Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Erik Grieve's Death Leaves Questions about His Unborn Child

I heaved my pregnant body onto the exam table.

“What about the baby?” I asked Lizellen.

She leaned against a small wooden desk, arms folded in front of her pink blouse. “What about her? She’ll be fine. Better than fine. Babies are resilient.”

It had only been twelve hours since my husband's death. My mom had called Lizellen to give her the news.

“Lizellen wants you to come in as soon as you’re able,” she said. “You don’t need an appointment. She said she’ll make herself available when we get there.”

As my obstetrician, I knew Lizellen needed to stay in the loop. She needed to make sure things with my pregnancy continued normally.

And I needed more medication. Much more medication. The five sleeping pills I was given the night before just weren’t going to cut it.

I needed Lizellen to dope me up. Dope me up good, so that I could float far away. Float far away to the place where Erik had gone, the place where I could pretend my husband was still alive.

She squirted the clear Gel across my exposed, potruding belly.

Since Tatiana's birth, Lizellen had become more than my obstetrician. At least 15 large photographs of mine hung on display throughout her exam rooms. She loved my hand-tinted black and whites of babies. And she loved spreading my name, bringing me more business.

Lizellen was always grateful when Erik sent her cool Harry Potter hats, Star Wars posters, and other movie gear that could only be gotten from Lucasdigital.

“That’s why we’re taking this peek,” Lizellen said. “To put Mommy at ease. But, you’re going to be just fine. You’re a strong cookie.”

I hiked my black cotton maternity dress further up beneath my bra.

It had seemed only appropriate to choose black that morning. That slow-motion morning just nine hours after I finished donating his organs, when I stood in the closet—our closet—and felt disoriented over the simple task of getting dressed.

Erik’s clothes hung neatly to the right, as if he would walk into our over-sized closet in a pair of jeans and no shirt, hold out his black sweater in one hand and his burgundy button-down in the other, and ask me, “which one?”

But he didn’t come into the closet that morning because he was dead.

My Erik was dead.

I looked up at my mom, who stood to the left of the exam table on which I was stretched out. Our eyes reached to touch one another, a life-line to survival that I would grasp for over and over in the year to come.

She put her hand on my shin. “Yes, she is. She has always been very strong.”

I imagined my mom in Tatiana’s room, in the dark, lifting Tatiana into her crib and waiting for us to call from the hospital. The waiting. How awful to wait.

How awful to get the call from me saying, “He’s gone. He’s gone.” To feel the disintegration of what defined her daughter’s life.

I had no idea then how much my mom would be affected by her need to care for me, by the realization that there was nothing she could do to take away her daughter's pain.

The sonogram device was like a cold, wet snake slithering across my taut skin.

“Not that I want to be strong,” I said. “But there are really only two choices here. No, really only one. I have to be strong. I’m a Mommy.”

“That’s the way it works. You betcha.” Lizellen’s freckled hand moved in quick circular motions. She was a vessel of fiery, intelligent energy—one of those people who spoke rapidly to keep up with her brain. “Now, let’s find this little cutie in here. Where are ya, ya little cutie? Ah, there you are. Yeah, look at that heart beat, strong. And how bout that? See that sweet little face? Right there.”

Lizellen pointed to the viewing monitor. “Look, look. She’s looking right at us.”

I watched the baby’s arms and legs move around. Tiny hands curling their fingers. The rhythmic pump of her heart. A skeletal video of the baby who would be born in two months.

“Look at her honey,” my mom said, “Look at her. She’s beautiful.”

“Yep. She certainly is,” Lizellen said.

I studied the sonogram screen and felt nothing.

Worse than nothing, I didn’t want her.

I didn’t want my baby.

Erik wasn’t there to watch with me. Erik wasn’t there to video the sonogram or make excited comments over her movement, and he wouldn’t be there. He wouldn’t be there for her birth. He wouldn’t be there to see Tatiana hold her baby sister for the first time.

Oh my God, I don’t want her.

I didn’t want the baby that Erik and I had conceived in my studio, on my seamless white backdrop roll.

Just a few minutes before, I had been eager to check on the baby. Eager to make sure that everything was alright. And now, now I didn’t want her.

I said nothing.

How am I going to do this without him?

I didn’t want this new baby without him. I needed to take care of Tatiana. To hide her and hold her and make sure that nothing ever happened to her. There wasn’t space for this baby.

There wasn’t space for another being who needed something from me. How was I going to take care of two babies when I couldn’t take care of myself?

I didn't even know how to tell Tatiana that her daddy had died.

“Everything looks perfect,” Lizellen said. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Ouch.” I felt a kick inside of me.

“Oh, yeah, you felt that one, didn’t you?”


“She’s a fiesty one, alright.”

Tears wet my face.

“You’re going to be OK. I know it. Erik will make sure of it." Lizellen said.

She wiped the gel off of my belly. "Oh, that Erik. I’ll never forget his expression, the utter joy, when Tatiana was born. When I handed him the baby. Crying. Never seen a grown man cry so hard. He’ll be there for this one. He’ll be watching out for you. You betcha.”

My mom squeezed my hand.

I let myself cry, really cry. “I can’t. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, but . . . I don’t want her. How can I? How can I have her? How can I bring her into . . . this? It’s not right. None of this. None of this is right.”

Lizellen spoke after a moment of silence. “This is a very natural feeling. You’ll get past it. You’ll see.”

I took a deep breath to calm myself down. “Just the idea. Just the idea . . . of having this baby . . . without him. I’m sure I’ll love her, but it doesn’t seem fair.”

“Hey, listen,” Lizellen said. “There are plenty of mothers who give birth to their babies and take a look at them and say, 'What is THIS?' No attachment whatsoever. You didn’t have that problem with Tatiana and you won’t have that problem with this one.”

I rubbed on the side of my belly. “This poor baby.”

My mom stroked my hair, tucking it behind my ear with her index finger, like she used to when I was a child. “Can you give her anything? Any medication?”

“Didn’t they give you something last night?” Lizellen asked.

I sat up. “Sleeping pills. Five sleeping pills.”

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing else that’s safe for the baby. And those aren’t safe for the baby. So, I want you to take only one of those the next couple of nights, and then a half and then none. Only if you absolutely have to.”

My mom handed me a tissue. “Can she drink?”

“Oh, sure. She can drink.”

We all laughed.

“A glass of red wine here and there is no big deal.”

“That’ll make me even more depressed.”

Lizellen moved the sonogram equipment away. “About not wanting the baby, trust me that this will pass. I tell you, I had a patient, same kind of situation, except she already had two other children, and her husband died. She was right at the cutoff for late-term abortion and she wanted to abort the child. I said, no way. I wouldn’t do it. There was no way I thought she had the ability to make that kind of decision under those circumstances, aside from the fact that I don’t do abortions that late in the pregnancies. I don’t agree with it."

"Of course not," I whispered.

"Anyway, she thought she couldn’t handle that baby. She had it set in her mind that she didn’t want it, so she got one of the other doctors to do it. She aborted that baby. And you know what? Twenty years later, she still lives here in Marin, and I run into her downtown and she tells me that, after all these years, she has the biggest hole . . . not from the death of her husband, but from her decision to abort that child. She wishes she had kept that baby. She regrets it beyond belief. Not that you even have that option.”

“And I wouldn’t do it if I did have the option. How could I not love this baby? She’s a part of him. Of us.”

Confronting the Lion (Prologue)

Have yet to figure out the descent from these mountains I have climbed.

Two butterflies, burnt orange in shade, dance frantically around me, only an inch away from each other. Bells in the distance, buoys navigate the way, and the fog horn blows on this clear sun-filled day.

There are no whales to be seen down below. No seals doing somersaults. No deer hopping their way through the golden summer bushes.

I turn off my music so that I may hear the mountain lion preying on me for her morning feast. I figure if she eats me, it was meant to be my day.

Beneath my breasts is now a belly which is softer than it was—a capsule recycling souls who have been here before. The power of this womb.

What meaning lies ahead for this heart I will reveal one day? A grand mission, for certain, helping others to remain awake.

On this mountain, I am nothing, an unimportant obstacle for the wind.

I imagine the lion crawling nearer, her claws clutching the dusty rocks. She raises her head, sniffing me out. Invisibility is my ally, as my only defense is this black ball-point pen stabbing precisely in her eye.

Two groups of two climb up my mountainside. Do they know they are walking on my husband’s ashes, on this sacred grave?

Tomorrow marks five months since his chosen day. I hold back the vomit that has yet been able to regurgitate.

There is profound wisdom in this place, a spirit more grand than me or my dead husband. It is difficult to deny your place in this place.

The edge of the cliff calls to me, but I turn away, still unaware how I will get down from this mountaintop.

The scrapes and bruises will not matter if I slide on my ass, only that I have been here and been unafraid.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Love After All?

Three years had passed since the last time I had seen Erik. This would be interesting, I thought, as I finished drawing the black eyeliner on my upper lids.

I slid into a just-tight-enough pair of black pants and declared the matching violet sweater set winner of the “I want to look good, but not too good” contest. My bed was made for the first time in weeks, its inviting purple and red chenille covers setting a serene and sensual mood.

It was time to present myself as the successful baby photographer. Time to show that I was a together 26 year-old woman, someone who learned from her mistakes, someone willing to take responsibility for her actions. Time to apologize for all of the crap I put on Erik when we broke up.

I gathered the clothes that were habitually flung across the room and piled them in my closet. Out of sight, out of mind.

I had just gotten out of a rather rocky relationship with someone Erik had never met, and I was ashamed of it, ashamed of telling Erik that I had been with someone who was so emotionally dysfunctional. I lifted the bangs out of my eyes with a crystal butterfly clip. Nothing like having dinner with damaged goods.

The doorbell rang and I ran down the stairs, more nervous than I had expected to be.

Sure, Erik and I had once been engaged, but it had been three years since I had seen him. I figured it was about time we finally became friends.

“Coming,” I yelled. I re-adjusted my push-up bra and downed the last drops of Merlot in my glass. Shit, shit. OK, everything’s fine, no big deal, calm down, check yourself in the mirror. Better yet, check yourself in. 6:58pm. Good old Erik. Right on time.

“Hi,” I said, as I opened the door. “Come in.”

“It’s great to see you. How are you?” Erik asked with an open smile. Deep brown eyes, small glasses, clean cut black hair speckled with hints of gray, defined jaw with the beginning of a five o’clock shadow, fitted black wool sweater and loose jeans. He reached to give me a hug and it seemed a natural thing to do. I wanted to hug him, but I couldn't believe how hard my heart was struggling to get out of my chest.

“Guess this is what happens when you don’t plan,” I mumbled. I had no idea I would be this attracted to him. Seeing Erik in a romantic way again had seemed impossible, a closed chapter in my book.

“What?” he asked, as he closed his arms around me.

We held each other for the first time in three years, his face nestled in my neck.

“Never mind,” I whispered. I felt his back with my hands, rubbed it slowly, letting him know this was exactly where I wanted to be. His shoulders were strong under his soft black wool, more filled out, more like a man than a young college student. I was comforted by his smell—a clean subtle scent—something I didn’t know I had missed.

We severed our perfect alignment after what seemed like a ten minute embrace. Three years was longer than I had thought. So much had happened. So many difficult experiences, all holding secrets I had not been privy to when Erik and I were a couple.

I brought him into the living room and pointed to the wall. “These are my friends.”
Erik studied the black and white photographs, all women, all nude.

“Well, most of them are my friends, some are me.” I giggled uncomfortably.

“You took these. They’re unbelievable,” He sounded impressed and genuinely interested.

“Yeah. Except for the ones of me. That one and that one.” I stopped my foot from tapping and pointed to the photo of me sprawled out, face down, on a large rock. Just me and that rock on a cold, rainy February day. My first time bare in front of a camera. “Pretty extreme from shooting babies.”

“They’re amazing. Incredible works of art.” Erik engaged each photograph with his full attention. “They’re more than amazing. I don’t even know how to articulate how beautiful they are. This one.”

He pointed to the photo of my pregnant friend dancing on the beach. “The contrast of the cliff next to her curvaceous body. And the way her hands are up, still in motion. What a way to document a pregnancy.”

I had forgotten how supportive he was of my passions. He wanted to be so helpful when I first started my business and I resented him for it.

“It’s a really intense experience,” I said, hoping I sounded more relaxed than I felt. “None of these women have ever been photographed nude. They all have to go through their own thing, feeling fat, not feeling free. There’s this thing in all of us that makes us think we should some how pose or suck in. I try to relax them enough on our hike down to the beach and figure out what’s going on in their lives, you know, where they’re at, what they’re ready for, what they need to work through. I like to think of the shoots as a sort of rite of passage, at least they have been for me.”

Our eyes fixed on each other for an extended moment. Were we both thinking the same things? He stepped closer to me so he could get a better look at a photograph of my friend lying on her back in the sand. Her face was shadowed, her right nipple stroked by the light. He seemed drawn to this one. I was aroused by his appreciation and his smell.

“You’ve always had this way of putting people at ease,” he said. “I remember watching you photograph that little girl when you first started your business. That little blond two-year-old who wouldn’t take her thumb out of her mouth.

“I remember. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.”

“You had her fooled. She came in all shy. It didn’t look like you were going to get any good shots. And I’m thinking, how the hell is Hyla going to pull this off? She wouldn’t even get in front of the lights. And the little girl started crying—a sure sign that you were going to have to re-shoot her, as far as I was concerned. Then you pulled out this multi-colored bubble gun, and that was it. You started blowing bubbles over the backdrop, popping them with your nose. She was intrigued just enough to walk in front of the lights.”

Erik removed his titanium rimmed glasses, looked at me, and then put the glasses back over his dark, sincere eyes. “I imagine you’re one of the few people I know who has the ability to make a woman feel comfortable enough to run around naked on the beach. That requires tremendous trust.”

“Oh, that picture there . . . see that big rock to the right? That’s Tennessee Valley beach. Remember when we went there when we first came to California? I’ve always had such a connection with that place. I go there all the time.”

“I wasn’t in the best mindset then.” Erik put his hands in his jeans pockets and looked down at the carpet. “I feel badly about the way things ended with us. I just want to say that, while I have this opportunity.”

“I do, too. I’m sorry it got so ugly.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, what I did wrong. Over three years. I didn’t want to break up. I should have left our apartment way before I did. I was freaked out about having moved across the country. I felt alone. I just want to say that I am really sorry about any destructive part I played in our break-up. ”

I thought about our drive across country together, just after graduation from Florida State University. Erik was good to me and I pushed him away. And here he was now, being so vulnerable and open.

I walked toward my plush, green velvet couch. “Let’s sit down for a minute.”
We sat at opposite ends of the couch, our knees facing each other. I was tempted to move closer.

“It was a lot to just pick up and move across country," I said. "Not having any family out here. I appreciate you being so open about it—the world would be a better place if everyone were as open as you—but I’m the one who made it really hard. That, I know now. I mean, I know it takes two. I know our dynamic was off there for a while, but it was so easy for me to blame you for everything. I was just dumping all my insecurities on you. I wasn’t ready to be loved the way you loved me. I had so many things to prove to myself.”

I recalled my mindset when we moved to California. I had all of these issues. Feeling unstable, unworthy of success, undeserving of happiness. I wanted to blame everyone but myself.

Erik stretched his left arm towards me and rested it along the back of the couch. "Some of the ways I tried to help you weren't the best."

“I still can’t believe you didn’t move back to Miami,” I said.

“When we first broke up, I sort of flipped out. I put all my stuff in storage and drove back to Miami. I was only there for two weeks, when I realized that Miami wasn’t home anymore. I got back in my car, drove back across the country, and I’ve been here ever since. Where else can you find mountains like this? The views are spectacular. The people have something to say. And the city . . . there is so much to do in San Francisco. I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. I love California.”

I had been completely wrapped up in my own little world since Erik and I parted. Wouldn’t have cared where he was. I didn’t even return his phone calls after I met the last train wreck relationship. But, in that moment, I knew that I wanted to see him again. I was relieved to hear him claim Northern California as his home.

“Me too,” I told him. “It’s taken me a long time to make a name for myself as a good baby photographer out here. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.”

“How come there are no baby pictures on this wall?”

I laughed. “Somehow I don’t see Hyla Molander, Marin County’s premier child pornographer, as a title that’s going to boost my portrait business. I tell only a select few, very cool clients that my living room wall is smothered with nudes of their baby photographer and friends. Most people don't see the art in tasteful nude photography. Besides, I try to keep work and home separate.”

“So, where are you shooting now?” he asked.

“God, this is so weird. I’ve had a studio now for like two years and you’ve never even seen it.”

“Really? I guess I should have known, but I’d love to see it. Your talent already more than impresses me. You started your business, what, like three weeks after you learned how to load a camera, and now your name is all over the place. I’ve seen some of your hand-tinted pictures at that photo shop in San Rafael. I never doubted you, but what can I say? I am filled with pride when I look around and see how your work has developed. You are a talented woman.”

“And I hear you’re working for Industrial Light and Magic. That is so cool.”

“It’s an amazing place. I’m fortunate that I love my job. I get to be a part of all the special effects in the movies. I just got my first credit line. I think that’s the first time I actually sat through all the credits. The words came rolling up, “Erik Grieve . . . Computer Production Support.”

“I am so proud of you. I always knew you were a computer genius.”

Erik and I were quiet for a moment and I remembered how it was when we had sex—somehow different every time. Making love with Erik was like exploring new parts of my self. I could be who ever I needed to be, feel whatever I wanted to feel. Erik was the only man I had ever been with who could get another hard-on within 2 minutes of ejaculation.

Erik nodded towards the coffee table, at a photograph of my grandparents.

Watching his face while he studied them, I thought about a future with Erik. Was I really having these feelings? He was so sweet and sensitive and I was attracted to him after all this time. Could we possibly be right for each other now?

I picked up the gold frame. “I took that picture in the Bahamas, on their 55th wedding anniversary. Sweet, huh?”

“I’ve thought about your grandparents quite a bit over the past three years. Lamby and Granddad, what a couple. They adore you—not that they have any reason not to. Remember our trip to New York, when we went to stay with them, and your Granddad gave us his map so we could find our way around Manhattan. And then he waited for the train with us to make sure we got off safely. They made me feel like part of the family. And they really cared about me, just because you cared about me. I had the best conversations with your Granddad about his inventions. To have that many scientific accomplishments and be such an open, loving man. I could spend weeks talking to him.”

I was reminded of Erik as a little boy, running for help, when his father died on Miami Beach. “They really liked you.” I gently caressed the glass of the frame, over my Grandparents’ faces.

I could finally tell by the way he kept putting his finger on his chin, that he was as nervous as me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

After-life Connection

I stretched out on the green velvet couch, my legs resting in Carlyn’s lap. My statue of Quan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, hovered above us, on the fireplace mantle. Quan Yin was peaceful and wise—exactly what I strived to be—her stone arms out in front of her, her hands open wide.

The light from the candles illuminated Carlyn’s long, curly brown hair. Her green eyes connected with mine. We were present, no lies between us, no false pretense.

Carlyn spoke softly. “I keep seeing his face . . . Erik’s face.”

I stared at her, blankly, and said nothing.

“Over your shoulder, his eyes looking at me. Do you see him like that?”

“No,” I told her. “I haven’t seen him or felt him since just a couple of weeks after he died. Except for yesterday, at Tennessee Valley. That was the first time I have seen or felt him. I haven’t let myself. I’ve been mad at him.” I knew I had shut Erik out to prove that I could finally handle this life on my own.

“Mad at him for dying?”

“Well, more mad at him for leaving . . . because he promised he’d always be there for us.”

“I’m sure he understands.”

“Yesterday was the first day, in the longest time, that I could see him, as if he was walking right towards me, on the path, on the way to the beach. It’s like, when I think about feeling him, when I think about letting him in, I can’t breathe. Maybe my body’s reaction to watching him die.”

Carlyn wrapped her fingers around my ankle. “I think he wants me to tell you to open up to him.”

My skin tingled, then heated up to make tears.

I closed my eyes.

For two years I had been wanting to feel him, but it wasn’t until that moment, with Carlyn’s help, that I was able to let go—really let go and trust.

And something happened.

A submission. A willingness to feel. A transformation into a world that I had been avoiding, and now that I was experiencing it, I didn't want to leave.

I opened my watery eyes.

Carlyn leaned towards me, waiting for me to speak.

“I could feel his hair.” I moved my hand above my chest, as if I was playing the piano. “Right here. Like his head was lying on my chest. Like I was stroking his hair.”

“I saw him right there, too.” Carlyn’s freckled cheeks were now wet with tears, too. “Have you told him you’re mad at him?”

“Once. With a friend of mine who does chakra work. He had me tell Erik I was mad at him, and I was visualizing punching Erik in his coffin. It was really intense.”

Carlyn and I listened to the music from Erik’s funeral. Mariah Carey sang:

“I’d give my arm to have just one more night with you . . . I’d give my life to feel your body next to mine . . . Cause I can’t go on living in the memory of your song . . .”

Then I closed my eyes again. I wanted to feel him. I wanted to feel him more. I didn’t want to be afraid.

And there he was. Erik lay on top of me, our bodies pressed closely together, his face only inches from mine. I felt his shoulders. I felt his back. I felt his naked ass in my hands. Erik was on top of me. I could touch him—touch all of him. We were making love. And he looked at me, the penetrating way he used to when I wasn’t able to hold his gaze, but now, now I looked right back in his eyes and stayed with him. I let him see all of me, let him into my heart more than I ever had before.