February 2014 archive

An Epic Winter, If You’re A Kid

“Are you kidding?”  That is the exact phrase that the meteorologist put on her 7-day forecast this morning to soften the blow that snow is predicted next week, again!

Three months ago I had never heard of a Polar Vortex and if asked, would have told you it must describe something in a Star Wars movie.  Now, just like all of you, I’m familiar with those words not one time, or two times, but three times over.

I’ve lost count, but I think the snow total for the season is just shy of 70 inches.  And I know that this winter has beat all sorts of records; from the fewest days above freezing, to the amount of Lake Michigan that is frozen.  And then there’s a new one, the most consecutive weekends interrupted by a major weather event.  

Its been a tough winter and there’s signs of it all around.  Our town’s holiday decorations are frozen in the ground, still displayed and prolonging a goofy tradition that my children and I have.  Every year in late November or December when those decorations first appear in the town square, we do this silly little thing where we drive by and sing holiday songs.  But three and half months later, the game is old and my preschooler doesn’t understand that Santa is not coming to town, despite the fact that his house is sitting right there next to the library.

The kids have missed school, the heating bill that just arrived is plenty hefty, our gate is frozen shut and we haven’t been able to take our recycling out for weeks.    Our car is filthy.  Our coats are filthy.  They’ve been sliding along the side of that filthy car in tight parking lots, with spaces claimed by plowed snow mountains.  We’ve lost countless gloves, leaving a mudroom scattered with singles in mismatched colors and sizes (by the way, my kids are wearing those mismatched singles to school and waving one hand mittoned in pink nylon and the other gloved in blue wool.  I refuse to buy new ones so late in the season.  After all, this winter is almost over, right?  Right?!)

Despite my belly-aching about winter, this isn’t just another post on your Facebook newsfeed complaining about the weather.  It is a post about the weather, but told from a different point-of-view.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to rah-rah the winter.  I know its been brutal.   But for just a bit, I’m going to stop and try to see this season through the eyes of my children. When I do, I’ll realize that this is not a winter of record lows, rather it’s a winter full of happiness and highs.  For our kids, this could be the defining winter of their childhood, and the winter by which all others will be measured.

This has been a winter full of what my will kids will perceive as grand adventures as we’ve seen our local landscapes transformed.  This is the winter that my kids learned to ice-skate at the playground where they spend their summers swinging.  And this is the winter when they went show-shoeing through the Lincoln Park Zoo on a snowy and muted morning with only the roar of an animal as background noise.  

Even in the intimacies of our own home, things look differently and are serving new purposes.  This is the winter that our Living Room has become a holding place for cardboard box forts, for weeks on end.  The kitchen table is a Lego-building station because the dining room table is claimed by a jigsaw puzzle and board games.  And our backyard is a maze of snow tunnels and igloos that make up what the kids call their “bunker village”. 

Somewhere in the middle of that imaginary village is a snowman that was built three days before Christmas.  Over two months later, that snowman is still standing.  As days go by his head bobs in and out of drifting snow as it settles in new places with each passing gust.   Over the last ten weeks our snowman will go away for a while as he is “drowned” in a new snow fall.  But get this:  he froze so solid that the newer, fluffy snow around him blows away and then we can see his head again.   Thumpety-thump-thump, this might be the only snowman that my children will ever build who doesn’t disappear, but reappears! 

Magic.  I’m reminded every time I drive by the school yard and see an evolving playground full of snow boulders and forts.  I’m delighted knowing that the kids have created elaborate games of crystal mining and kingdoms during recess.  The PE teachers did a unit that allowed the students to sled outside during gym class in preparation for the Olympics and the USA/Canada Men’s Semi-final hockey game was on a TV for the kids to watch during indoor recess and lunch.  This is embracing it and this is the stuff memories are made of.

Back home, the kids built a luge run between the houses in our neighborhood and they went sledding down it every night for a week, right before coming inside and watching Olympians do the same thing on TV. 

Surrounded by our own winter wonderland, we watched skiing, bobsledding and skating while looking up Sochi on the map.  The other day, we heard “Get Lucky” on the radio and my son laughed, saying it reminded him of the Russian Police Choir.  As our family of five cuddled up and watched the giant bear blow out the flame, I felt a pang of nostalgia and processed how old each of my children will be in four years during the next Winter Olympics.  I did the math in my head and had to catch my breath, after having it taken away by the digits 2018, then offered up a quiet prayer for consistency.  I am desperate to try to preserve this and to have this exact moment with them again, yet I know it will be in a different form and different time, as we watch the lighting of the flame in South Korea.

This season, we’ve also been taken with another part of the world:  Norway and its Kingdom of Arendelle!  The magic of Disney has been sprinkled all over us this and we’ve grown obsessed with all things from the wonderful movie, “Frozen”.   My son does a great Olaf, while my daughter’s duet the sister roles and the soundtrack plays over and over and over during our drives around town.  I joke that the song “Fixer Upper” reminds me of their Daddy, which makes them, and me, erupt with laughter and giggles every time we hear it.  My three-year-old points to the icicles hanging outside her bedroom window and tells me they are scary.  I’m confused until I realize that, of course, she thinks Elsa put them there.

So yes, this winter has been a really long one for you and for me.  But for our kids, this will likely be the winter that settles right into that sacred spot of their hearts reserved for only the most special of times.  This is the winter that will sharpen other memories and serve as a benchmark on the timeline of their childhood.

Years from now my kids will look at the fence in our backyard and remember how the snow once piled up around it all the way to the latch. Someday they’ll be having a snowball fight with their college roommates and think about the battle they once had with the neighborhood kids.    And some morning, many years from now, school will once again be cancelled due to bad weather.  My children will be adults, yet they will feel something familiar as they chuckle watching the expressions of delight swallow up their own children.

So much change is coming for our children as they grow, and mature and become adults.  But I believe that the emotions they feel during especially memorable times are the ones that will shape them and give them something steady to hold onto when the rest of it spins, morphs and evolves.   We all need reassurance that while everything changes, some things stay the same.  Sadly, we can’t freeze time, but we can etch the feelings of a time into the mold of who we are, and who we are on our way to becoming.

And with that in mind, I am able to cling onto those emotions and view this winter through the eyes, and hearts of my children.  Doing so, reminds me that we are indeed in a season of wonder and I am coerced into a moment of gratitude for what the kids will call, an epic winter.

The Story I Had To Share on Valentine’s Day

February can be a bleak month for me.  In our family, we roll right out of the holidays and roll right into the birthdays.  But as soon as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day passes and we enter into late January, I’m already bracing myself for the next few dreaded weeks.

It’s cold, it’s winter, it’s Chicago.  But beyond that, it’s February.  And for me, February has tragic significance because it was on Valentine’s Day, that we found out that the baby I had been carrying for thirty-eight and a half weeks died inside of me unexpectedly and without reason, just a week before her scheduled delivery.

And so in this season, even years later, memories of our baby’s death and delivery can be easily triggered as we continue to grieve the child who we love deeply, yet never had the chance to meet.  I often think about who our child would be at age 8, and every Valentine’s decoration is a reminder of a day that each year is filled with both aching loss and abundant love.

In a conscious effort to stay afloat on what might otherwise be an emotional drift, I employ strategies to insist on not just survival, but happiness.  Fiercely struggling and fighting, I call upon a reserve of gratitude and joy that I’ve spent the last eleven months building in preparation for just how depleted I might feel at this time of the year.

Within that reserve are a few key lifelines working against this impossible loss.  Among them is the strange sense of empowerment that comes with the death of a child.  It is difficult to explain, but somewhere within that grief, I realized that this was bad, really bad, but I was surviving.  Albeit barely, I was making it and that was powerful, and continues to be.

Tied up in that sense of empowerment is the ability to shape my own story.  While I can’t reverse this terrible thing that has happened, the one tiny bit of control I have is the vantage point from which I process it all.  While some of the major events of life are beyond my control, it is up to me to set the tone and to tell my own story in a way that best suits me.

And when I say me, I mean the entire me.  Not just the grieving me, or the me who was pregnant and then wasn’t, but doesn’t have a baby in her arms.  But the me in The Before and the me in The After.  The me who is filled with rage and the me who is filled with joy.  The me who laughs heartily and the me who can’t find her laugh at times.  In order to be authentic, my story must be inclusive of the entire me.

A year ago I discovered that within me there was a story so powerful and so prominent that it made it difficult to identify the entire me.  I’ve heard writers say that there is usually a story you need to tell first, before you can find the other stories in yourself.  I was still operating in self-preservation mode, this story was guarding other aspects of me.  The story I needed to share is our family love story.

Within the first year after our baby was stillborn, my husband and I decided that it wasn’t fair to our daughter for our story to be shrouded in darkness and despair because of her death. And so every year on February 14, we take a vacation or do something special together as a family.  We call it her “birthday trip” and use the time to celebrate her and to celebrate our family. We shaped our story of loss into a love story complete with tragedy and triumph.

With our family love story always in my heart, when last February, The Huffington Post put out a call for photographs that reminded their readers of love, a personal photograph immediately came to my mind.  Without thought or deliberation, I moved as if on instinct and found the picture of my husband and I in the hours immediately following our still born daughter’s delivery and taken by a bereavement photographer who was provided by the hospital.

I’ve always thought of this photograph as truly capturing the essence of our relationship because even in those early hours there is a connectedness and fortitude in our body language.  And while it may not have been our most romantic hour, as individuals and as a couple, it was our finest hour.  That photograph shows a resolve to grieve together and to move forward together.  To me that photograph is the definition of partnership and steadfast love.

And so I submitted the photograph along with a description of our family love story.  I can’t recall much about how I wrote the story.  When I wrote it, I know I was sitting on the couch with the laptop, home alone with the kids because my husband was traveling.  But other than that I don’t have a sharp memory of writing that piece because I was so in flow.  I know I didn’t edit it, I maybe re-read it once.  I don’t really know what I hoped would happen.  But before I could think otherwise I had sent it in an email text to The Huffington Post along with the photograph explaining why to me, this image was love.

Within twenty-four hours I was in contact with the wonderful Lisa Belkin and Farah Miller who very gently guided me through the insecurities and process of publishing this piece.  I had been writing quietly since I was a kid, but within a few days I officially jumped, two feet first, into the public blogosphere.  I grabbed a twitter handle, a blog, and a facebook page.

Within a week the piece had been shared around the world and published on iVillage Australia.  I heard from supportive friends and family as well as people I’d never met, yet who had experienced similar losses.

Something very important happened.  Not only did I share my story, but doing so opened me up to listen to other people’s stories.  I heard from a gentleman whose child was stillborn over 40 years ago and I heard from a father who had lost his baby the night before.  A grandmother, a sister, a friend; there were so many people who were going through this, or who loved someone going through this.  And heartbreakingly, each story represented a child that the world will never get to know.  I read every comment and cried and celebrated each and every one of those babies.  And every time I thought of my own daughter and grieved for her all over again.  Connections were made and in those stories I felt the warmth of friendship and the bond of universal understanding that can both sustain and uplift.  I gave, just as I received.

The stories continue to be shared.  I’m proud that Our Family Love Story will be a part of the book Three Minus One being released this spring and associated with the film Return to Zero about a couple grieving after a stillbirth.

Sharing this story has allowed me to gain confidence as a writer and share other stories. There are now many pieces on The Huffington Post and blog about careers, and friendship, parenting and food allergies.  A piece on leaning in was featured on LeanIn.org.  I’m finding my footing as a writer, attending workshops, retreats and conferences.  I’ve met writers and bloggers who inspire and challenge me.  At home, friendships have been formed and strengthened with other mothers and writers.

Sharing this story has fostered so many relationships.  This story was mine for many years, but it was time that I give it to others so I could nurture and grow the other stories in my soul.  I needed to get back to a vantage point where I can see the whole me, so I could tend to her and develop her.  The whole me is powerful and wise, and has things to say, lessons learned and tales forged on a journey that is simultaneously treacherous and beautiful.

Most of all, sharing this story reminded me that we are not on this journey alone.  Sure we have ourselves, and we have our family and friends.  But we also have something else.  Something that bonds us to each other.  There is a big, big world out there full of people who are ready to love and ready to share, ready to listen and ready to give.

I do believe that the words to this piece didn’t come from me, but through me.  My daughter didn’t get the chance to live, but she is my heart and she is my voice.  And for us, she is the reason why Valentine’s Day is once again a day to spread some love.