Monday, May 2, 2016

Dear Aunt Pat

Dear Aunt Pat,

All of your family and friends gathered for a cookout on a warm day in Cincinnati yesterday to celebrate your life. When it was my turn to speak, this is what I said. I'm leaving it here for you because you've always been so supportive of my writing. I assume you have internet in heaven because that's where Netflix came from.


On the evening of April 11th, my son was running around naked after his bath (“Air drying” as we like to call it) when I got a text from my dad. The worst kind of text; the one that we all started to receive that evening. My dear Aunt Pat had passed away.

It’s odd how something so expected can still muster such a gut punch.

Still in the midst of our nightly bedtime routine I put a diaper and jammies on my little guy and mindlessly grabbed a story off the bookshelf. It turns out that I picked a gargantuanly stupid book to read that evening. On the Night You Were Born opens like this:

On the night you were born
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered, “Life will never be the same”
Because there had never been anyone like you… Ever in the world.”

My husband had to read the bedtime story that night.

But how perfect is that message for today? Today is not about the evening of April 11th. No, we’re having a beautiful cookout and wearing bright colors because today is about July 20th, 1956. Younger or older that day, near or far, or maybe not even born yet, July 20th is the day that blessed all of our lives.

Generous, spirited, vibrant, caring, fun… My Aunt Pat was the best parts of humanity, rolled into one human being. She was endlessly, selflessly supportive. Aunt Pat drove in from out of town hours before my high school orchestra concerts. She took me on my first trip to Disney World, and she offered up the pullout couch at her timeshare when we wanted to go on vacation. She planned our baby shower, drove to Chicago for that baby’s first birthday party, and made a quilt decorated with farm animals to commemorate his first trip to the Indiana State Fair. Aunt Pat sent me a box of craft materials when I started scrapbooking; she read food labels for me at Costco when I eliminated gluten; she invited us to a Reds game when she found out my new boyfriend liked baseball; and when I married that boy a few years later, she is still the one everyone remembers from the dance floor at our wedding.

My father-in-law said it best. A few months after he first met her, I mentioned her in a conversation and said, “You remember Aunt Pat, right?” To which he responded, “Aunt Pat? How could I forget Aunt Pat?”

How could I forget Aunt Pat? Those six words are as true today as they have always been: “How’s your Aunt Pat?” has been a common question throughout my whole life, especially after her diagnosis in 2010. But even when she was sick, the answer was always, puzzlingly, the same: “She’s great.” In her persistence - her insistence - to live her whole life to its truest potential, she was a constant reminder to live the good life: That in the face of sickness or doubt or heartbreak, we must always choose happiness. July 20th, 1956 lit a light too bright for even cancer to fade.

Aunt Pat’s positivity in the face of her illness reminded me of a little story I read in Tuesdays With Morrie:

The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air — until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.”
'My God, this is terrible,’ the wave says ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!'
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’
The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’
The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.’
Aunt Pat has always been my second wave. And we are all so lucky to have shared the same ocean with her. She was special in ways that now seem so difficult to qualify. Reducing her to adjectives feels like trying to describe an inside joke, or a movie plot line, or the taste of chocolate: it's just best experienced first-hand.

Of course, as we all know, no quality defined Aunt Pat more than her love for Max. In fact, one of my earlier memories from my childhood is of a conversation I had with her shortly after Max was born. I was ten years old, riding in the passenger seat of her little dark blue Toyota, and she was talking to me with maturity and trust, as she always did, like a friend. Then she started talking about baby Max. I remember this conversation almost verbatim: She said to me, “You know, when you were born, your parents would say to me, ‘We really love her.’ And I would look at them and say, ‘I know, I know, she’s cute; I love her, too.’ But now I have Max, and I do. I really, really love him.” I wouldn’t have my own child for another two decades, but that day in 1995, I understood the depth of a mother’s love for her son.

So when I said goodbye to my Aunt Pat for the last time a few weeks ago, she said to me, “Just love Max.” “I already do,” I said. That’s the thing: Max, you are so much like your mom: generous, spirited, vibrant, caring, and fun. But most of all, just like her, you are so incredibly easy to love.

A few weeks ago, I tucked my son into bed with his farm animal quilt, and my husband finished the story. Here’s to July 20th, on the night my Aunt Pat was born.

For never before in story or rhyme (not even once upon a time)
Has the world ever known a you, my friend,
And it never will, not ever again.
Heaven blew every trumpet
And played every horn
On the wonderful, marvelous
Night you were born.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Letter To My Past Self

Dear Me In 2012,

You are two years into your marriage and people are starting to ask when you and Ian are going to have children. You're wondering the same thing, but you're nervous about how a child would encumber your lives. You think that "having children is the denoument of the slide into adulthood known as 'settling down.'" You're worried you'll regret it.

I'm writing to you from three years in your future. You have a 17-month old. You have stretchmarks and a scar on your belly, pediatrician's bills in your filing cabinet, and an early wakeup call everyday. And you have no idea how you could have ever thought you would regret this.

You're worried about parenthood limiting your wanderlust. No more chats about spending three weeks in Munich or joining the Peace Corps. As of today, your passport has been expired for three years and your fear of flying has little to do with turbulence, and more to do with flying with a cranky baby. (And a carseat. By yourself. True Story.) You like traveling less than you used to. You feel lucky to love being at home.

Plus, you get to visit the remote island nation of James everyday, which is more exotic than any place you've ever pinned on Pinterest. The unique inhabitant of this island has weird customs like throwing food, waking at odd hours, and shrieking at the slightest sensation of any emotion whatsoever. Jamesland is fascinating.

I wish that you would redirect your concerns about world exploration to your friendships because having a baby is going to be a huge shock to all of the relationships in your life. Happily, you are going to make some amazing new friends through James. Nascent as these friendships may be today, when you watch James swing in tandem with a music class friend or steal cheerios from a toddler whose mom you met in birth class, you will silently hope that you'll get to watch these babies grow up together. 

But having a baby will be also be an unexpected test on your old friendships. Getting pregnant at 28 means that, of all the friends in your wedding photos, you and Ian will be the first ones to become parents, and that's tough sometimes. You'll feel guilty when you realize it's been two months since you reached out to a friend, when it feels like it's been two weeks. You'll feel isolated when your girlfriends can't sympathize with your frustration at a woman who complained to you about her coworkers leaving work at 5:30 to pick up their kids from daycare when "I have a yoga class at 5:30!"

And you'll feel sad for the friends you start to lose touch with. The initial phone calls of excitement give way to fewer get-togethers and unanswered texts. You'll hope that they still think of you as the same person that you were before James. But your schedule and priorities are different now, so perhaps they think you've changed. They're not wrong.

Most of all you'll feel grateful for your friends. They will bring you doughnuts in the hospital and Chipotle in those bleary first few weeks home; and they'll buy James books and onesies and ask to hold him even though "I don't know what I'm doing!"; and they will still invite you and Ian out to dinner, even though they know you need way more forewarning nowadays. You'll hope that you will someday get to repay the tremendous kindness that your friends have shown you, and you'll want to thank them in a blog post for making you feel like the same version of yourself even in the middle of a huge life change.

Of course, you hate change; you love routine. You've always been a "love-you-have-a-good-day" kind of gal. So introducing precious sweet 8lbs 15 oz angel baby James into your life is going to S-U-C-K at first. But, as it turns out, babies love routine, too. So you'll find your groove again right away, and you'll find comfort in the 7pm bath-book-boob-bed routine with James and the quiet time on the couch with Ian every evening.

Other things will change, too. You'll be more self confident. You won't mind your stretchmarks because of the miracle they represent. Your marriage will get stronger and, the biggest surprise of them all: you'll have better sex, likely for a few reasons: because you're more confident; because you appreciate alone time with your husband like never before; and because nothing's quite a sexy as seeing the man you love jump out from behind the couch just to make the little boy you love laugh.

In the months before James' birth, someone close to you will tell you that it's totally normal to bring him home from the hopsital and think, "I've made a huge mistake." That happens. You will look at your days-old bundle of joy, swaddled in those adorable Aden & Anais muslin blankets, perfectly asleep in his crib, and you will see him as a ticking time bomb that will explode into a fit of wailing five minutes after you've dozed off. You'll dread the possibility of him getting sick because then he might really cry non-stop.

After a couple of weeks, you'll reflect on those thoughts and newly believe that there is nothing powerful enough in this world that could keep you from being the one to comfort James if he ever got sick. Your love for him will be the most beautiful, primal feeling you've ever experienced, completely unparalleled in your life.

In thinking about having children, you hypothesized that "when you sacrifice for love... it just feels like the right decision." You're not wrong, but those words don't sound right to me anymore:

Parenting James isn't a sacrifice; it's a blessing.

When I'm rocking James to sleep in the evening, and I look at his peaceful face as the shadows roll back and forth across his soft cheeks, I think about Time. God willing, my baby will grow old one day, and Time will crease those cheeks with wrinkles and stiffen the little fingers resting sweetly on my chest. When he's old and gray and I'm not there, will someone rock him gently? Will they comfort him when he can't sleep, and stroke his hair tenderly, and pull his blanket up to keep him warm? In those moments, I'm reminded that the real sacrifice in parenthood is the beautiful fragility in wondering if anyone could ever love James as much as I do.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thoughts on a C-Section

When James wakes up from his nap, I’m going to give him a big kiss on his chubby cheeks and place him snug on my hips. My big ole’ birthing hips. Except those hips didn’t birth him. He came out of a 7-inch incision on the underside of my belly. I see that scar everytime I take my clothes off, a reminder of the happiest day in May when I became a mother. But, for some reason, lately I’ve been looking at that scar and wondering one question: what went wrong?

Of course, in the most important sense, nothing went wrong. I was pregnant in the 21st century and gave birth in a stellar hospital, under the care of wonderful nurses and physicians, coached by our incredible doula, in a country with a low maternal mortality rate. When my water broke at home without any sign of labor and baby’s risk of infection went up because his bag of waters was no longer protecting him, those nurses hooked me up to pitocin to start labor for me. And after kickin’ it the old-fashioned way for 22 hours, I got to labor without pain thanks to the guardian angel anesthesiologist who administered my epidural. And when my cervix refused to dilate past 4.5 cm, and I’d been on high levels of pitocin for too long, that wonderful team of doctors cut James out of my belly safely for the two of us, and I became part of the 30% of women who give birth via C-Section every year in the US.

That’s a substantial number, but I naively thought I would never be included in it. I had a very easy, healthy pregnancy and thus had the luxury of casually ignoring the possibility that I would deliver James via C-Section. Some mamas aren’t so lucky: risk factors like breech position and placenta issues often require a planned-for, scheduled surgery. But that wasn’t me. On top of my healthy pregnancy, I went to yoga classes and on daily walks, I took prenatal vitamins and ate well(-ish), I read pregnancy books, and Ian and I signed up for a 9-week long childbirth education class. Ending my pregnancy with a C-Section felt like being carried across the finish line when I had been training to run a marathon.

Moreover, as I prepared for a "natural" childbirth in the months leading up to our due date, all l I kept hearing was how women’s bodies are designed to birth their babies. And I couldn’t help but look at my own body in the mirror, with my big hips, big boobs and soft tummy, that I looked like a woman designed to push a baby out of her hoo-ha.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I would have forced myself to envision James’ birth in different ways rather than believing that my birth plan would come to fruition if I wanted it hard enough.

That I didn’t mentally prepare for a C-Section has led to a bit of retrospective mourning for the birth I thought I was going to have, something scheduled C-Section mamas get to grapple with weeks ahead of time. Instead, after a whole day in labor with no sleep, the surgery team flooded our labor & delivery room and I had no time or energy to reconcile my emotions. I was left feeling like I missed out on something: the pushing, the baby on the chest, seeing my husband’s wide smile instead of trying to decipher it behind a surgical mask…

Most of all, I’m scared that James missed out on something, that being born through my abdomen will disadvantage him somehow. And that he’s disadvantaged not because of some unlucky pregnancy issue, but because of the decisions I made that precipitated his cesarean delivery. He wasn't breech and my placenta was fine, so I can't help but blame my own choices. If only I had waited longer for labor to start on its own, or asked about Cervadil at that last prenatal visit when I was past my due date, or used my birthing ball more… Maybe I didn’t just fail to have a vaginal birth; maybe I failed him.

But in the face of this doubt, I am certain of one thing: my C-Section was the right decision under the circumstances at the time. So perhaps James’ birth was my first big lesson in parenting: all Ian and I can do is make the best decisions we can with the information that we have. That’s what we did. As our childbirth education instructor told us, “As long as you love your baby, you’re making the right choice.” I love my sweet baby more than any words I could write here, and the choices we made on his birthday - being induced to avoid infection and opting for the C-Section to stop his prolonged exposure to pitocin - we made of out love.

I may not have been the first one to hold James in my arms - that was Ian - but I held him in my body for 41 weeks. And I hold him today, his little foot resting sweetly over the scar on my belly, in between my birthing hips.

*Amanda Megan Miller Photography