Looking back, looking forward in 2017

2016 was an incredibly challenging year for many, and my husband and I were no exception. In February, I was 9 months pregnant and our baby boy was stillborn just weeks from his due date. The loss was shocking after a perfectly healthy pregnancy, and devastating beyond anything I have experienced before. We have both spent much of the last year learning how to carry our grief as we move forward with life. The support and compassion extended to us by our families, friends and colleagues has been beyond anything we could have imagined. We would not have survived the past year without it.

I took time off before returning to work- I was in the middle of writing and illustrating “When the Cousins Came,” with Holiday House, and beginning my grandfather’s picture book bio with multicultural publisher Lee & Low. I also was in the planning stages of a mural about gun violence and reconciliation with Vito Valdez in Detroit. There was work to be done, but it took time to get to a place where I could actually do it. My editors, Grace Maccarone at Holiday House and Louise May at Lee & Low were beyond patient and supportive. There was no rush. My first mentor wrote me a letter and told me about how when his wife passed away, he was in the midst of a book with a significant deadline, but how making the work helped him learn to process and carry his grief. I was so grateful for that letter and found the same to be true for me.

The little bedroom that was to be our baby’s room was transformed into a small studio for me and I was able to stay home and work near the little shrine that we had made for him. There was an ease to working at home, where I could ride out the waves of grief as they came. So, from those months at home, in the quiet of the recently converted studio, the work for “When the Cousins Came” came into being.

I was also lucky at that time to be working with my good friend Kien Nguyen at Philadelphia Mural Arts on the design for a project that will go on the opposite side of a wall we painted at Smith Playground in 2014. Our project manager understands more than most the struggle of learning to live with grief and she truly helped me kind of pace myself and be easy as it was a time like no other. After MANY drafts and design reviews, we finally finished that mural design and had it approved just a couple of weeks ago.

The greatest blessing of a project this year came from a collaboration with the Women & Justice Project and Hour Children. I had a great feeling about the project from the email I got from Tamar, Jaya and Miyhosi at WJP and will be forever grateful to them for finding me. I wrote extensively about this project in its portfolio under the “Work” section of my site if you care to read about the details.

I was able to work with about 20-30 formerly incarcerated women and their children on a project that explored the idea of “Transformation.” These are women who have faced some of the hardest, most unspeakable hardships this life has to offer and every day they are devoted to making life better, making the world a more just place for other women and children. They know, better than anyone I’ve ever met, trauma, grief and suffering. But the lives they are living are lives of healing, support, determination, optimism and honesty. Being around women who shared so deeply, cared so much and spoke so much truth was incredibly healing for me and I will forever be grateful that this project came around when it did. Without knowing it, the women I collaborated with on this project helped me learn how to be brave again.

I also felt so fortunate to come across Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, the fearless leader of Hour Children (www.hourchildren.org) during this project. She reminded me of my Catholic Worker grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my mother . . . all the people who taught us that being a good person in the world, whether Catholic or otherwise, just means being guided by love and doing the work. Working with Hour Children and WJP just felt like being home when I needed it most.

With this project and so many others, with our loss and with our grief, I thought so much about interconnectedness. Maybe some of you remember that last year I did a project with Amnesty International about a woman in El Salvador named Teodora del Carmen Vasquez who had been sentenced to 30 years in prison after her baby was stillborn in her 9th month while she was at work. She was charged with the aggravated homicide of her stillborn baby. When I painted that mural, I was 7 months pregnant. I was enjoying what seemed to be a perfect pregnancy. I was healthy, energetic, joyful with the new life of my son growing inside me. I identified with her as a human being, as a woman, as someone who was pregnant . . . but at that time, never could I have imagined her loss and her punishment. Still, to this day, I cannot imagine her experience. When our baby died, we were enveloped in love and support- from the medical team around us, to our friends, family and community who somehow knew just what to do in an impossible situation. I can only begin to imagine the devastation of her loss, where instead of support, she received recrimination and punishment for her deepest tragedy. It is unimaginable. I think of her often. I think of the other women incarcerated in El Salvador for the same thing. I worry about reproductive rights for women around the country and world- the sickness of her sentence is symptomatic of a country that does not believe in the reproductive rights of women, nor do they provide prenatal healthcare for anyone beyond the very wealthy. It is dangerous, tragic territory to tread.

For most of the last year, I could barely speak about that project. The irony of losing my baby after painting a mural of a woman who suffered the same loss at the same time was too acute. But I also think there is a beauty in the interconnectedness of all of our suffering, all of our joy. You never know what people have lived through. You never know what it takes for anyone to go out into the world and be brave and stand up for the rights of others. I learned that from the Women & Justice Project and the women of Hour Children. I learn that with every project. I also have heard so many stories since our own loss that remind me that we share so much with so many and it’s so important to have a platform to tell our stories.

Now, when I am making new work, I am always thinking about my son. He is in every illustration, in every mural, in every brushstroke and pencil mark. He lives with me always. The shock and trauma of the loss will be there as long as it needs to be, the grief is here to stay, but that’s okay. I read somewhere that grief is just learning to live with death. That is what I am working on. It’s the most painful lesson to learn, but I’m so blessed to be able to share this grief, this pain with my amazing, compassionate husband, our loving families and community. Together, we are all learning to gain some acceptance of, and maybe eventually surrender to, the simple truth that there is so much mystery in life, so many things so far beyond our control. Like everything, that understanding is a work in progress.

As I look into 2017, I look forward with an open heart. I am regaining my optimism. I have projects I am excited about, collaborating partners who thrill me. I have a new agent who believes in my stories and my work. There is, indeed, so much to look forward to . . . so much to be thankful for.

Thank you for reading this, the most personal piece I have ever published. I wish you and your beloveds the very happiest and healthiest in 2017.