Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.


Oct 21 2009

The Ledger

“Come with me,” she said, a command that once upon a time would elicit a groan. She led me into the room that is part-laundry room, part-office. I watched her open the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. She pulled out two ledgers.

“This one has all my medical expenses.” She opened the pages to show me the rows of entries, evenly notated in handwriting I recognized from grocery lists and birthday cards and notes she wrote to school excusing my absence. That’s something you never forget: the protective lines and loops of your mother’s handwriting.

She pointed to the pages in the front. “These are things I paid for, every day things like prescriptions and lab tests.” She flipped to the pages at the back of the notebook. “These are the big medical costs – covered by insurance.” Her familiar index finger tracked down the first column, running over all the words. Oncologist. Chemotherapy. Blood transfusion. Everything detailed. Everything organized.

She opened up the second ledger. Like the first, its columns were neatly labeled and ordered; each page separated by a pile of loose receipts retained for her records. “This book has all my expenses for the year, for my taxes.”

That’s my mother, always organized, preparing to die the same pragmatic and efficient way she’s always lived.

She desperately needed help going through the upstairs backroom, she said, so we obliged, her three grown children following her up the stairs with an eagerness un-witnessed during our childhood. Backroom, in our family, is a euphemism for junk room. The downstairs backroom is a history project, filled with our parents’ past; their love letters, college papers, every issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, neatly boxed, saved since 1958 or thereabouts.
upstairsThe upstairs backroom, once my brother’s room (with football-patterned wall paper) and then mine (painted white but with bright yellow and neon green shag carpet), now a third guest bedroom rarely used not only because it is the less grand of all the bedrooms, but because the bed was completely covered with bags and baubles brought home from meetings and conventions, or those awkward gifts received from well-meaning friends with taste so strikingly different that their generosity, though appreciated, is never fully utilized. At the foot of the bed, a row of boxes of belongings earmarked for a future yard sale. All the framed awards she received during her admirable career – too numerous to fit on the walls – piled on the shelves and on the floor, stacked against the wall. In the dresser drawers, things too precious to part with, ivory kid gloves from a governor’s ball, a silk purse her mother bought in Hong Kong, old black and white photographs, our baby teeth hidden in tiny envelopes, dated in my father’s handwriting.

It’s always the hardest room to clean, the one packed with things of only sentimental value.

The doctors never thought she’d live this long. Last winter, when the diagnosis of pre-leukemic myelodysplasia first pounded its gavel, they ordered a palliative treatment, a mild chemo easily administered five consecutive days in a monthly cycle, a treatment as inconvenient as having your period. In addition, frequent blood transfusions to introduce new cells to replace her tired, incompetent ones. Lots of doctor’s visits and the requisite poking and probing, but all of it relatively close to home and all of her loyal friends have rallied to help, taking turns driving her to all her appointments, checking in on her between medical visits. Though she is still more than capable to drive herself, good company is never a bad idea.

She has a quality of life that is absolutely acceptable. Of course she has slowed her crazy itinerary of activities and travel. But she still does a lot: a dizzying dance-card of lunches and dinner dates with friends, an occasional board meeting, her own shopping and errands. She lives more wisely now, doing only what she wants and using her lack of white blood cells as a good excuse to cut out anything extraneous. After each monthly transfusion, she gets a boost of energy and feels good. But her marrow won’t manufacture the good blood cells she needs, so she’s vulnerable to infection. She avoids crowds and coughing strangers. She won’t die of leukemia; she’ll die because of what the leukemia won’t let her fight.

There is, in fact, a growth in her lung. Is it a tumor? An infection? A fungal growth? The doctors aren’t sure. But the risk of an invasive procedure to determine its nature is deemed too dangerous. Even if they knew what it was, they wouldn’t treat it. A surgery brings too much risk for infection. A stronger chemotherapy also exists, but the doctor opts not to administer it because it requires a portacath, which can too easily become infected. The thought of such medical paraphernalia gives me flashbacks to when Short-pants was in the hospital and her stay was lengthened because the permanent drip became infected, leading to a sepsis that set her recovery back at least a month – and who knows how close she came to not recovering as a result of that secondary infection, an infection my mother would not be able to overcome.
autumn_trees
But she looks so beautiful, my mother. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiles. She laughs. She doesn’t look or act sick. She is living in a state of grace, I think.

Her doctor’s priority is not to cure her – since that is impossible – but to slow the disease so that she might have a quality of life while preparing for its end. For over a month now she’s been off the chemo treatment, and she’s no worse when she was on it. The doctors are baffled to see her doing so well. My mother’s constitution, in the end, is remarkable.

I asked her if she was scared. “No,” she said, “Dying is a part of life. Nobody can live forever.” This is indisputable; it can happen to any of us, any day – a fluke car crash or the diagnosis we dread – just like that. But once the sentence is offered, the disease is certain and incurable, I can only imagine what it’s like to stand on the threshold of the uncertain mystery ahead.

She shakes her head, not with resignation but with gratitude, and lists her fond memories: a happy childhood in Havana, enjoying college, all the good years with my father before he died. My siblings and I have managed not to disappoint her. She had a serious career when many women couldn’t, and even in retirement, continues to make an impact in her field. She’s traveled all over the globe. She adores her grandchildren, and this is reciprocated.

There’s no place on her ledger for remorse. She’s just counting up all the good things, year-by-year. Except that now she notices them day-to-day. You can’t imagine how much I am in awe of her, my mother, still modeling for me how to live – right up to the end.


Jun 21 2009

Good Fathering

The thing that I probably never make clear – but I ought to – is that De-facto is an exceptionally talented father. Sure, it’s much more entertaining (at least to me) to paint him as ever-so-slightly out of touch. But I have to come clean: that’s not how it is.

He’s never been that kind of father who, as a gesture merely to indulge me, takes the kids out for an hour on a Saturday, returning home only to wash his hands of any further childcare responsibility for the day. I have friends with marriage licenses who endure this from their partners. My guy may be a de facto husband, but he’s the real deal when it comes to being a full time parent.

In the beginning, he’d get up and change the diaper before handing the baby off to me for the middle-of-the-night feeding. He’d stay awake and return same baby to her bassinet when she was full, so I could swiftly fall back to sleep. During the pull-your-hair-out toddler stage, he’d sweep them up and disappear for a few hours, so I could read a chapter of a good book, take a nap, organize a closet or something – anything – without being interrupted. Not just once in a while, he’d do this for me every day. We’d go to dinner parties and he’d take the lead doing that silly thing that we parents do, hunched over behind an 18-month old, holding tiny up-stretched hands attached to a waddling short little body stumbling into a new world. And when I’m gone on a trip, I know the girls will be fed, bathed and dressed (okay, maybe not well dressed, but they’ll be clothed) and on time for school.

When it comes to parenting in our home, it’s a shared experience. He may do a bit more of the horsing-around stuff while I’m the one filling out the medical forms and school paperwork, but I don’t have to turn around to find him. He’s standing right beside me.

These days, this is not so rare. Many fathers are more than capable of being perfectly at ease with their kids or even comfortably in charge of childcare. And we keep hearing how the economic bust has upped the enrollment in the stay-at-home-dads club. Yet it’s not uncommon for an on-duty father to be asked if he’s “babysitting for the day.” A New York Times blog about parenting (it’s called Motherlode, so right there you see part of the problem) suggests one reason why men are still getting strange reactions when they act as primary or equal-time caregiver:

Our lexicon for describing what fathers actually do is limited at best: “mothering” is the standard description of what we need when we want to be comforted; “fathering” is a word, just not one I’ve ever heard anyone actually use.

Well, it is a word I can use: Fathering is what De-facto does when he’s teaching his daughters how to throw. Or how he looks forward to walking them to school so he can ask them about what’s happening in their lives. Or how he invites them to cook dinner with him, teaching them how to chop
following_papavegetables and spin a pizza crust. Fathering is how he steals into their room to cut their toenails while they’re asleep. It’s how he says, “that’s not the same answer I got, why don’t we both try again?” when a math equation doesn’t add up. It’s making a big, fun project out of planting the garden or teaching them how to swim. It’s cranking up the volume when his favorite Springsteen song comes on, summoning the whole family to the living room to dance and then explaining what the lyrics mean. Fathering is hearty, exaggerated laughter because his two silly girls have purposely put their pajamas on backwards. It’s putting the yellow stuff on their impetigo scabs. It’s insisting that they brush their teeth. It’s reading Encyclopedia Brown at bedtime and solving the mystery together. It’s respecting both of those little girls as unique and creative individuals, and letting them know it, so they grow up knowing how it feels to be respected by a man. It’s smiling whenever he thinks about his daughters, and thinking about them a lot. Which might explain his persistent smile.

That’s what fathering is. It’s what De-facto does every day, naturally, without ever being asked. And since it’s Father’s Day I thought maybe it might be a good idea just to let him know that I’ve noticed.