Through the Lens of the [Grateful] Dead

October 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is an exciting weekend. The girls are both at a Girl Scouts encampment. My husband and I are both home and have no other plans. We went out to dinner tonight – a barbeque and craft beer place I’ve never visited before. It was excellent. I look forward to tomorrow’s lunch of leftovers.

It’s also a tough weekend. October 15 is the estimated due date of my first ectopic. Posthumously named Brahman Angelica, the child would have been 4 years old this month. Soon after this day is another anniversary, the one commemorating the discovery of my 4th pregnancy. It was ectopic, too. I named that one Shiva, in hopes that the destruction of my fertility would bring new life of a different sort.

There’s a cloud of struggle. People ask if I’m going to have another child, and I want to scream. I can’t politely stop them from the conversation at all. I can state that I can no longer have children naturally because I have no Fallopian tubes. That makes people uncomfortable. I can gloss over to say that the children I have are great and growing, and I enjoy the independence of not needing a diaper bag.

That’s the silver lining. Had those pregnancies been viable, I wouldn’t be having a weekend alone at home with no kids for the second time in a decade. I’d have a 4 year old and a 15 month old. I’m not saying it’s better this way. I just think that, sometimes, grieving means staring into the eyes of loss and enjoying what life you have left.

The touch of grey, though, is that both of my living children are away from home this weekend. So much of my consolation and peace and healing has been that I have them. It’s quite a weekend to go without the possibility of holding any of my kids. Or, what I’d like to do now is just go peek at them sleeping.

I remember the first time I was self-aware of myself placing a hand on my daughter’s back because I couldn’t hear her breathe. Everything was so fine that it made me nervous. That right there, folks: that is what love is. Love is checking for a breath just to be sure.

As I reflect on the growing independence of my oldest children, I also see that those two younger kids – the ones I never met, who have a name from either gender because I’ll never know that about them – will never grow up. They’ll always be the same age. They’ll always be the babies I never held. I might imagine them as a [insert age here] year old, but I will never rejoice in a developmental milestone or struggle through a developmental back-slide. Those possible children will always be static characters in my life story.

I read a fascinating article that said that elderly women had traces of foreign DNA in their bodies after death. Upon further examination, the DNA proved to be from their children, whether born or miscarried or whatever. The implication is that mothers  literally carry pieces of their children for the rest of their lives.  I always found that comforting in regards to why those ectopic pregnancies stay with me in a way that other people don’t experience. I also might be reading into that too much. Sometimes grief is just taking what light you can find.

My older two children are dynamic, living beings with personalities that reach out into the larger world. Those younger two that only existed in my body will forever be potentialities that never actualized. They will always be static characters. Their existence past those surgeries will forever remain an imaginary construct. 

Back to that touch of grey, and finding the hint of silver therein: I may not be able to hug my children this weekend, but they’re out there in the larger world in a way that the others will never be. I have two children who live, and they are growing up . I have a weekend at home with my husband to pack for moving and sleep in and eat super-spicy chili, and that’s a good thing. There’s Shiva, destroying to leave the possibility of re-creation.

I will get by.

I’ll Teach as They Learn

July 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

For many years now, my summer break has included several weeks during which I plan out every day and every subject for the upcoming school year. I didn’t do that this year. Instead, I (and my amazing husband) spent the better part of two months renovating a house. I spent at least two nights in 6 different states and drove through 13. I literally watched paint dry while waiting to do the next coat, I lost in the first round of my first pool tournament, and I read newspapers on microfilm until the rest of the world looked too bright.

I’m still trying not to scratch the chigger bites I got on the 4th of July.

30-40 hours of lesson planning was just not in the hand dealt to me this summer, and a part of my brain thinks I should feel some anxiety about this.

If I’m honest with myself, though, those lesson plans were always an overly optimistic attempt to placate the part of my personality that has the compulsive need to plan. Those plans don’t reflect what actually works for us. By November, those self-created exacting demands are, to quote PotC, “really more like guidelines, anyway.”

My oldest is entering 6th grade. This means I’ve been doing this for 7 years, and I kinda feel like I know what I’m doing here. Holy hell.
Simultaneously, as a 6th grader, it’s really time for her to take ownership of her studies in a more substantial way – that’s not a top-down imposition, but a recognition of a need that she seems to feel.
She’s at an age where I can lay out a path and let her go ahead. Yeah, she’ll stumble and fall, or maybe get lost; my responsibility is to stay far enough away to let her have her independence, but close enough to help her when she can’t go forward alone. As a mother , it won’t be an easy line to toe, and it may change if we get a new house or if something big happens. That’s the beauty of what we do: I can meet her where she’s at when she needs me.

Meanwhile, Lexi is entering 2nd grade, and she’s really come into her own as a person. She needs a bit more independence – her reading skills took off this summer in an amazing way, and I’ll be assigning independent reading in content areas by the end of the year. My focus with her this year is largely according to Waldorf principles, so we’ll be exploring great figures and legends of the Medieval ages (saints, fables etc.), developing observational skills in the sciences, and strengthening abilities in the 3Rs.

It’s going to be an exciting year despite doing the same things we always do during the year. We read every day, voraciously, for hours. Through that, we explore the cultures and discoveries that have brought humanity to its current point. When Lizzie reads about the Crusades, we’ll find some audio-visual media to bring it to life; I’ll redact some options and bite my tongue about the Childrens’ Crusade. Lexi will be nagging me about doing extra math, while Lizzie protests the normal amount. If those things change, I’ll adjust our focus in the relevant area.

My duty as a teacher is to ensure that my students are educated. My duty as a parent is to ensure that their developmental needs are fulfilled.

I was told once by a professor that I will always be a thinking person, no matter what path I choose in life. She was right.
My duty of how to act in the world as a thinking person is a much bigger question, but it starts with the experiences I provide for my children. It starts with the part where they see me read every day, they engage in political discussions at dinner, and they talk to me on the phone every night while I get to go back to my historian roots to learn more about life in New Castle, PA, during the Civil War. That was a tough time for those people.

When I teach, I learn. When I read with the girls, I learn. When I provide that example of finding joy in a new discovery, I model what it looks like to take life from the mundane to the larger, more profound picture.
Pre-written plans don’t hold a candle to that.

Can I go into the year without a day-by-day ultimatum? Of course I can; I’ve been doing this for years.

There Will Be Blood – and Flowers

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Facebook friends who click on this post: I haven’t been on Facebook in about a month. I don’t particularly miss it. I am still on Instagram & Twitter, though 🙂

Some of you may know that I have been rather immersed in genealogical research for the past little while. I have always been interested in the topic, but finding the free website gave me the ability to learn more without paying for it. (Thanks to Mom for the gift of 6 months on Ancestry & their DNA test, and to Aunt Donna for that first month on Ancestry that showed me how much they have to offer!)

Tomorrow is an exciting, yet intimidating, day for me. We’ve all been to cemeteries. As a teenager, I greatly disliked them, thinking them to be a way of making amends for our failings to the dead. I even disliked the visits for genealogical research, being dragged along by Mommy to scour the headstones in Jefferson County, Ohio. (Sorry for that. Wish we had pictures.)

I think Papa being cremated was the start of a change in that attitude. In that mythical someday when I am independently wealthy, he will have a headstone. Everyone deserves their name being carved into a rock.

Following in the family tradition, I drug my own progeny about the cemeteries of East Tennessee last month. It was a moving experience for me to see the resting place of my dad’s ancestors. Thomas Laymon & Amelia Sparks, with their joint headstone, knowing that his death certificate included the loss of is wife as a cause of death. Richard Daughtrey, with a beautiful poem inscribed, but eroding away, and his wife next to him. (She lived another 50ish years and never remarried, which is a puzzle I’ll never solve.)
But those headstones, for the most part, have been catalogued, photographed, and placed in numerous trees. Some of the newer ones still have people tending them.

Tomorrow is different. I go to visit the grave of Joseph Nelson Bailey, my 4th great grandfather. Here’s a bit of his story.

Joseph Nelson Bailey, who went by Nelson, was born about 1838 in (probably Long Bottom,) Meigs County, Ohio. His father, Joseph, was a blacksmith. His mother, Elizabeth Rardon, was descended from the family for whom Rardon, Ohio is named. Nelson was the youngest of three siblings. His mother is dead by the time of the 1850 census, but no death record has been found.
In 1850, Nelson lived with his sister, his cousin, & her family. He was next door to his father, maternal aunt Hannah, & his oldest sister, Mary
In 1858, Nelson married Eliza Smith. She was a young lady from across the Ohio River, and she already had a one year old.
By 1860, they are living next door to his father with Eliza’s son (who he passes of as his own) and their daughter, Jennete (my 3rd great grandmother.
Late in 1860, the nation moved to war, and Nelson heeded its call. He enlisted in the 63d Ohio Volunteer Infantry. I have pondered his reasons, and I can never be certain, but his place on what would now be the border of the Confederacy is a likely factor. (Did you know that there was a Civil War battle in Ohio? I didn’t. It was in Meigs County, not far from where Nelson lived.)
Unlike many people during that time who never strayed far from home, Nelson left Ohio and saw Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi. His unit was significant in the battle of Corinth.
In late 1863, despite the Union army’s poor state, Nelson reinlisted. His unit was granted a veteran furlough, and he returned home in January of 1864. He got to meet his second daughter, Margaret, who would have been a toddler of less than 2 years of age.
The 63d Ohio Veteran Infantry returned to the war shortly thereafter. They missed the horrors of the battles around Chattanooga. They marched south through the slaughter at Chickamauga. It was a hard march to Resaca, Georgia. The Union saw a bittersweet victory there after days of fighting.
Nelson marched south with the 63d. Rations and water became scarce, and most of the travel was at night. He guarded the railroads of Kingston, then received the orders to continue to Dallas. Sherman wanted to flank the Rebels around Dallas, so Nelson and his comrades went the roundabout way to reach the area.
They arrived in Dallas, GA, on 26 May 1864. A regiment disturbed an apiary, and the bees ran them off; the ensuing chaos gave the regiment some fine food for the evening in place of the 29 days of salt beef and hardtack they’d recently received.
On 27 May, Colonel Jackson of the 63d writes, “Whilst eating breakfast at 5:30 this morning the enemy attacked our pickets and Grand Guard line and in a few minutes the wounded were being brought in. 6:00 A.M. Our brigade moves into position to support the skirmishers who are having a sharp fight. 8:00 A.M. Heavy skirmishing. The rebels are said to have been dressed in our uniform and surprised our Grand Guard this morning who mistook them for friends. Dark. Our regiment has been in line all day. There has been heavy skirmishing and an occasional artillery duel during the day and our division has lost a good many men. Our regiment had four killed and six or eight wounded while in the line of battle.” ( from The Colonel’s Diary, p. 123-124, Col. Oscar Jackson of the 63d OVI, at

On 27 May 1864, Nelson Bailey was shot in the bowels in the Battle of Dallas. He died of his wounds at the regimental hospital. Nelson Bailey was one of those 10-12 men Col. Jackson says were wounded or killed that day. That gut shot sealed his fate – even today, a shot to the abdomen is difficult to treat.
To know, thanks to Colonel Jackson, that he may have died in what he thought to be friendly fire, is… it leaves me speechless.
Born in Ohio, Nelson was buried on Mr. Hill’s plantation 900 yards east of Dallas, Georgia.
His son, Joseph Bailey, was born in the autumn of that year, a testament to the beauty of life (or the beauty of a veteran furlough).

As a genealogist, we want to ascribe the greatest of motives and character to our ancestors. Maybe Nelson was overjoyed to see his wife and kids on that furlough, and his youngest child was named in his memory. Maybe Eliza was heartbroken that her husband perished. Maybe Nelson could read, and his dying thoughts were of a letter he’d received telling him Eliza was with child.
Then again, maybe Nelson was raging asshole, and Eliza was happy he would not return. Maybe she named Joseph for his father and grandfather out of guilt for her hatred of a man who took advantage of her and her bastard son.
We’ll probably never know.
I’d like to believe the former.

So what of tomorrow? I can’t find Mr. Hill or his plantation in 1860 or 1870. There’s no telling where Nelson was buried.
I’m going to Marietta National Cemetery. Built on the land of a man who refused to sell his land for a Confederate capitol for $50,000, the cemetery is a sea of nearly identical headstones, only 61% photographed. Nelson was moved there from Mr. Hill’s plantation and, unlike his wife, he has a grave. No image is available of it online. Reason suggests that Eliza never went there, nor did her children – these are kids who never knew their dad, never got drug along to his grave, never had to ride an hour in the car to see a fancy engraved stone.

We’ve all seen the Memorial Day posts that say, “Gone, but not forgotten.” The thing is, Nelson was forgotten. For generations, we knew nothing about him. His grave was never tended by loved ones. There is no family history of an ancestor that died in the Civil War. There is no photo, and there have been no flowers or flags except as a perfunctory part of a memorial service.
There aren’t even any Ancestry trees. I suspect that his two younger children died in the early 1880s, cast out after their mother’s death from the home of a stepfather who was in the same Company C of the 63d OVI – and survived. It took months to even find his name, and months more to discover his fate. When I found him on FindAGrave, there was no birth date listed. Even the manager of his online memorial is a stranger to him.

Tomorrow, we drive in the footsteps it took weeks to walk, from Snake Creek to Resaca, down west to Van Wert then east to Dallas. It’s not much, but it is an honor.
My two living children and I will be the first of his direct descendants to visit his grave. It is an intimidating honor to represent his last known blood line and photograph his headstone.
Many genealogists visit cemeteries to learn about their ancestor. That is not my goal.
There will be flowers. It’s the very most I can do to show beauty in a horrific death, yet the very least I can do as a token memorial for a man I’ll never truly know.

I Wish I Could Be an Autumn Optimist, but I Love My Winter Clothes

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

The temperature is dropping and the fog is settling in. (And it’s 11:11, so of course I looked at the time.) I have finally allowed myself to don my winter coat for the first time this season. It’s a great moment, that first time slipping into the coat after it has been banished to storage for over half a year.
It smells like it was stuck in a car for two months at the height of a Tennessee summer then hastily shoved in a musty coat closet. Oh, wait…It was. All the more reason to air it out before I wear it out, right?
I am disappointed to find that my pocket loot is only 2 Chuck E Cheese tokens, 58¢, a red math counter, a button, a 1″x1″ scrap of scrapbook paper, and a foam sticker letter “A”. I usually stash a surprise in there for future me… Guess my past me decided she needed that money more than I do. In all fairness, she was probably right.
This is the part of October when I take stock of what I have. I am disappointed, then I realize that it really could be worse and I should appreciate what I have.
I may be disappointed by my pocket loot, but I have a damn coat pocket to loot, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
In another possible universe, I didn’t have an ectopic pregnancy, and I’d be planning a birthday party for a kid almost preschool aged. But I have two awesome little girls of my own, and that is truly something to be thankful for.
I don’t have my (great) Grandma or my Papa or my other (great) Grandma, and my girls will never really remember them. Yet my girls will know them because I carry traces of them always, and they have wonderful grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins of their own.

The thing is, October, I know this trick. I know this moment when my feet crunch through the fallen leaves and I feel the death inherent in autumn with every sense. I know the moment when I look to the trees for the beauty and color as they become their most vibrant and beautiful. I know now that fall is macabre.
The thing is, I also know I will focus intently on autumn in response. I’ll seek out the beauty in that macabre fall, call it by another name in that light, and avow that I’ve got this this time.
Five years ago, there was no shadow of my would-be baby’s would-be due date. My Great Grandma was still alive and vibrant despite her lack of memory. And Papa needed a routine procedure with a 1 in 10,000 chance of death.
Year after year, I keep courting fate. Knowing now that it will inevitably jilt me at the altar doesn’t help.

My coat’s a bit loose this year, and I was excited for a minute. Then I remembered my joke that my coat is my armor against the elements of winter, and I can’t help but kick myself.

I’m Which the Fates are Narrated by Samuel L Jackson

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

It starts out with a good day. The first is always a decent day, and the only discomfort is the feeling of dreadful anticipation.
Nothing happens. It carries on in a rather mediocre fashion. The path turns toward the worst while you’re trying to get your bearings.
The bad news settles in, and you’re lulled into a false sense of security. It has to get better than this! Time to bed down and snuggle up, because it’s all gonna be just fine.
I wake up renewed. I’ve got this! I can do this! I stand up straight, purposeful, adamant that I can deal with all that has happened.
My feet hit the ground to run, one split second touching the dirt… then it’s gone. The world is pulled out from under me, and I am dangling by a thread. The Fates taunt me for having the audacity to think I have any control over what goes on in this life. “Oh, you’d just like to stand on your own two feet again, would you? Look where that got you! You just want to live your life? Life is pain, muthafucka. Now don’t tempt us again.”
When the ground comes back, I don’t trust it: it has betrayed me before. But what else is there to do but keep walking?

In memory of Papa’s would-be 65th birthday… The man who would tell me to stop thinking so much and just keep living and doing has many lessons left to teach even though he’s gone.

I’ve been watching the moon this evening as it traversed the sky… It has gone from a half moon high in the sky, brilliant bluish-white, slowly moving along. To catching it lower in the horizon with its hints of orange. To that second when I glance over from my musings to find a candlelight burning just above the ridge line. It starts as a vibrant flame, but sinks down in a matter of seconds until it is one spot of fire through the trees flashing out before I knew it.
All those hours it spent meandering across the sky on its path, scarcely moving to the casual observer… But then the final minute stretches out into an eternity in which you can’t blink for missing it.

September 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

October is to my life is what winter is to the Starks… In the books, at least.
Every death in my family has been October… except one. The due date for my ectopic pregnancy was October, but the actual death was a January.
My calendar of loss grows long, and October is swiss cheese for my presence, the month when each day is a prelude, an anniversary, or the hangover of another death. My task now, as a person, is to be alive for this month rather than holing up in the calendar. I can celebrate life, or I can embrace my own. At 5 years, the loss has been tempered by the knowledge that this month will be as bad as I think. The first year was unexpected. The second year was a bit unexpected because I thought I knew how bad it could be. They say it gets better in time, but it’s really knowing how you will react. It’s knowing you will spend 3 days doing not much, knowing that you will survive the next October. How that happens, and what that looks like, are another matter.
I know how bad it can be, but I also know that the alternative is nothing. I can choose nothing, or I can choose the pain of life. I am still alive; it is how I choose to carry on that makes the difference. Everyone get angry; it’s what you do with it that matters. Similarly, everyone misses their parent, but we cannot fully know that outside of a context.
I cannot answer those questions, but I can speak to my own experience. It will not feel easier. But it will be something I have done before. And that is what it means right now to grow up: that I have done this before, and I can write a few choppy sentences about what it looks like to heal.
So much of life is learning how to live when it seems grossly unjust that the next breath is yours…
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Didn’t It Ever Occur to You? Or, For Dust You Are, And to Dust You Shall Return: A Memorial for a Good (Stranger) Dog

August 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Check out this dog:
The little guy is quite similar to one of these, mostly black hair, a bit of tan mixed interspersed throughout the curls, never did see the eyes for the eyebrows….

Tonight, my husband and I had the experience of finding a very old puppy. His days had been numbered by a tumor growing on his back. My conservative estimate is a 1wd x 1h x 2l protrusion with notable differences in the fur. He could no longer see, his hearing was almost gone, he had exactly zero appetite (I’ll even own up to setting in front of him one of each flavor of dog treats), and he didn’t touch his water. He just breathed. One of the first moments was Jason telling me, “The woman [who found the dog around the same time] agreed that it should have been done a long time ago.” This dog had been alone for nearly half an hour while we gathered the food. He had ample time to move. He just really didn’t want to.

I sat with him, thankful for the sidewalk. I was simultaneously aware of J standing next to me and envious of the cushioning grass. I literally touched the dying on the side of the road. (See Pali Canon, “Divine Messengers”) So far as I know, that very old puppy is still alone a block away, but wanting to be alone.

This cartoon shows us how close we really are… Maybe not today, but in the grand scheme of things… (Facebook Friends, I have shared this cartoon from Cyanide & Happiness. Other folks, I will look for a way to link it!)

“‘But, my good man, didn’t you ever see a woman or a man, eighty, ninety, or a hundred years old, frail, bent like a roof bracket, crooked, leaning on a stick, shakily going along,  youth and vigor gone, with broken teeth, with gray and scanty hair or bald, wrinkled, with blotched limbs?’
“‘Yes, Lord, I have seen this.’ …
“‘My good man, didn’t it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, ‘I too am subject to old age and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind.”
And again with illness.
And again with the rotting corpse – death and decay.

So I’m morbid, I know. Maybe it’s this age. Maybe it’s trying to piece life together. Maybe it’s that I can’t imagine being comfortable curling up in the grass! with all the bugs and damp and creepy crawlies…
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17b-19).

Maybe it’s that what we need to thrive today is different from what we needed to survive in the past. As a species, culture, society, country, family, and individual, we must figure out what the priorities are and how to adjudicate them.
My generation was forced to undergo a pretty big shift from “only the rich kids have computers” to “I have 2 and it isn’t enough.” The younger generation holds a computer more powerful than my first one in the palm of its individual hands.
Sorry, but you’re just gonna have to give us a minute to adjust.
Assuming that we should.

When things suck, when life is less than pleasant, all the way up the scale to when life seems to be throwing every curve ball at you that it can, the first impulse is to say, “Why Me?”
To you, I reply, “Why not you?”
To me, I reply, “Why not me?”
Of course, my self has a reply for that…

Then again, a dog should end his or her days in the best comfort we can provide, with the least pain we can muster. It’s not about money, but about love. It’s about being willing to reach out and touch the dying. It’s about touching the dying without staring to die yourself. (Metaphorically, but also literally (epidemiology, etc.)

“Just as mountains of solid rock,
Massive, reaching to the sky,
Might draw together from all sides,
Crushing all in the four quarters – 
So aging and death come
Rolling over living beings –
Khattiyas, brahmins, vessas, suddas, 
Outcasts and scavengers:
They spare none along the way 
But come crushing everything.
There’s no hope there for victory
By elephant troops, chariots, and infantry.
One can’t defeat them by subterfuge,
Or buy them off by means of wealth.” (In the Buddha’s Words I [“The Human Condition”] 2 [“The Simile of the Mountain”] [SN 3:25; I 100-102 <224-29.]

Here’s some other things I’ve glanced through, but I’m not prepared to integrate into my thoughts quite yet: (from Bhikkhu Bodhi, editor of my version of the Pali Canon)