Everything else, Grief

Milestone Days

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It’s the milestone days that hit the hardest, I think. It sneaks up on me and quite often I can’t figure out why I’m extra emotional until all at once, I remember.

This week has been a big one in terms of milestones.

Yesterday, my biggest little girl turned twenty-two. I was eleven days shy of turning twenty-one the day she was born. I’d had an all natural birth plan written out, which was promptly tossed in the trash when, a month before she was due to be born, my gall bladder decided it needed to come out. I was feverish and in extraordinary pain, and when my doctor told me they were planning an emergency C-section, I was terrified. Family came up immediately, of course. In the end, everything turned out all right. My sister was beyond thrilled to be an auntie. My brother was ecstatic – he and his wife had just welcomed their son two weeks prior. I have the cutest picture of my husband and my brother holding the babies in the hall at the hospital. They both look so very young.

Yesterday was also my last day at a job I really loved. I hadn’t been planning to leave and then all at once, the situation changed. I’d been half-heartedly looking to pick up a second part time job, and an amazing full time opportunity fell from the sky. I couldn’t NOT take it, but man oh man, it was painful to give notice at a job I truly enjoyed. More than the work, I’ll miss my coworkers terribly. It was a difficult decision to make, and I keep wondering if I made the right choice. I know that I did, for the sake of my family, but it still hurts. Lots of tears the last several days, especially yesterday, packing up my desk and walking out for the last time.

Today is my son’s Junior prom. We picked his suit up yesterday – in the brief window of time between when I left my former job, sobbing, and when we were meeting at the restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s birthday – and wow, does my little boy look grown when he puts it on. He’s taller than I am, now, with facial hair and a new (adorable) girlfriend. Time, man. It marches forward at a ridiculous pace. I wish sometimes I could catch moments like this in my hands just so I could hold them for a while longer.

These are the times when it really strikes me that both my siblings are gone. I have no brother or sister to invite to my kid’s birthday party. Or to call and tell about my new job, or how hard it is for me to leave the old one. No siblings to come tonight and see my son all dressed up, looking sharp and posing with his girl for pictures. It feels so wrong that this is the reality. They should be here. 

Tomorrow, my youngest daughter graduates from college. I’m so proud of her. She’s overcome a myriad of obstacles to get to this point, and to see her with her cap and gown, knowing how hard she’s worked to get to this point, fills me with such an indescribable sense of joy. My sister was a hairstylist. Five years ago, when she was on Hospice, my daughter was telling her how she was going to follow in her footsteps and go to cosmetology school. “Just like Aunt Char Char.” My God, would my sister ever be proud to see her walk tomorrow.

It’s been an exhausting and emotional week, all around. I’m overflowing with conflicting emotions. Some days I miss my siblings so much I can’t catch my breath. Tears well up over the smallest moments that trigger memories. It’s like being kicked in the gut without warning.

I didn’t plan it this way, but a while back I made an appointment to get a memorial tattoo for my dad and my siblings. My appointment is next Friday. This morning I was thinking how fitting the timing is. This week has been almost overwhelming in the feelings department. Next week, I’m taking this step forward in my healing process, honoring my lost loved ones with bright and beautiful ink.

It’s the milestone days that hurt the most.

It’s the milestone days that mean the most.

It’s the milestone days that bring me so much joy.

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Birth Stories, Everything else

Sixteen and Life to Go

Several years ago I committed to writing out the birth stories of each of my children. Probably a task that is long overdue, considering their ages, but I’ve never been what you might call “punctual.”

Today my youngest baby is sixteen. It’s hard to believe, because five minutes ago he was starting kindergarten, but here we are. I remember well my pregnancy and delivery with him, details that probably should have faded by now, but still burn bright in my memory. The pregnancy itself was awful but his birth was my favorite of the four.

In the summer of 2001, we took a family vacation with my parents, siblings and their families to the west side of Michigan. We camped, took the kids to see lighthouses and Lake Michigan, and the trip culminated in a much-anticipated stop at an amusement park, Michigan Adventures. At that time, my children were five, three, and one and a half. I felt fine on the vacation though a little extra tired, but I put that down to the exhaustion of chasing three small children day in and day out. The day we went to the amusement park, I was sitting at a café having a snack. Something had gone wrong – I don’t remember just what, seems like a ride we wanted to go on was broken or something – and out of the blue I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop. Even as I was crying, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Wow. This is weird. Why am I so upset?”

Upon our return home, I had an appointment with an allergist. He wanted to start me on a regime of medications to help control my very out of control allergy symptoms. But first, he said, he wanted me to take a round of Tetracycline. I hadn’t taken that drug before, so after I picked it up from the pharmacy, I spent some time reading the pamphlet on it. One of the warnings that stuck out to me was all the terrible things it could do to a baby if a pregnant woman took it. At that time in my life, I kept extra pregnancy tests around often. The responsible thing, I thought, would be to take a test before starting that medication. Just to be safe. To put my mind at ease. So I did.

And it was positive. I was stunned.

Everyone I told seemed to think it was funny. My family doctor laughed. My sister laughed. My friends laughed. I didn’t laugh, as my head was generally hanging over the toilet by that point. The fourth go ’round was the worst as far as the hyperemesis went. After multiple trips to the ER for fluids, my doctor finally put in a PICC line and set me up with a home nurse. Halfway through my pregnancy, I switched doctors. Then I was diagnosed with placenta previa. My due date was April 14th and we were seriously considering the possibility that I would need another C-section. However, at the last moment, the previa took care of itself.

My doctor was concerned because my third labor and delivery had gone so fast – three hours, start to finish – and worried I might not make it to the hospital in time once I went into labor. I was cautioned to go in to the hospital if I had any indication labor might be starting and not to wait. April 14th came and went. No contractions. Nothing. Another week came and went. On the 22nd, I had an appointment with my doctor. I was heavy, hot, and aggravated. I very clearly recall demanding he do something to move the situation along. I said something along the lines of, “Listen, buddy, I’m having this baby today whether you help me or not.” He scheduled an induction for later in the afternoon.

We went home. Packed bags for the children and called family members. It was decided we would go out for lunch first, and we all met at a local diner. From there, my parents took the kids home with them, and my husband and I headed back to the hospital. Due to the problems that had plagued all four of my pregnancies, we knew this one would be my last. As such, I had chosen not to learn the gender of the baby beforehand. I wanted to be surprised. My husband couldn’t wait, and had asked the sonographer a few weeks before. He did a decent job keeping it secret, although he did make one slip that he hurriedly covered up. As we waited for my induction to begin, we discussed baby names. We still hadn’t decided on a name for a boy. For a girl, I’d picked out Elyssa Rose.

Finally, it was go time. IV was hooked up. My mom decided to come up and hang out with us. My five-year-old daughter followed her to the car and refused to go back inside the house, so she brought her along. At 6:10 p.m. my doctor broke my water. Shortly after, I expressed to my nurse that labor was definitely rolling along quickly. I did this by grabbing the bed rail with both hands and attempting to yank it off while screaming. She responded by setting the room up for delivery. She called my doctor, who said it couldn’t possibly be happening that fast and he would stop in after a couple of hours.

“How long was your last labor?” she asked me.

“Three hours,” I panted.

Her pace quickened. My screams settled to a repetitive whisper as I lay on my side, still gripping the bed rail and rocking it. “I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time, I want drugs this time,” was my mantra. My first baby was an emergency C-section that I wasn’t even awake to experience. My second had a failed epidural, and my third happened so fast there was no time for medication.

None of my labors were light or easy. There is no parade or trophy for doing it without pain medication. I wanted it. Right then. I couldn’t think of anything else. My nurse paused, watched me carefully for about two minutes, and then called my doctor again. When he arrived, he did so with the statement, “Valarie, I heard you’re giving your nurse a hard time. It can’t possibly be going this fast. Just try to relax.”

He went on to say since he was already there, he would go ahead and check me. I declined to give him permission to touch me until he brought me drugs. He laughed. I maintained my order. He called in the epidural guy, who refused to give me one since I had a latex allergy and something about something in the epidural had latex in it. I sat up, grabbed one bed rail in each hand, and alternated growling, cussing, and wailing in a fashion that caused the epidural guy to hustle. In minutes, he’d given me a shot that numbed all the pertinent areas.

“Now, Valarie, let’s see what all this fuss is about,” my doctor said.

The injection was a blessed relief. I reclined on my pillows. Held my husband’s hand while the doctor did his thing. Suddenly, everything was in high speed.

“Um, Valarie?” my doctor asked.

“Yeah.”

“Whatever you do, don’t push.”

I hadn’t been planning on it right then, but agreed anyway.

“Also, don’t sit up until I get this bed broken down. Head’s already coming out.”

So much for me being overdramatic.

My water had been broken at 6:10 p.m. My baby was born at 7:18 p.m. Start to finish: 68 minutes.

We had another little boy. Obviously, he was perfect. Black hair. Ridiculously adorable.

Nameless.

My husband leaned toward Christopher Caleb. I tended to like names that were slightly unusual and had lots of vowels.

The next morning, I signed the paperwork for a tubal ligation. Two girls, two boys, all under the age of six. Our family was exactly the right size. Because of my surgery, we stayed an extra day at the hospital.

Fun fact: After two days, the birth certificate people quit calling your room and just barge right in, demanding you name your baby for  God’s sake, just call the kid something.

It wasn’t that we hadn’t been trying to agree on a name. We had gone through books and made lists of possibilities. Finally, we made a choice: I would pick the first name, whatever I wanted. My husband would pick the middle name, whatever he wanted.

I held my little black-haired boy in my arms, considering. In my head, I had a short list of favorite names and I turned that list over and over while I decided.

Then it struck me that one of the names I’d liked the best meant “raven.”

Raven. It suited him, with his dark hair.

“Brennan,” I told my husband. “His name is Brennan.” It fit him just right.

My husband chose Christopher for his middle name.

As a baby, Brennan made the funniest facial expressions that kept us in stitches. As a toddler, he was rowdy but so ridiculously cute it was difficult to discipline him. By about age five, we realized he had a rather enjoyable knack for dry humor. His quick wit has continued to flourish over the years, and I can honestly say he’s made us laugh daily since his arrival. A budding conspiracy theorist, he’s down to discuss trivia about Sasquatch, the zombie apocalypse, or aliens at just about any time. He is thoughtful and brave, and has a ready stock of puns to pull out for any imaginable occasion.

It seems impossible that my baby is sixteen today. He is getting taller and has the beginnings of a mustache. His green eyes are identical to mine. His once-black hair has turned to a light brown. He’ll be learning to drive this summer.

He might be getting older, but he’ll always remain my little raven. The surprise baby that completed our family and taught us that life is always better with extra laughter.

I’ve compiled a few funny FB statuses from over the years regarding this kid that have cracked me up. It’s been suggested to me that I write a “Bean Book” someday. (Bean is his nickname).

Bean: Mom, you’re my best pickle!
Me: I’m your… your pickle? What?
Bean: Yeah! BECAUSE I RELISH OUR TIME TOGETHER! I RELISH IT!

Bean: Help me button my sleeves?
Me: I don’t understand why you are getting dressed up before bed, instead of getting into pajamas.
Bean: You don’t know what I do after you go to sleep. For all you know, I go out to parties. Or wrestle bears under my assumed name of Mr. Beast.

Me (plowing through yet another sink full of dishes): I wish I could look at my kitchen counter just once and not have to see a mountain of dirty dishes.
Bean: Yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe we could lay a blanket over them.

Me, at a party today, playing with a delightful dumpling of a baby:
“I like him. Let’s keep him!”
Bean: “He is pretty cute. But is he hypoallergenic?”

Took some Nyquil.
Konked out on the couch for like 30 minutes.
Bean jacked my phone and used it to text the other kids and tell them they were grounded.

Yesterday in a parking lot, Bean suddenly disappeared for a second.
Then he leaped out from behind a car, wielding finger guns at me, and shouted, “Stick ’em up! And give me all your Facebook followers!”

My mom and her bf were over, and mom mentioned he had to get back to Canada for awhile, and jokingly added that she didn’t want him to become an “illegal alien”.
Brennan stared intently for several minutes, and then, narrowing his eyes, he leaned in and whispered to him,
“Tell me everything you know about Area 51.” (he was nine)

Life has certainly been an adventure since he’s come into our lives. Happy sixteenth birthday, Bean.

 

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Bits and Whatnots

The Vacation that Wasn’t.

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Let me tell you a story about how I’ve been living in a hotel for two weeks.

I’m not currently homeless, so don’t worry about that. I have a home, I just can’t go there.

A few weeks ago in the process of moving a file cabinet in our bedroom, we found mold. We called our insurance, who sent out a guy, who sent out a different guy, and then we heard nothing at all for several days. And then one Friday about three in the afternoon, they called and said we had to go, they had People coming out to Do Mold Removal Things.

While it’s probably typically not a hard thing to find a hotel room to stay in, our adjuster had a bit of a problem because our family is larger than what is allowed by law to stay in one room because of fire code hazards, so they had to find a place with two adjoining rooms.

And we needed a place that allowed dogs, because I’ve got two of them.

After much back and forth, the insurance found us a couple rooms at a Holiday Inn Express about a half an hour away from our home. It’s a nice enough place, don’t get me wrong, but the glamour of living in a hotel rubs off pretty quick when you’ve got six people and two dogs in an enclosed space for a long length of time. It’s not that my kids don’t love each other.

It’s that having to share beds and breathe air in the same room together for so many days in a row is turning them into zombies who crave the brains of their siblings.

The additional drive time whenever someone needs to go to school or work is draining our gas money in an insanely fast manner, and while at first it was kind of fun to eat dinner out every night, after two weeks I think we are all craving some of my own spectacular home cooked Burnt Food, or maybe just some cheap spaghetti that I make way too much of and cook way too long.

As a writer and human being who spends probably an unhealthy amount of time in my house and alone, it’s painful to be trapped in a hotel with strangers who want to start random conversations with me. I take my dogs to go out for a pee, someone strikes up some small talk. I sit in a dark corner alone in the morning for breakfast, people bring their conversations over to me and try to pull me in. It’s really a ridiculous amount of talking, to be honest. Like, in the hallways at 7:30 a.m. people smile at me and yell GOOD MORNING like they are some particularly horrible kind of monsters. One early morning as I was sitting alone, eating a biscuit and reading a Stephen King novel, some strange man in Very Ironed Clothes suddenly stuck his face in mine and yelled HAVE A NICE DAY! for no good reason at all. How am I supposed to respond to that kind of nonsense?

It’s a very clean hotel and housekeeping must come in every couple of days to make sure we haven’t trashed the place like the drunken rock stars we are, so every time I get things settled into some semblance of comfortable chaos, they come and straighten and fiddle and scrub until everything is back in order again. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty awful. I cannot create while trapped in this stark, overly organized space. And can we talk about how horrifying it is when housekeeping actually comes in to clean? The night before, my husband and I take out the trash and pick up and try to make like we are halfway decent human beings. Then when the lady does come in to clean, I sit or stand here awkwardly because it feels bizarre to have someone else cleaning up my mess but if I offer to help or give her, I don’t know, a pudding cup or a muffin or something she looks at me weird.  Today when I answered the door, the housekeeper lady asked me if I was going to let my dogs bite her.

Yesterday, the toilet backed up. I waited nearly an hour before I amped up the courage to call the front desk (because hello, it’s more talking to strangers) and then the maintenance guy came and I had to talk more to someone else I don’t know and apologize for making him do this Terrible Thing.

Not one to dwell on doom and gloom, I will admit there are perks:

There is a swimming pool.

The complimentary breakfast is delightful. I’m not certain the eggs are really eggs, but the biscuits taste like they were stolen from the kitchen at KFC, which is not an entirely impossible notion, as there’s a KFC across the parking lot here.

I haven’t had to wash dishes in two weeks.

But I find the idea that I don’t know when I can go home makes me feel really stressed. People keep telling me to treat this like a vacation, but I think those people have likely never been abruptly stuffed into a hotel room with six people and two dogs for an extended period of time.

Last week, my son got really sick and had to spend some time in the ER. He’s doing better now, but I felt I had to ask the universe what bad thing was coming next, because I think we all know that Bad Things come in threes and I like to be prepared.

That was right about when we found out my daughter’s cosmetology school closed, three weeks into her first semester, with no warning. Just a post on the school’s Facebook page stating they were very sorry, don’t come to class tomorrow, they were closing down all 79 campuses. Of course, she’s distraught and we are left trying to find her a new school and deal with her loans and in general, it’s an entirely unpleasant experience.

BUT THEN

It got worse.

When my husband went to pick up dinner last night, we found out that Little Caesar’s is discontinuing their cream cheese dip.

I know. I KNOW. It’s okay, I cried a little bit, too.

I have been working, though. In addition to my regular freelance writing, I’ve gotten a few thousand more words on my current novel, and the other day fiddled around a little bit with a New Shiny Idea, which seasoned writers advise we shouldn’t do when we are writing a novel already, but I don’t understand how to get the voices out of my head if I don’t get them out on the page.

We had a meeting with the contractor a couple of days ago, who cheerfully announced it would likely be another two weeks before we can go home, and that’s barring any problems.

I’m beginning to feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins. This little adventure has been nice and all, but I really just want to go home where I have all my books and my yarn and mountains of dirty dishes in the sink.

By the way, does anybody have a pair of ruby slippers I could borrow?

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s…

See what this nightmare has done to me? I’m already mixing up fictional characters. I’ll be utterly daft by the time I get to go home.

Probably not the worst things that could happen. I hear all the best writers have lost their minds.

 

Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

Kiss of Pavement

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Last year, you might recall we took the kids camping for a few weeks and ended up living through our own version of A Series of Unfortunate Events. There was a terrible sunburn for me, weeks of miserable hives (also for me), and among other things, a myriad of parts that broke on our trailer. We also found a leak that invited bugs under the floor in one area, and had to cut that piece of linoleum out. Given that, it may seem bizarre we’ve decided to do it again, but we are.

I may be mildly (okay, horrifically) bad luck prone, and my sense of coordination has never been the sort that made athletics a smart idea, but still, we were excited to pack up and travel that ten minutes from home to the campground. Campfire pizza pies and s’mores called to us. Thoughts of swimming, kayaking, and family picnics drew us in. Ever optimistic, I took precautions so I wouldn’t burn and break out in full body hives like the freak of nature that I am. SPF 70 is surprisingly difficult to find, but I hunted until we located a couple bottles of it. I have a thin, silky jacket to help protect me from the sun. Picked up a couple large and ridiculously gaudy sun hats. Two different types of antihistamines.

We brought only our oldest son with us to help set up, since we were close enough to home to run back once we were finished. Found a nice site with nothing but woods behind us, which is more peaceful than when your rig is surround by others, and what we prefer when camping. Lady Luck, it appeared, was on our side. I knew this trip was going to be great. I even had a new swimsuit I was looking forward to trying out. After we set up the trailer, we went home to finish getting the kids’ things together, and as they were all complaining about their imminent death by starvation, we ordered a couple of pizzas, ate at the house, then left the kids and dogs home while we ran up to buy some groceries.

We’d gotten a rather late start that first day, so we didn’t make it to the grocery store until around 10 p.m., but we were full of adrenaline and happily making plans for cooking out over the weekend. Everything was working out perfectly for us. Even the weather forecast was on our side.

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Right?

We were back to our house by 11, and it was pitch dark outside. We had purchased some extra food to leave at the house, and our plan was to just drop that off, pick up the kids and the dogs, and get back to the trailer. I hopped out of the car, thought my husband was likely getting exhausted from his long day of work, then setting up the campsite, then grocery shopping, so I decided I’d help him carry in the few groceries to the house.

That’s where it all went wrong.

I turned, rounded the driver’s side of the Yukon, felt a horrendous hot pain going from my right big toe and straight up my leg.

Next thing I knew, I was airborne.

I had forgotten about that part of our driveway that’s got an uneven spot, where some of the concrete has settled down lower than the rest. In the darkness, I didn’t see it.

I struck that part with my right foot, and felt something crack. My first thought was that I had broken my big toe. I felt some kind of crack in the center of it.

My second thought was that I was about to land face first on the pavement.

There was nothing for me to grab on to so I could break my fall. I was too far away from the Yukon to catch hold of anything. My daughter had her back to me and was walking toward the house. My husband was behind the vehicle. No help from any direction.

I landed with a thud on the concrete. I felt the skin rip off my knee and the palm of my left hand.

A single inelegant and rather grunty-sounding word escaped my lips. “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

My husband hurriedly came around the corner of the vehicle. He stared at me for a moment, then asked, “What are you doing?

(Kissing the pavement, it looked lonely) “Um, I fell.”

“You fell? Over what?”

I begin laughing like a hyena with a dime bag who has just gotten busted by the cops. “Um… think I broke my toe.”

He helped me up and into the house. Once we were in the light, I caught a visual of my mangled right big toe and immediately wished I hadn’t. I plunked down into the part of the couch that has the recliner in it, and put the leg rest up. Ow, ow, ow, ow. The kids crowded around me, worried.

My left hand and knee were scraped up pretty good and my knee was good and bloody. Those were things that hurt, but not terribly. My toe, however, was in an awful lot of pain. I was thinking back to times I have broken other toes, attempting to remember the exact feeling or what the signs and symptoms of a broken toe might be. I closed my eyes, trying to think, but doing so was difficult because, A: jolts of hot pain were biting up the nerves in my legs, causing me to shake, and 2: three of my kids were crowded around me, shouting at me things I guess I have said or maybe yelled at them over the years in the aftermath of an injury.

Kid 1: “I think we need to take her to the urgent care clinic.”

Kid 4: (patting my shoulder frantically) “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, everything’s okay!”

Kid 3: (plunks his hand down on my thigh, affects a deep and manly voice) “Here, Mom, squeeze my hand. Put your pain into it. I can take it. Squeeze as hard as you can.”

Kid 1: “Get a wash cloth! Somebody get a wash cloth! We need to clean her up!”

Kid 4: “Does anybody know what kind of music she likes? Let’s put on Pandora! Mom, what Pandora do you like?”

Kid 3: “That’s stupid. Shut up. She doesn’t need music right now!”

Kid 4: “MUSIC IS VERY CALMING, I READ ABOUT IT! I’M NOT STUPID!”

Kid 1: “I don’t like the way she’s shaking. I think she’s going into shock.”

Husband: “Just go run her foot under some water, then dump peroxide on it. Kills the germs.”

Kid 1: “She can’t walk! We need to take her to a clinic!”

Me: “Clinics are closed, and I’m not going to ER for this. Just give me a minute here.”

Kid 4: “Parts of her toe are hanging off. Does she know that?”

Kid 3: “Squeeze my hand, Mom. Somebody get her some water! We need water over here!”

Kid 1: “She’s still shaking. I’m worried. Mom? Mom, can you hear me? We need to take her somewhere.”

Husband: “I don’t know. You wanna go somewhere? Your toe is pretty messed up. Needs to be cleaned… and uh, I can’t do that. Um, I think you ripped the nail off.”

Kid 4: (frantically patting my shoulder, my head, my leg) “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Kid 3: “Here, Mom. I got you some water. Can you sip it? That’s good, that’s good. I got her to take some water!”

Kid 1: “Could she be having a seizure? Did she hit her head?”

Me: “I’m not having a seizure. I just need a minute to calm back down.”

Kid 1: “Okay, I’m going to help you clean up your knee. There’s a lot of blood, but I’ll be very gentle, okay?”

Kid 3: “It’s gonna hurt, Mom. Go ahead, squeeze my hand hard, I can take it.”

Kid 1: “Somebody get a bowl of water to put her foot in. There could be dirt up under that nail.”

Husband: (brings enormous salad bowl full of water)

Me: (gingerly dips foot into water while trying not to look)

*phone rings*

*husband answers*

Apparently kid 2 and her boyfriend are sitting in the dark at the campground getting hassled by security because we thought we would be right over there, but we evidently aren’t, so they are sitting there at midnight with no key to the trailer and no membership card to prove they are actually supposed to be there.

Husband: “Just tell them to call my cell phone then! Oh my God! Why can’t anything ever just go right!”

Kid 4: “Cool. Look at all the blood in the bowl!”

Kid 3: “Shut UP! Don’t tell her there’s blood. It’s okay Mom. There’s hardly no blood. It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Husband: “What bowl do we need for the party tomorrow? For you to take that dessert in?”

Me: “Uh, the blue one. With the lid.”

Kid 1: “Mom can’t talk about making dessert right now! She’s INJURED!”

Kid 4: “Can I play Pokemon Go at the campground?”

Kid 3: “Step back, let me take care of this. I was a Boy Scout. I have first aid training!”

Someone has brought Band-aids and some gauze, so we dry off the mangled toe and hurriedly cover the mess. Once I don’t have to look at it, the pain begins to diminish. The shaking settles down. I’m running through a list in my mind of what medication I have on hand that might help. All I can think of is Motrin and some of the heavy-duty antihistamines, both back at the trailer.

We have three vehicles to get back to the campground, so I know I have to drive. After I get myself composed and my husband has gotten the rest of the stuff we need packed up, I hobble back out to my vehicle. We form a little caravan as we drive through the night. It takes me a little longer to get to the campground than usual, but finally we make it.

Eventually I sleep. I dream of meeting new people and all of them are missing a hand or a foot.

The next day was busy. We had a party to get to, and some shopping that still needed done. I clutched the cart through Wally World, thinking gratefully of the evening, when I could sit in my lawn chair with my throbbing foot up and work on a blanket I’m crocheting. My husband says, “Let’s go look at the bikes.”

Bikes. Sure.

Over the winter, we had been talking about buying new bikes for us. The last time we bought new bikes for ourselves, our 20-year-old daughter was 3 months old.

Sure, I said. Let’s go. I was thinking we could look quick before we left. What could it hurt? I was watching the time, though. I had promised the party host I would come back and help clean up.

Leaning against the cart, I shuffled around the corner to the bike aisle.

And that’s when I saw it.

The most glorious bike that ever happened.

Turquoise and bright yellow, with a matching basket on the front (obviousy to put my yorkie in), it said, “Margaritaville” down the middle bar, and had a small parrot on the handle that squeaked when pushed.

The seat was flowered.

“This one,” I said. “I want it.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, wary. “Are you gonna fall off it and get hurt again?”

“No, no. I’m fine. Get this one. It’s beautiful.”

And it is.

I love it.

But I have to admit, with my history of poor luck and general clumsiness, I was a little worried when I took it for my first ride.

So far, so good.

And I don’t even need that big toe to balance on my bike.

I hope the rest of this trip is entirely uneventful.

Is there some sort of “Uneventful, boring trip” dance we could do, you know, like a rain dance, to keep things smooth and chill for a while? I mean, obviously I can’t do the dance, I’ve got a mangled big toe. But surely someone could be willing. My youngest son seems to suddenly have more energy than he knows what to do with.

If I withheld Pokemon  Go from him for a while, I could probably bribe him to do it.

If my luck suddenly turns around, you’ll know I’ve got an adolescent I’m forcing to dance for me like a little marionette, taunting him with promises of catching a Snorlax if he just dances for me one more time.

Birth Stories, Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

Sixteen Tomorrow

I decided a while back to write a birth story for each of my four kids. I wrote one for each of my girls within the last couple of years and since tomorrow is my oldest son’s sixteenth birthday, today I’m writing his.

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My due date was April 2nd, 2000 and I was already four days past that. My two little girls were two and a half and almost four and my husband worked third shift a couple of towns away from where we lived. We had planned to drop our daughters off at my sister’s house when I went into labor, but it felt like it had been so many years since I had passed my due date that we had sort of given up thinking that might ever happen. Clearly, I was just going to stay pregnant forever. And ever.

On April sixth, my husband left around ten p.m. for work and I waddled to bed to try and sleep. I couldn’t get comfortable, and just about quarter after eleven realized I was having some contractions. For some idiotic reason I can’t even explain other than I read it somewhere in some magazine, I got up and decided to take a shower. This was a poor choice on my part, because this labor started out really fast and strong and within just a few minutes I was in so much pain I could no longer stand up. I was stuck in the shower and had nobody home to help me other than my little girls, who were sound asleep.

Eventually, I was able to crawl out of the tub and to the kitchen to the phone (remember, this was back before we all had a cell phone attached to us every second of every day). I called the factory where my husband worked at the time and gave a breathless message to the person in the office. Several minutes later, he called me back, listened to me shrieking for a minute or two, and headed home. It never crossed my mind to call my doctor. Again, I have no way to reason that out. It was dumb but I was tired and in a lot of pain. I very seriously thought I might have the baby on the living room floor, before my husband ever made it home.

Finally, he arrived and called our family doctor. She asked him to time my contractions, then listened to me screaming for a few minutes and told him they were WAY too close together for me to still be at home. Get going, she said. Go fast.

During a brief break between pains, I woke up my daughters and packed them a bag. Clearly out of my head with agony and excitement, I packed them a bunch of licorice. Can’t tell you why, only that in the moment, it seemed absolutely imperative. Then we called my sister, because that was our plan.

Problem was, she never picked up the phone. We called over and over again. No answer.

Instead, we drove the (very sleepy and confused and tightly gripping their licorice) girls to my husband’s parents’ house. At that point, I really, really thought I was not going to make it to the hospital in time.

One thing I knew I wanted to do was get some pain relief. I had had an emergency C-section with my first child, and my morphine line had a hole in it so I was in a lot of pain for a lot of hours after I woke up. With my second child, I requested an epidural, but it failed. This time, I was determined to get some wonderful pain meds, the kind I’d heard friends describe as “heaven”, which would reduce the hip-shattering agony I was currently experiencing to something along the lines of mild cramps. I thought about this all the way to the hospital.

When I shuffled in to the labor and delivery triage area at the hospital, I was breathless and barely able to talk. There was nobody at the desk, and I was certain that if I sat down in one of the chairs I would never get back up, so I just leaned forward on the desk, propping myself up with my elbows, and stood there. Shaking. After what seemed an eternity, a nurse found me and got me into a room.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she said.

“I want pain meds this time,” I replied.

She laughed. I didn’t.

After a quick check that told her I was already well past eight, she told me I was too far gone for any sort of substantial relief. Sorry, kid. That baby is coming too fast.

Things went pretty fast after that. I was moved down to a regular room, my doctor arrived, and so did my mom and siblings. My sister, as it turned out, had taken a few Tylenol PMs before bed and didn’t hear the phone ring when I called.

My first son was born at 2:52 a.m. on April 7th after just about three and a half hours of labor. He shares a birthday with my sister’s daughter, just fifteen years apart.

He was a big boy. Eight pounds, thirteen point two ounces.

My doctor looked up at me and said, “All right, Val, I need you to push again, get that placenta out.”

I looked back at her and replied, “I’m done. If you want anything else, you can go in and get it yourself.”

I wasn’t kidding. Fast labors are kind of cool but the thing about them is, you end up feeling a lot like you’ve been run over by a semi truck once everything is said and done.

We had considered naming him Andrew, but couldn’t decide on a middle name. My husband went out to the nurse’s station and borrowed a baby name book. He came across the name Donovan and asked what I thought of it.

Andrew Donovan.

We thought about that for a few minutes, and then turned it around.

Donovan Andrew.

It fit him perfectly.

And tomorrow he turns sixteen.

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Bits and Whatnots, Writing

Failing NaNo in 5 Easy Steps

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I decided earlier in the fall to try and do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. I had been a bit afraid to try it in the past, largely because the idea of setting such a short deadline on writing seemed like a great way to set off my anxiety.

Death by panic attack looked like a reasonable outcome, so I never tried it, though I watched with a little envy as my friends started their novels and posted their NaNo updates. I wanted to do it, but I was chicken, and that’s the pure truth.

So I had this idea for a new book and had a little bit of it going. I titled it “Maternal Consumption” and it was to be about this woman,  Samaria, who had a past filled with blank spots that she couldn’t remember, a dead mother, and grumbly tummy. As she begins to eat her mother, she consumes her mother’s memories, thereby filling in those missing pieces of her life. I got about five thousand something and something words in and that’s about it. I hit an absolute wall. Nothing was flowing, but sometimes that happens, right? I planned to just force some words out, but what ended up happening was just…plain nothing.

I thought of another idea, a new story. Sometimes if I’m stuck, writing something else gets the words and ideas going. So I started the new story, hoping it would unfreeze the ideas for Maternal Consumption.

Nope. Nada. Zilch.

Here we are, at the end of NaNoWriMo, and I have successfully failed on my first try. If you’d like to fail as I have, let me give you some advice. It can be daunting, I know, but if you really want to fail, you can do it. I believe in you!

How to Fail At NaNoWriMo in Five Easy Steps:

  1. Is someone in your family terminally ill? This is a great time for their health to take a horrific downturn. Spending 5-12 hours a day at the hospital sucks the creativity right out of you. As an added bonus, ask your loved one’s physician to call you several times throughout the week and tell you to get to the hospital right away, the end is nigh. Of course, when you get there, nothing will happen. However, you will be afraid to leave again, just in case. If the doctor can spend some time talking to you about calling in Hospice, so much the better. This will feed your anxiety and send your stress level through the roof. Now you can utilize the time you would have spent writing to rearrange your parent’s (or other loved one’s) house to make space for the hospital bed. Things can get a little twisty at this point, but it helps if you get a call from out-of-state to let you know another family member is expected to die at any moment. The added worry of how to make it to that funeral while still remaining at your dying parent’s bedside will successfully stop you from ever sleeping, which of course, only solidifies your inability to write anything.
  2. See if you can’t start planning a funeral for your loved one ahead of time. Your laptop battery will likely die (the nature of the environment) once you get there, and anyway, you’ll feel conspicuous typing while you’re supposed to be picking out a casket. This is also a great time to be reminded of legal paperwork you need but have no idea where to find, and the panic of finding out even the most no-frills service you can plan will still cost upward  of six thousand dollars will make your mind completely blank. Bonus move: hunt beneath  couches and dog crates for any spare change. Count it up, and mentally calculate how much funeral money you still need once you subtract your newly acquired $3.26.
  3. If you haven’t already, start a new job. Make sure it is a job you love and can’t believe your luck in getting and that you really want to impress your new boss with your skills. Now make sure you are late for deadlines because of time spent at the hospital, and if you can pull off a couple of sixteen hour workdays to make up what you’ve been lacking, well friend, that’s just gravy. You can’t be blamed for not NaNo’ing when you are frantically trying to keep up with work. I mean, you’ve got to pay your mortgage and feed your kids, right?
  4. Get some teenagers. If you don’t own any personally, borrow some. These are helpful for a variety of reasons. Slamming doors, screaming, and refusing to help with chores when you’ve been at the hospital all day and then working half the night are just some of the bonus features of keeping teens in the house. If you can get at least one of them to develop a mysterious medical condition, such as passing out and having a possible seizure while at a music concert hours away, necessitating multiple doctor visits and extra medical tests, you’ve really got it made. Your mind will be so blank with worry and medical jargon you won’t even be able to remember what that story was going to be about, anyway. For additional anxiety power, see if the kid who is struggling can also have a complicated medical history, such as a rare chronic illness. This helps baffle both your mind and the physician’s. Writing? What writing? You won’t even be able to spell at this point, let alone attempt to think creatively.
  5. Stop doing any housework. Overflowing trash cans, stacks of dirty dishes, and mountains of laundry will only cement your status as a failure on every level. If you can manage to get every single glass dirty and then forget to pick up dish soap, you won’t even be able to pour yourself a cup of caffeine. Obviously, no caffeine, no writing, so there you go. Pro tip: Throw your back out. This makes everything you attempt to do nine thousand times more difficult, from taking a shower to treks through the hospital. You won’t be able to sit to write, as the pressure from back pain will make your legs numb.

 

And there you have it, kids. How to fail at NaNoWriMo in five easy steps. Of course, what worked for me may not work for you, and that’s just the nature of the creative beast. Sometimes you really have to play at life to see how best to mess up your own plans. If you truly take my advice to heart, you can get a jumpstart on how to fail at next year’s NaNo. Of course, there’s always the possibility that you may try to fail and still succeed, but keep that chin up, cupcake. If you really, really want to fail, you can do it. I believe in you!

P.S. If you like the way I write and want to dump some cash into the sorely lacking funeral services fund, please consider buying my books. I don’t do crowd funding, but we could really use some extra money right now. As my mother in law continues to fade away, the worry over how we will manage to pay for her final arrangements only gets more real. For those of you who continue to be supportive of my writing, thank you. You mean so much.

 

Bits and Whatnots

The Weekend.

Let me tell you about my weekend.

Friday night was our 22nd wedding anniversary. We did not make enormous plans, due to various things, like my mother-in-law being ill and in the hospital, other family stuff, and the lack of much actual cash money to do anything with.

So we made plans to go out for dinner and a movie, because CRIMSON PEAK, amiright?

Before I go any further, let me recap the last two years of our anniversary celebrations:

Two years ago:

Went to a casino. Got a call from the eldest child. She’d gone outside and when she came running up the cement porch steps, she fell and gouged a big chunk out of her leg. She thought she needed stitches. I called my mom, who drove over and checked it out, thought, yeah, maybe it might need stitches, so we left early and came home. I took her to the clinic and while it looked rather ghastly, no stitches were needed.

Last year:

Tried an overnight at the casino again. Told the kids, STAY HOME. Multiple texts between us and the kids cell phones showed nothing amiss. We came home the next morning and found, courtesy of the cops who came over to visit, that the children in fact DID NOT stay home, had instead gone out for chili cheese fries, which in itself is not generally arrestable behavior. But my daughter had just started driving, and *scraped* another car as she was backing out of the restaurant parking lot. She panicked, and bolted. So, the friendly neighborhood policemen came to serve her with papers about her little misdemeanor. THAT WAS CUTE.

This year, we were only leaving for a few hours. Just long enough to devour some delightful steakhouse food and watch Tom Hiddleston be amazingly dapper. NOT EVEN LONG ENOUGH FOR KIDS TO GET INTO TROUBLE.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Dinner was good. Quiet. I lamented eating too much as I continued to stuff my face. It was wonderful. And the steakhouse makes its servers do line dancing when certain country songs come on the radio, which was delightful (if kind of awkward for us…where do you look? do you look at the servers when they dance? Is that considered gawking? Look up at the ceiling to prevent accidental gawking? Just keep shoveling food in face? What’s the proper etiquette there?) and even the dainty eighty-something-year-old woman seated across from us got up to do the Boot Scoot-N-Boogie down the aisle.

And we were thinking, you know, this is nice. Nice to finally have kids old enough to leave alone for a few hours without being constantly harassed via text or phone call about silly little things. All those years of near death experiences with toddlers and young kids has been worth it. Now we’ve gotten to that easy part. HAHAHAHAHA.

We got our tickets for the Hiddleston Show, I mean, um, Crimson Peak, and a couple of drinks and a giant box of Junior Mints that we were kind of giddy about not having to share with extra greedy little hands. And the movie was getting  good, lovely and creepy and filled with gorgeous velvety looking costumes, and that’s about when our phones started to go off.

I ignored mine. My husband tried, but his kept going off, over and over. Finally he checked it and texted, “Can’t talk right now.”

Response: I need you to call me right now.

HUGE SIGH.

Husband gets up, out of the theater and out to the hall to call our daughter. Dad, she says, I came out to buy pizza and locked my keys in the running car. I don’t know what to do.

Of course, the only extra set of car keys we own was sitting there on my lap, in my purse.

Adamantly, we refuse to leave the movie theater. They are adults. They will have to figure something out. We’ve got an entire box of  Junior Mints still to eat.

Our phones go off again.

Okay, they’ve figured out for my younger daughter’s boyfriend to come and get the keys from us. But he has to first find a ride, so it might be a while.

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Should we go ahead and get the pizza?

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Did they get the keys?

Text: Dad? Dad? Dad?

Text: Are you sure they aren’t there yet? Did you check?

Text: They’re on their way!

Text: They’ll be there in a minute!

Text: Are they there yet?

Text: Sorry we ruined your anniversary again.

Text: Did the guys come to get the keys yet?

Finally, the guys DID come to get the keys and we were left to eat our Junior Mints in peace.

Yesterday morning, my 15-year-old son knocked on my bedroom door, shouting something about blood.

I leapt up, okay, I don’t much leap anymore, I’m forty, I slowly uncurled my frozen body from the bed and inched my way straight, rolled off the side of my bed and began to stagger, while shouting, I’m coming! Hang on!

Turned out to be an unfortunate bagel incident. Rather than microwave a frozen bagel and then cut and toast it, he decided to try cutting the solidly frozen bagel with a steak knife and plunged the serrated blade into the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. The blood was gushing, he said, and it went on my bagel but I just put butter over it and ate it. So I didn’t waste the bagel.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that was my main worry.

Anyway, three stitches later and a long time spent trying to come up with an acceptable battle story to tell the guys (I suggested chupacabra attack), that particular wound seems to be doing okay.

But the highlight of the weekend was going to be watching The Walking Dead last night, because WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO GLENN and COULD IT BE POSSIBLE THAT HE REALLY IS A TIME LORD AND THE DUMPSTER IS A TARDIS, so I ran to the store last night to get some Moose Tracks ice cream, because HELLO, zombies and ice cream are what really makes a Sunday holy, and lo and behold.

Our television froze, for no apparent reason, for thirty solid minutes.

So we missed TWD.

That was my weekend.

Birth Stories, Bits and Whatnots

Ninety-Seven and Seventeen.

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It was so desperately hot that summer.

1997. We were living in a double-wide modular home, in a park not far from where we live now. The heat seemed like a living thing, a second skin that slithered over me and nestled in for the long haul. Even the middle of the night brought no relief; it was sticky and hot and even a thin sheet seemed too much to bear. One hundred degree days were one after another, a record breaking heat wave that had television weather forecasters and radio DJs jabbering excitedly.

At the time, I was heavily pregnant with my second child, and had a one-year-old daughter, Olivia. Some days, I would pack the baby up in my old car and drive to the grocery store or Walmart just to walk around in the air conditioning. My hair was constantly damp against my head and I felt always out of breath, the humidity in the air seemed to steal any good oxygen I took in. We lived for the occasional thunderstorm, just to breathe some cooler air.

I was due October 11 and had an appointment with my doctor on October 7. He was concerned, he said, because my first baby had been an emergency C-section, and I had plans to deliver naturally this time. A family member of his had died and he needed to leave the country unexpectedly, and he was worried another physician wouldn’t pay enough attention to the possibility of uterine rupture. “You might die,” he told me. “You could lose the baby.” I was hot, gigantic, miserable and terrified, so when he said he wanted to induce my labor so he could attend the birth, I agreed. We made our plans: I would make arrangements for Olivia, finish readying the baby’s room, pack for my hospital stay and have my husband notify his work that he needed the time off. I went into action mode, making calls and settling my plans. My husband took me out to dinner and we grinned through the entire meal.

I was excited because the hospital was air conditioned.

We hadn’t found out the gender of the baby. I liked having it be a surprise, but everyone who had an opinion or a guess thought I was carrying a boy. We had a boy’s name picked out: Collin Phillip. My sister wanted me to name a boy Levi, and reminded me about it every time we hung out. If it turned out to be a girl, I knew I wanted the middle name to be Grace; my first daughter’s middle name was Faith. John’s choice for a girl name was Alyssa, and I liked it well enough, but at the time it was a hugely popular girl’s name, and a woman at our church had just named a her daughter Alyssa Grace. I wanted something a little bit different.

We showed up in the early evening to check in at the hospital. Everything seemed to be going dizzyingly fast, the meds and the IV and forms that needed signing and the nurses and doctors checking me. Contractions started quickly, and by the middle of the night were down to three minutes apart. I had a back labor and it felt like my hips were shattering every time a contraction hit. I cried and threw up several times, but I tried not to scream because I knew my family was just around the corner and had my daughter with them, and I didn’t want to scare Olivia. My nurse’s name was Devota. She was a night nurse, but stayed well past her shift so she could remain with me. Mom came in and rubbed circles on my back and kept my long hair out of my face. Dad came in, looked at me and promptly threw up. By mid-morning, I was confident the labor was never going to end, and I told Devota I had changed my mind and wanted to go home. She talked me into an epidural, and I waited for the relief to come and bring me rest, but it didn’t happen. The doctor came in and placed a second epidural, and again, I waited for the relief my friends had told me about. You won’t feel a thing, you can sleep until it’s time to push, they’d told me. Lies! It became evident I was in the miniscule percentage of women the epidural didn’t work for. The pain intensified, and I’d been hours with hard contractions two minutes apart. I wanted to scream, but instead I put my fist in my mouth and bit. I kept worrying Olivia would hear me and be frightened. John kept telling me to stop it, I was going to hurt myself. There came a point when – and I remember the moment with such clarity – my sister Charlotte was walking in to see how things were going, and as she came around the privacy curtain, I had just put my fist in my mouth again, biting hard against the contraction that enveloped me. John reached out and smacked my hand away from my mouth. “Quit doing that!” he scolded. And I reached right out and grabbed his arm and chomped down on it. Hard. “Ow!” he shouted and looked at my sister. “She bit me!” Charlotte’s mouth hung open for a minute, then she shrugged and told him he shouldn’t have done what he did.

I bit him because he had shoved my hand from my mouth, and also because he was eating a glazed donut.

The pain was so great, it felt like every nerve fiber within me was on fire. My skin hurt. My hair hurt. My eyelashes hurt. Devota and my doctor whispered near my bed about the possibility of another C-section. “No,” I told them. I wasn’t doing that again. The problem was that my baby was lying diagonally in my abdomen, and her head was slamming against my hip. The solution was to twist me into randomly and ever-increasingly uncomfortable positions until she straightened up.

And finally, after about 14 hours of labor, it was time to push. The marathon was nearly over.

It only took another two and a half hours to receive my prize.

Another daughter. I was relieved and elated and exhausted, so I burst into tears and started sobbing.

“But we don’t have a name for a girl!”

My husband shushed me, and said if I would only stop crying, I could name her whatever I wanted.

I named her Savannah Grace.

There was a little problem with her breathing, so they whisked her off to have her checked out, and I cried again because I wanted to hold her so much.

Once she was declared healthy and perfect (which I already knew), she was brought back to me and I held my little girl. I felt as if I was in some magical world where every good thing that ever could happen was happening, right then, to me.

My family came in then, and they took turns holding her and crying and laughing and rejoicing in the perfection of Savannah.

And today, at 3:37 p.m., my baby girl turns seventeen.

I cannot believe how quickly she has grown from my little baby girl who hated having clothes on, to a toddler who loved Tonka trucks and building blocks, to a young girl who loved crafts and music, and now to a musically inclined young woman with amazing creative talents. My daughter has become an admirable person who is compassionate, empathetic, and fiercely loyal. And of course, she is stunningly beautiful.

Every day, she makes me prouder than the day before.

Happy birthday, Savannah. I love you more than the stars in the sky.

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Bits and Whatnots

For the Girls.

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On the first day of kindergarten, my daughter was given a poem.

The poem’s rhyming ability rivaled Geisel, and it was filled with promises for the future, and how she would hold the world in her hands once she could count to 100 and learned to read.

I was given a poem as well, about her tiny fingerprints leaving smudges on clean windows, and how quickly time would fly and I’d be missing them when she was gone.

Thirteen years later, I still remember what she wore that day: a white, button-down shirt with red roses embroidered on it. Red buttons. Denim capris with matching red roses embroidered at the hem. Ruffly white socks. Navy blue Mary Janes.

I’d wanted to arrive at the school early on her first day, but was running behind because I’d been awake all night, worrying and vomiting. Vomiting and worrying. I was pale and sick and thin, and a few months along in my fourth pregnancy in five years. There was a PICC line in my arm and liquid nutrition in a backpack I carried continuously, my unwanted extra appendage.

Between the worrying and vomiting and little ones crying and making sure my daughter’s pink Barbie backpack contained every item she needed for lifelong success, I brushed her hip-length blonde hair and styled it into a ballerina bun atop her head.

It was a late August morning filled with sunshine. A bright promise. All the hope in the world for every great thing that ever could be, wrapped in a tiny pink pack on the back of my fifty pound little girl.

She was excited and happy and worried, because going to school meant she was big and she loved words and wanted to learn more of them, especially the kind with more than three letters.

She was worried because she was always worried. She worried about sickness and bad things and bad people and sad things and sad people. The sky falling and the earth opening and tornadoes and fluke blizzards and the gas tank running empty.

She held my hand as we walked to her classroom. The room was cheerful and filled with vibrant colors and letters on the walls and the incredibly loud echo of laughter and sobbing of both children and parents. We looked for the space at one of the tables with her name on it. Olivia. We found it. She sat in the tiny seat and stood back up again, quickly. She walked around the room, running her still-babyish hands along different objects. She paused at the elderly black piano and considered it, soberly.

Over and again we heard the shutter of cameras. Smile for Mommy! Isn’t this exciting?

I slipped out through the sea of people and waited in the hall, peeking in at my daughter through the door window every few minutes. She sat so still in her seat, hands folded on the table in front of her; white, ruffly-socked ankles crossed politely. Back impossibly straight. Eyes trained on the teacher.

I sat in the parking lot for several minutes, crying and worrying. What if she didn’t make any friends? What if I’d done the wrong thing by not sending her to preschool? What if she was behind and it was my fault? What if there was a bully in her class who made her cry? What if she forgot where the bathroom was and wet her pants?

My hands shook as I drove home. She seemed so small and fragile to leave on her own with a teacher we didn’t know and a classroom full of kids twice her size.

She’s like a little mother.

That’s what the kindergarten teacher said of my daughter that first week of school. She’d been tying shoes for kids who didn’t yet know how, opening tricky bags of animal crackers for friends, patting heads and whispering encouraging words to children who sat on the floor crying, missing their mamas.

~ *** ~

It was an early September morning filled with sunshine. A bright promise.

Her tanned legs appeared especially brown against her white denim shorts. She wore a navy blue tank sporting the familiar University of Michigan logo.

She’d just dyed her blonde hair to a dark auburn color, and wore it in a long braid that hung over her shoulder and down the left side of her chest.

Anxiously, she jangled her key ring. This was it then, her dream. Studying psychology at her top choice
school.

One more time, we went over the rules:

Park near the doors in the parking ramp.

Stay with a buddy while walking on campus.

Remember where the blue emergency phones are, if you need to call security?

Request an escort to your car if you’re leaving at night.


She nods. She remembers the rules. We’ve discussed them several times over this summer.

I check her pink backpack to make sure she has sharpened pencils and a bottle of Ativan, just in case she needs it.

On the first day of college, my daughter was given a rape whistle.

Bits and Whatnots, Chronic Illness

Mother Love, Mother Guilt

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This article originally appeared in “I.G. Living” magazine, August/September 2013 issue.

Somehow, it always comes down to the mother.

The first person a teacher asks to speak to when a problem arises. The first person a physician discusses a medical issue with. The person the other mothers – at soccer and baseball practice, at Scouts meetings – whisper about when she leaves the room.

That child is too thin!

That child is too heavy!

That child is too short!

Sad, shaking heads. Collective sighs. Satisfied hands clutch their Starbucks cups. Tiny sips of double mocha light foam cappuccinos.
And then….

What is she doing wrong? Why doesn’t she do something to fix this? Surely, she must see The Problem.

Surely.

Surely, the mother sees the problem. She drops off her child with a smile and a wave, heads back to her SUV to rest her head on the steering wheel. She closes her eyes tight, unable to un-see the differences. The Problem. The fact that her child is unlike his peers; there are glaring discrepancies in the size of her child and the size of the others.

What have I done wrong?

Why can’t I fix this?

Surely, she sees what the other mothers see.

And she sees the other mothers. She notices the way they turn their heads – just slightly – when her child joins the group. Are they checking? Checking to make sure their children are still superior? That The Problem hasn’t somehow affected the perfection of their offspring?

She sees them catch one another’s eye; each in turn. A fraction of a second – barely that –but still.

Enough.

She hears the artificial coating in the invitation that comes just a little too late; the unnecessary volume in the equally unnecessary reassurances: “He’s just a late bloomer” or “He’ll slim down, once he hits that growth spurt”.

She hears the words that are implied, but not stated out loud.

“He’ll be fine, as soon as you figure out where you went wrong, and fix it.”

Judge and jury.

They cannot understand how desperately she loves him. How completely she would sacrifice to be able to fix The Problem.

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.

She knows something isn’t quite right. This isn’t her first child, she knows what is normal, average….and she just knows…something is off.

Not quite sure what it is. Just…something. But…how could that be? She was so careful. No drinking, no smoking. No caffeine. Forty weeks of carefully measured actions. Vegetables. Milk. No under-cooked meats. Never missed a prenatal appointment. No drugs during the birth.

She breastfed. They said that would be better. Safer.

Well-child check-ups are passed with flying colors. Hesitantly, she voices concern to the physician.
Her worries are blown off, like an insignificant kite detached from a string. All mothers worry. You’re just overly tired. All babies are different. Nothing is wrong.

Nothing is wrong.

Nothing.

Except…..she knows there is something. But she lies to herself. She convinces herself all is well. When the worry rears its head in her throat, lodging there like a child’s bouncy ball, too big to move either up or down, just…stuck – she busies her mind. Turns up the TV. Calls a friend to gossip about nothing. Furiously cleans. Invents extra errands.

Until The Event. The Dreaded Something that changes the minds of those who dismissed her initial concerns.

The day the doctor sits her down and speaks to her in slow, easy to understand words. Do you understand? Yes, she understands. She looks him in the eye, forces herself to listen. She listens, but the pain in her chest makes her hold her breath. Oddly, she remembers another time when she felt this way. When was it? She searches her memory.

First grade. On the playground, standing on the swing with daring. Clutching tight at the chains biting into her fingers, she calls fearlessly to her friends, “Underdog me!” and sails away, up, up, up into the sky.

She falls. Hits the ground with a sickening thwack. She lies there, so much pain in her chest and back she cannot breathe. She wants to cry out, but the air in her chest sits heavy as a block of ice. Unmoving. She is frozen.

This feels like that.

Labs. Tests. Appointments. Prescriptions. Journals. Journals! Logging every bite that passes the child’s lips; every new symptom; every night that passes without rest; every unusual behavior. Furiously, she scribbles into the journals…here, she is certain, the answer will appear. A pattern will emerge, and whatever it is that has caused the Dreaded Something will show itself. She will eliminate it, and everything will be okay again. She will be able to breathe again. She misses the way it used to feel, back when she could breathe without even thinking about it.

She cannot find the pattern. She cannot find the answer.

Sitting in the tiny exam room that has become far too familiar, she waits. The door creaks open, the physician enters and takes a seat on the little spinning stool. Small talk. She eyes the folder in his hand. She does not want to talk. She only wants the magical answer, the sword that will slay the Dreaded Something. She considers snatching the folder out of his hands. She smiles. She waits.

Finally, the answer comes. The block of ice in her chest somehow spreads to her shoulders, arms, head. She feels the slow freezing of her entire being. Her teeth begin to chatter.

It is her fault. The doctor says it jokingly. “Isn’t it always the mother’s fault?” He chuckles. It lingers in the air, like hot breath on a frigid day.

Here it is, then. The answer. She has done this to her child; her body, her genetics, have caused the Dreaded Something. She cannot take it away. She cannot fix it.

Doesn’t he see how much this hurts? He laughs and says he should create a Frequent Flyer parking spot just for her family. Does he understand she would willingly give her home, her arm, her leg – her life – anything, anything to fix this?

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.

Sometimes at night, she hears the muffled strains of guitar strings being plucked and closes her eyes, listening, a smile on her lips. Her child has struggled so much; lost so much; grown so much. Still, her child finds beauty in small things; a brightly colored bead, an unusual sunset; a new song.

She hurries dinner in order to make it on time to school conferences. The teacher laughs as the report card is handed over, “If only I had a classroom of kids like this one, I’d be happy to come to work every day!” She feels a warmth, a melting in her icy chest. She straightens her shoulders and takes a deep breath.

Her heart constricts, her chest hurts as she watches the IV insertion. She rubs her child’s back, watches as his eyes follow the hands of the nurse. Alcohol rub, gauze pad, syringe, bandage. He knows the routine; he knows once every item is in its own place, the poke will come. He sits up tall; back and tiny shoulders straight. He does not blink or turn away. He watches with detached curiosity; he holds his breath, scrunches his nose – there, it’s over. All done. He smiles and cracks a joke, his nurse laughs. She kisses his little head and tells him he is brave. She thinks to herself he is stronger than most grown men.

A child is bullied on the playground. A new child, and something about him makes him stand out. Something isn’t quite right. He has a Problem. She watches as her child leaps in front of him, arms outstretched. Chin up, eyes blazing, her child protects him. The bullies back off. Arm slung about the new child’s shoulder, her son offers to play with him, introduce him to some nice kids. Her eyes water with liquid pride. He has endured great pain, but he is such a compassionate boy. The Champion of the Underdog….he will not stand for hateful words or unkind actions.

She looks at the children she is raising. Kind-hearted, compassionate children. Honest, cheerful. Funny. Creative. Loyal. These things are also her fault. She loves them with an intensity that burns the ice.

Mother Love equals Mother Guilt.