Sunday, October 24, 2010

Still Life 365: Ritual

We lit our candle and then sat on the hotel balcony for a few minutes together. C, resentful that R got a candle and she didn't, dragged T back into the room for some coloring. Sibling rivalry from the great beyond.

Up above Cassiopeia climbed the night sky, tied to her chair, dangled upside down by the spiteful gods. I used to think she was a villain. Suddenly she's both victim and soul sister. So we were a little smug about our beautiful daughters...this hardly seems fair.

We actually missed our 7PM time slot for the October 15 Wave of Light. C wanted a treat after dinner which involved some difficult maneuvering of an ice cream cone, some angry, frustrated words (mine), and tears (hers). We aimed for 8PM instead and figured that central time was close enough. R was unlikely to get angry about the delay.

I sat alone with the candle for a half hour unable to focus my thoughts in any productive way. It should have felt more significant or more sad. My inner voice scolded me for not feeling R's presence in the flame. I just wasn't feeling it...

...until I saw the candle that another grieving mama lit for my girl. Thank you for remembering her, Jenn.


It's time for the Still Life 365 10 Questions. The topic this month is Ritual and I shall attempt to answer the following question.

Have you felt a connection to other cultures and religions and how they deal with death?

I've been reluctant to establish any sort of ritual for R because I know I won't stick with it and then I'll feel like a bad mother. Which, incidentally, is exactly how I feel about my inability to get C's picture taken on her birthday every year.

When Angie posted the topic for October, I wondered what I could contribute. Despite my cradle-Catholic heritage, I'm not good at rituals.

We haven't forgotten her. T's dad built a box to hold all of R's worldly possessions. Her remains sit in a little pink container on top of this box in our bedroom where we see her first thing every morning. But, it took me over a year to print up pictures for the empty frames I arranged around her. We added an LED candle on a timer recently but I haven't gotten around to changing the batteries despite the fact that it's been dark for several weeks. And the dust...oh, the dust.

I'm no more fastidious about R's things than I would have been if she'd lived. All of C's meaningful knick-knacks are still boxed up in her closet from the move because I haven't gotten around to installing shelves for them in her room. I think it's probably healthy that my bad mommyness is spread equally among my dead and living children.

I think about her every time I see a scrappy little tree growing from a crack in the sidewalk. If I find a pretty leaf or sparkly button in some unexpected place, I pocket it and bring it to her. We also include things that others send like the card from Angie. We don't buy things for her or decide what to get for her in advance. We only add things to her collection that arrive by chance.

I don't know if you can count something intentionally non-ritualistic as a ritual but, it seems to work for us.

I borrowed the idea from a place I used to visit when I lived in coastal Carolina. In the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort, NC, on the far north side of the property, behind the church, against the fence, is a large, flat marker. The words engraved on the marker are worn but still legible--Girl in a Cask of Rum.

The story is that her father was the captain of a ship and that she grew up missing him while he was away on one voyage or another. When she was 12-years-old she begged to go to sea with him. She wanted adventure. Her parents wanted her safe at home but eventually relented. Sometime during the voyage she took ill and died. The rest of the story varies depending on the tour guide. He either couldn't bear to dump her body into the sea or had made a promise to bring her home to her mother and so, had her body preserved in a cask of rum until she could be buried back on land.

I heard (and told) this story dozens of times during my time teaching on the coast and it always got a reaction. The listeners are invariably fascinated. They wonder about the logistics of preserving a body, how her mother reacted, what happened next. Once you preserve your dead daughter's body in a vat of alcohol, do you just go back to church on Sunday and blend in? Did the neighbors whisper this story to each other over the hedgerows? In a town full of pirates and transient sea-faring folk, did people just shrug and figure that it was none of their business? Maybe the death of a child always so startling that we all agree that the normal procedures don't apply.

The girl's marker is covered with trinkets and baubles. People come to see her and leave things that a 12-year-old girl might pick up and slip in a pocket. I'd imagine that most of the flowers and seashells are left by mothers and fathers who are heartbroken over this story but I've seen 13-year-old boys crawl around in the shrubs to find an azalea blossom to leave on her grave.

The contrast is a little startling, the spartan, white, clapboard of the Baptist church as the backdrop for this impromptu, pagan-looking shrine. Somehow, however, it seems like the only proper tribute for a little girl who died before her life really began.

So, I suppose that "Girl in a Cask of Rum" isn't an official culture or religion but that's what I have. I bring my daughter random, pretty objects because I think she would have appreciated them in life and my ritual is inspired by another little girl with an extraordinary story.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fool Me Once...Only Once? You're Clearly Not Trying Hard Enough

It was a lovely day toward the end of the school year. The students and I had hit a bit of a groove—a groove that is only really possible toward the end of a relationship when the stakes are lower. Spring had sprung, the end was nigh, and class had started to be more fun than work.

So, when my paper grading was interrupted by cries of, “Ms. O, you have to see this!”, I jumped up and trotted eagerly forth to see what grand teachable moment awaited on the other side of the bookcase—a spiderweb? A butterfly? A really cool drawing of a spiderweb or a butterfly?

It was a turd in a bucket.

The story of how the turd came to rest in the bucket is sort of long and twisty and maybe better suited to a blog about the dark, early days of charter schools and my views on adequate funding for public education so, I'll forgo the explanations.

The point is that I'm the sort of person who thinks that a group of giddy 13-year-old boys, the same 13-year-old boys with whom I had spent the greater part of the previous 9 months and had proven themselves capable of producing a stench that could melt the skin off your face, would get excited about a butterfly.

I am trusting and naïve. I also happen to think that a turd in a bucket is funny but that's beside the point.

If you tell me that I have to see something, I will come running to see it. If you tell me something is true, I will believe you.

C doesn't take after me in this regard. She's a natural skeptic and an accomplished liar. Last week, after viciously squeezing a younger playmate/rival's nose to avoid having to share, she told me that Baby X had kicked her first. I told her that there were many eyewitnesses who couldn't confirm her story. She shrugged and brazened it out, “Baby X is a bad kid.”

A bad kid! Sometimes I just have to pause and admire the set on my daughter.

She gets this talent from T, aka, Mr. Mommicked, who can BS with the best of them. Like most people who can spin a good yarn, he assumes that everyone else is full of shit. Even when he sees a butterfly, he suspects it might actually be a turd in disguise.

And so, his first reaction upon reading this post was to check the date on the linked article and to note that the story was likely an April Fool's prank.

Turds. Turds! (shakes fist angrily at unsympathetic sky)


I've been ruminating on Mel's post refuting the "Breast is Best" campaign over at Stirrup Queens. I'm just a hack at this blogging stuff, so this isn't any sort of academic or scientific rumination, I'm just trying to figure out my own thoughts on the topic.

My only experience as a mother is well outside the norm. When I try to insert myself into conversations about pregnancy/birth/baby stuff with other women I make all sorts of weird blunders. I talk about death and NG tubes and how much newborn C's cheekless butt reminded me of a hairless cat. But reading Mel's post about the milk that never came in and the unwelcome, ill-informed advances of lactavists made me think that I may actually have a worthwhile contribution to a discussion that I usually avoid.

As the proud owner of one producing boob and the less-than-thrilled owner of one deficient boob, I feel like I have a special view of the world--one person with two completely different perspectives.

Lefty and Righty were raised in the same house under the same circumstances. They're more or less symmetrical. They were both present for all stages of the pregnancy and every step of our painful breastfeeding journey. But, they couldn't be more different from each other in terms of milk production.

Because I see butterflies instead of turds, I believed the LC when she suggested herbal supplements and pumping between feedings to improve my dismal production. When C was big enough to co-sleep, we piled into bed and tried nursing through the night. After 4 months of constant cajoling, Lefty managed to produce 4 oz....once...during a pumping session following an 8 hour gap in feedings. Righty never, ever got above 1.5 oz.

Same body, same regime, same baby, major difference.

I suppose it turns out that my entire life is a bit of a controlled experiment—half of a uterus, half of the expected fallopian tubes, half of a set of functioning breasts. Half of my children. The view from both sides. Sappy and had.

3 years ago, however, I had no perspective on the issue. I was in a desperate struggle to keep C alive and healthy and to hold onto my own sanity. Even though I was surrounded by friends and family who supported my quixotic lactation quest and agreed that supplemental formula-feeding was necessary, I was still terrified that I was damaging my surviving daughter. It probably didn't help that C's identical twin, R, succumbed to NEC which can be aggravated by formula-feeding--information that is mentioned in all of the materials I read about breastfeeding preemies.

I know dozens of women who successfully breastfed, a scant handful of women who tried and failed, and an even smaller set of women who tried, failed, and are willing to talk about it. While I was muddling about trying to get Righty to do anything useful at all, I read and studied and landed at the bizarre conclusion that I was doing something wrong (with Righty but not with Lefty). If I couldn't even believe myself when I told myself that I did everything I could, I can see why some firebrand lactavist might have trouble believing me.

I think that some lactavists really suffer from a lack of tact (does that make me a tactavist?). I completely agree with them that breast is best. During the 2-3 days when Lefty was really on her game, it was friggin' glorious. I felt like some sort of wizard. Breastfeeding was easier, cheaper, faster (breastmilk tastes way better than formula...ahem). It's just better in every way. But what kind of crappy person celebrates her ability to breastfeed by lording it over women who are struggling or just plain can't?

Advocacy is fine. Boldness is fine. Casting formula-feeders as misinformed women who got railroaded into bad decisions by big pharma is both rude and wrong, sort of like squeezing Baby X's nose and then calling her a bad kid to cover your own ass.

Of course C was partially formula-fed...


At some point in early 2006 I trotted eagerly forth toward parenthood. I'd heard great things about pregnancy and babies. I had grand plans. I was going to trust my body and do the best for my baby. I expected butterflies because that's all anyone ever talks about. When my personal experience with parenthood turned out to be a little more like a winged turd, I blamed myself for failing my daughters.

Fortunately, somewhere toward the bottom of my downward spiral I read about a woman named Elizabeth Goodyear. She had been born prematurely, her twin had died, her parents kept her alive with whiskey and cream fed through an eyedropper. As of 2008 she was 101 years old.

A less trusting sort might assume that this is a turd in disguise, maybe even a ruse put together by the Evil Formula Empire. I prefer to think it's a butterfly.

In the article Ms. Goodyear says, “I think I only remember the amusing things; I don’t remember any depressing things. I think I just put them out of my mind. I know everybody has things that they want to forget, but I don’t even have to forget. I just don’t remember.”

I think I'm going to take her advice.