A Great Aunt Indeed

One mid-February evening as I was getting ready for work, my phone rang.  Arthur answered it and I could tell immediately by the tone of his voice that it was not good news.  My mind jumped immediately to my grandfathers, both elderly and not in the best health.  However, my mother told me that the news came from an unexpected place: my great-aunt J had died that afternoon.

While Aunt J had experienced several serious bouts of illness in the past year, she had recovered and was doing reasonably well at that point.  She had even gone out with my aunt for a drive earlier in the week and my cousin had visited with her the day before.  Apparently, Aunt J had been resting in her room, pushed her call light, and by the time the staff responded a minute or two later, she was gone.  It was quick and by all accounts, peaceful.

~*~

Aunt J was my maternal grandfather’s older sister.  I remember very clearly going to Columbus most years for the Fourth of July holiday to see my grandparents and her.  Since Aunt J’s birthday was on July 2, she always hosted a party for the assembled family and friends.  As the oldest cousin, I was the first to get to accompany her on trips to Star Beacon, a treasure trove for a child.  I got to help her select items such as small Styrofoam gliders that looked like airplanes and went much further than homemade paper airplanes, jelly bracelets, poppers (little plastic pieces that could be turned inside out, set down, and then jumped into the air with a “pop”), and other similar bits for the goody bags.  Aunt J always asked me to consider the smaller cousins or items that might amuse the adult guests as well as the children.  It was my first lesson in hospitality and thinking about others.

Aunt J was always ready with fun surprises, including everything from climbing walls to a simple trip to the local park.  She was the first in a long day to suggest a break for rest or food when one of us cousins got cranky, making sure she cared for our physical needs.  We always knew Aunt J took a nap herself in the afternoon, letting us know by example that it was okay to slow down a bit and recover.  She also helped support me during nursing school in many different ways.  It’s thanks to her that I stuck with school on the really awful days, and I am so grateful for that.

In so many ways, more than I can possibly list here, she taught me how to “adult”.

Beyond the ways in which I knew her as an aunt, Aunt J had a very full life.  With a degree in Biological Sciences, she worked in the labs at Ohio State for the College of Medicine, Department of Surgery, and clinical chemistry.   She traveled behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s.  Aunt J also made many, many friends over the years and was active at church, writing down the names of newcomers so she would remember them if and when they returned.  Aunt J also did a great deal of volunteering with the library and other organizations.

In 2007, after having lived in Columbus most of her adult life, Aunt J picked up and moved to Pennsylvania, near one of my mother’s sisters.  When I asked her why she’d move so far away, Aunt J said she was ready for another adventure.  She was always up for a challenge and excited to meet new people.

~*~

It’s also worth noting here that Aunt J never married and did not have children.  This was the other way she taught me by her example: that a life without having children could be immensely well-lived.  As much as the infertility was horrible, I also had a role model for a life outside of the nuclear family structure.

~*~

My mother told me about Aunt J’s memorial service, held in mid-March.  All of her five nieces attended.  Several friends from Columbus made the trip out to Pennsylvania.  I wanted to go very much, but it was simply impossible given the timing.  A friend Aunt J had made after she moved delivered one of the eulogies.  There is no doubt that this extraordinary woman had made an enormous impact and touched many lives.

It was my great privilege to know and love Aunt J.

Bittersweet

When E was about six months old, I organized and decorated her room.  It was, literally, the only room in the house at that time I’d managed to do anything in remotely resembling organization.  The whole project had gotten kicked off with me wailing at Arthur one day about how I “hadn’t even gotten to put together the nursery” before I’d gone into the hospital and then had been too busy in NICU to even try to deal with it.  From there, we’d had oxygen equipment for months (even after E had stopped needing oxygen, our doctors had us keep the equipment a bit longer just in case) and needed a place to put the apnea monitor.  All this meant that the room was beautifully arranged to fit the monitor and oxygen equipment, but not really optimally for living without them.  We’d recently gotten rid of both the oxygen compressor and the apnea monitor, but the room was, like the rest of the house, a mess.

To placate me, Arthur told me that I should let the rest of the house go for the time being and see if I could work up a way to make E’s room nice.  He’d help with as much as he could and also with the lifting/arranging of furniture.  We decided to make a little bit of room in our budget to get a few things to decorate the room as well.

One day, I found a neat collage frame at a store.  It held six photos, organized around a central photo.  It was a little more expensive than we wanted, but I couldn’t resist.  I bought it and eventually put a photo of E in the center with a picture of us, one of my parents, one of Arthur’s family, one of the twin cousins once they were born, and one of my brother and his girlfriend in the outside frames.  It’s one of my favorite parts of E’s room.

As E has learned to talk and recognize people, Arthur started explaining who the people were in the frames when he was getting E dressed in the mornings.  Or so I found out when E startled me one morning by pointing up at the picture of my brother and announcing, “Unca E-!”

It wasn’t that I minded at all, in fact, it was lovely and I am really glad that Arthur is teaching E who the people in the frames are to her.  It was more that I wasn’t expecting it and it took me off guard for a moment.  I treasured the moment and didn’t think about it again for awhile.

A few weeks ago, I got some photos from my mother that I asked her for and downloaded from her phone, a whole mishmash starting at the beginning of E’s life.  As I was going through them, I found one that made me stop and stare, one I hadn’t been entirely certain existed.  E was born about seven months before my brother died.  He saw her once in NICU and then once in September of 2015.  Only during that September visit did he get to hold her.  At the time, it didn’t seem extremely noteworthy.  I didn’t know if anyone had snapped a photo.

There it was, though.  E hurried over, took one look at the photo and went “Unca E-“.  She made me go back to the photo several times as I scrolled through the folder, even trying to use the touchscreen on my laptop to go back to look at it anytime I’d try to move forward.

It was beautiful and so, so d*mn sad at the same time.

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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!

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.

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. 

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.