Friday, December 26, 2014


You don't read too much about this, but it's a real thing: the difficulty of spending a holiday without your child because it's your "off" year. Talk about painful. Last year Bill and I bailed on Thanksgiving--thank you, Canada--because I couldn't bear to celebrate with friends whose children were around (as much as I love the friends and the children), or to answer the inevitable and, frankly, incredibly stupid question, "Where's Vivian?" (Hint: She's not studying abroad.) My "on" years are only slightly better. Yes, I am with my child, but as I enjoy, say, watching her hunt for Easter eggs, I think of Alex, alone in his apartment, and I feel very sad. It doesn't matter that at that very moment Alex may be watching football or taking a nap--you know, living the Sunday dream. Emotional turmoil does not respond to reason.

As Christmas approached this year, I was very much aware that Vivian would spend Christmas Eve, and so also Christmas morning, with her dad, which is to say, without me. The last time I had to make it through a Christmas morning without Vivian--in 2012--I determined to keep myself occupied and thinking positively because the alternative was to dissolve into a pool of self-loathing and self-pity, not to mention to put a serious damper on Bill's Christmas morning. I read the New York Times. I "liked" friends' Facebook photos of present openings and tired faces. When my brother sent me a video of his son reacting to the big reveal (Santa!!!!), I delighted, damn it, in my nephew's excitement and refused to have A Big Cry over having missed that moment with my own kid. I was not practicing an attitude of gratitude, thank you very much, but rejecting the idea that to miss Christmas morning is to lose something irretrievable.

That's avant, people. It takes will to refuse what biology and culture have conditioned you to embrace, to shape a thing to fit your condition rather than to despair that your condition doesn't fit the thing. And I have never been avant.

Even so, I was at it again this Christmas morning. Vivian was at her dad's--had been since the night before--and I had five hours to fill before picking her up, and not just fill but really enjoy. I did some of the usual (coffee, New York Times, Facebook, cross stitch) and ate a really delicious eggs Benedict, courtesy of Bill. That man makes a mean hollandaise, nice and lemony. And then I really got going.

You may not know this, but we have mice. They are pretend mice, formed with our hands, and they are named Mouse, Sister Mouse, Uncle Lester, and Clive. Clive is a British cousin. Mouse lives in my hand; Sister lives with Vivi; and Bill does the voices of both Uncle Lester and Clive, which is not easy given the change in accents those guys require. Lester and Mouse sound like they grew up in 1930s Brooklyn, and Sister Mouse, well, Vivian does her voice, so let's just say it's high-pitched and grating. The mice trace their origin to Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle, which Bill read to Vivi about 3 years ago. He chose the New York accent for the voice of the character Uncle Lester and unwittingly started something we have no idea how to stop.

Sister Mouse is a real goody-goody. She always does the right thing. Clive attends Oxford, so we call upon him mainly to resolve disputes and to fill in bits of history. Mouse and Uncle Lester provide the real entertainment. They are too much--adversarial and misbehaving and always on the make. Uncle Lester spends a lot of time at the Emerald Queen, the local tribal casino where his girlfriend Sherrie, a giraffe, works as a dancer (She has a very graceful neck) and he does business with his "associates" (You know why they call him Vinnie the Onion? He'll make you cry. Heh heh). Mouse regards Vivian as her best friend and is incensed by the amount of time Vivi spends at school. She spends the morning drive hatching plans to "spring" Vivian that day (I'm gonna dig a tunnel from your house to the school, jump in your teacher's face to cause a distraction, and then you run, Vivian. You RUN!). Vivian always says, "No, Mouse. I like school. I don't want to be sprung," and so Mouse is left to find other ways to fill her days. Generally, she bathes herself and does chores, but she also enjoys scaring my students, and she's been working on a musical off and on for years.

During this year's Christmas season Mouse became an entrepreneur. She concocted a recipe for a candy called Ch2--that's "Ch squared," chocolate-covered cheese. Intent upon putting a piece of Ch2 in the stocking of every child in Tacoma, she opened, in our walls, a factory operated by a thousand mice. The factory ran day and night in the weeks leading up to Christmas, in spite of some real opposition from Bill and Vivian, who found aspects of the idea to be repulsive. But the mice melt the chocolate nice and slow, in their cheeks! cried Mouse. They knead the cheese lovingly with their little paws! Still no takers. There were concerns about health codes, mouse hair, and the suitability of pairing chocolate with cheese. Mouse continued, undeterred.

The mice's antics are usually limited to our imaginations--we spent a good year hearing about but never actualizing Uncle Lester's vision of a Magic Mouse Bus (Powered by a thousand mice and filled with a hundred children! What could go wrong?). I could not let Ch2 meet the same fate. So on Christmas morning, after the Times and the Benedict and a hot shower, I got cooking.

I used my Williams-Sonoma poaching pan (TM) to melt a handful of chocolate chips and a bit of shortening.

I cut the cheddar cheese into cubes.

And then I dipped cubes of cheese into chocolate. In all of history has this ever been done? They say there are no new ideas, but I don't know. Miraculously, the cheese did not melt. Greater miracle: the chocolate-covered cheese looked delicious.

Food porn, am I right?

Behold! Ch2!

Are you wondering how it tasted? Trying not to wonder, perhaps? See the child:

Focused, or possibly dissociative 

Sickened, but by the taste or merely the idea?


That's right. Mouse was right. Ch2 is a winner or, if not a winner, at least not a loser. Ch2 may not make Mouse a millionaire, but it is EDIBLE.

And it made my Christmas morning. Ch cubed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Chill of November

This has been a bear of a month. But what kind of bear? I'm thinking polar bear with a bloody snout. Polar bears make for cute stuffed animals, but they are wild creatures who, if they stumbled upon you on a snowy tundra, would have no qualms about eating you. All the better if you are fishy.

I realize that gratitude is big these days, but I can't jump straight to it. Even when I do embrace gratitude, it is always tinged with guilt and despair. For example: it's been very cold here lately, and the other night in bed I said a silent prayer of gratitude for my warm house. Immediately after that I thought of all the people who do not have a warm house, who do not have a house or a shelter at all, and how I haven't helped them, and then I thought about the gross inequities in our culture, and it was either take two antihistamines or not sleep that night.

I have stopped writing my daily letters. I think I've not written for as many days as I did write, which is somewhere around two-and-a-half months. This week, though, I received two replies, and that gave me heart to take up the letter-writing again. Here is why I had stopped: 1) I began to feel that I was burdening people with my letters; they would tell me that they'd been carrying around my letter for a while, waiting for the chance to reply or else looking for a stamp. The world has gotten away from writing letters--really, it doesn't accommodate the practice; 2) I was getting sick of myself. When you write for days in a row, you either repeat a lot of stuff or else realize that change is so incremental or so inconsequential as to make you kind of depressed; 3) my job swept me up, as it tends to do; when I did have time to write, I couldn't focus or I didn't want to do anything involving words or meaning. Moreover, I stopped keeping track of whom I'd written to and who had written me back because about four weeks into every semester my organization goes to the bears; as a result, I have left several friends hanging, and that makes me feel bad; 4) likewise, it makes for a lonely feeling to send out letter after letter and only get a few responses. I realized that when letter-writing was a thing, people wrote back or else lost touch entirely. Funny, isn't it, how Facebook can make a person feel worse than they already do, yet it's the go-to mode of communication for so many of us.

I'd like to start up the letter-writing again. As I think I've mentioned before, it was meditative for me to go within and to write with a pen(cil) on paper for 15 or 20 minutes each day. It was also such a pleasure to receive and read the responses that people sent--and people did respond--that I want that feeling back. Here's the big thing, though, the reason that I think we all might want to write more letters: people wrote to me differently than they do when they communicate electronically and instantly. They told me things about themselves, their states of mind, their families, that they ordinarily don't. One day while I was still in the hospital with Vivian, I received something like ten letters. At least half of them expressed some question or problem or intention that meant something to the writer, and, of course, when we encounter something that is meaningful to a friend, we reflect upon it, too, and the meaning grows.

So...expect to receive a letter from me soon.

Other things that have weighed on me this month, not ranked according to consequence:

  • The Gottmans. God, what is it with those people and their constant reminders about what makes for a successful marriage? It all comes down to bids. Did Alex and I fail to respond to each other's bids? Do Bill and I? Currently I'm not speaking to Bill, so chances are good that I am unreceptive.
  • A colleague interrupted a meeting to point out a typo I'd made on an agenda. 
  • People laughed at something I said at a faculty meeting, only I didn't intend for it to be funny.
  • A colleague wrote to me in anger because I had required committee members to print a long document, which is wasteful--this when I hadn't intentionally required such a thing at all, and I happen to live with a man who is obsessed with waste and so am well aware of the consequences of mindless consumption.
  • I seem to have been utterly unable to hide from Vivian the anxiety that wreaks havoc on me every day. Will she grow up to despise this trait of mine, primarily because I've taught her how to be anxious, imposed it upon her?
  • Alex seems depressed again.
  • Bill is stretched too thin.
  • I haven't published enough, and I'm up for review in a month.
  • My face is both familiar and unfamiliar to me, as it has always been. How can this be, given that my face used to look quite a bit different? Mainly I don't care about the effects of aging, and I've taken to wearing very little makeup--liberating--but sometimes I realize that I will be an older woman whom people might refer to as "handsome," and that falls a bit short of what I had wanted. You do not have to talk me out of this. 
  • There are six doctor's appointments I have to make--three for Vivian and three for me--and I can't manage to make them.
  • I have two pairs of shoes and one shirt to return, only I keep forgetting to print out the return labels. 
  • Football.
  • At some point I will get a call from the hospital telling me when Vivian's next surgery will be. I worry that she will be very scared. I know I will be.
  • The scars on Vivian's back. Eventually there will be many of them, thin lines running parallel. Will they hurt? What beautiful thing will they look like: the trace of a rake upon soil? tributaries of a meandering river? My hope: one day someone she loves and who loves her will run his or her hand along those lines.
So that's me on this Saturday in mid-November. How are you? I hear that my comments work only for some people, and I have no idea why. Before I post this, I will remove the restrictions from the comments in case that works, because I like to hear from you.

I don't want to end on a blue note, so I will add that I completed a cross-stitch project this week and am close to finishing another. I will post pictures when I'm done with the "finishing" part, which involves sewing and framing. 

Also: it's sunny and cold here in the Pacific Northwest. I will walk Milo later to clear my head, and I will talk to Bill.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Haunting

Beyond the golden years of trick-or-treating, Halloween morphs into a high-pressure holiday, like New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July, when you feel like you must have plans or else endure a long night of loneliness and self-loathing, a night pierced by the cackling laughter of fun-havers outside your window, a night most unhallowed. If you happen to have plans, your suffering is of another sort: weeks in advance of the party, you have to figure out what you’re going to “be.” And then you must buy and assemble components of a costume, and then you have to wear it all.

Having a child relieved me of that burden: the moment I dressed my infant as a pea pod the focus shifted to her, and because of my ever-advancing age, thank god, I will never attract such attention again unless some darkly or too brightly humored person one day dresses me as a pea pod, and by then I will be too far gone to know or care.

I suspect that people who like Halloween are drawn to the lure of the carnivalesque. They want to be someone else for a night, to flout the rules of society and self without reprisal. There’s chaos to that behavior; there’s chance and misrule. No wonder I don’t like it. I’ve had enough trouble without borrowing more.

Even so, I have tried. I have been game. In college, I convinced my roommate to don a blue blazer and black fedora and to pencil in a thin mustache so that she could be pimp to my prostitute. (Our friend, whose feminism surpassed our own at that time, dressed in black and held a sign condemning our costumes. She stayed by our sides all night.) A year after, having taken a Women’s Studies class and watched a few hours of CSPAN, I borrowed from my mother a satiny Coke can costume and affixed to the top of it a black squiggle of yarn: it was a pubic hair, condemning Clarence Thomas and supporting Anita Hill.  And then there were the years of the blond wig. I wore it with prison duds and carried a muffin pan: Martha Stewart. I paired it with press-on nails and tight jeans: Carmela Soprano. For its swan song, the blond wig transformed me into Britney Spears. She and I, pregnant at the same time, were a page out of US Weekly, “Who Wore It Best?”: sunglasses, pink sweats, shirts that bared midriffs 6-months-swelled, and, in our hands, packs of Kools, venti coffees, and babies not wholly attended to—mine a doll, hers, her son Sean.

Three months after that last Halloween, Britney shaved her head, apparently in the midst of a crackup or maybe to hide traces of drugs in her hair so she wouldn’t lose her boys. I was in a hospital room with my infant daughter. She had been born with something wrong, a defect, you could say, although I do not use that word. We had learned about her problem, her father and I, on Halloween, two days after the costume party. “There is no stomach,” the ultrasound technician had said. “Maybe she hasn’t eaten recently. You can’t see the stomach unless there’s something in it. Or maybe it’s still small.” In time we were to learn that our daughter’s esophagus was divided in two. She would be born in Seattle so that we’d have easy access to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, and then she’d be moved to Children’s Hospital, where we would live, she and I, until the ends of her esophagus grew close enough together for the surgeons to finish the work that nature had abandoned. This stay would extend for months and then, after a surgical complication that nearly ended her life, months more, a great lonely and frightening swath of time that would cauterize the split between my past self and who I am now.

Who needs Halloween? Every day—I do not exaggerate—I live with fear; I give some thought to my child’s life, to her being alive. In the mornings, Thank God she has woken up; when I drop her off at school, Please let her survive this day, let no madman enter this place and kill her; when I put her to bed at night, Is her window locked? Is my door open so that I can hear her call out? I know why this is. It’s because once, I left her in a hospital room while I went to have a shower, and while I was gone she almost died. A nurse was there; my mother was there; but even so, an intravenous line had burst my child’s superior vena cava and filled her chest cavity and scarred her lungs with poison. Her lower organs had shut down because her blood could not reach them. Her head had swelled because where could the blood go? She lay there, only three months old, dying.

In a way, I saved her. When I saw how she looked—her head too large, a line running across her chest, above it dark red, below it yellow—I ran from the room, searching for the head of the NICU. I found him amidst a bunch of physicians, leading morning rounds, and I interrupted to say, “Dr. Brogan, something is wrong.” Why should he have listened to me? I am an English professor, not a doctor. He is a doctor, and was busy. And already a nurse and a surgical resident had downplayed my concern. But during my week in Intensive Care, he and I had gotten to know each other, had bonded over literature, in fact. (Before med school Dr. Brogan had been an English major: never let it be said that ours is a useless degree.) So he had reason to trust me, and he dropped what he was doing and followed me. They all did. He told me later that the expression on my face had been enough to convince him to come. I looked like I had seen a ghost.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House.” “The Brain has Corridors” more suitable to ghosts; “Ourself behind ourself, concealed – Should startle most.”  I am haunted by the events of that morning. I wish they would let me be. In that moment, I was awake, definitive, intent. I acted. Doctors and nurses and technicians acted. My child lived. But it left me with the knowledge that such things can happen: a mother can go to have a shower and, because she hasn’t done so all week, take a few extra minutes to apply her makeup, and when she returns, her child might be changed, her child might even be gone. That mother—myself behind myself, concealed—lives in my brain. She doesn’t startle me much anymore; I’m used to her rattling around, and I’m learning to limit her circuit. But there she is, and there she’ll stay, watching my daughter and waiting, waiting, waking me from my sleep, ever watchful and waiting still.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

These Memories We Sew

I never really learned how to sew. Sure, I've taken some classes, and I know the basics of using a machine: I can thread a very ugly bobbin and sew a straight line. But start talking to me about selvage and darts and "the bias," and I get a stress pain in my right shoulder blade. It's there now, and I'm just writing about this stuff.

My mom, on the other hand, can sew really well. Once, when I was sixteen, I availed myself of her expertise and asked her for a lesson. But with my mom it's all pre-washing and pressing of fabric, cutting out a pattern, pinning, more cutting. The sewing takes an eternity to get to! Teenage me couldn't stand the wait. The session ended badly, with me giving up and my mom probably feeling mystified by a daughter who seemed to share none of her respect for mathematical precision. 

I would try today to learn to sew from my mom, but guess what: it would end badly all over again. I still can't stand the preparatory work, and the math of it all makes me seize up in fear. 

Enter this little fairy:

She's such a good kid, and when I happened to ask her what she wanted to be for Halloween at precisely the moment that a 10th-grade girl walked by us, all purple velvet and misunderstood in a goth-Wiccan hooded cape, and Vivian, enchanted, said, "I want to be Little Red Riding Hood," what else could I reply but, "Great! Would you like me to sew your costume?"

Thus committed, I found a free pattern at a site with the encouraging name of Fleece Fun. I am grateful to the woman whose site it is for sharing her work without charge and for walking newbies like me through each stage of the process, even if her tag-line, "Velvet is pretentious, but fleece is fun!" strikes a blow to Vivi's goth-Wiccan muse.

Last weekend I forced invited Vivian to accompany me to JoAnn Fabrics to find red fleece and to choose a color for the lining and ribbon. Being in that store and waiting for our number to be called transported me back to childhood. How many times had I waited in just such a store with my own mother as she sorted through McCall's catalogs? I had to share the experience with her:

Spirits were running high--in a good way. Energized, I assembled the pattern and laid it out on the coffee table. I shared a photo on Facebook of my domestic tableau. I shared, too, Vivian's prediction that I would utterly lose my shit before completing this project. "It's just who you are, Mama," she said.

This morning, a week later, I was back at it. At 7:00 a.m. I cut out the pattern and pinned it to the fabric.

See that purple and white thing in the background that looks like a brain? That's a finger labyrinth, one of the first things I cross-stitched when I took up the hobby, and, to date, the only thing I've cross-stitched for Vivian. You use finger labyrinths to calm you down when you're feeling stressed: you run your index finger back and forth through the maze, and when you're done, you've found peace. Standing by her prediction, Vivian handed this thing over to me a couple of days ago.

The pinning done, I began to cut. And now I treat you to the most boring 38 seconds of video on the Internet. You hear that sound? Not the high-pitched snip, snip but the lower sound of the blades cutting through fabric? That is a predominant sound of my early years. Takes me back to Saturdays a lot like this one.

Revery over, I stuck myself with a pin.

I don't want to make you pass out or anything, but that is real blood. Fortunately, I had some scraps of fleece around, so I was able to fashion a tourniquet out of those and a wooden spoon. I forged ahead.

I dusted off my sewing machine--nothing a little elbow grease can't handle--and threaded a bobbin and threaded the machine, too. I pinned pieces of fabric together according to the directions of my online guru, and I forgave myself for having pinned them facing the wrong direction and on the underside of my work. It was time to sew.

The hood was first and, no wuss, I opted to add lining in a contrasting color and fabric. Lodged deep within my cellular memory was the knowledge that stretch cotton is difficult to work with. It stretches! It might even slide. Good god, should I have cut it on the bias? Who knows. Ignoring the searing pain in my right shoulder, I continued. I even changed from red to blue thread while stitching the lining. Mom, I know you're not watching, but I feel like you are.

Note the pin placement: correct side, correct direction. I am getting this, people! Before I knew it--honestly, I think I blacked out for a bit--I had sewn a hood, a lined hood! I texted my mom.

As you can see, she was impressed. Then, because Bill was asleep, Vivian was at Alex's, and I was unshowered, I ran around the house looking for a model for my hood. I found a willing participant in this little lady right here:

I felt unstoppable. I had completed the most difficult part of the project, and it was only 9 a.m. Remember that old Army commercial, "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day?" Yes. I was an Army of One. I tightened the laces on my boots and for-ward HARCHed.

But wait! What's this?

I quite literally hit a snag. To repair this problem I had to go behind the bobbin holder doohickey and figure out how to raise the little treads that move your fabric along. How on earth did they fall down to begin with? It took a good ten minutes to puzzle through this situation, and in that time I moved so swiftly from Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman--"I ain't gonna quit! I ain't gonna quit!"--to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad--"How do you work, BITCH?!"--that I surprised even me.

Having adjusted the doohickey and achieved inner peace, I assembled the rest of the riding hood: cape, shoulders, and, finally, ribbon.

And that was it. Behold: a little red riding hood!

 I've never asked my mom what it was like for her to sew costumes and clothes for my brother and me when we were young. She raised us on her own and worked full-time, so she would do her sewing at night. She'd stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., with old movies playing on channel 5 and her sewing machine whirring on the kitchen table. There'd be cigarette smoke and the steam of an iron. There'd be cold coffee--light, no sugar--in a cup that said "MOM." I can remember being in bed and hearing the sounds of her sewing downstairs, but mainly my brother and I would sleep through it; we'd wake in the morning to find her creations hanging from a drawer pull or a cabinet door. She'd be hard to rouse.

She had to have been so tired, but I think she also loved that work: the pressing, the cutting, the allowance of 1/2 an inch for every seam. I can see the appeal.

Hey, look! She just wrote me back:

Thanks, Mom.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

I've got your arm.

I work in a building next to the football practice field, and I've been looking at this figure for weeks. It's a padded dummy--humanoid--presumably for young men to run at and crash into as they make guttural sounds. But why would you want to crash into such a thing? Look at its form: crouched over, protecting itself, bracing itself, and made smaller for having to do so. It's a figure to inspire compassion, not aggression. I want a young man to stop mid-charge, approach gently, and put an arm around this guy, maybe even hug him. I want all the other players to do the same and then to walk off the field. That idea is not so ridiculous as it is to complain about violence in a society and then to celebrate a sport that requires men to punish, rather than embrace, vulnerability.

Yesterday the great Jami Geyer Cayo gave me a massage, and we talked about vulnerability, how crucial it is to getting any work done in her business and in mine and probably in yours. She can't release and realign a muscle, like my Serratus--isn't that a beautiful name?--if I don't let go, let my arm go limp and breathe through the pain because I trust that she won't injure me, that she will, in fact, support me. As we did this work together, I told her that this week four of my students spoke to me about how the reading had touched upon their own experiences, how it had made them see something or understand something or, in one case, remember something important to them. You might think that that kind of thing happens frequently in a literature classroom, but it doesn't, at least not to me. Students may (and probably do) relate to the material, but they rarely tell me about it. Yet in one week I had four of these moments of connection with students, moments of trust, really, theirs in me. Why four, and why this week? Jami and I concluded that I'm embracing my own vulnerability and so creating a space for them to, what? approach? connect? Something.

Where the catharsis happens

The word vulnerable makes me uncomfortable. It's a bit of whipping-boy (or, let's be honest, whipping-girl) in our culture: there's a woo-woo air to it and the taint of association with the feminine. And while I was growing up, my family didn't really do vulnerable because, it seems to me, vulnerability feels really, really bad if you don't have a Jami Cayo there with a firm hold on your arm when you let it go limp. But it has recently occurred to me that I was a kid who might have grown into a different kind of adult if I had been allowed and even encouraged to be vulnerable. (Note: This is not a criticism of you, Mom! I am speaking about any number of forces at play in my life and, really, anyone's life, including yours. Love you!)

So here's the thing: I glimpse my young self in Vivian. I mean, Vivian is Vivian. I understand that she is not me, and I am really into getting to know her as her. I like this kid very much. But in some ways she is so familiar, me but better than me. Could this be in some small part because Alex and Bill and I have allowed her to be vulnerable? Because she is, you know. There are no two ways about it. She has a thin rod attached to her spine by a few hooks and screws. She is shaping an identity out of experiences that include hospitalizations, casts, surgeries, and scars. We don't require her to be brave. Yet--or is it So?--she is brave.  While we were at the hospital, I would sometimes end my day by crying in my bed or in a chair next to her bed because, my god, it hurt to allow Vivian to cry, to tell me that she didn't like being in the halo, that she didn't want to have a crooked spine, that she didn't want to look out a window at a brown valley; she wanted gray water and dark green islands, she wanted our small back yard and our pets. There were other things, too, that jarred me, like seeing her take to a walker and a wheelchair and, after the surgery, preferring them to her own two feet because walking was painful and hard; or hurting her when we turned her over in bed; or worrying about her spinal cord because during surgery they found an abnormality in how it functions. I let all of this stuff and more wash over me, into me, through me--choose a preposition!--and, yeah, it was uncomfortable. But I did it. I really did it. When a person you love says, "I am scared," do you say, "Nah. There's nothing to be scared of!" or do you say, "What scares you?" My default is the former. It sounds reassuring, but actually it's not; it says, I don't want to let that in or, I don't think I'm strong enough to handle that or, If I don't acknowledge it, it's not there. I'm teaching myself to respond in the other way because that's where the connection lies. Right in there, that's where Vivian will get the message that she doesn't have to be hunched up like the figure on the practice field. Let her be upright, arms out.

Let me be, too.

Funny, right, that you can read that as "Let me be, too" or as "Let me be," as in, leave me to myself as I am. I think I've written here that while we were in the hospital my focus narrowed. All that existed was in that small room, and Vivian was at the center of it. I became afraid to leave the hospital and, more than that, Vivian's room. I was describing this response to my friend Arianna last night, and we agreed that it is at least part-biological, like when a cat or a dog hides when it's injured or about to have pups. I noticed it happening to me, and I just let it happen. Here was self-acceptance, and isn't that a kind of trust? I also wrote letters, 37 of them, and mailed them in batches and sometimes one by one. I told people what I was experiencing, authentically, no sugar-coating that I can recall. Letters I received in response were remarkable, quite different from any email I've received. Friends told me what they were worried about or what they were working on in themselves or what they might try.

My letter-writing has fallen off. We came back to Tacoma on September 7th. That night at 11pm, I sat upright in bed and said, "I forgot to write my letter!" Bill said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" I said, "No," and I turned on the light and wrote a Bill. I wrote to him for the next few days in a row, too; they are short letters, lackluster, tired. And then I remembered what he said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" and instead of saying, "No," I said--not aloud, but you get the point--"You know what? I think I will." So I did. I have not abandoned my hand-written letter project, but it's been about a month since I've written one a day. I am going to get back to it because I want to, but I needed the break. As I wrote (by hand, in a letter) to my friend Marla, this project was never about achieving perfection. It was about honoring connection.

On that note, I want to say thank you to the many people who reached out to Vivian and me while we were in the hospital. My hope is that this note finds its way to you. I had illusions of thanking each person individually for the cards and gifts they sent, and I kept records like this one, scrawled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper:

But I have not kept track of whom I've written to and emailed and texted and called, and I worry that I will inadvertently leave someone out. Thank you. You did a good thing, a kind thing, for a girl and her family, and my hope is that many good things come to you and yours in return.

I have one last thought on this Saturday morning. Is it a non sequitur, or does it follow? The word vulnerable, adj., used to mean "having power to wound; wounding," but that meaning is now obsolete.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Today was a slow day. It was the day my mom flew back to California after a 10-day stay, her third and final visit since mid-August to help take care of Vivian. Her departure makes me sad, and I also feel some relief and, mixed with that, fear, for we're at the end of our summer trial. We have seen Vivian through halo traction, surgery, and (knock wood) the hardest part of her recovery. Now what? My god, I think, can we do this by ourselves? When Vivian was a baby--my mom was here then, too, and so was my aunt, both of them for months--one of our home nurses said to me, "This is just a season." It was comforting, and I told myself the same thing before we left for Salt Lake City. "This just a season. This is just a season." And now that season is just about over, like how yesterday was summer and today is fall, only you can't feel a difference in the weather.

Vivian had a job for me to do today. I was to repair Teddy, one of two stuffed animals she's had since she was very small. (The other is Bunny. Bunny has been through a lot, including a night in the gutter outside Tacoma's El Guadalajara--who hasn't been there?--and, well, being lost to eternity aboard a Delta Airlines flight to JFK, a tragedy that inspired the ABC series "Lost" and prompted me to rush-order a replacement Bunny, dubbed Sister Bunny, from the organic-plushy makers in rural Vermont from whom our friends Alison and Cady ordered Bunny in the first place.)

Vivian took this photo of Bunny I on Valentine's Day of 2010.
This is before Bunny's overnight in the gutter.
Imagine the "after" shot.

Teddy's life has been more mundane. Teddy was knitted for Vivian by my brother, Matthew, who no longer knits but was once a real pro. Somewhere I have a photo of Vivian receiving Vivian on Christmas morning of 2007 or 2008, but I can't find it right now. Anyway, she received Teddy, and she loved him instantly. He and Bunny come with us wherever we go. So of course they accompanied us to Salt Lake City.

Here they are, all packed and ready to go.

In the image above, you'll notice Teddy's skin graft, but you'll be too polite to mention it. It's ok. He had a hole in his face, and my brother was too busy to repair it, so Teddy went to the only surgeon he could afford (me), and I knitted and purled a square that almost matched his fur, and I threw in a scarf for free.

Poor Teddy, though. Vivian loves him because he's so flat, and she likes to use him as a pillow. Trouble is, for four of the weeks that we were in the hospital, Vivian had pins protruding from her head.

Teddy took a beating.

This left me with the grim task of restoring Teddy to his former glory or, barring that, of making him whole again. I took it on because, well, that's what I do.

Teddy declined anesthesia, but he did bite a bullet.

Knit, purl, knit, purl, sew, sew sew... some more, sew some more...

"The crying only makes it worse, Teddy. Here, have a swig of this."

Knit, purl, knit, purl...

In the end, Teddy took the needle and thread from me and finished the job himself. That is one tough bear. Stoic, too, for the most part.

"I am not an animal!!"

So, yes, it was a quiet day, a day of transitions. Summer is behind us, autumn is ahead, and Teddy has resumed his place under Vivian's head. When you see him, he would appreciate a nod to signal your esteem but nothing more. He leaves the theatrics to Bunny.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Well, we're home. We are home. It feels good, and it feels a little strange. I'm still floating in some space between where I needed to be to get Vivian (and me) through the halo and the surgery and where I normally live. Yesterday I went to my office briefly to print something, and I ran into a few people. It was nice to see them and to chat with them, and afterward I felt exhausted and a little hollowed out. I think that's just going to be how it is for a while, and probably my stamina will return a little each day, and then there I'll be again.

When I was in my mid-20s, I became aware of my tendency (ability?) to dissociate from time to time, only I didn't immediately recognize it as dissociation. I was a little worried about it and a little intrigued by it, kind of like how you feel in a lucid dream. Over time, I went to therapy and practiced mindfulness, and I filled my life with people I actually wanted to be there, and now it rarely happens. In fact, it may never happen--I haven't noticed it for a long time. It's good to occupy one's own body. During a period of intensity, it's also wearing. Is there such a thing as hyper-association, where you focus so sharply upon what you're experiencing that the rest of the world falls away or, if it doesn't, you wish it would? This is sort of what happened to me while we were in the hospital.

So now we're home, and I'm slowly reorienting myself to the people and the details that I put on fade because I felt compelled to.

Vivian is coming back, too, and really much more quickly and ably than I am. I was very worried about flying home with her because while she could walk on her own at that point, she was very wobbly, and her movement was slow and restricted. I feared the airplane lavatory! She also hadn't sat up for more than an hour or two at a time, and that only once, so I didn't know if she'd be able to take 4-5 hours of sitting. The days immediately after surgery were very difficult. She was in pain, but even so we had to move her from time to time, and it took 2-3 people to do so, none of whom was Vivian herself. On the second day she had to walk, and it was challenging and not at all intuitive because her brain hadn't yet made sense of the new configuration of her spine and her muscles. Because of the pain and because of the pain meds, she didn't sing and she didn't laugh for several days, maybe even a week, and that was weird to experience. Most of us laugh a lot, I think, and when someone stops you notice. It's the same with the singing: my kid sings all the time--last spring her t-ball coach told us she liked to stand near Vivi in the field because she spent the whole game in song--so it was concerning when she stopped.

But, really, each day she has improved markedly over the day before, and now she's walking on her own, and I think we will try to bring her to school for a few hours on a few days this week. We're still managing her pain with meds but only minimally. My hope is that she can return to school full-time after this coming week. It's also my worry because her bones haven't yet healed over the screws, and I want desperately for her not to get knocked by some kid or to trip or fall and so dislodge the rod.

I return to classes this coming Monday. To begin to explain how I feel about that, allow me share this image:

To the left of the frame, my bra. Toward the center, the underwire, which is to say, the support, the very backbone, of my bra. While I was on the plane on the way home, I noticed this state of affairs. You see the correlation here. The bra : my breasts :: my ability to support anyone : anyone. I am that bra! I am interested to find out how all of this will play out in the classroom. Thursday's arrival of a box from Wacoal (a rush order) suggests that, at the very least, come Monday I will appear strapped in and ready to go.

Speaking of apparel, here's another thing: I threw away two pairs of shoes because I walked across the central activities room so many times wearing them, and that walk meant so many different things to me, was so laden with worry and fear and anger and love, that I could not bear to look at those shoes again. So I am down one pair of flip-flops and one pair of slip-on sneaks. My sister-in-law, who stayed with us this week to help us with our transition back home, tells me that Vans are in again (I knew this day would come!!) and that I need a pair of ankle boots. Kristin also helped me to purge enough stuff from my house to be able to incorporate the many gifts Vivian received while we were in the hospital. On Wednesday I drove a carful of items to Goodwill, an errand that felt simultaneously good and bad. I love clearing out unused things from my house, but I also feel the weight of consumerism and waste even after I've shaken it off. My mom will arrive today for a 10-day stay, and I will enlist her help in getting the new things put away. Bill lowered Vivian's bed and pushed it against the wall--we're guarding against falls--and I'm finally writing this update for all of the people who have been so kind as to ask how we're doing, to offer their help, and to give us some time and space to recover.

The calendars in my house still read July when we came home. Bill had never flipped the months while we were gone.

You may be able to make out that little magnet on July 31st that says, "Doctor," and has a bandaid on it. That was the day we were admitted to the hospital. Now it's mid-September, and all of that is behind us. It's also in front of us because, you know, we will be back there in the spring for another surgery, and one day they will almost certainly put Vivian in a halo again. But for now we're not looking at that.  Today it's sunny in Tacoma, and when I look outside the lines seem crisp.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Bones weep.

It’s the night before Vivian’s surgery. It’s 10 p.m., but Vivian and I are both still awake. She was in good spirits all day and into the evening, but when everyone left the room tonight she said, “Mama, I’m scared.” We talked for a while, and then I read her another story, and a few minutes ago I resorted to playing lullabies. It’s funny: the album playing now is the very one I used to play for her when she was an infant and we were in the NICU at Children’s Hospital. I guess my unconscious mind knows what it’s doing.

This is such a weird night for us. She’s been in the halo for 33 days. We’ve been in this hospital for that long. And now tomorrow they will take the halo off, and they will put the rod in, and then we begin the next phase of this journey. But Vivian is a little reluctant to leave the halo behind, and so am I. As badly as we want to get out of this place, the surgery lies between us and home, and surgery frightens us.

The doctors have told me everything I have wanted and needed to know, and I’ve told Vivian everything that she has wanted and needed to know. But there’s no way not to feel distress when doctors say that “there will be an incision here and an incision here, and then we’ll feed the rod through,” because this is my baby’s back we’re talking about. I don’t want them to cut her skin. I don’t want them to drill into her bone.  “Bones weep,” one doctor told me yesterday. “You can’t clamp them to make them stop.”

Bones, then, are like mothers. Drill into me, I thought. Leave her be.

This is that thing coming up again—that mix of anger and panic and desperation that makes me want to scream at them to make it stop, that makes me want to run out of here with her—but then I remember (again, for the hundredth time) that they didn’t do this to her. They are helping her. 

Now it’s 11, and she’s still awake and so am I. The nurse just gave her Ativan and melatonin. That’s alarming, you know? But it was also a good idea. I’m so tired. I think I have to end this post. There were other things I wanted to write, like about how I’ve become afraid to leave this place, and often three or four days go by before I will, and then when I do I drive very carefully and I don’t stay out long; and about how I started crying tonight when I thought I was going to lie down but instead called Bill and was overcome by everything that I have been containing for all of these days. This surgery is not a huge deal—they do these all the time—but what it represents, and what it culminates, and what it begins: those things are huge, huge deals.

The night before the halo placement, Vivian grabbed the pad and pen from the hotel room and busied herself for a while writing something. That piece of paper I saved, and I hung it on the closet door in this room. Tonight when she was distressed I took it down and showed it to her. I said, “A very smart girl wrote this for you a few weeks ago,” and it—her message to herself—seemed to soothe her. She stuck the note to the safety bar on her bed, just at eye-level. Here’s what she saw: the butterfly she had traced and, under that, what she had written: “You’re almost free. Let it go.” 

Friday, August 29, 2014


Yesterday we went to the zoo, all three of us, plus Laura from Child Life. It was Vivian's first time off the hospital grounds in four weeks, and she was delighted to be out and about. Aside from seeing giraffes, her favorite part of our three-hour furlough might have been the van ride itself and the wheelchair lift into and out of the van. 

At the zoo, people stared. Now we know how the animals feel. Like them, we made eye contact with a few of the looky-loos but ignored most of them. I was tempted to throw excrement at one or two people, but I forbore doing so and am probably the better person for having exercised restraint. 

Seriously, though, we talked later about our newfound recognition of what people must (might) feel like when they have an obvious or unusual difference or disability. In our experience, at least, it pretty much sucks to be the object of curiosity even if you understand people's impulse to look. Maybe over time one gets used to it, and maybe not. Maybe it's better if people just come out and ask, "What's that?" or "What's wrong?" and maybe not.

At any rate, we let the people look, and we enjoyed our time at the zoo. From what I could tell, the animals at the Hogle are mainly in rehabilitation, and when it's time for them to leave they go to a facility of equal or better quality. For example, the camels that were once there are now at a camel preserve. This kind of practice makes it easier for me to tolerate and even to support zoos, but I still get sad looking at these majestic creatures in habitats that are large and lovely but that still pale in comparison to the wild. I wonder at the human desire to see everything with our own eyes or, worse, to control and even kill to assert our dominance. Case in point: the yahoo at the wolf habitat who said to his 9-year-old daughter, "We kill those at our house, huh? We kill them because they eat our cats." He was saying it as much for us as for her. His wife laughed and beckoned her husband and kid into the reptile house: a fitting place for the likes of him. I thought, "Yeah, or you could leave your cats inside, a-hole." And I thought, "I hope one day you are mauled by a wolf." 

Terrible, right? I shouldn't think such things, let alone so close to my daughter's surgery date. I should envelope that idiot in love and healing, and then maybe the universe would repay me in kind. Or maybe the universe is a friend to the wolf, so we're ok.

When we returned from the zoo, I felt relieved. Our van hadn't been t-boned at an intersection! The pins in Vivian's halo hadn't conducted heat from the sun and scorched her skin! There had been no lightning. The clamps in the van had held her wheelchair still. Safely back in the room, Alex and I crashed. When we woke up, I felt like I was getting a cold. That is no good. Vivian's surgery is (re-)scheduled for Tuesday, and she cannot get ill between now and then. Honestly, I don't know how we would handle another delay. I might just throw some excrement. To guard against that possibility, I went to Whole Foods last night--it was a less traumatic experience this time--and bought 10 packets of EmergenC Immune, five for Alex and five for me, one for each day between now and Tuesday. This morning Alex woke up feeling exhausted, so I sent him away to sleep. I'm two ticks away on the crazy dial from bathing Vivian in Purell. We've got to make it intact to Tuesday.

Then Tuesday will happen, the surgery will happen. I saw Mike Pond in the cafeteria this morning. He promises to be tanned, rested, and ready to go after the long weekend. Excellent! May Dr. D'Astous also get good rest, and come Tuesday may he work some art and magic on Vivian's spine. May Vivian herself stay healthy and happy and not too scared between now and then. And may Alex and I bear up. We are tired and cranky, but we are almost there. We are almost there!