Tuesday, October 27, 2015

May I Abide

The light is coming in slant-ways though my window now, a sure and telltale sign that we are deep into October these days.  It's that funny angle of light that has always bothered Sam about fall, but I love it precisely because it is such a visual indicator of the change of the seasons.  October just looks different, finally, from the relentlessness summer sun beating down on us.

Our youngest, the baby we spent so much time waiting and dreaming and praying for, is hardly a baby anymore.  She has amassed a growing vocabulary of charming, high-pitched demands, most of which center on where she wants to go or what she wants to be fed.  She's a pragmatic little thing, it seems, and as pretty a tiny terrorist as you will ever meet.  She stands in the kitchen, all ruffles and honey-colored curls and doe eyes, saying, "Up! Up!" It seems like a suggestion, but make no mistake, if you ignore that suggestion, she will arch her back and throw herself headfirst onto the hard tile floor.  Every dainty, bird-like chirp she makes seems like a sweet song until you realize that each one is an ultimatum: give me what I want or I will obliterate your plans for a peaceful evening.

It's funny how quickly you forget that chasing after a toddler is exhausting.  And time consuming.  And frustrating.  Every night it feels like I go to bed having accomplished half of what I intended to get done that evening.  Weekends, I have spent so much of the week missing her, I just sit on the floor and read her books one after another.  Monday comes, and I am back to the workday grind wondering how those two days just seemed to evaporate right out from under me.

I keep wondering why I thought it would get easier after the newborn days had passed.  I keep wondering why I thought I would get to actually sleep after the first year.  Why I ever thought adding a third child wouldn't really be that much of a transition because it was just one more set of teeth to brush, one more pair of shoes to go searching for every time we need to leave the house, one more jacket to stuff little arms into.  We were already doing all of those things, after all; it wasn't going to change the dynamics much to add one more little person to the daily food/clothe/clean/keep alive assembly line.

I keep telling Sam I don't have time to get everything done.  Not even the superwoman kind of everything Pinterest thinks we should all be getting done.  I mean, just anything more than staying afloat kind of get everything done.  See, the sweetest little comet has just smashed into our lives and laid waste to our sleep and our schedules and our plans.

- - - - 

I've always been a sap for before and after pictures: makeovers, weight loss, home renovations, you name it.  For years it was because I pinned my hopes on that particularly fractured way of thinking that says when this-certain-thing-I-want happens, then I'll be happy.  When I weigh less or when I make more.  When I get a bigger place or earn my degree or run a marathon or get published.  There was never a sense that I could be happy right there, where I was, but only that happiness would come rushing in once I fixed the parts of my life that felt sub-par.  I couldn't wait to get to the after part of my own before and after transformation.

It took reaching a lot of goals and still feeling dissatisfied to realize happiness wasn't waiting over the next hill.  And the more I thought it was, the more I was missing the happiness I was already smack dab in the middle of.

- - - -

Three years ago, I was pregnant and then I wasn't, and though the ordeal itself only lasted a few months from start to finish, it infected me with a sickness that would not leave me until the moment I finally met the baby girl I had so desperately wanted. Looking back, I can say that I was depressed and anxious for at least two years following our first miscarriage.  But putting it in those clinical terms doesn't quite explain what I was really experiencing on a daily basis.  It was as if I lost myself.  All of the parts were still there, and I kept putting one foot in front of another, but I wasn't in there anymore.

Who knows why this loss hit me so hard.  Pregnancy loss is so widespread that I know there are many women who navigate it with much more resilience and maturity than I did.  For me, though, it was the proverbial straw-on-camel's-back in a long stream of disappointments that were teaching me ever so slowly to stop looking over the next hill for my newest fix of feel-good.  I had already been in the process of letting go of my obsession with before and after thinking.  I had already been stripped of (or so it felt) the strangely comforting idea that once I lost weight, everything else in my life would all come together.  Likewise, I had been let down by so many other magical milestones that I'd spent years believing would cure me of some portion of my sadness and angst: getting married, becoming a mother, buying a house, getting a degree, writing a book, getting a "real" job.

All of those milestones arrived, one by one over the course of several years, without the confetti spray of insta-happiness.  But this thing of wanting one more baby, it felt different than all those other things that didn't cure me.  This one, I knew, would actually do the trick.  If I could only hold a baby in my arms one more time, I would finally feel whole.  I was sure of it.

Except that I was left wanting it for so long, growing more and more sure that it would never happen, grieving and wishing and fretting, until I finally had to admit to myself that a baby wasn't going to save me any more than all of the other things I tried over the years.  Finally, I had to admit to my silly, stubborn self that this pattern was a problem, this before and after thinking, this habit of tying my sense of well-being to a vision of myself or my life that was constantly, consistently better than I was at the moment.

And in one of those moments of supreme irony, the moment I admitted to myself that the problem was not that I needed another baby but that I always needed something, the moment I swallowed that particular jagged little pill, I found out I was expecting.

- - - -

So here we are raising this beautiful little monster, who gobbles up our time and our flexibility and our ability to function without three cups of coffee in the morning.  And when I look at her, ordering me to lift her up or read her a book, I can see already how quickly she is becoming not the baby I dreamed of but the toddler who will become the girl who will become the woman who will move out and leave me one day.  If I'm not careful, if I fall right back into that habit of constantly looking for the next round of thing-that-I-don't-have-but-will-make-me-super-happy-when-I-get-it, all I will see of her is how fast she's speeding away from the newborn I craved.  All I will see is how long her legs are getting and how much she's losing her baby fat and how far we are getting from the moment when we rejoiced at her arrival.  All I will see is that having another baby didn't fix everything after all, and instead of learning to rejoice in the strange newness that is already inherent in every day we've got together, I will turn my gaze to the horizon, looking for the next thing to make me feel better.

Here we are raising this beautiful little monster, and her two amazing and confounding older brothers, facing down the methodical tick-tock progression of these busy days, days where we never get enough done.  And at the end of those days, when it has taken three tries to get this daughter of ours to fall asleep, when it's only Tuesday and I'm dead on my feet, when the bills are piled up on the counter and the dishes are piled up in the sink, may I stop and look at the mess of a life I am lucky enough to live.  May I take it all in, just as it is, and may that be enough.  May I learn the meditation of letting right now be exactly where I'm supposed to be.  May I breathe in this season of raising young children, and tomorrow, may I breathe in that season as my rightful moment in time, too.

May I abide the relentless summer sun, and may I abide the slanty fall sun, each in their turn.  May I be here, now, today.  Everyday.  For all of the days that I am a mother to little ones, to teenagers, to adults who are parents themselves.  May I let enough be enough, because most people looking in at my life would think, I have no doubt, that I have enough wonderful things to make any reasonable person happy many times over.  May I be a reasonable person happy with her own wonderful lot as much and as often as I can. May I live the days of my life with careful attention for as long as I have days to live, and may I grow to love the journey as much as I have always longed for the destination.

Friday, September 4, 2015

In the Shadow of the Tower

Outside my office window, an army of cranes is constructing a slowly expanding hull of concrete and iron.  Their long arms swing and dip like gawky birds, a set of angular skeletons building another angular skeleton.  Behind them, giant downy puffs of clouds soften the cranes' starkly geometric presence.

One day that building will be a medical school, and people will stream through its halls learning how to cut open bodies to save them, how to use poison to save people from cancer, how to re-break legs to allow them to heal properly.  One day, in rooms that today I can look straight through and see the clouds behind, men and women in white coats will work themselves until they can hardly stand, until they are sick and exhausted and probably second-guessing their stupid choice to become a doctor in the first place.  One day lives will be saved, and lives will be lost, in the building being pieced together by robotic arms on the horizon just outside my office window.

And below those industrious cranes, between their work and mine, a few dozen people lounge at the pool outside the campus gym.  Professors swim laps with plastic caps over their hair.  Lifeguards sit in tall chairs and stare, all wearing the standard uniform of red swimsuits and bored expressions.  Young women who still have the bodies of teenagers adjust their bikinis, leaning back in reclining chairs and holding their stomachs in.  A group of rowdy undergrads laugh and splash like the children they still seem to me. 

Today, the talk in the office revolves around Texas’ new campus carry law.  What areas are exempt, and do those exemptions make anyone safer?  How do we balance obeying the law and protecting those kids splashing in the pool outside our windows?  And Lord knows we don’t all agree on whether the law will change anything about how safe we all are, or are not, here working in academia.  And Lord knows those us of who work in the shadow of the tower where the first mass campus murder in America was committed come in and out of awareness of the fact that we come to work everyday to the kind of place where people like to bring their rage and their bullets and their desperation.  We know it, we remember it, then we forget it again so we can keep coming here and doing our small part in helping another generation of kids get an education.  We can’t hold both truths at once, not all of the time: the truth that colleges and schools seem to attract the murderous interest of some of the most evil people our society has produced, and the truth that colleges and schools exist to pump learning and art and research into that same society.

I guess it’s the same with any dichotomy; you can’t keep both sides in your head all the time.  You know the inherent dangers of driving your car, yet you climb in it anyway.  You think about the radio station and the traffic, and only when someone veers out of their lane and threatens to crash right into you, do you feel a knot in your stomach as you think how you might have died just then.  If that jerk driver had come one foot closer, or if you’d been distracted and unable slam on your brakes in time, you might have been just another life sacrificed to the rush hour pavement.

It’s the way of survival, I guess.  Because how can we get up in the morning and face a day full of meetings and spreadsheets without driving from our minds the fact that Syrian refugees are erupting from their war-torn homeland only to learn there are more ways to die than becoming a casualty of war?

But sometimes the brush of death comes close enough, the other car just inches from colliding with you, and you wake with a start to the ugly truths you’ve been keeping at bay most of the days of your life. 

Right on the other side of campus, the cranes toil at their everyday art, carrying tiny far-away humans who hang at impossible heights to build something big and strong and useful for the world.  Today, that building looks almost as if its been shot through, itself.  Just a carcass of what it will be. Chances are someday the doctors who study there will have to pull a bullet out of a child, or a not-quite-child, and in that moment it won’t really matter what the law said about the gun used to cut through the body of their young patient.  Registered or unregistered, legally or illegally obtained, it will still have left a hole in the lives of everyone who knows that child.  The details of where the gun was fired will matter much less than where the impact hit, and the doctors will be left to work their everyday magic of trying to save one more life.

The fluffy clouds hang over the work of the cranes, and over the not-quite-kids splashing in the pool.  The sky today is strikingly beautiful, picturesque and playful, urging me to look up and out, away from the list of rooms I’m putting together, rooms that just might qualify as gun-free zones once the campus carry law goes into effect.  It’s probably an exercise in futility, anyway.  It’s likely none of these rooms will qualify as exclusionary zones, and even if they did, who’s to say it would do anything to deter a would-be murderer from just stepping inside, taking aim, and waking up another swathe of the country for one, brief moment.

No one can live in these dark truths all the time, so I put away my list.  Make a run to the water fountain.  Look out the window.  Pray to go back to sleep.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I get a feeling of nostalgia so thick it makes my throat constrict every time I drive by the hospital where my kids were born.  I look at that red brick building, where my life has been so completely and irrevocably changed, and I have this nonsensical urge to run inside and climb into one of the beds, as if that could transport me back to those seminal moments of meeting each of my children for the first time.  Some part of me wishes I could live forever in those initial moments of discovery, wrapped in thin hospital sheets and holding the life that has just come out of me.

I can't help but feel like the months after having a baby are this highly unrecognized sacred period, a metamorphosis every bit as haunting as pregnancy itself but one conducted, in our society at least, quietly and unceremoniously by the mother alone.  

So much of pregnancy is a sort of public exchange, a dialogue between the truths your body cannot hide and all of the eager onlookers who who cannot help but notice.  There is a feeling when you're pregnant that your body belongs to everyone else, that because you are no longer just yourself, you are somehow everyone's to appreciate.  Whether you like it or not, hands will gravitate to you, rubbing the stretched out skin of your belly, and well-meaning fellow moms will ask whether you plan to have a natural birth or one of those (I can only assume) completely unnatural medicated affairs.  At best, it is a time of community that makes you feel you are connected with all women in this ancient rite.  And at worst, it is a prolonged period of physical discomfort leading steadily up to the worst pain you can imagine, punctuated by unsolicited advice and the telling and retelling of all of your friends' worst pregnancy and labor nightmare stories.

Being pregnant is like having a spotlight pointed on you everywhere you go, with strangers often pointing you out in public or just smiling at the very sight of you.  Then the baby arrives, and the spotlight leaves you as abruptly as it arrived.

I think that's why some women struggle so terribly with the aftermath of giving birth.  It can feel like you were full of the light of new life for so many months, and then you gave birth and the light went right out of you.  You wake up a week into the adventure of parenting to find that you are stitched up, perpetually unshowered, feeling like everything you wear just contributes to an all over doughy appearance, leaking milk, emotional, and exhausted.  The stomach that everyone wanted to rub is now deflated like an old balloon.  You have this divide in your closet, as in your life -- pregnancy vs. pre-pregnancy -- and you find yourself straddling the two worlds, no longer cleanly on either side of the line.

Although I hear there are some lucky souls who bounce right back into the clothes and the feelings and the life they had before, for most of us, getting back to ourselves again after pregnancy is a process.  Our bodies, our emotions, our schedules are all somewhat unrecognizable to us for a while.  The dynamics of our lives have changed so drastically, and our very identities seem wrapped around avoiding or soothing this little stranger's mewling cries, a sound as pitiful as the bleating of a baby sheep yet one that can cut right through us like an electric shock.  Time falls away as their day/night confusion becomes ours, too, and the blocks of time we measure are the distance between feedings and diaper changes.  The rest of the world is doing as it's always done, but we are still in yesterday's pajamas on the couch, feeding the baby yet again, burning through shows on Netflix or scrolling through Facebook on our phones.

The daily process of keeping a newborn alive, though the individual acts are tedious, is a thrilling experience.  It is both the smallest and largest thing you have ever done, with moments somehow simultaneously full of the contents of a soiled diaper and a rapturous delight over having created life in your own image. You watch the dried up stump that used to be the spot where an umbilical cord attached you to your child; you watch it shrivel up and fall off, cheering for the fresh skin of the belly button that is revealed beneath it.  You watch that grizzly passage and can only dimly recognize it as evidence of your sudden separation, your own transition from two passengers to one that takes a while for you to fully absorb as you might still be feeling phantom kicks for weeks to come.  It can feel so poignantly happy it reads like sadness, or maybe it just feels that way to me as my postpartum hormones go depositing existential dilemmas along the fault lines of this tectonic shift in my world.

I realized today that I've been back to work for almost a month. But how can that be, when I am quite certain it was just yesterday that I held my baby girl for the first time? How well I know this time around that these moments are fleeting.  Every single time she smiles, I break into a grin with her, as amazed as if it were the first time.  She is a marvel, and in seeing her tiny newness, our older boys are miraculous to me all over again, too.  They were once small enough to be bathed in the kitchen sink, once had those same creases on their wrists from the baby fat on their arms, once smiled for the first time, once slept in my arms with their long eyelashes brushing their round cheeks.

Sap that I am, I can't imagine seeing the postpartum period as anything but a beautiful, humbling, sacred time.  It reminds me of how in yoga they say namaste, which means something akin to "the spirit in me honors the spirit in you."  I think of it as saying "every meaningful thing that I am sees every meaningful thing that you are," and I hum that thought as I kiss our infant daughter goodnight.  The best of me regards the best of her; all of my potential stands in witness to all of hers.  I see both the light in me and the light in her, both of us still glowing like pieces of a meteor that have split apart as they came through the atmosphere, made of the same stuff and still shaped like each other, still hot from impact but cooling and coalescing into forms of our very own.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Things We Hold On To

"Do you realize
All the falls and flights,
All the sleepless nights,
All the smiles and sighs,
They brought you here,
They only brought you home?"

                              ~from July by Boy

I've been listening to the same song for months.  When I first heard it, I only caught a few of the lyrics, but the few phrases I caught, tucked as they were into a kind of lilting lullaby, were so sweetly reassuring that I had to go look it up and listen the whole thing.  And it was one of those moments when you find just the right song for a moment in your life, like it was written just for you.  It was even called July, the month I was desperately praying I would bring my little girl home.

I've been absent from this space for a long while now. At first, I told myself it was because I was so tired, that I couldn't focus enough to write through the first trimester fog.  But, as the months passed, I had to admit that I wasn't writing because I only had one thing to say, only one thing on my mind, like a mania and a sickness at once, the never ending obsession with meeting this baby.  There were so many nights when I lay awake in terror, sure that something was wrong and all this pregnancy would yield was yet another heartache.

Strange as it seems, when I found that song, I held on to it for dear life.  I listened to it over and over, reciting the words like a mantra.  I would imagine playing the song for our daughter in the hospital room while I held her head just like the song said and tried to make her understand how she had come home at last, carried in on the kind of joy that can only come in the wake of grief.  The kind of joy that is so raw and acute, so welcome that it just goes rushing into all the dark places and scours them clean.

Some evenings, I would lay in her nursery and hold one of her tiny dresses, listening to that song on repeat because as long as the song was playing I could believe I would get to play it for her one day.  I would look around at everything, the crib I had meticulously painted spindle by ever-loving spindle, the quotes from children's books we had hung on the wall, the little bedside table I had spent weeks shopping for only to go back to the first store and buy the very first one I found.  I would look at it all and, as long as I was listening to my song, I could almost believe she would sleep there one day.

~ ~ ~

Tonight, I put our Eleanor in her crib and let my hand linger on her chest to soothe her.  She was not quite asleep, and I knew that meant I might be back up in her room in a few minutes to comfort her.  The room was dark, but from the light in the hallway, I could still see her room faintly.  The mobile I made for her hangs over her crib and clinks softly in the breeze from the fan.  It is a tinkling sound almost like rain that we both sleep with now.  I listen to it over the baby monitor, waiting to see if she has fallen asleep, and I hear it when I wake in the night, too, a staccato lullaby for the both of us.  After all those months of worry, waking in the night from nightmares to lay in bed and feel the frantic rhythm of a racing heart, after those many long nights of fretful waking and waiting, it's hard to describe how beautiful that tinkling mobile sounds to me. 

These days almost everything reminds me of how light I feel.  Every twist and bend reminds me I no longer carry the physical weight of pregnancy, and every time I hold our daughter, I can feel the weight of that old worry slide right off of me.  These good, long, hard days of raising three kids can almost feel like the saccharine denouement of an 80's feel good movie.  I could not say when I've been happier.

And while I am so good at waiting for the other shoe to drop, right now I'm holding on to this lightness for dear life.  I am smiling and breathing deep, happy breaths.  I am saying thank you to myself a thousand times a day like a constant prayer or a protective spell or maybe just a mantra.  I am sinking into the aura of hope and joy that just comes off new babies like a vapor.  I am realizing again and again how Eleanor was brought home, but also so was I.

So you see, I am holding on to these days, this homecoming, this extended birthday party.  I am savoring our last time for all of these firsts, our last first smile, our last first time to watch one of our sweet babies learn to roll over.  I am leaning into this life we have been given, this crazy, wonderful time of raising three children and finding and re-finding ourselves in the process.  I am remembering how we all are brought home, inch by painful inch, to a place where we find sometimes, at least for a few brief moments, that all the weight falls away and we remember how light we can really feel.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Any Day Now

I was just about done setting up for one heck of a pity party.  The table was set and the balloons were blown up, and one of those world's smallest violins was just about to play some maudlin tune.  At first I didn't even see it coming, but as the evening wore on last night, my mood was growing darker and darker.  I had half a dozen things on my to do list for the evening, but instead I was sitting in the living room, listening to my children play video games and letting the weight of my worries rest on me like ten thousand pounds of borrowed trouble.

There's a funny thing that happens at the end of pregnancy.  You get to the point where the doctor tells you that if you go into labor, they won't try to stop it, and from that moment a realization creeps in that any day could be the day.  I find myself looking at things around the house -- at the little messes and the things I've been meaning to fix for how long now and the random piles of hard to organize stuff that never seem to get put away -- and thinking I need to fix that right now, right this very second, because if I go into labor today, those piles will still be there, junking up the counter when baby comes home.

I've got eleven days left until this baby is scheduled to arrive, and I alternate my free time between frantically doing the last little things that feel like they must get done, adding to my lists of things I don't want to forget to get done, and collapsing on the couch in exhaustion.  At work, I have a post-it note with the list of things I need to remember to take care of if I go into labor suddenly: set the out of office email, grab the laptop, don't forget to grab my purse and the only umbrella we seem to own these days.

At night, I wake uncomfortable from sleeping on my side, lumber to the bathroom, and then lay awake in the dark waiting to feel the baby kick because I can't remember exactly the last time I felt her move.  And just when I start to panic, she gives me a hard kick and decides to keep me up another hour with a series of aerobic jabs.  So, I lay there and think of all the things that need to be done or discussed or decided in the next eleven days.  We still haven't called the pediatrician's office to make sure he's taking new patients.  I think we need some hats in the newborn size, but goodness knows if babies even need hats in the heat of a Texas July.  And we haven't decided on a middle name yet.  Why can't we just commit on that already?

People tell me that it's getting so close or they can't believe I'm still working.  They ask if we are so excited and if we have everything ready.  I know they mean well, and so I don't have the heart to say that eleven days feels just as far away as eight months felt at the beginning because I don't think I'll be able to believe that this baby is really going to show up until I am holding her in my arms.  And I don't know how to say that we are equal parts excited and terrified at just how excited we are because we can't stop thinking what if something goes wrong again.  Or how to say that we have all the necessary items to bring a baby home, but I still can't stop cleaning and organizing and doing everything I can drum up to keep myself busy and pretend we are actually bringing a newborn home in a few weeks.

Even though we have eleven days left, I know it could happen any day now, and sometimes that sends me into a panic.  Because the way my brain computes that is: any day now, we could have another surprise.  Another loss, another heartache, another scary diagnosis, another stay in the NICU, another meteorite that might slam into us and throw us so far off trajectory that we aren't sure how we will ever get back. That could happen any day now, and no matter how much I clean or work or organize, I don't know how to get ready for that.

So last night, by the time I tucked the boys in their beds for the night, I was all ready to throw one grand ole pity party.  The sky was working up a rumbling mid-summer thunderstorm, and I was lying in bed watching old episodes of Law and Order, counting all the things that could still go wrong with this pregnancy.  I was thinking how, when I try to imagine what this baby will look like, I can only see a fuzzy place, like a blurred out, not-suitable-for-TV image that keeps me terrified nothing will ever show up to fill in that fuzzy, unsure place.

But also, I couldn't help thinking of something my mother said on the phone earlier in the evening.  She said, "Be excited.  I have peace about this."

I turned off the show to wait for sleep, but the lightning was bathing the room in intermittent strobes and this baby had just started her nocturnal aerobics.  I thought about what my mom had said, that command to be excited already, and about a message a friend had sent earlier in the day to check on me.  I thought about how all the people who know and love us understand how hard it is for us to be excited about this, and yet they still want that for us.  Not because we are supposed to be excited, but because they don't want us to miss out on all the joy of anticipating what's to come.

Laying there, I thought about how it all could happen any day now.  I could go into labor at any moment, and just like that I would be done with my last ever pregnancy.  Any day now this little girl could arrive, and when she does, she's not going to know or care what I've been through to get her here.  She's just going to know she needs her mother, the one whose smell she will recognize from birth.  She's going to know my voice and that she's hungry, though she will understand only basely, instinctively how to remedy that.  She's going to realize that the world is both quieter and sometimes louder than what she knows, that it's brighter and colder and less comforting, and she needs to be held close and loved and kept alive in ways she never before imagined she would need.

Any day now, I will need to be ready to take her into my arms and tell her, with some semblance of conviction, that it's all going to be okay.  That I know she's new and she's cold and she's scared, but she needn't worry about any of that because I will take care of her.  Because I am here, and she is so loved, and she will never understand how much we've been waiting for her, willing her into existence, listening for her heartbeat and feeling greedily for her kicks, desperate for any trace of her.

Eleven days from now, if not sooner, she will be here, and when she comes I had better be ready.  And I don't mean ready as in the baseboards have all been scrubbed clean and her clothes are all washed and organized by size.  I mean ready for her, to comfort her, to parent her, the only thing that matters and perhaps also the hardest part of all this waiting.

And just like that, as I was setting up that brilliant pity party, it all evaporated.  I realized that I can't ever be prepared for all the bad things that could happen.  And no matter how clean my house is, it won't make me ready for the only part that's really important.  But I can be ready for her, and so I will try to be, so achingly, hauntingly ready to see her and hold her and promise her it's all going to be okay.