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.

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!”

How I Spent My Midlife Crisis

My son is entering puberty. He’s going to be in a bad mood for several years and grow more hair. He will be hormonal, irritable and confused but when the years long transformative ordeal is over he will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person.

His adolescence coincides with what is supposed to be my second adolescence, or midlife crisis — or middle pause since I’m a woman. I’m also in a bad mood but my hair will thin. I’m hormonal, irritable and confused, but hopefully when my years long transformative ordeal is over I will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person. But chances are I will just be more wrinkled and neurotic.

My son and I grapple with the same existential questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? 

alarm-clockCliche dictates most people in a midlife crisis buy a sportscar. Or they get divorced, have a makeover or fall in love with youth culture. I think a midlife crisis is the natural outcome from realizing more of your life is behind you than ahead. You think, This is it? But I haven’t ________________ yet. So you make decisions designed to shake things up. But here’s the irony about shaking things up — it teaches you what your limitations are and maturity comes from accepting limitations.

I think the best part of my midlife crisis (so far) is cultivating a what the fuck attitude. I don’tgirl-angry-face mean the exasperated/befuddled “what the fuck???!” I usually exclaim. I’m talking about fuck it/why not/what the fuck do I have to lose kind of attitude that is remarkably liberating. It enables me to try new things like this hobby called blogging, or sign up to be the oldest student in graduate school this coming fall.

But previous to this I kicked off middle age with something drastic and insane by having a baby. While most of my friends prepare for an empty nest I’m preparing for preschool (again). My daily life has more in common with someone decades younger than me than it does with the lives of my friends. I potty train, play Candyland and know which one is Shimmer and which one is Shine.

We started thinking about having another baby while our oldest son was fighting brain cancer. We even discussed it with him. One day we asked if he’d like a baby brother. He said, “No thanks, we already have one of those.” Then he thought about it and said, “A baby sister might be nice.” He told us we should have more children, that we were the best mom and dad in the world.

Having more children didn’t seem crazy at that time, but it took a few years of fertility treatments before we finally had our daughter. We stuck with it because my husband and I knew one thing for sure — we loved being parents.

For those looking to shake up your shit, I totally recommend having a baby. Nothing adds new life to your life like adding a new like to your life. Plus, it’s the most optimistic thing a person can do. It requires a certain amount of faith in the future. You have to believe things will get better (or at least not worse). We decided to have a new baby at the lowest time of our lives, when we needed to find joy and attempt to lessen our pain.

Those last five words bear repeating because therein lies the optimism: attempt to lessen our pain. This is a very hopeful statement. It recognizes that we could change, over time, the debilitating pain we felt after our son died. The word “attempt” means we still had some strength in us to try something. The word “lessen” is significant because it’s not the word “heal” or “end” or “fix.” It lacks totality, as it’s impossible to fully heal, end or fix the grief after losing a child. However it acknowledges we had some power to change our situation — to make it more or less of what it was — but our pain would never be gone. The words “our pain” need no explanation.

I’m learning that second adolescence is a time to recycle one’s attitude and priorities. A time of physical change and readjustment. A time of questioning and repair.

Inevitably, I think about my mistakes. I can trace back and see several points when I made the wrong decision — my college major, quitting a job/taking the wrong job, not trying this or that. (I also see moments when I made the right choice — marrying my husband, having my kids, taking a risk on this or that). I can’t change the past, but I can attempt to lessen the impact of my mistakes (there’s that word again). I can rid my life of things that aren’t useful anymore — I’ll keep what I use and use what I keep. I’ll also detach (physically and emotionally) from people who drain me. I no longer have the patience or energy to pretend to be anything I’m not.

Oh, and I faced a breast cancer diagnosis this year (the ultimate Fuck You). Getting diagnosed with cancer puts everything into focus. It’s like perspective on speed. It forced me to face myself, let go of certain things and make decisions I had been putting off.

But all this middlepause makes me tired. From now on my motto is more midlife, less crisis.

Like Space Mother, Like Daughter (a repost in honor of Mother’s Day)

little-girl-astronautMy daughter is at an age where she talks a lot of nonsense. Her stories lack focus. Not to be too critical but they generally lack a beginning, middle and end. But hey, she’s not even potty trained so there’s still hope her skills can improve.

She uttered some such nonsense the other night while I was cutting potatoes for roasting. She stood next to me and said, “My diffwent mom teached me to do dat.”

Wait, what? Your different mom? And she let you use a knife? I had so many questions.

“She cut potatoes too,” my baby said.

I had to ask, “You had a different mom? From me?” She nodded. “What did she look like?”

“She have yellow hair. Yike me,” she said. I have brown hair.

“What’s her name?”

“Mom.” And then things got weird. “My baby sistahs ahr cute. Dem Beanie and Dot.”

I’ve heard of kids who sometimes talk about a past life and I wondered if this is what was happening. I actually believe in reincarnation — or I hope in reincarnation. When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my older son’s grave and begged him to come back to me as the new baby. After she was born I looked for signs of him in her eyes and mannerisms. I never found any.

Something similar happened to me in my childhood. When I was about seven I told my mom she wasn’t my real mom. I said I was from outer space and I was going to wait outside for my space mom until she arrived in her spaceship to get me. I stood on the driveway that evening and looked at the stars. My mother stood at the dining room window and looked at me. It wasn’t until years later did I learn how much this freaked her out.

Now it was my turn to freak out. I looked at my daughter’s stunning green eyes. Mine are brown. “Beanie and Dot,” I said. “Are they twins?”

“Yeth,” she answered. “Dem twins.”

“When did you live with them?”

“Me unknow,” she said. Wow, I thought. She unknows. That’s deep.

The subject of her different mom and baby twin sisters came up again when I packed away some clothes she outgrew. “Don’t give dose away!” She protested. “Save dem for my baby sistahs!”

“Will I ever meet them?” I asked. “Me unknow,” she said.

“What was your different mom like?” I asked. “She never say no to me or yell,” she said. Whoever this different mom is I’m beginning to think she might be a lot better at this motherhood stuff than I am.

I only know a few details about “different mom,” like we have the same kind of slipper-socks, we both watch the news, and we both like hugs. I’m curious why she talks about her. Maybe there are things that feel familiar to us and we don’t understand why, so we make up a story to explain it to ourselves, even at a young age. Or maybe my daughter did have a different mom before she came to me, and is young and pure enough to remember bits and pieces of her previous incarnation.

I also wonder what I felt as a child that led me to tell my own mother that I wasn’t her real daughter, but a child from space abandoned on earth with a strange human family. I vaguely remember the feeling of going outside and waiting. Maybe we all feel like aliens in our own homes, different from the people closest to us and have no explanation for what we’re doing with them while we wait to finally find our home.

And maybe beyond the different hair and eye color, my daughter and I have much more in common. After all, what goes around comes around. Like an orbit.

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.