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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Thinking about mental health

So there’s a thing going on in Canada right now on social media called #BellLetsTalk. It’s supposed to bring awareness to mental health issues and to raise funds. I have a Twitter account but I mainly use it for professional purposes and hesitated to post this there…but in the last hour of #BellLetsTalk, I’ve been feeling increasingly grumpy and have some stuff to get off my chest.

First, let’s be clear: grief is not a mental illness. But the people who ostensibly are there to help us are usually mental health professionals. I dealt with a few in the earlier years of grieving.

I remember the social worker who came to see us in the hospital. She had black hair and was wearing a creamy Aran sweater. She was quite thin, and she stood against a wall, her arms wrapped around her body, like she was trying to stay as far away as possible from us and to protect herself from us, too. She was timid, obviously frightened, and completely unreassuring. She told us about services like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, but discouraged us, saying, it’s all volunteer run and since it’s a Saturday…[trails off, casts eyes aside]. I was in too much shock to think much about this then, but I remember it all so clearly now. Her back pressed into the wall. Her arms tight around herself. Ok, yeah, it was fucking sad and traumatic, but surely a *mental health professional* can do better than that? Surely this wasn’t her first go around at a dead baby in the province’s busiest maternity hospital??

Next up: I was referred rather urgently to the post-partum unit at the hospital nearest me. I’d been told there was a six-month waitlist, but after maybe being a bit too open about my anger, I was suddenly fast-tracked. I had one appointment there. It was good. I like the counsellor. I wanted to go back. They said they would call to schedule another appointment, and they did, but they offered me one time, and when that wasn’t going to work for me….nothing. No other time offered. They hung up. They never called back. Sorry for the profanity but….the fuck??

Third round: the child psychologist. I wrote about her earlier. She told me children don’t grieve for siblings they never knew. Um…This blog is evidence to the absolute contrary. Idiot. That’s all I have to say about her.

Number four: the counsellor I saw, again at the province’s busiest maternity hospital, who berated me…who made me feel like a bad mom…because I hadn’t bought diapers for M when I was about 30 weeks pregnant. I know I wrote about her somewhere here, too. She was so concerned that I didn’t have these diapers: you know what? We live in one of the biggest cities in the country. There are 24-hour pharmacies. There are lots of places to buy diapers, and it’s easy enough to stop on the way home from the hospital, run in and buy diapers for a living baby. What’s not so easy? Confronting an unused box of diapers for a baby who died. Sorry, again, health care professional, but I don’t think making that particular decision to wait on diapers was the most crucial thing we could have spent our limited time together on.

Well, I guess there’s still some of that good old anger kicking around. Take that stupid corporate advertising-that-we’re-supposed-to-believe-is-pure-philanthropy. I feel better now. Goodnight.

Four

Four has been so different than any other year. I barely cried. Sometimes I wanted to but couldn’t because I was standing in front of one of my classes or waiting outside E’s class to pick her up. Sometimes I did everything I could to avoid crying – changed the radio if a certain song came on, dodged phone calls and texts. I was too busy to really let myself feel and I knew if I let a little bit of the sadness in, the rest of it would flood me. I don’t know…partly it was just easier this year, too. My body felt heavy, still feels heavy, and I can’t concentrate very well, want to eat sweet things and sleep. But it’s easier. Year one I was so anxious, pregnant with M and still in shock, I think; year two I was furious; year three I was befuddled and cried silently pretty much the entire week surrounding her death and birth days; this year, I soldiered through. Maybe I’ll pay for it later? I don’t really know what choice I had, at any rate: when people don’t understand one month after your baby died why you’re still sad, they sure as hell don’t get why you might need to sit back a little from your regular life four years after.

I wondered who would remember. Baby loss friends, that’s who. One other friend. Little Anja.

I had several conversations with both E and M about Anja. E and I had a long talk that night before Anja’s birthday. She was feeling sad and anxious, though she had trouble expressing it at first. We lay on her top bunk and chatted. I asked her if there was anything she was worried about and she said: How did Anja die? And I had to tell her, again, that we never knew how, that no one could tell us. ‘Was it my fault?’ she blurted out, suddenly. ‘Because I used to rest cups of cheerios on your belly?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘oh, no, no, no. It was not your fault. Never. Have you thought about this for a long time?’ And she said yes in a strangled voice and then rolled over and made upset, heavy breathing noises into her pillow. I reassured her, held her, stroked her hair. Remembered the little three year old she was.

After a while, we talked some more. She told me Anja would be one day younger than her classmate B’s little sister. If you’ve read here for a long time, you might remember once when I rejoiced because a little boy fell off a chair at the library and he and his baby sister, who was born when Anja died, had to be taken away by their mother. That boy is now in E’s class, and I see that kid all the time. The cruelty of it is she looks like she could be related to E and M. People tell me that all the time, not knowing. The curls, I guess. I thought of E listening to B tell her about his sister’s birthday and held her tighter.

She asked me if she could ask Santa Claus to bring Anja back to life. She said she wished she could break her leg so she could go to the hospital and people would ask her if there was something she really wanted and she would say she wanted Anja back. I know she doesn’t believe any of these things could ever happen, but she wished so many different times over the last few days that her sister was alive.

‘I wonder who her friends would’ve been?’ E asked. ‘I wonder what kind of birthday party she would’ve wanted?’ We looked at the picture of E on her fourth birthday that is posted to our fridge door. E in a pink dress, chubby arms, curls darkening already, her pink dress and tiara. A grown girl. Four years old.

And then there was M. After school yesterday, E and I went to pick up cupcakes. There were none that she thought were special enough so we splurged on a little cake, pink with white frosted flowers all over it and Happy Birthday in icing on top. M was so excited about the cake. ‘It’s Anja’s birfday!’ After a while he asked, ‘When is Anja coming over?’ ‘She can’t come over, sweetie, she died, remember? She was in Mommy’s tummy before you were born and then she died. She didn’t get to come home. She can’t come over because she died.’ ‘But it’s Anja’s birfday,’ he said, studying me seriously.

We looked at her picture together. ‘Aww,’ said E, though I know she is kind of grossed out by the fact that Anja was never bathed and cleaned up. ‘I wish we would’ve given her a bath. She was so pretty,’ I said. ‘Yeah, she’d be prettier with a bath,’ E said. R interjected: ‘She was beautiful. Just beautiful.’ ‘Little, little baby,’ M breathed.

Everyone has been a bit volatile. Lots of crying and frustration. Their worlds are out of sorts.

So, four. Mostly I just hated the day, wanted it to be over. It’s over now, and I don’t feel much better. But I don’t feel much worse, either.

All I kept thinking yesterday, besides about her sweet face and the weight of her in my arms, was that there will be another January 14 in every year I’m alive. I guess every one will be different. I guess I’ll find out.