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Remembering the Normal

Science tells us that human memory is faulty. We want to think that we will remember certain moments forever like they are encased in carbonite. In reality, we look back on events and retell our stories to friends and colleagues. The story always shifts a little in the process and by the time we have told the story 1000 times, it has changed. It's not (usually) an outright lie. It's just that our brain betrays us. Even our collective memories of major national events that are witnessed by millions of people can be faulty. One study suggests that up to 40% of people changed certain elements of their remembrances of 9/11 as time passed. Something to seriously consider as our recent national discussions about history have claimed the center stage and we continue to live in "unprecedented" times. 

Side note: anybody else yearning for some precedented times again?  

Fifteen years ago this week, Charlotte Jennie was born. I recounted a lot of her birth story on this blog in 2011. Was my retelling accurate even then? Who knows! But I will tell you it was definitely my truth. I am reminded of her birth story often. I think of it when childbirth is a plot point in a tv show or movie. I reflect on it when a friend announces their pregnancy or even their own child's blessed arrival on social media. I think about her birth as I watch Charlotte's peers grow up. They are teens now. Some of them are learning how to drive. Some of them have summer jobs. They are in high school. It's hard to see these kids and remember that Charlotte would now be the same age. In my brain, she is forever 4. 

We all have that area in our house where things are stored "just because". I'm not talking about a junk drawer. Most things in the junk drawer are actually useful; they're just disorganized and haven't found a home anywhere else. The items in this drawer/container/closet hold memories. You don't necessarily want to put them on display but you can't bear to throw them out either. Maybe this area has letters from a loved one or sentimental jewelry that you don't wear anymore but keep for certain reasons. In one such drawer in my bedroom, there is a rolled-up washcloth, sealed with 15 -year-old bandage tape. 

I spent a good part of my labor in a rocking chair. I would roll into the contraction, leaning forward with my feet planted firmly on the floor. At some point, one of the L&D nurses brought two of these rolled-up washcloths to me, thinking that it would help. It gave me something to squeeze or push my hands into as I rocked through the contraction in my chair. It did help (a little). As the evening shifted into the following morning, I was moved back to the bed and I literally drifted in and out of consciousness with each contraction until I was finally given permission to push. Roger would swear that I was dozing between each contraction and even snoring a little, but I woke up for the contraction every time and he coached me through to the other side. 

After Charlotte arrived, there were the obligatory medical assessments. She was taken briefly to the nursery for tests, Roger went to forage for some food, and I was left alone in the room to start my recovery. As I pulled myself together and prepared for the transfer to our recovery room, the L&D nurse busied herself with tidying things up as well. Before she left, she handed me one of the washcloths. With a wink and a sweet smile, she said something like, "I thought you might like this as a way to remember your strength."*

*I'm pretty sure that's not exactly what she said. Remember? Our memory is faulty. But that's what I'm going to imagine she said. Something like that.

Regardless of her actual words, I honored the gift and have kept that washcloth in my memory drawer ever since her birth. On the rare occasions that I open the drawer, I am reminded of the sentiment and intention of the gift. On that day, I was strong. Four years later, as we faced her cancer diagnosis and eventual death, I was strong. Ten years later, I hold on to that strength. There are days, moments, and sometimes weeks on end when I don't always feel like I'm strong. But when I remember my past, I realize that my strength has always been there and it will remain if I give it a chance. 

As Charlotte's birthday approached this year and I thought about what I wanted to say in this post, I was also reading Frederik Backman's novel Beartown. Side note: if you haven't read his books, put them on your list. He tells stories about very flawed but endearing humans that make me laugh and cry and give me hope for humanity. Beartown is a slightly different tale from his usual novels that focuses more on a town than an individual. Two characters in the story have a child who died early in life. It's not a central part of the plot but it certainly impacts the characters and the way they frame their world; it shapes the way they parent their other children and the choices they make on a daily basis. One excerpt in particular hit home: 

We always remember more sharply than anything else the last happy moment before everything fell apart. The second before the crash. The ice cream at the gas station just before the accident. The last swim on holiday before we came home and received the diagnosis. Our memories always force us back to those very best moments, night after night, prompting the questions, "Could I have done anything differently?" "Why did I just go around being happy?" "If only I had known what was going to happen, could I have stopped it?" Everyone has 1000 wishes before a tragedy but just one afterward. When a child is born, its parents dream of it being as unique as possible. Until it gets ill. When suddenly all they want is for everything to be normal. 

I know that right now, many of us wish for a huge hunk of normal in our lives. Sometimes, I have a hard time remembering the "normal" because the sad and painful hangs like a shadow that never quite goes away. Other days, the sunlight outshines the shadow. It's always a process. In every year, I'm never quite sure how I'm going to feel about Charlotte's birthday until it arrives. This year will probably be no different. 

Happy birthday, baby girl. Missing you like crazy. There are some things I will never forget.

Charlotte Jennie


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