A Cowboy in a Pink Polo Shirt

Image

“What does die mean?”  My three year old asks as we sit at the table eating lunch.  I have been gone for three days and she is trying to understand the reason for my absence.

“It means that your body stops working,” I say for the hundredth time.

“Did Grandpa Michael’s body stop working?”  She asks.

“Yes, baby, Mama went to California to say goodbye.”  My eyes burn from the stark reality of the words.

“Grandpa is not on earth anymore just like the dinosaurs,” she states, her inquisitive mind making the link that death equals extinction – a definitive end.  “Mama, Grandpa Michael is not here, but his love surrounds me just like my Great Grandmother Ginny.”  She has seen pictures of herself with my grandmother and understands we can no longer see her.  “I can’t see him, but he can see me,” she states solemnly.

“You’re right baby his love is all around us.  I hope he sees us.”  I close my eyes and wish this to be true.

*****

I am walking through the airport, my boarding pass in my hand, “can you make it to the gate?”  My husband asked, or maybe he didn’t ask me this, it is just the thought that is echoing in my head. “Can I make it to the gate?”  My body is heaving violent sobs shake me every couple minutes, unexpected shocks to my system.  I feel disconnected.  I am just so sad and so alone.

Invisible in this airport, people turn their heads and avert their eyes in an attempt to ignore my pain.  In the past, I may have done the same, not wanting to embarrass the person suffering.  Amidst this horror, I make a note to never run from a stranger’s pain again.  I hope I can keep this promise.

I wait at the Gate to board my plane – a plane that I hope just takes me away.  “Do you need comfort?  Can I comfort you?”  An older woman asks and I melt into her shoulder.  Another woman hands me a Kleenex, she reaches out and I am grateful.

“Jesus feels your pain,” the old woman says.  “Do you believe in Jesus?”  I now want to escape.  Why can’t comfort come with no strings attached?

“Where is my plane? I need to get on my plane,” I panic. We board, the flight attendant’s false cheer and discomfort at the sight of my grief is palpable.  He forces a smile and turns away so as not to see my tears.  At some point my tears cease.

*****

I am a little girl.  I am five maybe younger than that and my Dad is sleeping on the couch.  I hear him snoring, I inch towards him and dare to crawl up next to him and snuggle into the nook under his shoulder.  I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. I concentrate on the rhythm of our breath. Awake, I try to make my breathing coincide with his deep breaths, in and out.

“Peep loves to take naps with me,” he says to his friend and I smile.

My family is sitting on a big gray couch.  I am sitting next to my father, holding his leathery hand that feels like sand paper.  His hands are big, the hands of a man who uses them on a daily basis, the hands of a welder, a construction worker, a contractor.  They are brown and have a metallic smoky scent.  I put my hand up to his measuring the size of our fingers.  “You have so many cuts on your hand,” I say as I count them, “one, two, three, four, five, six …”  I stare at his used hands, the epitome of strength.  “Do they hurt?”

“A couple do,” he replies.  I bury my head on his shoulder, examining every mark and scar.

We are visiting him for three weeks during the summer.  I see him at the gate as my sister, brother, and I step off the plane.  He gets up and walks towards us, wrapping his arms around us.  I can feel the strength of his arms like a vice unwilling to let go.  I look up at his tanned Marlboro man face.  His blue eyes are full of tears and one slips down his cheek.  “I’m getting old,” he says, “I’m just so happy to see you guys, I can’t control my emotions. I miss you and love you guys so much.  I can’t stop crying.” He laughs.

We laugh, teasing him, “You’re so old, pull yourself together, Old Man.”  We feel genuinely loved.

Image

Blacks, grays, dark blues, strokes of red, pink, oranges, and purples, paint colors mixed, separated, and dried on a very deliberate palate used to compose powerful portraits of pain.  This man of fierce contradictions; he was strong, opinionated, grouchy, gruff, feared, closed, scary, stubborn, but also vulnerable, sensitive, wounded, weak, misunderstood, loving, trusting, deep, philosophical, protective and proud.  He was there and never there, accepted but rejected, proud and shameful.  A cowboy who wore pink polo shirts.

*****

The plane taxis and I step into the hot, dry, desert air of Palm Springs.  I walk through the terminal.  My eyes are as dry as the air, a lump like a bottle stopper in my throat and behind my temple.

My brother and sisters are here.  We ban together, a force, cleaning the skeletons from his locked studio, buoying each other as we slide down a rabbit hole that we never wanted to enter.  We wrap our arms around each other, a protective force field of love, the tangible legacy of a man who left us too soon.

I Guess Some Days Are Just Like That

Image

It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I wake up this morning at 5:30am, my daughter tugging at my arm, I roll over and see my husband lying on his side, pretending to be sound asleep.  I change diapers. I wipe bottoms. I make coffee.  The coffee over-flows, spilling on the counter, burning the underside of the pot, a puddle on the floor.  My husband says it’s my fault that I always over fill the coffee grounds.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

It is spring, April 16th, snowing, not a pretty snow, but a slushy snow that looks dirty before it even hits the ground.  I get my daughters dressed and ready for school.  I remember her boots, snow pants, hats, and mittens because God forbid, I show up without them. (Yes, I’ve gotten the yellow sticky note inside her cubby, preschool’s Scarlet Letter, stating my daughter was dressed inappropriately for the weather).  TODAY I remember her snow clothes.  I squeeze two bundled toddlers into their car seats.  Pull two toddlers out of the car, holding one in each arm so their feet don’t get wet in the slush.  I carry them like packages down the sidewalk under my arms to school.  I enter the classroom, unloading snow clothes into her cubby and realize where is her backpack? No backpack. No lunch.  No snack. I am defeated, I drive home in the snow to retrieve the forgotten goods, buckling and unbuckling and squeezing my little one from her car seat again and again.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

A gloomy day with gloomy thoughts.  Dad in the ICU. Boston. Aurora. Newtown. Guns. Bombs. Parents, their core-beings amputated in a flash of violence as their children are senselessly ripped from their lives. Enough is enough. Gun control legislation shot down.  Where is our country’s common sense?

Self-doubt, my mind is a house of mirrors, reflections distorted and unclear.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

But then, my husband comes home. “I’m sorry you’ve had a hard day.  I wasn’t mad about the coffee,” he returns to work.  My Dad is moved out of the ICU.  A message, “I love reading what you write.” Two hour naps and I write the entire time.  I am fueled.  Girls bounce from bed full of joy.  Bookstore. No tantrums.  No tears. A new chapter book.  A new Snow White princess book (with stickers). Excitement. Cold wind. Snow pelting our faces. Alive. Pizza. A phone call from husband, “Babe, the meeting was canceled, I’ll be home soon.”

A dance party. Arms outstretched like airplanes, a mom with her two girls, flying through the living room, spinning, and singing at the top of their lungs, “I PRETEND THAT AIRPLANES IN THE NIGHT SKY ARE SHOOTING STARS, I COULD REALLY USE A WISH RIGHT NOW, WISH RIGHT NOW, WISH RIGHT NOW … ”.

My youngest arms spread wide shouts, “I fly Mama, me an airplane,” as she circles the room at full speed. We are sprinkled with magic pixie dust and happy thoughts, soaring through Neverland.

Big girl orders, “Mom, you pretend you’re making the wish and we’ll be the shooting stars.  What do you wish for?” The snow is no longer dreary and the music swallows us on this unusual April night.

“Health and happiness.” I tell her.  A selfish wish, but it’s my wish all the same.

“I wish to enter the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” She exclaims, (like the Magic Tree House books we read at night where the kids are transported into the pages of their stories).

“Yeah, that’s a pretty cool wish.” I smile.  We fly. We dance.  We sing.

It has been a wonderful, magical, complex, very good day.

I guess some days are just like that.

Babies and the Female Anatomy

Image

“Mama, how do babies come out of their mommies’ bellies?”  My three and a half year old asks as I am tucking her in bed.  We have already read a story, she will want water in a moment, and will shortly thereafter call me back to get her another book for her to read on her own.  The tug of war that is the bedtime routine, the struggle for me to get downstairs and have a glass of wine and her to keep a hold of me for one more minute.  I’m used to her delaying tactics, but this is a new question and I am completely unprepared.  I didn’t think we had to worry about the birds and the bees until at least elementary school.  Isn’t there a story about a stork that brings a baby in the basket?  Hmmm… what to say???

“Honey, Daddy is a doctor and he can tell you all about that in the morning.” The tennis ball is now back on her side of the court, will she hit it back, or will she let the ball pass her, so I can leave the room.

“But Mommy, how does a baby come out of someone’s belly?”  She repeats persistently.

“Please, can we talk about this with Daddy tomorrow?” I implore desperately.  “It’s really late and you know I get very cranky if I don’t get my sleep.” Panic, I don’t want to talk about body parts at all.

“Mom, how do they come out?” She rallies back, accurately placing the ball deep on my side of the court.  Hmmm, what is socially appropriate for a three year old?   The stork keeps popping in my head.

“Well, sometimes a doctor has to cut a woman’s stomach open to pull out the baby.”  The minute the words come out of my mouth I realize how scary this sounds.  Issues, is it really that hard to say vagina???

She looks at me with a confused expression and asks, “Food is in our stomach and comes out our bottoms – do babies come out of our bottoms with our poopies too?  Do they get poopies on them when they’re born?” She asks a little scared.  I smile happy that she is not stuck on the doctor cutting a baby out of a stomach slip up.

“No, a baby comes out of a woman’s vagina,” I say a little more embarrassed than I should be, but at least I’m answering honestly.  I can picture her sitting next to her grey haired, Jesus loving, preschool teacher Ms. Alice, discussing vaginas and babies tomorrow.  We may be the only non-church goers in the class, Jewish father, and now my daughter is going to bring vagina talk to school.  It’s the biology of birth, but is it appropriate to tell a three year old?  I make a mental note to ask my teacher friend tomorrow…

Now she is even more wide-eyed than she was before.  “HOW do they come out of vaginas?”  She asks incredulously, this fact clearly seems crazy to her, the physics of it seems crazy to me too.  “Do they have peepees on them?”  The ball is flying right back at me, she is consistent and persistent, I need to just put the ball away and run from the room as quickly as possible.  However, the put away shot is not my specialty.

“I guess they may have some peepees on them, but they get a bath immediately.  Remember that picture of you in a towel from the hospital?  Let’s just talk to Daddy in the morning.”  I say kissing her forehead.  Her head smells like the honey shampoo that only her father splurges to buy.

“Bonzai (her stuffed hyena) has a baby coming out of his vagina, but it’s okay because we’ll just give the baby a bath,” she explains very matter-of-fact.  I could just smile and leave, but Bonzai is a boy, so this statement is just factually impossible.

“Sweet heart, Bonzai doesn’t have a baby in his belly because he is a boy.  He doesn’t have a vagina either.  Only girls have vaginas and only women grow babies in their bellies.”  Since she only has a little sister, she knows nothing of penises, and I don’t want to explain that one to her now.  She nuzzles her head into the pillow and I pull up the covers and tuck them around her chin.  She is losing steam.

“The baby came out of Georgia’s vagina then,” she says, (Georgia is her stuffed dog).  I smile picturing the vagina talk with old Ms. Alice on Wednesday.  One of the best parts about having children is seeing everything again for the first time through their eyes.  Holidays are new again, colors are brighter, and an ice cream cone may really be the answer to all that ails you (we now eat them on a weekly basis).

“I love you so much honey.”

*****

I walk down the stairs and lie down on the couch next to my husband.  “Big girl asked me how babies come out of bellies,” I tell him.  “I told her that they are cut out by a doctor.”

“Wow, that’s not a scary answer,” he says laughing.

“I guess I was unprepared for the question,” I smile, “don’t worry I eventually told her they come out of vaginas and to talk to you.”  I take a sip of red wine and curl my feet under the blanket on the couch, my dog cuddles up in the nook behind my knees.  The day is done and all is how it should be.

“MAMA, WATER!” I hear her calling from upstairs.

“Your turn,” I say to my husband.

32 Flavors

Image

Squint your eyes and look closer

I’m not between you and your ambition

I’m a poster girl with no poster

I”m 32 flavors and then some

I’m beyond your peripheral vision

So you might want to turn your head.

-Ani Difranco

*****

“Mommy, am I going to work when I grow up?” My three-year-old asks as we climb into the car.

“Of course baby, you can be whatever you want to be.”  I state emphatically, repeating the phrase that was repeated to me a thousand times throughout my life.

“Can I be a doctor like Daddy?” She asks earnestly.

“You definitely can be a doctor like Daddy.  You can be anything.”

“Mommy, does that mean I will be a man when I grow up?”  I freeze at three my daughter perceives that men work and women stay home, a feminist’s nightmare.  I am conflicted on a thousand different levels.  What message of equality am I teaching my daughter?  Where have we come since the women’s rights movement?

*****

Women of Generation X and beyond, grew up believing that we can be whoever and whatever we want to be.  We learned from an early age that gender is not a professional barrier.  Although some of our mothers may have been encouraged to go to college to get their “M.R.S. Degrees”, we were encouraged to go to college and get advanced degrees, so that we could have careers, break barriers, and crack glass ceilings.  From the moment I could speak my parents taught me that I could be a doctor, a lawyer, an executive, anything I put my mind to (within the limits of the aforementioned list).  I grew up believing these things and never doubting my intelligence compared to my male peers.  My parents listened to my future goals, and although it was assumed I’d have a family, being a wife and mother was never mentioned in these conversations.  To the adults around me, it may have seemed anti-feminist to bring up marriage and children when discussing my future aspirations.

For thirty years my identity was based on my academic and professional achievements.  I was an academic, a legislative intern, and an attorney – the intellectual equal to any and all of my male colleagues.  It seemed antiquated to think of the differences between the sexes. Women are equal to men in all ways.  My professional achievements aligned well with the feminist principals of equality that were deeply ingrained in my psyche.  But then I gave birth…

I became a mother and I decided to stay home with my children and everything I believed changed.  I grew up being told I can be anything I want, but no one ever told me that anything may include being a stay-at-home mother and wife.  I chose to do the one thing that nobody prepared me for.  The crazy thing is that once I made the choice to stay home, many adults supported the decision as if there was no other option.  If this is the case, then why was choice of being a wife and mother ignored until I gave birth?  In fact, sometimes women criticized my female peers who chose to return to work full-time after giving birth.  A best friend in the midst of a year long maternity leave confided, “I’m almost nervous to tell people I’m going back to teach full time next year.  I feel like they judge me, I’ve even felt insecure telling you.”  Was everyone preaching feminist principles of equality that they themselves did not believe?

*****

For many (especially initially), our identities as mothers feel all consuming.  No one can prepare us for the tremendous transformation that comes after the birth of our first child.  As a stay-at-home mom, there was a metaphysical death of my former self, which I’ve grieved.  However, this death occurred simultaneously with the birth of a new more expansive and vulnerable person.  Many mothers share a common fear of not being seen for anything but this new identity.  My friends have confided:

“I know it’s crazy, but I feel like my co-workers don’t respect my opinion anymore and just see me as a lame mom.  It’s like they ignore ten years of experience and don’t think I can do my job anymore,” one of my closest friends complained after a business meeting.

“I feel like when I hang out with my brother, he doesn’t even ask me what I think about things anymore.  He just sees me as a mom and doesn’t think I have anything interesting to say.  Maybe I don’t have anything interesting to say anymore?”  She admitted after choosing to stay at home.

“I feel like a part of me was lost when I had children.  I love being a mother, but I am in a funk and I don’t know what to do.” She confessed as they sipped coffees and watched their kids play on the floor.

*****

Continue reading

Fajitas

The plate sizzles, oil popping, its not a plate but a large skillet, the steam is acting as an emergency smoke signal as the waiter carries it across the dining room.  Heads turn, necks crane, a woman twists in her chair, everyone is wondering who ordered those fajitas, and where will they land?

*****

“Fajitas,” he comments, “I hate fajitas.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, thinking to myself that you can’t really go wrong with fajitas.  We are in our early twenties, it may be our second date, it may be our fifth, I know that I really like this guy and he’s not bad to look at either.

“You know, the spectacle of fajitas, where everyone turns and stares at the person in the restaurant that ordered the huge sizzling plate of food.”  He states with obvious distaste in his voice.

I smile knowingly, “Like when you go to a restaurant for a birthday and the wait staff gathers around the table to sing Happy Birthday?”

“Exactly, definite fajitas,” he says.

“I don’t really like fajitas either,” I say blushing, thinking who is this handsome guy and why doesn’t he want to be the center of attention?  In an instant a part of our family vernacular is born…

*****

Fast forward ten years later, married, two beautiful daughters, a gorgeous basset hound, a handsome plot hound, and fajitas are still a part of our shared family language.  But the question is, do we really hate fajitas?  Fajitas are now served to us on a daily basis.  For instance:

1)  Walking our basset hound to the park on a hot summer day, her ears flapping, her neck flab swinging, her paws, she is a walking cartoon.  Children and adults constantly asking if they can pet her, “No she doesn’t like people,” embarrassed I repeat the warning over and over.  She is the definition of fajitas.

2)  It’s Christmas, my oldest daughter is two, the mall is swarming with holiday shoppers, we each hold her hand tightly pushing our way through the crowds, my daughter is singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ at the top of her lungs, “IT MEANS NO WORRIES FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS.”

“This is fajitas,” I whisper to my blushing husband, we share a smile.

3)  Spring break, a sunny afternoon at the park, mothers and children surround us from all sides. I’ve been in the house for a week with sick kids, but decide to stop by the park to get some fresh air.  I’m dressed like I just got out of jail, dirty, oily, and ratty.  I had no idea the park would be a social gathering, probably would have put on some nice jeans, or brushed my hair if I’d known.  It’s almost nap time, we need to leave, I give the girls the mandatory count down, “two minutes … one more minute … okay time to go.”

My youngest starts screaming immediately, “No Mama, no mama, no mama,” building in momentum and intensity like an Italian Opera.  I scoop her up in my arms.

My oldest whines, “My friends are still here, they’re still playing, why can’t I? I want to stay! I’m not going!”  Then she turns her pleading into the ‘car alarm cry’, shriek, breath, shriek, breath, it sounds as if I’m stabbing her in the middle of the playground.  I would scoop her up as well, but I only have two arms, a baby in one, a picnic blanket, and diaper bag in the other.  How the hell am I going to make it to the car? My blood pressure rises, sweat makes my clothes stick in ways they shouldn’t, I am the spectacle.

*****

Parenthood is all about fajitas, little people with their own thoughts and behaviors that no parenting strategy will ever fully control. They live without social filters as they learn societal norms and etiquette.  If a friend chooses to play with someone else, tears stream down my oldest daughter’s face.  I may feel the same way at happy hour, but I’ve learned to tone down my reaction.  My youngest squeals in excitement when she sees a slide and throws herself on the floor screaming when its time to brush teeth. My daughters behave this way in the solitude of our home, or at a “Meet the Parent Picnic” in a room full of strangers I’d like to impress. Toddlers could care less whether their parents like to be the center of attention.

*****

Dear Husband,

Toddlers (and basset hounds) are the definition of fajitas. I think we’ve got to learn to live with them.  Mexican food is great, pour yourself a margarita and enjoy the ride.

Love,

Your Adoring WifeImage

Alone in a Room Full of Mothers

After leaving parent-tot class with my daughter, a feeling of inadequacy hung over my head. The dark cloud that haunts me on my lowest days of parenthood, despair, wondering why other moms seem to have it figured out while I drift through my days with no purpose other than to take care of my little brood.

The problem is, I’m unwilling to sacrifice my time with my children, but not having anything other than motherhood makes me feel worthless and less than the working mothers around me.  I am especially envious of all the part-timers, who maintain their careers by working 20 hours a week and still manage being home with their children.  How did these women find their jobs?  How come they had the foresight to embark on a career that allowed them to work part-time?  Why didn’t anyone warn me about work/life balance before I chose to go to law school?  Post-feminist society passionately believes that women can be anything they want to be, but no one addresses whether a chosen career path is compatible with having a family.  I know some mothers happily work intense hours outside the home, but pre-kids working 50+ hours, I struggled dropping my dogs at daycare, I never comprehended how difficult it would be to leave my children.

“Are you starting your own photography studio?”  I shyly asked another mother in class.  “I’ve been feeling that I need to start something too, do something separate from parenting, but I don’t know what to do, ” I confided, possibly revealing too much to a woman I did not know.

“Oh, I have a real job, this is just my creative outlet, you know, an escape for a couple of hours on the weekends.”  Suddenly – a wall – I’m hypersensitive, but her words “real job” hit me like a ton of bricks, quickly defining herself as a working mother and me as “other”. I recoiled, humiliated I felt myself shrivel. I am lucky to be home with my children, so it is embarrassing to struggle to feel good about myself while choosing to be a stay at home mother.

As an attorney, my work fueled me. I upheld the law, telling the human stories of those charged with crimes. Work consumed me.  I worked nights, weekends, and returned home exhausted with no energy for myself or for my husband.  I was unhealthy, medicated, and ate bi-weekly Jimmy John’s sandwiches.  Fortunately, my husband was in his medical residency, so he didn’t have energy either. I failed balancing my work, my health, my family, and my friendships.

After becoming pregnant, my job became unbearable.   The fear of panic attacks haunted me. I worried constantly about my juvenile clients and not about the baby growing inside of me.  Then my second trimester, I stepped off an airplane and blood poured through my pants.  Immediately, I was put on partial bed rest.  My body sent a message – this stress will hurt my growing family.  There was no part-time work option, no way to handle my anxiety, so I quit.  I intended to go back.

After the birth of my daughter, I didn’t want to return to my old job.  I wanted to give that energy to my family instead.  I dedicated myself to them. One year became two, then my second daughter was born.   My second pregnancy was a breeze. I was healthier mentally, physically, and emotionally. But I missed a part of me, the working part, the intellectual part, the part that contributed in the world.  I secretly marveled at my ex co-workers who balanced their work life with their family life.  They returned to work without being insanely jealous of those that cared for their children (again, I know how spoiled that sounds). I questioned why I did not feel confident enough to do the same.

Now, leaving a parent-tot class, I wonder why large groups of mothers often make me feel isolated?  Why our differences create chasms among us, while our similarities hide below the surface?  Why I feel insecure watching other mothers confidently stride through their days, balancing work and life? Why is it that sometimes there is nothing like a room full of mothers to make me feel alone?

*****

SUDDENLY, editing this post, bells ringing inside my head, maybe the answer is, when we DEDICATE ourselves to staying home and taking care of our family, we need to DEDICATE ourselves to taking care of ourselves, as individuals too.  Writing, long dog walks, yoga, reading, time DEDICATED to me, fills me up and provides the purpose missing on those dreary days.