Determination and the Will to Live

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
In the mirror I could see the impossibly tiny blue foot sticking out of my abdomen, no bigger than an almond. I only glimpsed it for a moment as the doctor hurried to slide his large hand around the leg and reach for the body. But the tininess, and the blueness of course, alarmed me. Within moments the doctor was holding the smallest infant I had ever seen in front of me, briefly, before he was whisked from the room to be resuscitated. In my head a voice screamed, “Put him back! He’s too small! He’ll never make it!”
When I awoke I was taken to see my son whom we’d decided to name James. He had been put on a ventilator and it was tougher than anticipated to see him on it. Every breath looked intensely painful. When he breathed in it looked as if his ribs were touching his spine. His whole chest would compress incredibly hard. It appeared that every muscle in that tiny two-pound body would tense and it gave the impression that James was experiencing acute pain.
But James was born with two things that mattered: flaming red hair and the determination to match it. He was here to survive. He had Hyaline Membrane Disease which affects the lungs and makes it very difficult to breathe. Yet he fought every day determined to breathe on his own one day. He also required a blood transfusion but at two pounds they couldn’t find any veins large enough to use. Eventually they had to go through a vein right in the top of his head near the forehead. He didn’t like it but he tolerated it with his determination and will to live.
Each week he experienced two steps forward and one step back. That sweet little baby struggled for over 60 days in the hospital before they finally released him to come home. Yet even with all the pain he experienced in the first days and weeks of his life James was the most sweet spirited child that anyone who knew him had ever encountered. He was a joy to his family. He was especially adored by his Daddy. He and his Daddy developed a close bond. They loved to read together, take walks, have “guy talks” and wrestle. For nearly five years they shared a great father/son relationship.
That is why James almost fell apart when his Daddy died suddenly two days before James turned five years old. He had experienced a sudden stroke. No apparent reason. He was totally healthy and there was no family history of it. After the stroke they had done surgery to open the closed artery. We had thought all was well. He had hemorrhaged and within hours was declared brain dead. Then I had to tell James. I have never seen a child that upset. I’ve seen children cry. I’ve even seen children throw fits. I have never seen a child experience that true depth of sorrow. He cried so hard for so long we had to take his clothes off because he was overheating.
Still, we wondered if he was fully comprehending the permanent nature of death. It wasn’t until after the viewing that I would understand what he was thinking. At the viewing I took James and his sister in with me to see their Daddy’s body before the guests arrived. After a moment James asked to be alone with his Daddy. I was hesitant at first and then agreed. After leaving him alone for about five minutes, he came walking out of the room with a tear stained face and looking exhausted. He let me pick him up and hold him and he rested his head on my shoulder.
The next day when I asked him about it he told me, “I didn’t know if Daddy was really dead so I wanted to be alone with him. When you left I said to him, ‘Daddy, wake up!’ But he didn’t wake up. So them I took his hand to shake it. But his hand was very cold. So then I knew he was really dead. And then I cried and cried.” He waited until he was done crying to come out of the room to me.
It seems to me that when James learned his Daddy had died for real that was a moment of determination for him. He had to once again choose to go on and live, to dry his tears, and put on a brave face for mom. That brave, sweet little boy by five years old had already twice in his life, both when he was a tiny two-pound preemie and as a five year old facing the death of his Daddy, shown amazing determination and a will to live!

Tragedy and Joy: Life as a Small Child

The pain she felt over the loss of her balloon was real, as much as I may joke about it.

There was a great tragedy in my family the other day. It came suddenly, while I was sitting at the kitchen table and my kids were playing outside. The idyllic quiet of early evening in the country was jarringly broken by my daughter’s hysterical scream.

I jumped up and, heroically abandoning the Facebook post I was working on, ran outside to save the day. But I was too late.

As I followed my son’s finger pointing up high into the darkening azure sky, I saw a faint speck growing smaller and smaller, and I understood my daughter’s pain.

Her balloon, Balloony as she so creatively named it, was making a frenetic escape to the stratosphere. As my daughter fell apart in my arms, I knew life would never be the same, unless I was able to find the other identical balloon that was somewhere in our house.

I had a faint idea of the existence of the renegade balloon’s twin, but the half-hearted attempt to find it was woefully insufficient and, due to the sedative effectiveness of the animated baby animals dancing on the TV, I soon traded that chore for more the more pressing and productive task of preparing the bedtime accoutrements.

As I lay in bed soothing my emotionally wounded little girl, she opened her floodgates of loss, expanding beyond the scope of the escaped balloon. “When is our dog going to die?” she pensively asked.

Fortunately I am an experienced and prepared parent, so I was able to give her the answer she needed to rebuild her fragile psyche. “I don’t know,” I replied, and with that cleared up she soon fell into her slumber.

The pain she felt over the loss of her balloon was real, as much as I may joke about it. I felt the depth of her pain through the anguished cries and emotionally charged declarations of never ever owning another balloon as long as life itself existed. I too have known loss, and it sucks.

Ah, but redemption came early this morning in the form of a photo my loving and far more capable wife sent me. My darling little girl, who had so steadfastly declared her recently imposed lifelong abstinence of balloon ownership, was proudly and ecstatically showing off the fugitive balloon’s estranged twin. All was right with the world.

Kids are so simple when they’re this young, and I love that about them. The grief, the joy, the frustration, the glee, the emotions they feel are all-encompassing and felt without analysis. Her world was rocked by the loss of that balloon, and there was no coming back from such a profoundly tragic incident. Until her world was righted again, and there was no longer any evidence of tragedy.

This ability to change with circumstances, to adapt oneself so completely and readily without thinking about it at all, is an incredible display of resilience. This is part of the miracle of childhood. Once we’ve grown and become set in our ways and our modes of thought, this resilience becomes far less pliable, disintegrating our ability to adapt and overcome.

Kids live in the present. Whatever is happening right now is what is important, and anything on either side of now is irrelevant. While this may not be absolutely true, it is a fantastic lesson for us stodgy adults who shift between reminiscing over the past and perseverating over the future.

Live in the now. Sure, you lost your balloon and it hurts. Feel that pain, live in that pain, express with great and boisterous emotion the hurt you feel. When the new balloon comes into your life, feel the joy, express the glee, scream out the ecstasy that overwhelms you. People might think you’re weird. When’s the last time you saw a three-year-old worry that people would think she’s weird?

The Not-So-Selfish Question Parents of a Sexually Abused Child Are Afraid to Ask

Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum. What about me?

The unthinkable has happened. You’re numb, panicked, and crazed with anger all at the same time. You’re precious jewel has just told you that he or she has been sexually abused – worse yet – by someone you know, love, and trust.
The aftermath of such a tragedy can be a whirlwind of events, police, doctors, social workers, and therapists. The list of new professionals suddenly intruding upon the intimate details of your personal life is staggering. Of course, you cooperate. The safety, health, and welfare of your baby is at stake.
Then, the high tide recedes as the logistics are underway. Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum.
What about me?
Please feel not an ounce of shame or weakness asking this question. In fact, it’s one of the single-most important observations you can make, so, go ahead, feel some pride in your self-awareness. You, and perhaps others in your family, are the secondary victims of sexual abuse.
Coping with your reactions to the challenges that now rest on your shoulders can feel overwhelming. You’re trying to keep everything together while, inside, you’re falling apart. You need help, too, especially if you were also a child victim of sexual abuse.
A better you will make a better life for your child.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve treated many families who have experienced this and other traumas. Individual, group, or family therapy can offer indescribable support that will point you and your family on the road to recovery.
Below I’ve listed some common concerns that emerged among the parents whom I’ve worked with. If you’ve been in this unfortunate situation, they will hopefully provide some comfort and validation.
Remember:

Above all, it’s not your fault

Many parents think, “If I were a better parent, if we didn’t argue so much, if I were home more, if, if, if, if….”  Fill in the blank with your own “if.”  The sad fact is this: There is no sure-fire way to prevent sexual abuse. If there were, I wouldn’t need to write this article.  The “ifs” are a natural way to try to gain control over an awful situation.
Although rates of sexual abuse may reportedly be on the decline, Darkness to Light reports that as many as one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18. So, please remember three things:

1 | You are not psychic (at least, I assume you’re not) and could not have prevented this.

2 | A determined sex offender will abuse despite the obstacles in their way.

3 | Sex offenders are exceptionally adept at setting the stage so no one would ever suspect a thing.

Your grief is a big deal

You’ve had a huge shock. It’s perfectly natural for many confusing emotions to come tumbling out of nowhere. Anger at the offender, at the system, at yourself, even – cringe – at your child because you’re wishing they had told you sooner so you could’ve protected them better.
Your child has lost his innocence, and so have you. You’ve lost your sense of safety and your trust in those around you. Perhaps you’re struggling with the profound disappointment that someone you loved is not who you thought they were.
You may even be questioning your own judgment while simultaneously feeling saddened, guilty, confused, shamed, enraged, and yet hopeful, all at once. These feelings are a normal part of the process. Finding support through your own therapist can help you navigate this bumpy terrain.

This is an adjustment period

The old day-to-day normalcy may fade as routines and relationships likely become disrupted. But soon, you will settle into a “new normal.” Don’t rush it. Allow the process to take place naturally. There will be bumps as you and your child find your way. With patience and a comfortable new pattern, an even stronger relationship will emerge between you and your child.

You need education and support

You’re in a situation that you’ve never been in before, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know what to do or say. You might, but it’s okay if you don’t. Bounce situations off the helping professionals in your life.
A therapist who is experienced with evidence-based practices for sexual abuse, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, would be ideal for you and your child. Your child will likely be learning many new things in treatment, perhaps about boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy relationships. You need to keep up! Active involvement in your healing and your child’s growth can result in a stronger and wiser family unit.

Seeking your own support models great self-care

Remaining involved and engaged in your child’s treatment process is not the same as getting your own needs met. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out your own individual therapist. Some areas offer groups for parents of sexually abused children. You’ll have a lot on your plate and, yes, this is a crazy-busy time in your life, which actually reinforces the need for professional assistance with stress management.
You’ll be teaching your child that it’s okay to ask for help when there is a problem. You’ll be teaching her that sexual abuse is not to be kept a secret. Some children are quite reluctant to get counseling due to a fear of talking about the “horrible thing,” but research shows that’s exactly what they need to do.
By getting your own treatment, you demonstrate the importance of talking about the hard stuff. Children are amazingly resilient. At times, for whatever reason, adults may have a bit more trouble bouncing back. Your own therapy can offer a private place to break down, out of your child’s sight.
If your own therapy isn’t feasible due to budget or schedule, books like “When Your Child Has Been Molested”, by Kathryn Brohl, with Joyce Case Potter, can be an invaluable resource.
Lastly, if you’re reading this article for a friend or just out of general interest, I’d like to thank you. Parents of sexually abused children are in a lonely position and often have a small or non-existent pool of support to reach out to. It shouldn’t be that way.
RAIIN estimates that every eight minutes, a report of sexual abuse is substantiated. Chances are you know more than one person who has walked this road. Maybe you, with this information in mind, can be the person to help that parent feel not so alone.

7 Picture Books That Help Kids Cope With Tragedy

These books deal with topics like fear, loss, and separation anxiety in subtle ways, but can serve as great conversation starters.

On Monday morning, I woke up to an alert on my phone that there was a shooting in Las Vegas. Horrifyingly unfazed by news that has become too commonplace, I went about my morning. I made breakfast. I packed lunches. I kissed the tops of wild-haired heads and sent them off on their school buses.

It was only when I sat down at my computer and checked the news that I completely unraveled. Watching the sickening story unfold, I was completely frozen in what can only be described as a zombified state. I stared at the TV, much like I did after the Sandy Hook shooting, completely unable to wrap my mind around the news.

The emotions were plentiful: fear, overwhelming sadness, confusion. How can this continually happen? How can we fix it? How do we even begin to discuss this with our kids?

Feeling completely at a loss, I started poking around to see what experts had to say about helping children cope with tragedies. Should we try to shield them from it? Should we bring it up? How do we discuss such heavy issues in a way that’s appropriate and won’t fill them with even more fear?

Every source I looked into said that it’s important to talk to our kids. According to the American Psychological Association, “Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.”

In an article for Psychology Today, Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, said that “The conversations you have with your kids – as well as the conversations you avoid – will impact their core beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world in general.” She went on to add that “[e]ven your silence on the subject could lay the foundation for unhealthy core beliefs. When parents don’t acknowledge a tragic incident, a child might think, ‘My parents don’t talk about what happened because you shouldn’t talk about sad things.’ Ultimately that child may think sharing sad feelings is unhealthy.”

So how do we, as parents, breach a subject that even we find scary?

Mental Health America encourages parents of school-age children to allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. “As with younger children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the tragedy. Allowing them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to ‘re-tell’ the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.”

This idea of “re-telling” immediately made me think of children’s literature and how it can be a powerful coping mechanism, allowing children to see how characters respond to situations that they find frightening and then relating it to situations happening in the real world that children might be frightened by.

I put together a list of seven children’s books that are great ways to talk to kids about tragic topics, whether it’s something that’s horrific on a national level or something that hits a little closer to home. These books deal with topics like fear, loss, and separation anxiety in subtle ways, but can serve as great conversation starters.

 
 
ScaredySquirrel

Scaredy Squirrel

by Melanie Watt

Scaredy Squirrel does not leave his tree. There are way too many scary things in the great big world, like tarantulas, green Martians, sharks, and killer bees. Instead, Scaredy Squirrel sticks to a strict daily schedule and always has his trusty emergency kit (filled with things like antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and a parachute) on hand. But when he suddenly finds himself in the big, scary unknown, Scaredy Squirrel discovers something amazing.


 

Swimmy

by Leo Lionni

Swimmy’s entire school of fish was swallowed by a tuna. Scared and alone, Swimmy wandered the ocean slowly noticing the beauty around him. That made Swimmy happy. Eventually, he found a school of fish that was just like his own. He wanted to play and explore with them, but they were afraid of being eaten by bigger fish. In the end, Swimmy figures out a way they can work together and stay safe.


ToughBoris

Tough Boris

by Mem Fox

Boris is tough and mean and fearless, like all pirates. But when his parrot dies, Tough Boris cries. With simple language and watercolor pictures that add a lot of rich detail (and a whole other storyline), this book is a great way to talk about feelings with children.


 InMyHEart

In My Heart

by Jo Witek

This is another great way to start talking to your kids about feelings. While Tough Boris is about how even tough guys can cry, this story is about how our hearts can feel so many different things. It can feel “strong and brave” one minute and “fragile and delicate” the next, and that’s okay!


TheInvisibleString

The Invisible String

by Patrice Karst

When a brother and sister are scared and want to be closer to their mom, she explains to them that they are connected by an invisible string of love that connects from heart to heart. She explains that no matter how far loved ones are away from each other, they’re always connected by this very special string. Whether kids are having separation anxiety or dealing with divorce or even death, this sweet story is very reassuring.


 Rabbityness

Rabbityness

by Jo Empson

Rabbit enjoys doing rabbity things, but he also enjoys doing un-rabbity things like painting and playing music. It’s the un-rabbity things that make him Rabbit, and make all the other rabbits in the forest happy. When Rabbit disappears one day, the other rabbits are so, so sad. Then they find some special gifts he left behind, which make them think of Rabbit while discovering their own un-rabbity talents. This is a great story to use when discussing loss with children.


 

The Heart and the Bottle

by Oliver Jeffers

Another story on dealing with loss, this one tells the tale of a very curious little girl. Her grandfather is pictured on every page with her as she curiously explores her surroundings. Then one day the chair he sits in is empty and he is gone. She puts her heart in a bottle to try and protect it, but suddenly everything seems so empty to her, until she meets a younger curious little girl who helps bring her heart back and make it lighter again. Incredibly poignant, the story ends on an uplifting, hopeful note.

Now, when those wild-haired girls step off of their school buses, I’ll have some help. We can curl up on the couch – a place that is safe and reassuring – and read a story to help us all start the process of understanding our feelings. We might not be able to understand everything, but at least it’s a start.

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Finding Moksha in a Charm Bracelet

On an October afternoon uncharacteristically bleak for the Andamans, I got the call that Maa was critically ill. Before I could book my ticket, she was gone.

Everyone in our locality called her Maa (the Hindi word for mother). Of her twelve grandchildren, my 85-year-old grandmother loved me the most, much to the envy of my cousins. Being her favorite grandchild, only I was permitted entry to her private domain. This space primarily included a small store room within her bedroom at our ancestral home in Saharanpur, a sleepy town of Uttar Pradesh state in India. She spent hours in her tiny and dim storeroom, shifting stuff from one rusted box to another or arranging items in small potlis and then adjusting them in her trunk. When her hands weren’t touching and re-touching all of her little things, she sat for hours at sandhya bela (early evening) and meditated.

I loved being around Maa. Her wrinkled face narrated millions of stories, hardships and happiness in equal measure. She’d lost her mother at a tender age, got married at 16, and, after her husband died of a long illness, was married off to his younger brother. She gave birth to nine children, out of which six survived, and her eldest son died at the age of thirty. So, in a way, Maa was familiar with deaths of loved ones.

Beyond these sad stories, Maa had several interesting tales too, like when she once swallowed a fly and could feel it fluttering in her stomach, so she decided to vomit it up and, as she did, the fly emerged out of her mouth and flew away! Maa had never flown in an airplane so I booked her a ticket from Delhi to Amritsar. She was very excited about it and, when I asked her about her first flying experience, she said, “It felt like I was flying like a bird!”

Her presence made me feel secure, and through her I became quite attached to our time-honored rituals and family customs. Because she was the oldest of our family, she had a dictatorial say in most matters and imposed her rules on practically everyone.

Many of these rules – no slippers in the kitchen, no pooping after bath, and, if you do, you’ll have to bathe again, no eggs (let alone liquor), bath first breakfast later – were a pain for us. Still, we obeyed. No one could say no to Maa.

At the age of 85, she woke every morning at four a.m. and bathed in fresh water. She finished her chores alone and chose to wash her light cotton sarees by hand rather than machine. There were many times when the sound of her chanting shlokas at five a.m. interfered with our sleep, but she was sure of what she was doing.

“It’s important to keep moving, I do not want to die ill,” she would say as she bent to pick fresh flowers for temple each morning.

I was her favorite, which meant she easily forgave my occasional minor transgressions. After I ate chicken for the first time, I worried what Maa might say. The worry soon became too much, and I confessed. While she showed contempt at my deteriorating eating habits, she still let me  sleep beside her in her woven cot. Well, first she made me bathe, do a puja, and promise not to eat chicken again (a promise I’ve since broken), but then she let me rest beside her.

On every trip I made outside India, I made sure to bring her a souvenir. The best of all was a fabric bag I had bought for her from Dubai that she loved because it was full of pockets. Everyone loves pockets, and Maa was no exception. She kept separate spots for her medicine, money, padis (wooden slippers that she wore and that were too sacred to be taken to the bathroom or outside the house), photos of her guruji, and her lucky charm silver bracelet.

The day before my departure to work in far off South India, she prepared her staple aam-chutney – a healthy Indian version of mango jam – just for me. I marked time with her aam-chutney. One jar lasted me months. When the jam ran dry, I knew it was time for me to visit home and get another jar from her seasoned hands.

After marriage, I moved to the remote islands of Andamans (aka Kala Pani) and Maa worried about me incessantly. When Britishers invaded India in the early twentieth century, they built the Cellular Jail in Andamans for prisoners. The jail’s architecture was unique in that it had seven wings stretched out from a central point, and it was also surrounded by the dark blue Arabian sea on three sides. The deep sea waters are the namesake of Kala Pani, which means “black water” in Hindi. Maa thought my bureaucrat husband was being punished for something and that’s why we were posted there.

I only saw her once after my wedding. She looked weak and fragile and constantly talked about her death. She had strong premonitions that she was going to die soon. On the day I left, she hugged me as tightly as her little arms would allow and wept. Her last words to me were, “I don’t know if I will see you again.”

I knew. She knew. We both knew that that was the last thing I’d hear her say.

On an October afternoon uncharacteristically bleak for the Andamans, I got the call from Dad that Maa was critically ill. Before I could book my tickets, she was gone.

For days I was emotionally shattered. Devastated. I couldn’t even hold my one-year-old daughter, and I didn’t speak a word to my husband. I blamed him for bringing me to Andamans. I should have been there with Maa on her last day.

Grief overwhelmed me. I took what little energy I had and spent it on trying to make Maa proud. I stopped eating meat and tried to follow her daily routine. But she was strong, perhaps stronger than me. Her routine was harder than it looked and I could only maintain it for a few days.

For many years I didn’t dare to visit our ancestral home in Saharanpur because I knew I couldn’t bear the thought of not finding Maa in that huge, palatial space. She was as much a part of that home as the walls and roof. For five years I avoided Saharanpur, deliberately skipping several family functions and gatherings. I couldn’t imagine entering her bedroom and store room without her.

My cousin’s wedding was in a month’s time and I was planning to skip that too. As far as I was concerned, Saharanpur ceased to exist after Maa’s death. My grandfather rang and expressed his desire to see me there. My aunt suggested that visiting once would make me feel lighter. Mom reminded me of our family customs, but I wasn’t to be swayed.

A week before the wedding, Maa appeared in my dreams,  sitting on her small woven cot in the same room in the same, familiar way. Shocked to see her alive, I asked her what was she doing here. She replied, “I have come here to attend the wedding. It is the last wedding of our home to take place in my house,” and she disappeared with a smile.

It was a sign. I agreed to visit Saharanpur.

The moment I reached there, all the memories of her were conjured up in my head. I went to her room that still smelled the same. The walls rustled with her voice. The store room was still and silent as if Maa was meditating there.

I knelt down and cried. In the last five years, it was the first time I visited her bed and reminisced of the times we had spent together. As I shed tears in her room, I felt lighter. I felt her around me.

Inside her store room, something caught my eye. It was the same fabric bag that I had bought her in Dubai. I brought the bag home with me as her souvenir to me.

Yesterday, while cleaning the house, I pulled out the bag and rummaged through its pockets. I found Maa’s lucky charm silver bracelet. To some, it may just look like an old, nothing-special, plain bracelet, but to me, it was my moksha. My Maa.

Emotions for Lunch

My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life.

Lox, bagels, cream cheese, and sliced cucumbers. I remember thinking how Noah would’ve loved all this food, and being confused at the platters being there and him not. We had just come from the cemetery. My two-year-old son, Noah, had died in a swimming pool accident three days before.

It felt like I didn’t eat for months after he died. I couldn’t stand thinking about him never eating that béchamel and mushroom pizza we used to get at Trader Joe’s. Or him never ever again eating an apple in the shopping cart at Shoprite, then throwing that apple on the floor in the third aisle (which was the candy aisle). We would share a bag of chocolate licorice as we shopped and I would pay for the empty bag.

The stage of depriving myself food, especially anything that Noah loved, lasted a long time. I lost a lot of weight. By the time we began fertility treatments about nine months after the accident, I was eating so little. The pleasure of food was lost. At some point, I went from the need to deprive myself to not being able to stop eating. I don’t remember exactly when or how that shift occurred.

The stress of fertility treatments, money troubles, and the overwhelming brokenness of our lives made me look for something that gave some pleasure. Writing was too difficult at the time. The introspection that it required was impossible. Food binges became the easy way to squash my thoughts for a little while. I found myself constantly in the kitchen, eating anything. No food was safe. I didn’t even know what being hungry felt like anymore.

I never weighed myself but I knew I’d ballooned to the highest weight I’d ever been. I was out of breath and out of my mind. I never looked at my body anymore.

We switched fertility doctors after not having any success or options. At our new clinic, there were kinder doctors and nurses, and a medical study was being conducted! If we qualified, it would save us many thousands of dollars in our next fertility cycle attempt. We told the doctor we would do anything to get another chance. He smiled, “The nurse will call.”

I got that phone call in an Ulta Beauty store. Shopping for lipstick probably.

I answered my cell and went off to a quiet corner of the vanity-lit store. I was told in the most sensitive way possible that, based on my current weight, I needed to lose 55 pounds to qualify. And I needed to do it in about two months to stay within the deadline of the study. The nurse then said that she didn’t want me to hurt myself and that it would be practically impossible and she was so sorry. I remember crying amongst the lighted mirrors displayed on the shelf. I saw myself over and over, magnified in the shiny silver circles and ovals. I told her I would do it. I would be safe about it and I would do it. “Put us on the list,” I begged.

I had to willingly go back to the days of no appetite. No desire to taste or enjoy. I had to burn off this fat to have a baby again. To be a family again.

I started the very next day. I told my boss at my wine sales job that morning what I needed to do. We had a wine luncheon to go to that day (we had them often). Great restaurants and great wine, but I needed to start immediately. I remember telling him what I was going to order: a salad and beef carpaccio, and I would spit all the wine instead of drinking a glass or two of the one I liked best. He gently but firmly encouraged me to keep my eye on the prize. This was the last chance. We had to qualify.

I started walking every night after work. With a borrowed flashlight from my neighbor Kim, at first walking up any slight hill was impossible. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. I was so far from my goal. I talked to God while I walked, and Noah, and myself. The inner dialogue never stopped.

I walked and starved and walked and cried and starved and then started to walk a little faster. I was so hungry. So that’s what hunger feels like! It had been so long. I had nights when I reached my breaking point. I cried for so many reasons. I was hungry. I was tired. I wanted my son back. I was angry at my body for not getting pregnant. I was angry I’d let my gluttony get so out of hand that I may cause us to lose this chance at having a baby again.

Within the first few days of my new regimen, I went to see my regular medical doctor. This was the doctor who had to go out into the hallway when we told her about the accident a week after it happened. She didn’t want to cry in front of us. I remember she was out there for a while.

This visit, I sat down in her office and told her what I needed to do. I asked her if there was anything she could do to help me. I started a medication that would boost my metabolism and eliminate my appetite.

I tried a colonic. It was awful. The water flows in so strongly that it creates spasms in your stomach. It ironically felt like being in labor. I had hoped it would be an easy bonus to the exercise, starvation, meal replacement shakes, and pills, but it wasn’t. It was not only a pain in the ass but also an unbearable pain in the gut.

Then I started to lose weight. Numbers on the scale started dropping. I was now addicted to the empty feeling in my stomach. In a way, I was back to punishing myself for losing Noah. I was punished through gluttony and through hunger. That’s how much losing a child changes you. Basic functions to survive became skewed challenges. You’re not even sure you want to survive.

I’ve never been a woman who talks about dieting. I’m more likely to talk about the latest commercial for whatever bastardized version of Mexican food Taco Bell is featuring. It always looks so good on TV, with a catchy name like BurritoChiladaGordoDelicioso.

But now my body was about pure function, not form. Scientifically, there was a better chance of pregnancy occurring at a healthy BMI versus the form of a chips, bagels, cookies, and canisters of Pringles body I’d been inhabiting.

I did it. I made it to the weight I needed to be! The nurses and doctors were shocked and thrilled. I just kept smiling. My body was going to do it. I was giving it my all. Onto the blood tests, injections, and medications again, but this time it had to work.

We scrounged for the money we needed. Nothing was impossible. We would figure out a way.

December 26th, 2012, Miriam Phoenix was born.

When my husband or our daughter misplaces something in our apartment, and I know the item hasn’t left the confines of our home, I always say “It has to be here somewhere!” Miriam has started saying that too now. My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life. You shake out that blanket or move the decorative pillows around and you will always find it somewhere.

Teaching Children to Carry On, Through Grief

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing.

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing. It seemed unfair that they would have to endure this flagrant loss in the very same year during which their parents had separated and were heading for divorce.
With one hit still fresh and our recovery scarcely in progress, we were faced with a stark and painful illustration of how significantly our family was changing.
At first, I wanted desperately to protect my children – if one narrow column of time could bulge with such excess grief, then what would my children begin to believe about the rest of their lives, sprawled out before them like an open, lawless range?
The end was inevitable, of course. Our dog was 13 years old, ailing, and miserable – visibly ashamed by all the accidents he was having in the house, by all the falling down, by the not getting up again. He was still my dog, my loyal pard, but he was not my dog anymore.
I found a veterinarian who would perform euthanasia at home; I tried to use the time leading up to our appointment wisely.
I talked to my children in the morning, snuggling under blankets on the couch while I sipped my coffee and reflected, out loud, that death was the sad underside of the things we loved. I didn’t mention the appointment for euthanasia – that concept, I thought, was more than they could bear. I only told them that our dog was sick, and that his death was imminent. I brought it up at dinner, in the car on the way to piano lessons, while reading books before bed.
“It’s coming and it’s awful, but it’s going to be okay,” I said. It was a common refrain that particular year.
For my four year-old son, it helped when we spotted death as a natural part of life wherever we could. One afternoon in late September, we sat together outside on the patio.
“You see that tree out there, buddy? The dead one?” I asked, pointing to a slender elm at the back of the yard, silenced by disease.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, “The one that’s naked, you mean?”
I nodded.
“So leaves are clothes for trees?” he imagined.
“Yes,” I said, “and that one doesn’t need them anymore.”
I explained that the tree’s body was no longer working and it might fall on its own, but its roots would always remain in our soil.
In contrast, my older two children entered the maze of grief in their own ways. My 11-year old daughter simply wanted to turn back time and allow our dog to be a puppy again. My eight-year old son wanted me to please stop talking about it and let it be over with – he had only the exit sign in mind.
What were any of us supposed to be feeling and doing during that time? Anything, really.
Standing in the middle of grief is agony, but if we step back and look over it – a corn maze in autumn, if you will – it is only the process of transition between the living and the dying of something we love. It has both an entry and an exit point, with a myriad of routes from one to the other. Around each corner lies yet another component: anger, sadness, despair, and even love at its most overwhelming, for when we lose a thing, or decide we must let it go, we begin to see its value more clearly. Grief evolves, therefore, over time. As a mother, I am grateful for this simple fact.
Together, my children and I recorded our pup’s paw print, first with poster paint, and then with a plaster mold. Neither project emerged perfectly: capturing an outline of a dog’s paw in any medium is like trying to catch everyone smiling using a camera obscura. It didn’t matter – the project itself was part of our process of letting go.
Finally, when the dog’s last full day was upon us and my children were all tucked away at school, I began to focus on my own process. How much time could I actually spend that day, lying next to my old friend, cradling his head, draping my leg over his side, sobbing?
I had ordered a set of palm-sized memory stones, each of them etched with a paw print on one side and our dog’s name on the other. I laid all five stones on the kitchen floor in front of him. Curious, he sniffed them, wetting each one with his velvety nose. An hour later, the veterinarian arrived, and a quarter of an hour after that, it was over.
When our children came home that day and their father and I told them our dog was gone, they began to buckle and wail. We held them – on the floor, on the couch, wherever they landed – all five of us awash.
Then, we remembered: once, I had to break him out of the dog pound with a carpool of preschoolers in tow. Twice, he got his head stuck in a garbage can.
We laughed, and I offered everyone a memory stone. Our youngest child took his and closed his fingers around it. Each of our three children could drop their stone into a pocket, bring it in the car, tuck it under a pillow. They were tactile, intimate charms that my children would carry with them everywhere, as the grieving do. They would each do so, that is, until such time as they didn’t need to anymore.

How My Relationship With My Father Influenced My Tenacity

Maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
It’s almost eight months since the day my father passed away. By that point, we weren’t really speaking to one another. We were more like neighbors under the same roof. Two weeks before he died, my growing tumor turned out to be curable. It was also his birthday.
Who knew two Tuesday’s later he wouldn’t come home?
That’s the thing. No one knows why people die. Death just happens. What you take from it is what matters, because the grief will always be there.
The day he passed, I struggled to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t cry. I was just numb. I still feel numb.
How do you differentiate between the determination to do nothing but prove someone wrong and the determination to carry out someone’s legacy after he passes away? I didn’t have anyone to speak to about this. I found myself in a unique situation. I was angry at my father but wanted no one to forget his name.
He had a machista type of attitude. He was a guy’s guy who, while not the best husband, was a good father. Watching the dynamic between him and my mother throughout my childhood and after moving back home affected my view of him. He never showed emotion other than pure joy, so I sympathized more with my mom. Also, as a workaholic, he often wasn’t home.
I never cared to consider that maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree. He had diabetes and his leg had been amputated. But he was a man’s man, and he took on everyone’s burdens anyway, including my mother’s fifth and most recent battle with cancer and my two-year journey to find a cure for my health troubles.
I saw how hard he worked. I saw how much pride he took in every little thing my siblings and I achieved in our academic and professional careers. Even though I have a completely different personality than his, it is all based on things I learned from him.
I always called my father out on everything. I never took no for an answer. I always spoke my truth, which was different from his. That, in itself, is where my tenacity comes from.
Left with so many unanswered questions after his death, I sometimes get angry for not being angry with him anymore. There are so many things he could’ve done better. As much as I prayed for our relationship to get better, I think there was always some ray of sunlight that shined through its cracks.
I am not a parent yet, but I know the invisible shield of confidence that comes from a parent reminding you of your worth. There is no such thing as saying “You can do it” or “I love you” too many times. As tough as things may get, your kids remember everything.
Because of my father, I work hard. He not only shaped my career ambitions, but my personal ambitions as well. I’ve made myself a promise to not get married or bring a child into this world  until I can do everything my father did for me as a child.
My goals are big. I can thank my father for that.

Catching Glimpses of a Man in My Teenage Son

I knew it would go quick, but still my mind could never fathom, never fully grasp that this baby would someday become a man.

I catch a glimpse of my son through the dusty blinds in our living room, iPhone wedged in his pocket, the late afternoon sun in his eyes. My son, lean, lanky, and all legs, is outside with a friend.
Foolishly, I refer to it as a play date, ruffling his independent feathers and causing a dramatic eye roll. He corrects me, firmly telling me it’s called hanging out now. He can’t see the lump in my throat or detect my discomfort as I adjust to this new terminology.
Wasn’t he just five the other day, drinking juice from boxes, munching rainbow goldfish, and listening to the high pitched strains of “The Backyardigans”? Now he favors the quick talk-rap tone of “21 Pilots”, walks down to the local deli by himself for chips, and guzzles six Deer Parks a day.
I remember when he was one. A round, tow-headed lump of love balanced on my ample hip in the grocery store. A woman, older by decades, dressed in a pale grey coat, stopped to touch his feet. Fleshy, plump, and irresistible, my son’s toes were often admired while I stood in line to buy puréed apricots and strained peas.
“It goes quite quick, dear,” she said.
I hated that, hated when people told me how fast time goes when there is a child in your life. As if there was something I could do to slow it down, something I could do to drag out the years so they wouldn’t slip by me in a blur of tantrums, spit ups, and nap times. I knew it would go quick, but still my mind could never fathom, never fully grasp that this baby would someday become a man.
Some days I wanted it to go quick. To be free from the demands of a needy infant, ornery toddler, insolent youth. Always needing something. A diaper change. A new plastic toy. A download for his iPod.
He’s not so needy anymore. I’m adjusting.
I peer at my man-child through the dusty blinds. The glint of early evening light hits the slope of his angular nose. Where is that basic button, the nose every toddler has? Now there are tilts and indentations where there used to be podgy flushed cheeks. His voice, once soft like a marshmallow, has become edged with roughness.
I remember when he learned to crawl. The knees of his celadon onesie stained with grass, the furrow between his blonde brows deep with determination. Go! Go! I said, and he was off, like a lightening bug out of a paper cup. He liked that taste of freedom. I could barely keep up.
As I watch through the dusty blinds, the autumn sun highlights the soft down of hairs sprouting above his triangle tipped lips. The girls are starting to take notice. I watch his gait as he swaggers down the hill toward the deli in loose jeans and Vans – cool, confident steps and a wry smile on his face.
My son likes this freedom. I’m adjusting.
I adjust when he wants to Snapchat with his peers instead of talk to his weary, frayed-around-the-edges mom. I adjust when he coolly asks me to borrow my tweezers so he can pluck his fuzzy unibrow. I adjust when I ask if he needs help with something, and he answers, “No.”
Because that is what mothers do. We love, and we guide, and we teach, and we show, and then we must pray and let go.
That letting part. That takes some adjusting.
This piece originally appeared in The Elephant Journal.

Peace and Love During Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies.” Still, I do not forget where I came from.

“Mommy, I wish it was just the three of us,” my five-year-old son Owen said suddenly.
I sighed and mentally prepared myself for what was coming. My little boy adored his father, so I assumed that he meant Daddy, himself, and his big sister, Julia. Instead, he uttered these names: Julia, Owen, and Liam.
My heart sank.
Although still young, my youngest child was beginning to understand. Physically, it was just Owen and Julia. But they also had a big brother whom they never met. Liam was our firstborn son and died at only nine days old.
My husband Brian and I found out we were expecting our first child on January 1, 2008. Everything was going along perfectly – until that day. I was just over 20 weeks and due to have my anatomy scan.
“I found a problem with the baby’s heart,” the doctor said.
Our joy turned to devastation with those words.
It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies. Still, I do not forget where I came from.
On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared the entire month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Prior to our tragedy, we had never heard of it. We had never imagined this would be our fate.
Liam had been gone for a few weeks when Brian and I headed down those steps to the church basement in October of 2009. It was dark, quiet, and somber. Everyone was getting ready to light their candles in honor of all our babies.
Until then, Brian and I lived in complete isolation. The bereavement support group and cemetery became the only places where we felt solace. I remember being a “newbie” amongst all those who had experienced loss.
“The pain does soften,” they would say.
At the time, I absolutely refused to believe them. I do now. I have been writing about neonatal loss for several years. It still feels raw and painful, but it’s different somehow. Many of us liken it to a scar – something that will never go away.
Nine years ago, I was a very angry and bitter person. I lashed out at friends and family. I refused to attend events. My own despair was so great, I could barely think at all. I couldn’t see anything beyond my pain. I didn’t want to. I had no idea on how to move forward. The decision to try for a second child was made mostly by my husband.
After Julia’s birth, I felt guilt. I felt as if moving on was a betrayal to Liam. I also felt comfort and joy, which was both scary and beautiful at the same time. I had similar feelings after the birth of Owen.
Slowly, I realized that I was allowed to have both emotions. My sadness for my first baby would always be there. So would the happiness for my living children. They could co-exist.
Today, I still light my candle. I do so, not only for my Liam, but for other angels that we have lost along the way. On October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness day, I joined countless others who have experienced this unbearable pain. The candle lighting forms a “wave of light” across the world. In this way, all of our babies will be remembered.
I often wonder what I would say to someone suffering a recent loss. I am not sure any words would suffice. I feel their anguish. Our baby’s lives, no matter how brief, leave footprints on our hearts forever.
They are loved.
They will never ever be forgotten.