Month: September 2015

Worry

Worry became my prayer, my way of holding vigil. If I held this baby in my mind during every waking moment, perhaps it wouldn’t leave me. At this point, after two years of trying, I found it hard to believe that my body wouldn’t bleed, that I wouldn’t flush away this growing thing. Flushing was my body’s habit; it knew no other way, and so I spoke to my body constantly, instructing it—pleading with it. I closed my eyes and imagined nine months without bleeding. When I inhaled, I willed my organs upward, into me. I begged them not to let go, not to purge, cleanse, release.

By the time a blood test confirmed that I was pregnant, my period was four days overdue. “All your levels looks great,” the nurse told me over the phone. “You have no reason to worry.”

I had every reason to worry. My body had failed me over and over.

I could not use the bathroom without fearing that I’d find a bloodstain on my underwear, or that I’d leave a drop of red behind to spread in the toilet water, or that when I wiped I’d see a trace of pink. I could imagine these details so easily.  To ward off my fear, I developed an elaborate set of rituals.

At work, I could only use the first floor bathroom, first stall on the left. It was a stall I’d rarely used before I conceived. I had never bled in that particular toilet, never changed a sanitary napkin there, and so I trusted that stall to keep me safe.

Wherever I went, I held my breath as I pulled down my pants. I stretched the crotch of my underwear between my two fingers and inspected the fabric for anything resembling blood. I learned to carefully wad the toilet paper before I wiped, otherwise the pink of my finger might show through a single ply and startle me. It would take me minutes to recover from the sight of what I thought was blood.

Because so far I had no pregnancy symptoms, the worrying was all I had, the only difference between pregnant me and me alone. If I didn’t worry, if I didn’t spend all of my mental energy on protecting this thing that was growing, then how could I be sure that it was there?

Sometimes I worried about my worrying. All those months as I tried and failed people had told me to relax.  The implication was clear: worrying had made me infertile. This made me worry even more. I tried to talk myself down. I told myself that I was a worrier, that worriers before me had babies. I thought of pregnant women living in war zones, of domestic abuse survivors, of all the babies that had been brought to term in situations far more hostile than the womb of a preoccupied mother.

I told myself that in reality there wasn’t much I could think or feel that would kill this baby or keep it alive. If this baby couldn’t survive my emotions, well then this baby just wouldn’t survive.

On the surface I looked calm. That’s how worried I was. I was so worried that I couldn’t break the shell of worry, couldn’t say aloud how scared I was. No one knew about the first stall or the toilet paper.

Note: This is the second 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 click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.

Image Credit: Photo by Peter Almay, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/csutka/3956855512

Like a Rat in the Kitchen

Over the last two months, Stump, my two-year-old, has come to hate diaper changes. Also eating breakfast. Also getting dressed and getting in the car. In short, he resents—deeply—any of the things that need to happen in any given morning. He resists by screaming, by kicking, by clawing at my face with his tiny sharp nails, by calling out to the dog “Wally save me!” or telling me to “Go away forever!”

The solution has been a simple one. I carry him, flailing, to the bed. I tell him to let me know when he’s ready. I close the door. I listen to him cry alone; I restrain myself from intervening. Finally, after thirty seconds or ten minutes, I hear him call “I’m ready.” I open the door to find a calm and smiling but tear-stained child.

Though our solution is simple, it isn’t easy. I go through the morning bracing myself for conflict. I go through the same thing all over at bedtime. My problem isn’t that Stump is wildly inconstant. It is that he is relentlessly predictable. It’s not that I can’t see the tantrums coming. It’s that I can, one after the other, in rapid fire, many times in a single day. I move through my home life holding my breath.

This week our summer ended. Smoke began first grade, and I am gearing up to return to work full-time next week. This means that all of a sudden we have places to be at a certain time. This means that now, when I close the bathroom door, I’m praying that Stump takes one minute instead of ten to calm himself. Obviously I have no control over this. Tantrums and deadlines are not a good fit.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a few other complications.

  1. Our water heater died last week. Our new one is taking a long time to get here. Last time I checked, it was on a truck leaving Lenexa, Kansas.
  1. A few weeks ago Kellie began pulling up tiles from our bathroom, trying to locate a short circuit in the heating system. This week she finally discovered that the problem was directly beneath our toilet, so she had to pull it up. We’ve been urban homesteading this week in the un-sexiest sense of the word: heating water in a pot for dishes and spit baths, eliminating in a rocket box.

    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box

    bucket + toilet seat + wooden box = rocket box

  1. Please note that home maintenance issues 1 and 2 are unrelated. It’s a total coincidence that we can’t shower in our own home or pee in a flushable toilet. But item 3 is possibly related to item 2: We now have a rat living in our house. Kellie thinks she came in through the pipe that normally connects to our toilet. We haven’t seen her, but she leaves evidence for Kellie every morning. She poops in several places on the bathroom floor, or licks the butter that I accidentally left on the counter, or feasts on the crumbs from our toaster. So far she’s ignored the peanut butter in the trap.

A year ago, when Smoke started kindergarten, we were in a strikingly similar situation. Kellie was finishing a bathroom remodel and our bathtub lay upside down on our living room floor. I wrote then: “I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.”

This year I’m returning to that thought and concluding that perhaps it is neither. What if we’re not choosing chaos, nor are we its victims? What if instead of chaos this is order, the alignment of my emotional and physical landscapes?

Or, to put it another way: I could be shuffling my children through the world without these extra complications. We could have warm water and a functional toilet. We could have a rat-free house. But that wouldn’t feel quite right. I actually find some small relief when my physical world illustrates how crazy I feel. When someone says “How’s your week going?” I can say “Well we have a rat in our kitchen, no toilet, and bathing is a challenge but we’re coping,” and somehow that better captures my state of mind than if I said “Stump throws many tantrums and I’m tired.”

Also, the beginning of the school year is always about performance, about putting on our best faces, and so it feels meaningful that I must contend with my less-polished self: my unwashed hair and unshaved legs. I join the other parents in the pick-up line, take a breath, and trust that they can handle my humanity.

My mind keeps returning to this mysterious rat who so far I’ve only heard about. Kellie wakes up before me, and so she finds the evidence, cleans it up, and then reports to me. For all I know she does not exist. But she just feels right, this rat does: she is a reminder that something beyond my control is always lurking, scurrying around in the darkness, tipping things over, climbing through pipes and chewing on wires, creating havoc because this is life and because she can.

The Horse of Change

Last week, after learning that wildfires were destroying the area near our family cabin, I went searching through old photos. I sat alone at my desk, clicking through snapshots on a thumb drive, and when I came across this one I chortled.

horse

It surprised me, this photo.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the most satisfying surprise is the surprise of recognition, the surprise of I-should-have-seen-that-coming-but-I-didn’t. That’s exactly how this photo felt to me: of course there was a horse in the window. That used to happen all the time.

One summer these horses roamed the valley and we watched them from a distance. We’d see them trot towards the creek at the bottom of the hill, or we’d drive by them in the meadow on our way down the mountain.

The next summer, Kellie bought a metal trough and filled it with fresh water from our well. The horses discovered this and every morning we had company. Just as the sun rose over the hill, I’d wake to the sound of them munching and nickering. They hung around the cabin for an hour or more, sidling up to the porch or the outdoor sink, pooping in our driveway. When I watched them from inside the cabin or when I went outside and stepped cautiously between them, I felt like I was the guest and they were the residents. I felt this way because it was true.

horsesKellie claimed that it was practical to have horses eating our grass, and I know that she was right. Tall grass becomes a fire hazard once it dries. But I also know Kellie well enough to understand her motives. She bought and filled the trough because she wanted their company.

The horses visited us at the cabin for two summers and then, the following spring, their owner sold them all. The land seemed awfully quiet the first summer they were gone. I would wake to a sunny day and watch the wind move through the grass, watch a bluebird perch on a mullein stalk. No one was tromping through; no one was munching.

By the next year I had all but forgotten the horses. Instead, I watched my baby learn to scoot himself across the floor. I fed him applesauce and oatmeal. I carried him on long walks. When I remembered that there had once been horses, my mind placed them halfway down a hill, living their own horse lives far from us. I forgot about how well we’d been acquainted.

horse2After the surprise of this photo, I spent some time marveling at how I could forget something so big as a horse in my window, how something so vivid could be buried so deep.

Slowly I remembered all the other lives I’ve led—my own life in three-year increments, iterations of me that felt permanent but were not.

I remember, for instance, the years I spent trying to get pregnant and how stark my world seemed then. How the chance of a baby felt like the fur mouse on a cat toy, alternately in reach and then so far away.

Or I remember when my first child was a newborn, and everyone kept saying “It all goes by so fast,” but instead those days slogged along. I nursed my baby every two hours, and then nursed him before bed for three hours straight, and then woke up in the night to nurse him some more. The whole process was in equal measures sublime and boring, precious and frustrating, and I thought it was my new forever-life.

Nearly every reality I’ve lived has felt permanent. Every reality has been temporary.

Our cabin, as far as I know has not burned down, but the world it occupies has been forever changed. Last night I dreamed that we returned to the land with our children and discovered that the surrounding hills were still burning. This is not far from the truth.

I do not know what we will find next time we return. I don’t know what landscape we’ll see on the seven-hour drive, if it will be ash, or scorched trees. I don’t know what I’ll see from our cabin window—to what extent the view will have changed.

I will say this: I am grateful to bear witness, to still have four walls and a porch in Okanogan County, to have years ahead of me to see how green forges a path through char and ash, to observe the cycle of devastation and regeneration. I know that it is a luxury to be at once connected to and distant from disaster: my loss is peripheral—something I love has shifted, but it has not left my world forever.

In three years remind me of the time before the fire. I will have forgotten by then.