New Year’s Resolutions

In the week after Christmas, I often find there is an emptiness that is difficult to address. The month of merriment is over, the draining of bank accounts complete. Careful wrapping has been shredded and the echoes of delight have died away. One may discover, upon eating the last tree chocolate, that the relentless consumption of leftover vittles has not filled the hole, and it seems ludicrous to bake more after such gluttony. One might ponder what to cook for dinner and come up empty having concluded only that there is nothing at all to be excited about eating.

This sense of aimlessness lies in the problem of there being an allotted season for giving. For the months of November and December we string up lights in joyful celebration. We wear out shoes in the pursuit of the perfect gifts for our loved ones. We stay up too late baking cupcakes for the teachers, and sweet buns for the children, we so love to see the wonder in their faces.

We stand in line to donate toys, and wrestle wallets from purses under covers to contribute to a stranger’s go fund me campaign. We give of ourselves in all the ways we can fathom, and are available to us. It’s exhausting, it ’s expensive, and it feels like pure joy and purpose. And when a gift arrives in our laps on Christmas morning, a llama teapot carefully picked, it is somewhat of a surprise. Yet we have been joyful all the while. The excitement is in the anticipation, not of receiving gifts, but of giving them.

What a delight it was this year to make for my dad a retro trifle, to watch him devour two big bowls full. What a pleasure to carefully trace Santa’s handwriting onto a return letter for Cleo, to stamp it with Santa’s official seal and watch her face light up at the discovery. How wonderful to bake gingerbread for the elderly, to watch our littles sing them carols as the childlike among them reached out to touch their precious hair. How quickly it was all done.

In January, it’s all juice cleanses and gym memberships, yoga challenges and workout videos. The focus turns inward as we return to searching for the thing that will make us feel whole, most of us oblivious to the fact that instead we unwittingly turn away.

So this January first I challenge you not to dig your Vitamix from the depths of your kitchen cabinets, nor to procure another weight watchers membership. I challenge you instead to go ahead and bake another cake festooned with gold stars or rainbow sprinkles, walk it to your neighbor’s house, the one having the trouble with her hips, and let her see the children. And on your way to work roll down your window, offer a wide smile and give five bucks to the guy with the cardboard sign, the one who believes you’ve forgotten him now it’s January second.

Leave up your decorations and light a fire, watch movies together with your family, and realize that there is no great mystery here. The way to happiness and fulfillment comes each December and stares us in the face. Reach out and touch another human being, every day. And each morning when you wake up ask yourself what you can give.

Hypochondria at Christmastime

It’s been a slow morning. I’m lounging in a pile of pillows, putting product in my damp hair, and talking with my friend on the phone. I have a cup of tea on my nightstand and a plate with breakfast crumbs teetering there as well. My feet are still sore from a busy day prior. They’re poking out from beneath the comforter, and I’m rotating them at the ankles to relieve the discomfort. I notice that one ankle is slightly swollen. One could even say “barely.” My stomach lurches. I should stand up, I think, find something to do. Instead, I snatch away the blanket for a closer inspection. I flex my feet and hold them parallel. I can’t unsee it. I say goodbye to my friend. My tone is terse, my heart rate has picked up, and sweat is gathering around my hairline. It’s far too hot in here, I think.

I call Andy into the room. “My ankle is swollen. I can’t look at it.”

He examines my feet. “Which foot?” he asks. They are in his lap now.

“The left one,” I snap, irritated, and I jab at the offending area with my finger to demonstrate. The hysteria is mounting. “I have a blood clot.”

“You don’t have a blood clot.”

“But, my ankle is swollen. I never get swollen ankles! Oh my God. I’m going to be one of those old ladies with cankles…” I’ve arrived at middle age. All the evidence is there. The teenage children, the excess weight, and now the cankle. Or blood clot. Jesus, it’s definitely a blood clot.

This is a familiar fear. It tags along every road trip, and for at least a month of each pregnancy. I’ve hoisted my bump into several emergency departments and visited doctors in faraway towns in the wee hours while my family slept. I’ve hobbled around a popular amusement park hoping only to make it back to the campsite, so I could more easily sneak away. I’ve had multiple ultrasounds, excessive bloodwork, and I’ve even allowed concerned doctors to radiate the shit out of my chest. Twice.

But this time it seems legitimate (it always does). I schedule an appointment with my beloved Dr.R. He’s seen me work myself into a WebMD frenzy on multiple occasions and he’s pretty good at making the right call. My appointment is at one thirty. By the time I arrive in his office my whole left foot is tingling. Dr. R checks me over and measures my ankles. He confirms that the left one is swollen, but reassures me that it is likely due to excess salt intake over the holidays. He nonetheless fills out the order for an ultrasound, and requests the results “STAT.” He knows what happens if I am left to wonder.

The appointment is scheduled for three thirty, and I limp through the automatic doors. I wad up my clothing and shove it into my bag, don a paper sheet, and allow the tech to spread cold jelly over my leg. I study her face as she takes measurements. She hovers too long on a spot just a few inches above my knee then leaves the room to speak with the radiologist as I wait to be advised of my imminent demise. Cleo makes balloons out of latex gloves and Huey becomes preoccupied with my lack of pants before the tech reappears with Sponge Bob stickers and a reassuring smile. I leave the exam room feeling silly, and without a limp. The pain and tingling have vanished and I am once again befuddled by the ways that our brains can trick our bodies. I receive a phone call within the hour. The results are negative for Deep Vein Thrombosis.

There is whole a population of psychiatrists who have designated hypochondria a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my experience, they are almost identical. On any unremarkable Tuesday, a fearful thought might arrive in my consciousness and consume my thinking. I will spend the ensuing days and weeks on a quest to eliminate doubt, only to be reminded that nothing is ever quite reassuring enough. There is no website, test, doctor, or human who can promise I do not have rogue cancer cells setting up shop my lymphatic system, or that I won’t die, suddenly, of a heart attack. We are not promised tomorrow, and for hypochondriacs this is an unacceptable truth.

It’s easy to make fun of hypochondriacs because our experiences are not unfunny! Even when the situation seems dire I am often able to laugh at myself. I once refused to look at my left pinky toe for over a month. Toe cancer. Did you know Bob Marley died from toe cancer? I have moles on my body that I don’t dare look at. I once had an ill-informed doctor recommend that I measure these moles, take photos of them even. Instead, each September I receive a text reminder from my dermatologist to schedule my annual appointment. I do this promptly and then fret for the two-week interim as the threat of melanoma grows ever bigger in my mind. I do NOT perform self-breast exams. God knows I’d find more lumps than you’d expect to find in a Christmas custard gone awry.

I’m not supposed to google. But this is the compulsion. As are the return trips to the doctor for second and third opinions, and the relentless testing required to keep the anxiety at a tolerable level. I have endured scopes and swabs, x-rays, and obscure blood tests. I have had more EKGs than I care to count and twice ran on a treadmill, braless, in an open front bib. You’ll never guess; my heart is fine. I read and re-read “How Not to Die” by Michael Gregor, MD. I played the audiobook in the car. Then I went vegan for two years.

Still, I wake up each night to stark darkness and the sound of my own heart, and my only thought is that someday I will die. It’s not a risk to mediate or a theory to ponder, but a fact, as cold and hard as they come. Maybe it’s today and I will choke on a piece of home-baked stollen. Or perhaps, in ten years, I will die in a car accident backing out of my driveway in my new-fangled automated vehicle. They’ll talk about it on NPR. More likely I’ll die from a preventable cancer because I didn’t measure my moles.

These thoughts haunt us all, though some more thoroughly than others. There are Buddha-like individuals out there who have accepted the inevitability of their death and it propels them to live a more vibrant life. This has to be the goal, doesn’t it? There are people out there working to halt death, but they’ve missed the point. When I stop to think about it (and believe me I do), life without death would be devoid of meaning. What better reason to wake up and to love your little family, to notice the color of the sky or the snow on your face than that you have a finite number of days to do so? What better reason to live?

On Speech Delays and Big Boy Scooters

We’re all piled up on the couch when Bear says something characteristically sweet. His English at age six is still rough, but we collectively adore his special way of speaking. Huey gets his points across in a series of hand gestures, head wobbles, and sentences at once verbose, and completely devoid of pronouns. “It just doesn’t get any cuter than this guy,” I say, and I kiss his cheek. “Hey”, says Cleo, teasing, but her voice betrays real hurt. “Stop stealing my spotlight Huey.” Shit.

Cleo has been on autopilot for some time now. She bounces out of the car each morning ready to learn, ready to participate and engage. She’s right on target academically, and I’ve always thought she was emotionally mature. At the age of five she wondered aloud “so if the universe is God, and we are all part of the universe, then that means…we are God.” She quite regularly blows my mind from the back seat of the car with similar such observations. She knows exactly how she’s feeling and she’ll let you know. If she is envious of a birthday sibling, for example, rather than stage a full mid-party meltdown, she will state, quite plainly, that she feels jealous. So on this evening, when I proclaimed Huey the cutest, she let me know I had a few things to explain.

I recently did what we call an “observation” of Huey’s classroom. Parents are invited to watch without intruding as the Montessori morning unfolds. It was sweet and beautiful, fascinating, as I knew it would be. But I’ve never done one before. I’ve chosen not to because I know myself. I know that I will measure my sweet child against every other child, and I will worry. I’ve chosen instead to keep a dialogue with his teacher, to trust her judgment, and to trust myself, that I have made the best decisions I could for him with the resources available. He is doing fine.

He’s my tender little boy with the awkward gait. His shoes are always on the wrong feet, but we celebrate because he can finally pull them on himself. He can’t pedal a bike, but he tears down the road on his big boy scooter behind his big sister. He trails along behind her at birthday parties and basks in her confidence. And if he loses her in the fray he will he retreat to my lap, scanning the room in search of her.

At age six, he’s gearing up for first grade. Maybe. Because now it’s time to start asking the hard questions, to find out. What’s wrong? How does he measure up? There’ll be figures and percentiles, and that goddamn dot on the bell curve. We will try not to let it define him, but it inevitably will.

We’ve been here once before. We already have one child who struggles. We’ve thrown money at the problem, and time, even drugs, and we’ve called in the reinforcements. We’ve discovered, a decade on, that there is no real fix for a child who is academically challenged in a society that primarily values academic achievement. We are wrestling now with the toll that takes on a child’s confidence and his emotional wellbeing.

I tell Cleo how much I love her, and I laugh as I remind her just how often I say so. I explain that since Huey has some trouble with his speaking and his learning that sometimes we have to work to make him feel extra good. She nods her understanding. We agree that her little bubba needs some extra encouragement. She knows.

I’ve held on to these years when he was just “Huey”, when milestones mattered, but not terribly. And I will continue to resist what I know will come. There is no place in our society for the sort of challenges my boys face. They are different, but not different enough. The words we use to describe a slow processor or a child who is developmentally delayed are unkind, and I can’t shield him from them forever. I can’t keep from him a world that seeks to belittle and diminish the parts of him I know to be extraordinary. But I can tell him all the ways that he is more than enough. I can tell him I’ve never known a heart as big. I can bolster his confidence with extra hugs and kisses, and I can send him out into the day with his cup overflowing. And for today, at least, I can kiss his cheek and tell him he’s the cutest goddamn thing there is.