I hate November. I always have. The days are short and overcast. Even the thought of the annual Thanksgiving feast is not enough to cheer me. As a child, I can’t tell you the number of times my family sat feasting on the luscious bird with all of its trimmings, while I lay moaning in my bed, bedroom door closed, completely nauseated by the smells that managed to filter their way into my sickroom. Having the flu seemed, at times, like an annual November ritual. Something you could count on in the same way you could count on my mom grinding up the cranberries the night before the holiday. So you can have your Thanksgiving and the entire month. I still hate November.
It seems only fitting, then, that November would house one of my worst memories, one of those before and after moments that people call “defining.” In the scale of things, it was just a small moment. I’ve come to realize if you scratch below anyone’s surface, you will find similar moments. I’m not special. God did not single me out, but at twenty-four, with a limited worldview, it felt as if he had.
In my mind, I see a little blond girl, smiling and running towards me with arms outstretched. I smile back. I reach for her, picking her up and kissing her warm forehead. It is a cherished fantasy, decades old. It’s all I have of her, my youngest daughter, Heather, the fantasy.
When Heather was born, she had massive birth defects. That is what I tell people, when I talk about it. It sounds much better than the truth. That as a seven-month preemie, she weighed over ten pounds. That her little body was so bloated with fluid it had crushed her fragile bones, and made it impossible for her to come down the birth canal.
The fact that she managed to survive for twenty minutes after her caesarean birth, might qualify as a small miracle, on a day when miracles were in short supply. I am haunted with the idea that she was waiting for me, and in one final insult, I let her down, not coming out of the anesthetic fog until after she had died.
Funny, when they told me she was a girl, for a brief moment there was pleasure. I hadn’t known until that instant how much I was hoping for a girl. In that instant, I forgot that a short time earlier I had begged the doctor to give me some small piece of hope as they put me under the anesthesia. His response had been a negating shake of his head.
How much of my grief-inspired insanity do I share? How much can you hear? Do you want to know that because I never held her or kissed her little cheek, or even saw her ravaged body that the ache of it can still make me weak?
Do you want to know that for months afterwards, every time I got into my car it somehow ended up in the hospital parking lot? Even I couldn’t understand the compulsion, until finally, one day, it dawned on me that the hospital was the last place Heather had been alive for me. The baby that had kicked inside me whenever I stopped rocking in my chair had disappeared. My mind and body were still looking for her.
Do you want to know that it would take five years, but eventually the event would highlight the growing cracks in my marriage, making a divorce the final footnote of the tragedy?
I wanted the world to stop. I didn’t care about someone looking for a new house. I didn’t care if they lost their job, or their plumbing stopped working. I wanted to shout, “My daughter has died! Nothing else matters!” But of course, as everyone knows, everything else does matter, and eventually, even I had to pick up the pieces and move on.
I hope that in your gravest moments of crisis you will find the same support and compassion I found in the cadre of women who nurtured and sustained me through mine. My mother, my sisters - Marcia and Lee, and my sister-in-law Nancy had the difficult task of withstanding all the vitriol and angst that I could muster. Over and over again, they let me cry, and rage and once done, let me regurgitate again all the bile that filled my soul. They must have wondered at times if I would ever stop, and eventually I did, when the well of bile finally ran dry. I don’t know how these women weathered my storm, but thank God, they did.
And so there was before, and then there was after. One day I was me, and then I was another me - not necessarily a better me, or even a worse me, just a different me. That is how life is.
Most of the time, it is behind me, though never lurking too far below my surface. With decades of practice, I can talk about it clinically, dispassionately without the slightest wave of disturbance. Except in November, when the sky is overcast and the calendar stares at me in defiance. Then I weep.
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