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This year we continued a tradition we started last year: traveling around our city, visiting churches, and remembering our Malina, who we lost two years ago.

We’re not particularly religious people, and the faith of our families has not been much help in seeking solace after the death of our first daughter. Yet, like it or not, it’s embedded in our identities. Churches have become important places in our travels together, they’re the pins in our map. We visit them to understand where we’ve landed.

We were in the right place this year for public displays of grief, in a country that’s well practiced at grieving. Our private mourning coincided with a very public, large-scale mourning in the aftermath of a recent national tragedy. Churches were filled with flowers and preparing for funerals. Almost none of these churches offered votive candles, so we paid our respects, offered whatever light we could muster, and left some change.

1.  an unassuming church in our neighborhood

2. Only electric candles here. Lit at the altar to the patron saint of hopeless causes.

3. A baroque interior, a silent organ, and in a corner a flag-draped casket awaiting a funeral.

4. Patron saint of (take your pick) lost things, barrenness, pregnant women and travelers.

5. A quick prayer in front of the morning cleaning crew.

6. Gothic brick. Vaulted ceilings. Visiting scouts pay tribute outside in red socks.



7. Angel eyes, the kind you can’t meet. A second St. Anthony.

8. Height and light.

9. Soul, spirit, ghost.

10. Once used as a hospital, now white, bare and simple.

11. Final church, on my favorite square in the city.

12. A candle for Malina at the end of the day, in a quiet corner in the center.

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I’ve been away awhile.

We’re out of the lowlands. Now we’re much further east, in flatlands of a different sort. This is the fatherland, for my family anyway. And even though all close family I had here have since passed  – either from life or this particular land – I find their ghosts comforting. In fact, in my own twisted current way,  better company than my own living family members.

Appropriately, this is where I am in this whole life after. I’m now in an active struggle to find home, one that can house whatever I’ve become and whatever might be left from before.

It’s an uncomfortable mix, living with this before and after self. The daily aching awareness of what’s been lost, the blank slots beckoning to be refilled. For so long, it’s been like being forced to live in a language you only half speak so that all exchanges, important and mundane, take place as if behind thick, dusty glass; so that after awhile, even your native language starts to feel foreign. No words sound natural any more, nothing sounds right.

I’m aching to go home, finally. I’m ready. I just have no idea where home is. Here among the ghosts will have to do for now. At least they’re my ghosts.

****

Even adrift and accompanyied by the gentle, silent glide of those ghosts in the backdrop, there is life. This little being scrunching her face into practice smiles and presently smearing avocado across her face. She’s wonderful. I’m so very, very glad she’s here.

But it’s been so hard, the early days especially. I still can’t look at newborns without enormous pain, my own particularly. Somewhere after K’s 3rd week, she basically started screaming and didn’t stop, with a few memorable pauses, until a month or so later. I had breast infection after infection, experienced exquisite pain at every around the clock feeding, and was completely convinced I had brought this all on myself – what with letting my first child die, and all. My self-confidence as a mother was crushed, all over again.

It’s better now. Not so raw.

K’s grown out of that newborn chaos that made her body very uncomfortable to be in. I’ve figured out the feeding and it’s finally become a nice, intimate time for us. Of course, though, there’s that unrelenting tension between making sure our first daughter isn’t forgotten and celebrating and sharing the one we have with us.

We’re still figuring it out, me and D and K. And all those ghosts.

One of those gossamer beings, too small and dim, presides over all the others. This month particularly she makes her presence felt.

And my stomach lurches every time I look at the calendar and notice that date creeping closer.

I’m brimming, full-up and swollen with love and exhaustion and a dose of confusion that we’re all here, safe and sound.

It’s wonderful. And it hurts like hell.

This past week has been a strange retracing of another week, one last April full of numb shock and tears, ruled by the raw soreness of a post-partum body emptied of purpose. My breasts grew huge that week, hot and swollen, tender to the slightest touch. I sought relief in hot showers, sobbing to see the pointless milk seeping out and running down the drain. After 9 months of pregnancy, after labour and birth, I had no stretch marks, no tears, no stitches and an overabundance of milk – such hollow victories when I had failed at the most essential part; getting my child out alive.

This week my body is sore and sagging, pock and stretched-marked, with breasts once again huge, hot and swollen, leaking with milk. This week there’s someone here who makes this all make sense, someone to sing to through the throbbing pain, someone to hold and smell and marvel at. Someone else.

Cards have been coming. Very, very different from the cards of last year. These carry words and phrases that sweeten and sting – congratulations, little girl, in your heart, forever.

Forever. Yes. There are two little girls with us now. One made of shadows, silence and hot, salty tears; one made of warm, soft skin and the smell of her mother’s milk. One we remember and long for more than ever now that her name and memory daunts even the most well-meaning of friends and relatives. One that’s here with us, finally, fitting in like she’s always belonged, her weight and skin somehow no stranger to the arms and lips of parents like us – we who are strangers to warm, wriggling offspring.

I don’t like that we put her to bed with blankets identical to the ones that shrouded her sister’s body. I don’t like that we dress her in clothing never before worn, intended for someone who never needed them. I don’t like that gifts that relatives are sending likely may have been bought for M, held all this time in sad suspense to be handed over to another, a replacement.

I’m full up, breasts, body and soul aching and throbbing with pain and quiet, cautious contentment. I love this new person, profoundly. With a sting and a thrill too scary to give full voice to. Heart and soul, however, have spoken up anyway.

Can we keep her? Can we?

swelling

rhine timber man

Waiting. Worrying. It’s a restless time with little sleep to bring relief. I’m afraid of what might happen in those dark hours. As I let go of consciousness,  wakefulness and control, I’m terrified of what else might slip way, forever lost. I don’t want this one to leave us, too. I’m on watch, on guard. But I’m a watchman with serious impairments, in truth deaf and blind to whatever might be lurking. Our enemies, for the most part, are invisible, silent.

Waffling about whether to take action. To induce or to not induce. It’s unclear whether my body is showing signs of readiness. There’s softening, but no opening. Descent, but no contracting, tightening, rushing.  I’m scared of a brutal, forced birth. The little one seems fine – but ready to make the transition from sea to land? Or in fact desperate to do so, kept company by the steady ticking of an inaudible countdown to doom deep inside me? I don’t know how to tune my ears to the right frequency. I can’t hear anything.

Meanwhile as I wait, new stretch marks are appearing out of nowhere. Angry, red, threatening. I wonder if these are the signs of an inevitable falling apart. A fissure in the firmament. It’s like that small hairline crack you notice one day in in the corner of the ceiling where there was once just a clean, blank space. A crack that daily, silently deepens and spreads, growing tendrils that choke out the support above until the great weight once serving as shelter collapses on top of you in a deafening crash and a stinging cloud of dust. Crushing.

They tell me these marks will fade. I don’t know how to believe them.

round and in green

In between the usual rain and dark clouds this weekend was a sizable portion of sun, luring us out and inspiring us to savour the light.

Finally with finish line in plain sight, we’re trying to celebrate this pregnancy at least a little bit, daring to document the absurd shape I’m currently inhabiting – admitting our eyes to the quiet hope inherent in the awkwardness and uncertainty. The roundness is quite pleasing somehow. And strangely, soon to be gone.

And, to all those wondering how Lowland I’ve sunk: yes, I am still riding my bike.

polka dots and spokes

The days have been uncharacteristically warm and sunny here. So I’ve been out and about, in public.

I’m big. Large enough to attract stares and inspire comments. Questions.

On the street walking past the sidewalk seating of a cafe, a waiter called after me, when’s the big day? D had no idea what he meant at first.  Soon, was my polite answer, hesitant. But I had the uneasy feeling that I didn’t know what we were really talking about.

In a bookstore, the owner spotted me and piped up about their mom-and-baby group that meets every Wednesday. Oh, and their children’s book section is downstairs, if I’d like to have a look. Now, why would you think I’d want to do that?

There’s a continuity that’s been cut, a chain of events broken inside my brain. To me, this huge belly is simply its own phenomenon, having nothing to do with baby books, big days of arrival and birth announcements.

Inside, someone’s there. Growing and moving. I just have no idea if they’re here to stay. Could they be here to stay? It’s not what I know. And frankly, I can’t imagine what that might be like.

Giant squirming belly, then small, squirming baby. What an incredibly strange idea. Foreign and unfathomable.

I feel very, very swollen. The slightest texture in any surface leaves its imprint on my skin. Irregular patterns, illegible impressions. The crease of a bedsheet, the checkered covering of a sofa cushion, the stitch bordering a blanket. Fabrics that formerly brought comfort are now biting back.

I’m full of fluid, bursting with all the extra blood and water in my system.  My skin is darker, tinged with a faint red. And along with this, every scar on my body has somehow been made more prominent. Pregnancy has infused them all with a dark pigment, making them stand out in fresh, fierce relief. A trail of chicken pox scars trace their way up my abdomen and scatter across my breasts – a constellation of pockmarks, the mythic story they commemorate yet to be told. The surgical scars on my neck stand out anew in angry, red lines. In my mirror I see the victim of some medieval pox, the broken body in a slasher film.

I feel battered, ravaged. When I was diagnosed with cancer nearly a decade ago, I lost faith in any control I thought I had over my body’s well-being and gained a profound lack of confidence in my own physical self.  Even after multiple surgeries and subsequent radiation treatments, the cancer will likely never leave my body; this kind just doesn’t. It can merely be kept at bay with the right balance of hormone supplements and regular monitoring. Most women with my kind of cancer history do well in pregnancy with the right attention and adjustments. But still, it is quite possible that the radical hormonal upset of these recent reproductive adventures could cause it to come back, reassert its presence. Not terribly likely, but possible. Yet another way in which pregnancy, for me, is now a convoluted tangle of life and death, a small congress of souls deciding their directions.

I was so happy in my pregnancy with M. I was swollen, but that time with wonder at what my body was doing, hope for a kind of redemption from my earlier misadventures in physical health.  Then she died, my worst fears confirmed. My body, failing, again.

Lately, I’m tired and teary, exhausted with all this extra weight and water. I feel far from beautiful, worlds apart from woman-power, confused about notions of control and capability.

And no matter how much I cry, the water remains. A conspiracy of molecules collected under my skin – maybe for, maybe against. Dense, heavy, and wet.

Malina, Malinka, Malinia.

Linka, Linia, Malunia.

I loved her name. The way it formed in my cheeks, tongue and teeth. The feel of it, the longs and shorts of the syllables. All the teasing, loving, ridiculous nicknames my other language allows.

Mala. My little one. Malinka, slodko. My sweet.

It took awhile before we landed on the right name. One that would work in both of my languages, that family and friends alike could pronounce. One that could be both tough and pretty, grown-up and childish, suiting whoever she decided to be.

Malinka, Malinia, Malina.

I’d lie in bed in the mornings, taking my time before rising and readying for work. I’d wait to feel her move, stretch and squirm, marveling at the life inside of me, the inchoate personality. My child. I savoured every move, wanting these moments together to be long and lazy. And I practiced her name – kind of guiltily since we didn’t even know if she really was a girl yet – but I tried out the combination of consonants and vowels, exercising my mouth, getting accustomed to sounding out the name of my daughter. Imagining myself a mother. Wondering who she was, waiting. Stomping feet and laughter and tangles and tear-stained cheeks and opened presents and all kinds of firsts and slammed doors and raised voices and painfully tight, neverending hugs. All, somehow, in the sounds of her name.

Moja Malinia. Malinka moja. My darling. My dear one.

In the aftermath of her birth, shocked and horrified beyond comprehension that she was gone before we even got to really meet her, we were asked for her name.  One well-meaning attendant took our awkward silence as cue to rally us to proper parental love She deserves a name! You have to give her a name! And in those moments of numb confusion, grasping at a way to talk privately to each other about what to do, we asked whether we should find another name. But decided, no, Malina she was. Who she had always been. Giving her another name would be cheating. Lying.

I’m just not sure I feel this way now. I wonder if we did the right thing. If we really had to do that, to give that name away forever, locking it away with someone who will never be. Whether it would feel any easier if we saved it for another who might live. Whether we would ever be able to use it again.

Probably not. It’s done.

But I wonder this as I search for another name for another possible girl. Sounding out syllables, shaping vowels and consonants with tired cheeks and grief-weary lips. I worry what it means when I can’t find another name I love as much, that fits as well, that my mouth and throat can form and feel with the intimacy and emotion of someone who’s supposed to be a mother. I have ideas, in fact one main likely contender, but they still seem awkward, at times unimaginable in comparison. They’re not the same.

I do have my moments with this one, the laziness of those lingering mornings in bed now injected with anxiety, the needle-sharp pricks asking how it will all turn out this time. I do call this one by a name now. I practice its different forms and versions, but this time silently. The sounds reverberate in a space only I can hear, secret and safe.

Though maybe this one hears me anyway, can sense the sounds her mother is silent uttering. The name waiting for her in the dark under warm, yellow-orange porchlights.

I hope it’s recognized, by both of us. I hope this one answers the call and finds her way here, home.

——–. ———. ——.  My heart. My love.

I need this time to be different. We all know that.

I need birth to mean life this time around. I want that, desperately. But I also need to find room, head-wise and heart-wise, to welcome whoever this new person might be, should they decide to show. This pregnancy has been a very private affair, and in many ways a very sad one, the hope undeniably inherent but buried, latent. I’ve been so afraid to assume this small one is here to stay, unsure and confused now whether the obsessively noted movements inside my abdomen signal a start or a finish to our time together.

The milestones and stages of this time around have, most of the time, felt like the re-tracing of a trip that ended badly, very badly. I haven’t been able to experience this on its own terms. So when it comes to anticipating labour and birth, I’ve been terrified. I imagine flashbacks, panic attacks, and the unbearably acute renewal of feelings I’d rather not bring back to their full-fledged, monster size. My only experience of birth has been, well, horrific.

But maybe, just maybe, if the setting is different, if I’m in an environment where this birth isn’t a grim, gruesome process to just be gotten through; something other than danger and imminent death to be overcome. The Lowlands, as I was told last time, is the place to have a baby, after all. Home to a proud and long-held tradition of home birthing as the norm. Where birth is natural, beautiful. Given how things turned out last time, this has all sat rather bitterly in the back of my throat since. Me, who spent time years back apprenticing with midwives, considering becoming one myself. Plans changed, other opportunities presented, but I’ve always been drawn to the different notions surrounding what birth can be.

When I started out this pregnancy, though, I wanted the most medical of care from the get-go. I wanted machines, people in white coats, percentages and numbers drawn from blood tests, graphs, images. And it’s been just the right thing to do – we’ve drawn a lot of comfort from high-tech care. Most importantly of all, it’s not at all how we did things last time. Different.

My time in hospital with the pox, though, got me thinking. It was hard, really hard, being vulnerable and in pain in a hospital again. It may have been a different hospital in a different city, but somehow it felt exactly the same. Giving birth there offers the most non-Lowland experience an expat can get – extensive, constant monitoring and wonder of wonders, an anesthesiologist on-call around the clock and the real promise of pain relief if you ask for it – simply not the norm here, even though it was made the law just last year.

But to all appearances, it won’t be different. Last time I ended up in hospital because things had gone very, very wrong. Lately I’ve realized that maybe, just maybe, I still have a shot at a beautiful birth experience. Obviously, birth resulting in a live child this time around would be pretty damn beautiful. But maybe, if I can take advantage of the fact I’m living in the supposed haven for natural birth, maybe it won’t have to be so traumatic getting to that better outcome. Maybe I’ll actually be in a state where I can welcome this new person rather than just relive the trauma of losing his or her predecessor.

I’ve actually found what seems to be the perfect solution. Making Mokum live up to its meaning. It turns out this city has a birthing centre, the only of its kind in the country. Softly-lit, warmly-coloured rooms dressed up to feel like home and staffed by seasoned professionals in the practice of natural, home births – but it’s housed in a hospital, with doctors, more extensive tech and operating rooms just down the hall, should they be needed.  I’ve paid a visit, asked the staff a barrage of questions. For the first time, with this as an option, I feel like I can not only face this impending birth, but actually feel some excitement, some hope.

It’s not that easy, though. One, they might be full-up when my day comes and they don’t take reservations. Not to mention that labour may not start out smoothly or anywhere near on time – and it turns out they’re pretty strict about just who gets to go natural in the end and they’re quick to boot you over to the machines and methods of the hospital if anything close to a complication seems to be happening. Which I actually find comforting.

But the biggest source of unease – the fact my current hospital and doctors won’t give their consent for me to go there. They’ve also made it clear that they don’t care how I feel, dismissing my concerns about how going through labour again is very possibly going to be traumatic, refusing to talk about ways we all might be able to cope with that. It’s been disappointing and alarming. Tellingly, this place doesn’t give tours of its maternity ward. The kind of births they have here are emergencies to be managed and the emotional experience is secondary, unimportant compared to the outcome. Fair enough, especially for the likes of me. I’m just not convinced, given my history and the progress of this pregnancy, that this birth is sure to be a medical emergency. Helped by our fantastic doula here who’s been with us since M, we met with a highly-recommended doctor at another hospital for a second opinion. After a thorough going-over, he thinks differently. That I can choose to give birth where I want – should all stars amiably align in the right direction, that is.

So now we’re in the uncomfortable position of having to choose who to listen to, who to believe. Is now really the time to disagree with any doctor? Is it selfish to worry about emotions and aesthetics, birth stools, bathtubs and low-lighting versus uncomfortable, constant electronic monitoring in an ugly setting attempting to leave nothing to chance? Is it irresponsible to leave the doctor who makes me feel bad for the doctor who tells me what I want to hear?

This all opens up a whole slimy, wormy discussion, as a recent GITW thread demonstrates. Home versus hospital, natural versus not; the question of power, choice and control in birth. No clear answers, no known outcomes to virtually any of this.

I just want a way, some way for my broken heart and my exhausted emotions to look toward this birth a potential passage to joy, not simply the reliving of my worst nightmare, re-tracing a trauma that obliterates my ability to recognize or enjoy an alternate outcome.

I have no way of knowing how it will go, any of it. But I feel like my heart needs some help as this birth approaches. Even if it’s just drawing pretty curtains over the most traumatic day of my life. I’d welcome the disguise. I need it.

bocian firanka

Our first real act as parents was holding her body, bundled tightly in hospital blankets, after they brought her out from the morgue.

I’d been too scared, too shocked, too horrified to hold her after birth, trapped in a paralysis interrupted only by shaking sobs and post-labour chills. I wasn’t expecting my baby to be a corpse.  The child I had been waiting to greet had already disappeared from view, her face obscured by the thick paint-strokes of death, bright with inappropriate, cruel colour. I didn’t know how to make sense of the infant form in front of me. I didn’t know how to mother a daughter who died before I got to see her.

Afterwards, though, my body ached to hold her, to feel the weight of her. I rejected the funeral directors’ suggestion we pick a casket for the cremation ceremony. She would not lie alone, a contained object on a table to be distantly weeped at before burning. She would be in my arms. Until I had to let her go.

When we went three days later to pick her up for the hospital morgue, we wailed in unison at the sight of the thickly-wrapped body they brought out, and we stretched out our arms to receive her. I remember the small cylinder of cold through the layer of blankets, the stiff crinkle of plastic. I welcomed the weight.  Then, ready with a handful of paper and cloth, we put her down gently before us, two parents bending over their first child and figuring out together how to hold, how to touch.  I wanted her to be wrapped with photos, letters and cards from us and all the people in our lives who had waiting to receive her. I wanted her ashes to be mingled with the evidence that she was wanted. I didn’t want her to be alone.  We stroked the blanket covering our baby, spots on the surface spreading and darkening with both our tears, and made out the orientation of head and feet. We kissed her, we told her we loved her, and then carried her to the car taking us to the crematorium. Parents, finally.

But are we really? What do I know about mothering when I couldn’t make out the face of my own child, when I could only hold her with a barrier of blankets between us?

There’s one moment that frightens me most when I anticipate the impending birth of this other child. Other than more death, that is. I’m not frightened of the pain or length of labour, I’m not really frightened about emergency c-sections, radical episiotomies, or dramatic, disfiguring perineal tears. Worried, of course, but not frightened. What does frighten me is that moment where I just might come face to face with another infant. One that’s alive. One that’s mine. One that should be seen, and held.

I’m scared of what I’ll see when I look into the face of a breathing, crying newborn, scared of being shown anew the difference that death makes. I’m scared of catching a glimpse of what I should have seen a year ago, scared the TV-screen scramble my shocked brain broadcast in response to my firstborn’s face will be restored to clarity – a perfect, high-definition picture of what and who we’ve lost.

And so rather than anticipating the moment I meet this child with eagerness and excitement, I’m wondering whether I’ll want to see him or her at all. If I’ll be able to.

I’m wondering what kind of mother that makes me, if any at all.