Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Jaws Bridge

Today we visited the famous Jaws Bridge on Martha's Vineyard. A destination unto itself, this bridge proved a magnet for my family and friends, while I watched. I have to admit, the sight of half a dozen people stepping onto the rail at the same time, jockeying for a vacant spot from which to launch into the channel below is something I didn't tire of quickly. 

My husband Brendan along with two of my children jumped again and again. Our friends did the same. After an hour or two, Brendan cocked his head the way he might have when we first dated twenty years ago and asked, "Do you want to give it a try?" 
"No, I'm fine." 
"But it's such great fun, are you sure?"
"I'm sure."

But after a minute I followed Brendan, my son and some of our friends to the middle of the bridge, while the rest of them watched from the beach, holding cameras. 

It was the rail and not the bridge that looked high to me. The empty rail span in front of me was wet, covered with sand. My husband held out his hand, easing me onto the first of the four rungs. My other foot made it to the next rung, but that was as far as I got. Awash with anxiety, I got down, disgust lining my face. 

I remained on the bridge for close to half an hour, not really thinking about why I was still up there. I stepped back and watched dozens of people, ages six to sixty, jump from the bridge. I studied careful placement of feet and hands and sober faces prickled with self-doubt. Eventually I returned to the beach.

Years ago, I remember skiing just after learning of Sonny Bono's death. A self-defined tentative, late-in-life skier, I was still pretty fancy-free, married but without kids. After Sonny's accident, every tree on the hill loomed like a patient beast, waiting to define my mortality. Today, the bridge was just as patient. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Long way from vegan

Doesn't this look like an edible Pac Man?
On March 19, 2012, I made a decision to stop consuming caffeine. I had been used to drinking one and a half cups of coffee in the morning, but I knew I wouldn't miss it. It was really only a ritual; nothing I savored or noticed as a trigger for a more alert self. I remember when I first started drinking coffee. After graduation, I launched my job search with a mailing sent to 200 publishers in the Chicago area. As luck would have it, I got just one response and flew to Chicago, on my dime, for an interview with Mosby-Year Book to be an editorial assistant. More luck, I was offered the job, my first real job out of school. The best part of the job was the group of people I met while I worked there. What smart young women! I loved grabbing lunch from all the nearby restaurants. But on my way into the building each morning, I stopped for a muffin (cranberry please!) and coffee for $1.50. It was a great deal and an even better muffin. 

The Coke, I knew, would be harder to part with. It was a silly thing to be over forty and still drink such an unhealthy product, and almost on a daily basis.  I had suspected a food allergy when it came to caffeine, and it was getting worse, so I stopped coffee and caffeine drinks cold turkey. But that's not all. That Monday I also stopped buying deli meat. For the last 3 months of school, my children had Nutella and banana on wheat bread almost every day. I stopped buying potato chips and hard rolls to accompany our weekend lunches. And while all this was going on, I was reading whatever books I could get my hands on and watching movies about the truth behind the standard American diet and factory farms. I admitted to myself that I wasn't really very healthy at all. I made changes right away. And as I always remind myself, baby steps are perfectly fine when it comes to change.

I stopped buying red meat, experimented with more vegetarian dishes and talked with my husband and children about our food choices. And even as my grocery bill reflected my experiments, I feared my own failure. In other words, I questioned my discipline and commitment. Making change at 43, after being raised in a meat and potatoes kitchen, felt overwhelming. I would have to learn to prepare and eat new things. I would have to continually educate myself.

Joining a farm share has really helped. Each week when I pick up my bag of freshly harvested, organic produce, it's like a contest to eat it all before the next pick-up date. My kids are o.k. with the change. They may not eat everything I prepare, but they're not rude about it. They haven't tried my new recipe with swiss chard yet. We're all taking baby steps though. I let them know that they can eat anything they want when we go to restaurants. And if we are guests in someone's home, I'll usually eat whatever is being served. I'm more worried about what I bring home. I'm doing pretty well with the caffeine thing too. I broke down only twice since March. Once I ordered a fountain soda Coke and another time I bought an ice coffee (not decaff - mistake!!!). My suspicions about my allergy were correct. Avoid caffeine at all costs!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Best Friends

When you're a kid, best friends define themselves easily against a backdrop of other children that just don't seem to get you. Perhaps more perplexing is the way in which friends routinely betray us. "I hate you", "you're an idiot", or "I'm never talking to you again". What the hell? The tempests that provoke these devastating break-ups are usually and grievously unexpected. Sometimes, Humpty can be put back together. Other times, like when I was a senior in high school and one of my best friends cut the cord on our 6-year run without warning (or even a good reason), the scattered bits remain untended. These blows can be tough to weather.

As an adult, friendship is less easily pigeonholed. We tend to have many friends, defined in a variety of ways: coworkers and neighbors, old and new friends, bus stop friends, committee friends, church friends, play date friends, sports friends and mere acquaintances. While busy with work, family, running households, and raising children, the energy required to maintain friendships is often used up elsewhere.

Robin and me hanging out in my room.
I'd like to think that the friendships made during adulthood are built to last, but things can get complicated. There are times when I long for the type of friendship I had in high school with my best friend Robin. Nearly always on the same page, beginning in 7th grade we shared everything along the way, including, God bless her, her mom's DELICIOUS homemade chocolate chip cookies that she brought to lunch every day. From the time we were 12 until we graduated high school, the amount of time we spent talking on the phone and in person would be considered criminal in an adult world, with so many things to do and so little time in which to do them. Funny, it never seemed like time wasted.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Get to know me!

Anyone who knows me knows that I've always worn my heart on my sleeve. And through the years, more than one person has probably thought, "too much information" during a conversation with me. I can't explain it, but I feel invisible when I'm unable to reveal something about who I am, beyond the obvious - mother, wife and daughter. I want you to know what gives me joy, and what can derail me without warning. This is probably why I much prefer a gathering with just a few friends, or why idle chit-chat leaves me wanting. I crave substance and emotion from dialog. I want to get at it - the meat behind even the most disingenuous "how are you?" Life really is short, and so much of it can feel stalled. Why hang out on the surface when there's such a colorful world beneath the sea? 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Collecting a Color

Growing up, I lived in what I considered a well decorated home. It was eclectic with traditional roots. Antiques mixed with new furniture, fantastic original artwork and cherished collectibles, carefully culled and exchanged for cash from a variety of flea markets and antique shops over many years. There was a theme and I lived within its backdrop every day. Like the blue willow platter pictured here, my house was filled with all manner of blue and white: Delft from Holland, Blue Onion from Germany, and Blue Willow from England. It didn't end there. Our trim and fireplace were painted blue, our best couch was upholstered in cobalt velvet and our bedspreads were, you guessed it, blue and white. To me, it was a beautiful whole-house collection and most importantly, it provided joy for my mother in every direction.  

Since I inherited quite a few of her treasures (like the platter), it didn't occur to me for many years that I longed for a collection of my own. Easier said than done. My mind went to the clichés so often, I pictured a house filled with kitsch in the form of out-of-work salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars and sequestered demi spoons. Not having a collection bugged me and I labored over what it would be until one day... While leafing through one of the many magazines I saved beyond their prime, I read an article about 19th century French blue opaline. So gorgeous! These opaque turquoise hand-blown beauties had found a new fan. I began on ebay, sniping my modest finds at the last minute, for less than twenty dollars each. After acquiring a few pieces, I arranged them together on the mantel shelf. Lovely. Then it happened. I began lingering over ANYTHING colored in that inspired turquoise hue, no matter what it was: a pendant, book cover or swimsuit. I fell in love with blue opaline, yes, but I also fell hard for nearly every object that shared its color. Mission accomplished!

Ahh, blue opaline!

Geisha dolls from my childhood.

Saw these teacups and saucers at a thrift shop. Had to have them for $1 each.

Snatched vintage seltzer bottle from free pile at transfer station.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Loving Lily

A million years ago, I gave birth to Lily. She was my first child and I never heard her cry. She lived for a week and took a pass on the rest. I grieved deeply and completely. I didn't want to be half-assed about it. Loving her showed me the underside of my compassion. I never asked why my first child had to die. I asked only for healing.

I recently entered an essay contest about love and although I didn't win, I'd like to share it with you.

Healthy and without strings, love reigned as a constant for me until the day my mother died. At twenty-two, like a junkie, I faced the unseemly reality of sourcing love to get through each day. To compensate for this loss, I made it my practice to love myself with the same fervor as when it came from my mother, but pitiably fell short. This was an early lesson I will never forget. There is no substitute for maternal love. The pangs of missing my mother’s love still attack from behind. However, time has been gracious, gifting me the ability to feel my powerful connection to her beyond the constraints of the living world.

By the time I was ready to become a mother myself, my husband and I kicked off the whole idea of conception with enthusiasm. Within two short months, I was pregnant and spilled my fantastic news like an impulsive volcano. My pregnancy was typical. I could time my bouts of morning sickness to the minute and I anticipated my delivery with a mash-up of elation and terror. As the weeks drew me closer to the date I’d circled on the calendar, I espoused pregnancy clichés favoring long walks, bumpy rides and spicy dishes to hasten delivery.

My due-date came and went without so much as a hiccup, until two days later when my water broke shortly after midnight. I identified this pregnancy detail as an assurance that everything was progressing as it should. At the hospital, there was anticipatory joy on the front-end. But after twelve hours, no contractions and no change, pragmatic worry infused the status quo. My doctor introduced Pitocin to get things moving, and the monitor began to record the baby’s frequent heart rate decelerations. And while my doctor did a fair job of shielding me from his stepped-up concerns, reality forced his hand when the baby’s heart rate failed to recover. This course of events landed me in the operating room down the hall for an emergency forceps delivery.

Before we knew it, it was Father’s Day, just after midnight, and a gorgeous baby girl was pulled from me. But as they shuttled Lily into a corner, concealed behind a wall of doctors and nurses, the mood inside the room downshifted to somber and stayed there. Meanwhile, the forceps had left me with a fourth degree tear that I would feel for months, and as my doctor repaired me I felt the sting of every stitch.

At the time, I was not privy to the sense of urgency that overtook the medical team. Lily’s team of doctors worked with singular focus to get her breathing, taking turns as each tried to establish an airway for our child. We learned after-the-fact that Lily took her first breath almost twenty minutes after she was born. The description of Lily’s precarious condition at birth remains vivid even today, nearly fourteen years later. The doctors described her as “blue and floppy” with “the cord wrapped twice around her neck”. At no time did she spontaneously breathe on her own.

Stable for the moment, Lily was rushed to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (or NICU as we grew accustomed to saying) while Brendan and I were escorted to our new room. As it turned out, the maternity ward bore the weight of exile with new parents on all sides. Healthy bundles of joy were everywhere. We could not have felt more out of place. Nothing was as we thought it would be. We were new parents, alone in a room, with no baby to hold. A few hours after Lily was born, a wheel chair was brought to the room and we were told that we could see her for the first time. I was petrified and reluctant, so conflicted about seeing my daughter.

My husband and I looked the part of Hazmat officials, all suited and scrubbed. Yet despite my physical preparedness, I felt completely lost. I cried at the sight of her inside her incubator and was not allowed to hold her. Lily was lovely. She had beautiful brown hair and weighed 7 pounds and 15 ounces. Her incredible strength was tested almost immediately surviving two surgeries in her first 48 hours.

Once back in our room where we remained for the next five days, I felt utter despair. After nine months of planning, reading, shopping, decorating, and eating – all motivated by the addition of a child – I was an empty vessel and nothing more. I’ll never forget my emotional paralysis in our room when I asked Brendan, “How do we do this? How do we do this if she’s going to die?” As it turned out, my husband’s instincts kicked in before my own. His answer was gentle and straightforward, “She’s our baby. We love her and we're already doing it.”

Lily lived for only seven days. On Wednesday morning (day 5), the NICU doctors conferenced with us about Lily’s condition. Many of the words I heard were bigger than me, attached to medical implications and prognoses. My eyes, more than my words, pressed for clear answers. Lily would not survive. They told us to return on Friday morning. “At that time, we will arrange you in a private room in the NICU. You can be with Lily until she passes.” They planned to separate Lily from her breathing machine, and let her slip away in her own time. Our room was comfortable with chairs for visiting, and beds so we could lie with Lily. The next thirty hours remain the most peaceful and profoundly meaningful memory of my life. Brendan and I held Lily in our arms for thirty continuous hours, loving her in the moment. We were interrupted only by brief and welcome visits from close family members and the occasional nurse or doctor with whom we had made a deep connection.

Looking back, loving Lily was instinctive with an undefined path of its own. I have always been a thinker, someone who rationalizes, weighs sides, and justifies and analyzes feelings. This was different. Loving Lily felt more like jumping from a cliff, trusting that I would bounce at the bottom. I fell hard, and I let her memory wash over me without dissection. Sad music, poetry, long remote walks with my dog, refinishing furniture – these were the things that filled my days for twelve weeks. Yes, I took my whole maternity leave. During that time, I wrestled with my identity a lot. I was desperate to call myself mother, but felt like a phony when I hadn’t even changed a diaper. Lily showed me the depths of my capacities as mother, not my limits. The unwavering capacity for maternal love that was born within me on Lily’s birthday continues to grow, boundless and unchecked, despite what I do, think or believe. For this and for Lily’s brave, sweet face, I am grateful.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Glue Has Dried

My mother died just eight months after I graduated from college. Her death was unexpected, at least to me. She was emotionally unhealthy at the time, still grieving the death of her marriage and the future she had imagined for herself.

When I see a picture like this one - of her in the moment, appreciably devoid of pretense in any physical way - my power to recall her in both flesh and spirit ticks up a thousand fold.

The photo conjures lots of memories. For instance, I still have the red Coleman cooler being used as a picnic surface by my mother, as well as the L.L. Bean canvas carryall pictured in the foreground. I remember the wavy design of the waxy paper cup from the stack in the kitchen cabinet by the sink. But when I look closely, I notice the things that I always noticed about my mother's appearance while living with her and seeing her every day. My eyes go to her long, rounded finger nails, almost never covered with polish (she preferred to buff them). I see the age spots covering her hands and face. I notice right away her canine tooth with a bit of a twist to it, just the way the identical tooth in my mouth sits.

While my mother died at an age most would consider young, she had plowed through most of the hard stuff of parenting. And though she died before meeting my husband or children, she took with her something that I didn't realize had gone missing at first. She was the family glue. As much as I thought that perhaps I could be the glue after her death, I was wrong. Siblings share a lot when they live under the same roof, but feathering a new nest quickly takes priority in the world of grown-ups. Of course, that's not to say that some families can't remain close after a matriarch passes.

In my case, I know that if she were still alive I would benefit emotionally on many levels. Her home would surely provide the holiday headquarters missing from my own holidays. And I have a feeling, though I can't be sure, that my siblings and I would easily reprise our dynamic family roles whenever we got together under her roof. Always the cockeyed optimist, I have spent much of my life dreaming of taking a grand vacation with my brothers, perhaps cruising to some balmy destination with their families. When I watch a movie (even a zany one like Wedding Crashers), I extract dangerous ideas like playing touch football with my entire family during our next Thanksgiving together. 

Maybe now is a good time to admit that these things will never come to pass. If I want this kind of closeness in my future, it has to begin with me: a new generation of glue, to keep my children focused on the real prize and richness of life. A future that centers around family, in good times and in bad. There is great stuff here under my roof providing daily incentive to keep this ensemble going strong as long as I'm alive: loads of laughter, amazing stories, tears and triumphs, great food, friendship and always... unconditional love.