This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

This Mother’s Day, Celebrate Somebody Else

By Janelle Hanchett

Web Only Mother's DayI am the mother who missed your kindergarten graduation. I am the mother who was drunk the morning of the first birthday party you were invited to, when you were four years old, the one who made you wrap up a toy from your own room (apologizing and promising another, though I never did a thing), because we had nothing. I dropped you off wearing my sunglasses so nobody would see the red in my eyes as I watched you walk away, with a gift that wasn’t a gift and blond ringlets and fear.

I am the mother who let you go on a February morning, with your brother, into the arms of your grandmother, who was taking you “to the park,” but for good and I knew it, because it was cold and raining and February.

I let you go because I wanted to go back to bed. You were five. Your brother was 18 months and still nursing and you were older and still small.

I am the mother who spent two more years “finding myself,” so deep in self-obsession, sure this pill and this doctor and this drink would be the next thing to fix it, the thing to set me right, to make me whole. Back and forth, in and out of centers and hospitals and your house and no house, I stopped by occasionally as “mama,” felt sorry for myself, blamed everybody else and wrote letters.

You kept them in a box by your bed. A wooden box stuffed with all I had written, on napkins and notes and cards I bought in thrift stores.

Every single one.

With the little pictures I’d draw from wherever I was of trees and flowers and houses, and love notes to you, my daughter, “I’ll be home soon” and “I miss you so much” and “How’s kindergarten?” and “You’re the best daughter in the world.”

I meant it.

You kept them all.

Each one with its hope of life and family and all the things I couldn’t make but could draw, the few pathetic things I could draw, a little house with windows and grass and sunshine, what I wanted for you, for me, somewhere, drawn on the table in the “art room” of whatever hospital I was in, with the crayons for “art therapy,” before I went outside to have a cigarette and miss my kids and wonder.

One day in March four years ago I woke up and was dead, having been killed by alcohol I knew there was nothing left and it should be so, because all I was and all I had failed, was me.  So I left myself in bed and walked on with nothing to lose, with something I couldn’t see or feel but knew must exist, because others were living freely with the same disease, and they told me how to do it. And I did it.

And I found their freedom and my own, within.

So with no fight left, I found a way to live, to come back to you and life, and for four years I’ve been born, having not had a drink since that day. A family again, you and me and daddy and your brother and new sister – even though families like ours don’t end this way, having been torn apart by alcoholism. They fade into nothing like the ends of tiny streams in a dry land. Like broken branches of nothing scattered on a park green.

Or they become us, something else, experiencing some miracle that reduced it all to a box on your bedside table – to a piercing in my gut that comes sometimes, like Mother’s Day, when you hand me a card written in your hand, with the little pictures drawn and the words you want to say: “You are the best mama in the world.”

There’s a part of me that wants to give it back and it crawls down deep into me and begs you to give it to some other woman, some other mother, who didn’t leave and isn’t me, but why?

When I’m here and I am your mother.

I couldn’t possibly ask.

And so I just hold it and look at you and remember, the house and flowers and sunshine, the messages sent with the dying blood of a mother, now pulsing through my veins and yours, giving new life to the drawings that once lay dead on the page.

On our page, to be lived, now, my daughter.

On Mother’s Day.

And tomorrow.

Author’s Note: I didn’t write the story of my alcoholism for a long time, not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t feel like I should be congratulated for taking on responsibilities that were always mine. I write about it now because it’s the truth, and it isn’t just a story of alcohol addiction, it’s a story of life and family and truth after failure, after obliteration. It’s the happiest story in the world. I found a giant, bursting life as I emerged from the darkest spot imaginable, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Janelle is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (www.renegademothering.com).

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The Seder

The Seder

 

Art The SederI rang the doorbell of my ex-husband Larry’s house, a jar of gefilte fish in one hand, boxed coconut cake in the other. To date, I’d been to the house on Thunder Lake only to drop off the kids. But today I was here with my husband, Eric, and two stepchildren, Luke and Jamie, for Seder dinner.

Given the circumstances, this was miraculous: I’d last seen Larry three weeks ago at the trial. Six years after our divorce was final we’d gone back to court over the religious upbringing of our three young children, Sophia, Olivia, and Johnny. I’m Catholic; Larry is Jewish.

Eric, Luke, Jamie, and I stood on the front steps. I did not want to ring the bell again. “Cool house,” Luke, 13, said, looking heavenward to where the white columns we stood between might end.

“We could leave,” I said.

“Just breathe, honey,” Eric said.

“Tell me again why I’m here?”

“For the children,” he said, taking the jar of gefilte fish and squeezing my hand.

Eric had been here for me each odd step of the journey. He’d been at the first meeting with the rabbi more than a year ago, where I sobbed, explaining I was the primary caretaker of my baptized children, and  could not raise my children Jewish.

Sophia answered the door, welcoming me as a guest in her other home. The divorce agreement said nothing about religion, so Larry and I tried to figure out Sophia’s faith in real time. Each decision we made would mark her, and be the precedent for her sister Olivia and brother Johnny. But looking at Sophia, I knew Larry and I had not damaged her permanently yet. She stood at ease in the foyer. She’d grown into a beautiful girl with her father’s dark eyes and my mother’s wide-lipped smile, her mane of black hair a gift from some former generation.

Now in a house where my children lived when they were not with me, images of their life with their father came into view, the backpacks on each hook, three jackets hung in the closet, a drawing with the words “I love my Daddy” in a frame on an end table.

I remembered a five-year-old Sophia in the tub with her little sister just after the divorce. The girls played in the bath bubbles, splashing suds onto their chins Santa-style, and spun the rubber ducks on the surface of the water, like dreidels, singing in Hebrew. That was how I first found out that Larry had been taking the children to Temple on his weekends. He had never taken the children to Temple in the eight years we were married.

I had fallen in love with Larry at a Seder at his house when we were dating. I’d grown up in a cloistered Irish-Italian family, a plaid-uniformed Catholic schoolgirl. I had never been to a Seder and at that one I met a Buddhist and a Muslim. As the conversation developed into a theological discussion, my mind stretched past Sister Marianne McCarthy into the realm of rabbinical texts, the Tripitaka, and the Quran. My world cracked open over a candlelit table with plates of beef brisket and roast turnips. My then husband-to-be was worldly, 15 years older than I, and seemed to believe in all religions, subscribing to none.

We walked to the main room. “I come bearing gifts,” I blurted, handing Larry the gefilte fish and coconut cake. Several children raced through the house and a few other couples greeted us. I knew one woman from the gym.

“It’s so nice how you all get along,” she said, nodding toward Larry, then Eric. “So nice how you’re all here,” she added, her words echoing beneath the cathedral ceiling.

All of us getting here was a long story. One that began with a two-sentence e-mail I received 18 months earlier stating that Sophia was enrolled in Hebrew school and her bat mitzvah was set for June 12.

My ex-husband’s e-mail, in its brevity, seemed a decision to change the course of my children’s lives without discussion. It set off a series of sparks that turned into blue-flamed anger, then action; two motions filed within two weeks, followed by a trial.

In court I sat on the bench with my lawyer, waiting for our case to be called. I shuffled papers, my hands shaking, the children’s baptismal certificates fluttering to the floor. Larry sat several rows in front of me, with a string of witnesses shoulder-to-shoulder.

Larry’s lawyer called me to the stand. I swore to tell the truth and nothing but  the truth. I considered another oath I’d made before Larry, to love him in sickness and in health all the days of our lives.

The lawyer fired off questions.

“Do you know how long the children have been attending Temple?” he asked. “Have you ever taken any legal action up until now?”

I hated him, catching me on a hook like that. No, I had not taken legal action, but I had built a case with Larry outside of the court. We’d tried to talk, but the words crisscrossed before ever being heard. The talking turned into curt e-mail exchanges, what we each thought the other’s intent was for the religion of the children when they were born. I believed we’d agreed the children would be raised Catholic and Jewish. My problem at this juncture really boiled down to a bat mitzvah. A ceremony that would confirm my daughter in the Jewish faith, somehow separating her from me.

“Are the children presently enrolled in any other religious instruction?” the lawyer continued, tension in his voice. I thought back to my enrolling Sophia in religion classes after school when we first moved, and how I pulled her out three weeks later. The change in homes and schools was stress enough for both of us. And I thought the allure of taking three kids to Temple would wear off for Larry.

Larry’s lawyer repeated the question. “Are the children enrolled in any other religious instruction?”

I began to explain the three-week enrollment.

“Answer yes or no,” the judge said.

“No,” I said.

“When was the last time you went to church?” the lawyer asked. “Christmas?”

Objection.

Sophia’s Hebrew school teacher came to the stand next. I had never seen this woman before. She addressed me from the stand: “Did I know that Sophia already knew her Torah portion?” she asked. I did not know. That was the problem. This  all  had happened in secret, on the one day a week the children spent with their father. The lawyer finished the show with a former next-door neighbor, who confirmed that, yes, he and his wife had attended seders in the marital home.

Court was adjourned until a date two weeks from that day. Two more weeks. It would be unbearable.

My lawyer walked me to my car. I locked myself in, tears dripping from my eyes onto the leather seat. My mind reeled back to my childhood, me in that white dress at my First Holy Communion. I had memorized the Our Father and the Hail Mary. I’d taken the Body of Christ for the first time and had gotten stomach sick. Years later I would say my Hail Marys in succession after confession with Father Amato, where I begged forgiveness for my 16-year-old sins.

Though I’d grown up with God, that confession would be my last in a formal setting. Once I went off to college and was away from parents who did not know if I went to church or not, I opted to not attend. By the time I met Larry after college, my faith was packaged into silent prayers at night, the ongoing giving of thanks in a private setting. I married Larry within 12 months of meeting him.  We divorced eight years later, to the day.

Larry and I both lost so much in the divorce. But afterward, I found Eric, and I wondered now, for the first time, if Larry had found religion. Perhaps Larry was not just pushing his Judaism to control me, but had come to believe in it. While I reestablished my roots in an expanding family, with Eric and my children and stepchildren, Larry may have found the roots of his faith.

Darkness fell, and all the other parked cars had gone. I tapped out the number of years Larry had been taking the children to Temple and Hebrew school. I tapped seven times on the steering wheel. It had been seven years.

I put the key in the ignition, wondering for the first time if I should let Larry win this one. I told myself that whether or not the children had mitzvahs, they would choose for themselves one day. Unlike in my house where Christianity had been a given, never questioned, my children would have to think things through as they grew older. Even with a bat mitzvah, Sophia would have to question the two faiths that were rolled up inside of her.

In the morning I called my lawyer. “Settle,” I said.

Later that week, after my ex-husband heard of the settlement, I received an e-mail invitation to seder at his house. “Please bring Eric and Luke and Jamie,” he wrote. I thought about the invitation for more than a week and decided it would be best for the children if Larry and I at last appeared to be on the same page.

I took in the scene before me now: Sophia pulling out the Scrabble game, Olivia trying to hide the afikomen while everyone watched. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of wine and found myself alone with Larry.

“It’s a nice party,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, taking theseder plate from the refrigerator, the boiled egg rolling off onto the tile floor.

“Need help?” I asked, picking the shank bone off the counter.

“Remember that seder when you tried to bake shehakol?” he said. In a minute I was back in another kitchen, separating 13 egg whites, completely baffled at how to make a dessert without flour.

“I remember,” I said, the moment between us tacked to the corkboard, held still for us to observe. We were joined in a singular memory, from a time when we would have done anything for each other.

Johnny came into the kitchen, the moment broken.

“Come see my room, Mom,” Johnny said, taking my hand. I looked at Larry as if to ask if it was okay for me to go upstairs. He nodded, and Johnny scooted me away taking the steps up to his room two at a time. “Here’s my bed,” he said, a six-year-old docent. The room was blue, a framed Derek Jeter jersey hung above the headboard. Autographed baseballs were lined up in individual display cases on the dresser. Johnny hopped on his bed, and I sat next to him.

“Can we have a sleepover tonight, Mom?” he said.

“Not tonight, Champ,” I said.

After the tour, Johnny and I went back downstairs for dinner. My children, stepchildren, ex-husband, and husband sat down to matzo ball soup in steamy porcelain bowls; matzo ball soup had always been a favorite of mine, the item I craved through each of my pregnancies. I had not had it in years. The smell of broth and parsley sifted through me, the lilies pushed their necks up out from the lips of the vase.

Johnny, the youngest at the table, started the seder with the first of the four questions.

Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-lelot?

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Author’s Note: Eric and I never attended another seder at my ex-husband’s house, but I will always be proud of making the effort that one time.

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Stand Up Mom

Stand Up Mom

BT 17 Stand Up MomBy Carla Sameth

“So my son’s an addict. I guess at this point you might wonder what the hell his mom did to make him that way. Actually, I had to put him in a twelve-step program at three years old. NA—Nursing Anonymous.” My first standup set ever; I had performed at the Comedy Store in Hollywood. Lots of laughs.  Asked back by the host to perform another set. My son, Raphael was 18 years old, six months in recovery.

I woke up the next day feeling like shit. I’d “outed” Raphael, as an addict. What kind of mom was I? Now in recovery for more than six months, he’d given me permission to write about him but just as with almost everything in my life, I felt so guilty I was nauseous all morning.

My therapist had suggested I try comedy. “You’re funny. Go out and do something new like stand-up or improv,” she’d said from the safety of her Zen-like chair. She wanted me to pursue other interests in addition to attending Al-anon meetings and visiting my son, Raphael, at the recovery home for young men where he’d been residing for six months.

I was glad that I could still be funny. My sense of humor together with my son’s has always been a strong tie between us. It kept us from becoming a den of feral dogs, his ability to make me laugh, even under dire circumstances. But that aspect of our connection had frayed over the last several years after Raphael started using drugs.

Over the years, I have erupted into distinctly un-funny states—crying violent tears, begging to be seen, pleading not to be abandoned. Don’t leave me. Don’t hurt me. Desperately seeking safety, for me, for my family. And time after time, I disintegrated further as I clung to this panic. I experienced Deshacer—my word for total undoing of self. Like molten lava pouring out of me. I had to stop the flow, but coming out from under the unnatural disaster of my life was not a linear process.

I was in this state about nine months ago, barely over pneumonia and feeling the PTSD of running in and out of ERs hearing that my son might die soon because of his repeated drug overdoses.  For about three years, beginning when Raphael was 14 years old, he started using drugs.

A mother wants to fix things—to take her baby in her arms, rock and comfort him until all is okay. Even when he was 17, that is what I was thinking when he fell asleep, head on my lap, in yet another medical waiting room, waiting to see if he would be referred to another treatment center. He was referred to his third drug treatment program, his second inpatient treatment center.

Inpatient Treatment Center 2 had a holistic approach which included daily therapy, healthy meals (with a special chef), visits to the gym and empowerment group. Some of the time, Raphael and the other kids sprawled out in the living room area watching television, such as reality rehab shows which almost made me smile.  It looked relaxing compared to the life I’d been living. I kind of wanted to join them.

Raphael had regular therapy sessions with his dad for the first time. I didn’t know what happened in these sessions, but having a relationship with his father was still a big priority for him. Occasionally, I also met with Raphael’s therapist. The sessions didn’t go well. Raphael was furious with me. He blamed me for his dad not spending more time with him, refusing to be with him when Raphael didn’t “act right.” I feared I’d caused his despair because of my desperate attempts to keep him from using drugs, and on track in school, but I was also upset that he held me accountable for Larry’s actions.

At 30 days, Raphael had reached our insurance company’s allotted time cap –even though neither Raphael nor I, his dad or his therapist there felt he was ready. He’d be leaving In-Patient Center 2 to attend a new intensive outpatient program (his fourth drug treatment program).

The director of the new program had given me specific instructions to pick Raphael up, take him home with me, and into their program the next day. I believed that if I didn’t follow his instructions exactly, I might cause Raphael to relapse. I was desperate for direction. The plan was to ease Raphael into his relationship with his father, Larry.

Raphael’s relationship with his father was erratic and at times volatile. Raphael had tried, when he was quite young, to institute a regular visitation schedule with Larry. He presented his father with a free promotional calendar which came in the mail to our house.

“Please, Dad, I need a schedule.” Larry insisted that his work at the labor union wouldn’t permit it. I had tried to argue with Larry that his fighting for a better quality of life for families, logically indicated that quality time with his son ought to be a priority too.

Larry said it didn’t work that way. And when he complained that Raphael got on his “last nerve,” asking for more than he was willing to give (time, activities, etc.), crying or finding it difficult to separate from me, his dad stormed out saying, “I don’t have to deal with you. I have members giving me shit.”

During the time that Raphael had been struggling with addiction, Larry had alternated between blaming me, being angry with Raphael, and sometimes with himself. And on another occasion, attempting to “beat the crap” out of Raphael after an overdose nine months earlier. Anger had usually been Larry’s “go-to” response. Raphael had continued to long for a relationship with his dad, and prior to the overdose, his dad and his girlfriend, had offered to “try out” letting Raphael living with them for a couple weeks.  But they later rescinded the offer when he entered the first inpatient treatment center.

Raphael and I had always been tightly bonded and beginning when he was just starting to talk, we enjoyed singing together. One day when Raphael was three, he had overheard me telling a friend that I was a single mom and asked, “You’re a singing mommy?”

“Yes, I am,” I said, amused. I continued to sing with him until he hit the preteen years when he had become less enthusiastic about singing with me, though he did love to introduce me to new music he discovered. On our way to his first outpatient treatment program, he had composed a special “rehab playlist” including, “I’m in Love with Mary Jane,” “Cocaine,” and “Dispensary Girl.” I smiled gritting my teeth, letting out a hybrid of laughter and tears, and feeling some flicker of hope.

During these volcanic years of drug use, from age 14-17, Raphael switched between wanting to crawl into bed with me, and bitterly turning away. He told me that I made him anxious when I got upset about his drug use, his skipping school, failing classes or stealing money from me. In time, I grew to see how even my well- intentioned attempts to “help” him setting up tutoring lessons, introducing him to mentors, meeting with his teachers and pleading for them to understand him,  provoked his anxiety. Our close relationship had become frayed, fragile, often at the boiling point. The threat of losing Raphael was never far from my mind.

That afternoon at Inpatient Center 2, when I thought Raphael was coming home with me, we were sitting in an office with Raphael’s assigned therapist as she prepared his discharge papers. I was intent on doing what I was advised by the director of the new intensive outreach program. Wanting to believe that if I followed these exact directions, he might be ok. But Raphael’s therapist told me Raphael said he wanted to go home with his father for the evening.

In parent and other recovery groups such as Al-Anon (for friends/families of alcoholics and addicts), I’d learned about powerlessness over people, places and things, and in particular over the disease of addiction. But I was still desperately clinging to the hope that I had some control over my son’s addiction. That by following these exact instructions, my son’s life could be saved.

I threw myself on the ground, begged his therapist to let Raphael come home with me. I watched Raphael’s face fall in disbelief at my wild, almost possessed convulsions, resembling a bride we once witnessed in a Baptist church, “getting the spirit.” I lost any ability to calmly explain that this hadn’t been part of the discharge plan. As Raphael insisted he wanted to go to his father’s, I fired back, “What do you want from me? I could kill myself, will that make it better?” Raphael ran out of the office toward the safety of nearby staff members who’d been sheltering and helping him recover.

I was crazy with fear: fear of losing him, fear he’d always blame me for his addiction, and fear that perhaps I was the cause. No matter how many times I was told “You didn’t cause it. You can’t control it. You can’t cure it”

While Raphael huddled outside in the protective womb of the center’s staff, I sobbed uncontrollably, running in and out of his therapist’s office to the hallway, and outside into the parking lot, then back in. I frantically called the intensive outpatient program Raphael was being sent to next. I still hoped that Raphael would come home with me. But the therapist at the Inpatient Treatment Center 2 told me they’d just called his father, and that Raphael definitely would not be going home with me.

I thought I’d hit bottom then, running in and out of the building, sobbing, while the staff, teens, and other parents stared at me. Raphael’s horrified expression conveyed I’d finally gone too far. But I continued erupting. I ran through the halls of the treatment center and found my son standing outside in the courtyard with staff huddled around him. I had to push my way in, asking permission to talk to him. Who were those people who felt they had to protect him from his own mom, I wondered?  Who was I, this mom who had fallen apart this way, I would ask myself later?

“Mom, come here, calm down, let me give you a hug,” one counselor said to me. “Momz, it’s okay. Calm down. Everything is okay. You need to take care of yourself.”

Raphael stood his distance, seeking protection from me.

Suddenly, I wanted them to take me in. I wanted what Raphael had experienced for the past 30 days, though the staff were young enough to be my children. I was desperate to be taken care of by them, by anyone. I had just gotten over pneumonia and had been grateful for the excuse to rest for less than a week.

“Raphael?”

Raphael looked wary, scared, as one staff member held his arm and asked, “You okay, son?”

“Raphael, please come home with me. I didn’t mean it,” I said, as calmly as I could, but he heard the shaking edge and knew it was a temporary calm. Children are trained to hear the possibility of eruptions. I know, having lived through the emotional minefields of my own family. “Raphael, please, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’ve just been so worried, so tired,” I said, pleading with him.

Underneath my panicked outburst, it was grief, it was fear, and it was loss. I didn’t feel that I could bear losing my son, not even for the night, without the possibility of ever recovering our close relationship. Without fixing things.

“No, No, No.” He shook his head and said, “I can’t go with you. I can’t.”

And then—just like that—the words tumbled out as if I was watching them in slow motion, in a speech bubble, unable to take them back. “What do you want from me?” I asked, my desperation turning back into crazy. “I’ll do anything you want. You want drugs? I’ll get you your drugs of choice!”

Staff stared at me. This likely was a first in their adolescent treatment center.

They led me out. Another counselor held Raphael as he stumbled away.

One young staff member, far closer in age to Raphael than me, put both arms around me. He hugged me the way I used to hold my son when he was younger and couldn’t contain himself.

“Mom, Mom, come here, it’s okay,” the staff member said as he tried to soothe me.

I had begged to be allowed to take Raphael home, but there was no taking back my words that lingered like a nightmare cartoon character. Caption: #Cray-Cray Mom.

Later, I spoke with the parent coordinator from the program. She was both an alcoholic and a parent of an addict. Both she and her daughter had solid years of recovery behind them. She put her daughter on the phone. The girl was only a year older than Raphael. “Oh, the threatening to kill yourself,” she said. “My mom did that with me.”

She explained to me, “We can’t stand seeing you—our moms—so early in our recovery. You only remind us of all the fucked-up things we did. Just looking at you makes us feel guilty. We want to use, and we can’t,” she said.

A week later, I was at a parent meeting and heard a mom say, “The doctor asked me what I might do if my daughter didn’t stop using, and I said I knew exactly what I’d do. I would drive my car right off a cliff.”

 

 

.

 

I had longed to create a safe, strong sanctuary for my family as an adult. First with my son’s dad (we didn’t; we separated when Raphael was eight months old). Then again with a woman (my second marriage when Raphael was 11).  In the second marriage, I tried to create a place of happy chaos and blended family: two moms, two dogs. Black, Jewish, Mexican, Cuban. Even my stepdaughter, had admonished me over the years, “Carla, you know you can’t make everyone happy.” I certainly couldn’t make her mother happy, the second person I married. The one area I couldn’t compromise on was how Raphael’s stepmom treated him. That’s when our fights ensued.  She would explode regularly at Raphael and then later blame her uncontrollable rage on her bad relationship with her brother, her anemia or depression or on Raphael for “just pushing too hard.” For being a kid.

One day during the marriage with Raphael’s stepmother, I scattered yellow post-its throughout the house imploring our family to “Breath,” “Love” and other hopeful platitudes. I just wanted, “everything to be ok.” And time after time, things disintegrated further, as I clung to this panic. My efforts to control the uncontrollable had always taken me to the same place, whether in response to a spouse’s anger, wanting my family to “be happy/get along,” or later, fighting off the greedy tendrils of addiction that were choking out the life from my son.

I finally left this second marriage to try to save my son, to try to save myself, and to try save my stepdaughter from this conflict ridden home. It was a violent un-blending. My son and I both had carried the fantasy that we would be able to continue to live with his stepsister, his only sibling, but she was another casualty of the war, and losing her had felt like losing a limb. My son and stepdaughter were 12 years old then.

My younger sister once performed a solo show about being caught in the onset of the Sri Lanka Civil War. She compared the experience to growing up in our childhood home.  I remember it all—the laughter, the fun, the love, the violent eruptions. Yet I’m grateful for my spilling-out immigrant-like family that got involved in everything, viewing each illness or celebration as one that we would tackle together. My mom’s determination to fix things. A family meeting to solve each crisis. (It didn’t, just as these family meetings I called to deal with Raphael’s addiction didn’t.) My dad’s unyielding loyalty, hard work, and his life-saving sense of humor were what I cherished about him in the end. I can only hope that my son, too, will choose the good memories.

“What was your bottom?” Raphael, now 18 years old and living in a young men’s recovery house, asked me. I had just recently performed my comedy set. We had been starting to laugh again together.

“That time. Offering to buy you your drugs of choice at an inpatient substance abuse center.” Raphael looked at me and nodded knowingly.

That was my bottom, but I had cried so many times before, convinced I had lost my son forever. That I truly was to blame for his addiction. And that I could never get him back.  Could never make up for all the losses: stepsister, home we’d remodeled, no perfect or intact family.  The war zone with my ex. The rage and absence of his father. My own craziness in response. I have re-lived, regretted and re-thought every decision, every trauma, every battle I fought for him and lost.

Less than a year after my “bottom,” I sit on top of Haleakala, a volcano on the island of Maui in Hawaii. The volcano is quiet now.  I still remember the volcano erupting inside of me. Threatening to carry my son away.

Author’s Note: As this story goes to press, my son has more than four years of recovery. I still cringe at the memory of my “bottom,” My hope is that others will read my work, maybe laugh, feel less alone and perhaps more hopeful reading about someone who has struggled greatly and survived.

Carla Sameth is a writer, mother and teacher living in Pasadena. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as Brevity Blog, Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Longreads; Narratively; Tikkun; Angels Flight Literary West; Entropy; Pasadena Weekly; and La Bloga. Carla was selected as fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). Website: carlasameth.com, Twitter: @carlasameth

 

 

 

 

Brain, Child (& Brain, Teen) are moving

Brain, Child (& Brain, Teen) are moving

CNF+BrainChild 3

Dear Friend of Brain, Child,

I’m writing today with some exciting news. After six years of editing and publishing Brain, Child and Brain, Teen I am pleased to announce that both magazines are now under the Creative Nonfiction umbrella.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Brain, Child brands to continue to make an impact within an esteemed literary organization. I’m also pleased to announce that I’ve joined Creative Nonfiction’s Editorial Advisory Board.

The Creative Nonfiction Foundation inspires and supports writers of true stories by providing publishing venues and educational opportunities for a diverse range of creative nonfiction writing and writers–and is most notable for the long-running and always excellent quarterly magazine, Creative Nonfiction.

The CNF team has already begun the process of transferring the Brain, Child website to their server (I apologize for the recent downtime of this site), and the magazines’ archives will be available on Creative Nonfiction’s website in the near future.

More exciting news and information about what this acquisition means for writers, readers, and fans of both Brain, Child and Creative Nonfiction will be forthcoming this spring.

To stay up to date, please sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s email list.

As always, thank you for your support of Brain, Child. It’s been my honor.

Marcelle Soviero
Editor-in-Chief

P.S. If you have any questions, please direct them to the folks at Creative Nonfiction (information@creativenonfiction.org).

The Healing Words of My Holocaust-Surviving Grandmother

The Healing Words of My Holocaust-Surviving Grandmother

IMG_5662 copyBy Estelle Erasmus

“I luff you, because you’re sveet like a piece of chocolate,” my Grandma Genia crooned in her thick, Yiddish accent, handing me a hunk of a Hershey bar. No exotic fare like Godiva for Grandma—she eschewed exports, even though she herself was one.

Grandma had suffered bitterness in her life. When the Nazis first invaded Poland, my grandfather wanted to stay and fight. She convinced him to take their family—including baby, Miriam, my mother and flee. Escaping into the forest, they made their way to Russia. Their siblings and cousins couldn’t get out, and perished in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. After the war, they lived in Israel and emigrated to the United States when my mother was fifteen years old. She married my father, after meeting at a college dance.

Grandma was dramatic. She wore her blonde hair in a bouffant and, despite her meager income as a dressmaker, and my grandfather’s as a tailor, donned a mink stole when dining out in Brooklyn, where they landed after the war. Though they were referred to by the derogatory term “Greeners”, (new to the country)  I thought of them as “Redders”. Red for the searing anger my grandfather displayed when he refused to accept reparation (he called it “blood money”) for losing his family in the Holocaust. Red for the beautiful lace dress Grandma made, that I wore to prevent a “Kenahora” (evil eye) from jealous people. Red for their fervent Zionism.

Perhaps because she had thwarted death, Grandma treated life like an adventure. I rode horsey on her back for hours. After I threw Jell-O on the wall in the midst of a toddler tantrum, Grandma celebrated as if I were a budding Picasso. At a Bat Mitzvah, she joined me on the floor, scooping up chocolates showered from a piñata, even though the Holocaust had long since transformed her into an avowed atheist.

“Family is de only ting dat matters,” she would say.

She confiscated bags of clothes her neighbors had marked to donate to charity without shame. In her mind, my family was the charity. I remember Grandma bent over her humming sewing machine, thumb protector on, needles in mouth. Hours later, after lifting a hemline, replacing plastic buttons with jeweled ones, shortening or removing sleeves, she had created fashion alchemy, transforming discards into couture.

Though I wore her creations until my mid-twenties, when she and Grandpa moved to Florida, her words had also created something far less tangible—my romantic destiny. “You haf to marry a Jew,” she told me when I started dating, and throughout my teen years regaled me with nightmare scenarios about distant relatives (I didn’t know and had never met) who were beaten by their non-Jewish, alcohol swilling husbands. It was a fate neither of us wished me to have. In addition to my “Greener” grandparents, my father’s parents were Orthodox Jewish, and my parents were Conservative Jews, so I faced strong cultural pressure to marry someone Jewish.

I tried hard to stay within the status quo—exhausting the limited supply of able-bodied men from the local temple, and on JDate, but my romances either fizzled or ended in heartbreak.

I dared not step out of my religion. My legacy was having my future marital life forcefully imprinted on me like the not-so-temporary tattoos marking the skin of the Jews who survived the Nazi’s concentration camps.

I met Werner in my forties and he was an unholy trifecta. He wasn’t Jewish, was the son of an Evangelist former preacher, and was visiting from New Zealand on a work visa. But he captivated me with his stoic, practical nature, so different than my own dramatic personality, and the way he took care of me, by acting as my gentle alarm clock, watching that I didn’t trip on curbs, booking sumptuous dinners on date nights, and remembering that I liked chai lattes during Starbuck runs. Though I didn’t cook, he did and we fell in love over slabs of steaks, cooked to my preference, medium well, paired with a bottle of Cabernet.

Despite my parents’ fears, nine months after we met we moved in together. Over the next year, Werner demonstrated his love for me, his professional ambition, and most important— how much he embraced my Judaism by participating in my cultural rituals. I loved seeing his patrician features framed by a yarmulke at the myriad bar mitzvahs and Shabbat dinners he attended with me, and adored watching him discover and devour my mom’s Hanukkah latkes.

With a nod to tradition, a year later, he asked for my dad’s blessing—and received it—before proposing.

We married but struggled with infertility. When I finally got pregnant I was nauseous all the time and wracked with fears of miscarriage.

“Kotvenu b’sefer he-hayyim” inscribe us in the Book of Life,” I prayed in temple on Rosh Hashanah.

Since I had married a non-Jew, would my Jewish prayers be answered, or would I be punished and lose my child? What would Grandma have thought of my betrayal? Would she have said the mourner’s kaddish for me over my choices?

Then, through my tears, I saw the prayer book (Siddur) I held, had a dedication in it from my mother to the memory of my grandmother. I forgot that my mother had given that commemoration. It was a sign. I let out the breath I didn’t even remember holding, closed my eyes and imagined Grandma’s voice telling me “family is de only ting dat matters,” and knew in my heart it would be ok. Grandma Genia’s love had left a permanent hug on my soul—and that of my unborn child.

When my daughter was born, while my parents beamed from the bema, we gave her the Hebrew name, Gavira ( ‘powerful ruler’) to honor the woman who had fled a war-torn country to save her family, which ultimately gave me the freedom to choose mine.

Author’s Note: Nine years later, my strong marriage and my smart, joyful daughter—who we are raising Jewish— are a living testament to Grandma’s prescient words. 

Estelle Erasmus is a widely-published writing coach, journalist, and former magazine editor-in-chief. She is an adjunct instructor for NYU,  teaches personal essay writing and pitching for Writer’s Digest and  can be found on Twitterand Instagram. Her website offers publishing advice and editor interviews.
Photo courtesy of Estelle Erasmus
Through the Wardrobe

Through the Wardrobe

3167803103By Melissa Knox

“I am a tomboy,” I announce.  I’m eleven, I’m wearing black high tops, like my younger brother, and Oshkosh overalls.

Mom is holding the drawings of big-boobed girls that I did with my friend Danielle. Danielle’s mom says the drawings are disgusting.

Mom’s face shrieks the same message, even though she is an artist and she has told me that what Danielle and I are doing is called “life drawing.”  I never showed Mom my drawings. She must have gone in my room.

“These proportions are all wrong.  The arms are too long for the body, the head too large . . .”

I squirm.

The drawings are girlie-girlie but I liked them until Mom saw them.

I grab them and rip them up.

“I’d rather be a boy.”

“Do you have a boy’s name?  Mom wears baggy shirts and jeans and a newspaper boy’s cap.

“It might be Bucky. Maybe Honey, but maybe Bucky.”

Lately, when I get hit in the chest with a baseball, it hurts.  I’ve tried hitting myself in the chest and that hurts, too.  Before, it didn’t.  Maybe if I slam my fists against my nipples I won’t get breasts. Mom’s face—Is she going to cry?

While I decide on Honey or Bucky, my mother calls her psychoanalyst.

***

Mom and I are sitting in the kitchen of a rented house on India Street in Nantucket.  I am enjoying the sunset sliding across the widow’s walks across the street, drifting off into daydreams of the beach, looking forward to biking to Cisco or Madaket, wondering whether I’ll see bayberry bushes along the way, anticipating going to Arno’s on Main Street for blueberry pancakes, and hoping that the lady who sells my favorite chocolate fudge still has her shop.

As I am finishing dinner, she explains that her therapist asked her to ask me something. “Do you want to have your vagina cut out and a penis sewn in?” The question shoots from my mother’s mouth. Her eyes widen in shock, as if someone had just cursed or farted or both.

“No, Mom,” I say, in a please-pass-the-butter voice. I don’t want to imagine someone hacking off a penis and cutting me where it really hurts in order to attach the thing, but I can’t get the image out of my head.

My fascination with Dracula and vampires has been growing before she pops her question and I am a longtime fan of Barnabas Collins, the sensitive vampire in Dark Shadows, but Mom’s question mobilizes my interest.

Early that summer, she mentions how much she enjoyed a girl’s camp in Vermont.

“When I was your age, I went swimming, I went canoeing, we sang songs—”

“How long does camp last?” I ask. But she is lost in happy reminiscence.

“We made campfires, we climbed mountains, we—”

“HOW MANY WEEKS?”

“—roasted marshmallows, we learned archery, we even put on, let me see, which Gilbert and Sullivan? I know I sang—

“Mom!  HOW LONG CAN I GO FOR?”

“—The piney air was . . . What?”

“I want to go!  How long does the camp last?”

“Oh, well, it’s a whole eight weeks, but if you don’t want to go that long—”

“I want to go!”

When my summer camp uniform arrives, I tell myself to relax (“Don’t get a nosebleed!”), open my closet, push my way behind the racks of dresses, the school uniforms, and the coats, to the very back, where I tap the cedar wall and pretend, one last time, that it is melting away, such that I find myself crunching across a winter-white landscape on my way to the faun’s house in frosted-over Narnia. I’ve practically memorized the chapters in which the White Witch tempts Edmund with magically enhanced Turkish delight, whips out her wand to turn Santa into stone, and finally gets her hash settled by the now-rehabilitated Edmund. I’d tie her to the stone table myself and send an army of ten-foot tall ogres and rheumy-eyed hags with knives and pitchforks after her. Some of the meaner giants would sharpen the stone knife for me.

My mother sews in my nametags and then drifts into painting little green trees up the legs of the kitchen sink.  She concocts inedible dishes she calls “Chinese food” out of several breakfasts worth of leftover scrambled eggs and a few anemic scallions from the back of the crisper.  She needs to talk to my father—right now—as the ice clinks in his fourth gin-and-tonic.

I start packing, even though camp won’t start for another four weeks. At night, I try on the uniform and am delighted to find I’ll need a belt to hold up the shorts, that the green knee socks can be pulled over my knees, that the hiking boots (L.L. Bean “Ruff-Outs”) require Kleenex in the toe for me to be able to walk in them without my feet slipping around until I trip, and that I’ll have to roll the sleeves of my black watch plaid camp shirt up so they don’t flop over my wrists.

These clothes have to fit me for a long time. I’m planning to wear them for maybe a year, if I can’t afford to buy clothes on my own once I make my getaway.  I could maybe escape during summer camp or right before my mother picks me up.  I’ll need a winter coat, but somewhere down the line I’ll find one in some Salvation Army thrift shop. Maybe I can get into an orphanage. I’m sure they take fifth-graders.  Or I’ll stow away on the Nantucket steamship, pretend to be an orphan and get adopted by a family there.

Or maybe I’ll decide to stay.  Anything could happen during those eight weeks. By the end of summer camp, some mysterious transformation, fueled entirely by my wishes, might occur.  When my parents and brother come to pick me up they’ll look like extras from the set of Leave it to Beaver. If that’s too much to hope for, then at least they’ll resemble The Addams Family. I won’t recognize them. My mother will call my father “honey,” a word she has never uttered, and even though her voice will be pleasantly low, unlike anything I’ve ever heard at home, I’ll know her immediately. My father will smile and bow like Lurch, and also like Lurch, won’t talk. My brother, inconspicuous as Wednesday Addams perching demurely in a corner, will sit inertly in the car the whole time my trunk is being loaded and speak a single sotto voce “hello” when I climb in for the ride home.

Even if none of these things happen, maybe I’ll befriend some other camper whose parents have always wanted another daughter, or maybe a sister for their little Clara, yes, a companion for their lonely, sickly child who has a cleft palate. I’ll play Heidi and get her up to speed by helping her learn to speak—and to climb every mountain, too.  Then they’ll have a good excuse to lavish upon me their considerable wealth and lasting affections, and I’ll fit right in to their family. It’ll be easy. They’ll be so grateful to me for saving the child they had almost given up for lost. A whole eight weeks! Yes, anything can happen.

Near the end of our drive to camp, Mom and I stop at a roadside restaurant for dinner, and I dive into my chicken with gravy and wild rice, eating so quickly I hardly taste it. Suddenly I–who am so allergic to nuts that in my thirties a boyfriend’s kiss will turn my lips into a red welt after he eats a hazelnut—feel my throat begin to swell.  I can hardly breathe.  I wave at Mom, sitting opposite me, because I can barely talk. The skin on my hands, my arms, is bright red and itchy. Quarter-sized hives are popping out all over me. I am scratching like an ape.

“Oh my goodness, you look tired.   We should get you to bed.”

“My wild rice gravy has nuts in it.”

“Really?  Oh dearie, dearie me.  Your throat does sound a bit scratchy.  Would you like a little dessert?  Or maybe some juice?”

“Mom, I need a doctor.”

“A doctor?” she sounds fuzzy, like someone who is just waking up but would rather put her head back down on the pillow.

“I really need one now.”

“Oh,” she fumes. “Let me see.  Okay.  Wonder if I have enough gas.” We get in the car and she begins driving. The car edges forward reluctantly.

“Oh, Melissa, look at the deer!” Mom yelps, “It’s so pretty!” She slows to a crawl and points. “Oh, I’d love to paint that!  We could stop for a minute.”

“Mom, I need a hospital. Please.  Right away.  Take me to a hospital.”

“A hospital? Oh, okay. If you really think so.” She shakes her head.  If I would only calm down and notice the countryside I wouldn’t have these problems. She points out another deer frolicking through the birch trees.

I see a state trooper on the side of the road and tell her to stop and ask him.

“We don’t want to bother him, do we?  After all—“

“Pull the car over!”

My mother rolls down her window and tells the state trooper it’s so good of him to chat with us. She hopes it’s no bother. Is there a doctor around here or a hospital?

I rap on my window, say, “Help!”

He looks at my face and tells Mom to follow his car.

By the time we get to the small local hospital, I can no longer see or walk. I lose consciousness. I wake on a gurney, in my hand an envelope of red capsules with stripes that remind me of candy canes and Christmas.  My mother informs me that I have been given a large shot of adrenaline. I have been unconscious for some time, hours, apparently, and she has on her face the look of a child whose parents arrived two hours late to pick her up. Mom takes me to the B&B near the camp, where I spend three days in bed. She reads to me and provides stale sandwiches.

Meanwhile I imagine the plates of home-made blancmange decorated with fresh mint leaves I’d serve up (the way Jo waits on Laurie in Little Women) if Clara of the ruined soft palate were lying where I am, and if I were a rosy-cheeked Heidi, feeling considerably perkier than I do right now. I relish the ability to breathe, but am shaky whenever I get out of bed. I look at Mom humming a little tune under her breath and murmuring about what a lovely lake we’re on and wouldn’t I like to go swimming?

I realize that I’ll need to check all restaurant food myself very carefully from now on. Not to mention learning to cook, something I will do by watching my father, whose love of Southern fried anything dominates our cuisine at home.

A few pounds thinner, I join my tent-mates three days after camp starts.  I enjoy the piney aromas and the quiet.

The counselor, blond, plump and sweet, introduces the girls, suggesting we all tell what our Daddies do.

“My Daddy’s a bobbin manufacturer,” says a pretty redhead with wide-spaced eyes.
“My Daddy says we’ll have a fine old time,” says the other girl, shy and genteel.  “He’s a lawyer.”

My father conceals his mini-bottle of Gordon’s London Dry Gin in his shirt pocket when our family eats at the Moon Palace restaurant, where we always have chicken with snow peas.  Dad pours the gin into his water glass.  When the waiter’s back is turned, Dad pockets a few pieces of cutlery.

I don’t think either of these girls has a Dad like mine.

I like the Chinese restaurant meals, because Dad gets such a kick out of snitching the fork and knife, plus not paying for his drink, that he doesn’t yell or slap anyone.  He grabs my hand on the way home and yells, “You walk with Daddy.”

“I hate my father,” I say to the group of camp girls.

The counselor’s eyebrows go up.  The shy girl invites me to play cards, the redhead says she loves cheese fondue.

A week after I arrive, the summer camp director sends my mother a letter about your very articulate young lady.  What she means is that although I’m surrounded by peaceful Vermont lakes and pine trees, I’m obsessed with Count Dracula.  My tent mates are sick of hearing about how much blood drips from his teeth. The camp director’s letter adds that I burst with ideas and that I have so much to offer other children in the way of lively companionship.  She means that I like to pull the legs off Daddy Long Legs. I like to pour salt on a slug.  She’s noticed that I prefer hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading, never learning anyone’s name or talking, except while gobbling meals, when I open my mouth and stories pour out. I talk non-stop at the camp dinner table, where no one ever slaps me and no one has ever been slapped.

When camp is over in late August, my mother comes by herself to pick me up. I’m glad she did not bring Dad.  There won’t be fighting in the car.  After we’re back in New York, my counselor sends my parents a long letter.  She wonders if my fetish for the bizarre may be a substitute for carrying on a relationship in which she feels uneasy, in other words that it is a shell to avoid letting other people know that she does not have as much self-confidence as she often shows on the surface.  I laugh as my mother, casting me a doleful look, reads this out loud.   If I could fool my counselor, then I could fool other people too, and I almost feel self-confident. 

“What is going on with you?” asks Mom, bursting into tears.

“Melissa talked a great deal about sex, especially at the beginning of the summer,” writes the camp director in her own report at the end of the summer.  She seems astonished. Sex is indeed one of my favorite topics and I could not seem to stop looking for it everywhere. At camp, I told the other girls about the movie version of To Sir With Love, which none of them had seen.  The film version, I told them, didn’t use the scene in the book in which a girl throws a used sanitary napkin into the fireplace in a school classroom. Sanitary napkin! Blood! Menstruation! Which has something to do with sex! And I kept harping on this moment with my bemused campmates.

At camp I felt like an anthropologist visiting an unknown tribe I might like to join, and nothing reassured me more than the sight of other campers laughing at my antics. Stories of Catherine the Great getting crushed by a horse being lowered, for erotic purposes, by crane, fascinate me. I tell them. Repeatedly. I pretend to be a vampire. “My name is Count Dracula and I come to suck your blohhh-huuh–huuhd,” I say. I think this is very funny.  I say it again and again.

Neither vampires nor sex stories blot out my most unforgettable moment, the one I keep trying to exfoliate with the energy of a dragon shedding his skin, but which follows me everywhere.  I think of it often, and when I do, I try to shift my attention to my favorite joke, which goes like this:  a young lady is just about to marry.  She asks her mother to find her a black lace negligee and fold it carefully into her suitcase.  Mom forgets and just packs a pink flannel nightgown.  On the wedding night the groom gets shy, saying he will undress in the bathroom and that the bride should not look.  She opens her suitcase, finds the pink flannel nightgown, and cries, “Oh, it’s all pink and wrinkly!“  The groom yells, “I told you not to look!”  I love this joke, finding it so amusing that I have to stop and calm myself in order to be understood when I tell it. All pink and wrinkly! Hilarious. I’m laughing so hard I can barely tell the joke.  Except that the other kids don’t get it or look shocked.

But always, I remember the most the thing I want to forget.

My brother is three, I am five, and Daddy is weaving around the room giggling and reeking of Gordon’s London Dry Gin. He dances with us. He points a finger toward my brother.  He sits in front of us and his face is all red, his eyes glassy.  He sticks that finger into my brother’s face (“No, me, Daddy, ME!” I say, jealous.)  He laughs and says, “Pull my finger!” My brother pulls his finger and Daddy emits a long, loud, belch.

“Me! Me!”

“Pull my finger, and I’ll burp,” he promises, and I pull it. He burps long and loud, and we laugh. But he has to top himself; the finger’s just peanut gallery.

“Come on, kiddies!” he cries jovially, “Watch Daddy pee!” We follow him into the bathroom.   He shuts and locks the door, because Mom is on the other side of it. We laugh. This is a game, like keep-away. The bathroom has white and black diamond-shaped tiles and the lights are very bright. He pulls out his penis the way a fireman unrolls a hose—he just hand-over-hands it and it keeps on rolling out, more and more, until I almost wonder if that thing will hit the wall. I can’t see anything else: it’s all pink and wrinkly. Then it rears its head like an angry red giant. It’s beautiful; it’s ugly; it’s the tree of the knowledge of pain and pleasure. It’s a walk with a faun in the pale moonlight. It’s the entire world, and the world is ending. The room disappears. The thing seems as thick as my head. A stream of urine loud as a cataract shoots into the toilet, enough to drown all New York. You could go over the falls in a barrel in that stuff.

My brother and I are the best audience imaginable.

“Wow, Daddy!” I say.

We clap.

“Wow!”  My brother agrees.  “Can you do that again, Daddy?  Can you do it now?

Wham! Wham! Wham! We are so agog with these previously hidden talents that only after a moment do I realize that the entire time we are in the bathroom, Mom is pounding on the door and yelling. But we don’t like her. It’s Daddy who claims all our love. When Daddy opens the door she is still yelling so loud and pounding so hard that she doesn’t realize it is open, and falls flat on the tiles. I think we step over her and run to our rooms.

Right then, I feel like I’m falling off a cliff and my stomach clutches. Within a few years, I start dreaming every night that I’m rolling down the hill at 111th street and my head will smash into the black lamppost at the bottom of the hill. I awake with a lurch, panting and sweating, every night.

When I started summer camp, I believed that because I was in a new place, surrounded by happy people, people not in my family, I would be allowed to forget everything that went before. I’d get a do-over.

The cedar wall at the back of my closet would dissolve, I’d walk out into a winter wonderland, get invited to tea with a friendly faun who would lead me back to the lamppost so that I could get home—only unlike Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I wouldn’t go back home.  I’d stay in Narnia.

When Lucy visits the faun in Narnia, he wears a red scarf over his handsome, hairy chest, in the Pauline Baynes illustrations. His furred hindquarters conceal his tumescence—for what else is Mr. Tumnus, the faun who takes Lucy  back to his cozy den, where he plies her with tea and lulls her into a trance with the honeyed tunes of his flute? The music makes Lucy feel like crying and laughing and dancing and going to sleep.  He bursts into tears.

He has been bad, and he’s afraid they’ll cut off his tail and his horns.

What else would you do with men who seduce little girls?

But Lucy forgives him.

When my father came to my room at night, and he sobbed and stroked me, I pretended to be asleep.  I felt like laughing and crying and dancing and sleeping all at once, and I did not want the tune to stop. When he wept, he loved me.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Author’s note:  I found, and find, great comfort in the escape offered by the Narnia books–which offer a way of understanding my experience.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Illustration: Lucy and Mr Tumnus in Narnia, by Pauline Baynes

Mirrors on Fire

Mirrors on Fire

33196275_10155609691792291_6728084935111868416_nBy Guita Sazan

It is not winter. Yet, the cruel icy winds are blowing in the burn unit of the army (artesh) hospital where I volunteer as a nurse’s aide. Mr. Azaree was not in his room when I arrived in the morning. The odors of his infected, scorched body, hydrogen peroxide, and antiseptics still saturated the room. Azaree, a sweet and whimsical 21-year old soldier was the victim of mustard gas. He had sustained third degree burns over 70% of his body. Blisters covered his inner lungs too. The scabs on his legs had to be shaved, scrubbed, and washed everyday. He cried, screeched, and begged to be left alone. The cleaning kept the deadly infections at bay. But his condition had deteriorated over the past few days. I run to the head nurse, “Was Azaree moved to the Intensive Care Unit?” The red pen continued gliding on her clipboard. She didn’t look up. “He died last night and joined the Army of Martyrs.”

I am nineteen. I assist in cleaning and dressing the wounds of young boys who have sustained horrific burns. Burns caused by chemical warfare that the Iraqi army used in its war with Iran. Initiated by Iraq in 1980 and lasting until 1988, the war left an estimated half a million dead and hundreds of thousands wounded and homeless.

Azaree with his mischievous brown eyes was a favorite of mine. I had to leave my shift early today. I wanted to be alone with my wounded soul. Stepping out of the hospital, I put the black chador over my head that was already covered with a big white scarf. The five kilometers walk home under the chador let my tears run in a private space.

The cloaking of the entire female body for modesty, hejab (covering), became mandatory for women of every faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran within one year after the revolution of 1979. Minority Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and secular Muslim women reluctantly covered their heads loosely with colorful, thin scarfs. Often they were harassed by the “Ethical Sisters,” a band of radical Muslim women wearing thick, black chadors who policed neighborhoods in their white vans. Typically, the Ethical Sisters launched demeaning verbal attacks at women who revealed a lock of hair, wore bright colored scarves, red lipstick, or tight-fitting attire. They declared, “This country is no longer tolerating whores like you, shamelessly seducing our pious brothers who give up their lives for Islam.”

To the radical believers of Islam and those faithful to the revolution, the proper covering of the female body from head to toe with a long dress and a headscarf was a basic step in declaring the modesty and sanctity of women. Putting a black chador over an already covered body perfected the hejab.

I felt at home under the black chador. There my body found her solace and safety. Sheltered from the dirty, ravenous gazes of swaggering adolescent boys and vicious older men. The depth of black shamed them all. No color has a power or presence above and beyond black.

I held the conviction that my body and all its earthly desires were nothing but a shroud to my soul. Its delicate skin, voluptuous flesh, and citrus tang trap my celestial being. Faith is the ultimate color to wrap my existence.

Ten steps to the front gate, my feet palpitations pound the downhill street.  As I arrive at our house, my eyes habitually scan the street, hoping no one is watching me. The swift sound of pulling the chador off my head shreds the stillness of the afternoon.

Wrapping the chador around my right arm, in a flash I stuff it in my ragged book bag. I feared my parents, siblings, or the Jewish neighbors might catch a glimpse of my black chador.

Turning the cold iron key twice, the gate clicks open. The courtyard is layered with fallen leaves. All resting in their majestic death. It is not winter yet, but its scent has brushed over the leaves of autumn. As I walk into the courtyard, the crisp air and whiffs of kerosene fill my nostrils.

I walk through the courtyard towards the flight of stairs that takes me to the first floor flat where we live. Again, the smell of Kerosene! Its smell always made me feel nauseated. Though we had central heating in our new home, my mom brought out the kerosene heater in the fall to warm up the living room. It is not winter yet. It is too early to take out that heater.

 

As I walk up the stairs the stink becomes stronger. Up several more steps, its pungency is now getting into my eyes. The air reeks with a heavy odor. I struggle to breathe. An accidental spill? I wonder as I rush up the half dark staircase.

When I get closer to the entrance of our flat, long sighs and soft weeps mix with the stench of the kerosene-saturated air. Feeling dizzy and nauseous, my blurry eyes freeze.

Mahman (Mom) is sitting on her knees by the flat’s door next to a red kerosene container.  Her disheveled hair and blue housedress are soaked in the oily substance. She is squeezing a box of matches in her palm.

Her body is rocking back and forth. Her cheeks are covered with tears that have made tiny roads on her Kerosene covered face. “Khoda (God) take me, burn away this shame, Khoda let me die.”

She slaps her thighs over and over with an open hand. The flesh on her thigh is redder than her bloodshot eyes. “Let the (atash) fire bring peace to me.”

I kneel next to her, stuttering.“Mahman (Mom) what are you doing?!” I pull the matches out of her tight grip. Her shaking hand reaches to grab the matches out of my fist. I hold tighter.  I know far too well how in an instance her kerosene soaked body can incinerate. The images of the Army hospital flood my mind .

“Mahman jaan (dear Mom)  don’t (nakon), please nakon.” My jaw is now frozen.

“How can I witness my Jewish daughter praying like Muslims? Wearing a black chador? Making pilgrimage to Qom with radical Muslims? What is next? Marriage to an Ayatollah? I want to burn to death!”

I embrace her, kiss her head. The smelly oil soaks my lips and sticks on my tongue. But the unbearable disgust is the roaring guilt in my head.

“Mahman BeBakhsh, forgive me. I am Jewish, at heart, forever.”

“Then take this goh (shit) chador off your head! All our Jewish neighbors ask me – who is this Muslim woman in the black chador who comes to the house everyday?!”

Her fist lands on her head, hard . “What do I tell them? My child is a Muslim fundamentalist?!”

“Tell them I have chosen a meaningful life of service to humanity.”

“Stop with the empty slogans!” She is wailing, “You are setting this family on fire!”

“I wear the chador because I want to be allowed to teach in school, work in the orphanage, and tend to wounded soldiers. Only the people who follow the rules of the new Islamic Iran can do these things.”

“Your Baba (dad) barley survived a heart attack when you disappeared for three days. These Muslims will eventually force you to marry a Muslim boy. Then we will lose you forever!”

“I will never get married to a Muslim ever. I promise you with all my soul.”

Flames have now engulfed my soul. Who will burn and get buried?  My Baba’s heart, my Mahman’s flesh, or my “Divine calling” to save destitute beings?

Mahman has calmed down and I bring her to the shower. The heat and intensity of shower stream  compete with the tears we both shed and the pain that has seared us.

Author’s note: Mahman’s unwavering love and tenacious efforts to save me from radical Islam never ceased. She studied behavioral psychology and hypnosis, she turned to Zen and Hindu practices to change and cleanse my “distorted beliefs.” In her way she managed to burn her influence deep into my existence and all that my unconscious mind revealed to me decades later.

image1Guita Sazan is a Clinical psychologist,  22 years in private practice. She lives in Stamford, Connecticut with her husband and three children. She has written and given talks about Iranian Jewish Immigrant woman living in the United States.

Driftwoods Have Eyes

Driftwoods Have Eyes

Art Driftwood Have EyesBy Anne Ney

The Gullah say driftwoods have eyes.

I hear this on the TV from the kitchen sink where I am rinsing vomit from the emesis basin. David hears it from the couch where he shivers, nauseous and pale beneath an afghan, recovering from his latest round of chemo. We are alone, as we often are, mother and child in this island of a house at the end of the dirt road.

The television offers us another view of the world; today, Gullah-Gullah Island tells us driftwoods have eyes.

The show’s co-hosts, Ron and Natalie, banter in a Low Country cadence characteristic of their African-American community, rooted on the islands between Savannah and Charleston. These sea islands, like those where the Gullah originate, were settled by Ron and Natalie’s ancestors, enslaved West Africans brought to the Carolinas to coax indigo, cotton, and rice from the sea island marsh.

As they chat I try to imagine the anguish those Africans felt: proud freemen who were abducted, beaten, and chained into ships for the long middle passage. In the Americas they were often torn from those whom they loved.

But the Gullah had a saving grace. The Gullah, knowledgeable in sea marsh ecology, could make the island soil sing. And so their culture remained intact: isolated by waters, woven in a common tongue, and told in stories carried from the other side of the sea. Stories that were passed down like faith: one says driftwoods have eyes.

I dry the basin and my hands. My gaze drifts out the sink window onto the overgrown, February-sodden land. Our front yard, such as it is, ends at the wire fence this side of red-dirt road. Across the road, the swamp grows thick with scrub-oak and cypress. Loblolly and longleaf pines tower around the house.

Inside the wire fence is a Southern bayberry I pruned into a tree for David to climb, before his balance deteriorated and the brain tumor was discovered. I turn from the wintry gloom, round the kitchen corner, and study David listening to the Gullah story. Every day I worry that he will die. Every day I assure him that he is fine.

He is absorbed. His mouth purses in that serious way he has. His hands twitch as Ron turns the driftwood over for inspection. I think of all the times David and I have beach-combed, utterly ignorant of driftwood eyes. I wonder what those eyes see. What they have seen.

On the screen, Natalie’s box-braided hair peeks from her bright headscarf. Her brown eyes and skin glow against the canary-yellow cloth. Ron’s smile is as wide as the sea.

The driftwood’s bark has long since abandoned the heartwood, soaked clean by river and tide to expose its essence. Ron brushes powdery sand from the branch, bleached naked by sun and salt. He considers the driftwood’s beginnings. Maybe it came from Saint Helena, fallen from a live oak hammock where the long branches stretch toward the horizon.

Maybe it was wrested from a Low Country riverbank overhung with sweetgum, palmetto, pawpaw, and bay. It might have been lighting-struck or twisted off in a summer hurricane sweeping up the coast. Maybe it drifted from Africa.

Wherever it came from, it is a testament to its history. Its shape suggests its species, habit, and the conditions of its growth. Its scars and ragged ends hint at its demise. I think of Kahlil Gibran’s words, “For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

Ron challenges Natalie to find the driftwood’s eyes. She exaggerates a frown and says she cannot see an eye in this wood he has plucked from Gullah-Gullah Beach. He chuckles warmly and enjoins her to look for the eye!

David tilts his head and scrunches his brow. His blue eyes bore into the screen.

In a moment Natalie exclaims, “I see it here! I see de eye!”

She points to a depression in the wood. David grins like a jack-o-lantern; his adult incisors erupt unevenly through his gums. His head is symmetrical and smooth. He sits up and says, “Mom! That driftwood has an eye!” The afghan slips to the floor as he leans and points. “See?”

A shiver runs down my back; the sun-bleached wood looks too much like a bone. I think about dead pirates buried along this coast where Blackbeard roamed. Do the dead also have eyes?

I cross the room and sit next to David on the sagging blue couch. I enfold his thin body in my arms and tuck his warm, bald, head under my chin. Natalie produces another piece of driftwood and hands it to Ron. He turns it this way and that; scrutinizes it from all angles. He says the eyes can be difficult to see. They may hide in plain sight but they are there: on bleached oaken arms, skinned cypress knees, amputated mangrove toeholds.

David fingers his cheek and studies the staticky picture. Natalie demonstrates the strategy of looking askance to find the eyes. Ron says she should look from a different angle, or soften her gaze to make them appear. But never give up. All driftwoods have eyes. David shouts, “I see it! I see the eye!”

Natalie finds it, too. Then Afro-pop music begins and Binyah-Binyah Polliwog, the Island’s human-sized peeper-frog, Ron, and Natalie dance and sing the closing song. I grab the remote and turn down the volume. David gives me an earnest, eager look. “Mom. Driftwoods have eyes,” he says. I kiss his bald head, run my fingers lightly down his cheek, and listen as he retells the story.

I wonder if the eyes exist in living trees: within the bayberry, swamp oaks, and pines that both isolate and contain us. Are they watching us now? Have they seen us splashing in the river as they slide quietly by on their way to the coast? Or do they only mind us after coming to rest long after riding the longshore currents that nudge the sea islands north, grain by sandy grain.

David finishes his story then says gravely, “Mom, we have to go to the beach.”

But it is February. The morning rain has given way to winter’s orange-tinted evening sky. In any case his blood counts are too low for us to venture into the world of germs. I say we’ll put it on The List in my cheerful matter-of-fact voice. “That way we’ll definitely know we’re going to go. But it’s dark now and Dad’s on his way home and what will he eat for dinner if we’re at the beach?”

David agrees to put it on the list then returns to the Gullah-Gullah sign-off. He never questions how or where I track these things to be accomplished. In fact, The List exists only in my heart as a running tally of possibilities. It is a hedge against forgetting, should he die, the shape that his hopes and dream once assumed.

Gullah-Gullah dissolves into the Nick Jr. afternoon lineup. I return to the kitchen to start dinner. Beyond the window, sunset rays pierce the scrub-oak branches across the road and silhouette David’s deserted bayberry tree. I think of Robert Frost’s Swinger of Birches with its boy who is

too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

***

I try to picture David climbing farther up his modest tree than he has ever gone, up to where the branches are thin and flexible, up to where his tree can bear no more weight. Would the tree set him down again?

Or would his weight break the branch, send him tumbling into the earth, and cast the severed wooden limb into the swamp to be carried to the Ash Branch, into the Ogeechee, and out to sea. I calculate the river’s slow winding across the coastal plain, and the speed of the ocean current that flows around the sea islands before rejoining the Gulf Stream to circle the globe.

The limb would lose its leaves first. Smaller twigs would catch on river snags and snap from the main branch. The bark, now an extraneous skin, would slacken before floating away. Once the branch reached the ocean it would age into a whitened bone. It might drift for months, even years, before coming home to Savannah. It would surely have eyes by then.

The surf would entrain it and carry it toward the land, up the beach face, and into the wrack line where a boy might find it as he searches for a castle parapet, or a pirate sword, or an anchor to hold his kite string while he jumps waves. I imagine the driftwood’s expectant eyes, twinkling as the boy approaches its weathered knob of a body.

Would time and tide have erased the memory of its difficult middle passage, between the time it lived and the time it came to rest on that sea island beach? Would it remember how the boy had swung out too far and snapped it from a tree beside a wire fence across the road from a swamp?

***

At bedtime David wants a story. I choose Caveman Dave, a gift from my mother who likes the book because the protagonist has her grandson’s name, blue eyes, and blonde hair that I promise will grow back when the chemo’s done. I read to him in my growly cave-mom voice. “Caveman Dave lives in a cave. He’s not afraid. He’s very brave!”

David scowls and declares that he is not brave. Maybe he believes that cancer follows bravery instead of the other way around. That if he denies the first, the other will disappear on its own. Blue Bunny nestles under his arm. The lump beneath his Ninja Turtle jammie top betrays the permanent IV line, neatly coiled, bandaged and double-taped to his skin just above his heart.

“You have courage.” I remind him that courage means you face something even if — especially if — you know how badly it’s going to hurt.

Satisfied with this explanation, he leans back on his pillow and laces his fingers behind his head, a characteristic pose that belies his tender age. I think of the long scar, from the crown of his skull to his neck, raggedly crosshatched where sutures held the incision together until it healed. He gazes at the ceiling while Caveman Dave tussles with dinosaurs.

When the story is finished, David asks for his Guatemalan worry people, another gift from his grandmother. I find their house, a pill-bottle-size basket, and shake them into his small hands. Each one is no taller than my thumbnail. One by one he brings them to his lips and whispers his worries into their minuscule ears. We tuck them under his pillow where they will carry out their midnight task of whisking his cares away.

Night after night the worry people perform their magic. This, I think, is the power of story.

We snuggle until he is warm and drowsy. I kiss him goodnight and say that as soon as his counts are up we’ll go to the beach.

***

The drive to Tybee Island is a long hour through black-stalked cotton fields, acres of greening soy, and Savannah’s historic squares. From there we parallel the river for miles, crossing sinuous back channels and wide salt marshes that glint in the vernal sun. Water in these parts is restless. It empties the land, recycles the tides, and slowly transforms islands.

The beach is windy and cold. Surf jostles the shore where only ten months ago David played Tonka trucks, lazed in wide, warm tide pools, and built Batman sand castles. Today, white sea foam tumbles up the beach. I tell David it looks like snow, an item on The List. We stomp a few fluffy balls as they rush toward the dunes. He quickly loses energy.

But he has a mission and will not leave empty-handed. He picks up then discards unnecessary things: sea glass, broken shells, sun-bleached sand dollars, and ghost crab molts. When he finds what he is looking for he grins, turns, and catches my eye.

***

I will still have it twenty-five years later although the day David collects the driftwood I cannot know that. I cannot know that he will, in fact, die. I cannot know that one day the driftwood will sit in my office with other ghosts that my swinger of birches will leave behind. I cannot know that eyes will silently watch from the battered wood he now holds in his hands.

***

I had turned my attention away and was studying the horizon: for coming weather, or a sign that he was going to be okay, or affirmation that what is true — tumors, chemo, the way death hovers all around — is less important than how we frame our circumstances.

David brought me the driftwood and said I should turn it around, look at it sideways, soften my gaze, and let the eyes appear. At first I could not see them. He did immediately, of course, as though to emphasize they belonged to him. I remember how pleased he was in that moment of recognizance.

He exclaimed with great imperative, “Look Mom! Look at the eyes!”

***

I miss him still.

I miss telling him stories: that courage outshines bravado. That love transcends impossible odds. Stories to manage frightening days and worry people to banish those same fears at night. But his driftwood remains.

In life it became bent as though weighted at the thin, leafy end. It is cracked and pocked and freckled with bone-white barnacles. Its eyes sit higher than either its snout or long tail, which support the head from both ends. The snout is scarred where twigs were torn away. The tail was broken clean from the tree it once graced. Before he died, David pirate-patched one of its eyes with a purple plastic ring-pop scavenged from the wrack. Later, I tucked blue jay feathers behind its eyes, to give it ears. It has a roguish, carefree look.

The driftwood hovers on the shelf, just over my shoulder, in company with the stories that belong to us all. Stories to bear hearts over rivers and sounds. Stories to cross the most daunting of seas. Stories like faith; one is that driftwoods have eyes.

Anne Visser Ney is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and writer whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Ruminate, and The Crab Orchard Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Whiting Award. She has taught high and college science and currently teaches writing through Milspeak Foundation and Keep Saint Pete Lit. She holds an MS and BS in Biology from Georgia Southern University and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Finding My Bella in Marbella

Finding My Bella in Marbella

IMG_1279By Rebecca Timlin-Scalera

I shimmied over, ever so slightly and subtly, to Bella’s side of the bed. She was busy on her phone; with the six-hour time difference, it was “prime social media time” for her friends back in the States. I studied her in her mismatched t-shirt and shorts. She is 12 now. Gone are the days of her wearing matching pajamas, handpicked by me. I marveled now at her long, dark, wavy hair, and her delicate features – on the precipice of emerging into the grown-up version of herself, but from this angle – still bearing more resemblance to those I first laid eyes on.

We needed this trip. Seven months prior, I had gotten the call that changed our lives ? again. After just two years, my breast cancer had metastasized. I was now considered terminally ill with no real treatment options; just clinical trials to extend my life. Navigating these terrifying waters, on top of the expected landmines inherent in parenting any tween, was brutal. I missed the closeness we had effortlessly enjoyed when she was younger. I suspected she did too. We were inseparable in those years and had lauded our “cosmic twin status” whenever possible. Bella was, remarkably, born not only on my exact birthday – but in some celestial, super lottery, twist-of-beautiful-fate – at the same exact minute – 7:39 am, August 20th.

I fluffed up the pillows, “What’s going on in your world Bell?” I asked, ever-so-casually.  I was afraid if I pushed, Bella would shun me from discussing any real details of her budding social life. I took my chances, knowing that under the circumstances she would feel compelled to answer. It was late and well past acceptable phone time hours for Bella here in Spain. Also, my phone had been either lost or stolen earlier that evening and, despite the late hour, frayed nerves and fatigue, I sensed a rare opportunity to connect with my daughter in this cozy setting far from home, without my own distractions. I was not about to let it slip away.

In an unprecedented act of sharing, Bella leaned in closer to me – so we were shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the bed, our heads and upper backs resting on the overstuffed pillows behind us. Restraining my excitement at this chance to peer through the window into my precious, yet often snarky, tween’s life, I shifted imperceptibly to ensure I could maintain my position for as many minutes or hours as it would remain open.

To my surprise, she launched right in and started going through her Instagram account with me. I was mesmerized listening to her descriptions:

“That’s my friend Lindsay, you know her from soccer. Oh, and that’s her new dog, so cute – right? They’re moving near us! That’s Adam…he has a crush on Lisa, but she thinks he’s annoying…This is Lisa.”

I was grateful for this chance to gain an entirely new understanding of my daughter through the lens of not only her social media accounts, but her narrative of them. Bella had felt so lost to me in recent months. She was pretty vocal about her resentment of how much my mom, “Mimi” had to be there instead of me on the days, and sometimes many nights, when I was in the hospital. She then became hyper-critical of my parenting when I was home:

“Paige’s mom has better fruit. These grapes are mushy. Ew…Why don’t we have any milk? You literally never go to the grocery store… It’s like literally your only job.”

Most days, I can’t do anything right in her eyes because everything is different now. She was angry, and scared…and 12.

“You can swipe to the right to see more pictures,” she offered, with a self-satisfied, yet sweet, smirk – savoring the realization that her advanced knowledge of the iPhone, and social media in general, far surpassed that of her middle-age, tech-deficient mom.

“I see,” I said, grateful not only for her instruction, but for her willingness to pull back the curtain even further than required. I couldn’t help but marvel at the contrast between this moment and a conversation that had taken place just hours earlier as we rode along the promenade to the Old Town for tapas. She had stopped her bike to capture yet another moment, the Mediterranean spanned endlessly behind her and her lithe arm stretched out purposefully in front of her:

“Bella, do we really have to stop and wait for you to take another selfie?” I had asked sharply, exasperated by the seemingly constant repetition of her need to document every three minutes of this trip, with her iPhone turned to selfie mode, face posed.

“Oh my god mom, stop! You’re so old. You just have no idea how social media works. My friends want to see what I’m doing,” she shot back.

I let it go, but I worried that this was a one-way ticket to a full blown narcissistic personality disorder. As we rode our bikes further along the promenade, I struggled internally with the interaction. Should I have said more, lectured her on being in the moment, and not so focused on her looks or social media? Or, should I have said less, realizing this was all pretty normal behavior for a 12-year-old girl on vacation, away from her peers, and not in fact the burgeoning mental illness I feared.

Under normal circumstances, most parents would have perhaps grappled with this momentarily before moving on. However, our circumstances were far from normal, and it was these moments that I felt the weight of my terminal illness upon me, upon us, upon her. I felt the pressure to condense a lifetime of parenting, guidance, protection and love into whatever time I had left with my Bella.

We had enjoyed an effortless and unbreakable connection throughout her childhood after her cosmic and dramatic birth. Bella was born with a heart defect that required cardiac surgery at just two days old. I remember, even then, marveling at her resilience and the ease with which she recovered and moved on. However, hormones and healthy individuation were at play now and things just hadn’t been the same of late. I was struggling with the painful, albeit necessary, separation that had begun to occur with the tween years suddenly and harshly upon us. Bella was pulling away, spending more and more time in her room, on her phone, and listening to music. Professionally, I understood the psychological need and rationale for this pulling away. However, the knowing did not make the enduring any easier. Especially these days when the pulling away involves the pulling in to the ubiquitous and alluring world of social media, not just the in-person peer interactions, landline phones, and mall “meet ups” we enjoyed in the “dinosaur days” of my youth.

By 2:45 am, between the jetlag and the fatiguing effects of my chemo pills, I could barely keep my eyes open. However, I willed myself to fight sleep as Bella was shockingly still chatting away happily. She actually seemed to be enjoying it. One social media exchange at a time, we navigated through the complicated online matrix that was – her life. I learned about when and why and to whom she gave and received “shout outs,” who was friends with whom, how each person was connected, and whom she had gotten to know best thus far at the new school she had bravely chosen to enter amidst what is often a hotbed of social stress in seventh grade. I reveled in being allowed to take part in this intimate nightly ritual of hers. A raw and vulnerable picture of her was unfolding before my eyes. I chose my comments and questions wisely and sparingly so as to not impede the intimate tour of her social and emotional landscape being offered, I knew, for a limited engagement only.

By 5:00 am I could no longer fight the fatigue and suggested we pack it in. It was, by then, 11:00 pm back in the States and things had wound down there as well. I knew better than to outwardly reveal my excitement about the time we had just shared. However, staying up all night for this one-sided social media fest and seeing firsthand how my rapidly changing 12-year-old was in fact navigating the complicated social dynamics of her life (well, it seemed) was worth every ounce of exhaustion I knew I would battle in the days ahead. Despite her often snarky, hardened demeanor with me, I was clearly able to see the thoughtful, sweet, concerned friend she was. I was relieved to see that the strategically placed “selfies” and “comments” were given and received in relatively equal measure. She was generous and loving in complimenting her friends.

“OMG I miss you Bella, you are SOOOO funny!”

“You too, I can’t stop laughing thinking about our last sleepover! Can’t wait to hang out this summer.”

She was kind, smart, funny and she seemed to have retained the resilience of her earliest days. Although I hope to outlive my prognosis by decades, when I finally gave in to sleep that night – I did so with a newfound sense of peace. My daughter is stronger than I knew, cooler than I ever was, or ever will be, and she really is going to be OK. No matter what.

The next day, tired though we both were, she hugged me when we woke up. Things were different. Maybe she realized she could trust me and it felt good. Maybe she just really needed that connection back, too. Maybe she needed to see that, despite the chemo and the fatigue and the scary diagnosis, I was still here. I could still be right there, right next to her, all night when she needed me. I may have lost a phone, but I found my Bella, in Marbella. 

Dr. Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, former Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Cancer Couch, is also a wife, mother, writer, and recently turned stand-up comedian. She founded The Cancer Couch in April 2016 and has since helped raise over $1,700,000 in just the first two years. She writes from a place of humor and gratitude, but mostly – honesty. Rebecca and her husband are the parents of two kids and their controversial dog, Skye. 

 

 

Positive Teens: United In More Than Name

Positive Teens: United In More Than Name

BT 17 NitshellOmri Massarwe and Omri Hochfeld (last two boys on right)

This is the first in our series of Teen Voices, where we interview teens about topics they care about.

 

By Ruth Ebenstein

Stroll into the offices of Kids4Peace in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood of East Jerusalem during a youth meeting and call out the name “Omri! and two heads will turn.

“Yes?”

Both brown-haired teens, one 6 feet tall and thin with straight hair, the other with a broader build and a head spiked in thick kinky curls, will break into laughter.

“Which one do you want? Hochfeld-or Massarwe?”

You’re likely to find “Hochfeld”, a 16-year-old Jewish Israeli, and “Massarwe”, a 16-year-old Muslim Palestinian, cracking jokes or comparing the players of Hochfeld’s favorite soccer team, Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, with those of Futbol Club Barcelona, Massarwe’s favorite.

“Omri”, which means life in Arabic, is the first name shared by two peace activists who have become fast friends over the last 3 years. “With the same name, how could we not,” quips Omri Massarwe. “Yeah, it was destiny,” adds Omri Hochfeld.

They met at Kids4Peace, a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem and other cities around the world. Here’s what two teens discovered through becoming friends with kids from the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Omri Hochfeld, 16, Salit, Israel

Why did you join Kids4Peace?

I’d always wanted to meet people from other places, and it was most natural to meet Palestinians. I’m an anomaly because I live near Kfar Saba, some 50 miles northwest of Jerusalem. I commute 90 minutes each way to participate in the activities whereas all of the other participants live in or around Jerusalem. We Israelis and Palestinians share this piece of land, and we need to learn to live together.

Tell us about your experience at Kids4Peace.

I joined Kids4Peace when I was eleven. Our group comprised Jewish Israelis and Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Over the years, we hung out at various activities and went to summer camp in the US. We developed strong friendships and a foundation of trust. When Kids4Peace started adding political discussions in later years, we already know each other very well. We could handle heated discussions about Hamas, hug and then jump into the pool.

Tell us about your friendship with Omri Massarwe. What it’s like to befriend young people from the “other side.”

I met Omri during my second year at Kids4Peace, when I was 13. He’s one of my dearest friends. We really clicked! Once you meet people from the other side and become friends, there is no “other side”… We’re all teenagers. There is no real difference between Palestinians and Israelis. Omri is not my “Palestinian” friend. He’s my friend-friend. We love to talk about girls, sports, food. What you learn by reaching across the divide is how very many people on the other side are good—and just like you. Ignorance and fear lead to racism and hatred.

What’s the most formative experience you’ve had at Kids4Peace?

Last July, Omri and I joined a delegation of Palestinian, Israeli and American teens that participated in the Global Institute, an advocacy and social action program in Washington, D.C. We met politicians like Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, advocated for a bill in Congress, went to the State Department, and shared our stories with public figures. I also presented at a Jewish overnight camp with Mutaz, who is Muslim, and with Adan and Zina, who are both Christian and from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem.

For many campers, this was their first encounter with a Palestinian or an Israeli, and their first time listening to an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue about the conflict. We started arguing amongst ourselves, which I think surprised them. But the tones really soared when we fought about where to buy the best humus. They said the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, but clearly, the answer is Acre in Northern Israel!

All humor aside, last summer truly changed me. David Harden, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), asked us how we are going to change the world. For the first time I thought, wow, I have the power to change things rather than just waste time on my PlayStation.

What’s your takeaway message:

Go out and meet someone from the “other side,” whatever that means for you. You will learn and grow in ways that you cannot imagine. Find a niche where you can have an impact. Remember that you are powerful! Be a link in the chain of making a difference.

Omri Massarwe, 16, of Beit Safafa, an Arab town in Jerusalem

What did you join Kids4Peace?

In 2013, my English teacher encouraged me to apply. She was a counselor there and said, you’ve got the English, go for it. I checked out the website and really liked their platform.

Tell me about your experience at Kids4Peace.

The first meeting was awkward. While I had spoken to Jews before, I did not have Jewish friends. How do you talk to the other side? We were a diverse group of Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, all the same age. We played icebreaker games, and that was helpful. In time I learned how connected we are, what unites the three monotheistic religions, the ways in which we are the same. We coalesced into one family before we headed to summer camp in Atlanta.

My second summer at Kids4Peace coincided with the Israeli-Gaza conflict, a military operation also known as Operation Protective Edge, during July and August 2014. It was a very difficult time. Fearing for the safety of other people in our group, we checked in frequently across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Kids4Peace gave me a safe harbor. That’s where I felt hope and comfortable with people from different backgrounds. On the Palestinian side, we did get flak. I heard comments like, Are you ignoring our conflict?

As we got older, our counselors at Kids4Peace raised more political discussions. And that made sense. The basic ingredients of dialogue and peacemaking include talking about contentious issues like the separation barrier dividing Palestine from Israel and military checkpoints. Those are real issues. The conversations were authentic, illuminating, frustrating. But because you know the people very well, it’s easier to stay connected.

Tell us about your friendship with Omri Hochfeld. What is it like to befriend young people from the “other side”?

My friendship with Omri is very special. We can argue, but at the end of the day, we’re friends. It’s hard to explain chemistry! Being in Kids4Peace and the friendships I’ve made highlight the universality of the human experience. More than ever, Kids4Peace gives me hope that there will be peace for the next generation in Jerusalem.

What’s the most formative experience you’ve had at Kids4Peace?

Going to Washington, D.C., last summer for the Global Institute was incredible. I loved lobbying for a bipartisan bill to create an international fund that focuses on people-to-people connections, economic cooperation and grassroots efforts like ours to build coexistence. As I lobbied Democrats and Republicans, I felt privileged to represent the Palestinian voice, sharing some of the issues that we deal with back home.

What’s your takeaway message:

First, volunteer. This year I’ll be a counselor for sixth graders and participating in the Youth Action Program, where we design and implement community service projects and do leadership training. Second, carve out your thing. Mine is photography. While the media highlights the tension and animosity in Jerusalem, I spotlight points of connection via my Instagram account, Life of the Lad. Every positive voice counts! Use yours.

RUTH EBENSTEIN is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian and peace/health activist who loves to laugh a lot and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. Ruth has also penned a children’s book entitled All of this Country is Called Jerusalem. Find her online at RuthEbenstein.com, on Facebook at Laugh Through Breast Cancer – Ruth Ebenstein, and on twitter @ruthebenstein.

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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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The Summer of Rachel

The Summer of Rachel

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74By Barbara Solomon Josselsohn

The Beginning

It’s an ache that started a few years ago when your son left for college, and you realized that time was passing too, too fast. Your next child was approaching the very same milestone, and you decided you would no longer just sit back and watch. “Okay, that’s it!” you shouted to the universe. “I let David go, but I’m keeping Rachel! Do you hear me? I‘m keeping Rachel!

Okay, you didn’t really mean it. You knew Rachel should grow up, as should her younger sister, Alyssa. But you were upset, because after years of long, luscious child-filled days, you saw that life was changing. Because even when you complained or felt harried or unappreciated, you never stopped loving being the mom of three young kids. You loved the chill of late fall, when you’d send them out to school in the mornings and welcome them back home in the afternoons. You loved when winter approached and the streetlights came on as early as 4:30, and all three would be bathed and in pajamas before dinner. You loved the first warmish afternoons of spring, when you’d stay with them at the park until dusk, then stop at the pizza shop for a quick, late dinner. You loved the searing days of July, when you’d go to the town pool in the mornings and doze at home in the afternoons, sheltered from the heavy, humid air outdoors.

But life had a way of speeding up amid the flurry of school lunches and permission slips, Little League games and school concerts, and suddenly you found that before you even got used to one new thing, you were hurtling toward the next. And now it’s the evening after Rachel’s high school graduation, and soon she’ll be off, just like her brother. That‘s how it goes.

So you tell yourself that as of today, as of this moment, things will be different. David may have whizzed out the door, but you’re not going to let that happen again. You have two months before Rachel leaves for college, and you’re going to make the most of them. You will slow the clock, stretch out the minutes, immerse yourself completely in Rachel and this, her last summer before college. You will fill up on Rachel this summer, and not let college or time or the universe steal even one drop. You will figure out a way to own this summer, and then when Alyssa graduates, you will do it again.

It will be the long summer of Rachel. So that come the end of August, you’ll be ready to let her go.

You wonder what the universe has to say about that.

The Boyfriend

And so the summer starts, and you put all thoughts of Rachel’s impending departure out of your mind. You think about things to do together—trips to the beach, the movies, Broadway shows, lunches at your favorite spots.

You look at your calendar, start to play around with times you can spare from work. Weeks when Alyssa will be away at camp. Weekends when your husband and son are busy.

But you forgot to factor in one thing: Rachel’s boyfriend.

You don’t know when Rachel became old enough for a boyfriend. You don’t know how he became the center in her life. Sure, she’s always had plenty of friends. Weekends during high school were filled with parties and school events. But plans to hang out with her girlfriends tended to be casual, last-minute arrangements, easy to shift around if you were available to take her shopping for new spring clothes or out for lunch. There always used to be time for you.

But today when you open her door and say you’ve booked an outing to Mohonk Mountain House for facials and lunch on what you thought would be an otherwise lazy summer day, she looks up from her Facebook screen and studies you like a complicated math problem.

“When would we go?”

“Saturday morning. We leave at 9:30.”

She nods thoughtfully. “When will we be back?”

“I don’t know. We can stay as late as we want. Why?”

She bites her lip, trying to be diplomatic. Dressed in her gray college sweatpants and stretchy white tank top, with her hair piled up in a messy brown bun, she looks way too young to play the role of adult. “It’s just that Jason and I were thinking about going out to dinner…”

And then a week later you tell her you’ve finished an assignment you thought would take the whole afternoon, so you’re ready to head to the city to snap up some half-price tickets to a matinee.

She nods tentatively. “I have a lot to do. Can we make it next week?”

“What do you have to do?” you ask.

“Well, I wanted to finish choosing my classes this afternoon because Jason’s coming over tonight.”

You love Jason. Really, he’s the sweetest boy in the world. You know about the jerks out there and you’re so glad she’s picked someone wonderful for her first boyfriend. He comes over when she wants him to, stays away when she asks him to without getting defensive, he’s polite to you and your husband, what more could you ask?

You could ask for the little girl who only had time for you, the girl who was always thrilled and grateful when you asked if she’d like to see a movie or go for ice cream. You could ask for the little girl who would jump up from her dollhouse or turn away from her dress-up box, her Cinderella crown still on her head, to say, “You’re the best!”

You could ask for that little girl.

But you won’t find her. She’s gone.

So you won’t groan and you won’t fight, but you’ll learn to consult her about her dates with Jason before you make any more plans.

And you’ll appreciate the time you have together all the more.

Shopping

By mid-July the circulars show up, fast and furious—in the mail, online, tucked into the Sunday paper—so you can no longer deny that it’s time to take Rachel dorm shopping. Lots of girls opt to do this with friends, so you count yourself lucky that she agrees to include you at all.

You arrive one sunny August morning at Bed Bath and Beyond, Rachel dressed for maximum efficiency in gym shorts and sneakers, her hair pulled back in a no-frills ponytail.

It’s difficult for you to drag yourself from the car. You know that before the day is through, your trunk will be piled high with bedding and bath towels, desk accessories and storage caddies, and there will be no denying that she’s going.

Rachel’s eyes light up at the colorful array of dorm-room accessories inside the store entrance. It’s not that she’s spoiled or greedy or selfish, she’s just excited to be outfitting her new home. She wants the cushy upholstered armchair, or how about the comfy two-person love seat? “Rachel, it’s just a small dorm room,” you say. But she isn’t listening. She’s examining ottomans and multi-tiered shelving.

So you pull her over to the escalator and explain you’d like to start with basics like bedding, to which she shrugs and nods agreeably. “Charlie got a hot pink comforter,” she tells you. “Maybe I’ll get pink too, so our beds will coordinate.”

Charlie is Charlotte, her prospective roommate, whom she met at an admitted-students event last spring. They decided right away to live together, but lately you’ve been thinking it’s not a great match. Charlie says she wants their room to be a hub for friends, while Rachel tends to prefer privacy. Charlie likes to stay up late while Rachel loves a good night’s sleep. You wonder if Rachel chose this roommate too quickly, and you worry about the other decisions she’ll jump into feet first. You need another year to show her how the world works. But you don’t have another year. You barely have a month.

And that’s when you realize that she’ll have to take her lumps, make her own mistakes and learn from the consequences. You can’t stop her from getting hurt, from being disappointed, from misjudging people or situations and occasionally having to go back to square one. You can’t possibly prepare her for everything that could go wrong—and even if you could, she wouldn’t believe you. After all, when you’re on the brink of college, life is a magic carpet ride.

And there’s no room for you to ride along.

The Final Week

Her boxes are lined up against the wall in the living room. The printer sits unopened on the table. The bedding and towels have been washed, folded and packed into a vinyl storage bag. The pink fabric ottoman is close by, next to the poster frame filled with photos from high school.

There’s no escaping it anymore. She is leaving.

Her days and evenings are filled with excited goodbyes, as she meets her girlfriends for lunch or frozen yogurt. There are finals calls from Nana and Grandma, from aunts and uncles, and emails from neighbors and former teachers.

You can stand the boxes, you can tolerate the calls. But it’s her room that gets you. Just walking in at night to give her a goodnight kiss is painful. You can’t help but see the blue fabric bulletin board where she tacked the ticket stubs to her first concert, the wand she bought at Harry Potter World, her full set of Rick Riordan novels on the bookshelf, the bracelet her best friend brought her back from Israel, which she keeps on a pedestal on her night table.

And you start to see that all these years when you thought she was yours, she was actually becoming her own.

And the realization is so in your face, you almost wish that moving day was here already. Because you don’t know how many more times you can walk into this room without completely falling apart.

Last night at home. Goodnight, sweetie. Sleep tight.

Goodnight, Mommy. I love you.

The Last Goodbye

And then she’s gone.

You arrive on campus bright and early. You wave at the cheery upperclassmen in brightlycolored T-shirts who stand on a ledge holding a banner that reads “Welcome!” You follow the directions of other joyful upperclassmen who show you where to stop, where to unload, where to park. You haul suitcases and boxes up stuffy stairwells on that sweltering late August morning. You hang up clothes in an impossibly small closet and layer a puffy comforter and fluffy pillows on a thin, institutional mattress.

You walk back out to the quad to hear the college president speak.

And then you say goodbye.

You hug her and she hugs you, and you tell her you love her, you tell her to take good care of herself, you tell her she can call at any hour of the day if she has a problem, you tell her all the things you are supposed to tell her. And then you let her go.

“Goodbye, Mommy,” she says, which makes you feel you will fall to your knees, right there on the quad. But you don’t crumble. Instead, you watch as she makes her way back to her dorm, where meetings and get-acquainted parties beckon. You watch her grow tiny and then disappear.

And because you’re not the type to cry in public, you press back the tears as you realize that you’re not just saying goodbye to Rachel on this hot summer morning. You’re saying goodbye to all your children. You’ve been saying goodbye for a long time.

You’ve been saying goodbye all along to stick horses and tiny race cars and princess tiaras, to trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, to first-day-of-school outfits and trips to Staples for pencils and glue sticks. You’ve been saying goodbye to big, crazy birthday parties and sleepovers in the basement, to trips to the zoo or water park, to long evenings waiting for the snow to fall and glorious mornings when school has been cancelled. You’ve saying goodbye to snowman building in the backyard, to peeling off wet clothes in the mudroom and warming up with hot chocolate in the kitchen. You’ve been saying goodbye to evenings with everyone home.

It was supposed to be the long summer of Rachel. But now you realize that like everything in life, it went by in a flash. You didn’t slow it down at all. Of course, you’re still a family. But everything is different now. Two are out. The third one will soon go, too.

You walk back to the parking lot, noticing that all the parents look a little smaller, deflated somehow. Your walk is slower; your breathing heavier; the world is a little less bright. You’ve launched Rachel—your middle child, your oldest daughter—into the world, and now it’s hers to do with what she will. And your one consolation is that you know you’ve done your best. She’s amazing. The world is lucky to have her.

Author’s Note: It’s been almost two years since that not-so-long summer, and Rachel is now a rising college junior. David graduated from college in May, and Alyssa will be a high-school senior this fall. As for me, I’ve learned that attempting to hold back time doesn’t work. So with my wonderful husband at my side, I look forward to the adventures our kids embrace next.

Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a writer whose work has appeared in range of publications including Consumers Digest, American Baby, Parents Magazine, The New York Times and Westchester Magazine. Her first novel, The Last Dreamer (Lake Union Publishing, 2015), is due out this fall. Visit her at www.BarbaraSolomonJosselsohn.com.

 Photo: Unsplash

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Column: A Letter To My Younger Self

Column: A Letter To My Younger Self

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Letters to Our Younger Selves is a column where readers write letters to their younger selves with insight and perspective.

By Lisa Catapano

Dear Baby Girl,

This is a year of unraveling. Know that there is purpose in your pain. The world desperately needs the wisdom, compassion and kindness borne of your suffering. I promise.

Perfection is a myth. Let it go. There is no right or wrong; no good or bad; no mistake or failure. Perfect is to control as surrender is to flow. Live fully into each experience. Fall and get up many times over. You will discover yourself in your most vulnerable spaces.

Eat more vegetables. Eat more crow. Apologize for the lies you’ve told (“I’m not a virgin”/”I am a virgin”) and for the truths you hide (“I’m a ball of shame”), especially those you hide from yourself (“I’m in over my head”). Humility is strength. Forgiveness is the light.

One day as you walk between the chapel and the library that boundless, blue-eyed man-boy who fills your needy places will declare, “Raisin Bran is my favorite cereal”. With spontaneous delight you will rejoice, “Mine too!” When he fires back “Jesus! Is there anything I like that you don’t?” listen carefully. He’s told you who he is. Believe him. Leave him.

When the mac-n-cheese you’re haphazardly straining gracefully glides into the germy well of the dorm water bubbler, don’t scoop it up and pass it to your roommate. The moment of funny between “the girls in-the-know” will not outweigh the regret you feel as you watch your roommate wretch with food poisoning in the cold and lonely campus infirmary.

Don’t be the girl who skips a semester in Paris for blue-eyed, man-boy. No good decisions are based in fear. Listen to the inside voice pleading “Go abroad!” That is your truth. Your need to be needed is not.

Two thumbs way up for ending your 20th year with a subzero, two mile walk with your closest friends to the local watering hole for $7 pitches of Old Milwaukee and endless kamikaze shots. Nice girls have fun too.

When the rugged, sultry-eyed football player every girl on campus craves walks you home then grabs you by the neck and shoves you up against a wall because you’re not interested, don’t pretend nothing happened. Knee him in the balls. Spit in his face. Call the cops. Women will thank you for years to come.

When you feel misunderstood and desperately alone, wail with reckless abandon. Release your pain. Holding it in holds you back. Surrender brings you into truth. Truth is where love thrives.

Skip the spring break trip to Cancun. No amount of sunshine and cocktails will fill your empty womb. Swallowing your grief looks like this: 5 more man-boys, 3 more devastating heartbreaks, and 12 years of self-flagellation before “her-story” repeats. Know the wiser, braver you will make a different choice next time. You name her Tess after the mother you’ve just lost. Her existence is the love and light you’ve always needed. Your suffering was not in vain.

Thank your mother over and over and over for loving you. Blame her for nothing. Forgive her for everything. She will leave this world having never held her granddaughter and well before the wisdom of time reveals how much you loved and valued her existence.

XOXO,

L

 

 

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This is Ten

This is Ten

WO This is Ten Art 2By Lindsey Mead

This essay is excerpted from Brain, Child’s book, This is Childhood Book & Journal.

I spent my teenage summers at a wonderful, rambling house on the Massachusetts shore with several families. There was always a tangle of children and we got in the habit of going for swims after dinner. One summer, there was phosphorescence. I have never forgotten those unexpected, bright swirls of light, otherworldly, as blinding as they were fleeting

Ten is like that. Ten is phosphorescence. Ten blazes brightly and vanishes so quickly you wonder if your eyes are playing tricks on you.

Ten is a changeling. In my daughter’s mahogany eyes, I see the baby she was and the young woman she is fast becoming. In one moment she’s still a little girl, clutching her teddy bears before bed, and in another she is a near-teenager, dancing and singing along to Nicki Minaj. She oscillates between wanting to bolt for the horizon of young adulthood that she can see and wanting to shrink from it, nestling instead in early childhood with me.

Motherhood has offered me more surprises than I can count, but the biggest one is how lined with loss it is, how striated with sorrow. I am blindsided, over and over again, by the breathless rush of time. For every single thing that will never come again, though, there is a dazzling surprise, a new skill, a new wonder, a new delight. All of parenting is a constant farewell and an endless hallelujah wrapped together, but ten feels like an especially momentous combination of the two.

Ten is evanescent, liminal, unquestionably the end of something, and just as surely the beginning of something else. As my daughter noted, in tears, the night before her tenth birthday, she will “never be single digits again, ever.”

The only thing ten wants more than her ears pierced is a dog. She still laughs uproariously as she flies down a sledding hill, but she also shrugs nonchalantly at the top of a black diamond slope before turning down it and executing perfect turns, her duct-tape-covered helmet a blur of color against the snow.

Ten wears tall Ugg boots I can fit into and impossibly long yoga pants that I mistake for my own when I am folding laundry. Ten organizes her crayons in rainbow order, and I can see the alphabetized spice rack that lies ahead.

Ten swings masterfully across the monkey bars, dribbles a soccer ball all the way up the field and scores, and plays good enough tennis that we can play actual games. Ten loves board games and Club Penguin, and the door of her closet is covered with posters of Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift. When will these girls be replaced in her affection by boys, I wonder? I hope not too soon.

Ten is streaks of brilliance in the dark sea, whose provenance is unknown, which vanish as fast as they appear.

Ten sat on my lap this week, her toes brushing the floor on either side of my legs. I ran my fingers over a temporary tattoo of a shooting star on her arm, and thought: that is what ten is. Ten is a shooting star. An explosion of light and kinesis that will never come again. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Ten leaves heartfelt, tear-jerking notes for me on my pillow, professing her love, devotion, and thanks. Ten sometimes walks icily away from me at school drop-off, refusing to turn around, angry about something.

Ten is sensitive and easily bruised, confused by the startling meanness that can flare in other adolescent girls, desperate to be liked. Ten is alternately fragile and fierce.

Ten is vehement attachment and lurching swipes at separation. When ten grows up, she wants to be a veterinarian, a mother, and a writer. In the “about the author” section of a book she wrote at school, she said that the author took five years to write the book, because she was also raising her children. Ten doesn’t miss a single thing, and what I do matters a hundred times more than what I say.

Ten kneels in front of the “fairy stream” at a nearby park, breath drawn, and I swear that enchantment still brushes past her, like her heroine, Hermione, running by under the invisibility cloak. Ten caught my eye last Christmas when she said something about Santa, conveying in a single look that she knew he wasn’t real but that she didn’t want to ruin it for her younger brother.

Ten is the child who made me a mother, my pioneer, my trailblazer, walking hand-in-hand with me through all the firsts of her childhood and my motherhood. Ten is grace. Ten is my amazing Grace.

Anne Sexton said, “I look for uncomplicated hymns, but love has none.” Ten is a complicated hymn, a falling star, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in time, an otherworldly flash of green gorgeousness in the dark ocean.

Author’s Note: I studied English in college, and wrote my thesis on poetry and motherhood. After graduation, however, I took a sharp turn into the business world and stayed there for many years. It was watching my children, finally—particularly their here-now stubbornness and simultaneous persistent reminder of time’s passage—that prodded me back to the page. Many things about parenting have surprised me, but none more than how unavoidably bittersweet it is. “This is Ten” is one of many pieces I have written about my daughter and son in an attempt to remember the small, mundane, yet blindingly beautiful details of their (and our) everyday lives.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives outside of Boston with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with an AB in English and received an MBA from Harvard. Her work has been published in a variety of print and online sources. She writes regularly at A Design So Vast.

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My Only Sunshine

My Only Sunshine

By Amanda Rose Adams

sunset-hair

Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care.

 

It began as a small white spot above my lip, beneath my nose, less noticeable than my adult acne. The acne far was more frustrating and what drove me to the dermatologist. During my visit I did ask her about the spot. She shrugged and told me if it started to bleed to come back. The spot never went away but grew so slowly that when it finally started bleeding I didn’t realize how large or deep it had grown.

My dermatologist barely looked at my cracking skin and said, “It’s probably cancer.” I left that appointment with a bandage over my lip, while a layer of my spot went to the pathologist. It was cancer, specifically a basal cell carcinoma. The irony was that I never spent much time in the sun compared to my siblings or peers. I’ve never seen the inside of a tanning booth, and am not an outdoorsy person. Being so pale, I usually wore sunblock and hats on the rare occasions I was outdoors as an adult, but that was too little too late. As a parent, I’ve always stressed sun block and hats. My kids are both pale too, and neither has ever had a tan or serious sunburn. The burns they’ve had are extremely rare and relatively mild, but we live at high altitude and with every mild burn damage is done.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, “The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly.”

For several days after the nurse called to confirm my diagnosis, I was conflicted. I felt angry at myself for being upset about a cancer that wouldn’t kill me. Basal cell carcinomas can spread to the bone but are far more disfiguring than dangerous. My mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, and I lost my father to esophageal cancer. I felt like I was being a baby about my minor cancer.

Still, it was a cancerous growth and it was on my face. The Internet was not reassuring. Every photo I found of basal cell carcinoma or the Mohs surgical procedure to remove it, presented an extreme case of a “Carcinomas gone wild.” Nothing resembled my little white spot.

The day of my surgery, I learned that the little white spot was fairly deep, not to the bone, but deep enough that the doctor sent my cells to the lab three times before they came back clean and he could close my incision. This small spot left a hole that required over forty stitches to close inside and outside of my skin. The seemingly innocuous white spot was gone but I looked like I’d been mauled by a dog or gone through a windshield, and it took months for me to get any feeling back on the left side of my upper lip.

At the pharmacy, even with bandages covering my stitches I felt strangers stare and knew what they were thinking, “What happened to her?” The answer was too simple, too much sun.

Since my diagnosis in early 2013, I have an annual skin cancer check. This year, I’ve had three. The first was with my old dermatologist whose treatment of two suspicious growths failed to take. The second was with my new dermatologist who successfully removed what turned out to be a wart on my thumb and identified a scar tissue growth on my ankle. On my third visit she froze two suspicious white spots from the tip of my nose and on the side of my face near my ear. She called them “precancerous.”

The one on my nose seems to have disappeared, but the spot at my hairline is still bumpy. If it bleeds again, I’ll be back for my fourth visit and another biopsy. As a patient, this journey has been relatively minor compared to other medical issues in our family.

Recently I brought my children, who are eleven and twelve, to the dermatologist too, in hope that she could educate them about proper sun care. I’ve bought them daily moisturizer with SPF that the dermatologist recommended, but I’m usually at work before they are dressed and at their age I cannot be sure they’re using it. Forcing them to wear a hat is about as effective as it was when they were babies and dropped them out of their double stroller.

When I had my surgery in 2013, I rested a lot and kept the wound covered. By the time the stitches came out it wasn’t nearly as frightening. After two years and regular use of a silicone gel the scar isn’t any more noticeable than the little white spot that caused it. So, my kids don’t seem to even remember my surgery or the wound.

As I struggle to get my adolescent children to take their sun protection seriously, I wonder if I should show them my after photos since they don’t seem to remember what Mom’s face looked like. Maybe I should show them the before photo of the little white spot to show them how minor the carcinoma looks.

I can’t bring myself to show them the over the top photos of people whose basal cell carcinomas went unchecked until they were genuinely disfiguring, but part of me is tempted. As if the outrageousness of it would unsettle them like a driving school video of a car accident. It would probably be as effective. Thinking these things will never happen to you, even if they are heredity, is a right of passage for kids. So, I keep buying the sun protection, nagging, and taking them to the dermatologist. Maybe the knowledge will soak in before too much sun damage is done.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and her work has been featured in the New York Times Well Family, The American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics and various literary journals. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaroseadams or visit her blog at www.amandaroseadams.com.

This essay was originally published on Brain Child in May 2015

Photo: Alexander Shustov

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Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

Advice from My Daughters Upon Their Graduation

High school graduation hats high

By Francie Arenson Dickman

“Focus on how you want to feel when you’re finished.” My daughter texted me these words of advice—a tip I assume she acquired from her time spent dancing on stage—minutes before I took the stage for a show I was recently in called, ironically, Listen to Your Mother. I’d had no problem writing the essay I was about to read, but reading it aloud to hundreds of people terrified me. As I stood in the wings, waiting to hear my name, I marveled at my daughter’s maturity. But just for a moment, because that’s all it took. Not for my name to be called but for my daughter’s next text to roll in. “I need a haircut.”

With that, the wisdom of my daughter was superseded by that of Lisa Damour, author of Untangled; Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. “Teenagers,” she tells us, “are totally competent, until they’re not.” How I love this line. It’s a reminder—if not a wake up call entirely—because I have a tendency to rush to judgement. My girls are fourteen years old, almost fifteen, they are about to graduate 8th grade. Yet my presumption is still that they are my children and I am the adult, therefore I advise and they listen, I know more and they know less. When clearly, this is not the case. They have whole subsets of knowledge and ability and insight that I lack. Not only did my daughter advise me before I went on stage, but my other daughter dressed me.

“You can’t wear that,” she said when I came into her room to check myself out in her mirror wearing an outfit I thought was proper performance attire.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s a dress. You don’t wear dresses.”

I, in the role of the teenager, said, “But I’m sure all the other women will be wearing dresses.” (They weren’t.)

She, in the role of the adult, told me that I had to feel comfortable on stage, I had to feel like myself. After this, she outfitted me. She even layered my necklaces. Then, her sister came into my bathroom to do my makeup. “I don’t know how a 47-year-old woman could get this far without knowing how to do makeup,” she told me. (I can and do, for the record, apply theirs.)

Also for the record, I should add that they had an easier time dressing me than they did themselves. Their process of finding graduation dresses smacked of insanity. If your UPS packages arrived late for several weeks last month, I apologize. We were monopolizing the delivery trucks. It was embarrassing actually but, as I kept reminding myself, they are teenagers, and teenagers are totally competent, until they’re not.

There is no surer sign of competence than the ability to recognize another’s incompetence, which my kids surely can because I got a self-help book for Mother’s Day. You heard me right. My fourteen-year-old gave me a book called something like How to be Badass because, as she explained after I looked at her cross-eyed—in a who’s guiding who sort of way—she didn’t like my attitude towards getting my book published. She told me I needed more badass.

On the very first page of Untangled, Damour explains that when it comes to raising teenage girls, our default setting is fear and our expectation is trouble. “If you are reading this book,” Damour writes, “someone has already remarked about your daughter, ‘Oh just wait till she’s a teenager!'” This is true. I got this line the minute I started to cart them around in the stroller. “Cute now, but just wait til they’re teenagers.” My mother told me several years ago to take a deep breath and hold it for the next ten years.

I’m not saying the expectation is unfounded, as evidenced by the ill-timed haircut request or the 4,000 dresses ordered for graduation. But I admit that the stereotype and my natural tendency to anticipate the worst has unfairly undertoned my parental assumptions. Much the same way my skeptical mindset about getting my book published has been colored by word on the street that the publishing industry, much like the parenting one, is brutal.

Enjoying this essay? Purchase our annual print issue of Brain Teen: For Parents of Teens.

I was great when my girls were younger, when they were four and spent mornings around the kitchen table and my job was to read and teach and theirs was entirely to listen.    I’m good at the molding and the shaping. It’s the next part, the letting go, the sending of my projects off into the universe and trusting that they’ll fly that trips me up. And so I keep hanging on by talking and teaching and lecturing and advising even though I know and Damour confirms that I am “wasting my breath.” When a teenager nods her head with glazed over eyes, she’s not listening. She’s simply wearing her “veil of obedience.” I imagine that my daughters’ veils are well worn. And they’re only fourteen. Apparently mothers, too, are totally competent until we are not.

Being a badass, according to my Mother’s Day present, doesn’t mean being tough, it means being brave, acting despite your fear, and trusting in the universe to give you what you need. Indeed, at least on occasion, it does. I was—what do you know—preparing to give my girls a bunch of advice upon graduation. Instructions for how to proceed in the next phase of life. Instead, they gave it to me.

So I will sit in the audience as this time my daughters take the stage, in the dresses they picked, in the make up I’ve done, in the hair that’s been cut, and I will graduate, too. I have four more years with my girls, my girlfriends, under my roof. Why don’t I just take a page from their book, and focus on how I want to feel when I’m finished.

Francie Arenson is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completed her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her work at: franciearensondickman.com.

This piece was originally published in Brain Child in June 2016.

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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

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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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Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen

Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen

woman-hand-writing-in-an-agenda-at-home-picture-id504821680By Marsha McGregor

“Before I Forget – Notes to My Teen”  is a monthly column of wisdoms for our teens.

When To Pretend You Are Fine and When Not To

There is room for both in your life.

If you have done some excruciating, embarrassing thing, by all means cringe invisibly. Breathe through your blushing. Act natural.

If you are being bullied or mocked, give your predators no pleasure and hold your head high.

If you are on a nerve-wracking job interview, of course you are fine. Just look at you, all collected and mature, no fidgeting or twisting of hair.

If you’ve been rejected by a casual acquaintance, if someone doesn’t text you back, you can respond if you feel so called. It’s OK to pretend you are fine.

But if your heart is breaking, if you hold some terrible secret, if you are scared or sad or worried or lost, never pretend you are fine, especially with the people you love. Unlock yourself. Let yourself be reached. Someone is waiting to help you.

 

Voices From the Kitchen

When I come downstairs in the morning and you have fallen asleep on the couch the night before, I try not to clang the plates from the dishwasher as I empty it. Your father and I sit at the kitchen table with our coffee, exchanging bits of married-people conversation, moving seamlessly from how much cat food we have left in the pantry to something outrageous happening in Washington to wondering aloud if the Cavaliers play tonight. Between the bits of talk there are stitches of silence. He stands up to open the back door and yells loudly at the squirrel hanging on the bird feeder. Those squirrels are costing us a fortune this winter. They always do, and he always yells out the door at them.

I wonder then if you are still sleeping deeply, or if you are drifting in and out. Or if you are briefly awakened and grimacing in annoyance at your dad yelling at the squirrel, but smiling a little, too. I wonder if you smell the steaming coffee and hear the morning voices in the gray light and know that this is happiness.

Marsha McGregor is a contributing writer for Brain Teen, our print magazine for parents of teens.

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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

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Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

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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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Column: A Letter to My Younger Self

Column: A Letter to My Younger Self

By Danielle Naugler

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Letters to Our Younger Selves,  is a 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.

Dear 20-Year-Old Self,

The good news is, this will be one of the hardest years of your life, and in the scheme of things, it’s nothing.

 

Between the rejections you face in theatre, the responsibility you shoulder as an RA, the disappointment you feel in your brother when he trades his opportunity to follow in your footsteps at a great university for the chance to smoke away his college years, the fear you weather as your young garandmother faces and defeats stage four cancer, and the depth to which you realize you’ve lost yourself in your first serious relationship, you’ll think nothing can top that first year of your twenties. But just wait until you’ve been around the world and back a couple times, and to war with bed bugs for the sake of your relationship with Manhattan, and to the mansion in Malibu where they filmed a season of The Bachelor. After all that, when your weight and your heart are at their heaviest, you’ll find the cold grey basement floor of your parents’ home is the perfect place to hit rock bottom and start your climb back up.

You should know, you actually do like broccoli, and strawberries, and zucchini, and peppers, and bananas, and pears, and salad in general. Not cucumbers. Not celery. But brussel sprouts, believe it or not, cookies made with coconut oil instead of butter, and salsa – oh my God, salsa.

At the mansion where they filmed a season of The Bachelor, you’ll be starving – you won’t have had a carb in a week. Won’t have had anything to drink since before dinner the night before, because that’s how cutting water works, and you Xenadrine girls will have been told to cut water before filming your commercial there so as not to look at all bloated on camera. You’ll stand by the Grecian styled pool in a cobalt blue bikini and silver heels – cubic zirconium studs in your ears and fake lashes on you heavily made up eyes. You’ll give a misleading testimony that can be found on the internet to this day to the effect of “taking these pills totally changed my life.” And then you’ll thank God you dyed your signature curly golden blonde locks brown before landing that “gig” so no one will confuse the girl in the commercial for the one in your headshot.

You’ll learn no amount of weight you shed will change things the way you had hoped they might, because even being fitness model skinny won’t make your soap opera actor ex fall back in love with you.

You could snoop through said soap opera ex’s Facebook messages in July instead of August of 2008 to find his correspondence with the skinnier blonde, and cancel that second flight to Australia with him, because the money you’re going to spend simultaneously having your heart broken and going to the third of thirty six weddings in eight years while you’re there would be better spent paying down credit cards. You might also decline the invite to rendezvous in New Mexico in June of 2013 and instead ask the international man of mystery you met on a layover in Brussels to put his money where his mouth is and meet you on your turf instead of his. But if you don’t, fear not, because without making those pilgrimages, you won’t find out how cool it is to seek the comfort of church in different corners of the world. Mass has the same soothing rhythm whether it’s said in Italian or Spanish or English, and exchanging the sign of peace with strangers reminds you love and grace can carry you through anything.

At twenty, you’re struggling to find and define yourself, wearing a gajillion hats and scheduling your weeks so tightly, because you’re convinced you can catch up to your parents, but it was their path to “have all the answers” by twenty one when they started their family. It’s yours to keep uncovering questions well in to your thirties, and probably forties and fifties and beyond, since you will worry more about birthing your creative projects than listening for your biological clock to go off.

Luckily at twenty one, you’ll wear a fig leaf bikini on stage that makes you, your friends and your family forget you ever played a pink sheep in an operetta. And before you hit your thirties, you’ll make a point of double checking if your dreams are meant to take the shape of a place out west before your second brother has his son and you decide to settle back in on the east coast to be close to your original crew.   You’ll have met so many people searching for connections you are already incredibly blessed to have at home.

You’ll come to believe time is what you make of it when, after being on a train that’s actually going to Switzerland, you manage to re-route back to the airport in Belgium in time to catch the flight you booked for you and your baby sister.
You’ll delight in American and European adventuring on trips like that one with both your sisters, and you’ll befriend the two of them, which I know you’re hoping to.

You can’t fix anyone, or just “do it for them,” and the sooner you learn that, the lighter you’ll feel.

Girly, you’re just getting started doing the things you say you’re going to. Be patient. Be kind. Be gentle on yourself, and be open to actually living – not just dreaming up – your story. You can’t make this stuff up.

 

A few years ago, Sugar, aka Cheryl Strayed (who has published in Brain Child), wrote a “letter to her younger self” in one of her stunning Rumpus advice columns. 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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Don’t Tell Me I’ll Miss This

Don’t Tell Me I’ll Miss This

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By Stephanie Portell

“Cherish this time when they’re little.” I hear this all the time. I hear it from family, and I hear it from strangers. But no matter whom I hear it from, for me, it’s bullshit. How am I  supposed to stop and live in the moment when my toddler is screaming his head off because I gave him the wrong color bowl? How am I  supposed to find preciousness in my toddler screaming even louder in public when I tell him to be quiet? All I want to do in these moments is run away, shave my head and wear dark sunglasses so my kids can never find me. If you never want to run, and have found a way to seize the day, please let me in on the secret.

I have two children and I can speak with certainty when I say I am not going to miss this. With my first baby, who is seven now, I would try so hard to be present and to soak up the moments I was supposed to be soaking up. Even though there were likely only five or six times in my oldest son’s first two years I actually wanted to soak it up.

Now with my three-year-old, there is probably one moment a year on average I want to soak up (he is my wild child) and I find myself less inclined to do so. I don’t want to remember the times I wanted to run away as fast as I could. I want to remember him climbing in my lap and laying his head on my shoulder. I don’t want to remember him kicking and swatting at me as I’m struggling to put him in time out for clocking his big brother.  Instead, I want to remember him saying “you my best friend mommy.”

Let’s face it: In the first few years the blissful moments can be far and few between. I spent much of my time with my toddlers fantasizing about when they’d be teens. Thinking that if I had three wishes I would ask the genie to fast forward to when my children acted less like whirling dervishes and more like little adults.  In my most shameful moments, I ask myself why did I decide to do this in the first place?

***

Note to reader – I had put down my pen for a few weeks after writing this first part of my essay and now, weeks later, return to the writing anew. I have to tell you something important.

I want you to imagine a life of silence. Imagine a life where you don’t have to make a detailed plan just to go to the grocery store with your baby, your toddler, and your tween. Ah– freedom.

In the middle of my not-savor-the-moment thinking between starting and now finishing this piece, I watched a story that Oprah did once on her show. It was about a mom, and her three children who had an ordinary day going to the mall.

I don’t know this mom. I didn’t know her kids.

I don’t know if the youngest threw a fit when they left the mall that day because it was nap time, or if the oldest whined when she couldn’t get the shirt she wanted.

But I know that on their way home when a truck rear-ended them, and killed all three of her children, that mother would have given anything to hear a tantrum again. To hear her children complain, or bicker.

She would give anything to have to explain for the millionth time why her daughter can’t just buy whatever she wants at the mall, and to not be a chauffeur for soccer games and dance recitals without so much as a “thanks mom.”

Hearing this family’s story made me realize even though it’s perfectly OK for us to complain about our everyday challenges with the kiddos, it is also much needed to be present as best as we can. It doesn’t have to be the challenging moments when we want to pull the hair from our head in frustration. It can mean just making sure you are checked in mentally when you are having a genuine good time with your kids instead of only being there physically. It can mean not taking advantage of that time to do work or to just do something without them. Bathroom anyone?

I can’t be present 100 percent of the time or even 50 percent, if I told you otherwise I would be lying.

I am just saying I am going to live in as many moments as I can, because those moments are going to turn into my child’s own memories one day.

I remind myself, and you should too perhaps, that the mom’s kids in the Oprah story are gone, along with all of those moments she thought she would never miss.

Stephanie Portell is the mother of two little boys. She works full time in the medical field while working on her dream of writing any chance she gets.

 

 

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Happiness In A Hammock?

Happiness In A Hammock?

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By B.J. Hollars

Our plan was perfect: grab pillows, sleeping bags, then head to the hammock for a beautiful night under the stars. There, I’d point out constellations (or try to), identify owl calls (or make them up), and finally, after a good hour or so of father-son bonding (“And that, my son, is the secret to the universe…”), four-year-old Henry and I would drift off to sleep in the slow rock of the nighttime wind.

Then, we’d replay this scene every night of the summer.

Yes, it was a perfect plan, in theory, at least: our unforgettable summer nights spent snoozing outdoors.

Henry was on board. My wife, less so.

“He needs a good night sleep,” she’d argued that first night, and since my rebuttal was thin, I left it to the wilderness.

“Can’t hear you,” I hollered, as my son and I dragged our sleeping bags into the yard. “That Great Horned Owl’s really whooping it up tonight!”

The next several minutes were dedicated to Henry and me engaged in the spectator sport of two people trying to balance side-by-side in a hammock. Mistakes were made. Vocabularies were inadvertently expanded four letters at a time. Fast forward a few flips, however, and we’d seemed to have figured it out. The trick involved stretching my limbs to the corners of the netting—the dad-bod equivalent of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

There would be future flips (one, in fact, that would momentarily land Henry in the hospital), but despite the black eye, I remained committed to our cause night after night.

“Come on,” I called the evening following our hospital visit, “let’s go try it again.”

And try we did, again and again, though we never quite lasted until morning. Yet in our dozen or so attempts to call our hammock our bed, we still managed to fulfill my initial vision— the two of us chatting about stars, owls, and the difference between our pine tree and our birch.

One night we even got around to talking about my own childhood backyard, the stars I once saw, the trees I once knew, and Henry’s grandpa—my father—who never missed a chance to stand alongside me and misidentify a few owls himself.   Young as I was I still remember those nights, and over time, have come to treasure those memories. How we’d peer out at the dark and point to everything in it—A bat! A bug! A Bigfoot! It didn’t much matter what we allegedly saw; what mattered was that we’d allegedly seen it together. What I wouldn’t give, I sometimes think, to go back to being the son for a while. Whereas it’s the parent’s job to make the magic, it’s the child’s job simply to soak it all in. In one role we star in the movie, in the other role we direct it.

Despite my best efforts, most nights last summer I couldn’t bring the magic. I’d had my directorial vision, of course, though more often than not my vision was ruined by rain or mosquitoes or both. Inevitability, I’d call cut, and then Henry and I would make the slow march back to the house, having dozed off just long enough to give the impression that we’d indeed slept under the stars.

In the mornings, when he woke in his bed amid a slew of stuffed animals, Henry still fancied himself an outdoorsman.

“How’d you sleep?” my wife would ask over cereal.”Good,” he’d say, never breathing a word of our retreat.

When my wife’s eyes drifted toward me, I’d double-down on Henry’s response.

“Good,” I’d repeat, straight-faced. “We slept like a couple of babies.”

More accurately, we were a couple of babies, and it didn’t take much to rouse us back to our beds. But our dream states ensured that we only ever remembered the good parts from the previous night: the moonlight, the constellations, the magical moments we’d made.

This, of course, is the lesson we, parents, often learn too late: that every moment has the potential for magic, not just the ones we create. Sure, we can try to stage every scene in our children’s’ lives, but at some point the stagecraft feels like a lie. What good is a memory, after all, if the memory is simply a page from our script?

Last night, in our final acknowledgement of defeat, Henry and I disassembled the hammock for the season. We broke down the bars, rolled up the netting, then carried it piece by piece to the basement.

“I know!” Henry said upon our arrival there. “Let’s set it back up and sleep down here every night.”

I chuckled at his suggestion.

“It’ll be awesome!” he continued. “No rain or mosquitoes or anything!”

Suddenly, I stopped chuckling. I tossed my script and improvised..

Five minutes later, I returned my dad-bod once more into the Vitruvian Man. Henry, hitting his cue, climbed aboard.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

Lady Liberty Speaks To The Donald

Lady Liberty Speaks To The Donald

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Protestors, bring your peonies to the picket lines, your marigolds to marches. Bring daisies and daffodils, roses and quince. Consider, perhaps, wild flowers; lavender and lupine. “See,” you will subtly say, “each bloom is different.” Diversity is gorgeous.

Bring your confetti, your fairy dust; something to sprinkle the bad stuff away. Something nontoxic that lands soft when tossed on the White House stairs, little wishes curling at the seams; people’s hopes and dreams.

You Donald, bring us your very many tax forms, your very many campaign promises, your sound bites and speeches. Yes, bring us your words, so we too can alter facts, rearrange the letters into something plausible, something with a lisp of empathy, something we wish you had said. We will imagine again, in the space of our findings, our wheat fields and flower beds.

And should you even think you can blow my lantern out, believe me, you can’t. I will summon the sun and the stars for light.

Marcelle Soviero is the editor-in-chief of Brain Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. She is also an award-winning poet and essayist and mother of five children.

@msoviero

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What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

What Does Pregnancy Feel Like?

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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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What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

What Being Muslim Means To My Daughter

Muslim-girl-resizeBy Stephanie Meade

“I wish I could eat pork like Eryn!”

It’s a harmless statement really. My four-year-old wishes a lot of things. She wishes she could have a dog and a monkey, she wishes she could “buy” a princess (I explained to her you can’t buy people but left the discussions of slavery and human trafficking for a later date), a certain dress or a stuffed animal. Sometimes she wishes she could be other people or have other family members. But something in this statement felt a little like sandpaper on my skin and I couldn’t at first pinpoint why.

The month of Ramadan just finished—a time of spirituality and fasting from sunup to sundown—and I tried to fast like I always do but didn’t succeed beyond one day. The maximum I have fasted is 12 days, which made me feel like a superstar. But when you think Muslims are fasting for 30 days, my sense of accomplishment dwindles. The thing is, I’m not Muslim so I don’t even have to fast like my husband looks forward to doing every year. But I try—not because my husband wants me to (I had to put that up front as that’s what most people assume)—but because I like the holiday spirit it creates in our household, the togetherness. Our household has two sets of beliefs but each of our traditions is part of the same family canvas, blending seamlessly like a watercolor painting.

Before we had kids, my husband and I had decided to raise them as a balance of both of our belief systems. Even though I lacked a formal religion, I consider myself spiritual. But after the kids were born I changed. I felt strongly that being raised within a faith is beneficial, especially when you go through hard times in life. I always wished I had been raised with a strong sense of faith versus the nominally Catholic-but-never-went-to-church religion I grew up with. So Muslim became their predominant identity, with perhaps a trace of something else that doesn’t have a name, like when my daughter once told me between tears to say an “om” for her to calm down.

The thing about celebrating Muslim holidays in the West is they don’t feel much like holidays. You can’t pop over to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and pick up some decorations or Islam-inspired crafting supplies while Ramadan-themed music plays in the background. As you go about your daily fast—tired, a little drained and just plain hungry and thirsty until the magical minute of sundown arrives, which in the summer isn’t until almost 9 p.m.—not many people understand why you would undertake such a practice. And when it’s Eid, the big celebration at the end of Ramadan, with presents, feasting, new clothes, social gatherings, candy for kids and holiday cheer, it’s just business as usual for most of the Western world. That part I’ve grown used to.  I should be more used to people’s surprise (putting it mildly) when I mention my husband is Muslim and we celebrate Ramadan. I don’t seem to fit their profile of what they think a woman married to a Muslim guy would be like. But that discussion, on stereotypes and Islam’s negative portrayal in the West, is not the one for today. But it’s not entirely irrelevant to my four-year-old’s innocuous statement about wanting to eat pork either.

For now, I know my little one’s proclamations of wanting to partake in foods outside her religion don’t mean much. She is secure in her Arab and Muslim identity and still protected at age four, just barely, by the paper-thin innocence of childhood.  When we were in Mexico recently boarding a plane, someone asked where she was from. “Morocco,” she answered, even though she was born and has lived her whole life in the U.S.  Boisterous and chatty, she tells strangers pretty much everything and anything on her mind, even stuff that makes us squirm a little, like yelling to our twenty-something neighbors over the fence that they shouldn’t be smoking.  She loves experimenting with different head scarves, likely because she adores our babysitter who wears one, and looks for any excuse to wear her fancy Moroccan dresses, putting together color combinations that make me sure I will be asking for her fashion advice in a few short years. Unlike her six-year-old sister, she brings up God a lot in her questions. While my six-year-old doesn’t talk much about God, she enjoys praying with my husband when it’s Ramadan.  She also loves singing Arabic songs and teaching them to her friends. But she identifies herself differently from her sister. “I’m English,” meaning American, (as she was making the distinction from speaking Arabic).

However, as they grow older in a society that regards Islam unfavorably, they will face questions, comments and likely even criticism. I hope the foundation we are building for them of confidence in themselves, pride in their heritage and an appreciation and love for many other cultures and religions will be their source of strength. I hope they will not just recognize that people are different and that’s what makes the world beautiful, but take confidence from that statement I regularly repeat. And with that confidence they won’t want to be anyone but themselves.

Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising globally minded children.

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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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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Parents Need Privacy—If Only For A Moment

Parents Need Privacy—If Only For A Moment

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By B.J. Hollars

The day started off promising enough. I’d just risen from my bed without disturbing the dog, my children, or my wife, a feat that earned me a few minutes of solitude before the day’s chaos began. There, in the pre-dawn silence I tip-toed into the shower, a smile slipping over my face as the hot water rained down.

And then, without warning, my privacy was interrupted by a New Orleans-style brass band parading through the bathroom, complete with tubas, trombones, and a drumline. By which I mean my young children and dog had apparently woken, ignoring every other square inch of our home and opting to take their shouting (and barking) to the bathroom.

“Somebody’s in here!” I hollered from behind the shower curtain.

“It’s okay,” my four-year-old called, “you’re not bothering us.”

As the children fought over toothbrushes with the ferocity of rival street gangs, I reached for my towel and excused myself without even attempting to broker the peace. Doing so would require diplomatic skills I simply did not possess—at least not while wrapped in a towel without so much as a sip of caffeine.

This bathroom-barging soon became our morning ritual. There was always some battle worth fighting, my children decided, and there was no better battleground than the bathroom—preferably when I was in it. Thankfully, the shower noise generally overpowered my screams, though surely my frustration was palpable.

Is it asking too much, I wondered, for a moment’s peace of mind?

The alternative, I knew, was one’s mind going to pieces—a situation that seemed more and more likely with each passing day.

When the shower failed to serve as a refuge, I sought asylum in less conspicuous places inside our home. Surely there must be a coffin-sized crawlspace somewhere, I reasoned, or a bit of room behind the water heater.

Meanwhile, my wife retreated to the running trails alongside our home. Within a year of our second child’s birth she’d become a marathon runner—26.2 miles was nothing compared to putting up with us.

Through all this hectic mayhem, the veteran parents—whose children had long ago flown the coop—often reminded us to cherish these “precious moments” while we could. “It’s all over in the blink of an eye,” they chided. I didn’t doubt them, but I wondered, too, if those veterans remembered what it was like to spend years of one’s life never being alone. If they’d agree that not every moment was as “precious” as they remembered, and that the “blink of an eye” seems pretty darn long when you’re living it. For me, this is the most difficult philosophical dilemma of parenthood: making a sincere effort to embrace the chaos when some days I’m just a click away from a one-way ticket to Tahiti.

While I know those veteran parents are offering me sound advice, in my more sleep-deprived moments, I can’t help but wonder if their rose-colored glasses are on a little too tight. Make no mistake, I don’t begrudge them their prophecies. And when they get that faraway look in their eyes and tell me how “the days are long but the years are short,” I know there’re speaking truth. I know, too, that one day I’ll become afflicted with that same faraway look, and I’ll parrot the same advice. This is the cautionary tale all veteran parents must preach: a reminder to the new recruits that our time together is short. And a reminder, too, that every diaper we change leads us one diaper closer to the last one; that there’s always a day when the soccer games run out and the dance recitals come to a standstill. Inevitably, there will come a night when nobody requires a story before bed. With each passing day, that inevitably creeps closer. Some nights my children close their doors and tell me they need their “privacy.” Their request is ripe for revenge—a perfect opportunity to burst in with a tuba in tow. But I don’t. Not ever. Instead, I scratch my head and wonder what in the world we are to do with ourselves when we’re no longer constantly needed.

What’s a shower, after all, without someone tossing your keys in the toilet?

I write this now from the bowels of my basement. Overheard, I hear the pitter patter of small feet. From what I can glean, somebody has apparently stolen somebody’s maraca. And somebody else believes that maraca is rightfully hers. Fighting ensues, followed by crying, and then some unexpected laughter. Suddenly, I hear the sound of two maracas, some off-key singing, and a yowling dog to boot. Here in this basement, it might as well be the tabernacle choir.

“What’s going on up there?” I holler.

My children ignore me.

Which is all the invitation I need to close the computer, barge into their band, and start beating the bongos as if all our lives depend upon it.

B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com

Photo credit: Designer’s Trapped

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Saying Goodbye to Our Foster Child

Saying Goodbye to Our Foster Child

By Meghan Moravcik Walbert

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Illustration by Linda Willis

I make a list of all of the essentials. The things he needs and the things I know he will really want. The things that will help him fall asleep at night. The things he will cry for.

I put the finishing touches on the photo book I will send with him so that hopefully he won’t forget our faces too quickly.

I order yet another copy of Goodnight Moon. This time, it’s a recordable version that will help him remember how our voices sounded as we read to him each night at bedtime.

I will stock him up on size 4 T-shirts and summer pajamas. Maybe a new pair of Crocs. Yet another pair of sunglasses even though I know, I know, he will probably break them in the first week. I will buy him these things in advance to get him set up for next season, which he will spend without me.

I am un-nesting. I am preparing not for the arrival of my child but for his departure.

He’s not my child, though. Not legally. He is my four-year-old foster son, a boy whom I have never had any real claim over, but a child I have fed and hugged and cried over and corrected and laughed with and loved for the better part of the past year.

He’s not mine, but oh, how it feels like he is.

I prepared for him, the little boy we nicknamed BlueJay within the first day we met him. I prepared for him in ways that mirrored the ways in which I prepared for the arrival of my biological son, Ryan, who is now 5 years old.

I decorated BlueJay’s room just as I had prepared Ryan’s room. My husband, Mike, and I made announcements to family. I read parenting books and Google’d endless topics.

I also prepared for him in ways that looked completely different. Foster nesting requires training sessions, invasive questions about your marriage, health assessments and, in our case, four separate background checks.

BlueJay was wanted. Long before I knew he was, in fact, a he. Long before I knew he doesn’t walk, he only runs. Long before I knew about his macaroni and cheese obsession or his fear of fireworks or the way he crosses his arms with an audible HUFF when he’s mad, he was very, very wanted.

I used to sit in his bedroom, back then. Back when my heart swelled in a way that felt strangely familiar to the way my belly swelled as I grew Ryan. I would sit on his bed and imagine it. I would rub my hand back and forth across his quilt and try to picture tucking a child beneath it’s warmth.

I tried to picture it all. Two kids jumping in waves at the ocean’s edge on our annual family vacation. Two kids clad in costume with two pumpkin buckets clasped in tiny gloved hands. Two kids running down the stairs on Christmas morning. Two kids laughing. Two kids yelling. Two kids playing and fighting and making faces at each other over their dinner plates.

I imagined the first hello.

The surreality of it left me breathless.

In the moments when I’m strong enough — or are they the moments when I am the weakest? — I un-imagine it.

I picture the way our house will once again be quieted. The half-empty backseat of my car. One pair of rain boots instead of two. The way our family will no longer fill up an entire booth in a restaurant.

I imagine the last goodbye.

The pain leaves me breathless.

If this were to happen, I had thought back then, we would be fine. Yes, we ultimately wanted to adopt, but we were well aware there are no such guarantees when you foster a child. Reunification with the biological family is almost always the primary goal. It’s an important goal, a goal we fully supported then and still support now.

That’s why we thought if our placement didn’t end in adoption, everything would still be OK.

Sure, it felt at the time like maybe there was a small gap in our family where a fourth person could permanently fit, but the hole wasn’t gaping. We weren’t woefully incomplete. We were a regular family with a happy, typical life that happened to have room for a little bit more. More joy, more love, more noise, more family.

If our foster child reunited with his family, we would simply bask in the warm knowledge that we were able to provide a stable, safe and loving home for him at a time when he needed it the most.

But BlueJay is the giant bell in our lives that can never be un-rung. He’s no longer an idea or a possibility. There is nothing abstract about him anymore. He’s not a category on a sheet of paper or a series of checked boxes indicating who we can – or are willing to – accept.

Now, he’s the loudest, fastest, clumsiest and most hilarious piece of our family puzzle. That piece you might hold up initially and think, “I’m not sure where this fits,” until you fill in everything else first and then suddenly realize you needed that piece all along. The piece that somehow pulls the rest of you together.

After him, you do not simply return to the same old content life of a family of three. He changes you.

I am running out of time. I want to somehow cram a lifetime of parenting into the next few weeks.

I want him to know he should never look in a lady’s purse without asking. Or that he should chew with his mouth closed, then swallow, then speak.

It isn’t polite to point, kiddo. Sit on your bottom. Don’t just look both ways when you cross the street; listen, too.

It’s OK to feel frustrated or angry. Deep breaths will help.

Your words have power, so choose them carefully.

Your choices have consequences, so make the best ones you can.

If you’re sorry, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.

If you love someone, say it. When you say it, look directly into the person’s eyes.

Be kind. To friends and family, to strangers, to the person taking your order at a restaurant.

Be yourself. Be the boy whose favorite color is purple. Be the loudest person in the room. Be the bull in a china shop. These are the things that make you stand out, make you special.

Remember that I always love you. Always. No matter what. No matter where you are or what you’ve done, nothing will ever stop me from loving you. Even when you can’t see me, especially when you can’t see me, I am loving you.

I have no idea how much love and respect and pride I can imprint on him before he leaves. I have no choice but to focus on the things I can control.

So, I make the lists. I will pack up his favorite stuffed puppy dog and his Ninja Turtles bathrobe and his toy guitar. I will type up notes detailing his bedtime routine and his favorite foods for the far-away relatives who will raise him after me. I will give suggestions on what to do when his emotional triggers are tripped or when he regresses and it seems like he truly can’t distinguish blue from orange even though we know he can.

I will tell them, when all else fails, to turn the radio up and let him dance.

Meghan Moravcik Walbert is a freelance writer, a stay-at-home mother to her five-year-old biological son, and a foster parent. She writes about motherhood and foster parenthood from her home in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she is the author of the Foster Parent Diary series on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. More of her writing can be found at phasethreeoflife.com.

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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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Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

Adoption Support Is Hard to Find

By Jenna Hatfield

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I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

 

Just over two years ago, I quit adoption.

I pulled down my award-winning adoption blog. I removed myself from all online forums and listservs. I unfollowed certain adoption people on Twitter and unfriended them on Facebook, keeping only my daughter’s mother and those who held rank in other categories in my life. I even cold turkey stopped attending an in-person adoption support group, which I had been helpful in creating and sustaining.

I walked away without looking back. If we’re speaking in adopto-speak, you could say I “closed” my adoption world.

And I’m better for it.

I so badly wanted to be understood in those early days after placing my daughter. I wanted to talk to people who knew the deep hole ripped within my being. I didn’t want to explain the loss to people who had no clue; I wanted the silent understanding that comes with having been there, done that.

I turned to online groups first, my inner introvert and the area in which I live not leaving me other options. I wasn’t welcome in any support groups for birth parents as I maintained an open adoption with my daughter’s family; their losses as birth parents in closed adoptions were more real than mine. At one point, a woman took pictures of my daughter and placed anti-adoption rhetoric on them.

But those with deep hurt, caused by adoption and its years of secrecy, its problems with ethics, and life-long loss associated with relinquishment weren’t the only ones who didn’t like my presence in their online groups. Adoptive parents didn’t like the way I shared the realities of my loss; should openness heal those wounds? They called me bitter and angry when I questioned unethical laws. Instead of offering solace when I grieved the loss of my daughter in my life, they lashed out and told me to quit complaining; I chose this, after all.

We talk so much about the mommy-wars, about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding, but no one was talking about the parent-on-parent hate so prevalent in the adoption world. No one wanted to discuss how to fix the problem as nobody wanted to own up to their own participation in the hate. I needed support to make sense of the challenges I faced in open adoption, but I couldn’t find any. I knew many parents who gave up long before I did, their adoption relationships paying the price.

I shared less and less of my adoption-related life online, instead choosing to help local women start a face-to-face support group for birth parents. My hopes of being heard and, most importantly, respected soon shattered on the floor of a coffee house basement when another mother yelled at me and stormed out for sharing my truth.

My truth isn’t always to understand, of course. Sometimes I’m thrilled when my daughter’s family includes me in her life, when she texts me to ask me a question, or when the sons I am now parenting delight over a visit. Other times I struggle with the overwhelming reality of loss, most often when my younger, parented children express their own feelings of grieving her lack of daily presence in our lives. I present an odd mixture of truth to the adoption world, one that doesn’t fit a mold.

A few months later, I quit everything.

I don’t fancy myself a quitter, but a human being can only stand so much hatred, so much blame-game, so much time in fight or flight mode. At some point, it has to be acceptable for a person to say, “This is enough.” And so I said, “This is enough.”

I turned inward, sharing and seeking comfort in only those closest to me. I turned to those trusted few each time her birthday month rolled around; I struggle the most around her birthday. I found a new therapist who also helped me understand some of the bigger picture of my adoption journey. Together we focus on what I need at any given time rather than engaging in a combative back-and-forth as to who has it worse. I’ve also learned to share more with my husband; I thought by not sharing how I felt, I protected him. Instead, I isolated both of us from bigger healing.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing about adoption again, gently sticking my toe into the water. For the most part, the tentative return feels a bit like the first ocean swim after a winter spent indoors. I’m struggling a bit, but I remember how to do this. I’ve already felt some of the hatred in anonymous comments and not-so-anonymous questioning of my exit and return. But I’ve also felt the warmth of love from friends, family, and strangers alike.

The warmth of the larger community, even beyond just those specifically touched by adoption, is what drew me in over a decade ago. People wanting to connect with people, to meet others in their space, to say, “You are not alone;” these things will always matter the most to me.

As I find my footing again in what I share online about adoption and how it touches me and affects my family, I feel grateful for the lessons I learned before, the space I gave myself, and for the open arms of the online community. I feel hopeful the next decade will teach us all valuable lessons about support, community, adoption, love, fear, trust, and truth.

For now, I’ll wade in a little deeper, but maybe only to my ankles.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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On Friendship

On Friendship

By Sarah Kilch Gaffney

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They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life.

Great friends are thrilled for you when you go from the least likely of the bunch to settle down to all-out smitten and engaged in the span of fifteen months. They wonder a little about this fellow you met in the middle of the woods and how you’re only 22, but then they meet him and no one has any questions, just joy.

They agree to hike four miles round-trip to watch you get married in your favorite hiking pants (with a veil thrown in for good measure) on the mountain closest to both your hearts, and then help to remove the blowdowns from the “altar” before the ceremony starts.

Even when most of them are doing more productive things with their lives, they don’t judge you when you decide to put off graduate school for a while to spend too much time in the woods and hang out by the sea.

They are thus super impressed when you adopt a dog, buy your first house, and decide to actually apply for graduate school.

A week after they find a lemon-sized tumor in your 27-year-old husband’s brain, they approach your car in the parking lot after work and hand you a half-gallon jug of homemade “apple pie” comprised of spices, apple cider, and most importantly, 100-proof-liquor. Also included is an offer to make more.

They ask what you need and they mean it.

They don’t doubt you for a second when you decide to become parents and they offer to babysit after the little one arrives.

They mow your lawn, plow your driveway, and take your trash to the transfer station.

They take your daughter overnight when it’s time for the second brain surgery and then drive her down to the hospital when he’s out of the woods; they pick her up from daycare when the chemo treatments run late or you have to travel out-of-state; they take her for a few hours here and there so you can try and juggle nursing school on top of everything else.

They call and it is like no time has passed at all.

They fly a thousand miles to help you survive school and take care of your family like their own, and then accept it despite their effort when you leave school a few weeks later when your husband can no longer safely stay home alone.

They start a fundraiser for your family to use to take a vacation, then for alternative treatments, then for just anything because sometimes that’s how quickly it goes.

No matter how inopportune the timing, they meet you at the local emergency department every time.

Knowing your daughter needs as much love as humanly possible, they give, give, give.

After the oncologist tells you there is nothing left to be done, they fill the house with visitors and love.

When your husband starts hospice two weeks before your daughter’s 3rd birthday, they arrange an enormous, spectacular party for her where all you have to do is show up and try not to cry.

When he becomes home-bound, they come visit with incredible spreads of food and booze, to play with your daughter for hours on end, and with enough meals for the freezer so that you won’t have to cook for months.

After the hospice nurse says hours to days, they stand at your side until family arrives; they hold his hand and say goodbye; they put Patty Griffin on in the background, every album repeating; they shake their heads right alongside you in disbelief that this is actually happening.

They meet you at the funeral home to fill out the cremation paperwork and tentatively look at urns.  When you find a little slate one with a golden tree and say you’re not going to buy it just yet, but look at this, they completely agree.

When he dies, they shower the world with tributes of his good spirit, love for teaching everyone about the woods, and how much confidence, humor, and knowledge he brought to their lives.

They help plan his celebration of life and spill into your neighbors’ house to fill it with love and laughter and stories.

When you turn 30 just over two months after his death, they take you out to a coastal town for dinner and drinks and the comforting smells of diesel fuel and the sea.

They hike 12 emotionally and physically grueling miles with you up your mountain to spread his ashes where they need to be; at the summit they all dip their hands and join you in setting him free.

When you return to nursing school that fall, they are there to support you through and through; when you find that you are miserable and leave the program six months later, all they want is for you to be happy.

As the horror of that first Christmas approaches, they entertain and distract.

They house/pet/chicken-sit so that you can travel for the first time in half a decade.

As the one-year mark nears, they gather with you at his favorite pub to reminisce and love.

When you start to date again, they want to know EVERY. LAST. DETAIL.

Your life is what it is in great part because of these friends, these friends who kept you afloat through the best and worst years of your life, through thick and thin, through marriage, birth, death, and life again.

Oftentimes, especially early in the morning with your first cup of coffee, you wonder where you would be without your friends. You breathe deeply, slowly, gratefully for all they have done, all they have sacrificed and loved. They are so much of why you are back on your feet, of how you are able to continue moving through life. You hope they never experience anything even remotely similar, but because of them you’re there: ready, strong as hell, and by their sides to rally, protect, love, and provide anything they might ever need.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney lives in rural Maine with her daughter. Read more from Sarah at: www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.

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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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The Pit

The Pit

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There was no reason to tell my daughter that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

By Ellyn Gelman

I was in Hartford, Connecticut, but I was dressed for Nashville. The country music fans appeared to grow exponentially as the concert start time drew near. Unusually warm for May, spring had finally pushed out winter and was showing off with vibrant yellows and greens. A light breeze carried with it the smell of beer and hotdogs. The concert tickets folded in the back pocket of my jeans were a gift from my teenage daughter, Dayna. I remembered back to a week ago…

The hastily made card had been crafted from a single piece of white paper, folded in half, the scent of sharpie ink still fresh. The card was signed, “Happy Mother’s Day!!!! Love you too much, Dayna.” Tucked inside were two concert tickets.

“Lady Antebellum Mom, just you and me, Darius Rucker is the warm-up band; it’s in Hartford, so awesome right?” Her words spewed forth like a fountain of teenage joy as she danced around the family room.

“Road trip Mom, next Friday, can you believe it; aren’t you so excited?”

“Yes. So excited,” I said.

No reason to tell her that the thrill of the tickets paled in comparison to the very idea that my sixteen-year-old daughter was willingly, of her own accord, taking ME to a concert.

We waited for the gates to open.

“Is it almost time to go in?” Dayna said, her smile full of the metal braces she couldn’t wait to get and now hated with a passion. She was five feet, five inches of beautiful with tight ripped jeans tucked into Frye boot knock-offs. Her small white T-shirt, tied at the waist, showed a only whisper of belly when she moved.

I scanned the crowd. Cowboy hats and denim, short skirts and cowboy boots. Lawn chairs lazily tucked under arms or slung over shoulders. Wait, lawn chairs? I reached into my back pocket for our tickets. No row, no seat numbers.

“Dayna, do we have seats?”

“Uh, um, I don’t think so,” she said. She kicked at a pebble on the ground.

“Do we need lawn chairs?” I said.

“No Mom, these tickets are for the pit.”

“The pit?”

“Yeah, up front, at the stage, you know, you stand in the pit. The tickets were twenty-five dollars each on Stub Hub.”

“I know what the pit is,” I said.

I had been to a few concerts in my fifty years. Foreigner, Cars, Grateful Dead, to name a few, but I had always had a seat. The pit had always been that “place down there” where bodies that were too close moved wildly.

“Are you bummed?” She said. The truth was, I was bummed. Five hours of standing? I looked down at my feet. My toes had already begun to protest their confinement in the points of my brown leather and suede cowboy boots. I had purchased them years ago on a trip in Colorado. They were authentic, hand-made, and spent most of their time in the back of my closet. Don’t blow this. You’re at a concert with your daughter, in cool boots. When I looked up, Dayna’s dark brown, thickly lined eyes wore a veil of worried hope.

“No, I’m not bummed, really. I’m just surprised, in a good way. I’ve never been in the pit before.”

“You’ll love it,” She said.

She wrapped her arms around my waist and laid her head on my shoulder. Her soft brown hair smelled like grapefruit and possibility.

We were among the first to enter with our neon yellow “pit access” wristbands. The theater was shaped like a giant fan. The seats spread out behind the pit, and then fully opened to a green uncovered lawn. Dayna grabbed my hand and pulled me right up to the stage where, like prospectors, we claimed a front-row spot. My chin rose just above the stage. There were x marks on the floor where Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum would eventually stand. A maze of electric cords taped to the floor resembled arteries and veins that would carry the force of sounds and light to the stage. Tiny specks of dust swirled in the light cast off from a hundred theater lights above.

The pit filled slowly with teens and young adults. A slight teenage girl in skinny red jeans and a black Lady Antebellum t-shirt stood next to me with her dad. I was relieved to see another parent in the pit—even better, he looked older than me. We smiled a bit awkwardly at each other. An alert young security guard, whose sole purpose was to scan the crowd in the pit, stood to our left. Behind us, two stocky young women in their early twenties posed repeatedly for “selfies” with cell phone and beers held high. One wore a baseball cap backwards.

The start time approached and brought with it an anxious sense of ‘ready,’ and the crowd grew tighter. Darius Rucker took the stage amidst bright lights and loud cheers. Everyone danced in a tight collective, jumping up and down. There, next to the speakers, it was as if the music made its way through me before it was released into the rest of the theater. I felt connected to everything: my daughter, the music, the crowd, all of it. Dayna was right; this was “so great.”

In an unguarded moment, Dayna and I were shoved to the side and the girls, who had stood behind us waiting for the past hour, displaced us. They danced as if our spot had always been theirs.

“What? That’s so not fair?” My daughter said, pointing at them.

“I know,” I said. Thinking, fair?

“They can’t do that,” she said in the full outrage of a naïve teen.

“Well, they just did,” I said. I had no intention of confronting them there, in the pit, or anywhere.

“No way. Come on.” Dayna grabbed my hand to pull me forward.

Instinctively, I pulled my hand out of hers and stayed put. I simply watched as she slipped around the women and reclaimed her spot. She turned back to look for me. I motioned for her to come back to me where we would be safe. She shook her head.

“Mom, come on, this is our spot,” she said.

I was taken aback by her nerve—or was it confidence? I no longer felt connected. I was hot and sweaty, trapped between my daughter’s boldness and my timidity. Left up to me, I would have done nothing (go ahead, take our spot), drowning all potential for a good time in a pool of resentment. That would have been my story, but I didn’t want that to be my daughter’s story. There she stood in her reclaimed spot, a lone soldier fighting for “fair.”

I pushed my way gently, somewhat apologetically, between those women and stood next to my daughter. I was forced to hold on to the stage for balance with my back slightly bent backwards like the letter C. I waited for something to happen, like a beer can to the head, yelling, something. Nothing. I looked over at my daughter. That is when I saw one of the women jab Dayna in the back with her elbow. The other pushed her from behind. Dayna kept her eyes forward, jaw clenched. She refused to acknowledge their aggression. They pushed her again and laughed. I knew that laugh. Suddenly I was thirteen again, a new girl in a new school.

The lunch lady handed me my change. As I made my way to an empty table, three girls approached me. “Give us your money new girl, we know you got money.” They were like seagulls on the beach and I was a single scrap of food. They pushed me and grabbed at my clenched fist. It only took a couple of hits to my back before I handed over the quarters. The girls laughed as they walked away. It was my first and last hot lunch in eighth grade.

I turned to the two women.

“Hey, stop that. Don’t touch her again,” I said.

“This is the pit, man, everyone gets touched in the pit,” the one with the baseball cap sneered.

“Yeah, if you’re in the pit, you’re gonna get touched. Get over yourself,” the other chimed in. She waved the back of her hand in my face.

Dayna grabbed my arm.

“Mom, if this is going to ruin the concert for you, we can just move back” she said.

“No,” I said.

I turned and grabbed the security guard’s arm.

I explained the situation to him as I frantically pointed out the aggressors. He made his way over and spoke with them. They pointed at me. I stared hard at them. The guard pointed to the exit. Yes that’s good make them leave. Behind me, Darius Rucker continued to sing and the crowd around me danced. I waited for the next move. They did not leave, but they backed up. I turned back to the stage, shaky, still on guard, but no longer afraid.

Darius Rucker sang his last song and yelled goodnight to the crowd. He reached down and touched all the out stretched hands as he made his way off stage. In a sudden move, he stopped in front of Dayna, bent down, and placed his guitar pick in her hand. The crowd roared.

“Mom, that did not just happen,” she said. She jumped up and down, her fist clenched around the guitar pick held high in the air. I jumped up and down, too. Her joy was my joy.

Lady Antebellum was up next. Before the night ended, Dayna was the recipient of three more guitar picks, each one handed to her, none thrown. She gave one to the girl next to me in the red jeans. A teenage boy ran up to her at the end of the concert.

“Oh my god, you are the luckiest girl on earth,” he said.

Dayna gave him a pick, too.

It was after midnight as we made our way slowly to the car.

“Wasn’t it all so great mom?”

“It was perfect, Dayna.”

Author’s Note: Two summers have come and gone since Dayna and I saw Lady Anetebellum in concert. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves that night. This summer, I went to see Chicago in concert at the same venue with my husband and friends. We sat in our own chairs in the upper lawn section. I could barely see the band and I felt disconnected and uncool. I spent the entire concert longing to be in the pit.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Wilton, CT. She has been published on National Public Radio “This I Believe” and in Brain, Child.

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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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Literary Gifts for Thinking Mothers

Literary Gifts for Thinking Mothers

 

Customizable and cost-conscious, these wordy and wonderful gifts are perfect to give or to receive. Buy yourself or a friend their favorite book — on purses, candles, scarves and more…

 

il_570xn-743413502_tczaKeep Me in Your Heart Hat

Smart lines from Winnie the Pooh make a debut on this soft jersey knit black slouch style beanie hat. Check out the site for a full suite of wearable “bookish”  items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Well Read Woman

These T-shirts are printed on super soft, 100% preshrunk lightweight white cotton. Create your own text-based messages for your next book group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1006230881_n49oTurn the Page

We loved these handmade origami butterfly earrings made out of recycled book pages. Many varieties are available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-746827368_bx93Tea Time With Jane Austen

Sit and sip. Each pack of 8, 12 or 24 teabags are individually  packaged in charming sewn paper envelopes and sourced from well-known British tea companies.

With pretty vintage styles and Victorian-inspired designs, each teabag in this range features a quote or reference to one of the Jane Austen’s  literary masterpieces.

 

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1074023944_h7a4Game Night?

Score! This word-based Scrabble-themed throw pillow is a  perfect showpiece for your home and lets all your holiday company know you’re a reader. There are many words and messages are available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

icm_fullxfull-104279550_gcr1rc5q63kgck4wo8woCustom Pendants

These Custom Necklaces feature your child’s own artwork, written words, or pre-designed options. The custom pendants are also offered on key rings, bracelets, bookmarks and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-645506233_svkuWarm Words

Let everyone know about your great taste in literature with a page from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on an infinity scarf. The Book Scarf is American-made from super soft 100% cotton knit fabric. Peter Pan? Frankenstein? There are many scarves to choose from.

 

 

 

 

il_570xn-1135190175_q195Classic Author Notebooks

Journal with Mark Twain and other classic writers with these handmade notebooks. When the spark of inspiration ignites, don’t let it die thinking you can write it down later. Carry the greats with you, and keep the prose flowing. You know Whitman, Twain, Dickinson, Poe, and Faulkner would do the same. (Books with their

 

 

 

il_570xn-501275387_qnoeCarry The Words

Ask Novel Creations to transform a favorite book cover into a fun purse,  and you’ll be happily surprised. Every party-going purse is unique, handmade– and a perfect conversation piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-949126138_p4i4Literary Luminaries

Our Brain Child office has been extra fragrant this month, with these smart book-related candles made from a blend of fragrances and essential oils. Each one is hand poured in small batches. There are many options available.

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1023105943_jkazGreeting Cards for Bookworms
These folded paper crane cards are perfect greetings for book lovers. Each print includes a digital copy of an Illustration placed on vintage book pages and stamped on recycled paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1026707088_garjShow Those Literary Lines

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

These 11-ounce rocks glasses showcase the first edition inside cover and opening lines of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Search the site for other literary lines.

 

 

 

 

il_170x135-1095308165_4eb6Keep The Change

Change, credit cards and keys go together in this change purse that comes in dozens of designs including this book text one (which of course is our favorite).

 

 

 

 

 

 

toy150227_0351-copyAnd For The Kids…

Kids can create stories with Props In A Box — Filled with fun quality items, kids can be make believe dinosaurs, pirates, astronauts and more.

 

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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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Mother As Witness

Mother As Witness

art-sandbox

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.

Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

art-cubs

By Carolyn Alessio

I grew up watching the Cubs in the 1970s, which was dubbed the era of “Sustained Mediocrity” by Wrigley Nation. My father Sergio, who introduced me to the North Side team, had markedly better memories of the Cubs from his youth. In 1945, the last time they played in the World Series, my father was 16.  Similarly, my nine-year-old son will have infinitely more positive memories of growing up with the Cubs. Of the three of us, I am the only one who became a fan in the team’s darkest hours. Literally, because Wrigley Field did not install stadium lights until 1988. Over the years, darkness has periodically plagued but also instructed me, both inside and outside of baseball.

Just as with fighting depression, following the Cubs requires a combination of secular wizardry, superhuman patience, and hope.  My father, an electrical engineer and child of Italian immigrants, rarely spent extra money or indulged himself, but every summer he made sure to take me to Wrigley Field. We parked on the grounds of a convent next door that rented out spots during games. I remember the enterprising Sisters in habits waving us into their makeshift lot. The confluence of Catholicism and baseball seemed perfectly natural to me—in many ways, they were the twin religions of our pious household.

In the sparsely filled seats of the upper deck, my father carefully filled out a score card, often consulting the green wooden, manual scoreboard that still sits over center field today (now with electronic screens on each side of it.)  My father never spoke to me directly of his experiences with prolonged melancholy, (my mother filled me in later), but I do know that he tried medication briefly as I would later. Back then, however, antidepressants were not nearly as effective or refined. My father did demonstrate however, in his steady following of the Cubs. That routines helped him inestimably—even if built around a team renowned for losing. So my inherited addiction to ritual turned out to save us both.

I don’t think the Cubs’ half-baked performance of the 70s significantly intensified my father’s existing depression, but the experience gave us more insight into the natural psyche of Cubs fans. Just as I hope to shield my children from inheriting my knee-jerk sense of self-doubt and anxious tendencies, I worry about the unintended effects of encouraging my son’s bone-deep affection for the Cubs.

In the 1970s, the Cubs rarely budged from the basement of the National League East except to swap places with the Cardinals, but each morning I dutifully checked the box scores in the newspaper during the season. If the game had run too late–as on the West Coast while playing the Dodgers or Giants–I would call Sports Phone for the score. The number was not 800 or 888 as it might be today; it didn’t even have an area code. I remember still wearing my pajamas many summer mornings when I called the hot line on the kitchen wall phone. I twisted the long plastic phone cord as I waited nervously for the recording to run through the litany of local teams’ scores.

Today, my young son merely grabs my cell phone, summons Siri, and asks, “What’s the Cubs’ score?” The process still involves a few seconds of anxiety, but the efficient digital assistant gets directly to his team. Siri editorializes too much for my taste, however, especially on the rare days when the Cubs have lost badly or, as she smugly says, been “trounced” or “remained in hibernation.”

By 1978 and 79, my adolescence approached, along with severe anxiety beyond most teenage angst, and an ambivalence about eating properly. I had a few friends but preferred to stay home on Friday nights and watch doubleheaders in which the Cubs often lost twice. I was only comfortable contemplating love while watching homerun slugger Dave Kingman on my parents’ old black and white TV. One day I even wrote him a fan letter on pink stationery, and tucked in a McDonald’s gift certificate for $5. A Golden Arches sat across Clark Street from The Friendly Confines, so I figured it would be convenient for my hero. Aside from the excitement of Kingman, who once drilled a 500-foot homer far past the field, and the elegant assists of shortstop Ivan DeJesus Sr., I took refuge in the team’s predictably tepid, afternoon home games. (Wrigley Field would not have lights or night games for another 10 years.) Watching the day games gave shape to my uncertain days and reminded me that other stories existed besides winning.

Two years ago, when my son began watching Cubs games more regularly, and keeping closer track of the schedule, I understood the real legacy of my father. When my son asked about a game that approached in a few hours, I felt a mall reassuring lift in my chest not inspired by SSRIs or Cognitive-Feedback Therapy.  Regardless of how our days had gone, or the amount of times we might have been disappointed (or disappointed others), the upcoming game would still take place at a specific stadium at a designated time. Tickets had already been purchased. Baseball continues to shape our days.

In late September this year at Wrigley Field, as the Cubs sailed past the Cardinals in their last home game, a St. Louis fan sitting behind my family chanted, “Eleven championships!” The man spoke as though he had personally enabled those winning seasons, maybe by summoning the spirit of the Cardinals’ legendary Stan Musial, or by boosting each Cardinal’s Sabermetric prowess. My nine-year-old Little Leaguer smiled at the fan’s desperate bragging. Recently, when the Cubs lost two playoff games in a row to the Dodgers, I experienced again the basis for that feeling of deep connection to a team’s fate.

In public I blamed Clayton Kershaw’s maddening curveball for muffling the Cubs’ bats, but in private, I decided that my own mistaken display of a “W” sign in our front window after one loss had triggered the Cubs’ dangerous dive. I quickly remedied the situation and all seemed well, except for the fact that somebody was closely observing my superstitious behavior. Somebody, that is, besides my bemused husband and skeptical teen daughter. I figured it out on the eve of the opening game of the World Series, when my son earnestly reminded me to “Take down the ‘W.'”

These days, so much else about my old team has radically changed that I often feel on the verge of disorientation. The Cubs are playing bizarrely late in October, and all season long the team has displayed consistently powerful hitting and stingy pitching. When my son marvels at Kris Bryant’s batting average or Jake Arrieta’s ERA, I automatically feel nervous, not just for the team’s transformed franchise but because I want to protect my son from disappointment, the past, and having a hall of mirrors in his head like mine. So naturally I turn to quirky ministrations that just might help preserve the magical balance. Of course, the rest of Chicago and perhaps the Western Hemisphere is also blathering away about the “curse of the Billy Goat” and other black magic that has kept the Cubs from even playing in a World Series for 72 years.

But observing a mother’s odd baseball rituals up-close at home might lead a child to transfer the strategies to his own Little League play. Instead of practicing daily to improve as he did last season, maybe my son could just designate a lucky pair of long socks and pray for a downpour when his team faces a tricky situation. A young baseball devotee like him might not even differentiate completely between professional and amateur ball. My son learned this lesson vividly and firsthand last May at Wrigley, when he joined more than 900 other kids one afternoon in running the bases after the game. The video that my husband made, set to the theme song from “The Natural,” shows him trotting along at an efficient pace, confident and with no trace of the Club Foot he was born with long ago. It all looked so, well, natural, that later I was surprised to hear that my son had been shocked that the bases were “a lot farther apart” than he had thought.

Last July, a reference to a Cubs team of the past unexpectedly connected my son and me. After his Little League team played a challenging final game to finish third out of six teams, my son’s coach called the boys together and began to hand out awards. These were not the mass-produced, flimsy trophies usually shoved at players by the league, however, but brand new Rawlings baseballs on which the coach had written personal tributes and comparisons to famous professional players. As he presented each award, the coach compared his nine- and ten-year-olds to All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers like Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench. To support the comparison, the coach cited specific examples both from beloved moments in professional baseball, as well as meticulous Little League game-notes that he had kept all season.

When the coach got to my son, he presented him with the award named for Andre Dawson, a Cubs outfielder from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I knew the name well, from my later, somewhat happier fan days while in high school (when the team actually made the playoffs). Dawson, as the Little League coach explained, was known as “The Hawk” because he was persistent and rarely avoided fielding a ball, just like my son, who had transformed himself from a tentative, shaky outfielder into a go-to third baseman. Listening to the presentations, and watching the young players lean in, solemn and wide-eyed, I felt a sense of grace. The patient coach was using similar reference points to help guide the boys. Maybe I wasn’t as off-course in parenting as I had believed—or at least I was doing an acceptable job of managing my limitations.

Not long ago, on the afternoon following the Indians’ 6-0 victory over the Cubs in the first game of the World Series, I asked my son on the way home from school what he thought had changed in our team since they triumphed over the Dodgers. “Well,” he said, skipping a rock into an alley pothole, “I did eat a Cubs cookie the night they got the pennant.” It took me a moment to picture the frosted cookie with the team logo that my husband and I had brought him from a wedding, and even then I glanced over to see if my son was serious. But he just shrugged and smiled to himself, like he was working out his own private form of Cubs Sabermetrics in his head.

Carolyn Alessio lives with her family in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, and teaches high school in nearby Pilsen where only a small but mighty portion of her students are Cubs fans. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Chronicle of Higher Education and is forthcoming in America. 

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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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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.

#

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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Raising My Black Son

Raising My Black Son

A portrait of a happy laughing African American man

By Suanne Schafer

Twenty years ago, I adopted an interracial child—I’ll call him M—thinking a mother’s love could overcome all barriers, even racial ones. Twenty years later, I’m not sure I did my son any favors. I’m a white mom trying to figure out how to raise a black child in a hostile—and potentially lethal—environment.

M came up for adoption during my fourth year of medical school, the unwanted love child of a sixteen-year-old white mother and a black seventeen-year-old father. Unable to take her mixed-race baby home to her blue-collar family, the young woman kept her pregnancy secret from everyone except her mother then gave the baby up for adoption.

My family was tickled to have a grandchild, whatever his color.

As a physician I often think about nature versus nurture and have found that, though we’re not genetically related, he’s clearly my son. We’re both a bit shy but share a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with science ranging from dinosaurs to birding to stargazing to medical oddities, a dash of sarcasm, and the joy of using just the right curse word to express our true feelings. We both love science fiction, Star Wars, and exploring international cuisines.

Early on I bought all the appropriate books on black heroes like Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King and incorporated them into our daily reading ritual, but M was never interested. Unfortunately, Mr. King was not a Tyrannosaurus Rex and therefore didn’t capture M’s attention. I marched in the MLK parade alone.

After completing my residency, I interviewed from New York to California, including a small rural community in which M would have been the second black person. Ultimately I chose to practice in San Antonio, a culturally diverse city where interracial families are common. Thus, M grew up with friends of multiple racial and ethnic groups but seemed to choose his friends based on common interests rather than common skin tone.

Fortunately, we had very few racial incidents as he grew up. Probably the most blatant occurred as we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant. A white man came to pick up his take-out, saw me sitting with my four-year-old black child, and approached us practically spitting through his teeth, demanding “With all the white kids out there to adopt, why the hell did you adopt a nigger kid?” The Chinese owner of the restaurant, who certainly must have encountered racial barriers himself, apologized profusely then escorted the gentleman to the door and asked him never to return.

When he was sixteen, we went to Tanzania together. Going on safari was on my “bucket list” and M had some desire to find his African roots. There, though no clear-cut incident occurred, he seemed very uncomfortable. He’d never been in a place where blacks significantly outnumbered whites. Because he was clearly interracial and accompanied by an affluent white woman, he was considered an mzungu, a white person, and was treated accordingly.

We live in a predominantly white neighborhood – yet M came inside one day from checking the mail saying, “Mom, these folks in a car watched me until I got inside. Guess they were making sure I wasn’t breaking in.”

About that time, the news exploded with stories of young black men in hoodies being killed. With M’s tendency to take long walks in the evening to blow off steam from raging male hormones, I grew nervous, treading a delicate line between making him fear life and teaching him to use common sense. Teaching him to avoid potentially hostile situations, to never mouth off to a cop, to not wear a hoodie, to keep his hands visible and empty at all times, to back down in a confrontation. I suspect I was more worried than he was.

Last week he hollered questions from the kitchen back to my office. “Mom, how much money did we make last year?” I raised my eyebrows at the “we” but gave him the figure he sought. After few more rather personal questions, I asked what he was doing. “Calculating my privilege,” he said. A few seconds later, “I’m really privileged.”

I asked him to come into my office to review the application he filled out and suggested he give “real” answers, not those based on his white physician mother’s income, education level, etc. The findings: He was an unemployed black male who dropped out of college and therefore—surprise—had no privilege.

A female child in blue-collar family, I too grew up without privilege. My father dropped out of college one semester prior to completing an agricultural degree, left the family homestead, and worked as an itinerant well logger in the oil field. By the time I was twenty-four months old, I’d lived in twenty-two towns across the western United States. Over the years, Dad’s wanderlust abated somewhat, but I still attended three fourth grades, three seventh grades, two ninth grades. I graduated from high school and put myself through college with scholarships and by working full-time and going to school part-time. I picked cotton, worked as an aide in a nursing home, roofed and painted houses, clerked in a bookstore, did piece work in a toy factory. Later I became a secretary and medical transcriptionist, a travel and medical photographer. I continued the wanderlust bred into me and attended four colleges and traveled abroad before deciding to become a physician. By the time I graduated from medical school, my parents had contributed a total of $275 to my college expenses.

Knowing how hard it was to juggle work, school, relationships, and life in general, I wanted M to have an easier life, easier access to an education. As a result, he’s had every economic and educational advantage possible. I realized he was intelligent but having trouble focusing, but the school district refused to believe he had ADHD because he was doing well in school. A private psychologist tested him and verified my diagnosis. ADHD, dysgraphia, and a borderline learning disability in mathematics hampered his ability to learn. Once he was diagnosed, I fought yearly battles with our school district because of their failure to follow the learning plan set out by his psychologist. Medications to tone down the ADHD turned him into the world’s grumpiest kid and completely suppressed his appetite, so for years we’ve teetered between a controlled or uncontrolled attention span.

Coupled with the learning problems, unlike his mother, he’s not a “driven” person. A procrastinator par excellence, he’d rather play video games than anything. I keep telling myself this must be his nature, because he certainly wasn’t nurtured to be lackadaisical.

At this point I am the mother of an unmotivated child, one who despite having a substantial college savings account, doesn’t wish to attend college. He’s also a black child raised in a white family. I’m not sure he grasps what it means to be black in America. I’m equally unsure I can teach him that, or perhaps it’s too late to do so.

M is a good young man, a success in that he graduated from high school at a time when blacks are twice as likely to drop out of high school, when 40% of children expelled from school are black, when 70% of children arrested are black or Latino. He’s sexually active but not promiscuous, doesn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Except for an occasional outburst of testosterone-related temper, he is caring, even-tempered, and sweet. At some point, he’ll be a good father, but due to the procrastination issue, not necessarily a good husband as he’ll put off doing household chores as long as possible.

I’m coming to terms with the idea that M will have to make his own mistakes. Letting go has been hard. I am getting better at it, learning to offer support, rather than fight his battles for him. I no longer set my alarm to be sure he gets to appointments on time. I let him decide if he needs to take his ADHD medication to get through a job interview or other duties.

Mostly I hope that at some point he can reconcile the duality of his heritage and can integrate his exterior with his interior. I pray that American culture will evolve to the point “white privilege” no longer exists. That a black man can be simply a black man without negative consequences. That a black man can earn what a similarly educated white male does. That black children will have true equality of education. That a black man should not have to be a superman to be equal to an ordinary white man. That every black male has the opportunity to become the best person he can be.

Suanne Schafer’s short works have been featured in Bête Noire Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing and two anthologies, Night Lights and Licked. Her debut novel, A Different Kind of Fire, explores the life of a nineteenth century bisexual artist living in West Texas and will be out in 2018. Her current work in progress involves a female physician caught up in the Rwandan genocide. Suanne also serves as fiction editor for Empty Sink Publishing, an online literary magazine.

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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.

 

 

 

What I Didn’t Tell Them

What I Didn’t Tell Them

spring flowers on wooden background

By Jessie Scanlon

The Hot Wheels and Lego bricks strewn across our family room floor would usually have annoyed me. But that early spring evening the toys seemed to anchor me in the normal. I concentrated on my breathing and tried, mentally, to disconnect my facial muscles from my emotions. My daughter and son sat beside me on the sofa. Could my husband have been kneeling on the floor? Or standing?

“I have to have an operation,” I told my children with a smile that I hoped showed confidence. “It’s one that Grandma had 12 years ago, and that Aunt Sarah will have soon. I’ll be in the hospital for a week, and after I come home I won’t be able to drive you to school or pick you up or let you sit on my lap for a while.”

What I didn’t tell them was that I had breast cancer.

In the weeks since I’d been diagnosed with an almost matching set of invasive ductal carcinomas, I’d talked to friends and friends of friends who had been in the same situation or could otherwise give advice. Snippets of one conversation kept replaying in my head. “I was a basket case after my diagnosis…. I cried all the time…. My daughter slept on our bedroom floor for a year…. Years of therapy for the kids….”

I, too, cried often as I grappled with the diagnosis, but had managed to hide my tears from the children. My husband and I agreed that we would never lie to them. And we knew that eventually we’d tell them the whole truth. But I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary or even helpful, to scare them when my prognosis seemed good. Why burden them with the C-word?

I imagined my son Christopher telling a friend on the playground and hearing, “Oh – my grandpa died of cancer.” Could a four-year-old understand that that didn’t mean I was dying?

Many children, on hearing that a relative has cancer, ask if the disease is contagious. It’s not, of course, but a gene mutation had heightened my risk. It was why my mother had chosen to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, which my sister had now decided to do as well. Both children stood a 50% chance of having inherited my faulty gene, though the risk of actually developing breast cancer was greater for my daughter, Ella. So, no, cancer isn’t contagious, but …. Was a seven-year-old old enough to grapple with that?

Before the conversation, I’d met with a hospital social worker. “You know your kids best,” she’d said, and then sent me home with two backpacks, each containing a stuffed animal, a set of markers, and a workbook called “Life Isn’t Always a Day At The Beach” with fill-in pages like “If I could, I would put cancer in a rocket and send it to _______.”

I hid the backpacks in the guest room closet and continued to tell half-truths.

My hair began shedding after the second chemo treatment and this required an explanation. So as we sat around the dinner table one evening I reminded the kids about my surgery. “Now my doctors want me to take some medicine,” I told them. “You know how when you take Benadryl it can make you sleepy?”

They nodded. “Well this medicine has a funny side effect. It’s going to make my hair fall out.”

“Really?” Ella asked. I tugged a few strands from my head as evidence and then tossed the dead hair into the trash.

“Can I pull some out?” she asked.

“No,” I answered sharply.

Maybe I should have let her in – into my experience as a woman about to lose her hair.

Some cancer patients embrace their situation and hold head-shaving parties. A friend told me a quieter version: she’d helped a neighbor pull out her hair one spring day on the back porch, and as the tufts floated away in the wind, birds swept down to capture material for their nests.

But I took a different route. My hair stylist arranged for us to meet in the salon’s seldom-used men’s bathroom. A friend brought a bottle of Prosecco and three plastic cups and we toasted before he shaved my hair down to stubble. But it felt more like a wake than a party.

I cried when I looked in the mirror. I don’t know whether I cried from vanity or simply the shock of seeing my appearance catch up with the reality that I was a cancer patient. But I cried freely, knowing that the tears wouldn’t tarnish my maternal image, and then I went home and let the kids rub my fuzzy scalp. “Doesn’t it almost feel like a teddy bear?” I suggested. When my daughter won a cheap tiara at a fair later that summer, we snapped a picture of me wearing it, and laughed. Princess Chemo, I thought to myself.

I imagined that chemotherapy involved hours on the bathroom floor and Terms of Endearment-style drama. But I scheduled my treatment for the morning, took the anti-nausea drugs, drank gallons of ginger beer, napped, and most days was ready to be Mom by the time the kids got home from camp.

Ditto the 5 ½ weeks of daily radiation that fall. I’d shift from caretaker to patient only after making breakfast, packing lunches and dropping the kids off at school. When the kids asked why my chest looked so pink, I told them I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen.

I had crossed the line into dishonesty. My kids seemed fine – “They’ve weathered the year well,” I told those who asked – but I had lingering worries. So one November evening I went to a “Parenting Through Cancer” meeting at my hospital. Just as most exam rooms aren’t designed for the delivery of bad news, the conference room felt too dry for the subject.

Some of the women in the room had much scarier diagnoses than mine. All of them had been more honest with their children. I came home with two books – one for adults, the other for children – that, feeling emotionally depleted, I carelessly left on the kitchen counter.

The next morning, the colorful spine of the children’s book caught Ella’s eye and she opened Mom Is Getting Better. I tried to dissuade her, telling her that it was a boring story, but she insisted.

After a few minutes, she asked, “So did you have cancer mom?”

“Yes,” I told her. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” she said.

When my husband and I agreed not to be completely honest with the kids about my diagnosis, I thought I was protecting them – that I was preserving their “normal.” And for the most part, my husband and I – helped by friends, babysitters, and my parents – succeeded. But I was also protecting myself, and an image of myself that I wanted my children to see: a strong, dependable, and brave parent who would be there to love and protect them.

Was I wrong not to tell them the whole truth? Perhaps. But I don’t regret our decision. “You know your kids best,” the hospital social worker had told me. But the truth is that I knew myself. And in those raw spring days, when I wore sunglasses to school drop-off and pick-up to hide my puffy eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to talk calmly about my cancer, let alone to calm any fears they might have had. First I needed to manage my own.

One winter morning as I was driving the kids to school, the radio tuned to NPR, a sponsorship message from the Cancer Institute of America came on. With every repetition of the word “cancer,” I resisted the urge to turn the radio off.

It droned on so long that my son, now five, said, “Blah, blah, blah. Who cares?”

“Chris! Mom had cancer. That’s why her hair fell out!” Ella said, in an exasperated big sister voice.

“Oh,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, pausing at a stop sign, and then turning right. “I did.”

 

 

 

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Rubicon

Rubicon

View of the Roman bridge in Rimini

By Emily Myers

The rental apartment in San Francisco was sparse. Spring sunshine bleached the walls and the linoleum was warm under my feet. My newborn was asleep in my arms and I had the phone wedged between my shoulder and jaw.

I missed my mum and told her so.

“I miss you too,” she said, and the phone crackled as it always did when she moved away from the window. The line between us stretched from damp, rural England to blistering California. Interference was expected. I pictured her in the cottage at the cove, its squat granite walls and small square windows, in a narrow valley spilling out to the sea. I could hear her moving, sitting down. I imagined her in those wing-back chairs, facing the fire, logs burning in the grate, spitting and popping. Dad would be out with the dogs.

“I wish you were still here. If only you were here, I could nip over and help you.” She sounded baffled. “What are you doing over there?”

I swayed, looking down at Max, three weeks old, his lips blistered from nursing. My whole body ached.

“Dom got a job, remember?”

I wanted to say it felt like I was standing alone in the middle of a rainstorm. I could see the water making rivulets all around me, my feet in the mud. The water was moving with such speed, and yet surrounded by this torrent of rain, it felt like nothing would ever change. I would always be here, watching this kind of water, on this kind of river bank. What I wanted to say was I missed the geography of my childhood, its familiarity, and that a nostalgia for it had crept in uninvited and was sitting heavily on my chest.

My mother told me about squabbles in the valley. There was a dispute about who should get the firewood from a fallen tree. Dad and Francis were going head to head with their camellias in the Penzance flower show. Eamon was back in hospital and Penny and her three grown daughters were up at The Nook with Val, who was now bedridden. “You know how close that family is,” she said.

I waited for my personal rainstorm to pass, slowly piecing together the jigsaw of my child, pulling genes from here and there; the dimples, the turn of his mouth and the curve of his nose, trying to make sense of things.

“It feels like you’ve been away thirty years,” said my mother during one of our long-distance calls.

“A lot has happened,” I said.

I wanted to say that my love for my child felt like a giant peony had bloomed in my throat and sometimes it was hard to breathe.

Max’s head got heavier and his eyes brightened, and he chuckled and sought me out. Every day the picture of my child, the character, became a little fuller.  I knew the eczema on his thumb and the milk spots under his chin. I knew the smell of formula on his breath and how his eyelashes had grown. I knew how he hiccupped when he laughed. He loved his bath, I found out, and I noticed his feet were the length of my thumb. I saw how he pulled his socks off and sucked them and looked startled when he rolled himself over, and how he marveled at his hands and gripped my hair when I leaned into his crib. I knew the feeling of his cold fingers and sharp nails on my chest, and how he’d sleep in broad daylight, tolerating the fact that I hadn’t put up curtains in his room. I found that the rainstorm had created a river. Familiarity just took time.

My mother came to visit. She came alone because Dad didn’t like leaving the cove. There was no one to look after the dogs or the chickens, he said. Mum made it clear she had come to see me, that I was the priority. She meant it with love, but it felt like another kind of suffocation. The line between us should have been clear, but still it crackled.

“She is your mummy,” she said to Max who was, by then, a toddler, “But she is also my child.” She hugged me awkwardly with one arm. Max ran off, squealing.

“You’re not coming back,” she said when she left. She looked exhausted. We were both tired by then. And perhaps she was right. By now, I was pregnant with my second child.

I have always thought of the cove as the sediment of my being… something about the permanence of the granite, gray-pink and flecked with quartz. I loved the story of Great-Granny Favell seeing the valley for the first time, scorched with daffodils. She came from Sheffield with her sickly husband and bought the one-story stone house by the river. Slowly she acquired farmland and outhouses and became a plump matriarch, dogs at her heels. The war brought her daughters and a daughter-in-law back into the cupped hands of the cove, where grandchildren ran to the slip and played in the tide pools. A safe haven. Now, men lean on their boats and talk of the past. When the old lady died, she handed the valley to the National Trust to preserve its torpid beauty and her descendants hang on to what was left. Nothing changes now. No one wants that. It is wonderful and stifling, like another peony blooming in my throat.

After my mother went home, we resumed our weekly phone calls. It was hard for her to find reference points.

“How is that lady we met in the park?” she’d ask.

“Oh, I haven’t seen her again.”

“And Max’s soccer games?”

“They’ve finished.”

I’d recently befriended someone with a son the same age as Max, but to tell my mother would make me seem sadder and lonelier than I was. I was pulling away, finally coursing my own river. The storm had broken, letting me take big gulps of air. But when I spoke to my mother, I was pulled back to a place that didn’t allow for change. We fell back into what we were both missing: each other. In the end, it seemed easier not to call.

My mother had her own interpretation for my silence. “I can’t bear to think of you being unhappy,” she said.

“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “I need you to support me.” My words felt urgent. “Dom and I are together. We have healthy children. These are things to celebrate.” What would she prefer, I wanted to say, me sleeping on their couch?

She was slow to reply. “Yes, I get it.”

Later, she called it her “Rubicon.” Perhaps it was mine too. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed a watershed called The Rubicon and committed himself to war. I like to think that in our case, the territory was emotional and put us on a path to peace.

Emily Myers is happiest working out life’s complexities with her three sons. She has worked for the BBC in London and for the arts education group, A Little Culture, in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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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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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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Dear Teachers

Dear Teachers

Beautiful smiling girl on a black background. School concept

By Rachel Pieh Jones

We are an American family living in Djibouti and my kids attend a French school. Their first days of preschool were the first days they spent entirely and only surrounded by the French language.

I am not a teacher. I think I might explode, or implode, if I were a teacher. I don’t have all the skills I want my kids to inherit, few parents do. That’s why we need teachers and these are just a few of the skills our teachers have given, alongside an academic education:

Preschool: Communication

At my first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told all the parents that our children had to ask permission, in polite French, before using the toilet. Then she looked at me.

“Except Lucy,” she said. Lucy was allowed to grab herself, bite her lip, and do a little dance. “Until she learns the words.”

I loved the teacher immediately.

Kindergarten: Empathy

Lucy’s class was going to march in a school costume parade. She had volunteered to dress up as a wolf, they were representing Little Red Riding Hood, La Petite Chaperone Rouge. She had been so excited about her costume until she got to school and saw some of her friends dressed in cute red dresses, carrying baskets of flowers. She had a fuzzy brown mask and a dull orange costume. She started to cry.

Her teacher understood the problem right away and within minutes, she designed a red cape, skirt, and handkerchief for Lucy’s head. She manufactured a basket and pulled flowers from a bougainvillea bush outside the classroom. Voila, the wolf transformed into a smiling, damp-cheeked Little Red Riding Hood.

First Grade: Pride

We spent this year in the United States. Lucy went to a French-immersion school in the Minnesota public school system. She didn’t know how to ride the bus or how to work things out in the school cafeteria or how to play the American games at recess. But she was now a rock star in the classroom, her French far beyond the levels of the other students.

The teacher helped Lucy navigate the culture of the American classroom while celebrating her Djiboutian experiences. Lucy sobbed on the last day of school, primarily because she loved her teacher so much.

Second Grade: Compassion

Back to Djibouti and this year, my older two children started attending a boarding school. Lucy has now gone through several huge transitions. An international move and learning to be the only child left at home, missing her older siblings.

One day at school, Lucy had a total meltdown. She was sobbing and couldn’t stop. The more she cried, the more embarrassed she became and the angrier she became and the more she cried. She didn’t remember later what she was crying about. The teacher asked her to step outside until she calmed down. The next day, Lucy apologized. The teacher was not upset and didn’t make her feel embarrassed, but welcome. He let her be who she was, intense emotions and all.

Third Grade: Empowerment

This year we maintained the status quo. Tried to keep things steady – no big moves, no major changes in our family situation. And this year, Lucy got to be the rock star again. There were two new girls who only spoke English. They needed someone to help them navigate the school culture and to translate what was going on in class. The teacher put Lucy on the case and this year, Lucy learned how to be both servant and leader. And she made two new best friends.

Fourth Grade: Creativity

Oh, fourth grade! We adored this teacher. She initiated after school craft days (we don’t have many extra curricular activities) during which the kids learned calligraphy, dance, and origami.

The students learned how to put together a five-minute presentation. Lucy did hers on K’naan, the Somali-Canadian singer whose song, “Wavin’ Flag” was the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Lucy (with my help) tweeted K’naan that an American girl in Djibouti was doing a presentation on his music. She asked what his favorite song was. He tweeted back that they were all his favorite and best of luck on the presentation. Lucy was so excited to share her presentation that when her turn came, she leaped up and down in the classroom.

At the end of the school year performance, her class performed a wavin’ flag dance to that song and the teacher personally made each child’s costume.

Fifth Grade: Courage

This year Lucy has the same teacher she had in second grade. He consistently encourages her to be creative, to work hard, and to enjoy and explore Djibouti. He is one of the rare expatriates who love this country and he passes that affection on to the students.

***

It isn’t easy to be a foreign family, to move across the globe, to say hello and goodbye to friends, family, teachers, and schools. And it certainly isn’t easy to be a teacher in these kinds of cross-cultural, melting pot locations.

Dear teachers, my kids have thrived around the world because of you. Between the three of them, they have attended school in five different countries on three continents and each time, you helped this new place become a home. It can’t be easy, to have a non-native speaker in your classroom and to have their bumbling parents sending notes filled with grammatical errors or who don’t quite understand how to do the homework. But you have never made us feel like a burden. You have taken delight in our kids and encouraged them to love learning. We are forever grateful.

Merci Beaucoup.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. 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.

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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 o