Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The strange places we find peace

Mowing the lawn is a zen-like activity for me. You may find that very odd, but, in my defense, my husband feels the same way about it. Growing up, I was never asked to mow the lawn because I was a girl and my older brother firmly filled that niche. I don't think he liked it all that much, but he wasn't given an opportunity to protest.

Because we live on 2.5 acres in the Pacific Northwest, we own a riding lawnmower and for the first two years we lived here, I was perfectly content to let my husband mow the lawn as necessary. About a year ago, I was trying to make peace between my two hysterical daughters and happened to glance out the kitchen window to see something that changed all that. My husband, in his shorts and sandals, elbow resting on the steering wheel of the mower, gazed off in front of him, a small smile on his face. There were earphones tucked into his ears and his head was nodding slightly to the beat pouring into his brain.

It takes approximately an hour and a half to mow our lawn. An hour and a half during which you cannot be interrupted by a child yelling that her sister hit her or took her toy or spit on her. That is the other parent's job. You can simply sit and steer the fire-engine red mower around and around, once in a while looking behind you to gauge your progress. Mowing is my oasis, albeit a loud one. My husband confessed to me after I asked him to teach me how to use the mower that he calls it his "fortress of solitude". He was loath to share it with me, but was kind enough to relinquish his monopoly.

Last weekend after I brought him home from the hospital I left him in charge of the girls and went out to mow. This was cruel, I know, especially considering he had spent the last three days being poked and prodded and filled with fluids by hospital personnel at all hours of the day and night. I was hoping that his weakened state would afford him some consideration from the girls and they would be on better behavior. But really, I was out for self-preservation at that point. I needed to do something that would produce tangible results. I wanted to start at the edge of the lawn and look behind me to see the short, green strip I had just mown. I wanted to dump the grass collectors and get sweaty and dusty and smell and look as if I had just done something, anything. The simple act of going in ever-decreasing circles around the yard, listening to the drone of the engine and not being responsible for anything more vital than avoiding the dog's tennis ball with the blades sounded pretty damn good to me right then. Good thing I listened to my instincts. It was just what I needed at the end of a very difficult and frustrating week. I can't wait to mow the lawn again next Saturday!

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Well, sometimes things get worse before they get better. For the record, I'm still waiting for the "better" part. The ambulance arrived at our house Thursday afternoon, to find me strangely calm (I'm pretty damn good in a crisis, despite my mother hen tendencies), my husband writhing on the floor upstairs, my youngest daughter in full hysterics and my older daughter in mother-hen mode herself.

The sky continued to fall, although in stages, so I felt like Han Solo and Chewbacca in the trash compactor on the Death Star. I could see and hear the occasional ka-thump as it fell closer to our heads, but I couldn't reach it to hold it up. All I could do was yell for help.

Unfortunately, my husband, extraordinary in so many ways, was true to his nature and was unable to be understood in the hospital. It turns out that none of the treating physicians or nurses had ever seen such an ailment before and eventually turned to treating his symptoms enough that they could get him to feel better and go home. The good news is, he's home now and feeling much better. The bad news is, feeling better had nothing to do with anything they did for him in the hospital.

This particular illness seems to strike without warning and subside spontaneously whenever it damn well feels like it, leaving him exhausted but feeling basically normal. He was unable to eat or drink for six days and a CAT scan showed a complete blockage in his stomach. Even fluids were unable to pass through and so he vomited violently approximately every eight hours, one liter at a time. Biopsies were taken, ultrasounds and blood tests were run, but nobody knows what the blockage is or why it suddenly disappeared yesterday. He got twelve pints of fluid and a boatload of potassium and was sent home after demonstrating that he could keep two popsicles and some crackers down. Yippee?

Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled to have him home. I wasn't entirely sure he'd make it back here. His potassium level was so low he was having seizures and they thought his heart would stop. But they can't figure it out and nobody seems inclined to go out on a limb and keep testing. Thank goodness for my mother bear. She's ready to roar and will keep at it until someone listens.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Sky is Falling!

The one advantage to being a mother hen is that you can gather your little ones close and tuck them under your wing. This may not actually keep them safe, but sometimes the illusion of control is all I need to sustain forward motion for a while. Tuesday morning found me and my husband in bed with our littlest one folded between us and my oldest daughter lying pencil-thin along the edge of the bed behind me. Ahh, I had my entire brood safe and warm with me. Some days, this is all I long for and I don’t ever want to leave the security of that bed. I’m not sure if they’re keeping me safe or I’m taking care of them or the simple act of taking care of them is what keeps me feeling safe, but it works and sometimes I need that.

My husband has over the last two and a half years, suffered intermittently with bouts of severe abdominal pain and illness that, on at least one occasion, nearly left him dead. He is not only my life partner, but my best friend, my rock, my port in a storm. He is my go-to-guy and seeing him crumpled in shock, vibrating in spasms of pain and uncontrolled muscle movements, eyes wide in terror and begging me to help him quaked my entire foundation. We have spent equal amounts of time over the past two years seeking answers to these episodes and holding our breath while praying they will mysteriously cease.

I have made endless lists in my head of commonalities, symptoms and possible triggers, all the while worrying that if I allow any of these thoughts to escape my lips during a “healthy” period, I will immediately jinx us and send him into another illness. So great is my fear that my neighbors, close friends and family all possess intimate details of the episodes and my personal theories of the cause. I am incapable of being stoic, especially when I am frightened.

Since December, we have enjoyed a relatively long period of time illness-free and have been able to let our guard down a little. My husband spent time traveling on business to Europe and South America, both for long, intense trips, and returned home without any difficulties, so we were feeling pretty relaxed. Sunday night, the demon returned. So much for the mother-bear.

I am scared. I hold no real hope that this week’s round of tests will provide any more information than those he has undergone over the past two years. My confidence was not buoyed when both of my husband’s physicians admitted to me that they were mystified. Where is Dr. House? I’ll take a crappy bedside manner. Go ahead and accuse me and my husband of being liars! Search my house for clues. Just fix it, dammit! My wings are not large enough to tuck him under and protect him, and neither one of us wants that anyway.

Forty-seven times a day I remind myself to stop and hold onto the core of my mother bear. I sit still and close my eyes, feeling the strong center of love I have for him and my children. I feel the solid granite of the foundation we have built over the past fourteen years together and try to trust that it won’t crumble to dust. This is a place where I don’t have to wonder what I would do without him – how I would raise the kids alone and how I would deal with my own grief while helping them charter theirs. I can just know that I love him and that powerful connection of the two of us feels strong and immutable. Then one of my girls calls me for something, and I return to the farmyard, pecking, pecking, pecking for anything I can find to keep it together.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Which Came First...

the chicken or the bear? In my case, the chicken. Only the chicken, but I'm learning to be a bear, slowly but surely.

I have spent a large majority of my life as a mother hen. You know the type, the friend you have who is always worried about you and hovers around you with advice. The one who always has chapstick, tissues and band-aids in her purse, not to mention fingernail clippers and an emergency $20 in case you call in crisis. Maybe yours is your sister or your aunt or your mother. In any case, you can call at 2 a.m. with a broken-down car or a broken heart or a medical question because your hoo-hoo has been itching for a week and you're starting to get worried, and she will always have some sensible advice for you and call you every day for the next week to check in and make sure you're recovering.

I mother-hen my children, my little sister, most of my friends, my friends' and neighbors' children and even my own mother. My head is filled with anniversary and birthday dates, details of the current difficulties including, but not limited to, breakups, job losses, health problems, school schedules and times of need. I will always wait to be asked before bestowing my advice on you, but rest assured that I will have thought through your particular situation in my sleep for several nights prior to you actually wanting my opinion. This frantic need to fix and mend and soothe is done purely out of love and concern and perhaps a little bit of my own discomfort at seeing people in distress. Speeding the healing is a fantastic way for me to not have to witness your pain anymore.

Mother-henning takes a lot of energy and is really an endless process of pecking, pecking, pecking at the surface, finding small grains and bugs not large enough to fill an entire chick's tummy. That hen is also constantly trying to keep track of her brood, all of which are heading off in different directions seeking their own adventures in the world. I'm tired of it. Don't get me wrong, I still love you all as much, but I've decided that the mother bear is the one doing it the way I want to from now on.

The mother bear is a solid, stable creature who moves slowly and conserves her energy. Her center of gravity is in her core and she only really roars when she absolutely has to. Her focus is on watching her young venture farther and farther away, gaining some independence, but trusting that she will be able to protect them if she needs to. Being a mother bear feels calm and peaceful, confident and warm. The mother hen is frantic and jerky, trying to keep several balls in the air at the same time and screeching, "The sky is falling!"

I reserve the right to remain concerned about your lives and hear about your trials and triumps, even at 2 a.m. I have decided, however, to do my best to be the mother bear instead. I will protect my young to the death and roar only when I need to. The rest of you are capable of taking care of yourselves and will receive encouragement and love from me. You will get what comes from my core, my mother bear, my essence, my values. You will get my love and understanding, respect and patience, and perhaps some advice if you really really want it. I will try not to mother-hen you anymore, worrying and pecking, fixing and patching, expending the energy that we both need to focus on what is real and solid. I can't promise to quit cold turkey (I know, nice pun), but I'm still a work in progress, for Lord's sake!

Monday, April 10, 2006

WARNING: Politics Contained Herein...

I'm sorry, is it just me or does everyone find it terribly depressing that George W. Bush is kicking off "holy week" by talking about bombing Iran? Now, to be clear, I am not a religious person anymore, but I certainly understand and respect the importance of this particular week to a large portion of the world's people. To many, this week is vastly superior to Christmas as far as religion goes, and Dubya's timing really sucks.

I am also not in favor of bombing any country and do not support the skirmish in Iraq, but talk of aggression in yet another middle east country during this holy week seems ridiculous at best. Perhaps fatefully, I was digging through some old letters yesterday and found this from one of my best friends, dated Friday, April 11, 2003. I hope she doesn't mind that I'm going to quote her...

"Last night, Archbishop Desmond Tutu filled me with hope. He drove sadness and fear right out of me. He helped me believe again that we can allow peace and harmony in our world...He spoke of family, that we are all family regardless of where we live in this world...He said, 'God is not a Christian, you know. His love is for Hindus and Jews and Muslims and Unitarians, too.' As for what we can do to promote peace in the world, Desmond Tutu said, 'Do what you are already doing. We are only drops of water, but together we make the vast ocean.' He told us that prayers count, petitions count, demonstrations count, phone calls count. Stand up and be counted...Be a part of our neighborhoods, our communities, wage peace, tolerance, generosity of spirit. Forgive. I wish I could remember every word...exactly as he said it...Peace is indeed possible."

It is this kind of extension of our individual experiences that spreads like dandelion seeds in the wind. My friend's renewal of hope in turn renewed mine. It is important that we remember to stop feeling despondent and helpless and frustrated and angry. It is important that we share our despair and fire with friends and family. Sow the seeds of individual action so that we can come together to make the world a better place. Nobody wants innocent lives to be taken, everyone is disheartened when violence is committed in the name of institutions like politics or religion. Even if you agree that something needs to be done in Iran or Iraq, let's share our ideas and feelings in an effort to spare any more bloodshed. For the sake of the planet and our children and love.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


"Whoa!" Not terribly eloquent, I know, but it's all I had. My eyes were frozen to the robin's egg blue of the lake, looking out at the opposite shore. The scent of rosemary and old olive groves was all around us and the only sound was the slip-slap of the swans' feet as they made their way to shore to beg for crumbs.

We had hiked to the tip of a peninsula that jutted out into Lake Como, an immense hot-spring-fed lake. The entire trip was surreal. We had spent the day before exploring the old castle in the town of Sirmione, watching our toddlers scramble up the stone stairways to the castle keep, only to be frustrated when they got there that they were too short to peek out and yell to the tourists below. They were delighted with the authentic drawbridge and the swans that swam in the moat, and when we made our way back down and dipped our toes in the water we exchanged wide-eyed looks, amazed at how warm the lake was.

We had heard that there were some impressive Etruscan ruins at the end of the peninsula, so we boarded a decidedly 20th-Century tourist train that would take us most of the way, saving our kids' short legs and our adult short-tempers. After getting off the train we walked up a hill where we could see for miles, circling around the ruins. I couldn't fill my senses enough with the colors and smells and didn't want to move. The tugging of my littlest on my shorts brought me back to the present. The view would have to wait.

My husband began explaining to our four-year-old that what we were looking at were the remains of castles built hundreds of years before. "They're called ruins," he said, picking her up to have a look over the crumbling walls. We walked through the grassy "hallways" imagining how majestic these buildings must have been in their time and my youngest daughter began to cry softly. As she lifted her arms skyward and looked at me, eyebrows knitted together, brown eyes floating in puddles of tears, I lifted her to my shoulder and rubbed her back. She was not a quiet child. This was terribly unusual - she was normally prone to outrageously dramatic outbursts that had the potential to raise the dead.

As I rubbed her back and asked what was wrong, she stuttered, "When will somebody come to fix them, Mommy? They can't just stay RUINED forever." She sucked short breaths in and grabbed handfuls of my hair as her face buried itself into that part of my neck that was made for her. My husband laughed out loud even as a lump grew in my throat. I felt so badly for her disappointment, but couldn't figure out how to explain. Throughout the remainder of our weeks in Europe, she never failed to cry at the sight of devastated buildings and beg me to call someone to restore them. I didn't have the heart to tell her I was trying to give up "fixing" things that didn't belong to me. Just enjoying the view was hard enough.

Monday, April 03, 2006

What did I do today?

MYTH: Stay-at-home-moms have much more time to keep their houses clean, prepare meals and run errands than "working" mothers.
TRUTH: That is a load of crap. I will admit even I believed it up until the moment I brought my first child home. Reality quickly set in and I began to understand that trying to do anything with my previous efficiency was out of the question. Between breastfeeding, cleaning up baby barf, changing diapers (and, indeed, entire outfits at least twice a day when said diaper failed to contain the immense quantity of poop that geysered out of my child's behind), trying to take an uninterrupted shower, having a bowel movement after a 40-hour labor (not quick or efficient), remembering to drink enough water to replenish my milk supply, remembering to eat for the same reason, trying desperately to stay awake, bathing the child, etc., etc., I was woefully unable to find my to-do list, much less stay on top of it.

All of the regular things that go on in a household, I realized, are not very obvious unless they are NOT done. For you to notice that I worked my butt off all day at home, the laundry has to be clean and put away as opposed to in smelly sour-breastmilked soaked piles on the floor. If I did the dishes, no matter how many times, you won't notice because they are all put away where they belong. You will only notice the foul toilet and shower stall if I HAVEN'T cleaned it. This is truly depressing for a woman who came from a career world and is used to being able to produce something.

Thankfully, I have a wonderfully comedic and understanding spouse who began crafting two separate sets of lists for me every morning. The first one was a to-do list and read as follows:
1. Feed baby today
2. Change baby's diapers a few times
3. Feed myself
4. Take at least one nap
5. Don't forget the hemhorroid cream
6. If you go out, take the baby with you

The second list was an "if you get this done today I will be amazed at your abilities, but if you don't we'll do it this weekend, okay?" and had such things as taking in the dry-cleaning, grocery shopping, stopping by the post office, etc.

As my baby got older and I got the hang of things, I never forgot the lesson my husband taught me. Everyone needs at least one softball on their to-do list, and in some situations, you might need an entire list of softballs. New motherhood is definitely one of those times!
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