My mom broke into bedtime last night to deliver “good news and bad news” to me.
Apparently we are descendants of early U.S. settler Richard Treat, which means that we are distant relations of many historical figures I’m not all that fond of, including Samuel Colt (who popularized the revolver), Henry Ford II and (ahem) the Bush presidents. It’s no wonder these people have gotten under my skin so much over the years… they’re family!
This also makes us distant relatives of Thomas Edison, author Stephen Crane, Robert Treat Payne (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), actor Treat Williams and writer/playwright Tennessee Williams. Some good news there, indeed.
I really didn’t have time to process this as I was trying to get my son to sleep early for the last night of spring break. We were reading “Merlin’s Tour of the Universe” by Neil de Grasse Tyson (in which he pretends to be an omniscient visitor from the Andromeda Galaxy). As I read the evening’s last paragraph, there was a joke about restaurants on the moon having no atmosphere.
“I don’t get it,” said Declan.
He knows that the moon has no atmosphere. but had no idea what would be different about a restaurant’s atmosphere than anyplace else on Earth.
“It’s a pun,” I said, and began describing restaurant atmosphere to him. He interrupted me when the switch went off in his brain: “Oh I get it, I get it. It’s an idiom and a pun.”
I lay there, hugging his soon-to-be-six-year-old body in my arms, wondering how long it will be before he starts correcting my grammar. This time next year? I fell asleep.
I woke up at 4:30, looked at my phone and found out that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I watched a recording of Obama’s speech and accidentally woke Declan up, who sat up and said, with a start: “Morgan Freeman said that! He said dogs were escaping, the hills were falling down…”
I’m not sure at all what that means, but, like most dream statements, I believe it to be true.
So I missed the news and the social media frenzy because I was dreaming about lightbulbs. Since I am rested this morning, I don’t think I’ll turn on the news for a while.
Usually, when I think of September 11, 2001, I feel a catch in my left knee. It’s a muscle memory of the last time I visited the south tower observation deck as a teenager, when it was so windy we couldn’t go outside. You could feel the structure swaying. I remember how my body tried to compensate for that unsettling feeling.
Today I don’t feel that, but I don’t think it’s because someone died. It’s because it’s disarming news, and my inner Pollyanna would like it to be just that. Disarming. News.
“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Willliams
I wish I felt comfortable writing my way through this time.
I’d like to tell you about the fact that my son and I have been living at my mother’s since February because I needed to separate from my husband. I needed things to change. It was excruciating for a while and it is still not easy. We’re at a crossroads. We take things day by day. Sometimes I’ve only taken them moment by moment. We still plan on doing another radio show together. We are still family, connected by this amazing person we created — this person that I wouldn’t want to deprive of his father’s love or the ability to know who and where he comes from. One way or another, a new life will be built. I just have no idea what that life will look like.
I’d like to tell you about the remarkable meetings and support groups I’ve found for the families of addicts and alcoholics. About the evenings when I find myself in a room with people I never imagined knowing, let alone being vulnerable with, and how they humble and lift me. How this 78-year-old woman heard me state the facts of my life, asked to hug me, and, once I agreed, whispered “that is one heavy load you are carrying.” She closed her eyes and pressed her hand over my heart with a prayer. Her warmth thawed my many years of cynicism about Al-Anon meetings. She helped me to hear what I needed to hear, to take what I needed, as they are so fond of saying, and leave the rest.
I’d like to tell you what it’s like to live with a stepfather who is dying and has Lewy Body Disease, which combines the debilitating physical symptoms of Parkinsons with dementia. About the things I can’t see that are apparently here, like cars that keep pulling into the house, dead dogs lying around, men moving freezers, people with scissors and family members that have long since passed. How, before he stopped being able to walk a few weeks ago, he showed up in my room one morning because he couldn’t find my mother. He thought he had to hold his breath for as long as she wasn’t in the room with him. As I watch my mother try to manage each day, I see just how brutal the business of caregiving can be.
I’d like to tell you what a house feels like after hospice swoops in, about the book they gave my mother that details what to look for in the last weeks, days, hours and moments before a person dies. About how strange and refreshing it is to experience health care that probes a family about its mental, physical and spiritual well-being and looks for ways to help. About being the bearer of bad news to my stepdad’s sons with each clear and dramatic decline, especially the brother who has been my close friend since I was 19 and has a baby on the way this summer. About how generous the heart of my stepdad’s paid caregiver is as he shows up every morning and evening (on the days he’s not working) to carry him from the hospital bed to a recliner in the family room and back.
I’d like to tell you how vulnerable my son was before all of this. How frighteningly perceptive and unfairly aware he is of the world around him, of cells and stardust and disease and disaster. Or how often I feel like I’m on a razor-thin line, some days thinking that this experience, this period, could be a profound opportunity for him to understand more about life, relationships and death, other days terrified that all of this will screw him up, scar or emotionally maim him because it’s all so, so much for someone who is freshly five to carry.
I’d like to tell you about my uncle who passed away this past Sunday after his years-long battle with cancer. And I do mean battle. He fought for every moment he had on this earth, and didn’t fail to live each one that he could. During one early remission, he traveled to Africa and nearly got himself killed by leaving the tent when hippopotamuses were around. I would know so much less about what a strong, loving family man looks like if I hadn’t known him. I would know less about what a self-actualized, truly indefatigable person looks like. I also wouldn’t know how hostile to humans and dangerous a hippo can be. While I’m not planning a safari, that seems like an important thing to know.
So I’m telling you.
It’s been months now that I’ve felt like a person walking around with an oozing, emotional gunshot wound on her chest, visible only to those who know me or know what’s been going on because even as I avoid writing about it here, I say these things out loud when I’m out a lot. I have to. Friends — especially so many beautiful, generous, supportive moms — cautiously ask me about how things are going, and I keep disappointing them with clammy, sad facts, because I’ve become lousy at sugar-coating things. I had started to feel like I’d suffocate if I didn’t say what felt true today out loud, so I do it, and almost always immediately feel lighter because there are so many people who can understand or relate to some piece of what’s going on here, no matter how small. They honor me by listening and offering help and I feel totally selfish each time they do because I am so overloaded with my own stuff right now I don’t listen the way I usually do. I usually pride myself on my ability to listen.
Life feels inverted. I cry the most when good things happen. Each offer of help is a salve. Each small solution that I see hospice offer my mother chokes me up. Joyful moments make me so, so grateful. Each expression of love and friendship, each person who has said “you are doing better than you know” to me, each person who looks at me like I’m hemorrhaging but knows she isn’t a surgeon and offers some small kindness to me anyway has been a gift this year.
I’m turning 40 in three weeks and I don’t remember a more difficult or uncertain time. I also don’t remember feeling more blessed or more open-hearted. On bad days, I feel very alone, but on the good ones, I am less alone than ever. I am more grateful than ever.
A couple of Sundays ago my stepbrother put my little, strangely nonfunctional family unit on the guest list for his big music festival. The three of us saw Michael Franti and Spearhead, who we’ve loved for a long time. The band brought little kids onto the stage for the encore, “Say Hey,” and my son danced, jumped, pranced, twirled, sang and ran next to Franti, apparently without an iota of fear or apprehension in his body. He told me looked for me but couldn’t find me in the crowd, where I was smiling so hard that my face should have cracked open.
When he came down from the stage, he asked, “could you hear my little tiny voice up there? I was singing as loud as I could so you would hear me.” And while I couldn’t literally hear him, I could hear him, and see him, and feel him up there, so fully himself, there to enjoy more than perform, so full of energy and faith and confidence that he is, in fact, loved. That he was certain his mother was out there somewhere listening for his voice made me feel like a pretty good mom.
The next morning, I woke up with him clinging to me the way he has every morning since we’ve been in this place — like a life preserver. He snuggled up to my ear and sang the song, punctuating each line with a hug around the neck: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Declan is upstairs, singing along to an extended disco remix of Donna Summer’s “I Will Live for Love” that someone has set to a video parade of stellar objects on YouTube. It’s the sweetest thing, hearing him croon those words in his creaky little falsetto, declaring his affection for love, especially the love of pulsars and nebulas and globular clusters.
I’ve just finished a proposal for a copywriting gig because it’s really about time for me to do more copywriting gigs. A few people have written me some truly lovely recommendations on LinkedIn which has forced a little perspective for me about what I know how to do versus what I actually do. Times are weird, but I’ve had some interest in my work that’s surprised me, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that at least some of it pans out. I also need to return some favors.
And I’m still recovering from a weekend trip up to my brother’s farm. It was overwhelmingly lovely, especially watching Dec connect with his cousins so deeply, spending so much time with them unsupervised. All three of his cousins seemed happy to turn their family room into every planet in the solar system to help propel him into hours and hours of play. Legos became the international space station, the television stayed tuned to the NASA channel and everyone was sucked into a black hole. They put a chair in front of the door and told the adults to keep out, so we did.
I’m thinking about this blog, about treating my professional web site more like a blog because as I unearth family photos at my mother’s house, I’ve also unearthed several printed pieces of mine that she and my grandparents clipped from newspapers and magazines and tucked into folders for posterity. I’m reminded of the kinds of stories I’ve done, some adventures I’ve had and the context of the media industry at that time. Here I mostly write about motherhood with dashes of sprituality and politics and self-help, but I’m dealing with some issues that I feel too vulnerable to process in this space, so I’m working on essays instead.
I’m mad at the “Blue Dogs” about health care reform.
Every week, I find that I enjoy running a little more.
I’m resentful of marketing-driven editorial policies to the degree that writing straight-up marketing materials is beginning to feel more honest.
I feel invisible on the Internet lately, maybe just in the wake of BlogHer, where so many people clearly make their connections real. I’m feeling left out because I didn’t get to go, but kind of annoyed by the lack of gravity in the subsequent discussions about swag and stuff. Everyone is so quiet and lurky, although my friend Linda very kindly recommended this blog last week. (She writes about the ins and outs of and rhymes and reasons for publishing a children’s book at her blog, so check it out.)
I’ve been helping my mother clear out her office this month, where the shelves are bursting with materials about art education and family history. It is no small project.
This is one of the pictures we’ve scanned and saved from disintegration this week. It’s my uncle, age six, in the O.R. of the hospital where my grandfather was chief of surgery “giving anesthesia” (it’s in quotes on the back of the picture in my grandmother’s handwriting). My mom, aunts and uncle all tell stories of accompanying their dad to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, where they watched him do his work – the work of fixing people’s insides, 1940s and ’50s-style.
I never had my own pair of roller skates with hand-made pink baby pom-pons draped over the laces. I don’t remember wanting them. The scuffed gray rentals with faded red stoppers on the toes were good enough. United Skates of America (USA) was a dim place, and the nuclear orange, black-lit flames of the “Disco Inferno” balcony where couples would go and look down at the skaters were far more mesmerizing than anything you could wear on your feet.
We were a displaced, split-up family, displacing our cousins out of having their own bedrooms for a summer while mom looked for a job and a place where she, my brother and I could live in Ohio. The chance to live with our cousins seemed like a dream come true for my brother and I, but it was as hard as it was fun. We became a house of five kids and three adults who sang a lot of “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by a Taste of Honey in the living room. We drew chest hair on brown grocery bags, wore them like tank tops and danced to “Macho Man” by the Village People for our parents, who laughed hysterically with their hands over their faces. We all fought about stupid things. My mom left my brother and I there for a couple of weeks while she packed up our childhood house on the Jersey shore because she didn’t think we should see it empty. I got in trouble for putting my fingers too close to the electric egg beater when my aunt made a cake. We made massive forts out of bar stools and blankets. I turned 9. We put shoes on our knees and sang “Short People” by Randy Newman (really, what kid didn’t in 1979?).
We got to go roller skating at USA, where it seemed like nighttime no matter what time it actually was. We did laps together, holding hands in a line when Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” came on. We were too young to care about boyfriends and girlfriends so when couples ironically paired off under the disco ball lights during “She’s Out of My Life” my cousins and I skated into the island in the middle of the rink and pretended to sob along with Michael. My aunt or uncle bought “Off the Wall” on vinyl and it gave us a new crop of summer anthems to dance to until my mom started a job and found us a brick house with a lime green master bedroom and a neighbor dog named Thor.
My brother had the jacket from the “Beat It” video and he made awesome, tough-guy faces when he wore it. I remember MTV (and therefore my girlfriends and I being 13 or so) treating the time Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during a video shoot like the most important breaking news story of our time. I remember watching him moonwalk for the first time on the Motown tribute show and feeling like it looked way more magical than anything Doug Henning had ever mustered. I joined a record club without my mom’s permission soon after that so I could have the 4-record 25 years of Motown collection and boy, I got in some big time trouble but boy, do I still love that music.
I remember thinking “We Are the World” meant that celebrities were good, generous people. And seeing the weird Captain EO movie at Epcot when I was 16 and at Disneyworld for the first time. And pretending that “Man in the Mirror” would inspire my friends and I to march on Washington in college. And thinking that the King of Pop was tragic. And thinking he was crazy. That he was a jerk when I read about how he bought the rights to the Beatles catalog out from under Paul McCartney. And how much I loved his face on the cover of “Off the Wall” and wished that he did too.
In the mid-90s, I was the only female among a bunch of reporters that showed up at a strip bar where his sister LaToya lip-synched to a recording of herself, singing his hits and some kind of Casio-driven medley of Edith Piaf songs. The entire audience was press because it was also the night of the NCAA finals, except for some kids in the parking lot who begged the police officers there to get an autograph for them. The cops obliged, which was kind of dear but also weird. Being that one degree from Michael seemed like the real thrill the kids were seeking.
I was surprised how sad I felt when I heard about MJ’s untimely demise today. I had just watched my son spend the afternoon with his cousins – hugging, swimming, laughing hysterically, sneaking candy and having important arguments over whether “good guy” balls made out of wool felt should be flushed down a fake toilet (also made of wool felt, and actually a bowl) or not. I drove him home just before a chain of thunderstorms hit the house, hugged his dad, cranked up “I Wanna Rock With You,” on the stereo and danced with them the way I did when I had fake chest hair in my cousins’ living room.
We made our way to Charlotte this weekend, where on Friday we ate a meal, took Dec to Urgent care because he had the painful Nursemaid’s elbow (he’s never had this happen before so it was very frightening), ate another meal, slept, ate a meal, went to a wedding, noshed on some food at the reception and then ate another meal. Knowing how much food was on the agenda for the weekend, it was sweet relief to find three elliptical trainers in the gym of our hotel, but just because they were there didn’t mean I actually used them.
My cousin was the one getting hitched – the oldest son of my mom’s youngest sibling (and her only brother). When he (my cousin) was a baby, I was too young for real babysitting but old enough to be charged with his care upstairs while his mother got a chance to visit with other adults for an hour or two. I spent most of the time snuggling him, tickling him and holding him up to my mom’s closet mirror to make him smile, then granted a dollar bill or three for my efforts.
In the years since, I’ve only known the details of his life here and there – seeing him on holidays, and at funerals, learning bits of information passed through moms and grandparents and cousins. It was fun to learn more about who he is, and also be given the chance to spend a little time with a lot of extended family that I haven’t seen much of since my Zollinger grandparents passed away. Declan got to meet some of them for the first time.
Although he spent a lot of time running in circles and underneath tables with a hot five-year-old girl (he even basically told me to get lost when he was playing with her and giving me a taste of what’s to come), he did smooch the bride and show the groom his secret handshake. He even generously handed out hugs to aunts, uncles and cousins when I asked him if he liked making people happy, he told me yes, and I assured him that his hugs would do the trick. Indeed they did.
Here are some things I have learned on the road:
• West Virginia is as beautiful as it is utterly insane. They insist on making the speed limit 70 miles per hour on twisty mountain roads that require a lot of gum chewing if you want to keep your eardrums in tact.
• If you’ve never seen it – the capitol building of West Virginia has an elaborate gold dome. Because I also took a tour of this place a few years ago, I think I might dream about gold Appalachian mountains.
He was the father of five children, husband to my grandmother for 61 years, a highly regarded surgeon, a farm boy, an inventor, a World War II veteran and the man with a well-developed sense of humor who taught me to rhyme as soon as I began to speak. Our earliest conversations went something like this:
And so I called him Powdaddy. He would have been 96 today.
We lost him in 1999. My grandmother followed in 2004, almost exactly a year before I had Declan. It’s hard for me to fathom that my grandparents will not know my son, and that he will only know them through story. My grandfather would have loved my boy, loved his ravenous curiosity – a characteristic they definitely share.
On New Year’s Day, my mother and I (and a sleeping Declan) went out to the small town where Powdaddy was born, and chose to be buried. Mom wanted to put lay down a grave blanket, something her mother used to do at her mother’s grave every winter. While most people consider this simply as decorative, my mom and her mom took the meaning of “grave blanket” at its symbolic face, as a way to warm their place of rest.
Afterwards, we went to see if the house where my grandfather and his brother grew up — the house built by my great grandfather, who died in the 1940s — was still standing.
It was, although it may not be much longer.
The farmhouse is a few hundred feet from Buckeye Lake. From the shore down the road you can see a place that I learned used to be called “Zollinger Island.”
My great-grandfather sold it for $500 in order to pay for Powdaddy to go to Harvard medical school. His older brother insisted that it was the place to study medicine. Both men left their mark on the world of medicine, in different ways.
If you happen to have surgery just west of Downtown, it’s possible that you may have it in the room named for my grandfather by his colleagues. The family collected there at dawn one morning in 2000 so the hospital could dedicate it, then sanitize it again before the day’s first operation.
Continued from this post. I’ve subscribed to a variety of developmental newsletters ever since the week I found out I was going to be a mother. During my pregnancy, I enjoyed seeing what food item they would compare my baby’s size with each week (shrimp, lime, coconut) and which parts of his body were forming.
For the first year of Declan’s life, the weekly email missives let me know the scope of abilities that he could have, and told me which ones he definitely should have. They reassured me that I had some idea what I was doing as I got the inevitable questions from the many many expert strangers that a baby’s presence in the world invites. They reinforced certain notions I had been given about parenting that might make you look crazy, particularly to the non-parenting world, like my sister-in-law’s suggestion that I talk to Declan about the daily things we did to help his language skills develop. It’s somehow easier to justify the loony look of talking to your six-month-old about a Diane Arbus photograph at MOMA or the uses for red cabbage at the grocery store when you know that what you can point to the effectiveness of your actions underneath an “expert” heading somewhere.
These days, the newsletters appear monthly. The last one came on Declan’stwo and half year birthday. It suggested that at his age, he should know a few colors, body parts and people, and be speaking in two-word sentences.
“You can help her improve her verbal skills by giving her details,” writes the cheerful email. “If she says, ‘Dog sleep,’ for example, you might say, ‘Yes, Spot is curled up and fast asleep on the chair.’ She can’t imitate your complex language patterns just yet, but she’s learning more all the time.”
This visited my inbox during a week when Declan has repeatedly been reciting the following (his shorthand of a part of the narrative from the documentary 95 Worlds and Counting):
You go down into the holes, if you dare, re-ver–ber–ating, supersonic gas rushing out.
A pool of liquid nitrogen boiling fervently.
When nitrogen boils, intense pressure builds, until the geyser finally ends.
While visiting my brother’s farm over Thanksgiving, I tried to settle him down after a full day of cousin playtime. The usual lullabies, like “Hush Little Baby” (known to us as “Baby in Town”), weren’t very effective.
“Can you sing about liquid nitrogen?” He asked me sweetly.
I tried. I really did.
And that, like dozens of other stories about the things that occur in our daily life, can be related with innocent intentions and still end up making me feel like Cousin Eugene’s mom. The divide between celebrating his appetite for learning and being perceived as a braggart is a hairline. Some look at me as though I must be one of those Olympic coach parents who insists on putting him through wicked daily mental gymnastics, rather than a person who simply tries to open the channels to the things he shows interest in. Fortunately, others, sometimes strangers, take in his qualities and marvel at him with me.
Declan’s own actions in public can have a similar effect – sometimes his interests can completely throw people who don’t expect that his answers to ordinary questions will be quite so complicated. And while some people react beautifully, others look at him like a mutant (particularly seven-year-old boys).
I do see every child as brilliant in their own right – in ways that manifest differently, and certainly with widely varying degrees, including some that aren’t so obvious. Yet culturally, we are so prone to compare individuals, to see confidence and the celebration of accomplishment as things that make us somehow personally deficient, not healthy and happy and learning. I try to see these things in Declan’s peers and appreciate the things that they can offer each other.
Parenting magazines constantly tell us that all kids learn at their own rate, and remind us that we shouldn’t read too much into a child’s abilities at a young age. After all, Albert Einstein had early speech delays. Neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing had dyslexia, as do novelist John Irving, artist Robert Rauschenberg and billionaire Richard Branson. The same publications, along with other, more experienced moms also remind me regularly that Declan’s esoteric interests in space may just evaporate one day, and that it would be completely normal for him to forget many of the things that he knows so well right now.
I try and keep my own opinion – and expectations – of him in check, for both of our sakes. But when he gets as excited about science and scientists as he would if Steve from Blue’s Clues walked into the house for dinner tonight, it’s hard not to bask in the glow all that he is becoming and feel proud.
This quote came up on the e-discussion group for my local Buddhist temple today:
“In every relationship, between you and the other person there are actually six people involved:
1. The person who you think you are
2. The person who you think they are
3. The person who you really are
4. The person who they think they are
5. The person who they really are
6. The person who they think you are.”
It’s accurate, I think. And when I started to think about it in terms of the ways that families interact during the holidays, I suddenly felt like I was on the Faberge Organics shampoo with wheat germ oil and honey commercial from 1977, with faces multiplying into the infinite.
It’s not a wonder that this time of year can be so stressful. We have to navigate meal-making, travel plans, gift-giving, work schedules, football games and emotions, old and new, from inside of a maze of mirrors that may pinch, ripple and bend our images, depending on where we’re standing.