Live Young, Die Happy

The universality of all our lives is that they will end. We will all die, no matter what hot cross buns tell you, it’s inevitable and forever.

We may not be aware of our own preconceptions of our passing, for most of us it feels distant. Sometimes touched by that bumpy plane landing, or an emergency stop. Or an illness that lingers beyond our tolerance.

There are times when the loss of someone feels out of order: too young. Be that in pregnancy, at birth, a child, someone in their thirties. Robbed of a chance before that chance even presented themselves.

The rest of my life, however it pans out, will be forever marked by the loss of my babies, and my five, nearly six year old son. It is burned into all my cells, my soul. It hurts, often more than I am able to withstand. But withstand I have to.

With RD, our choice to not continue treatment wasn’t us wimping out. We didn’t give up. My battles changed from external to internal. How would we live without him? I was still fighting, right up to his final breaths in our arms, as to whether we had made the right call.

However, I’m not writing this to question our decision over our son’s life. That’s not up for public debate. I have seen and read more than I need to about the high profile cases recently. Mostly from people who have decided “what I’d do in that situation” having never been in that situation. All I can say, is this is wrong. I wouldn’t even cast my view on what they should have done, it is their choice with the evidence they had.

What I want to write about is a positive death experience. By talking openly about choices for RD, perhaps the stigma around not apparently fighting tooth and nail against the worst news any parent could wish to receive will stop. Or at least lessen.

RD’s life had been an uphill battle from the start. The minute he was born, I felt such overwhelming passion for him. We loved him beyond measure. Yet, we spent many hours willing him to pull through. To get home, away from the claustrophobia of the hospital.

He blossomed, yet frequently his body failed him. We fostered and changed our outlook when his cognition and development only ever grew in tiny increments. We always pushed for people to see beyond his obvious disabilities, see his soul as bright as a new penny. This included medical staff.

There came a point, as dialysis failed time and again, where we couldn’t keep putting him through it. It takes time for dialysis to stabilise the blood, and RD couldn’t understand not to pull at his dialysis lines that made him itch. He just felt pain and irritation. Every few weeks they would become infected, need to be removed and re-sited. Which is only done under general anaesthetic.

This was a cost of survival that we knew would worsen, and most likely, take him to the operating table where his ability to get life threatening infections at the drop of a hat would mean that’s where he would die.

Not in our arms. Not happy and pain free, but scared and traumatised. We couldn’t explain it to him, lessen the trauma.

From the moment we agreed with the medical teams to stop the path of treatment, I felt only incredible sympathy from them. They had come to love RD too, his dancing to the tune that signalled the end of his dialysis session brightening everyone’s day.

The hospice helped us plan every eventuality, be that sudden death as his potassium levels went sky high, or, as we hoped and achieved, minimal intervention and a comfortable happy last few months.

We were in constant contact with the hospice. They stepped in to get his medication right, even driving back to the hospital to collect some of them for us so we, as a family, wouldn’t have to return. For anyone who has lived a life in and out of hospitals, waiting for medicines from the pharmacy to be able to go home, the impact of this simple act is huge.

As the body deteriorates, it begins to slow from bottom up. Your bowels, and then your stomach are often the first to be affected. So, we began reducing the calories and strengths of RD’s feeds for months. As soon as he looked or seemed like he was feeling sick, we reduced them some more. This is not starving him to death, it is carefully caring for his comfort.

RD had a run of months where he lived and loved everyday, arguably the best days of his short life were in palliative care. We also did as a family, free from the chaos of intense medical care. We still forged against our demons. Were we still doing the right thing?

In August, I even asked the hospice to arrange bloods to be taken, as RD was doing so much better than predicted. Perhaps we’d got it wrong? It does happen- we’d known that medicine is fallible from our lives in and out of hospital.

It was arranged away from hospital. They called in a second opinion from RD’s old lead consultant from Manchester. That consultant travelled to our house on a Sunday to talk openly and honestly about our choices. He was kind, and open to debate.

In RD’s final week at the hospice, where he only rested with a syringe driver delivering a frequent dose of midazolam, a powerful sedative, he was calm. We played him music as he took baths. We held him in our arms in the garden, a gentle breeze and warm sun on us all.

We were fed and cared for as a family. We were allowed to just be together.

When RD died, it was still unbelievably shocking and raw for us, but he left us with a soft smile on his face. He looked perfect and peaceful.

Our lives have to continue, and we have to adapt to the pain and heartbreak. We have taken that pain away from my son, and so, for us it is one worth shouldering.

*I also know this isn’t always the care that is delivered, and I’m sorry if writing this triggers negative emotions. I just want to speak openly about our choice and ensure that this is delivered consistently*

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Motherhood, Physically

5 times I thought I was going to be a Mother.

That’s 10 pink lines.

Or probably over 20, because who doesn’t need to check again?

And countless single lines forgotten like spent matches.

3 live births. For the curious, that was 1 emergency caesarean and 2 VBACs. For the uninitiated that V stands for *whispers* Vagina.

2 children I have only ever parented at one time. A boy and a girl.

Unless you count the couple of weeks I held my dying eldest child in my arms as his baby brother was miraculously forming.

Sorry for the morosity but that’s how it was.

1 time I was presented my ever so tiny daughter that had only completed half her journey in my womb. She was brought to my drugged up body and arms in a bread basket, wrapped in a blanket the size of a dishcloth.

1 time I knew I was flushing my genderless foetus out to sea.

7 years of having a son with full care needs, although with every development milestone BD ticks off I know this will soon change. I’ll have my arms and my body back to myself again. No more cradling and lifting the full weight of a child. I crave this freedom and yet I will no doubt grieve this new loss.

Whilst all this marks a slightly unique passage through early motherhood, I am I assume, like so many others. Individual and yet not.

I feel maternal guilt, constantly. I crave my own space and yet never want to be away from my children. I shout more than I want, lose patience when I know I could do better and somehow wonder how I ever got this job.

Something that definitely garners attention is our bodies pre and post natally. Whether we ‘snap back’ or are still blaming it on baby weight three years later. Media attention on celebrities buttoning themselves back into skin tight jeans 30 seconds after leaving the hospital with babe in arms. I’m looking at you, Kylie Jenner.

Well, here’s me. 1 week after giving birth. I documented it not out of pride but because I knew what that weight loss represented. It told the story of anxiety. Of a pregnancy where I truly believed the outcome was another loss. Not slightly worried. Not able to rationalise with myself beyond a few minutes at a time. The thought that this baby would also die was bigger than me.

I would go to clinics and they would tell me there was a little concern of my lack of weight gain in spite of a huge bump.

“Are you looking after yourself?”

Physically, yes. I ate because I wanted this baby to thrive.

Mentally, not really.

“You know, if you’re still struggling once baby is here, you should consider speaking to your GP”

So then I wanted to show people I WAS NOW OKAY. Who knows whether I was or wasn’t. I was just bouncing from day to day, maintaining that eyeliner just so.

Nervous energy meant I didn’t sit down for long. Piles also didn’t help.

Flitting round the house, walking everywhere. Check on the baby, keep the house tidy, make sure DD was okay. Let’s go here! And there! Let’s be grateful the baby is alive and not miss a second. Just in case.

That weight loss isn’t a goal. I didn’t feel good. I felt weak and yet frenzied. I was short and impatient. So irritable and hormonal.

So as we hold others up as comparison, perhaps in person or their images foisted upon us on social media, we should think deeper. Be kinder to our own bodies and others.

Just recently I’ve started running again. I’ve tried and stopped in the 10 months since BD arrived. It hasn’t felt right. My head was too fuzzy, my limbs felt like overcooked spaghetti. And let’s not mention my pelvic floor.

Yet now, it suddenly feels right. I feel the electricity of power in my legs again. The peace in the sounds of the air, the time to pound, pound, pound through my thoughts with the occasional stop to shout for Eric.

I don’t really care what physical space I fill right now. I feel my core growing, my resolve returning, and my uninterrupted time to be with RD in my thoughts back.

Wave of Light

Today, the 15th October, is the end of Pregnancy and Infant Loss awareness week. It is marked by a ‘Wave of Light’- a space for people to share and reflect on their losses through lighting a candle.

Two years ago, the fabric of our family began to unravel, in October. I felt bitter towards the irony of suffering our first loss during this week. We lost Tiny, discovered as a missed miscarriage, at our anomaly scan. It came after a period of stability from the whirlwind early years of RD and DD. It felt ominous and the loss somehow expected: in spite of us making an active decision to try for another baby, I had always felt the taste of unease on my tongue in that pregnancy. She and RD were the only babies we actually tried for, and in the space of a year we had to say goodbye to both.

That year, October 2015 until October 2016, was a wave, or continuing waves but not of light. It was crash after crash of darkness, as we sat on the beach helpless. Trying to tie stuff down, hold each other up for air, brace ourselves for impact. Of course, that’s a poetic way of looking at that year. The reality was just trying to navigate everyday life, like everyday people.

There was a week that sticks in my mind. After Tiny, we fell pregnant again very quickly afterwards. Too quickly with hindsight. At our 12 week scan, another missed miscarriage. Crash. My sea legs were failing me. I was back at work, and had a few days in Spain. I was flying into Alicante on Tuesday and out of Barcelona on Friday, such is the pace of work as well. Wolf was in Manchester at the start of the week. We were somehow cobbling together a plan. Monday, he crashed the car. An actual physical crash. He’d been driving past St Mary’s hospital, where RD had spent his first four months of life, digesting the recent healthcare concerns we were dealing with over RD. Distracted. He was unharmed, the car less so. We wobbled back onto our physical and metaphorical legs, and I flew out on the Tuesday.

We had babysitting booked in with the Grandparents on the Friday, as Wolf was going to come to Manchester (by train…) to meet me after I flew in, and we were going to have a night out with friends. Wednesday, he calls. RD’s blood recent blood results were not plotting well. He was being called in for more, over a few days. Still, we’d become accustomed to these things often being manageable: a tinker with fluids here, a change of medications there.

Friday came. It was Spring, and yet the UK had seen some unexpected snow storms coming in. I was flying from Barcelona to Manchester. It felt like we’d been circling for a very long time, and we had. The announcement came that we were actually going to have to land at Birmingham, wherein a plan would be made for us to travel to Manchester. I had been up since 4am, I gazed out of the window trying to stop the slow rolling tears. This all felt Too Much. We landed at Birmingham and I turned on my phone as we sat on the tarmac. I had missed calls from Wolf, which to anyone who knows him, was odd in itself. He has the most immobile mobile phone. I called and eventually it got through. He and RD were on their way to Leeds General Infirmary. RD needed admitting so that they could monitor and try and reign some control on his rapidly declining kidney function and wonkier blood chemistry.

I can say, at that time, I have never known a desperation to get home like it. Yet, nobody was home. I was internally climbing out of my own skin and externally passively staring out of an unmoving plane as snowflakes drifted past. A raft in the eye of this storm.

I did eventually make it to Manchester, late. Too late to then sit on the M62 in the snowy traffic jams. So, I went out with my friends as planned and attempted to pretend that I wasn’t living the life that this week felt like it was tipping into. There’s no rule book for dealing with awful, worsening things in life. I can however recommend the odd blow out. The loosening of the pressure cooker.

After that week, the waves came ever more closely together, and so frequently that we had to let go of everything and just try and hold onto each other. Dialysis, failed dialysis, roadside seizures, operation after operation. Hospitalisation after hospitalisation. I threw work over the side of the boat. Wolf, his PhD. The pain of baby loss completely submerged by a new pain. The tsunami of having to make the right medical decisions for RD.

Short, shallow breaths. Big gulps of air. Huge cuddles with anyone we could cling to, to see if this would stop.

Resigned to the fact it wasn’t, the last thing to go overboard was our expectations. We didn’t know when it would stop. As trite as it sounds, our only option was to keep riding the storm and grasp at the vestige of hope that it would change eventually. Just the matter of a surprise pregnancy after loss to get through right?

I still don’t know if it’s stopped, but just recently I feel like the pace has changed. I feel like I’m inflating my lungs more fully. I have time to sniff my living children’s heads, listen to their endless stories (DD) or that snuffly feeding sound that makes every cell in my body swell with endorphins.

I’m breathing into grief. I’m giving myself time to hurt. To wade my way back through the waves and feel them afresh. To be mindful. Mindful of the fact I don’t know when I could be washed out to sea again.

The Pot of Gold

BD. I realise I’ve been remiss. There’s always so much chatter around your big brother, and from your big sister, that I realise I haven’t truly marked in the sand what utter, unbridled joy you are bringing into our lives. So here it is, my first piece of writing about you that doesn’t involve a story about how I pushed you out and turned the air blue.

It’s fair to say during my pregnancy with you, so soon after losing RD, I was wound so tight with anxiety it felt like I breathed constantly in short, shallow breaths. You did also squash my rib cage quite a lot. Looking back, you could have scraped me off the ceiling with a spatula.

As soon as you were here, in our arms, I could feel the gentle uncoiling of all of this. It’s been emotional, baby, but for all the right reasons.

You are a good baby. I find myself fighting with saying that, but since having you, I understand what people are getting at. You quietly thrive, whilst being as portable as a handbag. You peek over the edge of slings or from under the hood of your pushchair wide eyed and angelic. Your demands seem gloriously simple, and you have such a gentle, curious nature.

We call you the potato. Not just because you are bald and massive. Okay, okay, quite a lot because of that. But also because you always cheer us up, a big carb loaded cuddle.

For the first time I’ve really let my mothering anxieties go. I’m not a perfect Mum, but I’m perfectly happy with the Mum I am. I’ve learned that you can only do so much, the rest of it is just riding the highs and lows of every stage. You know when people say “it’s okay, nobody died/I kept everyone alive”? I feel like understanding that sentiment a little deeper gives me a renewed confidence.

(Although I still check on you ALL THE TIME. Watch you gently blow out through pursed rosebud lips almost silently)

I take in every detail of you, astounded that we made the wrinkles on the back of your knuckles. Your bright, dazzling irises. Your perfect little wotsit toes. A true appreciation of the miracle of reproduction.

You start conversation. You’ve brought family together after a time where it felt like getting back up after so much loss was futile. You give us all fresh hope and consolation, just as your name means. Child of consolation. 

You have eyes just like your brother. You have a mouth and smile so full of joy like your sister. You are also completely yourself and I marvel that we have had anything to do with your creation. Also, because we really can’t remember that…

Thankyou for making DD a sister again. She may not thank us right now, and struggle with feelings of jealousy but the way your eyes dance when she walks in the room, when you search her out to give her your best, gummiest smile, is priceless. She doesn’t need to try and understand the way you love her, it beams from you.

BD, you came to being at a time when I didn’t know if anything could be truly good again. Angry at life, and my body having failed us before. Now it feels like you were always going to be here, but this sense that you will decide every single move defines your life already.

The Rise In The Fall

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the Fall”

(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

There was something poetic about RD dying at the start of Autumn. After the long lazy days of Summer where he sparkled and forged through a failing body, he slowly curled up and entered the Earth when it is so rich and abundant with colour.

He wasn’t supposed to arrive in Autumn, he was due to be a Winter baby. Of course, had he arrived on time we most likely would have not had any time with him at all, so poor was his condition at birth. I remember the week, and weeks after his shock birth, the sun shone long and low through the days. 

I would lie on the post labour ward, struggling to navigate all we were dealing with- a premature birth, the physical aftermath of an emergency caesarean, worsening news about our tiny, fragile first child. Yet the sun continued to crack through the slivers of high up windows, warming the cold lilac of the walls.

He was born on the Monday, I was discharged the following Sunday. After what I came to discover was a standard delay in being discharged from hospital, I stumbled into the 4pm October low light. The trees had seemingly become golden during my incubation in the sterility of the hospital. All around, the damp ground smelt heady with decay and promise all at the same time.

The oranges, russets, reds and browns intermingled amongst the still brilliantly verdant greens marked his arrival. They remain his colours. This time of year, every essence of nature feels like him. The juxtaposition of promise as the fruits are ready for final harvest, with the slowing down and cosying up. 

October has become this for us- the month full of life and loss. RD’s birthday. Tiny’s birthday, even though she never took a breath. Our wedding anniversary. DD’s birthday. A month that crashes and ricochets between highs and lows. 

My natural initial reaction is fear of the month ahead. That dipping my toe ahead and wondering how we will mark all those events. How we will embrace the good and difficult and be spat out into November.

We have planned DD’s first ‘big’ birthday party. She is beyond herself with excitement knowing that October is coming. The ‘how many sleeps?’ countdown has been reaching fever pitch. 

The other day at tea, we were having the thousandth conversation about her birthday.

“Mummy, at my disco, can I have balloons?”

“Yes love. Do you remember whose birthday it is first though?”

“RD’s”

“We’re going to have a little party tea for him on his birthday next week”

“Can we have cake?”

“Yes”

“And blow out his candles?” 

“Yes”

“Yay!” (Suddenly looks troubled) “But he won’t be able to eat it”

– Wolf pipes up- “He didn’t like cake anyway, he won’t mind”

And that, there is life. Like Autumn, the sun can shine on death.

Nobody Puts DD in the Middle

I am a middle child. I can boast many of its finer characteristics, such as attention seeking, strong will and a low level resentment towards my siblings and their superiority in birth chronology.

I am different to my siblings. They are different to each other and yet possess similar abilities to do well at school and never get in too much trouble. These are things I didn’t do so well at. But it’s okay, I’m creative (not always meant in a complimentary way).

DD is my second born, but as soon as she came into our lives I knew she’d be a middle child someday. I knew she had the feist and pizzazz to own it. She is a thousand kinds of fabulous and a massive pain in the arse. My Dad has described her as “A mini you. Actually, no, you on steroids.”

She came second in line, but achieved so many firsts for us. She quickly overtook RD, and made my mind boggle at how quickly she grew and changed. Each time this came with a little bittersweet taste but we revelled in the normality.

For DD, her understanding of her big brother went against her understanding of size and time. By 18 months she was bigger than him, and began to help us teach him. Although the time she tried to get him to sit up by pulling on his gastrostomy tube was definitely an unorthodox method.

She was too young to remember that she was due to be a middle sister before. I still often wonder what my other little girl, Tiny, would have been. What whispered secrets and games they would have invented, just three years between them. Whether she would have been such a force of nature, or allowed her big sister to lead the way.

The bookends to DD’s middleness don’t match. We lost and gained in one fell swoop. More than that, its difficult to explain, and for DD to grasp where she sits between her brothers. It’s something that she’ll no doubt find difficult to articulate as she grows up too.

In less than a month she starts school. Like her mother, she’s not backwards in coming forwards. She will answer questions or talk about RD with a fierce honesty. She is proud as punch about BD whilst stealthily trying to break his arm.

I suppose, just like a classic middle child.

But you DD, whilst classic, are extraordinary to your Dad and I. Our constant. Our apex.

Tired

I started to complain to my husband about it the other day.

He told me to go on the internet and complain as that’s what people do now.

So here it is. I’m tired. Exhausted. Knackered. Shattered.

And it’s doing my head in.

I want to feel some get up and go. Some wind in my sails. I’ve got this itch to be the active person I am in my head. To do a juice cleanse or some shit, but I’ve still not popped to the Co-Op for my milk yet.

I’m trying hard to give myself a break though. When I’m scooping baby sick out of the turn up of my jeans or using fairy liquid to try and remove the baby poo stains out of vests, baby grows and playmats. (Second fact is a top tip by the way. It really works)

It’s when I realise I’ve been a mother for seven years. Seven. And yet my oldest living child is four. Even if RD were still alive, his development hadn’t really progressed beyond a year anyway. So any chance of the mantra “it gets easier” hadn’t really happened yet. I have been a mother to very young children for seven years.

Thankfully RD had developed enough that he could entertain himself. In fact, if it weren’t for the nappy changes and vomit catches, he was such an easy going soul. Most of the time. But it had taken him about two and a half years to get to that stage.

In the relentlessness of it all, there’s a bigger beast to bear. Sometimes, it’s boring. Actually, a lot of the time it’s boring. My brain is filled with calculating getting us all up and dressed. Fed. Getting the washing on. When the next nap will be. What I’ll do in that nap. The frustration of that nap happening on me mid feed whilst DD has a meltdown from lack of attention. So actually I did sweet FA.

Four O’clock. When bedtime seems so close and so achingly far away and I’ve no idea how we’re going to get to it. I still need to go to the Co Op for milk. The dog needs walking. All the day I’ve fantasised about painting my skirting boards, alone, untouched. I stuck a bit of masking tape down when I probably should have gone to the Co Op.

What’s really exhausting though, is grief. It churns away, burning at your energy reserves. Even when I feel like I’m not actively engaging with it, it’s ticking, aching, invading each thought process. Every activity I do, it says “remember when…” It alerts me to his absence.

The clicking on of the kettle: Do you remember when you had to sterilise all RD’s feeding tubes and syringes at least three times a day? Opening the cupboard for a teabag: Do you remember when that cupboard over there was filled completely with medicines, and now it just has calpol? Going to get the milk out the fridge: Do you remember, oh shit, you forgot to go to the Co Op didn’t you?

Here I am complaining about the boredom. Grief says “remember when you had to raise a newborn by a hospital bedside? Remember all that you lost, how can you complain about being a Mum?” Grief, is a dick.

There was a period of time when I had the energy I want back. I mean, yes, it was fuelled by a desire for peace and to indulge my inner introvert, but I ran two marathons. I worked nearly full time. I was kinder to my husband. His breathing in the car didn’t make me want to punch him. Somehow, I will hopefully wend my way back there.

The grief will just have to come with us. But like my young children, I hope it quietens down a bit and behaves itself.