Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Life Under The Microscope

As most/all of you probably know from my wife's blog, she just recently got trolled by some grotty little specimen who thought it'd be funny to say things like "dead babies are funny" and "haha you killed your kids" and linked to a childfree forum in as well. Honestly, I'm surprised it took this long, and like I told S., "forget it, Jake - it's the Internet."

But still, they said something mean to my sweetie, so I went to this childfree forum to see if I could detective up anything, see if this chucklehead bragged about it or if they had a devoted section to trolling mom blogs or dead baby blogs. Came up empty on both counts, which was a little reassuring, but I was a little surprised to see the amount of sheer vitriol these folks had for people with kids. Oh, sure, much of it was focused on wholehearted participants in the cult of mommy, the sort of people that years of infertility and child loss have made pretty hateable to me. But so much time and energy devoted to being angry at people, even people at whom I'd be angry, sort of baffles me. 

It makes my own identity more complicated. There's a decent chance that S. and I will never have kids at all, and a better-than-decent chance that biological children are already off the table. So who would we be then? "Childless?" That's, like, one house down from "barren," with all of those pitying connotations. "Childfree?" That make it sounds like you had a bad case of children, and are now child-free. Maybe we're just us, and if anyone asks, we'll just say we don't have kids. If they're gauche enough to push, I will tell them, and they will regret it.

I'm not childfree in that forums' sense. They revel in it and the contempt for people who have had children is palpable. I understand where that vitriol comes from, but it's not me. It will never be me. But part of the reason it's out there is because there's nothing between childless and childfree. Either you can't have them or you think they're disgusting. And you can't not be either. People ask. People always ask. And always judge.

So fine. Pull out the microscope and look at me. The first thing you'll see is a middle finger.

Worth It For The Story

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a talk on counterfactual seeking - our tendency to look for alternatives to outcomes. We're wired as thinking creatures to make meaning, to place our life events in context, to think how things could have been worse in order to make ourselves feel better. "What if" can help keep us sane, as I've told classrooms full of college students.

All throughout the talk, I kept thinking of the next line of my lecture...

"But what if the worst did happen?"

I've been reading a series of graphic novels lately called The Unwritten. If you like Neil Gaiman's stuff, Bill Willingham's Fables, etc., I'd suggest checking it out. In short, it's about the relationship between the world and stories. The protagonist is a story made flesh, at war with shadowy men who control the narrative of the world. Stories frame our worldview, we tell ourselves stories to understand the things that happen to us, the world is made out of stories. Imagine a thought that you could not communicate with language. Try to recount something without narrative. As my wife is fond of saying, "to read the world, you must read the word; to read the word you must read the world."

To understand the death of my sons, I have talked and talked and talked. I have written and I have talked and I have written and I have written. It is part of me now. And I think one of things that has kept me sane in the absence of "what if" is internalizing that story in the context of a much larger one.

Whenever I teach a class on child development (that it's not my area of expertise is doubly hilarious), I bring up my experience when I give the lecture on birth (including miscarriage and stillbirth and ART). I don't give them the whole story, just enough. It is one version of the story. I rehearse the different levels of detail, different types of explanation for different groups of people, the ways I can artfully dodge the ugly details. Who gets to know what when.

My grad school advisor once said to me: "All we have are our words." All I have are my words.

I was talking to S. about this today after a very nice, sunlit lunch out together. About passion for academic subjects and where it went after the boys died. I came back from the break, from the deaths, to my major project for the semester - my doctoral dissertation. How the fuck was I going to give even a fraction of a shit about dual-process models and the merits of an associative/propositional approach over a systems of reasoning approach? How? No fucking idea. It seemed ludicrous on the face of it. I just put my head down, did the stuff I could do, and over time, I began to tell myself that I had to have a life beyond the loss, beyond the deaths, and that something was going to need to occupy it. What was going to occupy it was my curiosity about how people think and act, and my conviction that education is important.  I never said it out loud until today. The words made it real.

It's been going on 3 years now that I've lost my sons. Those days right after are both a distant memory and viscerally present, sitting on the couch, wrapped up in soft, comfortable clothing, staring at the TV and not seeing anything. I can be around children now, it's not so raw. I am not so angry all of the time anymore. They are a part of my story and always will be, but I'm still here and they aren't. There's still a lot to tell.

Every now and then I'll find myself in some improbable situation - the time my flight had to make a refueling stop at my final destination because we'd been stuck in a holding pattern over my connecting airport, or the time I got stuck in quicksand in the middle of my small college town - and every time, I say "this is worth it for the story alone." I would hate to live a life without funny, interesting, moving stories. Every story adds to life, even the tragic ones.