Nov 23 2014

The Anniversary

Because De-facto and I have never tied the knot, officially, we’re always at a loss about celebrating an anniversary. We met at a week-long creativity workshop – the one person we knew in common there was his mother – that for many years started on the third Sunday in June and ran through the following Friday. Both De-facto and I had come in the day before, and it was on that Saturday night, the eve of the conference, when he first saw me dancing at the pub and I first saw him walking behind me on the breezeway, his grin all innocent and mischievous at once. We turned toward each other and stayed that way, chatting on the campus lawn and late into the night in a dormitory stairwell. We spent a good part of that week together, and on the night after the conference ended, we even went out to dinner at a nearbycouple_hugging restaurant. I suppose you could call that our first date. We could google the calendar for June of 1996 and figure out the exact dates: that Saturday before CPSI or the Friday on the other end. But we could also identify the date, two days after the workshop, when I flew to Boston to see him instead of flying home to Paris, or the date he flew to visit me in France, two months later.

If we were mawkish we might celebrate all those firsts, and even the firsts I haven’t mentioned here. But we don’t. We end up giving each other a subtle head nod every June. It’s approximate: it might be on the third weekend of the month, or thereabouts, one of us will remember and send a card or leave a Post-it on the bathroom mirror to remind the other that it was X years ago this whole party started.

Part of me misses having a distinct anniversary to celebrate – an etched-in-stone beginning of our committed relationship that merits romantic notes, flowers and gifts, dinners out. A pair of friends just celebrated a silver anniversary, and we know other couples creeping toward such a milestone celebration. We’re still taking it one year at a time.

There is a date, though, a day on the calendar that we rarely forget. I remember it mostly as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes I also take a deep breath on November 21st, the date of that Sunday ten (really, already?) years ago, in 2004. It’s a day I celebrate now because we survived it, all of us.

Standing at the kitchen island of my girlfriend’s New York apartment, each phone call delivering news that was harder to hear than the last. Short-pants had passed out. Our nanny had called the ambulance. The EMT guessed it was something neurological. Our neighbors who’d crossed the street to help started using words like convulsion and coma. The party that had prompted us to leave the kids in Paris to come to New York, just for the weekend to celebrate his mother’s 75th birthday, now soured by the news that her granddaughter had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, a surgery that took place while we hurriedly packed our bags and sped to the airport to catch a flight home to Paris. Just before boarding, we got a phone heart_in_hospitalcall from the surgeon. Short-pants had made it through the operation but it was a long night ahead. Come straight to the hospital after you land, he said.

We did. When they let us in to see her she was a narrow bump in a big bed, with tubes and wires attached and a gauze skull cap. The next days a blur of doctors and nurses and beeping machines and hours spent at her bedside in the ICU. The cancer they’d feared in our first meeting turned out to be a brain abscess – not nearly as ferocious a predator but perhaps more mysterious. Six weeks in the ICU and countless tests, scans and procedures until finally a second brain surgery was necessary to remove it. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s passed, our days split between being at her side in the hospital and being at home with Buddy-roo, who was too young to have any clue of how important she was in this whole ordeal, standing with her sweet little arms up in the air every time we returned from a grueling day at the ICU, wiped out and beaten down. Her smile and kicky-legs a constant reminder to keep hoping, keep loving, keep trying to keep it together. She needed us too.

Just after New Years, Short-pants was sent home, the cause of her mystery illness never determined but the ugly thing removed from her head and a plan for rehabilitation underway. The next weeks, months and year presented their own challenges, but she survived. Her mental capacity intact, she learned to walk again, to master motor skills she’d lost, to be a healthy little girl. She survived, and then some.

Ten years cascade by and the mother-in-love just celebrated another milestone birthday. Short-pants does all the things a 13-year old adolescent is supposed to do. Her sister adores and resents her, they’re just like normal siblings. Thanksgiving approaches and conjures up the memory of those cool fall-turning-winter nights when I’d walk home from the metro after a daylong vigil at the hospital, desperate for some news to turn things around, each day disappointed until the very end, when by some miracle, her miracle, she recovered. And little by little – it took time – we all recovered from it, from the shock, the strain, the exhaustion of the whole ordeal.
Viva
It left its mark on all of us. Short-pants with her tiara-like scar across the top of her head, Buddy-roo who doesn’t always understand why her sister is different, even though what makes her different is something you can’t explain to the kids in the schoolyard who can’t comprehend the kind of wisdom that accompanies the experience of being resuscitated in an emergency room. De-facto and I, acutely aware of how precious life can be, still awed by the simultaneous fragility and absolute resilience of a 3-year old child who reminded us to live and love while we can.

The drama of those days is long behind us. There are no more follow-up appointments, no need for another MRI, no more fears that it will grow back. There is nothing that will inhibit Short-pants from leading a full, healthy and active life. What remains is the memory of how brave she was, how stoic and poised she remained over such an arduous hospital stay. What remains is the gratitude we felt, to our unwavering family and friends who supported us during those painful days. What remains is a day on a calendar page and the recollection of a brutal Sunday afternoon I would never want to repeat. It’s a story with a happy ending we get to witness every day: our healthy, hopeful Short-pants growing into a remarkable young woman. And still, every year – except for the one year I forgot – on this late November Sunday, we mark an awkward anniversary. Maybe not your typical anniversary, the most poignant one we’ve got.


Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.


Mar 16 2012

Memory Tricks

“Wiseacre,” said Short-pants, “W-I-S-E-A-C-R-E. Wiseacre.”

She’d gotten it wrong the first time she tried to spell it, not surprisingly, as it’s a word she’d never heard before. But now that we’re on our third tour through her study list, she can pronounce each letter confidently. Most of the words she missed on that first go were instantly corrected the second time I asked her to spell them. Occasionally I’d offer a mnemonic device to help, like finesse has two s’s like the feminine form in French, because women finesse things better than men. But mostly she just remembers, once she’s learned how to spell the word correctly. Her mind, at age 10, is a sponge.

Both girls signed up for this year’s English spelling competition. I was surprised at Buddy-roo’s interest, and not surprised when her enthusiasm waned. She struggled with the words that her sister memorized effortlessly, partially because she’s two years younger, but mostly because when confronted with the work to prepare for it, the spelling bee lost its appeal. But since we want to help her learn about keeping commitments, we didn’t let her drop out. De-facto, especially, pushed her to learn as many words as she could, quizzing her relentlessly, despite her protests, on the walks to and from school, dangling a ½-hour of television in front of her as a reward for getting 20 correct words in a row. By the time the first round of the competition – a written test – came along, I couldn’t wait for him to stop badgering her.

Not that Buddy-roo isn’t a pro at memorizing. She can hear the words to a song once and sing them back, with sass and vibrato. At school she has to learn poems by heart and recite them in front of her class. She does this easily, and orates with aplomb. But if she doesn’t like something – and spelling is now on that list – the magic brain glue disappears. So even though she stuck it out for the first round of the spelling bee, she didn’t make the cut to continue.

When the results were published, we told Buddy-roo first. She seemed only mildly disappointed – more likely relieved – which changed to delight when we asked her if she wanted to be the one to tell her sister the good news: that Short-pants had finished in the top twenty and would compete in the final oral competition.

It was poignant: the two of them cheering and hugging until Short-pants stopped to ask Buddy-roo if she, too, would go to the next round, and then, after hearing the answer, wrapping her arms around her little sister and consoling her. It’s a moment I won’t forget.

Or will I? I don’t remember things the way I used to. I suppose the emotional impact of seeing my two daughters celebrating and consoling each other helps to embed it in my gray matter. But other things, day-to-day pieces of data like phone numbers, the amount of that check I just wrote and sealed in an envelope before registering it in my checkbook, the code for a neighbor’s door – my brain won’t hold it anymore. De-facto’s taken to sending me emails about appointments and obligations, because he’ll tell me and I honestly won’t remember. The information sifts through my brain like it’s a sieve.

“Don’t you remember I told you I was going to watch the rugby today?”

“No.” I answered him with disdain, as if to say I’m always the last one to know these things. But then I wondered if he had mentioned this rugby arrangement to me and I just didn’t remember. Or was I not listening?

It is easy to tune out and stop paying attention with so much data buzzing around. Documents and links to click through and read for professional edification, news of the US elections or the French presidential contest. Social networking, though not imperative, provides amusement and connections with far-flung friends. Two children squawking at me in stereo. All this contributes to the sense of information overload that seems to be taxing my memory.

I used to have a good mind. I thought of myself as relatively quick-witted. Maybe not as sharp as a West Wing staffer, but I could hold my own when it came to banter and part of this was an ability to summon key details and facts with some immediacy. Occasionally I still get a zinger in – it feels like, wow, that’s the old me – but mostly I’m experiencing a mental thickening. I can pretty much pinpoint the start of this deficiency in mental acuity to my pregnancies. Further decline might be attributed to the normal deterioration that takes place with aging, or perhaps one too many glasses of wine, too often.

I know that Google tracks a lot of things that I don’t even know about, but I hope they aren’t monitoring the number of times I receive an automatically generated email with the subject title: Reset your forgotten password. Between multiple email accounts, websites, dashboards, memberships, newsletters and on-line communities, I’ve got way too many passwords to remember.

One of those newsletters, A.Word.A.Day – which thankfully doesn’t require a password – dutifully drops into my inbox each day, as promised, an interesting word, like preantepenultimate (fourth from the end) or gedankenexperiment (something carried out only in the imagination). At least once a week I say to myself, I like that word, I want to use it in a post some day. Within hours it’s vanished from my memory. Maybe it was never there.

Is there anything to be done about it? More crossword puzzles? Memory games? A friend mentioned to me the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, in which author Joshua Foer recounts his experience turbo-charging his recall capacity to compete in the Memory Championships. The gist of it: memory is not related to intelligence, it’s a skill that if practiced can be enhanced. And there are tricks to help, like visualizing what you want to remember in a familiar place, or making associations with something particularly salacious in order to freeze an unforgettable image in your mind.

Short-pants isn’t the only one benefiting from the spelling practice. Her study list hosts some rather obscure words that I’d never met before: homburg, kavya, geta, Kabuki, so we’re both getting a vocabulary boost. There’s also a page of easily confused words that includes a pair I’ve always mixed up and misspelled: biannual and biennial. Well, up until now, that is. In my imagination I’ve conjured up the most unlikely people having sex with each other twice a year, and another odd couple doing it every other year. It seems like this gedankenexperiment (hey, I used it!) may work after all. I haven’t mentioned this to her, of course. The little wiseacre, with her recall intact, can come up with her own tricks.


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.


Apr 26 2010

Growing Pains

She changed into her pajamas in the living room, doing a funny kind of half-dressed jig to entertain us, happy to laugh and happy that we were laughing with her. I said something that made her run away from us – a pretend threat to pinch her, or a comment about her lack of underwear. She turned too quickly and stubbed her toe on the base of the couch. (We are at our country house, where there’s a sagging, old futon with odd parts of metal protruding from the bottom.) She shrieked and exploded into tears.

De-facto and I remained seated at the table. It’s not that we are insensitive, but early on we agreed to be the parents that wait a beat (or two) before coddling our children after they have hurt themselves, reserving our rushing-over-to-console-efforts for those boo-boos that actually merit such earnest concern. We were, perhaps, too cavalier about this when Short-pants was a little toddler. She’d tumble and we’d quickly suggest to her, “you’re okay!” Later we came to understand that she thought “you’re okay,” meant “ouch, it hurts!” After a fall, she’d jump around, in obvious pain, shouting, “I’m okay! I’m okay!”

She sat on the couch and screamed again, her face in a grimace, red with tears. “I’m always hurting myself!” she cried.

Short-pants does stumble a lot. She trips and falls more frequently that most children her age – and I know that 8-year olds can trip and fall a lot – but she is constantly nursing a hurt toe, foot or knee. She moves with short, jerky motions, especially when she is excited, which often causes her to bump into something and bang or bruise one of her appendages.

Part of this is related to a broken leg at age 4 that was, unfortunately, set incorrectly, a fracture which, though we’ll never be sure, we believe is related to her brain abscess. She had just learned to walk again after a coma and two brain surgeries and six motionless weeks in a hospital bed. She overestimated her strength while hanging on a bar in the park, fell on her leg and broke it, after which she spent eight weeks in a cast and then had to learn how to walk again. Except after the cast came off, the leg was longer and slightly turned. This would set anyone back a bit, let alone someone with a little neurological story like hers.

We were diligent about physical therapy, until one day it felt like she spent too much time going to medical appointments and that maybe the best therapy for her was to just be a playful kid. The French doctors all agreed, a bit too readily, “Her legs will even out, you’ll see, pendant la croissance.” During the growth. I could tell they were mocking my concern – I was one of those obsessive (American) mothers and if I’d just relax it would all be fine.

This is the line we walk – all mothers, not just mothers who’ve been hospital mothers – the fine line between advocating for your child and obsessing over her. I don’t want to hover and try to direct everything in her life. But to what degree is my role as parent to make sure she has the best care possible and that we’ve done everything we can to help her? It’s not that she has to have perfect legs and run like a gazelle and win every race. I just want her to be able to move comfortably and do the things she wants to do. And when she’s an old bat, I don’t want her to be in pain because her pelvis and back are all messed up because her leg was never attended to.

We’ve waited a few years, and the croissance is indeed happening, in amazing spurts, but her leg is still longer and it’s still crooked. She’s not really getting stronger or more coordinated. If anything, she’s discovering that she’s not as swift or steady as her school friends, and starting to shy away from physical activities where she knows this will be apparent. We try to encourage her, with modest success (De-facto has her playing basketball and the practice is helping) but we don’t want to nag her and make it larger issue than it already is.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time for an expert opinion, so I returned to one of the PTs who’d worked with her before. He was terrific – said all the right things to her about finding a physical activity she loves and practicing and working at it. He gave me that look that said I know you want me to fix this and I can’t, but she can, if she works at it. He gave us some exercises to do together, but of course, I haven’t been so diligent about it. I’ve not been very diligent about my pilates, either. It probably doesn’t help that her mother is much better at laying in bed and reading than running laps at the basketball court.

I looked at De-facto. “I wish I knew what to do to help her move more fluidly,” I said.

“She’s missing a little part of her brain,” he whispered back. “She’s a miracle, remember?”

I do remember those awful days when Short-pants was in a coma, when all I wanted her to do was survive. I bargained with someone above to keep her with us in any condition. A funky leg that makes her a bit uncoordinated and a left side that isn’t as strong as her right side? No problem, we’ll take it. Just give her back to us. That’s what I would have said. More or less, it’s what I did say.

Short-pants hobbled over to the table and folded herself in her father’s lap. I listened to him talking to her in his low, soft, reassuring voice. He explained it all to her, how maybe she falls and trips a lot because of the operation on her brain, and how it takes her a bit longer to learn to do physical things. He put all those big-person concepts into littler-person words so she could understand. And maybe, he said, it all had to do with the thing that was in her brain, but maybe not, we’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is she can do anything she wants to do, just sometimes she has to work longer to get her body to learn how to do it.

He always knows the right way to frame things for the girls, to tell them the truth without talking down to them or being patronizing. He’s the best explainer there is.

Short-pants rested in his arms, taking in all he said. I watched from across the table, admiring the two of them in their embrace. Then she pushed herself up, out of his lap and limped around the table to me and curled her lanky legs up in my lap.

“Don’t worry, mama,” she said, “I’m okay.”


Jan 25 2010

What You Must Do

Once triggered, a strong memory can hover. It stays close to the surface, stretching its legs after being folded into the recesses of the past, aching to be a story that’s told again. Just a week ago I wrote a few paragraphs about a gripping period in our life, five years ago, when Short-pants had a medical crisis. I don’t mean to dwell on it, but it comes to mind again this week, with good reason.

It’s a story we try to tell enough so Short-pants can own it without shame. It’s a story we try not to tell too much, so it doesn’t become the dominant story of her life. Sometimes, when I visit her room to adjust her bedcovers while she sleeps, I trace my finger along the arced scar that crowns her head. I once told her it was a permanent tiara. I’ve heard her repeat the phrase with pride. That’s the thing about a scar; it’s a story you get to tell for the rest of your life.

Short-pants’ six-week stint in the neurosurgery ward started before Thanksgiving and spanned the holiday season. I was prepared to throw in the towel on Christmas; I had no energy to shop, decorate or enact the role of Mère Noël. But friends and family pressed the spirit of Christmas upon us. They sent gifts for the girls, optimistic that Short-pants would survive, determined that Buddy-roo wouldn’t go without the full-on holiday fuss. Our neighbors surprised us with a 6-foot Christmas pine. And there were angels – so many people sent angels. We must have received five or six hanging angel ornaments for our tree.

One angel in particular was – and still is – my favorite. It was a gift from one of De-facto’s aunts, a woman who sets a classy standard for the family, a woman who has navigated the burdens of her life with tremendous grace. The ornament is made of silver. It’s heavy in your hand, and when hung by its lace loop, pulls the bow of the tree low toward the ground. There are words engraved on one of the wings:

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt

About the time this silver angel arrived, I was at a wall. It wasn’t much fun, being a hospital mom. Every day, punching the intercom buzzer to be let in to the ICU, sitting at Short-pants’ side, worrying and wondering while trying to assure her and give her hope. At the same time staying alert to the nuances of the doctor’s throw-away comments, hounding them down to find out what and why and when. I went to the hospital every day; De-facto and I took shifts, morning and afternoon, overlapping a few hours mid-day to be there with her together. By the time Christmas was near, I was completely spent.

I remember opening the box and rubbing my fingers along the wings of the angel, touching the words, as though I might be able to physically absorb them. Isn’t it perfect how the universe knows when you’re desperate and sends you exactly the message you need to hear? I will always cherish this angel. I have a little moment with her every Christmas; I have not yet succeeded to place her on the tree without weeping.

My mother had planned to spend the holiday with us that year, so she came as scheduled, bewildered at first about how to help, but then finding her way, baking Christmas cookies, doting on Buddy-roo. The hospital was very strict about “parents only” in the ICU. Whenever friends came to support us there, they were obliged to do so from the waiting room. But on Christmas day, one of the more compassionate doctors had a word with the nurses on duty, and an exception was made.

So there was my mother sitting on one side of the hospital bed, me on the other. She reached across Short-pants’ sleeping body and rested her hand on mine. I had grown accustomed to seeing my 3-year old daughter tucked tight under the blanket, emaciated, listless, with a helmet of gauze wrapping on her head. I was used to the machines and sensors and tubes. For my mother, it was startling and disturbing. “I just don’t know how you do this every day,” she said.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen my mother in tears. She’s just not a cryer. But now she sat across from me, wet-eyed, pained to see what we were enduring each day.

“Somehow, you just do it,” I told her, “you do the thing you think you cannot do.”

These days Short-pants is fully recovered from that grim experience, immersed in her vibrant life, sometimes in the clouds, but with a well functioning intellect and imagination and a healthy emotional intelligence. My mother has relished the opportunity to watch her grow into the soulful young person that she has become.

But now I’m sitting by another hospital bed, the one that’s been set up in the study of my mother’s house, the bed in which she will be spending her last days. After a valiant contest with leukemia, an opponent that she held at bay for much longer than anyone – especially her doctors – expected, she is letting go. She will take no more treatments, no more blood transfusions. She has decided to let her life run its course.

This is hard. It’s hard to say goodbye, it’s hard to see her suffer. But I know what I must do. I will sit beside her. I will hold her hand. I will squeeze it so she knows I am there. I will hold it the way she has always held mine. I will do that thing – if I must – the thing I think I cannot do.


Jan 19 2010

After Shock

When Short-pants was just a little girl, she had a big story with menacing words like convulsion, coma, and emergency surgery. A massive growth in the right frontal lobe of her brain was originally diagnosed as cancer, but post-surgery lab tests gave us a break; it was just a brain abscess. Still, there were complications: a secondary infection, meningitis and persistent vomiting as a result of the nasty cocktail of intravenous antibiotics that didn’t seem to be shrinking the abscess as predicted. The MRI made it look as if it was re-forming, like the image of a hurricane gaining speed and force on a tropical weather map. A second brain operation was required to remove the abscess for good.

All hands were on deck. De-facto’s family appeared en masse and quietly took over our home, attending to Buddy-roo, organizing our lives, making sure we ate meals of substance and nourishment. My brother the doctor was on call every night to interpret the medical-speak we encountered each day. My sister, who happened to be in Viet Nam at the time, managed to inspire the Archbishop of Hanoi to put his priests to work in prayer. An e-mail tree was established; we wrote a message every night that was sent out to a few people, who sent it to other people, who sent it to more people, until a web of friends and family had the latest news about Short-pants and put us in their prayers.

We were in crisis mode. We didn’t hesitate to ask for help, and people didn’t hesitate to offer it. Perfect strangers came to our emotional and spiritual aide. Doctors who were friends of friends reviewed her dossier and offered additional opinions. We accepted anything that was given to us, without quid pro quo worries.

As awful as it was, fathoming what life would be like if she didn’t survive, or what it would be like if she did survive but with serious complications, there was also something really simplifying about it all. De-facto and I had a crystal clear sense of purpose every day: to give emotional support to our daughter, to do the medical interface, advocate for her care and to try to hold each other – and our family – together.

A crisis can produce this kind of clarity. We do what needs to be done. We make quiches, soups and casseroles. We bring blankets, we send money. Priorities become certain, we function in highly effective ways despite the lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and moments of extreme despair.

In other words, we rally.

The nightly e-mail network we branched together pales in comparison to the force and velocity of information sharing that exists today. The brute force of the Internet is staggering: a well-loved blogger has a stroke, an entire on-line community assembles to support her family, not only with words, but with money and real-time assistance. When an amazing child whom everyone read rooted for doesn’t make it, there’s an outpouring of financial and moral support from an electronically connected community. An earthquake devastates an entire country and the world rallies to offer aide. It all makes you feel good about what human beings can do.

After Short-pants was released from the hospital and well into her rehabilitation, people started to forget about our family crisis. The urgency of our news diminished; without a daily calamity to report, our update messages went from daily to weekly to monthly to rarely. Everyone returned to their regularly scheduled life, and assumed that we had, too.

Except our life was still upside-down. We were thrilled that she was home, but schlepping out to the rehab hospital three or four times a week, juggling doctor’s visits and follow-up tests as we tried to recapture our own professional schedules was wearing us out. Being careful about keeping a steady stream of attention on Buddy-roo in the midst of all this took energy, too. This was when I was most afraid that I might break down. Not in the thick of the crisis, when everyone was cradling us, when there was clarity and singularity of purpose. It was just as hard – and I had less personal stamina – when we were “out of the woods.” The crisis was over, but our lives were still far from normal.

The awkward memory of this après-crisis phenomenon was prompted by reading one of the blogs in my sidebar, Generation Y, written by a Cuban woman who has to work miracles just to get her posts on the Internet without being censored. She writes, “It especially frightens me that three months from now the suffering will no longer be a headline in any newspaper and people will have ceased to feel the urgency of the Haitian drama.” I’ve thought about that, too. We send our money and we go on about our life. What else can we do?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The crisis in Haiti is still full-throttle, and will be for some time. Help is needed now. If you haven’t donated, here are some reputable aide organizations. (I donated here.) Or if you’re in the States, all it takes is a single text message. If you blog, here’s another creative way to raise funds. Sending $10 – the cost of two draught beers at my favorite café – will make a difference, when you consider how many millions of people are donating just that. It adds up, fast.

Just remember that the crisis may end for us when the media coverage dies down, but not for them. Whether it’s for Haiti or any other cause – the charity of your choice, or the friend across town who’s grandmother just died – it’s so important to follow up and check back in. Maybe it’s another donation, another mention, another offer to help – even just a quick hello that says you haven’t forgotten – that could mean more than we know.

Well, in fact, I know. It means everything.


Oct 17 2009

Dishwasher Dilemma

Sometimes De-facto and I work together, professionally.

I’m wary about this because living, loving, and parenting together are hard enough. Adding the vocational dimension is tricky; it could put us over the 24/7 edge. He always rolls his eyes when I say this, but I think it’s important: We each need our own time and place in the sun. And honestly, we’d drive each other crazy if our careers were absolutely inextricable.

But on those occasions when we do get to team up, we do pretty well. We pass the baton back and forth and mix things up a little with our different styles. My favorite part is when he gives his little spiel about patterned thinking. It starts out something like this:

“Humans are actually hard-wired to locate, create, and sustain patterns. It’s part of our survival. The brain is a pattern-making machine.”

He goes on to support this with a little bit of scientific research, a few diagrams of the human brain and a little exercise that people always flub up because they get too caught in a pattern they think they see but isn’t really there. It’s a good set-up for raising awareness about the assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis, in order to free them up to break patterns and try to be a bit more creative. While he’s making his case for breaking patterns, he reminds us why we have them to begin with:

“The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines – cognitive scientists call these mental models – to make us more effective and efficient.”

This is the part where I usually have to leave the room or look down at the floor so I don’t laugh out loud what I’m thinking in that moment which is, “You mean all human brains except for yours.”

Ours is a relatively egalitarian household. We share chores, more or less in equal measure. We never actually sat down and divided the jobs, they just ended up falling into the hands of the one who seemed to care the most or had the aptitude for a particular task. I deal with the administration and paperwork. He is Vice-President of renting-a-car. Most mornings I get the kids up and dressed and fed. He makes the morning walk with them to school. I load the dishwasher, and he unloads it. I manage the laundry, because I’m particular about which clothes go in the dryer and which don’t. He does the grocery shopping, because he hates to waste money and prefers to buy in bulk from the The Ed, the cheap grocery store that I find too exasperating to even enter. He enjoys negotiating the best deal for produce in at the street market. While I find open markets a romantic place to look and stroll, my experience of shopping at them is agonizing.

Not that our assignments are written in indelible ink. Sometimes I pick up groceries or walk the girls to school. Sometimes he does a piece of household admin or loads the dishwasher with dirty dishes.
dishwasher
The loading of this appliance, I’ve found, can be satisfying. I relish getting in as many dishes as possible, whilst maintaining optimum cleaning capacity. This equilibrium is essential. Too few dishes haphazardly placed on the racks, and you run an inefficient wash, wasting money and energy. Too many dishes and they don’t get really clean, you have to leave them in for a second wash or do them by hand. You have to strike the right balance.

It’s not rocket science. Plates down below, from the side to center, big dinner and then smaller luncheon plates, followed by saucers. Coffee pot and tall glasses on the tall spokes. Pots and pans or big bowls strategically placed around these mainstays. On the top rack, café-au-lait bowls tucked under the fold-down flap on the side, allowing for shallower accessory bowls and short glasses to rest on top of them. Cups, mugs and other glasses filling up the rest of the upper rack. And in all cases, load from back to front.

Listen, I’m no neatnik. Open my closets and things fall out. I have photo albums from 2003 that haven’t been assembled. My life is filled with colorful piles and partially-finished, imaginative messes; I like a certain amount of organized disarray around me. But when it comes to the dishwasher, well, I figure my strategy saves money and helps the environment. (Honestly, I’ve reconfigured one of his loads and cleared half the space, putting off a dishwasher run for 24-hours.) But when De-facto loads the dishwasher, it makes no sense whatsoever. He has a pattern, I suppose, but it’s a rather pathetic one.

Well, you may say, his job isn’t to load the dishes, it’s to unload. But wouldn’t you think that after years of unloading a dishwasher that’s so precisely arranged, he might notice some kind of a pattern? We’ve lived together for nearly ten years. He’s probably unloaded that dishwasher at least 2,000 but probably more like 3,000 times. Wouldn’t your pattern-recognition machine pick up something?


Jan 25 2009

Theory and Practice

welcome_to_your_brain
This is a book I can’t wait to delve into: Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. The two neuroscientists who authored it claim it’s a “user’s guide for brain owners.”

I haven’t read the book yet, it’s on De-facto’s side of the bed. He’s a relentless reader; even if he’s not enjoying the book he’ll slog through it until it’s done. I’m waiting for him to finish.

Last night he read a passage to me, about researching happiness. The authors explain that with most psychological research, the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

“When women were asked to list the activities that they particularly enjoyed overall, ‘spending time with my kids’ topped the list. In contrast, when other researchers asked women to describe how they felt during each of their activities the previous day, the average positive rating given to interacting with children indicated that this activity is roughly as rewarding as doing housework or answering e-mail. This finding suggests that women find their children more rewarding in theory than in practice, at least on a moment-to-moment basis.”

This is it. No matter how much you try to be the ideal, engaged parent, taking the kids to the science museum, devising creative projects with the construction paper and empty egg cartons, spontaneously suggesting fun (“hey, who wants to jump on the bed?”), the truth is that an inordinate amount of our time – most of it – is spent nudging and cajoling these small uncooperative creatures along. We’re constantly asking them to do something that they aren’t inclined to do. Please get dressed, finish your zucchini, do your homework, pick-up, wash, flush, and brush. It’s one long string of requests and commands after another. It wears you down and makes it hard to be happy about hanging out with them.

When it comes to enjoying time with your kids, you have to be proactive or else get sucked into the vortex of being a nag or a grump.

De-facto’s really smart about this. He actively seeks out activities that both he and the kids like to do. The city constructed a free ice-rink in front of the Hotel de Ville; he’s all over that. (Actually, I’m not sure if it’s because he loves to skate or because it’s free.) He gets the kids out of the house, he makes it fun for them, and he has fun himself.

I, too, try to do the things I like to do and invite my girls to appreciate the them with me. This is why one of my daughters had added “barfly” to her lengthy list of middle names. It’s also why the whole family had such a great afternoon participating my favorite winter activity: eating oysters. Check it out:

Casks at the Baron Rouge

Wine casks at the Baron Rouge

The oyster feast

The oyster feast


Buddy_roo considers trying one.

Buddy-Roo considers trying one


After oysters

After oysters