I recently discovered Brain, Child Magazine, thanks to my friend Lindsey (who, by the way, often directs me to all sorts of fabulous tidbits). Brain, Child publishes thoughtful, meaningful essays and short stories about the full spectrum of parenting.
Today, I’m honored to have a piece at the Brain, Child, blog. Please head over to read my essay? And? Be sure to check out the other pieces. Their content really cuts through the noise.
Six years ago, when my husband and I finally decided that we would have two children—not three, not four, but two—it proved to be one of the hardest choices. Our conversations over many months ranged from the pragmatic reality of college tuition to the emotional, procreational pull of life…
I stood at the kitchen sink with the usual school morning mayhem unfolding around me. Washing, drying, packing, fielding, answering, signing Important Things, reminding. Oh, and, of course, mitigating the seemingly endless bickering. But that’s a post for another time.
Henry sat down on the kitchen floor to put on and tie his shoes. I continued my buzzing about and then he asked,
“Is Santa real?” Pause, pause, pause… “Is Santa really the one who comes and puts all the presents under the tree?”
Everything stopped. I stopped. All the blurs of my morning stilled. I was suddenly aware of so many details: the soaked dish towel that hung dejectedly over my hand; the crumbs on the counter, which multiply like little rabbits; the tilt of Henry’s head as it held his jaunty Santa hat.
And the avoidance of his eyes to mine.
Without not-looking back at him, I thwopped the dish towel on the counter and refilled my coffee mug.
“I believe in Santa, H.”
“Me too!” He beamed. And then, “but those kids on the bus said that he wasn’t real and that moms and dads put the presents under the tree.”
“Why would they say THAT?” I bantered back.
“I don’t know.” He answered quietly.
In this moment, I LOATHE THE BUS*. Children like to be The One Who Knows. Especially when they can clue someone else into something that they know first. I get it. But oh I really, really don’t like it. Unfortunately, this drive forces The Ones Who Know to then usher others into the realm of non-believers. When Abby graduated from being an innocent believer in Santa, I asked her to take a sacred pledge, promising to be a perpetual spreader of wonder and belief to preserve the magic of Christmas for other children.
Although the edges of this last Christmas of innocence are slightly tarnished, I will soak up every gift which unfolds. Each one–especially the ones I know will become hazy-edged memories: the way his mittened hand still reflexively reaches up and grabs for mine. The way he runs out of school and tackles me with hugs, no matter who is watching. The ease with which he shares his most important thoughts–from the number of diamond swords he’s found in Minecraft to the specifics of an uncomfortable situation with a friend. The feeling of his body, heavy with sleep, on my chest. The way his Santa hat always adorns his head, even while he sleeps.
I am keenly aware that this may be the last year I have an unabashed Santa believer under my roof. If I’m really honest, he may have already passed to the other side. But let me be clear: I am doing everything in my power to make this a Christmas in which he believes. I brainstorm ideas that will wow him and make his Christmas Spirit meter tip over into burning faith. At least for the next fourteen days.
Abby is my faithful spirit wingman in this quest. When she hears Henry say something that wraps his belief in Santa in question marks, Abby reports to me.
The latest one: “Mom, Henry said that you and Dad are the elves. That you do the work. I told him that was silly, that OF COURSE you and Dad couldn’t do all that stuff.”
I looked at her and my shiny eyes met hers.
“Mom? Why are you so sad?” she queried through inquisitive eyes.
How do I answer her? That this is a profound stage of childhood that I’m not ready for him to leave? That her desire to sprinkle this season with mystery and magic slays me? That their faith and belief infuse my days with a pureness that sparks my soul? That ever since I figured out that my parents were arm-in-arm with Santa, that I extinguished my anguish by making Christmas magical for my baby brother? And that then, when I got older, I realized that if I had children I would get to relive this time with them? And that now, half of my children don’t believe in Santa and the other half almost don’t? UGH. That I vicariously view the world through Henry’s reverent belief? That this milestone marks the clear, bold swath of time’s passage?
I wipe the tears away. My answer to her comes starts in a hug. I wrap her solidly in my arms and say,
“I just want him to get all the time he should to believe in Santa. I don’t want anyone to take that away from him.”
Or, as it turns out, from me.
* I love Sixteen Candles and can still see Sam’s (a.k.a. Molly Ringwald’s) disdainful face as she spits out this line.
It’s been so long. Too long. But, such is life at times. I remind myself that this living I’ve been doing will fuel my writing wells and, I hope, my words will runneth over.
In the meantime, a brief catch-up is in order.
1. The Surgery
My eyes, laden with anesthesia, tried to open. Beeps sounded and shoes padded on sterile floors.
“What is your pain level, on a scale of one to ten? Ten being the worst.” I heard her before I saw her.
“Eight.” I tried to form the word, but it stuck somewhere in my voice box.
“What?”, her question stitched through her brows. She leaned in closer.
“Eight.” The word finally picked itself up from the gravely underbelly of my throat and escaped.
“I’ll get you something.”
Through the haze of pain meds, I tried to listen as they explained. An orange-sized cyst. An ovary removed.
Endometrial implants abolished.
We left the hospital and Hubby drove me home. I sat in pain; slow and hesitant, scared.
Days passed and heavy sleep carried me away.
Good news pierced the haze and pain: the citrus cyst is benign. I drift back to sleep with gratitude resting comfortably around my heart.
I’ve lived with endometriosis for 20 years and let me tell you, she’s a bitch. She nags with pain, ruins plans and throws throbbing tantrums regularly. This surgery was my last effort (the third in a series) to avoid having a complete hysterectomy which would put me into medical menopause.
More good news: I am feeling better every day. My days are much more normal than they were for the last eight months. During my recovery, my children showered me with remarkable love and tenderness. Emotions jumped like jacks from their eyes: are you ok? was that hug too hard? when will you be regular mom again?
Love. Frustration. Understanding.
My friends wrapped my family and me in Good Samaritan help. They delivered delicious meals to warm our bellies and special gifts to brighten our days. We basked in their love like a puppy rolling in the autumn sun. Because of my rock-star hubby, children and friends, I quietly healed and gave over to the slow cadence my body desired. I devoured books (how did I ever not read Tracey Chevailier before? The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway are exquisite). I retreated into the safety of my bedroom, wrapped in rumpled, cotton sheets, slowly returning to me.
The bad news: I still have pain. I am still not supposed to run or do push-ups (incredibly frustrating). Amongst the pain, I allowed the ever-hungry guilt monster swallow me up, dousing me with shame for allowing the pain to trump all else. I’d been in lay-down-in-bed pain on and off since December and by the time June’s surgery arrived, we were six months deep, sloshing around in my limited patience and harsh tones.
People say kids are resilient. I hope they’re right. My wish is that time’s edge will soften my worrisome grip, as well as my children’s memory of this stretch of discomfort. I also hold hope that through the shit storm, I’ve given them a realistic, ring-side seat to life and that yes, sometimes it really isn’t fair and sometimes it really isn’t easy. And that you keep on keeping on in spite of it all.
And it gets easier. And that I, too, will absorb this lesson. Life.
2. The Move
Ahhh, the scent of cardboard and the distinct sound of packing tape stretching to close a box full of your life. There’s nothing like a move to add spice and fun to your days.
Denise, where’s the thingamagigger?
I sure don’t know!
Mom, do I have any clean underwear?
Where’s my iPod?
Your guess is as good as mine!
Mom, where’s Orange Dog?
AHHHH! For the Love of All That Is Holy, I forgot to put a Do Not Pack sticker on him!!!!
Hey, Denise, can 17 people come over and complete 25 different moving tasks simultaneously, and all ask you varied questions to which you don’t have the answers!
We packed our bags, our house, our life, and said goodbye to the East Coast and hello, once again, to the Midwest.
Familiar rhythms now surround me. The moving-in process will take time. We’ve landed safely in our temporary housing where we’ll live cozily and happily until we take possession our home in a month. Both Abby and Henry started at their new schools yesterday. New buildings, new faces, new systems, new everything. Thank goodness they are resilient.
So much change. Because, yes, this is life: goodbyes, pain, hellos, challenges, questions, uncertainty.
So much beauty. Because, yes, this is life: the solid goodness of friends, the support of family, a September, late afternoon sun shining warmly across my back, and the grace in my humbled acceptance of its multiple truths.
Often times, I don’t realize I’m on a writing break until about two weeks in. Then, with a start, I’ll think back to the last time I wrote. That time seems fuzzy, distant, faint. Then, I’ll try think of something new to write.
And then, I’ll realize I’m on hiatus.
I’ll be back. For now, I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Jena Strong ’s luminous memoir, don’t miss this. These words soothe like my mother’s cool hand on my furrowed brow. I’ve read them over and over and over again:
What if you knew
that everything was going to be okay,
that something was in motion
beyond your field of vision,
beyond even the periphery
of your knowing?
Last weekend we went to Six Flags. Abby and Hubby are thrill-seekers and rode many terrifying rides. Henry wasn’t tall enough to go on the biggest, scariest attractions. (I believe he was secretly overjoyed that he didn’t have those extra inches that would’ve allowed him to panic –I mean ride.)
When Abby and Hubby rode the first of their stomach-in-your-throat rides, Henry tugged my hand and asked to go on the ferris wheel.
I have a new-found fascination with ferris wheels. While I always enjoyed them before, I don’t think I truly appreciated them until recently. Several summers ago we went to a carnival; I was so taken with the beauty of the ferris wheel, both statuesque and soft, graceful and steely. I took many photos, trying to capture both its essence and dichotomy.
My interest deepened when I read my friend Lindsey’s gorgeous musings on ferris wheels; she reflects about their distinct, metaphoric portrayal of life. Climbing and then, descending. Again and again.
Henry and I climbed into our ferris wheel car. The metal bars clanked, locking us into our own compact space. The spring day was crisp with warm sun. Henry’s solid body nestled into mine and the sunlight illuminated his face. As I watched the freckles dancing across the bridge of his nose, he suddenly turned to me with his signature furrowed brow and asked,
“Mommy, are you surwe that this one won’t go upside down?”
The wind whipped his blond hair about.
“Yes, Henry, I’m sure.”
Our ride began.
On Tuesday of this week, I learned, like you, of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. The news sliced through to my soft, unprotected underbelly, leaving in its wake a wobbly understanding of the world in which we live, in which I raise my children. I watch the news coverage over and over again–I guess hoping that if I keep watching, I’ll discover some piece of news that somehow makes sense of the unimaginable, the non-sensical, the horrific, the unbelievable:
Innocent people were injured and killed while they watched the world-famous Boston Marathon.
An eight-year-old is dead.
A graduate student is dead.
A young woman is dead.
176 victims will endure life-altering injuries.
I try to imagine the grief of these families and something crumbles at my core.
Wednesday morning, I ran on the treadmill at the gym and watched still more coverage. Just like I did after September 11, after the Sandy Hook massacre, and after one particular bomb threat in Times Square, when I was just blocks away from a car bomb that was, thankfully, discovered just before its pending explosion.
My mind jumps about and lands on each of these crimes against our safety; each one detonating our collective ability to live and function as we’ve always done in the past.
As I stretch after my morning run, I’m transported to my weekend ferris wheel ride with Henry.
We’d just reached the pinnacle and were stopped at the top, spring trees blanketing the ground beneath us. Before we descended for the first time, Henry leaned into me and said,
“I’m scared, Mommy.”
His small hand rested on my leg, seeking comfort and assurance.
Our brief conversation seems more poignant, now, with yet another filter of pain, suffering and terror altering my world view. I move into Pigeon pose and as I continue my stretching, my mind’s racing also continues. I mentally answer him now, as we descend into this altered reality,
“Me too, Henry. Me too.”
I guess that’s what we do. Every day, with undercurrents of uncertainty and fear clanking about our minds, we climb in.
We climb into our days, gearing up for our ascent and hope for our safe descent. We get up and go into our day with no knowledge of the outcome. We brush teeth, get dressed, go to work, drive our cars, argue, make-up, empty homework folders, ride the subway, smile, buy groceries. We take out the recycling. We experience piercing joys. We see exceptional and mighty outpourings of good. We turn our faces to the heat of the spring sun. We hug our children. We hope that as the sun descends on our days, those we love will come back into our arms. We have days when they don’t. We ache, grieve and fall apart.
Although we revel in exhilaration as the car stops at the top and wonder washes through us like a wave of tiny carbonated bubbles, we acknowledge, too, that someday the wheel must stop.
Each day, we go on. Despite the fear, despite the horror, despite the inevitable, we go on. It takes courage to put our feet on the ground each morning. Within that courage lies the superb responsibility and privilege of the living–we get to take that leap, take that hand, cook that dinner, lose, mourn and, if we’re looking, note the small, quiet miracles of each day. We live.
Around and around.
We go on.
This is our spring break week. One day, the kids and I headed into the city. We’ve usually driven in the past but this time we took the train. And, much to Henry’s delight we got a double-decker train. With a STAIRCASE. After departing the train (and surviving the human stampede through a very narrow escalator), we broke through, into the city.
Both Abby and Henry paused when we hit street level, readjusting to the sunlight. Their eyes took in New York City and the barrage of noises, people, smells and sights. I had to prod them a bit to get them to start moving. Then, we hoofed it. For many of the 50 blocks, I had one if not two hands, in mine.
From 32nd all the way up to 79th, and half-way down again (I finally put us on the subway at 59th–we were wiped), we walked. We walked through Times Square. We walked to Carnegie Deli where we ate incredibly huge sandwiches and gazed the star-covered walls. We walked to the Museum of Natural History and greeted the dinosaurs.
When we left the museum (our planned destination), we walked to Central Park. This was, of course, the highlight of their day.
The early April day was warm–almost hot. Cobalt blue skies soared overhead and the hot sun shone. It looked like every New Yorker was in the Park–it hummed with sun-deprived Northerners after a very, very long winter. Daffodils bobbed their heads in the soft breeze. Birds celebrated, dipping and swooping about. Runners ran, bikers whizzed by; one runner and one biker had a near-accident and had some New York-flavored words, to, uh, work it out. My mild-mannered, suburban children watched their interaction with awe.
We strolled and dallied while eating ice cream from a street vendor. Shouts from a softball game punctuated the soft air. We spent a lot of time exploring the rocks.
As beautiful as this day was, of course not everything was picturesque. It was a day with two children and their mother–we all took our turns with frustration. In addition, Henry touched everything possible–the cement walls, the ground (that’s when I yelled, “Every dog in New York has urinated there, Henry!”), the sticks, the trashcans. When he rested on one park bench that smelled just like a urinal, I asked him if that smell was familiar. He looked at me quizzically and said,
“People go to the bathwoom on the benches?!”
If I could’ve bathed him right then, I would’ve.
But, despite these regular blips, contentedness prevailed. We made it back to the train station (first time I navigated from the subway to the train station without the aid of a seasoned New Yorker!). Henry sat on my lap for a bit and his heavy head rested in the curve of my neck. The kids watched as the outskirts of the city gave way to the suburbs. As the terrain switched from urban to forest, the trees indicated that we were getting closer to home.
As we drove home from the train station, I asked both Abby and Henry what they liked most about our adventure. Henry cited the rock climbing in Central Park. Abby agreed–with a close second being the street-vendor soft-pretzel. I, however, had a different take. For all of those 55 block we traversed, both of my children held my hands. (I wondered, prior to this day, if I’d ever hold Abby‘s hand in public again.)
A day with both of them within arms reach and the solid weight of both of their hands in mine will forever be the highlight of this day.
Now, I am the mother of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old. After our next round of summer birthdays, I will be the mother of a 10-year-old and a seven-year-old.
10 and seven. These words amaze me.
Today marks the last week of our This Is Childhood series. Lindsey of A Design So Vast shares her luminous, poignant words about the age of 10. Please read her tribute (maybe grab the tissues) and enjoy the last essay commemorating childhood.
The This Is Childhood Line Up:
ONE – Aidan Donnelley Rowley
TWO – Kristen Levithan
THREE – Nina Badzin
FOUR – Galit Breen
FIVE — Allison Slater Tate
SIX – Bethany Meyer
SEVEN – Tracy Morrison
EIGHT – Amanda Magee
NINE – Moi
TEN – Lindsey Mead