Monday, 30 January 2012

Before I was a Mother

We all have a list - before we become parents. A list of things we swear we will never, ever do. Or promises that we always will. Usually that list comes in reaction to the things our parents did, or didn’t do, and the ways we want to replicate them or put an end to a pattern that no longer works (or never did). We all keep that list. Some of it is etched into our hearts – forever permanent and unwilling to be altered. Some of it is more elastic and allows for gentle and swift bends and changes. Before we are parents we cling to that list like a lifeboat. We chant to ourselves that We Will or We Won’t because the concept of caring for a new life is so entirely overwhelming and filled with emotion that we feel the need to hold onto some part of the rational world for fear of being sucked in. For fear of becoming our parents. Or out of fear that we won’t.

Some of my I always wills have stood the test of time (and by time I mean the mere five months of my son’s precious life thus far). Before I was a mom I promised myself that I would always listen to my child. That I would make the time to read to him and play with him and treasure the small moments which escape too quickly. Five months have already afforded me more small moments than it feels like my heart can contain.

But the other list, the I will nevers, hasn’t fared as well. I swore I would never co-sleep. I may never have said it out loud, because I was afraid of eating my words, but I thought it.  And while I’m not a regular co-sleeper now there are just some nights that call for it in our house.  And as I lay him down next me and our heartbeats seem to talk to each other, beating out morse code for love and family and security, it feels just like it did for nine months when he was making his home inside of me. Only it is substantially more comfortable with him on the outside.

Before I was a mom I swore my home would never be decorated with brightly coloured plastic. As we prepared for Mac’s arrival and my mom kept trying to feather our nest with toys that seemed to only come in vivid colours (which clashed greatly with my usual palette of earth tones and black and gray) I protested with more ferocity than I employed as a teenager fighting her curfew. I decorated my son’s room with a contemporary New York City theme and told his grandmother that he would just need to learn to have adult tastes from birth.

I would have never believed that the monstrosity pictured below would reside proudly in our living room. But gosh, if you could see his smile, and the way his whole face lights up as he bounces in it, you’d see why it has become an essential piece of furniture in our  home.

I swore I would never be that mom who let her baby crawl all over her like a jungle gym. And yet, as I sat on the couch yesterday, the baby sitting on my belly, his legs kicking my boobs, one hand reaching up to poke a finger in my nose, the other exploring the edges of my teeth, I barely noticed the intrusion on my personal space. And I realized that the only time I should say I will never is if it is followed by say never.

But the truth is that it’s hard to make a pre-parent list and stick with it because the emotion that comes when you become a parent is unpredictable. I was asked recently why I began blogging. And I answered honestly that part of me was just so overwhelmed with the love I felt for my son, and the realization that other parents (including my own) felt it too, that I needed a space to write about it. And I did in my first post. I can remember those first moments of being conscious of that love. It’s a love that is like no other and I didn’t expect that. I love my wife. I love her with every ounce of my heart and will be forever grateful that our paths crossed and that she chose to love me for the rest of her life. But I didn’t love her the first moment I saw her. She had to earn it. She had to love me back. She had to work to capture my heart (even though it’s something that seems so effortless these days). Mac, on the other hand, didn’t need to do anything. He simply needed to exist.

I can remember becoming aware of that love and wondering why everyone wasn’t talking about it. If mothers and fathers all over the world loved their children THIS much how were they not screaming it from the rooftops? How were there not love letters written in the sky and breaking news stories entitled father loves his child THIS much! Surely THAT was newsworthy!

And then I realized that I had just never before seen the world through the eyes of a parent. Because everywhere I look now I can see parents loving like that. When my best friend’s five-year-old daughter reads the words “baking powder” without help and her mother’s smile beams with the kind of pride you would expect from the mother of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner – she is loving that much. And when her husband’s pockets are filled with hair barrettes, collected coloured stones, and kitty figurines; and when he is as likely to rhyme off the names of fairytale princesses as Maple Leaf draft picks – he is loving that much.

Me: OK, we need 1 tablespoon of this stuff. Do you know what it is?
Cailey: No
Me: Can you read it? (expecting her to sound it out... because she's five... so obviously)
Cailey: (without a second of hesitation) baking powder
Me: What?! You read that? When did that happen?
Cailey's mom: *proud smile*
When my friends move with determination and passion across the department store to buy boys’ briefs for their daughter – they are loving that much. And when my own parents drove six hours (each way!) in the span of a single day to see my pregnant self one last time before I moved from being simply their daughter to the mother of their first grandchild – they were loving that much.

When my brother was lost and my mother (metaphorically and literally) kept her porch light on, always hopeful for his safe return and the power to guide him when the rest of us had turned our lights off – she was loving that much. And when my wife's mother, already diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, held me tight and told me how happy she was that I loved her daughter – not asking me to be good to her baby after she was gone but simply being grateful for the knowledge that I would – she was loving that much.

It turns out that loving this much isn’t particularly special or unusual. You can’t walk out your front door and move 100 feet without running smack-dab into a parent loving his/her child like that. People are born every day. It’s common and ordinary. But before I was a mother I didn’t realize the miraculousness that existed in the ordinary.

Please vote for me by clicking on the image below. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

It's hard to find Mr. Right when you are married. And when you're a lesbian.

This post is part 4 in a series detailing how my wife and I met the father of our child and ultimately got pregnant. If you missed part 3 it is here.

Circa June 2010. Ottawa, Ontario.

“So… we met someone. A guy.” My wife and I blush as we tell our friend about the man we met on the internet. She looks a bit confused but we continue gushing without leaving a space for her to ask questions. “He’s 41, lives in New York and works in advertising. He’s funny… like witty funny with a bit of self-deprecating sarcasm… and kind and smart and really good looking.” We alternate chiming in, rhyming off his many attributes. “But most importantly he wants what we want. He wants to be present in the child’s life but not a full-time parent.” Our friend smiles, cluing in that we have met a potential sperm donor/dad and are not kinking up our sex life. At this point we have only shared emails with the guy and our friend, a long time veteran of internet dating, is quick to caution us to lower our expectations. She’s right and we know it. But we are just SO READY to get this baby plan moving that we mostly ignore her sage wisdom.  “Well you are both lucky that I have a boyfriend right now,” she laughs and lightens the mood. “I would be awfully pissed off if my married lesbian friends found one before I did.”

Monday, 23 January 2012

Following the Child

This post is part of a blog carnival.* The topic is what do you do to enjoy mothering? I had to think long and hard about this one. The real truth is that I enjoy the heck out of mothering. My wife and I have been together for over seven years and we have been dreaming of having a baby for six and a half. Making Mac was no easy task. It involved online ads looking for a donor/father, flights from New York City, artichoke jars, needleless syringes, awkward sperm hand-offs and whole lot of luck. Getting to this point was complicated but the payoff has been nothing short of utterly spectacular. When I pick him up to rock him to sleep and I feel the weight of his weary head on my shoulder my heart swells. When I fold his tiny laundry and hang miniature outfits in an organized closet I can hardly believe my blessings. And when his little hand grabs onto mine, soft and smooth having not yet been made hard or dry by the outside world my only sadness is that I cannot bottle up that feeling and put it in a scrapbook to reflect on for years to come. What do I do to enjoy mothering? What don’t I do would produce a shorter answer. Sure, there are difficult parts like a baby teething. Or mundane parts like diaper changes and wiping vomit out of my hair.  But the less-than-amazing moments whiz by and aren’t as difficult as they sound. They are like commercials during your favorite TV show. You know they will be there, you expect them, you wait through them and sometimes, if you are really paying attention, they can even be funny or sweet.

But I think this question needs a more directed answer. What do I consciously practice to make motherhood more enjoyable? The first thing that comes to my mind is that I follow my child’s lead. I came to be conscious of this practice through watching two of my favorite parenting role models. Many years ago, when their child was still in the single digits age-wise, they came to my wife and me with a request. They had watched their daughter turn into a serious tomboy and they were beginning to wonder if she would one day tell them that the closet could no longer contain her. They didn’t know if she would be gay or straight and they didn’t know if she would remain a she. But the amazing thing was that they didn’t want to stifle her choices or personhood in any way. So they asked us if we would spend some time with her so that she could see that two women could live together happily and without hardships. If she was going to come out they wanted her to do so without shame. There are tears in my eyes as I write this – tears for all of those gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender youth who didn’t win the parental lottery like little Sammie did. Tears for all of the friends I have who came out to their parents as adults only to face shame and rejection.

Of course, we were honoured by their request and enjoyed spending time with their bright and charismatic child. We invited her for a sleepover and when we were helping her unpack her tiny suitcase we noticed a neatly folded pair of boys briefs next to her orange flavored toothpaste and dinosaur pajamas. My wife, a tomboy from an early age herself, blinked back tears as she helped her set up her bed. 

My wife Tracy as a young tomboy
What foresight these parents had to simply follow their daughter’s lead. When she told them that pink underpants didn’t feel right they made a brave trek across the department store and bought the ones that fit her instead. Such a simple act done out of love but so powerful to witness. They worried for her, they tried to guide her, but when it came to the child’s fundamental understanding of herself they simply followed her lead. Mac was still years away from being a twinkle in my eye at the time but I knew in that moment that I would always, consciously, love my child for who and what he turns out to be.

At only five months old this means that I trust my son to convey his needs to me. It means that when he wakes up for the fifth time in a single night I scoop him up into my arms and bring him into the spare bed so that he can feel me next to him as he sleeps. There will come a day when the mere presence of my warm body lying next to his is no longer able to solve all of his complex problems but for now it does so I will enjoy it. 

Even on the most sleepless of nights it is still, always, a privilege to wake up to this face

Following him means that I tune into his moods and on the days when he needs to be held close he is and on the days when he’d rather spend his time on the floor exploring his toys he does. As he grows I will do my best to teach him and guide him along the way. And, of course, there are things that I hope for him. But when he comes home with a haircut that I hate or when he chooses a hobby that I’m not thrilled about I will remember my friends and how they bravely let their child become herself and I will do my best to follow his (and their) lead.

And while I truly believe that this is the best strategy I can employ for his happiness and well being it also has the unintended (but very welcome) result of making my life just a little easier. I don’t need to worry about scientific theories on parenting. I can leave those large hardcover advice books on the shelf and I can instead listen to my child’s needs and do my best to meet them. I don’t worry that my lying next to him will spoil him but instead I smell the top of his head and it feeds every cell in my body like oxygen. The pressure to be a perfect mom lifts and I don’t compare myself to other moms because there is only one Mac and we are the only ones raising him. Parenting becomes a whole lot more tranquil when I make a conscious effort to follow my child.

As the years pass the ways that I follow my child will bend and shift. There will be times that he needs more guidance from us and times when he needs the space to carve out his own path. But the principle will remain the same. And if you are wondering how it turned out for Sammie and her parents she is now one of the most self-aware and self-confident teenagers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. And when she found her first girlfriend she was able to tell her parents without shame or fear. And with that kind of foundation there is absolutely no telling what that kid will do with her future. Just as her parents have provided us with an example we can look up to, she will be a role model for Mac as he grows into the person he’s meant to be. I look forward to seeing the adults they will both become but I am not rushing the process. Today I am just smelling my baby’s head and listening for his cues. 

*I have deleted the link to the blog carnival that this post was associated with because I has been bringing in far too many negative comments. Please note that my marriage and "lifestyle" are not up for debate.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Prequel Part 3

Online dating for married lesbians 

Well it is finally here: the third installment of Mac the Prequel. I’m sorry that it took so long but I have been busy working out the details for a special announcement. This post is being brought to you in conjunction with  At the risk of giving away spoilers for the upcoming post, you should know that is where we met our Andy. So, they have our heart and we’d happily recommend them even if they weren’t giving us stuff (which, of course, they are because they are awesome on top of awesome but I’m getting ahead of myself). According to their website they are the "largest and most comprehensive online site for people who are either looking for a co-parenting partner or sperm donor match... was originally set up by a UK based lesbian couple searching for a co-parent. With little option out there but sperm banks and unregulated forum sites was born. The site now offers a regulated environment for singles and couples of any sexuality, nationality, colour or creed to meet their potential parenting partner." 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Always Grateful for the Sound

It was cold in Ottawa yesterday. The weather channel was warning of a severe snow storm that didn't actually materialize but it was still very windy with a combination of snow and rain for much of the day. Mac and I stayed indoors and had a great day. He got to do many of his favorite things including lying around naked, smiling at the cat, smiling at himself in the mirror, playing with applesauce and bath time. 

He was as happy as can be. And then today I woke up to a blood curdling scream. As I tried to soothe him he grabbed for my fingers and shoved them into his mouth. Not able to talk he was showing me. Inside his mouth I felt a razor sharp little tooth poking through his gums and knew we were in for a rough day today.

The poor little guy was in agony and couldn't quite figure out what in the world was happening inside his mouth. And my heart broke a little as his eyes pleaded with me to fix it Mama. So I scooped him up in my arms and spent much of the day rocking him and stroking his head. I gave him some Tylenol, a cloth dipped in breast milk and then frozen to suck on, and no less than one thousand kisses. And when it was finally time to get dinner on the table I strapped him into the Ergo and let him rest against my chest as I prepared it.

But every once in awhile the pain was too much for his Mama to soothe and he cried out. Muffled sobs and loud shrieks - baby was hurting. And as I rocked him I thought back to the day he was born. It was the greatest and scariest day of my life. In the middle of pushing him out into the world the doctor stood up abruptly and consulted the monitor. Before I knew it she was grabbing a vacuum and telling me that his heart rate was dropping and that they needed to get him out NOW. She disappeared between my legs with the contraption and after a few more pushes Mac arrived. His skin was a pale blue/gray except for the purple welt on his cone shaped head. And he was silent and still. Instead of having him put on my chest as I had planned, he was whisked away to a table across the room and a team of specialists quickly entered. They marched in single file as I lay there feeling more vulnerable and helpless than I ever imagined possible. I pleaded with Tracy to please, please go check on him, go see if he is OK, GO! But she was too petrified to move. Scared for my health and the trouble the doctors seemed to be having delivering my placenta, and terrified for Maclean, she stood transfixed with her steel cold hand wrapped around mine as stiff as cement. I loved her and hated her for that. When he was born he had an APGAR score of one. Medical staff use an APGAR test to determine the health of a newborn. Babies are given a score of zero, one or two in five areas (skin colour, heart rate, grimace response, muscle tone and breathing) for a possibility of 10 points. To put his score of one in perspective - zero is dead.

Each second that passed felt like an eternity. I couldn't tell you if it took 30 seconds or 10 minutes but eventually he cried. HE CRIED! His little lungs worked overtime as he screamed out scared, alone, confused and cold. He cried and cried as the NICU team continued to shuffle around him sucking stuff out of orifices and monitoring stats. He cried for his moms and we cried too - tears of joy because the sound of his cry was the best noise our ears had ever heard. It was music and love and the sound of angels singing. 

It wasn't long after that (or maybe it was, time was so hard to understand) before his skin turned pink and he was wrapped up and handed to my wife. Safe in her warm arms the tears stopped. Well his did anyway, I was crying enough for all of us.

In the days and weeks that followed I felt bad for him when he cried. I did my best to soothe him but I secretly enjoyed the sounds as I remembered the deafening silence when the cries weren't coming. 

So on days like today when tears and sobs and shrieks are plentiful I hold my child close to comfort him but I revel in his cries - always grateful for the sound.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Marriage (Things I Hope for my Son)

I wrote recently about wanting my son to believe in a higher power. To be honest, I struggled with admitting that because I didn’t want to be that mom who maps out her child’s life before he says his first word. I want him to know that he can do anything and be anything he wants without disappointing me. And yet there is this list of wants that pulls at my heart.

I have come to accept that it is OK for me to have hopes for my son as long as he also knows that he is the captain on his ship of life. His mom and I will be his first mates, while he will have us, until such a time that he finds a new first mate and then we will happily let ourselves be demoted to a less laborious task. We will mop the floors and repair the hull (I don’t even really know what a hull is. Perhaps I should quit this ship metaphor before this gets embarrassing). My point is that he is in charge of his own life and we will be there in whatever supporting roles are appropriate. He will be at the helm (OK, that’s my last shipping term. Promise) but hopefully he will allow us to point out some routes on the map.

And with that, welcome to post two in my unplanned series entitled Things I Hope for my Son. On my mind this week is marriage. If you are in Canada you have probably noticed that same-sex marriage has been in the news recently. The short version is that an American couple came to Canada to get married (something they were prohibited from doing in their home country) and when the marriage failed they returned to Canada to get divorced. Once here the Department of Justice argued that since their marriage had no practical validity in their home country it also wasn’t legal here.  Outrage filled the twitterverse and facebook newsfeeds everywhere.  It turns out that the situation was slightly more complicated (you can look all that up if you are so inclined but this isn’t the point of my post so I am going to move on now).

Whenever same-sex marriage gets brought into the media it makes me narcissistically reflect on my own marriage. The truth is that I LOVE being married. I love that we have promised to be spend our lives together and promised to do the (sometimes hard) work of nourishing and protecting our relationship so that it will last a lifetime. I love that we made those promises in front of our friends and family so that they would know just how deep our commitment to one another truly is. I love that I know, in the deepest part of me, that there could not possibly be another person in this world who could ever know my heart from the inside out the way she does. And, more importantly (so much more importantly) I am immeasurably grateful that she feels the same way. Because, as some of us (painfully) learn, loving someone and being loved by that person are often mutually exclusive. But when they come together, when you love the same person who loves you wholly and completely, that THAT is where the magic is. And I have it.

Photo thanks to Jeff Green

Photo thanks to Jeff Green

But I didn’t always feel that way. I was in my early twenties when same-sex marriage became a federal right in Canada. I was not in love and I had no interest in marriage. It wasn’t my fight. In fact, I fought (ideologically at least) against it. I wrote a substantial master’s level paper critiquing the fight for same-sex marriage. I argued that queer activists were ignoring more important issues in our community like the bullying of gay youth and fight for trans rights (I am still critical of a singular focus on same-sex marriage as the litmus test for equality but I have come to realize that there is room at the table for all of our fights and that forming a hierarchy of oppressions is not particularly productive). And as someone with a deep commitment to feminism I felt that participating in an institution that had historically oppressed and devalued women would stand against my very understanding of myself.  I was also critical of the need to afford certain government sponsored benefits to people participating in monogamous romantic relationships while denying those same benefits to single people, polyamorous folks, and those choosing to form primary relationships not based on romantic love (for the record I’m still critical of this aspect and am supportive of projects that work to overhaul the government’s relationship to marriage both gay and straight). I did not think I was the marrying kind and, besides all that, I was much more concerned with perfecting a haircut that would let other lesbians know I was on their team than I was with lending my hand to any form of queer activism.

But with time, and love, that all changed. I fell in love with someone who made me feel like the world really was made of sunshine and pride parades. I sunk deeply into a never-ending sea of late night giggles, serious conversations that nourish a soul and the kind of love that makes you feel like your heart could literally explode. The kind of love through which you come to understand not just your partner but yourself. And when that woman, the one who had my heart as her very own, asked me if she could share her life (the rest of her whole entire life) with me I said, unequivocally, YES.

And then we got down to the business of planning a wedding. Which was fun, and exciting and frustrating and scary. We poured our hearts (and our bank accounts) into one magical day and made all of the promises we had made a thousand times before. But this time we did it in front of our family and friends and when we were done we signed a piece of paper that probably said a bunch of really important legal things that, summarized, meant that she had no intention of ever not being my partner and that from now on I could call her my wife. And I did. I called her my wife every day, one hundred times a day, for weeks. And, if I’m being completely honest, there is still a small part of me that gets a little thrill when I say things like “let me introduce you to my wife.” Because it means that she chose me and that I get to spend my life with her. And that is amazing.

So, while I can understand the critiques of the institution of marriage I am nonetheless grateful that I can choose to be a part of it in my own way. The world is full of cynicism and hate and criticism.  But in my marriage I find magic and love and peace. And if I can make a wish for my child it would be that. 

Monday, 9 January 2012

How Not to Talk to Lesbian Moms

A little over a year ago  my wife and I made a baby with an amazing man that we met online. This raises a lot of questions. As it says in my profile, I am a shy over-sharer. I encourage questions and am happy to answer them openly and honestly. Even if your question is why did you need an artichoke jar to make a baby?  I will gladly give you all the details. However, sometimes random people in the grocery store approach us and say really asinine things. You should probably learn from their mistakes.

Who is the mom?
We both are.

No, but who is the real mom?
When you ask who is the mom and we respond with we both are please do not follow up by asking us which one of us is the real mom. I can assure you that at 4:30 AM this morning neither of us felt like the fake mom.  To be honest, if we meet someone new and s/he asks us who gave birth to our son we are happy to answer that question. But I am not speaking for all lesbian moms on this one. 

Are you worried that he will be teased because he has lesbian moms?
You’re damn right I am. And just when I get comfortable enough in my own little gay-positive corner of the world to let some of that worry go someone comes along and reminds me that the world isn’t all sunshine and pride parades. 

But don’t you think a boy needs a dad?
I think that children need guardians who love them.

Right, of course, but what about male role models? How will he learn to play sports? Shave? Pee standing up?
Mac has a lot of really great male role models in his life. He has grandfathers, uncles and cousins who will teach him things far more important than shaving and peeing standing up. His uncle Brit will show him how to be the kind of man that mothers-in-law hope their daughters will marry. His uncle Dan will teach him that even men who spend their days enforcing the law aren’t too tough to do the grocery shopping, wash windows or make beds with hospital corners.  And his Dad is no slouch in the man department either. He won’t be raising him but he’ll be around enough to teach him about coordinating colors and that real men don’t shy away from expressing their feelings. I am fairly certain that his moms will be able to navigate the complex world of shaving and peeing standing up instruction but if we get stuck there are plenty of men we can turn to for help. And as for sports, his auntie Rishma has that one covered.

Are you worried he’ll be confused and end up gay or transgendered?
Well, all three of Mac’s parents were raised by heterosexual parents and none of us ended up straight. And, while I haven’t seen any studies done on the subject, my guess is that most transgendered folks were born to heterosexual parents as well. But, more importantly, I’m not at all worried that he’ll be gay or transgendered because neither of those possibilities would upset me. My only hope is that my son will grow up to be exactly who he wants to be.

Don’t you think that being gay is a sign from God that you shouldn’t procreate?
No, I don’t. And if you do I don’t want to know you.

So, there you have it, a quick 101 on how not to talk to lesbian families. As I finish this post I am a bit worried that I have just discouraged you from asking questions about my family. I want to reiterate that I am happy to answer most questions. I love my little family and will never shy away from an excuse to talk about it. So, if you are curious about something leave a comment below. Just don’t ask me if I am the real mom. 

Can you spot the real mom?

Please vote for me by clicking on the image below. 

Monday, 2 January 2012

Rest in Peace Shirley

As December comes to an end and January begins I find myself bracing for the month ahead. It’s always a tough one. I take on the lion’s share of housekeeping duties, I plan to make my wife’s favorite meals and I do my best to let her have her space to grieve and to remember. I let her sink into sadness because I’ve learned that trying to cheer her up over the next few weeks won’t work and, more than that, it doesn’t validate her feelings.

As the Christmas excitement wanes, and one year turns into the next, my wife remembers her mother and braces herself for the anniversary of her death on January 14th. The days leading up to that date are filled with tears that flow at unexpected moments and patience that is fragile. Time passes by slowly and then the day comes and we acknowledge it. We remember that day as if it was yesterday: the early morning phone call (early morning phone calls can strike terror in your heart when someone you love is sick), the long drive down narrow, icy, winter roads to the hospital, the look of exhaustion and grief on her father’s face that can still break my heart at the memory of it five years later, the tears, the hugs, the friends who showed up exactly when they were needed.  And then we sigh with relief as the day comes to a close and we can stop dreading its arrival.

This year it will be five years since my mother-in-law lost a long and hard fought battle against lung cancer. Five years. It seems impossible. My memories of her seem so clear. Like she was just here a matter of months ago. That is because I knew we would lose her and I did my best to backup those memories in triplicate in the deeper parts of my heart.

January 2011 was particularly hard for my wife because we were celebrating the new life forming inside of me and celebration is hard when part of you is missing. The important moments in our life, like our wedding day, the day we found out we were pregnant, and the day I pushed our beautiful son into the world, are all marked with a bit of sadness that Shirley isn’t there to witness. Tracy feels it hard. And I can see it in her face and feel it in my heart.  I can tell you the exact moment that she thinks of her mom, the way her face contorts as she steadies her mouth to stop the tears from flowing. Time softens the shock of the grief but it does little to lessen it.

This January we have so much to be happy about, so much to be grateful for, and my wife will feel guilty at having that much joy.  But I think that this year, more than any of the years before, part of her will know that she IS here. I wrote recently about wanting my son to have faith in a higher a power.  A big part of that desire comes from watching my wife struggle with her beliefs. My wife is a skeptic at heart and a large part of her has believed that when her mom passed she simply ceased to be. And that is terrifying for her. But in the last year Shirley has been with us and even my hardened skeptic is starting to believe in her presence in our life.

It began just days after the pregnancy was confirmed. Not entirely recovered from our last positive test that ended in an early miscarriage, we were nervous. We weren’t people who prayed and it seemed selfish to pray at that moment. Like when your computer breaks and you feel like you can’t call your computer-genius friend because the last time you called him was the last time your computer broke. Asking God for help felt like that. But it seemed OK to ask Shirley for help. So we did. I put a ring she had owned on and kept it there for the whole first trimester. Tracy asked her mom to keep our little one safe and, always needing proof, asked for a sign that she could hear us. As the signs of another possible miscarriage started to show I felt the urge to cocoon inside. I wanted to rest and be still. But that isn't possible when you have work and other commitments to keep. And then one day I was leaving for work and took a bad fall down icy steps. I ended up flat on my back in bed for weeks and Tracy joked that Shirley had pushed me down the stairs to get me to rest. Her doubt was cracking but she needed more. 

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The pregnancy progressed and we managed to keep him growing. We had a few scares along the way but by the third trimester we were confident that our son would make it into our world. As my belly grew larger and larger it was soon time for our baby shower. We were very much looking forward to a day of celebration with the women in our lives. But the absence of one woman during this process was felt deeply. That morning we woke early to shower and prepare for the day. Tracy was emotionally fragile. That strange combination of gratitude, happiness, grief and disappointment was settling into her heart and showing on her face.

Before I tell you this next part there’s something you need to know about Shirley. She was funny and quirky. She could make anyone smile and laugh (even if it was at her own expense). She loved life. And she always signed her name with bubble letters and a smiley face. Always. Her husband even had a smiley face engraved on her tombstone. Which sounds a bit strange but if you knew Shirley you’d get it.

The morning of the baby shower we had some time to kill so we headed out to a few garage sales. You should also know that Shirley LOVED garage sales. We stopped dead in our tracks at the first one when we saw a table FULL (literally full, I wish I had taken a picture) of yellow happy face memorabilia. There were mugs, playing cards, salt and pepper shakers, plates, toys, t-shirts… well, you get the point. I watched as the tears welled up in my wife’s eyes and let a few slide down my own cheek too. Shirley was saying hello and letting her daughter know that she was with her on that day. We bought one of the mugs for fifty cents and moved on to the next garage sale. Always one to believe in coincidences first, my wife felt some comfort but wasn’t entirely convinced. But Shirley knows her daughter and she had a few tricks up her sleeve. We went to three more garage sales and at there was something with a happy face on it. She was leaving no room for doubt.

The garage sale mug next to a picture of a younger Shirley 

Since Mac’s birth the smiley faces have kept coming. When we returned home from the hospital there was a flower arrangement waiting on our table. The flowers were held in a smiley face mug and the card was signed from my parents and Shirley. My mom had an urge to buy us flowers even though she is usually one for more practical gifts. When she spotted the happy face arrangement in the store she understood why - Shirley wanted to acknowledge her grandson's arrival as well.

On the day that we brought all six of Mac’s grandparents together Shirley’s absence was felt again. And then after we left dinner we stopped by a friend’s fiftieth birthday party (practically in time to help them clean up). As we were taking down decorations her friend handed her one of the party balloons to take home. Of course, the balloon was a yellow smiley face. Hi Shirley! 

And finally,this Christmas, as I was looking in a holiday shop for a Baby’s First Christmas ornament I instead found this:

When Tracy opened it there were tears in her eyes. She knew her mom was there watching our son enjoy his first Christmas.  Without fail, on the days that we have really missed her, and on the days that we have felt the loss of her from our son’s life, she has let us know that she is never far. She screams it: I am here! I am here! I love you! And then this week I was at a friend's house, thinking about this blog post and wondering if I should even tell this story about the smiley faces, when I looked down to see a chewed up dog toy that I had probably seen a thousand times before. But I had never before noticed that on each end of the leather bone was a yellow smiley face. OK Shirley! I hear you! I’ll write about you!

So I think that in some ways this January will be easier. First, there is this miraculous addition to our lives:

But, I also think that my wife is ready to admit that although her mom is no longer with us she is absolutely with us. Mac may never get to meet his Nanny but he will know her. We will tell him about her silly antics, the way she danced in the kitchen, the way she loved her husband and her children, the support she gave his moms and how fiercely she loves him from Heaven. And if he ever doubts that love he will just need to look for the smiley faces that she is sure to leave in his path. 

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