The Rest of My Life

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I don’t have sophisticated tastes.  I eat like a child. I would never say that I even like most vegetables and I have to work to eat them. I have learned to ask for wine that is “fruity” but really, I mean “sweet.” I am the same way about stories, particularly TV shows and movies, probably because those are the stories I turn to for relief and escape. When an important character dies I sometimes feel betrayed, as though the rules of storytelling forbid it.  Like somebody put carrots in my trick-or-treat bag. An ending that isn’t happy – particularly death – feels wrong.

I am so brainwashed.  I have seen probably hundreds of thousands of stories, movies, TV shows, books, plays.  Each has an ending, and most of them have taught me all the wrong things about death. There are so many formulaic stories that the life events they portray have become like points in a game. Someone dies, you lose. Someone gets married, you win. If at the end of the story the characters you have come to (maybe) love are alive and happy, then that feels right.  We walk away from that story with those people frozen in time, forever.  If I think of all the fictional characters I have encountered in my 47 years, most of them are still alive, like the last chord of a piece of music echoing on forever. I have come to believe that real people should be that way too.

Despite what I know, what life tries to tell me, I am wired by all these stories to believe that all of this or that should go on forever, and then when death happens, it’s wrong. I have noticed my own deep immaturity in this area even as I’ve gotten older. I have not been helped by the lack of hard knocks in the death department. I haven’t had to face it very much. And so I fear death. I fear mine, and I fear losing those I love so much that it will probably be easier (in some ways) when it does come, because of the dread and horror I have attached to death. Sometimes I envy people in less “developed” cultures, or people from earlier centuries. Death was inescapable, and they saw it and smelled it and cleaned it up and went on. They probably did not have the selfish entitlement I feel to big fat slices of forever and happily ever after.

It’s not just death, it’s endings. Why does a group of friends, or a great team, or a love relationship have to change? Why can’t we be in that relational sweet spot forever? Duh. Do I really want to live in some kind of freeze frame where nothing changes and no one grows? Am I still such a baby that I don’t know how to take the bitter with the sweet? Apparently so. And when the ending, or the fading away, or the change, comes, I am so busy coveting my lost endlessness that I forget what it was about.  I forget that it was always the moment, the day, that mattered. It’s not like I’m going to wait until the end of my life to flip through the photo album and THEN get the big payoff, while the credits roll.  That was it.  It’s gone.

It’s 9:38, and at 11 we will be at the vet, holding our sweet kitty as she gets the shot that will end her life. She is 17 years old, and sick, and we’re doing this before she gets sicker, and all the agonizing about the whether and the when are done. But I’m struck by some of my fear and horror, again. I know that life doesn’t last forever, and I’m sort of getting it as I take in her aging and her discomfort. But still it feels wrong.  I have agonized about all the times I wasn’t a good enough “mom” to her.  The way we didn’t love her the same way after the baby came.  The times she wanted to be petted and I shoved her away.

This is typical, I guess. Wishing for more of what we didn’t appreciate. Missing her in advance. But for me, it was also something like, maybe if I’d been a better person to her things would… be different.  Really? Am I thinking that I could have earned a longer life for her? That I somehow “lose” because my cat has gotten old and sick, and because I deserve that? And that is a part of it, for me. In the sugary stories, the “better” people often end up with the better result. The stronger ones are able to exert some kind of control and things get fixed that aren’t the slightest bit fixable in real life.

Another sad part is thinking I should have cuddled her more when I had the chance, as if I could have saved it up somehow, and opened a can of it on some future day when I felt around at the foot of the bed and realized she wasn’t there. That’s not real either. The truth is she will be gone soon, very soon. And all of the perfect behavior and cuddling in the world would not have prevented this day from coming, and I think it would not prevent me from hurting either. I guess I just like to think that I could have done something.  Otherwise the idea that loss hits me like a freight train and will, every time, no matter what I do – that’s too scary.

Once in a while I can stop, and breathe, and think of her life as something that will not just end today; it will be complete. I will have given her the best possible life, within the range of my limitedness; I will have loved her so much, and I will have given her the best possible death. Even though I am stupid about death, I am pretty sure that there is beauty in a good one, even though we can only guess about what a “good” death might be, from our position as the spectator.

Only when her life is over will I truly understand all that was right, and good, about it.  Not forever, not free of pain, not perfectly sweet. Just: right.

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I have been doing some hardcore psychotherapy.  I started in, oh, a few months ago.  My therapist is digging into some of my deepest hurt and fear from abusive childhood stuff and it’s been good for me but hard.  Without going into too much boring detail, the method has to do with identifying different “parts” of me that sometimes show up during different situations.  It’s not like real-live disassociative disorder (i.e. Sybil) but just the mild version that all of us have.  For example, if you were called into your boss’ office and fired and then marched to your desk and then shortly thereafter walked out the door with The Box that says “Yes, I’ve just been canned,” you might do it in a state of numbness, a state of iron self-control that surprises you; but then at some point later you’d probably shift into crying, throwing things, or whatever your flavor of coping might be.  My therapist would say that a “manager part” of you handled the mechanics of getting out the door, remembering to get all your stuff out of your desk including the air-conditioning cardigan sweater that you leave in the closet, and then that manager part would recede once you were in a safe place and your other feelings could come out.

This has been incredibly helpful for me and I’m now looking at the “part” of me that overeats.  Motherhood and overeating seem to go together, can I get an amen?  Because motherhood is stress, and it’s a new stress.  I’m approaching my motherhood stress in a special way, and by “special” I mean “uniquely effed up.”  Because of my vow never to complain about motherhood, I’m eating all the complaints and I want to stop.

Complaints happen.  Motherhood is hard.  If you hate me for having a child and complaining, then click away, Dixieland.

For me the stressed-out feeling comes because it never ends.  “It” being the “on-duty” feeling.  As I’m sitting here on the couch now, typing, and D. is playing right next to me, and we’re gated into the living room, it doesn’t seem so bad.  And “bad,” it isn’t.  But it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  That’s for sure.

I’ve been thinking about jobs I have had in the past.  I do very well with brainy, individual projects that I can work on and complete on my own schedule.  I do well with deadlines, because even then I can still be in control.  For example: if you require me to be at work from 10 to 6, during which time you hope I can get as much done editing on a 10,000 page manuscript as possible, and you begin thrusting pages at me the minute my ass hits the chair, I’ll do okay.  But if you say to me that you need 5000 pages edited as soon as possible, I’ll probably get more pages done that way, in the same amount of time.

I’ve done a few jobs where the pace was up to someone else.  I worked in retail at exactly one job for exactly two weeks before I was fired.  I worked at UPS loading boxes, and that was pretty freaking stressful.  The boxes just kept coming.  Although, I will say, that the shift did end and the boxes dried up.  And, packing boxes that are almost all uniformly square is a lot different than trying to be a perfect mother, giver of affection, consistent disciplinarian, preparer of nutritious meals, innovator, and cheerful reader of the same book a million times – that ain’t no square box.

Another facet of my mothering aptitude is repetitive tasks.  I suck at them.  If, on a temp job, I had to do a huge and messy xeroxing job, I would generally mess it up, because it was so boring I could not stay focused on the job.  Sigh.  All of this rumination about my various jobs makes me feel that I am selfish and spoiled.

It is what it is.  The important thing is that whatever my objection to spending 13 straight sole caregiver hours with my son, they are surmountable.  But the part of me that eats thinks I can’t handle it, so that part takes over and suggests that cookies will help.

And, here’s the bitch of it: they do.  Unless it’s cookies #6 and 7, which is way too many cookies even for me, they DO help.  They feel wonderful.  They make me feel like a kid in a good way.  My mouth (amazingly) forgets the soft bloom of sweet that fills my body even if it’s only been a few hours, and so it is wonderful all over again.   Obviously cookies only help for a minute, but the part of me that eats is convinced that one minute is all the comfort we can hope for.

So I need to admit that I feel trapped.  When it’s time to pick my indescribably loved and wonderful child up from daycare, I feel selfish and frustrated.  I feel afraid that I somehow won’t “handle” the next six hours even though I do handle it, every day.  Instead of just jumping in, having fun, and staying in the moment with this somewhat angelic little boy, I sometimes count up the hours in my head until bedtime, and they feel heavy on my spirit.  Sometimes I try to “get things done” while taking care of my child, and he ends up throwing things at me to get my attention.  I end up appalled and angry that he is such a little savage when he really just wants his mama to look at him and snuggle him for a minute.  Sometimes I eat cookies or candy that I don’t really want, and sometimes I watch TV and garbage on the computer, because I feel cheated or stolen from, and I eat to “get something back.”

Nice, huh?

Another weakness of mine comes into play, and that is the persistent idea that “getting things done” is more important than raising my child.  That two loads of done laundry and two batches of chicken chili has more value for the family than a day of laughing with my child.  We all will say oh, no, that can’t be true!  It’s the most important job in the world blah blah blah.  I agree with that, but if so, why do daycare workers get paid so little?  Why are teachers paid so little?  Are we so blind that we can only see the value in some tangible thing like a vacuumed rug, even though that rug will have to be vacuumed again, and our child will never be this exact age again?   I think we all want it to be the most important job in the world but we don’t know how to see it that way.  I sure don’t, nor do I know how to do it that way.

The crowning irony is that when I feel resentful and afraid of the demands of motherhood, there is a part of me that tries to protect me from those feelings by eating.  I am mothering myself in that way.  Badly.

A thousand of you can write and tell me your own version of this, and I’ll still feel like I’m not redeemable, selfish, spoiled.  That I forgot so quickly that not having a child hurts so much more.   So I just have to do the work of letting the ugly out and somehow finding a way to own it and maybe I can move past it.  Which for me means not medicating it with food.

I don’t do “empty.”  Never could.   I like a full schedule.  God knows I like a full belly.  Full womb was incredible (along with incredibly uncomfortable).

Empty is hard because it scares me a lot.  I spent a lot of my life figuring out all the things I could stuff into the empty.  It all works… for a minute.  Empty feels full, full resembles happy, or not scared, or loved / included / needed.  Pretty soon (if not really soon) the heavy social calendar, the overeating, the striving and pushing and banging too hard on the wrong door for too long… is just exhausting, and there’s that empty again.  Emptier than ever.  Even in good times, I feared the empty.

Sometimes “empty” meant “unloved.”  I thought that activities and gigs and commitments proved that I was liked and needed.  And in the commitments that I cultivated, I tried to prove that I had value.  I was like those people who think it’s rude to show up at a party without a gift or a bottle of wine.  Like just their company isn’t enough.

Since I got to be really good at filling up the empty, I rarely had to face it.  Today, empty is a deep black hole and it has swallowed me.

It doesn’t take decades of therapy to know that “empty” means “available to feel unpleasant emotions” or, more succinctly, “drowned.”  I knew it the minute we got off the plane from Chicago.  The first thing I did (after buying a chocolate milk shake) was start looking for clinics and thinking about what we’d do differently for IVF#8.  But after a few days, I knew that IVF #8 wasn’t going to fill the empty left by IVF #7, and then thinking and planning didn’t comfort me any more.  Didn’t fill me.

One of the things that does “fill me” is music and theatre.  I performed professionally most of the time we lived in Chicago; along with teaching and writing it is my official occupation.  The vague plan was that here in this smaller market I would be able to start all over again, find a gig or two, start a band, write some things, whatever.  I was going to do that after the baby came… after the depression… after I lost the 40 pounds I gained in the 4th trimester… but once I got home from Chicago, filling the empty became an emergency.

I saw an opportunity and went to the audition.  I knew that just reading at the audition would be a mini-performance in itself, and thus would be fun, a whiff of the airplane glue high that I get from performing.  It wouldn’t amount to anything, and I would shrug it off, and maybe meet some new people.  But by the time I got home, knowing that I had done well,  the play was no longer an irrelevant piece of candy but had turned into something big and essential.

To fill the empty.

Obviously, in the way that these things go, I didn’t get the part.  The cameraderie, the juice of being chosen, the time so deliciously full, the important way I would say “I have to go to rehearsal...”  dried up and blew away, and into the whistling darkness of the empty poured all that delayed, denied grief and sadness and fear and anger from our loss.

The empty stretches before me for the rest of my life, because even as I drown in it, I know that I’ll never get away from it.  Some of what defines the empty for me is my slippery hold on my purpose.  What is my purpose, beyond overcoming it all, finding marriage, becoming a mother, becoming a mother again?  What am I for, when that’s all over?  Suddenly nobody’s pulling on the other end of the rope and I fall into the empty.

I’m a religious person, and apparently not a very good one, because God 101 is that He fills me.  This is the “God shaped hole” writ large, and I should fall into the empty and wait for Him there.  I know this.  I also should know that when the empty fills with grief and sorrow, I won’t drown.  But I don’t feel like I know these things today.  The knowing of them in a solid way is stuck on a shelf somewhere and not comforting me.

I felt relief when we found out all five died… it was the worst thing I could think of, and I didn’t have to dread it anymore.  I felt relief when I found out that I am not cast in this stupid play.  I hate the empty and I probably always will, but that panicky moment of standing on the edge and wheeling my arms, grabbing for something, trying not to fall…  is worse.

I have a young relative who has been trying to get pregnant for a long time.  When we were struggling I was sure that she would announce her pregnancy any minute.  I can’t believe that I had a baby before she did, because she’s at least 10 years younger.  She is now in the very frustrating time that is the beginning of seeking treatment, where you simultaneously find out that there are serious physical obstacles  (cysts, endometriosis, male factor, whatever) but that the process leading to IVF, and hopefully a baby, is agonizingly, month-after-month-slipping-away, slow.

I reached out to this woman via a letter a while back, told her about our situation, offered to commiserate, offered my research on the clinics in the area (she is sort of close to a good one).  I would have loved an offer like that when I was first starting out.  But… nothing.  No reply.  When I saw her she didn’t act weird, so I didn’t feel like it was a big deal for her.  I hear about her through her grandmother, who hears about her through her mother, so this woman doesn’t have a lot of privacy within the family.  I fretted about this woman’s rebuff, until a friend pointed out to me that there might be things going on in her marriage or her private life that make it hard for her to talk to me.  Like, maybe she and her husband aren’t on the same page about seeking treatment.  Maybe she’s in agony because it’s her equipment, or his, that is “the problem.”  Maybe she’s so angry about it that she just can’t talk about it without cracking her pretty, nice, upbeat public persona and I’m not safe enough for her to do that with.

I’m hoping she decides to talk to me, but not holding my breath.  But it’s making me think, today, about what I wish I could say to those who say we infertiles should “just adopt.”  I have pointed out before that suggesting someone “just” do anything is almost always going to offend.  “Just” is such a belittling word, isn’t it?  The difference between “Can’t you just exercise?” and “Can you exercise?” is infinite; one question is gentle and considerate, and the other is loaded with judgment and condescension.

So for anyone who has been confronted with the “just adopt” question, the questioner needs to be reminded that decisions of this nature are personal, and there are many reasons why a couple cannot, or will not.  Many of those reasons are none of the questioner’s business, but let’s point them out anyway.  (Parentheses address the inevitable Christian follow-up comments about how “God can do anything… have you prayed for blah blah blah” which generally add insult to injury.  In my opinion).

1. My spouse doesn’t want to, and I do; it breaks my heart every day.  (Yes, I DID ask God to change his/her heart; while I was doing that, and God did not change his/her heart, we got old enough that most agencies and / countries won’t accept us).

2. One of us has a criminal record.

3. One of us has a BMI over the limit imposed by certain countries.

4. Our combined age exceeds the limits imposed by some countries and agencies.

5. We would love to, but one of our parents would never accept an adopted child, and it breaks my heart every day.

6. We tried, and the agency rejected us.

7. One of us has a chronic health condition that makes us ineligible.

8. One of us is being treated for mental illness.

9. We don’t have the thousands of dollars it would take, and we don’t have much hope of saving it because of XYZ financial issues.  (and we ASKED God to provide, but God just doesn’t provide exactly what you ask for, sometimes).

10. We were well on our way, and one or both of us got laid off; our adoption fee savings have gone towards the  mortgage and the COBRA payments and we don’t know when we’ll ever recover financially.

11. We KNOW that there are drug-exposed babies, Downs babies, older children, children of a different race, and other children out there who need homes.  But we don’t have what it takes to take on those children.  We KNOW that we would love them.  We KNOW that parents who give birth to or end up with these special, wonderful children, say that they are “a blessing.”  But we don’t have the emotional, financial, or other resources these special children would need.  Please respect that we know our limitations, rather than insist we take on a burden that most of you, the “why don’t you just adopt”ers, would / did not.

12.  That young, pregnant girl who lives on your street and wants to give her baby up for adoption will choose adopting parents who are younger, richer, and prettier than we are.  Even if she does choose us, there is a significant risk that, after we have fitted the nursery with matching everything and after our friends have had our longed-for baby shower, and after we’ve finally let ourselves fall in love with a child that is really ours – that high school girl will decide she wants to take her baby back.

It’s ironic that most of the folks who are insisting that you and I should / must / ought to adopt, did not.  While most of the folks I know who DID adopt provide inspiration and joy with their examples – and all I’ve seen are happy ones – they are the ones who say “adoption is NOT for everyone” and I’ve never heard one suggest that someone else should / must / ought to.

The extreme suckiness of these situations is breathtaking, even without annoying questions.  Foremost for me is the long list of conditions that disqualify would-be adopting parents, which don’t apply at all to the fertile.  Also heartbreaking is our current economy, which piles on layers of misfortune (layoffs, on top of criminally high health insurance costs, on top of profiteering adoption agencies and very high fees….) and so many more problems that I’m not even aware of are out there.

We didn’t agonize much about adoption; it was out of the question due to more than one of the reasons listed above.  But I watch adoption stories around me with interest, and I know now that the failed or neverstarted adoptions are as sad as any fading beta or canceled cycle.  And a lot of that sadness is hidden behind closed doors and unanswered letters and I guess that’s just the way it is.

I have always loved Christmas.  Why not?  It celebrates some of my favorite things: food, family, magic, snow, presents, winter, singing.  Even when I was a kid, and I only understood the Christ part of Christmas on a basic level, I loved it.  I think the Christ part of Christmas is something that everyone can enjoy, even if they don’t want to sign up for the whole Jesus-saves ball of wax.  I remember seeing the Charlie Brown Christmas show and getting chills when Linus would say in his lispy little voice “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be for all the people.”  The idea that a little baby being born can change everything, and that the tidings of great joy were for ALL the people.

For this reason, infertility was extra sucky and painful at Christmas.  About two years before I got pregnant, a couple featuring a very pregnant woman got up to speak at church about how they felt about waiting for their child in the context of  Advent, the season of waiting for the birth of Christ.  It was one of my many painful moments, as I wondered how long my own Advent would go on.

Even as I bought it completely, I always worried about this idea that a little baby can change everything.  There is nothing like the dream delayed to make you doubt the dream.  Was I expecting way too much of a little baby, that if he ever got here he would “make us a family?”  Family is where we find love and support, regardless of kids or biology or gender.  If we couldn’t be a family without kids then we couldn’t expect kids to make us one.  But still I hoped/knew there would be something on the other side and I hoped that we would be changed.

I have always loved Christmas because it’s about transformation.  That one minute there is pregnant Mary, an ordinary young girl, and the next minute the sky is full of angels.  A little baby inspires the thundering Handel chorus: Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  As I have stumbled through my life with so much brokenness and baggage, I have always chased after transformation, and sometimes found it.  Don’t tell me that people don’t change.  I know that I have.

Now that our precious baby is here, I can say that my Christmas dream is fulfilled.  My husband and I have bloomed during our son’s first year.  Much has been demanded of us physically and emotionally, but we’ve always had enough and have been able to give of  ourselves joyfully most of the time.  We both were so scared of how hard it would be, and we both feel that it hasn’t been nearly as hard as we feared.  I have felt my heart, like the Grinch’s, grow at least two sizes bigger, and seen my husband’s grow as well.

It’s true that it’s unfair to expect a little helpless baby to make us a family.  But ours has. Unlike the Christ child, Daniel is not our savior; but so much has been given to us through him.  The absolute needs of a newborn are so raw yet so easy to meet.  We are buried completely in the needing and the holding and feeding and I find it joyful and satisfying.  When I can pick him up and feel his body relax with that little contented sigh, I feel some remembered comfort from my own babyhood and I feel more grown up than I ever have.  Being able to take care of another human has taught me to take better care of myself.  I have cried so many times at the sight of his sweet face, so perfect and vulnerable as he sleeps.  We laugh a million times a day at his babbles and stumbles and tricks. He has shown us how incredibly fortunate we were before he came, and how our time of waiting strengthened our marriage and our resolve.  He shows me every day how fearfully and wonderfully we humans are made, as he crawls and touches and grows into each new phase.

This was the perfect year for me to sing “Messiah” with our local symphony choir and it was my first time singing those choruses that I have loved for so long.  I learned that some of them are built on dance rhythms of the time and I learned to recognize the musical contrasts between the majesty of God and the humble celebration of the people as we receive this hope of transformation.  I choke up a bit when we get to “Hallelujah,” but what really gets me is “Unto Us a Child is Born.”  Unto us.  A son is given.  He is a gift to us, not deserved, not earned, just: given.  And so much more than we ever dared to hope.

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