Returning Home

Big time spoilers for The Lord of the Rings – especially the ending – ahead.  

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings.  There aren’t too many things in my life that have stayed constant since age 14, but these books continue to inspire, motivate, and comfort me.  As I’ve grown, aged, and lived, the meanings have changed, the understandings deepened, but every time I pick them up, I find something new.  When I first read the books, I was thrilled by the exciting adventure, the battles, and, oh yeah, Aragorn.  These days, it’s a different part that I keep turning to read.

One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings now is the ending.  The movie version leaves out part of the original ending, and I understand that choice at some level.  The original ending is messy, hard, and complicated in a way that’s difficult to translate to the screen.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book ending, it looks initially like a very traditional storybook ending wrap-up.  Then the movie and book part ways: there is evil waiting in the Shire for the returning hobbits.  They have to fight yet another battle to get the Shire back – their home is ugly and changed by that evil.  The book and the movie return to sync when Frodo departs Middle Earth.

When I initially read The Return of the King, the scouring of the Shire irritated me a bit.  It seemed…unnecessary.  The major task was fulfilled, the ring destroyed, the epic showdown at the gates of Mordor fought, and the hobbits returned home triumphantly.  Then Tolkien throws in this seemingly discordant sadness and destruction.  It’s no wonder Peter Jackson left it out of the movie.  It feels unfair that after everything the hobbits have done and the horror they’ve been through they don’t come home to a hero’s welcome, that there’s still more to do.  This isn’t a Harry Potter ending.

Now, though, I get it.  Tolkien has captured the reality of life after being touched by struggle and tragedy, in whatever form that comes to particular people.  You don’t walk through Mordor and remain untouched.  Even once the main event is over and evil seemingly vanquished or at least survived, it’s coming home to find more work to do and reminder after reminder sitting in your front yard.

We walked through Mordor the days my daughter nearly died.  We walked through Mordor when my brother so inexplicably left us.  The days when nothing made sense.

I hoped when we finally came back, naively, it would still be mostly the same.  I knew better.  But I hoped.

Instead, it’s been the weariness of battling back what those journeys took from us.

It’s no longer the epic battles of life and death.  It’s the bitterness at the bottom of the glass, the sh*ttier stuff, but battles that are no less for their smallness.  It’s fighting those unwelcome triggers and reclaiming home.

It’s knowing when to lay down the swords and begin the peaceful work of planting and bringing green life back to damaged land.  It’s showing mercy.  In some ways, this is almost harder.  It requires vulnerability, patience, honesty, kindness, and diligence.  Qualities that some days are tough to muster.

Tolkien doesn’t give Frodo a beautiful happy ending in his beloved Shire.  The wounds simply go too deep.  I take a lot of heart, though, from Sam’s ending.  Sam, who also bore the Ring, touched evil, who also walked through Mordor.  Sam, who “planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each.  He went up and down the Shire in this labour…”  Sam, who receives these words at the last, painful farewell: “Do not be too sad, Sam.  You cannot be always torn in two.  You will have to be one and whole, for many years.  You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

That is an ending – or perhaps another beginning – worth all of the work.

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Reorganizing

I knew when we started the home organization project that it was going to involve a lot of cleaning out.  I started with my closet and clothing.  I was ready to clean out my clothing, tired of having it spill out across the floor, tired of holding on to aspirational pieces, tired of not being able to find the items I actually wear.  The low hanging fruit as it were, and when I got done I felt an immense sense of relief and accomplishment.

Then our organizer came.

Holy h*ll.  I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that we had been overdue for a clean-out about three or so years before we moved – right about the start of the whole infertility nightmare.  I didn’t want to buy any new furniture because who knew what we’d need if we managed to have a baby or not?  I didn’t want to throw anything away because I couldn’t deal with sorting through boxes or letting go when I was already struggling with treatments, loss, and so much of life seemed up in the air.

Well, the organizer waded right in.  It’s precisely what we needed her to do, because there was no way I could have managed it on my own.  She gave me permission (essentially) to let go of things that I had some sort of warped, misplaced attachment to but really no longer wanted.  She helped keep me on task.  It was definitely an exercise in asking myself over and over again “why?”  Why did I want this or that item?  Why did I feel guilty letting something go?  Why had I acquired it or kept it in the first place?  It was far more difficult than I’d thought it would be and took longer than I wanted.

Our house is now clean and full of things I actually enjoy, things I actually want there.  The clutter, the items I kept storing out of guilt, out of sadness, out of a misplaced sense of ‘value’ are gone.  I can walk around the house without tripping over things.  I can get out the decorating items that only seemed to add to the mess before.  We bought a few new furniture items that fit our lives and are exactly what I eventually want to add to when we buy a house.  I find that the strict “one in, one out” system we’ve adopted helps me buy less on impulse.

I recently read The Next Happy by Tracey Cleantis about letting go of dreams and the notion that “if you try hard enough, you can do anything”.  It’s an apropos book as I’ve let go of various items in the physical world, found freedom in that letting go, and have realized that it’s time to perhaps start the process on some of the things in my head.  I’m a packrat by nature both with physical objects and emotionally, so I knew this was a bit of a step.

When Arthur and I got married, we always talked about having three children.  I planned a huge chunk of my life around that idea, from schooling to the jobs I’ve taken.  Even the fact that we started trying when I was 29, a bit before I was truly ready was done in service of that dream.  I figured I’d get pregnant within six to eight months, have the baby, wait a year, get pregnant again when the first child was about 18 months, and then if we wanted that third child, I could fit in that last pregnancy all by the time I turned 35 or 36. We’d buy a house somewhere in there and then I’d get my master’s degree.

Infertility, high risk pregnancy, and premature birth shattered what our dream family life looked like in my head.  The house?  The down payment was spent on IVF.  The master’s degree?  Probably much later than I’d hoped if at all, and the money for it also spent on IVF.  Three children?  Only if something truly unprecedented (and largely out of my control) happens.  I can’t do anything more beyond a few natural cycles (unlikely to work) and FET of whatever we have left once the two embryos thaw to make that dream come true.  We are out of emotional strength and money to do so.

When my brother died, I wondered why that situation – seemingly so different and separate from infertility – often tended to trigger strong memories of the difficult losses of the infertility and high risk pregnancy and vice versa.  I figured initially that it was because trauma is trauma, perhaps thinking of one made me think of the other.  Recently, I realized that they’re both linked in one very critical area.

I always thought I had an amazing family growing up.  I really do both love and like my parents.  I don’t call them out of a sense of obligation or family, I genuinely enjoy them.  This isn’t to say there weren’t issues or we were the Waltons or anything like that, but I always felt that my parents, my brother and I made a pretty good bunch, especially in the last few years.

That’s a really sh*tty part about suicide as opposed to a different tragic death – it colors and permeates everything for me.  It taints so many of those memories, leaving me wondering: were we really that happy?  Were we okay?  Were the seeds of this tragedy sown somewhere in all of that?  Where? Basically, it completely dynamites everything I believed about my family of origin and leaves me reexamining all the pieces through a completely different lens.

I’ve lost both the dream of the family I planned to create with my husband and the family I grew up in.  No wonder the two things twine together so often.

I’m slowly starting to work on letting go of what I firmly believed my life would look like, particularly in regards to family.  The first step has been reaffirming the decision not to pursue further fresh IVF.  I’d said it over and over again, believed it intellectually, but there’s a sense in which I’m finally truly closing that door emotionally.  It means working to ignore the nagging voice that keeps telling me “just one more round!  You could still make it happen!”  Or the other voice that tells me that I am somehow stopping short although objectively I can see that we went through h*ll and had a couple of extraordinary, unprecedented – and out of our control – breaks in our favor to get where we are today at all.

One of the other steps has been slowly letting go of the residual denial that probably kept me functional for a bit after my brother’s death.  I knew, of course, that he was dead.  At the same time, some part of my mind kept imagining him going out for a run along the city streets, going to work, generally living his life.  We didn’t talk all the time on the phone and lived several hours apart, so reality didn’t intrude constantly.  I went about my day, I imagined him going about his.

Over the last month or so, I’ve done that less and less.  The ache of the loss seeps in more and more as I begin to fully acknowledge that he is not in the city, not living, and that he is really and truly gone from this world.  No matter how hard I try or what I do, I cannot make that fact change.

It’s hard.  Really f*cking hard.

At the same time, the anxiety is a little bit less.  Instead of feeling hugely overloaded emotionally all the time, I’m finding that I’m closer to just being maxed out more often and hope that at some point it will reach a reasonable equilibrium.  There is so much good in my life, but needing uncovered and brought out.  It’s what keeps me moving and working, the idea that this massive and painful letting go will eventually be worth it, allowing me to fully embrace the whole of my life as it actually exists.

Out of the Shadows

The other day I couldn’t resist watching the trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children even though the book scared the daylights out of me. I was curious if the characters looked the way I’d pictured them, and I must say, I certainly never pictured Eva Green as Miss Peregrine (I’ve always seen Maggie Smith). At the end of the trailer, there’s a short image of what terrified me in the book.

While it’s not a creature I’d want to meet in a dark alley or, well, anywhere, seeing it on the screen made me go “huh…that was what scared me so much?” It’s interesting that I’d taken the outlines in the book and filled them in with my own terrors, insecurities, and ugliness to make a truly horrifying creature that scared me for good reason.

Finally pulling the monsters lurking in the dark spaces of my own mind out and really getting a good look at them this week has had a similar effect. They’re still formidable creatures and I still don’t want to deal with them, but they’re not as big or terrible as the shadows they cast.

~*~

Mali left a wonderful, sage comment on my last post pointing out that although the media (and social media) portrays family and big events as uncomplicated and happy, the reality is usually murkier. As much as I sometimes know that in the back of my head intellectually, it’s easy in the onslaught of joyful photos and exciting news to forget that this isn’t the whole of reality. I spent some time looking through what I’d posted over the past year or so, and it was interesting to note that after E was born, my Facebook posts take on a decidedly upbeat tone that wasn’t terribly congruent with what I was actually experiencing at the time. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never posted about my brother’s death on Facebook.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. After E was born, it seemed that any time I’d express concern or get upset (mostly IRL), I often got a variation on this: “But you’re thankful/should be thankful she’s alive! And doing so well!” It’s true that for a 28 weeker, especially with the early PPROM, E has done exceptionally well. She never needed a ventilator, much to everyone’s immense surprise, and at this stage of things, is right on track for her adjusted age of around 9 months. I was and am thankful for E, knowing how close we came to losing her. But it did not take away the reality that it was hard and still is sometimes.

There were days I could remind myself that people say sh*t like this for various reasons, ranging from the fact that outright sadness and suffering makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, to the idea that people often want to ‘fix’ the situation, to simply being ignorant or having their own issues. There were/are other days, however, where it was/is very effective in making me feel as though I needed to put a happy spin on a tough situation or, in many cases, simply ‘suck it up’. After all, someone had it worse than me. Honestly, I think this is a big part of where the pain olympics comes from: people feel they need to justify their pain and the complex feelings surrounding events culture often insists should be purely happy. That’s the pressure I’ve been putting on myself, and the pain olympics is all over my last post.

So I’m taking a deep breath and saying it fully: I am really excited and happy to be an aunt. I am really glad that my BIL and SIL don’t need to go through fertility treatment again and that the babies are doing relatively well. I’m sad for them that their lives/pregnancy/birth didn’t go as planned in scary ways. It truly doesn’t matter when it comes to NICU or fertility treatments – no matter the duration of either, they represent some big losses. It’s also not a shame to say that I’m sad and angry for myself at all the losses and the very real fear and sadness that surrounded my pregnancy with E as well as the difficulty of NICU and the subsequent months of taking her to 2-3 appointments a week on average and bringing her home on monitors and oxygen. It’s not wrong that siblings trigger the many unresolved feelings surrounding my own brother’s death and infertility. It’s also natural that all of this brings up difficult memories of messiness that are the events of my life over the past three or four years.

That, I suppose, is reality: some good, some bad, some uncertain.

Just as I knew that we would somehow go on and have lives of beauty and worth if we did not have a child, I know we will likewise have goodness if E is an only child. It won’t happen overnight, and may take years to fully work through readjusting those dreams and hopes but I firmly believe we will get there. I also sometimes have to remind myself that plenty of people are only children – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. E being an only child would not be the same as me being one of two and suddenly left alone. It’s easier to project my own sadness and insecurities as I’ve barely scratched the surface of grieving and coming to terms with what happened to my brother or to sublimate the memories I need to come to terms with by playing pain olympics.

I’m impatient in many ways. I wanted the battles with my demons done, you know, yesterday. Then again, I have to remind myself that there’s a reason I have the sign I do hanging over my desk:

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It’s something I’m working to remember.

And Somehow, We’re Back To December

As a kid, I loved the holidays, December, and Christmas. It always started with going to my grandparents for Thanksgiving. As we got a little older, then it was Black Friday shopping. We would map out the sales on Thanksgiving evening and plan our route, including a donut break in the middle. My great-aunt was game for braving the crowds with us, and it was often a perfect chance to shop for Christmas presents. There was Hanging of the Greens (decorating) at church, nativity pageants, choir, and volunteer work. Our family would get a live tree and we’d spend an afternoon decorating it with my mother’s extensive ornament collection. We’d set out my mother’s Mexican nativity set, the Baby Jesus hidden until Christmas morning when he’d appear in the manger. There were cookies and cranberry sweet rolls and finally, the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church. Arthur proposed to me on December 21, 2002.

Then on Christmas Eve 2003, my grandmother died. I’d never lost a family member before. For the first time, we didn’t go to church. Christmas morning, we all stared at each other, half-heartedly opening gifts. It was never quite the same again, always that little bittersweet tinge of memory intruding.

Once Arthur and I got married in 2005, Christmas and December felt particularly stressful for a few years. We had very little money at the time and presents became a source of difficulty. I remember clearly trying to find gifts that were heartfelt and yet didn’t break the budget. Finally, by around 2008, we were established, life felt more manageable, and I hoped we’d get back to a less complicated celebration.

It wasn’t to happen. Arthur lost his job at Thanksgiving of 2010 and his grandfather died shortly thereafter. In 2012, infertility became the unwelcome specter at the feast. December was when my doctor told me that my case was too complicated for her and I’d need to see an RE. Exactly one year later in 2013, I had a D&C for my first miscarriage. In 2014, I had been told by the perinatologist that I could continue to attempt to carry my then second-trimester pregnancy but that I was in a critical period where my risk of infection and losing the pregnancy was high. I was bleeding every day. I couldn’t do Christmas decorating, cooking, or shopping. Arthur was without a job again and interviewing. We held our breath, wondering which day would give us more bad news.

I’ll confess, I was looking forward to this year and a chance to exorcise a few of those demons. I got excited about E’s first holiday season, starting with plans to dress her up in a cute little “first Thanksgiving” outfit. We had plans to go visit my parents for the week of Thanksgiving, and Saturday Nov. 21, we’d do the big meal with my whole family. I hoped we’d get our house unpacked enough to get at least a small tree put together for E and take some cute photos she wouldn’t remember but that would be fun for us.

Then my brother died. We did have a meal with the whole family on Nov. 21, but it was for the memorial service. I glued a tight half-smile on my face, thanked people for their condolences and presence, and somehow got through it. Thanksgiving was spent having an enormous fight with Arthur about E’s eating issues (a whole post in and of themselves) and driving home so that I could go to work Friday night.

Truth be told, what I want is something that will fill the gaping holes in my life and heart. Something that will take the sting out of all the infertility and loss memories associated with this time of the year. Failing that, I’d just like enough energy to keep advocating for E. It is amazing how much work and patience it takes to coordinate all of her specialists and appointments and keep everyone on the same page. I’d like enough drive to put the effort into navigating the new structure of my family. E’s birth changed things. Life as the only surviving child of my parents is different and I’m not sure how to step into that role or what it even looks like.

I’m bemused, amazed, and at times resentful of the fact that life somehow goes on through all of the losses and sadness and anger. I suppose, however, that in the incredible resilience and endurance of the human spirit there’s some sort of hope for the future. I am grateful for E, my parents, and Arthur.  Even if despite these moments of gratitude, most of what’s keeping me going these days is making rude gestures at fate and the universe at large.

And maybe the fact that I’m still standing tall enough to feel those fleeting moments of gratitude and make those gestures, in and of itself, is a sort of triumph.

Shattered

Over the last couple of months, we slowly started returning to some sort of fragile normalcy. We finally made progress on some of E’s issues with eating, switching formulas and bottle nipples. While there’s still some moments of randomness or frustration, our lives began to fall into a bit more of a routine.

We made plans. It was going to be a wonderful week. Sunday we were going up to see friends and take E to a pumpkin patch. Monday Arthur took a half day off to go to an appointment and then celebrate my birthday. I was looking forward to responding to the comments on my last two blog posts. Thursday, an appointment for E and going to see my brother-in-law and sister-in-law for dinner.

I mildly strained my back Friday night. Nothing too major, and while I wouldn’t be able to carry anything, I was still allowed to walk around Sunday morning as long as Arthur pushed the baby in stroller and took care of the bags.

I work my Saturday overnight shift and Sunday morning dawns beautiful, blue, crisp, a perfect fall day.

About ten minutes before we pull in the parking lot at the pumpkin patch, my father calls me. This is odd to say the least. My parents know my schedule. I know they would not be calling me at a time when I would typically be asleep on a normal Sunday unless something is wrong. My father tells me that he’s gotten a call that there is something wrong with my younger brother. My parents are heading into the city. I tell him to call as soon as he knows anything.

We meet our friends because what else is there to do? Buy donuts. Talk and laugh. Walk around. Head back into the pumpkin patch area to pick out the perfect pumpkin for Halloween.

My phone rings.

And then there are words: “Passed away.” “Shot himself.” “Dead.”

Before I know it, I am screaming at the top of my lungs. No. NO. NO. NO!

Horrified parents and children are staring at me, the beautiful blue sky and sunshine incongruous now.

Our friends are lovely. They give me hugs and say the right thing, the only thing: that they are so sorry. Arthur somehow gets the three of us to the car because all I can think is we need to get to the city. There’s nothing we can do. But we need to be there.

When we arrive, we are led to the next door neighbor’s apartment. This is the man who heard my brother’s significant other’s screams when she discovered the scene upon arriving at the home she and my brother shared and helped her call 911 and notify authorities. This neighbor, in a display of extraordinary, generous hospitality, has vacated his apartment to allow all of us to congregate there and be close. We are not allowed into my brother’s apartment because first the police and the coroner must do their work and then we must wait for the special cleaners to come.

This is what you learn when your loved one commits suicide: that there are people whose job it is to come clean up the physical manifestations of the violence and horror.

There are so many awful details. The services of a funeral home must be engaged. There will be hours of sorting through papers and belongings and legalities. The gun, in a truly inhumane bit of police procedure, must be picked up that afternoon from the precinct.

I will most likely never see my only sibling again. The initial report is that the body is not suitable for viewing.

I am so sad. I am also angrier than I have ever felt before.

E smiles and coos at everyone. I know she must know that something is wrong, but I am grateful that she is happy and will not remember this day. My mother cuddles her close. This is the only thing I can offer.

We drive home.

Now the hardest part begins, the stretching minutes, hours, days of brokenness.