When Bad Things Happen to Good Babies, and, the Brazilian Butt Lift as Grief Management Strategy

For Sarah

Every year I make resolutions. Every year I collect convenient pull-out workouts from Health or Self or Glamour or whichever magazine features glossy hotties beaming from the cover in some bust-boosting mini-dress, promising that you, too, can be a hottie (but also grounded and a good cook and a doting mother – oh! And hot in the sack, too), and that this will certainly pave the way to your new and better life because being hot and available and attractive and fit and good and WORTHY are, truly, the only things that matter. Phew! No matter that, at 37, I have officially passed the target age demographic (18-35) for these publications, and no matter that these magazines never have amputees or other women with disabilities in them, (although in terms of “parts” to manage, we’ve got the market cornered with new sprinting and running feet being released every year. Marie Claire, take note!), and no matter that these goals, for any woman without a costume and super powers, a mobile personal trainer, a nanny, and a personal chef, are completely, outrageously impossible.

One afternoon this holiday season I looked in my bag and realized I’d brought Kierkegaard to the gym. Intentionally. I wanted to rewrite that multiple POV Abe/Isaac sacrifice scene from the viewpoint of parents with terminally ill kids and I’d been working on it for months, but really? It was Christmas Eve day. Did I want to read K-dawg while staring at fake evergreen garlands, running up a treadmill hill, and watching, without sound, the Justin Bieber Holiday Music Special? My life had reached a new low, I thought. I scrambled to snatch back some of my street cred, if indeed I ever had any. First step: so-called bad magazine. I looked at the photo of Scarlett Johansson on the cover of the Cosmopolitan sitting on the locker bench and felt my mouth water. (Plus, there was a “sex horoscope” special section that highlighted “your hottest sex days.” Squee!)

“Uh, are you done with that?” I asked a woman I vaguely recognized. About my mother’s age, fit, tanned, blond hair in a loose ponytail.

“Sure,” the woman said, looking unsure. “Say, are you back from college visiting your parents?”

I realized I’d been doing the same interval circuit workout with the same woman since my parents moved to Cheyenne in 1998 and I didn’t know her name, and she still thought I was in my 20s. It was a proud moment, which I promptly ruined.

“Uh, I teach college?” I said, sounding like a girl at a fraternity party saying, “Uh, I do beer bongs, like, all the time?” I reached toward Scarlett’s Dolce and Gabbana-clad bod.

“You go on,” she said, and winked at me. “Isn’t Scarlett just the prettiest thing?”

“Totally,” I said, and meant it.

I try every year to give up those magazines (even as I’m clipping resolution workouts I’m resolving not to do it the following year), and until recently I have thought of them as the evil, shallow shadow of my former, body-obsessed self. But as I shoved Kierkegaard to the bottom of my gym bag and trotted off to the cardio room, I realized that I wanted that lip gloss-obsessed girl back. I’m never going to count calories or actually follow one of those dreadfully restrictive, actually-about-starving-but-I-promise-it’s-SO WORTH IT-because-your-life-will-be-better diets in Women’s Health or other periodicals with wholly misleading titles (what could possibly be healthy about 1,100 calories a day?). I find the objectification of women and their various parts odious, mind-numbing, pervasive, petty, and designed to pit women against one another. But it can also be DISTRACTION in its purest, puffy pink, candy pop form. Why is distraction less valuable than any other coping mechanism if it’s more effective than solo therapy/meditation/group therapy/pills? I wanted to look at the latest party dresses, understand how a hot pair of heels can “snaz” up the “wow” factor of any outfit, and how to mix prints and fabrics without looking like a mannequin in a Chico’s storefront.

I squinted my brow and began to run and read. Man, ScarJo is a gorgeous, cool woman. Ooh! New Year’s Dresses at every price and for every figure! I felt the golden-hot, vibrating jolt of fashion inspiration. I wanted to go to the most expensive department store in town (in Cheyenne, the very pedestrian and hum-drum Dillard’s) and bury my nose in pair after pair of smelly, animal slaughtering pumps and inhale the interior leather of expensive handbags. I wanted to use phrases like “yellow is the new brown which was the new black” and squeeze myself into an off-the-shoulder jumpsuit in the junior’s department that required special undergarments to wear in public.

And then I looked up at one of the television screens and saw a horribly sappy Christmas television ad featuring toddlers running toward the tree to pick up their sparkling gifts. I thought of Ronan, how he can only move his hand now and with great effort, the seizures that scare him and that have increased in duration and frequency, his soft and perfect body that’s growing growing growing even though he’s already gone. I pounded the remote and switched the channel, and there he was.

Leandro. And his Brazilian Butt Lift “Secret Weapon” toning system. Inside, I was levitating with glee. Wouldn’t it be incredible if my problem of soul-cracking, life-destroying grief could truly be solved by having a LIFTED BUTT? I understood, as I left ScarJo behind and scrambled off the treadmill to call the 800 number in the next 20 minutes in order to receive my free gift, that I was reaching a new, almost cavernous-level of pathetic groping. But it was also a huge relief that for just a moment, just a blip in time, I thought this might help me. Shallow? Hardly. I felt like I’d just jumped into a memory-foam mattress and was about to have the deepest and most restful sleep of my life. I was going to wrap that yellow band around my upper thighs and engage in the proven-effective “triangular toning system” and it would be me and my ass and that would be it, at least for a moment. I was going to rumba and shake it with Leandro and his crew.

I quickly became a frat boy obsessed with asses (namely, my own, which is even more embarrassing). Gone were the insomnia-ridden nights trolling through television channels looking for beautifully shot and intelligently scripted black-and-white dramas from the 30s. Nope. I wanted Young Guns, Young Guns 2, American Psycho, Die Hard or all the Die Even Harders, or any other kind of testosterone and violence-fueled film with a 2 or a 3 after the title and with Bruce Willis in a tank top, a cigarette dangling from his turned up lip, or a buffed-up, indestructible robot chasing John Connor through a Southern California shopping mall armed with a machine gun and looking to kick some humanoid ass. Was I trying to experience what Ronan might have been like as the teenager he’d never become? Maybe.

My baby might be dying, but I have a hot butt. Was this really the tagline for my thoughts? The dialogue of my interior life? Was Elle Woods from Legally Blonde the only person (and she’s fictional!) who could understand the logic in this? (LB is actually a deeply feminist movie if you use these criteria: the women actually like and support each other; and there are scenes in which women talk to one another about topics other than men.)

All the little houses I’ve built for myself are burning down. Why not focus on trying to have a hot ass? And for those people who think I should spend my days weeping and gnashing my teeth? It’s none of your business the way my heart churns at night, or the way I feel like an action hero villain when I see a kid smack her kid at the Cheyenne Wal-Mart/Target/Kohl’s/Insert Mall Store with Post-Christmas Blow-Out Sale. If you knew how I kicked and groaned and cried, you might send me one of those horrible sympathy cards with footprints in the sand or dark v’s of birds winging off into a sunset and a poem in which Jesus appears at the end, speaking in a soft voice about what is meant to be. Save your money! I’m so shallow now that I don’t even need them! Instead, I’m going to earn commission for pimping Leandro’s butt shaping system after I get my “house” in order. (As in “brick house.” Yeah.)

And I’m going to openly admit that I like Rihanna, Eminem, and songs that have lyrics like “animal print pants out of control,” and “sex drive just push the start (pant pant)” and “you’re the one that I think about alwayhayhays” and any song that’s more about the beat and the rhythm than anything else. No, I really like it. It’s below zero in Cheyenne and you know what? After a spin class at the dumpy gym where I’ve been working out every day during this holiday season I hop in my car, roll down the windows with that stuff on high volume, wishing I could outfit my Corolla with those annoying boom-bass speakers that my parents always complain about (“I mean, do we really want to listen to that?” my mom will say through her window at the blank stare of a tinted window on a pimped-out double cab Ford. “How RUDE.”), and sing at the top of my lungs: “In another life, I would be your girl,” and “I love you like a love song, baby” and I. Feel. Good.

And most of the time I do not. I vividly remember strolling by my parents’ bedside table and reading the title of a book by Harold Kushner: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Now I stroll by and see a stack of pictures from last Christmas. Ronan, sparkly-eyed and chubby, sitting up on his own in front of a Christmas tree. Ronan reaching out for a spoon, a toy. Ronan propped up in his arm, in my lap, my face unrecognizable to me – the face of a person I met and knew long ago. The baby before we knew what was going to happen to the baby. The baby that, like Aristotle’s acorn, was destined to become the tree. No more.

How about When Bad Things Happen to Good Babies. Rachaeli died of Tay-Sachs this December. This year I emailed three new moms whose babies were diagnosed. Or this one: When Good Things Happen to Bad People because that happens, too. And when I lift Ronan’s body to mine he is a floppy sack of tiny bones and sweet skin and fuzzy hair. I made him, he’s mine, and he’s dying, and it’s totally unfair.

You know what helps me when I fall into that thought pit that has no escape route? Fashion, pop music, and thinking about my ass and how round and high and tight or whatever Leandro’s promised me it will be when he’s done with it. When I look at those photos of Ronan from last Christmas, that sweet, happy, bright-eyed, sighted baby with his little personality within his sweaty, chubby-fingered reach, I want to scream and howl into the void, because living, right now, often feels like a daily step into it. I do plenty of hurting, but because this is not a Lifetime movie (love those, too!), and you don’t get to see it, predict it, box it, analyze it, or judge it. In fact, I’m so shallow you just might be tempted to back that ass up. So what if I do some dorky “bonus” “BUM BUM” workout with Leandro or wonder which blush will give me the best “post-hanky-panky” glow without the hanky-panky? It gives me something to do, and my brain literally hurts, and it not even half as much as my heart, which is like a slowly ticking clock about to run out of batteries and stuck in a bucket of molasses.

My twin set of resolutions for my now divided, grieving personality:

Emily:

-Drink more water

-Engage in periods of controlled crying at least once a day so can appear in public and maintain friendships/avoid public freak outs

-Finish novel (2 pages a day)

-Be an engaged and impassioned teacher

-File, file, file away every moment with my son, like brainprint, even when I’m not writing about him (every day)

-Meditate and exercise in order to sleep without narcotic or alcoholic aids

-Buy house?

Other Emily:

-Get a totally hot butt with Leandro and his Brazilian, oiled-up, waxed-to-the-max, long-haired, spray-tanned babes. Say things like “hola” and “si” while doing a rumba move in the privacy of my own home. Si!

-Coordinate outfits! Accessorize! Buy expensive “investment” wardrobe pieces and go to Forever21 for the rest. Subscription to Vogue, hello!

-OMG find the best possible mascara! Like, for reals!!! (Lengthens, strengthens, pumps, defines, enhances, etc. They’ll be able to see each of my individuated lashes from the MOON!)

-Wear inappropriate (read: tight) outfits when the mood strikes

-Let no car chase movie go unwatched (while drinking a rum and coke carefully hustled into theater in massive knock-off designer bag).

-Watch Monday night football, all the Celtics games, all the Red Sox games. Bet on March Madness. Actually, finally, understand what  a “down” means at a yard line.

-Join an online chat in the lead-up to the new Batman film?

Why can’t I have both lists? Who’s to say that the woman following the one list isn’t saving the other? Women are encouraged to be all kinds of things (read:  everything) in this culture (mothers who shed “post-baby-bulge” in record time, breadwinners, friends, top performers in the bedroom and the boardroom, sexy, gorgeous, healthy, kind, available for friends and family, smart, forgiving, funny, innocent, world-wise, on time, put together, stylish, helpful, sweet, “moral,” slutty, curious), and then we’re accused by women-hating morons like Rush Limbaugh that we’re crazy and mercurial and unpredictable and unreliable. What Rush and others may not realize is that having many sides to oneself can help save the core and central self, which in a situation like this – a mother watching her child slowly die – is at its outer fear-and-trembling limit of survival. How can one take a leap of faith when the outcome is doomed? Screw you, Soren. Your big wound is unrequited love and getting jilted by your lady? (Cue Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”). I’m checking out the latest Michael by Michael Kors sequined sweatshirt line. I want to dance until the world ends with Britney and bring sexy back and dance in the dark. It’s getting hot in here, dammit.

Grief is iron-in-the-fire hot which doesn’t always mean a total lack of fun or freedom. If anything, I’ve experienced more weirdly transformative happy highs while my heart is turning, every morning, when I wake up and fully face the reality that Ronan will DIE before I do, into a messy piece of warped and jagged glass that hurts to breathe with and through. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable, so at my outer limit that I’m actually able, for the first time maybe ever, to leave it behind.

In 1994 I spent a lot of my time as an exchange student in Dublin in nightclubs, wearing the same pair of fake leather pants that essentially vaporized into thin air when I removed them from my beer-smelling backpack at the end of the year. I always missed the last bus (the drunk bus) that left the stop near Trinity College at 2 am, and after the club closed, I’d walk back to my flat along the quays, the Four Courts shining in the distance like some bastion of state-sanctioned safety, a journey of one hour at a healthy clip in my scuffed-up, laced-up Doc Marten boots. I was never frightened on the dance floor (spotlights, stages – you name it! I liked to move it move it) and I was never frightened walking home. I just believed, with the naivety of the privileged and very young, that I’d had my fair share of trouble early on. I was in the clear; it was smooth sailing from here. I was alive, glorious, and although I didn’t write anything but academic papers about Heidegger and/or the politics of the IRA in a modern Ireland during that year when I shed the last of my baby fat, I was collecting, hoarding images: every slant of light along that street, every ball stalled out mid-play under a broken street light in front of a brick rowhouse, every snapshot from the shitty tortellini and canned fruit meals (served with a crap-ass bottle of wine from the Spar), that I served for every dinner guest – all of it stuck to me like fly-paper. My heart was huge and sticky and wide-open and ready for anything that flew in. But I was also anxious, and self-conscious, and always hovering, watching, floating above every moment I experienced without fully being a part of it.

The opposite of gnawing, heart-twisting ache is euphoric, the-top-of-your-head-opens-to-heaven joy. Perhaps the human body was built this way, in order to survive what life brings you. I watch my son, my beloved, snatched away from me in front of my drowning eyes. Looking at chronological photographs is like watching a film reel in reverse and in fast forward. I offer every trade I can think of (him for me, this for that) and am met with a blank and nasty and unforgiving, dangerous wind. My heart is a swollen thing I could pull out of my mouth and kick across the room. I was happy in Dublin, truly, but in a baby fat way. Because I wasn’t miserable at all then, I actually didn’t know what happiness meant until now, when I’m the saddest and most hopeless I’ve ever been in my life or ever imagined I might be.

So, yeah. Kierkegaard, Aristotle, yes. And Cosmo and race car movies and the Brazilian Butt Lift. This might be my new year’s combination resolution list for surviving grief’s shit storm.

Because, truly, the only resolution that would appear at the end of both lists? LIVE. In spite of everything; in the face of everything. Live. For 2012 that’s the only resolution I’ve got.

24 responses to “When Bad Things Happen to Good Babies, and, the Brazilian Butt Lift as Grief Management Strategy

  1. you already have a hot butt!

  2. i’m so sorry ronan is doing worse. whatever works for you, your sense of humor is still intact. that is a good sign in this heartbreaking journey.

  3. Emily, thank you for writing this post. It really is amazing. Truth be told, I love all those songs too. I also get in my car and blast that music to take me away, even if just for a moment. Those moments of not thinking of reality are what keeps me sane if only for a few moments a day.

    Thinking of you tons. ;)

  4. I would say I am so sorry you are going through that (which I am) but what I want to say is thanks. Because I also have a son who is dying (“a matter of weeks, rather than months”, as his doctor would put it) and I also find myself in the middle of a fitness frenzy (I hired a personal trainer!) and I am also desperately trying to believe that I will survive (even though I am not really sure). So, yes, thanks. Watching my son die is the loneliest and scariest thing I have ever faced and just reading your piece makes me feel less alone.

  5. Em. I love you. Feisty, self aware, girlie, philosopher, griever, mum, teacher, observer, kierkegaard in spin class-tastic, singer, dancer, meditator, giver, lover, daughter, new year resolution-er. Big kisses. xxx o-E

  6. So sorry ANYONE has to go through this…you are giving so much to these families. Just knowing it’s ok not to be ok…….We’ve been there & it SUCKS!!! Sending love & prayers your way.
    Sharon Ashford
    Holden’s Grammy

  7. Alma Luz Villanueva

    I love the JOURNEY of your words here, Emily…I laughed and wept, equally…YES, LIVE…with a firmer butt, more open heart, as WIDE OPEN, that human spectrum. Since I’ve lived with four teens, I’ve often thought of ‘Lil Ronan’ as a teen…ahhh your frat boy. Almaluz xoxo

  8. This peace is endlessly beautiful and honest and full of dark wonderful humor. Thank you for writing.

  9. hi emily,

    thank you for giving words to our hearts.
    sharon goldberg hoffman
    harry’s mom

  10. Oh, Emily! You made me laugh and cry and pull my hair. My heart breaks for you even as I relish my own sugary pop treat: Top Gear on Netflix. Ridiculous, but if you run out of fast car movies, you might like it. Hugs!

  11. When I have been to the Aran Islands I have never dared to go near the edge of the Dun Aengus fort because the urge to know the sensation of being suspended in mid-air was strong & I knew I couldn’t stay there for long. Wishing you something, anything, even if it is simply a better butt, that helps you when you are suspended in your mid-air, and many hands to hold you on days when you know you will fall.

  12. Your writing never fails to make me smile and tear up at the same time. I think of you and your family often.

  13. Beautiful. Heartachingly, gut-wrenchingly beautiful. LIVE. Yes. Live!

    I thank you; beyond words, I thank you.

  14. Your writing is beautiful. I am a friend of Katie F.’s, a fellow micro-preemie mom. We lost our twin son Tristan after 26 short days. I do not ever want the “club” to expand and hope, even though i know my hope is hopeless, that you will not have to join. Even though my loss is still raw 14 months later, you will survive, perhaps stronger in unexpected ways. Cry whenever, wherever, however. And know that there are people near and far to support you when you need it most.

  15. I have no words except thank you. Your posts make me hug my girls tighter and serve as an additional reminder of how blessed I am by them. And your posts help open the definition of grieving.

  16. Happy to hear you’re embracing both lists! I love those trashy mags especially on the days when distraction is in order. Somehow we are getting US Today delivered monthly…. so if you need more of the above, I’d be happy to deliver these to your door!
    love and hugs, emma

  17. You can have both lists. I firmly believe that. It’s that divide that makes us human I think — never perfect but beautiful in the imperfections/contradictions.

    Wishing you a peaceful entry into 2012 …

  18. dear emily,
    i don’t know what to say but that you make me laugh, cry, wince, scream. it is raining here in brunswick right now, just like tears—yours? mine? ronan’s? i cannot see the sky.
    still thinking of you both.
    love christy

  19. I get an image of you suspended in a slow moving nightmare, with occasional bright bursts of relief. You do whatever you have to do to survive the unendurable. Thank you as always for sharing your process with us. I can see you are a gift to those who are going through and have gone through what you are in the middle of, and I know you are a gift to me as well. Loss is built into the structure of this thing, and we all have everything to lose. In Buddhism there is talk of the Buddha Nature, a level of wisdom and clarity that is unaffected by any circumstance. I like to imagine this part of myself and others that cannot be touched by tragedy or loss, that remains whole and luminous and unbroken, even when the rest of us is ravaged and twisted and scarred. This is the absolute vs. the relative realm. I feel the immensity of the SUCK you are embroiled in in the relative realm, and I also hold the image of both you and Ronan, wide open, expansive as the sky. Lots of love to you, Emily.

  20. I have trouble praying for you and your family without tears welling up in my eyes. But I pray for you all the same. I pray for peace and comfort and moments of joy.

  21. You can have both lists, Emily. All the most interesting people I know have “guilty pleasures.” I’m glad you’re taking the guilty off your pleasures. Whatever gets you through the day, the moment, the heartbeat. xoxo (P.S. the grace scene of Talladega Nights makes me giggle so hard. And I’ve never admitted that in public before, BTW. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuAUI_0knfk)

  22. I can relate a tiny little bit. When the shit hit the fan for me a while ago and I had to spend what seemed like most of my life and future in surgery waiting rooms for tests and tests and more tests the glossy magazines became my friends and comfort and as I followed the lives of the rich and famous and gorgeous my own miserable pitiful whatever state got just that bit easier, that and watching illegal downloads of crappy TV series. All the stuff I wouldn’t sniff at before actually helped me to keep going while I struggled with endurance. Weird.
    Wishing you calm heart and soul.

  23. Have to say I just found your blog and lost my afternoon in it. My daughter is 12 and special needs and ‘almost dies’ at least once a year. I too blast Lady Gaga, lose myself in campy horror movies, and knock others down in the surgical waiting room to get to the outdated trashy People magazine only to look through it and think “If I ever get out of this waiting room, and get her home and healed, and back to school, and ever again have an hour to go to the mall,…well…I’m buying those f*^&^*g shoes!”. I love your line about indulging the woman in one list might be saving the woman in the other, gave me such comfort.

  24. Pingback: From the Elf King notebook: The Undertaking | Superfluities Redux

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