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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.
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.
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.
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.
Grandma’s here, and it’s good. There’s a certain feeling when your mom holds your child for the first time. You can feel the love.
So on Friday afternoon I took the kid to the place they’re staying – it’s a block away – and let her play with the baby for a while. And little K did such a great job turning on the charm for Grandma. It made me so proud. And when Grandma started laughing, and smiling, and singing, it made me so happy for her.
And then, so so sad. Unbelievably sad. Amazingly sad. I cried instantly, and I guess it looked like tears of joy. But they weren’t. It’s so obvious that I didn’t expect it coming: I wanted this for Malina. I wanted her to get this much love and attention, I wanted her to be adored… cherished, all those things Grandmas do.
But instead, she died. No love for her. She is avoided in conversation, or her name is misspelled in letters… letters written by Grandma. I wanted that little girl to live and I wanted her to be loved. Now, she is loved and missed by Melka and me, and that’s about all. I KNOW this already. So why do I have to keep re-learning it?
I came home and sobbed, and Melka sobbed when she saw me crying. She knew why.
It’s been good to catch up with my mom. I like my mom, she’s a wonderful woman. Very astute, both intellectually and emotionally. And often, graceful. Unlike how I ram a mention of Malina into nearly every third conversation. But it’s like strings connect everything in my life right now back to her… and talking openly with someone about where we live and what we’re doing is bound to pull out her name.
I told Melka it’s like this: I’m running with a pack of people (which I don’t think I’ve done in two decades) and all of a sudden I’m breaking away, on my own, leaving them behind. I’m faster, and a little heady with the rush of not following anymore. And then I realized I’ve just missed a turn, and the group is off without me. So I have to re-route into a big curve, and meet back up with everyone else.
That is what talking about grief is like. I leave the space capsule, I float alone in the vacuum among the stars, and then I pull myself back into the ship and everyone looks at me like I’ve just been to outer space.
Here on our part of the earth’s crust, little K has been putting us through her paces. Melka has, of course, borne the brunt of it:
- screaming for hours while I’m at work
- constant demand for meals
- b. infection (and a temp of 39.4C – 103F), excruciating pain, shakes and sweats
- followed by antibiotics, which kill all the good bacteria,
- which leads to the opposite, th. rush, the “base” to a b. infection’s “acid”
- feat. it’s own version of excruciating b. pain, and constant “regular” pain
- then medicinal purple stuff that will stain anything, even your soul
- and, through it all, perpetual meals (every two-three hours, often more often)
This, however, is what we signed up for.
Nearby on this earth’s crust, somewhere in the thick city we call our temp home in the lowlands, of course, it’s a very different world. We anxiously awaited the news from Mirne and Craig… we even exchanged a text or two. We had imagined to meet each other in non-computer land, babies in tow, identifying for once with parents with whom we shared something awful. The news of the death of Jet hit us.
Dear blog-reading friends,
Just a note to let you know we’re all here, doing okay. To the rest of the world, I would say we’re doing great. I’m not complaining. I have a living daughter, a meter away from me, who needs my pinkie finger to stay asleep.
But I can confide in you… it’s getting hard.
I’m on the first half of the night shift, letting Melka get some sleep. She needs something close to three hours straight, and so my job is to make interruptions less likely. K and I have a routine, but it changes every night. Tonight, it was “let’s put you in the sling as we take a walk down the all-night cornershop for an effing beer for daddy because he spent too much of today crying.” We have to make it to 3 am.
This is hard. The future lay before us like an open road, begging for faster acceleration and exploration. But all I want to do is sit here with this little K. I have zero ambition to ever work again. And that’s too bad, because I have a great career.
Congratulations have been trickling in from, literally, around the globe (thanks aussie blog readers! you make it better by making it antipodean. as usual.) But only one – ONE – person has had the nuts to mention little Malina by name. That was a distant cousin who has just jumped 30 places in my top 100.
And the gifts have started, too. That’s been hard. How many of these were actually for the other baby, the one who died? And why so much pink? (Pink blows. Sorry, but in our house, it blows.) It’s childish, and it’s stupid: but I feel like, don’t celebrate the new baby if you couldn’t ask about the dead one. That’s a raw emotion. I mentioned in an earlier post that the birth was far less bitter/sweet than I thought. I think the bitter is creeping into the scene now. Note how I look as I peruse BFeeding websites… innocents.
My mom sent a note mentioning Malina and the tennis bracelet she wears with her name on it. But in the note, she spelled Malina’s name wrong. Now, is that just in the letter, or is it also on the bracelet? It makes me want to vomit, and I haven’t the strength to ask.
The first two weeks we were stunned, but it’s beginning to wear off. We have a daughter, and we love her so…. It still hurts. I’m an ungrateful ass. I’m selfish with my time, and with my daughter. A work friend stopped by with food (awesome!) and called her a little peanut. I thought something like, ‘don’t call my daughter a fucking peanut. She’s a little potato. Get out.’
Where does it go from here?
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?
My little girl was weighed today in a sling held by a hook on an electric scale.
She’s putting on weight, the breastfeeding and engorgement is painful (for Melka), but we have no complaints. This little K is in rude health, continuing her habit of growing. We are so glad.
But I still feel like I’m renting this baby. Like when I’d get an NES game from the video store in 1987… and lose sleep while I crammed to get to the end. Up all night, thinking of nothing but the game, trying not to think about how it will have to go back to the stupid store before I win it.
Oddly, maybe objectionably, I feel the same about my little girl.
Last night, Melka and I sat up and talked about Malina. About what she looked like, about whether she would have been as beautiful as our little K. It was not an easy conversation… our delightful little girl K – in the right frame of mind and lighting and time of night – can bring Malina’s decomposing face up in a way that I find . . . hard. yeah, hard.
This little girl K is putting hooks into my heart and I don’t know if I like it. No, of course I do. I love this little one and I say it out loud. But sometimes I catch myself. It’s more than just “I Love You” songs that I sing to her. It’s steel hooks going through my heart… different hooks making different holes than the ones Malina hangs from. This love is painful, it grapples me to this little one with hoops of steel. And I’ve woken up convinced she’s dead on more than one occasion in the last five days. And I’ve checked her breathing three times since I sat down to write this.
And, the name. We don’t have to go into it here, but after imagining Malina for 9 months, grieving for the 16 months since she died… I have caught myself twice almost calling K by the name Malina.