Sunday, March 29, 2009
The R.e.d Ri.ve.r Va.ll.ey, and the floods currently threatening it, are much on my mind at the moment.
See the maps? I may not live there anymore, but this is Home. My little corner of the world. And especially that corner where the R.e.d flows north across the Canadian border, where the borders of two states and one Canadian province meet in a "T."
I was born in Em.ers.on, Ma.ni.toba, the town that sits right on that "T" -- literally, on the banks of the river. The hospital (which is still there, although now a personal care home & clinic) is just feet away from the protective dike that encircles the town, and from the road leading to the old railroad bridge (and from there, the old river road, out to my grandparents' farm). My sister & I used to hold our breath as our car went over the bridge. I felt that if the car fell into the water, if I was holding my breath, I could swim for the surface & to the riverbank. I still have dreams/nightmares about that bridge and trying to cross over it. It still exists, and I think you can walk over it, although car traffic has long since been diverted to a second bridge further downstream.
The land in the RRValley is flat as a pancake, which is why, when the river floods, it spreads out so widely. It is also some of the richest, most fertile land on the planet, which is why it was so attractive to the people who settled there.
My great-great grandparents (on my mother's father's side) arrived in Em.ers.on in June 1876. They wrote back to family members in Ontario about seeing Sitting Bull & his braves dancing in the streets under the stars. In 1879, they moved a few miles across the border into Min.ne.sota. The farmhouse my great-great-grandfather built is still there, visible from the highway -- although it was badly damaged during the last big flood in 1997, and may not survive another.
My paternal grandparents were married in the river town of Le.tell.ier in the 1920s, and bought a farm just outside of Em.ers.on in the late 1940s. My dad remembers being evacuated during the big flood of 1950. After the flood of 1966 flooded them out, my grandparents built a new house on higher ground on their property.
I knew all this. I knew the river was there. But I was a teenager before I actually went into the pasture behind the barn on my grandparents' farm & realized the river was RIGHT THERE. ("We wanted it that way," my mother said -- meaning she didn't want us roaming around & getting too close to the muddy waters.)
After the 1966 floods, the province took action, building ring dikes around many of the small towns along the river/Highway 75. The house that was my very first home, on the main street of town, as well as my aunt's house on the next street over, were among many that were as torn down to make way for the dike.
The city of Winnipeg built a floodway which, during particularly bad flood seasons, can be opened up and divert the rising river waters around the eastern side of the city. It was nicknamed "Duff's Ditch" after Premier Duff Roblin (the Canadian equivalent of state governor) who insisted that it be built. Duff had the last laugh, & was invited to open the floodway gates during the last big flood in 1997. The floodway has proven its value many times over since it was completed, & is recognized as an engineering marvel. A recent Globe & Mail story noted that, in the 40-some years since it was built, the floodway has been opened 20 times, saving $10-billion in flood damages, according to government estimates. It was expanded again after the 1997 flood.
I had been singing "R.ed R.iv.er V.all.ey" ("Just remember the R.ed R.iv.er V.all.ey... and the girl who has loved you so true") for years before I learned there was another R.ed R.ive.r V.all.ey -- in Texas, I think? For me, this is THE Valley... & I am still the girl who loves her. : ) I can remember standing at the site of the farm where my grandfather grew up (across the field from the one in the photo above) on a chilly but sunny October day in 1998, helping my mother and some other relatives scatter some of his ashes there, as he had requested. I've moved many times in my life, but as I looked around me , at the land my ancestors had settled more than 100 years before, where I spent so much of my time visiting relatives as I grew up -- I knew in my heart -- this is home.
To see what others are showing & telling this week, hop over here.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
My life would never be the same again.
I told the story of that day here last year, on the 10th "anniversary" of that day. And although the story ultimately did not have a happy ending, with the stillbirth of our daughter on August 7th that year (1998), I will never forget the utter shock & giddy joy of that moment.
I thought today would be a good time to share something special from my "Katie collection," and I've found a good image on the Internet. Katie's nursery theme was to have been Classic Pooh, and Classic Pooh remains dear to my heart. I still find myself buying things that have a Classic Pooh theme, although
I don't remember exactly when I got this item, but I've had it for several years now. I spotted it at Birks, which is Canada's answer to Tiffany's -- a high-end jewelry & giftware store. It was expensive, around $100, but the moment I lay eyes on it, I knew I had to have it. I brought it to the counter, beaming, & the clerk asked, "Is it a gift? Shall I wrap it up?" "Oh no, this is for me," I said happily, & she gave me a kind of a funny look.
As you can see, Pooh, Christopher Robin & Piglet are watching ducks on a pond from a bridge. When you wind up the music box, the ducks go round & round under the bridge, as the song "Little Black Rain Cloud" (!!) plays.
The inscription around the bottom was, for me, the kicker: it reads: "Promise you won't forget me ever."
Katie, as long as Mommy & Daddy are here, you won't ever be forgotten. We promise. xoxo
Sunday, March 15, 2009
His guest this week was Karen Armstrong, a former British nun who has written extensively about religion and society. Her current project is the Charter for Compassion, a multi-faith project which recognizes and promotes the Golden Rule ("Do unto others") as a common thread running through all major world religions.
Right near the beginning of the interview, I sat up & grabbed for a pen to take notes when Armstrong said this:
"Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn't mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what's motivating the other, learning about their grievances."
How often have I said, or heard other bereaved parents or infertile couples say, "I don't want pity. I HATE feeling pity from others." What we all want, I think, is some genuine compassion -- to feel that someone is listening to us, at least trying to understand us and what we are dealing with. Being respectful of our experience. "Abiding with us," as Mel at Stirrup Queens has said.
Armstrong feels that compassion is sadly lacking in today's world, and is trying to do something about it. If only there were more such people!
You can read about Armstrong, watch a video of the program or read a transcript at Moyers' PBS site, here.
Why, at a christening, of course. Isn't that where every infertile woman or bereaved mother wants to spend Mother's Day? Lucky, lucky me....
We were invited to FIL's for lunch today, & of course stepBIL & wife were there with the baby. And off afterwards to shop for a christening gown & bonbonniere (party favours) for the baptism. Which just happens to be on Mother's Day.
Mrs. StepBIL claims she did not realize the significance of the day when she booked the baptism -- she was just relieved to find a priest who would do it for them (since they are not regular churchgoers).
Dh says maybe we won't be invited. Yeah, sure....
I have a headache.
*** *** ***
On the bright side, we got to see our nephews, who were also invited to lunch. Their parents are vacationing on the Mayan Riviera at the moment -- kidless for the first time in 20 years. Dh has been calling to check in on them every day, & their other grandmother, who lives close by, has been feeding them most nights. They live across the city, about an hour's drive away, but our oldest nephew has a car & a GPS -- and, of course, the fearlessness of a 20-year-old who thinks he's invincible, even when navigating North America's busiest stretch of highway.
I was watching as they pulled up in front of the house (driving too fast, of course) & somehow unfolded themselves and their 6-foot-plus frames out of the tiny Honda Fit. My heart swelled with pride, and wonder, and bewilderment.
The years pass by WAY too fast.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The tragic answer: just about anybody.
Belkin points her readers to an absolutely gut-wrenching yet amazingly compassionate feature story in last weekend's Washington Post magazine by reporter Gene Weingarten (who apparently usually writes on more humourous subjects).
As Belkin says: "The moral of his story: don’t judge; it really could happen to you."
You may not have left a child in a car, but if you're reading my blog, you have probably known grief and loss in some form, either through infertility, or pregnancy loss, or perhaps both. There is much in the grief felt by these parents that will sound familiar to you. (And there are infertility angles to the stories told too -- as well as an ending that left me sitting in my chair, staring at the screen, going, "Wow.")
Weingarten writes about the vitriolic public reaction to such stories. While few of us in the ALI community have been judged quite so harshly, there was something in this psychologist's explanation that sounded very familiar to me too:
Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.There are video and audio features, as well as tips on how to help prevent such a tragedy from happening.
..."We are vulnerable, but we don't want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with…"
I had trouble accessing the comments, but I understand there were some scathing ones there...
And here's the transcript of an online discussion with the reporter, who says this was the most difficult story he's ever had to write -- in part because it could easily have happened to him.
Aside from the usual vitriolic comments from people blaming the parents, I think what bothered me me most was how many people said they just couldn't read the story. (Actually, what REALLY bothered me most were those who said they couldn't read stories like this "since becoming a parent" -- as if being a parent somehow grants them a special kind of immunity.)(There's that need not to be reminded about vulnerability again…)
I've heard similar coments about stillbirth & loss stories. It's so easy for others to avert their eyes… but some of us have to live with these sad stories every single day of our lives...
Sunday, March 8, 2009
(**Be forewarned: if you haven't read the book yet, this post is bound to contain a lot of spoilers.**)
This book is going to haunt me for a long time.
I read the entire book dry-eyed, but when I got to the long final paragraph that ends the book, I started to sob. I was at the dinner table (reading -- which my mother didn't like us doing -- another perq of childless living...!) & dh looked up from his magazine & at me like I was nuts.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "It's the book..." and my voice trailed off into sobs again. He shrugged & said, "As long as it's not about me!" lol
This book reminded me of every English boarding school novel I had ever read, & some Holocaust memoirs too. It also reminded me of a previous BBBT pick, "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. (Interestingly, I found a review of the book by Atwood on Slate.com.) It's got tinges of science fiction and horror about it.
One thing I found amusing in the book that nobody seems to have picked up on for a question is the emphasis on creating and creativity at Hailsham. We find out why much later in the book. But I thought it was funny, reading the book from an infertile perspective. One review I read noted that in most schools, the emphasis is on sports -- it's the athletes who are worshipped and popular. The artists/creative types are the ones on the margins. But I thought that in a larger sense, it's true that our world is all about creating -- creating life -- i.e., pregnancy & parenthood --and those of us who are infertile are somehow judged as "less than" because we can't create, or at least not in the same way that most people can. We have to exercise our creativity in other ways -- more creatively, lol.
I also found it interesting how the clones were so fascinated with their origins -- just as adopted children and those conceived through donor gametes often want to meet their biological parents. They know the basic facts, of course -- that they are clones -- but they keep a watchful eye out for their "possibles" -- the people they were modelled from. I love the use of the word "possible" here. Not only are the children fascinated by the possibility of a genetic match (a "possible"), they are infinitely curious about what kind of lives their doubles lead -- the possibility of another kind of life. Even though they accept (for the most part) their own lives and fates, they still get a vicarious, peeking-through-the-windows thrill from looking into the office where Ruth's "possible" works, taking note of all the details -- a world so unlike the one they come from.
Just as I was finishing the novel last week, I saw an online news item that filming will start next month in England on a movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley as Kathy, & two other British actors whose names I don't recognize as Ruth & Tommy. Should be interesting...
Each of us participating in this edition of the Barren B*tches Book Tour (organized by Mel at Stirrup Queens) has read the book, submitted a question, & received a list of everyone's questions from Mel. We then answer at least three of them in our blog, and post at or around the same time.
Here my picks (I can never limit myself to just three questions...!):
On page 197 Kazuo Ishiguro writes, "It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that." Have any of your relationships unravelled because of IF and were they relationships that you thought would be strong enough weather the struggles of IF?
I've written before about dh's cousin/our neighbour, & how we've drifted apart in the years since the stillbirth of our daughter. We went from having his wife plan my baby shower & promising me that she'd be over every day to help with the baby to the point where we only see them two or three times a year now, at the same family barbecues, weddings, funerals, etc., where we see everyone else. And we live a five-minute walk away from them. :( I'm not sure exactly why we've drifted apart in this way -- it's not like we had a big falling out with them. It was more of a gradual erosion of the relationship. I just think that (a) they got busier as their kids got older, & they got more involved with other parents in the neighbourhood, & (b) people are naturally uncomfortable with loss & infertility. But it's very sad.
Unrelated to infertility, I also find myself thinking of how my dad's three half-siblings (two in particular) fell out with my dad & his five other siblings after the death of their father, over the terms of his will. As my mother said, even she knew the terms of the will before my grandfather died -- if someone had any objections, they should have spoken up while my grandfather was alive. (Not that he would have changed his mind, being an extremely stubborn man...!) It's not like my grandparents were rich either -- we're not talking about huge sums of money or property. The pettiness of it all just astonished me. Family meant everything to my grandparents, & I'm sure they have both turned over in their graves repeatedly over what has happened in the last 20 years. :(
P.S. I must have a different edition, because I can't find that line on that page of my copy. Oh well...!
One thing that struck me while reading the book is that the characters seem very passive. Although certain knowledge is withheld from them along the way, and they do have questions, they do not really rebel or protest their fate, or try to escape. They seem quite accepting of the future that has been laid out for them. Why do you think this is so?
This was my question, & I've been thinking a lot about it as I read the novel & even since I finished it. I think part of the answer is in the way the children were brought up. As Miss Lucy said, they knew, but they didn't know. Information was fed to them in pieces, at certain times. The system was structured in such a way that "the rules" were never entirely revealed to them. Although I don't recall that they were explicitly forbidden to leave the grounds, tales about horrible things happening in the woods were enough to feed their imaginations & keep them in line.
As Kathy & Tommy discovered when they began investigating the possibility of a deferral (the most they seem to hope for -- not escaping their fate, just delaying it), they had no idea whether a deferral was actually possible (or just a rumour among the donors). They had no idea the conditions or grounds on which a deferral might be granted. They had no idea where they could go or who they could consult to learn whether such a thing was even possible. Although they seem to have a certain amount of freedom to interact with the "outside world" as adults, they don't seem to exercise it very much. After they leave their guardians at Hailsham, they seem to have very little contact with those who know who they are and what it going to happen to them (e.g., Keffers at the Cottages). They talk about going on courses and getting notices of their next donations, but we don't know who issues these.
Once Hailsham closed, that source of information and support was closed to them forever (if it hadn't been already). Even when Hailsham was still open, they had no idea where it was, should they want to go back there. And even if they had run away -- where would they go? How would they survive? There's no information in the novel about what might happen should such a thing be attempted, but I'm sure they would be hunted down & brought back to their donations centre, and whatever freedom they had to interact with the "outside world" would surely be taken away or severely curtailed. And with their strange upbringing, even if they did manage to escape, their naivete about the "outside world" would surely trip them up before long. They seemed like normal kids in so many ways... and yet they weren't.
All of us grow up with certain assumptions and are moulded to some extent by our surroundings, by what our parents & teachers tell us, and by pressure from our peers. When you don't know anything else, it's sometimes difficult to envision other possibilities for yourself & your life. It takes strength & courage to break the mould & push at those boundaries (some might call them limitations) -- to buck the system. If you grow up in a poor neighbourhood with high unemployment and a high drop-out rate, it's hard to envision yourself at university. If your parents and teachers expect you to go to the same Ivy League universities your friends will be attending, it takes guts to go to a third-world country to work with a human rights organization instead.
There is so much that we accept passively because "that's the way it is, or always has been" or "what can little old me do about it?" It could be argued that many people (only in the fertile world, of course...!) drift into parenthood this way -- because having kids is just what you do when you grow up & get married -- without really considering whether they are truly willing or ready to do the hard work that's involved. It's also why it takes so many of us so long to act on that nagging feeling that something is not quite right, when we've been trying to get pregnant for a year, or two, or three, and it's just not happening.
I know that I drifted along for several years after we began ttc, thinking, "Well, maybe we're just not meant to be parents." Who knows what might have happened (or not happened), had I not finally, suddenly, gotten pregnant when I did, 2 & 1/2 years into the quest? That changed everything -- jolted my complacency. After I lost the baby, I pursued pregnancy with a new vigour. I had come so tantalizingly close to holding a real live baby in my arms. Surely if I just put a little more conscious effort into ttc, I could cut that 2 & 1/2 years by half, or more. Surely that stillbirth was a fluke. And so we began our trip down the long & slippery slope...
There is so much that happens in our world that is outrageous -- yet people don't get outraged. There is an inertia in our culture sometimes. (As detailed above -- I am as guilty as anyone else.) We see things on the TV news -- children starving in Africa, soldiers being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, people in those countries and others living in horrible situations. We think, "Oh, how awful!" and then go back to eating our dinner. Even on things that would appear to affect us more directly, we drag our feet. We know that our planet is in bad shape, and yet we still continue to pollute it, and our politicians continue to drag their feet -- even resist -- on taking action. Sometimes, we're just too busy surviving, trying to keep our heads above water, to take on the task of change.
Some people do get outraged, of course, and work tirelessly to change the system -- a little, if not a lot. There are anti-war protesters and poverty activists. In the novel, there are people like Madame & Miss Emily who try to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding the "donors." But it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to effect long-lasting, meaningful change. On cloning, or any other subject.
At what point did you realize what the book was about and did it change the way you viewed the main characters?
(Sorry, Mel.) I confess: I was barely two pages into the book before I Googled it to try to figure out what the heck was going on. (And yes, I will often jump to the end of mystery novels to find out exactly whodunnit.) Having that information, though, did not detract from the ultimate power of the story for me. Despite their sci-fi-like origins, the characters seemed fully human to me. Which added to the tragedy of the story.
I was reminded when I was watching the documentary Bio-Dad recently that children conceived through donor sperm were once regarded with some suspicion, as not quite "natural." Similarly, Louise Brown, the first baby born through IVF, has been scrutinized all her life, her growth and progress constantly compared to that of "normally" conceived children. There was great relief, it seemed, when she recently had a healthy baby herself -- "the old-fashioned way."
I also thought of Nazi Germany and the attitudes of the time toward Jewish people (among other groups).
At the end of Never Let Me Go, they mentioned “designer babies” had turned people against the whole clone issue. Now, ABC news featured a story tonight (3/3/09) about parents being able to build their baby http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=6998135&page=1 (a bit of reality reflecting art). How does this make you feel? Do you think PGD should only be used to avoid health issues and genetic defects? Is it ok to use it to have a baby who can save your current child’s life through marrow transplant? Is it ok to pick hair type and eye color?
Conceiving a sibling as a donor is an understandable move by desperate parents (and I know it has been done)... but it still give me pause. The same with avoiding health issues and genetic defects. I suppose pre-selection is preferable to having a mother carry a baby who isn't going to live, for however long the parents & dr determine the pregnancy should continue once an anomaly has been detected --it would save parents a lot of uncertainty, anguish & pain. But using PGD just to pick hair and eye colour & other such "traits" -- I find that unnerving.
If you were a student a Hailsham, would you have wanted to know your ultimate destiny as a Donor? Why or why not? How do you think knowing at that point in your life would have affected you? Does this desire to know your outcome apply to your own real life? In what situations do you find knowledge helpful? At what times can it be detrimental?
I suppose it can be compared to learning that you have a terminal illness and nothing more can be done for you. We all know we are going to die someday, and some of us know that we are going to die sooner than others. The donors, of course, unlike us, know the exact date they will reach "completion."
Some people respond to a death sentence by attacking what's left of their life with gusto -- making their "bucket lists" & crossing items off it one by one -- travelling, spending time with their loved ones, writing their memoirs, disposing of their property, ensuring their final wishes are understood, planning their funerals -- doing all the things they've ever wanted to do & saying all the things that need to be said, before time runs out & it's too late.
Others, of course, may think, "I'm dying, it's over. What's the point?" and withdraw from the world. (Or even take it upon themselves to make an even earlier exit.)
This was one of the more disturbing aspects of this novel for me. If the entire purpose of your existence is to grow up, donate your organs & then quietly die... what's the point of everything that goes before it? (Tommy asks some of these questions, late in the book.) Why the art, the essays?
We may not know the date of our "completion," but it's going to happen, sooner or later. So what then is the purpose of our existence?
I think for us, as for the characters in the novel, it's the relationships we form that give our lives colour and meaning and purpose. Caring for others, as Kathy does as a friend, lover and"carer" before becoming a donor herself. Most people will automatically tell you that it's their children who give their lives meaning and purpose. Those of us who are childless have to find meaning in other places. Sometimes, that can be tough.
If you think too much about it -- even if you have children or other people or things that give your life some purpose -- it can be a pretty bleak scenario -- and in that sense, this was a somewhat depressing book to read. But still very thought-provoking. I'm glad I read it.
Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens (http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/). You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
At the same time, though -- and with the utmost of all due respect to the family featured -- there's something about the presentation of the story that bothers me.
I think a lot of it has to do with headline: "Baby's death, unexplained." As in, ONE baby's death, unexplained. Like this is an anomaly -- the only baby whose death (at least of late) cannot be explained. The only one that's newsworthy.
Well, not in my world it's not. Tell me something I don't already know. Yes, this is absolutely a sad, tragic story, & it deserves investigation. But it's just one of the many, many such stories I have heard in 10 years as a bereaved parent, support group volunteer, & online community member.
Yes, I realize that the average reader does NOT know what I know. I don't think people realize (a) just how many babies DO die, & (b) just how many of those deaths are unexplained -- and always will be. And I'm not sure that they are going to get that message here.
The story does say that "each year, the Ontario [Maternal and Perinatal Death Review] committee reviews about a dozen newborn deaths," and that "According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 962 babies died from various causes in Canadian acute-care hospitals in 2007-2008, excluding Quebec."
But that figure is only for acute-care hospitals, & only for neonatal deaths. It doesn't include stillbirths.
Please, please don't get me wrong -- I'm grateful to see this issue receiving coverage (any coverage!!), not to mention in the Globe and Mail, and I think the story does a good job of conveying the depth of this particular family's loss and grief, as well as the bureaucratic hoops they have had to jump through to try to get some answers. I was glad to see PBSO quoted, and the cautionary note that finding a concrete reason for your baby's death does not necessarily relieve the pain or bring "closure." The photos are heartbreaking. And I wish the family well with their case -- I hope the reporter does a followup story so that we can find out what happens. Also, as a journalist myself, I am well aware that many details do get edited out to ensure the words and photos fit the available space.
I just wish all of the heartbreaking stories I've heard over the past 10+ years got full-page coverage in the Globe & Mail. And an equal commitment from the authorities to finding answers as to why they died.
Maybe this story will help to bring that about. I hope so.
Am I wrong? Am I nitpicking? (I'm not sure I'm expressing myself very well here.) What did you think of the story?
(Comments on the article are closed -- I don't think they were ever open. I wonder why?)
Sunday, March 1, 2009
After our shows are over, we'll usually head out for awhile. If we decide to go to a movie, we'll have popcorn for lunch. If not, we'll probably go to the mall foodcourt, or to Tim Hortons for something to eat. A stop at the cemetery to visit Katie (brief in the winter; in the summer, we will hang around for awhile & maybe take a walk around), and maybe the local megabookstore. And then home, where we laze around some more -- in front of the TV, with a book, or on the computer (like I'm doing right now). After a busy week at work (and the last few weeks have been particularly busy), it's a relief to be able to be lazy.
Sundays can also be a little melancholy. There's an air of finality, of sadness -- weekend's over, fun is done, time to go back to work tomorrow.
Today's CBS Sunday Morning had a segment on Phoebe Snow, whose song "Poetry Man" was a huge hit when I was a teenager. Around the same time, Snow found herself unexpectedly pregnant. Medical negligence left her daughter, Valerie Rose, deaf, blind and brain injured at birth, and not expected to live very long. Snow was encouraged not to take her home, to put her daughter in an institution. She said, "There was no way she wasn't coming home with me." Her daughter lived to be 31. If you go to Snow's website, the home page is devoted to Valerie.
The segment ended with Snow singing the last line of a song that went something like: "Thinking about my baby girl..." & just like that, tears sprang to my eyes & started rolling down my cheeks, & I had to fumble for a Kleenex.