“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who doesn’t like peaches.” –Dita Von Teese
I write personal essays. About my personal life. My purpose in my writing is to hold myself accountable to authenticity and growth, and I try to do that by reflecting on experiences that have shaped me. These experiences nearly always involve other people, usually those closest to me and to whom I feel the most responsibility. My husband is fiercely private. My parents are not only private, but they also despise vulnerability, and they adamantly deny any whiff of scandal or dysfunction in our family. And my kids, while they continue to be hilariously and devastatingly inspiring, are growing up and I feel an evolving sense of protection towards them and their own right to privacy. Writers, especially writers of memoir and personal essays, have struggled forever with how to navigate the ethical business of writing about other people while still being true to their own creative process. Am I writing my own story or am I exploiting someone else’s?
I remember being sixteen and telling my mom that I was queer. I was prepared for resistance and had my talking points ready: Don’t you want me to be happy? Isn’t that what really matters? She was solemn and sad, and the moment stands out as one where I had let her down more than usual. And although she didn’t push back with the religious fervor that I’d anticipated, I remember her saying that she didn’t want me to live a life with so much stigma and judgement. It was a crystal-clear message that being true to oneself was not only NOT sufficient criteria for a happy life, it was possibly not even a necessary condition. She believed it was absolutely preferable to live a quiet lie than to live a truth that would invite judgement.
A few months ago, my mother told me that she read my blog, and that she wished she hadn’t. She said that she didn’t understand the point of it, and she didn’t understand why I felt like I needed so much attention. I went hot with shame. “I don’t write it for you,” I told her softly. “That’s for sure,” she said under her breath, not looking at me.
It’s hard to disappoint your mom. There’s a Peggy O’Mara quote that says, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I suspect that my mother’s own inner voice was shaped largely by someone whose primary concern was, “What will the neighbors think?”
It’s not that I need an audience, necessarily. Its more the need to not be ashamed of my own story. It’s more the importance of pushing through the ingrained tendency towards silence and shame. I want to be able to put myself and my process out there even though it triggers my insecurity; that is the point of my writing. And I think it’s also important to say that it has never been my intention to use my writing as a tool to humiliate or punish anyone, but rather to use it as an instrument to shape meaning from my life. These stories aren’t here for readers to see what other people have said or done, but rather to see how I’ve come to understand myself in the aftermath.
So, there’s this thing that’s been really hard during the last few months. A person that I love very much has been struggling with serious mental health problems. In the interest of physical and psychological safety, I’ve drawn some boundaries around me and my kids, and because of how those boundaries have been perceived, this person and I have become estranged. I haven’t written about it, partially because I feel very much still in the thick of it and not in a space where I have enough perspective to process it very well. But another reason I haven’t written is because I’m trying to work through the ethical questions of how much of it is actually my story to tell. I have very painful, complicated feelings towards this person and our relationship, but I also know that he needs support and compassion. We all need support and compassion. A family is fractured and hurting, perhaps irreparably so, as we circle each other, wary and betrayed. Each attempt at conversation feels like a rope slung across space, as likely to kill us as to save us.
A writer-friend gave me some generous advice today. When she was writing her memoir, she said it was essential for her to mentally divorce the actual process of writing her book from her thoughts about getting the book out into the world. That resonates with me so deeply. Writing is hard enough; worrying about how it will be received renders it nearly impossible. The paralysis comes from that censoring yourself before you’ve even written anything is exhausting and demoralizing. This Anne Lamott quote is the mantra I play in my head when my second-guessing starts to overwhelm me. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Her gentle reminder that I can claim ownership over my own life experiences, her unambiguous directive to tell my stories, and her frank humor about how people should just behave better are all the things I need to hear when I start to doubt myself and my writing.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was accused of “disturbing the peace,” in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he supposedly responded, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” As a woman, as a daughter, I have learned that keeping the peace most often means keeping quiet, especially around uncomfortable truths. My work…perhaps all of our work…right now is to dismantle the remnants of my subconscious equation of “peace” with “quiet.” Here’s to a 2018 ringing with true peace.
“How’s the writing going?” ask the nice people in my life. There is no good answer.
My “writing life,” such as it is, has been relegated to ten hours a week at the community college, helping students write English 101 term papers and scholarship essays. And at home, the only words I seem to have are the ones that I say on repeat all day long: “We don’t throw our forks.” “Where is your other mitten?” “No hitting.” “Bath water is not for drinking.” “WHAT is in your hair?” “Sweetie, you can’t open it while you’re sitting on it.” “Yes, I am SURE that your socks are not on the wrong feet.”
And “Please, not tonight; I just want to go to sleep.”
I have so many flashes of half-born-ideas, surges of motivation and creativity that always, always, are stunted. As I collapse into bed in the evening, I wonder, delirious, if I might be a genius if I were only given the space to actually think. But in the morning, when Felix asks me what a cloud is, I just stare at him dumbly, and cannot say.
The entire week had felt like the careening disaster of a two-bit carnival ride operated by convicts. I reacted as I often do, by commencing the most tidy nervous breakdown possible. My daily outfits now incorporate pink rubber gloves on my hands and a red bandana tied to my head, a spray bottle of white vinegar and a steam mop always within an arm’s reach. If I cannot feel competent or fulfilled as a mother, wife, writer, daughter, I can at least be absolutely sure there are no crumbs on the counter, no soap scum on bathtub faucet. The volume on the television is nearly always turned alarmingly loud, to accommodate for the fact that I am nearly always vacuuming. I am a black hole in our house, sucking the stars from their eyes.
I’ve gotten an email from Milo’s first grade teacher explaining that he’s been disruptive and rude at school. There was an incident with a classmate on the playground. And another one in the bathroom during lunchtime. When I ask him about it at dinner, his retelling is bewilderingly diffuse. I try to press him for clarity, careful to keep my voice calm. He shoves his cup of milk away from him, clenches his pale fists, and snaps at me, “I already told you: I didn’t DO anything!” He turns to face Felix, who is jamming the tines of his toddler fork into the spout of his sippy cup. Milo bangs his hand twice on the table to get his brother’s attention. Then he takes a bite of his tortellini, chews it, and opens his mouth to reveal the contents to Felix. “Milo!” I shout, exasperated first at him, and then at myself for shouting. Felix, of course, is delighted, and already trying to mimic Milo, chewing up some peas and opening his small, laughing mouth.
I grab my wine glass and stand abruptly, startling both of them. I storm down the hallway, hissing—not quite under my breath—I am so sick of this. Sick of what, though, exactly? Of the kids? That’s like being sick of the sun.
What am I actually sick of? The Sisyphean task of picking up toys. The stubborn belly fat that I blame on exhaustion, winter, cortisol, the crusts of the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches… anything but the beer that I seem to be drinking more of than ever these days. I’m sick of not being able to carve out a few minutes of order, so that I can take a deep breath and try and appreciate my lovely life properly.
I strongly disliked the person I’d just demonstrated, afresh, that I was. And that is the simplest definition of depression that I know of. And I am sick of being depressed.
Poor Milo. It’s not his fault that I often feel like he is everything difficult about me, stuffed into an angry, anxious 44-pound body. I am too hard on him. I am too hard on myself. He is too hard on himself.
“He is six,” Jason reminds me, daily. “Six.” He is always trying to plant seeds of sanity and goodwill, hoping each time that they’ll take root.
Thank goodness for Jason. It doesn’t seem like so long ago that we were twenty, and lit up like stars. Our arguments full of fever; never malice. Our cups always full. We knew that we could do anything. We knew we were blessed. But holy hell: these years are giving us a run for our money. Now that the smugness of youth has faded, I can see the gristle and bone of us. A different kind of beauty; a different kind of love. We’ve seen each other get knocked down a few times. We’ve dusted each other off and struggled to our feet. I remind myself that we wanted adventure. We wanted to do hard things. I still want the reckless thrill of being at sea, but I don’t want to drown. I want my dirt floor, swept clean of dirt. There is a lot to be learned from wanting something both ways.
I go back to the dining room table where the kids are still sitting, slightly subdued now, cautious. Milo is chewing on the collar of his t-shirt; a nervous habit. I take in his shipwrecked look; this family the island he’s washed up on.
I kiss his head. I kiss Felix’s head. I sit, and set down my wine. “Let’s try to talk about it again,” I say. “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow is another day. Another chance. For all of us to practice being our best selves. To see each other “whole and against a wide sky,” as Rilke writes.
As I put the kids to bed, I set my intentions for tomorrow. Steeling myself, promising to be mindful; to be present; to be kind. I will fail somewhere. And I will try again the next tomorrow. Each long afternoon bleeding into the one long afternoon of their childhoods. I know that I’ll look up one day, too soon, and it will be twilight.
“All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There’s that wonderful line in “East Coker” by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.” -Hillary Rodham’s 1969 Wellesley Commencement Speech
I’ve struggled all day to find the words to express the unspeakable heartbreak of this election. I cried myself to sleep, and woke up hollow, nauseous, in shock. What does one do in the face of such grief?
I cooked chicken. I scrubbed the floors. I cried, a lot. I wore black. I sat with my two-year-old, pretended to eat the play-doh cakes he made for me, sat at the piano and held him on my lap, breathed him in, played “Bread and Roses.”
I ache for women and girls, for Muslims, and queers, and POC, and disabled people, and for all of us that fear for our future and our children’s future. All day, I am thinking of the dozens of people I know, and the hundreds of thousands whom I don’t know, who have so much more to lose than I do. I am thinking of my six-year-old son, who is seeing his country vote for a misogynist bully to lead the free world.
But today, most of all, my thoughts are with Hillary Clinton. Not just for what she represented for so many of us, but for her own personal heartache and loss.
I was pretty quiet, at least in terms of social media, for most of this election cycle. I voted wholeheartedly for Bernie in the primary, but Hillary never felt like a consolation prize to me. I have many good friends who see this differently, which, I’m ashamed to say is one of the main reason I’ve been so quiet, and although I might lose some of them here, I need to say, on the record, that Hillary resonated with me deeply.
I do not…AT ALL…agree with each and every thing she’s done as a politician; she is a deeply flawed human being who has made many decisions that I fundamentally disagree with. But maybe that’s partly why she has moved me so much; I don’t have to wonder how I…or any of us…would fare in the public eye if my every move since my undergraduate college years was scrutinized and held up against me. The level of judgment and scrutiny used against Hillary is, absolutely, an entirely different species of political critique than her male counterparts endure.
I know what it is like to work with, and work for, sexist men. I know what it is like to dumb myself down when I think I “should,” and to silently seethe when I am clearly being held to a double standard with male coworkers or colleagues. I know what it is like to become a parent and suddenly have my commitment, intelligence, and overall qualifications called into question. I know what it means to make hard, but pragmatic, decisions about my career in relation to my partner’s career, and I know that how it looks from the outside is not even a faint proximity of the complete, complicated reality. In short, I know what its like to be an educated, passionate, conflicted human woman and mother in the United States. But unlike Hillary Clinton, I have had the privilege of relative privacy and/or anonymity while changing my mind, suffering indignities in my personal life, being on the wrong side of a debate, losing my cool completely, making mistakes and apologizing for them, and falling flat on my face. She is a HUMAN BEING; and, I am putting my foot down here, a remarkable human being.
It was her concession speech that ultimately made me need to reach out. While the rest of us are…justifiably…reeling from the defeat, still trying to catch our breath from the punch-in-the-stomach that were last night’s election results, she put on her pantsuit, and smiled, and not only did she concede with mind-blowing dignity, she called us to action in a way that exuded unquestionable elegance and grit. When I think of Hillary, I see this as her hallmark: this fighting hard and getting knocked down and GETTING BACK UP AGAIN.
I cannot begin to fathom the balls that it takes to be Hillary Clinton. Her grace, in the face of such unfathomable injustice, is the grace all women have mustered in the face of everyday sexism. We don’t get credit for this, and neither will she, but here is my nod to it, regardless.
I’m still with her. I will always be with her. But my purpose in this post is to say that I’m with all of you. This election is bullshit. This country is broken. But the truth is that more people voted for Hillary than against her, and that tells me that the system is more broken than the people. I’m going to go cry again now, but get at me tomorrow: I’m ready to fight.
And in closing, here is the poem that Hillary Rodham read as the closing of her 1969 Commencement speech at Wellesley College.
My entrance into the world of so-called “social problems” Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all. The hollow men of anger and bitterness The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation All must be left to a bygone age. And the purpose of history is to provide a receptacle For all those myths and oddments Which oddly we have acquired And from which we would become unburdened To create a newer world To translate the future into the past. We have no need of false revolutions In a world where categories tend to tyrannize our minds And hang our wills up on narrow pegs. It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives. And once those limits are understood To understand that limitations no longer exist. Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free Not to save the world in a glorious crusade Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain But to practice with all the skill of our being The art of making possible.
“It’s a mad mission under difficult conditions not everybody makes it to the loving cup.”
-Patty Griffin, ‘Mad Mission’
This past month has been a doozy. It’s no excuse for not posting in two months, but wow: I am looking forward to some easy summer days. Owning a bar and a brew-pub in a college town means that the month of May, and all of its graduation mayhem, is a busy time for our family. It’s a time when we try to pare down to the essentials, minimize distractions, and generally just power through the hectic weeks until the college students have left for the summer. This year, though, the universe didn’t get our memo that we needed things to be calm and straightforward on the home front. And now, after four weeks of being physically, psychically, financially, and emotionally depleted beyond what I would have thought possible, I am just relieved to be on the other side of it.
My sweet cat, Basil Rose, turned 15 years old this past April. I got her on my 22nd birthday, when she was seven weeks old, and she has been my constant companion for my entire adult life so far. She was beside me when I got into graduate school, the first and the second time. She has moved with me through four apartments and two houses. She stayed up all night with me before I taught my first college lecture, watching me watch myself in the full-length mirror while I rehearsed. She was there while I planned my wedding and got married, kept watch and purred beside me through my two pregnancies, and, to my total shock, greeted each new screaming baby with love and total acceptance as they arrived and turned our world upside down. It feels impossible to imagine my life…and our family’s life…without her.
The reality of her age hit us full force this month when, out of nowhere, she got very sick and vomited almost nonstop for two days and nights. The vet said he’d need to keep her overnight to give her IV fluids and rehydrate her, and that one night turned into six. He says that Basil’s spine is full of arthritis, which is affecting her entire digestive system and her other organs. Her diagnosis is simply “old age,” and our instructions are to love her while we can.
For those six days without her, our house felt empty and quiet: no small feat with two kids under the age of six. Felix is too young to understand what it meant for her to be at the vet, so he just wandered around the house looking for her and calling her name. Milo was mostly quiet and didn’t ask many questions, but had nightmares that she wouldn’t come home again.
She did come home, though, and Milo’s and Felix’s joy when they saw her again is something I won’t ever forget. She is three pounds lighter, slightly wobbly, and more wary of the toddler. She is eating and drinking very little. But I don’t think it’s my imagination that she seems to be doing just a little bit better each day. She will leave an enormous hole when her time comes, but for now, she seems to be settling back in, and loving us while she can.
Earlier in the month, my old friend Neil Dean passed away. It was less than two weeks before what would have been his 38th birthday. It had been years since I’d seen him, but he was a big part of my life during my first two years of college in Vermont. After I moved away, he was my dear friend Laura’s partner for ten years, and I’ve mostly known him through her experience of their life together. Neil was a light spirit whose burden was often too much for him to bear, and Laura’s selflessness and love buoyed him throughout their relationship. I can hardly wrap my head around tragedy of his death, and the incredible grief that Laura and the rest of his community are feeling.
There is something about loss in the springtime that has always felt wrong to me. At a time when the earth is blooming, bringing forth life and hope, shaking off the cold, death feels so incongruous. But I suppose another way to look at it is that Neil saw the season as a time that he could finally let go of the long, long winter of his suffering, and that his spirit is warm and free now.
And perhaps not surprisingly, in the face of this stress, I also got sick. A couple of times a year, I’ll get anemic. I can usually feel it coming on and take liquid iron supplements, eat more meat, and try to rest, and that will more or less fend off the worst of it. But this month, it just knocked me over and I didn’t even see it coming. I could feel the exhaustion in every cell; places I didn’t think could even feel tired, like my tongue and my palms. I had black spots in the periphery of my vision, I had nonstop ringing in my ears, and my hands and feet were freezing and refused to warm up.
I’ve always appreciated physical distractions in times of emotional struggle. There is something I find very grounding about my body insistently reminding me to stay present when I might otherwise be inclined to just reel off into an emotional abyss. Unfortunately, the hallmark of anemia is exhaustion, to the point of near-delirium in my case, so even the physical disturbances of being cold, extreme tinnitus, and seeing spots…not the mention the obvious physical disturbances of simply having small children to care for…were shrouded in surreal numbness. I honestly don’t have many clear, specific memories of the month of May: it is more of a vague dark sadness. But all around me, there is clear evidence of struggle. The dirty house. The thin, weary cat. The empty savings account that paid for her hospital stay. The memorial facebook page for Neil, with new photos and songs and memories added every day by his grieving friends. The bruise on my arm from the bloodwork to see if my iron was so low I would need a transfusion. And, because there has to be some humor somewhere in here, this screenshot of me deliriously trying to call the vet…from my calculator.
Meanwhile, Jason continued to navigate the busiest weeks of the year at our restaurant, and together we managed the stuff of everyday life: groceries and laundry and oil changes, Milo’s kindergarten spring concert, soccer practice, teaching Felix his colors and how to high-five and to not eat the sandbox sand. It has really just been one-foot-in-front-of-the-other all month long, and I am ready to come up for air.
Every so often, I’ll start to feel like my world is really, really small. Folding small clothes. Tying small shoes. Wiping small noses and butts. Cutting food into small pieces. Reading small books aloud. I feel so mired in small things that I have become shaky when faced with issues that seem larger than the purview of my children and house, and this feeling is quietly breeding low-grade panic and resentment.
But this past month has tweaked my perspective enough for me to see that it’s not so much that my world is small; it’s that it is full. Overflowing, even. It’s easy to misconstrue the fullness for suffocation when I’m feeling sorry for myself, or out of balance.
My kids are small. Their world is small. For now. And what a crazy blessing it is to not only share their world with them, but also to be the biggest thing in it. The buzzing, wild hopefulness of them at my fingertips constantly, tugging at my clothes, calling “Mama,” each time I turn away. “Mama, look. Look at me!”
I’ve been hit in the face before. When I was twelve, my middle school boyfriend threw a basketball at my face and I had to get a root canal on my top front tooth. (We are still friends.)
When I was eighteen, I became briefly involved with a boy I met during my freshman orientation at college. He hit me in the face because I yelled at him for harassing my friend Meg when he was drunk. He gave me a black eye. (We are not still friends.)
I was an emphatic non-athlete when I was growing up, so for the most part, I was spared any sports-related injuries. The one exception to this was at a figure skating practice in fifth grade, when I looked behind me to see how straight my lifted leg was, and misjudged my distance from the wall of the rink. I slammed into it face-first, necessitating another root canal.
Remarkably, during these three memorable encounters of getting hit in the face, I never once got a bloody nose, and have often remarked on my good fortune in this regard, clearly jinxing myself. But last night, fate caught up with me.
I’ve been taking a hula hooping class on Monday evenings for the last three weeks. I’ve heard that hooping is great exercise, but after growing bored with hooping for thirty minutes a day in my living room while watching episodes of Gilmore Girls during Felix’s nap time, I wanted to learn some new moves. I can waist-hoop as well as the next person, but didn’t have the first clue how to lift it off my body while it was still spinning and whip it around like a lasso. I decided to check out a local class, and I spent the first two weeks with my mouth hanging open, feeling like a total poser while the women around me…athletes, clearly…casually walked around the room with multiple hoops twirling around their slim arms, necks, and waists. The instructor—cheerful, warm, and obviously possessing incredible core strength—challenged my assumptions about gravity and grace and my own expectations about my out-of-shape body. I was completely hooked.
I am uncoordinated and self-conscious even in the best of circumstances, and over the last three weeks, I have been exhilarated by my totally uncharacteristic willingness to suck so badly at something in front of other people. The discordance between my hopeless ineptitude and my total fascination with hooping is intoxicating, and by the end of the second class, I found myself actually forgetting that the other women in class might be watching me make a fool of myself, and even going long stretches without trying to catch glimpses of myself in the studio mirror.
Last night, there were only two students in class, including me. I was feeling emboldened by the large expanse of physical space I had to work with, compared with the previous weeks. This would be the night of my breakthrough: I was certain. When Stephanie, the instructor, suggested that I might be ready to lie on my back and try and spin a hoop around my foot, I didn’t even hesitate. I lay back, stuck my foot into the bright purple ring, pulled the other end back with my right hand, held it level with the floor and tossed it exactly as I’d been told. It immediately sailed right over my toes and crashed into the opposite wall, but I was undeterred. I picked up a red one, hooked one end around the ball of my foot and curled my fingers around the other side, determinedly pulled it taut, and flung it. And lo and behold: I was spinning a hoop around my foot! But before I could even alert Stephanie to my success and shout, “I’m an athlete!” the hoop ricocheted off my toes and barreled straight into my face. It happened so fast, I didn’t even see it coming. It hit the underside of my nose at about ninety miles an hour, from about seven inches away. I was pretty sure the hoop had taken my nose right off of my face, and my chin and neck were immediately warm with the blood. Still, I was no less elated than if I had suddenly discovered I could fly. Not only had I just lain on my back and spun a hoop around on my raised foot like some kind of a magician, I had also sustained a real bloody nose for my efforts, the kind that real athletes suffer in the dogged pursuit of their sport. And I had found my sport: the one I was evidently willing to bleed for.
All my life, I have had a tumultuous relationship with exercise. By this, I mean that I hate exercise: team sports terrify me, and running makes my rosacea act up in a way that leaves my face bright red for nearly a full twenty-four hours, which frightens my children. I suspect that I’m not talented enough for Zumba, and not strong enough for Pilates. I’ve had sporadic bouts where yoga has kept my attention, but haven’t found a class that fits with both my skill level and my childcare schedule since Felix has been born. Plus, I am at an age where sun salutations just aren’t enough to mitigate the effects of the beer and the pasta and the bacon. I need to Get In Shape, and for whatever reason, hooping seems like my path.
Looking back, the fuse was probably sparked at my wedding reception eight years ago. A couple of our friends had brought us two hula-hoops as gifts, and they were out on the grass for our guests to play around with during the evening. Shortly after cocktail hour had ended, my mother playfully challenged me to a hula-hooping contest. We both managed to keep our hoops up for longer than either of us had anticipated, and had garnered quite an audience by the time we had hooped through several songs of my carefully curated dance playlist. The stakes seemed to increase with each passing minute while our respective camps cheered us on…her with her five siblings from Nova Scotia in town for the wedding, and me with the rest of our wedding guests, including my father. My mother looked straight through him, her arms frozen in place like a car-dashboard hula dancer, her hip movements barely perceptible as she smiled through gritted teeth, and willed my hoop to fall before hers did. She beat me, of course: my mother simply doesn’t fail at anything, and besides that, my hoop kept getting caught in my wedding veil, and I was slightly drunk and wobbly in my brand-new white satin kitten-heeled sandals. Halfway through The Car’s Shake It Up, my hoop clattered to the wooden deck and my Canadian aunts and uncles enveloped my mother in wild whoops and hugs. My cheeks stung with embarrassment as much as if I’d been slapped, but it was still my wedding, so I stomped off in my kitten heels to get another beer, and pretended to forget all about it.
There are a great many things that motivate me, but near the top of that list are opportunities for triumphant redemption. The night of my wedding might be where this all started, but I have another ending in mind. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is in four years. It will be the summer that I turn 41. I figure that between now and then, I’ll be able to get pretty darn good at hula hooping. Like, really good. I think I’ll plan a 50th anniversary party for them, and bring those two hoops from my wedding, and offer my mother a friendly rematch. I can imagine her—probably still able to fit into her wedding dress—demurring, “Oh, I’m too old for this!” before casually accepting the hoop, and slipping it around her slender waist, steely-resolved to beat me soundly a second time, and then go and enjoy her party. I feel giddy imagining the stunned shock on her face when she realizes beyond a doubt that I am going to win.
This fantasy is still years away, and is also, most importantly, just a fantasy. But it keeps me going when the tiny bruised bones in my hand are screaming at me to stop rolling a hoop over them, and when I drop the hoop on my own toes ten times in as many seconds, while svelte ladies in neon pink racer-back tank tops prance around me like circus performers. I’d been harboring anxiety about what it would feel like to lose control of the hoop and have it smack me in the face, but now that I’ve felt that just about as hard as one could possibly feel it, I am liberated.
I am still squishy and tired and clumsy, and I expect that—more or less—I will remain so. But for the first time in a very long while, I feel comfortable in, and grateful for, my body. Hooping feels, like many things that have come into my life unbidden, like a form of salvation.
Five years ago, when he was seven months old, Milo had two major surgeries over the course of two weeks to repair a congenital lung defect and a congenital heart defect. The surgeries were successful, and his recovery was complete. This week marks the five-year anniversary of Milo’s surgeries, and I wanted to share the story of this time in our lives as a new family. Like stories of all new families, ours was full of darkness and brightness, loss and expansion, trepidation and transcendence.
“Once this is over, I think you’ll find him much more robust,” the pediatric thoracic surgeon confidently assured us. We looked at his white hair and his white coat, and we looked at our baby, with wires and IV tubes twisting out of his tiny hospital gown, bouncing up and down in the metal crib: squealing at a green velour frog puppet on his hand that didn’t have the IV. We didn’t say anything, but both had the same thought: “He seems robust now. This is robust enough, actually. We’ll take him home now, please.” We were numb with fear.
The hole in Milo’s heart, in the wall separating his left and right ventricle, wasn’t going to fix itself. What was originally suspected to be a simple heart murmur at birth had, in fact, turned out to be a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), a fairly common congenital heart defect that often requires surgery to repair. His cardiologist had hoped, and had urged us to hope, that it might fix itself: that Milo’s growth might outpace it, that it would close on its own. But here we were, about fifteen echocardiograms later, at Children’s Hospital in Boston, preparing to send him into open-heart surgery.
The day before his heart surgery was scheduled, we brought Milo in for a day of pre-operation procedures and paperwork. During a routine chest x-ray, the hospital staff found an abnormality in one of his lungs and decided to postpone the heart surgery until a thoracic surgeon could take a look at him. It turned out that Milo had a very rare congenital lung defect, called congenital lobar emphysema, that was contributing to his trouble breathing and slow growth, as well as putting pressure on his already-strained heart. The affected lobe of his lung would need to be removed before he could have the open-heart surgery to repair the VSD.
Jason and I spent days and days beside each other in vinyl hospital chairs, our elbows touching, quietly bearing witness to each other’s grief and fear. Passing papers back and forth for the other one to sign, holding Milo when we could, writing down our questions to ask the doctors, drinking endless cups of coffee from the Au Bon Pain in the hospital lobby. We always had one eye on the monitors, watching his blood pressure, his oxygen saturation. It was hard, for sure, but there was also a single, common purpose that united us: one that we carried together, for weeks on end. And there was strength in that. Not before or since have we both set aside our jobs, our agendas, our egos, and worked as such a tireless, unwavering team. We were both our best selves for each other during those weeks at the hospital, and even though it seems bizarre to be grateful for such a time in our lives, I am.
The first six months of Milo’s life had been hard. I had a traumatic birth and a very sick baby. We had a new business and had bought our first house. I loved my job but I couldn’t figure out how to continue devoting myself to it the way it required now that I had a baby who needed so much. I was depressed, and scared, and we headed into a winter of so much cold and snow and darkness that I was sure that none of us would survive. Those months in the late fall—while we waited to find out if Milo would need surgery—blurred together in a dark sea of uncertainty, monotony, exhaustion, hard fear, and the bright flashes of wonder and joy that come with falling in love with a new baby.
Seven months of around-the-clock doses of medication in tiny syringes: 0.3mL, then 0.7mL when he finally grew a little bit.
Seven months of the nurse coming to our house once a month to administer the $1,800 Synagis shots in his thin thigh to keep him from getting any respiratory infections: even a cold could kill him.
Seven months of endlessly pumping breast milk, measuring carefully leveled scoops of polycose calorie powder to add to the bottles.
Seven months of incorporating new vocabulary into our daily lives: ventricular septal defect; sedated echocardiogram; pulmonary stenosis.
Seven months of feeding him bottles in the car minutes before he would go into the doctor to be weighed. Pleading with him, “Please drink more. You can do it.” If he had gained even a few ounces since his last visit, maybe they would tell us he didn’t need to have the surgery.
Seven months of wheezing, of watching the white hollows above his clavicles retract with each breath.
Seven months of watching him turn blue if he cried too hard.
Seven months of a brand new person learning to smile, sit, laugh, play peek-a-boo.
Seven months of being new parents.
Seven months of being a family.
And seven months of crippling postpartum depression. I didn’t address this in any meaningful way until well after Milo had recovered from his surgeries, but it was omnipresent in all of our lives. The word “patient” has never been used to describe me, but in the months after giving birth, my irritability reached alarming new heights, and this volatility was only tempered by long bouts of quiet, desperate sadness. I felt numb, yet at the same time sharply disappointed in myself, vaguely aware that I wasn’t meant to live this way, to fail so darkly.
At Children’s Hospital with Milo, the fear would come in waves. Some days, I was drowning. I took a knife to my hair in the hotel bathroom. With Jason, I ate $25 worth of McDonalds in one sitting. When I found out I was too anemic to donate the blood for the transfusion that Milo needed, my feelings of failure as a mother were so sharp that they took my breath away. Once, when I went downstairs to get us sandwiches from the Au Bon Pain, I hid in a hospital stairway, sat on the concrete steps, and dug my fingernails into my upper arms until I drew ten small half-moons of blood. Other days, I could crest on top of it for a while and go to the Starbucks across the street; post updates on Facebook for our concerned families and friends; sleep for a couple of hours in our room at the Best Western, around the corner from the hospital.
At the end of the longest February in history, the three of us emerged from the revolving doors of the hospital, relieved and exhausted. We were going home. Milo had been a model patient in all respects, including how well he had healed after the surgeries. His first surgery, to remove the middle lobe of his right lung, was on February 9th. His open-heart surgery was seven days later, on February 16th. His ribs were cracked open for each surgery. He was put on a heart-lung bypass machine that stopped his heart for almost six hours. Although lung tissue doesn’t regenerate after it is removed, as Milo’s pulmonary system develops, the upper and lower lobes of his right lung will expand to fill the space where the middle lobe was. By the time he is ten years old, he will have normal lung capacity. The hole in his heart was grafted with tissue and although his cardiologist does a precautionary echocardiogram every fall, his heart is completely normal and healthy.
His two surgeons couldn’t have been more different, and I couldn’t be more grateful or indebted to either one of them. His lung surgeon was a confident, brilliant man with thick white hair and the steadiest hand imaginable: Milo’s scar is barely perceptible now. Although he struck me as arrogant when I first met him, I quickly realized that can be a desirable quality in a pediatric surgeon. If someone is going to cut your infant son open and remove part of his lung, you want someone who maybe has a bit of a god-complex. If he had meekly offered, “Well, I’m only human, but I’ll do my best,” I don’t know that I could have gone through with it. Milo’s heart surgeon was a soft-spoken but charismatic, equally brilliant man who didn’t look like he could have been older than twenty-one. Even a cursory web search revealed that he was universally beloved and respected by his colleagues, and by thousands of grateful parents whose children’s lives he had saved. We could not have been in better hands, and I am so incredibly grateful for the care that Milo received.
Once we got him home, and his care rested squarely on Jason and I, the biggest challenge was actually picking him up. We couldn’t put any stress on the two huge incisions on his torso while they healed for the eight weeks after his surgeries, and lifting him under his arms would tug on the skin too much. Have you ever tried to move an eight-month old baby around without lifting him under the arms? Taking a baby out of a high chair, putting them into the bathtub, getting them in and out of a car seat: all of these movements now had to be accomplished by “scooping” Milo with our arms along his back, supporting his entire body from behind. He did not complain. He let himself be scooped around from place to place for two months after his surgeries. He let us gently clean his stitches along the sternotomy scar down the center of his chest, and the thoracotomy scar sweeping from the front to the back of his torso, under his right arm. This, after he spent a month confined to a crib, took his horrible-tasting medicine, and cooed and smiled at the nurses and doctors who took him apart and put him back together again. It is baffling to me that now, at five and a half, he sometimes cannot abide a moment of discomfort. He is totally undone by a splinter, a band-aid being removed, shampoo in his ears. But even in my moments of exasperation (and there are so many), I feel—so tightly—the flooding gratitude that I have this kid at all.
And while I’m on the topic of gratitude, this is something else that has stuck with me: throughout the whole process of preparing for, going through, and recovering from Milo’s surgeries, we were held so lovingly by the most incredible community, and I cannot stress enough how valuable that was, at least for me. During our time at Children’s Hospital, we received over 300 Facebook messages, phone calls, and emails offering prayers, love, support, and offers of food, cat-sitting, taking in our mail, and anything else that we might possibly need. Some people told us they were holding us in the light, and several more simply said they were thinking of us. A bunch of people said nothing at all but just quietly stepped up and ran our business, and did our jobs, and just somehow made it possible for us to not worry about much beyond taking care of Milo. And finally, lots of folks said they were praying for us.
I know that I might lose some people here for even talking about prayer at all. But whatever god you do or don’t believe in, I am stating—for the record—that I felt the power of these prayers. Which is to say only that that I’ve been moved—lifted, even—by a community of friends, family, acquaintances and strangers who set their own lives aside, even for a moment, to participate meaningfully in our collective humanity by making space in their own hearts to share our struggle. I’m not a crazy person who thinks prayer alone can work miracles or cure sick people or heal the world. I also believe in the power of skilled surgeons, health insurance, western medicine, education, advocacy and public policy. Saying that I believe in prayer, is, to me, akin to saying that I’ve been moved by the pure kindness and goodwill of fellow humans, some of whom I love and some of whom I’ve never met. The degree to which I was humbled and, truly, stunned by the kindness and love of the people in our community during this time was deeply powerful, and I would not be telling the true story of this time in our lives if I omitted that piece.
And now, here we are five years later, and we’ve got this nutty kid who is learning to read and write and skateboard and make friends and tell jokes. He makes me laugh every day, and he makes me crazy every day. Every single day I want to be a better person for him. And although this blog can sometimes be a place where my myriad shortcomings as his mother are laid bare, let it be known that I love this kid with a fierceness that rivals any feeling I have ever felt. Happy five-year anniversary, Milo.
“Take off your overcoat; roll up your sleeves. Jordan is a hard road to travel.”
-Jordan Is A Hard Road To Travel, Dan Emmet
I almost shut down the blog. I’ve been stuck and sad and feeling like a total imposter and the one thing I have been sure of is that I have no business writing anything about living authentically.
The other day, I remembered what this blog was supposed to be about. It’s an exercise in holding myself accountable to the process, the falling down and the getting up. It is not a procedures manual; it is not a guidebook; it is not the answer to anything. I haven’t posted in months because I haven’t felt like I had anything good to say: no sharp insights, and barely any funny stories. And although this is familiar territory for me—this low-grade depression and self-doubt—I am just so incredibly tired this time. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s feeling our debt like a knife in my back, maybe it’s the toddler who has seemed to be teething for six months straight, but these days I barely have the energy to change the roll of paper towels and practice the art of keeping young children alive.
Recently, I had an evening alone. A delicious, quiet night to myself when I wasn’t so exhausted that I collapsed immediately after putting the kids to bed. I anticipated the evening eagerly: would I read a book? (And have something interesting to talk about besides my children?) Would I bake brownies and put on pajama pants and binge watch a trashy show? (This is something I am always to tired to do…I feel too tired for television. It’s bad.) Would I listen to show-tunes and clean the whole house? (This is one of my very favorite pastimes, by the way). Would I (*gasp*) write? Nope. I drank half a bottle of wine that we had set aside for cooking, and learned how to play Live’s 1994 hit Lightning Crashes on the ukulele, and then recorded a voice memo of myself singing and playing it. Reflecting back, I literally could not have done anything sadder.
This isn’t supposed to be a feel-good blog. This isn’t a lifestyle/mommy-blog with pictures of my kids playing with Montessori toys and looking like Baby Gap models, or staged shots of me in a bright and immaculate kitchen, calmly and happily baking muffins with my five-year-old. (Incidentally, if anyone had been there watching me try to bake muffins with my five-year-old yesterday, they probably would have considered calling Child Protective Services on me for all the yelling that was happening, and for the fact that once I finally got the muffins in the oven, I stormed off and slammed a door so hard I cracked the door jamb.) This is me trying to figure it all out, to learn to sit with myself and with my truths and be ok, and to make space in my life for writing. That’s all. It doesn’t sound like much when I spell it out like that, but it has to be enough for now. It’s all I’ve got.
Maybe it’s too honest. Maybe it’s too much. And maybe that’s just who I am right now: too honest and too much. I haven’t posted, or written at all, because I don’t think I have anything to say that will reflect well on where I’m trying to go. I worry (pointlessly) about what will happen if I try to submit a freelance piece somewhere and the editors read my blog and realize I’m an amateur or a self-indulgent weirdo. So I write nothing. And it eats at me, and I get so angry, and I just resign myself to a certainty that I’ll never have a life where I can sit and write and the words will come and the kids will eat and the husband will be happy and it will be warm outside.
Milo was trying to draw a picture of Iron Man the other day. And he was frustrated that it didn’t look like the “real” Iron Man. He cried huge tears, and threw his markers down on the table, and threw his hands up in the air and was just so angry that it didn’t look like how he wanted it to look. (I have no idea where he gets this.) “I know how Iron Man looks!” he insisted. “Why can’t I draw it?” Wailing and more tears.
I picked up the markers and scooped him onto my lap and we looked at the drawing together, and I thought of that Ira Glass quote that I need to get tattooed to the inside of my eyelids.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
Now, Milo is a sharp one, but Ira Glass is probably still a bit beyond him. So I told him, “Its SO good that you know how you want it to look. If you have that idea in your head, then you have something to work towards. Its not going to be perfect: definitely not the first time. And it won’t be what you want the second, third, or probably tenth time. But you will be getting closer, even though you’ll still be feeling frustrated. And it’s going to feel SO good when you get it the way you want it. And I’m SO proud of you for trying, even though it feels so hard.”
The best we can hope for is for the wound to become its own salve. Writing through the bad writing. Longing, crazily, to keep these little boys little forever. Aching for what comes next. Mourning my old body. Marveling at my strength. Stuck here, in January, with everything I need. Thanks for sticking here with me.
drinking my coffee in the one square of sunlight in my house.