“One of the lucky ones”: A testimony on the trauma inherent in adoption

November is National Adoption Month.  Last week, I talked to Wendy, a Canadian mental health professional who was adopted in the early 80’s and met her first mother at the age of 29. Wendy is Black, and her adoptive parents are white.
 
Our conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity) began when I first asked her if my perception was accurate, that we’re much more likely to hear the testimony of adoptive parents, than the stories of adoptees. 
 
W: Yes. Among the adoptee community, that is our biggest complaint, esepcially during National Adoption Awareness Month. Did anybody ask us?
 
It’s quite appalling, the extent to which people who are hoping to adopt only want to hear the positive side; they only want to hear the fairy tale. And if you say, “That’s not the whole story,” they don’t want to hear it. We are called names, we’re gaslit, we’re told to get therapy.
 
On certain platforms, whenever I open my mouth to say, “Okay, but adoption is not a fairy tale” at 8:30 in the morning, I put my phone down, and by lunch time there are twenty-five people calling me bitter, angry, and ungrateful. Here we go, another day on social media as an adopted adult. 
 

Why are people so unwilling to hear it?

 

W: Adoption is an industry. The industry has to advertise itself.
 

As an entire society, we have really bought hard into this “adoption is a beautiful option,” especially in pro-life circles. It’s, “If you can’t parent, here’s this almost uncomplicated, beautiful option.” 
 
If I say to an adoptive parents, “No, it’s not beautiful, and it’s very complicated,” what they’re not saying, but what I hear, is, “I thought we were doing a good thing, and you’re telling me we’re not. If you’re telling me all of this is true about adoption, then all of this is true of what my child has experienced. But my child is happy to be adopted, and my child is well-adjusted.”
 
I would have told you the same thing until I was 34 years old. 
 
What happened?
 
W: We have this phrase called “coming out of the fog.” In oversimplified terms, it refers to realizing adoption is not a fairy tale. As an adopted person, you get this narrative growing up: “We chose you from all the other children to be part of our family; isn’t that special?” You have to explain it to children in a way they can digest, and people want to make it a good story for a child. They tell it as a fairy tale, so you grow up thinking, yup, it’s a fairy tale. 
 
The other part of the story for me is, I am a transracial adoptee, which means I’m of a different race from my adoptive parents. My adoption is very visible. I’m a Black woman with a very Irish last name. 
 
Growing up, people ask you, “Are you adopted?” It’s amazing the questions people think they have a right to ask. You’re coached to answer the questions as a fairy tale. Looking back, those were very intrustive questions they had no right to ask, but I was encouraged to answer them, because it’s such a beautiful story. That’s the lens I had for the longest time. 
 
Even while having that lens, there were times, from the age of 11 or 12, that I would have these very negative emotions that didn’t seem to be attached to anything. My life is fine; why am I feeling like this? 
 
I was 20 or 21 and I realized I was not a big fan of my birthday. On the day, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t understand what that was.
 
Finally, years later, I said to a friend of mine: “As an adopted person, that’s the day I lost my first mother, and I do not feel like celebrating it.” 
 

How did she react?

 

W: She was able to take it on board. Some people really are not. Some adoptive parents can’t get their heads around it. They want to celebrate their child’s life. But whether your child has realized it or not, it’s a day that marks loss. Of course, not every child feels like that; maybe not every adult feels like that. 

Did you know other adoptees? When did you start realizing this was a common experience? 
 
W: Other than three cousins, also adoptees — they are indigenous. The Sixties Scoop  is most likely how they came into our family. I don’t have a lot of contact with them. One is not alive anymore. We’ve never had a conversation about adoption as adults.
 

It was as an adult, and it was on social media, that I had my first honest conversations about adoption. It’s interseting now to see new people come out of the fog, and the response you see over and over is, “I’m not weird; I’m not messed up. Everyone is telling me adoption is this beautiful thing, and I just thought there was something wrong with me.” No, there’s a whole other side to this.

What are some things your parents could have done differently, that would have given you a different experience? Or is it almost a rite of passage that everybody who’s adopted has to come to terms with at a certain age?

 
W: When I’m getting that backlash, the implication is that I should be grateful, and a lot of people want to run to the defense of my parents. They put a roof over my head and treated me like their own.
 
The thing that was missing is the realization that every single child who has been adopted, especially if it was not a kinship adoption [placement with relatives], has been traumatized by the separation from the first mother. The story started with trauma. 
 
The phrase that’s often used is “Adoption is trauma.” Yes, it’s the trauma of separation. The more I think about it, the deeper I realize it goes.
 
People will say, “But you don’t remember. It’s not like you were five and dragged screaming away from your mother. You were a baby.” But if you know trauma, you know about preverbal trauma. You don’t have to be old enough to have a narrative of it, for it to affect you. It shows up in the body. I can’t tell you a story of what’s troubling me, but I’m feeling a certain way. 
 
Then recently I was led to think about the effects of prenatal trauma. If a woman is pregnant and is she is abused, or is experiencing poverty or food insecurity or is homeless … what’s the effect on the child she’s carrying? 
 
It’s not so much what my parents could have done differently, it’s what the agency and adoption professionals could have done differently. I would bet my bottom dollar [my parents] were told, “Love will be enough. Take this child into your family and love her as your own, and everything will be fine.”
 
But if the trauma is there, and it absolutely is, you can’t love it away. But if you’re informed about how trauma works, and what a traumatized child needs, you can parent differently. When that trauma starts showing up, if you know why, maybe you don’t take it personally as parents. 
 
A hopeful adoptive parent recently told me all she hears about adoption lately is trauma.  She asked me if she should adopt. What I said is, If you’re not prepared for your child to look you in the face, a child you did your best to love and provide for, and for that child to say, “You’re not my real mother,” you’re not ready to adopt. If you can’t sit still for that, please don’t adopt.  
 
Are you concerned that this will scare people away? That children who would get homes are not going to get homes, because of your cautions?
 
W: Maybe this is callous, but if my speaking honestly scares you off, you’re not suitable to adopt.
 
And I absolutely believe that. Until we get to a conversation where we can say adopted children carry the trauma of separation, and until this conversation is happening at the industry level, we’re gonna get people who are surprised by this. We’re gonna get people who hear this talk about trauma and are scared away. 
 

So what do we do about that?

This hopeful adoptive parent I was talking to said, “It sounds like you’re saying the whole system is rotten.”

 
I said, “Yeah, it’s rotten to the core.” 
 
I say this because vulnerable women who approach adoption professionals, some health care professionals, some mental health professionals,  are pressured and often shamed to give up their babies for a promise of a “better life” with other parents, instead of having a conversation about whether she wants to parent, what supports she would need in order to parent, whether there is any way to involve family or community so that she can keep her child.
 
There are many cases, more than most people know, and more than “adoption professionals” will admit, where a mother or the mother’s family could have cared for the child if supported to do so.  But instead, we terminate parental rights, change the baby’s name, alter the birth certificate and put the child in someone else’s arms.  It’s rotten to the core. 
 
But until we arrive at adoption reform, this system is what we have. There are children who cannot safely remain with their parents.  There are children who have already endured that trauma of separation, and are in foster care, and right now adoption is the way we provide care and permanency.
 
I don’t think adoption, the way we do it right now, is a good thing. Why do you need to erase someone’s indentity, ancestry, and history to provide them with stability and care? You don’t. But that’s what the adoption industry does.  The unspoken idea is that if you erase a child’s history and identity, they can be easily inserted into a new family, and be “one of them” the way a biological chid is.   But that adopted child already had a family and an ancestral history.   That doesn’t cease to exist because someone altered some paperwork.
 
So for right now, it is what it is. There are kids that need care and permanency, and right now, we do that through the adoption system.
 
That’s my quandary, as a mental health professional. If you can’t recognize and support a traumatized child, you should not be parenting an adopted child. I will die on that hill. So what do we do with these children who are already in care and experiencing this instability? They need a solution. The current way we do adoption is not it.
 
What I hear a lot from foster parents is, “You might think you have to be the perfect parent and know exactly what to do, but you don’t. You just have to do your best, and be there for that child.” Are they wrong? Or is that situation just too different from adoption? 
 
W: It’s in the same broad circle. The idea that you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to do the best you can, there is absolutely a lot to that. 
 
You can’t go back and make that separation not happen. I think the best an adoptive parent can do is be willing to learn about the trauma that is inherent in adoption, and be willing to do the work to understand how to support a child who has been traumatized by the process.
 
That’s where the thick skin comes in. Do the work. Go to your own therapy. Talk to adopted adults. There are things you can to.
 
As a mental health professional, I get to have this moment where someone is sitting in front of me, and they’re experiencing depression or anxiety or OCD, and by the time they get to me, someone’s already given them a diagnosis, but no one has talked to them about what it means. I get to say to them: “Here’s what it means. Here’s what you might be experiencng.”
 
The facial expression, the relief in their voices: “You get it. You said it. It’s real. Someone understands.” I didn’t cure your depression; I just told you you weren’t going crazy.   And so, with adoption, you can’t erase the trauna, but you can acknowledge it and support your child through it.
 
Can you tell me some more about your own circumstances, your birth mother? 
 
W: I’m “one of the lucky ones.” I’m in reunion with my first mother. 
 
Sorry, it’s “first mother,” not “birth mother?” How did you land with that term? 
 
W: If I say “birth mother,” that feels like that’s the body I came out of, and then she ceased to matter. Well, she didn’t. Her absence mattered to me, and will matter until the day I die. And my absence mattered to her, from the day I was born, and will contine to matter to her until the day she dies. 
 
“First mother” is like: I have a mother in the mother who raised me. But I had a mother before her, as well. 
 
So you’re in reunion with your first mother? When did that happen?
 
W: I was able to contact her in 2011. I had just turned 28.
 
Did you express any interest in meeting her growing up? 
 
W: Yes, but even when I was a kid, I could sense there was some discomfort around that. When it came out was when I was angry or upset: “You’re not my real family. I’m gonna go find my real family.”
 
But in addition to that, my parents had a very surprise baby when I was ten, and there were all these conversations about who that child looks like and takes after. I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t look like anyone. 
 
I met my first half sister in 2002. We have similar mannarisms and similar brains, but we don’t look like sisters. Whereas my other half sister, I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was 28, and I had to say, “I’m sorry I keep staring at you, but you have my face.”
 

And growing up, what was it like, thinking about your first mother? Was there a longing?

 

W: A longing, and a wondering. I don’t think I uttered the phrase “you’re not my real parents” after the age of about 8, because I realized that it landed, and really landed really hurtfully. In a way an eight-year-old can, I realized that whatever else was going on, don’t say that. 

But until I entered reunion, there was that longing. That’s really what I was feeling on my birthday, before I even realized it. That date brought it home.  

 
How was it, meeting your first mother? It must have been a lot. 
 

W: It was a lot. I don’t think I processed how much it was. I think I’m still processing how much it was.

We met in person in the summer of 2012. It was just so strange. Because so much of it was so normal. But meeting your first mother you’ve never met until the age of 29 is not normal. It’s not a normal thing to do. Yet all that happened was she hopped on a train and came to the city where I lived, and I met her outside this random building. I walked up to this woman, and this city does not have a lot of Black folks, so I knew who it was, even if I hadn’t seen her close enough up to realize she looks exactly like me.
 
I’m trying not to fall apart. We’re in the middle of the public square. I was physically shaking. She was extremely stoic; I was not. I was crying, but trying to hold it together. We embraced.  We didn’t speak in the first moments.  I bought her lunch, after. We just sat there and chatted. It was very strange that we were doing such normal things. I just kept looking at her, like, is this happening? Is this real?
 

It will never not be strange. Here’s the thing about reunion. It’s beautiful, and wonderful, and absolutely terrible, and heartwrenching, all at the same time. The intensity of it. Nothing else I’ve experienced has the strange intensity of being in reunion.

One of my sisters and I didn’t undersand how to be in each other’s lives. We fought, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Fighting with a sibling after being in reunion, it was terrible. We have to be very careful now. 
 
It’s nature and nurture. We are both people who will argue that the grass is blue and the sky is green if we think we can carry it off. We have to be right. When two people like this get in a fight, it’s freaking ugly. And so at a certain point, I said, “I can’t talk to you. I’m in danger of saying something unforgiveable, and if I don’t, you will; so we’re not going to talk right now.” We didn’t talk for a year and a half. 
 
You’ve had this longing for connection, authentic connection and belonging —  the belonging is a really big piece — and then to fight with the person you finally experience it with? No thank you. 
 
When that relationship went wrong, did it make you feel like there was something wrong with you, like maybe you don’t know how to have relationships with people?
 
W: This fighting was happening before I came out of the fog. I got the fairy tale ending with the reunion; how did this go so wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me?
 
I’ve said to my first mother, “You and I, we cannot fight. We have to be able to have a conversation before it turns into a fight.”
 
There have been times when we had a miscommunication or missed contact] and I was having a reaction like, “You’re leaving me again!” and I’m in a panic. And I have said to her, “We can’t have a fight, because I will go out of my mind.
 
 Is your first mother motherly to you? Does she perform the function of a mother, or is it a different kind of relationship?
 
W: This is one of the griefs I carry. When we have those moments when she’s acting in a motherly way, that brings into sharp relief the relationship we lost. Even though we have those moments, we can’t get back what we lost. She is my first mother, but she wasn’t my mother for 28 years. You can’t come into somebody’s life when they’re twenty-eight and be their mother, you just can’t. 
 

This may be a loaded question, but do you call yourself a pro-lifer?

W: I consider myself pro-life. I’m not a huge fan of that term. That has more to do with what comes out of the mouths of other people that associate themselves with that term. One of the arguments pro-lifers come at me with is, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” No, and if you see those two options in such a black and white dichotomy, you’re not very intellectually flexible, are you? 

I’ll say that, as a Catholic and someone who is pro-life and as an adopted person, and someone who sees this tension and the trauma that is inherent, I find myself in a very precarious position. 
 
The adult adoptee community are vehemently prochoice. I can see exactly why. For some adopted people, they’ve been so affected by this trauma, some will say, “Yeah, it might have been better for me if I had never been born, than to live in this much pain.” And then there’s the concern that if someone does not want to carry a child and give birth, they should not be forced to; they should have that option to terminate. And from a bodily automomy perspective, I can see that. But as a Catholic, I see that new life, that soul.  If I weren’t Catholic, I would probably be pro-choice. I probably wouldn’t have been, until I came out of the fog.  
 
I am the only practicing Catholic in my immediate family, one of two in my extended family. The story of my Catholicism is a whole other story. The bottom line is, by the time I came out of the fog, if I hadn’t been Catholic, that would have been the end of me being prolife.  And though I am, I make a lot of Catholics angry by saying I don’t think legal prohibition of abortion is a good answer.
 
 As vehemently as I am prolife, I can absolutely see the other side. I can see both sides, and when both sides dig in their heels, this is how we don’t make progress. Both sides are busy screaming at each other and vilifying each other. 
 
Wendy, I appreciate you sharing all these personal things with me.
 
W: Well, nobody’s been telling me to get therapy or calling me a horrible ungrateful wretch, so this is new, this is good. The funny thing about the “get therapy” thing is that good therapy is the reason I’m able to have this conversation in this way.
 
That’s one of my things. Adoptive parents, go to therapy. I know you don’t think you need it, but you freaking do. Don’t you dare adopt a child until you’ve been to therapy. 
 
That surprises me. I would kind of assume that people would. 
 
W: I don’t know what the process is like now, when someone approaches an agency to adopt a child. I’m so interested to know if it’s suggested, strongly suggested, required? 
 
When the older of my half sisters and I first connected, before we were allowed to talk to each other, we were supposed to have 4 or 6 separate [therapy] sessions about this reunion experience. Then there was this other option, where they would send you all this reading material, and you had to sign sworn statement that you had read it and don’t have questions. I’m waiving any right to say I was harmed by this process, because I’ve chosen not to do the therapy. 

Who required this?

 

W: Family and Children’s Services. You could ask to be named on the adoption registery, and if someone else who they could trace as being related to you was also named, you would get this official letter that this relative has also registestered. If youd  like to have contact, you can. 

There was a social worker assigned to our case. She could talk to my sister and she could talk to me, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until either the therapy was complete, or we’d signed that waiver. I called the social worker one time, and my sister was in the office, but it was against the law to talk to each other. It’s against the law for me to talk to my flesh and blood sister.
 

There was another time. I got what’s referred to as “non identifying information about my first mother and her family. It was biographical information without identifying details, and it was like, pastimes and hobbies and how tall they were. No medical information; why would I need that? That’s another fun thing, when you have medical mysteries going on, and you go to the doctor and they say, “Do you have a family history of this?” and you say, “I don’t freaking know.”

The other time this weird gate keeping happened, was I was already in reuinion with my first mother, and I thought, what happens now if I ask for non-identifying information? Because the one I had from when my parents requested was so redacted, whole paragraphs were missing. 

 

So I requested it again in 2011. I called the F and CS office in my hometown and was told, “When you come in and pick it up, we’ll have you sit down with a counsellor. There’s information you might find distressing.”

I told her, “Let me tell you, I have met my first mother, and she told me the story, and yeah, it’s pretty damn distressing. Whatever’s in that document, I already know about it, because she told me. If I have to get therapy, I’ll get therapy. I live five hours away; I’m not coming in to do therapy five hours away.  Mail the documents, please.”

 
Finally I had to write a whole letter saying I understand there’s distressing information in this file, I probably aready know it, and I’m releasing you from any liability if I’m emotionally damaged; now give me my freaking documents.
 
And they were still redacted.
 
It’s your history, and they’re keeping it from you. That must feel so strange.
 

W: You get that growing up. I knew my parents knew more than they were telilng me, because of this non-identifying information.

It’s my information; how am I not ready to have it? Some of it would have been pretty difficult to find an age appropriate way to say that, but by the time I was thirteen or fifteen. Tell me something. 

 
When people say, “Why are you so angry?” I am.  It’s that erasure of history. That erasure of ancestry. That erasure of identity. It’s actually not necessary to provide care and stability to someone. But the adoption industry wouldn’t thrive without it. Because it has to be the fairytale where you live happily ever after with a new family.  No one wants to talk about what you lost, first.
 
 
 
 
***
Image via Pxfuel 

Motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.

I put the baby down in her seat on the other side of the bathroom door, and she wailed and screamed, wailed and screamed. I remember thinking: What has happened to me. Too exhausted to even put a question mark at the end of that thought. I had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child.

I stood in the shower, looked down and did not recognize my body. It was not just that it did not look like me; it didn’t look like any human person I had seen before. I could not make sense of the shape my body made. Milk ran down my belly and blood ran down my thighs, and through the door, the baby wailed and screamed because I had put her down. What had happened to me.

Now several of my 10 children are adults, and I still don’t know exactly what has happened to me.

Several years ago, fitness guru Jillian Michaels caused a minor spasm in mommy media by saying she would never get pregnant because she could not face ruining her body that way. It eventually emerged that she had not said that, exactly, and her thoughts about pregnancy and her body were more complex and personal than an inflammatory soundbite. But regardless of the details, she had expressed something more honestly than many women are willing to do: She knew that giving birth would disrupt something about herself irrevocably, and it was not a disruption she was willing to endure. Better to find this out about yourself before you get pregnant than after, I thought.

Here is what I have learned since then: Surrendering bodily vanity is only the beginning of what happens to you when you become a mother. First, motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

On lace, and loss

So there I was, scrolling through Amazon to find a dress suitable for my daughter to receive the body and blood of Christ in.

Because of The Thing We Are All Tired of Talking About, her First Communion was delayed a year, and I suddenly realised the lovely, very suitable dress all her older sisters had worn won’t fit her. With little time to spare, we started online shopping.

“Let’s see if we can find something a little bit old fashioned, you know what I mean?” I suggested gently.

I have seen some of the monstrosities out there: First communion dresses that look like slinky club wear; first communion dresses that look like not even wedding dresses, but wedding cakes, bristling with ruffles and petticoats and little sprays and fountains of fabric.

I wanted my child to wear something pretty and special, but also tasteful and maybe even demure. Something that would signal to her that it was a significant occasion, but not something that would make her the center of attention, because that honor ought to belong to Jesus.

Forty minutes later, I said, “LOOK, THIS ONE HAS A DETACHABLE CAPE WITH RHINESTONES AND BUTTERFLIES ON IT AND IT’S IN YOUR SIZE, OKAY?!”

We didn’t buy that one. We did buy one with butterflies and sequins on it, though. It’s not demure or tasteful, but she loves it to death, and as long as the Chinese factory doesn’t screw up the order, it should arrive on time. And that’s that.

This is what happens, more and more. I still have standards, but I give them up so easily. I let go of the things that once seemed to matter so much, and it barely makes a ripple in my conscience.

It’s not just the strain of trying to shop with one particular kid; it’s the cumulative strain, the decades-long piling-up of aggravation and compromise and defeat and loss that wears you down, until suddenly you realize that the things you were super hung up on are only as important as so many rhinestone butterflies fluttering on the cape on a nine-year-old’s shoulders, and the only thing you should truly be pursuing is the sweet, sweet relief of being done with a task so you can get back to the things that really matter, such as going to bed.

Is this wisdom, or is it giving up? I truly do not know. If you wanted to illustrate my mid-40’s, you’d just have to draw a fist letting go, over and over and over again.

So many things being let go, if not forcibly removed from my grasp: Trivial things, and heavy things, silly things, precious things. Things that felt vital and irreplaceable for decades, only to reveal themselves as disposable, and not worth replacing.

I hope I’m not the first one to break this to you, but life is very fleeting and full of loss, and if you deal with its fleetness by grabbing on and trying to hold it back, you’ll just end up hurting yourself. Better to relax into the speed.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by liyinglace via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Not lost forever: On miscarriage, grief, and hope

In the movie Gladiator (2000), the victorious but homesick general Maximus carries with him tiny, crude statues of his beloved wife and son. They are a reminder of home, but he also prays to them and for them, tenderly cradling the figures in his hand as he endures the pain of separation.

The figures become even more precious to him when he discovers that his wife and son are dead — tortured and murdered as political revenge.

Some Romans believed that the spirits of the dead were literally embodied in the figures, making them so much more than keepsakes. After he dies, his friend buries the statuettes in the sand of the Colosseum. We see brief, otherworldly scenes of Maximus returning home, of the three of them rushing together again.

I thought of those little figures as I read ‘The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage’ in the New York Times. The author, Angela Elson, says:

According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma. But Jizo, a sort of patron saint of foetal demise, can smuggle these half-baked souls to paradise in his pockets. He also delivers the toys and snacks we saw being left at his feet on Mount Koya. Jizo is the UPS guy of the afterlife.

Elson bought a Japanese Jizo figurine for herself when she had a miscarriage. She says:

A miscarriage at 10 weeks produces no body, so there would be no funeral. “What do we even do?” I asked the doctor. She wrote me a prescription for Percocet: “Go home and sleep.”

We went home. I didn’t sleep. I spent a week throwing myself around the house … I was itchy with sadness. I picked at my cuticles and tore out my hair. I had all this sorrow and no one to give it to, and Brady couldn’t take it off me because his hands were already full of his own mourning. We knew miscarriage was common. But why wasn’t there anything people did when it happened?

So they bought a Jizo. She carried him around for awhile, kissed him, spent time crocheting a hat and jacket for the figurine. “It was nice for us to have something to do, a project to finish in lieu of the baby I failed to complete,” she says.

Oh, Lord, how I understand.

When I lost our own very young baby a few years ago around this season, it was so terribly hard to have nothing to do. No birth, no ceremony, no body to wash, anoint, and clothe, no grave to dig. We could pray and cry and rest, but it was so hard. We want to have our hands on something. We want to know for sure that the world acknowledges: Yes, the child was here. Yes, the child was real.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dear friend Kate had felted a beautiful little dog for me. Just a few weeks before the miscarriage, our puppy Shane got overexcited by the snow falling, and he went and ran in the road, and he was crushed by a speeding car that didn’t even slow down. My husband and son retrieved the dying dog and brought him to the vet, where they gently put him down, then burned his body and sealed the ashes in a carved box.

The felted dog that Kate made is perfect, a brilliant, lively bit of work. But before she could send it to me in remembrance, my baby died, too – and she knew how terrible it would be to acknowledge the loss of a pet, but not the loss of a child. And so Kate’s daughter made a felt baby for me, sweetly embroidered and cuddled in a little hand-sewn pouch. They sent them both along, the puppy and the baby, with sympathies and assurances of prayers.

It was so good to have. So good. Even when looking at it made me cry, it was so much better than the pain of looking for my lost baby and finding nothing.

After a year or so, I thought we might use my little felt baby as a Baby Jesus in our nativity scene. I took it out, but then hastily put the little one back again. It was still too raw; and besides, this baby wasn’t Jesus. This baby was someone else, with a name and a human soul, a mother and a father and siblings. Hell, for six weeks, the baby was even sort of the owner of a foolish puppy named Shane.

My little felt baby wasn’t just any generic baby figure, but a specific baby, my baby. So back into the pouch the little one went. Back to the work of simply quietly existing, eyes closed, so that I wasn’t empty-handed. This baby does this job very well.

I forget it is there, most times. I keep it on the windowsill in the kitchen, where it gathers dust along with other little keepsakes, statues, and trinkets people have given me. But I went to check in on it one day, and couldn’t find it, and the panic almost knocked me off my feet. (I had moved it to the other side of the windowsill last time I cleaned. Oops!)

Does it really matter what happens to my felt baby? Not really. Certainly not spiritually, eternally speaking. We are not ancient Romans, superstitiously locating dead spirits in wooden figurines; and we are not Buddhists, clinging to a heartbreakingly vague hope of our children sneaking into blissed-out extinction.

As Catholics, we know that all the bodies of the dead will be resurrected and transformed when Jesus comes back. We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognized and called by name back home by their Father who made them.

Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths. Doctors and nurses, be gentle with women who have lost a child, even one too small to bury. Husbands, be patient, even if you don’t understand the depth of grief. Priests, take the time to acknowledge what happened, and do not be cavalier when answering spiritual questions or inquiries. Friends of a grieving mother, make it clear that you know the child she lost was a real child, irreplaceable, unlike any other.

Even as Catholics, we are one and the same with the fictional Maximus, because it gives us strength and hope to be able to touch and hold something connected to our dead. God made us with five senses, with hearts that reach out and seek comfort from earthly things, because these senses and these hearts can help remind us of what is true: That our lost children aren’t truly lost. They were really here, and they haven’t vanished forever. God willing, we will see them again.

***

Rebecca Jemison makes polymer clay baby loss memorials for free or donation. You can contact her at facebook.com/beccajemisoncreates.

This article was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in January of 2017
 
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

On Notre Dame, the seal of confession, and Esmerelda

Here’s some good news:

The French Senate voted to approve plans to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral and added a clause stipulating that it must be restored to how it was before the fire.

No greenhouses, no swimming pools, no holograms, no disco balls, just back the way it was, because the way it was was good. Even though the dreadful fire helped me remember that all temporal things will pass, and that Jesus is the remedy to all loss of every kind, I’ll be as glad as anyone to see good old Notre Dame restored. 
 
We’re certainly in need of some good news, some restorative news. As someone pointed out on Twitter, you know things are going poorly when America turns to a TV show about Chernobyl for escapism. 
 
As always, good news is where you can find it. As the never-ending misery of the sex abuse scandal never ends, but just keeps compounding and compounding, I’ve thought more than once: How good it is, how weirdly restorative, to be reminded so clearly what really matters. Jesus matters. The sacraments matter. The Gospel matters. Works of mercy matter. Everything else, no matter how entrenched and enmeshed it has become with our experience our faith — anything at all can become a distraction from what our faith truly is. So as painful as the 21st century has been, it’s also been clarifying, painfully restorative. It strips away the things we want so we can see clearly what we really need.
 
That’s what kind of century it is, not only in the Church. This is the year when a Texas woman, Teresa Todd, was driving along a road at night when, NPR reports, a young man ran out and pleaded for help for his sister, who was dying of dehydration and exhaustion. Todd stopped and let the man and his sister, Esmerelda, and their companion rest in her car while she texted a friend, who is legal counsel for the local U.S. Border Patrol, for advice on what to do next. 
 
Todd is now under federal investigation for human smuggling. Her phone was confiscated for 53 days, because of what she did.
 
“I feel like I did the right thing. I don’t feel I did anything wrong,” Todd said. And she is right. She was simply performing a basic corporal work of mercy. But her own government is telling her that, in order to be a good citizen, she should have kept on driving. They’re telling her it was wrong to stop and see what she could do for someone who was begging for help — that Americans obeying American law don’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who we Americans are.
 
 
This kind of law is clarifying. It’s the kind of law you cannot in good conscience obey — not as an American, not as a Christian, not as a human being. These laws help us remember who we are. The politics around immigration is just a distraction, and has nothing to do with your actual obligation when you have a live, dying human being named Esmerelda in front of you. 
 
There’s more. This is the year when laws that threaten the seal of confession may pass from rumor to reality. And dozens of priest and even, hallelujah, more than one bishop, have come out and said, “I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”
 
The proposed law is clarifying. It gets us to remember who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. Sometimes good times muddy the waters. Sometimes peace clouds our vision. So we have to have some restorative hard times to clarify things.
 
Can you not get me wrong, here? There are some things more cut and dried than others. Priests can never ever ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances. There’s no nuance, at all. Immigration is more unwieldy, and when we talk about how to manage it, sometimes good people come across as harsh and opportunists come across as merciful. It’s rare that it’s so black and white as a dying person directly in front of you begging for help. And the roof of Notre Dame is . . . a roof. Just a roof.
 

But as I said, good news is where you find it. It’s good practice to ask ourselves, “What would I do, if it were me? What should I do, and why?” If Notre Dame were remade into a temple to modernity, what would it do to my faith? If my son were a priest facing arrest, what would I tell him to do, and why? If Esmerelda’s brother staggered out in front of my car, what would I do?  Would I stop

This is what we’re talking about, when we talk about freedom of religion. It’s not the freedom to give political speeches in church, and it’s not the freedom to be tax exempt. It’s not the freedom to pass the laws we, as religious folk, think ought to be passed. It’s the freedom to follow Christ and to obey his commands, no matter what the cost. 
 
The truth is, we do have religious freedom. We always will. It’s just that we might be sent to jail for exercising that freedom.
 
And that is clarifying. 
 
****
 
 

Everything will be lost. Eyes on Christ.

Maybe I’m just feeling dire, but I’m impatient with people asking how God could let this happen to our beloved Notre Dame, with people asking “What does it mean?” We know what it means. It means the same thing it means when anything dies: That this will happen to the whole world someday. Every relic, every painting, every window, every stone, every body, everything we love. Jesus Christ was immolated. Why should His Father spare a building?

Don’t learn the lesson that, through our will and our strength, we will rise again from this fire. Learn the lesson that death comes for everyone and only Jesus saves.

I wrote those words yesterday, while Notre Dame was still in flames. Today it seems that more than we thought can be saved. Some of the windows are gone, the roof was staved in by the tumbling spire, but the main structure and towers are almost miraculously intact. The Crown of Thorns and other relics were saved; the Blessed Sacrament was saved. No lives were lost.

But even as our panic and horror is quieted with a measure of relief, the loss leaves a mark. It’s normal and human to suffer under the blows of loss. Holy Week is the right time to let ourselves feel that loss without shying away from it, without comforting ourselves too much with reassurances that we can rebuild and repair — not only because 21st century artisans can’t hope to match the brilliance of the past, but because all things will pass. Every rebuilding is temporary. Every loss is practice for the inevitable loss we were born to face. It is good to face it, to feel it, to know what it is. To remember why it happens, and to remember what the remedy is. 

It’s not ironic or especially dreadful that such a thing should happen during Holy Week. On the contrary, it’s the best possible time for such a thing to happen, if it must happen (and it must). This is the week when the universe lost the best thing she ever had. If you will not look loss in the face now, then when?

Here is an essay I wrote just over two years ago. It focuses not on gargantuan, iconic cathedrals full of treasures and relics, but on little things — baby shoes, toddler art. The details are different, but it’s the same story. Loss writ small is loss all the same; and the answer to every loss is also the same. 

***

There was a pile of papers on the kitchen island, and I finally sorted through them.  Along with paid bills, cancelled checks, and warranties for products long since broken and thrown out,  there were reams and reams (yes, I realize a ream is 500 pages.  That’s what I meant) of drawings of birds, ballerinas, flowers, and clouds stuck together with stubby little rainbows.  I smiled at each one, and then, feeling like Satan incarnate, threw them away.

Sometimes when I sort, I save a few representative samples; sometimes I am ruthless. But of course saving everything is not an option.  Even if I had the space to somehow neatly and un-hoardishly preserve all the hilarious and charming pictures my kids draw, when would I have the time to enjoy them?  I have some fantasies about old age, but even the most unrealistically golden ones don’t include spending years of my life looking at thousands of pictures of rainbows rendered in blue pen.

And yet it cuts so deep to throw them away.  Same for sorting through baby clothes.  It’s not that the little purple onesie is so precious and unique in itself; and it’s not as if I actually want my child never to grow out of size 3-6 months.  It’s just the act of leaving things behind that hurts.  I get better at making it happen, but I don’t get better at not letting it hurt.

People are always saying, “Store it in the cloud!” Give it to the cloud rather than cluttering up my poor overworked hard drive:  my pictures, my music, all the words words words that I churn out.  It’s only the price of ink and the shoddiness of my printer that keeps me from printing out everything — every cute kid story that goes on Facebook, every draft of every half-baked idea that never makes it all the way home, every well-turned phrase of love or encouragement I send to my husband at work.  I want to save it all, and never let it go.

It’s not that I hope for fame that outlives me:  “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” and so on.   It’s just that I want it all to last — somewhere, somewhere, all the things I love and have poured my life into.

It’s a terrible anxiety, the fear of losing things that are precious — terrible because it hurts so much, and terrible because of what it means about me and my disordered loves. When the fear of loss is bad, it drains the joy out of my treasures even as I’m holding them.  My little baby smiles at me with such a direct, melting simplicity:  two perfect teeth, tiny and fresh like little bits of shell, her mouth pops open, and she lunges like a jack-n-the-box, so unthinkingly in love with the world that she wants to eat it all.  On a bad day, her happiness gives me pain, because all I can think of is how it passes, how she passes, how I am passing away.

I feel better temporarily, less existentially bereft, if I take a video, to capture the tricks and charms which are uniquely, adorably hers, which will never be repeated by any other baby, which must be remembered, must be saved — mustn’t they?  But saved for how long?  Technology is outmoded.  Today’s cutting edge video capture will be tomorrow’s wax cylinders.  Today’s acid-free photo paper will last only in the same way as “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”

So much has been lost, irretrievably. Does it matter? My kids want to know what their first words were. I remember a few. Some I wrote down, but lost the book. Moved away, left it behind to be discarded by some overworked landlord or U-Haul maintenance man. Does it matter? I still love them now; I listen to what they are saying now. Does that mean that what I’ve lost doesn’t matter?

Remember how poor Ivan Karamazov saw all the pain in the world — the brutality against children, most of all, was what he could not abide.  He did not want to be able to abide it.  He understood that, in the light of the Resurrection, all would be made new — that Christ would return and reconcile all things to Himself, and the pain of innocents would be subsumed into a peace and justice that passeth understanding.

Ivan did not want this to happen.  He could not bear for it to happen.  He did not want outrageous injustices to be all right:  He wanted them not to happen in the first place. This is how I feel.  I don’t want it to be okay that they are lost.

Still, I know that if I try to save, save, save, then in most cases, what I’m really doing is burying them.  I’m not doing anything useful, not respecting their value by agonizing over preservation, any more than the workers in that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark were doing a good deed by packing away that precious crate among tens of thousands of nameless, dusty crates in a warehouse that stretches on for dreary, nameless acres.

So I try.  I do a little saving, just enough to make me feel human, and then I inwardly send the rest up “into the cloud,” hand it over to Jesus, who has infinite capacity to keep every drooly smile, every first word — if that’s what He wants to do. 

I don’t really, in my heart, want Heaven to be a retirement village where all the saints have endless hours to pour over memories of the good old days back on earth!  So I uproot and uproot these things from my heart, and I tell myself I’m cultivating virtue. 

But this disease of affection, this pathology that makes me love the world, and ache as I love — what is it?  And am I sure I want to be healed of it?

That’s the problem, right there. Lose it all or save it all: either way, it’s wasted. Either way, it’s lost. That’s what we mean by the Fall: loss. Everywhere. Everything. Our very mode of being is defined by loss.

Well, it’s Lent. And I am not Ivan, because I have tasted God’s love. I am not a government flunky, senselessly sealing up treasures, because I’m the one giving orders here. I’m not a dragon sitting on my stinking hoard, flying out in a jealous frenzy when some trinket goes missing.

I am fallen, but I have been saved, am being saved, and I will be saved. Nothing is lost, not even me. But now is the time to look loss in the face. What will come back to me? That is in Jesus’ hands — Jesus who was, himself, lost, and who himself “knew the way out of the grave.”

Eyes on Christ. Weep if you will, but eyes on Christ. I must not look to save. I must look to be saved. 

***

Image of Notre Dame by Edgardo W. Olivera via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Say it again

She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.

But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo via MaxPixel (public domain)

Not lost forever: Miscarriage, grief, and hope

felt-baby

We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognised and called by name back home by their Father who made them.

Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths.

Read the rest of my latest for the Catholic Weekly.

Benny and the Jerk Balloon

My three-year-old may be the most emotionally healthy person in the world.

I came across this old photo, and remembered the day. We were playing in a school gym after a baptism, and she found this half-dead balloon lying under some bleachers. Oh my gosh, she had so much fun with it.

benny jerk balloon 2

So, when it was time to go, I ignored the warning alarms in my head and said she could take it with her.

Of course, as soon as we stepped outside, a gust of wind came and swiped her precious balloon right out of her hands. At first I thought it would come back down, and we chased it across the parking lot, but it went up, then down again, then up just out of reach, and then up and up, over the trees, way over the church roof, and then it was gone.

Worst.

I remember being three, and I remember the desolation of the lost balloon. One minute, the world is buoyant and glad, and then suddenly it’s all grief and loss and wild injustice.

I’m getting old. I’m getting tired of the way the world is, where a little girl can’t even have an orange balloon to make her happy. I didn’t even dare look at her, expecting the sobs to come pouring out. I thought, “I can’t stand it. I’ll buy her another balloon. I’ll buy everybody a balloon! I’ll buy all the balloons in the world!”

She just stared after it for a minute, and then she said, “Jerk balloon.” And that was it. She was fine.

I want to be Benny when I grow up.

I have a job for you, baby.

Not the little guy who just kicked me for the first time, that I could feel, just yesterday (yay!). I mean the other one, the one I lost. I wrote about how hard it was not to have a body to bury. You want to be able to take care of your children with your own hands, but I couldn’t do that, and it hurt.

Now, as the months have gone by and the pain of loss has receded, I still find myself bewildered about what to do with the baby’s soul.

When I found out I was pregnant last time, I prayed for the baby’s protection constantly, and turned him over to God. So I have a strong hope that, whenever it was that he left us, he was already baptized through our desire and intention to do so, and he went straight into the arms of his loving Papa in heaven. This is a good thing! I am not worried.  I love him, but God loves him more.

But, what to do when I pray for my all children, one by one? I was never sure when I got to this child. It didn’t feel right to pray for him. Even though I know no prayer is wasted, it seemed like asking for something that was already given.

And I know that many parents pray to their lost unborn babies, and that seemed reasonable, but felt odd, too. Probably this shows that I have a poor understanding of the saints in heaven, but praying to him felt like turning him into a spiritual being, which made him foreign, elevated beyond the family, not really our kid; and at the same time, it felt like too much to ask of such a little guy. I’m not going to tell my five-year-old when Daddy is having a hard time at work or Mama is worried about school; so why would I spill the beans to a seven-week-old fetus, even if he is enjoying the Beatific Vision? I know, I’m over thinking it, but it just felt weird!

But yesterday, it came to me: Baby, you pray for the new baby. You two hold hands and be good to each other. Take care of each other while Mama is taking care of the rest of them. Aha! Everybody needs a job. We are at our best when we know what we are here for.