Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good mourning

            When my friend, Brandi, got married a few years ago, I made a personalized pair of Christmas stockings for her and her new husband.  This past December she told me that she and Rob were expecting.
            "Will you make a stocking for my baby, too?" Brandi asked.
            "Of course!" I beamed.  "It'll be my baby gift for you both."
            I've been busy cross-stitching the cuff for little Holden's surprise, and last night, when weaving in his name, a familiar wave of grief fluttered through me.  It's always a bittersweet thing to knit toys and make stockings for my friend's children.  I'm so happy for their anticipation, the joy that comes when waiting for a new arrival.  And yet, when I look around my home, while peaceful and charming, it's silent for there are no children of my own.
            When I volunteered at Hospice of Northwest Ohio, I learned that for most people, the initial mourning period after a death is thirteen months.  It takes a full calendar year of experiencing landmark dates and the change of seasons without a loved one to begin finding a "new normal."  Life may not get easier, but living without their presence becomes more familiar.  And yet, how long is the mourning period for something deeply wanted that will never come to pass?  Is thirteen months long enough to grieve the loss of a lifetime of hopes and wishes? 

            Twenty years ago, buoyed by the faith that a family of my own was imminent, I cross-stitched a sampler for a future baby.  Little teddy bears joyfully announced "I love you more than all the leaves in autumn...sand on a beach...stars in the sky."  When it was completed, I carefully stitched "Mom, 1993" in the space where crafters usually put their initials.  Then I washed it, rolled it up carefully and stored it with the baby clothes and dolls from my childhood.  It was a silent sentry, an unseen beacon that I hoped would attract what I most desired. 
            Six years later I was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition that allowed me to re-evaluate my life and the choices I'd made thus far.  After consulting with a doctor about my options, I walked through her waiting room filled with women in various stages of pregnancy or with newborns cradled in their arms.  A tsunami of anguish tore through me as I sat in my car and sobbed.  I was still alone.  No husband.  No children and with cells that would soon become cancer growing in my uterus. 
            Changes were in order.
            I had surgery and was eventually declared healthy.  I quit teaching in order to create a new life that would allow me the time and space to have a family.  Every now and again, I would unroll the cross-stitch sampler and wonder, "How much longer?" Five years passed, then five more.  In that time, I knit a layette set and painted a small bedroom bright yellow with stars on the ceiling.  I even bought a toy chest, filling it with trinkets I'd collected, all in the hopes of manifesting a family of my own. 
            It never happened.
            In 2007, as I prepared to move to California, I packed up my house and put everything in storage.  While sifting through the would-be baby's room, I decided to finally let go of the dream of having children.  With a lot of tears and sorrow, I gave away or sold nearly every item.  Gone were the Lincoln Logs, the stacks of chunky books, the bibs, hats and mittens, the rocking chair and the toy box.  I was moving on to another incarnation of "Katie."  I may not have my own children, but I was going to work in the garden at Esalen and be a mother to thousands as I nurtured the seedlings in the greenhouse.  It wasn't the same, but, along with living on the edge in Big Sur, it seemed to be enough.
            Nearly a year later, I moved back to Toledo, as my encounter with Esalen left me exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I've experienced dozens of metaphoric miscarriages, and through each one, the sorrow of being childless lines up first so it can be acknowledged again and again.  Leaving California stirred up memories of every loss, every dream dashed, every moment I've been left alone with empty hands.
            And yet, my empty hands were open and ready to be filled with something brand new.  It's taken years to whittle down the grief, but what was once so overwhelming, has softened into something more familiar, a "new normal."  My empty house is now filled with yoga students; my empty hours filled with teaching and writing and gardening.  My empty days are now spent with friends and their children.  My empty heart is filled to overflowing with the knowledge that I am loved by so many. 

            The cross-stitch sampler still remains in my keepsake box and I may one day pass it on to someone else's child.   But until then, it remains a touchstone for the mourning I still sometimes feel, the flicker of sadness that I ignite and transform into a deeper awareness of all the ways I can share my nurturing energy with the world.  I've learned the extraordinary difference between wanting to have a child and wanting to be a mother.  So while I will never give birth to a baby of my own, I can be a mother to anyone or anything.  
              What a beautiful blessing.