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.