That Last Baby

sweet newborn norah

There is something bittersweet about a last baby.

When any baby arrives, you know that she – and no other – was the person your family needed. Each child of any family, no matter the number, adds a new dimension, filling a space that was empty. But your last baby completes your family. She draws the final line of the cube; she is the last missing piece.

And while there is joy – and a measure of relief — to be found in this completion of your unit there is also a feeling of loss. Each milestone your last baby passes is the last milestone your family passes. Knowing this brings you a constant, often irritating, urge to feel the fullness of your time with your child: to burn the magical moments into your memory so that you never lose them.

On the other hand, that same urge to brand moments into your brain is also there when you are waking up every hour to nurse that last baby for seemingly endless months. It helps you “treasure” those less pleasant moments, like when that last baby turns two and finds the Sharpie you thought you hid, or when she turns three and you are carrying her kicking and screaming out of a store. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing you will never have to buy diapers again.

*  *  *

Today, my last baby turns five and the yearning to be able to bring back her babyhood, to revive the time when I was everything to her has been strong.

But I’m not giving in to it. Because this last baby of mine is becoming a person I want to know better. The depth and beauty of her personality are just beginning to show.

norah 5 post

She has spirit and charm and an irresistible spark of impishness. Her voice is cartoonishly cute: sweet, with a hint of rasp, and she uses it all the time. She notices things that other people don’t. She craves the comfort of her parents’ arms, and she hugs her sister with crushing love. She does nothing by halves. She is kind and curious and spectacularly bright. She growls when she is angry. She has brilliant blue eyes, but it’s in her smile that you can see her soul.

She is my last baby, and today she is five. In a few short months, she will start kindergarten, where the path to independence begins. The heartstring connecting us will stretch, steadily, irreversibly, as she comes into herself.

The urge to etch moments into my memory won’t go away. I don’t want it to. There are years of last moments — precious and painful and irritating and fun – ahead of us.

norah horse 2

What Are 24 Years?

For the last 23 years, on January 6th, I have written. I’ve written journal entries, poems (some good, some terrible), letters, and, more recently, posts on social media.

I started writing when I passed that most challenging of milestones, the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Writing has always been my way of processing emotions that are bigger than I am, and back then, it was the only resource I had to absorb the excesses of my grief.

So I am writing again today, because I have to.  I’m not about to break a tradition that I have kept up for more than two-thirds of my lifetime. But also, even after 24 years, the grief of losing my mother is still bigger than I am, and I still struggle to process the meaning of what I lost so long ago.

* * *

When you lose someone you love early in life, you grow up measuring your time on earth based on how far removed you are from the loss of that person. In my early 20’s, I reached the point where I had spent half of my life without my mother. Two years ago, it was two-thirds of my life. And in 10 years, three-quarters of my life with have been lived without my mom.

And yet, after all this time, with so many more years under my belt without her than with her, I still miss her. I still miss her so much that it can be hard to understand how it is possible to long for someone who has been gone from your life several times longer than she was a part of it. It can be hard to understand how you can miss the presence of a person whose presence you barely remember.

But I do miss her. I do wish she was still a part of my life. My mom was amazing in so many ways. She loved generously, she fought bravely, and she was always there — even when she was hurting, even when she was dying. She never let cancer steal the life she was determined to provide for her family. Even in the end, when it was so clear that her body was ready to rest, she still held on until she just couldn’t hold on any longer.

She didn’t deserve to die, and we didn’t deserve to lose her. It breaks my heart that with every passing year I grow farther away from the time when I had her. It breaks my heart to think about how much I have forgotten and what I will never have.

Losing a parent at a very young age means that you spend the majority of your life as a person who has lost a part of herself. You become motherless — or fatherless, or sisterless, or brotherless — in your very definition of yourself. And the child that you were when you lost  that person becomes a permanent segment of your soul as well. It’s impossible to let go of the part of you that once had what you so deeply miss.

That’s not to say that you don’t grow up, or mature, or come to grips with your grief. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience or appreciate the joys and the richness your life brings you. You do grow up. I have grown up, and my life so far has been good. Really, really good.

But the 11-year-old girl who lost more than she thought she could ever regain is still with me. And the adult who has lived without for so long still grieves the emptiness.

Twenty-four years is everything and it is nothing.

* * *

FullSizeRender (1)

Mom loved giraffes.

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

And she adored her children.

And she adored her children.

My Two Moms

The other day in the grocery store, my daughter asked me to tell her, again, how it is that I have two moms. This question is hard to explain to a six-year-old even in the best of circumstances. But in an extremely crowded Wegman’s on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, while trying to maneuver a cart and a child through the turkey aisle, it was damn near impossible. But still, I endeavored.

In what was probably the most crowded location in our entire town at that particular moment, I stopped to explain one of the most complicated aspects of my existence.

“The mommy who carried me in her belly, your Nana,” I told her “was too young to take care of a baby. And the mommy who raised me, Grandma Michele, who is in heaven, was old enough to take care of me, but she couldn’t have babies of her own. So your Nana gave me to your Grandma and Grandpa, so that they could take care of me instead. But they all loved me very much.”

That story is about as deep as you can go with an elementary schooler. But even in the midst of the chaos and my own distraction, I was very aware of what I was leaving out.

I didn’t mention how hard I always knew it was for the woman who gave birth to me to have had to let me go. I didn’t tell her how the only time I came close to crying right after she was born was when I thought about what it would have felt like if I’d had to give her up to be raised by another woman.

I couldn’t tell her how, although I always saw my birth mother as a hero, there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder how she could possibly have left me behind. And I couldn’t tell her how, despite the incredible  love I have for the family I know as my own, I still wondered — just sometimes —  what it would have been like to be a part of a family of people who were related to me by blood.

I couldn’t tell her how fiercely angry I feel when people suggest that the mother who made me her own wasn’t my “real” mom. And I couldn’t explain how the joy I felt when I met the mother I’d lost at birth didn’t lessen the grief I will always feel for the mother I lost forever.

I couldn’t explain how incredibly fortunate I felt when the mother who gave me life was one of the first people to meet my daughter after her own birth. And I couldn’t explain how much it sometimes breaks my heart to see the genetic stamp of my adoptive mother on my cousin’s kids and not my own.

And I don’t think I will ever be able to explain to her how, even though I have been blessed with the love of two mothers, there have been moments in my life when I have felt motherless.

There is so much that I can’t explain to my children right now about the reality of my family history. Adoption stories are always complicated, and the fact that I lost the mother who raised me just muddles things further.

But in spite of the complications, it is a story I like to tell, and one that I think is beautiful.

Because even though there is so much I can’t explain, there is so much more that I won’t have to explain.

I won’t have to explain how aware and deeply appreciative I am of the love my mothers had for me and of the sacrifices they both made on my behalf. Because those gifts, which came to me doubled, are now mine to grow and to give to my own children.

I won’t have to explain that family is so much more than sharing a genetic bond, because by the time they understand what it means to be related by blood, they will already know how little those ties matter when it comes to love.

And I won’t have to explain how much love is capable of overcoming, how time and distance and loss and sacrifice only make it more powerful, because the one thing that is clear from my story is that love was behind it all.

This is love.

This is love.

* * *

November is National Adoption Month. Although I tend to shy away from Awareness months in general, I’m glad adoption is something people are talking about.

I have heard people describe adoption as something that always comes from loss. And in a sense, this is undeniably true. People who are adopting are often, though not always, doing so because they cannot have a child any other way. And people who are giving away a child are always losing a part of themselves. Adoption is not an easy option.

But adoption is also a gift of love, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t always the best choice, but when it is, adoption enriches the lives of everyone it touches and it creates a legacy that lasts for generations.

* * *

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Above all, as I am every year, I am thankful for the story of how I came to be, for where I was planted, and especially for the love that made me who I am.

And if anyone who is contemplating adoption reads this, let me share one final story with you, one that my grandmother told me many times over the years.

My grandmother had a terrible time when she was in labor with my father. The birth was so difficult, in fact, that her doctors told her she would probably die if she tried to have another child. She was devastated because she’d always wanted at least four children. So she asked my grandfather if he would consider adopting. He said no, because he just couldn’t fathom being able to love a child that wasn’t his own, especially after having a child that was.

30-some years later, after my parents had adopted me as a six-week-old infant, my grandmother came across my grandfather holding me. She used to say that he looked up from me to her and said, with awe in his voice, that he couldn’t imagine loving anyone more than he loved that baby in his arms.

Adoption is easier than you think it might be.

 

 

 

The Future is in Good Hands

A few weeks into this school year, my first-grader came home talking about a boy. It was a boy she had never mentioned to me before, and she told me that she loved him.  Before long, every story she brought home from her day seemed to involve Daniel* in some way.

“Mommy,” my daughter would tell me, “Daniel is new and he is just sooo cute. I sat next to him at lunch today.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel loves Sponge Bob. It’s his favorite thing in the whole world. I’m going to draw him one and give it to him tomorrow.”

Or, “Mommy, sometimes Daniel has a hard time following the rules during recess, so I help him”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel has the cutest smile.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel is so lucky because he gets to have a teacher to play with him all the time.”

I was a bit bemused by her passion for Daniel.  As I have mentioned before, she already has a fiance, a backup fiance, and a back-up back-up fiance. She also has a best friend at school, who is the Diana to her Anne. And although she talks frequently about all of her friends, never before had one person dominated so many of our extracurricular conversations.

* * *

Then one day I finally met Daniel, the boy I thought I had come to know so well. It was during pick-up after school , which is always a crowded time of day. My daughter pointed toward the building and said, “Mommy, look! There’s Daniel! Isn’t he so cute?!” Looking around the group of children, I saw a blonde boy with a red shirt near the place she had indicated. I waved, and said hi, but my daughter just laughed. No, she told me, Daniel was the boy next to the building, who was holding his teacher’s hand.

And in that moment, I realized two things: First, that Daniel has Down Syndrome. And second, that my daughter has no clue.

My daughter has no idea — none — that there are many people in this world who view Daniel as being different, or slow, or limited. To her, Daniel is a boy who loves Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo, the one child in her entire class shorter than she is, the kid with the magnificent smile.

I don’t think I have ever been more in love with my daughter than I was in the moment when I had that realization, because it was such a powerful indication of the person she fundamentally is. When she was first diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I knew that she had superpowers. And one of those superpowers is the ability to see people without being distracted by the buzzing of social perceptions and prejudices that those of us who are neurotypical are so keen at picking up. My daughter sees what people show her, and in Daniel, she saw a friend.

* * *

The story could end here. It probably should, as far as good writing goes. But I went on a field trip with my daughter’s entire first grade class and I realized something else, something far more important, and I can’t end this post without mentioning it.

Those kids? They love Daniel. It’s not just my daughter, who is special in her own way. They all like him. They all wanted to spend time with him, to make him laugh, and to hold his hand and help him when he needed it. I can’t say whether they perceived Daniel’s differences or not. The point is, it didn’t matter. He was as much a part of their group identity as anyone else. And that, my friends, is beautiful.

My daughter doesn’t attend a private school. She isn’t in a rich school either — more than half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Our test scores aren’t fabulous, mainly because so many of our students are children of immigrants whose first exposure to English has been in their kindergarten classroom. GreatSchools.com rates us at a six out of ten.

But I don’t think I would want to send my daughter anywhere else. What her school offers goes far beyond what can be measured. There is a community there, an understanding that we are all in this together. She is being educated — and educated well — but more importantly, she and her classmates are learning what it means to be a part of a group, to value differences, and to respect what makes each of us unique.

So the next time you hear that our schools are in crisis, remember Daniel, and let yourself believe that the future is in good hands.

 

*We will call this young man Daniel, because I don’t like using real names, and Daniel is what I would have named a son if I’d had one.

 

Good Friday: A Broken Hallelujah

The first time I ever heard Jeff Buckley perform Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it became the song that runs through my head whenever I think of Good Friday. I know it’s not an intentionally Christian song, but music, like all art, is open to interpretation. And when I hear Jeff Buckley telling us so beautifully that “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”  I envision the passion of Christ.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I have been witness to imagery of Jesus’s infamous last walk and his subsequent crucifixion from my earliest childhood. I went to a Catholic college, where I studied medieval and renaissance art as part of our core requirements. And I have traveled to many very old churches and cathedrals in places like Spain and Portugal and France. I have seen some pretty gory Jesus pictures, and when I think of the Jesus of Good Friday, it’s not Happy Anglo Jesus that I see.

Not this Jesus.

Not this Jesus.

creepy jesus

Definitely not this Jesus.

It’s a beaten and broken Jesus that comes to mind, with a rope around his neck, bowed down under the weight of the cross  that will torture and kill him.  It’s not a pretty, or a comfortable image.

But it is an image of love. Whether you see Jesus as God, man, myth, or some combination thereof, the story of Good Friday is the same: it is the story of a good man who chooses to be vilified, shamed, beaten, tortured, and killed because he believes that in doing so, he is saving his people. That is love, and for me, Leonard Cohen describes this kind of love — what I think is real love — the best.

Because love isn’t a victory march. We like to think it is. We like to think it’s a feeling, and a triumphant and beautiful one at that. We like to see it as a power that overtakes us, and pulls us powerlessly but beatifically along its course. We like to think that love is something that exists in and of itself. It isn’t.

Love is a choice. When it is at its most powerful, love is raw and deliberate and difficult. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of his people. It can be as simple as a mother watching her child walk into kindergarten, even though her every instinct is urging her to hold that baby in her arms and never let go. It can be as mundane as a middle aged married couple mucking through the routine of their daily lives together, not because of romantic magic but because they chose one another and know that they belong together. And it can be as heartbreaking as a family holding the hands of a dying loved one, telling him that it is okay for him to let go, that they will survive without him, even though they can’t imagine how.

That first day of kindergarten is really hard!

That first day of kindergarten is a tough one.

I’m not trying to say that there isn’t joy in love — there is. That is where the hallelujah comes in. Because when we love, when we willingly let go of part of ourselves on behalf of someone else, we are unleashing the most glorious power in the universe.

I know that sounds like hyperbole. I am prone to exaggeration. But this time, I mean it. Because really, what else has kept the human race going through all messiness we have created? We have emerged from absolute horror time and time again, because there have always been people who have chosen love, time and time again. And for me, there is no greater symbol of this than the Jesus we see on Good Friday.

Love isn’t a victory march. It is a cold and broken hallelujah. And whenever I think of what happened today in my Church’s tradition, I know why I continue to believe. Easter may be the foundation of our theology, but Good Friday is the essence of what it means to be a Christian — and a human.

CrossLineDrawing

 * * *

And on a side note, you have to be a pretty talented composer to create a song that can remind a person (at least this person) of both Shrek and Jesus.

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

* * *

Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.

The Soldiers Marched to War

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter stood for the first time on a stage, facing an audience, with a role in a play and her very own line to speak:

And the soldiers marched to war.”

It wasn’t a real play, just a narrated reenactment of Disney’s Mulan, produced by a county summer camp program. I had watched her perform before, lined up with her nursery school friends, wearing paper bag Indian costumes, singing songs about turkeys and pilgrims.

But something about the sight of my little girl craning her neck to reach the standing microphone and then belting out her line, boldly and proudly, caused a body slam of confused emotions – pride, nostalgia, anxiety, relief, and that strange feeling of loss that parents can feel even when holding their child in their arms.

It was the same moiling brew of emotions that I have found myself tampering down at random moments ever since the summer began with full time kindergarten waiting for us at its end. So I was familiar with those feelings, but rather surprised by their force.

I can’t say exactly why that one moment of my daughter’s performance was so emotionally powerful. Perhaps it was simply the sight of her, singled out in the spotlight, so small, yet so confident and capable, on that big stage.

Perhaps it was the line itself. I tend to think in hyperbole, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare our school years to war. My own memories recall that time as a series of battles of who is in and who is out; who is good enough and who is somehow lacking. It’s a never-ending game of social King of the Hill, and my baby was about to march innocently into it.

***

Going into parenthood, we already know from our own experience that growing up is hard to do. What we don’t know is that it’s even harder when it is happening to our children.

They start out so small, so squishable, with curlicue bodies and necks that seem to be made of pipe cleaners. They don’t cry; they mewl. Everything they do – every yawn, every jerky kick, every sleepy half-smile – is miraculous. To feel their weight on your chest is to be branded forever with love and possessiveness for that person in that body. And forever means that even when you are ninety, and in a nursing home, and your sixty-year-old son is holding your hand, you are longing to hold the infant you bore decades before. I have that on my grandmother’s authority.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Yes, boys and girls, this is what your mother sees every time she looks at you.

Which is why hugging your five-year-old goodbye, and sending her off into an educational system that can nurture and teach, but can’t ensure that she always has a friend to sit next to at lunch, is such an overwhelmingly emotional thing for a mother to do. Not just because that world can be scary, but because entering it represents yet another step your child is taking away from you. Their independence is at the same time thrilling (and freeing!) and heartbreaking.

***

These are the feelings that have followed me throughout the past few months. They are the feelings that I know will overtake me tomorrow, when I drop my kindergartener off for her very first day of elementary school.

But over the last few days, as I have found myself thinking almost non-stop about this looming change in our lives, I have come to understand one other thing. That with every step our children take toward their own independence, they are both walking away from us, their parents, and walking toward us.

I will never hold my newly born first child in my arms again. Even though there are moments when I ache do so, that time has passed. But as my daughter becomes more independent, and as I become less necessary to her, she will become completely herself. And as she grows into the person she was created to become, I have the good fortune not only to witness her transformation, but also to meet her, as equals, at the other side of it.

So tomorrow, as I stifle my tears at the loss of this part of my baby girl’s childhood, I will be reminding myself that the only gift greater than the birth of a child is seeing that child shine in the light of her own fulfilled potential.