This morning at 10 am, Carter and I were eating toast and watching Little House on the Prairie when I said, “I’ve hardly been on the computer for days. I should go to my office for awhile.”
Carter, who has a (inherited) flare for (melo)drama, sighed loudly. “We had so much fun the last 2 or 9 days!”
Carter’s sense of time is a bit non-specific.
He finished his toast and asked, “Do you think we could do some more today? There’s still tons of stuff to clean.”
Yes, we could do some more today, and we did. If you think I’ve been absent for the online world for the past week or so because I’ve been riding roller coasters and surfing, you’d be wrong. But neither have I been hiding under the metaphorical bed, too sad to speak to anyone even virtually.
A month ago, I wrote about Carter’s new stability and how much trouble I was having. I couldn’t decide how to spend my time and was overwhelmed by how much work I had to do to reclaim our lives, so recently released from the grip of Carter’s illness.
With the help and encouragement of Brian and you, my readers and friends, I did something radical (which was not, in fact, radical, unless one is sister of Erin, daughter of Janet, granddaughter of Margery and Margaret, and on through the (extremely tidy) generations). I decided to let go, to let the dirty laundry fester and the dog hair continue to collect in the corners until I felt ready to deal with it.
A few days ago, I felt ready. Carter is out of school for 2 1/2 weeks and he’s excited to help because he wants to surprise his daddy, who is in Brazil this week. We defrosted the freezer and vacuumed under the couch cushions. Carter loves the lambswool duster and is unimpressed with cleaning toilets (I concur).
Most of all, my boy is here, fully himself. He tells me stories while he flings the dust off of the books and into the air. He asks me questions while I show him which tools and cleaners to use in the bathroom and which to use in the kitchen. He loves, above all, to sort the socks.
Carter’s illness is like a snarling, slobbering monster. In stark contrast, this stability is like a wide, slow river and Carter and I are here on our raft, telling stories and making jokes. We’ll come to shore soon, but for now, the air is warm and what is there to do on a raft, really, except enjoy each other’s company?
Can we talk about parenting? I want to talk about parenting. Not unusual parenting; not step-parenting, special needs parenting, non-custodial parenting, or anything else. Just any old ordinary parenting, mostly the parenting of babies.
Also about pressure, perfection, and perceived power. It’s like a perfect storm of P alliteration.
Similac is recalling formula because of BEETLE PARTS! OMG! No bugs in my breast milk, bitches!
I was very polite when I DMed the author of said tweet and asked her, oh-so-sweetly, to remove it. Thankfully, she agreed.
I could have guessed, though, when I heard that Similac was recalling formula that there would be a shit storm of epic proportions. There is almost nothing about feeding babies (or anything else having to do with babies) that isn’t worthy of a shit storm. I had (past tense) a friend who gave me hell every time she saw that Carter was wearing an undershirt under his clothes. Apparently, infants in undershirts is weird and old-fashioned. It’s unnecessary and a waste of time.
If people have strong opinions about undershirts, then obviously things that actually matter, like feeding and sleep, will cause some impressive firework.
I spent 20 minutes out in the jungle of parenting message boards this evening and, as predicted, I found many proclamations that the Similac recall is just what you get when you feed your child something unnatural.
Really? Is that what some people really think? Because as much as I wish that every baby had unlimited access to human milk, either from her or his own mother or from a safe donor supply, I wish even more that all children lived in a world of compassion, kindness, and emotional generosity.
We all want to give our children the best. Maybe not all of us; there are terrible parents in the world, but in general? People try, and mostly do a pretty good job.
Sadly, nothing is good enough, ever. No matter what you do, it won’t be good enough. When Carter was a baby and he cried 90% of his waking hours, everyone knew why. People who believed in attachment parenting said I didn’t hold him enough; mainstream parents said I was spoiling him by holding him too much. Some people said he didn’t sleep because I wouldn’t get tough and force him to stay in his crib; other people said I was unhappy because I wasn’t surrendered to Carter’s needs. The one that hurt the most was that I was upset and Carter’s crying was nothing but a response to that.
No wonder I begged Brian (on a very, very dark day) to let me put Carter in foster care! If I was causing all that misery, wouldn’t it be kindest to give him to someone who wouldn’t do that? Someone who would send him vibes of contentment instead of panic?
But you don’t need to have a high needs baby to be on the receiving end of a shit ton of judgment. My friend Brandee felt the whip-crack of the constant pressure on parents to do everything just right when she announced she was feeding her 6 month old daughter her first taste of solid foods. Her choice, and there’s nothing dangerous about it, so why did so many people want to pile on?
It seems to me that people feel they have an enormous amount of power over their children’s futures; that every choice, from feeding to undershirts, may impact them forever, and dramatically. Every decision we make may mean the difference between a child who grows up to live on the streets, turning tricks to pay for dope, or a child who grows up to become a pediatric neurosurgeon whose life is devoted to Doctors Without Borders.
Part of the problem with doing things just right is that the target keeps moving, becomes ever more unattainable. First, it seemed we should all cloth diaper. Then, a collective cry went up (from where, I’m not sure; MDC, probably) that we weren’t doing it right if we weren’t using organic, un-dyed, handmade diapers. And finally, when it seemed that most people could manage that, elimination communication became the true litmus test of genuinely devoted parents. Or first, having an unmedicated birth was important; then, we shouldn’t be going to hospitals; and finally, unassisted birth was the only way to be truly natural.
Recently, I’ve considered taking Carter’s homebirth story down. That day was wonderful; I am so blessed to have had that experience. I hate the idea, though, of adding any more words to the cacophony that insists any woman can do it that way if she wants to. No, every woman can’t, and every woman doesn’t want to. I’m not pro-homebirth; I’m pro-women-being-educated-and-giving-birth-where-and-how-they-feel-safest.
First, the good news: we are not as powerful as we think we are. Our parenting choices do matter, of course, but our kids are who they are; they aren’t our creations, not lumps of clay for us to mold. The reason just right is unattainable is that it does not exist.
I care about this, and have chosen to write about it, because it’s the same mentality that says it’s OK to blame Brian and me for Carter’s illness. If we had done things just right, he would be OK. If Katie Allison Granju had done things just right, her son Henry would be alive. If those people over there would do things just right, their kids wouldn’t be so rude. They wouldn’t get addicted to drugs or go to prison. They wouldn’t be promiscuous or curse at their teachers or any of a million other things.
Bullshit. Parents are not gods; we’re not even super heroes. We’re people with limits and needs, living in a world that is constantly pushing and pulling us and our children in millions of ways, large and small.
None of this is to say that our choices don’t matter, but the energy that we put into the arguing? What if:
Instead of debating whether it’s better for one parent to stay at home or for both parents to work, we all pushed for more options: job sharing, benefits for part-time jobs, telecommuting, paid family leave, and more flexible working conditions of all kinds?
Instead of debating whether or not daycare is bad for kids, we pushed for more funding so that all parents who need or want it have access to high-quality care for their children?
Instead of fighting the same old breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, we worked to break down the social and economic barriers to successful breastfeeding with which many women struggle?
Instead of fighting the same old breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, we gave the people around us the benefit of the doubt and assumed that if they wanted advice, they would ask for it?
We acknowledged that we’re all doing our best and unless we know that something is genuinely dangerous, we keep our mouths shut unless we’re asked for our opinion?
We all stopped thinking that we are smarter than everyone else? Or smarter than all the people who don’t agree with us? Or all the people who do X, practice Y, or try Z?
I read this plea for advice on a parenting message board:
My baby is asleep in the swing and I think if I get her out I’ll wake her up, but I feel so guilty! I shouldn’t just let her lay over there by herself, right? A good mom holds her baby! How do you all stand it?!? Will she get an attachment problem if I leave her there?
That’s an extreme example, but I witness enough angst to make this worth saying: loving, reasonably functional parents do not cause profound and devastating problems like attachment disorder in their children. Feed them well, but know that no single meal is life-or-death. Nurture and respond, but know, too, that it’s OK to take a shower or go out for the evening.
And for God’s sake, unless your baby is in danger or your breasts are near to exploding, never wake a sleeping baby! That’s just stupid.
As the kids get older, there are other things to fuel everyone’s self-righteous anger. Who homeschools and who sends their kids to school? Which parents sit with their kids during homework and which leave them to do it on their own? Which parents go to all the games and which parents only see a few? Which parents talk to their children about sex and which ones don’t? Which parents are cool and which ones are strict? Who takes their kids to church and who doesn’t?
All of it is fodder for judgment.
That’s a lifetime of self-righteous anger, and whole hell of a lot of energy. There’s a great deal we could do with that energy. If we care about mothers and babies, then fighting with other mothers is not what we need to do. One billion people on planet earth do not have access to clean water; I don’t know if those mothers bicker the way we privileged few do, but my guess is that they’d think we are fussing around the fringes and worrying about things that don’t matter much.
I’m on my knees, begging: come down off that hook. Let everyone off of their hooks. There is no other; just us, doing the best we can. When we make different choices, one of us doesn’t have to be wrong. The person who does that thing that seems so distasteful probably has his or her reasons.
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Along the road, shit is going to happen; plans will change. Pace yourself!
You can trust me on this. I used to think I was really smart. Turns out, the universe doesn’t give a shit how smart I am, and all those smart words didn’t feel nearly as good when I ate them as they did when I said them.
On a summer day in 1935, a few weeks before she turned 13, my grandma Margery was in the yard of her family’s southwestern Kansas home, pulling laundry off the line. She dropped the clothes and underwear, sheets and towels, gray with dust and baked dry in the villainous sun, into the basket at her feet, then ran back into the house. Her sister Norma and their mother were yanking the beds out of the bedrooms and into the main room.
Margery pulled the oldest sheets out of the laundry basket, put them in a big metal bucket in the sink, and filled the bucket with water from the pump. All over Meade County, in towns and on farms, every household was preparing for the black blizzard that was pushing toward them. If she paused to look out the open door, she would see the enormous black cloud moving, the ground rising up to meet the sky, choking the world in between. She didn’t pause, though. The scene was too familiar to bear scrutiny. Her mother’s mouth was tight beneath eyes that darted between her work and the door, watching the road for her husband and her youngest child, Billy.
As Margery, Norma, and their mother worked, they coughed. The coughing – deep, painful, noisy – was with them constantly. They coughed while they slept, while they worked, during their meager meals, and during their walk to church. As the family worked to keep the ever-advancing dust out of their house, their food, and their eyes, their lungs worked to expel the muddy mess that tried to choke them
Dust blizzards in cool weather were easier to tolerate; they could close the windows and doors, seal the cracks with wet towels. In summer, though, with the temperature often stretching to well above 100 degrees, the heat in a closed house was as deadly as the dust-saturated air and they had to control the dust the best they could in spite of open windows and doors. They lifted the dripping sheets out of the bucket and hung them over the windows and the back door, pinning them tight against the wind. They closed the bedroom doors; during a storm, the family slept together in the main room because there weren’t enough sheets to cover the bedroom windows. Margery’s mother left the front door uncovered for her husband and Billy, who had been away from the house, helping neighbors.
When the sheets were hung and the beds made, Margery reached into one of the kitchen cabinets, the cabinets her father had made when life was better, before the dust, when there was wheat to harvest and cows in the pasture and grass on the prairie all around the farm, and pulled out a stack of cloths that she and her mother had made from worn sheets. She put them in the bucket and added more water to cover them. While she did that, Norma put the chamber pots under the beds. No one would make a trip to the outhouse during the storm.
The wind began to pick up, the advance wind that heralded the storm to come. Margery looked over her mother’s shoulder into the yard. She could see the wall of black dust moving toward them, carrying dirt from hundreds of miles away. The haze of dust was thickening now, dimming the light. Mother stood in the doorway watching the road. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, stepped out into the yard, then back into the house. Norma sat on the bed nearest her mother, twisting a fold of the fabric of her dress until Margery was afraid she would wear a hold right through.
Margery’s mother suddenly jumped back from the door into the house. “Cover the door! Margery! Get a sheet!”
Margery snatched up the last sodden sheet and passed it to her mother who hung it. They were still tacking and weighting it when the storm slapped the side of the little house. The dim light that the sheets had allowed into the house was instantly gone. At four o’clock on a sunny summer afternoon, everything was suddenly dark as midnight, the windows and doors no more than faint gray shadows in the overwhelming blackness. The dust haze that never settled, even in the calmest weather, became thicker, grittier, more sinister. Margery’s hair crackled with electricity; she saw sparks move in the air and on the walls. After a storm, when they walked to town, they would see cars abandoned on the road where they had shorted out in the storm’s electricity. They would start again when the storm was over, but not before.
Norma coughed long and hard and Margery went to the sink and got three of the wet rags. She tied one around her nose and mouth, then felt her way to her sister and tied a rag over her face, too. Her mother was there, sitting with Norma, holding her hand, and she took the third rag for her own face. Margery sat down on the bed with them. The wind shrieked and screamed, whistling under the eaves and in the cracks, snapping the sheets at the doors and windows, snicker-thump, snicker-thump. The wind was so hot, so laden with dust, that even in the house her skin felt raw and blistered everywhere it was exposed. She kept her eyes closed against the dust, but she couldn’t close her ears.
The wind in the house suddenly increased, a great gust of choking dust swirling into the dark. Under the screaming wind, Margery heard her father and brother fall in through the door, coughing hard against the vile black dirt. Norma and Margery fought the sheet, pinned and weighted it back into place, then turned to the choking boy and man. Margery’s mother was helping Billy to untie a dirt-clotted shirt that he had tied around his face. Norma filled two jars with water and gave one to her father and one to her brother. Billy rinsed his mouth and spit mud onto the floor again and again, until another coughing fit got hold of him. The boy and his father struggled like this for a long time, rinsing and spitting, then coughing up huge black wads of Kansas.
They ate some dusty cornbread and sat together through the long evening until it was time to sleep. Margery lay down on the narrow bed she shared with Norma, covered her face with a wet cloth, and tried to sleep. She lay awake for hours, trying not to hear the wind or her family’s wretched coughing. She tried, too, not to think of tomorrow when they would begin the day by shoveling the dirt out of their house, wash sheets and towels, boil gritty cornmeal porridge for lunch, and prepare for another duster.
If you want to get a sense of the horror of the black blizzards, there is a wonderful collection of Dust Bowl photographs at Kansas State University.
I got an email last night, a note from a friend about my last post.
She reminded me of something, the idea that was central to all my parenting decisions before the crises of recent years distracted me.
That idea was this: my children are not mine. They do not belong to me; I don’t get to mold them. They are themselves, whole people, born to God’s purpose, not mine.
Why did I have children? Was it so that I would have companionship? So that I would have friends?
No. I had children for the love of them. For love. And in that, I have succeeded completely, because I am filled to over-flowing with love for my children.
By that measure, I am a slam-dunk, unmitigated, absolute success as a mother. (That’s actually a little silly to say because I don’t think that most things can be categorized that way, and especially not parenting. We are not successes or failures; we are complex people and we can’t divide ourselves into two discrete groups. Also, parents who love their children still sometimes do horrifying things to them, so it’s not like it’s a real measure of parental success. In spite of all of that, I’m going to leave that sentence there and assume that you know what I mean.)
My friend’s email reminded me that I can be OK no matter what; whether Jacob or Abbie chooses to to return to a fuller relationship with me or not, I can be OK.
I can heal.
Not to say that having the limited relationships that I have with them now is what I want; not to say that the thought doesn’t burn through me like a flaming dagger. It does.
No, really, it hurts. I have the ibuprofen on board, but my head is still pounding; the bottle of Tums is open next to me. I have a cool washcloth for my swollen face because the looking-at-this, the facing-what-is…it hurts.
My kids are hurt and angry, and I am the focus of those difficult feelings. There is nothing about that to like; nothing comforting, lovely, or poetic in it. I wrap these words around it, try to make sense of it, but in reality? No words can touch the blazing ball of agony that lives behind my sternum.
No happy relationship was ever created via hostage-taking. I decided long, long ago that I will only participate in freely-chosen relationships. I won’t force or be forced. I made that decision on the heels of a painful break-up; I knew that if I begged him, he would stay. I also knew that acquiescence to coercion is not love.
What i didn’t anticipate when I made that decision was that someday, I would apply it to my relationship with my children.
Because that’s different, isn’t it? Most of us know that we can’t control our parents, friends, spouses, siblings, and co-workers. But our children – we’re responsible for them! We chose them, we pour our love and devotion and hope into them. Still, they are themselves.
Jacob, creative and kind.
Abbie, fierce and generous.
They might not come back to me. What we have going on over here is far beyond ordinary teenager angst, and healing from our wounds might not include coming back to each other in the ways I would have hoped. I won’t give up on that; I’ll never give up on the closeness I expected we would share when they reached adulthood.
I’m just going to learn not to expect it anymore.
Now, I begin the process of letting go of my regret and my expectations and enjoy the time I have with them now. They are my children, and I love them. Whatever happens, I love them.
Hey, have y’all heard about Band Back Together? You need to git yer ass on over there, and in a hurry!
We all have challenges, right? Whatever those challenges are, we need support to survive. So some bloggers, led by Aunt Becky of Mommy Wants Vodka, got together and created a group blog, a place where we can share our stories of pain and survival. Head on over and share some love with the people who have already posted stories and if you have a tale to tell you can do that, too.
My favorite part is this: the site is 100% moderated. All the posts and all the comments are reviewed by one of your friendly neighborhood editors – maybe even me! That means that you are safe; no trolls, no snark, no judgment, because we are standing between you and all that is evil on the internet. You can post anonymously or use your name; your choice. Whatever you need to do to feel safe and supported, do that.
I’m in awe of the brave and beautiful stories that people have already shared and very proud of helping to create a place where that can happen.
I love Jacob. In my toenails, I love him. In my liver and capillaries and plasma, I love him.
In the late-1980s, when my whole family was caught up in the self-help movement, it was easy to stand arm’s-distance away from my parents and acknowledge all that they had done wrong, the sins committed, the hurts inflicted. On the day Jacob was born, his dad, Robert, held him and asked me, “Do you think our parents felt this way about us?”
They did. Of course they did; they were enchanted, just like we were. They were smitten, resolved to do everything right. To love them and hold them close and protect them from the sharp edges in the world. Just like us.
They way I love Jacob, I could cut that love with a knife and fork and eat it. It’s as real to me as my body, as large as a planet. When I divorced his dad, I swallowed my ego, let all the old arguments float away because they didn’t matter anymore. I thought they didn’t matter anymore.
For a long time, they didn’t matter.
Something changed. All those resentments were uneasy in the closets and drawers and old boxes to which we’d banished them. I dealt with mine the best way I could; talked through them, healed them. I thought I healed them.
For almost two years, I was hurt and angry. Less and less as time went by, thankfully.
Then, suddenly, I recalled the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital, how Robert stood over the bassinet and said, “I’m so proud! I can’t stand it; I’m so proud!”
I smiled at that happy memory, and that smile told me that I had turned a corner, had become more healed than broken.
For the better part of a decade, we sat together at the basketball games and band concerts; talked about homework and negotiated weekend schedules. I went to his wedding reception; he brought a gift when Carter was born. We were careful, always so careful; we talked about the kids and little else. We were friendly, but never friends.
Then, the catalyst, Carter’s illness, split us wide open. Split me wide open, and brought our fragile truce to an end.
It brought everything about us that was fragile to an end. Some crises are so big, so greedy, they sweep everything into themselves.
And now, Jacob is a teenager, doing teenager things. He needs to assert himself; to be himself in the world. This process isn’t easy for most families.
Add this: a monstrous resentment at me because I abandoned him in favor of his little brother. (This is only untrue in the minds of adults, adept at justification and familiar with the vagaries of life, not across days or weeks but across years and decades and entire lifetimes.)
Add this: two parents, not just divorced but with nothing at all in common; who married far, far too young and who, in spite of some efforts at communication, are now strangers to each other.
Add this: my history of depression is significant and severe and I had a major relapse about 6 years ago, after many years of relative stability.
Add this: the responsibility borne by Robert, which is not mine to expose but which is nevertheless real.
Add this: the responsibility borne by my extended family, which is not mine to expose but which is nevertheless real.
Add this: Brian and I had no idea how to blend two families and we botched the job.
Add this: more, and more, and more.
I understand how the political climate in our nation has become so completely polarized; that is our nature. We want to choose: this one is right, completely, and that one is wrong, entirely.
I vacillate; sometimes, I blame everyone for Jacob’s absence, for the distance between us. I am caught in a web of blind red rage at the people who stole my son – my heart and soul – from me.
Sometimes, I hate myself so much for all that I have done wrong, all my failings and weaknesses, all the ways that I am selfish and incapable, that I can barely move. I can’t breathe under the weight of the guilt and shame.
When I was a little girl and I was angry at my parents, I screamed, “It’s not fair!”
My dad answered, “Good. It’s part of my job to make sure you know that life isn’t fair.”
No, it’s not. Life is not fair. My brain whirs with the scenarios…if we had never had Carter; if Brian and I had met sooner, before we had children with other people; if Carter was our only child; if we’d found good help sooner; if we’d never moved; if Brian and I had learned to work together – to be partners the way children with disabilities need their parents to be partners – sooner; if I’d chosen college, career, and a series of poetically doomed affairs instead of trying, always, to build family; if if if…
Start putting wishes in one hand and shit in the other. Which one fills up faster?
Jacob called me last night because he wanted me to do something for him. I did it, but not in the way or at the time he would have liked. He let me know this afternoon that he was not pleased.
Such a normal teenager complaint. Such an ordinary mom frustration.
For him? More evidence that I don’t care, that I can’t be bothered. Again, I have proved my vast inadequacies as a parent and a human being.
For me? Something new to tie to my whip, the tool of my self-flagellation. A shard of glass, perhaps, or a rusty nail. Again, I have proved my vast inadequacies as a parent and a human being.
He is still, for me, what he always was: enchanting, fascinating, magical. He made me a mother. His first night home from the hospital, when he grunted and snurfled because he wanted to nurse, I looked into the bassinet and was surprised. “Oh!” I thought, “you’re still here! You’re real!”
When he holds his first child in his arms, he will probably wonder, “Did my mom feel this way about me?”
I’ve been sick for five days (I think? It could have been four. Or six.). Fever, coughing, stuffy head, gastrointestinal ickiness, the whole unlovely, unpleasant drill.
My mind doesn’t understand the difference between staying in bed all day because of a virus, and staying in bed all day because of depression. If I stay in bed all day, I get depressed.
Sort of like, if you hold me under water long enough, I drown.
My brain says that life sucks, has always sucked, will always suck, and it says all of that loudly. My brain says that I’m useless; that I’ll never accomplish anything that matters. Adrift on my couch, I believe everything it says.
This morning, Carter woke up and told me a dream story; something about hairy pigs wearing dresses, and then he wanted to get all our dogs on the bed with us. He laughed at Blossom’s bald anus (Brian shaves it every month because otherwise, she runs around with a poop-encrusted ass which is, to understate quite dramatically, unpleasant.) and Lolly crawled under the covers like a giant worm while Doodle made how did I get mixed up with this nutty crowd? faces at us.
I can breathe again.
And just like that, the world is right-side-up again. Turns out, my body can make new memories.
On September 13, 2001, I was home alone. I don’t remember why; there should have been kids in the house. Perhaps I wasn’t alone, and the kids were napping? In any case, I was at my desk, doing daycare paperwork, when the phone rang.
The phone had been ringing a great deal. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk, to connect. The world was burning.
A very officious-sounding woman was on the phone, “Hello, this is Deputy Smith from the Bernalillo County sheriff’s department. Is this Adrienne Jones, child care provider for the infant Kyle Marks who died yesterday?”
“Excuse me,” I squeaked. I set the phone down and vomited in the wastebasket. The world went black around the edges as I rinsed my mouth and tried to regain enough composure to speak.
On the phone again, Deputy Smith was apologetic. “Ms. Jones, I thought you knew. I’m so sorry; I would have been gentler. I thought the family would have called you.”
“No, I haven’t seen them since Tuesday. They got scared. No, they were upset. Everyone was upset and they came to get him right before the second tower went down. What time was that? When did Kyle die? Oh, my God. Was it the same thing? Did he die the same way as his brother?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t know. The coroner has to make that determination. Kyle died early yesterday morning. The parents woke up and he had passed away. I’m so sorry; I need to ask you a few questions. I’ll try to be brief, OK? Can you answer a few questions?”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”
The deputy asked me a dozen questions – standard stuff, and since I’d never noticed a thing about Kyle or his parents that concerned me, we were done before too long.
When I had answered all of her questions and finally hung up the phone, I lost my mind with grief. For Kyle, yes; for the loss of a little boy who had only lived four months, but even more, I wept for Kyle’s parents. Their first baby, Noah, had died just 10 months earlier.
Twice, in one year, they buried a child.
A few days later, Brian and I went to Kyle’s funeral at a tiny church in the North Valley, then followed the funeral procession to the cemetery. I rode head-down the whole way, crying into a giant ball of tissues. When he stopped the car and I finally looked up, I realized we were just up the hill from Gabrielle’s grave.
I dissolved into a puddle of overwhelming grief – for Kyle and his brother, for Gabrielle and Rachel, for parents and siblings and spouses and lovers and friends and children. The weight of a nation – the world – one family. The grief.
So much pain.
The number dead in the September 11, 2001 attacks is staggering – 2,996 – but it is, in some sense, meaningless.
Her spouse; his niece. Their daughter. His sister. Her best friend. His lover. Their youngest child. His mom.
Wives wept in the shower; pastors, imams, rabbis, and priests comforted their people; fathers held their children. People suffered. People. Individual people, bound together by the threads of pain.
Do you remember in the days after the towers came down, and the people on the ground were covered in ashes so that they all looked the same? People showed up to help – thousands of people – and those of us far away from the site of the tragedies said prayers and helped in other ways. We held our breath and hoped for survivors; we wept together when there were only a few. We cried with gratitude for the many heroes – first-responders and ordinary people who risked everything, or gave everything.
There was so much heat in that connection.
I hugged Kyle’s dad after the funeral and said, “I miss your little boy. I loved him.”
He wept into my hair, crying, “I can’t stand it. It hurts too much. I can’t stand it!” We cried like that for a long time, together.
It’s better that way.
Not easier; not less painful. Just…better.
Multiply compassion and love in the world this weekend, my friends. Multiply hope.
Oh, you’re sweet. Yes, I was very young when he was born.
Jacob is doing great with the whole learn-to-move-3,000-pounds-of-metal-down-the-road thing. I, on the other hand, had a hard time.
Let’s look first at what I had to work with.
In my case, the family truckster was 1980 Volkswagen Vanagon. Affectionately nicknamed The Brady Bunch Getaway Mobile, this thing had no amenities, no luxuries, nothing. It was a shoebox on wheels with a sewing machine engine to propel it forward in space. When we were traveling and got bogged down on a hill (read: slowed until a 4-year-old on a tricycle could have passed us), Dad would holler at my sister and me to get back there and whip the hamsters.
But I begged to drive it. Why? Because this:
was the only other option. Sorry for the lousy picture, but that’s the one, the real truck in which I learned to drive, a 1965 Ford F100 small bed. The people who own it now didn’t answer the door when I knocked and I thought it might be a bit rude (read: I go to jail for no photo) to stand in the yard taking pictures.
That’s Old Blue, so named because it was old, and also blue. We’re a very creative family that way. My dad told me that if I could drive that truck, I would be able to drive anything.
On that point, he was correct. You could put me behind the controls of a locomotive and I wouldn’t be intimidated.
Trains have a steering wheels and clutch, brake, and gas pedals, right? Good.
The first thing my dad (who handled all the driving instruction; my mom sat in the backseat and gasped herself dizzy) taught me to do was start the car. Simple enough. On Sunday mornings I would rush to be ready to go first, then ask my dad for the keys and run out to the driveway to start the van.
That was how I managed to destroy one of the garage doors. I smashed right into it with one of those giant vehicles. My folks bought a new garage door, hung it up, and painted it to match the other one.
I waited almost 24 hours before I smashed the other garage door.
There was much sighing and shaking of parental heads, but they ordered another garage door, hung it up, and painted it.
I waited over a week after the second new door was installed before I smashed the first new garage door. Again with the sighing and shaking of parental heads, but that time my dad went into the garage with a mallet and pounded out the smashed parts the best he could.
At which point I stopped driving into the garage doors.
My parents decided to hand some of my driverly education over to the professionals and signed me up for drivers’ education, which involved some classroom time, several sessions on the driving range, and several hours of street driving.
Our driving range looked like this:
See that little row of boxes? Those are the cars. They were all automatic except one, and I had to drive that one because both of our vehicles had standard transmissions.
Every car had a speaker in it, and the teacher and his assistants in the control tower could talk to us, the drivers. Our first task was to drive forward to the dashed line. In spite of my hands sweating half a quart per minute, I successful completed that skill. One minute, I was in front of the little practice road, and the next minute I was idling in front of an orange cone 20 yards away!
Oh. It seemed we weren’t finished.
The next task was to drive from the dashed line back to where we started. Backwards. I looked over my right shoulder. I looked over my left shoulder. I let up on the clutch a little bit…a tiny bit more…just a bit more…and the car moved a few inches.
Oops! I wasn’t going in a straight line. I slammed on the brakes, corrected my direction, and worked the clutch and the accelerator again.
Oops! I was going in the other wrong direction. Worse? All the other cars were back where they started.
No time to start over! Everyone was staring! Quick; correct the steering! No, wait, the car is about to stall! Give it some gas!
When the cloud of dust started to settle and my dizziness was subsiding (and, I assume, the other driving students had begun to catch their breath), one of the instructor’s assistants came to get in the car with me. That assistant rode in my car the rest of the hour and I still managed to rear end another car and take out half-a-dozen orange cones.
None of this should have surprised anyone. I was always the kid who, when I got into a bumper car at the fair, immediately got stuck in a corner and never managed to get out before the time was up.
All early indications to the contrary, I did eventually learn to drive, and drive well. Since that little fender-bump on the driving range, I’ve never been in an accident that was my fault.
Of course, that might be because I drive like a little old lady. Do you know who first told me I drove like a little old lady?
Sometimes I think it’s a wonder I’m smart enough not to eat my own head.
Jacob is doing great. He would never spin out on the driving range. Or eat his own head.
Midmorning on Friday, July 4, 1997, my then husband, Robert, was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and our den, holding our 19 month old daughter Abbie and screaming at me. “I’m leaving! Do you hear me? I’m out of here! I don’t love you anymore! You make me sick! You’re a fucking cow! How can you expect me to be married to someone who won’t even have sex with me? I’m out of here!”
Abbie was crying and squirming, trying to get away from her dad. Jacob, 3 1/2 years old, was behind me, silent. I was standing in the middle of the den, ice cold down to my bones, a basket of toys in my hands.
“If you’re leaving, go now,” I said. “You can couch surf until you get a place.”
To this day he tells people that I kicked him out of the house.
Amazing how a day and an event that I dreaded for over a year and from which I took nearly two years to recover has become so unimportant in my memory. I almost never think about it anymore, but at the time I was afraid I would drown in the fury of my feelings.
From the vantage point of 13+ years, I can look at that relationship and understand when it really ended for me, the thing that broke us for good and for always.
Which is not quite true; we were young and foolish and had no business getting married, much less having children together. Walking down the aisle on our wedding day, the thought bubbled up, “This is a bad idea. We’re not going to last.” I was already pregnant and figured that calling the wedding off at that moment was not an option, and honestly, I didn’t want to.
Sigh. If I’ve made a more selfish decision in my life than that one, I don’t know what it is.
The illusion of us, of Robert and Adrienne, young couple in love, began to crumble for me on December 30, 1993, when Jacob was 20 days old. We’d been married 7 months.
I was over the moon with joy about my new baby. Motherhood agreed with me, largely because there was never an easier, happier baby than my Jacob. I was tentative and uneasy, a bit overwhelmed, but mostly I was enamored of my beautiful little boy.
Happy as I was, I was also pretty raw emotionally. I didn’t suffer from postpartum depression, but I had a decent case of the baby blues; I was weepy and sensitive, a little bit anxious. I sought frequent reassurance from Robert that he didn’t love the baby more than me. I was happy, but out of balance, a little off my center, disoriented.
On that evening in December, 1993, I got out of the shower to find Robert standing in the bathroom door. He looked shocked.
“Is it your mom?” I asked. Robert’s mom was in Wyoming, dying of cancer.
“No, it was Jackie. Remember I told you about her? My high school girlfriend?”
“Before April, right?” I think I’ve mentioned before that Robert liked the ladies; keeping track of the relationships he had before me (or during one of our many pre-marital break-ups) was not easy.
“Yeah, before April. When we lived in Colorado. She was calling about my son. She was pregnant when my mom moved us to Albuquerque and she had a son. He’s seven.”
I stood there on the bathmat, staring, with the towel pressed against my breasts to staunch their enthusiastic, near-constant dripping of milk. Several minutes passed.
“What’s his name?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” he said, and then he began to cry. I stood a moment longer, my hair dripping cold water down my back, while Robert wept quietly. Eventually, I walked past him into the bedroom so I could get dressed.
How Robert came to have a child whose existence he did not know about for over seven years is long and convoluted. I’m not sure I know the whole truth. I do know, though, that on December 30, 1993, a tiny flame of contempt sparked to life in me. I wasn’t aware of that at the time; after Robert told me about his first child (not my child; not our child), the only emotion of which I was consciously aware was shock. I was angry, too, but I was young and in love, and a brand new mother, too, so I carefully kept that secret from myself.
The most important lesson I learned in the two years after Robert and I divorced (when I was busy dissecting and analyzing every one of our seven years together) was this: contempt is poison in a relationship. As corrosive as sulfuric acid, as poisonous as the venom of a brown recluse, contempt eats a relationship from the inside until it’s hollow.
Of the many mistakes I have made in my relationship with Brian, contempt has not been among them. I remain ever-watchful for feelings of moral or intellectual superiority, for secret angers and judgments.
If I feel rage rise in my throat over things that should be no more than minor irritations (the damp towel in a heap on the bathroom floor; the pizza with the wrong toppings; the car with an empty gas tank), I know I’ve missed my mark.
So I back up and look for the thing, the one that’s chewing on me. I find a way over, around, or through it.
That first marriage wasn’t worth saving. We were blessed with two magnificent children, and for that reason I will never regret our relationship, but we had no business trying to live our lives together.
This marriage, this life I share with Brian, is worth any amount of effort to keep it from rotting away. He’s in this with me. No matter what mistakes we’ve made, how often we’ve hurt each other, we’re partners.
I could survive without him, but I’m immeasurably grateful that I don’t have to.
I was 19 when I got my first full-time job as the teacher for a group of school age kids in a daycare center. It was summer and I took my class bowling a lot.
Those kids were weird, all wild for bowling. There weren’t enough lightweight balls to go around, so we spent most of our time waiting for one of the two balls to pop up in the ball return, which was fine with them because there was that fan that would blow on their faces.
Like I said, they were weird kids.
My classroom was right next to the two-year-old classroom, and in that classroom was a little boy named we’ll call David (which is not his real name because DUH).
I fell in love with David, and the feeling was mutual. He had no words; in fact, he rarely vocalized at all, but he ran to me every time he caught the tiniest glimpse of me through the big accordion curtain between the two rooms.
David was broken.
He was also perfect. Painfully, acutely perfect. He had fetal alcohol syndrome; a not-yet repaired cleft palate; severe asthma; and a deep sadness that didn’t cover up his pure and perfect soul.
Did I mention I was in love?
Every day after lunch, he had to have a nebulizer treatment. Getting a two year old to sit still for a 20 minute nebulizer treatment? Not easy, and the teachers in the two-year-old classroom struggled with getting him to finish the neb while getting the rest of the kids down for their naps. So the kids in my class and I developed a system; I got the medicine ready while they emptied our basket of dress-up clothes. Next? We put David in the basket.
I have no memory at all of how we discovered David’s love of that basket, but as soon as he saw it, he reached and struggled until I set him inside. In that basket, David sat for his nebulizer treatment while I read books and sang songs with the older kids.
For his part, he gazed at me adoringly.
Who doesn’t love that?
I fantasized that, by some fluke of the law, the state would give him to me.
Oh, shuddup! I was 19, remember?
At the age of two, David was living in his fifth foster home after spending the first 9 months of his life in the hospital. He needed love. He needed speech therapy and surgery and all kinds of other things, too, but mostly, he needed love. An infusion pump of love.
He and I were like two puzzle pieces that fit together without a seam. David was the first person who ever needed me. He was my first experience of loving someone with abandon, in spite of 100% certainty that it would not end well.
When you fall in love with a child who is in protective custody, it almost never ends well. The system won’t let you follow them when they move. They just……disappear.
When David disappeared, we had no advance notice, no warning, no opportunity to give a kiss and a squeeze and a wish for a bright, bold, odds-defying life.
I knew David 20 years ago, but he still owns a bit of my soul. When he was moved on to his next family (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease let it have been a warm, open, wildly generous forever-family who have loved him like no other all these years), I wept for days. He was my friend and my teacher.
He taught me about baskets.
Wasn’t that thoughtful of him, to give me a convenient metaphor that I could save for later?
I couldn’t fix anything for David. I couldn’t rescue him from a difficult life in foster care; couldn’t reverse the devastating effects of his biological mother’s alcohol use during her pregnancy; couldn’t give him a voice or repair his palate.
I could put him in a basket, give him a feeling of safety and comfort for a little while.
I gave him love; he returned that love and so much more. I learned what unconditional love feels like; I got a taste of some of the feelings I wouldn’t fully understand until I had children of my own.
Did I change his life? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. The love and connection that traveled like electricity between David and I was important.
Giving love and kindness to him changed my life. It changed me.
Reading the comments that many of you left on my recent post about trichotillomania, I couldn’t stop thinking about that basket. Your words were a safe place; an embrace and a reassurance and I am gazing up at you with adoration.
I’ve thought about blogging and the community around it a great deal in the past few weeks because of the dozens of post-BlogHer* posts I read.
I am never going to that thing. Almost everyone seems to have had a wildly emotional experience, much of that emotion being pain, shame, and fear.
Sheesh. I have more than enough of that right here at home, and for free!
But mostly, I’ve been thinking how much my online life has changed me, changed how I live my 3-dimensional life.
I have a place to put all these words that were crowding my head, to give the little girl in me (who never wanted to be a ballerina or a fire fighter or a doctor) the chance to live her dream of being a writer. And amazingly, some people come read those words.
Turns out that living my dream is good for my soul.
I have new friends, people who I love and who love me. For me, somewhat isolated by Carter’s disabilities, that’s like digging in the garden for a potato and turning up a giant diamond.
I’ve learned to laugh again; head thrown back, tears streaming down my face, stomach-hurts-the-next-day laughter.
That is also good for the soul.
There is much angst and drama in my online world. This is not, after all, a homogeneous group.
Also? Some people are assholes.
The internet is not a safe place. There are potholes in the road and muggers in the shadows; terrorists are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to terrorize. This is not a risk-free enterprise, any more than loving David was risk free.
For me, the risk is worth it.
You people have some pretty great baskets, and sometimes I get to offer some love, comfort, and laughter to you, too.
Brooke said in her comment on my last post:
[C]ompassion born of shared experience [is] priceless. And the feeling when you’ve found it, unexpectedly, in what you thought was hostile and unforgiving territory? Unspeakably precious.
What will remain truly, and quite literally, marvelous to me about the internet is that it allows and creates exactly those kinds of encounters, multiplied exponentially, every second. We’re here, if we wish it, to be in the business of multiplying compassion in this world.
You didn’t rescue me from trichotillomania, but you shined love into a dark place. That’s a big deal.