Escalator

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During a long layover between flights my parents and myself took turns entertaining an almost 10 month old Graham between stealing bathroom breaks and fetching snacks. As I meandered back to our make shift camp of carry-on luggage and tech devices, I leaned lazily against the railing of the walking escalator.  Peacefully, I watched the passing people and enjoyed a small moment of personal quiet.

In the distance, I saw my mother with Graham attached to her front in his green Ergo carrier.  With animated facial expressions she whispered in his ear and tickled his back as he smiled and cooed at the never-ending stream of passing people. I watched as his sweet giggles elicited spontaneous smiles from grumpy travelers.

I stood up straight as the escalator moved me closer to my son, and plastered a huge smile on my face in preparation for our meeting. Soon we would be sliding by each other, each of us moving in the opposite direction.

Caught in the middle of an indiscriminate smile and laugh, Graham’s eyes randomly found mine and he paused in the surprise of recognition before he hollered out loudly – screeching and laughing as he giddily bounced his small body up and down with a joy and excitement not wasted on a stranger’s smile. I laughed back and called out to my son as our conveyer belts moved us steadily away from each other.

This memory ends as the escalator pulls my son further and further away.  I see my mother’s back and Graham’s satisfied, happy face peering over her shoulder.

Does Graham miss me? Can you miss someone without hurting? Was Graham missing me that day in the airport, snuggled in the arms of his Manna, enjoying the happiness all around him… No, probably not, but I know he was thrilled to discover me…

I imagine him finding me again someday.  Even now, I’m getting ready… standing up straight, putting a smile on my face, all the while slowly moving towards him.   When I finally get to my son, I hope he’ll recognize me. I imagine his eyes meeting mine, finding me in the sea of people.

I imagine the celebration…

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Nursing Snippets

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Almost immediately after a newborn Graham was plopped on my chest, I scrambled to unclasp my bra.  I had forgotten all about the unnecessary undergarment while I labored, but as I kissed and squished my slimy infant I felt compelled to remove it, and remove it fast!  The straps got tangled in the IV lines and I required help to maneuver and situate but I finally stripped away my clothes and cuddled my infant directly to my skin.  As my small Graham diligently sniffed and rooted, the world around me began to blur.  He latched on within minutes, and I reveled in peace and accomplishment.

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Although Graham nursed earnestly from the beginning, I struggled to physically acclimate and a couple weeks after we returned home I finally called a lactation consultant. “He’s getting plenty, but it hurts so badly,” I complained.  After asking a series of questions (which apparently I answered satisfactorily) and discovering that I had successfully nursed his two sisters, she went on to downplay my concerns and tell me cheerily, “It will get better!”

Feeling a little disgruntled, I took to the internet and discovered the laid back nursing position which helped alleviate a lot of the pain and issues we were having.  Eventually, we figured things out and nursing Graham became simple, easy, and fun!

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His first Sunday in church I had wrapped him up snug in the Moby wrap and he snoozed peacefully, protected and comfortable.  The morning was going flawlessly and I was actually feeling pretty puffed-up as I smiled at familiar faces and settled into the sermon.

About half way through the service my little son began squirming and fussing, inviting unwanted attention and sideways glances from those around me.  I suddenly realized that because he was wrapped in so many layers of fabric, his boob access was significantly diminished! We were a ticking time bomb as I tried to release him from the six feet of material wrapped around us in an exasperating pattern of crisscrosses and loops…   I needed to not only remove this fragile, squawking infant from his place on my chest but also remove all of the fabric wrapped around my torso, find a nursing cover in the well stocked diaper bag, and discreetly disrobe my leaky boob.  I became painfully aware of the strangers siting to either side of me and the people packed like sardines in front of me and behind me.

Suddenly, this smug mother of three got a little panicky and totally caved to the pressure!  I shot up out of my seat – balancing a now wailing Graham, miles of loosened Moby, and a ridiculously overloaded diaper bag I shuffled past legs and bags to make my way out of the sanctuary and into the cool, quiet basement where I finally relaxed and fed my sweet boy, feeling strangely successful despite my failure.

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He was the youngest of my babies to grow teeth and the first time he bit down while nursing I yelped in pain – He popped off in surprise and looked at me with bewildered shock.  His sisters had responded much the same way, but instead of bursting into tears and sobbing his promise of never doing such a horrible thing ever again (as both of his sisters had) – his face broke into a huge grin and he giggled before snuggling back to his lunch.  He continued to follow up subsequent bites with the same guiltless smiles and laughs despite my attempts of teaching him cause and effect… and pain! All told, he only bit me a handful of times and never seemingly on purpose!

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As Graham grew older, he nursed less frequently and more predictably.  He would often want quick, hydrating snacks or a chance to reconnect and soothe.  He specialized in the kick-back maneuver to communicate his desire to nurse.   While sitting on my hip or in my lap he would throw his whole body back, propelling his torso into the nursing position, and I always knew exactly what he wanted.  Although It was a deliberate movement pattern, to an inexperienced person it may well have gone unnoticed.  I love it when I get the chance to watch a baby using this technique to converse with their own mother – I recognize it immediately, and am reminded of my son.

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On the day he died, Graham nursed just once.  In the early morning hours, I cee’ed my body around his while his toes curled into my soft, fleshy belly.  He played with my hair and patted my chest.  We were warm and sleepy, safe and happy.

House of Mirrors

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We pulled out of the driveway, completely loaded down with snacks, games, toys, clothes, movies, bags, swimwear, tech gadgets – two cars stuffed to the gills with 8 people, palpable energy, and the feeling of exhaustive relief!  All the packing and planning had finally paid off – we were on our way to Disneyland princesses, warm beaches, and a small family I was desperate to see!

I took a deep breath as a sob caught in my throat. “I feel like I’ve left him behind,” I admitted.   All of this stuff, all of this energy – this fun… he didn’t get to be part of it.  I didn’t pack a bag for my son, but I also couldn’t bring along the patterns and routines I had painstakingly practiced – one anguished day after another.

A picture here, a favorite toy there, my morning cup of coffee marking the precious time I allowed myself to pour over video clips and photos guilt free.  Beats of time during the day where I would steal away to his room just to sit in the rocking chair.  I was free to touch the things he once touched and then let my mind linger whenever I needed to.  I walked away from all of it.  Home is a place where my fractured family somehow seems the most complete – the closest to who we once were.  It can’t stay like this forever, but it has allowed me the opportunity to reinvent myself and practice who I will be without Graham.

No one forced me to leave – I could have postponed this promised trip indefinitely, but although the open road was daunting – it was exhilarating too.  I simply couldn’t stay where I was – trapped in a self-made house of mirrors.  Honestly, I didn’t know if I was ready, but somehow I felt compelled to give it a try.  The grief literature devotes countless pages on how to survive the holiday seasons, but offers very little direction for a first vacation…  In many ways I felt like I was jumping off a cliff.  Maybe I would get to leave behind some of the pain – but at what cost? I was journeying towards new joy and had to leave Graham where he was – frozen forever in a place I just couldn’t stay.

In the beginning of our 14 day adventure, thoughts of Graham took a front seat, if I were to be honest – he was all I could think of and I indulged in meticulously placing his memory into our busy vacation moments.  But as time moved on, the tug of his loss effortlessly faded.  He was there always, but in a quiet way… a peaceful ache.  I remembered him often but never felt too burdened.

Now I am home, and everything is different somehow.  Charlotte is on summer break, I have a to-do list a mile long… I tried to pick up where I left off… but it’s just not working the same… So here I am.  It’s not good or bad, really.  It just is.  And I’m ok with that.

As I spend some time reflecting, I realize simply, I can in fact, ‘do this’.  I am somehow capable of this incapable thing.

Oh yes, I do

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I began singing this song to my infant Charlotte many years ago (it’s derived from the ‘we love you Conrad’ song from Bye Bye Birdie).  I loved changing the tempo and playing with nicknames.  Eleanor got her own versions when she came along, and by the time Graham arrived we would all sing it to him together.  The night before heaven, I laid him down in his crib and snuggled his soft flannel blanket up under his chin.  I placed my hand firmly on his chest, looked into his eyes, and sang him his song.

I love you Graham

oh yes, I do

I love you Graham

and this is true…

When you’re not with me,

I’m blue.

Oh, Graham-Bo…

I. Love. You.

Avalanche

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As we entered our small house, the energy was palpable – our home was quietly buzzing with fullness and love.  I hung up my jacket as my daughters flew past, garbed in princess gowns and happily playing with little friends they hadn’t seen in almost a year.  I quietly inventoried the bustling home, from the team of diligent women futzing in the kitchen, to the group of men unloading a brand new deep freeze in the garage.  As I turned the corner toward the den, I saw Evan’s mom and dad plopped on the couch, his sister was sitting across from them rocking Graham.

Evan and I had just returned from the funeral home where we made arrangements for Graham’s services. My son was dead now, which ment the baby my sister-in-law was cuddling, couldn’t possibly be Graham.  Even so, as I looked over at the two of them – I really, truly believed the baby she was holding was my son.

I actually thought Graham was just a few feet away from me – snuggled, asleep in the arms of his aunt.  For a fleeting bit of time, I lived within a dream.  I wasn’t hoping it was true, it wasn’t an ‘if-only’ moment.  It was that – for a transient instant – I thought Graham was still with me.  Graham alive, was still so much more real than Graham dead.

As I sucked for air, the truth of my mistake engulfed me like an avalanche.  Unedited agony spewed from deep within as I scrambled toward this precious infant.  “I thought you were my baby!” I bellowed.  “Oh! dear, sweet boy, I thought you were mine!”  My guttural moaning bubbled out of me like raw sewage from a clogged drain.  I startled the small child awake as I crumpled to the floor in front of him, my trembling hands spasming over his face and body in fragmented, unproductive movements.  “I thought you were my son!” I wailed. My gulping sobs quickly transitioned to short, fast puffs – much like the breaths of a laboring mother – enduring the unbearable by preparing for worse.  

Our heavy house quieted, as the people dearest to me drew close – tenderly they stood united, vigilant but quiet.  In that moment, there was nothing left for me to do but hemorrhage and writhe.  I was after all, torn open – my very heart ripped away from me.  

There was nowhere I could go, there was nothing I could do.  No one could lighten the suffering.  

It was too soon for healing. Too soon for comfort.  Hope couldn’t yet touch this seething injury.

So my community of warriors remained silent, and honorably bore witness to the mutilated, ugly mother before them, until the moment somehow passed and they returned to making sandwiches and cleaning toilets.

 

Maybe Someday…

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Charlotte mused on the way to school this morning, “I wish we had 6 people in our family, no wait – seven!  Can you make a baby boy for me and another one for Eleanor?”

I smiled, and explained to her that I couldn’t make anymore babies, however there were other ways that families could grow.  After an involved discussion on adoption, she smiled at me and stated simply, “I would like to adopt a kid for our family in three days.”

“Maybe someday…” I drifted off.  “Right now, I am still missing Graham a lot, so I don’t think now would be a good time.  Maybe in a few years I will be more used to missing Graham.”

“I wish I was used to missing Graham.” she exhaled.  We raised our heads in unison and looked into each others eyes in solidarity.   She broke the gaze with a smile and a giggle before she popped out of the car and marched into her school building.

PS:  I’ve been well, and am mentally inventorying stories that I still need to work through, but the warm weather has been good for us, and I have been sharing my time and energy with other projects and to-dos. Hopefully this summer will bring continued healing.

‘Normal’

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I casually introduced myself to a young mother at a family church event.  We chit-chatted as our children played.  At one point she asked casually if ‘those two were mine” referencing my girls running around with a pack of playmates.  I confirmed that yes, they were and left it at that.  She had phrased the question in a perfect way, and I didn’t have to deal with the horrible, aching elephant sitting on my chest.  So I breathed in slowly and resolved to keep things simple and light.

I soon discovered that we shared a friend in common and our small talk suddenly gained a layer of complexity.  Our mutual friend has two daughters that play with my girls and a son just a few weeks younger than Graham. I actually have quite a few friends with 2 daughters and a son, so I had become accustomed to some light-hearted commentary regarding the fun similarities. I opened my mouth, and without thinking, made the casual comment I had uttered so many times before,  “It’s fun, there are so many of us with two girls and a boy.” I trailed off… I had forgotten she didn’t know, I had forgotten I was trying to be ‘normal’ for a few moments.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt embarrassed and confused.  I actually hoped she wouldn’t notice my slip up and I could graciously excuse myself – go hide in a bathroom stall, perhaps… Instead she innocently laughed, and retorted back, “I guess that means you need to get busy and have a little boy!”

Oh God.  It felt like I had been stabbed through the heart.  It wasn’t her words or sentiment that hurt – in fact, SHE didn’t hurt me at all.   I set myself up to fail when I didn’t admit the depth of my brokenness.  I remain so fragile despite my best efforts to do this grief thing well.  I still can’t think or do anything, even for a brief moment, without bringing Graham along with me.  And everywhere Graham goes so does the shock, sorrow and emptiness.

I suppose I could have floundered just a moment longer, smiled half-heartedly before changing the subject, but I had used up every last bit of ‘normal’ I had.

“I do have a son,” I started.  “It’s just, he died recently, and… I’m sorry, I haven’t figured out how to do this yet…”

Man-child

Years before Graham was even conceived, Evan and I wrestled with a very important question.  Sometimes we approached it was intentional seriousness, other times we couldn’t help laughing over endless jokes and innuendoes.  As our daughters joined the family, we began to relax in the possibility that all of our energy might prove to be unnecessary.  However, when Graham was revealed to be a boy, we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into making a final choice.

I spent endless hours reading medical papers and internet propaganda, we indulged in countless debates and discussions and in the end, finally came to a mutual and unified decision.  I always hoped that one day he would appreciate our struggle and the obvious outcome, but now that the future is revealed to have no bearing whatsoever, I am especially satisfied with the choice we made.

It took me a while before I stopped feeling surprised during diaper changes.  After two daughters and my own bias towards caring for girl parts,  Graham’s gender provided a foreign terrain that took some getting used to.  I felt obligated to maintain a respectful attitude during bathing and diaper changes, but if I were to be honest – I secretly delighted in the fact that he was a little man-child!   Every moment of nakedness was an apparent promise that my baby boy would one day grow to be a man…

For the longest time, his sisters were obsessed with his boy-bits and came running from across the house at diaper changing time, “Wait! Wait for me!  I want to see his peee-nis!” they would screech in unison.  The girls would carefully move the step stool over to the changing table and balance together on the top step, so they could ensure an eye level view.  Sometimes one of them would dangle a pointer finger just above his exposed parts – ensuring everyone knew exactly what they were staring at.

I always sort of wished he’d pee on them – can you imagine??  But alas, he only peed once during a diaper change and it was more of a puddle then a spurt anyway. The girls eventually became less enamored with his ‘boyness’, but for a while it was novel, interesting, and the highlight of dinnertime conversation.  I imagined at the time, that we would one day get to tease a bashful teenager about how beloved his privates used to be.

I didn’t take his diaper off after he died, although I thought about it – only because I was trying to soak up every last bit of him, and what was hidden inside was just as much a part of him as his ears or his toes…

I had changed him so many times, bathed him, creamed him, watched him play naked…  I knew instinctually that it wasn’t weird that I would want to look at his whole, entire body… but on the other hand, there were strangers all around us and I was afraid the innocence wouldn’t be obvious, so I just left the diaper on.

So now… I don’t know… I guess I’m just missing every last part of him…

I Walked Alone

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I pulled into the parking lot and in quick, heaving movements made my way toward the entrance labeled with a large ‘Emergency’ sign.  Evan emerged from our second car just a few stalls down.  He maneuvered toward me with our 4-year-old Charlotte in his arms.

I walked into the empty waiting room and feigning authority began to speak, “My son is– ”  The receptionist barely looked up before she cut me off and directed me to a second window just around the corner.  “No, you don’t understand!” I said with rising intensity, “My son was brought here!”

The woman responded curtly, “Yes we know.”

I suddenly realized there was not just one receptionist but several working together, and they knew exactly who I was.  Sinking into the chair that was prepared for me, I began answering stupid questions about insurance providers, addresses and phone numbers.  Evan stood behind me and offered answers when I was a beat too slow.  The receptionists worked quickly and succinctly, not wasting a precious moment on emotion or platitudes. Charlotte stood to my right as I absently stroked her hair with empty pattern.  “Graham stopped breathing” she whispered in my ear… “what does that mean?”

“I don’t know honey, the doctors are trying to make him better.”  I answered with blunt resolve.  At one point, I turned my head slightly and realized there was a stranger standing in silent witness directly behind me.  I intuitively knew that things were very serious, but it wasn’t until I noticed that this woman was clutching a bible to her chest that I felt a torrent of fear.

I flashed my gaze upward toward her face and breaking free from my calm, rule-following facade, blurted out in shocked confusion “Is he–?!?!” I was going to say dead – I almost did, but stopped myself and quickly turned away.  I trusted somehow, that if the answer was yes and they hadn’t yet told us, it was for good reason.  I willed myself to trust that these professionals knew the best way to proceed, for I had no reason to doubt their competency.

Finally our family of three was ushered into a small room. I managed to remove my coat as I dropped to a chair and listened to the introduction of a small-framed nurse who had appeared to my left.

“They are still doing CPR.” she stated quietly.  I collapsed inside myself – she might as well have told me he was dead!  I didn’t know exactly how much time had gone by already, but I knew it was a lot.  I knew that at least three separate groups of people were involved in this strange relay race – pumping and breathing for his little body.  I knew things were horribly wrong.

“I need to be with him, please” I stated strongly.   She surprised me with her swift response: “Of course.”

She motioned toward Charlotte and gently continued, “The little one shouldn’t come.” Of course she shouldn’t, I thought, but what am I supposed to do?!? My quiet, strong husband nodded his support before I even had to ask.  Evan’s face twisted in silent agony as we embraced our familiar parenting pattern of divide-and-conquer and I walked out of the room alone.  Just a few minutes later, a nurse would offer to stay with our daughter so Evan could join me.  I am grateful for that small amount of clear thinking and kindness, for I was truly unprepared for the tremendous burden that lay ahead.