Thursday, May 29, 2008

think about such things

It always seems to happen in the summertime. I think it is because kids are outdoors so much more, and playing in water. Normally it doesn't happen until June or July but this is an early year I suppose because it is still only May.

This summer it starts with the announcement in church that a family's grandchild had been lost to SIDS. I try to hold back the tears as we sing hymns, and Walker squeezes my hand. Then I read the blog of friends of friends whose 18 month drowned a year ago, and her bittersweet welcome to a new baby boy. And then, of course, Maria. And the memories her death brings to Ann.

It's creeping in, but I keep it at bay.

Walker goes out late one night to write and I read on the Internet Cafe that it is the anniversary of Annie's daughter's near drowning. I look on her blog, and click on the links of other near drownings. Children all the ages of my own, who in an instant go from being the most vibrant alive creatures to so much less, their hearts still beating, their beautiful bodies still growing, daily reminding their desperate mothers of what could have been, what should have been.

It's midnight when Walker returns. I have read dozens of near drowning blogs, I have cried for children and mothers I will never meet. "Why do you do this to yourself?" he asks incredulously, again. "Why?"

"I'm just really glad we don't have a pool," I reply. But we have a bathtub...and Knox died in a bathtub.

It's creeping, especially at night, but I can still keep it away.

Then I read this. It's here...I can't stop it anymore. It's here. It's too much to push down now.

When Shepherd was born, when I became a mother, I was completely overwhelmed by how much I loved him, and the thought of losing him paralyzed me. Every item in my house signaled potential harm. Pillows could suffocate. Dish soap could poison. Jelly beans could choke. Even sleep could take him from me.

I did not fear disease, which steals slowly. My fear was fueled - is fueled - by the element of surprise. Happiness stolen in an instant. Life changed, destroyed, in the blink of an eye. SIDS represented all that perfectly. I lived the scenarios out in my brain - the baby goes down, happy, healthy. Hours later, check on the baby, to find that It has happened.

I spent many a night in front of my computer after his 1:00 am feeding, absorbing every bit of information I could find about crib death. I read and read, clicking desperately from one site to the next until he cried hungrily again at 4. I guarantee I knew more about the theories and statistics regarding SIDS than my pediatrician did. For I was obsessed, and she was not. I read and cried and read and cried, and only then could I sleep.

It was as if I grieved with strangers, somehow I had inoculated myself from tragedy. Somehow I had vicariously suffered - and I was safe. My baby was safe.

But the pretense of safety wore off after a month or so, and I found myself back online, searching for grief.

It was normal, I assumed. All mothers worry.

Once when Jenna's firstborn was about a year old, she emailed me that she had looked at his sleeping face the night before, and the thought suddenly hit her, "What if something ever happened to him?" My immediate response was, You've had him over a year, and this is just now occurring to you? I've thought this every day of my children's life.

It was the first indication that perhaps I was not normal.

I mention how afraid I am to my Courtney, my mentor. I remember her face. "Yeah...no, sweetie, I don't think that's normal."

I mention it to the Christian counselor I am already seeing. Wise, lifesaving Cindy. "Nope. That's not normal. But I'm not surprised that you do that, considering your past."

Considering my past.

Raised by an alcoholic. A functioning one, one who held a job and supported his family and coached little league. One that might have appeared to not cause too much damage, because most of the time, we looked normal. He was a binge drinker. His episodes were erratic. As I got older, I could predict the triggers - holidays, death. But as a child it was just a capricious roller coaster. My life would be good, my family would be happy for weeks, even months at a time. And then one day - it would all end. My mom and my brother and I would come home from school or a playdate or a trip to Grandma's and within seconds, I could tell by the look on my mother's face, her stony silence and the tension in the air that It had happened. My home, my haven, my heaven had turned to hell in an instant.

After I leave my parents' home I realize that whenever things in my life are going well, when things are easy, anxiety sets in. As soon as I realize I am happy comes a feeling of dread, of something bad is going to happen. Doom.

I learn to be preemptive. If I cause It to happen, instead of just helplessly waiting, I can't be hit by surprise, my nemesis. When I feel It approaching I pick a fight. Or, I find some other way to be self-destructive. Then I feel in control of It. Then I can breathe again. Then I can sleep. For another period of time before slowly, silently, It begins to stalk me again.

My children are born and as I instantly realize that losing one of them would be the worst thing to ever happen to me, that becomes the new It. It surrounds me always. Some days worse than others, but always lingering, taunting, mocking my happiness. Stalking my life, my happy life, my healthy babies. Omnipresent dread.

Not surprising. Considering my past.

I sit crosslegged, pregnant with my third child, on Cindy's flowered couch and she explains It to me. And it all make sense. I grieve for me this time, for the fear, for the wasted hours, for the little girl who hated It so much. She dares to ask, "Do you sometimes wish something would just happen?" I confess the darkest secret of my soul, "Yes. Sometimes I almost wish one of them would just go ahead and die, so that I can just quit being so afraid of it." And I sob, and I sob, and I sob.

And I realize how crazy that is, the feelings I have never before allowed myself to think, let alone speak. Crazy.

There is power is saying it out loud, somehow. In admitting my neurosis I realize, well, how neurotic I am. And that revelation gives me the strength to stop. Because when I am not an anxiety ridden neurotic, I am actually quite pragmatic. And wishing my children would die so I could quit being afraid my children would die is crazy. This has to stop. I must stop It.

I ask Cindy how to do this, when I am lying in bed in the dark, imagining all manner of tragic scenarios that might befall my babies to the sound of my husband's peaceful breathing. She tells me to say to myself, "This is not a productive use of my time."

Soon I test it out, and oh my goodness, it works. Something about that phrase, spoken to myself in such a no-nonsense way, causes me to... to quit being neurotic and irrational, torturing myself when I should be sleeping. This is not a productive use of my time.

It is not a productive use of my time.

But it does not stave off the feelings that come when I do not seek It, but when I receive clusters of news about little ones lost, which happens every summer. I don't worry about my own quite as much anymore. But I still grieve for the realities, for Knox, and Maria, and Izzy, and Audrey, and Luke, and for all their mothers who will never be fully happy ever again. Fear is replaced by sadness. Sadness can quickly expand to depression. It still haunts me.

*****

Today I take the kids to visit my new sweet friend Beth, hugely pregnant with her third son. Jack has received a Slip n Slide for his fifth birthday and we are here to help break it in. I keep a close eye on Ingram as he dips his pudgy hands in the baby pool, because It happens, you know, even in baby pools. Sorrow is constantly in the back of my mind. But I don't bring it up. I do share with her that I am a little grouchy because, even though it is nowhere near my time of the month, I am having cramps. Kind of bad ones. In fact, I tell her, they actually feel like contractions. It's quite annoying.

The children play, eat peanut butter sandwiches and Cheetoes, turn every toy into a gun, while Beth and I chat.

Suddenly, mid sentence, her face tenses. She grimaces. Then she moves to the floor, and crouches on all fours, still grimacing. My eyebrows raise. "Are you having a contraction?" I ask. "I think so. I think maybe I am."

I run to look at the clock on the microwave. It's 2:04. She finds a pen and paper and writes it down.

At 2:17 Beth announces, "Yes. These are definitely contractions." For the next hour I giddily note the time of each erratic pain. We share birth stories of ourselves, our sisters, our friends. This baby is coming soon. Finally. Hopefully by tomorrow, Samuel will be here.

Ingram tumbles head over heels down six carpeted stairs. Both of us watch it helplessly from different corners of the room. I race to him, scoop him up, kiss him as he screams. Within seconds he is giggling. He's fine. He's just fine.

At four o'clock the children and I leave. I hug Beth and kid that she will be much skinnier the next time I see her.

On the drive home, I think about life, and death. I can't wait to meet Sam. I love newborns, their smell, the faces they make, the noises they squeak. Joy and anticipation have replaced my sorrow - completely. And my cramps are gone. They all belong to Beth now. It's not my time to hurt.

Then I realize something. An epiphany.

I have a choice.

I bet there are just as many blogs celebrating new babies as there are blogs chronicling babies' tragedies. I bet there are even more.

I have a choice. I can spend hours grieving. Or, I can spend hours rejoicing.

I can seek out the devastating, and wallow in it. Or I can seek out the joyful. And wallow in joy. There is much to mourn today. But there is much, much to celebrate today.

I can choose to seek the good.
That would be a productive use of my time.
And not to do so, would be crazy.

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Phillipians 4:8



Samuel James
June 5, 2008
7 lbs, 15 oz

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