December

It’s been so long since I’ve been here. Everything looks different. Autofill doesn’t send me right to this page anymore. The urgency to write is mostly gone. I miss it.

I’ve been staring at her picture lately. In the middle of marking papers last week, I got up from the table and went into the bedroom, took down the box containing her few things, and dug around until I found the pictures. I was shaking as I touched again the things I put away so long ago. When I saw the picture again, I was overwhelmed with tenderness. She was beautiful. I can confess now to having only seen before what was wrong with her in that picture. Was her head kind of squished looking? Was her colouring just too completely awful? Was she awful? Would people think she was awful?

When I looked at her again last week I saw only her beauty, her sweetness. My baby. I must have looked at her 10 times an hour for a few days. Where did it come from that urge to dig the picture out? Where was it before?

This is the worst time of year for me at work. So many papers to mark, courses to prepare for next term, papers of my own to write and revise, job applications to complete, and then all of the Christmas business and E’s birthday. I want a hole to crawl into. E and I read a story today about a rhyming rabbit and one of the illustrations showed its burrow and that is just exactly what I need. A hideout. I don’t need to be there all the time, but I need to know it exists. I think this blog used to be the equivalent of that hole.

Sometimes I still wonder how I am out there every day, making all our lives hold together, keeping going. So few people in my daily life understand how amazing it is, or how much of an effort it is.

I think I sometimes fool myself into thinking it is not that hard. I push and push and push myself because it feels like if I don’t keep pushing everything will fall apart, and I push the grief under, and then deeper under, so that I can get through, so that I can keep it all going, and then one day, I get up from the middle of it all and find her picture and just look and look and look.

 

 

To my big girl, whom I worry about the most

Last night in the bathtub I asked you and your brother to say three things you liked about the other. About your brother you said, “He’s here. He’s alive. He says funny things.”

This is yet another example of how hard it is to interpret the effect of your sister’s death on you. You said all this in a very blasé tone. If you did not have a dead baby sister, I’d be assuming you were just acting cool, like, “I don’t know what’s so great about him? He’s here, I guess.”

But you do have a dead baby sister and so I can’t hear “He’s here. He’s alive,” without thinking that you are imagining the alternative. If he weren’t here. If he weren’t alive. Like your other sibling. Like Anja.

You are inscrutable sometimes. I didn’t push to find out what you meant. I think I know. If I still think those things on a daily basis, why wouldn’t you?

You cried on Monday night. You begged not to go to school. On Tuesday, you sobbed and told me if you could just come to my office with me you would be so, so quiet and good. You’ve been having friend trouble. Same old thing as the last few years, with the same old group of girls. Today I went to talk to one of the school’s guidance counsellors. We talked for a bit about the problems going on and then I told him about Anja. I told him how it is hard for you sometimes to deal with stress except by getting angry, or loud, or excessively silly. I said, “I never know how much of what is going on is residual trauma, ongoing trauma, and how much is just her being a six-year-old and living through six-year-old things.” “But,” I added, “I just think if I am still so affected by Anja’s death, she must be too.” And he agreed with me wholeheartedly. “Oh, yes,” he said. And then he suggested we move you into a different class, what he thinks will be a more nurturing class, and away from the problem group. He said, “For a family that is living with the trauma that your family is, I think we should look at making a change.”

I feel both validated and concerned. Always concerned that I am making things more difficult for you by always bringing your sister into it. When I told your teacher this year, I thought, “do I really need to? Does it change how they treat you?” But ultimately I hoped it would make you feel safer. I hoped it would make your teacher understand something about you. And I worried that it would peg you somehow. I felt the same today: validated that the counsellor didn’t think I was crazy for bringing Anja into it and for suggesting that you would still be hurting, that the hurt could affect your comfort and behaviour; concerned that I will make it worse by talking about it.

Oh, I hate that. I hate that I second guess myself. I hate that I doubt myself. I hate that I think to myself for even a second: oh, it’s not really that bad, is it? Shut up and stop being such a big baby.

But you know what? This is the message that is sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly but always still pressed upon me. Get over it. It was a long time ago. She was only 3. It’s not her that is upset, it’s you and you’re making it worse for her.

Oh, my little-big E. I hope you like your new class on Monday. I hope I made the right decision. I hope I am doing right by you. In all of this experience, it is you I worry about the most. It is you, I think, for whom this is most unfair. Yes, Anja is dead and that is completely unfair, but she is not here to notice. You my dear, are here. You have to live with it. Your life was tremendously disrupted. Your sense of security was shattered at such a young age. And you live in a world that just doesn’t get that. I’m sorry, love.

We’ll keep trying.

The bewilderment of time

I remember that Catherine often used to use the word ‘bewildering’ to describe how she felt several years after the death of her sweet Georgina. I recognized that that was a good word, an apt description, but I also thought that it didn’t quite explain where I was then; my own brand of bafflement a couple years ago was a bit more virulent, and bewilderment seemed to me to have softer edges. These days, bewilderment is the exactly the right word. Today, for example, it is perfect. It’s a good friend of mine’s birthday, and I will forever remember how on this day in July 2011, I took a pregnancy test because R and I had a babysitter booked for the evening, and I had a feeling, and I wanted to know if I could have a beer or two while we were out. The test was positive. I was pregnant with Anja. I remember leaning on the windowsill, looking out over the park, and talking to my friend about her birthday, her twins who were only a few months old, the most recent pregnancy test, the hopes I had for this one. Four years later, her twins are riding bikes without training wheels and Anja has been dead for three and a half years. As I sit here, in a coffee shop, writing a paper about post-mortem photography for an upcoming conference in Amsterdam, a song comes over the speakers that was popular the winter and spring I was pregnant with M and I feel myself thrust back suddenly to the anxiety of those car rides to the hospital for ultrasounds and NSTs. And now here he is, two years old, and coincidentally we’ve been at the doctor for him today because he’s covered in some kind of viral rash, but he’s just fine – in fact, he’s perfect. He’s a delight. He astounds me every single day by the deceptively simple fact of being here.

It is bewildering. How have four years passed since that hopeful summer? How have two years gone by since the terrible strain of my pregnancy with M? My living kids have grown and grown and I have aged and our lives have changed in innumerable ways and it is utterly baffling: four years?? I remember coming home from the hospital without her and finding blogs written by women who were two, three, four, five years out and thinking: I can’t do this for that long. And if I can, I don’t want to still be blogging about it four, five years later. I want to be better. I am better. But also, there is no better. Time passes and passes and passes and she is still gone and I still miss her and I still wonder: how did this happen to us? How did we get here? And here is different now than it was at two weeks, two months, a year out; here is almost, but also not at all, ‘normal.’ And ‘normal’ is utterly bewildering. How did we get here? Where did you go, sweet girl? I know you were here. Four years ago today our story started, with me hanging out the window, soaking up the sun, hopefully telling one of my best friends: ‘I’m pregnant again. Cross your fingers for us.’

Sibling grief, three and a half years on

E is doing a daycamp this week while I work, and though last week she did it too and loved it, this week she’s been dragging her heels in the morning and saying she wants to stay home. This morning, after dropping M off at his daycare, E and I held hands while we walked the few more blocks to her camp and chatted. I told her that I can remember going to camp and having fun, but also sometimes just really wanting to be home with my mom and dad and brother and sister.

‘I only have a brother,’ she says, ‘except I also have a sister, but she will never be home with me.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘She won’t. I wish she could be.’

‘How could Anja die when she came out of your tummy? How could that happen?’ A pause. ‘She probably died because you ate too much chocolate.’

‘I don’t think that’s why, sweetie. Sometimes doctors don’t know why babies die. They did lots of tests and they couldn’t find a reason. She died inside my tummy, before she came out.’

‘How could doctors not know. I think you ate too much chocolate.’

My poor kid. Still trying to figure this all out.

‘Have you been thinking about Anja a lot these days?’ I ask her.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I hope when I grow up I have two baby girls.’ Pause. ‘How old would Anja be now?’

‘She’d be three. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? To have a three-year-old sister here to play with?’

‘Yes. That’s how old P is.’ I watch her think, wonder if she is thinking about all the things P can do and what it would be like to have Anja here, doing those things. She thinks for a long time, then says, ‘I can’t wait to go see Inside Out with E.’ E is the daughter of my babyloss friend, Andrea; they are the same age and so obviously derive comfort from each other. Just like us adults, they find comfort in the company of others who have experienced the death of a loved, longed-for baby.

‘Mommy, can we do something special after camp today?’

‘Yes, sweetie, we can.’

* * *

There is so much in that conversation. So much thinking, so much figuring out, so much worry and blame and wonder. She’s six.

She’s been a bit wild these days. I think camp is stressful for her. She has a friend there who she thinks is really cool and she tries to emulate her. She is an imitator, always trying to fit in with her environment. I worry that she’s trying to please whoever she happens to be with at any given time. I worry that this – at least in part – comes from feeling like she had to cheer us up after Anja died, like she has to be more because Anja died, that she has somehow determined that she needs to be what others need her to be. I worry too much. She’s a great kid. She’s wonderful. I will always worry, though, about what damage has been done to her through the experience of Anja’s death and our family’s bereavement and the crap crap crap attitude toward that bereavement of most of the world around us.

She gets easily anxious. M had a rash on his belly this morning and I took a picture of it and sent it to my mom, who is a nurse. I just wanted to know if she thought it was something that merited being kept home from daycare. He was not feverish, had a good appetite, was his usual cheerful self. I wasn’t worried about him. But the simple act of me photographing M’s tummy and asking Gran caused E so much anxiety, though I didn’t see it entirely until later. ‘He’ll be okay,’ I assured her over and over. ‘It’s just a little rash. You have them all the time, and you’re ok.’ Oh no, I wonder suddenly: does she worry about herself? She worries when any one of us is sick. She worries quietly.

She’s been so silly and wild lately. She’s tired from camp, she’s picking up on different behaviours from other kids, she needs a holiday just like the rest of us. But I wonder, too…there’s been something about these last couple weeks. There were forest fires burning nearby and the air and sky were full of smoke. Something like this, not as bad, happened three years ago, that first summer, six months after Anja died. I thought about those days last week while the smoke hung low over the mountains and park. Those July 2012 days were some of the worst, and they were worse for being unexpectedly so bad. The half year. And yesterday it was the 14th. Three and a half years exactly, and my body, always before my head, remembers. I’ve been dragging a bit, feeling overwhelmed. I bet she feels it, too, my girl, my first daughter. I complain constantly that the world does not recognize children’s grief, but I am guilty sometimes, too, of that fault: I wonder how often I am and don’t realize at all?

Sweet E. I am still fumbling through this. I hope I am not failing her too badly. I’m doing the best I can. I’ll keep doing it.

Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, our fourth without you. Your sister and brother are excited, E to give her dad the card she made in her next-to-last week of grade 1, M running around yelling ‘It Fawvver’s Day! It Fawvver’s Day eveweyone!” I made blueberry pancakes, and poured lots of extra syrup and laughed a lot. After, I stood at the window with my coffee and marvelled at how the trees in the park have grown so tall that over the last few years, we lose our ocean view in the summer. When you were here, we could still see the ocean past the trees.

Yesterday, your Gran and I were texting back and forth as she was sending me pictures of different pitchers wondering which one I wanted her to buy me. Then she wrote, “just heard from G.F. They’re having a baby shower on Saturday, can you make it?” These are old family friends. G’s mother died just after you did. I went to her funeral and cried and cried, for her and also so much for you. It was a release we didn’t allow ourselves after you died: ceremony, ritual, a community to say goodbye and acknowledge your life, the loss of you. I think about whether I have anything on next Saturday afternoon before I think about what it means to go to a baby shower. Another reminder of how long you’ve been gone, that I can even allow myself to consider it. In the end, I doubt I’ll go, but it wasn’t my first thought, this year. (Not going to a baby shower ended a long, important friendship for me last year, so this is a relatively new development.)

Yesterday afternoon, we went to the first birthday party of the little girl who lives across the hall from us. The party was in the park and there were so many babies there, one and two year olds. So many little ones toddling around, sitting sweetly on blankets, chasing bubbles. It didn’t bother me. I had a pang, an ache for you, my daughter who never turned one, never had a birthday party, but I didn’t feel jealous, or angry, or even really bewildered. I missed you, I noticed, I smiled and chatted with other mothers, I watched your sister blow bubbles and your brother chase them.

So, another Father’s Day without you. We will go and help at E’s school this morning where they’re putting in a garden, and we’ll have a picnic later with your grandmother and grandfather, and tonight your dad and I will watch the sun sink behind the mountains and the sky change colours and hold onto a bit of light even until we go to bed, and the sickle moon and the planets and stars will glow in that little bit of light and we will say to each other: imagine if she were here. Imagine if she were tucked into the bottom bunk in E’s room. Imagine if she had ever seen the sun set, the moon, the stars, the trees, the ocean beyond them, the mountains and their twinkling lights. Would she have liked blueberry pancakes? Would she have helped E make their blueberry faces? Would she have loved digging that garden? Would she have been a snuggler like her brother? A boss like her sister? A talker like them both? Who would she have been and what would she have liked and what would our lives be like with her here instead of gone, gone, gone where we miss her every moment even as our lives go on, busily, happily, and at last, almost even gratefully. This is the wonder of our lives: that we can live with so much sorrow and so much happiness all at once, that we had a daughter who we love with all our hearts, and about who we know so little.

But we know you were here, my girl. We know we wanted you. We know we made you part of our family as my belly grew and grew, and we planned a life with you, dreamed so many dreams for you and your sister, for all of us. We know we loved you. We know we love you still. We know we always will.

March

I don’t have anything special to say today. I have said it all before. I miss you. The neighbourhood gardens are full of daffodils. They bloomed early this year. In the morning, when we walk to school to drop E off, I try to notice them all. They’ll be gone soon, and I’ll miss them, too. They remind me so of you, that you were here.

I took M to playtime this morning and that little girl who was born the same day you died was there. I see her everywhere these days, as her brother goes to school with your sister. It doesn’t hurt the way it used to. It’s bittersweet, just like the daffodils, a reminder of what you might have been.

Yesterday, I read a post on Glow in the woods about guilt that made me remember that last day before I knew you were gone, the day you left. M is napping now, and I am alone in the living room, and it is so easy to imagine that it is 2012 again and you have just died, to remember the lethargy and shock of those days. And yet, those days also seem so terribly far away. I read a post the other day about how the raw grief is a place of contact. It’s so true. Some days I long for the kind of grief I used to feel, where it seemed I could still just about touch you. I knew in those few hours that I held you that I would forget so quickly exactly what you looked like and how you felt in my arms. I have never had the kind of memory that holds onto details like those, and I was right…they have mostly slipped away. When I close my mind I don’t see your face, but the idea of your face, the sense of my love for you and what I wanted your life, our life together, to be.

When I read that post about guilt, I felt compelled to respond even though I have been a fairly quiet member of that particular community of late. And the person who started the thread recognized my story, and wrote back saying that she’d been thinking of the daffodils in Vancouver that very morning. I don’t know if I can describe how I felt in that moment, reading those words. You are out there, my little one. Your life is known, your name, your story, remembered. If for no other reason, I am glad I have written all these words here. I said in the first post I ever wrote: these words are all for you. They are, but the longer I write here, the more they are also for all the other babies I have come to love over the years – so many, too many to list here. All those lives that mean something, that have touched my heart, and whose parents I stand beside, as we hold each other up. Your babies are remembered here, they are known, they are loved. I hate that I needed this space so badly, but it has come to seem in so many ways, too, like a gift.

My girl, my love, if you had been born nearer to your due date, born alive, you would be turning three at the end of this month – maybe even today. On the way home from school this afternoon, we’ll buy a bunch of daffodils, probably one of the last bunches we’ll find this season in the shops, and every morning until the last one is gone, I will nod to the garden daffodils, and wish on each one that I could see you, hold you, even just for one more hour, for a moment. But I will know, too, that you are remembered, and there is so much comfort in that knowing.

Family day

Monday was Family Day in British Columbia, a day off for E and M and I (R wasn’t off because he works for the federal government and this was a provincial holiday). The kids and I had a wonderful day together. We stayed in our jammies longer than we usually can on a Monday morning, we skyped with grandparents, we walked the rainy neighbourhood streets looking for worms, we bought supplies to make Valentine’s cards, we went to the beach when the rain turned to just a fine mist and spent half an hour digging furiously, trying to build our castle (with a moat and drawbridge, of course!) before it began to pour again. While M napped, E made Valentine’s cards for all the kids in her class, we read from her chapter book, curled up on the couch together, and then we made banana muffins. After M’s nap, we went outside again in the drizzling rain to run in the muddy field that is the edge of Stanley Park and our building’s backyard. I was aware all day of what a treat it was, what an absolute stolen pleasure to have this extra day, just me and my kids, my beautiful, hilarious, snuggly little goofballs.

I thought of her all day long, too. This is just how it goes now. Family day and one of ours wasn’t here. It was the first thing I thought when I woke up. I lay in bed and stared out at the mountains, dark against the lightening sky, which is what I do every night: stare at the mountains and remember the night I came home from the hospital with her dead inside me. That night, I saw a shooting star and someday, I know, I will see one again. (I am grateful for this view we have, from seven floors up and right at the edge of our busy city, the unobstructed view of sky and the tallest fir tree, and the North Shore mountains and their twinkly lights. Every single night I turn to that view before I fall asleep and I remember her and I know that one day I will see that shooting star again.)

I thought of her when E came crawling, sleepy and bed warm, long arms and legs, under the covers with me, and then when M started to stir in his crib beside us. He stands up and says, ‘Hi Mommy! Hi Mona!’ in his sweet little still-sleepy voice, his wild curls, which I can’t bring myself to cut, like a blown-out dandelion puff around his grinning face. I thought of her when we were at the beach, digging holes, and I had one eye out, always, for the perfect rock or shell to add to her jar. I thought of her when I let E have my phone, while M was napping, so she could look at old photos and videos and I heard my voice in videos taken around the time Anja was born and then before she died, while I was pregnant, and before that. (I wonder if anyone else hears the difference in my voice? It hurts me to hear my old self. It hurts so much to notice the before and after of it all.)

I think of her all the time. I think of her one hundred times a day. A bajillion times a day, as E would say. We carry on. We laugh. We love. We carry on. And we miss her. We think of her, all day long, a bajillion times a day, we think of her.

She is our family. She is our family, too, and we miss her.

Why we’re behind

I remember this same feeling last year. Taking E skating and moving haltingly around the rink with her while her friends whizz by. Last year she didn’t care. This year, she looks a bit wistfully after them, and tries a little burst of speed after they pass her by before she nearly tumbles and slows back down. She’ll get there. This will be the year she really learns how to skate and soon she’ll be keeping up just fine. She’s strong and coordinated and determined, if not terribly daring. I watch her notice that she’s behind and – as it so often does – my heart aches for her. She won’t realize that the reason she wasn’t taking skating lessons when all her friends did was because first, her mother was deep in grief, and then, holding on too anxiously to pregnancy with M to remember things like registration deadlines, and too scared to set foot on ice herself lest she fall and find one more way to lose a baby.

So, my biggest girl, you have some catching up to do and I’m sorry for that. Anja’s death was not something we move past; it is something that is woven into everything we do and there are so many different ways I notice its effects, especially those it has on you, whose childhood has been so terribly upset. But when those pangs strike me, the guilty feelings that rise up in me when your friends fly by holding hands, leaving you behind, I remind myself how much you have been loved, how much you are loved, and I hope that is enough. Most days, I think that love is the only thing we can count on. It has to be enough.

Excerpt from a journal entry, January 9, 2012

“I spent the afternoon reading about VBACs. I am starting to get very excited about meeting this baby. She’s so busy inside me and I’m getting so big, though I have still gained so little weight, which I find strange. I have to get to work on finishing this last chapter. Sometimes it is so hard to feel like there is an actual deadline in place; I feel like I have been pregnant forever and will remain pregnant forever. But no: a little human is on her way to disrupt our lives in an enormous way so it is really, really time to stop messing around and get things done while I still can.”

Three days later, she was gone. Just like that.

My little girl, gone.

My gone-girl.

The next entry is January 15.

“Anja Mary Herma J____ was born still last night, January 14, 2012, at 7:34 pm. She was perfect. She looked just like her big sister – same nose and lips. I need to write it all down, but not tonight. Tonight I just wanted to mark it here. She was ours. We loved her and wanted her and lost her and now we have to learn how to live without her. Last night I delivered her and held her in my arms for hours and sang to her and talked to her and kissed her and said goodbye. She is gone. She was ours and she is gone.”

These days are proving to be hard. Three years and right now, it doesn’t feel any easier at all, though I know it is, or at least, I am better at compartmentalizing, generally.

I keep thinking that line over and over: a little human is on her way, a little human is on her way.

I’m sorry, my girl. I’m sorry I didn’t know.

A new year

We had such a lovely winter break, your sister, your brother, your father, and I. We didn’t do much. We stayed in pyjamas for hours. We read lots of books. E and I beaded bracelets and painted pictures and E rode her new bike and on Christmas Eve we stayed up late and read The Night Before Christmas, and then on Christmas morning ‘Yanta,’ as M calls him had come and there were new toys to play with and papers to roll around in and so many good things to eat and family and cuddles and a great, great deal of love. And then there were rain walks, hunting for worms, and hot chocolate with marshmallows to warm up, and movie nights, and friends, and more pyjamas. We hunkered down, barely left the neighbourhood, filled our apartment with noise, and fun, and so much love. This morning I dropped your brother off at daycare and your sister off at school and then came home to the empty apartment to get my bag and car keys so I could head off to work, too. As I shut the door, I took a last look down the hallway, empty of all the noise and fun, and a grey light filtering through the curtains from the pouring rain outside, and my stomach sank. I miss them all. I miss the weeks of being all together. And I miss you. As I closed the door, finally, and turned the key in the lock, I could feel it all starting: January, the return to our hectic routine, and more so – so much more so – the beginning again, all over again, of the end of you. It’s really January, now. The start of a new year. Another new year without you.