Two Worlds

We decided to take g to the zoo last weekend.  Somehow, the obvious only struck me somewhere in between the monkeys and the tiger: zoos are places for families with young children.  There is, of course, nothing remarkable about this observation but on closer inspection I was reminded that families typically consist of more than one child.  Siblings were everywhere, arguing, adoring, often just coolly ignoring one another.

And pregnant women.

Lots and lots of pregnant women.

I felt like I was watching from afar, removed enough to make mostly unimportant comments to myself about maternity fashion or the way that genetics plays out in the visages of the next generation.  Sometimes I walked casually among them, bolstered by the joyful observations of my own small primate, perched high up on his father’s shoulders.

The topic of having a second child seems to have permeated my existence from every angle as of late.  Several close friends who have toddlers g’s age are expecting their number twos in just a few months.  Others are plotting the logistics of making their move.  Some are torn.

We talk about it often and I feel comfortable enough to dispense my shallow version of childmaking wisdom in regards:

Listen to your heart, I tell them.  The finances will fall into place.  Deciding to have a first, second or any other child is not a decision based on reason.  You are not looking for extra hands to help with harvesting the potatoes or milking the cows.

I say these things because I believe them to be true but I don’t see them applying in MY world.  While THEY live in a world where children are planned for and pregnant women are lovely, I live in a world where children die and being pregnant means a series of long, terrifying weeks of counting the days until the next milestone: the end of the first trimester, the big ultrasound, viability…….

In THEIR world I can imagine how wonderful it would be to give g a little brother or sister.  I can believe that we could be so lucky to have another amazing little one.  In THEIR world, I could be ready to do it all over again, armed with my experience to make this time a little easier (under normal circumstances, the second is always easier than the first.  It’s a truth that has been tested so often that it has moved from theory to law, I tell THEM).

In MY world, I remember that I have conceived three sons but only one is here with me.  I know that things don’t get easier as you get older. I don’t know how I could weather another loss, how I could ask G to assume such a wearing risk.

It is also true that in MY world, I look at this boy, this one delightful toddler, and I can hardly believe that he’s mine.

In MY world, I feel very blessed indeed.

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Homeostasis

I came to love learning while in college. Something about the discovery of a format that finally treated me as an adult, separating the pursuit of knowledge from authoritative control, freed me to fall in love with intellectual pursuit.  Said in another way, I discovered only fairly late in life that I am a big fat nerd.

I remember the overwhelming disappointment that I felt when I came to realize that I couldn’t even begin to tap into the enormous body of human ideas in a mere four years.  I was actually saddened by the need to choose just one area within which to specialize.  Although I chose science, I continued to pursue subject matter in the humanities and my search for interdisciplinary courses, guided by my tender adolescent conscience, found me often in the department of environmental studies.

I don’t know if this field  still exists but at the time it was a fledgling, piecemeal discipline.  Much of the subject matter focused on shedding light on the dire nature of the environment problems that modern life had produced: pollution, global warming, waning species diversity, etc.  It was a bleak picture indeed.

I found the classes to be frustratingly incomplete.  What on earth is the point of spending so much time to understand problems without spending any time on possible solutions? I remember the unspoken pleas from many of my fellow students: please tell me how to become a good steward of the earth without disappointing my parents, who happen to be paying a lot of money for this education!

I mistakenly believed myself to be more sophisticated.  I often flaunted my freshly minted cynicism in search of camaraderie with my professors. In hindsight, I was an arrogant butt-head.  I saw my scrappy upbringing as a blessing, one that might permit me to shed societal expectations more easily than my classmates.  I realized that I couldn’t easily “change the world” but damned if I would be conformed into the bourgeois consumer lifestyle that was condemning all of us to fry in our own petroleum.

Ahem.

Fast forward a decade and a half or so and here I sit, just another middle class, fossil-fuel junkie, tied to her relatively new computer.   Strangely, I feel good about my choice to become a full time mom, at least in the short term.  From the perspective of footprints, it’s a perfectly virtuous career choice, although I’m sure that I would have scoffed at the idea with full lung strength way back then.  Nevertheless, it is highly likely that I will only have one child and I am bold enough to hope that he will eventually grow older and far less needy.  I will need to engage myself in the world outside of this apartment once again.  There are still real choices to be made and I still believe that I can make them meaningful.

I feel my grown-up self projecting back to those classrooms of yesteryear and pleading to my professors: how on earth do I find something positive to do with myself that still allows me to contribute to my families finances?

What on earth should I do when I grow up?

Double, double toil and trouble

There was a time when I would wake up nearly every morning flush with crystal clear visions of my dreams.  So vivid were my memories that I could recount every detail.   I even became something of an amateur dream interpreter.

These days I only rarely have clear memories of dreamland.  It is more likely that, as was the case just this morning, I remember no more than the subject of my dream, often accompanied by a vague feeling.  For the first time in a very long time, last night I dreamed of my Aunt E.  Unfortunately, I can’t recall anything else about the dream. I spent all morning wondering why she decided to pay me a visit.

My Aunt E was my father’s only sister.  After years at war (WW2), during which time my father had been born, fatherless in infancy, my grandfather reunited with his family. My grandmother would give birth to my Aunt E shortly afterward.  Although family lore would have it that my grandfather never again fully had his wits about him, nobody doubted that his little girl was his pride and joy.

When I was young, they would often compare me to her.  The people from the small medieval town where my grandfather had grown up were all sure that they saw a striking resemblance between us.  The truth is that, beyond the dark eyes and hair and the small frame, we looked almost nothing alike.  My Aunt E was beautiful.  It was her excess of beauty, I had often suspected, that led to her tragic demise.  Pretty is practically a necessity but beautiful is a trait with the power to be dangerous.  She was a beauty, but she wasn’t very smart. So the story went.  I suspected it was because she just didn’t need to be.  From what I gathered, she had been on top of the world as a young woman.

My father’s family had very limited means.  My grandfather was a humble civil servant and my grandmother a housewife.  They had big dreams for their beautiful daughter.  They scrimped and saved to dress her in finery in the hopes of finding a wealthy husband.  They succeeded.  I remember my Uncle M as the epitome of style and sophistication.  He had movie star looks, fancy clothes and cars.  They had a fairy tale wedding.

Then my Aunt E became pregnant with her first child.  The details to follow were never completely revealed to me growing up but I know that, by chance, each of her pregnancies happened to coincide with those of my mother, living a continent away.  My mother has four children.  My Aunt E died childless.  At least one pregnancy went to term but her baby was born still.  I remember the horror in people’s faces as they spoke under their breath of the time that she would carry her dead child for weeks before actually giving birth to him.

At some point my Uncle M would begin taking very long “business trips”.  Only later did it come out that he had created a separate life with another woman.  He had three children.  My Aunt E’s health deteriorated quickly. In her mid-30’s she would have a stroke that left her limping.  In her late 30’s she had another that took away her speech.  She spent the last years of her life in a home where nearly all of the patients were decades older.  She died of kidney failure not long after her 40th birthday.

Perspective is a powerful thing.  As a feminist teenager I believed that her decline served as a cautionary tale on the dangers of living by beauty alone.  She had no hobbies, no interests, no chance of living independently.  I now believe that she died of grief.  I am so bold as to say it out loud. Her losses killed her. She might have survived being abandoned by her husband had she had her precious children with her.   Her husband would have stayed had she given him children. The malicious tongues clicked.

When I called my parents to tell them that I had lost my first pregnancy the comparisons began anew.  They would never speak of their fears to me but I heard them.  Just like her Aunt E.  When I would call yet again, the day that I was admitted to the hospital after twin B died, they no longer had any doubts.  The talk was not the sort related to Mendelian genetics but rather something far more sinister.  It was a curse, passed down from one generation to the next.  They despaired not only for the grandchildren that they would never know but for their poor daughter.  It was clear that I was doomed. When my son g was born, it was, they still repeat often, a miracle.  I had broken the curse.

In my mind, I yell out in protest.  There is this organ. It’s called a placenta…… We were unlucky.

Yet this morning as I brushed my teeth, some part of my dream still fresh, I saw something.  I can’t say for sure but it may have been a very subtle resemblance to her.  My ill fated Aunt E.

Two

The days are long but the years short

I have been privileged to witness the most mundane of marvels.  From squinty newborn, all slippery limbs and muted squeals to confident mover of heavy equipment, accompanied by a narrative that more than makes up for in charm what it lacks in technique.

You have become the hardiest of saplings, tall and leafy and I, despite the dark circles beneath my eyes, am just a mere observer.   Of course I have never forgotten to fill the watering can and have scattered fertilizer and pulled weeds with a profound sense of duty but I see now that the heavy lifting has been yours entirely.

I know that there is no invisible threshold to safekeeping, no finish line for a mother’s worry.  There will be surprise frosts and pounding rains, garden variety snails and foreign blights.

But just for a moment, while the candles are smoldering, I might be forgiven if I happen to forget.

Happy birthday to my precious boy!

The wishing tree

The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Not until my father-in-law, visiting from overseas, asked about the place.  “Oh, it’s a convention center.  The last time I was here was for a huge meeting in late 2008”. It could have been 10 lifetimes ago. The meeting was not exactly in my field but I used to enjoy those meetings most of all. I had this theory that I had more to learn from them because they were more likely to lead to a paradigm shift, a new way of approaching problems.  Scientists, I reasoned, have an unfortunate tendency to shut themselves into their narrow niche.  In reality, I was pretty much lost the moment the acronyms started to fly, usually just a few minutes into a talk.

The decision to attend that meeting had been motivated largely by the desire to get back to “normal”, to refocus after the devastating loss of my first pregnancy just 5 months earlier.  Wishful thinking.  To my surprise, I had conceived again, perhaps too quickly for my own good, and was now entering my second trimester.  I took advantage of the breaks to wander the city and shop for larger, more concealing, clothes.  I hoped that nobody would take notice this time unless I was granted the good fortune to announce the arrival of an actual baby.  Unfortunately, this was proving to be rather challenging as I was already surprisingly large.  At the time I had no idea that I was carrying twins.  At 9 weeks my doctor and I had cheered at the sight of one lovely heartbeat.

I had reached the next step in my career path.  I should have been introducing myself to strategic people.  I should have been vigorously promoting my work.  Had I known about the wishing tree in the garden, I should have promptly visited and wished for a smooth path to the publication of my work and it’s wide recognition in the field.  It never came up in discussion.

I was avoiding asking myself the difficult questions at that point.  To me there was only one question and it was by far the most difficult of all.  Will my baby live?  Yes! And no.

Today the sun is shining and g is dancing around a playground that I didn’t even know existed during those rainy days of the conference.  He delights in the break in routine, the extra helping of attention.  I search for my disappointment but it is nowhere to be found.  I wonder where on earth it is hiding.  Today we find a wishing tree and I make a wish. And today I believe that it is the most important wish of all.

Remembering

I started this blog to restore the voice that I remember possessing.  It seems I have reached a point where it has become exceedingly rare to find the time to talk, let alone someone who will listen. My hope was to begin to make something, stone by stone, where I currently see nothing but rubble and weeds.  It strikes me, however, that in order to begin the hard work of re-building, I need to first pay my respects to what was. However much I might wish for it, I am no clean slate.

The act of remembering is a powerful one.  It is the difference between submitting to the events of one’s past and owning them, shaping them ever so slowly that they might even someday become our most prized possessions. In memory is both recollection and recreation.  It is only now, years later, that I have found just enough strength to look back.

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April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire

– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, Part I, The Burial of The Dead

4/20/09

I was delighted to see the name in my inbox. Even though many years separated our friendship from the present, he had been a good friend, one of those rare people with whom it felt good to be myself, even in high school when such a thing was practically unheard of. The greeting in his mail made me laugh out loud: “Happy 4/20!”. Of course, this was the day when marijuana smokers across the globe celebrated their mutual love of the “herb”. I had been the radical teenager, close on the heels of college, who loved to smoke joints and posit the answers to all of the world’s problems.  It was all so simple.

I wondered if he would think that I’d “sold out”.  Indeed, I wondered if I’d “sold out”, not because I hadn’t smoked a joint in as long as I could remember but because teenagers have the power to believe that they can change life before it can change them.  I looked down at my giant belly and resolved to write back as soon as I returned from my appointment. He would surely be amused by my current status: expecting twin boys in just a few months.  But I was late to the hospital. And I couldn’t think of a simple way to explain a non-stress test to a chronic pothead.

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I knew the drill. Relax, put your feet up.  Twin A was in his usual spot, buzzing away. Twin B, I assured the nurse, was right there. But he wasn’t. I knew instantly yet I remained calm, allowing her to keep searching, more for her sake than mine.  I focused on the monitor. There was still a heartbeat in there. Nothing can be done for the dead.  Mourning is for the living.

The nurse fumbled with the ultrasound machine, visibly agitated.  It was the first of countless times that I would regret the burden that I posed on others.  It was the first of so many times that I would feel the need to do the soothing.

I wouldn’t step outside the doors of the hospital for another 6 weeks. We chose not to meet Twin B but rather to see him as he might have been, alive, in the appearance and gestures of his identical twin brother.  I don’t regret that decision. We never gave him a name.  I do regret that decision, but it wasn’t mine alone to make.

Now 2 years later nobody speaks of him anymore.  It is an old story, a sad piece from a newspaper long since recycled. I don’t dare ask my husband G if he also finds himself wondering what it would have been like.  How would g have been different if he had a twin brother?  We are both grateful for what we have.

Still, when pot smokers around the world are lighting up in celebration of their favorite plant, I will light something in his honor.

I will remember.

One step at a time.

Even under the best of circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth are the equivalent of a physiological revolution. Still, in my own experience, the emotional struggles pushed my limits with a force that could never be matched by the physical pain.  Now that the emotional scars lay buried, largely invisible to the outside world, it is glaringly evident that the process took a toll on my body.  The observation is greater than vanity alone.  Months of bedrest and inactivity have robbed me of the strength that I, never particularly athletic, took largely for granted.

As I begin to carve out tiny spaces in time, a precious hour here, fifteen minutes there, I feel the burden of responsibility.  In theory, there are a million things that I’d like to do.  In practice, I submit easily to an absence of mental clarity and physical endurance.  I remind myself that getting started is the hardest part.  Surely, it will get easier.

It’s a discouraging place to be and yet I envision myself as a winner in my own fictional reality show. I love Cinderella stories.

I want to be in motion but a first and second attempt at running left me gasping and sore, disappointed.  And then, just recently, I failed victoriously.  I couldn’t force myself to run but I was propelled. I was back in my suburban neighborhood of more than 8 years, admiring the May roses and lovely front-yard gardens.  I was smiling at all the markers of domesticity on display.  I was walking. I was reminded that my legs have always been my favorite mode of transportation.  A flaneur at heart; I am a wanderer in both mind and body.

I know that walking is not likely to help me to drop my extra pounds or to restore all of the strength that I’ve lost but I am enthusiastic about the rediscovery.  It was so obvious as to be hidden and, I want to believe, the perfect first step.

Beginnings

I was fully enlightened to the truth that “life would never be the same” once I crossed the threshold into parenthood.  After experiencing the pain of loss and facing painful insecurities as to whether or not I might ever know the privilege of completely turning my life upside down, this upending became all that I truly wanted.

And it has been major.

And I am grateful.

Although I will admit to being older, more exhausted,  more plump and yet significantly less visible, I am also happy in a way that I never was before.

Nevertheless, I will come clean and admit that my first year of being a mother was filled with moments that should have been regulated by the Geneva Conventions.  We were visited by colic, breastfeeding difficulties, major sleep problems, poor weight gain (his), poor weight loss (mine), separation anxiety (mine and his), and postpartum anxiety (mine).  I will never know how much of this tangled mess resulted from my state of mental disarray nor can I tell you how much was related to the circumstances surrounding my son’s birth but I’m sure that many of our difficulties were exacerbated somewhere in the dark recesses of my own head.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter.

In my dreams of early motherhood I was basking blissfuly in the beauty of my newborn son, traipsing around town with him happily strapped to my chest instead of spending hours desperately trying to quiet his screams and my fears that his continued survival was anything but guaranteed.

But, as I said, all that truly doesn’t matter now.

My son g is now a spirited toddler and happily pouring over the writings of Richard Scary – for the 2,359,124th time.

I would do everything all over again to get to exactly where we are today.

I sometimes marvel at the fact that I survived and I am, strange as it still seems to me sometimes, a mother.  I converted every cell of my body over to taking care of my son for a very long time because that was all my limited faculties could manage.

But every now and then I am reminded of her.  That woman that loved to take long quiet walks and get her fingernails dirty.
I catch her stirring, a hint of activity on the EEG. I see that she hasn’t given up her love of coffee or chocolate-covered almonds.  I am curious about her now.  What does she want to do next?   I wonder what she’s learned from all this.

This blog is for her.