Betty Duffy

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Quick Takes, throat clearing, sleuthing other people's minds

What ho, is that sun?

The Midwest has been gypped by Spring, raining on the crab trees until the petals browned, and then blowing them away before it's comfortable enough to sit outside. The first day of sunlight and it's nothing but dandelions out there, uneven grass, and boggy ditches--and even still--I'm cold.

I'm going to package up April and put it in the attic with a question mark on it--to be sorted later, if the water doesn't rise and carry it away first. Or if tornadoes don't do away with it altogether.

Halt the deluge, God. Halt I say.

The kids talking the other day, and the five year old says to his big brother:

"I'm taking my life back! You're not going to tell me what to do anymore!"

And the big brother says, "Big deal, I'm still keeping your hat."

Finally got around to watching the Royal Wedding last night for a few minutes--which was notable for…not being notable. And I mean this in the best way.

Normally, I flip on reality TV in order to be scandalized. "She cannot really love him." "Nice shirt, Lady, Where are the pants?" "Can you believe people behave like this--knowing that millions of people are watching them?"

But commentary around here during the wedding was, "People are dressed modestly." "What gorgeous music." "The bride does not appear to be pregnant." "I don't see any protesters."

I was overwhelmed by the decency of everything.

Found article:

An image of a stick man with a frowny face captioned in my 10-year-old's hand, "It stinks to be a stick man."


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Something to do with losing a pregnancy

1. My Miscarriage?
2. A Very Special Miscarriage?
3. Quick Takes: Miscarriage Edition!
4. Happy Easter/ Sad Miscarriage?

When you first see the signs, a handful of possibilities present themselves to you encouragingly, though you know in your gut the only thing it can be. Still, dutifully, you call your doctor and tell him your concerns and symptoms. Dutifully, you show up for an ultrasound, and even though you see with your own eyes all of your anxieties confirmed, dutifully, you wait in a room with a closed door for the doctor to come and put his stamp of authority on it.

You want to have confidence in the intuition of your body. For the larger part, it knows what it's doing when it comes to things like breathing, digesting, and reproducing. But occasionally, right now, you want your body to be joking. You want the wonders of radiology to reveal some deeper mystery going on in there that a layman can't interpret.

But no one will deliver today. The doctor explains procedures to you--procedures being the last thing you want--procedures designed to diffuse the smallest remaining granule of hope. You'll hold, for now, thanks.

He gives you a pat on the shin as he says, "Let us know if we can be of any assistance to you. You can call us 24 hours a day if you need anything at all." You instinctively pull your shin away from the therapeutic shin pat and tuck it under the leg of the chair, and wait, arms folded, for the doctor to leave the room before rushing the Kleenex box. You've got to dry up, make it down the hallway, to the elevator, and all the way out to the car before you can fall apart.

The elevator won't come--and where in the hell are the stairs? Visitors in the waiting room have just held strapping new grandbabies. They are ebullient and loud, but they avert their eyes while you press the down arrow, again, again. They've let you have the elevator to yourself. "Poor thing," they say as the doors close on you.

Second to tears, my instinct is to burn something. All the candles in the house are lit, but it's not enough flame and little smoke to do the job. What job? What am I trying to accomplish as I gather the palm branches from last Sunday, the corkscrews and curlicues that the kids have peeled off the edges of their palms. They're everywhere. I put them in a grocery store votive with an image of Our Lady of Guadelupe on it. Smoke fills the kitchen, smells like Paschal fire, and somehow, this helps.

I wash the dishes, vacuum, change the bedsheets. I would like to bag up the maternity clothes and put them away, but I'm not sure how much longer I may need them.

It's a mercy that the sun is out today (though for a long time after, it will rain). The Magnolias and Plums have dropped their petals, but the lilacs are just about to burst. All of us carry the prospect of death around with us, to work, to the grocery, to bed--it's a someday certainty that we have the luxury of ignoring.

Mothers occasionally carry death more concretely. I can lay down and cradle it. I can lie here for days.

Or I can prepare an Easter for the other kids. They will not tolerate the Passion going on forever.

Motherhood is a job with its own particular tools. Mothers must be on terms with the body, with its issues and outputs. And so there are a number of reasons why a mother might find herself hunched over a toilet, squinting her eyes into its contents. She searches for lost objects, for parasites, for socks, for sickness, for babies.

One would rather perform this work in her own bathroom--no one else's. One doesn't like to travel with a slotted spoon in her purse, with tupperware containers or plastic bags. Because when she considers the issue philosophically, she's horrified by the way she reaches for kitchen tools to accomplish this work.

At the same time, a delivery room at the hospital is full of similar tools: forceps, plungers, needles, scissors, scalpels, pans--women's tools. Also, oxygen masks--women need oxygen masks more often than you might think.

In any case, when labor begins, in pain, on Holy Thursday, and when the baby arrives, painlessly, on Easter morning, after three days of contraction and self-induced isolation, she will reach in with her bare hands and lift it out.

A week ago, I was rounding the kids into the car for Mass, chasing them on tiptoes, so as not to sink into the wet grass, with a hairbrush in my hand. I'd recently purchased a new maternity dress for myself, which I had on, and planned to wear for Easter as well. I felt lovely, charmingly incompetent, as pregnant women are wont to feel.

At the Parish penance service, it first occurred to me that I might be harboring an air of entitlement, by which I deserved everything that Heaven and Earth had to offer me because I was doing this phenomenal work of being pregnant. Leave my presents on the table, Folks. I'm not getting up--mind you, I'm with child.

Miscarriage inevitably provides the opposite internal angle: unworthiness. That lovely swelling under my clothes dissipates a little each day, and eventually I have to face people with its absence--an obvious and senseless absence akin to having cut off my own nose.

I've long known I don't handle compliments well--but I am worse, far worse, at handling condolences. I'm not accustomed to them, but what they bring to light is exactly how unearned any former congratulations had been. I did nothing differently between this pregnancy and the last, and by chance or Providence, the last ended with a baby, for which I took all the credit--while this one ended with a loss, for which I am also dangerously tempted to take all the credit.

So I go into hiding--leave the condolences on the doorstep, Folks. I'm not getting up. I've lost a child.

"Call me if you need anything." -- If only one could pinpoint exactly what grief requires, supply it, and be done.

"You were generous with God, and God gave your life back to you."

A worthy thought, but, no.

When you find out you're having a baby, whether it is your first or your fifth, you change. Your body changes. Your disposition changes. You were moving in one direction, and you changed course. When you find out that your term of pregnancy will end without a living child, you don't just go back to how things were. You change course again. There's no going back to how things were.

After nearly 48 hours of what felt like strenuous labor, I thought to myself, "I want this to be over. Why didn't I get the D&C?"

It's there if you need it. If the bleeding hadn't slowed when it did, if the pain hadn't subsided, at least a little, if my emotions had ceased to ripen through that process and had begun to inflict violence--yes, there's recourse.

But now that it's over, I'm glad I allowed my body to bear the brunt of processing the loss. Having felt the pain in my body, when it was over, the relief was so overwhelming, it couldn't help soothing the spirit.

If I had gone to the doctor, been put to sleep, and awakened to an empty womb--I'm not sure I could have thought myself through, and out of, the whole experience. I know that many women do--and feel relieved not to have to add the insult of bodily suffering to the emotional impact of losing a child.

I would be tempted to think that God just needed another angel in Heaven, even though it contradicts my previously held notions of an omnipotent God. God doesn't need anything. We are the ones in need, and if we need an advocate there, so be it. I am grateful. Still, a God who creates life just to take it away doesn't sit well, no matter how many Heavenly spins I can put on it. And to think that God created an angel, just for us, seems to imply that our family and our sins are so exceptional that we need more than Christ's ultimate sacrifice to redeem us. I doubt it.

And if miscarriage is just nature's way of cleansing the human race from genetic malfunctions--then what function could the pain and emotional upheaval possibly serve? Nature is a sadist.

The only thing that makes sense to me, is some combination of the two. I am both soul and body. My personal physical and emotional pain must have some spiritually redeeming function.

Several women have written to me to share their experience of having also lost pregnancies, some during Holy Week. Kate Wicker noted that you know you're having a challenging Lent when you don't get to choose your sacrifice. Though losing a pregnancy is a difficult experience any time of year--in Holy Week, any meaning I might have sought from suffering was handed to me on a platter. It cannot help mimicking the suffering and loss of our Savior

To participate in the Cross we venerate on Good Friday, even in the smallest capacity, is a sacrament and a love offering. Whenever I try to avoid physical suffering, to take a pill to lose weight, to find an easy way out of self-sacrifice, I deprive myself of redemptive graces. These graces are not just little ray guns I can aim at my troubles and worries, but deep interior healing, deep peace, deep union with the one who suffered all.

Joseph, we fell in love with you. We'll love you forever.

I wrote about my first miscarriage, briefly, here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"And yet...

...O Lord, in the peace that dwells in the depths of my soul I see the loving shadow of your mercy and your providence. Thank you, my God, for the peace you have given me today. Ensure, O Lord, that this peace and this patience never fail me. I sometimes feel my weak will, my confidence, shake. Give me, Lord, strength and courage, ensure that against all human appearances I be full of trust, hope, and joy. Give me, O Lord, your peace, the peace of your patience and your resignation. Ensure that I always be, whatever my tomorrow may be, equally happy, equally tranquil..."

(--Don Giusseppe Canovai, via Magnificat, Monday 18th April)

We enter Holy Week with a heavy heart. I've miscarried the pregnancy.

If you want, pray for us. We are all fine, but sad.

I'm offering this Holy Week for all Mothers who've cradled an unliving child in their womb.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Cause for Celebration

People are nice to me on my blog. I've never been chewed out in my comment box even though I know people out there disagree with me on many many things. I feel lucky to have such a congenial group of readers.

Elsewhere on the internet, I received this comment to something I wrote concerning having a large family:

"You all are a bunch of freaks and emotional little girls who are retarded in many things.

I knew I was emotional, and immature, and also sometimes retarded about things, but so's everybody. It's the "freak" part of it that sort of stuck in my craw. I thought I was passing.

So I've been introduced as, "The crazy lady with five kids." If I need another crazy lady with five kids to stand in solidarity with me, I know where to find one. I've cased out all the Catholic Yahoos within a hundred mile radius. I spend most of my social time with other crazy ladies and our gazillion children, or with family and friends who've known me forever. In such friendly company, I've managed to convince myself that I'm relatively sane.

But when I step out of my subculture a little bit, it occurs to me that the majority of humanity is not on board with my philosophy of living--that by current cultural standards, I really am sort of a freak.

At a time when most people would rather flee the Catholic Church than accept it's teachings on sexuality, here I am, pregnant with my sixth child--like a weirdo. When the priesthood is mistrusted, here I am trusting my Parish priest with the most intimate details of my life in Confession--like a weirdo. Here I am writing about my dagburn Catholic faith again, try though I may to write about something of interest to the general population.

My faith becomes ever more central to my being, while at the same time, drawing me further out to the margins of society.

I'm not a natural hater of the cultural mainstream. I like to read pop fiction. I like to wear current clothing. I'll watch The Bachelor with you. And I'd paint my toenails green if it were the latest fad. Parting company with the mainstream does not come easily for me.

And yet, the mainstream has no trouble parting with me. "Oh, she's one of those kinds of Christians." I, too, have thought it about women who have more children than I can currently comprehend having myself. Yes, with five kids, I can still sort of pass, right? I just had a whoopsie-baby in addition to my intended sort-of-culturally-acceptable four. But any more than that? She has to be working at it.

A woman at Church, noticing that I'm hatching again, said to me in complete charity, "We're praying for you. We know you're the right family to do it" ("it" being have a bunch of kids). And as I processed the comment, probably for much longer than I should have, it made me sort of twitchy.

What makes us the right family? I beg to differ. We're a madhouse. We're chaos. There's no guarantee this is going to work out for us. Yes, please, those prayers--keep them coming.

And why aren't you the right family? Why not someone else? Is there such a thing as the "right" family to participate in God's plan?

Because believe me, there was no calculation going on in the Duffy house the night of conception. There was no budgeting. There was no deposit made in the college savings account. No plans in order for a bigger car, or an addition to our house. I didn't take my folic acid. My husband and I didn't put on our super-suits, and do sit-ups to warm up for our cosmic power coupling.

He said, "Wanna do it?" And I said, "OK."

At that very moment, I have no doubts that similar conversations were taking place all over the world. In the back seat of the folks' station wagon, in hotel rooms, in igloos in Antarctica, in my next door neighbor's house. People are probably having that conversation right now.

And the only difference between the Duffys and all the other supposed non-freaks out there having the same conversation is this one little issue of contraception.

But it's not a little issue, is it? It's the kind of issue that can bend like a hairpin an entire culture by 180 degrees in the course of a few decades. It's the kind of issue that makes people look ridiculous.

Most Catholics who wear their faith publicly do look ridiculous.

Who would want to be a priest when nearly every media venture in the last twenty years portrays priests as pedophiles and perverts? What mother would want to send her son to Seminary when she knows that once he is a priest, he'll be subject to the scrutiny of every eye in the pew, that even his most minor faults will be fodder for parking lot conversation and thinly veiled criticisms? Who wants to be a nun when she knows she'll be categorized on a spectrum of new-age-femi-nazis on one end and stiff-necked ruler snappers on the other? Who wants to advocate for pro-life legislation in Washington when they'll be called a right wing extremist?

Only a fool, or a freak.

As has always been the case in poetry, so too with Christianity: the more I'm willing to do for love, the more foolish I'll appear. There's no way to get around the fact that Christianity, done with fervor, makes people unlike the mainstream.

And yet for so many years I've been looking for a way to stay under the freak radar, to stay cool, to stay in touch. My sister says I was kidding myself to think I passed when I only had five children. So, fine, I don't pass anymore.

God said this might happen:

"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in Heaven." (Lk 6:22-23)

So, hooray, I guess.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fashion Watch

My mom and I went to see the Joffrey Ballet Saturday night. Took my daughter like my grandmother used to take me to the ballet when I was girl. Some of my favorite childhood memories, getting dressed up for a special night, my grandmother's leather gloves grasping the steering wheel of the Buick as she made those deliberate turns on her favorite route to the theater. When I was little the dancers seemed so much older to me; they were an aspiration. Twenty-five years later, that ship has sailed. I'm still an armchair ballerina, but the dancers currently onstage probably began their practice around the time I was having my first baby. Time flies.

I always look to my elders for inspiration, however, so instead of imagining how I might look in one of those tutus, my eyes were on the well-heeled ladies in the lobby, the cultural matrons with silvering hair. Many fine ladies with coin don't color their gray, as if to say they don't need to fake anything--some of them cut their hair right down to spiky little pixie cuts, and on the right woman, I think it's a very becoming look.

Which made me wonder, as a larger question of fashion, "What's working for people?" As the ballet draws generations of women, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, it was an excellent venue in which to create some new rubrics for dressing myself. My age, it seems, will do nothing but advance.

Perhaps because it was the first really warm day of the year, the young were in short skirts. Skirts that ballooned from a thick waist down to the middle of the thigh like an inverted tulip. Whoever came up with this look (and I think it might be the current Target special) should consider a new career. Somehow it makes a lot of really beautiful young women look like dumplings.

Short skirts on short women require really skinny legs. Short skirts on tall women also require really skinny legs. Women in possession of really skinny legs in America, and especially the Midwest, are a very small minority, hence, the odds of looking good in a short skirt for a night out on the town in Indiana are not in your favor at any age.

But surpassing a certain age, women were getting away with all kinds of fun things. Like this woman:

(sorry, didn't have a camera)

Small woman, short hair, understated clothes, gigantic glasses. She didn't give a rip about how she looked, but she was taking everyone else in with her diametrically enlarged eyes. Overall, she was a force, a presence, a formidable matron, inhabiting herself and her space, as well as the daughter and granddaughter who walked alongside her.

Another unexpected success: the woman with longish gray hair, wire rim glasses, no make-up, denim overalls, and Keen sandals. You might think, come on, it's the ballet, live a little, Granola Woman, and dress the part. But she was another example of how important it is, not just to put on your clothes, but to BE your look. If this woman had not been living on organic steamed vegetables from her garden for the past ten years--she would have been too curvaceous for the overalls. If she'd not been weeding said garden that very afternoon, she would not have had the sun-kissed glow on her cheeks and forearms. If she wore make-up with this outfit, she would have looked ridiculous. But seeing her, somehow knowing her at a glance, she would have looked ridiculous making an appearance in anything else.

But what of the woman who doesn't wear her personality on her sleeve? What of the un-notable woman, without distinguishing features, without a dynamite figure? She was there too, en masse.

In some cases, her dress did nothing for her. For instance, the woman escorting a group of fourteen-year-olds to the ballet, and from behind she looked no different than her companions. She wore denim pants turned up at the hem, a polka-dotted cropped cardi, flats. She looked like a youthful Gap ad, until she turned around. Then she looked...too mature for her outfit. Note: If from behind there is no difference between you and a fourteen-year-old, from the front you can only disappoint.

In other cases, this woman looked too "Done." Hair too crunchy, clothes too vamp-y or ritzy, too much make-up or cleavage. Note: one cannot make up in hair-spray or make-up what one lacks. Beauty products are to enhance, not to re-make.

In a majority of cases, this woman seemed just to give up. There's nothing to be done, so why try? Put on the black. Put on the ordinary shoes. Put on the minimal make-up the same way she's been doing it for so many years. And the result is something like this:

Oh, what she might have accomplished with less comfort-wear in her closet, less lycra in her slacks, or more spandex in the straps of her brassiere. What if she had gone out of her way just a little?

Well, that woman was there too. And my mom and I both took note, "Did you see the cute lady in the peplum jacket and tailored silk slacks?"

"She looked good, didn't she? Subtle make-up in neutral tones, a little bit of shine."

"And the scarf."

"Yes, the scarf."

She made it look ok to be mature. She made it look good to be her. She used the tools at her access (excellent tailoring, expert cosmetic application, a color palate that matched her complexion) to enhance her subtle beauties and the result was a standout. I'd draw her, but I couldn't do her justice.

One thing missing from our night at the ballet was a classic and classy dress. Two women in the entire place rose above and beyond the crowd. One was totally Audrey, in a teal shift with a bit of sequin and her hair in a chignon. Another wore the V-neck bodice with an A-line skirt in navy silk, with hair in loose curls. Both looks have been winning for generations, but only two women in the entire venue opted to make use of them.

And what did I wear? Mmm...not important (One of the chief pleasures of blogging being the ability to scrutinize others, while omitting, if one chooses, a lens on oneself). But Granny's jewels were involved, and some very impractical heels.

p.s. I did watch the ballet, as well as the lobby. It was good too.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Few Pleasures To Be Had

(unless you gave up movies, TV, internet, novels, or Sunlight for Lent)

1. Mrs. Darwin and I rendezvous'd over the weekend to see the newly released Jane Eyre movie. We had a large bucket of popcorn, which we ravished during the previews, but as soon as the movie began--there was not a crunch or whisper in the theater until the final credits. Pure viewing satisfaction. Fans of Jane will be delighted, I think--or at least, these fans were.

2. Spring, Glory be. Felt the first rays of some seriously warming sun today. Hunched over to do a little weeding in the flower garden and was absolutely shocked to discover this evening that I now have a sunburn on my plumber's crack (also shocked that I have a plumber's crack).

3. T-Chisel's "The Rough Cut" has taken Norm Abram's "New Yankee Workshop" TV spot Saturday mornings on PBS. What a winning situation.

4. Also on PBS, Upstairs Downstairs premiers Sunday night. Hopefully will tide me over until Downton Abbey returns.

5. I love the book I'm reading: "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky
About the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II. I usually hate books about war, but this book reads like snapshots of so many different lives and is written on such an intimate human scale. We get to peak into the lives of every level of French society, from the cultured middle classes, to farm families in the provinces, and see how each experiences the war. The book was written while the author herself was in hiding from the Germans. As she was a Jew, her manuscript was interrupted by her arrest and she died at Auschwitz in 1942.

6. Quick take Fridays are great. I love them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Changing my mind.

Ten years ago, I almost got a Master's degree. With a semester to go--my on-the-job training--I dropped out to make goo-goo eyes at my firstborn son. A year later, I tried again to finish, and once again dropped out, to make goo-goo eyes at my second born. My advisor became frustrated with me, asking, "When is it going to be YOUR turn?" which I suppose meant, "When are you going to pay attention to yourself for a change?"

But I was very in tune with myself. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.

I thought I might go back eventually. It was a mild irritation to have that semester just hanging there, unfinished in my consciousness. But those credits expired after seven years, and that was the end of that. It wasn't a career I was crazy about--which might have contributed to my moderate feelings about finishing--but also, these babies I was having, kept changing my mind about what I thought I wanted.

Over the past couple years, as my youngest got a little bigger, and no new ones moved into his spot, I found myself with time on my hands and I started to think about grad school again. Not about finishing the old degree, but about starting a new one--doing an MFA--meeting writers, making connections, improving my skills, and giving myself the impetus to finish something really good.

I made a little deal with myself that IF I should find myself pregnant again with a sixth child, I would do the opposite of what I did in those earlier years of motherhood, and reward myself with Grad School. It would be my prize for being so generous with God. And also would affirm in my mind the idea that I am not putting off my life indefinitely.

But no babies came. I waited two years, which might not sound like a long time to wait for a pregancy that may or may not ever come. But it's the longest I've ever gone without getting pregnant, and it was starting to look like our family was complete. So I inched outward a little, and enrolled in a community writing course at the local college.


I loved the assignments. I loved the feedback. I loved feeling as though I were taking steps towards a dream. I loved having a set time to get dressed and leave my house each week. I loved my professor and my classmates. And I thought, heck--why wait to get pregnant for this reward? I'm going to enroll in the Master's Program now!

I downloaded the application materials. I talked to friends who are enrolled in the program. I had my husband's approval. All systems were go.

Then I got pregnant. It's funny how this works on me. Maybe other women don't feel this way about having babies--but I called Pedge on my way home from my last community class in which I'd been a lackluster participant, and asked why it is that I've lost interest, once again, in these projects I've built up in my mind. Is it that I'm chicken? I'm afraid of failure, and having babies is away of excusing myself from trying? Am I just morning sick? Do I harbor some deep-seated anti-feminist notion that I don't deserve further education? Why do these things that were so important and exciting to me just a month ago, suddenly feel so trivial?

Pedge put into words for me what I had begun to sense, but felt sort of stupid saying, since at the time I was only a few weeks along: "You really are a different person than you were two weeks ago. You're now a mother of six. It's completely unknown territory to you and it makes perfect sense that you would want to move other things out of the way so that you have room to become the person you are going to be."

And it doesn't mean I'll never go get that MFA, or nurture anything other than children--but for now there really is nothing else I want to do but allow myself to mother this child.

My high school orchestra once played Max Bruch's Romanze for Viola Op. 85, and in order to help us understand the piece, our conductor said it reminded her of the intense love affair between a mother and child. She stood on the conductor's podium cradling an air baby in her hands as though it were the Holy Grail. I babysat for her kids at the time, and, true, they were very sweet kids, but I could not for the life of me understand what she was talking about. Intense love affair? With a baby?

But it begins with that positive pregnancy test, and it grows in intensity with each passing day. Or at least until they get a little older and start to annoy you (only half joking). People who are not in on this love affair cannot understand it. They may become frustrated by your lack of ambition. But contrary to appearances, you are NOT putting your life on hold. You're doing exactly what you want to do.