anniversary

It’s been ten years since I pushed that little life into the world in an upstairs room of our old victorian. I spent the night before alone in a bathtub, isolating myself and my baby, keeping this sacred experience ours and ours alone.

I knew it was a girl and I also knew she was not right. An ultrasound at 30-weeks hinted that our baby had Trisomy 13–a chromosomal abnormality incompatible with life. That was the only doctors visit I had with this baby. There was no need to go back after that news. My health was monitored by my midwife, but I only remotely cared. I knew I was healthy and I knew my baby wasn’t. I labored alone in that tiny bathroom with only one hope-please let her be born alive, please let me have some time with her.

The sun rose as if it were any other November day. My husband checked in on me and I sent him away. Terrified, he packed up our four other children and left the house for the day. I creaked open the bathroom door and got into the bed in the room across the hall. Just me and my girl, alone.

When we got the diagnosis of Trisomy 13, we were stunned. After having two healthy boys, our third child surprised us with Down syndrome (a chromosomal abnormality of the 21st pair) and our fourth with congenital defect that needed immediate surgery and hospitalization. We felt like we had paid our dues and then some. Why another crisis? How could we endure it?

But that’s what life does– hands out situations and we deal with them. Even when we think we can’t, we do it anyway because there is no other choice. I brought that baby into the world and felt blessed that she was alive, even if it was for a short time. In times of intensity, you live in the moment because the future is too hard to bear. Breathe in, breathe out…one foot in front of the other, that’s how you get through. Existence is reduced to it’s simplest state.

Now, ten years later, I sit on a peaceful morning and reflect back. Man, that was hard.

But it was also beautiful and full of grace. I not only birthed my second daughter on that day, I birthed a new version of myself. She changed me.

Oh, to the unknowing eye, everything looked the same–exuberant kids running through the house, laundry piling up, groceries waiting to transform–but it all looked different to me. The prism through which all things passed shifted, and my perception of the whole world changed. There was a sacred bubble of time when almost everything I saw took on a mystical quality; I’d see a bird at the feeder and would need to stop and stare in awe (Look at that thing, will you? It’s miraculous!)

My raw and open wound made me more vulnerable to beauty.  It flooded in and left me dazed.

As I write about it now, I surprise myself by yearning for the intense wonder of it.  But the true gift of that time is that my prism never completely shifted back. Ava allowed me to live in technicolor for a short time and I remember what that feels like. It’s far too bright to live there forever, so time graciously dimmed things a bit for me, but life can still dazzle me when I decide to pay attention–in a way that I never had access to before. It feels kind of like a secret, wondrous room that only people who have suffered are allowed admission to, and if you haven’t experienced a certain level of despair, you can’t have the key (nor do you want it!)

But I cherish that key and take it everywhere I go,

and on the greyest of days, I reach for it and unlock the wonder of the world.

 

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our view today on Ava’s 10th birthday

I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “It tastes sweet, does it not?”

“You’ve caught me,” grief answered,

“and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”   ~Rumi

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amazing grace…continued

 

photo credit: Martha Temple

photo credit: Martha Temple

If it weren’t for Ava, I wouldn’t have these characters. That’s how I choose to look at it anyway.
I’m thankful for her lessons every day, but today there will be cake.

Happy birthday, Ava.

 

 

 cracked

My baby was coming early. I tried to ignore it, wish the contractions away, but there was no denying it. It was happening. This was my fifth child, so I knew.

The school of life had already given us plenty of intense lessons: our third child surprised us with Down Syndrome and our fourth shocked us with a birth defect that required immediate surgery and a month long hospitalization two hours from our home. We thought we had graduated, but life had other lessons for us.

As I labored in the bathtub, the fear came in waves along with the contractions. The memory of the ultrasound five weeks earlier surfaced: the suddenly silent technician excusing herself to get the radiologist. The radiologist bluntly telling us of the many abnormalities. So many problems that her condition was deemed “incompatible with life.”  Our baby girl would not survive.

Or would she? I felt I had to have hope for the little life inside of me. Ava. Sweet Ava. Couldn’t she defy the odds? For five weeks I oscillated between cheering my miracle baby on and knowing that she would die. The constant peaks and valleys of these emotions were relentless and exhausting. My labor truly began at that ultrasound. All the questions, questions, questions, tormenting me every hour of every day and into the night. What would this mean for my family? How would we get through this? How would this affect my other young children? Why? Why us? So much uncertainty.

Until finally there was no more room for thought.  The moment when everything changed, when the worries of the past and future can no longer exist. Every sense focused on the now. Any birthing woman knows this intense time: transition-the time when you cannot go on, yet the only choice is to move forward, to move beyond everything you thought was possible, opening beyond what you thought your limits were. You cannot bear for things to escalate, yet they must for this new life to be born, for the world to change.

And Ava would change us in the deepest, most profound ways and answer all of the questions. There was nothing that could be done for her, nothing for us to fix. Her body was just not made for this world. She would leave the world in the very same room she entered. She would only know the touch of those that loved her, the sounds and smells of a busy, loving home. This tiny life would be with us for just ten days, yet she would be one of our greatest teachers.

New and fascinating questions emerged for all of us to ponder: What happens when we die?  Where do we go?  What is Heaven like?

We were able to openly explore these questions and my older children would come up with even more: If death happens to everyone and every living thing, why are we so afraid of it? Together we journeyed through life’s most awesome mysteries and for a small bubble of time, death would not be dark and scary, but graceful and peaceful and full of love.

And mixed with this grace would be life itself. The full spectrum of which would unfold before us in ten short days.

And then, abruptly, we would be marched forward.  The fragile, beautiful bubble of that sacred time would burst and the urgency of life would take over once again: children to feed, dishes to do and balls to be kicked.

But Ava opened us all up to the glorious possibility of angels and that could never be taken away.  Suddenly, there was a whole new dimension added to life. What a comfort it is to think someone is looking out for us, helping to guide our way.  Maybe we are not alone in all of this. Maybe there is more.

I would never have asked for this gift. If the gods had sat me down and said, “Listen, we’re going to give you a baby. We know that you’ve been through a lot already and you’re not expecting another, but this one will teach you so much more!  She will be born with a lot of problems and you and your family will have to face them head on. You are going to have to dive right in and explore the full spectrum of all that life has to offer, from birth to death.  You ready for that?”

Hmm, gee…No, I think I’ll pass on that experience, thanks all the same.

There would be no way to understand how the depth of this experience would alter the very fabric of who I am. I would have no way of knowing that having and losing this child would leave me more appreciative, more spiritual, more compassionate. More. Just more.

This tiny soul would stretch me in ways I didn’t know I could survive. She would take me places I didn’t know I needed to go. She would change me and mold every part of who I am, never to be the same.

The experience would break me open and when I would heal, the pieces would not fit back together so seamlessly.  There would now be cracks, and through these cracks, slivers of light would touch places inside of me that had known only darkness-places that I didn’t know were there.

Ava taught me that there are some things I just cannot control, no matter how much I question, or worry, or work. She showed me that despite how hard I fought, I would never be in charge. And when I finally gave up the fight, surrendering would bring sweet relief. I learned how nice it was to give up the illusion of control.

This experience moved through me and changed me. It did not crush me. Things were okay. They were really okay.

These lessons are hidden in the scars that now make up the intricate tapestry of who I am. They are not unsightly and they are no longer painful. Their complexity and depth add a whole new dimension to this person that I call me. Now all of life has to pass through the filter of these scars, making my everyday experience is more rich, more colorful and more delicious because of it. They are lessons that I would never ask for, yet they have been essential to my growth, my evolution. They cracked me open to the idea that maybe this is exactly what life is about: healing and learning and growing and healing and learning and growing.

I wish I could say that the next time life comes a-calling, I will greet her with no resistance, but I cannot be sure of that. I know that the intensity of my time with Ava has left me wiser and stronger, but I am not totally fearless.  Not yet.  That will take more work and more lessons- lessons that I have no doubt life will supply.  And with these inevitable lessons part of me will crack and, hopefully,

I will welcome the light.

my girls

my girls

The day of the Dead

My parents. I celebrate them both.

My parents. I celebrate them both.

On the Day of the Dead, we go into the dark knowing we are part of something huge, magnificent, ancient.   ~Anne Lamott

                                                                                           

I have a thing about death.

I think about it a lot, but my thoughts aren’t morbid or ghoulish; they’re about angels and spirits and mystery. 

I wasn’t always like this. At one point in my life, I just went through my very average, very vanilla day-to-day, not giving much thought to anything beyond what was right before my eyes.

That all changed in 2005, when I was given a crash course in Death 101. My fifth baby and my mother died within two weeks of each other. An experience like that forces you to think about things more deeply. It makes you start to ask some weighty questions: “Where do we go when we die?” “Are my loved ones still around me?” or “Is this all there is?”

When I was told at seven months pregnant that the baby I was carrying had a condition “incompatible with life” I had to meet death head on. Every time my little girl moved inside me, I had to confront what I was told was inevitable. My husband and I also had to prepare our children- the oldest of whom was eleven at the time and the youngest, five.  We didn’t have any experience talking about death, so we did the only thing we knew how to do: we told the truth. We presented the facts and then talked about it all freely. And we followed the lead of our children; we talked when they wanted to and let life roll along and sweep us away when they didn’t.  At one point, I remember marveling with my oldest son at how odd it was that the only thing we can absolutely be 100% certain about in life (i.e., death), we typically fear. The ultimate irony!

So we talked about that fear. We put it right out there in the open and like most fears, once we shined some light on it, it didn’t look the same.

We learned many beautiful lessons that November of 2005, but the most incredible was that death was not scary. It was soft and loving and gentle. There was even some relief mixed in there.  Of course there was sadness, but it was coupled with deep, exquisite peace. Our family’s experience that year added a whole new dimension to this person that I call Me, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift of it. I hope that my children feel the same way, or will, when they are old enough to be introspective.

We still talk easily about the baby that came to us and stayed only until her work here on earth was done- ten short days. She is always included in the count of our children (final tally: 7), and I’ve often heard her referred to as “my sister that died” if it comes up in my kid’s conversations with friends (when it does, I try to discreetly check the friend’s reaction to such a blatant descriptor. Most young children easily let the comment float by, while most adults-at the very least- widen their eyes in shock).

We don’t talk about death so much in this culture. It almost seems impolite. But if we don’t talk about it, how are we ever going to dispel the underlying fear?

What would life be like if we had no fear of death? This question is really worth taking a moment or two to ponder. Would we live a little more freely? Would we spend more time in exhilaration and less in worry and despair? It was reported that Apple founder Steve Jobs’ last words were,“Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow!”

What would this world be like if we all believed that “Oh, wow!” was where we were headed?

“Oh, Wow” doesn’t sound too scary to me. Of course, we can’t know what Mr. Jobs was actually referring to, but it just feels nice to think that moving onto to the other side is so indescribably amazing that our here-and-now self can only mutter, “Oh, wow!” over and over again.

Similar stories have been recorded since the beginning of history, so I know that I am not alone in my death fascination. This curiosity of mine has led me to some beliefs that I find soothing-and fundamentally essential-if I am going to continue to live this uncertain existence. I like believing that crossing to the other side is so magnificent that our earthly minds cannot begin to comprehend the glory of it. It comforts me to think that those that have passed are still around me somehow or that when we die, everyone that we have ever loved will be there waiting for us, cheering us on as we enter the spectacular space of Oh, Wow. These beliefs help me to loosen my grip and let those that I love go a bit, just a tiny bit, more easily.

For thousands of years, people have believed that on November 1, All Souls Day (or on it’s eve, October 31st), the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest point. The “Feast of the Dead” was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the wandering dead. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd, and the emphasis is on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or dark spirits.

My mother decided to head to the other side of the veil on November 2nd. She struggled for over ten years with dementia, so I was thrilled for her. I love that she chose that day- what a great time to go! I start honoring my Mom’s passing on All Soul’s Eve. Now, instead of just begrudgingly handing out Halloween candy to the hundreds of children walking our street, I also light a candle and join people all over the world in remembering those that have moved on. IMG_4497

When there is a break in the stream of trick-or-treaters at my door, I privately savor a mini-Snickers (my Mom’s favorite), close my eyes and connect.  I think about the woman who made my Halloween costumes by hand, greeted me with my favorite milkshake after my swimming lessons and randomly showed up at my college just to take me to lunch.

And then, the rustle of the leaves bring me back to the present, and more kids approach, more candy goes into buckets, pillowcases, mouths.

After a few, insane hours of “the best day EVER” (just walk up to a house and they give you candy? Definitely Heaven on earth!), I will usher my sugar-crazed zombies to bed and prepare for rest myself. The last step will be blowing out the candle. Before I do, I will close my eyes, remember my beautiful mother and my sweet baby Ava, and I will thank them for showing us the beauty in death.

momcalava

November 19, 2005
(photo by Anna Stockwell)

Your body is away from me

But there is a window open from my heart to yours

From this window, like the moon I keep sending news

secretly.   ~ Rumi 

 

 

I’m livin’ in my head
Too much life in my veins
Forgetting all of the time
We’re always in motion with angels   ~from “Just like you”   John Mellencamp