Coffee-Mug Philosophy

In my offline life, I’m in the process of some new stuff at my job that changes my workflow and sort of upends my established routines there.  It’s fine, positive even, and it’s something expected/planned but it’s amazing how much energy goes into change and re-configuring my habits.

The other day, these words fell out of my mouth: “It will be fine!  All this upheaval and hard stuff is going to make us stronger, right?”

Ironic, because I really hate that particular cliché.

~*~

I heard it quite a bit throughout the infertility journey: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I heard it when Arthur went through job losses.  I heard it in NICU.  I’m grateful no one said it too me after my brother died because suicide pretty much flies in the face of that kind of gritty positivity.  But that statement has hovered in the background of most of the big, tough moments of my life.

I think – as with most “sound bite” or “meme-ready” sorts of statements – the reality is much more complex.  I also think sometimes it’s employed as a quick conversation ender or a way to escape big feelings.

There are hard experiences that I feel have made me stronger, mostly those that are designed to break down before building up.  Nursing school sucked.  It was terribly long hours often (getting up at 4:15 am to drive two hours to a clinical site, being there for 8-10 hours, then going home), the studying was a full-time job, and I have never forgotten my first semester lab where everyone cried at least once except for the two students who had been in the military.  It was also truly worth it and the toughness was incredibly important when I got into real world and took my first assignment on a general medical-surgical/telemetry floor.

Some of the job losses for Arthur fall into this category as well.  It was sort of a surprise to me that after Arthur’s first job loss, the sky didn’t fall and we figured things out.  We were really privileged in many ways, but the experience helped me better hone savings plans and recognize that while it was 100% not optimal, it was survivable.

But as far as some of the infertility experiences go?  Being told there was no heartbeat?  Sitting in a hospital bed being told that I was ruptured and going to lose our very wanted baby?  Waiting in NICU for test results to come back to see if E had NEC?  Losing my brother?  No.

That sh*t broke me to the very core.

I mean, there’s a way in which all these experiences have given me a lot of perspective.  Going through all that reminds me on the days where all the little ridiculous stuff is piling up and it’s frustrating that I’ve survived so much worse.  That I will make it through that day.  I’m much better now at differentiating my small life stuff from what constitutes my bigger life stuff and reacting accordingly.  It’s also made me more able to take some forms of tension or frustration in stride, because, well, I can manage.  In that sense, the adage is correct.  Perspective is valuable in life, absolutely.

What the saying doesn’t reflect, however, is that there are some really ugly broken, jagged edges that are still in the process of being smoothed.  It doesn’t reflect the big ways in which these events changed the course, not always for the better.

I started out in elder care as a nursing assistant when I was 19 years old.  I loved it.  I always envisioned myself as a hospice nurse eventually.  I did some clinical time with hospice and felt confirmed in that calling.  Even when I started in the “real world”, I took assignments that would give me experience.

Then infertility hit and I was just so sad.  Conflicted.  Too many emotions running rampant to step back and be in a high-emotion field like hospice.  I put the dream on hold, mentally, and moved forward with a different path hoping to eventually move back that direction.  Then all the losses happened, NICU happened, and my brother died.

Now, I work in an area where I come in contact with the “hard stuff”, but in far more limited doses than a field like hospice.  It’s a good balance, I’m good at it, and I’m happy.

But I still mourn, a bit, that I had to admit that infertility, miscarriage, prematurity, and suicide loss limited me.  Maybe someday, but it will be years and a lot of therapy if hospice is ever back in my path.  I won’t do it unless I know my stuff is fully handled and integrated.

Empathy is another sort of mixed bag in life after everything.  On the one hand, I know these experiences have made me more empathetic in many ways.  I definitely can identify with people’s struggles and have a better ability to be present in those moments.

But it’s also made it far easier – especially when I’m tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or overstimulated – to fall into a pain Olympics sort of mentality or get really jealous.  I don’t think this is true for everyone by any means, but it’s definitely an issue for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that even while I was very happy for my BIL and SIL when they got pregnant, I was positively green with envy that they had gotten pregnant with twins on their first fertility treatment.  It threw me back mentally into every f*cking failed cycle and miscarrying twins on that first hopeful IVF.  I was happy for them but absolutely overwhelmed also at how sad and angry I was for my own losses.  This resolved with time and things are fine in that set of relationships at this point, but it’s not a great quality and one I’m on close guard against.

All the grief has also exposed the fault lines in some relationships and the Awful Things People Say.  After my brother died, it’s been a revelation how much stigma suicide really carries and also how uncomfortable some people are with grief and strong emotions.  Those secondary losses were really unexpected and the reshuffling of boundaries has been painful.

The fall-out also shows up with everything related to pregnancy or conception.  I’m afraid to embrace the idea of this final embryo transfer – even when I know, no matter how things fall out, I will be okay – because the whole thing activates all the panic responses and pushes me back to thinking on all the other memories.  When I was pregnant with M, my OB wound up allowing me to have appointments weekly through the first trimester, until both the risk of pregnancy loss had gone down and I could pick up the heartbeat on my home fetal doppler.  I was having panic attacks I couldn’t get under control, despite knowing I would manage no matter what the outcome.  It was awful and I’m really grateful that my OB was so kind.

And perhaps that’s one other little silver lining to the tough stuff: I’ve had the opportunity to see people step up to the plate as well.  People who have gone above and beyond and helped so much.  It gives me faith in humanity, in the idea that there is goodness out there.  It helps me better identify where I can be that goodness for others.

All this to say: it’s a mixed bag.  What doesn’t kill me has made me stronger and weaker…and panic attacks…and exposed my limitations along with my less than awesome qualities…and brought out some of my good ones.  But I guess that doesn’t fit as nicely on a coffee mug.

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Those Ads

Reading the other day, I came across this article on Slate about ad algorithms, grief, and social media (TW for stillbirth).  Basically, it explores the phenomenon where, post loss, people are still bombarded with ads for baby or pregnancy items when they go online.  It also has the FB shortcut to hide some of these ads but less advice about the vexing problem of FB’s tendency to “celebrate” anniversaries of particular posts.

When it happened to me, I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who had it occurring.  I can vividly remember getting baby ads after my first miscarriage because I’d spent time looking up pregnancy-related websites.  It sucked, especially in those first few days after arriving home from the hospital post D&C when I was physically and emotionally achy.

My second loss was a little less problematic in terms of the ads – mostly because I had known something was wrong from the start and my searching had been confined to things like “ectopic pregnancy symptoms” and “really low beta HcG” and “pregnant but bleeding”.

The one that really wrecked me, however, was after E’s birth at 28w4d when I kept getting ads for maternity clothes while she was in the NICU.

The Slate article goes on to talk about why there aren’t better algorithms to prevent these triggering ads: “The real problem is that there’s no quick capitalistic incentive for Face.book to do the work of sorting ads or pictures for you.  As one grieving woman told the Australian website…’There’s no money in miscarriages, obviously.’”

Having walked through infertility and miscarriage, I can’t help but think, as do the women featured in the article, that there really does have to be a better way.

Meditations on Moving

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One of the few authors I’ll spring for straight up (instead of waiting at the library or until I find it on sale) is Louise Penny.  I’ve written a few (okay, okay, probably more than a few) times about how much I love Penny’s mystery novels here.  She’s one of the authors writing today that I really want to meet, though I’ll admit that I’m a little terrified that if I did, in fact, meet her, I’d just fan-girl all over the place and embarrass myself.

In any case, Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind came out last week and I’ve spent the last few days reading.  Yet again, I’m struck by Penny’s ability to get to the heart of life, living, and human emotions.  One of my favorite parts of the books are the author’s note at the end, where Penny writes so evocatively about her own life and struggles.  For a number of years, Penny’s husband Michael suffered from dementia and died in 2016.  Penny has also been open about being a recovering alcoholic and the incredible loneliness, anger, and sadness she felt for so long as well as many wonderful things she values in her life now.

“A funny thing happened on my way to not writing this book,” Penny notes, “I started writing.”

“How could I go on when half of me was missing?  I could barely get out of bed.” She continues.  “But then, a few months later, I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table where I always wrote.  Laptop open.”

I relate to that in such a big way.  While I’ve never lost a spouse, I have lost loved ones, as well as other, less tangible bits and pieces along the way.

It’s hard, losing, whatever that loss comprises.  Especially at this time of the year, when everything seems suffused with traditions and the place at the table seems all the more empty than usual.  When it’s impossible not to remember and the commercials and pictures and expectations are designed to evoke emotions that often I’d rather leave in the background or unexamined.

Sometimes living, moving, feels a bit like a betrayal.  With an ache that has the sharpness of a gunshot echoing from 2015 and holes that rend the threads to keep weaving it all together, it feels impossible to tie the knots and work to keep creating.  To set the empty place and also hold the feast.

That’s been a struggle for me lately, even though my grief isn’t new.  I’ve reached that sort of half-mourning stage, where the sadness doesn’t seep into every moment or corner, but comes out at both expected and unexpected times with a startling strength.

I’m grateful to Penny for not denying the darkness, but also for the joy she takes in how moving forward encompasses her loss: “Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books.  All the things we had together came together in Three Pines.  Love, companionship, friendship.  His integrity.  His courage.  Laughter.”

In so many ways, that’s what I’m seeking.  Not to leave behind, but to hold the love and live.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Bangs Head On Desk

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(TW for pregnancy discussion – not mine)

A couple of my guilty pleasures include celebrity gossip and the British Royal Family (I actually took my pen name here from one of Henry VIII’s wives).  Needless to say, I’ve spent some time reading about Eugenie’s wedding (loved the tiara) over the last few days, and of course, the in-the-news-constantly right now Meghan Markle.

Until this morning, when I saw the headline.

Yup.  She’s pregnant.

OF COURSE.

It’s weird how trauma stuff comes out.  Most of the time, I’m fairly at peace with the infertility, IVF, miscarriage and such.  I just don’t react as strongly as when I was in the trenches.

Pregnancy is my kryptonite, though.  Pregnancy announcements still feel like being socked in the gut.  I generally don’t look at maternity photos.  Ultrasound scan photos actually can get me closer than I’d like to panic attacks (for a very long time, I got a lot of bad news in ultrasound rooms).  Seeing pregnant bellies still fills me with a sort of wistful, slightly jealous longing.  I don’t go to baby showers.  I don’t do pregnancy/labor/delivery stories because, let’s face it, no one wants to hear about infertility/miscarriage/severe pregnancy complications/premature birth.

It’s strange because I can hold newborns or look at baby/kid pictures without any issues the vast majority of the time.  I’m okay once the child is born.  But pregnancy stuff, for some reason, gets to me in a major way.

It’s weird coincidental timing, though, since today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day (in the US).

So I read about pregnancy.

And light the candles in memory of the ones I lost.

This post is part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

 

Sometimes, You Can’t Run After Them

Content note: parenting, miscarriage

My older daughter loves books.  Upstairs, downstairs, board books and picture books abound.  I periodically go through and put them back in some semblance of order, only to have them joyfully pulled off the shelf a few minutes later for reading.  There are classics and newer titles and everything in between.

There is one board book, however, that doesn’t belong to the girls, that never is pulled from the shelf, that I have never read to either daughter.

I bought it nearly four years ago, one burst of optimism in a lot of nagging fear and doubt.  I never could get into buying baby clothes – that felt wholly overwhelming to me for something so tentative – but I did purchase a tiny set of board books.  The other two I threw away after it happened, I was so sad and so angry, but one I slipped into the box that held a positive pregnancy test, ultrasound photos, the embryo photo, some cards, and a few sprigs from the bouquets I received.

I don’t feel pregnant, I told my doctor at the time.  I’d never been pregnant before, but I knew, knew somewhere deep inside that something wasn’t quite right.  I found out that I’d miscarried the first one on a December morning when the ultrasound screen showed the pooling blackness of a gestational sac with something inside but no flickering sign of life.  The second one though.  The second one had a perfect heartbeat.

I hoped that the feeling of this is not right had been the first one passing, but I still didn’t feel good.  Or rather, I felt too good.  Not a wisp of nausea (but my mother had never really suffered from morning sickness and these things are often hereditary).  No breast tenderness (not everyone gets that).  No reaction to strong scents (well, it doesn’t usually set in right away).  Not overly tired (no more than usual).

But everyone told me that if you saw a heartbeat, your chance of miscarriage was drastically reduced.  I bought the books.  The Runaway Bunny seemed particularly apt.  If you run away, I will run after you, the mother bunny promises her little bunny.  I had run after this child, first with all the poking and prodding, then medications, and finally the IVF.  Right then, it seemed perhaps I had finally caught this baby.

Even then, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling.

I wasn’t surprised the day the ultrasound revealed the absolute stillness in my womb.  Devastated, but not surprised.  The babies were gone, but I could not run after them.  I could not turn into a fisherman or a mountain climber or anything else like in the story to bring either of them home where they belonged with me.

I let go in the end.  I had to.  Unlike the fictional mother bunny, I didn’t get that choice.

I tucked the book into the box a few days later.  A small gift, a book I wanted so badly to be true.

I could not bring them home.  The only thing I could do was send my love.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. 

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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