Monday, October 15, 2012

A month into this grief business: Finding gifts

Welcoming Xavier Jean Kiemde -- September 13, 2012
I woke up last Thursday morning and had this thought, "It was four weeks ago today that we met Xavi." My day, really my entire week, has been marked by this month anniversary of his arrival.

"I had a son..."

These words have the ability to break open my heart all over again...
"The mind, in such pain and turmoil, is seeking comfort and meaning. In Victor Krankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" he tells us that in the worst circumstances humans face, the ones who survive are those who can find meaning in their suffering."
I see Xavi's tiny body, smell his newborn skin, think of the ways that Francois and I marked his very brief time with us;  I cry and I laugh recalling it all. His squeaks-- taking in air; his warm skin next to mine; his 3 pound 9 oz frame that struck me with its perfections. Hello toes. Hi fingers. Hi little nose and dark hair. Even his omphalocele felt perfect -- like an extension of umbilical cord that we dressed with his diaper -- not at all daunting or scary, as I had envisioned it might be. His 29 week old body that we bathed, anointed in oil, baptized and loved completely: all God's; so Melissa's and Francois'.

In the time that has passed since we met Xavi, I have marveled at the graces afforded us in this grieving process. (The family and faith friends showing up at the hospital, our amazing neighbors showering us with food and flowers and support; the concentric circles of  blessed beings enveloping us at Xavi's funeral; all a demonstration of community, of love, of people to be with in grief and in our next steps of joy, recovery, hope.)

I should maybe back up -- I need to say that I marvel at the graces afforded us since the start of this journey conceiving and bringing Baby Boy Kiemde to the earth! In hindsight, it is all gift, all love and mystery wrapped in this tiny, precious being who lived for one hour inside the walls of United Hospital, after he blessed me for 29 weeks growing in my belly -- and lives on in our hearts, minds, and the blessed realm of angels.
I believe that with our son's brief life has come a transformational opportunity to heal wounds that have been debilitating for both me and my husband.  
How long did I dream of a son? For how many years has Francois imagined himself a father to a boy? And for this desire to come to pass in such a fashion? It is both a cruelty coupled with an unfathomable gift of fate, methinks...

I say "gift" over and over these days, when I think of Xavi's brief life, because I think of all the ways that I have known love and calling coupled with sorrow and loss in my life. I can make a list of ways that I have felt, beyond reason and without a doubt, called to love and be present in specific ways that have ultimately not played out in a manner that I had hoped or desired. (Do you remember when I taught high school? Do you recall the non-profit I started and folded? Who remembers the early days of me crashing vehicle after vehicle? Shall we reflect on the way I have loved tequila in my life? How about men?)

I can count the ways that I have felt myself to be a kind of failure, or to have failed in my work or role or relational stance. To conceive a child and then learn of his many fetal anomalies resulting in literal death is of course the biggest doozy of fathomable failing -- at least in my book. But is any of this thinking really helpful? No. Not if you want to live happy and upright...

Xavi's birth and death has been gift because it has helped me grieve --quite publicly, transparently, with all of you --all that I haven't been able to fully grieve in my 43 years. (Shoot, the way I live and believe and process -- weeping and simultaneously laughing -- I imagine I might be grieving for a whole host of family members whose stories are stored somewhere in my bones!)  I think of all that is encoded in the cells of my being; I believe that with our son's brief life has come a transformational opportunity to heal wounds that have been debilitating for both me and my husband.

Xavi was born at 8:03 am on Thursday, September 13, 2012. He died at 9:03am.  At around 5:30pm on Friday, September 14, I handed his body over to the mortician who came personally to my room to receive him. During the hours in between, I got to hold his precious body against my own. Breathe him in. Bond as any mother and child do beyond the embrace of womb. And in that time, I got to sigh, laugh, smile, weep, and utter sounds of grief that only feel possible in a primal loss sort of way.  I released sorrow from the very bottom of my soul that I believe could have been stored there for centuries.
Dead child.
Open mouth.

In those hours of holding Xavi's body, I couldn't fathom letting him go to be buried. I had just gotten him; there was no possible way in my mind that anyone could take him from me. I believe with all my heart, this side of the experience, that each hour I held him was akin to a year of my life where I had known loss (shame even?) unprocessed. In all of his precious body was the promise I had clinged to of a career; a new life, a love, a way of leading and inspiring change that I didn't get to see fully realized -- at least not according to my own visions.

Taking Xavier to the hospital chapel and presenting him to God in that formal space was a key point in letting him go. While his spirit was released hours before in his literal death, it took me - as his mom - more than a day to catch up and embrace the way his body could simultaneously go...

With special permission of hospital nurses and security, my friends Brigid and Marianna accompanied me with Xavi in my arms, under a blanket, from the 2nd to the 4th floor. They wheeled us into the chapel and placed me with my son beneath an icon of Mary and Jesus. There, for maybe twenty minutes, a half hour, hour? -  I listened. I sat, cried, giggled, and tuned into the way that I heard Xavi speaking to me, alongside God, reassuring me of a presence beyond this physical realm, experiencing a joy possible only, in my mind, beyond the limitation of our human selves.  I got instructions from my son and God as to what to do next.

In that space, I knew Xavi's spirit beyond the room. I could "see" him as a toddler; then as a four or five year old curly headed wonder, all rough and tumble boy. He was wearing jeans and red sneakers, a striped shirt with numbers. All around him were happy, licking puppies and non-threatening bouncing balls. He was laughing and told me, "Mom, Heaven rocks."  I giggled with these sacred images of son; I still cling to them as inspired, transformational memories that communicate happiness and inform a deep peace in my heart.

When I looked back down at his anointed body resting in my lap, I felt his limbs cool to my touch, and saw his omphalocele pulling back from his skin. His physical self was giving way; and I knew that I didn't have to cling to him in this form.

"I'm here mom, in your heart, in your mind. I do not live in that body. You don't have to let me go, ever, because I'm here."

With that, I knew I could hand over his physical form.

And a month later, I can see that most difficult moment as a graced one guiding me in all of my grief. We receive, we let go. Xavi's life was not to be defined by me, or contained in my human hopes or maternal longings. He came as a gift, not unlike every other gift of Love we have received in our lives. Francois and I had this privilege of conceiving him, of bearing his life, his gentleness, his imperfect perfection -- into this realm. And we are transformed because of the journey.

On the anniversary morning that all these thoughts started to take shape, I was giving our two year old daughter a bath. Instead of our ritual wrapped-in-a-duck-towel-snuggling post suds, Marguerite stepped out of the tub and put her hands on my head in a blessing fashion.  Did she hear all of these reflections tumbling around in my heart and mind? Did she sense my desire to honor her brother Xavi with some kind of contemplative prose? Who knows. But Thursday morning, four weeks after her brother's birth and baptism, in all of her own naked wonder, Mags placed her still wet palms on my forehead and said, "Bless you, mamma."

Indeed. I am blessed. We all are. We know such fierce love.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

“Spirits” by Birago Diop

Xavier Jean Kiemde, September 13, 2012
The following poem is deeply moving to me. I first heard it in the hospital room on the evening of my son's birth and subsequent passing. My husband and another dear friend from West Africa were reciting it in French. The words ring true to my heart and help me celebrate Xavi's brief, precious life here on earth and his presence still in the spirit realm. I love thinking of him "in the trembling of the trees, in the water that the bush that is singing, in the voice of the fire" -- as Diop suggests. Amen.


by Birago Diop
Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the sighs of the bush;
This is the ancestors breathing.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth;
They are in the trembling of the trees
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs,
In the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Listen to things
More often than beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sighing:
This is the breathing of ancestors,
Who have not gone away
Who are not under earth
Who are not really dead.

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in a woman’s breast,
In the wailing of a child,
And the burning of a log,
In the moaning rock,
In the weeping grasses,
In the forest and the home.
The dead are not dead.

Listen more often
To Things than to Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind to
The bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors breathing.

Each day they renew ancient bonds,
Ancient bonds that hold fast
Binding our lot to their law,
To the will of the spirits stronger than we
To the spell of our dead who are not really dead,
Whose covenant binds us to life,
Whose authority binds to their will,
The will of the spirits that stir
In the bed of the river, on the banks of the river,
The breathing of spirits
Who moan in the rocks and weep in the grasses.

Spirits inhabit
The darkness that lightens, the darkness that darkens,
The quivering tree, the murmuring wood,
The water that runs and the water that sleeps:
Spirits much stronger than we,
The breathing of the dead who are not really dead,
Of the dead who are not really gone,
Of the dead now no more in the earth.

Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors, breathing.
Source: The Negritude Poets, ed. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Sanctity of Gay Marriage: Procreation Through Another Lens

I want all people who are called to marry to be able to do so,  both within and beyond the borders of church. I am grateful that the cultural tide is shifting where same sex unions are considered. I'd like to advocate within my own Catholic faith community, however, for an expanded definition of marriage in the sacramental sense which includes gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. The following conveys some of my thinking about this topic of marriage as sacred, unitive and procreative for all called into it. I am writing for members of my Catholic faith community who are discerning this issue in both civil and religious contexts.
If you love well, no matter who you are or what your orientation, you have the ability to inspire and create a more loving world. Love begets love, right?
I think of this wild, amazing God who made my body, and all bodies, and created us to love. He gave us all these unique parts -- to touch, to kiss, to hold, to embrace, to intersect, connect, interconnect and even the capacity, especially in sacred and holy unions, to transcend our limbs and glimpse Him in our love-making. Every reflective and religious man or woman I know who has had the opportunity to be loved in a physically and spiritually honoring manner, inside a deeply caring relationship, talks about the ineffable experiences that are the result of God’s gift to us when we make love. These are generative experiences that inspire our capacity to love more, to give more, to serve more, to live Christ more, in a humble and honoring fashion. These kinds of love-making experiences are not exclusive ones for heterosexuals. Gay and lesbian sexual experiences can be just as pro-creative, if you will, as heterosexual ones, if you expand the definition of creation possibilities to include acting creatively and in service beyond your bedroom. If you love well, no matter who you are or what your orientation, you have the ability to inspire and create a more loving world. Love begets love, right? (Consider the infertile heterosexual couple’s capacity to love and be procreative, and therefore okay morally, through this lens.)

I wonder: how does this thinking resonate within your heart?

Who are your gay or lesbian friends and family members? (Do you have a list of heterosexual ones?) What do they look like? Which "group" are you a member of? Do you have a hierarchical ranking in your heart or mind when you think of all these people? Who desires to be married civily AND religiously? (What are the benefits of each?)  What does a marriage in the eyes of God, affirmed by the church,  stir in you? What GLBT person sees their love, and capacity to love, as different from heterosexuals’ love? Who gets to decide whose vocation to love is inferior or superior? What does God say to you in your heart when you think on this? Does he whisper differently into the heart of a gay man or lesbian woman?

I keep hearing in my prayers, in the quiet of my own heart, as a Catholic woman, that I’m called to love and support other people in their vocations to love with their whole heart, mind and body. I am working to this end right here, as I write, pray, and advocate for marriage equality.

I do ask for your prayers. This is tough, messy stuff.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Life Cycles

Standing in community: Balm for heartache
I have been carrying around an enormous amount of ache in the last 24 hours, and going unnamed or processed it feels harmful to my own spirit, or certainly not helpful for my psyche and my capacity to parent or partner well. I turn here to identify this sadness and describe what has (or is) transpiring, with the hope that in doing so, some of this will be transformed and or eased.

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of a discernment class that I help co-facilitate at a catholic, urban spirituality center, two participants requested some special prayers for a newly born child who was on life support. While I had no connection to this babe, my friends did, and entering into the sacred space of quiet and love-filled silence required nothing, save for my sincere intention. Yesterday, at lunch, with two mom friends in relationship with this child's parents, and one of the catholic nuns we all work with, we learned that the child passed away. She had been taken off life support on Wednesday, began breathing on her own, and then abruptly died on Thursday.

In the same lunch/ work space, with  this news arriving via text message and shattering the calm and ease of our cohort, came tears and a request for further prayers. Sr. Mary* lead us quietly in a beautiful reflection on this child's passing, imagining her ease into Heaven, her arrival into the arms of ancestors and angels, and asking the God we all believe in to hold the family closely, guiding them in their grief and gratitude for this little girl's brief life.

I sat at our corner table, feeling tucked and safe with my friends, but wildly open and vulnerable in my heart and whole body. Days away from celebrating my own daughter's second birthday, and thinking of the small being growing inside my own belly, (for those who may not know I am 10 weeks pregnant) I thought I might crack in half with sorrow for this kind of loss of life.

Within moments of this news, Sr. Mary shared a tale from her own northside community that involved another kind of ache and loss simultaneously being experienced across town. She told us of a mother who she has known for years who was, that afternoon, giving her newborn daughter up for adoption. The why of it was not fully disclosed, but details of this mother's other, OLDER children --  six and 8 years,  begging for their mom to bring the baby home - were again enough to send me over the edge.

Yes, the mom is an addict.
No, this wasn't the first child she'd given up.
Yes, she was in darkness and despair.
No, the older kids were not doing well -- stepping into a space to caretake for their mother.

I immediately thought of a lesbian couple I know who have adopted three children -- all with special needs, two from the same mom, both of them born addicted to narcotics. I saw their sweet faces and robust smiles and snapshots of arms wrapped around their tiny frames -- all so loved.

I was angry and grateful and overwhelmed all in one breath.

"Man, is God busy today" were the words that came quietly out of my mouth toward Sister Mary. She nodded and smiled, "yes."

My friends processed a bit of their own immediate grief over the death of the daughter that they knew personally, and tears flowed as they considered the way their own children's knowledge of this passing would bring them so much closer to their own mortality and questions of life, death, vulnerability, God, uncertainty, and the fragility of life.

I listened to these moms reflect on ways that they would parent through this time, addressing their 4, 5 and 7 year olds' fears, and considering the larger community that they have in common and will journey with as adult friends.

We moved through our lunch and planning meeting in stops and starts, and I personally was grateful for the distraction of our work tasks at hand.

After my colleagues left, I turned to email and other to-dos, and almost immediately got another note that was a blow to my heart and mind. My long time friend, colleague and teaching mentor sent an email to share that her sister had died suddenly the day before, completely unexpectedly - and so no, she wouldn't be able to make our monthly date for dinner.


Today, at ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education), we gathered in a circle with Teacher Todd for songs and stories and up on the whiteboard behind him was a penned obituary for the guinea pig that had died a few days ago. (Even this classroom pet was not safe from the cycle of life playing out!) 

The levity in my morning, and balm for all this ache and woe, came in fact from one small child named Lily, who confided in me near the guinea pig's cage while feeding the other remaining pet a carrot: "She went to guinea pig heaven, you know?" I nodded, in awe at this child's capacity to state so clearly what had happened and why the cage was a bit emptier. After a brief pause, she looked at me, shook her head, and uttered one more word, "Shoot."

Next to this large classroom cage, with one lonely guinea pig being plied with straw and carrots --like any good family-survivor-in-mourning household would be --I acknowledged my own broken, grieving heart and gave thanks for this space.

"Shoot" is a very appropriate response for it all.

Thanks for being on the receiving end of this reflection. Please keep all families who know loss and death at this time in your thoughts, as images of love, largeness, community,  life-cycles, especially birth, buoy us, and remind us of the circles that envelop and permeate our existence, and perpetuate and transform our hearts and minds.


*not her real name.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Guacamole and God: A bit on Parenting my Toddler

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde

Being a mother is the hardest role I have ever taken on (save, being a wife!) I think most days I could go back to teaching at North High and find it a "cake walk" compared to mommyhood. My students in Minneapolis have nothing on Marguerite Kiemde in terms of inspiring intense emotion and the deepest sense of inadequacy within me. (Good thing I'm wildly in love with my daughter!)

Kiddo has been sick. Let's just acknowledge this fact. We are going on day six of Ms. K. suffering from a hacking cough, green-yellow-phlegm in her nose, and a whacked out eating and sleeping routine. I am trying to ride this wave of unwellness, by nurturing, supporting, parenting her in the best manner I know. (Stroller-rides in the sunshine, warm chicken broth, lots of songs and snuggling during the day and night.) Yet during several moments in this past week, I have admitted defeat. Her suffering I cannot alleviate, and this fact, coupled with my own plate full of desires/ dreams/ tasks to complete, makes me quake within my own sadness, anger, frustration and wall-hitting. Her suffering parallels and informs my own. And I wonder where to turn in such moments.

It just sucks being inadequate -- or feeling inadequate.

Yesterday, it was a packed up bowl of guacamole that my precious kiddo threw at me, hitting the side of my car, that started my descent into parenting-self-doubt hell. Tantrum? Yes, it was a tantrum. She was mad she had to get in the car. I have been "feeling" these deep emotional expressions of defiance (or passion?) since baby girl was six months old and arching her back and letting me know she was pissed, or wanted to be in charge.

I feel for her. I get on every level the desire to throw guacamole when you are mad. What I'm faced with now, is how to compassionately and boldly parent in the face of what I understand.

I can add to the guacamole break down. Any moments of "no" or "redirection" (shoot, even a cheerful hello when she's engrossed in something else) this toddler takes personally, falling into a puddle of tears. She closes her eyes, opens her mouth, the snot pours out of her nose, and she wails. Tears stream down her face. I can count all her teeth during these moments. I imagine her experiencing utter rejection in these minutes; her expectations of the world are not being met with a desired response. Mom's and other's expectations or desires are threatening to her very core, and this brings on the tears.

Today, both my neighbor and a church friend were met by Maggie's hysterical outbreaks when they warmly greeted her. Did kiddo not hear the friendly tone in their voices? Did she mis-interpret their words? Were their "Hey Maggies!" translated into requests for something that she wasn't able to deliver on? I am plagued on this count. I wonder, "Why the broken heart, kiddo?"

With closed eyes, then, and outstretched arms, my daughter begins walking towards me in such moments of despair. She's like a blind zombie baby moving desperately in my direction. I try to embrace her need, without overdoing the coddle. I try not to laugh. And I ask myself: "Do I really need to 'save' her from these moments?" Ack! This is the parenting rub I'm currently up against!

My spiritual self sees these moments of angst and emotion akin to my own melt-down moments, sans the adult filter. My child acts out physically in a manner that I think perfectly expresses what I am doing inside on a faith level with God. Wailing. Eyes closed. Arms outstretched. Blind. Trying to find comfort or security or a saving grace.

So in my inadequacy as a parent, I take a deep breathe and try to tune in. I may comfort, reassure kiddo, but really its not my comfort to give. I believe with all my heart that within Marguerite, within all of us, is the Divine indwelling, that can provide a peace not found anywhere else. Question is: how do I teach her to tune into this kind of love?

My friend Lisa, witness to one of these outbreaks today, who works with kids all day long, said, "Ah, give her some toys. She will cry. She will learn to self-soothe."

I agree. And I pray. I hope for the "God-soothing" wisdom and instinct to develop and be re-inforced as she grows. May the moments of heart-ache that Marguerite experiences teach her about the world, about her own desire, and may she find a balm within her, a song that carries her into the next moment of love.

Photos by Louisa Marion Photography