Twins.

Dear Harvey, 

When I was a newly minted massage therapist in San Francisco, my friend called me to book a massage for clients of her’s whose baby had just died. He was a twin and while I remember next to no detail, I do believe he was only weeks old, was mistakenly dropped and was fine and then all the sudden wasn’t and died. 

I wasn’t yet thirty and I drove my table and supplies to their house and hauled it up a million stairs, as one does in San Francisco. I remember the husband sitting on the couch, the living twin being rocked in an infant car seat by his dad’s foot and a second, empty car seat sitting where the living room wall met the hallway.

I went into the bedroom and set my table up. The mom sat at the end of her bed and stared down at nothing. I did my best to match the somber, quiet, heavy tone of the apartment but I imagine I asked the questions I always asked of my clients, none of which would have applied here. I didn’t know this yet but this woman needed me to shut the fuck up and let her lay face down on the table and feel something else for an hour or so. I cringe at the thought that I might have asked them to fill out intake forms, that I might have asked if anything in their body was hurting, was there something they wanted to focus on. 

In a response that was unrelated to whatever my question was, the mom said, without lifting her eyes, “The worst thing has happened.” It was spoken as her truth, one that she didn’t quite believe and was trying out for size but that was ultimately and unforgivingly true nonetheless. A truth she hadn’t caught up to yet but also knew in her bones. I thought inside my head, and by the grace of god or some other small miracle, I didn’t say “well, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. You still have another baby.” (I now endearingly call this the “goldfish mentality”: the “at least you still have your other children” and the “you can always have another baby” comments that essentially equate another human, born from your very body to a flushed, forgotten and replaced goldfish.)

I got in my car after I gave them each a massage and charged them full price (cringe again) and I cried. I cried for them and for their baby and for their baby’s brother. I cried for myself because it was hard to be around them, in their apartment, touching their mourning bodies. I callled my mom and told her all about it and what a hard job it was for me and what a crazy life this is when terrible things like that can happen. And then we talked about other things as I drove across town to my own, as yet, dead-baby free apartment. 

-——————

As far as I can remember, Kira just showed up at our back door and set up her table in our basement and gave us both massages in the early weeks after you died. (She did not ask us to fill out forms or what we might want to focus on in ourbodies or even to pay. She cried with us and talked with us and was quiet with us and gave us 90 minutes or probably more of whatever “respite” is to the newly bereaved parent.) The first time she came,  I remember walking down into the basement and realizing that I was now that mother. I was now that mother. I was the mother who sat at the end of the bed in numbed shock and grief and told a twenty-nothing my truth that I couldn’t even begin comprehend and whose sacredness she certainly couldn’t be trusted with. I hadn’t thought of her in ages but every step I took down those stairs, the table coming into view from behind the angle of the stairwell wall, that whole afternoon she in the Mission district of San Francisco came back to me. I relived it and cringed and hoped I hadn’t made it worse for them and sent a silent message to her through the ether that I had now joined her tribe. As my heavy feet, body heart and mind descended, I thought: how could this be? How could it be me now? Why did I have to learn that the worst has, in fact, happened?

I miss you like crazy,

Mom

Somewhere.

Dear Harvey,

Sometimes I ask parents how old their kids are (because I have come that far in my grief journey) and sometimes they say “he is four”. Inevitably, I stop myself from saying, “My son is four, too!” because, of course, I must quickly follow that with “but he died” and people aren’t used to that. So I say “How nice.” or “What a fun age!” and we smile or chuckle together. Sometimes, I entertain the possibility of talking about you like you are alive. Pretending you didn’t die. How amazing for you to be alive like that, in someone’s mind.

Sometimes I am talking about something your sister is able or allowed to do and I stop myself from saying “But if it was Harvey, that would be a different story.” This impulse feels stranger to me than the first though it occurs to me in exactly the same fashion, easy and natural, unconscious almost. Like somehow I “know” you would be rambunctious or unable to be left alone to entertain yourself or not be as confident in your body as she is. Do I know something about you innately? Those cells of your floating, as they are, in my brain, whispering your secrets to my semi-consciousness. Maybe it is a mother’s wisdom? That inner, intuitive and mysterious connection we have with our children, knowing on some level what they need as individuals, what will work and not for them, how to best tend to them, maybe even the dead ones? Maybe I just imagine you’d be a rascal, energetic, mischevious because that’s how I think of little boys? Maybe it’s just purely nurture: what I have learned, a trick of the mind rather than a gift from it’s deepest recesses.

I don’t know. But I think of you and I imagine you and maybe you are here somewhere, more than just in my mind and heart and brain, more than just the tin of ashes on my closet shelf, what is left of your cells, save the corneas, heart valves and those you left inside me. Maybe you are somewhere. Maybe, as we talked about with the chaplain as we prepared for your funeral, energy just changes shape and you are showing up here in ways we don’t recognize. Or do, but just barely.

I love you, son. I am always here if you ever want to come back.

Love,

Mom

Sister.

Dear Harvey, 

The other day we were driving in the car and Vesta was talking about something she’d done. Referring to herself she ended,” …and that’s a pretty cool thing for a big sister”. And my heart broke. And my heart soared.

She and her best friend have marked this moving in together as the moment that their sisterhood begins. They have been waiting, with excitement and some trepidation, for this new iteration of their family to begin and the physical move into our new home was their threshold.

 Vesta is a foot shorter and six months older than O, so she is technically the “big” sister. Yours and hers. She comes into this identity for herself only with another living child. And the delay of that, because she has been a big sister for 4 years and because you are dead, breaks my heart all over again. And this pronouncement and whatever their whispered, private conversations that brought them to the choosing the day sounded like, caulked that very crack.

Just like so many (all?) circumstances in our lives, she has what I wanted for her but in completely different, un-imagined form. Made even more beautiful and precious for its unplannedness. A sister. Two sisters. A family.

We miss you like crazy. And, of its even possible, love you even more.

Love,

Mom

Home.

Dear Harvey,

The other day, my love leaned against the counter in our new, empty kitchen and I leaned into her and looked up at the empty, forest green space between the tan ceiling and the white cabinets and said out loud “How did my horrible life turn into this?”

It’s a good life and someone is missing.

I miss you.

Love,

Mom

Four.

Dear Harvey,

Now, you are four. Here are four things your mom has been thinking about. 

1. My dad has a friend who has two daughters, each lost a baby. Some time after you died, my dad asked him when his daughters felt better. He said it took about four years until they were anything like themselves again. I scoffed, at whatever point my dad told me this, thinking I would never feel remotely like myself again and certainly not “better”. But here I am. And this anniversary is markedly different. I do feel better and I am a better “me” even. I prefer me now to who I was before you died.

2. I was talking to my best friend in San Francisco and she said, “Wow. After all you’ve been through in the past several years. . . now you are in love and buying a house together. . . Are you happy?”. I scoffed again, “No!” And then I stumbled. “Well, sometimes, I mean, sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m frustrated.” Tripping over myself, “I mean, it’s all relative, right? Compared to where I’ve been I’m happy. I mean, I never thought I’d feel like this again. But, I don’t know . . .we’ve all got somethin, I guess.” I realized after we hung up that I fumbled around while she patiently listened because I’m not trying to be happy anymore. I’m not trying to get somewhere. I’m not trying to find the puzzle pieces of an American life and put them together. I am stumbling and I’m also cobbling. I put things down on the table that don’t really fit and seeing if I might find a way to make them. I’m looking at my pieces in different angles and with new eyes. The path of college, career, home, marriage, children didn’t really work out for me. I don’t have the right pieces for that anymore and, actually never did, when I think of it. I stumbled into love. I found my person by mistake and with exceedingly poor timing. But we’re doing it anyway. We can just about afford this house and it needs work that we’ll eventually do with “car tires and chicken wire” as Ani Difranco croons, with a wing and a prayer. We’re going to cobble together a new little family. Figure out how to stepparent and co-parent and probably fuck it up left and right, like we all do. Or, at least us, interesting ones. But I have great love now. I have rebuilt trust and it has been earned. (Hard earned, poor woman!) And I’m going to go with that. Knowing I have my person with me and we have our girls and the ones that are gone and we have kept going so far and we’ll just keep going. Am I happy? Yes, I’m happy. But I’m also whole now. And that is, at this place in my life, more important.

3. I was texting with your Auntie Jenn yesterday and we were talking about how awesome you are and how much you have changed and influenced us. I was so pleased and content inside myself after the storytelling night I hosted on your anniversary and she and I spoke so broadly and poetically about you, because that’s how far we have come. Somehow, though, as I stood in the kitchen alone but “with” my best friend, I was overcome with longing for you. I texted her, rather desperately, that I wished you were here and that I wished I didn’t have any of the gifts and lessons I’ve received from your death and that I’d trade it all in a hot second to have you back. She wrote back and said she would too in a heart beat. She said she often “thinks about what some alternate universe in which he lives a healthy, long and totally non descript life”. And I felt the truth of that right to my very bones. To the unacknowledged value of a healthy, long and totally non-descript life. We strive to be happy and successful and all the things but looking at the alternative that I have now, this life without you, that sounds like perfection to me. Nothing grand. Nothing special. Just life. Her statement also speaks to your impact on so many of us here, your family and many of my friends and community, who think of you and have been affected by your death and my expression of grief and how lovely it would be to not have any of that and just have a four year old boy instead. But we don’t and we can’t, so the meaning we have made individually and collectively of your life and death and our grief is the experience we now welcomely receive. Or at least receive and do our best with it.

4. I’m buying bunk beds, after all. But not because you are here and we have to squish both kids in one room. I’m buying a new house with my new family and we still don’t need to make any space or plans or  accommodations for you. Still. And always. Somehow, I’m still waiting for the end of this. But there isn’t one. I’ll always notice what I’m not doing for you, how you are not here, and wonder would it would be like if you were. You know, that alternate, non-descript universe.

I love you.

Mom

Loco.

My kids have an uncle we call “Tio Loco”. He is their dad’s brother and, also mine, despite divorce and not sharing any DNA. Harvey was born at 6:02am in Portland, OR. Loco arrived from San Francisco not much later than noon that same day. He met me at the car that evening when I returned from the NICU. He nearly had to carry me up the path and the stairs and I felt embarrassed and ashamed. But he held me tight and got me into the house.

He had come to our house straight from the airport while we were at the NICU and he’d walked into a blood bath. I can only imagine what he saw. A home is often chaotic when a baby is born there but this was even more so as we had all abandoned ship as soon as humanly possible to get to the hospital to be with the baby, born there in the bathroom with no heartbeat and no breathes taken, purple and swollen and basically dead. After the EMTs had taken the baby and my then-husband to the ER, my midwives had somehow gotten meinto the bedroom and I laid back on the bed and birthed the placenta. Blood left my body and a lot of it, spilling down the side of the bed. I don’t remember much of these moments but I do remember being worried about the stains, though none of us were able to do anything but either survive and/or their job and we were laser focused on the hospital, so little care was taken for anything else. I am sure there was stuff everywhere when he walked in: the birthing tub still full but cold, medical instruments, padding and bandages, empty dishes and cups, and God only knows what else. With the baby in the NICU and us with him, it must have felt like a crime scene.

He stayed with us. He came to the NICU with us the next day. He re-explained to me what the organ donation lady had said. He held onto his brother. He smiled down and cried over his nephew. He spoke in whispers to my dearest friends and they quietly coordinated and planned, I imagine. He drew the water for the only bath his nephew would take. The water was lukewarm at best and while I worried Harvey would be cold, he had worried that it not be too hot for him. Both of us considering the physical comfort of this brain dead baby we didn’t know what the fuck we were going to do without.

He left the room with the others after the last machine was unplugged and I wonder if they heard my screams after the baby stopped breathing, for the second and final time in his 2 day lifetime. Loco came back in. I remember him there, helping us pack up. I remember him guiding us out of the room as I took one last look at my dead baby, dressed in his little baseball onesie, a ceramic heart tied around his tiny wrist. We couldn’t bear to watch him being taken away from that little room, we were beyond exhausted, so we left the body of our only son alone. I don’t know that I will ever forgive myself for that.

Loco took us home and he stayed with us for days. He fed us, he planned (and possibly paid for) the funeral with my friends, he arranged for the new bed his mom had bought to be delivered, he brought our sons ashes home to us in a tine black tin and, I’m guessing, made all of the arrangements necessary for that to happen. Once, he left the house for one of the many errands he was doing, leavign the three of us alone for the first time. It was awful. Danny and I weren’t even one whole person combined. He lay on the couch and I sat on a table at the window catatonic while Vesta’s normal 3.5 year old needs completely overwhelmed us. I was so relieved and grateful when he returned.

He flew back to San Francisco for a day, maybe two, to retrieve his wife and baby and return for the funeral. When they all left after that and I knew he wasn’t coming back stay, I didn’t think we would make it without him.

One day, after the funeral, Danny, Loco and Vesta were in the kitchen, cooking and teasing and talking and messing around as they do when they are together. I sat on the couch on the other side of the wall, listening and trying to figure out how to breathe. They broke into song: “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. I wanted to run into that room and scream “WE ARE NOT SINGING YET!! WE ARE NOT SINGING YET!! THERE IS NOTHING TO SING ABOUT!!” but I didn’t, thank God. Mostly because I could hardly breathe but also because I knew they were in the midst of what would be a very rare moment of joy for them in the coming months as we all began our new lives as a bereaved family.

For Harvey’s first birthday, Loco and his wife, our sister-in-law, went to the San Francisco Library to record a Story Corps about their nephew and us and them and grief and anger and fear and living on and barely surviving. It is perhaps the most beautiful gift I have ever received. One of the worst things that happens to loss parents is that people stop talking about their kid, out of either discomfort or forgetting or him just not being here anymore, so this gift, them talking about how much they loved and missed him, how his life and birth had affected and changed them, meant absolutely everything to me. I was not the only one. They felt it, too.

On his actual first birthday, Loco and his family flew up to have cake and chili with us, to stand outside in the April chill for his birthday ritual, and to hold us up, especially Danny, yet again.

A couple weeks after our marriage ended, they were up again, visiting in-laws down the road from what was now “my” house. They came over on a Sunday while I was cooking meatballs, still high from the miracle healing I had received, and I greeted them at the door with what I imagine was surprisingly warm smiles and embraces. They came in and we sat together and talked. Loco expressed to me that he was angry and sad and disappointed. It meant so much to me, that he saw me, too. That he empathized with me and felt for me and wanted to have been able to protect me or help me in some way. He and Danny have the most awesome sibling relationship ever. I was grateful that there was love and loyalty for me, too. We cried, as this iteration of family that he and I had shared since we were 22 was also changing. Although he will always be my brother, I his sister and of course, the best uncle in the history of the universe to my kids.

I was thinking about him a lot this morning, all of this stuff and missed a call from him. He had tried to go to work today but couldn’t stay. He left and was out driving the streets of his home town and he called me and I’m guessing his brother, too. That little boy. He changed us all. He brought us together in a way we never would have been without him. We all ache and long for and miss and love him, especially on these days in April. Even and especially, Tio Loco.

In the NICU on the day Harvey died, I held him in the rocker and I started to sing to him. as many of the songs I thought I’d sing everyday to him for years, I tried to sing over and over. My two best friends chimed in and we sang songs they sang to their daughters. I asked Loco, “What’s a song you sing to O at bedtime?”. Looking chagrined,he said “I don’t really know any kid songs so…I just sing America the Beautiful…” So, we all burst into a tear-eyed, smiling lips version of America the Beautiful. Our nurse/angel, Carrie, walked in at the final verse and laughed, “I wasn’t expecting that!”, she said. We all laughed together, me holding our little boy, and had a moment, however fleeting, of joy, of reprieve, of family, of humanness, thanks to my kids’ uncle, who doesn’t know one lullaby.