On Grieving the Living

Girl Running in Woods
In October I Remember She is the Girl Who Lived

I gazed up at the blue skies mottled by billowing white; bright reds and golds jutted upward cutting through the azure plain.  My soul was weary.  There was a distinct chill in the air and a cold breeze blew that rustled the leaves casting them down to their final resting place.  My thoughts danced around the archetypal shadow of loss and death.  

The weather fit nicely like a warm, woolen, worn boot; it was like the Octobers of my childhood.  I took solace in the familiarity.  It was not like the Octobers of late with their warm breezes and their confusing temperatures—the harbingers of climate change.  I watched the wind whip a pile of dried leaves into a small cyclone.  It mimicked my thoughts and the churning within.

We received the diagnosis of Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC) for our sweet baby girl in October.  Every year when the leaves die so does another piece of my heart.  Like every October, it is a bit different and there is great beauty, loss and grief. 

Til the day I die, I will carry the extraordinary burden of grief that was bestowed upon me in October.

***

I always wanted a girl.  I was ecstatic when I found out I was carrying a girl.  I never dreamed of doing her hair or of princess dresses, but rather of bestowing upon her the secrets and great gifts that have been accumulated over generations of womanhood. It was my greatest desire to share with her the power of being female.  Like every mother, I rubbed my belly and infused the baby growing in my womb with my hopes and dreams.  Some basic—to be provided for; health; and survival—and some more grandiose—to be a force with which to be reckoned; to know her power and own it; to love and appreciate art, music, literature, and culture; to be kind, ambitious, fair, loving, philanthropic, an activist, and, yes, a feminist.

All these hopes and dreams came crashing down like a poorly constructed house of cards when met with the diagnosis of TSC and the hope was replaced with a single hope: let her live. 

Survival. 

Please, to all the powers that be, let my baby live.

And, so began my journey into grief.

I skipped right over denial and anger—there was no denying the images of her tiny body floating in my womb and her heart riddled with tumors.  I was too shocked to be be angry.  I moved right on to bargaining.  

Please, I will do anything; I will give anything; I will be anything; just let my baby live.

And, she did.

She came screaming into this world a couple months later, pink and lovely as could be, and still there was no denying that she had TSC.  Yet, the only thing predictable about TSC is the unpredictability.  Our sweet girl could be very mildly affected—lead a completely normal life with monitoring and the help of medication.  My hopes and dreams blew back in like a gust of autumnal wind and filled my soul.  

There was a bottomless pit of grief, that I could not identify and yet felt so intimately, and I was at the bottom.  But now, there was a ladder of hope on which I began to climb out of that pit.  Nevertheless, grief never leaves.  It marks you like a scar on your soul.  While there was hope, my grief merely shifted.

Please, I will do anything; I will give anything; I will be anything; just let my baby remain seizure free, let her avoid heart complications, let her avoid a life-threatening tumor in the middle of her brain, let her avoid autism, let her live.

My pleadings became ever more complex like chantings to the gods.  Under all the bargaining was intense and immeasurable sadness—nameless grief.  I did not comprehend that I could be grieving because I had this beautiful, tiny, amazing human in my arms who smelled ever so sweet and made tiny squeaks and coos.  There is no grief when your child lives.

Then came heart failure—heart functioning “incompatible with life.”  She was four months old.  Let her live became an ever present chant in my head.  I heard it constantly.  Soon to follow were seizures then catastrophic epilepsy in the form of infantile spasms then confirmation of a SEGA.  

Let her live.  Let her live.  Let her live.  

I was too busy caring for her to feel—to notice the grief I was dragging along with me like a monstrous ball and chain.  Until the quiet hours of the night when the mantra would cease and the only sound would be her tiny sleep sounds and the enormity of it all would settle on my chest like the weight of the world.  

This can’t be real.  This can’t be her life.  This cant be our life:  Denial.

Why?  I hate this!  I can’t do this anymore!!  I did everything right.  I listened to the doctors.  I took all the vitamins.  I hate the world.  F*ck this. F*ck TSC:  Anger.

Please, just let her live.  Please, please, please: Bargaining.

She grew and we welcomed her brother and another October came and went and an immense sadness haunted me like a ghost.  The specter of the loss of the life I thought she would have, the mother I thought I would be, the family I thought we would be, the life I thought we would lead haunted me.  Fear crept in: Depression.

And, she lived.  She has lived.  She continues to live and thrive with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex:  Acceptance.

It was not until I settled into the sadness and the loss that I was able to identify the reality of my grief—the both-ness of it.  The death of a dream and the birth of what is and who she is exist hand in hand.  There is a deep and ever evolving grief in that.  My dreams have shifted as has my grief.  

October to October I have seen many of the dreams I had for my girl fade from verdant hopeful green to blazing bargaining red then wither and fall to earth in grief filled loss; and, I have learned that they will be replaced with new dreams that bud and bloom in the full glory and newness of green hope.  My grief is part of me—as natural and integral as the tree’s life cycle.

As the Octobers pass my mantra has changed.  Now it is: 

I fear her loss because of my love.  Let my love surround her.  Let our love sustain.

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On Origin Stories

superheroThe screen came to life in graphic bursts of vibrant color and the sounds of symphonic movie scores swept through our home.  The meteor crashed into Earth in a spectacular explosion spewing Vibranium everywhere; my son’s widened as he drank in a seven year old’s dream—the origin of a Superhero.

My wrist faintly vibrated, startled me and caused my heart rate to instantly rise; the Apple Watch strapped around my wrist was like some sort of Pavlovian torture device that induced momentary panic whenever it alerted and my daughter wasn’t right with me.  I was stolen away from the screen and into my own world—like Batman called by the Bat Symbol.  When the watch buzzed my body would instantly flood with chemicals readying me for the potential emergent phone call until my mind could process and reason with the automated physiologic response and back down. It was only a text message; I forced a breath out and willed my heart to slow and read.

“Last update they were placing #9 of 16,” accompanied by a heartbreakingly gorgeous photo of my friend’s daughter.

Surgeons were placing the ninth out of sixteen depth electrodes into the brain of my friend, Blair’s, sweet baby girl to invasively monitor her epilepsy (stereoelectroencephalography—sEEG) in hopes of gaining enough data to resect or ablate some of the abnormal tissue and halt the barrage of seizures caused by Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC).  

“11”

I felt the blood rush to my face and suffuse my body with the superhuman strength that is required to respond when emergency strikes—damn watch!  I brought my brain back online.  I was like the Hulk willing the transformation to stay at bay.  

I channeled my energy into my response of support to Blair, read our friend Bridgett’s response on the group text, tapped out what words I could muster, and thought of how improbable it was for our lives to have crossed.  Blair lived over 4 hours away, Bridgett another 2 from there, and we had little in common practically; we were all brought together when TSC exploded into our lives like the meteor blazing across my TV screen and became the source of our superpowers, our connection, and our bond.

It was our origin story.

There is a before—there is always a before in an origin story—and an after.  Splitting the before and the after is an event of immense, life altering significance—one that changed the person and became his or her new beginning.  The person emerged from this event fundamentally changed right down to the fiber of their very being; when they emerge they ofter struggle to find their footing and own the power they have gained through the soul changing experience.  

Once one was able to walk through the fires of grief and tumultuous period of change one emerged with new powers that other simply did not possess—superpowers. Like Marvel’s X-Men those with superhuman abilities gravitate toward each other and find others in their own tribe.  Once there they share their own origin stories and it is what bonds them.

Special needs parents are typical people who all have an origin story and now possess some superhuman characteristic.  We are protectors of the true Superheroes and we are powerful in our own right.  To hand one’s child over to a surgeon for brain surgery, 1500 miles away from one’s home, while one’s other two children are back home with family takes superhuman strength.  It takes a tribe of those with superhuman strength to hold one up. Blair’s strength as a mother was superhuman and she had Bridgett and me to hold her up—regardless of how different our origin stories.

The life altering event could be a diagnosis of TSC, cystic fibrosis, autism, a car accident, or something else unnamed, and for those who have just experienced this—welcome.  Forget, “Welcome to Holland”; welcome to the Tribe.  To those who are crawling out of the radioactive pit of their origins you will find us—in doctor offices and therapy waiting rooms, on Facebook groups, and in charitable organizations.  We will whisper the stories of our begins to you and offer you our shared strength.  You will learn from us and, in turn, us from you.  We will become forever bonded.  Our Tribe is one of fierce love, superhuman feats, and a dash of the mundane.  We are the protectors of Superheroes and those who have gained superhuman love and strength from a life-altering event.  

“With great power comes great responsibility.”  There is no greater power than the love of a special needs parent and no greater responsibility than a child.

On Anniversaries & Grief

person wearing blue pants and black low top sneakers

I have no words

They fell from my mouth

Like leaves from the tree

Stars from the sky

Hopes from my dreams

You can’t put them back

They must be grown

Nurtured

Loved

Time must pass

The tree will bloom

Stars will shine

I will speak of hope once more

 

 

***

Mid-October steals my words every year since we received the diagnosis of Tuberous Sclerosis Complex for our daughter on October 15, 2009.  It took me a bit, but my words are back and I hope to be writing more regularly again.  Welcome back to those who I have been neglecting or welcome in general.

 

 

 

 

 

On Simple Joys

cars on highway

My hair whipped back and forth rhythmically, stray strands tickling the tip of my nose, as she squeed with delight.

“Fresh air!!!!  Aahahah!  Hahahahahaha!!”

The dark road stretched before us as the individual lines of tree trunk and limb blurred into mottled earthen browns, yellows, and greens; cars whizzed streaks of metallic hues; the world spun around us as we continued windows down, wind rushing in.  The sound of rushing air and passing traffic was surpassed only by her delighted squeals.  She erupted in spontaneous song; it was an exercise in pure and ecstatic joy.  I felt my shoulders slacken and melted into the drivers seat–the hint of a smile crept across my face.

For me, the car is a 2,000 lb torture chamber; it signified everything tortuous, dangerous, and arduous about the day to day managerial parenting of a child with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex(TSC) and accompanying exceptionalities.  I used to love to drive–the freedom, the escape, monotony, the sense of adventure–and it was yet another thing that TSC had tainted.  Driving was a task, a risk, a means to an appointment, a tense, fast, emergent drive to the hospital, it was an interrupted family outing dashed by another seizure; I drove hands muscles tensed, knuckles white, nerves raw, and adrenaline flooded.

All of this melted away as my body loosened and swayed with the movement of the road; she was happy–ecstatic, in fact–and that was all I ever wished for on the darkest of days was for her to know happiness.

***

Cars blurred past and Kelly Clarkson wailed on the radio.  It was early October and I was driving, belly round and in the way, headed for another glimpse of our growing girl.  It was bitingly cold for October, clear and beautifully autumnal.  We were headed out to start the celebrations for my husband’s best friend’s wedding the next day on the Cape.  The world was hopeful and full of beginnings.

I undressed and lay on the cold table of the ultrasound suite drinking in the floating images of our little girl preforming her water ballet.  We fought over middle names and barely noticed the solemnity that fell over the face of the sonographer.  She became quiet and was concentrating taking picture after picture, measurement after measurement.  She invited me to sit up and I did so smilingly; she informed me that there was something wrong with our baby’s heart and brain and that she needed to immediately call the maternal-fetal medicine specialists in, specifically the cardiologist.  I was instantly furious; I couldn’t process; she was wrong and how dare she say without certainty that my baby girl had multiple tumors in her heart and some brain abnormalities.

The minutes stretched on for hours.  My husband magically put himself aside to calm me until the specialist came.  I again had to submit to for more images of the sweet child swimming around innocently inside.  Then came a march of medical students to view the “abnormal fetus” and word after word levied like blow upon blow of mortally wounding weapon; they were giving her a death sentence.  These m*therf*ckers in their white coats with their fancy degrees were talking about my child–our child–who was dancing around on the screen–lit up like stars in the sky, already the apple of our eyes– calling her a fetus and talking about fetal demise–robbing our cradle–without even knowing our names or looking us in the eyes, offering what they equated to a death sentence and they sent me home with a diagnosis that these m*therf*ckers didn’t even pronounce correctly–tubular sclerosis.

I just wanted her to live.

Beyond that, I just wanted her to know happiness.

I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I had no breath left in me.  Then snow fell from the sky.  Snow in early October.  I thought it was a very cold day in Hell indeed.

***

The elevator catapulted me back up to the 17th floor.  My shirt flew up and ballooned ever so slightly at the bottom as we went up–it reminded me of the wind blowing in the car window.  The doors opened to the aquarium-esque elevator lobby outside the locked doors to the children’s unit; it filled me with dread and a macabre sense of joy simultaneously.  Ellison 17 is a little slice of home–we’ve slept here, cried here, rejoiced, played with both our babes, railed against God and the cruelty of the Universe.  I was buzzed in and ran back down to our room.  She smiled chubby cheeks pushed in even more by the enormity of the gauze-wrapping turban that kept the EEG leads in place on her head.

“Mama!  I made a duct tape purse with Hole in the Wall!”

“It’s so pretty, baby!  Look what I found,” and I pulled a huge stuffed Darth Vader I got on Target clearance from my back pack.

Her eyes lit up and she clambered to grab the villain.  I snuggled in next to her in the hospital bed, barely aware of the small computer on her back that was hooked into the wall by a wire, or the camera lauding over us like the Eye of Mordor recording every small quirk in movement to correlate it with the computer recording her brain waves.

“You want to play Dr. Panda on your tablet together or with your Ryan’s World figures?”

She snuggled in tighter.  “Make a magnet house for Ryan.”  She smiled, as best she could, ear to ear.

This was our normal.

***

Nine years past the coldest October day my soul has ever experienced and I still think of it often.  What I think of more are the resounding giggles that rise from what seems like the base of her very being and erupt out her mouth like a joyous bubbling fountain when the air rushes in and whips across her face.

On that day 9 years ago, I just wanted her to live, my only other wish was for her to be happy.  It has been my wish every time Tuberous Sclerosis Complex has tried to take her from us and every time this world and her body challenges her: let her live and let her live happily.  Because, from my mind’s eye it seemed impossible to live happily with a body attacking itself with tumors and errant electrical discharges that overcome one’s brain and cause one’s body to go haywire, and with life threatening emergency after life threatening emergency.  This is why I drive white knuckled and shoulders tight and walk around raccoon eyed on the daily.

And, she is a fount of ceaseless joy for me.  I am reminded again, and again, by her that the purest of things–the sweetest, most exuberant emotions–can spring from the simplest, most unexpected places if only you let the window down a bit and give the breeze an opportunity to blow across your path.

On Bravery

September skyThere was something about the late September sky and the clear day–the sea of blue interrupted only by clouds of fluffy white juxtaposed against newly wheat-colored grasses.  It was like an expansive ocean washed across the sandy beaches of land.  Warm breezes blew rustling the drying grasses and harkened change.  Every year I welcomed September with excitement and trepidation; and as the sun tickled my nose and I drank in the firmament I knew this year would be no different.

The time expired on my brief contemplation of the beauty of autumnal awakening; the door creaked as I wrenched it open, hands over-full (as usual), little voices came back into focus flinging the word vomit in my direction.

Buckled in and on our way my September baby resumed his word barrage:  “My birthday Mommy!  My birthday is soon!  I want a Percy Jackson party and we are going to make Camp Half-Blood necklaces and we can have sword fights and I can dress in armor and I want a projector for my birthday that projects things onto my walls and ceiling and I’m in the Poseidon cabin and we need to pick cabins like we did last year when we sorted my friends into Hogwarts houses at my Harry Potter birthday this is going to be so cool!  Mommy!  Mommy!!  And I want you to make mini Poseidon figures to go onto my cupcakes or maybe we can have a cupcake cake or just a cake.  Make sure you get my bro* his allergy cupcake. Mommy! Mommy? Are you listening?!”

*his best friend

My head swam through the expanses of crystal azure above cut through only by the dark asphalt scar I drove down to our next therapy appointments.

Shoot. I was caught out.  He was talking and it was all muffled Charlie Brown teacher like.

“Yes, bud.  Sounds good.  Except maybe something you said about the cupcakes sounded a little complicated.  We may need to be flexible about that.”

He resumed the machine gun word fire and my head continued to swim as we pulled into the parking lot to split up. My husband waited to take one kid to one therapy as I took the other to another.  We unloaded, arms overly full again, save for a few fingers for sister to grab as we traversed the parking lot.  The smell of apples was in the air.

“Mommy, you heard me right?! We can do all that for my birthday?” he said.

“Probably, buddy.  We’ll talk about it when we get home.”

We exchanged quick hugs and kisses as he climbed into the car seat in my husband’s car.  The husband and I said a quick hello and an even quicker goodbye; only enough time spent together for a graze of each other’s hands to meet–not even a hug or kiss.  I retook sister’s hand in mine and breathed deep; smells of apple and dry grass filled my lungs.  And, I was transported back.

God, I love and hate September.

As I breathed in, the smells carried me back to the carnival, belly round with baby, and toddler in tow.  She was dressed in bright pink pants and a chartreuse shirt that hid the Holter monitor (heart activity monitor) attached to her chest–cheeks chubby and slightly chapped (from teething and messy food)–as she rode in her brown stroller.  It was the last weekend we spent as a family of three.  I remember it viscerally; the sheer terror mixed with unbridled excitement and joy–wild and bright like the September sky.

We sat her on a bright red tractor to take a picture and to let her play with the steering wheel and buttons.  Suddenly she was slumped over on one side and rigid on the other, arm slightly shot up, and I rushed to press “record event” on the box attached to my bionic baby while making sure to hold her so she didn’t fall off the tractor.  I whispered a silent prayer to the cosmos, because by then Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC) had stolen any belief in an omnipotent and benevolent being I had left, that it really was “just” her heart and some weird kind of fainting episode.  My gut knew better.  These were seizures. Seizures of the worst variety–infantile spasms.

Panic suffused my being: How was I bringing another life into this chaos?  What if the baby squirming around my now tightly compacted abdomen was also born with this devastating rare genetic disorder?  We had all the testing done and knew that our beautiful girl’s case was a spontaneous mutation; a base pair deletion on her 16th chromosome with a frame shift.  A completely random slip up in her DNA that made it like her cells were dialing the wrong phone number–as though my body rang up a terrorist when it knitted her together in my womb.

A 1 to 3% chance that it would happen again was what we were told by all the experts.  He had been watched closely for signs by multiple peeks inside the womb as he grew.  There were no signs.  But, there was no trust when you unknowingly weaved a terrorist into the cells of your sweet baby girl.  The world became topsy-turvy.  There were landmines under bright red tractors at the local country fair.  That was the world we were bringing him into.

September stole my breath.

The door to the old farm house in which her therapy was held squeaked open and someone slipped by us as she squeed happily almost tripping them on our way through.  I slid down on to the slippery cool leather of the couch and was again transported back.

I gripped the arm of the pleather chair of the hospital waiting room, white knuckled, and looked him dead in the eye: “I can’t do this.  I want to go home.  We’re not doing this today.  He’s staying in there.”

He calmly said, “He has to come out somehow.  And you have to have a c-section so it’s now or soon.  It’ll be ok.”

In the room, I stared out at the clear blue waves capped by clouds of white foam in the September sky, draft blowing through the back of my johnny gown mimicking the breeze rustling the leaves, and every cell of my being vibrated with fear.  I had grown accustomed to living with a terrorist.  In the startling quiet of the prep room, I steeled myself and time stood still; til it was shattered by the sweet sound of his shrill newborn scream.

September breathed new life into me.

She hopped onto my lap despite the expanse of couch that spread horizontally from me and turned back, as she so often does, to put her face so close I could feel the moisture of her exhale.  Her face widened as she smiled, eyes squinted by the pudge of her cheek, and she examined me.

Her smile the same as always; as though frozen in time and transported through Septembers from atop the red tractor to atop my lap on the well-worn leather waiting room couch.  A smile so innocent and carefree you would never know it lived along side a terrorist; that it has survived heart failure, infantile spasms, status epilepticus, years of a ketogenic diet, and more in her short lifetime.  The smile that welcomed a brother to our clan and dubbed him “bud-dy.”

Therapy was over for the night, we were home safely, and the September sky was painted ablaze with the fires of sunset; the air in the house smelled soapy clean of bubble bath and the sound of giggles echoed off the walls.

“Moooooommmy!  It’s gonna be brudder’s burfday soon!” she shouted.

He ran past milky skinned and rosy cheeked–still holding on to the cherubic looks of early childhood–and I was suddenly struck by the magnitude of my love for him.  And, their love for each other.  They ran through the house full of giggles and shouts challenging the dark corners, and the terrorists with in and with out.  I contemplated how that love changed me and how I deal with those terrorists.  It is a love so strong, “you did not know you were capable of feeling, primal and angry and powerful, you would kill ten men and Satan if you had to.”  A love that looked a lot like bravery.

September made me brave.

Sometimes bravery is as simple as a smile.  It is bringing a toddler, your belly round, to a carnival, despite her Holter monitor, your own fear in tow.  It is birthdays and brothers.  It is love.  It is living along side the terrorists because there will always be something to fear.  Bravery is living your life anyway.  It is bath time and rosy cheeks.  It is clear blue skies with fluffy white clouds and American flags blowing in the breeze because we will not let them take away our freedom.

Bravery is a six year old little boy looking into his mother’s eyes and asking, “so you’re way older than me so when you’re gone and sister and me are older, and she can’t drive, am I going to have to drive her everywhere?  Am I going to have to take care of her?”

It is being flabbergasted and saying, “There will always be someone to take care of her and if you want it to be you it can be but that will be your choice, and you will have lots of time to make that decision when you are a lot older, buddy.”

Bravery is living in the ambiguity–the never knowing if you made the right choices.  It is having a second child after a tiny devastating deletion in DNA in your first.  Bravery is quiet resolve.  It is fear and love.  It is primal, powerful, and angry–the will to kill ten men and Satan if you had to–or it is not.

Bravery is September.