I spent the last few days pulling together pictures to make a video scrapbook for my son Andrew’s fifteenth birthday. As I worked my way through the project, I realized I don’t have many photos from before 2007. When I walked away from my house and a bad marriage, I left nearly everything I owned behind, including box upon box of baby pictures. At the time, I simply did what needed to be done. To move in with Mom and Cathy, to sign away the house, to walk away with nothing but my name, to start rebuilding my life for myself and my boys: I’ve been told it was a bold and courageous thing to do. To my mind it was survival, plain and simple.
I tend to do that, to slip into survival mode. I come through hell, never look back and several years later I’m suddenly looking around wondering why I’m covered in ashes. Going through all those old pictures, I found a lot of ashes.
Every week during my pregnancy, my sister Kitty called me. She lived in Maryland and she was as excited as I was about my first baby. I mailed her copies of the ultrasound pictures and we ran through baby names. As my due date grew closer, our phone calls got longer and it wasn’t unusual for us to talk until the phone batteries would give out. The Wednesday before Mother’s Day was one of those nights. Kitty and I laughed about all the joys of late pregnancy, in particular having baby feet perpetually wedged in my ribcage. She told me that she was planning to come and stay with me for a few weeks after he was born. ‘I won’t come when he’s born,’ she said, ‘everybody comes then and you’ll have plenty of help. I’m going to come later, maybe for his Baptism and stay. That’s when you’ll need the most help.’ The phones started beeping in low-battery protest shortly after that. We said our I love you’s and hung up. I never talked to her again. On Saturday morning, Mom and Cathy knocked on my door at 7 AM. Kitty was gone. She’d died suddenly of a massive heart attack sometime Thursday night. The police found her on Friday. I literally felt my heart break. It was pain compounded when the doctors declared me too close to my due date to travel to the funeral. The day of her funeral, I was home screaming into a pillow on the living room floor, devastated by shock and grief.
Three weeks later Andrew was born. I refused the epidural. My tremendous fear of needles trumped the pain of labor and delivery. When he was born, the doctor laid him in my arms for only a moment. He had aspirated fluid and they wanted him rushed to NICU for observation. I was blind from the pain and while I heard his first cries, I couldn’t see him. Then they whisked him away. Two hours later, I was feeling weaker rather than stronger and the doctor, fearing I was bleeding internally, knocked me out so she could do stitches if necessary. She told me to count backwards from ten. I got to ‘ni…’ and everything went black.
Then Kitty was there with me. ‘I told you I’d come,’ she told me. ‘Wait until you see him, Chris, he’s perfect! He had the biggest blue eyes.’
‘You bitch! You cheated! You saw him first!’ But I was glad she’d seen him. ‘He’s okay? They took him away.’
‘He’s fine. Daddy’s with him.’ Dad had died eleven years earlier but somehow I knew what she said was true. ‘He’s breathing beautifully. He’s so precious.’
We talked about other things too but before she left me, she promised she’d stay with us. Maybe it was nothing more than a drug induced dream but it didn’t feel like one. When I finally came to, several hours later, that rip in my heart wasn’t quite so raw. Once I was upstairs in my room, they brought Andrew to me. Sure enough he had the biggest, brightest blue eyes and he was wide awake.
As I’m working on the video and pulling together pictures, I can’t help but think how much my life has changed in the last fifteen years. The hopes and dreams I had as a new mom at 25 seem so very far way from the way life has turned out at 40. Andrew is heading off to high school in the fall and Eugene isn’t all that far behind him. It’s been in the back of my mind since I turned 40 that Kitty was only 43 and her son was only 17 when she died. I find myself more and more aware of what things I want to pass on to my sons. As I talk to guidance counselors and teachers, I have a growing realization that I’m more concerned with raising intelligent, kind, compassionate, spiritually grounded young men than I am about raising successful A students. That usually doesn’t translate well in parent-teacher conferences but then I’ve always been one to do things my own way.
Now with Andrew’s birthday looming and memories of Kitty lurking, I decided I needed to go out and get lost this morning. I filled up the gas tank and queued up some new music, Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn to be precise. There’s nothing better then a little blues gospel on such a perfect day for a long winding drive through the Naugatuck Valley. As I drove, I passed many old overgrown cemeteries with the lively new spring grass having little respect for the forgotten and neglected memorials of those long dead. I couldn’t help but think about how much birth and death have intertwined in my life. Dad died on my birthday. His funeral was on Kitty’s birthday three days later. It was an odd bond that we shared as sisters. Then too, Kitty’s death will be forever linked to both Mother’s Day and to Andrew’s birthday. And yet, every year the calendar slap in the the face becomes less about what I’ve lost and more about what remains, namely the love and guidance of my father and my big sister.
Years ago, my friend John told me, that having experienced neither in his immediate family, he considered me fortunate to have known so intimately the two greatest miracles of life: birth and death. I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, see it at the time. I know now that he was right all long. I just needed to rub the ashes out of my eyes.