The Summer of My Initiation

It’s almost time to go back to school. Being in the school building this past week, I could feel reality setting in. It’s time to get my act together.

Before I get completely immersed in that (so to speak), there are a few more things I need to officially process. I think all summers are life-changing – moments of suspension at the top of the parabola, where you can ripen new parts of your life. But of course, for our family, the summer of 2011 was more than that.

I asked Sean recently, “Do you think you’ve become a different person this summer?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Yeah. If any part of me wasn’t a real adult before… it is now.”

Naturally, becoming a parent is a big step in feeling like a bona fide adult, what with all those responsibilities, but in some ways it is also an extension of childhood, as we rediscover parks and bubbles and Lego. Surviving the fall of becoming a bereaved parent is another level of adulthood entirely.

To make myself feel better (comforted, organized, summarized… summerized?), I am making two lists about My Summer Vacation. The sad one and the happy one, twelve points each. You already know about the worst moments of my summer, and some of the best, but there are a lot more I need to let out. Okay?

Sad list first. (Raise your hands: how many of you, when told that there’s good news and bad news, ask for the bad news first?)

  1. The first trip to the funeral home, the day after Sebastian’s stillbirth. Everything was still so raw. The woman who helped us, Janet, was lovely, very good at a delicate job, but it was still hard to be there. I lost my composure several times. One point of relief: they don’t charge for services for infants. We saw the list of expenses, and even the minimum charges for an adult are, by our financial standards, huge. All we paid was a $10 fee to have the death registered with the government, thank goodness.
  2. Deciding what to send with Sebastian. I was glad Janet had offered us the opportunity to bring in some things we would like to be cremated with him, and told us what kinds of things people tend to send (special clothes, a stuffed animal, letters, etc.); it’s definitely something that helped with closure. But the very idea of choosing something to give to your baby boy, who has to go on a journey alone, farther than we can imagine, and never return… well, it still makes me cry. We were both teary when Sean confessed to me that he’d like to give Sebastian a copy of his favourite book (The Lord of the Rings). Even more heartbreaking was Sean’s sweet idea that maybe E could choose a toy to give his baby brother… but I could not handle that. Could not imagine asking our innocent toddler to try to understand giving a gift to someone he was supposed to love and will never meet.
  3. The milk. It came in on Day 2 (Sunday) instead of Day 3, and I immediately started to do the recommended things: icing my breasts (luckily it was stinking hot out, so this was not unpleasant), wearing the tightest sports bras I had and stuffing them with cabbage leaves, drinking the bitter sage tea. I did spend Day 3 wondering if I could pump and donate the milk to someone – it seemed such an enormous waste – but there is only ONE milk bank in Canada, and it’s in BC. The midwives didn’t know anyone in need, and I couldn’t psych myself up to explore more avenues. (I still kind of wish I had.) As it was, I found myself joking occasionally about my huge rock-hard porn boobs… because if you don’t laugh a little, you’ll just cry.
  4. The unreality. By Monday evening, I was feeling… off-kilter, on top of the sadness. I eventually realized it was because as time passed, the whole surreal experience of Sebastian’s death and birth seemed more and more dreamlike and faraway. It was awful because I needed to be able to own that experience, and I especially needed Sebastian to be real. I fervently wished I could see him again, just to prove to myself he existed. I also tried to express to Sean how wrong it felt for Sebastian to be changing hands (from funeral home to hospital to a different hospital and back) without us, all by himself… and he agreed. He said it exactly: “He should be with his mom and dad.” It’s a universal truth about babies – except the still ones. As it turned out, we didn’t see him again; technically we could have, but Janet recommended not to after the autopsy and the move, and we trusted her. It was hard to hear, but I didn’t want to mar my memories of his face.
  5. E’s baby brother. It was Tuesday morning when E first seemed to notice my different-sized midsection and asked, “Where’s my baby brother?” We had often asked E, “Where’s your baby brother?” to see if he remembered it was in Mommy’s belly, or if he’d lift up his shirt and point to his own belly. We tried hard to help him understand what would happen, but I’m sure it seemed like a joke or a game… and when his baby brother never materialized, even more so. I had been wondering when this moment might arrive; the grief book said to give information only when your child asked for it, so we hadn’t tried to explain yet. When he asked, he wasn’t upset, but he may have been confused. I think Mama Bear kicked in then, because somehow I managed not to lose it, and told him calmly that his baby brother had been in there (so he wouldn’t think it hadn’t been real) but then had to go to the hospital, and now he was gone. I said I was sorry his baby brother didn’t come home with us, and I gave him a hug. And he was quiet for a minute, and then pointed and said, “Me have that book.” So that was that. The next morning, having a lazy family snuggle in bed, he put his finger in my bellybutton and said, “That’s my baby brother. Be gentle.” This time, I didn’t succeed in not crying. Sean lovingly reiterated what I’d said, and again, E seemed basically unaffected and changed the subject. This issue has been one of the hardest parts of this whole process… but I’ll have to come back to that. MOTL.
  6. Returning to the funeral home. We went back to pick up the remains of our son. I hate that word, “remains”; it sounds at once grisly and clinical. Like “cremation”, it’s a word you don’t want to associate with your baby. It was Janet who met with us again, and gave us the very small, sturdy cardboard box of Sebastian – it immediately brought to mind a blog post I’d read by another babylost parent, called the smallest jar. Such a small amount of ashes, even though he’d had letters, flowers, a photo, a circlet of sweetgrass, and a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings (probably as heavy as he was) with him. Janet had done as we’d requested, and collected a lock of Sebastian’s hair and his hand and footprints. She’d done such a beautiful job that at my first sight of the prints, I felt a big, genuine smile come over my face. Of course it was soon followed by tears, but I was – am – very grateful for these keepsakes. And grateful to have these ashen traces of Sebastian to keep, sad and meager as they are. (I know I am far from the only mother to weep in bed at the thought: My son is in a box.) We plan to spread his ashes in two different places, but Sean and I each have some in a hollow pendant to wear… and I think we will save some in case E and his potential sibling(s) would like to do the same.
  7. The Crying Quota. Obviously, tears are important at a time like this. I’ve discovered that I need to get right into it and purposefully be sad at certain times, otherwise grief will jump on me later, probably when I’m not ready. Especially at the beginning, I needed to do this a lot (blogging was perfect for this purpose) or I would find myself leaking tears at some other random thing. It’s still true now, though the quota is smaller. (Now that I’m returning to “normal life”, I also have to be careful about breaking the seal – if I haven’t cried for a while and suddenly start, it’s hard to stop.)
  8. The unexpected precipices. Talking with people about this experience is precarious sometimes. Mostly, I feel confident: I can converse calmly, even in detail. But once in a while, the ground drops away and the equanimity disappears. I feel fine when I start to speak, and suddenly – whoosh. I’m a mess. This happened when I phoned the Birthing Unit at the hospital to ask if we could have one of the dove markers like the one they put on our door, as a keepsake. I heard myself asking this pitiful question, then I could hear my voice wobble… and the seal was broken. The poor nurse on the other end was very kind, and, I think, a little worried – she said, “So… your husband will come pick it up?”
  9. The first dry day. Just over two weeks after the birth, I had my first day without tears. It was the day we went to Family Camp, and we were so busy packing and travelling and unpacking and seeing people, I just didn’t go there. I was aware of this, and when I saw it was almost midnight and I was going to get through the entire day, it actually made me feel sad and empty instead of relieved. Being relatively far from home, I felt removed from the whole mess, and consequently from Sebastian… and I didn’t like it. It was an unexpected understanding: that as time helps me to grieve less, there will be a different kind of pain in knowing that it has been that many more days since I held my baby boy in my arms.
  10. Talking to (semi-)strangers. It’s hard figuring out what to say to the various people in my life who aren’t friends. When I spoke to a man at the teachers’ union a few days after, trying to determine what my options were, the sudden change in his demeanor when he heard why I was calling was enough to make me suddenly teary-eyed with vulnerability.  About a week later, I had a dental appointment, one that had been scheduled specifically to occur before my due date. I don’t know if my hygienist remembered or had written down that I was pregnant, but she didn’t mention it. When she asked, “Any change in your medical situation?” (last time I had answered, redundantly, that I was pregnant), I felt a pause hang in the air before I landed on saying, “Um, no, not really.” The first time I actually had to deal with the dreaded, “Oh, you must have had your baby!” it was from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, just a couple weeks ago. This particular woman clearly takes notes on the people she chats with. I calmly told her I had, and that he was stillborn – an important step for me, probably best taken with strangers like this, who deliberately practice their kindly doorjamb manner. (They visited again a couple days ago, and brought bereavement literature.)
  11. Those accidental kicks in the teeth: Getting an email from the school board asking me what I’d like to do with my benefits while on mat leave… Getting a letter from the government scolding me for failing to register my child’s “Live Birth”… Then, the other day at the park, an unsuspecting toddler mom actually asked me, “When are you due?” (Fortunately, my sangfroid did not desert me in any of these instances, but this last one was especially not what I needed, less than three days before returning to work. I know this woman felt awful for asking, especially when, in an attempt to explain that she wasn’t completely wrong, I said, “I’m not expecting… but I was.” It was just a no-win situation.)
  12. The uncertainty. I have lots of hope for our family in the future, but I’ve never been as unpredictable to myself as I am now. I’ve had one phone appointment with a counselor from the EAP, to talk about going back to school, and I felt okay beginning the conversation… but as per #8, I was crying as soon as we got past the background questions. So I’ve figured out that I’m not as fine as I thought I would be, based on the first few weeks (news flash, Dilovely: grief is not linear!). I’ve never had my brain let me down to this extent before (see previous post), so my plan-making lacks confidence. But it has to get better. Right? Once I get back into a routine and into the classroom, some teaching instinct will have to kick in and take over the parts of my mind involved in decision-making, planning, and patience… and I’ll be okay.

Whew. Okay. And now for the much-needed happy list!

  1. Cherries. Seems like a funny one, but cherries are my favourite summer fruit, and seriously… have they ever been this good??
  2. Harry Potter. Skye and I went to the VIP (over 18, reserved seating) theatre to see HP 7.2 at the midnight premiere. It was less than a week after Sebastian died, but we’d had our tickets for weeks, and I knew that if I didn’t go, I’d just be at home being doubly sad that I was missing it. And it was great! (I have a few bones to pick about the changes near the end… but overall, it was a totally thumbs-up experience.) AND we got the limited-edition round Harry-style 3D glasses. WE ARE SO COOL.
  3. The wedding. The day after HP, we attended the wedding of friends of ours, along with lots of other mutual friends. It was a beautiful (though hot) day; our friends were awesome with the hugs, as well as the support (both stated and implicit); the speeches – which are my favourite part of any wedding – were touching and funny; being in a love-filled room is just good for the soul; and there was gelato!
  4. The meteor shower. There were lots of good times at Family Camp, but the night before Sean had to go home was especially memorable. When I came into the main hall after putting E to bed, Sean could tell I was having a tough evening and followed me outside. (It was the first night I started to feel stressed about going back to work.) We decided to get a blanket and lie out in the field to look at the stars… which I haven’t done in way too long. It’s gorgeous. And we were blessed to be there at the start of the Perseid meteor shower, so we saw some amazing shooting stars, with tails that sliced the sky. Sean gave me a quality pep talk and I was reminded of how lucky I am to have him as my life-teammate. It was good.
  5. E’s songs. As I’ve said, E is the source of most of our joy these days, for countless reasons. One of the things that tickles me most is that this summer he’s started to sing. This began at Camp too, when on some nights he would start singing along with the lullabies I sang for him. He seems to have very little sense of tuning – he just puts on his “high” voice and says the words as sweetly as you could possibly imagine. Hearing him sing things like “My bambino, go to sleep,” and “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…” It’s priceless.
  6. The wine tour. Sean and I spent a beautiful day, sans toddler, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in honour of our anniversary (but a couple weeks late). The weather was perfect; the drive there was lovely; we visited four different wineries and tasted thirteen different wines (and bought five bottles – should last us the year); we had good food, including ice cream; we dipped our feet in the wading pool; we shopped; we sat by the lake; and we thoroughly savoured each other’s company.
  7. A family visit. My brother and sister-in-law came to Ontario from New Brunswick for a visit, which happens all too rarely. It was great to watch E enjoying his uncle and aunt. It was also wonderful to have real, in-person conversation with them – particularly a special one with my sister-in-law, who is also a bereaved mother. She is one tough woman, with really good advice.
  8. The lightning storm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen awesomer lightning than the night there was a tornado warning in our region. E was up WAY past his bedtime, saying, “Whoa! That was cool!!” with every big flash. He also got taught such words as magnificent, fantastic, and phenomenal.
  9. Giant bubbles. One of Grammie’s birthday presents from Papa was a giant-bubble-maker… and it worked! Those bubbles were HUGE!
  10. Wild Waterworks. My sisters and I have a tradition of going to the water park around the time of Beth’s birthday (D was with us too): wave pool, waterslides, picnic, lazy river. It’s like being a kid. 🙂 And it’s quintessential summer.
  11. Beth’s 30th birthday. Auntie Beth’s boyfriend D planned the best, most thorough 30th birthday festivities I’ve ever heard of, and we got to participate in the picnic lunch and the celebratory dinner – and the sparklers afterward. (And E sort of participated in the canoe ride; that is, he sat in the canoe while it was on the grass and told us all that it was his boat, and he wore the life jacket, which came down to his knees.)
  12. Quality time. Often, at the end of the summer, I wonder where the time went, and why I didn’t take more advantage of it. This summer, I actually feel like I got to spend a lot of quality summer time with people I love – drinks on decks, barbecues, good conversations in patio furniture. Right now, as I head back to “reality”, I’m going to keep that stuff close to my heart, as sanity protection.

All right. That should do it. Silly Dilovely… up past her bedtime… on a school night.





6 thoughts on “The Summer of My Initiation

  1. emerge says:

    Di, I will read this more fully tomorrow – haven’t read the whole list in detail yet, just the titles mostly, but it was still enough to make me weepy. Both the good and sad parts. I’m glad I got to be there for all the things I was – and I’m glad that there are memories of drinks on patios, lightning storms and canoe picnics to surround the memories of hospitals, ashes and cabbage leaves. I hope all those things will stay together in your mind when you think of this summer and everything you went through. I know you’re still going through it, but that going back to school this fall does mark a new phase. I just wish you all the best of strength and energy and braininess and whatever else you need to make your first week back as smooth as possible. I love you.

  2. Auntie CL says:

    oh, Sunshine, i am glad you do this. you have balance and perspective because you make yourself have balance and perspective, partly through the writing. sorry we missed seeing you three today — still waiting to celebrate your birthday and E’s. i’m glad you had many and varied occasions of tears and talk – you will be caught out less and less, and more reliable composure will return, but i’m so glad for you and Sean that you have the courage to go through every part of your experience bravely and with a whole heart. and with each other. i love you!

  3. Quinnsies says:

    What a summer. Even little things like cherries and bubbles help with the massively difficult parts. I hope your first week back goes alright – I love you!

  4. Mama says:

    I’m only just now reading this, on Tuesday night – never had my computer on yesterday or today till 10:30. Like your auntie CL, I’m glad you have this place to exercise your remarkable balance and perspective skills. They form the perfect counterpart to lots of crying, which I’m also glad you do. And you do have all the reasons for that straight! Just like all your other commenters, I love you – and also Sean and E and most of the commenters, too.

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