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XXII

Hi, Mom,

It’s hard to believe that you have been absent for all these moments. And yet, look at all this love… you are so clearly a part of that.

143 Your Ashley

XXI

Hi, Mom,

I’m currently holed up in bed with a bum knee. Your grandson ran full tilt down a bowling lane this weekend, and in my effort to stop him from dive bombing into a row of bowling pins, I fell, hard, on my left knee. I had no idea that bowling lanes were so damn slick. Sanderling and I managed to make a rather low risk sport dangerous. And fuck. My knee is in rough shape.

Of course, as with all things in life, when it rains, it pours, so Sander has a fever of 102 and is a snotty, drooly, coughy, disgusting beast. Since I can only move very slowly and deliberately to avoid further injury slash pain, James had to stay home from work with both of us to manage the energy of the toddler, and the demands of his relatively immobile spouse. The joys!

Fortunately, we’re coming down from a glorious long weekend with Steve and Justin and Adam, and their love and generosity and brilliance and good cooking has provided the positive vibes I need to get through this unfortunate hurdle.

On Sunday night, as I lay propped up on your 40th birthday present, that ridiculous Victorian sofa, and the guys cooked and entertained the kids and provided an endless stream of champagne and ice packs, I sat talking about you and what it felt like to lose a mother at this particular stage in my life when I am in the heart of parenting young children. It’s something I think about regularly, and the difficulty of not having you a phone call away on days like today are notably painful.

But I found that as I talked, I reflected on Courtland’s friend whose mother died this summer. Tears welled in my eyes with a mix of sadness and gratitude. How lucky am I to have had you in my life as a child. To have been created and loved and raised by you. I’m still pissed AF that you are gone, but I had you, for 32 years, and that is a part of me forever. And for that, I know deep wells of love and longing and gratitude.

But damn I wish I could call you and bitch about this stupid knee. You were always there in solidarity with a brilliant combination of sympathy and wit.

I miss you, Mama.
143 Your Ashley

XX

Hi, Mom.

Recently I heard asked, “What lonelier question is there than “Who do I want to be?”

And for me, the loneliest question is related, although not exact. “Why do I matter? Why do any of us matter? Why do how I chose to spend my day and live my life and raise my children and spend my money and love my family and grieve your death and invest in my community and care about the world matter? Why does any of it matter?”

I am currently sitting alone in tiny cabin on the MASSMoCA campus willing myself to write. As though securing a “writer’s retreat” for an afternoon and secluding myself in a vertical pine box, something so akin to a coffin, will inspire the words and knowledge to capture my grief. As though language will suddenly come, language that will defy cliché. Profound, insightful, moving words will spill on to the page and finally capture my pain and sadness and gratitude and love and loneliness and anger and peace and anxiety in all their complicated, contradictory, mixed up forms. As though this exercise in intentional loneliness will somehow negate the inherent loneliness I feel.

I realize it will not. But still I try. Because what else is there but to persevere? What else is there but to believe that I matter. That you mattered. That all of this living and dying and loving and losing matters. The impact may be small, and yet, even the smallest stone can move an ocean. 

143 Your Ashley

XIX

Hi, Mom.

Here are five things I want you to know about your grandson.

  1. Moments after Sanderling was born, one of the nurses cooed, “Oh my, he is just so sweet.” It didn’t strike me as all that unique a comment at the time, as new life is undoubtedly sweet… and pure, and fresh, and squishy, and mind-bendingly awesome. But that sentiment has been a recurring one ever since that moment, from our nearest and dearest, to his care providers, to his doctors, to complete strangers. He is a sweet, sweet boy. And I comment on his gender, as I worry that society does not value sweetness in men, and how I want nothing more than for him to be able to carry forward this defining trait since his birth through adulthood.
  2. He is also happy, a happy, content baby. Quick to smile and engage. As one of his teachers commented, “That boy is so dang jolly!” Music and dance and social interaction (whether with fellow humans or any living creature) bring him most joy. And it is a true delight to parent.
  3. James and I secretly refer to him as “Pig-Pen” as we can practically see the filth and dirt and sand radiating off his sweaty, sticky body. The kid is a fucking mess. Some of it is undoubtedly his personality and his love of any tactile experience. Sand. Dirt. Spaghetti sauce. Water. Dog food. Sun screen. Rocks. Bubbles. You name it and he wants to hold it and roll in it and stick it in his mouth and smear it on the floor and rub it in his palms and fully and completely experience it. And ya know, James and I let him. I think with the girls, we were quicker to stop or clean up such experimentation. As the third child, we don’t have the bandwidth or energy to attend to such messes with quite the rapidity we did the girls. And given that he is an extra sweaty person a la his father, the dirt and grim tend to stick with him much more readily than with his sisters. Baths are a necessity daily, if not more frequently, but fortunately, soap and water and bubbles bring him equal pleasure.
  4. His hair is long and wispy and white blonde. I am repeatedly told what a beautiful daughter I have. And I do not mind. Until the day that he asks me to cut it, it shall remain long and flowing and gorgeous. And I know how much you would support that decision (and delight in it).
  5. Mostly, I want you to know how much I adore being this boy’s mother. You more than anyone knew how much I feared parenting a son, for many personal reasons. And yet, no surprise to you or anyone who has parented a household with a mix of genders, I am over the moon in love with this boy just as I am over the moon in love with my girls.

I wish you were here to bear witness to that love. But you knew I would feel this way long before I ever believed it possible. He is what I wish you could know.

143 Your Ashley

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XVIII

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Hi, Mom.

You always said that people who complained that boys’ clothing was not as cute as girls’ clothing weren’t looking hard enough. And man, today’s outfit, replete with Wesley’s hand-me-downs, sure proves your point.

It was back to school night at the girls’ elementary school, and given that the weather is so unseasonably warm, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to dress Sander in these overalls you had custom made for his Uncle Wes 27 years ago. They won’t fit next season, so might as well squeeze in one final wear. And dang, those red leather shoes of Kimmy’s! I do so appreciate, more palpably than ever, your desire to covet and save. I am so grateful to have these bittersweet reminders of my childhood and your care infused in our daily life.

143 Your Ashley

XVII

Hi, Mom,

The other night I dreamed about you. This is a fairly common occurrence, although often they feel more like a nightmare than a dream. I’m haunted by visions of you dying, your medical emergency at our home in Pownal three years prior, what it felt like to hold your hand as you lay in an ER in Albany, how desperately I wished that that moment would transform your awareness and approach to your own well being. How Valentine’s Day 2016 proved otherwise.

But this dream was in fact that. A dream. We were seated around our dining room table and you were schooling me, Kimmy and Dad on the proper pronunciation of some French word or the correct etiquette for some antiquated behavior. I can’t recall the specifics, but I can recall the physical happiness I felt, the comfort, safety and familiarity of that scene and that experience. In my dream, I consciously paused to connect with that feeling. And I awoke happy. Contented. I relayed the feeling to James, and tears prickled in the corner of my eyes, that ever constant balance of yearning and gratitude that so defines grief.

I miss you, Mama, and those animated conversations around your dining room table.
143 Your Ashley

XVI

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They all share your darling half strawberry nose.

XV

Hi, Mom.

I dropped my phone in the toilet this weekend, minutes before I had to give a work presentation to a room full of eager alumni. It didn’t stand a chance. James had run over it the day we left the hospital with Sander, along with his computer, our camera, and a myriad of other less expensive belongings (Long story. Sleep deprivation, grief, post-partum life created the perfect storm for careless behavior), and it is a miracle that it had survived that incident. But this spill in the toilet bowl sealed its fate. Arguably, I was due for a new one 18 months ago.

I emailed Kimmy and Dad to let them know that they should connect with us via James as I awaited a replacement. Kimmy reminded us of the vacation when Cousin Laura hurled Dad’s cell phone into a toilet. Dad was always an early tech adopter, so I envision the phone as one of those ginormous black boxes from the mid-90s. I remember him being none too pleased either.

I believe I backed up my phone. I’m almost positive I made the intentional effort to archive all of its contents, most notably the final text messages and voicemails I have saved from before your death. There’s a voicemail you left just ten days before you died. I’m always struck by how vibrant and enthusiastic and ALIVE your voice is, rambling on about impractical cashmere baby clothes you had purchased for your soon-to-be grandchild and stating over and over “Love you” at various intervals during your three minute message. It’s a cherished message, but a punch in the gut every time. How dramatically and unexpectedly things can change. That is all I want retrieved back from my phone. Your cheery voice and over-the-top affection.

This morning, James and the kids all biked to school/work/daycare, as has become possible and habit thanks to a year of life on Main Street, USA. As they pulled out of our driveway littered with colorful foliage from our line of maples, I reached instinctively for my phone. I wanted to capture Sunny confidently peddling up hill with her classic blue LLBean backpack bobbing along with her efforts. Courtland more cautiously and rigidly beginning her ride with the air of a recent two-wheeler, her bedazzled helmet glinting in the early morning light. And James, taking up the rear, with Sanderling merrily singing in the bike trailer, pink leopard print helmet atop his head, waving and shrieking “buh byeeeeeeee” as they happily rode off to their destinations.

Instead of watching this scene behind the filter of a screen, I stood on our front porch, in one of your Calida nightgowns, waving  and smiling and tucking that happy sight into my memory stores to recall on a day when the sun may not shine as brightly or the children may not smile as widely. Life is indeed beautiful. Complicated and complex. And today I had no filter with which to mark the scene but my own time and memory. And for that, I am grateful.

143 Your Ashley

XIV

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I wish you could hear the coos of comfort as he nestles in to sleep.

I wish you could see the gentleness with which she holds the world.

I wish you could taste the sweetness of sticky cheeks and sugar-dusted fingers.

I wish you could touch the leaves as they dance ’round her limbs.

I wish you could smell the powder and peace on their pillows each night.

I wish you were here, sensing their world and all its simple, broken splendor.

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.