So, I posted something on Facebook yesterday. In case you weren’t one of the 2 to 35 percent (the numbers vary widely on organic Facebook reach) who saw that post, here it is again:

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I want to be clear that this wasn’t meant as criticism of any group of people. It was merely an observation, a musing, if you will. I was told yesterday that nothing is black and white. But that just isn’t true. There are many things that are black and white. For example, a lie is a lie. Oh…wait…it could now also be an alternative fact. Bad example.

Anyways, back to my musing. As I reflect on the past number of months, it seems to me there are some things that are very much black and white. Originally, I started to entertain the idea that the entire planet comprises only Democrats and Republicans. (Actually, I prefer the Canadian terminology: Liberals and Conservatives…much more to the point.) It doesn’t even matter which country you live in, you took a position on Brexit, on the US presidential election, on immigration, on transgender washrooms, gay marriage, and abortion issues.

Me, I am a pretty left-leaning person. Like, practically falling over, left-leaning. Not down with Brexit; can’t stand the new POTUS; totally up…like all the way up…with immigration, transgender washrooms, gay marriage and abortion rights. And for the life of me, I will never understand why Muslim women are being banned from wearing certain garb in public. If they want to cover their faces, they should be able to do that. Western women cover their faces all the time, some to the point of being unrecognizable. It’s called make-up. Point being, if people want to cover their faces to commit an act of terror, they can just pull their baklava or balaclava…or whatever…out of their backpack and cover their face. Uncovering people’s faces is not going to prevent terrorism.

Naively, I spent most of my life thinking that the majority of people think like me. Certainly, I thought all of my friends thought like me. Liberally. And for the most part, that is true. Most of my friends have left-leaning tendencies. However, my theory of it being as black and white as Liberals vs. Conservatives has gone out the window. It’s still black and white. It’s just not as left and right as I once believed (i.e. the day before yesterday).

For example, let’s take my friend…we’ll call him George. I’ve known George since we were in grade nine. Some might say I knew him very well in my late teens and early twenties. Sure, I haven’t seen him in over 20 years, but we have been Facebook friends for a decade. If you had asked me six months ago what I thought of George, I would have used words like informed, family man, free-thinker, environmentalist. And those words totally apply. As such, I thought George thought like me. But in recent months George has “liked” Facebook posts like this one:

chrispig

George doesn’t think like me after all. But he’s so left-leaning on certain topics. Why not all topics?? And that’s when it came to me. It is not about being progressive or conservative. It’s about being inclusive or exclusive. And in my humble, non-scientific opinion, this has to be a genetic trait. How else can you explain an absolute, unwavering inability to understand each other’s viewpoint? How else can you explain being baffled by people that you otherwise love and admire? How else do you explain two groups of people who are both so certain that they are right, regardless of evidence to suggest otherwise?

You see, I am a Libra (in case you haven’t heard). Generally speaking, I have an uncanny ability to see both sides of a coin. But when it comes to matters of inclusivity or exclusivity, I can only see my side. You’ve probably heard the term “bleeding heart liberal.” Although it is often used as a derogatory term or a put-down, bleeding heart liberals are people who are considered “excessively sympathetic toward those who claim to be underprivileged or exploited.”

This sounds like a positive trait to me. But to an exclusionist, it threatens one’s ability to self-preserve. And perhaps it does. And maybe it’s OK to prioritize the safety of yourself and your family exclusively. I mean, odds are, people like me will be the first to die in a zombie apocalypse – although, if my husband has his way, we will be living in the middle of nowhere on some self-sustaining farmland and perhaps slightly more difficult for the zombies to find. In any event, I’m going to let you all hide out there with me (unless you’ve been zombified). Because that is what I am hard-wired to do.

Which brings me to the hot topic of immigration. A danger to the exclusionist. Personally, I believe that it is short-sighted to think that what happens in third-world or war-torn countries can never happen here. I’m actually quite certain it can and will happen here. In fact, I think that the danger comes in when you staunchly believe that you and your children will never be in a position where you are struggling to survive or fleeing for your lives. No matter where you live in the world, no one is guaranteed a safe existence. And whether it is ISIS, or Putin, or the Alexandre Bissonnette’s of the world, or Donald Trump himself who takes us down, I can only hope that there will be people willing to provide sanctuary to me and my family, even if it isn’t in their best interest to do so.

Theoretically, those who value self-preservation should really consider latching on to the idea of immigration. And it’s not just about karma baby. In a global community, where we take care of each other, there will always be somewhere to go. Unfortunately, the genetic trait of being an exclusionist will prevent that mind shift.

And while it took me a while to get here, this is the moral of this particular story. Yesterday, I felt a bit challenged to debate this topic. But here’s what…there is no point in trying to debate away my genetic composition or the genetic composition of the exclusionist. That would be like Mike Pence trying to convince a gay man/woman that he/she can be converted. Literally. I want to say there is hope for us. I want to find the common ground that can unite us. Mostly, I want people to understand that a Facebook post calling a certain faction of individuals a “special kind of lunatic” falls on deaf ears, and a video equating gumballs to refugees is just a video about gumballs to me. Just like someone posting a picture such as the following makes the exclusionist roll their eyes and make gagging noises.

hamilton

(Mostly, I just wanted to incorporate this picture into my post.)

 

d6775f22-37b2-4c69-905b-d4a07a15b7a9First of all, I just want to say, I know I’m not the only one. I have seen the angry posts and the detailed accounts from women who have actually had to make the horrifying decision to terminate a pregnancy in order to save their own lives. (Could you imagine that? Wow. But I’m sure each and every one of you would have sacrificed your own life for your unborn baby. Because you’re pro-life.)

Anyways, you must have been particularly shocked in the final presidential debate. This was quite possibly the first time you had even considered that the pro-life movement protects full-term, healthy babies from being “ripped out” of the uterus days before delivery. It must have puffed up your chests to learn that you were not only trying to save embryos…poor helpless embryos…but even fully-formed, completely healthy babies! Tarnation! What awesome dudes you are!

But let’s just never mind all of the problems associated with that kind of thinking. No, no. We won’t bother with the actual medical facts of late term abortions, because “ripping” a viable baby from the uterus of some demonic, nasty woman is a whole lot more inciting.

And it is in that vein that I wish to apologize to you for my own nasty, horrible, demonic behaviour. I could only wish that you…one of you kind-hearted, god-fearing, upstanding citizens of the world…could have been by my side as I wept with such nastiness upon learning, at 24 weeks gestation, that my son had agnathia-otocephaly complex. I mean, sure, he had a hole in his heart, no lower jaw bone, no trachea or esophagus, a tiny hole for a mouth and his ears were fused together in the middle of his neck.

But it’s not like the doctors told me that his condition was “incompatible with life” and that my options were to terminate now or watch him die later. Oh. No. Wait. That is exactly what they said.

In my defense, I did spend a moment…a fleeting moment…thinking that maybe I could carry to term, and he and I could just stay connected via umbilical cord. Indefinitely.

I really did consider all my options.

I wish that you could have been there for the days between diagnosis and termination. You probably would have fared a lot better under the weight of questions about gender, due date, what his name would be, whether he was kicking me at night while I tried to sleep.

He was a boy. Named Seamus. Due in April 2006. And he kicked me every night. All night.

Unlike me, you probably would have muscled through the final four months of pregnancy like a trooper. I can see you being so brave, as people offered to plan a baby shower and you had to say, “No. Not this time.” You are probably one of those people who would have lived each day to its fullest, while I tried to find a rock to hide under.

Me…I was weak. Every time he moved was a painful reminder that he would never move outside of my womb. Kicks felt like a knife’s edge. His tiny hands pressing up against my stomach felt like they could tear me open and leave me completely empty at any given moment. Words of congratulations were a slap in the face. Commercials for diapers were some sick conspiracy designed to remind me of my failure as a woman.

Then again, I’m Canadian. I’ve heard rumours that we are kind of weak. Non-people, even. Some people say I shouldn’t even care who is elected President of the U.S. But I do.

I probably shouldn’t even be offended by the continued reference to Roe v. Wade when there are now precedents like Heather v. Agnathia-otocephaly, Michelle v. Anencephaly, Krista v CDH, Lisa v. Holoprosencephaly. But I am. Deeply offended.

To anyone who honestly believes that being pro-choice equates to being a baby murderer, it can only mean that you or someone you love has never walked in my shoes or the shoes of any woman who endured a fatal prenatal diagnosis in late pregnancy. Hopefully, you never do.

But with all due respect, this has nothing to do with ripping a baby from a uterus. In fact, it felt a lot more like ripping my heart from my chest.

I feel the ache of Summer’s end
My soul, it blackens
My heart, it rends

The bright blue sky, so warm and true
Now a painful reminder
Of what we’re due

Goodbye, once again, to my windows all down
For soon, they’ll be frozen shut
For my drive around town

Goodbye to the sand, green grass and cottage days
And a most sorrowful adieu
To my mid-day margarita haze

Farewell to camping with friends, splashing with kids
Skinny-dipping in the moonlight
(Yes, I actually did!)

Humid air in my nostrils, skin glistening with sweat
My contempt for AC
Because I’m not done glistening yet

Life in the valley, surrounded by trees
Replaced with deep snow
And the winter’s deep freeze

Somehow, I’ll find a way to carry on through
The first frost, the first flake
The first blustery deluge

In the end, dearest Summer, you’ll come back to me
Either that, or I’m moving
To the Caribbean Sea

heathers-selfie

Last weekend, I found myself in the very fortunate position of having the house to myself for 48 hours. And I did what most women in my position would do. I cleaned the house from top to bottom, rolled around naked on my sparkling floors, listened to music, drank wine and binge-watched Netflix. (Actually, it was Shomi, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

So, I was watching Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. Now, don’t read anything into that. My current marriage is wonderful. And frankly, I could probably write my own guide to divorce having been there and done that a couple of times. Successfully. And by “successfully” I mean that my kids are happy, my exes are my friends, and I spent nothing on lawyers. Okay, I spent $500 on one lawyer back in 2003.dreamstime_m_36311816

Anyways, there was a line in one particular episode of Girlfriends’ Guide that made me stop rolling naked on the floor and put my wine glass down (yes, I can roll and drink simultaneously). “There’s a new survey that just came out and it says that today’s woman can’t even think about having it all. She’s just worried about doing the shit she needs to do without losing it. You know, she’s just worried about cracking up.”

These words got me thinking about some advice I had received recently. In fact, I started thinking about all the advice I had received recently. Then I started thinking about advice overall. And I had an epiphany. There are three separate and distinct methods for receiving advice! Well, four methods if you include the internet memes with cutsie expressions that appear in your Facebook newsfeed. But I don’t count those. So, there are three.

Firstly, there is solicited advice. This is where you research something on the internet or go to the self-help section of the bookstore. You actively seek out someone else’s opinion. For me, solicited advice comes from my friends, almost exclusively. I tell them something that I am dealing with, knowing that they will offer up their thoughts and suggestions. And I know that the advice I receive from them will be from the heart and free of judgement. It will be based on their morals and beliefs (which we generally have in common) and it will be prefaced with the disclaimer that they don’t have any experience dealing with some of the things I deal with.

Then there is unsolicited advice. Obviously, this is the advice that you don’t ask for. This is the advice you probably don’t even want, but you get it anyways. Recently, I received some unsolicited advice, and it all came back to me when I was watching the aforementioned show. I knew that the advice had bothered me at the time, but I suddenly realized how problematic it was for me. It was problematic because no one should ever tell a peri-menopausal woman with five kids, a blended family, a husband who travels to the arctic once a month for work, a more than full-time job, a marriage as well as friendships to maintain, and three cats…<deep breath in>…that she should be doing more. Unless of course, you are a peri-menopausal woman with five kids, a blended family, a husband who travels to the arctic once a month for work, a more than full-time job, a marriage as well as friendships to maintain, three cats AND you actually do more. If you fit that description, PM me. Immediately.

Finally, there is inferred advice. Inferred advice is serendipitous. This is the kind of advice you don’t ask for and no one offers it up. It just happens. In my humble opinion, inferred advice is the best kind of advice, because it only occurs when: 1) people are honestly and selflessly sharing their own life experiences, and 2) you are open to receiving it.

For example, on this same weekend where I had the house to myself, I also had the opportunity to have lunch with my friend, Laura. Now, Laura and I have never really had the occasion to talk one-on-one. We always seem to see each other in group settings. This lunch was our first chance to really talk. Eventually, she started to talk about her own very difficult parenting experiences. And I listened. Intently. It was as if she knew the things that I had been worrying about and just started addressing those worries. One after another. But she wasn’t doing this intentionally. She wasn’t telling me what I should do in my situation. My situation wasn’t even the topic of conversation. She was just sharing. And as she spoke, I was making mental notes. I was thinking about how I might be able to apply the advice that I was inferring from that conversation.

Having said all of that, here is my unsolicited (and therefore hypocritical) advice on how best to give and receive pearls of wisdom:

  1. Make sure you surround yourself with people who will say what you need to hear. When you need to hear it. And not at any other time.
  2. Don’t give advice unless someone asks you for it. Even if the advice is well-intentioned, you can’t predict how it will be received. This is particularly true if it is being received by a peri-menopausal woman.
  3. If you do receive unsolicited advice that you don’t appreciate in the moment, don’t burn it in a bowl on your back porch…I mean…don’t discard it completely. Tuck it away on a shelf in your mind. You never know when it might come in handy.
  4. Share your experiences with others. Even the negative experiences. Most people are secretive about the bad stuff that has happened to them. But there’s a chance your bad stuff can lead to better stuff for someone else.

Advice is a tricky thing. Everyone wants to give it. Old people want to give advice to young people. Skinny people want to give advice to non-skinny people. Annoying bloggers want to give advice to just about anyone who will click through. But almost no one wants to receive it. And sometimes, there is no cure for what ails you. Sometimes, you just try to do the shit you need to do, without losing it. Because the truth is, not even Dr. Phil has the answer to everything. (No, Leslie. He really doesn’t.) The truth is, we are all just lost together.

Last weekend, I went on an overnight excursion with my best friend. We both needed to escape. Being perfectly honest, I had a lot of things going on in my life. Most of them beyond my control. And I was starting to feel like I might lose my mind. Two-thirds of the way to our destination, I knew why I was on that trip, with that person. I needed someone to tell me, “This is not your sh*t.”dreamstime_m_56905222.jpg

I am a people pleaser. And that is not to say that I am this super awesome person who is completely selfless. That is to say that I determine my self-worth based on how much I am needed by others. Therefore, I go out of my way to make sure that I am indispensable. You are better off having me around. I will come to you every time. You just sit there and chillax.

When I first started dating my husband, he was living in Toronto and I was living in Hamilton. I had my little boys every other week, and my oldest son was becoming more independent. Tony, on the other hand, was a full-time single parent to his daughters. So, I literally went to him. I didn’t expect him to pay a babysitter to come and see me. I drove, on the bloody 401, to his house. A lot. I spent quality time with his girls. I cooked them meals. Ha! No, I didn’t. I don’t cook. But I did clean their house. In fact, I resented Polly, his housekeeper, for coming in once a week to do my job. (And I made sure Tony knew that Polly wasn’t up to snuff.)

Nine months later, Tony moved to Dundas. And seven months after that, we got married and I moved in. Sweet! I went from maintaining two households to just the one. Things would be the same, but easier. I would continue to make myself indispensable. Tony would continue to be the perfect, uber-appreciative man that I met on Match.com.

But at some point, I grew tired of trying to be indispensable. Tired of trying to please everyone all the time. I also grew resentful that people stopped appreciating it and started expecting it.

So, today I went to see a therapist. Yes, a therapist. No big deal. I’ve been to therapy before. Usually, with someone else or for someone else. But aside from the therapy I received during my pregnancy with my youngest son, I have never really sought therapy just for myself. And I’ve had a pretty messy life. If anyone could use some therapy, it’s this girl.

Anyways, do you want to know what the therapist told me? “You can’t control what other people do. You can only control what you do.” I know! Ground-breaking, earth-shattering stuff that you’ve never heard before or even considered! (Next, I’m going to tell you that you should “be the change you want to see in the world.”)

But for me, this was ground-breaking, earth-shattering stuff. Because that’s what I had spent my whole life doing. Trying to control the way other people behave by altering the way that I behave. How freakin‘ crazy and delusional is that? In other words, being a people pleaser is a mechanism I use to gain and maintain people’s affection, but it’s not actually who I am. Being a people pleaser goes against my core beliefs and is not a sustainable role for me. I am not a martyr. I am not someone who puts everyone else’s best interests before their own. My best interests are important to me. And I want everyone to make a fair and equitable contribution on all matters and in every situation. So what the hell have I been doing?

But a lot of us do it. We change who we are in the beginning of a relationship. We become what we think the other person wants us to be. Eventually, the façade becomes cumbersome and we either have to let it slip away or we break while trying to maintain it.

A large part of being a people pleaser is taking on things that we don’t own, and don’t necessarily want to own. In fact, it’s integral to being indispensable. Recently, I had been doing quite a bit of that. And I was not doing it gracefully or selflessly. I was doing it resentfully. I had my own sh*t and I had other people’s sh*t. And the weight of all that sh*t was making me angry. Then a voice came down from the heavens – actually it came from the driver’s side of the car – and said, “This is not your sh*t, Heather.” And I said, “Are you sure about that? I feel like it shouldn’t be my sh*t, but I also feel like this is just as much my sh*t as it is their sh*t.” She was sure.

So, here’s what I learned this week:

  1. In this case – no matter how hard it was for me to accept – it was just not my sh*t. Just being able to acknowledge that – and say it out loud – was freeing.
  2. No matter what the relationship – close friend, family member, spouse – there is some sh*t that is just theirs. It’s actually permissible to draw a line on what you’re willing to take on, even with loved ones. It’s OK to say, “I’m not capable of taking this on. I’m at capacity.” It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a selfish person. It doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive. And I know what the Hollies sang back in 1969…but sometimes, even if he is your brother, he’s just too goddam heavy.
  3. I am the person I should be pleasing the most. (Get your minds out of the gutter people. This is serious sh*t.)

So, I invite you to benefit (for free) from the wisdom of my friend and an (expensive) therapy session, and take this on as your mantra: “It’s not my sh*t.”

(Unless, of course, it is your sh*t. Then you pretty much have to deal with it.)

The other day I was having a conversation with someone who stated that drinking a glass of wine every evening is a form of escapism. When I heard it, two things came to mind:

  1. Is it?
  2. So what?

So, let’s look at item number one. Is a glass of wine every evening escapism? I, for one, often have a glass (sometimes two) of wine in the evening. Maybe not every evening. But most. Why do I do that? Am I trying to escape something? Merriam-Webster defines escapism as “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.” Frankly, not even five glasses of wine will make all of my needy, demanding, boisterous children stop fighting with each other and start cleaning up after themselves. And while they might look extra cute (wine goggles?) as they overtly disobey me and continue to play soccer in the house, have I really escaped anything? They’re still there, aren’t they? Anyways, it’s a moot point. I never have five glasses of wine (unless we’re having dinner with our favourite neighbours).dreamstime_m_15418

But back to a glass…or even two. Maybe, it’s just me, but a glass of wine almost never melts my stress away. (I’m not sure a blow torch would melt my stress away.) It does, however, make my cheeks flush and I may even feel a little warm and fuzzy deep down inside. For a short period of time. A really pleasant, short period of time. Too short, really. As horrible and sinful as it sounds, I like the way it feels. And I’m OK with that. Apparently, so are a lot of other women. Just look at your Facebook newsfeed at any point in time, on any given day. You openly wine-loving women know exactly what I’m talking about. Not only can I justify my wine consumption by citing the lack of intoxication associated with it, but I can also find positive reinforcement and kindred spirits just a mouse-click away.

In fact, I read an article that stated – and openly wine-loving women feel free to nod your heads and say, “Amen to that!” – the majority of wine drinkers are married, alpha-minded, career women with stress. It also said that women who drink wine generally eat healthier, exercise more and care more about their appearance. I actually managed to forget that the article was about the potentially negative impacts of being a wine lover and subconsciously (or maybe consciously) skipped over all the sentences that began with “However…”

Perhaps that warm, fuzzy feeling that I get from a glass of wine is escapism. After all, I am a married, alpha-minded  career woman with stress. The question becomes…so what if it is? I mean, imagine if I ended my day by reading a book instead. What if every night I escaped to some fictional fantasy world and ignored my family. What if the book was so good it even gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling…deep down inside…à la Fifty Shades of Grey? What if all I could think about, all day long, was getting to that book. Would anyone question it? Would people start to say things to me like, “I’m worried about you, Heather. Every time I see you, you have a book in your hand!”

Let’s be clear. I’m not condoning alcoholism. But I am totally condoning equal rights when it comes to escapism. You do your thing – read a book, surf the web, go for a jog (pfft!), or whatever “healthy” thing you want to do to “escape.” Leave me and my glass of fermented grapes (hello….super healthy!) alone.

Every day, women (and maybe some men) feel tremendous guilt for a number of reasons. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly know women (and a couple of men) who feel guilty that they aren’t doing more. More at work, more for their kids, more for their friends, more for their spouse, more, more, more…and now we are supposed to feel guilty for actively infusing a little silver lining into what might have been an otherwise lining-less day? I say, hell no.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” Who am I to disappoint God?

Picture it. You enter a dark room. The lights flash on and then off and then continue to flicker like something out of a horror film. The ground beneath you is soft and squishy and pulsing with electrical currents. As you walk, you pass through a wave of happiness, followed by a wave of fear, followed by a wave of anger, followed by a wave of anxiety, followed by a wave of happiness, followed by a wave of anxiety, followed by another wave of anxiety. Finally, you come to a place that is central and all of these emotions are upon you all at once, all the time.

Welcome to my brain.

Listen, I don’t want sympathy. Honestly. I have experienced trauma. Many people have experienced trauma. You just do what you can to move forward. Yada, yada, yada. But there’s baggage. Mental baggage. And plenty of it. In fact, I do believe my actual brain function has been altered by trauma. My brain thinks through situations – every situation – with a whole new set of rules of logic. Everything is possible (and not in the good way). Nothing is ludicrous (except Donald Trump running for President of the United States…that’s always going to be ludicrous…even more so if he wins).dreamstime_l_41952053

And just to give you a real sense of what this means for my daily life, I thought I would take you through an average day for me, from an anxiety perspective.

For the past several weeks, I have started my day by worrying about the future of the United States. I worry about all of my American friends and family. I worry that they are going to have to come and live with us. (Don’t worry. We will take you. All of you. We completely understand.)

I make my children’s lunches. I try not to include food items that they could possibly, maybe choke on. Avoid the large baby carrots. No grapes. You know. This is just good parenting.

We all walk to school. I take note of the ice on the playground and know that I will spend the day worrying about kids falling and hitting their heads. Where’s the custodian? Where’s the salt or sand? Isn’t this a liability issue for the school? Don’t they care?

Tony and I walk back from school. I think about the United States again and wonder if Donald Trump will want to avenge the War of 1812. I know that article I read was satire. But is it really outside the realm of possibility?

I get in my car to drive to the office. As I travel on Highway 6 to merge onto the 403, I wonder if this will be the day that merging into the left lane of a major highway will be the cause of my untimely death. Sometimes, I picture how it will happen – sound effects and all – just to freak myself out completely.

While I’m at work, I worry about whether Tony will remember to pick up the kids from school or if they will be left standing there, wondering why their beloved mother has abandoned them, easy prey for the pedophile who hangs around in the hopes that some idiot will forget their children. So, I call Tony…and Skype Tony…to make sure that he doesn’t forget. (It’s not him. It’s me.)

And then I call…and Skype…to make sure they are home okay. There are people who drive pretty briskly through our neighbourhood and there are no sidewalks and my children don’t seem to have any peripheral vision or protective instincts to speak of. I really should be there with them.

I will probably spend an hour or three worrying about that email I sent. Did it make sense? Did it sound bitchy? Were there any typos? Maybe, I shouldn’t have replied to all? I’m probably going to get fired.

I get in the car to drive home. Same crash scenario dances through my head like sugar plums. I’m still wondering about that email. Thinking about how corporations like to “restructure” every now and then. It happens. I’ve survived it before. But I probably won’t get sent home in a limousine – from Toronto to Hamilton and including a complimentary bottle of water – this time. I mean, who does that? (Start-up tech companies, which ultimately go under, do that.)

I come home to see that Tony has dinner underway. Realizing that he is cooking meat that was most certainly raw to start with, I get out my Lysol and start asking him to identify areas of possible contamination. Why should anyone die from E. coli if they don’t have to? It’s just logical. We all do this. Right?

Over dinner, my mind wanders to our upcoming trip to Mexico. I begin to mentally prepare for a flight. On a plane. Anytime I am faced with the opportunity to fly somewhere new and interesting, I have to weigh the pros and cons. Do I really need to be on a warm, sandy beach, swimming with sea turtles, visiting Mayan ruins and drinking margaritas? Wouldn’t it be better to stay home, safe and sound, in the snow and cold of Ontario? I think about how great it would be if we could teleport ourselves to Mexico. I think about how much more at ease I would feel if parachutes, rather than life preservers, were stored under the seats. I think about how parachutes and life preservers won’t matter when the plane explodes into a ball of fire.

Occasionally, once the kids are in bed, I go to my friend Mo’s to sit in the hot tub. Again, pros and cons. Hot, bubbling water soothing my aching 43 year-old bones and quality girl-time. Or possible exposure to Legionnaire’s disease. Girl-time pretty much always wins out. But don’t think I’m not thinking about infectious diseases and heart attacks the whole time I’m soaking. Relaxing. Taking my own pulse from time-to-time. Just to be on the safe side.

Before I fall asleep at night, I run through a mental checklist of safety precautions. Stovetop is locked. Doors are locked. Alarm system is armed. Teenage girls have extinguished their pyre of scented candles. When the mood strikes, after all my people are asleep, I may even do rounds to make sure everyone is breathing.

And then, I lie in bed and try to recall every detail of the news article I read on an outbreak of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease in Cancun. I wonder if the ice on the school playground will be gone by morning. I pray that Donald Trump will not become President of the United States of America. I consider whether a prescription for Ambien might prevent all these pre-sleep ponderings.

Welcome to my brain. Take me with you when you leave. Please.

In the days and weeks that followed, we did what we could to get through the Christmas holidays. We tried to go to family gatherings. We tried to be festive for Josh’s sake. Leaving the house to go Christmas shopping was unbearable. It was as if every woman in the Greater Hamilton Area was suddenly pregnant. So many, who seemed to be succeeding where I had failed.

I didn’t go to work for about two months.

We arranged for Seamus’ cremation and picked up his ashes. No service. No ceremony. I avoided people as much as possible.

I dyed my hair black and pierced my nose – which turned out to be a great idea. It gave people something to focus on and talk about, rather than the fact that I was without a belly or a baby.

My Dad flew in from California to spend time with me. That meant a lot.

I watched Lost. A lot.

I experienced phantom baby kicks, which I knew was just the fluttering caused by my uterus returning to normal size.

I talked to the grief counsellor a couple of times on the phone. She tried to encourage us to attend a support group. But I couldn’t picture it.

“Hi my name is Heather and my baby was born without the lower one-third of his face and I have no idea why.”

Awkward.

Steve was all the support that I wanted at the time. And he did a great job of it. I’m sure there were moments when he wished he could jump up and down, wave his arms around and remind me, remind our family and friends that this had happened to him too. I know that when I sat out on the porch at night, alone, trying to talk myself through it, I only ever asked, “Why me? Of all the people on the earth, why me? What did I do to deserve this?” It was all about me. It was all about what I had done. And I wanted to know what I had done.

This is where Dr. Khan came in. Dr. Khan was, and still is, Assistant Professor of Medical Genetics and Pediatrics at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, University of Calgary. During my first appointment with him, he explained that he wanted to conduct some special testing of tissue that had been collected during Seamus’ autopsy. He wanted to send samples to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas for a chromosomal microarray. My amniocentesis had shown no chromosomal abnormalities, and the microarray would take it a step further by testing for submicroscopic abnormalities that were too small to be detected through conventional means.

He also asked me to go home and try to recollect everything that I had done in the weeks leading up to finding out that I was pregnant and what I might have done, or used or consumed early in the pregnancy. He explained that whatever caused the interruption in Seamus’ development occurred between Carnegie stages 10 and 11 of embryonic development. In other words, it happened around 28-30 days into the pregnancy.

Before I left, Dr. Khan gave me a copy of the autopsy report. I had to find somewhere to sit down and read it. I expected the findings to be limited to his heart conditions and the structural abnormalities of his face. But the list of findings was long, and included brain abnormalities and blindness. I thought about his beautiful blue eyes and my heart ached. My entire being ached.

But I did what I was told. I went home and thought about everything I had done in the month before discovering that I was pregnant. I thought about going to California with Josh, my sister and my niece. I thought about riding roller coasters and consuming a few alcoholic beverages. I hadn’t taken any medications, and I didn’t recall any illness.

But then, something came to me. I called Dr. Khan immediately. I told him about a spot concealer and foundation that I had used for years. Every day. Sometimes, several times a day, per the instructions. I told him that at around eight weeks into the pregnancy, I just happened to read the packaging for the concealer and noticed that it listed salicylic acid (1%) as a medicinal ingredient. I had never even thought about it as a medication. I knew there was salicylic acid in it and I knew it kept my face from breaking out. But I didn’t need a prescription to get it. It was just there on the shelf, along with all the other Almay products. I stopped using it immediately. Just to be on the safe side.

About a month after this phone call to Dr. Khan, I went to see him again. He told me that the microarray had come back normal as well. No genetic abnormalities. He went on to explain just how rare my son’s condition was. The research he had done indicated that nothing had been reported that was identical to my situation, but there were a handful of reports that were similar. A handful of similar reported cases. Throughout the world. This was the lottery I had won.

He further explained that it was possible that Seamus’ condition wasn’t all that rare. Perhaps, what made it so rare was that I didn’t miscarry early on, as one would expect with such a major malformation. He told me he wanted to further research a possible connection between my son’s condition and my use of topical salicylic acid.

A few years later, Dr. Khan and his research colleagues would publish an article in a medical journal on Clinical Dysmorphology. The article is titled “Agnathia-otocephly complex in a fetus with maternal use of topical 1% salicylate.” And it is all about Seamus.

And this is the crux of why I needed to tell my story. And why I shouldn’t have waited this long. Of course, the connection between salicylic acid and agnathia-otocephaly complex couldn’t be concluded with medical certainty in my case. But it’s out there as a possibility. And now, it’s not just out there for the medical community to ponder. It is there for you to ponder. My story isn’t intended to scare or cause alarm. It is only intended to encourage women who are trying to become pregnant to think about what they are applying to their bodies, on a daily basis, in the name of vanity.

That sounded judgmental. I realize that. But understand that it’s coming from someone who – no matter how inadvertent – potentially contributed to the death of her baby. I’m not an expert on maternal fetal medicine (although, I could probably play one on television with some credibility). I’m just someone who hopes to spare even one person from going through what I went through, no matter how remote the possibility.

Beauty products are changing every day. The market is constantly flooded with “new advances” and high-tech ingredients that promise glowing skin and eternal youth. But when it comes to pregnancy, weigh the pros and cons. Err on the side of caution. Don’t ever have to wonder what you may have sacrificed.

Chapter 10 – To conclude…

I want to make sure you understand how important this story could be. Setting aside the cautionary aspect of it, there is more to this.

This is a story that helps to underscore the importance of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, and in cases like this, to her mind. Imagine if I didn’t have that right. After losing Seamus, I spent months in a BabyCenter chat room with many women in my position. Women who had been through it and women who were going through it. And we kept our stories within the confines of that chat room, hidden behind our usernames, and we supported each other. Because we were too ashamed to talk about it openly. Because no one else could possibly understand. There, I met a woman who chose to terminate because her baby had anencephaly, which meant the baby was missing major portions of the brain and skull. Always fatal. This happened to her twice. Imagine if she didn’t have the right to choose.

So, what I have to say next might surprise you.transform

Despite everything you and I have just been through together, and everything I went through in December 2005, I wouldn’t change it. I know now that it had to happen.

Clearly, there have been drawbacks. In addition to the emotional trauma, or perhaps because of it, I occasionally have trouble with empathy. For example, if someone is telling me a story about something horrible that happened to them, and that thing doesn’t rate very high on my scale of what counts as horrible, I tend to glaze over. Play tiny violins in my mind.

Also, subsequent pregnancies were extremely difficult for me. (And for everyone around me.) But I needed to fill the void that Seamus had left, as soon as humanly possible. By the time his actual due date came around, I was pregnant with Callum. Dr. Brennan agreed to be my obstetrician and made the mistake of giving me her email address so that I could contact her with any questions, at any time. By the 36th week of the pregnancy, I was begging her to induce me. Callum and I had come that far and he was still alive, and I needed him to be with me. And finally, at around 39 weeks, she gave in…when I started having panic attacks…even in my sleep. Callum is nine now and I can’t imagine my life without him.

And now for the cheesy part. The part where I tell you what I learned.

I learned that worrying about everything won’t stop bad things from happening (but I still worry…all the time). I learned that I am not immune to the worst-case scenario. And I learned that I can get through the worst-case scenario. Of course, it changed me. Actually, it transformed me. In a way that would not have otherwise been possible.

I cannot wish it never happened. Because that would be to wish away everything that I am and everything that I have now. And I earned this shit.

Still Thursday, December 15, 2005

At around 9am, shortly following the amniocentesis, I was taken to see Dr. Brennan. She was going to use a medication called Misoprostol to start contractions. She warned me about the intensity of the contractions brought on by Misoprostal. And then she told us to go home and get some rest. Once the contractions started, we were to go back to the hospital.

It already felt like a long day as we drove back home. But I wasn’t sure how much rest I would get. I lay down on the couch and drank cold orange juice. Nothing. Not even a flutter. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I knew about the risks associated with amniocentesis. I would never have considered having the procedure done under any other circumstance. Sure, she inserted that enormous needle through my abdominal wall, uterus and amniotic sac, twice. But did he actually die as a result? Or was he so still because the medication was having an effect of some sort? Why wasn’t he moving? I suddenly felt panicked. Why wouldn’t I? I was his mother and something was wrong. It seemed so ludicrous.

Steve and I tried to nap. And then the contractions started. And I’m going to be honest with you. The next several hours are something of a blur for me. I honestly don’t remember driving back to the hospital. I don’t remember changing or being taken to a delivery room. I do remember being in the delivery room and being offered an epidural. I also remember thinking that epidurals were for real deliveries. Not for deliveries where the baby was so small and the labour probably wouldn’t be very intense. I think, in a way, I felt as though I didn’t deserve an epidural. I should have to feel that pain. So, I refused.

After a couple of hours of mostly mild contractions, Dr. Brennan decided to break my water. So much amniotic fluid. It had obviously never gone back to a normal level, despite what my doctor had told me. I guess it had just ceased to be a major concern, when compared to the other complications. In fact, I think Dr. Brennan had to break my water more than once. Not long after that, the contractions became more intense and so much closer together. I could barely catch my breath. The nurse offered me the epidural again. Again, I refused. However, I did accept the morphine drip that she suggested. It took the edge off. It made the room hazy. It ever-so-slightly eased the pain of the contractions. But only slightly.

Eventually, I became that woman. The one that screams so loudly during labour that it’s distressing for the other laboring women in the vicinity who haven’t yet gotten to that point. I screamed like I was being tortured. Because I was being tortured. Physically. Mentally. All this pain that usually amounts to something wonderful. But not this time. I think parts of me were screaming at the unfairness. Screaming with anger.

Suddenly, I wanted that epidural. Badly. The nurse was there trying to calm me down as we waited for the anesthetist. I remember her saying, “You have to learn to ask for help sooner.” I have no idea why, of all the things that were said that day, that stood out to me. Maybe, because it would be one of several lessons I learned through this experience.

When the anesthetist arrived, the nurse sat me up. At that moment, I felt Seamus drop into my pelvis. He was so small and it was such an odd feeling.

“Something happened. I felt something. I feel like he’s going to come out.”

The nurse had me lie back down so that she could check my dilation.

“He is right there. I’m going to get Dr. Brennan.”

Friday December 16, 2005 at approximately 1:00am

Dr. Brennan and the nurse came back into the room. I was still in terrible pain, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for him to be born. It only took a few pushes for him to come out. So small. Steve stood up near the head of the bed, with me. He held my hand as Dr. Brennan tried to assess the baby’s vital signs. Neither of us looked or even tried to look.

“Is he breathing?”

“I don’t know yet. No. No, he isn’t. Heather, you made the right decision.”

I knew what those words meant. I knew what she was trying to say.

The nurse took Seamus, put a little knit cap on him and swaddled him as she would have with any newborn. She brought him around to show him to us. She had swaddled him so that we couldn’t see the lower portion of his face. Just his eyes. They were open the slightest bit. Enough to see they were blue and beautiful. She asked us if we wanted to hold him. We didn’t move. My empty womb was yelling at me to reach out and feel him in my arms for just a moment. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reach out. I don’t know why. I suppose I could blame shock and trauma. But I also know that I had a picture in my head of what Seamus looked like before we found out he was sick. I wanted so badly to hold on to that picture. I didn’t want to do anything that might change that picture. I just wasn’t ready.IMG_1556

To this day, if I could change anything, it would be that. I would have held him. A strong or brave person would have held him. I know that this is true. It’s painful to think that I didn’t.

The nurse left the room with our lifeless baby. Steve and I just held each other and cried for a while. And then I got some more morphine into me and passed out.

When I woke up, Steve was there in a chair in the corner of the room. He probably hadn’t slept. He was watching The Bridge on the River Kwai. I tried to watch too, but I was barely lucid. Because of the morphine, I kept startling awake and my nose was itchy. I was twitchy and itchy, and I just wanted to go home.

In the morning before we left, the nurse brought me a round box that was painted with butterflies. Inside of it was a paper measuring tape, torn to show how long Seamus was; the tiny little hat he had worn; a tiny knitted sweater and blanket; and a small, blue paper heart with his footprints stamped on it. There were also some pictures of him. But it would take some time before I could look at those.

And so we left the hospital. With our little butterfly box and nothing else. And it did occur to me that the hospital didn’t just have that box lying around. I realized that there were women before me, and there would be women after me who would leave with nothing but a box. And I understood that many of those women went into the delivery room with the reasonable expectation that they would leave with a healthy newborn, and that didn’t come to fruition. I knew I might be luckier than them because at least I had known what to expect. But knowing that and knowing about those women didn’t help. Knowing that there were people that might have hurt more than me. I couldn’t find solace in that.

Still December 13, 1005

We drove home from the hospital. Silence. I had spent the past five weeks with at least a shred of hope. And now there was no hope. There was less than hope. There was awful finality.

“Happy birthday.”

I don’t remember if I said it out loud or just in my head. I was numb with shock, but even shock couldn’t keep my brain from its constant need to over-process thoughts, at all times. I’ve ruined Steve’s life AND his birthday. How were we going to tell his mom? How was I going to tell Josh? My parents. My friends. People at work. Would people wonder what I had done to cause this? What had I done to cause this? Why was this happening to me? To us. How was I going to get through this?dreamstime_m_7136077

We picked Josh up from school on our way home. I had to tell his teacher something to explain that he may not be in school for the next few days. What if we had to go to the US? Oh god, I didn’t want to go to the US. I told the teacher that my baby was sick and wouldn’t live much longer. I tried not to let tears well up in my eyes. I was sure it was uncomfortable enough for her, but she hugged me anyways. I would have to get used to this sort of exchange. I would spend months explaining to people that I didn’t have the baby. That he got sick and died. Because what else could I say. The worst part about it was that I was usually the one that ended up feeling sorry. Feeling uncomfortable. Wishing I didn’t have to put that person in the awkward position of hearing what had happened to me.

Back home, Josh had gone downstairs to watch TV. I felt nauseous on top of everything else. I dreaded telling him. He’d been watching his baby brother grow and feeling him kick. He was excited. And I knew from my years of being his mother, that he did not take bad news well. At all. I went downstairs and sat next to him on the couch. I held him close as I told him essentially the same thing I had told his teacher. Seamus was very sick and he wouldn’t live much longer. I could tell he was having difficulty with the information.

“Is he going to die?”

“Yes, baby. I’m afraid he is.”

Josh let out a cry. It was actually more of a howl. I wasn’t expecting it. It was like someone was physically hurting him. I just continued to hold him and let him cry.

Once he settled down, I told him we were going out for dinner. It was still Steve’s birthday and we had planned to go to Boston Pizza for dinner. And I needed something normal to happen that day. I needed to do something to avoid the feeling that my whole life had changed in an instant. Changed horribly. Permanently. I had to keep moving so that I didn’t have to stop and think about the fact that I might literally go crazy with grief. This particular scenario had never occurred to me, and I wasn’t prepared.

Before we left for dinner, Dr. Brennan called. She wanted to let me know that if I decided to terminate the pregnancy, she would deliver Seamus herself, at McMaster. I could come in on Thursday and she would induce labour. And we would all hope that he didn’t survive. I had spent months trying to ensure his survival and now I had to hope he didn’t. I told her we would see her on Thursday morning.

Dinner at Boston Pizza ended up being a bit of a fiasco. None of us were emotionally stable enough to be in public. I sat at the table drinking orange juice, because that was Seamus’ favourite thing. When I wanted to feel him move, I drank cold orange juice. I wasn’t sure if I was being masochistic or if I just wanted to feel him while I still could. And he kicked away, like it was any other day. Oblivious to his fate. And Joshua decided it would be a good night to put lime cordial into his chocolate milk and vomit spaghetti and meatballs all over Boston Pizza.

That night and the next day were almost unbearable. And not just because of the spaghetti vomit. I had to call my boss and tell him to stop the presses on my maternity leave paperwork. I had to answer questions from unknowing strangers about my due date and whether I was having a boy or a girl. I had to see commercials for diapers and pregnancy tests. I had to endure the in utero kicks and hiccups that I once reveled in. And this was just a day and a half. I couldn’t imagine living this painful lie for four months.

In fact, I had no ability to see past Thursday. There was no way to envision my life on the other side of this. It was the first, and only, time in my life that I didn’t worry. Because what could possibly be worse than this.

Thursday December 15, 2005

At around 6am, Steve and I got ready to leave for the hospital. I stood in the shower, crying softly. Watching the water fall over my belly for the last time. These were my last moments alone with him. And I had to say goodbye.

Steve’s mom had come over to watch Josh. She had tears in her eyes as we walked out the front door. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Leaving for the hospital to have our baby was supposed to be exhilarating. Not annihilating.

When we got to the hospital, I was taken to have an amniocentesis. They wanted to test my amniotic fluid for genetic abnormalities. It was a student that performed the amniocentesis. I guess it didn’t matter if she made a mistake. He was going to die anyways. So, my tragedy was a perfect learning opportunity. She had to perform it twice. I would never feel him move again after that.