Blog a la Cart

March 7, 2016

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I. One year ago today, labor began in earnest. After three weeks of false starts and grief induced contractions, an ugly fall on some ice followed by a day spent monitored in L&D, contractions finally began to come regularly and powerfully. It was time to welcome this new life as I grappled with the loss of one of my most dear.

I remember a day at home, worrying and laboring in the quiet of my bedroom, the place that had become my sanctuary during the scariest moments of my grief. I watched “Song of the Sea” with my girls, rocking and breathing on a yoga ball. The mother whispers to her child, “Remember me in your stories and in your songs. Know that I will always love you, always.” Tears streamed down my face in recognition.

The house was full of anticipation and yearning. My father’s watchful eye. The strong, assertive kicks from within. We all craved the arrival of this baby as a distraction, a celebration, a reminder of joy. And yet, his very arrival signaled the fierce reality of time plowing relentlessly ahead. While a part of my heart is forever trapped in February 14, 2016, this baby would not allow me to wholly stay stuck.

James and I departed for the hospital earlier than we would have under normal circumstances. But my world was upside down and nothing felt normal. How could I welcome my child into a world without my mother? So we headed for the security and comfort of my midwives who were an integral piece of my survival team during that hideous three week purgatory. I needed their presence and reassurance. I could do this, even without my mother. I could do this. I would do this.

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II. After my mother’s death, I spoke at length with my midwives and James about how we were going to get me through labor and delivery.

The deepest, darkest, hardest moments of my grief were akin to the deepest, darkest, hardest moments of labor. That visceral, uncontrollable pain I’d only ever experienced while giving life and letting life go. It was terrifying and utterly breathtaking in its magnitude. I worried about how I would manage in the face of the two slamming together at the height of labor.

We decided that an epidural upon arrival at the hospital would allow me to not be so focused on the physical pain. I could have as many friends and family and caregivers in the room with me as I needed to help distract from the emotional pain as I dilated to baby’s arrival. While I’d always been anxious about the thought of a needle in my spin, I agreed that given the circumstances, this was the best plan.

And so, shortly upon admission to L&D, the chief of anesthesiology administered the epidural.

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III. My right side went numb quickly. I lay on my left to try to help the medicine distribute more evenly throughout both sides of my body. I did not like feeling so disembodied, so disconnected from what was happening inside me.

My doula and James tried to get me to focus on my breathing. I was okay. The numbness and tingling were normal.

We waited for my sister and dear friend to arrive.

It was 7pm. I was dilated to 4. My cervix had some work to do.

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IV. I kept waving my arms in the air like a fool to reassure myself that I was indeed still connected and in control of my body. My right arm was feeling numb and that made me feel frantic and worried that something was not right.

Everyone reassured me that I was okay. I was doing great. So I threw my arms in the air and willed myself to believe them.

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V. Kimmy arrived. She told me the girls were happily sleeping and my dad was curled up with his phone by his side.

Somehow the Universe would align such that she would be present for the birth of all three of my children.

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VI. I told Kimmy that I did not like the epidural. Why was my whole body so numb and tingly? I was feeling scared.

The nurses checked everything. My vitals were normal. Baby’s vitals were normal. I was progressing well. We were doing great.

Breath, Ashley, breath.

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VII. Kimmy, James and my doula settled into chairs across from me. We talked quietly as the sound of baby’s heartbeat pulsed in the background.

It had been two hours since I’d received the epidural, and I had dilated to 6. Things were moving along. Everyone was assembled.

I suddenly felt horribly nauseous and lightheaded. I called James over to my side.

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VIII. I came to with the strong, urgent words of my midwife echoing in the room. “Ashley, I need you to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” There was a sea of faces around me. James and Kimmy clutching my hand. An oxygen mask on my face. The stench of vomit in the air. My midwife’s hands inside of me. And nurses scurrying about.

I have absolutely no memory of the two minutes prior to that moment. As James relayed the story later, I had gone unconscious shortly after calling him over, and seized and vomited. My midwife had come flying in the room assuming I had dilated to 10 and baby’s imminent arrival had caused me to faint. I was still at 6cm, and despite passing out, baby’s vitals had stayed steady during the whole episode.
I was in a panic. How could I have no memory of what had just happened? How had my sister handled that moment on the heels of my mother’s sudden death? Why had it happened?

I wanted the baby out. I did not want to die. I hated the epidural. I wanted my mother. Everything felt completely out of control and overwhelming.

As I whispered over and over, “I don’t want to die. I just want my mom. I don’t want to die like her,” the nurses cleaned me up and tried to get me to relax and breath into the oxygen mask.

The anesthesiologist returned and was not happy that this had happened. He either wanted the baby out or the epidural off. He couldn’t explain what had just happened so thought it best to stop it.

And this is where I applaud and champion midwife care because Amy, my midwife who had held me every single day of my grief, coaching me to this very moment, stood by my side and said to the anesthesiologist and me, “Ashley has had a lot going on. She just needed to check out for a moment. I will be by her side every moment for the rest of this labor, and if it happens again, baby comes out and epidural is done. But I think her mind just needed a break. She’s back. And baby is doing awesome.” And with that, the anesthesiologist left. And I got my very numb feet back under me.

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IX. Turns out, a panic attack can do quite a number on a person in the throes of labor and grief.

I’m so grateful I had a skilled, experienced ally and advocate by my side caring for me and my baby in that moment. I am forever indebted for the thoughtful, informed, sensitive care that I received from my midwives during that three weeks and the weeks following. I could not overstate their import.

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X. Only minutes after that episode, I’m smiling. I can’t believe I was smiling, but this is where my gratitude for my amazing friend and talented photographer Kate comes into play. Her images of that evening and these moments are a concrete reminder of my own strength and the resilience of the human spirit.

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XI. And with the arrival of my dear friend Geraldine, the last of my birth team had arrived. And with that scary moment behind me, and my anxiety subsiding, we settled in for the final hours of waiting.

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XII. This is love. This is support. This is how you keep going.

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XIII. This is where hashtagsquadgoals feels appropriate. These humans, these unbelievable humans, who held me in my grief and laughed with me in my joy, they are who dragged me through that purgatory and out the other side. They are my family.

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XIV. Since I didn’t like the continued numbness from the epidural, there was a rotating crew of “feet rockers” whose job it was to simply keep their leg pressed against the bottom of my foot and allow me to rock them back and forth. It was grounding. And comforting. And kept me connected to my body and that moment to avoid further anxiety or panic.

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XV. Interestingly, despite not feeling any pain from the contractions, I instinctively lifted the oxygen mask to my face any time I was experiencing one. I wouldn’t know it at the time, but then the monitors would confirm that I was indeed mid-contraction. So while I was less connected to what was happening inside my body than I was for my previous two births, this was a small reminder that I was still very much present with my body and baby.

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XVI. For a few hours, I was able to settle in to the scene I’d imagined when I thought about this baby’s birth. Talking. Laughing. Contentedly anticipating the arrival of my child with those I love.

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XVII. And then, shortly after 1am, I hit 10cm. With three strong, determined pushes, I brought my son in to the world.

He pooped on arrival, so we were both coated in a sticky, black goo.

He arrived sunny side up, like his eldest sister, and so made a squished face appearance to those present.

James announced he was a boy, and with that he was placed on my chest.

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XVIII. Hello, sweet baby. Welcome, Sanderling.

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XIX. I cannot adequately capture the range of emotions I experienced in those first moments with this boy. The relief. The gratitude. The love. The sorrow. The joy. The beauty. The exhaustion. The exultation.

He brought a part of me back to myself.

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XX. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered, “and I know she is too.”

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XXI. The “I fucking did it” face

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XXII. “He has mom’s nose.”

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XXIII. Team Sanderling.

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XXIV. And like that, we were parents of three.

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XXV. Father and son.

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XXVI. Meconium toes. Strawberry blonde hair. 9lbs of squish.

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XXVII. Born March 7, 2016 at 1:11am. 9lbs 1oz. 20 inches long.

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XXVIII. Healthy. Safe. Here. That is all I had been wanting. It was all I needed in that moment. My anchor in the storm.

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XXIX. “He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.” Happy Birth Day, my sweet boy. We are so glad you’re here.

XIII

Hi, Mom,

I don’t even know where to begin. I have felt at a loss for words since the election. This whole year is like one gigantic steaming pile of horse poo. You would be horrified by the state of the world. Of this country. Reading the news kicks my anxiety in to high gear. What ugly times I fear we are living in, made all the more hideous by your absence. The holidays have been wearing away at me. I miss you so fucking much and am so angry that you are not here.

Despite the fear and ugliness and hate I see swirling in my newsfeed, there is still beauty and hope and love and joy. And above all, I hate that you are missing that.

You missed a beautiful, tasty, festive Thanksgiving with the Fricke family. Our first Pie Breakfast in our new home. The girls yearly Nutcracker performance. The decorating of our home in Christmas cheer. You weren’t there when I needed to whine and complain about a stomach flu that took out all five Cart family members. As I’ve been making and assembling and ordering and planning gifts for all my loved ones, you aren’t on my list. As I addressed and mailed our holiday card, I had to delete your name from Dad’s address. And I have to do this, every year, for the rest of my life.

Everything hurts when I let myself absorb that reality.

But because you are the one who instilled in me the joy and tradition of holiday card sharing, I wanted to share this year’s greeting in this space, to add to our growing collection. As always, I turned to Minted, and found a fitting French greeting as a nod to you, the ultimate Francophile. James and I took the kids back up to the farm to snap photos among the fall foliage, and I spent hours reworking a message of both devastation and celebration, loss and love. I think you would have loved the result. And I framed all of our cards, which we started sending the year Courtland was born. They are now prominently displayed in our front hall. Another little touch of which I know you’d approve.

I miss you, Mom. Always, but during these darker days of December most poignantly.

143 Your Ashley

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XII

Dear Mom.

We had such fun this Halloween. I wish you could have seen the Ulmer/Cart family team costume. We were all characters from “Finding Dory.” Dad and Kimmy went all out – Ulmer creativity unleashed! DIY Halloween game strong! You would have gotten such a kick out of it. I can practically hear the wheeze laugh these costumes would have inspired. I somehow landed the lead as Dory. James was Marlin. Sanderling was Nemo. Courtland was Bailey the Beluga. Sunny was Hank the Septopus. Kimmy was Destiny the Whale Shark. And Dad was Crush the Sea Turtle. It was so festive. I hadn’t originally felt up to pulling off another family costume, but realized how putting in that effort would be uplifting when I find myself so missing you at every holiday.

And Kimmy and I helped Geraldine throw a festive Halloween open house at her new home right in the heart of all the trick-or-treat mayhem in town. The three of us made such a great team. We learned party execution from one of the best.

I wish you could have been a part of it all.

143 Your Ashley

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XI

Hi, Mom.

People often tell me how much I remind them of you. At your Celebration so many people commented on it, not just how I look, but my voice, the way I speak, the way my hands are accompaniment to that expression. And of course there are “isms,” specific behaviors or tendencies which I emulate more and more as I tread deeper into adulthood/parenthood.

Like wearing my pajamas to the girls’ bus stop earlier this week. Hot dang, my transformation to Allison Motherhood is nearly complete thanks to that choice. But when the PJs are this cute… you taught me that trick. I’ve got an entire drawer full of Calida nightgowns to show for your commitment to luxurious, comfortable nightwear.

I haven’t ventured out in public in a nightgown (yet), but there’s time to get on your level.

143 Your Ashley

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X

Hi, Mom.

One of the more painful aspects of life in The After is existing among acquaintances, friends, even family members, who no longer ask about you, about how I’m doing in your absence, or dare to speak your name in my presence. So many people who claimed you among their dearest friends sent letters and condolences in the immediate aftermath, and yet it has been radio silence since.

It is so deeply painful to feel as though there are people in my life who expect me to be over it. Moved on. Why would I need to still talk about my dead mom? She’s been gone 8 months, surely my sadness and grief has had enough time to work itself out. Snap out of it, Ashley! Look on the bright side! Look at your beautiful children! Your mom wouldn’t want you to be sad.

And to that I say, Fuck. That. Noise. I witnessed how hard you grieved your own mother in the 15 years you lived without her, and there is absolutely no way you wouldn’t want me mourning and grieving your death. You would be so outraged that you were dead. I can’t stop thinking about how furious this whole situation would make you. Sure, anyone would be mad they were dead, but oh, your fury would be a special kind of rage and indignation.

The thing I wish people would realize is that I will never stop wanting to talk about you. I will always want to tell stories about you to my children. Or share memories of you with my friends. I will never want to pretend like you weren’t the most essential person in my life, and that I am forever altered and life is forever less by your death.

I miss you so so much, mom. Thank you for allowing authentic expression of feeling, in all its varied capacities. I recognize now more than ever how special it was to grow up in a home where I was permitted to share and emote honestly. I am a better support and cheerleader for those I love because of it.

143 Your Ashley

IX

Hi, Mom.

For over a month, I’ve been plugging away on a sweater for your grandson. I’ve become enamored of this bubble stitch from a bonnet pattern, and decided to incorporate it into a sweater for Sanderling. It was my first true foray into pattern design, and I was extremely nervous that all that time and effort might have been for nothing if things went awry. I know you would understand zero percent of this given your utter disinterest in knitting (thank goodness your mom took it upon herself to teach me), but you were always such an admirer of the pieces I produced (and on the receiving end of many, even my earliest, less successful projects).

I wanted to share Sanderling wearing the finished product so desperately with you. I wanted to hear you “ooooh” and “ahhhhh.” I am really so dang proud of what I created. It fits beautifully, just as I’d envisioned and hoped. And I was yearning for a compliment from you.

You would have loved it.

143 Your Ashley

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VIII

Hi, Mom,

I took Sunny to see the New York City Ballet perform at the ’62 Center this week. It felt so reminiscent of childhood adventures with you to watch the Boston Ballet perform. The “Swan Lake” pas de deux had me in tears. The female ballerina was so delicate and graceful. The perfect swan. I know how much you would have adored the performance.

Another female lead had the most beautiful hands. It reminded me of the way you always commented on Kimmy’s gorgeous hands when she danced. What a small detail, but what an enormous impact. We sat close to the stage so we could really watch the dancers sweat and work – another thing you taught us young. Ballet is both beautiful and athletic, and takes an immense amount of strength and training. It’s a powerful sight to witness up close. To experience that kind of grace and power so intimately.

Although we live in the country, we took the opportunity to put on fancy dresses and don our dress coats. Sunny even carried my rabbit fur muff from when I was little. You taught us that some occasions just call for fancy, and the ballet is most certainly an opportunity to put on one’s finery. I’m endlessly grateful that I live in a small town community with such easy, affordable access to the arts – I recognize now what a gift (and effort/expense) it was for you and dad to prioritize that for us during our childhoods. I want you to know that I am passing along that legacy.

Courtland, envious of Sunny’s trip to the ballet, asked if she could carry her red rabbit fur muff to school the next day. And why the hell not? You don’t need an excuse to be fabulous.

This muff is extra special because it was in the Valentine’s Day gift bag you prepared for Courtland the morning of your sudden death. I understood instantly why you had purchased it for her. Ever committed to fairness and equality, your second grandchild needed her very own special muff to compliment her big sister’s. That muff carries extra weight and meaning given the circumstances. And while you never saw it in use, you’d be happy to know it brightened up an otherwise grey October Friday.

143 Your Ashley

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VII

Hi, Mom.

I really needed you today. It felt like no one was in my corner or had my back. I retreated to my bed room before the kids returned home from school and hid out under the covers. And I cried. Long and hard. For you. For myself. For your grandchildren.

I needed a cheerleader today. I needed someone checking in on me. I needed someone asking how I am doing with authenticity and time. I needed a long, rambling voicemail. I needed a voice on the other end of the line. I needed a mother.

During my hardest moments of grief, I need a mother’s love. And yet that is the very thing I am mourning.

143 Your Ashley

VI

Hi, Mom.

In my office sits a framed photograph of you and Dad bedecked in purple and yellow on the sidelines of a Williams football game. It’s the fall of 2006, and you’re seated in the grass, shoulder to shoulder, hugging my Ursa close, and smiling up at the camera proudly.

When I returned to work just a few weeks ago, nearly 8 months to the day since you died, that image smacked me in the face upon entering my office. It sat casually on my desk, in the very place it was left when I closed up my office on Friday, February 12th, fully expecting to return the following Monday, the home stretch to baby’s arrival. And yet, just two days later, our lives changed forever. And I had forgotten about that photograph in the fog of life in The After.

But there it was, with you and Ursa side by side. And I felt myself grow angry and crushed at its sight. Two out of the three beings in that image are dead. Gone. I will never see them again. Never hold them again. Never feel their love firsthand. Ever again. I was gutted by that reality.

It wasn’t so long ago that we sat together on that patch of grass on that brisk November day. And as I stared at that image today at work, I found myself trying to recall what it felt like to hold your hand. I tried to recall the safety and love I experienced when pressing my face against the side of your cheek in a hug. Or the way stroking Ursa’s silky, black ears always brought such relaxation and calm.

And I fucking hate that I don’t ever get to experience those things again. Ever again. It is so horribly, painfully unfair.

143 Your Ashley

V

Hi, Mom.

Montauk Daisies are in full bloom in The Berkshires. I never would have taken the time to notice the way that flowers mark the months with their ephemeral beauty were it not for you. After we purchased Cartwheel Farm, you quickly got to work filling our land with vibrant blooms, instructing us about care and upkeep, and the beauty to anticipate year after year. It wasn’t until I became a homeowner that I fully appreciated the labor of love (and sweat) it was to maintain your perennial flower gardens at 30 Margin. The time, the expense, the knowledge required. How fortunate we were as children to grow up surrounded by such natural splendor, and how fortunate as an adult to benefit from all that experience (though I feel cheated of so much, as you had so much more to give, particularly on that front).

The first flowers you had us plant at Cartwheelm Farm were Montauk Daisies.

They’re wonderful, Ashley! They bloom in October. Just when the days start to get darker and grayer, they are a happy, sunny sight as the season cools.

You stood watch, sipping a frosty beverage no doubt, orchestrating James and I as we dug holes and planted and watered and pruned. And year after year, how those bushes grew and thrived and gave us that happy boost each October.

I drove up to the farm with the kids last weekend as I was in need of a smile and some sunshine from my mama. We picked an abundant bouquet of Montauk Daisies and they have been a happy sight on our dining room table for over a week.

I will always see you in the flowers.

143 Your Ashley

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