Dec 14 2010

On Gratitude

Good literature, I’ve told my daughters more than once, always has tension. It’s what makes a story interesting. This came up again last night when Short-pants and I were talking about her latest assignment: to write a short story in the style of Rudyard Kipling (great assignment, yes?). First we discussed Kipling’s trademarks, which are, in her words, animals and nature. Then we talked about what makes a good story. “There has to be tension, something to resolve,” she said, making me proud.

I spend a considerable amount of time in this electronic journal highlighting my own tension, kvetching about what’s difficult: my life is a train wreck since the children came along, the administration required in this country is cumbersome, there’s too much homework, he can’t load the dishwasher correctly, the cup-choices at Starbucks are illogical. But imagine if I only wrote about how sweet my children are, how much I love their dad, how France is just one delicious cheese after another – I suspect after a while it wouldn’t be a very good read.

I’ve noticed that I tend to focus – more now than I used to – on what’s wrong with life rather than what’s right. This might be a product of living in France, where intellectual analysis trumps everyone-getting-along, and where disgruntlement is well manifested in the ubiquitous French shrug. It might also be because the time I spend writing has increased dramatically over the last few years, and when you write only nice things it feels a bit superficial, so I feel compelled to dig into the underbelly of my life. Or it might just be part and parcel of being middle-aged and confronting the abyss between my ideal life and my real one. Or all of the above.

The other day, before even reading this #reverb10 prompt, I wondered if sometimes I think too much about what I don’t have and not enough about what I do have. Because I have a hundred reasons to feel gratitude.

But if I had to narrow it down, to the one thing I’ve come to appreciate most in the last year?

I’m grimacing. It’s very saccharine, but I have to say it. Brace yourselves.

It’s De-facto.

I’m grateful that he came to France to be with me, so we could live our mildly exotic life and raise our children bilingually. I’m grateful for the two kids he made with me; the coolest parts of them, I’m pretty sure, were transmitted from his chromosomes. I’m grateful that he gives me as much room as I need, really, to do all the things I want to do. Take off to Mexico to go whale watching? Yes, do it. Go to Pamplona every July? Yeah, sure. He doesn’t say no. He says okay, how?

I appreciate how he watches my moods from a distance and comments carefully. I’m grateful for his modesty and humility, his childlike willingness to play in the world. I’m grateful for his strong reassuring arms around me, especially this last year – which was occasionally brutal – when that’s just what I needed.

And all those other little things about him that aren’t exactly who I want him to be, or what I want him to do or how I want him to do it – well, they just add a little tension, don’t they? That’s why ours is such a good story.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Victoria Klein: Prompt: Appreciate. What’s the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it?

Apr 29 2010

Hold on

Our days are filled with affection. My children, being completely bilingual, are adept at American hugs and French calins, and dispense these joyously (mostly) throughout the day. But there is something especially poignant about the morning cuddle, the first and most delicious caress of the day.

It is as if the toxins of their tantrums, their princess demands, their bêtises and all their mis-targeted mischief – all the moments of yesterday that made me close my eyes and count to ten before asking (not out loud), “why did I have these children anyway?” – all of it washes away overnight, flaking off during their sleep and disappearing through the dream-catchers hanging above their beds.

They rise in the morning, semi-conscious and automatically innocent. The footfall of tiny feet down the stairs, uneven and still stiff from an overnight of motionless sleep, groggy in the sweetest kind of way, waking me enough to skooch over and make room for the small body that nudges its way under the covers and curls up like a spoon within my embrace. Even several days dirty from country house living, the skin smells sweet and the hair is scented with the sweat of swing-sets and forested play.

Almost immediately, breathing lengthens and loudens, and sleep reigns again as if the trip from the bed upstairs to our bed downstairs was a quick flight between REM stages; like they could wake up and have no memory of how they got in bed with us.

Short-pants is curled up beside me and her soft long limbs intertwine with mine. Buddy-roo will stumble down any minute. There is a bond that is renewed with each and every morning hug, a reminder that we all fit together, our DNA is shared, so then why not a few moments of pillows and sheets? We revert back to the moment when we were in constant embrace, those babies in my womb and De-facto‘s thoughtful arm over my big belly. Ages ago it seems, and yet reenacted every morning.

Last night, the last drive of our spring break trip, a tour that took us to Italy and slowly back through France, visiting friends along the way before a respite at our country house, driving sometimes in 10-hour chunks. The final leg took only 4 hours and 5 minutes; we managed without even a bathroom stop, allowing De-facto to beat the previous record by 2 minutes. This morning’s cuddle is particularly cherished, then, as it marks the end of our spirited (but tiring) voyage and the return to Parisian routine.

I lay half-awake, staring out the dormer windows, listening to the sound of our city street coming to life, caressing the soft skin of my child, breathing in tandem with her. Slowly I let the thoughts of my day ahead creep in, the things to do after being gone nearly 20 days may be daunting, but I am fortified by the sweetness of this moment, to be savored until, say, the two of them break into battle just about the time of my second cup of coffee.

Dec 25 2009

Loving Christmas

Yesterday morning, Short-pants was early out of bed – a rarity – and crawled in with De-facto and me for a ritual cuddle. Buddy-roo came down a bit later and heard us whispering. She lurked in the hall outside our door, sniffling.

I took the bait and asked her what was wrong. She said she’d wanted to be the first in our bed for the morning cuddle. No urging could get her to let go of her disappointment and join us under the warm covers. She alternated between crying and pouting.

For a few moments she disappeared, and returned to deliver a picture she had drawn, indicating her love for me and her papa and sister had been withdrawn. She dropped it on the bed and returned to her post outside our door.

“I don’t care if she doesn’t love me,” said Short-pants, “all that matters is how much I love her.”

I’m not making it up; she really said that. As if we needed any more evidence that she possesses that little extra dose of love, strength and wisdom, and understands how to employ it.

After a long period of silence, Buddy-roo offered a suggestion.

“Mama, you know that store over near the Pompidou, with all the toys stacked in the window?”


“You could go there and buy me something.”

“That’s one idea,” I said, in my best non-committal voice.

So this is Christmas, I thought, from one end of the range to the other.

In the spirit of both of my beautiful children, I’d like to wish all the readers of this blog – loyal and occasional – a Merry, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Navidad, and don’t forget a belated Happy Chanukah. I send warm greetings to you for the whole season; may you find all the love, strength and wisdom – and toys – you need.

And thank you for reading Maternal Dementia this year, that’s the best gift I could ask for.

Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.

Oct 21 2009

The Ledger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 21 2009

Good Fathering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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