Breathe: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Grief, And Family Conflict by Kelly KittelBreathe: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Grief, And Family Conflict by Kelly Kittel

Breathe: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Grief, And Family Conflict

byKelly Kittel

Paperback | May 14, 2014

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Kelly Kittel never questioned her Mayflower Society mantra—“Family is the most important thing”—until the day her fifteen-month-old son was run over by her sixteen-year-old niece. Nine months later, Kittel’s doctor made a terrible mistake during her subsequent pregnancy and she found herself burying yet another baby. Caught up in the maelstrom of a malpractice lawsuit, Kittel and her husband battle not only the medical system, but their own relatives, in the courtroom. As their family tree begins to topple, the Kittels struggle to nourish the roots of their young family and find healing. Achingly raw and beautifully narrated,Breatheis a story of motherhood, death, and family in the face of unspeakable tragedy and, ultimately, how she learns to breathe again.
Kelly Kittel is a fish biologist by trade but a writer at heart. She is married with five living children, her best work beyond compare. She lives with her husband and two youngest children in Rhode Island but her favorite writing space is in her yurt on the coast of Oregon. She has been published in magazines and anthologies and has w...
Title:Breathe: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Grief, And Family ConflictFormat:PaperbackDimensions:384 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.68 inPublished:May 14, 2014Publisher:She Writes PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1938314786

ISBN - 13:9781938314780


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Chapter Eight The happy, carefree days of summer stretched their arms out again, beckoning us to come and play all day then holding us spellbound in their warm, nightly embrace. One Friday evening in August when Andy was milling at his parent’s house on the coast, I took the kids to the waterfront park to enjoy an outdoor festival. I wished Andy were there but was used to coming up with things to do in his absence and was proud of myself for planning the upcoming weekend in Salem without him. This time, I was determined not to simply follow him to the coast. I’d wanted to go camping with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Eastern Oregon, but Corporate America had come calling and offered Andy another job in the telecommunications field that he couldn’t refuse, so he was busy finishing up his milling jobs before switching the machine to idle permanently and I didn’t think I could manage camping with four little kids in my tent.The three older kids skipped ahead while I pushed Noah in his stroller, stopping to chat with friends along the way. Noah loved to ride, sitting up on the edge of his seat with his feet crossed and his hands on the padded bar, pointing at everything in his path.I thought back to a month earlier when we were in Rhode Island. We’d stayed with Erin since my parents were already in Maine, then we’d all joined them there for the holiday weekend. Unable to afford the time for our usual lengthy summer visit or the airfare for all of us, Hannah, Noah, and I only had flown back for a week over the fourth of July. Andy had to work and we’d hired a college student to babysit for the summer, so she stayed with Christiana and Micah while we were away. His sea legs firmly underneath him now, Noah was determined to climb up the ladder to Erin’s pool slide and had to be watched every minute. He pulled her dogs’ tails whenever they were within reach and he loved the water this year, playing happily in the ocean and ending each day covered in sand. We ate Dunkin’ Donuts and went to our favorite ice cream shop, where I ordered one black raspberry cone, not daring to buy Noah his own for fear of the mess he would certainly make. But it was love at first taste for him and he grew very impatient, insistently screaming at me for his next bite before I could even get a lick in myself. Erin called him “Screech” because of the way he sounded, and the nickname stuck like the purple ice cream all over his face.Now Noah’s screech brought me back to attention until I acknowledged what he was pointing at. “Yes, Noah, I see the squirrel,” I said. He stopped, relaxing back into his stroller seat, content until something else caught his eye and he’d screech again.I called the kids together while the shadows lengthened across the park, spreading our quilt out on the grass for us to share during the fireworks display. The three kids gradually adjusted their arms and legs around each other and I sat on the edge next to Noah, who was content to remain perched in his stroller. The sky grew black, and the streaming lights filled the air with excitement. With each burst of pyrotechnic color, Noah clapped with great gusto and then put his arm around my neck, hugging me with his little head on my shoulder. When the next blast came he sat up, clapped, and then hugged me again. I loved the way he clapped, usually just twice, but with emphasis and enthusiasm.The sense that remains with me from that night is a beautiful summer memory I carry. My skin retains the sweet feeling of Noah’s loving arm hugging me, and the weight of his toddler-sized head still rests on my shoulder. Noah was growing into a lovely little boy, showing us glimpses of the person he was becoming—stalwart and sturdy, he could wrestle with Micah and hold his own, but he was also mild-mannered and sweet like his sisters. He had the safety of his family’s loving arms to hold him while he discovered his place in the world, toddling around the yard after them, playing with rocks and dirt, and touching everything with his pointer finger. Noah loved to swing and to dance with us holding and twirling him around or by himself, bouncing on his sturdy legs and clapping while we all danced around him. He stood in his high chair and played with the light switch, grinning and stomping his feet daringly. He was so proud that he could sit up in the shopping cart now and laughed when it bounced across the pavement. I tickled him when we shopped, and he giggled with delight, making even a mundane trip to the grocery store a fun outing. And he had a colorful stroller in which to sit and experience the emerging world around him but which also provided quilted comfort and security as a fallback when needed.When we got home, the phone was ringing, and I rushed to open the door and grab it before the answering machine. “Hello,” I said, out of breath.The voice of my sister-in-law hit my ear. “Can you come down tomorrow and help Mom?” Cody asked. “I want to come home for my birthday.” Cody was at the coast along with Cassi and Chane helping Marcella, who’d tripped over the living room rug the previous weekend and fallen, injuring her leg so she had to use a walker for a while. “And anyway, it’s Micah’s fault that Mom got hurt in the first place.”“What?” I said, stepping aside as the girls stumbled past me and headed down the hall to their beds.“Well, Mom said Micah was playing with his cars on that rug and the edge got folded over and that’s what she tripped on.”I could see Micah sound asleep in the glow of the carport light and couldn’t believe they were casting blame on a four-year-old. I knew from experience that that round Oriental rug was always getting caught up in the reclining chairs and often needed straightening. “Well, I’m sure it was an accident however it happened,” I said.“So can you come?” she said, ignoring my comment.“Okay,” I managed to say before she hung up. I mentally erased the plans I’d made for the weekend in Salem as I traipsed back out to the van and carried my sleeping boys in to bed, one at a time. Micah was getting heavy, and I struggled to pull the covers back with one hand before laying him down on the cool sheet. I pried a matchbox car out of his fist and kissed his damp forehead. I wondered who’d decided that the accident was Micah’s fault and sure hoped nobody had told him that he was to blame for Grandma’s injury. Tomorrow I would see the likely perpetrators and would find out, I thought. But I never did.“Mommy loves you,” I sang in a whisper to my two sleeping boys.The next morning I phoned across the street to see if either Cally or Charissa could come down and babysit for me while I went to Jazzercise, determined to get that in before my trip to the coast. Cally came. When I got home, I started packing and asked her, “Do you want to come to the coast with us? You can stay the weekend or you could even ride back home later with your mother.”“No,” she said and walked home.I loaded the van, feeling a little relieved that she’d declined my offer. I asked the kids to go outside and play while I finished cleaning up, putting Noah in his crib so he would stay out of trouble while I vacuumed the house. As I turned on the machine, I wondered if he would love motors like Micah. Noah was being such a good boy, and every time I glanced up at him he was standing there in the corner of his crib, watching me with a quiet intensity like he was memorizing the moment. I stopped the vacuum for a minute and as the noise died down, we simply looked at each other in the sudden silence. Right before my eyes, he seemed to mature way beyond his one year.I bent over to move Micah’s matchbox cars out of the way and was about to turn the vacuum back on again when the phone rang. It was Cally. “I changed my mind, I wanna go with you,” she said. I finished cleaning, thinking about my niece, who was sixteen now. I felt a little tense, knowing she was coming along, but I was also hopeful as I spent a lot of time puzzling over how to make our relationship better. I knew it would be helpful to have her along for the two hours in the car with the four kids. Andy and I hadn’t made much progress in talking to either Cody or Chris about Cally’s behavior, and any overtures we made fell on deaf ears.One day when we were out walking, Cody had confided in me that she felt guilty because she hadn’t spent enough time with Cally when she was a baby, since she and Chris were busy then—she with nursing school and he with his new dental practice. Charissa had been an easy baby, the perfect first child, but Cally had arrived fussy and demanding. She’d grown into a defiant and chubby girl, which drove her fitness-fanatic father crazy. “Chris was chubby when he was little,” Cody had said, which perhaps explained why he was always biking, golfing or doing something active now. And why Cally’s weight upset him. As someone for whom fitness was important, I could understand his frustration.I picked up Noah and walked into the kitchen just as Cally was coming in the door, her bag and pillow in her hands and a sandwich stuffed in her mouth. Cally was as rebellious about her eating as she was about everything else and deliberately stuffed food in her mouth like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.“You can put your stuff in the van; we’re just about ready to leave,” I said, following her out the door with Noah. A few years back, Cody had taken her to a therapist because of her attitude and weight. The gal had decided that Cally didn’t crawl enough as a baby and prescribed crawl therapy. As I followed in her wake, I remembered the disturbing sight of her crawling around her living room after school and thought, so much for that.I strapped Noah into his car seat, and Cally decided she’d sit next to him instead of me, even though Hannah was already sitting there. Hannah moved to the back seat, and I thanked the kids for waiting so patiently. This trip I decided to drive east from Salem and then south down the coast, which I’d heard was sunny and warm, a rarity in the summer. Typically the Oregon coast is blanketed in cool, misty fog when it is hot in the valley due to the coldness of the ocean and the barricade of the coastal mountain range, which traps and cools the air. But this was to be a perfect summer day—the kind of magical day at the coast that leaves you wondering, “Why don’t we live here?”Along the way the traffic stopped while a bicycle race went by, and Noah began to fuss. He was old enough to face forward in his car seat now, so Cally and I played peekaboo and this-little-piggy with him until we got moving again and I was glad I didn’t have to stop to nurse him. By the time we reached Newport, all the kids were tired of being in the car, so I pulled into the Oregon Maid ice cream store.“Mom, buy Noah his own ice cream,” the girls each pleaded.“Okay,” I relented, considering the black raspberry he’d screeched for but ordering him a tiny bit of less-staining vanilla on a baby cone instead. We ate outside and Noah sat up straight in his own chair, so proud of himself to finally have his very own cone. He proceeded to eat it from the bottom up, making a huge mess, and we all laughed along with him while his orange Old Navy onesie turned into a Creamsicle.Proceeding south to Waldport, I headed for Patterson, our favorite beach park, where I strapped Noah into his backpack and we headed across the wide beach for a walk. The kids darted in and out of the freezing cold ocean, seeing how long their feet could stand the pain and squealing when their toes felt like popsicles. “Look, kids, a seal,” I called to them, seeing a familiar head pop up in between waves to watch us. I thought about how different the Pacific is from my familiar Atlantic. There would be no floating or swimming here.A stream of fresh water flowed across the sand that was a bit warmer than the ocean and when we returned to it, I freed Noah from the confines of his backpack and the kids all splashed and played with their beach toys in the perfect combination of sand, salt, sun, and summer. Noah vroomed his boats in the water, and I took his vanilla-flavored onesie off and rinsed it. He screeched with joy, stomping around in the water naked and free. I watched my children frolicking and was happy we’d come after all.By the time we drove upriver to Andy’s parents’ house, the sun was heading for the Pacific, dropping towards the pointed tree tops which lined the river and filled the national forest in between. The temperature was always warmer away from the ocean, even just those seven miles inland. We turned in at the little blue cabin and down the long dirt driveway. Seeing us, Andy turned off his sawmill for the day, brushed away the sawdust, and pulled his orange earplugs out.“Hey, why don’t we take the kids up to Hootenanny?” he called.“Yayyy, we want to go to the swimming hole,” they all cried in a flurry of activity, searching for bathing suits and towels and climbing all over Andy’s pickup.“Can we ride in the back?” my nieces begged.“Oh, all right,” Andy said, throwing a bit of caution to the wind because it was a warm evening and riding in the back of a pickup with summer air blowing in your hair was a memory we both treasured from our own youthful summers. We felt carefree.“I don’t think the kids should ride back there,” Cody said, walking out of the house to find her three girls sitting in the bed of the pickup.“Oh, they’ll be fine,” Andy said.“Leave Noah with me,” she said.“Aren’t you leaving?” I asked.“Oh, I’ll go later when you get back,” she said, taking Noah from me. I wavered, as he turned away from her and stretched his arms out to me. But I relented, knowing it would be easier without him, since the swimming hole is deep and Micah still needed to wear a life vest and be watched.“It’s okay, honey, Mommy will be right back,” I said, climbing into the truck and looking forward to swimming myself. We had seven kids along to lifeguard but I felt a pang of guilt watching Noah from my side view mirror in his Aunty Cody’s arms, still crying and reaching after us while we headed down the driveway in our truck overflowing with happy kids that didn’t include him.“I wish we’d brought him along,” I said to no one in particular, my voice drowned out by the truck engine and giggling children. I knew how much he wanted to be like his older brother and sisters and I felt his anguish at being left behind like it was my own.We kept our three kids in the cab of the pickup with another of our nieces, Courtney, the only child of Andy’s brother, Steve, who also lived nearby. She’d arrived at the house with her mom, Diane, just in time to come along with us those eight more miles up the Alsea River. Andy and I and all the kids then tumbled down the embankment to the deserted sandy river beach formed by an eddy and had a lazy swim in the gathering dusk of early evening. The river was cool and clean and carried our dust and doubts away downriver. We waded upstream, where a set of rippling rapids beckoned, leaning our backs into the smooth rocks and letting the water run its fingers over and around us, massaging our muscles.“Look, Dad, a crayfish,” Micah called, holding one of the bright orange creatures up against his red life vest. He had no fear of grabbing crabs at the coast or crayfish in this river or at my parent’s lake in Maine, where they were greenish brown instead of this neon color.“Cody saved me from drowning here when I was five,” Andy said as we watched the older kids launching themselves off the rope swing hanging from a big tree limb on the opposite bank. “I was floating on an inner tube and she was teaching me how to swim. Buster was on the beach and yelled, ‘Andy, you’d better start swimming!’ and then he dove in the water and pushed me off the tube. It was right over there,” he said, pointing to the middle of the river between the beach and where the kids were jumping. Just then his story was momentarily interrupted by Cally’s screaming as she hit the water with a big splash. “I remember watching the sun shining down through the green water and my bubbles rising to the surface as I sank deeper and deeper until I hit the bottom,” Andy continued. “It was really peaceful. But then I saw Cody diving down and she grabbed me and pulled me to the surface,” he said, just as Cally herself burst up for air, laughing. I knew that Andy sank like a stone and I’d heard plenty of stories about how Andy’s four older brothers had tortured him growing up, but I’d never heard this one before. We were both happy that our kids had all inherited my ability to float.We shook the river water off and loaded the kids back into the truck for the ride home. We all felt rejuvenated by this perfect ending to a summer day when life is blissful and you might even stop to ponder your good fortune, happy that your husband didn’t drown when he was five, and content with all that you can see and hold around you, wanting nothing more. The frogs began to sing and darkness infused the air, but it still held enough warmth to caress our skin on the ride home.We returned to the house to find Noah’s Aunty Cody well into a bottle of wine—her usual nightly beverage and the part of her Catholic faith she embraced religiously.“Noah received his first communion on my birthday,” she joked, his arms reaching me at last. I kissed his wine-tainted lips and sat down at the kitchen table to nurse him, both of us relieved and happy at our reunion.“I changed my mind. I’m not going home tonight; I’ll leave tomorrow,” Cody announced with the blood of Christ on her breath. So, my trip from Salem to relieve her in caring for Marcells hadn’t been necessary after all. I was surprised that she didn’t want to spend her birthday evening with her husband, but I chalked it up to one more thing about their marriage that I didn’t understand. Normally her tendency to change her mind with no thought toward others, like me, would have annoyed me more, but the river water was still dripping off our laughter and dinner was ready to fill our hungry bellies. We were together as a family, and the happy memories of the day colored our thoughts. It was a lovely summer night. This was not the time for regrets.When dinner was over and it was time to put the kids to bed, Cally announced, “I’m not sleeping in the cabin,” and she marched into the living room to watch TV.We’d had such a nice day together, but now that she was back with her mother she reverted to her snotty attitude. I felt betrayed and disappointed that no matter what I tried to do to change things with Cally, the spinner continued to land on the same place—right hand, red—in our game of Twister. I looked at Cody and she shrugged, drank her wine, and said nothing, as usual—left foot, green.Marcella said that Andy and I could take the kids up the driveway and sleep in the blue cabin. Now that the birthday girl and three of her girls were staying, the bedrooms would be full, so we were left with no choice. But that cabin gave me the creeps. It was very small, with one tiny bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a mini front room. I’d never slept in it before and had only set my foot inside once or twice, which was enough for me. Marcella usually rented it to some down-and-out person with gaps instead of teeth who inevitably fell behind on the rent and had to leave. Like Cally, I was not keen on sleeping there. The tidal slough flowed behind it, and I half-expected to find a rat in the bathroom. I was glad we’d brought our own pillows.“Come on, it’ll be fine,” Andy said, and he began gathering up our things.“Just for one night, right?” I said as we trudged up the driveway with all our gear. Andy and I made beds for the kids on the floor of the front room with the noise from Highway 34 right outside their door. The kids brushed their teeth, and I tucked them in without reading a book as it was too late and we were all tired. I prayed some errant log truck wouldn’t come careening into the cabin while they slept and sang “Mommy loves you,” with Andy chiming in his part, “And Daddy does too.” Then I wished them sweet dreams, like I did every night, those two simple words the last they heard before falling asleep.By the time I got in our tiny room, Andy had Noah’s porta-crib set up at the foot of our bed, with barely enough space to squeeze it in, and he was snuggling in bed with Noah in his Lion King pajamas. I climbed under the covers and Noah settled down in between us. He nursed greedily, then gulped more slowly as his belly filled and the milk and the day knocked him out.I eased my nipple out of Noah’s parted lips after he drifted off, watching a tiny rivulet of milk dribble out of the corner of his mouth and seek its own course down his cheek before I stopped its progress toward my pillow. Watching my kids sleep was my just deserts, and I paused to admire him. Even after the most trying days as a mom, the moment any of my children closed their eyes and saw their own sweet dreams instead of my sour frustrations, I forgave them all of their trespasses, praying they would do the same for me. I kissed Noah’s cheek and moved him gently into his porta-crib.“Sweet dreams, Noah,” I whispered. He smiled in his sleep.

Editorial Reviews

"People always ask me why I write about loss and grief. And I tell them that I write about loss and grief because when I do, I'm also writing about love, and hope, and family, and all the big messy glorious things in our lives. Kelly Kittel understands that. In Breathe, she bares her broken heart, and shows us all courage and hope and, mostly, love." —Ann Hood, author of the memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief and The Knitting Circle