Monday, October 22, 2012

A Loss

I have a story to tell, but I'm afraid to tell it—afraid of how I will hurt, afraid of missing the mark, afraid of finding more questions than answers. But I'm terrible at sorting these things out in my head, at least once they've aged this long and grown this tangled. What am I good at? Telling stories. So.

I have a story to tell. It's a story about a family, and about how terrible things happen to nice people. It's a story that is full of pregnancy- and mortality-related triggers, so I advise you now: read with caution. It's a piece of my story. Specifically, it is how I exited denial.

In the spring of 2005, a beautiful baby girl is born in San Francisco. The birth is not easy, and her mother struggles to recover and to endure the strain of new motherhood. A fiery little creature, she takes much attention and minding as the months pass and she begins to crawl and climb and walk and run. She tweaks people as easily as she charms them, then charms them all over again, and so the family grows together in its way, quirky, imperfect, but loving.

I am one of that little girl's mothers and also her father; this is the story of how our family grows from three to four.

Around my daughter's second birthday, we conceive our second child. It had taken some time to get over the memory of her first pregnancy, but my wife wanted the children to be relatively close together in age, and so family planning wins out over reticence. There's that first heartbeat, and then the ultrasound, where a little peanut of a person shows-up with a beating heart. [I'm freaking-out, right now as I write, desperate to understand why I'm doing this to myself, why am I re-living this? WHY? How many tears do I want? How many is enough?] Proud, anxious newly-expectant parents, all over again.

One battery of fetal-health tests pass, then another. We see a tiny human begin to form on the ultrasound, and it moves. Then we see genitalia—a little girl. A little sister. We are thrilled.

Then a test result from the second battery is reported as being borderline. Could we get more tests done? Of course we can. We have a more precise nuchal fold measure taken, and full body stats revise the date of conception later by several weeks. The numbers are insignificant by themselves -- nothing manifestly abnormal, only borderline, but there are enough of them askew that our Ob/Gyn orders more precise testing. It is too late in the pregnancy for a CVS, so an amniocentesis is performed.

We wait for the results with a horrible sort of dread; somehow our new, beautiful little girl has slid in an eyeblink from future joy to immediate fear. The nightmares that every newly-pregnant couple puts to rest as soon as possible—that WE had set aside—are all of a sudden hiding just out of sight.

I receive a summons: “The clinic called; come home, please.” I leave my half-completed voice lesson and hurry the five blocks home.

She was there on the couch.

I don't remember the precise words; I mean, I do—heaven help me, I do—but I'm incapable of the internal review to organize those particular memories to my usual precision. She was in tears:

“Triploidy. They say she's triploid; three of every chromosome. It's terminal.” “Oh god. Oh my god. How … What …” “I want this baby” “What do we do?” “What do people do?” “I love this baby” “Our baby girl …” “I really want this baby.” Not one of those fragments, handed back and forth between us, was delivered whole. Each was punctuated by sobs, gasping sobs, voices cracking, shaking. And yet I will never, ever, ever forget them.

Like the moment JFK was shot. The moment, for us both, that our second daughter began to die.

We call our parents. Mine hurry into town, collect our little girl from her day care and bring her, briefly, home. And here is another moment seared into my memory: My wife suddenly collapses, sobbing, into my mother's arms, her postponement of grief failing catastrophically, and our 2½ year-old daughter looks up at them from a few feet away, transfixed. She is in shock. Her little jaw opens slightly as her world lists, one particular pillar having just crumbled before her eyes. For almost two years afterwards, she will make a habit, throughout mornings and evenings, of regularly, repeatedly checking on our emotional condition: are we happy? are we sad? are we tired? are we okay?: Every question an aftershock.

My parents take our daughter for several nights, we take bereavement leave from our jobs, and the snarl of questions unravels into ruin. We google “triploidy”—after all, my brother has trisomy-21, and he has led a loving, if slow, life.  It is absolutely, unequivocally, fatal: miscarriage, or a few weeks of painful, failing life. One girl, the longest-lived on record, survived almost half a year, and I'm moved to tears by how hideously cruel her parents' outspoken belief in sanctity of life feels as I read of it.

We visit our clinic and meet with a genetic counselor, who gently summarizes what we already have learned: a painful, weeks-long life if she survives to term, serious danger to the mother: risk of death in delivery or sterility from molar complications. Terror grips us. We come to a conclusion.

We will terminate. We meet with a surgeon. I ask … but no, some things are inessential. [And some pain I still husband alone.]

It is a D&C. We learn what this entails and go numb. Our daughter could be born into brief and inchoate agony and threaten to end her mother's life, or … could gently enter a final sleep in utero. This is no choice. And yet, we cannot shirk our agency—we do choose. Oh, God. We choose.

We begin grief counseling. The termination happens. We continue counseling. We return to our jobs, going through what motions we can. Months pass, little more than a blur in my memories.

We grieve all through the winter. I teach myself to knit, and construct an absurdly sophisticated, crazily geeky scarf.

We get the medical okay to try again, to risk another conception, another devastation. Eventually, we achieve the courage to try, and conceive our third child immediately.

I find a route to expiate my grief and my new terror, to focus the love that found itself horribly adrift, the love that could not save my tiny, broken child. I will make a baby blanket, of course. Every stitch will be cast with this love. Every ounce of affection that what remains of her spirit might accept, will be offered there. Every stitch will catch a mother's and father's love, and as our third child grows and we discover who it is—who it might be—the new love growing will be caught as well. And when her spirit fully departs, when her time is truly past, what love is left will mingle with this new love to finish the blanket that shall warm and comfort her sibling.

What an animistic concept to spring from the heart of an agnostic, deeply apostate, permanently lapsed Catholic. But there is a gaping, bleeding hole in my psyche, now: The data strongly suggest a dyandric origin to the triploidy. Either my sperm was broken, having improperly undergone mitosis, or a second sperm also fertilized the egg. A cell from my body, that should have given my child life, took it instead. I have blood on my hands, and a gravid heart that must somehow be delivered of its unreleased longing and warmth before they sour and turn to rejection and bitterness. And so, to mend my soul before loss could cripple me, I knit.

This third pregnancy progresses. A heartbeat. Simple measurements. As soon as viable, we schedule a CVS. We wait for results.

That day, that glittering-bright and amazing day, I receive a phone call. “The results are: healthy, karyotypically normal, male!” We leave our respective offices on foot and meet midway across town to hold each other and cry tears of relief, tears of joy, tears of hope that our nightmare might be drawing to a close.

There are weeks of gladness, now, and we recenter ourselves towards a normal gestational routine. The blanket progresses, the loves now blending into sweetness as the soft, daisy-yellow stitches gradually amass.

And then a shadow grows. A nagging worry lingers, somewhere just out of sight. A little boy is coming. I've fathered a little boy. A little baby boy. I fathered a boy. A beautiful boy. A father. A boy.

I start sleeping poorly. There are dreams I cannot recall that leave me exhausted. I wake abruptly from dreams of fighting with my parents, the final shouts voiced fully in the dark of the bedroom. Once I punch my sleeping partner in the arm, struggling as a dream-child to defend my dream-family against an abusive captor/abductor. I begin to fear sleep, and the insomnia begins. Thoughts whirl about me in the dark hours, thoughts I grudgingly consider, robbed as they are of dream-expression. I start to write, and I begin to voice questions.

How can I model male for this boy? How can I be something I'm not? How can I exemplify something I've never accepted being? Who will he see when he looks at me? Will he see me, obscured as I'll be by the trappings of all the role into which he will grow? Will he know me?

Will I know my child?

Will my child see me?

Can I hope to share all my love?

There is a fear I call the isolator-fear. It is a bleakness, and a distrust. It is the panicky urge behind every camouflage defense, propping-up every shell, every mask. It is the lie that we, any of us, might truly be unlovable to anyone. It is the lie that the surety of affection to our faces could ever be preferable to even just the possibility of affection to our hearts. It is an insidious serpent that makes islands of us, stony and barren, by threatening to cast us adrift. It devours our relationships and gives us certainty—the certainty that we must always hide.

And at last, in a shifting of darkness, the isolator-fear stirs, feeding greedily on this flood of insecurity. I mustn't rock the boat. There's nothing here to consider; surely I know precisely what I am: a genderqueer man with some complex fetish and much needless angst. It's so simple, how could I let myself be conflicted? I need sleep. This has to stop.

But the powerful, aching love for two dear children, one now nine months dead, one yet unborn and curled quietly within the woman lying beside me, is now furiously ablaze. Every morning, with every stitch, I consider words to share with my son. Every night I rest in bed, sometimes for hours, fiercely brandishing my sorrow in two needles, making a thing of tenderness and nurture, calming and relaxing each twitch of tension in my hands. It is more consuming than any fear.

And as that serpent, in those late, dark pre-dawn hours, winds about my every worry, it cannot help but brush against the firestorm of emotion I have been nursing. Touched by flame, drifting askew in confusion, it catches briefly alight. And in that fleeting illumination, I see the hypocrisy. I see the life that its dusky coils chain me away from. I see the final moment of the interior of the closet all around me, as its walls disintegrate and leave me exposed in a strange new land.

And my world changes.

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