Category Archives: grief

Another Word

I’m feeling a need to write through my feelings again. After crawling into a post-cancer cocoon for the past year and a half, I’m back.

I started so many posts over the past few years. Fretted and fussed about getting “back into it” but quickly set it aside when it started to feel like pressure. I do not need more of that dreaded s-word in my life (by this I mean Should, but the other one fits too).

So here I am again WANTING to write for the first time in I can’t remember how long. Because once again I need to process my experience and nothing works quite like this. Throwing it all up against the wall to see what sticks.

Fair warning, I doubt it’s gonna be pretty, or witty, or all that inspiring. Also, there will be swearing. I swear now. I want to honour my family and my beliefs, truth, justice and the Canadian need to apologize frequently… but I’m too tired to self edit that much. Or at all.

This morning we got another official diagnosis for our little B (who remains happily in remission from leukaemia). I say little, but she’s actually 14 with all the sass and hormones that this entails. I’ve long ago made peace with the words “Down Syndrome,” “OCD” and, yes, even “cancer survivor.”

These are our words. Not who she is, but an important part of our daily life. Words that describe but do not define her.

She remains feisty and adorable, soaking up all the attention in the room. She’s challenging, very much so. She likes to be in control. She never stops talking. She’s often inappropriate – belches loudly, talks about poop, ignores people and makes us laugh every day.

She’s a lot of work. And she’s worth it!

But she wasn’t outgrowing some of the quirks that we used to chuckle over. In fact, they were getting much worse. More rigid. More controlling. More strange words and tics and coping rituals.

And while she remains an attention sponge, she has very little interest in actual friendships. Her social interactions follow specific scripts, whether they make sense or not. She continues to introduce herself and ask the names of old acquaintances, even family.

She loves imaginary play, but it sticks tightly to “the plan.” If you try to improvise or cut her scenarios short she gets very agitated. Her obsession with her favourite stuffed dogs (Pluto!), previously a helpful incentive, have become a hurdle. They’ve been banned from school. And the bus. And helping mom drive the van.

Hardest of all, she perseverates. There’s a ten dollar word for you. It sounds kind of admirable, like perseverance. According to dictionary.com it means: “to repeat something insistently or redundantly.” According to me, it is a very efficient means of causing mom to lose her ever-loving mind.

All kids do it sometimes, but B is a world champion.

Standing beside my bed in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping: “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom…”
x 578 900.

Now louder and with more feeling: “ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM!…”
x 1 987 638.
(It should be noted that she is extremely lactose intolerant and not permitted ice cream these days.)

So we wondered. And we remembered the handful of voices that had suggested it in the past. And we asked questions, read articles, visited the paediatrician and the psychiatrist and then waited, waited, waited (for almost 2 years) for her turn to be assessed.

The psychologist we saw initially gave us a pretty clear (and horribly depressing when compared to every typical 14 year old girl in the world) picture of B’s cognitive ability. I hate those stupid IQ assessments and as a parent find them entirely pointless. He also cautioned us not to expect a positive diagnosis. She’s just so outgoing and engaged and nothing like the stereotype of this diagnosis we all know so well.

But stereotypes while sometimes true, can also be total bullshit. (For further proof: kids with Down syndrome are always SO happy and angelic.)

If you haven’t guessed where I’m heading with this, the developmental paediatrician we saw today said it was a slam dunk. We’ve added yet another word to our lexicon – autism.

I’m not surprised. Some studies suggest that 10% of children with Down Syndrome (DS) also have Autism (ASD). While mysterious there’s clearly a genetic link. These dual diagnosis kids often present different, seeming more social and expressive.

After years of hearing the grumbling in DS circles that the ASD families get all the money, I was hoping we could cash in on superior funding. Also, we were tired of having to explain that B isn’t just like every other cute kid with DS that teachers and workers and friends knew. Most of all, we craved the validation that something else, something more is going on, we aren’t just over-reacting and under-parenting.

I’m not surprised. I thought I’d be thrilled to hear it.

I’m not surprised. But I am strangely devastated.

It’s just another word. It describes our reality. It doesn’t change a single thing. And knowing officially will probably make things better for all of us.

But it’s another damn word. And she has so many already.

There will be a day that I need to rally and focus on possibilities, find the silver linings and tell the pretty stories. But today, today I’m just sad and angry and so fucking tired.

 

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Limping Through Life

I’m not training for a marathon. I never have. I probably never would have. Apparently it involves a lot of pain and work and people all around and the possibility of peeing your pants (or worse). Even if I were in tip-top shape, that’s not my idea of a good time.

But I liked that I had the option… that I didn’t do marathons, simply because I didn’t want to. Alongside thousands of other opportunities I never knew I valued. Not the doing, but the choosing. The happy delusion that one day (if I wanted to) I would climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every single damn rainbow.

I realize now that I’ve been downplaying it for years. “Just bad knees.” After injuries and surgeries and therapies I’d gotten used to the snaps, crackles and pops. The sounds really gross my kids out, which is always fun. Even the doctors made light of it – “might have a little arthritis, not much you can do…”

I’m knock-kneed and flat-footed and at 19 the orthopaedic surgeon told me the structure of my knee was “weird.” I knew I could anticipate arthritis eventually.

Frankly, arthritis seems like the kind of eventually that happens to old people. Maybe I’d get it at 60 instead of 80. But I honestly didn’t anticipate hobbling around on my 40th birthday.

I went to the doctor this week expecting surgery, perhaps more drastic than before, but still – the man’s a surgeon, isn’t that what they do? Snip, snip… take it easy… back on your feet in no time.

I did not anticipate him telling me that the injury I’d gotten last month was the least of my worries. Driving home the point was the sound of bone grinding on bone as he noted the complete destruction of all the cartilage under my knee cap. There’s a few treatments: physiotherapy, lose weight, Tylenol, shots… but it’s all symptom management. Eventually, when it is too painful to walk, they’ll replace my knee with an artificial one.

In the meantime, I fell back into old habits. Downplaying. “This is so annoying! I don’t have time for this…” I said (as if it’s merely inconvenient). I declared myself grateful not to be a hard core athlete (glossing over the activities I actually do enjoy, like: hiking, kick-boxing, skiing, dancing in the kitchen with my kids and walking up the stairs one foot at a time). I told everyone that this is the least of our problems (how dare I cry over this when there’s cancer in our home, when others are dealing with so much worse). There’ll be good days, when everything works and feels better (don’t think about the bad days, don’t think about the bad days…). I tried to act like it didn’t bother me. I tried to feel that way too.

But it’s not working.

I just turned 40 and I’ve got degenerative arthritis. I have to wear a knee brace to walk and it hurts like hell and it might never get better. No matter how I play it, to myself or others, I’m actually freaking out. Frustrated, worried, disappointed, and sad – with undertones of embarrassed and guilty (not sure what that’s all about).

I was working on a blog post titled “Lessons from the Vortex” the past few weeks. It’s the kind of writing I find easiest to publish. ‘Look at me, all wise and heroic, finding order in chaos.’ Isn’t that nice?

Woman-in-process material is a lot less inspiring to others, less flattering to me. I’m not feeling particularly eloquent on the matter. The only words buzzing around my head these days are: can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t…

It sucks. I hate it.

I’m not ready to mine it for lessons. Or pretend that ‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ That’s not a real thing, by the way. I’m sure the woman in my online cancer mom support group can attest to this – while one daughter is in hospital with a cancer related illness, she’s at another hospital giving birth to a stillborn baby.

There are so many stories like this, far worse than mine, far more overwhelming. Life is full of horrible shit, layers and layers of hurt and loss. Those of us trying to swim to the surface can’t bluff our way out. Though some try, and take longer than ever to surface, the truth is… we’re drowning.

Eventually we lose our grip on ‘nice’ theology, a first world philosophy of life where the only people who fail are the ones who just didn’t try hard enough or believe the right things. What’s left in its wake is sturdier and more compassionate anyway: knowing that we all get more than we can handle at some point. That’s the human condition.

My whole life is a marathon these days. Apparently it involves a lot of pain and work and people all around (some of whom are peeing their pants regularly). I’m hobbling and barely keeping pace, but I’m still moving.

Maybe I’ll see the lesson in that tomorrow.


Day 15: Honouring Our Losses

Today at 7:00 pm parents around the world will light a candle in memory of the babies they’ve lost. It’s called the International Wave of Light. I’ll be lighting 2 candles for our sons Noah and Simon.

pregnancy lossPregnancy and Infant Loss Day may seem like yet another awareness campaign in an endless round of causes and crusades. Unless you’ve held a tiny little piece of your heart in your hands, or in your body, as you say good bye. It’s a devastating loss made all the worse by the worlds eagerness to sweep past it as quickly as possible. To us, a day like this is validation, comfort, permission to grieve years later and never, ever, get over it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating eternal wallowing and pain. But healing comes when we absorb our losses and walk alongside grief in all its seasons. The death of a child is not something that you get over.

The death of a child before or shortly after they’re born is often seen as different on the scale of sorrow. Their lives and our grief somehow meaning less. In my experience time is no measure of parental love and attachment; the impact is different for every person regardless of gestational age. I’ve seen extremely early miscarriages which are gut wrenching and late term still births handled with aplomb.

I’ve stopped trying to measure what grief anyone is entitled to. A loss is a loss. Only you will ever plumb the depths of your own losses. Grief is by its very nature a lonely journey.

Yet, this is a common experience. One that 1 in 4 experience. A few weeks ago the waitress at Denny’s let it slip that one of the three children she mentioned had died, and looked embarrassed, bracing herself for a socially awkward moment… I teared up, touched that she would keep her in the count. Yesterday I learned a friend had lost another baby, and I honestly searched for something meaningful to say, left only with a simple ‘I’m sorry.’ Scarcely a month goes by when I’m not aware of another loss and left grasping for some sort of help to give.

Maybe it is enough that we are not alone. Neither in our grief, nor in our desire to honour our children. They are precious. They are missed. They are always in our hearts.

So please, light a candle tonight at 7 pm.


Losing My Baby

What’s it like?

Like nothing else
Like something I can’t explain
Like everything sad and profound and beautiful,
all rolled into one
Bittersweet love.

It’s common, but never ordinary:
A crushing, soul-deep pain,
A precious, primal connection.

Life spins on
Time races by
But part of me is always there,
back then,
Holding him in my body
in my arms.

October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day around the world.


Robin Williams and the Human Condition

He was one of my favourites. Actor and comedian, with the rare ability to be silly, witty and emotionally raw all at the same time. I’ve always looked forward to his movies, like a visit with a funny uncle. Knowing that even if everything else goes wrong, the sarcastic quips and that familiar twist-y grin will redeem a few moments.

 

It’s a tragedy when the world loses a human being, for any reason. We’re less for it. Less than we could be. Should be. I don’t believe that people are interchangeable, pieces that can be shuffled and replaced as needed.

As many of us as there are in this world, each of us has a purpose and potential. Some way to make this place happier, kinder, smarter, prettier – better. Some divine spark of our very own. Imago Dei.

I believe this so strongly I tattooed it on my arm to remind myself. Every human being – infinitely precious, entirely unique.

I can’t help but think that if more of us would truly believe this and do something about it, we’d be able to figure it out. Justice. Sustainability. Peace. God help us.

A few things I’ve learned in this past week… Every day 150,000 people die. At least a third of these deaths are unrelated to age. In Iraq, extremists are beheading children and displaying their heads on spikes. In Gaza, endless war feeds ancient hatreds with no end in sight. In Canada, 83% of disabled women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

And now Robin Williams is lost, presumably to suicide after years of struggle with depression.

Looking at the state of the world, I can’t help but wonder why depression doesn’t stalk us all.

Every time a celebrity kills themselves, intentionally or otherwise, the familiar discussion begins about why. Why, if they have so much, would they give it all up? As a society we’ve worshipped money, fame and power for so long that this seems like an anathema. These are the winners in our game.

But we’re all just people. Feeling powerless and lonely. Struggling with our worst impulses. Hurting. Hurting others.

Then someone makes us laugh. A silly little thing. And briefly we rise above mere entertainment – there is a flash of connection, the joy of understanding, the thrill of absurdity unveiled. This was Robin Williams’ gift.

He reminded us we were more than the dark and depressing realities. We are laughter and comradery and joy.

We’re all just people. Feelings. Thoughts. Dreams. With so much more in common than not. Learning to love and be loved.

I didn’t know Robin. Not really. I can’t tell you what happened to bring him to despair. But I know the world is less without him.

There’s a hole that only he could fill. There’s a hole that only you can fill. And one just for me. I haven’t plumbed the depth and breadth of it yet. But I’m trying.

And when the job seems dark and lonely and too hard to bear, I might pop in one of his movies. Laugh. Cry. And remember that we’re all just people.

So here’s me, grieving for all the empty places left in Iraq, Gaza, and Hollywood this week. But even more for all the empty places left by those who are just too afraid, or selfish, or messed up to step up and do what they were made to do.

 


Simon

Grief is like a snowflake.
An ugly, muddy snowflake.
Each one nightmarishly unique.
No grief like another.

Snowfall brings a blanket of fresh beauty,
grief coats the world in sadness.
Everyone and everything around you,
dusted with your sticky sorrow.
It seems to soak beneath your skin,
right into your soul.

Even as I write this it seems garish and melodramatic, embarrassingly over the top. But that was how I felt 10 years ago today, when my baby was born.

On April Fool’s Day that year I call Glen at work and play an elaborate “I think I’m pregnant” trick on him. With a 2 year-old and a not quite 8-month-old at home, it seems like a good laugh. He wasn’t amused. But I laugh my butt off at the sheer panic in his voice.

Well the joke is on me. Exactly one month later on May 1st I call him at work again and say, “It’s not April Fool’s today. This is not a joke.”

We have been hoping to have more children. We were also hoping to have a little more space in between. I am breastfeeding and we have taken some steps to avoid this, but apparently we’ve been overruled by a larger force (or our cheapness in the b.c. department).

I am, and have always been, a baby-crazy kind of woman. But my first reaction is… exhaustion. I am too tired to be shocked. I’m sure this baby is why I am already so VERY tired.

Over the next few months I don’t feel much better, but I am beginning to look forward to my newest addition. At only 15 weeks I feel him move for the first time. Fourth pregnancy in 4 years means I’m a Rock Star at discerning those little bumps and wiggles. Suddenly I am talking to him and getting my girls to do the same. We start making plans and settle on names – Abigail for a girl, Simon for a boy. Now it’s real.

My friend Shannon is staying with me for the weekend when my 20 week ultrasound comes up. I leave my girls with her for the afternoon and meet Glen at the lab. I try to think of it as a date. I hate this part.

After losing our first child, Noah, we find these kind of tests nerve-wracking. The first few with my oldest daughter were a vale of tears and the absolute certainty that something must be wrong. The next baby was easier. And this one, is only a flicker of concern.

Of course, I have to pee. Which makes me feel nervous. Which makes me feel like I need to pee. It’s a terrible cycle. I chalk my unsettled feelings up to that.

Mostly, we are looking forward to finding out the sex of the baby. I’ve heard that they won’t actually tell you, here in the Lower Mainland, that you have to wait and find out the results from your doctor. But I’m dying to find out. It’s important to me, to call my baby by name. It makes it easier to look forward to him coming, to feel confident that we’ll actually bring him home. It’s not something other moms might worry about, but after Noah, it’s an issue for me.

I sit in the waiting room and obsess about this. Will they tell us? Won’t they? What if I cry? What if I tell them the whole sad story? Also, I have to pee more than anyone has ever had to pee. Think dry thoughts.

We get situated in a dark closet-like room and I run through my customary spiel. I know she can’t give us any information, that she needs to take measurements and talk to the radiologist, and won’t show us the screen until later, but we’ve had such a terrible loss and need immediate reassurance – please let us know that the baby is alive, right away. That’s all we need.

She smiles at us and pats my hand reassuringly.

The next part is familiar. Cold jelly, the smooth glide of the wand, mildly uncomfortable pushing against my bladder… but it’s quiet in here. So quiet. She’s not smiling anymore. I crane my neck to look at the screen, but it’s turned away. And she’s so quiet.

She pops out of the room, telling us she just needs to talk to the radiologist about something. Glen looks stricken. I feel something growing deep inside me. A dark, chilling dread. I know this feeling.

The radiologist comes back in with our tech girl. He looks like a kind man. He looks sad. He pushes the wand around on my belly a few times, then slowly puts it down. He puts a hand on my arm and looks me in the eye.

“I’m so sorry.”

I have no words that are adequate to describe the next part. I know we cried together. My belly sticky with jelly, huddled on a paper sheet in a dark closet, we held on to each other until the numbness set in. I’m pretty sure we called Shannon, and our parents, and some friends from church. We called our obstetrician and made our way to the hospital. It was a surreal blur.

We were officially 20 weeks and 1 day. I’ve never been so thankful for the passage of a few days. It meant the difference between delivering our child in the ER and having labour induced in the maternity ward. It’s the difference between stillborn and miscarriage. It’s semantics. I would have grieved no less 2 days before. I would have needed no less support then either. But I was glad for every sliver of validation, no matter how meaningless.

It sounds cruel to send a couple to the maternity ward, with its cheerful staff and ebullient new parents and cries of healthy newborns ringing in the air. But this wasn’t my first stillbirth. I knew now that as much as the juxtaposition might sting, it speaks to the realness, the depth of our loss. I couldn’t bear for the rest of the world to downplay or minimize or try to alleviate the horror of it. I needed them to feel it with me.

I gave birth that night to an exquisitely tiny baby boy. I held my breath and hoped, that maybe it was all some terrible mistake. I built an elaborate fantasy where he not only cried, but miraculously survived being born so early. I never believed it, but I wanted to so desperately.

It’s not all nightmare. There are moments of peace. Moments when God speaks to a heart ripped open with despair. Moments when we felt loved. Moments when we felt joy and wonder at this tiny, perfectly formed little boy. He fit into the palm of my hand. His feet were the smallest I’d ever seen. Each little hand the width of my finger. He was beautiful.

The hospital staff made a plaster cast of Simon's hand and foot. It's one of my most precious possessions.

The hospital staff made a plaster cast of Simon’s hand and foot. It’s one of my most precious possessions.

We named him Simon Matthew, after Glen’s brother. We held him and sang to him and said goodbye. We knew all the things we were supposed to do this time. We didn’t even read the pile of cheaply printed brochures they had given us. We took pictures. We made memories. We arranged to have him cremated and buried his ashes under the waterfall in the woods near our home. We had a small memorial service and sang “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” through our tears. Although we’d only lived here a few months, we leaned into the care of our new friends and neighbours. We did everything right.

I thought I’d be good at this by now. Having blundered my way through the grieving process before. Having mentored many others along the same path. Having read everything I could on the subject. I thought I’d be an expert.

But there’s no such thing. Each grief is entirely unique. This one knocked me on my ass. I’ve never completely recovered.

Simon,

Today is your 10th birthday. Our family visited your waterfall. I asked God to give you a hug for me. Whatever heaven is like, existence outside of time and all those questions, I believe he does things like that. I believe you’re there with your brother and your Great Grandparents and my Auntie Omi. I believe I’ll see you again and hold you and be your Mom the way I’ve always wanted. I miss you. I’ll never stop missing you. But I’m glad you came along and surprised us all the same.

I love you. Happy Birthday.

Mom


I Carry You Inside Me

I’ve sat down to try to write this story many times and it was just too hard to go there again. But today is his birthday, so I gave it another shot.June 3 008

For six months I carried your life inside me.

The year felt new in the most profound way that January. I waffled between dramatic excitement and disconcerted illness. I remember thinking, “How scary this must be for teenage moms… pregnancy feels like the plague.” I leaned heavily on that fierce desire for parenthood to get me through. You were so wanted.

We wrapped up one blue bootie and one pink, and sent them out to each of our parents. First child. First grandchild. First great-grandchild. You were already adored.

I wore denim overalls to the Victoria Day picnic, all the rage in maternity fashion in those days. But I felt beautiful, like the lyrics to “Natural Woman” suddenly made sense. Your Dad had more swagger in his step too, so I wasn’t the only one feeling the difference. You made us feel complete.

I felt something new that night. Something uncomfortable. Something alarming and outside the parameters of Baby Centre e-mails and our dog-eared copy of “What to Expect.” Although he looked right at me, I could HEAR the resident OB’s eyes rolling. He confidently diagnosed it as “bad Chinese food” and all but patted me on the head. After all, we were very young first-time parents, and the pain wasn’t even in the right place. He brushed off my past kidney problems and mollified us with a quick doppler exam. The steady wickety-wick of your heartbeat was beautiful. Nothing else mattered as long as you were okay. You were already the centre of our universe.

I’m not sure how we spent the next week. Most likely, packing up our little basement suite. Napping at my desk during lunch breaks. Planning furniture and paint colours and nursery themes with all the gravity of a proud new homeowner. Classic Beatrix Potter was in the lead.

When the nightmare hit, we were completely off guard. There was blood and pain and horrified looks on the faces of the nurses. There was good news – just a kidney problem. There was bad news – no one really understands what’s going on. The days and nights in the hospital should have been scary, but they weren’t really. I wielded my faith like a shield. I prayed with complete certainty. I basked in the prayers of others. You would be fine; there was no other option.

I had absolute confidence that this would one day be an interesting footnote in your baby book. I watched you suck your thumb on the hazy lights of the ultra-sound machine. I relished every kick and nudge.

My heart stopped when yours did. You were gone.

Sure, that traitorous muscle kept pumping blood through my veins like nothing was wrong, but my world, everything that made sense and held life together, simply ceased to be when the doppler fell silent. I can’t remember if I cried during the solemn scuffle of nurses and doctors and sad speeches and condolences. I know I waited for someone to say it was a mistake. I know I held your Dad’s hand. I know time passed for everyone else in that room but us. You really were gone.

For one week I carried your death inside me.

That time is mercifully clouded. Too broken to pray in words. Too hurt to care about my body. Too numb to feel alarmed about my kidney surgery. Too drugged to remember the ICU or the days that followed. Your Dad was so scared. Your Grandmas stayed and held us together.

They gave us pamphlets and advice and sent chaplains to talk to us. One was terrible. She said all the wrong things and made everything worse (Grandma Barb almost overcame her pacifist leanings when it came to this one… sending her away). The other woman was a Godsend. She was gentle and sad and understood how important you were.

It seemed strange and unnatural, to think of holding your tiny body and saying goodbye. But they were right. It was important. It was necessary. It was a gift. We counted your little fingers and your little toes and dressed you in the tiny premie clothing that was still much too large. Not every parent gets to hold their babies to say goodbye. You were beautiful.

For 14 years I have carried your life, and your death, inside me. They are sadly intertwined for me, the love and the loss, but I would not trade one to purge the other. I carry you with me, because the alternative is unthinkable.

There’s a little place in this mother-heart that is yours alone… where grief has softened, but remains… where maternal instinct lingers, unspent… where dreams are born of who you would-have-been, and who you-are-right-now, and what it will be like to hold you someday.

June 3 015Each year I remember you. Each year I pull out your little treasures and your sympathy cards and your tiny blue sweater and celebrate the most unusual birthday. Another year without you.

But also, another year closer to seeing you again.

My belief in an afterlife is no longer academic.

Not since you slipped there ahead of me.

So here’s to you, my firstborn…

Happy Birthday Noah William!

You are loved!


To the Other Mothers on Mother’s Day

May 2013 061 The week before Mother’s Day and the holiday is officially on. A large display of sappy, overpriced cards in the mall. A coupon in the mail for extravagant flower arrangements. And a messy painting project underway on our back deck, as we corral the littles into creating one-of-a-kind cards for the many moms in our life.

One more made up holiday to fill our life with saccharine rituals and construction paper crafts. It’s a lot of effort (and often expense) in our already busy lives. But it’s all worth it, because Mom doesn’t get to be the star of the show most days.

Most days it’s about everyone, and everything, else. Most days no one says thank you, because no one even notices all the little things that keep life moving. Most days it’s a grind, nothing glamorous or exciting or worth posting in a Facebook status (not that we don’t post it anyway). And most days, we do these selfless, thankless, menial tasks quite happily, because mother-love is the most practical love of all.

So you bet we treasure our gluey crafts and roses-are-red-and-so-is-your-hair poems. We eat Cajun-style toast and undercooked eggs off our laps in bed. And we grab our pink carnation on the way out of church like it’s a badge of honour.

We take our turn in the seat of honour for a change, and it feels good.

But not all mothers are celebrating with us. For a hundred different reasons, there are those who feel the pinch of this holiday. The celebration is like salt in a wound, and every sugary sweet second of it burns.

I remember that.

My first Mother’s Day after giving birth, I went home to an empty house. I was a Mom without a child. And I wondered if it still counted. If, on this day, I counted.

I hadn’t changed any diapers. I hadn’t soothed fussy cries. I hadn’t agonized over cloth or disposable diapers. I hadn’t taken 1,000 pictures of the exact same pose, because it looked like he just “might” be smiling.

I had changed my plans. I had cried myself to sleep. I had agonized over cremation or burial. I had taken pictures of the tree we buried our son under, because I wanted to watch it grow over the years.

That year there were two families in our church who had new babies. That Mother’s Day, our church family called both myself and my friend Cheryl up to the front and gave us each a keepsake in honour of our children. They made sure we knew it counted. That we counted.

This Mother’s Day I wonder how many other women are asking that same kind of question. Is Mother’s Day for me too?

For the women with empty arms. For the women who are waiting, longing, and hoping to be called “Mom.” For the women who did not give birth or sign adoption papers, but pour themselves into the children around them. For the women haunted by a twisted version of motherhood. For the women filled with regrets. For the women who are grieving and hurting and just trying to survive.

I think it is. Maybe especially so. It’s impossible to understand the gift of Motherhood without acknowledging the pain and the struggle. As a child is born, so is a mother. In pain. In giving. In supreme effort.

Not all mothers are born in the labour and delivery ward. Some are born during a long wait, intrusive home studies, and stacks of paperwork. Some do not hold their children in their arms, but in their hearts, with a love that is not diminished by the loss. Some give birth, then give again so their child can have a better life with a grateful family. Some suffer the long wait, wondering when their turn will come, going to extraordinary lengths for their children-to-be. Some instead wear the title “Auntie” or “teacher” or “nanny” or “friend” but give unconditional love, and time, and energy, beyond normal boundaries.

All mothering is done in the same way. In pain. In giving. In supreme effort.

All women who are in the labour pains of being or becoming mothers represent us well. Mother’s Day may not be a Happy one for you, but it still counts. You still count.

So here’s some cheesy affirmation and bad poetry, just for you:

May 2013 064

So here’s me, so grateful for all my children this Mother’s Day: the ones here with me and the ones in heaven. Also for the other mothers in our life, the foster-mother and birth-mother and birth-grandmothers, who’ve given us so much, at such a high price.


The Voices in My Head

My very first mentor was my Dad’s little sister, my “Auntie Omi”. She was there the day I was born. I was there the day she died.

She stepped in when I was only a zygote and wrote herself into my story. When my Dad was sent out-of-town on business, she stayed. She was the one who drove my Mom to the hospital. She was there when I was born. I could always count on her.

She was my unofficial tour guide to life. Whether it was letting me watch Grizzly Adams and Dukes of Hazzard when my parents didn’t have TV, or taking me to visit her office, she opened up a whole new world to me. She taught me my first joke and then listened patiently while I told it to her 5 million times over the next year. It was only slightly more sophisticated than the chicken crossing the road. It goes something like this:

Why did the fireman wear red suspenders?

To keep his pants up!

ha ha ha ha ha ha…

…ahhhh, good stuff!

When I was a teenager, she did something amazing and totally crazy. She adopted a child. A single women adopting an older child from the foster care system is spelled R-A-D-I-C-A-L, no matter where you come from. But it’s an awesome brand of crazy! It’s also spelled B-R-A-V-E and C-O-M-P-A-S-S-I-O-N-A-T-E.

My aunt was flesh and blood altruism. Her journey was a lot messier, more confusing and more exhausting than she (or any of us) were prepared for. My cousin was 8 when she joined our family, and it was quite a ride for both of them. Watching my aunt learning to love her daughter did me more good than the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard in my life. She wasn’t perfect, but she was faithful and committed. She was a great mom. You could always count on her.

Even as an adult she looked out for me. When we moved halfway across the country, she started sending our family care packages of totally random things she had found in thrift stores or antique markets: a set of tea towels, a weird night-light, blank video tapes, socks, a ceramic bird… Just between you, me, and the entire internet, I didn’t need any of this stuff. Sometimes I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with it. But I loved those weird packages just the same. It was her way of looking out for us. I knew she was thinking about me.

She gave the toast to the bride at my wedding, and I gave the toast to the bride at hers. I dressed all three of my daughters in fluffy blue dresses so they could precede her down the aisle. At a young fifty-something years old, she had finally met the love of her life.

It’s a beautiful story, plus now I can honestly say that “Bob’s my uncle”, which is just as funny years later as when I first said it (obviously my sense of humor hasn’t matured much since the fireman’s suspenders). My girls referred to them as “the bride and her prince”. They were so happy together and it breaks my heart that their time together was so short. Life, and especially death, just isn’t fair!

As I wrote the eulogy for her funeral 2 years ago, I realized that I had, more often than not, written it in the present tense. My aunt is brave, she has a great sense of humour… As I went back to change everything into the past tense it occurred to me – she still is. She still is all those things and more. Like her, I trust the promise that heaven is a place where weaknesses fall away and we fully become our true selves.

I’m not exactly sure what the afterlife will be like; none of us know, really. But I do know that my Aunt loved God faithfully all her life. The bible talks about us having a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11), and I can’t imagine anyone better suited to watch over us, pray for us and cheer us on. She was always taking care of us. It’s what she did best, and we miss her terribly.

My memories of my aunt may grow hazy as the years go by, but I will never forget who she was. I know I am a better person for all her support and her example. Her death was a terrible blow. But I did not lose her, not really. She is one of the voices in my head. Because our best mentors never leave us.

So here’s me, knowing someday I will be the voice in someone else’s head. I hope I have a Scottish accent.

Who are the voices in your head? What kind of things do they whisper to you?


Honouring our Dead

I love the Haka. It is a ferocious tribal dance with chest slapping, googly eyes and aggressive tongue wagging. The uglier the face, the better. It is loud and angry. It is awesome.

During our visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center a couple of weeks ago, we had a chance to take part in a Maori ceremony. As visitors arrived in the village, both the hosts and visitors took part in an elaborate welcoming ritual. There were women singing, men grunting and posturing… the New Zealand version of “please come in, can I take your coat?”

My favourite part took place at the end: before crossing the midline to meet one another, both groups paused for a moment in complete silence. It is a time to honour the dead. It is a time to remember those who should be here but aren’t, those who came before and those who have gone ahead.

A few days later, we found ourselves at Pearl Harbor. Yet another foreign culture, when you consider both my Canadian-ness and my Anabaptist roots.

It was chilling, standing above the watery tomb of hundreds of young men. The rusty turret of the U.S.S Arizona peaks out of the water. More than a thousand died there. Most of the bodies were never recovered.

Even the girls were quiet and contemplative, though B was mostly upset because we would not let her throw her hat in the water.

This large, elaborate memorial shuttles thousands of people in and out with the efficiency of a popular tourist attraction. Most of us came to check it off the list – yep, been there, seen that.

I love to walk in the footsteps of history, to see the places where my reality was born and reborn. The BIG picture was affected here.

But it was more. This was about the small pictures too. Here lies one life. And another. And another. And another… We honour each one, each name inscribed on that wall.

I can’t help but think this is something we are missing in our culture. Not necessarily the elaborate tribal ritual or the impressive concrete ediface, but memorial woven into the fabric of everyday life.

We are studying Death and Dying in my Developmental Psychology class this week. The western theory of Grief Work promotes the idea that detachment from the deceased is a healthy final stage in the process. In fact, those who continue a relationship with those they mourn may be considered unnaturally preoccupied.

These theorists are the same who approach all grief as a pathology, rather than a normal part of life. Sure, there are those who succumb to a chronic, unhealthy grief. But recent research supports the idea that continued bonds with the dead, especially those who were a vital part of our lives, is beneficial.

The bible says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). The souls of those who came before us. Those who have gone ahead. And they are watching.

These are the ones who built the scaffolding of our lives. If we forget the lessons they have taught us and the sacrifices they have made, we forget who we are.

I am a seed that was sown from the past and I shall never be lost.” ~ Maori saying

We do not worship our ancestors as ancient tribes once did, but we must honour them. In remembering, we are telling our own story. Not just to the world, but to ourselves and our children. And someday we will be a part of their story.

So here’s me: grand-daughter of Doris, Robert and William, niece of Naomi, mother of Noah and Simon.

How do you honour your dead? How can we make memorial part of our everyday life?


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