cracked

Family at Brown AME church

Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, AL, central to the movement for Voting Rights

During my senior year of college I wrote my honors thesis about my family’s history in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the Holocaust. A year later, during a mostly solo seven-month journey through Europe and Israel, I traveled to Lodz, and went on to Warsaw, Krakow and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps. It was 1994 and I was 23 years old, and I traveled this piece of my trip with my best friend. I wouldn’t meet my husband for another five years, but I remember feeling unexpectedly victorious as I walked the tracks into Birkenau, toward the crumbling brick remains of the crematoria, dreaming of the Jewish man I would one day marry and raise Jewish children with. Another generation. I thought about how happy that would make my grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps, who had died when I was 13. (I know she smiled the day my husband was ordained as a rabbi.)

Walking on those tracks that the Jews in cattle cars had ridden toward their imminent deaths felt like the most powerful vindication to the evil forces and hateful humans who had tried to exterminate my family and my people. I found myself laughing because they had failed, because I was alive, two generations later, and my line would continue. I married a man whose family were also survivors, who came from a town just 30 kilometers from Lodz, where my family had lived for generations before the war. I like to think we might have met in a different way, in a different place, regardless of Hitler. Besheret. Meant to be.

Those two experiences – unraveling the untold stories of my family as I researched my thesis, learning about those who were killed by the Nazis and those who survived, and returning to the places where they had lived and where so many had died – were cathartic and healing. They were also infuriating and disheartening, because I knew I could never recover so much of what had been lost, and because I saw the way the Holocaust had inflicted a sharp and jagged crack in my family, one that has become a profound part of its legacy. One that still impacts who we are.

What I didn’t know that day walking down the tracks of Birkenau at age 23 was that I would, almost 20 years later, adopt a black son. And that the sharp and jagged crack of my family story would intersect with the sharp and jagged crack of his own history – one he is still, at age four, too young to comprehend.

Edmund Petus Bridge

Named for a Confederate general, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the beginning of the march for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965, and also the site of Bloody Sunday, when nonviolent protestors were violently assaulted by police.

We just returned from a family trip to Alabama to visit the Civil Rights Trail between Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. We’ve been living in the South, in Atlanta, for four years, touching Civil Rights and the country’s dark history of racial injustice against black people a little more closely than we did during our years growing up in California. But I wanted to know more, to touch more, to face more, to understand more about my son’s story – about my country’s story. So we set off with intention for all four of us – not just our black son, who is just starting to see the difference in the color of our skins, but our biological teenage daughter and ourselves, their white parents.

Foot Soldier

The Foot Soldier statue at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL. There is a fascinating podcast about the statue at http://www.revisionisthistory.com.

I am filled with images from our journey, of the Civil Rights sites we visited and the stories we heard about the Voting Rights March between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Of the juxtaposition of Civil Rights and Civil War that is ever present in the South – Confederate flags honoring the fallen soldiers buried in the cemetery in Selma, monuments to Confederate heroes celebrated for their valor in the struggle for “states’ rights,” (or the right to own other humans). Heroes who went on to don white hooded robes and lynch those who had recently been “freed.”

Confederate Monument

Monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War hero and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Old Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, AL

But this is the image that remains with me: We are in Cahawba, the ghost town that remains of what was the original capital of Alabama in the 1800s. A few fallen down houses remain, surrounded by barbed wire, one inhabited by the descendant of slaves as late as 1995. The slave quarters of a now-erased grand mansion remain, spookily boarded up but recently whitewashed with fresh paint.

Slave Quarters

Slave Quarters, Old Cahawba Ghost Town

We make our way through a field to what was the slave cemetery, and follow the guide on a piece of paper to the ten graves that are marked with numbers. We read that these ten are only the graves whose occupants are known, but that the cemetery has hundreds of other unmarked graves where people whose skin is brown like my son’s rest. You know you are passing one because the earth there is more sunken than its surrounding soil. It’s hot and damp because it is July in the South, and it is incredibly quiet. We are the only ones there.

Amelia Headstone

Celie Craig Headstone

Old Cahawba Slave Cemetery

My son runs ahead looking for the next marker, proud to show us he knows his numbers. My black son whose ancestors were abducted from their people and their homes and came to America on slave ships. My black son whose ancestors were sold at auction, enslaved. My black son whose ancestors labored their entire lives and were beaten mercilessly and separated from those they loved. My black son whose ancestors were raped by their white masters. My black son whose ancestors escaped bondage for freedom in the North, and who were recaptured by slave hunters. My black son whose ancestors labored as sharecroppers after they were told they were free. My black son whose ancestors were lynched on the town square surrounded by an audience of white spectators. My black son whose ancestors learned that separate was not equal, and that to stay alive it was best to look down when a white person walked by. My black son whose ancestors fought Jim Crow and marched for justice. My black son whose ancestors followed the Great Migration north into Ohio, seeking a better life, finding a different kind of discrimination and segregation in urban ghettos.

Lynching Jars

Soil collected from the sites of over 4,000 documented lynchings of black people in America, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, http://www.eji.org

My black son whose history I don’t know and can only imagine; who only knows (for now) that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his sisters and brothers marched for justice because there was a time when things weren’t fair. My black son who grasped for the first time while we were in Alabama that black people – his people – were once slaves like the Jews in Egypt. This is his entry into understanding slavery, because for three years in Jewish preschool he has learned the story of Moses and Pharaoh at Passover.

He runs to the next marker and I walk toward him, wondering about those who came before him. In the same way I did about my own ancestors as I walked into Birkenau. My story and his story – our cracked histories intersecting – different stories with a shared experience of violation, of murder, of genocide, of a history and people exterminated. But our stories are different in one critical way: The violation against his people didn’t stop when slavery ended. It didn’t stop when Jim Crow was outlawed. It didn’t stop with the Voting Rights Act. (Especially as that is being unraveled today.) It didn’t stop when schools were desegregated. (Especially as schools resegregate today.) It didn’t stop when a man with the same color skin as his became President of the United States of America. The violation against his people keeps taking different forms, and racial discrimination is alive and well. That cracks my already cracked heart into a million pieces. Because these are the stories of his heritage and the reality of his present that I have a responsibility to explain to him as he grows older.

And I’m not sure how to tell those stories in a way that instills hope.

Tomb of Unknown Slave w Noose

Civil Rights Memorial Park, Selma, AL

I am the white Jewish mother of a black Jewish son. My ancestral story, my ancestors, will become his only if he chooses them. But even if he does, he has another critical story. His own ancestral story is a different one than mine. His roots originate in a different part of the world, and his path winds through other places in ways I don’t think I can ever claim to completely understand.

I want to give my son heroes; for now he has Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks. I want to give him ancestors, but I know so little about his roots that I can only put pieces together from a broader, painful story. I want to give him community, a sense of belonging to his own people – both black and Jewish.

I want to give him his own story, but I know it will be his to write, his to tell, and his to claim.

Kids at monument 2

Civil War Memorial, Montgomery, AL

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it’s personal

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I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

For now my black son is just adorable, charming, beloved, everyone’s friend.

He trusts because he should,

because he is only three years old.

I have a black son and I look at him and wonder,

When will he change in the eyes of those around him?

When will he begin to look scary, criminal, less capable?

When will his teachers begin to overlook his talents?

When will he be punished for misbehaving, considered deviant, while his white friends are dismissed for “just acting like children sometimes do?”

When will I have to tell him that he shouldn’t wear the hood of his sweatshirt on his head?

When will someone cross the street for the first time for fear of him, their heart racing?

What will that do to my son’s heart?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

When we filled out the adoption paperwork we were extremely clear that the child who would join our family did not need to be white.

We knew that he probably wouldn’t be.

We imagined a black son.

We knew – abstractly – that we would be taking on a great responsibility as the white parents of a black child.

I’ve been asked by both black and white friends,

“What is your plan for preparing your black son for this world?”

What is my plan?

Nobody asked me what my plan was when my white daughter was born 12 years ago.

I didn’t have to have a plan beyond loving her and giving her the world.

But my black son?

I want nothing more than to love him and give him the world.

And I know how brutally that world can be taken from him – in an instant – because of his gorgeous brown skin.

How do I prepare him for that without taking the world – his promise – from him?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

His ancestors came to America on slave ships.

The racism that binds him – something he doesn’t yet know – is systemic and has not ceased for two and a half centuries.

I have a black son and I have a responsibility to teach him that.

How do I give him that knowledge, that understanding which is his right, without the promise that things will get better

for his people who are not “my own,” but to whom I am still accountable?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he is a lover.

When he was three days old I held his tiny body inside my shirt, brown skin to pinkish skin, his head against my heart.

I promised my black son that I would care for him and protect him until my final breath.

I promised him that I would teach him how to be a good man.

How to be a black man.

Can I teach him that as his white mama?

What does it mean to be a black man, now, today?

What will it mean for him when he turns 18?

Will he remain safe – will he remain alive – until then?

Will he get the long, full life that is his right,

His promise?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he likes to wrestle, to tackle, to do karate chops, to yell, “Hah-YAH!”

How will he be seen for that, how will he be judged, as he grows older and becomes “a threat?”

How will I teach him that, around people in positions of authority, he will need to be submissive, compliant?

And that even then his safety – his life – is still not guaranteed?

Still not protected?

Still considered by some to be less sacred than mine,

or his sister’s,

or his father’s?

Why should I have to teach him that?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

Those men, those boys, those women who have been killed for being black,

Whose names are a list we read and reread and speak and call out

to remember,

Those precious lives that matter,

They could be my son.

They are my son.

My son’s life matters.

 

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

(im)permanence

Milkweed

Last night was the first StoryWell storytelling event hosted by The Well, a program of The Temple in Atlanta, GA. I was honored to be among six storytellers sharing personal stories based on the theme of permanence. Here is my story, both the audio and the text.

(im)permanence – StoryWell audio

I had a dream that she came out of my belly. She came out to tell me that she was a girl, and that her name was Tikva. She came out to tell me and then she went back inside.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the dream. In the morning I asked my husband, “What do you think of the name Tikva?”

“Hope,” he said. “That’s nice.” That was it, in that moment. It was still early, I was only halfway through my pregnancy. We put the name aside – a possibility. We didn’t know if she would be a girl or a boy.

Ten days later we got in a cab and drove to the other side of Jerusalem for the ultrasound – the big one you have in the middle of your pregnancy. The one to make sure everything is okay with your baby.

We took our older daughter, she had just turned four. It never occurred to us not to bring her. At her ultrasound the doctor had happily told us, “Everything looks perfect. Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy.”

There are three words you never want to hear from a doctor. Three words that change your life forever:

“THERE’S A PROBLEM.”

We had told him we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, that we wanted it to be a surprise. But as soon as he told us something was wrong, it became so important to know this simple thing that would allow us to connect with our baby.

“She’s a girl,” he told us. Of course she was.

“Tikva,” I said to my husband. “Hope. That’s her name.”

We went home broken. Scared. The known had become unknown. My vision of what awaited my family was blurry. Frightening.

Would Tikva live past the moment of her birth? Would she overcome this imperfection that made her wellbeing so tenuous? Could modern medicine save her so that she could live a long, full life as our daughter?

How long could I keep her inside me, safe and held?

My husband walked to the Western Wall to pray. I gave him my prayer for my daughter on a tiny piece of rolled up paper.

Please, God, don’t make me bury my daughter. I won’t survive.

It snowed outside that January in Jerusalem. The city shut down as its single snowplow struggled to clear the streets. Somehow I made it for a second ultrasound and an amnio.

I made phone calls to specialists all over Israel. I sent emails back home, to San Francisco, connecting with experts there who understood our daughter’s condition. All of them encouraged us to come back home.

I cancelled our lease and packed our suitcases, and we landed in San Francisco the day before Valentine’s Day.

****

She was born 4 months later.

MY TIKVA. MY HOPE.

The moment I pushed her out and my husband cut her umbilical cord, she was swept away to be put on a ventilator.

I developed a love-hate relationship with that ventilator – this machine that kept her alive, weakened her airways, required a feeding tube so she could be nourished by my milk, and made holding her so complicated.

There was a brief period that started around day 30 when she didn’t need the ventilator, only oxygen. The doctors talked to us about what it might look like when we brought her home, how she would need oxygen probably for many months. We were ready for anything.

Please God, just let our daughter come home.

We held so much hope.

Tikva struggled. Our tiny seven and a half pound girl fought for her life. She wanted to stay, I really believe that. But her body was too fragile. She could never get enough air.

On the morning of day 58, as I pumped my milk for her, showered and got dressed, I had a feeling it was time. I didn’t say anything to my husband about what I felt, but later he told me he also knew. I headed to the hospital, and after taking our older daughter to preschool, he met me at Tikva’s bedside.

She had had a rough night in the critical care bay of the NICU. Her oxygen numbers had dropped frighteningly low. Twice the doctors and nurses rushed to her bedside as the words “CODE PINK” resonated over the hospital loud speaker. This time the code pink was for her.

I looked down over her and asked for her guidance. She opened her eyes to look at me and she told me she was done struggling, and it was time for her to go.

Please Tikva, please know how much I will always love you.

We took her outside for the first time in her short life, and her last breaths were of fresh misty air, no ventilator.

I held her as she died, and I did bury my daughter. And I survived.

****

She came out of my belly in a dream that winter to tell me her name was Tikva. She came out of my belly again in summer to teach me these three things:

She taught me how to hold onto hope when everything is unknown.

She taught me that all I needed to do in my powerlessness was to love her unconditionally, for as long as we had together, and forever after that.

And she taught me that everything is both finite and infinite. That nothing is permanent except love. That impermanence makes each moment so incredibly precious. And that we survive our losses and our struggles because even those don’t last forever.

In that time each fall when the milkweed seeds float around, or when I look up to see a red tail hawk flying overhead or perched in a tree, I feel like Tikva is there.

And as soon as those brief moments end and the milkweed and the hawk float away, I know she is still there.

Infinite.

My greatest teacher.

 

how love smells

DSC_0125

I washed my hands in the restroom of a doctors’ office the other day and smelled it instantly. It lingered on my hands even after they were dry. The smell of that particular kind of medical antimicrobial soap, I will know it forever.

In a flash, for a moment, it is 7 years ago and I am back at the big sink outside the NICU, the one whose water flow is controlled by foot pedals. Or the sink inside, right next to my daughter’s tiny bed. The one only nurses are supposed to use, but which they let me use as well. That same soap. That same smell.

For a while it unsettled me to encounter it. Just over a year after my baby died in that hospital, I found myself at the sink in the bathroom of another children’s hospital in a city 2500 miles away. I had just interviewed for a job managing a research project in their NICU, and before returning to my car in the parking garage, there I was washing my hands and that smell… I almost collapsed as I watched the tears flow down my face in my reflection. In a daze I found my car, and I sat privately and cried, doubting that I was ready to be working in such a hauntingly familiar environment. Wondering if my desire to create meaning from the loss of my baby girl would be overpowered by the raw emotion of having so recently lost her. I didn’t get the job, and perhaps it was for the best. I would have been so good at it though. Good for the right reasons.

Then one day that same smell surprised me – in the moment that it went from being unsettling to comforting. It was February 2011 and I had come to the hospital to deliver the twins who had stopped growing mid-pregnancy inside me. They gave me – the grieving-mother-to-be – the largest room, the nicest room, and also the room furthest away from the other mothers (those giving birth to living children) in Labor & Delivery. I went to wash my hands at the big hospital sink and there it was… that smell. With tears in my eyes I said to my husband, “It’s the same soap.” And I just stood there and smelled it. I washed my hands at that sink many times that night, and the smell remained the strangest kind of comfort throughout.

The smell doesn’t haunt me now. Whenever I am in a medical office, I smell the soap to see if it is the same one. When I encounter it, I take the time to smell it, and I travel back for a moment and return to a time and place where my daughter is still alive. Where the possibility of her survival still exists. Where my entire purpose each day after washing my hands up to the elbows is to sit by her side and love her.

****

I keep my baby daughter’s things in a wooden chest in our home. It’s amazing what accumulates from such a short life. Not just things she touched but things that came afterwards. Like the little shrine I made in her memory for Dia de los Muertos that first fall, with three friends who had also lost their babies. Like pictures her sister drew as she navigated her own grief. Like the shirt I wore at Tikva’s blessing way when I was still pregnant, the sweater that kept me warm throughout the second half of my pregnancy, and the nightgown I wore when I delivered her.

The tiny blanket that lay over her during those weeks is in a jar, along with the hat that covered her head when we took her outside to breathe her final breaths. The stuffed lamb and the stuffed duck that lay against her fragile body are in another jar. I open those jars sometimes and take a deep inhale. The smell is the same, a little musty but so familiar. Perhaps it’s not exactly her smell, and whatever it is has replaced the familiar in my memory because I would open those jars to smell it so frequently in the months immediately after she died. Like the soap, it brings me a tiny bit closer across the divide between the living and the dead.

****

It’s been more than 7 years since she lived and died. That’s a long time. And yet there have been times during those years when her loss feels especially present. There is no rhyme or reason to why and when that happens, it usually catches me by surprise. The loss of her is very present for me right now. It’s not a stabbing pain, more like a dull gnawing to remind me. I said to my older daughter the other day, “What do you think life would be like right now if Tikva had lived?” She replied that we probably wouldn’t have my son, her brother. She’s right. We always wanted two children and Tikva would have been the second. So this little being who came and went so fast and will forever remain a baby, she will eventually come to represent something to the little boy who came afterwards, her brother.

After Tikva died, on one of the nights of our shiva, as friends and family filled our home with love and food to share in our mourning, three amazing women came through our door. Two of them had been the midwives we’d worked with during my first pregnancy with my older daughter, and it had been years since we’d seen each other. The third was an acquaintance from many years before whom I’d gotten reacquainted with when I donated some of my breast milk for her baby. I had freezers filled with my pumped milk from the two months of Tikva’s life, more milk than she was able to drink through her feeding tube, and I wanted it to go to babies who needed it. This woman who came to our shiva with our midwives was one of them. It’s hard to explain the connection you have with someone who was able to nourish her baby with the milk you pumped for your own baby who is no longer living.

She walked into our home carrying a basket of warm muffins wrapped in a beautiful napkin, and I hugged her with tears in my eyes. She did not take her basket and napkin with her when she left, and they have followed us in the 7 years since. This little basket that is perfect for small corn tortillas, and this beautiful single cloth napkin.

And you know what? It is my son’s favorite napkin. He calls it “My Napkin” and it is the only one he will use, even when it is filthy and needs washing. He throws a fit if anyone else picks it up.

And I love that. I love how it is all connected – this baby who came and went too fast, this mother I reconnected with whose baby drank my milk, this napkin that has followed us from that time and which didn’t end up in the trunk of Tikva’s things, but instead fell into the hands of my son, the one who came into our lives as the culmination of everything that began when Tikva left us.

The connection between them all is love. It’s that same connection I feel when I smell that hospital soap. It’s in the musty smell inside the jars in Tikva’s trunk. It’s the connection to love – my love, the ones I love, the love from others. The smell and the feel of love.

 

the moment

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I was out last night when my children when to sleep. They had pizza and watched football with Daddy, jumped on the new trampoline we brought home yesterday. As I left for my book club, they were dancing in the living room. I came home a few hours later and went into each of their rooms to kiss them – as I do every night – before heading to bed myself. Each of them opened their eyes briefly when I came in, recognizing me in a peaceful haze of dreamy sleep, then closed them again and rolled over. They don’t usually do that;  they are usually so deeply asleep I can hold my face to the tops of their heads  and breathe in  their smells or kiss their warm necks without a single stir.

This is it, that future I imagined for myself when I was still a little girl. This is the place where I am surrounded by love, presented with purpose, in a house filled with noisy chaos. This is the family I couldn’t even have dreamed up, but which found me nonetheless.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

Before I left for book club last night, I stood at the table with my daughter and looked into her eyes – those hypnotic, deep, dark blue eyes embraced by the thickest, blackest eyelashes, those eyes that droop a bit at the ends, so kind and so sparkly and so intense at the same time. We stood facing each other and sang  John Legend’s All of Me to each other, spontaneous, unrehearsed, perfect. The entire song, from start to finish.

As I listened to her voice and mine, how they are similar and how they are unique, the way they go together, I noticed how powerfully my daughter sang. She sang each word with clarity. Confident, expressive. I thought about how she is ascending in her life, finding her voice, harnessing and embracing her power and her place in the world. I could hear my own voice singing with hers, also clear and loving, but a little more timid. Not because I am afraid to sing loudly, but because that is not what I was there to do in that moment. As I sang with my daughter I allowed myself to be her reflection, so that she could see how brightly her light shines. It is not my time to overshadow her, it is my time to raise her up, to help her shine, to support her growth into the amazing woman I already have glimpses of.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

It takes daily acceptance to age gracefully, without resistance. I have not mastered this – let’s just say it’s where my ship is pointed, my intention. Lately I’ve been unable to look in the mirror without noticing the way my eyes are changing. They’re still big and wide and dark, my eyelashes still long (though not as thick as they were when I was my daughter’s age). But they are more sunken than they used to be. Tiny lines reveal themselves in the light and the shadowy thinning skin underneath them is persistent, highlighting the sunkenness. I know I am the only one noticing these details about myself; we tend to dissect ourselves with the greatest diligence and scrutiny. Yet I feel aware of the subtle yet persistent whisper that reminds me, You are aging.

My husband reminds me that I am younger in this moment than I will ever be again. Maybe so, but I don’t feel (or look) young anymore. And it’s kind of caught me off-guard.

My children are young. Everything is open to them, everything is possibility. Their skin is unblemished, their foundation solid. Their eyes are wide and aware. They are assertive and fierce. Everything is a question, everything is desire. There is so much that they need, and they trust completely that it will all be provided. By me, by Mommy. By Daddy.

I had the realization recently that one day my children won’t need me in the way they do now. One day they won’t need to talk to me every day, to ask me a million questions. One day they will remember to wash their hair and clip their nails and do their laundry all on their own. One day they won’t need my hugs and kisses to begin their days. One day they will find their own answers.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

****

My father is a very handsome man. He was a handsome boy, a handsome young man, a handsome middle-aged man, and now he is a handsome older man. The older he gets, the more he resembles his father, whom I only knew as an old man. My father grayed late, but now his hair is almost completely white. His skin is thinner, more spotted. His body, affected by Parkinson’s, more unreliable. His hands still feel the same as those younger hands that held my tiny little girl hands. His own eyes are more sunken. But those eyes… They are the same eyes. Dark and deep and alert, reflective, loving. When I look at his childhood photos I see the same eyes. When I stumbled onto the black and white studio portrait from his twenties where he is dressed in a black suit, holding a cigarette like a classic movie star, I see the same eyes. When I close my eyes and find myself at my desk in my bedroom reviewing multiplication tables with my young father, I see the same eyes.

I see them now, within his older, more hazy, more sunken eyes that are somehow the same and different together. Just like my own familiar yet different eyes.

I think of the fragility of an aging parent, how I connect to this and also to my own aging. How one amplifies the other. I think of the contrast between my children and my father, and the place on the spectrum – somewhere in the middle – where I find myself.

This is it. This is the moment. The moment I’ve been waiting for all my life.

almost time

mandala

A mandala I made of my favorite quote by Leonard Cohen from the song, Anthem

****

It’s almost June 10. Almost my Tikva’s seventh birthday. Almost the beginning of the two months of summer between the day she was born and the day she took her last breath in our arms.

During the first few years after Tikva died, those two months each year felt like they were engulfing my summer, taking away from me the possibility of truly savoring what had always been my favorite time of year. I wanted more than anything to just get to August 8, to return to the 10 months of the year that weren’t a daily reminder of the child I had lost. To be in a place where the loss of her didn’t overtake every cell of my being, every second of every day.

It hasn’t been like that in recent years. For the last two summers, in fact, I didn’t even realize it was August 7, the anniversary of her death, until I received a text or an email from a loved one wishing me a peaceful day and remembering my baby girl with me. It always moves me when someone remembers, when they reach out; and it surprises me when they remember before me.

But really, I am not so surprised. Her birthday will always matter, but the day she died holds less weight now. I think it’s because I don’t relate to Tikva simply as my child who died. She is my second daughter, one of my beloved children. She is the one I got to touch and hold and love in her body for a only short time, the one I will continue to love in my heart always. She has become – or or perhaps she always was – a part of every cell of my being. Because of that, the loss of her no longer overpowers me.

She is with me and absent. Inside me and very far away. Her story is in the past and will forever be told. I think that’s just how it is when your child dies before you.

Sometimes she feels more like an experience than a baby – I find myself talking about that time as, “During Tikva.” Because I was completely transformed by her, by her life, by the loss of her, and by the process and stretching and struggle and growth of the years since. I am not who I was before June 10, 2008. I am not who I was before January 23, 2008, when we first learned about her condition in-utero. I think I am better because of her. I think she helped me drop more deeply into who I get to be in this life.

It gets easier. The cracked and jagged edges get smoothed out a bit more with each year – like beach glass, eventually polished smooth and shiny after years of travel in both tranquil and tumultuous ocean waves. The sharp pain transforms into something that feels less raw, less fresh, as if it has been diluted with love.

On January 23, 2008, after the ultrasound that diagnosed the difficult and unclear road ahead for our daughter, I prayed in the classic sense probably for the first and only time in my life. I cried out, “Please don’t make me bury my daughter. I don’t know if I can survive burying my child.” But I did. I loved her and I buried her. And I did survive, and almost seven years have passed, and I am here. Still standing. Still loving.

And now, with the time that has passed, I can hold the hand of a friend who lost her child more recently and promise her with all my heart that she will get to a place where the jagged edges soften and the pain is consumed by love.

the way we birth

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When I was preparing to give birth for the first time more than 11 years ago, I made a birth plan with my husband and our midwives. I deeply believed in my birth plan. I was going to have my baby naturally and at home. I was going to eat and drink if and when I wanted to. I was going to walk around my apartment freely, unencumbered by an IV. I was going to trust my body and my baby to know how to do this. I was going to breathe, as I’d learned in our homebirth class, for as long as it took. I was going to avoid bright hospital lights and cold floors, doctors I didn’t have a relationship with. I trusted myself, I trusted my baby, I trusted my partner, and I trusted my midwives.

And none of that trust changed. But the plan did.

I did labor at home – for 32 hours. In between contractions, which were all in my lower back, I took occasional bites of bagel with jam and drank juice diluted with water. I sat on the exercise ball in the shower with scalding water aimed at my back for so long that I had scars afterwards. An acupuncturist friend came around hour 28 and put 16 needles into my lower back for the pain. I got to 8 centimeters but no further, for hours.

Then I looked at my husband and our midwives and said with 100% conviction and clarity, “I want to go to the hospital.” It was noon on a Tuesday.

I left the dark cocoon of our bedroom for the first time since the previous day at 5:30am to get into the car. It hurt. And the outside world – going about its business as usual all around me – felt surreal, like it was moving full speed while I was in slow motion. My sister dropped us off, my husband got a wheelchair that I didn’t use because it hurt too much to sit and I’d already been sitting for 20 painful minutes. I walked into the room and lay down on the hospital bed. I got an IV and a monitor was wrapped around my belly.

When the anesthesiologist walked in, it was as if an angel had just entered. “You’ve been laboring for how long?” “32 hours,” I replied. “Let’s get you that epidural. We’ll skip your blood work and get on with it.” All these years later, I can’t begin to describe the sensation when the medicine began to take away the pain I had been in for a day and a half. All I remember is relief, and the colorful woven hat that the anesthesiologist wore on his head.

Finally able to relax, I dilated to 10 centimeters and the doctor said I could push whenever I felt ready. Then she stepped back and let me do the work, guided still by my midwives. My daughter came out an hour later, pink and beautiful, head covered in black hair, right hand coming out “fight the power” style immediately after her head. She was pregnant herself, the doctor, 32 weeks with her first. She was a third year resident so less experienced than my midwives, who had between them attended so many births. She watched the whole thing, respecting the relationship I had developed with my midwives during my pregnancy, and the work I had done already at home.

My daughter almost did a flip off the little metal table as they checked her Apgar scores. They gave her tens, clearly this one was just fine. Four hours after she was born, the three of us were back home in the bed where I had labored. Parents. A radiantly healthy energetic baby who hated swaddles and slings and anything constricting from the second she was born. We were a family of three.

****

With everything I’ve experience related to birth since then, I can’t help but view my first daughter’s birth through rose colored glasses. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it had turned out so well. Immediately following her birth, however, I gave myself a tremendous amount of grief that I had given up” and stopped laboring at home, that I had chosen to have an epidural and go to the hospital. I told myself that if I had just kept going, I could have had the homebirth I had planned.

I held this disappointment for two and a half years, until I took an 8-week midwifery course with one of the world’s most renowned homebirth midwives. I sat with her during one of our lunch breaks and told her my daughter’s birth story, and I asked her if she could tell me what had happened – why I hadn’t been able to progress past 8 centimeters no matter what I did, no matter how much time went by and how many contractions I endured, no matter what my midwives tried or what position they guided me to labor in. And her eyes got wide and her body got really still and then she popped out, “Deep transverse arrest!” “Deep transverse arrest?” “Deep transverse arrest! Go home and research that this week and you can teach the class about it when we meet again.” And I did.

A deep transverse arrest is when the baby’s head is engaged a little off in the pelvis so that its head doesn’t hit the cervix quite right. This means that the cervix, which relies on the pressure of the baby’s head along with the mother’s contractions to open fully, can’t open fully. My daughter’s head was turned just slightly, and her right hand was next to her left cheek for most of my labor (causing the painful back labor). Her head was engaged enough to get me to 8 centimeters, but no further. And with each contraction, instead of relaxing to open and create space for her to move, I literally contracted and tightened and she got more wedged in.

“You were right to go to the hospital and have an epidural, because then you could relax and make space for her slightly turned head to shift into the right position. Your body knew what it needed and you listened,” she told me, this decades-long experienced homebirth midwife. In that moment, all of my doubts and disappointment in myself dissolved and I felt peace.

****

It amazes me how much we are capable of torturing ourselves as mothers about the ways in which we failed to follow our birth plans, our supposed hopes and dreams for the beginnings of our babies’ lives. It amazes me how deeply my ego was invested in the outcome of my plan – and how much of it all is just that: ego. The idea that we can actually plan how our children’s births will go, that we have any control.

I planned two homebirths and had none. A few years after my daughter was born, I miscarried another pregnancy at 10 weeks. A few years after that, I was pregnant again with Tikva, and again I planned to birth at home. And again the universe laughed. Tikva was diagnosed in utero at 21 weeks with a life threatening birth defect. She would not only be born in the hospital, but she would be born in the operating room, so that a team of neonatologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and nurses could be prepared for anything she needed. So that she could be put on a ventilator within minutes of her birth because she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.

An hour into my labor, I asked for an epidural. My labor was short – just a few hours long – and for weeks after Tikva was born I second-guessed myself again, thinking I had not needed that epidural, could have birthed her without it. But this is the thing: In that moment, I was terrified. I was about to release from the safety and warmth of my body a baby I knew would not be able to breathe or eat on her own. Inside me, she had been safe – I breathed for her and ate for her and could hold and protect her; outside, she was not. She could live for just a few minutes after her birth, or she could live a whole lifetime – none of us had any idea what was ahead, and I was scared. And I was stressed. And I did not want to be distracted by the pain of labor. And I didn’t think this through in actual thoughts, I just knew. And I fell instantly in love with that anesthesiologist too, an amazing third year resident who was so gentle and precise, and who gave me just enough medicine so that I was still able to feel the moment when Tikva came out.

The second she was out and the cord was cut, she was whisked away through a window in the wall into another room where she was put on a ventilator and given paralytic medication so she wouldn’t destabilize herself. I would really see her about an hour or two later for the first time, intubated, feeding tube in her nose, IV in her arm. My beautiful girl.

And then, our real story together began. 58 days long and every day since she breathed her last challenging breath almost 7 years ago. For those few months we were a family of four.

****

Three years later I was pregnant with twins. Twins! Twins that came to us with help and with work. Twins who were all promise, all hope, all healing – for their mother, their father and their sister. Twins who would bring a beautiful whirlwind of baby energy into our home. Twins who would be closely monitored to ensure a safe pregnancy, ultrasounds and amnio and bloodwork and frequent appointments. Ten weeks in, one of them stopped growing. At 18 weeks – on Valentine’s Day – I no longer felt the other one move. A few days later, I went to the hospital to be induced and 24 hours later I delivered my very small babies-to-be. And a few hours later, after holding the one who had grown enough that he was fully formed, only just the size of my hand, we left the hospital without our babies. These beings I had also labored to birth, whose ashes I would sprinkle on the same beach where I had walked during the very beginning of my very first labor so many years before.

****

I birthed my son in my heart, and another woman that I will forever be grateful to conceived and nurtured and birthed him from her body. He came out 6 weeks early by C-section. He was tiny and he was perfect. He always breathed on his own and he learned to take a bottle in a few weeks and we brought him home. He never breastfed, but I nourished him with my love and formula till he was ready for food. Two years later, he eats like a teenager and is so heavy I can barely carry him.

And we have been, once again since his birth two years ago, a family of four, surrounded by the beloved spirits of the babies we lost.

****

This is the thing: You may be able to set an intention for how you’d like things to go, and you may be lucky when it all goes “right,” but it’s all just so random and out of our hands. I thought I was responsible for how healthy and strong my first daughter was, that it was all because of how well I had taken care of myself during pregnancy. But then that means I was also responsible for how fragile and sick my second daughter had been. I have no idea why her diaphragm didn’t form correctly, and neither do the doctors. I have no idea why my twins didn’t make it, or why I miscarried all those years ago and again before we adopted our son. What I know now, though, is that when it does work out well, and that healthy baby is born – it’s an incredible amazing miracle of life. And that miracle is as arbitrary as when things go another way.

I cry tears of joy and relief every time I learn about a baby who has been born healthy. If I know a friend is in labor, I take a deep breath and I exhale when I hear that all went well.

****

There’s a way we talk in our culture about birth after it’s happened, and I think that way is skewed. I’ve heard it from men who have witnessed and supported their partners’ labors, referring to the women as warriors because they labored naturally, at home in a birthing tub, without pain medication or medical intervention, and gave birth to a healthy 9 pound baby that immediately knew how to suckle and nurse. I’ve also heard it from women who have been through labor – talking, like I did, about the ways in which they felt they had failed – because they hadn’t been able to do it naturally, because they had needed help, or because their babies had died. So we are warriors if it goes one way, and we are failures if it goes another. Or we are warriors in the eyes of everyone but our own critical selves.

But this is the thing: We are all warriors. We are warriors when we birth, however we birth. We are warriors when we need help to birth. We are warriors whether or not we nurse. We are warriors whether we wear our babies or sleep with our babies; whether or not they sleep through the night. We are warriors when our babies are conceived with assistance. We are warriors when we are not able to conceive or carry a baby to term. We are warriors when someone else carries our babies for us. We are warriors when we miscarry. We are warriors when our babies are born still. We are warriors when we mother by caring for our babies’ graves. We are warriors when we choose not to have babies and we love in other ways. We are warriors when we are allies for other women. We are warriors in how we nurture the world.

We are warriors because, in some way, we choose to love. Whatever that love looks like. However it is birthed.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the warriors out there. I hope you know who you are.

the day we met

To My Beautiful Son,

Two years ago today we met for the first time. You were two days old, and we had known about you for just one day, since the adoption agency director had come to find me the day before to tell me that a baby had been born whom she believed was meant to be our son.

Two years ago today I met your father in the hospital lobby – I was coming from work and he was coming from school. We walked into the same hospital we had walked out of together just two years before – after I delivered the twins who had stopped growing inside me – heavy with grief in spite of how hollow I felt, into the grey cold snow of Midwestern winter. In the moment we walked back in to meet you – hopeful, excited, curious, nervous – the wound from that day two years before healed more completely. Because of the gift of you.

Two years ago today we got into the elevator, arrived at the third floor and told the special care nursery receptionist that we had come to meet our son. Our beloved adoption agency director met us there too, perhaps as excited as we were after waiting and anticipating with us for a year and a half. There had been other possible babies during that time, all with some real and serious challenges we were not prepared to take on after all we and our older daughter had already been through. We knew that we could have done it, that we would be an amazing family to any child, but we recognized and honored our limitations. We knew that any adoption is complex, and that transracial adoption was something we were prepared to take on with pride, respect and responsibility for our son.

Two years ago today we walked into your warm room in the nursery and saw the tiny swaddled bundle that you were. You were so small, six weeks early and less than four pounds. But healthy and breathing on your own.

Two years ago today the nurse took you out of your warmer and placed you into my arms. You were so beautiful, so darling, so tiny, so light and so present. You looked at me with big dark eyes as if you recognized me already. Your eyes said, Are you my mother? I looked back at you and said, Are you my son?

Two years ago today a thousand thoughts ran through my mind and a thousand emotions swarmed my heart. After all the waiting for you, I asked myself, Am I ready for this? Can I do it? I looked at you thinking, Can I love you as much as you deserve? Will it be harder than if you had come from my own body?

Two years ago today I handed you to your father. Your head fit completely in the palm of his hand. You were so peaceful, already you knew you were safe, held and loved. The adoption agency director noticed your perfect ears.

Two years ago today the nurse asked us your name and when we told her, she wrote it on the white board in your room, along with our names and phone numbers. Already they were caring for us – your adoptive family – showing us that they understood that we were as much your parents as if I had been recovering from delivering you in a maternity room nearby. I think they helped me to believe it, too. To trust.

Two years ago today I looked at the agency director with tears in my eyes and said, Thank you. I told you I would be back every day to hold you and love you until you had learned to take a bottle and were ready to come home.

****

Two years ago tomorrow was the day your birth mother signed the permanent surrender of custody. I was there in the lobby of the building where I worked, the building that also housed the adoption agency. When your birth mother left after signing, I watched her from afar as she walked out the exit into the snowy parking lot. She wanted a closed adoption and didn’t know I was there. I watched her from inside the glass doors as she walked slowly to her car, as if I was looking into a snow globe, wondering about all of the emotions that must have been running through her. This woman who had made probably the hardest decision of her life and had given us the greatest gift. I promise you that I will love him with all my heart, I whispered to her from the other side of the lobby doors.

Two years ago tomorrow we got to tell your sister about you. We got to tell her that she was going to be a big sister, at last, to a healthy living baby who was going to come home. It would be two weeks before she got to meet you – children who hadn’t had a flu shot were not allowed in the special care nursery – but she was so excited she couldn’t stop laughing. She hugged me, hugged your father, hugged the agency director whom she adored, and kept laughing. She drew a picture of herself playing with her little brother; it is still hanging in the agency office. She drew pictures for you, too, and they hung next to your name and ours on the white board.

****

Two years ago our life with you began. You changed everything with your arrival. You brought more love into our family, the love we get to give and the love we get to receive. Because you are a lover of the highest order – as if you came with one mission in this life: TO LOVE AND BE LOVED.

Two years ago you brought healing. While there will always be a space in my heart from which Tikva is missing, and while you didn’t come to replace her or the twins, you bring healing every day to fill some of the empty spaces. You bring laughter and silliness and comedy already at age two. You bring the hope of all that is ahead in your wondrous life. You keep me on my toes and you make me laugh. With you it is impossible to feel heavy because you are pure joy and light.

Two years ago your story began – not just as our son but as YOU. I know that there is so much ahead that I cannot imagine, predict, know for sure. But I know that you will continue to thrive. Because what I have known about you from the moment your eyes met mine is this:

You came into this life knowing that you are held and that all is well.

And you are. And it is. And I love you completely and forever. My sweet, sweet son.

Happy birthday.

a confluence of events

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Confluence: An act or process of merging. A coming together of people. A flowing together.

There is a confluence of events happening in our home right now. It involves three things: The Terrible Twos. Adolescence. Perimenopause. All happening at the same time, under the same roof. For the sake of his sanity, there are times when I am thankful for my husband that he works long hours outside the home.

I have done zero research about the hormonal changes that go on in a toddler as he approaches his second birthday, but I would bet money that something similar to puberty is going on there. I have vague memories of going through this nine years ago with my daughter. Since I actually remember my own unreliable moods and total annoyance with all things parental during puberty, I know for sure there are hormones involved when my 11 year old rolls her eyes at me. Since my own mother left when I was 15 and she was 38, I missed her forties and I don’t know how they were for her, or how they would have been had she been going through perimenopause with children around. Only in the last few years did I really come to understand that it is actually the decade or so leading up to menopause – perimenopause – that can be so challenging. More than a few friends and family members in their fifties and sixties have told me that once you finally get through perimenopause and actually become menopausal, things calm down hormonally and get more even again. I was by no means old when I had my daughter at 32, but if I’d had her at 22 perhaps we wouldn’t have been going through hormonal changes at the same time.

All this is a good reminder to be especially patient and understanding – compassionate – not just of my children but also of myself.

I am deeply and unapologetically merged with my children, both the adolescent I birthed and the almost two year old whose eyes I gazed into for the first time when he was two days old. They need me so much and, some days, they are determined to resist with all their might everything I try to do to help them. I know that is exactly how it’s supposed to be, that children of all ages push against boundaries as a way to stretch and learn and grow fully into themselves, and that my job is to maintain those boundaries in a consistent and calm way.

(Moment of pause to emphasize the word CALM.)

I’m pretty much 100% sure I pushed against my parents’ boundaries too. I know I argued plenty with my mother as a child. My father told me, years later, that he never understood why my mother would keep an argument going with me rather than nipping it in the bud early and saying something like, “Because I said so, end of story,” which was my father’s more common response. I think he sensed that there was only so far arguing with a child would get him.

So I recite this mantra: I will not have an argumentative relationship with my daughter. Sometimes I succeed, other times I’m less successful. Because, wow! Adolescents can sure be relentless. I understand now why my father would tell the younger me that I should become a lawyer. My daughter may physically take after her father, but I think he’s got a point when he says that, at her core, she really takes after her mother.

I need a new mantra, though. Because I will not have an argumentative relationship with my daughter is filled with triggers: The trigger of my own complicated relationship with my mother; the illusion that I can be exclusively in charge of our relationship if only I can keep my cool all of the time; the reminder of just how alike my daughter and I are. And the words in this mantra focus on  what I don’t want, not what I do want. What I strive for with both of my children is that flowing together that confluence can bring.

We are at our best when we are flowing together, and thankfully those moments are abundant too. When we I can laugh and remember not to take ourselves myself too seriously – because I am the leader, and my children look to me for guidance – we flow better together. When I take time out to breathe deeply and notice I am being triggered, we flow better together. When I am able to be as kind, gentle and patient with myself as I can be with my children, we flow better together. That’s not always easy – I think as mothers it is really easy to default to condemning and criticizing ourselves during our not-so-fine moments. But that’s when compassion towards ourselves is most important, and it’s that compassion that we can then share with our children.

After an especially emotional day recently, I told my daughter what I appreciate the most about days: That each one ends and the next morning, after a good night’s sleep and with a clear head, we get to start fresh. Every single day, for all of our lives. In our home, when we know we could have behaved better, we practice the fine art of telling each other we’re sorry. Parents included. To me, that is huge, because I know my children will grow up knowing that everybody makes mistakes, and everybody is worthy of forgiveness. I adore my children. When we are flowing together – and even at times when the crescendo in the kitchen reaches a louder and higher pitch than any of us intended – the constant that is always there, no matter what, is LOVE.

 

 

almost

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I wrote something on one of my earlier blogs about lemonade. It wasn’t really about lemonade; lemonade was just a metaphor. I wrote it almost four years ago about something that happened exactly four years ago today. I wrote it about the day I birthed twins who had stopped growing, one at 10 weeks and the other at 18 weeks. So I went searching for that post today to reread it, the first time I have reread it in at least three years. I didn’t wake up aware of this strange anniversary; I realized it a few hours into my day. I realized I felt neutral about it, not triggered, not emotional. I realized that four years feels like longer. It feels far away and yet I can bring myself right back to that hospital room where drugs administered through an IV slowly convinced my hesitant, mid-pregnant body that it was time to release my babies.

A lot of hope left me that day. Hope for the promise they brought after the loss of Tikva two and a half years before. Hope for siblings for my older daughter, who had waited for so long to be a big sister. I wrote that post with both sadness and bitterness, holding a white flag of surrender.

And yet hope came back.

I can’t say exactly how or when, but it came back, slowly, over time. We chose a different path to growing our family, to bringing into our fold another child to love and hold and help to become himself. There was a point when I let go of the need for that child to come from my body, and with that release came a calm I hadn’t felt since I learned about Tikva’s condition when I was 21 weeks pregnant with her seven years ago. And here I am, four years since I delivered two almost babies who had died, with a feisty, smiley almost-two-year-old kicking soccer balls and throwing footballs to his big sister, laughing as they tackle each other on the rug.

On February 22, 2011, I wrote:

You don’t get to love the way you think you’re prepared to, but you do get to love the way you discover you can.

Somehow even then I knew I needed to understand this, or at least come to believe it. And I was right.

I wonder what life would be like if three-and-a-half-year-old twins were running around the house right now. Or if Tikva had lived, and a six-and-a-half-year-old was playing with her older sister. I think of how I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with the twins if Tikva had lived; how we wouldn’t have adopted our son if any of them had lived.

I think a lot about parallel universes that might exist side by side with the one I exist in; other roads I was on that did not continue because my life took one detour, and then another. What it would be like if… And if those realities are perhaps still happening somewhere in time.

I’m remembering those little ones today, my almost babies who got away. How much I wanted them and loved them for the time I carried them and held them. How different it is to mother them than it is to mother my living children. How I will love them always.