Baxter, Danna, and the Mirror of Erised

Mike and my 9 year wedding anniversary is tomorrow. Thursday June 14.  It would be 9 years.  Once I did the math, I had a stunning moment where I itemized the ridiculous whirlwind of life events that have transpired in such a short time:

Dinner out in May 2012

2002: Mike and Danna Engaged

2003: Mike and Danna Wed

2004: Mike and Danna welcome Baxter

2005: Mike and Danna move to suburbs.  Mike is diagnosed with brain tumor

2006: Mike Dies

2007: Danna meets PJ

2008: Danna and PJ Engaged

2009: Danna and PJ Wed

2010: Danna and PJ Welcome Edie.  PJ adopts Baxter


Well, Holy shit.  No wonder I'm tired... and unsettled. 2011 was the first year in about a decade that... I didn't get engaged. I didn't get married.  I didn't give birth.  I didn't move.  And my husband didn't die.

So, my life has become "normal."  Sort of.

Wednesday morning, I was sitting in my office at the University of Delaware, meeting with my bright, friendly undergraduate summer research assistant.  She is completing a literature review for me about the psychological - and neuropsychological differences between liberals and conservatives.  Much of the latest research involves fMRI studies of people's brains, and requires an understanding of brain regions and structures.  

As I brought images of the human brain onto my computer screen and explained to my student how the amygdala governs fear and threat responses, the prefrontal cortext governs higher-order and executive level functioning and the fornix is where information from working memory (incoming messages) is filed away in the appropriate network in longterm memory, I felt it:  the familiar feeling of post traumatic stress responses associated with Mike's time in the hospital.  The racing heart, the sweaty palms, the shortness of breath, the difficulty concentrating.  All because of the painful familiarity of images of brain scans and recalling those regions of the brain that, once impaired, slowly took Mike away from us.

I stopped for a second, and decided it best to tell my student what was going on in my head and heart (so she wouldn't think I was just a crazy person).  I generally find a way to disclose my story to students during the semester.  Usually a sentence or two explaining that Baxter's biological dad is my late husband who passed away from a brain tumor when Bax was a baby.  Often in the context of lectures about cognitive psychology or persuasion.  And since my research assistant has been my student for two years in two different courses, I was certain that she must already be familiar with my story.

"I'm sorry if I start to get upset.  Dealing with these brain scans just brings me back to when my late husband battled his brain tumor."

Wide eyed blank stare.  Her face suggested this was all new to her.  Well... this is awkard.

"You knew that, right?  That Baxter's biological dad, my husband Mike, died in 2006 when Bax was a baby."

... "Ummm.... No.  I had no idea."

I proceeded to give the 5 minute account, trying desperately to use it as a teaching moment, rather than just an awkward overly-disclosive moment, explaining how the lack of functioning of the fornix meant that Mike had no link between the present and the past.  No ability to anchor anything in long term memory.  Only the ability to process one thing in working memory at a time.  Once that concept node or schema was replaced... poof.  Gone.

My RA and I continued to explore other regions of the brain relevant to our research, and I stumbled upon the notion that memories that include particularly emotional responses are anchored in a distinct region of the brain, something that I learned several years back, that I still hold onto dearly.  I remember hearing a story on NPR about how alzheimer's patients who are shown sad or funny movies have been found to retain the emotional impact of the movie, but not the episodic memory actually watching the film.  So, if you show someone a sad movie, a few hours later they'll feel sad, but won't know why - and they won't recall having seen the film.  But more importantly, for my purposes, the same is true about happy or funny or romantic films - or experiences.

Rediscovering this literature struck that chord in me again, I reminded myself that even if Mike didn't know where he was, when it was, what had happened those months, those weeks, that day, that morning, or five minutes ago - he was always surrounded by people he loved and he felt that love.  Dozens of friends - different friends each day.  They fed him.  They read to him.  (Kevin read to him every evening after work).  They joked with him.  They playfully mocked him.  He would nod, respond, smile.  Sometimes he would joke in painfully witty ways given his lack of understanding of his present situation.

And me... I came to Jefferson every morning after leaving Baxter at daycare.  I brought fresh fruit and yogurt.  I brought Dr. Pepper (when he was allowed to have it).  I snuggled with him in the hospital beds.  Even the one he was zipped into like a big netted cage at Magee so he wouldn't escape.  I stroked his arm to calm him when he was tied down in the bed.  I tried not to be afraid of his scary scar on his head as I touched his face and hair.  I washed him.  His hair, His face.  I shaved him.  I cut his nails.  I helped him stand up.  I got him dressed.  I brought him clothes from home.  I brought Baxter on weekends. I played his favorite music with speakers and a subwoofer in every hospital room he inhabited.  I hung up pictures.  And on weekdays, I left at 4:45 to go pick Baxter up from daycare and go home, knowing that someone would be there to keep him company at dinner. And knowing that I would do it all again the next day.

For 16 weeks.  From March 17 until July 18 when he died.

If emotional memories are anchored by some other means than the fornix (which in Mike's brain was inoperative because of that Stupid Fucking Tumor - S.F.T.) then Mike may not have "known" what was going on.... but he felt it, right?  He felt the love and warmth around him.  He must have.

My poor research assistant.  And she thought she was doing some boring project about the neuropsychology of political ideology.


I find it interesting that my RA has been a student of mine in two different courses over two years and yet, I hadn't shared my story. Maybe that says that the salience of my identity as "widow" must be retreating.  Now perhaps I am "mother" first, or "wife of PJ" or "media effects researcher" or even "improv comedian" - all things my students do know about me.

...and now I feel guilty.

You see, there are a few drawbacks to my beautiful, healthy, nuclear family, and my busy but largely routinized life.

1) The guilt.  The guilt that I am not grieving enough.  Then the guilt when I do grieve. The guilt of loving two men, even though the one who is alive and well assures me that it would be weird if I felt any differently.  The guilt of loving Edie so much I could (and almost do) eat her cherubic little face up... and knowing that I wouldn't have her if Mike had not died.  The guilt of marveling at Baxter's Mike-isms and simultaneously missing his dad's subtle eyebrow lilt or the slow glance when I'd say something stupid or naive - and wondering if it's messed up that sometimes being with Baxter makes me feel like Mike is right here.

Baxter put the feeling into words himself - the struggle of wanting two mutually exclusive realities:

We were reading the first Harry Potter book in which Harry finds the mirror of Erised (the mirror that reveals what your deepest desires are).  Harry looked in the mirror and saw himself standing with his deceased parents and other family members.  His mom waved and cried.  His dad comforted her while smiling back at Harry.  Professor Dumbledore explained to Harry that he ought not get entranced by the mirror.  That it's not reality.  It only shows you what you long for, not what's real.  Then Dumbledore explained:  When the happiest man in the world looks in the mirror, he only sees his own reflection.

So, about a half hour after finishing the chapter, Bax came back down from his bed to talk.  "Mom?  You know what I would see if I looked in the mirror of Erised?"

I smiled, anticipating what was coming.

"I would see me, you, dad, Edie... and Daddy Mike.  All together."

"Maybe I would too, Boo."  I replied.  He turned to head back to bed then paused, raising a finger as if having second thoughts.

"Or maybe... maybe I would just see my own reflection.  Because maybe I'm the happiest man in the world."

It seems my son and I are both torn.

2) I find it difficult to give myself permission to experience my grief.  After all - life is good now.  What is there to be sad about.  But when the pain is here, it's here.  And when I feel my love for and missing of Mike it's always the same.  It aches the same.

As Sasha told me in referencing her grief for her mother's death:  it won't get easier, you'll just get used to it.

3) The tedious, frustrating and stressful aspects of my professional and home lives once again seem real and consequential.  It is as though I now have the luxury of "sweating the small stuff."

Bubby (Edie's pet name for her brother) and Edie eating corn.
After Mike passed away, there was a time when I was truly kind to myself.  I had things in perspective.  And, as Prof. Caplan would say, I exercised great self-compassion.  Cause I thought I deserved it.  In 2006 and into 2007, I didn't beat myself up for anything.  I was like, "I'm a survivor, goddammit.  Y'all are lucky I got out bed and got this baby fed today."  If I succeeded in doing ANY work, I considered it a huge accomplishment.  "My husband just died - and I prepped a powerpoint for lecture tomorrow. Take that, world."  There were days and even weeks when I was "in" my grief or paralyzed by PTSD anxiety attacks... I didn't force myself to do anything other than take care of myself and honor my own pain.  I didn't beat myself up for the cigarette habit I had rediscovered while Mike was sick (that I kicked in 2008 because I decided it was "time" to get on track). I didn't feel guilty for getting babysitters for Baxter so I could go on many bad dates until I found PJ.  Now, I feel guilty if I don't feel like I've had adequate one on one time with either child. And I'm not talking over the course of a week... I mean over the course of an afternoon.

I lose sleep over whether or not I'm a good enough mom and simultaneously feel guilty for not spending more time on a manuscript I'm trying to get out the door.  I'm always rushing to get the baby or get Baxter and wonder if they would be better off if I stopped working so I could attend every school event, game, lesson, and party.  I'm always juggling 13 different academic projects at the same time and wondering if I would be a better scholar if I worked on research after the kids went to bed each night - instead of finally taking a moment to relax between Baxter's 8:30 bedtime until my 10 pm bedtime.

Where did that self-compassion go?  Do I only deserve it when my husband dies? Or can I find a reason to give myself a break and be kind to myself just because I am me?  

As Sarah Palin once famously said to Katie Couric, "I'll have to get back to ya on that one."


About a month ago, we reached a milestone with Baxter.  Not a good one or a bad one, but a necessary one.  And, like most things, it happened almost by accident.

Summer 2005 Photo Booth in NH
Michelle's daughter Jamie, who is like a second daughter to us (age 10), was sleeping over.  She, Bax and I were sitting on the couch with my laptop, looking at videos on my youtube channel of Edie, Baxter and Jamie (Edie had already gone to bed).  And there, in the margin, Jamie saw the thumbnail for a montage of comedy sketches featuring Mike.  Baxter has seen the montage of sketches and really loves them, so wanted to watch them again - as did Jamie.  So, we watched about 20 minutes of Mike on stage and loved every second.

But, I realized there was one part of the video Bax always asked to watch again.  It was at the end of an improvised scene with Jen Childs for the film "This is a Breakup" in which Mike played Jen's therapist.  After they say "cut" in the film, the camera continues rolling for a few seconds.  Mike smiles, laughs, and tucks his hair behind his ear.
It felt to me as though Baxter wanted to witness an organic moment of his dad.  Not a "Mike in character" moment, but "Mike as Mike." So, I thought, I don't have a video that's in the right format for him to watch right now, but I have the beautiful photo montage that my friend Afton made for Mike's memorial comedy show.  And in that montage, half way through, Afton edited in an audio file that my sister had saved on her answering machine.  It is Mike's message to her left the night that Baxter was born.

So, I explained to Bax and Jamie that if they wanted, we could watch the photo montage to get to the voicemail message, but that I would keep the audio muted until the voicemail because the song made me sad (Willie Nelson's stardust, which Mike sang to Bax before bed at night).  The were chomping at the bit.  

We watch the photos.  Many of them I hadn't seen since the memorial service.  Then, we get to the part with the voicemail.  I unmute the computer.  Jamie and Baxter sit up and listen.  There's Mike.  With us.  Bax's eyes get big.  Then the message ends, the montage continues to music (which I quickly mute again).

But then, Jamie yells: Oh My God!  Pause it!  

I had forgotten that the video ends with a clip taken in this very house.  In this very room where we were sitting.  At first, it's just Mike filming Baxter crawling on him.  Baxter is 9 months old.  It's September 2005.  We had moved into this house one month earlier.  Mike hadn't yet been diagnosed with a brain tumor. 

I pause it, rewind it a few frames and unmute it.

Baxter gets so close to the screen, he's almost inside my laptop.  It's the first time he has ever seen video of himself with Daddy Mike.  

The video continues:  Now I'm holding the camera, sitting on the floor. Baxter climbs all over my legs.  I refer to Mike as "Daddy" and jokingly ask him to "help me" with this crazy crawling Baby Baxter.  Mike picks up Baxter, tickles him.  Kisses his belly all over.

It's our own Mirror of Erised.

Tears are streaming down my face.  My shirt is soaking wet.  I look down.  Under my left arm, Jamie is sobbing, under my right arm, Baxter is sobbing.  And there, on the opposite couch, PJ looks over with kind warm eyes.  Jamie sobs into my chest, "It's so unfair, D!  He was such a great dad!"  Baxter now is shaking and can't catch his breath.  I'm useless, snotting all over myself.

PJ approaches the pile of the three of us, wet-faced on the couch.  He lifts the laptop off of me, places it on the coffee table, reaches for Bax who immediately reaches up for PJ.  Bax wraps his arms and legs around him and sobs into his shoulder.

"It's ok, bud.  It's ok.  I'm right here.  It's ok.  Dad's here.  It's ok."

I finally got my tears dried and started joking with Jamie ("Your mom is gonna kill me!!!" to which she replied,  "Yeah, way to go, D!  Why did you have us watch that!  It was the saddest thing in the world!"... thanks, Jamie!).  Bax was slower to come out of it, but he did.  He needed lots of snuggled from PJ.  That night I kept saying, "I f*cked up.  I f*cked up showing him that."  But, PJ protested.  He said he didn't intervene any earlier because it seemed to be happening in a healthy way.  And, as he pointed out, it's good for Baxter to see that a) his biological father was a great, loving and fun dad and that b) his mother loves him and misses him.

... I know what you're thinking.  Where the eff did PJ come from?  My parents say heaven.  I, of course, being a pseudo Athiest must disagree and say... Match.com.

But ladies, he's taken.  For good.


Finally, it's fair to say I am squirrelly about this blog these days.

This space provided me with such a cathartic outlet for so long, through so many awful days.  It provided me with a networking tool (before the phenomenon that is facebook) to get help when I needed it- people to feed Mike dinner at the hospital, people to cook a dinner or two, people to help me figure out how to pay a mortgage.  This blog also kept me afloat.   After putting Baxter to bed, many nights my blog was my gateway to social support.  I literally envisioned a circus net under me to catch me - a net made up of thousands of hands belong to the smiling warm friends, family and strangers who helped me through. Sometimes I feel as though even re-entering this space is .... unjustified?  maybe.  Scary?  yes.  Dangerous?  Definitely.  It is therapeutic, but can also be the gateway to a very dark rabbit hole.  Hence, my lack of posts in more than a year.  It feels good, though.  I needed to explore all of these events and memories.  After all, we create our own narrative.  In order for me to be a healthy person, I need to find ways to weave these difficult thoughts and experiences into the story of who I am.  

Who am I?  Who the eff knows.  More than just a young widow, though.  Definitely more than that.

And, if I don't write about PJ much in this space, well, the last husband I wrote about here died.  

Maybe I'm superstitious.  

Or maybe, because I get to be with PJ all the time, I don't feel the need for an outlet to "deal" with or "explore" my feelings for him.  Instead I just look at him and say:  "I love you." or "I hate your stupid face." or "You are the greatest gift." or "If you shut the AC off again in this 90 degree heat, I'll throw you out a window."  You know, normal stuff you say to a spouse that's not deceased.