They say there’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story within, and Breathe is that story, the one I had to tell before the others. The following is the Prologue, The Book of Kelly, and it pretty much sums it up:
“I am part fish. I grew up on an island where I spent most of my summers submerged in water, which perhaps explains why I became a fish biologist. I’ve spent the better part of my career swimming and studying fish in one way or another. Water is the symbol of the womb, since we all begin life swimming around in our mothers’ bellies. From water springs life, as from the biblical flood of Noah, we emerged. Fish are a symbol of fertility, and I’ve been pregnant thirteen times.
Recently, I learned about microchimerism, which is the presence of cells in one person’s bloodstream that originated from a different person and are therefore genetically distinct from the other cells swimming around them. In humans, the most common form of this is called fetomaternal microchimerism. This occurs when cells from a fetus pass through the placenta and establish cell families within the mother. As far as we know, these fetal cells remain and multiply for several decades, perhaps even forever. This means that swimming around in my body could be cells from thirteen different babies. I am the embodiment of my children, most of whom are otherwise dead. And as I’m carrying them, they, too, are carrying me. This also means that when my children died, a part of me died, too. I knew this. I felt this. I just didn’t know exactly why. And now I do.
I was born with a book clutched in my fat little fist, and I always knew that someday, I would write one. This is not the story I dreamed I’d tell. But this is the story that life placed in my hands. I’ve spent a long time worrying and massaging it, shaping and molding the theme and structure of this story. I’ve examined the weave of my life—unraveling the many threads, following the ones that are connected, and tying up loose ends. One thing I discovered in my journey is the circularity of what I’d always been taught were linear opposites—without joy, we cannot truly know sorrow; without pain, there’s no pleasure; without birth, no death. This book contains all of these things.
They say you should write what you know, which perhaps explains why, when I first sat down to write this story, I wrote five pages about salmon. I don’t know why; it’s just what came swimming out of my fingertips. Perhaps I did so because I thought fish stories were more believable, because I was afraid that if I wrote this story, nobody would believe me. It took me seven years to weave this narrative—the tale my small sons taught me to write, even though one of them never even took his first breath. Between the covers of this book is the only place all of the children I’ve birthed will ever exist simultaneously in this world, besides their cells within me. Writing it has allowed me to spend these years watching them play together on the pages, for which I am grateful. Some days I would look up from my keyboard and half expect to see one or another of them toddling across the floor, arms outstretched, toward my waiting embrace.
This is the story of a girl who always dreamed of having a large, loving family, and it’s the story of the struggles she survived as a woman to realize that dream. It’s also the universal tale of the forces that can tear a family apart. A memoir about grief and family conflict might not be the book you feel like reading; Lord knows it’s not the story I felt like living. We are given many gifts in this life, and when some of them are delivered, we want to grab a Sharpie, scribble Return to Sender and scream, “This is not meant for me!” What I’ve learned is that we must embrace them all, whether we ordered them or not, clutching them tightly in our fists and rubbing their rough edges with our shredded fingers until they are worn smooth.
Telling the story of my sons is the last thing I can do for them besides carry their cells to my grave. My story isn’t always pleasant, though it has many joyful moments. And it may not always be believable, because truth is stranger than fiction. But if you need a kindred spirit to help you untangle the weave of your own undeniable grief or family drama, know that I wrote this for you.”
As for “what it took for me to get published”? It took me 7 years to write Breathe, during which I sent over 200 queries, pitched 20 agents, fielded over 120 rejections, attended 3 conferences, countless workshops, and worked with 5 editors. I’ve been in 3 writing groups and had 15 readers of my full manuscript, including 3 agents, and revised my manuscript too many times to count. In those seven years, I’ve moved my family five times (once/year), from RI to Costa Rica to Oregon (where we built 2 yurts) then back to Costa Rica, back to OR and finally to RI. Last fall, I signed with She Writes Press.
I love to travel, I’m a long-distance ocean swimmer (part fish) and, as I said above, I’ve had 13 pregnancies, which sounds suspiciously like a hobby.
My memoir, Breathe
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, Breathe is a story of motherhood, death, and family in the face of unspeakable tragedy and, ultimately, how she learns to breathe again.