All Better

My son wept today. Even though he’s six, such displays are rare with him. The tears were over a Lego creation he worked on for maybe an hour, tops, something he very generously called a Transformer. To me, it looked like it could be a Lego anything: a building, a sandwich, a tribute to Tetris.

“This right here? It’s a shooter. It grows at night, when the bad guys are out, like this—vvvvssshhoowwww, bachonk, bachonk—with wings that can’t be broken. AND it defends against rockets. Pah-kew! Pah-kew!”

He had just finished describing this terrifying beauty to me, in great and passionate detail, when he went running off, tripped, and sent the whole thing flying. When it landed on the ceramic tile in our kitchen, his creation shattered back into all its original pieces. There were maybe a hundred, all told. We had to get out the dustpan and everything.

The weeping that ensued wasn’t a goldfish-died kind of weeping, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in having an audience. It was more like a crop-is-ruined-better-get-a-second-job sort of stoic sadness you might see from a farmer at the end of a particularly bad summer. Yeah, things got kind of real for him for a few minutes there.

Instead of running to comfort him, I watched from the next room. I know he’s only six, but I wanted to see what he’d do with the ordeal. Because, you know, life is like that. Shit randomly breaks and goes wrong, and you can’t always repair it. Whether it’s shattered glass, a dropped egg, or something intangible, like a friendship, some breaks won’t mend. That’s a hard and important lesson to learn. This was a decidedly privileged and painless way to start teaching it. I’d be a fool to pass that up.

When I was in the fifth grade, I won a raffle for a beautiful porcelain figurine. Among the entire school population, there were only two winners—two such figurines—and to be one of those winners felt like winning a Pulitzer. I’m sure I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time, maybe more like meeting Olivia Newton-John or waking up with boobs. About five minutes after I retrieved the doll from the school office—she had this flowing blue gown, long black hair, and sultry eyes with eyeshadow—some kid on a BMX bike came tearing through the breezeway where I was standing, crashed into me, and sent her flying. She completely shattered, save for her sad head.

“Can we glue it?” I sobbed to my mom. She had witnessed the whole scene unfolding as she walked from her car to pick me up. “We can, right!?”

No way in hell could my mom put eight million shards of porcelain back together to look like Catherine Zeta-Jones in a ball gown. That doll couldn’t be glued. She couldn’t be replaced. It was time to let disappointments just be disappointing. My mom knew (or just learned) what I’m continuously learning: Parents can fix only so much, and that’s actually a good thing. Because real life has curves and ditches that cannot be avoided. You gotta practice for them when you can.

I could see that today was that kind of training day for my son. When he was ready, I took him up in my arms and hugged and kissed him and told him how much it sucks when something you work so hard on gets ruined. But I didn’t make it “all better” for him. I didn’t even try. That’s his job, and he figured out how to do it all by himself.

Transformer II: The Second Coming

Transformer II: The Second Coming


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Real Life

Three years ago today, on my mom’s birthday, I received a call that punched me in the gut during a business lunch: It was my dad, letting me know that a possible donor heart had been found for him.

In the business of heart transplantation, the person in need of the heart lives in a kind of limbo as a name on a registry of potential recipients. My dad was fairly high on the registry because of the severity of his condition, but many months had passed since he was placed there. And until that phone call, every time his name showed up on my caller ID, my stomach would do a flip.

My lunch partner, a client, had the uncomfortable job of watching me cry into my sushi after I hung up. As I apologized for my blubbering, I remember him saying, “It’s okay. This is real life!” He was exuberant, and I knew what he meant: It’s so easy to forget that life isn’t a collection of errands and pastimes and lunch dates and things that merely add up to a day and another day and another one after that.

En route to the hospital, I picked up my kids from school. They were giddy as just-fed hamsters, not being old enough to fully grasp the complexity of what was happening. I’d say the glee was slightly more than they show at the county fair when I let them eat cotton candy, and slightly less than they show on Christmas morning. Gently I explained that our excitement came at a very high cost: Their grandpa was about to gain a heart because someone had died, and the surgery he was about to have was incredibly serious. It was important to me that they regard the gift much differently than ones left under Christmas trees. This was no Lego set or American Girl doll. This was real life.

Once at the hospital, I realized the kids would need some diversions. There would be hours of waiting for screening results. The surgery itself could take well over a dozen hours. So, I left to buy some coloring books at a drug store up the road. On my way back in, waiting by a set of interior elevators that would take me up to my dad’s room, I overheard a somewhat hysterical conversation taking place between two women. They were huddled together on a bench, shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed. One was telling the other what a beautiful thing she’d done, what an amazing choice she’d made. She said to take comfort in it, because it meant someone else out there would get a chance to live. The sobbing was unbearable. My chest dropped into my ankles. Was this the donor’s loved one?

Because his donor’s survivors opted not to respond to the letter my dad was allowed to write several months after surgery, we still don’t know who my dad’s donor was. We might not ever know. But I have my suspicions.

The day my dad had his transplant, there was an accidental death here in town, a young woman hit by a car. I read about it in the news the next day, noting how close the time of death was to the time my dad got his call. Was it her? My dad’s donor was classified as “high risk,” which can mean any number of things, one of the typical ones being a history of IV drug use. The obituary of the woman whose death was reported in the news included a request that donations be made to a foundation for diabetes research. Surely she’d been a diabetic. Did she receive insulin by IV?

I don’t actually know if this woman was my dad’s donor, but I feel sure that those women in the hospital atrium were her loved ones. So, I feel sure she was somebody’s donor. That’s why I keep a photo of her on my desktop. For the past three years, her face has greeted mine at some point nearly every day, every time I fire up the machine where I write these words. Every time I look at her face, cupped in her own hands with a playful light in her eyes, I say a little prayer for her and the people she left behind. I wonder if she did what she wanted to do before she died. I feel grateful. And sometimes I linger a little longer on the picture, remembering that this is real life. We each get just one to call our own. Mine is nobody else’s, and I get to choose what becomes of it, at least until I die and leave a little piece of it to someone else.


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The Longest Marathon: How I Survived a Sleepless, Screaming, Crying, Colicky Baby

Photo credit: Pedro Klien, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

A stock photo of a happier baby than our actual baby.  (Photo credit: Pedro Klien, via flickr // CC BY 2.0)

My daughter rocked a killer tan when she was a newborn. It was actually jaundice, but it made her look all devil-may-care bronzed. Strangers would peer under the hood of her car seat and remark on her golden complexion. “Hello, precious!” they’d say. “She’s such a beautiful color!”

“Thanks,” I’d say, wanting to add, “It’s bile, people. Would-be turds.”

While jaundice is nature’s sunless tan, it’s also exhausting. My daughter slept almost nonstop for 10 days after she was born, soundly as a hobo. In fact, there were times my milk came tumbling through the ducts like pointed rocks, painful because she’d slept through yet another feeding before it. Dutifully obeying hospital orders, I’d rub the nipple across her mouth to roust her. Her eyes fluttering, she’d root for a few seconds. Then she’d conk out again, lunch spraying all over her face or, worse, toward someone who probably didn’t want breast milk on their shoes.

“She’s a good sleeper,” we got to say. At least there was that.

When she finally woke up, she really woke up. That’s when we met the real her, the one with plans to undertake an eight-month project of crying us crazy. Naps? She could take or leave them. She just wanted to nurse, and she stopped taking a bottle. She’d bite on its chewy nipple and cry. The sleep deprivation became ungodly, enough even to make my husband nearly snap. And he’s a retired Green Beret, people. They train for that shit. Part of me felt like a rock star for enduring more than eight months of soprano crying and shattered sleep—an hour here, 45 minutes there—but another part of me started to grow a phantom second head that looked like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It deserved a green beret of its own.

I see people with those 26.2 marathon decals on their rear windows, and I wonder where my decal is. Try a marathon that lasts 5,800 hours, give or take a dozen. Nobody tells you if the finish line is at 6,000 or 287,000, and you have to do it in your fat pants. Your main fuel is Whatever Food Items Fit into a Mouth Hole in Seven Seconds or Less. That’s the approximate time it takes before a tiny dictator starts screaming at you like her arms were just hacked off until you nurse her. Oh, and instead of a cheering section, there are assholes on the sidelines who never ran the same marathon, telling you you’re doing it all wrong. Yeah, I need a decal.

My daughter is nearly eleven now. I’m remembering back to those days because of a tent I came across in our basement. The connection? When she was old enough to crawl, I once set up that tent in our den and lay down topless inside of it, zipper shut, presenting myself as a living buffet. As I tried to sleep, my daughter latched on every few minutes for a sip. She did 180s with her body, using her teeth as anchor. And while it wasn’t the greatest sleep, I actually caught a few winks through the pain.

That tent reminded me of all the time I spent agonizing over what to do. It reminded me of endless Internet searches, looking for ways to get some sleep or at least stay awake with my sanity intact. It reminded me of all the second-guessing I did about my mommy skills. So many books, people, and websites offering conflicting advice. A horizon that looked dark as ink. I always told myself that once I got out of those woods, I’d go back and leave my own mark on the interwebs, letting other pooped-out parents know exactly how we survived. But once I got out of those woods, I couldn’t stand to look back and wasn’t even sure how we managed. Even today I’ll sometimes see a tired mom with a new baby, and I get this primitive urge to flee, afraid she’ll grab onto my ankle and drag me back down to that black hole where you can think of and talk of nothing but your baby NOT SLEEPING and CRYING ALL THE DAMN DAY LONG.

The truth is, we survived because of ridiculous things like that tent stunt. We survived because we were willing to try anything. We survived because I curled up inside the 38×24 space of a Pack-n-Play with my baby on my boob just to keep from losing it on her at 3:45 a.m. We survived because I learned to coast my car through stop signs on country roads, knowing that even a few seconds at standstill would ruin a nap. We finished the marathon because it took place on a narrow bridge over a bottomless canyon, with all the rungs and planks falling apart behind us. What else were we supposed to do but just keep going?

I have no formula for success to share. It was too complicated. I’m just here to say to tired parents: You can come out relatively sane on the other side of this thing. For me, it took nearly nine months to begin seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. When naps finally ended just a year later, I felt free as a bird. Instead of screwing up nap after crappy nap, we had blessedly early bedtimes–think 5:30 p.m. Gone was the question of getting enough sleep. No more was the tent used as a nursing depot. Instead it was restored to its rightful place as a bedroom-in-the-woods. We can doze there now well past sun-up, birds chirping loud enough to wake the dead but not loud enough to wake my daughter, who again sleeps soundly as a hobo.

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