Aug 14 2013

Getting Down

All of Paris was spread out before us, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant put her in perfect view. We were halfway up the Eiffel Tower, at the Jules Verne, noted for its view as much as its gastronomic cuisine. It’s not an every-day kind of restaurant. It’s a having-a-special-experience-in-Paris destination, the kind of place you go with a friend who’s visiting from out of town, or to take your nearly young-adult children for a memorable experience in Paris – or both.

My college roommate came to spend a few days in Paris, with her daughter who is the same age as Short-pants. I remember being pregnant together; I visited her at her summer home in the south of France just a month before Short-pants’ due-date. We posed for pictures, belly-to-belly, showing the girth of our pregnant bodies, smiling at the fact that our children would be born about a month apart, imagining how they might be playmates over the years. I didn’t envision us having lunch at the Jules Verne, but here salmon_entreewe were, her daughter seated between Short-pants and Buddy-roo, the three of them looking beyond us, out the window, at the breath-taking view.

De-facto had ordered a main dish and no starter, guessing correctly that the girls would only pick at their appetizers and he could finish their plates. The gastronomic menu was a bit on the sophisticated side for their palates, though Short-pants devoured her côte de cochon (pork-shops) and whipped potatoes, and Buddy-roo relished her râble de lapin (rabbit) once I cut it into bite-size pieces for her.

We were waiting for dessert, wild strawberries with coconut shortbread and mascarpone sorbet, when my friend pointed out an annoying repetitive noise, like a microwave beeping or an oven alarm. I called the maitre’d over to ask what it was.

“It’s Al Qaeda,” he said, a joke that I didn’t find humorous. When I did not laugh, he brushed it off: just a security alarm but nothing to be concerned about. I asked if it could do something to turn it off. Now that my friend had brought it to my attention, I found it a painful accompaniment to our expensive meal. “We are working on it,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, our bottle of Mersault finished but still no dessert, the maitre’d returned to our table.

“I apologize for the joke I made earlier,” he said, this time without his sneer. “There has been a bomb threat. The entire tower is being evacuated. You have to leave, now.”

“But we haven’t had dessert yet,” I said, the way you say something stupid when you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

“You haven’t had the bill, either.”

He pointed us to the exit, and we passed other tables of empty chairs with plates of food half-eaten. Some people waited for the restaurant’s elevator, but we were ushered beyond them, to a stairway that leads to the second-level public observation deck.
on_our_way_down
“There is a larger elevator there,” one of the restaurant employees said. “Take that one, it is better not to wait.” I had a vague memory of the lift; years ago with other friends we’d eaten here and left the restaurant via the observation deck, lingering after our meal and enjoying the view. It was one of those room-sized elevators that could fit 25 or 30 people.

We walked down a flight of stairs to the public level. At the bottom we found a huge elevator, its doors stretched open while the kitchen staff, uniformed in black and white, filed into it from another stairway behind ours. They did not fill up the entire lift, so I made a gesture to collect De-facto and the girls and my friend and her daughter and pull them into the elevator as it was shutting. Every one of the restaurant staffers shook their head no and waved us away, and the doors closed, locking us out.

Cursing at the closing service elevator wouldn’t have been very assuring to the young girls, so I swore under my breath. Perhaps there was some rule, I told myself, about employees-only spaces. But do such rules apply now? Would you turn children away from an elevator that’s only two-thirds full during an emergency evacuation?

There were no throngs of people pushing or running, but the gates on the concessions and souvenir kiosks were shut and locked, the security alarm was louder than in the restaurant. It was eerie. We hunted around until we found the public elevator, a crowd waiting in front of the doors. Counting the people, I calculated that we wouldn’t fit into the next elevator, we might make the one after that; but we’d probably have to push into the crowd to hold our place. The vibe felt weird. I didn’t want to be there.

“Why did we have to leave the restaurant?” Buddy-roo whined. I told her the police wanted everyone to leave the tower so they could check it to make sure something bad wouldn’t happen. I didn’t say the word bomb. I didn’t want to alarm the kids and I didn’t want the tourists within earshot to panic. Though given the closed embassies and other security alerts this year, most people could probably guess the reason for our evacuation.
eiffel_towers
I looked at De-facto and then at my friend, “You up for going down the stairs?”

Later I checked online: there are 55 flights of stairs, roughly 700 steps, from the second level where the Jules Verne restaurant is located, to the ground. We walked them all, circling down the long staircase within the east platform of the iron tower. There was steady flow of foot traffic, an occasional bottleneck but mostly fluid. It helped to move; it felt like we were doing something, getting somewhere – getting down.

“But we didn’t have dessert.” Buddy-roo said. The girls had been asking for Slushies on their way to the restaurant, a request that was dismissed given the refined dessert that would top off our elegant lunch. Now Slushies would be dessert, offered as a reward for walking all the way down from the middle of the Eiffel Tower.

A part of me believed that this was just a scare. Another part couldn’t be so cavalier. I held the girls’ hands, tightly, as we made our way down the stairs. I kept looking back at De-facto, taking him in. I’d glance at my friend, picturing her in our wilder college days. Is this where we would all finish? No, of course not, I kept telling myself. But just in case, I kept holding tight and I kept looking back.

I can’t call this a harrowing experience. It was orderly, without panic. We all knew there was a good chance that it would turn out to be nothing. We even teased De-facto about calling in the threat, just to avoid paying the check. But there was something else, something seeping in the cracks around my logical, reasonable conclusions about what was happening: tiny shards of the terror that other souls before us have known, in a plane about to go down, eiffel_tower_evacuatedor stumbling down the stairway of the World Trade Center, or being pressed into a train headed toward a work camp. An event like this reminds me of how randomly vulnerable we are and how precious it is to feel safe and secure.

At the ground level, we walked away from the tower, relieved. The rest of the day, though, I kept thinking about how often innocent people don’t get the chance to walk away because they don’t get out, can’t get down or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The evacuation of the Eiffel Tower made the news, but the story pales in comparison to reports from war-torn conflict-zones, and stories about what war and terrorism do to children. We were lucky. Ours was a happy ending, getting down safely with a free lunch, a good story to tell – a memorable experience in Paris – and a renewed awareness of the things we should never take for granted.


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.


Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.


Feb 5 2012

A Mid Crisis

I’m typing away at my computer. It’s 3:45 in the afternoon and I’ve just hit my stride. The fits-and-starts of my own creative process now oiled and operating, I’m thinking crisply and spitting out maximum-words-per-minute. It feels like I could cruise in this productive lane for hours, but for the hands of the clock, sweeping in on the witching hour. De-facto, best co-parent known to womankind, volunteers to fetch the kids at school. I’m grateful for an extra thirty minutes to profit from my momentum, falling back into my flow as soon has he’s out the door.

Until I hear their cherubic voices in the stairwell. It should fill me with anticipation – if I were a good mom – but instead I feel dread. Here comes the hell storm of the evening grind. The door bursts open with the blast of post-school fatigue. Both girls, in high volume screams, run to me crying, each with her unique sob story. I have one too, but I know I’m supposed to swallow mine.

I wait without comment until the home-from-school-crisis fades, the screeching ceases and the tears dry. We agree to homework before dinner, which is when we discover that Buddy-roo’s new water bottle has leaked all over her cartable. Her schoolbooks are more than damp, her pencil case drenched, after sitting in the bottom of the bag with ¼-inch of water. I know I should be coolly pulling things out and laying them on a towel, but now I’m ticked off. It’s just another damn thing to do, another project for the evening that isn’t fun, restful or even interesting. It’s probably only fifteen minutes to lay out all her notebooks to air and blow-dry the interior of the bag, but there are a half-dozen other unexpected tasks just like this that result from being a mom to 8 and 10 year old girls, creatures old enough to be independent, but not at all autonomous.

I slam each of the books on the floor, not cursing with words but cursing with gestures. Short-pants slips around me and upstairs to avoid my mood. Buddy-roo has no choice but to witness it; she knows she can’t abandon me to dry out her schoolbag on my own. I turn toward the backsplash and breathe deeply, pursing my lips so I don’t utter a word that will be irretractable. I reach for a water glass to give purpose to this moment’s removal from the chaos of their presence in my life, and these few seconds taken to fill the glass and quench my angry thirst and calm me down so that I can be civil toward my offspring. I grab two towels, hand one to Buddy-roo, and we dry off the books as best we can, spreading them out, open to the air. We lay all the pens, erasers and other paraphernalia of her pencil case on another towel to dry overnight.

“Don’t be mad, mama,” she says, “I didn’t know the water bottle would leak all over.”

I’m not mad about the water bottle. I’m mad about the train wreck of my life every day after 4:30, and how I can’t manage my time better so that I’m poised and ready for them after school. Mad that I don’t have what it takes to be more compartmentalized, more together, more agile about the juggling act that is my life. I’m mad about the Sisyphean list of child-oriented household tasks, the laundry, the hang-up-your-clothes and wash-your-hands and do-your-homework-for-your-humorless-French-teacher and did-you-practice-your-viola grind, the acquisition of school supplies that have run out, the purchase of birthday presents for upcoming parties and the orchestrating of who-goes-where-and-how whenever De-facto and I are both out of town on the same days, the day-in-day-out-to-do-list that by the time they are in jammies and stories read and lights out, leaves me ready only to collapse into bed, falling asleep before even one page of my book is turned, wrung out from the last four hours of the day.

“I won’t be mad anymore,” I answer, assuring her with a gentler voice and my open arms, inviting her to an embrace. “Now we know not to use that water bottle in your school bag.”

She wraps her arms around me and squeezes. Is it a hug of appreciation, or relief? I really wish I hadn’t lost my temper; this gives me no leg to stand on when they start screeching. But what to do when everything you’re supposed to do, being on time, being conscientious, cheerful, responsible, reliable and all such hobgoblin behavior, is heavy on your shoulders when all you want to do is escape and run away, as far away as you can?

There is, for some, a point in a marriage where he buys a red sports car and has an affair, or she joins a book club or takes a pole-dancing class and has an affair. It’s the midway, midlife doldrums, when the grind of the day-to-day bears down one day too long, too hard, too much. The routine that was once cozily reassuring becomes relentlessly tiresome, compelling us to rebel and misbehave.

Is there such a point in parenting? A mid-parenting crisis? If there were, wouldn’t it settle in about now, halfway through their childhood, at age eight or ten with as many years left to go before the promise of an empty nest? The sleep-deprived diaper-changing infant and toddler years behind, you’d think it should be easier now. Supervision is still required, but at a diminished level from those formative years, which are as full-on as it gets but somehow that baby smell, the sweet odor emitted by newborns and small children, acts like a drug, seducing you to think that it’s really okay that your life has been turned totally upside down. The scent has worn off by now (replaced by the smell of lice shampoo) but the work is far from over. Even if you’re the best kind of limit-setting French-styled parent, it’s still a lot of work to keep up with your mid-childhood aged kids, no matter how well behaved they are.

I’ve had contact, very recently, with two of my college friends who have children in the midst of their junior-year-abroad. While remote mothering is still necessary, the relationships have shifted. They’re already speaking with pride about their nearly-adult children. I suspect, eventually, you turn some corner and you get to stand back and observe the success of your offspring, and relish the result of nearly two decades of parenting labor. Like you get to retire from intensive parenting and become a parent emeritus.

I’m in between the nascent parent and the at-the-finish-line parent. Halfway through the job of raising little souls, a balancing act between honoring their nature and enriching them by nurture, even though their nature’s starting to wear on me, the day-in-day out of dragging them out of bed and getting them out the door with the right coat on and their teeth brushed, and acting as PA with an entirely different schedule of pick-up-and-take-there every day of the week, all of this exacerbated by my attempts to continue to nourish myself and my own career. And I have an equal partner in parenting. I can’t even imagine the daily existence for parents with spouses who can’t or won’t help as much, or most of all, for the single-parents, moms or dads, who do it all without a sympathetic cohort.

It’s about now that I reach back and try to grab hold of the faded drama of our bleak hospital days, when Short-pants was in the ICU and we didn’t know if she’d reach her fourth birthday. I made no shortage of bargaining promises to any and all omniscient gods and higher powers who’d hear us, pleading against an unimaginable outcome that would remove her from our family and our lives. It feels petty to rail about being at the end of my rope in a mid-parenting crisis in light of that experience, a true and bonafide crisis. I know my current problems are little and luxurious. My children are healthy, creatively-tempered yet obedient-in-the-right-doses. They give abundant love, and all those gifts, expected and unexpected, that children deliver to their parents. I’m told, again and again, that it all goes by so fast and I should cherish these days, because soon I’ll long for them. But I know the days I’m longing for now, and they aren’t these.

A good friend likes to remind me that my children will be a comfort to me in my old age. But right now, I’m middle-aged and only midway through their childhood. It’s still my job to comfort them. I know this is a sob-story, my tiny mid-parenting crisis, but swallowing it hasn’t made it go away, and the idea taking up pole-dancing seems more appealing every day.


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.