6

Mom’s practical advice

I’ve read many lovely odes to mothers online this week, and I particularly liked Alexandra Rosas’s discussion of what her mother taught her about living. The wonderful feeling of being nurtured and loved that permeates most Mother’s Day posts makes me happy.

But there’s another important function of Mom: keeping you safe and healthy.. My mom didn’t teach me about how to braise a turkey or follow my bliss. My mother’s advice was, at its best, logical—focused on ensuring we were never caught by circumstances in a position where we couldn’t take care of ourselves. My mom’s words of wisdom might not look great on a coffee mug and they might not help me make a delicious fried chicken, but they’ve kept me from making big mistakes in life. Here are my mom’s top ten lessons to me:

1. Never carry a balance on your credit card. If you can’t pay it off this month, don’t buy it. Seriously. The interest you pay means you could save your money and buy two of whatever it is. So wait until you could write a check and then use your card for the miles/points/bonus.

2. Write thank you notes. For gifts, for interviews, for any kindness. On paper.

3. Always maintain at least two accounts in your own name. No matter how much you love someone, you don’t want to be by yourself with no credit and no access to cash if something ever happens. My mom was divorced in the era where a woman couldn’t retain her credit after divorce, and after she and my dad separated she found herself with no bank account, no credit cards, and no credit history. So she got a department store card and started building her credit history by buying only what she could afford and paying off the balance every month. See advice #1.

4. Don’t put recreational chemicals in your body, if only because they compromise the best thing you have to offer the world: your brain. She taught this one by tailoring the message, rather than by lecturing: she said that she personally didn’t use substances because she hated feeling out of control. Loss of control?! My kryptonite! I’m never trying any of them.

5. Oral sex is still sex, and if he’s not willing to give before he gets, he doesn’t deserve any.

6. Never wait for the last minute. There is nothing good about rushing around as the world crashes down around your project. Take the deadline and calculate backwards. Start the day you know about a deadline and make early progress. Submit early. That way, if life throws obstacles in your way, you won’t freak out. Because you’ll be handling tasks like a boss.

7. If you do nothing else before you leave the house, put on lipstick. A little color makes everything better.

8. Okay, mascara, too. Because the two, together, takes 20 seconds.

9. Keep your eyes up and your ears open because it’s when you look like an easy target that you will be one.

10. Life’s not fair. Don’t hope that you’ll get what’s due you because that’s not how this life works. Good guys sometimes finish first and they sometimes finish last. Worry more about how you get there than what number you are at the end.

I may not follow 7 or 8 regularly (because, seriously, 20 seconds seems like a lot), but the rest shaped the fabric of who I am.

What smart, practical advice did your mom give you growing up?

12

Coping mechanisms

Dang. I’m not going to lie. This separating thing is already hard, and we’ve barely begun.

Yes, I wrote a long post about how we’re doing everything we can to be respectful as we dissolve our marriage. I even noted that we’re glad to have the Paltrow/Martin model of conscious uncoupling to follow. And how we’re kinder now that we see a way out of an untenable situation.

But deciding to split our household is not making us magically perfect humans. Shocking, I know. “What? You mean just because you write one thousand words about being ideal partners doesn’t actually make you ideal partners? I never would have guessed.” I knew the civility phase was just a phase, because for four years we haven’t been all that civil. A whirlwind course in breaking habits is in order. And we’re both slipping back into old pattens more often than we’d like.

But we’re trying.

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself. I’m trying to be especially gentle with him. I’m naturally pretty gentle with the kids, but I’m doing an even better job by just giving myself timeouts.

But I’m also using the following techniques to keep my cool and make it through stressful days. Feel free to copy my coping mechanisms if you’re in the middle of a major upheaval. Because I’m nothing if not emotionally healthy and excellent at modeling good behavior. [Snort.]

Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. I dropped it a while ago, and felt mostly self-righteous but not all that healthy when it was gone. Now I’m quite happy to point out that it’s called self-medication for a reason. I had a few drinks this week, and I do not like at all how compelling it feels to use booze to take the edge off. So I’m going to avoid liquor for a while, and instead I’m choosing chocolate. And caramel. And gummy things and chewy things and all the sugar things. Because I have more than a little going on, and I’ll be damned if I’m going through it with just kale to keep me company.

Biting my tongue. We did not get to the point where we needed to dissolve our marriage because I’m good with calm reactions. I tend to respond before I think, usually with some version of “no.” I don’t like change, I don’t want to change, and I don’t want anyone else to change. Life is complicated enough without relearning things every five minutes. So for most of my life, I could tell you that just “no” will have to do as an answer to every question you ever ask me. Especially if you happen to be moving out of my house but staying in my life. I have a big ol’ “hell no” for all questions that begin from that corner of the Universe. But I’m trying really hard to bite down before “no” flies out of my mouth. Because you know what my future ex-husband needs? He needs someone to hear him out. To think first. And to respond only when a thoughtful, respectful answer has percolated up.

Deep breaths. It would be nice if, along with the sugar, I was exercising a lot. I’m not. I am in a teeth-chattering panic about becoming financially stable immediately, if not sooner, so I’m taking every freelance job that comes my way. And that makes for a day that involves writing every free minute (and lots of sugar; see above). I’m trying to move my body. I know exercise helps mood and thought clarity and sleep and self-confidence. I know all these things very well. But because I just don’t have the time every day, I’m substituting deep breaths. I’ve never been good at slowing down long enough to breathe. Or blink. So now, when something feels really good (like the bearded irises in bloom in the neighbor’s yard, the soul-warming sunshine, the increasing moments of sibling harmony, or a gift from a friend of handmade chocolate thingamabobs) I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And when I want to fight or cry or say something inappropriate, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’ve probably taken more than my share of oxygen this week. I’ll be honest and tell you: I’m not sorry. I’ve lived 41 years without taking my fair share of deep breaths, and now they’re mine. All mine.

Asking for help. The reason we posted about our conscious uncoupling on the Interwebs is not just because we didn’t want to call the people we love and explain how we’ve fallen apart and can’t make our marriage work. Though, whoa Nelly, the thought of making those calls still chills my highly-sugared blood. The blog-post announcement was rooted in a desire for an army of support behind us. And we got it. We asked, and people called and texted and emailed to say they would do anything to make this easier for us. And that got me to take a big gulp of pride. “Thank you. Yes, you can help. Would you please…”  Nobody yet has said no. You know why? Friends are generally kind and want to help. And people feel uncomfortable about things like death and divorce, so they want to be assigned a project to make them feel useful. I think the next person who offers to help will hear a request to attempt the 2013 photo albums I haven’t finished yet.

Zombie prom. You may or may not have the chance. But if a school you know offers an ’80s Prom Zombie Apocalypse option for the big Spring fundraiser, you might want to roll with it. Have your kids dress up as you try to get the dark circles around your eyes from half-dead dark grey to undead green-and-purple grey.

(I love that this is how they think zombies look…)

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Ignore the mess in those photos. Because refusing to clean up anything is just another of my now famous coping mechanisms.

4

Dancing on marbles

Life is one big precarious attempt to not tumbling ass over teakettle, I am now convinced. And I’m trying to see the joy in the slapstick of walking boldly across a slick path made unpredictable with hundreds of marbles. Because every time I’m posed to post on this very spot about something lovely, I’m walloped upside the head with something decidedly unlovely.

And every time I want to wallow in the unlovely, something decidedly lovely distracts me.

You are likely aware, if you’ve been reading here for a while, that my gobsmackingly awesome children are finally starting to get along. Wise friends with three boys told me that once the little guy hit Four it would get better. And it has (with all the caveats about the fact that three people in the same house, none of whom has much emotional control, are rarely in the same mood and on the same page). Sometimes, now, when the first pats of butter-yellow light slip through their blinds and plop onto their beds each morning, Peanut and Butter wake up willing to engage in silly, playful interactions rather than surly, bickering nastiness. Sometimes. And that has increased the quality of life around here immeasurably.

Part of the boys’ getting along more probably roots in the fact that their Dad and I are being much calmer now that we’ve decided not to live together. Less struggle begets less struggle. So far. When there is tangible paternal-absence and marked maternal-lack-of-running-time, when the there might be a struggle or two. See the above metaphor about making steady progress along a marble-strewn path.

I’m sure that, in part, the boys’ kindness to one another stems from a fabulous trip to Boston. We walked the Charles, we spent our tourist dollars at Marathon Sports on Boylston. We ate good food (my GAWD I’ve missed Red Bones) and we practically lived on the T. We cheered for marathoners until we were hoarse. We even offered our fluffernutters to the many, many police working the course on Patriot’s Day. (One indignant Statie told me he already had his peanut butter with jelly, thank you. And then I believe he was fired for inMassabordination.) We spent time like a family, and it was good for everyone.

Part of the increased sibling harmony also stems from a deep sadness that has stilled my otherwise frenetic pace. The death of my friend has brought a rather large dollop of “I don’t care about anything any more” to my endless to-do lists and my frantic need to prove myself worthy through incessant activities.

As we made it through the memorial, we found out that a mutual friend, who was diagnosed with leukemia around the same time Jay had his first surgery, has relapsed. This little boy, who spent kindergarten in Children’s Hospital enduring rounds and rounds of chemo, and whose family learned a gratitude few of us will ever fathom, enjoyed first- and second-grade without cancer. Now his leukemia is back. He’s going through a couple of weeks of chemo before a bone marrow transplant.  We’re all trying coming together as a community, again, to get people checked, at no cost, to see if they’re matches for any of the many Americans in need of bone marrow. And maybe, if enough people get the free test, we can find our little guy a match!

So that’s exciting. If you’re one of the people who’s into bright sides and finding the joy of surfing the marble-covered path to tomorrow, it’s enlivening to have a purpose. To help. To appreciate and breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Nothing brings me out of “what’s the point” like a bone marrow drive.

Go hug your family. Email your friends and tell them you love them. Take a deep breath each morning, and relish what’s good.

And consider being tested to see if you’re a match for, and can help give a great life to, a sweet little boy.

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https://www.facebook.com/amatchforbay

 

8

Boston, one year later

We’re leaving for Boston soon (nice try, creepy burglar people, but we have a housesitter and trained attack kittens) and I’m so excited. Friends I haven’t seen in years, research for my novel, the always heart-filling fun of watching Spouse run a marathon.

But I’m worried. We haven’t told the kids about last year’s tragedies. We don’t plan to. I really, really really, really don’t want to. Really. Last year was devastating. Disgusting. Terrifying. Enraging. Like many others I spent every single ounce of saline in my body weeping for the families affected by those monstrous acts. I spent all night watching Twitter as the police went from my old work neighborhood to my improv neighborhood to my friends’ neighborhood tracking the alleged bombers. Brothers.

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

I’m looking forward to seeing how Boston is healing itself. I love that town and I keenly miss being a part of its crispy, crunchy shell and gooey center. (Boston is the caramel M&M that the Mars company has never successfully created.) I want to celebrate Boston and its efforts, I want to feel the community that has overcome the most horrible act during a celebratory act on a holiday of revolutionary acts. I am thrilled we’re going to cheer for Boston.

But I don’t want my boys to hear anything about the bombings. I don’t want them to see or know or think or in any way learn about the families, the sidewalks, the streets that will never be the same.

How terrible is that, though? Is it disrespectful of those families and runners and spectators and first responders to keep this painful reality hidden from young children?The mother in me says no, but it feels wrong to hide the truth.

We’re going back to Boston because I could never fathom being away from that city this week. I started training to qualify for Boston the day after the bombings. (I didn’t get far. I’m easily injured and I have limited time for training. So it’s not going to happen this year.) So did Spouse. We contorted family plans and finances to get the family out to Mass. as soon as he qualified. We’ve been practicing the proper pronunciation of the Chaaahlie Caaaahds we’ll need next week.

But I don’t want them to know.

Is that wrong? Is it disrespectful? If it even possible, given all the love Boston is pouring into Back Bay this week?

I want to honor those who died, those who were injured, those who helped, those who ran, those who sought, and those who stopped…I want so much to do whatever I can to help the healing.

But I don’t want to tell my kids.

Does that make me weak? Parental? Cowardly? Ridiculous? Mature?

31

Parenting 2.0

Spouse and I have tried to teach our children how to face conflict: assess the situation, design a solution, work hard to do your best, notice what’s working and what isn’t, try even harder, and be flexible and open to new decisions when new information arises. I don’t know if these words have  sunk in yet. We explain that doing the hard, sometimes boring work of practicing a skill, whether reading or soccer or math, is really important for later, when you have to build on that foundation. We’ve explained that mastering any skill takes incessant, regular, repetitive brain exercise. Struggle is important. But too much struggle is sometimes a signal to stop, take a breath, and change course. “We’re a family of problem-solvers,” we always say. Because you can’t bang your head against a brick wall and hope it’ll move. You have to be tricksty.

And now they’re going to see what we really mean about working hard, trying again and again, and, sometimes, giving up because you just can’t make something work. Spouse and I have arrived at a new realization and we’re figuring out how to implement our plan. We’re pretty sure that we’re going to focus on what we do well: love our kids. And we’re going to ditch what we don’t do well: being married.

Marriage is hard work. And we expected that because anything worth having involves active, thoughtful work. But marriage shouldn’t be miserable without cease. And the work should show some reward. Banging our heads against a brick wall trying to force our marriage back where it was ten years ago hasn’t worked. Neither has therapy or empathy or practicing communication skills or willing ourselves to compatibility.

We’re a family of problem solvers, dagnabbit, so we’re going to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. The life hack here is elegant, simple, and scary: be the best parents possible to our children without being married.

The effects of agreeing to work smarter not harder have been immediate and palpable. After years of being our worst selves with each other, struggling yet finding ourselves sad, lonely, and angry, we’re going to stop forcing it. And saying that out loud has made us more patient with each other and with the boys. We obviously have years of work to do to repair the damage we’ve done to each other in this marriage, but we’ve gone a long way toward some kind of healing this week.

I have always feared divorce. So has Spouse. We both had parents who divorced, and neither of us weathered that process well. In fact, we’ve resisted even talking about a separation for years because we don’t want to hurt the boys.  But here’s the truth: we can’t control everything that happens to them, and we certainly can’t continue the way we are, pretending that married parents are better for children than any other situation. We’d rather address any feelings our children have by actively and lovingly engaging with them. Both of us. We can’t control their feelings but we can control giving them the best home environment we can. Two happy parents listening to them and being with them regularly from different houses is much better than two exhausted and raw parents snapping at each other and at them.

The societal obligation to stay married t one person for 80+ years leaves me tense, waiting to shiver in the shadow of failure-guilt. But since we talked about letting go, we’ve been kind and understanding, gentle with each other and with ourselves. I can’t tell you the relief of getting along, after years of just feeling wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m incredibly proud of how mature we’re being. Come back and read in a week and see if that’s still true. For now, this doesn’t feel like failure.

I’ve read and heard many people mocking Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they’re consciously uncoupling, forming a partnership that involves co-parenting but not marriage. I don’t understand the vitriol or mocking. I know they have enough money that they don’t share our worries about whose couch to sleep on, whether self-help books from the library are enough to count as therapy, or whether we’ll have to uproot Peanut to a different school system because we can’t afford two rents in our district. But it seems to me that the conscious uncoupling being so roundly mocked on social media is pretty damned mature. Understanding that disentangling adult lives requires leaving intact the framework we’ve built around the children’s growth seems like a baseline for all couples separating. If Gwyneth and Chris are unraveling the parts that aren’t working but redoubling their efforts where their love does the most good, then I say mazel tov.

Spouse and I are making preparations for how things will look in the short- and long-term. And though I got confused initially, the ease with which we can cultivate a warm kindness for each other does not mean we have a marriage. It means that we are partners. And that is the point, because we are going to be partners forever. We have children whose well-being demands our most engaged effort.

I believe separating, consciously uncoupling, and perhaps divorcing are all going to be challenging. But I believe our children are emotionally strong, and that as reasonable human beings and respectful partners, we can engage in this process together and make it right for us.

If someone offered to partner kindly and thoughtfully with you to raise your children, but didn’t want to be married to you, would you take that compromise? Or would you fight to force the union, and let strife affect every moment of your emotional life?

I’m taking what’s behind Door Number Three. Because I’m tired of forcing our family into emotional turmoil. And know a good deal when I see it.

 

 

8

Aces: spades and hearts

My amazing big guy is now Eight. And my dear little man has turned Four.

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We all made it alive, mostly, through Three, that year that lives as a specter on the psyche of every parent, that year emblazoned with red, dripping letters that cry, “Why does everyone say that Two is such a big deal? Three is the year that leaves no family unscathed!”

And just a few days into Four, I can say…it’s a tiny bit better. So far. Not holding my breath or anything. This isn’t my first time to the rodeo and I know phases last just long enough to get used to them, and then all techniques become invalid and parenting permit is up for renewal again, just a week after you finally passed the test for Extreme Tantrums, age Three Years and Fifty Weeks. Probably. If phases get too predictably unpredictable, then they stay for a while. Whatever it takes to maximize digiposture among human parental units.

The part I find most amusing about Four this time around is the bipolar self-awareness. Last week, he said to me, “Mommy, I’m a bad guy. No…I’m a good guy. That makes me a wild card, right?”

Oh good gawd, boy, it sure does. I laughed, which makes him giddy. He now tells me that lunch is a sandwich, no it’s yogurt, no it’s a wild card. And his travel backpack has trucks and ninja because…you guessed it…the backpack is a wild card.

Family game night is obviously having an effect on the lens through which he views the world. But little Wild Card is a big change for our family. We’re a group of persevering gamespeople. We open a game and we’re in it for the night. Butter, though, ceases all engagement after one round. No matter how long the endeavor takes, once a single full game finishes, he collects the pieces, drops them in the box, replaces the lid, and drags out something new. This has completely upended the whole way of life for our tenacious crew. Peanut, Spouse, and I could play 700 rounds of Yahtzee and not think it’s time to be done. We can get through an hour of Indigo, get some water, and start again. Done? What do you mean you’re done? There’ve only been ten games! Challenge the winner. Reject your current strategies and test some new tricks. Hope for better letters next time.

And while I’m not in my element with someone who feels he’s done after one round, he is a refreshing change from the sweet older guy whose attention span rivals a doctoral thesis advisor’s. Peanut can take a task and work on it for hours. Genuinely hours. Meticulous, careful work.

Such care and attention make hanging out with him quite enjoyable.

They’re both lovely fun and I enjoy them enormously.

Here’s the catch (for you know there is one…I’ve been blogging here for six years and you know darned well that fewer than a handful of posts exist without a catch): my children are amazing company with one-on-one. But that arrangement is rare. More often, they’re sharing physical space (poor stereotypical siblings: younger wants to do everything older does, and older wants younger really, really far away). Each boy is almost always seeking exactly the opposite of what his sibling offers. Peanut wants to do something intensely and for hours on end, and Butter is done after five minutes. He gets frustrated with Peanut for lingering, Peanut gets frustrated at Butter for ruining his concentration/picture/building/project/flow and loud, acrimonious, physical battles ensue.

And my job is to interrupt the fight, explain how they each need to talk about their needs and feelings, and how they each need to respect their differences. But they’re four and eight. They love fighting. Butter doesn’t want to articulate that he’s done and would like company on his next adventure. Peanut doesn’t want to explain, again, that he’d like to finish what he started.

And so games, art, reading, play, potion-making, and crafts are all punctuated by raucous, adrenaline-provoking frustrations. I intercede. They don’t want to hear me. I try to reason with them. I try emotion, I try logic. I either give up or separate them.

Usually.

But not at the beach.

 

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At the beach there is no end to the compromises they’re willing to make or the personality flaws they’re willing to overlook.

I think we’ll just move to the beach.

6

Neurotics on parade

When a friend raved about her favorite cookbook, I hoped it would be the answer to my food rut. For a while I resisted buying it, since it’s  not in paperback yet. Mama is cheap, even when it comes to books.

But I couldn’t stand the meal stagnation or the lack of inspiration, so I splurged.

I flipped through, drooling at the possibilities. I hopped to the table of contents, browsing for a direct path to dinner. I scanned the introduction, which is full of wonderful advice and ideas and…

The options so overwhelmed me I started to freak out. The pages on cooking tools reminded me that some of my measuring cups are missing, some of my spoons ought to be replaced, I have been lax in eliminating all plastic from my kitchen, and I’ve been misusing my pastry scraper for years…and I began to panic.

Deep breath. We’re just skimming. Next page.

The thoughtful section of having a well-stocked pantry had me thinking I should rearrange my cabinets, toss my spices, make lists for the next visit to the bulk bins. Of course I should! How have I not revisited the backbone of my pantry lately? I flushed with the tasks inherent in perfecting the cupboards. How exciting! Flawless cupboards! Goodness gravy, how daunting! This will take weeks! When the hell am I supposed to do all this? A five-second glance became, in my imagination, the beginning of a path up Everest, a thrilling but terrifyingly involved journey that I need to begin and complete rightthisveryminutebeforethekidsgethome.

Deep breath. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to read the whole book in one sitting, and this should be fun. The untapped potential of a new cook book. The possibilities, the excitement in preparing meals for an eager audience…and still I freaked out.

Which recipe first? If I just flip and find one I like but nobody eats, will I begin to resent the book?  Will my enthusiasm for exposing my family to new flavors and creating family favorites wane, leaving only perma-quesadilla-mentality? Will all this money be wasted? Will my previous time be wasted trying to recreate someone’s art only to find that I am alone in my appreciation? Will we get to a point where we eat nothing but burritos every night because they’re easy and cheap?

Wait, a minute. What happens if they like what I make? If I look at each page and choose an ideal recipe based on more than twenty-four collective years cooking for my three guys, and I wow my family and re-inspire my culinary passions, will I set the bar so impractically high that I’m spending hours every day making meals that are increasingly awesome and insanely challenging? Will I become one of those people who doesn’t laugh at Martha Stewart’s recipes? Will I—things are getting really scary now—actually mix the dry ingredients then the wet ingredients and combine rather than refusing to dirty more than one bowl? If I spend more than 3 hours a day on food, that’s a whole day of every week just on these recipes. My family deserves a meal spark, not a freaking full-time chef.

I rode the waves of panic, excitement, fear, hope, indignation, and exhaustion until I closed the book and took another breath.

Geez. Seems I made skimming a new cookbook into a feat of terror, obligation, and insurmountable tasks.

Why am I not surprised?

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26

Dying

Death is amazing to watch.

I went last night to visit a friend who has faced, fought, accepted, and been taken over by cancer. Two weeks ago he was still saying that he was happy when he was awake, and that his social calendar was packed because “all this dying stuff is hectic.” Soon, though, his texts grew less coherent. I went to visit and he said that he wasn’t happy when awake any more. As he withdrew into his body’s processes, life was not fun or joyful or interesting anymore. It was a painful chore and he was desperately frustrated at being sick and in pain and feeling terrible for four years.

Over the weekend he started hallucinating, wandering, and terrifying his family. He didn’t make sense, he couldn’t understand, and he wasn’t safe. The hospice nurses came and monitored his meds until he settled. So what I visited two days later was the mostly-dreaming, mostly-gone version of my friend. He looked relatively healthy, and had the same adorable, shiny red cheeks and red beard he was so proud of. There wasn’t much left to his body, but his face was still his face. And as he writhed and settled and writhed again, it looked as though he had a terrible flu and was feverish but would recover.

I sat with him and tried to talk. I rubbed his wandering legs, trying at once to reassure him and to encourage his dream of walking somewhere. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not well versed in what you say to someone who can’t reply, who doesn’t care about most of the world anymore, and who is almost across a threshold that our culture goes to excessive lengths to avoid.

I wasn’t worried about saying anything wrong. And I wasn’t worried about trying to comfort him. I just wanted to talk the way we usually talk if only so he felt normal for a moment or two.

I talked about his kids and what kind of people they might be as adults. He made faces like he was talking. I talked about how Spring has walloped us, even after a month of warm and sunny, with that flawless Berkeley wall of sunshine and wisteria and star jasmine that makes me feel like a honeybee skittering around telling colleagues about the best pollen sources. He winced. I asked about the garden: what his wife might plant and whether he was glad he’d done all that work to build their raised beds. He kicked as though he were walking.

I told him about a school project my son had done, and how adorable it was. He grew agitated. I asked if he wanted quiet. I guessed from his relaxing that he did. He rested fitfully and I watched.

His breathing is surprisingly smooth for someone with a lung tumor so large it forces his ribs aside and creates an A cup on one side of his chest. Weird. About five inches above his mastectomy scar.

His wife came in and smiled at me. I told her how agitated he seemed. “Pain meds,” she said, “are due.” She talked to him and asked about his pain. “Does it hurt?” she said in a regular voice into his ear. “Yes,” he mouthed. “Is that a yes? Yes. It hurts. Hang on, baby.” She told him about each medication before she placed the tiny veterinary syringe in his mouth. I gave my cat morphine with an identical plastic syringe last year. Now the morphine is for my friend, with whom I can no longer share anything. No calls, no texts, no visits. He is mostly gone and that is permanent and that is normal and that isn’t strange but it’s unfolding rightnowrighthere. A few other meds, including the one she warned him would taste gross. He made an angry face and kicked at that one. I rubbed his legs.

He began wiggling and wincing. She asked if he hurt. He tried to say something but made no sound and his lips seemed only to say, “vipp.” She asked if his back hurt. He looked as though he’d cry. His back has been terribly painful since the lung surgery that required removing three ribs, 5cm of chest wall, and a baseball-sized tumor. The one the first oncologist missed while treating the rectal tumor, both of which grew because two physicians in a row misdiagnosed him.

“Do you want to roll on your side?” He nodded. We took the sheet and maneuvered him onto his side. It seemed to help. I pulled him over as hard as I could while she jammed a large pillow behind him. Only nurses know how firm and decisively you have to handle an adult patient. Most of us know only nursing teenie tiny newborns with no muscle tone who are relatively easy to position, reposition, and relocate, even if they’re just as hard to understand as an adult who can no longer speak. Getting a full-grown man into position takes so much oomph it seems rough, but I worked to seem just as competent as his wife. Repositioned, he settled a bit. She asked him if that was better, rubbed his shoulder, kissed him repeatedly across the face.

We talked with him a while, and he seemed to settle.

So we went downstairs to let him sleep. Two hours later, I left with a smile, a hole in a deep part of me, and three bags full of empty food containers from mutual friends who’ve cooked for the family over the past two months.

On the midnight drive home I thought about my kids. I thought about his kids. I thought about logistics and seeing their family often. I thought about work and geography and weather and Crimea. I thought of car crashes and cancer and bombings. I thought of gummy bears and law school and literature PhDs.

I can’t tell you that watching my friend die week by week has made me more aware of how lucky we all are to be alive. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, of fire and car crashes and cancer and earthquake, and I’m not one to take the day for granted. But I think more about how a fair percentage of the world’s population wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to be alive. Starvation and illness and lack of clean water and tyranny and abuse and slavery and rape…we all live. And we all die. And none of death is fair or fun, and none of it’s predictable. The fact that my friend is dying way too young is also a part of life. And often, it feels as though none of life itself is directable. There’s a fundamental lack of control to being human that belies most of what we tell ourselves about choice and free will and possibility.

But then there’s love. And there’s a thoughtful couple facing death together. An open, honest, loving family that does their best and makes it work and grieves together and hopes together and plans together and fights together and mourns alone and together and alone again. There is grace in watching a woman love her partner fiercely and love their kids fiercely and stumble and get up and get more fierce…and do it all day every single day for YEARS.

How we die is a microcosm of how we live. And those who panic and claw the walls of their death-bed die in fear. And those who dream of all the wonderful moments of their lives, hallucinate huge family gatherings where those linked by affection for each other cuddle babies and encourage children and jovially engage  each other? They die bathed in the disintegrating brain that is full of good memories and love and joy. When all that crumbles into their body, really, it’s rather sweet to watch. Dreamy sleep eating, incoherent laughing, planning joyful events with beloved touchstones.

Which way will we go? Will our dreams at death’s threshold be painted with the vivid memories of happy, communal gatherings with good food and joyful moments? Or will our death be a nightmare of fear and regret and longing?

Death is interesting to watch. Why does our culture teach us not to dare?

0

Live Like Jay

We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.

I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.

Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.

Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.

“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”

“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.

All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.

On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”

And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.

You just answer.

“I don’t know why you can’t just die.  I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”

There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.

His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.

He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.

I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.

His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.

Maybe.

Again, do what you need to do.

I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene.  Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.

All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.

It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.

10

Counting Lucky Stars

This week, my little wrecking crew of a three-year-old closed me into the kitchen as I made lunches.
“Shhhhhh,” he said. “I just really need some quiet.”

Whuck?

My shoulders dropped several inches and I breathed the air of joy and silence and adrenaline-dissipation. Peace was mine for at least 30 seconds, and it was sweet.

Later in the week, my little bundle of raw nerves, almost-eight-year-old took a deep breath and started to chill the heck out.
“I just need some space,” he calmly told his shrieking little brother. “I might be allergic to you.”

Again, I measured my relief in decreased tension and increased oxygen intake. I had space to breathe twice in a week? Genuinely, seriously unheard of.

And then, today, two of the boys slated for our impending birthday sleepover party told their moms that they’d really rather attend just the waking hours of the party. I had offered to each family the opportunity to sleep here, or to stay right up until teeth brushing, go home, and return for the morning breakfast and egg hunt.

Having two children opt out of the giggling, silly, late-night horse pucky that is trying to get elementary-school children to sleep? I swear to all that I hold dear…this is a Pope verifiable miracle. This represents three deep breaths in a week, and I am so grateful that I’m going on a tear of charity donations, random acts of kindness, and willful support of those who normally irk me.

I’m almost to the point of skipping, dear readers. Seriously. Life is good, kind, and glorious.

And now that I think of it, it all started when Jimmy Fallon hit some incredible notes on The Tonight Show.

Maybe my unbounded joy, immeasurable good fortune, and serendipitous droplets of magical fairy nectar this week are because of the history of rap.

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Anything amazing happen to you this week?

Was it better than quiet and calm in the midst of two feuding brothers?
Was it better than this?

10

Public Service Announcement

It’s time for a boring and important post.

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Would you please make sure you have an emergency bag packed and easily accessible by your front door? Backup glasses, credit card, cash, copies of important documents including prescriptions, thumb drive with your most treasured photos. Please. Now.

Would you please make sure that you have emergency supplies ready in your car? Water, snacks, flares, reflective blankets, signal mirror, matches, first aid including ice packs, bandages, and scissors. Please. Now.

Would you please make sure your legal documents are in order? Power of attorney, will, directives for what happens to your children in case of your sudden incapacitation or death. Copies of passwords, important phone numbers, list of companies to call so your executor has an easier time?

Would you please make sure you’ve signed up for your city’s emergency notification system? They’ll text you in an emergency, and you can forward to your distant relatives so if phones get overwhelmed in an emergency your family can let people know you’re okay.

Would you please make sure you tell your children and friends and family every day something you love about them? Some reason your life is better because they’re in it?

Emergency bag. Car emergency kit. Legal paperwork. Emergency notification. Love.

Do it.
Now.
Please.

43

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.

Oh.

And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.

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If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

6

What does your mom do for a living?

My three-year-old is sitting on my lap, typing into a blank Word doc. He pauses every now and then, puts his head in his hands and sighs, “damnit,” then deletes everything he’s typed.

I’m totally winning at this.

As soon as he puts his hands over his eyes, sighs, “dagnabbit,” and then goes to get a snack, my parenting is complete.

 

 

16

Teachable moment about “gay”

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The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture.

As I thought about the impending conference, though, I wondered if my son even knew what the word gay meant. Both my boys know all kinds of families look different from ours: we know families that have one parent, others with two moms, some with two dads; we know families that include one child, three children, pets, no pets, humans with dark skin, light skin, everything in between, and some of all of the above. There are so many kinds of normal constituting our village that I don’t know if my son knows what to call any of them. We don’t label our friends, so maybe he was just repeating a word he heard at school. Maybe.

So I planned how I would approach The Talk.

First, obviously, I had to ask what happened and why?

Second, I had to ask what he thinks the word gay means.

And the rest would pivot from there.

Except that it shouldn’t, I railed inside my head. Even if my son didn’t know that “gay” has been cruelly hurled as an epithet to make people feel bad or not, he will learn today. I’m going to tell him that trying to make someone feel bad by criticizing who they are is mean, not just to the person called gay, but to all the people nearby who hear that word and infer from the context that gay must be bad. Because there is nothing bad about gay. This is indicative of a culture that demeans with words like “girly” and racial slurs precisely because words buttress power structures. When child calls someone gay, it begins a process where an entire peer group learn to categorize gay in the “thou shalt heed this word and feel shame or disdain when you hear it” category. And all I can say is, “no way.” Not after all the hard work the LGBT community has done to fight for civil rights. Oh, hail no.

All human beings deserve respect and fairness. So my family will not use words that make people feel less-than. A new mantra was brewing. “There are no greater-than or less-than symbols in human interactions, children. We will not even practice using wavy lines to hedge our bets a bit and suggest that some humans are ‘approximately equal to.’ No. We will only use straight equal signs in all our interactions, so help me Math!”

“WAIT! I didn’t mean straight!”

“Wait again! I didn’t mean that straight’s not okay. Everything is okay! Different is good! I’ll just wear these shoes because they’re closest to the door!”

Sigh. My mantras need work.

Ahem.

We will not try to gain power by making others feel bad about who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and M and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and K don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.

Side note: heaven help me when I have to explain that sometimes, when people are old enough and their hormones tell them to, they change their hair color. Then all my metaphors are going to crumble and with them my authority over empathy and tolerance. Maybe.