Monday, September 29, 2014

A Sacred Conversation

When I was very little I prayed to the God I believed granted wishes to give me a ravaging disease instead of to other moms.  My reasoning was that I thought I was strong enough to "handle" it.  I'd seen enough after-school specials to know kids needed to have their moms around for a long time (whomsoever "they" were and let's pretend whomsoever is still in the English rotation).  I was young, ignorant, unattached, and dispensable.

I'm not sure where that particular wish came from or why I had the ego of Kanye West.  Maybe because my mom means so much to me.  And her mom means so much to me.   Maybe because my dearest friend's mom had just died from cancer before she entered high school.  Maybe because I felt impervious and virtuous to ask for such a blow.

Who knows why we do anything as kids.  But now?


I am taking that request back every day, like a chump.  Please God, please let me me live long enough where my children will be ok without my daily presence.  Andy too.  Nice and old, maybe 80 something.  Dear God, I realize we made a deal but now other people are relying on me and I had no idea WHAT ravaging diseases ravaged.  Dear God, I have saved a lot of Ziploc bags and cut all those plastic rings so turtles and dolphins won't die whenever we buy bottled water.  I'm sorry we buy bottled water.  (When it comes to living, I am not above pointing out how green I am and how much I honor sea life.)

I have no idea if this is how it works.  Because while I've felt a God since I was little, my relationship with religion has been soft and light-hearted.  For me, proof is the point of living.  All the rest feels more like a test I am studying for when I have the time.  Read a little hear, write a little there, all the while hoping to take in what I need to pass the final when the time comes.

When the time comes.

Jimmy told many of us his time would come sooner than later.  He knew he wouldn't live to be an old man.

"But HOW do you know?" I prod him, squinting my eyes at his.
"I just do.  Look at me.  I'm aging in dog years.  I look like a basset hound."
"Shut it.  You look as handsome as ever.  More like a distinguished terrier.  Besides, I don't think I'm going to live that long either.  I made this deal with God a long time ago.  Oh no, it's cool.  We can party together in heaven."

Jimmy's countenance changes immediately.  He is not amused.  His face is locked flat, his eyes are sad, and I get the sense he thinks I'm mocking his premonition.

"No," I clarify,  "I just mean I'm not going to be ok without you here."
"You're going to live a very long life, Hon,  AND you're going to be ok," his words still make me cry, "I'm old and you're going to get old, ok?"
"Ok, fine.  If you say so, Jimmy."

And now, getting older every year feels like an extra bonus from him.  A little nod to one of our last conversations together.  Gifted time I get to spend growing grayer, softer, and stronger.

And yes, I'd say even a little basset hound.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wake Up

Wake Up.

That's what my brother writes in his journal every night, before he goes to sleep.  He summarizes his day in an 1 inch by 1 inch square, highlighting in pen what stands out the most.  An artist of paraphrasing over a miniature scale of time.

"I forgot to wish Paulo a Happy Birthday," he tells me over the phone recently.

"How did you know it was his birthday?  Facebook?"

"My calendar.  I saw it on my calendar from last year."  Ah, what a treasure trove of important events my brother has created for himself, all the recipients of his birthday wishes, and beyond.

"It's been twelve years since you adopted Sadie."  I know, she's almost 13.
"You moved to Pennsylvania nine years ago yesterday."  Nine?  Why does it feel like twenty?
"We visited Dad in Texas in 2001."  Holy sh*t, your calendars go way back, man.

I think about what it means to my brother to write those words in the "tomorrow" box every night.

Wake Up.

Yes, yes, we do wake up.  Every morning.  To this new place again.  When we are lucky.

Lately, I feel so lucky to wake up and find my children small.  Oh good, you're still little as though the heavy hours of my soupy sleep has aged them exponentially.  My dreams are fierce, twisted, barrier crossers and I'm too tired to be in them anymore by morning.

Daylight is fanning through lazy blinds, iCarly is on low volume in the living room, and the coffee pot is hissing from the kitchen.  All this familiar glints beautifully through a bothersome world beneath.  My dreams have no power over me here.  Thickness fades while blinking and oxygen feel like rebirth.

"Goodbye, Daddy, I love you," whisper-shouts my son as Andy gathers his backpack, a piece of half toasted raisin bread most likely in his teeth.

"I love you, too."

I am so grateful to wake up.  To wake up here in a real world filled with delicious sounds of small children, busy husband, happy dogs, and one very naughty kitten.  It is a world filled with daylight and decaf, T-shirts and dishwashers, fundraisers and overcooked chicken, kisses and fights.

It's the world I love to live.  To devour by the hour, staving off the night.

I'm so lucky to wake up.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hold My Hand, Mama

"Mama?  I thought about it all day.  I want to go to Full House with you tonight and skip gymnastics."

"You sure?"

"Yes, because gymnastics is one day a WEEK and Full House is one day a YEAR.  It's important."

"Sold.  Go get your happy clothes on, little mama, let's roll."

And off we go.  To Abby's Full House or Open House as those administrators like to call it.  We arrive a bit late on purpose to miss the general meeting.  Neither of us are interested in joining the PTA or sitting in cafeteria seats.

Full House is no misnomer as the halls are pulsing with parents in khaki pants, belted dresses, and scrubs.  (I miss wearing scrubs to places where nobody knows if you are just getting home from your residency, the ER, the OR, or the kennel.  Oh, the mystery.)  Immediately, I withdraw from the crowd in front of us.  Abby pulls me onward, her tiny hand in mine.

"Mama, C'MON!  We'll be late!"

Her confident presence fuels me to motor not only into the throng of people, but through it.  We come out the other side a smiling semi-circle, attached at the palms.

As we enter the classroom, Abby's teacher points to her, winks, then kneels down to hug a little boy showing off his herringbone jelly necklace.  She makes a big fuss and all I can see are her eyes, blue as daytime, and her pink painted toes.  She is a magnet for the children.  Before we make it to Abby's desk, I count four kindergartners tugging at the teacher's blouse, excited to see her after-hours and to show them something from their very own home.

Abby's major modus operandi is strictly to stick with the program.  She has an agenda and follow it we must, leaving no cubby unturned and no folded paper house untouched.

Proudly and reverently, she walks me to each corner of her classroom.  "This is where we nap, Mama.  But I don't really nap.  I might close my eyes but I don't really nap, I don't think, please and thank you."

Abby's nervous "please and thank you" started a few months back.  It's her go-to filler phrase when she doesn't know what else to say.  There are others that have come and gone like, "I think" or "Maybe I just dreamed that" or "I don't know" but "please and thank you" has stuck around the longest.  It's what I will remember when I think back to Little Abby.  That and her love of bubbles.

Moms and Dads are holding Chicka Chicka Boom Boom charts.  Some are pointing to cut-out pictures of their own children on the wall.  Most are making the exaggerated, "Oh my!" face so their children will know their art is not going under-appreciated.  We are all walking slowly.  But I notice something.  The other children are running around the classroom, to each other and to their beloved teacher.

All the children are untethered from their parents except mine.

Worried, I'm holding on too tightly and of course, ruining my daugther's chances at a successful future and marriage, I give slack in our hand and let my Abby go.

"Mama, I have to show you the HALLWAY!!"  She is already moving as she gobbles up my palm in hers once again.  Like a silent wish being answered, it is her doing, not mine.

Again, we weave in and out of people clusters like two coils of one busy DNA.

This tiny hand of hers in mine is everything in the world right now.  I can't make small talk, parent-teacher niceties, bend down to admire a little friend.  My girl has my hand in hers almost on accident  as though it's the most natural thing in the world, to connect herself to me -voluntarily- because she wants to.  Not because she needs to.

It's more than wanting to show me the hallway.  (The HALLWAY.)  It's more than attending her very first Full House.

It's a connection.  A connection that will be paraded through crowds, schools, projects, arguments, boyfriends, girlfriends, sleepovers, dances, graduations, and time.  A connection that will sometimes disconnet, momentarily, but always find its way back again.   A connection that I believed was one-sided:  me holding on to her for dear life.  

All these years, I've been so worried about what happens when I let go.  

Until I did.

Hive Update:  Didn't mean to leave you all hanging about Abby's hives.  After she finished the cocktail of medicine her doctor put her on, she is all better.  No hives, no fever, no more mystery virus that caused them in the first place.  The ER doctor (yes, Dr. McSteamy) warned me that it will come back when I least expect it.  He's a realist, after all, just like an imaginary boyfriend should be.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Zen of Ducks

Plump, steady, funny clowns
Ripple through their circles
Shifting weight like canoes
with a tipsy Captain

South to crane a tired neck
North to hunt for brighter fish
East, then west on pine needles
A hammock for an hour.

I look to them
when I feel gone
At ducks?
When I feel gone?

They remind me how to be here.

One gray, two black, 
two white, I count
Their feathers curl against the wind
They are made of layers, too

So very much like talking

Is that your smile, Astro Duck?
Is this where you sleep at night?

I'm not here to hurt you.

They trust this moment,
Not the last
Give no credence to
a past

Inside his circle
Wonder filled

I really hope he's smiling.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doctor, Doctor

When you wake up in the morning, you don't get dressed based on whether or not you're going to be in the ER hours later.  (Or maybe you do.  Do you?  Can we be real life friends, we have so much in common already.)

You get dressed based on what's happening that day.  Walking the dog?  Tank top and Wal-Mart shorts.  Meeting at your kid's school in the afternoon?  Capri pants with that cute tangerine shirt that buttons up the front. 

So on a regular Tuesday, I wake up and pull on my favorite sleeveless peasant dress.  It's blue, kind of oddly tiered in segments like those dresses you find at candle shops.  The ones that reek of frankincense and perhaps a skoshe of myrrh.  

I have errands to run, dogs to walk, and dinner to make.  One too many things in public to get away with neon shorts all day.

By 6pm, I am in the ER with Abby. 

Abby who comes off the bus with hives.  If you have children, you know this is not a rare or special thing.  Kids come down with the craziest symptoms that have you googling with one hand and stirring taco meat with the other.  

My parenting alarm doesn't sound until her upper lip swells up.  She is suddenly and drastically a tiny Marge Simpson.  Yes, it is adorable but logically speaking, I worry it will be her tongue to poof next.  In my way of thinking, we have seconds to get her to a doctor before her airway is completely closed in.  I ask Andy to drive Abby and me to the ER.  Because, you know, I need my hands free to perform CPR or flail wildly at will.  Either, or.

It's crucial to let you know I pull back my hair and mop it down reeeeallly well on my head when I'm nervous.  So, by this hour, every oily molecule living near or on my hands is now ground deeply into my skull.  I'm shiny from tip to (pony)tail.  Now I am donning the kind of thing that is neither attractive or particularly successful.  My bangs are dangling in my eyes like spider legs. Something on me smells like tacos.  

We all make it to the door, register, and are seen within minutes.  Nobody's freaking out.  Abby's lip is stable albeit very Aflac like.  Things are going so well, Andy and Grayson take off to make the rest of his baseball practice.  That's when things happen.  And man, it could've been great.  If only I had showered.

Scene 1 - Nurse Enters Room
Nurse:  I'm going to ask you to drink this, Honey.  It will help with the itching and the swelling.
Me:  Steroid?
Nurse:  Yes.
Me:  Are we ok?
Nurse:  The doctor will be in shortly.  Yes, I think so.
Abby:  Can we go now?  We've been here FOREVER.
Me:  Hang on, Baby.  The doctor needs to look at you first.

Scene 2 - Doctor, Doctor
Doctor:  Well, Hello.  Abigail is it, or do you prefer to be called something else?
Inside my Head Me:  Oh No.  You're beautiful.  

Abby:  Abby.  I like. To be called. Abby. 
Inside My Head Me:  Be nice to my future boyfriend, Honey.  He's only trying to get to know you before we ride into the sunset on his yacht.
Doctor:  Then I shall call you Abigail.

Real Me, finally making eye contact:  She really doesn't like the name Abigail.  I can't help you there.
Doctor, taking a dramatic stage pause, looking directly at me:  You're not from around here, are you?
Inside my Head Me:  Holy crap.  Is this happening?

Real Me:  No, I'm not.  How could you tell?  My accent?
Doctor:  No, it's more like your lack of any accent from anywhere, it's fascinating.  I've never heard anyone with a non-accent like yours.
Inside My Head Me:  He just called me fascinating. - rifling through purse like a drug addict - Where are my cough drops?  Dammit, Grayson ate my last piece of gum, didn't he?  That little...
Doctor:  Where are you from?
Inside My Head Me:  I am from Roma, Italia.  It is the city of love.
Real Me:  Oh, me?  I'm from the suburbs of DC.
Abby:  Mom, seriously.  I'm missing Teen Titans.  
Real Me:  I only let them watch an hour of TV per day, tops.
Inside My Head Me:  I should've said we don't even HAVE a TV.
Doctor:  Them?  You have other children?
Inside My Head Me:  Yes, but I can farm them out.  Would you prefer we just start anew?
Abby: G-R-A-Y-S-O-N
Doctor:  Well, I think you're going to be ok, Abigail.  I have an Abigail too and she's four.  She doesn't like to be called Abigail either.  
Inside My Head Me:  Oh thank you Lord for letting him have children, too.  Now I can keep mine.
Abby:  Does she like Hello Kitty?
Doctor:  Yes.  Very much.  Do you want a Hello Kitty band-aid?  I'll see what I can do.  I'll be right back with your discharge papers.  
Me:  Ok, I'll be waiting.  Umm, WE'll be waiting.  We'll be here.  Ok.  

Scene 3 - The Breakup
Doctor:  So, I couldn't find Miss Abigail a Hello Kitty band-aid but my nurse will be in with a pink one, ok?  You two take good care and come back if anything else comes up.
Inside My Head Me:  I am feeling a little faint.  See you in fifteen.
Abby:  Ok, we can go now?
Doctor:  Yes, you can go after the nurse gives you your prescriptions and your pink band-aid.
Abby:  And a purple one?
Inside My Head Me:  Oh my, I'm wearing flip-flops, this just keeps getting better.
Doctor:  AND a purple one.
Inside My Head:   I will always love you.
Real Me:  Thanks, Doc, take care!

Married Me:  HONEY, you should've SEEN this doctor.  No joke, he was from freaking Grey's Anatomy.  It was so annoying because I am just not in the mood for all of that tonight. 
Andy:  You're just saying that because you're mad at me for being late.
Me:  Heh.  No, I'm really not.  Believe me, I wish none of this happened.  Do I smell like tacos?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Not the Summit

Last night I watched my five year old daughter exhaust herself during gymnastics.  Abby was working on a drill by herself without any instructor to please or frustrate, yet she pushed herself to utter muscle fatigue.

The tears escaped the second our eyes met after practice.  "Mommy, I'm so, so tired."

"I bet you are, Baby.  You know something?  I'm so proud of how hard you are working out there.  I can see how great you're doing and so can your instructor.  And you know what?  You can rest at times.  I think maybe go slower sometimes.  You don't need to work so hard."

"Let's go home, Mommy."

Then I felt the zing.  The parenting boomerang that headbutts us when we've rallied against the machine.

You don't need to work so hard.

Those are the words I choose to usher my girl into her formative years?  Don't work so hard?  Will her teachers pummel me with spitballs for saying that?  Will her future employers write me a pink slip for teaching her the virtue of slacking off?  Will her future spouse forget my birthday every year because I've raised an entitled child?

I don't think so.

I don't think we live in a day and age where hard work necessarily always wins the good fight.  I think smart work does.  There is a distinction.  And I believe it's unrealistic to expect hard work to result in success every single time.  It won't.  And I don't really want my children falling into that antiquated trap.  Hard work will end in exhaustion every single time.  Which will lead to unfulfilled dreams, slighted passions, and built-up resentment as a result of punching in 12 hour days, plus a cruel hour commute in traffic away from the city.

I'm going to teach my children that hard work is a virtue, yes.  But it is not the most virtuous virtue.  Hard work to be married to intelligent shortcuts and updated thinking is what I believe brings happiness.  What good will your calloused hands do you they are reaching for the bottle of Motrin for your stress-induced migraine or worse, the bottle of gin to numb your pain?

With things moving so quickly online and kids needing to know how to interface well with websites, it seems the natural trend will continue to move toward technology.  I'm not advocating daily marathons of Mindcraft and Lego Batman but I'm also not entirely against it.  Those computer skills, after all, are the real-life skillset our children will need to have in their adult world.  No?  You don't think so?  Ask any new graduate from any college.  Even performance-based schools.  Entire musical scores are recorded, engineered, tweaked, and graded on computer programs that require more hours staring into a screen than practicing bar chords.

Hard work plus a dose of worldly perspective is what I'm after.

Of course I want my children to pursue their interests and their passions.  I want my children to know that you can't skip a practice from a bruised foot and expect to make it regionals.   But you know what else?  I want them to love it.  I want them to look forward to it each and every day, be fueled by it.  I hope when they wake up, they will be itchy underneath their skin for the thing that brings them inner joy, not outward recognition.  I hope Grayson will reach for the piano keys when he can't figure out how to ask someone he's been pining for to prom.  I hope Abby will turn to her art table when she's sorting something out about her crazy moody mother.

I think there is too much to lose from pushing our children to be better, faster, smarter, stronger all the damn time.  If they show Olympic promise?  Ok, go ahead and push.  But for the 97% rest of us, it's a push and a pull.

The push alone gets hard-wired into our children at an early age and before long, their natural curiosity dissolves into ashes on their Gifted & Talented diplomas.  We don't need more "perfect" adults in this world.  We need more imperfect adults who know true personal fulfillment.

We need more imperfect people who glean enlightenment in the doing and not the victory.

Ask any mountain climber why she climbs.  Not many will say the summit.

A taxed, frantic, relentless young mind becomes a neurotic, chaotic, unhealthy adult mind later on.  It's about learning balance early on.  Yes, please do practice your soccer drills.  But also please completely f*ck around in the backyard for an hour afterward without any catalyst or blue ribbon in sight.  That is where your happiness hides.  And sometimes it hides well.  I always want for you to find it.

Life just becomes hard work for hard workers, I'm afraid.  

But life is mysterious, rewarding, and delicious for smart workers.  People who have their finger on the pulse of what makes their generation tick.  People who understand what the hell Bill O'Reilly is saying and why we should dig harder than the sensationalized news channels.  People who aren't so booked every second of the day that they can't take a walk with their grandmother around the parking lot of Applebee's on a regular Thursday.  People who know the importance of following through but also understand regular vacations will keep their fuses soft and their mental health sharp.

People who know how to push themselves and also know how to pull back.

And parents who will let them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Anna's Rare Bird

Typically, I never would've left a comment.  There were already hundreds.  Anna had so much love pouring in on her blog already after the accident.  What difference could one more "I'm so, so sorry" possibly make?

A world of difference, actually.

To me, to their family, to the wall of grief threatening to swallow them whole.

When a twelve-year old boy is swept away in a neighborhood creek, never to return home again, all bets are off.  Everything is wrong.  The world is no longer playing by the rules.

Adding my voice to the many hearts opened and hurting that day led me to care and awkwardly pray for a family I've never met, for a boy I couldn't fathom was gone, to a God I wasn't sure was listening.

The Donaldsons haven't left my heart since.  They haven't left the heart of millions.  I believe our voices mattered to a family needing to see miracles.  To feel unearthly love.  To know compassion on a larger scale than they have ever known before.

And we need them in return.

After Anna's book, Rare Bird, comes out that circle of hearts will widen and more people will be forever moved by their story and their boy named Jack.  More people will learn how to bring comfort when the worst thing imaginable happens to a family.  More people will understand how to keep waking up when the act of living does not feel like an option.  More people will have hope.

Anna's grief unfolds real time in Rare Bird, just as it does on her blog.  Her shock is delicately transparent as she tries to process the incredible trauma it is to lose a child.  Anna does not hide how she and her family suffer, fight, and struggle to be the cohesive unit they just were.  She allows us to see how every little detail of her life, even the privacy of her own driveway, is brutally unrecognizable.  There is no point in pretending.  Anna doesn't need dramatic words to help us understand her pain.  She simply describes her days, layer by layer, while we walk with her and force ourselves to breathe.

I rest a bible underneath my copy of Rare Bird while I read.  As if doing so will negate the outcome, somehow bring Jack back to her.  It's an unread powder blue-of-the-softest-leather-bible I bought at a thrift store.  I know Anna would give that purchase a thumb's up and coupling it with the story of a mother's greatest pain seems right to me.  It is my crutch when I want to deny the details of that terrifying afternoon.  Anna's words gently lead up to that indescribable moment when she feels in her soul that "...Jack is gone forever." A moment that riddles your arms with goosebumps that flush through to your toes.  Anna's honest disclosure is both horrifying and divine all wrapped in one. That glimmer of knowing without understanding how you know.

One of the first impossibles.

Anna goes on to reveal many more inexplicable moments.  Signs of Jack where there should only be trees.  An unexpected visitor who brings her peace when she only knows anguish.  Premonitions that would typically be cast aside as coincidence.  A deep connection that escapes reason yet somehow brings comfort.  Despite crippling heartache and constant longing for Jack, there is a connection.

Things that should be impossible but are not.  Because once you get to know Jack, you understand his life verse in new and fascinating ways. "Nothing is Impossible with God" is more than a collection of prophetic words.  It's a glimpse into a vast inter-connected place with the kind of beauty you only get from a boy with such soulful eyes.

You will fall in love with the entire family.  Anna has such gift with words that allowing you in to her world feels like a visit over tea.  Add to that her refreshing funny bone and you just want to ask The Donaldsons to wait up for you for their next camping trip.  They are each unforgettable.

But it is Anna's daughter, Margaret, who shines like a comet for me in this book.  She is a witty, real life broken-hearted warrior who inadvertently inspires her parents to keep going.  As you would imagine, Margaret tends to her own overwhelming loss in private ways, right for a 10 year old girl.  Her natural charm springs off the page, intimating at the humor she shares with her brother, the one that forever glues four people together, not three.

Living without Jack is not something Anna, Tim, Margaret, or anyone who loves him ever planned on having to do.  Nobody ever dreamed it would be a reality.  But now, after reading Rare Bird, I can see it is a daily reality they each must make on many different levels.  A choice that will never feel easy or right.

But one that is somehow, beyond all understanding, beginning to feel possible.