Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Birth and Death: Helping a Toddler Say Goodbye

I've learned a lot in the last few days. Our family knew already for a few weeks that a tough time was looming ahead of us. Our dog was diagnosed with stomach cancer and wasn't responding well to medications. After a difficult, painful weekend, I arranged for a veterinarian to come to our home to euthanize her.
Our newborn Jacob with Quinoa
I had asked my vet what she thought we should do with Jacob, now 19 months, during this process. She recommended that her assistant take him into a different room, and told me that when I talked to him about our beloved Quinoa, I should try not to cry because it could make him fear death. Well, I knew right away that this wouldn't be possible for me to accomplish.

Quinoa was a sweet, gentle soul who taught me about good parenting, including cuddling, co-sleeping, and patience. Oh, the patience that this dog had! She taught Jacob the importance of being kind (she would get up and calmly walk away if he wasn't), sharing food with others (she was always polite but she did have a way of letting him know when she deserved a piece of his bread or a morsel of his egg) and catching snowballs (he hated snow this season until he saw Quinoa playing in it about two weeks ago). There was no way I wasn't going to cry over parting with her.

My toddler throwing a snowball for Quinoa, in her last week.
As Quinoa's final days approached, Ian and I both realized that Jacob would be most upset if he saw me having such intense emotions but was separated from me. He had to be there with us. When the time came, Ian cradled Quinoa's head in his lap, and I put my lips to her ear and told her all about the car rides she would enjoy and the cheese she'd love to eat again. Jacob stood quietly between us and watched, one small hand on my back and the other holding my shirt sleeve.

We stayed with Quinoa for many hours after she died. I washed off the urine that she had released at the moment of her passing, and we took turns grooming her still soft and shiny coat. Jacob found an old bottle of her ear drops and tried to administer them. We went over every single part of her body - we felt every lump and bump, noted which of her toes were white and which black, remarked on the beautiful, warm orange colouring on the underside of her tail and the details in her clear, blue eye. We felt her body become cooler, and then stiff. Spending this time with her body helped each of us to celebrate her life and accept her transition. Jacob looked at her and asked me, "Owee?" I told him, no, not anymore. He responded, "Oh."

I remembered that we deeply need to do many of these tasks with our newborns, too, in order to meet them, celebrate their birth, and establish bonding and breastfeeding. When new parents are free from medical interference, they examine every tiny bit of their babies, touching them everywhere, even smelling and licking them. This is what we require as mammals and humans. We and our loved ones, both those we are welcoming and those we are wishing farewell, deserve this time and space together to try to come to terms with the mystery of consciousness. Too frequently, babies are whisked away and bathed by nurses, and bodies of loved ones are "touched up" and cleaned by professionals instead of those who knew them best.

Everywhere I go, I think of Quinoa. I look around for her, but she's not lying under the painting of Everest on the wall, or by the window, or at the front or back door, or on our bed. I regret that Jacob is not at an age where he will remember her, but we'll tell him stories and show him photos of his dear friend. He may have a sense that death is something that happens, and through which we hold each other, in the midst of our tears.

Quinoa playing in the snow with our toddler

Friday, 2 November 2012

Saying No to Nursing for the First Time

Yesterday we had to take our dog to the vet. We had a 10am appointment, but Jacob decided to have a party from 5am to 8:30am, after waking every half hour to nurse throughout the first part of the night. I think somebody was processing his Halloween experience (no, he didn't have much candy at all). I called the vet to get a later appointment and we all slept in.

Minutes before our new and improved appointment time, I was still scrambling to get everyone ready. Diaper (we don't tend to bother with them in our own house), two layers of pants, socks, shoes, sweater, coat, and the hat and mitts that my boy won't wear but I feel I should have with me so that I don't look like quite such a neglectful parent. What can they say if the mitts on a string are dangling from his sleeves? I'm trying, right?? I whip his hat out of my pocket and stick it on him when someone walks by, and then he promptly rips it off. Somehow we WILL get this figured out by the time it gets dangerously cold here.

I got my own shoes on, found the dog's leash under a mountain of toys, and was finally putting on my coat when Jacob pointed at the zipper I was doing up. He started to pull it down. "You want to nurse?" He nodded. Now? "We can't right now. We're late. We really have to go. We're going to the vet's office – maybe you can pet the cat. Would you like that?" He nodded again. For pretty much the first time ever, I said we couldn't nurse right then. I offered to trade nursing for a cat, and it worked!

We rushed down the road and coaxed the dog into the vet's office (at least this time I didn't have to carry all forty pounds of her AND the toddler up the stairs). I thought we might have a moment to nurse while we waited, but since we were late, we were ushered straight into an exam room. The vet came right in, and Jacob was well enough distracted by all the goings-on. As we were wrapping up our conversation, Jacob zipped open my sweater and started pulling at my shirt. The vet smiled and said, "He just wants to be really close right now doesn't he?" I SO didn't feel like explaining that I'm trans, had this baby myself, and yes, still breastfeed him at 18 months. I zipped my sweater back up and cuddled him instead, which more or less worked.

Nursing Jacob to sleep in the rocking chair.
Nursing is the fastest way to get Jacob to sleep
By the time we got back home and sat down for a nice, unhurried nursing, over an hour had passed since he had first asked. It is incredible to think of how this has changed since the newborn days when waiting a few extra seconds to get the supplement from the fridge seemed like a disaster. This is the beginning of a gradual, gentle weaning process that I expect will take years. If Jacob had fallen and bonked his head and NEEDED to nurse at the vet's office, I would have done it no matter what. Had he badly wanted to nurse for any reason, we would have nursed. But this time he didn't. While typing this post, I've been holding him asleep on my chest, and we've nursed a few times when he fussed over the last hour. I'm sure we've got hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of nursing time yet to come, but things are starting to shift.