United to the Suffering of Mary

United to the Suffering of Mary April 18, 2013

Francesco Trevisani, "The Pieta"
Francesco Trevisani, “The Pieta”

This is a memoir about loss and grief, but please understand how difficult it is to write. It is not merely that the subject is so difficult. But it is that by temperament I am a person who buries emotion under a stoic exterior. That’s my dad in me. I think of myself as an intellectual, reasoned and calm in his analysis of things. I often joke with friends: “I don’t do emotion.”

 

I.
RATIONAL THINGS TO DO

Being, therefore, the very rational person I am, I did the rational thing and married someone completely the opposite: Kim is all emotion and no reason. That’s an exaggeration; though, of course, she married me, which is not exactly the most sensible thing to have done. Once she said to me, “You think with your head, and I think with my heart.”

I grew up on the east coast, in northern Delaware, just south of Wilmington. Later, during graduate school, I moved to southern Illinois, then returned to Delaware in 1999. Finally I came to Cincinnati in 2003. People I meet often ask how it was I ended up in Cincinnati. “Did you come here for a job?”

No; I just chased a woman.

Kim and I dated long-distance for three years, and then—without any thought in the world how I was to get to Cincinnati or where I would find employment once there—I proposed and Kim accepted. Three months later, I quit my job, withdrew the entirety of my savings, and moved to Cincinnati on faith.

Well, as they say: faith and prayer. I found work. Not that money was in any way easy. When Kim and I were married, her son Tyler was thirteen. We had used contraception throughout our courtship, in the form of an IUD; Kim was not sure she wanted any more children. We were in our thirties, and Tyler was already thirteen, and Kim didn’t think she wanted to start over. “I’ll be in my fifties,” she would say, “when the child graduates from high school.”

Now, I didn’t have children of my own, and I certainly wanted children. I had names already picked out; Kim hated them all. She understood how deep my desire was. But I was willing to concede to her feelings on the matter, so for the first year of our marriage we kept the IUD.

Then one day she looked at me and said, “I want a child. Will you give me a child?”

Of course, I knew that what she meant was: I want a daughter. She had her son. And she also had, at times, a difficult relationship with her mother, so I think she wanted the opportunity to make up for that through the relationship she would have with a daughter of her own. Naturally, I wanted a boy. Men generally do, but for me there was a stronger consideration: I knew this might be my only child. I wanted to have someone to carry on my name.

Thus we had the IUD removed, and in October of 2005 we learned that Kim was pregnant. She knew I wanted a boy; she knew I desperately wanted a boy. But she was also married to me and knew my sins. In truth, she knew them far better than I.

“You need to have a daughter,” she told me. “A daughter will be good for you.”  Because, of course, she knew that I would be lenient with a boy; boys will be boys. I was. But a girl I’d keep in her room and say: “No dating until you’re thirty.” Or, if I had been Catholic at the time: “Sweetheart, can I introduce you to the vocation director of the Dominican sisters?” I needed a girl.

Which the baby turned out to be. We decided on the name Caitlyn Elisabeth Alt. Elisabeth was after the cousin of Mary: the mother of John the Baptist.

 

II.
A DIFFICULT PREGNANCY

Kim was not having an easy pregnancy. Part of it was almost certainly exhaustion: the physical exhaustion of working forty hours plus a lot of overtime, and the psychological exhaustion of worrying how Caitlyn was to be paid for once she arrived. If Kim wore her emotions on her sleeve, one of her most frequent emotions was worry. Once, in a panic, she screamed at me, “I don’t want this child!” Which she certainly did not mean; it was stress talking; I knew that. But I didn’t know how to handle such breakdowns. I’m very logical, you see, very calm, and I don’t do emotion, and I just wanted to get the fit (as I perceived it) to go away, rather than to comfort and heal what was causing it. Anything for a quiet life.

Then, after finding out he was going to have a sister, Tyler—who wanted a brother as much as I wanted a son—said to God in his room, “If I can’t have a brother, I’d rather my mom not have this baby at all.” He kept this from us at the time, but months later he would come to Kim in tears and confess to having this thought and to say he never really meant it.

Four or five months into the pregnancy, Kim started to gain weight very rapidly and to swell around the ankles and wrists and legs. “I’m really gaining weight really fast,” she told me.

“You’re pregnant,” I said. “You should be gaining weight.”

“But this is too much too sudden.”

“I don’t notice it.”

Now, I know there are plenty of women out there who long to hear such words, but in this case it was certainly a sign of a husband who wasn’t paying enough attention to his wife. Kim had bought the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and she would pore and obsess over it every night, and I thought her concern about weight gain was just her anxieties and her over-emotionalism getting the better of her.

“I’ve been reading this book,” she told me. (As if I needed to be told that.) “And it looks like I might have the symptoms of toxemia. That’s not good. You need to take me to the hospital to get checked out.”

“The gynecologist at your regular check-ups says you’ve been doing fine. Everything’s coming along.”

“Yes, but something’s not right. You need to take me to the hospital to get checked out.”

So I did.

Toxemia—more commonly called called pre-eclampsia—is a condition of pregnancy in which a woman will develop high blood pressure, sudden weight gain, swelling, and a high content of protein in the urine. Left untreated, it can develop into eclampsia, causing seizures and sometimes death. Practically speaking, the only cure for it is to deliver the child, assuming the child is far enough along. Typically a woman diagnosed with pre-eclampsia will be put on absolute bed rest or, depending on the severity of the condition, hospitalized for the duration of the pregnancy.

None of that was very appealing to Kim. In the first place, she’s stubborn. (Never a fault I’ve had.) In the second place, she can not endure to sit around, or lay around, with nothing to do. And she was concerned about the money she’d be losing from work; which, truth be told, we needed.

“There’s no limit to how much overtime I can get right now,” I told her. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” she said.

Kim was six months along and all her co-workers were certain they wouldn’t see her back at work until after Caitlyn was born. They knew that is what happens when a woman has pre-eclampsia.

But that is not what happened with Kim. She had gained a lot of weight; she did have swelling in her wrists and ankles and legs; her blood pressure was elevated, and her blood pressure is never elevated. But, having taken a few tests, the doctor sent her home with only just these three instructions: (1) don’t work overtime; (2) don’t eat salt; (3) send in 24 hours of urine samples.

Well, what did I know about any of this? The doctor must know what he’s looking at; the doctor must know what he’s talking about.

Kim was irritated at having to collect her urine and at the sight of an orange jug next to the toilet.

A month passed. On April 14, 2006—it was Good Friday—Kim was feeling worse enough to know that something bad and not right was happening. We returned to the hospital, where the nurses—informed about what had been going on—promptly put her into pre-labor. She was seven months pregnant; surely Caitlyn was far enough along, and big enough, for the doctor to have mercy and end this. I was sure he was going to come in and induce labor, and that Caitlyn would be born on Good Friday. What a great day to be born.

But the doctor did not come in. He listened to the nurse read Kim’s test results and gave a release order over the phone. Watch the salt: Those were his instructions.

Well, what did I know about any of this? The doc­tor must know what he’s listening to; the doc­tor must know what he’s talk­ing about.

Kim was happy to be able to go home.

 

 

Sunday, April 16. Easter morning. I had signed up for vigil prayer in the sanctuary from 6:00 to 7:00. Kim and Tyler met me afterward for Easter breakfast before church began. She was an exhausted wreck, and everyone could see it. “She looks so tired,” our friends at church said.

“I just need to take a long nap for the afternoon,” she said. “And I’ll be okay. If you let me sleep this afternoon, I’ll make chicken and dumplings for dinner.”

Then, in the middle of the night, she woke me up to tell me that she had a tortuous headache. “I’m going to take some Tylenol,” she said.

“Are you allowed to?”

“Yeah, Tylenol won’t hurt the baby.”

When morning came, April 17, the day after Easter, the headache was no better. “You need to stay home from work today and sleep,” I told her. “I’ll take Tyler to school.”

“No,” she said, her stubbornness uneffected by the headache. “If I get up and start moving and doing stuff, the headache will go away.”

God works, somehow, in incalculably mysterious ways, even through our sins. Looking back, I know that if I had been the husband I ought to have been, I would have insisted she stay home and sleep. I wouldn’t have accepted no. And if she had, she would have died, and I wouldn’t have known anything was going wrong, because she would have been asleep.

As it happened, she called me from the side of 275, the Cincinnati beltway, to tell me that she had pulled over. She wasn’t able to see break lights. She had called the hospital, and they told her she needed to get there immediately. I needed to come and get her.

 

III.
A VIA DOLOROSA AT BETHESDA NORTH

When I got there, she could no longer see at all and wouldn’t even trust the sound of my voice to assure her that it was me. She asked to feel my wedding ring. That is all she would trust.

“You need to get out of the car,” I said. “Let me get you into mine so we can get to the hospital.”

“No.”

“Yes. Now.”

“No. There are all the cars speeding by.”

“Well, you have to get out now.”

“No.”

Soon she became unresponsive; her head lolled about from side to side, confusion in her eyes. I got into the car beside her and called 911. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance she was in pulled back over to the side of 275. Kim had stopped breathing; she had no pulse. However the EMT staff did so, they revived her; they got her to the hospital.

After about a half an hour, the nurse brought me and Kim’s family into a consultation room. There I was told that Kim had eclampsia, that she had had a seizure, that she was currently on oxygen support, and that Caitlyn was dead.

So what do you do? What do you do when someone tells you that? If you are a logical person—which is what I am—you do the only logical thing: You do what the day requires you to do. You visit your wife, who is on a respirator and does not know you are at her side. You talk to the hospital chaplain about how you met her. You call your sister and your parents and wait for them to call back to tell you that they are driving in all the way from Delaware because you have no family of your own in Cincinnati. You follow your wife on a stretcher from hospital room to hospital room as she gradually is able to come off the respirator and get prepared for the doctors to induce labor so that she can deliver a dead child. You go through the motions and do what the day asks you to do.

You are not really in control of anything; you are just led.

I remember that when Kim started to become aware of what was going on around her and where she was, she was convinced that she had to go to the bathroom. She didn’t; her bladder was absolutely empty and she was merely feeling the pressure of the catheter. But she insisted she had to get up and go to the bathroom because otherwise she’d go right there in the bed and embarrass herself. Tyler and I had to physically hold her still as she fought to get out of bed.

I remember that I had to tell Kim what happened to Caitlyn. The doctors insisted that she should hear it from me, not them, and that she needed to hear it before they would induce labor. That was nearly an impossible thing to have to do. There’s no logic that tells you how to do that. And Kim half understood what was going on anyway, so sometimes she would say, “Why did Caitlyn die?” and ten minutes later she would say, “Is Caitlyn okay?” and I would have to tell her again and she would cry and say “No,” as if she were hearing it for the first time.

I remember that when they did induce labor, Kim said to me, “Don’t look at her. Look at me.” And then immediately she fell asleep. And since the labor was going slow, I stepped out into the waiting room to update my parents how things stood, and when I returned Caitlyn was already born and I had missed it. It was 1:30 in the morning on Tuesday, April 18, 2006.

“Does she have all her fingers and all her toes?” Kim asked me.

“Yes.”

“Who does she look like?”

“She looks like you,” I said.

When Kim saw Caitlyn, she looked at me and said, “It figures she would have to look like you.”

I remember that the chaplain came in soon afterward, with Kim drifting between sleep and wakefulness. We talked about that wonderful passage in Job: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

“Would it be appropriate to have her baptized?” I said. Caitlyn was laying on a blanket on a table on the other side of the room.

“Are you Catholic?” he said. The chaplain happened to be Baptist and didn’t believe in infant baptism. Actually, even Catholics don’t believe that you baptize the dead, but I didn’t know anything about any of this at the time and was just asking his advice.

“No,” I said. “And I don’t believe she needs to be baptized to go to heaven, but I was just asking what you thought because I would have had her baptized as an infant if she’d lived.”

“Well, if you want me to baptize her, I’ll baptize her. Otherwise, I can just say a blessing over her.” Kim was alert enough to what was being said at this point to say, “No, just do the blessing”; and I agreed with that, so he pronounced a blessing over her.

I remember that the nurse who specialized in grief counseling after fetal death (a wonderful and devout Catholic, by the way) talked to me about how for the rest of my life I would always be searching for Caitlyn, as if she’d just be around the next corner, and that it would be a good thing if I could write down, in a letter or poem, the things that I would want to say to her. So on Wednesday and Thursday of that week I wrote a poem addressed to her, and the next week had it buried with her.

That week, at Bethesda North, was my via dolorosa.

And on Saturday Kim was sent home.

 

IV.
THE HOUR OF LEAD

After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson writes. “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.” None have described numbness after loss better than she in this poem. “Mechanical,” she describes the feet. “A wooden way,” she refers to it. “A quartz contentment, like a stone.”

This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—

That is how I remember it. And all those descriptions of numbness certainly apply to my habit—then, as at any time in my life—of burying my emotions beneath a stoic exterior. I was wooden; I was quartz; I was lead.

Kim, the emotive one, always wanted to talk about her hurt. She was angry at God. God had permitted a bad, unjust thing.

Or, it was her own fault.

“No, it’s not,” I told her.

“She died inside me! How could it not be my fault?”

In fact, as I saw it, it was my fault. It was punishment for my sins. After all, God punished David by taking his child away from him. Or, it was because I hadn’t taken good enough care of Kim. Years later, I realized that this was a pretty selfish thought: as though Caitlyn’s death were exclusively my own loss, and no one else’s.

Kim learned about a grief support group for parents who had suffered pre-natal loss. It met once a month on Monday nights. She wanted me to come with her. I did, only because I enjoyed the night out with her and going to a chili restaurant beforehand: I liked what I hoped would be a rebonding time between the two of us. But it really did help to hear other people’s stories. When you lose your child, one of the worst feelings you have is that no one understands. No one knows what to say to you. And in fact, it’s true: No one else does understand. Unless you’ve lost a child yourself, you can’t understand. It is a grief that can only be known by those who have shared it. So it helped to be in the presence of others who felt what I was feeling.

But I wasn’t one to do any talking; I just listened. I know that bothered Kim. And although she tells me otherwise, I often worry that she thought I was indifferent about Caitlyn’s death. In truth, she just wanted to connect with me emotionally about it, but we each handled our grief in very different ways. She wanted to emote; I wanted to be left alone with it. It was not something I ever wanted to talk about.

Thus these distances further hurt a marriage that was already having difficulties, and magnified other sins, mostly my own. Less than two years after Caitlyn died, Kim and I were divorced. We remained on friendly terms afterward; I guess we felt we owed it to each other because we shared a child and the loss of that child.

 

 

Two years after that, in 2010, I was beginning the process of entering RCIA and becoming Catholic. Even still, buried inside me, was a lot of unaddressed pain over Caitlyn’s death and unaddressed sorrow over my own sins. Nothing was standing in the way of my becoming Catholic; I hadn’t remarried—I hadn’t even dated.

“But we do recommend,” Fr. George said to me, “that you pursue an annulment anyway. It helps the healing process.”

So I spoke to Kim about the decision I was trying to make, believing that in fairness I owed it to her. She wasn’t happy. She was convinced it would mean the marriage “never happened” and that Caitlyn was illegitimate. Not so, I tried to explain.

“Yes it will,” she said. “I don’t care what those Catholics say.”

 

V.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT MARY

Later that night, she called me to further express her displeasure. And all she wanted to talk about was the one single issue about the Catholic Church that I hadn’t fully worked out in my own heart: Mary. I had accepted all the Church’s teachings about Mary theologically, but I felt an emotional distance from her. Up to that point, I had approached the Church’s teachings logically: I wrote down a list of everything I was having difficulty with, and went through the intellectual work on them one by one, crossing items off the list. Mary too had a check mark next to her name. But I still felt an emotional distance, and I couldn’t figure out why. Every other teaching of the Church I had embraced with joy when I had worked it out logically. That hadn’t happened with Mary yet.

“Don’t Catholics pray to Mary?” Kim said.

“No.”

“Yes they do.”

“No. We talk to her. We ask her to pray for us.”

“Well, I can just talk to Jesus.”

“Kim, you talk to Caitlyn, don’t you?”

“Of course I talk to Caitlyn. But I don’t ask her to do anything for me; I talk to Jesus.”

“Then how come, when Tyler was in his car accident and it turned out he was okay, you said, ‘Thank you, Caitlyn?'”

“Well,” Kim said, “I don’t need to go through Mary, because I can go straight to Jesus, and I’m closer to Jesus than Mary is!”

“Oh,” I said—and you must understand, this was the first thing that entered my mind to say, and so I said it, and I didn’t consider that I was saying these words to a mother who had lost her child and was still unreconciled to it—“I think that Mary’s closer to Jesus than anyone. After all, she carried him in her body for nine months.”

She said some angry words.

“You know,” I finally told her. “It wouldn’t hurt you to spend some time talking to Mary. After all, Mary lost her child too.”

She said some more angry words and hung up.

To this day, I don’t know where Kim is in her heart with any of these thoughts. But in looking back on that conversation, it strikes me that God was also helping me with my feelings about Mary and my unresolved hurt after Caitlyn’s death.

I had spoken words that were meant equally for my own ears.

Mary lost her child too.

I had always heard people, when the theology of suffering came up, talk about uniting your suffering to the suffering of Christ. I had never considered the possibility of uniting my suffering to the suffering of Mary.

I realized: I had been approaching Mary entirely the wrong way. You know, you never get over the loss of your child. Never. You learn to endure it, and cope, but you don’t get over it. A lot of people ask “Why?” but that’s a nonsense question. Even if God were to come down to me and explain why, and even if I could understand it, I don’t want to know why: I just want to have my daughter back. The right thing, though, is not to hide your suffering away in the hopes that it won’t be there because you can’t see it. The right thing is to embrace your suffering; or, more properly speaking, to embrace the one who suffered.

And if that was Jesus, it was also Mary.

Later in the RCIA process I finally began to work through a lot of the pain and guilt that I had buried inside me beneath my stoic exterior. I needed to learn to face that I was less than I hoped I could be; although I do hope that, however imperfect I was, my love for Caitlyn would have been perfect and that I would have been a good father to her.

As Fr. George had said, working through the annulment questions, and being forced to articulate a lot of what had happened, was very healing. Both that, as well as praying the Rosary every day to begin the process of developing a relationship with my Mother, to begin to talk to her, to begin to meditate through her joys and her sorrows. To heal my suffering by embracing it through the Mother whose sinlessness was made perfect by her suffering.

Then one day I was driving home from RCIA and, prompted by nothing at all, I began to sob uncontrollably. Any other drivers who saw me must have thought I had lost my only child. Which wasn’t the least of it. And although our last conversation had not gone well, I had an irresistible desire to call Kim.

“I just want you to know,” I told her, “how sorry I am for all the things I did to make you feel ugly or unwanted or unloved. I just want you to know—“

“Scott,” she said. “You don’t have to keep telling me you’re sorry. I have forgiven you.”

 

VI.
THE PIETA: SUFFERING SWALLOWED UP BY LOVE

That was a tremendous moment of grace. The other was making my first confession, which of all the days near to the Easter Vigil it could have been, happened to be on April 18, 2011—Caitlyn’s birthday. I was received into the Church on April 23, 2011, which also happened to be the day that Caitlyn was buried.

No one will convince me that those are just coincidences. Mary, I saw, had been praying for me this whole time. But so had my daughter. How wonderful to have that one more advocate for me before the throne of God.

Thus could I receive my first Eucharist in joy, forgiven and washed clean, and finally healed. And resolved to be a better man.

 

 

One of my favorite pictures is of Kim holding Caitlyn in the hospital. She doesn’t remember that; she remembers very little about her time in the hospital. But at least she can look at the picture and know that Caitlyn was here, and real, and that she held her. What I love so much about it is that I don’t see any sorrow, any pain, any hurt in Kim’s eyes. All I see is the perfect love of a mother for her child.

Maybe I have only noticed this because of being Catholic, but that picture is the Pieta. And in looking at Kim holding Caitlyn, and at Mary holding Jesus, I am reminded of how suffering is swallowed up by love.

St. Caitlyn Elisabeth Alt, pray for us.

Happy birthday.

***

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