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The paradox of loss
The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican opened three years after I was born. So I grew up inside a controversy that would help shape my life—whether it was best to speak to God in English or Latin. The former, some said, was a natural way and people could follow the Mass better in their native language. But the latter, others held, embodied the mysteries of faith and invoked an ancient awe-inspiring tradition including cathedrals, incense and Gregorian chants.
I learned and liked both. Immediately I confess to preferring the Latin, a fact that would make Sister Aurea, my high school Latin teacher, proud. I was elected treasurer of the National Latin Honor Society in my junior year, which meant I could don a toga, braid garlands into my hair and carry a scroll while participating in assemblies. In those days members of the Latin honor society were easy to spot.
These days I invoke my now-limited Latin at dire times. When I’m called back for a diagnostic mammogram, for instance, or when I’m climbing a cliff in Maine and looking down at treetops. Then the In nomine patri et fili et spiritus sanctus comes rolling out.
Either way, the main thing is that my prayers (English or Latin), which is to say the actual words that flew up to the invisible castle of Catholicism, were not written by me. They were written for me. Whatever the language, the words were put in my mouth. Back in the ’60s and ’70s this thought did not occur to any of us (as far as I know). Certainly not to me, the smallest, thinnest and usually first person in any church processional. Nor to any of the uniformed classmates I led, right back to the tallest and last girl. God, I presumed, must like the symmetry of our lines, or, more probably, the discipline required to create them. At least it showed some care in the way we presented ourselves. We must prepare to meet God, I learned, not unlike the way my father prepared his law cases, the way my Italian grandmother ironed the pleats in my uniforms or the way I prepared my Latin homework, spreading conjugations and declensions over the dining room table. So many rules to speak the language of God. So much to know before we dare utter a word.
Even today the prayers I was handed throughout my youth, for the purpose of saying or singing, run through my mind. One raw December evening in the church, the choir, including me among the first sopranos, split itself into three-part harmony as we rehearsed, Adeste fidelis, laeti triumphantes, venite, venite in Bethlehem. Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, oh come ye, to Bethlehem. When I was older, in sixth grade, and preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation and the coming of the bishop who officiated, I memorized reams of questions and answers. Both were furnished—my questions, God’s answers. My classmates and I rehearsed ceremonies. At one point we filed out of pews so that we knelt, ready to be individually blessed, on cue, in front of the bishop, each of us with a sponsor standing behind us. My sponsor, my cousin Kathy, waited patiently for our turn, her hand resting on my shoulder. At the end we filed out and sang, I’m a soldier in Christ’s army, Confirmation made it so. We were troops headed into the battle of life.
During my college years I was setting up the guitars and sound system on the altar of the same church with the parish music ministry one Sunday morning, in preparation for our singing at the 11 o’clock mass, as usual. The priest who was to celebrate Mass that day asked me and the other female musician to step down. He had a question.
“Are either of you at the time of the month?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. His expression darkened.
“You cannot perform today, I am sorry.”
“Your presence defiles the altar.” There were many currents in the waters of Catholicism during those Vatican II transition years. Somehow, in enhancing the communal experience of prayer, it seemed the personal, mystical dimension of the religion was downplayed, perhaps unintentionally. My unsanctioned quest for a direct experience of God was not new in the Catholic world. Indeed it was very old and, though it felt dangerous to me to pursue my longings and spiritual adventures, the powerful repercussions I encountered were mild compared to those of, say, the Spirituali, sixteenth-century Catholic reformers who lived during the Inquisition. The day the priest spoke to me I did step off the altar and that was that. In the years that followed I kept playing with the guitar group, which rehearsed a hundred or more songs and offered them in harmony. Our music drew many people to the church.
But all was not well within me. After I was out of college and graduate school, I enrolled in a years-long night course of study at a metaphysical center. We studied ancient texts, the origins and development of belief systems, the commonality among religions. As I left for class one evening, my Catholic father rustled his newspaper and, without making eye contact, asked, “Why go? Is their god any better than ours?”
The story stops
To this day I cannot get enough of the Buddhist sutras, the Bible or the Hindu Vedas. What we allow in our minds is what is there to process. So, when the details of some great trauma, loss or disappointment storm the doors of our consciousness, they are greeted by the ancient teachings. Words of wisdom have a way of weaving around our emotional pain, helping us come to terms with what was previously inconceivable—sometimes even moments before.
But the words, however helpful, are not the Creator himself. At least in my experience, it is relatively easy to ingest a truth. Open-mindedness and time are all that is required. But to come soul to soul with God requires relationship and a willingness to walk through the stories of our lives and into His arms. All our stories can be such avenues to the divine, or all stories can be prisons, depending on the consciousness of the person. When I think of my life I envision a home free-floating in a black cosmic field of stars. Since I live in a linear world, my story has a beginning, a time when I had to walk through the front door of the home. Inside, the story rages, ebbs and flows, and I change it with my responses to what happens. From the inside, it can seem that God is out there in the formless, remote cosmic field and that I must do something to get to Him. It is easy to think that first I must prepare myself to meet God, which requires a story in which I ready myself, perhaps even elaborately. Or perhaps I imagine I must first build a spacecraft sturdy enough to make the trip to divinity, and that, too, requires a story. A story of building. The most useful change I can create inside the home, though, is one of consciousness. It comes when I realize my real home is the great cosmic field that surrounds the structure of my life, when I take the time to focus my gaze out any window and remind myself my life and story are part of the greater mystery. No traveling required. I’m already there. Those are times all stories stop and enlightenment begins. Peace does not have to do with finding the right story but by stopping stories, by contemplating the mystery in silence and listening to the replies in the stillness of my heart. But stories can go on for years. Some are so large, complicated and old—even intergenerational—that it is easy to forget they are stories at all.
For forty years I lived inside the same story of seeking and struggling. The walls of the house of my story were built on long-tended family beliefs: Those who do good, get good. God takes care of true believers. Fate smiles upon the virtuous. Those walls detonated on June 2, 1999, the night I met God as I lay in an intensive care unit at a state-of-the-art university hospital mere miles from New York City. It was dark, but the time of day was irrelevant. There was no window in the room where I lay, hooked up to catheters, IV drips of antibiotics running through my veins, holding in one hand a contraption I could press for more morphine. In the wee hours of that morning I had had a C-section. The corpse of my sweet daughter, Victoria Helen, had been cut out of me as I lay on an operating table, my arms outstretched on either side of me, looking up into the eyes of a masked anesthesiologist.
“Are you all right?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
I had never been less all right. At my side was my husband, ever kind, as bewildered as I at what we had learned hours earlier: Our daughter had died in utero. Silently. Without warning. I was forty-two weeks pregnant, finishing a perfect pregnancy. We had started the day excited, happy, in our doctor’s office across the street from the hospital. He had held his Doppler to my stomach and said, “I can’t find a heartbeat.” All the king’s horses and all the hospital’s fancy equipment could not find, or retrieve, that precious heartbeat. In the maternal fetal medicine department a nurse had tried to find the elusive beating, which had been strong all those nine months. She looked and she listened. She could not find it, she said.
“So my daughter is dead?” I asked.
There were only the three of us in the huge room, which was decorated with collages of babies. Beautiful shiny faces smiling at us. They had all lived, each and every one. But my Victoria Helen had slipped away.
“I will leave you with some forms to fill out,” the nurse continued. She handed my husband sheets attached to a clipboard and left the room. My husband took the papers and let out an ungodly wail. To this day I have not heard such a sound come from a human being. Tears poured from his eyes.
We had come to think of our daughter’s birth as destined since we conceived her, our first and only child, on the first try when I was thirty-nine. But our “Sweetlet,” as we affectionately called her, was dead. There I was, stroking my husband’s back, kissing his head, watching the faces of all the babies on the walls, stunned. For all the world, stunned.
Much later, after an autopsy, we learned a naturally occurring Group B Strep infection had seeped from my vagina to my uterus, probably through some microscopic tear, causing Victoria Helen to aspirate meconium and quietly die. After the C-section I awakened with a 103-degree fever. I had the infection, and the fight of my life, on my hands. The fever stayed with me two weeks until, finally, my doctor discovered the pocket where the infection still resided and removed it.
But as the night of June 2 turned into the morning of June 3, the cause of the fever remained unknown. My body was on fire, as I soaked through gown after hospital gown, enduring the agony of being touched, moved and changed. My intestines stopped working. I had no strength. I had used all my strength and I had lost. What losses. My daughter. My health. Almost my life.
I already missed the feeling of my daughter’s body inside me. She had to have gone somewhere. I believed she went to God. Yet she seemed still with me, and in that tomblike night, with the lights flashing and machines beeping and the sweat pouring off me and my husband sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed reassuringly holding my feet, so did God. My mind compressed my whole life and the universe in flashes: I was sitting on a chair in my living room a week earlier, my palm stroking my big belly. Then I was a girl, falling asleep under fresh sheets my mother had dried in the clear New Jersey breezes out on the line as, downstairs, my Italian relatives laughed and talked and drank coffee. A young woman, I was on the Shore Path in Bar Harbor, Maine, sitting on a wall and looking out over Frenchman’s Bay, the wind in my hair, as my husband scrambled on the rocks below and looked up to wave and smile. Wind and fresh air, mothers and daughters, lineages and love.
I had just lost my place in this chain of passing down, and my daughter had gone to God, which I implored in the middle of the night. My mind flashed to the cosmos, to that starry black field, to a Native American dance I had once seen performed under a bright afternoon sun, to my husband and me sitting on our porch drinking my homemade lemonade. The world had collapsed, gone out of linear order until, somehow, I grasped that my soul, having escaped the world of contained expectation I had constructed, was flying free for a time, showing me what mattered. The scenes surprised me. They were simple. They contained elements of nature and freedom and love enjoyed and appreciated in the moment. My Victoria Helen had slipped, God seemed to tell me, into one of these scenes. For eternity. Forever, she was in the wind, the love, the smile, the sheets, the lemonade, the stars, the dance, the ocean. These were not the scenes my mind would have chosen as the pinnacles of my life, but my mind was not doing the choosing. My soul was. At first it seemed my soul held my daughter as it simultaneously touched me with one angelic hand and God with the other. Then I suddenly realized my whole life, and my daughter, were inside God. We were part of His great creative force.
In that moment I felt God within me and surrounding the bed. I felt God holding me and Victoria. I went to sleep, the voice of a nurse saying something, the warmth of Bill’s hands on my feet. Something had happened to all of us and it was all right. So a hospital room, I learned, can be a cathedral, a place for a transcendental moment.
Bill and I once stayed at a lightkeeper’s house on Isle au Haut, an island off the coast of Maine with no electricity. At night the light’s rotating light would periodically color the dining room of our inn, casting a red sheen over all the guests. In the morning we would hike into the national park and once encountered a field of trees so magnificent I am sure it will come to mind in my final days when my life flashes before me again. The trees were mighty monuments. I looked up at the sunlight streaming through them and onto the forest floor, reflecting greens in so many hues it forced me to smile. The tops of the trees, so high, arced to form a kind of ceiling over the meadow below. A cathedral right there in nature. An honest-to-God cathedral. The world is a cathedral, I thought. I am a cathedral. Everything and everyone is a dwelling place for God.
Instantly and imperceptibly, I dropped my faith in God, replacing it with a knowledge of God and I understood even my earliest searching instinct for what it was—not a human impulse but a divine spark trying to awaken itself.
The autumn after Victoria Helen died Bill and I returned to the Shore Path in Bar Harbor. He scrambled down below as I walked with my friend Mark on the path above.
“Why do you think it happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, realizing that for the first time I accepted that answer as a part of life and did not resist it as a failure or embrace it as a challenge. Some things are not knowable. Though I still have stressful days in my professional and personal life, it is mainly the stress of frustration, logistics, and limited resources. It is not the old existential stress, that old wondering where I fit into the world. To this day I marvel that my daughter had to slip out of the physical world before I realized where both of us, all of us, fit into it.
What struck me, too, about Mark’s question was the use of the word “you.” Whoever I was, I had changed. Perhaps so much that I was now someone different. Before Victoria’s death I had been so busy in the world. But who was busy? Who was I? Perhaps before Victoria, the world had formed me too much. Perhaps I had poured too much of my energy into prescribed molds of behaviors, activities and expectations.
But afterwards I felt the stirrings of a new calling: To write words that cracked open the essence of life. To make the world see stillbirth and the voiceless babies it claims, to expand the meaning of motherhood, to change the paradigm of living the good life, to open new doors of spirituality that make allowance for an individual experience of God. Because I had changed, everything else did, too. Anaїs Nin said it best, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
For most of my adult life I had accompanied my mother whenever she visited the cemetery where many of her ancestors are buried, going back to her grandmother, Vittoria. Some version of this name, Italian or American, runs through both sides of my family, which is how my husband and I came to name our daughter Victoria. Every Easter, every Christmas, my mother and I would go through the ritual at the cemetery. We would visit the relatives, starting with my grandparents, interred in a mausoleum. We would find a caretaker who would roll a ladder to the site so I could climb up and place fresh flowers in front of my grandparents’ names, Nina Raccagni Sonzogni and Taddeo Sonzogni. After saying prayers, shedding tears and reminiscing, I drove us down a pastoral hill to the grave of my Aunt Olga, who was a nurse who had loved and nurtured me in my girlhood. It was Olga who accompanied my frightened mother to the hospital when she gave birth to me.
Close to Olga was Zia Esther (my grandmother’s sister) and Zio Primo, both superb cooks. Primo had stowed away to America on a ship; in midlife, the couple ran a boardinghouse on a farm in Chester, New York, where dozens of family members would gather on weekends for an afternoon in the fresh air. The women would carry out large bowls of steaming pasta with homemade sauce and trays of veal cutlet parmigiana and scrumptious hot Italian bread, all prepared by Esther and Primo. The food would be placed between clear-glass carafes of red wine on long tables in an open field. The backdrop for the feast, filled with laughter, storytelling and newsy chatting, was a wide-open countryside, green as far as the eye could see.
We brought flowers to Esther and Primo in their final resting place, got back in the car and drove to where Eduardo and Vittoria (my grandmother’s mother) were buried, side by side. There my mother would tell me the story about how she had gone to Eduardo’s funeral when she was a girl. He was laid out in his home, as was the custom in those days. A persistent fly buzzed around his face, landing from time to time on his forehead. The fly mesmerized my mother, leaving an indelible memory. Then she went on: When she was a girl she and my grandmother would visit the cemetery and leave flowers as organ music was piped over the whole scene.
Farther down the hill, my Great Aunt Virginia was buried with my Great Uncle Willie (my grandfather’s brother). The two had worked with their father for a long time, both absorbing classical training, Italian style, in the art of tiling. The morning after my eighth-grade graduation party, my family, including my grandfather, was sitting at the kitchen table in my house eating lunch, when the phone rang. My mother answered and handed the phone to my grandfather. He put the phone to his ear and listened. “Thank you,” he said, before handing the phone back to my mother. “Willie’s dead,” he said. Great Uncle Willie had died suddenly of an aneurysm. My grandfather’s head drooped down and his shoulders shook. He was crying for Willie. All those years together. Done.
At the base of the hill, my mother and I brought flowers to Olga’s parents—Caesarina (another sister of my grandmother after whom Bill and I would have named a second daughter, if we had had one) and her husband, John. Caesarina died very young, of a heart condition. John lived a long time, beyond the point his memory could carry him.
This cemetery cloaked me in history, made me proud to be part of a strong tribe of ancestors who clearly had a lust for living and an artistic streak that manifested in colorful meals and mosaic masterpieces. They had long and often difficult stories, all of them, but they had kept passing down the love and the lust and the color. A few years after Victoria died, I no longer could perform this ritual with my mother. It made me feel too sharply the great break in the chain that my own experience represented. I possess their lust and colorful creativity—manifesting, in my case, on the page and in the kitchen—but I feel no genetic flow into the future. I used to, but one day it stopped. Like a drained stream, it simply ended. There is poignant sadness in the stopping. However, one inherits what one inherits—the good, the brilliant, the happy, the difficult and the impossible—and one spins of it the most bright golden thing possible.
All the time I meet people who tell me the best part of their lives is having children, raising them, watching them grow, and I can only imagine the excitement of seeing a progeny develop, the satisfaction of seeing one’s own child reach her hand into the future and grasp it. People believe in the future, especially when the present is lacking, and that is a very good thing.
But none of this applies to me, standing as I do on a different brink. My life used to divide into a past of inherited legacies, a present of lack and a future of expectation. Spiritually, it divided into two places—where I was and where God was—and the search for the promised land seemed endless. No more. The circumstances of my life now have me looking out the windows of my cosmic house and the stories I live are the stories I write for myself. It is good not to walk a path forged by the tribe but rather our own. We cannot help but walk with our ancestors, but we also always walk with our one common ancestor—God.
I no longer listen to those who (still) exclaim to me that it is a shame my life has become something lesser than it could have been, that it is a shame I am not raising my daughter. To inhabit such a space I would have to accept that the bounds of physical limitations determine my fate. To an extent, they do. They determine my biological fate. But, no matter what happens to any of us in this regard, there is always a divine fate to which we are called. Not one life on this planet is wasted. Not for one moment. Each of us stands on some patch of land in this world, and no matter where it is, or how small or how remote, every patch is fertile ground ready to accept whatever meaning we plant there. It is not until we learn this, as a race, that we will tread on each other’s patches with respect and the world community will know peace.
Jelaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century mystic poet, wrote the oft-cited passage, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This is the inner field on which each of us meets God. The voice of an uninterpreted, pure God ready to hold a unique, divine conversation with each of His creations. I still cannot answer Mark’s question: “Why do you think it happened?” The question may be, “Why does any loss happen?” By definition, a loss is a stripping away, layer by layer, that is paradoxical. In my case, first there was the death of my daughter. As I processed her loss, my outer mission (if you will) grew. I wrote, I read from my book, I spoke with many bereaved mothers, I taught writing-to-heal workshops, and the rest of my journalistic career deepened. On the surface, all that activity may look like an adding of roles and complexity. But through this time my inner life became more and more a matter of subtracting and simplifying. All the outer actions manifested a single spiritual odyssey.
After Victoria died, I left my role as newspaper editor to embrace fully my role as writer, so I could spend all my time doing what I love best. Inwardly, I detached from relationships that were energetic cesspools, relationships that promised reward but only by embracing some negative dynamic. I stopped teaching people who did not want to be taught. I ceased indulging in spiritualities of the marketplace that require a gold rush for endless acquisitions of knowledge nuggets, all attached to promises of peace and wisdom. These dams removed, insights birthed in the inner waters of my spirit flowed from my pen.
Loss is paradoxical because it can take with it needless psychic debris and layers of struggle, leaving us ultimately in the sole company of what we can never lose—God. This is how I found my voice at last—by talking to God, directly. This is when I found the words that allowed me entrance into the sacristy of my own mind and heart. Now I speak to God but not as a child talks to an adult. Not through prayers penned by some third party. Not as an intellectual asking for proof or a desperate person wanting a favor. But as one soul talking to the Great Soul and listening, through the world around me and in the whispers of my mind, for a reply.
The stripping away that the death of my daughter put into motion lead to a profound connection with life in its essence. The divine does permeate this world in order to hold and teach us. Alleluia.