Empire for a Blueberry


September 2015

Stone time

Over the past week or so, my Facebook news feed has transformed into a wave of pink and blue profile shots to open up October, “Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.” In some conversations happening online, I can’t tell one friend from another without a second look to read their name.

I wonder why I have no desire to turn my picture pink and blue.

Is it like the first time I re-entered the history department in the Spring of 2007, terrified of first encounters with people I hadn’t seen in months? Am I uncomfortable with the idea that people will apologize for the loss of our firstborn son that happened now before I even knew half the people on my friends’ list? Or is it because the blending of so many millions of lives, the erasing of cause and the assimilation of experiences doesn’t fit how I want to engage with his death?

I support my friends’ decisions to turn their profile shots pink and blue. I get it. I think their actions in the world probably do more good than my reticence. I can’t do it though.

I feel very particular that whoever knows we lost a child also knows he was born after labor and that his death wasn’t inevitable. He died because he was born breech after labor, which had been stopped for a week, suddenly restarted and progressed too quickly for him to be flipped or for me to have a c-section. Although he was premature, he could have lived had circumstances been just even a little different. I held him and I filled out paperwork giving him a name and a legal identity. I feel very differently about Natan’s death than I do my first-trimester miscarriage. That’s not a statement about others’ feelings and experiences — only my own. I don’t want to know people are looking at my face covered in pink and blue and scrolling on by. His life was fleeting enough. If someone’s going to see that part of me, I want our story linked to it as well. I want them to pause and at least abide a little bit with what’s particular about us.

Two weeks ago, Wise and I toured Elmwood Cemetery. Among the many graves stretching back to the 1850s, we saw a striking number of infant and child burials. When I saw graves with the same birth and death date and a name, I wanted to shout out, “See!”

It’s not universally true that when infant death was more common, parents took longer to bond with their babies. I know this from reading Anne’s House of Dreams as an adolescent. I know this from reading the 19th-century diary of a Philadelphia man housed in the historical society — he heartily mourned his stillborn first grandchild and spoke of shattered dreams. I know this from my historians’ soul that tells me we’re not the first generation to love our children.

So, as always, I didn’t stroll past the little graves lovingly marked in the same style as adult graves at the time, only smaller. I stopped for a moment, and read the names, and looked to see if their parents’ graves were near by. If not, I wondered if like Josh and I, the parents had been compelled by circumstance to move away and worried about whether the cemetery would hold up to the maintenance guarantees in their contract. I know that regardless of a contract, over time, almost everyone’s name fades and their bones turn to dust, but when I could, I wiped dirt and grass clippings off the stone and pronounced the remaining letters as best I could.

Infant Mattie May
Mattie May
Edna Thrall Tobey - baby
Edna Thrall Tobey
Infant Sykes
Infant E.L. & L.W. Sykes
Infant Ware
Infant Ware
William Thomas Kimbrough - baby
William Thomas Kimbrough

A dog’s day

From Mocha’s journal:

Day 2700

I woke up this morning, the first time, while it was still dark outside. I was sleeping on the nice cold floor in the small bathroom when my person came in. I stood up and as often happens, I realized I couldn’t turn around. I’d gotten myself wedged between the toilet and the wall.

I kept banging my head into the toilet, until my person finally got the hint and helped me back out. I then sat in the doorway, waiting, because obviously she could get trapped, too, and I would never abandon her. I stayed close, but she managed okay. Then she climbed back in bed. Now at a loss for my next move, I put my snout on her cheek until she explained I should lay back down.  I pushed her shoulder with my snout. She told me to lay down. I pushed her again. She pushed me back and said, using her boy voice, “Lay down.” Reluctantly, I did so.

Sometime later, the smallest boy, Hoot, called me into his room and then told me to go away. Then he called me again and told me to go away again. And called me again and sent me away again. Eventually I got tired and laid down on his shoe. If only the grown ups will look away, he’ll definitely give me yogurt later.

Later, my person took me for a walk. Such a nice cool day, I could really wag my tail comfortably.

We were two houses away when I realized I’d missed something. I turned around, and sniffing the side walk, I retraced my steps twice. Finally I found it: a piece of egg sandwich the size of a pebble. My person said, “This is why you’re so fat.” I wagged, nodded, and sniffed again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

We continued our walk. Dogs everywhere bark when I pass by. I can’t stay, but I pee on every bush so they’ll remember me.

I didn’t get any yogurt, but there’s always dinner. I smell bread baking. I better rest.


Pause. Listen. Think. Notice.

I love how the frog in my picture looks aware, like he’s listening to everything around him, doing his best to avoid making the leaves crunch.

My original post deleted itself and I made the mistake of only writing it in WordPress so I have no backup. I know better. Oh well. I’d only been working on it for an hour — I can make up the time. Except I can’t in time, because Yom Kippur arrives in an hour.

I had to pick up Hoot and he’s now entertaining himself, hopefully long enough for me to say something worthwhile.

As I was lamenting my bad luck, walking to get Hoot, I reminded myself that I had gone into Yom Kippur last year hoping to be more patient this year, to rush less. Have I been more patient? I think so. Have I rushed less? I think so.

I don’ t think I deserve credit for that, though. I think it comes with my children getting older.

Hoot helped me recover my sense of calm this afternoon, as he so often does. He wore his flying shoes (batman slippers) out this morning but his running shoes home this afternoon.

“Go fast with me, Mama! Go fast!” he called, darting out the door of Mary’s house around the corner, where he spends about eighteen hours a week now.

I grabbed the stroller and ran to catch up with him. We ran around the corner and the stroller kept jerking. The tire’s a little flat.

“I can’t run, Hoot,” I said. “The wheel’s messed up.”

“I have my running shoes on, Mama! I can help you!” He took hold of the stroller’s handlebar and began running again.

Together we ran at a slow jog, and it bumped a few times.

“It’s okay, Mama, I have my running shoes on,” he said again. “We won’t fall down.”

And he was right.

Hoot parking the stroller
Hoot parking the stroller

I do have to hurry now, to pick up Wise. Proofreading be darned.

Outsider inside

Over twenty years ago now, I attended a spring recruitment event at my undergrad institution, Wellesley College. I listened to other girls talk about the other Seven Sisters or Ivy League institutions they’d considered, been rejected from, or were still considering. I didn’t understand half the stuff they talked about — I’d learned about Wellesley from a brochure after I did well on my PSAT’s and accepted my early admission without even knowing the phrase Seven Sisters.

I misunderstood so much of what was happening around me socially in my first year as a college student. It wasn’t my first time feeling like an outsider, but it was the first time I felt the material effects of such a status.

Homesick? Call some friends from home. Your dad will understand why you had to have a $200 phone bill this month. 

Sad about a bad quiz grade? Your dad will understand if you charge those boots to your credit card. 

I come from a firm middle-class background. I hardly went without as a child and my parents have helped me out tremendously since I’ve become an adult. But I laugh thinking about what my dad would’ve said had I regularly maxed out the $200 limit on the emergencies only credit card my parents helped me get and tried to tell him boots qualified.

Yet when I asked my tour guide at Wellesley about the computers in her dorm room and she told me, “Oh, everyone has a computer,” I assumed the college provided them. Because in what world does everyone have a computer in their dorm room — especially in 1995?

My high school had economic diversity. My public school teacher parents were among the top of the range. Among my elementary and middle school classmates, my family fell more in the middle, but still the daughter of a podiatrist and the son of a middle manager at Warner Lambert’s local plant comprised the top. I spent time with friends in their Section 8 or housing project homes and knew–and loved–kids who were intermittently homeless.

My life had been fine before I went to college. I recognized my own privilege. People who know me well will recognize the details of one of my college memories — when a young woman whose father was a bus driver and I were the only ones to raise our hands when a professor asked who among us felt privileged. I struggled openly and loudly with reconciling the privilege I saw at Wellesley with the other side I knew from home.

Eventually, I learned how to live peaceably among people with much fancier pedigrees than my own. I learned to imitate and to rid myself of the mannerisms and dialect traits some of my professors told me needed to go. This has served me well although I recently have come to wonder if I’ve just been hiding all these years.

One of our rabbis quoted Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s interpretation of Psalms 37:10 at Selichot services Saturday night, “And in just a little bit (ve-OD me-at) there’s no sinner; when you think about his place, he won’t be there.” Rabbi Nachman interpreted the phrase to mean no one is completely bad. There’s a “little bit” of good in everyone and if you look well enough, you will find it. He went further to say we should look for it even in ourselves. It’s easy to interpret his words too simply. The “good” I look for is more similar to the gleam of light, the divine spark, to which Emerson alludes in “Self-Reliance” than to a nice trait in a human personality. 

I was so angry at the world my first year and half in college. So angry about the promises I thought had been made by our country: that people just had to be good and work hard and they’d be rewarded. I looked around me and saw students around the Boston-area who weren’t any smarter or hard-working than my friends and fellow students from high school. They’d clearly been handed a better deal. I was angry at them. I was angry at myself because I was reaping rewards I wasn’t sure I deserved.

I was also angry at myself because I was falling in love with my new friends in the way you only can when living in the close quarters of a dorm. I was angry because I worried about betraying old friends and because I harbored resentment toward my new ones. My new friends had tremendous good in them back then. They still do today.

It was very hard to reconcile their good with their privilege. It was even harder to reconcile my own good with my own privilege. My work with that process is not yet over. I sometimes wonder if it’s the greatest obstacle I face in life. I’ve often thought that my adaptability, or my desire to find what’s lovable in everyone, is my little bit of good. Lately I’ve been thinking that no, my anger is also a divine remnant. Bringing together my love and my anger, not masking one with the other, is my project for the new year at least.

“No! This a my kitty” — Hoot

Tom Cat had to go to the vet this morning. A few days ago I noticed his sister Midnight was developing a mat on her side. She’s never groomed herself much. In the twelve years we’ve had our cats, her brother Tom’s usually taken care of that for her.

“Tom’s not doing his job. He’s such a jerk,” I joked.

I made an appointment with the vet to see if Midnight was okay and to have them groom her. Brushing her’s an all-day affair for us, involving stalking, bribing, and terrorizing. This used to be one of my Sunday chores, but I haven’t done it much in, oh, about eight years.

I should’ve realized the problem didn’t likely reside in Midnight. It seems obvious now. Last night I noticed a gross sore on Tom’s leg. We decided he should accompany Midnight this morning.

The vet, obviously, had to do things in the exam room that Tom did not appreciate. Hoot kept saying, “Oh, Tommy, poor Tommy,” and trying to comfort him. The adults in the room were a little afraid that Tom might lash out. Hoot’s face being right at claw level, I asked him to step back, the vet asked him to step back, the tech asked him to step back.

“Hoot,” I said. “Go sit on the chair or we’re going to have to leave Tommy here with them by himself.”

“No! This a my kitty.” Hoot stomped his feet and went back to comforting Tom. “You stop. This a my kitty. I stay a him if he sad.”

Hoot’s such a good boy.

In the end, we learned Tom has heart disease and possibly a related autoimmune and hyperthyroid condition. The wound had a long red line connected to it that made our vet worried it’s not just a cut. We’ll see if it heals and if not, have more testing done. The heart disease may be related, or simply a factor of age.

Our cats are so cute and small, easily mistaken for kittens. How can they be senior already?

Hoot’s been doting on Tom all day. He wouldn’t even let me carry him into the house.

“My kitty. He my kitty.”

The vet told us to let her know if Tom’s not interested in food, treats, or water.


Back at home, Hoot immediately found and dumped half a can of Tom’s favorite treat, fish flakes, on the floor.


“This a my kitty.”

Hoot’s nothing if not loyal. I’m not sure Tom appreciates him, though. He’s been hiding under the bed since he finished his treats. He is a cat, after all.

Invisible ability

I often think of this rambling old post I wrote about Hoot. He’s a tough, brave kid, with an awe inspiring approach to life and the world.

He also has a speech impairment called childhood apraxia of speech. I’ve wondered about admitting that now that my blog isn’t anonymous. But I’ve decided first, I’m not ashamed of his diagnosis, and second, I admire how he’s working through it every day.

Wise, as people might suspect, is a natural and advanced communicator. He’s always been that way — the kid’s first word was “booberry” (blueberry). Hoot’s first words came later and at three, he’s not as intelligible as most kids his age.

Our issues understanding him are the single biggest source of stress in my life right now. The morning routine comes to a screeching halt when he can’t make us understand what he wants to wear or what animal he’s seeing out the window. His brain tells him he’s saying one thing but his mouth muscles misfire and we hear another. Sometimes he has an angry toddler-esque tantrum, but more often now, he sobs, huge tears running down his cheeks while he asks “Why you no undastand me?” and it takes everything I have not to cry, too. It’s exhausting.

And yet, the determination he’s shown since he learned to walk, daring to cross bridges and jump creeks that would terrify an older child, and getting up after he’s fallen down, refusing to cry for long, continues to shine through.

Yesterday afternoon, as we were leaving to pick up Wise from school, Hoot was trying to tell me something; I thought he was asking me for a snack. I offered him a granola bar and told him he’d otherwise have to wait until we got home.

“No, I no a say that!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you show me?”

“No, I no can a show you. You do it!”

“I’m sorry, Hoot. I don’t know what you want me to do. But we’re going to be late. We have to pick up Wise from school.”

“No, we no pick a Wise from shool. You snakd for midk swain.”

I still had no idea.

He groaned and said very clearly. “Fine I do it.” He then walked to the bathroom, turned on the water, and washed his face.

“Oh, you wanted me to wash the snot off your face.”


“I’m sorry, Hoot. I didn’t understand.”

“I know. I lova you.” He patted my face. “Don be yumpy Mommy. We no a yae a Wise.”

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