Saturday, September 19, 2009

Birth of a Fatherless Child

My body is as still as a corpse while my obstetrician shaves the rest of my pubic hair, so that she can neatly slice my womb open.

I stare at my right hand, into the dark eyes of the black and white photograph I am holding of my husband, Erik. I study his black hair, his defined jaw, his young 29-year-old skin, probing his face for answers, but the picture has no reply.

He should be here. How can he not be here for Keira's birth?

Instead, my mom positions herself to the right of the steel operating table, a piece of her curly black hair straying from her cap.

Mom speaks in a whisper. “I am going to be next to you the whole time.” She lightly intertwines her fingers with mine, leaving enough space for Erik's photograph.

I strain my neck backwards, peeking at the door to the operating room.

Please be here, Erik. I need you.

I imagine Erik walking through the door, perspiration on his brow from running late. We kiss as if it is our first kiss, slow, with exploring connection. I feel relief, forgiveness, elation, immense gratitude that he is back in my arms.

But Erik is not in my arms. Erik is no where to be seen, and the thought of my life as a 29-year-old single mom with two babies makes me want to throw up all over the cold cement floor.

“I don't . . . feel so good.”

My insides twist around and around, filling with dusty angst. The agitation pounds at my abdomen, scrapping at the deep layers of my skin. Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Hopelessness. I have no idea how I will raise these girls without him.

The tall, male anesthesiologist leans in to comfort me, his green eyes peering over his surgical mask. “Let me know what you need.”

Every one of the hospital staff knows Erik is gone and no one can believe it. Just 19 months before, the same doctors and nurses had witnessed Erik's tears of joy at our first daughter's birth.

Now the room is somber, filled by the presence of educated individuals who have no explanations.

I nod to the anesthesiologist. “I need, uh, something else. Feeling . . . very upset.”

Lizellen, my obstetrician, says, “Give her the works. She has had to go without medication for far too long, but you did good, kid. You’re going to have another healthy baby girl here in just a few minutes.”

Mom squeezes my hand. “I can’t wait to see her.”

“I just hope . . . Keira is OK.” I'm worried that my new daughter will be born feeling the same sense of abandonment, or, even worse, wrought with illness or deformity from being housed in her mother's grief.

Please let her be alright.

I am entirely numb from the chest down—the epidural takes care of that, but the real relief comes when the extra IV drugs start to work.

My consciousness enters an altered state. Eyelids fall. Breathing releases. Everything and everyone in the room seems out of focus. Disoriented. Floating.

Feels incredible not to feel . . . anything.

Stay here forever.

“Hyla, you still with me?”

Dry mouth. Lick lips.

Where am I?

Muffled sounds. Shuffling feet. Clanking metal.


Erik’s face. Penetrating. Eyes connected.

I’m here.

Tears. So many tears.

Tissue on my cheek. Mom wiping my face. “I’m right here, honey. It's OK.”

How could you leave us?

Mom stroking my hair.

I didn't want to go, Hyla. You know I didn't want to go.

Soothing voice. My Erik.

“Hang in there now.”

I can't see you.

“Almost there.”

Feel me. Let yourself feel me.

“I see a hand.”

But, I'm so sad. We didn't get to say goodbye.

“Here she comes.”

My love is around you . . . and the girls.

“Erik, our baby, she's coming.”

The photograph. Blurry.

“Oh, honey.” Mom cries. “I know this is so hard.” Speckled water stains on her surgical mask.

Our baby.

“I see that little cutie in there.”

I am always here.

“There she is. She’s out, Hyla.”

No sounds.

No first breath.

She should be crying by now.

“Mom? Mom, is she alright?”

I can't lose her, too.

“Just give her a second.”

Words between the doctors.

She has to be alright.

And then, finally, a scream.

“That's a good set of lungs there.”

A powerful wail.

The proclamation of life from our new baby girl.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Death Caused by Thoughts?

I folded our warm white towels while Tatiana, only twelve months old then, napped in her bedroom. Erik and I had been married just over two years and, already, I was four months pregnant with our second daughter, Keira.

Erik and I both felt the same intense love for Tatiana and were excited to have another baby right away.

But there was no excitement in the house that day.

The house was quiet, except for the annoyed thoughts I could hear myself thinking about Erik.

Sick of his crap.

We had not been speaking to each other for hours.

I stacked the towels neatly into the closet, passing Erik in the hall. I did not look at his brown eyes or admire his thick black hair. Instead, I grabbed a new set of sheets and I walked away from him, into our bedroom.

Erik followed me, past our black and white wedding photos, but still, we did not speak.

He began helping me stretch the black fitted sheet so that it hugged our king-sized mattress.

Why is he helping me? Doesn’t he have somewhere else to be?

We stood on opposite sides of the king-sized mattress, doing our best not to make eye contact as we tucked in the corners.

I spoke, finally, with repressed force. “I can’t stand when you accuse me of things.”

Erik came around to my side of the bed and smoothed out the part of the sheet that I had already tucked in. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

I stomped past him, got the three black pillowcases, and flung them on top of our red comforter.

My tone deepened, anger rising. “Don’t give me that, Erik. You’re the one who has to go off and sleep in the guestroom.”

“Why would I sleep in the same bed as you when you act like this? It’s like I can’t even reach you.”

I felt a hint of guilt, knowing that Erik was constantly sex-deprived during my pregnancies, but I was standing firm. “Don’t you think my feelings should be hurt when you jump to conclusions? You immediately assumed that I was the one who lost the video camera.”

“Of course I thought you lost it. You don’t keep anything organized.”

“Some people don’t need to be obsessive compulsive to know where things are. You act as if I don’t run a successful business.”

“It still amazes me how.”

Erik shoved the white, down pillow into its black cover. The cotton made a flapping sound as he shook the case in front of him.

A sheet of Bounce fell from the pillowcase, its fresh scent a contrast to my rising irritation.

"You know, you can really be a jerk sometimes. I’m tired, I’m pregnant, and I already have enough on my plate.”

I kept my mouth shut, but my mind was loud.

I don’t need you anymore. You can just disappear. I have Tatiana and another baby on the way. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I have my two babies. What do I need you for?

We glared at eachother with obvious contempt.


Later, we made up, as we always did, and laughed at our ridiculous behavior. We apologized for the hurtful words, acknowledged that the nasty thoughts had come from an insecure place. We were both tired, both stressed from working too much so that we could save enough money for our first house.

We did not know Erik would drop dead on our kitchen floor just three months later. We were both 29. We thought we had another fifty years of fighting and making up.

The grief process has led me back to this argument again and again. Did I somehow cause Erik’s death with the awful thoughts I had that day?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Erik Grieve 1973 - 2003, Life is Not About the Dates on Either Side, But the Hyphen in Between

I walked in slow-motion towards Erik’s closed, mahogany casket.

The old stone chapel was filled with familiar faces. There were faces from Skywalker Ranch and other Lucas parties, faces I had photographed in my studio, faces from my bridal shower, my wedding, and Tatiana’s birth.

I kept my head down.

As the pregnant widow, all eyes were on me, but I did not want to be seen. Direct eye contact would break me open in a way that I would not be ready to be broken open for years.

Dressed in an ankle-length maternity skirt, long-sleeve black shirt, and the comfortable three-inch heels that had taken me hours to find just the day before, I sat in the front pew.

My brother, Troy, and his wife, Jen, sat next to me. Only ten feet separated us from the blanket of red roses that crawled down the sides of Erik’s casket.

The four days since his death had swarmed me. There were so many things to do and I couldn’t believe I was doing any of them.

I had not been prepared to spend hours on the phone with Organ Donations while we figured out which organs Erik would want me to give away. Nor had I been prepared to think about a lawsuit against his cardiologist.

Then there were the service arrangements.

The trips to the florist, the funeral home. The careful selection of the perfect casket, the stainless steel urns that Erik would have liked the best.

Going through all of our music. Listening to every lyric. I wanted the songs for the funeral service to have meaning. I wanted the words to make sense. But how could anything make sense?

The endless sorting out of photos from our Florida State days. Photographs from our first months in California. The two of us stepping in dog poop in Paris. Erik’s tearful joy while holding Tatiana for the first time. Our days as a family. At the beach. Tatiana, dressed as a Halloween kitty cat, in her little wagon. Bundled up hikes to Tennessee Valley.

I wanted the photo collages to show us as we were: silly, in love, blessed. And they did.

All of the running around had paid off. Everyone had rallied. The generosity and support from hundreds of people was overwhelming.

The chapel looked beautiful. Erik would have been pleased.

My grandfather’s cousin, Stephanie, stood on the chapel’s stage, behind a podium, in a long black robe. A tall powerful presence, with brown and grey hair, she was a minister in the Church of the Healing Light. She was a believer in the continuation of spirit. A believer that we could talk to spirits.

Was it possible that I could talk to Erik? That he was there?

I didn’t know what I believed.

Stephanie fiddled behind the podium, arranging the tape recorder.

I had asked her to make sure that everything was recorded for the girls so that, when they were old enough, I could let them hear each word that was spoken about their father.

The chapel hushed as Stephanie cleared her throat.

She began to speak. “Many of us are saying how can this be? I was just with him. I just waved to him, down the hall, at the office. Just gave him a hug. Just kissed him goodnight . . . and yet, here we are.”

There were sniffles all around.

I was thankful that my obstetrician had let me take a Xanax, to calm me down. I knew it wasn’t good for the baby if I took medication, but that morning, as I brushed my hair and applied my burgundy non-smudge lipstick, I knew I would not be able to make it through the service without something.

“Death is a tragedy,” Stephanie continued. “This death is a great tragedy. But we cannot say that Erik’s life was a tragedy. It was a joy. It was beautiful. It was love. And you all, who are here today, are the living proof of that.”

Our “first dance” wedding song played softly on the overhead system. Mariah Carey’s voice sang up to the chapel’s red and orange stained glass:

“I will never be too far away to feel you. I won’t hesitate at all, whenever you call.”

She leaned into the podium, her hair swaying from side to side. “The thing about Erik was the intensity in which he lived his life. His intense love for his family. For his friends. For his wife. For his child . . . and his child to come.”

I felt a hand squeeze my shoulder from the pew behind mine and I turned to see my grandmother’s 81 year-old face flushed with redness.

Erik, Tatiana and I had just been to visit her in Tucson two weeks before. We had just been in my grandparents’ swimming pool, splashing around. Erik had just bought her that exquisite purple orchid and written them a thank you note for being the grandparents that he’d never had.

I cried, quietly.

Stephanie went on. “There are so many things to say about Erik, so many wonderful things, and we’d love to hear now, from those of you who would like to speak.”

There was silence all around.

“Come on up,” Stephanie said. “Don’t be shy.”

Jen stood up first. She walked up the steps, her small frame coveted by a black dress. She held the podium with both hands.

"I’m Jen. Erik’s sister- in-law. The minute I first met Erik, we hit it off. It didn’t take long for him to become a brother to me. He was, is, and always will be . . . a beautiful man, inside and out . . . and I am honored to have spent so much time with him.”

She shifted her weight back and forth, trying to keep her composure. “At the hospital, I could feel him all around us . . . and I could feel him looking into my eyes . . . and saying ‘you have to take care of my family now.’”

Jen’s voice shook. She looked right at me. “And I will, Hyla. You know I will.”

I gripped my belly and sobbed.

I thought of Tatiana, how she looked that morning when I dropped her off at daycare. She pressed herself against the metal gate, clenched her little hands around the bars, and screamed, “Ma-ma, Ma-ma, Ma-ma,” through the two inch openings.

I did not want her to be at the funeral, to have to see Erik made-up and stiff when we opened the casket.

I hadn’t been able to tell her about her daddy’s death yet. What could I say?

The night before, I had rocked her, in the dark, while I cried on the shoulder of her soft purple pajamas. She knew I was sad. She knew the house was full of people and chaos. But I had to tell her something. I wanted to pretend that Erik was away, on a trip. That he’d be back any time.

And Keira, our unborn child, how would I tell her that I felt too overwhelmed to take care of her? That I had thoughts of not wanting her?

This was the beginning of a guilt that would hover over my life. The guilt from not being able to handle my own children. Guilt from not being able to handle myself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Erik Grieve's Easter Sunday Request

I admired Erik in the shower that Easter Sunday morning. Salt and pepper hair. Deep brown eyes. Broad masculine shoulders covered by smooth olive skin.

Steam had filled the bathroom, like the fog that frequently hovered over the Golden Gate Bridge.

I could only see parts of his body through the hazy, glass shower doors. He sat against the corner of the tub, as he always did, carefully scraping the skin off of his well-manicured feet.

I pulled out an assortment of maternity clothes from the closet and set them on the bathroom counter. Knowing we’d be taking tons of family photos during Tatiana’s first real Easter egg hunt, I wanted to look better than I felt at seven months pregnant.

“Ugh!” I groaned.

Erik turned off the shower, dried himself, and then wrapped a plush white towel around his waist. “Need some help with that?”

“These damn jeans!” I wiped the perspiration from my forehead. “Yeah, you can help. Help me not be such a house every time you knock me up.”

He put some gel in his hair. “Oh, honey, you know I think you look beautiful.”

I struggled to squeeze into a pair of dark-blue jeans. “How is it that you get better looking with age and I get big and all tired-looking?”

“At least we got to sleep in this morning. How nice is it having your mom here to wake up with Tatiana?”

“I can’t remember the last time I actually had a minute to get dressed and put on some make-up, but, ugh, nothing fits!” I peeled the jeans off my swollen legs and threw them across the room. “Nothing!”

Erik wrapped his arms around me, and I felt his hands slide down the back of my black, thong panties.

“Honey, what are you doing?” I giggled.

He whispered in my ear. “We don’t have to worry about Tati right now, and it is Easter, and I was thinking . . . don’t you think I deserve an Easter blow-job?”

“Are you crazy?” I pushed him away, laughing, and pointed at my enormous belly.

“Do I look like I want to give you an Easter blow-job?”

“Well, uh, no, not really, but it seemed worth a try.”

Grabbing a white t-shirt, I covered my engorged breasts. “I have absolutely no energy. You know that.”

“Alright, well, then how about no blow-job and we just make love?”

I looked at his face and felt deep affection for him. Then I felt deep pity. Some women get especially horny during pregnancy, but I was not one of them.

“Fine. Let’s have sex.” I grinned. “But I don’t want to have to do anything. I can hardly bend over.”

Erik stepped closer, knelt down, and began kissing my popped-out belly button. “You just let me worship the baby-making goddess.”

"If you say so."

He slid my panties to the side.

Erik and I started making love—me with my widened hips and over-lubricated femininity.

We were slow. Intentional. Comfortable with our awkward movements.

We manuvered down to the beige carpeted floor.

“Oh, that’s squishing the baby.”

“Let’s turn over.”

We laughed at ourselves.

“Yeah, right, like that will work.”

“Maybe on my side?”

“Not sure this is going to happen.”

Being on my back too long decreased the flow of oxygen to the baby. Being on top made us worry about poking her in the head.

And so, after a while, we gave up, knowing Erik could find no friction on his sexual quest.
There were no orgasms, but we were both completely satisfied. Both amused by the situation.

We laughed at our valiant effort and then kissed for the longest time.

Erik stared at me and, even though it was difficult to let him see all of me, I looked back into his eyes.

“Do you think about how lucky we are?” I said.

“Yeah, I think about it at least five times a day.”

Erik Grieve was only 29, but he knew how to live. He knew, firsthand, the fragility of life. He knew our kind of love and happiness was not to be taken for granted.