The Comeback

wheeloflife

When Jasper and I went to visit my brother and his family recently, there was some understandable concern about how I might react to meeting their seven-month-old, Finnegan. Because he’s a baby, but also because he was born on April 1, 2015, the third anniversary of the day that Balthazar died.

I don’t pretend to understand how an indifferent universe manages to serve up such a painful coincidence, but let me just say that Finnegan was born a month early because of a pregnancy complication. His due date was nowhere near April 1. And his parents weren’t given a choice about the date, because this particular complication is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth. As soon as he passed thirty-six weeks, he was out.

Could I have told myself a different story about the timing of his birth, seen it as a sort of symbolic reincarnation? Framed it as a lovely connection that honored Balthazar, a day that brought me a gift?  No, I could not have. My turn of mind is not that generous or expansive.

Finnegan’s birth made this year’s anniversary especially difficult. On Balthazar’s actual birthday I went to the gym to work out and dropped a barbell on my face. The swollen bruise on the bridge of my nose reminded me that I was temporarily not in my right mind and that the best thing to do was absolutely nothing, at least until the day had passed. What I did instead is kind of a funny story.

For another time.

Turns out, Finnegan is just your basic infant, wonderful or awful birthdate notwithstanding. His presence elicited no deep grief or sadness. I walked him around the kitchen. He pulled my hair. We stood at the window and watched the movement of oak leaves in the wind.

His three-year-old sister Mae, though, was another story entirely. She took a shine to me right away. She wanted me to play Barbies, and she wanted our Barbies to take swimming lessons from the Little Mermaid. She wanted to examine all of my jewelry and tell me what I should wear. She wanted me to watch Mary Poppins with her stuffed bear. So, OK, the selfies were my idea, but she was enthusiastic about them. It was a little odd, really. I had the eerie sense that somehow she knew. Knew that there was a three-year-old-shaped space next to me, and she just snuggled right into it.

*

There’s an episode of the TV show Louie in which the comedian Louis CK is asked to pitch a script idea to a film executive. “Your life is going to change,” she proclaims. With one wave of her hand she can greenlight his film and take him from moderately successful stand-up act to star.

He launches into his idea, the story of a guy for whom everything goes wrong. It just gets worse and worse, and then the man dies. The film executive gets up from the table and goes to sit with some other people, leaving him there alone for the rest of lunch. In that moment he’s both making fun of himself for his unrelentingly dark vision and skewering a culture that requires a comeback story. He could’ve made his career if he’d pitched her the tale of a down and out boxer training to win one final bout, or a washed up spaceship captain enlisted to defeat the enemy in the make or break battle. He can’t do it, because he knows it’s total bullshit, and because he can’t his life stays exactly the same.

It’s not that I am now only interested in championing depressing stories about irreversible downward spirals. Ironically I think I’m more optimistic and positive now than I’ve ever been. It’s just that what’s a lazy cliche in fiction makes even less sense if you try to use it as an organizing structure out here in the world.

A comeback is a performance, whether it’s your life or an episode of Behind the Music. In order for it to work, there has to be some Greek chorus, composed of journalists and fans, friends and family, who don’t think you stand a chance. Who’ve written you off. It’s about confounding other people’s expectations. Or what you imagine those expectations to be.

If you’re not playing to an audience, what happens to you after a series of more or less devastating setbacks does not have a narrative arc. It’s just your life. If you pass through the world unnoticed by journalists or the public, do you cease to exist? Or, conversely, what if you accomplish something marvelous? You’re never going to arrive anywhere and stay, anyway. It only works that way in Sports Illustrated and on VH1.

Comebacks don’t just happen to you; they require herculean effort, which our culture celebrates. You have to run the stairs. You have to play the dive bars in Topeka every night for eight years. You make a comeback happen with the sheer force of your will. Things don’t come back around because there’s an ebb and flow.

A comeback does something weird with time. It assumes that time is linear and you have to go back to some ideal moment, not to stay, but to snatch whatever you had then that you don’t have now and bring it to the present with you.

Publishing books, having a baby: these things were the sine qua non of any comeback I might have made, but they are not answers to the questions I am asking now. Who knows where it will all lead, but whatever happens next won’t be a comeback.

But it won’t be a place entirely new, either. Recently I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which borrows from Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return to creative a narrative with a cyclical approach to temporality. Pieces of the story take place at various points in history, including the near future and the distant future, but the main character in each time period shares distinctive characteristics with the others. In that book, time liquefies like sand in an earthquake. Like a clock in a Dali painting. I’m no postmodernist, but it finally made sense to me.

*

 Mae was very attracted to the snowy owl necklace I was wearing during the visit. My B necklace is being repaired, so I was wearing the one my roommate gave me for Christmas last year. My sister-in-law told me I could tell her kids whatever I wanted, and so after she had asked me about it and toyed with it for awhile I told her that it helped me to remember my baby who died.

“You had a baby who DIED?” she said incredulously. I said I did. She scrambled down from the bed and went to her father. “Daddy, she had a baby who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad, and did she want to give me a hug and make me feel better? She did.

One night I told her there were no girl children at our house in Portland, only boys. This was an unimaginable configuration to her. Did Jasper not have any sisters? she wanted to know. Did he have brothers? Only a brother who died, I said.

“Jasper had a brother who DIED?” She climbed down from my lap and accosted Scott. “Daddy, there was a brother who DIED.” Yes, he said, it was very sad. Did she want to hug me and make me feel better? She did.

I suspect I will tell her this story many more times and in many different ways.

At the zoo she asked me to take her to see the polar bear. We left the others inside and walked to its habitat. Once she saw the bear she decided she was more interested in going beneath the exhibit to look at the fish, so I held her hand as we walked down the ramp. That’s when I felt Balthazar’s absence most acutely. He might have disdained a gorgeous predator in favor of the anonymous invertebrates which would be its lunch, or he might have come up with some other plan of his own. But that’s what I would have been doing with him: listening to him chatter and marveling at his strange and fascinating brain.

Maybe children are the best metaphor for the circularity of time. Children return. Not the same child, of course. A baby with red hair and hazel eyes. A three year old who likes jewelry and fish. Love returns. Not the same love, but many loves of many different kinds, again and again. Not a line, but a wheel.

 

Right Where I Am: Three Years, Six Months

swampboat

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Every month is awareness month for something, and in the larger world it makes barely a ripple, competing as it does against Donald Trump and school shootings and videos of puppies. But for a certain select group of people, it matters, and for obvious reasons I happen to know a lot of them.

This year I got a Facebook invitation to participate in a project called Capture Your Grief. For each of the thirty-one days of the month, participants can take and post photographs around daily themes: sunrise, memory, dreams, sacred space, music, gratitude. It looks like a really cool exercise and for a second I thought I might want to sign up. Then I thought: do I want to spend the whole month meditating on my grief?

I have to write about socks. I have to write about health care. I have to send invoices. I have to figure out what I need to change to get my performance in the gym back on track. I have to get Jasper ready for Japan. I need to clean the furnace filter. I need to shave the dreadlocks off of the cat’s back because I don’t think brushing is going to cut it. Lots of people and things need my attention.

I decided that I didn’t want to spend the whole month meditating on my grief. Is that turning a blind eye to work that needs to be done, or is it a step forward in healing?

One of the themes on the Capture Your Grief list was glow in the woods. When I saw it, I remembered that it’s the name of a blog for babyloss parents that I used to read religiously. So I went back to the site. I read a few pieces, and found my own name on the blog roll. I tried to recall the place I had been, when reading about stillbirth and writing about stillbirth was all I did. When I waited desperately for a new post to appear, something I could connect to in a world that contained nothing else of meaning or interest to me.

Then I tried to find the other blog that had saved me during the early days. I googled around and finally remembered that the author’s name is Angie. Still Life With Circles. Her writing is lovely and poetic, if always a little bit too New Agey for what I think of as regular me. Stones and feathers and Native American ritual and stars. Though regular me now has a meditation app on her phone, so who is regular me, anyway?

Angie is the person who initiated the Right Where I Am project. Her daughter Lucia died five years ago, and when I visited her blog I discovered that she hasn’t written in more than a year.

Such a blunt reminder of how far I’ve traveled, that something that had once been such a lifeline for me had been out of my consciousness for so long. How long? When did I stop reading it? When did I arrive in this new place where I didn’t need it? I don’t remember opening or closing any doors, but here I am in a new room.

*

Catch the Wind still catches me, now and then.

There are several pregnant women in my Wednesday yoga class and because of it my teacher never stops rambling on about pregnancy and birth. I try not to look at them, but I can’t not think about it. That’s over, I think. It will never happen again. Then the tears fall. For a little while.

At the 24 hour film festival one of the films turned out to be about the death of a baby. The short  films were made over the course of 24 hours by teams of amateurs, and it seemed unbelievably disrespectful that they thought they could do a subject like that justice within those parameters. That didn’t make me cry, it just made me mad.

Of course that’s what life is. Women in your yoga class have babies and your yoga teacher babbles on about it. People make lazy, thoughtless films about the worst thing that ever happened to you. You never know where or when but you can’t stop doing stuff. You just deal with it when it happens. You cry quietly into your mat, or go to the lobby until it’s over.

And in between those moments are so many of friendship and connection and humor and humanity. Those moments might hit like a wave of frigid water but they don’t swamp the boat.

Angie’s last post was about the ways in which her daughter had changed her life. Implicit in that is that her life was changed for the better. Which is the inescapable paradox of loss.

Balthazar lived and died and the world was changed, a little bit. Not all of the change was bad, even for the people who loved him most. Good things have come. Good things that wouldn’t have come. Momentous things. Profound things. If he had lived there would have been different good things, and different losses and sadnesses. But I live here. All I can do is look to what’s been given and be grateful.

Today Balthazar would be three and a half. When Jasper was that age we went to Costa Rica. We were on a boat in a muddy river and a bunch of monkeys swarmed our boat. The largest male became very aggressive and tried to attack my father-in-law, assessing, correctly, that he was the leader of our group. Jasper was frightened by the hostile monkeys and snuggled tightly into me.

That event is Jasper’s first memory, he told me recently. Now that memory gains added resonance for me: a memory of Jasper’s first memory. When I think about that moment the greatest loss seems to be Balthazar’s and not my own: the consciousness he didn’t get to have, the memories unacquired. My life would have been immeasurably enriched by being along for the ride, but the journey would have been his.

On October 15, when I light a candle for Balthazar, Jonathan and Jasper will be in Japan, visiting temples and eating nigiri and taking pictures of neon signs. Which is as it should be. And after a few minutes of quiet contemplation I’ll go find the shears and ask Laura to help me and we can groom the cat, and then maybe sit at the dining room table and talk for awhile.

The Basement

Dark-basement

When my house was a Volunteers of America shelter for battered women and their children, some of the more difficult kids were apparently shut in the back room of the basement to ride out their tantrums. That room has a concrete floor, institutional fluorescent lighting, a tiny window. At adult eye level the door has a one way glass panel. It’s undeniably creepy. You wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a poltergeist. Whatever went on down there, it left some of its dark energy behind.

Until recently the basement was crammed top to bottom with junk, repository of my refusal to accept that the life I used to have, as well as the life I thought I’d have, are gone. There are still bins of “good” china down there, each piece wrapped in newspapers from 2004. Framed Ray Harm wildflower watercolors. Our wedding invitation, which I designed and was so proud of. Jonathan’s books and camera equipment and weights. And, most terrifying of all, Jasper’s baby clothes and toys and paraphernalia. Every last thing he wore or played with or used, saved for Balthazar.

I guess that’s why the scary basement is a trope in horror movies. The bad guy down there is a metaphor for all the things inside ourselves we don’t want to face.

So I’ve been spending  a lot of time down there lately, divesting. Trying to face the stuff, and myself, head on. On the Tuesday before Balthazar’s birthday I drove to Northwest Children’s Outreach with five large bins of clothes. I was liberal in allowing myself to keep things of Jasper’s I especially love: tiny Vans printed with orange spiders, a black t-shirt with a panda on it, monster-faced rain boots, tea collection origami and dragon print pi’s. Still, when you have saved every last item, it adds up to a lot. A couple of elderly men helped me unload my car. The capable coordinator transferred everything to garbage bags and gave the bins back to me. And then it was done. Children in need will get those clothes for free. I only cried a little.

The Tuesday after Balthazar’s birthday I took two high chairs, a stool, a diaper Dekor, some clothes and many, many toy cars, ambulances, firetrucks, garbage trucks and front-end loaders to Goodwill. A woman pulled up behind me at the drop off station and started unloading things from her trunk.

“Ah, the baby stuff,” she said knowingly when she saw my pile. “It’s so hard to let go of that!”

“I held onto it much longer than I should have,” I admitted, smiling.

“How old?” she asked. Wanting to know just how deep my procrastination, or maybe my sentimentality, ran.

“It’s a long story,” I began. But really it’s not. “My older son is nine,” I said. “And my younger son would be three.”

There it was, so smoothly done it might have slid right past her. The tenor of my voice, the expression on my face, nothing changed. She didn’t recoil, or even really react. She kept talking. She told a story about her practical husband and how even he had not wanted to let go of certain baby items. And then she said have a good day and I said you too and I drove off. Good for you, she called as I left.

And that, apparently, is how it’s done. How it will be done. For the rest of my life.

When I’m finished with this project, when I’ve been to FreeGeek and the hazardous waste dump and the regular dump and Goodwill again, what will be left are things that serve the life I have now or the life I hope to have in the future: camping equipment and Christmas decorations, primarily. I still don’t know where the fifty copies of the Australian edition of The Painted Kiss with the smutty cover fit into my future scenario—a free gift for future airbnb guests? If nothing else, a clean basement will mean less work when, or if, I have to sell the house.

If I have to sell the house. The current seems to be moving me inexorably in that direction, and all my sleepless nights and all my efforts to prevent it seem to have come to naught.

During a very difficult week not long ago, my friend Emiliee found me sobbing in the locker room at the gym. That night I received this encouraging message from her: Beautiful girl, you can do hard things.

I’ve already done some pretty hard things. In the last three years I have walked out of a hospital without my baby. I have walked into a funeral home and collected his ashes. I have ended my marriage. I have started freelancing, found a roommate, hung onto my house and for the past year have managed keep the whole enterprise afloat. This was supposed to be the moment when it all began to knit together, when I had a steady job and things were running smoothly. When I could take a breath and think about painting the steps and buying a couple of plane tickets to New York City.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

A creative writing teacher once wrote of a character in one of my stories: “Just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of her self-esteem, the floor gives way and you realize there is another sub-basement yet to go.” That’s how I feel about the work/money thing right now. When will I find solid ground? Or will the floor keep giving way underneath me? What does the bottom look like?

A couple of nights ago I had a dream that the basement had been completely renovated, for free, by some of my friends. It had shiny white tile and natural wood, and was very clean and somehow much bigger. The basement now opened onto a promenade with trees and food carts and the sky was very blue.

In the dream I was concerned that the unspecified friends who had done all of that work might not realize how much I appreciated all that they had done, and how much I loved it. And it’s true that if supportive friends were companies I would have about eighteen jobs by now.

In December I got a fan letter from Bob in Spokane. I don’t get fan mail very often and I tend to move through my daily life assuming that no one cares about my writing, those books were published so long ago, they made no impact whatsoever, etc. So the letter really touched me, especially for the last line: “like throwing a stone into a pond, we never know where the ripples may end.”

I’m trying to keep in mind that one of the many stones I’ve thrown in the past few months might  have already created a little current that will float me to some as-yet-unimagined place, with plane trees and taco trucks and subway tile and unfinished oak floors and cool air and bright sunshine.

 

Pietà

Pieta

My roommate Laura and I joke that we like to birth our children in the spring, like ruminants. It seems the appropriate schedule: become pregnant in the summer, stay cool and (relatively) comfortable through the winter, and deliver when the trees begin to bud. Between us we have four boys, all born in March or April, like lambs. In what feels much more like synchronicity than coincidence, we each have only one boy living with us.

I met Laura at the gym. I don’t remember introducing myself to her, or the first few times we worked out together. What I do remember is standing with her at a party at Ecliptic Brewing, there among the vats and pallets, breathing in the smell of yeast, telling her about Balthazar and listening to her as she told me that she was adopted and had placed a child for adoption when she was a teenager.

Laura’s son is sixteen and living in California. She thinks of him often. She worries about him. She pores over the letters she has received from his adoptive family over the years, looking for clues to his well-being. The adoption agreement stipulated that she not make contact with him until he was eighteen, but last fall he found her on Facebook and they began a tentative correspondence. Contact with him is the thing she wants most in the world, but it is also terrifying, building this new relationship out of what was sundered all those years ago.

Laura has gathered into her life many women with similar life experiences. One afternoon at brunch, her friend Tamera shared with some of the women congregated in her living room a piece of her own adoption story.

“I left the hospital without my baby,” she said, and in that moment I got it. Connection made, I began sobbing uncontrollably. Placing a child for adoption, I now understand, is an occasion of tremendous loss for the birth mother, not unlike the death of a child. Our stories are not the same, but they loop and intersect and touch at points. A birth mother may leave her baby to be raised by others, but there is notwithstanding a deep grief in the unnaturalness of it, the wrongness. There’s a reason Laura and I are friends. There is a reason the narratives have converged at this moment.

Laura calls Makani and Jasper the children we parent. Because the other children are present all the time, we just don’t get to raise them.

*

I mark the time of the season of Balthazar’s death with the vernal equinox, as I’ve done for my own birthday my entire life. I’m aware of its approach in the changing landscape. Spring has come early to Portland this year. Everyone’s Instagram is full of quince and cherry blossoms, magnolia, dogwood, forsythia.

I remember the rain the day he was born. The view outside the hospital window was of a parking lot and there wasn’t anything green visible, only gray, everything distorted by the drops sliding down the pane, blurred and disconsolate like a Gerhard Richter painting. Inside the room a post-apocalyptic future of antiseptic white.

I remember the lilacs at his memorial, cut from a friend’s bush. My cardigan with the missing pearl button was spring green.

I left the hospital without my baby.

I don’t worry about him any more. I don’t even dream about him, or I haven’t in a long time. My unconscious mind has not age-progressed him, as I once thought it would. I have no idea what a three-year-old Balthazar would look like, be like. My imagination apparently can’t stretch that far.

I also mark Balthazar’s time on the church calendar that I don’t consciously follow. Balthazar’s birthday falls on Good Friday this year, though I didn’t realize that until this week.

I collect Annunciations on the web site Artstack, which allows you to select and save images, the Pinterest of art. I have Fra Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Rogier van der Weyden. Depending on the artist Mary looks frightened or smug or preoccupied or overwhelmed. I love this moment, this improbable moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, Hey, guess what? In the Lippi, at least, the angel Gabriel is kind of hot. You can imagine teenage Mary flirting with him a little. Smacking her gum. Umm, I’m going to bear God’s child. OK, whatever you say.

I do not collect Pietas, the classic pose of Mary holding her dead son’s body in her arms. Too overwrought, too baroque. Too gruesome, too Catholic. The sky as dark as night at four o’clock in the afternoon. The curtain of the temple rent in two. The complete absence of hope, when no one, not Mary, not Peter, not the other disciples, not the women, could imagine anything good ever happening again. It’s one thing to reenact that moment in a ritual, already knowing the next chapter in the story. It’s another thing to actually feel it in your own life. It’s not a place to linger, if you can help it.

In this season of unbearable despair and inevitable renewal, I’m reading Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, about the death of her daughter Quintana at age thirty-nine. It didn’t get as much attention as The Year of Magical Thinking, her book on the death of her husband John Gregory Donne, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it resonates with me much more.

Before Blue Nights I read Paula, by Isabel Allende, about her own daughter’s death, and liked it much less. Allende is emotionally florid but tends to let herself off the hook. Those affairs I had, the times I left my children for months at a time? They were fine! Look how much we all love each other now! Before she got sick my daughter was perfect! Now she is an angel.

Didion never lets herself or the reader off of the hook.

The reviewers all speak respectfully of the book as Didion’s clear-eyed look into the abyss, and in their voices I hear the skittishness of all of the New York editors who passed on my memoir. They are respectful because she is Joan Didion, but they’d like nothing better than to back slowly away, because they don’t want to hear about her Good Friday moment. They don’t want to hear about the loss of self that her child’s death forced her to contemplate, the loss which we all inevitably face.

Quintana Roo Dunne was adopted. Didion acknowledges that the feelings of abandonment adoptees experience might have played a part in her daughter’s psychological problems, her self-medication, her early death. In Blue Nights she refers to parenthood as “the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable.”

That’s the message of the Pieta. I pledged to protect the unprotectable, and I failed. Because I am human, I failed. Here, in my arms, is the broken evidence of my failure. Is there consolation in the beauty of the composition? For the artist, for the viewer, most certainly yes. For the woman holding her son, there is none.

I left the hospital without my baby. 

And then we come to Easter. I’m supposed to bake a lemon meringue pie. I’m supposed to fill Jasper’s basket with various iterations of a stuffed tiger. I’ll use the new beanbag chair as a lure to get him to nestle in my lap for awhile, lanky and awkward and smelling of boy sweat and wontons. He will tell me what he thinks we should do about ISIS, and ask me to name my five favorite countries in the world based on their system of government.

No gaudy trumpet lilies. Just some white lilacs in a glass vase on the bookshelf.

Peace

innerpeace

The day my new mortgage was approved by underwriting, I took an impromptu selfie and posted it to Facebook. One of the comments I got was from a midwife and pelvic care provider I’d been to see after Jasper was born. A pelvic care provider is kind of a personal trainer for your vagina. If you haven’t delivered a baby you might think that is weird or gross. If you have delivered a baby you know exactly why such a job exists.

I’d also tried to see her after Balthazar was born, but she had just had a baby of her own and wasn’t working much. Which, considering the place she was in and the place I was in, was probably for the best.

“You look peaceful,” she wrote now. “Congratulations!”

As they say in yoga, I felt resistance to the word ‘peaceful.’ Which is to say, the word ‘peaceful’ really pissed me off. Because of the nature of our connection I know read a lot more into it than I should have. At first hearing it sounded patronizing.

Does it mean she thinks I’m at peace generally? I wondered. Or is she making an oblique reference to Balthazar? Does she think I’m at peace with what happened to him? No fucking way. I’m not at peace with what happened. I will never be at peace with what happened. The element of approval implicit in acceptance trips me up every time. Even if I go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and a National Book Award and pilot a doomed aircraft to safety and find a cure for autism, there will be no part of me that believes his death was for the best.

Furthermore, I’ve never been peaceful in my life. Even before Balthazar died, it was never a part of my self-identity at all; in fact, the opposite. Everything is a struggle and to get what I want I have to fight, tooth and claw.

A well-worn family story about me: the winter I was eight, I was slated to compete in a Junior Olympic swim meet in Jeffersonville, In., about 12 or so miles from my house. I’d only been swimming competitively a short time, and I thought, falsely, that being in a meet called the Junior Olympics was a big deal. The day of the meet I had a fever, and my mother didn’t want to let me go. After arguing and crying didn’t work, I packed up my suit and cap and goggles and towel and started walking. Knowing full well that I would try to make it to Indiana somehow, my mother finally relented and drove me to the meet. I won one race and got second in a couple more. They gave out really nice medals, as I recall.

With every retelling, indomitable will became more and more central to my sense of myself, and the keystone in the arch of everything I thought of as positive in my character. But every story can be turned and examined from a different angle, where it reveals truths previously hidden. Every aspect of character has its shadow side. It’s apparently taken the subsequent thirty-five years for me to realize that what worked on my mother when I was eight might not be the right strategy for every single obstacle that appears in my path.

My thoughts kept returning to what the midwife had said. What did she see, and what did she mean? What kind of peace was she referring to?

Wikipedia says this:

To be at peace is to be free of anxiety or distress and is considered a healthy mental state. Peace of mind is generally associated with bliss, happiness and contentment. In Taoism, being at peace is self-acceptance. Letting go of the past, not holding on to the future.

Inner peace is in some sense not being at war with reality, which is why I have habitually rejected it. Balthazar’s death didn’t make accepting reality any easier, but I’m not sure it made it any harder, either. It was always hard. I’ve never been able to trust that the future could work out, that there could be enough. That things could be OK without a herculean effort.

And if you had asked me I would have told you, sadly, that I am still that way. But sometimes people who don’t know you well can observe changes that are too subtle or too close for you to realize. Am I really still the person who faces the world like a feral cat that has been trapped in a box and taken to the vet for shots?

A few days after I posted the selfie I ran into my former Pilates teacher at the coffee shop.

“You,” she grinned as she hugged me, in a tone that implied I had done something clever. I quickly realized that it was because she has been reading the blog. This must be what it’s like to be Cheryl Strayed, I thought, albeit on a very small scale. It’s disconcerting in the best possible way to be jolted by a hit of positive regard you weren’t expecting at all as you sat there looking at the music listings in Willamette Week.

She told me that beauty was radiating from inside of me. Which is a compliment of a whole different order than “You look beautiful,” as nice as that one is to get. Instinctively I clutched at my heart. Trying to acknowledge how it felt to hear that but also, maybe, because suddenly I feared that my chest was made of glass. Could she see it? It was almost too much. Quick! Let’s talk about your kids!

I wonder now if the Pilates teacher and the midwife saw the same thing. I wonder if they saw that I’m not fighting so hard anymore. I haven’t given up on anything being possible in the future, but I’m not excruciatingly unsatisfied with the present moment. I’ve always been a strong swimmer and I have fought the current for a long time, but that is not always an efficient use of energy. It hasn’t necessarily taken me anywhere. I haven’t drowned, and maybe for a portion of my life that was important, and enough. But sometimes in order to move you have to unclasp your fingers from the branch you are gripping so tightly. You have to let go and see what happens.

Sometimes the relief when you do that is so enormous that it shows in your face.

Right Where I Am: Two Years, Nine Months, Two Days

japanesegarden

2014 was not a good year, in the traditional sense, but it was a powerfully transformative one. My evolving relationship with gratitude has brought me to the beginning of 2015 with a lot of things to be grateful for. Here are some of them:

1.

Jasper has finally allowed himself to snuggle again. With what will in future years be remembered as legendary stubbornness, he refused to let me hug or kiss him for nine months. He found a workaround in November, when he instigated a game I’ll call Leukemia Patient. This game is in some ways remarkably similar to Funeral, a game he played when he was two, and may be taken as evidence that personality is stable over time.

“I don’t feel so good,” he says during the ‘game.’ He lolls on my bed with a pained expression on his face.

“You feel fine,” I say briskly.

“What did the doctor say?” he whispers pathetically, eyes closed, breathing labored.

“The doctor said you’re fine,” I say.

He then pretends to choke and die, and lies still. My role is to throw my body onto his, holding him in my arms, kissing him frantically and calling his name. I attempt to revive him, and succeed, for a second. His eyes open wide and he sits up, gasping for breath, until after a moment or two he falls back into the bed again.

“I don’t feel so good,” he says, and we reenact the scene again, and again.

Sometime in December he relented completely; not, he said, because he has forgiven me anything, but because he has accepted the truth of what I told him several months ago: everyone needs physical touch and affection, and that it would make him feel better, even if it came from me. He’s so much bigger than he was when he became a refusenik that it was awkward at first to even know how to hold him, but we’re working it out. A corollary: after nine months of calling me “Mom,” that formal, distancing moniker, I have been restored, for the moment, to “Mommy.” My heart is full.

A few days before Christmas I stopped into a few of the stores on Hawthorne looking for a gift. At the card/gift store Presents of Mind, I was startled to discover that owls have become the motif of Christmas cards, gift bags, wrapping paper and gift tags. Two years ago I was emailing people in the UK trying to get a set of snowy owl cards, and now I could outfit myself for the year with thematically unified paper goods just by popping into the store down the street. Balthazar, is that you?

2.

Lately I have been meditating. Which is like saying I have been hand-sewing Edwardian costumes for my vintage doll collection, or have begun making and bottling my own vinegar to sell at bluegrass festivals. If you’ve known me for a long time you might have to ask if I’m feeling OK, in which case I would answer, yes and no.

Around the time that I was habitually waking up in a panic in the middle of the night, worrying about the house, and money, and relationships, my roommate Laura was about to begin Oprah and Deepak’s 21-day free meditation challenge. She suggested that I do it too. Oprah and Deepak! The cynic, the skeptic, rebelled.

My approach to matters psychological has always been analytical and research-based, because that’s what comes most easily to me. I’ve talked. A lot. I’ve read The Drama of the Gifted Child. I’ve read Trapped in the Mirror. I’ve read Radical Acceptance. But I always ignored the exercises at the end of each chapter because that would have involved a practice that bypassed the thinking mind. What good would that be, the thinking mind wanted to know. Aren’t I in charge here? Nothing can happen without me, right?

Neocortex, meet your limbic system.

Meditation has been shown to have all kinds of positive effects: it reduces high blood pressure, increases immune function, and improves concentration, memory and focus. Studies have shown that meditation can actually preserve the length of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Longer telomeres are associated with better health, shorter ones with diseases like cancer and heart disease.

The part that I was most interested in, though, was the fact that meditation is supposed to weaken certain neural connections in the medial prefrontal cortex that are associated with fear, anxiety and stress. If anyone needs those channels filled in and other channels created, it would be me. So I told my thinking brain to shut up, and tried twenty minutes of daily guided meditation.

It’s been like that dream when you discover a door in your house that leads to a wing you didn’t even know was there. How come no one ever told me I had a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and gleaming wooden ladders, and all these extra bedrooms with parquet floors and billowy silk curtains like a posh Viennese hotel? I could have had some fantastic parties, or at least more out of town guests. Well, now I know.

3.

I volunteered recently at the Write Around Portland community reading. All of those who had participated in a WRAP writing workshop were invited to come and read: homeless women, elderly men, patients in the trauma unit at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, recovering addicts. I worked the check-in desk, signing in readers and handing them their copy of the printed anthology. Then, when everyone had been checked in, I got to sit in the hall and listen.

A teenage girl stepped up to the microphone, holding her small daughter in her arms. She buried her face in the child’s hair. The silence grew painful as we waited for her to begin. She was obviously terrified. At last she mumbled a few syllables, but then she stopped. She stood there for a few more agonizing moments. I felt the gathered crowd’s sympathy, but maybe she couldn’t. She ran off the stage and out the side door.

She reappeared many readers later. This time she had a friend on either side, holding her up. Her daughter was still draped over her shoulder. Haltingly, she read. A poem about that child, and the electrifying, consuming love she felt for her. And I was in tears.

I was raised to hold myself apart. What had I to do with a homeless teenage mother but offer her my patronizing charity? But I am not that person anymore. When I began volunteering I wanted to facilitate a writing workshop but feared I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Now I truly believe that I can. I no longer feel separate at all.

 *

 I gave my roommate Laura the book Daring Greatly for Christmas. It’s by the research professor Brene Brown, whose work focuses on vulnerability as the key to living a wholehearted life. It was a self-serving gift because I wanted to read it too. While she was visiting family in Idaho I started it. At one point Brown quotes the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Then I started to cry. Because I’ve written about the Skin Horse before. It’s an important symbol to me. All the things I’ve intuited and been working on for almost three years now are weaving together to create a strong fabric that can support my weight.

I look forward to that in 2015.

 

It Beats For You

replacementsMy brother and I recently attended the Forecastle music festival, the first concert we’d gone to together since I took him to see Public Enemy when he was thirteen. I don’t know what we were thinking; clearly this is something we should have been doing since at least 1997. I drank moonshine lemonade cocktails and he drank Heineken and we both counted how many people were wearing My Morning Jacket t-shirts and tried to score free mini-hamburgers from TGI Friday’s, but mostly we listened. The drunken keyboard player in Spoon shook the maracas with an insouciant raised eyebrow. Chris Thile plucked the mandolin with delirious intensity. We heard Band of Horses, Trampled by Turtles, Outkast, Nickel Creek. Words that don’t mean anything unless you know what the bands sound like.

Scott and I weren’t really into Jack White’s set on Saturday night, so we sat at a picnic table and caught up on things while he played. When you live two thousand miles apart and have four children between you, that by itself is worth the price of admission. When Jack started in on We’re Going to Be Friends in a monotonous, thankfully almost-unrecognizable blues thump, I observed that it was one of the songs on the iTunes mix I had made for Balthazar’s birth, the one that segued so seamlessly from birth mix to grief mix, and that I hadn’t been able to listen to that song since.

“It’s come on at the gym a few times,” I said. “I always make them change it.”

There were, and are, songs I avoid. I don’t listen to Little Green by Joni Mitchell if I can help it. Can’t Find My Way Home came on in a coffee shop the other day and it was the first time in 28 months that I thought, as I used to, what a beautiful and perfect song instead of get me the fuck out of here. I still can’t listen to Catch the Wind, can’t even let it come into my mind. But Scott brought up something that I had forgotten.

“It really scared me,” he said as we were leaving, exchanging fist bumps with the kid still working the gate,  “when you said that you couldn’t listen to music anymore.”

I remember in vivid detail, and have written about, the going blind from grief, but yes, it’s true I also went deaf. There was a period of time in which it was just lost, not only the songs on the sad iTunes mix, but all of it, when the place that music takes you was a place it just hurt too much to go.

My relationship to music is an ordinary kind of love, but that doesn’t make it casual or trivial. Pop music and I have been on intimate emotional terms since Toto declaring that “love isn’t always on time” from the school bus radio touched some deeply sad part of me. I was second chair, second violin in the County Orchestra. I’ve always sung in choirs and choruses and to myself, and I’m fine, but I’m not gifted. It isn’t a great talent or a career but a mnemonic device,  a gateway to feeling, a portal to transcendence. No wonder my brother was afraid for me. Not being able to listen to music meant that a crucial part of my soul was grievously wounded, and he, of everyone I know, understood that, because he is the same.

 *

At the end of my grandmother’s long life she had a series of strokes and could no longer live on her own. My mother and her sister made the decision to move her to the Episcopal Church Home. For several months after she arrived there she would grab my arm during every Sunday brunch and say something to me about bringing the car around. At first I thought that she was confused about where she was. I thought she believed she was at Audubon or Big Spring, some country club she could walk out of. Then, as her nails digging into my arm became more insistent and her voice became more urgent, I realized that she wanted me to help her escape.

I don’t know why she thought I was the one to do it. Maybe it was because she’d been telling me to bring the car around since I was sixteen years old, and I had never once disobeyed, even when the car was hers and it was somewhere in the vast reaches of a mall parking lot and I’d ridden there with someone else and had no idea where she’d parked it. It broke my heart that I couldn’t do it. That I had to guide her back to her room, which was quite nice as these things go, which had a few pieces of furniture from her house, but which to her was a prison.

One Sunday the nursing home had a man playing the piano during brunch. My grandmother was an extremely musical person and had played the piano all her life. She loved Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and seemed to enjoy herself as the pianist made his way through the standards. But when he started in on the folk song Shenandoah, my grandmother broke down in tears. The stroke had taken her ability to write and most of her speech. But diminished as she was, it was clear that the song made her feel, with a powerful grief, all that she had lost.

After the pianist left, though, my grandmother sat down and played. She didn’t say a word. She played You are my Sunshine and My Old Kentucky Home and all of the others. She played without music. She didn’t need it. Her fingers knew exactly where to go.

 *

 It’s convenient that my hearing has come back with passionate intensity, because words and I are currently semi-estranged. Words were the foundation of my marriage, so it makes sense that as that relationship changes, everything has to be recalibrated.

There’s a Beatles song with the lines “Someday when we’re dreaming/deep in love, not a lot to say/then we will remember/the things we said today.” It always confounded me. I remember complaining about it to my mother when the song came on the car radio. Why would you ever want to be in a state in which you had nothing to say? That would not be a condition I would ever want to find myself in. I think she smiled at my youthful naiveté and said something like, when you fall in love you’ll understand. But that conviction that there was nothing worth having that didn’t have words attached to it never left me.

This is how writers fall in love, Leslie Jamison writes in her essay collection The Empathy Exams. They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it. I’ve never read a more perfect or true thing in my life. For seventeen years Jonathan and I talked and talked and wrote and wrote until finally we had come to the end of what talking, what writing, could do. I didn’t know there was an end until it was upon me.

Words fail. People say that all the time. And I never believed it. Words don’t fail, only the people using them. I always thought, well, try harder. Work them like clay, knead and squeeze them and mold them into the shape you desire. All it takes is a little effort. And if that effort kept me one step removed from feeling, always analyzing whatever was happening and choosing the words I would later use to describe it, well, that was OK.

Even as I use language to describe its essential failure, I acknowledge that there are other modes of expression that better serve me right now. That has led in what is for me a long-neglected direction. I’ve added people to my life who will go with me to see music and play new things for me. I went to see Three Legged Torso at the Old Church and a jug band at Biddy McGraw’s. I went to see a rockabilly band at The Landmark and The Flaming Lips on the Waterfront and Slint at the Crystal Ballroom. I listened to Blonde Redhead, Afghan Whigs, Jeff Hansen, Wilco’s Summerteeth album. I went to see the Portland Symphony in Grant Park, and remembered that I used to have season tickets to the Portland Baroque Orchestra. I remembered there’s a cd by Bizet still on my Amazon wish list, unbought. Best of all, of course, was the time spent listening to music with my brother. Maybe I’m going to pick up the guitar I was learning to play before Jasper was born so that by the time Scott retires I’ll be good enough to form a brother/sister geriatric band.

On the last night of Forecastle, the Replacements played. The opening notes sent me back to 1989, when they opened for Tom Petty at Riverbend on their ill-fated Don’t Tell a Soul Tour. I remembered the not-so-nice high school boyfriend I went to the show with. I observed that Tommy Stinson looked like the most cheerful, dapper cadaver you’ve ever seen. Was that Billie Joe Armstrong playing guitar a few steps behind the rest of the band? Was that a Muhammed Ali button on Paul Westerberg’s white suit? And then I stopped thinking, stopped taking notes so that I could describe it later. I even forgot about my brother, standing a few steps behind me. I felt the clear, undiluted joy of the rhythm, the familiarity of the melody, the satisfaction of resolution. It felt good. It felt better than good. It felt like feeling. And that was all I wanted, and all I want.

Happy Birthday (previously published April 2)

HappybirthdayI don’t believe in astrology, but I like reading my horoscope in the Willamette Week. Rob Breszny, who writes Free Will Astrology, is a fount of interesting quotes and references and I often glean something relevant or useful. A couple of weeks ago, he advised those of us born in April to stop being such impatient control freaks. Good advice for the week, though I feel like it could be my horoscope the other 51 weeks of the year as well. I should probably get it tattooed on my arm as a prompt: impatient control freak with a big red slash through it, like a road sign.

 I have always been a planner. I make checklists, I make one-year plans and five-year plans. I’ve always wanted to map the future. More than wanted; I believed that my chosen destination would be only slightly harder to reach than Bend or Corvallis. The future was like Breitenbush Hot Springs, maybe: on a small, unpaved road that was still easily plottable on Mapquest.

 When Balthazar died, without warning I found myself at the end of the known world. At the place where my life ended. Where the future no longer existed. A place without maps.

 Of course I knew that I wouldn’t die. That my life would go on. But I was acutely aware, from the first moment, that I would be someone else. Who, I had no idea. Everything except the fact of being Jasper’s mother was up for negotiation. Writer, wife, Portlander, financial underachiever, introvert, yogi, redhead; I could change it all. It wasn’t time, though, not yet. My body was battered; my heart was broken. I read and I cried and I wrote thank you notes. I waited to see what would happen.

 And now it’s two years later. What, exactly, has happened?

 I rode a horse in Kauai. Ran a mile in 7:32. Got a cat. Started proofreading again. Wrote a blog that became a memoir. Went to Italy. Got cranky in the Colosseum. Made new friends. Bought a car. Started volunteering at Write Around Portland. Did a deadhang pull up. Read a lot of books. Separated from my husband of fourteen years. Read to five-year-olds. Spent more time with my brother. Ate a lot of French fries.

 In the last two years I’ve done a lot of things I never dreamed that I’d do. But there are also other ways to measure change.

 In the last month I have reconnected with three of the fairly sizable collection of people I haven’t seen in two years. One reunion was deliberate: I emailed my friend and we went out for drinks. One was completely serendipitous: as a couple of friends and I pulled up to the Starvation Creek trailhead one Saturday, we couldn’t help oohing and aahing over a gorgeous blue-eyed toddler in a pink hat. Then I looked at the woman attached to the toddler. “Let me out!” I cried. “I know her!” The third I happened to run into at Write Around Portland, where he now works and where I recently started volunteering.

 I felt a surprisingly uncomplicated happiness at seeing these people again, which is a milestone of some sort. People get a wary look when they see me after a long time. They’re waiting for me to set the tone. So I hugged all three of them. I’ve never been a hugger, but what the hell. Maybe I am one now. Who knows?

 *

I recently told a friend at the gym who is in a place of transition in her life that the crossroads is where the possibility is.

 “Are you writing self-help now?” she asked dryly.

 I’m really not. One of my favorite books of the past year was Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the self-help industry. And I don’t believe in the life-expanding opportunity created by wrenching change every single day. But when I said it to her, I believed it. Some days, I believe it.

 For awhile I was writing ‘Alive to the possibility of happiness’ on the inside of my left wrist. I took the phrase from a book review in which the reviewer used it to describe a character’s transformation. I couldn’t tell you what the title of the book was, or what it was about, or whether the reviewer liked it or not. But the phrase stuck with me. Each day it washed off and each day I wrote it back on. Happiness, if not a reality, is now a possibility.

 ‘Surrender to chaos’ might be another good reminder for a control freak to tattoo somewhere on her body.

 

*

I don’t have a list anymore. Obviously there are things I want to do: refinance my house, get a roommate, get a full time staff writing position, fall in love. Do a chest to bar pull up. Get my heart broken. Fall in love again anyway. Rock climb. Go to a music festival. Dance and sing and take Jasper to Mammoth Cave. I’ve got plans, but I don’t have A Plan. Am I done with Plans forever? Maybe.

 “There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote, which might make me sound literary until I tell you that I picked it up from Free Will Astrology, too.

 It’s true for everyone, but it’s something I feel acutely.  Would I be here, doing this? I ask myself sometimes. Would I have met him? Would I have become friends with her? The answer is always ‘probably not.’ But I’m going to stop asking if I would rather have this than that, because that question is moot. I am here. This is where I am. It couldn’t be stopped, it can’t be changed. And so.

 If Balthazar’s short, almost life was a beginning that was also an end, the end of my life has afforded the possibility of rebirth. Birth is never easy. There is pain, and rupture. But the only way through is to push on, and at the end is something miraculous that wasn’t there before. Isaiah 43:19 was always one of my favorite Bible verses: “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

 To me, that’s not the voice of God, it’s the voice of life itself.

 This is the season of my birth, and Balthazar’s also. Two years ago today I watched Kentucky beat Kansas in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, and, although I did and didn’t know it, Balthazar was dead. One year ago today I canceled my birthday and proofread a preschool curriculum all day. Today is different than both of those days.

 I used to think that my birthday would forever be a day of horror. Now I wonder if the opposite will come to be true. Not that there won’t be sadness or tears; that would be impossible. But maybe I will be able to feel the rhythm of Easter and the vernal equinox, the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, instead of getting stuck on Good Friday. Instead of hanging back in the bleak midwinter.

 Sons die. They don’t come back. And yet…

 

 

Redemption

redemption

As the two-year anniversary of Balthazar’s death approaches, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of redemption. Though Merriam-Webster defines redemption simply as the act of making something better or more acceptable, redemption is still an old-timey, Jesus-y word. It’s invoked in all kinds of contexts in our secular society: Lindsey Jacobellis is looking for redemption in snowboard cross; a former gang member finds redemption directing a center for homeless youth. And yet no matter what the story, the redeemed appear as if bathed in celestial light, touched by the hand of God.

Which makes the obverse also true.

A baby’s death is such an extreme event I’m not sure that it’s appropriate or even possible to talk about it in terms of redemption. Can it be made better? Will it ever be in any way acceptable? Still, from observing the Facebook pages of other mothers I know, having another child appears to be, if not the path to redemption then at least the sine qua non of healing. The parents still suffer, of course, and always will. There’s no taking that away. The lost child can never be replaced. But by virtue of the fact that the new baby would not exist without the loss of the other, he or she creates an entirely new, joyful future for the family.

It’s not a secret that this was the form I hoped that redemption would take. I asked my husband to try again after Balthazar, and he said no. It’s hard to know how I would have reacted to secondary infertility, or miscarriage, or another stillbirth, or any other scenario in which I failed to produce the requisite “rainbow” baby. I suspect not well. Maybe Jonathan’s right and that would have been the path to madness. But that’s all speculation.

For a long time I wanted to wear a sign that said, “I want another baby, and there’s no medical reason I can’t have one. It’s him!” With a big arrow pointing to the space next to me. But I don’t feel that way so much anymore, maybe because the space next to me is now empty. I’m creating an entirely new future for myself, and I don’t spend as much time thinking about it.  But redemption? I can’t imagine what that would even look like.

Not long ago one of my Facebook moms, someone I met in a research study out of the University of Nebraska, posted a shout out to all of her friends who’ve had “rainbow” babies. Which I can tell you is pretty much every single woman I know who lost a child this way. Every. Single. One.

I usually just “like” the photos of the adorable children and leave it at that, but I must have been feeling particularly beleaguered that day, because I “liked” the post, as usual, but then I also said, “Please also have compassion for babyloss moms who don’t have “rainbow” babies and never will.”

My Facebook friend deleted my comment. That’s the kind of sad story you should just keep to yourself, you know?

Even if, like me, you lost your Christian faith somewhere along the way, it’s hard not to feel that redemption shines God’s light on you, deserved or not, and that to fail to find it leaves you in shadow, outside the halo of grace.

**

An alternate scenario was that my memoir would become my rainbow baby. But I’ve had to rethink that as well, because 20 editors have rejected the manuscript, with variations on the same theme:

“It’s hard to bring this subject to the reader unless you’re Joan Didion,” said one, which in translation means: we will tolerate this kind of anguish from famous essayist, but not you. “Other memoirs of this type have struggled to find an audience,” said another. Until they said that I had no idea that Elizabeth McCracken and Emily Rapp had poor sales figures. My personal favorite, though, is this one: “Its readership is limited because it isn’t redemptive enough.”

It’s an interesting situation, to have your life declared too dark for public consumption. I don’t know what to say except that I object.

 One of Jonathan’s friends, who is a documentary filmmaker, said that an audience isn’t looking for the Hollywood ending necessarily. There doesn’t have to be a “rainbow” baby, he said, but I have to have learned something by the end, something along the lines of, I’m grateful for what I have.

 I’ll tell you this: I am a better person because of Balthazar. I’m more compassionate, kinder, quicker to help others. I am more open, more vulnerable, more emotionally available, mor

e able to receive help. But to sugar-coat it and pretend that the price wasn’t more than anyone should be asked to pay; well, I just can’t do it. To pretend that I’m actually grateful that my son died, I can’t do it. Would I trade it all to be a clueless mom of two, untouched by tragedy, the kind who would unknowingly say stupid shit to someone like me? Yes I would.

 I’ve lost a lot. More than my baby. My place in the world, my idea of myself, who I thought I was. I’ve been stripped down to the bone. I’ve been forced to say, well, I have my health and my brains and, for what it’s worth, my heart, and that’s going to have to be enough somehow.

 I suspect that I’m not alone. I suspect that many people are experiencing something similar without knowing how to talk about it. Some of them might be interested in reading about those feelings. It might make them feel less alone. How many, I don’t know. Maybe not enough to satisfy the Viacom Corporation, but more than a few.

Maybe the solution is to wait until redemption finds me. Maybe it’s to take the book to a small press, the literary equivalent of indie film. I am going to look at the manuscript and see if I can rewrite it. But I think it would be a disservice to truth and to all the people out there whose lives are happening outside the confines of the acceptable narrative to tack on some saccharine passage or chapter to make other people more comfortable. That’s not me.

I’m grateful for what I have. It’s not easy. It’s day to day. Sometimes minute to minute.

Is that too dark?

The Company of Women

A couple of weekends ago I went to a Bollywood dance party with my friend Jessica. This, it should be noted, was extremely out of character. I always feel really self-conscious about dancing because I’m not any good at it, but this was Bollywooddancing, which somehow took some of the pressure off. How many non-Indian people are good at Bollywood dancing, after all? The relentless dance beat underpinned incomprehensible Hindi lyrics and the strobe light blinked and we twisted our hands in a way that on a couple of redheads looked way more Grateful Dead than Bollywood, swaying and jumping like free-spirited idiots.
It felt great to let go, to sink in. It felt safe, too, being with Jessica. Who does not care how stupid she, or anyone else, looks.
On Saturday I went shopping with three girlfriends. Again, what can I say except that I can’t remember the last time that happened. College? Looking for a cow-print dress at Berkshire Mall? The four of us met at Nordstrom Rack and they tried on dresses and I tried on a black leather jacket and Denise teased me that it matched my badass personality and made me blush. And then I went to Laura’s house and put on a sexier dress than I’ve ever worn in my life and we took the bus to The Nines Hotel to drink Blanton’s and eat French fries with our Crossfit buddies.
A little boy who didn’t live has brought women into my life. Not just a few. A multitude. Some of them I knew already and he has drawn them closer. Others I would never have met, had he not existed. He has brought me married moms and single moms and separated moms, young single women, the newly-married, the long-divorced. He’s brought coffee and tea and drinks and lunch and dinner, dancing and weightlifting and parties. Balthazar has brought me friendship.
It’s not as if I’ve never had friends before, but it’s always been a problematic area for me. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: the most important female relationship of my life was, and on occasion still is, dangerous, hurtful, and empty. It left me unable to trust, reluctant to ask for help, without faith that I could count on anyone. Or anyone female.
When it looked as if I were destined for a houseful of boys, it was a relief. A husband, two sons, even a boy cat; all of my primary relationships would be with men. I don’t have a sister; I would not have a daughter. I wouldn’t be responsible for teaching anyone all of the things I had never been taught myself. I would never have to confront those wounds, those fears.
But life had other plans.
Many years ago I was in a therapy group with a young woman who had recently lost her mother to cancer. Most of the time she came to the group and simply sat, crying quietly, for the entire hour. Occasionally she said, “I miss my mom.” This barest of  language was implicitly understood by the other women in the group. They said the sweetest, most heartfelt things to her in an effort to comfort her. “I miss my mom” meant something to them that it just couldn’t to me. I was completely frustrated by my obvious lack and I tried my damnedest because I cared about her, but I couldn’t feel anything when she said that. That part of my heart was locked, or maybe permanently broken, I wasn’t sure.
Later I met a writer who had written eloquently and devastatingly about the loss of her mother, also to cancer. She was helping me write a memoir about the impact of my mother’s mental illness on me and my family. The thing we shared: our mothers had been our world. But such different worlds.
I read the tour de force opening of her memoir and the writer in me was admiring and the anthropologist in me was intrigued but the human in me was in difficulty. There was a flicker; the Christmas tree lights of empathy illuminated briefly, but there was a burned out bulb somewhere on the line and the whole thing went dark.
She wanted to help me with my writing and I wanted to be helped. Also, I wanted her to like me, but there was this chasm between us. Eventually we discovered the place we could meet: our own motherhood. But friendship was an impossible proposition.
Balthazar changed my family, my future, and he changed my heart.
I’m reaching out in all directions right now and sometimes it feels like a rack and sometimes it feels OK and sometimes it’s downright joyful. I know I can’t do any of this alone. And I find I have women friends who can brainstorm mortgages and tenants and jobs, others who can cheerlead, others who can hatch ridiculous Saturday night schemes. My friends design web sites, they call in favors, they listen, they make me laugh.

Thank you, all of you, from my heart, for all that you are doing for me and all that you are teaching me.