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Legacy of a Year

Considering it all, it’s fitting that the day she’s to return to Pittsburgh exactly matches the day she left–cold, dreary, rainy, gray. 

Tonight I’m lying alone in my bed, much as I was 16 years ago, with a minor ache or soreness around the right side of my rib cage. Then, it was his feet or his back, maybe. I don’t actually know. Some part of his tiny self always lodged under the right side of my ribs.

I constantly had to stretch and arch back while using my hands to massage and nudge him down and over to a different spot. He would flip-flop and roll around and I would see belly waves of protest as he repositioned discovering yet another pokey tiny baby part to jam under my right ribs. I’ll never know why that was his spot. 

Sixteen years ago tonight was pure raw pain and panic. Memories morph between foggy shapes and colors, voices coming and going. There are deafening mechanical beeps and whirs from all the machines attached to me. Nurses in the hallway shout and cackle to one another, oblivious, yet somehow still unable to drown out the loudest, most unnerving of the sounds. The absence of a sound. The vacancy where I should have heard the swift swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of a thriving neonatal heartbeat. 

I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but in my memory the morphine drip has a distinct odor. It smells like chemical death as I lay there pressing the button again and again and again praying for the IV cocktail to release me from the horror of my present reality. 

It didn’t.

But even through my drug and grief induced stupor, sometimes the vividness of a moment rises through the haze. I can close my eyes and I’m back in that cavernous hospital room. The blood pressure cuff is rhythmically crushing my right arm to the point that my fingers purple and bulge. Somewhere nearby there’s a new-for-the-occasion, terry cloth, powder blue robe that still hangs lifeless on the back of my bedroom door all these years later. Artificially induced labor contracts my body all night long preventing sleep–despite the gallons of morphine I must have absorbed. It’s not enough to soothe the screaming chasm of a broken heart. 

No drug would ever be enough for that. 

Tonight’s minor ache is a deliberate pain invoked as an outward, visible commemoration of that indelible internal scar. Tonight’s pain is nothing by comparison, yet it’s a poignant and bittersweet reminder. It’s a necessary connection. 

Pain is interesting. Usually we want to dull the pain. Or hide it. Or forget it. Tonight I’m grateful for pain. I’m grateful for pain that connects and reminds and softens. The discomfort of his tiny body ramming into the same spot of my ribs all day every day for nine months is now one of my most cherished, and painful, memories. 

Thus, I have honored him with an outward symbol of the major memory that unites us. 


We are encircled by snowdrop flowers that bloom every year around his birthday. 

The Three of Me

The Three of Me by William Bell. 

When I first heard this song several months ago, I didn’t get it. I thought it was weird and overly simple. 

But now I get it. Worth a listen. Heartbreaking. Simple. True. 

My Ambivalent Valentine

Thankfully I’ve never cared much for Valentine’s Day so today wasn’t as hard as it could have been. In 36 years I’ve only  “celebrated” or observed it 6 times–all of them with her–so it’s not like there’s a long tradition there to uphold or miss. 

It’s just any other day. The same as all the others that have now been abandoned. And thankfully now the pressure’s off to appear to give a shit about such an overblown day.

That being said, I remember the exact moment I fell in love with her. And that’s all I could think about all day. I wish I could rewind the years back to that spot and just relive those couple of hours at her apartment eight or nine years ago when she cooked me steak and zucchini with onions and we talked about writing and books and her stories. She vibrated with life when she talked about writing; her hands and voice literally shook with her passion for the stories and worlds and lives she had created. And she shared them with me. It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life at that point. 

I would live in that moment for the rest of my life–even if nothing ever advanced, even if it meant we never had a relationship–just to see her so alive, just to know she was happy and sharing something that brought her so much joy with someone who truly loved her talent and dedication to her art. I think it was the happiest I’ve ever seen her–except for the day my youngest son love-tackled her in the back yard and snuggled on top of her beside our buckets of tomato plants. 

My perfect Valentine’s Day–my perfect any day–would be to have those moments all over again. 

But mostly I wish we could go back to then so she could be that happy, that much herself and alive again. 

My perfect Valentine’s Day–my perfect any day–would be to know that she’s found that passion and happiness again. 

Even if it’s without me. 

Fifteen

My daughter turned 15 yesterday. She’s had a boyfriend for several weeks; went to the Snowball dance with him at school last weekend; has Valentine’s Day plans with him.

Her dad gave her tickets to see Hamilton in Chicago as her Christmas and birthday gifts combined. So she was in Chicago with him yesterday. She promised to take lots of pictures and send them to me. She sent one, and then I didn’t hear from her all weekend until I had to text her dad to make sure everything was ok. She finally wrote and said she just kept getting distracted. She was only home for an hour and a half before it was time for her and her brothers to leave and stay at their dad’s house for the next three weeks. She would not hug me to say hello or goodbye. She was pissed at me because I wouldn’t stop the cycle of laundry I was in the middle of so that she could run her own load through. I explained to her that I’d been doing laundry all day and had washed and folded all of her and her brothers’ stuff so that they’d have plenty to take to their dad’s for the next three weeks. Didn’t matter. She was still pissed that she couldn’t immediately wash the clothes she’d taken with her for the weekend. She humphed out the door tonight without a goodbye or a backward glance.

These next three weeks are the longest my kids and I have ever been apart. I’m sure it matters less to them than to me. But in fifteen years as a mother, the longest I’ve been away from my kids is two weeks when I visited Italy, and despite having a great time there, I broke down several times from missing them and not having a strong enough sense of myself to properly exist day-to-day without having them around to take care of. I’m not going to have the distraction of a beautiful foreign country to engage me over the next three weeks. Just work and canceling my student status at Pitt–again.

Yesterday was hard. Fifteen years as someone’s mother seems like it should mean something. I did fifteen years worth of work on her, but the celebration was with her dad. He takes her to musicals that she and I love. He takes her to salons to get her hair done. He takes her for manicures and clothes shopping. I only have one daughter. And somehow, he gets to do all these fun firsts with her.  I just don’t understand what all the work and effort is for. Other people get the payoff. Other people get the credit and the one person I had hoped all my effort would matter to doesn’t give a shit whether I’m present or not.

It’s not her fault that it all feels hard for me. It’s not her fault that the death of the child before her placed so much importance and longing and redemption on her whole existence. It’s not her fault that she always felt more special, more necessary, more anticipated as a result of the pain and the lack that preceded her. It’s not her fault and it’s not fair to her that I needed her. That I needed her tiny new life to fill in the enormous throbbing void left in my soul.

None of it is fair.

A Month

A month into the new job. It’s good. People are all nice and helpful and pleasant to work with. 

It can be tedious and repetitive, but it’s a paycheck and fullfilling my current needs, so I’ll take it.

Forty hours a week, plus parenting two teenagers and a pre-teen (one of which is having serious medical/neurological needs at the moment and missing tons of school), plus 16 hours a week at the part-time job, plus trying to complete all the course work from last semester, plus, plus, plus…it’s exhausting. 

I have little expectation of actually completely the course work from last semester under the present conditions, so that’s $9k I just added to my student loans with nothing to show for it. I think it’s time to put that dream of an English/Writing degree and becoming an editor to bed for good. I’ve been wasting too much energy on what could be or what might be or what I’m hoping for instead of directing my energy and focus on what is. 

It’s time to be present in right now and put away all the distracting and wasteful wishes. 

Words of Affirmation

This past fall I read The 5 Love Languages: The Military Edition. I typically don’t buy into relationship books like that because I’m a bit of a cynic and sometimes a snob. I work in a bookstore and often stock the shelves with the various editions of The 5 Love Languages franchise, and I’m always equally as intrigued by their claims to restore and save marriages as I am skeptical of those claims considering how broadly and generally those claims sweep. “Reading this one book will change your whole life,” and “Contained within these pages is the secret to relationship longevity.” These are the kind of statements that make me smirk, roll my eyes, and stuff the book back on the shelf.

I take issue with the idea that one book, one person’s words, contains all the truth I need to get through life and relationships successfully. I think it’s an arrogant assertion to suggest that in all the time of human history, this one man holds the secret to relationship success and happiness.

The fact that these are shelved in the Christian Living section didn’t make it any easier for me to spend the cash on it. (Not because I have a general distaste for Christian books; but rather because of my very specific history with Christianity.) Of course, I’m someone who believes in accepting truth wherever I might find it, even if it did manage to blunder its way through a religious patriarch.

But I’d been intrigued by this particular edition, the military edition, for so long–every time I’d shelve in that section, I’d pick it up and flip through and read a few lines–that I started reading it on my break one day. Without even realizing what I was doing, I started underlining parts that resonated with me and writing notes in the margins. Couldn’t very well put it back on the shelf after that, so it came home with me.

I have plenty of criticisms of the book–The 5 Love Languages in general, not just the military edition. There’s too much god-ness for me. It’s stiflingly heteronormative and traditional in approach to gender roles, and doesn’t use or seem to know language that encompasses a variety of long-term, committed relationships, not just Christian marriages between a man and a woman. That being said, if you’re willing to mentally edit the overly-religious parts and to interchange pronouns to suit your circumstances, it’s truly an insightful and useful little book.

There’s plenty of truth and sound advice and experiential wisdom in there. I learned that my love language is not what I thought it was; or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I learned that my love language is more than I thought it was. I’ve always known, even before the phrase “love language” existed, that I feel loved and secure and confident in a relationship–no matter what kind it is–through acts, demonstrations, cooperation in tasks/chores, teamwork. Doing. Being on the receiving end of Doing is what has always felt like love to me. The 5 Love Languages calls it Acts of Service.

As it turns out, while that’s still true, what’s more true is that even when someone is doing and is a person of action in the relationship, I can still feel a lack. A distance, an insecurity in whether or not they truly love me. I realized through reading this book that a possible reason I could feel that lack or insecurity is because my love needs were in fact not being fully met. Yes, acts of service are absolutely vital for me to be a partner in sustaining a healthy, loving relationship; but also, I need words. Words of Affirmation according to The 5 Love Languages. My Words of Affirmation score was even higher than my Acts of Service score. I found this fascinating because I’m a firm, lifelong believer in walking the walk. Anybody can say the right words, but those words need to be backed up by action. That’s always been my philosophy, and still is. But it’s also my philosophy that solid actions need to be supported and enhanced by the right words.

Disentangling

It’s as hard and time-consuming and soul-flattening as expected. Separating our stuff; packing hers; daily encountering the now vacant spaces all around me that were once crowded by her presence and influence. Logically, I’d expected to face fewer painful memories by removing the things around me that elicited those memories. That maybe by cutting out the physical reminders, I’d have a chance at moving on.

I had no idea the shadows would be worse. The places now where she isn’t, where her stuff isn’t, where her presence isn’t, those places are now somehow alive with memories where previously there simply sat inanimate objects that represented her. With those removed, it’s like the memories suddenly have room to breathe and move. Everywhere I turn I am haunted by the empty, the lack, the absence. The nothing.

To expunge is vital. Eliminate. Erase. To treat as though it never happened. Deep-six.

As much as that’s what’s needed under the circumstances, it’s impossible to carry out from a practicality standpoint. At least for the time-being. I mean, how do you carry on as though someone never happened to you when she’s still paying some of your bills, and when her army family readiness group can’t manage to remove your email address from their mailing list despite having been asked several times? Reading the excitement and anticipation of all those other family members who get to be thrilled now that the half-way point has come and gone, now that it’s even close enough to start counting down the weeks until they’re home…it’s just cruel. I thought I had earned that celebration too, and it would be more tolerable to swallow that I’m no longer part of that if I didn’t keep getting weekly status updates.

No. That’s a lie. It would never be more tolerable to swallow.

It’s kinda like when you’re in high school and everyone is talking about how great the party will be that you’re not invited to. It’s just hateful.

But we’re still too entangled which is what I’m working on solving.

Anticlimactic

It’s February 1st and today I saw the first crocuses pushing through the slightly snowy mushy earth. Every year I look forward to this day–the first flowers waking up even when there’s still snow on the ground.

I gasped when I saw them surprised by their early arrival. Immediately I grabbed my phone to snap a picture and send it to the one person who would be as happy as I was to see it.

It was a fresh punch to the throat to remember in my excitement over the flowers that she’s no longer tied to the ragged threads of my heart.

It’s just not the same without sharing it with her.

Phipps is Gone

Phipps is gone. I mean, not really. But it’s gone for me. The magic it’s held for me all these years is dead.

I went a few nights ago with friends to enjoy the holiday flowers and lights, but it was just painful. Too many memories.

It was one of our favorite places to go together, especially in the winter–the warmth, the dirt and flower smell, the locally grown, delicious food in the cafe–it was flora therapy for both our souls. I’ve been looking forward to spending plenty of time there through January and February to help ward off the inevitable deep winter depression. To relive, in my imagination until she came home, those many calm and happy moments we had together strolling through the gardens, testing our memories for the names of various plants and flowers, just enjoying the company of someone who shared our mutual love of plants and gardening.

But now it’s poison. This place that was a respite, a safe haven from my various mental and emotional demons, this place that I’ve used to keep me emotionally connected to her while she’s away…it’s turned on me.

Her presence haunted every path. I could hear her voice reminding me of the names of flowers I can never remember. I could see her long fingers stretch out to gently hold still a single blossom for me to inhale. She’d always ask, “Does it sniff good?”

Everything smells sweeter when I share it with her. I learned so much from these visits, not just about plants, but about her, about us, about peace, about the soothing effect nature has on me, about the importance of shared interests and passions.

My love of growing things existed before we were together, and maybe it will continue even now that we’re over. But it really might not. She’s a true nurturer, a true gardener. She brought to life and cultivated this seedling interest I’ve always had, and it’s flourished and grown into a full-fledged life passion under her care and influence. It’s likely to whither and die without the gardener, and I’m honestly willing to let it. I will never enjoy poppies in the spring without her. Who will be excited with me when the first brave crocus or snowdrop (I learned from her that they’re called Galanthus) peeks its tentative greens through the frozen winter ground? I don’t care whether my paw paw trees produce fruit if she’s not here to share it with me. Every plant in my garden will wilt in the shadow of so many painful memories that used to sustain me while she’s been away.

But life will not be returning to my garden this spring because she’s not returning. What’s the point in having a beautiful garden to wander through when I don’t have her to share it with me? It’s just not the same to make rounds through the garden and talk to the plants without her. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in my yard or at Phipps…

…they’re all traitors now.

 

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