Hey Jude — Not My Son

In loving memory of my sweet bright-smiling misfit and absolute delight Andrew King and to the kind and all-around lovely Bobby Harper. I love you both.

Hey Jude – Not My Son

What person, upon finding out that they’re going to be a parent, doesn’t consciously or subconsciously negotiate with God? Not my baby. Not my baby to leave my body before I meet him. Not my baby to be born sick and suffering. Not my baby to get sick later. Not my baby to be hurt physically or emotionally by life’s harsh winds, perpetually whipping around the world. Not my baby to be psychologically damaged. Not my baby to suffer from addiction. Not my baby to be unloved. Not my baby to have any more heartache than one must. Not my baby to make my mistakes. Not my baby to leave this place, for whatever reason, ahead of me.

A short lifetime ago, I spent much of my free time during undergraduate school working with my mom’s 5th grade students. I remember being surprised¾and “feeling old”–when I was working at USA and was getting a coffee from the student center and a freshman recognized me. He was one of the “kids” in 5th grade my freshman year of college.

Working with the fifth graders was fun. It was their last year of elementary school and in many ways, a last year of innocence. Certainly, that was the case for me. Socially, I struggled to navigate middle school, a reality that wasn’t helped by my appearances¾braces and glasses¾or by my predilection for smiley faces (the ‘60s were very trendy). Those smiley face keychains clinking off of my backpack were bullseyes for bullies and mean kids, and while I didn’t suffer the same as two other incredibly socially isolated children (one of whom, looking back, most likely had autism), after three years, I was damaged.

And so it was bittersweet, being with classes of little 10 and 11-year-olds in the days before they “graduated”, crying and singing along to Vitamin C’s “Graduation” song, assigning special significance when one of their names appeared in the song. I only ever hoped the best for these innocent little people.

While love is in many ways the greatest gift we have as humans and sharing and giving it freely can do powerful things, love cannot prevent loss.

This morning, I learned that for the second time within the past year, one of those precious children passed away. I laid awake in bed in the wee hours of the morning thinking of his younger brother and of his mother who now consciously or subconsciously asking God, why my son?

Between shockwaves, the black hole of loss feels all encompassing. The ever-widening chasm as the reality and finality of this thing too unfathomable to fully comprehend, engulfs her. Breathing is painful. The all-consuming and single thought is that surely, this is a nightmare. But night falls and morning comes as time cruelly persists. Anger at time, at its coldness, at its deliberate insistence on moving forward instead of backward, the way it should, the way it must, so that whatever circumstances led to that which cannot be undone, can be changed.

Because, as we all do, those parents among us whose children left too soon, we will rethink how things could’ve gone, should’ve gone, over and over and over, and for a while, we will be dizzy with confusion as to how things occurred the way that they did and not some other way.

Next, we will look for someone, anyone to blame. Whose fault was this, and how can I make them pay? As soon as this thought occurs comes the reality that there is nothing in this world that could make it okay. No amount of money. No quantity of tears of apology.

Instead, we realize that there’s nothing that we wouldn’t give. No amount of money or comfort or warmth or luxury or nourishment that we wouldn’t immediately purge just to have our baby back. Why had no one thought to ask if we were willing to trade before they made the choice to take our baby?

These thoughts don’t all come at once. They come over the course of days and weeks. In the meanwhile, the gaping wound left by unanaesthetized amputation of your soul starts to scar.

I’ve learned to live with the fact that my little Jude isn’t here, the step between Lillianne and Eilie, who I never even got to meet. I often wonder about my little boy, what he’d be like, what he’d like, how he’d play with his sisters. I don’t dream in detail. I don’t have any memories other than those of his loss and a few sensory memories of how he moved when he was alive that are so faded, they’re nearly invisible.

To that end, I don’t suppose to understand how the mothers of these boys, who weren’t even and who were just barely 30-years-old, feel. I don’t suppose to understand how the mothers of others who I know feel. Nor do I suppose to suggest our losses are the same. All tragic losses are unique as is all grief; however, there is a shared component.

The amputation of something essential is the same for all of us, and so this terrible thing has the power to unite us, to enable us to help one another, to pray for each other.

There is no purpose in asking why or in pleading not my. Every day is a gift, one we take for granted, and one that lately, with Sean’s illness, that I am forcibly reminded of (and of how often I take it for granted). While we are all imperfect people living imperfect lives, this, this life, is all we have.

I haven’t always taken lemons and made lemonade. I cannot be unaffected by the past. I recognize the many occasions in life that have stunted me, and despite my age and my experiences, in some ways, I still feel like a little girl. Perhaps that’s because I crave security, certainty, something most children possess. I go back to a time when I was 10-years-old, and like those little fifth graders at E.R. Dickson, where they live in my mind, everything was as it should be.

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Hey Jude — Regrets of Those Left Behind

Recently, I spoke to someone who’d lost her brother in a truly tragic way. Our conversation was surprisingly candid giving the sensitive nature of his loss; he took his own life following a struggle with “issues”. Pained, she said that she regretted not doing more…not forcing the issue, not insisting he get lock-and-key treatment, for a moment, I really didn’t know what to say.
My instinct was to comfort her with clichés such as, “Oh, no dear, there’s nothing you could’ve done,” and, “You did your best,” …the kind of stuff I heard after we lost Jude 19 months ago today. Did I do my best? Was there nothing I could’ve done? Are we truly victims of cosmic design? No, we aren’t.

At the same time, I could understand how and why she felt the way she felt. When someone we love passes away in a tragic manner, we inevitably feel some kind of culpability; the question of “what if I had” ever looming in our minds. Certainly, I don’t think there’s anything she could’ve done that would’ve changed anything, but I can understand that there will always be the question of “if I had”….

When my inadequate response to her reflection was, “I can understand how you’d feel that way, but…” she lobbed the question back to me and asked, “Well, don’t you feel that way about Jude?”

I considered the question, and the answer is yes, I do. Even though by all accounts, I did the “best” I could, was it enough? Did it change anything?

A significant aspect of my reconciliation and coping with Jude’s loss has been the conviction that Jude’s loss was an act of God; as a human, I cannot overpower acts of God. And so I cope. I realize, it’s a little more technical than that. Jude was a brilliantly healthy pregnancy. He was active –so active, that Christmas Eve before Christmas Day and then Boxing Day when he left us. We were on the monitor at the hospital when his heart stopped; they weren’t worried…at least not so worried that I wasn’t shuttled to USA Women’s & Children’s to deliver a preemie who would have obstacles but who would be born alive.

A little less than a year ago, I uncovered evidence that supports that possibly low blood pressure among other factors (read, the perfect storm) led to Jude’s passing. Scientifically, I attribute his loss to a nearly undetectable yet possible phenomenon in which the fetus doesn’t receive adequate nutrition and oxygen through the cord and well, you get the idea. I don’t want to think about it.

Anyway, I digress. I do have questions, regrets…things I’d have done differently had I known then what I know now.

–I’d have gone to USA Women’s & Children’s on the way back into town on 12/26, bypassing my doctor’s office visit and the related hospital that is, while fine, doesn’t have the resources of the University’s hospital.

–I’d have slept on my back less frequently. After having had Lillianne and followed all advice to a T, I realized much of the pregnant mommy rhetoric that’s out there is overly-cautious. The occasional back sleeping wouldn’t hurt anyone, but now I’ll always wonder…with my low blood pressure (I’m hypotensive while pregnant) and the occasional back sleeping, which inhibits cord flow…what if…?

–I’d have sat less often. I’d already determined to quit traditional work to work from home and stay with the kids after we had Jude. I was working full-time, taking care of Lillianne during my lunch hour, and then burning the midnight oil to establish enough of an income as a writer and part-time college professor to make the shift. I sat a LOT.

–I’d have gained less weight. As a result of all of the sitting and the total lack of personal time, I also gained more weight, and I was less fit. At best, I walked a few miles early in the pregnancy. After daylight savings, the most I walked was from my car to my office. I wasn’t fat comparatively, but I was 155 lbs by the time we lost Jude at 33 weeks, which was over my delivery weight for Lillianne.

–I’d have gone in on Christmas. I’d have pushed the issue when I was at my in-laws and doing things I never do to get the baby to move…drink a soft drink, eat a sandwich, lay on my side, lay on my other side…look, when you’re scouring the Internet for advice on how to get the baby to move and the baby’s not moving, go directly to the best ER with a NICU. Just…go. I realize that had I done this, chances are, I’d have been sent home and Jude’s heart would’ve quietly stopped without me hearing it. As it is, I did hear it, and I’ll always wonder if I’d have gone sooner to the more advanced hospital…what if….?

I could live in bitter regret for all of these things, but I don’t because I can’t resent what I didn’t know then. Did I really think that Jude was in danger of passing away? Well, not at first, but then when I thought he might have his cord wrapped around his neck, of course I was very scared and moderately comforted by his occasional movements. These were my anxieties when we were already driving back to town, so at that point, I guess it was moot. Also, he’d scared me earlier in the pregnancy, toward the end of the second trimester, when he went almost a day without moving only to start kicking up a storm at about 10:00 p.m. when I started working on some assignments I was anxious to finish.

So, did I do the best I could? Perhaps at the time I did. In hindsight? No, of course not. Jude’s not here; he’s in heaven. The same can be said to the girl who’s brother took his own life. Did she really think that he was on the course he was on or did she perhaps just think that he had some issues but he’d get through it? I’m inclined to think the latter as the response when it did happen nearly five months ago this August 8 was that nobody could’ve expected…or believed…nobody really thought it would happen. Will she always rack her brain for what she could’ve done differently? Probably, but who wouldn’t?

Regret and wishing is a casualty of tragic loss, and for those of us who survive it, we really shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, even though I know part of us always will be.

 

Dear Jude, 

I’m sometimes so conflicted not only because I’ll always wonder if I’d acted differently if things wouldn’t be different, but also because I’m so thankful to you for giving us Eilie, and as you know, I truly believe I wouldn’t have Eilie if not for you. She’s so happy…a radiant little ball of cuddles and joy. I know you meant for her to make us happy, and she does, but I want you to know that I’d have been so overjoyed to have you here, too. I miss you so much, and I feel bad when I don’t get to write to you as often as I think of you, which is daily. You’re my baby boy…my special boy. I love you, sweet boy. Give our family in heaven a hug for me and keep an eye out for us on Earth.

You’re my shining son.

Love,

Mommy

Hey Jude — Billie Jean

The women of my grandmothers’ generation were iron clad. These women endured under the direst of straits and in the worst of times and emerged 70-plus years later smiling and most likely wondering what we were so upset about with our video games and our Lisa Frank notebooks and our Saturday morning cartoons.

My father’s mother, full German, was raised in Ulm and Berlin during and after WWII. She and her family were not Nazis. In fact, they were sympathizers to war victims and often gave away food and resource to help those without. Tried for treason among other things, her parents suffered substantially during the war. Post-war, well, it’s likely to assume that my Oma’s elementary school days were consumed just being thankful you had food and a roof.

My mother’s mother, full southerner, was born in Tupelo and lived throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee before settling in Mobile. I knew her as Memaw. Her name was Vonnie Lillian Opsal. She had dark, auburn hair and blue-grey eyes, plump cheeks and thin lips, and a figure for days. The plaque over her grave says she was born in 1912, but that’s a lie. She was born in 1915; I have the erased and re-scrawled documentation to prove it. No, she lied about being born in 1912 so she could marry at a scandalously ripe teen age to a guy named Curtis.

I like to envision she and Curtis were young lovers…full of innocence and stupidity, like most sweet first love. They were kids playing house and the reality of adulthood swooped in like a thunder strike. Shortly after marriage, Vonnie got pregnant. She was a married ingénue in the late 1920s, and she was pregnant. Curtis had a job with the railroad. It wasn’t much, but life was good. At least they had real love.

When he left for work in the morning, Vonnie was already in the kitchen, barefoot, swollen with child, her flush belly swaddled tightly with an apron. She and Curtis kissed. She smiled warmly as her dear husband left for work, already anticipating his return, as brides do.

He never returned. Curtis was killed in an accident at the train yard. The news he was dead was more damaging than if she’d been clubbed. The oxygen in her lungs compressed, and she couldn’t breathe. He would never come home. She was dizzy. Never would she hug or hold or kiss him again. Lights flashed. Gone forever; dead. A bright light and then nothing.

Time elapsed like a dirge and, then, it was time. The baby. She was there, at the hospital. Then came the twilight sleep, and when she awoke, “I’m sorry ma’am but your baby was born still.” No, she heard the baby cry, but years later, she swore she did. It was a girl, she was told. She never saw or held her baby girl, who she called Billie Jean, and she never believed –not fully—that the baby had died.

I grew up with a wisp of the story of Billie Jean in my ear, and it was never from my Memaw. This story descended to me through my mother. Memaw was a woman of her generation. You didn’t dwell on these losses. You didn’t let them cripple you. You sucked it up. You had…responsibilities. Except, really, she didn’t. She was on her own, bound by loss, my Memaw, at such a young age. A dead husband and a still baby. I regret that I was never able to ask her and to hear her side of this (likely) defining aspect of her life. My grandmother, Vonnie, was my favorite person, truly. The woman effervesced; she lived, and was she ever inspiring.

Her other two children, mom and Aunt Linda, came nearly 13 years after Billie Jean. Their father was an alcoholic and an abusive husband, and Vonnie went toe to toe with him like it was her job. She worked in a restaurant on Mobile’s Dauphin Street that she later purchased. It was called The Home Kitchen. Yet still later, she remarried a seaman who was often deployed. Unconventionally, not only was she a divorce, but she also never begged or groveled or needed a man. My mom’s stepdad never paid child support, and Memaw never sought it. The woman had scars as deep as gashes, but you’d never have known it. The only indication I ever got was when I was a toddler, and she persistently advised to “never let a man take advantage of you.” She was like a ship, ironclad. Made of steel. She deftly sliced through turbulent waters, and if it compromised her an iota to do so, only God would know it.

Having lost Jude, I realize that being destroyed from the inside-out doesn’t defeat you. It imbues you with resolve, a fervor to thrive and survive. I’ve been reduced to ashes on more than one occasion; though, losing Jude was and is still the most significant trauma of my life. Sometimes I wonder if I fully “get it”, but I can’t worry about if I do or don’t or if I’ll have a nervous breakdown one day. All I can do is polish my armor and be a fighter like our grandmothers were. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. Of course, it does more than that. It defines us. I miss Jude with a passion every day, and lately, I’ve talked about him to many people. I still have my time that I’m cry and when I’m sad, but when I talk about him…I’m just happy. How does such a harrowing loss become a source of joy and strength? I mean it when I say that only God knows and that God is indeed mysterious in his wonderful ways

Aside:

My Memaw was a blessing to me. When I was born in 1983, “Billie Jean” was the number one song in the nation. It’s really more of an irony, but it’s sentimental to think that my departed Aunt Billie Jean was already looking down on me from heaven and that she is holding my Jude and singing in his ear, “Hey Jude….”

 

Jude,

It’s been 17 months since you left me, and you’re still so much a part of me and so real to me. I’m sad that I don’t have new pictures to share of you or to see how you’d look at Eilie’s age. She’ll be four months tomorrow. Four months. Hard to believe. She’s such a happy baby. She smiles all of the time, and boy, I bet you’d have smiled, too. Like a champ. I saw a baby at the park today. He smiled at Eilie. He had brown eyes, too. All I could think was how much he reminded me of you. You’re so loved, darling, and you’re so missed every day. I love you now as much as I loved you the day you were born. I love you forever and for always. You’re always my baby, and you’re always with me. You’re my joy, my baby boy. Keep heaven warm for me.

Love, Mommy

Hey Jude – One Second

For two months, I’ve neglected to post something on Jude’s site. I assure you, it’s not for lack of love or remembrance of my baby boy. I think about him all of the time; Jude Bear still shares our bed at night. In fact last night, I put him between Lillianne and Eilie who were snuggled in our big bed with us and thought that Jude Bear is about the size of my baby boy who would never grow or age another second. The idea of a second is one that I’ve thought of a lot in the past two months of being unable to properly put my feelings into words.

 

It was an unassuming Tuesday when at 7:24 I woke to a missed call from Sean; the call came in at 7:22. He never calls. I thought and pushed to redial.

The story spilled out and I was drawn into what can only literally be described as a living nightmare. Someone close to Sean had taken his own life only a handful of hours before. My nerves pricked, and I repeated, “Oh my God, oh my God,” as if the mantra would somehow reverse the reality and I could wake up for real.

This man, someone I admittedly barely knew, is someone’s son, husband, father, and brother. He was expecting a son. He was so much to so many, and in one moment, one second, his saga on Earth ended.

 

My mind swirled around the circle of grief as I thought of his mother, wife, and sisters. I imagined their pain. His mother, I could somewhat relate to; it’s an inexplicable phenomenon of loss and grief when your baby precedes you in death. There’s nothing that can prepare nor is there anything that can explain how and why you can wake up each morning afterward and step out of bed.

Her loss, I felt, was the more substantial for many reasons because even though I could relate, I couldn’t imagine. After 36 years, you feel like you’re safe. After your baby is born, you feel life your baby is safe. Your baby will do what babies are supposed to do…they’ll live their life, find happiness and fulfillment…their smile will be the last thing you hopefully see before your own life ends one day.

Of course, with Jude I learned that there’s no such thing as a safe time. You’re guaranteed nothing…not after the first trimester…not after the second…not even after that baby is born or can no longer stumble into sharp corners or can no longer choke on grapes…. It’s not a reason to be fearful, but it’s the truth. I’m sure at no point when in 1979 she looked at his gummy baby grin and dark eyes that she envisioned that baby would only have 36 short years to be heard and to be embraced. I’ll admit that even though Jude’s loss was so much less painful, the fact that I don’t have any memories to sustain on makes me feel sad and empty. Respectfully, none of it’s fair.

His wife…I could only imagine. I’ve woken up to a text from Sean almost every day since 2008. He’s the reason I look forward to 5 p.m. I get excited about the weekends because he’s usually here. The idea of not looking forward to those things is painful. More agonizing, I think of my babies asking for daddy…missing daddy…wondering when daddy will get home. Lillianne is almost three. Most mornings, the first words out of her mouth are, “Where’s Daddy?” and I get to say, “He’s at work, but he’ll be home soon.” Of course, then I think of us with Eilie; how many times have I said, “Look! Look!” because she smiled or lifted her head up or was making a cute face? I text Sean dozens of photos almost every day because our kids do something funny or adorable. I would miss sharing those sharable moments with the only person who cared about them as much as I did. So for his wife, my heart continually breaks.

When I thought of his sisters, I thought of my brother…the only person who uniquely shared my lifetime of memories and secrets. He’s the only other person who truly understands what life was like in our house. They were supposed to be able to raise their own children together, support each other through life’s pains and triumphs as they had when they were younger. The sibling bond is special, which is why I hurt so much for Lillianne after we lost Jude. She lost the best friend she never knew she had. Even though Adam (my brother) and I aren’t as close as we used to be nor do we talk as often as we should given our proximity to each other, I wouldn’t be complete without him. I mean, we shared more than a house and parents for the most formative years of our lives….we shared a womb; we share DNA. We’re (in some ways) the same person. If he’s not here, part of me isn’t here, which is how I feel about Jude as well, and it’s why I’m often sad for Lillanne and Eilie.

 

We drove out of state to attend the funeral…showing up felt like the least we could do and at the same time, it was the only thing we could think to do. A friend suggested that we do or say what we wanted when we lost Jude. For me, the answer was nothing. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to make conversation. I didn’t care about food. I was shell-shocked, but in hindsight, I appreciated the people who showed up one way or the other (physically or with calls, cards, and flowers).

 

I looked at him before the funeral Mass started. He looked peaceful. Surreal. A clip show of photos played on the other side of the room. A lifetime was being conveyed in a series of photos. He was athletic. Spent summers with his family at the beach. Posed for the camera in tee shirts and shorts like every other dorky kid from the ‘90s. He smiled infectiously in every image; he was harmless. Sweet. I met a person I hardly knew in a series of photos…probably the person his mom and sisters remembered best.

Too soon, the slideshow ended, and the Mass began. The finality of the closed coffin seemed to make it more real. I’m never ready for the coffin to close; I wasn’t ready for Jude’s coffin to close. During Jude’s wake, Sean was by his side, holding his little hand; I was only a few steps away, but I wasn’t next to my son. I somewhat regret that. I also regret never seeing his eyes or dressing him. I honestly wasn’t sure what I was allowed to do with him; he was mine, after all, and at the time, when we were in the hospital, holding him and brushing my hand across his cold cheek seemed like enough.

The guests took their seats at his Mass. His daughter’s attire was entirely apropos for the sad occasion; her innocence was highlighted profoundly by her purse. It was a little pink toy-like purse as though it wasn’t really her father’s funeral…just a morbid game of dress-up. I started to cry.

As children will often do during church, mine became restless, and I slipped out with Lillianne; we heard the rest of the Mass from the foyer. Sean soon joined us as Eilie was also getting restless, and we heard the remainder of the Mass from there.

After, we stood and watched –almost intrusively, like voyeurs of grief—as the family entered the foyer. He came first followed by his very pregnant wife then daughter and mom and grandma and sisters in turn; arms tenderly outstretched to one another, providing support and simultaneously reaching for it. A cloth was ceremoniously draped over his coffin. I clutched at Sean’s elbow, weeping for them…for him…for them.

 

During the procession to the cemetery, I flash-backed to Jude’s procession and had an outburst of emotion. I cried unrelentingly for a few moments. I was reminded of that chasm of pain that literally engulfs you when you have a loss so significant that you can’t even fathom it. It’s the kind of loss that your mind has to do absolutely wondrous and incomprehensible things to facilitate coping. It’s the kind of phenomenon that reminds you that there’s a higher power and a purpose. It’s the kind of thing that you realize, wow… I can…survive this un-survivable devastation and life can…have purpose.

Within the past year, I recalled reading a fascinating piece about a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It was riveting to say the least. Regardless of how you feel about the war, the first-person narrative of what they experienced was profound to hear of. And it reminds me that I’m not the only one who’s loved and lost so deeply. It’s something I’m reminded of often; in fact, just as with the story of this very important and wonderful and special person, I’m the least-suffering of anyone who has ever suffered, I feel.

Perhaps that’s because I know such mercy and grace, and I’m really thankful for that. Maybe I don’t know how badly I could or should have it, but I just…don’t. I don’t have it bad. I tell people all of the time that I’m blessed. I know I’m blessed. It’s not because Eilie is here, either. I’m blessed because I’m a child of a loving God.

Yes, I suffer, and I know pain. The world suffers, but there’s something beyond that. Have you ever seen people rise up in the face of pain and adversity? Band together? Overcome hatred and anxiety and stereotypes because they just had to help someone? I feel like that’s the point of pain…it helps us to be human and to become our best selves while having faith that it really will somehow all be okay.

To this family who suffered such a loss, I love you all so much. I don’t know where you are as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but know that we love you. Know that I love you. Know that your boy is holding mine in heaven, and that they are bringing one another joy. Know that we are here to bring you love and joy and peace and hope and prayers. Life isn’t always fair, but at least we can say there’s always love. We love you.

 

Related: On March 9…a day after (wow) a blogger shared this piece via Mental Health America: ”Open Suicide Letter.” I read it March 21, and it was –still is—profound insight.

 

Hey Jude – A Tree of Life

Author’s note: Please keep in mind that the contents of this piece are a reflection of my observation and of events and relationships as I perceive them; others may feel differently; however, these are my perceptions and thus my reality just as another who observed these events may have different perspectives. As Albus Dumbledore once said, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Thus, this forum for expression reflects my reality as wells as of how I’ve managed certain important relationships.

I feel that promoting certain food items as “foods that heal” is propagandizing Mother Nature. Of course there are foods that heal; there are foods that inherently battle cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and a plethora of other disorders all of the time. Rather than just eating naturally and healthy, I feel the majority of our society has become enslaved to trends. For example, at what point did it become sensible to obsess over kale and its many uses and properties versus just, you know, treating it like any other leafy green? Obviously, kale, spinach, endive, collards, arugula, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, Swiss chard and any other green / green variant can “heal”.

 

Making Memories with Cereal & M&Ms

Of course, in addition to their nutritional value and ability to defend against physical ailments, I’ve found that, more importantly, food can act as a balm on emotional wounds, which is why comfort sweets are most often sought when people go through a breakup (not to be cliché) or when they get home from work and are tired (it’s no secret that Sean has an M&M jar that he beelines for when he gets home each day (though, he does usually have a small bowl of whole-grain cereal with Lillianne when he gets home, too, which is a little tradition that I find to be very charming). That said, while food can soothe emotional wounds, it can also trigger them.

 

Pineapples

Years ago, my dad got into a habit of buying a fresh pineapple for me at the grocery store when they were in season. I love fresh fruit and pineapple has always been a favorite; though, I found the gesture to be incredibly random because at the time, I was in my mid-20s; I was living on my own, and I hadn’t knowingly revealed that I really liked pineapple…dad just started buying them.

The routine of being gifted a pineapple whenever I saw my dad got to the point that I once half-joked to a friend that one day, when my dad wasn’t here, a breakdown in front of the pineapples at the grocery store was imminent. I say half-joked because I really did think that if something were to happen to my dad at that time, pineapples would’ve triggered an emotional crisis

This was at a point in my life where I would sometimes lay in bed and think about that inevitable time when my dad would only be alive in my memory, and I would cry for the 22 years spent living with someone I didn’t know…for the 22 years of time wasted not getting along.

 

Disciplinary Roots

Some have suggested that the reason dad and I didn’t get along is because we’re “so similar” (it’s a common misconception for many who don’t see eye-to-eye); however, that’s not why we didn’t get along. Truth be told, I had a craven desire to be a “daddy’s girl” and to feel approved of and emotionally validated by my dad as a child and young adult, and it took a long time for me to understand why our relationship was so full of static.

Dad was raised by two people who –by today’s standards—would be considered abusive parents. I love my dad’s biological parents, but they were both products of their hard life-circumstances and (I believe) often too self-involved to have better-prioritized their only son’s emotional well-being. Dad labored on the family farm at a very young age…he was capable of driving a tractor at age 5; even though he was an extremely well-behaved child, his parents were fast to blame him for any kind of disruption and even quicker to physically punish him. In addition to this hard-knock approach to child rearing, his parents never supported or nourished his individuality or talents throughout his childhood and young adulthood.

Thus, the product of their “parenting”, my dad, was a Red Foreman-type (That ‘70s Show). He was a hard, manly man who knew how to work hard. Period.

Children in dad’s world were to be seen and not heard. We did as we were told or we were yelled at…or spanked…or both. To this day, the sound of vacuum cleaners agitates me because I only remember being yelled at for the way I vacuumed and the arguments that ensued. We had an industrial-strength Kenmore; it could’ve sucked the wallpaper off of the walls (pity it didn’t). It left visible lines in the carpet; you could clearly see where you’d cleaned. This is the gist of an exchange as I remember it:

Dad: “Vacuum like this.” (Demonstrates uniform lines as one would mow the lawn)

Me: “Why? I can see where I vacuumed.” (Gestures to vacuum lines)

Dad: (annoyed) “Because I said so.”

Me: (genuinely curious) “But why is that better.”

Dad: (irate) “Don’t smart-mouth me. Just do as your told.”

Further “challenges to his authority” as he perceived them would merit a quickly-administered spanking (there weren’t second, third, and fifth chances or mere threats of spankings; if a spanking was promised, it was delivered without hesitation). The thing is, I wasn’t being a smart mouth; I was a really inquisitive kid; I truly wanted to understand why in the name of all things sacred it was vital to only vacuum a certain way. Was it better…did the floor get cleaner? Did it matter that it might have been more expedient if I didn’t necessarily care about being the fastest I could be? Of course, the answer was no. The floor wasn’t any cleaner nor did it matter if it was the fastest way, but it was what he wanted. Questioning that incited a reaction.

Once when I was in elementary school, I made the mistake of asking if our neighbor could stay for dinner in front of her. We’d been advised to not do that. We understood there wasn’t always enough food for a guest and that it was impolite to ask in front of the guest lest the answer need to be no. In my childish exuberance, I brashly asked if our neighbor, K, could stay for dinner in front of her. And dad punished me in front of her. I tried to run, but he grabbed me; I tried to get away, but this made it much worse. I ended up in the air, suspended by my ankle, being spanked and humiliated in front of my friend who consequently remembered the incident (and reminded me of it) at our 8th grade “graduation”.

Despite this southern-fried style discipline, I want to assert that Dad wasn’t cruel or abusive. He never berated or insulted us; he didn’t not love us; he was who he was… a product of his ignorant parents’ emotionless and harsh “parenting” methodology.  Again, while I love both of my grandparents for reasons that are very detached from who they were as parents, I realize that it was their fault that Dad was the way he was during my formative years; it was their selfish preoccupations with their addictions and with their dysfunctional marriage above being loving and supportive parents to the person they were designated to protect.

This actualization alone made it possible for me to forgive my dad for “wanting to break” my inquisitive, left-handed creative, expressionistic spirit for the entirety of my life under his roof. (While I can’t remember the context of the argument, he did once say verbatim that he ‘tried to break me’, I assume like you would a horse; oddly, I’m very proud of this because as a woman, if your own dad can’t break you, it’s a certainty no one else can.)

 

A Relationship Re-Rooted

Dad and I hit a wall in my mid-20s, and between my ability to look past the past and the fact that I was maturing as a human being, we were able to form an actual relationship. Today I see my dad as calmer. I’ve gotten to know him as a wise, reserved, and reflective individual. He’s a really good person who is highly intelligent and who has overcome a lot (more than I realized or have communicated here); I understand him a lot more and find it very easy to love him and to advocate for him. I can also understand why he had a lot of anger and frustration for so many years.

Admittedly, I wish this version of my dad was the version I had known as a child. I didn’t need the McGoo namby-pamby, pleated-khakis, feel-good heartfelt emotional lessons with the sappy music Danny Tanner dad (shudder) ; heck, even though I was a Clarissa in a Babysitter’s Club world, I didn’t even need (or want) an artsy Marshall Darling dad.

What I needed and wanted was a dad who wanted to spend real time with me. Perhaps, if our relationship hadn’t been tainted with perpetual discipline and resentment, I would’ve cultivated some of our similar interests sooner. Perhaps I would have learned how to discern weeds, to plant a garden, and to work in a flowerbed sooner. I love gardening; my dad is an excellent and skilled gardener who always has beautiful lawns and flowerbeds that look professionally landscaped. I could’ve also learned about some of the mistakes he made before I also made them…and maybe I could’ve avoided them all together (maybe not, but there’s no way to know).

 

Surviving the Winter

Alas, none of that happened, and dwelling on it and wishing it did is frivolous. Holding onto it is also silly because it threatens any new growth we’ve cultivated.

A (now former) student who, one year ago this January, lost his 21 year-old daughter to illness made all of this even more poignant; the only time he had with his daughter was roughly the exact amount of time dad and I wasted. I couldn’t help but wonder, What if that had been us? And then I was just thankful that it wasn’t.

My student has a son in his mid-20s who suffers a similar illness to his daughter. Before acknowledging what’s kept us going after losing Jude, I thought, “Why waste your time with school when what’s important is so obvious?” However, I quickly remembered that we keep going because that’s what we do. We keep going because when our only options are to lie down and to die or to keep moving forward, we just keep going…harder and stronger. We don’t let the things that try to break us break us.

That’s what this man (my student) did. That’s what Sean and I did after we lost our beautiful Jude. That’s what dad and I did after we didn’t get the first 25 years right.

 

The Grapefruit Tree

I started reflecting on all of this (foods that heal, grapefruits, pineapples, and my relationship with my dad) on Dec. 26, 2015 when I ate the first grapefruit I’d had that year from my dad’s tree. Often prolific, the tree produced only a handful of the nourishing fruit because it sustained a lot of damage during last year’s hard and harsh freezes. For me, my dad’s grapefruits are not only most delicious, but they also hold powerful emotionally soothing properties for me.

When Jude died, when we were at the hospital, in addition to his tears of grief for his only grandson and emotional support for Sean and me, Dad brought a bag of grapefruit, and I sustained on nothing but the fruit for least a week. Though other food was brought for me to eat while I numbly “recovered” in the hospital, it usually ended up uneaten either because a sympathetic visitor would arrive and it would be cold by the time they were gone; or because I was sleeping when it arrived, and it was unappetizing by the time I woke up.

Instead, the only activity that I could manage in my shattered state that held any peace was the satisfying labor of pulling away the grapefruit’s skin, then peeling away thick layers of pith before pulling the fruit apart and quietly eating the pieces at my leisure. Nothing spoiled. It was never cold or unappetizing; it was, in fact, the only thing that had any flavor to me.

A year later, it was very important for me to have a grapefruit from my dad’s tree. I had a total of six this growing season. As I said, it was a hard year for the grapefruit tree; it had such a brutal winter last year…it was lucky to have survived, but it had a strong foundation and was well established. And, like the people its fruit nourishes in every sense of the word, it kept moving forward when confronted by the option to give up; it, like me and like my dad, refused to be broken when life’s winters were harsh.

Hey Jude – Thanks to You

Hi, Sweetheart.

It will be Thanksgiving in one and a half hours. You’ll be 11 months old. It’s really hard to believe that I should be planning your birthday party right now…perhaps bemoaning (while smiling as I wouldn’t really be bothered) that I’m planning a one-year-old’s birthday party while also doing Christmas. I wonder if you’d be walking by now. I’m sure you would; you were so busy…those little legs never stopped when you lived inside of mommy.

I can just see you now puttering after your sister; you might still use a walker; I’m sure you’d terrorize the cats (it’s okay; after what they did to the furniture, they’d have it coming). I think I would secretly be worried that no one would come to a birthday party the day after Christmas, but I’m sure they would…surely.

I bet your smile would light up a room. I bet you’d have a funny giggle…something weird, perhaps overly effusive…something that would make everyone laugh when you did. I’m sure we’d have nicknamed you 100 times over by now; I bet I’d call you my Joy Boy because you’d fill us with so much joy.

When we’d pray with the family tomorrow, we would say thanks for you along with Lillianne, and there’d be a moment in Daddy Joe’s prayer where perhaps he’d mention you were nearly one and how thankful we were for that. Yes, you’d have been a preemie, so we’d be very thankful for your health.

I wish with all of my heart that I was eagerly counting down one more month before we reached a year on nursing. I wish with all of my heart that I wasn’t here writing this…that I was in bed, perhaps still awake, thinking of things for tomorrow like when I would start braising the cabbage and where my popover pan was.

I miss you.

I miss the weight of where you should be on my hip as I try to do things like be a good mom for Lillianne and cook food and keep the house reasonably clean.

I miss you when I look at your photos and am forcibly reminded that we celebrated your birthday and every birthday that you’ll never have on December 31 last year.

I miss getting to hold you even though the few times I did hold you, you weren’t there.

I miss that you were warm the first time we held you.

I miss that you didn’t look quite like yourself again after that.

I miss you so much, and your daddy does, too.

After we let you go last December, your daddy said he wanted to get you back and to hold you one last time. I think I understand that better now than I did then…at least now, I can think of what it felt like to hold you, and I wish so much that I could cradle you to my chest again…just one more time…and kiss your beautiful, innocent little face and imagine what it’d look like with a smile one it.

I know you’re smiling at us all of the time. You do make me so happy. You make me so much a better person, and I’d be lost without you.

Please know that I’m thankful for you; I’m thankful for everything you do. I wouldn’t be me without you…none of us would. So, thank you my baby. I’m so happy and so blessed that you’re mine.

 

Hey Jude – Flying Again

I am thankful; I’m more thankful than I’ve ever been in my life. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case considering my son, perhaps the only son I’ll ever have, isn’t here; he was only here for a fleeting 33 weeks before he was taken on December 26, 2014. Those weeks he spent kicking…he was so vital, so funny. It still doesn’t seem possible that he’s gone or that he was taken in a way that fragments the foundation of any confidences I ever had in anything.

 

Anxiety without Fear

After all, a seemingly perfectly healthy baby in a pain and issue-free pregnancy simply lost his heartbeat. I do have a theory on how that took place, but that theory does nothing to strengthen by belief in the probability that history won’t repeat itself. If anything it makes it that much worse. I won’t pretend I’m full of bravado, that I haven’t spent countless nights laying awake jostling a sleeping fetus so that she’ll kick me just to prove she’s alive for at least 10 more minutes. I won’t pretend I haven’t talked about it to my doctors like they’re therapists each and every time I visit. I won’t pretend I don’t think about it. I sleep with a teddy bear. I won’t pretend that I would much rather pretend that I’m not obviously pregnant. I won’t pretend that I want to talk about it. I’m sure people who don’t know or who think I should act more grateful think I’m a…well, it rhymes with peach, but I don’t care. Losing Jude wounded me to the core.

 

Flying Again

I have an ultrasound to see Ocean Baby every time I go see my high-risk specialist. I always start the visit very present, but I zone out quickly…I barely pay attention to the growing baby on the screen. Instead, I talk.

A disembodied hand moved a wand around on my jelly-coated abdomen while I stared unseeing at the screen. “It’s like being in a plane crash,” I said during a recent visit. “You’re in a plane that crashes on landing, and then the next time you fly again, everyone tells you just to be cool on the descent because it probably won’t happen again. I realize that statistically that’s unlikely, but that doesn’t make it any less anxious-making.”

My doctor nodded understandingly. We can all understand how terrified we’d be to fly again. Yet, here I am, exactly one year later; the plane is getting ready to make its descent. The gate knows we’re coming; we’re so close to the ground that if something were to go wrong, we should be able to salvage all of the passengers; of course, we should have been able to last time (perhaps); though, it’s hard to say what happened. We didn’t; there were casualties. I wasn’t one of them. I made it out. I was broken, bruised, burned, damaged, and changed forever, but I crawled away from the plane crash with my husband.

We never once considered not flying again. We knew we’d want to, but we were given a boarding pass and were taking our seats before we knew what was happening. This trip wasn’t planned. I’ve had some moments of anxiety including a recent visit to the Women’s & Children’s clinic because I felt a painful pea-sized lump under my arm that I thought might be a clot or something (an incident I shall henceforth remember as “The Preggo and the Pea”) (I should add that the doctors who inspected me did say they felt swelling, so I wasn’t being completely paranoid.).

That said, I’m not afraid of the crash even if I’m anticipating it. I’ve become unafraid of so much in the past year. Jude has given me so much strength and peace and courage…I can’t explain it. I truly don’t want to lose another baby ever, ever again. I pray with all of my heart that it never happens again, but I’m so proud of my baby boy for doing everything I ever could’ve asked him to do; he constantly makes me a better person.

 

A New Foundation of Faith

Ironically, losing Jude has made me realize just how much I have to be thankful for…I have so much love in my life. I have my incredible, beautiful little girl. I have my perfect angel boy. I have a good, faithful, hardworking husband who not only puts up with me but seems to genuinely like me most of the time. I have a safe, warm home. I have jobs that I love.

Most of all, I have faith that when the foundation of everything else was shaken, I was able to look to a higher power and let go. I was able to walk on air because I’d lost everything; there was nothing holding me to the ground any more. Suddenly, I was liberated by the reality that I can’t control anything. I finally understood what was meant by “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.”

Losing Jude by all accounts should’ve killed me. I’ve always said there are two things that would destroy me. One is my husband choosing to be unfaithful; the other –more terrifying prospect—is losing one of my children. In being forced to face my worst fear, I showed strength I never knew I possessed; I was surprised by my own faith. I truly had no idea who much of it I had in me; not once did I blame God or ask why (sure, I tried to find answers medically-speaking), but I never got angry…I never asked or wondered why. I just held fast to belief that there’s a reason and that perhaps I’m not meant to know that reason.

 

Jude’s Purpose

I know not everyone believes that events in life are purposeful. I am one of those people who believes there’s purpose. Jude’s already serving a great purpose; he’s helping me become a stronger, braver, and more fearless a person than I ever would or could’ve been without him.

I’ve imagined my life and marriage if we’d never lost Jude. Sean and I were in the midst of very stressful times. We’d recently moved into a house that we’d had fully renovated. Our finances were still tight but we were working on it; still, there was no excess. Our tense squabbles were typical of a working married couple with a young child: no personal time, no time to get things done, and money was tight as we worked to pay off student loans, pay our mortgage and other household expenses, etc. We both felt alienated and overworked and misunderstood for different yet equally valid reasons. Though some times were better than others, we were a structure under immense pressure and were a structure preparing to sustain more pressure. Jude was planned and we were excited about having him, but I think we both wondered just how much more we could take. Of course, we’ll never know.

The night we lost Jude and the nights after, Sean slept next to me in that hospital bed. I physically craved having him close to me; I felt things that I hadn’t felt toward him in a long time, which is sad to say considering how short of a time we’d been married. We lay intertwined, holding each other like human life preservers for two nights. We fell asleep here and there; I held him while he shook with sobs, and later when it was my turn, he cradled me as I broke apart. I never want to be without him, I thought. I never want to be away from the only other person who knows what this feels like. I never wanted to leave that hospital bed, our haven of security and intimacy away from the world alone with the pain of losing our son.

In much the same way having a living, healthy baby forges a bond between a couple, losing a baby does, too. In much the same way that raising a living, healthy baby can drive a wedge between a couple, losing a baby can, too. Of course, the stress of changing and adjusting to becoming a parent doesn’t have to be a wedge; a baby can also be a bookend.

I won’t say our sweet then-18-month-old Lillianne was a wedge because we’ve always both been involved and engaged parents; neither of us are selfish with our time (we were definitely both stressed to the nth degree more often than not, though, and very starved for personal time), but we were still adjusting to parenthood when we lost Jude.

Jude was a bookend; he slammed us back together and while we’ve had our moments this past year, Jude’s presence has been a quiet reminder that we’re in this together. My son’s life had and has purpose, which is why I’m not so afraid to fly or to land that I won’t ever stop boarding airplanes.