I’m with the Band

[This is kind of art you get when your editor is a former band geek. —ed.]

By Rebecca Stetson Werner

In the enormous domed metal building—a cavernous space dominated by three regulation size basketball courts where adults coach the kids’ teams, shouting to be heard above the din—I find the court for Nicholas’s game and quickly sit down on the bleachers. Every once in a while, a dissonant buzzer shrieks, so awful a sound, so jarring it makes my scalp tingle, and I curl in on myself in anticipation of the next blast.

Nicholas’s good friend passes him the ball. He catches it, sort of, but his grip is not quite firm enough, and it barrels on through his hands and down onto his shoe, bouncing out of bounds. I hear a groan and a snicker from somewhere to my left. I fight the desire to turn and glare at the person. Nicholas smiles, forcedly, and I see him apologize to his friend.

Then he throws me a pained look. Hoping to communicate with him as the one person in the crowd who knows and holds his vulnerability, I try to return my best version of what proves to be an impossible expression: a blend of a smirk moving into a softening around the eyes and then a goofy grin, with a bit of a shoulder shrug.

But I am not sure I get the expression right, and I may have missed my chance to connect and communicate with him. Because today, from the moment I entered the arena, I have retreated to the sidelines, taken a stance as an outsider. I am tense, self-conscious, distracted, and frustrated with those around me.

While all the other parents on the bleachers chat and yell and gesture and growl, I am caught up in my own head, spinning through a series of questions. When did this happen? How did we get here? When did we stop wanting our children to play nicely together, stop insisting on apologies when they hurt one another, stop valuing kindness and social skills above competitiveness and drive? And when did it become a good play to foul someone on purpose? When did we stop calling careful with that stick across the playground and start shouting check him?

“Out of the paint!” one parent bellows. Another shouts, “Boards!” every time a player shoots. I have no idea what they mean and wonder if I may be eavesdropping on a bizarre carpentry-focused reality show. I amuse myself for a bit by trying to overlay this crowd’s behavior onto a playground scene from when our children were younger. I imagine what it would have been like to sit on the benches next to the swings with coffee cups in our hands, interrupting one friend’s narration of her clogged mammary gland to shout to one of our kids: Swing harder! Pump those legs! Come on, work those monkey bars! Share those Cheerios!

I’m tempted to turn to the parents beside me on these bleachers and offer an explanation for myself: I was in the band.

•••

In high school, I was a band geek, although there were lots of other, less kind names for members of this motley gang of musicians. On Friday nights, when the popular kids would sit in the bleachers with their French fries and sodas and cheer for their friends on the football team, I was there, too. But off to the side, clad in a royal-blue polyester men’s uniform, helmet perched atop my head, its plumes long ago snapped in half, yellowed, or simply lost.

On school days, I stood when the intercom called for the pep rally participants to go to the gym, and I left the room with all the Blue Knights in team jerseys and school colors. In the gymnasium, however, I was absent from the groupings of chairs in the center of the polished wood floors. Instead, I sat First Chair, adjusting my piccolo to a well-tuned B flat and offering it to each member of the pep band. Then I’d sit down again and await our turn to accompany the cheerleaders and play our school’s fight song.

And it wasn’t just pep band. I could also be counted on to maintain the spacing and pace of the most complex marching band formations, my whole row guiding left toward me, peering across the music holders affixed to their bent elbows. In the two-person pit orchestra, I routinely covered three woodwind instruments during school musicals, and would lean across the flute, piccolo, and oboe that lay in my lap so that I could reach the keys of the synthesizer. I must admit: I am a bit embarrassed for myself right now as I write this. Total nerd. But these musical talents did help me pass a bit socially, counterbalancing my polyester uniform and allowing me to relate to the jocks and popular kids. Sadly, these impressive skills were not sufficient to produce a flurry of prom invitations.

At some point during high school, I began singing, a sensible extension of my musical activities. Although some of my most important relationships were formed through singing groups, I never felt completely at ease in the choirs I joined. So I wasn’t surprised when, after her school choir concert, our daughter Julia unintentionally voiced what I also struggled with when singing. I asked her what it had felt like to be on stage, to stand before an audience.

“Well, I liked it when I played the xylophone,” she said. “I knew what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them when I was singing.”

Like me, it seems, Julia may be an instrumentalist at heart. I was accustomed to holding and playing instruments on stage, to having something protective between me and the audience. I often carried my black cases with me to keep my instruments warm enough, or because they didn’t fit in my locker, also conveniently giving my hands purpose as I moved through my school’s crowded hallways. I used to practice fingerings for scales on my desktop. It gave me something to do while I chatted with the more gregarious kids before classes began. Even now, when I am feeling nervous, my adult fingers long for the feeling of my oboe’s cold wood and silver. I can still call forth the smell of cedar and beeswax and saliva wafting up into my face as I open the case. I can even hear the creaking of the hinge as it opened and the snapping shut of the lid to my reed box. I mentally run my finger down the turkey feather I used to swab my oboe dry after I played.

But singing? As Julia said, it’s just you and your voice on the stage. But I pushed through this unease, this vulnerability, for whatever reason, and it led to something, someone, for me.

•••

My husband, Jonathan, and I met in our college’s choir. He was a dancer and a singer in high school. He tells me of an awkward stage involving leg warmers and acne medication and asking a friend when football rehearsal was over. When we met on his first day of college, I was his assigned greeter, or what we called a hand holder, sitting with him while he waited to audition for the choir that I had already joined. What I noticed about Jonathan—after overcoming my fascination with his strange fashion choices, including a do rag, white t-shirt, tightly cinched pants and shirt cuffs—was that, though I was there to make him feel less nervous as he waited, he was not nervous at all.

The next time we met was in the basement storage room of the performing arts center. I, in my role as choir manager, was responsible for fitting the newly selected men for their tuxedos. This was my first time measuring inseams for men’s attire, and Jonathan, third in line, intervened. Clearly I looked as confused and mortified as I felt, awkwardly holding a measuring tape, trying to figure out how I was going to determine pant lengths for all these young men I did not yet know. “Have him hold the top, and you hold the bottom down by his ankle,” he suggested.

Ah. Ankle. That’s good. I can handle ankles.

But I think the night that our relationship moved from friendship to more than that was at the famed a cappella karaoke night. That evening, we sang each other’s songs. Which is not a euphemism. We actually sang each other’s solos from our respective a cappella groups. There were a lot of red plastic Solo cups in people’s hands that night, though not in his or mine.

He actually volunteered to sing my song, confidently and in full voice, which was a folky Tuck and Patty love song. Jonathan knows how to work a room. But I was then involuntarily pushed up to the front of the crowd as his group began the accompaniment to his signature song, “The Reflex” by Duran Duran. He typically performed with full choreography, and there was clearly some expectation that I would shimmy along with his group as they boogied down. I was completely terrified and uncomfortable and breathless and uncool and not at all uninhibited by the contents of a Solo cup. Yet he stood in the middle of the crowd and mouthed the words for me, smiling warmly the whole time.

In that moment of my vulnerability and his strength, my discomfort and his ease, and during many other moments in the next few years in which we flipped and flopped roles of lending support and revealing weaknesses, our friendship grew into understanding of and love for each other. We were able to give each other what we needed when working through our most difficult, most vulnerable moments.

There was the night, sitting in the middle of our college’s clay tennis courts, in which he—overwhelmed by his work and the high expectations and his exhaustion—confessed, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And I told him he could, and we did. Together. We created our us and, eventually, our family. We sang Tuck and Patty while rocking our babies years later. And our kids still think we are so weird when we lapse into the fle-fle-fle-fle-flex refrain on road trips.

Back then, we didn’t think about selecting someone who had skills that complemented the other’s. We didn’t anticipate the need to tackle our own home improvements or the requirement that we support all of the different homework subjects. Or that one person’s musicality should be rounded out by the other’s athleticism. And therefore, given our poorly planned love, our house is repaired with duct tape and the kitchen faucet drips. Yet we have inadvertently managed to rock the homework subject coverage at the kitchen counter. And, although our three children each fall in their own unique place on the continuum between gregarious and introverted, luckily, between Jonathan and I, we truly understand them.

Yet without question, our weakest collective skill set is athleticism. Jonathan is a self-described great blue heron with sore knees when asked to assume an athletic stance. And I am awkward and clumsy and often find it difficult to walk across a room without tripping. Of course, as with home improvement and homework coverage, engineering well-rounded genetic loading for one’s potential offspring is not typically how one goes about choosing a mate. One is much more likely to be drawn to another who likes the same things, someone who also shows up to the same a cappella karaoke event.

•••

This us, Jonathan and I. What we know from experience, despite our lack of sports expertise, is the importance of allowing oneself to feel and express one’s vulnerability. And we know the importance of where you place yourself in a crowd. As a couple, we are the result of the push and pull of social dynamics playing out while two people connected amidst a crowd’s pulse and noise. And we know how coming together—finding each other through an extended moment across the room—can evolve into a life together. A dance in which two people stop synchronizing themselves with those around them and fall into their own rhythm. Jonathan and I? We wish for nothing more than these moments, these connections, for our children.

Lately, I have been returning to that nervous, uncertain glance Nicholas shot me across the basketball court. About who I was, or perhaps wasn’t, for him in that moment. And about how Nicholas saw me, sitting among the spectators as well, caught up in my wonder at how our children are getting older and at how parenting requirements change with time. I lost sight of how this is all still about the connections, about forming the closest and strongest relationships we can with each other, relationships during our childhood serving as a springboard for embracing and moving out into the rest of the world. I want to change how I receive his searching look when it next comes my way. Though I know this will not always be the case, our children are still young enough that their raw and vulnerable glances are still directed at me.

Nicholas’s glance has also sent me back into my memory of that moment, albeit a more grown-up moment, between Jonathan and me so many years ago. Of the feeling of finding Jonathan across the crowd. And how that look moved us forward, shored us up, and helped us live. And the desire for connection with Jonathan is still there. I still hope for our eyes not to pass over each other, searching through the mess of parenting and work and distraction and stress. For our eyes to meet and linger, for this look to make the noise around us quiet. Once these intense and precious few days of parenting these beings has shifted and they move outward, that Jonathan and I will still be us, still finding each other, as the crowd thins and moves on. And for our growing children to see this, to know we are in the crowd for them now and for each other, available and strong. And for them to someday find this for themselves with another.

•••

REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and three children. She has contributed to Taproot and Grounded Magazine; this is her second essay for Full Grown People. She writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at treetoriver.com.

Fear

horror

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By William Bradley

“Fear of fire, fear of lightning, fear of fire caused by lightning, fear of falling trees, and of those people who drive their cars into houses or gas stations because they confuse the brake with the gas. Once on Central Park West a man reached for my wrist as he said, “Can I ask you something?” but I didn’t let him. Fear of unasked questions that will never be answered. Fear of Rumpty-Dudget a character in a book, ‘Rumpty Dudget’s Tower,’ that I have never read, but whose worn blue spine I can sense on the bookshelf in my parents’ living room at all times, even now. Fear of women in high heels; fear of Mrs. Stein, my second grade teacher; fear of other people’s carelessness. Fear of small but deceptively sharp knives, like the Swiss Army knife that cut my brother’s finger so deep only one of my mother’s maxi-pads, with wings, could hold the blood. Fear of sirens, though only when I am driving and cannot tell where they are coming from; fear of North Korea; fear of visiting Turkey, where I was born, and not being allowed to leave. Fear that there is something really really wrong. Fear that there is nothing that can fix it.”

—A. Papatya Bucak, “I Cannot Explain My Fear”

 

My wife and I each paid twenty dollars to attend the one-night-only twenty-fifth anniversary screening of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street several years ago. This was at a point in our marriage where we probably couldn’t afford to blow forty dollars on a movie, but I had just started my first academic job and, for the first time, we had an annual household income of over $25,000, so we felt rich. More importantly, I love A Nightmare on Elm Street and was excited for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

If you asked me for my favorite horror movie, I would honestly tell you that it’s The Shining. Kubrick’s use of tracking shots, Bela Bartok’s score, Shelly Duvall’s performance as an abused woman trying to survive in an icy, opulent hell—it’s all amazing and remains unnerving every time I watch it. But if I have a few beers tonight and decide I want to watch a scary movie, I’ll probably put something like Friday the 13th Part 3 in the DVD player. You can watch it in 3D in the comfort of your own home, you know. But more importantly, I find that cheesy slasher movies from the seventies and eighties just have their own sort of goofy charm. Yes, they’re violent, and more than a little misogynist. But it’s so hard for me to take them seriously at this point. Even though they were rated R, they seem, in their simple-minded black-and-white morality, childish to me. Not of the morally complicated adult world I live in, that’s for sure. So watching movies like these reminds me of my childhood, keeps me tethered to the dorky, horror-obsessed kid I was, and—I sometimes like to imagine—keeps me young.

•••

Even before I saw my first horror movie, I found them fascinating. When I was a kid, my parents were diligent in shielding us from movie gore and anything remotely scary; the idea, I know, was to protect our impressionable minds from anything that might upset or disturb us, but I’m afraid it didn’t entirely work. In fact, as I got closer to my middle school years and realized that most of my friends had seen Halloween and Silent Night, Deadly Night, I became acutely aware that my parents had been sheltering me: there was a whole world of supernaturally-powerful serial killers and blood-thirsty demons out there. And though I understood, rationally, that these things only existed in movies, on some level I think I perceived something menacing about the adult world as a result of my parents’ zealous protection. After all, if there were nothing to really be afraid of, then why would I need to be protected?

But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe my brother and I detected menace before becoming aware of these movies, and that’s what caused my parents to try to shield us from multiplex mayhem. I know that the witch in the Wizard of Oz scared me when I was a kid; so too did Dr. Banner’s transformation into The Incredible Hulk on TV. And my brother couldn’t stand to be in the room when The Electric Company started—the voice that yelled “Hey You Guys!” would cause him to cry if he heard it. And, truth be told, he was well into adulthood before he could force himself to watch the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the villain rips the guy’s heart out of his chest. So, perhaps my parents—realizing that their sons were high-strung and easily frightened—understood that they had to be on their toes when it came to shielding us from big-screen frights.

Or, maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing, and responsible parents just don’t let their kids watch R-rated movies full of naked breasts and chainsaw-wielding madmen who want to turn teenagers into barbecue sandwiches.

The bottom line is, by the time I was in the fifth grade, most of my friends had seen at least some of these movies, and I had not. I was fascinated by the very idea of these forbidden movies, what they said about the adult world, and why my parents felt the need to shield me even while my friends’ parents did not feel a similar need to shield them. Plus, there was that nagging suspicion—then, as adolescence was just on the horizon—that there was something more than a little lame about not knowing anything about these movies that were so important to my classmates. I was already beginning to understand that I was a dork—a label that would stay with me at least through the beginning of high school—and part of that dorkiness came, I understood, from my naïveté when it came to these elements of the popular culture that were so important to kids in the eighties.

I found my entrance into this world of horror that my friends knew so well one morning in the cafeteria before the first bell rang to send us to our classrooms. A kid I knew, Jeremy, had a book in front of him—The Nightmares on Elm Street, the official novelization of the first three Freddy Krueger movies. The films’ logo—which looked like it had been scribbled by a madman with a nerve disorder—was splashed across the cover, with Freddy’s razor-fingered glove hanging down, blades partially obscuring the title with the blood that dripped from them.

In all of my eleven years, I had never seen a book that looked so cool.

“Good book?” I asked him.

He nodded. “Yeah. The movies are better, though.”

Of course they were, I thought. “Why are you reading the book then?”

He shrugged. “I just really liked the movies.” I think he must have intuited my interest, because he said, “I’m almost done with it. I’ll bring it tomorrow, if you want to borrow it.”

Jackpot. Jeremy had allowed me to find a loophole in my parents’ “No Horror Movie” rule. They didn’t make R-rated books, after all—and weren’t my parents always on my case about reading anyway? Even if they found the book, I could always use their previously articulated arguments in favor of literacy against them. Finally, I had won. I would learn exactly what was so scary that my parents had felt the need to protect me.

I felt certain that reading the Nightmare on Elm Street book would allow me a deeper understanding of the real world.

•••

I didn’t just read the book—I devoured it like a Romero zombie devours brains.

As I read it, I realized that books, too, could be scary. I had an imagination vivid enough to picture what it must have been like for Rod to see Tina’s sleeping body rudely lifted from the bed by an invisible force, shoved to the ceiling, and split open by unseen razor fingers. I could see Tina running from Freddy, his arms somehow long enough to stretch across the entire alley, affording her no escape. I could imagine Jesse’s dread as he came to realize that Freddy intended to possess his body in order to kill in the waking world.

The irony is, I probably would have been better off watching the movies, as far as my own fear went. When I finally saw the movies, I did find them scary, but I also realized that Rod and Tina were obnoxious and older than they should have been—they spoke the way people in their thirties think teenagers speak (“I woke up with a hard-on that had your name on it.” “Tina’s a four-letter word—your joint’s not big enough for four letters.”). The scene where Freddy chases Tina down the alley looked so fake that it made me giggle when I finally saw it for the first time. And Jesse was just an irritating whiner—if Freddy wants him so badly, let him have him, I’d later say.

But that’s not how I responded to the novelizations. No, the novelizations were simply terrifying, and—since Freddy Krueger killed kids in their sleep—I promptly resolved to never sleep again.

I didn’t actually make the decision consciously, of course. I may have had an overactive imagination and very little idea about how the real world worked, but I wasn’t an absolute moron. I knew, logically, that child murderers do not come back from the dead to haunt the dreams of the children whose parents burned them alive in their own boiler rooms. It just didn’t happen—and if it had, it would have been all over the news. No, if people could come back from the dead and hang out in people’s dreams, I was fairly certain that my grandfather would have checked in from time to time. The premise of the movies was not grounded in reality—it all came from this guy, Wes Craven, who wrote and directed the first movie. And, I could convince myself during the day, that guy probably lived in a mansion in Hollywood, surrounded by movie stars and supermodels, and hardly ever thought about this creation of his that was haunting me so.

That was my rational mind. But how many perfectly rational eleven-year-olds do you know—particularly when they’re in a dark room and the rest of the family is asleep and the house is making weird noises?

My parents realized pretty quickly that I seemed groggier than usual at breakfast, and that I was falling asleep while watching TV in the afternoon. And I eventually had to tell them that I wasn’t sleeping much at night anymore, and why. I can’t say my parents were angry with me, but nor were they particularly pleased. When all is said and done, I think the situation kind of annoyed them. “You’re not sleeping because you’re afraid that a boogeyman in a fedora hat that you read about in the adaptation to a movie you’ve never seen is going to kill you?” I don’t think that’s the type of question any father wants to ask his son.

As stupid as they surely found the situation, I have to say that my parents bent over backwards to help me to sleep again. No more drifting off in the afternoons. A big glass of warm milk before bed. God love them, at one point they even took me to our family doctor, apparently hoping that there was a pill or something that would make me forget to be such a neurotic coward. The doctor, for his part, seemed confused about what his role in this personal drama was supposed to be. “I would say,” he eventually concluded, “he needs to get over it and start sleeping again.”

Which is exactly what happened. As time passed, my terror over what I’d read faded. In a few weeks, it all seemed silly, and I was quite embarrassed by the whole episode. Scared by a movie character? How dumb. I promised myself that I would never mistake supernatural fiction for reality ever again.

I kept that promise, too. For several months. Until the USA Network showed Children of the Corn one afternoon when I was home sick, and the process repeated itself. Just as it would a year or so later when I saw Halloween for the first time. And then again with Friday the 13th. These movies terrified me as a kid, but I couldn’t stay away from them.

•••

As an adult, it’s a rare and special thing to find a horror movie that’s genuinely scary. The Shining, The Exorcist, and Alien still retain the ability to unnerve, and I’ll occasionally find an older movie, like Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas, that really freaks me out. But too much of what passes for horror these days seems watered-down, or too outlandishly stupid to be taken seriously, or just not scary. I can’t imagine anyone watching the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake and actually getting frightened.

Of course, part of the problem is, I’ve found new things to be scared of. As it happens, my parents were shielding me from the menacing adult world; it was just the nature of the menace that I’d misunderstood. There are no doll serial killers or leather fetishist demons with pins in their heads—instead, there are religious extremists with bombs. There are factories dumping carcinogens into streams. There are people who think a life devoted to literature and art is simply decadent. There’s waterboarding.

I fear that my writing is mediocre at best. I fear that my wife no longer finds me as physically attractive as she used to. I fear that I’ll never realize my dream of becoming a tenured professor. I fear impotence. School shootings. Stand your ground laws. Getting drunk and revealing how offensive and obnoxious my internal monologue actually is. Cancer. Being revealed as the academic and artistic fraud I’m pretty sure I am. That my parents will die. That my wife will decide she no longer loves me.

These are the things that terrify me. Sometimes, the only way to calm my nerves and quell the fear is to turn my brain off and watch a madman with a butcher’s knife stalk and then kill some babysitters.

•••

The twenty-fifth anniversary screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street was kind of a bust, actually. I had this idea that the theater would be filled with aging Gen-Xers excited to recapture the experience of being a child of the 1980s again. And there were a few of us like that in the audience. But there was also a group of about fifteen teenagers sitting down in front, and they were pretty rowdy—shouting things at the screen, giggling, running around the theater, making and receiving phone calls. My shushing got louder as the movie went on; a woman roughly my age sitting nearby eventually shouted at the kids, “Shut the fuck up!”

“This is ridiculous,” I kept whispering to my wife.

“Do you want to go complain?” was her constant reply.

I didn’t. I didn’t want to be the type of person who gets annoyed with young people. I didn’t want to be someone who gets angry at the sound of teenagers laughing. I hated the idea that I was the type of grumpy old man who said things like “Get off my lawn!” or who had groups of teenagers thrown out of places because of shenanigans and tomfoolery.

Towards the end of the movie, as Nancy is setting her traps for Freddy, one of the teenage girls came walking up the aisle, gabbing into her phone.

“Oh I know,” she said, “it’s soooooo stupid, but funny…”

As she walked past me, I leaned towards the aisle and shushed her as loud as I could.

She stopped and adjusted the phone so that it wasn’t near her mouth. I was expecting her to whisper “Sorry,” but instead she looked right at me and shouted, “Shut up!”

I was shocked, startled both by her viciousness and the phrase that entered my head immediately: “My God, I would never have spoken that way to an adult when I was her age.”

When I was her age. Back in the day. The good old days? The grown-ups I knew when I was a kid didn’t think so—they thought we were out of control, with crack cocaine, gangs, drive-by shootings, casual sex, and N.W.A. Of course, their parents thought they were out of control, with their LSD, free love, campus protests, left-wing radicals, and The Beatles.

Unexpectedly, I did experience fear that night—the fear that comes from knowing that, somewhere along the line, you became old without realizing it, and you’ll never know the reckless energy of youth again.

•••

WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and The Missouri Review. This is his second essay for Full Grown People. He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University, and he has recently completed a collection of essays that link to form an unconventional memoir about love, loss, and pop culture obsessions. He also recently found a very cheap used copy of The Nightmares on Elm Street novelization, which he thinks he might re-read this summer. He’ll let you know if he ever sleeps again.

Observations Brought Back From The Zoo

tiger

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Marcia Aldrich

Nothing is simple. Nothing is pure. Sorrow folds inside the wings of happiness. And, as Louise Bogan says, “At midnight tears run into your ears.”

•••

Late last April, when the fist of winter in Michigan was finally letting go, I sat in my tiny office and received the news that my essay “The Art of Being Born” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays. I let out a little whooping sound that died quickly, and then I bounded into the hall looking for someone to tell. The hall was empty. I took big gulps of air and sighed. I even hit my chest to quiet its banging. Returning to my office, my euphoria began to trouble me. Didn’t I remember how once before, when I was carried away with my own good fortune, I looked through the windows of my dining room and watched as my neighbor’s hospital bed was wheeled out the front door? Roger had died that morning, the morning of my good news.

Nothing is simple, no one emotion comes without the accompaniment of another, the wolf inside the grandmother, the tears running into the ears.

•••

And sure enough I lost my balance.

In those early moments when the trees were finally leafing out and the world seemed warm and green again, I had only happy thoughts. I marveled at how an essay I had written for my daughter, detailing the day of her birth would be making its way to a larger audience. And then something brought me to a halt just as that hospital bed bumping down the front steps of the Gifford’s house had tutored me in the scale of human suffering.

•••

The Saturday evening before Mother’s Day, my daughter called, the Clare whose birth I wrote about in “The Art of Being Born.”

“Could you put the speaker phone on,” she asked, “so I can speak to you and Daddy?” As we moved into the bedroom I thought that she might be calling to tell us she was in love. She’s at the age when it wouldn’t be surprising news.

No, it was nothing like that. She called to tell us she had cancer. I don’t remember what words she said. My head was pounding too loudly to absorb everything she said. She tried to soften the blow, put a positive spin on it. I remember she said, If you have to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the kind to have. She was having a routine physical, and the doctor thought she felt something unusual in the area where the thyroid resides. She didn’t think it was anything, Clare said, but just to be sure, she told Clare to have a biopsy.

Clare joked with her friends that she had goiter, and she hadn’t been in a rush to have the biopsy done. She had just gotten the results a few days ago and they were positive. She did not call us with the news right away, I noted. It had taken a day or two for her to compose herself. She and her doctor felt certain they had caught the cancer early and that the prognosis was good.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Her doctor had shielded Clare from the more complicated scenario. And Clare, in turn, shielded us, minimizing her illness at every turn. A few days later, the specialist ordered more biopsies. The cancer wasn’t contained to the thyroid; they hadn’t caught it early, and the removal of the thyroid was no longer going to be enough because the cancer had spread into the lymph nodes in the neck. Now she was going to have to have a radical neck dissection.

•••

Mother’s Day was cold. As if the weather was in concert with my internal revolution, it snowed. A week before when the weather suggested spring, friends had invited my husband and me to ride our bikes to the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. I wasn’t in any mood to go to the zoo or ride my bike through the snow. I was in shock. We should have bailed on the outing, but we didn’t. I’m not sure why. Unbelievably, we thought it would be easier to go than to cancel. Or maybe we were just frozen. We both felt an obligation to be as positive as Clare was being. I felt her presence in everything I did or didn’t do, and I knew she would be upset if we cancelled.

We went to the zoo with our friends, but we were shaken. I hadn’t been to the zoo in over a decade. Zoos have always been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, it’s the only way to come into contact with wild animals, to be in their presence for a few moments. On the other, I can’t glory in them for long without thinking about their caged existence, how their world has been shrunk to the size of whatever exhibit that the zoo was able to construct. Each exhibit is accompanied by signage that narrates a sad fate. Almost all the stories are of loss —the word endangered comes up over and over, shocking tales of the disappearance of habitat, poaching, with only the slightest ray of hope that something can be done in time. In time.

The others had moved inside the reptile house. I stood outside the bars of the snow leopard exhibit remembering the last time I had stood there with my children. I wondered if the snow leopard high up on the rock ledge, whose great grey eyes could be seen despite the camouflage by trees and shrubs and dusting of snow, was the same leopard I had seen before, or had that leopard died? I learned Serena is the current resident, born in captivity and fourteen years old, which would make it probable that she was the same snow leopard I remembered. Famously reclusive animals, they don’t come down to preen close to the front of the exhibit where we would be able to see the deep grey and black rosettes on her body and the smaller spots on her head clearly. They hold themselves apart and, as in Yeats’s epitaph, cast a cold eye “on life, on death.”

A child several feet away said to his mother, the animals don’t look happy. And it was true. The Amur tigers in the next exhibit—what was supposed to pass as a range– paced in agitated circles, never settling down. When they looked in my direction, they looked angry, waiting for something that would never come. Just then the snow leopard rose up onto her wide paws, flicked her enormously long tail and leapt from her ledge across the open space to another rock where she landed softly as she must have thousands of times in her fourteen years of captivity.

•••

Shaken, shaken, shaken, that’s what I was. The cold eye of the snow leopard, practiced in a kind of dying every day, was beyond me. There’s nothing like thinking your child is safe and finding she is not and knowing nothing you can do will help. Everyone says this. I will hear it many times in the months to come and it will be true each time. Terrible things happen and we are daily surrounded by the news of them, but this wasn’t a terrible thing happening to someone else—it was happening to my child, the child I had carried inside me and given birth to and held on my chest, the child who had changed my life in every conceivable way, who had made me jump across the abyss and love her.

I had spent much of my early adulthood steadfastly believing I didn’t want children. I had doubts about my fitness as a mother born primarily from having been raised by a mother whose troubles had shaped my life. But as I started to turn away from the damage of my early life, I wanted to make the journey from young woman to mother, a journey, it turns out, that never ends, and decided to risk the free fall of childbirth.

In the last moments of my labor with Clare, she went into distress and I was wheeled into surgery. Despite pleas to stop pushing, I couldn’t and as she crowned my midwife could see what was causing the distress—the umbilical cord had wrapped around Clare’s neck. Each time I pushed, the cord tightened, cutting off her air. The mother knot, child and mother tied together, the essential couple. The midwife’s quick hands undid the cord and set Clare free. For a moment, though, things were complicated, one thing attached to another, life attached to death, nothing simple, nothing pure, one thing turned into another in a blink of an eye. And though that first cord was cut, Clare and I are not severed. There is nothing that undoes me from her even as life undoes itself. Perhaps it would be better to be as practiced in resignation as the snow leopard perched on her allotted rock and not like the tigers who wait for what might never come, but I can’t. I won’t.

•••

MARCIA ALDRICH is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her website is marciaaldrich.com.

To the Pain

crystalball

By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Dina Strasser

Mandolin? Mandoline? I’ve never been able to figure out the pronunciation of this device or how it connects to music. I have angered it. It has just sliced lengthwise through my right thumb.

I have been battling a series of small but debilitating injuries since I hit my fourth decade—an ankle orthoscopy, plantar fasciitis, arthritic knees, unexpected bursitis in my shoulder. It’s old hat now. Maybe this explains why my first thought is the purely prosaic: “Fuck. Now I can’t finish dinner.”

But there the potato sits, half scalloped; there is the mandoline, so swift and clean in its retribution that I do not bleed until several seconds after I hang my thumb under the running faucet.

The water begins to turn a deep shade of rose. Anthropomorphizing the mandoline is a bad idea. Inaccurate. I turn my hand over, gingerly, and see that there is no flesh behind a portion of my thumbnail.

The shaking starts.

“Honey?” I call.

•••

I have slung my teacher’s bag onto my single shoulder, often dozens of pounds, unprotected, for over a decade. In a misguided fit of back-to-nature, I spent a summer in “minimalist” sneakers, not realizing that my tendons weren’t strong enough to handle the strain. And what preventable loss of focus drew me away from noticing where my fingers had gone today?

Surely, as with all truths, the reality is a confluence of things both within and outside of my control, but I realize as I clutch the bloody paper towels around my hand that this doesn’t matter. I have already decided that I have not earned the right to cry.

I take deep, shuddering breaths over and over as I sit in the lobby of the urgent care facility. “I can’t scare the kids,” I keep thinking, although the kids aren’t there.

My husband negotiates the paperwork.

“You have to sign these,” he finally says, grimacing.

“Seriously?”

The irony makes me laugh, softly, and then a little hysterically.

I grip the pen between my index and middle fingers and, by the fourth form, I have managed something like my name.

•••

“I am not going to be your friend right now,” says the nurse and briskly dumps a syringe full of saline onto my thumb. I am glad my husband is still outside finishing up the papers, so he doesn’t hear my swallowed scream.

A doctor pauses only long enough in the exam room to assure me that I have not damaged any nerves or tendons, that nothing drastic is needed for healing, and to explain that they will place a special foam on my thumb to stop the bleeding. “Okay?” he says. His mouth smiles, and his eyes say, “Now is when I need to smile.”

“Okay,” I say, and he has left before the second syllable hits the air.

The nurse, my husband, and I joke about “Carrot Guy” who came in just before me (now dubbed “Potato Girl”) as the nurse binds me tightly with a pressure dressing and compliments me on my pain tolerance.

I’m grateful. Really. I’ve seen a few doctors recently, and I’m grateful for them all, no matter how busy they are. I try to catch the nurse as we leave, but he wishes us a cheerful goodbye, determinedly eye-contactless, and starts rapidly wiping up the drops of blood I have scattered on the floor. It’s six o’clock, and the office is closing.

My husband scoops up the mandoline the minute we get home. It was expensive, but I don’t feel the slightest bit unhappy about watching him pitch the whole thing into the garbage can, scalloped thumb slice still stuck to the underside. We agree that you’re better off with a plain old knife. You can see where it’s going.

•••

Three days later, I find out what I did to myself officially. It’s Ingrid who tells me, my primary care doctor. She’s unhappy, in the way doctors are unhappy who don’t want to besmirch their colleagues.

“They didn’t give you bandages that wouldn’t stick to the wound?” she says lightly but frowning. The nurse who took me in said something similar but far less diplomatically.

Ingrid has just come back from seeing the patient scheduled after me, allowing me to sit in an examination room and soak the dressing off my thumb in warm salt water. It takes almost an hour. I’ve had to work at it, pulling gently, literally asking my skin aloud to let go of the material and hoping that no one can hear me. The wound is reopened and throbbing out little tendrils of blood into the water by the time it agrees.

I’m disoriented by Ingrid’s question, because she’s staring right at me and typing into her health care software at the same time, without looking at her fingers. It hits me belatedly that she’s doing this on purpose, to make sure I don’t feel sidelined by what her hands are doing.

“It’s called degloving, what you did,” she says. I laugh until I realize that she is using an actual medical term. I am struck by its poetry.

She fills a bag with non-stick gauze, soft antibiotic ointment, and magical bandages that are impregnated with Vaseline, and she redresses my hand. She takes her own right hand and wordlessly rubs my knee for comfort.

•••

I am turning in a tight circle, flapping my arm around as I try to shake off my bathrobe.

“Ah! A penguin in need of assistance!” says my husband, in the plummy tones of Superman.

I grumble wordlessly as the robe drops off my wrist just as I was about to take him up on his offer. As a pair mismatched almost exactly by a foot (I’m five foot three), we have evolved a silent vocabulary of gestures to indicate when I could use a taller person to step in. Standing forlornly in the kitchen with my hand floating in midair means, “Please get that damn coffee mug off the top shelf,” for example. Approaching him silently from behind with a light bulb is also effective.

Today, though, I unequivocally need him not because of my bathrobe, but because I can’t hook my bra straps together. It’s one of those tasks, I discover, which demands working opposable thumbs. I am more and more aware of these kinds of minute movements. I collect them, the way I used to collect small semiprecious gems in grade school. The heel kicks back to close a door when my hands are filled. The fingers hook the collar of a t-shirt to toss it up over the head. The shoulders, astonishingly, comply. Garnets. Rose quartz. Fool’s gold.

My husband, with fingers too large for these delicacies, is fumbling with hooks and eyes. “How do you people do this?” he mutters.

But he was the first to gently pull away the bloody paper towels and just as gently shoo the kids to the neighbors’ house and bundle me into the car. He reached across the seat and buckled me in with the same calm as when he held my hand, almost a decade ago, while I contracted blindly and endlessly to bring our two babies into the world. He saw both resulting c-sections performed behind the curtain placed in front of my head. He was too tall for it to obscure the view.

I finish my ablutions in the bathroom, wrapping up my thumb, lower palm, and wrist with the magic Ingrid bandages, then gauze, then cloth tape.

When I am finished, I open and close my four free fingers over the resulting thick tube for several moments, as if I am making a shadow puppet duck. This shape is reminding me of something, but it takes a while to bring it back.

It’s mittens. I remember suddenly, out of nowhere, how I would stay out for so long on snow days that ice would coalesce into small hail-like balls on the knitted wrists, with strands of wool as their nuclei. I remember the gritty feeling of the wool scraping across my mouth as I took off the mittens with my teeth.

•••

My eleven-year-old daughter has just ripped open a package of litmus papers we’ve ordered for her school science fair project—she’s cleaning pennies with solutions of varying acidities. Once she discovers the rainbow of results, however, she becomes an unstoppable cyclone of litmus testing.

“Oh! Orange juice!” I hear her gasp, and the fridge door rattles open.

I am deciding at our laptop, after a long internal debate, that I’m going to post about my accident on Facebook. I’m preternaturally sensitive to sounding like I’m whining on social media.

I don’t define “degloving” in my post on purpose, hoping people will feel its weird beauty as I did. This turns out, amusingly, to not have been the best idea.

“WORST.GOOGLE.IMAGE.SEARCH.EVER,” a friend responds.

“What else, what else?” my daughter ruminates out loud. “Hair spray!”

“Oh god, it’s not that bad,” I type back, after seeing for myself what “degloving” brings up.

“Bleach!” my daughter sings out.

“Wait, hang on, you don’t have—” I call to her, but she’s already flung herself down into the basement where we do our laundry.

I lurch up from the computer and down into the basement after her, thinking to find her some latex gloves to use. She’s perversely saddened that we don’t have enough corrosive bases in the house for her to get the deep plum shade of the higher numbers of PH.

I don’t find gloves. She could care less. She brightens when she discovers that at least in the PH world, there appears to be no difference between slamming a glass of cranberry juice or one of red wine vinegar. This is good to know.

On the way back up from the basement, I pass the shelf where we store our less-used cooking contraptions. My eyes pass over the standing mixer, the apple peeler, the cherry pitter, and I shudder. I realize that I have now renamed this shelf in my head “Things That Can Hurt Me Really Badly.”

What is getting older but a yawing, a slipping and widening, of that shelf to hold more and more things? Pots. Pans. The stairs. My ankles. Ice. My blood pressure. My brain.

I look down at my hand. How on earth am I going to do this?

My daughter tears off another strip of litmus paper. “Maybe I can spit on it,” she says thoughtfully.

I can’t help it. I laugh, loud and long, and she joins me.

•••

Just before I go to bed, I notice there’s a new comment on my Facebook thumb post. It’s from Rachel, an old college friend, whipsmart and wonderful.

“This is why we don’t own a mandoline,” she writes. “Or a mandolin, which is what autocorrect wants me to own.”

At least I’m not the only one. As I settle down to sleep I picture a clueless, cartoon Autocorrect and I, with a potato in one hand and a mandolin in the other, looking confused.

I cradle my bandaged hand in the crook of my left arm. I’ve re-wrapped it once more, once a day, as Ingrid showed me. “Don’t roll over on it,” my husband says sleepily, already in bed. My daughter is reading quietly about bacteria cultures in her room. The ibuprofen kicks in.

You’re not always going to see where the knife is going. Sometimes you’re going to look for a stringed instrument to make music, and find it is a bloody blade instead.

But what else is there to do? You reach out. You strip off your gloves. You play.

•••

DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org. This is her second essay for Full Grown People.

Taking Notes

birthday candles

By Steve Jurvetson/ Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The moment I poured the runnier-than-my-usual batter into the pan, I had a feeling. I had an hour or so on Saturday morning to make this cake—before I took my nearly six year-old-daughter to her gymnastics class. Later that day came the party. For the eleven children in attendance, I still needed pizza, gluten-free cupcakes for the girl allergic to gluten who’d bring her own pizza, and some ice cream maybe. It’s safe to say that by this—our fourth turning-six-years-old party—we’ve become relaxed. To call dancing a theme would be stretching it. To say we’d prepared would be stretching it.

That the cake did not come out of the pan in one piece wasn’t a surprise. Even the help of a carefully wielded spatula, the larger part of the cake headed to the wire rack with a halfhearted momentum, accompanied by the sad inertia from the rest still glommed to the pan.

A friend called right as I began to contemplate cake triage.

Her kids were fine. Her brother wasn’t. “He’d gotten clean,” she launched in. “And then he stole my stepmom’s jewelry.”

This guy had been in and out of trouble, more in than out, for years. His parents disagreed at this point about what to do. He stayed with them much of the time, because he was out of work. His mom—my friend’s stepmom—was at a rope’s end, and the jewelry theft—family treasures much more than dollar values—made her feel violated, stripped of all dignity. “She just wants him out. It must have felt so hostile,” she said of her stepmother’s response. “I can understand how she feels, although I don’t relate to jewelry like that.”

“Your dad?” I asked.

“He can’t abide the possibility that my brother would hurt someone else or himself,” she says. “He wants to have my brother on his watch, because he says he couldn’t live with himself if something happened and they were estranged.” The something my friend’s father imagined: homicide or suicide.

“I guess you never want to give up on your child, and yet you know that unless he gets help and it works, this can’t end well,” I said.

If you try to spackle chocolate cake with yellow frosting, you get little crumbled bits of chocolate cake interspersed in your thick yellow paste no matter how hard you try not to, like tiny flecks of dirt. “This cake could be on Cakewrecks,” I said. I had just enough frosting and enough salvageable cake to restore about three-quarters of the disastrous top layer, the one I’d meant to be the bottom layer.

“It’s made with love,” she reasoned. “It’s cake, and you put it in a bowl with ice cream and no one notices.”

I had already decided this particular cake required ice cream. In the morning, I’d told myself I had just enough time to make a cake. I’d done so little for this party and asked myself why should the smallest one lose out on a homemade cake? The bakeries that offered pretty decorations had shut down and no way would I buy a supermarket cake, for no reason other than I didn’t want to. My cakes are generally good. They are generally pretty enough. Not so this time. Then again, it wasn’t my son stealing my jewelry to buy heroin so there was that.

“Small children, small problems, big children, big problems,” I quoted one of those in-the-ether parenting aphorisms.

“Ooh boy, I know. I can’t imagine what I’d do,” she said. Her oldest is four. She cannot imagine. That’s the truth. My oldest is eighteen and I can’t imagine but more so. Enough distress of the way-beyond-Band-Aids kind has occurred now to make me appreciate how small the small children problems really are. I let myself marvel at my cake in this light and was surprised by how unworried I felt by its imperfection. It’s a cake. It’s not a drug addicted, jewelry thieving son. Let my problems start and end at cake—memorably cakewrecked cake. If only the wish could make it so.

•••

A few weeks ago for some work-related research, I had to read through a stack of alumnae quarterlies’ class notes sections. According to convention, class notes start with the earliest classes and advance in time. The most recent grads go last. This means the first pages focus solely upon who died. Reports then drift back through the life cycle: ailments, assisted living and family travel, retirement, adventurous travel, gatherings of friends and grandchildren, professional accomplishments and empty nests, full nests, babies, weddings, engagements, first jobs. You can see years like ribbons—swaths of experiences, one after another across the thick, matte pages. Stories repeated.

One of the milestones that many women described were their seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. Quite a few took trips: with children or spouses or friends, to far-off places or somewhere cushy for family gatherings. That was the week my mother turned seventy-five. When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she remembered how hard her sixtieth birthday had been. Her sister had cancer and was only a few weeks from death. She was just a month shy of sixty-five.

“We did this big Chinese dinner with our closest friends when I turned sixty,” my mom recalled. “It was as if, in the face of everything that hurt we had to affirm the friendships. I didn’t feel like celebrating at all, not at all. I was so sad. In retrospect, until then, other than my divorce, I really hadn’t experienced loss.”

Following her sister’s death, my mother got a crash course in loss, including but not limited to her brother-in-law’s death and her mother’s. We did, too; ours included my father-in-law’s death and two of my peers, both of whom had small children.

We’d been so stunned by all the losses—numbed, crushed, battered, humbled, calloused. By the time we weren’t in the midst of some crisis, I felt different. There was no more denying the inevitability that life ends. Although I felt heartbroken more than once, I also felt more grateful, even for the hard parts. I understood that it was a privilege to get to be sad.

It turned out that my mother spent the weekend before her seventy-fifth birthday in search of a nursing home for her brother-in-law. He’s younger than she is, but his MS has progressed that far. “Nursing homes are depressing places,” she told me. Both of her parents managed to avoid them. I asked how about her birthday celebration. She and my stepfather had gone out to lunch. “We’re both so defeated,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to muster energy to do anything more than that. I couldn’t have pretended to have fun today.”

Unlike the women who wrote of their milestone travel adventures or spa vacations with their female family members, my mother has no such plans. “The girlfriends’ lunch is in a couple of weeks,” she reported when I suggested the celebration didn’t have to happen that very day. She knows my sister in California will make cake with her three girls and that when she and I go with my kids to Florida next month, we’ll eat ice cream from the homemade ice cream place we ride a trolley to reach. None of that—ice cream and cake with her grandchildren—would be notable enough that she’d think to submit to the alumnae quarterly for her college.

•••

So much doesn’t go into the class notes. What of those moments? The burning baby tummies and bottoms of feet, their slack eyes and wan skin that made the red cheeks look clownish. The first time I experienced it, there were two sick, the baby and the preschooler. The labored breaths and the gloppy, encrusted noses, the coughs like wounded seals, and all that heat—and it was on me because their dad had it too. So did our housemate. By the time I’d reached the doctor’s office, I’d wrung about a million tepid washcloths between them.

While I clutched seven-month-old-baby, the doctor patted my arm. We were standing in the exam room. “I’d like to get a chest x-ray,” she said. “If the baby has pneumonia, we want to treat it, but it’s hard to tell when they’re so little.” I couldn’t say anything just then. I’m sure I looked crazed, crestfallen, and scared. “It’s okay—it’s a precaution to check,” she reassured me and added, “You’ll never forget this.”

This: the illness that filled the house with all that labored breathing and filled me with exhaustion and panic in equal measure. This: the patience needed to care for all those patients. And beyond our household, more exhaustion and patience and panic while my mother’s sister, my beloved aunt was dying and my father-in-law had just received a diagnosis of myeloma. There was no place calm. No one could really help us and there was no way to help anyone else beyond the sick people I could touch. Islands of illness—and only ours promised a happy ending.

It was snowing. Big flakes flew at the windshield and tossed slickness on the roads. The flakes fell by the handful. I leaned in toward the windshield to squint between the wiper swipes, and I gripped the steering wheel as if I held tight enough, it would take over and deliver me safely to my destination. I am never a happy driver in the snow, and that day I was even less happy with the sick baby in the backseat and the need to pass home for the hospital. Cars inched along, the roads narrowed by snow. The tracks where tires tread muddied by sand and salt remained slick despite the intervention.

At the hospital, the x-ray technicians fawned over my chubby, ill baby. I stripped him down to a diaper as requested, his hot, velveteen skin under my rough, desperate hands. The way you take a chest x-ray for a baby unable to stand is this: You place him in a cylindrical plastic contraption, which holds him upright, his arms aloft so that the machine can capture an image of what’s beneath the skin. His chubby fingers waved like tassels to some comical, fleecy hat atop his head. “He’ll cry,” the technician promised. “That’s good. We want him to cry because crying expands the lungs so we get a good image.”

He cried as they placed him in the cone-shaped seat and pulled his hands up onto the top of his head. Then, all set in the odd little seat, he smiled at the technician.

“We’ve never had a baby smile here,” she said, as she stepped away toward the switch. “Maybe, he’ll get bothered, now that he’s alone.”

Nope. He just chilled in the seat with those tassel fingers and smiled. The technicians paused. “He’s a happy baby,” one concluded. “Let’s try to take the image,” she suggested and they did.

“I hope this works,” the technician said, as I slipped my sick baby back into his clothes. I added the possibility that the x-ray would be inconclusive to my long list of worries. I took him home.

He did not have pneumonia. Eventually, the household recovered. After that storm, which went on for a couple of days, like a prairie blizzard, there was a thaw. I walked to town.

The sun shone and the snow melted with such palpability it was as if we all were thawed ourselves. The high thirties felt like summer. Snow dropped in clumps from trees and in sheets from roofs, and there were puddles the size of swimming pools on the sidewalks and streets. I reached town and ate a frozen yogurt cone outside. I turned my head to drink in the sun. I gulped the fresh, warm air, grateful to be removed from the house and the clinging arms, the hot skin, the raw winter and for a few minutes to feel myself alone. It was my first outing away from everyone since illness overtook.

Anxiety and sadness flashed there, too, blinding as sunshine. My aunt, my strong, tall, smart, capable aunt, she was practically gone and my mother was inconsolably sad. Unlike my parents’ divorce when I was a child, there wouldn’t be a next chapter to imagine that could exactly ameliorate her loss. Sure, we all understood life would go on and we’d experience happiness again. You don’t get a second sister if you have one, though. Besides, right then, the loss loomed so close, like all those big snowflakes that had walled us in. I took more breaths. I clomped back in my soggy boots, my pants legs soaked. I cried on the way home. The sunshine and freedom gave me the chance to cry. I couldn’t let in the idea that all this might happen again, with my father-in-law, but then it did—about eighteen months later.

•••

The thing that salvaged the cake wasn’t the ice cream, although I got both chocolate and vanilla. (We had more takers for chocolate; the vanilla was much better.) I bought rainbow sprinkles. I stuck two Playmobil figures, a knight and a princess on the low platform left by the lack of a complete top layer. I stuck two red plastic toothpicks with big lips bright as Taylor Swift’s red pucker. I placed all seven candles, six plus the one for a new year around the top layer’s ledge. The cake blazed; the loving lips and the smiling figures led the way. She blew. Her friends clapped. The candlelight danced against the glint in her happy, nearly six-year-old eyes. The imperfection didn’t change her joy. Imperfection really never does. The trick, I guess, if it’s a trick, is to see where you slip from problems you can spackle together with butter and confectioners’ sugar to the ones that require something else—and the ones that simply require your acceptance of them as part of a natural order. I saw the cake and heard the six year-olds’ squeals and remembered to look at it all.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER has had essays in the New York Times, Salon, the New Haven Review, and Brain, Child magazine amongst others. Her articles have recently appeared in American Craft, Ceramics Monthly, and Berkshires Magazine. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is on twitter: @standshadows.

Winter Just Melted

dogprints

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Elizabeth Kavitsky

I moved when the birds flew away, when the squirrels had planted their meals in the dirt, and the trees shook off their skins. It was the beginning of my twenty-third winter. I packed unwashed clothes into a suitcase while my parents were at work. Suddenly I lived in Delaware, with my girlfriend Jen and her dog, Tubby.

Tubby did not belong to me at first. He was only my girlfriend’s dog. He was just a shedding thing who interrupted our kisses. I watched her play with him, jumping up and down, both smiling, as the floor squeaked and his mouth gummed her arms and his orange fur fell into the air and her long curls flew around her shoulders. I loved her.

One morning, Jen tried to put drops in Tubby’s ears. She coaxed him sweetly, petting him. His ears went back and his eyes closed in happiness. She grabbed the drops and stepped towards him, still speaking carefully. He saw the bottle and hid behind me. Tubby looked at me, and his eyes, a deep, sad, amber-brown, asked me to protect him. I stood still, not allowing Jen near his quivering body; his trust came so suddenly.

I started to walk him in the morning after she went to work, the ground freezing with winter. We walked across dark asphalt and around traffic, far from the apartment, to find a spot with grass and gnarled plants. Waddling from arthritis, he spent most of his time sniffing the ground, making no noises, except the occasional sneeze. I began to talk to him. Mostly about nothing. Then I spoke about my morning, my worries. I asked him if Jen would be safe and come home to us. I told him that I was scared I would not find a job, or even worse, that I would.

The weather darkened the mornings, and my fingers became red and numb in the chill. I searched out two pairs of gloves and wore both sets at the same time. He watched me as I layered my clothes before we ventured out. If we managed to leave at an early enough hour, I would sing to Tubby, knowing no one else would cross our paths. I couldn’t tell if he noticed my song.

Inside the apartment, I sat on the couch with my computer, my legs folded beneath me. He watched me. I didn’t have food, yet he came near me to be touched. He fell asleep with his head on my slipper. If I got up to wash dishes or to make lunch, his amber eyes watched me go, and his ears stood alert for my return.

One night, the sun was setting early and it was dark at seven. I stared at the ground, as I always did when we walked. The grass crunched under my boots. Suddenly I stopped. There was a form before me—a squirrel, dead in the brown grass. The night made its fur glint black and its eyes glow. Everything turned still. I shivered and pulled Tubby out of its path. He was uninterested. Streets and fences and the grass darkened, the world black except for the eyes of the corpse. I wanted someone to run to. I didn’t want to tell Jen. I wanted to seem strong. I was alone in my fear.

Snow started to fall too often, covering Tubby’s grass. His paws gathered ice when we walked. I wore layers that made me round and genderless. With every footfall, I wondered what would happen if my booted foot stepped on the squirrel, buried under six to eight inches of hardened snow. On the way back, I followed my old frozen footprints because they were safe. Tubby sniffed the fences and made new prints.

•••

One week, the snow stopped falling and everything began to drip. I saw the squirrel, dead and asleep, gnawed and frozen. I made a note of its place in my path—past the first tree but before the bend in the fence. I walked every day with Tubby, avoiding the squirrel, sucking in my breath as we came near it, breathing out hot air when we passed. Tubby walked back to the apartment slowly—he pretended he was old and sick. I knew better. I had seen him run, towards the hidden grass, beyond the buried squirrel, towards the fresh air. He did not notice death. He was never afraid.

Jen left our bed every day at seven a.m. to go to work. It was hard to let her go. I woke up wrapped in our pink sheets, her smell lingering next to me. It escaped as soon as I tried to breathe it in. I fell back into dreams, listening to the sound of hot rain pelting the white tub. She kissed me awake. I felt her breasts against my skin as she bent over, pale and soft and warm and dewed. Her hair flew around her shoulders, and I could smell the sweet shampoo. I pulled her close. One more kiss and she had to leave, to dress herself and drive through the cold to a tall building full of things to do. Some days I cried. I needed her and was left in an empty apartment. I was left to look for jobs online. Left to write. Left to take care of the dog. Some days I begged her to stay home. I knew we needed money, but some days, I did not care.

In my first grown-up winter, I did not think I would get used to solitude. The sounds of the apartment scared me, the banging of the heat adjusting, the ticking slats of the blinds nudging each other, the refrigerator making ice cubes. I tried to fill the place with television sounds, familiar voices booming from another place. I got lost staring at the white popcorn ceiling. I saw lopsided faces and dancing ghosts.

Nine months ago, my life was filled with tons of faces, buzzing, caring, laughing, and yelling. There was always noise. I could hear my college roommates baking bread and stacking dishes. There was always music playing in the apartments next door. I spent my parents’ money on beer and mac and cheese. There were always assignments, parties, meetings—always things to be done and I was happy never to have time to be alone. Time in my own company was spent in the shower or behind my eyelids in a dream.

When classes finished, we waited for the day when we would put on cheap robes and end our college days in front of hundreds of satisfied eyes. I stared out of my bedroom window, watching summer burn the grass, and ran outside in a bathing suit to sit on towels with my friends.

Soon, I would be standing in the snow alone, helping my dog find the grass. When I found my way back to the apartment I shared with Jen, I took off my coat, my hat, my two layers of gloves, my socks, and my boots. I looked at my matted hair and red cheeks in the hall mirror. Tubby sloppily licked the ice off of his paws. I wanted to show Jen my snow-covered boots and my red cheeks. I wanted to hear her praise. She did not come back from work until the sun set.

•••

It kept snowing. The sky was always grey and the ground was always white. I thought the snow looked like freshly grated parmesan cheese. I wondered if I should give a more flattering name to this celestial gift. I eyed the frozen cars and slippery roads from under my blue hood. I felt my skin flush in the nineteen-degree air, through which thirteen-mile-an-hour winds jerked at me and the dog at 8:30 in the morning. I walked home on cheese-covered roads.

Most nights, I sat nuzzling in my girlfriend’s lap, my head resting on her chest. Those types of evenings kept me standing. I longed for days where we sat around in oversized sweatpants and forgot about our empty bank accounts and frozen grass and the car with the broken headlight, and we simply lounged in one another’s warmth, sleeping in our smiles. One Wednesday, she was home from work because of snow. The weekend winked at us. Jen’s phone buzzed, jumping on the wooden end table. She picked it up, and her soft face tightened. Her uncle Brian was in the ICU. He had fallen and hit his head. He was unconscious and not breathing on his own.

Jen comes from a giant family with many uncles. I couldn’t keep their names or stories straight. I thought about my own uncles. I hardly ever saw them. My love for them was through blood. Jen was different; she loved her family, but more importantly, she knew them. She carried great empathy for anyone, a cloak of understanding that she could wrap strangers in, strangers on television or in line at the grocery store or standing near the highway in the cold. She was upset, but in a redundant way, as if these feelings were so familiar they were stale. She was used to pain. “He…” she said, “he has never been the healthiest person.”

I held her hand and kissed her and talked softly as she lied and said she was fine. She swallowed her fear and let it stick to her ribs. The day continued. I was happy to sink back into our relaxation. She liked to take her pants off at the end of the day and walk around in a baggy sweatshirt that barely covered her. She teased me as she walked. Her legs were long and pale and it was hard not to stare. I wanted to drink her and hold her at the same time.

As I walked our dog in the light that bounced off the sleeping snow, I worried about Jen. She silently let the hours pass after the phone call, without mentioning her own fears. I wanted to talk to her more after the walk. When I returned, my cheeks were red, and I smelled of frozen sweat.

As I took off my coat, my phone vibrated and blared my ringtone, a song by Young the Giant. Life’s too short to even care at all… It was my godmother, who only called when there was bad news. Two years prior, the morning that my grandfather died, it was her booming, tearless voice that told me. She spoke purposefully. She spoke as if from a podium. Now she told me my father was taken from work in an ambulance. He was throwing up uncontrollably. He couldn’t walk. He was sweating through his clothes. I felt very far away as I heard her explain: a CAT scan, an EKG, waiting on an MRI. They were admitting him. She would call me when they knew more.

She asked me if I was okay, if Jen was with me. I looked at the yellow walls of the kitchen that were marked and stained. Muddy snow melted from my boots onto the mosaic linoleum. My dad was sick. Tears flung themselves down my face. They felt unusually warm. Jen’s strong hand was on my back.

She pulled me to the sofa in the living room and held me. I did not say anything. I tried not to cry. I hardened. A selfish thought was bobbing among my fears. If Daddy dies, I’ll have to move back home. I hated myself. It was my dad, my dad. He was not supposed to get sick. He was not supposed to die. I looked at Jen, her galaxy eyes bright with sympathy. I told her I was sorry about her uncle.

I sat lying against her while Mame flashed on the television. I watched Mame over and over when I was a child. I knew Jen was only watching it with me because of my dad, but I took advantage. I watched Lucille Ball dance around and sing, and I breathed easier, and I waited. Mame was broke and trying to play “the moon-lady,” missing her cue and freezing on stage in a frilly white costume, when my phone rang. Life’s too short to even care at all…I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing control…

It was my mother this time. Her voice was soft and tired but filled with sympathy. The MRI was clean. My dad had stopped throwing up. They were still keeping him overnight, but they thought he was going to be fine. I breathed and crawled back to Jen. There was no reason for me to cry anymore. A smog of images started to dissipate…of my dead father, frozen like the squirrel, pale and cold beneath his grey mustache, my small arms trying to reach around my mother bent over in despair, searching for a black dress. I looked down at the dingy tan carpet…at the blue recliner with the broken handle…at my bare feet. “You can still be upset,” Jen said, softly, stroking my neck.

•••

The following morning, I stepped out of the lonely bed and walked Tubby before my eyes were completely open. I stumbled along the half-snowed sidewalk, holding the leash with gloved hands and a scowl. I passed children waiting for the sight of their orange bus. Their mothers had bundled them tightly, and they kicked twisted stop signs and teased each other. I passed a woman warming up her car. I passed a man hunched over carrying a yellow plastic grocery bag.

I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I wondered if they glanced or if they stared. Did they think I was a boy? My coat was zipped up beyond my mouth and my black hat covered my hair and forehead and the tops of my eyebrows. I wandered, formless. Only eyes peeked out of my clothes. I wondered if people were scared. Did they see the fat mess of a crumbling dog who could barely smell the weeds sticking into his nose? Or did they only see a Chow Chow, with its aggressive reputation and fierce disposition?

I moved branches out of my way instead of ducking underneath them. The dog walked me. I stood and stepped with his ignorant permission. I followed his footfalls…one/two…three…four. Slow, arthritic, half mad. I had to keep my voice positive, “Come on, BUD! Good BOY…” I had to stop him from running into the street where cars would run him down without looking back. I watched his back leg shake. And I drowned in guilt. No, we couldn’t go that way. No. Even though you stood old and tired and did not have enough grass I could not let you go where you needed.

I tried to balance this dog on the edge of my finger like a glass figurine. My parents used to hold me up like this. They tried to keep me from looking at the ground where eventually we all crumble into fragments. I could see the ground now. Tubby teetered in my hands and I tried to be sturdy for him.

•••

Some mornings, life was perfect. I was in her arms and we were laughing at nonsense, and we forgot about our empty bank accounts and our brittle loved-ones.

My life was blissful and it also wasn’t, and that was exactly like walking the dog. It was my choice to walk him, though I had no choice at all. I could feel the guilt and anger, or I could breathe in the sweet air of the trees.

When I moved in with Jen, my mother asked to see me at least once a month. She made Jen and me promise to visit on my godmother’s birthday. This was the day before the Super Bowl, only a few days after my father was hospitalized with a fleeting storm of sickness, and my grandmother was just recovering from open-heart surgery. My godmother, Bobby, turned fifty-nine. I watched them all teeter in the air with my new, grown-up, eyes.

We turned into my parents’ twisted driveway. We sat in the car, sweating in our coats, filling out birthday cards and tearing price tags off of a chocolate mousse cupcake. I looked at my parents’ house. I felt older as I said those words. “Parents’ house.” Not my house. No longer my driveway, no longer my broken double door with painted gold handles, no longer my wooden spiral staircase. My parents had slowly stopped asking me to come “home,” but instead to “visit.” Whatever words she used, my mother still cried.

We walked inside and our boots squeaked on the marble floor. We gave presents and smiles and hugs. There was a new clock on the mantel of the living room. It was made of light stained wood. It was too simple—no numbers. Only a pattern of light and dark wooden dots told the time.

We sat on one of the giant corduroy couches, and our first official visit began. I sat next to Jen. Her coat covered her lap, and I leaned against her as we all talked. Bobby leaned back on the blue couch, her short white hair brushed high, her strong legs sheathed in jeans, her feet covered in thick woolen socks. Her eyes were quick behind her round glasses, and I saw as she tried to smile and laugh, even though she dreaded her birthday. We did not talk about it. My mother sat on the other end of the couch, her legs turned underneath her, wearing one of her unremarkable solid colored cotton shirts. My dad twitched in his chair; the springs had sunken in from his presence. He pulled at his grey mustache.

They talked, about the week, about the snow, stories that were mostly forgotten, movies mostly remembered. I listened as if I did not belong there and I did not know them. I drifted out and saw the wrinkles in their faces and their words. They seemed different.  Or maybe I was different. My mother paused halfway through her sentences while we waited in patient politeness. She cocked her head and asked me to repeat my words. Bobby talked deliberately, but became confused with names and stories. My father talked about his health. Bobby teased him, yelling at him from three feet away, “You are getting into the territory of old people! All you are talking about is your health!” My brother was still asleep in his bed, and it was almost two in the afternoon. My father stuttered in his defense.

I was twenty-three. I was living with my girlfriend. I had a credit card in my wallet with my name embossed in silver and could use phrases like “our apartment” and “our car” and “our bills” and “what should I make for dinner?” It happened all at once. I stood up straight, because all sixty-three inches of my bones were suddenly walking around alone. My parents were now made of porcelain and reading numberless clocks, and I belonged to a new family.

Somehow this was true. But it was also true that a few weeks before, I visited an urgent care center to be treated for bronchitis. I filled out the paperwork and signed my name and was just another coughing person. Unremarkable, just as I wished. A faceless voice called me behind tall double doors and I found myself in an expediting room. A man and a woman bounced around. The woman took my blood pressure and my heart pumped while the man asked how many drinks I had a week and if I smoked and what medications I was on.

The woman looked at me, braless under my sweatshirt, my hair short, sitting pale and patient, and asked me to verify my birth date. She apologized, saying she thought I was under eighteen. I was small again. I slumped down into my shoulders. Every day I took care of my family: my dog, my girlfriend. I walked through snow and tried to keep everything from crashing to the ground. But that nurse could not see that.

My mother crossed the living room to hug me. She began to cry. I asked her what was wrong.

“I just am having trouble understanding,” she said behind the giant teardrops.

“Is it Grandma? Daddy?”

She shook her head and poked her small finger into my stomach. I realized she still missed me.  She missed me like a mother who sends her child off to summer camp for the first time. She wanted me home. And I knew she wouldn’t stop crying when I left.

“Me?”

She nodded and cried harder. I held her close and patted her back. I was twenty-three, I was living away from home, but I was also an underweight baby, ignorant, sad, and waiting for the world. I tried to be like the wooden clock on the mantel. I tried to be without numbers.

•••

Two days later, I started early. I ate a breakfast of Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal. I ate right out of the box, dropping some on my lap, my hand blindly searching for the sweet white bites of sugar. I made a mess, and no one could tell me not to.

I walked the dog before eight and we met no one on the road. Back home, the kitchen was still clean from the night before. I could not stop singing. The walls were thin and the apartment next to us was attached, but I felt alone. I sang “Danny Boy” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” I liked to sing songs where I could not quite hit the high notes. I sang in the bathroom to hear the echoes applauding me. I stood on the stairs. I walked slowly, feeling each carpeted step beneath my feet and breathing in my privacy. I peered over the banister, only to see Tubby staring up at me, brown eyes bright, wagging his tail as I sang “Danny Boy.” He could not hear well. He could not walk up the stairs any longer. But he heard my singing and he looked up at me and I swear he smiled. But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an “Ave” there for me… I sang as if it was a happy song. I sang as if I was both alone and in company. In each kind of singing, there were sweet notes of contentment.

As the weeks went by, whispers of warm air floated through Delaware. Vultures started to sunbathe in the mornings. The vultures were tall, black, bony women, wrapped in night-colored cloth, peering at me with apathy. I walked by them with Tubby, and they became familiar and comforting. One morning, Tubby and I passed two vultures that were sitting on the edge of a giant blue dumpster. I walked closer and closer, wondering if they would fly away, or if they felt safe in their flock. I soon found myself only three feet from being able to reach out and touch a black wing. I stared. They were beautiful. Their only movement was a slight turn of their heads. They looked near me, never at me. I stood in the world with my dog’s head buried in grass and smiled at the undertakers. Their eyes were deep, their heads only shriveled grey skin, but sleek and strong. “Hello,” I said. I kept walking, turning to look back at them. In that moment, I was nothing to them. I was too alive.

I grew up in my twenty-third winter. I stood alone and sang alone and remembered the true color of grass. Spring came as always. I watched the blades twitch in friendly warm winds. It was both a numberless spring and something new. Shadows melted away as the sun climbed.

•••

ELIZABETH KAVITSKY is a twenty-three-year-old student pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing from Carlow University.

The Hard Alphabet

alphabet beads

By poobesh a.k.a ECTOTHERMS lakshman/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

Of course I know better, but after sitting in the car for five minutes, I hit the horn. We’re ready. The pies I got up at six that morning to bake are ready. Frances’s change of clothing for the night is ready. Even the dog is ready, sitting expectantly in his crate in the back of our station wagon.

“Where’s Daddy?” Frances asks from her car seat.

“Daddy’s coming,” I say, which is true, he is. Eventually. Getting myself anywhere on time is challenging enough; getting our whole family anywhere on time is a triumph, and I almost pulled it off, at the cost of great anxiety and strategizing.

And now he’s ruining it. He’s in there brushing lint off his sweater or giving the sink one last wipe with the sponge or re-checking to see if we turned the heat off.

So I honk the horn, and it’s not a cute little hey there, the light is green! tap. It’s a get a move on already, asshole blare. Joe finally emerges from the house thirty seconds later, shaking his head, his mood as foul as mine. We will, once again, be late.

•••

I have ADD. My husband has OCD, and our daughter has ADHD. The difference between what she has and what I have is the H. It stands for “hyperactivity.” I’m excitable, but I’m not hyperactive. Some goes for our dog, who’s half border collie and half Jack Russell terrier. If you know about dog breeds, you understand that Scooter is a furry summary of our family dynamics. The collective metabolism of our household is off the charts.

Of course we didn’t get a dopey, mellow lab. Of course our dog is a mix of the two most intense, high-strung breeds. Of course Scooter sheds his silky-soft white coat prodigiously, and my husband descends upon those million stray hairs with a sense of purpose only matched by Scooter’s determination to attack the vacuum cleaner. Joe vacuums a lot, sometimes when the carpet marks from my previous vacuuming are still fresh. Many Scooter bites scar the vacuum’s plastic exterior.

An OCD-ADD union is the bleach and ammonia of marriages. We were in our twenties—what can I say? Existing was easy back then, and the pleasurable things that pushed our ugly acronyms into the margins of our consciousnesses were readily accessible. The list of what makes us compatible is long, delicious. And, on the other side of the column, there are those harsh capital letters, scrawled in black permanent marker. The delicate balance between the columns teeters, at best. We aim for teetering.

•••

For years, when I talked about my ADD, I described it as “the girl kind, where you’re dreamy and spacey.” But I stopped talking about it, because saying, “I have ADD” is like saying, “I have lungs” or “I often eat a few more potato chips than I originally set out to eat.” These things are fairly universal. Who doesn’t have ADD? So I concluded that its frequency neutered its power. All of the goals that I failed to achieve had nothing to do with that pesky nuisance. Obviously, I failed because I sucked.

Even the things I liked in school—English, art—I had to do my own way, or they didn’t get done. Filling out my math workbook in first grade, I always drew a Smurf next to each problem. The Smurfs would be polishing the subtraction figures or writing the answer in under the horizontal equals bar. Every Smurf had to be distinct. This, to me, was clearly the most important aspect of our math assignment.

Another boy in my class had ADD, but the kind with the H. His name was Ben. When seated, he created facsimiles of Transformers by sloppily cutting and folding pulpy blue- and red-lined writing tablet paper. Many of the things we covered in class are now a blur, but I clearly remember our teachers’ frustrations with Ben, the minutes dedicated during lessons asking him to stay in his seat, telling him to raise his hand before speaking. Every morning Ben’s mother sealed one of his pills in a white envelope, decorated the outside with a Snoopy sticker, and tucked it in his lunch box. One day, when our class organized our desks, about a dozen unopened envelopes tumbled from the chaos of crumpled worksheets and paper Transformers in Ben’s desk.

I didn’t have white envelopes with Snoopy stickers. My teachers expressed their concern to my mother during parent-teacher conferences, and sometimes in painfully earnest heart-to-heart talks with me. These talks invariably included the phrases “not meeting potential” and “so very smart.” This was back in the 1980s, before the rise of individualized education programs for kids with tricky learning needs. The adults in my life tried their best to reach out to me with the one tool they had: their hearts. It was not enough.

It wasn’t until high school, when it became impossible for me to coast by academically, that my mother got me diagnosed. We drove to a specialist about an hour away. He asked me to write out the alphabet in cursive and in printing, and then repeat a series of numbers after him. “Do you ever reach out and grab something without thinking about it?” he asked, and I gave him a frigid teenage fuck you look. What did he think I was, a toddler?

After the appointment, my mother took me to the bead store, a safe zone. I often stayed up late into the night making my own intricate clay beads in those days. It’s too bad the SAT didn’t have a bead-making section.

We did no follow-up. I didn’t want to take drugs; I was afraid they’d irrevocably change something fundamental about me, like a lobotomy.

There was no talk from anyone—my teachers, my parents, that worthless excuse of a specialist—about modifying my study habits, or about creating study habits, period. I dropped out of college, twice. I quit my first desk job—staff writer at an alt-weekly, a coveted gig for a twenty-something with no college degree—after a year and a half. ADD people do not handle deadlines well. They take on disproportionately epic importance until the scope of the deadline eclipses the project itself.

Another thing I did was work at libraries. Four of them, over the years. This I excelled at. I spent the majority of my time shelving books. There was no question about where things went. The alphabet is always the alphabet; the Dewey Decimal System is always the Dewey Decimal System. Pick up a book, look it its spine label, slide it between two other books in its appropriate place on the shelf.

At home, piles upon piles of sadly abandoned projects littered my office. The unfinished novel, the stalled book proposal, the unsent query letter. I had no idea where to begin making sense of it all. There it was, the demon phrase: “Not meeting her potential.”

Pick up a book, look at its spine, slide it on the shelf. Numbers and letters. The alphabet. P-Q-R. J-K-L. I can say it backwards in a heartbeat. It was my religion, the rosary I fingered for strength.

Five years ago, I got a prescription for generic Ritalin, hoping it to usher in a sunny new era of productivity. It’s helpful to some, but, alas, not to me. I still have the very same bottle, with maybe a dozen pills left. One day I decided to give them another chance, and I took two instead of one. The resulting freak-out was like a tweaker’s version of a bad acid trip. I drew a skull and crossbones on the bottle and hid it in the very back of the medicine cabinet. Back to the drawing board.

•••

Frances is not diagnosed, not officially. But when I see her do things, I see me. Her brain works faster than her body does. She hits, she grabs, she utters hurtful phrases. Her latest is “poopy mama.” This is when I tell her she can’t do something or have something. She wants everything all of the time, and she does everything all of the time.

This is very ADD. It’s one of the things I like about it, and it’s why Attention Deficit Disorder is poorly named. Actually, we have a surfeit of attention. The world is so full of awesome ideas! They surge through your brain like electric joyrods! Every morning, you wake up and taste the magical possibilities of the day! A hundred of them! And which one to pick? And how can all of those magical possibilities be realized in twenty-four measly hours, because they absolutely cannot wait? And oh shit, the day is already half over, because managing those electric joyrods takes an incredible amount of energy, and it turns out you will bring none of those possibilities to fruition before the sun sets. Depression sets in. Time to go home. The day is a wash. (Difficulty prioritizing. Having totally unrealistic expectations. Not handling failure well.)

Frances isn’t there yet. Her days are filled with free play and a fairly flexible structure. She usually enjoys preschool and has only had one biting incident. The school follows what is called “The Creative Curriculum.” It’s child-led, a good fit for her. My inimitable girl is a square peg. You can count on an ADD person to run black or white. We love things or hate them; we are enthusiastic or despondent; we bellow or sit silently. The world at large requires a lot of functionality in the sloggy grey middle. When we try to hit those notes, we’re out of tune. I fear that once she heads off to the round-hole obligations of standardized tests and lots of sitting still, we may be screwed.

Until then, I spy on her when I arrive to pick her up. I file away her loud voice and her bossiness and her quickness to respond to a classmate with anger. I file away her laser-like focus when she sits on a cushion by herself in the reading area, surrounded by willy-nilly stacks of books. I file away the ten minutes of cajoling and reminding it can take to get her to do something simple, like hang up her jacket or put away blocks. In the morning, when she gets dressed, she will have one leg in one underwear hole, see a My Little Pony on the floor, and then grab it and play for fifteen minutes, half-naked, half-underweared. The agenda she follows is hers and hers only. Just like her poopy mama.

•••

I have the advantage of insight with Frances. Joe does not. And we, mother and daughter, are so immersed in the rapid flow of thoughts coursing through our own brains that we can’t be bothered to consider the military dictatorship occupying his. But our domesticity has idyllic periods. We take walks together, we read picture books, we giggle at family jokes. We sit down to a home-cooked meal every night.

And that’s usually where it falls apart. Frances is the wildest eater in the four-year-old kingdom. She can render a peanut butter sandwich into a three-foot radius of crumbs and greasy fingerprints in about thirty seconds. And she never just sits at the table; she squirms, flops, slides out of her chair, a dynamic smear of motion. Joe’s watchful eyes zoom in as if a massacre were in progress. “Frances!” he’ll chide. “Don’t do that!” Then, to me: “Can’t you see the mess she’s making? Why aren’t you stopping her?”

I don’t stop her because I’m totally engrossed in the cookbook that I brought out to occupy myself while waiting for Joe to come to his perfectly executed meal. “Risotto waits for no one,” the Italians say. I have no idea what on earth Joe does in those lost minutes it takes him to get his ass to the dining room, where his plate of pasta or curry or—god forbid—risotto sits impatiently, its freshness plummeting. I know what Frances does, though. She digs in without him. For a while I made her wait, but no longer. Why should she? She got to the table on time, and Frances showing up anywhere when she’s asked to is a giant deal.

After dinner, we clean up. I try to do most of it, because if Joe takes on the clean-up, he’s sucked into a black hole of feverish wiping and sweeping and wiping. The kitchen sink is his trigger area. He’ll walk by and grab the sponge and dab at a non-existent drop of water, and then do it again, and then again.

“I already got that,” I’ll say.

“There’s still stuff here, I can see it,” he’ll say.

“Just put down the sponge and do something else,” I say. “I told you, I already got it.” This is an affront to me, to the miracle of me being tidy and conscientious instead of sloppy and careless. It is an affront to me swimming with all my might against the mighty current of my own nature.

And he goes on, wipe wipe. Dab dab. Oh, the sex we have not had because of a fucking sponge.

I do not shelve the cookbook.

•••

Joe has pretty awesome ways of coping. He makes colorful art using exactingly spaced rays of narrow drafting tape. Patterns. Repeating. He plays the drums. Patterns. Repeating. Like me, he eschews drugs. He says the ones he’s taken, Paxil and something else, made him feel at a creepy removal from everything going on around him. Joe’s OCD isn’t just with physical actions. It’s about thoughts, repeating. It’s dark in ways that I can’t penetrate. He grabs his skateboard and grinds his favorite manual curb over and over again. That’s on the weekend. On weekdays, there’s always the sponge and the counter.

At home, our alphabet is in ribbons. There’s no A-B-C-D, like my divine library days. It’s got extra letters in some spots, and it’s missing other ones entirely, and it’s not even in the right order. It goes ADD-OCD-ADHD.

You might have your own alphabet, too. It could go OMG-MS or PTSD-FUBAR. Your hard alphabet is its own unique code, like DNA, even if its letters happen to match my hard alphabet exactly.

You can go looking for people to cut you slack, and maybe they will, a little, but the alphabet will still be there. You can tell yourself that you’ll triumph over it, but you’ll be wrong. A hard alphabet has no eraser. The only thing you can do is cope. All the people telling me to not eat gluten, or that Ritalin will fix me, or that my disorder is totally imagined? Go answer that knock at your door. I sent you a present. It’s an otherwise sane man with a vacuum and his cute little dog. They’ll be spending the night. Have fun.

Sometimes I meet people and spot the ADD in them. It’s like Gaydar or Jewdar. Hmm, I think. Does she? I find myself wanting to embrace that person, tell her I get it, that I’m part of her tribe. But my non-ADD self prevails; I buckle down that thought and keep it from wiggling out of my mouth. Just knowing it’s real is enough to keep me going. I grab the hand of the invisible, impulsive companion in my brain and look it in the face. We have to walk through life together, grapple for some kind of sync. We will cut the OCD and the ADD some slack. We will not honk the horn. We will have an awesome Thanksgiving, Scooter and pies and everything, even if we are half an hour late. And we will own our hard alphabet, backwards and forwards.

•••

SARA BIR meets professional deadlines and is occasionally late for personal appointments. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The Oregoninan, The North Bay Bohemian, and on The Huffington Post; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara writes about food and develops recipes in her southeast Ohio home. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

Fertilizer

pregnant

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Susan Rebecca White
(not pictured above)

Back when I was still shell-shocked from having separated from my husband of nearly seven years, when we still had a massive amount of financial untangling to do before we could truly own our own lives, when I was still kept awake at night by waves of panic about not having enough money to support myself, a friend told me, rather matter-of-factly, that I had a pile of shit in front of me that I had to eat. Not only that, but all I could use to do so was a tiny spoon. The good news, she said, was that one day I would reach the end of the pile, and then much lovelier things would be placed before me.

Her prediction turned out to be correct. I met Sam just as my divorce finalized. I like to say that he was my prize at the end of all of that shit, like the toy buried at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks—except of course, that’s not fair to the Cracker Jacks or to Sam.

When Sam and I first started dating, I was subletting a small carriage house in my native Atlanta. The carriage house was built in the 1920s, had hardwood floors and French doors, and the walls were painted a cheerful yellow. Sam lived about a mile away, and since we both worked from home, sometimes I would fix pimento cheese sandwiches and invite him over for lunch. He would bring sweet tea. After we ate, we would take a walk around the neighborhood before we both returned to the more practical details of our day. One sunny spring afternoon, after our walk, Sam and I tumbled into bed—work be damned.

We were thirty-six and forty-one years old, and we were in bed together on a Wednesday afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds and making stripes on the quilt. It was hard not to feel as if we were getting away with something. This was not what most of my friends—in the middle of marriages, careers, and parenthood—were doing. Yet Sam and I were not cheating on anyone, were not making up excuses to our bosses, were not neglecting our children. Both divorced without kids—his divorce more graceful than mine—we had each eaten our fair share of shit to get to where we were, in the giddy stages of early love. It was heaven.

After dating for nearly a year, Sam and I took a trip to Panama, snorkeled over undulating jellyfish, kayaked in the middle of the blue, blue ocean, gripped each other’s hand as our cab driver weaved recklessly in and out of Panama City traffic. Back in Atlanta we celebrated our one-year anniversary by having spaetzle at the same Alsatian restaurant where we had our first date, and it was there that Sam proposed.

By the time we married in a tiny ceremony in our home with a homemade cake and a bouquet picked from my friend’s garden, I was thirty-seven, Sam forty-two, and we wanted to have a child. Given our ages and our level of commitment to each other, it was tempting to start trying on our honeymoon, but I had a novel coming out the next month, and a tour to go on, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the “am I/ am I not” game one inevitably plays while trying to conceive. And so Sam and I waited until my book tour was over in July. At the end of that same month, seven days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and was rewarded with a faint blue plus sign.

I felt incredulous that this—pregnancy—was happening to me. I had always felt on the outside of things, a consummate observer. For a long time, this was my preferred mode of being—it gave me an illusion of control that I desperately needed. Agonizing over choices was infinitely preferable to actually making them. Which is why I spent much of my first marriage trying to figure out whether or not to have a child. It was far easier to wrestle with that question than to face the truth of my situation: that I was in a marriage that no amount of therapy would fix, and that I had willingly put myself into this untenable position in order to avoid fully committing to life, with all of its vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

I am now nearly nine months pregnant, my belly big and tight, my energy low, my body taking on a life of its own, and subsequently doing all sorts of embarrassing things. When I sneeze, I pee! When I walk ten feet, I get winded! If I don’t eat a bowl of prunes every morning, I’m constipated! Despite the all too earthy side effects, I love being pregnant, love that I get to experience the bizarre and amazing process of reproduction. I love feeling our son roll and kick inside me. The sheer physicality of the late stages of pregnancy makes what began as something abstract (revealed only by mild nausea and a plus sign on a pee stick) into something much more real. And the realness of the pregnancy has brought me closer to the astounding prospect that we will soon have an infant to care for. That once I deliver the baby he will be in our charge, and I will somehow learn to breastfeed, and get by on little sleep, and grow more patient as small tasks become mighty endeavors.  Soon there will be a human manifestation of our love—living, crying, and pooping among us—and we will love him in a way we have never loved before and will consequently be more vulnerable than ever.

Still, I am not yet a mother. I am intellectually aware that a mighty and miraculous wrecking ball is about to smash up the life we know, but I do not understand this on an emotional level. How could I before our son arrives? And so I find myself suspended between the life I knew and the life I am entering, much as I was when I boarded the airplane that took me away from my first husband and our home together and into a future yet known.

This means I am acutely aware of what I am losing: right now Sam and I are still a two-person unit with a host of inside jokes and allusions. We are newlyweds and we are playful. Hopefully we will remain playful as parents, but there is a weight that will come with our new responsibility that we cannot ignore. Post-baby, we probably won’t spend many Sunday afternoons playing Ping-Pong at the local sandwich place. Most likely I won’t cook as elaborately as I do now. Cheese soufflé will no longer be on the rotating menu, nor will I make homemade soda syrups and granola bars. We will have to watch ourselves and not act horribly toward one another when sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the stresses of new parenthood. Chances are, we will not always succeed at doing so, and our own warts and shortcomings will be more fully revealed.

We are trading one reality for a more intense, harder one—one that for us will be richer, and deeper as well—and we are both ready and excited for the change. And yet the other day, I found myself weeping over what we are losing, our sweet courtship of pimento cheese sandwiches and afternoons in bed. I found this unsettling: it felt like my old, non-committal self coming back into play, the woman terrified of getting herself into something she couldn’t get out of. My tears also felt disloyal toward my unborn son, whom I already love with a startling ferocity. But then I tried to be gentle with myself, the way a mother might be, to allow myself to be sad about the ending of this time when we know each other only as a couple, this time of burgeoning love among people who are not new to life, who weathered some hard things before meeting (and who will surely continue to weather hard things as life goes on). I imagine that twenty years from now, I will think of our early, heady days as a couple with sweet nostalgia. And probably also with a touch of condescension, as in: We thought we were close back then, but look at what we’ve been through now, look at how the roots of our lives have entwined.

It seems that in life there is no gain that comes without loss. Surely one day I will think back on our son’s infanthood with nostalgia, as well as his days as a young child, a boy, and then a young man. To live fully is to commit to things we are terrified to lose, all while knowing loss will come. It occurs to me that life is a series of deaths we must endure, and even somehow embrace, in order to let new life in. Maybe the same is true of our corporeal death, when our bodies will grow cold and lifeless. Maybe instead of fearing that day, I will try to take comfort in the model life has presented so far: New life sprouts in the spaces made by the losses we learn to endure.

•••

SUSAN REBECCA WHITE is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. A Place at the Table was recently released in paperback. It is a Target “club pick” and a finalist for the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s oldest literary award. White has also published several essays in places such as Salon, Tin House, The Huffington Post and The Bitter Southerner. She lives in Atlanta with her husband Sam Reid and their (very) soon-to-be-born son.

Animal House

dog curtain

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

It’s been a couple months since my dogs started wearing diapers.

So far just a few people know, mainly the people who have visited my house since the diaper regime began. I’m guilty of the worst kind of Facebook hypocrisy. When I post pictures of my dogs (and I do it a lot), I employ angles that hide their diapers. It’s kind of like that studied angle that many women use for their selfies—the camera slightly elevated from the face so that the face is looking up. It’s more flattering, but everyone knows what they’re up to.

Before one friend came over, I texted her, “I should tell you, we’re making both dogs wear diapers now. You will know soon enough.”

I didn’t want things to be awkward for her. There’s not a polite way to ask about dogs wearing diapers and I feared that the silence would feel weighty.

My dogs aren’t wearing diapers because they have a medical problem or because they’re old. It’s because they are acting like jerks.

My first dog, Shaggy, is an elegant little creature. He’s a schnoodle, a schnauzer/poodle mix, and sometimes I think he’s not really even a dog. He’s got this meaningful way of looking into your eyes as he tries to speak English. He can say “hello” and “I love you.” My husband, who is not as skilled at listening as I am, disputes this, but trust me.

Our second dog, Harlow, is not a specific breed exactly. He’s a medium-sized, white hairy dog. Someone found him abandoned in a nature preserve and for reasons I don’t understand, we took him in. He had clearly been neglected in every way for some time. His coat was a matted mess. He wouldn’t take food from people. He didn’t know how to walk up steps. He was distrustful of everyone.

We took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I took him to a behavioral trainer, one that looks beyond commands like “sit” and “stay,” and, instead focuses on building his confidence and decision-making skills. I kept him by my side every waking hour, for months, at first on a leash, until he learned to follow me around, to come when I called. The change was like a miracle. He’s relaxed now, and he bonded with us. He’s got a sweet temperament. He’s almost the perfect dog.

Except he pees everywhere. Everywhere. If we put a bag on the floor, he pees on it. He pees on the furniture, on the walls. Once my husband Stan was lying on a couch downstairs and Harlow parallel parked next to the railing in the upstairs hall and launched a perfectly aimed stream of urine onto Stan’s head.

If I’m going to be totally honest—and at this point, what do I have to lose?—I’ll mention that Harlow has also, on rare occasion, pooped in the house, too. It’s a measure of how troublesome the urine is that I have no particular emotion when I find a pile of poop. It doesn’t happen often and is fairly easily picked up. One time he left a pile that was perfectly formed into the word “HI.” Since it was kind of a miracle, I took a picture of it before cleaning it up and posted it on Facebook. Then I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who is disgusted by pictures of dog poop, no matter how literary, and the kind that suggests I create a line of greeting cards featuring messages spelled out in dog feces.

We had this idea, before we adopted Harlow, that it would be good for Shaggy to have a dog friend. That if he spent time with a dog and not just us humans, he would learn to be more dog-like. It turns out that he didn’t learn much from Harlow. Except peeing. Our graceful, intelligent, little dog-person was now lifting his leg and peeing on the side of the couch. There really is such a thing as a pissing contest.

We worked more with the trainer. I don’t want to relive it all here, but trust me when I say that we did all the things. All the things. Finally she dropped her voice and said, “You could try belly bands.”

Belly bands are just what they sound like. Cloth bands that wrap around a male dog’s middle, attaching with Velcro. When my kids were babies, I thought it was sort of weird the way some moms went nuts over cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers. I don’t mean in a utilitarian way, but for the aesthetics. When I heard them gush about the cute patterns I thought it was a little pathetic. They’re diapers! They’re just going to be soaked in urine.

Now I get it. I started out utilitarian with the belly bands, buying just a plain white one for Harlow. But it made him look like an old man in tighty whities. Or like Walter White, cooking meth in the desert. So I bought a belly band with a cute peace sign pattern. And another one with stars. And one with tiger stripes. It made it all a little bit less sad.

I’m convinced that they have no idea why they’re wearing diapers. They don’t like them but they’ve come to accept them. When they come inside they wait in a little line for me to put the diapers back on them. If I could have just five minutes during which time they’d really understand English, I would tell them one thing: “Don’t pee inside.” That’s it. I believe that if they really understood that I wanted them to never pee inside again, that they’d make their best effort to avoid doing so. They want to please me. And yet they do the very thing that pleases me the least.

Since we started the diaper regime, our life has gotten better. The dogs don’t have to stay glued to my side. We’re not cleaning the carpets all the time. Speaking of cleaning carpets, now I’d like to share with you the secret of getting dog urine out of carpets. This is a bonus, a takeaway from this essay, if you will. It’s a process that’s very inexpensive but time-consuming.

First you need to find the spots where the dogs have peed. If your carpet is tan like ours is, it may be hard to see the spots after they have dried. That’s why you need a black light. Wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights, and walk around, shining a black light on the carpet. The urine spots will glow. Some other fluids will also make the carpet glow, but that’s your own business and who am I to judge? Once you’ve found the spots, mark them by surrounding them with masking tape. Turn on your lights. Then spray a mixture that is 50/50 white vinegar and water. Soak those spots. Wait for them to dry. If you’ve saturated them sufficiently, this will take a day.

Next spray them with hydrogen peroxide that has just a little bit of dish liquid mixed in. Really lay this stuff to the stains.

When that’s dry (and it will take overnight at least), sprinkle baking soda on and then vacuum it up. This gets out the odor and the black light test will verify that it did the trick.

So compared to that process, diapering a couple of dogs several times a days is not a big deal. Their diapers are almost always dry. The belly bands discourage them from peeing inside because there’s no fun in it. So it could be worse.

But still, I can’t help but consider the complexity we’ve added to our lives. Our kids, at sixteen and nineteen, are old enough to be pretty self-sufficient. I can forget to cook dinner and nobody is going to call child protective services. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese. Things have gotten simpler for us from the days of busy, demanding toddlers who were hell-bent on electrocuting themselves and breaking all the eggs from the refrigerator. From those days, life has, year by year, gotten simpler. And yet, instead of taking advantage of the simplicity and lack of demands on our time, we did this thing that has made our lives infinitely more complicated.

We brought animals into our house. Sometimes when I think of it, the whole concept of pets seems bizarre. We do all these things to insulate ourselves from the unpredictability of nature and the outside world. We build houses, we seal the doors and windows. We avoid building a house on a flood plain. We install locks on the doors and a security system. We buy homeowners insurance in case there’s an act of nature.

Then once we have this safe, controlled environment, we bring in animals. I believed all along that Shaggy was kind of a person. But people don’t pee on the ottoman. They just don’t. When the whole peeing thing started I’d sometimes look at these dogs and think “My god. They are animals.” They seemed like just one step away from raccoons. Once I hired an expensive pest control expert to lure a raccoon family out of our attic. But we invite the dogs into our house. To live. We say, “Yes, you are a being who likes to chew on a beef bone that’s been buried and left to rot in the ground for a week. But by all means please live in my house, which up until now, has been kept in a fairly sanitary condition. Here, sit up on the couch with me and I’ll scratch behind your ears and possibly kiss the side of your face.”

And they’re unpredictable. When we adopted Harlow, we didn’t consider the possibility that he would be an unrepentant urinator and that he would get Shaggy started too. But it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d do some things that would bring complexity into our lives. Dogs do all kinds of things. They run away. They bite. They bark at the nice couple pushing a stroller down the street as if their baby was the antichrist. They tear up cushions, leaving the cushion carcass surrounded by mountains of fluff.

I think about entropy a lot. I mean, I think about it on a superficial level, the way non-scientists do, because as soon as I start reading words like logarithm and microstate and quantum thermodynamics, I find that I need to quickly click on Youtube and watch a video of a chimpanzee riding a Segway. But the idea of entropy is that systems naturally move from order to disorder. If you put an ice cube into a cup of hot water, the water doesn’t freeze; the ice cube melts. The molecules of the ice cube, which were frozen into a rigid order, are freed to move around as a liquid.

So is there also a sort of entropy at play in our personal relationships? When things become too simple, do we have a tendency to add elements that complicate them? In a sense, any time we take on the responsibility of caring for another being, we’re opening ourselves up to complications that we can’t predict. How do we know that the child we bring into the world won’t have a disability that will require us to reshuffle our lives? Or that the man we marry won’t have a stroke a year later? We don’t.

The issue of nurturing is all mixed up in this idea of personal entropy for me. I took in these dogs and that means I made a promise to take care of them, even if they brought chaos into my life.

I think we have pets because at a very fundamental level we have a need to nurture. And with that nurturing comes all kinds of risks. In the scheme of things, the diapers aren’t a big deal. But every time I put a diaper onto a dog, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. Dogs, healthy dogs, wearing diapers. But I’m also sometimes reminded of the bond we share with these animals, and the promise we make when we teach them to love us. When Harlow learned to trust us, to sit by us and awkwardly lean against our bodies, looking at us as if to say “Is this how it’s done? This love thing?” we lost the choice of letting him go. He was ours.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

The Break-Up

nest hand002

By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Dorothy O’Donnell

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been dumped before. Or ended my share of relationships that had disaster written all over them. But this particular break-up hit me harder than most, even though, technically, I wasn’t the one being dumped.

It happened at my eight-year-old’s school on her first day of second grade, the hottest day of the summer. Seeking shade while I waited for the screech of the bell to release her, I headed for the courtyard with the big oak—the one the kids called The Barney Tree—by her classroom. The mother of Sadie’s closest friend was already sitting on the wide, tile-studded concrete planter that surrounded Barney. I smiled and sat down beside her.

I liked Janet. I considered her my friend. We made small talk—about the weather, our husbands’ annoying habits—as we had so many times before while we waited for our girls.

That summer, they’d spent hours bouncing on the trampoline in my backyard, dissolving in peals of laughter as they played a game they called “Butt War.” They dressed up like Hannah Montana and danced around my living room belting out “The Best of Both Worlds.” They went to day camp together and called each other B.F.F.

Just before the bell rang, Janet turned to me and sighed. “I need to let you know what’s been going on,” she said.

My stomach clenched. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.

She told me that during their last playdate, Sadie kept punching and pinching her daughter, Amy. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, Janet confided. Sadie had even kicked her in a fit of anger.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, her eyes wide.

I stared at the tawny oak leaves scattered on the asphalt and pushed them around with my foot.

Sadie was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder when she was five. Frequent mood swings—including extreme irritability that can be triggered by something as innocent as a playmate saying “hi” to someone else—are symptoms of the illness.

Usually, she saves her explosions for home. It’s where she feels safe to lose control. Maybe all the time she’d spent with Janet and Amy made her comfortable enough to reveal her ugly side to them, too.

When the girls first became friends, I expected each playdate to be their last. Although she’d never physically attacked another child before, Sadie’s explosions had pushed most of her few other companions away. But as the months rolled by and their get togethers continued, I made myself believe everything was okay. I was desperate for my daughter to hold on to her one good friend. And Janet never mentioned any problems.

I’d told her about Sadie’s condition, although I’m not sure if she understood it. And I get that. It’s easy to see my little girl’s outbursts of rage as bad behavior. Or the product of poor parenting.

I wouldn’t want Sadie to play with someone who hurt her, either. But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when, as the classrooms’ turquoise doors swung open and chattering kids flooded the courtyard, Janet said she thought our girls should “take a break.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: I knew their friendship was over. And so was ours.

I broke the news to Sadie as gently as possible on the drive home. She kicked the back of my seat and pummeled it with her fists. She shrieked that she hated Amy. But by the time I pulled into the driveway, she was sobbing as the realization of what her behavior had cost her began to sink in. Inside the house, she grabbed paper and crayons from a kitchen drawer to make a card.

“I’m so, so, so sorry!” she scrawled beside a giant purple heart with a sad face and a jagged line severing it in half.

I squeezed her tight and told her I was proud of her for taking responsibility for her actions. But I warned that the card wouldn’t magically fix everything. She said she wanted to give it to Amy anyway.

I wish I could say that I handled the situation with as much grace. I didn’t. I’d expected my child to be destroyed by the break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how devastated it left me. I missed talking to Janet, who, like me, was an older mom with one child. I missed our occasional outings to the beach, barbeques, and dinners at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor.

Like a scorned lover, I obsessed over every conversation I’d had with my former friend; I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our relationship had soured. Was it the afternoon when she’d called me a soft touch when it came to discipline? Or the evening I showed up at her house to pick up Sadie and she’d hesitated a second too long before answering when I asked how the playdate had gone?

“Great!” she’d said with a strained smile, peering over my head into the dusk. “Everything went just great!”

The more I kept hitting the rewind button on our relationship, the more bitter I became. I went out of my way to avoid Janet at school. One day at pick-up time, I saw her walking toward me as I sat in the car line waiting for Sadie. She was holding hands with Amy and another girl I recognized—a docile creature, who, I was sure, never lost her temper or hit anyone. As I slouched in my car and watched the happy trio cross the parking lot, a wave of envy and anger crashed over me. How could they move on so easily with their lives after leaving such a gaping hole in ours?

I hit rock bottom a few weeks later. I was walking my dog in our neighborhood when a blue minivan chugged by. The driver lightly beeped the horn to say hello. I recognized docile girl’s mother behind the wheel. I gripped Max’s leash tighter, wondering if this woman lingered in Janet’s living room to chat after playdates the way I once had.

From the back seat, Sadie’s ex-bestie and her new sidekick turned to grin and wave at me. I feebly wagged a few fingers in return. What I really wanted to do was flip them off. Because I so wished that my daughter was crammed in the back of that van with them. I ached for her to have a normal childhood, for me to be a normal mom. As the van disappeared around a bend in the road, it felt as if the life we were supposed to have was vanishing with it.

I yanked Max’s leash and turned for home, ashamed of the jealousy and self-pity churning inside me. Janet had every right to protect her child. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that Sadie is the way she is. It wasn’t my fault, either. A gray river of fog tumbled through the valley below the street where I was walking. I imagined it washing away the anger and pain I’d been lugging around since the break-up.

That night, I clicked on the website of a local support group for parents of kids with special needs. I’d thought many times about going to one of the group’s monthly coffees but always found an excuse not to when the day came around.

The following Friday, I printed out directions to that morning’s coffee and drove to the house. With a trembling hand, I pressed the doorbell. A woman with long black hair and a kind face opened the door and welcomed me. She led me into her living room where a dozen or so other women sat on a cream sofa and dining chairs, nibbling blueberry scones and talking. No one looked shocked when, after introducing myself, I told the story about Sadie hurting her playmate. They just nodded or flashed sympathetic smiles.

The next time I saw Janet heading across the school courtyard in my direction, I didn’t look away. I said, “Hi,” and asked how it was going as we passed each other. It still stung to know that she and Amy weren’t part of our lives anymore. But I was finally ready to start moving on with mine.

•••

DOROTHY O’DONNELL is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Her stories and essays have been featured on greatschools.org, brainchildmag.com, mothering.com and NPR. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with early-onset bipolar disorder. You can find more of her writing at dorothyodonnell.com.