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Ritual

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

Where to Begin?

I’m never sure where to begin when I’m interviewing new babysitters. Corey and I don’t go out much, because it’s a lot of work to find someone capable of keeping our children alive for less than $100 while we go out for pizza.

We’ve actually found a string of teenagers who have been really helpful as mothers helpers or taking care of the kids for short bursts of time, but I’m currently on the hunt for people I can trust with the kids for a triple bedtime, potential diaper emergent evening…long enough for Corey and I to eat dinner and drink a beer.

Sometimes, I go right for the kill shot and start my interview with, “They will lock you out of the house if you give them the opportunity.” When met with blank stares, I expand, explaining how they like to lure sitters out the front door and then slam it behind them and turn the deadbolt. Once, when I was pregnant with Oren, I got a call from a sitter who got locked out by the older two. In January. They managed to get her outside without shoes on.

Other times, I start softer, asking if they know how to care for an uncircumcised penis. “No need to roll that back,” I’ll explain, demonstrating a diaper change. “Just treat it like a finger!”

Most often, I allow the children to answer the door when a prospective sitter knocks and I stand back, judging their response to whatever happens next. Are they horrified to see a ring of boys riding bikes through the house, pantsless? How does the sitter react if Oren takes a swan dive off the back of the couch into the bean bag chair? Can I see the sitter squinting at the ketchup on the curtains, trying to determine whether it’s blood?

A few weeks ago, our dear friend had a planned elopement and I hadn’t had time to find a new babysitter after our faithful champion moved to Virginia. I had to go with a recommendation from a friend, sight unseen. “Just don’t open the door, no matter what,” I said as we left the house.

When we returned in a few hours, she’d gotten the children to sleep, tidied up the downstairs, and washed my dishes. Then, she described my children as “mellow,” and I passed out.

Miles tells me (and his teacher at school) that his dream is to babysit his brothers, and I know I’m not too many years away from being able to leave them home with Mr. Responsible. For now, when none of them can reliably wipe his own butt after a poop, I remain ever hopeful that I’ll build a stash of unflappable masochists.

What questions do you ask when you’re meeting new babysitters?

Posted by on November 3rd, 2016 No Comments

Details

I took a break from my writing work during the month of April because I had a lot of extra parenting to do while Corey was away from us for work. I used the time to deal with many things, like ENT consults and urgent ophthalmology visits for the kids as well as stuff like Get the Van Professionally Cleaned.

I don’t love that I’ve become a person who drives a vehicle that requires professional cleaning, but I’m also incapable of convincing my kids to eat at meal times, and so they consume most of their daily calories while strapped in their car seats with nothing else to do. The van is brimming with applesauce and peanut butter pretzels, the floor littered with Lego pieces and the broken detritus of plastic toys gone by.

When I called the detailing place, they asked if I thought I’d need a light, medium, or heavy-duty vacuum. Who, I wondered, bothers to pay for just a light vacuum? A light vacuum I could manage with my trusty Dyson, surely. Many Honda Odysseys actually come with a built-in vacuum. “I’ve got fig bar pieces shoved in my seatbelt buckles,” I said. “I think we need the heavy duty.”

To prepare for this detailing, I had to bring in the five blankets and one picnic blanket that had accumulated in the back, along with several sets of new windshield wipers, sun hats my kids never agreed to wear, zoo keys, and school papers that might have been important at one point. I filled several bags of garbage and then wondered where I would put all the sunscreen and bug spray and backup underpants I dug from the crevices in the third row.

I dropped the kids at school and pulled into the detail shop, proceeded to uninstall the car seats and watched as cereal rained from them while I carried them to the stoop. This, I acknowledged, was a filthy vehicle.

And yet, even with all of this grime and pasted on raisin bits and Trader Joes stickers stuck to the surfaces, even then, the vacuum guy said this was actually still a light vacuum job!

Heavy duty, he said, was for broken glass and, like, oil spills. My filth was medium at worst.

And so, this perspective shift brightened my morning. I am medium dirty at worst, and that’s not so bad.

Posted by on May 4th, 2016 No Comments

April is the Cruelest Month

Six months ago, my mother died. She died suddenly, without warning. Utterly unexpectedly. She died without a will, without life insurance, and without giving me a list of which credit cards she had.

I talked to my mother every day, multiple times, but never asked her about these things, and so on top of my shock and grief, I’ve had to manage the paperwork involved in a person dying. My dad hasn’t been too much help. He, for instance, didn’t think he had a credit score, much less understand how to turn off the auto-payment on my mom’s Dunkin Donuts app.

Just last week, I think we finished tying up all the logistical ends of ending someone’s life on paper. It’s the paperwork that pops up in the midst of my grief, demanding that I try to pay attention and think clearly and give official statements. Or find notaries, sign affidavits, accept the apologies of customer service agents offering their condolences in addition to their prying questions they need to ask in order to make things official.

For the first few months, every time we opened a closet, we found more credit cards or online accounts that needed to be closed. It grew to where I found it easier to call and pretend to be my mother, closing the account because “I’m leaving the country,” than it was to deal with the actual truth and much more involved paperwork of closing an account for someone who has died.

I know things now that I didn’t want to know for many decades. I know how to order an urn from Amazon. I know I am strong enough to sign to accept the cremains of my mother and bring them back to my parents’ house. I know that I still can’t convince my father to sign a Power of Attorney document, so if he has a stroke, we can’t sell his house or car to help pay for his care. I know we’d have to wait for him to actually die, because at least we got him to draw up a will.

Just last week, I helped him gather up my sisters’ social security numbers so he could finalize the beneficiary paperwork for some retirement funds. Six months of torturous logistical detail on top of the agonizing loneliness of not being able to bitch about it all to my mother.

It feels ironic that my last post prior to this was advertising a Get Your Act Together event I was unable to hold, for all the reasons I just listed above. I haven’t felt up to organizing another one, but I want to soon, because this work is so important. Do it for yourself, do it for your parents, and do it for your children. Do not leave this burden for those who will mourn, because it sucks…but I’d so much rather it be me dealing with my shitty paperwork than my children. And I’d much rather my father handle all this than me, but there you go.

We have but one life, and we know is that it can end at any point, without warning. If you’re moved in any way by reading about this great sadness in my life, I’d ask you to please look into getting your act together. And, when you’re done, make your parents get their act together. Tell them they owe you this final kindness.

Hopefully I can get an event together for Pittsburgh sometime this summer. In the mean time, I’m still working on my grief now that I’ve finally (hopefully) finished the paperwork.

Posted by on April 25th, 2016 No Comments

Get Your Act Together, 2015 Edition

papers in the air

You probably aren’t aware that my husband was hospitalized with Lyme carditis this summer. He was just discharged from cardiology and infectious disease on Yom Kippur, so everyone is super healthy right now, but that was not the case in June.

You know what else we did in June? We bought a house. Or, rather, I bought us a house, because he was in the hospital. Thankfully, I had durable power of attorney, a document that allows a person to designate another person to do things like buy or sell property in our stead if we should be incapacitated.

This kind of thing–a rogue hospitalization–can happen to anyone. So can a much worse accident. That’s why I’m going to nag you to get your act together and fill out your growup-papers.

Ideally, you’d do these things with a lawyer, but this is expensive. In a pinch, DIY documents will do the trick. Ask me how I know!

I’m planning to organize two more notary sessions this fall where families can bring their prepared documents and get it all witnessed and notarized. I have a hot tip on a great new location for our collective children to run amuck, too, so you don’t even need to worry about childcare.

Meanwhile, you can hop over to a site like Rocket Lawyer or even check out software from the library. Get started filling out your Durable Power of Attorney, Living Will, and Last Will so you’ll be all set for the notary. These papers take some thought (especially if you have children and would like to designate someone to be their guardian should the worst happen).

But let me tell you! The ticks are still out there spreading Lyme in Pittsburgh. Don’t let these buggers derail your real estate plans.

More information is forthcoming! Start your paperwork today, though.

Note: I do not work for Rocket Lawyer, but I just find their forms super user-friendly. They ask you questions like Turbo Tax and you just click and print!

Posted by on October 19th, 2015 No Comments

Archery Season

Last week, our family joined Miles’ cub scout pack (den? I’m still not sure and say “troop” frequently) for archery and s’mores at the Boy Scout camp.

That’s right. Archery.

I’m still adjusting to the idea that this activity puts weapons in the hands of my kids. In like a year he’ll do a course on knife safety and he’s sold enough popcorn to earn a trip to a shooting range. He’s six.

We skipped the range this year but Corey feels like he should go next year to learn gun safety. I’m not done deciding how I feel about that but do concede that my son is super curious and should know what to do if he does find a gun when he’s playing.

Anyway! Range master Bob took great care to teach the kids safety before they could enter the archery range. Miles took him so seriously and I loved how he paid extra careful attention to form. When he did finally enter the range, he and Corey worked to set up each arrow meticulously.

Our perfectionist boy told me he would be “very frustrated!!!!” if he didn’t get a bullseye, and we had to prepare him for the reality that he might not even hit the paper. Or the foam backing, for that matter.

Then I got very distracted because there was a spare slot and the scouts let Felix have a turn. Felix couldn’t even draw the string back alone, so I was helping him while also wearing Oren on my back.

I mention all of this because today, I was hiking with some mom friends in a nearby park. We were meandering along a stream. Felix was building a house for a worm he found. Oren was throwing things in the creek.

And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw something emerge from the leaves. It rose from the forest, like a monster in a fairy tale.

The man was in head to toe camouflage, with only his eyes peeping from a slit in his leaf-patterned gear. He carried arrows and a bow. A man wielding weapons in the woods where I was hiking with my babies.

All I could think to say was, “I didn’t see you there…I guess that’s the point.”

He told us he doesn’t hunt in the park proper. Just on the ridge above our heads. Also he had special permission to do so. Then he walked away, and we called the police.

Apparently he’s allowed to be in there hunting, but only with a bow.

I’m trying to remember how difficult it was to draw back the bow we used at the scout range, how arrows can really only travel a short distance with enough force to harm someone.

But I’m not succeeding! I keep remembering how we saw the man walk from the strip of trees behind our old house. He’d been in there hunting with a crossbow a few hundred feet from an elementary school.

I feel like hunting makes sense to me as something people do. But why do these hunters do it so close to children? Hikers? Surely there are other places they can shoot their bows and arrows?

I’m sure I’m opening myself up for heated discussion, but I’m rattled by that hunter and I need some time to calm down.

Posted by on October 13th, 2015 No Comments

Identity Slivers

“I accidentally broke it!” I heard Miles shouting the second after I heard the glass shatter on our new, tile kitchen floor. He’d dropped my keepsake beer tasting glass from the 2008 Brufest, the last I was able to help host with my former rugby team.

I almost never get to see anyone from this sphere of my life anymore. While I was pregnant with Miles, I fully intended to return to the sport and compete in nationals after his birth. Women do it all the time. All the time! They even compete internationally with babies in tow. I love that about rugby and was so excited to maintain this aspect of my self while adding in a layer of Mother.

His arrival shattered life as Corey and I knew it, so utterly and so completely we are still catching our breath 6 years later. We know a little bit more about what’s going on with our son neurologically now, but we had no idea what to make of that baby who screamed in outrage, almost every second of every day. And then later, when the screaming stopped and he was mobile, he ran from us, constantly endangering himself until keeping my son alive was the only thing I had energy to accomplish.

As I ushered my boys out of the kitchen, I told them to be safe. This glass that once sat as a wistful reminder of a life I once led was now a heap of dangerous shards that could cut the big, fat feet of my little boys. “Go and find your house shoes,” I told them. This was on my to-do list for the weekend anyway: find slippers for the boys to keep them warm in our big, drafty, old house.

The life we have now is a good life, with family and laughter and people who care about us deeply. We ride trains and sniff herbs from the garden, drill holes in chestnuts to smash conkers…and there’s almost always ice cream.

My sons inspired deeply fulfilling activism and I feel good about ways I’ve helped to make women’s lives better. This new role as their mother helped shift my work in a different direction, and I love the word wrangling I’m doing in the service of family and health arenas.

But still, there were those beer tasting glasses, lined up in the cupboard. We used them for tiny sips of sparkling water or practice for wee hands who wanted to learn to use an open cup. And now, the last one is broken.

Oh, how I miss rugby. I miss the work of team practice, the smell of it all and the effort. I miss the jitters of competition and the easy laughter with a car full of teammates driving to away matches. Above all, I miss the people! People who operate on a schedule so different from mine, I often feel like I live in Greenland, 2 time zones ahead.

I swept and vacuumed the glass from the floor until I felt like my family was safe to come back down for ice cream cones before bed. I nursed my last baby to sleep, looking in to the closet, where my rugby jerseys still hang in the very back, because still I might one day slip them back on and head to the pitch, just to say hello.

Posted by on October 5th, 2015 No Comments

The Day I Yelled “Neckerchief” in an Angry Voice

I thought the order and regimented structure of scouting would appeal to me as a rather rigid person. And maybe it does, but I’m just not familiar enough with the handbook to feel comfortable yet. Whatever the case may be, Miles went to a Tiger Scout meeting tonight wearing a uniform that cost $97 (just for the top half), and I freaked out when he got acrylic paint on his orange neckerchief.

2 boys aren’t quite strong enough to ring that sucker

Corey had been taking Miles to scouts the first few meetings, and came home with a cobbled list of uniform requirements. It included an item spelled “appelet,” and so I knew I couldn’t trust this list as accurate for online ordering.

I had to go to the Boy Scout store.

We have one of these in Pittsburgh. It’s a giant, solemn building across a few highways from the hockey arena. To enter the parking lot, one has to sort of do a U-turn amidst commuters entering the HOV lane, which I’m sure was built much after the scouting building.

There’s a giant bell outside, one of the original 9 bells cast in the mold from the Liberty Bell. This one has no crack, and you can ring it any time you want, which is much harder and far more satisfying than you can ever imagine.

In we went, with my many boys and Corey’s cobbled list of uniform essentials. I’m not quite ready to take seriously the adults who wear the scouting uniforms. I’m just not there yet. But all the staff members are very interested in helping me buy neckerchiefs and den numbers. And pants! They push pants on you so hard, and I declined because we bought pants at Old Navy. I had a very, very excited Tiger Scout who left the store decked out.

He let me take a picture, but I was only supposed to send it to Corey and I already broke my promise and sent it to some other doting admirers, so I won’t post it here. Trust me that it’s cute. You’ve seen boy scouts. They’re cute.

Then we went to the meeting, where there’s a flag processional and some pomp before all the 6 year old boys are sent outside to run around like crazy. And they love it! They gleam with the exertion of it all, and then they go inside to work toward “achievements” by painting bird houses from bits of recycling.

And so it came to be that Miles painted a cardboard box pink, using acrylic paint. He takes these things so seriously, and paints with his entire body. I sat back with the other parents as long as possible.

Until I saw the $24 neckerchief go into the paint. Then I lost my damn mind.

I hissed “YOU GOT PAINT ON YOUR NECKERCHIEF!” in my most Mommish of all Mom-Voices.

Then, my kid whose temperament mirrors mine, threw down his brush and hissed back, “This is why Daddy is supposed to bring me here!”

And I yanked the neckerchief off his neck and said, “If Daddy brought you, he wouldn’t know how to get the paint off your NECKERCHIEF!”

I actually stomped out of the room to scrub it in a sink. As if all the other kids weren’t covered in acrylic paint.

They somehow all had hand-me-down uniforms, though. We seem to be the only family without a pack of older brothers or neighbors with older scouts. Oh well. By the time Oren is a Tiger, we’ll have gotten our per-kid cost for the uniform down to $32…and the entire thing will be covered in paint and blood and manure.

Eventually I’ll calm down about it all. For now, I’m reading the handbook and learning about proper badge placement, because I understand I’ll be caring for these uniforms for many, many years.

Posted by on September 23rd, 2015 No Comments

Cinnamon and Carrot Skins

Our boys’ school participates in the Edible Schoolyard program. For years, I’ve loved hearing my older son talk about his love for “Farmer Courtney” and everything that falls out of her mouth.

Courtney is the garden educator in our urban school garden, and she guides the students as they churn out compost and melons, corn and herbs, and various fruits all through the year.

I remember one year, when Miles was deep in a bug-fear phase, Farmer Courtney convinced him to touch an earthworm as it crawled along a piece of paper.

Miles brought the paper home and showed me the glistening trail it had left on the page.

Some days, he comes home and tells me all about ground cherries, and how you can shuck them “just like corn.” He’s learning so much about how things grow.

This year, Courtney arranged for our school to host Chef in the Garden, where local chefs come in to prepare a meal in the garden, using seasonal produce and prepping simple meals with the kids. I finally (finally!) don’t have a newborn baby or a swollen, pregnant body, so I volunteered to assist Chef Zack.

Not until I stood on that end of the garden classroom did I fully appreciate the magic of this program. Chef Zack had the kids make carrot soup and mint cocoa. The vegetable peeler seemed as magical to them as the microplane and cinnamon stick. Each child took a turn to peel an entire carrot, learning how to hold the carrot properly and use the peeler safely.

Very few of the kids had any peeling experience, so I found it thrilling to explain “this is the blade. You pull it gently along the carrot.” Some of the kids peeled the whole carrot down to a stub. A small handful expertly whipped the skin off as if they’d been working as sous chefs most of their 9 years.

Each stage of the process was riveting to them. They loved harvesting mint (though many of them picked sage by accident) and washing the leaves. They loved watching as the cinnamon stick grew holes “like Swiss cheese” and smelling the difference it made to both the simmering cocoa and the carrot soup.

I heard the children discussing how they’d like to make this soup at home–one boy thought it would help his sick mother feel better. Chef Zack let them feel the pulp after he juiced some of the carrots, had them take turns grinding the mint into the cocoa powder with the mortar and pestle.

It was altogether magical to help these kids experience this type of tactile learning and careful observation of the garden. Most days I trudge past it quickly as I hurry to pick up the boys from school. Today, we walked by slowly and wondered together what Farmer Courtney and tomorrow’s chef would prepare when it was my boys’ turn for Chef in the Garden.

Posted by on September 21st, 2015 No Comments