I never imagined myself living in a stucco house. They didn’t make them that way in Illinois, where I grew up. But in 2010, I lived with my husband, Mike, in a two-story stucco house with a clay tile roof in Southern California. It had a two-car garage, a small backyard consumed by a saltwater in-ground pool, and too many bedrooms for two people who lived with only a Boxer pup and a Mini Rex rabbit. The house had been a foreclosure, and while beautiful and a dream-come-true for us, it was also the source of many projects and a lot of growth.
The master was the largest of the bedrooms by far— large enough where the people who had owned it before us installed two fans in its vaulted ceilings. I still don’t know why anyone would put two ceiling fans together in a space like that, but it became a trademark of the room. They were both brown-bladed and identical in every way, including the frequency of their remote controls. The ceiling was much too high to reach the pull cord, especially for a short girl like me, so remotes were a necessity.
This often resulted in a great deal of uncontrollable laughter and also growing frustration, when sometimes one fan would respond to the remote, while the other did not. One fan would spin, gloriously ignorant of our wishes to shut it off, while the other would sit there, proudly obeying our command to rest. And then, suddenly the fans would contrive a plan of further reluctance to heed our wishes, and the still one would respond to the remote and begin moving, just as the first fan finally had stopped. After a few weeks of frantic fan fiascos, we learned how to work with the fans, almost always eventually getting them both to work together. Almost.
Double doors opened from our fan-filled room onto a loft, and on the other side of this was a bedroom to soon become the nursery. Not long before this pregnancy, I had a miscarriage around 11 weeks in. I was at work in blissful focus one moment, and then completely caught off-guard by unexpected cramping the next. Being “on-guard” was required by my job, as my physical safety demanded it. At the time, I worked as a therapist in a state forensic psychiatric hospital— a place where I engaged in art-making and other creative and recreational processes with incarcerated mentally ill adults in a highly secured facility, while working with a clinical team to help our patients establish competency to stand trial or build coping and healing skills for long-term incarceration.
At work that day, I knew something was wrong. I knew, but I didn’t want to believe it. I finally poured my fears about the spotting onto a sweet co-worker named Julie, who encouraged me to leave right away and go get checked. I left work and drove the hour commute home on the freeway, though the details of what happened next are now a blur. I remember waiting and waiting and waiting at the hospital ER and then my husband holding me and saying, “I’m so sorry,” as a doctor we didn’t know coldly told us the results of the ultrasound and sent me home, unarmed against what my body was just getting started with. And I remember feeling a sadness that reached all the way in through my neck, down to my stomach, like two hands with sharp nails prying in, pressing from the center of my body outward, stretching all my insides to the walls of my back and hips. That was before the miscarriage really hit—the pain of grieving a loss is worse than the thrusting spasms of a body evicting an undeveloped fetus. I have not sobbed that way ever since.
Before that day, safely back on November 11, 2009 when I told Mike we were going to have a baby, I did it by handing him a Manila envelope with crib plans inside. He had newly started a hobby of wood-working and had told me during our talks of the future that he would love to build our baby a crib from scratch. So I printed a set of plans for my favorite crib design, sealed them in the enveloped, and on the outside, I had attached a sticky note with an obvious hint.
His reaction was as good as I could have hope for—I have it all on video, and when I watch it now, it still feels like such a joyful moment of celebration of our first pregnancy, even though we never got to meet that baby. Sometimes in life, we have two fans, and no matter how hard we try to be in control of them, they don’t always work together. Sometimes what works for one thing doesn’t work for another, and sometimes what we try and make happen completely goes the other way. But with time and a new perspective, we might just get things to sync.
Mike did build the crib (and a matching dresser and book-and-toy shelf, too), and I designed a nursery where it stood, beautiful and sturdy. Because shortly after losing this pregnancy, we tried again and were soon expecting a son, due the following winter. The process of building that crib and setting up the baby’s room was very healing for us. Art is so symbolic to me, but even the simple act of using my hands to make something beautiful from a place of pain gave me a sense of power, despite feeling helpless over the life I was trying to keep safe.
While Mike finished sanding and staining the last piece of walnut furniture out in the garage, I worked inside on three watercolor paintings for the walls. It gave me peace, and I felt happier through each gentle stroke of the brush. Each painting was a scene directly copied from the well-known children’s book Guess show Much I Love You because A) The Nutbrown Hares were rabbits— adorable, sweet rabbits, who closely resembled our rabbit at the time, Barley and B) This child would never guess how much I really loved him because I to this day almost 11 years later can’t compute that myself, but the idea of reminding ourselves how much we are loved is a thing we ought to do more often. A quick note here: I won’t ever copy another artist’s work for use in pieces I sell, but I found Anita Jeram’s art in this book to be absolutely perfect. The rabbit paintings still hang in our home today.
I painted at the coffee table in the living room on the large sheets of watercolor while pregnant. I sketched lightly with pencil and then used washes of earthy colors— browns and greens mostly and some blues— to create the rabbit in-motion within the peaceful outdoor scene. It was a technique just like I use with my farm animal paintings, only I went over the final pencil sketches in pen with for the rabbits. I cut double mats for each painting when they were finished, and Mike handmade and painted the frames. We hung them on the wall above the dresser he had made, and I filled the shelves of his finished bookshelf with things friends and family had sent.
Everything in this room was a token of love and gratitude for our son and our new journey as a family of three. I would sit in the glider quietly, resting against the hand-sewn pillow I had recently finished, just soaking in the space with these things that reminded me of the support we had from all the people, new friends nearby and our family and friends miles away “back home,” who cared about us. It reminded also of the strength within each of us to get through very difficult times.
In our own bedroom, I hung a framed print of birds on a line with the letters spelling “DREAM” clothespinned to it (you’ll see it in the photo of our room with the fans). Dreaming is important to me (and suiting for a piece hanging over a bed), but the the birds were what really resonated. Two huddled together on the line, while one was flying freely. I always related the two sitting as my husband and me, and the flying one as the baby we never got to meet.
Near the crib in our son’s room, I hung a framed cross-stitch piece of a long row of cute penguins, ready for winter fun. My Grandma Helen made this, and I have another story to tell you about her and the day my son kicked her. Watch for that in my next blog post, and in the meantime, if you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, do you have a piece of art, a photograph, or a token of some kind that helped you heal? After my miscarriage, I learned that many other women go through this, too. Each time someone shared their story, it made me feel better knowing I wasn’t alone, and I discovered that many of us have a symbol of love, hope, and strength. Often, it is in a plant or a piece of art. Art is so powerful, knowing that someone’s hands touched the very surface with care and passion, creating something uniquely made with their story that reaches us deep within our core. What is it that you keep nearby to help you?