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motherhood

Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and http://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

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Abortion, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

The Pull of My Own

August 26, 2020
pull

By Isa Nye

I craved a little being to nurture, to suckle. I dreamed of nursing a newborn – I felt the pull of the moon at night – procreate procreate procreate. But I waited. I waited and waited. Because the first time was wrong. I let the first baby go not knowing how I couldn’t, not knowing how I could, in a sweat, in a nightmare, in a dream, in a doctor’s office, in desperation. Metal medical equipment and cheap posters on the wall. I waited years then. I waited for everything to be right – to hold my baby in my arms, nurture it, give it my milk, and all my love.

The CIA says every five seconds 20 babies are born and 10 people die – all day, all night, over and over and over –so many humans come and go, and yet when it is my own baby my world re-aligns and spins around this tiny being, my own baby, even in the womb, my baby pulls at gravity and becomes the center of my very existence.

My third baby waited eighteen days past when he was due to be born. Each one of those eighteen days dragged past – each of those nights it seemed as if the sun would never set, the moon never rise, like the day would never come where I would meet my boy. But I did.

There were the cramps – they started low, below the belly, a tightening, like everything inside me was constricting inward to a point that it could not reach, straining and tensing. “I think this is it. I think I’m going into labor,” I said through gritted teeth, writhing on the hospital bed, monitors already attached to me. “Take the cords off. Take them off!,” I said, loudly, pulling at them, throwing them away from my body, and climbing from the stiff sheets, touching the cold floor with my bare feet, squatting down, standing up, grabbing at my belly, leaning over, breathing in. “This is it. I’m pretty sure this is it,” I said, sucking in air, breathing out loudly, squeezing my eyes closed tightly, and everything in the world reduced to the sensation in my body – the contraction of uterine muscles sending out shock waves in an earthquake all my own.

This was my third baby. On the maternity ward a lullaby played every time a baby was born, marking a new being’s arrival on earth. Several women were in labor at the same time as me, and nurses busily rushed from room to room, a night’s work for them.

He was born into water. I pushed him from me with a roar of strength I did not know I had and may never feel again. A lullaby must have rung out across the maternity ward, but I did not hear it. I only heard him. “My baby, my baby, my baby,” is what I said over and over as I cradled him to me, naked and wet, his skin against mine, as around us the nurses, midwives, and doctors hustled, as my husband cut the cord.

The second baby had not come so easily. Not like the third. She was born amid struggle, after hours of effort, hours of pain that took over everything and became everything and then subsided and returned and subsided and returned. I bore down so hard I though my intestines would come out. She drug her placenta behind her on a short cord and when at last I pushed her from me, she took a moment to catch her breath. “Say hello to her!” the midwife said, “She needs to hear your voice!” They had taken her to a table where they were working on her, getting fluid from her mouth and nose; her tiny hand clasped my husband’s finger. “Hi, baby. Hi. Hi, baby,” I said, my voice sounding foreign to me, disconnected. “Hi baby. C’mon, baby. Hi, baby.” A cry erupted from her and she sucked in her first breath of oxygen on earth. During my twelve hours of laboring her from me to the world, roughly 180,000 babies were born, statistically speaking, but only one of them was mine.

My first baby I never saw nor heard, but felt, yes. That baby’s exit from my body was not so monumental, miraculous, mythical. It was mechanical, methodical, medical. My breasts ached for that baby who I never knew was a boy or girl, or in between those. I didn’t know. The baby let me let it go, or so I told myself because everything was at stake. I was strong then too, on the operating table, waiting for the doctor. While she sucked the baby from my womb, I was strong. I did not cry or let out a cry. On the hour drive home I laid my head against the cool window of the passenger seat and did not talk, or cry. My boyfriend cried in the backseat. My friend drove us home, and for that I was grateful. During that hour long drive from the clinic to my bed, about 6,000 people died, statistically speaking, but none of them were mine. I might have been numb the but it was mine I knew I would mourn, and even if I knew I didn’t question my choice, I would feel the loss.

Isa Nye has written ever since she could. She was raised in Montana among cowboys and professors, and she turned to the written word to both escape and to make sense of that life. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young children, and writing still brings her both solace and clarity.

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Guest Posts, motherhood, Pregnancy

Pregnancy at Forty Versus Twenty

August 18, 2020
pregnancy

by Regina Tingle

Tell people you’re pregnant and prepare for the unsolicited onslaught of advice from well-meaning folk.  “Get all the sleep you can, now!” most say.  Or, as a woman recently said to me, “These are the final days of your life as you know it.  Get ready to give up all control.” 

I managed a half smile.  Considering how many times I get up in the middle of the night to pee, I feel I’ve already begun to receive the message: this body ain’t entirely under my jurisdiction anymore. 

I mentioned how irritating people can be on the phone to my mother who had three children within five years and who would do anything for us, still. 

I sighed, suddenly feeling exhausted.  “Everyone loves to tell you their horror stories.”  She had just told me (yet again) about the debilitating pregnancy pains that so often brought her to her knees forty years ago when she was pregnant with me. 

“Oh, I know!  People say the strangest things,” she said before telling me how when she was pregnant with my sister she suffered from painful Braxton Hicks contractions.

Feeling guilty, I made a mental note vowing to be a more self-aware mother than my own.

“I just wish people could be a bit more positive,” I said while considering going into the kitchen to grab toothpicks to prop my eyes open.  I was in too much shock, too exhausted to worry about the actual practicalities of having a baby.  Loss of sleep and control felt like distant dilemmas compared to the emotional flush that colored my every thought:  ‘How am I going to do this?’  Not just raise a child but maintain my sense of self and not dissolve entirely within the role of Mother?

“The truth is, honey, once that baby comes, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever lived your life without that child.” 

Gulp, precisely what I was afraid of. 

I called my husband to vent, hoping to discredit my mother’s theory.

“How old was your mother when she had you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Well, unlike her, you’ve lived a full life of your own before a baby.”

I sniffled, considering the five countries, two marriages, many men and jobs. ‘Full’ only half-described my life.

“You know very well what it feels like to have lived without a child until now.”

“I know she didn’t mean it but it just felt so invalidating.  As though my life has been all for nothing thus far because I haven’t yet been a mother. I will be able to imagine my life without a child because I was there.  I’ve lived thirty-nine years without a baby.”

“Honey, no one knows anything about what you or we are going through because no one is going through this pregnancy, now, but us — you.”  My shoulders loosened and my eyes welled.

What my husband and I didn’t touch on was my decision to terminate a pregnancy four years ago.  This was before his time, and even though years have passed, the decision still sits on my heart-space like a heavy kettlebell.  When your current pregnancy comes with the invisible, unforgettable weight of a past pregnancy that didn’t make it to term for whatever reason, everything is both.  Joy is laden with grief, happiness clunked with sadness, excitement filled with dread.    

Having a baby at forty is a different game than having a baby at twenty: everything is anything but straightforward.  When you’re twenty, life has yet to happen.  All the loss, the divorces, the decisions, the regrets, miscarriages, abortions, cancers and surgeries most likely haven’t yet occurred.  (If you’re reading this and your in your twenties, forgive me for sounding like such a Negative Nelly.  As you know, there are joys, too.  And beauty.  Not to mention opportunities and successes, growth and learning.)  I’m simply saying that at forty, you’re playing from the other side of two decades of experience…and so are your friends. 

When I found out I was expecting, I cringed at the thought of sharing the news with our friends who can’t have children of their own.  It felt cruel, especially seeing how my pregnancy was unplanned.  After all, choice is the ultimate freedom.  And because I am blessed to live in a first-world, modern society which respects the rights of women and their bodies, I had a pregnancy and a choice — two luxuries they very well may never have. 

While it might not ring true for them, I feel I have a lot in common with those friends of mine who can’t get pregnant simply for the reason that, unlike men, forty seems to be the final mile marker in which you continue to have a choice.  At least where fertility is concerned.  Which is why the years approaching the big four-0 can be so tormenting for women who aren’t sure if they want a family, or aren’t in the position they’d like to be in to begin one. 

Regret, as it turns out, comes in many unexpected forms.  Such is the nature of adulthood that, at some point, we must all give up our personal picket fence, Barbie dream house fantasy life that never quite came to fruition.  I suspect that even those women who mapped and planned, carefully executing their life’s course must learn to accept and reconcile their actual life with their dream life, their actual self versus the version of themselves they had once imagined and yearned for at twenty. 

As someone who has tried repeatedly and (so far) consistently failed to accomplish creating the exact life I had always pined for, I’ve learned that this is where wholehearted, hands-up surrender comes in.  I am reminded of the importance of knowing how to give in and get on with things every time I wake up in the middle of the night, grateful for heaps of things, mostly in that I didn’t wet the bed. 

As I move through the strange, in-between space of the first trimester, I am are no longer what I thought I was — or even who I thought I was.  My cravings and wishes, whims and urges are foreign and strange — yet they come from the same place I’ve always known: me. 

As we become mothers, we slowly drift from the familiar geography of the only womanhood we’ve ever known.  Meanwhile, the steady beat of a distant drum pounds on an island in the distance.  There, the tribe of all the women who’ve come before us, our own grandmothers, mothers and step-mothers, await.  You turn toward the flickering fire and gaze with wonder at all those glorious females who’ve survived the same transformation you’re experiencing now, wondering what wisdom you’re yet to gain.

Perhaps, like me, you are not quite ready to be among them.  You are still looking back, floating alone on your rickety raft, longing for the dazzling life you’re leaving behind — nevermind it wasn’t perfect or the way you’d wanted.  The point was, you were free in the fact you were just you.  It’s okay — more than okay — to grieve that loss.  To feel the truth that what comes alongside birth is not without cost or sacrifice to the self. 

Unlike with my last pregnancy, life is different.  Far from ideal, things feel true and right for me and for this little one who has come knocking.  This time, I don’t want to change the course of the current.  I want to see where it goes.  So while I wish I could say I am overcome with joy or a sense of vocation and that those are the things that keep me pointed onward toward the isle of mothers, I am not that kind of woman.  Thanks to my age, I’ve had time to become okay with and forgive myself for not being exactly the kind of woman I had dreamed I’d become.  What keeps my rudder steady is the same undercurrent that has guided every decision I’ve ever made in my adult life: possibility, and a great sense of wondrous adventure, a deep curiosity of both what and who is to come, mother and baby. 

Regina Tingle is an American writer originally from Texas based in Brighton, England and the Founder of Duende Retreats. She loves okra and the smell of jet fuel, can’t remember jokes, card games or how to set the table properly but that doesn’t stop her from trying anyway. Despite her blotchy memory, Regina just finished her first memoir. Find out more at reginatingle.com or duenderetreats.com and follow her on Instagram at @regina_tingle.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Bitten

August 2, 2020
mosquito

By Audrey Beatty

I pull into the dirt and gravel parking lot of the Glastonbury Audubon Center. Stones kick up under tires and ping the sides of our car in a dusty cadence of grit. I get out, pull Bean from his backseat, driver’s side, rear-facing throne and plant him on the gravel. We are near a cement walkway. He toddles instinctively forward, drawn onward by a beckoning path. He turns and looks for Mommy. I’m never far behind.

We visit veteran birds of prey in their outdoor enclosure, all warriors grounded by vehicles. Cars. A one-eyed red-tailed hawk. A broad wing hawk with a partial wing. A blind barred owl. All seniors. Stolen from the wild after being struck by our two-legged, four-wheeled lot. Out-living even healthy relatives still free. Captivity suites them. They would have perished long ago if left on their own.

I can relate to those birds. I was no good on my own. Before I met my husband, I was a tornado of a girl, whirling in on myself and devouring all that was in my path. Dark and full of destruction and abandon; a cocktail only youth and bipolar II can mix up. One day fun and light, grasping at the fleeting beauty of hypomanic life brimming with late nights and damn-the-consequences, white-knuckled companionship. I would fly. The next would be cigarettes and vomit and regret. I’d imagine that’s like getting hit by a car. I might not have lost an eye, but I was grounded, head aching and flight an impossible dream. Yet, I had never left the ground.

The path veers right and changes from firmly packed dirt to loose woodchips. It dives down under a dense canopy of green. As my tiny companion and I enter the cathedral of trees, the air changes. It is at once dense and thick. Rain has been abundant already this summer and, under the outstretched limbs clamoring over each other with their leaves spread wide toward the sun, the air is close. A bullfrog song from a nearby pond reaches my ears. Sun spills down between leaves and gilds the forest path.

As we venture on, sweat beads in my customary places: upper lip, base of the neck, shallow cavern between breasts, underarms, hollows behind knees. The path is well-worn but uneven and my wobbly walker is uncertain. He stumbles on a rise in the earth but doesn’t fall. With a whimper, he turns his father’s big blue eyes up at me and I can see they are welled with unease. I smile and swing him up to my hip. We press on.

The path forks at the frog pond and we go right, turning toward a wide-planked wooden bridge. It smacks of an Eagle Scout project. I idly wonder what my little boy will accomplish in his life. Maybe one day he’ll be an Eagle Scout. Or maybe he’ll be a drug addict. Maybe he’ll be kind. Maybe he’ll be violent. Maybe, like his mother, his brain will sometimes betray him. Only time will tell. For now, I savor the sun-soaked moment. He’s healthy. He’s mine. And I am his.

A mosquito’s plaintive whine meets my ear and I instinctively swat it away. I plant my boy once more on the wooded path and he waddles on, feet determined but tentative. He finds his way amongst the rocks and roots insisting their way through trodden soil. He may place a hand down on the now upward sloping path, but he’s in control. He doesn’t fall. I cheer him on as I follow him up the hill. He can do this. So can I.

The mosquitos are insistent too. I didn’t remember bug spray. They hum around my head and alight on exposed flesh: upper arms, calves, ankles, face. Smack! I pull my hand away from my forearm and reveal a mangled form with a smear of my own blood. Got him.

Pardon me. Got her.

Did you know that only female mosquitos bite? She needs the protein from blood to produce eggs and procreate. Males feed on nectar. How nice for them. Did you know my husband is a vegetarian and I’m not? We had the same moral dilemma a few years back: meat comes from living animals that had to die for us to be fed. He chose to give up meat. I have grown to support and respect that choice, though I resisted at first. I, on the other hand, chose to reckon with the source. I understand where my food comes from. I pay attention to it. I honor it. It does not bother me. I crave red meat when I’m menstruating. It’s the metallic tang of iron. Blood. I guess I’m not all that different from the mosquito.

And choosing to procreate is at great cost, isn’t it? Could you imagine the female mosquito, sitting around with friends, and musing, “You know…I have a good thing going on with the gnat I met in grad school. I like my career and I’m enjoying travel. I think I might not suck blood. Laying eggs really isn’t for me. There are enough mosquitoes in the world. And it’s so risky!” I imagine her friends, bellies full of just-sucked plasma, gasping: “How can you say that?! What’s the point of living if you don’t lay eggs?!” They’ve already made the sacrifice. They’ve already seen kindred and kin swatted and squished, all in the name of furthering the mosquito population. They’ve already drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. What other choice is there?

But then I imagine another she-mosquito. She quietly reflects on her friends’ banter. She has yet to taste blood. She hasn’t found a mate. She feels a persistent tug as a clock embedded deep within her tick, tick, ticks ever onward. To suck or not to suck.

“My GOD my larvae are driving me NUTS! Please tell me it’s easier when they pupate. PLEASE.”

“I waited too long to suck blood and now my time is past. That ship has SAILED, sister.”

“I don’t know…can’t the boys pitch in with egg-care? I mean…we’re the ones biting, aren’t we?! We’re putting it ALL on the line! Why should it all be on us!?”

I imagine her considering all her options. Thinking about her limits. Whether she thinks she’s capable of biting. If she even WANTS to bite. What kind of mother would she be? Would her eggs grow to be full-grown mosquitos that will make a difference in the world? Will she leave the world a better place than she left it? Is laying eggs is even part of that equation? But she’s always dreamed of having larvae of her own…

Bean and I reach the end of a gravel stream. It opens to a clearing of long grass, sun, and abandoned cross-rails. He trundles forward and lets out a tinkling giggle in the bright light. Warmth washes over me. I step out into the field. His laugh is contagious. A smile spreads across my face and draws up into my eyes. A reciprocating giggle escapes my lips. I give chase. His pace quickens but he’s still developing sturdiness on the legs that hold him to this earth, though he looks like a cherub to me. I keep expecting him to leave the earth in flight. My heart soars with him.

I catch him, riotous laughter tumbling from us both in waves. His neck smells so pungent and sweet. Like the earth after a rain. I empathize with the mosquito; I give him a little nibble as he squirms and swats and giggles even harder still. I am full. Together, we move onward at the edge of the clearing, just outside the protective darkness of the trees.

I am different, but I am still the same. I dip into the shadow of the trees. There’s comfort and safety in darkness. I run, open-arms, into the light of the clearing. There is beauty and joy in the light. I am still a tornado whirling between both, my boy cradled in the eye.

Audrey Beatty is a writer, bookseller, and mother of two young children from Glastonbury, CT. She is a regular contributor at outandaboutmom.com and can be found most weekends slinging books at River Bend Bookshop (riverbendbookshop.com).

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Guest Posts, motherhood, parenting, Self Image, Self Love, Women

The Pink Wig

July 24, 2020
wig

By Tricia Stearns

I have more regrets than Amazon has distribution centers. Still, one regret I do not have: buying a pink wig for my middle daughter.  At age 10, she was the self-appointed influencer for her brat pack, as well as her sisters. If she decided it would be cool to cut up their designer jeans and make them purses, they would have stripped and handed her the scissors.

While I chauffeured them through childhoods I wish I had experienced, Daughter Two commanded the CD selection for the ride to school and taught her sisters backseat dance moves to Brittany Spear. From fashion to food to music, she navigated her world as if she was the CEO of Me, Inc.

Her zest for extra-curricular activities kept me spinning a schedule of dance lessons, theater rehearsals and private singing lessons. I couldn’t count on child support, but I could count on the sun rising and a new performance idea from Daughter Two. Kitchen clean-up doubled as a re-cap of dance class or a reprise of the opening of “Newsies.” Bedtime stories were told with a theatrical flair and always included happy endings.

She scrimped her allowance to buy the acrylic pink bob only to learn that her school dress code banned wigs. After a few rounds of letters to the school board failed to change the rules, she threw it in the Prop and Future Halloween Costume bin.

When Daughter Two decided to wear the wig on a rare outing for pancakes, it did not surprise me. The smell of bacon and maple syrup thickened the air as our waitress sugar-pied us up, and we ordered. We gave no further thought to Daughter Two’s accessory, accepting the pink wig into everyday wear. However, pink wigs were rare in our southern suburb, and breakfasters’ glances soon fell into stares.

The girls and I folded our straws into pretend people and created a story, positioning the ketchup and salt and peppershakers as props. My voice rose trying to drown out the chatter from a four-top of older ladies going to a Baptist bake sale, or maybe on their way to bingo.

“I never.”

“…should know better”

“Bless her heart. ”

Daughter Two’s mouth pursed. She wiggled in her seat. She twiddled her straw.

She stared right back at them. She re-arranged her fork and knife on the menu.

“Why in the world…”

We started a new play; our straw characters already tired. Daughter Two surveyed the restaurant, meeting the looks of a family of four wearing matching soccer jerseys and the chatty ladies closest to us.

She slapped her napkin down and plowed by our waitress carrying a load of pancakes.

She’d be back, we assured the waitress who volunteered to keep her plate warm. We slathered on butter and syrup, and wondered about Daughter Two camping out in the toilet. Perhaps, there was a line.  Daughter Two’s chair sat empty. The glob of butter now melted over her pancakes, cold.

We found no line in the bathroom, just a weary traveler, adjusting her snowman sweatshirt, preparing to wash her hands. Outside a stall, I tried to coax Daughter Two with bathroom humor. The lady nodded toward the last toilet.

The girls and I shifted, peaking through the cracks. Daughter Two perched on the edge of the toilet, her blonde hair flattened, her small hands wringing the wig.

With eyes red and big tears raining, she declared she would never eat a pancake ever again, and to leave her alone. Forever.

“No pancakes for the rest of your life?”

“Can I have what you ordered?” asked Daughter Three.

“Hush.”

“Can I have your bacon?” asked Daughter One.

Elevator music looped, toilets flushed.  Women moved in and out, offering looks and opinions. “Yes, thank you.” “NO, thank you.” “Bless YOUR heart.”

My youngest squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, looking up and under the door begging Daughter Two to come out.

My mom genes kicked in. There was more at stake than a little restaurant embarrassment. I had to get it right.  I felt the weight of the moment: The rock of my daughter’s soul was tumbling down a dark hole and she might never be the same.

I needed time, to figure out how to pull the knife of doubt out of her heart, to stop the bleeding and convince her she could love the identity she created; at the bare minimum to re-enforce her natural strengths and beg her not to question her ability to pull off a fashion statement. She needed assurance it was okay to trust her truest self.  If she couldn’t trust herself then I had failed as a mother, as a fellow female.

No longer was I standing in the bathroom of an interstate pancake house. No longer were we just using a coupon for pancakes before it expired. I was kneeling in a forest next to a hole freshly dug by a beautiful human, my child. She had sunk into a deep space carrying her childhood comforts: cookies, nuts, a blanket. She smoothed out the tattered edges of her childhood lovey questioning her place in the world.

I looked through the crack of the door. Her puffy eyes met mine. And in that moment, she knew I knew that place, too. She made room for me under her blanket.

I wanted to tell her, it gets easier, but judgment is timeless. Judgment is a relentless foe. We all stood in silence. Swoosh, another toilet.

I knew when I gave birth to a bevy of girls what I wanted for them. I also knew it would be difficult to teach. I was still trying to figure it all out: How to be myself in a world ready to tell me who I ought to be.

The real battle, the battle for one female to get it right, was right before me.

“You know, I don’t know a lot, but I do know if you wear a pink wig, you will get stares,” I said, with a calm assuredness. I held her gaze through the crack of the door, leaning on the door.

“ You got to be ready for it. If you wear it, you can’t care.” I paused, not knowing what I was going to say next, praying for the right words to come out of my mouth.

 

“Wear it. Don’t wear it. You decide. But if you do wear it, wear it with guts.

But be ready. You do not need permission to be yourself.”

Stillness. We sat in stillness. No one walked in or out for a moment.  Daughter One sat down and grabbed Daughter Three’s hand. Moments passed into a future memory that I hoped would become a point of reference for my girls.

Daughter Two straightened and smooth out the pink wig and opened the bath room door. We walked out and into the world, feeling altogether different. Altogether better, all together.

Tricia Stearns has been published in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloom, Loose Change literary magazine, and wrote a weekly column for five years for  the Fayette Daily News. In this column, Tricia dcumented how she started a farmers market and built the largest community garden in the Atlanta metroplex. She is currently working on a personal narrative essay collection. Tricia can be found on twitter as @tstearns2014 and on instagram as @triciastearns.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Treasure

May 28, 2020
breathe

By Shannon Lange

He arrived in December of 1987, 4 days before my 23rd birthday.

Tufts of downy black hair sticking up all over his perfect-shaped head, arms pin-wheeling, and fists tightly curled; prepared to fight right from the moment of his birth.

Those early moments and hours of watching his every movement and mood in wonder and fear-emotions in tandem. Flowing from one to the other with every breath we both took and knowing deep inside myself that nothing this beautiful and perfect can last forever. Keeping my face close to his, imbibing in the sweet scent of his neck and feeling tears run down my face as I whispered sweet nothings and loving promises into his tiny seashell ears, with the baby fuzz still intact on the tops of them.

🙢

He calls me one morning a few months back, on a work day. That in and of itself, startles me and immediately causes my stomach to clench and my hands to shake a bit as I grab my phone. My sons are of the generation that text primarily. They send funny memes to me as a means of checking in every few days, but often send them with no personal messages at all- the millennial version of Sunday dinner, I guess.

“Mom- I can’t breathe- something is wrong with me and I’m really fucking scared.”

“What do you mean you can’t breathe? What is going on, where are you, are you ok?”

“Mom, my chest feels tight and hurts and my fingers feel numb and tingly and I feel like I’m going crazy. I am sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall by work and I can’t work today. I can’t be alone and I have my girlfriend’s car and I need to pick her up at the airport in a few hours and I don’t know what to do!”

I tell him that I don’t have my own car on this particular day, as I have given it his younger brother to use. I ask if he wants me to call an ambulance, and I listen to his shaky uneven breathing as he tries to decision-make in the thick of whatever is occurring inside of his body and his brain.

“ I will drive to your place- I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Mom- I can’t be alone. I need you.”

I tell him that he can’t possibly drive in the state he is in, that I want him to stay on the phone with me and breathe, while I use my mother-voice to hopefully calm him down.

He hangs up on me halfway through, telling me he is on his way.

I promise myself that I will not call him back within the next 20 minutes, as I know he will be on at least 2 freeways driving towards my home in the burbs, and that if I call him, he WILL answer the call.

🙢

We are off to the Pediatrician’s office for the 4th time within a 2 month period between his 2nd and 3rd birthdays. He has turned into a daredevil and a constant whirling dervish of energy and impulsivity. He is prone to wildly jumping off furniture and picnic tables and the trunks of people’s cars and from branches of trees that should be light years away from his reach or climbing skills.

His first concussion is still 3 years in his future; his second 4 years ahead.

The pediatrician assesses him for lumps and bumps, bruises and contusions, and then suggests I keep a better eye on him and to hide anything cape-like in appearance, as these mishaps have a common denominator- the capes he ties around his neck. Capes made of tea towels primarily, which I tie or pin on autopilot for him when he brings them to me. I am distracted by his younger brother’s colicky wails during these months, and feel gratitude that he can amuse himself so well in his imaginary pleasures of being a superhero.

I cry tears of relief and shame all the way home from those visits to the pediatrician’s office with my son safely strapped into his car seat in the back of the car. He babbles non-stop in the car with me, telling me about Aladdin and Jafar, Littlefoot and Sara, Falkor and Bastion; also the old man next door that he talks to through the fence in the backyard.

🙢

The year he is 13, the car I am driving is hit by a train and the memory of the scent of him as an infant swirls around me in the wreckage. I am transported back to the promises I made him, and the whispering of sweet nothings into his perfect seashell ears. I babble to myself incoherently and remind myself to breathe as I slither my broken body out the shattered window.

The memory of his scent and the promises made spur me toward survival.

🙢

Three Christmases ago, he is with me in my home. He works with children and youth who are taken into care due to neglect or abuses too horrific to share. He tells me he is on call and will need to step out of the room to privacy if the cell phone he’s holding rings. It rings over and over that day, a constant background sound to the day’s festivities. He is absent more than he is present that day. Even when he is in the rooms with us all, he is not there. His brow is furrowed and he is deep within himself.

He leaves his plate of food mostly untouched and I watch the gravy on the plate in front of his empty chair turn to a gelatinous sludge, while sipping wine.

I make the mistake of commenting that he maybe should have skipped coming, as he has been so preoccupied and absent most of the day- that he couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the gathering.

“Mom, there is an infant that is one day old that is going to be taken away from its mother this evening. I have been on the phone with police and child services and coworkers and hospital social workers, coordinating the details and logistics. I am sorry I ruined your holiday.”

I sit in the chair after he leaves, and feel tears of shame and regret snake their way down my face in the dark like they did all those years ago.

🙢

The year he is 7, he ends up with strep infection and goes into a delirium state. I pull him into the bed beside me, and feel the burning heat coming from within his thin body. I rock him a bit, feeling his rigid limbs slowly relax against the softness of my stomach.  He eventually drifts off into fever dreams and upon awakening, tells me stories of pirate ships and buried treasures and makes me pinky swear I will always remember the location of the buried treasures. He says he will not remember it when we really need it when the bad times come.

He tells me he can save me with the treasures he will bring me.

🙢

The summer of his 13th year, while I recuperate from the accident, he works full time landscaping. We are living in an apartment, with no air conditioning, in the midst of a heat wave. My mother far away has taken my younger son for the summer; I am unable to care for him properly in my broken state.

He goes to work at 6 in the morning and doesn’t come home until the evening, working long hours in the heat like a man, coming home with brown skin and hair bleached by the hot sun.

He asks for my bank card and runs across the street to buy hot dogs or pizza pops or bacon- anything he can find at the convenience store that will feed us both for dinner.

He never complains, cooks for us both and then falls into his bed to rest for the next day.

He tells me that we need to talk about how often I am taking the pain pills and we make a plan together for me to wean myself off of them safely.

I begin to heal.

🙢

He arrives at my home the day of his breakdown and I sit with him.

I bring him cool water and stroke his hair and encourage him to breathe, while I strap my blood pressure cuff to his arm. I watch the numbers on the machine go higher and higher and higher, but tell him in a calm voice that everything will be ok, and just breathe.

My eyes fill with tears he cannot see as the numbers on the machine blur into the ages that my father and my brother died from heart attacks.

He worries about letting the children and his coworkers down and I remind him to breathe.

He worries about picking his girlfriend up at the airport in 3 more hours and I remind him to breathe.

He apologizes for scaring me and bringing his troubles my way and I notice that we are breathing together in perfect sync – slow life-sustaining breaths together.

I take him to my doctor across the street from my home and he tells him it is anxiety and lack of sleep and that he will be ok.

He sits with us both and reassures us that this too shall pass.

🙢

The year he is 15, we have a stupid argument over him not cleaning up after himself.

He is a man now physically and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof as only teenaged boys can.

He has started to lip me back when I scold him about things and I sometimes search desperately to see even a trace of my baby in his angular features. I need it to remind myself that this isn’t some random male yelling in my house. I am mostly angry that year, for a variety of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him or his brother. I am in school trying to better myself and my earning potential for all of us, and worrying constantly about keeping food in the house for my sons.

I decide to employ the silent treatment on him, and I go 24 hours or more without speaking to him.

I walk past him in the hall and the kitchen and do not respond to him when he speaks to me.

I am on the computer in the spare room when he walks in and approaches me.

It feels like a Mexican stand-off- him looking tearfully into my eyes and me looking back at him coldly.

“Mom, I can’t take you not speaking to me- it reminds me of when you had your accident and everyone said you were going to die. This is what it would have felt like living without you.”

I took him in my arms on that day and held on for dear life, thinking about the treasures he told me about all those years ago, how he knew he would save me someday, how it all came to pass.

Shannon Lange is an emerging writer and who has worked in healthcare for the last 25 years. She is also the mother of two adult sons, one a film maker, and the other a musician. Shannon and her family value creativity in its many forms, and her dream is to be able to write full time. 

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aging, Guest Posts, motherhood

Well Played

April 23, 2020
run

By Natalie Serianni

The buzzer sounds as I pull up my white soccer socks. It’s freezing; I can see my breath.

I’m inside.

Inside but outside. An old airport hangar converted into a three-field soccer complex.

The scoreboard reads 10:52 pm.

The game is a few minutes late to start, people like ants piling on to the pitch.

It’s familiar territory, this kind of a field; my home for at least 20 years of my life.

The highlight reel:

Suburbia 80’s soccer: Members Only jackets on the sidelines; my mother, her frosted hair and Reeboks cheering and clapping as we whizzed by. Kids running around orange cones or picking flowers in the corner. Learning to kick. To run.

Elementary soccer:  Billy Ocean blaring as we drill, drill, drill. Stations: moving us along down, down, down the field.

Teen games: Sweltering summer games. Cold washcloths, straight from the Coleman cooler, strategically placed on wrists and necks. On the face, the faint smell of Tide during an inhale. Calves aching, but young bodies craving movement. Able to rest, play. Repeat.

High School: Hot sun and short shorts. Boys. Are the boys looking? Here comes the boys team. Learning how to play dirty. Sitting on busses. The spaghetti dinners and “We will Rock You” piped through the PA. Warm up tapes, mixing the power of Public Enemy and Led Zeppelin. It was theatrical: the show, the spectacle instead of the game. There were parents in the bleachers; my father at every game. Home or Away, home or away. On the cusp of a bigger game.

College Soccer: Always away; so far from home. Different state, different soil. So many sprints. Practices that were competitions. Late nights lit by black lights and Rage Against the Machine in cement block dorms rooms. Hung over mornings that began with pushups, noses tickled by fresh mowed grass, trickling temple-sweat. It was four years too long.

The muscle, the memory. That competitive monster. It does not fade.

And now, present day: Indoor and on the team. 43. I’ve returned. I’ve paid my dues. I paid my registration fee and there won’t be a trophy. Or an end of season banquet where we don something other than sweats and eat Chicken Marsala in a Holiday Inn conference room. 40 year old soccer is having carpet burned knees and burning lungs. After-game pitchers of cold Coors Light and forty year olds circled around a table, talking about “sweet shots” and back slaps with Nice move out there! Sweaty socks, tiny turf bits falling out as we munch stale, hours old popcorn under buzzing fluorescent lights. It’s the joy of knowing I’ll be sore for two days; my husband tucking my babies into bed. Returning home to a quiet house. A lone, dim light above the oven, my midnight invitation to solitutude. A late, silent shower.

There is freedom on that field.

An ability to fly. Away from preparation, or list-making, or lunch-packing for others. The anchor of motherhood and other demons temporily lifted.

It’s a game and I’m playing.

It’s just play.

And I’m just a mother running and running.

Finally, running.

***

Running was my extra-curricular activity as a women’s college soccer player.

I was running to stay in shape; training for the next match. Preparing. And also, strangely,  whittling myself down to a muscle; stripping away to the leanest version of myself. Past the woman I hated; past the woman who had to be playing a sport. I ran away from myself, from my disdain, running at 5:30 in the morning to think, and think and think and think and think

…about how much I hated playing soccer.

How much I hated my body for playing this game that was no longer a game.

I remember being a college sophomore in a dank, sweaty basement gym, floor fans blasting at 11pm.

Alone.

My old monster: Working out. Losing all traces of myself.

Fanatically exercising. An hour plus on the Stairmaster was normal. Push down, push down, hold on, hold on. Whoosh, Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Incremental Red lights on the machine dashboard, dots, Screaming: go faster! Push harder! Pulsing: Don’t slow down! 275 Calories to go! Dripping with sweat, my hands slipped off the black handrails. Add a scratchy white hand towel and the sliding became more comical: the towel and I slipping further down the machine. I prop myself back up, my sweaty body hunched over the machine in agony, pushing myself.

And this was after two hour practices on the college soccer field.

Self-sabotage. I had to work it off because bigger, stronger, meant fat.

I wasn’t. I was a muscular 20 year old woman playing a collegiate sport, feeling betrayed by her body’s strength. Where it showed; the armor I created. I needed the heaviness gone.

Why did I confuse strength with size?

More Cardio. More stairs. Only eating small sections of apples. Maybe a few raisins.

The cycle continued for a year, my legs becoming chicken bones.

Can a competitive sport turn you into the opponent?

Trying to disappear, shaming myself away from my muscular thighs and too-strong arms.

To combat this, I:

ran at odd hours and ate salads with no dressing and drank hard liquor since my college friends told me there were no calories and wore too baggy jeans and woke up starving in the middle of the night and dreamed of delicious cheese-y lasagna all while I could not brush the stench of hunger from my breath. 

There was a warped, seductive power in wearing a white v neck t-shirt with your clavicle peaking out. It screamed small. In control. Look at me, dammit. See me. I’m more than the game.

My body wanted nothing to do with this warfare. It didn’t fight back. It collapsed. A non-female body; period loss for a year and a half. Complete disconnection.

There was running. Morning miles and marathons. Hip flexors tight from repetitive repetition.

There was pulling: a row machine. Picking up: Black dumbells from their home on the rack.

There was pushing: leg lifts. A heavy bar away from my chest.

And later, babies.

Mothering is its own kind of sport, birth the ultimate sporting event. There are not many spectators, but the world has a wager on you.

Growing big and small, and big and small. The weigh ins. Once, both of our growths recorded on charts, listening for two heartbeats and placing hands with measuring tape on bellies. There was a pre-game type of excitement, energy and even anxiety: delighted worry mixed with sweet longing.

Two different babies, two different births: a 15 hour overnight labor; a quick two hour event. No medications. Contractions that split my body from its core; hunched over on all fours. Reaching through legs to pull out my bloody heart.

I pushed, plumbing my body for a strength I didn’t possess. Searching inside, trying to get out of my own way.

And then, the after. Lightness. Relief. Like the athlete, there’s recovery. Loss of fluids, blood and energy. To be replenished.

There is a sweet decline. Loss. The gestational heft that buoyed you both, your plump – the admirable warrior who carried and grew another.

Then, moving on to figuring where you fit: new mom groups, old jeans. A new life.

The focus is on the baby. But it’s also about you. Where are you?

Nine months at the mercy of a growing body: cells restoring, blood volume doubling, hearts beating simultaneously. Placenta placement? Fine. Baby measurement? Small, but healthy. You after birth?

Just you wait.

I made an intentional choice to be big, not small in mothering –  done listening to me tell me I wasn’t up for the job. I could no longer be steam rolled by my inadeqauices. Or my core-shaking anxiety: that my baby might slip through my fingers and fall on the hard wood. That I couldn’t drive with a baby in my backseat. The imagined terror that she would tumble off the overpass while strapped in the stroller. Or stop breathing without my hands lightly on her chest, feeling for movement at 3am.

I’m left to wonder about mothers, the wounds we have. The weight we carry.

Are we ever in control?

It’s what we all know: it’s work to keep the motherhood monster in the cave. The one that consistently tells us we’re not winning, but failing; we’re doing it all wrong and one step away from messing up our children. When I can’t control, I manipulate: my mind. My body.

No more.

I question my ability to protect my child. It haunts me at night. But I name my faults and know my weaknesses. I know the enormity of living a life. There, I find myself.

***

Motherless at 25, my body was betrayed. Again.

My stomach felt it first; a sucker punch to the solar plexus.

Aching: on and on and on, through the fibers of my interior.

Her body was betrayed, too: a stroke. So fast. Was there a chance for her?

For recovery, for a life?

After eighteen years of grief, I’m finally, nearly, out.

The body does, indeed, keep score.

There is emergence: the catalyst was my baby born on September 2nd. Also, My mother’s birthday. And, also, the day my mother died. Eighteen years before.

September 2nd.

At the dawn of my daughter’s life, I’m taking my mother’s lifeless, leftover years and converting them into a kind of currency.

I’m ready to play again.

I’ll slide quarters into the machine

Put me in coach I think to myself.

I gather my curls and rake them into a ponytail.

I’m warmed up, I’m primed. Loose.

I’ve loosened around my mother’s absence.

In returning to the void, I’ve found connection. Connecting me to her, me to my body. There’s power when you inhabit what you fear. Loneliness. Longing. My body used to be a container to evacuate, curse, question and crush. Today, I can embrace. Even when grief’s tentacles have taken over the ship, how we become our bodies dictates our course forward.

***

“SUB!!!!” I hear my teammate scream from the field.

I scan the field for her voice. I look to the clock: 2 minutes and 37 seconds left in the game.

I tuck my shirt in.

I’m looking forward to that field.

I wait for her to run over. She looks me in the eye, and our sweaty hands slap each other.

At the same time: “Good work out there” I said, starting my jog.

“You got this,” she says, breathless, winding her run down to a walk.

Let me out there, I think.

Watch out, I think.

I run towards the game.

I run towards the things I know.

Natalie Serianni is a Seattle-based writer, teacher and mother of two. Her work has appeared in Seattle’s ParentMap Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and various blogs and literary journals. Her writing centers on grief, gratitude and motherhood.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Guest Posts, motherhood, The Body

We All Live Here

April 16, 2020
hair

By Jillayna Adamson

First, the wrecking.

For months, my hair would come out in clumps. Gobs, pulling out in my fingers while gathering it into a ponytail, or brushing it out of my face. In the shower, the gobs were bigger, and as I rinsed the conditioner I would gather my broken hair onto the side of the tub to throw it in the trash can. In my palm, a mass, wadded and shocking.

16 months later, every single day when I strip my clothes, I am shocked at my body. If I lower myself into the tub, I get flashes of those months I was so immobilized in it, barely able to wash myself. Flashes of the huge round of my bulging belly. Of the weakness of my whole body, my legs hardly able to carry me. And I still see the endless needle marks and swells all down me. Bruised veins from the IVs. My pump hanging over the tub, its tube a trail to my bruised and scarring thigh. “I don’t like needles” my son would say, watching me reinsert the tubes every two days, tracing my body for untapped skin not scabbed or knotted with scar tissue, to insert.

Now, my hair isn’t coming out in clumps. Instead, it breaks like straw. Over one half of my forehead, you’d swear I went scissor crazy and started for bangs and changed my mind mid-forehead. And so I moved my part, dividing my hair down the middle to hide the long patch of short jagged hair. At my part, it is brittle with scattered short patches. And underneath, it’s all broken off. It coils into curls under my long blond waves that stretch half down my back. Perhaps a person wouldn’t notice, but I do. Every day it dictates how I am no longer able to wear it, and the careful ways I have to keep all the broken parts in some semblance of order.

It reminds me every day that I am in shambles.

The great bulge of my belly is gone. It’s now walking around with my same curls, wreaking general (though adorable) havoc. And my stomach has a sag of wrinkles below my belly button. A deflated balloon, extra skin bunching up in patches, slick white stretch marks now collapsed and synched. Again and again, I look in the mirror, or down at myself and I recognize a light alarm of disbelief through me. Throat shock, sinking down, down, down, to a pit in my stomach. This is me now, somehow.

I see it in the mirror, the now-lines on my face, the way the bags under my eyes have grown and darkened. How I look older, creased. And again, I feel those shambles. Not much the shambles of a great passage of time, which might feel more natural, but the tumbling shambles of experience. Of heavy living, in relatively short spans. Of getting wrecked.

You have done something amazing, they tell me. Your body has been through astronomical things—twice. You have survived grave illness twice over. I know these things. I say them too. They are true, yes. But I am still here in these shambles. Within the leftover rags of wars I somehow survived and yet don’t even feel close to out of.

*

Exhaustion exacerbates the shambles. There are almost always people on me. Grabbing at my body, laying atop me, cozying themselves into my nooks. Climbing, pulling, pushing.  Rarely am I just there with my own autonomous self. The scarce self. There are days I can’t help but flinch at the hugs and grabs of my husband because he counts as one of these beings always situated on me, or pressed close, or pulling for a kiss. The dog too. And I wonder why. Why do they all come to me? At me? On me? My body, my autonomous self so far from my own. We all live here. It’s all of ours. And the times it’s just my own, I’m scarcely awake.

But I do love these people. These grabby, needy people that ask for all of me. I love them endlessly and consumingly. But I wonder, where have I gone?

This mothering thing, it is all of you. A disappearing act. In the gain of that love, you can feel an overwhelmingly exhausting and hollow loss.

This wasn’t in the parenting books. My mum never mentioned it, nor did I ever suspect it. It occurred to me one morning, after reheating my coffee for the tenth time, that as a child it never crossed my mind that parenting—that motherhood, specifically—would be hard. Would be difficult, exhausting, depressing, depleting. I carried around my sweet, rose-skinned dolls, and swaddled them up and pushed plastic bottles to their lips without ever once considering any possible unpleasantries within it. I played house, and mothering—I always wanted 12. I was a nurturer, a lover of kids. Never once did I look up at my mum and think is all of this hard? The three kids? Three! That are always hungry, and wanting more, or complaining or fighting, or having meltdowns. Do you know where you are? I never wondered if my mother knew where she was, if she lost herself or sought herself out. And now, she comes and she visits, and she scrubs at the crust on my stove I’ll never get to, and spoons yogurt to the baby while the boy runs in loud, fanatical circles around her, and she says, “You forget. I don’t know how I did it all.” And she doesn’t blame me for being in bed by 8:30 and she says, “It gets easier”. But I can’t help but think it should have crossed my mind, as I cradled my waterbabies, or made my mum lay with me at night until I fell asleep, my little hands gripping at her arm.

I told my 6 year old son the next day, after a regretful argument. I had yelled at him—I never yelled. I hated yelling. But I had lost it, my patience had cracked. And so I told him. “It is hard, you know, being a mom.” And from the back seat of the car, he was perplexed. I watched his eyebrows furrow in the rearview mirror. He was so young, so small looking sitting in his booster. “I love you and your sister more than anything, but sometimes I make mistakes. Because sometimes being a mom is exhausting and difficult. It is a lot of work.”

“I didn’t know that” he said. “Why?”

“Well,” I answered carefully, not wanting him to misunderstand that this didn’t mean I didn’t love him, nor love being a mother. “It never shuts off or stops. Moms worry, moms do all the little things to take care of you all the time. It’s a whole lot of little things. Big things too. There aren’t breaks from it. There aren’t clear cut answers to everything. There isn’t time to do a lot of things we like to do for ourselves.”

He is quiet for a moment, taking it in. Then he nods. “I just thought you get to play like all the time. Plus grownups get to do whatever they want.” He puts his arms out, hands flexed like it’s a question he sees a different answer to.

*

When I gave up my business and we moved out of state away from family and friends, it came up most starkly. I was playing the role one hundred percent. The glue. Making the best choice for the marriage, the family. Sacrificing the elements of me—that’s what this so often was, wasn’t it?

But there, in the beautiful sun and the palm trees, in a town I knew no one and had nothing, I was just a mother and a wife. Just the glue, with no independent self. Day in and day out, the shambles of me so apparent. I felt like nothing. Like the great erasing had taken hold.

My body showed it. Cracking, breaking, creasing. The wrecking.

Enmeshed in love and devotion but also stripped and also wrecked.  Highlighting Japanese Folklore about the Crane Wife, CJ Hauser wrote for the Paris Review, “ to keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps, she plucks out all of her feathers one by one”. I read this, and I think, yes.

First the wrecking, then the erasing. We all live here now, this body and self isn’t just me.

I push my partner away (No, I don’t want you to join me in the shower, I want literally 15 minutes without another human on or near me, thank you!), I sigh at the dog’s eyes following and beating into me constantly (Really, you too?). At the baby, holding my legs in screams as I try to make dinner, my son, asking for the 18th time if dinner is ready yet and lamenting that he will starve as he wraps himself around my waist. Not because of a lack of love or devotion. But because of depletion. Because of the tightness atop me, of the energy it takes to take a breath. There is no getting your oxygen mask on first in all of this—there isn’t. It’s a nice thought, and it’s true health-wise, sure! But it isn’t realistic. It is goddamn unattainable. It is a laugh, and every mother knows it. We, by our very nature, will scramble like hell for that mask at the final moment for ourselves because we are fucking busy and we are relied on and even when we want to take care of ourselves first, we don’t know how. The world is on top of us and screaming at us and for us, and until it stops, until we can simmer it, there is no breath, no mask. Try and tell me that we can’t help until we can first breathe, and you’d be wrong. I’d tell you, you don’t know mothers.

*

My hand travels mindlessly up to my broken chunks of hair often. Twirls their short coils. My hair has changed. It’s no longer its familiar texture, no longer thick. Sometimes my hands run through it again and again, feeling the frame the breaks made around my face. As if searching for familiarity, as if getting to know this new wrecked self.

My breasts, the soft stretching skin of my stomach. My body half nourishment, half playhouse and home for grabbing, poking, squishing. And it’s the same on the inside. The reflection is right, it is truth.

For centuries, folklore, literature and history has shown us just how love allows humans to leave ourselves for others, to neglect and deplete, but to somehow carry on, shells intact, some semblance of strength we can’t quite find the source of. And mothers are the queens of wrecked selves who soldier on, who pause in the mirror, who stare a moment longer in the bath. But don’t get to dwell a second longer than that. It’s in the background, there isn’t much noticing in it, nor heroic championing. It’s just the bare bones of motherhood. Not the main character, scarcely explored nor marveled at. I think back to mothers across cultures and time and history—mothers who have fared true hardship I could never fathom—mothers whose stories haven’t been told because they never had a moment unneeded to do so, and because these are just the things mothers do. Their sheer devotion, survival, their pain and isolation, the stripping of their selves. And why mothers have held onto this so quietly, so careful not to let their children or those around them know that this is hard, I don’t know. The core, the basic structure of motherhood is careful knives carving folds into our bodies for our littles, chipping at pieces of ourselves we’ll sew onto them. Becoming a house, a home, the food, the love, and the catcher of tears, the holder and fixer of little hearts. Allowing for, inviting the wrecking, the erasing. Our bodies and selves, the background noise, the unnoticed shell for piling into. What we become, so far beyond ourselves, a place for us all.

Jillayna Adamson is a mother, psychotherapist, writer and photographer– and can often be found wondering how just to fit all those pieces together. She is passionate about all things people and culture, and explores this through writing and photography.

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Gratitude, Guest Posts, memories

Take The R Train

April 2, 2020
choice

By Laraine Herring

My mother could have remained in Bay Ridge, taking the R train into Lower Manhattan to work at the Stock Exchange. She could have not met my father, who could have passed Spanish at Wake Forest and graduated there instead of transferring to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they did not require two years of Spanish for a History major, where he did meet my mother, who was the first female accepted into the graduate school of mathematics at Chapel Hill, at an uncharacteristic football game where she’d gone with her roommate as an out for her blind date. But if she had remained working at the Stock Exchange riding the R train this would not have happened.

My father would have married a woman named Betty, not Elinor. I’m reasonably confident of this because when he died we found drawings Betty had made for him of his face, his golf swing, his eyes, and she called the house a lot and tried to make friends with my mother. She stopped calling once we moved from North Carolina to Arizona, but I still have one of the pictures she drew in a box in my closet. She could have been my mother, but there’s a reasonable chance she is dead now, or at the very least married to someone who never quite measured up to my father, but who nonetheless was a decent man. Betty could be writing this piece too. She would start with: I might have married Glenn…and I don’t know what she would have written next because I don’t know her. But I have her picture.

My father could have died with the polio in 1949 like he was supposed to. Like everyone did. Like the boy who was in the iron lung next to his who died in the night, my father talking to him in the dark, not realizing he had gone. The boy’s name was Charlie, and the two times my father spoke of him, he trailed off into ellipses.

Charlie could have lived like my father lived. He could have broken out of the iron lung and not imprinted my father with his death in the night. It is hard for a boy of eight to carry the death of a boy of seven in the dark. That’s a weight that lingers, like the bitter of chocolate.

My father could have died in 1976 after his heart attack like he was supposed to. Like the doctors said he would. Like maybe he would have, except one round of doctors had already told him in 1949 he should have died and he told them he was not going to die and so he had a script for what to do the next time he heard that.

I could have died in 2017 of colon cancer, but I didn’t. I knew how to tell the doctors no because my father told them no twice. Even when he died, he told them no. He pulled out his tubes in unconscious urgency. He clawed at his oxygen. It was his time for dying, and he was telling them no to the saving.

If my father hadn’t died in 1987, I would have gone to Oregon. I had a scholarship to William and Mary and I was desperate to get out of the desert and into the green. But I graduated from high school in 1986 and I knew I couldn’t go because my father was dying and so I didn’t go, but every time I visit the Northwest I see my shadow in the train and I see a possible life where I wouldn’t have met my husband, who is a born and bred Northern Arizona man, a man who becomes sad in the rain. Too much sun makes me sad, but not my husband, and somewhere between 1986 and now I realized that every choice I make may not give me everything I want. Every choice is many choices. I can visit the trees and the water and the damp, but I slept with many wrong people before I met my husband and I know what right feels like now, even if it’s in the desert.

If I hadn’t lived with the abuser in 1988 after my father died, I wouldn’t have had my heart smashed open to an empathy I didn’t know was possible. Or I might have died there. Other women do. I walked out of their graveyard.

If my father’s family had not been Southern Baptist we might have remained in the will and could be living in North Carolina by the Atlantic in the family home. We could have an altar of sand dollars on the dining table, gathered over years of morning walks at low tide. I might wear navy and forgo white after Labor Day and know how to can peaches. But probably not.

If I had stayed in Phoenix in 2003 instead of moving to Prescott—I had to get out of the haunting heat-sun—I wouldn’t have met my husband. I left Phoenix because a tree fell on my house and then I had a dream that echoed the dream I had when we first moved to Phoenix in 1981—I will die in this place if I don’t leave—and so I was gone in a month. This is the only time in my life I made a decision of that magnitude so quickly.

That’s not true. I told the oncologist I would not do chemotherapy and radiation even quicker. They pushed it like a desperate realtor hawking swampland in Florida but I said no. I come from a long line of people who told the doctors no. They were exasperated and fired me as a patient. This was OK because I am not patient.

If I hadn’t told my doctors no, I wouldn’t have met the psychic in Encinitas the year after my surgery who handed me a rose quartz and looked me straight like only the real psychics can do and said, “It must have been so hard for you to fight for your body’s intuition.” And I cried in the middle of the psychic fair, watching the Pacific breeze blowing her psychedelic psychic skirt around her legs. She was the first person to recognize that—the first person to let me recognize that—yes, yes, I had to fight to say no. I had to fight. The wrong choice was easier. The wrong choice was covered by insurance. My wrong choices—every single one of them—were the easier decisions. The ones that cost me my voice.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” I told her. Harder than cancer. Harder than surgery. The refusal to walk the pre-written cancer-journey-story filleted me. “If I did chemo, I would die,” I said. And she held my hands and let me cry and the ocean carried my salt away like she always does.

If my mother had stayed in Bay Ridge riding the R train, I wouldn’t be with her today, riding the R train, returning to Bay Ridge to eat pizza at Lucas, which is now the Brooklyn Firefly, because it was where they went for pizza when she was a girl, back when she wasn’t allowed in the special math and science high school because it was only for boys, back when my father was learning how to walk again and Betty was drawing his picture and I was waiting somewhere velvet-dark until I found the woman who was strong enough to bear all of me.

Laraine Herring holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in counseling psychology. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in K’in, Tiferet Journal, The Manifest-Station, Quiet Storm, Vice-Versa, and others. She currently directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. She can be found online at www.laraineherring.com.

 

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Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

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Activism, Guest Posts, Owning It!

A Female Fighter

December 12, 2019
fighter

By Debra Des Vignes

As I drive from Indianapolis to the boxing gym, I feel my anger rising. My son’s farm accident is still fresh in my mind. And friends, I don’t even want to think about friends. At the gym, I’m one of only three female fighters. I’m 45, not old, but old for a fighter. Today, I’m headed to the gym. Working out, boxing, is how I alleviate my anger. While driving, I reminiscence.

Things happen in life, I know, even to the innocent, that we have no control over and that we can’t explain. No one knows why. It’s just life and its unexplainable ways. My son, Simon, was four when the accident happened. That morning, my husband and I were invited to have an early dinner at a friend’s horse farm, but first a tour of their beautiful property was suggested. I recall my son’s big, brown eyes, and his friend’s blonde ponytail. They held hands while the mother of our son’s friend rubbed the horse’s side. Suddenly, the horse spooked, no one knows why, and Simon’s body was flung mid-air. A child’s pained cry has a high, shrill, piercing sound that no mother wants to hear. Blood splattered the grass, the wooden fence and Simon’s ponytailed friend. Thank God that she wasn’t hurt.

My thoughts continue to revisit the accident as I pull over for gas and get back on the highway. It’s early evening and many are sitting down for dinner.

I remember sitting in the ICU – trauma – with my husband. Over the course of seven days and nights, I watch eye, throat and facial surgeons rush in and out to check Simon’s vital signs. I become numb, staring at a blank, white wall, day in and day out. I sit slumped at the edge of a chair, silently screaming inside, afraid to move. I feel empty. My thoughts are non-cohesive. I eat at the hospital cafeteria and shower in the room near where he lies in a medically induced coma. My anger is growing.

I become accustomed to the sounds of the trauma unit as I wait for the next doctor’s report. The sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down hallways, alarms beeping, bells ringing, wheels of a carts squeak as they roll here and there, the hum and buzz of everyday hospital routines, are forever embedded in my mind. I realize the cold-heartedness of the world outside. Where are my friends?

On the radio, the broadcaster is talking about salmon invading nearby Eagle Creek Park and its 1300 acres of reservoir. I’m not interested, and I turn it off. Today, I’m only interested in getting to the boxing gym. I can feel the anger leave my body with each jab, hook and uppercut. Why do people find it strange when I tell them my idea of a good workout is boxing? Boxing is my passion and it entered my life at a time I needed it most. I was angry and wanted to hit something; anything in my path. The gym is my sanctuary.

As I drive, I think to myself, maybe I expect too much out of friends, but I don’t think so. I expect a friend to have my back in times of tragedy. After all, that’s what friends do. When Simon’s accident happened, his facial plate (maxilla) broke in half. I was devastated. After the accident, sadness gripped my heart. I worried myself sick about my son. I was completely overwhelmed as surgery after surgery had to be scheduled to repair his injuries. I had my husband, but I needed a motherly friend to lean on, to help me, to tell it would be OK. It was one of my darkest hours, and the friends I thought had my back deserted me. When I needed them most, they were off doing their own thing. That’s how it goes, but that is not how it’s supposed to be because I believe a true friend should have my back ‘til the bitter end.

A truck carrying livestock, cattle, passes me. He is going over the speed limit. I have never understood why people blatantly break the law.

I remember that I’m from the “easier” side of the tracks where dogwood trees give off the sweet fragrance of their white and pink flowers; a place where one doesn’t worry about the next meal or whether the power will be cut off, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of hard knocks because I have. Hard knocks have made me who I am. As a child, my mother’s alcoholism ruled the household and my father was strict. As an adult, Simon’s accident has dominated my life. Nevertheless, I’ve still managed to build a creative writing program for the incarcerated. Yes, I sometimes feel I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up a fight.

I remember my early days as a former reporter covering crime and courts for local TV affiliates NBC, CBS and ABC. I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to make a difference. As a reporter, I covered many stories involving prisoners, but often the prisoners’ side of the story was left out. I wanted to know those stories, so I got involved and became a prison volunteer. At first, it was a little intimidating.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison for the first time. The stereotyping of prisons and prisoners left me wondering, “Would I be robbed, raped, or stabbed with a handmade shank?” The clinking and clanking of metal gates sent cold chills up my spine. I moved through several layers of prison guards. Their keys jingled and jangled as they unlocked gates and doors. At every entry, I had to flash my prison volunteer badge. I began questioning my sanity asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I could be killed, I thought.

***

When I arrived at the designated location, it was nothing like I expected. The classroom was like any other classroom, and its occupants, although prisoners, like any other group of students. All my fears had been in vain. One of my first classes was a victim-impact class. I wanted to know how prisoners felt about victims. Amazed by the raw talent in the room; I laughed and cried at their answers to questions. I didn’t know any victims of a violent crime but I’d hope he or she would show remorse like the men did in the room that day. I was so moved that I worked to build a creative writing program for prisoners inside the facility. I remind myself that that writing program is now in three Indiana correctional facilities.

Another truck passes me as if I’m standing still. It is carrying frozen foods. I look at my speedometer. I’m going the speed limit.

I remember that I’m an older fighter who constantly needs ice packs for pain and old wounds. Today, I brought frozen, green peas because they were convenient. In a fight, it is imperative that a boxer controls both physical and emotional pain. Physical pain can be controlled by frozen peas, but emotional pain brought on by life (people), well, that is a whole different matter. As a fighter, I know that thoughts can create emotions that impede performance in the ring. Reason has it that if I can’t control my thoughts, I cannot win the fight. Emotions originate in the mind where vital nerves alert spirit and soul to feel one way or another. Consequently, as a boxer, I must be the gatekeeper of my mind’s door, keeping everything negative out, otherwise I’m a dead duck in the ring. It took me years to learn that.

The yellow Shell gas station sign ahead tells me I’m nearing my destination. I have about ten more miles before I reach the turn that leads to the boxing gym.

I remember one day at the gym several male fighters took an interest in me. They asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I’m about 5’5 with curly, short, hair, and I wear little make-up. At first, I thought it was innocent chatter, but then I sensed resentment in their demeanor. I was a female fighter in what was traditionally a male dominated sport and they didn’t like sharing “their” ring with a female. That resentment was later confirmed when a fighter in the ring treated me as if I were wounded, stray dog too injured to be worthy of his time. I got the message and they soon got mine because I’m a fighter, and I don’t back down because resentment rears its ugly head.

As I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road that leads to the boxing gym, I dread this road because it’s filled with deep potholes. I believe that someday this road is going to be the fault of me being stranded out here to fend for myself. Off to my left, I see glowing, red embers from a small trash fire outside a rarely seen house on this road. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice puffy, gray clouds that hang over the gym, a bad omen, but I hope not. The gym building is unmarked and ugly. It’s a dreary looking place on the outside. I park my car and gather my gear.

I approach the gym’s front door and hear yelling from a coach within that alarms even the birds resting in the nearby spruce trees. I enter and look around to observe the pecking order. Amateur fighters can be territorial. They lay claim to everything: punching bags and lockers. One can tell the elite boxers by the way they carry themselves, moving with purpose after years of discipline. They are admired by most in the gym. I hear fans suck out recycled, damp air. Rap blares out of a stereo. The heavy punching bags hang in unison. They are the only signs of order in the gym.

I find my place and prepare to fight as I wait to be paired with a sparring partner. I tuck my hair in and tighten my glove straps. We will fight six rounds. Each round will last five minutes. I’m ready to release some anger. I hear distant war cries of ongoing matches and the sound of ring-side bells.

Today, I’m going to kick somebody’s ass or I’m going to get my ass kicked. Either wayas a female fighter getting a good workoutI win.

Prior to establishing a prison writing program, Debra Des Vignes had a 10-year career as a journalist in Television News getting her start at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California before traveling across the country working at various TV stations covering crime. Creative writing is her passion, especially flash fiction. She has served in various leadership communications roles for nonprofit organizations across the country and her story pitches have garnered national media attention in U.S. World & News Report, CNN, Miami Herald, The Washington Times, and more. Debra received a degree in political science from California State University Northridge.

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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

One Morning With Amy

December 8, 2019
shouts

By Susan McGee Bailey

For years, mornings with my daughter, Amy, began with shouting.

“Don’t you dare come in here, Mom!”

“Mom, I need you!”

“Mother! Where are you?”

Most mornings a familiar uneasiness in my stomach had already pulled me awake. My body learned long ago to hear Amy’s cries before any sound registered consciously. Since her birth more than forty years ago, she has survived complicated surgeries, spent endless months in rehab centers, and endured painful therapies. Her father and I made different choices when she was young. We divorced. I made a life with Amy on my own. I long for answers, for solutions to the difficulties my child confronts. But as is the case for most people with developmental and physical challenges, there is no single diagnosis. There is no silver bullet that can address all my daughter’s medical, emotional, and intellectual needs.

Years ago Amy moved from home to a more independent living situation in a group house, then home again when the anxiety of rotating staff became too overwhelming. We tried other group situations with similar results. Now she lives in a shared living situation with a young couple. Together we celebrate each new aspect of her independence: carrying her own house key, presenting her CVS gift card to the clerk, laying out her clothes for the next day. But I still jump up in the dark, half out of bed before remembering the sounds that awakened me are no more than the rustle of a birch branch or a breeze stirring the porch rocker. Some nights I fall back on the mattress and sleep. Other nights, I’ve fallen too far awake. Amy is not here. The house is empty and silent. A passing car breaks the stillness, a dog barks in response—daytime sounds out of place in the lonely night. I rock on the porch, hug my knees, and try to banish images of Amy calling for me.

One memorable weekday morning when Amy was in her late twenties, her voice was unusually loud. “Mother, I need help! Now! Right now!”

“I … am… coming…Amy.   I…am…here!” I hoped my voice was both audible and calm. Without her hearing aids, Amy hears only loud voices, words spoken a beat slower than normal.

Amy’s bowel problems, the ones that first developed when she was fifteen, had been worsening for several years. The many surgeries designed to help, instead weakened the muscles in her rectum. Controlling her bowels required constant vigilance to avoid daytime accidents. This success consumed her energy, increased her severe constipation, and worsened the nighttime situation. Four or five mornings a week she woke up with her body, her bed, often her walls, a smelly, smeared mess.

That morning I was glad it was winter. Every window was shut. Her agonized sobs, angry words, and slamming of doors would not disturb the neighbors. I would open the windows in her room and the bathroom before we left for her day program, never mind what it would do to the heating bill. The new deodorizer I’d paid twenty dollars for barely made a dent in the stench.

Once Amy was showered, shampooed, dressed, medications taken, bedroom and bathroom clean, her bedding in the washing machine, it often required the bribe of a store breakfast to get her out the door. By the time we’d reached the car that morning I was exhausted and close to tears. How would I make it through the workday?

The meeting of the project directors’ group at the feminist research center I directed hovered uneasily in my head. I needed time to think, to go over my planned remarks, but at this rate everyone would be assembled and waiting before I arrived. They would understand. Many had children. Those who didn’t were equally committed to a work environment that provided space for children, for families, for emergencies. Still, I didn’t want to take advantage of my position. The mornings when things went smoothly with Amy were fewer and fewer. She was not improving. New rounds of medical appointments would need to be scheduled.

I took a deep breath and started the car, trying to focus on the moment, not my meeting or Amy’s medical problems. “Where should we go for breakfast this morning, Amy?”

“I don’t care, I hate you! You are an ugly, stinky mother! I hate stinky!”

“It’s okay, Amy. What about Vidalia’s?”

“No, I say the Coffee Mug!”

The Coffee Mug was actually named The Clever Monk, but Amy’s hearing loss makes fine distinctions difficult. She often misunderstands words she does not know or has not heard before. She has always insisted the little shop was The Coffee Mug. When a couple of attempts to correct her resulted in angry shouts of “No, you are not right! I am right!” I surrendered to her certainty.

Two men on a ladder were putting up a new sign with the name “The Clever Monk” in large gold letters as we arrived. Amy was distracted from her anger, her blueberry eyes intent on this new activity. She rarely failed to embrace the excitement of the unexpected.

“Mother, look. They don’t know how to spell Coffee Mug! It should be C-O-F- E-E space M-U-G, right? They have C-L-E-V-E-R space M-O-N-K! That is silly! Can I tell them?”

My hopelessness faded. I was struck by her self-confidence, her persistence. Her designation was a more accurate description. Should I try to explain again that her version of the name was wrong? Should I use this opportunity to correct her spelling of coffee? I did neither. She was happy and had regained a sense of control, why spoil it?

“Amy, let’s just get some breakfast. You don’t like me to correct you….”

“Okay, Mom, I love you so much!”

She ran into the shop, her bad leg trailing a bit, her blond hair all higgily-piggily and still uncombed—my energy had failed at that final morning step. Her smile was broad, confident. “Besides, Mom, the sign looks really good anyway!”

“Yes, it does, Amy.” My smile was almost as wide as hers.

We lingered, ordered juice, coffee, warm, sweet muffins. We watched the painters. Amy’s day program and my office could wait.

Moments of joy must not be wasted. They are luxuries to be savored.

Susan McGee Bailey is a writer and a feminist. She directed the Wellesley College Centers for Women for 25 years before retiring to spend more time with her daughter and study creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. Her non fiction has appeared in MS Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Gulf Stream. She is working on a memoir, “The Education of a Feminist.”

 

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