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.

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.

Winter Driving

 

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a bit of a phobia surrounding winter driving.  I’m not sure if it was the fact that first winter I had a job further than ten minutes from my home turned into one of the worst we’d had in a long time, sending me slip-sliding all over snowy, icy roads regularly or if it developed more during my pregnancy with E as an outlet for all the anxiety, or if it was a combination of circumstances.  Whatever created the situation, I let out a sigh of relief when we reached late March and then early April.  We were through winter.

The second Friday in April came.  I got ready for work.  Arthur told me to take the four-wheel drive.  “They’re saying it may snow,” he said.  I rolled my eyes, but took the SUV.

At around 3 am, some of my coworkers who were coming in to start early shifts said it was snowing like crazy.  “Getting bad out there,” one of them said.  I gritted my teeth and hoped it was gone by the time I left at around 8 am.

By the time the full dayshift arrived, the weather was the topic on everyone’s mind.  “I slid through a stop sign,” one said.  “I got sideways,” said another.  The last summed it up succinctly: “It’s the worst driving I’ve done the whole winter.  And it’s not even winter anymore.”

Darn it.

I headed out to the car after finishing up and was struck immediately by how slippery the sidewalks felt.  It wasn’t snow so much as an icy grit that covered everything.  If I hadn’t been working again that night, I probably would have had a cup of coffee at work and waited for it to melt off a bit.  However, I needed to get home to sleep.  It was a short drive away, as once we’d moved, I lived about ten minutes from work once again.

The main road was icy but not terrible.  I knew once I turned off for the majority of the journey home, it would probably be a sheet of ice though, and I was right.

I crawled along, feeling the wheels slipping with every adjustment or tap of the brakes.  I could feel my panic rising.  Thankfully the road was all but deserted, but I flipped on my hazard lights to let anyone coming around me know that I was going very slowly indeed.

It took me nearly 25 minutes to get home, white-knuckling and fighting fear the entire way.  By that evening, however, the sun was out and the roads were clear.

Truthfully, that more or less sums up life these days: sudden, unexpected storms of worry, grief, or sadness.  But like driving on that icy April morning, we’re managing.  Even when it feels long or I have to essentially put on the hazard lights and go really, really slowly, struggling along.  Instead of wondering if winter will ever end, I know that eventually the sun and warmth will come back.

It’s finally spring.

If you want to read more Microblog Mondays or participate, please check out Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting!

Odds and Ends

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Watching the penultimate episode of Downton Abbey, Edith, speaking to her sister Mary, tells Mary that in the end, they will be the only two left who share the memories of their parents, their late sister Sybil, and of growing up together. It put into words a feeling I’ve been trying to articulate since my brother died, a very particular facet of that loss. In the end, I will most likely be the sole keeper of those family memories.

~*~

Listening to Arthur congratulate his brother this week on the birth of wonderful twin niece and nephew, it’s decidedly bittersweet. I’m so excited to be an aunt to these babies. We are glad for a safe birth at 32 weeks and babies in good health for their prematurity. I’m so happy E has cousins, and I know both Arthur and his brother hope to keep our families close. I am grateful for E yet again and the extraordinary circumstances that meant we were able to take her home. We are glad that E will know this uncle and aunt and their little ones.

My brother was surprisingly good with small children, although he would have been the first to deny that. He always took them seriously, listened to what they had to say, and as that’s often a rare quality in adults, they would follow him around chattering, excited to have found someone that heard them. I wonder what E would have told him, this uncle she will never know except in photographs and stories.

~*~

It’s one of the things that’s a bit hard about this birth, it comes as my period starts after the first sort-of two-week-wait I’ve had in a while.  We said we weren’t going to do this, but when my cycles suddenly regulated out on their own, we couldn’t resist. No intervention or fertility treatment, no idea if I actually ovulate, no idea if my left tube is open, just a very long shot on a natural cycle figuring it has been a year since my c-section, I’m not getting any younger, and we’re not doing any more fresh IVF.

Even though I know better, even with plans for a much better shot with an FET in the fall, I found myself half-hoping and with that small disappointment, I find myself counting the losses again: my own sibling, whether or not E will have a sibling, the long five day wait with nothing to do except sit by E’s incubator, watching the monitors alarm, wondering if E’s brain ultrasound would show bleeding before we could even consider holding her, the scariness mingled with her first kangaroo sessions as her oxygen saturation dropped and it took two nurses to get her into position, the twins I lost after the first IVF, the ectopic after my FET. I wonder about those lost babies, if they would have looked like E or her cousins?

I wonder if E will be left as the lone memory keeper for our family.

And I hate that this is what suicide and infertility and extreme prematurity have cost me, at least for now: unadulterated joy and happiness without complexity.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more or participate, please head over to Stirrup Queens to check it out. 

Things That Go Bump In The Night

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Spoiler Alert for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

I recently, somewhat accidentally, finished Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I say ‘somewhat accidentally’ because while I did select and start the book (and then couldn’t put it down), I hadn’t realized it was a YA horror novel. Having an exceedingly overactive imagination, I do not normally read horror novels or watch scary movies. The few I have watched or read made such an indelible impression as to leave me with nightmares more than ten years later!

Part of the premise of the book, however, gave me a pause. The protagonist, Jacob, can see monsters invisible to everyone else. In the book, this turns out to be an enormously helpful gift.

In real life, it made me think of my anxiety issues. I’ve spent years ‘seeing’ monsters such as illness, job loss and unexpected tragedies, trying to dodge them, afraid of their presence in an outsize way, far beyond simply doing the best I can to plan and minimize the impact in real ways – then moving on.

A confluence of circumstances: several tragedies touching friends or acquaintances, some minor testing E is to undergo in the next couple of weeks, an unexpected package that was very much appreciated but bittersweet that arrived in the mail all came together and threw me a bit sideways. I could see the monsters circling the periphery, the place they inevitably dwell around all human lives. I found myself terrified, over and above anything that was warranted, clinging to both Arthur and E, realizing how easy it is to lose those we love. There was nothing I could do to prevent the terrible randomness of life, and I felt it keenly. There is no one who can promise me E will live to old age and be happy. There is no one who can promise me that there won’t be more sadness, more bone-deep disappointment, or more miscarriages. There is no one who can tell me that I won’t have to endure another senseless death of someone I love.

It’s not a gift, that kind of sight. No matter how well you plan or hide, sometimes, the monsters slip through. There’s no preventing it. Seeing them and noting their presence constantly only makes it difficult to live.

In the end, the only thing I know is that I get the privilege of loving and living right now. Today, we’re okay.  The monsters can go to h*ll.

If you want to read more Microblog Mondays, please go to Stirrup Queens’ blog and check it out.  Thank you to Mel for originating and hosting!

The Present

On Tuesday, Mel at Stirrup Queens asked a question as part of a post: if someone could tell you the high and low points of your life – which you could not change – would you want to know? Throughout my adult life I’ve wondered that a few times. About five years ago or so, however, starting when Arthur lost his job while I was finishing nursing school and then through subsequent infertility/loss, I started pondering the question more and more frequently. Most of the time I leaned towards wanting to know.

It’s been a strange year. I spent more time in a hospital gown than any other outfit. The living room is littered with stacking cups, burp rags, and stuffed animals. The As.ics Kay.anos my brother got me started on as a running shoe are kicked underneath the coat rack, the shoes and clutter tangible evidence of the impossible somehow manifested in this year. My daughter survived against all possible odds. My brother did not despite everything in his favor.

There is E, whose very name makes reference to the total surprise of her living. She’s named from a part of The Lord of the Rings, at first because the spot where her namesake grows in Middle Earth was the most peaceful place I could imagine her as we thought she would die. Later, we kept that name, never before on our list, instead of changing to one of the two we’d originally picked because of a moment in the final book where one of the characters asks if there was ever any hope and is answered: “There was never much hope…Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”

That’s all we had for her, a fool’s hope through the slow march of days that brightened into viability. If I had known she would live, she would not be E.

I remember when my parents, my brother and his long-time girlfriend, the woman we know he would have married if he had lived, came to see E in the hospital six days after she was born. My brother and his girlfriend brought window clings to decorate the glass doors of E’s NICU room and the incubator, the flowers and frogs and turtles making E’s room a home during her long stay. I brought my brother back and he stared at the baby in the plastic box. “Wow,” he said gently. It was my parent’s anniversary and my mother’s birthday and E’s birth all in the same month, so we went out to eat afterwards. It is a good memory, a memory made all the more precious by the fact that it was one of the last.

If I had known that in October my brother would inexplicably pick up a revolver and leave us, I would have missed it along with countless other moments such as his love of aviator sunglasses or the fact that as much as he sometimes downplayed his enormous affection for the cats he and his girlfriend had, he always had new cat pictures on his phone and would do just about anything for them. I would have missed the opportunities to love and share, because there is no doubt in my mind that if I had known, I would have subtly distanced myself in some sort of misguided effort to lessen the pain.

And he was worth all of it.

I don’t say that lightly. I don’t say that as an “of course”, feel-good moment, something I’m supposed to say. There are days – and will continue to be days – where the ache is so strong the pain feels physical. There are days I simply wish it didn’t hurt so, so badly, days of getting together with my in-laws and seeing their family wholeness that throws the awful brokenness I’m experiencing into sharp relief. It is recognizing the truth in the cliché about being lonely in a room full of people. It is not knowing if or when or how that sadness will fade into something more bittersweet and wistful, more complicated but more bearable.

As 2016 sweeps in, it’s impossible not to wonder what the year has in store. After living this year, I don’t think I truly want to know. Instead, Arthur comes home from work early today. We’ll play with E and nurse the colds all three of us came down with on Sunday. We’ll plan to use the new cheese board for supper and watch The Holiday. We’ll enjoy each other’s company and most likely have one of those nice, prosaic evenings that aren’t distinct memories but rather meld together to form something strong and warm and loving. I’m content to live in this moment rather than looking too far forward.

Happy New Year to all.

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.