Rachel and I told the kids that we were separating on a Saturday night—also known in our then-household as Family Movie Night. Family Movie Night was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: we each took turns picking a film, and then the four of us hunkered down with pizza and popcorn in the basement and watched it together.
Family Movie Night was about as democratic as it gets, which means that if I had to sit through Soccer Dog: European Cup and suffer the unrelenting vulgarity (and grudging hilarity) of Dumb and Dumber, then in turn my sons had to put up with my fondness for classics like Annie, School of Rock, and Beetlejuice, and with Rachel’s fascinating but maybe slightly off-base pick of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
We’d decided to separate a couple of months earlier, in an eerily calm conversation, one of us at either end of the living room couch, an afghan covering our feet in the middle. “Decided,” perhaps, isn’t entirely accurate; I, at least, had decided weeks earlier that I was done, that there would be no more couples counseling, no more trying to fix what was irreparably damaged. More precisely, then, we acknowledged that the marriage was over. If I’d had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled when Rachel excused herself from the conversation to use the bathroom. As she walked up the stairs, the thought that rose, gleeful and unbidden, in my head was, “Now I can renovate bathroom exactly how I want it.”
Since that day, we’d been white-knuckling it to get through the winter school break, through Christmas (and an accompanying, weeklong visit from my mother-in-law), through the regular school/music lessons/soccer/swimming/meals/homework routine.
It was a surreal, slightly desperate time, punctuated by the confusing beauty of occasionally lovely family dinners and moments of pure joy with the boys, moments when Rachel and I looked at each other across the dining room table and shook our heads in disbelief that we were undoing this, even as we both knew exactly why. Ending the marriage was the right decision, and the much more frequent moments where we seethed silently, argued in whispers, retreated to our various corners of the house—or left it altogether, shaking in anger and grief—confirmed that.
Before we told the kids, we had needed time to figure out some basic facts — who would move out (her), how we would divide our time with the kids (50/50), how much the house was worth (I called an appraiser), how we would create a separation agreement and what it might look like (we hired a mediator, engaged our lawyers), how we’d handle living arrangements until she found a new place (we’d alternate spending time in the house with the children and staying with friends).
In focusing on those details, we were also making space to let the enormity of our decision sink in, to shift from envisioning a future together to a future apart, its unknown possibilities both exciting (bathroom!) and terrifying (money, loneliness). In figuring out schedules and valuations, we began the process what it would mean to let go, to be able to stop trying to work things out as a couple. In my better moments, it occurred to me that at least the problems we were dealing with now with had solutions.
And now, we had to figure out how to tell the boys.
On this particular Saturday evening, our seven-year-old son got to choose what we’d be watching for Family Movie Night.
“He wants Titanic,” Rachel texted me that morning. “It’s a metaphor.”
“I’ll miss your gallows sense of humor,” I wrote back. It was true.
Is there any good way to tell your children that their parents are splitting up? We’d been putting off the conversation until we could give them some credible information about why and how and where and with whom they’d be living, at least in the shorter term. We’d rehearsed the basics of what we needed to say — that it wasn’t their fault, that we loved them both deeply, that we’d tried really hard for a long time, that no one hated each other, that we’d still see lots of each other even on the days we weren’t all together.
Still, I felt entirely unprepared for the conversation, my dread mounting as the day (soccer practice, diving lessons, Pokémon club, playdates) wore on. I will admit that I dropped by a friend’s house in the late afternoon and took her up on her offer to share some of her clonazepam stash. In the end, I didn’t take any of the tiny pink pills that she’d carefully cut in half, but their very presence, in a baggie in my jeans pocket, felt like a talisman, warding off the worst.
Plus, we had a three-hour, sinking ship of a movie to watch. Subject matter aside, the sheer length of Titanic meant that we had to get the conversation over with quickly if we had any hope of actually watching the movie and getting to bed at a reasonable hour, putting the day and its challenges behind us.
Looking back, my focus on the logistics of the evening seems misplaced, a minor technicality in the grand scheme of what we were about to unleash on our kids. But so much—perhaps most—of parenting is about seemingly minor technicalities, details around snacks and screen time and who sits where and the right socks. In the midst of chaos, these details took on, at least momentarily, as much weight as housing appraisals and custody schedules. Or maybe it was simply that I had some control over them, could use them as a roadmap for the conversation, for the evening that would follow it.
We called, as planned, a family meeting. What we didn’t plan was our younger son insisting on having a tickle fight with Rachel immediately beforehand. On, of all places, our bed, the bed that we both, often, still slept in together, if awkwardly and chastely. (We didn’t have a spare room; the couch was uncomfortable; many nights we were simply too exhausted to bother contemplating other arrangements.) Eventually our ten-year-old joined in, as did I—because things were already strange enough, because who knew how many more moments like this we’d ever have, this family, together?
So there we were, the four of us, wrestling and giggling, the two of us with a secret and the two of them with no idea that their mothers’ marriage had hit its own iceberg.
Finally, I looked at my watch, and then at my ex. “We have something we need to talk to you about,” Rachel said, cutting short the tragic, gleeful puppy pile.
“What?” asked our firstborn.
“About a decision that Susan and I have made about our partnership,” she said, carefully.
“What about it?” asked his younger brother, utterly jovially. “Are you gonna get a divorce?”
Rachel and I looked at each other, and then back at them. “Well,” she said, “yes.”
I watched the expressions on their faces change slowly, identically: from open, tired delight to cloudy confusion, to fear, and then shock, then disbelief. “Really?”
Both kids looked from each of our faces to the other’s, scanning our expressions for some sign that we were joking, that this was just some warped continuation of our previous frolicking.
We launched into our prepared talk. There were tears, and hugs, and, eventually—because my children are children—talk of new kittens at the new house, “and maybe an Xbox!”
And then we ate pizza and watched Titanic, the hockey game dialed up on the iPad as well.
For days afterward, our younger son would repeat, “That was weird, the way that you told us.”
“Yeah,” I would say back. “It really was.”
“I wish you could’ve told us slower,” he’d say. I didn’t know how to answer. How could I explain that I’d been carrying around the news for so long that the weight of it was almost unbearable? That the months of that secret felt like the longest, slowest ones of my life?
“I was having a really good day until you told us that,” our older boy kept saying. “I won my soccer game, I won at Pokémon, the Blackhawks beat the Canadiens the night before, and then you told us you were getting divorced.”
“Yeah,” I finally answered. “It wasn’t a very good way to end the day. But, what if you had a really terrible day, and this was just the icing on the cake? And then you’d be all like, First we lost at soccer, and then I lost Pokémon, and the Habs won, and to top it all off, my parents told me that they were separating.” I managed to get a smile out of him.
“Maybe one day,” I said to him, “maybe one day, the way we told you will be one more story that we can tell about our family. Maybe one day, we’ll be able to look back on this and laugh and say, Remember when Rachel and Susan told us in the middle of a tickle fight that they were getting separated, and then we all watched Titanic together? And it will be strange and a little bit sad, but it will also be funny, and it will still be our story. All of ours.”
As we watched Titanic on that final Family Movie Night, Rachel and I looked at each other, often, over the heads of our sons. Once, we touched hands, nodding to each other silently: We got through this. We’re going to get through this.
Our younger son loved the film. His older brother was indifferent.
And Rachel and I?
We agreed, wholeheartedly, that it was a disaster.
The sliding glass door to the back of our house is large and unobstructed and like a huge movie screen, a world happening within four sides.
I am a spectator, observing the sway of branches in a wind that would snatch my breath away, the fury of rainstorms that tinge the sky green with a sudden drop in barometric pressure that I could feel squeezing and pulling my body, the gentleness of sunlight sparkling on snow that would have twisted my muscles too tight in the cold. I stayed inside because I had to. I watched the world outside through this frame because it was all I could do to be a part of the outside world.
Summer is so unforgiving in its beauty and its heat. I wish ugliness and boredom. I wish heat came automatically with a barren dry hellscape, a vision I could feel justified in closing the drapes against, scenery no one would blame me for hating. I wish 100 degrees came without sprinklers and snow cones and dusk and lightening bugs and the smell of tomato plants growing so that I didn’t sit inside filled with envy and lost opportunities. The rectangle of outside life I can see is gorgeously blue and peony pink and sunflower yellow and vibrant green. Each time I pass into that world, though, I can only stay a little while before I seem to collapse in on myself, the cell walls that keep my body upright softening like ice cream and falling inward into an inevitable puddle.
Winter is unforgiving in its beauty and its cold. When it’s ugly and slush-gray on the ground and slate-gray in the sky, I can convince myself that there is nothing more to want than coziness and movies and warm food. But often enough the rectangle I can see is dazzling with diamonds, the sharp outlines of black branches tangled in the most lovely way, dashes of red as cardinals flit in and out of our hedges and the sun in winter comes at a clean-edged new angle. I remember that the air in winter feels cleaner, the cold coming through your lungs seems to purify the world and I want to be outside to feel that. But to feel the cold means that my muscles will react like starved and beaten dogs flinching and retracting away from a threat, and I can’t risk that, not today.
Sometimes the rectangle is a movie screen, showing reels of action that I may watch but not participate in. Snowball fights where the hit and explosion of powder occur just off stage right, the cinematographer giving just the edge of a child bending and scooping snow. The director that allows me glimpses into my children’s outdoor lives makes sure not to give away too much. I’m allowed a quick impish glance at the camera before the characters run off again—where they’re going and what they’ll do next a mystery. The rule for playing in the snow without me is that I have to be able to still see them through the rectangle without much effort. Within earshot is too far away. Within my line of vision is the right distance, where I can bring them back too soon because if I don’t, if I wait too long, I will not have enough energy for pulling off boots and making hot chocolate.
Life as a spectator is not bereft of joy, but it is not a participatory kind of joy. It is observational and it requires that you truly love the subjects of your observation; you must not be consumed with envy at their joy. There are certain people I do not love enough to merely watch them being happy without me. Children are different though, because I would gladly walk through broken glass for them. This is nothing so dramatic—I simply have to find contentment in looking through unbroken glass instead of being on the other side of it.
Sometimes I determine that I have to be a participant, that I have to be active. Sometimes it may be a function of time, a calculation of how long it has been since I joined in. Sometimes my calculations encompass the savvy of a Las Vegas odds-maker and determine that the risk is outweighed by reward. Sometimes I find that I cannot abide simply watching another minute longer.
One winter day, strep had overtaken my usual illness, the sharp rasping swallow punctuating normal exhaustion. My oldest was finishing his basketball season, and at the last practice the parents were invited to join in games. Despite being practically bed-ridden for months, I did. I put on sneakers and threw a headband over my hair and tried to coordinate my body in ways I had never tried before for relays, and I called plays I didn’t understand, and I ran all-out sprints. It felt silly but I wanted him to remember this effort, this effort to overcome my embarrassment and illness for him at least for a bit. I dropped every ball thrown my way, and it would hit my foot and skitter off and I was trying to show him that these things can be laughed off, that trying new things will mean mistakes that are survivable. Lessons I felt like my boys weren’t hearing often enough—that they were worth my effort, and embarrassment is temporary, and joy can happen in the midst of epic failures of skill. Sometimes I understand that showing them what that can look like means more than telling them.
We got to a game where only three players were on the court at a time. My kid and I and a teenage boy were to take over a few roles. The older boy and I would play offense and my guy would play defense and the only goal was for offense to get the ball through the hoop. Every other parent got the ball to the teenager, and the teenager took a shot. This time the teenager threw the ball to me, and I actually caught it without a fumble or bobble. Stunned, I realized I was near enough the hoop that even with my stubby, weak, and unpracticed arms, I might have a shot. I pivoted to the hoop and, as I lifted my eyes, brought the ball up, and it began to leave my fingertips, it was smacked out of the sky inches from my nose. I was dumbfounded and all I saw was the line of other parents, children, and coaches with huge eyes and even bigger surprised smiles having witnessed my son fly through the air higher than ever before to knock that ball out of the sky. Epic. It was epic. We all laughed helplessly for minutes on end, kids recreating his block and other kids recreating my stunned expression.
My guy was so pleased with himself, but then the light for him went out for just a moment as he whispered to me, “You could have really made it in—I am so sorry.” He realized that he would have been devastated to be robbed of a moment of triumph that no one expected to see.
But how can I explain to him, that for my effort I got to be a player on the movie screen, a key foil needed to create an amazing unrepeatable moment? That I got to be in the scene instead of the audience for once? That I was within the frame of the rectangle, on the other side of the glass and be there to assist in something great? He would be given an award for the best defensive play of the season, against his own mother, when we got the end-of-the-season ice cream.
And how can I explain to him that the spectators to the scene mattered as much as the actors? That their smiles and laughter meant as much to the moment? That the people watching and the people doing are inextricably bound together and one is just as important as the other, that the rectangle I sometimes have to view life through is not a movie screen with the actors unaware that the movie-goers even exist?
How can I explain the joy of knowing that when I am only able to watch, I matter as much as when I am able to act?
KRISTIN WAGNER is a creative non-fiction writer, a former teacher, a mother to two school-aged boys, a wife, and a person with a collection of chronic illnesses. When those illnesses allow, she posts at kristindemarcowagner.com on topics ranging from disability advocacy to making cupcakes with her kids. Other publishing credits include essays at The Manifest-Station (on illness and parenting), and The Rumpus (on teaching and caring for students), and right here at Full Grown People (on teaching and caring for students and parenting).
My partner was brewing a pungent, murky brown concoction on the stove. The label on the box beside the stove listed burdock root, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel, and turkey rhubarb root, but it gave me no clue as to the purpose of the ingredients.
“What’s it for?” I asked, sniffing the pot.
Ted mumbled something unintelligible.
“Is it a laxative?” I asked.
“For digestive problems?”
He paused. “Nope.”
Puzzled, I tried again. As a custom cabinet-maker, he had been working long hours and weekends but seemed energetic and healthy. “Is it for your anemia?” Several months before, he had been diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency, but he’d been taking a supplement.
I made a few more failed guesses. Finally, he said flatly and quietly, “It’s for cancer.”
I stared at him. “Why on earth do you think you have cancer?”
He kept stirring the pot. “I’ve been passing blood.”
When I urged him emphatically to see the doctor for more tests, he shrugged. He carefully poured the steaming brew through a sieve into a couple of large jars, not spilling a single drop. “I guess I should.”
Several weeks later, we sat with the gastroenterologist in a small examining room, looking at a color print-out of the images taken during an internal scan of Ted’s intestines. One image revealed subtle polyps that looked hardly more sinister than crimson crayon scrawls. Another image showed the slight bulge of a small polyp that resembled a small fleshy boil or pimple. But then there was the final image: it looked like a blob of gummy red gelatin encasing curled-up maggots. It filled a third of the intestinal tunnel and resembled a fetal mouse or fetal frog. I repressed an instinctive shudder.
“It’s cancer,” the doctor said without drama. “I took a biopsy, but I’m fairly certain.”
So this was what cancer looked like from the inside. Ted’s father had died over two decades earlier of complications following stomach cancer surgery. A decade earlier, Ted`s eldest sister had died of colorectal cancer at the age of fifty-seven. Years of gruelling chemotherapy, radiation and experimental therapies had failed to stop its spread. We were informed that people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it. Being the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer after prostate cancer for men, it is the second leading cause of death from cancer overall, although if detected early, it is over ninety percent curable.
The doctor matter-of-factly went through the process that we’d be going through: staging to determine how far the cancer had spread, an ultrasound and CT scan, analysis of the biopsy results, a referral to a surgeon. He drew a diagram of the kind of bowel resection surgery that Ted could expect to undergo—it looked deceptively simple, a cross between plumbing repair and alterations at a tailor’s.
Strangely, neither Ted nor I was alarmed. Perhaps we’d used up our storehouse of apprehension during the weeks leading up to the colonoscopy From this moment on, he would go through the necessary tests and procedures with all the hoops and steps laid out for him. It was as if we were both buckled into the seat of a medical amusement park ride called “the oncological flow chart.” A positive result on one test might lead to a diversion down a more complex chain of procedures; a negative result might lead to a positive destination reached in a shorter time. None of the flow charts in the cancer brochures led to the word “death.” But it existed, unwritten, just over the edge.
We arrived for Ted’s surgery at Vancouver’s historic St. Paul’s hospital on the first day of August. As we dutifully followed the painted red line on the floor through the body of the older buildings into the newer sections, we passed commemorative plaques about the nuns who had fundraised on horseback at mining and logging camps to raise funds to found the hospital at a time when the current downtown site was located on the outskirts of wilderness.
Little did we know how familiar we would become with that brick edifice with its threading red line. Advised initially that he might expect a stay of five days, Ted would remain there for over four weeks. I would be taking the bus there daily, sometimes twice daily, for the remainder of the summer.
We’d prepared for weeks before the surgery, going in for Ted’s appointments with the surgeon and for scans, as well as to the pre-admission clinic to review hospital checklists, instructions, and test results which I gathered in a purple file folder on the kitchen counter near the phone. That file became both compass and hub through the summer and fall.
On the morning of the operation, we were the first to arrive at the day surgery department at what seemed like any typical waiting room—institutional chairs arranged against the pastel walls, a coffee table with outdated magazines. After he checked in at the reception desk, Ted changed into a hospital gown and we sat together until he was called. It didn’t seem to be a place of sufficient gravitas, of momentous, radical change, where your guts would be sliced open, dismantled, rearranged or removed—or where you could die.
Because the surgery was supposed to last three hours, I took the bus home while Ted got his abdomen shaved and epidural and intravenous lines inserted. Too restless, I returned downtown. There were booths and kiosks set up along Davie Street as part of a block party in advance of the Pride Parade the next day. At Bute and Davie I walked by the celebrated rainbow crosswalk, Canada’s first permanent rainbow-painted crosswalk added to the West End in 2013 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the local Pride Parade. I went into a dollar store to buy a small rainbow flag to mark the festivities. Inspired by Judy Garland’s song, “Over the Rainbow,” the flag had been designed for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, with special symbolic significance assigned to each colour.
Back at the hospital, I headed upstairs to Ward 10B to look for Ted. He was a bit groggy but conscious and smiling, and looked surprisingly normal except for the various tubes emerging from underneath his sheets that were connected to a catheter, an IV, and a patient-controlled hydromorphone dispensing machine known as a PCA that he could press whenever he was in pain. I pinned the rainbow flag next to the “Nothing by Mouth” sign that was turned face down on the bulletin board behind his hospital bed, wondering why each of the six beds in the room had bulletin boards with those signs and no artwork or photos.
As there didn’t seem to be any kind of bulging from his abdomen, I asked Ted if the surgeon had given him an ostomy. He wasn’t sure and hadn’t had a chance to ask. The whole idea of having your intestine protrude out from your body to expel feces into an external bag had made us both queasy and anxious, despite our having watched the obligatory DVD at the pre-admission clinic that showed gorgeous athletic men and women blithely unaffected by their ostomies.
With his permission, I gingerly lifted the sheets and then his hospital gown, bracing myself for the worst. We both peered down at his belly. There was a narrow tube leading from a dressing a few inches beneath his rib cage to a small disc-like Hemovac drain to remove the build-up of excess blood and fluids after surgery. On different parts of his belly were five neat sets of black staples along puckered, deep red incisions, with the longest row near the pubic area. Over the weeks ahead, the redness would soon fade to purple, and then eventually light brown, until the scars from the incisions were barely perceptible.
I put his gown and the sheets and blankets back in place. I felt like celebrating and considered heading out to watch the parade the next day to wave our little Pride flag. Ted had made it through surgery successfully. He was in good spirits. The cancerous tumor had been removed, with no need for an ostomy. Maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t so terrible after all?
Ted found it difficult to sleep on the ward. The blue PCA machine dispensing the hydromorphone and IV fluids ticked and clucked day and night without a break except when the IV or the medication needed to be refreshed. We pretended there were miniature robotic chickens trapped inside it, even tried to imitate the sounds. He had to take it with him to the bathroom, the IV pole draped with tubes and with electrical cords that had to be pulled out each time. But the PCA alleviated the discomfort, at least during those first few days. I fretted about the possibility of addiction, but he waved my concerns away and kept clicking the button to bliss.
When he’d been first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I had wondered how I’d feel about the hospitalization, bed pans, diapers, catheters, the physical changes to his body, the possible ostomy. Although we had lived together and become more interdependent over the past four years, he knew that I still had some doubts about our relationship. He was concerned that his care would become a burden that I would resent.
“You don’t have to come every day,” he told me.
I looked at him in disbelief. “Of course I do!”
And I did. The day after the operation, I ventured out to drift among the crowds in the intense August heat to get a glimpse of the parade. The noise and hoopla were fun, but ultimately it felt jarring to be surrounded by the teeming exuberance and staged goodwill. I rushed back to the hospital where it was quiet and cool and where I really wanted to be—with Ted.
Most of the time, after arranging plants and flowers and cards on the sill and getting him fresh ice chips, I’d gaze out the window by his bed. I’d look down at the shifting rhythm of traffic on Burrard Street and out at the glass towers that reflected both each other and a faceted sky. After drawing the curtains between us and the other patients so we could at least have the illusion of privacy, I would sometimes sit facing him on the bed, my back against the footboard, my legs alongside his, so we could hold or rub each other’s feet, which felt more intimate than holding hands.
Sometimes after the visitors had gone and if my twelve-year-old son was staying at his father’s, I’d remain to watch dusk fall across the city. I didn’t have to be social or chase down Ted’s frustratingly elusive leprechaun-like surgeon and his wandering medical team. The fluorescent lights would be turned off and everything would slowly become bathed in blue. I’d watch a DVD with him on the old portable player I’d brought, the light from the screen flickering across his face.
Other days seemed very long. I wouldn’t realize it until I returned home. Saturated from the hospital, I would want to collapse in bed, but I’d face a backlog of texts, voicemail, and email messages. My work, household chores, and tasks accumulated, undone. I had just enough energy to deal with Ted at the hospital and my son at home and not much left for anything else. But it seemed impossible for it to be any other way. Whether I was examining Ted’s stitches and dressings, helping out the nurses by changing his hospital gown or diapers, giving him sponge baths, massaging his feet, taking him for walks, or just sitting with him, it was important for me to be there. Our lives were entwined. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of how much. What bound us together wasn’t a yoke, leash or chain—it was a root.
Very soon after his surgery, Ted started receiving clear fluids. The little four ounce chilled plastic juice containers started to pile up: mostly orange, but grape and apple too. The inevitable hospital jello came also— yellow, orange, and red, laden with sugar, artificial flavours and colours, and probably made from gelatin extracted from the bones of factory farmed animals. Dishwater-like broths of questionable origin arrived as well. He downed them all willingly.
As his incisions seemed to be healing well, the type and level of foods swiftly advanced from meal to meal as the dieticians tried to speed his progress and ready his digestive system for his possible discharge from hospital in a few days’ time. He started receiving cream soups—broccoli, carrot, mushroom. When he started getting little cups of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, Ted’s eyes lit up as he devoured each one. His abdomen became increasingly bloated, however. We started joking that he was growing twins. Then rice with green beans and fish arrived, followed by a chicken sandwich, puddings. The stack of unopened juices grew taller. His belly ballooned out, painfully distended. The traffic jam inside his digestive tract became untenable. Intense, continuous nausea overcame him. He stopped smiling, his gaze turned downward and inward. The food was left untouched.
Ted rejected the insertion of a nasogastric tube for two long days. But soon, it was impossible for him to think or sleep.
“Could I get more medication for the nausea?” he pleaded with the long-suffering nurse on the ward that day.
“You’re already on the highest dose,” she said shaking her head, disapprovingly. Her tone of voice shifted into persuasive mode. “Why not try the NG tube? You’ll feel better.”
Ted was fighting his body’s natural urge to reject the food. A scan showed that a gas pocket near his duodenum was causing the blockage. He finally agreed. It took five painstaking, arduous attempts by the nurses to feed the NG tubing down his nose into his stomach while he gagged and vomited on the floor. One attempt stopped him from being able to speak. He had to yank out the tube in order communicate to them that they’d threaded it in the wrong direction, toward his trachea instead of his esophagus.
When I returned later, he was sitting with his eyes downcast with concentration and discomfort. He seemed demoralized and exhausted. Green fluid was being suctioned out through his left nostril via a long tube attached to his nose that snaked into a large plastic canister attached to a wall unit. The canister was already half full. Canister after canister was filled and emptied that day. Ted’s nausea started to subside, but talking was kept to a minimum. I fended off friends from visiting.
“I’ll never look at a green smoothie the same way again,” I told him.
Over the course of the weeks ahead, it seemed almost everyone else in the gastrointestinal ward would be “producing” the exact same green fluid irrespective of what they were ingesting, as if the ward were some bizarre factory. The sound of vomiting was common. The cleaners were regularly called in to mop the floor of spilled bodily fluids of every type.
A number of patients came and went, part of the shifting social microcosm of the ward. We joked about pitching a reality TV show called Ward 10B. There was an elderly Danish man with dementia who was scheduled for a reverse ileostomy but kept pulling out his IV and trying to flee. Beside him was an outdoorsy young man who’d been airlifted to the hospital as a result of tearing his spleen after a dive gone wrong. After a few days, he was replaced by a wiry, grizzled fellow with keen, bright eyes, who swore and complained vociferously about the food. “What’s this shit?” The patient who had a bed next to Ted’s appeared to be a new immigrant. His chador-clad wife had her hands full trying to shush two young, precocious children. He was soon replaced by another patient whom we nicknamed “The Prince.” He conversed frequently and loudly on his cell phone in Farsi while his mother fussed over him. “More ice!” he commanded the nurses repeatedly.
The insertion of the NG tube did not end Ted’s problems. Just after his surgeon left for summer vacation, Ted’s temperature began to rise dangerously. His distended belly became tender and painful. The fluid in his Hemovac tube became pus-like and fetid, as if something were rotting inside him. A CT scan showed that there were air bubbles leaking from the re-sectioned area—infection had set in. He was put on an intensive course of antibiotics via IV and his vital signs were monitored every hour.
A peculiar foggy terror filled my throat and chest. My every movement seemed sluggish as if I were trudging through swampland, but certain thoughts flitted around in obsessive loops. I questioned the doctors, sent detailed emails and texts to his family members. I peppered the night nurses with questions when I’d get home late at night. Some would brush me off; a few would update me. If he deteriorated further, he would have to be admitted to the Acute Care ward for continual monitoring and more drastic medical interventions. A second operation could be risky, and if it occurred, even more of his colon might need to be removed with the likelihood of an ostomy, probably a permanent one. He might get another infection. Recovery would be longer, slower and more complicated.
Because his system had rejected most of the food and drink they’d given him, and because of the need for the re-sectioned bowel to heal properly, the doctor prescribed daily liquid nutrients, called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). A nurse told us that each bag cost $1000 to make fresh daily and had to be specially transported to St. Paul’s from another hospital laboratory. We named it the Crisco milkshake but it seemed more akin to breast milk. Chock-full of lipids, sugars, vitamins, trace minerals, and amino acids, it was a creamy white substance that was administered by an extremely narrow catheter threaded into a central vein in his chest. A nurse told me that the leftover TPN discarded at the end of each day supposedly worked well as plant fertilizer. (I took some home for the garden—our apple tree had a bumper crop the next year.) The TPN would sustain Ted for the next three weeks while he ingested nothing but ice chips. The orderlies with the food trays would stay away: the sign on the bulletin board was now turned face-up.
The lounge in the ward had a small bookshelf with a few outdated magazines, several hospital foundation publications, and a number of dog-eared paperbacks. I noticed the cover of a single National Geographic magazine in the stack. The pristine copy was dated 1968 and its feature article described the plans for the first lunar landing. During those weeks in hospital, I sometimes felt like we’d landed on an artificial planet, a desolate sterile landscape with little vegetation, shifting inhabitants, its own unique language, hierarchies, protocols, and undeviating routines.
The whole ward seemed utterly divorced from nature: its windows wouldn’t open; the sliding glass door to the balcony off the lounge was locked; the concrete balcony itself was dirty and uninviting; there was no fresh air and little greenery other than a few limp, discarded bouquets and dehydrated plants left behind by discharged patients. I placed a hydrangea plant in the corner of Ted’s room so that he would awaken to their large blue clustered heads and rich green leaves every morning. As soon as they entered his room, the nurses and visitors would see something alive and beautiful and thriving.
Ted was supposed to have regular, short walks to maintain his circulation, increase his strength, and speed his healing. At first, it took immense effort just to get to the bathroom. He’d prepare himself with a shot of hydromorphone from the PCA, put on his special rubber-soled hospital socks, put on another hospital robe to cover his back, disconnect the NG tube during the days it was in place, clip the Hemovac to his gown, unplug the two electrical cords from the wall, drape the cords on the pole, pull himself up, and then try to walk step by shaky step without losing his balance. Getting back to bed meant going through the whole routine in reverse.
Eventually, he was able to get past the doors of the ward to reach the service elevators, next to windows that looked out onto the expanse of English Bay. He would pause there for several minutes, gripping a railing for support, before enduring the arduous fifty meter journey back to his bed.
“I was in better shape before the cancer operation,” he noted.
Right up to the day before the operation, he had been working full-time. He’d been full of vigor, tanned from a recent trek around ancient Haida villages up north, and ready to hop on his Yamaha motorcycle at any opportunity. Now he couldn‘t walk across a room without effort.
I thought of all those expressions—“gutsy,” “gut instincts,” “gut reaction,” “gut-wrenching,” “gutted,” “it takes guts,” “spill one’s guts,” “bust a gut,” and “no guts”—based on the word “guts” derived from the Old English word guttas for bowels or entrails. The adjective “visceral” comes from the Latin word viscera for inner organs also. It suddenly all made sense: the guts are located in our core, the elemental source of instinct, courage, determination, stamina, will, and strong emotion. The operation had hit Ted literally “right in the gut,” the stronghold of his vitality.
But as the days passed, his stamina gradually increased. We could extend his usual walk from the service elevators and back to include the ward down the hall. Finally, he was ready to try to take one of the notoriously slow elevators down to the fourth floor cafeteria and patio. As we waited, I could see how taxing it was for him just to stand.
The elevator finally arrived. Ted winced at every bump and jolt as we descended. The long imposed fast had eroded his body’s insulation. We made our way toward the almost vacant cafeteria. He steadily exited the open glass doors and was outside for the first time since his admission over three weeks before. As the late afternoon sunlight touched his skin, tears sprung to his eyes.
“It must be the medication,” he said.
My sister pulled up a plastic chair and helped him sit down. The plants in the concrete planters around us clearly needed watering. There were food wrappers and a few empty cups lying around, and some of the tables needed a good wipe. But it didn’t matter. We sat quietly while he closed his eyes and drank in the sunshine and the fresh air with an intense wordless gratitude.
“This is amazing,” he said at last, opening his eyes and smiling.
We talked about his progress to date. Ted had lost most of his muscle mass: his already slim 5’11 frame had been whittled down to 145 pounds. He would soon start a very cautious clear fluid diet. We stayed outside for about twenty minutes before Ted asked to return. This was the longest walk he’d taken since his admission and it had sapped his diminished reserves.
We would visit the patio again only once or twice more before his discharge; it was easier for him to take short unaccompanied walks on his floor. During the end of his stay, the monitoring of his vital signs grew less frequent, tubes were removed one by one, fewer and different medications were administered. He was even able to take his first shower. He was being released in more ways than one.
Discharge day. Ted had filled out the necessary papers and questionnaires, been briefed on his diet and pain medication. He also was entirely tube-free at last. As he put on the jeans and shirt he’d arrived in thirty days before (much looser now), I removed my son’s school watercolours from the wall and the cards from the window sill and bulletin board, erased my daily list of questions for the doctors from the whiteboard, packed up the magazines, DVDs, and the rainbow flag. The room soon looked as blank and anonymous as it had been before our arrival.
“Good luck,” said the nurse who had dexterously changed Ted’s dressings, given him injections, and adjusted the IV over the course of the month, all with an artificial arm and hand.
We gave him the still healthy blue hydrangea for the staff room, and waved at the head nurse who was engrossed with paperwork. There was no one else to say goodbye to. Almost all the patients that we’d met in the beginning of Ted’s stay had been discharged earlier. Everyone was going about their business as if this were an unremarkable day.
As we walked toward the elevators, I wondered how many patients had stayed in that ward. How many had lived and how many had died as a result of their operations? Every bodily fluid imaginable had touched those floors. Every kind of person had lain in its beds, and every kind of emotion had been felt—boredom, irritation, anger, fear, despair, agony, exhaustion, relief, even joy—the full spectrum of human emotion and humanity.
The threat of a possible cancer recurrence would linger on the horizon for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t matter. Exactly one year and one week after his surgery, we would finally get married at a private family ceremony in our backyard. As my brother drove us out of the hospital parkade onto Burrard Street into the late summer sunlight, Ted teared up again. “It’s the medication,” he said. “Makes you emotional.”
Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.
I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?
Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?
The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.
It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.
In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.
I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.
After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.
I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.
I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.
But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.
It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.
When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.
The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.
I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.
I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?
When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”
Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”
Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”
“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”
“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”
She actually said that to me.
The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.
A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:
“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.
He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”
I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.
He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.
I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.
I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.
CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.
On our fridge, there’s a pair of grainy black-and-white ultrasound stills, held up with a small plastic duck magnet and looking back at me and my husband every time we open the door for half-and-half or orange juice. In the photographs, our baby looks like a fuzzy cashew. A lima bean. A smudge on a window you could wipe away with Windex and a rag. It’s hard to believe this is where we all begin.
You may be daydreaming about having a boy or a girl, but the external genitals haven’t developed enough to reveal your baby’s sex. (Try our Chinese gender predictor for an early guess!) Either way, your baby—about the size of a kidney bean—is constantly moving and shifting, though you still can’t feel it.
I am going to be a mother, and all I can think about is my father.
My dad and I haven’t talked in nine years. But I’m the one it seems to bother. Closer to a decade than not. No phone calls, but also no letters, no emails, no texts. Not that I can imagine my dad—or the practical, literal, somewhat-adverse-to-technology engineer who was the father I used to know—texting. When I was a teenager, he was morally opposed to call waiting; in my early twenties, I alarmed him with my fumbles at blogging. I’m not alone in this—my parents had three daughters, and my younger sisters don’t have contact with our father either. It’s been so long since we’ve last talked that I have to stop and count, skip back like I’m flipping through a photo album in reverse, tallying up the times we missed. Graduations. Christmases. Birthdays. Father’s Days I avoid thinking about by giving the card section at Target plenty of distance starting right after Memorial Day.
It is surprisingly easy as an adult to go through everyday life not talking about the person who contributed half of your genetic makeup. When other people talk about their fathers, I smile or nod and hope the conversation moves on to weather. Or I talk about my father-in-law, or I cast my mind back to some time when my dad and I were talking, the more distant and innocuous memories papering over more recent unpleasantness. It’s as if I have one half of a family tree and simply painted over the other side. As if I’m walking around tilted, weighed down by one branch heavy and rich with boughs and leaves and fruit, and on the other, there’s nothing but air.
There are some big no-no’s when it comes to activities for expecting moms. Some of them are pretty obvious—no bumper cars, no new tattoos, no hot tubs—but others may surprise you.
I tell my mother I’m leaning toward sending my dad a letter. I have specific reasons. A letter is quieter. It does not demand but asks. Informs but does not interrupt.
And then, of course, I make excuses not to write it—I’m busy with grading, with talking to my students about their writing, with planning a friend’s wedding shower. In early March, I wake up, and before I can change my mind, I write to him, still in my pajamas, standing up in my kitchen, early spring light bathing the wooden countertops as I blow toast crumbs off the page. What I have to say is short and straightforward, more of a note, really, scrawled on a bright green handmade paper card from a long ago Christmas stocking. The paper feels fibery, alive, like skin; I think this card will be good luck. This feels like a special occasion, the right time to use it, but I have to use two because I ruin the first by splashing tears onto the ink.
I tell my father if all goes well, he will have a granddaughter around Labor Day. Maybe I make a bad joke about planning my pregnancy that way, evidence of a nervous tick I can’t seem to avoid even when I have the chance to edit it out. I write that I am thinking of him. That I don’t expect anything in return.
But the truth, of course, is I do expect something. I can’t not expect something even as I try to let him go. The letter itself is an extension of a hand, even if it is hesitating and trembling and uncertain. In that small envelope, I have sent part of my heart.
Your pregnancy: 15 weeks! Your growing baby now measures about 4 inches long, crown to rump, and weighs in at about 2 1/2 ounces (about the size of an apple)…although her eyelids are still fused shut, she can sense light. If you shine a flashlight at your tummy, for instance, she’s likely to move away from the beam.
Each Monday, cheery pregnancy email newsletters arrive in my email inbox comparing our baby’s growth to something edible: this week your baby is the size of a kumquat, the size of a mango, of a rutabaga, of an ear of corn. One week, my husband will receive a digital bulletin comparing our growing child to a pot roast. I’ll get an eggplant.
Included in these newsletters is no advice on how to talk to your estranged father.
My father and I stopped talking for reasons that now make us both look foolish. Maybe we have that in common. Perhaps I can stash this away in the basket of traits I’ve inherited from him: overly thick and unruly dark hair! hazel eyes! stubbornness and the inability to admit we’ve been wrong about something!
I’m sure, too, he has his own version of events, but here is how I remember it. Nine years ago, my youngest sister was graduating high school. To celebrate, my mother’s family planned a party. What my father said after he was invited: he was just there for the ceremony, flying down from New Jersey for that and only that. What he didn’t say: he had done the calculus, the return-on-investment, and the three children from his first marriage were not on the winning end. I remember pleading with him outside the newspaper where I worked at the time, my face hot and sweaty from being pressed to my cell phone. I paced up and down between hydrangea bushes, attempting to appeal to his most logical side, what rhetoricians, or people who study language and communication call logos, as in logos = a waste of time and money to fly five hundred miles only to sit in a hotel room. And then, because this was always a second and often less successful tactic with my dad, I attempted to appeal to his emotions (pathos = come on, it’s his daughter, my sister, we’re talking about here). He was unmovable as a boulder, which made me a foaming, irrational kind of furious. He grew calmer. I grew angrier. Mistakes were made, as they say. He cancelled plans to come at all. Maybe he mailed me a card, maybe followed up with phone call or two—all of this is lost in the fog of anger and hurt I was determined to wallow in—and after that we settled into a firm standoff of silence.
Here’s an addendum. The way my husband recalls it, I was also trying to persuade my dad to stay a few days longer. I was proud of the life we were building: the old bungalow we were renovating, our careers, our promise. We had 401(k)s! We had health insurance! What more can you ask of your adult children, especially if you happen to be into logic? He declined. He had to get back for Father’s Day, he said, to spend the day with my two younger half siblings.
Even now, right now, when I Google these dates and re-Google them, I’m shaking my head thinking, no, no, memory, you have it wrong. Memory may be slippery but a calendar isn’t. In 2008, my sister’s high school graduation ceremonies were on June 14. Father’s Day was the day after.
Your pregnancy: 16 weeks! Get ready for a growth spurt. In the next few weeks, your baby will double his weight and add inches to his length. Right now, he’s about the size of an avocado: 4 1/2 inches long (head to rump) and 3 1/2 ounces. He’s even started growing toenails.
The pregnancy newsletters are silent, too, on when you will know you’re bonded with your unborn child. Will it be when they are the size of a turnip? Of a butternut squash?
Early in my pregnancy, I hope I wake one day and find my instinct to be a parent waiting for me beside my bed with my glasses. Instead it feels as if I’m walking around with a low-grade flu for two or three months. It’s a malaise that spreads to my head and my heart. My body changes but not in a way that delights me; most mornings, it’s time for another nail biting game of “what clothes will fit me today?” The first and only time I enter a maternity store, I ease around racks of tee-shirts declaring in chubby script “Happiness is On the Way” implying that, at least to the wearer, happiness had never existed before and indeed could not without the prospect of becoming a biological parent. “It’s a miracle,” a friend says of my pregnancy. I shrug. Isn’t it just nature?
Science assures me indifference is normal. According to anthropologist Meredith F. Small, prenatal bonding usually happens during the second trimester. This is when mothers begin to feel their babies move; the moving it seems, makes things more real. The attachment changes with experience, too. In one study, women who have given birth and raised a child for one year felt a stronger bond with their offspring than when they were still pregnant. And this attachment isn’t solely a matter of sharing a body. It leaves room for fathers and non-biological parents to bond with their children because they want to, not because they have to. Logically, this all makes sense. Still, I study the grainy image of the cashew on the fridge and try to name what I’m feeling, testing it like it is a twisted ankle. Is it love yet? Now? Now?
What is messy and confusing about with my relationship with my father is that there is so much good I can’t wipe from my hard drive. It isn’t possible for me to just pack these childhood memories away, like old books or toys or faded clothes that really should be taken down to the Salvation Army for a donation. I replay them even when I don’t want to: the tree house he outfitted with a crate and pulley system so I could haul up my books and less compliant passengers, such as my cats; the handle he engineered out of duct tape and cardboard so I could carry cupcakes to school without squishing them; the eight-foot tall bookshelf he designed and built me after college. The nights when I had a stomach bug and he sat with me on the bathroom floor, holding back my hair as I wrapped my arms around the cool, slick sides of the toilet bowl. The wide-mouthed Cheshire cat faces he sketched in red marker on paper bags when he packed my lunch, or the songs he made up to sing to me when I had nightmares. The time, more than a year after I graduated college and should have been better able to take care of myself, when I called him from the side of a Pennsylvania interstate because my ten-year-old Nissan Sentra’s alternator had given out and I had no idea how I was going to pay for the towing let alone the cost of repairs.
Perhaps we all keep a running tally of how the people we love the most hurt us. And our parents, because they often are our flesh and bone and blood and the first humans we know, they are the ones destined to be at the top of that list. A plus in the black here for something that makes us feel loved. A row of red minuses for the things that really tick us off. Are we ever really even? When do we understand our parents as people?
Your pregnancy: 20 weeks! Your baby weighs about 10 1/2 ounces now. He’s also around 6 1/2 inches long from head to bottom and about 10 inches from head to heel—about the length of a small banana. You’ve made it to the halfway mark in your pregnancy, so celebrate with a little indulgence. Need some ideas? Try a new nightgown or pajamas, a prenatal massage, professional pictures of your pregnant self, a beautiful frame for your baby’s first picture after birth, or a piece of clothing that makes you feel really good.
For years, I thought a letter was the key to crack the silence. It was all I needed to pick this lock: a handful of magic words, a password, just like in a fairy tale. But now that I’ve sent it and it’s gone and nothing comes back, a letter also gives me license to imagine what could have been and what might have happened. What if it got lost? I wonder if I should email instead. I wonder if I even still have his email address, if he is even still working where he worked eight years ago, if he is working at all, because he could be retired. What are other ways of reaching out to your estranged father? Hallmark doesn’t make cards for this. I weigh the emotional pull of an ultrasound, the possibility of a birth announcement. “Should I send another letter?” I ask my husband. “What about certified mail?” I’m not even sure how certified mail works; will he have to go to a post office to sign for it? It seems aggressive, to send a letter that way. Demanding to be read, or least to be seen. The certainty appeals to me, though. How else do I know he knows?
What I did not write my father: I didn’t tell him it took me a long time to get pregnant, longer than I thought I should have to wait, as if becoming a parent was my right. At first, we told ourselves all the things other people were telling us: to be patient, to not worry, which, as the anxious among us know, worrying about worrying is really the most futile game a human can play with their mind. After two years, we began to see doctors. I didn’t tell my father I tried to see my life without being a mother even as we were so bent on having a child we were on the verge of starting in vitro fertilization. And we knew—we didn’t talk about this much but we knew—once we opened that box we would keep throwing money we didn’t have into it, as bottomless as it might be.
I didn’t tell my father, either, how friend after friend gave birth to one kid, then another, in the time we were trying for just a first. The few I knew were struggling, I avoided like they had a disease I could catch. How, when I heard one couple was starting IVF with an egg donor, I scoffed out loud it was going too far but inside, I was envious of their choices. I didn’t tell him what it was like to be jealous of your friends’ miscarriages, because, if you miscarried, at least you knew you could conceive. I didn’t tell him how I stopped going to baby showers. How I laid on the crackly, tight paper of an exam table at my infertility doctor’s office gazing at a poster of a Caribbean beach taped to the ceiling. There, I waited three separate times for a nurse to insert a catheter loaded with my husband’s sperm and three separate times it was in vain even though the sperm and the egg were right there, we were setting them up on a date and pulling out all the stops, a view of sugar white sands and palm trees and everything, so how could this not happen?
I didn’t tell him how infertility tests showed nothing wrong. How, for me and my husband, trying to make something together began to feel like it was cracking us apart. How we blamed each other and then when we were tired with that, we turned back to blaming ourselves. How phantoms hovered over our bed as we tried, again and again, to bend our bodies to our will and create the image of a family fixed in our heads.
How when I missed my period just after Christmas, I took five pregnancy tests over a week, so uncertain I was by then that my body could even do this.
If I could say something to my dad now it would be that I’m lingering in the doorway of parenthood, peering down the hall and trying to see down its dimly lit walls and understand where to walk and what to do. A letter, I realize now, also gives us an exit.
Your pregnancy: 23 weeks! With her sense of movement well developed by now, your baby can feel you dance. And now that she’s more than 11 inches long and weighs just over a pound (about the size of a large mango), you may be able to see her squirm underneath your clothes. Blood vessels in her lungs are developing to prepare for breathing, and the sounds that your baby’s increasingly keen ears pick up are preparing her for entry into the outside world. Loud noises that become familiar now—such as your dog barking or the roar of the vacuum cleaner—probably won’t faze her when she hears them outside the womb.
By the middle of my fifth month, my belly has the tight, round heft of a basketball. If I lie very still on my back, I see my skin vibrating like a drum. The pregnancy updates remind me this may be my baby hiccupping. I picture her turning and tumbling in her amniotic sea, flipping like a fish. As soon as nineteen weeks, the prenatal newsletters suggest, a fetus can start to perceive sounds outside the womb. Talking or singing to your baby is encouraged. Instead, I talk to my father. I tell him how I think I see my husband’s nose on our child in a more recent ultrasound, how she was leaning on her right arm and the ultrasound technician whacked my belly to get the baby to move so she could be sure that arm was there. I tell him I am scared. Not just of labor but of what happens after, of trying to be a good teacher and a writer and a mother and still hold onto myself, my adult, fully-formed-if-flawed self who drinks a little too much bourbon and stays up a little too late reading in bed and probably doesn’t eat enough vegetables, even at thirty-seven. I tell him there are things you hope for your child, and in my case, in addition to all fingers and toes, I hope she doesn’t inherit my anxiety and my deep desire to please and fix. I tell him how I hope she will be braver and better and more curious than me, and I wonder if every parent feels that way, if that’s why we keep on going.
I ask him what he hoped for me, when I was a piece of stardust, floating peacefully inside my mother.
I also ask my father questions. I start with the normal kind of questionnaire-like, the catching up conversation starters you might ask a college roommate you’ve fallen out of touch with. Do you still go to Maine each summer? Do you still run? Do you still love trees and know how to identify them by their leaves as well as their bark? Did you ever make that trip to the Grand Canyon? Am I even remembering that right, that you wanted to go there? If and when you went, were you as disturbed by the herds of gawkers with selfie sticks as I was? Because if so, here we can pause, laugh, hold onto something we have in common. We can take another sip of our beers before we move on to the more difficult questions, the ones he will never answer. In complete sentences, please consider how can a parent just give up talking to his children. For extra credit, what does my stepmother think of all of us? Does she urge you to contact us? Or, because it’s the easier thing to do, because that would open wounds and vulnerability, does she just not talk about it, as you surely do not talk about it, nor encourage my half siblings to talk about it. What are my half-brother and -sister like? Do you text them? Come on, really? You can’t not text with a teenager now. Do they wonder about us? Do you see us in them? What, to you, is family?
I tell him I want the lightweight freedom of forgiveness—for me and for him—but I’m mired in the thick, dark mud of anger. I tell him we can see each other’s broken places now, the cracks all of us as adults try to glue back together. The places where cracks have become invisible parts of us, the scaffolding that carries us through life with resilience and experience. The places where the workmanship was more hasty.
Your pregnancy: 30 weeks! Your baby weighs almost 3 pounds (about the size of a large cabbage). You may be feeling a little tired these days…you might also feel clumsier than normal, which is perfectly understandable. Not only are you heavier, but the concentration of weight in your pregnant belly causes a shift in your center of gravity.
At a friend’s wedding in April, surrounded by a circle of new spring leaves, she and her new husband turn to each other and to his two teenage children from his first marriage and then all four of them pledge to love and support each other. It is the opposite of trite—it feels true and real, a very public way of making a new family. Later that month, I stop by my neighbors’ house, a lesbian couple who have each had a baby within a year and a half. I am there to go through hand-me-down baby clothes. In their living room, I fold tiny shirts the size of my hand, socks smaller than my thumb. The two mothers sit cross-legged on their polished wooden floor and ease their babies into their laps and at some point they both begin to breastfeed. So here is another kind of family. One block over, there’s a family with two white parents, one from France and one from Indiana, and two adopted black teenagers, and that is another kind. There is my middle sister, who has lived with her boyfriend for years. My single friends who bought houses for themselves and their dogs. Divorced couples with kids who still make a point of eating some meals together, or buy houses close enough for their kids to walk between, or don’t. All of these are families.
A few weeks later, my husband and I drive across the country. I am headed to write for a month at a residency in Washington State and we combine it with a route through the Southwest and then up the California coast. We stop in Los Angeles, and my aunt, my father’s sister in-law, insists we stay with them. They are good and generous to us; my uncle, my father’s younger brother, keeps saying, “We’re all family here,” and each time he does my heart opens and breaks all at once. Maybe the boughs on one side of my tree aren’t dead. Maybe they are leafing out. My husband likes my uncle, appreciates his collection of antique corkscrews and bottle openers, his home brewed beer, his stories and photos of camping and traveling with his kids throughout the West. I wonder what kind of father-in-law my uncle will be someday. What kind my father would have been.
Your pregnancy: 37 weeks! Your due date is very close now…While you’re sleeping, you’re likely to have some intense dreams. Anxiety both about labor and about becoming a parent can fuel a lot of strange flights of unconscious fancy.
I sometimes forget what is happening to my body in these final weeks but then I will be doing something ordinary, like getting dressed, and I catch myself in the mirror, all round and curve, and I’m surprised what I’m now feeling in my heart and my womb is so physically evident to the rest of the world. My immediate future is written for all to see—motherhood, parenthood—inviting speculation and soothsaying from strangers. She’ll be a princess, she’ll be sweet. I just want my daughter to be. I trace my fingers down my linea negra, the dark, pigmented line that appears on many pregnant women’s stomachs, dividing their bellies into two tidy halves like the neat crease of a peach. My daughter inside, her head down low near my pelvis, positioned to eject. The scrape of her arms, the lean kick of her limbs. She’s becoming more fully formed each day. She is no longer a fish; she is a human with all her parts still safe inside, still unwounded, unbroken, unscarred. Still all possibility.
Your pregnancy: 39 weeks! Your baby is full term this week and waiting to greet the world! He continues to build a layer of fat to help control his body temperature after birth, but it’s likely he already measures about 20 inches and weighs a bit over 7 pounds, about the size of a mini-watermelon.
On the late August day when my daughter is officially full term, a short letter from my father arrives sandwiched between a West Elm catalog and a Home Depot credit card offer. In romantic comedies and beach reads, this might have caused me to go into labor. Instead, I leave it unopened on the dining room table for a few hours while I pace around the house, making up things to do. When I finally tear open the envelope, I see his familiar tight, tall script, the handwriting of the Cheshire cats, the handwriting I’ve known since I could read. He says he has been meaning to respond, that he has been carrying around my letter. Happy for us. Small steps. Send details when you are ready.
Instead of a resolution, I’m left with more questions. Is it is too late to be a parent at any point? When is the damage done, or when can the relationship between a parent and a child be saved? Does forgiveness have an expiration date? When can I stop looking for hurt and harm?
Sometimes when we decide to have a child, we put a lot of faith in its power. We impose incantation on what is really just biology. Foolishly, we think it can save a marriage. Make us stronger. Make us kinder, more empathetic, more patient, into people we aren’t really, at least not all the time. We all know this in our hearts this isn’t true, and yet, as a species, we do this again and again. I knew having a kid would mean I would be a parent. But I also thought it would be the spell to have both my parents in my life. But even this, this growing person inside of my body, all these cells dividing and folding and weaving their way into someone new, a beautiful magic chronicled by ultrasounds and fetal heartbeat readings and genetic tests where we breath hope toward that deep, dark salty sea inside of me—even this isn’t enough to repair my relationship with my father.
The truth is I want to turn to my own parenting now, to my daughter and my chance. I want to push into the future rushing toward us like a wave. When people ask if we are ready, I am now saying yes, and yes, and yes. Yes, in that her crib holds a mattress and yes, her car seat is installed and inspected, and yes, we have built a fort of readiness out of diapers and pacifiers and tiny hand-me-down onesies, but also our hearts are ready, so ready, so open. Yes and yes and yes.
There is so much I don’t know about being a parent right now. I’m pausing here on this curb of pre-parenthood, waiting to cross a busy street to the other side, a street I will never cross again and corner I will never return to. But I carry this image in my head in these last hours and minutes. It’s of me and my daughter together working in the garden on an early spring day a few years from now. We dive our bare hands into the soil, turning over the dirt to wake it up. We knead in compost. We count earthworms. Then we feel bad and nudge them back into their dark homes. We rip into colorful paper packages, the seeds inside as small as periods at the end of sentences, all these tiny promises of radishes and lettuces and peas. We sprinkle them with a soft blanket of soil as if we were putting them to bed.
I will tell my daughter each seed is like a little wish for the future. I will tell her we plant them, and we hope, and then we just have to wait.
LAURA GIOVANELLI is an essayist and writing teacher. Her other personal writing can be found in The Washington Post. She was a newspaper reporter for nine years and has an MFA from NC State University. She now teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Do you ever have one of those days where nothing feels like what you want to be doing? Like when you said goodbye to your twenty-one-year-old son who is visiting you and your wife in Connecticut where you’re staying temporarily, and he’s heading over to New York City, by train, to experience the city on his own terms? And you are nervous—like old times?
Do you remember saying goodbye to your son as he went into the first inpatient treatment center? Do you remember leaving that day sobbing swimming pools worth of jagged tears? Ear-shattering howling when you were in your car. You thought you’d lost him forever. He blamed you for all of it: the drugs, the anxiety, his unhappiness. You saw the other boys. You’d see this again. You knew about the bullying, imagined the fear, intuited the sense of aloneness. Perhaps he was still hating, while desperately missing you, his mom. Trying to run away and wanting to climb into bed with you. He was still tethered but the line was frayed.
Once you left him at summer camp and he was the one who would not stop crying, who would not stay on the bus while other kids gave quick hugs and skipped happily away for the summer. Later, you might wonder if you should have turned yourself in to the Child Protective Services because you insisted he go. After all, you had plans, he was going with your friend’s son and you couldn’t just send her boy without your son. Then he sent that letter—you know, the please, Mom,rescue me now before it’s too late letter. And when you called, he told you he was okay, not to come. Later you wondered: were they threatening him with something?
Did you know that worms fly onto your car and manage somehow to hold on even as you drive rapidly down the freeway? What makes them cling so steadfastly to the windshield? What are they doing there? Is it fun? Is someone scared for them? Are they saying Wheeeeee!!!
There is a man, Mark Hostetler, who calls himself a “Splatologist” and studies the “bloody show” that appears on windshields. He wrote, That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America and will tell you what are the most common insects to splat and leave road kill on a windshield.
Another article by Forest Health tells us about Canker Worms on windshields when I see a picture it looks like the worm on our windshield this morning. We—my wife, my son, and I—all wondered about that worm during the twenty minute drive to the train station to drop off my son where he’d take a train to New Haven and another to New York City.
My son’s dad, who I divorced long ago, was nostalgic about departures in a particular way that I can relate to—like saying goodbye to a loved one in a train station. But he was talking about an ex-girlfriend, “the one that got away.” And how you know that’s the end when you hug goodbye and say, I love you.
When my wife and I said goodbye to my son this morning, we knew he was coming back on Monday, and we know that we will see him again before he goes back to California. But what if someone murders him, or rapes him with a steel pipe, or really anything in the youth hostel? And what if he’s so tired and jet lagged (remember, he said he couldn’t sleep all night) and he loses all his identification? And he gets picked up and put in immigration detention indefinitely because he looks so much like he’s from the Dominican Republic, or Ethiopia, or Brazil. What if he’s racially profiled and accused of something that justifies a taking down by police, then he’s arrested, and he ends up on Riker’s Island?
The worm must have lost the battle and been blown off from his sticky spot on our windshield or crawled off as if nothing fazed it. But it’s no longer there. I looked it up and I’m quite certain this is that sticky worm from North Carolina. How did it get there on our windshield here in Connecticut? I was in Charlotte two weeks ago but didn’t go by car. Did the worm come back with me? Come out of my suitcase, my clothes, my hair? Or maybe I ingested it by mistake and it came out in my poop.
Saying goodbye to my son this morning hurt my heart. There are so many things I wanted to do, to be, to give, as a mother. I wanted to leave my son with the ability or means to have financial security, a house (but my second marriage and recession killed that), with a sense of self worth and safe refuge always (although, my wife and I don’t even know where we’ll be physically living in some years). And of course I wanted to be the all-encompassing earth mother.
I can say that he knows I’ll always be there for him. But always calm, I didn’t make the grade. My list of regrets is long and it’s more like an A –Z essay of all the ways I failed.
Thinking and feeling: Worms have a brain that connects with nerves from their skin and muscles. Their nerves can detect light, vibrations, and even some tastes, and the muscles of their bodies make movements in response.
So they have a brain. Does it cause them pain—do they use it to torture themselves?
What about a heart? (This same article says they have five hearts!)
My son wonders what would it be like to be that worm—would life be simpler, easier, less painful?
What does it mean when my son imagines it easier to be a worm then to live his own life?
I get it; I’ve thought about being a cow.
But if a worm has five hearts and each heart can be broken many times in a lifetime, do worms live in constant grief?
My son says his cousins (my sister’s two kids) are just perfect. I ask him to consider himself an amazing person: passionate, creative, with a great sense of humor and justice. To consider all that he is—partially because of what he went through—who created him/his family, and the experiences positive and negative. His recovery that helped solidify the spiritually sound young man he is. I tell him, again, that he has a big life ahead of him. He didn’t have a ready answer but said he thought he knew what I meant. I tell him I love my niece and nephew, but my time with him, well, I didn’t have the right words, but it’s a real three scoop banana split, maybe strawberry, pineapple and hot fudge, without the calories, and more. It’s joyous I tell him, my life with you, or when he sends me a link to a song or movie and watching it makes me cry. The posts on FB where he tells me that he is proud of my graduating from my MFA program. At fifty-seven.
My son has sometimes seemed like he wished to be someone else. Or that his name be Joe, instead of Raphael. When he was about five, a young girl he went to preschool with would come over to play, and one Friday afternoon they fought over the possession of a worm. Don’t worry, they regenerate, they’ll repair themselves my mom told me when I said I imagined they would rip it in two soon. My mom knew these things; she scored the highest in biology (Regents exams) in New York in her day. Raphael wanted to bring that worm to Shabbat dinner. This is not something my sister’s mother-in-law would have appreciated. I was odd enough already—single mom, lesbian, biracial child, financially…variable.
If worms can regenerate, I wonder if they become two brand new beings?
Do people regenerate themselves; do parents secretly hunger for this, an ability to create a second chance for all the earlier screw-ups? Do they live through their children and then try again with the grandchildren, employing entirely different strategies?
I couldn’t regenerate my business and I’m happy to say I finally traded it away to write for pennies or a kick in the pants. Worries fill my head in a way I doubt would happen as a worm but I suspect at ninety- or one-hundred-years-old, I’ll look up and say, And I went all this time without being homeless or hungry.And my son was just fine. God, I hope I don’t live that long. I just want to be a good enough person for the rest of what life I have. And maybe someday spend time with a grandchild or two.
My wife seems to have no desire to be reborn a worm on a windshield. She says she hates people and rails against every living human in her most curmudgeonly times. She doesn’t wish for regeneration, only rest. Once when I wailed about my stockpiled fatigue to my son’s dad, When do I get to rest? he said, You rest when you die.
My son used to cling to me and we seemed inseparable. And then, in his early twenties, it became time for my son to separate from me, and he had to pull away in a manner that felt almost violent in its starkness. When he was in his teens, drug addiction tore him away from me while at the same time we were still fiercely, unhappily intertwined. In recovery, for almost two years, our relationship under repair and thriving, I saw and spoke with him far more regularly than my friends did with their kids who went away to college. They sobbed tears of empty nesters while I was grateful for getting back my loving son. Then it was time for him to move out of the young man’s recovery house and get on with his life. And his young sober social life was more alive then what most of us experienced (not sober) at that time in our lives. Out there enjoying himself, without the same contained structure of the recovery house he’d lived in for almost two years, after we’d been together so intensely all his young life, he sometimes didn’t return a call or text for a few days. He acted like a “normal” twenty-year-old. I got my first dose of empty nest. He was really leaving home, leaving me, and in a healthy way.
I felt gutted. I just remember his little boy head falling over my shoulder when I carried him, asleep. Warm, soft, muggy sweaty lovey heavy feeling.
I remember his little baby lips moving in his sleep, nursing, leaving little milk blisters from sucking so much. And I remember how many ways a mom is split in half each time we say goodbye to our children: at birth, the rare moments one of us sleeps, at preschool where he feels torn away and you wonder whether he sat alone playing in the sand all day like you found him, or at the last residential rehab where there were more drugs inside then outside? I don’t know if we regenerate or not. Or if we are left unmoored. With only phantom limbs.
When my son left for New York this morning, he seemed ready. And tired. He said we snored and his long lanky body was too big for the sofa. My wife and I argued over whose snores kept him awake. And I wonder, will I hear from him today? That he arrived safely and is living his dream of traveling alone in New York City?
He probably has forgotten about the idea of being a worm right now. I miss him.
And I know that I can’t be the sticky worm on his windshield though; I’d fall right off.
All five of my hearts are breaking.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer and mother living in Pasadena. Her story, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which ran in Narratively, was selected by Longreads for “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla was selected as a fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA). She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets. Carla has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Learn more at carlasameth.com and on Twitter: @carlasameth.
My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.
She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.
Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.
Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.
My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.
During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.
In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.
In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.
We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.
After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.
I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?
Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.
My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.
Now it’s one a.m.
I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.
Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.
Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.
I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.
My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.
J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.
We moved a year ago, but my office is still cluttered with boxes, the dumping ground for random stuff without a home. I’ve made a goal to put away one box a week, so as I was digging, I rediscovered The Guys. Opening a drawstring cloth bag, I pulled out a tiny crocheted lion, its yellow yarn hair fanning out haphazardly. There were sixteen more little Guys in the bag. White and black panda bears, little tigers, other little animals that could have been bears, but maybe tigers. I received The Guys over thirteen years ago, gifts in a dark bar on slow afternoons.
It was quiet at the Rose and Thistle pub and I leaned back against the bar, watching a thin haze of smoke linger up near the ceiling. It was early so there were only few patrons, drinking and smoking. Later tonight, after ten, the smoke would be thick and dense in the dark. We didn’t care. We took drags from cigarettes at the edge of the bar in between drink orders.
My early afternoon regulars were there. Denny and Joe sat with their pints of Bud Light, and Carleen with her glass of red wine. Thomas was playing video poker in the back, where, alongside the bar, behind a curtain, there were three video poker machines. Thomas was the oldest of the group, who were all well over fifty. I figured Thomas was over seventy. His face was wrinkled up, both in good and bad places. He had soft white hair that straggled over his forehead in lazy curls that he didn’t bother combing. He wore the same jeans and plaid shirt over his thin frame every day. The curtain rustled and he stood at the opposite end of the bar, holding his empty glass.
“Ready for another, Thomas?” I asked, reaching for the bourbon. Thomas was always ready for another. I pulled out the milk carton.
“Yep, might as well.” He inhaled from his cigarette. “How’s that class going? Your class on all those old books.”
I smiled to myself as I poured the milk. “You mean my Milton class?” I was studying Eighteenth Century Literature.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Good,” I said, handing him his bourbon and milk. “I love Milton.”
“Glad someone does,” he replied and gave me a crooked smile.
I leaned over the bar toward him. “Why do you drink that stuff? It looks awful.”
“Good for the belly,” he replied. “You should try it.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Got something for you,” Thomas said and reached into his jeans pocket. He pulled out a tiny crocheted bear and held it out for me. It was orange with black stripes. It might have been a tiger, except for the ears, which were distinctly bear like. It had a thin, black yarn smile and two tiny googly eyes glued on.
“I love him!” I exclaimed, holding him up. “Look everyone,” I held him up to the three regulars at the bar. “A new little guy.” They nodded at me and Thomas, and Joe gestured to his empty glass. “Thanks, Thomas,” I said and stuck him in my apron, so his little orange head was poking out.
I had several of these Guys already. He crocheted them himself with tiny needles, straining his eyes over the thin yarn, and stuffing them with fluff. Frequently, he crocheted them tiny hats or gloves or little vests. He never left me any money for tips, but once every couple weeks, he threw his money into the machine, drank his bourbon and milk, and gave me one of his animals.
Denny and Joe knew him a little. He’d been an iron worker, but had spent all his money on bourbon. He’d had a family, but none of them talked to him anymore. He lived in a home with a couple other elderly people a few blocks away.
“Thomas,” I said once, as he leaned up against the bar and took a drag from his Pall Mall. “Don’t you have any grandkids to give these to? I feel bad taking these guys. I know it must take a long time to make them.” I ran my finger over a little brown bear with blue felt eyes.
Thomas sighed and the wrinkles in the sad places on his face seemed deeper. “I have some grandkids,” he said. “But their dad doesn’t much want to see me anymore.”
“Why?” I asked.
Thomas looked down as he talked. “I did some things. Made some mistakes.”
I leaned over toward him, holding out the bear and said in a soft voice, “Maybe you can undo those things. You know, start over.”
“No,” he replied and looked up at me with his clear blue eyes. “Too late for that, I figure. You might as well take them.”
By the time I quit working at the bar, I had seventeen of these little animals. I kept them in a shoebox as I moved from apartment to apartment, finished school, moved to Astoria, and married my husband. I pulled them out now and then to finger their tiny ears and look into their googly eyes.
When I moved back to Portland, my son, Logan, was just six months old. I brought him into the bar one afternoon, just to say hello. The smoke was still thick and I was much more concerned for my baby’s lungs than I’d ever been for my own, so I only stayed a few minutes. The owner told me Thomas had passed. He’d been transferred to a nursing home and died in his sleep there. Some of my old regulars had gone to the service, but no family had come.
When Logan was two, five years after I’d left the bar, I pulled out The Guys. They quickly became favorites. Logan named them all in ways that made sense to him—Motorcycle, Cupboard, and Window, for instance. We sat on the floor of the living room with a set of giant Legos and made enormous castles for the Guys. Motorcycle would be asleep in his bed, while Cupboard stood guard on the turret. Window rode in the back of the police car to jail, having been apprehended by Lion. The Guys had long conversations with one another, achieved great acrobatic feats, and slept in bed with my little boy. Many times I wished I could have let Thomas know that The Guys were alive and well, living in castles my son built.
Both my children are older now and don’t play as much with The Guys. The little vests and mittens had gotten separated from their owners and I was worried The Guys would be lost in the maelstrom of toys, so I gathered them up. Now they’re lined up on a shelf, looking down at me while I write. The crochet work is in great shape, with stuffing only popping out of a few. But they’re worn. They’ve been played with and kissed. Their yarn is grungy and some are missing eyes, although I superglued many back on. Their little smiles are frayed.
When I found out Thomas had passed away with no family attending his funeral, I was angry with his son. What could Thomas have possibly done to merit what I saw as this neglect? But there are things. I saw only the old man, kind and loving. But kind people can be terrible people capable of terrible choices. Kind people can harbor deep wells of regret. I have people in my own life whom I have cut off, who I will never invite back in, who will never know my children. It doesn’t matter how kind they are to the people in their lives now. But those little guys have spread love in my family. It was too late for Thomas with his own family, but it was not too late for him to spread love in mine. So one night as I took a writing break, I noticed The Guys looking down on me. I went upstairs and poured myself a bourbon and milk. “Cheers,” I said to The Guys. It wasn’t half bad.
NAOMI ULSTED is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her two boys and her husband. Her work has been published in Salon, Luna Luna, Maximum Middle Age, and Narratively. She is also the director of a Job Corps center for training under-privileged young people.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.
At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.
I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.
After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.
I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.
It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.
I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.
During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.
It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.
The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.
In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.
Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?
I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.
I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.
I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.
By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.
More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.
Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.
I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.
We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.
The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.
We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.
We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.
I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.
The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.
CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.