pockets of grief, wells of memory

This past weekend, I flew to Nashville to celebrate a very special occasion: my friend Holly was ordained as a minister! She has been working for years towards this milestone, and I am so incredibly proud of her.

I had never before attended an ordination, and I was blown away by the beauty and emotion of the ceremony. It reminded me a lot of a wedding, but instead of celebrating the union of a couple, we were celebrating Holly’s commitment to generously serve others as a minister. Perhaps my favorite part of the ceremony was right after Holly was officially ordained and became Reverend Holly. The entire church stood up and burst into applause, and Holly looked out at all of us, her face glowing. Tears sprung to my eyes in that moment. The room was so palpably filled with love for my dear friend, who has already touched so many lives and is adored by so many people.

In preparing for the weekend, I expected to feel pride. I expected to feel joy. I expected to feel love and connection and excitement and peace. And I did feel all of these things. What I did not expect to feel was… grief.

I felt fresh, unexpected waves of missing Celine, the ache of her loss filling my chest more fiercely than it has in a long time. In the past year or so, my grief over her death has settled into a quiet place within my heart. I think of her often — but, unlike in the immediate aftermath of her death, my thoughts of her now are often accompanied by happiness. I can smile at my memories of her, even as I deeply miss her presence.

But grief is not a straight line. Grief can surprise you. Grief can sneak up on you. You can stumble upon pockets of grief that steal all the breath from your lungs and suddenly it is like you just lost your person, all over again, in that instant.

I was expecting to miss Celine at Holly’s ordination, just like I missed her at my wedding — crossing the threshold of another Big Life Event that she should be here to experience with us. But the way I missed her this weekend was sharp and personal and raw.

The really neat thing about an ordination is that people from all corners and phases of your life come to honor the person you were, the person you are, and the person you are still becoming. Holly’s family was there, and her friends from childhood, and her friends from divinity school. People were there from the church she grew up attending and the church she interned with and her current church home. Old classmates and old professors and old family friends.

What I hadn’t put together beforehand was that I would be the sole ambassador from Holly’s college years, the years we were roommates, the years our friendship blossomed and grew strong. As I walked into the church and sat down in a pew, I found myself looking around for the third pea in our pod: Celine.

Everyone else had their people from their phase of Holly’s life. Celine would have been my person there. I felt like I was trying to hold up a mantle for both of us, a mantle that was meant to be shared, that was too heavy for me alone. I felt sad and awkward under the weight. Because Celine should have been there, too. If life were even close to fair or sensible, she would have been there sitting next to me, holding my hand as we both blinked back proud tears for our girl Holly.

Holly’s childhood friends came in then, and I have met them all before and they are lovely, and they scooted over on their pew so I could sit with them. We chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. It was comforting to know that they had met Celine — that if I spoke her name they would share stories of her and remember her, too. I wondered if they thought of her when they saw me.

The strange thing was, even as I grieved anew the loss of one of the brightest lights I have ever known, I could also feel her presence more vividly than I had in a long time. I could imagine her there next to me, wearing a white top and a yellow skirt and a purple belt, with dangly earrings and red lipstick, her long hair pulled partly back with bobby pins. I could clearly imagine her hand in mine, with her round nails painted turquoise. I could see her looking at me with her big eyes, smiling at me as we talked about some random memory from college. She would stand up and greet people, shake their hands and say, “We’re Holly’s friends from college.” We are. How lonely the “I” is, when compared with “we.”

But as the service began, I was overcome by a profound sense that I was there not just as Dallas, but that I was representing Celine, too. I knew without a doubt that she was there in spirit — that she was indeed sitting beside me, holding my hand, in whatever way she could. Only in the physical, mortal sense was I there alone.

At the ordination after-party, they served lasagna.

*

After an amazing whirlwind weekend, on the plane from Nashville yesterday morning, I was reading through an old issue of a literary journal. An essay by Emily Arnason Casey described a Greek myth of the lark, taking place in a time before the world began, back when there was only air and sky and wind. The lark’s father dies and there is nowhere to bury his body–no ground for him to rest in for eternity. The birds all gather together and try to decide what to do, but they cannot think of any solutions. Until finally, Casey writes, “the lark decides she will bury the body of her father in the back of her mind, and this is the beginning of memory.

When I looked up the symbolism of larks, I found these words that burst with resonance of Celine:

Larks are known for their melodious singing. They also sing while they are flying, unlike most other birds, who only sing when perched. This indicates cheerfulness and reminds us to find joy in our own lives.

Larks have a crescent shape across their breasts. The crescent shape often signifies lunar qualities, and the moon is often linked with the concept of self. Therefore the lark reflects the inward journey that’s often associated with self-discovery. This goes hand in hand with their singing, something that, for humans, is often considered a private activity and a deep reflection of inner self. Lark encourages us to explore our inner selves and sing out loud.

I don’t think I came across this essay in a random literary journal from 2012 by accident during my flight home. I believe it was a message from Celine. She wanted to remind me that she is buried inside me, and inside of all of us who love her, and the well of our memories with her runs ever-deep, like a cup that can never be emptied. Her memory encourages all of us to find joy in our lives, to explore our inner selves, to sing out loud.

Celine would be turning 30 this Friday. I am celebrating her birthday by getting together with friends for dinner and then going out to a bar where the waiters sing show-tunes. I am going to remember Celine by laughing unselfconsciously and squeezing people I love in big bear hugs and singing along to Broadway show-tunes at the top of my lungs.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following prompts as inspiration for some free-writing:

  • Write about a person you miss, whether they are gone from this life or are simply someone you have lost touch with. What do you miss most about them? What memories with them do you treasure?
  • Think about an animal that carries symbolism for you, and write about the ways this meaning has touched your life at different points.
  • Write a love letter to one of your dearest friends about all the things you love about them. Bonus: send it to them!

the {un}luckiest day

I.

December 23, 2017 was one of the unluckiest days of my life.

I was six weeks and two days pregnant, and Allyn and I could not have been more excited. We had been hoping and praying for a baby, and it seemed like such a crazy miracle when we saw that tiny blue “+” on the pregnancy test. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I found myself jumping up and down like a little kid on a trampoline as I exclaimed to Allyn, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” Over the coming days, as I felt my body already beginning to change, it was like I had the most delicious secret. Like I had a superpower. Like I was never alone, even when I was by myself running errands or driving to meet with a student or walking around the lake, because I had a precious little soul inside me, growing bigger every single day.

We made plans to share the news with our families and close friends over the holidays. I could not wait to celebrate our joyful news with them.

It was a Thursday afternoon when I felt the first sharp, cramping pain. I was on a Skype call with a student at the time and the pain was intense enough to be distracting. After we hung up, trying to calm my alarm, I googled “pregnancy cramps” and found out that what I was experiencing seemed to be normal. Still, I felt uneasy. I cancelled my next student session and took a nap.

The cramping would wax and wane, but it never fully went away. By Friday night, I was feeling worried, even though I told myself that I was probably overreacting just like I often do about health-related matters. {I have banned myself from going on WebMD because it always makes me convinced I am suffering from some deadly illness or rare malady.} I told Allyn that I wanted to go to Urgent Care the next morning, if only to get some reassurance. “Maybe I have a bladder infection or something,” I mused. I refused to let myself think that anything was wrong with our baby.

Yet, this despair was seeping through my bones. I refused to let myself think about it. But, in a deep inner place, I knew.

On Saturday, December 23, I woke up in a lot of pain. I curled onto my side and scrolled through online pregnancy forums on my phone. All of the women who described experiencing cramping during pregnancy wrote about how it lasted an hour or two, usually in the evening. They wrote about how warm compresses or shifting position would help alleviate the pain.

Tears pricked my eyes. Nothing was alleviating my pain. My pain was getting worse and worse.

I told Allyn I needed to go to Urgent Care. It was crowded, filled with coughing and sniffling people. The receptionist told me they did not have ultrasound equipment, and suggested I go next door to the E.R.

The E.R.? This wasn’t really an emergency, was it? I almost turned around and went home. I wanted so badly to just “tough it out” and pretend like nothing was happening, like nothing was wrong. Maybe if I ignored it, the pain would go away. What if this was totally normal and I was overreacting? We had plans to get lunch with friends and Allyn’s family. His brother Colin was only in town for a few days. Who knew how long we’d be stuck in the E.R. My overactive worried imagination would ruin all of our plans.

Still, something propelled me forward. We checked into the E.R. They called me back, gave me a wristband, assigned me a room. Nurses took my vitals and bloodwork, scheduled an ultrasound to “check things out.” It would be our first ever ultrasound. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt as the technician rubbed the wand over my belly, pressing down hard. I couldn’t see the screen. Allyn could, but it was impossible for him to read. The technician was silent. I kept hoping she would say, “Look, there’s your baby!” But she didn’t. In my mind, I talked to our baby, saying over and over, We love you so much. We love you so much already, sweetheart. It’s going to be okay. Eventually, I found myself praying. Please, please, please. 

They wheeled me back to my room. Allyn and I tried to watch a movie on the TV to distract ourselves, to pass the time. Eventually the nurse came back. Her face looked sad. “Do you know what an ectopic pregnancy is?” she asked.

I did. I had read about it on the pregnancy forums. An ectopic pregnancy is one that implants in the fallopian tube, instead of in the uterus.

She explained how ectopic pregnancies are not viable with life. How I would have to take medication to terminate the pregnancy. How, otherwise, my fallopian tube would rupture as the baby grew, and then my life would be at risk as well.

“We’re still waiting for the doctor to give us the final report from the ultrasound,” the nurse said. “But we’re afraid that’s what it looks like. We’re having trouble finding the pregnancy in the uterus. It’s possible that it is just very small at this point.”

Allyn and I held hands, clinging to the hope that maybe our baby was there, where it was supposed to be. Maybe it was just hard to see something so small, so early on. Maybe… maybe…

A short time later, the ob-gyn doctor on call came in. She showed us the ultrasound images, pointing out the gaping emptiness of my uterus. The emptiness hit me like a slap. I felt like I had done something wrong. Like my body had failed me — had failed our baby.

“There is nothing you did to cause this,” the doctor said, as if reading my mind. “You have no risk factors. You’re young and healthy. This is just extremely bad luck.”

Our bad luck worsened. She showed us the dark blobs on the ultrasound, explaining in a calm voice that it was blood. “You have a lot of internal bleeding,” she told me. “Your tube has already ruptured. We need to do surgery.”

“Surgery?” my mind was whirring. “When?”

“As soon as possible. When was the last time you ate anything?”

From then on, time compressed. Everything happened very quickly. I was prepped for surgery. I signed a bunch of forms. I called my parents. I held Allyn’s hand for as long as I could as they wheeled me down the hospital corridors to the operating room. I remember being in the operating room, worrying that I would somehow wake up in the middle of the procedure. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a hospital corridor. Allyn was there. “You did great,” he said softly. “Everything is okay.”

I had left our apartment that morning as a woman who was six weeks and two days pregnant. I returned as a normal woman again. Back to my previous self. Drained of my superpowers.

{source}

II.

December 23, 2017 was one of the luckiest days of my life.

Yes, it was one of the most terrible days I have ever experienced. But it could have been so much worse. It could have been the end of my life.

That morning, I absolutely did not want to go to the E.R. I wanted to shove the pain down and pretend it didn’t exist. But there was a little voice inside me, telling me not to do that. Telling me to listen to my body. And so I did. I’m so lucky that I did.

I’m so lucky that I have medical insurance. That this state-of-the-art hospital was just down the street. That, for whatever reason — maybe because it was two days before Christmas — the E.R. was not crowded. I was admitted and seen right away. I did not have to wait long to get my bloodwork and ultrasound results. Allyn and I were given a private room, which meant we had space to cry and grieve, alone together.

I was extremely lucky that the ob-gyn doctor on call that day happened to be MY ob-gyn, Dr. Garima Loharuka. A doctor I had built a relationship with, who knew my history, who knew me. A doctor I had just emailed the previous week to tell her I was pregnant, who swept into our room with the most loving aura of compassion, who gave me a big hug and said, “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” A doctor I trusted completely, who explained clearly and calmly what would happen, who answered our many questions with patience and grace. A doctor who got tears in her eyes right before I was wheeled into surgery, when I told her, “I am so glad you are here,” and she said, “There’s nowhere else I would be. I just really wish you didn’t have to be here right now.” A doctor who truly cared, and who made me feel like I was in the best hands.

I am so lucky that the operation went well — that my other fallopian tube and both of my ovaries are intact; that my doctor says I should be able to have heathy pregnancies in the future; that she says I should have no greater risk factor for another ectopic pregnancy.

I am so lucky to be living in the era of modern medicine, where surgery for an ectopic pregnancy is even possible. In the past, there would have been nothing they could have done. This would have killed me.

We are so lucky to have such amazing and supportive families. Allyn’s sister came to the hospital and brought Allyn food, since he never did each lunch, and sat with him while I was in surgery. She went to our apartment to bring me some comfortable sweatpants to change into after the operation, and she also brought me Mendo, the stuffed animal frog who lives on our bed, so I would have something to make me smile when I woke up. Plus she thoughtfully did our dishes and made our bed and tidied up our apartment.

I am lucky to have such a wonderful mother-in-law, who cooked an entire Christmas dinner at her home and then brought everything to our tiny apartment, where we crammed around the dinner table together and Colin fell asleep on the couch with a beer in his hand and I laughed for the first time since Allyn and I saw the tragic truth on those ultrasound images.

I am so lucky that my parents and my brother Greg were able to scrap our Christmas plans and take time off work and pile into the car and drive up to the Bay Area to spend the week with us. Being with them was such a healing balm for my heart. They watched a marathon of corny Hallmark Christmas movies with me, made sure I was eating and drinking enough, held my hand when I broke into tears. I felt incredibly nurtured and surrounded by love from our families and close friends, many of whom cried on the phone with me when I told them what had happened.

And I am incredibly lucky to have my husband. I told him that we have made it through our first real crisis together, and we have come through on the other side even more tightly joined. My love for him has only deepened and strengthened through this ordeal. Despite his own grief and pain, he was my rock through it all — never wavering in his comforting presence. He was my advocate, asking questions and making sure I had everything I needed. He filled my prescriptions and kept track of when I needed to take my medications. He got up in the middle of the night to help me out of bed when I had to use the bathroom, since I wasn’t supposed to use my ab muscles at all {where much of my internal bleeding was} and he gently laid me back down into bed when I was done. He helped me walk. He knelt and dried off my legs after the shower because it hurt my abs to bend down. He tucked away my pregnancy and baby books into a drawer so I wouldn’t have to face them. He held me. He hugged me. He told me, “The most important thing is that you’re okay.” When I felt like a failure, he convinced me otherwise.

The grief of this experience has made Allyn and I even more grateful for each other. We’ve always tried not to take our life together for granted, but I think that our gratitude run even deeper now. Nor do we take a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby for granted. When it comes — and hopefully it will come for us, one day — we will cherish it with every fiber of our beings.

I still feel sad sometimes. I still mourn the baby we lost. And yet, I do feel hopeful. I am hopeful that we will someday get to experience the joy of a rainbow baby after this heartbreaking storm.

In my entire life, the unluckiest day of all was January 26, 2015, when Celine was killed. But there is comfort to think of her somewhere out there, lovingly cuddling the soul of this baby we will never meet here on Earth, but who will always live in our hearts.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Turn to a new page in your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following prompts as “jumping off” points:

  • Write about one of your unluckiest days. Write about everything that was so painful about the experience. Letting it out helps to let go of it.
  • Now, see if you can find any threads of luck in that day. Is there anything you can be grateful for? Anything that could have been worse? Any ways in which you were spared? Any lessons you have learned from it?
  • Write a love letter to someone who was there for you during one of your bleakest times.