A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp

letter14me

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her.

 

I know you’re trying so hard, too hard, to make her see you, but she won’t, not now, when you’re blossoming into young adulthood, not later, when you’re graduating or getting married or divorced. She won’t be there helping you get ready for school dances, or ever see you march in the band, or even ask you what you want to do with your life. When she is there, she’ll usually be drunk. It will, now and always, be all about her.

In fact, when you are going through the worst of your divorce and find yourself completely alone, she’ll call you one day, and your heart will leap when she asks if you want to go on a vacation, just the two of you, to Florida. You’ll jump at the chance, though part of you will question her motives right out of the gate. But you’ll push down your doubts and forge ahead into the make-believe land she inhabits.

You’ll find yourself alone, again and still, right there in Fort Lauderdale, as she takes off on the back of a motorcycle with a guy she met on the Internet. She’ll toss a handful of twenties at you as she giggles her way to the door and tells you to get whatever you want for dinner, that you’ll watch T.V. when she gets back, just like the old days when she worked second shift and you’d wait up for her, hoping she’d remember to invite you into the living room before Dobie Gillis reruns started. You’ll wait up for her in that Florida hotel room, but she won’t come back that night or for two more days.

While you wait for her to return, you’ll take the rental car she left you and go to the mall, alone. You’ll cry as you drive down the freeway, real, choking, foolish sobs that are way more about her than they are about your soon-to-be ex-husband. You’ll be 24 and hate yourself for still not being past this, for still needing your mommy, for never allowing yourself to feel justified in your anger toward her. You’ll still be making excuses for her, still apologizing and hiding and wrecking yourself with constant grief, anguish and worry. You’ll force a smile when she finally returns, giddy and still reeking of beer. You’ll pretend to agree with her when she says she thought it would be good for you to have some alone time.

At 30, you’ll be remarried and expecting your first child. She’ll live across the country, and she won’t come. You’ll cry to your helpless, sweet husband while you’re in the throes of labor that no, you don’t want more medicine or a drink, or for him to rub your back. All you want is your mom and nobody can even get her on the phone. She’ll never lay eyes on you when you’re pregnant, either time.

Years will go by, the same, jagged patterns carving out a tired rut. You’ll have insomnia and you’ll blame it on motherhood and being so busy and some kind of anxiety thing, but you’ll know the truth. Nighttime is reserved for worrying about her. You’ll make sure your phone is on because you know that someday, the call will come, and it will come in the middle of the night, but somehow, maybe not, if you don’t go to sleep.

If you don’t sleep, you can keep your world propped up, and hers, too.

Somewhere along the line, she’ll own some of it. She’ll actually admit, in plain terms, that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s fucked things up along the way. She’ll detox. She’ll promise to stay sober, but she won’t for long. She’ll be too far gone, too lonely, too far away from everything she knew and threw away.

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her. You’ll overcompensate and coddle your kids too much, but it will be better than her neglect, which you can recognize in hindsight now.

You’ll realize you’ve given up on her when you don’t even cringe when she has manic, hateful fits on Twitter for all your friends to see. It will be like you’ve already mourned her passing. You’ll cling to the good memories you do have of her, back when you were very young, when she didn’t correct people who thought she was your big sister.

But then when you’re 15, cigarette in hand and smirk on her lips, she’ll casually tell you that you were a mistake, one that ruined her life. You’ll try to brush it off, to find some compassion for the younger version of her, pregnant at 16, only a year older than you. “She doesn’t mean it,” you’ll tell yourself.

And maybe she doesn’t, and maybe she loves you, but she will hurt you. She is your mother and she will hurt you deeply and repeatedly until you’re broken, and then she’ll sob that you care nothing about her. Nothing will appease her and nothing will shake her from the chains of victimhood. You will have to watch yourself so you don’t fall into the same patterns.

But know this, too: On the other side of the pain, when you’re well past 30 and a mother yourself and finally brave enough to accept that you have value, when you’re so far past 14 that you can no longer remember it sharply, there is love. You’ll find it everywhere because you have a big heart and relentless, unrealistic hope, and though you will never fully believe it, you’ll deserve the love that emanates from within you. You’ll hold out hope for her, too, to the end.

And I’ll be here waiting, trying to pass some kind of motherly love back to you through time, because you need it now, at 14, and you don’t even know it.

Natalie Kemp is a freelance writer based in the upper Midwest. She is a daughter and a mother, and feels compelled to share the stories that bind us all.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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Midstream

Midstream

WO Midstream ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

They move north and west. The low weight of eggs in their belly propels them. Their bodies move through the saltwater, past the glittering lures of fishermen. They turn and twist until finally, suddenly, they are home.

***

In the morning, I wake up just as Violet begins to stir. I kiss the soft slope beneath her chin, smelling the faint scent of my own milk. She moves into a light sleep cycle, her mouth pulling up into a sliver of a smile.

Her eyes open. Round and blue, they burst with light. She smiles with her whole round face and her eyes half close into little crescent moons. Her mouth turns up to meet them, a crinkle mid-nose. Thin tufts of reddish hair bend in several directions. At just over a year old, she is nothing I expected.

“Hi baby girl,” I whisper.

“Mama!” I hear from downstairs. I ignore the sing-song call of my son for a moment.

“Mama!” He hollers now, his voice louder and coarser.

“Let’s go see Maxie,” I whisper to Violet. Scooping her up, we head down the stairs to Max’s room.

“Hi Mommy!” my four-year-old roars as he runs to greet us. I shift Violet to make room in my arms for Max. Max does a little dance and charges toward us, crashes his way into a hug and begins vigorously rubbing the baby’s head. “Hi Biiiilet!” he greets her.

It is Wednesday, which means that my husband left for an early meeting before the rest of us were even awake. The day stretches ahead of us, unstructured. We parade down to the kitchen, my focus set on procuring coffee. Violet clings to my hip like a koala cub. “I wannnn booberries!” Max whines, trailing after me. I wannnn coffee, I think. For a second, I think of the days before I had children. Sweet quiet moments with my journal and a cup of coffee. No one clutching at my body or barking demands.

“I wannnn booberries!” Max repeats. Do we have blueberries? I wonder.

“Can you use your regular voice please? I can’t understand you when you whine,” I lie.

“IIIII wannnnn booberries!” he yells. I take a deep breath and set my half-filled coffee mug down and plop Violet onto the floor.

“MAMA!” she protests. Her arms lift toward me in a V her face crumpling.

“Just a second, Vi,” I sigh.

“I wannn Dada!” Max shrieks. Me too.

It is 7:15a.m. There are about twelve hours to fill until bedtime.

***

Each August just as the stores were starting to display number two pencils and Trapper Keepers, my mom, dad, brother and I drove out to the cluster of streams near Juneau, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. In the shadow of the glacier, a receding mountain of ice that varies from a cool blue to dirty grey, we watched the spawning sockeye salmon. We’d tromp down a short dirt trail towards a stream, my dad holding the prickly Devil’s Club bushes out of our way with his jacket. The four of us stared into the water, trying to spot the fish. My dad, who was as at home in the Alaskan soil as he was behind the desk at his insurance agency, was always the first to point out the salmon. At first, all I saw were slippery, mossy rocks or an errant pine branch leaning into the stream. But after a few minutes, our eyes adjusted and we could see that the water was clogged with fish, their green heads and red bodies a surprise splash of Christmas in the ebbing summer.

A few weeks later, we would head out to the glacier for another glimpse at the salmon. This time, the fish that were still alive were tattered. The vibrant reds and greens that had bloomed to attract mates had faded. Their fins were mangy, their bodies battered by the rocks and the current. When it is time to breed, the salmon stop eating and devote what is left of their life force to propelling the babies they will never meet into the wet world. My brother and I would point out all the dead ones floating in the shallow streams or beached on the rocky banks. “There’s one! Gross!” we’d say, plugging our noses against the overripe stench of fish.

We peppered my dad with questions.

“Why do they have to die after they lay eggs?”

“Why do they smell so gross?”

“How do they find their way back to this exact stream where they were born?”

“Nobody really knows,” my dad said, his eyes moving from the fish to the mountains stretching above the stream. Last year’s dusting of snow at the mountaintops had only just melted; soon it would start to collect again. My dad’s eyes roamed the mountains as if the answers were buried somewhere in the green and brown. “Nobody really knows.”

***

“Why are you stopping, Mama?” Max asks from the backseat. It’s late morning, and in an attempt to break up the day, we’re out for groceries and gas.

“Because there’s a red light.”

“But why?”

“Because…because we have to take turns with the other cars,” I say.

“But why? Why, Mom?”

“So we don’t get in an accident, Maxie.”

“Oh,” he says, and for a slip of a second, he is quiet. Blissfully quiet.

Sitting at the red light, I practice the breath we do sometimes in yoga, breathing in for three counts and out for five. Two, three, fo-

“Mom! Why is the gym there?”

“I don’t know. It just is.”

“Why is Bilet asleep?”

“Because babies need lots of sleep,” I sigh. Because she was tired of listening to your questions and plummeted into the sweet release of slumber. I pull up to the gas station.

“Why are you going here?” he asks.

“I’m going to put some gas in the car, Maxie. I’ll be right back.”
“But wh—”

I close the door a bit more forcefully than necessary. Breathing in the rich smell of spilled gasoline, I glance at Max through the window. He is smiling at me. His lips are still moving.

Max’s whys are exhausting, and the lack of quiet is maddening. But there is something more. Each “why” brings a small, orange burst of panic. It’s the same panic I’ve felt when starting a new job, when I am getting to know someone I admire, or when I realize I still haven’t learned to cook: the fear that I am a complete fraud and will soon be found out. How long will it be until he’s asking me the questions I truly can’t answer—questions about why people do bad things, why do people have to die, why will the sun someday burn out? Through the car window I can see my son’s beautiful blue eyes, full of complete trust that I know the answers to all his questions. He has no doubt that I am lightly holding his world.

***

Science, like my father, has been unable to completely explain how the salmon find their way back—against the current and all odds—to the very stream where they hatched. Some believe that the fish can smell their way home, having imprinted the subtle trail of scents on their journey to the sea. Others believe that the earth’s magnetic fields guide them, pulling them home like a magnet.

***

As a child, words were my home. I scrawled poems about rainbows, and curled up in my closet, devouring Judy Blume books. Later, I wanted to be an actress, a therapist, a musician. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree as I traipsed from one major to another, attending four different colleges in three different states. I wrote and stopped, wrote and stopped, never having the courage to commit fully to writing, though it is one of the few things I’ve loved without pause. I’ve worked at a retail women’s boutique and for a professional hockey team. I’ve slung coffee and I’ve temped. I drove from my homeland of Alaska to Maine, where a warm, braided force tugged at me from beneath the cobblestone streets, urging me to land and build a life. At times, I wrote. But facing the blank page often felt like swimming against a fierce current—too painful, too many sharp stones to batter me.

Then, I had children. Fatigue and lack of time edged the words out—and most everything else, too.

***

Like me, the salmon are also changelings. In the winter, they leak into the world from their pink, opaque eggs, already orphaned. Oblivious to the white world above, they burrow into the gravel. They soak in the nutrients from the egg that once held them. They wait for spring.

As they grow, they sprout dark spots and lines for camouflage. Their gills and kidneys morph, preparing for the migration from freshwater to saltwater. They hover near the sea. Their bodies turn iridescent. They enter the ocean, swimming into the unknown.

***

On the days Max is at preschool, Violet and I go for walks through the cemetery. I strap her into a baby carrier, and her eyes widen as they take in the sweeps of green, the yellow bursts of dandelions, the leaning tombstones. When it becomes too much world to take in, she rests her head against my chest. She doesn’t know that I don’t know the answers, that I worry about money, marriage, mortality. That at nearly 40, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. She doesn’t know that I’m not sure if I’m going to turn left up ahead and walk towards the duck pond, or go right at the gravestone encircled with fake flowers and angel statues. But there is the weight of her head, her full white cherub cheeks against my chest. My heart, her first sound. Her eyelids dip and open, dip and open. She slips into sleep. I turn left, towards the raspy call of the ducks.

***

In sixth grade, we had to write about what our life would be like in twenty years. I will have two kids, I wrote. I will mostly wear sweaters and jeans. These turned out to be true. But I also wrote that I would live in Alaska and take my place in the family insurance business.

Maybe, sometimes, we can map out the big milestones of our lives. But there is no way to predict the quirky details: At 38, you will have a torrid, wholly unexpected love affair with Brussels sprouts. You will take a road trip that plunks you down in Portland, Maine. The evil fashion trend of skinny jeans will infect the world. Your son will have the same blue eyes of your brother, who will die at 21. Your daughter will have red hair and skin the color of pale cream.

***

In the sea, in a liquid vastness that dwarfs their home streams, the salmon spend the thick of their lives. They dart from orcas and seagulls. They eat and grow. After a year or two or three of wildness, they retrace their journey. They head home, following the familiar curves of shore, their bodies swiftly adapting from salt water to freshwater, from a wide life back to a narrow one.

***

Today, between waking and bedtime:

One dance party to Footloose, two to Gangnam Style.

Max pulls his pants down in front of my dad, shakes his bum and says, “I’m going to poop all over Papa!” before laughing hysterically.

Max refuses to get in his car seat after preschool. I sit in the front seat to wait as he cackles and attempts to launch himself into the passenger seat next to me. My blood boils.

Violet takes a handful of stilted steps before plopping herself belly up on a beanbag, like lazy royalty.

“Gentle,” I say to Max. Twenty-three times.

One moment where Violet blows on a little yellow piece of plastic like a horn. This makes Max laugh, which makes Violet laugh. They spray spittle on each other. They are a small pair of insane people, and I melt.

How easily the salmon seem to shift gears, how they shape-shift, while I still flounder from the shock of parenthood. From the jolting pace of the days, the stop-start of tantrums and hugs, vicious boredom and sweet toddler skin.

***

They make their way home. Slowly, steadily. Perhaps the vibration of home echoes in their small, electric hearts, pulling them north. At the end of their journey, just before they breed and die, their fins go crimson. Their heads turn pine green. They brighten, ready to mate.

Afterwards, they are brittle and wasted. But they are home. They are completing what they were born to do, fulfilling their fate.

***

As the sun retreats, I glance around the living room. Peanut butter is smeared across Max’s face, hands and the couch. A small smudge stiffens a tuft of Violet’s hair. The floor is strewn with trains with little grey faces, popcorn seeds, and, not surprisingly, a small army of ants. My husband sits in his chair, still in his work clothes, absorbed in his iPad.

My husband and I used to go to the movies. We used to talk to each other. I used to move so often that I kept the boxes to anything I owned that was electric. Ten years have passed in a breath and suddenly we have two kids and a house and we are tired.

Tired and lost. My mind is full of half-finished goals: organize our finances, learn to cook, de-clutter the house, write a book. I feel like I am swimming upstream. I miss the wide, wild sea, the taste of salt on my lips.

How do the salmon do it? How do they find their way home without signs? Without anyone to tell them they are moving in the right direction, to bear left here, to steer clear of that stream over there? How do I know if I’m doing anything right? When there is no supervisor at the end of the day to say, “Hey, nice work today.” Or, “Um, it looks you could use some help over here.” If the kids are alive, somewhat clean and somewhat fed, I guess it’s a successful day. But there’s no one to tell me that, no sign.

***

And then, sometimes, there is. At the mall the other day with Violet, I pushed her stroller, the blare of music and lights exhausting us both. As her eyes opened and closed, attempting sleep, I stopped to glance at the mall directory. Amidst the blocks of stores, doorways and bathrooms, I spied a small yellow triangle. You are here.

I often feel lost and irritated, and my jeans have unidentifiable smears on them. But if I pull back from the map, I can see I am somewhere in the middle of a lovely, twisty, hard maze of a life. I am a right turn past here, a zig-zag short of there. My life is not circular like the salmon; I am not consciously predestined. But I am making my way, sometimes pushing upstream, sometimes easing through salty seas. If I can remind myself that I only need to follow the next curve of shore, I am okay. I made my way from Alaska to Maine, from alone to tethered. My body carried two babies and now they are here. Now we are here.

And now, finally, they are sleeping. Their sweet pink mouths suck, a body memory of comfort, of home. Of me. Their faces, round and soft, are constellations I could have never envisioned. Blue-eyed, creamy-cheeked and dimpled, they are my little moons. They look like the future: different than I would’ve imagined and lovely. Dreams wind through their heads, unseen and unknown to me; already they are separate, already they are full of mystery. My fingers find the keys and softly click. I breathe and wait for the magnetic pull in my chest, in my fingertips. The copper smell of rocky streams. And like the salmon, as I begin, I remember: It is words that ground me, that pull me home. You are here.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the Elephant Journal and blogs for Huffington Post. She also has pieces in the anthologies Clash of the Couples and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor.

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Motherhood is a Relationship

Motherhood is a Relationship

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Once upon a time, way back in The Olden Days, when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark, the Cold War was just ended, and Rodney King was wondering why we couldn’t all just get along, I wanted to have a baby.

So have a baby I did, and less than two years later I had another, and while I wasn’t naïve enough to think that raising children would be easy, neither did I recognize the potential for gut-wrenching agony in the whole enterprise.

Thank God I didn’t know then what I know now.

I was young and insecure and married to the wrong man, so it’s not like I started parenting strong, and I felt all the social pressures that many new moms feel: am I doing enough? Have I given them the best? I loved my kids deeply (they were very easy to love), but I was tormented by anxiety over whether or not I was a good mom, in spite of the fact that they were healthy and happy.

I experienced no real counter-pressure to this angst. The books, magazines, and websites that would deliver new messages about good enough parenting hadn’t begun to show up, and I wasn’t strong or self-aware enough to intuit it myself.

Here’s the problem: I thought of mothering as an endeavor, a thing to do. Growing up as I did in the wake of Women’s Liberation, I heard pundits talk about whether women should have paid employment or stay home with their kids. Gloria Steinem said that every mother is a working mother. Oprah said stay-at-home-moms are the hardest working people in the world.

So there I was, in a cracker box house with two breathtakingly wonderful babies, and I figured those babies were mine to keep perfect or destroy. I could do a good job, or I could botch it.

Raising children is, like life, nothing if not complex, and during 1997 I went from married, stay-at-home-mom to working, college student, single mom. I was wracked anew with anxiety over my kids’ well being. I felt guilty over divorcing their dad, and even guiltier over being relieved at the end of that ugly, painful marriage.

In the meantime, I enjoyed my work and loved my classes. In choosing courses and writing papers, I was drawn to topics of motherhood over and over again, and as I read fiction, poetry, memoir, and sociological research, I examined my own experience of mothering and being mothered.

In all that examination of motherhood, I started to see both my mom and myself, and our maternal roles, in new ways. Mothers serve children, but mothers are not their children’s servants. There is work involved in caring for and raising children, but motherhood is not really about the work.

My best memories of my mom, and the times when I knew I was at my best as a mom, had to do not with the work of mothering, but with our relationships. When I came in from school and told my mom how my first boyfriend had gone out and found himself a new girlfriend without informing me, she was aghast and furious (the best possible response) and sat next to me on the couch, passing me a nearly endless succession of tissues while I cried. When I was four, she did my hair up in rollers at my request. After she took the rollers out she brushed my hair hard and said, “Oh, this isn’t good at all. You’re very glamorous but you don’t look like my little Adrienne like this,” and I felt special and extraordinary because my mom liked me best the way I was.

Likewise, with my own children, the best experiences have been the ones when we’re together without an agenda: reading stories with wacky voices, deep conversations on long drives, impromptu dancing in the kitchen, or lounging in bed with our dogs.

Motherhood has lots of work attached to it, of course. There is school registration to do and clarinet lessons to be arranged and soccer cleats to buy. There are books about discipline to be read and decisions to be made and the endless harassing of children to clean their rooms, come home by curfew, and empty the dishwasher. If there is a child with special needs in the mix, there is infinitely more work to be done.

Even with all that work, motherhood is first and foremost a relationship, and how lucky for us, that we get to know these people we brought into our families. I have never met people more fascinating than the ones who call me mom.

Twenty years into this thing we call motherhood, I’ve had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for becoming a mother when I was so very young and unprepared for it. Some of those reasons were selfish or morally ambiguous and aren’t nice to consider, but the motivation at the bottom of all of them, the one that came from my best self, was this: I was curious. I wanted to know what my children would be like, who they would be in the world. I wanted to experience the kind of relationships motherhood would bring.

There has been more pain in motherhood than I could have contemplated, and I’m convinced that, had I known, I’d never have done it. Thank God I didn’t know, because the world without these people who are my children would be a much emptier place. My relationships with my mother and my children are at the center of my life, and good relationships are the foundation of a good life.

I wouldn’t trade any of them.

Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style [nopointsforstyle.com].

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Cancer Revisited

Cancer Revisited

Michael B-Day 3By Mary Ann C. Palmer

I.

I was little, just five years old, alone in my bed, lying on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin; eyes wide open. The sharp scent of night seeped in through my bedroom window. I wanted my mother. But that was impossible. She had died a few months earlier and I was living with my Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe. My room filled with shadows. I couldn’t swallow; it was as if a hand was grabbing my neck. My heart raced, thumping hard against my back. My thoughts were shouting at me. Within minutes, I was swallowed whole by fear. I jumped out of bed and ran to Uncle Joe screaming.

 

“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said. But I knew I was awake. I knew it. This scene repeated itself. I would learn later that I was having panic attacks.

I practiced not crying over my mother. I practiced how to bury my feelings. The events, however, were stenciled in my memory, not fully formed, but etched there just the same.

***

I would sit on my mom’s lap; just the two of us on our living room sofa, she clapped my four-year old hands together and sang, “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why…” I giggled and collapsed into her soft blue cotton robe. I nuzzled in as close as I could, inhaling the soft powdery scent of the skin on her neck. She must have just taken a bath because her hair was wrapped in a twisted towel. Then Nanny, my mommy’s mom, called me for lunch. I skipped into the kitchen.

***

I stood by the window in my brother’s room with my mom. She was dressed but wearing the twisted towel on her head that she always wore now. We watched from the fourth floor as my 8-year-old brother Gary, in his yellow slicker, walked out into the rain, down six steps–one, two, three, four, five, six we counted together–and then down the block on his way to school. We sang, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…” Just mommy and me.

***

Wandering into the bedroom I shared with my mom and dad, the crib I still slept in tucked behind the bedroom door, I looked for Poochy, my well-loved stuffed dog with floppy ears, but I couldn’t find him. I looked everywhere. I finally found him on my mother’s dressing table, right next to one of her bras. The bra looked funny to me, one side was filled with something. Why does mommy have wood in her bra, I wondered. Somehow I knew not to ask. So many things were secret now.

***

Aunt Anne, who’d been around a lot lately, had to leave before my grandma got here. “Will you be okay?” she asked my mom. Why wouldn’t she be okay, I thought. Aunt Anne left. My mom was sitting in my dad’s upholstered armchair in her blue robe and the twisty towel on her head. I sat on the arm of the chair to get closer to her. She was very quiet, and then I noticed tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mommy, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer; she just kept crying. Grownups aren’t supposed to cry. So I cried, too. I was scared, like when I was sure monsters were under my crib. But then my mom’s tears stopped. She put her hand under my chin and said, “Why don’t you go get your doll out of her carriage and show me how you can change her diaper.”

***

While my mom was sick, I spent more time with my grandma and her sisters. We went to Prospect Park and one day we even went to see the Statue of Liberty. After our outings, I remember opening the door to our apartment and looking straight through the living room to the bedroom to see the shape of my mother’s legs under the blankets through her partially opened door. I was always happy to come home to her. I loved my grandma and aunts, but I wanted to be with Mommy.

***

Dad lifted me, limp as a rag doll, out of my crib. My head rolled onto his shoulder. He carried me out to the living room. My brother Gary was already up, sitting in his pajamas on the floor, playing with his Legos. I was placed down next to him. My grandparents and a priest were sitting on the sofa. The priest went into the bedroom with my dad.

Gary and I played with his Legos. We made leprechaun houses out of the little white bricks. We made little cots for them out of folded pieces of paper. I didn’t see the leprechauns, but I believed they were there. Gary said they were. I wonder if he knew at 8 years old that if you catch a leprechaun he must grant you three wishes.

I would learn later we only needed one.

***

On my 5th birthday Gary and I were at Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe’s house. Even though my mom and dad weren’t there I was hoping I would have cake. Aunt Florie and Uncle Joe did a lot of whispering that day. Maybe there would be a surprise. And there was. That night all of my relatives came over—aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was late. “I’m five now,” I thought, “so I guess I get to stay up late.” I never had a birthday party at night, and never with so many relatives.   Everyone was dressed up, wearing black. My Aunt’s high heels clicked on the gray and white linoleum floor. The basement party room was smoky from cigarettes and cigars. Ice clinked in highball glasses. I pretended my Mary Jane’s were tap shoes as I made my way around the room. One by one, the adults wished me a happy birthday, then whispered something to each other.

***

The next day Gary and I were brought to stay with one of my aunt’s sisters; I didn’t know her but she and her husband were nice to us. Their grown-up daughter was there. She sold costume jewelry and she let me choose a ring from a big blue velvet tray. It was a long day. When we finally went home, I was surprised to see our living room filled with relatives, but the first thing I looked for were my mom’s legs under the blankets in her bed. She was not there and the bed was neatly made.

My father called me to sit on his lap. I asked him where Mommy was. “She went to heaven,” he said. I didn’t know where heaven was.

“When is she coming back?” I asked.

“She can’t come back,” he answered.

“Why not? I want to show her my new ring,” I said.

“If she comes back, she’ll be sick again. You don’t want that, do you?”

I knew it would be selfish to want my mom to be sick again. This was a big decision to make. I sobbed. The adults tried to get me to stop. “Look,” they said. “Gary stopped crying.” I tried to see reason in that, but I couldn’t. I shut down. I stopped crying. And did not cry again. “Look how good she is,” everyone said.

***

I wished my family had told me the truth. When I was old enough to read I found one of my mother’s funeral cards with my birth date on it. I realized the late night birthday gathering was not for me; it was for my mom. I still didn’t cry. So what should have been loss and grief morphed into fear and worry. I continued to have panic attacks. I worried about getting cancer my whole life, even as a child. Every little lump or bump was cause for alarm. And then I did get cancer, ovarian cancer, when my youngest child, Michael, was four. I became my mother, and Michael became me. But I thought I could do it better. I could protect this four-year old. I see now I was naïve. Caught up in my own fight, I didn’t fully see at the time what Michael saw.

II.

At 37, I had surgery for what was supposed to be a benign tumor. It wasn’t. When I got home from the hospital I explained to Michael I had a tumor in my belly, and I had had an operation to remove it.

“What’s a tumor?” he asked.

“It’s like a little ball inside my belly that’s not supposed to be there.”  I explained that I had to take strong medicine to make sure I got all the way better and the medicine would make me feel sick.

I couldn’t use the word cancer. I would fall apart. I knew it was very important not to cry in front of Michael. My mom tried not to cry in front of me, but she did, leaving me frightened and helpless, too little to understand.

***

 I crept into the bathroom, holding the wall for balance, trying not to wake my husband Bob. The night was slanted, unfocused. I pulled myself up to the bathroom sink, balanced myself with one hand on the counter and adjusted my blue turban with the other. I looked in the mirror, half expecting to see my mother’s face gazing back at me. A wave of weakness passed through me; I needed to get back to bed before I passed out. I took small steps and deep breaths. I almost reached the foot of the bed when I collapsed. The fall at that point was almost a decision; I just didn’t have the strength to do this anymore. Bob rushed to me. I was still conscious, sprawled on the floor, and aware my turban had landed a few feet from me. Bob ran down the steps, returning with his mom and dad still in their pajamas, panic in their faces. Bob called ahead to the hospital, scooped me up and rushed with me to the car, his mother following with a blanket for me before she went back to the house. I was grateful she was there to take care of Michael. In the morning, she would tell him I went back to the hospital and get him ready for school. But I later learned Michael woke up first, padded up the stairs to my bedroom in his little blue feety pajamas to look for me, and I was gone. It wasn’t the first time.

I came home from the hospital that afternoon. I had been severely dehydrated, again, and was given IV fluids. Michael ran to me as soon as I got inside the house and hugged me with his whole body. His arms and body not quite enough, he wrapped one leg around me as well. He followed me upstairs, sat on the carpet in front of my bed and watched Ninja Turtles, his favorite show, while I slept.

***

A week later I had a fever. The chemo depleted my white blood cells, leaving me susceptible to serious infection. When my temperature reached 103; I called my doctor.

“Come to the hospital,” he said. “Enter through the emergency room and I will meet you there.”

It was early afternoon. Bob was coming to pick me up but I needed to make arrangements for Michael. Bob’s parents had gone back home to Clinton, NY, seven hours away. Michael would be home from nursery school soon. I called my friend Celeste.

“Can you take Michael?” I asked.

She always said yes. It was never even a question. Michael blended in easily with her five children. Five or six didn’t make a difference to her. But it mattered to Michael. “Mommy, I don’t want to be with Celeste. I want to be with you.”

***

I lay on the sofa watching Michael play as the late afternoon sun angled into the living room through our greenhouse, now empty. I no longer had the strength to tend the geraniums and spider plants. Hunched over on his feet and hands, Michael trotted around the living room. He occasionally scampered over and put his head on my tummy. I’d pat his head, and tell him he was a good little dog. He panted; I giggled. He was not just pretending to be a dog; he actually believed he was one. Michael embodied his fantasies; it was one of the things I loved most about him.

I waited for Eugénia and Ely to arrive, two of my best friends from when we lived in East Hampton. Older and nurturing, I looked forward to their company. When they arrived they were visibly alarmed by what they found: a too thin, exhausted woman laying on the sofa, a little boy playing at her feet. I was actually feeling pretty good that day, happy to be spending time with Michael. Eugénia immediately went to the kitchen to make me something to eat. Ely sat with me. As we talked Michael galloped in and out of the room, letting out the occasional bark. Our conversation faded as we focused on Michael playing, so obviously joyful, creating his own little world. Then Ely said, “Who knows how this is going to affect him.”

***

Eight months passed; it was time for my final surgery. I had prepared Michael over the past few days as best I could for the separation. The day I was due at the hospital I showered, dressed, adjusted my wig, and went downstairs to say goodbye. Michael was still sleeping. I woke him up. I didn’t want him to find me gone in the morning again.

“Michael, sweetie. I’m leaving for the hospital now.” He looked stunned. His eyes filled up as he clung to me.

“Why are you always in the hospital?” I held back my tears and told him I’d be home soon and in the meantime Grandma was going to take him to the Nature Center to see the owls. I knew from my four-year-old self that distraction only worked in the moment, but doesn’t touch the fear and anxiety. The talking we had done about mommy leaving hadn’t made any sense to him; only the visceral was real, the separation. Still, I thought, he can handle this.

***

The year ended. I survived. On a warm, sunny day in April, Michael turned five. His fifth birthday would be very different than mine had been. I gave him a black standard poodle puppy we named Harpo, who would become his constant companion for the next 15 years. We had birthday cake and he blew out the candles. Michael’s whole family attended the party—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, not unlike all the relatives at my fifth birthday. But my birthday marked the end of my young life as I had known it. I would never see my mother again. Michael didn’t understand at the time, but he had what he wanted most for his birthday, the same thing I had wanted but didn’t get. Mommy.

***

Michael’s panic attacks started that summer.  From our front porch, I saw my husband running up the long driveway carrying him. They had been out for a walk, holding hands and scouting for dogs, Michael’s favorite pastime even though he had his own dog now.

“Michael’s hyperventilating,” he said as he ran to meet me. I looked at Michael, gasping for air, his eyes frantic, pupils dilated. I recognized the panic. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a paper bag.

“Breathe into this, Michael,” I said as I held the bag around his nose and mouth. He began to relax, his breathing slowed.

This would be the first of many panic attacks, the trigger obvious. I thought I had protected him. I did all the things my mother was not able to do: I had explained I was sick. I made sure he saw a child psychologist once a week. And I lived. Michael did not lose his mother.

But had I really protected Michael? He saw me rushed out of the house for emergency treatments. He saw me throw up in the kitchen sink because I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. He saw me wearing a turban on my head, just like the one my mom wore. He saw me lying on the couch for the better part of a year, and he saw the shape of me in bed, my legs under the blankets when he ran up the stairs to my room.

“Leave mommy alone. Let her rest,” I had heard his grandma say again and again.

Michael saw what I saw when I was four. I couldn’t prepare him for separation during a time of such intimate mother-child bonding. I couldn’t prepare him for the loss of routine, for the comfort of his mother kissing a scraped knee or lying down next to him at night to protect him from the monsters under his bed. Four-year olds can’t merge reason and emotion. I’m not sure anyone can.

Author’s Note: A child is born and we pray he or she will be safe and healthy and that we will live to see that child grow. We imagine a charmed life for this little boy or girl. A life free from harm and the traumas and mistakes of our own childhood. Then life happens. That is how the child really grows.

Mary Ann is currently writing a memoir about coming through life’s adversities with love, hope and spirit intact. “Cancer Revisited,” taken from that memoir, marks her first published essay. Mary Ann has worked as a book editor and tutor and currently is the owner of Synchrony LLC, a boutique agency specializing in web development and online marketing.

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Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Holly Rizzuto Palker Interviews Jessica Strawser on her debut novel, Almost Missed  You.

Jessica Strawser Book CoverALMOST MISSED YOU by Jessica Strawser, is an intriguing novel involving a husband and two-year-old son disappearing while on a family vacation. I’m not sure how Jessica created this deliciously suspenseful book with so much else on her plate (she is the Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and she and her very supportive husband are the parents of two children under age five).

As a mother to three young children myself,  I couldn’t help but catch up with Jessica to ask her some questions about her novel, her family, and her writing journey.

1. One of the most horrific experiences I can imagine would be for one of my children to go missing. What specific parenting moment sparked the idea for your premise?

Fortunately, there was no parenting moment that sparked the idea for my premise, but rather it grew out of a fascination with the idea of “meant to be” and the role of good/bad timing in an otherwise fated relationship. I wanted the relationship to be called into question in a way that would blindside everybody, and that’s where the more horrific premise of the husband running off with the child came from.

2. I’m sure you struggle with the balance between career performance and being a good mom. What makes a good mom?

I think every parent struggles with this, and I certainly wouldn’t hold myself up as an authority on what makes a good mom, though I do so try to be one. I always tell my children that being their mom is my most important job—they know where I stand. All any of us can do is love our children, keep their best interests at the forefront of our minds, and do our best.

3. What experience did you draw on or scenario did you imagine that gave you the ability to believably portray the anguish Violet must’ve felt when she discovered Bear was missing?

I think it would be all too easy for any mother to imagine that anguish—it’s one of the topmost comments I’ve gotten from readers so far, in fact.

4. Violet learns a lot about Finn throughout the course of your novel. Have you ever been in a relationship where you discovered you really didn’t ‘know’ the person. How did this affect you?

I’ve heard stories along those lines from people I know, and of course have read them from strangers, but fortunately it isn’t something I’ve experienced myself. Really there was very little in this novel that was autobiographical, which is part of what made it so enjoyable to write. I had an earlier, unsold novel that was inspired in part by a tragic circumstance in real life, and that writing took an emotional toll. I can also acknowledge from a craft standpoint that I may have been too close to the material. It was freeing, after years on that project, to write something that was pure imagination.

5. What is your view about the treatment of mental illness in America?

I took enough psychology credits for a minor when I was in journalism school, which of course covered only the tip of the iceberg, but certainly we could all benefit from more awareness and more support.

6. The name Bear is very unique. Why did you choose it for Violet’s child?

I just like the name, though Bear Grylls (the outdoor survival expert) is the only one I know of in real life. Some early reviewers have randomly noted their dislike for the name and so I suppose it’s lucky I didn’t choose it for either of my real children!

7. You write wistfully about Asheville, NC. When in your life did you spend time there? Was it a visit or did you live there for an extended period?

I have only visited Asheville, mostly en route to points further south from Cincinnati, but it’s one of my favorite places. Statistically (if I’m not mistaken), they have more sunny days than anywhere else in our region of the country, and I love the art and the nature and the mountain air and the music and the whole warm feel of the town. Any chance I get to stop there for a night, I do.

8. How did you seamlessly weave the non-linear structure and various points of view together in ALMOST MISSED YOU? Why did you choose to use these devices?

In order to get the whole story in ALMOST MISSED YOU, we need all three perspectives, because no one character knows the whole story at the outset. It was great fun trying to discern which points of view were key to reveal certain pieces and to put them all together like a puzzle. I’m not an outliner, and I had only a general idea of where I was going when I started, but I’d write whatever scene was most vivid to me, regardless of chronological order, and then later I made myself a timeline and better tracked the reveals at the revision stage.

9. How did you keep the reader in suspense while still giving her enough information to stay hooked?

I was hyper aware of what was being revealed and when, both to the other characters and to the reader, particularly in the revision stages. I also wanted to leave certain things to the reader’s imagination, to really invite the reader to participate in the world of the story.

10. I can barely find more than a few minutes to write each day with my busy family life. How and when were you able to finish this book with two young children running around and a full-time job?

I write mostly when they’re asleep and the house is quiet. It does take a lot of discipline, as I’m often tired myself, but I also have a wonderfully supportive spouse who helps to pick up the slack on nights when I guiltily shut the door to my writing room with the kitchen still not quite cleaned up from dinner.

11. How did your commitment to writing this book affect your family?

I wanted to show my children that it’s possible to go after a lifelong dream and achieve it, that hard work pays off, and that the creation of books (which they dearly love—bedtime stories are our mutual favorites) is a beautiful thing. The book is dedicated to them, and my oldest, at least, who (at five years old) is more able to understand what’s happening, is enormously proud. I think he was more excited when my author copies arrived than I was!

12. Which women’s fiction authors influenced you?

I’m influenced by authors across all genres, some of my favorites being Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, David Sedaris, Maggie O’Farrell and Alice Walker.

13. How long did it take you to write ALMOST MISSED YOU from your first word on paper to publication?

This summer will mark three years since I began my first draft.

14. How often do you write and for how many hours?

It depends on what kind of deadline I’m on (or what kind of roll I’m on—sometimes I’ll take a whole vacation day from my full-time job just to write in a quiet house), but typically 5 days a week, at least, most often for 90 minutes to two hours a day.

15. What did you edit out of this book?

This book was a rare case for me where the editing involved a lot more adding than cutting. Typically, it’s the other way around, but in this case, I can’t think of anything of note that was cut.

16. How does your career as the editor of Writer’s Digest shape the way you wrote ALMOST MISSED YOU?

Consider that in the course of editing Writer’s Digest, I’ve read each issue cover to cover no fewer than five times—that’s earnest, thorough repetition of written instruction and inspiration that has fueled my writing in ways both intentional and subconscious. The many conversations I’ve had along the way with bestselling authors (for the cover interviews I often conduct) and our contributing writing instructors alike have given me access to some of the best insights into the writing life around, straight from the sources. I could hardly underestimate its influence on me, and my work there has certainly been an asset to my writing life outside of the office.

Holly Rizzuto Palker is freelance writer and novelist. Her essays have appeared in Newsday and Kveller. She teaches movement and drama to children at a local pre-school while raising three of her own children. She’s working on a novel about an American expat living in London. Connect with her on twitter and at www.hollyrizzuto.com

 

 

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The Other Way Around

The Other Way Around

imagesBy Elizabeth Richardson Rau

I am the mother of the kid you are probably afraid of. The one that you heard other kids used to buy pot from. Yours bought from him, too, yet you refuse to admit that, and I understand why. Pretend hope is much easier than unpleasant reality. I have never been the “not my kid” mom who would rather not know because the repercussions had not yet come home to roost. For a time, that was someone else’s problem. Until it became mine.

Now you look the other way when you pass me on the street and whisper about me in the grocery checkout line. You are relieved it is not your kid who got into trouble the way mine did. You are sure it’s because you are a better mother; more involved and on top of things than me. These are the lies that mothers tell themselves right before the other shoe drops right in the middle of a perfectly manicured, freshly mowed lawn.

I didn’t ignore my son’s fall from grace or handle it privately so as to spare the community any adolescent unpleasant reality. Most moms like things neat and tidy for appearances sake; those unfortunate things happen to other people.  I, on the other hand, wanted to spare another mother my nightmare and get support for my son; a fine young man who had lost his way. My brutal divorce paired with my kids’ father’s open hatred of me was the catalyst for my son’s descent into substance abuse. Yet I stayed strong and positive for their sakes—no one else was. Isn’t that what we do as mothers—fill in life’s holes so our kids don’t trip in one and disappear?

He slept on your basement floor for years, when he was clean-cut and dressed a certain way. Now he is sporting platinum, knotty dreadlocks and prefers not to shave. He looks homeless, I tell him. He thinks he looks rad. It is a phase, like when he wore all black when he started skateboarding. We celebrated together when he asked for a pink shirt for his 11th birthday. But that phase was different. That was before. Now he’s on that list of kids you don’t want your own kids around—the ones with the reputations. You hadn’t met many of them personally, but you just knew, because you had heard things. Now you are the one saying those same things. About my child. The boy you’ve known since he was 6-years-old.

Some of the things you say are true. Most of them are not. The night my son overdosed on a combination of non-lethal drugs, your son was right alongside him doing it, too. He lied to you, I know; that you need to believe him, I understand. My son is the same boy inside that he’s always been—kind, funny, smart and gentle. And now battling severe depression, perhaps because you’re all afraid of the Hester Prynne-like A on his chest. He’s still respectful at school, has a part-time job, skateboards past your house and waves, even though you ignore him and break his heart. And mine. He’s the same kid you took with you on vacation and cheered for from the lacrosse bleachers. He’s still that kid. I am still the mom who loves him and would die for him without hesitation.

I suppose you are still that mom, too. Though, you’re the fair weathered kind, who hung around when times were just tough enough that you could be supportive, but not so tragic that it might affect your social status. You’ve taught your kids to be the same type of people. I know because they turn and walk the other way if they see me coming. I have the disease of life’s reality and it just might be catching. I understand. I do. Fear is powerful. But love even more so. Thank you for inspiring me to show my children how to love, even when those on the receiving end might not seem so deserving. This is when people need love the most—when they face their greatest hardships. Thank you modeling how not to behave towards others who are less fortunate or are struggling through the unimaginable. Appearances really are deceiving because it is not you who should be afraid of my kid; it is actually the other way around.

Elizabeth Richardson Rau is a single mother of two children living in central Connecticut. She earned her B.A. In communications from Simmons College and her M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and a certified domestic violence victims advocate.

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Beyond the Red Pencil Skirt

Beyond the Red Pencil Skirt

silhouette girl portrait

Letters to Our Younger Selves,  is our new column where readers write letters to their younger selves with insight and perspective. Submit your letter here and you may be published in Brain Child.

By Tina Porter

Dear Tina at 25,

We are about to turn 55, are married and have three daughters—the oldest of whom is almost your age. I’m watching her life from afar now as she tries to find her place in the world. I can’t help but draw comparisons to who I was at her age, sometimes so viscerally I have to remind myself that I am, in fact, a middle-age woman.

And maybe that’s why I need to chat with you right now. You are about to do something dangerous and I want to give you a glimpse of what is on the other side of that moment.

Right now, you are working in a job you hate (working for lawyers whose only task is to reduce the amount of money insurance companies pay people who are injured or sick) and living in a place you never thought you’d go back to (your home town, which you swore held nothing for you at eighteen and now, seems to offer even less). You drift from happy hours after work with people you barely know to dinners at your mom’s house with all of your siblings and their myriad children. You feel like an outsider wherever you go, which is not something new to you, but now, at twenty-five, you decide it is a permanent condition. You are an odd domino at a chess match.

Yes, it’s a spoiler, but I need you to know that on the other side of this dangerous moment you are about to embark on, you will meet and marry a man who loves you enough to share his life with you. Yes, there will be times when you will continue to be a weird outsider, but he will be there through it all, loving you and (almost) all the weird bits you bring to life.

I want you to hang onto this truth: that someone loves you this much and this long because the dangerous thing you are about to do doesn’t come from the depression that is consistently grabbing you by the tailbone and pulling you down.

No, it comes from the place that is certain you are neither loved nor lovable. You don’t have the capacity right now to imagine a world where you are loved and cherished. You feel distanced from your family more so now that you are back living in your hometown than you did when you lived in Los Angeles. You haven’t yet experienced having children of your own, so you haven’t a clue how much energy all that takes, so your siblings’ distraction makes you feel all that much more alone and unloved.

But I’m here to tell you now that all of that is only temporary. I hear myself tell my daughters the same thing these days and they don’t believe me any more than you probably do. But it is temporary.

One of the reasons it may be hard for you to see the ephemeral nature of your pain is that you are drinking a lot. I wish I could tell you to stop drinking right now, or at least cut way back, and you would hear me. Instead, I’ll ask you to pay attention to the good people in your life who express their worry about your drinking and notice when they leave your life and why.

Speaking of your drinking, let’s get back to the night I want you to focus on, the night you made a half-assed attempt to end your pain and our life.

It will be a Friday night and you will leave the lawyer’s office in your lawyer’s-assistant costume: your red suit, with a tiny white sweater under the shoulder-padded jacket, and your three-and-a-half inch red pumps. You lose the jacket when you get to the bar so everyone can see how good those heels make your legs and ass look. You meet a few coworkers there, but that isn’t why you are there. You are looking for someone to buy you a drink (or seven) and take you home.

Your coworkers peel away at different times and then you find yourself completely alone.

No one wants to buy you a drink. No one wants to take you home.

Already inebriated, you drive yourself home (which, miraculously is NOT the dangerous thing I want to warn you about). You stop at the liquor store and pick up a six-pack of Miller Lite longnecks and head back to your crappy apartment where you set the beer on the Formica table and stare at it for a minute or two. Are you crying? I can’t remember, but most likely yes. You remember the bottle of painkillers your sister left behind last month.

You look from the six-pack to the cabinet where the pills are and make a choice to stop the pain. In your desperation to cease feeling all the feelings (of being lonely, of being unlovable, of being an awkward ass), you swallow the whole bottle and drink all six of the beers in rapid fashion.

You wake up the next day—or is it the day after? You are still wearing the red pencil skirt from Friday night. You endure a week-long hangover. And you tell no one what you did.

I’ve often said my one regret was not going to grad school. But now, thirty years after that night, my biggest regret is not getting the help I needed at twenty-five.

You tried after that night. You haunted the self-help aisle at more than one bookstore and a few Sundays later you slump across the street to the Methodist church and sit in the back pew, weeping. But when that old lady (who was probably 54) tries to talk to you, you run out the back door, across the street, and back into your dark apartment.

But here’s what happens in the weeks and months after that night, when you emerge from the fog from your attempt to die: you start to concoct a plan to leave your hometown (again) in search of the life you envisioned for yourself long before you graduated from college, took that first job, and then ended up in this second one.

By Labor Day, you have left that job, dropped the red pencil skirt and other mementos of your corporate costume at the Goodwill, stuffed your remaining belongings and two cats in the back of your Honda Civic, and moved to Arizona.

There are more bookstores in Tempe, and coffee shops, and not a single person knows you. You start writing again and spend Sundays reading the newspaper in the sun and drink coffee until it is time to drink beer. You stop hearing the voices telling you who you should be and remember who you are. You find yourself at peace with yourself and even joyful at times, as you ride your bike to your new part-time job. This may explain why, only three weeks later, when you meet that man I mentioned, the one you will marry, that he is more than a little receptive to getting to know you. He met you at the moment when you liked who you were and he responded to that.

His love didn’t change everything in you—it never could. The demons of self-loathing and shame have lived so long within you they can’t possibly disappear completely.

But if you’d reached out to a therapist instead of the self-help section, you might have learned earlier the tools that would help you grapple with the ordinary parts of being human: loving, losing, even being an ass. Maybe if you had done so, you might not have spent your life beating yourself up for not being extraordinary, and settled into a satisfying, ordinary life sooner.

Where you are right now, on the cusp of trying to die, you can’t see that you have something to offer that other people will value. But once you learned to love other people precisely because of their weird bits, you start to love you for yours, as well.

You can’t know that you become for others what you always wanted for yourself: the safe, soft place where people can feel exactly what they feel, be exactly who they are, and laugh and cuss and wonder and create.

You become that.

And more.

54

Tina Porter a writer living in Indiana with my husband.You can read more of her writing at:  www.tinalbporter.com.

As writers and mothers we at Brain Child are trying, in this bizarre time, to show each other (and our younger selves) our similarities and our differences with a new perspective. -Francesca Grossman, Column Editor

 

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He Has Autism

He Has Autism

By Jennifer Smyth

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After her 8th birthday party in October, my big hearted, brown eyed daughter, Holly, decided this was the year she wanted to educate her classmates about Autism, and more specifically about her twin brother, Nick.  A petite girl, and classmate, named Emily had been the impetus that chilly fall night, arriving at our house overwhelmed by Nick’s jumping and loud shrieks of excitement, but leaving with an understanding of him.

“Mom, I want to explain Nick to people, but not because he is doing something they think is weird.” She had become an accidental interpreter for her brother, fielding questions such as “Why won’t your brother say hi to me?” or more hurtful ones, “What’s wrong with him?” from peers on the school playground and from strangers at the grocery store, who apparently felt it was OK to turn to my 8-year-old and say, “What’s he so mad about?”

“He has Autism” had been her dump and run response since we had “given” her that response language in kindergarten. But there had been lots of swings, slides and checkout counters since then, and it just wasn’t enough anymore.

“It doesn’t help to say he has Autism, if no one knows what it is. And I don’t like talking about it in front of Nick. I think it hurts his feelings.”  With her teacher’s blessing we chose a Tuesday in April, during Autism Awareness Month, to talk to her class. The night before, I scattered picture books on the dining room table. Kneeling on the chair she leaned forward on her elbows to study each one. Her long brown hair still wet from her bath dripped onto the table as she declared, “This one” with confidence, holding up a brightly illustrated book told from the point of view of a twin sister, whose brother has autism.

“Great choice. Which one of us should read it?” I asked.

“I will,” she said.

Still riding the wave of excitement in the morning, she slid the book into her backpack along with the rubbery blue wristbands with the words Autism Speaks, It’s Time to Listen that we purchased for the class. “I’ll see you in two hours,” I said as she slid out the car door, blowing me a kiss.

Minutes dragged as I cleaned the kitchen and then drove aimlessly up and down streets so I would arrive at just the right time. Waiting outside her classroom door, my stomach churned. Maybe this was a bad idea. What if I cried in front of all these kids? Her teacher, Miss Howard, smiled and welcomed me inside. Holly hid her face in my shoulder and hooked her arm through mine as we situated ourselves on chairs facing the classroom filled with 23 2nd graders who were negotiating their spots on the rug. Emily smiled as she crisscrossed her legs at her chosen location at my feet.

Holly leaned her mouth to my ear, using her hand to shield any would be lip readers, and with a whispery warm breath said, “I don’t want to read by myself, let’s do every other page.” I nodded.

“Some of you have met Holly’s twin brother, Nick. He has Autism, and since April is World Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to share some things with you.” Hands started flying up. Some with extra wiggly fingers as if begging to be called on. “We’re going to start with a book,” I said, as their teacher motioned them to put their hands down. Most of them did. Holding the book up high for everyone to see, Holly read the title “My Brother Charlie” and then the first page. She hesitated, waiting for me to read the next one. “You keep reading,” I said. Her voice grew stronger and steadier with every page. “When we were babies, I pointed out flowers and cats and fireflies … but Charlie was different.” The words of the story could have been her words. It WAS her story. So when she read the line, “One doctor even told Mommy that Charlie would never say ‘I love you'” my throat tightened, I chewed the inside of my mouth and tried to find a point on the wall to stare at, but instead my eyes locked on her teacher who had tears running down her cheeks. Hold it together. This is not about you.

Shutting the book with finality, Holly looked to me. I turned to the class. “Any questions?” Almost every hand went up

“You said it’s hard for him to talk. Does he have a voice box?”

“Does he go to a special school?”

“Is Asperger’s the same as Autism?”

“How does he tell you what he wants?”

They used words like sickness, and disease.

“Will he grow out of it?”

Sitting up straight now and addressing her class, Holly called on students and answered the questions as fast as they were asked. Emboldened by her authority, she went for a little shock value. “He doesn’t get embarrassed like we do. He could walk down the street naked and it wouldn’t bother him.” She giggled when she said it, knowing that she was kind of getting away with something by saying “naked” in her classroom.

And she told the truth. “He will yell and scream when he wants something. It doesn’t matter where he is or who is there. But he’s not a brat, he is sweet. His brain just works different.”

“Noooo,” they protested when Miss Howard announced it was time for recess. Heading towards the classroom door they blurted out the tidbits they still wanted to hear more about as they passed me. Holly had already skipped off with her friends, but there was one boy was hanging back, a sweet class clown of a boy, waiting for my attention.

“Hi Jackson.”

“My grandpa writes poems and there is one I think you would like.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s about a guy who accidentally walks into a spider web and thinks it’s really gross. But then he takes a step back and looks at it and realizes how beautiful it is. Anyway, you might like it.”

“Thank you Jackson. That’s beautiful,” I said, dumbstruck by the deep connection he had made. He ran out the door with the rest of the kids.

The next morning, watching my beautiful spider web of a boy saunter into school, my phone dinged the arrival of an email. It was from Emily’s mom.

Here is a photo I took in Emily’s room. After the Autism Awareness talk she came home and taught her dolls all about it!

There were two notebook pages taped up to an easel. Both had “atsam awarnis” written across the top with bullet points from the class conversation. My favorites were “likes to fluff hair” and “they hear everything you say.”

Emily had never met a child with Autism until she met Nick and since then we have met another family with an Autistic child and I don’t think Emily even blinked. Thank you, Jennifer and Holly for raising awareness.

PS I’ll work on her spelling!

Best,

Mindy

 

Jennifer Smyth is a work in progress. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her wonderful husband and two amazing kids.

 

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Can I Get a Witness?

Can I Get a Witness?

By Brett Paesel

Can I get a Witness ArtI have a three-year-old son, and I’ve come to the conclusion that raising a young child involves long stretches of boredom interrupted by flashes of terror and bursts of supernatural joy–which sounds awfully close to the definition of psychosis. And, also, I am told, combat. One would think that, knowing this, I would send my child off to boarding school and surgically ensure that I never have another child. But no. For a reason I cannot name, I am obsessed with having a second one.

For a year, I pee on all kinds of sticks. Sticks that tell me when I’m ovulating. Sticks that tell me if I’m pregnant. I get crazy about sticks. I buy them in bulk and pee on them even when I’m not ovulating or remotely close to being pregnant. I begin to live by the sticks.

I circle the best days in my date book for getting it on. I wake Pat in the middle of the night for sex. Because the stick says now. Then I lie on my back with my legs propped against the wall until they lose all feeling and fall onto the bed. I wake Pat again, pounding my paralytic legs with my fists.

I read adoption books and daydream about flying to India to pick up a little girl. I even talk to someone who has a baby connection in Nigeria. But I back out when I realize that we communicate only through his beeper and pay phones.

A year of this and no success. I am desperate–driven by a force beyond myself, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I decide to have my doctor run some tests that will tell me a little more about my chances of getting pregnant.

The day I go in for the results of the tests, I wait alone in the lobby. Pat and my son park the car while I sit on a brown leather sectional and start to finger the neatly placed magazines on the glass table in front of me. I consider reading the article on “Ten Things Men Would Like Us to Know.” But I’m not sure I want to know. I look up to see bamboo shoots in a glossy green pot on the corner of the table. Behind them is a painting of the Buddha done by my doctor, Dr. Sammy. He is a Buddhist, which is and is not a good thing in an OB. At his best, he is cool, detached, and amused. At his worst, he is cool, detached, and amused.

When I was looking for a gynecologist, I asked a couple of friends for their recommendations. The first said that she had a great doctor: thorough, no nonsense. “It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, it’s silly, really. It’s just that he has no sense of humor.”

“I don’t know that that would matter,” I said.

“Well, then, he’s your man,” she said. “It’s just that one time he was doing a Pap. I mean he was right in the middle of it. My feet are in the stirrups. And the lights go out all over the hospital. And he just . . . “

“What?”

“Well, he waited until they came on again. He didn’t say anything. Nothing to break the tension. I lay there in the dark, my legs spread, and listened to him breathing, while the greasy speculum slipped out of me.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“The lights came on. And he finished the job. He just went on like nothing had happened.”

Not sure about that, I thought.

My next friend said that she had a great guy she had known for years. He was practically a friend.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said.

“Well, his sense of humor is a little strange. It’s okay with me. But you might not like it.”

“Like what does he say?”

“Well, the last time I was making an appointment with him he said, ‘Great, I can’t wait to see that luscious bod. I’ll be waiting, with my tongue hanging out.'”

“Ewww.”

“He was just joking.”

Not my guy, I thought.

My next friend said that she had met her gynecologist in acting class. He was a Renaissance man–doctor, painter, actor–and Buddhist.

“It’s just . . . “

“What?” I said, weary.

“It’s just. Well, he’s handsome.”

“So what?”

“Well. Some people don’t like that in a gynecologist,” she said.

“How handsome is he?”

“Very handsome,” she said. “He played the Devil in a scene for acting class. And he was so sexy that the women couldn’t take their eyes off him.”

“Your gynecologist played the Devil?”

“He was good,” she said.

Pat and Spence join me in Dr. Sammy’s office. I look out the window and see sky clean as a blue sheet, sunlight bouncing off white squares of concrete in the street below, glinting cars maneuvering in a parking lot. I try to imagine Dr. Sammy as the Devil, and my mind skids to a short list of things I’d be willing to trade my soul for.

“So let me see here,” he says.

I hear him open a file, but I keep my attention on the sheet sky. Spence climbs into my lap.

“He’s three now?” Dr. Sammy asks.

I think, Get to it, get to it. What does the file say?

“Almost three,” says Pat.

“I’ve got some stickers,” says Dr. Sammy. He pops out of his reclining chair and sprints out of the room.

Spence squirms off my lap and on to Pat’s.

Is he stalling? I wonder. Are the stickers a delaying tactic while he gets up the nerve to say that while getting information about my fertility status, he found out that I’m riddled with cancer? It’s a brain tumor, I’m sure. I’m always sure it’s a brain tumor. Wait a minute–he didn’t go anywhere near my brain. It would have to be ovarian cancer. I see myself six months from now wearing a turban, looking thin and impossibly beautiful, being wheeled into Spence’s preschool graduation ceremony.

Dr. Sammy bounces back in with stickers and hands them to Spence.

“Stickers!” Spence says, sliding off Pat’s lap onto the carpet.

Dr. Sammy plops down in his chair, grabs the file, and leans back again.

I see Pat in my hospital room, moving the tubes aside, and carefully lying down next to my waif-like body. Hanging onto my last few breaths, I whisper, “I loved only you.”

“Your progesterone is good,” says Dr. Sammy.

Pat looks at me, smiles, and grabs my hand like we won something. It’s not cancer.

“Pat’s sperm is good.”

Pat nods like he knew that all along.

I look down to see Spence sitting in the middle of all the frog stickers he’s stuck to the carpet. He looks up at me and smiles. King Frog with his subjects.

“So what is it?” I ask.

“Well, Brett, it’s nothing really,” says Dr. Sammy. “It’s just that you’re forty-two and your eggs are old.”

“But I don’t look like I’m forty-two,” I say. “Forty is the new thirty.”

A patient smile spreads across his face. “Not biologically,” he says.

I realize at this moment that I hate him.

“Old eggs?” asks Pat.

“Mmm,” says Dr. Sammy, leaning forward, his beaky nose hanging over his weak mouth. “A woman has only a set number of eggs at birth. She loses these eggs as she gets older, and by forty, the eggs that remain are old. They’re tired.”

How old are they? I hear in my head. So old they need a walker just to get over to the uterine wall.

He goes on, “There’s a higher risk of chromosomal problems. And it’s harder to get pregnant.” I watch as he rests his talons on top of the file.

“Christie Brinkley had a baby at forty-four,” I say.

“I’m not saying you can’t get pregnant,” he says. “In fact, if I were to bet on a forty-two-year-old getting pregnant, I would bet on you.”

“You would?” I ask. My voice sounds girly and flirtatious, not my own.

“You’ve got everything going for you,” Dr. Sammy says. “You’ve got the blood pressure of a teenager.”

“I do?” I ask, giggling.

“And your uterus is in great shape. Pink and healthy.”

“Pink. Great,” I say.

Dr. Sammy is such a handsome, kind man, I think. We should have him over for dinner sometime.

Spence grabs onto my knee and pulls himself up from the frogs. Pat raises an eyebrow at me and turns to Dr. Sammy. “Well, we wanted to know what we’re dealing with because if it looks unlikely that we’ll get pregnant, we’re going to start looking into adoption,” he says.

Spence pulls on the neck of my shirt. “I want more stickers.”

“Just a minute,” I say, prying his fingers away. “Dr. Sammy’s talking to Mommy.”

Dr. Sammy laughs.

“Well, that’s a sure-fire way to get pregnant–start adoption proceedings.”

“Really?” I ask. I look at Dr. Sammy’s lovely, long fingers.

“Stickers,” says Spence, his voice insistent.

Pat reaches over and touches Spence’s hair.

“Just a minute,” I hiss. “So why would starting to adopt make me pregnant?’

“Well, it’s nothing scientific, right?” he says, winking at Pat. “It’s just the way the world works. You get what you want when you’re looking the other way.”

“STICKERS,” screams Spence.

“Spence,” I say. “This is my turn. I get to talk to the doctor now. You are not the only person in the world.”

Spence’s face drops and he sinks back to the carpet of frogs.

My heart lunges toward him. I want to take it back.

I want to say, “You are the only person in the world. That’s the problem. That’s why we’re here. I’m terrified that you will be alone some day. I can’t sleep, thinking of you alone in the world.” The truth of this hits me like a hokey God moment in a made-for-TV movie.

I hear Dr. Sammy intone more about my pink cervix and attractive follicles. I hear percentages and terms like “artificial insemination” and “donor egg.”

But most of this sounds like it’s bits and pieces from outside a door. Inside, I hold my answer. Turn it over and tuck it into my chest. My answer. The reason for this near-psychotic pining for a second child.

The reason offers itself up and I know that it’s been there since the day my brother was born. It is this: I want for my child what I have. A witness. Someone who will say, “Yes, it’s true. Yes, I was there. We were so very loved.”

Author’s Note: Dr. Sammy was right. The month we started to apply at adoption agencies, we got pregnant naturally. Having had two miscarriages, I was reticent to celebrate and I anxiously waited for blood to appear. When we hit the fifth month with no blood, I finally realized that we were actually going to have this child. We told Spence that he would soon have a brother or a sister (so longed for by me, so that he wouldn’t be alone), and he said that he’d rather have a dinosaur named Spencer.

Brain, Child (Winter 2004)

About the Author: Brett Paesel is a contributing editor to Parents and blogs at lastofthebohemians.blogspot.com. She is the author of “Mommies Who Drink.”

Illustration by Sarah Solie

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Liane Photo

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“How does staying in an old palace in Paris strike you?” my sister-in-law Jill asked.

“Drafty, but delightful,” I said. “Why?”

Jill told me her daughter was spending a semester in Europe and Jill intended to visit. Jill knew I love all things French. “Why don’t you come with me?”

I sighed. “I wish.”

But the idea gnawed at me. I mentioned it to my husband Marc, trying the idea out on us both. “It’s nice of her to ask, but of course I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” he said. “Don’t you think I can hold down the fort for a week?”

A few days later Jill called and asked again.

“Want to come? We could have such fun,” she wheedled.

“Yes,” I said, surprising us both.

Yes, I would go would go to Paris, because I hadn’t been there since the summer I was sixteen. Yes, although I had never left my children before. Yes, even though the thought made me nervous and giddy.

Jill speaks no French. She told me she was depending on me. Ever the dutiful student, I borrowed my older son Jonathan’s high school French grammar review book, and grappled with conjugations, irregular verbs and the subjunctive. I listened to French radio stations, understanding perhaps every 15th word, and those were only the helper words – avec, avant, apres; nothing substantive. Frustrated, I wanted to beg the radio announcer, Plus lentement, s’il vous plait. Please. Slow. Down. While I struggled to decode one sentence, the radio voice was already two paragraphs ahead. I felt adrift in the sea of language. Reclaiming my high school French was sheer physical exhaustion as I strained to decipher the foreign sounds. I was still floundering with first year phrases like La plume de ma tante est sur la table, while it sounded as if the speakers on the air were parsing Proust.

Laboring to master the rudiments of French all over again, I couldn’t help but wonder: is that what it was like for my autistic son Mickey every day, struggling to make himself understood in English, a language that felt innately foreign to him? The fatigue, the mental strain, the confusion of idioms? I pictured his mind like the old PBX telephone switchboard I manned one summer in college, his brain a bundle of clustered, colored cords, a cerebral scramble as he strained to locate the right plug. “What did you did today?” he often asked me. No wonder he still napped every afternoon. He must be exhausted.

My friend Ellen, a former student at the Sorbonne, tried to help and spoke French to me. When I tried to answer, it felt like striking two keys at once on an old manual typewriter: the keys jammed in mid air, metal trapped over metal. The words stuck; my throat throttled. I could think only in the present tense.

Marc offered to buy me the Rosetta Stone Language learning software program, which I refused. Too expensive. But it occurred to me how aptly it was named. After all, hadn’t I spent the last sixteen years looking for my own personal Rosetta Stone, the key to decoding the mystery of our younger child?

#

The French grammar book I studied told me the passe simple tense is for actions that have been completed. The passe, compose, though in the past, is still connected to the present and may even still be happening. That was a tense I knew too well, from my endless replay of Mickey’s first few years of life, when it had felt as if Mickey was an ambassador from another world and it was our job to learn each other’s language

The more I studied my French, the more I found myself remembering Mickey’s battles with English. I thought about how at the age of three, he had recognized all the letters of the alphabet, known numbers up to 10, and shown a keen interest in reading signs and license plates. How he had loved to stack alphabet blocks into towers, and knock them over. “More go,” he’d said again and again. How the speech therapist had wondered aloud if he might have hyperlexia, a precocious ability to read words without understanding them. How she’d asked me when he was four to make a list of his words. It had numbered close to a hundred and consisted mostly of nouns he struggled to combine into three-word sentences: “I go home.” “Want more juice.” Verb tenses had been difficult, and pronouns, slippery and situational, had often eluded him. I had waited for a breakthrough, when, miraculously, Mickey would suddenly begin speaking in fluid, full sentences. But just as I would never speak French that way, had it been an unfair expectation of him? Even now, he was still sometimes like a foreigner who spoke laboriously and often ungrammatically as he made his way in a foreign city.

The past few years I’d dreamed repeatedly that the four of us were finally going to Europe. Sometimes it was the hill towns of Umbria, where my college roommate Pat had a home; sometimes the outskirts of London or Rome. But it was always the same dream. I would realize we had been there a week and that it was time to leave but we hadn’t seen or done anything I wanted. I would grow frantic in the dream. I’d embark on a frenzy of sightseeing, only to meet frustration. Mickey would refuse to enter a museum. Gag on new foods. Talk too loudly to himself. Jonathan would be embarrassed and blame me. I’d wake up feeling thwarted. It would hit me: Mickey still couldn’t cross a street unassisted. Would we ever be able to travel as a family?

I bought my ticket. Jill and I made hotel arrangements. I realized I was living too much in the Conditional tense, imagining dire events. What if my plane crashed? The train derailed? A terrorist detonated a bomb in the Metro? I could die. What if Marc had to raise Mickey and Jonathan alone? How could I chance leaving my children without a mother?

I distracted myself with a flurry of housecleaning, file-purging and bill-paying. I unearthed a pile of old love letters I didn’t even remember saving from a college boyfriend and extracted a promise from my friend to toss them out if I should not return from my trip. How dare I take a vacation without my husband? He deserved a respite as much as I did. They say travel broadens; was this still true when it terrified?

The imperfect tense — l’imparfait — is an ongoing state of being. It is hard to accept life in the imperfect tense. And yet, somehow, we do. We must. The imperfect, the present, and the future co-habitate within us.

On some days the tenses loom like landmines: the Future, and the Conditional. But we live, too, in what my French grammar book calls Le Subjonctif, the tense we use to express wishes, emotions, and possibility.

Perhaps Mickey would someday read at 6th grade level. Perhaps he would grow up to have a job that gave him pleasure; friends; a place in a community that welcomed him. Perhaps someday, our family would travel to France, and I would use my grade school French.

More likely, it would be Quebec: closer to home, but still French.

For now, I realized, I needed to stay firmly rooted in the present, and focus on the regular verbs:

Mickey is speaking. He is loving. We have hope.

Liane Book CoverExcerpted from Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism by Liane Kupferberg Carter. (c) 2016 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.

 

 

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A Father’s Twist on Faith

A Father’s Twist on Faith

0705-tlh-faithBy B.J. Hollars

On the first day God created Heaven and Earth and on the second faulty internet routers.

“Damn thing,” I grumbled, unplugging and re-plugging the cords.

“Daddy,” my four-year-old called, heading down the basement stairs. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh, Daddy’s just fighting technology again.”

“Are you winning?”

“Too early to tell.”

“Okay,” he said, heading back upstairs. “Well, don’t let the sun fall down on your anger.”

I froze mid wire-plug.

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t let the sun fall down on your anger,” he repeated.

I lifted an eyebrow. “Where’d you pick that up?”

Veggie Tales.”

“That’s it,” I sighed, dropping the router and focusing on the real problem. “Vegetables are henceforth banned in this household.”

“Yes!” he shouts.

Talking vegetables,” I clarified. “You’re still eating them. I just don’t want you relying upon them for spiritual guidance.”

Groaning, he began his shoulder slumped march off to bed.

It was only a matter of time before he’d forsake me.

In truth, my own spiritual upbringing probably rivaled talking vegetables. By which I mean I was raised Unitarian. And it was good. What the congregation lacked in animated produce it more than made up for in interfaith dialogue, songs about nature, and a heavy reliance on quotations by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Since I couldn’t remember much else about our time as Unitarians (or anything spiritual that came after), I called my mother.

“How’d you intend to raise us?” I ask, referring to my brother and me. “I mean, religiously-speaking.”

“Well, I think Dad and I sort of failed at that,” she says. “We kind of left you rootless.”

“We went to the Unitarian church for awhile…”

“We did,” she concedes. “And then we were involved in that cult-thing for a bit…”

“Oh right,” I say, “that was weird.” (Though it wasn’t; it was mostly just people sitting in fold out chairs in somebody’s basement and talking about recycling.)

Technically, my mother’s Jewish, which means technically I am, too. And though our family only ever celebrated Hanukah until the latkes ran out, my brother and I always looked forward to that long swath of days on the calendar. For us, it wasn’t just about the food, or even the presents. We enjoyed the ritual: the dreidels spun, the candles lit, and our mother rattling off Hebrew with the expertise of a newly bat mitvahed 13-year-old. She surprised us year after year, revealing a part of herself she’d seemed to have kept hidden.

“Well how’s Dad feel about religion?” I ask her.

“I don’t know. Let me pass him the phone.”

Static, followed by my father’s voice.

“Hello?”

“So tell me your thoughts on religion,” I say.

“Well,” he begins, “I guess I don’t really have any thoughts.”

At which point, in perfect father-knows-best style, he follows his statement with an impromptu, 15-minute sermon on the entirety of the Judeo-Christian experience.

He’s a grave digger by trade, which means he spends much of his life wading through the aftermath of the world of the living. Yet rather than allow his job to turn him somber, he’s turned to humor instead. Ask him how things are at the cemetery, and he’ll tell you—every time—that things are “pretty dead around there.”

By the close of his sermon, my father has regaled me with insights found nowhere in the Bible, offering references and allusions to Johnny Appleseed, Donald Trump, and a host of others contemporary figures.

“…I mean, I just can’t believe Joseph lived to be like 650 years old,” he says mid-sermon. “Or any of those other guys, either.”

“What guys?”

“You know, the sheep guys.”

“The shepherds?”

“Yeah, the shepherds!” he agrees. “That’s them!”

Despite his skepticism, he concedes, too, that maybe he should read the Bible sometime. (If he did, he’d learn that Joseph died at 110).

“You know, maybe I’ll do that,” he concludes. “Maybe I’ll read it tonight.”

Hanging up the phone, I try to count my father’s blasphemies. But there are too many.

Which is not to say I’m without my own.

In high school, at the behest of a girlfriend, I was baptized in a pastor’s backyard pool. I informed my parents of the proceedings half an hour prior to start-time. Without questioning me about my apparent 180 degree turn toward Jesus, they hopped in the car to bear witness. What they saw, I imagine, was their son in a predicament no one could have predicted. All I remember is a man who looked suspiciously like Casey Kasem dunking me beneath the water line, and when he pulled me back up, there was a cheese tray on a patio table.

If I was supposed to feel something, I didn’t—a clue, perhaps, of my less than pure intentions. Nevertheless, my girlfriend was happy, at least until we broke up the following fall. Soon after, while driving home from an early morning swim practice, I heard a radio report that the pastor’s house had gone up in flames. I drove to see the smolder for myself, and as I stood in his lawn, the ash drifting down, I thought: You caused this. This is payback for your blasphemy.

Given my history, no one should take their religious cues from me. And when it comes to deciding faith’s place in our children’s lives, all we know for certain is that the answer to that question is deeply personal.

And all I know is I don’t want my children’s spiritual grounding to come by way of cartoons or me using the Lord’s name in vain. I’ve long felt there must be more.

Which is why, for the past year, I’ve begun dragging my family to a church. Initially, I was sold on it due to the architecture, the hymns, and the free child care.

Meanwhile, my son seems to enjoy it for reasons nearly as profane as my baptism.

“Daddy,” he called at the end of last week’s service, “can we go get the free popcorn now?”

“Go forth, my son,” I say.

As I watch him drop his kernel trail through the community room, I find myself feeling good about our place in our spiritual journey.

We’re here, we’re open-minded, and we’re eating our food rather than talking to it.

 

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What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

ART Doors of Italy

By Cloe Axelson

The waiting room at Careggi University hospital in Florence has all the charm of a Boston bus terminal: dingy, cream-colored concrete walls and steel benches with armrests so sharp they could puncture your skin. A few posters hang neatly. One offers assistance to Italian prostitutes, the others feature diagrams of pregnant bellies with a fetus tucked inside, but I can’t read them because I don’t speak the language. My husband Sam and I are in Italy for an eight-day vacation, our final getaway before we become parents. The hospital wasn’t our list of sites to visit, of course, but I’m thirteen weeks pregnant and noticed blood when I went to the bathroom, so here we are.

When we arrived there was only one other patient waiting on this Saturday afternoon in late July, a very pregnant Italian woman who was accompanied by her husband and four-year-old daughter. She looks unhealthy: sallow skin, swollen ankles, thick toenails painted a horrible metallic gold. She’s also missing teeth and every thirty or forty minutes she excuses herself for a cigarette, which she smokes, slowly, just outside the sliding glass doors. I can’t imagine a similar scene at my obstetrician’s office at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

***

As a kid, I didn’t daydream about having children. I was a tomboy, mostly concerned with how fast I could throw a baseball. In elementary school, I got my hair cut as short as my mom would allow, played on an all-boys little league team and wore a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, like my favorite boy cousins, to family parties. My parents later confessed they suspected I might be a lesbian, but no. I’d just decided that hanging out with the boys was much more interesting than watching them from afar or giggling when they walked by, as many pre-pubescent girls often do. Sam and I began dating our senior year in college. When I got married at twenty-eight, I skipped the wedding boutique circuit and bought a dress on eBay for $89.50.

In my early thirties, I thought childbearing was triggering an epidemic among my friends: suddenly they were giving up big jobs and adventure travel in countries with questionable water supplies for motherhood. My Facebook feed was littered with photographs of my friends’ distended bellies and, eventually, of their infants, red crinkly-looking things that became progressively more adorable and got pricey haircuts. Conversations about politics and career paths were replaced with chatter about nannies, breast-feeding and potty training. Some abandoned city living for the suburbs and bought battleship-sized SUVs. My friends were trading in their old lives for new ones—unrecognizable to me and, perhaps, to them. It was alarming.

And yet having a baby always lingered in the background, as something I would get to eventually, when the time was right. Once Sam finished graduate school. Once I’d run a marathon. Once we’d saved for a down payment. We were also busy: we’d lived in five apartments in three cities and held twelve jobs between us since graduating from college. We’d experienced 9/11 as New Yorkers. I’d traveled solo through Central America for three months. Sam had worked at the White House during the financial crisis. After dating for seven years and being married for five, expanding our twosome meant the end of an era. Having a family was something we’d talked about, but we wanted to be sure we were ready.

When we finally were ready, about three years ago, I discovered that getting pregnant wasn’t something I could do easily. That’s when I started paying much closer attention to my uterus.

I treated my uncooperative reproductive system like I treated any physical challenge, with determination and discipline. I did all the things the books tell you to do: took my temperature every morning to track my menstrual cycle and monitored my girl parts for slippery secretions, which I didn’t even notice I had until I read about them. I also quit eating so much cheese (which supposedly hampers fertility), tried yoga (to relax), drank less wine and, for a while, switched from coffee to green tea. My pillow talk, which was never very good, got worse—I instructed Sam to “plunge me” on more than one occasion.

I was characteristically practical and unsentimental about all the things I was doing, but none of my self-directed treatment seemed to be working. And after a year of trying and failing, it seemed getting pregnant wasn’t going to happen without outside help. I wasn’t ready to think about fertility treatments, so I started to see Lisa, an acupuncturist with an office in my neighborhood. I knew several friends who gotten pregnant after a few treatments and hoped it might work for me, too.

Lisa had a strong Roman nose and bright brown eyes. She’d been an acupuncturist for fifteen years after several years in “quality assurance” at a big pharmaceutical company. The minute I learned she was a national Kung Fu sparring champion, I knew she was the practitioner for me: no nonsense, tough, results-oriented. Once after a treatment she showed me a photo of one of her male sparring partners—his belly was stamped with a yellow-purplish mark exactly the width of her fist.

At every appointment, after I’d positioned myself at the end of her treatment table, she’d ask me a roster of questions about my sleep habits and stress levels and menstrual cycle. I took in the Eastern art hanging on the walls and tried to make sense of the human anatomy drawings with meridian maps overlaid. She told me to watch more television, to relax. When I told her I was training for a half marathon, she implored me to stop running so much and to devote my energy instead to believing my body could be a vessel for new life.  I nodded, but thought she sounded hippy-dippy.

I saw Lisa at least once, sometimes twice a week, for five months. (I even made Sam, an economist and Eastern medicine skeptic, go for six weeks as an act of solidarity.) At eighty-five dollars per visit, it cost us a small fortune. I felt great and could set a clock by my cycle, but it had become a comforting ritual that wasn’t getting me pregnant. With the supposed death knell of a woman’s fertility looming (my thirty-fifth birthday), I had to decide how committed I was to becoming a mom.  Mother Nature was pushing the issue.

***

It’s hour two in the cream-colored holding area and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever be examined by a doctor. Especially since when we visited the registration desk, a nurse looked at me and said “La Americana? You sit a few minutes, please.”

I’d started bleeding a few hours after I’d gotten off the plane from Boston. I hadn’t had any medical issues in my pregnancy so far, so my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged brain went for my worst fear: miscarriage. Sam forbade me from reading anything on the internet, which has page after page of horror stories, and together we called my doctor in Cambridge, who instructed me to find a doctor in Florence immediately.

I’d rifled through our guidebook for a recommendation and ended up here: the Accettazione Obstretica at Careggi University Hospital, fifteen minutes by taxi outside the city center, away from the tourists and crowds.

The smoking, gold-toed pregnant patient is still here, though her husband and daughter left an hour ago. She doesn’t seem troubled by the long-wait. We’ve also been joined by a couple who appears to be in their mid-thirties, like Sam and me. The woman, an Australian, has bottle-blond hair and looks to be about six months along. Her husband is fluent in Italian, and he tells us there are only two doctors on call and that two women are in the early stages of labor, hence the delay. I’m trying to stay calm. Sam is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson in between games of Scrabble on our iPad.

***

After acupuncture, my first stop in the baby-making industry was my OBGYN’s office. She had to complete several tests before she could ship me off to the fertility specialists, where the real work would begin. She took pints of blood, scraped samples from my insides and dyed my uterus with an eggplant-colored ink. The tests showed nothing: by all measures, my uterus and ovaries were just as they should be. One nurse even exclaimed mid-exam in her thick Boston accent, “Gorgeous, just gorgeous!” Sam got tested, too, after I suspected that his habit of working for hours with his laptop on his lap was frying any potential offspring. But he also checked out as normal. The basic tests completed, we were referred to a fertility clinic with the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.”

Millions of words have been written about the strange and scientific voyage to parenthood taken by the infertile couple. The werewolf-like rage brought on by hormone treatment, the endless blood draws, shots and ultrasounds. The anxiety and heartbreak of failed treatments. I suspect most infertile couples go about their business in silence, but some make art out of their struggles: a photographer in California documented her journey using eggs, rose petals, tampons and pig fetuses as her subjects.

I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening because it was painful and awkward to talk about. When friends and family asked, “Are you guys going to have kids?” I wanted to tell them to fuck off, but instead I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, we’re on it.” I worried about seeing someone I knew at our clinic and I refused to discuss it, even with close friends. My parents knew things weren’t going as planned, but I didn’t share details, lest they start offering advice. They did anyway. One cold late winter afternoon, my dad and I were at the dog park. I was about to toss a tennis ball when, mid-throw, my father, a soft-spoken Midwesterner in his mid-sixties, said: “You know, you and Sam ought to try facing north. That’s what your mother and I did when we were trying to get pregnant.” I thanked him, but didn’t start bringing a compass to bed.

Our fertility clinic was located at an office park in Waltham, MA, less than half a mile from Interstate 95. It had the feel of a nice department store: high ceilings, lots of natural light, bright cloth chairs in primary colors, two flat screen televisions and dozens of magazines. The place was always busy; dozens of people, just like us, waiting to be seen. In spite of its creepy, factory-like feel, there was something awesome about the cool efficiency of it all. I imagined entire wings of the building packed with cabinets of frozen embryos, lined up like computer servers.

The fertility doctor we were referred to, Rita, was in her early forties with shoulder length dirty blond hair, a wandering left-eye and an easy laugh. She made it clear we had garden-variety infertility, a sensibility I found simultaneously reassuring and insensitive. Rita recommended we try artificial insemination first, moving on to in vitro fertilization (IVF) only if three rounds of insemination didn’t work. We agreed.

Sam would “produce” the sperm specimen at home, then race up I-95 to get it there within the sixty-minute limit before semen starts to sour. He started giving his sperm a pep talk before we dropped them off, holding the plastic cup a few inches from his face and rooting them on with a fist pump, as if each one was Michael Phelps swimming for gold. The insemination procedure takes about five minutes. A nurse would summon me to a private room where I’d undress from the waist down, cover myself with a sheet and prop my feet in stirrups. One time I was on the phone while she took a syringe of Sam’s semen and inserted it, turkey baster-style, past my cervix for a potential rendezvous with an egg. Sometimes, I’d feel minor cramping, but nothing painful; the real agony was waiting for the result.

I’d hold my breath for two weeks. The Google-search history on my phone during that time included things like “what does week one of pregnancy feel like?” and “can you feel an egg implant?” Month after month, after a blood test to check for pregnancy hormones, I’d receive a phone call from a nurse telling me I wasn’t pregnant.

Irrational self-flagellation followed. Maybe I shouldn’t have run that half marathon. Maybe there really is something seriously wrong with me. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me I’d be a terrible mother. With each unsuccessful attempt, my attitude hardened: I started to anticipate failure because it made me less vulnerable to the sting of negative results. Preparing for the worst made me feel in control of a situation that was far beyond my influence.

After our third failed insemination attempt, I needed time away from the fertility factory line. I’d started to peer jealously at pregnant women and stare wistfully at the little leaguers in the park. I was resenting people in my life, as if newly pregnant friends and family were conspiring against me. I was angry with Sam for not being able to bear children, a fact he certainly couldn’t control. I’d become just as preoccupied with not being able to get pregnant as my friends with kids were with nap schedules and play dates.

Within three months, though, I decided I was committed enough to becoming a mother that I was ready to go forward with IVF. This time, I told close friends and my parents what we were up to. It felt good to have a team of people pulling for us. We also made our fertility project the priority. Sam canceled a business trip to Miami and I skipped out on my employer’s big annual conference, things we never would have done before because it belied how much was at stake.

I’ve heard stories of women going through three, five, seven, eleven rounds of IVF. I don’t know how they find the strength. We were very lucky. I was grumpy, anxious and bloated, but after just one round, I got pregnant.

***

We’re on hour three in the waiting room and the pregnant Italian woman has excused herself for six smoke breaks. Yes, I’m counting. I can smell it on her clothes when she walks by me and it makes me want to retch.

The Australian couple is much more talkative than they were an hour ago. We’re all chatting, they’re asking about our trip and where we’re headed next. It’s already six o’clock: our first full day in Florence, gone. I’m not in pain, but I am jet-lagged and tired, entering hour forty-two without sleep.

Sam and I are contemplating whether he should run out to grab slices of pizza when I hear the front desk call a version of my name: “Ax-sel-son? Clo-way?”

“Yes!” I say, jumping up. We high-five the Australians on our way out of the waiting room.

The doctor’s name is Ippolita D’Amato. She appears to be in her late-thirties with short, brown hair that falls into her eyes and stylish, thick-rimmed glasses. She carries two cell phones, one in each of the pockets of her white doctor’s coat.

Italian is usually a wonderfully lazy language. People take their time, pronouncing every letter, elongating the vowels, every word a song. But Ippolita is on a long, busy shift and her version of the language sounds much less romantic than any Italian I’ve heard before—a rapid bark punctuated by o’s and e’s and heaving sighs. I decide this is probably how real Italians talk. Maybe that’s one bright spot: we’re having an authentic Italian experience.

Ippolita ushers Sam and me into an examination room and instructs me to sit on the edge of a bed that’s hidden behind a blue curtain. A nurse asks me to remove my underwear, hike up my sundress and lie back. I can’t help but think that if I were home, I’d be wearing a gown and have a sheet draped over my naked lower half, the lights would be on, the door closed. Ippolita begins performing a pelvic exam while the nurse revs up an ultrasound machine that, by the size of it, looks to be about twenty years old When one of the phones in Ippolita’s pockets rings, she answers it—”Pronto!” she barks into the receiver—while she’s peering at my cervix. I laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Next comes the ultrasound.  The cool gel on my belly, my bare lower half still splayed out on the table.

“You know you have due, yes?” she says.

“Yes, we’re having twins,” I say.

“One heartbeat and…two heartbeats. Bene, bene,” she says.

There is something miraculous about seeing your child (or in my case, children) inside your body, especially when they’re so tiny you can’t feel them move. But there they are, heartbeats flickering steadily on the pixilated screen. Alive. I feel a tremendous sense of relief. The two peapod-sized, thirteen-week beings are jiggling around in their amniotic sacs, just as they should be. I want to hug her. I briefly consider naming one of the twins after her, then quickly dismiss it. Ippolita is a tough name for a kid.

She says the bleeding I had was normal and that everything looks fine. She thinks it was the result of a long flight, dehydration and exhaustion. I didn’t drink enough water on the plane and I’d worked on my computer almost the entire flight. Our hotel room was being cleaned when I arrived from the airport, so I’d walked around Florence for a couple of hours in 100-degree heat. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought twice about before, but is now apparently beyond my physical limits.

She tells me I must be calm. “No running to the top of the Duomo,” she says. “Don’t get too hot. Drink lots of water.  Clo-way, remember your body is not your own.”

I read once that being pregnant means you are never alone. Sitting there underwear-less, eyeing Ippolita, it occurs to me I have yet to accept my new reality.

***

I’d only told a few people I was pregnant before our trip to Italy. I was still able to fit into my clothes and could hide the growing bulge in my abdomen. For all the pain and hassle I’d endured to get pregnant, actually being pregnant was relatively uneventful: I was constantly nauseous (but not vomiting), cringed at the smell of grilled chicken and craved watermelon, but that was it. After three years of trying and failing, I didn’t quite believe it was happening. And as much as I wanted kids, I didn’t want to broadcast the news because I suddenly didn’t feel ready for it. I was worried how people would react once they found out. It’s only natural that children don’t consider who their mother was before she became their mom. My identity as an independent, ambitious, active person would be beside-the-point to the twins. I wondered if my friends and family would also dismiss the pre-kid me in the same way.

I tried my best to heed Ippolita’s instructions. I let Sam carry my suitcase and sent him up the rickety stairs of every cathedral to take pictures from their domes while I stayed below in the shade, a bottle of water between my knees. He hiked while I sat under an umbrella at the beach. And in the early evenings, before dinner, when Sam went out to explore, I napped or read in our hotel room. I hated not being able to move far or fast.

I was happiest once we escaped the triple-digit heat of Florence for the Cinque Terre, five tiny towns perched on the craggy peaks of Italy’s northwest coast. There, I discovered the one physical activity I could enjoy: floating in the salty Mediterranean. I didn’t mind being still as long as I could be in the water. Our last morning on the coast, I sat on a jetty that cut into the blue-green sea and dipped my feet in the cool water. I can still hear the waves, with their persistent rhythm, breaking against the shore, filling the space between the rocks and making their retreat. I knew it’d be a long time before we’d visit again.

The journey from the Cinque Terre to our next stop, Siena, was about three hours by car. Our rental car was only slightly larger than a golf cart and not nearly as comfortable: the air conditioning blew hot air and my knees hit the dashboard. Making things worse, the waist on my shorts was starting to cut into my stomach, even with the button undone. I was already hot and grumpy when I read this sentence from our guidebook aloud to Sam: “When possible, avoid driving in Siena.”

Unfortunately the guidebook was right: no one should attempt to drive in Siena where the streets, which are pedestrian-only, are little more than fifteen-feet wide. Once we entered the city limits, it took us another three hours to find our hotel. As we drove in circles, I told Sam that the map was fucking useless, that I hated this stupid fucking vacation. I twice ran out of the car on the side of the road, heaving and kicking at the dirt like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I felt myself losing control, but couldn’t stop a frustration that made my whole body vibrate.

By the time we checked into our hotel, I was bleeding again. I hadn’t followed any of Ippolita’s instructions: I hadn’t stayed calm and my babies-to-be knew it.

Sam was exasperated and went out for a walk. I took a bath. Our hotel was a one-hundred year old villa once owned by Sienese aristocrats, and the heavy wooden shutters in our room opened up above the patio that overlooked the picture-perfect Tuscan countryside: a puzzle of vineyards, green hills, winding roads and stone cottages.

I could see patches of the late afternoon blue sky from the bathtub. I cupped the warm water over my growing belly, rubbing it with both hands, back and forth, coaxing calm as I looked at my toes peeking out at the far end of the tub. My iPhone, sitting on the ledge of the antique marble sink, played Bon Iver. “Someway, baby, it’s a part of me, apart from me,” one song began. I was overwhelmed by waves of anxiety, the selfish but real fear of losing myself, of never again being my own person. I wanted to be a mom, but I resented that everything I’d once thought was important might soon feel irrelevant and small, as I shed an identity I knew for one I knew nothing about.

A few tears dripped off my cheeks into the water, as I began to plead with my uterus, the organ that had been defiant for so long, and the tiny beings inside. “I’m sorry,” I said out loud. I promised to keep them safe. To be more gentle with myself. To be vulnerable, finally, to the reality of becoming a mother and all the change that would bring. “O.K., guys. I get it now,” I said, my words echoing off the tile. As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, the bubbles lost their fizzle and the water cooled. I could see how my body was changing as new life took root.

I didn’t know then that the two beings floating inside me were girls. Or that my body would stretch to an unfathomable size to accommodate theirs. Or that the toughness required to run a marathon is nothing compared to the toughness needed in labor, and to survive the ragged first year of new life.

I didn’t yet know the sense of accomplishment I would derive from tandem breastfeeding and coordinating nap schedules. The delight I’d feel in watching my daughters feel grass or see the ocean for the first time. The pride in looking at their tiny features and seeing my own in miniature. In being someone’s mom.

The things I used to worry about do seem frivolous in comparison to the relentlessness of motherhood. But I now know that is the natural order of things, even as I sometimes miss the body and life that were once mine alone.

Cloe Axelson lives with her family just outside of Boston. She is a student in Lesley University’s MFA program in nonfiction writing and works for a national education-focused nonprofit.

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Letter from a Stranger

Letter from a Stranger

handwritten_letterBy Rachel Pieh Jones

I have a letter in my purse written by a stranger, to her sister, also a stranger. It is written in blue ink on lined notebook paper, folded over several times and crinkling around the edges. It is written in broken English with a line of Arabic, a few hashtags, and a scribbled local telephone number.

I found the letter when we moved into our current house. The house was furnished but we weren’t keeping most the furnishings. The landlord asked us to move out what we didn’t want and keep what we did want. The things we removed would be tossed away.

I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on inside other homes. After dark, warm light spills out of living rooms and kitchens onto snowy Minnesota winter streets. I jog past and glance in. People’s mouths move but I hear nothing, they eat dinner but I can’t smell it. They watch television, the green glow reflects off glasses, but I don’t know what show they’ve chosen.

In Djibouti, where I live now, homes are often surrounded by high walls. Homes that don’t have walls often don’t have windows either, or have barred windows and curtains pulled tightly closed. This is to keep out mosquitos, dust, heat, thieves, and prying eyes. Like mine. Much of life here is lived outside, sometimes kitchens are pots and pans placed over charcoal fires outside the home. People nap in the shade of trucks parked on the side of the road. Men play pétanque or drink tea while sitting on overturned tin cans arranged in circles. People eat spaghetti from aluminum plates, wrapping the noodles around their fingers while watching football at neighborhood restaurants. Women breastfeed on street corners, kids brawl in the middle of pot-holed avenues.

I enjoy people watching in these countries for opposing reasons. In Minnesota I am merely an observer. The image of life moving on without me, completely unrelated to me is comforting. The people inside could be fighting, grieving, celebrating. No matter what their specific circumstances, they are alive, they are pressing on.

In Djibouti, I enter it. I smell the fried onions, hear the religious debates, interact with the pudgy babies, or join someone for tea. But at the same time, I miss the separation between insider and outsider, like in Minnesota. I miss the mystery and the speculation. I miss the curiosity, the idea that courageous people leave their lights on and their curtains open after dark and that courageous people are what the world needs. And I miss the sense that this glance is a gift, that the people inside could pull the curtains shut at any moment.

When I rummaged through the furniture in our new house in Djibouti, I felt like I was looking into a lighted living room on a cold night. Most dressers and cupboards were empty, though the fridge was filled with enough mold to provide the world with penicillin for decades. But I did discover some treasures. A chest X-ray. A working stethoscope and blood pressure band. Miniature bottles of Arabian perfumes, a single sock. Two volatile political books (about long-gone political systems in countries on other continents). And this letter.

The letter was in an otherwise empty dresser drawer. I pulled it out and carefully unfolded it. (spelling and grammar as it is in the letter)

To my beautiful sister,

Today is what you truly wait for.

Today you will start a life.

May God grant you long life

And may you both see each other in Jannah (paradise).

You were my best friend.

You were always their.

You always listen wen I was down and taught me to be close to Allah.

Your the reason I get up at 7:17 just to compete with you.

You made me a strong woman

And I am honestly blessed to have you in my life.

Time went by and you’ll be a mother one day

I pray that everything you help me to become, may you help your children.

May they be kids who fear and love Allah.

Thank you Bilane for everything.

Thank you Bilane for your smile.

Thank you Bilane for helping me with fashion.

And lastly, thank you Bilane for being a great friend.

You will always be in my dua (prayers) till the day I die.

And you deserve every happyness.

May Allah bless you married and may you both be together in Jannah.

I love you Bibie forever and always.

Love.

Who were these sisters? How long had this letter been here in the drawer? How did the marriage turn out? How did the sister Bilane earn the nickname Bibie? These questions will never have answers. I folded the letter back up and slipped it into my purse and then another question started to bother me.

Why do I keep it?

Every time I travel, I reorganize my purse. I dump it out so I can clean out the gum wrappers and old receipts and old travel ticket stubs. I slide my hand into the back zipper pocket and brush up against this folded piece of paper. What is that? I wonder. A to-do list? A shopping list? A page torn from an airline magazine? I pull the paper out and remember. The wedding day sisterly love letter. I put it back in the purse, wondering again why I can’t bring myself to throw it away.

The handwritten note seems quaint, precious in a nostalgic way. Few people write notes with pen and paper now. I write notes for my kids. My 16-year old twins are at a boarding school in Kenya and at the start of each term, I hand them a stack of numbered cards. One to open each week until they come home. I don’t know if they keep the cards. Some are silly, some are serious, some are quotes from writers, poets, historians, or people of faith I admire. I doubt they carry them around in their backpacks the way I keep this note from a stranger.

The world is scary and it is broken and every time my teenagers board a plane to another country for school, I feel the risk of it all. Not the risk of flying but the risk of loving. Of caring for someone so much that my soul lives outside my body, in the form of these humans I had a part in creating. The risk of raising them to leave me, to make their own choices, to walk through their own joys and pains. The risk of living life with the curtains open, letting light out and prying eyes in.

My small cards are a token of the protection I know I can never guarantee. They aren’t a shield or a totem or a magical stone. They are me saying: I love you. I believe in you. I have hope for the future, even in this scary and broken world.

That’s why I keep this letter in my purse. It reminds me I’m not the only person crazy or foolish enough to love someone madly and to send them away from me.

I run my fingers around the thinning paper of the letter and it brings a warm comfort, like the lights from inside an open window on a snowy Minnesota evening. It is a symbol. I’m not the only one.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Invisible Women

Invisible Women

Portrait of beautiful serious afro american woman over black background

By Margaret Auguste

“Are you sure you never had any other pregnancies?”

My brand new infertility specialist’s words, delivered with a patronizing smile that somehow never reached his eyes, which were surveying me doubtfully. This reception was not what I had dreamed about from the person with whom I was placing all my hopes and dreams; the person that I was counting on to make me a mother, after years of disappointment. Hurt and confused, I struggled with trying to understand why someone in the medical profession, who by the very nature of their job, should be objective and caring, would instead be the opposite.

Inexplicably, I wondered if in letting my guard down, and admitting my failure to become pregnant, that I was somehow responsible for my mistreatment. Shouldn’t I have known better? After all, as an African American professional woman I was not naïve and was accustomed to upon occasion, having to navigate through spaces where my presence elicited shocked or embarrassed silence.   I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I now realize, but I knew, of course, exactly what he meant -that I did not belong there.

I didn’t write professionally, at the time, but I had always loved words and had sought solace in the expression of words both written and spoken. However, I just sat there in shock, the doctor’s words dismissing me, rendering me invisible. For the first time in my life, I was silent, unable to speak. I left the appointment quickly; shoving my detailed color coordinated ovulation charts and thorough fertility research in my bag as I ran out the door, knowing instinctively that his eyes it did not matter because for him I did not exist.

Apparently, what I experienced that day was not unusual. Rosario Ceballo, the author of the study, “Silent and Infertile: An Intersectional Analysis of the Experiences of Socioeconomically Diverse African American Women With Infertility,” conducted interviews with 50 black women aged 21 to 50, from various social and economic backgrounds to explore their experiences dealing with infertility issues.   She found that the many of the women of color encountered doctors who were dismissive, unsupportive and who failed to offer them services or fully explore their medical concerns. Many of the women reported that the doctors, “didn’t have any desire to help them, rarely gave them options and in some cases, took control away from them.”

My experience traumatized me to the point where I abruptly stopped seeking treatment at age 27. However, a few years passed and at the age of 33 with still no pregnancy in sight, I decided to bring children into my life by adopting, becoming the proud parent of a 3-year-old boy and his 18-month-old sister.   The overwhelming happiness and newfound sense of hope that my family gave me, along with my husband’s encouragement, gave me the courage to try my luck again at a new fertility clinic. It was with lots of trepidation that I approached the second appointment with the negative memories of the first meeting swirling about in my head. However, in complete contrast, this doctor was friendly and receptive and appreciated or at least understood why I needed my charts and schedules and seemed to recognize that my organization and attention to detail made me an excellent candidate for fertility treatment.

And so I finally, began my journey, the lone black woman, in a waiting room full of upper-class white women with names like Buffy and Tiffany who discussed golf games and the country club. These women were friendly and included me in their chitchat, but at times they could not help themselves as they asked me questions like, “how can you afford In-vitro fertilization?   They spoke carefully of how they didn’t want to offend me but that they didn’t realize that black and Hispanic women ever needed infertility drugs to conceive. I incredulously listened and tried to answer their questions, stumbling over my words, while alternating between feeling insulted and wanting to explain myself to them in the hopes that they might realize that like them, I just wanted to be a mother.

Why I wondered, was there such a lack of empathy and understanding combined with a weirdly curious fascination with black women’s fertility? Kimberly Seals Allers founder of the Mocha Mom’s group that promotes breastfeeding among women of color, sought to answer this question after her eye-opening experience, with an essay where she asked the provocative question, “Are black women baby making machines?” Allers recounts riding a train and engaging in small talk about her two children, with a fellow rider who happened to be an older white man. Their casual conversation unexpectedly turned into something unpleasant when he appeared to be shocked by the idea that women of color prepared for children just like everyone one else and mentioned with surprise, that “wasn’t having only two children spaced fours years apart in age unusual for black women?”

Allers suggests that a part of the problem stems from deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes that exist in our society. Many people don’t even realize that they influence them, or that they are acting upon them. She traces the roots of the stereotypes back to a time long ago when black women were defined as less than human, intellectually inferior and naturally prolific, all for the sole purpose of setting black motherhood within a narrow context of economic and social bondage. Aller’s believes that the remnants of these prejudices linger in our society today and serve to paint a portrait of black women that over time has become misunderstood and unsympathetic, misrepresenting us and rendering our struggles to become mothers invisible.

This absence or acknowledgment of black women’s fertility issues today is glaring, and for those of us personally suffering from it, disheartening. When watching television or the movies, I never saw any women who looked like me.   This notable absence occurred on every brochure, every pamphlet, magazine and book that I encountered. Black women were even missing from information.   I looked for   information on infertility problems like fibroids, that are common to women of color and a leading cause of infertility. I was instead, bombarded with harrowing stories about mothers on welfare, child abuse and low birth weight babies, all of which, are tragic, but did not come close to addressing the breadth and depth of my experiences or those of other black women that I know.

Participating in our own banishment by at times voluntarily by silently suffering, making ourselves invisible, is the tragic outcome of this external and internal dilemma. Many black women conclude that fertility treatment is immoral, unnatural, a personal failure and only something that rich white ladies do, despite the fact that black women are more likely to have fertility issues than white women, according to the New York Times article, “Infertility, Endured Through a Prism of Race.”

I never spoke aloud about my first horrible experience in the fertility doctor’s office with my husband, even though we were in agreement that I should seek out treatment. But afterward, I felt ridiculous and embarrassed as if I had wasted my time, humiliating myself, when of course nothing was wrong with me. I didn’t need any fertility treatments to get pregnant. After all, I came from a line of strong black women who worked throughout their pregnancies. My Great Aunt worked as a maid and because her employers allowed it, usually carried her child on her back, while she was cleaning, only to go home later to cook and clean for her families. I never shared any of my fertility concerns or plans with my family who as unyielding Baptists firmly believed that prayer would solve any personal problems.   Instead, I convinced my husband that, knowing how traditional our families were, we should pretend that as a modern college-educated couple that we wanted to focus on our careers first, an explanation that both stunned and impressed our families, as evidence of our ascendance into the world they only dreamed. My subterfuge lasted even after I finally gave birth to a set of wonderful twins through in-vitro fertilization at age Thirty-Five.

Race, social class, economic status and history all intersect; to shape how we think about infertility, showing this process to be a uniquely personal, and demanding physical endeavor, an experience like no other. It humbles you. It either breaks you or shows you what you are made of while sending you into the deepest despair one minute only to raise you up high the next; every blood test, every trans-vaginal ultrasound, every follicle that is too small or too big, writes a new chapter in your story.

Looking into the faces of my children every night after my journey was done and a new one was beginning made me realize that there was a price to pay for my silence. Others were shaping my narrative. Like so many other mothers, I found, that my voice was enhanced and strengthened through my writing and speaking. I stopped being concerned about what anyone else thought or how they judged me and instead concentrated on using my words to become visible and by doing so, to be in charge of my image and to define motherhood for me, women like me, and someday, for my children.

 

Margaret Auguste has previously written for Literary Mama and Teaching Tolerance magazine. She is the mother of four, a family therapist, librarian and a writer who loves to write about the diversity that characterizes motherhood around the world.

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The Teenage Brain

The Teenage Brain

 

teenage brain artThe lights in the room are dim. An illustrated cross section of the brain floats on screen. “Parents of teenagers often act as surrogate frontal lobes,” the speaker, a bald man with wire-rimmed spectacles says, pointing to the lateral portion of the brain behind the forehead and eye.

He explains that while the amygdala, or primitive brain, is entirely grown, the frontal lobe which governs higher processing skills such as rational thought, impulse control and goal-setting is still growing and won’t fully gestate until around the age of 25.

I’d never considered being a frontal lobe part of my job description. Nor, apparently had the other parents in the packed room at our local library, eager students all, on a quest to learn more about the topic of today’s seminar, the teenage brain.

I counted my five children on my fingers. In addition to Sophia, I had Luke, Olivia, Jamie and Johnny who would one after the other hit puberty: I’d be acting as an outsourced frontal lobe on the fly, times 5, for the next decade.

I came to the lecture because of my growing anxiety over Sophia. It had become clear to me in recent weeks that parenting a teenager requires a different skill set than parenting a small child. The lecture at the least, I hoped, would help me understand why Sophia had become, in a word, difficult, or in a phrase, a completely different child than the little tutu-wearing girl I used to tuck into pink sheets.

Not long ago, I knew every single one of Sophia’s friends; she had the same six over for tea parties and trick or treat. Now, according to her Facebook page, she has 372 friends, only two of whom I recognize in the hundreds of photos Sophia displays on this website. I could spend hours tracking her online activity but I don’t. I have a husband, five children, a career, a desire to sleep more than three hours a night. Plus I trust her. Does this make me a bad mother or a crazy one?

The speaker is on slide nine, which shows brain scan results. He explains that if you watch the brains of teenagers while asking them a question such as would you try to ski down Mount Rushmore, the switches in their minds would not flick and flash as much as those of an adult being asked the same question. This is because a teenager is thinking, “Yeah, I might give it a try,”not weighing potential risks, while adults take all the data in and conclude: “It’s not a good idea.”

I broke this down in my notebook. Did this mean the same teenage boy on skis will soon be behind the wheel of a car?

The morning after my trip to the library, Sophia came downstairs for school wearing a tank top, short shorts and Ugg boots. In March. “You can’t wear that to school,” I said. “Why mom? Why?” she cried. Because you can’t,” I said and she blasted past me, right back upstairs.

Left breathless at the breakfast table, I thought “What the heck?” I followed her into the girls’ bathroom, a room I avoid at all costs. Nothing has a cap in there, toothpaste smears the sink, dirty clothes on the floor come so close to the hamper –mere millimeters really — but never in. Sophia pulled the skin under her eye to apply eyeliner. “Change your clothes first,” I said flatly.

Then I summoned my frontal lobe. “If you wear shorts to school in March you will be cold, and if you wear a top like that every boy at school will be looking down your shirt,” I said. The voice of reason. She looked at me as if she was going to spit then slammed the bathroom door, just like in a movie.

She came back downstairs in jeans, texting on her cell phone while breaking off small pieces of pop tart. “Who are you texting?”I  asked. “Are they eating breakfast, too?” I wonder if my daughter was typing out an SOS: PLEASE SAVE ME FROM MY MOTHER.

Sophia nearly missed the bus. “Where’s your sweatshirt?” I said as she raced out the screen door. I hate her going to school angry, hate going to my office wondering what I did wrong. I can lose a morning rethinking what I should have said, wondering if I was too hard on her, too easy. No seminar can help me with this.

She is, after all, the daughter who not long ago drank from a sippy cup in feety pajamas with a princess pattern, left notes for the fairies in the fireplace, and pranced about in pantyhose putting on fashion shows. Even now, there are times when she’ll let me brush her long black hair, smooth as sealskin. I yelled out the door after her again, “I love you, Peanut,” the nickname I’ve had for her since I saw her take the shape of a peanut on the ultrasound.

That afternoon she came home, tossed her backpack onto the couch, sat on top of it and started in. “Can I go to the movies tonight?” she asked. Not only did the movie start at 9:00 pm, but it was a school night. I remind myself she can’t think logically yet, her impulse is to want to go, so she simply asks me, not thinking it through.

“No, you can’t” I said.

“Cindy and Lindsey are going…”

Once again, I become a frontal lobe.”If you go to a late movie on a school night, you will be overtired for school in the morning.” I get the eye roll. I head out the front door to get the mail.

“But can I go tonight?”she asks. I take a breath. I would have to go back to my notes. Did the frontal lobe control hearing as well?

That night I call my mother. “You were the same way as a teenager” she says, her voice tired, as if she may still be weary from having raised me. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

It’s after 10:00 pm when I hang up. Sophia is sitting with her laptop on the living room floor, working on the ancient civilizations project that was assigned six weeks ago, but is due tomorrow. She has seven pages of notes, no report. I could lecture her on the necessity of planning ahead, but I don’t. I’m too tired to be the voice of reason, instead I sit down on the floor, next to this little big girl I love, pencil behind her ear, her long hair sailing down her back, and I hug her, each of us a work in progress.

About the Author: Marcelle Soviero is Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and the author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood and Stepmotherhood.

 

 

 

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Hatched

Hatched

Newborn yellow chickens in hay nest along whole and broken eggs

By Dierdre Wolownick

“Number One’s rolling!”

My son’s finger shakes in anticipation. I follow his stare and see one perfect white egg roll onto its other side. All around us, people gasp.

Kids of every size and ebullience level fill the museum; we’ve been jostled and stepped on all morning, elbowing our way through airplanes and plumbing, the human body and impossible machines. Science-in-art. Hands-on things to push, pull and measure. But nothing has so captivated as this little warm pyramid of glass with sixteen eggs in various stages of hatching.

Nothing to push, pull or touch, no moving parts, absolute silence. It doesn’t seem like an exhibit that we wouldn’t be able to tear our little movers and shakers away from.

Yet here we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, motionless. I never knew my son or daughter could stop moving for that long.

A tiny speck of beak pokes out through a hole in Egg Number One. People cheer. I don’t, but I feel like it. Everything gets blurry. Has it really been so many years since I was part of this mystery? For a fleeting, foolish moment I want to do it again. I want to be that chalice of life, and create something glorious, something that will make people teary-eyed. There’s no glory in fame, prestige, money. Renown is fleeting. This alone is glory.

The top of Number One cracks almost all around. Now there’s no more room near the exhibit. Looking through the glass, I see faces of every age pressed as close as they can get. I hear whispers only; even the tiniest children respect the sanctity of this moment.

What hard work! The chicks that have already hatched lie exhausted, laboring just to breathe. I remember the exhaustion. Will I never feel that way again?

Both my kids squeeze even closer to the glass. Number Two has rolled over, in the bumpy, unsure way of an egg. But then there are more gasps, and children point and whisper-shout and pull on sleeves or arms. Number One is out!

Everything is blurry again. I get angry with myself for a moment, but then a ball of red and yellow goo flops onto the metal mesh, out of Egg Number One, and everything else is forgotten.

How ugly it looks! — eyes almost as big as its head, beak covered with red and yellow fluid, down plastered to its tiny, quivering body. None of that diminishes the excitement buzzing around the glass pyramid. The parents are all smiling. You can tell some of them have forgotten where they are. They, like myself, have gone back in time.

The kids are all in the here-and-now. Most of their comments consist of “Look at that!” or “Mommy! Daddy! Look!” The exclamation points are audible. This is a moment to be shared, and remembered. My own are bursting to tell Aunt Diane, who stood before this very exhibit so many years ago — in another lifetime — but never actually got to see one hatch.

Some of the onlookers whisper things like, “Come on, move!” or “Go ahead, do something!” But it just lies there, its little body bouncing rhythmically, breathing for the first time.

I discover I’m holding my breath, and let it out. Did I expect to hear a cry? For an unexpected moment I feel again the unbearable anguish of silence between what we’d thought of for nine months as “the end,” and the cry that marked the beginning. The beginning of those million little anguishes. Of fears we didn’t know we had.

Will I never feel them again? That prospect fills me with bleakness. Never a great ogler of babies, I’m amazed to find myself wanting another.

My husband and I decided, so many years ago, that two was enough. And I’m too old. If we’d married earlier, if I’d had the first two younger, maybe…. But now, at our ages, it would ruin everything. We’d both be exhausted again, have no time for each other again. And the two we have are so good together. No, we made the right decision.

And yet…

Another chick, hatched a few minutes before we got here, stumbles over and pecks at “our” chick, once, twice. People gasp. “Don’t do that!” chides a small voice.

I try to remain detached. Do they eat the amniotic fluid from the others? But it isn’t working. Doesn’t it hurt them to cut the cord? I wince as they place my warm newborn on a cold, metal scale.

We have to leave. There are other places to see, we can’t spend our only day in the museum watching chicks hatch. It’s over. I’ll never feel that way again.

Author’s note: The toughest decision of all: To create — or not — another human being! The awesomeness of that choice has resonated with me forever; before I was even old enough to have children, I remember wondering, “how do you know how many to have?” This incident gave me at least one answer.

Dierdre Wolownick lives and writes in northern California. Her work has appeared in parenting and children’s magazines, as well as other types of publications, in many countries, and her short fiction has won First Prize from the National Writer’s Association. She has lived and worked on several continents, and geography is one of the main ‘characters’ of her novels.

 

 

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This is Anorexia

This is Anorexia

art-dandelion

By Anne Lonergan

The scene is too beautiful to be the setting in which our lives veer drastically off course. The doctor’s office is orderly but inviting, the walls are painted a warm shade of white, the lighting soft and pleasing. Behind the large white desk, a wall is lined with books and periodicals and treasures from the sea. Another wall showcases framed degrees and multiple awards. Large panels of glass replace the remaining two walls, granting access to a pink sun setting over the Long Island Sound. We are high above the water, the sun is low. Through the act of bearing witness, the three of us help the huge orb nestle itself beyond the horizon. The dock that protrudes from under the office windows ends abruptly in the darkening water, the boat having long been packed away for the winter.

This is our first appointment. My husband and I are concerned that Catherine, our 15-year-old daughter, is not eating well, not eating enough. She and Dr. Homm had been together for ninety minutes. I am the newcomer, invited in to hear the results of the testing. The waiting room resembled a cozy sitting room, stuffed white slipcovered couches, nautical nuances, a nubby sisal rug under foot. I spent the time reading pages from books titled A Parents Guide to Eating Disorders and Loving Someone Who is Starving Themselves, feeling grateful we are seeking help before it gets to that.   I turn from the bucolic setting sun, about to mention the beautiful view, but the words catch in my throat.   Catherine’s small frame is perched on the edge of the chair opposite the doctor, her eyes are wide and afraid, she looks ready to run. Her fear pulls me out of the pink light reflecting off the water, to the empty chair at her side, and I take her cold hand in both of mine.

“Go ahead Catherine,” prods the voice behind the desk.

“Mom, I am underfeeding myself,” her chin jutting out as it does when she is feeling defiant.

“Use the word,” the professional tone insists.

“I am anorexic.” Catherine’s chin trembles and a single tear pools at the corner of her mouth.

My thumb—that had been stroking the back of her hand—stalls in the hollow curve between her pointer and middle finger. My eyes mirror the fear in Catherine’s, and betray the sadness that wells in my throat. But I keep them focused on hers, willing them to also portray my resolve.

“Okay.” That’s it. That’s all I say to her. A cleared throat from the other side of the desk turns my head.

For the next thirty minutes, the doctor walks us through a plan for Catherine’s recovery, a regimen of caloric intake, portion monitoring, and weekly visits. And as I hold Catherine’s hand tightly, just now warming in mine, one word is bouncing noisily in my head, reverberating off of each side of my brain: how?

“This is your daughter’s effort. You can love and support her, but only she can heal herself,” Dr. Homm informs, pushing her chair back to stand.

The traffic on I-95 is stopped. Catherine sleeps in the passenger seat next to me, exhausted by the appointment, and hunger. I lean my head against the headrest, and turn to look at her. Her forehead rests against the window, the fur on the hood of her unzipped black parka sticks to the condensation; slightly protruding vertebrae are exposed at the base of her long slender neck. Dark circles loom under softly closed eyelids. Her hands are more delicate these days, but still hers, and familiar to me. The parka swallows her, as if we bought it two sizes too big. The energy in the car begins to swirl with the rapid beat of my heart, as I realize I haven’t truly looked, or listened. I see now, inside her resting form, a mind in frantic motion. I hear now, too late, her own voice whisper to her high achieving self, “it’s not enough, you can do better, work harder.” She has been at battle with herself for some time while her parents burst with pride at all of her accomplishments, buried deep in denial.

A horn honks behind me.

“Shit!” I cry, startled.

The smell of rosemary chicken curls around the banister, and wafts up the stairs, making its way to noses behind a shower curtain, past doors cracked open a bit, because it’s homework time, and that’s the rule. My thirteen-year-old son, Matt, lays scratchy linen placemats on the worn kitchen table. Silverware for five clanks together in his tight fist, it’s easier to make one trip. Metal against metal accompanies the sound of multiple conversations bouncing off of marble counter tops, presided over by lit candles on the kitchen island.   Cabernet is splashed into two glasses lined up side by side, a set, ready for the nightly celebration that is the family dinner. Stragglers from upstairs grab plates to fill, and take to the table.

Eventually, though, the hum of activity in the kitchen becomes suffused with Catherine’s silence. Her struggle over what, and how little, to serve herself, while others grab hungrily for serving spoons piled high, overpowers the sounds of my family’s stampede. She is waging her battle silently, mixing into the group, while standing glaringly apart. Do our full plates disgust her, or tempt her, or make her feel ashamed and alone? Her long dark, thinning hair veils her face.

“Seriously?” Matt stares at the tiny portion on Catherine’s plate. “You’re so weird.” He tosses his hair off of his forehead revealing teenage acne.

“That’s enough, kiddo. How was practice?” my husband, Joe, asks him.

Catherine glowers at Matt while pushing food around her plate, spreading it out in order to create the illusion that more has been eaten. The dark cabernet slides past the lump in my throat.

“Dim the light a bit, please,” I say, looking towards the chandelier. My seventeen-year-old daughter Molly complies. She has quietly assumed an agreeability not often seen before, either to balance Catherine’s irritability, or to relish being the “good child” for a while, possibly a combination of the two.

“Thank you for dinner,” Catherine mumbles, excusing herself early from the table, plate in hand, headed for the disposal.

“She’s fine,” Joe insists, after the children excuse themselves, stories of the day exhausted. Catherine had not said much. Had we gotten too used to her being quiet, or too tired to fight it? Joe and I are face-to-face, two half finished glasses of wine on the table between us. I put my hand on top of his, holding his eyes with mine for a moment. Catherine looks so much like her dad. They have the same dark eyes and heavy eyebrows. Profoundly inquisitive, they both tend to be more serious than silly. His ability to close his eyes to personal struggle or sadness or despair is well honed from a childhood scarred by his parents’ divorce, and ensuing vicious custody battle. He is the kind of man who agreed to trade in a large, brand new house with intricate molding, for an old, broken, much smaller house, with a crooked chimney, for twice the money, so his children could see the waves from the front door. An accomplished athlete, he is also the ultimate optimist.

“No, she’s not, ” I said, squeezing his hand.

Over the last few months I have not seen much of Catherine’s face straight on. I see her face in profile, her softly rounded slightly upturned nose, and red, full lips that pucker when she is deep in thought. “Pouty lips” we’ve called them since she was a little girl. The nickname always made her eyes smile before she’d roll them in mock irritation. What was a soft jawline that ended at an ear lobe covered in tiny little blond hairs is sharper now, with shadows underneath. A brass cuff grips the cartilage on the top of her ear too tightly. I glimpse the back of her head, chestnut brown, wavy long hair falling to the middle of her back, often worn down now, no more jaunty ponytail swinging from high on the crown of her head. My sight lines of my little girl are different because she is often turning away, or fully turned and walking out of the room. We have times when words don’t work for us, so I search her eyes for hints to how she’s feeling inside, and she averts them, turning her head, before I can see. I try to pause when we pass on the staircase, just to keep her near me for a moment longer.

“Buddie escaped to the beach today. Mrs. Leahy brought her back again.” I say. Catherine loves that her dog has a bit of rebel in her, and often sneaks out of the yard. But my voice sounds too cheerful, a bit needy and desperate. Catherine wants to feel normal, to be treated like everyone else in the family, but I cannot find that normalcy, yet. My awkward words fall flat.

“She’d come back on her own, if people would just leave her alone,” she says, moving past me, towards the dog curled up at the bottom of the stair.

“I’ll pick you up after school for your doctor’s appointment.”

“Great,” she replies with stinging sarcasm.

My thoughts exactly, I think, as I continue to climb the stairs.

The rain is coming down in sheets, from dark low-hanging clouds, making my windshield wiper’s effort futile. The humidity in the car from our dampened clothes is at odds with the chill of a November day. Condensation fogs the windshield. Catherine’s appointment is at a satellite office in a different town. Her simmering silence makes the country music playing on the radio, that we used to sing to together, sound hollow, like some kind of tinny filler. Trying to find the house tucked in between so many others all in a row, narrow driveways running next to each other, in between torrents of rain drops, is adding to the tension in the car.   At last I see the office, cross two lanes of traffic, horns honk, I park.

“We’re here,” I say, hearing the strange falsetto squeak out of my throat, as if singing the phrase would make Catherine amenable to being here.

The grass beside the rutted pavement is brown, speckled with patches where nothing grows. Bay windows that speak of a past charm look more like warts broken out all over the house. I offer something about the location being more convenient. The dreary clapboard house contains multiple offices where different health professionals rent space.   The oversized sign on the front of the building explains: Life Care.

Here? The one word question is laced with judgment and disapproval of the tilting front porch and peeling white paint. And if I feel it, my daughter is surely three levels past disapproval, to contempt and disgust. The charming cottage where her first appointment had been, filled with white nubby furniture, on the water’s edge, had apparently given me the false impression that her healing process would be set against beauty and softness. The mud that splashes as we race in between raindrops, suits our matching foul moods. I press the latch and push on a heavy red door. It doesn’t budge. I use hands, one on the latch and one on the door and push again. Nothing. I rage at the absurdity that this door has become an obstacle, a barrier to get past, like a red stop sign on the path to recovery. With a third press, both hands on the worn brass latch, and a well timed bang from my right hip, the door relents, opening with a crash against the inside wall, sending a bowl of candy formerly perched on a spindly table, crashing to the floor. We watch rainbow colored balls roll all over the entranceway. I turn, place my hand on the small of Catherine’s back and gently encourage her over the threshold. Feet planted, hands dug deep into the pockets of her black parka, she looks at me wide-eyed. My mind races: Would she refuse to go in? The rain leaks through the porch roof sounding like the tick of a clock as it hits the warped floor. The corner of Catherine’s mouth turns up and then her eyes do the same. One hand tries to hold in the laughter that bubbles up and out of her, as her other hand grips my arm.

“Nice tackle, Mom!” she giggles.

Progress! Sitting next to Catherine in one of the two chairs on the other side of Dr. Homm’s desk, I will not contain the smile that threatens. I am the only one of the three of us smiling.

“Catherine has gained 6 pounds in 2 weeks,” Dr. Homm says, from the chair pushed back from her desk. Her lips are set in a straight line. My heart leaps. Catherine is staring at Dr. Homm, arms folded across her chest, hostile. The birthmark on her middle finger looks bigger than it used to. She has not taken off her black parka.

“It is unusual for a true anorexic to comply this quickly and willingly. I am wondering if this is what we call disordered eating, whether Catherine is shall we say ‘trying on a hat’, albeit a dangerous hat.”

I am confused by the lack of enthusiasm in her voice, but not surprised by the weight gain. There is a place directly under Catherine’s chin, at the top of her neck that was once taught and concave, which is now softer with a slight curve. It is not something anyone else would notice, except of course, me, and Catherine.

“I have doubts,” Dr. Homm continues. “Given the extent of the depletion sustained by her body, I am recommending she continue these sessions to monitor her weight and metabolic levels. We have a long way to go.”

Catherine turns toward the window, while I schedule the next appointment, silently telling me I’ve betrayed her. She has done what we asked, and now, feels we’ve moved the finish line. I will spend another car ride home explaining the situation to deaf ears.

“Why are you so angry, love, she said you’re doing great,” I said pulling the car down the narrow driveway.

“I hate the way she talks down to me, like I have no idea about anything”

“Her tone is a little stiff, but she’s a doctor not a friend.” I attempt.

“I don’t want to go back.”

“I know.”

“No, really Mom, I screwed up, I get it, it was stupid, but I’m putting weight on, like you all want, I know what to do, I really don’t like her, I can do it myself.”

Maybe it’s fatigue from the battle, or wanting to disrupt Catherine’s anger with my own, that makes me detour from our regular route home, and pull into a health food store.

“You still have to go. But if you think you have this all figured out, show me what you like to eat, what you’ll eat enough of!” I shout at her profile.

“You’re going to make me keep seeing her?”

“Show me you really get it, Catherine, how serious you are about getting better, and then we’ll talk about it.” I said, a bit softer, finding that familiar perch between anger, disappointment, and my desperate love for her.

She pulls her fists out of her pockets, pushes the cart over the slush, through the automatic doors. I release my grip on the idea that Catherine will join the rest of her family in eating meat and potatoes, but joining her family, and eating, are all I care about now, and I am proud of her and feel hopeful.

She wanders in and out of aisles, we read labels, she teaches me things. I joke about rabbit pellets and birdseed and she laughs a little, she tells me about quinoa and bulgar and I listen. When we get home, we clear off two shelves in the pantry for her. Catherine methodically organizes her food into groups, wheat flour, coconut shreds, chia and flax and pumpkin seeds next. As I watch her put brown rice besides bags of farrow, delicate hands busily organizing, I am reminded that I have not won the war, and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve even won today’s battle. My daughter arranges everything in a perfect straight line, and then does the same to the other shelves in my pantry.

My husband Joe is almost asleep when I put my book down and turn off the light. Down the hall, Matt is brushing his teeth, undoubtedly spraying toothpaste and spit all over the bathroom mirror. I enjoy listening to the sounds of my family settling in for the night. I close my eyes and wait for the girls to come in, grateful Molly is picking up Catherine at her friend’s house. The back door opens underneath me, earlier than expected. Molly walks across the kitchen floor, I can tell its Molly because her strides are longer. I look at the ceiling, waiting to hear Catherine’s lighter tread. There is rustling in the kitchen, and then footsteps leave the house. Muffled noise comes back in the house a second time. A feeling of dread drags me from under my warm comforter. Molly meets me at the top of the stairs.

“You need to come look at Catherine,” she says with sad eyes, and a towel in her hand.

Catherine is lying on the bathroom floor, in jeans that she should have outgrown by now, and her black parka. Her knees are pulled up against the side of the toilet, her head protected from the tile by her hood, pieces of the fur lining clumped by dried spittle, stick to the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are closed and she is still. I lower myself to the floor, and stroke her hair, while Molly tells me what she knows. Vodka shots, she had already thrown up at least twice, she was talking in the car. The anger that I had imagined I might feel at a time like this never comes. Instead, intense sadness and cold fear consume me.

“Go get your father.”

I swallow hard and pull Catherine to a seated position; she opens her eyes but cannot focus, “I’m sorry,” she groans, and lurches toward the open toilet. She wretches, and wretches again, but there is nothing left in her stomach.

Joe settles Catherine’s wisp of a body into white eyelet sheets on her left side, pushing her hair gently off of her forehead, and puts the white wicker waste basket near her, on the floor. I lay in the other bed, on my right side facing our daughter. I cannot distinguish his anger from his sadness, and right now, I cannot help him to either. The lamp on the night table between the twin beds is on. It’s white with painted grey shells. No matter how many different ways the girls have decorated their room over the years, this lamp has been their reading light. It casts a bright white over Catherine’s limp body, creating shadows under her bottom lip and behind her on the backside of the bed. Joe kisses Catherine on the forehead, and then comes to me. I look at him expectantly, his big calloused hand pushes the hair back from my temple the way he does when I’m upset. He kisses me lightly on the lips.

“I’ll go check on Molly,” he says and leaves the room.

I have never felt lonelier. I have pulled the putrid smelling vomit stained shirt over Catherine’s head, rinsed the bile out of the tendrils that escaped her pony tail, faced the shock of her body lying limp on the bathroom floor. I have been driving a sad, angry and hungry girl to appointments alone. No one to show me the expression my face should be making when she says “I’m fine now,” no one to help me untangle her confusion, no one to tell me what would be the most supportive words to use on the car rides home when she’s filled with silent rage, and no one to tell me how this happened on my watch or how to fix it! Why does her father just get the kiss on the forehead? Why does he get the synopsis of each appointment, that I am too exhausted to go into with any detail, and why does he think that his cliche’s of ‘hang in there’ and ‘you’re doing a great job’ even scratch the surface of what is required here? I hear him on the other side of the door.

“Good night, kiddo,” he says to Matt.

I swipe big tears off of my cheeks, and squeeze Molly’s comforter to my chin. I implore Catherine, for the hundredth time, to let me help her. With the lamp on, listening to the sound of the heat click on and off, the periodic creaking of an old house, my breathing slows. I stay on my right side all night, and watch Catherine’s blanket rise rhythmically up and down until her eyes open in the morning.

A few days later, Matt, Catherine and I return home from running tedious errands. The prescription at the drug store wasn’t ready yet, the vet bill was too high, and the grocery store filled with food had not inspired ideas for dinner tonight. Mail and purse in one hand, I bend to pick up a UPS box left at the front door as the kids shuffle past me. Matt kicks his shoes off, leaving a scuff on the wall, bounds up the steps two at a time, hands shaking the dark mahogany banister as he goes. Catherine moves slowly in his wake, lining up her boots exactly next to each other, tips of the shoes an inch away from the moulding that meets the floor. She said little while we were out, and seemed to lack the energy to do more than pull the fur trimmed hood of her parka over her head. Her father had taken her to her appointment, but I hadn’t gotten the update yet. She looks too thin today. Trudging up the staircase, her small hand dwarfed by the banister, she eventually drops it limply by her side. I walk into the kitchen towards the island to put down the things that burden my arms, and stare blankly out the window where icy water moves rhythmically towards the shore. Cold rage washes over me. I am angry that images of a bubbly baby girl, a toddler with birthday cake smeared on her lips are being replaced by darker images of dull eyes and thinning hair. I wander through ugly fantasies of my hands grasping Catherine’s shoulders sharply, shaking her. I even see fear in her eyes at my anger, and I relish that fear because it is a reaction, it is alive, it is SOMETHING! What is wrong?! Why are you doing this to yourself?! Your Doctor asks if I understand what she’s said, and in my fantasy, I shriek frantic, out of control. No! I don’t! Not at all, I understand none of it! Blood pulses behind my eyes. The marble countertop is warming under my perspiring hands. I brush the tears away at the sound of Matt coming down the stairs.

“Ready to go, Mom?”

Three months later, I’m lying in bed, waiting for Catherine to come home. My book rests against my knees; my fingers play with the edges of pages not read yet. I washed all of our winter coats earlier in the day and packed them away in bins. Folding Catherine’s black armor with the fur trimmed hood, that had hidden her body and her face for so many months, I hoped desperately that next winter it would just be a black parka again, protecting her only from the cold winter winds, and nothing else. My thoughts drift to a setting sun, and the white office, on the water’s edge. That moment could not be counted as the beginning of her challenges. Before the first appointment there was weight loss, unrecognizable at first. And before the weight loss, her mental struggle which she endured quietly and alone. I push my glasses to the top of my head and rub the bridge of my nose with my finger. Pages flutter slightly under the blades of a slow moving ceiling fan. Joe breaths a little deeper next to me, sleep has quieted his thoughts. So, what was her trigger: the soccer tryout, the break up with what’s-his-name, a big chaotic family, a controlling mother? Or was the beginning way back at her very own beginning? Born with the predisposition to be a high achiever, rarely at rest, searching for control, she has insecurities and anxieties that take time and maturity to handle. “How she’s wired,” described one expert. There is a stack of books on the subject of eating disorders, written by doctors, and survivors, tucked in the bottom drawer of the chest next to my bed, each with a different theory on why and how. The only thing they all agree on is that there isn’t a finish line. Setbacks will have to be regarded as a normal part of moving forward. I close my eyes, and push my head back further into the pillow.

The mudroom door opens, answered by the dog’s tail thumping against the floor. Catherine peeks her head through the bedroom door.

“I’m home,” she whispers.

Before I can respond, she strides into the room, curls her leg under her and sits on the edge of my bed. I shift my book and sit up a little bit straighter. A child sitting on my bed in the middle of the night has come to represent a myriad of things over the years: bad dreams, a funny story, a revelation, a break up, a sadness. I kept a quiet expression, put a hand on her leg and listened.

“I’m so glad you’re awake! You are going to think this is so funny,” she says, trying to cover a giggle with her hand, glancing guiltily at her sleeping father.

“Tell me!” I say to her twinkling eyes, waving a dismissive hand towards her father who I am sure is wide awake and listening, under closed eyelids.

“James was walking and texting, so he wasn’t paying attention….”

Through bursts of laughter she tells me about her night. Her hands mesmerize me while she talks. She wears silver rings on multiple fingers on both hands; some are stacked together, some alone. The ring that holds her birthstone is perched above her thumb knuckle. All of them are sparkly and bright. Her hands are fuller, knuckles less pronounced, each finger a softer version of what had been. She waves her hands expressively during the story, dancing through the air in illustration, tossing her hair back as the story picks up speed.

“Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard? Can you believe he even did that?” Catherine wipes at glistening eyes, the amethyst on her thumb flashes in the light.

Anne Lonergan lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children. She is a member of the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction will  be published in two upcoming anthologies by Kind of a Hurricane Press.

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Witness for the Defence (of Teens)

Witness for the Defence (of Teens)

Beautiful and depressed teen girl leaning on a brick wall building.

By Kristine Klassen

It has happened countless times.

I am at a gathering where I’m meeting people for the first time. We juggle glasses, napkins, and hor d’oeuvres to shake hands, and exchange pleasantries; invariably we arrive at the question of our work lives.

Stranger: “So, what do you do for a living?”

Me: “I am a high school teacher.”

It’s pretty much a conversation stopper. Well conversation staller, for sure. Most of the time, my new acquaintance’s response has, at the very least, a whiff of… surprise – she seems so normal…or disdain – how could a well-balanced individual choose THAT path?

In these countless first encounters, there is a sense of disconnection and puzzlement. People can imagine what it is like to be a restaurant manager, a lawyer, a bus driver; they can’t grasp what it is like to be an adult working with teens.

Each time, I feel I have to defend. I defend myself and my choice: I love my work. But much more importantly, I find myself defending my students. In the beginning, I would get tongue tied when people said, “yes, but kids these days, they’re so _____” (I won’t fill in the blank because that would be perpetuating a stereotype, something I caution students about daily.) But over the years I have worked to articulate why this generation is redeemable and full of promise, and how its members are ultimately an absolute joy to be around everyday.

Let me tell you what I know about “kids these days.”

The impact of media is ubiquitous and insidious. The Participaction website says that the average kid spends 7.5 hours in front of a screen. Add 6 hours of school and 8 hours of sleep, and you are already getting close to 24. The afternoon and evening hours when they are in front of their screen are portions of the day when, before smart technology, kids were having conversations. When I was a kid, these were the hours when we were detailing our days over a family meal. We were hanging out in the park. We were hiding in closets, talking on the phone when we were supposed to be doing our homework. We were talking. A lot. And in those shared experiences we were telling stories, excitedly talking about our favourite songs and books, learning about each others’ hopes, fears, and dreams.

If kids in this generation are limiting their interactions to snapchat posts and online group sessions of Call of Duty, where are they trying out creative ideas or learning from the people in their lives? Can two people really know each other, really love each other, if the majority of their interactions are through texts and instant messaging?

Kids and their adults must work hard to cultivate the arts of conversation and storytelling. Finding these opportunities is tough given that friendships are everything for teens. They can meet up anytime through text, snapchat, FaceTime, Skype, and the myriad other ever-emerging platforms, all of which offer instant gratification. Their adults, on the other hand, need actual face time to nurture a relationship which plums the time-consuming depths of values, aspirations, family history. Is it any wonder the adults are losing ground?

Another crucial impact of media is that many of our young people have lost their childhoods, far too soon. When I hear 15- year-olds talking about Game of Thrones, I blanch. (I ask if their parents know they are watching, and I have to admit, sometimes the answer is yes.) The unencumbered online access to explicit images, videos, news footage deeply affects me – as an adult with experience and critical thinking on my side. Imagine how seeing the sexualization of women in most music videos and video games, the footage of a suicide bombing, the graphic murder scenes in PG13 films, is shaping the world view of our young people. Without a conversation to unpack what they have seen and heard, kids will not have the language to express what is potentially harming them.

As far as the language they do have, the complaint I hear most often is that teens are “rude” and “vulgar”. Well, consider that during those 7.5 hours the language they are learning is through music videos and youtube clips. Have you checked out a 2 Chainz or Future video lately? And the conversations they are witnessing are in films like Dirty Grandpa and Deadpool, the top 1 and 2 films on Teen Vogue‘s “Top 12 Movies You Can’t Miss in 2016.”

So I cut them some slack when the occasional F-bomb slips out. First of all, because they hear it all the time, and they don’t know how it sounds to us. But secondly, because I’ve decided that is not the hill I am going to die on. Rather, I take that opportunity to talk about how I hear that word. I help them to find a new one, and we move on. It is a conversation, and once we have hashed that out, they use the word less.

In all things, I work with my touchstone. I have learned over the years that with teens, it really is all about relationships. I make them talk, and I make them listen to each other. I encourage them to share their favourite things, and as a community, we honour their identities and their accomplishments. We can do this because we get to know each other through discussion, and that is a joy and a privilege for me.

Do I see snapchatting and texting every day? Absolutely. But I feel it is the job of adults to teach kids how to use their devices effectively, and I am working on that all the time. They can live without their phones – but they have to be given something pretty compelling to tear them away. AND they need help understanding respect for their environment – in our case, the community of the classroom.

Ultimately, like all of us, teens want to be liked, they want to be valued for their ideas and for who they are. They want to be known and understood by the adults in their lives, and this can only happen without judgement. Without judgement and with a lot of face to face conversations where we listen and let them try out their ideas, their ever-changing identities, their beliefs.

This is what I know: teens take time.

We must slow down. Talk and listen. Show them how we appreciate their passions, and help them find the language and the avenues to pursue them in healthy ways. As a teacher, once they know I respect and like them, the road is paved for learning. And this process, which is admittedly painstaking with some young people, is what fulfills me.

How would my students feel about being championed by a no longer young English teacher who had them to sit through videos of both David Bowie and Prince this year (some of them rolling their eyes and checking their snapchat while they silently pleaded for it to end)? Would they think I have the right to speak for them?

I don’t know. We should ask them.

Kristine Klassen has been a high school educator for 17 years in Ottawa, Canada. A Guidance Counsellor, English, and Film Studies teacher,  she has worked with thousands of young people in the school setting… and two very busy boys at home. You can follow her on Twitter @klassensroom.

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My Mom Chose Welfare Instead of a Minimum Wage Job

My Mom Chose Welfare Instead of a Minimum Wage Job

Pretty white flowers contrasted by a black and white bokeh background.

By Tess Bercan

When I was growing up, my mom made a choice to accept social assistance (better known as Welfare) rather than working. There are so many reasons why it’s difficult to admit this to the world, but I think the most encompassing reason is that I sense society’s general disapproval of accepting social assistance. I have seen countless posts that express outrage toward social programs such as Welfare. The bottom line of each of these posts is that those who need and accept help from the government are somehow “lazy” or “no good”.

From personal experience, I know that statements such as this are not only not always true, but that they can be emotionally damaging. I can’t speak to every welfare situation, but I can speak from my own.

My mom left her tumultuous home at the age of sixteen in search of a safer and more peaceful environment. Shortly after she struck out on her own, she met my dad. From what she has told me, they fell in love almost instantly. He wasn’t much older than she was, but they got married and had two girls (myself and my sister). As many youthful romances go, theirs did not last. It didn’t take long before my mom found herself single again, but this time with two girls – plus a little boy on the way to take care of.

My mom didn’t have anyone she could call for a lifeline at the time. Her parents weren’t in a place to offer any kind of emotional or financial support, and nor was the rest of her family. For all intent and purposes, she was alone in the world with three kids to feed, and only a high school diploma to fall back on. She was in a high pressure, stressful situation – and she made the choice to go on welfare.

She had barely finished high school herself, and she knew first-hand how difficult the world was for those without further education. She had attempted quite a few jobs herself. She worked as a waitress for some time and for a landscaping company, but she just couldn’t quite get by on these minimum wage incomes. On top of this, she looked into daycare costs, commuting, work clothes, and most of all the time it took for her to be away from us kids, and the costs outweighed the benefits. The minimum wage job she had as a waitress paid for our groceries and rent, and that was about it … logically, it just wasn’t adding up for her.

She also told me that she gazed at my sister, brother, and I while we were sleeping one night, and deeply knew right then and there, that she couldn’t bare to miss a single moment of us growing up. She knew that she had to pay the bills, but she also knew her heart was telling her something she couldn’t ignore – she yearned to be physically and emotionally present in our upbringing. She said that she didn’t have the strength to ignore this calling within her, so she chose to accept a means to be with us through welfare, rather than heading off to work everyday.

My mom made a choice that wasn’t popular at all. However, she made the choice that was right for her, and in turn it was right for us kids. In retrospect, I am filled with pride and gratitude with my mom’s courage to accept help regardless of the social implications.

Because of her choice, she was able to be physically present in raising us. When I left for school and when I got home, my mom was home. Often, she would have us sit at the table right after school, and we would do our homework, while she washed the floors or baked loaf after loaf of bread. She knew all of my assignments, their due dates, and what was required of them. She wasn’t a disciplinarian by any means, but she did make us stick to our after school homework dates, and I can say from a child’s perspective, this presence meant a lot. There was no way I would have sat at a table and done my homework with the kind of dedication I did with my mom there. She wanted to be present for that, and she wanted to instill the values of time and dedication to academics in us, and it was important that it was her who did it.

She opted to accept welfare as a means to get by, and she relied upon her incredible bargaining and money saving skills. She was raised without a lot of money, so she knew how to get by on a little. She decided to forgo a lot of extras that made a huge difference in our financial outflow. We didn’t have cable, or a lot of expensive packaged groceries, new furniture, or simple things like “typical” cleaning supplies.

She would thrift shop for furniture, buy large amounts of flour and other basics – and she’d make most of our meals from inexpensive basics (like veggies and bulk items), and she’d use inexpensive alternatives for cleaning like baking soda and white vinegar. When she needed the car fixed, she would babysit for our neighbour, and in return, he’d fix the breaks. When Christmas came around, she reached out to the local church, and they donated our turkey and some basic winter clothes. When it was Halloween, she made our costumes from scratch, and I have to admit, I could feel the love put into them when I wore them.

One year, I was determined to be Cleopatra, and my mom brainstormed. She used some white fabric we had lying around the house and sewed me the dress. She traded our unused TV for the gold snake embellishments. It might seem like a silly thing to trade a TV for such a frivolous item like a Halloween costume, but in a way, it’s no different than going out to buy the item with cash — she just let go of something we didn’t need for what the present situation called for. Details like the gold snake necklace made me feel special to my mom. I never found out how she got that costume together until I grew up.

I grew up learning to think outside of the box, and I attribute much of my freedom with creativity due to my mom’s stubborn inventiveness. When it came time for her to put food on the table, have Christmas presents, or buy school supplies – she always found a way. I truly respect and admire my mom, and feel complete gratitude for her ability to swallow her pride, and opt for the less “popular” choice.

proof-1231Tess Bercan has a degree in education, and has taught many years. In her time as a teacher, Tess has seen many different students in all sorts of financial and family situations. It has helped to widen her view of the world. Now Tess is a freelance writer and lives in Vancouver Canada with her little Maltese Pup, Holly.

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If the Season We Could Keep

If the Season We Could Keep

art-if-the-season-we-could-keepBy Sarah Bousquet

“Let’s do arts and crafts, mama!” says my daughter, her request decidedly different than just a few weeks ago when we were doing “arts and craps.”

“What did you say?” I ask her.

“Arts and crafts!”

Her pronunciation is perfect, that very tricky “f” sound followed by the “t.” I am proud, of course, but I also feel something else, a tiny pang. The funny word has disappeared, slipped away with so many others. I’m still holding onto “bobana” and “libary.”

These are the little things that can’t be photographed or stored in a box. The minutiae of age two. I attempt to memorize it, imprint it like an internal tattoo.

When someone asks, “How old is she?” I want to say two-and-a-half, but that’s not quite true. She’s getting closer to three with each passing day, and so sometimes I answer, “She’ll be three in January,” trying get acquainted with that big new number. A number that makes my heart race a little.

But January still feels far away, maybe because the fall season has stretched itself out long and colorful here in the Northeast. The ground is carpeted with crunchy leaves and the trees are bright with reds and golds. I’ve been willing the season to stay, and magically, it’s obeyed.

My daughter collects leaves in bunches, filling buckets and baby carriages, carting leaves back and forth across the yard. We arrange some on the table, paint them and make prints, glue them to our watercolor creations. We capture them while we can.

This is how I feel about the season of age two. I want to keep it, stash it away, fill all the buckets of my memory bank, trap time.

There are the Cheerios balanced in the bowl she takes into the play room, because Cheerios are best crunched in front of cartoons. A few will find their way to the corners of the couch and onto the carpet, crushed beneath small feet. I will come later with the vacuum and grumble about it, and then think, soon I will miss this.

There is the “monkey trick” she does at the playground, grasping any bar within her reach and swinging her legs out. Her attempts to master the balance beam. The way she now pushes me away, “I can do it by myself, mama.”

There are the books she’s memorized. She pulls them from the shelf and settles herself next to the cat and says, “I’m going to read him a book!” And there she is, turning the pages and reading the story on her own.

There is our coffee ritual at the grocery store. She sits in the cart kicking her legs, pulling at the greeting cards. I hand her the coffee can lid to hold while I peel the thin aluminum seal and reveal shiny dark brown beans. I inhale the rich scent and then put it under her nose. But instead of sniffing, she exhales. It makes me laugh every time. I pour the beans into the machine. The loud motor whirs, and she startles, then laughs, delighted as the grounds pour through the shoot. She helps secure the lid, and I think, the smell of fresh ground coffee will always be this.

There is the rosy-cheeked exuberance of running inside from a sunrise walk with her dad, the smell of fresh air as she hugs me. The way she digs into her pockets for the beach treasures she collected. The frosty browns and greens of the sea glass she plunks down carefully on the table. We examine them together, smooth-edged from salt water, transformed over time.

There is the carefree joy of running toward the giant pile of brown leaves dotted with orange and red, the way she dives in and tosses leaves into the air. “Jump in the leaves, mama!”

I run after her and fall into the pile. We lie next to each other, staring up at the fiery red maple leaves against the blue sky. There is no one around to take a photograph, and it doesn’t matter. I hear the rustle and crunch. Smell the damp. Feel myself sink into the soft bed of leaves against the cold ground. See that sweet two-year-old smile.

We bring leaves back to the craft table. I have a new trick to show her. I slip a maple leaf between two pieces of paper and gently rub the graphite over the hidden leaf. Slowly it reveals itself, the intricate edges, tiny veins, strong stem. A perfect replica, a moment memorized. A version we can keep.

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

Opinion: Tell Your Kids Early

images-1By Melissa Uchiyama

From the very start of pregnancy, there are a myriad of decisions to make. No pee stick doles out suggestions on who to tell when. There is no chart. Becoming pregnant while already a parent means another giant decision must be made: when to tell your child that he or she may have a sibling. I say, tell ’em. Tell ’em when you’re comfortable and don’t let fear get in the way of important, life-changing news that’s yours to tell.

Telling our kids early-on puts faith in them as thinking and feeling family members. Our family has only positively benefited from including our children in the good news early on, not stifling a sweet thing, pretending I’m only getting rounder from bread rolls, and not an actual baby.

My husband and I told both of our children very early on (less than ten weeks) and decided to do all of the growing and many of the discussions together, as a family. No secrets. As a result, both of my children (and now again, as I await the birth of my third) bonded with their siblings in utero, through a myriad of communication and lots of tummy hugs. I also believe telling children, and close friends, early-on is healthy, even if complications later arise. They will have already picked up on grief and may feel confused if not a part of the process. This, to me, is family. This is growing in community and building bonds that will be strong as thick rope vines as the new baby is born and continues to grow.

Other parents may dismiss their child’s ability to understand there is a growing baby inside. They often wait months, believing that their older children cannot possibility understand abstract time and that which is not instant. I became pregnant within a few weeks of a close friend. She and her husband decided to tell their toddler, who by the way, is very smart, months later, as a Christmas gift, whereas our daughter had already been touching and kissing my growing midsection, discussing her shifting life as a big sister, and learning about the process of growing a baby, for those same months. By the time our new baby was born, the bond was tangible and strong; they were siblings. It took more time, I believe, for our friend’s kids to latch on to their bond.

At seven weeks gestation, I couldn’t contain my excitement. It was a maternal adrenaline — I called my friend outside of a grocery store. She had taken a moment to answer my call while skiing on a mountain and I knew with certainty, as I divulged my news, should my good news turn to heartache, I’d need her same arms reaching through the phone, reaching into helping me cope. For me, I needed to share.

Certainly, our kids are not our besties we gab to over the phone or over a glass of Merlot. They are our children and we have the job of choosing what and how to edit information so that it is developmentally sound, emotionally appropriate. To be honest, my husband shocked me when he told our daughter at seven weeks. I knew the risks of loss. Even so, we told her and we rejoiced. It’s hard to stifle joy and it’s hard to silence the pain of loss. Kids may see lots of tears at different points—the happy and the sad. I say, with as much uncertainty in the world, let’s choose to show them the joy, never mind the risks. Anything can happen at anytime. If an egg has fertilized and rooted to the walls of a uterus, that is joy. Everything is working, especially if this was an answer to prayer, if the family can picture another squirmy body pulling up to the family table.

Again, if the pregnancy does not go as planned, if there is a problem, an abnormality, a heartbeat that later fails, leaving you empty and grieving, your children will be a comfort. They will be part of the overall process of not just a mom’s pain, but a family’s process towards healing. They will need to grieve, perhaps, the loss of a sibling, a brother or sister they could not meet. But those moments with their head on your belly, listening for a heartbeat? Those loving snapshots of big sis rubbing lotion on mom’s belly and those talks about what goes on in the womb? This is the molecular structure of jewels. These will be healing, sweet memories, the times you included them in your joy.

I say tell them. Tell your kids there is room for one more. Tell them they are important and needed. Tell them you are praying and expecting that strong heartbeat to keep beating and beating until they are in your arms and eating bananas with big sis and later, still, running around. Families share their plans.

Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has appeared in Brain, Child, in regards to nudity and bathing, two pretty cool topics in her book, also contributing to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on www.melibelleintokyo.com.

History of David

History of David

Snow on the trees in spring season

By Kris Rasmussen

I know you only from the April showers that always flowed down our mother’s face, but never fully drowned her sorrow. By the lilies she places on the your grave each year;the only evidence of your few  breaths  on this planet.

Tonight, a snowy-mix fills the Michigan spring night, and Mom mentions you to me in a moment of spontaneous reminiscing, the kind she has too frequently these days. “Dr. Frye revived his body three times, you know. He decided that was enough. I always had to hope he was right.”  Then she notices how dirty the front windows are looking.

I, too, notice the smudges and streaks clouding our view of the sturdy maple and the precocious squirrels racing around it. I don’t answer Mom right away, because middle age brings its own wistful wanderings. I list all the ways someone I never met has marked my life.

I would never have been delivered to our parents’ doorstep from the William Booth Hospital for Unwed Mothers.

I would have remained Eleanor, a name I despise but was given to me by my foster mom.

I would have missed Coming Home days, which were, as I smugly told the kids at school, way better than birthdays.

My birthday featured all the traditional trappings of cake, parties, and gifts. My Coming Home Day, January 28 included indulgent after-Christmas bargain shopping for more presents, and permission to gorge myself on macaroni and cheese and Chicken in a Biscuit crackers until I almost puked. One year, I forced my brother to sit next to me while we went to see 101 Dalmatians, just because it was my day. (He  was adopted, too, so don’t worry, he had his day as well.)

Mom never forgot your birthday, but it was marked by screams, tears and, occasionally , broken dishes, not wrapping paper and bows. Every April Mom would say the same thing by way of explanation, “Well, the anniversary of David’s birthday is this month. What do you expect?”

What did I expect? Nothing. Our mother was the only one in my family who even spoke of you. Grandpa and Grandma Smith, Dad, Aunt Paula and Uncle Harold never mentioned you. Hundreds of photos of camping trips, hunting trips, fishing trips still exist, but not one photo of Mom pregnant with you – as if that might have been some sort of jinx.

Yet you lingered along the edges of my childhood anyway.

I felt your breath exhale from our parents’ lungs every time I asked to ride my bike beyond the usual boundary of Jennings Avenue to venture some place all by myself, like to the corner of Myrtle Street. Their response: “It’s too dangerous.” Doctors tried six different times to fix a  chronic condition in my knees growing up. Before each operation, you flickered in our parents’ eyes along with their anxiety. At 21, I was rushed to the hospital after being pummeled to the pavement by a sedan. Despite the searing jolts of pain, I refused to tell the police officers how to call Mom and Dad because I didn’t want to upset them. They had lost one child, but they were not going to lose me.

When my brother rebelled, fought someone in school, shoplifted from a grocery store, Mom hugged me too tightly and said “Losing David was a sign I shouldn’t have been a mother after all.”

You were the one God sent us because you were just what we needed, Dad scribbled on a card to me once.

You told us that before you came to live with us you were walking around in the woods with Jesus, my mom would remind me, shaking her head in amazement.

Surely it was this religious fervor over my “filling in” for you that somehow contributed to my stellar GPA and pristine high school reputation.

Tonight, I press Mom for details about your life. I’m learning almost too late that stories can drown in bitterness, wither from neglect, and vanish from inevitable forgetfulness. If I don’t learn your story now, it will die with our mother. One way I can honor you both is to find out the history of your life.

Mom snaps out of her reverie to tell me more.

Dr. Frye actually forbid Mom to become pregnant. Her high blood pressure and high risk of eclampsia made her a poor risk. “You’ll never make it to term,” he’d warned.  If there is anything you should know about Mom, it’s that she listens to no one when she really wants something. She wanted you more than anything, so you were conceived after years of our parents dodging the shame-filled question, “Why haven’t you started a family yet?”

The two of you made it only to twenty-four weeks. Mom never saw your face. Neither did Dad. Convinced he was losing both his wife and his son, he huddled on his knees in a janitor’s closet. Meanwhile the Catholic nurses, some my mother had worked with for years, refused to participate in the emergency procedure which saved her life – barely – but couldn’t save yours. She never forgave them.

Arms empty, Mom refused to sign a consent to have her tubes tied. Did I mention Mom was – and is – a stubborn woman? But Dad won this argument – in fact, this may be the only argument he ever won – when he told her he would never touch her again if she didn’t have the surgery.

Which brings your story back to me, sitting here in an olive and mustard living room, weary and striving to hold onto one more piece of Mom before it’s too late. I allow myself to dwell on one final connection you and I have. Someday I will likely be buried in a plot next to yours.

I wonder what our stories will mean to anyone else then.

Kris Rasmussen is an educator, playwright, and freelance writer living in Michigan. Her creative nonfiction work has been published in magazines and journals such as The Bear River Review and Art House America. She was a contributing editor for the multi-faith website Beliefnet for several years. In addition, her dramatic work has been by produced by the Forward Theater Company in Madison, Wisconsin and published by Lillenas Drama. She is grateful to authors Lauren Winner and Charity Singleton Craig for introducing her to the work of Brain, Child. You can follow her on twitter @krisras63 or visit her website at www.krisrasmussen.net.

 

 

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The French Connection

The French Connection

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By Petra Perkins

Sometimes a mother and daughter need to get away – without husbands, kids, and without reserve. My daughter Sue and I took such a vacation. It would be our last trip together – but not our last journey.

“Let’s go to France,” I said, weeks after Sue’s diagnosis of MS., Multiple Sclerosis. A doctor told us his certainty, but we didn’t believe it until a second opinion. Maybe we didn’t really believe it then. She’d been having some weird bodily sensations – headaches, fatigue, dropping things – but felt well enough to travel. I thought I was doing a good thing by buying one big duffle bag, jazzy with a zillion pockets. Not one to travel light, I filled it to the brim and then it was too heavy and ungainly to carry. Sue named it The Monkey, because she ended up strapping it on her back.

This isn’t a story of Sue contracting a brain/nerve disease that would steal her mobility and her memory. This isn’t about me, her mother, who couldn’t stop the insidious onslaught. This is the story of our pilgrimage to France, where we discovered Roundabouts. You know – those circus circles that replace traffic lights? (Suddenly you’re in them, you stay on the fast left side, round and round, dizzy until you decide when to exit and then scream as you cut to the right.) We flew through countless roundabouts with me at the wheel of a stick shift and Sue navigating by an old-fashioned map. I would just keep circling like a clown until she said: ‘EXIT NOW!” Two madcap American ladies in a teeny orange car stuffed with us and The Monkey.

In the stage of quasi-denial after the cruel diagnosis I decided we should go to Lourdes, the place of healing waters. Lourdes is a village near the Pyrenees where sick people arrive – six million a year – on their pilgrimage to dip into holy water for a divine cure. Occasional miracle cures have been documented by the Catholic Church since 1858 when the Blessed Lady of Lourdes (the Virgin Mary) was seen there. M.S. has no cure, yet, so I thought we should try everything, no matter how far or bizarre. I would have taken her to the moon if a holy spring had turned up.

Neither of us is Catholic, but we share fascination with the French language – I’d studied it for years and Sue had taken it in high school. We constantly joked, in French/English (our version of Franglais) telling “Yo Mama” jokes. Yo maman est sooo tres gros (fat) she has her own zeep code. If our jokes weren’t classy, our esteem for fine wine was, with Bordeaux at the top of our lists.

So, there we were, off to wine tastings, to eat our way through the country’s delicacies, sip café au laits in boulangeries, and seek a miracle.

After an airplane, bus, taxi and car trek to Lourdes, we finally arrived at the grounds of the Grotto, lush with iconic statues, green lawns and shade trees. Its walkways were lined with pilgrims speaking many languages, pushed in wheelchairs or carried on stretchers. A kind, elderly nun greeted us.

“I must tell you straightaway,” she said in perfect English as we queued up. “You cannot be cured unless you change your lifestyle. ARE you prepared to change your lifestyle?” I was stunned by this admonition because she knew nothing about Sue’s life; Sue could have been a nun for all she knew. But the truth was, she did have a stressful lifestyle: a devoted mother as well as a workaholic, raising two kids and a demanding medical transcription business.

More stunning was when Sue shook her head. “No,” she said, flatly, “I won’t change my lifestyle.” Wait, I thought. We’re here only five minutes and she’s saying ‘No’? I took Sue aside, persuading her to listen to me, her omniscient mother. “Listen, girl, we’ve come halfway across the world for this… maybe you could go the last steps, okay? See what happens… who knows, maybe The Lady of Lourdes is handing out miracles today.” Sue rolled tear-filled eyes and shrugged. I continued: “I know, I know… but if you don’t believe, then how about putting an intent out there in the universe… to be open to suggestion? Maybe intent is not so far from belief.” I was persuading myself, too.

We were immediately directed to bathing stalls near the shrine, alight with soft candles. Nuns handed us plastic sheets and asked us to remove all our clothes after which they would lead us into the spring. Sue refused to go au natural, but again I persuaded. We became nudists stepping into freezing-cold holy water. I fervently prayed she wouldn’t do a “Yo Mama” joke.

“Holy shit!” my sweet daughter gasped. The nuns didn’t miss a beat of their prayers to the Virgin Mary. I concentrated hard on that moment so I’d remember it forever as I floated a mother’s entreaty – as intent – into the universe.

Sue whispered: “Should we ‘tip’ the nuns?”

The next day we turned in our car, hopped a fast train to Paris, and that’s when a second pilgrimage started. Sue led us to the famous Printemps clothing store, where she found a green and gold brocade designer gown. I bought a sultry black diamondback sundress that I doubted I’d ever wear in my hometown. Next stop: a Parisian fashion show where sleek models glided the runway. Sue fell hard for an Italian male model, giggling when he walked by. At every change in outfit he stopped to strut his stuff and wink at her.

From our hotel we toured on foot to mingle with locals and by Metro to all things Parisienne. At a jazz restaurant, we dined on lamb served with sparklers standing in heaps of cous-cous. Sue called it “coo-coo”. The food, wine and music did make us a little coo-coo. No matter where we went, Sue attracted attention with her striking azure eyes, Cleopatra hair, and her unbridled delight in everything French.

We were only months away from her worst M.S. attack, one that left her temporarily blind, deaf, paralyzed, and hysterical. But on our trip we gave no time to imagining any worst-case scenarios. How inconceivable it was, the impending horror… how her life would be in a mere five years… where going to the bathroom would be an epic event, where she would need diapers, and, later, a permanent catheter. Right now, however, we occupied France! Right now we were in the ‘now’, we lived in the moment. We were together, enjoying the sensuousness of all things French. We spoke in our funny Franglais, flirted with oh-so-serious waiters, took a boat ride on the Seine. In the dark, from one bed to the other, we wondered about nuns and virgins, and traded secrets that mothers and daughters usually don’t. I told her why and how I fell in love with her dad when I was a girl. Sue divulged some details of her first romantic encounter. She told me how sorry she was for rude behavior when she was 16; I apologized for my angry reaction to it. We resolved issues from our past, making them right, hugging them away daily, oblivious of what the future held.

We wouldn’t know that in her mid-thirties, she would lose almost everything a normal person takes for granted: good vision; her short-term memory (early on sending me the same frantic email twenty times a day); her mind/finger dexterity, struggling to do very basic things with her hands; most of her cognitive abilities – to think beyond simplicities, to reason in solving problems. Or that after another attack she would, strangely, speak for days only in French. Very good French. The brain is a mysterious thing.

We would not foresee her overdose on pain medication, and then be rushed to the ER. We didn’t worry too much about M.S., because at that moment we were in paradise, together, in the City of Love and Light, distracted by divine wine and coffee, culture and cuisine. I washed her hair with holy water brought from Lourdes. She massaged my tired aching feet with it. We snapped pictures of each other in our new French clothes.

It made the future a little easier to bear that we’d had this trip. Something to remember with happiness. In subsequent years, Sue had to give up her career, her oversight of home and family, driving, walking, reading, cooking, and finally, her independence. Sue – a dynamo, a force to be reckoned with, a mover and shaker, a generous helper to all who knew her – would become dependent on others for almost her every need.

We still look at photos which I sometimes use to reconnect us with those two weeks. Flipping through the album she made, we laugh at her carrying the giant Monkey on her back. And another photo – the two of us in matching berets, toasting glasses of Bordeaux – at the sidewalk café on the Champs Elysees. We are so happy, in those moments when we occupied France, or rather, when we were occupied by France.

The photos bring it back and she remembers, in a roundabout way.

Petra Perkins, a Colorado author, writes and publishes memoir, fiction, poetry (2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal winner), humor and interviews. See more of her work at www.petrapetra.com

 

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Mother As Witness

Mother As Witness

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By Melissa Uchiyama

My daughter’s tooth lies over there, on a tea saucer by the sink. It is her first one, the first milk tooth to drop from her mouth. She wiggled it with incessant fascination, so much so, that she got an instant cough, fever, and must wash her hands every few minutes. All the germs that come with wiggling teeth. This is all new.

Her pink training wheels sit by the front door, wrenched off like another two baby teeth. Not needed. Grown out and flung away. All this growing and that’s hardly the end. This is the tip, the first shoots. My baby girl cannot stay small.

She is climbing up like a vine, a summer tendril with beans and new flowers. Another wiggly tooth sits by the other’s hole. Her legs cast off from the hips and she is almost-six going on eight. Amazed at the sharp sides of the tooth and that which couldn’t be seen before, she kept placing it back inside, back in its place. Everything had already changed. That which falls out cannot go back. It’s done being there. In fact, there are already grown-up teeth with ridges.

I fight to record the growth. Not just hers, but also my son’s. I cannot capture the changes fast enough, cannot devote myself to sitting long enough with paper and pen. It’s easier to nurse with Netflix than to peck one-handedly on a keyboard. The material stacks up. Already like teens, they sour their faces when I again whip out my phone to take a picture or ask them to repeat a phrase so I can pin it verbatim in my notebook. Three out of five times, my son will ruin a shot by sticking out his arm. They want pictures later, the camera away now. They want the evidence, but they want my eyes, my whole body engaged in the present, actively listening, in real time.

I’ve gotten fast at taking the right shots, so I’m still in conversation. I count it my job to take so many pictures and record short clips with my phone. Parenting frenetic, funny, emotional kids takes effort and momentum. I do not always record quotes, conversations or dramatic essays. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with everything taking place. I wash a few dishes or lay down to nurse, and the time seems to be gone. If I’m not recording, not wildly looting and frantically puling each memory into a case, who, then? Life with kids seems like it’s long, the whole “the hours are long”, but like the chomp of a gator, it’s quick. Each glimpse into who we are together at this moment could be lost.

That’s the challenge and total impetus of this writerly-mothering movement: we want to capture these moments of growth and pain, all the stretching of muscles and mammary glands before it’s over– before we’re lost to the blur. We want to feel each pearl of truth. It is not enough to simply jot down, “July 10: no more training wheels”. How big were her eyes when she peddled into the sun? Did she squint in concentration? How about those knuckles and what did she say that sounded proud? I already forget.

My infant, the newest person in our clan is two months old, and holds up her neck with the best of them. Her yet-blond lashes double daily and her faculties increase, yet I’ve not even written out her birth. I have not written about those first looks and how she feels in my arms. That weight increases as she takes in my milk. She is already twelve pounds and nearly rolling over. I think I’ll remember the big things, but I already rely on my photos to spark memory. It’s like jumpstarting a car’s battery. That’s the trick about motherhood–no stage seems like it’s leaving until suddenly, it does. You need every member of the family to roll around life with a Go-Pro camera stuck on their heads so at least there’s no want for footage.

I used to record conversations with my daughter, verbatim, used to keep a notebook of her funny expressions and all of the wonderful words, mispronounced. This new gap in her mouth may change new sounds in her speech as she already corrects the old, endearing ones. “Door” has been “doh-ah” and “excited”, “es-kited”. My son is in that stage of trying out autonomy through knowing my first name. He tries to access my attention, calling out “Moolissa” when “Mommy mommy mommy” doesn’t work. He’s perfectly integrated the word “actually” into his everyday lingo. Yet, I have zero remembrance of their first words.

I mourn the thousands of gorgeous moments undocumented. They are lost. My son, his legs are growing thicker. He stands with his father’s shoulders and back, giggles and speaks with me about how baby popped out and isn’t there anymore. He wants to talk about planes, engines, his baby, favorite teachers, with the language of NOW, of him being three, today, at 4:51. Without sufficient recordings, I will forget the ring and tenure of his voice, loud and then soft.

To want to write, to be a writer, though stages of child and mother is both blessed and torture. It is to adore a summer sun and see it fading. To be so busy with the act of loving and the desire to remember every ray of sun as it spreads. Childhood in itself is the act of changing, the seasons of marking time. Maybe writing, then, is the remarkable.

We want this, but most days leave us so plumb tuckered-out, we may barely get through the tuck-in story. My husband and I have both knocked our poor kids on their heads with hard-cover books when we’ve fallen asleep, mid-story. Who can journal much or write anything cogent any of these tired days? And suddenly, months have passed. Suddenly, it is time to invite guests to the first and then next birthday parties. Suddenly, teeth sit under a pillow, waiting for you. Time keeps moving; they keep growing and we mothers, we try to keep up. All we can do is snap, capture even a moment of beauty, a whir of beating wings.

These fallen teeth, these training wheels sit while I decide what we shall do with them. Treasure? Trash? Leverage to stick under a pillow for money and the promise of something better? It all leads to independence, the kind of run that makes us proud. It also makes us weep. Our babies are gone, pumping legs, splashing hard, teeth under fluffed pillows.

Today I caught my daughter’s thin limbs peddling, pushing hard round the corner. Those training wheels shall not go back on and that tooth is out for good. Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I wrote it down.

Melissa Uchiyama is an essayist and sometimes poet. She focuses on raising bicultural children and young writers in Japan. Find more and connect via www.melibelleintokyo.com.

Did I Breastfeed?

Did I Breastfeed?

Mother Breastfeeding her newborn baby

By Claire McMurray

Did I breastfeed my daughter? As a new mother I spent an unhealthy amount of time grappling with this question. Not because I wanted an answer for anyone else, but because I needed one for myself. I still don’t truly know. For the first few weeks of her life my baby had a mix of breastmilk and formula. Then she had milk from the breast, even though she screamed every time I tried to feed her. At 12 weeks I gave up feeding her at the breast and she got pumped milk in bottles for the next few months. When I tapered off the pumping she got a mix of frozen milk and formula. Then it was just formula.

It was the disconnect between what seemed like a simple question and my own baby’s intricate and flexible breastfeeding timeline that sent me into a tailspin. What exactly is breastfeeding? I wondered. Is it just milk from the breast? Does pumped milk count too? And what about duration? What if I only breastfed for a few days or a few weeks? Would that count?

Eventually I turned to the research and science behind breastfeeding in the hope that it would help me settle my confusion. I emerged even more bewildered than ever. I had assumed that breastfeeding studies would be based on a shared assumption of what “breastfeeding” meant. However, many studies I found defined breastfeeding on their own terms, with researchers choosing a variety of ways to divide breastfeeding mothers from non-breastfeeding ones. Worse, some studies did not mention the criteria they used to define breastfeeding at all. All of this has even lead to conflicting results among studies.

An article entitled “What is the Definition of Breastfeeding” finally came close to answering my questions. According to the author, a 1988 meeting about the definition of breastfeeding sponsored by The Interagency Group for Action on Breastfeeding (IGAB) resulted in a set of definitions for breastfeeding, including exclusive breastfeeding, almost exclusive breastfeeding, full breastfeeding, full breast milk feeding, partial breastfeeding, and token breastfeeding. The consortium also defined breastfeeding as applying only to a certain moment in time and differentiated breastfeeding from breast milk feeding (what I was doing when I pumped and bottle fed the milk to my baby). Other health organizations, like The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, have a different set of definitions. They group breastfeeding into the categories of exclusive, predominant, full, and complimentary.

What struck me most after all of this reading was that the idea of multiple definitions of breastfeeding was already in place. I was surprised to learn that some researchers and health organizations had already been arguing for years for the nuanced differentiations and distinctions that I felt were so necessary and so lacking.

Yet my astonishment died quickly. If I was unaware of these ideas, it was because they have failed to make it into the popular press and into the public’s consciousness. Too often we still see breastfeeding in Manichean terms, as a two-sided debated pitting “those who do” against “those who don’t.” Instead of nuance, fluidity, and multiple possibilities, we picture a presence or a lack. It is a dangerous duality constantly perpetuated by science and health reporting, media headlines, and even our own pediatrician, family, and friends.

Why does all this matter? Why should I or any other mother care about the definition of breastfeeding? Quite simply because it is through the network of mothers that we can change the narrow view of what breastfeeding is. We can give ourselves and each other permission to embrace the full set of possibilities that exist. In fact, we can do even better than that. We can promote and make visible the idea of a breastfeeding spectrum upon which every woman can locate herself at a certain moment in time. We can recognize it as flexible, adaptable, and individualized. And we can refuse to be divided into camps and set in opposition to one another when we read, listen, or talk about breastfeeding. Let’s even stop writing and talking about respecting the other “side.” What if there were no sides?

I have decided that changing my definition of breastfeeding will be my own personal act of feminist solidarity. And I have pledged to myself that I will change my own breastfeeding vocabulary. I won’t use words like “side” or “camp.” I won’t ask anyone if she has or has not breastfed. Most importantly, I will stop asking myself the question Did I breastfeed? I’ll replace it with a better one: Where am I on the spectrum?

Where are you?

Claire has published essays in Parent Co, Scary Mommy, and Sammiches and Psych Meds. Her stories have been  published online in Aphelion Magazine and by Scholastic Press. Claire currently live in the Midwest and work as the Graduate Writing Specialist at a university writing center. I earned a Ph.D. in French literature from Yale in 2010.

 

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Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs

Why I Put my Drug-Affected Daughter Back on Drugs

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By Melissa Hart

“Stupid Mommy! I hate you! You’re an idiot!”

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. I cower in a corridor like a kicked mutt surrounded by serene hemp-clad parents and their eight-year-olds. Patchouli oil emanates from their golden arms and legs. They bend their sunny open faces toward one another—faces that cloud and pinch at the sight of my second-grader.

She’s flushed and furious, sweaty curls standing on end. She smells of spilled tempura paint and noodle soup from her overturned Thermos on the floor. Her green dinosaur boots stamp a frenzied tarantella around me as she screams.

“You never do what I want. You’re the worst mother ever!”

Shame flames my cheeks. The other mamas in the hallway, the bearded longhaired papas, probably believe her. I’m Snow White’s Evil Queen, Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. In short, I most surely suck.

I don’t meet the eyes around me, I don’t say a word. I turn, chin ratcheted at an ignoble angle, and walk out the door praying my child will follow. She does, still shrieking insults. Then, she kicks me.

My transgression? I’ve left the Honda in the garage on this sunny day and asked her to walk a half mile home with me.

*     *     *

“She needs medication if she’s going to stay at this school.”

My daughter’s principal, boyish and skinny as a weasel, sits in the counselor’s office across from the tranquil second-grade teacher and me, and delivers his verdict. “In the classroom,” he tells me, “she screams over math and reading assignments. She does cartwheels behind the teacher when she’s delivering a lesson. A boy called her ‘weirdo’ and she slugged him. She refuses to sit at her desk for anything academic and wants to spend all her time at the Peace Table.”

The Peace Table. Most schools have detention. My kid’s classroom has a hand-carved wooden table where a troubled student can go to chill out. My child has, I discover, taken up permanent residency there. We’re gathered together in the principal’s office today because two hours earlier, he bent low to her ear to suggest she return to her desk, and she shoved him.

“She threw my back out.” He reaches behind him to massage his injured lumbar. I bow my head, but he isn’t finished. “I saw a documentary on kids adopted from Romania. They had reactive attachment disorder—all the same issues as your daughter. The only thing that helps these kids is medication . . . mood stabilizers.”

Gently, the teacher’s mouth falls open. Marijuana’s about to be legalized in Oregon and the smell of it competes with patchouli in the afternoon corridor. My fellow parents may rock the ganja, but our school’s a hotbed of anti-vaccination activists. They carpool up to the Capitol to protest mandatory inoculation, hold chicken pox parties and embrace each other in celebration when their kids present with the itchy red spots. Once, I mentioned to a father in the corridor that I’d taken my child for a flu shot, and he got up in my face.

“Why,” he snarled, “Would you poison your daughter?”

Me, I’m a fan of modern medicine. My child is vaccinated, and when she falls ill, she takes Tylenol. But mood-altering drugs? For a second-grader?

I want to remind the principal that my husband and I adopted our daughter at 19 months old from a skilled foster mother in Oregon—not from Romania where kids once languished, cribbed in their own excrement, for a decade. Instead, I spread my palms out on the table in supplication. I’m beaten, pummeled by years of similar meetings in preschool, in kindergarten, in first grade. I think of a summer camp counselor who summed up my child’s temperament in one sentence:

“She’s not one who earns a lot of stickers.”

At last, I address the principal. “We’ll do,” I say, “whatever you think is best.”

The second-grade teacher stands up, long hair swinging. At six-foot-four, she’s quiet royalty in the shabby room. “I’ll meditate on her,” she says, by which she means she’ll actually stay up an extra half hour that night to sit in lotus position and ruminate upon my child and her issues. “I think there are alternatives,” she concludes mildly, “to drugging your daughter.”

I’d love to believe her. But I think we’ve run out of options.

*     *     *

Research abounds on the effects of constant loving touch and eye-contact with babies. In parks and grocery stores, infants dangle from frontal packs like Sigourney Weaver’s alien baby. My husband and I wore our own daughter in a soft cloth backpack until her feet nearly touched the ground; we gazed into her eyes and hand-fed her long after she could feed herself. But even those ministrations weren’t enough to soothe prenatal exposure to god-knows-what substances, coupled with early emotional neglect.

At birth, relinquished by parents who—in social worker speak—”had priorities other than child-rearing,” she moved in with a career foster mother—a woman who devoted her life to giving bereft babies a decent start in life in exchange for financial stipend from the state. The foster mom—a stoic big-hipped brunette with a passion for dragon decor–drove her charges to medical appointments and arranged for occupational and physical therapists to visit her home. With four children roughly the same age howling the same basic needs, she found little time to coo and cuddle. My husband once walked into her kitchen to find four toddlers arranged in a high chair assembly line, opening their mouths in turn to receive spoons of canned pears.

“She’s a feisty one,” the foster mother told us on the day we met our new daughter. She chuckled, a toddler under each arm, their chubby hands clutching hand-knit stuffed dragons. “Falls asleep squalling in the middle of the living room floor. I just step over her.”

I gazed at the strange little girl tottering across the sunny summer porch. She was dressed in a peach pantsuit with her curls gelled backward. Somewhere, she’d picked up a pointy lawn ornament, which she brandished it in my direction. With her face wrinkled into a scowl, she looked like an aggrieved elderly bingo player who’d been dealt a crappy card.

I didn’t know then about the trauma that foster babies experience—hadn’t considered what it felt like for her to be ripped from the only body, the only sounds and smells she’d known for nine months and embraced by an incubator for a week, and then a car seat and a high chair and a crib, but not by much else.

Perhaps, when no one responds to her pleas for assistance with a wet diaper or with a favorite ball that has rolled under the couch, she learns to holler like hell. She learns to kick and yell and scream because it earns her attention—even if it’s attention in the form of exasperated assistance. Lacking that, she shuts her eyes and withdraws into herself. Alone behind her closed lids, she ignores the fuzzy dragon-slippers that step over her. She searches for peace.

*     *     *

It’s Parent-Teacher Night. My husband and I walk into the second-grade classroom with its walls plastered in colorful drawings and watercolors around rows of two-seater tables. We weave through a crowd of parents embracing and planning play dates and roller-skating parties to which our child is never invited. We stop at a desk in front of the teacher’s podium. “Here’s her name tag,” I tell my husband. “Front and center.”

“She’ll always sit where I can put a hand on her shoulder if I need to.” The teacher looks down at me from her awesome height. “A soft touch helps to focus her.”

As other parents exclaim over their children’s hand-knitted flute cases and beeswax candles molded into the shape of Mozart or Lao Tzu, we look at the curious one-legged stool that stands in place of a chair at our daughter’s seat. “It gives her sensory information,” the teacher tells us, “and helps her to be aware of her body in space.”

We look at her, blankly. She smiles. “It calms her down.”

We heft the weighted blue blanket under our child’s desk—another calming device—and note the noise-canceling headphones. There’s a necklace on her desk—a black string with a blue and white rubber triangle. It’s for chewing; otherwise, she gnaws her pencil in half.

We move toward the Peace Table at the back of the room. “She spends a lot of time here looking at books,” the teacher tells us, “particularly if she’s having a rough day.”

My husband and I sink into the little chairs at the scrubbed wooden table. We grip each other’s hands, no words for our humiliation.

“Breeze is racing through the Little House series,” I hear one mama tell another. “She wants to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. She sewed her own sunbonnet and apron.”
“I wish Moss would read,” a father says. “It’s all about lacrosse at our house.”

My daughter refuses to read. We’ve blown through soccer lessons, basketball, ballet, gymnastics, horseback riding, aerial silks. Each coach and teacher says the same thing. “She doesn’t like to listen,” by which they mean, “She’s giving us a boatload of grief, and we’re sinking. Please, please bail.”

“We’re sorry,” we tell them and slink away from the field or gymnasium or dance studio in the wake of our failure.

At home, presented with requests to feed the cats or set the table or finish lessons sent home from school, our eight-year old howls. If we persist, the insults begin. “I hate you! You’re stupid!” And—wait for it—”You’re not my real parents.” She calls it the “Everything Feeling,” those emotions that collide within her and explode in all directions, causing her hands and feet and words to lash out and hurt someone else as much as she’s hurting.

I look around at the life we’ve created for her—the bedroom full of books and dress-up clothes and musical instruments, the photos on the wall of our family vacations to tropical beaches and wildflower mountains and national parks. I fight an urge to shake her little shoulders and stare into her big brown hostile eyes and yell, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

            But I don’t . . . because I know better. The Everything Feeling’s got me in its grip as well, and has since I was her age.

*     *     *

            I’m eight years old. My mother—my confidante and playmate and Brownie leader–buckles my siblings and me into our station wagon and flees from our chic Los Angeles suburb. She deposits us in a scrappy duplex half an hour north in a scrappier beachside community. A makeup less woman–Budweiser in one hand and Marlboro in another–embraces her. She’s my mother’s new lover. “We’re leaving your father,” Mom tells me.

And, I add silently, my friends and my school and my Brownie troop, our cats and never-ending rabbits and the cute neighbor boy who’s taught me to shoot the bird and pass gas like the Fourth of July.

I don’t say a word; I don’t cry. I’ve heard the midnight screaming and the shattered glass. I’ve seen the black eyes, her bruised nose. I’ve felt her fear and mine, and I’m old enough to grasp the necessity of loss.

To a point, and then, not.

Something in me begins to hate my mother for not protecting me from trauma. I despise her new girlfriend—her rasping voice and her habit of striking a match on the zipper of her Levi’s. I flee our duplex every chance I get and run wild on the beach with a pack of stray dogs. I go feral. I growl at the nicotine stink of the living room as we eat dinner on tired carpet in front of the cold empty fireplace. I fall asleep to the wail of the foghorn on the jetty with my teeth and fists and stomach clenched tight.

It takes my father three weeks to find us. He appears at the front door with a patrol car’s lights whirling behind him and demands that my mother meet him outside. She and her girlfriend stand in the doorway, arms folded across their Superman t-shirts, sans bras. They shake their heads. “No way,” they say.

An officer steps from the car. Red and blue beams flash across the sandy volleyball court between duplexes. He walks up the steps and presents a piece of paper. My mother’s face crumples. We follow our father—me first, then my younger sister and brother, down the stairs and into his Buick. It’s 1978. The DSM IV has recently deigned to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Still, a psychologist declares my mother unfit to raise children.

I never live with her again.

As a concession, the judge allows us to see her two weekends a month; apparently, she can’t turn us gay in 48 hours’ time. Every other Friday, she drives down in her VW bus to pick us up from our father’s house. I murmur tearful goodbyes to the stepmother we’re learning to love and shed more tears on Sundays when I’m ripped from my mother. I can’t feel her arms around me, smell her, or see her for ten days at a time. I forget how to draw a deep breath; I walk on tiptoe and read a novel a day between school and bedtime, four on the weekends I’m not with Mom.

“Why can’t you just be happy?”

Each of my parents demands this throughout my adolescence. Every other Sunday night, I sit in my bedroom on the ice-blue carpet, head pillowed on the rosy bedspread, and replay my weekend at the beach. Saltwater and sand still cling to my calves as I sit there for hours, eyes shut tight, hands shaking. No one comes into comfort me.

Therapy? No one has time. Mood stabilizers—out of the question. The Reagans are in the White House; red ribbons tied on the fence around my school remind me to just say no to the hooded stoner kids lounging in my classroom’s back rows. Drugs are for weak people, my father and stepmother tell me, mixing a third gin and tonic. “We’re fine. We’ve got this.”

My insomnia begins that year. My mother’s first girlfriend leaves her. I lay rigid in the darkness, worrying about her until the wee hours. Is she lonely? Is she suicidal? What if she dies? In my father’s bedroom, the battles begin anew—the slamming doors, the screams, the shattering glass. My brain waves twist and warp, training themselves into terror.

But I know nothing of neuropsychology. All I know is a longing to run the safety razor across my wrists as I stand in the shower at six AM. A crushing depression follows me to school, trailing me onto the high school track and the drama club stage.

I don’t do drugs—I do musical theater. I try unconsciously to restructure my neuropathways, boosting serotonin with exercise and music and laughter with friends. Some days, I almost achieve a retraining. But fear triggered by years of Sunday-night separations, by domestic disturbance and an officer at the door suggesting my stepmother take us to a friend’s house until my father stops losing his shit—these incidents reinforce my faulty neuropathways until I stand sobbing in the shower at dawn

*   *   *

I make it through college eschewing all other meds save Benadryl—two of the pink pills at night when chamomile tea and melatonin tablets fail. When diphenhydramine stops knocking me out, I add acetaminophen to the mix. Tylenol PM enables graduate school, marriage, and the adoption of my daughter.

In the daylight, I’m functional. My child is in preschool each morning with a teacher who loves her. But then, she hits kindergarten. Our world becomes afterschool meetings with principals, IEP circuses. The rooms of our house echo with screaming and slammed doors. At night, I lay in my husband’s arms and curse the anxiety that robs me of sleep.

He finds me a psychologist, a mellow and intelligent young man who tells me how much my husband loves me, how much I need help. He tells me a story of his husband—a man my age plagued by insomnia until he went on a low dose of Ambien. “It’s okay to take sleep aids,” the therapist concludes, but I shake my head.

Beholden to a prescription, I explain, means more than just a half hour wait at Rite Aid once a month. It means inadequacy, a failure to function like everyone else, to get a grip.

“Lots of people take prescription meds,” he argues.

I think of Nancy Reagan’s red ribbons and shake my head. “I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’ve got this.”

I take up long-distance running; now I’m thin and muscular and exhausted. Periodically, I break out in hives. An allergy, I tell myself, to sports gel or Gatorade or the flax seeds I spoon into kale smoothies. But when my lips bulge and my eyes swell shut and my husband drives me to the emergency room looking like the Elephant Man and with his same wheeze, the doctor refers me to another who diagnoses Hashimoto’s Disease. Three and a half decades of anxiety and sleeplessness have caused my immune system to attack my thyroid.

“Take this pill every morning.” The pharmacist at Rite Aid shows me the little blue oval of Levothyroxine.

“For how long?” I ask him.

He blinks surprise behind his spectacles. “For the rest of your life.”

*     *     *

Shortly after Parent-Teacher Night, I attend a regional adoption conference. Adoptive parents, foster parents, and social workers share watery coffee and stale maple-glazed donuts in a chilly borrowed office suite, listening to a sociologist talk about the effects of early trauma on a child’s neurological development. Brain scans appear on her PowerPoint like a couple of cauliflowers. “This is the brain of a normally-developing child at three years old,” she tells us. “And this is the brain of a three-year old foster child who’s experienced trauma and neglect.”

We study the runt cauliflower, significantly smaller, and listen to the list of potential stressors affecting our kids. They start in the womb with little pre-natal care and periodic baths in drugs and alcohol. They extend to the shock of delivery and removal from the birth mother, then placement in a sterile neo-natal unit and a transfer to foster parents who may or may not offer physical affection and a tranquil, structured environment.

Some foster parents—mostly retired and courting sainthood—have the luxury of accepting one drug-affected infant at a time. They carry the child everywhere, cuddling, crooning, and feeding them pudding while gazing into their eyes–the works. Others juggle several needy kiddos at once. Money and time, in short supply, don’t permit a whole lot of baby wearing and eye contact.

“Foster kids’ brains have a different structure,” the sociologist tells our goose bumped group of conference participants. “They have a low volume of calming chemicals and a high volume of excitatory chemicals. Our kids view conflict—any conflict—as a threat to their survival. Adoptive parents, no matter how noble their intentions, represent one more trauma.”

Someone raises a hand. “What about medication? Anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants?”

The presenter taps the poor little wrinkled cauliflower on the screen with her pencil. “Meds can help,” she says. “A lot.”

She clicks off her laptop and invites questions from the group. I flee to the restroom. In a sterile stall I sit and stare at the door. Right there on the cold toilet seat, I have an epiphany that changes my life.

My brain needs help.

I slink toward my little white anti-anxiety pill at 44 years old, resolute but convinced that I’ve failed at the basic human tasks of sleep and moderate optimism. Within two days of swallowing it, I sleep an eight-hour night. “Everyone’s getting medication for Christmas!” I joke with my husband.

Everyone that is, except our daughter.

            *   *     *

Our eight-year old, I continue to insist, needs affection and attention and hip hop lessons—not mood stabilizers. Never mind that she screams over her plate of spaghetti because it’s got the wrong sauce, screams over the loss of her favorite TV show, chases the cats, fists me in the stomach, and falls into bed squalling. “We’ll find her a good therapist,” I tell my husband. “That’ll help.”

We agree on a kind Polish counselor who does sand play therapy with innumerable plastic Disney figures and teaches our child to lie on her back in a warmly carpeted office and blow soap bubbles, breathing deeply to combat stress. The woman teaches her “rabbit breaths” —short bursts of inhale and a long exhale designed to replace hyperventilating over second-grade math assignments and requests to set the dinner table.

None of it helps. My daughter shoves the principal, who begins sending her home from school mid-morning. “We’re a charter school,” he says. “We’re not set up for behavioral disorders. Think about moving her to a special education class at the public school.”

I grit my teeth. I’ve been a special ed teacher, know first-hand the challenges of wrangling a class full of kids—each with specific needs and none getting optimum attention. I’ve stepped over plenty of squalling children myself to attend to the one toppling computers from desks and punching holes in the walls. “She is not,” I tell the principal, “switching schools.”

In the dank patchouli corridor, when my daughter actually does manage to make it to 2:45, I meet no parent’s eyes. The other second-graders line up in the doorway and shake the teacher’s hand and grasp their hand-woven lunch baskets, heading off in pairs for afternoon play dates and Friday night slumber parties. My child’s the last to leave. She huddles at the Peace Table while the teacher gently reprimands her for the latest shrieking/hitting/spitting incident. At home, she shuts herself up in her room and slumps on the bed.

“I feel like a broken light bulb,” she tells me, surrounded by piles of schoolwork she hasn’t completed.

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“I’m different from everyone,” she mutters. “I shouldn’t be here.” And then, “I want to be dead.”

I stare at her—my suicidal eight-year old in her blue Frozen t-shirt. The words under a smirking blond Elsa read “My castle, my rules.”

For the second time in a month, I experience an epiphany. What other choice did Elsa have, I think, after 18 years of loss and neglect? Her parents were dead. A propensity for frigid temper tantrums kept her locked in her room. Why wouldn’t she retreat to the top of a mountain, build a fortress of solitude, and take charge of her environment?

Maybe if she’d just swallowed a little mood stabilizer once a day, she wouldn’t have iced an entire kingdom.

I call my husband. He phones a developmental pediatrician and makes an appointment for diagnosis and a prescription. I call the principal and withdraw our daughter from her second-grade classroom. “We’re going to homeschool her,” I say, the sentence absolving me of IEP meetings and outrage and shame. Elsa’s words ring through my head, full of triumph.

My castle, my rules.

*     *     *

It’s 2:45, the end of the school day. My child, a third-grader now, runs to meet a bus full of friends outside the building that houses their afternoon program. They race into a classroom full of art supplies and sewing machines and games and books and beanbags. She has time for a quick hug, a swift, “I love you, Mama,” before melting into a group of giggling girls.

At home, I open my laptop beside her colorful math and literature textbooks, the flash cards, the globe, the Borax crystals and the paper-and-string robotic finger she’s created. We’ve been homeschooling for six months now. We laugh a lot. Sometimes, we argue. On our worst days, when I resent having to wake up too early and stay up too late to attend to my own work, or my daughter fumes at having to study when she wants to lounge on the couch reading Garfield comics, we cry. But mostly, we relish small daily revelations and the one big one—she’s finally happy.

She takes mood stabilizers for six months. They chill her out, but give her a Winnie the Pooh physique and a slowness not conducive to gymnastics and hip-hop classes. With the pediatrician’s permission, we cut the dosage in half and wait for the return of our demon child.

She doesn’t resurface.

Instead, she wakes up smiling, singing, even—excited about her day.

We quarter the pills, then abandon them altogether for a low dose of Ritalin which allows her to learn multiplication and fractions and spelling without chewing her pencil in half.

Several mornings a week, we walk up the hill to a forested park, on a quests for newts in the stream and Cooper’s hawks in the Doug firs. We discuss planets and poetry and how baby chickens can breathe inside the egg.

One day, on a sunny morning on which we’ve discovered four types of lichen on a fallen branch and spent 20 minutes identifying a colossal mound of gleaming black opossum dung, she slips her hand into mine.

“Remember when I was so bad at school?” she asks me.

“You weren’t bad,” I respond automatically. “You were scared and angry.”

We walk past a patch of sunny daffodils. I point out a deer path winding through the tall grass, but she persists.

“I was mad at you for leaving,” she says. “Every day, I missed you.”

I squeeze her little shoulders and stare into her big brown affectionate eyes, remembering what it felt like to be torn from my own mother 10 days at a time.

“I know,” I tell her, and we walk hand in hand toward home.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost a year since I completed the final draft of Rabbit Breaths–a year of homeschooling, of meetings with developmental pediatricians and counselors who diagnosed my daughter with severe ADHD. We’re still looking for the right medication that allows her to function calmly and happily in the world. Not medicating isn’t an option, but my husband and I have greatly stepped up our attention to nutrition and sleep and exercise and outdoor exploration and the arts. As well, we discovered Russell Barkley’s excellent Taking Charge of ADHD and a local parent/child support group. We take each day an hour at a time, practicing (and sometimes failing) our patience and creativity. Most days, we remember to laugh.  

Melissa Hart is the author of the YA novel Avenging the Owl (SkyPony, 2016) and the memoirs Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2015) and Gringa (2009). She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine.

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The Art of Being Silly

The Art of Being Silly

art-silliness

By Sarah Bousquet

“Be happy, mama!” My toddler holds my face in her clammy palms and smushes my cheeks skyward. She caught me somewhere else, far away in the land of deadlines, to-do lists, and future plans. It’s not that I’m unhappy, I’m just not here. It isn’t lost on me that she perceives these states of discontent and distraction as equivalent. Nothing yanks me back into the present like my busy, talkative toddler, those little hands forcing the corners of my mouth up in the right direction.

Trying to be present in our distracted culture often feels unattainable amidst the ping of text messages and emails. We must always be multi-tasking and yet we are told to be in the moment, especially when it comes to our kids.

Before I became a mom I thought, what’s sadder than a parent at a playground, eyes fixed on a screen while a child shouts for attention? Now I give that parent the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I am that parent. Maybe she just survived a 20-minute car tantrum. Maybe he’s finally catching up on a few emails. Maybe she’s paying a bill. Or maybe he just needs a break, the mind-numbing scroll of social media or a quick skim of the article he’s been meaning to read for a week. It’s okay to look away. The trick is not getting stuck.

I reconnect by spending time in nature, digging in the sand at the beach, walking through the woods, collecting autumn leaves. I’m present in the simple act of noticing what’s around me, a game of I-Spy. Sometimes I reconnect through a craft project, not just one I set up for my toddler, but one I actually participate in with her. It works best if the phone is left in another room and we sit at a table with paintbrushes or lumps of play-dough and I play along too. I feel time slow as we sweep colors across a sheet of paper or roll out squishy balls of dough. She usually has a lot to tell me, and I’m available to listen and respond. I consider these activities forms of meditation.

But nature walks and craft projects are not always options. They’re situational mindfulness. What about the stressful moments? The toddler meltdowns while traveling or grocery shopping or just trying to survive the day? We are told to breathe through these moments, count to ten, wait it out. I propose something else. I suggest silliness.

I am not a silly person. I’m not one to cross my eyes and stick out my tongue. I’m not inclined to hang a spoon off the end of my nose or blow spit bubbles. I definitely don’t make fart noises. But I do like to talk in funny voices and make up ridiculous nicknames. I may suddenly break into song. Actually, I lied; I totally make fart noises and any number of wacky sounds to get my daughter to laugh.

Silliness, like any skill, can be cultivated. You may have been a silly kid who grew into a serious adult, or maybe you’ve been serious from the start. The good news is you can begin any time, and you get better with practice. Silliness becomes second-nature. You remember the goofy stuff you and your siblings did as kids, like gallop through the living room or wear underpants on your head.

When you’re being silly, you are present, immersed in the moment without even trying. It’s more fun than deep-breathing and twice as successful at mitigating meltdowns. Build your repertoire. Make fart noises. Cross your eyes. Do a crazy dance. Pretend to be a bear, a horse, Cookie Monster. Go for ridiculous. It gets easier to believe that hummus finger paint is hysterical, that the cat barf you slipped on was impromptu comedy.

This is not to say I never lose it. We all do sometimes. It’s easier to keep my cool when I’m not being pulled in different directions. Mindfulness helps me refocus on just one thing. It helps me through the difficult times and deepens the ones I wish would last. It’s reclaiming the present moment that can be so challenging. Meditation and deep-breathing aren’t always conducive to parenting small children–not the way silliness is. Perhaps, too, because silliness creates connection, it is the antidote to distraction.

Now I look for opportunities to be silly everywhere. This year for Halloween my daughter chose to be a kangaroo. A week later, I discovered a kangaroo costume in adult sizes and immediately ordered one for myself. It’s rust-colored and fuzzy, a giant onesie pajama with a long tail and a pouch with a baby kangaroo. I look ridiculous, and it makes us laugh. We’re excited to hop from house to house, the silliest family in the neighborhood.

 

Headshot Sarah BousquetSarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

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I No Longer Do It All —  And I’m Happy!

I No Longer Do It All — And I’m Happy!

2012-mud-kids-spring-22

By Jamie Goodwin

For the past seven years, I have been a type-A kind-of-mom.  I loved it.  I loved doing it all.  I loved volunteering for each and every need at my children’s schools.  I loved throwing the best birthday party blowout.  I loved hand-making e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.  And of course, I loved making sure my kids were dressed in their Sunday best just to go out in the yard.  After all, you never know who was going to drive by, right?

My third child arrived five years after my youngest girl.  But wait, another child, another round of being a strict Type A mom? I needed a new perspective, a new plan. So I made one, and I am so much happier.

Baby number three has taught me more than any college class I took:  I can’t do it all.  I shouldn’t do it all.  I won’t do it all anymore. And I shouldn’t apologize for it.  I can’t be the best mom, the best wife, the best friend, the best leader, the best volunteer, the best at everything.  And you know what?  It’s OK.  It’s more than just OK, it’s exhilarating!

Today as a parent, I pledge to myself and my children:

I won’t sign up for every need around our church or your school anymore.  Why? Because when I do, I am more stressed and more anxious. I spread myself too thin and took it out on you.

I won’t make sure your uniforms or Sunday clothes are ironed.  Why?  Well, I hate ironing and no one cares anyway.

I won’t hand-make your birthday invitations by myself anymore.  Why?  Because it’s so much fun for you to make them!  And I discovered that the free online invitations are not cheesy, they allow me to spend more time with you instead of searching Pinterest for three hours for the perfect invite that wound up in everyone’s trash anyway.  Yep, this year I sent a free online invitation for your party and I laughed at my old self as I hit send.  And you know what?  You told me this was the best birthday ever.

I will stop answering the phone or emails when I am playing My Little Pony with you. Why?  Because at the end of the day, you tell me it is the best day ever when I take time to play with you.  And I remember that smile on your face, not the details of an email.

I will stop using the time nursing my baby as an excuse to catch up on emails.  I realize now it is a time to bond.

I will ask my husband how his day was when he walks in the door… and actually listen. Because it’s not a time to disappear to go finish planning a volunteer event taking place two weeks from now.

I will enjoy my time with each of you.  Because I want to be with you, I want to laugh with you, I want to cry with you, I want to be in this moment right here, right now with my family.

I will make a dandelion bouquet with you instead of stressing out that you’re blowing them across the yard.  We’ve spent three years trying to get rid of those suckers and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, at least this season.  And you deserve a fun childhood memory of making a mud pie with dandelion sprinkles on top!

I will embrace your purple shorts and pink shirt with rain boots, even when there’s not a cloud in the sky.  You are your own person and I love you just the way you are.

I will not squash your creativity and tell you a better way to do your own art project.

I will worry less and smile more.

I will not sign you up for more than one sport or activity at a time.  And that’s a good thing for you and us, you will see that later.

I will let you smear mud on your clothes and laugh about it – But yes, I will still make you take them off when you get inside.

I want you to be a bright, loving, respectful, happy, and responsible person so know that I will always instill our family’s love and values or discipline, even in the middle of a grocery store. And I promise not to worry about what other parents think.
My third child has transformed me into a more laid-back-parenting approach and I LOVE IT!.  I LOVE NOT HAVING 5 DIFFERENT SPORTS CLASSES TO RUSH OFF TO!!! I love the freedom of our weekend calendars.  I LOVE my house looking like now looking like Kaleidoscope instead of a fine art gallery!!!

To my friends, kids teachers, and Church family, please know that when I do say yes and commit to spending time with you, helping you, celebrating life with you … know that it will be with all the love that is in my heart because I am saying, “No” more.  It may be, “No” to you more often than before, but when I now commit to you, I commit with my fullest desire and heart. When I offer to come to your home at 10:00 pm the night before your child’s birthday party to help clean and assemble goody bags, I do it because I love you and you and your children are a top priority to me.  And I can now be a better friend to you because I am committing less to the rest of the world.

To one of my best friends:  Thank you for lining all of your walls with your children’s artwork. Thank you for allowing your children to be happy, healthy, and displaying their creativity all over your home. Thank you for showing me how to allow my children to be who they are.   Thank you for caring for my children last-minute when I have a doctor’s appointment or need to run an errand. Thank you for caring for my children like they are your own.  And thank you for displaying my children’s artwork as proudly in your home as you do with your own.  I thank you for showing me that I am a much happier parent when I spend time with my children first and worry about picking up last.  You have inspired me and should say, “You’re welcome!” instead of “I’m sorry I didn’t pick up.” next time I pop by unannounced.

Right now, instead of editing and proof-reading this article, I am off to pick dandelion bouquets with my girls.  I promised I would work a few hours this morning and then ignore my emails for the rest of the weekend. I have girls that are running around laughing, making dandelion pies, playing with worms, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it!  And if you drop by my house right now, I will not apologize for it looking like a mess.  I will invite you to explore, have fun, and make a mud pie with us.

Jamie Goodwin is a homeschooling mom of three. She has a Bachelor of Arts in child psychology and publishes Northland Kansas City Macaroni Kid.  She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband in their home full of kids, animals, lots of love, and of course, toys on the floor. You can follow her daily journey of dandelion pies and mommy aha moments on Instagram @life.on.serene.ave

 

 

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With Child, With Alcohol

With Child, With Alcohol

Alcohol addiction : Portrait of a lonely and desperate drunk hispanic woman (image focused on her drink)

By Liv Spikes

At five-and-a-half months pregnant, the golden fluid flooded my body with a warm calm. I loved that feeling; I missed that feeling. My head swelled with the sense that everything was all right, now, in that moment. The drink was my insulin, it righted me, made me level. Giving myself permission to have a drink after all that time was like scratching at a scab, and once I started, an itch kicked in and I became singularly focused on ripping the whole thing off. I guess I’d forgotten that.

It was the night of my annual work Christmas party. I started closing up the fine art gallery I managed, when it occurred to me to pour myself one of the single serving bottles of wine we kept in the fridge for clients, and on occasion, the staff. It’s my company party, I thought. I deserve a glass. I poured one of the 6oz bottles into a clear plastic cup and sipped it as I counted the daily deposit.

Having a drink always felt like taking off stilettos that were half a size too small. Ahhh, my brain said after the first gulp. Now that’s better.

On my way home to change outfits and pick up my husband for the party the thought popped in my head that I should stop by the liquor store to get Jason a six-pack so he could enjoy a pre-party beer while I layered on eye make-up and perfume. And since I was there, I decided I should get myself a single serving bottle of champagne because two drinks were probably no big deal, and it was my party after all, and once I got to the party I wouldn’t be able  have anything to drink with the rest of the staff. In years past, I was the notoriously wasted, the manager who overdrank, and overshared.

Jason drank his beer and watched CNN. I decided on tight denim maternity trousers, a navy sequin tank, and a cropped navy wrap sweater. I sipped champagne while curling my hair and by the time we loaded into the car, my tummy filled only with amber bubbles was warm, I was comfortably buzzed, cozy in my adorable pregnant body.

When we arrived, the mingling staff were holding cocktails; they had eaten nearly all the baby quiches and warm brie laid out for them. Having promised to  announce the sex of the baby to them, I waited all of six minutes before tapping on my boss’ glass and saying, “Well guys, I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Jason and I are having a….BOY!” My coworkers clapped and a few even said “Ahh,” with damp eyes. Jason hugged me sideways and we made our way around the room smiling and accepting everyone’s congratulations.

“Livi!” our office manager Chrissy said, “Come here. I want you to meet Rosie.” Jason and I separated and I made my way to the bar next to Chrissy.

Rosie was a petite blonde woman standing behind the bar pouring wine. “Rosie is pregnant with her second boy,” Chrissy said.

I stood on my tip toes to get a total body look at the expecting bartender. Her belly was no bigger than mine, though her baby was due two months sooner.

“Aren’t you adorable?!” I said, as though Rosie was a little girl in a Halloween costume. She responded with a chuckle and in her charming British accent said, “Well I don’t feel adorable at the moment, but thanks.”

Chrissy and I made our way over to the gift table to scope out the presents up for exchange. Still feeling airy, and a little uninhibited, I said to her, “I wish you wouldn’t have introduced me as a fellow pregnant lady, now there’s no way Rosie’s gonna give me a glass of wine and I wanted to have one.”

She looked befuddled and said, “Course she will. She’s back there drinking

Champagne!” Delighted to have a fellow pregnancy rule-bucker on my side, I said, “Then go get me a glass! But please, find a way to make it discreet.”

My boss joined me near the gift table as Chrissy headed off on her secret mission. I spotted Jason across the room graciously chatting with our notoriously awkward frame shop worker. I watched the gentle tip of my husband’s head and thought, I love that man.

“Your hot tea little mama,” Rosie said in her accent as she handed me a white porcelain mug brimming with white wine. She winked as she passes it off to me.

“You’re a life saver,” I said. “Honestly Rosie, I was born in the wrong era.” I slid into my well-rehearsed routine about how I should have been born in the Mad Men era when women wore polka dot dresses and celebrated positive pregnancy tests with martinis.

“Oh, honey. You weren’t born in the wrong era, just the wrong country,” and with that, she returned to tend her bar.

After that exchange my memory of the night grows fuzzy. I remember standing in line for the buffet food. I watched in slow motion as Jason mistook the thick balsamic dressing for gravy and smothered his potatoes, pork loin, and dry role in it. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The food was horrible, so bad that aside from a few bites of cold beet salad, I left the majority of it on my plate, untouched.

I didn’t mean to, I never meant to. If this were a court case and intent was linked to culpability I’d get off scot-free. Over-drinking wasn’t something I ever set out to do, it’s just what happened whenever I had a drink. The obvious solution was to avoid drinking. I know that now and I knew it on some level then. But I couldn’t; I couldn’t leave the one thing alone that made me feel so much better in the short term and so much worse in the long term.

I awoke at 2:30 and discovered I was alone in our bed, lying on a bath towel, wearing only my bra and underwear. I found this strange. The carpet on the side of the bed was a darker shade of green than the rest. I felt thirsty. I went into the bathroom. My sparkly pregnancy tank and secret fit belly panel jeans lay on the floor in a heap, vomit trailing down the front of everything. The horror I felt was unmatched—incomprehensible.

I looked in the mirror and a puffy-faced, puffy-bellied alcoholic stared back at me. There was no other explanation; no way around the definition I’d been dodging for a decade. I thought for a moment that I may actually understand why cutters tear into their wrists with razor-blades; I could intellectually understand the need to convert internal pain to an alarming external statement.

I started piecing together the familiar scenario: I didn’t drink the one glass of wine I had intended to drink at the company Christmas party. I drank from a bottomless white coffee mug that Rosie ensured was never empty.

My husband got me home. Somewhere along the way, I vomited on myself. He tried to get me to stay in the bathroom, but I insisted on going to bed where I continued vomiting. I have done this to him dozens of times before, I have never done this while carrying his unborn son.

My breath quickened, I felt a throbbing anxiety. I ran down the stairs and found him sleeping on the couch. I sat next to him on the floor and shook him as gently as I could until he awoke. When his eyes were half-open, I started crying.

“I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. I don’t know what happened. Please come back to bed with me. Please. I am so sorry”

“Don’t tell me: tell that to our baby.”

The gravity of this statement didn’t resonate until later–how could it? I was too focused on getting him to comfort me, to lie by me in the hopes that his mere physical proximity would alleviate the horror of being in my skin. I kept begging; I declared I wouldn’t leave his side until he came back to bed. I said the words “please” and “sorry” over and over, knowing on some level that they had lost all meaning for him.

This was our dance. The dance I forced on him. We went out, we drank, I drank more, I blacked out. Sometimes I talked in circles until he wanted to smother me with a pillow, other times, I insisted on having numb sex for hours always proclaiming I was “almost there”, often, I picked fights with him, mean fights with below-the-belt punches. Fueled by vodka, I let him know he wasn’t making enough money and that our life was not the life I had imagined. Puking–on him, or off the side of the bed–was my typical indicator that this scene in our personal rendering of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was over. The curtain fell for the evening.

Whenever I regained enough consciousness to realize what I’d done, always I started in with the pleading, begging him not to be mad at me. I imagine he heard only, “I’m so window, so very door knob for what happened last night.” You do something enough times to a person and I suspect the word “sorry” sounds as much like an abstract inanimate object as a meaningful phrase.

I lay on the floor next to him for over an hour.  I felt like bugs had taken up residence beneath my skin and were scrambling in different directions. My head throbbed its familiar ache. I found myself adding up the prenatal vitamins, sleep aids, migraine meds, and over-the-counter cough syrup down the hall in the medicine cabinet, wondering if it would be enough.

I thought about the cautionary articles I’d read about drinking during pregnancy, articles describing how quickly alcohol crosses into the placenta: if you are buzzed, your baby is wasted. I wondered what level of drunkenness was beyond wasted, what my son must have felt like floating in his drunken caretaker’s middle. The fear was crushing.

I also wondered, only briefly, if my binge or subsequent vomiting could have killed him, but I could only stand the thought of my dead fetus inside me for a few seconds.  More horrible thoughts swirled around like the blizzard created by shaking a fragile snow globe, and I wanted to throw the globe against the wall and shatter it into a million pieces.

There are tragedies you can try on for size: horrible circumstances you can contemplate like, what if my spouse were killed in an accident? Or, what if our house caught fire when we weren’t home and everything burned to the ground? Our minds allow for this. But the one tragedy I was incapable of thinking about was the one in my head at that moment: What if my behavior, my choices, caused irreparable damage to my baby? What if he’s born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), something completely preventable, that I caused? I thought of moms at the grocery store shopping with their nine- year-old special needs kids holding onto the cart, and how we cant our heads and think, that poor woman.  What if I made my own almond-eyed boy, except rather than a genetic blip, his condition was caused by me, my actions. There is no pity for this woman, no forgiveness, no do-over.

I want to tell you that was the last time I ever drank. I want to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” and have that lie define my bottom, contain the messy and enigmatic disease of alcoholism; I want to make this story the trampoline beneath the high rise: There. Good came of it. I was saved.

Knowing I was an alcoholic wasn’t enough and neither was the degradation I felt that night. I can’t explain that, can’t swirl together pretty enough words to answer the nagging question of why I couldn’t fully surrender even in the midst of that pain.

When my next ultrasound indicated the baby was developing normally, and the shallow distance of a few weeks separated me from the Christmas party, I drank again. I drank two or three glasses of wine on several more occasions during my pregnancy. Is that true, was it only two or three? I didn’t vomit or blackout again, but in terms of quantifying my consumption, I’m hardly a reliable source.

The horror and disgust of that night blurred with passing days like a car accident in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t my fault, it was Rosie’s. I won’t have more than three, no matter what. It’s just that I didn’t eat enough. Yeah, but…. All alcoholic lies strung together in my diseased brain’s effort to defend my right to drink, to rationalize irrational behavior. This is what addicts do. We forget, we minimize, and we honestly believe the shame of a previous fiasco will insulate us from the next one. And then, we do it all over again.

My son was born on his due date and pronounced healthy. He bore no visible markers of a baby with FAS; I know because I’ve now studied it at length. It’s a dose-dependent syndrome and spectrum disorder, and no one knows just how much alcohol is safe.

When he was four-months-old I got confronted by a daycare worker when I came to get him after work. Another mom smelled alcohol on my breath when I passed her in the hallway and she reported it right away. I could tell you I just had a few glasses of champagne with some clients before leaving work, but that doesn’t change the facts.  It was another Lifetime Movie kind of moment. A moment that begged the question, Is this who I am now? Am I the mom who got drunk during pregnancy and who the daycare worker isn’t sure about releasing an infant to? My infant.

My drinking career is littered with these. I line them up in my head like landmarks on a cross-country tour, places I stop to take horrific Polaroid’s in my mind’s eye. The first time I drank I blacked out. I got so drunk on a college graduation trip in Hawaii that some guy delivered me to the doorstep of the room I was sharing with girlfriends, rang the doorbell, and left. When they opened the door, I was covered in sand and two cockroaches crawled out of my hair. I will never know where I’d been or what had happened. I got so drunk the night before my wedding that I peed in a hotel elevator; I got up the next morning, vomited, and had a mimosa. I have dozens and dozens of these snapshots stashed in my gray matter, experiences that would rationally define a bottom for an alcoholic. But none of them are the smoking gun for my sobriety, and I’ve got a few years now.

“Rational” and “alcoholic” have no business commingling in a sentence. I got my fetus drunk.

I have shameful memories of the more generic and even humorous variety like lots of women do, college snafu’s and stories of being cut-off at the bar.  Buried beneath those stories– beneath sheets of denial and layers of rationalization–are the stories I tell only a few women, stories I’d prefer not to share because saying the words out loud makes me feel like I’m standing naked beneath halogen lights in the cold. This story makes me feel ugly and dirty; it makes me want to throw rotten fruit at myself or spit at the reflection in the mirror. I hate this woman. I live with the odium that I jeopardized my baby; ironically, during the only time in his life I could completely control his environment.

When I get the courage to share the ugliness, a dark beauty unfolds. In the five years since this happened, I have shared this story a few times in the safety of a women’s recovery meeting. Not because I’m under an illusion that it might help prevent another woman from doing the same thing; it won’t. And not because I find it “therapeutic” to revisit the worst night of my life; I don’t. I share it sometimes because when I unfold the ugliest in me, it gives other women permission to unveil the ugliest in them. And there, with our worst sins splayed out on the floor, we can experience the intimacy of empathy. When I tell this story, some women cannot stop their faces from puckering, because repulsion is a visceral emotion, and I don’t fault them for that. But always after the telling, I talk with a woman who opens up about her own alcoholism colliding with pregnancy, breastfeeding, or motherhood at large.

In this one-on-one connection, the shared humiliation and humanity of my biggest screw up makes another struggling mom feel less lonely in her own, and that does help. It eases the isolating loneliness and the ache of regret. We share stories and through those I see that really good people make really big mistakes, and the alcoholism is a take-no-prisoners disease that you can’t outrun, outsmart, or outgrow.

These are not the glossy magazine stories of the follies of motherhood, of even the follies of drinking and motherhood (“My daughter calls my wine glass mommy’s sippy cup!” ha ha ha). These are the tales we swear we’ll never utter to a soul. The moments we hope God himself didn’t see. There is no “healing” from this shame. There is only time, and the slow cool comfort of taking right action.

My son tests at the top of his Kindergarten class. He is well adjusted and has no behavioral problems. His eyelashes curl all the way to his brows, they clump together when he cries. His enunciation of words is exaggerated and his delivery of sentences is emphatic, like a mini-Jerry Seinfeld.  He is too big to cradle in my arms; his legs and torso have grown long in the few years since his birth. I watch him sleep sometimes at night and like all parents and I wonder how he got so big, how this person grew from a cluster of cells to a sentient being on my watch, under my care. I remember not wanting that responsibility, feeling burdened by it.  I knew my husband was better qualified to insulate and incubate him and I couldn’t hand him off, couldn’t leave the egg in the nest and have him sit on it for me while I went to the bar.

My husband is a logical man, he isn’t one for lyrical declarations. I told him several years ago that I needed to really apologize once and for all for many of the things I did drinking. He chuckled an exhausted sort of huff and said simply, “I don’t want you to apologize. Just quit doing it.”

“Sorry” is defined as, “feeling sorrow or regret”. It is a feeling, and the problem with that word is that it offers no call to action, no promise of restitution. In his early infancy when I was still drinking I whispered I was sorry to my baby boy as he lay sleeping in his crib. I did it nearly every night. I thought I meant it, because I felt horrible about continuing to drink, I just couldn’t yet will myself to take the necessary action to quit. And unless you happen to be an alcoholic, that probably doesn’t make any sense.

I no longer whisper that I’m sorry to him. These days, I focus on making constant and consistent amends for what I did. To amend is, “to put right.” I try to right that wrong by giving him a sober mom, which is what he deserves and frankly, the only shot I’ve got at living without the crippling shame a drunk mother incurs.

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Coffee Cake and Kindness

Coffee Cake and Kindness

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By Reni Roxas

I suppose none of this would have happened had it not been for my two teenage boys fighting in the car.

As soon as my oldest son, Eric, a high school senior, joined us in the parking lot he said, “I’m not going. Not unless the idiot rides in the backseat, where he belongs.”

We were going on a college campus tour. The so-called “idiot” was Eric’s fourteen-year-old brother, Paolo, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, his crutches thrown in the back seat. A month before, Paolo had broken his leg during freshman basketball tryouts and  was given a pair of crutches with doctor’s orders to stretch his leg on car trips. It forced Eric to give up the coveted front passenger seat to his injured brother.

I am the Filipina mother of these two boys. When Eric and Paolo were younger I watched them tumble and tangle, a Rubix cube of locked arms, elbows, and knees that not even Henry Kissinger could disengage. As they grew older and less physical with each other, I watched their rivalry mature into a battle of wills. Now here we were, in the parking lot of an apartment complex where we lived in a three-bedroom apartment. Two years before, we had migrated to Edmonds, Washington, from the Philippines. Apart from a widowed Filipina-American who lived on the third floor, my sons and I were the only Asians in the entire apartment complex.

“I don’t have to put up with this,” Paolo muttered, climbing out of the car.

“Where are you going?” I said, alarmed.

Paolo had opened the back door and grabbed his crutches. Before I could say another word, Paolo hobbled back inside our apartment building.

“Paolo!” I hollered.

He was gone.

What was it about boys? Half the time I was talking to the back of a T-shirt.

Eric slid triumphantly into the seat next to me.

“I’ll deal with you later,” I hissed, grabbing my cell phone and dialing Paolo’s number.

Although Paolo was only a freshman, I wanted him to see a college campus. I managed to get through on the third try.

“Paolo, get back in the car, please.”

A pause.

“Okaaaayyyy,” my younger son mumbled.

The two parking spaces next to our car were empty. I decided to use the extra room to turn the car around to make it easier for Paolo to get back in the car.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a green pickup cruise by. The truck slowed down as it passed us before continuing down the driveway.

I was about to shift gears.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

It was Paolo, appearing with his crutches by my window.

How did he get here so fast?

“I was—never mind,” I sighed. “Just get in.”

By this time our car was straddling three parking spaces.

I craned my neck to see down to the bottom of the driveway. The pickup had made a U turn. Strange. The driver had the engine on idle. Was he waiting for me to back up? I stuck my hand out the window and waved him on to indicate that he had first rights to the driveway.

As soon as Paolo got in the car his brother said, “If you think I’m going to put your crutches in the trunk, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“One more word out of you, Eric,” I said, ” and I’m going to—”

SCREAM. Great. My Monday morning was falling apart and we hadn’t even left the parking lot. There was no time to argue, not when my car was occupying three parking spots. I yanked my door open, got out, grabbed the crutches from Paolo, and tossed them in the trunk. Before shutting the trunk closed, I waved again to the pickup driver to signal that he could proceed.

The truck didn’t move.

When I got back behind the wheel, the boys were in the middle of a full-blown quarrel.  “Stop it, you boneheads!” I yelled. But my words did little good. My boys had a mind of their own at this impossible age, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Suddenly we heard a rumbling. A diesel engine had fired up. The idle green pickup had roared to life. It was now thundering toward our car, screeching to a full stop next to us.

A young Caucasian man got out of the truck, yelling, “Goddamn mother——.” I thought he was going to come after us with a crowbar. Instead, he disappeared into one of the ground floor apartments, slamming the door behind him.

“Oh, God,” I whispered.

I recognized him. The truck driver was our neighbor! It was his parking space I was occupying.

For the rest of the drive the boys were quiet. It was as if our neighbor’s anger had dwarfed—and in a strange way quelled—any animosity they felt for each other.

After the campus tour, my friend Rick, the university professor who hosted the tour, took us to Chinatown for lunch.

“I feel terrible,” I told him, recounting the morning’s incident. “How can I make it up to my neighbor?”

Rick smiled, his chopsticks diving into a bowl of chow mein.

“Ah,” he said, between mouthfuls. “Just kill him with kindness.”

***

“What’s that?” asked Eric.

He was watching me tie an orange ribbon around a coffee cake I bought at the grocery for twelve bucks.

“It’s for our neighbor,” I said.

Eric frowned.

“It’s a peace offering,” I said.

“You’re wasting your time and money, Mom.”

I pretended not to hear him.

“Guess what,” I said, trying to act cheerful. “We’re going to pay him a visit. And you’re coming with me.”

Eric rolled his eyes, but I was on a mission “to do the noble thing,” and he knew better than to try and stop me.

At 5:00 that afternoon Eric and I left our second floor apartment, took the elevator to the ground level, and walked out into the parking lot. The green pickup was there, a sign that the owner was home.

I knocked on my neighbor’s door.

The door opened to reveal the same young man from the day before.

“Hi. Are you, um, the owner of the green pickup?”

I felt stupid for asking a question to which I knew the answer.

The man leaned on the door frame and gave a slight nod.

He wore a thin cotton T-shirt and torn blue jeans. His brown hair had begun to recede and a five o’clock shadow was settling on his chin. He couldn’t have been older than thirty.

After clearing my throat I said, “I’m the neighbor who accidentally used your parking space yesterday. I’m sorry. My boys were misbehaving. You know how it is with children—”

I stopped and waited for a reaction.

There wasn’t any.

My neighbor’s face was vacant.

Over his shoulder I could see inside their living room. A plump young woman was on the couch watching TV with a bowl of popcorn on her lap.

I gestured toward the gift in my hands and said, “We brought you a cake—”

“That won’t be necessary,” the young man interrupted, “I don’t eat cake.”

Again the expression on his face was vacant. It struck me that his voice was completely devoid of tone, as if he had deleted himself from our conversation.

I stared at him then had to look away.

Clearly, this man didn’t want me standing at his door. This man would not be killed with kindness. I had seen that “vacant” and indifferent look before. I have seen it when a human being is racially “profiled” and instinctively dismissed by another for being “different.”  Standing in the threshold of my neighbor’s apartment, I was cognizant of the fact that he was white and I was brown. I became painfully aware, that my hair was black; my nose was snubbed and flat, my lips were thick, and that my old life was an ocean away. I realized that a barrier had been erected long before I knocked on his door. He had seen my sons and me on the apartment grounds before. I imagined that in the courtroom of his mind we were guilty without a trial. It didn’t matter that I had to deal with two squabbling teenagers, and that my son was on crutches. We were “Asian” and we all looked alike to him. I had certainly lived up to the stereotype of the “bad Asian driver.” We were all the same to him, and we were different from him. I felt small. No, in his eyes I was less than small. I was reduced to that voiceless, weightless state to which prejudice diminishes a human being. I could not be seen. I was invisible.

Still, I made one last attempt. “Well, if it’s not something for you, perhaps your wife might enjoy it?”

The young man shifted his weight off the doorframe and leaned forward slightly, his steel-blue eyes drilling through mine.

“She won’t eat that,” he said, quietly.

And just like that, he closed the door on us.

I turned to Eric, stunned.

The coffee cake in my hands felt like a millstone.

“What did I tell you, Mom,” Eric said. “You just wasted your money.”

I looked at him and said, “If you saw this as an act of kindness, then it isn’t a waste of money to me.”

But I was talking to the back of a T-shirt again. Eric was five paces ahead of me hurrying to his video game.

Bewildered, I did not head upstairs. I walked outside, through the parking lot under the clear, starry night sky. A light evening breeze ruffled the orange ribbon on my coffee cake. I felt grateful for the fresh Pacific Northwest air, yet a trifle lost and adrift to be in this great land of plenty where a neighbor would turn down a peace offering. In the Filipino culture, his behavior would have been unthinkable; only the most grievous offense, like if I had insulted his mother, would have merited this type of rejection.

Two years before, I uprooted my children from the Philippines to give them independence, a backbone, and a better life. Even though we had separated, their American father had given our children the precious gift of birthright——to be part of what was once described as the “least imperfect society in the world,” citizenship to the United States of America—the land of milk, honey…and walls.

The parking lot was quiet; no trace of the human outburst from the day before. All the cars were parked neatly in a row, separated by thick white painted lines. Everything demarcated, as it should be, everything in its place. I recalled a greeting card I once picked up in a store. To me the words echoed the anthem of the immigrant:

We didn’t come here to fit in.

We came here to live our dreams.

I walked back to my apartment and opened the door. Both boys were on the couch with their laptops, lost in a world of their own. They weren’t fighting. I went into the kitchen, the coffee cake still in my hands.

A head popped from around the kitchen wall.

“Need help, Mom?” Eric offered. There was a new gentleness in his voice.

I set the coffee cake on the kitchen counter, feeling a burden lift inside. I hadn’t made a fool of myself. It was there in my son’s voice. His concern showed me that the kindness my neighbor refused to accept had not been wasted.

 

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He Calls Me “Mommily”

He Calls Me “Mommily”

Train tracks under blanket of bright stars

By Emily Crose

My son was born after a week-long labor in August of 2013. When he came into our life, it was a beautiful moment. My tough little boy came into this world covered in bruises from his birth and I looked down at him in the infant warmer and his tired, new little body with the eyes of a proud. Albeit exhausted new father. We named him Quentin – a name both my wife and I loved.

Quentin is the star around which my world revolves. As a new dad, I couldn’t have been more excited to welcome him into the life my wife and I had built together. There were so many things that I wanted to do with my new son, and I couldn’t wait for him to be able to experience them all with me.

Saturday morning cartoons, teaching him how to rip apart a computer and then how to put it all back together again. How to grow up and how to be a smart, capable, empathetic man. In Quentin, I had invested all of my hopes and dreams. He was meant to be the legacy of our family, in the same sanguine way that every proud parent wishes for their kids. He was finally here, and I was there to live my life for him – I would die for this little boy.

It was only a year-and-a-half later that life circumstances threatened to derail all of that.

“I wish we had dealt with this earlier…” my wife said to me one night in Mid-November of 2014. “We didn’t deal with it before, and now you have a son in your life…” she went on. My face was covered with tears, I was sure that her and I were having the last conversation we would have as a married couple with a bright future together, But she was right. Her voice was choked with fear and concern. I couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t planned a contingency for what I had just told her; nobody ever does.

I had chosen that night to tell her that I was transgender. Here I was, telling her that I was trans and there was nothing that her, or I, or anyone else could do to change that fact. My life was on a trajectory from that point forward that had profound consequences on the kind of spouse, and the kind of parent that I would be for my family.

Of more urgent concern to me was how the decisions we would make following this news would impact my relationship with my son. I was reasonably worried that my wife might decide that walking this line with me was not the life for her. What would happen to our humble little family if my wife decided to leave? I dreaded the possibility that my son would be raised without me. I had languished over the future my son would have when this change was made playing and replaying the scenarios that would lead to my separation from him and his mother. Maybe my wife would move back to Michigan and take our son with her. I would have to watch my son grow up in stop-motion, through a series of photographs weeks or even months apart.

Only a couple decades ago, the psychological standard of care for transgender individuals was a suite of treatment guidelines colloquially called the “Harry Benjamin standard” it is an obsolete standard which is still practiced by some professionals in the industry today. The Harry Benjamin standard was prevalent at a time when it was common and expected that a parent coming out as transgender would absolutely be getting divorced from their spouse, and their children would be told that their transitioning parent would be leaving the family and moving away. The parent would not see their children again, and the children would not likely see their parent again. That was just how things were done and the thought that my son might grow up thinking that I didn’t love him, wondering if he was to blame, was not a future I wanted for him.

I had assumed that if my wife left our marriage and moved away, that I would be a mere peripheral character in the story of my son’s upbringing. I assumed that (of course) my wife would go on to re-marry. I even expected her to. I expected her to find a man who would then end up becoming the defacto male presence in my son’s life – a role that I could no longer fill for him. That thought brought me immense shame and embarrassment as a parent.In the ensuing months, my wife decided that her and I were going to make this work. We made plans to stay together, and I had been saved from the dishonor of playing second fiddle to anyone else raising the son that I loved so much. But it didn’t absolve me of my concern that if I went through a full transition, my son would be disadvantaged somehow by having two women raising him instead of a distinct mother and father. I was concerned that there would be no computers ripped apart, or Saturday morning cartoons. No more fishing trip and digging for worms and riding our bikes and playing a game with him…

But why?

Why did me correcting my gender inconsistency mean that I couldn’t provide for my son in the same way I could have as his dad? Of course I could still show him what I knew about being a man and teach him everything I know about how to program a computer and how to bait a hook. Of course I could do all of those things, I might just do them in a summer dress instead of stiff pair of slacks. I would just be fixing the sprocket on his bike with a wider smile on my face, gladly ruining my self-done manicure so that we could jump on our bikes and take a ride around the neighborhood.

What I came to realize is that my son needs a loving parent. What he really needed wasn’t a “dad” per-se, but a parent who could care for him as a child and nurture his needs the way every kid deserves. Intellectually, I knew this of course. I’ve met male children raised by cis-gender lesbian couples, and they’re great kids just like any other kids I’ve ever met.

Society conditions us as parents to believe that our children are constantly in a state of dire hazard. As mothers and fathers, we watch our toddlers like hawks at the park to make sure they don’t fall off the swing, or get into arguments with bossy children. We’re conditioned to believe that kids without a nuclear and traditional mother and father will be hobbled in life…but in practice, this just isn’t true.

On Sundays, I take my son to get donuts and we go to the train station in our town and sit on the platform to watch the trains go by. I love him dearly, and in many ways since I transitioned I feel that the love I have for my son can be seen by me on a much broader spectrum than I could have seen before. Being myself has unlocked a deeper appreciation for being a parent that I didn’t know existed in me before now. I am not Quentin’s daddy anymore, and in many ways I feel a certain sadness for his loss. Although this path is not one fit for anyone who isn’t transgender, and it has been difficult, he calls me his ‘mommily’ and I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.

 

Emily Crose is a transgender mommy of two adorable children and wife to her fantastic spouse, Amanda. When she’s off the mom-clock, she tinkers with electronics, writes essays and bakes. Emily is a contributing writer to theestablishment.co and btchflicks.com.

 

 

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The Holes In Us

The Holes In Us

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By Reva Blau

My father did not tell anyone completely about his psychic scars. He did, however, let my mom, sister, and I ogle, occasionally, on his physical ones. Taking off his expensive, leather shoes, he would, very rarely, let us peek the roped mass of roiling purple and magenta skin at the knuckle of his big toe, where, crushing grapes at a POW camp shortly after WWII broke out, he had plunged the pitchfork. The toe bent off crookedly to the left and the nail was gone. The joke in the family was not to drink 1939 Bordeaux. He also would hand me the shrapnel shards that would, once in a blue moon, poke out from his thighs, a result of a bomb that he had tripped while he interrogated Nazis as a German-speaking US Army officer.

Three years before returning to Europe as a soldier, my father, the son of Viennese Jews, fled Nazi Vienna, then Nazi Czechoslovakia, then France on the brink of World War II. He was imprisoned three times and got out three times. He was tortured in a Nazi border patrol. The Nazi’s made him do exercises until he passed out. For meals, he only had lard.

A son of secularized Jews, He didn’t mind really that lard was not kosher; although I am sure that was the border patrol officers intention. He minded that the meat was barely edible and, subsequently could not even look at bacon without going quiet looking off into an invisible space.

From the border patrol, he escaped and made it to Prague, where he lived until the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia as well. Making his way to France to await the processing of his visa, he was rounded up by the French Army for having a German passport, even though it was branded with a red “J.” He was sent to Bordeaux to a labor camp on a vineyard. He stuck his foot with a pitchfork to get out of a French labor camp and onto a French navy steamship that would take him to New York, the white lines of blood poisoning creeping up his leg.

He liked to tell these stories. The stories were a series of lucky breaks: the last train from Vienna to Prague before the Austrian border was closed; the last train to France before the war broke out; the last civilian ship from Europe. He presented himself as the luckiest man alive.

My dad lost both his parents in the Holocaust. He saw them for the last time, taking an illegal detour back into Austria on a night train, on his way to Le Havre from Prague. He didn’t talk about his parents often. He never mentioned his mother at all. I remember maybe once or twice and always in an almost whisper.

Throughout both my sister’s and my life, he searched for what happened to his parents once their letters to him, a newly arrived immigrant in America, stopped coming in 1941. I have many of his inquiries with inquiries to Austria, Germany, and Poland as he tried, over the course of decades, to find out what happened to them. They are written in an oily tone in long, German sentences with long nouns. I have the letters back with conflicting information from each of the embassies and the American Red Cross.

This story about how his trauma affected his being my dad starts in the winter of 1976. Mrs. Kritz, my first grade teacher, told me she liked my poems about rain. The poems were stapled together between two pieces of blue construction paper. I spoke English then with a vaguely Dutch accent because we had spent the previous year in Holland. Back in New York, I went to school a few weeks and then got strep throat. I was at home, burning with fever. My parents were at the university teaching. That morning, my mother had called my new babysitter, an Israeli modern dancer, whose bones poked up, fragile like bird wings, through her translucent skin. She had skipped her rigorous training to come in on a weekday last minute because she needed the income. But she had run out of ideas for games we could play and I had spent the afternoon trying to read in English on the sofa under a blanket. At some point, I got up to wander the large apartment, which still felt foreign after the year away.

I crept into my father’s study with its walls of books, a solid inverted sculpture of brown spines. I sat at his walnut desk diagonal to the typewriter. I fingered the leather encased stapler and the clear dome that held in its perfect bubble one refillable green ink pen and one refillable pencil, both silver. Green ink had stained the small hole in the plastic where the pen stuck out. I found a lined notebook and removed the pen. I started to write my new book, the ink silkily spilling over onto the off-white paper. I planned to show Ms. Kritz my writing.

I heard the measured footsteps of leather sole heavily treading the throw rugs as my father came down the orange hallway. I should have known. It was four o’clock and it was the time for pacing, poring over books with his giant magnifying glass, endless green-inked outlining, peck pecking on the typewriter. The dog had this routine down so well that, lounging in the hallway, she would pull herself even before the elevator doors opened in the outside hallway with its black and white hexagonal tiles. I hadn’t heard the key in the lock. And, suddenly, he was filling the doorway. When he saw me, it took him a moment for him to register a small child was at his desk, that this child was his own, and had broken the biggest rule in the house: Do Not Enter Your Father’s Study. That I had entered the study and used his pen—the only pen he used, ever—and that his green ink was spilling out over the pages, was unthinkable.

It was as if the knob controlling his adrenaline system was on the opposite way as most people’s nervous system. Small things tripped torrents of anxiety, whereas the things that make most people fearful did not seem to phase him at all. When people called the house, for example, he’d thunder into the phone, “ALLO! Who’s there!” like it was on the CB radio in the mud-soaked trenches artillery raining down. Yet, he was immune from fears of his mortality. He drove, for example, fearlessly, without concern for any of our welfare. He would recline in the seat, drive with one hand, gesturing with the other. He would often hold court in the car, lecturing about books or politics, and look over at us, in conversation, for many beats too long.

When I was seven or eight, there was a fire in the building directly opposite our apartment. It happened in the middle of the night. My mother awoke to the smell of smoke then ran through the U-shaped apartment to my room. She shook me awake and I gathered important things as I had read people do in books. It was only minutes later that the super came up and pounded on the door to tell us to evacuate. It took my father an agonizing twenty minutes to dress in his habitual attire of a three-piece suit complete with tie, belt and garter socks. My mother and I stood in the hallway waiting for him, my arms full of thirteen stuffed animals and Noodles, the guinea pig, who dug her claws into my forearm. When the firefighter to come bang on our door to wonder why we hadn’t gotten out yet, my father was looking into the bedroom mirror adjusting his tie.

A year or so later, we were in Athens, Greece at an outdoor table eating salad and whole grilled fish from the center of the table. I was nine, alone with my parents on a trip, and prone to bouts of dizzying boredom if I was not allowed to read my Trixie Belden books, which was another rule: Never Read at a Restaurant Table. We lingered at the table after eating, listening to the old men chattering in Greek around us. I asked my father if I could please borrow his pen to draw. He took it out of his suit pocket and gave it to me. I doodled absent-mindedly on the bill.

Back at the cramped hotel room, my father asked for his silver pen back. He sent me outside to return to the restaurant, but the loud, beefy owner could not find it. “I will run away, I will spend my life hopscotching the archipelago by ferry, perhaps earn my money busking,” I thought to myself imagining my open fiddle case opened out on the hot, white pavement. Instead, I returned to the hotel and my father’s face, a mask of molten rage.

I was not afraid, like most children, of the dark, bugs, ghosts or monsters. I explored the old train tracks under the West Side Highway and peered at the cardboard slum cities in the tunnels. I spoke fearlessly with strangers and felt the safest on an airplane high in the sky above an ocean. Instead I feared bank tellers and police officers, authority figures, the mysterious systems that sent the mail.

After learning that the Noble laureate in Physics, who happened to have emigrated from Maoist China, lived a few a few floors above us, I slept with one eye open. He sometimes left or returned to the building in a motorcade of limousines. This left me deeply suspicious of adults generally. I was concerned to learn that a physicist had been the first to successfully split the uranium atom under the green copper turrets of Pupin Hall at Columbia across the street.

I went to a high school with a dappled quad in which one could sit between classes and read. I adored high school. In European History, Mrs. Bernstein taught us about March 12th, 1938, when Hitler marching into the Heldenplatz to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese. I loved Ms. Bernstein. She spoke in a measured cadence and always in complete sentences. She allowed us to think deeply about history.

At some point, after reading an essay I had written, she had taken me aside in the hallway and asked me if I was a native English speaker.

“Why, yes!” I answered, surprised. “Why?”

“Well because your sentence structure feels German to me. You put the ideas at the end of the sentences. The syntax is just slightly different from English syntax.” She must have known my dad survived this time. It was her way of telling me that she was sensitive to the impact it had on me. We are still friends to this day.

In class, we peered at photos in our dense textbooks. One showed Hitler, a diminutive terror, surrounded by Imperial buildings of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, high above the swarms. Hitler’s lips and mustache were so thin they looked like they could chop you in half. I came home and asked my father if he was still in Vienna when the Nazis marched in and if he went to Hitler’s rally. Did you see him on the streets? I was curious—morbidly—if he had actually seen Hitler himself. He was furious with me.

“What do you think? Do you want me stampeded to death?” Uh, no, dad, I don’t want that.

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It was shortly after the Nazi rise to power that my grandparents and their parents lost their bookbinding business and the building they owned where the Blaus and my grandmother’s family, the Selkas, lived. My dad’s father’s doctorate was revoked and he could no longer teach or publish. The University of Vienna, where my dad was going to pre-medical school, expelled its Jewish students. The family had to move to the poorer section of town. My dad was sent to live in Prague, at which point he was captured and hence the lard episode. But weeks later, he was able to get out from the border office, and later, to America. My aunt was sent away with other children on the kindertransport to England. Sometime later my grandparents were rounded up to the ghetto. In one of the first deportations that signaled the Final Solution after the Wannsee Conference, they were sent to their deaths in what turns out to have been the very first extermination camp.

When my father spoke of this time, it was in the present tense or maybe that was still a trace of his German syntax.

When it came time for the Holocaust Remembrance day, students filed in quietly to the auditorium to hear a survivor speak in somber tones about his experiences. I am sure many of my friends wept. I fled to the bathroom and stuffed paper towels in my mouth while my body wracked itself in panic.

The conversation about what happened to his parents took place mostly in my head, although from time to time I would interview him about my grandparents. I interviewed him about why they didn’t leave. He told me that they first refused. He told me that they might have left later but that he didn’t have money for their visas and he couldn’t find anyone who did or who was willing to guarantee them both. He said that he was only offered one affidavit, for one individual, not two, so how do you choose?

In a photo book I found on the highest shelf of one bookcase in our book-lined apartment, I found and then spoke to my grandmother. In the sepia photo she peered out a zaftig woman with sad, almond eyes and tendrils escaping across her temples. She draped one hand on a baby bassinet, with my aunt as a bonneted, moon-faced baby staring out placidly. Another hand rested on the shoulder of my father, a little boy in short woolen trousers, high socks, with a bowl and scarf bowtie. Standing on tiptoe, I put the photo book away before he caught me with them.

My father and I walked downtown to see the movie Sophie’s Choice together after I read all of William Styron’s novels over a summer. At some point, he jumped up and left. It could have been when Sophie, on line in a crowd of deportees, must make the awful choice between her two children. But I think it was much earlier, perhaps when it becomes clear that Nathan is both obsessed with the Holocaust and mentally ill. People in the audience swiveled. More people turned in their seats to look as light from the lobby momentarily flooded the theater. When I came through the theater’s outside doors, I could see the back of his suit, as he race-walked up Broadway, his fists clenched.

The fall after graduating from high school, I lived in a brownstone with three Columbia friends on the first floor of a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn. I called him up to see if he wanted to meet and go to the exhibit of Anselm Kieffer at MoMA. Walking the air-conditioned white hallways of the museum, I was awed by the heavily worked massive grey and brown canvases. Their impasto surfaces were scarified with grids and lines in paint that climbed to cathedral ceilings describing warehouses, barracks, and imperial buildings—vast and claustrophobic both. Some paintings showed fields and earth strewn with hay or ashy powder and scarred with metal.

In a packed deli between Fifth and Sixth, he sat sullenly reading the menu. Then, suddenly, he looked up and spat, curtly,”I don’t care that this Kieffer is an artist.” Saliva sprayed my face in the cramped booth. “Why would you take me to see this exhibit?”

I recently found the ship manifest of the DeGrasse, the steampship on which he secured passage, on November 10, 1939, from Le Havre to New York in the digital archives at Ellis Island. Its heading reads “List of Alien Passengers.” The information is recorded in neat rows and columns. The list is one thousand names long and takes up several pages. My father’s name is in the very first row, number one, on the register. I can see him making sure to be first on line. He did the same on lines throughout his life. People often just let him cut the line, as if sensing he could not psychologically wait in line.

Reading across the columns, there are boxes where the immigration official marked each person’s reading and writing ability, profession, nationality, religion, marital status, amount of currency held and many other qualifying remarks, such as if the person is an anarchist, cripple, or a polygamist. For him, his nationality was marked German, the place of visa, Prague, his profession, electrician, his destination, the address of the unknown sponsor whose name and contact his high school history teacher had given him. My dad had told us that he had twenty dollars when he left Le Havre. I had somehow assumed that it was a small exaggeration. How could someone have so little money? I routinely spent his twenty-dollar bills going downtown to buy candy at the Citicorp with my friends. But it turns out that was exactly what he had in his pocket.

He was never an electrician, of course. I laughed at that one. He would have made a very bad electrician. There are three columns for which the answers are almost every one of the thousand on the list. Nationality is marked German, religion Hebrew, and, for the “amount of time the alien intends to remain in the country:” all the last answers for this column are marked “permanently.”

When I first saw the towers come down on the news on the morning of September 11, I was, like most people seized with a cold panic, and, immediately, I thought of the many people I knew who very well might have been on one of the planes or in one of the buildings that morning. Then, suddenly, I was awash with a dark, gruesome sense of doom when I realized the impact on my father’s psyche. I felt across the hundreds of miles and decades of time the sting of the humiliation he felt as a young man. For the first time, I saw my dad as terribly alone in his experience at the hands of the Nazis and facing genocide so intimately. An act of war in New York, his island of safety, all those years ago, was too difficult to even imagine him processing at his age. At first the phone lines were down, and I kept trying until I got through. When I had my father on the phone, he didn’t speak about the events in New York. I brought it up carefully and he went quiet and changed the subject.

It was after that, his heart and lungs weakened. The cardiologist said that his lungs had expanded and, actually, pushed up against the wall of the rib cage. Shortly after that, he went into the hospital. I booked the earliest flight I could. My sister, who was in Amsterdam, had taken the overnight flight. Each of us took a cab to hospital. And, within an hour, my sister, my mother, and I were all there. It was rare for us three to be together. But there we were, his existential people, gathered around him, or was it still him, in his ICU room, the screens bleeping, a machine sending rumbling and artificial inhales and exhales of oxygen through his body? And then we said goodbye to him and we were the ones left with this hole in our lives.

Reva Blau-Parlante juggles teaching middle-school, raising two kids, and writing non-fiction with the support of her partner in life Joe and perhaps too much espresso with lemon.

 

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Dangerous [Language]

Dangerous [Language]

Blackboard chalkboard texture infographics collection hand drawn doodle sketch business ecomomic finance elements.

By Sara Hendery

A group of boys. Group—meaning, powerful. Young like first breath, like new morning, like unlearned words. They gather, circling around an old beat-up shed; I sit and watch from an Amtrak train paused on the outskirts of a neighborhood in North Carolina. The boys are spray-painting diligently, as in, These words must be perfect; they must make us look dangerous, masculine, like men. I watch them congratulate each other with heavy high-fives and hawks of spit on the ground.

A woman, the owner of the shed, I assume, walks out of her trailer, finds the group of boys vandalizing her property. Hey, that’s mine. That belongs to me, she must think. She’s yelling, hands swinging as if swatting flies; she doesn’t yet see what they have written. I cannot stand the thought that she will see what they have written.

The boys run, dispersing like excited cockroaches, and I see the large red lettering through the sparse trees. They have written the N-word, followed by the word DIE.

What if the boys stayed? What would the woman say to the white boys, sweaty and creamy-skinned and young? What does she need to say? What is she expected to say?

She is the only one left now. Just a woman and her shed.

I stare at the words. How dangerous, language. The boys have decided this is the woman’s destiny, these words in a place where people will see them, stop, and move forward. See them, stop, and move forward.

Words stay in the body the way lead is still visible after being erased.

The boys are the same age as my students, I think. Those boys could be my students.

The train begins to pull away. Slow, like churning butter. I do not see the woman’s reaction to the words, only her approach to the shed, to the stain left on it.

Dangerous [adjective]:

Able or likely to cause harm or injury;

likely to cause problems or to have adverse consequences.

 

I.

I spend most of my days waiting. For my students to sit down. For boys to return what they have stolen from my desk. For girls to cover their exposed cleavage after having been told to by guidance counselors and teachers. For students to do what they are told. It is fall, I am twenty-two, and at my new job as a middle school journalism teacher, I am given a lot of advice about how to handle children—mostly, they are not called students, but children, boys and girls. The teachers in the lounge sometimes tell me, Boys will be boys, but never, Girls will be girls. I think about the distinction a lot that year.

I start every class with my seventh graders by playing music, often a “Top Hits” station that students beg me to play. I hear the words whore and slut in the chorus of a song, though, and turn down the volume. I hope they didn’t hear it. I think of the girls in the class; I think of the boys in the class. I am always thinking of the boys and girls in the class.

The leader of the boys in the class says, You a white lady who don’t understand black boy music. I know this boy is the leader because other students look to him before they laugh, and I look at him, too, sometimes; he’s smart, quick. The alpha of the pack. The class roars at his comment.

Ha!

Ha!

I’m afraid it is the students who don’t understand. I talk to the boy openly about why I turned down the music. How it is not about my race, not about my gender. It is about you, I say, my student. I don’t want you to believe in those words. But he doesn’t buy what I say, and I’m afraid I don’t either.

Later, I see the alpha in the hallway, and he calls me my white lady when he passes me, when he is with his group of followers. That’s my white lady, he says. When I turn, he is already walking away, being pushed forward by the others in the hallway. I’m gone; he’s gone. The group of people is gone, and without my saying anything, he now has me. I am taller, older, paid a salary, and I am afraid of the alpha, afraid of what he thinks, of what he will continue to think. I want, deeply and profoundly, to understand him. But to him, I have been made, not a woman, but a certain kind of lady.

Lady [noun]:

A woman who behaves in a polite way;

a woman of high social position;

a man’s girlfriend.

 

II.

If you were invisible for a day, what is one fun thing you would do?

It is the middle of the year. I ask a question while I take attendance every day. I look forward to this part—when my students re-become students.

A boy raises his hand. He sits in the back of the room, slumped in his chair, like an old jacket. He never volunteers, but he has a noticeable presence; I often admire his boldness. Please say something, I think. In my head, I tend to name him man because his voice is deep and he towers over me in a way that makes me feel small. The other students rarely question him. He looks like a man. Talks like a man. Technically, he is a boy.

If I were invisible for a day, I would rape any woman I wanted, he says.

The class laughs, like frozen peas rolling around in a fat bag.

Ha!

Ha!

I want to vomit. I notice a girl in the center row snapping a rubber band on her wrist. Somehow I know someone hurt her once. She doesn’t laugh; she looks like a picture of herself.

I ask the boy to step outside, and I realize I now think of him as predator in a way that does not make me proud. I am asking myself questions on the journey to the door—how do I raise a boy? I think of what to say to him, what a woman should say to a boy who looks like a man, who says he wants to rape women. He smirks.

I thought it was funny, he says.

I have nightmares about him that night. He follows me to my car after school, like some kind of starving thing. (Was he panting? I think he was panting.) He brings his friends. (Are they panting?) So hungry, all of them. He takes me by the hand, rubs it like I am his, and forces me into the car, a dark place, a deep wound, and it is done. I wake up.

After I speak with the boy by the classroom door, after I tell him the danger of what he said in class, he walks back to his seat, avoiding my eyes. To everyone, almost everyone, he is a hero, the big man. Later, I go to tell the guidance counselor what happened. I feel like a child, knocking on her door, demanding something be done, trying, in my head, to rename the boy yet again, something more innocent. He is, in fact, a boy.

The guidance counselor is on her way out, so she only half-listens. She tells me he probably just learned the phrase from his brothers and that I need to remember boys will be boys.

The guidance counselor and I do not speak about the incident again. All I think about for hours is the space in which I inhabit as a teacher, a supposed authority even while being so young, with the opportunity to be an example, to be an adult woman in a classroom of children, awkward, unsure of what to do with their own bodies, how to be, who to be. I am an adult woman, no? No, not an adult woman. No, I am an adult woman. I often have trouble understanding what certain words mean.

Woman [noun]:

An adult female human;

a female servant or subordinate;

a wife;

a female lover or sweetheart.

 

III.

There is a boy who points guns; at first, only at the door; then, at the other boys in the class, the boys who call him names. He hates to be called names. I watch him the way a cat watches for a quick mouse to move out of a hole. I watch him shape a gun with his hand: three fingers curled under like dehydrated leaves, the other two in the shape of an “L,” angled upward and, then, straight, accusatory. “L” for lousy, loser, lost.

There is a group of male students in the class who call the boy dog—animal, panter of breath, servant to bring what is fetched, you are a dirty dog, you—and he answers to the name sometimes, as if his name is whatever they call him. The boys who use the name have all been given detention, and now they let the words spill more quietly than before, more like slick oil.

Dog, as they call him, talks a lot about bitcoin mining and playing the violin. He walks with a bowl-like hunch, runs instead of walks actually, in a hurry, running from them, the others, the other boys, swirling the air with his body, counting his steps down the hallway. If he goes any slower than this, they will notice; they will know he is not their kind of man.

I often hear the boy whisper under his breath, much like I hear other boys whisper under their breaths—middle school is the space for whispering breaths.

One day, I will get you, he says, quietly, pointing the gun in the direction of the other boys. I wonder what he is thinking, what he must be thinking, something like Don’t, don’t, don’t hurt me.

The boy doesn’t know I listen. He doesn’t know I see the gun. Fake, made of his tiny hands, but a gun; he doesn’t know I see him pulling the imaginary trigger. I watch him holding it underneath his desk; it looks like he’s hiding a pet snake from home. I want to say to him, This is how they want you to react.

I have trouble saying and not saying.

I tell the boy’s mother about the invisible gun he holds with his fingers. She is worried. Her son translates her high-pitched, lyric-sounding, concerned Chinese, and tells me that recently the boy and his family were driving in their car at a time when traffic was building up. Someone behind their car opened his door out of frustration, yelled a name at them (which one? I don’t ask), and pretended to shoot an imaginary gun in their direction.

Their son must’ve picked up the habit, violence the mouth of bad language.

A boy who knows the touch of a gun is, indeed, a man.

Right?

Right?

A boy who points the right objects is, indeed, a man, right?

Object [noun]

Anything that is visible or tangible and is relatively stable in form;

anything that may be apprehended intellectually.

 

IV.

The boy carries it over to her, like carrying a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest. I assume he said something like, here, touch it. The girl is older than other girls in her grade; she has already been held back several times. Just touch it.

A group of students has snuck away to an isolated back room in the corner of the band auditorium. Their usual teacher is sick, and there is a substitute today. I hear about the incident in the teacher’s lounge, where stories are told, stopped, and moved forward, again. Told, again and again.

Everyone in the auditorium is watching a movie, so no one notices when a group of students brings the mature-figured girl into the back room, her voluptuous breasts her consent.

The girl touches it because it is already touching her. She physically cannot back away, the musical instruments digging craters into her back. Afterward, the girl tells the substitute, the substitute who never noticed the students were gone in the first place. But what is done is already done.

Now the girl is walking down the hallway, and the other girls know.

            Now the boy is walking down the hallway, and the other boys know.

I am not the boy’s teacher; I only see him in the hallways. But sometimes, it feels like you are teaching all of them, always.

Because the boy has a learning disability, his expulsion is handled differently. The principal gathers his teachers in her office to decide if what he did to the girl is related to his learning disability, if he lured a girl into a dark room to touch all the things that make him masculine because of something he was born with or because of something he was taught.

Girl [noun]:

A female child from birth to adulthood;

daughter;

a young unmarried woman;

a single or married woman of any age;

sweetheart;

a female servant or employee.

 

It is debate day. Students move to one or the other side of the classroom to signal whether they agree or disagree with a statement I write on the board. Today, we are talking about gender in the media.

On the board, I write, A woman could be the president of the United States.

Agree or Disagree?

Almost unanimously, both boys and girls disagree with the statement.

One girl wants to explain her opinion. I am happy; she rarely talks, but I often like her words, how she speaks with exclamation. No, I don’t think a woman could be president. Think about it. What if a woman had to stop in the middle of her speech to feed her children? What if she’s on her period? She would be so moody, she says.

The class roars.

Ha!

Ha!

As a teacher of middle school students, I am told I should not share certain opinions with them. I stand in front of these boys and girls, terrified for them, and I feel I can say nothing but, Be careful with your language.

Language [noun]:

The system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other;

any one of the systems of human language that are used and understood by a particular group of people;

words of a particular kind.

 

VI.

Be manly. Be more masculine. Be aggressive. Be dominant. Be distant. Be lustful. Be large. Be chivalrous. Be a protector. Be a provider. Be a warrior. Be tough. Be hard. Be the breadwinner. Be cold. Be macho. Be a gentleman. Be expendable. Be physical. Be hetero. Be sexual.

Be womanly. Be more feminine. Be gentle. Be inferior. Be the second-in-command. Be sensitive. Be prudish. Be soft. Be small. Be submissive. Be a prisoner. Be fragile. Be loose. Be a servant. Be warm. Be pretty. Be silent. Be a baby. Be thin. Be curvy. Be expendable. Be physical. Be hetero. Be sexual.

Be [verb]:

To have an objective existence, or to have reality or actuality;

to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position;

to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted;

to take place or occur.

 

VII.

As soon as the boys across the street look in our direction, I think of mothers. Their mothers: who are they? Their fathers: who are they? Their teachers: who are they? Where does one begin to raise a person? Where does it end?

The group of boys is running across the street now. They could be my students; they are young like them, male like them. The boys could be my students.

We are walking. There are three of us: two men and myself. It’s late, dark as a locked room.

The boys, now in the middle of the street, yell a slur in our direction. Faggots, they say. Faggots.

Ha!

Ha!

There are three boys in their group, a herd. They charge us. My friends and I look forward. We look forward, we look forward, we look forward. They’re closer to us now; no, they’re on top of us. No, they’re all over us. They pull, pull, pull. They are ripping clothes, hitting and hitting and hitting—I am a woman in the center of a group of boys. Men? I am pulled away by one of my friends. It feels like a dream, hazy, like war.

I think of my students, of something to say, to do. The girls, when they’re my age. The boys, when they’re their age.

            How do you raise a group? What words, what words, what words?

Men!

Men!

Men!

The police come after I call them, and the men who attacked us are arrested, their faces pressed like dough into the gravel, making permanent indents, I’m sure, into their skin.

Man [noun]:

An adult male person, as distinguished from a boy or a woman;

a member of the species Homo sapiens or all the members of this species collectively, without regard to sex;

prehistoric man;

the human individual as representing the species, without reference to sex;

the human race or humankind;

a human being or person.

 

VIII.

Where did they put the babies?

We are standing in the center of the hallway. I’m on lunch duty, told to rein them in, rein them all in, keep the kids in their right places. One of the assistant principals asks, Where did they put the babies? I know, after learning these words, after listening closely, that he means the students who are mentally challenged, as this is the word commonly used for them by teachers and others. Boys and girls, boys and girls. Regular boys and girls.

Where did they put the babies? I imagine him searching for them, the babies. He will look only in discreet places—dumpsters, garbage cans, places where people put babies when they don’t want them, when they are afraid to raise them.

I look for them, the babies, and I find them eating lunch in a resource room with a teacher, away from everyone else. I find out they watched movies all day, and some days, that’s all they do.

I leave the room and feel strange, the way I feel when I leave my house in the morning, forgetful, wondering, Did I turn all the lights off? Did I leave the coffee pot on? But also if I could be the type of person who might call certain students babies, making it so they will have to answer to it. Baby—sit. Baby—proof. Baby—doll. Baby—blue.

How do we raise the babies?

Baby [noun]:

A very young child;

a very young animal;

the youngest member of a group.

 

It is spring, the end of the school year. I plant a garden with my students. I love the idea of raising things. But I do not know how to grow plants, how much soil to use, where to put what, how to make roses into roses. My students and I decide to try it anyway, to raise something. I am proud of them—I feel as close as I have ever felt to being a mother.

We spend weeks tilling the soil, swatting bees, and placing flowers into the holes we dig for them. The flowers fit perfectly. And so they stay there, rooting their roots, letting weeds grow around them, re-blooming. Everything grows, and we—the students, the teacher, the people surrounding the garden—have almost no control over it. No, not really, but yes, a little.

Person [noun]:

A human being, whether an adult or child;

a human being as distinguished from an animal or a thing;

an individual human being, especially with reference to his or her social relationships and behavioral patterns as conditioned by the culture.

 

X.

I stare, now, at the faces of students who are mostly freshmen in college. I am their teacher, no longer teaching middle school, but teaching an older age, in a new place. I feel renewed as my students ask me questions like, How would you like us to write? What words do we use? Are we doing this right? What do you suggest? I want to tell them, This way, and, No, you’re not doing this right, and, I really suggest you start over. But, all of a sudden, it doesn’t feel so simple; it feels like maybe the hardest thing I have ever done, like the place where soil ends, like rock. I think of the students I once taught, the young ones. I am suddenly craving, deeply, to know where they are, if they ever think of me, if they ever noticed I was their teacher. Or if they knew I cared for them, too much, not enough. Was it too much? Was it not enough? I wonder, in such a moment, if all of them are even still alive.

You, group—as in powerful, young like fresh breath—how am I supposed to have raised you? How am I supposed to raise a person?

Sara Hendery is from North Carolina but currently resides in Chicago. She is an assistant editor for Hotel Amerika literary magazine and is earning her MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

This essay is excerpted from Creative Nonfiction #60 / Summer 2016 / Childhood

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The Journey Back to My Father

The Journey Back to My Father

Family silhouettes

By Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega

What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? These questions are repeated over and over again by my father. And I answer them, carefully enunciating every digit, every letter he needs so he can spell the answers correctly on a scrap of paper. I have him on the other side of my mobile phone and over and over again we go, until there is nothing else to say but thanks for calling. I sit in the car and weep, watching my boys run and swing themselves in the park playground through my sealed windows. My heart is heavy and my voice is broken when I say goodbye to my father. He doesn’t ask, or doesn’t suspect anything I’m feeling. My sobs are the fleeting emotions he can never hear.

I don’t expect anything from my father; he doesn’t call me like he says he will. It’s been this way even before his onslaught of Alzheimer’s. He’ll tell me he’ll be calling me soon, but he doesn’t. His promises are broken over and over again, like the twigs that bind our family tree. Twenty-three years ago, he promised me that he would attend my high school graduation, that he would be sitting in the bleachers to see me walk across the platform to receive my honors. But he never showed up, missing another one of my milestones, another one of his push backs of my attempts to add him to my life. Now, after all these years, he’s only visited me a few times to meet my children whose names he could never remember, despite my locking photos of them together into his hands, bony fingers awkwardly putting them into his shirt pocket.

*

In 1975, my mother gave birth to me after hemorrhaging on her bed. She called her cousin at work and was taken immediately to the hospital, where the nurse dismissed my mother’s predicament as nothing alarming. You’re not due yet, she was told. Go home and wait. But my auntie insisted. Come look at the blood clots in the toilet, she told her.

My dad, having a family of his own, advised my mother to apply for welfare, but she refused. I’m not having the government raise my child, my mother would say. This baby is mine and I am the only one responsible for her.

My mother never demanded anything from my father. No child support, no visitation rights. She never took him to court, nor did she ever tell anyone at her workplace who her baby’s father was. She wasn’t that soap-opera mistress who turns into a villain, tormenting and wrecking her baby’s father’s life. She wasn’t that stalker who would find a way and devise a plan.

It was I who was the stalker. I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I started to question who my father was, if I had one, or where he was. I remember Father’s Day projects at the day care center in which I would construct greeting cards to no one in particular, make believe sentiments that were conjured up for a moment of craft time and then tossed into oblivion. After years of this, I remember quitting, and dropping myself out of these projects with a shrug. I don’t have a father, I would tell the teachers and their aides. My indignation was easy to summon whenever these Hallmark holidays arrived.

*

I was fourteen the second time my father visited. He showed up at my house at 6:00 am. It was on a Sunday, and his wife was perhaps in her Catholic mass, singing a liturgical number or two. That was the second time he met me, his first being when I was just days old. Then he had given my mother fifty dollars. Buy the baby something new, I believe he told her, folding the money in the palm of her hand.

At fourteen years of age, he sat in my living room, drinking fresh coffee my mom had brewed and I only looked at his face, a mustache of graying whiskers curling around his mouth. He had his brown Datsun parked in front of our house. So what kind of an attitude do you have? he asked. He sipped his coffee and chuckled. God forbid you have an attitude like mine.

Months prior to that visit, I’d been asking my mother questions. She had been forthcoming about who his children were. My father was a married man with two stepchildren (his wife’s children with her first husband) and three daughters and a son (his and his wife’s shared children). The stepchildren, she said, are not related to you, of course. He adopted those when he married his wife—she came with those. But the three girls, and the son, they are related to you. Those are his and they have the looks of you.

She gave me names, ages, and other anecdotes. She had met the girls on a few occasions when my father would bring them to the factory where my mother and father both worked. My mother knew the names of these girls and she said they had skinny legs, long hair, big eyes, and were nicely dressed every time my father brought them over. The boy, on the other hand, was only a year older than me and she knew very little about him. Shortly after I was born, my father left the factory to work in aerospace manufacturing, thus diminishing any further information my mother could ever get about my brother. She never really saw my father after that, and she’d only see him around town in his Datsun.

*

I began stalking my father when I became old enough to drive. I would sit in a borrowed car and wait outside his house to get a glimpse of him, his daughters, his son—even his wife. We lived in the same town, about a half mile away. My brother and I were in different high schools by then and he didn’t know who I was—none of them did.

After he left that Sunday when I was fourteen, an expectation had been cemented that we would be meeting again soon. He promised me that Sunday that he would soon tell his family about me. Enough time had passed that I was ready to collect on his promises. In the meantime, I took advantage of Halloween to disguise myself with face paint and knock on his door dressed in my artificial disguise, a cloak that blended in well with other trick-or-treaters dressed as skeletons. I was so close to his front door, so close to get a glimpse of how he really lived.

I waited for years, romanticizing about a new life that just needed a nudge to get started in which my father would visit me with four individuals lined up behind him, groomed and jubilant, ready to embrace me as their own. I’d construct this family by filling in their blank faces with big black eyes the shape of almonds, cheeks twinkling with afterglow, smiles endeared with rosy lips. I drew these fixtures of my father, these unbroken twigs floating over the base, stretching to a bend only with the slightest wind. These were my manufactured figurines.

My mother loved me with a rigid passion, but as I grew out of adolescence, I grew apart from her as well. I remember visiting my father at his job in aerospace, safe territory from the unearthing of secrecy, and he seemed content to see me, a bit aloof I recall, yet polite. I was direct with him then, having the confidence to ask for what I wanted. What did I have to lose and what did I have to prove, anyway? I wanted to meet his children but he stalled every time, he back peddled and would remind me that his wife still didn’t know and well, it would be a blow to her.

So I waited. Again.

But in eleventh grade, my brother called me out of the blue. Our father had just finished telling him about me and he was eager to meet me at once. When he arrived at my door, it was already dark outside. He had a Mustang convertible with a few guys sitting in it waiting for him in front of my house. He met my mom and his manners were polished like Almanzo Wilder from Little House on the Prairie.

Hello, ma’am; no, ma’am; thank you, ma’am. He would graciously nod his head, much obliged.

*

I left to the bay area for university three hundred miles away from home, partially motivated by the anonymity of a new life, partially because I didn’t get into my top two choices. My father mailed me a handwritten letter on yellow legal paper to my dorm address. I was used to getting the occasional care package from my mother—an inventory of feminine hygiene products, Mexican chocolate, packaged food, a favorite article of clothing. But my father’s letter caught me by surprise that freshman year. He enclosed fifty dollars and I remember spending some of it on a take-out pizza for me and my roommate, and some of it at the thrift store downtown. I have that letter somewhere, the commemorative stamp of Elvis Presley partially adhered to a corner of the envelope.

Two years later, when I was in Mexico doing a field study, my mother called her niece’s house where I was staying.

Your sister called, she said. Your dad’s daughter.

She said, she has a husband, and two small daughters. She wants to meet you when you come back from Mexico. I told her you were over there. She likes to read. She asked me what you liked.

What did you tell her? I asked.

I told her you like studying. I told her you’re very smart and that you like to read and write.

My father was making progress, I thought. But it still wasn’t enough, though, getting thrown a bone now and then, years in between gaps of silence. I wanted my father’s wife to finally know who I was, that seeing me in her midst would be significant. I would no longer be just a passerby, a translucent vein on the wing of a dragonfly. I didn’t want to hide visits and covered up phone calls anymore. I didn’t want to be his secret stash that needed placating because by then, I was ready to implode.

*

While I was in Mexico, my brother stopped by my mother’s house with his girlfriend. She demanded to meet me after having found a photo of me among my brother’s belongings. She wanted proof I was his relative and not some other girl she had to compete with. I missed that visit, but soon after I returned from my trip, I did meet her.

I met my sister as well, and her sweet family and after several visits with all of them, I met with my sister and brother together. I mentioned their mother and they promptly said, It’s just not a good idea for her to know who you are. We like you, but now isn’t the time for her to know about you. It would really be a blow to her.

I followed my father’s wife to the community college where she had a singing class. I saw her leave her house and maintained a good distance between her car and mine on the route to the college. I was home for a holiday visit.

I waited in the student parking lot for her to come out to her red Honda Civic.

Do you know who I am? I asked her before she arrived to the door of her car. She was a teacher at an elementary school and was heavily involved in the church choir.

She appeared delightfully surprised, which caught me off guard. She asked, Were you one of my students?

No, I said. I wasn’t one of your students. I’m your husband’s daughter. He hasn’t told you?

Her eyes fixated on me. She was scanning the topography of my eyes, my lips, my voice, my hair and nose. She shook her head and looked away at some distant thought she may have been fishing from the past. Maybe she thought I was asking her a question, maybe she knew I was making a declaration. Either way, I had made a bold statement, one she had to stop to think about for a moment. No, she said. I don’t know anything about you. He hasn’t mentioned anything to me. She glared at me and opened her car without anything else to say.

That night, my brother showed up in front of my house in the new car my father had bought him. I peeked through the blinds and heard him rev up his engine. He was livid. He had a girlfriend in the passenger seat. A few days later, she was at my door, inviting me to my brother’s workplace. He’d like to see you, she said. Come with me so he could see you.

I didn’t speak to or see my brother, our sister, or our dad for years after that. I received my college degree and got married.

My husband met my father shortly after we were married in 2003. We waited outside for my father to come out to meet with us after we caught his stepson about to leave in the driveway. When I introduced my husband, my brother told me I should have called before showing up like this. By then, I had understood God’s love more deeply. Through a long process, I came to forgive my father and those were the first words I had for him there in his driveway with my husband by my side.

I came to tell you that I forgive you.

In 2005, I gave birth to my first child, a son. My mother was retired by then and was able to take on the role of caregiver to my son while I went to work at the ad agency. She took it upon herself to look for my father and introduce my son to him. Things were fine, I supposed, since he was open to meeting him. He would come by to visit with my son at my mother’s house. She’d call me at work whenever he’d visit, telling me about all the things the baby would do, and how much my father enjoyed holding him. He told my mother that my brother had a family of his own too. These visits encouraged me and reminded me of a prayer I had the day my son was born. I asked God to use my son as a blessing for those he would meet, to be a light in the lives of others.

Then one day, I arrived to pick up my son after work, my mother gave me some news.

“Your dad came by today,” she said. “He was sobbing when I opened the door because his wife had just been taken away by the coroner.”

*

When my father became a widower, my father finally accepted a party invitation. My son was turning two years, and he was there under the sun, with my brother and his girlfriend and daughter. The following year, my dad introduced me to another one of his daughters who accepted me without reservation. I met nieces who my father would bring to my house during Christmas or birthday parties. I even drove my nieces to church one night for a Christmas play so they could hear the gospel. Sometimes, he and my brother would come by to help us with our garden, planting seed, tilling soil, uprooting shrubs. Or we’d go to his favorite Mexican restaurant a few blocks away and talk about all the heavy things he had on his mind.

He repented for having rejected me throughout the years, honoring his wife’s wishes to disown me. He’d cry his sorrows into the palms of his hands like an adolescent boy, and I would forgive him each time. Over and over again, it was like this during our meetings. Memories becoming clear despite the clouds in his eyes, wet by tears, a stone in his throat occupying the spaces of his remote past. I would go home each time and shake my head in disbelief. It took this long to see this. I was a mom, and he was my dad now, lonely and afraid, aging through the ladder of his life. I didn’t have to imagine who he was anymore because he was taking shape in the frame of my life, no longer a nebula in a distant galaxy.

He’s told me about that one daughter he would never want me to meet, the one that carried a gun to his door and attempted to use it on him. She was put away and hasn’t been able to recover from her demons. It’s best, he said, that you never cross paths with her. She has nothing wonderful to offer.

Later, I would find out from him about the aftermath of my encounter with his wife, that moment which eventually threw a seemingly in-tact life off course. He told me about how his wife had sent him packing and he in turn found a home in the bottom of a bottle.

I awoke with tremors one night, he said. I was scared out of my mind when I saw my arms and legs shake uncontrollably. I stopped drinking after that happened. Just like that. I kept my last six pack in the fridge for months without touching it. I knew then that I was able to resist the temptation and stop drinking for good.

*

Three years ago, the sister I first met while I was still in university, resurfaced. She called out of the blue shortly after I had given birth to my third child, a daughter. My sister said she was a recovering alcoholic and only saw our dad on occasion.

You should call him when you can, she said. Dad is becoming forgetful. He’s losing his memory.

My sister was living with a man I never met, and her daughters were already grown, living their lives away from her as best as they knew how, working steady jobs, warming up to the gospel. That was a consolation to me, but what broke my heart yet again was when I got a phone call from my brother’s girlfriend turned wife. She told me my sister was dead.

I didn’t know it then, but the text my sister sent me weeks prior to her death were going to be the final words I’d get from her. Let’s get together for a bite, she wrote. I miss you and I haven’t seen you in a long time.

My sister had stopped talking to me after I confronted our father’s wife that one day. She had spent time at the bottom of a bottle after her divorce, had lost custody of her daughters to the foster care system and was sobering up with a new man in her life. She was living a few blocks away from my mom and was eager to start over with me. We were able to rekindle after all that time estranged. She knit a hat for my baby daughter and it satisfied me enough to know that I had spent time with her during her final years. I still weep at the thought of having missed her call, of never returning her request to meet up that last time she texted me.

My father never found out about my sister’s death until months after the fact. His family decided to keep her death from him since his condition was delicate and—it was said by doctors—that he may not be able to handle the news well. His Alzheimers was intensifying.

I’d call him and he’d tell me everything was fine. He’d ask me what my children’s names were, where I lived. He’d say my dead sister was doing fine. I guess she’s okay, he’d say. She hasn’t called me so I assume she’s doing OK. Then he’d tell me, I went to visit you but a man answered the door and said he didn’t know who you were.

I remind my father when he tells me this story that I’ve moved from a house to an apartment, that we don’t have a mortgage anymore and are renting an apartment in another town, that I homeschool my children, that I had to give up the house to stay home with the children.

Where did you say you live? he asks every time, and I tell him over again.

*

My father hasn’t remarried and he’s very lonely. He doesn’t drive. Whenever I talk with my father, I never know if it will be the last time. I don’t know what I can do to help him now, other than to call him frequently and hear his voice marinate in confusion and excitement at hearing my voice. “What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? How are you doing? Are you doing OK?”

I waited a long time for my father to recognize me, but now I don’t think he ever will again. He did on a few occasions after his wife was buried. But he hasn’t forgotten her like he has relegated other things to oblivion. Alzheimers is the thief that selects which memories it will keep and which it will leave in the recesses of a decaying mind. It is terrifying to be found at a grown age only to be lost once again. This thief of the mind doesn’t know what to do with whom it robs.

*

We go in circles on the phone as I sit in front of the park playground. I pick up his cue to end the conversation and tell him to call me when he can. I have your number, he tells me. I am going to keep it in my wallet so I don’t forget it.

My husband never fails to remind me that a man is defined by what he does or doesn’t do.

His accomplishments may be many, or they may be worth nothing, he says. Having a career doesn’t amount to much, he says. Not at the end.

When I met my husband, I didn’t know what a man was supposed to be. For so long, my father defined who I was in some way by his absence. I think about what my life could have been like if I had been raised by my father, if his wife had agreed to share him with me, to allow me to visit, to allow him to take me out of a box instead of consigning me to oblivion. But I know now that having been inside that box, tucked away in the darkness of a closet was indeed the safest place for me to be. His wife had to pass away in order for him to claim me openly, courageously.

However, ironically, now that I am out of the box, my father finds himself in one of his own. As I observe what Alzheimer’s does to a man like my father, I’m amazed by the fact that although he’s lived a full life, what good is it if he’s sentenced to forget it in his final years. My father—having reached his eighties as an Alzheimer’s patient—experiences a disquieting guilt which he can’t put his finger on. His sentence confines him to a mental prison by which he cannot ever recover or emancipate from. There’s nothing he can do to correct other wrongs if he’s only suddenly lost touch with their impact on others, but not on himself, having allowed his cowardice to keep him from confronting responsibility, hiding behind his kids, his wife, other women. This affliction will not liberate him as he lives unable to find the origin to his compunction.

My dad had a life before he forgot it. His whole life is now being rubbed out with a big eraser. Every single day, something vanishes from his memory. My father’s lies and deceptions accrued a huge debt that amounted to chaos and division in his house where peace was like catching air. That is why I think it took us this long to bridge the gap between us. I needed to arrive to a place where I was able to forgive him and he had to arrive to a place where he could humble himself enough to ask for forgiveness. I was wrong. Will you forgive me? he said before his breakdown. Those words are some I hope to never forget.

Eréndira’s work is featured in Day One, The Cossack Review, Huffington Post, Red Tricycle, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Stone Soup Magazine, The Review Review, Black Warrior Review, and other publications. A homeschool mom, blogger, and former adjunct, Eréndira lives in California with her husband and three children. She is writing a novel. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.

 

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This is Adolescence: 14

This is Adolescence: 14

By Catherine Newman

art-banjo

Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone.

You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to the actual content, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes, it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp scent.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze.

The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Fourteen is also lazy in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.”

“Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back.

Author’s Note: I wanted to write a piece about teenagers and evolution: how nature adapted for acne as a kind of lifesaving flare-like reminder: “Note this pulsing red beacon of my hormonal state! I have a neurochemical situation here, people!” And how cave teenagers with clear skin were killed off by their irritated parents who’d forgotten that they were just going through a little adolescent something, and didn’t mean to be such a pill about taking out the mastodon bones or whatever. But I wrote this instead.

Catherine Newman is the author of Waiting for Birdy and the forthcoming Field Guide to Catastrophic Happiness, and of the blog Ben & Birdy. She is also the etiquette columnist at Real Simple. She lives with her family in Amherst, Mass.

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Riding the Phoenix

Riding the Phoenix

vector illustration of silhouette of amusment park

By Elrena Evans

My nine-year-old son is terrified of roller coasters.

Or, more accurately, my son is terrified of many things, “roller coasters” being only one entry in a long list of terror-producing entities. Roller coasters are notable here, not because they cause anxiety, but because, despite being petrified of them, my son also loves them.

“When I grow up I’m gonna design this roller coaster!” It’s a common refrain in our household, followed by several minutes (or sometimes, agonizingly, what feels like hours) of technical descriptions, sound effects, and high-energy charades. When questioned by his siblings if he’s actually going to ride any of these roller coasters he plans to design, his answer is always the same:

“No way. But Mom will ride them for me.”

I’m a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast myself, but I’m quick to qualify that enthusiasm lest I be confused with a true Coaster Head. I’m not hot in pursuit of the biggest, baddest coasters ever, because while I like a good thrill, some rides are definitely too much for me (Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, I’m looking at you). What I’m really looking for is a ride that will take all of the worries and anxiety I live with on a daily basis, translate them into physical fear, and then fling that fear from my body as I fall from dizzying heights—leaving me blissfully, if only momentarily, completely anxiety-free.

So my son is correct in saying that I’ll ride his roller coasters for him, even if it’s not a coaster I’d choose of my own volition, and even if it leaves me weak-kneed and crying. I’ll ride his roller coasters forever, because I know what it feels like to live with anxiety, and I can’t erase the responsibility I feel for giving this genetic bequest to my son.

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The week school let out for the year, my son made an announcement on the car ride home. “I have set a goal for myself this summer!” he said. There’s nothing inherently revealing in that statement; I am a goal-setting mother and have managed to spawn a succession of goal-setting children. But his actual goal nearly made me drive off the road.

“I am going to ride the Phoenix!”

I didn’t even have to try and formulate a coherent response, because his siblings were all over that.

“You what?” “But the Phoenix is a roller coaster!” “You’re scared of roller coasters! You won’t even ride half the kiddie rides!”

Listening to them react, and watching my son’s face, all I could think was: This is a bad, bad idea.

Don’t misunderstand: I am delighted that my son is setting goals for himself, and I am thrilled that he’s deliberately trying to tackle some of his greatest fears. I enthusiastically recommend this tactic as an excellent way to live. (I drive, don’t I?) But…a roller coaster? How can I gently tell my son that he might be setting his aim too high? I can’t see this ending in anything other than failure, a failure that will only serve to reinforce for him that he can’t, in fact, triumph over his anxiety in any meaningful ways.

If he had consulted me first, perhaps we could have set a goal—a better goal—together. Something more attainable. Something within his reach. But he set this goal all by himself. And thinking about that, I know I have to help him accomplish it. All of his other major achievements over anxiety (learning to swim, riding a bike) have been my goals, goals that I set for him and that I saw him through. This is his goal. That he set all by himself. Ergo, he has to succeed.

Armed with The Plan to help him, a few weeks into the summer we load up the car and drive to the amusement park. Our front tires have barely crunched over the gravel of the entrance when my son’s voice pipes up from the backseat of the minivan. “I’ve changed my goal for the summer! I’m not going to ride the Phoenix anymore.” But I am prepared for this—it is part of The Plan—and as my husband and I exchange glances I say, nonchalantly, “Let’s not decide that right now. Let’s just go and have some fun first.”

We go and have some fun. I am mentally cataloging all my various ways to reintroduce the idea of the Phoenix via The Plan when my son appears at my elbow. “Ride the Merry Mixer with me!” he says—his favorite ride in the park, and one that I hate, and that we have mutually agreed I will ride once per year.

“Okay,” I shoot back. “If then you’ll ride the Phoenix.”

What did I just say? That line wasn’t in The Plan. I have compromised my approach! I am panicking, but my son grows still for a moment, looks me right in the eye, and says “Okay.”

We ride the Merry Mixer until my insides are so scrambled I swear there are bits of intestine lodged in my ears. And then we walk over to the Phoenix.

As we draw near the line, my son is scared, but he isn’t scared like I expected him to be. He isn’t out of control, he isn’t dysregulated. His head is up and his chest is out and he is marching toward the Phoenix, ahead of me. There is something about the set of his shoulders that I recognize, something I’m vaguely, almost subliminally aware also comes from me, along with the red hair and the anxiety. It takes a moment before I can correctly identify what I see: determination. He has made up his mind he’s going to ride the Phoenix, and he’s going to do it.

I count out the tickets for two riders and he looks surprised. “You’re coming with me?” he asks.

Um, no, I want to say. I’m sending you to face your greatest fear alone, while I sit on the wuss bench with some cotton candy. Because that sounds like something I would do, doesn’t it? Have you missed the last nine years of your childhood?! Of course I’m coming with you!

But I don’t say that. I merely remind him that the Phoenix is one of my favorite roller coasters, and we hand over our tickets and get in line.

As we wait, my son is bouncing around, telling me all about yet another roller coaster he is going to design someday, and every other sentence or so yelling, as if a punctuation mark, “I’m scared!” When the line inches closer, he graduates to “I’m terrified!” Then, “I’M PETRIFIED!”

Yet he’s okay. I can see that he’s okay. He’s voicing his fear, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to throw up. He’s holding it together, in his own way. He’s going to be fine.

We have exactly one moment in line where his anxiety shifts from “manageable” to “maybe not so manageable,” and I think I may need The Plan, after all. But before I can launch into my attack, a ride operator leans out over the crowd and asks “Any groups of two?” And just like that, our twosome is whisked to the very front of the line. We’re next. We’re doing it. We are going to ride the Phoenix.

Our acceleration through the line has landed us next to another group of two, a girl about my son’s age who is openly crying, and a father who seems, at first, uninterested in her tears. But as I watch closely, I start to wonder if the father isn’t, in fact, running his own version of The Plan, providing exactly what he knows his child needs, even though it might not look like what someone else would label “good parenting.” I am filled with empathy for duo beside us, and at one point—while my son’s screams of “I’M PETRIFIED!” echo through the loading station—I grin at the girl.

“It’s going to be okay, you know,” I tell her. And she grins back, through her tears. She does know it’s going to be okay. We are all going to be just fine.

And then the coaster is here and we are climbing in, I am handing over our hats, and the lap bar is coming down. As the car begins to tick-tick-tick up the ascent my son starts screaming “Wait, stop, I changed my mind!” and trying to wriggle out from under the restraint. Because the shared lap bar is sized to me, I have no doubt he could slither his skinny frame out from under it and escape, but I quickly put one hand on his shoulder and grab his hand with my other.

“Do you want to hold the lap bar, or my hand?” I ask him, and this question brings him back to me, he yells “Both!” as we crest the top of the hill and hang, for a moment, suspended in midair.

And then we are falling, faster and faster and faster, and all of my anxiety is leaving my brain—breast cancer, bankruptcy, failing as a parent—and it’s swooping to my stomach and then, as we achieve true weightlessness for a fraction of a second and my stomach flips over, it’s gone. We’re careening around a curve and I’m holding my son’s hand, and he is screaming, and I am screaming, but we’re screaming because we’re okay, we’re doing it, we’re conquering our fear. We’re riding the Phoenix.

When the coaster car finally pulls to a stop my son starts yelling, impossibly even louder than before, “I DID IT! I RODE THE PHOENIX!” We disembark, not to the emotional meltdown I had prepared for, but instead to exuberant joy. He is running up to complete strangers in the park yelling “I RODE THE PHOENIX!” and they congratulate him, because how can they not? His hair is so red, his voice is so loud, his joy is so real. I see the crying girl skipping along beside her father and I see that she, too, is reveling in her own joy—we decided to do this scary thing, and we did it.

And if we rode the Phoenix, what other scary things might we now conquer?

The world is ours. It’s summer, my son has met and achieved the very first big goal he set, and he didn’t even need The Plan I created to help him. All he needed was to decide he was going to do it. The coming years unfold before my imagination in rapid succession, all the goals he will someday make, and all the goals he will someday achieve. He is going to ride the roller coasters life brings him all on his very own. He can do it: I know that now, and more importantly, he knows that now. We are basking in the freedom that knowledge brings as he runs up to anyone in the park who will listen and yells, “HEY! I JUST RODE THE PHOENIX!”

Author’s Note: A few days after we conquered the Phoenix, I asked my son if he wanted to take the deep water swim test at the pool. “MOM,” he replied. “I rode the PHOENIX. That was BIG. I am not setting any more goals for this summer!” Five weeks later, he announced one evening that he did want to try for the deep water swim band, after all. He passed on the first try.

Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.

Read the prequel to this essay “Riding Away.”

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This Is Where You Belong

This Is Where You Belong

Art Street Chalk

By Beth Eakman

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick (Viking 2016)

After years of serial relocation, Melody Warnick and her professor husband, Quinn, thought they’d found a permanent home in Austin, Texas. They had two young daughters now, so they bought a house, made friends, and settled in. But only two years later, Quinn was offered his dream job in Blacksburg, VA, and the family was on the move, again.

Warnick, a freelance journalist who’s written for publications like Parents, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today for a decade or so, found herself in a quandary familiar to moms. What was best for her kids—putting down roots—made her want to run. She did not love the town that the locals jokingly called “Bleaksburg.” She felt stuck.

Then, one evening as she was driving through the mountains, returning from an interview with an elderly woman who lived in the middle of nowhere, Warnick had an epiphany. She’d always assumed that people who lived in tiny, isolated places stayed because they were stuck, but this woman had had options. She loved her tiny hometown. She didn’t feel isolated; she felt connected.

Could connection to place be cultivated?

Warnick’s search for answers to these questions and her experiments applying what she learned form the foundation of This is Where You Belong (Viking 2016). The book is loaded with social science, advice, humor, and encouragement and reading it feels like a chatting with your smartest, funniest girlfriend.

When, with kids and husband in tow, Warnick hikes, attends festivals, and marches in a holiday parade, she feels increasingly connected to Blacksburg. When she doesn’t, she fakes it. That’s a thing, too. Acting like you love where you live works, by some magic that only psychologists really understand, and makes you love it more for real.

She calls out every recently relocated mom, starting with herself, for turning to the tawdry consolation of big box stores. No matter where you are in the world, nothing soothes a homesick, disoriented mom like popping the kids in that red cart and strolling the predictable grid of Target’s aisles. Warnick breaks to us gently what we already know: shopping locally is better.

In fact, investing in your community with time, money, skills, and creativity is good for more than just keeping money in the local economy. It’s a whole movement, called “place-making.” People are making their towns, old and new, into places they want to live. They participate in everything from the PTA to city planning committees. They initiate. They become “creative placemakers.”

In a beautifully written scene, Ella, Warnick’s twelve-year-old (and natural scene stealer), is flipping through Instgram photos.

“You know what we should have in Blacksburg?” Ella says. “A sidewalk chalk festival.”

When the Warnicks had lived in Austin, they’d gone to a street art event. “Sidewalk chalk,” in Ella’s own words, was her “true medium.” Their driveway in Blacksburg always “looked like someone was filming a Beatles movie….” Before her experiment, Warnick might have said, “That would be fun,” and returned to her novel. This time, she felt the call.

“Creative placemakers,” she writes, “…aren’t superheroes.” They’re just regular people, including moms and artistic twelve-year-olds. They make the leap from “That would be fun” to “Let’s give it a whirl.” I won’t spoil the fun of the rest of the chapter.

Movers and stayers alike will enjoy This is Where You Belong. I originally thought I’d pass my copy on to a friend who’s moving to Colorado, with teenagers, but I decided to keep it. I bought a couple more for housewarming gifts.

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

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“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

“What Did the Sickness Make Your Brain Do?”

sad woman with hand in head with redhead hair

by Sarah Sanderson

My daughter was six when I climbed into her bed and tried to explain psychosis. A few months earlier, I’d been hospitalized with postpartum psychosis after the birth of my fourth child. I was growing tired of dodging my eldest’s repeated questions about the whole experience, so this time, when she asked, “Why did you go to the hospital?” I decided to attempt a six-year-old version of the truth.

“Mommy had a sickness in her brain,” I replied as I pulled my daughter’s Disney Princess sheets up to my chin. “Some people get sick in other parts of their body, like when you have to throw up or when Jack broke his arm. Mommy just got sick in her brain.”

“What did the sickness make your brain do?” she persisted.

I wondered how much detail I would have to offer before she would be satisfied. “My brain just… made me think some things that weren’t true,” I tried.

“Like what?”

I had to have seen that coming.

I wanted to inform without scaring her. The part about the whole episode being triggered by memories of childhood sexual abuse was definitely out. My religious fixations probably wouldn’t make sense either. Was pressured speech—the compulsion to speak aloud every thought that comes into your head—too freaky? I settled on paranoia.

“Well… I was scared of the computer.”

Abby burst into giggles. No one had ever reacted to my story that way before. “What did you think it was going to do to you?” she laughed.

The truth was that I had convinced myself that my childhood abuser had somehow downloaded keystroke-capturing software onto our computer and could read everything I had ever typed. As my husband and a friend of ours led me towards the car to get me to the Emergency Room, I shouted, “Don’t turn on the computer until I get back and fix it! Promise me you will not turn on the computer!” It made sense at the time.

Now, I snuggled with my little girl and sighed. “I thought someone was watching me through the computer and I got scared.”

Abby laughed some more. “That’s silly, Mommy!”

“Well, it was silly, you’re right,” I agreed. “But at the hospital they gave me some medicine for my brain and now I’m okay.”

“And that’s why you stay in bed,” she pronounced, familiar with this part of the story.

“Yeah, because of the medicine,” I conceded. A side effect of my medication was that it knocked me out for ten hours at a stretch. I had always been the one to jump out of bed with whichever child woke up first, no matter how early or how little sleep I’d logged the night before. In the past months, however, my husband had shifted into the role of morning parent, because I was usually completely unconscious until after everyone else had eaten breakfast.

“How long will you have to take the medicine?” Abby asked. “If you went to the hospital and they made you better, why do you need medicine now?”

Good question. When I was released after four days on the psych ward, I met with a private psychiatrist for the first time in my life. She patiently explained that most women who experience postpartum psychosis also have, or subsequently receive, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At this, I revolted.

“No,” I explained to my new doctor, “I don’t have bipolar disorder. I’m fine. This was a one-time thing. It was triggered by all this sexual abuse stuff! I don’t have a mental illness!” The idea of me having a mental illness was just ridiculous.

The doctor agreed that I could possibly be in the minority, but I would have to take medication for at least eight months until the threat of manic relapse passed. After that, time would tell.

So as I lay in bed with my six-year-old daughter, still in the initial eight-month window after that first psychotic episode, I told my little girl, “I won’t have to take the medicine for very much longer.”

It turned out to be a promise I couldn’t keep. A few months later, in the process of weaning off the medication, I became manic, verging on psychotic, again. When I saw the psychiatrist back in her office afterwards, she confirmed what I now suspected: bipolar disorder had set in after all. Unlike postpartum psychosis, which is a one-time designation, a diagnosis of bipolar never goes away. I could now officially count myself among the chronically mentally ill.

Talking to kids about mental illness is like talking to kids about divorce, or sex, or any other uncomfortable subject: you have to do it over and over again. It comes up, and you answer their questions at their developmental level, and then a few weeks or months or years later, it comes up again, and your answers change.

As I grow more comfortable with my own diagnosis, I am learning to field these questions more adeptly. On some level, though, as I learn to see myself through the eyes of my children, I find that I am still working through my own feelings. Some part of me still can’t believe I’ve landed in this “mental illness” camp. What am I doing here? When will I get out? If I ignore it, will it go away? Each time I confront the issue with my children, each time I verbalize my explanations to them, I am explaining it to myself.

Recently, my third child, who is now six, started calling other people “crazy” in a derogatory way. For weeks, I kept hearing it and letting it slide, but it rankled me. I finally called him on it.
“We don’t use that word that way,” I informed him. “People have real sicknesses in their brain, and just like a sickness anywhere else in the body, they can’t help it. So we don’t use that word to make fun of people. It’s not nice to people with that kind of sickness.”

He stared at me quizzically. My heart thumped, and I recognized the feeling of shame coursing through my veins.

This child was two when I was hospitalized. We never had a snuggly moment of truth afterwards. He can’t remember me ever bouncing out of bed in the mornings. Maybe he doesn’t know I have a mental illness at all. Was I ready to reveal myself to him?

After a moment I decided now was as good a time as any to step out of the mental illness closet with this child.

“Like me,” I leveled with him. I braced myself for the barrage of questions that might follow.

But he didn’t ask. “Okay, Mom,” he shrugged, and ran out of the room.

We’ll talk about it again some other time.

Sarah Sanderson lives with her husband and four children in Oregon. Find more of her work at www.sarahlsanderson.com.

 

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On Being A Soccer Mom

On Being A Soccer Mom

Soccer player's feet on the ball

By Dawn Davies

There’s that embarrassing mom thing where, if you’re like me, and you’re at a soccer game watching your children play in say, a tournament, and your soft, delicious little child, the one who still sleeps at night with a stuffed horse, is making a drive toward the ball, and she reaches it, pulling ahead of several lesser children, feigning out a slow-thinking defender, putting out an arm to steady herself against the face of said slow thinker, squaring up to shoot, and you are watching her from the sidelines, wearing shorts short enough to allow you to survive the oppressive heat yet long enough to cover the ugly purple thigh veins your pregnancies gave you, pacing and tripping over a cooler full of Capri Suns and orange wedges, and at the same moment your child is about to make contact with the ball, your own foot reaches out and kicks the air like a marionette. You cannot help it any more than you can help gagging the first time your baby has diarrhea, or yelling “fuck” in front of your preschooler when you grate a hunk of knuckle skin into the pile of Monterey jack cheese on Taco night. It is a reflex and you cannot stop it.

Then there’s that thing where, if you’re like me, after you’ve watched a number of children play soccer for a number of years, and although you have never once played soccer yourself, you begin to believe you have developed a nearly psychic coaching gift, and in a series of brilliant illuminations of strategy that assert themselves only after you shingle your hair into the bobbed, highlighted helmet the other soccer moms are wearing, you realize you know exactly who needs to come out and who needs to go in in a given game in order to win it, and you see your husband on the other side of the field, coaching the game, and you pull out your cell phone and dial him up. You watch him reach into his pocket, check to see who is calling, see that it is you, and decline the call. You call him again.

“What?” he says. You can hear him scream this from the other side of the field a portion of a second after it comes through the phone.

“Pull Kristi out. Put Maya in goal. Move Alexis to midfield.”

“Right.” Your husband says and he hangs up. He makes no substitutions and ignores your frantic waves, then as your daughter makes another run for the ball, you kick your foot in the air again, this time screaming, “Shoot it!” as if your telling your child to shoot the ball is what will make her do it, as if she who has played soccer for five years would never think of this on her own when running up on the goal. There is another battle for the ball and you involuntarily kick the air a third time, as if you are a frog on a dissection table in Bologna and Luigi Galvani is electrifying your muscles with a charged scalpel. You can’t stop yourself from looking like a sideline fool. You cannot not kick. It’s a thing soccer moms do, and nearly against your will, you have become one.

When is it you realize you have allowed your children’s accomplishments to begin to replace everything you have ever done? Oh, it’s now. It’s right here on the sidelines of this under-watered, crispy field in the sports complex designed with the maximum legal square feet of asphalt parking lot and minimum legal number of trees. It reaches nearly one hundred degrees here in peak sun, and your naked neck broils like a steak while you watch twenty-two children burn a collective 6,600 calories. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym in three years because you have been too busy washing sports uniforms and returning them to the proper bedrooms, and checking gear bags, and feeding your progeny supper at four in the afternoon in time to get them to their various practices, which you must stay and watch, because that’s what the good soccer moms do. You must appear to be a good soccer mom, even though you fear you are not one. You are barely holding it together, and you just want to go home and take a nap pick the kids up after practice is over, only you can’t do that. The good soccer moms will notice if you don’t stay and they will judge you for it. You know this because you yourself judge the “bad” moms who drop their children off, firing bitter darts of jealousy from your eyes as they drive away to meet a friend for coffee, or grab a massage while they know their child is safe at practice. Even though they tell everyone they have to go “pick up a prescription,” or “take another child to math enrichment,” you know and you judge them.

Your soccer mom status is cemented by a few other behaviors. First, there is the belief that your daughter is an irreplaceable anchor—the star, if you will, even if only in your own eyes, on any given team. Or your son is the star. Or your stepson is. Or it’s not soccer, but lacrosse, or it’s not lacrosse, but football, or basketball or baseball or softball or dance, and at any given moment, two or three or four of your kids play on several different sports teams and you spend your afternoons, evenings and weekends coordinating practice times and carpools with other mothers whose children are not as good as yours, mothers you would ordinarily have no interest in spending time with, though it’s not because their children are boring or average, it’s because their mothers talk too much. You drive to windswept fields teeming with hundreds of other children, and plunk your ass in a folding chair while your children exercise, watching them with the same obsessive interest slower members of society have in reality TV shows. Sometimes you bring snacks. For yourself.

Next is the unhealthy obsession with outfitting your children like professional athletes. Sporty kids need gear, so if you are a regular person like me, you fork over whatever you can swing, handing down cleats and outgrown gloves and gear bags to your smaller children in the gear queue, occasionally shopping at Play It Again Sports in a neighboring town where no one you know will see you buying used sports equipment. You forgo new clothes for yourself, or luxuries of any sort in order for these children to have the extra thick shin guards, or properly fitting Under Armor, even though you remember playing childhood softball and basketball in sneakers from K-Mart and cheap, silk-screened team t-shirts without any ill effects, except for the fact that you did not get a college sports scholarship. You begin to believe that your children need this gear in order to have the athletic opportunity they deserve. If you are rich or a sociopath who cares not one whit about running up the credit card bills, you buy the best of everything you can find at Dicks or Soccer Max, or Sports Authority, thinking, almost against your will, that a $160 shellout in football cleats for a nine-year old now, might translate into a professional football career that will allow your little QB to one day buy you an upscale house and a silver Escalade. As if a pair of cleats will be the thing that turns your child into a winner.

Then there is the schedule juggling. If you are at all like me, after you recover from the cost of the gear, and the league entrance fees, insurance fees, uniform fees and conditioning coach fees, and your children are safely ensconced on their various teams, you use the last of your money to purchase a master organizer they sell for moms who are trying to get a handle on a schedule every bit as complicated as a teaching hospital’s surgical schedule, or the daily flight schedule managed from an air traffic control tower of an international airport. You spread out all the practice times and game times for the Bombers, the Eagles, the Blazers, the Knights, and the Intimidators on the kitchen table and begin to input data into the organizer, carefully orchestrating who has to be where when, and what time dinner needs to be on the table on various nights, and which sports events coordinate with school events that can’t be missed. If you are lucky, your child will not be on both the school team and the travel team of the same sport in a season, as that is a scheduling state so stressful that it has been known to cause mothers to develop trichotillomania. You can easily spot these poor women: they are the ones quietly plucking out their own eyebrows or eyelashes at red lights or in sports complex parking lots. They looked pinched and backed up, because they have had to train their bowels to follow a certain schedule, as they have no time of their own to take a dump from seven am until midnight on weekdays or at any time during the weekend, especially if they still have preschoolers at home.

This schedule reckoning takes a spreadsheet and enough wheedling and favor-trading with other carpooling moms to where the high-stakes détente you manage to sustain are of the kind you might find at an international political summit. If you are like me, this herculean effort makes you cry at least once per season, or drink alone at night after everyone has gone to bed.

Then there is the ill-lighted, miscast pride that comes with knowing that you birthed a remarkable athlete. If you are anything like me, when other parents can’t help but notice your child’s extraordinary athletic ability, your ego swells as if they are complimenting you, and you can’t seem to separate your child’s personal accomplishments from your own. This is the shameful part of soccer momming. It is heady stuff that can weaken the soul. You see your child twist in space in an artful way, and watch them outrun or out-think a competitor, and even though the competitor is a pony-tailed princess who sleeps with her own stuffed animal at night, your mind has reduced her to enemy status. Instead of seeing her as a person, you categorize her as an obstacle for your child, the star, to overcome, and what’s more, you created that star. It came out of you. You did it. It’s yours and there is a dirty aspect of ownership that comes with watching your child play sports, so when you think about it in the heat of the moment, the other child is a dangerous condottiere that you yourself must overpower. It’s awful and thrilling at the same time, because it is the only bit of power you feel in your life. You are triumphing, by proxy, over a nine year-old child. Bully for you. Kick the air and scream “Shoot it!” until your voice is hoarse and you will later need to cool down by overeating at the post-game fast food restaurant after the victory you had nothing to do with.

If you are like me you cannot stop these thoughts and actions, even though you know you are a walking cliché, and it is something you swore you would never become. Like kicking an invisible ball on the sidelines like an idiot, this suburban movement is a part of something that has its own tide, a tide that moves in and out with the seasons, a tide you feel yourself drowning in on occasion, because after all, you were the tattooed, boot-shod rebel who swore she would never live in the suburbs and drive a minivan, and yet you have ended up rocking that minivan hard and living in the burbiest of burbs, which frankly, bores you to tears, but is so, so safe and so good for the children. You are the woman who swore you would stick your kids in daycare the moment your maternity leave was over so you could go back to building your career, but that plan scorched up like a dried leaf the moment your first child was placed in your arms. You quit work “for a while,” planning to go back when the child started school, but here it is ten years later and your second or third or fourth child has yet to start kindergarten and you have found yourself working pro bono as the chief operating officer of a very small, cluttered business that seems, at times, to have no purpose. Others might tell you to check your privilege for complaining about such a luxury, but it is more confusing and complicated than simple middle class wealth. It is the battle between a loss of identity, and its crooked bookend: the promise that women can have it all, the promise that we have choices, yet are looked down upon for choosing this path when we could have done “so much more.”

Maybe, if you are at all like me, you struggle with job skills required for being a soccer mom, and must hide these struggles, because your natural skill set has slowly revealed itself to be the kind that prefers simplicity and order and quiet, and you know you are forgetful, and you know you will make mistakes because you are forcing yourself to do this hard job as best as you can when really, you would be better suited for a different job, a simpler job, say, perhaps as a painter (house or art), or a philosopher, or a clock repairwoman, or a artisanal baker of gluten-free masterpieces which you sell at local farmer’s markets. At times, especially during the middle of a given season, you may remember college, when you had the luxury to write short stories for fun and you wrote one about a married woman with kids who fakes her own death and uses a new identity to start over in the Pacific Northwest, a place that seems cool and woodsy and quiet, a far cry from standing in four inches of palm tree shade on the sidelines of a sports field, or your sour laundry room, or the inside of your sweat-soaked minivan.

You might even attempt to become the best soccer mom in all the land, wearing the bobbed hair helmet, keeping the minivan vacuumed, remembering which child wears which uniform, remembering to never again leave the middle defender on your daughter’s team, who you are responsible for driving home Wednesday nights, at the field like you have done twice before, only you are not naturally organized and become easily overwhelmed by the complex details and responsibilities, often forgetting to bring the orange slices on your assigned game day. This deficit requires you to occasionally dump your kid on the field and race to the grocery store, buy oranges, race home and cut them up, and bag them and bring them back to the field, often missing the first quarter of the game. Or you forget to turn in the cookie dough or gift wrap fundraiser orders in, or worse, you forget to sell the cookie dough or gift wrap at all. You certainly can’t get it together enough to make the t-shirts with your child’s picture on it, and give it to your family slash cheering section to wear on game days, because you can’t remember to tell your family members when the various game days are. There are so many game days.

Why do you suck so badly? If you are like me, it’s because you either didn’t read the job description of what parenting would be like before you signed up, or you were not willing to extrapolate “years of extreme sleep deprivation and constant chaos” from everything everyone has said since the beginning of time about parenting. It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now want out, only there is no way out without going to prison.

Lest I appear to be one-sidedly bitter and negative, let me say this: despite living your life on the sidelines, or setting up mission control from a seven passenger vehicle shaped like a manatee, or listening to books on tape through headphones to protect yourself from soccer mom colloquy, despite your bobbed helmet of hair reducing your sexual attractiveness by a factor of ten, despite worrying about your contribution to the collective cultural anxiety of women’s achievements by staying home and devoting all of your energy to a few non-influential people who don’t even thank you, and despite such an overall uncooperative reality, there is something golden about this time.

It is a time when your children are as beautiful as they have ever been, though you thought nothing could be as beautiful as their babyhood. The flushed, salty cheeks, the hair sticking to the sweat on their necks, their knobby knees, bandaged fingers, their giant protective equipment that seems to dwarf them at the beginning of the season, but which look perfectly fitted by the last game. The effort they give forth that makes you weep at times. If you are like me, you have cried while watching the two teams shake hands after a particularly difficult game.

Your children are doing important work, even though it looks like they are playing games. They are building their bodies, learning how to move, learning how to listen, learning how to take a small desire such as “get the ball” or “stop the ball,” and turn it into a hunger to make something bigger happen. They are learning how to lose graciously, one of the most valuable of life skills, and if they have good coaches, they learn about devotion: to team, to coach, to someone other than you, and this is healthy. It helps them grow up to be the kind of children who won’t live in your basement after college.

This is a time when the children still need you to show them how to be. They won’t always and the assertion of this truth will be increasingly painful as time goes by, but for now, know that, even though they don’t thank you and they leave their God-awful, wet, stinking shin guards on the cloth upholstery of the minivan time after time, they need you to orient them in society. You are training two or three or four little people to grow up and be better versions of yourself, and this is one way to leave your mark on the world, one way to make a difference—to produce people who are consistently good to others despite personal obstacles, ones who will be decent to others despite having menstrual cramps, or being cut off in traffic, or feeling exhausted, or losing something important, like a big game, or a contract, or a job, or a friend. It’s a marathon of slow growth.

You can see this growth transform them, sometimes from week to week. One day, you will see the coach introduce a skill and your child will fumble with it like a puppy, yet improve bit by bit, until one day during a game, when the pressure is on, you will see the child execute the thing perfectly, exactly the way she was taught. Later, you will see the quiet pride on the child’s face when the coach praises her for it in front of the team.

If you are like me, the first time you realize that the effort you invest in making these activities happen is a finite thing, and that one day it will go away, it stops being a chore, and begins to be something precious, like oxygen. You watch them with a different eye while they repeat the same drills for weeks, running, jumping, getting knocked over, failing, laughing, weeping, building friendships, pushing their limits, and for a brief while, all things considered, there is no limit to the hope vested in these beautiful young people of yours. The ones who sit with quiet anxiety during breakfast before a game are the same one who sing “Diarrhea” at the top of their lungs in the back of the minivan after the game, and you see sublime work happening here—a slow burn of something transformative—and you think, if you ae at all like me, as you shove the balled-up, sweaty gear into the washing machine one more time, that like with all things parenting, it’s not about you. It never was.

Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) has an MFA from Florida International University. Her essay collection, Mothers of Spata, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She was recently featured in the Ploughshares column, “The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week.” She had a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2015, and a Pushcart Prize special mention for nonfiction in 2015. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.

 

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Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.

 

 

 

First Steps

First Steps

Portrait of mother and baby legs. First steps.

By Emily Page Hatch

I’m eating a turkey sandwich in between seeing clients when I hear my email inbox ping. It’s my son’s daycare; they’ve emailed a video. I lower the volume on the computer and slide my desk chair in. I see my 13-month-old grinning at his daycare teacher, Amy, with the dyed hair and multiple piercings. Amy is gentle and sweet, and my son loves her for loving him. She is crouching across from my boy coaxing him to walk toward her. In her high-pitched voice, she says, “Go buddy!” And with my mouth agape, I watch as he goes. He takes three jerky steps and falls into Amy’s arms. “Yay! Yayy! Yayyy!” she squeals.

Then the video is over. I watch it ten more times, dizzy with joy and pride. I call my coworker over to watch it. She smiles, but her eyes are solemn. “I know it’s hard,” she acknowledges, not to be there for that. We are therapists, so attuned to feeling, empathy seeping from our pores.

My son has been close to walking for months, standing sturdily on two feet, hesitating to take that leap, to let go of my hand. But he let go of Amy’s today, beaming as he bounded forward. He is thriving at daycare, like I knew he would, blossoming from babyhood into toddlerhood, in spite of not being with me, or because of not being with me? I miss him so much my throat closes up.

A confession: I didn’t have to work full-time. I had a very flexible, part-time job and spent much of my time at home. But I chose to take a new job when my son was 6 months old, a Monday through Friday gig, with a long commute. It was a dream job for me, with better pay and professional growth. But as a new mother, it would be hard; I knew this, and yet, I worried more that I was failing at being a full-time mom.

The newborn months had shaken me. My baby could never get enough milk, and I could never get enough sleep. I knew no other way to soothe him than offering my breasts, and I knew no greater pain than nursing for the longest time. He wanted only me and I loved him more than life, but I was crumbling under the weight of his needs.

One day, we walked downtown and I attempted to wear him again in the Ergo carrier. Last time it hadn’t gone well; maybe I hadn’t fastened it right. I had read about the benefits of wearing your baby; the attachment, the convenience, the sense of security. I wanted to be a baby-wearing mom. I also wanted to free my son’s head, so he wouldn’t develop a flat spot.

With difficulty, I strapped him across my chest and set off down the road. Frost coated the March ground, but within minutes we were hot, my son a little furnace squirming to get out. He fussed and cried immediately. My heart rate quickened and so did my steps. He spiraled into screaming, and I broke into a near-jog, sweat dampening both of our stomachs. Five minutes felt like fifty.

Finally, he stopped. He fell asleep, and I could breathe again. But I stayed on edge, keeping my stride. Babies in motion stay asleep; I had learned that much thus far. We made it downtown and without thinking, I ducked into a store, not to buy anything, but to do something that felt normal. The door chimed and my son awoke, fists clenched, face scrunched up in a fury. He roared. I bolted out of the store and tried to comfort him under my breath, “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.”

He is probably hungry, I thought. He was always hungry, needing to nurse. I needed to know there was more I could do to calm him, to enjoy him, to actually leave the house. He hated the damn Ergo carrier, and goddammit, I hated it, too. It was far too hot and I feared he couldn’t breathe. It kept him facing toward me, while he preferred to look around. It wasn’t right for us and that was okay, but I couldn’t think when he cried.

Siren wails filled the street as I trudged up the hill home. A few people passed by and their looks seemed to say – what are you doing to him?

Why wasn’t I better at this?

By the time we reached home, my body roiled with rage. I wasn’t mad at my baby; I was mad at myself, and tired, so tired. I unclipped one side of the carrier and took my son out. I propped him up on a Bobby. Then I ripped the rest of the carrier off and flung it in the other room.

Something in me snapped. I picked up a book and threw that too, and a shoe, and my purse – I whipped these items into the foyer and shrieked. It felt good, so I did it louder. And louder. I couldn’t stop. My pure frustration voiced for the first time.

I took a breath and suddenly noticed the room was silent. My son had stopped crying. His eyes searched mine, looking for the mother he knew. The room came back into focus. I ran to him and scooped him up. I put him to my breast and sank into the couch and sobbed.

He deserved better.

In an office an hour away from my baby, I get emails with photos of him finger painting and playing in the sand. I get daily reports of what he’s eaten, how he’s played, what he’s made, and how many poops he has taken. He’s sent home every evening with crafts he’s created during his highly structured day. I feel sure he is learning more at “school” than he ever would with me, that his teachers stimulate him and exhibit more patience than I ever could.

And yet, I miss him, almost more than I can stand.

Seven hours after my son takes his first steps, I pick him up at daycare. I creep into the room and wait for him to notice me; it’s my favorite part, observing him like a fly on the wall. After a few seconds, his eyes meet mine and he looks away, like he can’t handle the excitement. He looks back at me with a mega-watt smile, and then at his teacher, as if to say, “She’s mine! That’s my Mom!” His eyes dart back and forth and he giggles with glee. I lift him up into an embrace and press his soft cheek against mine.

My legs feel wobbly as we head out to the car. I carry him, this boy who can now walk on his own. He and I take new steps together every day, and I’m learning – like birds learn winter is fading and it’s time again to sing, like flower buds make their home in the earth and get ready to bloom – that our love is enough.

Emily Page Hatch is a freelance writer, therapist, and mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Babble, The Huffington Post, The HerStories Project, Modern Loss, and other publications. You can connect with Emily on Twitter @EmilyPageH or visit www.emilypagehatch.com.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.

 

 

 

 

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Opinion: No Services

Opinion: No Services

portrait of a sad little boy in red soccer jersey seated on a bench and holding a ball

By Jenna Bagnini

What do you do when your child isn’t disabled enough to qualify for services, but isn’t typical either?

My eleven-year-old son can’t brush his own teeth. He chews on the brush and he doesn’t know how to spit, no matter how many times I’ve tried to show him. So at some point I gave up, took the toothbrush from his hand, and started brushing his teeth for him every day. He walks around with his shoes untied all day, not because he can’t tie them, but because it’s hard for him and he doesn’t want to expend the effort. He can’t ride a bike. He refuses to go to the movies, because it’s too loud and the sensory piece is overwhelming. He can’t prepare himself a sandwich. He can swim, but he won’t put his head in the water. Yet this same child doesn’t have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or even a 504 plan to arrange some special help during the day. Despite his high-functioning autism and ADHD, he’s “not disabled enough” to need services at school.

My son used to have an IEP. He got speech and OT and a social skills group. We moved at the start of this school year, and he was immediately declassified. The new district decided that he no longer needed the assistance. And he is a bright child. He gets good grades. But his behavior is not that of a typical eleven-year-old boy. I believe, even though he is getting some counseling as a building-level service, that his behavior at home is suffering because he is not getting the help he needs at school

Though my son has good grades, if you look in his backpack you will see that it’s a complete disaster. He has an accordion folder for all his subjects, but he just shoves things in and then can’t find them. When I need to send something to school with him to hand to a teacher, I’m pretty sure it isn’t ever going to make its way to the intended destination. And he has a very hard time keeping track of his homework. It’s fortunate for him that he has an incredible memory so he does very well on tests without needing to study for them, because he is constantly forgetting when they are scheduled.

We are restarting the process of evaluating my son and I plan on bringing the paperwork from the neuropsychologist to the school to try again for school-based services. Unfortunately, we are unable to afford private OT, so I am hoping that the school will read over the neuropsych’s report carefully and make a decision that is in the best interest of my child. But I am not entirely optimistic, because he simply doesn’t look “disabled enough” to qualify.

The problem with having a child like mine is that he holds it together so well at school that they don’t see the concerning behaviors (meltdowns, crying fits, refusal to leave the house), and we don’t benefit from any of the interventions that other kids with autism could get. I am constantly hearing that “he is able to access the curriculum.” Yes, he is, but that should not be the end of the story. Grades do not make the whole child. He needs to have social skills and he needs to stop the behaviors, such as picking his nose, that make him distasteful to the other kids. I hear stories from him about being picked on and teased, and I’m afraid it will only get worse as he gets older.

I think it behooves the school to redefine what “able to function in the classroom” means. Are we really doing the best for our children without testing their social skills as well as their ability to regurgitate the facts. If our ultimate goal is to raise productive adults, we have to do better for our fringe kids.

Jenna Bagnini is a divorced mom of three boys (one with special needs), feminist, mental health advocate, yogi, and dancer.

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A Brother Lost

A Brother Lost

Two children, male and female standing against the sun, sunset, romance

By Laura Richards

I was five and he was three. I stared at the tiny black and white photo of a sad little boy with pleading eyes standing on a metal folding chair, a number pinned to his sweater. “This is your new brother,” my mother said as her words trailed into the distance.

Life as I knew it was about to change forever.

I remember the long drive from Boston to JFK in New York and sleeping on a row of hard, molded plastic airport chairs waiting for the baby flight to arrive from Korea. I saw him for the first time from behind sitting on someone’s suitcase as chaos enveloped him. He stared in wonder at a soda fountain and popcorn popper at the Howard Johnson’s rest stop on our way home. Transition from poverty in another country to the bright lights, flash and color of the Western world seemed too much.

He smelled of kimchi and slept on the floor even though he had a bed. He called me “Uhn-nee” the Korean word for sister and refused to remove his clothing until one day my parents had to wrestle him down in the backyard and strip them off as I watched terrified from the kitchen window. To him new clothes meant a new home. My mother said he was the only child she ever knew who had corns on his feet because his shoes were too small.

Malnourished and wandering the streets of Seoul all alone, he had been shuffled to numerous placements in his brief life and all had sent him back. A child utterly rejected by every adult he’d ever known with an understandable inability to trust, living with the constant terror of being sent away again. Bone scans had to be done of his hands to determine his approximate age. He had no known date of birth so my parents used the day he stumbled off the plane and into our lives as his birthday.

It turns out that despite his rough start in life he was very bright to the point of gifted. He and I would sign up every summer at our branch library for the children’s reading program “Hooked on Books.” The librarians made fishing poles out of long dowels with brown yarn for the lines and cut up manila folders for the hooks. For every book we read we were given a colored paper fish to add to our hooks. The ones burnished with gold and silver paper were the most coveted as it meant you had reached the five, ten or even fifteen books read mark. Every summer my brother’s fishing pole was heavy with multicolored fish and multiple silver and gold because he was their star reader. Mine was flimsy with just a few colored fish blowing about as I wasn’t a prolific child reader. I was jealous of his ability and bountiful colored catch. Sure he outsmarted me academically but socially I had him beat.

As the years passed, it became more and more evident that something was very wrong with my brother. He didn’t connect in a normal way, had issues perspective taking and eventually became paranoid and combative. My parents did everything humanly possible to help him. He had plunged from being at the top of his class at a prominent private school in Boston to the depths of delusion, barricading himself in his bedroom and complaining that poisonous gas was being piped into our house. It was heartbreaking. He blamed all of his problems on a lasagna my mother had made years before. We tried to soothe him by explaining we had all eaten the same lasagna but reason had no place at his table.

It came as a tremendous relief when he was finally diagnosed in high school with paranoid schizophrenia after a complete collapse at yet another private school, this one a boarding school on Long Island. All of his therapists felt he would be better off outside of the family unit and though my parents weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea, they were desperate to help him so complied. It took one emergency room doctor mere minutes to figure out what a dozen others couldn’t over as many years. We were devastated by the diagnosis but grateful to finally have answers. For me it crystallized the tragedy and sadness of what could have been. A brilliant mind and promising life stolen forever.

He and I had a typical sibling relationship especially when we were younger. He drove me crazy teasing, imitating and barging in on me and my friends and I would chase him around the house and do all of the mean things that much taller, older sisters do to shorter, younger brothers. I would play Randy Newman’s song “Short People” as loud as possible on the record player with unrelenting glee. We built encampments in our back yard, slid down the sand pile at the DPW lot behind our house, incurred the understandable wrath of our mother when we used an entire roll of scotch tape on her wallpaper trying to keep our fort blanket in place. Of course it didn’t work and we ruined her wall (sorry mom). We would stay outside in the dark after a snowstorm making elaborate igloos and paths until we were beckoned inside by the bell my parents had affixed to our house. He was my playmate and partner in crime.

Eventually those typical sibling experiences were replaced by atypical experiences like visiting him in psychiatric hospitals. One night, I sat as he was restrained to a hard, flat bed by leather wrist and leg straps, his paranoia at its peak. At the very worst, and most terrifying, he became homeless for a while. The police needed a recent photo to officially declare him a missing person, a photo that I had taken just weeks before at his high school graduation. I will never forget driving to my parent’s house with it on the front seat beside me, stunned at the turn of events. His smiling face in cap and gown, my parents flanked either side of him smiling too, basking in a rare, happy day in a life that had been full of difficult ones. Things seemed to be looking up for him but my tears fell. Instead of seeing him enjoy his post high school summer with hopes of what might lie ahead we were filling out police forms and fearing the worst.

He eventually turned up but things were not good. While I was starting new jobs, dating, getting married, buying a home and building a family as a wife and mother, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and group homes unable to work and struggling to get through each day. I was getting on with the business of life while he was living in self-inflicted isolation and hating people for various reasons.

As a mom, I tend to take for granted the childhood memory-making happening under my nose every day. Events and funny stories that will eventually become humored and sentimental discussions around future holiday tables. My four boys will get to enjoy this but it’s something I can’t share with my own brother even when I try to jog his cluttered mind to remember what it was like for us. Only he knew about the untuned piano key in our Great Aunt’s parlor that sounded like an old fire engine bell. He knew what it was like to sit on a warm evening on the screened porch of our other Great Aunt and Uncle and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” with the heat bugs in the background. He was there when I tried to shave my legs for the first time and badly cut my shin on my dad’s old metal razor. Things that only siblings share and reminisce about, not mourn.

He has better days but that little boy who shared and holds all of my childhood memories is lost forever within his illness. Holidays are particularly tough for him and therefore for us. He joins when he can but the voices distract and it often ends badly. Last Thanksgiving, he declared that we were all Nazis and he hated my food after eating three full plates of it. I’m grateful for the good moments when he chats with my sons or throws the ball with them in the backyard knowing it’s fleeting and he will soon be back to his stonewalling and paranoia.

When someone asks if I have any siblings it’s hard to answer and I often hesitate knowing the next question is inevitably, “What does he do for work?” or “Does he have a family?” or the truly dreaded question, “Are you close?” How do I answer or explain? I often reply, “Yes, a brother who is mentally ill and lives in a group home.” That usually abruptly ends the conversation yet saves a series of future awkward questions. Sometimes it starts a conversation that they too have an aunt, grandparent or cousin who suffers from depression or bipolar and I’m glad. Glad to know we can talk about such things and that I’m not alone and it’s not just our family struggling so deeply with mental illness.

My relationship with my brother is now limited to the occasional email always signed, “your brother” followed by his name as if he’s reminding both of us of his place. That he is a brother, my brother. I’d like more but it’s just not in the cards. He has no sense of boundaries with the phone and visiting isn’t something he’s comfortable with. I love him but it’s hard. He’s a hard person to love.

Laura Richards is a Boston-based writer and mother of four boys including identical twins. She has written for a variety of publications including Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, The Boston Globe Magazine and Scary Mommy and can be found on Twitter @ModMothering and via her website www.LauraRichards.co.

 

 

 

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Waiting for Lilacs

Waiting for Lilacs

lilac flowering at the springtime

By Andrea Mullenmeister

A swath of springtime sun filtered through the curtains and bathed my mom in dust motes as she rocked back and forth in the chair. Her yellow skin clung to her cheek bones, and she smiled.

“I’ve decided to put the hospice bed here so I can look out the window and see the lilacs bloom,” she said. Every morning, she looked out to the gangly bushes with anticipation, and every morning their stubborn buds failed to burst.

“Hopefully tomorrow, mom,” I told her, pretending I thought she would make it.

Five days after she decided to live for the lilac bloom, she surprised me.

“Let’s have a party,” she announced. She could barely get out of bed. She hadn’t eaten for days. Her skin was grayish now, and her cheeks were hollow. It really didn’t seem like the best time to host a party.

“Well, we do love parties in this family,” I conceded, “but I don’t know…”

“We’re doing it,” she interrupted. I think she was afraid that the cancer that was killing her body was also killing her legacy – she needed to know people hadn’t forgotten about her, that she still mattered.

So, I began planning my mom’s final party.

We invited everyone she knew to her “living wake.” Would anyone come? Not many people are comfortable with an obvious manifestation of death, and here death was, laying in a hospice bed waiting for lilacs and parties.

The morning of the party mom’s eyes were slits, and her body was motionless. I stared at the long list of RSVP’s and I got nervous. Did we really want 100 people in our house right now? “Are you sure you still want to have the party?” I asked.

“Yes. Party,” she said. Her voice cracked and I sponged water on her lips.

Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.

Long afternoon shadows climbed through the window and the dust danced. Visitors poured through the door. The sound of jokes and laughter mixed seamlessly with quiet reminiscing and tears. Her wake was exactly how she had lived her life, filled with people and activity. But instead of fluttering around, laughing and talking with her friends, mom slept on the hospice bed, breathing but unresponsive to the party that was happening in her honor.

Early the next morning, my brother and sister and I sat next to our mom’s bed. Mom had told us over and over that she wasn’t afraid to die. She was only 53 years old, but had made peace with her early demise. She had lived her bucket list and made amends. During the two years since her diagnosis, she had made the journey to God. She believed in Him and in angels. She felt safe.

As we sat around her, each lost in our own thoughts, she suddenly sat up for the first time in days. Her arms reached towards something we could not see. She frantically grabbed and clawed at the air around her. Was she afraid now that death was closing in? She moaned and reached towards the window.

The lilacs. They hadn’t bloomed yet.

Mom slumped back in bed, defeated. Her labored breathing began to slow…gurgle, huhhh…just when we thought it might be the end, her chest would rise again in a futile rally cry of “please, just one more day.”

I whispered “It’s ok mom. We’ll be ok. You can go now if you’re tired.”

The gentle spring rain splattered the window and eventually, she just stopped. We didn’t realize it at first because it was so peaceful but then a thunder clap rattled the windows and the skies opened up and it began to pour. She was gone. Gusting wind ravaged the budding lilac bushes outside and the curtain of rain couldn’t compare to our tears.

The next morning, I awoke exhausted and red-eyed. I looked out the window and stared at the brilliant purple flowers that bounced lazily in the breeze. The goddamn lilacs had bloomed. I threw my pillow at the window. Once my favorite flower, the lilacs were mean and ugly in the wake of my loss.

Cancer robbed my mom, and me, of so much more than just the lilac bloom.

Four months later, on my wedding day, I laid a white flower on my mom’s empty chair as I walked down the aisle.

Three years after that, I slumped next to my son’s incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit. The sounds of the NICU pierced my soul and a nurse elbowed me out of the way while she tried to convince my one-pound baby to breathe. I slunk into the background and stared out the window wondering if my child would ever feel the sun on his skin or smell the lilac bloom.

I haven’t held you yet, little boy. I haven’t even loved you.

His tiny chest rose and fell with mechanical precision now; the ventilator was doing the work of living for him. His labored breathing…whoosh, wheesh…filled the room and I wished I had ear plugs. I didn’t want to listen to another person die.

The sharp sting of grief scavenged my emotions, tricking me into believing I wasn’t worthy of being a mother anyway. “You can’t do this,” said Fear. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Doubt chimed in with a vengeance. Even if my son lived, how would I raise him without my own mother to help?

I glanced into my son’s incubator, a tangle of wires and tubes hid his face, but each heartbeat lit up his transparent skin with the bright reminder of blood and life. His tiny foot kicked a tunnel through the wires and flailed into the air.

“Just one more day!” his tiny body screamed with a force that knocked the wind out of me. My son was alive. This was not that rainy spring day where life lost. This was a bright summer day where life was winning.

Just yesterday, that same little boy bounced over to me, laughter bubbling from every inch of his healthy, strong body. The gold flecks in his gray eyes shone like the rays of sunshine that streamed through the window. His tornado-like entrance stirred up all the dust and the particles twirled. His pointy chin jutted proudly like mine does and like his grandmother’s did.

Mom was worried people would forget about her after she died. But no one has forgotten, least of all me. The dust settled on the window sill and I ran my finger through the thin coating, leaving a lasting impression.

Butterflies danced in the springtime breeze and fluttered in and out of our view. Even though they disappeared from our sight, we knew they were still there. “Look mom.” My boy pointed to a branch, bursting with fragrance and color.

The lilacs had bloomed.

Andrea Mullenmeister writes about her family’s story of love, hope, and survival at www.AnEarlyStartBlog.com. Her essays about motherhood, prematurity, and parenting a child with extra needs have been featured nationally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

two girls sitting on the pier

By Heather Osterman

Recently my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about the suicide of a transgender woman I knew tangentially. Depression is a tremendously complicated thing and I certainly didn’t know her well enough to presume any connection between her identity and her action, but it’s hard to separate them completely and it hit me hard. I connected to the comments others wrote on her Facebook page I’m so tired of grieving my transgender sisters and We know this mourning song in our bones.

I’m not transgender, though my husband and many of our friends are. As a white middle-class couple, we’re on the safer end of the spectrum and we still know this song in our bones. But while it’s important to sing this song, as we gather the power to fight hard for a better world, it’s also important to engrave the tune of hope in our hearts because few of us grew up singing it. So, if I had one piece of advice for parents raising transgender children it would be this – fight like hell to make the world a better place for your children, but in the meantime, teach them how to sing, inscribe a story of happiness on every bone of their body. Because narratives matter.

When I came out to my mom as gay twenty-four years ago she confessed that while she would support and love me no matter what, she also worried because, from her perspective, being gay seemed to be a sadder and lonelier life. My then-self, on the cusp of adulthood, was enraged. How dare she insinuate that gay people had greater challenges finding fulfilling relationships and carving out a life for themselves? But now, as a parent of two young children myself, I understand things differently. What parent would ever want their child’s life to be harder than it needs to be?

To be fair, in 1990, her reaction wasn’t out of left-field, and she was voicing my own deepest fear, that I would never be loved. At the time, there were few positive images of gay life in the mainstream media. In every young adult novel I’d read growing up, the gay character was either raped (if they were female) or attempted suicide (if they were male). Our society had just witnessed the gay male community being ravaged by AIDS, and it seemed the only stories about gay people in the news were about discrimination and violence. I didn’t know a single gay couple who was married, let alone with children, and I knew I wanted both of those things. So, if I didn’t see it out there, how could I believe it? How could my mom believe it?

The world has changed a lot in the past twenty years. In no way do I want to minimize the challenges that gay and lesbian youth still face, but there has been a large societal shift.

I think that shift has not brought along the transgender and gender non-conforming population. Over 50% of transgender students will attempt suicide at some point in their lives and 82% report feeling unsafe at school. LGBTQ youth currently make-up the majority of homeless youth. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. While there has been a recent uptick in positive transgender presence in the media, as Janet Mock, a transgender activist, writes, “It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling.”

If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives.

Here’s my token attempt at adding to the pot: My husband and I may not be an Oscar-winning story. We bicker over dishes and laundry and who forgot to buy the milk, but our house is filled with enough love it threatens to explode at the seams. We have two beautiful children, made possible with the help of two good friends, a gay married couple. Our children stop our hearts with smiles and hugs one moment and then drive us to utter distraction the next because they refuse to put on their shoes. Sometimes, my husband will stop in the middle of what he’s doing and say, “I can’t believe that this is my life, how lucky I am. I never imagined that we could have this.”

But he should have been able to. I should have been able to.

As a parent of a gender non-conforming child, I believe that you have three obligations: fight for laws to protect your children, teach them ways to protect themselves, and last but not lease, help them believe in an amazing future, because chances are their biggest fear is the same as yours, that they won’t be accepted or loved. And yes, you have some justifiable reasons to be scared– the murder rates for transgender women of color could make you drop to your knees and sob–but please, don’t only focus on how challenging life might be.

So every night, as you’re tucking your child in to bed, lean close, kiss their cheek and tell them this bedtime story again and again, “Once upon a time there was a transgender child and they were so, so beautiful and so, so loved. And they went out into the world, and oh, the wonderful things that happened.”

Heather Osterman-Davis is a mother of two young children and is constantly attempting to balance creative and domestic endeavors. Her work has appeared in Time; Creative Non-Fiction; Literary Mama; Listen to Your Mother; and Agave Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heatherosterman

 

 

 

 

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Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Losing A Child Who Was Not Mine

Two People and Their Shadows Walking Down Cobblestone Street

By Joanna Laufer

In a Texas hospital room, my husband and I met her: the birth mother who had asked us to be the parents of her child. She had just given birth to a baby girl. We stood by the hospital bed eager to hold the baby, who was still in the hallway nursery. We knew, before we flew to Texas from New York, that this was the birth mother’s condition of our adoption going through. “I need to see her in the arms of her mother,” she said.

Meeting each other for the first time discharged something deep in us, awkwardness and confessions we didn’t even try to hide. My husband and I gushed out our gratitude, our promise to devote our care and love; she reciprocated with her gratitude, her plans for college and a career. We were raw, open, strangers linked in the most intimate way. She told us, almost apologetically, looking sheepish and crushed, that her boyfriend – the father of the child – hadn’t shown up for the birth.

“Who does this?” she asked me, as if we had known each other for years. “Am I pitiful if I call him?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Maybe he’ll even call you.”

I had no idea whether or not her boyfriend would call. I wanted to say something consoling, and this seemed to put her at ease. Those few words, and others that flew out later, were words I would come to regret.

This had been a recent and rushed adoption match. We had made a connection with this birth mother, through an adoption agency, a week before she was due to give birth. Paperwork had been faxed and over-nighted to us, which covered only the basics. We knew each others ages – she was 20, we were in our mid-thirties at the time – and we received the birth mother’s medical history. The agency had sent her photos of us clipped to a letter we wrote about the love and good life we felt we could give to a child.

We had one phone interview, which seemed to go well. She said she chose us because she saw we love children from the photographs of us hugging our nieces. Photos of the two of us in a rowboat in Central Park convinced her that we’re happy and close. She was sure about choosing us after reading that we’d provide a good education and nurture a love for the arts. She even liked the design of the paper we wrote the letter on, the swirl of pink colors along the border. We’d been advised by the agency to pick paper that would be enticing and stand out. We were told that this would actually make a difference.

“Should I even speak to him?” she asked, and then started to sob. “He’s actually an amazing guy.”

I nodded. I told her I’d give him a chance to explain. I added that it was wrong and unfair that she’d given birth alone, but seeing their baby being born might have been too painful for him to face. “Despite what it looks like right now,” I said, “He might still be that amazing guy.”

She seemed comforted by this, which is what I had hoped for her to feel but, again, this was something and someone I knew nothing about. All my husband and I knew about her boyfriend was that, included in her plans, she wanted to have kids with him in the future.

My husband and I had spent our 20s and part of our 30s sometimes wavering, sometimes adamant about putting our careers before having a child. Once the desire grew strong and we weren’t able to conceive, we went through a year of tests, ovulation kits, and seven months of artificial insemination. Though we felt a great loss, each month, not conceiving a child, we declined fertility drugs and extensive treatments. We weren’t invested in having to have a biological child, so adoption was a choice we welcomed. We cringed when hearing concerns from well-meaning people, their comments about the risks of raising a child with unknown genes and unfamiliar personality traits. We heard a litany of adoption stories gone bad, sensational ones seen on the news, about birth parents returning and kidnapping their children.

We dismissed these warnings as best as we could. We argued that when it came to genes, including ours, there were never any guarantees. As for kidnapping, we went on faith that this wasn’t in the cards. We had all agreed to a closed adoption.

I was dying to hold the baby and kept looking for the nurse. This was a huge moment for my husband and me. We were finally close to becoming parents and to putting a tough adoption process behind us. Just as past or recent breakups are topics to avoid on first dates, we didn’t mention the hardships with prospective birth mothers before her. One woman had a miscarriage. Another woman we had gotten attached to left her premature infant in the hospital and couldn’t be found to sign the consent forms.

A nurse wheeled in the baby on what looked like a changing table. She had thick black hair with a little clipped-on pink bow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, her precious oval yawn. My desire to pick her up was excruciating to restrain, but this was the first time her birth mother was seeing her, too. “Do you want to hold her first?” I asked.

She stayed consistent with what she had requested all along, to see the baby one time only, and only in my arms. “No,” she said. “Just you.”

Holding a child you are going to adopt, even for only a few seconds, is different than holding someone else’s child. My heart opened instantly. I held her head gently against the nook of my throat. I kissed her and she flinched. “That’s a kiss,” I told her. I assumed it was her first. She fell asleep in my arms.

I looked up at the birth mother. It seemed too clinical, at this point, to think of her as birth mother. As she watched me hold the baby she had just given life, her heart opened instantly, too. She was crying, but attempted to stop. Crying was replaced with something like prayer. She kept saying, “I want her to have,” and “I’m grateful she’ll have,” before filling the sentence with her priorities for the baby: two loving parents, self-esteem, a good future without needing welfare. She took a deep breath and nodded, finding strength from these words. Then she said them again to the baby.

She asked not to be called or considered mother, or the alternatives: first mother, natural mother, or real mother. She said it would be unfair and misleading to the baby, and to me. She didn’t mind the woman who gave birth to the baby. I thought she deserved something more, though I’ll admit I was relieved. Being called adoptive mother made me uncomfortable, too. I wanted to love, raise, protect, and nurture my child. If she was the natural or real mother, who was I?

I held the baby close. I inhaled her sweet smell. My husband leaned into me and put his finger in the baby’s tiny hand. I placed her, fast asleep, into his arms.

We had started preparing to bring the baby to our hotel the next day, and home with us soon after. Texas law required us to wait 24 hours, from the time the baby was born, before the adoption consent papers could be signed. We had already bought formula, receiving blankets, onesies, wipes and diapers, and a pink and white stuffed lamb rattle. We’d rented a car with a car seat and had a crib set up when we checked into a residence hotel. As we were leaving to go back to the hotel, her cell phone vibrated. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank God.”

She made a hand motion requesting we stay, while she answered the call. She tearfully told her boyfriend (mouthing “thank you” to me first) that she would give him a chance to explain. We listened to her listen, sensing where this was heading. Not because we heard anything her boyfriend said or could tell much from watching her face. We sensed where this was heading because our deep-down fear, as adoptive parents, was that we didn’t earn or deserve a child that was handed to us, no matter how much we wanted a child. We could tell ourselves that we’d leave the next day with a daughter that was ours, but we knew she’d also always, in some way, be theirs.

If it had gone the way it was set up to go, nothing and everything would have changed. She would go on to college as planned and would forever carry on her shoulders that she had a child she didn’t keep. Instead, her boyfriend came to the hospital after we left. When our social worker went to her room with the consent papers the next morning, she brought back only a note. It said: Thank you. We held the baby all night. We’re both really, really sorry.

We called her room several times, but no one picked up. We then went on autopilot while handling loose ends. We returned the baby book our social worker had given to us, a gift for clients to record memories and milestones. My husband called our family and friends, who’d been waiting to hear good news. We returned the car seat to the airport at Dallas-Forth Worth. We barely spoke on the plane ride home.

I imagined what I might have said if she’d answered the phone. It might have been something pleading, urging her to reconsider. Or something stoic, forcing myself to say that she and her boyfriend should follow their hearts if they wanted to raise their child. I actually tried to talk myself into believing that this was true. I moved through grief and anger, seeing, as never before, that being told you were “chosen” didn’t come without a price. You can be un-chosen, without warning, and without a say. A child who is adopted also comes to know what being “chosen” means. If someone chose you and really wants you, someone else out there didn’t or couldn’t.

As soon as we returned to New York, I closed the door to the room we’d set up for the baby. Yet some nights, I found myself walking inside. I’d sit on the rocking chair I had pictured myself rocking her on. I spent many hours there hoping her parents would change their minds. It was a strong desire and one I struggled with, knowing that what I wanted was in no one’s best interest anymore, that I would become her mother only if, after finally coming together, her family would be broken apart.

Three weeks later, after another rushed adoption match, we were back in Texas. The hospital had a room set up for us to sleep in, before the consent papers would be signed. My husband and I knew, discussed, and weighed the risks. The birth parents still had time to change their minds in the morning after we’d have been with the baby all night. It was pain we didn’t want to feel again, but we knew we’d regret declining if this was our child. We agreed, for the sake of what could be our daughter, and what did turn out to be our daughter, that it was a risk worth taking.

We have learned through time that adoption, our greatest gift, is also hard to get right. We might have gone overboard making sure our daughter felt that our ties are as strong as blood ties. That she is our heart and light. Instead of telling her we chose her, we said families form in different ways and ours was meant to be. Whether she fully understood this or not, when she was 9, she told this to a friend and her friend accused her of lying. We were at Parents Observation Day at The Alvin Ailey Dance School, where she studied ballet and West African dance. Most of the kids in class were African American, and my daughter, a pale-skinned, blonde-haired girl, wearing a West African lapa while she danced for the parents, could pass for looking like me.

“You’re not adopted,” her friend said. “You look like your mom.”

I told her friend I was flattered she thought I looked like my daughter, and my daughter and I both smiled. But what I didn’t say, before her friend walked back to her parents was, “Yes, we did adopt her.” I was proud that we did and never hid this fact, but sometimes I just didn’t want the questions and stares. Sometimes I didn’t want to be reminded that she might look like someone in a family that isn’t ours, one that might long for her and wish they would have changed their mind, or might have moved on and tried not to look back. That, despite our fierce love, there’s a missing piece for her, an identity involving blood and birth that we are unable to give her.

At times, I wonder what became of the baby we didn’t take home. What had once been unbearable for us we could now be grateful for. A family was born that day, one we weren’t meant to be part of, and it led us to our daughter. She is 23 now, no longer looks like me, and is finding her own way to make sense of her story. As we have had to make sense of ours.

Joanna Laufer is the author of the book Inspired and of short stories and articles that have appeared in various publications. She lives in New York City with her husband and adorable cat. www.joannalaufer.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A View From The Special Needs Trenches

A View From The Special Needs Trenches

Waves crashing up to the sand beach

By Lisa MacColl

I am the parent to a child with a variety of invisible neuro-developmental, cognitive and behavioural challenges. She has permanent, irreparable brain damage as a result of her birth mother’s use of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy. It is what it is and we deal with it, some days better than others, some days not at all, but we do it, and we get up the next morning and do it all again. Here’s a glimpse of life in our trenches.

Self-Care is a Dream

If one more well-meaning millennial counselor reminds me of the importance of self-care, I may throat punch someone. I know they are coming from a place of genuine concern, because there is a middle aged, frumpy, tired woman sobbing in a chair in the office. I know that I have to take care of myself because when the ringmaster falls, the whole circus falls too.

But here’s the thing. Wanting to do it and having the ability to do it are very different animals. Self-care, especially when it involves things like actually leaving the house for a period of time to do something just for me takes time, planning, energy and money. I can’t just leave my daughter by herself and go for a walk. She may be a tween chronologically, but mentally, cognitively and neuro-developmentally, she’s closer to six or seven. Would you leave a six year old child to fend her herself at home? Neither will I.

We can’t just ask the neighbour’s kid to babysit. We need a babysitter who understands and can handle our daughter’s challenges. That limits us to one babysitter, and we pay well. That also means we limit the use of a babysitter to very special occasions.

The rest of the time, taking time for myself translates to a couple of games of Candy Crush or drinking my coffee while it’s still hot. I used to read voraciously, but now I read for pleasure at bed time. The rest of the time, I’m reading for work or to learn more about my daughter’s challenges so I can be a better parent.

I Doubt Myself

I see you over there, Mrs. Judgey McJudger, with your disapproving stare and your pursed lips. You’re watching the meltdown in progress and you’re thinking that it’s over-indulgence, or poor parenting. I heard you too, Mr. Smugpants with your Stepford wife and your perfect McChildren. I heard your muttered comment about the need for a good smack. I was strong-arming my child out of the store in the middle of a meltdown that day, or I would have obliged you and smacked you upside your head as requested.

When there is no ability to process action-consequence, all the sticker charts in the world will not solve it. When there is no ability to control impulses, no amount of withdrawal of privileges will change the see-want-take. When there is no ability to extrapolate from one situation to the next, every day is groundhog day, and just because my child understood something three days ago does not guarantee she will understand it now. I have to remind her every day to wear socks, to brush her teeth, and tell her what to put in her backpack every single day.

So I doubt myself. I don’t need help on the self-doubt front, so you can just keep your opinions and snark to yourself. You can’t possibly make me feel worse, and seriously you have no idea what we go through in a day, or even in a morning.

I Worry

I worry what will happen to my daughter when we’re gone. I worry who will take care of me when I’m old, because my daughter won’t be able to care for me like I cared for my mother and I’m an only child. I worry that she wants to take a babysitting course, and I know no one in the neighbourhood will hire her because she’s been ostracized. I worry that she wants to go to the mall with her friends unsupervised and with her lack of impulse control it could be a shoplift waiting to happen. I worry that her “friends” would set her up because she just wants to be liked. I worry that she knows she’s different and she gets upset about it. I worry that the kids at school pick on her because she’s different and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it because she has to go to school because homeschool is not an option, because then we won’t have a home to homeschool in. I worry that one day she’ll figure out she can get on a bus, and then she won’t know how to get home and we won’t know where she is. I worry that she’ll want to take driver training when she’s sixteen, and what if she doesn’t pass, or God forbid, what if she does. I worry about teachers who don’t understand her, classmates who are mean, parents of those classmates who are misinformed and make decisions without proper information. I worry that some days I don’t think I can do this parenting thing and I still get up and do it again. I worry about finances, because all those extra therapy sessions and summer camps are expensive and I can’t do my day job if my kid is home from school yet again. I worry.

My Normal isn’t Normal

I live vicariously through other people’s trips with their families. Trips to tropical destinations or Disney, smiling, happy children playing in the sand on the beach, I smile and say all the appropriate things, while I’m crying inside. How could we take a plane because what if a meltdown happens while we’re flying at altitude and there’s no where to go. And if we did manage to get there, would it end up like every other time we’ve gone to an amusement park and the sound and people overwhelm her and we have epic meltdown? I don’t know if it will ever happen, this happy family vacation thing, and it makes me sad.

Our normal is trying to block kicks, punches and flying objects in the middle of a meltdown. Our normal is reassuring the neighbors we aren’t murdering our child just because she’s screaming “don’t touch me,” even though we aren’t within 20 feet of her, or even on the same floor. Our normal is pushing our very tall tween in a shopping cart because that’s what it takes to get groceries done quickly, and spending a fortune on sushi and crab because she will actually eat that right now, and at least it’s protein, which is better than the packs of dried seaweed she was eating before that. Our normal is packing four spoons in her lunch every day because she can’t use the same spoon for different things. Our normal is watching sugary intake like a hawk because artificial dyes, especially red or blue will send my child into orbit for hours because she was born addicted to sugar, and there’s no such thing as “just this once.” Our normal is watching the same show 100 times because she has OCD and is perseverating. Our normal is trying to explain confabulation to someone with no experience, and reassuring the teacher that no, we did not send tequila in her water bottle and there’s no need to call child services. Our normal is casually going for a walk a few minutes after she walks to school by herself to ensure that she actually got there and didn’t get distracted by squirrels, dogs, rocks or random strangers, and conversely, looking out the window at home time until I see her coming around the corner without actually being caught looking out the window until I see her coming around the corner. Our normal is dealing with a tween’s changing emotions and a junior elementary school brain. Our normal is replacing lunch containers and bathing suits because she can’t remember to put them in her backpack. Our normal is hiding snacks if we want to have any. Our normal is a lock on the cake sprinkles, if we buy them at all, because she will eat them with a spoon until she is twitching because she was born addicted to sugar. Our normal is not your normal, and unless you live it, you can’t possibly understand why I buy her the expensive underwear and buy mine in a bag of six at Walmart, because it’s the only underwear she’ll wear and it beats the alternative.

I Grieve

I grieve the child that might have been, while loving the child that is. I grieve the ability to take her to a symphony concert that I am singing in because there is no way she would get through it. I grieve the simple tasks that are so difficult for her, like remembering to wear socks or bring her lunch containers home. I grieve the mean comments, the judgements, the ostracizing and the bullying. I grieve the assumptions that it is my parenting, rather than a neuro-developmental cause. I grieve the loss of myself, because this is so all-consuming and demanding there is no time left for me. I grieve my loss of love of school because it is not a happy place for my child, and by extension, it is no longer a place of happiness for me, a lifelong learner who loved school. I grieve.

I’m Lonely

So often, it’s easier to pretend everything is fine than to try to explain how it’s not. Most of my friends and family know some of the story and the issues, but very few know the whole thing. It’s easier to filter the information than be judged by people who should know better. I don’t need any more suggestions, judgement or “tough love” ideas. I have bookshelves full of them, thank you. So my circle is very small, and getting smaller. It rarely expands.

I’m Scared

I’m scared I don’t take proper care of myself because there aren’t enough hours in the day or dollars in the bank. I’m scared I will fail my daughter. I’m scared all the judgey people are right and it IS my parenting. I’m scared we won’t get the strategies and resources we need in time to help our daughter succeed to the best of her potential. I’m scared I will burn-out, flame-out or implode from the multiple demands and responsibilities and I’m so damn tired. I’m scared I have lost so much of myself that I won’t ever find it again. I’m scared of puberty because adding hormones to this cocktail is going to be so much fun; I already know what the full moons are like. I’m scared of the future because I’m not getting any younger and I was the caregiver to my mother at the end, but who will take care of us because our daughter won’t be able to. I’m scared that her own healthy dose of stubborn and temper will be her undoing and I won’t be able to do anything about it. I’m scared.

I’m Tired

I’m tired of staying up way too late trying to finish work, or find another solution or squeeze five minutes of time to myself because it’s the only time in the day I’m off the clock. I’m tired of the looks, the whispers, the loud comments and the expert pronouncements from people who wouldn’t last as long as it would take us to drive to the end of our street. I’m tired of researching, learning, trying, failing, and doing it again so that I can educate myself, my family, our friends, the health professionals and the educators on what makes my daughter tick, what works, and most importantly, what doesn’t. I’m tired of juggling bills, putting off repairs or begging agencies for resources or assistance so that we can help our daughter succeed. I’m tired of having the same fight with educators every year about the same issues because they haven’t bothered to read the voluminous file that is my child, or even the much smaller IEP that contains the essential information to help her succeed. I’m tired of having to ride my broom into meetings because that seems to be the only way to get people to pay attention. I’m tired of having to be THAT parent, because collaboration and cooperation aren’t working. I’m tired of the look of longing in my child’s eyes when she sees the other kids in the neighborhood playing together, both of us knowing she wouldn’t be welcome if she went down the road. I’m tired of iCarly, Sam and Kat, Drake and Josh and H2O on a constant loop because perseveration and OCD are a lethal combination. I’m tired of whatever the current obsession is, whether it’s Beanie Boos, pill bugs or tattoos and piercings because I will have to hear about it every waking minute of every day until she moves on the to next one. I’m tired of trying to stay a step ahead of whatever it is she will eat for now, and tired of getting the purchase quantities wrong because I misjudged how long the food thing will last this time and I’m stuck with six packs of frozen crab my child is no longer eating and we’re out of the instant oatmeal she is now eating. I’m tired.

Before my child was the one lying in the store having a meltdown, I was smug and judgemental. That changed quickly the first time it was my kid attracting the glares as my mother pushed her grocery cart to the end of the store and disowned us until her granddaughter was back “in control.” I’m sending a blanket apology into the universe to all those other parents that I judged. Sorry about that. I was wrong.

So next time you’re climbing up on your high horse about that kid on the floor in the store, remember this: All parents, biological, adoptive, foster, step or some combination of all of the above want very simple things for their kids: to be happy, to be safe, to be loved, to be accepted and to reach their full potential. Instead of judgment, catch the eye of the mom in the center of the storm and tell her she’s got this. Acceptance and understanding can move mountains. Also coffee. Coffee is good, too.

Lisa MacColl writes about a variety of subjects including finance, investments and parenting. She is a writer, editor, crafter, baker, singer and fights the good fight to keep the cats off the table. www.lisamaccoll.com.

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The Art of Self-Care

The Art of Self-Care

Hands cupped holding a big heart. My original hand painted illustration.

By Julie Burton

As a survivor of an eating disorder, I thought my newly strengthened and enlightened self-care voice was infallible. I was certain that with a strong marriage, a good job, a network of friends, and a healthy lifestyle, I had this self-care thing down. And I did—at least, at a time when I felt that I had control over my life, my decisions, and my relationships, and that I could manage what was on my plate. But at the age of twenty-seven, I could never have predicted how much more I would need to learn about self-care, and how challenging it would be to hold on to my sense of self, the moment I locked eyes with my newborn daughter’s wanting and needing eyes. With goose bumps on my arms and my heart exploding with love for this child, I felt the “commitment for life” concept sink heavily and purposefully into the depths of my being. As I held her tightly in my arms, and took in the sight, smell, and feel of her, I promised her, and myself, that I would always protect her, love her, and care for her—that I would become a “baby whisperer,” able to anticipate and accommodate her every need

I basked in the euphoria of my newfound sense of purpose and of the endless supply of powerful, all- consuming unconditional love that I didn’t even know existed within me. I fell almost desperately, addictively in love with the feeling of being needed, revered, and loved by my daughter, and by my three subsequent children. And yet I didn’t know that my motherhood journey would be twofold. Underneath this incredible, illuminating euphoria, there was something deeper—a residual, nagging anxiety that emerged from the scars within my heart, scars that had lain dormant since my recovery. Not until much later in my motherhood journey would I come to understand that the unresolved feelings that gnawed at me, wrestling with the joyous feelings of motherhood, were intricately connected to self-care; and that, as amazingly wonderful as motherhood often is, it is also really, really hard— and that sometimes I was in way over my head.
It would be years until I fully grasped how my almost obsessive desire to protect my daughter and subsequent children was more than just a mama bear’s “I want to keep you safe from harm” sort of quest. It definitely was that. But it also included an unspoken promise to protect them from the pain, the loneliness, and the despair that I had experienced as a child. And despite the fact that I put a lot of pressure on myself to “be there” for my children, in doing so, I continued to heal myself.

When my oldest daughter hit that ever-so-uncomfortable stage known as puberty, she began expressing some negativity toward the changes happening in her body. Initially, I was overcome with a sense of panic and dread. But quickly, I propelled my fear into a plan of action. The buck would stop here! I would take the lessons I had learned through my experience, through healing the wounds I’d endured while intently watching my mother fight her own food and body-image battles as I grew up. I would acknowledge my overwhelming responsibility to teach my daughter about all things related to body image, food, exercise, and nutrition. And after every discussion (and there were hundreds), I made sure she understood that all of the above-mentioned subjects are directly tied to self-love, self- respect, and self-compassion. I made a concerted effort to be a good role model for her in my approach to food and exercise, and kept the lines of communication open, checking in with her regularly to see how she felt about herself as she transitioned from girl to young woman.

I approached this issue with seriousness and intensity, practicing what I came to think of as a kind of double mothering, in which I cared for my daughter by reaching back deeply into my own childhood, providing love and compassion for both my daughter and my younger self. I held her when she cried as hormones surged through her confused preteen mind and body, and I gave her heavy doses of love, acceptance, guidance, and understanding during these trying years. I compassionately and gently helped her establish her foundation for healthy eating habits and body image in the way that I would have wanted to learn them myself. And thankfully, at the age of twenty, she has one of the healthiest attitudes toward food and body image of anyone I know.

All three of my older children hit rough patches in middle school, difficulties that most kids cannot avoid as they are trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in, and who their real friends are, at the same time as they are pulling away from their parents. My kids experienced bullying, academic challenges, and self- esteem issues. As I write this book, in the fall of 2015, I am bracing myself for my youngest daughter’s entry into middle school.

I worried tremendously about my kids during these trying years, as some of the pain of my own adolescence resurfaced. I did my best to give them as much love and attention as I could when they were struggling. But I also was very aware of the points at which I knew I needed to bring in outside support. Whether it was a school counselor, a tutor, a rabbi, a coach, a teacher, or a therapist, I did for them what I did not do for myself when I struggled: I asked for help. I knew I could not handle all of their challenges on my own, and I wanted them to feel that they were not alone in them—and that I wasn’t either.

In mothering all four of my children through their various challenges, I have been able to mother different parts of the wounded child within me. My kids always know that I have their backs. They always know that they are not alone, and that I am able and willing to go down into the deep trenches of their lives and their psyches with them, in order to help them navigate life’s inevitable twists and turns, as well as to help them develop a reflective, connected understanding and acceptance of themselves. They have learned that it is okay to ask for help, to trust in others, and to believe that there is a wide and strong net of people who care about them and who will catch them when they fall. And in doing that for them, I continued to trust that I could rely on the same reinforcements for myself. However, because of my tendency toward extremes, and my deeply rooted “die on the sword” mentality, my “double mothering” would propel me in both positive and negative directions. It served as a constant push for me to become the best mother I could possibly be for my children and for the child within me, but it also provided a breeding ground of opportunities for me to be brutally hard on myself. While it was easy to feel good when the things I did to help my children worked out well, oftentimes my efforts did not yield the results I thought they would or should, or my children’s behavior did not change at the speed at which I expected—as it goes with parenting. The old tapes containing messages of failure and disappointment played back in my head, sometimes even prompting me to look for “evidence” that I was indeed a failure as a mother. If my son got in trouble at school, well, guess whose fault that was? If my daughter didn’t do well on a test, I should have helped her study more.

Needless to say, this critical self-care challenge caused me a great deal of angst and confusion before I understood that self-care lies far below the surface, in the place where our most wounded self resides. I realize now that my first decade of mothering provided me with a new platform for my embedded feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and my striving for unattainable perfection, to reappear. Slowly, subconsciously, and unintentionally, as my pattern would go, I began to slip away from who I was. I let go of many of my personal and professional goals, as many moms do (at least for a period of time), and I convinced myself that my only real purpose was to give to my family—until, years later, these feelings finally knocked me down and left me in a heap on my sister’s living room floor.

Although I had worked diligently on solidifying my self- care voice throughout the process of my eating-disorder recovery, and was very grateful that I was even able to bear children (given the damage I had done to my body in my teens), I frequently felt alone, drained, unhappy, and unable to find solid ground. I did not yet realize that mothering them, obsessing about every little detail of their lives, would not bring me the fulfillment I needed to feel whole, nor would the idea that sacrificing my need to care for myself for “their sake” could be a healthy guiding principle for me, or for any mother.

The past two decades of being a mother and studying motherhood have taught me that I am most certainly not alone in this conundrum. Most mothers, while they nobly attempt to care for their children, struggle with defining their boundaries—which often leads mothers to neglect themselves. In a blog post on the website PsychCentral, journalist Margarita Tartakovsky explains why the mother-child relationship can feel so complicated. “Your relationship with your child isn’t just symbiotic,” she writes; “it’s parasitic because it isn’t a mutual relationship.” She illustrates this point further by quoting psychotherapist Ashley Eder, LPC, who says, “Your children are—adorable [and] beloved— parasites, and you are the host, and that’s normal and healthy.” But in the spirit of self-care, the most important aspect of Eder’s mother-child, host-parasite analogy is this: “The survival of a parasite is dependent upon the health of the host.”

When a woman makes the transition to being a mother, and she feels the nurturing cells multiply by the second (or for some mothers who suffer from postpartum depression, it can be fear or even some resentment that kicks in), she is less inclined to be thinking about how to keep herself, “the host,” healthy, and more likely to spend her energy on figuring out how to take care of her new “parasite.

Almost every mom I interviewed could connect with the feelings of frustration that often arise when talking about motherhood and self-care. In fact, if you pull a chair up to any table at Starbucks, an exercise class, park bench, set of bleachers, or office water cooler where a group of mothers are gathered and the topic of self-care comes up, you will hear many moans: “UGH, I just do not know how to do that anymore. Who’s got the time?” “I have been trying to get to this exercise class for two weeks but my kids have been sick, my husband is out of town, and I am beyond exhausted. It is a miracle I am here!” There will be a unanimous consensus that finding ways to care for themselves while mothering children is one of the trickiest things they have ever done. They will compare notes on how much time and attention children demand, and then throw in their partners, work, friends, and other family members as other forces that tug at their energy.

For most moms, the idea of “self-care” can feel like just one more item to add to their already overflowing to-do list. And to some, like those quoted above, it can feel unattainable. For other moms, self-care practices will go in fits and starts. They will try. They will have intentions of taking good care of themselves, but will often get swept up in the needs of others and allow their own needs to fall by the wayside. They will express frustration, and sometimes even resentment: “I wish I had more time for myself but something/someone usually gets in the way. I was planning to go meet my girlfriends last night for dinner but Billy wanted me to stay home and help him with his homework. He didn’t want his dad to help him, and even though I was angry about it, I stayed home to work with him. I feel so trapped.”

In 2012, I attended a workshop for yoga teachers. One teacher, Megan, asked the workshop leader, Matt, a father of three children, including three-year-old twins and an eight- month-old, what we should do if we believe one of our students is battling depression. Megan went on to talk about one of her students who is a mom and is taking care of her young kids and her aging parents as well. The woman confided in Megan that she often felt resentful, anxious, and depressed because she was pulled in so many directions and felt completely tapped out.

Matt paused for a moment and replied, “It’s like this.” He grabbed a marker by one end and handed it to Megan, who took hold of the other end. But Matt did not let go of the marker. As Matt held on to one end of the marker and Megan the other, you could see the push-pull effect between them as they both grappled for the marker.

Then Matt said to Megan, “Maybe I don’t really want to give you this marker and I would rather keep it for myself, but I am not sure how to do this because now you want and expect the marker that I offered you and I can’t really take it back. But I realize I really need it.” He explained how sometimes we give things (or parts of ourselves) to others even though we don’t want to, and truly need to keep these pieces of ourselves intact. So we keep hanging on but feel like we “should” give it away. This can certainly provoke anxiety, and is a reality for many mothers who give of themselves to those who need them (children, partners, parents, bosses), but struggle to hold on to important pieces of themselves.

The fact is that it doesn’t work to give away something that you desperately need for yourself. Mothers’ limbs, hearts, and brains are constantly being pulled in various directions; think of Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book The Giving Tree, which can be read as a parable of the self-destruction that comes to those who offer too much to others, while keeping nothing for themselves. But your trunk needs to remain steady and strong. You learn about your strengths and weaknesses as your children coerce, push, and challenge you. The only thing you are truly in control of is yourself. By taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you are more likely to be able to be strong for yourself and your kids and to be able to withstand the storms that come through your life and their lives.

Excerpted from The Self-Care Solution, now available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Julie Burton is an experienced writer specializing in self-care, parenting, and relationships. She has written for many local and national websites and publications. She blogs at juliebburton.com, is the co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, and teaches writing and wellness workshops to adults and teens. Julie lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband and four children. Connect with Julie on her website, on Facebook /unscriptedmom or twitter @juliebburton.

Illustration © Andreus

 

 

 

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Soldier Daughter

Soldier Daughter

Art The Soldier 2

By Hana Julian

My youngest daughter doesn’t look like anyone else in the family, but she has her father’s eyes, and she has my father’s grin.

My father never talked about Korea, or about his time in Tokyo and the South Pacific islands. In fact, I didn’t even know he was in Kawalajin until I saw his discharge papers, 30 years after he died.

But my mother, who shared his membership in the Jewish War Veterans, was hugely proud of their joint military history. You know that saying, “Your mother wears army boots?” Mine really did. Every freezing winter in our Connecticut neighborhood she fiercely shoveled snow from our sidewalk in those scuffy brown lace-up boots while my father chuckled with his own shovel in the driveway, grinning at her attitude.

After my father’s death my “little” brother, only 18 at the time but already a foot taller than me, sidled up to me and quietly handed me a package.

“Dad wanted me to give this to you,” he mumbled. “He said you would know what to do with it.” A revolver, a semi-automatic pistol and a BB gun with some ammo wrapped so well that no one could have guessed its contents. Of course I knew what to do. I did what had to be done with such things.

I later found my dad’s military award while going through my mother’s things after her funeral 20 years later. My sister and brother decided I should have it, festooned with medals for sharpshooting, combat medic symbols and others I still don’t understand.

I was the one my dad took fishing at dawn and dusk. We sat in silence along myriad rivers and ponds around metro New Haven and outlasted the bigger fish overnight on the West Haven beach, with me staying warm in dad’s old army sleeping bag. He taught me how to clean the fish (my mother once was horrified to find me dissecting the brains of a mouse on our back porch) and I learned to plant blue gills and sunfish under the tomato plants in our garden for fertilizer (they weren’t “good eating”). Dad and his best friend Ted, an Italian, taught me self-defense, street fighting, basic security and gourmet cooking.

But my father – a combat medic and sharpshooter, among other things – never said a word about what he’d experienced during the war. The one day I asked him, his eyes darkened in a way I had never seen. When I finally pushed him too far, he described a torture technique – unmentionable here – that I have never forgotten. He said he would use it on a North Korean if he ever caught one. I wondered then as I wonder today which of his friends “bought it” in that war.

He requested a discharge when he and my mother became engaged despite her pleas that he consider a professional military career, insistent that children need a stable life. Both were proud of having served the country and neither respected draft dodgers; in our family, it was understood that one defends the homeland, regardless of gender.

All this came back to me the day my 16-year-old daughter brandished her first Israeli draft notice. She was a tomboy all her life to that point, and now had matured into a beautiful, tall girl with caramel-colored blonde hair nearly to her waist, sea-green eyes and a faint sprinkle of freckles dusting her cheeks. Dimples when she flashed a grin that family members recognized as a red alert for mischief.

By now we had been living in southern Israel for more than a decade and I was a widowed mother of seven; this was my second-to-last child in a modern but nevertheless Chassidic Jewish family, rebellions notwithstanding.

We celebrated the notice. My Chassidic friends told me I was crazy; my more modern Orthodox Jewish friends were cautious in suggesting perhaps this was not quite a good idea. The Israeli army is, after all, a very active military force. Did I really want to take the chance my daughter might actually have to … uh … stay on base with other soldiers during a war?

Well, yes, actually. That was the general idea, I thought. In the Bible, the Jews defend their Land and their People. In 1948, the women weren’t at all squeamish about having to do the same; it was a matter of survival. Frankly, I didn’t see today’s situation differently, as long as the genders were respected by the authorities appropriately. (My daughter was shocked to discover that modesty is expected up to and including a rule against nail polish.)

We decided I would not accompany her when she went in; that would be the privilege of her sisters. At the gathering grounds, family members say “goodbye” and some make a real ceremony out of it. (I later saw videos with Moroccan parents bringing and banging on bongo drums, showering their daughters with special candies, boyfriends hugging their girlfriends goodbye, daughters clinging to parents with tears flowing on both sides.) That night my daughter called and informed me that she had not disgraced herself. I was quietly proud.

The next day her sisters laughed themselves silly and told me she was a train wreck in the car all the way to the base, weeping and hysterical and not knowing in which direction to fling herself first.

Neither of her older sisters served in the military; they both were in religious schools at the time and exempted by the government. Their younger sister in uniform faced her fears that day, experienced and conquered them. By the time she got to the gathering point, she was indeed calm, they told me later with surprise.

But that calmness has since deepened into a shell, similar to the one her grandfather used to wear.

As a journalist, I report on the terror attacks that take place during my shift. Many are horrific and some are beyond description, breaching the defenses I long ago learned to build.

Not my soldier daughter.

“Ma, what’s wrong?”

“Attack. A 19-year-old female soldier stabbed to death, about 15 times.” (I don’t point out the victim is her own age, size and rank.)

“Okay.” Exaggerated sigh. “You know the drill. This is not new.”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“It’s another attack, Ma. Get past it and keep going. You know she’s a soldier. A civilian didn’t get killed because she was there. Keep moving.”

She is impatient with her mother, whom she knows as really strong.

But I don’t tell her that in my belly I see my green-eyed daughter covered in blood, her body ripped in shreds on the ground, a triumphant terrorist exultant in his jihad victory. I see the mother of that young Border Guard Police woman bent over her daughter as I have seen dozens of others throughout my career. I wonder if or when it will be me. My stomach muscles are twisting like fire and I can barely talk, but I tell my kid “goodbye” and get back to work.

Next year it will be my son.

Ann Julian is an American-Israeli ‘Mom x 6’ who works as a radio newscaster/digital journalist and as a licensed psychotherapist. She is the News Director at Israel News Talk Radio and an Editor at JewishPress.com.

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A Mom Like Me

A Mom Like Me

Portrait of beautiful serious afro american woman over black background

By Betty Christiansen

At first glance, Gwendolyn and I have little in common. She’s in her twenties; I’m in my forties. I have a house; she has an efficiency apartment with a shared bath. I work in publishing; she works in fast food. I am white; she is black. I drive a car that seats seven; she rides a bike. Yet she is a mom, just like me.

She has two small children; I have three. We have meals to make and homes to clean and staggering amounts of laundry. We both have husbands. We juggle everything around our jobs and their jobs.

Our common ground is the bus stop. Our mornings are the same: a scramble of rousing kids, feeding them, and rushing out the door by 7:45. She and her son are always on time; we are always running late. We take turns reminding the kids to stop running, to stop pushing, and to stand back when the bus pulls up. “Goodbye,” I tell my kids when they climb on the bus. “Have a good day! I love you!”

“You be good,” she commands her son. “Don’t disappoint me.”

Gwendolyn is a mom like me, except she doesn’t have a car. Some mornings, I’ll drive her to the bank or to Kwik Trip, the convenience store five blocks from our homes. She’ll get some cash and then buy milk and breakfast, or milk and beer. She asks me where I have to go that morning, and I tell her I have a meeting or a photo shoot or a press check. I’ll ask her if she’s working that day, and she’ll say yes, she’s got the closing shift at Taco Bell, or no, she’ll be home with her two-year-old, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do with her that day. I tell her I know; my youngest is finally in preschool and I remember those days.

She might ask if she can wash some clothes at my house, because there’s no laundry in her building. Sometimes, we’ll load up all her laundry when it reaches a critical mass and pile it into the back of my car, and I’ll take her to a Laundromat.

We are both protective of our children. Mine are old enough to walk the block back home from the bus stop by themselves in the afternoon, but still I watch out for them. Gwendolyn does not let her son do this; if she is home and not working a shift at Taco Bell, she will walk down and get him, or have her husband do so if he is not working a shift at Burger King. If neither one can, she’ll ask me if I’ll make sure he gets in their apartment okay, where his very frail granny is waiting for him.

“You know I will,” I say.

One morning, they’re not at the bus stop, and I ask her about it the next day.

“Anthony didn’t go to school,” she says. “He had a cough.” She then goes on to tell that he needs to go to the doctor, but not because of the cough. It turns out a woman from that damn Child Protective Services came over yesterday, eyeballing the house and following up on a police report. “My house is clean,” Gwendolyn declares. “I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”

But apparently there were sores on her son’s arms, and a teacher saw them. A police officer came to the school, took photographs, and filed a report with CPS.

“They could’ve given me a heads-up,” spits Gwendolyn. “They said they tried to call, but my phone isn’t working. They could’ve sent me a note. They never asked me what happened.

“I could’ve told them he has these bumps on his arms, and he keeps scratching them,” she goes on. “I ain’t got nothing to hide. I make sure he has clean clothes, clean socks and drawers. I know they’re looking for that kind of thing.”

I don’t know what to say, so I just listen. It wouldn’t help to explain that the teacher is legally bound to report her fears, that everyone is just looking out for her child, that they’re doing what’s required to keep him out of harm’s way—even if that might be harm by a parent.

For all our mornings together, I don’t know Gwendolyn well enough to know if she would hurt her son, or if someone else in their house would. I have seen small, round scars on her son’s legs, and I’ve heard her threaten him for getting in trouble in school. I don’t know how seriously to take that. After all, I have threatened my children, too.

What I do know is that this would never happen to a mom like me. A professional mom, a well-spoken mom, the mom who volunteers in the classrooms because she can; she has the flexible schedule and the car. The mom who can be home for her kids, never uncertain of their safety. My own son has had eczema on his arms, and no one has questioned me.

I’m all for Child Protective Services—but how about a Mom Protective Services? Where is that agency, the one that makes sure a mom like Gwendolyn has a way to shuttle children, work without worrying about them, make sure they’re fed and dressed and on the bus on time? Who makes sure she can get her laundry done? Who makes sure that she has a way to wind down from all of this without needing the beer that might lead to arm sores and leg scars? Who’s looking out for the moms like her?

Because Gwendolyn doesn’t have a car, I drive her and her son to his doctor’s appointment. When I pick her up later, she seems relieved, even happy. It was eczema after all, and now everyone knows it. She also picked up her new glasses from the optometry department while she was there, and they look sharp. I tell her so. She looks at me, smiles, and says thanks.

Betty Christiansen is a writer and editor who lives with her husband and three children in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She is the author of two books—Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time and Girl Scouts: 100 Trailblazing Years—both published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, a division of Harry Abrams. She’s also the editor of Coulee Region Women, the women’s magazine of the La Crosse area, and a graduate of the creative nonfiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.

 

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My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

My Heart Can't Believe It

By Amy Silverman

When my daughter Sophie was a few days old, the pediatrician scribbled a name on a prescription pad and handed it to me. A geneticist. When you have a baby with a genetic disorder, they send you to see a geneticist. I didn’t think to ask why. I figured this guy would look at Sophie—maybe test her blood—and tell us all kinds of things, like how smart she’d be and whether or not we’d have more kids with Down syndrome. Sort of like a fortune-teller.

It took four months to get an appointment, and by the time we got in, I’d already figured out that those questions don’t have answers. I really only had one question left for him: Do people with Down syndrome ever have curly hair?

In our house, hair is a big deal. Specifically, hair that curls. When Sophie’s older sister, Annabelle, was a few months old, her straight brown hair fell out and she was bald. For weeks afterward, my husband Ray and I watched her head carefully for signs of curls.

Perhaps Ray and I are so obsessed with hair because both of us had transformations when we learned to let our curly hair be curly. For me that happened my junior year in college, when I spent a semester in London and got a spiral perm—going to the other extreme from my previous hairdo, which had required hours with the blow-dryer, round brush, and iron. Okay, so with the perm I looked like Dee Snyder from the heavy metal band Twisted Sister, but that was stylish in the late 1980s, and finally, I felt good about myself. I dated cute boys all summer.

Ray won’t tell me exactly when his mother stopped blow-drying his curly hair straight. I asked once, and he got a funny look on his face and said, “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you? No way am I telling you anything.”

No matter. When I met Ray, he had dark, curly hair and everyone told us how cute it was that someday we’d have a little baby with curly hair.

We did. By the time I was pregnant with Sophie, Annabelle’s hair had grown in and she had a full head of perfect blonde ringlets. Old ladies in Target would stop me to ask if I used a curling iron on my two-year-old’s hair. No, just an entire bottle of No-More-Tangles. When Annabelle’s hair was wet, it stretched almost to her butt. She loved to shake her curls. She knew they made her special.

But what about Sophie—so tiny in her carrier, with straight black hair and a feeding tube up her nose, chromosomally challenged and days away from open-heart surgery?

Would her hair ever curl?

Years later, I still can’t believe the words came out of my mouth as we sat there in the geneticist’s office. From the look on his face, neither could he, a sweet older man with a booming practice and a packed schedule. In the time it took us to get in to see him, Ray had done his own homework on the topic of Down syndrome. His side of our bed was piled with books; more than once, I’d caught him staring at baby Sophie—silently sizing her up next to whatever new fact he’d just discovered, hesitant to tell me much.

Before the doctor joined us in the exam room, we met with a genetics counselor who gave us some history. “Down syndrome was first identified by a man named J. Langdon Down in the seventeenth or eighteenth century,” she began, reminding me of the public relations people who call newspaper reporters to pitch well-worn story ideas, practically singing them off a script.

“Actually,” Ray said gently, “It was 1866.” After that, Ray did the talking, and the genetics counselor took notes.

After Sophie was born and we got her diagnosis, Ray and I took very different approaches, which is weird, since he and I are both journalists, each of us in the habit of soaking everyone and everything for information on any given topic. Ray jumped into his research, but I retreated into the bliss of ignorance, particularly for those first fuzzy months of Sophie’s life. When I was a little girl—and even now, sometimes—when I’d hear a noise at night, I would pull the covers over my head, confident that if I couldn’t see it, it couldn’t hurt me. Ditto for adulthood. When I had the chance to take the tests while I was pregnant (and even when they told us there was a better than average chance Sophie had Down syndrome), I didn’t. And now that she was here, I still didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know what was lurking around the corner, in the dark.

Instead I focused on the day to day. I decided I could only live with my baby and learn to love her and get her what she needed. And even though she was just four months old, she’d needed a lot, so far—a feeding tube, therapy three times a week. Echocardiograms, rows of pill bottles, a mini-hospital set up in the nursery. Scariest of all, a few days after this appointment with the geneticist, she was scheduled for open-heart surgery.

I survived by taking deep breaths and focusing only on the immediate. If Sophie wasn’t going to be like the rest of us, if she wasn’t going to be like Ray and Annabelle and me, that was okay. I just didn’t want to know about it in advance.

Except for Sophie’s hair. I wanted to know about her hair.

The day before Sophie was born, I had an ultrasound. The technician never saw the hole in her heart, but she pointed out my baby’s hair, floating in the amniotic fluid. It was beautiful.

And so was Sophie when she arrived, right down to her full head of straight hair. As lovely as it was, however, I won’t say her hair didn’t cause a pang. Selfishly, instinctively, I wanted her to be just like us. And so, I wanted her to have curls. Not the kind you get from a perm or an iron, but real curls—snaggled-at-the-back-of-the-neck, need-to-be-coaxed-with-conditioner, on-the-verge-of-dreadlocks, don’t-touch-I’m-in-the-critical-drying-stage curls.

As we sat in the geneticist’s office that day, I had yet to read any of the books or surf the websites or talk to the parents whose names we were given regularly, but somehow I knew before I asked that Sophie’s hair would never curl, and I knew that there were so many things about Ray and me that I already saw in Annabelle that I’d never see in Sophie.

The doctor stared at me. Then he explained that people with Down syndrome do not have curly hair. “African-American hair might wave a little,” he said, “but otherwise, no.”

(It’s true that over the years since, I have encountered a few people with Down syndrome and curly hair – but it’s most definitely the exception to the rule.)

Sophie would never have curly hair. I have to admit that I felt a little cocky for having figured it out—but mostly, I just felt sad. And dizzy, both literally and figuratively. Having this baby hadn’t just thrown me off kilter; it had knocked me over and I couldn’t figure out how to get up. Not that you’d have known by looking at me. (I don’t think so, anyway.) I was going through all the paces that a new mother takes, feeding Sophie, clothing her, rocking her, keeping her alive. Cooing at appropriate moments. But I didn’t feel like she was mine.

And now it felt like she’d never be. The hair was a symbol of all the ways she would continue to be different from us. She wouldn’t love the books I loved, wouldn’t “get” subtitled art house movies or defend socialism to a roomful of capitalists, and she’d never have curly hair. I looked down at her, strapped carefully into her carrier in her sweet pink-and-white onesie with her straight hair, and knew what I had to do. There was no other option. I picked up the infant carrier with this foreign creature inside, and we went home.

This excerpt is from My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016).

Amy Silverman is managing editor at Phoenix New Times and a commentator for KJZZ, the National Public Radio affiliate in Phoenix. Her work has also appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times. Amy holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She lives in Arizona with her husband Ray and daughters Annabelle and Sophie.

 

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One and Two

One and Two

rt Double Stroller

By Sara Petersen

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with One. I rock gently back and forth in my wicker rocking chair, enjoying the lazy summer heat, and sipping my thoughtfully mixed smoothie. I squint at the remaining crossword puzzle clues. One nudges me in the lower left corner of my uterus, and I rub my hand along his bones, savoring our connection. I can’t wait to meet him.

I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with Two. I gulp down 50 milligrams of Zoloft, preparing myself for the onslaught of hormonal leaps and plummets soon to take hold of my ravaged body. I swear softly as One dumps out the Lego bin for no real reason other than to delight in destruction. Two taps a foot or an elbow against me, safely cocooned in the warm darkness of my womb, and I absentmindedly smooth her knobbiness away. Only a few more weeks until all hell breaks loose.

My husband and I walk towards the hospital doors gripped in silent tension, like two people about to jump from an airplane too scared to discuss their fears with each other. It’s late. And dark. Brett rings the ER buzzer, as we’ve been instructed to do.

“Can I help you?” The gruff voice on the other end of the buzzer is anything other than solicitous.

“We’re here for the birth center.” Brett’s voice sounds cartoonish and alien.

“Who are you visiting?”

“No, I mean, we’re here to check in.”

“Who is that you say you’re visiting?”

I grip Brett’s forearm with insistent panic.

“There’s a baby – I mean – we’re having a baby.”

Bzzzzzz.

As we walk, the midday sun smiles beneficently down on us. Brett slows down his pace to keep up with my snail-like creep towards the main entrance. I stop every so often to lean over a car and breathe through a contraction coursing through my lower back.

“So if it’s a boy, we’re going with Arthur? We really need to figure out a top-three list at least.”

“Well, definitely Rose for a girl.”

“I don’t know about definitely.”

“Did you pack the Goldfish? I’m kinda hungry.”

I watch as Brett awkwardly clicks the massive carseat into place, sweating in the July heat. I wedge myself as close to the carseat as possible, and as soon as One makes the slightest mew, I shove my crooked pinky into his mouth.

“Hurry, Brett – I don’t want him crying!”

Brett slams the front door shut, and I stare at the huge, brick front of the hospital. We’re going home. But should we be? Shouldn’t we take some sort of parenting entrance exam first to ensure we’re really equipped with the knowledge and ability to keep a 6.7 pound infant alive?

Every blood vessel and breath and spark in my body is trained toward the jaundiced little being in the carseat, but I steal occasional glances through the windows, and wonder at the oddity of the outside world. People are just walking around like nothing’s happened, like everything is totally normal. Little blue houses blurring past, commerce, people walking with purpose. Where are they going? Dogs. Children. Oh god. Children. I have one.

I watch as Brett expertly clicks the carseat into place, and I join him up front, quickly clicking on NPR.

“I really wanna hear Fresh Air – she’s interviewing Cate Blanchett about that movie – Carol, I think it’s called?”

Two is still fast asleep when we pull into the driveway. I’m happy to be home.

One will only sleep if I’m holding him. My left wrist aches from being bent in the same harshly geometric shape, supporting the lower half of his swaddled body, for the past day, night, day before that, night before that, day before that. One will only sleep if I’m holding him. I want my arms back. I want my bed back. I want my mind back. I want to eat some chicken salad.

I put One down so I can shovel some chicken salad into my mouth. After 27 blissful seconds of physical autonomy, One whimpers. My heartrate accelerates, my stomach plunges, my cheeks burn. I slam the Tupperware container onto the chicken salad. I just want a few minutes, a little nourishment – can’t you just lay in your 500 dollar thing-a-ma-jig for two seconds?

Sometimes One cries in the car. But sometimes he doesn’t. I grab One, and nearly run towards the car. He’ll nap in the car! He’ll totally, totally nap! And once he gets a good nap, his mood will improve, and he’ll sleep better tonight, and sleep begets sleep, and I’ll sleep, and before I know it, I’ll have my life back.

I bump over the back roads, desperate for the smoothness of the highway. One grunts, whines, and each noise tightens the already taught muscles in my neck, turns my knuckles a whiter shade of white. I slam onto the gas as a light turns yellow. No way can I stop.

Two will only sleep if I’m holding her. So I hold her. Her flower breath flutters against my chest as I flip through Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. “We’ve got to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world.” I fold down the corner of the page to gaze at the bright pink of the cosmos dancing with the brilliant blue of forget-me-knots.

I hear a little peep from below, and peer down at the soft brown cap of newborn hair. I pat-pat-pat Two’s small bum, and take another sip of my IPA. Brett’s out with One, and Two and I have spent the day rocking on the deck, napping, reading, and lounging. I kiss Two’s forehead.

I scream my Subaru down the road, anxious to reach our destination before One gets angry or sad or hungry or gassy or fussy or tired or over-stimulated. My cousin grins at me, attempting to inject some sense of proportion into my universe.

“Look at you – driving with your baby and your dog. About to take a casual stroll through the woods. You got this!”

I force a reply smile onto my pale, pinched face. I don’t have anything. And I certainly don’t have “this,” if “this” means leaving the house with one’s baby in tow without having an existential breakdown.

A half hour later, we return to the car. We’ve taken a stroll through the countryside, exercised the dog, and successfully extracted me from the walls of my house. No one has died.

I drive my Subaru down the road, listening to One’s explanation that the big T-Rex is the mama T-Rex and the small T-Rex is the baby T-Rex. I repeat it back, to assure him I’ve heard and understood him.

When I remove Two from her carseat and bundle her into the Ergo, she wails tiny impotent wails at being so man-handled. I shhhh and pat and bounce and comfort and offer pacifiers. We walk through the tall grasses and waving queen anne’s lace. Two is quiet. One’s toddler voice blends with the chatter of tree swallows.

Two begins to squirm, bobbing her face against my chest like a soft, ineffectual woodpecker.

“Hey buddy – let’s pull over here.” I hand One a granola bar and settle him under a tree.

Leaning against the sandpapery stickiness of pine bark, I nurse Two in the woods, relaxed with the knowledge that boobs can fix nearly all newborn problems. One munches his granola bar, tracing a stick in the velvety dirt among the roots.

We crest the final hill of our walk, and trudge towards the Subaru, which is resting in the afternoon glow. I clip both kids into their carseats, settle the dog next to me, and drive home. We’re fine.

Sara Petersen is a freelance writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She has written for BustHuffington PostScary Mommy, and Bustle. She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here. You can also check her out on Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

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Alive and Breathing and Happy

Alive and Breathing and Happy

Beautiful young woman with long hair sitting on a bench in a city park

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I attended a birthday party held at a cute little downtown arts and crafts studio. The birthday girl was turning six, and ten little girls gathered around the craft-paper covered table to make glitter-and-jewel studded shadow boxes out of recycled tins. Giant magnets were adhered to the tins so that their creations could then be displayed on each girl’s home refrigerator.

A few of the other mothers stayed and the rest departed. My daughter was shy at first, but eventually settled in. We mothers moved about the table, helping the girls with each task and reminding them to listen when the studio owner gave the next set of instructions. We joked about how happy we were that the vast quantities of multi-hued glitter were here and not in our homes. After the projects were complete, the girls moved on to snacks, cupcakes, and gifts

The studio was dog-themed, with dog paintings, photographs, sculptures, and trinkets abounding and we began chatting about pets. I noted that my daughter frequently insists we need another pet despite the fact that our home menagerie currently consists of two dogs, two cats, and four chickens (and a preschooler, I usually add).

One woman casually remarked, “But just one child, right? That’s not too bad.”

“Yes,” I replied, and left it at that as my mind teetered within my skull.

There was so much more that I could have said. I didn’t hold it against her, though, as there was no way for her to know. This type of thing happens to me all the time.

Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, I only have one child, but it’s just me now. My husband is dead. I have all these things to keep alive and breathing and happy, and it’s just me.”

A smaller part of me wanted to say, “Yes, I only have one child, but my dead husband and I wanted another baby, very badly, and it didn’t happen. We tried, we attempted a mini-IVF procedure, everything failed, and then he died.”

These are the facts that I face every day of my life, but I didn’t say any of these things. I didn’t even mention the simple fact that I was widowed. The only people I knew at the party were the birthday girl’s mother and grandmother. They know my history intimately, but everyone else present was oblivious, and I know facts like these often make people intensely uncomfortable.

Sometimes I bring up the fact that I am widowed (it is an enormous part of my life, after all) and sometimes I don’t. I am in my early thirties, so it is almost always a shock when it comes to light and every casual conversation is a potential minefield.

As I buckled my daughter into her booster seat that afternoon, she laid her head on my shoulder and sighed, a little overtired from the day’s events, and said, “Mama, I miss Daddy.”

“Me, too, babe,” I replied, “me, too.”

Early on in my widowhood, I almost always brought it up when I met someone new. At that point, it related so directly and intensely to every single aspect of my life, and my grief was such a raw and gaping wound, that I felt I had to tell people. The wound was enormous, but also invisible; if I didn’t say anything, it didn’t exist.

Acknowledging it directly was the only way for everyone I interacted with to understand, even just a little, where I was coming from and what I was wrestling with. Even when it brought me to tears and felt like rubbing salt in the cut, it also felt like affirmation: please see that even though my life is a horror, it is mine, and I am doing with it the best I can.

Eventually, my need to tell virtually every single person I encountered lessened. There are still times when I bring it up, but it is now often a choice rather than a desperate need.

A few days before the aforementioned birthday party, the local school called to schedule my daughter for her kindergarten registration day. We scheduled the appointment and the woman kindly detailed the items I needed to bring. Before we hung up she said, “Oh, and I don’t have her father’s information here, so I’ll need that.” I explained the situation, that my husband had died nearly two years prior and so there was no pertinent information to give. Awkwardness and social fumbling ensued, and before the conversation was over, I had apologized to her.

Later that night, a dear widow-friend and I had a good laugh about the transition that had occurred: when we started apologizing to other people for the deaths of our husbands. We had reached a point when the facts of our widowhood became far more uncomfortable and panic-inducing for others than they were for us. It’s not that we’re no longer sad or no longer grieving, it’s just that the facts that often make others squirm have become our new normal.

I am a young widow with a young child, so strangers frequently ask if she is my only child, or how many siblings she has, or if I plan to have any more; they ask what my husband does for work; or they make some comment related to the nuclear family because they just assume that we are part of one. When they learn the truth, they find themselves flabbergasted and at a loss for what to say, and that’s okay, because I know it is atypical for a preschooler to have lost a parent and someone my age to be widowed.

Sometimes I wish people would generally be more aware of what they say, but mostly I just try to let it all go. While I have had complete strangers and close friends say innumerable insensitive things over the years, to my knowledge no one has ever done so intentionally. When you fall outside the norms of society, this is just what happens.

Most of the time, if people notice at all, the transgression has already escaped their mouths. I could spend endless hours of every day offended and appalled at the things people say to me, but I have absolutely no desire to live my life that way.

I find that my situation has also made me particularly aware of my own assumptions about people I don’t know, and even the ones I do. No matter what presumptions are playing around in my head, I tend to be quite conscious of not voicing them.

If someone wants to offer information that they feel comfortable sharing, that’s wonderful, because I love to hear people’s stories and discover connections. If they don’t want to share, that’s their prerogative. Regardless, I try to keep to myself whatever narrative I’ve woven in my brain because I know that impressions do not equate to truth.

The trajectory of my life will always be a bit of a conversation-stopper and jaw-dropper. People will never get used to hearing that my husband was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at 27 and that he died when he was 31. They will never be comfortable with the fact that I was widowed at 29 and that my daughter lost her father when she was barely three. The important thing is not how others feel, however, but that I am now comfortable and at peace with these aspects of my life.

And as much as it pains people to hear the story of my widowhood, they love to hear about how my husband and I fell in love in the woods and got married on a mountain; how selfless, unflinching, and humorous he was right up until the end; and what an amazing father he was in the time that he had. These are the facts I try to put my focus on.

Though I had little choice in the way things played out, I am now choosing to be happy and fulfilled despite the tragedy and grief I have seen. I am choosing to move forward and to embrace the changes as they come, and I am trying to see a little more light than dark in the world. The often inflamed and sometimes barely perceptible emotional limp of grief and loss always comes along with me, but that is simply part of my story and part of my truth, part of me.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

 

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The Art Of Conception

The Art Of Conception

P1160166 (1)

By Sarah Bousquet

After almost three years of trying to get pregnant, my husband and I find ourselves standing in a church called St. Lucy’s in Newark, New Jersey two hours from our home. My mother’s colleague has recommended the church, specifically the shrine to St. Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, where a relic, a prayer card, and possibly even a miracle can be obtained. This colleague received her own miracle, became pregnant after years of infertility, shortly after visiting the shrine. I may have rolled my eyes at my mother, who tells me not to be so “pinched,” to “stay open to the universe.” But my mother doesn’t know the way my blood courses with longing and sadness, frustration and jealousy, things that make a body constrict.

The odds were not against us, but we were approaching our mid-thirties, biologically shy on time. I had just turned thirty-four, my husband thirty-three, when we married on a sunny September day and then flew to Aruba to honeymoon, so quintessential, so predictable–surely, now that we’d found each other, life would continue to unfold this way. Adrift in the clear water, my arms encircling his neck, smiling into dark brown eyes, droplets of water suspended from thick lashes, I imagine our baby with the same brown eyes, his easy temperament.

On the beach, we watch a burrowing owl dig a nest in the sand. A lazy tourist walks up from the water and sinks her foot into the hole. I rush over, kneel down and gently clear the sand away, reveal the tunnel to the nest. Together my husband and I build a sandcastle wall around it, adorn the wall with sticks and sea shells and seaweed. Everyday we find the nearest palapa and keep our watch. It feels like a promise. Already, I am looking for signs.

We return from our honeymoon to muted northeastern skies, cool air, falling leaves, and the first negative pregnancy test. We think nothing of it and continue to float on anticipation. But after a few months, I consider being less casual. A friend recommends the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and it becomes my Bible. I chart my cycle, take my temperature every morning and record it with a tiny dot, connect the dots and watch the hormonal flow rise and dip, just as it should. My cycle is like clockwork, ovulation predictable. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Every month that fall, that winter, that spring, I take a pregnancy test. Every month, it is negative. The seasons undulate on waves of hope and disappointment.

There is nothing in my history, personal or familial, that hints I will have trouble conceiving. My mother birthed four children, my grandmother seven, my great-grandmother thirteen. But even beyond that, there is the simple and singular fact, the unequivocal knowing, that written on my heart, etched in my bones is mother.

A year and a half passes amidst a flurry of pregnancy announcements, those of friends and sisters-in-law, and I find myself repeating the word “congratulations.” I want to touch their happiness, want my smiles to feel less forced. Other lives flow forward while my own becomes snagged, suspended. Surrounded by excitement and burgeoning bellies, I shrink against the swell.

A family member recommends an acupuncturist for my migraines, and although I do suffer from migraines, I understand that we’re speaking in code. Once a week I drive an hour from my office to the acupuncturist, who is also a chiropractor and clairvoyant. She begins with an adjustment, heaves my leg over her shoulder and twists until my spine cracks. Next she cradles my neck gently before snapping it to one side, then the other. After all the cracking, she presses at my shoulders, my legs, my ankles.

She stands at my feet and becomes still. Inhales dramatically and closes her eyes. I lie in the dim, expectant. There’s a shuffle of feet in the hallway. A patient coughs, waiting in another room to be seen. The acupuncturist’s eyes flicker open, bright with a message from the other side. As she sticks long needles into my toes and ankles, she says, “I see you with a little boy.”

She crouches to get more needles and begins sticking my thighs, my belly, my hips. “You’re holding a boy. And he’s definitely yours.”

I want to ask questions, the air has gone out of my lungs.

“I can’t tell you how soon,” she says, “But he is yours. You will have a son.”

It is imminent. He exists. I stretch myself across the space-time continuum to meet him. An image forms. I am holding a small boy. And he is mine. Needles in my fingertips, needles in my chest. Needles behind my ears and in my forehead. She dims the lights and leaves the room. I lie in the dark, a still and hopeful porcupine.

Two years and one new job later, we luck upon health insurance that includes fertility coverage. Once a week, in the early morning hours before work, we drive to the endocrinologist, where we sit in a dark exam room watching the soft shapes of my ovaries bobbing on the black and white ultrasound screen. I can never make out what the doctor sees, those orbs of negative space he measures and records.

There is weekly blood work and a battery of tests with names so long and complicated, I jot them down in my notebook phonetically before the doctor offers the acronyms. He will flatly recite grim statistics, that after two years of trying, our chances of conceiving on our own are now between 1-2% percent, and that IVF, our best option, gives us a 35% chance. My handwriting slants into a scribble as I copy down the numbers.

We never make it to that best option, IVF. Our insurance coverage is exhausted on months and months of ultrasounds and tests. Tests that ultimately provide very few answers beyond the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.” The endocrinologist loses interest in us as our coverage bleeds out.

On my desk at work, I keep one framed picture, a snapshot of my husband and me taken one afternoon on a hike through the woods. We are young and rosy-cheeked in knit hats and scarves. I stare at the photo as if it’s not us and think, that nice couple is going to have a baby, of course they will. They look like they’ll have all the luck in the world.

I continue to research, change my diet to gluten-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free, sugar-free. Mix maca root and water like a magic potion. Nail a wishbone above our bedroom door. Pray Catholic novenas, Lakota blessings. Meditate. Wish on eyelashes and dandelions. Build cairns on the rocky shore. Omens arrive as great blue herons, roadside signs, changing weather. On a walk through a field of tall grass, I swear I hear my future self whisper, Everything is about to be beautiful.

We take the last bit of insurance money to a new doctor, who is friendly and more hopeful. He begins by running blood work, the same blood work I’d had seven months before with normal results. It feels familiar, no anxious anticipation, no heart-in-my-throat while I wait.

I’m at work when the doctor calls. “We received some unexpected results,” he says.

I walk from my office into the hallway and down the stairs as if perhaps I can outpace his news.

“Some of the numbers have changed. Your AMH levels are very low, which indicates a low ovarian reserve.” His tone is calm and measured as he gives me the exact number.

I press my hand against the cool hallway tiles to steady myself. Suddenly, I have almost no eggs left. Even if we had additional fertility coverage, I would not be an ideal candidate for IVF.

Inside the church, the lights are dim. Nuns in habits fill the first three pews. The priest is reaching the end of his homily. We move quietly along the side aisle, find the shrine in a separate room to the left of the altar. I stand and stare at the ornate tiles, the looming statue, not quite knowing what to do, twelve years of Catholic school deeply engrained and yet very far away. I know I am supposed to ask for the relic and the cloth and the prayer card, so I walk over to the only door and knock. An altar boy answers and I make my request. He returns and quietly hands me a white package, then disappears. I assume the items have already been blessed, are already imbued with the magic and luck that I need.

I lower myself to the kneeler before the statue and whisper prayers. I beg of the saint, I beg of my childhood religion, I beg of the universe. We stuff dollar bills in a gold box and light candles. Then I notice two small wooden staircases on either side of the statue. Are they meant to be climbed? Does proximity to St. Gerard’s face mean something? I’m not taking any chances. I ask my husband to climb one set of stairs and I’ll climb the other. He sighs and smiles but doesn’t protest. We climb the stairs and meet at the top. I reach for his hand. I make up my own prayer and I say it out loud. I ask St. Gerard to please bless us with a baby. My atheist husband says, amen.

It is a Tuesday morning, a regular day, and we’re getting ready for work. My cycle is seven days late. I feel like a fool as I tear open the foil wrapper on what feels like the millionth pregnancy test. My husband is in the shower, and I raise my voice above the noise of the water, “I’m taking the test!”

In the kitchen I pull a pan from the cabinet, start breakfast while I wait for the result. Hope, that irrepressible little drummer, thumps in my heart. I return to the bathroom to check the test, not wanting to look, wanting to suspend that tiny hopeful feeling and hold it a little longer. When I return to the bathroom and pick up the test, I blink at the pink plus sign. I scream and I jump and jump. Elation will send a body straight into the air. My husband pulls back the shower curtain with a smile and says, “I knew it.”

Author’s Note: As it turned out, we had a girl, born with the same brown eyes and easy temperament as her dad, just as I’d imagined years ago on the beach. This essay began as a poem, a whisper of the search. A search that altered my conception of self, of the world around me, and of faith, that elusive shape shifter. Just when I thought I’d lost faith, there it was again. The trick was to find it every time, and to follow it forward.

Sarah Bousquet is a freelance writer living in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.

 

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Her Canvas, My Son

Her Canvas, My Son

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By Terry Cox-Joseph

His eyes, blue to ocean’s depth, stare from canvas, perfect brush strokes with perfect white highlights, perfect lashes, innocence, precocity. I wish I had painted that portrait.

The artist’s brushstrokes kiss the canvas the way I kiss my son’s forehead as he sleeps. She strokes the canvas the way I stroke his hair, caress his cheek.

My son is real. He is mine. He is flawed, something deep within his brain, axons miscommunicating, frontal lobes overworked, chemicals too high or too low. It has taken years for us to teach him not to hit when he’s mad, not to kick holes in the walls, not to spit. He has no buffer for impulse control, no “stop” button. We have hired tutors to teach him at home what he should have learned in school. Still, on many days, he comes home with a notebook blank as his stare.

Her canvas depicts a fantasy child. She gave away the real child, she told me once, sent him back to some institutional cement world. Who would hold him, I wondered? Who would caress his forehead? Who would love him? How could she do that?

As much as I have hated my son, I have loved him. From the moment I first saw him held in his birthmother’s arms, bundled in hospital green and white, a silly, warm, hand-knit cap pulled over his brow, I wanted him. The weight of him in my arms, the softness of his black hair, the tight grip of his fists that defined him. My husband, our daughter, and now, our son. Our family was complete.

The artist’s adopted son lit matches, dropped them on her carpet, lied, covered his lies with lies. Just like my son. He lit matches behind the couch, then dropped them on the wood floor in panic. He lit them in his room, too. Our therapist suggested sitting on the lawn with a bucketful of water and 1,000 matches and making our son light them until he was fed up with it. He only made it to 85 before my husband called it a day, satisfied that this was a lesson learned.

The other artist dismissed him after he rifled her purse for coins. My son went through my purse, too, when he was 14. I learned to hide my purse, even while I was sleeping. But he snuck behind my bed, behind the headboard. He stole my credit card. Stealth seemed wired into his movements. He bought online gaming points. Before that bill arrived, he slid the credit card from my purse not three feet away while I was sprinkling ginger on chicken stir fry. Amazing, his sleight of hand, sense of timing. He shocked us with his audacity, lack of boundaries, ability to thieve without remorse. Once the credit card was cancelled, he figured out how to use his cell phone to buy gaming points. I didn’t know you could do that.

If only he had directed this ingenuity toward school work.

When we disassembled the computer, he smashed two chairs and nearly shattered my eardrums. My heart had already been broken. Only the hope that this was an addiction held me to him. Surely, he hadn’t stolen out of malice. We could make it through this, too.

Her son lied to make her hate him, to prove he was unlovable, proved she couldn’t love him, proved he was a discard, proved he was right, couldn’t, shouldn’t love anyone because all people were liars, he was just one more liar, anyone who told you they loved you was a liar so why tell the truth to anyone? Lying is survival.

Clinically, it’s called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). I call it mental illness and a bruised heart. I call it a process. I have no idea if my son has RAD. I think he’s got Asperger’s and a mood disorder, definitely anxiety issues that send him rocketing past the ozone layer if he senses too much emotional pressure, too much homework, too harsh lights, too much sound, too many transitions. How many times have I slammed on the brakes when he has kicked the back of my seat during a tantrum, cracked my favorite CDs, pulled my hair in the middle of an intersection? How many times have I wanted to open the car door and throw him out right there?

Black markers streak foul words across my son’s walls, X’d out sentences replaced with exclamation marks, wrestlers’ names, and football scores. They mar the pale blue clouds that I once papered his room with in the fantasy world I prepared. There are holes bashed into drywall that my husband I and deliberately never repaired to prove a point, if anyone remembers what the point was the day our son threw a toy truck through the wall. We never repaired the screen, either, the day he whaled a baseball through the inside of the window, shattered the glass into glittering reminders of chaos.

My canvas is never blank. It is never complete. My brushes harden in dried linseed oil and turpentine because I’m checking the toothpaste on my son’s toothbrush, making sure he’s reached those back molars instead of lying and smearing toothpaste on his front teeth with his finger and then reassuring me by exhaling in my face. I check to see if he has scrubbed his face, taken his medicine, sprayed bleach on the mattress to mask the odor of urine for the millionth time. I check his closet for the smell of urine, worried that he may have awakened in the middle of the night again and confused it with the bathroom.

I remind him to put sheets on the bed, turn out the light, and wonder if he’ll plead, “cuddle,” so I have an excuse to snuggle next to his warm back, rub his shoulders, rest my cheek against his neck as his breath keeps pace with the crickets chirping outside. Or if this time, he’ll inexplicably rage, kick me in the jaw as I bend down to kiss him, scream “GET OUT!”

He wonders why I haven’t painted him as much as I have painted his sister, who poses for the camera naturally, chooses perfect lighting that brightens her hair like spun gold, who tilts her shoulder just so, bends to pluck a daffodil, knowing that hers is a world of beauty and charm, and everyone in her orbit is captured by it. I tell him that he won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, won’t sit still to pose for the canvas, scowls when I suggest a pose. I don’t want to paint scowls. I tell him that he broke my last camera, stepped on my canvas in the back of the car, threw my paint across the room. He doesn’t understand the connection.

I have taken pictures of him climbing trees. Exploring the yard in his diapers. Climbing on all fours inside a fiberglass turtle at a children’s museum. I will save these for reference and paint these canvases when he’s grown, when he’s in school, when he’s got a girlfriend, when my paints are inventoried and fresh and my canvases are stacked neatly against the wall. I will paint him when he has grown into another world, the world of order and reason, and even if he hasn’t, the world that someday slots time into compartments, chunks of time that I can claim for my own. Because without this belief, without this goal, I cannot make it through the day. There must be a “someday.”

I will paint him with an overbaked smile, wearing a Hawaiian straw hat, face so close to the camera that he leaves nose prints. I will paint him with wild, loose strokes, shouting colors, globs of paint, because a calm, blue-eyed little boy, staring wistfully through a rain drenched window is not who he is, and I wouldn’t want to paint a stranger.

He is mine, and like an unfinished canvas, I will complete this task. Not all paintings are pure joy. Not all are effortless. I have problems with perspective, and occasionally stumble with foreshortening. But I can always come back to it with a fresh eye, a good night’s sleep and a full stomach.

Imagining my son in some faceless institution is too painful to bear. A hospital stay, yes. A special needs camp, absolutely. But to send him back, to open the fluffy New Parent Package with such desire and fervor and love, and then slam shut the lid and send him back is unfathomable. Therapists, teachers, parents, doctors are part of our team. My husband and I could not do it alone. My son cannot do it alone. But together, we can.

The other artist spews accusations with disgust, fires words like paint splatters: “He stole from my purse!” I asked her if she’d taken classes on adopting older children, if she’s heard of RAD.

“No. What difference would it make? I will not put up with that.”

I feel my heart snap shut on her, just as she closed hers toward her son. There is a finality, a certainty I feel, knowing that while being an artist defines me, I am not solely defined by it. It is one of many roles. I am more than that. I will not be satisfied with less. I will not turn my back on an unfinished canvas. I will study it, learn from it, correct it and in the end, I will take joy in it.

Some paintings are perfect. Some are hyper-realistic, traditional, each stroke so perfectly placed, so studied, so measured, it is like a photograph. The light falls perfectly, the angles are measured with precision. But some paintings are fraught with stress tempered by freedom, a tension of line, juxtaposition of secondary or tertiary color that otherwise would not have occurred in a traditional piece. That is where my artwork differs. My canvasses may never be as perfect as hers, but they will be painted from the heart, yanked from my soul, squeezed fresh from the tube and the palette with vigor and resolve. Where she craves perfection, I crave depth. If I have to, I will dig my fingernails into cadmium red, cobalt blue, viridian and sienna, and smear them where they need to go.

Let the artist keep her perfect portraits. Mine are messier. They are real.

Author’s Note: Raising my daughter was so easy. My son, however, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole, but with strapped on explosives.  Writing and art are my outlets. “What do other mothers DO when they’re at the end of their ropes?” asked an artist friend. I don’t know. But my son is now 19 and no longer lives at home. Take a deep breath and enjoy. 

Terry Cox-Joseph’s essays, articles and poetry have been published in Dog Fancy,  Entrepreneur, and Virginia Builder, among others.

Art: Mary Ann Cooper

 

 

How To Cut a Lemon

How To Cut a Lemon

Vector seamless watercolor pattern withhand drawn lemons. Different type of pieces. Ideal for food packaging design

By Joelyn Suarez

In the days after I gave birth to my son, Mosley, we spent most of our time skin-to-skin. I lay on the hospital bed, surrounded by pillows, my hospital gown untied and opened so that my chest was exposed to the crisp air-conditioned room. Mosley’s mouth suckled on my breast until he tired from the motions and he dozed off in my arms. I propped him up so I could examine his face while he slept. His lids were puffy with lashes. barely visible, his nose tiny and nostrils wide, his perfect cupid’s bow and puckered lips sucked in by chubby cheeks. He was born with a full head of hair, straight and black like mine, and peach fuzz from the nape of his neck to the top of his thighs. I spent hours watching him sleep, brushing his hair back with the palm of my hand, kissing him in the sweet spot under his chin. In those moments, I thought: I could spend all my days doing just this. Three months later, I still feel that way. Sometimes I lay awake in the late hours, Mosley in his sleeper beside my bed, and I watch him in the dim light of the television. I notice his wispy lashes slightly curling at the tips, his brows thickening, and his cheeks growing more full every day. He has lost some of the baby hairs framing his face, though much of it has stayed, and lengthened past his small ears. He has Jonathan’s ears, mouth, and chin some of my favorite attributes of his. Most nights I doze off with my glasses on, so the moment that my eyes open in the morning, I can see him clearly.

***

When my sister and I were too young for school, we lived in a townhouse with my parents on the south end of San Diego. I remember the homes were crowded together. Our driveway curved around a corner, and winded down a small hill, like a maze outlining our neighbors’ outer walls. We lived next door to a couple, in their 60s, who loved to garden in their tiny front lawn. They had pots of plants lined up with various fruits and vegetables. On one of the sunny afternoons that my parents slept in, coming down hard from a high, my sister and I decided to venture out. We found our elderly neighbors tending to their mini-garden, and went over to explore the scene.

“What’re you doing?” My sister asked the wife.

“Just watering these plants here,” she responded.

My sister and I hovered over her to watch.

“Where are your parents?” The wife asked.

I wonder if the wife had noticed the swarm of people buzzing in and out of our house late into the night. I wonder if she ever bumped into a face of a fiend at our front door when she was approaching or exiting her own. I wonder if she caught Mom or Dad for neighborly conversation while they were coked out and fidgety. Or, perhaps, she was just wondering what two very young girls were doing outside alone.

“They’re asleep,” my sister, answered, “Can we have some lemons?”

“Sure.” The wife handed over two lemons.

My sister collected them with both palms and we ran back towards our house.

“Let’s cut these!” She said to me. Her face was small and round with eyes that overwhelmed her other features. Her pointy, crooked teeth hid behind an innocent smile; and her straight, tame hair was tucked neatly behind her ears.

She dragged one of the bar stools to the other end of the kitchen counter and we sat opposite of each other. I remember we didn’t bother to turn on any lights; all we had was the light of the sun creeping in from the slanted blinds. The kitchen had an L-shaped counter covered with white tile and grout in between. My sister grabbed two butter knives and handed one to me.

My parents had recently discovered I was left-handed, but I still didn’t know right from left. I knew I couldn’t cut a straight line, no matter how much I pressed my tongue to my top lip for focus. Mom and Dad decided it was because most things were made for righty’s, including the basic hand-eye coordination that I didn’t possess.

I was shaky with the butter knife. It made me nervous sitting across from my sister and having to mirror her motions. I watched as she held the lemon steady with her left hand and the knife with her right. She touched the knife to the center of the lemon and began to cut down slowly. The peel was hard, too tough for her little fingers. She brought the knife up and out a few times to repeat the motion over again. Her movements were precise and her lemon cut cleanly in half.

***

At three months old, Mosley has learned to recognize Jonathan and me. When he gets sleepy in the afternoons, I put him in his bouncer that sits close to the floor, and I rock it with my foot from the couch. Sometimes I hum him a lullaby, and other times, I just watch his eyes glaze over. I see him fighting his tired feeling by trying not to blink. He’ll keep his eyes on me for as long as he can. His lids get heavier, until he can no longer carry them, and his eyes finally surrender to sleep. Mosley does this when we are out as well; he looks for my face for focus when the scene is overstimulating. Recently we were at a birthday party with my siblings and a bunch of other unfamiliar faces. The music was blaring from an outdoor speaker and children ran laps around the backyard. I carried Mosley in his Baby Bjorn and rocked him back and forth. I kept the top clasps unhooked and held his head in my hands, so that he could see all around. My older brother hovered over my shoulder and snuck kisses from him when he could, but Mosley kept his eyes on me.

“He’s staring right at you! Does he always do that?” My brother asked.

“Yeah, when he gets tired, he just stares at me.”

“He must love you so much.”

***

I never took my eyes off of her. I held the lemon in my right hand and the knife in my left. I didn’t look down to see if my initial incision was at the center of the lemon, like my sister’s. When she brought her knife up, I followed, and when she sliced down, I did too. I watched the strain in her face and fingers when the knife hit the hard peel. I felt it too, but eventually it subsided. I moved my knife in a sawing motion. I fixated on my sister’s movements. Soon, I was no longer imitating her. I sawed back and forth without lifting the knife.

By this time my sister had cut her lemon into quarters. Her eyes met mine with a proud grin, and I returned a giddy smile. She looked down at my lemon and her smile faded into shock. I watched her eyes widen and her shoulders shoot back. I was still smiling.

“Joelyn, there’s blood! There’s blood everywhere!” She screamed. Her words didn’t register at first.

***

In the middle of the day, I remember my parents telling my sister and me that they were going to take a nap. Maybe one of us would object and plead for a few moments of playtime, but we never won. The two of them went to their room and shut the door behind them, while my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves. Maybe they napped for an hour, perhaps less, but as a child, it felt like an eternity. I brought out my stack of white printer paper and my special pen the one with the multicolored ink that changed colors when you pushed down different levers. I tried to draw the perfect girl, a mix of Princess Jasmine, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my mom. I always started with the eyes. I drew one almond-shaped eye on the left center of the page. If it wasn’t perfect, maybe too small or the lines were shaky, I started over—and over and over again. Sometimes I went through a whole stack of papers before I had an entire face drawn.

“What was wrong with this one, Joelyn?” My dad lifted one of the sheets with a single curved line near the middle of the page.

“I don’t know. It didn’t look nice.”

“My daughter, the number one paper waster.”

I made sure not to look at him or even crack a smile. You don’t even know how to do art, I thought to myself.

“I don’t care. I have a lot of paper,” I said, pointing to the stack.

“You should. You know how many trees you’re wasting?”

I rolled my eyes: What do trees have to do with it? The tip of my tongue pressed my top lip and I held the pen firmly on the page. The first eye was good, the second too, but this time it was the nose that sucked. I tossed aside the umpteenth failed attempt, and looked to another clean blank page in front of me. I swiped my hand across the sheet and could feel indents from the last drawing. I held the sheet up into the light and saw the two eyes and sucky nose engraved into the paper, and the one behind that, and behind that. I balled up these blank sheets and tossed them aside too. My dad laughed and shook his head at me. I wanted to tear up every single piece of paper I had. Go back to sleep.

***

“You’re bleeding!” My sister screamed from across the table.

I looked down and saw that the lemon had been sliced in nearly the same spot multiple times, while my middle finger lay mangled beneath it. The grout between the tiles was stained red and there was blood pooling off the edge of the counter. My breaths became short and panicked. I lifted my hand and the middle finger dangled. A sliver of bone peeked out from the open skin. I could feel my entire body tremble with fear.

“I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! I’M GONNA DIE!” My voice got louder each time.

***

Jonathan and I moved into our new apartment three months before Mosley was born. It’s a cheaply renovated two bedroom, two bathroom in an undesirable neighborhood of San Diego known as El Cajon. The complex is small with 12 units total. We get two assigned parking spots and the rent is manageable. Jonathan wasn’t entirely convinced by the place, but I pushed for it. I think he would have preferred a room in his dad’s cozy, upscale track home in Carlsbad. However, I wasn’t willing to live under anyone else’s roof when the baby arrived. Jonathan’s family was kind; I just didn’t know what to expect with motherhood, and I didn’t want anyone witnessing a meltdown. Besides, I relatively like our place. The fresh coat of paint may be peeling, but it’s a thousand square feet of our very own space. When I was pregnant, it was the best feeling to come home, take off my clothes, and blast the air conditioning. I loved getting off from an early shift and napping on the couch when the complex was quiet, because the neighbor kids were still at school or daycare. At the time, I don’t know if I felt safe or was too pregnant to care.

It wasn’t until Mosley was born that I gained a heightened cautiousness. I began to think differently about the sweet old man that lives a few doors down. I see him throughout the day, crouched by the dumpster, smoking cigarettes. He wears plaid pajama pants and a sport coat. Sometimes when I pull into the complex at night, I find him walking in the middle of the parking lot, unaware of my headlights or the sound of my car behind him. I inch forward, with each slow step he takes, to get to my assigned spot in the front. A part of me grows impatient, while the other part wants to wait for him to shut the door of his apartment before Mosley and I get out of the car.

At night before we all go to bed, I’ve picked up a new routine. I open the front door to check that the security gate is locked, then I lock and chain the front door, and stare at it for approximately five seconds. I walk to the kitchen and look at the stove and say “OFF” aloud,five times for each knob linked to the burners and oven. I touch the freezer and fridge with one hand, then shut off the lights, and go to the bedroom. Jonathan thinks it’s silly, but we’ve been safe so far.

***

I was too afraid of the sting that cleaning the wound might cause, so I hardly ever let Mom or Dad come near me. I kept it covered until the puss was putrid to any nearby nose. Nonetheless, my finger healed within a few weeks, and a thick scar took the place of the cut. Every morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to put their right hand over their heart and stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I rubbed my thumbs over the inside of my middle fingers. One side was smooth, while the other had a sliver of raised skin where my scar was—I knew this was my right hand. I finally had a way of distinguishing right from left.

The scar served other purposes as time went on. It became a trigger for my OCD as a child. I rubbed my thumb over it once, then twice, then 29 times until it felt right. If I had to overcome a fear, like walking into another classroom to deliver something from my teacher to another, I touched the scar to remind myself that I would survive. I had survived my first major injury and I would survive twenty unfamiliar fifth-grade students staring at my unfamiliar face when I entered their classroom. I worried those students might find all my faults in our twenty-second encounter; they might notice my pigeon-toed walk and whisper to each other about it through recess. I rubbed my scar and faced my fears. The worry never left, but the anxiety subsided just enough to get the task done.

Today the scar still remains on my right middle finger. It never faded or flattened. It has become less about what I thought, as a child, to be a “near-death experience by a butter knife” and more so a lesson in parenthood. A lesson about the kind of parent I do not want to be, as well as a realization that mistakes are inevitable. I used to look back on my childhood and pinpoint our parents’ faults. Although many of their mishaps were avoidable, as a new mother, I have a better understanding of the struggle to make the ‘right’ decisions. I look at my scar now and can laugh. I know that kids get hurt. If Mosley is anything like Jonathan or me, he’s going to take some tumbles. Sure, I have urges to be the overprotective mom, breathing down his neck with hand sanitizer and hugs, but that’s just not realistic or healthy. I have to blink every once in awhile. I have to look away. I have to work; and I have to show him that his mom is strong and independent. I want to teach him to be strong and independent. I want to teach him how to cut lemons.

 

Joelyn Suarez lives in San Diego, CA with her fiancé and son. She will be receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert this month. Her essay “Home” was featured in NoiseMedium magazine as a part of their premier contest. She is the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review.

Through My Mother’s Dying Eyes

Through My Mother’s Dying Eyes

Sky and clouds from flying airplane

By Shira Nayman

I’ve just returned from a trip home to Australia to say goodbye to my mother, who is in the final stages of terminal cancer. The twenty-two hour flight has never seemed longer. And back in the US, on vacation in Ithaca, NY, I find that the world looks different: I feel as if I’m seeing everything for the last time, as if through my mother’s dying eyes—sunlight filtering through the trees, the lake ablaze in the late afternoon. Smells, too, and sensations of all kinds, coming at me in a rush of vital intensity, as if every mindfulness meditation I’ve ever done has taken roiling, permanent hold. It’s all too much: too bright, too loud, too beautiful, too there. And also, soaked in grief, whispering—no yelling—that it is all about to be swept away, heaving waves dragged by an undertow that is both life’s great, howling bellows, and also the final, crashing end.

I am prisoner of my mother’s dying: a hostage born of our deep connection. From the moment I could think, when my first memories were slicked into place, I was electrically attuned to her quicksilver moods–cyclings of passion and frustration, her own artistic strivings thwarted by the demands of motherhood and marriage.

Visiting her in the nursing home aroused the kinds of emotions I imagine most people feel in a similar situation—including disbelief that the powerful woman of my childhood memory would be reduced to this, to requiring help going to the bathroom, to struggling with her walker to get to the dining room, where this once superb chef and lover of fine cuisine now dutifully, gratefully, eats soggy vegetables, tasteless mashed potatoes, and every night the same desert of tinned fruit and store-brand ice cream.

But there was something else, something more existential. I was free to come and go, to return to the world of the goal-oriented jugglers of multiple demands, each adorned with an exclamation point: Career! Children! Marriage! Creative endeavors! Volunteering! The ongoing striving for success! Travel! Plans! Big and bigger plans! But now, out in that heady, jostling, accomplishing, forward-looking world, from which my mother, no-longer-fully-of-this-world in her infirmity, was now barred, I myself felt like the ghost–one of Wim Wenders angels from his film Wings of Desire, sent down from a gritty, earth-worn heaven, aware of the flimsiness of everything, tuned in to the cares and struggles and anguish, but most of all knowing that for me, at least, everything was already over.

I know rationally that it is my mother who is dying, not me, and yet emotionally, her story is simply my story; I find myself moving through the world as if I am myself looking through the window of her little room in the nursing home, no longer fully one of the living. We have always had an uncanny connection—not unusual between parent and child (I shudder to recognize this same kind of bond with my own children; work against it, an inner voice whispers, one day, when it is me dying, let them not feelthis”). My psyche has always had a parallel groove, her experience somehow silently sliding along within or beneath my own. Though the Pacific Ocean has separated us all my adult life, I have known when she was unwell or unhappy. I have startled awake many times, minutes before an urgent phone call came in; I have felt dogged by black clouds I knew were not my own, troubled by anguish that was hers. Though the ocean did not muffle the power of the psychic connection, it has served me well—the earth’s largest moat—allowing me peace enough to get on with my own life. Only now, when the coordinates of her life have shifted into that final, two-dimensional arrow, pointing to the grave, that parallel groove has taken over.

As the long-ago established holder of my mother’s psyche, I seem unable to push aside this crushing approach of death (and the fact that death awaits us all gives credibility to my experience). I feel it as a struggle for breath, aware that soon, the air will not move in and out of my mother’s lungs. I feel it as a panic that I’ve not appreciated life more (though I’ve appreciated it a great deal), that I’ve not given full flower to the many opportunities I was, by chance of my birth, accorded–not treasured every single second of motherhood myself, aghast in confronting that my own children are grown, or nearly so: that I’ve not fulfilled—I don’t know, the privilege of life itself, though I’m not sure what it would mean to fulfill this. I am staring, through my mother’s eyes, at the reality that life is almost forever over, the final wrist-slap of death itself.

My own voice booms in my ears: see this hand, typing on the computer keyboard? The hand that holds my lover, that once held my children, that clapped with joy or fluttered with despair, that makes a living, cooks meals, that reaches out for life, ever more life. This hand, my mother’s hand really, since it came from her, since it looks a bit like hers once looked, will soon be cold flesh in damp dirt. Thoughts that come from a life that is now filled with the approach of death.

And since I’ve looked for so long through the eyes of my mother, I suppose I can’t really imagine how the world will look when her eyes are no longer there to see. And now that she will never again see the beautiful lake I am looking at in upstate New York (she saw it once on a shared vacation long ago), I am channeling it back to her, trying, in some Twister-like contortion, to reverse the configuration—to have her see through my eyes, since hers, soon to be sightless, are confined to a space dominated by limitation, suffering, indignity.

I can’t help thinking about how the world will look when her funeral is underway and I am standing at her grave. Knowing the gaze that was the very first sight of my own blinking, newborn eyes, no longer exists: her beautiful eyes—loving, angry, delighting, rejecting, searching, aching, always alive, ever seeing—now inanimate beneath the earth. What will happen to the sunlight, when she is no longer there to see it? What will happen to the sight of my own eyes, which lay claim to the world, from the start, through hers?

Shira Nayman is a Clinical Psychologist and the author of three books, A Mind of Winter and The Listener, (novels) and Awake in the Dark (novella/stories). She has published fiction and nonfiction in The Atlantic Monthly, New England Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. She lives with her family in New Jersey.

 

 

An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

An Almost Friendship Between Two Boys

shadow of a boy with mother at a wooden fence

By Emily Cappo

The T-shirt was simple: solid black with the words “Pauliestrong” written across the chest in bright red.

“C’mon, put it on,” I said to my 11-year-old son Matthew.

“I really don’t want to,” Matthew replied.

He was usually an agreeable kid, so his resistance didn’t make sense to me. I explained that Paulie was having a tough time and we needed to show our support. I kept pleading with him until he finally burst out crying.

“I just don’t want to be reminded of that time,” he admitted.

I immediately let it go, realizing that I hadn’t been sensitive to how Matthew understood all too well why Paulie needed support.

Except then a few minutes later, Matthew picked up the shirt and put it on.

“Okay, let’s do this,” he said.

I smiled and acknowledged his sense of empathy and ongoing resilience.

I had it all planned out in my head: Matthew and Paulie would meet, form an immediate bond over what they had in common, have play-dates and be best friends. Matthew was 11; Paulie was 10. We lived 20 minutes away from each other in neighboring towns. Their paths would never have crossed if it were not for my friend Julie who lived around the block from Paulie’s family.

As soon as Julie heard the news that Paulie was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric cancer, she called me, knowing I’d know how to support to his family since Matthew had been diagnosed 2 ½ years earlier with the exact same type of cancer. Suddenly, pediatric cancer – and this particular type of sarcoma – didn’t feel so rare anymore.

Without hesitation, I told Julie to offer my contact information to Paulie’s parents if they wanted to reach out and talk to someone who had navigated this crisis. I had hoped to help them feel less alone – because no one really understands what it’s like to watch your child undergo treatment for cancer unless you’ve been there. And no one understands that the only thing worse than having cancer yourself is if your child has it. Only a ‘cancer parent’ knows how upsetting it is to helplessly stand by as your child rides out days of nausea because he refuses to swallow pills to control it. Or, how a ‘cancer parent’ has to put on a happy face as their child is about to experience his first MRI. I wasn’t sure Paulie’s parents would want to talk to me because sometimes families are private or overwhelmed or don’t want to compare notes, but Paulie’s mom emailed me immediately.

Over the phone, she was lovely and honest and didn’t hold back. I was awed by how calm she sounded. I wondered if I appeared that way during the early weeks of Matthew’s diagnosis. Our first phone call was an hour and a half and I’m sure I could have talked to her all night. Before we hung up, I reassured her that she could call me anytime about anything. I heard from her again a few weeks later because she wondered if I had any suggestions on foods that Paulie might be able to stomach since he was rejecting almost everything. We had similar challenges with Matthew and I was eager to offer suggestions and support.

Although the two phone calls solidified my connection to Paulie and his family, I knew it was more than that. I was invested. I barely knew this family and yet, I cared so much about them. At the hospital, where Matthew and I still went for his check-ups every month, we saw a lot of the same kids each time we were there. Yes, they all had been or still were in treatment for cancer. But, that was all we knew. We didn’t know their names, where they lived, or their specific diagnoses. I’d always smile and say hello to the parent accompanying their child and we’d exchange that unspoken greeting of relief that our kids were sitting in the waiting room, rather than in a hospital bed upstairs. But, other than that, our connection ended there.

I only had one instance where a mother of one of the children in the waiting room sat down next to me and started chatting. Her son recently had part of his leg amputated, and yet this mom was more concerned with getting him ready for baseball season. After sharing with me what type of cancer her son had, she outright asked me for details on Matthew’s cancer. I knew I couldn’t hold back after she had been so forthcoming, so I told her. And, she began to rattle off statistics to me and reassure me that I shouldn’t worry. I was glad Matthew had his earbuds in and couldn’t hear her. Instead of appreciating a fellow cancer mom reaching out, I was hoping the nurse would call us inside soon so I could escape the intrusion.

But, with Paulie’s family our context was different. They reached out to me. I didn’t push myself upon them offering unsolicited advice, or at least I didn’t think so. And I certainly didn’t spew survival rates at them. I tried to be a good listener and only offered my opinion if asked.

I was grateful I could follow Paulie’s progress over their Facebook page, a closed group they set up to keep friends and family informed. Unfortunately, Paulie’s treatment was not going as smoothly as Matthew’s did, but his case was more complex and required a more aggressive protocol. Paulie had several unscheduled visits to the hospital, including one on Christmas Eve that lasted until New Year’s Eve. Despite these setbacks, Paulie’s parents were relentless in their hope and faith and even mustered the strength to start selling the “Pauliestrong” t-shirts to raise both Paulie’s spirits, as well as money for pediatric cancer research.

Before I snapped the picture of Matthew in the T-shirt, I asked him how he could show his support beyond just smiling. He shyly gave a two thumbs up. After we posted it, Paulie’s mom posted a reply to us with the comment, “we can’t wait to meet you” underneath a photo of Paulie giving a two thumbs up in return.

Right then, I could envision their friendship growing out of that first introduction over social media. I pictured them having play dates, then hanging out through high school, maybe even going to the same college. And I didn’t picture this just because they both had the same type of cancer. I imagined their friendship blossoming because they were both sweet, gentle boys who also liked Star Wars and sports. And, I pictured it because I needed to see them both in the future, after they had kicked cancer’s butt.

Finally, a few days into the new year, Paulie’s dad posted something positive: the chemo was working! The comments poured in with “woo-hoos” and “hoorays” and cheers that this would be their year. But then the following morning, another post appeared pleading for prayers, except this time it sounded much more urgent than ever before.

It doesn’t matter what specifically happened. What matters is that this young boy was taken from his family way too soon. I debated whether to attend the wake, since I had never met Paulie or his parents in person. But then my emotions won. I knew I needed to hug them both, despite the possibility of an awkward moment. Except there was no awkwardness. Paulie’s mom gave me a warm greeting and hugged me right back. As we talked, she held my arm and thanked me for our support. When I greeted Paulie’s dad, he too gave me a sincere hug and recalled an email exchange we had had about the intolerable, hard to sleep on hospital chair-beds. They were both poised and genuine and it made me wish I knew them before their child was diagnosed.

When a tragic event like this occurs, a very common response is, “there are no words.” But, I couldn’t accept saying that. I knew I needed to find some words to attempt to comfort this family. And I found them in pictures. The pictures that Paulie’s parents had posted on the Facebook page during his treatment. In every single photo, Paulie was smiling, whether it was from a hospital bed or at home. I knew I wanted Paulie’s parents to know that I noticed that. The fact that he was always smiling meant one thing to me; that Paulie felt safe and brave, knowing his family was always by his side. Doesn’t every parent want their child to feel secure even in the most difficult of circumstances? Paulie’s parents clearly gave him that gift, until the very end of his too short life.

At the wake, Paulie’s mom had said to me, “I wish you could have met him.”

“Me too,” I squeaked back between tears.

Although Matthew and Paulie did not have the opportunity to meet in person either, I know Matthew won’t ever forget him. And neither will I.

Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom (http://ohboymom.com), she has recently completed a memoir, “Hope All Is Well,” which chronicles mid-life loss, re-connection, and revelation.

For more information on Paulie’s story and childhood cancer, visit pauliestrong.org

 

Lessons on a Pirate Ship

Lessons on a Pirate Ship

APACHE JUNCTION, ARIZONA - MARCH 14: The Arizona Renaissance Festival on March 14, 2015, near Apache Junction, Arizona. A pirate ship ride thrills visitors at the 27th Annual Arizona Renaissance Festival held near Phoenix.

By Erica Witsell

“This is the best weekend ever!” my five-year-old son Clayton proclaimed as he buckled himself into his booster seat. He proceeded to enumerate for his younger twin sisters all the glories of the fair.

“We’re going to see the animals! And the pig races! And the flying dogs! And Dad said we could have cotton candy!”

Dee Dee, caught up in his excitement, punctuated the end of each proclamation with her own little cheer: “Animals! Pig races! Dogs! Cotton candy!”

And we’re going to ride the rides!” Clayton said. This finale, the part of the fair that for him trumped all others, was met with worried silence.

“It’s okay, Dee Dee,” I told my daughter. “You don’t have to go on the rides if you don’t want to. You can watch.”

And watch she did, quite contently, while her sister Sylvia went on the Nemo ride and Clayton and Daddy rode the caterpillar coaster. She gathered her courage for the flying dragons, and while Sylvia waved and posed like a movie star, she clutched the bar with both hands, her face frozen with worry and concentration.

After an hour of rides, we broke for lunch by the sea lion tank where the kids dutifully ate the carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs I had smuggled in.

“If we eat this healthy stuff first,” Clayton explained to his father. “We’ll get the cotton candy.”

Soon after, with sticky hands and coated teeth, we headed for the Mooternity Ward, where a calf was born before our eyes. Its mother stared at us with wide, startled eyes as first the front hooves and then the black round nose of her calf emerged.

“Poor thing,” I muttered, more than once. The mama cow circled inside her small enclosure as if searching for somewhere else to be, away from all the staring eyes. Still, I pointed and exclaimed with the rest of the crowd, lifting my children up so they could see. You came out of your mother just like that, I told them, suddenly overcome by a desire to remind them of the births they would never remember, the miracle of their presence in a world that, mere seconds before, did not contain them.

Watching the wet calf sprawled in the hay, struggling to find its feet while the mother licked it with her thick tongue, I was struck not only by the raw intimacy of my connection to my children—their flesh was of my flesh—but by their undeniable and persistent separateness. There the little calf was, quite its own little unique being in the world, when just moments before the mother had been alone.

I squeezed Clayton’s shoulder. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Yeah,” he agreed politely. “Can we go ride some more rides now?”

Our tickets were running out.

“One more ride each,” I said. I was growing weary of the crowds and noise, the endless temptations of food and prizes and Dee Dee’s corresponding chorus of “I want! I want!”

Clayton, on the other hand, allowed no distractions. His heart was set on one thing: he wanted to ride the pirate ship. As Clayton triumphantly measured himself against the Are you tall enough? post, his little sister Sylvia piped up.

“I want to ride with Clayton!” She was still sore that we hadn’t let her ride the teacups, so I let her check her height, too. I was certain she wouldn’t be tall enough, but the bored ride attendant dipped his head at her.

“She can ride if someone goes with her,” he said.

“I’ll go with them,” my husband volunteered, but no, I insisted I would go instead. The pirate ship was an indelible icon of the fairs of my youth. I could clearly remember climbing aboard with my best friend Mary, my chest tight with excitement, while Billy Joel’s You May Be Right blared over the speakers, beating its thrilling soundtrack in my brain.

Handing the last of our tickets, I directed my children to the center of the ship, the least scary row that Mary and I had always avoided when we could. Sylvia sat between Clayton and me; I kept my arm around her as the ride began.

It was exhilarating at first, the rush of the wind in our faces as the ship surged through the air. We screeched as we climbed higher, laughing happily.

But within moments, it all went wrong. Clayton’s face turned green; his jaw clenched.

“I don’t like it,” he said. His lips were pursed. Was he going to be sick?

“It’s too scary,” Sylvia observed matter-of-factly from beside me.
In an instant, all joy had fled. Oh, what had I done? I had willingly—intentionally—put myself into any parent’s worst nightmare. My children were terrified and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I clenched my arm tighter around Sylvia and tried to reassure Clayton.

“It will be over soon,” I promised.

He glanced at me hopefully, but I was wrong. We were climbing higher and higher, so high it was impossible not to think that in a moment the ship would break free from its finite pendulum and spin us wildly through the air.

“When?” Clayton groaned. “When will it be over? I want it to be over.” He had wrapped his arms around the bar, holding on with all his might.

I squeezed Sylvia to my side. She was very quiet.

“Just hold on, Clayton,” I said. I wanted desperately to reach for him, to pull his frightened body against mine, but I could not let go of Sylvia. She was so small it seemed to me that she could easily slip beneath the metal bar that ostensibly held us in.

“Just hold on, Clayton!” I repeated. “Look at your shoes. It will be over soon.”

But it was not over — The awful swinging went on and on. Suddenly I could stand it no longer. The ride had to be stopped, and there was only one person who could stop it.

My husband stood grinning at us from the ground, camera in hand.

Get him off!” I screamed desperately.

I opened my mouth to call again when suddenly I felt a shift in the relentless momentum of the ship. Relief flooded me.

“It’s okay, Clayton,” I gasped. “It’s stopping.”

“When?”

“Now. It’s stopping now.”

As soon as we were off the ship, I reached for Clayton, pulling him to me. We were safe! I felt hollowed-out by fear and adrenalin. I had not saved my children, but at least they were safe. I wanted to wrap my body around them; I wanted to drench them in apologies for having put them through such an ordeal.

But already Clayton was wriggling free. The green terror in his face was gone, and he grinned proudly at his dad.

“I rode the pirate ship!” he said. Already he was putting it on the list for next year’s fair.

I knelt down to hug Sylvia.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She was still so quiet. Had she been traumatized? What kind of awful parent was I, to take my three-year-old on such a ride? But my brave little girl seemed totally unfazed.

“The other boys were making happy faces because they were happy,” she explained. “But I was making a scared face because I was scared.”

And that was that. “Get him off!” my husband mimicked me, laughing, and suddenly we couldn’t stop giggling. We laughed about the pirate ship all afternoon. The next morning, it was the first thing Clayton wanted me to tell his teacher.

“Just don’t tell her how you screamed, ‘Get him off!'” he told me. “It’s too embarrassing.”

 

Erica Witsell the mother of three young children and a community college instructor of English as a second language. Following the birth of my twin daughters, she began a blog, On The Home Front, to capture the joys and challenges of mothering three young children while caring for a fourth.

           

 

 

 

The Other Man

The Other Man

Art Running BasesBy Catherine Campbell

I always let them down gently, but firmly. I pick a quiet place with a quick exit. Sometimes I have their things already boxed up—blues records, T-shirts I liked to sleep in, the earrings they bought me on various business trips—so they don’t have to go through an awkward epilogue. I chalk it all up to it’s not you, it’s me, and use some varying formula of “fear of commitment” plus “you deserve better.” I tell them they will find the perfect woman. I wish them nothing but the best. And once I’m home and the door is firmly closed and locked behind me, I pour myself a good drink.

The first question a man always asks when I break it off with him: “Is there someone else?”

I pat their shoulders. “No, of course not.”

I want to tell them the truth.

I don’t introduce my son Thaddeus to all the men I date. Thaddeus is seven. He’s sweet as a candy apple when he wants to be and a little jerk on the bad days, but don’t all parents experience a piece of heaven and hell wrapped up in something that can barely peddle a tricycle?

When Thaddeus’ father and I got divorced, Thaddeus was only a year old, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be the “revolving door” house. We split custody, which I assumed would make it easier for me to kill the loneliness. But surprisingly, I found myself plunging into finding another partner. I came close once or twice, in the form of intense rebounds. And these couple of men met “the other guy” in my life.

There was the Musician, a gentle man with the loveliest voice, who tried to get my son to eat salads. We made it almost ten months, but when he said he loved me, I couldn’t say it back.

Thaddeus was born without his right hand. He’s different. Special needs, his pediatrician says. On IEP reports and insurance forms and checks from the state, he’s considered permanently disabled, a condition that can never be fixed.

“Aren’t we all screwed up?” asked the Water Park Designer, as I was in the middle of dumping him on the front porch after a few intense months. When I had told him I had a kid, he said that was great, but his own father was an asshole and he wasn’t gonna be dad material…ever. It was easy to let that one go.

In the world of single motherhood, there isn’t a lot of time for relationships. It’s like trying to run between two movie theater shows at once, ducking in and out of each room, frantically trying to keep up with each plot. How can I possibly come home after a full day of work, medical appointments, occupational therapy, park play dates, grad school, cook meals for my kid and for someone else, cuddle with a boy and then a man, make meaningful conversations, and have sex?

For dinner tonight: quesadillas, just the two of us. Thaddeus practices holding a cup between his stub and his good arm. He paces the kitchen while I assemble the first quesadilla. “Only cheese?” he asks.

I nod and flip the tortilla. “Plain and simple, how you like it.”

Thaddeus repeats it in a sing-song voice. “Plain and simple.”

After a few rebounds who I thought I might want to love, I went on to date the sure cases of quick implosion. Much older men, men who didn’t want kids (“they impede vacations”), ex-boyfriends passing through town, new widowers who bawled in my arms, the separated husbands—still angry and lost—the men who just needed a good preening and a road map to get them back on their way, away from me.

The terms “amelia,” “anomaly,” and even “difference” all sound much more pleasing than the word “disabled.” But I can’t help use it all the time. It’s like a red light in the intersection of a sentence. It has meaning, it has consequence. People just stop and nod. They don’t need me to explain much more.

There’s a chance it was genetic. I remember how, after Thaddeus’ diagnosis, his father and I held our hands together in the ultrasound office, scooting closer, studying each other’s palms and fingerprints for the first time.

I shuffle spiders out of corners, finish client reports, fold another load of laundry, repaint the flaked white trim long into the night. In the morning, the Spiderman lunchbox sits flap-open on the counter. Jar of peanut butter. Clean knife. At 7:10 a.m. every morning, I make his lunches. The backpack is stuffed, the prosthesis is carried or worn, and then through the car window, I watch my son blow me a big, public kiss as the kids rush around him to beat the class bell. On the weeks when Thaddeus is at his father’s house, I sit on my back stoop alone, overlooking the garden, watching the cardinals burrow themselves into sunflower heads. I myself am starved. I shower and go to work.

One autumn, on a five-day romp through Boston, I met a man who was absolutely perfect on paper. Handsome and funny, he bought me a beer before a Red Sox game and he fed me oysters afterward. I flew back to North Carolina expecting it to end, but instead of the “So long, farewell!” single date, we stayed in touch, made travel plans involving direct flights and long weekends. I met his parents for Christmas dinner. We lounged like cats—smart, mature, romantically compatible cats—on the sundrenched couch of his living room. Each time I would fly home to Thaddeus, refreshed and focused. Boston Guy made me feel beautiful. We would text each other excitedly about the latest TV episode we both watched. I told him I had a son, and he laughed at my funny stories about my son’s antics. We didn’t talk about Thaddeus’ disability. We talked about everything else.

He was 900 miles away, which, I figured, would give me plenty of time to fall in love with him and warm up to the idea that I could slowly bring two special men together in my life. After years of flitting away so quickly, this time—I told myself—I would stick around because I could. No pressure to jump into the hard stuff just yet. It was going to happen. After I opened my heart to this man, I would finally have a normal triangle family with love and acceptance and all the fairytale trimmings.

“Will I ever grow a hand?” Thaddeus asks. He has crawled into my bed again at 5:00 a.m., shaking off a bad dream. He traces my face with his stump. His eyes are big, the shade of blue that makes you feel like you’re sailing paper boats on an endless day. The first girl to break his heart—what will she look like? Will she let him down easy as she can and what formula of stereotypical things will she say? Will she have his things already packed for him?

“You won’t grow a hand,” I tell him, and hold him so he’ll fall back asleep. “But I have extras. I can help you whenever you want.”

One afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend. My relationship with Boston Guy had just ended on an amicable yet bittersweet note. The distance is just too much, he said. It’s not fair to either of us. I cried a lot more than I expected.

I called a friend for consolation about Boston Guy, and then the topic turned to what it was like to raise our sons. At one point, we started talking about Thaddeus’s disability, what teenage life might be for him. I tried to spin the positive as I always had, going on and on about prom and guitar lessons and driving the car.

“But you can’t know that,” my friend said. “None of us can know exactly what Thaddeus is going through. You’ll never be inside his head. No matter how close you are to him, you’re not him. You have all your parts of yourself.”

The first girl to break Thaddeus’ heart probably won’t know what she’s doing. Maybe it will have nothing to do with the fact that he can’t tie his own shoes or cut a steak, or that she is tired of standing on one side of his body, the only one with the fingers that interlock with hers.

Lowering myself onto the couch, I stared at the coffee table in silence.

“Hey,” my friend said over the line. “You still there?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Still here.”

We talked a bit more, and then hung up. I sat and repeated the conversation in my head. Still here. It dawned on me that not once had I ever used the phrase “me time,” it was always non-mommy time…a worn groove of a joke among my friends. Not once had I left the word mother out of the description of myself: on resumes, through social media, at cocktail parties. My identity as the mother of a disabled child floated around everywhere.

When I found out I was pregnant, my sister had said, “This is the best and longest companion you’ll probably have.”

The way she blurted it out, like it wasn’t coming from her but from somewhere else we couldn’t possibly imagine, and why she was saying that a tiny bean of a something growing inside me was going to be a better person than my husband didn’t make an ounce of sense.

Will I ever fall in love beyond the love and commitment I have for my son? Will I be able to hold both loves at the same time? I’m scared that the answer may be no in the end, so I guess for now, I should just say, I don’t know.

What I do know is right now we have T-ball practice.

Thaddeus and I walk a few blocks to the recreation field. I’m lugging the T-ball set while he’s skipping along and whistles to himself while I set it up. Try-outs will be here in a month and I want him to have a fighting chance. I don’t want people to notice his missing hand but they will. So we practice throwing and catching. We use this trick we found on a video of a one-armed kid playing baseball, this trick of flipping the glove from hand to underarm. Thaddeus is not very good at catching. Perhaps it runs on my side of the family. We do drills: rolls, pop-ups, batting practice

My son swings and connects, it’s not the satisfying crack of a wooden bat but a THUMP of two plastic toys, and the ball whizzes past my head with startling ferocity. “Okay, now, run as fast as you can!” I yell.

He hesitates.

“Run!”

He drops the bat and throws all of his tiny force into a sprint, rounding first, then second and third, reaching home. Yes! I throw my arms up in victory.

But he doesn’t stop. He runs another lap, pumping his arms, his stump and his natural hand blurry with speed. He runs another lap. As he circles, his face is lit up. He’s laughing. I tell him to keep going, heck, we’ve got all day. I stand on the pitcher’s mound, and for a moment I wonder what it would be like to see a third person in this field, someone on the horizon, holding the plastic ball in their hands, and what it would be like if I could wave that man infield, my arm moving in a way that already felt warm and familiar, gesturing for him to come closer.

 

Catherine Campbell’s essays and fiction appear in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Arcadia, Drunken Boat, Ploughshares online, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find her on Twitter @thecatcampbell

 

Losing Winnie

Losing Winnie

11024684_854780187922320_708784403179556261_oBy Robin Lentz Worgan

I pick up my 14-year-old daughter, Winnie, at school after her play rehearsal. She slides into the car crumpling empty granola bar wrappers with her foot. I begin my daily mantra of questions: “How was play rehearsal? …Did you meet with your math teacher? …Is Sarah feeling better? Win…Winnie, stop texting and answer me, please.”  With her neck bent forward and long blond hair hanging down, a natural tent is formed around her virtual world.   This is our usual routine for our 25 minute ride home every day, unless of course she has something to ask me about her upcoming social plans, and then there is an immediate conversation to make sure they happen.

After my final pleading: “Damn it, Winnie! Put down the phone so we can talk,” she looks up at me. Her lips, pursed one over the other like Lincoln logs, slowly unfold into a slight smile. “Mom, I’m going to Allen’s house on Friday, OK?” I take a deep breath knowing that Allen may be a boy she likes and that she often wants to go to different boys’ houses instead of her girlfriends’ and also knowing that I prefer her to hang out in a co-ed group. I respond, “Oh, we might go out to dinner Friday.” Out of nowhere, Winnie, usually light and dreamy by nature, glares at me with her crystal blue eyes and barks, “You always try to control my life. You would let me go if it was a group. “

We continue to talk in a strained manner. I am not ready for her instant anger and I am trying to calm her down by telling her that I know right now she does not understand all the things I do to protect her, but before I finish she bursts in and says, “You know I hate you and I have hated you since I was… about 8-years-old.” Winnie then turns her head straight as we slow to a stop light. Before I know what is happening I hear her open the car door and say “Let me out. I’m outta here.” My heart is beating fast as we are on a main road. A car slides up next to us and I convince her to close the door for a moment. I immediately lock all the doors. We are on our way to a doctor’s check- up. She turns to me and says, “I’m not going in to the doctor. I’m leaving.” Dazed, I call my husband and ask him to meet us at her appointment. As we drive along and circle the doctor’s office parking lot twice, I feel my heart dangling from my chest, her words radiating throughout my body.

My husband comes and calms her and says he will take her to the doctor. I drive home gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter needing to control something. As I walk in my older son sees I am upset. He is the one who used to say, “I hate you!” and then storm out of the house. He hugs me close and says, “You are a good mom. She’s just going through a phase.” That night I sit in the bathroom and cry. I cry because my little blonde haired, zany Winnie who used to wear a blue hat every day is growing up; I cry because I feel disconnected from her thoughts and feelings; I cry because I think about a game Winnie and I used to play every day after preschool. She had named it Danny and Tommy. We used two wooden figures and a bunch of wooden animals. We would set up all the animals within other blocks like they were in a zoo and then she would be Danny and I would be Tommy and we would visit the zoo and have adventures. We played it every day. I cry because her needs were so simple then: Lunch and a game with mom and then a nap, but now I am not so sure what she needs. I cry because I gave up my career to be home with my children. “Mom” has been my main identity yet I don’t feel like a good mom right now.

The next afternoon I invite Winnie to sit by the fire and talk with me. We sit cross-legged across from each other. I am hoping for a peaceful conversation, but she still has streaks of loathing in her voice when she says, “I just want to leave here. I am ready to be on my own and I want to travel.” I explain to her that travel is a great goal and that many people want to travel and that she will have plenty of time to travel later after school and college. I even bring up the idea of a gap year to fulfill her wanderlust, but we are just not connecting in our communication. She skips to her next argument and points out that I make her hang up her cell phone every night before bed and do her computer homework at the bar in the kitchen and that none of her friends’ parents make them do that, and, that when she does something wrong in her social life, I get too involved. She sits up straight and looks at me, no through me, and says, “I just want to make my own mistakes and make my own life choices. I don’t need you.”

Winnie repeats again that she does not like me. I can tell our conversation is not going anywhere and I want to end it. I decide to tell her the story I told her every night until she was about 10-years-old and stopped asking for it. “Win, when you were born, I had lost your older sister, Margaret; she was stillborn, and so when the doctor put you on my chest and I felt you breathing and saw your pink cheeks, I burst into tears and clasped my hands in prayer and said, ‘Thank you God ‘over and over again because I felt so, so lucky to have you. So you may hate me right now, but I will always love you because I am your mother and mothers always love their children, no matter what. “

I leave her and go in to my room to take a break from this mess. I know I will react and yell at my other children for anything they do because I feel vulnerable after my conversation with Winnie, so I shut myself up in my bedroom and open up my book, Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan and begin to read. I read to calm down. It takes me somewhere else away from my problems. As I read, tears drip onto my page, but I keep reading for a while. I know I should make dinner but I am not ready to resurface into my life. After about 45 minutes, Winnie comes in red eyed, hands me a note written on notebook paper, hugs me and leaves. She has never been one to talk about her feelings or tell me about her day at school. She did not cry at her beloved grandfather’s funeral a few months ago though all her siblings did.  I read her note, “I have so many emotions inside of me. I don’t know how to communicate them. I don’t hate you. I love my family. I don’t really want to leave. “

The next night I decide to ask Winnie for an art lesson. She has just spent several nights sketching amazing pictures of Adam Levine and Kurt Cobain. I cannot draw at all. We decide I will draw a mermaid. I expect her to give me simple directions for drawing a mermaid. I am waiting for concrete directions like “First draw this line,” instead Winnie begins by telling me about light and how the act of drawing all has to do with finding the point of light. She shows me the point of light on my page. She also says, “Mom you always draw what you think you see, but you are supposed to draw what you really see. Don’t guess what the side of the chair looks like, draw where it curves on the one side. Don’t guess the shape between your eyes and your pencil. Draw what you see.”

After the lesson, my picture is ready for the trash. I do not understand the light and I cannot see the way Winnie sees. I lie in bed that night and begin to think that maybe I see Winnie the way I want to see her instead of how she is. I put on a fresh set of lenses and drive her to Allen’s house the next night. Winnie texts the whole way there, not talking, except when she gets out to turn and say, “Thanks for the ride, mom.” (She smiles). I think I see a 14-year-old that needs lots of protection and is going to a boy’s house by herself and is impulsive because she has ADHD, but what I really see at that moment is a happy, artistic teen girl who loves her mom and is trying to figure out her path. I wave to Allen’s mom and drive away.

Robin Lentz Worgan is a second grade resource teacher and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in ADDitude Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is also the author of Journaling Away Mommy’s Grief, 2010.  She blogs about loss on her book website at www.robinlentzworgan.com

Art by Linda Willis

Oatmeal Tantrums

Oatmeal Tantrums

heap of oat flakes in a shape of heart shot from above

By Nancy Kay Brown

An animated handful of freshly prepared organic oats, flew across the room splattering every gleaming surface of our newly remodeled kitchen. “No-o-o-o-o-o,” Liza, our twenty-month old granddaughter growled, flinging another scoop of the cinnamon scented stuff that used to be food across the room where it landed on the glass door of my commercial grade stove. A gob of gelled goo whizzed past sliding down the stainless refrigerator. She cocked her arm and slung another that momentarily clung to my eyebrow, slid down my cheek and dropped to my shirtfront. As if summoning a wild rumpus to action, she shrieked a penetrating call. I’d simply asked if she was ready for a bath. Apparently, she wasn’t.

Liza had worked to break me from the day I had taken her and her older brother from my son and his pill popping, toenail painting, Jerry Springer watching wife. I’d removed them from the rain-sodden tent where Liza had learned to walk on mushrooms sprouting from the soggy carpet, where a family of wood rats had built their nest in her diaper bag, where I’d discovered her four-year old brother poking cigarettes and tampon tubes into the woodstove—because someone had to stoke the fire.

Now here I was at 5:30 a.m., a gob of cereal in my eye. After awakening a half hour earlier, changing Liza’s diaper, I’d pushed her up to a small-scaled table in her little red chair. Each day began that way–before the sun rose, before the birdies awakened, while Grandpa and brother slept soundly in the other room–I stirred yogurt into her bowl, the tart sweet scent of granny smith apples and cinnamon steaming my face, she’d sprinkle the wooden table with juice, dragging a finger through it, as if waiting for a pattern to emerge.

Liza growled, “Not mommy.” I slammed my half empty cup on the counter. Right. I wasn’t Mommy. I was a bad grandma, who’d gotten stuck raising a sloppy little girl whose mommy couldn’t stand her, whose mommy could barely stand up most days. None of us wanted it to happen.

“You can’t do this to me,” I may have called out as I cupped a glob of the lumpy gel and flung it at her head. Her face emptied, she reached for the mass plastered on her neck, eyelids retracted, lips peeled back and screeched like a wildcat. Arching her back, she fell backwards with a crash, red chair on its side, pedaling her feet, circling arms as if drowning on my locally milled, wide-planked floor. She knocked her head and thwacked her bony elbows, knees rubbing and sliding. Her eyes grew bigger than the sockets that held them. I didn’t stop. Scooping up a second handful of oatmeal I hurled it at her. Oatmeal dangled in her snarled hair.

Her shrieks grew louder then enormous. She gnashed her terrible teeth, roared her terrible roars. Emptying my tea, I filled my cup with chilly water from the tap and tipped it over her head. Streaming down her face, it slid into puddles around her.

She studied me. I studied me, too, twisting my hands to see each side. Who the hell had I become? Assaulting a baby? The baby I’d intended to save. Even Liza’s incapable mother would not have done such a thing. Oh, the racket, the mess. I longed to be down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down my shoulders and off my chin; melting away the heat. I whispered to her, “Stop,” and bent low up against her face, “Just stop. ” Then a lot louder, nose-to-nose, “STOP.”

At that, she roiled her forked tail, flipped over, slithered in a slurry of water and oats then stilled. I splashed a shot of whiskey into my cup and gulped it down. If someone they’d spied a crying wet baby on my nasty floor, me sipping something like tea, two of us embattled—toddler-to- toddler–they’d be wrong. Wrong about the tea.

I’d planned to be the kind of grandma that asked the children which exhibit they wanted to see at the local museum. We’d have made a habit of stopping for tea smelling of vanilla, flowers and mint, go by the bookstore and each choose a new book and read them to one another on the way home. I would be the sleep over grandma, extending my invitation to one friend each, teaching them all to cook, to use real tools, to build and supervise their own campfires. Rolling up in our sleeping bags, we’d talk into the night under the stars. After our visits I’d need a well-deserved rest, sending them back home to families that fed them, drew their baths and listened to their stories; families that treasured them and treasured me, the favorite grandma.

Instead at age sixty, I’d fought for custody of two little hellions, then being awarded them, as if that’s what it was, I’d sprouted horns, scaly skin and claws. Along with 2.5 million other grandparents, my husband and I found ourselves raising our children’s children. At first I’d clung to the idea that one day their parents would show up and take care of her after all. It didn’t happen. I was stuck. So was she. Who was I kidding? I’d brought it on myself. They were my son’s children and who was his mother? Me. When he got hard to deal with, (When wasn’t he?) I’d taken on more work. It took courage to face a child everyday. So I didn’t. I was spineless. Now it was his turn to snub his children. The cycle had to stop.

I peeled off Liza’s pajamas and released her into the tub. A simmer of thick clear water, the sticky residue of oats and milk fat floated to the surface. Her scream diminished, like the tottering spin of a top. My wobbly reflection glared at me in the window. The warmth of cinnamon-spiced steam made it almost seem pleasant, a grandmother and a small child captured in a moment. Had I no compassion for a little girl who’d lost her mother? A toddler who’d lost both parents and found herself with someone who would never be her mommy. Slipping underwater, her rubbery knees squealed against the sides of the tub. When a gulp of water slapped to the floor, I drew up her arm to make room and slipped in next to her, fully clothed, pulling her fishy body against mine. Shivering against me, she squirmed. I leaned forward and turned on a warm stream of water. We’d be there awhile.

As she squirmed above me flailing and kicking, Liza hit the soap dish and an instant welt appeared on her cheek, another on her head. Scrambling to manage her thrashing limbs, my knee rammed the faucet and drew blood. Battle scars. She twisted around pinching the fleshy meat of my arm like a snapping crab. I put her in a safety hold. How would I ever tame this child? Teach her to brush her teeth? Use the toilet on her own? Tie her shoes? My nose settled into her tangled hot hair. Dragging her finger along the ring of scum that gathered at the water’s edge, Liza put it to her lips and tasted it. I inhaled the fragrant steam of her scalp, smelled our shampoo, herbal and girlie.

Could I, the old sodden goat lying in that chilly tub of water, dare to think I could save Liza and her brother? What made me think I could change the course of two lives? Of six lives counting us all?

Liza twisted away. My lips skimmed her forehead. I was “not Mommy,” not the one that had birthed her, enfolded her for days at a time in a shared room in her other grandma’s doublewide on the snowy plains of Montana. Nor was I the mommy in the tent, inches away, gazing, nursing then awakening as if nothing else in the world existed. Back when there was no me. Then I was all there was. The one who’d only moments before wanted to send her slippery pink body, off with the gray-water, oatmeal-free and dried, down the drain where it emptied into the forest with the wild animals, where she’d have tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.

“Me do it,” she whispered, pointing at the knob. I exhaled as if my breath was a word in the only language we had left, studied the pipes under the sink wrapped with thermal insulation and the wall below painted the same blue green as my mother’s laundry porch–the undersides of leaves, mint, light wind. My waterlogged clothes fastened me to the tub with the weight of her, still and quiet, dropping as I exhaled then lifting again. Both of us knew that I was all she had.

She pulled from my lap to her knees, tight buttocks, muscled arms, grasping two-handed, knuckles white with the effort, one shoulder to her ear. I sat forward, wrapped my hands over hers and with a slurp and sniff of the flow, it stopped. “Off,” she whispered in a ripple of sound as she lay back and floated free. The black of her eyes spilled into the blue like her mother’s, the jaw line framing her dimpled cheeks, was my son’s. Liza, not yet two, still so small, couldn’t be blamed for any of it. There was no one else, only me, her small shoulders in my hands and hot tears streaming.

Liza lifted a palm of water that trickled through her fingers as delicate as breeze. Patting the water flat handed, slapping lightly she bent to break the surface with her lips, to hum a vibrating underwater melody. So effortlessly she’d returned to play.

Stepping out of the tub, I knotted a towel around myself and gazed at her delicate pink feet paddling. We would be here for a while.

Nancy Kay Brown is a retired Child Development Instructor. Oatmeal Tantrum is a selection from her memoir Grand Mommy. Her short story Burn Pile was published in Fishing for Chickens. Nancy blogs at Letters To Montana

 

 

 

 

Remembering My Mother

Remembering My Mother

AdeleHarsMomandMe1962 copy 2By Adele Hars

I remember my mother. She’s in the hardware store. I’m over by the baseball gloves. She is covered in paint, and wears olive green stretch pants and a sleeveless nylon shirt. Her hair is down – about shoulder length, basically straight, a dark dirty blond streaked with off-white latex. She has paint on her face, paint on her clothes, paint on her hands and ankles and tennis sneakers. Her breasts sag and her stomach hangs out. I’m furious. Can’t she clean up when she goes into town? Why would she clean up? She’s just coming in to buy more paint. But I am 12 and very embarrassed.

I remember my mother. She looks beautiful. She’s going to a ball. Her hair is swept back in a French knot, and she’s wearing a summer-sky gown with a sequined waistband. The dress, slim and elegant, is in two layers: an inner one of darker satin, a lighter one of chiffon. The arms are sheer; the cuffs blue-sequined like the waistband. My mother was a model once, and at times like this it shows. She wears pearly blue eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. I can’t remember if she wore earrings. I don’t remember her wearing earrings until I began to hate her.

On the first floor of the state hospital old men and women with straggly hair and bad teeth sway against the walls. Upstairs, people seem a little younger, but they, too, sway. I don’t belong here, says my mother. All my friends here tell me that. I want you to meet them. She shows me her metal-framed bed pushed up against the yellow cement-block wall. I have to get out of there. I sit in the car outside the massive brick building, waiting for my sisters, listening to an organ concerto on the radio. With the windows rolled up, I am insulated.

I try not to remember my mother when we went to court. When I took the stand against her, I don’t think I ever looked at her. Yet I remember that she always wore that tailored deep-blue, wool suit, which made her look elegant, even though it was second-hand.

I remember going through her bottom drawer after my father left. She heard he was going on vacation to Bermuda. If she could go with him, she’d thought, they could work things out. She’d bought a sheer nightgown, some summer-wear, and a pair of slippers with wispy green fuzz. Did she really think he’d take her? What was she thinking as she bought these things? Then I hardened myself. How disgusting, I thought. He’d never take her. What did she ever do to deserve it? He didn’t take her. Nine years later she was all alone. And she killed herself.

She did it in her car, in the garage. She was wearing her pajamas. She didn’t leave a note. It took me a year to convince myself that it wasn’t an accident. That she hadn’t just gone out to warm up the engine before getting dressed on a cold morning. The UPS man found her. He saw exhaust coming out from under the garage door.

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry. I never knew my mother as an adult. I left her when I was a child, when I was just 15. I thought I knew it all.

I remember my mother lying on a sofabed downstairs. She has a candle burning on the table next to her. I’m five years old. I don’t know why she has a candle burning – it’s not really dark out yet. She’s angry with me. Where have I been? There’s been a power failure. She’s been so worried. I can’t understand why. I’m perfectly OK.

I remember my mother at the dining room table. We’ve finished dinner and I’m clearing the table. She and my father are sitting across from each other, drinking instant coffee and talking, as they did every night. She sits slightly sideways, one hand on her coffee cup, one hand on her belly.

My mother’s eyes were gray-blue. Her nose was small, with a tiny scar. Sometimes she would curl her hair, but most of the time it was straight and lank, tucked dirty-blond behind her ears. On the right side of her neck, just above her collarbone, a peach-brown knob of skin. Her shoulders sloped slightly, the dark nipples on her breasts hung low. A raised pink scar on her round belly marked where her appendix had been. She did not shave under her arms, which was especially embarrassing at the beach. The tops of her thumbs were small but bent back hard. She never grew her nails, although the pink part seemed long and ridged. Her legs were pale and also unshaven; her feet small with high arches and pointy toes.

I remember my mother standing on her head. She did her yoga every day, on a padded vinyl mat: white with big, blue flowers. I could never stand on my head like she did, two hands clasped, nesting her head, elbows forming a tripod. Then she would do that lion thing where she’d lie on her stomach, upper torso propped up on straight arms. Her tongue hung out, her eyes rolled back. I hated it when she did that. It was so creepy. Then she’d go into the lotus position. That was fun. I could do it, too.

I remember my mother lying on the bed with the green-checked ice pack pressed against her migraine. Go without me, she told my father. That happened a lot. It made me angry.

I remember my mother in that long white cotton dress with the green ribbons. Drops of blood stain the hips. See what your father does to me? See this? Her teeth have marked his hand. It’s never clear who starts these things.

I’m in the post office. Hello, Adele. She approaches, quiet, pleading, accusing. Hello. Excuse me. Where are you going? I’m leaving. Is your father still seeing that woman? she snarls. Excuse me, I have to go. She follows me to the car. Don’t you know I love you? she says. I can’t tell her I love her, too. I can’t. She’d use it against my father the next time we went to court. I drive off with her hanging onto the car until she can’t and falls away.

My mother speaks in tongues and does “sacred dancing” to Handel’s “Messiah”. She tippy toes around when she dances, bent at the waist, arms extended. She does it for my friends’ mothers. This is very embarrassing. She also speaks in IG, a silly trick where you put “i-g” in every word so it sounds like you’re speaking another language. She teaches me how. Soon the whole fifth grade is speaking IG.

My mother is singing a song to Anne. Anne is jealous because Maria has two songs about her. Eve and I don’t have any songs, either. But my mother sings, “There was a little girl, and her name was Anne Elizabeth. And she was very beautiful. And her mother loved her very much.” Anne is delighted and claps her two-year old hands.

I remember my mother at the pool, Eve in one arm, Anne in the other. She sings Ring-Around-the-Rosy endlessly. Maria splashes by herself on the steps.

I remember fighting with my mother. I throw a blue plastic cup at her. We wrestle. I pin her and scream at her. What were we fighting about?

My mother comes at me. We are in my father’s kitchen. She grabs my hair and bangs my head against the brick floor in front of the fireplace. I am trapped my a chair. I hate her.

It’s 1975. I am 15 years old. I am sitting at my mother’s piano, writing on the inside cover of the hymn book. Dear Mom, I say. Or do I say Mommy? I’m sorry I have to leave, but you make my life too hard. But no matter what happens I’ll never call another woman Mother. I sign it: I love you. Your Daughter, Adele. I close the book and bury it in the piano bench. I go back to my room to finish packing. My father will be waiting for me.

A dozen years go by. My mother is gone. I want to be happy again and have maybe have children of my own someday. I am sitting in Dr. Lake’s office. We’re trying hypnosis. She tells me I’m going to open a door and see a happy scene with my mother. I do. We are sitting on the bed at the house near Boston. It is 1965. I am five years old. We are waiting for a call from my father to tell us it is time to join him in Puerto Rico. My mother asks me how I imagine Puerto Rico will be. I am very excited. I will be riding a green bicycle, I tell her. A two-wheeler, on a sidewalk by the beach. And she’ll be there watching, waving. Watching. Waving.

Adele Hars is an American writer based in France, and the mother of two wonderful teens. She’s published hundreds of articles about technology, but sometimes she writes about other things, too.

Art: Linda Willis

 

 

Womanhood

Womanhood

By Stephanie Andersen

womanhood“It’s still snowing out there,” she said.

Mom and I were tucked under her blue comforter on her bed late one afternoon, staring out the window into the backyard. The snow had settled on the pine branches, and the windows shook a little in the November wind. I pushed my head into the space between her arm and breast, tracing the hardness of the catheter buried under her skin. She was holding a tiny portrait of a young Victorian woman with big brown eyes, soft curly hair, and pursed lips.

“This is how I imagine you’ll look when you grow up,” she told me.

I stared at the face of the woman and tried to imagine myself as her. She seemed gentle, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes shy and hopeful, her breasts round and high. I was only nine years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever seriously considered the possibility of becoming something other than the child I was.

Mom had found the lump in her breast five years earlier, and the doctors had told her she had only three months to live. She told the doctors, “Go to hell,” then started her treatment. She’d changed her diet, exercised, meditated, repeated positive affirmations, lost her hair, burnt her skin with radiation, and begged God to save her life. She had a little girl to take care of.

She had lived six years longer than the doctors expected, but when they told her they would have to remove her breast, my mother refused. She told my father that she was sure losing a breast would take something from her that she wasn’t prepared to lose.

I had not yet developed breasts. All I knew of womanhood was the shape of my mother’s body, the way she fit around me in her bed, the way she smelled of St. Ives lotion, of baby powder, and of ginger. I had no interest in attaining any of this for myself. I loved the simplicity of my own body, my ability to run barefoot and shirtless in my own backyard. I was thankful that I did not bleed from my private parts and have to leave diapers drenched with blood in the bathroom garbage. My father and I were free, untangled by the chains of what kept my mother from throwing off her shirt and jumping into the lake at the park with us.

I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want my mother’s body. Strength was freedom, and a woman’s body was weak and stifling.

One morning, I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest. I ran to my mother.

“I have a bump on my chest,” I told her. “And it hurts.”

She smiled. “You’re getting your breasts,” she said, rubbing her fingers gently over the tiny bump. “You’re becoming a woman.”

I backed away from her. “It’s breast cancer, isn’t it?” I asked. “It must be.”

For several weeks, my mother argued with me, explaining that I was not dying, just growing up. But I could not be convinced until she took me to a doctor for a thorough examination.

“I don’t want breasts,” I told my mother. “My life is over.”

“No, Stephanie. Your life is just beginning. You’re going to be a woman. And that is a magical, wonderful thing. You’ll see.”

“Breasts stink,” I told my mother after school a week later. “And so does womanhood.” Then I stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door.

Two months before my twelfth birthday, I stood over her, studying her lifeless body. She lay stiffly on a hospital bed in our den. I raised her cold hand and tried to memorize how her fingers felt between mine. Above her on the wall hung a picture of us, me as an infant in her lap, my two sisters flanking us, Mom’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist. It was only then that I realized why my mother stared so intently at the picture of that Victorian woman. It was the only image of me as a woman that she would ever see. And as this realization crept through my thoughts, I suddenly felt a new desire that I had never known before. I wanted to find out what it was about a woman’s body that my mother sacrificed her life for. I wanted to understand what I had been missing.

*   *   *

I was finishing my junior year of high school when I made that happen.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon, watching my boyfriend’s white ejaculate drip from my abdomen. I was supposed to be studying for the history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom. As I studied how the sperm appeared against my tan, summer skin, I imagined what it looked like under a microscope. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong: I was too young, and I was certainly not considering the other party involved. But I wondered if I were capable of growing and swelling like other girls I had seen at school.

In the late nineties, in upstate New York, teenage pregnancy was no longer a surprise. My hometown, a small suburb just outside of Binghamton, was home to at least five pregnant adolescents in 1997, and they were not the first of their kind. These girls came late to school, flaunting growing bellies and exciting plans for their very own apartments. Two-bedroom, two-bath. They let us all touch their stretching skin. They said things like, “Only two more months,” “We think it’s a boy,” and “I don’t have to take gym anymore.” They were separate from the rest of us, more grown up, more in touch with the future, more interesting, and far more sexual. I watched them as they waddled down our high school hallways with heavy book bags, heavy bodies, and severe looks of determination. I found myself eager to know what it felt like to be watched and touched, to be mysterious, and to have such unavoidable purpose. These girls were at once scorned and cherished. They were our future and our failure. They were not ready but going ahead with it. They were dismal and exciting statistics. They were pregnant.

The longer I stood in front of the mirror, the more honest it all seemed. I was built for it. I needed it. I told myself that in the end nothing I did would matter to anyone else. It was my body, my choice, my wish.

*   *   *

Ten years and six hundred miles later, I hold a cell phone to my ear and listen to a fourth-grader tell her sixth knock-knock joke in three minutes.

“Knock, knock,” she says.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

She giggles. “Egg.”

“Egg who?” I say.

“Egg knock’s my favorite drink, too.” Then she laughs uncontrollably, squealing and hiccupping into the phone.

It’s difficult to fake a laugh. But I giggle nervously, tell her it was “a good one,” knowing that she had made it up on her own and is proud.

“What did the picture say to the wall?” she says, not ready to quit yet.

I pause for a moment as if to think about it. Then I admit, “I don’t know.”

“I’ve got you covered.” She squeals again with delight, hiccups twice, sighs, and continues laughing.

Elianna lives in upstate New York, just outside my hometown. She hiccups if she laughs too hard. She likes to read; she loves to draw. She takes gymnastics but accidentally kicked her instructor last week at practice. She’s tall for her age, almost five feet now, and embarrassed by it. She always has a good report card and likes to impress her teachers. She enjoys jumping on the trampoline in her backyard, swimming at the YMCA, shopping for clothes at The Limited and Old Navy, and listening to music, mostly Hilary Duff; she loves going to yard sales and has been begging her parents to let her start taking piano lessons.

When she heard there were people in the world without hair, she grew hers out, cut it off, and donated it. Her favorite color is blue. She watches Survivor every Thursday night at eight o’clock. She loves having her nails done, being an older sister, and staying up past her bedtime. She doesn’t like bras or mean people. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist.

This is the first time we have ever spoken directly to one another on the phone, but she has a picture of me in her bedroom she stares at, brings to school for show-and-tell, and sleeps with. She has never met me, but Elianna, the girl on the other end of the phone, is my daughter.

What I want to say to her: None of this is your fault. It was never you. I want to smell you, your head, your hands, your toes. I want to know what your hair feels like between my fingers. I want to see the way your thighs turn into your calves and your calves into your ankles. I want to find out, for myself, if your big toe is shorter than your second toe. I want to know the direction in which your arm hair grows.

I dream about you, wake up in the middle of the night worried that you are sick, sad, angry, or afraid. I want to crawl in bed next to you, wrap myself around you, finally feeling the shape our bodies make together. I want to feed you, cook the food myself, make you strong and healthy. I want to help you learn how to read, write, paint. I want to read you my favorite stories, the ones my mother read me. I want to walk through a mall with you, help you try on clothes, tell you how beautiful you look in blue.

I want to know the people you know. I want the pain in my breasts and abdomen to go away when I hear your voice and see your picture. Forgive me. Let me kiss your face, your arms, your ears, your fingers. Your jokes, as much as I love you, are really not that funny.

What comes out: “Very clever, Eli. Very clever.”

Before we hang up, she tells me good-night and that she loves me.

I tell her, “Sweet dreams.”

I’m back in my apartment in North Carolina, under this blue comforter. I cannot complain about much here. I have just earned a master’s degree. I work at a community college, teaching freshman English. I rent a nice little apartment outside the city on the third floor of a brand new building, behind an almost-finished Wal-Mart. I have a large friendly group whom I am lucky to call my friends. There’s no boyfriend, but this doesn’t bother me. I run through the routine, wake up every morning early, walk my dog.

Life is normal enough. I am free and strong, a product of my father’s firm encouragement to be an independent woman. “Women are no different than men,” he always said. “Women can do everything a man can do. Don’t ever sell yourself short.”

The only signs of weakness are the colorful stretch marks on my breasts, the grip I still have on the phone long after she’s hung up, and the picture of my daughter hung on the wall over my bed.

*   *   *

A baby. I would make it work. “No,” my father said. “It will ruin your life.”

“I can do it,” I begged.

“Not in my house.” He ran his fingers through his beard and flipped through his mail. “I won’t be a part of it. If you have this child, you will never know what it means to be independent, to be successful, to accomplish all that you’re capable of. If you choose this path, you choose a life I can’t support. Find another place to live.”

No problem. I would find a place to live. A charity organization. A family who would give me a home, tell me it was okay to be a mother.

At first, inventing myself as a teenaged mother-to-be was exciting. I collected baby clothes, pacifiers, bottles, and bonnets. My charity family gave me a tiny room in their basement. At night, as I lay alone in the dark staring up through the windows into the flower bed outside, I had no doubt that I was becoming who I was meant to become.

As my breasts and abdomen grew, I became thrilled with the changes, finally feeling like I was being given the opportunity to be a real woman. School no longer seemed important. Homework seemed petty. College seemed like a fantasy. In the waking hours of the morning, I would get up out of bed, my bladder full again, tip-toe up the stairs, and stare in the mirror. In my reflection, I searched for a change in my face, something familiar, any sign of the mother I planned to become. But my face never seemed to change. My growing breasts and the bulge in my abdomen grew on their own, separate from my eyes. I’d crawl back into bed and run my fingers over my stomach, feeling my daughter kick my hands through my skin, and ask her to have patience with me.

I wanted to keep that baby just as naturally and vehemently as I wanted my mother to live. And I tried for seven long months to find a way to do it. But 1997 was a difficult year. Clinton reformed welfare, making it impossible for anyone under the age of eighteen to receive aid, and I couldn’t find a way to keep a stable job, finish high school, and care for a baby all at once without at least a little help from the father, who was unwilling to admit to his parents that he even had a girlfriend.

At seven months pregnant, it became clear to me that there was no hope. I couldn’t do it. It had all been a fantasy I couldn’t live up to. I was no mother. In fact, I was little more than an irresponsible teenager with a penchant for the dramatic. I had no job and no future.

Worse, I found myself desperate for reprieve. I wanted out of the martyrdom. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night for anyone, much less for a child I had nothing to offer.

And one night, as I collapsed in the corner of my borrowed basement room, I knew in the most horrible sincerity that I was unwilling to give up my freedom and security for my womanhood. I didn’t want it badly enough. And when the realization came, I wanted to empty myself of my miracle as quickly as possible, renewing myself to the state of freedom, loneliness, and asexuality to which I’d become accustomed.

I would do what my father had told me and do everything my mother hadn’t. I would graduate high school. I would go to college, pay my own bills, travel, and live a long, successful life.

“I’m so proud of you,” Dad said, his eyes red with weepy gratitude.

“This was a hard decision to make but a very strong one.” I was still living in my basement room, but when the pregnancy was over, Dad promised, when life was back to normal, he said, I could return home.

“I want to be strong,” I told him. “And successful.”

“I know you will be,” he said. And I believed him.

*   *   *

Angel and her husband, Matt, had been trying to have a baby for eleven years. Every month, for all of those years, she had hoped she was pregnant, picked out a name, constructed themes for the nursery, and imagined the baby’s face. And every month, when the blood came, another imaginary child died. She had long since lost count of all the faces that might have been.

A friend of hers mentioned a pregnant teenager with whom her daughter went to school. She tried not to get her hopes up. It took me a while to work up the courage to dial her phone number.

“I can’t do this,” I told Angel over the phone. “I’ve decided to go to college. I just can’t do this alone.” I listened to her cry, in what I would later find out was relief, for several moments. Part of me hoped she would tell me she would adopt both of us, the baby and me. I wanted to tell her how desperately I wanted to keep my baby, but I just needed her to help me. I wanted to explain what it was like to feel a human being growing inside me for so many months, to learn what sounds made her sleep, to learn exactly the way I needed to walk in order to lull her. I wanted her to know that what I was saying was dangerous for me.

“Can I meet you somewhere?” she finally asked.

“Okay.”

We chose McDonald’s on Main Street.

Angel became a mother there, when I nodded my head across the table from her, licking the ice cream cone she and her husband bought for me. I said they could have my baby.

It would be Angel who held Elianna minutes after she was born. It was Angel who held her when she first cried and learned the motions of her body and the difference between hungry and wet. It was this other woman—whom I met by accident when I doubted my ability to be faithful to my own instincts—who watched my child grow from a seven-pound, eight-ounce infant into this nine-year-old girl who tells knock-knock jokes and giggles until she hiccups. It was never me.

Because of this, I cannot complain now if Angel, this other mother, chooses to explain the adoption in such simple terms as, “You grew in Stephanie’s belly but in Mommy’s heart.” I can’t blame this woman for waiting so long to let my daughter communicate with me. I can’t tell my daughter that her jokes are not funny or that it is the hope of one day meeting her that keeps me waking up in the morning and trying to be successful, impressive, and strong.

Friends ask, “How do you talk to your daughter on the phone so casually?”

And I respond. “How do I not?”

Since they brought my daughter to their home for the first time, this couple has repeated my name in her ear like a mantra, wanting to “do the right thing.” They want for her to be aware of her heritage and proud to be adopted. My daughter’s only questions have been whether or not I love her and why I gave her away. “Of course she loves you,” her parents tell her. “Stephanie was just so young.” But Eli repeats the same questions, seemingly waiting for a truth she’s sure she has not yet heard.

When her parents first told her she could speak with me, she decided it wasn’t time. Instead, she listened over the speakerphone while her mother spoke to me. When she did this, I tried to adjust my voice and attempted to comfort her with my words, even if I was only telling Angel about the weather in North Carolina. Sometimes I would hear her giggle in the background or whisper something to her mother. But she wasn’t going to talk directly to me, not for six more months.

“Eli’s doing really well in school,” Angel would say.

“Oh, wow,” I responded, trying to express a pride recognizable in my voice. “That is so wonderful.”

I heard a tiny giggle in the background.

“Stephanie’s proud of me,” she told her mother later.

“Yes,” Angel said. “She’d be proud of you no matter what you did.”

Angel always calls and tells me the whole conversation later, all the questions Eli asks about me. She reports that my daughter, her daughter, is making me a glazed plate for Christmas with my name and my dog’s name printed across the front in child’s handwriting and swirls of purple and blue along the edges.

It was my sister’s idea to create a website for Elianna. It may have been illegal for a nine-year-old to have her own MySpace profile, but it wasn’t illegal for a birth family to create a profile titled “We Love Elianna.” With a few keystrokes, my sister made a profile that displayed several pictures of all of us, even my mother. There were pictures of me as a baby, of my sister and me carving a pumpkin when we were children, of my father, of Elianna on her first day of fourth grade, of Elianna when she was a baby, of Elianna when she was still inside me. I e-mailed Angel the password, and we waited.

Three months later, I received a message from Elianna over MySpace. DEAR STEPHANIE, I AM JUST STARTING TO TYPING. WRITE ME BACK PLEASE! I WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU VERY MUCH.WELL I HAVE TO GO. BY LOVE. ELIANNA

“At Olive Garden,” Angel told me later. Apparently Eli imagined a girls’ lunch with the three of us at the same restaurant where I had celebrated her first birthday, one candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream, my father and I wondering how to celebrate without the birthday girl.

“Does she mean it?” I asked Angel.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”

“Why now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I asked her, and she said she wanted to know what your favorite color was. And she really wants to meet Daisy.”

Daisy is my Jack Russell terrier. Eli refers to her as the “birth dog.” I paused. “Will she ask me why I did it? Why I gave her…”

“I don’t think so.”

“What will I say to her?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Tell her what your favorite color is.”

“When?” I asked.

“Are you coming home for the holidays?”

I haven’t been home for Christmas in three years. In fact, I rarely go back to New York for any reason. I opt for distraction—grad school, affairs with married men, short-term love affairs with strangers, menial social melodrama, heavy drinking, various jobs I latch onto and pour myself into, my writing. Now I dial my sister’s number and tell her I’ll be home in a month for the holiday.

She says, “Okay,” but I can tell she doesn’t believe me.

“Elianna said she wants to meet me,” I say.

She’s silent for a minute.

I think about the last time I went home. I can’t remember whose idea it was to spy on my daughter. We had never driven by Elianna’s house before. We hadn’t expected her to be climbing out of a minivan in her driveway, her face so much like mine, with moving legs, with a real mouth, a living, breathing little girl. I slammed on my brakes and fumbled for my sunglasses. My sister slid down in her seat, thinking, like me, that Eli would look up and somehow recognize our car, maybe from the North Carolina plates. We pulled our car behind the tree across the street and watched her for a minute while she waited for her mother to unload the van. I held my sister’s hand, surprised at how much we were shaking.

“That’s your baby,” my sister said, shaking her head. “That’s her.”

I knew she was waiting for me to do something remarkable, to become the lioness confronted with her stolen cub. She stared at me, watching the way my face trembled. Maybe she hoped these long years had been enough to awaken the mother inside me. But after Eli disappeared into her house, I shifted the car into reverse and drove away up the hill.

My sister has often tried to stir my maternal instincts. There have been days I cry in her arms and tell her how much I regret it all. And she’ll call an attorney, tell me to get creative, get angry, claim duress, anything. Just get my daughter back. But I’ve never tried. And I know I never will.

“Are you ready for that?” she asks now.

“I don’t know,” I say.

*   *   *

“You’re not ready for this,” my boyfriend, Elianna’s father, told me ten years ago, the night before I would promise my child to another couple. “You’re not ready to be a mother.” And then I was hitting him. I punched him for all the decisions in the world I felt I had no control over. I clawed at his chest for my dead mother and the baby I couldn’t find the will to keep. I screamed because I couldn’t remember my mother’s face, I would never see my daughter’s, and I couldn’t find my own. He let me go on like that for several minutes as the snow fell against the windshield and melted into water.

There wasn’t anybody who wanted to help me be a mother. But there was a world of people who wanted to help me go to college. And slowly, this became my answer. I constructed a new truth out of what I decided the rest of the world expected of me. I learned that most everyone would respond delightfully to my change of heart. Teachers gave me extra time on my assignments; my father bragged about me in church; my boyfriend thanked me with wet eyes, told me he loved me, and that he would marry me one day.

Over and over, for years to come, all I had to say was that I gave a daughter up for adoption, and people would do everything but bow at my feet, chanting the popular “what a selfless, brave decision to make.” This gave me identity. I was the teenager who gave her daughter up for adoption. But the only image I had of the life I was choosing was the word my father repeated to me over and over throughout my childhood: college. And now that I had no choice, it sounded so good.

I waited, but no matter how many times I recited my mantra—”I’m going to college. I can’t be a mother”—my hand still found its way to her and I still spoke to her. I knew then that my instincts to care for the baby would not disappear when she did.

*   *   *

It’s been three days since Eli wrote to tell me she wants to meet. I tell myself that nothing—no lunch at Olive Garden, no knock-knock jokes—will ever make me her mother.

In the small box in the corner of my bedroom, I keep two ultrasound photos secretly tucked away, the two I once hid from myself just in case one day I needed to remind myself the pregnancy actually happened, that Eli was not a dream. I take them out occasionally and stare at them. I keep her second-grade picture sitting on the antique end table my mother left me in her will.

A year ago, Eli sent me a box for my birthday, a collection of her things she thought I needed to have. Inside, there are leopard print pillows, blue sandals, necklaces, pictures she drew in school, photographs of her swimming, lotions, Beanie Babies, and a letter that she wrote, explaining the little details of her life. I keep the box in another corner, sit next to it some- times. I smell the little pillows, hold the earrings in my hands, study the letter. Once I took out the sandals and tried them on. They fit perfectly.

Eli’s need to show me who she is doesn’t surprise me. These years with- out my mother and daughter have brought me no happy endings or clear answers, but I have realized that my inability to become the Victorian woman in the portrait is not tragic. My mother did not show me that picture to assign me an identity to live up to. That picture was for her. She would never know how my face would evolve as I grew older. This woman I have become, nothing like that portrait, with all of my regrets, with my two diplomas hung on my wall, with an absent daughter, is a woman my mother will never know.

My daughter and are I left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I answer honestly. Yes. Going to college has never made up for the nagging regret. I can still smell the milk that leaked from my breasts for a week after she was born. The smell of those leopard pillows is still more comforting than any freedom or success I have earned. But what I’m left with is not a gift I take for granted. I have my daughter’s face next to me as I sleep. It changes in every new photo, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine, but with their own nuances, unexpected, miraculous.

*   *   *

Elianna was born on March 7, 1997, at seven o’clock. She was seven pounds, eight ounces. Lucky seven baby. As I pushed her out, I begged the doctor to not let anyone take her from me, but my words were dismissed as nothing more than the emotional roller coaster of a seventeen-year-old girl in labor. My father stood over me and covered my eyes as she slipped from between my legs. I heard her gurgle for a second, and then she was gone.

I saw her only once before I left the hospital for good. Angel’s husband passed her off to Angel who brought her into the hall for me.

“Do you want to hold her?” she asked.

I looked down at the baby. I waited for something in my mind to click. I waited for whatever it was inside me that might have become a mother to react, but nothing happened as I clung to the IV stand I had wheeled along with me. It was over.

“No,” I whispered.

“Is there anything you want to say to her?” Angel asked.

I thought about it for a second. But only one thing came to mind.

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess there is.” I reached into the blanket and found Eli’s hand. She wrapped her finger around one of mine as I cleared my throat. “Go to college,” I said. Then I pulled my finger from her grip, turned around, and walked away.

*   *   *

I won’t meet my daughter this Christmas. She’ll change her mind, lose the courage, send her mother in her place. I’ll have lunch with her mother alone. I’ll offer Angel a picture of Daisy and me along with a wrapped gift to give to Elianna. It will be a necklace that splits into two halves. Angel will sit across the table from me, run her fingers over my hand, and tell me Eli has my fingers.

“Are you okay?” I’ll ask her, watching the way her eyes well up at the sight of me. I understand that I am a reminder that Eli will never have her eyes, her fingers, or her lips. She will never be able to know what it felt like to carry her daughter to term in her own uterus. And she will watch me remove the necklace from the box myself. I will keep one half, and Eli will keep the other. I’ll never take off my half. I’ll run my fingers over the charm while I am at work, driving in the car, grocery shopping, or staring out my apartment window into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“I’m dealing with it,” she’ll say. She will return home to my daughter, maybe brush the hair off her forehead, feed her dinner, and tell her what it was like to have lunch with Stephanie, the birth mother.

Back in North Carolina, I will continue to occasionally stand in front of the mirror naked, staring at the scars on my breasts and at the ever changing slope of my abdomen (which has never shrunk back to its original size). It reminds me that there’s a part of me that’s missing.

One night, to my surprise, my nine-year-old daughter will call with an unusual question. “Do you have big boobs?” she’ll ask.

“Elianna’s getting her breasts,” Angel will say in the background. “And she’s not happy. She has to wear a bra.”

I’ll laugh and tell Eli that mine aren’t so big, that there’s nothing to worry about.

“Okay,” she’ll say, sighing.

“I know how you feel,” I’ll tell her, picturing her standing there, staring hopelessly down at her swelling chest. “I didn’t want to get boobs, either.”

And after a small silence, she’ll clear her throat. “Well,” she’ll say. “Your boobs look big in your picture.”

We’ll laugh, and she’ll hiccup, both of us remaining somewhat damaged and slightly delighted.

“I don’t think she’ll ever take this necklace off,” Angel giggles in the background.

And I’ll be thankful, with the phone held tight to my ear, for my own breasts, for the shape of my body, and even for this regret.

Author’s Note: Birthmotherhood has followed me like a grinning ghost into an existence I thought would be empty of my daughter. I am a mother who is both without her daughter and full of her. I have both abandoned her and taken her with me. This essay was a grueling process of discovery and redemption.

Stephanie Andersen teaches college writing in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Brain, Child (Winter 2008)

Mother’s Day Kindness

Mother’s Day Kindness

Art Grocery bag

By Jill Christman

We are due to arrive at the baseball-themed birthday party for our six-year-old friend Spencer at 4:00 p.m., but it’s already 2:05 by the time my kids get their shoes on for an emergency trip to the grocery store to buy cupcake supplies. I know the precise time because nine-year-old Ella has chosen today to take notes on my every move and utterance in a pocket-sized spiral notebook like a reporter on her beat—or a really obvious Harriet the Spy. When I grab up cloth bags, my purse, and the keys, and lacking a free hand, use my knee to give 5-year-old Henry a nudge toward the door, Ella peers in from the front porch, cocks what looks to me like a judgmental eyebrow, and scratches a note.

“Is this for that economics unit at school or something?” I ask.

“No,” she explains, “I’m just making observations about you. About what happens when you go to the grocery store—because you don’t think you’re a good shopper. That’s my first observation.” Scratch, scratch.

Finally out of the house and in the driveway, I see a Paul’s Flowers van blocking us from a swift departure. This is a good thing and a bad thing. “Get in the car, kids,” I say. Of course, they don’t. They want to get a look at Paul. Where the hell is Paul?

“But Mom,” Ella says, pointing out the obvious, “are we still supposed to get into the car when there’s a Paul’s Flower truck behind us?” Then she flashes a sly smile, revealing she’s in on this secret. I should mention here that the children’s father is out of town, playing disc golf in Peoria, Illinois, despite the fact that in the thirty-six hours prior to his departure he’d been vomiting and feverish, muttering “I’m in hell, I’m in hell,” while I—having been required to come off my own cruise on the norovirus ship early in order to keep our children alive—well, kept our children alive. So the first time he was able to get up, he choked down a piece of dry toast and a spoonful of chicken soup, packed a bag of plastic discs and Gatorade, each in a rainbow of colors, and headed off down the road with his buddies.

At some point in his preparations—or maybe from the road—he’d rallied the good sense and wherewithal to dial up the flower shop. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

At long last—what was he doing in there? picking the flowers?—the man whom I assume to be Paul himself emerges from the van carrying an admittedly lovely Asian-inspired display with creamy yellow cala lilies emerging from a bed of orange roses. “It’s a little tippy,” the man says by way of introduction, and more than a little sheepishly, propping up a stick of bamboo with his finger. I’d need to confirm this with Ella, but by now, it must be 2:13. “Yeah, yeah,” Paul continues. “Sorry about that. You know, just as I was turning onto the road, I get a call from my buddy and I’m just turning on the road, just about to your driveway, and I pick it up and he says he’s looking for a new deep freeze, but I tell him I’m out on delivery and I can’t talk about deep freezes, but he found one he thought might be a good deal. . .”

I smile a baby’s breath sweet smile and attempt to pry the display from his thick fingers. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Taking a backwards step toward the door, still in a game of tug-o-flowers with Paul, I look at my roaming children and annunciate in clear eye-flash, head-flick, mother speak: Get In The Car.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paul says, taking another shot at the tipping bamboo with his finger. Refusing to relinquish his grip on his side of the arrangement and parting the roses, he directs my gaze to a layer of thick green foam sprouting flower stems like a bad hair transplant. “See there? See? If you just keep that foam damp they’ll stay fresh for you. Nice and fresh.” Close up like this, I notice the orange roses are a little brown around the edges of the petals.

“Great. I’ll do that,” I say. I give a sudden pull on my side and Paul’s big hands fall away. The flowers are mine. “Thank you so much. Have a great day. Kids, jump in the car now, please.” Even though I’ve already used the remote key to unlock the car, multiple times, I press the button again, for the punctuating effect of the muted beeping. The Car is Now Unlocked. Get Into the Car. Please. Now.

Paul takes a call on his cell, and then—praise heaven—his much-anticipated leave. I deposit the tipping, browning flowers inside the front door, snatch the mail from the box, and throw myself down into the station wagon. As I’m putting the key in the ignition with one hand, I flip through the mail with the other—Teavana tea catalog, two invitations to join the Poetry Society, one for me and one for my husband, something from the hospital, and another something from the IRS. I open the one from the IRS first. My attention is required, I read. If I fail to respond within 20 days, I read, bad things might happen. I needn’t resend a paper copy of my full return. In fact, doing so may result in a delay of the processing of my return. There is a form and some bolded telephone numbers.

From the back seat, Ella taps her pen on her notebook. “Mom. What are you doing?”

Henry pipes up. “Yeah. Daddy’s not here. What are you waiting for?”

“Daddy’s not here,” I repeat flatly. We’re not exactly being audited, I don’t think, but we’re not exactly not being audited either. Crap. I tear open the other envelope, from the hospital. It’s from the imaging center where I had my screening mammogram four days prior—crawling from my flu bed to watch in nauseating satisfaction as a whirring machine smashed my breasts between the glass plates while I wondered What kind of bra will hold them up after this devastation? There’s a problem with my left breast and I’m being called in for a return “diagnostic mammogram and/or ultrasound.” Again, the news is muddy. There’s a density. I should make my return appointment without delay.

“Mom!” Henry yells from the back seat. “I’m BORED.”

Bored? Oh, to be bored. I toss the mail on the pile of debris in the passenger’s seat, turn the key, and pull the stick into reverse. One word repeats itself in my brain on the one-mile stretch down to the grocery story: shit. In my head, I hear the mildly explicative stutter of a cold engine trying to start in winter. Shitshitshitshitshit. Shitshitshit.

***

When we get to the store Ella has a question. Are you going to need your iPhone in the store, Mom? Because I need a timer.”

“A timer?”

“Yeah, it’s one of my observations.”

My thumb presses the button on the front of my phone and it lights up, an image of my bright-faced children with a time-stamp on their heads. “It’s 2:27″—Fuck! 2:27! In what world am I going to get the shopping done, get home to frost the baseball-mitt-and-ball cupcakes, cut the strawberries and the grapes into the fruit salad, get the kids to finish the card, feed the dog. . . and get to the party by 4? “Not this world,” I say out loud.

“Not this what?” Ella asks.

“Never mind,” I say. “Come on. Unbuckle.”

Before we can even make it into the store, I am happy—truly happy—to see that our grocery store has beautiful, 3-gallon azalea pots in full bloom. Spencer’s mother’s cat has just died and I want to get her a memorial perennial. This is perfect. I hoist one with magenta blossoms, and some mud trickles down my shirt.

Ella is a thoughtful, slow-moving child on a good day, but on this day, recording my every move, she is yet slower. “What’s that?” she asks.

“An azalea bush.”

“Was that on your list?”

“Well, no, but it was on my mind to get something for Jackie to plant for Maya.”

“But it wasn’t on your list?”

“No. Not on my list. C’mon. Keep up.”

We’re in the store now and moving at a decent clip for a mud-smeared forty-something who may or may not have something wrong in the left breast she is now palpating surreptitiously under the inadequate cover of a pyramid of oranges and may or may not be in the initial stages of the audit she has always dreaded, not because she cheats—she doesn’t, let the record show—but because, shit, what a pain, and with two writers and two home offices, she always knew it was a risk. I realize I’m narrating this sad story about myself in third person as I scoop up my last item from produce—asparagus, on sale.

“Was that on the list?”

“No, but something for tomorrow night’s dinner was on the list, and now I think we’ll have asparagus and pizza.”

“Yum,” Ella says approvingly, jotting something down. “What time is it? How many minutes have we been in here so far?”

In the back corner of the store, behind produce, is the alcohol. I should mention here because Henry isn’t getting much air time that this is one of those days he wants to push the cart, veering off towards Bakery and randomly back toward the pita chips, so in the name of desperate efficiency, I’m doing that thing where I kind of hunch over the top of him like some kind of grocery cart beast to keep us on course. In this fashion, we careen into Wine.

“Got your notebook ready?” I say to Ella. “Mommy’s about to go off-list.” A lady in Cheese raises an eyebrow and gives me a strange look. Henry crashes the cart into an end cap of shiraz, but no damage is done—not this time, not yet—and I steer him away. “Stay right here,” I command. “Don’t move a muscle.” (For once in her life, Ella doesn’t add, “If I don’t move a muscle, I won’t be able to breathe, Mom.”) They wait while I pick out a nice pinot grigio. Ella makes a respectfully quiet note.

***

Powdered sugar (for the vegan frosting I haven’t made) and coffee (for the rest of my life) are both definitely on list, gaining me efficiency points with Ella, but losing me time in Coffee because a sweet elderly man wants to talk to me about coffee beans. He has questions about light, medium, and dark roasts and caffeine content that I simply cannot entertain even as I appreciate his curiosity about a very important food group. Wait. Is he hitting on me? Doesn’t matter. I feign oblivion (ahhh, sweet oblivion) and push on towards milk, the final item on the list, kicking myself for not just running in for the powdered sugar and fruit, and then coming back after the party for anything we didn’t need before the party, but we’re in it now.

“Time?” I say to Ella, now juggling both notebook and phone.

“2:53.” Scratch scratch.

Okay, okay. I’ve got this. We’ve got this. I’ve frosted approximately a million kid-party cupcakes in my mom tenure, and seriously, I can’t feel any kind of lump. I really can’t. One hand still fondling (could this have been what had attracted the questions from the old man in Coffee?) and the other guiding the Henry-powered cart monster, I steer toward the farthest corner of the store where the organic dairy products are kept segregated from the hormone- and preservative-pumped dairy products, because God forbid that milk could be with milk. Rounding the final corner with some difficulty, I stop in front of the bank of coolers where the organic milk has always been. For years. No milk. Every conceivable variety of juice and lemonade—strawberry, raspberry, peach—but not a single ounce of milk. My body drops into what feels more like a position for hunting prey on the savannah than one necessary for finding milk in a glass-fronted case: legs apart, knees bent and loose, both arms up, head and eyes scanning. Also, I’m mumbling to myself: “Milk, milk, milk. . . I know the milk is here. Where’s the bleeping milk?” I think my nose might even be twitching, as if I’m going to smell the milk and hunt it down where it hides. Honestly, at this point I’ve forgotten all about both children, but I feel certain Ella has extensive notes on this hysterical interlude. Mommy really isn’t a very good grocery shopper. She can’t even find the milk.

“Ma’am?”

I straighten up, drop my hands to my sides, and try to look a little less crazy as I turn to face a grocery store employee in a red vest. He has a kind face and glasses.

“Ma’am? Can I help you find something?”

“Yes! I mean, yes. Yes, please. I mean, I’m a notoriously bad grocery shopper. Actually. . . “—I point a thumb out at Ella—”she’s taking notes on how bad I am, and it’s true. I know it’s true.” I feel a kind of genuine shame. I am a bad grocery shopper. There are just so many choices, and things are organized so strangely. My new grocer friend is really very patient and nice. He’s just waiting for me to finish. “Anyway, I’m looking for the organic milk. I could have sworn it was here in this case.”

He smiles sympathetically, and dare I say, in a validating way? “You’re right. It was here. We just moved it. Now the organic milk is over in Dairy with the milk.” Crazy. He gestures for us to follow and starts off around the corner, so he’s about ten feet ahead of us when the accident happens.

***

What happens next really isn’t Henry’s fault, and it’s not really mine either. Henry’s still pushing, providing necessary velocity, although maybe somewhat erratically, and I’m trying to guide the cart with one hand from the front, keeping an eye on the bobbing red vest. In the same moment that I notice our path is blocked by a 12-pack display of Corona, an island of blue, gold, and cream—La Cerveza Mas Fina—rising up between Frozen Foods and Dairy like a new land mass, an oasis beckoning those who want to slice a lime and imagine it’s time to hit the party boat, Henry kicks in with a burst of acceleration. I try to correct with a yank on the front of the cart, but I’m not fast enough. We take out the front corner of Beer Island, and it sinks into the sea with a tremendous clanking crash. Henry, Ella, me, the bespectacled Marsh employee in the red vest, all freeze.

We stand frozen in Frozen and we watch the island fall.

The Corona is contained in cardboard cases, so we don’t know how bad it is until the movement stops and we watch the urine colored beer seeping from the gaps in the corners, so much like sea foam, really, rolling across the smooth tiles.

I am the first to speak. “Oh no. I’m so sorry. Oh.” I am fixated by the spreading foam. How many bottles are broken? There’s no way to know. “Can I pay for these?”

The Marsh employee speaks next. His voice is so. . kind. “No, no, no. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He is already pushing the foaming crates of the main aisle with his feet.

Henry is third. He grabs the seat of his pants and yells, “Poopy! Poop! I have to POOP!”

Ella says nothing and makes no notation. She looks pale and mortified. She’s at just the wrong age for the scene we are making.

In this moment, the nicest Marsh employee who has ever walked the aisles and I share a truly human look. He is not judging me. He wants to help me.

“Umm,” I begin. “Is there a restroom in here?”

He looks troubled and points. “It’s on the other side of the store. The opposite corner.” Of course it is.

“Thank you,” I say again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says gently. “It’s really okay.”

We start to run for it, Henry still holding a fistful of fabric right at the center of his butt. I am the only one pushing. The man straightens from the oozing pile of Coronas and shouts after us. “Happy Mother’s Day!”

***

Henry makes it. All the way from the other side of the store. He makes it! In the car, Ella asks for the time. “Three eighteen,” I say, “but it’s okay. We’re fine. We’ll be fine.” And then I start to laugh. I can’t stop laughing. The IRS, the scary mammogram, the foaming Corona—it’s all hilarious to me. That sweet, sweet man. Happy Mother’s Day to me. That’s right.

Ella and Henry both look worried, as if they always knew this day would come. Daddy’s out of town and Mom has cracked. “Here’s the thing, kids,” I say, starting the car, pulling myself together, and smiling back at their stunned faces in the rearview mirror. “I could be crying right now. This could be a totally different moment. If that man in the store had been mean to me when we crashed into that beer, or mad, or even just annoyed, that might have been it. I could be crying right now. But that’s not what he did. He helped us, and then he said Happy Mother’s Day. This whole moment could be totally different, but that man was so nice, right? You know what I mean?”

I take a breath. We’re going to a birthday party with our best friends! All the stress has left my body—the kindness, the sprint to the bathroom, the laughing fit. I hear how teachable-moment my mini car lecture sounds, but I don’t care. This is important.

Kindness changes everything. Kindness is a choice.

***

The next morning is actually Mother’s Day and as a treat to myself, I take to my bed with a cup of coffee and my laptop to write down some notes about kindness. Naturally, both kids are drawn in by the relative quiet. Nature abhors a vacuum. Henry comes armed with a punch balloon and starts thwacking it in the general direction of the sleeping dog. Ella crawls right up beside me to peek at the screen. She kisses my hair and wishes me a happy Mother’s Day. I am writing the scene in Produce and she reminds me about the asparagus.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if you put in there that while you’re writing this your five-year-old is using a punch balloon right by your head and your daughter is reading over your shoulder offering her critique?” I consider taking a moment to explain the term “meta,” but I want to get down the off-list asparagus. I keep typing. Ella’s not done. “Do you want me to type up my notes to include with your story? Wouldn’t that be cool? I could follow you around with a notebook and then you could publish your stories along with my notes!”

I go ahead and explain meta.

Ella presses her cheek against my shoulder and sighs. “I guess you’d better like writing if you’re going to do it for an hour every day.”

“I love it.” Thwack, thwack, thwack. What a good dog.

“Do you love it better when I’m not talking and there’s no punch ball?”

“A little.” We both smile. She gets me.

***

So were we late to the party? Yup. But not too late, nobody cared. I’d taken extra time to make cool red frosting stitching on the cupcake baseball. And my breast? First, never Google the term “nipple shadow.” It won’t make you feel better. But my breast is fine. The density was nothing to worry about, not even really a density.

The audit? Well. It turns out the government was under the impression they owed me $30,000 because of the large amount of money they believed I’d paid in advance taxes. Alas, I had paid no advance taxes. That must have been a different Jill Christman living a different life in an entirely different financial relationship with the federal government. I thought about all the things we could do with a $30,000 windfall—a trip to Italy, a new patio, a serious cash injection into the kids’ college funds. Then I wrote the IRS a note on their form and told them the truth. I dialed the bolded number and told the live-human-being IRS employee who picked up that line the truth also. I tried to make him see the humor in the situation, maybe make him laugh or smile a smile I couldn’t see, but he seemed not to be in the mood. That was okay. The IRS kept the $30,000 or located the right Jill Christman to whom the money belonged. I’m rooting for the latter.

Then, more than a year later, I was shopping in Marsh—back in Frozen, actually, looking for a vegan pizza for Ella, in no particular hurry—and I saw the man in the red vest, straightening up from a freezer case with his glasses askew, the lenses fogged.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, and then quickly, “can I help you with something?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you something.” Ella wasn’t there to record my shopping deficiencies, but this moment was off-list. The barrier I was breaching, so small and necessary, felt off-kilter, out of whack, not a line to cross in the quotidian grocery store equation of human relations. Who brings up old business with strangers? Suddenly, I felt shy and foolish, an overly sentimental character in an essay of my own making, but I’d already stepped over. I pushed on: “You probably don’t remember, but over a year ago, I was in here with my kids—it was Mother’s Day weekend, actually—and we knocked over a stack of beer, some of them broke, it was a huge mess, and you were so nice. You were just really nice. You said Happy Mother’s Day. We still talk about how nice you were and I’ve always wanted to see you and say thank you. So thank you.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose. The lenses were clear now and I could see his eyes. Blue. Clear blue behind his clear lenses. Giving no indication of whether he remembered me or any details of our shared milk-beer-poop debacle, he smiled. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Yeah. You’re welcome. I like doing nice things for people.”

I don’t know how else to describe his face—so nondescript in resting position, the kid in the corner of Algebra class who wasn’t a jock, but wasn’t a nerd or a burn-out either, the kid everyone found it easy to overlook, but grown up now, late thirties and still skinny—but in this moment, everything about his face was clear, open and shining.

 

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely.

 

The Chicken Fight Champion of Third Grade

The Chicken Fight Champion of Third Grade

Empty playground swings in a row

By Rebekah Orton

After school, Cady watched her son Bridger’s body arc across the monkey bars on the school playground.  His arms reached, his legs lingered and his hands fairly flew.  At the end of the bars, he hung gracefully by one arm long enough for a neat turn and swung back across, skipping every other rung.  The late afternoon sun illuminated his lithe form.  The noise of other children lingering on the playground faded away until there was only the near silent rhythm of Bridger’s hands on the bars.

“Chicken FIGHT!” The words broke Cady’s reverie around the same time that Conner Dietrich swung from the first rung on the side opposite Bridger.  Conner was not graceful, but he was large, and he had broken Bridger’s concentration so completely that her son stopped mid-swing, one arm holding on and the other outstretched.  From there, it was easy for Conner to wrap his massive legs around Bridger’s small waist.  Once Conner had his legs around, his weight was too much for her son and Bridger dropped.

Cady rushed forward, certain that Conner had broken some part of Bridger.  Hesitating, she barely resisted the urge to take her third grader in her arms to check for boo-boos.

“You’re not supposed to chicken fight,” Cady told Conner when Bridger had scrambled up and shaken off the fall.

Conner crossed the bars one rung at a time, his arms straining from the weight of his body.  He dropped down in front of her without finishing, his face curled up like the end of a villain’s mustache.  “I do what I want.”

Usually, Cady had no problem keeping her cool, but something about Conner Dietrich started the rumble of a dormant volcano deep inside her. If she were his mother, she would stick Conner in time out until he was thirty-five.

But she wasn’t Conner’s mother.  His mother was the one in the designer yoga pants and the oversized sunglasses waving her overpriced manicure as she chatted with the mothers on the other side of the playground.  Cady considered dragging Conner over by his ear and informing Sheena Dietrich what her son had just done.  But Bridger had already gathered his backpack and now called that he was ready to go.

Cady turned to give Conner her most serious don’t you dare do that again look, but he had already sauntered off to the jungle gym.

“Are you alright, baby?” Cady asked, running her fingers through Bridger’s hair.

Bridger ducked away from her, looked to his right and left, then stepped into the street. “I’m not your baby,” he called back.

Cady shoved her hands in her pockets and curled her feelings into herself. She hardly recognized the gangly child that walked half a block ahead of her; even though she’d been there every day of his life, she still felt like he’d transformed before her eyes.

***

A week later, Cady looked up from the sink where she rubbed ineffectually at a foot shaped blur of mud on Bridger’s new coat. “I thought the teachers told you not to chicken fight.”

“I didn’t!” Bridger insisted.  He had the type of transparent honesty that Cady felt she could trust.

“Did he swing into you again?”  Cady asked.

Cady’s husband Matt looked up from his iPhone.  “Conner Dietrich is a bully.”

“He’s not a bully,” Bridger said.

“If he’s not a bully, I’d like you to explain how his foot came to touch your coat.”

“I got too close to him.”

“Too close?” Matt asked. “Were you laying on the ground? How exactly does one get too close to someone else’s foot?”

Bridger squirmed. Cady set down the coat. She was going to need more Spray’N’wash.

“The monkey bars, Dad.” Bridger blinked back tears. “Every day at lunch Conner and his friends race across. My back got in Conner’s way.”

“Your back can’t get in someone else’s way,” Matt squinted his eyes as he considered this. But Bridger looked too sincere to be lying.  “Someone needs to talk to that kid’s mother.”

“Tomorrow,” Cady promised.  She put her hands on Bridger’s bony shoulders and fought the urge to carry him over to the rocking chair she couldn’t bear to donate. “You just stay out of his way, ok?”

***

The next afternoon, Cady crossed the playground for a chat with Sheena Dietrich.

“I’m Cady? Bridger’s mom?” Cady wasn’t sure why everything she said came out as a question.  “Our sons have been in the same class every year?

“Oh.” Sheena tossed her hair over her sculpted shoulder.  “How’s Bridger liking third grade?”

Up close to Sheena, Cady felt excruciatingly aware of her own waistband biting into the twenty pounds she’d never lost after Bridger was born.  She launched into the story of Bridger and Conner and the chicken fights and the footmark while Sheena listened with a surprisingly compassionate face.  “And so if you could just talk to him?” Cady finished unsurely.

“Of course,” Sheena said, not moving a muscle or apologizing.  “I’ll talk to Conner as soon as we get home.”

“Thanks?” Cady said with a gulp.

***

A week later after school, Conner passed out red envelopes to every boy, starting with Julian and saving Bridger for the very last. Conner’s lip curled and he glared at Cady befo