Jul 18 2016

The Joyride

I sliced peaches into a bowl of vanilla ice-cream while Buddy-roo scrolled through the options in my computer’s movie folder. It had been an ideal summer day at the country house: bike rides down the lane with Winston running joyously beside us, a little bit of yard work, trimming grapes and pulling ivy off the walls of the stone house, De-facto making progress on a construction project in the bergerie. A late afternoon trip to the lake with sailing and swimming, followed by an apéro on the back terrace, then burgers and chicken from the grill with a chilled pale rosé. As soon as the sun set – and it sets late at this time of the year – we’d planned to gather around my computer to watch a movie. Buddy-roo, our media-kid, had been begging for one all day, and was sustained through the outdoorsy activity only by the promise of a movie after sunset. It was between Guardians of the Galaxy and Malificent, in her mind. I was lobbying for The Way Way Back, when I heard De-facto shouting from outside. I ran out to see him doubled over, just down the road. He motioned to me, urgently.

“Winston’s dead.” His voice strained. “A car. He ran into the road. Wouldn’t come when I called.” His chest was heaving, his face anguished. I held his hands; they were shaking.
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“I heard the sound. When he was hit. It was awful.”

“But where is he?” I needed to see Winston, lifeless, to believe it.

That was the worst – or the weirdest – part. De-facto couldn’t find the dog. They’d been at the edge of a track road that runs into a main road behind our house, a road on which cars speed by. Winston can be cheeky, but he usually minds us when call him to head back home. This time he’d dashed into the road and stood there, his head was probably extended upwards sniffing at something in the air. De-facto heard the car coming and yelled to Winston to get out of the road. Though he didn’t see it happen – the tall field grass was in the way – De-facto heard clearly the sound of car meeting dog. He’d cried out,”Nooooo!” but we did didn’t hear him, crowded around our kitchen island contemplating movie titles, 300 meters away.

De-facto ran to the road, expecting to find the mangled body of our beloved dog. There was nothing there. No evidence of an accident. No broken plastic pieces from a car. No blood, no hair. No dog. He looked in the ditches, but no sign of Winston. That’s when he ran back to the house, when he called me to come outside.

By now the rest of the family joined us. Buddy-roo saw De-facto holding my hand, his head bowed, and noticed the absence of our dog and collapsed in the road. Short-pants and my mother-in-love hugged each other, shocked at the news.

“We’ve got to find him.” De-facto’s anguish commanded us to the task. He started barking orders, which we all accepted dutifully. He and Buddy-roo drove off in the direction that the car had been going, to see if they could find Winston or its driver. I ran down to the spot in the road where the accident occurred to search again for his body.

I couldn’t piece it together, everything went into a spin. He couldn’t be gone. I pictured Winston’s empty basket, the bed he sleeps and his food and water bowls; how we’d look at them dog_pulls_metomorrow, empty, and how we’d grieve. We haven’t had him in our lives even two years. It took half of that time for him to get to know us, to let go whatever fear he carried with him from his life prior to us bringing him home from the rescue center. For more than a year, he was even standoffish, a dog that only loved us loving him. It was until very recently that I had the feeling he had actually started to love us back.

We’d become a family with a dog. And now – way too soon – our dog was gone.

There was nothing on either shoulder of the road. I scoured the ditches for a red-haired body with its blue harness. Maybe the impact had thrown him away from the road into the thick of bushes and trees. I was about to head home and change out of my sundress and flip-flops into long pants and boots in order to search in the weeds and briars beyond the ditches, when I saw De-facto, in our car, driving toward me.

“He’s alive!” He stopped the car. “Get in!”

We rushed back to the village – at least a 1.5 km distance – where I saw Buddy-roo standing with a young couple, staring at the front of their car. De-facto pulled in beside them; I didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out. There was Winston. Neatly wedged into the front grill of the car, his paws hanging out comfortably, his head moving from side-to-side. He panted and blinked, like nothing was the matter. He did not bark. He did not whimper. He looked only slightly relieved to see us after his little joyride.

The couple in the car had already called the pompiers, and though De-facto wanted to take the bumper apart and free Winston immediately, we persuaded him to wait. There was no blood, and Winston did not appear to be in pain, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have suffered. They would have tools to extract him carefully from the grill of the car and avoid further injury.
Winston_joyride
It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but if felt like hours before the firemen arrived. They probably did exactly what De-facto wanted to do, dismantled the bumper and stretched open the grill where Winston had been squeezed in. Winston stepped out, like slipping out of a train berth, and even stood up on the sidewalk for several moments before collapsing. There was not one cut on him. No external marks or bruises. All bones appeared to be straight. No blood, anywhere.

I’m still not sure why the driver of the car didn’t pull over sooner, why he drove past several turn-offs and driveways and continued all the way to the village. Winston must have had the ride of his life, a full front bumper view of a French country road for nearly 2 km.

The pompiers helped us locate a veterinarian, who, even at 10:00 on a Saturday night, opened his office to attend to Winston. After a thorough physical examination and a series of X-rays, Winston appears to have suffered only 2 cracked ribs and some mild internal swelling. He’s on anti-inflammation medicine now. He’s moving a bit slower, as you’d expect, but he walks, and even trots a little. He still manages to be underfoot, sitting in exactly the spot you want to stand, in front of the very cupboard you need to access, or just at the base of the refrigerator at the moment you want to open it. Not only is he alive, he’s his old self.

If things come in threes, then I’ve used up two of the three miracles I’m allotted in this life. A dozen years ago we almost lost Short-pants and even the doctors called her recovery a miracle. Searching the ditches for Winston’s body, I was transported back to those brutal days when we didn’t know if Short-pants would make it or not, standing on the threshold of grief, wondering if we’d have to enter its dark room. The pain of almost losing our dog reminds me of the pain of almost losing our child, which puts me in touch with the pain of so many people this year who did lose someone they loved: in Paris, Istanbul, San Bernadino, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, just last week in Nice, and dozens of other places that don’t get enough media attention but merit our mindfulness as well. There’s so much loss in the world, it’s hard to hold on to hope.
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Short-pants felt terrible because, as she put it, she loves Winston the least in the family. It was a wake-up call to her, thinking he might be gone, to appreciate him more. Near-misses like this can be gifts, it’s true, to remind us to appreciate the present and the people – and animals – who are here for us to love right now, in this moment. We don’t know when they will be swept away from us. (Even if it’s if only for a few moments, in the grill of a stranger’s car.) Seizing the joy of the day is how we avoid regrets.

Yesterday Buddy-roo and I took Winston back to the vet for a controle to check that everything is okay. He’s been vomiting repeatedly and the vet took another X-ray to look at his internal organs. There’s some additional inflammation in his stomach and esophagus that’s causing it, and we hope the medicine will kick in soon and he’ll start eating normally again.

While he was getting his X-ray, Buddy-roo and I sat together in the waiting room, running through the events – and the rollercoaster of emotions – of the previous 24 hours. We keep going through it in our heads, again and again, what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen. We’ve all been shaking our heads, doing a dance between disbelief and relief. I’m exhausted from the rapid cycle through so many emotions in such a short span of time.

Buddy-roo reached over, took my hand and caressed it.

“Mama,” she said, her voice pitched perfectly between laughing and crying, “tonight, can we just watch a movie, rather than living it?”


Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

The little red dot on my telephone indicated a message was waiting. I’d put my phone on silence during a meeting, and the breaks were so busy that I didn’t even check. I rarely get calls, so sometimes I forget to monitor the phone. If you ever leave me a message, don’t count on me getting it right away. Email is a much swifter way to reach me.

I dialed in to the voicemail and there was Buddy-roo‘s signature greeting, “Mama?” with an upward inflection at the end, as though, despite the recorded message, she was still holding out hope I’d answer. The message that followed was in a tone that conveyed anger not panic, which relieved me. The call I dread getting when I’m far away is from a fearful child. Anger I can handle, it’s a more assertive emotion, easier to manage from a distance. But if they call me all wound up and afraid, I’m gutted.
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What followed was a litany of irate complaints. She’d been at the end-of-year party at school, always an event filled with too much excitement and too much sugar, and she and her two girlfriends had gotten in a big row. Buddy-roo had stayed overnight with one of the friends the previous night, and my guess is the other friend felt left out. The mother of the other (allegedly excluded) friend got involved, blasting the girls for being rude. Buddy-roo was indignant, protesting that they hadn’t been rude, they’d tried to include her and she’d shunned their approaches. The mother’s reprimand was apparently caustic enough to elicit the father of the other accused girl to intervene, rebuking the outspoken mother for jumping to conclusions and for scolding them with such severity. Personally, I was very glad to be out of town.

It could be that Buddy-roo and her friend were inadvertently (or even deliberately) rude to the third girl. I’d hope otherwise, but I know Buddy-roo has it in her to take the low road – she does occasionally with her sister – and I also know that she sees the world from her own vantage point (don’t we all?) which is sometimes rather distorted. But since I wasn’t there, and I was in another time zone and frankly in another frame of mind, I opted not to call back, at least not right away. In the absence of my feedback, Buddy-roo would have to sort this out on her own. It’d be interesting to see where she ended up.

As for the parents involved, they are both only acquaintances. I could venture a guess that the angry mother, who tends to be protective of her daughter, stepped over the line and the retaliating father, who in my brief experience is relatively good natured, was probably sorry to get drawn in, but something must have rattled him. These guesses of mine about shout_outas far as I want to go. I’d prefer to keep this argument in the domain of our children.

The next day Buddy-roo phoned again, this time while I was on a break. I contemplated letting her call go to the voicemail. I do want to encourage her independence, but I also want to be available to her when she needs guidance. I steeled myself and answered the call. I got an earful: one of the girls (the one whose mother was worried they’d excluded her) was now telling Buddy-roo they could only be friends if she refused to be friends with the other girl. Buddy-roo didn’t want to take sides, but if she had to choose she didn’t know what to do. Just a reminder about how awful teenage (and pre-teen) girls can be. Especially in groups of three.

Actually, I participate in a few trios of girlfriends. Two dear college pals who live in New York get on very well without me, but seem to embrace me fully when we’re all together. My fiesta circle has several trios within it, depending on who attends each year, and it seems to work without incident. I’ve tried to hold up these examples to Buddy-roo, whenever a conflict with her friends comes up. But I must acknowledge her not-yet-fully developed brain has a hard time talking in these terms. It’s still somebody else’s fault.

“Whatever you do, be kind,” I told her. “You don’t want to be one of the mean girls.”

I’m not sure that helped. But it was the only advice I could think of. And about as much as I wanted to meddle, until further notice.

When I returned home on the weekend, I asked Buddy-roo how things had turned out. In the end, the three girls had made up, though probably a fragile reconciliation. One of them left early for the summer, and with only two days of school left, Buddy-roo and the other friend had time to heal. Tomorrow is the last day of school and two months will pass. If I recall how things go at that age, come September they’ll greet each other with open arms, as if nothing had ever happened. Or they’ll end up in entirely different don't_be_meancircles as the classes get shifted around, and the crisis of this fight will fade into a vague memory.

But I wonder, and I watch, carefully, as Buddy-roo (and her sister) launch into what I recall was the most challenging time of my life when it came to making and keeping friends. How to help them avoid getting bullied without being the meddling parent who makes things worse? And, how to make sure they aren’t the ones perpetrating the bullying, deliberately or by default when they watch passively from the side? These years are a treacherous minefield among even the best of friends, especially when it comes to threesomes.


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 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
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In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Jan 28 2013

Push Me Pull You

It was going to be a slow morning, the way weekend mornings should be. Little feet pattered about in the hallway and the kitchen, but ostensibly my assistance was not required. There was nowhere to go, no rushing to get up and out for school, no running to an appointment. I snuck into the kitchen to make a coffee – my second cup, since Short-pants had already brought me the first – and slipped back into bed. I puffed the pillows upright against the wall and surveyed the towering stack of books beside my bed table, wondering which one to choose for a leisurely morning read.

“Who drank the milk I left in the glass?” Short-pants yelled from the kitchen. Maybe not so much a yell as a cry, and it was followed by angry tears.

I could picture it: a tumbler, its glass discolored from years of dishwasher wear, filled halfway with milk. It’d been on the counter, next to an empty bowl. I’ve seen that glass of milk a hundred times, after just as many breakfasts, left on the counter unfinished. We try not to waste food in our family, so I always set the glass aside and use the milk in my coffee. It’s regularly the source of milk for my second cup of the morning.
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Just moments before her forlorn cry, I’d dumped that very glass of milk into the frother and used it to to top off the cup of coffee I’d re-heated in the microwave. It was in the cup I’d brought back to bed with me.

“I think I used it, sweetie.”

Short-pants stormed into the bedroom. Her face was red, her lips turned down. “I was going to use that to make hot chocolate for Papa!”

I apologized and did my best to assure her that it was okay, her papa could live without it. De-facto didn’t protest. This did not assuage her anger. Remembering that I’d seen some light cream in the fridge, I suggested we could mix that with a little water and froth it up for him and it’d be perfect, maybe even better than milk.

“Really?” She wiped the tears running down her cheek. “Will you help me?”

Would I make the lazy mother’s choice? Having just put myself back in bed for a few moments of peace, that was my first instinct. I tried to explain where the cream was and how much water to mix in, but this only resulted in a blank stare from a girl on the verge of more tears. Since I’d profited from what was apparently the last drop of milk in our home, I felt obliged to help with the situation. I flipped back that cozy comforter, pushed myself out of bed and followed her to the kitchen. We found what was left in the small carton of cream and mixed it with a little water to thin it. The frother whipped it up into a cloud of warm foam, allowing her to achieve her objective of serving her papa a cup of hot chocolate in bed.

While I was in the kitchen, Buddy-roo called to me, asking for help with some research for her school presentation. I’d been nagging her to do it for three days, she was finally starting. I figured I could make a quick detour to the table where she was working, point her in the right direction and then return to the warmth of my bed and the pile of books beside it. As I worked with Buddy-roo – which wasn’t as quick a detour as I’d hoped – Short-pants returned to the kitchen and exploded into tears, again.
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“I didn’t get any milk this morning.”

I wanted to strangle her for making such a big fuss out of this shortage. We could all live one morning without dairy in our drinks. Except she’d made a milky beverage for everyone in the family before making one for herself. Selfless, some might say.

After a discussion about the nature of this crisis and whether it merited such outbursts, then a quick brainstorming about how the problem might be solved, it was decided that she could get dressed and go to the store to buy some milk. A glance at the clock shocked me into the realization of what time it was; my Saturday errands ought to be run sooner rather than later when the stores get crowded. So much for my thirty minutes of peaceful reading in bed.

We both dressed and headed out together. The plan was to go to the little Arab store and get a bottle of milk, then she’d take it back home and I’d go off and do the rest of my errands. Her mood brightened as we descended the four flights of stairs and opened the door to the street. Sometimes just getting out of the house can make you feel better about anything. At the little shop, we selected a bottle of milk and I paid the shopkeeper, a man who used to watch me navigate (precariously) the narrow aisles of his store with Short-pants in her baby-stroller. He made a comment about how she’s grown. I nodded with a dual expression of pride and bewilderment.

Outside the store, I offered her the change he’d given me. “Buy some pain-au-chocolate for you and your sister.”

“That’s what I was already planning to do.” She opened her palm. It held several coins she’d taken from her own piggy-bank.

“Here,” I gave her my coins anyway. “Use mine. Get one for Papa, too.”

Smiling, Short-pants reached up and kissed me, turned around and walked – almost running but not quite – down the street toward the patisserie. She has a signature gait, it’s a little off center, pronounced because of her lengthening legs. I watched until she disappeared into the bakery. Tears in my eyes, now, my heart hurt from the morning’s mix of angst and awe. She’s oh so sensitive, but at the same time so very strong.
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That’s it, isn’t it? The push-me-pull-you of parenting. It’s the fiercest can’t-you-just-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment juxtaposed with a desperate please-don’t-grow-up-and-go-away-yet. Both feelings rushing at you in the span of thirty minutes, thirty quiet minutes that you thought you’d have for yourself, but instead thirty minutes of full-throttle parenting, dancing to the highs and lows of little people inhabiting your life, ultimately marveling at the size and breadth of their hearts, little hearts that push and pull at every string in yours.


Jan 24 2013

A Little Bit Selfish

“Mama,” she said, “when you’re being selfish it’s really hard on me.”

This was Buddy-roo‘s pronouncement of the morning. You could say it’s the pot calling the kettle black, but I didn’t. She’d already launched into a long list of my faults over the last few days: forcing her to do a “forgotten” homework assignment at breakfast, not giving her permission to play video games on my iPhone, refusing to build a pretend oven for her school presentation (she’d asked me at 9:30 the night before it was due) or working on my computer instead of playing with her.

“Sounds like it’s been a rough couple of days for you.” I said.
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She nodded.

“So what do you think you might do about it?” I asked.

~ ~ ~

Like a knife in the gut, selfish. And then that taunting voice in the back of my head, snickering. It’s the old tape about not being a good enough mom, not living up to the pressure to be supermom: to be nurturing and nourishing, efficiently organizing their lives and getting them to rehearsals, classes and lessons while effortlessly juggling my own professional projects, looking sleek in a pilates-carved body, lighting the candle on a elegant table as the perfectly timed meal comes out of the oven. All this while penning the next great expatriate novel of our time. For the record I gave up trying to be supermom a long time ago, but some kernel of that illusion always remains, buried, despite regularly attempted exorcisms.

I recovered from the accusation quickly enough to throw the ball back in Buddy-roo’s court. We talked about how she might do a better job of looking ahead at her homework assignments so she could get “special pass” for access to my iPhone. We talked about how you can ask for help from other people, but you can’t always expect it to come on your own terms. We talked about if homework involved less fussing and thrashing about, there’s be more time to do fun things, together.

But it made me wonder. Do my daughters see me as selfish? Am I?

~ ~ ~

The English language is missing a word, a word that’s poised, in meaning, between selfish and selfless. Self-ful. A word that would convey the sense of how to take care of yourself so that you are better equipped to support others in the same pursuit. Self-ful wouldn’t be self-absorbed like selfish, nor would it carry the martyrdom or pliability of selfless. It’s the solid stance in between the two. It’s thoughtful self-reliance. It’s being concerned with the needs of others – family, friends, colleagues – but not at the expense of your own mental health or happiness. It might be epitomized by the classic flight attendant’s instruction: Secure your own oxygen mask first, before assisting anyone else. Maybe self-ful is being just a little bit selfish.
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As a young girl, I watched my mother organize her briefcase and dress for work. She also lent her professional skills to many causes, which meant she was often on the telephone in the evenings or going off to meetings after dinner. She was a busy woman, engaged in her work, involved in her community. She was also pretty good to me; she helped me, drove me, loved me. But she did all that while doing all those other interesting things. In this way, she was good model for me. And she forced me, inadvertently – or possibly deliberately – to be self-ful. I spent a good amount of time home alone after school, doing things on my own. I had to learn to be content with my own company. I had to learn to take care of myself.

I never got mad at my mom for being selfish, I got mad at her for not letting me do what I wanted to do. Which is really what Buddy-roo was mad about, and I know that. But this reminds me that I want to transmit to my daughters this notion of being self-ful. I suppose it starts by modeling it – not by being supermom, but just by doing my thing. And that might mean, from time to time, being a little bit selfish.


Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.


May 25 2012

Walking into Fifty

The Camino rises and falls from the hills of Navarra into Rioja, and my mood follows suit. The swing from elation or the simplest contentment – Camino bliss – to feelings of regret or frustration is a pendulum wide. What is it about me that thinks my Camino has to be perfect? I do this in the rest of my life, too, set up these grand expectations and then kick myself along the way for not doing it well enough, whatever it is. I forget that as a rule, things in my life are pretty damn good. Good enough, and then some.
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I arrived at the edge of a small town – it was Los Arcos – after walking 20k in the steady rain, steady when it wasn’t torrential, which it was on a few different occasions during the day. I was drenched, even with good rain gear, but not yet tired. I debated whether to keep going to Torres del Rio, about 7k further. As I came into the center of town, another downpour drowned out all thoughts of continuing. I’d reserved a sweet single room, it had a shared bathroom, but that’s why it was only 20€, this was a good deal not to be passed up and besides, even if I wasn’t weary, I was wet.

The room was the size of a postage stamp, with a narrow chastity bed like I had in my college dorm. Its best feature was a brand-spanking new space heater, over which I could drape my wet clothes for quick drying. After a hot shower, I sat on the bed and thought, what am I doing here? I should have kept walking. I didn’t feel like writing, reading or napping. I was restless, even angry at myself for stopping. It descended upon me, that sort of funk, the four walls of the already too tiny room closing in on me. So I did what any pilgrim who’s logged 20k during a day does, went out to walk some more, around the town.

A church bell rang, so I followed the sound to the main square. I pressed the door tentatively, not knowing if it was open or not – many are only open in the evenings for mass – and it swung inward and allowed me to enter. The first thing in view as you enter the church, its elaborate organ, the pipes painted blue and gold. My mouth gaped at the sight of it. In another church, on another day, I heard the organ being tuned. I wondered if this one sounded as rich as it looked. I walked to my customary place, 1/3 of the way back from the altar, to the left, and took a seat.

And then, tears. For no particular reason. Maybe for every reason. Tears for all those people gone, but not forgotten. Tears for all my disappointments, and for the people I’ve disappointed. Tears for the things I didn’t become, and for the things that don’t become me. Tears for being alone. Even though I mean to be alone, I like to be alone, these are tears that remind me, despite all the good company on the Camino, and in my life, I am alone – we are all alone with ourselves.

It’s been ages since I cried like that, with the floodgates wide open. It made me feel so much better.

Maybe all I needed was a good cry.

~ ~ ~

After all that contemplative crap, I needed a beer. There was a bar across the square from the church. The cast of characters inside a gang of pilgrims, people I recognized from walking, but hadn’t yet talked with and wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Heavy rock music was blaring, boisterous men strained to talk over it, mostly about themselves. I regretted the decision to stop there, but I’d already ordered. I read the blackboard beside the bar, advertising a pilgrim menu for 12€. I debated whether to stay for it or not. The rain outside made the decision for me.

A rope across the doorway leading to the cave of the bar was unhooked, and the assembled pilgrims filed down the narrow staircase one by one to the dining room. I took a seat at a random table and was joined by five others. Miraculously, the boisterous men opted out of the pilgrim meal service, or sat elsewhere. My table was a mix of nationalities, two lovely German women who would become important touchstones for me over the next days, a gentle Australian who’d walked the Mekong, two other German men, one of whom was an 81-year-old retired ship captain celebrating his rebirthday. Nineteen years ago – to the day – he’d fallen in the ice-cold water between two boats, and it had taken fifteen minutes before either crew realized he was not on either ship. He’d been rescued, and he remains in a state of gratitude, even after all these years, for what he called his second life.
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We alternated between private conversations and full table storytelling, and the dinner was accompanied by good questions, thoughtful answers and general spirit of conviviality. The ship captain wanted to treat us all to an after dinner digestive, I suggested the local (we were still in Navarra) specialty, my favorite patxaran. Our round red glasses klinked together festively, overriding any of my earlier angst about stopping and staying here for the night.

~ ~ ~

Each day a different path with different views, different thoughts, different moods. Up and down and around into another dusty town, backpacks laid in a row next to a fountain where pilgrims rest their feet and fill their water bottles, village cafes brimming with friendly hikers. Over the next days I would run into those dinner companions and check in. How are you feeling? How are your feet? How is your Camino? I’d stop and chat for a while, but walk on alone, and let my mind wander – I prefer to walk by myself – although once I spent a good part of the day’s kilometers beside a thoughtful Irishman, swapping stories. It wasn’t so much that we were talking, more like we were thinking out loud with each other, reflecting on reflections otherwise interior. It was one of my nicest days walking the Camino.
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Except they’re all nice. In the rain, in the sun, the cool morning or the brutal late afternoon heat. Every day is good, even when it’s not so good. You get where you’re going, and the right things happen to you when you get there.

Yesterday, another church stop, a needed break from the midday sun. As I stepped inside I heard music – often there is some kind of classical or choral soundtrack piped in – but this one was slightly imperfect, like someone was practicing. In one of the pews, an open guitar case lay just beside a pilgrim’s pack, and in the back of the church, in the dark, someone strumming. I sat, where I always go to sit, and listened, as the guitarist played song after song and then he started to sing. Sometimes, when I knew the words, I sang along, in harmony with him.

Tears came again, fast now; I am tender these days. The walk, the time this walk has given me, puts my real person closer to the surface. She is touched more easily, her joy comes as instantly as her pain. But I have made this walk just for this, to access her. This time, I can report, the tears were glad ones: I was so fucking happy, in that perfect little moment, the one I didn’t orchestrate or expect.

~ ~ ~

Today I turn fifty. Such a bold number, and it came up on me like lightening. The two digits sit beside me, not quite smirking, grinning. I grin back. I started the Camino with a question, something like how might I make the most out of the rest of my life. Along the way, thoughts about how to make less of it, how to simplify, weed out the unnecessary, make room for the things that deserve to be made the most of. Coming now to another turn, wondering how to make nothing of it, and let it make itself. I’m not even halfway through the Camino, but just starting to open up to what it has to show me. But I am right where I’m supposed to be, and I think understanding that is perfectly good enough.


Mar 26 2012

Agony of Defeat

I’m sorry,” said the judge, ringing the bell, “the correct spelling of the word is S-U-C-C-O-T-A-S-H.”

Short-pants turned to the audience of parents and siblings with a look of utter shock. The disbelief lingered on her face as she walked down the center aisle to where we were seated.

“I did better last year!” she whispered to me, near tears.

We’d been over the list so many times, and she’d always spelled succotash correctly. But it’s one thing to confidently rip through the words in the comfort of your own living room or on the familiar walk to school. Standing in front of 19 other students and their families and a table of judges is a different ballgame. Unlike the other words she’d spelled correctly before: etch, born, slave, bongo, naval, tragic, effect, flaunt, noticeable, I had a bad feeling about this one as soon as the pronouncer pronounced it.

Sure enough, she’d fallen prey to the same error that nailed her father and me in our childhood spelling contests – the a-for-an-o syndrome. Crocodile and alcohol, two words we’ve gotten wrong only once in our lives.

She sat on my lap and I folded my arms around her. There were a dozen things to say – it’s okay, you still did well, look how long you lasted, everybody really knew the words – but since the spelling bee was continuing, our good manners would save those consolations for later. Nothing I could have said would have helped anyway. The feelings of disappointment and failure won’t be swept way in one reassuring sentence. You can’t go around these are feelings, you have to pass through them.

Such a range of emotions accompanies a competition like this. For a month prior to the spelling bee, Short-pants was enthusiastic, though occasionally bored, with the task of learning the 350 words on the list. The day before the event she was nervous, which we agreed was normal. The morning of, her nervousness lingered but was accompanied by excitement.

I was so busy thinking about how to help her prepare, that I myself was unprepared. My adrenalin surged on the way there, as I flagged a cab after encountering a locked gate at the metro entrance with no buses in sight. We ended up arriving early as a result, and walked around the neighborhood, which helped calm me down and gave us a chance to go over the (very) short-list of problem words she’d missed on the run-throughs the day before.

Once she’d registered and her number was pinned to her shirt, I realized I was probably more nervous than she was. We didn’t really feel like mingling, so we hovered around the snack table, not sure quite what to do. Look at the list some more? Practice more words? Relax? Even Buddy-roo seemed on edge.

Short-pants had been invited by the organizers of the bee to do a short reading at the opening of the competition. It was an abridged excerpt from Akeelah and the Bee, by Marianne Williamson, which is often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and famous?” Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you… And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

She’d practiced the reading a few times the day before, and when she was called up to the microphone to read it, I was prouder than any parent in the room. She enunciated, emphasized and let her poise shine through. That’s when I realized that the honor of reading it meant she was no longer an anonymous number amongst the twenty children, in a way she was bringing the quotation to life. The stakes felt a bit higher.

I was on the edge of my chair. Each round, when she approached the mike, I held my breath to hear what word she’d be given to spell. I sighed with relief when she repeated the word to close her turn, having spelled it correctly. Round after round, she stood up, spoke clearly, spelled well and sat down. Then I’d relax for a few moments, until it was her turn again.

I was rooting for Short-pants, of course, but I started to develop a fondness for the other spellers as well. A little girl with a permanently terrified expression, a little guy with straight-up posture, a pair of red-headed sisters, a tall student who’s deliberate elongation of each letter, and the space between each one, made her delivery dramatic. Whenever one of the contestants misspelled a word, I was glad for a narrowing of the field which would bring us closer to a finish (it did start to feel interminable) but my heart sank for every one of them, every time. I wanted them all to win.

Short-pants’ slim little body – sitting on my lap – started to grow warm and I could feel her chest heaving. Tears of disappointment were close to the surface, and would quickly be uncontainable. I took her hand and we maneuvered through the audience to the outer reception room, where she let the tears stream down her face.

“I thought I knew that word,” she said, “I wanted to do better this year. I wanted to take home a trophy.” She started to sob.

Here’s another hard part of parenting, when you wish you could make it better, but you can’t. This was her defeat; she had to bear it. Nothing I could say would repair it, so I just held her hand.

One of the lovely red heads – she’d gone out of the competition just before, or just after, Short-pants – was visiting the snack table, and came over to console her. “Don’t feel bad,” she said, “You did so well.”

Now I was ready to cry, tears of sad and glad. Sad for Short-pants and her disappointment. Glad for kindness of this little girl, a thoughtful stranger. Her gesture was appreciated, and Short-pants managed to say so, between sobs and sniffles. But disappointment doesn’t vanish so easily, even with such sweet and thoughtful words.

“It’s okay to be disappointed,” I told her, “but I want you to know I’m proud of you.”

I told her I was proud of her initiative to even sign up for the spelling bee, proud of the perfect score that got her past the first round, proud of how diligently she’d studied her list, her willingness to practice the words (almost) every time we asked her to. Proud at how poised she’d been, reading the opening quotation. Proud of how carefully she’d spelled every word she’d been given. Proud that she’d made it to the tenth round. Proud that she could be honest about her feelings, instead of swallowing them. Proud that it really meant something to her, this spelling bee, that she cared.

“And if you’d won, of course I’d have been proud,” I said, “but I’ll be even prouder if you can lose with grace and be a good sport toward the winners.”

That wasn’t me speaking, by the way. That was me channeling my father. He used to say those kinds of things all the time, putting things in the larger perspective.

A little bit of time, a glass of water, a bite-sized muffin, and Short-pants was ready to return to watch the rest of the spelling bee. Just like last year, they’d had to go off the main list in order to bring the competition to a close. Soon the field was down to just a few students, and then to two, and then to one winner – a steady speller who deserved her trophy and smiled triumphantly as she held it in the air for her family to photograph. I know that Short-pants wanted to hold that trophy, but she found a way to smile and clap her hands. The consolation gift bag for all the participants had plenty of goodies to distract her, not to mention a medal for even making the finals.

Her enthusiasm and nervousness and excitement had given way to disappointment and then to the range of sad and angry hues that color the experience of failure. But she’d risen to the occasion, and her buoyant optimism returned. I was never really worried – I knew she’d come through it – but I felt better when she was skipping down the street on our way to lunch, laughing with her little sister. She didn’t get to taste – at least this time – the thrill of victory, but at least she’d let go of the agony of defeat.