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.

Rabies

It’s spring break. Andy’s phone registers an early text,  but he ignores it. Work has been slow as of late, and it seems likely he’ll be home with us for another little while. It’s not ideal, but we’ll take it. This morning I’m happy to find him here next to me and I scoot closer in search of cuddles. The kids are still asleep, and morning light slips between the slats as we fall back asleep. 

Due to the nature of Andy’s job we spend half of our lives missing each other. He works offshore, spending his time just a hair to the right of center on the various caliber of steel hotels doing his part to ensure the prevention of the next grisly oil spill.  

Meanwhile, I play single parent. I cook. I clean. I tend to fragile hearts and tenuous sleep schedules. Though too often it seems I’m primarily working  to reign in my anxiety that threatens to spill into their days. On a forever quest to provide them with a sense of safety that I seldom experience myself. 

The kids arrive in our room with snuggles and proclamations of hunger. We assure them we’ll be there shortly and offer cartoons in the interim. They skip from our room, already arguing about what to watch. I wonder if Andy will make us pancakes. He checks his phone and bolts out of bed. “Shit. Robert wants to know if I can take a job. It means leaving this afternoon.” he announces, resigned.  I’m incensed.

 “They couldn’t have called you yesterday?” 

“Not sure if they knew yesterday. Someone’s grandmother died.” He’s pulling on his pants, distracted.

“They didn’t know she was dying yesterday?”

I throw back the covers and stamp both feet onto the floor, purpose unknown, then fall back into the pillows. He looks at me pleading, and begins packing his bag. I know the burden that this is for him and I attempt to tamp down my anger. But now my brain, fragile and sorely in need of rewiring is all lit up in the wrong places. It’s searching for the danger, for the thing that needs fixing, and it feels like the tipping point of a roller coaster.  Little feet shuffle toward our room, and a pajama-clad bear arrives in the doorway. “I feel like I’m gonna throw up,” he says.

Anxiety, in a sense, is a predictable beast. It shows up during periods of high stress, rapid change, and intense joy. It is fed by hormone changes and lack of sleep, and by this odd family rhythm that my body and soul have never fully accepted.

Andy gathers his wallet and keys and wakes Maeve to accompany him on a trip to the FedEx office. He needs to pick up his new work computer, and I need to accept that my normally supportive husband has necessarily checked out, unable to deal with my meltdown in addition to the demands of his own day. 

I sit on the bed waiting for a boy to puke into a bag, remembering all of a sudden the night before when we’d watched Mary Poppins together on the couch. He’d dosed off, but then kept waking, jerking, staring, and out of it.  And I’d wondered about those bunnies we’d rescued. How many weeks ago was that?

The bunnies had been maybe a few days old. Our giant dumb dog had disturbed the nest and run off their mother. We’d heard their cries of hunger and cold and opted to bring them inside.  I’d wanted to deliver them to them to the local wildlife rescue, but the kids had cried, so Andy had taken them all to the Tractor Supply to procure kitten milk replacer and some sort of feeding implement.

We’d spent a couple of days working to get it right before settling on an art dropper with bunny swaddled in a paper towel arrangement that seemed most effective. Andy had gone to work a week in. “Don’t kill my bunnies” he’d joked.

I know my anxiety well. We’ve been aquainted as long as I’ve been a mother, so the day the bunnies died, when I identified the seedling of worry that threatened to become an unruly, strangled asshole of a weed I’d attempted to pluck it. 

I checked out the CDC website. “Small mammals such as… rabbits and hares are almost never found to be infected with rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States.” I called the pediatrician who had me call animal control. 

The man on the phone was reassuring. “We don’t worry about rabies in rabbits. We don’t test and there is no need for rabies prophylaxis in this case.” Naturally, I also called the wildlife center where the woman who answered reckoned our doomed bunnies have died from malnutrition. She too declined to test them. 

Now, with my little boy retching next to me in bed, I google what I fear the most. The incubation period for rabies is, on average, sixty days. The time frame fits perfectly with my deranged theory. Incidentally I also discover that only three people per year die from rabies in the United States. The statistic does not bring me comfort. Nor does the aforementioned knowledge that bunnies are at low risk of transmitting the disease. 

Holding my son, miserable and feverish, I imagine the rest of his little life racked with pain and delirium, parched with thirst and pleading for his Mama to help him. It feels like the most real thing there is, so when Andy sits across from me, his hand on my leg, and breaks the news to me that he thinks I am having an obsession it sounds like there are cotton balls in my ears. 

The sound of blood rushing threatens to drown out his voice, though I can hear myself pleading with him to make an appointment with the doctor. He does. Then his ride arrives and he hugs me, promises it will all be okay and disappears around the curve at the end of our street.

I spend that afternoon and evening checking bear’s temperature at close intervals, and quizzing him on his symptoms even as he perks up and devours a meatball sub. I invite him to sleep in my bed, and when he wakes up multiple times with night terrors I believe I am witnessing the first neurological symptom of rabies. I lay down next to him and hold his hands, close my eyes and feel for spasms, and when I finally fall asleep I dream that my children are all on fire.

The following day a nurse practitioner looks my son over and declares him healthy. He doesn’t even have a fever. She explains that she’d never be able to justify testing to the insurance company.  She is relaxed, smiling, and she takes extra time with me to recall stories of her own childhood spent in the country, noting that she never could keep the baby bunnies alive. 

I gather myself together and prepare for my month flying solo. We visit the grocery store, then the carwash, and I work to get on top of the laundry. I do the mundane things that must be done alongside the anxiety until the episode starts to lessen in intensity. This particular fear will not leave me fully for some months. Still,  Bear sleeps in his own bed. 

A little later in the week he complains of a tingling in his left hand and I feel the terror begin to rise up. At age six he still has trouble communicating. If he were having nerve symptoms would we even know? Did the NP take his deficits into account? 

For a moment I’m back on the roller coaster. The bar is lowered with a series of clicks and when the carts pull forward my head snaps back. The adrenaline burns in my cheeks and the physical world becomes less so. This time I demand to get off. I refuse to ride this fucker again. She never could keep the bunnies alive.“You just leaned on it weird,” I tell him. “It happens to me all the time.” But he’s forgotten he cared. He’s already pulling on his little red shoes and heading out the door, and I realize I am talking to myself.