The sun goes down The stars come out And all that counts Is here and now My universe Will never be the same I’m glad you came
Steve Mac, The Wanted
My sock drawer is stuffed to overflowing: Everyday athletic socks, fuzzy slipper socks, a few dressy pair of trouser socks. But my special collection consists of crazy, colorful knee socks and on March 21st I’ll have plenty to choose from in honor of World Down Syndrome Day.
Trisomy 21 is the technical term for Down Syndrome. Chromosomes made up of DNA exist in every human cell, typically 46 chromosomes or 23 sets of two. In the case of DS, an abnormality occurs, resulting in an extra chromosome, 47 in all. The extra, third chromosome is on 21st set. 3-21. Hence, March 21st was officially declared the day the world would recognize these extraordinary individuals.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
There’s a stillness that descends on the hospital late at night, softening the harshness of bright lights and the sterility of hard floors. Sounds are muted and voices hushed. Sydney is the only patient in the sleep lab tonight located at the end of a long, empty corridor. It’s dark in her room but for a night light and the glowing dots of the medical devices hooked up to her. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning when it occurs to me that my father-in-law spent more nights this way than I can count during the fourteen months of my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. It also occurs to me that the last time I sat in the dark next to a hospital bed was with him, the night before she died.
It’s morning and I awake, not to an alarm, but to bright sunlight streaming through a crack in my door. I’ve slept so deeply, cradled maternally by my mattress, that the sheets left deep creases on my skin. My consciousness attempts the swim upward through layers of fog. “What day is it?,” I wonder. “Where, exactly, am I?”
With great effort, I roll over and read the digital numbers on the bedside clock: 8:29 a.m. The house is quiet, no one up yet. And then I remember. Two months into summer vacation and today is our first free day — no camp, no summer school, no nothin.’ In a few minutes Sydney and Haley will ransack the kitchen, eating peanut butter out of a jar and reheating chicken nuggets for breakfast like wild monkeys. But I do not care and sink back under the delicious covers.
Child-rearing and chronic fatigue go hand in hand, like hot wings and heartburn.
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. In the late afternoon, especially, once I am horizontal, I’m out. “People who nap are lazy,” I used to think, back when 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.
I can’t remember the last time I felt rested.
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 are 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?” our children beg with big innocent eyes. And we cave, letting them snuggle as we read a story, fighting to keep our eyes open. Then we wake with a start four hours later, fully clothed and drooling. Or worse (much worse), we let them into our bed. 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. Pure bliss. For about 5 minutes.
The family bed is a myth.
What follows can’t really be called sleep, collapsing into a coma only to be jolted 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, thrashing and turning, 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 and, 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 the 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 our bed as “Mommy’s bed” and frequently hit me up to fill the assumed vacancy.
There’s no going back; parenting is a long-term gig.
I should be grateful that only 50% 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 put up the good fight at bedtime and woke either hyper or cranky. Constant ear infections caused him to wail in pain for hours. We’d rock all night, both of us drifting off just as the sun came up.
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. Even after she’s down, when cannot count on the 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 she climbs in over us, jostling the bed, worming her way to the middle, and diving between us.
You’re going to be tired for a while.
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 is my reward for making it through the day, but the cycle can lead 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 5:30 a.m. classes, sacrificing the extra Zs so I can meditate and prepare, unhurried and in peace. I stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to write, because the house is quiet then and I am, at last, alone.
This is my life. The one I chose. The one I love.
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.”
And it is, even though I’m still tired, falling asleep at rock concerts, stop lights and in front of the TV. Nodding off at movies, kids’ concerts and even at weddings. I pass out while reading before bed, mouth open, glasses on, and half-wake to my husband tenderly taking my book off my chest, my glasses off my face and, after placing a kiss on my cheek, turning off the light. I’m still tired, but I start most days feeling energetic and hopeful. The demands of our busy family leave me running on empty by afternoon and it’s just the way of it. This is my life. The one I chose. The one I love.
It will be worth it.
Haley said it best: “In the morning you’re ‘Happy Mommy.’ In the evening you’re ‘Tired Mommy’ because we accidentally exhaust you.” I know 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 all it takes is a nap to turn me from Tired Mommy to Happy Mommy, fetch me my pillow.
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 vantage point. 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 yoga class in my home of Columbia, Missouri this morning, I notice several voicemails from my son, Jeremy, whose wife is rapidly approaching her due date. I’ve been waiting for his call, prepared to drop everything and head to Oklahoma City for the birth of their first child; my first grandchild.
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, then, to say goodbye to my dying mother-in-law. The circle of life, profound in its simplicity, plays out. 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.
The rest of the night, speeding along the highway, alone in the dark with my thoughts. A grandbaby? Surreal. This grandbaby? Miraculous.
Early in the pregnancy, Jeremy texted me a black and white ultrasound image of a little bean and followed moments later with a phone call.
“Look at that baby!” I squealed upon pickin up.
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.”
My heart broke from miles away. They were told the pregnancy could terminate at any time. 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 waited some more.
Through the second trimester, much to our relief, evidence of the congenital defect diminished. Further testing ruled out Trisomy 13, 18, and 21 and revealed the baby 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. His parents weren’t worried, but I remained guarded. Perhaps because I knew prenatal tests weren’t always conclusive–my third, “later-in life” child was born with Down syndrome. Or maybe it was my maternal urge to shield them from the shock of an unforeseen diagnosis. 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 shift as a paramedic. Approaching 36 hours with no sleep, he is not in the best shape for their big event. Carly greets me with a beatific smile. Unfazed, she’s been laboring for nine hours. I wonder if she has a high tolerance for pain or a gift for masking it. Both, I decide.
After unloading, I settle in to watch the monitor as Carly’s contractions, and more concerning, her blood pressure, rise and fall. Jeremy contorts his body onto a small couch. Instantly he’s asleep. Just the two of us now, I sit with my daughter-in-law. We chat and she pauses to breathe through the peaks, closing her eyes and lowering her head, enduring each one with a composure I’m quite sure I never had.
Jeremy wakes and I trade him places. I drift in and out, then wake. Together we wait. We talk, we rest. We wait more. And so it goes through the night until the nurse tells us that after 12 hours dilation has stalled and Pitocin has been 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, unmedicated Pit labor, the pain begins to gnaw at her resolve. I recognize her agitation and resonate with her agony, remembering well the desire to leave my body and escape the pain.
Mothers-in-law walk a tightrope between intrusion and indifference.
As I had a wonderful example, I aim to strike the perfect balance in my new role. 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 Carly’s 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 in her vulnerability she lets me.
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 who rubbed my shaking legs and whispered words that lifted me above the pain to another 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 even still, 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, when her pain subsides, she is able to dilate fully. And finally, it’s 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.
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 very eyes.
I fight tears 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 in the empty room looking after them.
He retreats to the bathroom and I reel, thinking not only of the baby, but of Carly and the stories I’ve heard of hemorrhaging, strokes, and mothers dying in childbirth. I shake my head to ward off these images. I need to be strong for my son.
He moves 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 it releases my tears and 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 and he loses his balance. I reach to steady him and, bending down awkwardly, I attempt to dislodge his man-sized shoe. It’s a little ridiculous. And very tender.
He still needs me, even as 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 suddenly, 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, no skin-to-skin contact, 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. 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 life, after his mama holds him, I meet my grandson. The NICU nurse lifts the myriad IV lines and wires as Jeremy gently lays the little bundle in my arms. He’ll be here for some time and I couldn’t be more grateful for the excellent reputation of the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. After a diagnosis of aortic coarctation, Ashton will undergo surgery on his newborn heart, the size of a walnut. While we wait, his very life will be held in the skilled hands of the pediatric cardiac surgeon.
Now, 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, though 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 perspective of the teller. But they all return to the moment when a new life enters the world and nothing is ever the same again.
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. Sydney throws herself over his back. Jeremy and Carly cluster around him. Everyone is talking at once and I walk toward them, unnoticed. My husband 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. Weaving my way through the commotion, I 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.”
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.
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.
My husband and I had dinner last week with another couple, friends of ours expecting their first child(ren), twins, and expecting them soon. As we joked about the wife’s swelling feet and widening girth, (and the good fortune that her husband is strong enough to hoist her off the couch), I notice beneath her overt anticipation of the blessed event(s), the covert exhaustion she was hiding. An unmasked expression crossed her pretty face, just for a moment. One that only a gestating woman in her last weeks would understand, one that said, “Please, God, let this be over. Right now.”
In sisterly solidarity I immediately flashed back to pregnancy, a state both magical and miserable, completely consuming; a transformative rite of passage. In the nanosecond it took to relive, the realization that I’d never actually be pregnant again descended on me with finality. I will never again grow a child inside my body and I’m not sure how I feel.
Coworkers, friends and family all seem to be doing it: multiplying and replenishing the earth. Pregnant women surround me, their ripening bodies nurturing the genesis of life where there was only potential. No matter that women have been giving birth since the dawn of time, each new miracle astounds me.
I won’t experience an unseen little stranger rolling underneath my rounded belly, pushing me from the inside (and in the case of my youngest, punching me), proclaiming their presence with every hiccup and jab to my ribs, staking claim to my heart long before their grand entrance. I won’t bring a brand new person into the world, someone who didn’t exist before, but without whom I’d be incomplete. That part of my life is over. Chapter closed.
It’s not about wanting another baby — twinges of longing for a tiny human, swaddled and sweet smelling have been replaced by relief over no more diapers or colic or projectile vomit. Plus, after a bit of waffling, the decision to be done was made after my third baby, though the fourth did not get the memo.
No, this is about discovering myself past childbearing age, about acknowledging my progression from maiden to mother to crone. What is this ambivalence, and why does it feel like loss? Possibly because fertility and youth are intertwined; I’m no longer fertile therefore no longer young? But perhaps it’s more about seeing the journey from birth to death as a one-way trip, and feeling time, like a strong gust of wind, pushing me forward.
The first time a child split me wide open, body and soul, I found purpose. Fragile, yet resilient, so new, yet so familiar, I held, in my arms, the answer to every question; the meaning of life itself. And each time I cupped a small rounded head and inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin I was reborn. Changed. I simply do not know who I would have been had I not been a mother. The archetype has imprinted my identity so as to affect all other relationships; all paths taken and not taken.
Bearing evidence of birthing and breastfeeding four babies, my body has lost the elasticity to reshape itself. My psyche still grapples with maintaining a separate sense of self while giving my children my whole self, an inescapable urge. But, though I may disparage my life or wish briefly for something different, I know I wouldn’t trade the sacrifices made for the indulgences gained.
At 31, a divorced mom of two school-aged children, I remarried with hopes of a second chance at the happy family I’d always wanted. I dreamt of more babies to cradle. After a miscarriage, at 36, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with thick red hair, milky white skin, and Trisomy 21, Down syndrome. The initial shock of her diagnosis was surprisingly short-lived. Bringing gifts, her presence was cause for celebration. She taught me to slow down, breathe, and stop long enough to find stillness. She taught me the richness of a simple life. She taught me contentment. And her younger sister, despite the 99.9 percent effectiveness of birth control, was born when I turned 40. She teaches me… patience.
Mothering is nothing if not an exploit of extremes, and for every Hallmark moment there are 200 ‘Suck it up, you’re the Mom!’ moments. Like being eight months pregnant and worried sick over an absent teenager, hours past curfew, before cell phones. Like weeks of hospitalization with a two-year-old in critical condition. Like night terrors at 3 am with a delirious 7-year-old. Or apoplectic meltdowns in the supermarket and shoes thrown from the back of a minivan. Or Sesame Street and Teletubbies on video loop. Or pet salamanders and pet mice and pet birds, who still poop, even though they’re small. Like all things educational; relentless forms and meetings and bureaucracy, from kinder to college. Like sleep deprivation that lasts for years, and new appliances that last five minutes, and endless sticky messes.
Babies are akin to kittens; adorable at first, but quickly turning into cats. Adoration got me through midnight feedings, hysterical crying, and explosions out both ends. Devotion gets me through the rest: dirty dishes, dirty faces, dirty clothes and dirty rooms. Through broken bones and bruised hearts. Through whatever it takes to get my chicks from here to there, to their moment in the sun, when I, their biggest fan, cheer loudly, “You did it! I knew you could. I knew you would!”
I’m not a perfect mom. Far from it. I lose it on a regular basis (my sanity, my temper, my grip). My kids drive me right over the edge, but I love them with a ferocity bordering on psychotic. I don’t think I’m unique. Mother-love, the most powerful force in the universe, can save the world and I wouldn’t swap it for a stunning body or a hundred trips to Europe or a life of leisure, even on the days I swear I’m this close to selling my offspring to the highest bidder. On the days I need a reminder, I replay in my mind a particular night I put my youngest, the one who defied the odds, to bed. Not yet 2, she’d overheard me referring to her unexpected arrival on the planet as I often did by way of an affectionate nickname. Most likely, I’d had a rough day, since every day’s a challenge when you have toddlers. Presumably I wanted to get her down and escape to a glass of wine. As she nestled close for a kiss she said, “Mama? I you bonus baby, wight?”
Oh, yes. A bonus. Something extra. Much more than I bargained for, the challenges of motherhood were impossible to foresee, but equally unknowable were the profound rewards. And its infinite nature; a mother doesn’t stop mothering when her children are grown. In my mother-in-law’s soothing voice over the phone as she reassures her son, a middle-aged man, is the love of a mom for her little boy. Across the miles, in an email, my mother’s words carry a tender caress to me, her daughter, the mother of grown children herself.
There will be no more babies, at least not from my womb. Someday in the not-too-distant future, the babies of my babies will christen me Grammy or Nana or Gran. The thought is surreal, yet, enchanting. When the child of my child is placed in my arms, I will lean in close and press my cheek to that precious face, so new, yet so familiar. I will inhale the intoxicating fragrance of newborn skin and look into soulful eyes seeing generations past and future. And in the sacred hush I might hear heaven whisper, “This is the meaning of life.”
My little sister thinks I hung the moon. Even though I tortured her when we were young—literally—to this day she affords me hero-worship of which I am entirely undeserving. And when she’s in pain, I still find myself wanting to make everything better though she’s across the country and not in the next room. 2,000 miles separate us now and our visits are too few, too far between. The reunions are bittersweet. Even still, after a few days together well-worn patterns resurface. I can be controlling and bossy. She tends towards flighty and irresponsible. But we have the same nose. And thighs. We laugh at the same jokes. We share memories of times both good and not so good. When we’re together we are children again and neither time nor distance can alter that connection. Sisters; the love/hate bond of this relationship is like no other, making it one of the most sustaining to span a lifetime.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.