Month: April 2015

The Beekeeper’s Wife

My partner Kellie keeps bees—a lot of them. Actually, she does more than keep them. She catches swarms, she cuts colonies out of walls and re-homes them into hives, and sometimes, when she gets a call about some honeybees living in a tree that the owner wants to cut down, Kellie drives on over with a chain saw, and comes home with four feet of the trunk—a ready-made beehive complete with a well-established colony.

Log Hive We’ve got three of these trunk-hives on our property, and I’ve often tried to convince Kellie that she could sell one or two of them for big money—I mean, who wouldn’t want their own bee log? Of course, there’s no way to maintain the trunk-dwelling colonies. You can’t put on a bee-suit, break into the hive and see how they’re doing. You just have to let them do their thing. Then, when a colony dies, they leave behind a ready-made honey-smelling home for the next swarm that comes along.

Spring has come early in Olympia and for the last two weeks, whenever the sun comes out, Kellie’s phone starts ringing. People call because they have swarm in their yard, or they want to borrow a frame of comb, or they can’t tell if their queen is laying.

I’ve learned about bees by osmosis, from hearing Kellie on the phone and watching her suit up and go to work, but I’ve never handled the bees. Someone’s got to watch the kids, and even on the days when Kellie is capturing a swarm in our neighborhood, I have my hands full trying to keep Stump from running into the middle of the action. Over the years, my knowledge has expanded but my competence is limited.

This is why, last Friday afternoon, Kellie surprised me with her request. She had called me at work to let me know that she had a couple of swarm calls in a neighboring town and wouldn’t be home until after dinner. “When you get home will you look around the backyard?” she asked me. “One of my hives is fixing to swarm.”

“Sure,” I said. Checking is easy. I’ve come to love the thrum and excitement of a swarm as they depart their former home, followed by their steady silence once they’ve clustered on a branch. “But what do you want me to do if that happens?” I was expecting that she would explain to me where the nearest bait box was, but she had a different idea. “Catch them,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

I was as flattered by Kellie’s faith in me as I was bewildered by the suggestion that I would intuitively know how to guide a swarm of honeybees into a nuc box, and that I could do so with a toddler at my side.

Frame of BeesAs it turned out, there was no swarm that afternoon, but her suggestion haunted me through the weekend, and every so often I asked her a question to clarify what she had envisioned for me.

“So you really think I could do that?” I asked her.

And later: “You mean I wouldn’t even need a bee suit?”

And later: “I don’t get it. I would just shake the branch and the bees would magically settle in the nuc?”
“Yes,” she said, “or you can always scoop them out with your hands.”

I kept thinking about an interview I’d read with Ann Patchett many years ago about her novel The Magician’s Assistant. She explained that her impulse for writing this book came from her observation that spouses gradually acquired the skills of their partners. Over time, we take on traits of the person we’ve married. We can channel them, imitate them, become them.

I remembered this on Monday, when temperatures reached 72 degrees—swarm weather. I came home with Stump at lunchtime and put him down for a nap. The evening before, one of Kellie’s colonies had swarmed and gathered high in a fir tree, way up at the edge of our line of vision. She couldn’t catch it, but she’d been keeping an eye on the cluster, hoping the scout bees might discover one of her baited boxes. When I called her from home that afternoon, she asked me to go outside and see if they had moved.

I could no longer make out the cluster, but I could see dozens of bees darting around the same tree. “They’re going nuts up there,” I told her. “Is that the same swarm or a new one?”

“Can’t say,” she said, and instructed me to look in all the nucs to see if they had settled into one of those. I reported back that they were empty. I was disappointed. I so badly wanted to be the one keeping things under control.

Log Swarm

Thousands of bees in flight. Can you see them?

Ten minutes later, as Stump still slept, I got curious and went outside again, but before I could make it to the back of the yard, I was distracted by a loud, insistent buzz. They were right outside the gate, thousands of bees darting through the light. Though I know that swarms aren’t angry, I find their motion and noise—which carries the volume of a thousand unified intentions—intimidating. I called Kellie again. “You’ve got a situation,” I told her. I cautiously opened the gate and stepped to the edge of the action. “They’re outside that log hive by the road.”

I was preparing myself to follow her instructions, to step into the role that she had imagined for me, the role where I wasn’t a bystander, but an apprentice, a fellow beekeeper. “What should I do?” I asked.

“Are they flying toward the log, or away from the log?”

“Toward it–Oh!” i said realizing that this particular log-hive had been empty for a while. Are they making a home?”

“You tell me. Are they going inside?”

“They are!” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s that swarm from the tree? They’re moving in? I don’t have to do anything?”

Twenty minutes later, when Stump woke up from his nap, I took him outside to verify. The bees had settled into their new home and now just a few of them buzzed back and forth from the entrance. I was half relieved that the bees hadn’t required my assistance, half disappointed that I’d been denied my chance to rise to the occasion.

bees in hand

Bees in the hand.

Later that same afternoon, after discovering yet another swarm in our cherry tree, I placed Stump on my hip and watched as Kellie tenderly scooped a handful of bees into the nuc box. Though dozens of annoyed bees darted past her face, the ones on her hand crawled quietly into the new home she had prepared for them. After repeating this three times, she climbed down the four-foot ladder, took off her gloves, and trusted that the rest of the colony would follow.

Now that I’ve seen how it’s done, next time, I swear, I’ll be ready.

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Screw Fate

Memoir Mondays, Installment #3:

All of those stories about infertility, the ones with happy endings, they all seemed to go the same way. The pregnancy didn’t happen on the sixth try or the seventh, it happened at some critical juncture, when all hope was on the verge of being lost.

Maybe it happened after three failed rounds of in-vitro fertilization, or after the husband learned that his sperm were immotile, or on the mother-to-be’s forty-second birthday after half a dozen miscarriages.

As we prepared for our tenth insemination, I tried to have faith in the happy-ending stories, to believe that my own good news was imminent. I imagined calling all my friends and telling them: It was meant to be. Our last vial of sperm. Fate was testing us, but in the end it was kind.

Kellie met me at the fertility clinic for a procedure that had now become routine. Each visit had included the same painful exam where Dr. Norman entered me with gloved fingers and announced that my uterus was retroverted, and each time I wondered why he couldn’t have just written that in his notes and skipped this part of the ritual.  This time, if Dr. Norman had noted that we were using our last vial of sperm, that there was nothing left of our original stockpile, he didn’t mention it. He headed for the door with no special goodbye, no good luck wishes.

“Wait!” I called as he entered the threshold. “One last question.” I asked if he had any advice if I wasn’t pregnant by the end of this cycle. We had been trying for a while now, I reminded him. Should I be taking some tests? Were there treatments I should consider?

He opened his manila folder and glanced over my chart. “This is your tenth attempt,” he told me, as if perhaps I hadn’t been keeping my own count. “We normally recommend in vitro after six failed tries. So that would be my recommendation: in vitro fertilization.” He nodded and left the room.

“What’s in vitro?” Kellie asked me. It took me a minute to answer her. I felt like he had hit me over the head with a tire iron, and as I lay there in a hospital gown, I tried to gather my composure.

“That’s the thing where you pay them a million dollars, and you inject hormones in my ass every day. Then they harvest a bunch of my eggs and make embryos in a petri dish.”

“Oh,” Kellie said, unfazed. “We’re not there yet.”

I agreed with Kellie’s assessment more than I agreed with Dr. Norman’s.  I had asked him the question in a moment of recognition that he was a doctor, a specialist, and perhaps he had untapped wisdom. But no, all he had were protocols, and those protocols were irrelevant to my situation. For a straight woman to arrive at six failed intrauterine inseminations would have meant that she had already tried to conceive naturally for over a year. It also likely meant that she had undergone a series of tests. But Kellie and I had done none of that. We’d simply walked through their door. I’d had acupuncture and three months of progesterone, but so far no one had even drawn my blood. As desperate as I felt, I wasn’t ready to be told that I was IVF material.

When I rose to leave the building I was alarmed by the rush of fluid to my underwear. This had happened every time, and yet it never ceased to dismay me. Though one vial of sperm was less than a tablespoon, and though I remained supine on the exam table for half an hour to better guide the fluid towards my uterus, it always spilled out of me in a rush the moment I stood up. It struck me as an expensive way to juice up your underwear.

On the car ride home, I held onto Kellie’s hand. I dispelled Dr. Norman from my mind, and tried not to consider the indefinite future. For two weeks I waited and played that hopeful story on a loop. I told myself maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe soon I’ll be calling my friends with good news.

But I didn’t make those phone calls. My period arrived on time.

There was no special way to mark it, this period that arrived thirteen months after our first attempt at conception. We’d been through summer, then through autumn, winter, spring, and now we were coming to the other side of summer again. I took the dogs on a long walk under a flat gray sky and thought about what I would have by now if things had gone the way I expected: a baby strapped against me, nearly four months old. I wondered about these eggs that I’d expelled, each one carrying its own unique code of who it might have become if given a chance. Some of them were girls and some were boys. They assembled in my brain, a party of babies, all of them wearing onesies, some in bonnets, some in tiny leather shoes, some of them laughing, some of them crying, some of them gazing contentedly at nothing in particular as newborns often do. These were the kinds of thoughts I entertained every day, but never spoke out loud.

Note: This is the third installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read earlier installments here and here.

NPR, Gay Marriage, & The Years of Crying in My Car

These days, when I listen to NPR on my commute to and from work, I’m not usually crying. In fact, I’m barely listening. Some days I’m trying to listen but I’ve got a kid or two hounding me for snacks, or trying to get me to listen to an endless monologue on Minecraft. Other days when I’m particularly preoccupied, I catch myself not listening at all. I realize I’ve had no idea what anyone has been saying for at least five minutes, and I push the button on my console and note the relief that silence brings.

But on my Friday morning commute last week, this interview with Billy Bean cut through all of the static in my brain. Billy Bean was a Major League Baseball player in the nineties who came out as gay four years after retiring. In the interview, he tells the story of losing his partner to AIDS, and then opening the baseball season the next day. Because he was closeted, no one on his team knew anything about his loss.

Bean has recently been hired as Major League Baseball’s LGBT ambassador. Can we pause for a moment and let that sink in, because still, four days later, I’m still experiencing cognitive dissonance. Major League Baseball has hired an LGBT ambassador. What world am I living in?

I choked up at several moments in the interview, and was reminded that during the years when the push for same-sex marriage was gathering momentum, I was often listening to NPR and crying in my car. The tears seemed to bubble spontaneously from a mysterious underground source. One moment I’d be vaguely happy while listening to a report about the Marriage Equality Act in New York State, and the next moment there’d be an interview with some lesbian couple in their seventies and I’d be pulling into the parking lot, having to take a few minutes to sit there and wipe the snot from my nose. I’m not sure it would be accurate to say I was crying for joy, though I certainly wasn’t crying out of sadness.

I remember leaving work one afternoon and starting my car while Melissa Block was mid-interview with Dan Savage discussing the It Gets Better Project. I listened along, happy and dry-eyed until the interview was over and Melissa Block read his bio. “Columnist Dan Savage along with his husband Terry Miller created the It Gets Better Project.” It was the word husband than got me. I cried so hard I shuddered. Dan Savage lives about 65 miles away from me and at the time of the interview gay marriage was still illegal in our state. So it startled me to hear a major news outlet refer to Terry Miller as his “husband” as if it were a normal, legitimate, everyday thing.

Sometimes, I guess, we don’t know how much something aches until we attend to it. When I was a child I noticed that when I had an accident—if I fell hard on my butt, or bonked my head—I wouldn’t cry at first. “Are you okay?” another kid might ask me. I’d nod that I was fine as the tears gathered in my eyes. It was like the pain didn’t happen until it was noticed.

In the nineties and early aughts as I was coming of age, gay marriage struck me as a hypothetical goal at the end of a long road. Having my partnerships go unrecognized was an inequality that I expected to live with for the rest of my life. But apparently I had more feelings about it than I ever knew. Each instance of crying in my car—and there were dozens—was a letting go of an ache I never realized I carried.

At the end of his NPR interview, Billy Bean talks about walking through the Major League Clubhouse for the first time as his “whole self,” a self where he can be known as Major League player and a gay man. The phrase whole self makes me think about how we fragment our identities, and how at first, perhaps, that fragmentation creates a sense of numbness more than pain. When we are finally whole or at least engaged in the act of healing, of fusing the selves we’ve separated, that’s when all the pain comes rushing to the wound. Sometimes the healing hurts more than the rupture.

Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.