It’s a hard thing to have a dead child. The cumulative strain of carrying on, getting on with things day in and day out…

There’s still so much mystery and in some ways, so little to say of it: My baby is gone. My baby died.  Where did she go? Why did she go? I wish she was here.

I love you my little gone girl. I love you still and always.

Baby brother turns 3

Tomorrow is M’s third birthday. E turned three when I was pregnant with Anja and her birthday remains one of my most treasured memories. She went to daycare in the morning so she could enjoy being the birthday girl there, wearing the birthday crown, having cake for snack, her little friends singing to her. My sister and I picked her up at lunch and we all walked up to the Christmas Market where we met her father. We wandered the stalls, shared pretzels, visited Santa and rode the carousel. I remember how carefully she picked the horses we would sit on, the purplest, glitziest ones she could find. And I remember going round and round with her, laughing, smiling at her sweet blond head of curls and chubby red cheeks, with one hand on my belly, wondering what her sister would be like and knowing we’d find out soon. Three weeks later, Anja was gone, and that day, for a long time, was too painful to think about.

And tomorrow he will be three. The little boy I carried so anxiously, whom I cried and worried over. Yesterday, I was remembering what it felt like to be carrying him inside me three years ago, knowing there were less than 48 hours before he’d be out, and a single word popped into my mind: danger. That was it exactly: it felt dangerous to be pregnant with him, and dangerous to be the one with all the responsibility for his safety. I’m sure we’ve kept him more of a baby than E was at this time, because we all remember, with a certain part of ourselves, all the time, how scary it was to get him here.

I can’t imagine telling him a baby sister or brother had died. He is so little. He is so innocent. How did we do it with E? We had to, so we did, and it was awful. We stumbled. We said stupid things. We scared her. We did the best we could.

I used to think: he’s not supposed to be here. But, of course, it doesn’t matter what is supposed or not supposed to happen. It matters what does happen. And to us what happened was this: she died; he lived.

And look at him. Just look at him. Three years old tomorrow. After they pulled him out of my belly, the nurse came to me, before I’d had a chance to have a really good look at him, because she knew I was anxious, and said: ‘he’s perfect. He’s a real peach.’ That he is.

Happy third birthday to my little peach. Oh, how we love you, Baby Brother.

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