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BY HYLA MOLANDER
A PREGNANT WIDOW’S HEARTFELT AND OFTEN COMIC MEMOIR ABOUT DEATH, BIRTH, AND REBIRTH
My obstetrician shaves the rest of my pubic hair so that she can neatly slice my womb open, while I keep my body as still as possible. I stare at my right hand, into the dark eyes of the black and white photograph I am holding of my husband, Erik. I study his ebony hair, his defined jaw, and his young 29-year-old skin, as I probe his face for answers. But there’s no reply.
He should be here. How can he not be here for Keira’s birth?
Instead, my mom positions herself to the right of the steel operating table, a brunette curl straying from her cap. “I am going to be next to you the whole time,” Mom whispers. She intertwines her fingers with mine, leaving enough space for Erik’s photograph. I strain my neck backwards, peeking at the door to the operating room.
Please be here, Erik. I need you.
I imagine Erik walking through the door, perspiration on his brow from running late. The part of me that wants to berate him is quickly muted by a sense of relief, forgiveness, and gratitude that he is back in my arms. But Erik is not in my arms. Erik is nowhere to be seen, and the thought of my life as a 29-year-old single mom with two babies makes me want to throw up all over the cold cement floor. “I don’t . . . feel so good.” My insides twist around and around, swirling like a dust-filled tornado. The agitation pounds at my abdomen, scraping at the deep layers of my skin. I have no idea how I will raise these girls without him. The tall, male anesthesiologist leans in to comfort me, his green eyes peering over his surgical mask. “Let me know what you need.” No doubt the hospital staff is also shocked at my husband’s absence. Just 19 months before, the same doctors and nurses had witnessed Erik’s tears of joy at our first daughter’s birth. Now the room is somber, filled by the presence of educated individuals who have no explanations. I nod to the anesthesiologist. “I need, uh, something else. I’m feeling . . . very upset.” Lizellen, my obstetrician, says, “Give her the works. She has had to go without medication for far too long, but you did good, kid. You’re going to have another healthy
baby girl here in just a few minutes.” Mom squeezes my hand. “I can’t wait to see her.” “I just hope . . . Keira is OK.” I’m worried that my new daughter will be born feeling the same sense of abandonment, or, even worse, wrought with illness or deformity from being housed in her mother’s grief.
Please let her be alright.
I am entirely numb from the chest down—the epidural takes care of that, but the real relief comes when the extra IV drugs start to work. My consciousness enters an altered state. Eyelids fall. Breathing releases. Everything and everyone in the room seems out of focus. Disoriented. Floating. Feels incredible not to feel . . . anything.
Stay here forever.
“Hyla, you still with me?” Dry mouth. Lick lips.
Where am I?
Muffled sounds. Shuffling feet. Clanking metal. “Erik?” Erik’s face. I’m here. Penetrating. Eyes connected. Tears. So many tears. Tissue on my cheek. Mom wiping my face. “I’m right here, honey. It’s
How could you leave us?
Mom stroking my hair.
I didn’t want to go, Hyla. You know I didn’t want to go.
Soothing voice. My Erik. “Hang in there now.”
I can’t see you.
Feel me. Let yourself feel me.
“I see a hand.”
But, I’m so sad. We didn’t get to say goodbye.
“Here she comes.”
My love is around you . . . and the girls.
“Erik, our baby, she’s coming.” The photograph. Blurry. “Oh, honey.” Mom cries. “I know this is so hard.” Speckled water stains on her surgical mask.
“I see that little cutie in there.”
I am always here.
“There she is. She’s out, Hyla.”
No sounds. No first breath.
She should be crying by now.
“Mom? Mom, is she alright?”
I can’t lose her.
“Just give her a second.” Words between the doctors.
She has to be alright.
And then, finally, a scream. Keira breathes in life, completely unaware that her daddy is dead.
Erik and I were 18 when we met at Florida State University, inside the grey walls of Osceola Hall, where we both lived as freshman. We shared similar friends and often danced at the same Miami-beat-playing clubs, but I didn’t pay much attention to him. No, Erik mostly kept to himself under those neon lights, on the outer rims of the stage, observing everyone around him. I didn’t know I was someone he watched more than others, keeping his interest a secret because—as Erik would later tell me—he thought I was out of his league. As a Creative Writing major, I drank pots of day-old coffee, staying up all night to tap at the keyboard and journey to worlds other than my own. I stomped up the gym’s stair climber an hour a day, editing stories while sweat crawled down my arms
and swirled around my pen. On weekends, I drank too much tequila, entered bikini contests, and dated guys who cared mostly about my looks. I didn’t yet feel deserving of someone who appreciated my inner complexities, who’d be honored to read my writing out loud to me. Like most people, I gravitated towards familiarity.
piece of shit lose a little weight fucking idiot
My father’s words had been the mantra of my life. These are things I believed about myself long after I drove away to college in the blue Oldsmobile Calais I’d bought with money I earned from cleaning out Pizza Hut urinals at the end of my waitressing shifts. Which clarifies why Erik never registered as a dating prospect until we were 21. By then I’d replayed enough of my childhood in therapy to realize that familiar wasn’t good for me. To be happy, I needed different. One week into our relationship, when Erik laid his head in my lap and told me about his father, Hayden, I knew he was different.
“We were on the beach, on vacation.” Erik coughed, clearing his throat. “I was 11. My mom was laughing at me and my dad because we weren’t doing so well at the windsurfing lessons, but we didn’t care. All three of us were having a good time. Then, out of nowhere, my dad just slumped over in his chair and fell into the sand. Out of nowhere. My mom was in hysterics, my dad wasn’t breathing. I ran for help. I ran as fast as I could—sand spitting up everywhere—but even though I eventually found a doctor, my dad never sat back up again.” Witnessing his father’s death made Erik different. He knew that life was precious. That, I believe, is why Erik finally scooted close enough to me in that nightclub booth to say, “I’m trying to understand what makes someone as incredible as you come here with a meat-head like him.” I chuckled. “Oh, it’s not serious.” “You do know he’s out there collecting phone numbers from other girls, don’t you?” “Yeah, I saw that. Pretty comic. Exactly why I prefer dating older guys, even though my grandmother warns me not to, tells me how lonely I’ll be when they die before me.” Erik lifted his titanium-rimmed glasses. “Would Grandmother approve of you dating me?” “Lamby—that’s what we call her. Hmmm . . . let me think.” She would love him.
“So, do I need to get Lamby’s approval?” Grinning, I placed my hand over his. “Didn’t you just say you’re three months younger than I am?” “I’d tell you I’m a year older, if that’s what you need to hear—you know, because you said you only date older guys—but I’d never lie to you.” We conspired to meet up right after I ended things with meat-head, but I didn’t realize that ending something that never existed would take such lengthy explanation. How many different ways can you tell someone that you don’t want to see him anymore because you actually want a serious relationship? Two hours later, at 4 a.m., I drove around Erik’s townhouse complex. “Look for the red CRX,” he had told me. “That’s where I live. I’ll be waiting, as long as it takes. Doesn’t matter what time it is.” But when I found his car, no lights were on outside his door. He must have gone
to bed. Rather than be rude by waking him up, I scribbled my phone number on a torn
piece of lined paper and tucked it under his windshield wiper. The note read:
Erik, so sorry. Took me a long time. Didn’t want to knock and disturb you, but I loved talking with you tonight and can’t wait to see you again . . . as soon as possible. Please call me tomorrow. Hugs, Hyla
Tomorrow came, but Erik didn’t call.
Lucky for me, though, the girl who owned the other red CRX in the complex knew that the note was not intended for her, and kindly tracked Erik down. If not for her decision to take five extra minutes out of her day, Erik would have continued assuming that I’d been talked out of ending my non-existent relationship with meat-head, and I never would have experienced such bliss when, only two months later, Erik knelt down in the same restaurant in which his dad had proposed to his mother, and said, “I want to spend the rest of my life, as your husband, making you happier than you’ve ever imagined.”
Happier than you’ve ever imagined.
The youngest of six brothers and sisters, Erik and his mom were close—closer than I knew a child could be to his parent. They spoke on the phone every day. Each time we visited his mom, Jeannette, she had a list of things to be fixed around the house waiting for Erik, and he enjoyed helping her, just as he enjoyed helping me. When I needed a bookcase for our new apartment, he stretched out his tape measurer and built me a smoothly-sanded pine shelf, which hung over my desk. “This, right here, is your sacred writing space.” His giving seemed endless: whether he dug French fries out from under my car seats, massaged my back, read my writing, bought me jewelry he couldn’t afford, or sorted through my drawers for Goodwill.
Erik wanted to know everything about my life. “I’m curious,” he said, “what made you move in with your dad all the way in Florida, instead of staying with your mom in New York?” “In retrospect, I should have moved in with Lamby and Grandad,” I told him, “but nobody ever suggested that as an option. I was 12—I really didn’t know anything, other than that I was miserable being around the man my mom had married. I didn’t know my dad well, because I only saw him on Christmas and summer breaks, but my brother was already living in Florida with him, so it made sense for me to go there, too. Like I said, I should have moved in with Lamby and Grandad. When I lived with my mom in New York, I took the bus back to their house every day after school. I don’t know how many times I laid my head on Lamby’s chest and cried about some boy, some friend, or how my mom wouldn’t divorce my step-dad. Lamby and Grandad were my rock. They’re still my rock. They’ve always felt like home to me.” “I can’t wait to meet them.” Erik held my right foot, pressing points between my toes to relieve tension. My leg fliched back. “Oooh.” “Does that hurt? Am I pushing too hard?” “It’s a good hurt. Feels amazing, though I’m still trying to figure out why you’re so good to me.”
“Because you deserve to be adored. I know you didn’t feel that way growing up. I know your dad wasn’t there for you. And I get why you don’t talk to him anymore. We have to do that sometimes. We have to distance ourselves from people who make us feel like crap, even when they’re family. And it’s not like you didn’t try.” “Yeah, well, what could I do? Even the shrink my dad and I went to that one time said the continuation of our relationship would do more damage than good. Let me tell you, that was hard to hear, even though I knew, deep down, that he was right. What child doesn’t yearn to be loved and supported by their parents? It’s how we’re made.”
Is this something that ever fully goes away?
Erik understood why I ended communication with my dad, even though he would have given anything to kick back and drink a beer with his own father. He just wanted me to be happy, which is why I think he agreed to move to the San Francisco Bay Area when I told him that I had to get the hell out of Florida. We sold his car, all of our furniture, shipped our clothes via UPS, and left only enough space in my silver, twoseater RX7 for my cat, Morgan, his litter box, and one small bag for us to share. Even when I took myself off of anti-depressants, Erik said, “I support whatever you decide. Whatever you need to feel good. If you’re not happy, we can’t be happy.” Like it or not, depression runs in my family, but I resisted the fact that I actually needed to be on medication to balance out the chemicals in my brain. Like many people
struggling with some form of mental illness, I did not want to depend on a pill to have a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, for Erik and me, every time I stopped taking Zoloft, I pushed him away. Erik’s habits, which I’d once thought were cute, began to annoy me. “Quit touching my hair,” I said. “Quit telling me how great you think I am.” And those damn beat-boxing songs he made up made me cringe. “Erik, come on, can you stop, please?’ “Hyla, why can’t you have some fun?” “Is five minutes of peace asking too much?” I started a children’s photography business, in hopes that I could contribute to our bills and still have time to write, but I’d only learned how to load a camera a month before, and I didn’t have any idea how to run a business. And Erik continued to give. He organized my desk, delivered 9-foot-long rolls of white, seamless backdrop paper from the supply store, and helped me break down the studio lighting once my shoots were done. But I didn’t want his help. “This is my business. Let me do it on my own.” His constant offer to help made me feel incapable. His devotion felt like a plastic bag over my head. On the Zoloft, I could hush most of my doubts and let myself be
supported by him; off of the Zoloft, I feared being hurt. I didn’t want to be close to anyone.
Finally, I gave him back the engagement ring.
“I can’t believe you,” Erik cried, devastated. “You know this isn’t working.” He wanted to stay together; I didn’t. It was clear we could not be friends. Soon after, my business took off, surprising me with worldwide publications and a line of families waiting to have their photos taken. I moved into a three-room photography studio and hung purple velvet curtains next to the light-green walls. Other than the occasional mention of Erik’s name by my brother, Troy, who also worked at one of George Lucas’ companies, our paths didn’t intersect. I did, however, run across that familiar feeling of unworthiness when my new boyfriend punched a hole in our bedroom wall. Yes, I had moved across the country, but those sabotaging words snuck into my boxes. I still felt like a piece of shit. So I went back to therapy and back on my meds.
To pre-order your signed copy of Drop Dead Life, please go to my recently launched Kickstarter campaign and contribute $29 by August 19th. You will receive your book in April, 2014, along with my enormous gratitude for helping me reach 100% of my Kickstarter funding goal. Please take a minute to check out the other rewards I have created in exchange for your generous contributions. Your desire to contribute and share my Kickstarter campaign with your friends will allow me to fund the publication of Drop Dead Life and give hope to people all over the world.
Drop Dead Life goes beyond widowhood into the world of online dating, hereditary depression, finding humor, parenting, afterlife connection, and the belief that—regardless of our circumstances—each of us can create the love and happiness we desire.
Hyla Molander—author, speaker, advocate, photographer, widow, wife, and mother of four—is Co-Founder of Women Rock It and Founder of Social Good Project. Speaking events include a keynote at Walmart Corporate Headquarters about living as if today was your last day. Features include Redbook, KTVU Channel 2, Marin Magazine, and Writer’s Digest. She is also a spokesperson for MMRL, the research lab that is working to develop a treatment for Brugada Syndome—the sudden death cardiac condition which took her late husband’s life and has been inherited by Hyla’s two young daughters. Please connect with Hyla on her website.
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