January 22, 1992.
My most vivid memory from that day was of standing completely naked in my living room. The scene around me was frenetic and chaotic, but I remember feeling like I was in slow motion. It was early in the morning, maybe around 5:30am or so. The front door was wide open. It was frigid out and dark. I remember the flashing lights from the firetruck and ambulance in front of the house. I can still see the firemen walking into the house with their heavy coats and crackling radios. (I would learn later that fireman are always first to arrive whenever a 911 call is made, even if there’s not a fire.) My best friend Lisa was grabbing clothes and stuffing them into a bag. I think my mother was helping her. My husband Charlie was doing something in the back of the house. The midwives were speaking to the medics in hushed tones. Everyone was talking about me but nobody was talking to me. I recall that someone, maybe Lisa, wrapped a robe around me. They wouldn’t allow anyone to ride in the ambulance with me. I have a specific memory of asking one of the medics to please stay present with me through the contractions. I remember how the driver hauled ass through the early morning streets. I can still see the team of people waiting for me at Swedish hospital and I can still hear, with excruciating clarity, the words of the attending physician: I am gravely concerned about your baby.
The rest of my memories are in fragments: little vignettes from a story that was at first horrific and then unbearably sad. I remember coming out of the anesthesia. The feeling was like swimming to the surface of black water. Charlie’s face was the first thing I saw. Before he could say anything, I knew intuitively that my baby was a boy and that he had died. Beyond these, my recollections are like snapshots. I remember the colors and the scents of the flowers that filled my hospital room. I remember the high fevers from the post-delivery infection. I remember the nurse binding my breasts so as to stop the flow of milk. My body was so sick and so confused. I don’t know how many days I was in the hospital. My sister Martha flew in immediately, as did my father. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry.
We are the homebirth horror story. After some 14 or so hours of labor, my midwives were suddenly unable to detect my baby’s heartbeat. We learned after the fact that our son had been in a footling breach presentation and that his dangling foot had become tangled in the umbilical cord. (Our midwives made some egregious errors. While I am not interested in debating the pros and cons of homebirth, I do believe that if we’d been in the hospital from the start, I would not be writing this post.) At the hospital, I underwent an emergency C-section. A team of a dozen or more people worked frantically to revive one tiny boy: my son. But he slipped away from all of us. We named him “Zeppo.” During one particularly nauseous weekend early in the pregnancy, Charlie and I holed up and watched a Marx Brothers film festival on TV. After that, we started calling the little person growing inside of me Zeppo. After he was born, Charlie felt strongly that we shouldn’t change his name. Zeppo is the name on his birth certificate and it is the name tattooed on my right ankle.
After I finally got out of the hospital, we had a memorial of sorts at our house. Friends came bearing food, love and packets of seeds of their favorite flowers. When spring came, we planted a sizable garden. I would spend most of the next six months tending the flowers, watering, pulling weeds and nurturing this patch of earth that was to be my salvation. Sometimes when the pain was too much to bear, I would get on my knees, dig my hands into the dirt and literally hang on for dear life.
When Zeppo died, it was my own personal annihilation. Everything I believed in, everything I held to be true and everything I trusted was demolished or at least subject to an extreme reexamination. I was changed on a cellular level. I was left with only questions. The God as I understood it was gone. And of course, there was the grief: a deep, ravaging and unrelenting anguish. Prior to this, I could have never dreamed of an emotional pain so intense. It inhabited my body and, at times, reduced me to nothing more than an animal wailing unintelligibly long into the night. I was drowning. Every day I observed people driving to work and ordering take-out and reading newspapers in cafes. “Normal” was happening all around me, but I was dying. I was a stranger in a strange land. The anger was equally as intense; some days, it consumed me and I feared I would implode. I recall one weekend walking for miles and miles down the Oregon coast, hurling large pieces of driftwood into the water and screaming. It was an epic release of pure rage and I gave it everything I had. It was there by the ocean that I stood on the lip of the universe and flipped God the finger. At points along the way, I teetered precariously on the edge of madness. I seriously contemplated suicide, partly to escape the pain but mostly to see if I could somehow find him. The guilt intensified everything. The sense that our choices caused his death was all-consuming. My saving grace throughout was people, especially Lisa and Martha, who kept constant vigil and held me even though I was shattered into a million pieces. They anchored me to the world. Charlie and I leaned on each other as best we could, but each of us was in our own private hell: raw, decimated and alone together.
Ultimately, we learned a new way to be in the world. The births of Emmett and Enzo restored a sense of balance to our lives. We found “normal” again and we knew joy. We bought a house. I started singing jazz. We grew our family. We carried on. Things are different now. My father and Lisa are both gone. My father died of pancreatic cancer and Lisa succumbed to pneumococcal meningitis. She woke up feeling fluish one morning and by noon, she was gone. Both of these set me back considerably, but especially Lisa’s. She had only recently begun her own passage into motherhood; her daughter was just under 8-months-old at the time of Lisa’s death. The year after Lisa died, Martha was diagnosed with cancer. I liked to say that cancer messed with the wrong woman. I was right; she’s still here. And finally, three years ago, Charlie and I went our separate ways. I am navigating the next leg of the journey solo.
Zeppo would be nineteen years old today. I still grieve the infant but also the young man that I never got to see blossom. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of him. I daydream about who he would have been, what he would have looked like and how he would be in the world. Every year on Zeppo’s birthday, I buy flowers-one for every year old he would be-and take them to the water. I stand by the lake or the sound or wherever I’ve ended up, throw the flowers into the water one by one and talk to my son
This has been an exceptionally long post, and I apologize for that. If you’ve stuck with it this far, then I thank you. I’m honored. It’s a big story to tell and I’ve never been able to relay it with brevity. But lest this amount to nothing more than a very sad post, I can offer up a few hopeful takeaways:
I came to understand the process of grieving as a force of nature and as such, that it would run its own course in its own time. To me, grief is the surest pathway for maintaining an open heart in the midst of a situation that has the potential to shut us down forever. There are no shortcuts. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is only time. Yet in the simple act of surrendering to the process, we can find a kind of grace and a tenderness for all things. We plunge the depths and in doing so, our capacity to touch the suffering of others expands.
The human ability to endure is profound.
This isn’t because we’re particularly brave. It’s because we don’t have a choice. I have a locket with Zeppo’s picture and a strand of his hair inside. I wear it a lot and especially when I am going into situations that are scary or difficult for me. It’s a way I carry him with me and it reminds me that nothing is harder than losing him was. I can survive anything. We all can.
When Zeppo died, our friends and family made a circle around us. Their love was our lifeline. It was clean and palpable and sometimes seemed to create an actual reverberation of sorts when we were gathered together. There were so many acts of kindness and so many people holding us. We were surrounded by unflinching compassion. On the cold, sunny February morning of Zeppo’s memorial, I stood on the front porch and looked up into the infinite blue sky. In that moment, it was if the universe opened up and gave me a glimpse of the big answer. And it was Love. There was no question. No uncertainty. It was the most profound and powerful moment of my life. It doesn’t matter who I am. It doesn’t matter what I do or if I’m successful. It only matters that I love…..that I love fiercely and enormously. That’s really all that any of us are here to do.
“It’s as if we, you and I and others I know, have had to confront despair like a wrestling opponent, and have had to make the choice, a slap away from being pinned, to be happy or not. To make some feeble grasp at destiny or not. To utter weakly into the pit, ‘I matter’ and just get the fuck on with things or not. It’s the whisper of Zeppo. From that tiny breath in the wind comes the question. Out of that lovely spirit emanates the option. He somehow manages, despite the howling storms, to be heard.”