1. Figure out the money
thing. Different plans work for different people. The key is
to do just that: plan.
2. Figure out which kind
of fight you’re having. Is the fight about what it seems
to be about–money, in-laws, whatever–or is it about feelings and
egos getting wounded? If it’s the latter, deal with the feelings
first. Then circle back to the mother-in-law’s casserole
3. Make it into a joke.
I hinted at this one several times, but seriously–no, not
seriously–this is funny stuff. Marriage is funny. Kids are
hilarious. If you can laugh even while fighting, resentment and
tension lessen considerably. (The kids will appreciate it, too.)
4. Keep the chores
separate. Yours are yours and theirs are theirs. This
minimizes chore fights and nagging considerably.
5. Figure out
what you can control and what you can’t. Marriage is the
Serenity Prayer all over the place.
6. Use “I”
statements. You’ve heard this before, but it bears
repeating: No matter how unnatural or uncomfortable it feels, make
the negative comments about you. After all, it is about you.
Otherwise you wouldn’t be dealing with it.
7. Don’t punish your
partner. They won’t learn a darn thing through it except
to escalate and solidify their bitterness and anger. No one wants to
feel like the bad guy. Whenever possible, make them into the good guy
and yourself into the good but struggling guy. They’ll become the
person you show them in your mirror.
8. Don’t yell.
Ever. What is the point?
9. Most important, notice the small resentments and don’t let them grow any bigger. Seeing a few of my married-couple friends repeatedly pass entire evenings together barely looking into each other’s eyes caused me to suspect the discomfort in their relationships. I realized that I never wanted my marriage to get to a place where we could no longer really look at each other.
That’s the Naked House philosophy in a nutshell, though the importance of top-notch organization (a place for everything and everything in its place), design unity, cleanliness and quality round out this book’s description of the most desirable, peaceful home in which to live.
With a tongue-in-cheek, personal style, and featuring interviews with minimalist rock stars, The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is an inspiring but not-too-serious primer on cleaning, organizing and reducing clutter—and on changing the way you view the purpose and soul of your home.
This is part three of a story I wrote after the death of my daughter in 2011 called What I Learned from Jane. Read parts one, two and three here.
On Tuesday, David and I got to the hospital around noon again. This time there was no meeting.
It was Jane’s last day.
As I had the day before, as soon as I saw her lying in her bed, I started to cry, and, as soon as I could, I sat down to hold her. After a short time the nurse asked if I wanted to be skin-to-skin again.
“There are visitors,” I said, but she told me she could pin some blankets over my shoulders, so I said yes. She called in another nurse to help and they put Jane’s body on mine and I placed each of her arms on my breasts and wrapped her legs around my waist, then leaned back in the chair.
After a while, there was a call on the room’s intercom.
“David’s boss is here with his family,” the receptionist told us. “Can they come in?”
I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “Let them in.”
He and his wife and daughter came in the room and saw my bare arms and saw my tears and they were very nice and they understood.
A few hours went by and more visitors came. Eventually, I had to use the bathroom so I got dressed and gave the baby to David. He took off his shirt and held Jane skin-to-skin, too, and, as he did so, his face was very happy and very sweet. Then David’s sister held her for a while, and, after that, Andrea.
When Andrea held her, David and his family were already out of the room, so I decided to leave, too, and give them some time alone. I went to the waiting room for a while, then went back inside.
Andrea was still holding Jane and she looked very happy and very sad at the same time.
We sat quietly for a while. Then we started talking about the meaning of Jane’s life.
“Do you think she knows we’re here?” I asked.
“Yes,” Andrea said. “I think that the important part of her is still here, even though her mind is gone; who she really is is here.”
We were quiet again. Then, after a while, I said, “I used to be religious.” I didn’t just say it for no reason; I wanted to find out what she believed about such things. “Anyone this good and this kind,” I thought, “Must know something I don’t.”
“You were?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was nice.”
“What do you think about religion?” I asked.
She paused and looked away. Then, slowly and carefully, she gave me her answer.
“I am a very spiritual person,” she said. “I read about it and I meditate and it is important to me, but I am not religious in the typical sense of the word.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I like that.”
And, right then—right at that moment—I think I came back to God.
I have always believed in God. Ever since I was old enough to believe anything, I’ve believed in something beyond this great green place. When I was maybe six years old, in fact, I spoke in tongues for the first time. If you don’t already know about speaking in tongues, I’ll just mention that it is believed to be a way to communicate with God in words that you yourself may not be able to interpret.
When I spoke in tongues for the first time, I was not thinking. I was not speaking on my own. The words just came out without me even knowing what had happened.
I guess that’s what is so great about being a child.
My sister was sitting next to me and after I was done, she asked my mother if she could do it, too. So, my mom prayed for her and the same thing happened to her that happened to me and I saw it happen, and it was amazing.
And nothing like it has ever happened to me since.
But I kept believing. And I’ve never stopped. Not because I spoke in tongues, though.
Because I think that belief makes sense.
Now, I won’t start preaching to you—after all, it won’t change your mind about anything and anyway I like you just the way you are, I really do. But I do want to tell you a little more about this because after all, this is a story about what happened to my baby and what happened to me after that.
As I said, I’ve always believed in God and I’ve always been a spiritual person. But when I was in high school and for my first few years of college, I was really spiritual. I wasn’t just inclined to believe a certain way; I was actually trying really hard to change myself and to be a better person.
And, as I said to Andrea, it was nice.
No matter what I was doing, there was always a purpose to it—a real purpose, not just a love-others-and-be-kind kind of purpose. Everything I did meant something—or seemed to, anyway.
Then things happened. I won’t go into the details here as they are unimportant, but I will just say that as a result of these things, I could no longer believe the same things I used to believe and, as is so common among college students, I lost my faith. Not all of it—but all of the part that, at the time, made it meaningful.
And then, I graduated. And then, I did the usual things and learned how to be happy without the help of religion.
I became like everybody else.
I got married, which made me happy for a while. I got divorced, which also made me happy. I went onto the internet and found a very good man, David, who is either an atheist or an agnostic depending on how you phrase the question, and soon after that I knew that no matter what, I would never let him get away from me, even if it meant losing my religion entirely.
And then, at some point—maybe a while into the relationship or maybe at the very beginning, when I first fell in love with him, long before I knew for sure we’d be together for good, but just knew I wanted to be—David became my religion.
Not literally, of course. He was still just David.
But I lived for him. He did not ever hurt me, and our love was as real as I’ve ever known love could be, and I am an old-fashioned girl anyway who likes looking up to someone I think is better than me and so, I let my love for him take over a great part of the meaning of my life.
In other words, I lived to be happy.
By that time I had learned a lot about the subject of happiness. I had made a lot of mistakes and assumed a lot of things that weren’t true. For instance, I used to believe that if you were very good, and very spiritual, happiness would just come to you as a matter of course. As it turned out, though, life isn’t like that; if I wanted to be happy, I realized, I’d have to make myself that way.
And I did. I looked for a good partner, which, fortunately, I found. I looked for a good city and I moved there. I started doing the kind of work I loved—all in the same year.
And, finally, I was happy.
And happiness—living the good life, as I called it—became everything to me.
Then came Jane.
And somehow, in the time that I knew her, I realized something: I wanted to be spiritual again.
I wanted to believe in something higher than myself.
I wanted to believe in miracles.
And that is why spirituality, to me, is relevant again. It’s not just something I think about or an interesting topic of conversation; right now, it feels like a lifeline, like a rope thrown out to a drowning person.
I don’t know where the rope came from. I don’t know where it will lead me.
But now isn’t the time to question all that.
Now is the time to just grab onto the rope.
I’ll figure the rest out later.
Andrea and I talked for a while longer. Then, she went back to the waiting room and I undressed and took Jane again.
It was the last time we would be able to sit like that together. We were there for about an hour and a half, but it seemed much, much shorter.
I cried a lot. I sang to Jane in a cracked and terrible voice. I told her I loved her and tried to do all of the last things.
I asked her why she didn’t want to stay.
When David came back, he told me that it was almost time. Since we didn’t have any baby girl clothes, some of our visitors had given us some nice things for her to wear for her last moments. Before we put them on, though, the nurse asked us if we wanted to give her a sponge bath. We said we did.
We washed her whole body, one part at a time. David changed her diaper and we both washed and combed her hair. Her hair was so long and so soft and so beautiful.
She would have been so beautiful.
After that, David left the room and I put on her clothes while he waited with the others in the lobby. When I was done she looked very fat and very healthy and she looked like the perfect baby girl. David came in.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
It was about nine thirty.
The visitors came in and we took turns standing by the bedside with the baby, looking at her and touching her for the last time. All of the women cried and maybe both of the men, too. Someone brought her a stuffed dog and I said, “She must like dogs because that’s the second one she’s gotten.” We all talked about how pretty and healthy she looked and how the nurses had told us that her feet were big for a newborn.
“Maybe she would’ve been tall,” David said.
“She probably would’ve been,” I said. Then we were quiet.
After about half an hour everyone left the room except me.
It was now the end.
The nurses moved some chairs to the balcony where I told them I wanted to be and, saying it was cold outside, wrapped Jane and I in blankets. They undid most of her tubes so just the respirator was left. Then they brought in a mobile oxygen tank and attached her to it. One of the nurses showed me how to open the little iodine tubes and rub it on the tape before removing the respirator.
After that they put Jane in my arms and we all walked out of the room, down the hallway and onto the balcony. We walked very slowly. To my surprise, I was not crying yet.
I sat in the chair that faced the city. One of the nurses asked me if I was ready for them to take the oxygen tank away, and I said yes. She did so, then both of the nurses left, saying they would be right inside the door if I needed anything.
And then, for the last time, we were alone.
Next to me there was a railing and on top of it there were the iodine tubes and a wet nap to wipe her face with. I picked up one of the tubes but I couldn’t make it work so I put it back down and began to pull the tape off Jane’s mouth without it. It came off easily and, in a way, I was relieved.
Then I took the respirator out of her mouth.
The nurses told me later it would’ve happened a few seconds after that but at the time I couldn’t tell; there was no change.
I looked at Jane’s face without the respirator.
It was beautiful.
It was perfect.
It had depth.
It said something to me that I don’t think that any other face could say so well.
It said, “I know you. I understand you. I love you. “You’re my mother.”
After a while, I opened the wet wipe and began to wash Jane’s face. Her lips were still pinched in a little from the respirator and I wanted to smooth them out so I rubbed the cloth over them again and again.
It didn’t work; they would not go back to the way they were when she was born. Still, I kept wiping them and the rest of her face, over and over and over. At the time I didn’t know why I was doing it—it just felt right. Later, though, as I was telling someone about that moment I said, “It felt like it was the last thing I could do for her as her mother.”
After a half hour or so the nurse came out with a wet wash cloth and exchanged it for the wet nap and went back inside.
I wiped her face some more.
After a while, I pulled Jane close to my chest for the last time. Then I kissed her.
My last words to her were, “Please don’t leave me.”
I said it many, many times.
It was all I said.
Another half hour or so went by. Finally, I decided I was ready, and shortly after that it started to rain, so I gathered Jane’s blanket around her head and mine around my shoulders and we went inside.
I took Jane back to her room and put her on the bed. By this time her face was very yellow. The nurse that was there said that I could undress her, so I did. Then a doctor came in and looked for a heartbeat. There was none, she said.
It was over.
We looked at the clock. It was ten forty-five.
I started gathering Jane’s things and mine. The nurse offered me her comb and the clothes they had given her to wear during her first days in the hospital and some other things, too. I took them all and put them in my purse. Then I put her blanket around my shoulders.
After that, Jane was naked again on the bed with just a hospital blanket over her lower half.
I kissed her goodbye and walked to the door. At the door I turned around and looked at her for the last time.
Then, I left.
In the lobby, the visitors were still waiting with David. I hugged everyone and they had some food for me so I ate some food and drank some water and soon after that we went home.
The next few days were busy. I was still in some pain from the episiotomy but I didn’t want to rest. On Wednesday we went to the funeral home to make arrangements and I cried in front of the lady we talked to there. Then David and I got a massage and I cried while lying on the table. The next day I cried at the dentist, and the day after that in the bank lobby while waiting for someone to help us.
And every single day for that first week, I wondered: If I stop crying, will I lose her?
I don’t want to stop crying for my little girl, I thought. Not even when it seems like the right time.
I want to bleed forever.
Besides the pictures, and her clothing, and two locks of hair, the tears are all I have left.
The day after Jane died, a Wednesday, I talked to my sister on the phone. I told her about Jane’s last day and I sobbed and after a while I said, “I know it sounds crazy because she never spoke and I don’t know if she ever heard me speak except in the womb but looking at her, especially those last two days, it felt like her soul was there and it spoke to me instead.
“It felt like she was my soul mate, someone who understood me better than I even understand myself,” I said. “It was like she came for a reason and she knew exactly what I needed—something I maybe used to have but somehow didn’t anymore—and she knew exactly how much time I needed with her to get it back. So she decided to come for just that reason and nothing else, to give me a gift I couldn’t have received in any other way, and now she’s gone.”
I could not accept that her death was a result of random chance—and her life, too. It had to mean something.
There had to be a reason.
And I still believe that.
It’s unspecific, I know. It’s not a perfect philosophy or explanation. But, so far, it’s as close to a theology as I have come in a long time.
And I think it makes sense.
I think it really makes sense.
That night was hard, but Friday night, two nights later, was even harder. I could not sleep and as I lay in bed I thought about all of the things I didn’t do that I should have done.
I should have held her more, I thought. I should have stayed with her at the hospital every night.
“It was too short,” I kept saying to David as I cried. “It was too short.”
The following Sunday, I went to church for the first time in a long time. It was a non-traditional church where people believe things like karma and reincarnation—and Jesus, too.
I liked it a lot.
During the service, I cried a little. Then, after the service, I prayed with someone and cried a lot more. The minister saw me and came over to talk. I told her what happened and said through my tears, “I want to know where she is.”
“Why do you ask that?” she said. “Why is it so important for you to know?”
“I don’t want to believe she’s in heaven,” I said. “I don’t think she is. I think she is still with me.”
The minister said that she believed I could be right; Jane could still be here.
“I don’t believe in heaven,” she said. “I believe that those that pass on are still with us, but they’re on a different level, one that we can’t see right now.”
“Can I talk to her?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “You can talk to her, even out loud, and I think she will hear you.”
The next day was a Monday. That night, as David and I were sitting next to each other on the living room floor, warming up by the heater, it suddenly occurred to me that he probably didn’t know how much I loved him.
I looked at him. My face softened into that right-before-crying look and I said, “I love you, David. Do you know how much I love you? I love you so much. I love you so, so much.”
I cried for a long time as he held me.
And that, my friend, is the story of what I learned from Jane.
Now, I still don’t have a religion. I probably never will again. But I have something else, and it is, as I said before, something big.
Something much bigger than any one thing can be on its own.
I feel more now. I love people more. But more important than all that: I have, once again, learned to expect miracles.
I don’t know what the miracles will be, of course. Right now, I don’t even have a guess. But I am going somewhere that I wasn’t going before, and my life is larger than it used to be: larger than my own happiness and larger, even, than the happiness I can bring to others.
It is as large as my soul.
Of course, I am not always full of faith, even now.
The truth is, I only have this kind of faith part of the time. The rest of the time, there is nothing—only emptiness, and when I see Jane’s picture, I just see what could have been, not what is, still, somewhere, wanting me and waiting for me to be with her again.
The truth is, most of the time I have very little faith or none at all.
But I want more.
Maybe someday I will have it.
Maybe that will be my miracle.
Oh, I hope so.
Oh, God, I hope so.
Please, Jane, please let it be. I want to talk to you and believe that you can hear me. I want to have something more to live for again.
Please, Jane, if you are reading this, please give me that faith.
And with that, this story is almost done. Before I end, though, I should add one more thing. It isn’t something Jane taught me, but it is something she gave to me, something very simple and yet very beautiful and, I think, important:
She made me a mother.
And for that, I am grateful.
Even if it had to be for only four days, I am grateful.
And I have no other explanation for how it feels to have given birth to a person and then spent a few days with them before letting them go other than that:
It feels like being a mother probably feels every day.
It felt like being a mother.
And so. This is the end of the story. But only technically. Only in the literary sense of the word “end,” as in, “And they all lived happily ever after. The end.”
But actually, I don’t think this is the end, not really. Maybe it is for you—if you want it to be, that is.
But not for me.
Because there is something that I have now that I didn’t have before—not enough, anyway.
I have purpose. I have emotions. I have love.
And I know what it feels like to be a mother.
I am changed.
And that is all I have to say. For now. Except: Thank you for reading, dear reader. And thank you for being my friend. You have been kind to me, and I want you to know that I’ve noticed, and that I’m grateful.
This is part two of a story I wrote after the death of my daughter in 2011 called What I Learned from Jane. Read parts one, two and three here.
At this point in the story, there is something that maybe you should know: I have always been a shy person. Now, for the past ten years or so, I have pretended pretty well that I’m not. People even say that I’m confident. And actually, I am. I love myself way, way too much, possibly as a result of good parenting. But even though I’m confident, I am shy, too, and insecure, and deep down inside, as they say, I’m really unconvinced that people like me, or maybe even really convinced that they don’t. And so, sometimes—often, maybe—I have just decided—even before really knowing someone I have decided—I will not like them back.
That way I’d be, of course, invulnerable.
When I was going to the birth center for my baby appointments, the midwives there told me that I’d have to write a birth plan. I had read about birth plans but I didn’t know what to put in one, so I asked the midwife about it.
“Write about how comfortable you are with affectionate gestures from the midwives,” she said, “And about how you think you’ll react to pain.” She said that the midwives would all read it once when I gave it to them, then once again before coming to the birth.
So, that is what I did.
“…Touch and massage welcomed from David but no touching by midwife of an affectionate nature,” I wrote. “Excessive smiling also not preferred.”
After that, when we were in the hospital together going through all of this, all of the midwives would ask me for permission whenever they wanted to hold my hand or give me a hug.
And that is what I was before Jane.
Now, things are different. I’m not quite myself anymore, I’ve realized. I cry pretty often, and, a lot of the time, the tears are sudden—they come without any warning at all. Often, I am with other people when it happens and I should say now that if you’ve seen me do this already, you have been very kind to me and at least pretended very well to understand, and I have noticed, and I am grateful.
But please don’t take this as an apology. I haven’t been myself lately, but, somehow, I don’t think that that is such a bad thing.
And I should say, too, that sadness isn’t the only thing I feel more of lately. I’m more emotional about everything now. I get mad sometimes. And I get really bothered by mean things or unfair things. And I feel like I’m bleeding all the time, and needy, and I get embarrassed more easily, and I am embarrassed to even admit this right now.
And I love people more. And I see them not as just people I know: I see them as people I could really like a lot if they let me.
Overall, I think having more feelings is worth it.
And that is the first thing I learned from Jane.
The next morning, a Saturday morning, David and I got out of bed around ten o’clock. I was very stiff all over, I remember, and I was bloody, too. I stood up just long enough to take a shower and the rest of the time I was in the wheelchair. Doors felt very heavy to me and I had to move very slow.
The shower, however, was nice. It felt good to get rid of all of the blood and sweat from the day before. David’s parents had brought us some clothes and putting them on I felt even better. I looked at my deflated belly in the mirror and felt very small and very light even though I still had some pain.
For breakfast, David and I ate some bananas and apples that someone had given us the night before. As we ate, I said, “Do you think we should give her a name?” Now that we knew she’d be with us for at least a few days it seemed like the right thing to do, and he agreed.
“I was kind of thinking Lily,” I said.
“That’s nice,” he said. “I actually liked the name they gave her at the hospital, though—the first one we went to. They called her Jane.”
“Jane,” I said. “An old-fashioned name. Let’s call her that.”
And so, from then on, she was Jane. Sometimes, too, she was Baby Jane.
We liked the sound of that.
A little while later David’s visitors arrived. He went downstairs to see them while I stayed in bed and rested. I had a breast pump with me and I wondered whether I should start using it but I was too tired right then and so I decided to wait.
After a while, David came back to our room with the visitors and we all went downstairs to the NICU to see the baby together. She was still on the cooling blanket so we couldn’t hold her all the way yet but we touched her feet and hands and forehead and soft, soft skin and talked about how beautiful she was.
After a while, Andrea came into the room. I was a little surprised she was there; I knew she had a family and even though she said she’d be back I thought she wouldn’t have time.
I was also surprised by how she looked, and David must have been too because when he saw her he said, “Did you get any sleep?”
“I slept,” she replied, but we both knew what she meant. “How are you guys doing?” Her voice was very kind and caring and I thought, “Maybe she really is as nice as she pretends.”
At four o’clock there was another meeting with the doctors. This time Christine and Andrea came as well.
First, they told us that they had done the MRI. Only one doctor had looked at it so far and another one would review it the next day, they said. “So far, though, it confirms what we already suspected. There is almost no activity in the brain—just at the very base, the part that controls the heart.”
“That explains her strong heart rate during labor,” we said. “But do you know what could have caused this kind of damage?”
They did not, they said. They couldn’t even make a guess. “We have never seen anything like this before.”
Then we asked them if they at least knew when it occurred, but again the answer was no.
“We do know that it didn’t happen at the time of delivery,” they added, explaining that there was some blood on the outside of the brain that seemed to have been there for a while before birth.
Andrea and Christine went over the details of the delivery, and again the doctor assured them that they had done nothing wrong, and neither had the paramedics.
And neither, they said, had I.
“How do you know?” I said. “If you don’t know how it happened, how do you know what caused it?”
“Nothing that we know of could have caused it,” one of the doctors said. “Nothing that is within our current understanding of medicine explains it.”
Did that include genetic problems? we asked.
“There is no developmental problem that we can find,” they said. “We don’t think it was caused by genetics.”
Before the meeting ended, they told us they’d have another specialist look at the MRI the next day and that he might be able to give us more information.
When we left the meeting, we were all relieved.
It was nobody’s fault.
That evening, David and I ate dinner with some of our visitors in the hospital cafeteria. We talked about the meeting, trying to explain what the doctors had said without really understanding it ourselves.
We didn’t only talk about Jane, though. We talked about other things, too, and even joked and laughed a bit, and we took a little break and it was nice.
After dinner, around eight thirty, the nurses told us that Jane could come off the cooling blanket for a little while.
“Do you want to hold her?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said.
So they arranged a chair for me by the bed and moved all the cords and machines and after that I held my baby for the first time.
Her head was heavy and limp. The only thing that visibly moved was her chest as air was pumped into her lungs one breath at a time. I looked at her face, studied it, admired her big fish lips and enjoyed the way her body felt in my lap. I wondered about what had happened to her, and what could have caused it, but I still didn’t know what to think about it all.
And I still didn’t know what to feel.
After a while, I asked to be alone. I remember that for some reason, I thought this would be my only chance to hold her, ever, so I tried to think of everything I wanted to say.
First, I prayed that God would bring her back. Then, I asked her to come back.
I asked her many times.
I wanted her to hear me.
And yet, I did not cry.
Later that evening, David told me that he had talked to some of the nurses about breastfeeding.
“They don’t think you should start pumping,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“They said that if you do it will be very hard for you to stop. The milk will just keep coming.”
“I will ask them about it later,” I said, and the next time we went downstairs, I did.
“I don’t think you should try,” one of the nurses said. “It hurts and you could get an infection.”
Before we went to bed that night, I told David I would decide the next day.
The next day was Sunday. Once again, David and I woke up around ten o’clock and took a long time to shower and get dressed. I found that I could walk on my own again, though, and that made it easier.
Around noon, more visitors arrived. Again, I wanted to rest so I let David stay with them while I stayed in bed.
After a while, Andrea came into the room with David. At first, when I saw her, I thought, “I don’t want to see anyone right now.” I didn’t tell her that, though, so she sat on the bed and we started talking.
And as we did, suddenly, I had a thought. It was more like a feeling than a thought, though—more like a realization, and even before I was sure what the right words were to describe it I said to Andrea, “Andrea, I have to apologize to you.”
“Why do you have to apologize?” she asked.
“I have been cold,” I said.
She said she didn’t think I was cold, but I went on. “I don’t usually expect people to be so kind and really mean it. I didn’t expect you to come today.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I am glad you’re here,” I said.
And, after that, we were friends.
And there was something else that happened in the few minutes that she and I spent in that room, too, something very important and meaningful, something that I’ll never forget, ever, and if I do, please, please remind me of this that I’m writing to you right now:
I started to feel again.
A little while later, Andrea and I went downstairs to see Jane. As I sat next to her bed, holding her foot in my hand, I wondered again what to do about breastfeeding.
“What would you do?” I asked Andrea. I was a little nervous to ask; I knew how stupid it sounded.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why do you want to breastfeed?” She said it in a sympathetic way, a way that showed she understood but wanted me to tell her anyway.
I looked down at the floor, hiding my face with my hair.
“When David and I were making plans for the baby, the one thing I always said I would never, never do is give up on breastfeeding. No matter how hard it got, I swore that I’d keep at it. It’s the thing I looked forward to more than anything else.”
After I said that, something wonderful happened.
I started to cry. Not just a little, either.
I cried a lot.
“Now that all this has happened,” I said, “It feels like it’s the only thing I have left.
“It’s the only thing I can do that would make me feel like a mother.”
It was then that, for the first time, I knew I loved my baby.
I might have loved her before that, of course.
But I don’t think I knew it until then.
That is the advantage of having people to talk to sometimes. Without them, I don’t think I would have learned how to feel what I felt.
Without them, I may not have learned how to grieve.
And that was the beginning of my feelings—the real beginning.
And after that, I couldn’t keep them away if I tried.
But, I soon realized, I didn’t want to keep them away. No matter what I was feeling, I decided, it was better than feeling nothing at all.
Much better, actually.
It was wonderful.
At three o’clock that afternoon, we had another meeting with the doctors. They told us what we all expected to hear.
“There is no reason to continue with the cooling treatment,” they said. “She will not live.”
They still had no explanation for what happened to her, and neither did the other specialist who had looked over the MRI that morning.
“Do you want us to keep her alive if something happens during the night?” one of the doctors asked. “Would you want her resuscitated?”
We said no.
Several of us asked the doctors more questions, trying to pin down the cause of the injury, but all of our theories were ruled out; they would do an autopsy, but it was unlikely we’d ever understand what had happened.
After the meeting ended we went back to the lounge area where some of our friends were waiting for us. We told them what had happened and all I could think was, “It is settled now. She is really going to die.”
Soon after that I went back to Jane’s room and as soon as I saw her I started crying again. And I can’t quite explain it but that time, as I looked at her, something was different. Her eyes were still closed and she still did not move or breathe on her own and the respirator was still there, and she looked in every way exactly the same way she had before, but somehow, in that moment, she was a total person to me just like everyone else.
For the first time, I felt like I knew my daughter.
I knew her.
And she was mine.
That night David and I decided not to stay in the hospital anymore, but to go home to sleep instead. We went out to dinner, then came back to the hospital to pack our things. I don’t remember if we saw Jane again before we left but I know I didn’t hold her again and I regret that now.
I should have held her again.
I should have held her all night.
As we drove home we I noticed the Christmas lights that had been put up in our absence.
We went home and slept very badly and very long.
The next day, a Monday, we arrived at the hospital around noon. As soon as we got there we were ushered into another meeting. This time there were just two doctors, David’s parents, David and I. They told us that now that Jane was off the cooling blanket we could hold her as long as we wanted.
We asked them some more questions. We told them about the ultrasound I’d had the day before I went into labor and how everything was normal. They said that that may help narrow down the time period in which the damage could have been done, but nothing else about their diagnosis had changed.
When the meeting ended, we went to Jane’s room right away.
As soon as I saw her, the tears came again.
“I want to hold her,” I said, so the nurses arranged all the cords and I sat in the chair by her bed with my feet up and held her for several hours while people came in and out of the room to visit.
I stroked her back over and over. I held my lips and cheek to the top of her head. I admired her arms and legs, noticing how long they were. “You’re my little monkey,” I said. I looked at her face for a long time.
I thought, “She looks just like me.”
That afternoon there were a lot of decisions to be made. David and I had to plan Jane’s baptism, her photo session and, finally, her last moments.
“When do you want to let her go?” David asked me.
“We can do it tomorrow,” I said.
“Do you want to be there?”
“Yes,” I said, and he was surprised. “Do you want to be there?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and I was surprised, too.
Sometime after that, the nurse asked me if I wanted to change Jane’s diaper.
“Yes, I do,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever done this and she had to show me how.
A little after three o’clock, we held Jane’s baptism. Several friends and family members were there.
During the baptism, I held Jane in my lap. When the chaplain read the verse “. . . And Jesus said unto them, let the little children come unto me,” I started to cry. “I don’t want her to go to him,” I thought. Then, when he put the water on her forehead and said, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” I cried harder and Jane’s body shook with each sob.
Most of the other people there cried, too.
When the baptism was over Christine and Andrea stayed in the room with me while everyone else did other things. We talked a little, but we also stopped talking some of the time and I knew that they understood.
“We were going to hold her all the time,” I said after a silence. “I was going to hold her all day, and when David came home from work I was going to give her to him to hold, too. We weren’t even going to wear shirts when we held her so that we could be as close to her as possible and she could feel our skin on her skin all the time.” I smiled at the thought.
Then Andrea said, “Do you want to hold her like that now?” and it may have been the best thing that anyone has ever said to me.
At first, though, when she said it, I didn’t think it was a good idea. “I can’t do that here, like this,” I thought. I looked down at Jane and didn’t say anything.
But after a moment, Andrea asked me again.
“Do you want to hold her like that?” she said, quietly.
This time, I nodded.
Then I started to cry.
Andrea and Christine called the nurses in and told them what I wanted to do. They didn’t think it was strange at all and while they took the baby I took off my sweater and shirt and bra and sat back down in the chair. Then they put the baby on my chest with her head between my breasts and her arms and legs wrapped around my stomach.
After that, they left, and we were alone.
Before I met Jane, when she was just a body inside me, someone I was with all the time but never actually saw, and even before that, long before I was even expecting a baby, or expecting to ever have a baby—even back when I didn’t want a baby at all—I dreamt about babies. Not often—just often enough that I woke up during a significant number of them, thus remembering the details.
They were never good dreams. The first part was wonderful, but they never ended well.
Though the specifics varied, the general outline was always the same. First, I loved my baby more than anything else in the world. I felt the kind of feeling that I used to think you can only feel in dreams, namely, complete love. Complete surrender of every other emotion to this one of total bliss as I held the baby in my arms.
After that, though, something would happen that would take her away from me. In one dream, she grew up right before my eyes and she was too big to hold. In another, I left her in the supermarket, only to remember her hours later in a sudden panic.
In all of these dreams, I never got the baby back.
Now, I don’t think these dreams were a way for the universe to warn me about what would happen to Jane—I think they were just dreams. But what I do know is that in each of them, for just a short time, I knew what it was like to be a mother. And I knew, a little, what it was like to lose a baby. And now when I remember having them, I think to myself, those feelings I had when holding the baby in my dreams don’t even compare to the feelings I had when I held my baby skin-to-skin for the first time.
And losing the baby in my dreams was not as bad.
After a while, David came into the room where I was holding Jane.
“We’re all going out to dinner,” he said. “Do you want to come?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
He left and I stayed with Jane for about two more hours after that and they were the best two hours of my life.
Around eight thirty, the photographer came. I put my clothes back on and we had our pictures taken. After that, someone asked if I wanted to make a Christmas ornament with Jane’s hand prints on it, so I did. One of the nurses had also made one for her the day before so I put mine in the box next to hers and we gathered up our things and went home.
When we got home it was about midnight. I still wasn’t walking very well and on my way to the door I dropped one of the Christmas ornaments and it broke. David wondered what was taking so long so he came back to find me.
“Are you coming in?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything; I was just looking at the ground and crying.
He said, “Oh, the ornament broke.”
Then he took me in his arms and held me for a long time.
Later that night after we had gone to bed I told David that I wasn’t sad about losing the ornament.
“It just seemed so symbolic,” I said. “She’s broken.”
And that was the end of the fourth day I knew Jane. And that is the story of how, in a very short time and without saying one word, she taught me things I didn’t even know I needed to learn.
But that is not all that I learned from Jane.
Jane’s short life of only four days not only taught me greater love and greater feeling; it taught me to expect miracles.
This is part one of a story I wrote after the death of my daughter in 2011 called What I Learned from Jane. Read parts one, two and three here.
Prologue: Dear Reader
I want to write what happened to me and to my husband, David, and to our beautiful daughter, Jane (who is still with us now, I believe) as not just a story, but a letter—a long letter (much too long, probably)—but nevertheless a letter, which is sometimes essentially the same thing as a story, except that there are not only a lot of “I’s” in it, but some “you’s” as well.
And the “you’s” are important. Because I don’t want what happened to us to be only for me and for David; I want it to be for someone else, too.
And maybe that someone is you.
Anyway, even if it isn’t, for now, just because I need to, I will pretend that it is. And so today I am writing this story as a letter to you: to my “dear reader.”
And when I say “dear reader,” please know that I mean exactly that. I may not know you, personally, or I may, but either way, I do know one thing: You are dear.
You are completely and absolutely dear.
That is something that Jane taught me and I hope that I never forget it.
And I want to say it again just in case you didn’t fully hear it the first time: you are dear. You are completely and absolutely dear. If you came to the hospital and stayed with David and I during those four precious days we spent there, or if you came to the memorial service we held and greeted us as we mourned, at some point I looked at your eyes and I remember what I saw—even weeks later I remember—and it was special and precious and irreplaceable and perfect. And if you weren’t one of those people, you are dear anyway because God is in you and even if you somehow don’t see that right now, please understand that there is someone who does, and that is me. And there are probably a lot of others who see it, too, and I bet if you asked them, they would tell you themselves.
Okay. I know I promised you a story—a real story, not just a very long, very wordy, very sappy letter, so I guess I’ll begin. But first, because I just can’t help it, and because I’m still pretty sure you didn’t understand what I meant the first time, please let me say it again:
You are dear.
Jane came to us on the twenty-fifth of November, the day after Thanksgiving. She lived for four and one-third days. They were wonderful. They were indescribable, really.
They were the best days of my life.
But they were too short. They were too brief.
They were too, too short.
And so, I find that now, one month later, I want to relive those days again. And not only do I want to relive them myself, I want to have someone else who has lived them, too, with me, even if just in a way, and so I’m writing this letter to you, who is my friend, and maybe now about to become a better friend, because I want someone else to understand what happened in those days that I knew her and, maybe, a little, understand. I want to tell you about those days, which were the best and worst, as they say, that I’ve ever had, and I want explain to you why knowing Jane has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. And I want you to know that I am thankful for her coming, even if it had to be for only four and one-third days.
She made me different. And, for that, I am grateful.
There is another reason I’m writing this letter, though: I am writing it for you. Maybe you have grieved, too, and even if you haven’t, most likely, you will—someday. And maybe, someday, you, my friend, will find it comforting to read about these things that happened to me and, maybe, also, they will make you feel less alone.
It’s worth a try, anyway, I think.
But, I admit, those aren’t my number one reasons for writing this letter. My number one reason for writing about what I learned from Jane is to think more about what happened, and, in doing so, maybe—just maybe—understand it.
Ever since I met Jane, I have known there was a purpose to her life. Not a small purpose, either, like helping me “be a better person” or “learn how to let go.” Not a small thing like that.
And so, for a while now, I’ve been asking myself this question: What was this purpose? What is the meaning of her life?
It has been almost one month since she came, and in that time, I have learned a lot about grieving—definitely more than I ever used to know. And one of the things I’ve learned is that it is much easier to grieve when you think there is a reason for what happened—a good reason; that, somehow, what happened to you will make you better.
So, I search for meaning. I look for it everywhere I go. I pray. I even tried meditation. I think, and think, and think. Sometimes, I feel like I’m getting closer to an answer. But most of the time, I don’t. Most days are just days, with nothing special in them at all.
But still, I search. I pray. I read. I try to figure it out.
I ask myself why.
I even talk to Jane, and ask her why.
She may be giving me an answer, I think, but I just can’t hear it. So I listen harder, pray more.
And I write.
And, even though it’s hard to do, I’m writing this letter about her life and about what I learned from it, because even though I don’t have the whole answer yet, I think I have, at least, found part of it.
And the rest, I believe, will come.
As I said before, Jane came to us on the twenty-fifth of November, the day after Thanksgiving. The day before I went into labor—a Wednesday—I had an ultrasound and some other tests, too, and we saw the pictures and the needles on the paper and we saw that everything was perfectly fine.
We saw something else, too: I was having contractions. They were coming about every fifteen minutes, the doctor said, but until she said that and told me what to look for I did not know it was happening and even after that I still couldn’t feel them.
David could, though. While we were there at the doctor’s he touched my belly and learned how to tell when the contraction was coming and after a while I learned to feel them, too. So, that night, we sat on the couch together and watched TV and he kept his hand on my stomach and we noticed them together when they came—he by feeling outside and me by the slight tightness that happened inside.
When I woke up the next morning, I was still feeling them. I called my family and told them that finally, twelve days after my due date, I was having contractions. They thought it meant that I would be going into labor right away and they were so excited they screamed.
“But I don’t know if they’re real,” I said.
“Do they feel kind of like gas pains?” my mom asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “They are real.”
David was sitting next to me at his computer and after I got off the phone I said, “Did you hear them screaming?”
“I thought I heard something like that,” he said.
“They think I’m going into labor,” I said. “The contractions aren’t regular yet but it could be almost time.”
“It would happen on my day off,” he said.
He is dear.
A few hours later David and I decided to take a drive. The contractions had become more noticeable by then and by about three in the afternoon while we were still in the car I was really hurting.
Around that time, my sister called again to ask about how I was feeling. While talking to her I had to take a couple of breaks to breathe better, and after that I knew it was time to go home.
We drove back home and as soon as we got there I went to bed. After that I felt pretty good; there was pain but it was a normal kind of pain. David and I timed my contractions for a while but even though they were getting stronger they still weren’t regular so we thought we had plenty of time.
Sometime that evening, we called the midwife, Christine. She told me to relax my breathing more and to call again when the pain was less manageable.
During the night the pain got much worse. David came to bed but I didn’t want to keep him up so I took a bath then walked around the living room for a while. When I went back to bed he woke up and we decided to call Christine again.
When we called her, though, she gave us some unexpected news.
“I am at another birth,” she said. “I’m not going to be done in time. Is it okay if Andrea goes instead?”
“Of course,” we said. I knew all of the midwives at the birth center so I thought it wouldn’t really matter either way.
As it turned out, though, it did matter.
It mattered a lot.
David and I got ready to go. While I put on my shoes, he packed up my things and a few things for the baby. Then he helped me to the car.
When we arrived at the birth center it was about six forty-five in the morning. Andrea and her assistant, Jamie, were already there. They helped me onto the bed and even though my head was at the wrong end when I lay down it was so hard to move that I didn’t turn around. Right after that, Andrea and Jamie both did an exam and said I was nine centimeters already and I was ready to get into the tub. David and I had planned a water birth so we took this as a good sign.
I undressed and got into the water. People brought me ice and wet towels and I had a few more contractions but they seemed to be coming less often. So, after an hour or more of this, Andrea tried to speed things up. She told me to move to other places and positions, and that is when the pushing started and it got really hard. I won’t describe all of the positions to you but the midwives were taking pictures so there is evidence anyway.
During the labor, David was so strong. I gripped his hands and arms constantly. I pushed the bottoms of my feet against his hands and body. He held up my head and neck from behind. Each time I had to get up and move to another place in the room, he had to lift me almost entirely on his own.
For each of the positions, Andrea told me everything to do: how to breathe, how to push, even what to imagine as I did so. At one point, she said she wanted me to push the baby up to the ceiling, kind of like a yoga instructor would say to try to improve your form and even though I hate yoga—and visualization, too—it worked. She was calm and precise, but used urgency in her voice to show me how I needed to push.
“I need you to push harder, even harder,” she said many times. “Push through the pain.” Then, on a good push, she would say, “There you go. I want you to do that again, just like that.”
Also, whenever the baby made some progress, she made sure to tell me about it. She would say the baby was “plus one” or “plus four,” but I didn’t want to ask what the last number was. Eventually David asked, though, and she told us that plus five is out. By that time I was already at plus four, though, so it was good news.
Sometime after getting to plus four, my legs started shaking. I tried to relax them, especially between contractions, but they would not stop—they shook and shook and breathing got harder, too. David asked Andrea if I was cold but she said I was just tired.
Between the contractions, especially for the last few hours, there was barely a minute of rest and it wasn’t really rest. I could breathe a little better but I couldn’t relax my body. Andrea said, “Use the break, use the break,” and I tried but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to stop pushing; I just wanted it to end.
By then it was afternoon and I was close. Before every contraction Andrea would tell me that the next one could be the last one and I made myself believe her, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t push hard enough to make the baby come. When my breath ran out on a push and I had to take in more air, the baby stopped moving down and sometimes even moved back up a little. Andrea said later that it was like the baby just wasn’t helping. “She could have just lifted her head up at any moment and she would have been out,” she said. Now we know why that didn’t happen.
At the time, though, Andrea still thought it would be soon. The head was showing and she told David and I that we could touch it, so we did. Jamie brought a mirror so I could see it but I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see it very well and anyway I didn’t want to look—I just wanted to push. After that, Andrea asked David if he wanted to catch the baby and he asked some questions and said that he might. Then she told me that after the head was out she would have me ease up on the pushing for a little while so the baby didn’t come too fast. By this time they were measuring the heart rate after every push. It was always normal.
Around two o’clock, the other midwife, Christine, came into the room. She hadn’t planned on coming, she told me later. She just happened to stop by the birth center to drop something off and wanted to see how I was doing.
“I don’t ever do that,” she told me.
“You came at exactly the right time,” I said, and it was true, because soon after that we got the first sign of trouble: the baby’s heart rate dropped to ninety. At that point, we all knew we needed to get the baby out fast.
Both of the midwives and Jamie went immediately to work. First, they put an oxygen mask on me. Then, they moved me from the bed into a squatting position on a stool with arm rests that I could push down on. Someone put a bowl and some pads underneath me for the blood. David sat behind me on the bed and held me while Christine and Andrea sat on the floor in front of me. Then someone brought some scissors and other supplies.
“I’m going to give you one more push to get the baby out,” Andrea said. “If it doesn’t come, we are going to have to cut you.”
“She will have to cut me, then,” I thought. “There is nothing more I can do.”
I told her okay, though, and when the next contraction came I pushed as hard as I could.
Immediately after that, Christine took the scissors and made a cut. I thought it would hurt, but it didn’t. There was a slight burning, but it didn’t feel like I expected it to.
Another contraction came—the last one. I pushed again, as hard as I could, and this time, there was a relief at the end and the feeling of a knotty cord winding out of me. It felt like the baby had shot out very quickly and gone a long way but I don’t think my eyes were open at the time so I didn’t really see her being caught.
It was two thirty in the afternoon exactly.
I opened my eyes and looked for the baby. She was there, I knew, but I could barely tell where; I couldn’t focus my eyes. Then, someone started to hand her to me and I saw that she was near my right side.
Behind me, David said, “Hold the baby, honey.”
“I can’t,” I said, surprised that they thought I could hold anything right then.
Right then, Christine must have realized something was wrong because she pulled the baby back. I thought she was just taking her away because I couldn’t hold her but then I saw that the baby was on the floor and they were doing CPR and I, too, realized that something was wrong.
At first, David and I did not look at each other or say anything; we just watched what they were doing and wondered what was going to happen. Then Christine told us to talk to the baby so we did. We said, “You’re okay, baby. You’re okay.” There was nothing else we could think of to say.
The longer it went on the more we realized how serious it was. After a few minutes Andrea said to Jamie, “Call 9-1-1.” I don’t remember my exact thoughts but I knew that the baby had never taken a breath and I was very afraid.
At some point, I asked David for my glasses. He didn’t want to give them to me, though; he said I didn’t want to see. But I did want to see. The glasses were next to me on the bedside table so I found them easily and put them on.
And then I saw my baby for the first time.
The first thing I noticed was how gray she was. Her whole body was gray, not just her face or some part of her. Also, she was completely still. Her eyes were closed and no part of her moved on its own.
Strangely, I don’t remember being surprised at her not breathing. I think if my labor had been shorter or easier I would have been, but as it was, it must have seemed to make sense.
Something that did surprise me, though, was how big she was. She was much bigger than I’d imagined—much bigger than any doll. Then, after a while, when one of the midwives moved out of the way and I saw that she was a girl, that surprised me, too. I had guessed she would be a boy and seeing her I thought, “I don’t know this person.” I studied her face. I tried to see something I would recognize in it, but I didn’t.
She looked like a stranger.
After what seemed like a long time, the ambulance came. Four or five men rushed into the room. I was still naked and the bowl that was under me was full of blood but I don’t think anyone was looking at me anyway. Christine told Andrea and David to go with the baby and Jamie to stay and help with me. David gathered his things and went outside but Andrea was still breathing for the baby with the oxygen mask until they got into the ambulance so she had to leave without her shoes, cell phone or keys.
After they were gone I lay down on the bed and Christine told me I would need to deliver the placenta. She told me to push it out but I couldn’t—my muscles wouldn’t do what I wanted anymore.
After a while, she started looking worried. She asked Jamie how long it had been since the birth and Jamie said forty-five minutes. She felt inside me and pushed around a bit, trying to make it come out but it still didn’t, so they gave me a Pitocin drip and after that my muscles contracted and I was able to give a little push and, finally, the placenta came out. It hurt but afterwards I was relieved that all of the pain was over.
Christine said, “Do you want me to stitch you up now or do you need a break?”
I said, “I don’t need a break.”
She and Jamie prepared their things. Then she gave me some numbing shots. She said they would hurt but they didn’t, much, and I didn’t feel the stitches at all.
At some point, Christine got a phone call and I knew it was from someone at the hospital. She didn’t tell me right away what they said so I thought it must have been bad news and I didn’t ask. After she stitched me up she said that it was time to go to the hospital to see David and the baby and I was surprised.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“She is alive and she is stable,” Christine said.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe right; I started panting really hard and couldn’t stop.
“There is still a chance,” I thought. “There is still a chance.”
There were tears in my eyes but I did not cry.
After I calmed down, Christine asked me if I wanted to take a shower.
“I won’t be able to stand,” I told her. So she wiped some of the blood off my legs and helped me get dressed. While we were doing that Jamie asked if I wanted to see the placenta and I said I did and I suggested they take a picture of it but she said they would keep it for me and David instead. They packaged it and put it in a bowl.
Then, it was time to go. Both of the women helped me to the car. I walked very slowly and when I got to the car I couldn’t sit down directly so I put my knees down on the seat first, then sat with my hip on one leg. Someone put my seatbelt on for me and Jamie and I went to the hospital while Christine stayed behind.
At the hospital, Jamie left me in the car and went inside to see what was going on. After a while she came back with some doctors and I rolled down the window and they talked to me there in the parking lot. They explained that the baby was stable on life support and she would now be transferred to Seattle Children’s Hospital. I said okay and thanked them, and they left and Jamie went with them.
A little while later, David got into the car. The first thing he said was, “She is so beautiful, Mollie. Her skin is very pink now and it’s just perfect.” I asked him if he thought she would make it and he said that she wasn’t responding to any of their tests so far.
“And if she lives, she will have brain damage,” I said. I hadn’t thought of it before, but somehow right then I knew it was true.
“Yes,” he said. “There will be some, but they don’t know yet whether it will be permanent.”
Then he told me what happened at the hospital.
“They took a long time to resuscitate her,” he said. “I watched for a while but eventually I couldn’t anymore so I went into a little waiting room. After a while of being in there I started crying uncontrollably and hyperventilating and shivering all over. Someone had to turn the lights down for me to help me calm down.
“I have never cried that hard before,” he said.
When Jamie got back to the car she told me that I could ride in the ambulance with the baby if I wanted to. “One person is allowed to go,” she said. “You can ride with her or you can go with David.”
“I don’t want to go with her,” I said. “I’ll ride with David.”
When we arrived at Children’s Hospital, David brought me a wheelchair from outside the front door and helped me get out of the car and sit down again. Then he and Jamie and I went inside to the front desk. There, they gave us all ID badges and told us where the NICU was. Jamie’s badge said “Visitor” and David’s and mine said “Parent.”
At the NICU we asked where the baby was and they said she hadn’t arrived yet. I had to use the bathroom anyway so David and Jamie took me and helped me onto the toilet. I was bleeding a lot and I needed new clothes already so it was a long time before we were done. When we finally got out, we were told that the baby was at the hospital. By then, David’s parents had arrived, too. It was nearly evening.
A short time later, a nurse came to get us and take us to the baby’s room. David, David’s parents, Jamie and I walked through the double doors, down the hall and into one of the rooms. Just inside the door there was a high bed surrounded by machines, and in it was the baby, breathing and still.
And she looked perfect.
Her skin was pink and soft. Her cheeks were fat. Her hair was long. The nurses told us she weighed over eight pounds and was twenty-one inches—a big baby, they said. Her little fingernails had grown well past the ends of her fingers and there was fat on every part of her.
She looked healthy.
Of course, she had tubes in her, too, and some patches on her head and chest that were linked to monitors. Also, there was a respirator in her mouth; she still wasn’t breathing on her own. The respirator was pretty large and with the tape on her cheeks that held it in it hid a good part of her face. It also held her lips in a puckered position, like very big fish lips, but even with that, you could see what they looked like and they were beautiful.
Almost as soon they saw her, David’s parents and the nurses, too, said that she looked like me. They said she had my forehead, nose and mouth. When they said that, I studied her face and tried to see what they were seeing. I agreed that she had my features, but I didn’t think she looked like me. I couldn’t believe that this was the person I had known for nine months already.
I still didn’t recognize her at all.
After an hour or so, the doctors came into the room. They talked to us for a while about the baby’s condition and said that we would have a meeting later that night after all of their tests were done. At that time, we all thought that the damage had happened during the labor or in the minutes just following it before she was resuscitated. It seemed to be the only explanation.
By then, Andrea had arrived at the hospital. When David and I went to the lobby to wait for the meeting she sat next to me and took my hands and said, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” she said again.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I know you feel bad. It’s okay.”
“You don’t have to be so strong,” she said. “You can be angry.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry,” I thought. “I don’t get angry.”
While we waited, one of the nurses asked us if the baby had a name.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to give her a name.”
David agreed. “It’s probably better that way,” he said. We didn’t know then whether she would make it through the night.
After that, the doctors took David, David’s parents and I to a conference room for the meeting. The conference room was small and they had to move one of the chairs out to make room for my wheelchair.
We all sat down and introduced ourselves. Then the doctors told us what they knew so far: the baby still wasn’t responding to any of their tests, which suggested serious brain damage.
“Her condition is very concerning,” one of them said.
“What could have caused this?” we asked.
They didn’t know. “We will do an MRI in the morning.”
Meanwhile, they told us, they had put her on a cooling blanket to help slow her deterioration. It was an experimental treatment, but it was all they could do. After two days of this, they would warm her up again, then observe her for another day or so after that.
“If her brain activity returns, it will likely return then,” they said.
“What is going to happen to her?” we asked. “What are her chances?”
“There is no way for us to predict that,” the doctors said. “Every baby is different.”
Then they said that though the baby had to stay cool for now, David and I would have a chance to hold her the next day.
When they said that, for some reason, I was surprised.
After the meeting David and I went back to the baby’s room. As we stared at her and held her hands, I said to David, “Do you think there’s even a ten percent chance she’ll live?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Later that night, the nurses told us they had a room for us to stay in so eventually we went upstairs. The room was very small with a twin bed but it was nice to be there.
As we were settling in, people kept asking us if we needed anything. We said we could probably eat a little so they brought us a lot of food and left it in our room. After they left we ate, then got undressed and went to bed. As we took off our ID badges I read mine to David.
“Parent/Caregiver,” I said. “I don’t feel like either one of those things.”
“Neither do I,” he said.
I don’t remember all of my thoughts that night but I was very tired and very sore and it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
The next morning I woke up very early and I remembered they said I would be able to hold the baby later that day and, for the first time, I cried.
Kandra Hughes has been a professional housesitter since 2016. She is
also a minimalism coach. Visit
Have you ever significantly changed your life to become more
minimalist? What led to the decision and what did you change?
Yes. I got rid of approximately 95 percent of my belongings by
donating, giving away, selling, recycling, or trashing them.
Essentially, I wasn’t happy in my current life and I wanted to make
radical changes. I followed a career trajectory of which some people
only dream: college, a PhD program (for which I had a full-ride
scholarship), tenure track position, and tenure. Yet it wasn’t the
life I really wanted to live. I had all sorts of health issues
related to stress and sleep. My weight dropped to 97 pounds. I
developed severe adult acne. I used
that I would get in a nonfatal car crash, just so I could take a
break from my life for a while.
wasn’t until I was granted a paid sabbatical for the 2014-2015
academic year that I finally got time to myself. I didn’t miss my
job for one second of one minute of one day. That was a wake-up call
to me that I needed to make some changes.
on sabbatical, and after I realized I needed to quit my job, I woke
up in the middle of the night and thought, housesitting.
I had already been pet-sitting and housesitting for friends while I
was on a sabbatical. I wrote down my idea and went back to bed.
next morning a Google search informed me that, yes, pet-sitting and
housesitting is a viable way to live these days. That became my plan:
to no longer have a place of my own, but to live in other people’s
houses. I didn’t want the burden of storing of my belongings, so I
made the choice to get rid of them. My husband and I have been on a
long-term housesit in the northwest
corner of Connecticut
since September 2016. At the time we began, everything we owned fit
into our car.
What are your most prized beliefs regarding minimalist lifestyle—the
ideas you want most to spread?
The idea I most want to spread is that minimalism is not just about
tidying up and reducing clutter. It’s
about personal growth, and
most importantly, the understanding that there is no one way to best
accomplish this growth. Being a minimalist means you have a good
understanding of who you
are and how you want to live your
best life … and then acting
accordingly. This understanding can be accomplished through
self-reflection (e.g., journaling, creating vision boards, praying,
meditating, etc.) or with the help of professionals (e.g.,
therapists, life coaches, pastors, career counselors, etc.).
also want people to know that the
first thing I recommend people get rid of is mental clutter.
By knowing who you are and how you want to live your best life, you
can say no to things that don’t serve you. Of course, it’s not easy
and it takes a certain amount of courage to start saying no. But this
freedom then brings benefits in other areas of your life, including
increased time, energy, and financial resources to pursue the things
that are most important to you.
by identifying your core life values. These are the five
values that are fundamental to who you are as person. Ask yourself
questions such as, “When have I experienced the most joy in my
life? When did I experience my lowest points? What happens on the
days when I can’t wait to get out of bed? What happens on the days
where I dread getting out of bed? Who inspires me? If I could have
any job in the world, what would it be and why? What did I dream of
a child? If I could live a perfect day every day, what would that day
look like? What are some times in my life I thought I was doing the
right thing, but it turned out to be wrong for me?” Look for common
themes and patterns, then name those ideas using a single word, such
service, fairness, creativity,
second thing I recommend is to identify specific interests in your
life related to those values. Values and interests go hand-in-hand.
For example, you may value creativity, but you may have no interest
in Renaissance art.
If that’s the case, next time you visit an art museum, give yourself
the freedom to skip over entire floors and head to the impressionists
who you find whimsical and inspiring. The good news is, you’ve
probably already uncovered most of your interests if you’ve spent
time reflecting on your core life values. Review your answers to the
above questions and notice what specific activities and events are
associated with your more joyful times. Keep those in mind for making
your day-to-day and long-term decisions on how you’re going to spend
your time, effort, and money.
I love everything you said so much. Any
final thoughts, Kelly?
that I don’t think gets mentioned too often: it’s
important to stay open-minded and empathetic to others while living a
minimalist life. I’ve found that people who experience the kind of
personal growth that comes with minimalism are so excited about their
journeys, they think their way is not only the best way, but the only
way. We may end up self-righteous and judgmental of others who are
still struggling on their own paths. I know I certainly did!
We need to remember where we started from and extend empathy to others who may not be there yet. When you live a life of joy and one that lines up with your core life values and interests, people become interested in what you’re doing. When they ask, be happy to give advice on what worked best for you. Otherwise, it’s not our place to judge. Stay focused on your own life and lead by example. I know it’s cliché, but Gandhi was on to something when he said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Niziak is a software trainer and data analyst from Massachusetts.
Have you ever significantly reorganized and decluttered your home?
What led to the decision and what did you change?
Kurt: Yes, but not consciously. Instead, it
somehow chose me!
Over a decade ago, my career and financial
situation was vastly different. In fact, my own “personal paper
route” (as I call it) was surprisingly easy. Financially, I was
preparing myself for a life of moderate wealth. The bottom fell out,
however, and I was forced to abide by a lifestyle which would be the
antitheses of what I once thought I had.
In July of 2018, I had a major fire in my once
well-furnished condo. I had stepped out of my home for a mere
thirty-five minutes only to return and witness that almost
all of what I had acquired over the years had vanished. I say the
word almost because, my most important possession (my dog) was
miraculously spared. (Thank God).
After the complete shock of losing almost
everything had slowly worn off, I was surprised to feel an incredible
sense of gratitude. I realized that as terrible as things were, at
least my dog was okay. This horrific event proved to be the genesis
of a priceless awakening. I began to understand that I really didn’t
need many possessions in order to keep on living on a day-to-day
basis. Material things somehow revealed themselves in their most
generic form, serving as nothing more than distractions.
Mollie: What is your lifestyle like now?
Kurt: I suppose that I am a bit more grounded. I
am cognizant about how we are all such insatiable consumers. I try
instead to take better care of the things that I do have, rather than
fantasizing about what I don’t have. Furthermore, before purchasing
or storing anything, I think about whether I really need it.
We all are conditioned to believe that our lives
can only improve via addition—as if we were painting a picture,
adding more and more layers. Unfortunately, this approach seldom gets
us the results we are looking for. Perhaps it’s a sculpture that we
should be creating instead, our goal only arrived at via subtraction.
We discard the pieces that are not necessary.
Mollie: Can you share a few specific tips for
cleaning, organizing and simplifying a home?
Kurt: In his wonderful book 12
Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson is
quick to point out an approach towards minimalism which (at first
look) appears rather benign. However, this simple concept has saved
me, time and time again, from the shackles of a personal two- or
three-day funk. Peterson states that one risks feeling depressed,
anxious and powerless should they fail to keep their bedroom clean,
or surroundings in order. Whenever I motivate myself to use this
simple tactic, it has never failed to
make me feel more balanced—more in control.
Cleaning, organizing, etc. are extremely powerful
minimalist tools. They help combat feelings of chaos. If things are
clean and in order, I have a better chance at having a more positive
experience in the outside world. Physical clutter seems to muddle my
brain and often prevents me from having any semblance of harmony. It
is so simple, yet it seems to always have positive results.
Minimalism (to me) is not merely the act of owning
less. It also leads to appreciating things more. It proves itself,
time and time again, as a
powerful life approach. All I know is that when I fail to encompass
minimalism, I am at risk of feeling like nothing more than the
proverbial hole of a doughnut.
I will say however, that my own personal happiness
has neither significantly decreased nor increased over the years. It
is just less complicated. One doesn’t end up wasting time fooling
themselves into thinking that acquiring more will improve one’s
I do what I need to do in order to survive. I often (jokingly) say that I am just as miserable now, as I’ve always been. A bigger house, better car or more stuff will not enhance my life very much. These things might be nice to have but it becomes a fool’s errand to obsessively pursue. It’s just an example of victory through surrender.
A lot of times, when you discover something great, you overestimate its greatness just a bit. Well, okay, sometimes more than a bit.
Sometimes you get way too excited.
Every once in a while, though, your excitement proves justified. And when that happens, you cross the line. Before you were a fan, a follower, an advocate.
Now, you’re a believer.
Granted, when I discovered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, my hopes were high for good reason. According to articles by the National Institute for Mental Health, the National Center for Biotechnology Information and, of course, Wikipedia, CBT is the most-practiced evidence-based therapy for tons of emotional and personality disorders.
More important, when I tried it, it worked.
Unfortunately, I was late to the party; I’ve had depression my whole life, but didn’t learn about CBT till age thirty-eight. Yikes, right? I often wonder what I was thinking, not looking up popular depression therapies sooner. Then I remember exactly what I was thinking.
I was thinking spirituality was the answer.
I mean, spirituality is great. Spirituality works. But sometimes, other stuff works better. And every once in a while, you hit the proverbial jackpot, and you find a regular therapy that’s spiritual, too.
Which is where Byron Katie comes in.
Soon after discovering CBT, I found this teacher, and when I did, the above process repeated itself. Excitement. Enthusiasm. Fandom. Advocacy.
Then, full-on belief.
Here’s how that happened.
It was one of Those Moments. You know the kind. They feel normal at first, then later earn an unexpected spot on your greatest-hits playlist. It was evening, and I was depressed—much more so than usual. Worse, earlier that day I’d taken a three-mile walk and even that, my go-to strategy, hadn’t helped. I didn’t get an endorphin high. I didn’t clear my mind.
I felt just as bad after as before.
If you struggle with a mood disorder I don’t have to tell you what a frightening realization this was. Will I have to starting walk more than three miles now? I wondered. Has my body acclimated to this level of exercise? Heavily pregnant, with two other children in tow, I couldn’t imagine putting more time and effort into walking than I already did. And so, after dinner, after my husband had taken our two boys to the mall, I decided to try something different. Desperate, I went to my office to scan the titles on my bookshelf, looking for anything that might help.
I didn’t actually believe I’d find something.
But I did. I found The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns.
One year prior, I’d bought the Handbook on the advice of my doctor and then, after a brief review, dismissed it. Platitudes, I thought. Nothing new here. Nothing I haven’t heard a million times before. I had no idea it was a psychotherapy classic. (Why hadn’t the doctor told me that? Sheesh.)
That day, though—that greatest-hits day—I sat on the couch and for the first time, gave the method a chance. After reading a few chapters, I took its suggestion and started writing down every negative thought in my head. When I couldn’t think of any more, I stopped writing and counted the pages.
I’d filled seven pieces of paper on both sides.
Okay, I thought. Maybe the book is right. Maybe my depression really is caused by my thoughts.
Prior to that time, I knew negativity played a role in depression. But I had no idea how big that role was. I’m a positive person, I thought. I’m hopeful about the future. It’s a chemical imbalance that’s to blame.
And I still believe that. I’ve been moody my whole life—never lighthearted, even as a kid. But maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the story. Maybe part of the problem is solvable.
Because, it turned out, I wasn’t the optimist I thought I was. I was actually sort of the opposite, but in a different way. The kind of thoughts I wrote down that day had nothing to do with my faith in God or my many dreams of success. They weren’t about my overall health, or my financial or familial satisfaction.
They were about the little annoyances of life.
They were about the way my clothes fit, the kids’ morning moods, the tyranny of my family’s need to eat. Only a few of my troubles even mattered long-term. And yet, when I emptied the contents of my head, these silly little details were what I found. Obviously, my pessimism wasn’t as much about the significance of my negative thoughts as it was about the sheer number of them.
I had accumulated a bunch of mental crap.
And so, that night I began the process of excavation. And I haven’t stopped since.
Even after that first writing session, I noticed a change—a lifting, even a slight high. I felt the way I feel after a thirty-minute jog, or a long talk with a friend, or an especially enjoyable night out.
Holy crap, I realized. It worked.
And it did so when I was at my very worst.
And so, like I said before, after discovering CBT, my hopes were ridiculously high. Somehow, I knew that this was my game-changer, my next major level up.
Somehow, I knew it would be epic.
The cool thing is that I was right. During the month that followed the discovery, I was the most hopeful I’d been in my life regarding my ability to deal effectively with—maybe even overcome—my depression. Then, a shocking twist: I found another strategy, a variation of CBT. And for me, it was even more powerful. You probably already know what that method was. It was Byron Katie’s process of self-inquiry called The Work.
Byron Katie is a spiritual teacher, someone you may have heard of before. I had, too; the previous fall I’d even read her free ebook, The Work of Byron Katie: An Introduction. At that time, though, her ideas didn’t particularly appeal to me.
Truth be told, I wasn’t desperate enough to try it.
But after practicing CBT for a while, her name came up again, and I thought back on what I’d read. Wait a sec, I realized, Now that I think about it, The Work is a lot like CBT.
I decided to look into it again.
More about Byron Katie’s method later, and how it compares with CBT. Suffice it to say here that it’s a way to look objectively at your favorite (or not-so-favorite) thoughts. It gives you four questions to ask yourself that help you realize, deep down, what is true and what is, well, a bit crazy.
And as with CBT, my first experience with The Work didn’t disappoint.
Have you ever significantly minimized your possessions and simplified
your life? Tell me the story.
Nick: In July 2019 I left my corporate job back home in Brooklyn, New York. I bought a car in Phoenix, Arizona to drive to Argentina. I pretty much left everything I owned except a few clothes, my laptop, a camera, and a drone. I built a bed in the back of the car and I have been living on the road ever since, camping at some of the most beautiful places in Mexico. I’m about to enter Belize.
car is my
home and the world is my
What did you buy along the way? Do you have good camping equipment?
I haven’t bought much. I bought a new suspension for the car and two
lower control arms. The car is old
was worried about the rust and being stuck in a country with no parts
if something happened. Other than that, I bought a cooler, folding
chairs, and a BBQ. At some point I’ll have to buy winter clothes when
I reach Argentina but I’ll tackle that when I get there. I also
bought a new phone using Google Fi because it works in over 200
countries on their unlimited plan.
How long do you plan to travel and what will you do after that?
asks me this question. Truthfully I’m planning this trip to find a
place where I can build another AirBNB
property close to the water so I can run scuba diving excursions. I
don’t have a time limit. My goal is to travel around the entire world
and it’s taken me 6 months to do all of Mexico. I promised my mom and
dad I would spend Christmas with them in 2020. But other than that I
don’t have a time limit.
What led to this drastic change?
The thing that led me to this decision was being caught up in the
humdrum of everyday corporate life living in New York City. I
personally couldn’t take going to work every day to make money to
spend at a bar on the weekends with friends, over and over again. I
wanted to get more out of life.
What do you want to get out of life?
I would like to teach people that money isn’t everything. It’s a
vehicle to get you to where you want to be. We’re all taught that we
need to go to school and get a job that pays well. Everyone wants a
raise and to earn more money. But the truth is that you most likely
make enough money and that money can actually make you more money but
your habits prevent that. People
look at my Instagram and ask me how I do this. I tell them I drive a
‘98 Chevy Blazer with a bed in it. You don’t need a lot of money to
do what I’m doing; you just need to change your habits. And that’s
the mark I want to leave. Money is great, but you don’t need to
exchange time to earn more. Other
I would say I just want to be happy and meet amazing people all
around the world.
Mollie: What are your most prized beliefs
regarding minimalist lifestyle—the ideas you most want to spread?
My most prized beliefs behind my minimalist lifestyle change is that
it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about you. I want to spread that
to everyone around. With social media nowadays, most people seem to
be in competition with people they don’t even know.
Mary Potter Kenyon is a grief counselor and the author of seven books, including Called to Be Creative and Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief. She lives in Dubuque, Iowa. For more information, see MaryPotterKenyon.com.
Mollie:Have you ever significantly reorganized and decluttered your home? What led to the decision and what did you change?
Mary: In April 2018, I was
offered my dream job an hour from where I lived. I made the decision
to sell the four-bedroom, two-story house where my husband David and
I had raised the last four of our eight children. David had died in
2012 and my seventh child was poised to leave the nest, leaving me
with one daughter and a huge house. Not
only did I need to declutter in order to sell my house, the house I
purchased in my new town was 760 square feet. I had to do some
serious purging, with less than two months to do it.
I began by deciding which
furniture could come with me, and my heart sank when I realized my
four bookshelves, my huge solid oak desk and my
mother’s kitchen table would not fit. The owner of the house I was
buying agreed to leave a folding IKEA table in the kitchen, the only
kind of table that worked. Two living room chairs would need to be
sold. A beautiful closed cabinet that was filled with office supplies
and photo albums. A kitchen shelf. The one thing I knew had to come
with me was a shaker-style cabinet I’d inherited from my mother, but
it would need to be emptied of some of her things to make room for
the single shelf of books I would keep.
I went through closets of
clothing. As I pulled things off hangers, I priced those I thought
would sell. I even had a box of my husband’s shirts stashed away,
which my sister Joan agreed to take off my hands and make into
Christmas stockings for my children. I wasn’t just dealing with
stuff, I was dealing with memories, and I
shed tears through the process. I went
through thousands of books. The first two boxes sold for $150 at a
bookstore, alleviating the distress a little. By the time I held my
first garage sale, I’d whittled down my possessions drastically. The
most daunting task, though, was the paper:
a file cabinet and a trunk filled with letters, college papers,
photos, and even scrapbooks from high school. I handed my son a bag
filled with twenty daybooks (daily diaries)
to burn because I couldn’t bear to dispose of them myself.
After two garage sales, several trips to a thrift
store, and even filling my front lawn with items I advertised for
free on a local online giveaway board, I ended up with less than half
my original possessions. By then, it felt freeing to have dealt with
years of accumulated clutter—to have made decisions about which
things meant the most and gave me pleasure and joy when I looked at
them. I would come to regret only the loss of the desk and the
While I no longer have a
separate office, I do have my own space, a back room that spans the
entire width of the house and serves as both bedroom and office.
Everything in it was consciously chosen to survive the Great Purge of
2018. The bedroom portion is sparse: an end table and a twin
bed topped with a mockingbird quilt that matches the curtains.
Outside of a washer and dryer in the opposite far corner, the rest of
the large room is designed around the comfy brown recliner my
children gave me for Christmas. When I sit in it to write or read,
I’m surrounded by things that bring a smile to my face.
There is the Shaker-style cabinet I inherited from
my mother, filled with things I treasure: my collection of
autographed books, a hand-blown glass turtle my son Michael made, a
toy sheep from my childhood, and bricks my daughter Rachel painted to
look like the covers of my books. My grandmother’s trunk is topped
by one of Mom’s quilts and her hand-carved Saint Michael statue,
his sword upraised in regal glory.
Walls are adorned with paintings by my mother and daughter Emily, along with photographs taken by my son Dan, one framed and another on canvas. A rustic wooden rack is attached to one wall, the wire baskets holding stationery and greeting cards. Wooden letters with the cover designs of my six books on another wall spell the word “writer,” handmade by my daughter Elizabeth. Finally, there’s a book-themed lamp atop an end table Katie painted to look like book spines. I love my smaller space.
Here, an excerpt from the interviews section of the book.
“We Have Two Big Rules in Our House”
is 40 years old and has been with her partner for eight years.
What have some of your biggest disagreements as couple been about?
We don’t have children, just cats, which might be why our biggest
fight so far was about cats (except not really). Before that, our
biggest struggle was learning to grocery shop together without
Tell me more about that.
It was a thing when we first moved in together. He works from home
and I was working in an office. We both dislike the task, so we do it
together (unless circumstances prevent it.)
made a comment a while back about two types of people (on a
spectrum): basically, planners and non-planners. My husband is
squarely a planner. Lists, schedules, plan of attack. I can (and do)
plan, but can also can make a quick decision just to get something
basically, we had several things going wrong.
an introvert and being at the office all day exhausts me. He works
from home, so he’s excited to go out.
weren’t functioning off a list, so we were buying random things that
we did/didn’t need and still having to figure out dinners after.
both wanted to shop how we were used to shopping.
got mad at him for staring at stacks of American cheese for entirely
too long trying to determine the best price on something that I felt
didn’t matter. He challenged me when I just grabbed a gallon of milk.
milk? Do you like it better? This one’s cheaper.”
several months and lots of sit-downs and me being mad, then him being
frustrated (not huge fights but intense talks), we’ve figured out and
refined our system:
frequently save recipes that I think we’ll enjoy that are healthy
enough for me and easy enough for him. We pick two for the week and
build a list off of that.
grocery shop on Sundays so I’m not tired and we have a date night
once a weekish so he gets out of the house. He has also finally,
just this summer, gotten a laptop to give himself the ability to
leave the house once in a while.
are brands I’m loyal to. When it’s time to pick up those, I tell
him to kick rocks off to the toilet paper aisle to find us the best
deal. I give in to him on the generic canned beans because I don’t
care and he lets me buy the expensive canned tomatoes without
works so much better now. We usually have as good a time as you can
at the grocery store. And I even stay quiet when he asks the clerk to
put the milk in bags (which is silly because the gallons have
You seem like a pretty good problem solver. Do
you use these same negotiating skills in other areas of your
don’t have to formally negotiate too often. We try and function as a
team so if one person is doing something, the other dives in to help.
We’ve got two big rules in our house:
gets what they need.
have to ask for what you need.
Spats are usually due to me not being able to sort out what I’m feeling before I get crabby.
Mollie: I love those rules! The needs of one person can be dramatically different from the needs of another. Beautiful way to phrase this concept.
So what was the cat thing about?
Zurie: We fought about when to get a new cat after our last two girls died in the spring. I wanted to get a new one and he wasn’t ready.
Honestly, it was 100 percent me not slowing down to figure out what I was feeling so I could verbalize it. Eventually I just realized that I was in an enormous amount of pain and just wanted something to help. I was deeply disappointed that he wasn’t ready even though it was valid.
Once I worked through all that emotion, I was able to explain what was going on. I apologized and he listened and we compromised. We got new kitties sooner than he was ready for and later than I wanted, but they’re perfect.
Mollie: Is there something about your partner you have tried to change? What was your strategy? How well did it work?
Zurie: Sure, there are things we’ve tried to change about each other. He’s organized, but holy cow was his apartment filthy when he moved out. I’m clean, but completely disorganized. Before we moved in together, we talked a lot about chores and values. He sees the value in having things clean, though he just doesn’t notice it. I see the value in having things organized (being able to find my keys is amazing) but I’m not always as good about it as him.
I think we’ve both really tried to be patient with each other. There are times when I have to remind him that it’s okay if I haven’t put something back where it belongs because there’s a reason I didn’t or whatever. And I have 100 percent complained to myself after he does the dishes that he didn’t scrub down the stove. But I also know that criticizing will just make a person shut down, so I think a lot about “how much does this matter?” I’ve had to teach him how to clean the bathroom and the floors and the kitchen and the reasons behind it. He really gives it a good-faith effort, so I let go of the fact that he doesn’t see the dirt and is always surprised that it’s time to clean. It just doesn’t matter.
Mollie: Can you think of a time you became overly defensive in an argument? Tell me the story.
Zurie: When we first met, he used to tell a joke, then say, “Get it? It’s funny because …” and I used to feel like he thought I was so stupid or not funny if he felt he had to explain every joke to me. My dad was really hard on my brother and me and would ask us if we were stupid whenever we did something wrong, so he was really stepping on a land mine he didn’t know was there. I finally told him one night how much it hurt my feelings. I was angry and asked flat-out if he thought I was an idiot. He was horrified. Apparently, this was just something he had always said as part of a joke. He thought it was funny and had no idea that I took it personally.
While I was relieved that I was misinterpreting, I also made it clear that I was never going to be okay with it. He’d done it for so long that he wasn’t sure he could just stop. So we decided that he would make an honest attempt to say it less and I would make an honest attempt to let it roll off my back if he did say it. And honestly, I haven’t heard it in years.
Mollie: Do you think it’s important to apologize even when you weren’t exactly in the wrong, or do you save your apologies for the important stuff?
Zurie: We tend to apologize to each other when we feel it’s warranted. Honestly, we don’t fight dirty or often so I don’t feel that I’ve had to apologize when I wasn’t exactly wrong.
Mollie: Generally speaking, how much do you enjoy partnership? What do you like about it?
Zurie: I love being married. We haven’t reached a point yet where I’ve considered it difficult or a hardship. I really enjoy being on a team with him. I can be exactly who I am at any given moment with him. I can be ridiculous and silly or sad or a big baby and he understands and loves it. I love doing the same for him. I love hearing him sing songs to the cats or laugh at his podcasts while he works. I am so delighted and thankful to be with him and he seems to feel the same way. We married late-ish—I was thirty-seven and he was forty—so we’d gone through those mid-twenties struggles already and had started establishing our own values when we met. Maybe that has something to do with it.
Mollie: Do you have any ongoing arguments that can’t seem to be resolved, even with your great communication skills?
Zurie: Not that I can think of, so definitely nothing major. Things are tough right now for us, but not between us. I’m lucky: he’s funny, responsible, hard working, compassionate and loyal. We make a good team.
Here, an excerpt from the interviews section of the book.
CAL: “Finally, Our House Feels Like a Home”
age forty-four, has four children with his wife of twenty years.
Is there an argument that just keeps coming up between you and your
Many of the long-running arguments that we have seen to be centered
around the lack of defined roles in our relationship. We are both
products of the feminist movement—women aren’t going to be forced
to be at home taking care of children and cooking dinner! So the
systems of our household are perpetually left leaderless as both
adults strive for success and validation outside our home.
lack of definition has plagued us since the days we just started
living together and couldn’t agree on who did what chores and who was
responsible for what. It’s rather embarrassing to say that we still
run across these problems twenty years later. At least a few
generations ago they had one person who gathered resources and one
person who saw that those resources were well managed in producing a
family. Now we are both responsible for everything, and that leads to
chaos and frustration for us.
you give me more specifics? Which chores are still up for grabs?
Which chores have you come to an agreement on?
Cal: We have written out three
sheets of information for the family. One sheet gives our vision,
values, expectations and measures of success. It’s funny that after
being married over twenty years we are still working out what our
vision for our home is. We’ve had other vision statements in the
past, but they seem to have a finite life span. The vision needs to
be renewed and revived periodically; for us, it seems like we can
agree on one for about two years.
The next sheet shows the
systems we are working on to make the household run more smoothly. We
started with agreeing on twenty minutes of cleaning and that’s going
really well thus far (maybe for the past two months). We’re still
working on figuring out the rest.
Finally, we have a chores
sheet. This is laminated (yes, we have a laminator and every family
needs one!). We assign and check off the chores using a dry erase
marker. There are six of us, and six people cleaning a single area
isn’t going to work, so we have two or three areas separated out into
five days (our goal is to clean five days per week). We schedule the
cleaning via group text message at least two hours ahead of time.
Then we assemble at the table, pick a day, assign the jobs, start the
timer, start some music, and clean for twenty minutes. If someone
finishes early, they get re-assigned to another job until we have all
worked for twenty minutes. We clean with whoever is home at the time,
even if it’s only a couple of us.
This cleaning system has
finally gotten our house to feel like a home. We all now have clean,
paired socks and vacuumed hallways.
Bedroom cleaning is handled by
a different system of weekly room inspections.
Mollie: Any other ongoing
Cal: Nothing is jumping to mind. My wife and I are pretty low-key
people, but we have still managed to have some pretty turbulent times
in our marriage. This point isn’t one of them. Our kids are now 18,
16, 14 and 11. They are old enough that they are becoming
self-sufficient, but young enough not to realize how clueless they
are in the real world. It’s a frustrating time. I think we’ve been
handling it well, overall, but have been far from perfect.
Mollie: Finally, how much do you enjoy your marriage? Is it worth
Cal: I do enjoy my marriage. The sex is amazing, and that’s a large
part of male happiness. Consistent access to a female is success in
an evolutionary sense. Beyond just meeting physical needs, my wife is
a wonderful friend who I still enjoy having dinner with or
accompanying to one of our children’s events. I made a really good
decision before we started dating: I had just had a mediocre dating
experience with a pretty red-haired girl, who treated me like a
distraction. Based on that experience, I decided that the next person
I was going to spend my time with would be one who I enjoyed being
wife is remarkable in that I was always sorry
when the evening came to an end; there never seemed to be enough
Twenty-three years later, I still think that was a
wise decision. I haven’t had the most exciting life from the outside,
but I’ve enjoyed most minutes because I made a really good choice. I
married an honest friend who I really enjoyed being around. Fights
come and go, but we still like having dinner, watching a movie or
doing a project together. Even when we are at our worst, there has
always been that underlying layer of friendship and enjoyment that we
fell back on. It’s a pretty amazing connection.