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Salted Wounds and Crusty Resolve: A Decade of Marriage

“My tea tastes salty,” my husband said, putting down his mug as I flushed saline solution through his PICC line. I pulsed the syringe, like the home health nurse taught me, wiping his arm with an alcohol pad like I’d been doing it for years.

The first time I held a syringe of concentrated antibiotics and pushed it into his body, I felt bile rise in my mouth. He sat next to me at the kitchen table, his hand on mine as I opened the cap in his arm covering a hole-that-should-not-be. I pushed the infusion through his veins, meeting his eye, and then ran upstairs to vomit as soon as I re-capped the hole in his body.

As I approach my ten-year wedding anniversary, I think back on that period as one of the greatest test of my vows. At 26 years old, I promised to hold him in sickness and health, not really understanding what that meant.

I didn’t know then that he would contract Lyme carditis the night before we closed on the purchase of our second home. He spent that time in the cardiac ICU while I found a traveling notary public, combed the halls for witnesses to make sure I had Power of Attorney to complete a real estate transaction for him in absentia. I believe I wrote the phrase “Katy Adair Rank Lev, his attorney-in-fact” 200 times that day, before I went back to retrieve his car from the parking lot at the emergency room. He’d driven himself there in the middle of the night, failing to notice that our beloved Mazda’s odometer had turned to 100,000 miles along the way.

Whenever I had to open my husband’s hole-that-should-not-be, we first corralled our three wild sons into the learning tower nearby, commanding the oldest to keep his brothers’ grubby hands away from our medical procedures. On one of these occasions, the baby got loose. Our first and honored son narrated the baby’s process of dumping a gallon of white vinegar on the kitchen floor. What could we do but keep on measuring out heparin? As the vinegar oozed down the basement stairs, the children wept, I sweated profusely, and I understood what marriage meant.

At first it was refinishing floors and fighting over the last beer in the fridge. Asking him to rub sunscreen on my back, holding hands to go vote for the first African American President of the United States.

Slowly, our marriage came to mean “look this person in the eye during your moment of greatest suffering.” Like the time I had childbirth-induced urinary retention and Corey took me and our newborn son to the emergency room. He held our brand new infant at the foot of my bed, gazing in horror at the shredded, swollen center of my body, as the staff collected enough urine to fill two wine bottles. When we went to leave, the nurse strapped a catheter bag to my leg and told me nobody would even know it was there, if I wanted to wear a cute skirt or something. But my husband knew it was there, the warm bag of piss strapped to my thigh, and he held my hand.

He stood with me for all those things, and I stood by him.

For ten years, I have cursed that man for leaving soy milk caps on the counter and granola bar wrappers behind the couch. He has, for the same period of time, scolded me for blowing my monthly budget downloading romance novels I don’t even like reading.

Better or worse, I promised. Is it worse when we transform into writhing bundles of rage in response to 30-pound humans who refuse to put on shoes or consume food? When we scream at each other and keep score of who got more minutes of sleep–who started more loads of piss laundry? I’m still barely able to talk about the loss of my mother, and how her sudden death affected every element of my life. This grief I carry will certainly test that section of my vows. The better parts, the healthy parts…those have felt easy.

What I think about today is all the hard parts and what I see is that I need him with me for all of those things. Through the sickness and the hard times and the grief and agony, it’s felt absolutely necessary to be in a marriage with this man.

Our decade has been loud and messy, punctuated by loss and cardiac distress. It has been all that I promised, though I did not know then what that would look like. I feel like I’m entering our next decade with a better idea of what it really meant to promise those things to each other.

Here’s to ten years, Cookie Pie. Here’s to fifty more as well.

Posted by on May 27th, 2017 3 Comments

Hold That?

Our neighborhood playground is quite a magical place lately. A trio of 100+ year old oak trees fell over in a terrible wind storm a few weeks ago. The kids have been making Terebithia in there, climbing the massive trunks, hiding in the caves the branches form. Poachers come with chainsaws to take bits of the wood before the city can break down the trees, so there are also deep piles of sawdust. Felix calls this “snow” and sprinkles it around like he’s a wood fairy.

Then! The city seems to have heaped its entire stash of mulch on our basketball courts, so there’s a mountain at least 12 feet high. Dump trucks come to haul bits of it away every day, but for the most part, it forms a massive playground the kids have pretended into a Minecraft mine, a throwing platform for logs, a snow-covered mountain from Frozen…really they just spend hours there.

We’ve been going to the playground every day it’s not actively raining. I’m willing to stand around in the mud and deal with 3 dirty boys. I’m not willing to stand around in the rain. *shrugs*

We met a neighboring family there the other day and I had the most lovely experience. Bethany was supervising kids climbing around the fallen trees. I was over near mulch mountain. One of B’s kids wandered over and, seeing just two of mine, asked, “Where’s the other one?”

I pointed behind a heap of mulch and B’s son shrugged. Then he thrust a bag of chips at me and asked if I could hold it so he could climb with two hands. I already had a pair of binoculars and a soft pretzel in my hoodie pocket, so what’s a bag of chips?

By the time I made it over to Bethany to share this story, she was holding sweatshirts for both of her kids and one of mine. We each had picked up a sprinkling of random things other kids asked us to hold.

This is what moms do, right? We hold all the stuff.

Whenever we went to an amusement park, my mom never rode a single ride. She stood at the exit and held all the stuff for us. I can see her there, wearing her big sunglasses, arms laden with water bottles and coats, bags and snacks.

I felt this very deep connection to her in that moment, standing in the park holding all the stuff. I wanted so badly to call her and tell her about it, the binoculars in my pocket with the chips and a rock with googly eyes glued on top.

I often think about why it feels so important to me to work part-time. For many years, my parents worked opposite shifts because of childcare. My mom worked 3-11pm, and that meant I didn’t really see her during the school year. Those weekends holding our crap while we road the whip and the bumper cars were all she got to enjoy.

Standing in the playground, with the magical mulch and the ruined trees, I felt like I was exactly where I need to be. Present, with my kids, watching as they discover a nest of snails in the mulch or blowing sawdust snow into each other’s hair. I’m so fortunate to be able to afford this, that our family is financially stable on 1.5 incomes.

So yes. I’ll hold that. I’ll hold whatever you hand me.

Except yesterday, I took a tote bag along for our things so that I, too, could climb mulch mountain and watch the freight trains rattle past.

Posted by on March 23rd, 2017 2 Comments


image shows hermit crab "crabitat"

note how you can still see the sharpie words “maternity clothes” on the side of the bin. Please do not worry: we drilled air holes in the lid.

So Felix has been begging us for a pet for ages. I tried to bring him into this gently by buying him an ant farm for Christmas. I even ordered the ants around Thanksgiving so I wouldn’t forget. Of course, the ants are gathered from the wild in Utah, I learned, and are dormant in winter. Also they don’t ship live critters until it’s reliably warm outside. So that brings us to mid-spring with an empty ant farm and a sad boy still wanting a pet.

Mammals are out of the question. I don’t want a reptile. I wanted a fish, damn it, but Felix can’t cuddle a fish. We took him to the Animal Rescue League to look at the animals and pet the bunnies, hoping this would appease him a bit. Nope. He wants a pet he can hold. So Corey went and bought a damn hermit crab named Teapot.

We brought Teapot home in his tiny little pet store plastic box, filled with pet store rocks and pet store food. And Teapot was pretty boring. But then we started reading about hermit crabs online and realized we were giving Teapot a really miserable life in this pet store box. So what did we do?

We had to go out and spend $100 getting more things to give Teapot a nice life. We built him a lovely crabitat (as it’s called) in the huge bin that used to house my maternity clothes. We also had to buy Teapot a friend, because hermit crabs are social animals. Now we have Lightning, too.

And so, after rehydrating coconut fiber and creating moist tunnels for the crabs, planting succulents in the humid crabitat, and filling soaking pools with specially formulated salt water, we also had to slice up some steak for the crabs. Steak. Because crabs like meat. And coconut, evidently.

There was a bit of drama last night because we came upon Lightning on top of Teapot, and it looked like maybe Lightning was trying to eat Teapot? This was very traumatic for everyone. Further research from Smithsonian magazine taught me two things. 1. I’m insanely jealous that I did not write that article about canibalistic habits of hermit crabs. 2. Most likely, the crabs were just sniffing each other.

I checked on Teapot periodically throughout the night, as I would an infant baby, because I don’t have enough to worry about. He seemed fine overnight. The steak is mostly eaten. This morning, I cannot find any trace of Teapot at all. Not even his shell, which is encouraging because if Lightning ate him, he’d surely leave the shell behind. My best hope is that Teapot has buried himself somewhere deep within the rehydrated coconut substrate, preparing to molt.

So, if you need me, I’ll be off crocheting a hammock for the hermit crabs. Because they like to climb.

Posted by on March 13th, 2017 3 Comments

External Heart

There’s a saying that parenting is like wearing your heart on the outside. I feel the truth of this statement every day.

Last week, Miles was glum when I picked him up from school. I had to press him for a long time, but finally convinced him to tell me that he’d asked some kids to play with him at recess and they’d said no. And that he’d cried about it.

I mean, I haven’t felt myself shatter like that in a long time. I just scooped him into my arms and wanted to rock and cuddle him, except he’s nearly 8 years old and just wanted to go play Minecraft. I made sure to remind him that he has a group of really nice friends who care about him. I wasn’t sure why he’d reached out to another group…I’m sure there are things he wasn’t telling me.

But all I could remember was all the times I wanted someone to hang out with me and got turned down and there I was, reliving all the hard parts of being a kid. I want to spare him this pain! But I don’t know how and I don’t know if it’s possible to do that. All I can do is reassure him that he’s loved.

Thankfully he had some cup-filling opportunities to play with other kids since then and doesn’t seem to be upset about it anymore.

Posted by on February 13th, 2017 No Comments

Worst Part of My Day

The worst part of each day is when I pull up to school and have to get my children out of the van. By the time we arrive there, I’ve been screaming at them for 45 minutes until my voice is hoarse.

Each day, it begins with polite requests to put on shoes and get backpacks. When these are ignored, my voice gets more stern until I’m raving and bodily dragging kids to the car in various states of undress. They weep the whole way to school and Miles makes “whale sounds” such that I can barely concentrate on my driving.

Then they refuse to get out of the van. It’s a family culture they’ve decided upon and I’m really sick of it and we are working on it.

Today, the crossing guard (who is daily witness to my horror) felt the need to tell me the kids don’t act this way when Corey drives them to school.

Hers is another voice joining the chorus of people who feel free to criticize moms, yet offer no actual assistance. It would have taken her the same amount of time to grab Oren’s hand for me while I crammed Felix into his shoes, but instead she just felt compelled to observe that my children save the worst of their behavior for me.

As usual, when I’m with my kids, I can’t take time to speak back to people like that. It’s all I can do to keep them alive and from running into traffic. And so I kept them safe. I got them shod. I talked to them about how their disrespectful, uncooperative behavior hurts my feelings and makes for a bad morning. Again and again, I remind them. Tomorrow, I’ll remind them again.

And someday, they’ll be peaceful, respectful adults. But damned if I don’t wish upon them hellfire, feral children.

Posted by on November 15th, 2016 No Comments

Inside the Furnace

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I worked in a factory during school breaks to help pay for college. It felt very meaningful for me to accept my first job after graduation: when the Corning plant shut down in State College, PA, I was hired to help the displaced factory workers write resumes and cover letters to hopefully transition to new employment.

These workers, over 1,000 of them, worked on the factory floor for decades with multiple generations of their family. They were paid good wages and lived a comfortable life. They sweated and heaved and toiled making glass tube televisions. As I’m typing this on a flat-screen computer across the room from my flat screen television, I think you all know why this factory shut down.

They lost their jobs not just to Asia, but due to automation in the manufacturing process and changing technology. It simply takes fewer people to make flat screen televisions than it took to make the glass tube ones. And Corning was moving those few jobs to a plant overseas.

When I started at this job, they took me on a tour so I could see what each worker did to help him or her articulate these tasks on a resume. With a practiced hand, I slid on steel-toed boots and rolled in my foam ear plugs. I saw the men working with the molten glass, their arms singed hairless in the unthinkable heat. There were no women in the molten glass section…maybe they had already been laid off.

Some of these workers found new jobs in other manufacturing companies close by. Some found work in an industrial laundry. Most of them competed with each other for hourly jobs at Home Depot or Lowes, the leftover ones turning to Wal-Mart. That’s what was left.

I remember working with a man named Kermit, who was in his late 50s and had worked in the furnace for 40 years. He was still a ways from retirement, but had done the same task at the factory for longer than twice the time I’d been alive.

Because of this experience, I feel like I understand what has happened in recent days with our presidential election. I can’t understand why my own father voted against the recommendations of the union that supported him through his own 45+ years of hard, physical work, because I believe unions always have in mind the best interest of those people who depend on them to be their voice. But I understand a crumbling blue collar landscape that no longer offers jobs that will support families.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m agonizingly sad that the newly elected leader drew on these voters with promises paired with racism, misogyny, and hatred. How can his impulsive spews of hate speech be excused in light of his promises to restore job security to the working class? We aren’t so far removed from an era where good jobs were denied to Irish or Italian immigrants, let alone anyone with brown skin or a uterus.

To keep from feeling hopeless, I’ve decided to focus on one issue where I can feel effective, where I can enact change. For me, it’s public education. If I can help improve schools such that every student graduates with the skills to pass a civil service test or pass the written exam to join the military, then I will have helped. It starts for me locally, as I read more and find organizations collectively working to make change. This is a whole new furnace I’m touring, and I’m learning now how this one operates.

Posted by on November 11th, 2016 No Comments

Clearance Rack

I had some free time today, and I spent it wandering around Target, as many moms do when given an hour alone.

At the back of the store, there were giant racks of garbage on clearance for 90% off the original price of $1-$3.

My mother would have gotten two carts full of crap and spent many hours back there, picking. She’d think ahead to any upcoming holidays and her vast gifting list. She’d just grab things randomly because they cost ten cents. She’d have made multiple bags of Halloween decor and sent it off to me–enough to decorate my whole neighborhood.

A year since her death, and one of the biggest absences I feel is the lack of little things just coming in from her. The tiny spoons for my sugar in my coffee. The magazine rack by the sofa. The toilet paper holders in my bathrooms. I look around my entire house, and all the little things that make my day operate more smoothly all came from her, such that I don’t know how to begin to buy such things. I never even needed to feel their absence to know I needed them. Shit just showed up, because she scoured a clearance bin for it and found it for under a dollar.

So I spent an hour in that clearance bin. I got too overwhelmed to think about next Halloween. I remain attached to my frustration with having tons and tons of tiny things just because they cost ten cents! But I did buy some gifties for all my nephews and cousins at Christmas and some decorations for Thanksgiving. These decorations cost 30 cents, so I really splurged.

I felt myself disappointing my mother by not having a cart. I could hear her voice yelling, “Always take a cart! You just never know when you’ll find a bargain.” Well, I didn’t have a cart, but there were Dory bags on clearance for 10 cents, so I just filled one of those. Then I hauled my giant tote of crap to the checkout and the whole thing cost $9.85, and I laughed and cried all at once.

My mom would have gone first to Starbucks, but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had 2 hands free to stuff my Dory bag.

She also would have bought the dog vests for my friend’s dogs. She would have gotten 3 pairs of socks for each holiday for my kids and she would have bought the bubble bath that gives them a rash.

I can’t do all the things just like her, because I reserve the right to still feel frustrated about shit like bath paint that stains the grout, which she bought all the time! But I’m glad I had an hour to myself and that I went outside my comfort zone to dig in those chaotic clearance heaps. Next holiday, maybe I’ll feel up to stocking up for the future.

Posted by on November 5th, 2016 1 Comment

Long Hair, Do Care

I’ve had short hair since high school, apart from an 8-month period where I had a contagious fungus and couldn’t visit a hairdresser. The only drawback to short hair is that you have to get it cut pretty frequently or else it just looks crappy. And this is a problem for me because I’ve got 3 kids, a partner who works a lot of hours, and I’ve got no real ability to visit a salon where I have to make and keep an appointment.

We’ve got this fabulous friend who is a stylist, and she will make a house call if there are enough heads to cut. Luckily, Team Lev has 5 heads to cut and we’ve had her over here a few times for back yard beauty parlor.

But, things just aren’t working out for me lately with timing. Corey has a huge event coming up this weekend at work, I never quite know when he will be home, and dang if I don’t also really need to get my brows waxed. (Our friend isn’t currently equipped to wax my face in the back yard)

Last night, I thought I was going to be able to slip away and go to Supercuts.

You know Supercuts? Where you walk in for a medium-ok haircut/wax job and that’s ok because it’s inexpensive and you didn’t have to make an appointment? Well. I spent so much time circling the block looking for parking that by the time I got inside, there were so many people in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to get my hair cut before they closed.

I could have cried. I maybe did a little bit. And then I went to Target for ponytail holders so I can stick my overgrown hair into whale spouts until I can work it out to get my friend over to my house with her clippers.

I also bought a wee self waxing kit to try to do my own eyebrows. I messaged my stylist friend a few times, and she emphasized that she was very concerned about my choices. Thankfully, the waxing pen thing was a total dud and not one hair came out of my face. This is certainly preferable to me pulling out the entire blonde, Frieda Kahlo situation I’ve got going on.

The good news is that I can probably see my friend soon, which means limited days of whale spouts. The better news is that she’s buying a real home waxing machine (is it a machine?) so most likely, I can haul everyone to her house for the whole salon treatment and just let my kids tear apart her train table. I think all 5 of us will just get a buzz cut.

Evidence that whale spouts have been my go-to solution for many years now, regardless of who has overgrown hair.

Posted by on November 4th, 2016 No Comments


ladybug in flight

Last week marked one year since my mother died. My grief counselor was encouraging me to think about rituals to mark this day, to help me wade through my grief. I came up with two ideas.

First, my mother had always wanted a wee ladybug tattoo on her ankle. She never got around to getting it, although she did get a breast cancer ribbon tattooed on her foot when her older sister was going through treatments for that. I decided that I would get a ladybug tattooed on my ankle on the day of her death. A ladybug in flight.

I’ve never really wanted a tattoo. I still don’t want a tattoo. It hurt–it burned the entire time and now it itches like hell and looks like a moulting ladybug. But I’ve got it there, on my ankle, perpetually flying upward and away.

People ask me if I like it. That feels like the wrong word, or the wrong emotion. It’s important to me. Significant.

I also wanted to release some fire lanterns in the evening. I was very moved when a local artist released a bunch of these to honor the victims of the Orlando massacre last fall, and felt like this type of light would feel meaningful to me on the anniversary of my darkest day.

She’d always talked of a place called Balloonia, where all the helium balloons traveled when an unfortunate kiddo let go of the ribbon. I didn’t want to release balloons, because I don’t want to kill any birds, but I did like the promise of these fire lanterns floating through the sky.

Corey got nervous about them setting a fire or still strangling wildlife, so he went out back to light a test lantern tied to a length of twine. Turns out it was too damn windy to release these “wish lanterns,” and so we still have them in a drawer, waiting for a better day.

Instead, I invited some friends over and we lit candles in the house. We ate Pop-tarts and remembered my mom and on that day, I was surrounded by love and light and things weren’t so awful.

In the end, it’s all the non-significant moments that are harder for me, anyway. All the moments every day where I want to call her to tell her each mundane thing that happened, but cannot. I don’t yet have a ritual for navigating this daily mourning of my mother. It’s just a process I’ll be working on the rest of my life.

I’ve still got a mason jar of her ashes on the mantle in the dining room, though, and I look up at it each time I will myself not to scratch this itching tattoo. I can almost hear her yelling, “Don’t pick at your skin!”

Of course, I’d promise never to pick a blemish ever again if I could just hear her actually yell this one more time. I know that’s not a choice, so for now this itch and the act of not scratching it is the ritual that’s getting me through this hour of this day.

candles with tulips

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments

Trauma Response: An Evolution

When Miles was a few weeks old, I tried trimming his fingernails and clipped his wee finger. It bled. I felt traumatized and I wept.

Several sons later, I really can’t drum up empathy for a wound unless it gapes and appears to need stitches.

We chose a non-reactive pediatrician on purpose so we’d learn to know when things were really emergencies, and over the years I think he’s taught me well. If our kids hit their head, we look to see if they cry right away and then stop soon after. And then we go on about our day, confident in our knowledge that “out is better than in” and also that head/mouth wounds bleed a lot. 

We’ve learned what heights our kids can drop from without breaking any parts, and so we just stopped noticing when they jump from tables or staircases, particularly if they’ve created some sort of cushion for themselves at the bottom.

We keep a trampoline in the living room, for crying out loud.

So my kids fall down a lot and hit each other with things a lot and Miles went to picture day this year with a black eye and a missing tooth. This same cherub began his school career as a chronic bolter, escaping both Whole Foods and school with equal abandon until I barely even had a heart attack anymore when a store announced “Code Adam.” I learned he was usually heading toward the potato chips.

Sure, the first few years of parenthood, these episodes drove me to seek marijuana and I could often be found rocking in a corner, trying desperately to calm down. Now? I’ve really learned that children are very, very sturdy. I barely pause the Gilmore Girls when they get hurt.

So, this morning, the school nurse called to tell me Miles hit his head on the bus on the way to gifted. “There’s a large lump,” she told me. I immediately began thinking about how I could tactfully tell her This is nothing we don’t see on a daily basis without sounding like a horrifying person.

She gave him ice and asked if I thought I should get him to monitor his progress and I just didn’t answer, because I was desperately trying to decide how to explain how little this head bump actually mattered. She said she’d text me a picture and I had to go because another school nurse was calling to tell me that Felix had split his lip open in gym class.

Now, Felix is more sensitive. He needs a lot of cuddling when these things happen, but not so much that I’m willing to sacrifice Oren’s nap to go fetch him from school. “Do you think it needs stitches,” I asked.

For some reason, Felix’s injury occurring at the same time as Miles’s made me even less inclined to respond to either child. Both were in the hands of teachers who were eagerly giving out hugs and ice packs. Both were enjoying Mac N Cheese day in the cafeteria. How could I possibly go drag a napless toddler through the rain to retrieve them from this loving cocoon?

I don’t want to sound harsh and uncaring, but I mostly don’t care about either of these head wounds. For one thing, having had a husband in the ICU and losing my mom has really, really shifted my perspective on emergencies. For another, I have a lot of things to do today and I can’t do them with my children at home. I need them to be at school, where they need to learn about math and literacy.

So head wound and split lip? I’m very grateful my tax dollars support a nurse practitioner to watch over the boys and make sure they continue to be fine with a little ice, a few hugs, and proper documentation.

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments