Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Babies still everywhere.

It's not just my immediate surroundings that hammer me with reminders of what S and I don't have, it's also the culture. It's television, movies, magazines. The singular of "media" is "medium," meaning "one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, as newspapers, radio, or television" or "an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished" (thank you,, but also "surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment."

One of my chief coping mechanisms has for some time been the media. Music has consistently been a motive force in my life, providing a great deal of solace and reassurance to me as a rebellious teenager, film got me through an extremely difficult breakup (before I met S, of course), and film, television, and video games soothe me now. I spend a lot of time in front of one blinking screen or another. The problem is that I am discovering just how pervasive the idea of children and parenthood is. Like many, I took it for granted before. Now I can't, and everywhere I turn I see mommies and daddies and babies.

There's the movie "Baby Mama", starring the otherwise funny Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in a story about a well-to-do woman who can't have children (which is apparently hilarious) and how she recruits a trashy, lower-class woman as a surrogate (which is apparently also a laugh riot.) I'm baffled, because the principal parties should have more sense than this. It's offensive in terms of gender (women want babies at whatever cost) and class (the rich are right to exploit the poor, the poor cannot be trusted to make good decisions). And it's about the drive to have babies. Babies uber alles.

Then there's "Juno", which a friend of ours described as a "right-wing piece of shit disguised as indie cinema", wherein a quirky, spunky teenage girl gets quirkily, spunkily pregnant, and then gives the baby up for adoption without batting an eye or feeling anything resembling loss , and then she goes back to being quirky and spunky while some aggressively indie-rock soundtrack whispers in the background. Pregnancy is taken for granted, of course she gets pregnant by accident, because it's almost impossible not to get pregnant - hell, walk down the street, you might trip, fall, and land on a penis. So giving up the baby is, like, no big deal. Just have another one later, right? How hard could it be?

There are the myriad magazines in the checkout aisle at the supermarket - "baby bump" watches for celebrities, who's expecting, who's expected to be expecting soon. Who had their "miracle" twins at the ripe old age of 40-whatever? (without any help, of course - coughcoughJuliaRobertscoughcough) Who's importing an adopted child from the Third World country du jour now? Babies! Babies! BABIES! Shit, S can't even go into the grocery store anymore because it's on the newsstands, it's in the aisles. Babies everywhere.

And then there's television. Before we lost the boys, we used to watch "Jon & Kate Plus 8", mostly for the inevitable day when Jon finally snaps and leaves Kate to go to Vegas and shack up with a stripper named Stormee. Now it's unbearable. The Gosselins, the Duggars, and the rest of the parade of families with multiples. We were so excited to have twins - I have twin sisters, we wouldn't have to try and go through the reproductive gauntlet again. Each of our boys would have a brother. But multiples are tough, not that you'd know from the genial freakshows on Discovery Health. More stories of families with huge numbers of children, whether naturally (poor Mrs. Duggar) or not (Kate and her cavalier use of Clomid, man, did our RE get pissed when we started talking about that). This is the condition to which we should aspire, to have babies everywhere. Define women in terms of motherhood, define families in terms of offspring, define ourselves in terms of our basest function. Channels of baby-only programming. Life-and-death hospital shows about the valiant OBs who pull all but the most recalcitrant pregnancies through.

Never mind the blood and pain and screaming, the aching loss, the hideous parody of childbirth, me clutching S's hand, telling her to push like we'd always planned, except now it's all in the service of the dead, of an end, not a beginning. The exhaustion of parents meets the exhaustion of mourning. The swaddling clothes are all we have to remember them, and the pictures are too painful to look at, let alone show off. The nightmare version of pregnancy and childbirth, the outcome we thought too horrible to contemplate just months before. Yeah, they don't make movies about that shit. They don't feature those people on TV. They don't get cover stories in Us Weekly. Babies are cute. Grief is ugly. And ugly is never the hero, ugly never sells. In social psychology, there's a maxim - "what is beautiful is good." Ain't that the fucking truth.

So it's harder and harder to find refuge.

One night, I'm playing a video game, and at one point, my character is called upon to mediate a dispute between two people: A woman, pregnant with her late husband's child, argues with her brother-in-law about genetic therapy for the disorder that killed her husband. If she gets it for her unborn child, there might be long-term problems. If she doesn't get it, her child could get the disorder that killed her husband. She doesn't want to make a decision that might mean she killed her child.

And I'm sitting here, thinking "Really? Here too? Really? Can't I just blow something up?"

Babies everywhere.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Bright sunshine and dark humor.

I am supposed to be productive today, but it's springtime.

There's sun shining outside, singing birds, it's warm, it's Friday. End of the week. Relief in sight. Two days of not needing to be nice or patient or strong or any of that crap. So I'm having trouble being productive. I don't have any meetings today (rare for a Friday) and the only thing keeping me here is the thought of picking up some exams that I'm having scored.

Plus I've got allergies, and right now I'm periodically sneezing my head off and/or clawing my eyes from their sockets. This doesn't help productivity either.

Things have been very up and down lately. S changed her antidepressant, and I think the new stuff allows her to have actual peaks and valleys, instead of sort of constantly being not quite up but not quite down either. The peaks are nice, the valleys not so much. There are a lot of tears, but there's also laughter. I hang on to the laughter. The laughter is as good as sunshine and singing birds. If I can laugh, if S can laugh, that means there's hope. And I have to believe there's hope.

Which is not to say we don't laugh at some pretty inappropriate things.

Well, I say "inappropriate", but these days, I find I don't give much of a shit about someone else's definition of propriety. I think it's part of the whole "my grief, my needs, screw you" attitude that I started developing pretty early into the process, like right around the time I realized neither of our children were going to survive. Don't get me wrong, I know enough not to make these jokes with everyone (and bless our friend who is a mother and pregnant with her second, and is just as dark as we are), but they get made. And like any other traumatic experience, you had to be there to get it. S and I talk about writing a book to help cope with the loss of a child (yes, I know there are books like that out there, but they don't have the right amount of bitterness and snark) titled What To Expect When You're No Longer Expecting.

A line of clothing might be a good idea - t-shirts, maybe. T-shirts with slogans like "Baby Overboard" or "Ask Me About My Dead Children" or "My Child Would Be An Honor Student, But He Didn't Survive Delivery." If other people can be in my face with their babies, I can be in their face with my lack of babies. S and I joke about birth control - "oh, maybe we should get some protection, we wouldn't want to accidentally get pregnant...", followed by a pause, and then laughter.

Crass? Yes. Insensitive? Sure. But I have to laugh at something. If I don't laugh at something, I might start screaming sometimes.

But it's sunny outside, it's Friday, and it's almost 4pm and I haven't heard back about the tests yet. So maybe I'll just go home and start the weekend a little early. My grief, my needs. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Babies everywhere...

Inspired by this commercial...

Well, not really. Sort of.

I am surrounded by pregnancy and children at school. One of our good friends - someone who has been right there as we struggled with infertility, with culture shock, with finding community - is pregnant. She's been very sensitive, but it's still there. My adviser is pregnant, and she and I have a strained-at-best relationship to begin with, which is its own post and probably 40% of every appointment I have with my therapist. Another faculty member just had a baby, two graduate students in my year just became fathers, another faculty member is pregnant. Lots of talk about showers and how exciting it all is and names and clothes and yadda yadda yadda argh fuck kill hate.

The refrain from the commercial rings in my ears: "Babies everywhere!"

I've never really felt all that home in my department. The circumstances that contribute to this are arcane and tedious, but suffice it so say that my inability to join in the babyfest is something I feel acutely. Before the break, I told everyone I could find that we were pregnant and they were genuinely happy. It felt like I could somehow be part of a community now. We were able to hang out with our friends' other adult friends in town (we are somewhat older than the average graduate students) because they have kids and we were going to have kids and so voilá! Finally a place for us. Then comes Christmas, and with it, the death of our sons.

Now, I find myself even more isolated than before - less common ground than before, tragedy makes people uncomfortable anyway, and the baby chatter is almost like white noise around me. But what am I going to say? That I'm in pain over here? Why would people bother to care now, when they haven't noticed any of the other horrible shit I've been through over the last five years?

I'm reluctant to say anything. I don't want to play the victim. Somehow it feels like it would be rude and inconsiderate to bring up my suffering when there's so much to celebrate going on around me. Somehow it makes me see myself as weak, petulant. Maybe it's because this isn't how men grieve. We do it quietly, stoically. Maybe it's because I suspect nobody would bat an eye. For five years, every day I've gone into school feeling completely alone, more or less. Why should now be any different?

Babies everywhere.

For what it's worth, I think the commercial is hilarious.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The weeping angels.

I am a huge nerd.

Well, not huge, though I've definitely put on weight.

But I'm a huge nerd.

Walking home the other day, I was reminded of a recent episode of Doctor Who, entitled "Blink." The antagonists of the episode are creatures called the Weeping Angels, ancient predators who only exist when they are not being observed. Otherwise, they appear to be ordinary stone statues.

It's a great episode - inventive, elegant, and scary as shit - but what strikes me now is the Angels' method of killing. Their touch displaces their prey in time, flinging them back years (even decades) into the past to live out the remainder of their lives. In turn, the Angels feed on their potential - all of the years ahead that they'll never have now, all of the things they'll never do, people they'll never meet, all of that raw potential feeds the Angels.

In the weeks before we lost Jacob and Joshua, I would walk home from school, thinking over how I'd want things like the birds-and-the-bees talk to go, what I'd teach them about being a man, how I'd talk to them if one of them came out to me. All of the stuff that you'd like to prepare, even if you end up speechless when the moment comes.

I am also reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies (speaking of all things masculine), one that kept running through my head during the awful time in the hospital. It's a line delivered by the assassin William Munny, in the movie Unforgiven. After doing the job he was paid to do, Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) says "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever going to have." Lost potential.

I think that's what gets to me the most on a day-to-day basis - all of the lost potential of my sons. All of the things I'll never get to tell them, the talks we'll never have, the laughter, tears, first loves, first drinks...all gone. All food for the angels.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

D**d b****s, redux

I totally understand the reluctance to say "dead baby" out loud - I mean, it's one of the most horrible things you can think of, whether you've suffered this loss or not. I can't say it to anyone but S. The thought of saying it to anyone but her is incomprehensible to me. And in a way, I feel like saying it and hearing it is something that only belongs to us - it isn't for anyone else, because they don't know everything behind it. All of the history, the weight of our heartbreak after two years of trying.

I am reminded of a somewhat offensive joke:

Q: How many Vietnam veterans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: You wouldn't know, man! You weren't there!

That's sort of what our ability to say "dead babies" out loud is for me. It's shorthand for two years of trying, of heartbreak at failed cycles, procedures, operations, pills, shots, time spent in the stirrups and peeing on sticks again and again, only to come up short every time, until that one time that went further, long enough for us to let ourselves be happy, only to have them die in the one way we'd always been afraid to contemplate too closely, because it was just too horrifying. And no, if someone wasn't there, they won't get it. S and I get it.

But I absolutely sympathize with people who can't say it, or who cringe. It's hard. One of the hardest things in the world, and we all approach grief in different ways.

What's hardest for me right now is using their names. I suspect it's another way to keep some distance on the whole experience, like if I name them it will become more real for me than I am capable of handling right now. It's starting to change a little - when S and I talk about what happened I use their names more, but it takes time and effort. I want to get their names tattooed on me as a way to memorialize them, their naming is important. But it's like the words don't want to come out of my mouth easily.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

On being a DH.

In the before-time, in the long, long-ago, when we first started trying to conceive, S made a point of visiting a number of different fertility-related message boards, essentially trying to build some community to help deal with our difficulties getting pregnant. Inevitably, I found myself looking at some of these boards over her shoulder, and it was here that I became familiar with the term "DH." And although I know it stands for "Darling Husband" or "Dear Husband," the part of my Y chromosome that passes along a rudimentary knowledge of sports insists on interpreting it as "Designated Husband." Which, given the tenor of most of the discussion, seemed about right. And it got me to thinking.

It got me thinking back to when S and I were planning our wedding. It wasn't unusual as weddings go, I don't think. But I found myself a little appalled at how little attention the husband got in all of the things we read (and I think at one point we could have built a new bed out of all of the bridal magazines we had laying around). The general consensus seemed to be "as long as he shows up on time and sober, tee-hee", and well, I was pretty goddamned excited about getting married. And lucky S, she was marrying a man who actually had opinions on things like dishes and silverware. (Of course, be careful what you wish for.) Bottom line, I felt like the role of the groom was marginalized, that ultimately, any jackass in a tux would do. Hence, "Designated Husband."

And once we got pregnant, it really struck me just how much the industry surrounding motherhood resembles the industry surrounding marriage. Each takes a milestone experience, one with tremendous individual history and variation, one which will require a lifetime commitment, hard work, and isn't always going to be sunshine and rainbow unicorns, and pares it down to its most idealized, marketable form. Of course, this sells stuff, which is the whole point, and it capitalizes on fear and insecurity over doing the wrong thing. (I remember one mother-to-be magazine we brought back from an ultrasound had articles downplaying breastfeeding and touting it as the only reasonable the same issue!) Each compresses what will be a life's work into the "bride" or the "mom," as if that's all there is to it, and then sells you what you ostensibly need to be that person. And in each case, there's the life partner, the husband, standing on the outside, reduced to someone fit only to show up, say two words, handle the ice chips. The DH. Abbreviation in another's narrative.

I've tried hard not to be a DH. I try to express opinions and feelings and be involved. I'm not always successful, but I can't believe that I'm the only one out there who wanted to take part, who wanted to be involved, and got told by our culture that all that was expected of us was to show up. To be an abbreviation.

D*** b****s.

S and I have developed a shorthand for how we're feeling, or why we do (or don't do) certain mundane things. It took us a little while, but at some point in the last three months, we were able to actually say out loud that our children were dead. That Jacob and Joshua were dead. The act of saying "dead children" or "dead babies" was, at first almost violent, like using a really offensive or unacceptable word. I wonder how much of that has to do with how able we were at that point to accept what happened.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, take your pick), it's become much easier to say, and has become our watchphrase for how our grief is affecting us in the moment.

"I know I need to get these dishes done, but...dead babies."

"I shouldn't be eating potato chips straight from the bag, but...dead babies."

"I know the laundry is out of control, but...dead babies."

Some people might interpret this as a trivialization of our loss, but I suspect anyone who has suffered a similar loss knows how hard it is to imagine trivializing it. There's also the dark humor we use to comfort ourselves, but that's its own post. One of the things I love about my relationship with S, from when we first started dating up through marriage, is our ability to continually build a private language. Pieced together from shared experiences, movies and TV shows we both enjoy, songs, it may not make much sense to people outside of our relationship, but to me it represents the accrual of time together, of forging a shared history. Part of that is tragedy, and if for some time we need to use a phrase as ugly and final as "dead babies" to convey something, that's okay. Because it means we're still communicating.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Me and my shadow.

Everyone has a different way of talking about their grief. Which makes sense, since everyone's experience of grief is unique, the source of the grief is unique, and others' response to our grief is unique. But at the end of the day, it all sucks. No doubt about that.

My grief is something that's always there, squatting someplace in the middle of my chest. I used to think in terms of trying to escape grief, or suppress it. I don't think that way anymore. The grief is there like gravity is there: I can deny it or disbelieve it all I want, but I'm still stuck to the earth. It doesn't matter whether I want to feel it or not, it's just there. When I can, I do things that I enjoy, not because the grief will go away, but because I need every little bright thing I can get to make up for the grief that's always there. Laughing helps, but it doesn't negate it.

It doesn't hurt so much as it saps, it drains. I feel empty inside, and my heart feels like it has been dipped in lead. Everything is more of an effort, it's harder to get really excited about anything. The most frequent positive emotion I feel anymore is relief: Relief at having gotten through another day. Relief at having not fucked something up. Relief at not being totally dysfunctional.

And all the time, the grief is sitting there, not going anywhere, here for the duration. I'm having trouble remembering life before all of this now.