Death on Facebook

Death on Facebook

As I was going through some unpublished drafts of things I meant to write, I came across a post I began almost a year ago, after the funeral of a friend who died at the age of 35.

It started like this:

“Today I attended the funeral of a friend from back in the day. She died on Saturday, at the age of 35. Her name was Sarah Higgins, and she was a good human.

When I say Sarah was a friend from back in the day, I mean she was a friend from way back in the day. Specifically, from elementary and middle school. I hadn’t seen her for 22 years.

I hadn’t seen her for 22 years, and yet her death has hit me hard. Harder than I thought would be possible — I miss her presence in my life, even though that presence existed only virtually, through the seemingly shallow channel of social media.”

And it ended here. I couldn’t get past this point. I was feeling too raw and too confused: I felt a deep sense of grief, and yet I didn’t feel entitled to that grief. I felt guilty for grieving someone whom I hadn’t seen face-to-face for over two decades, as if I were taking something away from those who truly knew and loved her.  I felt as though a Facebook friendship, even though it was based on a childhood friendship, didn’t measure up to the “real life” relationships she had with others.

But a year later, I still find myself thinking about Sarah, missing her quips and anticipating what she would comment on certain Facebook posts. She is still the first person I think of when I need advice on plants or have a story about backyard vermin. And the fact that I still miss someone I knew almost entirely from social media suggests that there is more to be said.

My friend Julie wrote an insightful piece on how much she values social media as a tool to maintain relationships. She talks about how people tend to scoff at the idea that there can be anything truly meaningful in our connections with others through Facebook or Twitter. But she disagrees with this notion, and so do I.

It is true that nothing can replace the connections we create through face-to-face communication. But that fact doesn’t take value away from other means of communication.

The origins of human interaction were intimate: we could only communicate when we were in each other’s presence. But from the moment our most ancient ancestors figured out how to scrawl drawings on the wall of a cave, our communications have constantly been evolving and expanding in scope.

And now we are able to pick up a tiny machine that contains our lives and have a real time conversation with someone as far away from us as the other side of the world, or as close to us as the room downstairs.

Even though our words pass soundlessly through cyberspace, the value of the connection between people is still there. We can get more than just news or updates: we can reach out to one another for advice and comfort and inspiration. We can unite behind a common cause. We can be present for those we care about, even if all we are doing is holding space in our hearts for someone we only ever see on a screen.

I still miss Sarah. Her wit, her quirky insights, her unfailing support for the LGBT community (and really for anyone who was marginalized by society), her compassion for animals, her prickly kindness filled my newsfeed and became part of my daily life. I missed her presence when she died, and I miss it still now.

Human connectedness is a sacred thing, and we like to hold it to traditional standards. But the way we connect with one another is changing. We can be devastated by the loss of a hero or icon we’ve never even met — think of the global heartbreak so many of us shared with the passing of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and Mohammad Ali. And we can grieve someone we haven’t seen in decades, but who was present in our lives nevertheless.


How ‘Bout Them Apples?

appleI have lots of treasured memories about my paternal grandmother, but one that sticks with me the most is of her frequently saying, “how ’bout them apples?” I remember it having different meanings, dependent on whether the phrase was prefaced by “well” or “so.”

“Well, how ’bout them apples” was an expression of surprise — like, “Well, how ’bout them apples? Krista cleaned her room!” Alternately, “So, how ’bout them apples” was tacked on when she said something challenging, or something she knew my brother or I wouldn’t want to hear — like, “No you can’t have more crumb cake. So how ’bout them apples?”

She said it often enough that my little brother picked it up at a very young age and added it to his arsenal of phrases that he would pull out at the most inopportune moments. One time when we were at the mall, he saw an undressed mannequin, pointed to her breasts, and shouted, “How ’bout dem apples, grandma!” He was triumphant; I was humiliated.

“Dem apples” have been in the media a lot recently. They always are in the media, everywhere, relevant or not. But this week, they have been in the media for their actual purpose — feeding our children. Today is the last day of World Breastfeeding Week.

I wholly support the idea of advocating for better policies (for breastfeeding and just about everything else related to motherhood in America) and greater public acceptance of an act that is as natural as it is necessary.

But in addition to encouraging our (ironically) breastfeeding-phobic society to be a little more open-minded about mothers using their bodies to feed their babies, I would also like to see, in our community of mothers, a greater appreciation for the fact that, as mothers, it is our prerogative to decide how best to nourish our children. And, more importantly, to accept that other mothers, who might choose differently from ourselves, are doing the best they can for their babies — and for themselves.

Breastfeeding is hard. It’s hard when it doesn’t work the way you wanted it to, and it’s hard when it does work. I say this with the authority of someone who has experienced the extreme ends of the breastfeeding spectrum.

My older daughter absolutely refused to nurse. After a somewhat tumultuous pregnancy, she was induced at 37 weeks when it became clear that she was “failing to thrive” in utero. She weighed 5 lbs, 1.2 oz at birth and quickly dropped to 4 lbs 12 oz. Although she was healthy, getting calories into her little body was our primary concern. But she wanted nothing to do with me as a food source.

In the hospital, I tried everything. We used a syringe to squirt formula into her mouth while trying to get her to nurse in an attempt to pique her interest. Nothing. The lactation consultant hooked me up to a device that fed formula through a tiny tube taped to my chest, thinking that maybe if my daughter didn’t have to work so hard while nursing, she would take to it. She didn’t. They brought out other nursing aids and devices, all with the same result: complete refusal.

For six weeks, I tried to get my daughter to nurse. My husband and I came up with a tedious schedule, during which I would try to nurse her, with little success, then feed her pumped breast milk, then pump for the next bottle, again, and again, and again. It quickly became too much, both for me and for her.

I spent the next three months trying to convince my daughter to take my milk from a bottle. It was easier, but she was never an enthusiastic eater. She was, however, a devious eater. By the time she was four months old, she had developed the habit of drinking heartily from the bottle while letting a stream of milk pour out of one side of her mouth. That was the feather on this camel’s back — I had worked hard to make that miracle juice, and she was just spitting it all out. I just. Couldn’t. With that. Anymore.

Early on in this sojourn, I gave up reading books and articles from breastfeeding support groups, because the advice they gave always seemed to imply that women who struggled to breastfeed just weren’t trying hard enough. This implication was shattering. I already felt like a failure — as a mother and as a woman. Hell, I felt like a failure as a damn mammal — even mama pigs can nurse their young. I was exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, and valued myself as being on par with a crustacean. The idea that I should somehow have been doing more was the outside of enough.

These feelings of failure continued for about three years, until my second daughter was born. Unlike her big sister, that girl took to nursing like a cat to cream. She nursed enthusiastically, all day and all night. By the time she was eight months old, she was nursing every two hours during the day and every hour at night. That’s right – she woke up hourly. I slept in 20-minute increments. I was exhausted, frustrated, and overwhelmed – but at least this time I had elevated myself from bottom-dwelling sea creature to dairy cow.

My younger daughter is now two, and she has never taken a bottle. She also has not stopped nursing. And again, my choices in feeding my child make me susceptible to whispers of disapproval. Every time my walking, talking toddler latches on, in the back of my mind I replay every criticism I have ever heard – or made myself – of women who engage in extended breastfeeding. “It’s excessive.” “It’s unnecessary.” “It’s weird.” But whatever it is, it’s my choice, and I have made it thoughtfully.

Breastfeeding is hard. Not breastfeeding is hard. Being a mother is really, really hard. Your children are constantly challenging you, and society is constantly judging you.

But being a supportive friend to other mothers – those we know and those we don’t know – really isn’t that hard. Not when you think about how vitally important that support is, both to mothers and to the children they are raising.

So as we mothers remind our society that breasts actually are for babies and not just car commercials, let’s also remind ourselves that, when it comes to breastfeeding, an act that is so ageless and natural can also be stressful and heartbreaking. Let’s honor ourselves for the choices we have made, whatever they are, and let’s honor other mothers for the choices they have made, even if those choices are different from our own.

Our greatest strength is in each other. Let’s not forget that.

We’re All Stories in the End

Last week, I had one of those experiences that all parents dread. I was sitting in the radiology room at an urgent care center holding my hacking, wheezing little girl in my arms, waiting for the technician to rig up the x-ray machine so my very petite child could reach it.

Our entrance to the clinic had been theatrical — I came in running, my daughter clinging to my neck and hips, as thunder boomed and shards of lightening sliced the horizon behind us. A massive storm was breaking.

When the x-rays were finally completed, they confirmed the doctor’s suspicion: my daughter had bronchitis and early stage pneumonia. It was our second day of vacation and things weren’t going quite as we had planned.

The following day, I was walking up and down the boardwalk leading to the beach with my two-year-old. She was naked but for a swim diaper because, for some reason, her swimsuit was oddly alluring to bees. In the span of just a few minutes, two bees had attached themselves to the fabric and settled in, almost as if drawn there by a force beyond their control. She panicked, so I yanked the suit to the ground and tossed it several feet away. The bees fled, but there was no way my baby was getting back in that suit without a fight. She revels in her nudity.


Making the best of things

My five-year-old was wheezily building sandcastles because, despite her terrible cough, she was determined to fulfill all of her vacation plans. The little one — whom we had thought to be fearless — was terrified by the waves. So up and down the boardwalk we strolled, scuffing through the sand and noticing the little things, like bottle caps in sand dunes.I found myself thinking, with a laugh, “Well, in a few years, this will be ‘the vacation when Michele had pneumonia, and Norah was a Siren for bees, and I spent much of my time looking through the cracks of a boardwalk.'”

We did lots of other things — we saw dolphins swimming, we hiked in one of the most beautiful state parks on the East Coast, and, most importantly, we spent lots of time with my sister-in-law and her family, who live too far away for us to visit regularly. But those unexpected incidents were foremost in my mind.

Bees like balloon prints

Bees like balloon prints

It occurred to me then that the moments of our lives that we hold on to are most often those moments that came unplanned and were unwanted. Because those are the moments that we relive — and retell — over the years.

So much of life is in the telling — sharing our stories about the events that shape us. The good times are priceless in their own way; they bring us joy as they occur. But the challenging times, the unexpected incidents — the rainstorms, the lost luggage, the massively bad days — they make us reflect. They take us outside of ourselves and, in reliving those experiences, they open us up to a greater appreciation of the humor we can find in our own foibles and moments of distress.

We really are “all just stories in the end.*” It’s how we interpret those stories and how we share them with others that make them great.


“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best.” Dr. Who

*I’m only a budding Whovian, since I have just now started to watch the show, but I’d like to thank my friend Amanda at Bluestocking Rambles whose Facebook posts got me interested. My dad, too, since I remember the show from my childhood because of him.

Of Cabbages and Kings

Nearly six years ago my cousin and I became pregnant at virtually the same time with our first children. We had been best friends — sisters, almost — since I was adopted into our family when I was six weeks old and she was seven months old. By the time we were married, we had been together through life’s most important moments, from slumber parties in my basement, to those first awkward preteen dances, to the deaths of my mom and her dad of cancer. She was the maid of honor at my wedding, just like I was at hers. So embarking on motherhood together seemed only natural.

When we found out we were pregnant, we starting talking daily, by email and by phone, sharing every detail of that miraculous new experience just like we had shared everything else from the time we were babies.

Mostly we talked about digestion and bladder control. We talked a lot about our bellies, gleefully marking their progress as they inflated into cute little bumps, then observing with mutual dismay and trepidation as those bumps began to spread in all directions, taking over our bodies and, in many ways, our identities. When we weren’t focused on the gross underpinnings of pregnancy we touched on the deeper stuff, like the terrible, overwhelming responsibility we were taking on and our dreams for the beautiful, brilliant, powerful girls we hoped to raise.

Our daughters were born 15 hours apart. Mine came in the evening, and hers came the following morning. Our conversations continued, but we stopped talking about our bodies and started talking about our babies. The topic we discussed the most was still digestion, but not our own. We called each other on the phone every single morning between 9:00 and 9:15, and it was because of those phone calls that we made it through our first year of motherhood.

The things we talked about were things that women have talked about for as long as we could communicate with one another. We had no earth-shattering insights. Our pregnancy-era emails may have provided a few NSA agents with a little amusement — and probably some measure of disgust — but beyond that our conversations contributed little to the enlightenment of humanity. In a word, they were mundane.

Except that they weren’t. For us, those conversations were life-changing. They deepened old bonds, which had been created before we were even aware of ourselves as individuals, and formed new ones. Our conversations filled in spaces that we didn’t even know we had. They may not have elevated humanity, but they elevated us.

And as I became aware of those newly-filled spaces, a thought that had been lingering in the back of my mind for many years came to the forefront: when women come together, without fear or self doubt or competition getting in the way, we connect. We empower one another, not just to do amazing things, but to be more complete versions of ourselves. When we are listening to each other, we have the ability to cross vast divides to meet each other in fellow feeling. We are strengthened and improved through each other. And more importantly, we accomplish these things with no special effort, through our ordinary, every day conversations.

So every conversation we have with one another, whether it be about our greatest hopes and deepest fears or about the contents of our children’s diapers, we are supporting, affirming, changing each other.

Not so mundane after all, I suppose.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”*

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
*For my literary-minded readers — yes, I am taking liberties with this quote.