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We’ve left the lowlands.
Last week, we piled up a rented minivan literally to the ceiling and drove pretty much due east, ‘til we reached our new home… full of promise, and difficulties: internet access being one. And a host of new challenges.
Little K slept most of the time – three-month-olds can be perfect traveling partners. Aside from the ride home from the hospital, it was the first time she’d been in a car, and she took to it pretty well.
We’re making a semi-new start in a city we’d already lived in. I’ve got a short-term gig here that is half time at best, with no office and no commute… nearly perfect for the wishful stay-at-home dad that I’ve become. Melka has projects that may develop into full-blown work… we’re taking a year to see how this goes.
And a year to heal, I guess. Here’s a metaphor from the world of baking: one thing I’ve yet to master is folding ingredients in. You take the bowl, add the new ingredient to the batter, and then cut down from top to bottom with a rubber spatula. Then, scoop, lift and fold the new ingredient into the dough. I think the point is to incorporate things so they bake properly, or set up layers of proteins or something I don’t really understand. But it’s a specific technique that is more elegant than merely stirring.
Now, I’ve got these things floating on the top and I need to incorporate them.
I want to be less angry. I want to laugh when the spoon falls from my hand and on to the floor. I want the times when I get snippy with my wife to be fewer and fewer, I want to feel less impotent rage at strangers, I want to calm the eff down. I want to crank down my general hatred of everything.
I want to be less needy. Our life in the lowlands became one favor from kind people after another. And we needed it… but I’m getting tired of charity. I don’t want this feeling of entitlement that I’ve developed, that somehow losing Malina has opened a whole world of responsibilities that I can just ignore. And the people around us, dear friends and people we could lean on when we needed… well, I feel like we were always leaning on them. So it was time to leave.
Scraping the plate between courses.
When I called my mom from the hospital room last year, Malina’s body laying nearby, the first thing I remember her saying through tears was “if I hadn’t lost your brother, I would have never had you!” I got the vibe… that after tragedy good things can happen, and it’s good that those good things happen. And that it’s not over, that there is still a chance at happiness. But my mom’s life has taught me that you can keep chasing happiness for years and still get only so close. And there’s another way to interpret that: to be too blunt, “you should be glad your brother died, or else you wouldn’t exist at all.”
A day or so later, a cousin who is normally known for her thoughtfulness sent me a card saying, “now your brother has a little friend to play with in heaven.”
That enraged me like nothing else. The very idea that my brother – whom I never met and who’s death has been under my very existence all along – gets to have my daughter while I get nothing was disgusting. The anger came through in a flood. I immediately tried calling the cousin, and I told her. I told her how much it hurt. F him, I said, if he gets my little girl. I hate him.
I’d spent 30 years as an amateur grief counselor for my parents, dealing with them and their divorce and shuttling between the two, choosing my words carefully, trying not to get anyone too upset. Trying to take care of them. (While my sister was angry and sorta self destructive or at least rebellious, I wasn’t. She paid her way through college, refusing to accept any help. I went to a leafy (but not ivy) liberal arts college that I sorta hated. They paid the whole way, I wanted them to.) I still haven’t broken free from feeling like I owe them, like I’m somehow supposed to fix things. Even though with age I’ve stopped trying, I still feel guilty.
But my brother still comes up, at times that I can only think are intentional. My father came to our farewell party before we moved abroad a few years back. He was upset that we were leaving. For the first time in years, he mentioned my brother. Only in passing, but still. Just a mention. Just a pin prick… writ large in my head as “you know how much hurt I’ve lived through in my life? Well, you leaving is reminding me of the death of my first son.”
Or the family photo album my mom made for me when we left. Pictures of the cousins, my sister’s kids, me as a baby. And then the last page… my brother, months before he died. Again, you cannot forget how much you mean to me… you are the replacement and now you are leaving me.
All this came up in my response to the suggestion that I lost a daughter but my brother gained a new friend.
Melka was angered, and I was too, at the fitting of our loss into some kind of family narrative… that I was born out of grief, and somehow, that to grief I must return. Or any similar greeting-card like philosophical tidiness. Anything that looked at my life without my daughter and saw a divine plan was, and is, disgusting. (See CS Lewis and his, “either God doesn’t exist, or God is a jerk” consideration.)
In those first few weeks, when Melka and I began taking our MARATHON walks, we talked a lot about how to incorporate Malina into whatever future we may have – even one including another child. And my experience played into that discussion heavily. There are all sorts of questions that I can’t answer because they involve hypothetical situations that I cannot imagine.
But the general consensus we reached back then, as I remember it, was that we will aim for the middle. One side is not discussing Malina at all with little K… ignoring it and keeping it from her. The other end is, as we’ve seen some women mention on their blogs, having photos of the dead child that are kissed and hugged and spoken to by the surviving children. We don’t have pictures, at least not printed, so that’s not an option.
I know this is treading on sensitive ground, but I think birthday parties and celebrations for Malina would be a little weird. For us, it was such a tragic event – still bereft of any beauty or meaning – and so incorporating an older, lost, sister into our baby’s childhood seems like a cruel joke. Maybe we’ll change our mind some day. But for now, we’re aiming for the middle. Malina should be mentioned naturally… not too often, but not kept a secret. We’ll try.
My mom lost a son about 34 years ago. The story, which I’ve never been told, is that it was the mid-70s, “big D” had a fever, and my mom gave him aspirin. This developed into that rare disease / reaction, which for google reasons I won’t mention, and he died.
That’s about all I know. And I know that because, at the age of 29, my wife asked a cousin what happened and then told me later. When she did, it wasn’t easy to hear.
Having gone through losing Malina, and the guilt – the sheer terror of my crimes of omission in somehow not demanding daily ultrasounds – I can only imagine what my mother went through, feeling literally responsible for what happened. Take a second and think about it.
I have always known that I had an older brother, and that he died before I was born. And that my middle name is his name. But I don’t think it was until college before I did the math and realized that he died 11 months before I was born. 11 months. Insane. So, in a very real way, I know what it’s like to be a replacement child (not a good term, but descriptive).
One of my earliest memories, I tell myself now, is climbing the tree in the backyard and thinking about how little boys die at the age of 5, and so I might die this year, too. But it would be good if I didn’t.