Monday, January 30, 2012

i bet we've been together for a million years

I've been mulling over the questions about family posed by the Glow contributors. I haven't finished mulling but, alas, January is almost over. The muddle below is what passes for my response-

Here's my alternate theory...

I picture them all in a drab waiting room with shoddy overhead lighting and molded plastic chairs. The doors all have that wire mesh glass like you'd see at a junior high school. Actually, it looks almost exactly like the area outside my junior high principal's office (not that this law abiding citizen ever spent much time at the principal's office).

This is the anteroom to the Great Beyond, brought to you by a childhood with plenty of TV watching. New arrivals take a number and wait for it to be called. A nebbishy guy in an ill-fitting suit takes your ticket, gives you a once-over decides if you dissolve into the cosmos, go on to your afterlife, or get sent back to occupy a new body until you've earned your pass. In one corner there's an electronic crawler announcing the numbers and the upcoming destinations for the detached souls.

My Dad was never good at waiting. He'd drive 20 miles out of his way to avoid sitting in traffic even though it saved no time because it felt less like waiting. His last words to us before he lapsed into unconsciousness were, "let's get going."

I imagine him taking his ticket and pacing around, ignoring protocol and approaching the 'decider' behind the counter. He'd shove his way to the front and ask if there wasn't some way to make the process go faster. "Nope. Usually takes a decade or so. Why don't you have a seat and watch the announcements," they'd say. He'd scowl in reply and stalk back to the seating area.

A whole year he waited and then he saw it. His daughter's name on the crawler. Her baby waiting to be born. Too perfect! We can double down.

I can see him running toward the counter and jumping over it, leaping through the doorway. Back to his family.

The decider didn't even look up. He just shrugged one polyester-clad shoulder and heaved a small sigh. It happens all of the time and they always come back.

Some things can't be rushed.


I can't really think about R and grief and family without thinking about my Dad. When he died I felt like the universe had punched me in the stomach so hard that I doubled over. Then, not quite two years later, while I was still bent over catching my breath, the universe decided to finish the job by kneeing me in the face.

The punch in the gut was a surprise. And though the universe has an impressive knee, that second blow to the face wasn't a surprise. I'd already lost my trust. I'd also already learned the ways that you have to toughen up when you're grieving a loss. Two years of that awesome post-death advice that everyone loves to dispense (because they learned so much when their cats died). I was tired of being sick and tired.

When the universe took my daughter I barely made a peep.

It's one thing to listen to people compare Dad to a dead cat. He'd probably think it was sort of funny. But I knew that I'd have to remove everyone who made similar comments about R from my friend list forever. And, at least a small part of me suspected that I'd recover eventually and would still like to have some friends. So, once that initial wave of mind-obliterating sadness and terror passed, I focused on C and barely spoke about R.

Friends and neighbors would come to visit and I'd greet them at the door, hands full with some contrived task. Given that I had a newborn and a 24-hour pumping schedule, it wasn't too hard to run them off. If they stayed, I talked about C or the trumped up chore that was consuming me or the weather. Some of them would persist and sneak in a story about cat grief. But I never started it because I was damned if I was going to cry in front of these people who wanted to pretend to understand.

Judging from the confused looks on their faces when I stonewalled them, I can tell that they wanted to talk about her. They probably needed to talk about her. But I needed silence and the complete lack of doubt and regret that goes with it.

Sadly, I extended the same silent treatment to my family.

After Dad died, it had also been two years of long, depressing phone conversations with my mom and two years of logistical work filling the hole that he left. The initial burst of togetherness that his death brought to our family wasn't sustainable. At first we treated grief like any other challenge. We'd work hard. We'd be gracious. And it would pass.

But it doesn't pass. You say the words at the funeral and send the thank you notes. You remember the good times. You smile through the tears. You help Mom with the paperwork and the home repairs. But it's hard work. And it's neverending work. And I knew that I didn't have the energy to get back in the trenches with my family and go through the same drill again. Frenzied togetherness followed by the collective realization that this is forever, followed by the sad, silent hopelessness that drives everyone deep inside of themselves to contemplate the temporary nature of existence.

And the anger. And the theories about what we could/should/would have done differently. And the cold, creeping onset of acceptance that feels more like defeat.

I'd thought that I was bringing a ray of light back to our family. The first grandchild born after his death and, glory hallelujah, there were going to be two of them! That would put an end to this tragic mess.

When I remember that brief feeling of victory over death and, does it sting.

I would have been more than glad to celebrate with my family but I couldn't run out to meet the sadness I'd caused them head-on.


C is very much my Dad's granddaughter. When they brought her to me for the first time, wrinkled and red and angry, I laughed at the resemblance. Looking at the pictures later, my aunt said that it reminded her of Dad's look of suppressed rage during our mid-80's family trip to Epcot. R was too swollen with fluid during her 12 days of life to get a good look at her features but I know that it was there too. T's eyes and build and hair but Dad's scowl and Dad's smile.

It extends beyond the smile all the way down into her where her personality is stamped into the center of each cell. When C is in a hurry (and she's always in a hurry) she claps her hands together just like Dad used to when he coached my tee-ball team--CLAP Let's go! CLAP CLAP.

Death had been trying to catch Dad for years before he finally succumbed. Sophomore year of high school spent home sick with unexplained internal bleeding, a car accident and a traumatic brain injury at 16, countless subsequent car wrecks, a horrible, yet hilarious, run-in between a vacuum cleaner and his necktie. He'd already had his last rites twice by the time he actually died but somehow he'd always spring back, you know, like a cat.

By August 14, 2007, I'd been holding my breath for weeks waiting for that final, fateful sonogram that would show us that C's heart had stopped beating. But, somehow she hung on. When the doctor reached in and yanked her out from under my ribcage he said, "Oooo. This one's feisty!"

They both remind me of him. One for his exuberant, insistent life. The other for his hard death.


We got a stocking for R this year at Christmas. I think it was the first time that we ever acknowledged her existence so openly and purposefully at a family event.

There was no memorial service for her. We couldn't work out the logistics with T's family and, in my reluctance to spare the energy required for collective grieving, I didn't force the issue on my family's behalf. She doesn't have a gravesite that people can visit or decorate for various holidays.

It's not that we ignore R or pretend she didn't exist. We include a spare candle for her on C's birthday cake and we talk about her with C and the other kids in the family. T and I are both happy to answer questions about her. But I think we're both concerned about the possible negative reaction if we forced her on our family members.

But C thought that it was ridiculous that our dead guinea pigs had stockings while R didn't. You've already seen a demonstration of C's hardheadedness and, honestly, it's hard to argue with that logic. So, I bought R a stocking.

My mom followed suit and retrieved the stocking she had purchased for R before she was born from the closet.

We filled ours with baby items to be donated to a local shelter. My mom filled hers with special gifts for C and her other two granddaughters.

Since we're raising the girls in an amoeba style of full-family parenting, it felt right to include my nieces in this new tradition.

C and my nieces were completely silent when my mom gave them their gifts from R's stocking. Imagine a 4-year-old, a 6-year-old, and an 8-year-old silent on Christmas morning. The only thing I could hear was the shutter of my brother's camera as he took a hundred or so pictures and the rustle of wrapping paper underfoot as his wife moved closer to get a better angle for the video footage. Finally, a productive outlet for this complicated grief, four-and-a-half years in the making.


Sometimes I think that I never would have survived if I had been in C's situation. I feel so floppy and beaten anymore.

But then I remember the years of competing with my brother for everything and insisting that that it didn't hurt when he punched me in the arm. I remember the way I have to suppress my urge to rush things. I look in the mirror and see Dad's smile and Dad's scowl.

The feisty apple never falls far from the feisty tree.

C had T's hair and eyes and build but, my smile and my scowl.

My hard-headedness.


Given their relief at finding a way to remember R, I suppose I could think that it was an asshole move to give my family the grieving stiff arm for so many years. But, I don't feel like an asshole.

I think of all of the harsh words that weren't exchanged and don't have to be taken back or hugged out and I feel almost vindicated.

After twisting and turning and going to great lengths to avoid the issue, we've arrived together at something that feels right for the kids and healing for the adults. I drove an extra 20 miles but I've avoided so many red lights.

And some things truly cannot be rushed.


So, there you have it. My thoughts on the birth/death/life/grief/family interface. I'm just going to wrap it up with this video that reminds me of C and me and me and Dad. A tribute to impatient kids and parents everywhere.

Monday, January 23, 2012


There's a guy who works at the newsstand where I sometimes buy a pack of gum on my way in to work. He won't give me my change until I look him in the eye.

Somewhere deep in my grouchy, little soul, I applaud this practice. We ought to see each other. See each other. Love each other.

But at 7AM, I can barely stand myself much less anyone else.

The reassembling process has become more efficient with time but not really any easier.

Emerge from the primordial ooze of sleep.
Remember that I am a wife.
Remember that I am a mother.
Is the baby breathing?!?
Yes, the baby is breathing.
Not a baby anymore either. That's good.
The other baby.
Oh my god! One of the babies died!
My daughter died.
Everyone dies.
And existence is just a happy accident anyway.
In fact, compared to the vast sweep of time and space, my entire lifetime is just a blink.
And if I take the long view--the geological time view--we will be apart for hardly any time at all.
Snooze a couple more times.
Wade back into the ooze of wakeful human-ness.
Take shower.
Walk dog.
Catch train.
Remember all of those other things that are supposed to be important... gum...

Why can't Mr. Eye Contact realize that I've assimilated the entire human experience already this morning? I've swept aside our differences. I've demoted my daughter and placed her unbearably short life back in its place as not-the-worst-thing-that-has-ever-happened-to-anyone-ever-ever-ever.

Even though I think he's being a presumptuous shitbird, I celebrate Mr. Eye Contact. His continued existence, our continued joint existence, is a glorious thing. Whatever struggles he may be having right now are important to me. But I haven't even had coffee yet.

The people at the coffee stand don't force me to look at them.

Just saying.


I read an article a couple of weeks ago about bird songs. Apparently birds in urban settings tend to sing in a different register than their rural brethren in order to be heard over traffic and the general bustle of city life. I'm assuming this is also why Philadelphians (including yrs trly) sound like we're trying to shatter glass or convene a pod of helper dolphins when we speak to each other.

The implications are pretty heavy for birds. Birdsong is a learned behavior that has everything to do with mating. The researchers who supplied the source material for the article speculate that the changes in songs could impact mating choice so drastically that it could lead to speciation. I'd put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence but it would be way too nerdy.

On the human side of things it also seems akin to working out internal noise. Think of all of the stereotypes and assumptions that you have to wade through to even begin to have a real conversation with another person. What would it be like if we could just understand each other or if we had the tools to at least try? Is Mr. Eye Contact an oppressive dick or is he onto something?


My internal voice barks orders at me all day long. Everybody has problems! Nothing is guaranteed! No one said it would be easy! Vada a bordo!

I robot my way through it. Take shower. Walk dog. Catch train. Get paycheck. Assure that C will not have to worry about you. Make it as easy as you can for her. Fix it.

Fix it.

So many paths up the mountain and this is the one that made the most sense?
Entrust her daily care and nurturing to someone else.

She'll be happy when college is paid and we are able to take awesome vacations. Someday she won't even notice that her sister is gone. Soon she'll stop asking when I'm going to grow another baby. Next Christmas she won't look for a new sister under the tree.

The cashier thinks that I don't look at him because I believe he isn't worthy of my time. If I wasn't in such a goddamn hurry with trying to fix the unfixable, we could grab coffee and and I could share many opinions about worthiness.

But I don't have time and he's an asshat for making me think about all of this shit before coffee.

Buy gum anyway.

Look for a different newsstand.