It is, in my experience, impossible to meditate on a paper cut.
When something hurts, it hurts, and that’s actually just life in the goddamn moment.
What do you do when you get a paper cut and it really hurts? You curse. I mean, I spent years trying not to curse, because kids. Plus, cursing is negative and profane. But you know what? I think it helps me to curse. I decided to go with what works and I made one of my New Year’s Resolutions “curse readily.” When it hurts, I just let it out now. I don’t keep my curses bottled up inside.
“Mommy’s hair is gone because she has cancer,” Winnie, age five, informed me.
She was at my house to play one Saturday morning. “Do you miss her hair?” I asked.
She nodded, tearing up. “Girls are supposed to have hair,” she explained. Her big blue eyes widened for emphasis.
“Mommy’s hair will grow back,” I said. My friends were counseled to talk about the periods Mommy wouldn’t feel well from chemo treatments as brown days. “Mommy’s having a brown day,” I said, as if Winnie hadn’t noticed.
Brown days. Brown crayons. Breaking crayons.
I hugged her. Winnie wanted to be included by the bigger girls, who did not want to play with her; she wanted to get seconds to get thirds to get hugs to get reassurance that everything and everyone will be all right. She wanted to ban brown days forever, to break every single brown crayon.
When he first called from the hospital waiting room about his wife M’s breast cancer diagnosis, still without stages or numbers or treatment plans, it loomed instantly, amorphous and unknown, like a threatening storm cloud. “Out of the blue” is an odd phrase, and yet it worked, except I remember that day was cloudy. Stunning bad news doesn’t fall from gray skies. Stunning bad news fit the foreboding scene, though. Dampening clouds pressed in with a stranglehold. I couldn’t promise any damn thing, obviously. I listened. I hurt with him. To love friends sometimes means to hurt with them, and to hold onto that hurt.
My feet gripped the hilly sidewalk. I sent her a text. M texted back, seriously WTF right? That became the mantra: WTF. It was the correct mantra.
What I really wonder though is what helps, what really helps. You get into big-ticket problems and everyone tells you what you should do. Cancer is about as big as it gets. Everyone has an opinion about meditation or drugs or environment or the messed up way we don’t care for ourselves and really? You are in brown days with kids who need play dates. You are neither an environmental warrior nor a sudden yogi.
Anyway, other things seem (maybe are) smaller. Hangnails. Stubbed toes. Paper cuts. Splinters. Knotted neck muscles.
Things I’ve cursed in recent years include but are not limited to cancer:
High school administrators
The sham our country calls health insurance
Political arguments on Facebook
Snow and winter
Staff development days
January crowds at the gym
Other health crises
Poor administrators of all stripes,
And laundry—I have cursed laundry, which isn’t really what I curse when I curse laundry. Laundry is shorthand, metaphor. What I curse is how burdensome the freight of everyday responsibilities can feel. Sometimes, what’s most crushing is the place where the mundane and looming converge—and I often happen upon it with a laundry basket between my arms. I know the angle my arms need to bend to carry that sucker as well as I knew how to hold my babies through interminable nights.
Laundry is also why I sprained my ankle on a snow day. Because we were stuck inside the first and second days post-winter break, I tackled the laundry in the bottom of the hamper, the long neglected, overdue, already outgrown laundry. That’s when I tumbled. My breath was gone; my ankle flipped—searing pain in one nanosecond. I was twisted on the inside, and I screamed. I knew I was in trouble. Three days with ice and ibuprofen and elevation and longer in an ace bandage, which I MacGyvered with a pair of red tights I plan never to wear again—not that I’d worn them for.
In the midst of so many bigger things I cursed myself for freaking out about my stupid sprained ankle. I laughed at Lisa Kudrow’s absurdity in Web Therapy and felt only slightly less pathetic as a human. Fuck the sprained ankle. Fuck cancer. Fuck the big things. Fuck my family for freaking out about me lying down for three short days.
At the time I’d been doing yoga for about two years. I waited a few weeks to return to yoga class. Even after I could walk and work out, it turned out that my ankle hurt the most during yoga class—during the warrior poses and anything that had me sit with the top of my feet on the floor, which is to say my ankle hurt during yoga class, a lot. Ostensibly, the ankle is why I stopped.
It wasn’t just that, though. After those three days to elevate and ice my ankle nonstop, I realized that simply to sit with everything felt terrible. Take the ankle pain away from the yoga equation, it still felt terrible to be there with all that silence and stillness. However good it was for me, however much I should sit with what was hard, I felt terrible in that pristine space. So, I stopped.
I still wonder sometimes whether yoga or meditation would help more than cursing. I drew the conclusion that for now, cursing works better for me, and I haven’t wanted to take a yoga class since.
When things are hard, rather than fight, go with the bad—ride the current because you can’t swim against it—but when things are easy, go with the good. The hard stuff showed me this. If I’ve changed my tack, it’s that I aim for comfort a little more, challenge a little less. I like peanut butter and I like carrots. I always have. Like Frances of Bread and Jam For before she began to eat everything, I appreciate that comfort foods exist because we take comfort in the beloved.
A year later, M and I still curse over text. Now, we just complain about the husbands and the kids.
Though the forecast semi-promised rain, the afternoon of our upstairs housemates’ clothing swap was ushered in to the best Memorial Day weekend in New England weather. It was hot, yet fresh in the sunshine, comfortable in the shade, bright, clear blue sky with puffy white clouds above and thick, healthy green grass below.
Em and Nell—the two sisters from upstairs—and a few friends began to lay down sheets and unpack clothing from bags and boxes. Other friends walked down the grassy hill with more, which were placed by category onto the ground. They brought shirts and pants, skirts, dresses, and shoes. Home baked goods—a plate of brownies, another of cookies dusted on top with powdery confectioner’s sugar, and chocolate chip cookies—appeared, as well as bags of salty snacks and plates and containers with watermelon and grapes. Beer and a big bottle of wine arrived, too. There were no cups. People shared, swigged.
Nate and Ben, the two sisters’ boyfriends, looked on. The ponytailed boyfriend was a housemate, the shorthaired boyfriend a visiting beau. Ben walked from his woodshop in the barn and back to the grass several times. For a year, every Saturday morning he drove off early to attend a boat building class. His canoe was lodged on a rack in the open middle barn. An onlookers’ corner formed in the shade, more males than females. There wasn’t much for them to do but sit and chat and drink a beer and look moderately bored. This was a big step up from waiting at a ladies’ clothing store while your girlfriend tries stuff on, but that vibe endured, just a bit, the price of boyfriend-dom or of being part of any group that wasn’t engaged in your dream activity. It wasn’t quite a Memorial Day Party.
In the thicket of swappers, though, hugs and squeals and vamping ensued with gleeful abandon as clothes came on and off of bodies and bodies moved between states of dress and undress. A pause in the action occurred about an hour in for everyone in that swapping circle to make introductions: name, gender, preferred pronoun—the icebreaker trifecta for twentysomethings in the twenty-teens.
One of the most beloved in the group had recently announced her transition. She’d changed her name, completed a course of testosterone blockers, and begun estrogen. Short dark hair growing out, Marta graced a new-to-her blue dress quite stunningly—to everyone’s accolades. The male clothing she’d had—work clothes, play clothes, and so much workout gear—couldn’t come along. Her former drag items no longer worked, either. Whatever those had been, playful or experimental, no longer applied. What to wear and who to become melded now and, amongst the heaps of clothing, she found nothing else she really wanted. Meantime, a rainbow-striped baseball cap made the rounds of heads. Eventually, it was left on the roof of our black sedan, and I brought it inside to our mudroom. Perhaps some child or tween might take a shine to it.
The big yellow house we live in has an apartment on the top, which, for over a dozen years, we’ve bartered for hours, mostly for childcare and the light housekeeping duties that keep a family functional: laundry assists and kitchen cleanup and some cooking.
The barter tends to be with young adults in the twenties, a changeable time. Newly graduated from college, newly cohabiting, newly married, newly out (but not to the family), newly employed or trying to become employed, or applying to graduate school, no one who’s moved here planned to set roots from a top floor flat. Transition, even when there’s a person who stays for a couple of years, is implicit, because the apartment’s appeal is the bargain—no cash money, just time and utilities and Wifi and laundry and a place to park off-street in the winter—and the feel of your own place but in such proximity to a family. It has a separate kitchen and bathroom and entrance, yet it shares heat and laundry and Wifi and off-street parking in the winter. In over a decade-plus, the two-bedroom has housed somewhere near twenty people—it’s hard to keep count. Perhaps it’ll click for someone for longer, but somehow I don’t expect it, at least not in this incarnation.
The spring and fall swaps started two years ago with these sisters. My closet and drawers emptied in increments over time, to my relief. Clothing and shoes of my twenties and beyond that had lingered in my possession unworn were released—and I was freed of whatever the threads held over me. The sisters pluck favored items from my contributions to the swaps before they begin. A running top went to Nell; that morning, Em and her best friend appeared in linen sundresses, sleeveless with collars and big buttons down the front I’d released from my closet, sundresses I used to wear. My best friend, Penny, wore those dresses, too. I had three. I kept just one for the dog days. I know Penny still has at least one left, because she wore it when visiting last summer. Once, a grey and white striped cotton tank dress was handed to me. I put it in my closet, never felt comfortable in it, and placed it in a bag six months later. The way I want the swaps to work for me is as license to push the extraneous away and let my closets and drawers speak to the life I lead right now—or as close to that goal as I can get.
A swap cycle ago, my daughter received the metallic lacy tank shirt—a shirt for Em, a dress for my daughter—that she’d coveted; it’s become a dress-up staple. There is an element of dressing up to the swap culture—and to the twenties. “The clothes have gotten nicer, more professional,” Em observed earlier this year. “More of us have real jobs, ones you need to dress for.”
One of our dearest of babysitters—a friend and former housemate, too—moved to New York just over a year ago, and she’d come up for the weekend’s swapfest. In belted jeans that fit perfectly and a tee, Lila looked fantastically herself, but a sleeker version, as New York can bring out. Her reddish hair was longer but seemed to have been cut recently. She seemed neat, put together. She loved her job and the chance to go to art openings and film screenings and her housemates in Brooklyn. She awaited another position at the auction house, and grad school loomed more as possibility than pressure. “It couldn’t be better,” she said. She’d pieced together work, first in a store and then increasingly “in her field” here for a couple of years before the right New York opportunity arose.
Nell spent more time with her visiting beau in the onlookers’ corner than in the swap heap of clothes and people. She held up clothing that came from her not-quite-two-years-older sister and shrugged. “I almost always end up with Em’s clothes in the swap.” The older sister lost a lot of weight over the past year and the beloved green sweatshirt dress already went to her taller, broader-shouldered (former swimmer), barely younger sister. Both are high achievers, highly engaged, competent, capable and lovely. Their sisterhood is obvious, especially their arresting oblong eyes, and yet they come across with completely different energies—one more muscled in her upbeat-ness and drive, the other lower-keyed, yet more serious and at the same time, funnier.
Another former babysitter friend and housemate for a summer flashed her gentle smile. “I’m in Montague, now,” she’d explained—a thirty-minute drive from our house, “an herbal garden, my herbal practice and then work with a program for youth. It’s coming together.” I’d listened to the ups and downs of managing the piecemeal work and the herbal training. And on this bright day, it was all smiles and a sense that they all were nowhere near finish line but rounding the track and feeling fine.
What of the other moments? I remembered them so clearly—tears in the kitchen, eyes pooling puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t get the job,” choked the recent college graduate. It was a halftime position at a local parents’ center and while it was closer to her desired field—public health and sex education—it really wasn’t that at all. A parent from the center had gotten the job, assisting other parents and kids at the drop-in center.
“You’d have been great,” I cheered her on, “and yet you’d have been frustrated, too, because it’s not exactly what you want to do. Already you have a job doing what you want and you’re not six months out of college. The right thing will come along. It will. You’re doing so wonderfully already.” More tears, big hug—and onward, that’s the twenties. That’s life, really. She’s getting her PhD now, full ride, and the last position she applied for—sex educator at a local college—she got.
Jobs missed and gotten is only part of it. Long ago, our babysitter’s eyes blazed with adoration and she smiled like the cat that ate the canary. She and I stood with the laundry basket of clean clothing in between us. We both folded. “We’re… dating,” Hallie offered. The other half of “we” was another babysitter. Although Nic did not live in the house, she did, which meant that while the romance burned brightly, we often had moon-eyed twofers of babysitters, because they could hang out with the two kids, cross-legged amongst the blocks and books and trucks. Distracted by love, there was so much laughter that the romance was, for the kids, infectious. They loved both the very fair and self-declared sensitive young woman and the beanpole young man with slack eyes and a zest for Buddhism, so the pairing was kind of magical. Please don’t break up in my living room if it comes to that, I remember thinking. I hope I didn’t say it out loud, but I might have. I wasn’t so very far from breakups myself, and I still had enough single friends searching for love that the potential for disaster felt fresh enough—coupled with the fact that my kids were small and I felt dependent upon the babysitters for my emotional survival.
Hallie is married now—not to Nic—and has an eighteen-month-old boy with carrot hair and blue eyes that will bore holes into her heart.
What sticks? What do you let go? What returns? Like the clothes on the piles, there’s not really one answer. Answers form a shape shift, the questions blend in, the colors are your favorite and then you’ve worn them so much they’ve worn out their welcome. There will become, in your mind, a bright green era or a vegan period or a time when the relationship was all about starry-eyes and then… not.
Meantime, the afternoon’s happy, hugging crew strewn across the lawn like so many to-be-swapped clothes included a reluctant eleven-year-old boy and a toddling one-year-old boy. The clothes and people continued to arrive. The neighbors’ grandchildren looked on at first and then disappeared, having seen some bras and tattooed bellies. People in states of undress reveal things about themselves that you did not know in inked bellies and backs with flowers and words and leaves. My daughter, who is six, went from the swing to Lila’s lap. Our two-year-old neighbor pal stuck to the climber and swings, mostly swinging on her belly. Yoni, her babysitter, found clothes. I snapped photos; I chatted with former and current babysitters and their friends, my friends through them and hoped my clothing found happy homes. Besides the linen dresses, this time I’d unearthed some things from deep in a closet—a brown jacket and pleated skirt that would be retro now, and likely in style again, a flowered corduroy dress that I’d loved, brown, grey, reddish hues and drop-waist with buttons in front (I guess I liked buttons), leggings and comfy black pants that straddled the line between clothing and pajamas.
I love to watch these young adults grow, to see the ways they reach toward dreams, and especially perhaps the way they revel in friendships. They sew a world together between them like homemade fabric flags waving. I envy their time—the potlucks and parties and nights out dancing, the brunches and weekends and hikes—not because I want for friends, or because I never see mine. I do, in fact. But I miss the way these young adults’ time unfolds opportunities to hang out abound so amply. Friendships take up a particular kind of space, edged out by romantic partners and children and extended family. Things become more encumbered, more weighted, less blowy. My friendships were like that once: juicy, time consuming, and filled with rituals and catch phrases and photos of one another that we passed around, hand to hand.
I’d let go of the electric blue suede short boots with the pointy toes and chunky heels a while before, but they were emblematic of my twentysomething self. They were as hip as I got, a little sassy, cute, and hopeful. They were confident boots and in them, I felt confident. That’s a sensation that I experienced fleetingly—and remains, frankly, fleeting. When Em nabbed low cowboy boots a couple of swaps earlier, she’d declared, “I think I know what you were like when you were my age now,” and in a way, I think she did.
Some of the clothing I’ve offloaded over time is very big and baggy, other things are small and clingy. My body, my style, my stage of life changed over those decades. I worked. I went to graduate school. I moved away as a newlywed for an eighteen-month adventure in London. The wedding was a huge affair, with so many friends spilling in from afar and from near. We feasted on the friendships, the old ones and new ones and middle-length ones. For years and even decades when someone became important to us, we wished that somehow through magic or time travel, we could have shared that friend-fest with that person, too. We returned from London barely three months before our first baby arrived. I became a mom, and despite conflicted feelings, a Mom, too. I became a writer. I volunteered.
I’d joked for years that our house served as excellent birth control, filled with one, then two, then three, then four kids—but the fourth brought infant lust to the towheaded artist on the top floor. Sloan wanted a baby so badly and adored our tiny gal so much that it saddened him to leave for graduate school. Being gay served as excellent birth control just then, too. I cried when Sloan left (in our old car, sold to him for cheap) because I so adored him. But with all these people, something reminds me of them and I can reach out and they reach back, because we did happen into one another’s lives during rich times, ones that we hold tenderly.
The whole time, with all those practice twentysomethings I thought that by the time I began to launch—or prepare to launch—my own kids, I’d be able to do it better because of all I’d learned. And maybe that’s true: I saw that encouragement is what older adults can offer and the willingness to brainstorm and write endless references for as many years out as requested. I saw that you could love new things via younger people: music and Zumba, a better way to make jam or put the toys away. You could remember how poignant and how free and how confusing freedom felt and how much it cost to have your car towed.
But now I have to let go. I have to not worry about the fact that things will go awry and the place will be a mess—and then maybe clean, maybe not, depending. I have to trust that trial and error is, it turns out, inevitable. Nothing is smooth, not really. All that effort to smooth the way for my children, not so much to do their laundry (although there’s that) but to manage things for them—the many check-ins with teachers and the many lessons and classes and teams and enriching books and rules or letting go of the rules, the endless, endless bedtimes—wasn’t a recipe for these next steps. How much is rent? How much is insurance? What do I do when I can’t do the math assignment? Do I ask her out? I couldn’t have pre-answered those questions and so many others. I tried; I whispered to my eldest son as an infant all the important stuff, like “don’t drink and drive,” or “use condoms” or “respect women.” I like to believe he heard me, and when he needs that critical good advice, it’ll rise up like the long buried memory it is, soggy and warm and still intact.
The swaps are the young adult version of offloading the kids’ hand-me-downs. You keep letting go, and eventually, you realize you’ve grown. Each one of you has grown, not just the kids. The thing that remains isn’t a shirt; it’s not a moment or a skill; it’s love. You’ve done right because you’ve loved. You’ve loved and you’ve done right. That’s how it comes out in the wash. That’s how every one of you gets to the thirties.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a contributor to Full Grown People. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth, amongst other places.
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.
When he first started to stay over at our house, my then future-stepfather brought my mother a curious gift. It was a rather large brass horn, used by hunters, he said. The brass curled around itself; the flare of the horn was handsome. But it was odd, this object. We all stared at the horn and then at him when he presented it to her. The gift wasn’t romantic, nor did it have to do with dreams of hunting trips. It was supposed to be practical. “If I snore too loudly,” he explained, “just blow the horn.”
My mother practically giggled at the gift. She certainly blushed. She mumbled something along the lines of his snoring being “not that bad.” She was happy, that much was clear, and I was relieved and pleased for her.
By rights, though, he should have brought me a kazoo—or a foghorn. His snores traveled through the ceiling of what had been her room and quickly became theirs right through my bedroom floor. He was, indeed, a loud snorer—the loudest, in fact, I’ve ever known. The sound resembled a cross between a drone and a series of honks. You could picture some cartoon character with a big bill or an outsized schnozz.
Their romance began near the end of my high school career and my leaving for college. The snoring served as a tiny sign to get out, a harbinger. Things were changing in the household. That was fine—I was ready to leave. Most of the time, I found the incredibly thunderous sounds from below more amusing than annoying. It was loud, but it was at a safe remove.
Years later, I met the love of my life. It turns out that Hosea, too, snores. His snoring is a honking, snuffly, schnozzy, start-and-stop affair. Sometimes, it reminds me of a monologue, comedic to the listener, dramatic to the performer. Except the performer sleeps through it and the listener finds herself in a tragedy, the one of being awake to hear it in the middle of the night. I can’t say whether he snored less early in our relationship or whether I was so entirely smitten for the first decade and a half that I just didn’t care. I care now.
My boyfriend-turned-husband displayed an uncanny ability to sleep through anything. Hoseasnored and he slept, the one never disturbing the other. At the beginning of our relationship, in fact, I was in the midst of a kitchen renovation that required some work on the roof just beneath my bedroom. Think hammers that pounded loud enough to seem as if the work were going on inside your bedroom. He slept right through the ruckus morning after morning, long after the sun rose high in the sky. My usual wakeup time was more in the dawn hours and so I’d go about my day, incredulous that neither heavy construction nor full sun woke him. He often worked into the wee hours; he wasn’t a slacker. Our opposite tendencies had advantages from the perspective of an early riser: Hosea didn’t bother me when I did my best work, because he was fast asleep during my most cherished work hours.
When we became parents, his natural night owlish tendencies cut both. Chicken or egg, the first baby was a night owl, too. They hung out—and the baby slept in, once he was old enough not to wake up all day and night long. We had to wake him for preschool. On the positive side, the middle-of-the-night stuff could fall to my dear husband before he’d actually want to go to sleep. On the negative side, every early morning waking—with each child, the hours got more “kid normal”—fell to me and my precious early mornings evaporated. Back on the up side, Hosea can drive teenagers at night and recently chaperoned a cast party at our house that began at one a.m. and ended at four. I slept through the entire shebang. Also on the up side: I tend to go to bed before he does. Often, he’s in bed, reading, and turns the light off for the two minutes it takes for me to drift off. That’s sweet—quiet and sweet.
I’ve come to imagine snoring is much like the ripeness of high school and college-age males. Back when our bodies first discovered one another’s, the funky ripeness became part of the appeal. A strong scent was a strong sensation. Their funk was, when we were together, mine in a way.
At some moment over the last few years, when the very dear and lovely and loud husband’s snoring woke me, I ceased to be charmed—or forgiving. I went from unflustered to fully furious with flip-of-a-switch speed. I’d poke him. “You’re so loud!” I’d call out, not quite yelling but certainly not whispering. Whispers had no impact at all. I needed to put more muscle into my voice than was readily available in the middle of the night, which is part of why I got so enraged. Ginger prods did not rouse him either. I had to poke or shake. This required effort. The act of attempting to get him to roll over or shut up woke me up more, after I’d already been awoken by his sonorous snores. This was a recipe for a trip to nowhere good and quickly.
Every next snore that he snored once I was awake and trying to get him to stop snoring just pissed me off even more. This assault on my sleep, after years of babies and toddlers and anxiety over the babies and toddlers, was kind of a final straw. I didn’t want to be bothered by my husband. All those parenting hours that had chipped away at our alone time and our romance time were compounded in the middle of the night by his being the one to steal my rest from me. It was the opposite of romantic. It was burdensome and enraging.
Still, divorce did not enter my mind.
I began to fantasize about separate rooms. Sometimes, when it gets bad, Hosea shifts to a kid’s bed or the couch in the room off our bedroom. Sometimes, if a kid has already moved into our bed, he’ll simply take the kid’s bed. Mostly, though, he prefers our bed and his position beside me. Lucky me. I mean that, you know, except for the sleeplessness. “Would separate rooms help?” he asked one morning after I hadn’t slept much at all. “If that’s what it takes, let’s do it. It’s not like we’re doing anything in our bed at night surrounded by all these children other than sleeping.
“Sleeping,” he added, “if we’re lucky.”
It was practically the most romantic offer ever made under the circumstances. I felt cared for and understood. Our romance remains alive, despite all those children. Our love is strong. Partners in exhaustion (and often in anxiety, too), we both covet ever-elusive sleep. Regardless of whether I’d like my own bedroom—and I know I’m not the only woman to want one—the truth is we don’t have an extra bedroom.
After years of practice, Hosea responds pretty well to being jostled. I don’t have to shake so hard or poke so pokily or yell so loud. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles whenever I have to do so. He is, I know he is, as he slumbers on and I lie awake for a while. Unromantic as snoring is, insomnia is pretty much of a mood dampener as well. Some nights I lie awake, perplexed that I’m awake and that what bothers me are such silly things as snoring—or teenagers’ socks strewn across the floor or loads of other things I never thought I’d be bothered by, for that matter. I don’t know what I thought would preoccupy me. It just wasn’t stuff like this.
Rather than simply have me furious at him every single night, we began to seek solutions. Hoseawears anti-snoring nose strips when he sleeps. They resemble band-aids. Some nights, they really help; other nights, they seem decorative, like the Dora the Explorer band-aids my daughter insists on wearing. After years of my badgering, Hosea finally visited an allergist. The allergist identified allergies and prescribed new medication. The snoring has decreased in frequency and audibility.
The white noise machine I bought to help drown him out helps some, too, although not once I’m in awake and especially not once I’m kicked into worried mode. My mother’s white noise machine is the public radio station, which drones on all night long—and serves the secondary purpose of distraction if she wakes up anxious. Also, my son notes her hearing isn’t quite what it used to be. We got into her car recently—the radio blasting—and I’d have to agree with him. I guess I’m still hopeful that, like my mother has somehow done, I will eventually reach a state of accepting accommodation in regards to my husband’s snoring. She continues to insist it’s “not that bad.” Hosea hasn’t gotten me a horn, and I haven’t begun to lose my hearing, not even selectively.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.
New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.
I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.
Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.
While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.
In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.
I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.
When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.
I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.
But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.
Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.