Last week I didn’t attend a funeral.

The bishop announced it the Sunday before. I wept.

A baby girl was born. Received a name.

The baby had a condition called Potter Syndrome. She had no kidneys while she developed in her mother’s womb. She could not produce amniotic fluid.

But she was born. And she spent 90 precious minutes with her family.

Her parents and older brother and sister held her. Talked to her. Smiled, took pictures.

The bishop said the family felt incredibly blessed to spend that much time with their baby girl.

After an hour and a half, her frail little body stopped working, and she returned home. To a sibling who also came home, but only 40 minutes after being born.

They’re home. Where they no longer have Potter Syndrome. Where they will have kidneys.

Where they wait to see the rest of their family again.

Letter to Baby Girl: Week 36

Dear Baby Girl,

It’s getting close.

We are well into 36 weeks, and everybody says that you can come at any time now. Everyone asks if I’m excited, and of course I say that I am, but I really wonder how excited you are. You’re still moving a lot, stretching, testing the limits of my ribs. You’ll soon test my pain threshold, but all I know is that whatever pain I experience will be worth having you in my arms to finally hold and coo at and dote over.

This world is such an interesting and beautiful place. Your father and I can’t wait to explore it with you and see it through your eyes. Oh, to see regular and mundane things as brand new, to take nothing for granted.

Speaking of taking nothing for granted, I’m grateful for your father’s shirts. I have been wearing his running shirts and t-shirts for the past few weeks now. They cover my tummy well, and if I also wear your father’s hoodies, I have an even better idea what it’s like to be in his skin. As I type this, I think about how hard that man works: he goes to work to teach young minds about writing and critical thinking. I can imagine his frustration as he faces certain limits and attitudes of adolescence. It can be draining. And then he’s pursuing a Master’s degree at BYU. First of all I have to recognize his sacrifice for going to BYU. He got his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah, the great rival of BYU. And now that he’s immersed in the student culture in Provo he has to tolerate certain policies and mentalities that are just plain weird and often questionable. I’m not just talking from a spiritual/secular standpoint. There are arcane ideas and draconian practices and sometimes immovable one-sidedness that people seem oblivious to. Maybe if you decide to go to BYU you’ll see what I mean. Or maybe things will have changed for the better by then. I mean, they’re starting to make strides, and I can’t discount whatever progress has occurred, but there’s so much more room for improvement. Always remember that you can improve yourself as you work on your spirituality and decency as a human being.

Wow, that was a long paragraph. I trust you’ll be able to follow it, because we intend to help you develop a good attention span. Baby Girl, be ready for all the stimuli. There is so much of it everywhere. I can be easily distracted, and sometimes talking with your father our conversations wander, where various subjects stretch like tendrils that dissipate into nothing. However, you should see us bear down to do homework. We can sit for hours at a time typing and taking moments to share ideas that are new and fun to us. We want to teach you to filter and focus. These behaviors will help you understand the importance of respect. It’s a very basic principle, one that I never fully understood until I was an adult. There’s a lot that goes into interacting with other human beings. Some of it seems plain common sense; some of it has to be learned over a long period of time. Your father and I will teach you the best we can, and then we hope you’ll decide what’s what and respect others as they respect you. And part of this respect is to remember not to judge people until you’ve considered their story. People have stuff going on in their lives that we don’t know about. Always be willing to wonder if they’ve had a bad day or haven’t eaten or feel sad, and see if there’s a way to help them, even if it’s to give them a hug and tell them it’s okay. Or to acknowledge their feelings and give them space.

I didn’t intend for so much of this letter to lecture you. We have another doctor’s appointment today, and I’ve been looking at birth plans and want to ask a bunch of questions to prepare for your real-time arrival. The weight of the reality of your being here strikes me more strongly each day, and as we preregistered at the hospital yesterday, your father asked some important questions that assured me of his desire to be prepared. We want to be good parents.

There’s undeniable proof in this world of good parents. The father of some good friends of mine passed away last week, and so many wonderful memories and expressions of love overflowed from everywhere for this man. He and I talked only a few times, and he helped one of his daughters move to New York City while I tagged along, but I’ll always know him as a very tender-hearted, generous man who loved his family and treated others with respect. He was a big man, but he had an even bigger heart. I want his example to teach us. And you.

Dear sweet child, your father will be home soon, and then we will go to the doctor who might tell us how big you are, how much you weigh, if your position has changed. We’ll listen to your heartbeat; that never gets old. These physical indicators of your readiness pale in comparison to our eagerness to have you here.

And are we ever eager.

We’ll see you soon.

Love, Mom

Letter to Baby Girl: 35 Weeks

imitating tummy

Dear Baby Girl,

Last week the doctor confirmed that your head is right down where it should be. You have swum your way down to the closest possible escape. Have you thought about this? Have you thought about the effort it will take to squeeze your body through a hole that seems impossibly unaccommodating?

You’re already teaching me: I’ve never turned down a reasonable challenge, but is this reasonable? You are five or so weeks away from defying reason. The doctor also said you’re growing fast, and I imagine your curled body inside my 4’10” body and my 25-pound weight gain as early indicators of your amazing defiance. I already consider myself pretty tough: Shots don’t really hurt. I’ve run a couple half-marathons, a few 10Ks, several 5Ks. I’ve done a sprint triathlon. I’ve wiped out on a mountain bike on a technical trail I had no right being on. But I have a feeling you’re going to show me what it’s like to be really tough.

This — your grand entrance — seems a completely different level of toughness. This is going to take some faith and determination that I probably haven’t tapped into. I mean, your dad has already decided he isn’t going to watch your birth from the doctor’s perspective, but he’ll hold my hand and encourage me. And that’s okay, because everyone has his threshold for gore and pain, even other people’s pain. And he’s already been incredibly supportive and committed to taking care of us. But do you know what I hope happens? I hope your dad cries. He’s only cried once in his life — not even at our wedding — and I don’t know if he’s missing tear ducts or if he’s dehydrated or whatever, but maybe your arrival will be a rare occasion that inspires tears. Maybe your toughness and cuteness and tiny body will unkink and restore the waterworks. Maybe your positioning is your way of telling us how ready you are to see your dad cry.

Yesterday after church, I took the following photo. Your dad actually handled the camera. Did you know that he and I like basketball? He knows all the teams and players and trades. I haven’t followed current teams, but I can recall players from the ’90s when I watched pro basketball all the time with my little brother.

Also, shooting hoops was one of our first dates. We went to the gym and played HORSE and practiced foul shots. You’ll soon see that your dad and I aren’t tall people, but your dad has a mad three-point shot. He can pretty much shoot from anywhere beyond the arc. When I’m warmed up, I have a solid short shot and can be pretty scrappy. Maybe you’ll share our affinity for basketball, but it’s okay if you don’t.

Anyway, you have grown to the point where my tummy looks like a basketball. I hope you’ll someday appreciate how much fun we’ve had with you these eight months.

passing the ball!

Little tough one, we look forward to having so much more fun and facing life’s challenges with you in the next few weeks.

Love, Mom

Letter to Baby Girl: 34 Weeks

Dear Baby Girl,

There are a lot of mommyblogs out there where mothers write to their children. I have always thought this was a great idea. I love the image of you coming upon this blog and reading my thoughts about you. Words, sentences, ideas, language. Communication. These are extremely important concepts.  I suspect you’ll find these letters in the next year or so, because I have a weird feeling you’ll learn how to navigate the internet and read very quickly. Your parents are geniuses, you know.

You are at 34 weeks gestation. That’s something like T minus six weeks before your arrival. Last night after Sunday dinner at your grandparents’ I was feeling really full. So full that I turned down dessert. And I don’t really turn down dessert, even if it’s just a sliver of what’s offered. And Baby Girl, dessert last night was strawberry shortcake. You’ve had it before, and I’m sure you like it. But for some reason if I overeat my back aches and I can’t get comfortable and I have to stretch and breathe, though some relief does come when I fart. Sorry if that’s crude, but you try make more space for yourself, and who am I to get in your way?

Which leads to repeating the point that I turned down dessert. There just wasn’t any room for more food. And because I turned down dessert, it means that you’re grounded. Of course it’s not your fault: you’re a growing baby and I’m short with a narrow ribcage and discomfort is inevitable. But look here at the difference of my insides with you in it: Can you begin to understand?How can you possibly be aware of what’s going on inside my body? And it’s not your problem, really. As long as you’re cozy and eating and growing, you know I don’t have any beef with you. You know that I love you anyway. As long as there’s yoga and warm baths and massages, I’ll be fine.

You know what though? You and I need to talk about you letting me sleep. When I get a good night’s rest, I feel refreshed for most of the day. But when I get very lousy sleep, my back stays cramped and my brain stays fuzzy. Again, not really your fault — just the way things are. And not for too much longer. But you know, on those nights when I wake up after sleeping for four hours, I can work on homework because the night is still and I can somewhat focus, so maybe I should thank you for helping me along in my masters program.

I may unground you today after seeing the doctor. Depends on how I feel.

Have I mentioned how much I’m in love with you? I love the way you move around and feel your way inside my womb. We are becoming very familiar with each other and getting a sense of each other’s personalities. I like to guess what certain protrusions are from my tummy are and imagine how you’re oriented. Your father and I watch my tummy as you shift around. He always assumes any hard surface is your head, while I go between thinking it might be a sitbone or a foot. Yesterday at church I wore a dress that accentuated my tummy and we spent Sunday school watching you. The lesson was about the Abrahamic covenant and we didn’t think it would be a huge distraction to contemplate our posterity by watching you. It’s one of our favorite things to do, besides reading stories and singing to you.

Your Utah grandma and aunt threw a baby shower for you on Saturday. I’m pretty sure you could hear the commotion, but there were a lot of people there to show their excitement and support for you! You got some really cute clothes and a lot of diapers and other very cute things. Just know there’s a world out here that can’t wait to see you.

Your Florida grandma and her husband will be coming to visit. They want to be here around the time you arrive. Your uncle–my brother–wants to visit sometime this summer. Your uncle is quite a character and I know you’ll love him.

A woman stopped me in the hall yesterday after church. She told me about how excited your father is about you. This thrills me to no end. Several people have told me he gets this sparkle in his eye and a huge smile across his face and that makes my heart want to burst with joy. He marvels at the sheer miracle of you growing inside me. He points to my tummy and says, “There’s a baby in there” in a cute voice and no matter how I feel, it makes me smile.  He’s quite in love with you, too. Of course.

It’s important for you to see how much your father and I love each other. We have promised to take care of you and teach you what you need to know to thrive in this world. We also accept that you’ll probably teach us quite a few things. You’ve already taught us a lot about patience. We hope you’ll be patient with us, not only as we raise you, but during the next few weeks. We still haven’t decided on a name for you. Please don’t ground us.

Dear sweet child, our Baby Girl, thank you for blessing our lives. Your father and I can’t wait to start a new journey with you.

Love, Mom

At Church Yesterday

All the children stood in front of the congregation and sang two Christmas songs. One of the little boys standing near the pulpit caught my attention. He looked to be around 7 years old. He wore a lime green dress shirt and a dark, pin-striped vest. His lime green striped clip-on tie was slightly askew. He was cute. As his mouth moved while the music played, it became apparent that he didn’t know the words to the song. He just opened and closed his mouth to the beat, ba ma ba ma. It was a little bit funny at first, but then I admired his effort.

During Sunday school, an elderly man stood up and made a couple of seemingly unrelated comments about the Christmas lesson. He’s probably in his 80s, he only comes to church every once in a while. The teachers always do a good job of tying in what he says into the lesson, and yesterday was no exception. He usually talks about his childhood, his time at war; yesterday he recounted the history of man since Adam, and I realized that his comment wasn’t that far off. When we think about our origins, our history, our universal family, Christmas has as much to do with the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark as it does with December and eggnog and gift exchanges. More, actually.

The young and the old. Those who are most childlike shared themselves with their fellow church members yesterday. I am grateful to have experienced it. They reminded me of the spirit of Christmas.

Senegal Sundays

Whenever I hear the song of a bird
or look at the blue, blue sky
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
or the wind as it rushes by
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
or walk by a lilac tree
I’m glad that I live in the beautiful world
Heavenly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
the color of butterfly wings
He gave me my ears that I might hear
the magical sound of things
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart
I thank him reverently
for all his creations of which I’m a part
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.

Someone played this song on the piano during church yesterday. I cried.

I can’t stop thinking about Senegal. Not that I would want to.

Sundays were special, because that’s when we held church. We were the only group of our kind holding the kind of service our church holds. It was us and a lone family who lives in Dakar, the Smylies. When we’re not there, it’s just the Smylies, in their home. We were glad to spend two Sundays together with them.

The first Sunday was our arrival in Dakar. We agreed to have church in the conference room of the hotel at 2pm, after getting some rest. It was also the first Sunday of the month, which means testimony meeting.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church meeting so small. We sang hymns in French, we prayed in French; we passed the sacrament around the conference table.

Church in French when one doesn’t know the language well takes extra concentration. The rest of the meeting was spent bearing testimonies. I listened hard. People got emotional, and perhaps the more intentional focus helped me to feel the Spirit. I wrote in my journal at the time that the Spirit is stronger in French. I know if I put as much mental and emotional effort into an English church meeting, I could have the same experience. As classmates bore their testimonies, I couldn’t contain my tears. I knew the next five weeks would change me.

We toured Dakar after church. Madame Thompson led us down city streets and past markets and various restaurants. We took pictures and wandered for two hours, dodging occasional vendors and walking through neighborhoods. A little boy gave me a tap cinq.

We ended up in a restaurant where the program paid for the meal. It was a strange meal with strangely plated foods with beef or fish and brown sauce with either rice or millet. It tasted fine, but other people were a little bit squeamish about the meal. I shared some of my rice with Sarah, because the millet with its strange sauce tasted like strangeness. The tv broadcasted lutte, which is a type of wrestling and the most popular sport in Senegal.

Then, the power went out.

The second Sunday was Mother’s Day. The Smylies invited us to their home for church and brunch. They have a piano and we sang hymns with accompaniment. There was a special musical number by Melanie and Stephanie. Stephanie and Spencer gave excellent talks. Brunch was amazing with quiche and scones and fresh fruit and cake and delicious juices. I had been looking forward to it all week. People gathered around the piano and sang hymns. I played with the Smylies’ toddler. Their home was beautiful and clean and they were gracious. I got to speak to them about a common NYC friend, Ned. They love Ned, as everyone does.

This would be last time we’d see the Smylies on our trip. After an hour or so, we shook hands and gave thanks and boarded our trusty white school bus.

We went to an orphanage.

It was Mother’s Day.

We waved and smiled at the kids, and they smiled as us. Sometimes they were shy. We walked through buildings where they slept. Sometimes kids peeked around corners and I waved. I tried to imagine my life without parents, and my heart became heavy.

We stood outside, and a group of children stood facing us, and they taught us a version of “If you’re happy and you know it.” Their rendition uses joy in one’s heart and then shouting “Merci, Dieu” on the last verse. Those children were happy, and they knew they didn’t have to be unhappy, and I wanted for them to have even more happiness. I prayed it for them as I whispered through a tight throat, “Merci, Dieu.”

The following Sunday, the 15th, was our first in Saint-Louis, an old town in northern Senegal. I said the opening prayer for sacrament meeting that day. Don’t ask if I wrote it down and memorized it, because I won’t answer you.

I wrote this in my journal that day, in actual English:

“I’m thinking about capitalism and governments and organizations that promote and educate and encourage. I wonder if any of these institutions wil ever synchronize. I saw a news headline that said that Mitt Romney thinks ‘Obamacare’ will result in a complete government takeover of healthcare. This is such a huge issue in the United States, and elsewhere in the world people struggle with clean water and good schools.

“Schools! Why aren’t all the kids in school and not off the streets? This is a problem everywhere, but when little beggar boys wander around at night asking me for money and/or food, it’s very disheartening.

“How is this trip strengthening my faith? How is it touching my heart? It certainly enrages me in several ways.

“Dinner was lovely. Conversation was fun, though we got gently chided for talking in English.

“I think I’m gaining weight, which is totally lame.

“Another week is over. That’s so hard to believe. Yet, in some ways, I can’t wait to go home.”

Then, in French:

“Where is my heart? What do I love? How do I understand people? How do I devote my life to God?

“I don’t know how to read more quickly. Continue. Persevere. My brain is broken. Please, help me to fix it.”

We spent another Sunday in Saint-Louis, the 22nd. Those in the loop know this date is my birthday. Before sacrament, Madame Thompson announced there would be a “surprise” after church. Professor Lee’s birthday was on the 2nd, and Andrew’s birthday was on the 20th, and there was talk about having a combined birthday party for the May birthdays.

After church we met downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, and Madame Thompson led us into the restaurant, where tables were decorated with confetti and stars and little angel figurines. There were delicious drinks that I know the names of but I do not know how to spell. And then, there was cake. And three candles. And “Joyeux Anniversaire” piped in frosting and Professor Lee, Andrew and I blowing out the candles.

And then the cake was something like tiramisu. I don’t want to say for certain.

After cake, everyone who bought a boubou posed for pictures.

Then we strolled the town for our last Sunday in Saint-Louis.

Also, there was studying for an Anthropology midterm, but we can gloss over that.

Sunday the 29th, we rode a fancy, air-conditioned charter bus from a nice hotel in the middle of nowhere to another nice hotel in Saly, Senegal. (I will tell you another time about the hell-hole hotel in the middle of nowhere prior to the nice hotel in the milieu de nulle part. It was so many types of awesome.)

I took a nap on the bus and woke up with the worst headache ever. I drank some water, and I tried going back to sleep. It hurt so bad I turned my head toward the window and away from my dear friend, Kylie, and cried. Probably for a solid twenty minutes. Then I calmed down and Kylie shared cartoons on her iPod with me.

We arrived at the nicest hotel I have ever, ever, ever, ever stayed. Church was going to be at 6pm, and since it was our last Sunday together, it was also going to be a testimony meeting, in addition to Andrew speaking. Since it was a testimony meeting, and since it was the last one, the culmination of all our experiences in the past month, and since I already had a headache, and since classmates were saying beautiful and touching things and men were crying and I knew them so much better than I did just a month before – their spirits and their hearts – I sobbed the entire meeting.

This did not make my head feel better. At all. However, I was sitting next to Andrew’s wife Rebecca, and I told her I had a headache. That was when she placed her fingers at the base of my skull and applied a moderate, massaging pressure, and I felt instant relief. I had given shoulder rubs to eight or so people on the trip (because that’s how I make friends), and thought nothing of being touched in return, because I know not everyone is touchy, but this was what I needed. Also, Excedrin.

Then Sunday, June 5, I didn’t go to church because I was too busy being on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. So yesterday was my first Sunday at church back in the United States. I thought about the part of the world I’ve been blessed to see and experience in Senegal. I reflected on its beauty and richness of culture. I brought my French scriptures to church yesterday, and I thought especially of the children and how much God loves them. How they seem to know. I want to keep a deeper, more meaningful focus, and the eyes of the children are my lens. Their innocence, not just in French, not just in Africa. They are the difference I will never forget, happiness unrestrained and nondiscriminating. I spent five Sundays all over Senegal to realize, to see with utmost clarity, that God truly loves us all.

Merci, Dieu.

A Year: Inventory Time Again

The anniversary of my leaving New York City is this next weekend, and I can’t believe I’m still whining about transitions. I’m profoundly disappointed in myself.

I have a lot to be grateful for, no doubt. I’ve made a few good friends here, which is more than I could have ever expected.

I have teachers who really like me, who open up a phenomenal world of thinking and writing, and through their perfect balance of scholarship and passion and faith, motivates me to just keep going.

There’s always the church, its trueness, God at its helm, directing with an exalted balance of omniscience and omnipotence and love. Despite who I’ve tried to be or what I’ve done, this too, keeps me going.

Technology lets me remember family. My family has grown in the past few weeks, and I now have four new siblings, with in-laws and 10 nieces and nephews.

Hopefully these things can bump my attitude out of the shadows, and I can learn to be happy where I am. Hopefully these things will trump my bitterness about feeling left out and removed from everyone else’s lives. Hopefully these things will help me accept how friends and family are moving on, because I should be able to keep up anyway, right? No one has any excuse not to share what’s going on with one another.

Not wanting to share is different, though, which I can completely understand. Regardless of these things, I’ve managed to alienate myself from people I love and consider my best and closest friends. Even with the technology, the distance makes it more palpable. I’ve managed to create a comfortable little pocket of misery, and I’ve never felt more alone, and of course no one wants to be around or hear about that.

So what do I do? Do I behave like a proper Mormon and fake it ’til I make it? That should be an easy enough thing to pick up, as hardly anyone here makes it apparent that they’re suffering or having any difficulty. And I get that living the gospel helps makes life easier to deal with, but it does not cover up the hard knocks.

I’ve also found that not a lot of people like to listen (anymore). They say they’ll always be there; they say I can talk about anything. It’s not true.

Choosing friends has always been one of my strongest points. Knowing what they need; figuring out what they can offer me.

Thanks to those who sent concerned texts or emails or facebook messages this past week. I know I normally don’t privatize my blog or turn off my facebook wall or lock my twitter account, but I just got overwhelmed. Thanks for noticing. It really means a lot.

Back to the drawing board.

It’s not a bad thing. That’s the beauty of the gospel, the potential to progress, the ability to heal after life knocks you down, leaves you tender and with a few bruises.

I’ll get through this.

Time for another round.