I don’t know if my youngest child realizes it, but she was born from my desire to provide a companion for her sister. I watched my firstborn grow. Thoughts of her life stretching into a future well beyond my lifespan made me want to give her someone to be with. The conception of this “companion child” was difficult. Weight gain from the first pregnancy and an existing medical condition impeded fertility. My heart ached to be pregnant again and to give my daughter a sibling. I watched friends have second and third children. I sought help for secondary infertility. My doctor told me that I should “lose some weight.” I was about to give up trying when I found out I was pregnant. The pregnancy was fragile. I came close to miscarrying and early on had to spend time on bed rest. During that time I would lie in bed and talk to my growing belly – to the child I so badly wanted. “Come on little baby. Stay with us. Stay with us and come meet your sister and me. We want you with us so much.”
Her sister Sarah was born on her due date after eight short hours of labor. Jenna was nearly a week overdue. My OB had warned me that, after such a short first labor, I should prepare for an even more rapid one this time around. So, when I awoke at 5am with the first contractions, we made haste. We dropped Sarah off with my parents and went immediately to the hospital…only to find that I was not dilated…at all. “Go home,” they said, “or, better yet, go to the mall and walk around.” We did and my contractions actually seem to slow. It was frustrating. I was tired. We went to back to my parents’ house to pick up Sarah since it seemed labor had subsided. They invited us to stay for dinner and ordered pizza. After eating one slice, the contractions returned with a vengeance. I thought the wives’ tales about eating certain foods to hasten labor might be true. We left Sarah with my folks, once again, and went home to wait until the contractions were closer together. It took another ten hours before that happened.
Pain punctuated my attempts to sleep. A contraction woke me every ten minutes through the night. When the morning came they were finally coming every two minutes, so we returned to the hospital. I was exhausted. You can imagine my dismay when I found out all those contractions had dilated my cervix to a mere “one” (“ten” is where it needs to be to give birth). My fatigue was evident. They administered Pitocin to strengthen the contractions and speed things along. It felt like a mixture of mercy and torture. I had planned to forego pain medication, as I had with my first child, before that. But the drug enhanced contractions felt like a little more than I could handle. I meekly asked for an epidural. The nurse laughed and said I was “past the point” where I could have anything. Damn it!!! The pressure of the baby against my cervix felt like it was being blown wide open like a fresh bag of Lays potato chips. It kept making me feel like I had to use the bathroom. At one point, in the throes of extreme exhaustion and while sitting on the toilet, I told the nurse, “I changed my mind. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I wanna go home to Sarah now.” The nurse laughed at me yet again, “Well, it’s a little too late for that now.”
When it came time to push, fatigue made my efforts less than effective. With every contraction, I pushed but made little progress. A battle of wills ensued. It was mine against hers, as it had been since conception. This child continued to resist coming into the world. Nurse Mamie was growing impatient with me. “Oh come on!” she said, “You can do better than that! Is that all you’ve got?” Her words enraged me. The swell of the next contraction began to rise. My rage compelled me to push with renewed determination. I wanted to show that bitch exactly what I fucking did have in me. Out flew baby, into the waiting hands of the OB. “Gee,” he said, “you’d make a pretty good pitcher!”
Jenna Elizabeth entered the world…begrudgingly..at 1:00pm on December 2nd, 1992. It was halfway through my favorite soap opera Young and the Restless. Fat snowflakes swirled dreamily in the air outside my hospital room window. She was here. The second child I’d so badly wanted, the sibling to my firstborn, was here. After a character in my second-favorite soap opera at the time, Guiding Light, we named her Jenna. The character Jenna Bradshaw was a beautiful, powerful badass jewel thief. Yes, she was a villain. Hey! Don’t judge me. It was a freaking soap opera!
You might think that the connection to a fictional villain would doom my daughter to a troubled life. The opposite is true. As an infant, she was a dream child – good-natured, smiley, and with a happy disposition. I would often hear her cooing and laughing in the nursery in the morning. I would come in to find her smiling sweetly. Her face beamed as her chubby little legs kicked with excitement. As a toddler, she was a happy but busy little thing. Her busyness earned her my nickname for her – Bee. She was the antithesis of her older sister. Still, they were inseparable. It was just as I envisioned they would be. Sarah began to spend more time with her friends when they reached their teens. Still, the sisters remained close. They fought, as sisters do, but the bond was solid. It is the epitome of irony that my second born, the one I planned to be a companion for my first, is now my only living child.
In 2005, Sarah was killed in an automobile accident with a drunk driver. I can assure you. The only thing harder than losing a child is looking into the eyes of your surviving child and telling her that her sister is dead. The only thing harder than grieving the loss of a child is bearing witness to the grief of your surviving child and knowing there is nothing you can do to take the pain away.
Jenna was quiet in her grief. She didn’t wanna talk about it. She didn’t want to “go talk to” someone either. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to be with her friends. I wanted to give her the space she needed. I wanted to let her grieve in her own way. I know she worried about me, though. Unlike most thirteen-year-olds, she was happy to spend time with me from time to time. Part of her wanted to push me away, but another part knew I needed to pull her close. Her compassionate heart allowed her to tolerate it…to a degree. I don’t know if I could’ve survived losing Sarah if Jenna hadn’t allowed me this bit of grace.
Years later she confessed the depth of her sorrow during that time. She said that she use to cut herself. She showed me the scars. It was like a dagger to my heart. I never knew. I guess I was too enveloped in my own suffering to notice hers. To this day, the thought of her suffering so…in silence… cuts me to the quick. Recently, while leafing through school photos, I came upon the one of Jenna from the year after Sarah’s death. The obvious sadness in her eyes struck me. Not knowing…not being able to see it…is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
It was hard for me to not be overprotective of Jenna as she got older. I struggled to walk the line between giving her the freedom she desired and keeping her out of harm’s way. I knew that holding on too tight would only drive her away, and I couldn’t bear that thought. There were many times she balked and accused me of being too cautious and of suffocating her. Getting her through her teenage years was a battle on dual fronts – me with her and me with myself. When she decided to move nine hours away to go to college, I wasn’t completely sure I could endure it. But I did, and I’m very glad. She flourished there. I watched, with a mixture of pride and admiration, as she found and claimed her identity. When I graduated from high school, though I was accepted to schools far from home, I never had the courage to go. I admired Jenna’s bravery. Here was my girl not just surviving…but thriving…all on her own, nine hours from home.
Neither of my girls were ever “girlie” girls. They preferred comfortable clothes – jeans and tee shirts – to frilly dresses and skirts. They played with both Barbie dolls and Max Steele action figures. They loved Disney movies and action cartoons. They preferred playing outdoors to all else – in the dirt and mud. I never tried to tell either of them who they were or, more importantly, who they were not. Every time I uttered the words, “I wanna be…” it was met with an attempt to define me. “That’s not very practical,” or “How are you gonna manage that?” or a sarcastic “Oh yeah, right!” was my parents’ response. Those words built walls around me and those walls confined me for many years. It wasn’t until very late in life that I realized the way out was to look up…and to rise above those walls. All those years ago I decided I would make certain my children never felt the way I had. I would accept them. I would help them define themselves, not try to do it for them.
The first few years that followed Sarah’s death, we found out that Jenna had been struggling. She’d been struggling to define herself. She’d been struggling with her sexuality. She came out to us when she was still in high school. She was nervous to tell us. I like to think that, deep down in her heart, she knew she could never lose my love. I like to think that she knew she could count on my acceptance. I can’t even wrap my mind around how any parent could ever reject or “stop loving” their child. Frankly, there’s pretty much nothing my child could do to make that happen. To reject a child because of whom they love is beyond comprehension. To me, all a parent could ever want for their child is for them to find someone who loves them as much as their family does. All a parent could want is for them to find someone that sees them for the amazing person they are. And why in the world would anyone want to put limits on love anyway? Why would they want to define it or contain it? That leads to less love in the world, and less love means more hate at worst. It means more indifference at best. I don’t want a world like that.
I’ve written many pieces about my older daughter and my grief over her loss. In November it will have been fourteen years since she died. Quite a bit of time has passed. Part of my heart will always ache from that loss. A greater part of my heart is full and so proud of the woman my surviving child has become. So I felt like it was time. It was time to write an ode to my winter child.
Like winter can be, my winter child is fierce…and a force. She is passionate and hardworking. She is funny, beautiful, and wicked smart. She is willful yet willing. She’s been through more in her twenty-six short years than some people ever experience in a lifetime. She resisted coming into the world, but she relented and ended up making it a better place. I am forever grateful that she did. She lit the dark places in my mind and heart. I would not be here anymore were it not for her birth.
A few years ago I wrote this poem for her as a birthday present.
Ode to My Winter Child
A blanket of gray
stretched out as the sky.
Swirling currents of flurries surround me.
I summon my strength
and dig deep for my will.
You, naturally, act to defy me.
Defiance is futile,
when nature trumps all.
You accept your defeat with a fury.
Angry cries are relief
to a laboring room
and a body rung out from its worry.
Drowning and gasping,
amidst roiling seas,
I was a slave to the storm’s commands.
The merciful maker
then cast me a line.
with both hands.
The cord that once bound us,
heartbeat to heartbeat,
was replaced by a tether of twine.
as you grew.
So I fastened it to
a heart of cardboard,
so as not to lose mine.
Once new and fragile,
the rope has now strengthened.
The tether has wrapped ‘round and through,
past cardboard and plywood,
through barbed wire and bramble,
its anchor has sunk deep and true.
My reason “to keep”
My reason to stay
My heart tied to yours
through the tow.
Your life saved my life.
Your life gave me reason,
when I once had a million to go.
I’m writing this piece on the last day of Pride Month. I know Pride Month is about folks in the LGBTQ community celebrating who they are…who they were born to be. For me, as a Mama Bear of a member of that community, it’s also about parental pride. I am so proud of my second born…my winter child…my Bee. I remember a few years ago when Katy Perry came out with a song call Firework. My eyes would well with tears every time I heard it. It reminded me of her.
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y
When all is said and done, for me in my life, I may never have done much in this world. I may never have written a single word read by anyone other than those that love me. I may never have set the world on fire in any way. Still, the fact remains. I brought you into this world and you, my dear, are a masterpiece.