Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dear Dad

Grief defined by the dictionary: 
1. obsolete: grievance
2. a: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement  b: a cause of such suffering
3. a: an unfortunate outcome: disaster—used chiefly in the phrase come to grief  b: mishap, misadventure c: trouble, annoyance d: annoying or playful criticism

Grief defined by the daughter (aka me):
1. Not standing next to my father’s hospital bed.
2. Not saying, “I’m here” or “Goodbye.” 
3. Not witnessing his death with my eyes, my hands, my heart. 

Six years ago tomorrow I lost the father I never fully knew. One can argue that none of us can fully know anyone other than ourselves, and even that’s subject to debate. Still, it’s strange to miss somebody so much who disappointed you in many ways growing up, who in many ways was a stranger to you. 

Perhaps it’s a step or six stranger to speak as a stranger (to most in the room) at your own father’s funeral. I’m not one to draw attention to myself, I’m a true-blue introvert who works out of her home, and for the most part, relishes the solitude. I write because it helps me find peace, it helps me explore people, places and ideas, and it helps me locate the voice that often has trouble uttering so much as a whisper. 

You’ve probably guessed by now that public speaking is not something I take much joy in doing even in the hap-hap-happiest of celebrations. To get through it, I usually have to first write and second read. While I wish I could be Johnny On The Spot, I am Amie On The Computer Agonizing Over What to Type and Then Panicking Over What The Typed Words Will Sound Like Spilling Forth From My Lipstick-Free Lips. (Interesting tidbit that has nothing to do with funerals or public speaking: Wikipedia notes that ancient Mesopotamian women were possibly the first women to invent and wear lipstick. I like how it looks on others, but I just can’t wear the stuff without feeling like a clown. See: “I’m not one to draw attention to myself” above.) 

Ah well, what is life for if not to scare the living shit out of oneself as much as possible (or at least once in a good damn while)? I don’t recall if I attempted to wear lipstick that day, but I do remember shaking as I took to the “stage.” I shook out of fear and out of grief for the fact that I’d lost my dad and that my side of the family seemed like a cluster of outsiders at his funeral. 

Thank God for external hard drives because once upon a time I crashed and burned the computer that contained the letter I wrote, and yes, read aloud: 

Dear Dad, 

I speak for myself, as well as my brother and our entire family, when I say that I feel as if I’m collapsing from the inside out, like one of those casinos in Las Vegas you see on TV, imploding into clouds of dust. 

Or like those cups I’ve seen kids stack into pyramids. Their hands move with such speed and precision, building up and tearing down those cups in a dizzying blur. It’s the tearing down part that makes me think of you. Before they’re rebuilt, those cups have collapsed into a single cup.  

I guess I believe that we—and I mean everyone in this very room—are that single cup. We look to your spirit and our own personal faiths to compel us to rebuild the unimaginable: a world without you. 

Our life together had its ups and downs, but I hope you know how much I always wanted to focus on the ups, how much you meant to me. How much I loved you with my whole heart, even though I may have only shown you half or a quarter of that heart, the heart of your daughter. 

You were an expert in the auto business and an expert at making the people around you laugh. I will always remember how loud you used to clap in the car, overcome with the pumping music. As a young girl, I thought that your thunderous clapping was like Paul Bunyan bringing his palms together. My brother and I would cover our ears and laugh. We’d laugh, the three of us. 

Laughter is an extraordinary gift. It has the power to drive us through even the toughest of days and circumstances. Through our heartache, I hope that each of us can find a few precious moments to laugh, or at the very least, smile at the amazing and lasting memories that you alone—a father, a husband, a friend, a grandfather, an admired and talented businessman—allowed us to create.  

And I hope that wherever you are, you are smiling and laughing, too. You gave us your best and deserve nothing but the best in return.

We love you, now and forever.

I know this letter isn’t going to win any widespread acclaim or awards. As a writer, I’m always looking for improvement, for a better, more authentic way to turn a phrase. I think that’s what makes blogging so great though, the freedom to just put it out there, constructive criticism (or just plain criticism) be damned. Blogs, funerals, and the freedom to love or loathe the Oxford comma, right? In the end, who really cares if people judge you? I have so many regrets regarding the limited relationship I had with my dad, but one thing I don’t regret is reading the letter I wrote in front of that room of mostly strangers. 

I bought my last car, a German sedan in mid-life-crisis red, from my father six months before he died. He moved out of state when I was 12-years-old. He moved back when I was 32-years-old. This may seem immaterial, but I think dad was proudest of me at that very moment, when my husband and I signed the papers and drove off the lot in something he alone had guided and encouraged us to buy. The man who had worked in the auto business for 39 years had finally sold his daughter a brand new car. (Note: This is the license plate from that car.) 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Mother of All Guilt

To All The Muthers Out There (You Know What, You Non-Muthers Chime in, Too, Because I Could Use All The Help I Can Get. It Takes a Village, Blah, Blah, Blah):

I never used to be a particularly anxious person. Holy mole-y (mole-y, mole-y, mole-y) has that changed. Don’t get me wrong. There have been plenty of joys since the arrival of our sweet Ava, but the worry and guilt have made me break out in hives. I’m not kidding. I’m pretty sure I’m just getting over my second batch of hives. Okay, I’m not an MD or a PhD, so maybe it’s some other kind of rash that definitely does not involve meth use, but nevertheless, it itches like a son of a bitch. I’ve gone to many stupid lengths to relieve this itching. I’ve even spread Desitin on my chest and shoulders, and if you know anything about that white pasty shit, you know it stinks like, well, white pasty shit.

Could motherhood* be the mother of all guilt? I don’t know if it’s because I became a mother later in life (aka on the doorstep of 40) or if it’s because Ava is adopted or if it’s because I haven’t slept much in the last six weeks or if it’s because I fucked up my first attempt at roasting pumpkin seeds because you’re supposed to do things like roast goddamned pumpkin seeds when you have a child or if the constant questioning and handwringing are just par for the course and I better get used to shooting bogeys. (Alright, that metaphor doesn’t make sense. Plus, I don’t golf, but a good portion of my family does, so that last bit is for you, good portion of my family who golfs.) You beginning to think I could use some therapy yet?


I think most of us could use some therapy, and again, I’ve never felt like the cliched image of me draped on a couch talking to somebody with wire-rimmed glasses about my childhood traumas was something I needed, but here I am. I am the woman who isn’t sleeping, breaking out in hives and crying during Young & The Restless (in my defense, they “killed” a little kid on that show a couple weeks ago). Shit, I just admitted I sometimes watch daytime TV. Fuck, I also admitted I slathered myself in Desitin. (You’ll be happy to know I’ve since upgraded to Cortizone 10. It complements the Colace in my Old Lady Medicine Chest.)

Is Ava eating too much processed food? Should Ava be watching Sesame Street or Sports Center? Why does Ava still have that cough? Does Ava have ADHD? How am I going to talk to Ava about her adoption? How am I going to talk to Ava about race? Is Ava too obsessed with my iPad and my iPhone? Why the hell have I encouraged Ava, my 2-year-old, to play with my iPad and my iPhone? Why won’t Ava just fake brushing her own teeth to make me happy? Will Ava’s hair fall out if I don’t braid it? Is Ava going to feel abandoned? When should we start potty training with Ava and how do we go about facilitating said potty training (e.g., throw a potty party, reward with M & Ms [which I'm pretty sure are the #2 choking hazard], allow her to run around naked and squat for the weekend)? Should I let Ava get messy more? Am I letting Ava get too messy? Should I have dressed Ava up in a better Halloween costume than a ketchup packet I bought on Amazon? Will Ava’s birthmother come looking for her one day? Will Ava seek her birthmother one day? Are Pop-Tarts a decent source of fiber for Ava? 

Okay, so this is a slight exaggeration, but a lot of these questions are real questions I really question myself about.  In the end, this post may be a sad excuse to vent or whine or appeal for sympathy or wish for a trendier anything. Then again, I think that sums up many blogs out there in that beautiful, flawed mother we call the world wide web. 

For now, if you’ve got any sage advice re: assuaging (or living with) momma guilt, please feel free to share it. Just don’t sprinkle in any rosemary. Because, according to my husband, rosemary OVERWHELMS everything. And being OVERWHELMED by bread is the last thing this mother needs. 

*Dads: please don’t get your silky briefs [or insert hipper undies here] in a bunch. Let’s just say that when I say motherhood, I mean fatherhood, or wait, parenthood. Yeah, parenthood. PC enough for you?

Say Cheese and Carry On. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Sum of All That’s Beautiful

Let me open with an apology. First, to birthmothers, for presuming. Second, to readers, for withholding. I’m sorry if protecting their identities makes Birthmother A and Birthmother B seem inconsequential. As sterile it sounds, I assure you—these two women hold extraordinary meaning. 

The day we met Birthmother A, we brought her flowers, a bouquet of daisies (and wasn’t there some alstromeria?), and she told us she was having a girl, what I’d always wanted to have. At the agency, in a cramped room painted baby blue, we stayed on “safe” topics. We made eye contact. We made smalltalk. The social worker suggested we take Birthmother A to lunch, for a little more space. I chewed two or three bites from a dry club on wheat. Birthmother A ate breakfast. Pancakes? I know for certain she had a notepad with a list of questions. She asked us if we had much experience with kids. She asked how many years we’d tried to get pregnant. She did not ask for the bag of homemade muffins my husband bought for her as a special treat on our way out, but she did ask how we planned to get her back on her feet after the baby. 

It isn’t uncommon to provide compensation for birthmothers, to help them with food, shelter and medical bills until the baby arrives. This compensation was and is reasonable, and yet, the question still curdled. We told the social worker that when we were alone, Birthmother A had asked us about money. Was this standard operating procedure? The social worker said it was unusual for a birthmother to be so direct, but added it was nothing to worry about, so we buried the question beneath the anticipation of our little girl. 

After an ultrasound appointment, Birthmother A’s question resurfaced. Instead of pancakes, she ordered a hot turkey sandwich on white bread with gravy from a can. I remember that gravy, a synthetic shade of yellow-brown, but what was the color of her maternity top? Birthmother A kept touching her belly while her friend, the one she rented a room from, the one she insisted wasn’t the father, did the asking. He asked how we planned to get her back on her feet after the baby. 

The aunt of the friend of Birthmother A had a car. Nothing new. Nothing fancy. He didn’t mention the make or model, but said she’d sell it for three grand. No need to tell the agency, he said, and Birthmother A nodded. He promised they wouldn’t say anything. Whatever gifts we provided would stay between us and the walls of Russ’, a family restaurant since 1934. 

When we paid the tab and left, I assumed terrible, probably false assumptions. I assumed our certified preowned BMW had made Birthmother A and her friend see green. I assumed that Birthmother A didn’t have an abusive husband, that her five other children didn’t exist, that her friend was some kind of pimp, that she invited us to go to the ultrasound before Russ’ on purpose, that for her, the adoption was just a transaction. 

We cut the relationship with Birthmother A not long after Russ’. Trust, a tightrope in even the most straightforward of adoptions, had severed. 

I cannot fully comprehend the struggle of contemplating giving up a child, just as those who readily conceive cannot fully comprehend the struggle of those who can’t make the stick turn blue. “Unless you’ve walked in a birthmother’s shoes...” Adoptive parents are taught this from the onset, they’re encouraged to reserve judgment, to respect the birthmother’s (and in rare cases, the birthfather’s) boundaries and wishes. I’m ashamed of judging Birthmother A, but I did not, and do not, regret parting ways. The regret came with owning our abandonment of her unborn child, our little girl. 

The breakup felt like another failure, only we played a starring role in the loss. My husband and I chose to end the relationship, and therefore, terminate the pregnancy. Our family and friends supported our decision, but the thoughts of abandonment lingered. Birthmother A had confided she had five kids in foster care. What would happen to the baby she hoped we’d name for the flower of innocence? 

It isn’t likely we’ll ever know what happened to Lily, if that’s even her name. Birthmother A, who refused to disclose critical details of her life, ceased all communication with our agency. She may have kept Lily. She may have contacted another adoption agency. She may have sold the baby, if selling a baby is something that actually happens outside of made-for-TV movies. 

I ached for Lily over the days and weeks that followed. Strange to ache for a baby, since for me, infants had once been akin to aliens. In my twenties, the batteries of my biological clock stayed hidden in a drawer jammed with impractical lingerie. I had work to do, grad school to finish, love with my best friend to nurture. I had plenty of blessings and what I assumed (that word again) was the blessing of time—many years left to procreate. In my early thirties, I finally quit the pill. I figured, like my friends around that age figured, I’d be expecting in six months, a year, two years tops.  

Three years went by with no new arrivals. By thirty-four, we “tried” in earnest, with the aid of ovulation detectors and Clomid, and handy advice about stressing less and relaxing more. My husband wore boxers. I wore a pillow under my hips after sex. Elevation, after all, could lead to success! 

The trend of no baby continued. Then a particularly painful period resulted in the particularly painful diagnosis of endometriosis, a health condition that’s hard to spell, harder to pronounce and hardest to endure. Endometriosis can cause infertility, but its cause is unknown. The treatment can include surgery to remove any scar tissue and cysts, and to improve the likelihood of pregnancy. 

During my surgery, I have a cyst about the size of a grapefruit removed. I also lose my left ovary. Six days later, my father dies of an irregular heartbeat in an ER about an hour away from where I live. On the seventh day, when I’m breaking the news of his death to my side of family, it hits me: if I ever have any children, I will never get to introduce them to their maternal grandfather. They will never meet. 

The loss of a key part of my reproductive system is followed by the loss of my father is followed by the loss of my paternal grandmother is followed by the loss of our Labrador Retriever is followed by the loss of a pregnancy born of IVF is followed by the loss of trust in Birthmother A is followed by the loss of Lily. Another three years had gone by with the arrival of new, unprecedented grief.  

I lose weight. I lose sleep. I lose way too many tears, way too often in public places. I begin to lose faith in the idea of being a mother. 

On our mantel sits a frame that holds the Dalai Lama’s words: “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” Armed with skepticism, I placed it there at the beginning of our adoption journey. Despite our lack of closure with Birthmother A and the surrender of Lily, I leave the Dalai Lama’s words in their rightful place.  

Five months later a different baby is born. A healthy delivery. A Safe Delivery. A different, single question is asked. Yes? Or no? We’re given a handful of hours to decide if she’ll be ours and we’ll be hers. We decide. We tell our parents. We make a frenzied visit to Babies “R” Us for car seats and crib sheets and diapers and bottles and the ingenious innovation known as a onesie. Less than twenty-four hours later we drive to a hospital on the east side of the state. 

We did not bring her flowers. We did not take her to lunch. We did not buy her muffins or a car. We neither met her nor assumed anything about her.

We gave Birthmother B nothing and Birthmother B gave us everything. 

It's funny how regret can beget incredible opportunity. Without Birthmother A, we wouldn’t have found Birthmother B, or rather, she wouldn’t have found us. Birthmother A plus Birthmother B equals our wonderful stroke of luck. Some might call it shitty math, but for us, our one and only Ava is the sum of all that’s beautiful and buoyant. 

PS. Dear Ava, your mom struggles when writing nonfiction because she fears sounding like a sentimental sappity-sap. But she has no words to describe how thankful she is for your arrival in her life. She loves you and is the luckiest.