Three Candles

This is one of my favorite things my Mom has ever written. This is only a brief snippit of his story, since SO much more has happened since he turned three (he's twenty nine now), but this story from the perspective of my young mom (I was two and a half when all this was going on) paints a beautiful, yet excruciating portrait of Ben's early life.

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I watched his smile glow as the last rousing line of Happy Birthday to You was sung, and returned his proud look for approval as the three candles were blown out. An incredibly happy day; a normal, happy, childhood day, as a matter of fact. A day quite different from the one three years ago when Benjamin was born.

 

 The unimaginable was happening right before my eyes. My baby was being whisked out of the room just moments after being presented to me on my now-shrunken belly. And he was being taken away by my husband, who is a Neonatologist, a doctor for premature and critically ill babies, but who for this delivery was to strictly be in the role of daddy. Within hours-- well actually ten long horrifying hours of deteriorating news-- we were given the news that would change our lives.

 Ben had a complex genetic heart defect that had left him with basically no right side of his heart and no valve opening to get blood to the left side. He was being kept alive by a natural hole in the heart found in all newborns that eventually closes up after birth. When it would close there would no longer be any way for the blood returning from the body to get through the heart and into the lungs. In two days to two weeks we were told Ben would die. We did the unimaginable again, and took him from the hospital to spend his last hours or days in the arms of his family at home. I had to give my baby back to God.

 But Ben and God had other plans. Two days and two weeks dragged on to four weeks, then six weeks and the doctors kept saying it couldn’t be much longer, they had never seen this, there was still no hope, no cure, no surgery. Life became a bizarre death vigil. Days were filled with weeping, and hopelessness and anger as I prayed that God would just take him and get the misery over with and then praying almost secretly that He would let me keep Ben, if just for a while more. I tried not to bond with him and love him too much (an impossible task to ask of myself) and yet the simple demands of his needs kept bringing us closer. The vigil, and Ben turned three months old.

And then God started to show his hand. We were scheduled for a two-week job interview in Alaska and decided to go ahead with the trip. We figured if Ben was going to die it didn’t really matter whether it was in California or Alaska, just so we were together as a family. As soon as we got out of town, the thought occurred to us to get an opinion on his prognosis from someone outside our own medical community. We had heard of a good pediatric cardiologist at the hospital where my husband was having his job interview and so a few days into the trip we got in to see him.

 He looked at Ben, looked at us, and said, I know of a surgeon in Boston who is having some success with a new procedure on babies with the same heart defect as his. If you want him to look at Ben I would not wait another day. We were there within five days and Ben was operated on a few days later. Ben would live now, we were told, but not without numerous operations in the future and life with a very abnormal heart. At some point the only cure would be a transplant.

 It was a rather startling thought-- Ben living after all. And life with a possibly handicapped or critically ill child became shockingly real. But you know, I had my little boy back. And God began to teach me how to love him in spite of, and because of, the unknowns of his heart. I had lived knowing what it was to let go of my worldly hold on this child. Now I could live knowing Ben was not my own, and neither was my other child, only gifts to be cherished and cared for while God allowed me that pleasure.

 I could not see the reason why God so brutally prolonged his impending death those first three months. But in that time he thrived from the love and nutrition and touching at home and became strong for surgery at three months. I could hardly pray through my anger and grief, but literally hundreds of others did and through that experience were touched by a miracle of God and the miracle and thanksgiving of their own healthy children. When someone says, God works in strange ways, they weren’t kidding.

 Because of Ben, I returned to the Church feeling I owed God a huge, huge debt-- and through that obligatory attendance, I discovered my own lostness and longing for Him. Because of Ben, I learned strengths within myself to live through a crisis-- not much and faze you after accepting the death of your child. And because of Ben, I learned of his powerful and loving hand that can reshape our daily lives in an instant-- and how those instants can become blessings.

 

 Three candles on a birthday cake. Not a bad sight at all.

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I was not prepared for this.

I recently read the article in the Boston Globe and, while I feel like I knew everything in there intrinsically, having medical professionals and the media confirm my experience was so powerful. Please go read it (it's long but worth it) because it's really wonderful, though I will quote from it quite a bit here.

So here's the thing.  I remember being annoyed as hell before having kids about women making claims to the effect of not knowing the fullness of womanhood until they had kids. As an empowered feminist I fully believed (and still believe) that a woman doesn't need to have kids to be whole.  But what I didn't understand about what those women were saying is that you DO change significantly, both biologically and psychologically, when you have a kid.  You legitimately become a different person, to some degree, because your brain actually changes after having a kid.

I was in the midst of the most rapid and dramatic neurobiological change of my adult life. The unmooring I felt, and that so many new mothers feel, likely was at least in part a manifestation of structural and functional brain changes, handed down through the millennia by mothers past and intended to mold me into a fiercely protective, motivated caregiver, focused on my baby’s survival and long-term well-being.

We spend all this time obsessed about women's bodies, weight gain, spider veins, stretch marks, saggy boobs, when the biggest change actually occurs right inside her skull.  "Entering into motherhood is 'a major event' for the brain, says Jodi Pawluski, a researcher at University of Rennes 1 in France who focuses on what she and her colleagues call the 'neglected neurobiology” of the maternal brain. “It’s one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life.'"

Holy shit.

But also, I feel that.  This feels like the most significant biological and neurobiological shifts in my life, possibly more unsettling than puberty.  Everyone prepares you for puberty, it's thoroughly discussed (though even then, tween and teen girls are NOT given even close to a complete understanding of their fertility and cycle.  It wasn't until I started tracking my own cycles well into my late twenties as a natural contraceptive method that I learned truly how my fertility and menstrual cycle worked).  But the shift you experience in motherhood is not something I was prepared for at all, from any medical professional.  And having not anticipated such a huge shift, it was frightening to say the least.

In my prenatal and postpartum care (the latter of which was unexpectedly minimal) postpartum depression was definitely discussed, but never in much specificity.  So when I found myself at 7 months postpartum, screaming with unbridled rage at my own mother over some small disagreement, I didn't recognize it as a possible symptom of a larger issue which was slowly percolating to the surface.  

What would happen if we gave expectant mothers even a basic understanding of how and why their brains change? Would it help them to cope with the unfamiliar emotional experiences that very often are part of a healthy experience of new motherhood? Might it open a door for women who experience more problematic symptoms to talk with their loved ones or their doctor? Could it even help some women to feel empowered by their own biology?

The culture we have is shifting, slowly, but we still live in a time and place where the gritty beauty of real womanhood and motherhood is feared. "The truth is, it’s easier to talk about decorating the nursery than about the gripping fear that sends you into a full-body sweat the first time you take baby to the grocery store. It’s more comfortable to debate baby names and stroller brands than to discuss the depth of loneliness that can come at 2 a.m. when you are awake again with a crying baby." It's scary to talk about the rage you feel all of a sudden when your baby won't stop crying.  It's scary to admit you sometimes feel like just getting in the car and driving away forever. People don't yet know what to do with that kind of admission, but every single time I've admitted to feeling those ways, I hear a chorus of other mothers echoing me, confirming that my experience isn't unusual.

When I was pregnant, I didn't have much in the way of fear surrounding childbirth itself.  What I feared was life after childbirth. What it would look like, how life would change, and that I would miss my life before kids.  And for me, those things did turn out to be much more challenging to deal with than my comparatively easy and quick labor and delivery.  But what I didn't expect to change was me. My brain. Not recognizing yourself is one of the most frightening things to cope with, on top of having this little human you're charged with turning into a thriving member of society (or at least not a serial killer). 

“We want to keep this facade that motherhood is everything we’ve ever hoped for and pregnancy is blissful. . . . We feel like we are raining on people’s parades and dramatizing our own struggles and scaring people, and we don’t want to do those things. Yet, we do need to talk about this."

We need to talk about this.

Sadness is room

I’m sitting alone in my living room, face hungover from crying.  Overly tired, but also not wanting to give into sleep. I’ve been thinking a lot about motherhood lately.  This afternoon my mom took Jack down to Portland with her to watch him for a few days so I could have some free time.  I was busy all day, but as soon as I laid down in bed I started feeling my chin quiver and the warm tears dripping down my face.  I missed him.  I’d never been so far from him, for so long.  The very thing I’d been craving I now had, but I missed him intensely.  And I was annoyed because I knew this was a thing that happens to most moms when they get that craved-for alone time, and here I was, basic as could be.  Unable to sleep, not because there was a baby crying upstairs, but because there wasn’t.  

 

I remember feeling a similar, though less intense, thing when we would take Dusty to a boarder before going on a trip.  Coming home and opening the door to nothing— no barks, no wet nose brushing your legs, no joyful greeting — felt so empty.  Empty, something missing — it means there was something there and now it’s not, and you still feel it, but what you’re feeling is the vacant space where something once was.  And it feels different and uncomfortable because you’re used to that thing being there, filling that space.

 

That’s the interesting thing about being a human.  We are so expandable.  We can make room for so much in our hearts and lives.  One of my favorite children’s books is The Mitten, the Ukranian folk tale about a boy who loses a mitten which then becomes home to an ever-growing group of animals wanting to enjoy it’s coziness.  In the end, the mitten has expanded to several times it’s original size and the grandmother who knit them looks at the two side by side, wondering what happened to stretch her mitten out so much.  We’re all that new mitten, and we bring things into our hearts, expanding, making room.  And when the thing you made room for is suddenly not there, the room doesn’t shrink back.  The room you made is still there.

 

And holy cow, as a mom, you make so much room for your new baby.  You make so much room, sometimes it feels like you disappear and all you are is room for that baby.  Even physically during pregnancy, your own body has to shrink and shove all it’s organs into the margins in order to make space for this new person.

So I am sad, because right now I am an empty mitten.  And I won’t be sad the whole time Jack is gone because I will enjoy the luxury of being able to do things I can’t when I’m momming, but I will miss him because I can’t not feel the room that I’ve made for him when he’s not here to occupy it.

Radio silence

I haven't written anything here in over a month, I think mostly due to the overwhelming stress and all-consuming nature of this year's presidential election.  My thoughts have been centered around social justice, the future that my kid will grow up in, what I want our lives to look like moving forward, and then the more mundane things like trying to keep our house from looking like a hurricane blew through, finishing up my final wedding of the season, and getting the baby's room done.  

That being said I have a lot of thoughts mulling about below the surface, perhaps not yet ready or ripe for putting into words.  It's a weird transition to go from thinking about things in terms of their impact on me and my life to then thinking about their impact on my child's life.  Or even, thinking about how to raise my kid in a way that can respond to and address our culture healthily and also revolutionarily.  It's a weird place to be in to want to change the world so my kid can grow up in a world better than the one I grew up in, while also wanting to raise them to be agents of further positive change.  To continue the process of change and growth far into the future.  And in a way, raising my kid to be a kind, creative, brave, critical thinking, courageous, compassionate human IS something that I'm doing right now that is changing the world.  

Introversion, Moving, and Community.

I had my baby shower this past weekend.  It was a more "traditional" baby shower in that it was all ladies and lots of baby gifts.  Since I don't really have any friends my age here in Anchorage (yet), everyone who attended was my mom's age and more so my mom's friends that mine, but they've known me since I was a little kid and have loved me for decades, so it was special to have them all there.  We'll be having another "baby shower" next month in Tacoma with all our friends our age, it'll be co-ed, and more like a regular 20-somethings party with the reason for the party being that I'm growing a human as the only thing that really defines it as a baby shower at all.

I choose to go through so much of life alone.  I don't know exactly why I do this.  Part of it is certainly due to my introversion.  It's easy for me to be alone and do stuff alone. It takes so much more effort to go out and do stuff with people, or to try to coordinate with others to do stuff.  And now that I'm in Anchorage and know virtually no one, I spend my days alone almost exclusively.  

I wasn't prepared for how much introversion would effect me as an adult.  Growing up, introversion isn't really something that gets in the way of interaction with others.  You go to school five days a week, do after school activities like sports or other things with other people, and we even lived with another family that had kids, so we were always playing outside together, choreographing crazy dances together, and sharing mealtimes.  College is similarly easy to remain social as an introvert.  Classes 5 days a week, constant programming from clubs and dorms, intramural sports, department events, and living in a dorm where other people are always running around doing something or other. 

My biggest struggle since graduation hasn't been that I wasn't prepared for the job market, or didn't have enough education, it's that I've lost the community that was built into the school system.  I was lucky enough when I moved to Tacoma that Dan had basically grown up there and had a huge network of friends that I easily slipped into, but even that wasn't easy for me.  As an introvert I like being with people, but initiating things on my own, as opposed to having a veritable buffet cornucopia of events and groups to attend, has been probably the hardest transition from graduating college 7 years ago.  Ugh, seven years it's been that I've been struggling with and trying to figure this shit out.  That's not frustrating at all.

I'm afraid that becoming a parent will make my tiny social circle even tinier.  I don't want to spend the next seven years stuck in the rut I've apparently been stuck in since graduating college.  For as much as I ached to get out of Tacoma for so long, now I'm feeling like I threw away the closest thing I had to a social community of friends since college (not that I threw them away, they're still there and we can still go to them and have that community there waiting for us, hence our Tacoma baby shower party).  I felt so stuck in Tacoma, and was so looking forward to a fresh start, but it's been harder than I anticipated to have no friends or community of people our age to socialize with here in Anchorage.

Maybe this move was just to show me how valuable that was (don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?").  Renting out your home and moving 2500 miles is an obnoxious way to learn that lesson though.  Who, What, and Where does this next year have for us?  I don't think we'll stay in Anchorage long term.  Is it back to Tacoma?  Is it to the road in the Brave?  Is it somewhere totally new and different (Nashville? Joshua Tree? Portland?)?  For now, all I can see through is the end of 2016 where we'll be holding a new tiny human, celebrating the Holidays.  2017, you are a crazy mystery to me.  Be nice to us, okay?

I don't want you to be a gentleman.

I listen to pop music in the car, I'm not sure why because the lyrics always drive me bonkers, but I guess it's fun to sing along to and upbeat background music.  I always end up thinking way too much about the messages sent in song lyrics and lately the one song that's been driving me bonkers is Shawn Mendes' current song:

I won't lie to you
I know he's just not right for you
And you can tell me if I'm off
But I see it on your face
When you say that he's the one that you want
And you're spending all your time
In this wrong situation
And anytime you want it to stop
I know I can treat you better than he can
And any girl like you deserves a gentleman
Tell me why are we wasting time
On all your wasted crying
When you should be with me instead
I know I can treat you better
Better than he can

First off, as a woman, KTHXBYE for your opinion on my relationship and your assertion that you'd be better for me.  Just what I need, another man telling me how I should live my life.  The song should be re-titled, "I Know I Can Mansplain You Better."

Cynicism aside the word "gentleman" stands out to me.  And it's a word that I kind of want to be done with.  It's veiled sexism at its finest.  Because I don't want men to be gentlemen to me, I want them to be decent humans who treat other humans who happen to be women like they treat male humans.  They respect women the way they respect men.  They honor women the way the honor men.  They pay women the amount they pay men.  They fight for women to have the same privileges and rights as men because they are fellow humans who deserve that.  

You can treat her better?  Why don't you fight for her rights?  Speak up when your shitty friends are slut shaming girls.  Be an advocate for equal pay.  Stop saying things like, "she's just being hormonal," and saying that things done weakly/poorly are done, "like a girl."  I don't want your condescending gentleman shtick.  I don't want you to bring me flowers and open a door for me.  Get in the trenches and be a real advocate for women.  Maybe she is dating a lame-o, but being a gentleman isn't what she needs.  She needs a feminist.  

 

Are we there yet?

I'm tired of being pregnant.  Not necessarily physically, though it would be nice to be able to wear my old clothes again, but more mentally.  I'm not good at waiting.  If I have an idea, I like to do it right then.  I start businesses on a whim, buy new domain names and make websites for ideas that burn in my brain late at night.  When I decide to do a thing, I want to start doing that thing immediately.  I'll start painting a room at 10:30 pm.  Start an RV remodel 10 days before I'm supposed to leave on a road trip.  So this waiting thing?  This incubation period?  I don't really get it.  I'm not a preparer, really.  I don't research or read books about things before I decide to do them.  I sort of jump in with both feet and figure it out as I fall.  So I want this kid to just come so I can get to the part where I start figuring it out instead of sitting her wondering how the hell life is going to change, what motherhood will look like for me, what loving a baby even means.  It feels like my whole life is on pause waiting for December.  I know it'll probably be here before I know it, but in the quiet moments where I'm alone at home with a mysterious creature kicking me from the inside, I just want the wait to be over.  

I hear a lot of pregnant women say stuff like, "I can't wait to meet him/her!" and I don't have that and that's not why I want the wait to be over.  Perhaps it's a more selfish perspective, or just one from someone who is not a baby person and has never had the desire to "meet" a baby.  Our culture feels so focused on the baby.  Like motherhood is an afterthought.  Like it's no big whoop when a woman becomes a mother.  Like it happens every day.  And it does, but not to me.  I only become a mother once in my entire life, and our culture doesn't have a lot of ritual, celebration, or ceremony surrounding that.  Even the celebration you have during pregnancy, a Baby Shower, is focused on the baby.  What the baby needs, celebrating his/her new life, getting a metric ton of diapers and baby onesies.  And I get that.  New life is exciting!  We should celebrate it.  But I also see mothers get lost in the fray.  I see motherhood get lost, the sacred and momentous time that happens once in a lifetime.  And then we immediately transition to our society's actual culture surrounding motherhood, which is: DO AND BE ALL THE THINGS.  Be a super mom, run a successful business, take the kids to soccer practice, breastfeed for at least a year, do yoga, be fit and sexy and fun, have a beautifully decorated Pinterest house.  And really, I like doing all the things, and I'm really good at feeling bad when I don't feel successful (which is almost all the time), so I have a feeling that's going to go over really well.   

These posts tend to get really ramble-y and lose focus (perhaps a symptom of pregnancy brain? I hear that's a thing?), so I'll stop before I start talking about something totally and completely unrelated to what I started writing about when I opened this draft.  Being pregnant is, overall, a good experience.  I don't want it to be over because I've had crazy sickness, or because my body feels horrible, or for any of the bajillion horrible pregnancy side effects my pregnancy app tells me are supposed to be happening to me.  No, I just want to not feel like I'm trying to peer into a black hole when I look at what life will be like come December.  I just want to buy the damn domain and start building this motherhood website (if we're mixing metaphors.  I'm not actually building a motherhood website).  

So it begins.

Well folks, it's begun.  I've made my first purchases of baby things, namely: some tiny onesies and a crib.  We finally got the room cleared out that will be the nursery (a word I kind of hate?  So I've been calling it our bebe den).  Now that it's a blank slate, I can finally start making it into the baby's room.  

Some days I still look in the mirror and think this is all some crazy dream and I'll wake up back in Tacoma in our little house, sans bump, shake my head and be like, "whoa, that was some crazy shit," and go about my day.  It's still bizarre to me that we are here in Anchorage, I'm in my 3rd trimester with a child that will come out and be all mine to take care of in 12 weeks.  In a way, I'm glad that it shook everything up.  I know I was getting restless in Tacoma and was Jonesin' for something new.  We had planned on moving into the Brave and living a mobile life, but honestly, it was really difficult to move out of our house and without the push of needing to move to Anchorage, I'm not sure it ever would've actually happened.  It was just such a cozy house, we were so comfortable.  Even though I wanted something new, something different, change, I'm not sure it could've actually happened without something pushing us to make the move the way this pregnancy did.

I don't feel married to Anchorage the way that I thought maybe I would be, moving back to my hometown.  I have a lot of cognitive dissonance about Anchorage.  Growing up here it was the best place ever and I loved it.  I loved coming back for visits over the years I've lived in Washington.  But now living here its sort of pulled back the veil and I'm not quite as in love with it as I was.  It's like how you idealize an ex, then you date someone that matches you way better, and then you meet that old ex again and realize how they really aren't as great as your idealized memories.  I don't know if we'll end up staying here.  Part of me feels like maybe not, maybe this is just an intermediary place.  But I don't know where we'll end up.  I like Alaska, I like the Northwest.  I want to be near family.  Sitka has been in the back of my mind as a potential home.  I like the idea of my kids growing up in a town like that.

But of course, all that is speculation right now and I really don't care to think about it all that much until next year, after the baby comes and we are ready to even begin thinking about what's next for us. 

Goodbye

Sunday morning, as I was rustling awake, my grampa slipped quietly away. Just shy of 95, his life was something rare, simple, and beautiful. Born in a tiny Alaskan fishing village on the Bering sea, he mushed dogs hundreds of miles, mined and trapped, and was a commercial fisherman from the days of open sailboats through till the days of modern powerboats--most of his life. He fell dearly in love with a powerhouse of a lady, and they lived out their days, crafting a home and family, on the shores of Southeast Alaska. He loved deeply and showed it. Every time we parted ways in the past few years, his eyes were dewy with tears, knowing it could be our last embrace. This past May it was. But I got to share the news in person with him and my grandma that they were great grandparents and show him an ultrasound picture of the baby that was growing inside me, his bloodline flowing through me into the future. He so wanted to make it to his 95th birthday and hold my baby, whose birthday is due to be just a few days after his. But I hope that in lieu of that moment, he's sharing that in-between space with my tiny one, the unborn and newly passed on, crossing paths like ships through the ether. He always called me his WeeBit, and I think that little name will find its way to my babe, carrying his loving spirit with it. 


I miss you grampa. Thank you for giving me an adventurous and creative spirit, for your unending love, for your stories, and for this family you created. You will never be forgotten. 


Your WeeBit