"Breathe" Interview with author, Kelly Kittel
I first met Kelly at a Willamette Writers Conference in Portland. She had just released her memoir, Breathe. I liked her instantly and found her to be a fresh, healthy, personable and intelligent woman without a care in the world--until I read her book. I was floored. How can anyone survive the grief of losing not one, but two children in separate and horrific ways and appear so calm and almost radiant? Her book, Breathe, is a testament to dignity, acceptance, and surviving sorrow. Here is my interview with her:
Danuta: Kelly, you are a fish biologist by education. What prompted you turn to writing?
Kelly: I was born with a book clutched in my fist and always knew that some day I’d write one. I didn’t study writing in college because, right or wrong, I figured I already knew how to write so I should study something I didn’t know all about. I’ve always written in one form or another from technical writing of environmental documents to annual holiday missives to notes to teachers. Motherhood is the most important work I’ve ever done but it’s all-consuming and requires long periods of uninterupted time. Finally, while my youngest child was napping, I began to transform myself from a fish biologist who also wrote into an author who used to be a fish biologist. Like motherhood, writing a book-length manuscript is a solitary and all-consuming process that requires long periods of uninterruped time and I was never able to do both well simultaneously. I had to wait until my kids were on their way, so to speak, before I could write in earnest. They say there’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story within and for me, this was that story. I had to get it out. And to know that the story that I, alone, used to carry is now known by so many others is an amazing accomplishment that allows me to breathe a bit easier.
Danuta: How did you choose the title, Breathe?
Kelly: I had so many working titles for this memoir in the seven years I was writing and revising, the first one being Naptime and the last being The Light of the Son. None ever seemed right. My daughter, Christiana, and I spent a couple of years walking many a mile along the beach in Costa Rica and the creek in Oregon brainstorming title after title. They always say not to be married to your title as your publisher will make the ultimate decision so I tried not to fret about it too much. It wasn’t until about a year before publication when I was revising that I realized the common thread of Noah, Jonah, and Isaiah’s births and deaths was that they couldn’t breathe and that I’d prayed to God each time to grant them that one essential thing. And that yoga had made me realize that I’d stopped breathing deeply, myself. I always thought I’d want a rhapsodic title like The Unbearable Lightness of Being but am so very happy with the brevity of Breathe. Especially since post-publication you realize you have to write and say it so many, many times!
Danuta: The story of Noah is heartbreaking to read. As a reader, I found myself holding my breath, willing the baby to breathe and to live. As a mother, I cannot imagine suffering you must have endured—how did you manage to write about it?
Kelly: Ahhh, yes. How, indeed? Of course the short answer is that the living of it will always be so much worse than anything, including the writing of it. And I did wait ten years to write it. And the first drafts read like protracted screams. But the surprisingly wonderful thing about writing about Noah was that it was like spending time with him again. Honestly, there were days as I sat at our dining room table in Costa Rica lost in scene that I’d look up from my keyboard and expect to see him come toddling across the floor to me, arms outstretched. They say that writing your story makes it two-dimensional and reading makes it three-dimensional, which makes absolute sense to me. I didn’t know I’d be resurrecting my sons from their graves when first I sat down to tell their stories, but that is the very awesome thing that has manifested. And it’s mighty, indeed.
Danuta: Another part of this tragic story is how some members of your extended family reacted to your grief with insensitivity and even blame. Have you been able to come to some understanding for their behavior?
Kelly: This could be the story of the evil that walks among us. Or else, as I often think about it, it’s the story of mothers who felt they were doing the right thing for their children. For instance, I believe my sister-in-law testified against us because if she could somehow help to assign the blame for Jonah’s death on me, that would absolve her daughter for Noah’s death. But I couldn’t write that story, because I can’t get inside her head. Everyone I consulted told me I could never write this as fiction because fiction has to be believable and my story was too unbelievable! One thing I struggled with was my own fear that nobody would believe me. But one of the reasons I had to write this story is that if it wasn’t my life, I wouldn’t believe it either. I thought it important to spread the news that the Emperor has no clothes, people don’t always act the way we think they will. Or the way they should. That is the simple truth which leads to so much complexity and conflict in our relationships and in our lives.
Danuta: You say in the book as you were holding Noah for the last time that, Noah taught you in that moment that we are not our bodies. Could you elaborate on what that meant to you?
Kelly: Absolutely. When that nurse intructed me to sit in an oversize rocking chair like you might use to nurse your baby and handed me my swaddled son, I knew instantly and instinctively that what I held was not my son. As much as I desperately needed him, Noah was not there. That heated hospital blanket held his body, but not his soul. The essence of Noah was gone and my arms actually felt empty. I immediately handed him to Andy, saying, “This is not Noah,” and he felt the same way. They say the soul weighs 21 grams and I believe that. We loved that body that we’d created together, but Andy and I absolutely felt and knew in that moment that Noah was 21 grams lighter. And I’m thankful to my small son for teaching me that.
Danuta: You share in your book the death of other children, and the passing of Jonah. In the midst of these enduring sorrows—how can anyone on the outside of such pain be of help? What words could be spoken, what circumstances could comfort? What would you advise to people who want to comfort someone enduring such loss?
Kelly: In the beginning? Be there. Nobody wants to be alone with this agonizing pain and for this reason I think the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva is so very wise. In Africa they gather their mats and simply surround the huts of the bereaved. Simply being present in the early days is very important. I believe this is the enduring power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus left us with. It’s what we’re capable of doing for each other and having been the focal point of this intense uplifting energy I can tell you that it’s palpable. We were completely held up in our grief by our community of friends and family. There are no words that suffice but talking about the deceased is helpful. Tell your stories, share your memories and the things you’ll miss about them. One thing I learned the hard way is not to say things you don’t mean or can’t fulfill, like this: “If there’s ever anything you need, anything I can do, just let me know.” I did have many people say this to me and later when I called on some for help, they refused me and that hurt doubly. Don’t make false promises. This palpable positive energy is not sustainable. Eventually, everyone needs to move on with their lives, including the bereaved. But checking in and saying their names as the years go by will always be important. People erroneously think they don’t want to say anything that might remind the bereaved of their lost loved ones, but know this one thing is true—we have not forgotten; we’re just wondering if you have?
Danuta: How has your book touched others?
Kelly: I have a cherished document on my computer called Breathe Comments and it’s over 100 pages of emails, book reviews, and FaceBook comments or messages that readers have sent over the past year and I’m truly humbled and honored by every single word. I wrote Breathe to tell the story of my sons and to help others and to know that it’s out there in the world doing just that is very gratifying. Writing a book is much like giving birth to a child and just as we’ve raised all of our children, I expect this book to change the world. I expect it to march forth and make the world a better place and I pray that it will be treated kindly, that it will help others, and that it will live a long, long life.
Danuta: You are a soft and lovely woman with no visible residue of bitterness or angst. How have you dealt personally with grief?
Kelly: It hasn’t been easy and I do have my days, trust me. I still cringe whenever I hear an ambulance siren or certain names and whenever I see a Tahoe—the car that ran over Noah. I give all of my children a lot of credit in helping me to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other each day. This is true for the three who survived their brothers’ deaths as well as the two who came afterwards, adding their baby joy back into our family. I am a seeker and I spent a lot of time reading about and researching topics like the meaning of life and death, forgiveness and faith. I believe we need to shatter the silence that surrounds these topics, particularly miscarriage and stillbirth. It took me awhile, but I finally found my voice. One of the ways I deal with my own grief is by helping others. I speak and present workshops on a variety of topics. I co-moderate The Compassionate Friends FB page for Miscarriage and Stillbirth, and, of course, I write a lot about it.
Danuta: How has the loss of Jonah and Noah affected your marriage and your other children?
Kelly: Our marriage has been tried by fire, no doubt, which makes it stronger in many ways. Like any relationship we have our struggles. But, as with all of our children, Noah and Jonah were a product of our love. They were what we were capable of creating when we worked together and we’ve never forgotten the power of that union. If I had lost Andy, there would be no Isaiah nor Bella. My children are much more comfortable and open with the topics of life and death than most. If you ask them, they will tell you that they’ve never known any other life so had no other expectations. They didn’t think their lives should be any other way and, therefore, weren’t as deeply disappointed as we were. I believe they are much more compassionate and wise as a result of losing their brothers. But I think it’s fair to say that we’d all take that all back in a heartbeat to have Noah and Jonah in our lives again.
Danuta: What other books have you written since Breathe?
Breathe has only been out for one year and it took me seven years to get to that point. I haven’t developed warp writing speed yet but I’m currently at work, writing a travel memoir about living in Costa Rica. In the meantime, I’ve had several essays published in magazines and I’ve contributed to several anthologies, including Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss, which was compiled by the director of the film, Return To Zero, which was the first major motion picture made about stillbirth, based on the director’s own story.
Danuta: Thank you so much, Kelly! I look forward to our mutual readings at Pfeiffer Winery on June 14th. I promise to have some wine on hand!
Breathe is available at Amazon.com