Sydney’s YouTube debut (click link below):
It’s morning and I awake, not to an alarm, but to bright sunlight streaming through a crack in my door. Cradled maternally by my mattress, I’ve slept so hard the sheets have left deep creases on my skin. My consciousness attempts the swim through layers of fog; “What day is it?” “Where, exactly, am I?” With great effort, I roll over and squint, reading the digital numbers on the bedside clock: 8:29 a.m. The house is quiet; no one’s up yet. And I remember: there is nowhere we have to be! Two months into summer vacation and today is our first free day — no camp, no summer school, no nothin’. I sink back under the delicious covers. In a few minutes Sydney and Haley will be ransacking the kitchen, eating peanut butter out of a jar and reheating chicken nuggets for breakfast. But I don’t care.
I love my bed and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Just the thought of my comfy pillow-top soothes my strung-out mind. This bed knows the contour of my body and calls to me seductively, “Lisa, come lie down.” And I do, whenever possible. Late afternoons, especially, once I am horizontal, I’m gone. People who nap are lazy, I used to think. Back then I was judgmental and more than a little pious. Back then I had yet to become a mother.
Almost 30 years later, I can’t remember the last time I felt rested. Child-rearing and chronic fatigue go hand in hand like hot wings and heartburn. As a new mom, sleep-deprivation on the level of Chinese water torture started when my first adorable but very loud newborn arrived and immediately took all nocturnal activities hostage. My initial resistance to being jolted out of an altered state turned to incredulity when I started to realize I would be sleep-walking through life long after 3:00 a.m. feedings ceased. The epiphany was driven home after it was too late, after I chose to have more kids at an ‘advanced maternal age,’ thus clinching the deal: I’ll rest when I’m dead.
Facing this reality is much like processing grief; it comes in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, defeat. I mean, acceptance. The stages aren’t always in that order and some resurface frequently. Like bargaining. Especially bargaining. We all know one should never negotiate with terrorists, even if they’re tiny.
But in our defense, they’ve worn my husband and I down over the decades, reducing us to desperate acts committed in exhaustion-induced delirium. “Will you lie down with me?” they ask. And we cave, letting them snuggle up as we read a story, fighting to keep our eyes open, but four hours later we wake with a start, fully clothed and drooling. Or worse, we let them into our bed. But that, my friends, is a trap. All angelic with the gossamer eyelashes and the delicate skin, they curl up close, their soft breathing rhythmic and hypnotic. They lure us in and lull us to sleep in the sweetest of embraces. Bliss descends. For about 5 minutes.
What follows can’t really be called sleep; collapsing into a coma only to be startled awake by a sharp knee in the shin or a sudden slap across the face. Through the night, they migrate across the bed’s surface. Rooting like baby pigs, they thrash and turn, never still for more than a few moments. Heat-seeking, their little feet reach for the nearest body part. The broad expanse of Daddy’s back makes a good target, right between the shoulder blades. By morning, the bed resembles a war zone, the blankets wadded and twisted or in a heap on the floor.
The family bed is a myth. It’s actually more like musical beds. At some point the willingness to do anything for a good night’s sleep overtakes good judgment. Dad often is exiled from his own bed. Gone in search of a place to land, he ends up downstairs in the guest bed, or on the couch, or in a bunk bed, wedged up against the wall, his 6’3” frame contorting to fit — or not — the twin mattress with twin-sized blanket and not-so-clean twin sheet that slides over the protective plastic liner.
My poor husband is a character from Dr. Seuss’ “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”
“Who am I? My name is Ned. I do not like my little bed. This is not good. This is not right. My feet stick out of bed all night.”
He’s been displaced so often the girls refer to the master bed as “Mommy’s bed” and frequently hit me up to fill the vacancy.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“No, Daddy is sleeping with me. In his bed.”
I should be grateful that only 50 percent of my children are difficult sleepers; in each of the two sets, there is one good sleeper. Of the first batch, Melissa was the one, sleeping like a dream and waking up happy and contented. Jeremy, not so much. He was never easy; putting up the good fight at bedtime and waking hyper or cranky. He ran on two speeds: turbo-charged or out. Constant ear infections caused him to wail in pain for hours, always in the middle of the night. I remember rocking him, both of us drifting off just as the sun came up. He never learned how to get to sleep by himself and for years, though he’d start out in his own bed, morning would find him on the floor next to my side of the bed. I stepped on him more than once.
With this second round of kiddos, Sydney’s the piece of cake. The cliché that kids with Down syndrome are good sleepers is true. As a baby she would lean out of my arms and reach toward her crib at nap time. As a teenager she says, “I’m tired. I’m ready for bed, Mom,” and down she goes. Mornings start with a hug and a shy smile and flow from there. Easy.
Haley couldn’t be more opposite. Bedtime drags on interminably: She’s thirsty, her head (throat, foot, bottom) hurts, she doesn’t have the right pillow, she’s too hot, too cold, her nose is stuffed up. She can’t sleep. She can’t stop thinking. She’s excited, she’s sad, she’s needy. “Mommy, I want you,” she says, reaching her arms out, fingers clutching. “I haven’t spent any time with you!” Steven calls her a little tick.
But see, I need to count on my children being unconscious for some amount of time during each 24-hour cycle. With a child like Haley, there is no such respite. She comes stealthily into our room, appearing suddenly at my bedside, her hand like a woodpecker tapping my shoulder. “I had a bad dream,” she whispers loudly. Or sometimes she just climbs in over us; jostling the whole bed and wiggling her way to the middle. A few times she walked in and flipped on the overhead light.
Though our older children eventually grew out of sleep disturbances, my weariness remained; the cause merely shifted. Teething and nightmares and the sudden onset of stomach flu at 1 a.m. morphed into loud music and late-night phone conversations and the unbidden images of worst-case scenarios 30 minutes past curfew. Anxiety and stress and overwhelm continued to plague my dreams as they became adults and headed into the wide world. Now, they’re having babies of their own; more worry to steal my sleep. There’s no going back; parenting is a long-term gig.
Coffee is my salvation in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening, a reward for making it through the day, helps me unwind. But the cycle sometimes leads to insomnia, the most maddening affliction – when the children are finally sleeping, I lie wide awake, completely and utterly spent, yet unable to let go. And if I’m perfectly honest, there is, as well, the self-induced lack of sleep; the time I carve out of my repose, because, by damn, I must have some to myself! I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. to teach a 5:30 a.m. class, sacrificing the extra Zs so I can meditate and prepare, unhurried and in peace. I stay up late, until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to write, because the house is quiet then and I am, at last, alone.
The other day I ran across my old journals from the mid to late-80s. Steven pulled down a few dusty boxes from the attic and as I paged through entries written by my much younger self, I was intrigued, as if observing someone else’s life. The narrative was passionate with a tendency for the dramatic and the words that emerged repeatedly were, “tired,” “exhausted,” “overwhelmed.” If I could, I would say to that young woman, “Honey, you’re going to be tired for a while – it comes with the job – but you’ll be all right. Take really good care of yourself; it’s crucial if you are to go the distance. Rest when you can. Take naps (it’s not lazy). And remember the love. It will see you through. Sometimes, you’ll just be tired. And that’s okay. It will all be worth it. Trust me.”
I’m still tired. I fall asleep at rock concerts, stop lights and in front of the TV; I nod off at movies, kids’ concerts and even weddings; I pass out while reading before bed, my book slipping out of my hands, reading glasses still on, mouth open. I half-wake to my husband as he tenderly takes my book and glasses, and placing a kiss on my cheek, turns off the light.
I’m still tired, but not all the time. I start most days feeling energetic and hopeful, though the demands of our busy family leave me running on empty by afternoon. It’s just the way of it. This is my life; the one I chose and the one I love. Haley said it best: “In the morning you’re ‘Happy Mommy.’ In the evening you’re ‘Tired Mommy’ because we accidentally exhaust you.”
The little (and big) people I’ve birthed don’t mean to wear me out, they just need me. Which is an amazing feeling. I’m the Mom. And if it only takes a nap to turn me from Tired Mommy to Happy Mommy, fetch me my pillow.
I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 – a contemplative, insightful piece extoling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I’ll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.
I ran out of time though I’ve tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space. Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words. Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.
The other night, my father-in-law, glancing at my Google calendar on my iPhone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt, looked from the screen to my face and said, “You’re too busy.”
This, I know. How to change it, I do not.
“What can I cut, Dad?” I asked, a little desperate, a little exasperated.
Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it’s that more life is crammed into a single day. I know my parents’ generation raised their families in a slower time. Compare a rotary phone on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10 foot spiral cord, to a smart phone, handheld and able to, at virtually any time, any place, connect to limitless information . . . and limitless other smart phones. Technology adds convenience, but these instant connections, particularly in the form of text messages, demand instant responses, & idk if we r betr 4 it.
During the last week of school my moderately frenetic pace kicked up to severely frantic. With routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations for the upcoming summer vacation (‘vacation’ is truly a misnomer), the needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red.
With Type-A drive I tackled numerous projects at once, the way I know best – with sleep deprivation and coffee. The goal; to knock out as many items as quickly as possible. My monkey-mind chanted an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the back of my mind. I was running out of time.
In the midst of it all, Sydney had, as a result of a sleep study and the subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (common in kids with Down syndrome), a tonsillectomy, and was spending the week recovering at home. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy come-backs, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable and understandably, a bit grumpy. We stuck to an alternating 3 hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay. Armed with popsicles and ice cream and soup and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch as much Disney Channel as she liked.
Since Sydney’s my easy-going kid, stoic with a high tolerance for discomfort and doesn’t complain often, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual. Steven and I arranged our schedules to trade off being home, but I anticipated that while she rested I’d be able to toggle between making milkshakes and sending emails.
Uh, yeah. No.
She didn’t really rest. In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time. She couldn’t focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream), and she had no interest in her iPad. She wanted to talk. To me.
“Um, excuse me, Mom?” Sydney asked from the table. “Why my voice is low?”
I answered from my computer without looking. “It’s from your tonsils, remember?”
I’d just blended a smoothie to chase a round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes to compose an email. “Don’t worry. It won’t last.”
“Why can’t I go to school?” she asked.
“Hmmmm?” I replied, fingers flying over the keys. “School?”
“Why am I not at school?” She repeated.
I could picture her face though my back was to her; eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made. She’d asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.
“You know why. You tell me, why you aren’t you in school?” I said trying to be patient, though I felt anything but.
“Because I had my tonsils out?” she asked, acting unsure.
But she knew. I’d noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she knew the answer. The more I needed to concentrate, the more effort she made to divert my attention. And the more she kept me from working, the more annoying it became. In front of me, my iMac displayed the afternoon’s tasks; open Word documents, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes with my playlists for teaching, an unfinished email to Sydney’s teacher. And my calendar. Always my calendar.
Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer.
Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Yes, honey,” I said firmly, “because you had your tonsils out.”
Her days were long, her throat hurt and she was lonely. My compassion stirred when she said, “I just miss my friends, Mom.”
“I know, sweetie. I’m sorry.” I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.
“Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!” I said with over-the-top enthusiasm as I took the empty cup to the kitchen sink.
She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug.
“I know you miss your friends, but you’ll see them at yearbook signing, remember?”
She perked visibly at the mention. “Oh, yeah! Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?”
“Yep. On Thursday.”
She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Though I heard my daughter’s angst, my monkey-mind chattered louder, calculating what was due when. I was running out of time.
“Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd. Okay?”
She was quiet.
“How about a pudding?”
“Do you want anything else?” I asked. “I can put on a movie.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sydney said, matter-of-factly.
I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus. I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence. For 15 seconds.
“Mom? Excuse me.”
“Wow,” I said, taking a deep breath. Patience, Lisa. “You sure are talking a lot today. Doesn’t that hurt your throat?”
“No-oo!” she answered emphatically. “I just . . . , I just have tonsil breath,” she stammered, referring to the unfortunate halitosis following a tonsillectomy.
Her voice, from behind, carried recognition; she knew what she was doing, but couldn’t stop herself. I didn’t catch the rest of what she said; I was reading the three texts I’d just received. My adrenaline rose as my shoulders tensed up to my ears. And my monkey-mind chanted away. Running. Out. Of. Time.
“I know I’m talking a lot,” Sydney admitted.
Tapped, no restraint remaining, I interjected, “And . . . you’re driving me CRA-zy.”
An offhand remark, casual, yet careless, it stung with more bite than was intended. But I didn’t know that yet. I went on with my work for a minute before a subtle energy permeated my unraveling focus. I felt more than heard something and turned around.
Grimacing with silent sobs, Sydney bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed. She inhaled sharply and coughed. Snot billowed from her nose until her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.
“Oh, honey!” I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly. “Swallow,” I said, holding the straw of her water jug to her mouth. “Breathe,” I directed. She cleared her throat repeatedly then took a shaky breath as she tried to calm herself.
When she could talk, she said softly, “I get it, Mom.” Speaking with a wisdom I forget she is capable of, her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and that she was doing her best not to need too much from me.
“I know we have a busy schedule?” she continued, shrugging and turning one palm up as if to say, ‘it is what it is,’ “but,” her small voice quivered, “you’re going to the gym and . . . ,” she paused, “And . . . and . . . and I just really . . . “
I waited, my attention fully–and finally–and my daughter.
” . . . miss you.” The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible.
Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and reaching her index finger underneath her glasses, and wiped fresh tears from her eyes. Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was watching, then choked out the words, “but, I . . . just . . . NEED . . . you!” And with that, she abandoned her fight to hold back the tide of her emotions.
Remorse hit me like a wave. My heart broke open wide. The tightness in my chest loosened and slid away as I gathered her in my arms. She buried her gooey face in my belly and we both cried.
In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother, but as an older parent, my compassion extends to myself as well. With maturity comes the recognition that when I’m drained by overdoing, I lack what she needs from me; it’s just not there. I can’t make it materialize. Conclusion: In order to take care of Sydney, I need to take care of myself.
The overdoing has to stop. This I know. How I to change it, I have not known. But perhaps the analogy of sand, pebbles and rocks in a glass jar illustrates how. My time – a finite amount – is represented by the glass jar; the sand, pebbles and rocks are all the many, many things that fill that time, ranging from smallest to biggest. Fill the jar starting with the sand and only a few big rocks will fit. But reverse the order and miraculously, everything slips into place. It becomes clear to me: if the big rocks are gonna fit, they must go in first.
My fatal flaw? Everything has been a big rock; I’ve missed the distinction between size and texture and value. But now I know it just ain’t so. Obviously, Sydney is a bona fide big rock along with my other children and my husband. But, what about me? Is it possible to forgo some sand and pebbles to make room for a big rock of my own? I don’t know whose permission I’ve been waiting for. Who’s jar is it, anyway? In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities influence my choices more than external expectations. The voice I’m attuning to now comes from within – not without – myself.
My friend, Jackie once told me, special-needs mom to special-needs mom: “There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things slip.” Since it is my jar, I get to decide what’s more, and less, important. If worry about the big rocks, the rest can slip. No more running out of time for what really matters.
I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her puffy, reddened eyes. I sighed, smoothing her hair back from her face. Such a precious girl. My daughter.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked.
She looked crestfallen. I’m sure she was thinking, ‘Mom is shoving me off again.’
I added, “With me?” and a smile lit up her face as we headed to the couch.
Every birth has a story, ripe for the telling, though the tale varies with the perspective of the teller. The closest view belongs to the mother; it is her body, after all, that houses the new life, she who evicts her burgeoning occupant. Spin the lens 180º and it is the father’s story. Once removed from the action, he nonetheless has the most direct view. Broaden the angle, overlay a generational déjà vu, and it becomes the grandmother’s story. She observes, like the father, from the outside, but she feels, like the mother, from the inside. She is the non-impartial witness.
This birth story, told through the grandmother’s eyes, is mine.
After teaching my yoga class this morning, I find I have several voicemails from my son, Jeremy, whose wife is rapidly approaching her due date. I’ve been waiting for this call, prepared to drop everything and go for the birth of their first child; my first grandchild. And now it’s time.
As I pack with shaking hands, I think how short a time ago it was that I hastily threw clothes in a suitcase in hopes of making it to a hospital in time. To say goodbye to my dying mother-in-law. The circle of life plays out; simple, but profound. One life ends and another begins.
It’s 5 p.m. before I get on the road, with nearly 500 miles to cover. For at least a few hours, the Bluetooth in my car feeds me the comfort of my mother’s voice from far away as we reminisce about Jeremy’s birth 27 years earlier, at which she was present. We share incredulity over our advancing roles: from mother to grandmother, from grandmother to great.
And the rest of the night, speeding along the highway, I’m alone in the dark with my thoughts. A grandbaby? Surreal. This grandbaby? Miraculous.
Early in the pregnancy, Jeremy texted me an ultrasound image of a little peanut, following moments later with a phone call.
“Look at that BABY!” I squealed.
Early on, Jeremy sent us an ultrasound image – a little peanut – following moments later with a phone call. My exuberance was met with silence on the other end. I waited as my son found his voice. He choked out the words, “Mom, there might be something wrong with the baby.”
My exuberance was met with silence on the other end.
When my son found his voice, he choked out the words, “Mom, there might be something wrong with the baby.”
From miles away my heart broke. The pregnancy could terminate at any time, they were told, and if it did go to term, there was a high probability of chromosomal abnormalities. Testing would yield more information, but ultimately, there would be no definitive answers until the baby grew. Or didn’t.
We waited. We hoped and prayed.
Through the second trimester, much to our relief, evidence of the congenital defect diminished. Further testing ruled out Trisomy 13, 18, and 21. And confirmed it was a boy. They named him Ashton.
As delivery drew closer, it appeared he was in the clear. Except for one small thing: the slight possibility of a heart defect. The parents weren’t worried, but I remained guarded. Perhaps it was because, although I’d had extra perinatal testing with my daughter, Sydney, including 3D anatomical ultrasounds, she was born with Down syndrome. Or maybe it was just my maternal urge to shield them from unforeseen heartache.
Tonight, though, I’m jazzed like a kid on Christmas Eve and all I can think about is getting there before the baby does. At 12:30 a.m., armed with snacks and an overnight bag, I weave through the deserted teaching hospital to the labor and delivery suite. My son stands by his wife’s bed, though he’s beginning to wear thin after a 12-hour paramedic shift. Going on 36 hours with no sleep is not the ideal time for their big event. Carly greets me with a beautiful smile. She’s been laboring for nine hours and I wonder if she has a high tolerance for pain. Or a gift for masking it. Or both, I decide.
I unload and settle in. Her contractions rise and fall on the monitor, as does her blood pressure. Jeremy contorts his body onto a small couch and instantly he’s asleep. I sit with Carly. She pauses to breathe through the peaks, closing her eyes and lowering her head, enduring each one with a composure I’m sure I never had.
Jeremy wakes and I trade him places. I drift in and out, then wake. Together we wait. We talk, rest, wait some more. And so it goes through the night until the nurse tells us dilation has stalled after 12 hours. Pitocin is prescribed. Carly declines an epidural and my admiration grows as I watch her endure four increasing doses of the drug.
After 15 hours of labor, the last three, un-medicated Pit labor, the pain begins to gnaw at her resolve. I recognize her agitation and resonate her agony.
Mothers-in-law walk a tightrope between intrusion and indifference.
I had a wonderful example. In my new role, I want to strike the perfect balance; involved, but not over-bearing, available, but at arms-length. And in childbirth especially, I defer the rightful maternal province at Carly’s side to her own mother.
But now, in the harrowing depths of transition, there is just me. Jeremy, at a loss, looks helplessly on. I move next to her head and stroke her hair, murmuring softly in her ear. Does she want me here? I don’t know, but in this moment, I will mother her. And she lets me. As I console her, she becomes my daughter and my voice soothes her pain.
I had no epidural when Jeremy was born and every wrenching seizure ripped through my writhing body. With eyes wild and panicked, I looked not to my husband for help, but to my mother. She rubbed my shaking legs and whispered words that lifted me above the pain to an other-worldly place, allowing my body to do what it was designed for. And each time I slammed back down into the sharpness she eased me up again.
I try to bring the same transcendence to Carly. By her side as she rides each wave, cresting and crashing, I feel her surrender to the suffering. But as her contractions climb, so does her blood pressure, and her cervix remains unchanged. It’s just before dawn and the medication has failed to produce results. As her stamina wanes, discouragement creeps in, and though it isn’t in her birth plan, she agrees to an epidural.
To everyone’s relief, her pain subsides and she is able to dilate. It’s finally time to push.
Out in the world, the sun is rising. Inside these walls, the day shift arrives. Medical students ready the room, bringing in equipment and supplies. I tell the kids I’ll wait outside so they can have privacy, but they answer at the same time, “Please stay.”
Their young, amiable doctor strolls in. “Let’s try to have a baby,” he says.
‘Try?’ I think, warily. He tells us a neonatology team will be on hand when Ashton is born. Another red flag; the baby’s heart?
The room is crowded and I pull back, keeping an eye on the monitors. Contractions are close, and with each one mom’s blood pressure goes up and baby’s heart rate goes down. The easy-going doctor informs them that meconium is present which means the baby could be a little stressed. Casually stationing himself between Carly’s legs he tells her to go ahead and push.
Jeremy doesn’t pick up on the vibe and says excitedly, “Mom, get the camera!” But I hesitate. None of the students are moving. The doc hasn’t fully gowned. There aren’t any lights or sterile drapes on Carly. Something’s not right. Time takes on a rubbery quality yet everything happens very fast. I’m aware of the descending red numbers of the baby’s heart rate; of Carly, determined, with unwavering trust in her doctor. And of my son, steady, but for just a second, frozen. I step up and urge him to support Carly’s back. Straining with all her strength, she pushes until long after her breath is gone. She pushes so hard her face turns dark purple and my concern skyrockets. Collapsing back onto the pillow, she gathers herself and surges forward again, exerting her whole body to expel the life within. Heroically, she fights to birth her baby.
And watching, I fight tears as my love for her grows exponentially in moments; I have never seen anyone so brave. I fight tears as I’m overcome with pride for my son; he’s become a man before my eyes.
I fight tears, too, because I know this is not going well.
I watch the doctor watch the monitors. Scanning his face and body language, I observe calmness in his demeanor, but sense the undercurrent of his apprehension. After several pushes, he stops Carly and tells her, with no urgency in his voice, the baby isn’t descending. He’s sunny side up and not tolerating the compression of labor. His heart rate is dropping below 100 with every push, which may be an indication of a heart issue. And Carly’s BP is continuing to spike. For these reasons he’s recommending a C-section, just to be safe.
Carly serenely accepts yet again what she did not plan. More disappointed than frightened, she agrees, though her consent is a formality; to his credit, this young surgeon has kept the critical nature of the situation from alarming mom and dad.
Abruptly, med students scatter and nurses converge. Phone calls are made, oxygen is placed over Carly’s nose and mouth, the brakes on her bed are kicked up and the whole apparatus, IVs and all, are wheeled away to surgery, leaving Jeremy and I looking after.
Just my son and me in the empty room now. He retreats to the bathroom and I reel, thinking not only of the baby, but of Carly and the stories I’ve heard of bleeding, strokes and mothers dying in childbirth. I need to shake this. I need to be strong for my son.
He comes from the doorway, my 6’0″, 200 lb. boy, and gathers me in his big arms, burying his head. “I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, Mom. I’m so scared.”
He sobs into my neck like he did when he was 5-years-old.
“But I’ve got to be strong for Carly,” he says, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
When he gives voice to my own thoughts we weep together. We’re interrupted by a nurse who has come to take him to the OR.
He shakily dons paper scrubs, and in his rush, shoves his leg inside the pants with his shoe still on. His foot is stuck. He loses his balance. I reach to steady him and bending awkwardly, I attempt to dislodge his shoe. It’s a little ridiculous. And very tender.
He still needs me, but life demands that he stand on his own.
Now it’s just me. The room seems very big. Time bends again as I wait. An hour? 15 minutes? I can’t tell. But then, my son is here, reassuring me quickly that everything went well; baby boy is here and mommy is doing fine. Relief washes over me and abruptly, I am bone-tired.
Jeremy tells me he got there just in time to witness his son emerge and take his first breath. Carly, drugged and woozy, saw her newborn briefly as he held Ashton next to her face, but the family bonding was cut short when the nurses whisked the baby to the NICU and the awaiting neonatology team. Yet again, my daughter-in-law had to let go of what she dreamed: no laying her newborn on her chest, skin-to-skin, no examining him from tiny toes to downy head, no photos of her husband holding their son in his first minutes of life.
After surgery, she returns to the room — without her infant — and is told she needs magnesium for preeclampsia; her blood pressure isn’t coming down. Meaning, she’ll be bed-ridden and it will be 24 hours before she can see her son.
“Nothing is going the way we planned,” she says wearily, and my heart squeezes for her. I want to tell her I’ve learned that little in life ever does.
But I’ve also learned it’s what we don’t plan that bring us the greatest joy.
On the second day of his life, after his mama holds him, I meet my grandson. The NICU nurse lifts the IV lines and wires as Jeremy gently lays the little bundle in my arms. I gaze lovingly at the child of my child. I kiss his feather-soft head and inhale the scent of his skin. He curls his whole hand around my pinky finger, squeezing until his knuckles whiten.
‘I’ve got you, sweetie,’ I whisper.
Truthfully, he’s got me. Already wrapped around his little finger.
A quiet, yet momentous change is occurring, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world. Life is no longer the same; I can feel it. For me, for my son. For all of us.
Every birth has many stories, diverging in places depending on the vantage point of the teller. But they all return to the moment when a new life enters the world and nothing is ever the same.
One love, one blood, one life.
You got to do what you should.
One life with each other, Sisters and Brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
She doesn’t even know them. Not personally, anyway. Connected by three degrees of separation, she’s a friend of a neighbor of the family, this mom, dad and two sons, leading ordinary lives until a few weeks ago when their world was up-ended when the youngest brother received a shocking diagnosis: Stage 4 Medulloblastoma. She doesn’t know them, but no matter. She, too, is a mother, and that’s enough. Today she’ll shave her head for an 8-year-old boy she’s never met.
Movie-star gorgeous, sitting tall and poised, her hands shake in her lap. She is prepared to be rendered hair-less. Bald. A statement of undeniable solidarity. Long, silky tresses gathered into ponytails sprout from her head, Medusa-like. Her gift is a double offering as the endowment of the hair itself will go to Locks of Love to make wigs for children who have lost theirs. Children like Aiden.
The lights on stage are bright. She squints, looking out over the darkened room. The typical late night crowd of the live music venue has been replaced this Saturday morning with people of all ages. The place is packed. With barely enough room to move, little ones are carried and bigger children are pulled by the hand through clumps of people as their parents edge past to congregate up front. Food vendors and silent auction items line the walls. The community has shown up. They intend and expect to give their support. What they don’t expect is how much they will receive in exchange.
Suspense hangs in the air as the clock ticks down to show time. In the spotlight, three more women–mothers, all of them–sit on folding chairs, draped in plastic capes snapped at the back of their necks. One lives next-door to the family, grown close as neighbors will, by the proximity of their shared lives over the span of years. A drink in the driveway after work, a rant of parenting frustrations, a new gardening idea, a remodeling project. A sick child. Dark brown wavy hair hangs past her shoulders and bangs frame her pretty face. Brushing a tear from the corner of her eye, she blinks her long eye lashes; extensions that, along with big earrings, will soon accessorize her new look.
The next woman’s hair, thick and black, has been divided into segments, also going to Locks of Love. She smiles broadly, exuberance radiating from her face. Aiden and her young son are best friends and the families neighbors. The boys went to school, camped and rode scooters together until recently. Until the news.
It started with headaches that worsened. Doctor appointments revealed nothing conclusive, but Aiden’s parents persisted. Asking questions, insisting on more investigation, tests and more tests were performed and finally, a 2 ½ inch tumor resting on his brain stem was discovered along with other masses in his brain and tumors on his spine. Not what anyone wants to hear, the family had their answer: a rare and aggressive form of cancer. And with it a surreal new reality filled with surgery, hospitalizations, drugs, finding the best treatment options available, and relocating far from home to get it.
Mom and Dad are Skyping with Aiden today from his hospital room. Technical difficulties threaten to thwart success and the disappointment is palpable when the connection drops. After a few more tries, suddenly, there is Aiden, larger than life, yet with a vulnerability that makes him appear small no matter how much of the wall is covered by his projected image. Cheers go up from the throng when this little boy comes into view. His parents lean into the camera and smile their gratitude. The shavees blow kisses and shout their hellos. And with the family’s presence, preparations are finally complete. It can begin.
Excitement buzzes through the audience as people whisper their amazement to one another.
“They’re so brave.”
“I could never do it.”
“Can you imagine what they’re going through?”
Referring to the other mothers, these things can also be said of Aiden and his parents. In the air, something magical emerges, an alchemy of love beyond description, and it is the last woman on stage who has made it happen. Neither a neighbor or a stranger, this mother is an acquaintance, a friend of a neighbor, who socialized with the family casually at barbecues and birthday parties. For years she knew that one day she’d make this choice, for many reasons and many people, not the least of whom is her own mother who died with no hair on her head after enduring not one, but two bouts with two different types of cancer. And the cruelest truth is this: the second cancer was caused by the curing of the first. This woman is colorful from her sassy chin-length brunette mane streaked with red and purple, to her shining eyes and dimples etched deeply into her round cheeks. She radiates joie de vivre even when her voice quivers with emotion during her welcome speech.
Initially, she envisioned a dare; a fun, gutsy campaign culminating in a bold public display that would garner cash, cold and hard, for the family in need. “How much would you pay,” she queried, “to see me shave my head?” When the other three added their momentum, issuing their challenge, a movement was born.
“What are you willing to give to this family if we are willing to cut off all our hair?”
Who wouldn’t admire them enough to donate money, based on their chutzpah alone? No doubt, funds will be raised, but more than money, the rallying of a community around one family garners energy. Efforts expanded as more and more people volunteered, good people who wanted to do something meaningful. Besides these four, at the end of the day, dozens of others, women and men, mothers and fathers and uncles, even Aiden’s classmates—both girls and boys—will have stepped up and joined the ranks of the hairless to say, “We’re with you.”
On stage, they reach out, hand to hand, forming a linked chain, shaking and laughing and blinking back tears. There’s no turning back. The time is now. And as this realization takes hold, the noisy, celebratory atmosphere is charged with a profound undercurrent of intensity and an overtone of the sacred. Enrapt, people find themselves strangely moved to tears. For some, a strong and unexpected reaction. These mothers are brave; it is no small thing what they do. It takes guts, but also inspires awe and reverence. Do they know how brave they are? Possibly, but they would tell you that their courage pales in comparison to the bravery being asked of one small child.
He could be any of theirs, this darling boy with liquid brown eyes and a smile to melt a mother’s heart, who likes snow and ice cream and Dr. Pepper, this typical second-grader who loves his family and his dogs and his pet hamster. A vibrant, happy kid who wants nothing more than to play with his friends–and the chance to grow up. This boy, he is all of theirs.
With a hairdresser for each, the shearing commences simultaneously. Razors are set to scalps. Quick, deft strokes reveal rows of bared skin. Whoops rise up from the house as sheaths of hair fall to the floor and ponytails are severed like dismembered limbs. The impact is powerful. Tears run, unheeded now, down faces, falling to the floor with the locks of hair. This has become far more than a benefit. It is a sacrament. The degrees of separation between neighbors and friends and acquaintances, even strangers, merge and blend until no division exists and all are encompassed by a tangible sense of belonging.
Newly shorn, the women huddle, arm-in-arm. Exhilarated by the fulfillment of their conquest, they laugh through their tears. In disbelief they can’t resist reaching out to rub each other’s heads, now lightened, the weight of all their hair, gone. And the translucent image of Aiden and his parents is cast across the stage, over all of them, and reflected back to those watching. Lighter than air, love lifts the heaviest of burdens and illuminates the soul. Stripped down, love bares the beautiful, naked truth: no one is ever alone.
I’m washing up in a restroom at the Oklahoma City airport and for a moment I can’t place my location: hospital? hotel? restaurant? Elegant water faucets and gleaming granite countertops add to my sense of disorientation. I don’t even recognize my own hands. Looking down at the palms rubbing together, the lather foaming, I watch with detachment as water rinses the suds away to reveal age spots and scars. The shrieking of a turbine dryer cuts the air and I’m fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the effects of high-velocity air on crinkly, tissue-paper skin as it undulates against bird bones, exposing skeletal phalanges and large blue veins, tendons as taut as violin strings. These can’t be my hands.
But they are, as are the 50 years it took them to become this weathered. As is this face that looks back at me from the mirror, eyes reddened and tired, cheeks gaunt — succulent youthful flesh gone, hair a bit frizzy. I lean in closer and smooth my makeup. I reapply my lip-gloss and pat down a few errant curls.
“You’re a grandmother,” I think, scrutinizing my reflection.
Two weeks and two days ago my first grandchild was born; the son of my only son. Jeremy and his wife Carly live 7½ hours south of us. This is my second trip down. The first, an urgent drive prompted by the onset of labor was a magical drive through the night, alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but, as it turned out, life threw the kids a few curve balls. From a long and difficult labor to an emergency C-section to a baby in the NICU, nothing went according to plan. They were thrust into an unforeseen reality both frightening and uncertain.
When it became clear the baby wasn’t going home any time soon, I stayed. It wasn’t even a choice; there was nowhere else I could be. My husband, Steven shouldered the domestic load, my colleagues covered at work, and my busy life went on without me.
After ten long days Ashton was diagnosed with a heart defect that required an immediate operation. I went home for a few days to regroup and came back for the surgery. This time, with Steven traveling on business, I took my daughters who still live at home, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, out of school and brought them along. On that momentous day, they sat with us in the waiting room. Headphones on, they munched on Cheez-Its and Slim Jims while I kept my hands busy knitting a baby blanket. Thoughts of the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon operating on a tiny newborn’s heart the size of a walnut raced around my mind. I tried instead to concentrate on the prayers uttered by many to guide those skillful hands.
Time stretched then folded in on itself; surreal, interminable. Then suddenly, the gowned doctor was there and we exhaled in learning Ashton tolerated the delicate procedure beautifully. A full recovery was expected; the new family would be on their way home soon.
Heady with relief, celebratory even, we’ve come to the airport now to pick up my husband; his absence has been felt. With some logistical creativity — a bit of planes, trains and automobiles — we maneuver to get everyone where they need to be. And in the midst, our typical routine churns along demanding attention. A perpetual balancing act, it’s been the norm for a very long time. Making the choice to spread our children out over 18 years has resulted in a parenting marathon.
We have friends in the trenches of young parenthood; their lives filled with diapers, sleepless nights and temper tantrums. Friends running from soccer games to piano lessons, who help with homework and college applications. We meet them at orchestra concerts and cheer practice and neighborhood BBQs.
We have friends in empty nests; their children gone to college or moving away to embark on careers. Friends welcoming new members into their family as their kids get married and have babies of their own. We swap stories about in-laws, the cost of weddings, and the phenomena of boomerang kids.
We don’t, however, have many friends who’re in both, and who consequently experience what I call CPF: chronic parenting fatigue.
Our oldest, Melissa, was a senior in high school when we were pregnant with our youngest, a fact which repulsed her.
“Ew!” she said, “You’re going to be old parents.”
And she was right. We’re kind of old already and we’re not done yet. I often wonder what will be left of us when all the kids are gone? Who will we be by the time we get there? We are not the same people we once were, not the same couple. The idea that marriage is both strengthened by the challenges of family life and crushed under its weight seems a paradox, but it is profoundly true. Steven and I have never stopped loving one another, but this is not to say we always like each other. Stress and exhaustion make us irritable and sometimes we’re just not nice. Everyone else gets the best of us and all that remains for our beloved is the dregs: we are robbed of the person we love most.
Those are the times I miss my sweetheart. I miss the belly laughs his sharp wit never fails to provoke. I miss his pride in my accomplishments, his comfort when I’m melancholy. I miss the pleasure of his company; gourmet dinners and stimulating conversation. I miss the end of the day when our minds unwind and our bodies entangle; when we make space for each other’s innermost thoughts. I miss spontaneous weekend getaways and leisurely lovemaking. I miss his everyday kisses.
Without these things we’re great business partners, roommates and co-parents, but we aren’t the friends and lovers we started out being. Without this spark of intimacy, our day-to-day is reduced to an endless to-do list wearing us down. And out. As Garth sang, we’re “much too young to feel this damned old.” Stepping out of our responsibilities and indulging our love affair is the only way we’re going to see this through.
It’s beautiful to watch our son and daughter-in-law lean together when life necessitates they surrender control; when patience and the ability to set aside their own needs is called for. Faced with this daunting new role, I wonder if our son knows his parents grapple with the same demands and sometimes teeter on the edge themselves. I doubt he knows what’s ahead in the long haul, but I do know the richness will be far greater than he could ever imagine.
I hitch my purse to my shoulder and take one last look in the mirror.
“Not too bad for a grandma,” I surmise and turn to walk out.
Leaving the restroom my eyes cast forward down the long shiny corridor to the baggage claim where the kids have been waiting for Steven. And then I see him. I drink him in like water in the desert.
He bends over to hug Haley, and Sydney throws herself over his back. Jeremy and Carly cluster around him and everyone is talking at once. I walk toward them, unnoticed. He looks up over the top of Haley’s head and our eyes meet. I can’t help but smile as my feet lead me steadily to the arms I can feel around me before I get there.
In that moment I love every chaotic, ecstatic, dynamic morsel that makes up our life and it is all wrapped up in this man, inextricably woven into our journey together. He’s my one and only. Eventually, we’ll make it to a tropical paradise or at least to St. Louis for a weekend, but for now, this is all I need.
In the commotion, I weave my way through the kids to come in closer and stand on my tiptoes.
“Hey, Granddad,” I whisper, brushing my lips against the 5-o’clock shadow on his jaw. “Let’s go see our baby.”
I saw a blurb about this project on January 1, 2014. Gratitude is pretty trendy right now, but when fully experienced, it can’t be denied that miraculous transformations are possible. In early 2008 Hailey Bartholomew, a photographer and film-maker, a wife and mother of two from Australia, embarked on a year-long commitment of taking one Polaroid a day, its subject something she felt grateful for. It began as a visual journal, intended to fight the depression she was feeling, but the impact on her life turned out to be far more significant than she could have imagined.
“The discipline of having to look for the good things that happened every day changed her life in so many ways. Hailey found not only her marriage, spiritual life and health improved, but this project accidentally, wondrously spread and affected the lives of many others.” Check it out here.
2014 feels like a big year, for me and for a lot of people I love. We’re on the verge of big transitions and living in a whole new way. When I saw this project, I thought, “Why NOT? I can do this. If I start today, in one year I’ll have 365 photos that not only chronicle the abundance I enjoy daily, but hone in on what’s really important, giving me a powerful collage to frame my perspective. While my photography is certainly amateur, the value is in the process and I envision my focus shifting as the days and weeks go by; seeing things in a new light, or maybe seeing things I never noticed before. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you; yet another thing to be grateful for.
So, one picture a day from my phone; the sacredness of the ordinary. For a whole year. Let’s see what happens.
I fall for it every time; I get sucked in as soon as the text buzzes on my cell phone, the email lands in my inbox, and the answering machine picks up the recording (no more need to check the scrolling list of school closings at the bottom of the TV screen): “Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”
The kids yelp and run around in circles. “SNOW DAY!!”
Mentally I do a little happy dance as I fantasize about sleeping in and snuggling up. I envision making a big pot of soup and catching an old movie. I love the snow; it’s magical when it falls thickly and blankets the ground. I love it even more when I can stay home. Thoughts of relaxing with my family for an unexpected day in make me all warm and fuzzy.
However … the imagined cozy scene is short-lived. In the morning I’m quickly reminded of how things really go. Haley, my 5th grader, is literally bouncing off the walls; she careens into the kitchen after banging into the doorframe, slides across the tile floor in her socks and wipes out, smacking her elbow on a chair on her way down. She’s wounded and howling.
“Ow, ow, ow! Ouch!! That huuu-UUURT!”
But just a few seconds later she resumes her litany: “I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake. The sun is awake so I’m awake.” The refrain continues with a rhythmic accent placed on WAKE.
Coming off of winter break, the girls have already been out of school for 2 weeks. This is our 17th day of togetherness, but who’s counting?
“It snowed, it snowed, it snowed, it snowed!” Haley twirls around singing, “Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire! In the meadow we can build a snooooooowwwman.” She stops abruptly. “Hey! We can build a snowman!”
Suddenly she’s pulling her snowsuit over her fleece jammies and stuffing her bare feet in snow boots. “I’m gonna make a snow angel!” Her enthusiasm is boundless, but so is my exhaustion as I watch her dig through the winter gear, flinging coats and hats and gloves far and wide until she finds, at the very bottom, her scarf.
“You haven’t even had breakfast yet,” I say, realizing I haven’t even had coffee yet either. No wonder. “And you haven’t had your pill,” I add. No wonder.
“Come here and just chill.” I call her back to the kitchen.
“I need to chill. I need to chill.” She closes her eyes and repeats the words, slowly this time, as if in meditation, “I need to chill. I need to chill.”
Her eyes snap open, her quest for serenity over. “I need to take a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill.”
“Haley, you are a diva,” Sydney says, standing quietly in her bra and boy shorts, watching as her sister cavorts around the kitchen. Sydney is the antithesis of her sibling in personality. Four years older, Syd has Down syndrome which makes her pretty chill by nature.
Smiling, I hold out my hand to Haley. “Here’s your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, her daily Ritalin in my palm.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
“Yes, it is,” I answer.
“No, it’s not,” she quips.
“Yes, it actually is your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, gesturing emphatically with my palm. Why, exactly, am I engaging?
“No, it’s NOT!” she laughs. “It’s my chill and grill pill.” Grabbing it from my palm, she gulps it down with a swig of milk and takes off again, running to the back door. Looking through the glass she says, “Oooh! OOOOOOhhhhhh! Look at the snow! It’s ba-ba-ba-blowing. Look at the drifts, the way the wind moves it and the, . . hey, birdies! Hello birdies!”
She does eventually get outside, dragging Sydney along with her, Sydney who hates the cold and hates the snow and hates being bundled up even more. Wrapping a scarf around her neck, I say, “Honey, it’s really cold out there, you have to cover your skin.” Sydney yanks it off in an uncharacteristic display of defiance, pulling her own hair in the process.
“Oookay,” I concede. “Let’s just zip you all the way up then.”
They waddle outside and around the back to a sweet little sledding track that runs between our house and the neighbor’s. We’re letting them go out by themselves this year, checking occasionally out the window. Assuming that if anyone is screaming or bleeding I’ll hear about it, I feel pretty comfortable taking advantage of the free time to talk on the phone while I take the Christmas tree down.
Removing bulbs of all sizes, I place them gently in their boxes. As I unwind the lights from the branches, my earphone feeds me my sister’s voice from Oregon. I pass by the window and see the girls together, having a blast. I can vaguely hear their shouts and laughter as they slide on plastic discs down the hill. I continue my conversation, thinking all is well suddenly, Steven comes stomping up from where he’s working downstairs–somewhere with a clear view of the back yard.
“What now?” I say to my husband.
“Do you need to go?” my sister asks.
“She’s got garden tools!” Steven growls, going around to the front, yelling out the door.
“Haley! Come up here and bring those with you. Right. Now!”
“What’s going on?” I ask him. Then I see. Haley is using large sharp metal tools as walking sticks—or pickaxes—to stab the snow and pull herself up the hill. Sydney, watching from below, holds a sled and looks miserable. She’s done.
Once inside, Sydney sheds her wet clothes in a heap by the front door and disappears. The sound of a laugh track from some Disney show or another emits through her closed door. She’s warm, she’s dry, and on a screen away from her sister. She’s happy.
Haley comes dragging in after returning everything to the garage. Dejected and sad, she says, “Sydney won’t play with me. There’s no one to play with!” For emphasis she adds, “Huummppph,” and tries to fold her arms, but her snow suit is too big.
“I’m bored! Bored, bored, bored.”
Electronics to the rescue. The Kindle Fire Haley got from Santa this year provides amazing opportunities to download books like Robinson Crusoe and David Copperfield. She also plays Candy Crush and Mine Craft, but hey, they stimulate her mind, too, right? Sydney’s had an iPad for a few years now and uses the math and spelling apps, but left to her own devices, she’s either singing along to a music video or filming a DIY cable segment: “How To Make A Cheese Quesadilla.”
It’s true, we’re a high-tech family. We use phones, laptops, tablets and game devices daily. My sister just told me she’s limiting her son’s screen time. I know we should, too. But not today.
Sydney comes out of her bedroom in a daze and opens the fridge. She stands and stares. Then she reaches very slowly inside, her hand outstretched towards the egg carton.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I was just, um, just feeling like, um, I just love eggs?”
“Do you want something to eat?” I ask.
“Sure!” Sydney’s eyes glow. Haley talks to fill the time. Sydney eats.
And now the kitchen is breached. They swarm as the food comes out . . . again. The dishes pile up . . . again. I’m bombarded. Both girls talking at once, telling me what they want, what they’re doing, what they want to do, what they’ve just read, what they’re going to read, what they want me to read.
Fragments, words, bits and pieces of sentences float around me. I have lost the ability to form complete thoughts and respond patiently and coherently to my children. Tuning them out has moved beyond a survival skill to a habit.
An image comes to my mind of the aliens in the movie, Mars Attacks. Upon hearing Slim Whitman’s piercing yodel, they drop to their knees, clutching the clear globes that protect their huge, exposed gray matter. In agony, the creatures writhe on the ground until their pulsing brains explode and green goo coats the inside of their helmets.
Snow ice cream and blanket forts and frozen bubbles. Projects and puzzles and playmates. This is what they need from me and it’s what I just can’t (or won’t?) give them 100% of the time. Part of the reason is probably my age and the fact that I’m just plain wearing out on the mothering front, but it’s also because I’ve never actually loved getting down on the floor with my kids or going to the park or making crafts or baking cookies. And though I’ve spent a fair amount of time feeling guilty over it, I’ve come to terms with it. I know who I am . . . and so do they. Why I was thinking that staying home, confined to my house with my bored, squabbling children was going to be fun, I can only guess.
“Look, look! Mom! Come here, I want you to watch. You have to come here to see.”
Haley has moved to the hallway, incessantly filling the air with words. I glance up.
She’s lying on her back with her legs lifted. “See! I can open and close the door with my FEET!”
“Can you close your mouth with your feet?” Steven, walking through the kitchen, drops the one-liner with perfect timing.
As I’m chuckling at my husband’s quick wit, my text tone sounds.
“Honey, your phone,” he says.
I pick it up, swipe and read:
“Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”
Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over. The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year. My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.
But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard. I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories. The presents have been opened. The food has been devoured. The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.
All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family. They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events. As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.
And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love. Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now. She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come. Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily. The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be. I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.
Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together. It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.
“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir. He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”
“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”
Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out. It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish). Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.
The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star. Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house, We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin. We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped. We got out the good dishes. We baked and we cleaned. We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.
And then they were here. Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant. Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary. And just like that, my boy will become a father. 7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs. I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.
Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding. We told stories. We played games. We ate and then ate some more. We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.” And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan. We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity. Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels. Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten. The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.
We also watched our own home movies.
“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’
“Let’s watch ‘em!” He said with his typical enthusiasm.
We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR. It disappeared, sucked inside with a click. The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.
A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend. She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange. She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.
She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn. A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it. Giggling she says, “He likes me!”
A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly. He wears top-siders with no socks. In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go. Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car. He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”
He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off. Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might. Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn! My turn!”
A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies. She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm. She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Time bent. I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children. They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.
Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often. She was innocent and sweet and unassuming. Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here. She was pure, authentic.
Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable. He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention. Whatever he felt, he expressed. His motto was life is great—what’s next? He was eager, energetic.
Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology. She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers. Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her. She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world. She is pure and authentic.
And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic. He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit. His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence. He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent. He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.
This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment. And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead. Just like that things do change. And I am brought up short. I’m in awe of the gift of my family. My family, here, now, together.
We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most: Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.
Just like that it’s 2014. I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go. I can take it all in and savor it and relish it. And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.