I finished reading a beautiful and powerful book last night. It’s called Out of Grief, Singing, and was written by Charlene Diehl, who is a poet and also a friend and mentor. It is a difficult book to read, in some ways, because it is about a mother experiencing something no parent wants to imagine: the death of her child. But it is not as difficult to read as you might imagine before opening its pages. You only need to be prepared to be moved profoundly and deeply as you follow this mother on her journey out of grief, singing. I started reading the book in an airport, which I cannot recommend unless you are comfortable sobbing in public. I finished it in the privacy of my own bedroom, and I let the tears flow freely.
In a sense, the book is about the grieving we do in public and in private — the ways in which we are permitted to welcome grief (or not) into our daily interactions, and the discomfort (or fear) that many of us feel when we hear about someone else’s experience with death and loss. I’ve been thinking about the book all morning. I’ve been thinking how I’ve felt awkward and anxious about approaching someone who has suffered a profound loss. I’ve felt at a loss myself. At a loss for words, or actions. The people who help Charlene on her journey show love, compassion, patience. They don’t tell her what she’s feeling or what she’s supposed to be feeling, but honour where she is. They don’t pretend nothing has happened. They are open to her story. They are open to her daughter’s existence, and to the fact that her daughter lived and died.
That may sound really obvious, but I think it is not.
The greatest hurt seems to come from strangers who make assumptions, and so many assumptions are made about women of childbearing age; I know I’ve made thoughtless assumptions myself. Is this your first baby? is maybe not the best question to ask the pregnant woman standing behind you in line at the grocery store. Or, be aware that you may be expounding on the wonders of natural childbirth to a woman who has delivered prematurely, her baby kept alive by machines: and in your ignorance that you are suggesting that this woman has done something wrong, as if she had choice in the matter. Know that your childless neighbours may or may not have chosen to be childless; or that they may have suffered losses, that they may be parents without living children. Know that not everyone gets to choose their story. Know that people’s experiences are not all the same.
This is profoundly hopeful book, full of grace.
Charlene’s two living children, born after the death of their sister, hold her in their lives in ways that are completely natural. The older sister they never knew is present in their family. In the book, Charlene relates how her son says that his older sister is there whenever he has a feeling that surprises him, or that he can’t know — much like he can’t know this sister, yet she is mysterious and present.
me and Charlene in Winnipeg earlier this fall
Charlene was my professor that November many years ago when she went into early labour. I remember the shock of hearing the news, and hearing, less than a week later, that the baby girl had died. I was twenty, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to respond. I signed a card that someone more thoughtful than me bought and sent on behalf of our class. I never thought to visit. I think I would have imagined it an imposition. I think, also, that it’s okay to be where we’re at, and I wasn’t in a place where I could have been helpful. We aren’t, always, are we.
I hope I’m somewhere else now. I hope, if called upon, that I could be like the friend who listens to Charlene’s story over and over again, and because she is present and listening, is able to reflect back to Charlene that her story is not repetitive, nor is it a trap, but it is ever-changing, changing with Charlene as she moves through that long first winter after the death of her daughter.
I don’t know why the book has come into my life now, but it came and I am glad for it. Thank you, Charlene.
Big sister, little brother. Fooey is helping CJ read the book he brought home from nursery school. This morning, I am thinking about siblngs. Brothers and sisters. It’s fitting the kids are in pajamas in this photo, because I’m also thinking about late nights and being up past my bedtime.
Here are some other siblings of whom I’m awfully fond (and proud). They belong to me. On Thursday, two of my brothers, and my sister, who make up the band Kidstreet, launched their debut album. Of course, I was there on the dance floor to celebrate. (That was late night number one.) **Listen to their album on soundcloud, or buy their album on iTunes.
I am so proud of them for working together all these years, song-writing together, travelling together, performing together. Not all siblings could pull that off; in fact, I’m pretty sure they’re in the minority. All five of us are pretty close, as it happens, and I don’t take that for granted, not at all.
And I wish the same for the batch that Kevin and I have created, and for another brother/sister team who came into being just last night.
Because last night was late night number two. Last night, the stars aligned (they really did; it was dark and rainy and cloudy, but I’m positive about those stars). The stars aligned, and I drove to Toronto to be with friends who were about to become parents for the second time. Especially amazing is that I’d been present at the birth of their first child, too. So, last night, I got to see a little brother being born, and I remembered his big sister being born almost exactly two years ago. Just think about how her world has shifted this morning. She might not like it for the first little while, but she’s going to love that little brother. I just know it. And he’s going to love her right back.
I drove home in the middle of the night (still raining), filled with gratitude. Thankful for the moments when I see my kids helping each other out. Thankful for my own joyfully creative siblings. And thankful for friends who welcomed me — not once, but twice — to be a part of their birthing experience.
Now for a little nap, perhaps …
Thinking about commitment today. It has been a week since I last ran or went to a yoga class … the longest stretch in this past year.
It’s been a busy seven days. I even got my hair cut early Saturday morning, and glammed up for a party on Saturday night. And just to bump life up into an extra level of exciting, on Sunday/Monday, I was honoured to doula at a birth: friends from the neighbourhood. Like most babies I’ve met, this little guy decided to arrive in the wee hours before dawn. I was home in time for a Thanksgiving dinner, but not home in time to have to cook the turkey. Kevin’s rookie attempt was delicious, and we feasted for what seemed like an entire afternoon. Thanksgiving might possibly be my favourite holiday: please pass the gravy, thank you! But I woke up yesterday morning with a scratchy voice, which is no better and perhaps worse this morning. Are you hearing all of my excuses in this post? All of the logical reasons that have conspired against a week’s worth of exercise? Oh, there’s one more. I am also getting treatment for a shoulder injury that hasn’t budged for two months. Truthfully, though, during my spurts of inspiration, none of the above would be enough to stop me.
Which is why I am thinking about commitment. Is this dip in energy temporary? I believe that it is. I will get back to yoga and running as soon as I’ve gotten past tired. Real tired. (Or would yoga and running help me get past tired? There’s that to consider too). There are other commitments, too, perhaps more ascendant right now, like simultaneous plot-lines that arc and fall in a novel. Plot-line a) triathlon project (taking a cold-weather nose dive). Plot-line b) writing/editing a book (orange level priority). Plot-line c) children (always, pervasive, distracting, the core of my story). Plot-line d) side projects like doula’ing and photography (hanging in there; daily photos are easy to take; doula opportunities don’t come often, and are richly rewarding when they do). Plot-line e) health (so critical, yet unpredictable; make hay while the sun shines).
I’m off to make some ginger/garlic cold-fighting brew. And to write. Because the house is quiet this morning, and I am alone with my thoughts.
So … we took a hasty, six-hour road trip, plagued by Easter traffic and stomach woes (you don’t want to know more), that was nothing short of blessed with wonder and luck. We arrived late on Thursday, not sure whether Kev’s sister was near labour, or whether we might have headed out too soon, and by Friday aft, when I saw her, I thought …. hmm, I think this is going to come together after all. Around 7 that evening, her partner called to say: Come over! Midwife arrived! Yes, I was honoured to be part of the birth, serving as doula as well as auntie-to-be. We transferred to hospital early on, the daddy-to-be negotiating country roads with an impressive lack of panic, and labour progressed beautifully. Labouring women fill the room with bravery and courage and strength, and my sister-in-law was calm and focused and when called upon for a last-minute miracle, delivered. Literally. Our family’s new nephew and first cousin arrived at 1:26 in the morning, with loads of black hair and good wail.
We are home again, alive with love and excitement and pride.
Nope, that’s not Apple-Apple striding ahead out in front, in her very first running race ever; there she is, that very small figure most decidedly bringing up the rear. This was at the start of the 2.3 km race, and we had instructed her to pace herself. Which she did. “I was really exhausted because it was the farthest I’ve ever run, but when I saw the finish line I felt so excited that I forgot that my body was so exhausted and I sprinted as fast as I could!” She came in sixth in a field of about twelve seven-year-olds; interestingly, she will run in the same field next year, as she’s still only six. (But there is no six-year-old category). Albus–also pacing himself–also headed out in dead last, then worked his way somewhere closer to mid-pack, at 41st. There was some debate about the size of his field. Suffice it to say, he felt supremely pleased with his performance. And the parents were equally pleased.
This was a Kevin-in-charge event, and I received all reports via texts, as I was on my way to class. It was called a “Fun Run,” and Kevin and the kids were under the misapprehension that it would involve a jog around another school with their running club (or something of the sort), when instead it was a mini-cross-country meet, with loads of kids from other local schools, loud music playing, coaches readying their charges, nervous excitement, wearing your school’s shirt. Kevin said even if he’d known it was a cross-country meet, it wouldn’t have made a difference, because in his experience (rural living), cross country meets only involved, at most, fifty kids total.
Next time, we’ll dress the children in race-appropriate clothing. Apple-Apple was wearing a button-up shirt, for example. This is what happens when we co-parent. But it’s small stuff compared to the overall payoff, which, this fall, has meant that I get to say “yes” to more opportunities.
This past week, I was fortunate enough to doula at another birth, this time a friend’s–in fact, my first friend-birth (the others were people not known to me previously). It was, as it has been on each occasion, a revelatory experience, a true gift, the kind of experience that doesn’t translate easily into words–even for me. I drove home thinking, I must do this again, how can I do this again? I’m focussing my research paper on midwifery, generally, and have been reading a variety of texts, including a manual from 1671 written by a midwife; for some reason, this subject remains deeply interesting to me. I know this isn’t the case with a lot of topics, so it feels like I’ve struck on something that resonates core-deep. If I were to pursue a doctorate now, I suspect it would relate to midwifery in some fundamental way. But I don’t think doctorate is where this interest will take me. I can’t see the destination clearly. Maybe I don’t need one right now; maybe this journey, this process, this research and continuing hands-on experience is enough.
My other great pleasure this fall has been a renewed appreciation for writing. (Though it’s been almost entirely non-fiction. Hmm).
Speaking of writing (though in this case, writing fiction), I’ve just discovered that The New Quarterly has posted a sneak preview
of their upcoming, soon-to-be-available fall edition, featuring my Juliet stories. Take a look! Those are my cows on the beach on the front!
Oh, and here’s the info
on the Oct. 22nd reading related to those stories, though, yikes! As soon as I saw it, my heart started to beat about twice as fast. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a reading …
I’m writing again. And that means that most spare scraps of the day are poured into that work … and not into, say, doing the dishes, prepping supper, photographing my adorable children, or blogging. Gee, I still dislike that term. But can’t think of a better one.
Saturday, so we arose late, hoping CJ would sleep in (he did, a bit, following a just-before-seven nurse), and that the other children would go downstairs and play together (they did), and that they would FEED themselves. They didn’t. Inevitably, hunger arrived, wasn’t addressed, and led to an argument between Fooey (age four) and Albus (age eight). Over Duplo. Apple-Apple, meantime, has been in the position pictured above since waking this morning, save for a brief breakfast out of bed. It is now almost eleven. She’s reading the Harry Potter series at a rate of about a book per week, and is already on book three. Surely there is poetic justice in me having a daughter who cannot remove herself from a book–I get to understand first-hand how difficult that can be to watch. I fight the urge to jump up and down waving my arms while telling her: look at this wonderful world; don’t you want to go play road hockey with your brother?; wouldn’t you like to chat or something? But she’s lost in this other place. She doesn’t even blink.
“When you’re reading, it’s like you’re almost in another world, isn’t it, Mom? It’s almost like you’re a character in the book. And then when you close the book, the world disappears.”
Yup, like magic. I get it. I hope I’ll get there again, myself. I read all day long, but not in the same way. I skim the newspaper, dash through emails, scan other people’s blogs, troll through recipe books, I read aloud to the kids, process the endless stream of info that arrives in backpacks from school, lie in bed and savour a chapter or two in a personally chosen book before sleep arrives. Much of life revolves around text. Reading isn’t dead. But falling so deeply inside a book … that feels beyond my capacity to manage right now. There isn’t enough room, enough space in the day.
This morning began like most Saturday mornings. I didn’t get downstairs till almost 10, though I’d been up for several hours. I changed the sheets on four out of five beds (couldn’t budge Apple-Apple), put away bales of laundry, tidied. Experience tells me that, when working on a project, it is unwise to move to another section of the house, even for a brief errand, because another project/child/need will suck me in. Last night, Kevin and I spent about two hours, post-supper and post-dishwashing PUTTING AWAY TOYS. We worked in tandem, sorting, organizing, throwing away, moving methodically through drawers and bins and across swathes of strewn carpet. Maybe we have too many toys. Or too many toys with tiny bits. Because we have places to put everything; that’s not the problem. It’s just that everything seems to migrate, up and down, piled into baby buggies and baskets, dumped and dragged, carted and reorganized for the sake of some marvelous imaginary game that it would seem cruel and foolish not to allow. Their methods of cleaning up, though sometimes quite enthusiastically practiced, don’t match up with mine. Albus, for example, would happily organize his room according to his own ideas, and it would look “perfect” to him: there would be multiple piles stacked on dresser tops and in the middle of the floor; there would be a forest of containers, each with three or four items rattling about within. “But I like it this way, Mom!”
Made it downstairs. Have now breakfasted and self-caffeinated. Laundry is on the list, as is vacuuming. Unless I get called to doula at a birth! My friend is due–was due–this Thursday past. Every time the phone rings, Kevin looks at me and I look at him–is this it?
Do any of you have Sigg water bottles? If so, the company is doing a voluntary recall due to tests that showed their old liners were leaching a nasty chemical. This week, we replaced a family’s worth of rather battered bottles for pretty new ones, which have a different liner. Which will leach heaven knows what, but hey. Better than disposable. Blue Skies Yoga and Eco-Store
will exchange your bottles, no questions asked. That’s Apple-Apple’s brand-new ladybug bottle behind her in bed. Always hydrate while reading.