To The Nice Lady on Michigan Avenue Who Told Me I Was A Good Mom

I’m tired. It’s a tiredness born from from stress.

A week ago I had reconstruction surgery on my breasts after having a mastectomy last March to rid me of breast cancer. Everything went well, there were no surprises, and I consider myself lucky. I had my follow up appointment with the plastic surgeon, who seemed pleased with his work. I’m still sore, swollen and bruised, so it’s hard for me to agree at this point, but we’ll see.

I brought my little girl along for the two hour trek into the city. She was perfect at the plastic surgeon’s office, wonderful at The Museum of Contemporary Art, adorable at the playground. But…The Disney Store was one outing too much and her meltdown ensued right there on Michigan Avenue. I pleaded, “I can’t carry you because of my boo – boo.”

And that’s when you appeared.

You were older, maybe 70, and very nicely dressed. You told my daughter you loved her sparkly Hello Kitty boots and pink baret. You said they were nicer than any shoes you had. My daughter hid behind me and didn’t talk. You smiled at us. Then your expression turned serious and you said. “You’re doing a good job.”

And then you were gone.

You have no idea what that meant to me at that moment. Your affirmation made my day, and this was no normal day — It was a day I cleared a major medical hurdle. But at that moment you spoke directly to the heart of who I am. You somehow knew what I needed to hear.

And I thank you.

When I Wasn’t Looking

  1. My hair started graying
  2. My son stopped watching cartoons.
  3. My son started using words like “actually” and “ludicrous.”
  4. My joints started creaking.
  5. My clothes stopped fitting right. 
  6. My eyes got worse.
  7. My son started making his own breakfast.
  8. My son started putting himself to sleep at night.
  9. My son stopped being afraid of thunder.
  10. My soul got calmer.

Whales and Grief

Even on my best days I feel unsettled and disoriented. When I leave the house I check my purse several times to make sure I have everything — phone, keys, wallet — it’s all there. I go through a mental checklist, but I’m still uneasy. Then it hits me — It’s not something I’m missing, but someone.

I’ve written about how hard this time of year is for me. Seven years ago this month, my oldest son died from brainwinged-heart cancer just when he was supposed to go into fifth grade. Each day that passes in August I feel my chest grow tighter and my nerves shorter. I can’t concentrate. I have flashbacks and PTSD. I brace myself for the 24th, and again two days later for when we buried him on the 26th. And then Childhood Cancer Awareness Month starts in September — but let’s be clear — I’m never not aware.

I followed the recent news story of a mother outside of Seattle so consumed by grief she refused to let go of her deceased baby for seventeen days. Medical professionals who observed her behavior said they’d never seen anything like it. They were worried for her health and even her survival. She neglected to eat. Her family never left her side. They tried to help, in fact, relatives took turns holding her baby so she wouldn’t starve or become exhausted. She became exhausted anyway, but still wouldn’t let go.

I understand this momma’s heartache. It doesn’t really matter that she’s a whale and I’m a person. Grief transcends species and manifests similarly among bereaved mothers.

Scientists wonder if the orca, named Tahlequah, actually experienced grief or if we humans projected the emotion onto her. The fancy word for this is anthropomorphism. Well, I’m no scientist but I don’t think I’m projecting. I think it’s arrogant to assume we are the only species capable of primal and even complex emotions. I recognize a sister in bereavement when I see one. I can’t deny Tahlequah the authenticity of her heartache, which was on obvious display for two-and-a-half weeks.

Like Tahlequah, I know what it’s like to not let go. I held onto my son for ninety-six days while he lay in a coma in the PICU at Children’s Hospital. At first he was minimally responsive to my voice and touch — his increased heart rate was his response. I passed long hours each day holding him and whispering I love you in his ear. Summer progressed and the tumor snaked throughout his brain, and eventually his vitals stopped indicating if he knew I was there. Still, I held him. I knew he would die when the cancer finally touched the part of his brain that controlled his heartbeat.

One morning in late August, a concerned social worker gently asked my husband and me why we thought our son was still here when he should have died months ago. I said, “For the love.” My words hung in the air when his heart rate monitor went silent and his lips turned gray.

I told my best friend I would have held him for another ninety-six days if I had the chance. She said, who are you kidding you would have done it forever.

It’s torture to never hug, kiss, touch, tickle or hold hands with my son again. No more wiped tears, kissed boo-boos, or counted freckles. High-fives, winks and pats on the back are gone. I can never crack his toes. His voice and (oh, god) his laugh — what can I say…

Some people might say I’m anthropomorphizing to think Tahlequah knew what she would lose when she finally let go of her baby, but I know there’s no other explanation to hold on like she did.  It is a desperate and crazed way to prolong the inevitable — the real hell — that begins the next morning when you wake up without them.

It is now seven years after the first morning I woke up without him. I’m afraid still when I cry it will be impossible to stop. There’s a scientific myth that the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years, essentially making us different people from whom we were before. Except for neurons in the brain. Those don’t change. Those will hold my memories of my baby forever. 

A Letter to My Son on His Twelfth Birthday

Hey Baby,

I call you “baby” because that’s who you are to me. My sweet baby boy with the enormous eyes like Oreo cookies.

Happy Birthday, Baby. You’re changing fast. Two weeks ago you weren’t taller than me.boy-with-birthday-cake-and-confetti Now you’re taller than me. You have an adorable faint mustache, and your voice is in its Peter Brady phase. You used to have baby fat, but now you’re lean like a library ladder. It’s almost like you’ve become a different person overnight.

But you will always be my baby.

You were born into this family as the little brother. Your big brother loved you like crazy. You followed him everywhere. You climbed on his lap and the two of you stared at the little DS screen together while he played his games, and you cheered him on. He protected you from icky bugs, made sure you learned “parking lot rules” and taught you about Pokemon. You shared sushi, toys, a room and a deep love for each other.  Many nights I’d find you asleep holding hands across the empty space between your beds.

The role of little brother fit you perfectly. You were a silly goofball, carefree and happy.

Then your brother got sick with brain cancer. You were left frequently with your Aunt. You were confused. Things changed. Your brother changed. He looked different. He was in a wheelchair and spent months in the hospital, but all you wanted was to be near him, hug him, talk about Pokemon and make up scenarios for your “guys” with the hundred stuffed animals you both owned. He put his arm around you when you climbed into his hospital bed to watch Nick Jr. You fell asleep holding onto him.

You were an only child for a few years, and this role didn’t suit you. You were anxious and lonely. You never wanted to leave my side (and I didn’t want you to, anyway).

Then you became a big brother to a little sister who thinks you hung the moon.  You thrive in this role. You are an amazing big brother, and you say it’s because you learned from the best. You are protective and fun and funny. You teach her about Pokemon and sushi and “parking lot rules.” Now she’s the silly one and you’re the protector.

I am so amazed by you. Every day I am inspired by your resilience. I aspire to the level of kindness, compassion and curiosity you demonstrate naturally. You are my living example of how to be a good and strong person.

Did you know you saved my life? You were the reason I woke up and got out of bed the day after your brother died. Without you, well, I can’t imagine… You have transformative superpowers in your smile. I am helpless against your cuteness. You give me courage to face any challenge. Last year I wrote an entire screenplay about everything I learned from you.

You own my heart.

When you grow up you want to be a doctor/actor/comedian/research scientist/theoretical physicist — and I think you can make it. I believe in you.

You have a great friend group who accepts you with all your aspirations and antics, especially your bestie who is sunshine in boy form. You look out for each other like brothers — what more can you ask from a friend in Jr. High? What more can you ask from a friend in life?

But don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Stay immature and goofy a while longer. Stay silly. Stay innocent. And I know you will…

Recently, you said, “I know how babies are made. The man puts his ding-dong into the woman’s slipperslap, and then a baby comes out.” First of all, I don’t think I ever heard a better slang term. I’m the proud mom of a word inventor. Second of all, not quite. You really don’t know much at all, and that’s awesome. With all your excelling in academics, I’m relieved you lag behind the kids who ride the bus, go to sleep away camp or hang out behind the 7-11 when it comes to maturity.

I love that you’re a bit of a nerd. I love your dance moves and dry sense of humor. I even love our arguments (you’re so good at it!). You make me laugh every day. You make me happy. And you make me proud.

You make me look better at this job of being a mom than I actually am.

My birthday wish for you is to find your place in this big world. Do not to be overwhelmed by choices. Stay close to the people who love you. Keep a calm heart. Seek happiness, whatever that means to you — you deserve it. Your past doesn’t dictate your future.

Thank you for being mine. Promise me you’ll never be too old to snuggle and watch Saturday Night Live on the couch. And thank you in advance for letting me live in a tiny house in your backyard when I’m an old lady.

Stay cool, Baby. Have an amazing birthday!

I love you more,

Mom

 

Things My Daughter Says (With Exclamation Points)

  1. “You know how much me yuv pink!”
  2. “Me foosey!” (thirsty)
  3. “Me want a donut and Barbie!”
  4. “Where da skizzers an da sticky tape?!”
  5. “Me like lollipops tooooooo much!”
  6. “Me want all da toys me seen on TP yestehday!”
  7. “Me only ticklish everywhere!”
  8. “Tushies are stinky!”
  9. “Me want to win!”
  10. “Me want to be pretty yike a unicorn!”

Let’s Party Like It’s 1979

One day, for no particular reason my son said, “Mom, I think you were born at a good time. You know, before electricity. And then you got to have electricity.” I asked how old he thought I was. My son shrugged.

I was born before a lot of life changing things were ubiquitous — cell phones, the internet, video games, tv remotes, MTV (do they still have MTV?) But one thing I wasn’t born before is electricity. Thank gawd he didn’t say indoor plumbing or ask about my pet dinosaur.

My childhood took place in the 70s, I explained. NOT the 1870s. And we did things a little differently. Most notably, hours went by without my parents having any idea where I was, what I was doing or whom I was with. I had boundaries — the busy streets that bordered my neighborhood — but this left blocks and blocks of territory to roam. I was most likely riding my bike downhill with no hands and without wearing a helmet.

I ate garbage. Not literal garbage but ravioli from a can, cereal with the brightest colors and a lot of Jay’s chips. My mom had a crate of flavored pop delivered to our house once a week and I slurped down the orange ones. Now I won’t buy anything in a can (chemical liners), bright cereals (artificial colors) or pop (sugar).

There were only a handful of channels on our television, which was a giant wooden piece of furniture in the corner of the room, and no remote control. Sometimes my dad shouted from the window for me to come inside to switch shows for him. Today my son speaks into a remote that understands english and changes itself from among hundreds of channels.

boy-sitting-in-grass-clip-artEverything was simple. I don’t remember feeling overstimulated, stressed out or FOMO, which are things my son feels strongly. I often used my imagination rather than electronics to pass the time. I didn’t have expectations of being constantly entertained. A favorite pastime was to stare at the clouds and find animals. I filled a lot of afternoons doing nothing. Yet it was enough.

I don’t think my son feels the same way. He has anxiety from having too many choices and a surreal awareness of the ticking clock hanging over his childhood. He thinks about the choices he didn’t make, things he doesn’t have and the experiences he didn’t create. Nobody escapes this thought loop these days — I certainly don’t — but I don’t remember thinking like this as a kid.

board-game-pieces-clip-artI suggested to my son we have a 1970s day, which meant we eat food I ate at his age and play outside. This was met with little enthusiasm. Canned Italian food was declared “gross” (it is) and going outside was “not good for our skin” (kind of). The whole experiment fell apart after I dug up my old Merlin and showed him what hand-held computer games used to look like.

It’s a vastly different world, and pretending the fun I had in 1979 is relevant to my son now is silly. His life would seem crazy to eleven year-old me. He suffers through brutal amounts of homework that’s more complicated than mine ever was, and I can’t imagine the stress of living with social media during the awkward tween years. (Is tween a new word?) When I put myself in his shoes (which actually fit my feet) I realize I have no idea how he does it. How is he growing up normal and sane with all these distractions? How is he not royally messed up from the pressure?

And when did my cute little baby boy become a tween with his childhood half over? I hate that he’s growing up so fast. It’s like somebody pressed fast-forward on our lives and then one day he woke up taller than me.

But he will always be my baby boy, who somehow thinks I did my homework by lantern light, yet knows too much about other more important things.