When She's Gone

Please, I beg silently, stooping down to pick up the pieces of my 9-month-old’s lunch off the kitchen floor, set to the soundtrack of a shrieking preschooler in the next room. Please, someone, tell me it gets better. I don’t know how to do this.

Well, maybe I should be more specific. The infant-raising part, I (mostly) know how to do that.  My daughter has an older brother, a feisty three and-a-half year old whose infancy came with a steep learning curve. The hard parts of raising her at this stage come with the certain knowledge that yes, it will one day be over: she will not always put everything in her mouth; she will not always be cutting teeth.

What I don’t know how to do is be a mother without a mother.

***

“Eight to eighteen months,” the oncologist told my brother and I. I stared at him, trying to concentrate on his words as I kept an eye on my son, who had clearly Had It with being made to be quiet in a strange office.

“We’ll start chemotherapy,” the doctor continued, “But it won’t cure anything, won’t reduce anything. It’ll maybe slow it down.”

My son tugged on my sweater, exposing the wide band of my maternity jeans. I was due in two months. She’ll be around for my baby girl, then, I thought. That’s okay.

But with that knowledge came new questions: could she be around my newborn while on chemo? Did we have to think about face masks, gloves, sleeves? Certain medications? Nothing seemed certain now except the knowledge that she wasn’t going to make it.

What in the world would it be like when she is gone?

But she hung on for her granddaughter. When my daughter was born my parents made the six-hour drive East to meet her. I was happy to see my mother in a hospital for a reason that had nothing to do with her illness. And she was able to travel to see us again for the baby’s baptism, when she was 9 weeks old. After the party, after I put my son to bed, I left him with my husband and snuck away to my parents’ hotel with the baby to get some extra cuddle time.

“Would you look at her!” My mother kept saying, overjoyed that we made the extra trip.  “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”

***

The oncologist’s estimate proved correct. Nine months after his diagnosis she was actively dying, and my husband, children, and I sped as fast as we could to see her one last time. She was too sick for my son to see her, but my daughter was young enough to have no idea.  Everyone in the hospice facility was happy to see my baby girl. Nurses cooed over her chubby face; family members I haven’t seen in years were happy to get a turn for a cuddle. I checked in at the front desk on my first night there, four nights before my mother died.

“What a darling baby!” said the receptionist, her eyes friendly behind her glasses.

“Thank you,” I replied.  “She’s here to visit her Grandma.”

The receptionist’s face fell.  “Oh, her grandma...So --”

“My mother.”

“Oh,” she said, her face awash in sympathy.  “So young.”

I offered a sad smile.  “So young.”

When we reached her room the morphine had been dripping a long time; my mother wouldn’t be with us much longer. But she swam up out of it enough to know that I was there, that my daughter was there. Her eyes were closed, but she was aware, and smiling, and I held my baby up to her face and guided her chubby little hands to my mother’s cheek. 

“We’re here, Mom,” I said, “The baby is here.”

We were there, and she knew it.

***

The day after my mother died I tried to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. It was a Monday, and we went food shopping on Mondays, so even though we were away from home, to the grocery store we went. And the next day, we went to the zoo; and as we walked past the penguin exhibit and saw flamingoes and a ring-tailed panda, I tried to wrap my head around the knowledge that my mother was gone. At her wake I wore my baby in an Ergo carrier over my black dress and worried about my son, who had developed a stomach virus overnight.

What a strange new world to be in: spinning so wildly in the outer space of grief, yet tethered so tightly to the solid ground of raising small children.

***

I know how wonderful I feel when I’m doing a great job as a mom, when the playdates are all organized and I feel happy building the hundredth block tower of the day with my son; when the school stuff is in order and the dentist appointments have been made. I don’t like the kind of mom I am now. This grieving mom - who’s not sure how to grieve at all, much less knowing whether or not I’m doing it “correctly” - also has a lot of guilt. I’m sad, and so I snap. I yell. I forget to pack extra Pampers in the diaper bag for my daughter, forget to bring snacks to friends’ houses. I hold my preschooler to the highest of standards and think of all the ways I’m failing him, because he acts out when I’m sad. He doesn’t process his understanding of my grief with any logic whatsoever. How can he? How many times has he watched Lady and the Tramp because I can’t move out of a chair; when the thought of my mother being gone pins me down with its intensity?

I’m flying blind, and I’m reminded of that same feeling I had when I was a brand new mom and felt completely out of control. And once again, my poor kid is suffering from the fallout.

It’s an awful feeling.

But I’m trying. I’m trying so hard. It’s only been two months, and I am honest with my son when he asks me why I’m sad. I’m trying to spend time in the sadness, not running away from it, facing it as head on as I can; and when there are days that I forget she’s gone (and there are days, admittedly, because as of the mother of two little ones there is plenty I forget) and the knowledge comes rushing back to me, I try to lean into it. I howl in the shower; I wait for it to pass.

And it does, surprisingly. Like a rain cloud that releases its rain and moves on. As hard as the days can get, there are moments when the sun comes out. All I can do is keep hoping for days when those stretches of sun last longer and longer.

***

Two weeks before she died I wrote her a letter. I was planning on making a last trip out to see her, but the January weather was proving uncooperative.

...One of the things I’m thankful for most is that you never forgot how hard it was with little kids. It’s so hard, Mom. And I know that it’s going to be over one day and they’ll be grown up and fly the coop or whatever, but it’s so hard to know that when you’re in it. Kind of like trying to tell a solider in the trenches that it’ll be okay, the war will be over in three years. Sounds like a great thing, but when the dirt is kicked up all around your spot in the trenches because of the bullets, and you’re sure you’re not going to make it, well...it gets hard to see. And I guess it’s a normal thing when they do get older to forget about how hard it was, and to remember only the cute things they said or how funny they looked trying food for the first time; but you always remembered that it was hard. And I love that, because everyone else forgets. 

“I loved your letter,” she told me over the phone. I tried to imagine her sitting there, just skin and bones now, in the little room off the bedroom she shared with my dad, and all the effort it took for her to shuffle herself out there to sit in the sun.

“Thank you.”

“We’ll see each other again,” she told me.  “When the war is over, right?” she asked me.

“When the war is over.”


Guest post written by Christy Gualtieri. Christy is a Western Pennsylvania based freelance writer who loves to spend time with her husband, son, and daughter, especially while cheering on Pittsburgh's great sports teams. She blogs about religion and pop culture at www.asinglehour.wordpress.com.

The Twilight Bark

My youngest sister and I gave birth to our sons on the same day, five hours and 456 miles apart. These baby cousins started communicating in utero—talking by means of a Morse code of pokes and kicks, about how warm and cozy they were in there and how they didn't want to leave. They were both a week overdue. My sister and I both had to be induced.

During the early weeks of the boys' lives, my sister and I texted each other in the middle of the night, a lifeline after dark. When the babies started sleeping more regularly, our late night/early morning texts stopped. We talked on the phone during the day, comparing notes. The boys were at it again. If one slept through the night for four days, then on the fifth day was up from 1am-3am, the other had done the same thing. We joked that they were talking behind our backs.

Do you remember the Twilight Bark from the movie 101 Dalmatians? The dogs bark to one another all across the city to spread news and ask for help, often in the late night hours.

I thought of the Twilight Bark one night as I was lying on the floor of the baby's room. He had been up several times already. I did not dare get up until I knew he was in a deep sleep. So I shut my eyes, curled up under a blanket and attempted to relax. Not surprisingly, that was difficult to accomplish under such circumstances. My hips and neck ached from lying on the floor, my arm kept falling asleep, and my mind refused to turn off. I thought there must be parents all over the world, maybe even down the street, that were doing the exact same thing at this moment. I thought of my sister. Was she lying on the floor at this very moment, too? I imagined that our boys were communicating in their cosmic cousin way.

It was then that I recalled the Twilight Bark. Here was the scenario: my baby would cry out his message in North Carolina, setting off a chain reaction of babies crying all the way to Ohio, where my nephew would receive it. I thought this must work for parents, too. We are stretched out on bedroom floors lying motionless, sitting in rocking chairs at awkward angles, spooning little ones in twin beds with our backs against the bed rail. We are all awake, desperately willing our children to sleep. So, I send out a silent message to my sister, "I am awake, are you awake, too?" I imagine my message is received by the dad down the street that is pacing back and forth in his kitchen with his newborn daughter, and he passes it on to another parent keeping vigil in the night, and the chain continues.  

My Twilight Bark message makes it all the way to Ohio, where my sister is awake, barely rocking in her glider, afraid to move, with my sleeping nephew curled against her. A sense of relief washes over her in solidarity.

Now, when I find myself on the floor of the nursery in the middle of the night, I think of the Twilight Bark and send out a little silent message. I am oddly comforted by the thought of other parents and caregivers doing what I am doing; relieved that I’m not alone. Chances are, my sister is probably lying awake on the floor 456 miles away. We’re not together…..but we are.


Katie Hunnes shares her perfectly imperfect life with a three year-old boy, a five year-old girl, and a 39 year-old man. She has a penchant for chai lattes and Instagram. When she isn't working, she spends her time hunting for missing socks, chasing sunsets, and occasionally writing about her parenting experiences at Stop Licking the Table! (and other things I never thought I would say).  

Editor's Note: This is the mysterious essay that was mentioned in our latest podcast with Krystal Festerly. After a bit of digging, we found it! A special thank you to Katie for letting us publish this today.  

P.s. A coffee + mug giveaway

Minivan Mercies

She begs me to start her on the swing, even though she’s five, and even though she’s capable of doing it herself. We’re at a little park nestled underneath Los Angeles’ dry foothills. She is wearing a darling little dress and pink Converse. I push her to get started, and then I watch her pump her legs faster and faster, moving higher and higher, until she is shouting, “My legs are ALMOST touching the tree branches, Mommy! They are almost touching the tree!”

And of course they are nowhere near the tree at all, but in that moment of fast freedom and mama’s watchful eyes, she thinks she is closer than she actually is. In her mind, nothing can hold her back. I got her started, and then momentum carried her the rest of the way.

Legs stretching, heart beating, eyes focused, face smiling...she truly believes she might fly. 

***

At five months pregnant I begin experiencing excruciating daily headaches. Every morning I wake up feeling fine, and within 15 minutes of standing the pain returns. I beg the kids to whisper while I miserably shuffle around the house getting ready for the day.  My OB says this type of recurring headache, at this point in pregnancy, is mysterious. She says that if it keeps returning then she’ll refer me to a neurologist. I am terrified.

Unable to take any type of strong medication, I desperately turn to acupuncture. There’s an affordable place downtown where they lay me in a zero gravity recliner before inserting about 20 needles all over my body. I’m not supposed to move for a half hour so I lay there thinking about all the things that could be causing my pain. If my OB doesn’t think the headaches are pregnancy related, then it must be something serious. Very serious. A tumor. Cancer. The first signs of an aneurysm or a stroke or a seizure.

I think about what would happen if I collapsed at home when Jonathan is at work. Anna can unlock my iPhone but doesn’t know how to dial anyone. We’ve never told her about 911. I picture myself, unconscious, while the kids attempt to shake me awake. It’s a dark thought—one that will probably never happen—but I entertain the scene anyway. All day long they are in my care, followed by my watchful and responsible eyes. But who is looking out for me? 

By the time I get in the car everything feels a little fuzzy. I start driving but can’t ignore my symptoms. I’m sweaty and tired, my head is killing me, and I feel weak. My heart races as I think about my options. I should call Jonathan. I should drive myself to an emergency room. I should pull the car over so I don’t crash when the seizure hits.

I decide to park in front of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. With an hour to kill before preschool pick-up, I can’t be alone. What if I pass out in the car and no one finds me?

I must go inside. I must get help.

With legs trembling, I trudge into Coffee Bean. The stroke is going to start any minute, and I will cause a scene. “Did you hear about that pregnant lady who collapsed earlier today?” they will all say to their families at dinner. Someone might even post about it on Facebook. They will leave comments with sad face emoticons. Such a shame. That poor woman. 

I sit at the tiny table in the back corner, open my laptop, and stare at the blank screen.

Head hurting, heart racing, armpits sweating, face flushing...I truly believe I'm going to die. 

***

An hour passes. I use the restroom twice. I smile in the mirror, making sure that all sides of my face are moving. What is that acronym I’m supposed to follow if I’m monitoring a potential stroke? FAST? Are my arms weak? Can I still speak?

The mirror doesn’t lie: I look terrified. But also? I look totally fine.

I return to my laptop and Google a new phrase:

Panic attack. 

***

By the time I pick-up the kids my headache is gone and so are my irrational fears. The kids run to me with big smiles, and I return the affection eagerly.

“How was your morning?” their teachers asks.

“Just fine,” I say nonchalantly, as if I had simply spent a morning brunching with friends or going grocery shopping.

***

I let the kids play outside the classroom after pick-up. The children chase each other while I chat with my friend Carolyn. She's a physician, but I don’t ask her about panic attacks. If that’s what just happened, I really don’t want to talk about it yet. How embarrassing, I think to myself.

We pack the children into our respective cars, and I leave the parking lot first. I’m driving down a quiet street between the school and the main road when I notice a minivan parked haphazardly—the front is in a hedge of bushes and the rear of the car is blocking oncoming traffic. As I pass the van I look over my shoulder, perplexed. Something isn’t right. I pull over, tell the kids to stay put, and speed walk twenty yards back up the hill towards the minivan.

I hear the car running but don’t see anyone until I get closer.  There’s a woman in the driver’s seat, slumped completely over to the right. I start pounding on the passenger window and she doesn’t respond. I run to the other side of the car and open the door. I can see her chest rising and falling, but when I shake her she doesn’t wake up. My cell phone is back in the car.

Carolyn was behind me when I left school so I walk into the middle of the road, willing her to come down the hill quickly. She’s a doctor; she’ll know what to do. Seconds feel like minutes but then I see the headlights on her silver Volvo. I start waving my hands above my head like my parents used to do at my childhood swim meets; as if she could miss me.

“There’s a woman unconscious in the minivan,” I say. “You go tend to her. Throw me your cell phone and I’ll call 911.”

She parks her car and jumps out to help. My voice shakes when the operator picks up but as I watch Carolyn spring into action, I become brave too.  The woman has a pulse, I tell the operator. The floor of her car is covered in needles.  At first I notice the empty car seat in the back—thank goodness it’s empty—and then, eventually, we notice a tattoo indicating she’s a Type 1 diabetic.

Much to our children’s delight, a police officer and fire engine quickly arrive, and we’re assured that with proper medical attention the woman will recover.

“You did the right thing,” the officer said, “Time is of the essence with diabetic shock.”

Carolyn and I give each other a relieved high five before parting ways, pleased with our teamwork but even more grateful for a happy ending.

A half hour later, once the kids are situated in their rooms for naps, I grab a glass of ice water and elevate my feet on the couch before calling my husband at work.

“I think I had a full blown panic attack this morning,” I say.

Now that’s it over, now that I’ve survived, the whole thing feels irrational. That’s anxiety, right? It felt so REAL in the moment. Just like my daughter sometimes thinks she can touch the sky with her feet, I sometimes believe the very worst things will happen to me.  

But it’s not until I’m telling the story out loud to my husband that I see the real mercy in the mess of my mind. As I replay the panicked moments in my minivan and then compare them to the panicked moments outside her minivan, I finally see the parallels.

I was convinced I was going to die, and an hour later I was helping a mama who did actually pass out, in her car, on the side of the road, just like I feared for myself. And God chose me—fragile and scared—to help rescue her.

My headaches went away a few weeks after that minivan rescue, and then I delivered a baby boy a few months later. We’ve also since taught our five-year old how to dial 911—because I believe in God, and I also believe God uses people. Even at our weakest.  

In his loving kindness, He used me in my weakness. In his loving kindness, He heard my cries for help and then focused me outward instead of inward. In his loving kindness, He reminded me that He sees us and knows us and watches out for us…sometimes in the oddest of ways.


Written by Lesley Miller

Baked Oatmeal With Apples, Bacon, & Maple Syrup

Nothing can totally prepare you for motherhood. We know this.

When I was pregnant, I did everything I could to learn about breastfeeding. I read books, took a class, sought advice from other twin mamas, and got the best pump I could afford. But it was still a completely unknown world to me, and I was nervous. Would I be able to produce enough milk? Would they be able to latch correctly? Would I ever sleep again? Would they gain enough weight?

I tried to hold on to the idea of nursing lightly. Like much of motherhood, the things you hold onto most tightly are often the same things that get painfully ripped out of your hands. As I anticipated, feeding turned out to be a huge challenge during those early months. My son took weeks to latch, and I remember at an outpatient appointment, the lactation consultant kindly looked at me and said, “How are you doing with this? Do you want to keep going?” She offered support and encouragement, but I was also relieved that she offered me permission to quit. As we talked, I choked back tears of exhaustion and frustration. I was about one feeding away from giving up completely.

I knew in my head that giving up breastfeeding wouldn’t mean I had failed as a mom. But when reality set in and I struggled to provide for my son in the way that I wanted to, I couldn’t help but feel defeated.

And then he latched. I was sitting up in my bed, nursing pillow strapped around my waist and the basket of burp cloths, wipes, and snacks stashed within reach. My husband tended to my daughter, who had already been fed with ease. I held my son close for what seemed like the thousandth time, mustering up the energy to give it one more try. And just like that, discouragement made way for relief and I cried tears of joy as he fed. We had reached the turning point I thought we’d never see.

There were still struggles, of course. I gave up on tandem nursing. My daughter would finish eating way before my son, but due to her reflux, she’d spit up all over him. I’d end up wiping her regurgitated milk off his head while he ate. And with that, I concluded tandem nursing was not for me. Instead, I listened to one baby cry while I nursed the other, no hands free to comfort whomever had to eat second. I was exhausted, to say the least, but weariness was tempered by determination. We were doing this. We had clumsily jumped over one hurdle and were slowly regaining our footing before the next one approached.

My supply continued to increase, and we stopped supplementing with formula. I continued pumping after every feeding, and the freezer door started to fill with clear, five-ounce bags of milk, carefully marked with dates written in black sharpie. After the first six months, my apprehension about nursing twins seemed long behind me.

Eventually, we moved those little bags downstairs to the freezer in the basement. One by one, they lined the shelves, and every time I walked down to add another bag, I felt grateful. I didn’t have to worry about my supply and we had plenty of milk if we wanted to go out for a date night. I had it all planned out, too. I could stop nursing at ten or eleven months but have enough milk stored up for my kids to last until their first birthday.

It was around month eight or nine that it happened. My husband walked downstairs to add another bag to the cache of liquid gold. He called upstairs, his voice sounding concerned and confused.

The freezer had died.

I thought for a second maybe it died just a few minutes before, and the milk would be fine – we just had to find a place for it upstairs. Nope. Everything was completely defrosted. Warm even. It very well could have been dead for weeks.

All that work. All that pumping. All my plans to be able to stop nursing early while still being able to give my kids breast milk. All those hours of sanitizing tiny plastic pieces and listening to the pulsating hum of the pump…all of that was literally thrown in the trash.

I cried. Hard.

In the grand scheme of things, my freezer dying is not that big of a deal. I’ve moved on, remembering that despite the frustrations, I was able to nurse, I had a good supply, and my kids gained the weight they needed. I don’t take those things for granted, and I’m thankful I had extra bags of milk in the first place.

Yet I’m reminded that for every motherhood moment for which you feel an inkling of preparedness, there are a thousand others that catch you completely off guard. You do the best you can to research, learn and plan ahead. But meticulously researching pumps and enrolling in breastfeeding classes won’t make you immune to a faulty freezer.

Some parenting hurdles are bigger than others; some, like a broken freezer, knock us down for just a moment or two. Others result in a long, heartbreaking season. But we keep going. We figure out how to make dinner out of a pound of pasta and a few leftover carrot sticks. We adjust our budget to buy special formula we didn’t expect to need. We deliver via C-section even though that wasn’t our birth plan. We become experts in a medical diagnosis we previously had never heard of. We plan and prepare as best we can, but mostly, we figure it out along the way, often shedding more than a few tears while we’re at it.

And eventually, we look back and realize it wasn’t the planning and preparing that made us the moms we are, although those things are helpful and good. It’s the unexpected moments. It’s the surprise hurdles that sometimes we leap over, other times we stumble over, and yet other times we’re carried over. It’s the moving on, the forging ahead, the adjusting, learning, changing, growing, adapting to whatever is thrown our way that shapes our journey of motherhood.  

Baked Oatmeal with Apples, Bacon + Maple Syrup
Yields about 6 servings

Cooking spray or butter for greasing the pan
3 cups rolled oats
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 ½ cups milk
1/3 cup maple syrup, plus more for serving
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ cups diced apples
8 ounces cooked bacon, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 3-quart (or similar capacity) baking dish and set aside. 

In a medium bowl, add the rolled oats, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs slightly. Then whisk in the milk, maple syrup, and melted butter. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until fully incorporated. 

Gently stir in the diced apples and chopped bacon. Pour the oatmeal batter into the prepared dish.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until batter is set and the top is slightly browned. Serve warm, drizzled with maple syrup.

Quick Tip: This is a great meal to bring to a new mama, a sick family member or a friend who could use encouragement. Double the recipe and make two dishes - one for your family and one for someone else!