On Lost Teeth and Bundt Cakes

This draft was dated October 2018. I think I found it too painful to post. But I remember now how painful it all was, especially after the miscarriage. I won’t get into the hows and whys of Andy’s change of heart, but I will share this. My favorite memory from the day our Birdie was born is of Andy, who leaned into the little hospital bassinet where his beautiful Birdie lay sleeping, and, without lifting his eyes, grinned and said “okay, Elaine. This may have been a good idea.”

“We’ll name her ‘Birdie,'” I joke from the passenger seat. I say it as though I just like to watch him squirm, but really I’m looking for something else. A crack, a softening in his face. I’m hoping that this time his shoulders won’t tense. “Birdie?” He smiles, a warm, Andy smile, and for two days I feel I’m walking on air. Maybe we will have one more baby after all. But this morning, he reiterates that he does not want another. And I think it’s time I write this truth.

Last night Huey lost his first tooth. He tucked it under his pillow, pulled it back out, then lost it in the couch amid a sea of broken popcorn bits. This morning he brought me the dollar from under his pillow, and showed me the next tooth is loose as well.

His body, that once fit so neatly in my arms has grown long and awkward, and when I scoop him up now I know this will be the last year. Some mornings he forgets to climb into my bed first thing, and then the day feels like it’s off to a bad start.

His speech is improving. He can make an “H,” in his journal. He knows the sound “a.” He can pull on his shoes and ride a scooter. These are things I’ve wished for him, so when he flies down our street alongside the big kids my heart feels like it might burst.

I have a marriage that most people envy. Seventeen years in and we still hold hands. We still dance in the kitchen. He makes me biscuits and gravy and I make him key lime pie.

We don’t remember the date we walked out of the courthouse, newlyweds, and we lost our marriage certificate long ago. We don’t celebrate an anniversary, and I don’t share his name.

We’ve done some things. We’ve hurt each other, but we’re here now. We are the ones who are going to make it.

Yesterday we went shopping at a fancy store. We used to wander stores like this and imagine the day we’d be able to afford all the fancy kitchen gadgets. Now we own most of them, but this month we’re watching our spending. I came across a mini bundt pan, pretty gold with scalloped handles. He watched me turn it over, discover that it was forty bucks, and put it back. When I returned from the restroom a few minutes later I found him trying to decide which bundt pan I’d like best.

So later this week I’ll make him mini bundts with colorful icing and sprinkles. This is my marriage. It is precisely this nauseating.

But today I am sobbing on the couch. Facing what, for me, is a devastating reality. This is also my marriage. Because I don’t know how we can have made all of this joy together, yet he doesn’t want to do it one more time. He doesn’t pine for one more shock of tangled blonde between us on the pillow each morning, one more first lost tooth, one more push, and a new life to hold.

Last year I found myself crying in a paper sheet, hoping for a tiny heart to beat, and he wasn’t in it with me. “We’re always in it together, Elaine,” he told me. But it wasn’t true.

Then, on the day we went to buy the Christmas tree and the anxiety was at it’s peak.  When it was cold and I felt I couldn’t draw enough oxygen into my lungs, he stood me up out of bed, put his arms around me. “You are breathing,” he said.

He walked with me out of the dark, helped me find my way. But he didn’t grieve. He doesn’t hope with me every month, doesn’t cry with me, doesn’t understand why, suddenly, I’m angry, and won’t sit with him for coffee.

I wonder when these feelings will lessen. My doctor told me she’s not sure they ever will. She’s fifty now, and she still wishes. I keep hoping for a shift, in perspective, in hormones. I’m waiting for some kind of peace. An acceptance. A baby! Or at least the presence of mind to not turn into a raging bitch every month. But for now this is what we’ve got; bundt cake on rainy afternoons, and angry mornings spent in different rooms, and a little boy with a tooth, lost in the couch, and a dollar, lost now too, who can write and “H” and read and “a” and scooter with the rest of them.

The New King

There are a handful of people in my life for whom I quite literally get up in the morning. Not because it’s my responsibility as their mother, wife, daughter. But because without them there’d be little reason to do anything at all. I love them. It’s the least extraordinary of things. And it’s everything. I expect as a fellow human you and I are living a similar experience. 

It feels inane to pontificate on the value of human life over material experiences, yet here we are. Sunsets and rodeos and cheese plates are all very well and good. But I enjoy far more the coffee sipped in my little sister’s company than I do  the solitary cup I will pour for myself later in the afternoon. 

In the polaroid snapshots of our lives we might be holding our gingersnap lattes or we might not. There might be margaritas alongside meandering Cedars set against a red sky, fresh haircuts and new shoes. Or not.  There might be roadtrips and beach weddings and plane flights to exotic destinations. No matter. As long as my sister is there with her smile. And my mother, with her arms to hold and her ears to listen, always helping no matter how many times I might tell her to sit down. And my Dad, who when I close my eyes to imagine him, is always holding a baby, animated in a way you’d never witness him otherwise. 

I’m not a very social person. I have these souls to care for and a few dozen others. My kids, of course, and Andy. Who might as well be the air I breathe. I have family and friends dotted around the country and the world. And we’re all facing the same monster. 

To you these characters are perhaps the subject of a few tedious facebook posts. But they are my story. Brought to life each day by the whine of my alarm clock. There’s the little boy with the speckled eyes. And alongside him a ramshackle brigade of mischief makers, horns tooting, sounding out their haggard drums. 

The boy is one of the few who still believes in immortality. In his world, the heroes never die. He’s one of the few who may never understand how close we are, always, to a different kind of reality, the possibility of which exists at the razor’s edge of the rest of our collective consciousness. A reality we’ve most recently been forced to confront. You see there’s a new king in town, little boy. He’s selfish and he’s ruthless and he’s deadly. He will decimate our little brigade.  

These people who belong to you and me, someday will belong to history. As will the hows and whys of how they lived and died, and the decisions we make in this moment.  The lesson will be how we faced this thing. That we’ll fuck it up is inevitable. That there will be more death is unavoidable. But it mustn’t be due to our lack of humanity. 

None of this is fair. That we love as hard as we do while knowing what we know. That we must feel this much fear and move about anyway, taking steps to mitigate, to contain. That we are young and healthy and frightened. That we still feel like children on the inside, yet bear the responsibility for keeping them safe. 

It’s easier, perhaps to deny the magnitude of this threat. Understandable, even, to close our eyes to the possibility of all that we might lose. But we mustn’t. We must wake up in the days ahead and recognize that we are each responsible for the twists and turns of one another’s stories. Accepting that the choices we make might have a grave impact on someone else’s narrative. 

There is no use at this moment in bickering over past faults and failures. Differences must be set aside. The strong must show up in defense of the weak against this counterfeit King in his shoddy crown. We must educate and discuss and act. So that when history writes this thing we will have emerged, one people, hearts thrumming, pots and pans clanging, rainbow streamers flapping in the wind.. victorious.

All We Ask is That You Love Them the Way We Do

For a short time I worked in a childcare setting caring for children under the age of two. I don’t have many fond memories of my time there mainly because the job had been misrepresented. I’d been lead to believe that the environment I’d be working in would be warm and welcoming. The kids would be exposed daily to art and nature. They’d learn kindness and compassion through caring for the center’s animals, and they’d eat wholesome food prepared fresh in the kitchen by a loving chef. 

Instead I found myself in a cramped room with women who seemed detached from their charges, focused instead on more mundane daily duties besides engaging the children. Nap time schedules were of critical importance as were diaper changing routines. Noisy toys were confiscated, and art projects were non-existent. 

Those tiny people, with their hearts yearning to learn and grow, spent the majority of their days between a darkened room and a small porch where mess was kept to a minimum. The adjacent kitchen was a place to be avoided. Far from lovingly, the food was prepared by a cold woman from whom one could barely bring oneself to request a fork for fear of being berated. Portions were scant even as they met the minimum standards, and hungry kids behaved as such. 

My co-teachers whispered  amongst themselves about “ugly babies” and “needy mothers,” refusing always to hold and touch the most distraught children. One little boy spent entire days on the rug, looking stricken, clutching in his arms a stuffed dog and teddy bear. “These parents,” one teacher complained with an eye roll “they expect you to love their children the same way they do.”

I admit to wondering how the parents of our children could have allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Having been sold the lie myself, I’d enrolled my son, then aged five, in the classroom opposite mine for the afternoons. On his second day I’d glanced out the window to witness him standing barefoot in the grass, wearing a pair of borrowed trousers several sizes too big that were cinched around his waist. The bottoms were filthy, the excess fabric flopping around under his little feet. His face showed real anxiety and he held tightly to his caregiver’s hand as this caregiver scanned the yard. I saw then that my son had spent two days completely unseen. I did not bring him back.

I stayed and persevered. My first co-teacher was replaced by a woman who cared dearly about the babies, so together we set about trying to create the kind of environment they deserved. Soon after, schedules were adjusted, and we were joined by a third. She was flaky and eccentric and equally loving. There was a rhythm. There were excursions out to visit the animals and time spent on the playground. There was a curriculum. Nap time schedules took a back seat and messes spilled out of the cubbies and baskets meant to contain them. The children were happier. 

During my time there I never felt that the place came close to espousing the values touted on it’s website, although I came to know of a few teachers who had made it their personal mission to make it so. Resources remained stretched and food scant,management was under supported and we were understaffed. I wondered if those less than perfect teachers had at first been well-meaning before they’d succumbed to burnout. I would experience burnout myself, though the day I left those babies for the last time I cried in my car. I’d loved them.

I don’t know what motivates a person to become a teacher. In my short time in that stuffy little classroom I discovered I did not possess the grit. Though I suppose now I have some idea of the things that might wear a teacher down. And I look more closely now into my own children’s days.

We withdrew our children  last year from a school that had for the five years prior been a place I’d never doubted they were deeply cared for. There, a handful of incredible women had safeguarded their hearts and looked into their eyes. I had always felt that they were seen, loved.

But a change in leadership saw to it that the good ones began to fall away. The politics were kept hidden from us of course, but it was clear that new pressures wore daily on the ones who were left, and our once warm and inviting second home had become a place of dread. 

We had a number of uncharacteristic interactions during our final weeks that served as clues my children were no longer seen. One of these was the revelation by a school administrator that she had personally approached my intellectually disabled son and barked a series of questions at him that he was unable to answer. This was justified as a crude attempt to evaluate his abilities. I can only imagine that he was terrified.

This same administrator advised us, with some measure of disdain, that if we transferred him into a public school setting he would be placed in special ed., all while lamenting the fact that they could no longer cater to his needs. I felt betrayed, and suddenly unmoored. We’d paid our money each month and asked, not unreasonably, that they love him as we did. I glanced to this woman’s right where Huey’s sweet teacher appeared pained as she wrestled with the process. “No,” I thought,observing her, the world regaining it’s equilibrium. “He was loved.”

When Cleo then began exhibiting odd behavior we began to doubt our decision to re enroll for the year. I couldn’t shake the feeling after a particularly strange parent teacher conference that her new teacher simply didn’t like her. Her normally luminous light seemed to burn just a little less bright. We transferred them both to public for the spring semester.

As it happens, Huey was placed in special ed. And in one of the warmest encounters of my life I was privileged to sit at a conference table with the army of educators charged with providing my son with the best possible chance of success. There were disagreements, and schedule conflicts. One felt passionately that Huey would benefit emotionally from some time spent in the Kindergarten room while others felt emphatically that he should remain as much as possible with his same age peers. The school principle weighed in. We giggled together about his quirky speech and spoke about his sweet nature. One of his teachers noted that he refers to his family members using possessive pronouns. It’s true. He talks about “my Cleo” and “my Maeve.” It’s a mistake in his speech that is particularly sweet and that most people don’t notice. They knew him.

In the end a second meeting was called in order to hammer out the details, and then a third when it became clear adjustments needed made. I got up from my seat and observed the people who were only doing their jobs. Their faces betrayed not a hint of sanctimony as they shuffled their papers and prepared for the next meeting. Changing lives. A privilege. These are the people to whom we owe the world.

Despite our recent successes I am not so naive as to believe that Huey’s team will get it right 100% of the time. Nor that we will never again encounter a teacher who is in the midst of a bad season. In fact this piece should serve to illustrate that it is important to remain vigilant. To make sure that our children are in the best environment possible for them, and to make the the hard decisions when they are not.

But this August, when I dropped my kids off on their first day, I felt strong in our decision. I’d ordered their school supplies in advance, Huey had a solid IEP in place, teachers had sent out warm welcome videos via youtube, and he’d watched his on repeat in the week leading up to the big event. Still, I knew that the success of the year hinged on one critical piece.  

I kissed my babies and hugged them. Then I hugged them again. I led them to their desks, and I looked into the eyes of the women I was to entrust with these most precious pieces of myself.

In those eyes I saw overwhelm, I saw first-day nerves, I saw the preceding night’s preparation, and maybe even some slight irritation at this lingering Mom. But I also saw warmth. I saw understanding. I saw the Hershey’s kiss placed on Huey’s desk, and the arm around Cleo’s shoulders. I saw classrooms lovingly prepared, and special ed. aides standing by, ready to guide and nurture the most fragile in their charge. I saw people organized, people who had their shit together. Andy coaxed at my arm “They’ll be fine. Come on, lets go.” 

They descended from the bus that afternoon with bright smiles. Cleo jumped the last step. The bus driver gave me a triumphant thumbs up. Huey had managed to remain in his seat the whole way home. They pulled papers from their backpacks for me to sign and crammed down after school snacks, easily answering questions about their day, and I felt myself relax. Tears of relief welled up. They’d felt held, and so they’d felt capable. Today, a group of women had shown up to hold my children dear, to raise the bar, to show them what they could do. I couldn’t have done a better job myself.