Thursday, December 29, 2011

Five Months

Christmas is not a huge deal at our house. Most years, I don't put up a tree. It's not a bah, humbug kind of thing. It is a simple question of sanity.

When Sam was two, and I was raising him alone, I bought a tree with him in my arms, tied the tree to the top of my car while Sam cried in his car seat, and pushed the tree into my small one bedroom apartment with one hand while carrying an unhappy, tired Sam with the other. Once the tree was in  our apartment, the needles already starting to fall all over the floor, I decided that my peace of mind around Christmas is more important than any tree.

That decision has informed my (minimal) Christmas traditions for the past 14 years. I only do the theatrics of Christmas to the point where I can still be sane. Which, for most years, has meant a pretty minimal event. Usually, in lieu of a tree, I have bought a nice houseplant, put some Christmas decorations on it, purchased a few presents, and called it good. Some years I hang a few lights.

Sam still loves Christmas.

This year, I put up a tree. David carried it down the block and helped me fix it in the stand.

When I woke on Christmas morning, FIVE MONTHS was the first thing that blared in my mind. I just stayed in bed, as I usually do these days, and thought about Nathaniel.

Sam came to rouse me at 9:30, He was excited to open his presents.

He was supposed to be in Chicago with his father this year for Christmas. After weeks of agony, I decided that I just couldn't handle him being away for Christmas day this year. Anniversary days bring the despair anew, and I could anticipate that having Sam in Chicago might make my Christmas even more desperate.

Had Nathaniel lived, had he been a normal, healthy baby, it would have been much easier to send Sam to Chicago. I would have been busy with my baby. I don't know if I would have had the time or energy to put up a tree or hang lights on the house because I would be nursing Nathaniel and washing diapers and feeding myself and bonding.

When I finally got out of bed on Christmas morning, I wondered if I had slept on my shoulder wrong, because I had a sharp pain in my back, just under my left shoulder blade, behind my heart. It took me a few minutes to recognize this location and pain as the same one that haunted me for months just after Nathaniel died. It's the pain that catches my breath and keeps me from taking a full inhale. The one my massage therapist has pressed and poked and kneaded while I sob on the table.

On Christmas day, with Nathaniel five months gone, this point was RAGING.

I've wondered if it's a shard of my heart, maybe lodged next to a nerve. Heart shrapnel.

We opened presents. I made quinoa pancakes. Sam was happy.

David and I went back into our bedroom. I still couldn't fully breathe. I looked at Nathaniel's pictures, my beautiful, beautiful baby, sitting on the dresser still full of his clothes, and I started wailing. David held me for a while and just let me cry.

After, my back felt a little bit better, and I could breathe a little bit more easily.  

I thought about going to a yoga class, just to have the ritual, and to be present with myself. But the prospect of opening the front door, walking out of it, and driving to the studio was too overwhelming, and I felt so alone at just the thought of it.

So we all stayed close. A lot of sitting on the sofa, reading, and watching a bit of TV. Waiting for the minutes to tick by. My crying intermittently. We all watched Love Actually Christmas night, David with his arm around me, Sam next to me with his feet on my leg. I was held like this, and I cried intermittently, randomly.

On the morning of December 26th, Sam left for Chicago.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Festival of the Lights

Tonight I went to see the Festival of the Lights at the Grotto. The last time I was there was on October 25th, three months to the day that Nathaniel died.

In October, they were just starting to put up all of the lights for the big Christmas season. Tonight, when I looked in the program, I read, "The Grotto, also known as The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, was established 87 years ago. . ." I nearly laughed out loud.


I'm not Catholic. I was raised Mormon. For about the last 10 years, my spiritual practice has been mostly informed by Buddhist principles, but I've never formally taken refuge. Since Nathaniel died, I have been grasping for anything that makes sense.

Nothing makes sense. Especially in the first few months. Right after Nathaniel died, for the first time in my life, I felt as though God Hates Me. That is the voice that pounded in my brain, in the heaviness, the skin-of-lead, state of complete despair that held me. I would try to recall my beliefs before Nathaniel died, and roll my eyes at my own innocence.

There was (is) no resonance with peace.

There were (are) moments when the pain would ease, but there was (is) no real refuge.

My mind jumps around uncontrollably from this to that to this to that, forging new mental pathways that never existed before. When Nathaniel died, my mind splattered like a bug that hit a windshield.

For months, I had no capacity to follow my breath or find the present moment. Torment. Torment. Torment. For months.

Now, it's getting a little better. I do have moments, very briefly, when I can be present. I can meditate, but I might start to just cry. My face sometimes contorts into the gnarly mask of grief while I'm just sitting there.

I'm still searching.  My husband was raised Jewish, but he's about as Jewish as I'm Mormon. I have the email of a rabbi who, I hope, can help me mark and process the grief. Understand the world of loss. Tearing my clothes? Yes, that makes sense. Is it too late to do that?

After Nathaniel, I can relate to Mary when I see the images of the pieta. I know exactly what it feels like to hold my dead son in my arms. Images of a bleeding heart. Yes, I can relate to that, too. I carry one in my chest. 

I guess that reading that sentence in the program struck me because, in that moment, it illuminated my changed self. Two words, put together, that have a whole new meaning for me: sorrowful, and mother. I knew the word sorrowful as one thing six months ago, and something new now. It's like I need a different word completely. Or a different language.

And then there's the word mother.  

Put together, the words mean something different still.

Sorrowful mother. Yes.

Mid December

Last night, I attended our local support group Christmas program for lost babies. It's a beautiful service: songs, poems, and a candle lit for the name of each baby.

While we were waiting for the program to begin, my mother was telling me about her grandmother (my great-grandmother). My mother never knew her: she died when my grandfather was 16. But when my grandfather was born, his sister, who was 3 years old at the time, was sick in the other room with dyphtheria (a word so unused that the blogger spell check does not have it in the lexicon. But I checked the spelling. Twice).

The last word that his 3 year-old sister said was "baby" when she heard my grandfather's first cry.

My grandfather lost three siblings in all. My great-grandmother had three children who died.

During the program, I cried for Nathaniel. I cried for my great-grandmother, and wondered how in the world she made it through. I cried for my grandfather, too. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011


I used to be a yoga teacher. I taught people how to breathe.
I was that kind of yoga teacher.
In my most tranquil, calm, yoga teacher voice.

Breathe deeply, smoothly, and evenly.

I would say,

Observe the quality of your breath.


Are there any points
in your breath cycle
where you feel a hesitation?

Or a pause?

Don't worry about trying to control the breath.

Simply allow your natural breath to move through you.

As you breathe, notice if your breath cycle changes,

or if it stays the same.

Notice the length and quality of your inhale

Notice the length and quality of your exhale

Is your inhale longer than your exhale?

Is your exhale longer than your inhale?


I said these words while I was pregnant, before I knew that Nathaniel was going to die. I sat in the front of the yoga studio and said these words. Or I would slowly walk around, and watch students as they focused, sometimes too intently, trying to find their breath. I would watch frustration arise and fall in my students' bodies. I would watch awareness shift from the world outside to inner worlds. Brows furrowing. Sighs. Facial muscles relaxing. Twitching. Fidgeting. Restless minds. Restless bodies. Slowly unraveling toward slow, deep, even breath.

I could teach about breath and abide with my own breath. I felt content in my smooth, even inhale and exhale, mine from years of practice and training. As I taught, I would touch the shimmer of the present moment. My hand rubbed my swollen belly. Nathaniel rolled and kicked.    

I started maternity leave from the yoga studio the first week of June. On June 13th, I first learned of Nathaniel's diaphragmatic hernia. On June 14th, we learned of Nathaniel's brain malformations. About June 24th, we learned of the chromosomal abnormality that informed it all, and that he would not likely survive for long outside of the womb. He was due to come July 8th. 

After Nathaniel was born and died, my own breath was one of the first places I started to understand my loss. A completely new world. A new landscape. I saw and felt it with a sharpness on my inhale: the essence of life skimming across shards of broken glass.

Yes, here, there is a new hesitation, a new pause. A deep breath is not available. There is a sharp pain, about 2/3 the way up. I have to stop. 

And my exhale has a hollow, whistling quality. Like through the broken window of a vacant, haunted house.



Like an injured animal.

God hates me.

And for no reason. All is well. Everything is peaceful. Nathaniel went peacefully.

But according to my breath, the elephant, animal part of me, all is not well. My clinical mind can not reason with my breath. The nerves that carry my animal self scream WHERE'S MY BABY WHERE'S MY BABY WHERE'S MY BABY a million times in an hour. My spirit knows that he's gone. 

When Nathaniel died, he couldn't breathe. He came out, and he couldn't breathe. Given his prognosis, we decided ahead of time that we would not interfere with his breath, and that if it did not come naturally to him, if he could not do it, we wouldn't force him.

He told me that he didn't want us to stick a tube down his throat. He told me that he didn't want to be poked.

I nag my 16 year-old living son relentlessly. I nag him to do his homework. Clean his room. Eat his vegetables. Pick up his clothes. Talk to me. I love it. I love nagging him.

But I did not nag Nathaniel for a moment. I didn't say, come on kiddo. Try. You've got to try. You've got to put a little bit of effort into this world here. Come on, little one. Do it for me. Try to breathe. Try.

He came out and I held him, skin-to-skin, and I told him how proud I was that he made it out alive. He couldn't breathe, and I only told him that I was so proud of how strong and brave he was for making it here alive. And the fact that I didn't nag him still bothers me. My clinical mind understands that, by not nagging him, we practiced ahimsa, or non-violence. And the truth is, no matter how much we tried to get him to breathe, he probably would have never been able to get it going on his own. But my animal, mothering self protests, rages, and wails to *make him breathe*. 

My breath is still not the same, and I'm starting to realize that it may never be.  A massage therapist works with my ribs, and tells me that in Chinese medicine, grief is held in the lungs. I can take a deeper breath, but I have needed outside help and hands other than mine to push on my lungs and manipulate my ribcage. 

I still have not been back to the yoga studio.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Drawing each other

This is the sketch my classmate made of me. It makes me feel better. This is how I prefer people to see me. I remember, here, that there are moments of something other than despair.

Contour drawing

Before a single cup of tea, before I took care of the dogs and the chickens, I carved out time to finish my drawing homework. Otherwise, I knew it would not happen.

I sat in front of the mirror with a sharpie pen and traced the outline of my body. I anchored my pose by placing my left elbow on my left knee, exactly the way the teacher had demonstrated, and covered my left (non-dominant) eye with my left hand. I was not supposed to lift my pen from the mirror (but I did, a few times). When I came to an area that was darker, I filled that in more with sharpie scribbles, and left open the places where there was more light. With the pen, I followed the folds of my worn and dirty bathrobe. My hair hung down in messy tangles.

When I was finished with the sketch, which took about 15 minutes, I transferred it onto a piece of tracing paper, and put it away.  Now: tea, chickens, dogs, children to school, me to class.

We start each drawing class by hanging our homework on the board in the front of the classroom, and then we look at and comment on each others' work. I nearly laughed today, and I wish that I could have taken a picture of my self-portrait next to my classmates' in order to show exactly what I'm talking about.

The first thing I noticed was that I had simply done the homework wrong. I was supposed to draw an outline of myself, and not do any value drawing, or shading in the parts of myself that were darker. My classmates all had these nice outlines of themselves, like a coloring book page of open, simple lines.

Nice comments all around, it is that kind of drawing class, with some clear direction and instruction from a skillful teacher.

When it came to my drawing, which people liked, these were some of the comments:

"It looks so intense, like there is so much anger."
"It's like you're about to jump out of the page."
"There's something there, like despair?"
"Something like, don't look at me, don't talk to me, I just want to hide."
"You're trying to push something away, like no, not one more thing."  

And I nearly, nearly laughed. Yes, I see it. And then I nearly, nearly cried.

The image is from before the day even started.

No one in my class knows about Nathaniel.