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The Birthday Brothers

4 Jun

In his kitchen, the ice snaps as he pours a substantial swallow of vodka into a glass and squeezes in an orange. Sipping, he gathers more ice from the freezer, drops it onto a washcloth on the counter, folds it and presses it against his neck, which is stiff. And he smiles.

He sits alone at his kitchen table in the evening cool, taking a moment, organizing his impressions of the day. But after barely a minute, A looks up to see his brothers standing in the doorway. His face falls and he finishes his drink.

“I didn’t think it was so late. The day went too quickly,” he says.

“Yes,” says C, “we felt the same.”

“Please,” says A, “sit. Can I fix you a drink?”

“I wouldn’t mind. Whatever you’re having,” says C.

“I’m not sure I’m old enough,” says B.

A opens a cabinet and grabs two more glasses. “If we are, you are,” he says. He pours drinks for his brothers, refills his own: vodka, ice, orange squeeze. The brothers clink cheers and drink.

“It’s good,” says C.

“I don’t like mine,” says B.

A nods. “Like Daddy,” he says. “I don’t think he liked vodka either.”

“Tell us about your day, Brother,” says C. “What’s with the ice on the neck?”

A reclines and massages his own shoulder. “Oh, my daughter. Today I taught her to drive. She’s 19, but she’s avoided it until now. ‘I’ll never use this, Dad. It’s all autonomous now. It’s not like when you were a kid.’ Anyhow, she’s jumpy on the brake and my neck is paying the price.”

“A daughter!” says C. “What’s her name?”

“Gertrude. ‘Gertie.’ I have a son too. Five years old. He cried when I brushed his teeth too hard.”

C grasps A’s hand and smiles. “Yes, continue! What else?”

“What else. Well, the day was chilly, but in the afternoon, the sun shined and it was hot on my head and on my arms. When I first saw my daughter, she hugged me and my nose and eyes filled with the smell of her shampoo. It was very pleasant. There was a leaf on my car’s windshield before I drove to my job. The color of the leaf was a very deep, dark green. I suppose it made me a little sad. Maybe it seemed as if it belonged back in the tree with its brothers.”

“Yes, maybe,” says C. “What’s something that made you happy?”

“My shoes made a sound as I walked on a stretch of gravel in a parking lot. That made me happy, the crunch-crunch. I think you would love it if you heard it. Also, this morning I drank coffee, which I enjoyed very much. It was sort of bitter. But a good bitter. My coffee had milk in it and that helped. I hope I can have it again next year.”

“Coffee,” says B. “That’s a beverage, I think. A drink.”

A removes the washcloth from his neck and drops the ice into the sink. He fixes his eyes on a slate sky on the other side of the window, light sinking lower. Across the street, a house blinks out of existence along with a lemon tree in the front yard. “Yes, it’s popular with other grown-ups like me. At least I think so. My thoughts on it are already fading, so I’m not sure.”

“And your age?” asks C. “Which birthday is it?”

A thinks. “Oh. Forty-eight? I want to say forty-eight.”

C turns to B and says, “What about you, brother? Which birthday was it for you?”

B beams. “Thirteen. I watched television programs on my tablet. Most of them were funny. I ate breakfast with Mommy and Daddy. Mommy made my favorite: strawberries and French toast.”

A winces. “I miss Mommy.”

“I miss Mommy too,” says C.

“Yes. There was a picnic,” B continues. “The school year is over and there was a picnic to celebrate the start of summer and uh. My, you know, friend. Aron. He told me he had gotten me a birthday present, but he wanted me to open it down on the beach. So we left the group and walked toward the water. Our feet were in the ocean a little bit and Aron started talking about how he liked how brave I am and how I’m not afraid to take chances and then he held my arms with his hands and he kissed me.”

“Was the water cold?” asks A.

“A little. I guess it was cold.”

“Did you like being kissed by Aron? Did it make you happy?” asks C.

“I don’t know. I keep thinking about it. It’s a partly happy and partly nervous thing for me to think about.”

“What are strawberries like?” asks A. “I didn’t have any today.”

“They’re sweet but also a little tart. They’re very red. With sort of seeds on the outside. Mommy slices them.”

At that moment, three vodka oranges with ice disappear from the kitchen table.

“And what about you, Brother?” A says to C. “Which birthday? What happened?”

“Fifty-nine,” says C. “I took a shower this morning, which is when the water comes out of the little holes and there’s soap and it makes you clean.”

“I know showers,” says B, raising a hand.

“I know showers too,” agrees A.

“I rode on a train for awhile,” says C. “It was very fast and didn’t seem to touch the ground. There were screens and lights and a VR harness to keep me occupied in my seat, but mostly I looked out the window. I saw deserts and trees and two different rivers. My wife slept on my shoulder. A thing was on my lap. An urn.”

A and B nod.

“I spent part of the day with both of you and our wives and husband. We walked to the end of a long pier to p-pour ashes into the sea. Thuh-that’s, that’s what grown-ups do sometimes when, hnn, when p-people die and…” C’s throat knots, his face grows hot and tears swell in his eyes. He buries his head in his hands.

A and B exchange looks. The refrigerator disappears.

A says, “Brother?”

“It’s Mommy!” cries C. “Mommy died months ago!”

And the triplet brothers begin to wail. Wracking, spine-shaking sobs as the kitchen sink faucet pops away to nothing, causing tap water to shoot from the plumbing and onto the counter and floor.

“NO!” bawls B. “NOT MOMMY!”

A crumples to the ground, holding his knees to his chest. “MOMMY WAS THE BEST! SHE LOVED US! SHE FOUGHT FOR US!”

The chair beneath C evaporates, sending him sprawling. “THAT’S RIGHT, SHE DID! MOMMY FOUGHT FOR US!”

“OH MOMMY!” wail the brothers.

The cabinets dissolve, smashing the dishes they contained onto the counter. Floor tiles and cutlery, glasses and Tupperware, oven racks and skillets blip away as if they were never there to begin with.

Through tears and snot and saliva bubbles, C rakes his fingers through his hair: “Shuh-shuh-she, shuh-she was so sad. We talked about how sad Mommy was at the end, how she w-wanted to go to Heaven be with D-D-Daddy and she, and she…”

“I DON’T WANT THIS!” cries B. “I WANT ANOTHER DAY WITH MOMMY!”

“Those aren’t the r-rules, though,” says A. “You know the rules.”

“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!”

“Maybe say the rules, Brother. It’s best,” croaks A, face wet.

“NO!”

Once a year…’” says C.

“NO!”

The kitchen table and remaining chairs disappear. C and A right themselves and sit cross-legged, joining hands with B and with each other, swallowing sobs. B shakes his head as, more and more, memories of the day blink from his brain. B bows his head and whispers.

“Once a year,
the children too soon gone
are granted a day
to experience a taste
of a life they never lived.”

And bit by bit, item by item, the remainder of the kitchen is uncreated. Dish fragments and glass, sink water and silverware. The oven. The ceiling. The walls and windows. The floor. All vanishes to still and infinite white.

The triplet brothers who shared a womb, fingers interlocked, hang in the center of The Fluidity, The Peace, The AllNow, The Grand Everything.

“Day good,” says B, as best he can. “Pretty and beauty and want more.”

“Miss warm and Mommy. Day good, but miss Mommy,” says A.

“Happy share brothers,” says C. “Happy always with brothers.”

The three drift, soon bodiless. Baby A, Baby B and Baby C, held safe by an umbilical as big as the universe. They travel to where the other children are waiting. And not just children, but grown-ups too. Friends and loved ones and neighbors and strangers and animals and even Mommy. And everything that ever was and ever could be.

There they ruminate and speculate and confer.

And they begin the wait for their next birthday.


 

Dedicated to the fighting Mommies of children too-soon-gone. 

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Remaining Men Together

14 Jun

Last night found us at a support group for bereaved parents, you know, like us.  I’m not exactly sure what it’s called, but something like Failed Pregnancies, which is about as appropriate as anything, I guess.

It was surprising.  I can’t exactly put my finger on why or what was so surprising about it, maybe the fact that it was small (only about 8 or 9 attendees) or maybe because no one there looked like parents of dead children.  In fact, they didn’t really look like anything other than the sort of people in front of you or behind you at the grocery store.

Sharon, the organizer, invited everyone ahead of time to share their “stories” and I suppose I was expecting something along the lines of Hello, I’m Gloria and this is my husband Chester.  We were just so excited about our pregnancy and so shocked when we discovered a heart defect at 18 weeks.  It’s been 3 months since we lost our baby and each day is still a struggle.  We named him Kilroy.

This most definitely wasn’t that. The stories were epically lengthy and hugely detailed. And when I say detailed, I mean medically. I can tell you all about these ladies’ vaginas. Not to mention their cervixes, placentas, amniotic fluids and so on. But most of all, I can tell you everything that went wrong with their unborn children. From the nuances in the doctors’ tones of voices to the phone calls with grandma to which episode of what was playing on television the morning their water broke.

Grief is strange and interesting and scary. We’re a group of people who have very little in common other than the fact that we’re reluctant members of a local chapter of a very big international community: we’re all in the the Dead Baby Club. And we’re all there because of this big, weird, sticky-yellow thing with tentacles and 1,000 little eyes called Grief. And we’re trying everything to get it to leave us alone. From curling up in a ball, fingers in our ears, to embracing it full-on, to ignoring it altogether, to laughing at it, to feeding it, to starving it, to yelling and screaming and hacking away at its shitty limbs, even though brand new ones appear to regrow almost immediately. The only thing that seems to satisfy this prick is the last thing any of us want to give it: lots and lots and lots of time.

Eventually, it was our turn to talk. I wasn’t sure what to say and I stumbled around a little before admitting I’d never been in a support group and the whole thing felt weird to me. “Like that scene from Fight Club, where all those men with testicular cancer are sitting in a circle talking about how much they miss their balls,” I told them.

Carey told our story better than I did and she cried. And nearly everyone else there cried too. We were hoping that the more seasoned people in the group would say something about how much easier it is now than it was 9 days after their babies died, but they didn’t. One or two women mentioned how difficult it can be when well-meaning people say things that don’t entirely help, like the old “remember, the Bible tells us that God will never give you more than you can handle” and other gems. I suppose Carey and I have been fairly fortunate in that regard, by the way. Nearly all encouragements and sympathies we’ve been given have been genuinely encouraging and sympathetic, which helps a lot.

(Side tangent, though, because it’s a pet peeve of mine: the bible doesn’t say anything about not giving us more than we can handle. It’s true; I looked it up and everything. It mentions something about how God will never allow us to be tempted us beyond what we can bear (1Cor. 10:13), but that’s a different thing entirely. End/rant.)

Eventually I chimed in again: “It pisses me off. All of you seem to be really nice people who deserve your babies. Doesn’t it piss you off?”

Vigorous nods.

“I think I might be starting a season of anger here which I’m really not excited about, but it seems inevitable and, you know, I’d rather just skip it. I don’t want to be an angry person. But I went back to work today for the first time since our children died and it made me really really upset that I’d be driving home soon and when I got there my kids wouldn’t be there. It’s stupid. We’re just people, we’re not equipped for this. I WANT MY SONS BACK.”

I suppose mini-tirades are what support groups are for.

One of the moms in the group recalled a story where a woman lost her child and the hospital gave her a discarded Pampers box to keep her mementos in. Since then, her “ministry” I guess, she paints decorative boxes and gives them to parents who’ve gone through what we went through. In fact, we were given one of her boxes the day Rudyard, Desmond and Oscar were born and passed and it’s meant a lot to us. It was nice to be able to thank her for it.

I suppose we’ll go back. It’s more helpful in hindsight than it was in the moment, but I’m glad we were able to meet these people. I hope to stay in touch with them and I really hope Carey stays in touch with them.

I think we’ll need them.


Speaking of needs, I’ve had an ever-mounting pile of guilt the past week and a half over failing to adequately respond to the beautiful words, prayers and desperately-needed encouragements Carey and I have received, particularly online. Frankly, in this, the hardest thing we’ve every experienced, neither of us have ever encountered anything like the outpouring of love and support we’ve been lucky enough to receive.

I know I’m a broken record here, but thank you. Even now, we return to our blogs and our Facebook pages when we’re in our darkest moments and it helps every time, particularly when we share them out loud to each other.

But it’s not just kind notes. We received some gorgeous flower arrangements that have brightened our home and lifted our spirits. “I’m so happy people have been kind enough to get us flowers,” I told Carey a couple of days ago. “It’s pretty and thoughtful and, best of all, temporary.”

She knew what I meant. While framed poems and knickknacks and other sentimental objects can be great, there’s a stressful side to it too. We’re doing our best to continue the home-purge that began months ago because the new Bear Family Mantra is “Live With Less”. And more stuff can easily turn into more to manage because we feel too guilty packing it away or, god forbid, getting rid of any mementos from this period of our lives.

And then there’s the food.

I can’t tell you how sweet it’s been the last couple of weeks to not have to worry about where our meals are coming from or making time to purchase or prepare them. People just keep showing up to the house to drop off lunches and dinners and snacks and desserts and groceries. And not McDonald’s, either. Good stuff, real food. I don’t think we’ve ever eaten better in our lives. The generosity has been overwhelming and, trust me, we’ve been taking full advantage. I mentioned to Carey the other day, after our friend Christy brought by a delicious meal from Ambrosia, “except for the grieving part, this really is the life, isn’t it?”

A couple of people have asked about “donations”, whether it’s for our bills or for a cause we’d want to support in the boys’ names. As far as our bills go, thankfully, we’re ok for the moment. In terms of a charity or something, we’ve been trying to think of something, but we’re really not sure. Carey in particular has a few different causes she’s passionate about, causes that we already give to regularly, especially the ones that involve kindness to animals and/or the environment. But we’re not sure if it’s strange or tacky to use what happened to us to draw attention to our particular missions. Admittedly, though, I don’t know how these things typically work. Erm, any thoughts?

Finally, there’s this very blog. I don’t know what to do with this place and, let’s face it, even the name of it now almost borders on insulting. I know of several other blogs that have made the unfortunate transition from Expectant Parent blog to Grief blog and I can’t decide if that’s what this should be.

But, fact is, our boys lived. They existed in the world and, however humble, their brief lives left an impact on the world. I’m hesitant to dismantle this site altogether.

At the very least, though, it really is time to take down our baby registry link and update the FAQ. You wouldn’t think something like that would take tremendous willpower to do, but it does.

Yes, we are Men.  Men is what we are.

Deep breaths.  Welcome to Grief.