Me: "Who has the best seat in the house, me or daddy?"

Adam: "Well, Daddy's is nice, but yours is best. Your's is squishier."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I told you so

I went to see Kathy yesterday. It was six days since Seth's Funeral. We cried together. I held her and felt her tears falling on my arm. I listened to her stories of her son, some I had heard before, some that were new to me, but her rhythm showed she had told these stories many times before.

"I was doing OK until the burial." She said with broken voice, "I just couldn't watch them put him in the ground. They don't understand. That is a part of me that they put in the ground. A part of my body is in the ground." I pictured his tiny body growing in her belly. I pictured the babies that have grown in my belly. They are a part of me.

She told me again about the moment he died, only this time with a smile. "He had been so scared, and his face looked so bad, and then when they took out the breathing tube and he passed away... he had this look, this happy, sweet look come over his face. He changed. It was like all the pain was gone and he knew..." She looked at me and giggled, "I hate to say I told you so to anyone, but I kind of enjoyed it. I leaned down to his ear and whispered, "You see? I told you so. I told you it would be beautiful."

We talked for hours. She bashfully showed me her "doodles", beautiful, elaborate, bright, joyful drawings. Embellished hand prints of her children's hands, with flourishes and splashes of vivid colors filling the fingers and spilling out to the background. Moons, hearts, roses, stars, clouds, and birds covering them like the delicate, ancient images on a Persian rug. I was awestruck at the innocence in them that in all of my years as an artist, I had never been able to achieve. She showed me Seth's hand prints, his 3 fingers and modified thumbs, long and slender. She stroked them, and then patted them the way she had patted his hands that last day as he lay still.

I asked her to please trace my hand, too. I felt so humbled when she said yes.
Photo of Elllie's hand in my handprint that was made when I was 5 by my mother. Other handprints are those of my brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I woke this morning at 5 AM with a million thoughts in my head. Try as I might, I couldn't fall back to sleep for a very long time, and then fitful dreams convinced me to give up and start the day.
My house is almost quiet right now. There is only the hum and gurgle of the massive fish tank in the living room and the sound of the Porta-Potty cleaning truck out side. When dad moved in with us it became apparent very quickly that our one bathroom would never handle all seven of us, especially with dad's frequent visits and a toddler trying to potty train. "The Beast" that sits in the garage leaks, was replaced 4 times in eight months, and fills the house with quite an aroma on a 100 degree Sacramento day. Ironic that this is to be his last scheduled day for cleaning the beast, because today is the day that dad will be moving.

Well, that is the plan, I am not even sure about that. The months have been filled with daily uncertainty. My sister will come and take dad today as long as her husband is doing OK from his surgery. I feel guilty that she is taking Dad so soon after the surgery, though she said "Aw, this is nothin'." Her daughter had 3 surgeries this past year and is scheduled for more. I see my strong, capable sister, mother of 10, ready to take on the next heavy burden, ready to do what is hard. Even as I sit here nauseated and dizzy, I think I should have done better. I thought I would be better at doing hard.

I am pregnant. Finally. Finally, as in "the last time", and finally, because after a year of trying since our last miscarriage, we are pregnant at last and I am so grateful. I feel like crap, but am thrilled that I do. When I started feeling sick with this pregnancy, we began to allow ourselves to feel a little hopeful. Sickness had not come with the last two babies before we lost them. When my hubby asked the first time he noticed me laying down, "How ya doin'?" and I had said, "Yuck", he smiled and said "Yay!!!" in a reverent, little cheer, looking almost teary eyed. That is now my response to him when I lay on the couch feeling like I am on a moving boat. "How ya doin'?" he asks. "yay" I say.

Dad woke up yesterday and set about to packing. We gave him his luggage and 4 boxes, which I had to repack for him because he only put a few things in each and then ran out of room. I am actually surprised that he is not up already this morning, sitting on the side of his bed staring at his hands, shoes on, ready to go. That is what he has done each time we have had a big day ahead, like his sigmoidoscopy or the morning we had take him to the airport. I had said I would wake him at eight. He was up and ready at four.

I look around at the house. Everything has been pushed together to make room. Tessa sleeps on my bedroom floor since the dining room Ellie sleeps in is only 8 feet square. Their clothes are in the boys' closet. "What will you do with all of your extra room?" Dad asked yesterday. In my mind I saw the congested spaces reallocate them selves as if by magic, the house seeming to sigh. There would be space, but not really extra. "Put a baby in it." I said.

The worst part of today will come when dad has to say goodbye to our dog Toby. Toby, our slow, old springer spaniel. He was the blessing that got us all through this difficult time. Dad has spent every waking minute with him, and all the sleeping ones, too. Dad missed his dog, Willow, and easily transferred his loyalty to Toby, and then some. I worry about them both after they are apart. Dad has asked us if he can take Toby with him. I mentioned his request to the kids and they started to cry. How could I ask them to give up their dog? I still have to tell dad that the answer is no.

Sure enough, dad was actually up, and just came out to take Toby for a walk. This will be the last time. I still get nervous that this time he will get confused and get lost. I can't imagine what it is going to feel like when we get up tomorrow. No pills to give, no checking on him. No worrying when I leave for a while about him eating the wrong things, making tea and leaving the burner on, locking himself out. I imagine that for weeks I will get up every morning and head to the cupboard that holds his diabetes testing supplies. Before we moved to Sacramento we managed an apartment complex and every morning by eight we had to unlock the laundry room door. Every once in a while, six years later, I bolt up in bed on a Saturday morning thinking I need to go unlock the laundry room. I'm sure that even when he's not here, a part will linger.
I think I had the best situation I could have had. With Alzheimers, it only gets worse. You can count on it. I had Dad while he is still pretty OK. My sister and brothers will now begin taking turns caring for him. By the next time I see him, he may be much worse. I am sad that they will have to watch that happening, and they will be taking care of him as he gets harder and harder to manage. We have been very lucky in that way.

My friends tell me not to feel badly, that I took good care of Dad and that it is time for me to tend to the life growing inside me. But there is not much about this situation that feels good. I hope Dad knows I love him and I tried. I hope Mom understands.

Pink Bathing Suit

I got Tessa a pink bathing suit this summer. She wasn't with me when I bought it, and I was worried she wouldn't like it. Ya' never know with a three year old.

She wore it for 9 consecutive days. She liked it, she knew it, and no talk of hygiene would change it. She calls it her "simming soup". I snuck it into the wash each time I gave her a bath, but she snaked it away as soon as it came out of the dryer. I talked her into wearing undies under it, and so we are cool.

A few years ago I would have fought it. I would have forced her to change, and woman handled her squirmy, screaming body until I had extracted her from her pink spandex/lycra and polyester second skin. I don't know if I got smart, or tired, or what, but I have learned it is a battle that ain't worth it.

I love that she has her own voice. I love that I am learning to hear it. I love that she feels so beautiful in her pink bathing suit. And really, as long as she wears a dress over it to church on Sunday, it's all good.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Long Post of The Long Day

I was on a mission in Costa Rica for my church in 1995 when I experienced what would turn out to be one of the longest days of my life. But I was only a bystander in that day. By all accounts, it was a much, much longer day for my work companion and friend, Sister Shepherd, when all was said and done, than it could have possibly been for me. It was a day we had a lot of company.

Before I tell you about that epoch day, however, I need to explain a few things about the life of a missionary. Missionaries are up at 6 AM and it's lights out at ten. There are a lot of rules, mostly designed to keep missionaries safe, and focused on their work. Rules like staying with your companion so you don't find yourself in a compromising situation, or wearing shoes at all times to prevent creepy little worms from burrowing into the bottoms of your feet and getting into your blood stream, are pretty obvious. Less obvious are things like speaking Spanish all day so that you can hone the language, or keeping arms distance from members of the opposite sex to keep those ol' hormones in check. We were called by the names "Hermana" (Sister, in Spanish) or Elder, out of respect. The life of a missionary is structured to help them to feel the spirit and be about the Lord's work. We tried to stay focused, and I was known as a "reglista", one who followed the rules. Most days, it all went just fine. Most days.

It all started some time in the wee morning hours, well before sunrise. We lived in a small, antique village called Nicoya, where we rented a tiny room that opened to a courtyard, from an inn keeper named Ezekiel (sounds very made up, doesn't it?). He was a sweet old Tico (a name the Costa Ricans affectionately call themselves by), and he adored us like a bowlegged, dotting grandfather. Our place was two blocks away from a 450 year old Colonial church and about half a block away from a bar. It was the rainy season, which means it was pretty much like every day had been for the past six months. Wet. Our leaky roof had soaked the composite ceiling panels above our beds (rare luxuries in a country where ceilings were considered a waste of building materials), leaving them tie-dyed with coffee-brown stains. It was through one of these weakened tiles that our first visitor of the day would arrive.

I don't know if it was the scream or the crashing explosion near my head that woke me, but by the time my eyes were open the room was in motion. My companion was standing on her headboard screaming, "There's an animal in here!" She was nearest the light switch, but refused to budge from her perch on the corner of her bed. Stepping off into the unknown, I bolted, flipped the switch and was back on my bed in a flash. There on the floor lay fragments of the broken composite tile, and on the small nightstand, the largest piece of tile leaned against my oscillating table fan. Hermana Shepherd spoke quickly, squirming and trying to rub off the feel of the thing from the side of her leg and arm. "It landed on my head, and ran down my body! I kicked it and it flew under your bed! I think it was a cat!"

I slowly lowered my head over the side of my bed, but could only see my large suitcase beneath. Perhaps the beastie had crawled behind it. I climbed off my bed and slid it away from the wall before hopping back on to it like a life raft. Once safely upon my perch, I scoped out the area next to the wall that was now exposed. There, sitting on my suitcase was a large, shaggy rump about the size of a human head, with what appeared to be an enormous rat tail. I asked Hermana Shepherd to open the outside door providing an escape route for our guest, and then as fast as I could, I slapped the suitcase. The beastie did not budge. I screwed up my courage and slapped it again, but much harder this time. Not even a flinch. A third, forth and fifth slap yielded the same results, and with each strike my def con-fear-meter dropped a bit.

I concluded that I wasn't dealing with the rocket scientist of the animal kingdom here, and took one final and well aimed shot, right to the furry rump. My hand made contact with a very solid mass covered with wet, wiry fur, which certainly did not move due to my force, but out of pure surprise. Like a child who throws a stick over a bridge and runs to the other side to watch it float by, I spun to the other side of my bed in time to see the beastie. Actually, there would be plenty of time to see him. He lumbered, waddled, across the floor in what for him must have been a dead sprint. He was about the size of a large raccoon, wore the face of a rat that matched the tail, and made me forever a believer in the mythical creatures of The Princess Bride, the ROUS's, or Rodents of Unusual Size. Hermana Shepherd slammed the door.

After beastie's less than speedy departure, we pieced together the details of the last few minutes. Apparently, luck had been on my side in the moment our nocturnal friend had strolled across the soaked tile that was only a foot over from being directly above my head. At that moment, my oscillating fan turned perfectly to allow beastie, as he surfed down on his board, to be launched onto Hermana Shepherd's head, 3 feet away. ( I think he is still talking about it to his other beastie friends.). What a way to start the day. Sleep was abandoned and Hermana Shepherd heebie-jeebied into the shower to wash off the creepies.

By late morning, the creepies were mostly gone, replaced by tropical heat and the day's work underway. Just before lunch, we headed for the public phones in the park to call into the office, a place that we seldom visited due to the six hour bus ride through the jungle to get there.

The young missionary who picked up on the other end greeted Hermana Shepherd with a condolence."Sorry to hear about your grandpa, Hermana.

""What about my grandpa?" she tensed.

"Uh, um, hold on, let me get President Hendricks." he stammered and put her on hold.

I stood beside my companion and watched the tears pour down her cheeks as she was apologized to, and informed that the mission office had received a call a few days before that her Grandfather had passed away unexpectedly. The busy President, in charge of 136 young missionaries, traveling the entire country from week to week holding conferences and interviews, and lovingly shepherding us all like a father, was devastated at having forgotten to call. We stood in this most public place, while Hermana Shepherd lived through the first moments of a very private pain. She learned that the funeral was today, beginning in just a half an hour, thousands of miles from this place. Several attempts at an international phone call later, she tracked down her family and sobbed with them over the miles.

At that moment, a bristly, sweaty, shirtless man who had drifted near and stood long enough to know this was not going to be a short call, began to bark at us. "Get off the phone! Other people need to use it!" I turned, and believing in the decency of human kind, explained that this young lady had just learned that her grandfather had died and she was talking to her family in the States. "So what? Is that my problem? People die all the time!" His tirade continued, and the only thing that held me back from experimenting with some new Spanish words I had heard used in the streets was the name tag I wore identifying me as a good Christian girl.

God sends angels in many disguises, and on that day one arrived in the form of a tiny granny in a flowered skirt and plaid top who had been listening near by. She bustled her 4 foot 11 inch body right up to the big heartless thug and chattered at him like a squirrel, telling him his mother would be ashamed of him. He shrank at her words, wind all out of his sails, and grumbled as he skulked away to another phone across the park. She patted my arm and told me to let the muchacha talk to her family as long as she liked. She would be nearby if anyone gave us any more trouble. I leaned down and kissed the cheek of my tiny defender, and watched her waddle on stumpy, veiny little legs to a cement bench close by and settle herself down, nodding at me knowingly.

I don't know how we spent the rest of that afternoon, drifting from task to task, trying to lose ourselves in the work. My next conscious memory of that day was at day's end, as we arrived back to our little piece of home, which now seemed millions of miles away from home. My companion slumped exhaustedly, and proclaimed, "I'm just going to take a shower and go to bed." I plopped on my bed awaiting my turn for a cold shower that would wash away the sweat and difficulty of the day.

As I leaned against the wall, my head resting against the curtain, a cool breeze drifted out from behind it, and with it came a strange metallic tapping sound. In the evening in Costa Rica, one might expect to hear a million little sounds; tree frogs and strange bird calls, bull frogs and the hissing rustle of wind through the coconut palms, and certainly the steady rhythmic click of a ten-speed, the official Tico transport, passing by, but this new sound was not on the list. I pulled the curtain aside and glanced toward the sound, and seeing nothing was just about to drop the curtain when something very close to the wall moved. I stared into the darkness, and made out the edge of a white shirt sleeve just a few feet away, so close to the wall that it was clear to me that it's owner was standing with his back pressed against the wall. Judging by the height of the sleeve I figured it was one of our oh-so-mature male counterparts, the other local missionaries, probably gearing up to pull a prank on us.

"Cut it out, Elder, I see you. Not tonight. We've had a crappy day." I said to the sleeve a few feet away. It pulled closer to the wall.

"Elder, I see you. Come on, cut it out." I said relaxing into a tone of annoyance. There was no response.

In the silence of that moment I suddenly realized this might not be one of the missionaries at all. I caught my breath and felt a jolt of cold fear move through me. In a low, warning tone, I spoke. "Whoever that is, if you don't get away from there by the time I count to three I am going to scream. One..., two..."

In a flash a man launched himself away from the wall, jumping down from something high, revealing not a 6 foot tall American boy, but a 5 foot tall Latino man. The picture suddenly came clear to me... he had been watching my companion showering! "Get away from the window Hermana, there's a man..." I bellowed at Hermana Shepherd as I ran for the front door. I could hear her screaming by the time I hit the street outside.

The voyeur had flung himself over a fence that I could not scale in a skirt, and I lost precious time having to race for the gate and double back in the direction he had bolted. I ran, chasing the little man down the dark road for several blocks, screaming my head off at him in my mother tongue, biblical expletives included. He disappeared into the shadows of the meandering side streets and in that moment, my senses suddenly caught up with me. I stopped in the middle of the dirt road and took a sudden inventory of all of the rules I was breaking. I was alone. I had left my companion. I was out after curfew. I was speaking in English. I was barefoot. Oh, yeah, and I was swearin' like a sailor. Good, good little missionary. I turned around and ran back home through the dark, quiet streets, my bare feet thudding on the firm, damp road, feeling suddenly so alone and so angry. I don't know what I would have done with the little man if I had caught him, but I am pretty sure it would have involved my fist and his face.

When I returned to our room, Hermana Shepherd stood with dripping hair, her arms hugged around the now wet dress she had yanked back over her head. She was shaking and sobbing so hard I could barely understand her. In a few moments, the inn keeper, Ezekiel, and some of the guests gathered outside, called out by the sound of screams. A survey of our window revealed a stack of cinder blocks piled up under our bathroom window. Ironically, I had just noticed them there a few days before and assumed that Ezekiel had placed them there. We figured that some guys from the bar had been watching for us to come home each night. We didn't know how long it had been going on, but I was pretty sure that our peeping Tom had been taking in a nightly show for quite some time.

Ezekiel apologised, moved the blocks, and explained that there was no point in calling the police, they wouldn't come and the man was long gone. Excitement over, everyone headed off to their rooms. We went inside.

Hermana Shepherd was crying, so frustrated with the day, feeling so violated. As the curtains blew, she barked, "That stupid window is still open!" She whisked to the window and yanked back the curtains.

He was standing right in front of the window.

Hermana Shepherd screamed. I wanted to punch him. I flew to the window and jumped up on the bed, fists on my hips. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?" I roared. "I just came back to tell the muchacha I am sorry, I didn't mean to upset her." He squeaked in a trembling voice. I wanted to kill him. OK, hurt him really bad. He was smaller than me, and was crouching timidly. I was pretty sure I could take him.

"WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!?" I demanded. And silly little man, he told me! I started telling him off. I told him he was a pervert, and that his mother would be ashamed of him (it packs a punch to a Tico). Then I realized that in my fury I had already forgotten his name, so I asked for it again. He told me, again! "I'm calling the police! You stay right there, I'm coming out!"I headed for the door, feeling all the righteous anger of a girl who had already fought a giant rat and a sweaty bully in a park.

"Hermana, STOP! He's going for the door!"my companion screached.

A flicker of what I learned years later in my life was something called "self preservation", flitted through me, and I pondered for just a moment the possibility that this man might be drunk or have a knife. I stopped.

The little, possibly-drunk, possibly-armed repentant pervert disappeared, and the crowd came back out of the cabins. This time we took matters into our own hands, borrowing Ezekiel's phone and calling the Elders. They came quickly, but not fast enough. Poor Hermana Shepherd was nearly hysterical, ranting that she couldn't stay in this place and talking about wanting to go home.When the Elder's got to our room I broke yet another rule, and let them in. What the heck, I was on a roll. It was decided that Hermana Shepherd would have the Elders give her a blessing, a special prayer of comfort. Hermana Shepherd sat on her tico bed, a frame with boards that held up a pancake thick mattress, her backside only about 7 inches off the floor. Elder Anderson, a Big blond from Idaho stood to her left, and Elder Tenney, a thin, lanky newbee, perched on one knee in front of her. Hermana Shepherd spoke weakly, and she looked ashen. As the Elders placed their hands on her head to administer the blessing, I kept an eye on Hermana Shepherd. She didn't look right.

About half way through the prayer, Hermana Shepherd passed out cold. Sweet, rule-obliging Elder Tenney hesitated for a moment, his arms almost reaching out to catch her, before he instinctively yanked them back into his chest. She went down like a tree, head first, right onto the tile floor. Arm's length. At least someone keeps the rules around here.

We scraped her off the floor and put her on the bed. Accept for a bump on her head, a peeping tom, a bully in the park, a dead grandfather and a freakishly large rodent in her bed, she was fine. It took some praying, hymn singing, and eventually some joking around to settle us all down after that. An hour or so later, the Elders bid us goodnight. They promised they would be outside, trolling the neighborhood on their bikes trolling for any would be creeps or beasties.

I finally lay in bed at the end of that long day, a large hole in the ceiling over my head, the cool sweep of the fan on my face, and the comforting, rhythmic clicks of two ten speed bikes out side. I fell soundly asleep.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


"Will you come with me to see him one more time before we go?"

Kathy, my sweet friend and I stood in the doorway of the funeral chapel, and she was asking me to walk with her to the front of the chapel to say goodbye to Seth. The viewing had been going for four hours, and it was time to go. The funeral would be tomorrow, and Kathy would see Seth once more before the burial, but before leaving, she wanted to see her boy. I smiled and said yes, and took her hand in mine. Inside, I was sinking. How do you take that walk with a mama?

Seth was 27. He had lived 27 years longer than anyone ever expected him to.

Seth came into the world with many birth defects, a blood disorder, and a fragile system. His mother prayed and asked God that, when Seth died, it would be in her arms. Born without an airway, he was operated on shortly after his birth. He received blood transfusions weekly for the first few years, and then every three weeks for the rest of his life. Multiple surgeries on his hands were done to move fingers into the place of missing thumbs. Over the years, hospitalizations were frequent and scary, and there was always the awareness that Seth was living against all the odds.

But that was not all that Seth was. He was a funny, creative, and sensitive. He gave you a hug the first time you met him, and every time thereafter, and it didn't take long before you paid more attention to his outlandish mohawks than you did to his unusual stature and scarred hands. Seth joked with me, "I mean no disrespect, but you know how most guys think about sex all the time? Well, that's how often I think about dieing." For all his challenges, Seth really lived. He had more friends than a lottery winner, a knack for teasing, and a nickname for everyone. And though he knew he wouldn't live long, he even had a sense of humor about that.

Seth got pneumonia and was hospitalized over the weekend, just days after a boat trip where he had been knee boarding, and he had had a great week. Hospitalization was just another familiar bump in Seth's road, or so it seemed, but then rather suddenly Seth's organs started shutting down.

Kathy's prayers were answered. Just a few hours after being admitted to the hospital, Seth died in his mother's arms.

I held my friend's hand as we stood beside Seth. Kathy beamed at her second son, "Doesn't he look good?" She told me about how the moment he passed away, his face had relaxed into a soft smile like the faint one he seemed to have now. She reached out and touched his hands, folded over his chest, and stroked his little scars gently. She touched his hair and told me about his recent addition of blue dye to the black and blond mohawk. She adjusted his white cotton sleeve and patted the neck tie he wore that belonged to his father. Then Kathy whispered her love to her son, and sweetly leaned in to kiss her boy on the cheek.

Tears rolled down my cheeks, but not hers. I felt as though I was feeling the waves of her grief, but I don't think I was. The waves I felt were my own, waking off of my friend and coming back to me. I hurt for another mother who can't quite feel it all yet. She said goodnight to Seth, "I'll see you tomorrow, Buddy." Tomorrow there would be a family viewing, and a prayer, before the last goodbyes.

I left the funeral home and the sky was on fire with a fine Sacramento sunset. A great song came on the radio, and I blasted it and sang along. Seth would definitely have approved; though he looked very dapper, neck ties were never really his thing.

It was strange to merge back into reality as I drove, watching people pump gas and load groceries into their cars. I saw Trader Joe's market, and realizing we needed TP at home, I pulled into the parking lot, belting out the last strains of Paralyzer. I grabbed a few items from the shelves, and went to check out. "Just getting off work?" The clerk asked in a friendly, end of the day voice. I paused. Do you talk about where I just was in the checkout line? There was no one in line behind me, and the clerk had a kind face.

"I was actually at a funeral." Well, viewing, but that's just semantics. That look fell heavily across her face, and I immediately talked her out of it. "No, it was wonderful." I gave her the 30 second version of The Life of Seth, and she warmed with an expression that could only be labeled as "Gratitude". We stood there and talked about Seth, how he defied the odds, how he went out with a bang, and how we needed to appreciate life more, live more fully and show more love. She seemed to miss not having had the chance to know him, and I reflected that Seth was still inspiring the best in people, even if he had never met them.

"Wow." she said with a soft smile as she handed me my receipt. She lingered on my eyes like a fine, old friend.

"Yeah, and then you have to buy toilet paper." I smiled, embarrassed that after all that, I had had to return to mundane tasks. "Yes, I guess life keeps going." She agreed. I headed home. Tomorrow will be a hard day, but I am glad I'll be there. I have a lot more to appreciate before life keeps going.

Visit a website tribute to Seth's life at, and consider making a contribution to help this family with the costs of his services.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Like pulling teeth

Ellie has a loose tooth. It was barely, imperceptibly loose two days ago, but true to anxious form, Ellie has been working on it. About four times a day I get a gory visual update on her progress as she gapes her patchwork mouth open at me and thrusts her tongue through the channel between one baby tooth and one bumpy edged, emerging adult tooth. The tiny, loose tooth juts out over her lip in macabre fashion and I squawk, "Gross! Cut that out!!!". She laughs mischievously and does it again.

The first time Ellie had a loose tooth, she was so eager to get it out and on it's way wherever the Tooth Fairy takes them, that she begged me to pull it out for her.

(If this were a movie, this is where you would hear the tell-tale harp music and see the warbly image of a flashback coming on.)

I was six. My top front tooth was loose, not quite floppy, and still a bit tender. My dad called me to him when he saw me futzing with it and said, "Let me see how loose it is." with a look on his face that I would later learn to run from. "I don't want you to. You're gonna pull on it." I said from several feet away. His face changed to the one that said "You WILL do as I say", and he coaxed with a firmer tone, "No I won't. I promise."

I reluctantly edged closer and barely opened my mouth. He placed a thick index finger under the edge of the tooth and wiggled it twice before abruptly flicking his finger, snapping my tooth out of my mouth. I bled, which, as everyone who was ever six knows, makes it hurt much worse. I cried, not because it hurt, but because I felt so betrayed. "You tricked me." I said. "Cut the tears." He barked.

My six year old self sat beside Ellie, and I puzzled at why anyone would subject herself to that. "PLEASE! Please pull it out!" she begged. I explained that it would hurt. I told her it would bleed. I told her it might not come out on the first try. "I don't care!" She smiled.

I took inventory. I wasn't six. Not even close. She wanted me to yank out her tooth as much as I had wanted to keep mine. She deserved to have control over this situation, and I had a chance to be the parent that trusted, listened to, the child.

Like a doctor with a clip board, dutifully giving informed consent before a procedure, I re-explained all of the possible hazards of her choice. I sounded like a pharmaceutical commercial (may cause nausea, dizziness, flatulence...). I gave her the chance to back out, but she bounced on her knees on the bed chanting, "Pull it! Pull it!".

I got a tissue and griped the tooth. It felt tiny in my fingers. I could barely feel it in the tissue. Wincing, I counted to three and then yanked, sort of. The tissue slid right off the tooth. I knew it! She yelped. "There, see. Just wait till it comes out on it's own."

"No mama, you can do it! Try again! I'm OK, see? I'm not crying." She opened her mouth, wide and welcoming, a smile on her cheeks.

I took a deep breath, and finally agreed in my heart to give my daughter what she knew she could handle. I gripped the tooth up high with the tissue and pinched my fingernail over the edge under the gums. I counted. I ripped. There was a weird pop.

Ellie's hand flew over her mouth, and her face tightened as her finger slipped passed her lips and into the gap. She pulled it out, eyebrows furrowed, and saw blood on her finger. I held my breath.

"AAAAaaaaaaaye...... AM SO EXCITED! I'm gonna get a dollar!!!" She said, blooming into a gappy, bloody smile. And she really was excited. I handed her the little ivory trophy and she danced on the bed with it clutched to her heart. "I'm so exci-ted! I lost my to-oth! I'm gonna get a dol-lar!!!" she sang to the tune of nanny-nanny-boo-boo.

Lost. Not really.

She comes tonight to update me again, finger flipping the tooth nearly upside down like the tail-gate on a pick-up truck.

"Cool." I say. And I mean it. She pulls them out herself these days, when she is ready. I think the Tooth Fairy will be heading this way tomorrow.

The good, the bad, and the hourly

I have a 12 year old son. A year ago he was (finally) diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder. The diagnosis came after 10 years of searching for help with this little boy who seemed to literally be miserable in his own skin. Over the years we have called him difficult, spirited, lively, challenging, hyperactive, porcupine, cactus, and so many more, though of course never to his face. And for all of these years I have been searching for answers. Why wouldn't my baby let me stroke and cuddle him? Why did he never have stranger anxiety? Why didn't he sleep? Why did he tantrum for four hours straight, destroying his room and actually taking apart his furniture? What was wrong with our son?

We read books and websites, tried parenting classes, elimination diets, allergy tests, and special schools. We took the blame. He was this way because of his traumatic birth, or perhaps my post partum depression. Maybe we were poor parents in general, or maybe it was our very DNA.

It was during one of those thousands of difficult days that I received one of the greatest parenting gifts I have ever been given, and it came from my husband. Exhausted from my constant quest to find the source of our son's problems (believing that therein would be the map to the cure), my husband spoke up one afternoon. This is the gist of what he said:

"Stop looking for what's broken. Maybe this is just who he is. You need to stop waiting to have a "good day", because every time he has a melt down, then it becomes a bad day. Maybe you need to start looking for the good hours. We can have those. Because if you keep waiting for one entire good day to happen, you will never have a good day ever again."

At first I was angry. As a self proclaimed perfectionist I fought the idea that I could not, someday, arrive at my desired destination, with a perfect, calm, well-behaved child smiling at my side. But I was tired, and somehow the idea of a good hour seemed like wadding in a tiny but cool trickling stream on my long walk to my imagined ocean of relief.

As my mind shifted around the idea, my whole world changed. I eventually learned to recognize, then to embrace my good hours. I realized there were a lot of them. Bath time was usually a good one, and Disney could always be counted on to provide me with one or two more in the form of a VHS. The hour after naptime usually was a peach, and playing outside was a guarantee, for as long as it lasted. I found the spaces between those moments, still as difficult, challenging , "spirited" as ever, to now be speed bumps between my good hours, and I could live with that.

It would be years before we would learn that our son had a nameable, definable, measurable condition, complete with therapists and all their cool gadgets, but by the time they entered the picture, I had found the thing that would help me the most in all these years.

In the past year, I can actually think of two whole days that were good, start to finish, by my old definition. They were awesome, and I was thrilled to know that they were actually possible. But if I look over the past ten years I see progress and growth, for my son as he struggles in his skin, for my husband and myself as we figure out how to help him, and in my development as a mother and a human being. And that is good, too.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

She wasn't mauled by a dog

"I have something to tell you, and you are going to be very, very upset."

It was a hell of a seg-way. I had just arrived to what was planned to be a four hour cooking session that would be rewarded with 16 freezer meals for me and each of my friends, when the phone had rung. It was my husband, and his opener had stopped me cold.

What could he be about to tell me? What could possibly upset me so much that he had to call right now to tell me? I immediately deduced by his tone that it was nothing dangerous or terminal or anything. There was no sense of urgency in his voice, but certainly a hint of reluctance.

"WHAT!?! What happened?" I insisted.

"Tessa cut off her hair. All of it. I think we are going to have to give her a buzz."

I slid down the wall and plunked to the floor. My hubby knows me well. I was more than upset, in an instant I was devastated. Her hair, her beautiful, sandy, shoulder-length cascade of tumbling curls. I choked on the thought of it, and my mind wouldn't even allow me to envision the masacre. Gone?

I welled up, hung up, and stood up. As silly as it seems, I felt like I had been punched. When I told the other ladies in the room they gave the consolation-pity face and the unsurpressed giggle, peppered with an "Aw, too bad." here and there. I plugged through the rest of the evening, my thoughts never far from the loss I had yet to face at home. Yes, I was dramaticly overreacting. But it was her hair!

I have been teased often for my adoration of Tessa's hair. I loved her hair. I loved it. I loved to touch it, to twist her soft curls around my fingers as she slept. To roll a spiral shaped lock upon her face so that it spun in a concentric circle perfectly centered on her sweet round cheek. It was more than hair, it was the past three years of our lives together in a tangible symbol of mother-love, child-trust. From the moment it became apparent that her hair was animated with the sweet bounce of my grandmother's curls, it had grown to be part of our ritual as she contentedly nursed, and I softly spun my finger, tracing the curves of the slow growing strands. Long nights holding a feverish toddler had found me passing the early hours stroking her hair into patterns on her head as I waited for her to settle into sleep. Even when I was half asleep, it was the way I would comfort her when she wandered into my room at night from a fitful dream, my hand naturally, effortlessly moving along her neck, pulling her curls together into one ringlet around my finger, over and over again, until we both drifted off.

It wasn't just hair. It was time. To me, it was the memory of all of our tenderest moments of her infancy and toddlerhood, and it had been chopped right off.

I psyched myself all the way home, repeating, "She wasn't mauled by a dog, she wasn't mauled by a dog..." and rehearsing to myself that she would look very different, but that she was still my little girl. It helped. Until I saw her.

Wow, that kid sure did a number on herself. Her head looked like that of an angst-ridden teenager with a dull pocket knife, minus a few dozen piercings and a spiked collar. Stubble poked out over her ears above one long curled sideburn, and followed around her head to the few remaining strands she had been unable to reach at the back of her neck. It was a right proper mullet. Her bangs had been shorn to about a half an inch long, and here and there on her crown a long lock fell to the side to reveal scalp. Periodically, a long pencil-thin strand of hair cruelly highlighted the contrast between what once was, and what was now. Thank goodness she was asleep and didn't see my shock as I started to cry. Oh, her beautiful hair, gone.

The next morning I sat her in her high chair and, with heavy heart, did what I never would have done in a million years. I cut off her hair. What little there was left. I removed the mullet, cleaned up the sides, and evened up her bangs. When all was said and done, she looked like a young Julie Andrews circa her Fraulein Maria phase. Tessa never even noticed it. In fact, when ever anyone has mentioned to her the obvious, "Did you cut your hair?" she corrects them smugly, "My mama cut my hair off."

To make matters worse, most folks remark with a smile, "Well she actually looks really cute! You would never know!" I should take comfort, but there is something else there. Some little thought, like the strand of hair I find on the floor three days later. It's the thought, no, the realization that at the core of my saddness and disappointment, there is a tiny wisp of fear. There is the faint understanding that I really don't have any control over what she might do in her life. She is at the begining of a long road, and she is going to do all sorts of things that I don't like, don't approve of, and that might even end up causing her damage or pain. I will have to sit back and hope all the times I have warned her not to play with scissors will, by then, have sunk in. And if she makes the wrong choice, it won't be so easy to fix.

Yeah, I am dramatic. I admit it. This mom thing has taken me to a whole new level of crazy that I thought was only possible from within the confines of a padded cell. I mean, she wasn't mauled by a dog, right? After all, hair grows back.

And by the time it does, that place int time that we were in will have been left behind, and the child she is now will have changed and grown.

I sure hope I can teach her not to play with scissors.