The Awkward Smile of Grief

awkward smile
I haven’t blogged in a few years. One of the main reasons I stopped was so that nothing I said could possibly negatively impact the murder trial surrounding my son’s death. On Thursday April 13, 2017, this changed – Joaquin Rams was finally convicted of the capital murder of my son Prince. Rams will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Just a reminder: This blog is not about Rams. This blog is about community, social justice, and the drive to fix the broken justice system that failed my son.

I wrote the following essay before my son’s murderer was convicted. One of the things I strive to do with my writing is let folks know that they are not alone. I am happy to finally be able to share it with you. It isn’t easy telling people for the first time a story that is possibly one of the worst they have ever heard. Many of us are often caught in public, unable to respond, to invasive questions by complete strangers. This can be something seemingly innocent like:

1. “Do you and your husband want children?”

What if you and your husband can’t have children? Is your fertility really any of that person’s business?

2. “I am so sorry for your loss. This must be so hard. Do you need anything?”

Totally innocent question, but imagine trying to answer it when your current struggle is getting out of bed and putting on clothing.

3. “Is she your only child? Is she your first child?”

I get asked this on nearly a weekly basis. In fact, I was just asked this today while at the eye doctor. My blog post today talks about how I answer this question.

***

 

In the wake of my 15-month old son Prince’s murder, I smiled awkwardly whenever I was forced tell a stranger what happened to him. Though I knew smiling was not an appropriate response, and it certainly didn’t mirror how I felt inside, it was like an instinctive reflex that I couldn’t control.

I dreaded answering the casual question of how many children I had, when asked by a complete stranger. “Two, but only one is still alive,” I should have answered. More often, I either dodged the question, or lied and claimed only my daughter – completely ignoring the existence of my son.

Answering this question honestly forced me to tell the strangers standing across from me a story that was possibly the worst thing they had ever heard, and one that illustrated rock bottom of the human condition. Curiosity peaked, an honest answer was inevitably followed by the even more awkward request for the story behind why one of my children was no longer alive. It was gut wrenching to relive his murder every time, humiliating to cry in front of strangers, and draining to try and respond in a way that others found appropriate.

 

A couple months after my son was killed, one of the first times I got out of bed after the tragedy, I went to a crepe stand that my son and I visited nearly every weekend. Everyone who worked at the stand knew my son by his big smile, deep soulful eyes, and animated curls. This was the first time I went there without him, and his presence had been so big that it was obvious that he was absent.

 

“Where is your son?” It was an innocent question. It mortified me, and I panicked. What was I going to say to this woman? Crying in the middle of the street wasn’t an option. I wasn’t ready to tell her why he wasn’t there and why he would never come back. I fought back the tears that were threatening, and swallowed several times as though doing so would resolve the pain I felt in my chest. I considered pretending that I didn’t know what she was talking about, or pretending I wasn’t who she thought I was. At a loss for reasonable alternatives, I blurted out the truth.

 

As the words escaped my mouth, she burst out into tears. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, emotionally naked and vulnerable. As she stared at me, painfully and intensely, I folded my arms over my chest. Shielding my fully clothed body, I desperately tried to feel less exposed.

Why had I been so afraid of telling her? And why was I having such a hard time knowing how to react to her sadness? “It’s ok,” I said, though of course it wasn’t at all. Still fighting back my own tears, I began to try desperately to stop hers.

As her breakdown continued, I continued tap dancing – I smiled, giggled, and tried to shift the conversation as though what I had just told her wasn’t a bit deal. “Why aren’t you crying?” She appeared stunned by my reaction. The unexpected judgement that was depicted in her face left me feeling ashamed. My cheeks grew red, and my hands started to shake. The heat welling up on my face so strong that I felt the urge to press my hands up against it. I wanted to stop this reaction, but was completely powerless.

 

‘What did this woman expect me to do’, I wondered. I wanted to vanish, I wanted my son back, and I wondered why I couldn’t have died with him. The truth was, I didn’t know how I was supposed to act after my life had just been shattered. Though it wasn’t my job to make this woman feel better about what had happened to me, I didn’t know this at the time.

 

I started lying to people when asked about my children. I pretended as though I had never had a son, attempting to save myself from reliving the death through the eyes of someone new. I was afraid that speaking of him would cause me to react in a way that was uncomfortable for others. Managing the emotions of strangers was more than I could bear. Denying Prince’s existence allowed temporary solace, but it also tore me apart from the inside out. I felt as though I was disrespecting his memory, and this was killing me.

Everyone had advice on how I should cope. Initially, I listened to everything. I grasped for advice because I was lost in sorrow. This constant, often conflicting, advice began to give me whip lash. Out of options, I had to decide to stop listening to it. I started standing in my truth, and decided that my son’s memory was more important to me than how the reality of his death made others feel.

Smiling, and giggling awkwardly, had been desperate attempts to diffuse the pain I saw in others. I was putting everyone else’s needs before my own. I don’t think I will ever feel safe crying public, but now that I had decided to stand in my truth, I had to also force myself to accept my son’s story as my new normal. This required me to trust that it would get easier over time. It also forced me to allow myself to be vulnerable in the process.

One recent fall morning, I was again faced with the decision to run from the pain or stand in my truth. Me and my daughter were shopping at the local farmer’s market in our neighborhood. “Is she your only child,” a woman asked, as my daughter grabbed apple samples. Just as I felt my cheeks start to get red, and the fear of a panic attack set in, I took a deep breath. “No, she isn’t.” I smiled, grabbed my daughter’s hand, and continued to walk. Though the moment was brief, I had included my son in our family that day. I felt like I had taken back the power required to claim my dead son. Prince was finally holding my other hand.

 

Reflections On Pregnancy

 

My giant stomach, while pregnant with my daughter.

My giant stomach, while pregnant with my daughter.

This week, I am releasing a post from the Cappuccino Queen vault that had been archived.  I wrote this post while I was pregnant with my daughter.  I hope you enjoy my reflections on pregnancy. :)


 

By the time this blog post is posted, I will be on the way to the hospital to have my little girl.  As I enjoy my last warm cup of coffee on a Sunday morning (which has become a routine for me), I reflect on the last ten months I have had with my daughter.

Yes, I said ten months – I will never understand why people insist on saying women are only pregnant for nine months when 40 weeks is really ten months. I digress…

Here are some things that this pregnancy has taught me that I thought you all would enjoy:

You really do forget:  Though the last month of my pregnancy of Prince was terrible, I vaguely remember people assuring me that as soon as I saw him I would completely forget.  I can only just now remember wearing the same Muumuu and flip flops during the last weeks leading up to Prince being born.  When my male coworkers raised an eyebrow about this inappropriately casual choice of dress, I would constantly remind them that I had gotten my big butt out of bed (even though I could barely walk) and this was the only thing in my closet that would fit.  I would also show them my swollen feet and dare them to say something about my flip flops.  Needless to say, my coworkers never said a word about my hideous outfit.

As I waddled around in those last few weeks (in the height of what was one of the hottest summers in the DC area), I swore that I never wanted to be pregnant again.  Then, something amazing happened – my son was born.  As soon as I looked into his chocolate chip brown eyes, I instantly had a form of Mama amnesia.  All of a sudden the entire experience was colored by rainbows and butterflies.

So while I swore I would never get pregnant again (and was considering adoption for any future children), when I made the decision to have my daughter I was still under the influence of Mama amnesia.  I thought, ‘eh, it wasn’t so bad the first time.  Sure, I was huge and a bit uncomfortable toward the end…but it’s temporary and all worth it at the end.’  It wasn’t until I found myself doubled over in the parking lot at work throwing up for what seemed like the sixth month in a row (yet still gaining weight) that the memories from my first pregnancy started coming back to me.  ‘Really?!?!  Did I really forget this?  Damn, I guess I really did,’ I thought.

Babies are different – even in utero:  Though I had suffered from a healthy dose of Mama amnesia after my pregnancy with Prince, I didn’t forget some of the more pleasant things about pregnancy like learning my son’s personality.  Until my pregnancy with my daughter, I didn’t even think about how different a baby could be even before they were born.  For example, my son was very laid back – both before and after he was born.  I would be at work and he would gently punch me in the side, and after playing tag for a few minutes he would stop and fall asleep.  While he occasionally lodged his feet in my ribs, it didn’t take much manipulating to get him to realize this was not cool with Mama and he would move.  When I would walk and jog during my pregnancy, this seemed to lull my son to sleep.  He continued this trend on the outside with his love for the baby swing while watching Ann Curry on The Today Show.

My daughter, on the other hand, is a yoga baby.  She is always moving, bouncing, dancing, and stretching.  She loves to show off during business meetings by making my entire stomach shake.  When I turn the music on in the car, she actually seems to have favorite stations which I can assess by her level of movement.  Unlike with Prince, my walks and workouts don’t lull her to sleep.  Instead, this wakes her up and makes her think its time to dance.  When she stretches and finds a spot she likes, she is not easily moved.  They are both very different, but I find myself falling in love with her little fire of a personality even before I have officially met her.

Society and pregnant women:  One of the most intriguing things about being pregnant is watching the way the world treats you when it becomes obvious you are growing a small person inside of you.  With Prince, I didn’t “show” until I was almost six months.  With my daughter, however, it seemed that as soon as I peed on the stick my hips spread and I was forced into maternity wear.  I tried to hold out in telling my job until I was well past the first trimester; however, my college -aged sister didn’t hold back in giving me some tough advice.  “Hera, you are throwing up everyday and getting fat.  You are going to need to tell them soon because its getting obvious,” she said with the clear tact of someone who had never been pregnant.

After telling people at work, it was funny how many of the men began to move way out of the way as I walked down the hall – as if touching me by accident would cause me to give birth immediately and right in front of them.  This only seemed to get more hilarious as I got bigger.  People who tended to have a scowl on their faces would act more friendly when they started to see me waddle (note:  this I appreciated).  Finally, many people treat pregnant women as though they shouldn’t be doing anything themselves.  Carrying a package, pushing an office chair, or even grocery shopping on my own elicited gaping stares and constant offers from complete strangers to help me.  Given my tendency toward independence, I often found myself smiling and saying, “It’s ok…it looks heavier than it is.  I got this.”

Being single and pregnant has been great:  I used to be one of those women who was terrified at the idea of being a single parent.  That was, of course, until I experienced being in an abusive relationship.  One of the reasons I stayed with Luc for so long was because I had convinced myself that it would somehow be worse to be single and pregnant than with a man who clearly didn’t give a damn about me (or anyone else for that matter).  When I was pregnant with Prince, I would come home from working a full day (while Luc had been sleeping and playing xbox) and Luc would ask me to rub his feet.  I would cook him dinner and take care of him as if he was the person growing the baby.

Being pregnant and single has been great in comparison to the stress I was under being pregnant and living with a demon.  I come home from work, put my feet up, and thank God that I am not sleeping next to a psychopath.  I feel empowered from my decision, and I am confident that I can be a great mom regardless of my marital status.  I am less stressed out this time around, and I am extremely hopeful for the future.  Looking back on what I faced during my pregnancy with Prince makes me sad.  It makes me sad that it took me so long to realize that I could do this on my own.  It makes me sad that I spent the majority of Prince’s life being scared, anxious, and confused.  That said, I am not that woman anymore.

The best decision of my life:  In the past three years, I have lived through some bad times.  I have made some astronomically bad decisions (the most obvious being my relationship with Luc).  There is one thing I can say, however, without a doubt – my decision to have my daughter has been the best decision I have made in my entire life.  When I first started telling people about my choice to have another child, I was not met with over whelming positivity.  Many people made ugly judgements, and told me that I needed to wait.  A lot of people in my life insisted that I was making a decision driven by grief, and that I would change my mind.  Having been a victim of societies belief in what was appropriate, I chose my own path instead.  I had never felt stronger about anything in my life.  I knew that it was the right time to make this decision, and I didn’t let anyone’s prejudice stand in my way.

During the last ten months, I have gone through my fare share of pain – both emotionally and physically. Getting to know my daughter in this last ten months, however, has kept me living.  It has allowed me to have hope for the future, and it has proven to me that I have come out on top and stronger in the face of tragedy.  Some of my close friends have told me that my daughter will be lucky to have such a good mother.  Every time I hear this I respond by saying, “I am the lucky one.  I am pretty sure this little girl has saved my life.”

Finally, the best moment of pregnancy happens when it’s over.  As I hit the publish button on this post, and head to the hospital, I feel almost delirious with excitement about meeting my daughter face to face.  I remember the moment I met my son as if it were yesterday.  There is nothing more incredible than meeting someone for the first time who you feel like you have known your whole life.  That is what meeting my children feels like it me.