Month: April 2014

Snapshot of the Week: Life with a Bobcat


This is a video of Stump who, at fifteen months, has figured out that if you swipe at the iPad enough, something will happen. I’m not sure how he managed to play this song by Phoenix, but apparently he likes it.

There’s something about Stump that I’ve been meaning to tell you. When I was pregnant, I thought he’d be one of those babies who might sit in a corner and play with a toy tractor for half an hour. I thought he might be uncomplicated, simple even, slow. He would live in the shadow of his older brother who is thin as a rail and smart as a whip, but we’d love him for being the easy one in a family full of strong personalities.

Do you hear that? It’s the gods. They are still laughing.

When Stump was about eight months old, as he was just beginning to acquire mobility, I asked my partner to dress him one morning. I had just finished changing his diaper and I was sick of wrestling him, trying to get him to hold still as he arched his back and bucked. Kellie had been out of town for a few weeks, and she wasn’t ready for these new tactics. “Oh my god,” she called out. “It’s like dressing a bobcat!”

Now that Stump is fifteen months, it’s like living with a bobcat. He is 100% wild. He throws his food. He poops in the bath. When he’s tired, or when he doesn’t want you to leave, he’ll scratch at your face. If you put him down when he wants to be held, he’ll channel all his feline strength and arch his back, daring you to drop him on the floor.

This morning he was standing on the kitchen chair doing squats and shouting maniacally. I said to Smoke, who was quietly finishing his Lego project “Are you watching this?” Smoke nodded. “He won’t do that when he’s older,” he reassured me. I hadn’t been seeking reassurance, but I appreciated it all the same.

Though Stump is wild, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s only a brute. I’ve never met another baby who so fully understands what it means to hug. “Hug your bunny,” I tell him in the morning, and he holds it to his chest and rocks it back and forth. Pick this bobcat up, and he wraps his arms around you, leans his head against your shoulder, taking you in.

But my point is this: he’s not the easy one. In a family of characters, he competes. At the end of the day, I often look back and wonder how I made it to bedtime. He climbed on the table at least two dozen times; there is food on the floor; my neck is scratched. But he is cute, and also he dances.

Meow! Image Credit: http://www.bigcat.com

Meow!
Image Credit: http://www.bigcat.com

 

 

Personal Epiphany, High School, 1994

My high school chemistry teacher was rumored to be a lesbian. I hoped it was true. In some ways, she fit the profile: she had cropped graying hair, tiny gold hoop earrings, and always wore white boating shoes. But more importantly, she managed to be at once hilarious and mellow. For instance, she had developed her own way of answering in the affirmative, a variation on “yeah,” that sounded like “she-yah”, delivered in a nasal voice. It may not sound that funny, but we loved it. We asked more questions just to hear her say it. I had no interest in chemistry, but I sat in the front row.

One particular afternoon I sat in her classroom, fresh from an encounter with a boy, the first I’d had in months. My teacher was balancing chemical equations on the board, moving back and forth between products and reactants until, miraculously, they balanced. Half-dazed, I watched her and brooded.

I’d been avoiding boys for nearly a year. They were trouble for me, but not in the usual way. From a distance, some of them were appealing enough. But once I got close enough to kiss them, my bodily reaction was panic. The night before, I’d been on a date that ended in nothing more than hand-holding and yet still, once I reached the safety of my bedroom I wanted to curl in a ball and never leave. All day at school, I’d been cagey, trying to make myself as small as possible, to stay out of everyone’s line of vision. I didn’t want to see him, to reject him or make small talk, to pretend that things were normal, that I wasn’t inwardly exploding. I had almost made it to the end of the day and now I sat, watching letters and numbers take shape, wondering what was wrong with me.

My teacher, close to solving the first problem, wanted to know if she had four aluminum atoms, and three oxygen atoms, how many aluminum oxide molecules did she have? Someone behind me raised his hand. “Two?” he asked. “She-yah. On to the next one.”

And then it hit me: Maybe I just didn’t like boys. This thought opened the gate to a flood of memories. When I was four, my best friend had asked me if I knew what “gay” meant, and when she explained it to me, I felt awash in relief, like she had provided an answer to a question I had long held but never formed the words for; I remembered one morning in second grade when our school gathered to watch Freaky Friday and I sat transfixed by Jodi Foster, unsure if I wanted to know her or be her; I considered the intensity of my friendships which had often been marked by an unnamed longing; and I mentally listed the boys I had sought after and then retreated from.

I remembered how at twelve I had actively wondered if I was gay, but for some reason I had buried the question, forgetting it for the last four years. But now, as my teacher talked us through yet another chemical equation, the possibility of my queerness brought a kind of relief. I’d spent the last five years thinking I had some insurmountable hang-up. I thought it might take years of therapy to fix me, or perhaps I’d always be alone. But now, all of a sudden it seemed this whole time I’d just been working on the wrong side of the equation.

I was so relieved, and so terrified.

 


We are lazy but it works for us.

 

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When I was growing up, my favorite holiday tradition was decorating Easter eggs with my family. We covered the dining room table with newspaper, and then set out all the materials: cups of white vinegar, paintbrushes, watercolor kits, and Sharpie markers. I’ve got an older brother and sister who are both artists, and they’d spend an hour on one egg enacting the entire creative process right there before my eyes: they began with a concept, then sketched it on the egg in pencil, then painted layer upon layer of watercolor, and then added the final permanent details in Sharpie. My father too, had artistic skill that often manifested in macabre final products, like a skull or an alligator’s head. My own eggs were just regular Easter eggs, maybe dyed a couple of colors or painted only half-successfully to look a little like a cat. I was less than happy with my own work, but joyful to be part of the process.

Every year, I hope to recreate this experience for my son, to cover our own messy kitchen table with newspaper, and lay out all the materials. Every year I come up short.

This year, I bought white eggs on Friday, and on Saturday, while the baby slept, I enlisted Smoke to add vinegar and food coloring to water. We dyed our eggs in batches of four: four green ones that came out pale, four red ones that came out hot pink, and four yellow ones that turned out disappointingly brownish, like we might have simply bought brown eggs at the store. Smoke was excited to paint ninja faces on them, but the day got away from us and this morning, before he woke up, I hid them all as-is throughout the living room.

Since this weekend included two other Easter events, I had decided to minimize the candy. Hidden along with the hard-boiled eggs were two Cadbury caramel eggs, but that was it. No jelly beans, no Skittles, no Kit-Kats. Smoke should have been disappointed, but he wasn’t.

The highlight of his Easter? Under a pile of bills on the kitchen table, Smoke discovered a stray piece of Trident gum. “The Easter Bunny hid some gum for me!” he cried out, delighted. And then he proceeded to line everything in a neat row. In the end, I guess, Smoke provides his own creativity. If he misses his chance to draw faces on eggs, he’ll make art out of the hunt itself.

Besides, those eggs are still in our fridge. Maybe tomorrow we’ll get around to drawing ninjas on them. Maybe.

Introducing Stump and Smoke

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

“Did you know we chose a donor?” I asked our friend Dee. Kellie was driving, Dee was riding shotgun, and I was in the cramped backseat of our truck. I had scooched to the middle and leaned forward between them so that we could talk over the roar of the diesel engine. We were headed to our cabin in northern Washington. At this point in the journey, the sun was high, we’d all finished our coffee, and we were driving up a mountain.

“Finally,” Dee said.

Earlier that week, Kellie and I had finally decided on two potential donors from a catalogue of hundreds. I filled Dee in on our choices. Our top pick was a guy who was listed as six foot two, athletic, a native Canadian of Ukrainian descent. It was hard to explain why we had chosen him. We had looked at endless questionnaires, the answers hand-written, and it seemed that, more than any particular answer, the handwriting itself told a story. Overly neat handwriting made me suspicious, like the donor had something to hide. I took comfort in handwriting that was legible, but hurried.

“So you’re going with the Ukrainian Canadian?” Dee clarified. She thought that was funny, and she made up a song, envisioning him as a bearded lumberjack. In a low voice, she sang, “The Ukrainian Canadian came through for us today!” The tune was catchy. Soon we were all singing it as we crested the mountain pass.

“Say goodbye to your dreams of having a girl,” she warned Kellie. From the beginning, Kellie had clung to an idea that she’d make a better parent to a girl than she would to a boy. “You’re going to have two burly sons, and everyone’s going to call them Smoke and Stump.” We laughed some more and, strangely, I could picture it: two little boys in denim and striped shirts, running around with dirt on their knees. Maybe it was the mountain landscape we were passing through, but I imagined us living in a Podunk town where they’d spend their days building forts out of fallen branches and learning to chop firewood.

Kellie laughed along. The idea of Stump and Smoke seemed to make her more comfortable with the idea of having a boy or two—so comfortable that she advocated for actually naming our kids Smoke and Stump. “You’re not serious,” I said. But she was.

We joked about Stump and Smoke for months, but in the end we all but forgot. The Ukrainian Canadian didn’t come through for us after all, and after two years of trying to conceive and failing, no one was making jokes about the names of our future babies. So it wasn’t until last week, when brooding over what pseudonyms I should give my children for this blog, that it hit me—we have two boys! We have our Stump and Smoke! Dee’s joke had been prophecy.

It’s clear to me who’s who. Smoke is my older son, my five-year-old. He is wily and elusive, in many places at once. He may look as if he’s sitting at the kitchen table, but in reality he is spread throughout the universe, entertaining multiple daydreams. Any discipline tactics I attempt can and will be used against me. The other day he warned me “Mommy, you better hand me that milkshake by the time I count to five.”

No fence can stand in Smoke's way.

No fence can stand in Smoke’s way.

And Stump suits my one-year-old, with his brute strength, my baby who, as I’ve mentioned before, I once caught hanging from the counter ledge like an action hero. Currently, Stump likes to pull large stones from the birdbath and hurl them like shot puts. He thinks it’s hilarious to pinch my bare skin with his determined little fingers and hear me cry in pain.

Stump is so hearty, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Stump is so hardy, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Kellie may once have dreamed of a daughter, but we are pleased with Stump and Smoke, our family of two women completed by two boys. Dee must have known they were our destiny, and she prepared us for it in her way, by inviting us to laugh at sperm and strength and boy-ness.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Want to hear something funny?

I wrote an essay on Symbiosis, Time, and Family that ran in Mutha Magazine today. Last week, the editor asked me to send some pictures to illustrate the essay, and so I began scrolling through all my photographs from the last year or so.

I had a bit of a dilemma. I wanted to choose the best photos, but I felt conflicted about my family’s privacy. For one thing, my partner Kellie hates nearly every photo of herself, with a vehemence most of us reserve for only the worst of the worst—photos where our eyes are closed and mouths are open. Tag her in a semi-flattering picture on Facebook and you will be subject to her wrath. I didn’t think she’d appreciate having her face featured on a website. And then there are my kids. I’m not opposed to sharing photos of them, but sometimes I worry about leaving a trail of their faces all over the internet.

And so, I settled on two photos that I thought captured something about our family without featuring our faces. In the end, I liked it that way. My hope was that the photographs would compliment the writing, rather than broadcasting: and this is what we look like.

So I was startled today when I viewed my piece online and there, in the middle of the page, was my naked belly.  I’ll  share it here too because, you know, why be shy now?

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Um, how did I miss that? I even wondered for a moment if I had accidentally attached the wrong photo, or if the editors had somehow magically un-cropped something I had altered long ago, but no. This is the photo I chose. I was so busy looking at wasn’t there, I didn’t notice what was there. If you asked me which am I more self-conscious about, my face of my post-partum belly, well, you can probably guess what my answer would be. In fact, throughout both of my pregnancies I made a point of not sharing any belly-pics. I liked my growing belly just fine, but I wanted to keep it to myself.

Another thing: You can see my son’s umbilical cord pressed between my left arm and my belly. I hadn’t noticed that either. In fact I had nearly forgotten that when I held him for the first time, he was still tethered to me by that thick blue rope. It only lasted a minute, and then he was released.

Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?

Five: a study in perspective

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From the time my son could talk, the first word out of his mouth every morning was Mommy. When he was two, he called it from his bed. He was little then, and needed me to fetch him; he couldn’t conceive of leaving his bed alone. Always, he insisted on taking my hand as we crossed the threshold from his room to the rest of the house. As he grew older, he gained the confidence to rise on his own, but still he’d find me in the kitchen and call my name—Mommy!—his arms stretched wide for a hug. I recognized that such greetings wouldn’t continue forever, and I wondered when they’d end.

My son is five now and those greetings have ended. These days, he walks into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. He cocks his head and smiles at me, a little sheepishly. I open my arms, and he walks into them. He doesn’t invoke my name. I rub his head. I bend over and smell his hair: shampoo and sweat.

My son has entered the stage where whole days can pass, and I don’t see much of him. There are mornings where I leave for work just after he has woken. I may pick him up from preschool at 5:30, his baby brother in tow, and listen to him chatter for an hour as we make and eat dinner. That hour of half-attention is sometimes all I have before the baby melts down and I attend to his bedtime while my partner takes care of the rest. And then, on the weekends, people now offer to take him from me. He gets invited for afternoons at the park, trips to the movies, sleepovers. I send him off on these adventures, and entertain fears about him falling down a staircase or slipping on a rock. Clearly my worry is disproportionate; it is my mind’s sneaky way of grieving his independence.

On the day my son was born, when the nurse placed his naked body on my chest, I was amazed by how firm and warm and actual he felt. I had imagined something squishy and barely human, not this long, fully-formed person. As he began to grow, I recalled that moment every time I took him out of the bath. I’d hold him against me and look at us in the mirror, the back of his long body, his skin still warm from the water, and connect it in my mind to the body I held that first day.

When I do that now, the connection feels distant. My son’s legs dangle; they reach for the floor. It all makes sense, I suppose. My son once lived inside of me, and then, once he was born, he depended on my milk and the warmth of my body for survival. As he grew older he ate more and nursed less, until finally he drank water from the tap or juice from the fridge. So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now. But I hadn’t counted on these feelings, not so early anyway. I thought I had until puberty at least to maintain my status as the Center of his World. But already, after just five years of raising him, I feel acutely that he will leave me again and again in ways that I haven’t yet accounted for.