Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Brute Squad

This was intended to be a Father's Day post as a tribute to T but I'm a few days late.

Over the past few days I've read several eloquent posts on other blogs reflecting on the particular challenges to babylost fathers. It's no surprise that the common theme among these bloggers is the lack of space granted grieving men. While mama deals with the particular physiological, hormonal, and emotional effects of birth and loss, dad is frequently left to handle administrative tasks with a stiff upper lip. This makes sense at first. After all, life does go on and someone needs to keep things together. Over time the division seems less practical but dads are still expected to be somehow less heartbroken than moms.

This situation was exaggerated in our case because T tends to operate on high alert even under perfectly ordinary circumstances. During any type of emergency he's like a thoroughbred twitching and thrashing in the starting gate while I'm more of a fat, shaggy pony merrily grazing the infield. When R died, T made the phone calls, answered the questions, and handled the necessary arrangements. I snuggled C and forgot my ATM PIN number...repeatedly. Confronted with a challenge he batted it down with alarming expediency and dragged me forward through the muck. Woe to anyone who got in his way or said anything unpleasant to me. March of Dimes telethon operators, insurance company customer service representatives, MaryPIRG canvassers--all bobbed in his wake as he went about the business of surviving.

A week after C was discharged from the hospital T went back to work and I was left to face the world of a new parent without my bodyguard.

Most new parents come home with the baby, spend a couple of days entertaining guests and then get down to the business of learning how to be parents. Visitors offer advice, share stories of their own children, demonstrate techniques for swaddling, bouncing, burping—in short all of the things that new parents need to master. When the proceedings also involve mourning the loss of a baby things are less clear-cut.

C was easily the tiniest baby most of our friends and family had ever seen and her size alone filled up hours of potentially awkward silence. Her immature digestive system was a veritable symphony of whooshes, squeaks, and grumbles—a tiny one-woman gas-powered band. Baby farts, however, can only do so much to mitigate the pain and permanence of death.

I have a vague recollection of carrying on many intensely cheery, primarily one-sided conversations with surprise guests. Talking incessantly seemed to be the best way to keep my panic at bay—panic about the microbes they carried into C’s sanctuary, panic that they wouldn’t leave in time for my next pumping session, panic that they’d start asking questions and T wouldn't be there to provide his steady answers. Determined to seem like the same old me and stubbornly convinced that crying would just make visitors linger I charged ahead like a demented cruise ship director sharing priceless conversational gems --“Have you seen R’s urn yet? We thought pink would be nice for a girl.” “One healthy baby is more than some people get.” “It’s probably better this way, she was very sick.” “Maybe it’s so that my Dad could have a grandchild too.” These statements sound completely insane to me now but, at the time it was better to hear them coming out of my own mouth than risk hearing them come out of somebody else’s.

Without T there to help me maintain my equilibrium I felt drained and exhausted by even the briefest visit. I wanted nothing more than to hand the burden over to him for a while so that I could rest.

Recently I got to thinking that there has to be a better way for couples to navigate this type of loss and grief and I came up with the notion of a babylost Brute Squad.

If the hospital had sent us home with a Brute, T wouldn't have had to take on any unpleasant tasks. The Brute would have sent canvassers packing, the Brute would have answered the phone and taken messages, the Brute would have dispatched the priest who was a little too happy that our daughter had gone to meet Jesus. In short, the Brute would have made it possible for T to grieve beside me instead of dashing ahead to remove any obstacles from my path.

Sometimes I imagine quitting my current job and starting a Brute-for-hire service with T--surely the MacArthur Foundation would give me a grant. We could offer a couple of different packages. The Basic – we camp out on your porch and function like bouncers. The Premium – we follow you around like bodyguards and terminate any conversations that veer into undesirable territory The Deluxe – we masquerade as you and pretend to be perfectly calm, ‘brave’ people for the benefit of your friends and family.

Any takers?

Sunday, June 14, 2009


People are strange. We’re terrified of high-intensity deaths—lightning strikes, terrorist attacks, plane crashes--and cavalier about commonplace dangers—car wrecks, lousy air quality, obesity via high-fructose corn syrup. Everyday perfectly logical, high-functioning people engage in notably risky activities (left-hand turn on yellow, anyone?) with barely a thought while the slightest mention of the swine flu practically incites a riot.

When someone is killed in a rare but incredibly sensational event we’re completely flummoxed and left running about like ants confronting a sudden break in the line. “Why?” we cry, pleading to the heavens, “Why did this happen?” Then we run to the water cooler and recount the details for anyone who will listen as if repeating them a couple times will make the whole thing more plausible.

It’s the unexpected and horrific that activates the fear centers in our little monkey brains—as if people who die spectacularly are somehow more dead than those who go out with a whimper. We want explanations, assurances that it isn’t going to happen to us and we will be spared the insult of a ‘bad death.’

Last night, scrolling through FB, I noticed that a friend posted about the tragic death of a baby. My friend didn’t know the baby but she was horrified by the circumstances--baked in a hot car in a parking lot near my friend’s home after his father forgot to drop him off at daycare.

This particular scenario is one of my waking nightmares and I echoed her sentiment in my mind. What those poor parents must be going through. My heart clenched in my chest and I prepared to type a sympathetic reply.

Then I scrolled down a little further and saw that she believes everything happens for a reason…but not this.

A memory percolated about in my mind before rising to the surface and I clicked open my email. I scrolled back through time in search of my quarry. There it was—a message from this very same friend assuring me that there was a reason for R’s death.

The monitor disappeared behind a red fog. How dare she mourn the death of some stranger’s baby and dismiss my baby’s death with some tired bromide about reasons.

Both babies suffered horribly. Both babies died. There is no difference. There is no explanation. There is no reason.

My immediate response was to send the message back with a self-serving, officious reply—something that emphasized my hard-won dead-baby wisdom (as if it’s some sort of treasure) and scoffed at her naivete—something that would allow me to pass the burden to someone else for a while.

I didn’t send the message. I didn’t comment on her post.

Her reaction is perfectly reasonable.

In order to spare ‘them’ the agony T and I frequently downplay the terrifying, graphic details of R’s death. Pruned down to the trunk and essential branches, the narrative is nothing more than an unfortunate but clean series of medical mishaps. R’s final hours sound almost pleasant—surrounded by people trying to save her--soothed to sleep in a quiet, dim-lit room in her father’s arms.

I’m glad my friend still has her strangeness. I’m glad she can still be horrified and search for reasons. I wish I didn’t know the truth.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Looking Ahead

Today I drove past "R's Playground" and saw a girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old, playing alone on the swings.

When we donated the playground equipment in R's memory our idea was that we would be able to see happy children doing all of the fun things that R couldn't. Seeing this girl, just on the cusp of her teenage years, reminded me of the milestones that R would miss and that C would have to meet alone.

During my pregnancy I was thrilled to be having twin girls. Growing up I had always thought that a twin would make life easier. Pathologically shy and introverted, I longed for a partner who could see me and accept me exactly as I was. I pictured my daughters lying in bed at night sharing secrets in the dark or sharing clothes or supporting each other through the challenges that were sure to come.

For all I know the girl on the playground could have been waiting for her friends or just enjoying some alone time in the sunshine but I can't help thinking that she was lonely.

And I worry that C will be lonely without her sister.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


When I was younger and considerably more carefree my friends and I would make up words that we felt were missing from the English language. These creations corresponded to the challenges and trivialities of our days and then found their way into our everyday use.

Several of them were developed at the outdoor education center where I worked immediately following college and are fittingly British schoolboy humor-ish. Spluff – when the tide is rising and comes to just-barely crotch level. Lunx – time between two events that is empty but too short to be filled with anything other than ass-sitting. Congweff – doing something (ahem) 4 times in a 24 hour period. I met my husband around this time and he brought a word of his own to the conversation—tamardiggan – finishing a long and arduous task, normally shouted triumphantly.

These were the words of my youth--the language that was needed to capture and codify our exuberance.

Since R died I’ve felt the need to create more new words, maybe even a whole language, to capture the new reality.

Out here in the grieving parent blogosphere the wordsmiths are hard at work, twisting our surprisingly optimistic modern English to fit these new purposes (since when does awesome only apply to things that are overwhelmingly good?) A lot of work has been done on new adjectives to harness knowing rage – craptastic, suckitude, fucktacular. I use all of them frequently but haven’t been able to make any of my own contributions. Compared to most of the folks writing on the subject of loss and misery I’m quite the hack but, I don’t think that’s entirely the problem. Our situation is fairly unique, even in these circles--thus, the lack of words to describe it.

What do you say to someone simultaneously having the most amazing and most horrid day of their life?

What is the name for a twinless twin?

What is the word for missing someone whom you never really met?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

And the hits just keep on coming...

One of the things that sustained me through bedrest, premature delivery, the NICU, and my high stress maternity leave was the supportive group of folks back at the office. My colleagues, and more specifically, my supervisor, ran interference on administrative tasks, helped with errands, sent concerned emails, and just generally 'got it.'

When I returned to work after a seven month absence (most of it courtesy of leave donations) I felt comfortable in my newfound semi-catatonic state. People were patient with my shiny new lousy temper and my complete lack of short-term memory.

When I decided to leave, my supervisor, W, did everything he could to help my transition to the new job. It wasn't exactly the most polite thing to do--take an extra 3 months of leave and then split within weeks of returning to the office but W understood and supported my decision.

I found out today that W's wife is severely ill. The prognosis isn’t good but the illness is treatable and they are surrounded by a supportive group of friends and family who have already mobilized.

W and his wife are the very able and loving parents of two young children and just overall stellar people.

If you happen to swing by here and read this, please direct a prayer or a positive thought toward them tonight.

I'm constantly reminded as I wade through my 'after' that families all over the world are just departing their 'before' and I wish I could do more to help.