Tuesday, February 24, 2009

on God and angels.

When I was at the hospital, giving birth to my daughter, there was a lot of angel talk amongst the nurses.
“Your daughter is an angel now.”
“Little beautiful angel Lucia.”
"Now, she is an angel with her grandfather."
I tolerated it because I was reeling and numb. I have always called my daughter Beatrice an “angel” in this context, “Can you please pick up all the Bunny Grahams you just dumped onto the carpet, my angel?” My mother uses Angel interchangeably with Angie, and when I was at university and would come in with my laundry, my step father would often not look up from the television, but scream to my mother, “I smell an angel in the house.”

Still, there is something about referring to my Lucy as an angel that enrages me. I go literally from zero to Red Zone. Why? I guess it is because I want people to see her as a real baby that really died. I often think about this quote from Dr. Zhivago, “For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here in earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and call each thing by its right name” So, let’s do that, shall we? Let's call things by their proper name. She is not an angel. Let’s not imagine her flying around heaven playing a harp. Let’s not paint some beautiful picture of this situation. My daughter is dead. She was my baby, and now she is dead. She was six pounds, 18.5 inches. She gestated for 38 weeks. She kicked me. She flipped around. She played Mama and Lucy Poke Each Other. She had black hair, and blue eyes, and perfect lips. She didn’t die for any specific reason, but she is still dead. She wasn’t an angel. She is a baby. Sure, now she is a dead baby, but she was still a baby. My baby.

What I have gone through shakes the foundation of everything any of us want to believe in, and that we do believe in. When we are atheists, we think, "I wish I believed in God, maybe then I could make sense of this situation." When we are theists, we think "I wish I didn't believe in God because I cannot make sense of this situation." It shakes what we imagine our future to be, and how we see our past. I thought my time pregnant with Lucy was the happiest time of my life, and now, it seems like the most fucking ignorant.

When someone told me after losing Lucia that God had a plan for my baby, I just thought, "What kind of plan could God possibly have for my baby? Is he creating some kind of baby army? Is her looking for beautiful baby girls to pose for Hallmark cards?" And more than once, I thought, "If for some reason, this is God’s plan, then God is an asshole." These days, my internal dialogues are not too deep. I have my degree in Religion. It used to be my raison d'etre to discuss what people think God's plans are, and yet, I just cannot get behind that line of thought. Even if I believed in a God like that, I just simply cannot believe that He would take babies for some higher purpose. I do appreciate it must be comforting to someone. It just is not comforting to me.

I think it is more comforting for me to think the world is a random, chaotic place that is frequently cruel, though after Lucia died, I found that incredibly frightening. When I came home from the hospital, I had a conversation with Sam in which I said, “This is the worst thing that will ever happen to us.” And he looked at me pityingly and said, “Just because our daughter has died doesn’t mean we are immune from ever suffering again.” It made me shudder. I wanted to wrap everyone I loved in bubble wrap, and keep them on a low shelf.

Monday, February 23, 2009


how many losses can we endure? how many lessons about the fragility of life are necessary for one three person family?

december 3rd, my amazing father-in-law died of lung cancer. not three weeks later, our daughter lucia died. we have been mourning for these losses, and now, i wake up to read that my grandmother, adela estrada lamboglia has died. hopefully, my mother was with her in a hospital in la chorrera, panama. she took a flight to be with her on friday. she left such a legacy on this earth--12 children, 49 grandchildren, 60 great-grandchildren and many more great great grandchildren...as my beautiful husband said, she left a big footprint by leaving so many little ones. i wish i could be with my family. there is a ritual for mourning this death. as they say, dios te bendiga, abuelita.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Once upon a time, my husband and I used to sit there at night, after lights out, and take turns talking about our day with our 22 month old daughter Beatrice. I would generally start, and tell him every minute detail about what Beatrice and I did.

“This morning, we woke up, and came downstairs. Mama got some coffee, and Beatrice got some milk in her purple cup. Then, we decided to eat breakfast. Beatrice wanted toast instead of cereal, even though Mama had already poured the milk. After we ate, we went upstairs to start our day. Then we sat on the counter, and brushed our teeth, but Beatrice didn't want to brush them, so we decided to count to ten together and only brush our teeth until the count was over. Then when we were done, we clapped and talked about how easy it was...”

You get the picture, nice and drawn out and booooooooooooring…then my husband Sam would tell us about his day, in very easy and nice terms, because you see, he works at a pediatric hospital as an anesthetist, so he sees sick children, abused children, sad children...but we would talk about how Daddy helped the sick kids get better. And then, well, you know what happened. My daughter died. And the day we came home and put her to bed, we decided we absolutely could not talk about our day anymore. Our day would consist of Mama and Daddy crying. So, I grabbed a book I read sometimes to Beatrice when Sam works a twenty-four hour shift. A book of fairy tales. She would fall asleep after one, and Sam and I would go into our room and talk about just how very twisted fairy tales are. It just reads as though every child in fairy tales is abused, and every one ends with the little girl becoming a princess, or dying in the process. Does marriage really have to be the end of every girl's story?

Anyway, after a few days of this nonsense, Sam and I took little Bea to Peddler’s Village, which a constructed, fake little village in Bucks County with quaint shops and a water wheel. It was an unusually warm Sunday in December, only a week after Lucy’s birth. We wanted to get out of the house, try to function in normal society. At Peddler’s Village, there is a beautiful independent toy shop. I searched through their book section for something to replace the fairytales. There was only one folktale book, so I bought it without reading one word. It is called The Girl Who Only Dreamed Geese. It is a collection of Inuit folktales. One night, not too long after, as I sat down, I began the story called Uteritsoq and the Duckbill Dolls. The story starts, “Who had the reputation for being the most stubborn man in all of the coastal villages of Greenland? It was a man named Uteritsoq.” What a great beginning! Something to tease Sam about before bed. Uteritsoq is a stubborn man, but a good provider. He never accepted any help. Then we get to the part that took my breath away, and stopped me in my reading.

Now it happened that Uteritsoq had a beautiful wife. But she was very unhappy. She has wanted a child so badly, and just a few days earlier she had lost a child before it had lived even a day! There was great sadness throughout the village. Crying, weeping, sobbing, Uteritsoq’s wife went into mourning. One by one, the other women in the village came to her house to sit and weep with her. According to traditional rules, she was not to do work of any sort—no sewing, no fish cleaning, no mending, no cooking. Nothing. Mourning was enough work. Weeping was enough work. Dreaming about the lost child was enough work.

This story came up a week and a few days after Lucy died, and I was sitting at home with my husband all day, my breasts bound, weeping, sobbing, feeling entirely alone. Here was a story that understood. And old story passed down from woman to woman, family to family. It keeps going, “However, Uteritsoq felt crowded by the weeping in his house. He watched his wife’s quaking shoulders, her tears, how we tore at her hair, her constant frown—it all made Uteritsoq restless and confused. He wanted to flee from his own house. So he did.”

Now I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom—the bedroom intended for both Bea and Lucy. Tears are streaming down my face. I need to know. What happens? What happens to this family? Uteritsoq finds his kayak torn, and tries to make his wife mend it, though she is in mourning. Though she refuses because she is in mourning, stubborn Uteritsoq makes her, thus upsetting the Moon Man and his dog, who controls the tides. This then upsets the hunting. He goes on a long arduous journey to the moon. While he is gone, the wife’s mourning period ends, and the moon spirit goes to her and helps Uteritsoq’s wife make many duckbilled dolls. As they sit there sewing them, Uteritsoq watches her and overhears her complaining about him and his stubbornness. When he returns home, all of the duckbilled dolls become children. And they are all stubborn, which the villagers get a kick out of. The story ends thus, “Sometimes he laughed; sometimes he cried. And through it all, he caught a lot of fish. He had very, very good luck.”

We just don’t have these stories in our society. We just don’t make stillbirth part of the human experience. It is something to be whispered about, something told about you after you leave the room as though explaining the sadness in your face. I love this story for many reasons, but not least of which is simply because it exists.

Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed

As I waited to birth Lucia, I decided to open a grief package they give to parents who have lost a child. In it was a pamphlet of what to expect after birth, and a local grief support group's newsletter. The newsletter contained poems written by parents who had lost children through stillbirth or miscarriage. On the front page, a piece entitled “A Letter to Alex” caught my eye. I had read this before. It was written by someone I knew. She was my colleague at the job I had before becoming a stay at home mom. They had lost their son four years ago. He was born prematurely, and died three days later. When I sat in that bed, feeling waves of contractions through me, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I am not the first person to go through this pain. Here I was all wrapped up in my suffering, getting incredibly sort of narcissistic about my grief. "Why did this happen to ME? What did I do? Why did MY baby die?" Me. Me. Me. And here was this person who also lost her baby. A person I knew. The fact that I knew her humanized her. I remember her grief, and her sorrow. I remember running into her in the bathroom at work and crying with her. Did I tell her enough how sorry I was? Did I tell her that reading the email about her loss made me cry for the first time in my career in front of my colleagues? Did I even say anything? Was I the person to her that I needed now? No. I knew the answer without asking. But then it reminded me of a story I once read called Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed. It began obsessing me. I was anxious to find a copy right there in the hospital. But I just remembered that suffering affects everyone, in their own way. It calmed me. It made me strong to think of this story.

When I finally got home from the hospital, I googled the story of Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed. I am paraphrasing here, because it means something to me that might not be the true story that Buddhists have studied for years. It is a new story for me now. Kisa Gotami was a wise and kind woman. She married a man who was rich, though she was not. I cannot tell you why I remember that part, just simply perhaps, that it was because she was a wise, compassionate and kind woman, and not because she was beautiful, that she married a nobleman. She had one son with him. On a night while a storm raged, she realized that her baby wasn’t crying. I always remember this part, because it is exactly those types of details that us who have lost our children remember. He should have cried from the thunder, but he didn’t. The thunder. The fucking thunder.

When she realized her baby son had died, she prayed. She prayed to every God she could think of. She prayed to the devils too. She prayed all night, but still, her son was dead. So when morning came, she went into the marketplace with her son in her arms to find medicine to bring him back to life. The people took pity upon Kisa Gotami, because she was such a kind woman.

“Your son is dead, Kisa Gotami. There is no medicine to cure him.” The merchants tried to tell her the truth, but she couldn’t hear them. The entire city felt sorrow for her. Some even suggested killing her to stop her suffering. I like that part. Perhaps because it is morbid, or so unbelievably kind, depending on your perspective, that people would think to do that. Finally, she arrived at the apothecary who was expecting her. When she asked him if he had a cure, he pretended to think for a long time. I always imagine him scratching his chin, and looking up at the ceiling, maybe taking off his glasses, then and putting the stem in his mouth. He told her, “I don’t have the medicine your son needs, but Gautama (the Buddha) used to be a doctor before a monk. He can cure your son.” She took off at once, still carrying her son in her arms.

She ran and ran to the monastery where the Buddha was lecturing to the monks there. She ran in screaming, and disturbing the entire scene. She said, “Please, I was told you can cure my son. Please help him.” The monks chattered amongst themselves. Someone said, “Take her out.” Another said, “Have compassion, her son is dead.” She stared at him pleading. She said to the Buddha, “Please, my husband is amongst the wealthiest men in the city. He will pay you any price. Anything you want.” I can just see this scene in my head, though I am undoubtedly influenced by Hollywood movies.

The Buddha stared at her for a long time and said, “Yes, I know the cure for death.”

Of course, everyone gasped. I’m sure a thought passed through each of the monks heads that they were following a charlatan. I would think something along the lines of, “Sonofabitch, I thought this dude was the real deal and not another snake charmer.” She said, “I will give anything.”

He said, “I only need one thing. A mustard seed. One mustard seed. But it cannot be a common mustard seed. It must be a mustard seed from a family that has never known death. If you bring me that seed, I will prepare your cure.” Of course, she was enthusiastic. He then told her to do this alone, and leave her son. He said that he would prepare the rest of the cure while she was on her mission.

It was the first time in two days that Kisa Gotami did not hold her son, and as he lay there in front of the Buddha, they all saw that he was rotting and had maggots. After she left, they cremated the child in her absence.

That part always makes me shudder. It is so real. I actually thought after I birthed Lucy that I wanted to just keep her. That I didn't care if she was dead, I was going to carry her around with me. As morbid and gross as it sounds, it occurred to me as I was holding her that she would disintegrate and rot, like it occurred to me suddenly that this was just her body. Like that Magritte painting, "This is not a pipe." It is a picture of a pipe, but it is not a pipe. That thought calmed me, strange as that might sound. It reminded me that I couldn't hold on to my daughter's body forever, because it wasn't my daughter. It was the shell that housed my daughter.

She began her arduous search for a seed. She was thorough. She went to each house and asked each family for a mustard seed. The first house she knocked on the door, “Can you spare a mustard seed?”
“Of course.”
“Oh, wait, has your family ever known death?”
“Yes, my father died last month, Kisa Gotami, don’t you remember you were there?
And on and on, “My brother”
“My daughter.”
“My husband.”

Kisa Gotami exhausted her search through the city, and knelt in the mud crying, “My son is dead.”

She went back to the Buddha and he asked her if she has a mustard seed for him, and she said, “No. How selfish to think only I could be spared from death.” And I am going to quote one of the versions that I read, the Buddha says:
"Your observation is accurate in every way, Kisa Gotami. Neither those wise nor those foolish are immune to death. However great a father roars, he can never waken a dead daughter. However much a mother begs the gods, a dead son will never cry again. One by one, Gotami, we each die. "

After reading this story, I traveled about the world for the next few days looking at everyone as though they weren't "Bob" or "Michelle", but they were their suffering. Like Bob had become Prostate Cancer, and Michelle had become the one whose mother just died. Even those who were not grieving, I saw people that were insecure, nervous to talk to me, and I saw them simply in their suffering. I remember saying often in the first weeks, “I’m sorry” after someone would offer condolences. My husband Sam thought it was crazy, as though I were apologizing for our baby dying, or apologizing for receiving condolences, but it wasn’t that. They were suffering. I could hear it in their voices, I could smell it emanating from their bodies. Some of those people felt genuine grief at my daughter’s death, and some had felt genuine fear at having to talk to me. I was sorry for them too.

I also began seeing everyone as someone’s child. I remember having a glimpse of that when I gave birth to Beatrice, but this was different. I felt so kindly towards everyone. It is an incredibly healing way to imagine the world—compassionate, empathetic, vulnerable.

I often thought about my sanity, and if I was sane or not. I thought of Kisa Gotami not being able to see the maggots on her son, but only see her beautiful newborn son. She did not know she was gone. She only knew one thing—save him. I recognized that if I wanted to remain sane, I had to accept this world for what it is, not what I wanted it to be. People die. People we love die regardless of their goodness. Humans are fragile beings. We must be kind and good and compassionate and gentle with ourselves and others when we are not, people die, become wounded inside and out. People ask how us non-religious people move forward, how we deal with death. We deal because we do not pretend that someone will right all this suffering. It simply is. It is sometimes unjust. It is sometimes just. I didn’t much linger on the thought of “Why me?”, because the logical flipside of that coin is, “Why not me?”

I felt this amazing sense of connection with the universe. This calm emanated from me, and around me for two weeks. I sobbed often, but for all of our suffering. Sometimes thinking about my husband’s suffering made me cry more than my own suffering. It was one of the most spiritually profound periods of my life. I just saw everyone as their suffering, and I felt an amazing amount of love and compassion for every living thing. It lasted for two weeks or so. And now, some days, I can touch that again, (just writing about it makes me feel that warmth in my stomach) and other days, I feel like a Neanderthal. "What did I do to make Volcano Gods angry? Must sacrifice goat."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

one of those days...

yesterday, i felt so strong. i felt so empowered. "i am really doing good," i thought. only eight weeks out, and i feel okay.

today, i feel so impotent. i drove to visit my father, who is wheelchair bound, and in a nursing facility. he is over an hour away. just me and bea. i notice that i only have 30 miles until my tank is empty. one of the only good things about living on jersey side is never having to fill up your gas in snow and rain. still, i didn't exactly realize this until in philadelphia citylimits. i decided to hit the gas station by my dad's place. when i get there, seven miles left on the DTE, i open my diaper bag to realize that i had left my wallet in my purse. the purse that is sitting next to my front door. i transferred my make-up, but not my wallet. i am an hour away from home. i have no gas. i don't have my wallet. i suddenly realize that i can't prove i am me. i am noone. i have no proof that i exist. if they can't prove i exist, they can't prove lucy existed. i sat in my car and cried.

it wasn't a big deal to ask my dad for money. i just felt nauseated. and as i am taking the elevator up, a nurse gets in with me. she tells me how cute my daughter is, and asks me if i am expecting another. i realized then that i am still wearing my maternity winter jacket, and it puffs out. i just never dug any of the old ones out. plus, to be honest, i am only two months postpartum. this probably should have happened before, but it hasn't. all the air left in the elevator was sucked out in that minute.
"uh, no, i just had a baby." stare forward. floor two is taking way too long.
"oh, how exciting, how old is your baby?"
"yeah, um, my baby didn't make it."
"my baby, ahem, died."
"i'm so sorry. just so..."open doors. flee. head to my dad's room, and try to pull my shit together.

but i can't. some days i just feel like i won't be able to pull it together. isn't that our biggest fear? to be out in public, in a place where noone knows about us now, and not be able to pull it together? i am shaking and a mess, and yet, i manage to cry for only a minute, and then get on with my life. we always do it, though. we manage to pay our bills, and fill up the gas tank, and shop for groceries. we manage to somehow pull it together to get through the next minute until we can be safe again.

thank you all for the comments on my new blog. you probably don't realize how much you have helped me with your blogs, your words, your survival, your strength, your honesty and the love of this community. there are a lot of me's out there in this world, reading your stories, relating to your experiences. your stories have truly made me stronger. thank you.

Winter Solstice. Lucia's birth story,part 1.

November 27, 2008. I had a dream about Lucia tonight. I was on my grandparent’s back porch—a large redwood deck looking into the Pennsylvania wood. My hands were searching my belly, feeling her position, and I could feel her head under my sternum. Breech, I thought. But my hands searched her head, and continued to her shoulders, and then connected to her arms which wrapped around my middle. Then I realized she was holding onto my belly, rather than being inside me. I looked down to see her dark hair. Ah, she is beautiful. Simply gorgeous. When I held her up I could see these violet eyes, and a smile. Her nose was crooked, so I took my finger and pushed it straight. And her eyes were violet. Stunningly violet purple. But what stuck with me was her smile and the peace on her face. That is what she gave me—a sense of peace from her smile. It is all she did, smile. I held her as I once held my Beatrice, on the left, to feed from the breast…it wasn’t a long enough dream. After my dream, I wanted her middle name to be Paz, which means “peace” in Spanish.

December 21, 2008. I had predicted many months ago, that my daughter would be born on solstice. That day, a Sunday, there was something about the lack of movement that was disturbing me. Had it been one day or two? Did I feel her yesterday? I couldn’t remember. Chasing my 20-month old daughter means that I seldom pay attention to movement during the day. I had attended a baby shower earlier, and thought I felt some shifting, but honestly, that seems all I have felt for Saturday and Sunday—shifting. Her bum would suddenly be hard and in front. Maybe there wasn’t enough room. I was 38 weeks. She must be tired from all the contractions I had had Thursday and Friday. I kept justifying all these different reasons for not feeling her be squirmy, but the truth is Friday, I know she was wiggling, and Thursday, I was in the hospital being monitored for what was a slightly elevated blood pressure. She was there, and responsive, and her heartbeat was beautifully loud in the little room.

Sunday evening, after I sat for a while, I began prodding her, moving her head, trying to get a reaction from her, but her body felt limp in my belly. I searched my belly for a heartbeat with a stethoscope. Nothing. My husband told me that it is difficult with the stethoscope to hear the heartbeat. I called the midwife. She told me to come to the hospital to be monitored.

In my mind, I kept thinking that I was going to look like a fool to come in and be monitored for my healthy baby. But still, I couldn’t be sure. I was just so anxious at this point, so nervous of that which could not be spoken. I asked Sam so many times, “Is she okay, Sam? She is going to be okay, right?” And he tried to remain optimistic, but I think we were both scared in the same way. We didn’t want to speak of what could be.

To say this was completely off of my radar is an understatement. I had prepared myself for the most horrible possibility of, say, having to have a c-section, rather than natural childbirth, but the idea that she could possibly die had never even entered my consciousness. We sat in PETU waiting for the nurse to come check her heart rate. She was one of those nurses you want on your team. Loud. Brash. Endearingly maternal to those who are brave. She searched and searched. And I began to cry. She said, “Ah, honey, sometimes I can’t find the heartbeat, let me get the ultrasound tech.” The team came in, and when there were three, and my midwife, I think it began to hit me that something was really wrong. The tech and the doctors introduced themselves. They started. “Here is her head.” And I saw her head, and then the screen panned down to her little ribs. Nothing.

“There is no heartbeat,” I said it first, I think. And the doctor said those words that I never wanted to hear, “Your little girl has passed away.”

I held onto my husband and we wept and wept. There was something about that moment that was so incredibly primal. I just wanted to shave my head. No, scratch that, it’s not quite right. Shaving my head sounds like a nice process. Studying religion, I had read about Jain nuns who pulled each hair out of their head for fear of hurting the lice that might be peacefully residing in their scalp. That is what I thought of, quietly pulling each hair out of my head until I was bald. Suddenly, yes, even lice were someone’s kid. Then, I wanted to wrap myself in orange cloth and fall on the ground sobbing. I wanted a ritual right then. Anything.

After a minute, I asked all those questions, “Why? How?” And then they began saying that it is nothing I could have prevented or done. It was not my fault. And that I may never know what killed my daughter. How had I gone through my whole life not knowing this? How had I managed to escape this particular insight into how cruel the world is to some parents? As though I found out that God picks some children to simply draw the life out of, without explanation, I felt outside of myself. As though I was someone who just had their forehead branded with a symbol of their grief, I just simply spoke the obvious, “My heart is broken.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


hi, everyone. welcome to my blog. i kept saying i wasn't going to blog, and yet, here i am. today, i was part of a live chat with dr. dan gottlieb of whyy's voices in the family, and a regular columnist for the inquirer. it has been a pretty amazing week, bringing attention to our stories of stillbirth and healing. monday, my letter, which instigated this entire chat, was published on the front page of the health and science section of the inquirer. it is linked on dr. dan's blog, and entitled the pain of pregnancy loss.

i have been writing a lot these past eight weeks, since lucia's death. i will be sharing snippets of her birth story through the days and of course, writing new stuff as it comes up. i am hoping we can continue talking about birth loss, miscarriage and your stories. they are all so very powerful.

abrazos y besos,