To my daughter on her 8th birthday (in Heaven)

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It’s been 2,922 days since I held you in my arms. So much has changed since that awful day when I learned I wouldn’t be taking you home. For starters, you have two little brothers now. Carter turns seven in just a few weeks. He’s exhaustingly curious and smart as a whip, and he talks about you all the time. Last week he asked me why I wanted to have three kids, and I did my best to explain that I’d only planned on having two. When he was a baby, he looked exactly like you, so much so that I often had to catch my breath when he opened his eyes. He’s all boy, but I can’t help imagining that you would’ve been the girl version of him, with thick brown hair and enormous green eyes wise beyond your years.

Preston is four and sweet as can be. It was a bit of a miracle he even got here, as I had a whole slew of complications when I was pregnant with him. He was early, but he came out healthy and strong and hasn’t missed a beat. He goes to a Christian preschool, and he talks a lot about Heaven and how his big sister ended up there. He sleeps with three of the Avery Bears your Nana gave out at your baby shower, and he swears up and down that every time he hugs them, he feels your angel wings hugging him back. (I like to think the same thing.) The boys still have a few of your toys, like the giant pink ladybug and the frog prince, and they always tell people they’re hand-me-downs from their big sister.IMG_0115

We live in Texas now, a thousand miles from the little house in the woods where your life began and most likely ended. I’m guessing subconsciously your death was the catalyst for your father and I’s decision to move, though I doubt either of us will ever admit it. I’m not sure if we were trying to run away from something terrible or run toward something beautiful, but whatever the motive, I actually think we managed to recover some of the happiness that was destroyed the moment we saw your perfect, still face.

Can you believe it’s been eight years? Time is such a funny thing. After your death, the days lasted forever. It was like staring at a giant hourglass, watching the sand drip out grain by grain, until my eyes grew heavy with the setting sun, until I woke at first light to do it all over again. Then one day, the sand began spewing, churning faster and faster. Now I long for it to slow down before I forget what it felt like to hold you.

Eight years. An eternity in a blink of an eye, thousands of giggles and a few hundred tears. I wonder who you would be, Avery Mae Chandler. A girlie girl or a tomboy or someone who defies labels? I wonder if you’d want to be a doctor or an artist or the first woman to set foot on some distant planet far away. Everything about you will always be wonder, because for some reason I still can’t quite comprehend, you became a speck of dust, a beautiful soul far too good to plant feet in this cruel world.

Eight years. So much has changed, but one thing never will. Your mother still loves you so much, Avery. So much that it hurts her heart.

An Early Gift

Avery Birth RecordEvery now and then my book Holding Avery gets entered into a contest – the latest was the Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards.  It’s a well-known competition in the literary world, with other winners being the likes of screenwriter Zack Whedon and the infamous Dalai Lama, to name a few.

When I found out I was a finalist a few months ago I was thrilled; I know it’s entirely cliche, but, given the competition, it truly was an honor to be nominated. I knew that winning was a long shot. The awards were given out this past Friday night at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in San Francisco.  I wasn’t there – I was sitting on the couch watching House Hunters International with a very jet-lagged husband who had just returned from a work trip overseas. I was trying to convince him that it was completely practical for us to move to St. Croix when I got the email. The winners had been announced, and I had to blink a few times before I processed that it was Holding Avery that won the Gold in the Grief/Grieving category.   My little book, my little story, my little daughter – the big winner.

It’s exciting being a winner.  It’s incredible to have people talking about Holding Avery, to have people recognizing it not just for the writing but also for broaching an uncomfortable subject that is often ignored.  It’s not The Nobel Prize but it’s enough to make me feel special for a few days, to reaffirm that I made the right choice writing such a personal book in the first place.  Winning is also very timely.

Avery was born on July 2, just three days from today.  (It’s 1:32 p.m. as I type this; she was born at 1:43 p.m.) Surprisingly, July 2 doesn’t really bother me – it’s tomorrow, June 30, that puts the pit in my stomach.  If you’ve read my book you know that June 30 was a pretty boring pregnant day back in 2008.  I took a walk, I ate a sandwich, I went to Target. A few things happened that had me convinced Avery was on her way, and just past midnight my water broke.  Seven years later I still find myself doing a play-by-play of that day, wondering how and why things turned out the way they did.  I said it in my book and I stand by it today – as the years pass, it doesn’t get easier.  It gets different. I already feel the beginnings of that squirm in my stomach, that feeling of sadness and loss blended with the happiness of the beautiful life we’ve built post-Avery.  This year I can add the accolades of my book, Avery’s book, to that cocktail of confusion.

Yes. It’s nice to be a winner. But I’ll never forget that Avery’s loss is what made this all possible in the first place.  Happy Birthday, sweet girl.  This year you won the Gold.

A Reminder This Mother’s Day…

IMG_6072I remember the first Mother’s Day after I lost Avery.  It was a strange day filled with sadness and complex emotions. I was also angry, furious at a holiday that seemed to be made for everyone except me. Every TV commercial reminded me of what I’d lost, every grocery store display reminded me of the child I’d held in my arms but couldn’t keep. Avery was stillborn, and I struggled with my new identity as a childless mother.

Prior to being discharged from the hospital after my daughter’s birth/death, my doctor had grabbed hold of me, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “You are a mother.” In that moment, I believed her.  But after being shoved back into the real world, surrounded by a society that doesn’t fully understand stillbirth and people that couldn’t look me in the eye, I wasn’t so sure.  I knew I was a mother, but did anyone else? I had a nursery, a closet full of baby clothes, three strollers, a Baby Bjorn, toys, car seats, pacifiers…I had everything I was supposed to have. But I didn’t have the one thing that truly makes you a parent. I didn’t have a baby.

But I did have a baby.

I had a baby that I nurtured and sang to for nearly nine months. In those fleeting moments, we had thousands of conversations about the past, present, and future.  I knew how her foot tickled my ribs, how her fingers brushed the inside of my belly when she did her daily gymnastics. I knew every single time she had the hiccups. Avery was the first person to ever hear my heartbeat from the inside. How could I not be a mother?

It took me a long time to realize it, but I finally realized that other people didn’t determine my maternal status – it was up to me. I had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and Mother’s Day was still my holiday. So on that Sunday in 2009 I celebrated my motherhood. I picked up my daughter’s urn and sang her a song.  I shook her ashes, listening to the soft swoosh-swoosh that always reminded me of her heartbeat. I sat with her for an hour, remembering that while her short life brought me incredible grief, it also awarded me immense happiness.

I was a mother.  I was Avery’s mother. And no one could take that away from me.

It’s been seven years since that first Mother’s Day without my daughter.  I’ve since been blessed with two healthy, rambunctious little boys that have made this holiday so much brighter. Yet as this Mother’s Day Weekend approaches, I can’t help but think of all of the other mothers out their struggling.  For some the wounds of stillbirth may still be very fresh; others may have been grasping at an identity for quite some time.  To all of you, please remember that even though your child may not walk this earth, you are still a mother.

And don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.

 

 

#InItToWinIt

winner-1I had a really crappy day today.  Last Friday, on my way home from getting the boys a couple of Happy Meals to celebrate a great week at school, I got rear-ended.  (Thankfully we are all fine – my bumper was the only casualty.) This set off a chain reaction of lengthy phone calls and insurance claims and body shop estimates.  Everything was going smoothly, too smoothly, I suppose, when I dropped my car off yesterday to get fixed. The rental car company was supposed to pick me up an hour later at my house, and I waited. And waited.  And waited.  And made a phone call.  And waited.  And made another phone call…

Long story short, 36 hours later I had to drag my especially spunky children to the rental place along with two car seats, then make a few more phone calls to the insurance company, then try to maneuver these car seats into this rental car that evidently is not designed for car seats, all while my children picked up cigarette butts from the parking lot and practiced their Karate Kid moves on every stranger that walked by.  (Why on earth did I let them watch that movie?)

By the time I got home my head was pounding, my blood pressure was sky high, and I was about to book a one-way ticket to Timbuktu – then I checked my email.  “Congratulations!  You are a 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards finalist!”  In my state of delirium I’d forgotten that the finalists of this elite competition would be announced today, and it was a welcome, much needed surprise.

My kids are still fighting and my car is still in the shop, but now I’m smiling.  I’m so excited to announce that Holding Avery is a 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award finalist!

Stay tuned.

 

No One Wants to See That

photo 3Trending on social media these days is the story Emily and Richard Staley, the California couple whose stillborn daughter was photographed by photographer Lindsey Natzic-Villatoro. These photos are heart-wrenching yet beautiful, and they magically capture the silent grief that accompanies stillbirth.  As with everything on social media, people have their opinions, and, as I was gleaning through some of the comments on Facebook, I was pleased and disappointed all at once.

At first so many people offered support for the Staleys, for parents of stillborn babies in general, that I grew optimistic that stillbirth might actually gain a voice.  Perhaps we’ve finally entered a time where parents can talk about losing a child without feeling like pariahs.  Maybe the world is ready to recognize that stillbirth happens A LOT, that it’s not a dirty little secret that belongs locked away.

Then I read a few of the negative comments. (Granted, the comments were far more positive than negative, but there were still a few that stung.)  I read of the inappropriateness of sharing the photos, of how “no one wants to see that.” I’m a member of a number of stillbirth-related groups, and I’ve seen many pictures of stillborn babies.  While I firmly believe every baby is beautiful, the Staley’s photos are quite possibly the most amazing stillbirth pictures I’ve laid eyes on. I wholeheartedly disagree that no one wants to see that. We easily celebrate the lives of those who have walked this earth upon their deaths.  What’s so horrifying about celebrating the life of a little one never given the chance to put their tiny feet on the ground?

When my daughter was stillborn six years ago, a nurse took pictures.  I’m so happy to have them, but the majority are painfully awkward.  None match the raw emotion of the Staleys, and they aren’t the least bit artistic. I’ve always been uncomfortable sharing them, primarily because I’ve clung to the fear that no one wants to see that.

But as time passes, I’m not sure why I’ve been so afraid.  My story, Avery’s story, is a full-fledged book. I’ve showed the world my daughter through my words. I’ve shared my darkest times, my depression, my fears…Yet I’m still terrified to share a picture of the beautiful child that changed my life? All because no one wants to see that.

A few weeks ago an acquaintance told me she wasn’t going to read Holding Avery because she’d rather not think about me having a stillbirth.  It’s too depressing for her, and she’d like to pretend it never happened. Fair enough. There are lots of people that would prefer to ignore the fact that there are around 30,000 stillbirths in the United States every year, and I suppose that’s their choice.  But today my choice is to share a picture of my daughter, even if no one wants to see that. I apologize if you find it offensive, but it happened.  And it’s not something I can ignore.

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A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore…

10492212_10203595970355787_8702093362303428279_n-1Two weeks ago I went to Old Navy to buy new clothes for my kids.  My boys are growing like those little magic capsule thingies they love to play with – one night they drink a glass of milk, the next morning their pants are three inches too short and they’re sporting belly shirts.  It’s insane.  Anyway, Old Navy happens to be next to a Barnes and Noble.  It had been a little over a week since the release of my book, and I decided to take a stroll through B&N to see if Holding Avery was on the shelves.

I knew Barnes and Noble carried my book online – tons of bookstores carry my book online – but I wasn’t 100 percent sure they’d have it in-store.  I walked in, took a deep breath, and told myself not to be disappointed if it wasn’t there. I wandered through the biographies, breathless, and came face-to-face with Hillary Clinton on more than one occasion.  Not the actual Hillary Clinton, of course, but the giant picture of her on the cover of her brand-new memoir.  (The memoir that came out the same day as Holding Avery, I might add.) I passed scores of books by famous people, but I didn’t see my own.  I headed for the self-help section. My story is a memoir – a biography – but it’s also classified as self-help.  Since I’m not exactly on the same plane as former first ladies and aging superstars, I figured it was worth a shot. As I turned down that aisle, my heart stopped.  There it was, the white feather, my name in print, Avery’s name in print…I had a faceout, too, so my book was right there for the world to see, begging to be read.

It’s hard to actually put this feeling into words – think being five years old again on Christmas morning, and then multiply that by a thousand. In short, it was amazing. I looked around; a man sat on the floor a few feet away, perusing a book.  It took all my willpower not to tap him on the shoulder ask him if I looked like the lady on the back of Holding Avery.  Instead I shamelessly took a selfie with my book, stared at it for another minute, and left.

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A few days later we had a rainy Sunday.  After breakfast with my husband and boys, we took a bookstore tour through the Dallas Metroplex, and yes, I took selfies every time I found my book on the shelves.  I couldn’t help it.  It was exciting stuff.

It’s also a timely distraction for me. The last few days of June and the first few days of July are always hard for me.  At this very moment six years ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed trying to decide if I was ready to start the process of birthing my stillborn daughter.  I felt pretty lousy; I felt extremely hopeless.   Back then I couldn’t imagine the beautiful future that was waiting for me, completed by two incredible little boys who would come into my life and help me find happiness.10339637_10203315588106406_8543961783156059448_n

I also couldn’t fathom that the little girl I was mourning, a baby who graced this earth for just an instant, would have the ability to leave such a long-lasting impression on so many.  Tomorrow is Avery’s sixth birthday. While she may not be here to celebrate, her legacy lives on in print.

And that feels amazing, too.

 

The Significance of the White Feather

10441372_256945837823752_6784578036389995828_n-1I’ve had a number of people ask me about the cover for my book, Holding Avery. “It’s beautiful,” they say.  “But why the white feather?”

I’ll be completely honest with you – I had nothing to do with the cover.  That was all done by Alison at MP Publishing. But when she sent a proof over months ago, I immediately fell in love. I’d heard the legend of the white feather before, and it was a perfect fit for my book.

White feathers signify either a guardian angel or a message from a deceased loved one. If you find a white feather, it’s good luck, and you’re supposed to save it. I know some people may think it’s all superstitious hogwash, but since the release of Holding Avery last week my white feather sightings have increased tenfold.  Maybe I’m looking more or maybe I just need new pillows, but I’d prefer to think there’s a little girl up in Heaven who is happy to have her story told.