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.”

Mar 29 2010

End Pieces

Just as quickly as Buddy-roo’s black-eye ballooned into a swollen mess, it began to heal. For a few days, she looked like she’d rather fight than switch, but now there is only a faint bluish-yellow bruise that is about to vanish. Kids heal fast. At first she didn’t like all the fuss, but it soon became a badge of honor. She strutted around the school courtyard, and nobody messed with her.

De-facto pointed out a small discrepancy in my account of the accident: I wrote that buddy-roo “grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion.” This implies that the ground was stationary. He reminds me that the floor of the moving walkway is always moving in sync with the railing. So my reasoning (she stopped and the railing didn’t) can’t be the why she fell.

Listen, I’m a writer not an engineer. I saw her go down and it wasn’t pretty.

Short-pants and I passed that fateful ramp this afternoon when we made our way to the Conservatory. Long before we got to the ramp, she announced, “Mama, when we get to that dangerous part on the walkway, you shouldn’t run down it. I’ve decided from now on, we should always walk on it.”

Speaking of good decisions, you can imagine I was dying to hear what happened when Short-pants declined the invitation to join the Group.

“Well, I was nice about it,” she said. “I told them no, thank you.”

Apparently her answer was met with some resistance, but they were unable to persuade her to change her mind. I probed for more information, hoping to get a little more detail about who were these friends and what was their collective purpose. “It’s called the G-group,” she said, “for girls only. And anyway, I don’t want to be part of a group that doesn’t have boys in it. It’s not interesting enough.”

One of my good gal-friends, a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and award winning truffle-maker to boot), stopped by the apartment last week to say hello and was shocked to see the laundry rack in our living room, laden with clothes hung out to air dry.

She admitted that when she read about our broken dryer and how we weren’t going to replace it for environmental reasons, she thought, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” I’m happy to report, in case there are any other doubting readers out there, that yes, we continue to dry most of our clothes on the drying rack.

It should be noted, however, that just a month after the dryer broke, our washing machine died as well. (Oddly, we’ve had to replace every single major electrical appliance in our home in the last year.) We opted to purchase combo washer-dryer; that is to say it’s one machine in which you can wash the clothes, and then you change the dial and it dries them. So we do have a dryer now. Though use of this drying function has been designated for towels and jeans, only. Everything else goes on the rack. We’re trying, at least a little, to change our carbon footprint.

The weeks seems fuller than ever before. The constant motion of getting everybody everywhere with everything they need, while juggling a self-regenerating to do list leaves no time to rest, little time to grieve, just barely enough time to notice that spring has arrived here in Paris.

But it has, and that’s worth an Alleluia.

Mar 23 2010

The Shiner

We walked down the stairs to the metro platform, boarding the train while eating a gouter of peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches. Two stops later, at Chatelet, we exited the train to make our way through the tunnels to the neighboring station of Les Halles and the entrance to the Conservatory. It’s not pleasant to be underground for so long, but it’s the most direct route and it avoids waiting at crosswalks and inclement weather.

Between the two stations there are two long tunnels, both with a moving walkway to assist commuters with what feels like an endless walk. The usual rules apply; stand to the right, walk to the left. The second walkway has a rather steep ramp just at the beginning, inspiring a game that has made the tunnel journeys a bit less boring. Singing a long steady note, we hold hands and jog down the ramp, making a funny noise that gives us a good giggle. It’s kind of silly, but we invent these things to distract our children – and ourselves – from the drudgery of such a commute.

This week De-facto has business out of town, so yesterday I had both girls in tow when I took Short-pants to her music theory class. Remarkably, both of them got out of school on time and at the same time, so our journey from the school to the conservatory was made, for a change, at a reasonable pace, contrasted with the usual press required to get there by 5:00.

As we approached the ramped moving walkway, Buddy-roo let go my hand and charged ahead. There were very few people on it, so I let her go. She ran down the ramp, gleefully singing. Short-pants and I followed, in harmony. Buddy-roo was speeding right along when I realized she might need help stopping. Usually I’d be holding her hand, but because she’d rushed ahead, I wasn’t there to steady her.

She grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion. Buddy-roo’s feet tried to stop, but her hand kept going, dragging her body with it and whipping her face against the metal siding. By the time she actually fell, I was there. But it was too late. Within seconds, the side of her face, just under her eye, was swelling. A black eye had been born.

Shrieking isn’t enough of a word to describe the noise coming from her. I pulled her over to the standing lane of the walkway, held her and let her wail – what else is there to do – and watched the small red bump under her eye protrude from her cheek and spread left and right. Short-pants made a college try at consoling Buddy-roo, except the things she was saying, like, “it’s getting very red,” or “your eye is hardly open now,” served only to upset Buddy-roo further, prompting me to ask Short-pants, as nicely as I could under the circumstances, if she could just be quiet, which I managed to do a bit too firmly, it seems, so that she, too, erupted into tears.

At the end of the walkway, I steered both girls off to the side of the corridor so we could calm down and have a better look at things. This is when Buddy-roo, by now in hysterical tears, managed to gasp, “and I’m still sad about Grammy.” Buddy-roo tends toward the dramatic, and lately, any time she gets hurt or reprimanded, she falls into tears and often invokes my mother’s death as a reason. De-facto says that sometimes when you get sad it makes you think of other sad things. That is true. Sotto voce: I’m just not sure if it’s always true for Buddy-roo.

What I told her: I miss Grammy, too. What I was thinking: If my mother could see me now, squatting like an idiot in the metro tunnel, with two bawling children and now I’m crying too and I feel lost and at a loss about what to do next. (This is a perfect occasion for missing your mother, whether she’s alive or not).

And then, it hit me: Get thee to a bar. That eye needs ice. Now.

I dragged my two crying children through the metro – you can’t imagine how many turnstiles and corridors and flapping doors and escalators there were before we could find sunlight – with people staring at us, all three of us in tears, one of us with a puffy eye. “No, I didn’t hit her,” I found myself muttering under my breath, wishing I could just undo that one tiny second. If only I hadn’t let her run down that ramp. Why do I always get it wrong? I end up scolding them when I should let them play, and here I was playing when I should have been prudent. It’s like I’ve been away so much the last few months, I’ve forgotten how to mother.

I managed to deliver Short-pants to the conservatory and then Buddy-roo and I limped over to a nearby café. The barman recognized me (this is why it’s good to have a local café in every arrondissement) and did his best to restrain his reaction to the swollen eye. We lay Buddy-roo down on one of the banquettes with a towel of ice against her face. I took a deep breath.

This morning the eye was swollen and purple. Buddy-roo slammed the toilet seat down and climbed up on it to examine herself in the mirror. The tears were unavoidable. It made me remember the day I got braces, the same day as the 7th grade dance, and how I stared at my reflection, horrified by my metallic smile. Nothing anyone could say made me feel better.

So I didn’t say a thing. I gave Buddy-roo the biggest hug I could and rocked her back and forth. Which is what my mother probably did for me, that day I got those ugly braces, knowing words offered no consolation. Which is what most mothers know to do, which is why when they’re not around to soothe us with that knowing, silent hug (which is all we really need anyway) we miss them that much more.