Surviving Joshua

I once spent four days with peanut butter in my hair and cabbage in my bra, while wearing a pair of overalls made for a husky little boy. It was a bad week. But when I think of that week now, a tiny little smile always shows up at the corner of my mouth, just the tiniest of smiles, because honestly, despite the grief that smothered me like a heavy, murderous blanket, the whole event also had an I Love Lucy quality to it. I was a sad Lucille Ball, shuffling around my weird little apartment in clothes meant for a child farmer, with my hair sticking up and the leaves of a cruciferous vegetable stuck to my boobs.

In July of 1998, my baby died in utero. I have to say it that way, “my baby died,” as part of my ongoing therapy assignment (I am my own therapist) for two reasons. First because it irrationally annoys me when people die and we say they were lost, like they went to Ikea and took hours finding their way out. (This is a real issue that we need to open a national dialog about at another time.) Second, because that’s what people always say when you have a miscarriage: she lost the baby. Again, a weird little semantic difference meant to sound softer, less painful than the truth, and more acceptable in public, but instead robs the person grieving of even getting to say the terrible thing that happened. Also, I did not have a miscarriage, I had a fully formed 30 week old baby boy with a name in there, and he died because the cord was in a knot and nobody knew it. He had blond hair that stuck straight up and a round face and he could wear clothes, so that was not a miscarriage. In some ways that would be  harder than what I went through; it is hard to fully grieve for something teeny-tiny, especially if you don’t know if it was a boy or girl and may not have named it and cannot really hold it. That would be harder for some people than what happened to me, I acknowledge that.

But that is not what happened to me, and this is my story, and if modern culture has taught me anything, it’s that when people tell their sob stories, you gotta butt out and let them blab and respect it. And then you have to talk a lot about their journey, and make a big deal out of the thing that happened even if it’s not a big deal. But this kind of is.

I was twenty-six, newly married, and living in an apartment right over a massive freeway. The apartment we were renting was not the apartment we were shown when we signed the lease. Whether this was deliberate deceit on the part of the shifty lady with crooked lip liner in the leasing office or some miscommunication due to the language barrier, we do not know, but we were shown a quiet two bedroom facing East, and when we went to move in, we were shown that our key was actually to a noisy, one bedroom directly over the Capitol Beltway. And the boiler room. Meaning that for the first six months of our marriage, we were feverish and shouting and sleep deprived. It was 88 degrees in the apartment, the noise of tractor-trailers whizzing by on 495 meant we couldn’t hear each other sometimes–our pillow talk was screaming–and drifting to sleep was like trying to sleep while hovering over the Jersey Turnpike.

We were both working full time and in grad school, we both had terrible commutes, and it turns out pregnancy makes me really, really sick, like Kate Middleton gets, only she gets to be pampered when she has it and I had to wake up at 5:30 and drive an old Corolla to Rockville Maryland to teach high school girls. (They were sweet and full of concern when I periodically puked in a trash can while explaining the importance of the Magna Carta.)

When I was six months pregnant, we’d only been married about seven months, but this baby was wanted. I had maternal instincts oozing out of every pore in my twenties: I stared at babies in restaurants and named them in my head, I teared up at adorable pampers commercials, I tried to take in stray animals whenever possible. I loved my husband and our cute little life, despite the horrible apartment and old cars and bad commutes and tight budget. So this baby was anticipated and talked about and yearned for, and the nursery was decorated with denim and gigantic sunflowers. (It was still the 90s.)

And one day at about eleven in the morning, on the day of a grad school final presentation, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in a couple days. I remember delivering my presentation anyway, in denial about my fear and hoping to feel the baby kick while I showed a powerpoint on Victorian realism. When it was over, the professor told me in front of everyone that the content was okay, but the delivery was a little dull, which she found “very disappointing.” I remember nodding and walking out, and that she called for me down the hallway but I kept walking, went straight to the doctor, alone, where he did an ultrasound. (I didn’t call my husband and tell him to meet me there, because if I was wrong, he’d lose time at work and I’d seem a little hysterical, and I wasn’t ready to believe I was right. Also, this was in the days before young married women made their husbands do every damn thing that has to do with child raising, including baby showers and routine OB GYN and pediatric visits, in the name of co-parenting, which I think is a stupid modern way of thinking of parenting, but that’s another article for another time.) I remember my own doctor wasn’t there, so I got the other guy, and I watched his kind face go from I’m just going to humor this worry-wart to Oh…crap… His eyes did a slow blink as his brain composed what he was going to have to tell me, and I knew. He told me it was a fluke; that I could still have other children. Unfortunately this well-meaning man chose these words to say to me: “You can try again, it’s going to be okay… we’ll get you a good one next time.”  I hope he heard the way that sounded coming out his mouth and never said that to anyone again. Ever.

I will spare you the details of the next forty-eight hours, and jump to the part where I had cabbage in my bra. But I will say this: I believe every women in the world needs either a mom or a sister or a best friend, preferably all three, but at least one of them. Because that is who you call when you are in shock or your grief is so acute that you cannot even speak and you are unable to move your limbs or function. You call the people who knew you when had braces and a crush on Ralph Macchio, the people who stayed with you when there was a really cool pool party but you had chicken pox, the people who encouraged you through that rough audition for the town musical when you were fourteen and sang Second Hand Rose and your voice cracked. I normally cringe at anything that smacks of girl power, it’s so corny and demeaning, to both women and men, but there is something to that sisterhood thing; that camaraderie in those movies about quilts and magnolias and traveling pants. There is something strong and real and tough and binding about moms and sisters and girlfriends, a bond like Navy Seals must have. So after I called my husband at work and broke him into a thousand pieces with my sobbing, I called my sister, who called my best friend, and I don’t remember anything else from that day.

I had to wait a couple days to deliver, because “the hospital schedule was real tight,” and I cried a river. I mean I literally got dehydrated and salt-deprived so I had to have an IV, and the little narrator in my head went “damn, that’s impressive.” And I will say that my sister became my hero all over again when she marched into my delivery room and took charge, insisting I get as much pain killer as I wanted, which for some reason they were being stingy with. Anything I wanted, my sister the Naval officer made it happen. And when I looked up at her and said, “I don’t think I can do this,” she leveled me with her navy blue eyes and said, “Yes. You can.” Because she knew the stupid way younger sisters believe older ones, having learned from convincing me I could lay an egg when I was five. And so I thought, “Oh, okay, I guess I can.”  

There was a funeral, and I am grateful to this day that there was. Since I was pretty much a zombie at the time, walking around with glazed eyes and only eating or showering when told to, I’d have skipped a funeral if someone had told me to. But my dad, still grieving for my mom (as was I, which is a whole other story), told me we must have a funeral, for my sake, and our kind, wonderful priest agreed. My husband had to go pick out a little coffin, a thing which I could not have done and still could not ever do, for any child, ever. But he is a Marine, so he put on his battle face and did it, and we found out it had already been paid for. By our church, meaning our priest called them up privately and said, “It’s on me,” as was the plain but lovely marble gravestone. Whatever we wanted it to say, we were to just tell the church and they took care of it.

Some things a person must do when someone has died are hard beyond hard, and associating them with a cost is repugnant–much less taking out a wallet and slapping down a credit card like you’re paying for a sweater or a cheeseburger–and so when the grieving person hears the phrase “it’s been taken care of,” it is a balm. That priest, who then gave a homily about how our little Joshua was  tiny like a sparrow, but beloved by us and by God more than sparrows or riches, and how even though he didn’t get to live on this earth he mattered so very much. He didn’t say God had a plan blah blah blah or even remind me that I’d see my son someday in Heaven, he must have known those platitudes are not especially comforting to a stunned, grieving parent. When your child has died and someone tells you God has a plan, you kind of want to say screw you, even though of course God does have a plan and probably disapproves of that phrase in general. (Be careful what you say to the bereft. When my mom–who happened to be gifted at sewing– died in an accident years before, a friend of the family told me “God needed an angel in Heaven to make clothes for all the other angels.” It was stupid–the creator of the universe couldn’t make some freaking robes himself? Did He have a factory up there? Were the wages good? And it was theologically unsound, since people do not become angels when they die. I had to cut her some slack, since she was grieving too, but when you are raw and someone tells you something stupid, it’s like lemon juice in a million paper cuts.) This priest, though, said my baby was small but he mattered, his life mattered as much as a king or a prince, and he was beloved by God and knew that we loved him. I want to find Father Stanley Krempa and thank this kind man who knew what to say, and what not to say.

But back to the cabbage.

When you have a baby and your body goes through the bizarre miracle that is producing another human, your milk comes in. Nobody thought to prepare me for this, not even a nurse. Maybe someone thought of it but didn’t have the heart to tell me. So when I woke up after that first night of sleep, it was bad enough to realize it wasn’t just a horrible dream, but I also discovered my boobs were the size and texture of cantaloupes. I got a lot of weird phone calls that day that would later strike me as funny: someone from the development office of the school I taught at, appointed to call and express sympathy for my loss and say something like “by the way we do hope you realize we cannot offer you your position back, we filled it, but maybe someday you can apply here again,” and I said thank you when what I thought was screw you; a nurse at the pediatricians’ office I had chosen for the baby, calling to say they deeply regretted my situation, and I said thank you when what I thought was you don’t even know me, and the obgyn who’d told me we’d get me a good one some day calling to ask how I was feeling. “Fine,” I told him, because I am a pleaser, “except I think there is milk or something in my boobs and I’m not sure what to do about that.” He got off the phone quickly.

It’s a catch 22, see, because if you “express” the milk with a machine, it’ll just come back like crazy, so you essentially have to wait it out, lugging around two leaky cannonballs. My doctor said one homeopathic remedy to dry up the milk is to put cabbage up against your breasts in your bra. He gave no real scientific reason for this, he even said there was no proof it would work, but he felt compelled to let me know about it, and since I was in horrible pain and my husband has the need to try to fix problems, even unfixable ones, I put cabbage leaves in my bra.  

Cabbage is itchy, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even taste good, not even when it’s served with bourbon chicken and fried rice, but it definitely doesn’t dry up milk in your boobs. So the physical pain I was in was considerable, and my clothes didn’t fit. Not even maternity clothes, which are big around the waist but not in the boobal area. What did fit were a pair of overalls my friend Aimee brought me, which belonged to one of her brothers but she wore all the time with a tight t-shirt. It was sort of a 90s, Jennifer Aniston look when she wore them but more of a fat-lesbian- construction worker when I did.

I wore those overalls for about four days, days I barely remember. My husband took off work for three of them, and I slept a lot; we took walks and went to see movies in the middle of the day. I craved peanut butter, for some reason, a food I normally dislike, and at some point on about the fourth day I got peanut butter on the counter, bent down to pick something up and banged my head on the counter, smearing my bangs with the peanut butter. I didn’t have the energy to wash it out, and a shower would have made the milk flow freely and negate the cabbage benefits, which I was still holding out hope for. There was a knock at the apartment door; a friend had stopped by to see how I was doing. Not a really great friend, but a well-meaning, well-dressed, wife of a colleague of my husband’s who “heard about my situation.” She was holding a casserole, as one does. Chicken, as it always is. I saw her look me up and down, take in the overalls, the huge boobs and wet spots down my shirt, something gooey in my hair, and the slippers. (And she didn’t even know about the cabbage.) I saw it register that she was dealing with a crazy person here, and I saw the effort it took to compose her face into cheerful sympathy instead of horror.

I said something, she said something. I don’t remember. She asked me what I needed and I said nothing. If’ I’d had other children, maybe somebody would have made a meal train, like they did years later when my husband got deployed. If I’d had surgery or was undergoing treatments, maybe somebody would have organized rides to doctors. But I was young and healthy and, though sad and jobless and a broken, slimy mess, I was essentially okay. Nothing really to be done. So a few days later when I got home and there was a small gift bag on my doorknob containing earrings, I thought it was a mistake. Two days later, a loaf of exquisite banana bread on the doormat, and a few days later, a scarf with small pink flowers and a sympathy card that said you are stronger than you know. I don’t even wear scarves, I look like I’m auditioning for Driving Miss Daisy when I wear scarves, but I love the look and feel of them and the point is, somebody got me a present. It continued for a couple of months.

I think it was the friend of a friend who gave me the earrings, possibly the older lady in the apartment upstairs who made the banana bread. I’m not sure, and they clearly didn’t want or need to be thanked. (Which just shows you, in the case of the well-dressed colleague’s wife, that people can be really good and nice, and you shouldn’t judge them for being decked out in Lilly Pulitzer and Gucci and looking like a human country club.) And I guess my point here seems to be that we should all give presents when something has gone wrong, but what I really mean is this: Give. Don’t judge, just give. Whatever. My sister gave the gift of bossiness when I needed her to in the delivery room, and in the weeks to come when she called to make sure I’d showered that day or got a sitter to come take me to lunch. Our priest gave funds for something we didn’t have the heart or to pay for, and the exact right words to say. My friend Aimee gave the gift of showing up with overalls and making me laugh–letting me laugh at how bad this thing was that I was going through. I wanted to laugh–it was ridiculous! The grief! So, so bad, and so close to the tragic loss of my mother (see, I couldn’t even type “death,” I said “loss” after complaining about the word) that it was funny in a dark way, and Aimee got that. And some people I will never be sure of gave me earrings and banana bread and a scarf, and the gifts were like tiny shots of an antibiotic to my sadness infection.

My point is that I hope I remember to give. I’m not naturally as good at it as some people, I think because raising four kids is a constant exercise in selflessness, but I forget to give to people who don’t live in my house. But it seems to me to be what we were put here for. And also this: grief can be funny. We feel badly about that, like noticing humor in tragedy makes us kind of wicked, kind of evil and disturbed. Our culture is so judgy now, you can’t react to anything the wrong way or you’re insensitive, even your own grief. But I say embrace it. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s doubly funny because it isn’t supposed to be, laugh harder. It’s okay. In everything there is a season, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes the seasons get all mixed up; it’s raining when there’s a blue sky, or we’re in a hurricane with the sun peeking in and surprising us all, and those are the healing moments. We should savor them.