Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Matters of Life and Death

One would think that, having lived through the sudden tragedy of his mother dying from a brain aneurism, my husband would see death lurking behind every corner. The world newly uncertain and unsafe. But Kevin is not that person. He understood it for what it was--a low-incidence (approximately 7 in 100,000 annually) unpredictable event. Awful. Unjust. But not confirmation that we live in a dark and dangerous world.

Kevin maintains we will be alright. When I suffered my third miscarriage, he assured me, we would have a child. When his appendix nearly burst in his body, he didn’t see any reason for me to have to come down to the hospital. When I see a mountain, Kevin smooths it down to a mole hill.

I wish I shared Kevin’s optimism. But I am the person who loses her voice for two weeks and starts to imagine having to speak through an electronic voice synthesizer. Who watches Sophia fail a hearing test and sees her living a soundless future. Who feels a lump in her breast and is already imagining her funeral, Kevin remarrying, and Sophie having some other woman as her mother. I can cry real tears thinking about how, one day, I will disappear from Sophie’s memory and this woman will be the only mom she’ll ever know. I hate her--Sophie’s hypothetical stepmother.

So reading a book about a young pregnant woman whose husband suddenly dies in a freak accident speaks to my deepest fear: anything can happen at any moment. I wish I could say that this fear holds me in the present, fills me with gratitude, makes me wring the most out of every living second.

But it doesn’t. On a daily basis, I take my loved-ones, my healthy body, my safety and security for granted just as much as the next person. It is my morbid flashes that call forth my appreciation for life. While immersed in Signs of Life, I imagined Kevin dying, perhaps from an aneurism, like his mother had. Having to make that awful decision of pulling him off the respirator. Never quite believing that the doctors performed the EEG correctly. Explaining to Sophie what had happened and facing the question of “When is daddy coming back?” Feeling the emptiness of the house, the unbearable silence that only comes with absence, the space left by sounds that once filled the room. My own loneliness, knowing that I will never again feel the comforting spread of his arms around me. Never again see his dimples crease his face. Never again hear him sing our invented goodnight song to Sophie in his best lounge lizard voice.

And, of course, now I’m crying. At once despondant and grateful.

We will probably both live a long time. The odds are in our favor. Kevin, confident that we will make it through, relatively unscathed, and me, ever vigilant, anticipating the worst. Living in the world differently, appreciating it just the same.

During the fifth month of her pregnancy of her first child Natalie Taylor is devastated by the sudden death of her husband. Her journey with grief is chronicled in the memoir Signs of Life. Join From Left to Write on March 29 as we discuss Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor. As a member of From Left to Write, I received a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

All Growed Up

We have just had a wonderful time running from “the boyfriends” (Sophie’s twin 4-year-old playmates) who were masquerading as T-Rex’s, and their younger sister, Rachel, who goes by the alias “Super Poodle,” so I was puzzled by the dejected face that was staring back at me in the rearview mirror.

“Soph, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“I’m very sad.” Sophie said, solemnly.

“How come?”

I, for one, was feeling fine. The play date had started off with a volcanic tantrum during which Sophie had ripped off her pants and underwear and stood in the kitchen crying, naked from the waist-down, because I refused to take off my jacket when she did. But the evening had ended on a high note--the kids, with bellies full of hot dogs and chocolate cookies, sat rapt while I read Naughty Parents at the kitchen table.

“I’m thinking about how I’m going to be a grown up soon,” Sophie replied, “ and I’ll have a house of my own and my own child, and I won’t see you every day.”

How is it that our hearts, when deeply touched or in despair, actually feel pain? It’s a clutching. A constriction.

I swallowed to return my heart to the place where it belongs in my chest.

Part of me has the impulse to pull over to the side of the road, gather her up in my arms and exclaim: “Oh Sophie! You don’t have to leave mommy! We can be together for ever and ever!”

But the saner part of me knows that this is not true. That there will come a day when she does not jump around with excitement that it is a “mommy day,” when just the two of us are together. And, though I have difficulty imagining it, I suppose there will come a day when I will be ready for her to seek her fortune in the world. When Kevin and I will return to the city lifestyle of our pre-Sophie days, enjoying the freedom of being able to go where we want and do what we want, when we want.

So this is what I say instead: “Sophie, you still have many years before you become a grown up. FIrst you’ll be a big girl. Then you’ll be a teenager. Then you’ll go off to college. But when you finally become a grown up, you will be ready to have a family and home of your own. You will be ready to leave mommy. But you can come to visit mommy, just like we go to visit grandma. And I will be so happy when you come to see me. And I will visit you in your new home.”

You know you have satisfied a child’s curiosity, or quelled their fears when they settle and there are no more questions. The consternation that had wrinkled her brow, moments before, had disappeared and was replaced with a placid, contented expression.

The pain in my heart from moments before dissipated too, a warm release of calm spread through my body with every beat.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nesty Tresses

It was a bad hair day.

This typically happens the morning after the bath. Though I try to dry her moppy top before I put her to bed, Sophie experiences my ministrations as battery and assault. I’ve tried to lighten the mood by screaming along with her. We stand together, in front of the bathroom full-length mirror. Sophie, in front, stark naked. Me, behind her, wielding my hand towel of torture. The two of us scream at the top of our lungs as I tousle her sopping locks in brief bursts. It is cathartic for me. I can express some of the pent-up frustration that has been slowly growing throughout the bath. It is distracting for her. If too much of my anger does not leak into my primal cries, she finds me funny. Sometimes, we both wind up laughing.

What must the neighbors think?

But we never get it quite dry. She wriggles away long before the job is done. So, by morning, her bob has magically transformed into a bird’s nest. Most mornings I can tame it with a wide-toothed comb, a glass of water, and a book. But on the mornings we are headed North, I forgo the combing, knowing it will “hang out” with a little sweat and time.

But on this morning, I make a fatal error. As we were making our ablutions in the bathroom, we both catch a glimpse of Sophie’s head in the mirror. “Take a look a your head!” I exclaim, “what decided to take up residence in there last night?”

Sophie stands still for a moment, “Mommy, my hair looks crazy.”

“Yes,” I agree. “It does.”

“We need to comb it, Mom. I don’t want the kids to think I look funny.”

It is a first. An awareness of judgement of her peers. A concern about her appearance. Self-consciousness.

Sure, in recent months, she has become clothes-conscious, insisting that she be the one to pick out her outfits each morning. But this stems less from a desire to achieve some social standard of beauty than to have creative control over her wardrobe. She mixes reds with hot pinks, florals with stripes, dresses with pants. All that matters is whether it appeals to her.

I can remember, before Sophia was born, admiring the invented outfits of other people’s willful four-year-olds. Secretly wishing that one day I would have a child who had her own sense of style. Who wore her zaniness on her sleeves.

And then, once I was gifted this child, I actually found myself saying, “but, Sophie, that doesn’t MATCH.” Or “Honey, that dress and those tights don’t go together.” I started getting into battles over what she wore. Much to my horror, I realized I was the one who was the one who was concerned about what others would think.

(Look at how she let’s that child out of the house.)

My old self was in there, I really got a kick of her crazy combos. I had to fight this other self. This mother self who worries excessively about whether other people think her daughter

Is polite enough

Is calm enough

Is obedient enough

Is clean enough

Plays nicely enough


dresses appropriately.

Ultimately, it was the battles themselves, so unpleasant and so unnecessary, that finally set me straight. Let her wear what she wants. Let her express herself in this small important way. Who cares?

Back in the bathroom, I pocketed the comb. “Soph, I’ll take the comb with me. When we get to school, I’ll brush it before we go inside.”

“Okay,” she replies brightly, happy to delay the brushing.

By the time we get to school, she has forgotten all about her nesty tresses. I consider for a moment, pulling out the comb, but then decide against it. Why reinforce it, this notion that she has to appear a certain way to avoid the ridicule of others?

When we got to her class. Sophie ran in and, blowing a kiss in my direction, joined her miss-matched, messy-haired friends.

And no one said a word.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Boss of Me

Sophia, in her nascent yearnings for world domination, enlists me in pretend play where I am the subordinate and she is my superior.

“Let’s pretend I’m the mommy and you’re the baby.”

“Okay.” My voice is a bit wary, as it is likely I am agreeing to a browbeating.

“Today, we have Kick n’ Flips, baby.” Kick n’ Flips is her gymnastics class at school, where, for $400/year, she gets two turns to summersault each week.

“Okay mommy.”

“You have to wear pants.” Usually, my directive.

“NO! I don’t want to wear pants! I want to wear a dress.” Usually, her response.

Sophie replies, her voice sinister, a near-perfect imitation of me, “You have to wear pants. You can’t do gymnastics in a dress. Now, I don’t want to hear another word.”

Or she’s the teacher and I’m the student.

“Sit down, Melissa, and do your workbook.” I sit down, and she plops a book of crossword puzzles in my lap. This is a happy turn of events. I get to do a crossword puzzle while playing with her? I set to work. I just start to get into it when she rips it out of my hands.

“That’s enough!” She announces. Sophia is not a warm-and-fuzzy teacher. She’s the kind that doesn’t smile until Christmas.

“But I just started it!” I protest.

“I said you’re done,” she shrieks, mad, with the self-bestowed right to shriek at me under the guise of “educating” me.

“All right,” I sigh, defeated, and hand over the puzzle.

“Its nap time. Lie down.” Again, I feel hopeful. Any game where I get to lie down is welcome. I spread out across the couch, she tucks a stuffed raccoon in the crook of my arm and turns out the light. But no, just seconds after I lie down she flicks the lights back on.

“Okay! Nap time is over! Get up!” And then I am obliged to participate in a whirlwind of other preschool activities, as if she’s pressed the fast-forward button on our time together. Only this frenetic play goes on for hours and hours.

I guess I go to the School for Short Attention Spans.

When we are engaged in these scenarios, I sense that she needs them. Standing over her in the morning, issuing directive after directive: “Sophia, you have to stop playing now and put on your clothes. When you’re finished, go downstairs for breakfast. Please hold still while I brush your hair, etc., etc.” I feel the heat of her resentment as she staunchly refuses to do what I say. She yearns for autonomy, the ability to do what she wants, when she wants to. Play, I suppose, is a safe way of getting to wrestle back some of the control she sees me as hogging. She’s trying to assert her will over mine. To dominate me as I have dominated her.

I can relate. Certainly, as a child I had my own acute sense of powerlessness. My own resentments. But I was far more compliant, seething quietly in my journals or sneaking off elsewhere to do the things I wasn’t allowed to do. Like read Judy Blume’s Forever at my friend Christine’s house. Or eat Frosted Flakes.

Perhaps it’s healthier for her to be so openly combative? Maybe it means that she’s not swallowing down her angry feelings, only to resurface in her adolescent years as a full-scale rebellion. Sinking grades. Experimental drug use. An affair with a man twice her age.

I also wonder what role I play in all of this. If there isn’t a little retribution in dictatorial play. Tit for tat. A bit of glee in “getting me back.” Am I too harsh? Am I too insistent? Are my demands somehow turning her into a bully? Is this how she will treat other children, as she perceives she is being treated?

And then, there is a moment that sets me straight. I wake up with my eye sealed shut. Sophia finds me standing over the bathroom sink at my pink eye. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asks.

“I have germs in my eye that makes it really itchy.” I tell her. And without another word, she balls up toilet paper, turns on the faucet, moistens the paper and holds it out to me, “Here, mommy. Put this on your eye. It will make you feel better.” She pats my leg, gently as I do it.

Sure, she’s still taking control--she’s mothering me--but with tenderness and empathy. She’s emulating my other mother face. The mother I strive to be, as much as I possibly can. Patient. Interested. Engaged. Attune.

My boss rarely acknowledges when I’m doing a good job, but she rewards me in unexpected ways.