Pascha and Revelations

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The Paschal season is always one of great joy.  It helps that Lent is so exhausting–physically and emotionally–and that the culmination is the Feast of Feasts–Christ’s resurrection.

This year was so much different than past ones have been.  I have had numerous flashbacks of previous years’ struggles and joys this Lent and Pascha.  Last year and this year are so very different from each other.  Last year, I attended absolutely every service I possibly could while hurriedly planning a DIY wedding that was to take place about four weeks into the Paschal season.  It was tiring, but everything was worth it.  This year I hardly went to church at all.  Partially because of the 40 days before my churching, partially because of my husband’s work schedule (and one car), and partially because sometimes I lacked desire to–especially if I were going without my husband.  This year is so much harder than any other year, and I have put in so much less effort than I ever have.  I suppose I’ve done all I could this year.  I have to be content that I made my best effort and that if God is gracious to me and gives me another year, then I can do the best I can next year, too.

I know it’s only by God’s grace I’ve gotten this far, and that I got through the past week.  Pascha was much more difficult than I imagined.

I’ve learned that I don’t handle exhaustion well right now.  I have little tolerance for anything, and being tired makes it worse.  At the midnight Paschal service, I was in a foul mood quickly because I was tired, then twisted my ankle on the way to church, then stood on my sore ankle for four hours, and was numbered among the “singles” who were assigned clean-up duties after the post-Liturgy snack.  Three small babies were cuddled in close proximity to me during the service.  I could feel the joy around me, but it was hard to let it creep inside of me.  It seems the only “thick skin” I have developed is the wrong kind–a wall to barricade happiness, peace, and joy outside of me.  Every time the troparion was sung, tears poured down my face: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”  That troparion is sung about a million times during the Paschal service.  So I spent a lot of time crying.

It is so hard and so beautiful, simultaneously, to not only hear the troparion but realise what it means.  Death is still a reality for us, so how do we understand Christ destroying death by His death?  We understand that when Christ died (and subsequently resurrected Himself), the gates of heaven were opened, and it’s possible for us to join Him there.  We don’t need to fear death because Christ sanctified it and made it a pathway to a better life.  But right now death is so real.  Its sting still feels so raw, like the skin has been stripped from my body and any contact or mention of it is painful.

I’ve had trouble reconciling with heaven since Seraphim died; I’ve had trouble thinking of my little one being there, praying for us and waiting for us.  Pascha brought me face to face with that.  I caught myself thinking, very genuinely, “How is Seraphim celebrating Pascha?”

And I smiled.

Seraphim’s first Pascha, and our first one without him.

The words from the homily of St. John Chrysostom echoed in my ears for hours and hours.  This has always been the essence of Pascha to me, and now it has gained profound significance to me.

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.

If anyone has laboured from the first hour, let them today receive the just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of tardiness.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has laboured from the first.

He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.
He both honours the work and praises the intention.

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!

You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.

He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions”.

It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!

For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.
To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.
Amen.

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Over-vigilant

“Eventually you will stop noticing every pregnant woman, every baby, every child around you, but for now you will see them all.  It won’t always be like this, but for a while, it will be very difficult.”

The social worker told me this at the hospital and it comes back to me just about every day.  Every day, I see a pregnant woman, a baby, a small child.  I hear babies crying and laughing, I hear people talking about expecting friends and relatives with new babies and so on and so forth.  The only carts of books left for me to shelve at the library are filled with children’s books.  (I have to admit, I am starting to take that personally.  Can’t anyone else shelve the darn children’s books?!)

It’s like I’m keeping score, I notice them all so vividly.  J: 0, World: 1 billion.  Whatever it is I’m scoring.

I got through the weekend pretty darn well.  I was delighted to find my pregnant supervisor (who I have no interest in seeing or talking to any time soon) is on vacation the next two weeks.  I think that alone raised my spirits.  No babies came in to the library on Saturday during my shift.  I was relieved.  Then I got to spend the rest of the day with my husband for the first time in almost a week (he and I work opposite schedules currently and no longer see each other awake) and realised just how much stronger he makes me feel all the time.  

We went to vespers Saturday night and I saw one of the women there is now visibly pregnant.  I should note that women are always pregnant at our church–I just knew that all of the previously pregnant women that I knew about had had their babies by now and I was wondering who would be next and hoping it might be a while for once.  Well, I found one.  Seeing her pregnant was a bit of a surprise to me, and caused a bit of a clench at my heart, but that’s it.  It helps that I know she lost a baby a couple of years ago–a very late miscarriage.  She knows baby loss aches–differently than I do, but miscarriage is baby loss all the same.  At church, it seemed like every cry, babble, and whimper from every child echoed in my ears, but for the first time, I didn’t cry hearing the baby sounds I ache for my little one to make.  The same was true Sunday–plenty of baby noises that made my broken heart rattle, but I was able to keep the tears at bay.

I still count the babies, the pregnant women, the young children’s sounds.  I don’t feel as strongly towards them as I did even a week ago though.  This will probably go in waves, but I am so thankful to have a bit of a rest from the anguish that I thought would absolutely suffocate me last week.

I do wonder, though, when it will end, and what it will mean.  Will I ever stop seeing the babies and wondering what mine would be doing now?  What he would look like?  Will I ever stop being jealous of every carefree, excited pregnant woman I see, chattering on about her baby-on-the-way?  If I can’t stop noticing them, does that mean I will never be ready for another baby again?

I know I will always miss our first-born.  I know I will always count him among my children.  I know that having another baby will not replace Seraphim, and will not cure my aches for the first one.  I do hope that someday we can have another one though.  I know that every pregnancy from here will be worrisome.  I doubt I’ll ever trust that my baby will make it until I see that he does.  But I guess it’s healthy to recognise the frailty of life and to enjoy each blessed moment and day and year we get with those we love.

I just hope that someday soon my thankfulness for the moments I spent with my first-born son will outweigh the aches I feel from the children around me who are alive and well and not mine.  The good news is I think I’m getting stronger, little by little, so it finally feels attainable sometimes.

Better

At last week #1 of work is over.  I get a day’s reprieve, then back at it on Monday again.

I cried a lot this past week.  As much despair and hurt I felt at intervals, the crying actually felt good, too.  I was worried to return to work because I was afraid of crying.  I told that to our spiritual father last week when we met with him.  His response?  “Well, then cry, and if people think that’s strange or ask what’s wrong, just explain to them that your baby just died and you feel sad.”  Maybe that wouldn’t work for everyone, but that was exactly what I needed to hear.  Freedom to feel what I feel.  Freedom to not be afraid of being sad.

I think I would’ve exploded a couple of times if he hadn’t said that.  But since I could cry, I did.  It was good.

Today I didn’t shed a single tear.  Not when a baby came into the library, not even at church with the dozens of vocalising babies.  I felt my shattered heart rattle with pain a little bit, but no tears.  

I know some days will be better and some days will be worse.  Today was one of the better days, and I’m thankful for these days.  If I can have enough of these, I can keep moving forward and feel like life goes on.

I was also relieved to see my pregnant supervisor is going on vacation for two weeks.  Maybe the next two weeks will get better, too?

“Normal”

Finished my third day back at work, and I have hit an all-new low on the sadness scale.

I knew going back to work would be hard, but I didn’t imagine it the way it turned out.  It has been made worse by my husband getting called in to work every day until after Pascha.  I work 8-4, he works 4-1.  We don’t see each other unless one of us decides not to sleep.  Our schedule makes it even more heartbreaking that Seraphim is not at home; we would never have to leave our tiny baby with a babysitter just yet, if only there was a baby to be caring for.

I have consoled myself with saying that I must be doing better; a couple of months ago, if I’d been feeling as sad as I feel now, I would’ve called in sick.  I did that many times between November and February.  My supervisor said she understood and put up with it.

The sad is unbearable now, but I still show up and stick it out.  Every day, women bring their screaming infants to the library for me to listen to.  I can’t even remember what my own son’s cry sounded like.  Every time I think of that, I feel terrible.  Why can’t I remember?  Every day, I have to listen to people fawn over my supervisor’s pregnancy–something she explicitly denied me by insisting I not tell anyone I was pregnant.  Little did I know at the time that she was pregnant.  Well, it’s abundantly clear now and the anger turns into sadness whenever I see her, whenever I hear someone comment about her belly.

I dreaded the comments I would get from people when I returned to work.  I didn’t think I wouldn’t get any.

Honestly, the comments I prepared myself for would have been much more enjoyable than not get any.

I feel like I was forgotten, and now, finally, my baby really did never exist.

Not a single question about why I was gone 7 weeks, not a single question about my baby or even my own health.  No one has even asked me why I cut my hair.  I would be happy to tell them.  I would be delighted to tell them about my baby, about life and how I’m recovering–emotionally and physically.  Knowing that the people I spend my days with care even a bit would help immensely.

Instead, life goes on for everyone else, but for me it’s standing still.  I wish everyone would just give me a chance to catch up, but I’m simply not ready to yet.

A few pictures

I finally have a few more photos to share of my baby.  I struggled a lot with trying to decide whether or not I should share pictures, and had he survived I think I wouldn’t.  I think it would be unfair to a child growing up to have pictures of his infancy and childhood plastered all over the Internet without his consent–and some parents post such embarrassing pictures of their children, I can only imagine how they will affect the children’s later lives.

However, my child doesn’t have a later life for me to worry about, and I would like to think he wouldn’t mind that I am sharing a few of his pictures.

I also realised that it was helpful for me to see pictures of other women’s babies at birth and after death so that I could prepare myself for what my baby might look like after a pregnancy without amniotic fluid, and what sort of changes would occur after death.  The changes death caused were what I feared the most, and the truth was, it wasn’t so bad.  He was a little purplish after a couple of days, and I noted in the pictures taken by the NILMDTS (Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep) photographer, part of his face was a little darker and almost “bruised” looking.  I had noticed that in another woman’s pictures of her baby as well, so I wasn’t as surprised.  I think some of the pictures actually make him look worse than I thought he did, or maybe I really just didn’t mind at all.  What I feared most–seeing his dead little body–did not affect me as deeply as I feared it would, and I think it is thanks to seeing others’ pictures.

So I will share a few of ours.

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In the NICU when we were finally reunited a few hours after Seraphim was born and a couple of hours before he died.

 

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He briefly opened his eyes about a half hour or so before he died. He was very responsive to holding our fingers from the very beginning and I think it was comfort for both him and for us.
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In my hospital shortly after Seraphim died. He grew much paler as he died, but he maintained a very peaceful expression and looks more like he is just sleeping.

 

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Seraphim’s feet that were bent the wrong way. The doctors were able to untangle his feet after he was born, but it would’ve taken some braces to correct the other problems from there being no room for him to stretch out in my womb for so long.

 

 

 

 

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Seraphim’s beautiful red hair.

 

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One of the photos taken by the photographer from NILMDTS. Seraphim’s face looks slightly “bruised” and his lips are dark. He is still a beautiful, precious little one, and I didn’t think he looked nearly as bad as I feared he would in the days after he died.

 

Milk Banks and Blood Draws

I am so close to being able to ship off my freezer-full of milk.  Well, that sounds like I have tons to send.  In reality, I have just about a gallon of frozen breast milk that I collected for 3 1/2 weeks.  But I made it to the minimum before I started using an eye medication that inhibits my ability to keep collecting for the milk bank, and I’m satisfied with that.

The milk bank was supposed to send me blood work forms two weeks ago, but they got delayed until a couple of days ago.  I guess they put the wrong address on the envelope and had to resend it.  So while I was in the area for an eye appointment, I got my blood drawn today so that I can hopefully get moving on getting my milk out of the freezer and to someone who can use it.

After a bit of a hassle with checking in (I guess the doctor who works with the milk bank put the wrong code on the form and it needed to be verified and fixed), I was paired with a very chatty phlebotomist.  She immediately asked, “So did you have the baby yet, or are you pregnant still?”  I was taken aback.  I was being tested for hepatitis and HIV–diseases that could be passed through breast milk that they needed to ensure I didn’t have before taking my milk–so I didn’t know how she knew I had been pregnant.  I told her I had the baby in February.  She asked the typical questions, boy or girl? what did you name him? how much did he weigh? (noting he was premature when I said he’d been 5 lbs) what colour were his eyes? are you going to have any more kids?  I kept using the past tense but she didn’t pick up on it one bit.  I thought maybe she was aware I was working with a milk bank because of her phone call and assumed I had lost the baby so she didn’t ask anything else.  

But then she took another look at my form and asked, “Wow, do you really have to go all the way to Portland to see this doctor?”  I replied that I’d actually never met the doctor–she just works with the milk bank there that had agreed to accept my milk and they needed to make sure I didn’t have any diseases that might get passed to the babies that received my milk.  She was excited and surprised that I was donating my milk, and immediately chatted on about a friend of hers who had a foster baby and purchased donated breast milk from a similar bank for her.  I, too, know a family from our church who was buying breast milk for an adopted baby several months ago.  I told that to the phlebotomist, adding, “I didn’t know until then that there was a need for it or else I would’ve never thought to do it.  And I guess seeing the babies in the NICU reminded me that some women have their babies so early that at least at first they might need some breast milk to supplement theirs since it doesn’t come in right away.  I realised that if my baby had made it, I probably would’ve needed some at first since mine took a whole week to come in.”

I guess she put two-and-two together right then that my baby had died, and she gushed, “Oh I am so sorry… I guess what I asked must have been really painful for you to answer.  I’m really sorry about that.”  And actually, it wasn’t painful.  I was guarded because I didn’t know what types of things she was going to ask or how I would respond, but all of her questions were things I got a chance to brag about my baby.  He was a boy, he was five weeks early and just five pounds, his name was Seraphim, he had brown eyes like mine, and my husband and I have just been married for a year and hope to have more children when the time is right.  These are facts of my life, and facts of my baby’s life.  These are the questions I want, the interest in my baby I crave.  I don’t get to show him off (except through pictures), so I want to talk about him.  I don’t want to forget him and don’t want others to forget him.

And I guess that’s part of the reason I decided to donate my milk.  I needed to know my baby existed, and the food I produced for him reminded me continually that he had lived and my body so desperately wanted to help him grow and thrive.  I never pumped very often (only when I felt it was convenient for me) and I never produced very much (I also couldn’t afford a state-of-the-art pump, so I probably met less success with my methods), but it was enough that I could help someone else who is struggling with a premature baby, or low milk production, or an adopted child.  It was something I could do in honour of my baby’s life–my milk was life-giving liquid designed for him, and hopefully it can be for someone else since he doesn’t need it.

I’m glad I did it for other reasons as well–putting off engorgement until it was on my clock when I was ready for it (and by the time I had stopped pumping, I really only experienced a couple of hours of pain instead of days), helping my body do what it was supposed to to heal (I had stopped bleeding almost entirely by day 3 after the baby was born and could only get my body to keep evacuating my uterus with pumping-induced contractions), and giving me a bit of responsibility and structure that my first few weeks without my baby desperately needed.  

I almost feel lonely now that I’ve stopped pumping, now that my body is mostly healed, now that the reality that my baby’s presence in my life is no longer physically altering since he no longer needs anything physical I can offer him.

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It doesn’t look like much but this is about 100 oz of frozen milk, a few days before I stopped pumping and storing.