Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bearing Up Under Stress

If we know each other in “real life” please do not read the rest of this post. Because if you read the following story and I swear you to secrecy, you may have the best intentions, but something could go awry. You could see Margaret and me in the grocery store or at Taco Bell and instead of remembering NOT to talk about her hamster, you might see her and then get hamster on the brain. Suddenly, we’ll be chatting about hamster wheels and hamster treats, and her hamster named Bear.

Or, like me, you could get the urge to blurt out “Hamster!” as soon as you see us, just because it’s forbidden, the way I used to want to hurl my purse over a rickety bridge near my grandparents’ house every darn time I crossed over it. And I would tell myself, “I will not think of hurling my purse over the edge this time,” but then I’d get to the bridge and all I could think of was “Purse! Purse! Throw the purse!” I know I'm not alone in this, right?

So if we know each other in real life, and if the purse story hasn’t freaked you out so much that you wish to "unknow" me, please read no further.

Ok? Great.

So, I decided to clean Margaret’s pet hamster’s cage for her as a love gift. This is along the same lines as when my mother would approach me, hands outstretched, to collect my contact lenses from me and give them their monthly enzyme treatment, because although I was fully capable of doing it myself, she wanted to do something for me.
So, feeling virtuous and generous, I decided to clean the cage while Margaret and Tim were at the neighbors’ house. I popped “Bear” into his plastic ball and set about cleaning the cage until it sparkled. Then I got distracted and started packing some more boxes and taping them up. Then I got myself some tea. Perhaps I cruised Facebook. Perhaps.

When I remembered what I’d been doing, I hustled back upstairs to get Bear. My heart sank. All I saw was an empty yellow ball. Empty! My eyes scanned Jack’s room where Bear had been rolling so happily just moments (minutes? A half hour? Days?) before. I felt panic grip my chest.

We cannot lose Bear.

He has been such a bright spot in our lives.  I’m already praying he far outlives his life expectancy. My sister bought him for Margaret a few days after Jack’s accident. He was four months old, and that was almost two years ago. Hamsters live 2-2.5 years. Oh my. He seems pretty spry, and with the exception of his uh, male undercarriage, growing exceedingly large, he looks about how he did when we got him.

Anyway, I started scouring the room in a panic. I couldn’t think straight. I looked at the weird 3 inch gap under the door that a freakin’ hedge hog could probably squeeze through. I thought of the chaos all over the house, from the bedrooms down to the basement. If Bear found a cozy box to crawl into, and I taped him in there, what kind of surprise would we find when we moved in a week or so? Or, what if we didn’t find ever find him? What if the new owners, sensing a rodent on the loose, set out a mousetrap and? And? Did I tell you they have two cats? Or what if Shadow the dog had already gulped him down in one bite while I’d been enjoying my tea? Did she look full? Did she look guiltily satisfied?

I wasn’t sure how to start looking, because I had Shadow in her usual location-- up my skirt. Everywhere I looked, she looked too. If I tried to shut her up in another room so I could search more quickly, what if I shut her up with Bear?

So I grabbed Shadow by the collar and dragged her to each pile of boxes, clothes and the stacks of crumpled packing paper. Even in his chubby state, I knew Bear could probably run fast and that my time was running out. I grabbed the phone and called Tim and told him to come help me. I forbade him to tell Margaret what was going on.

He calmly walked in the room and said everything was going to be fine.

Did he not see the boxes everywhere? The air vents of death? The dresser drawers? Did he not know that with both a move and middle school looming, we do not need a dead hamster?

We moved Jack’s bed away from the wall. Would we find him driving a toy car or running through a Lego scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? No dice.

Tim leaned under Jack’s dresser. “I see him. He’s fine.” And he was.

Thank you, Jesus. Yes, I’d prayed about a hamster. In fact, I have no qualms if we ALL pray that Bear sets a hamster longevity record.

I haven’t told Margaret anything, and I’m thinking it’s in my best interest not to.

I just wish I didn’t want to blurt out, “HAMSTER!” every time I saw her.


Thursday, August 15, 2013


I have no control over what happened to Jack. I can only control my reaction to it. I used to whine to my mom about my sister, “Mom, Liz makes me so mad!” Mom’s annoying response was always the same, “No one can make you mad. You choose how to react.” I knew it was true, and I’m sure she did to, but that calm philosophy didn’t always work for me, and it didn’t keep Mom herself from crying in the car when the three of us kids pushed her right over the edge. “I’m just so upset! I’m sorry I yelled at you kids. I know I don’t have a u-ter-us anymore, but if I did have a u-ter-us”-- weep, gasp, snuffle—“I think maybe I’d be men-stru-a-ting right now.”

Not sure what was worse, seeing my mom cry, or having her discuss lady parts in front of my brother.  Another day we sat lined up 1-2-3 on the brown tweed couch in the living room. “I want to talk to you about something very natural called “nocturnal emissions.” They are a normal part of getting older and are nothing to be ashamed of.” I’m sure my brother wanted to crawl under the couch and die. I was confused and would spend a few years wondering if I was ever going to get what mom had told us could also be called, “A Wet Dream.”

I read a quote from a blogger Jennifer Boykin: “I am responsible for everything that stays in my life.” It reminds me of my mother telling me I can choose how to react. But to the death of my son? Hmmm. I don’t feel like there are a lot of choices here.  Sure, I chose to stay positive after my mom died when I was a teenager. I  had pushed through as “brave,” and “strong,” and "positive." I dealt with the painful secondary losses of other important relationships that followed. Sometimes I felt very much alone.

I yearned for big family reunions and multi-generational beach trips, and someone to watch my babies so I could take a class, get my hair colored, or sleep. But I knew that my ultimate goal was to have a family and be a mom, the kind of imperfectly wonderful my mom was to me. And I got that. Jack and Margaret helped redeem that early, painful loss.

It hasn’t really felt like I’ve had much of a choice in how to react since Jack’s death. It’s been more like a “hang the hell on and don’t get sucked so far into the depths that I can’t get out” kind of thing.

But I guess there always is a choice, and this path, whatever it is I’m choosing-- whether it’s called being positive, clinging to joy, or whatever-- beats the alternative.
I think of our traditional Christmas Eve movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and I’m taken aback by Old Mrs. Bailey who has lost her only son to an accident. She has always seemed scary, bitter, shriveled and a bit wild to me. And I know that's an option.
But I do not choose that. Not today at least.

What do you choose today?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Moving on Up

So, we're moving.

I've been waiting to tell you until the sale on our current house was final, but it's been so hard not to share what these past months have been like. You, my dears, are such a huge support to this family, and I want you to be in the know.

On surface it would be pretty easy to say, "Oh, good. Their old house probably has a lot of painful memories and it's great for them to get a fresh start." But the thing is, this house doesn't hold a lot of painful memories. It holds memories of a lot of laughter and love, which thankfully continue today. This house helps me feel close to the family that we once were, back before we knew the things we know now.

There's the thread still hanging on the back of my bedroom door where we attempted to pull out Margaret's first loose tooth, with Jack jumping up and down in excitement, Shadow getting her nose all up in the video camera, and Margaret shrieking with delight and terror as we slammed the door shut and...nothing happened. It would be at least a week before the tooth finally gave up the ghost.

There's the basement where Tim and the kids would set up games of "Rat Race," making tunnels out of sheets and chairs, and chase each other on their bellies through the maze, pelting each other with wadded up socks. There's the family room with the leather couch where we always sat lined up in a row: Margaret, Tim, Anna, Jack to watch America's Got Talent. There's this office, that used to be a laundry room, where for some reason in January 2008 I thought it might be fun to write down some thoughts about parenting and share a few house projects on something weird called a Blog. And of course there's the kitchen counter where the kids sat on stools and did their homework, or stood on their stools and told me about their days. And don't even get me started about the yard and the climbing trees.

Tim, Margaret, and I are "bloom where you are planted" people. So was Jack. I guess the fact that I live in my hometown even though I have no relatives left here, go to the church where I grew up, and even work there part-time, could be an indication of this. Jack loved this house and neighborhood so much that he didn't even like to leave it and his friends to spend a day at our pool across town. Whenever we traveled as a family, our first words in the door were, "It's good to be home." And this is our home. And it makes me smile.

So the decision to move was hard. I don't want to leave Jack's bedroom! I don't want to leave what we had here! I don't want to put our lives in boxes because it will become clear in the next house that some of the boxes don't need to be opened again, and I hate that. But the decision was mine, and I didn't come to it quickly or easily. There were just certain aspects of staying here that kept me from blooming and I don't think that was good for any of us.

Back in January we found a house that we loved that would enable us to be on a street with many of the friends who have walked beside us in our pain. Who knew Jack and know our story. There would be cool house projects to help get my decorating mojo back. It felt like we were running TO something positive rather than AWAY from something, and that felt good. Until the deal fell through.

Then we lost another one.

For a while the only house available in our price range was our current one, which sort of defeated the purpose. Tensions ran high.

We jumped on the next one that became available. Jumped! Which is unlike slowpokes like us, but we were anxious to be settled before school starts for Margaret, and it was getting too close for comfort. It's a lovely, well cared for house. The master bathroom will make you drool.

It's farther out than we were looking for, which takes us out of our immediate circle of friends. That makes me nervous, because we've grown very close to our friends since the accident. It will mean introducing ourselves and answering the question, "How many kids do you have?"

The funny thing is, the new house is almost the exact floor plan of our current house! I think that's what helped us jump on it and make a quick deal in a very competitive housing market, like within MINUTES. Margaret got on board because she could picture it,  you know? We could already figure out where the Christmas tree would go. My office is right here, just over there. So it's kind of like our house was plopped down somewhere else. Interesting.

If I'd been able to share this BIG news with you earlier, you would have had to go through the stress of getting our house ready to sell, seen where Tim and I drew the battle lines with each other as we spackled far into the night, and rooted for Margaret as she had to adapt to a reality she didn't want to face. That we really are moving and she's coming with us.

I don't know what the next weeks hold, but I have some specific things I would LOVE for you to pray about.

1) That moving does not end up being THE THING. I keep wondering what the thing will be that will ultimately push me over the edge. That will extinguish the flicker of hope that has been present since day one, even in tragedy. Maybe there won't be a THING. But I am a bit worried.

2) In the space of one week we will move from the only home Margaret remembers, she will start middle school at a new school (!), and on the 2nd day of 7th grade she will outlive her OLDER brother.

I know. It's a lot.

It's easy to second guess. It's easy to sit here at my desk and say of course we should stay. We are comfortable here. This house is what we know. That it's been almost two years and we really can handle anything at this point, so why not stay?

And what if we feel even more disconnected from Jack there? To live in a house where he's never been is kind of like starting a new year that he's never been in. Suckish. But do-able.

So there's a lot to pray about.

I guess the biggest prayer is that we will BLOOM.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Along Came Sally...

When I found out I was having a boy, it took me a while to get used to the idea. I've already written about being a high school teacher, and keeping my male students a bit at arm's length, at least when I was a young and single. But because of those very same high school boys, I didn't just picture mothering a BABY boy; I pictured mothering a TEENAGE boy, with all of his tender, tough, confident, needy awkwardness.

My mother seemed to get a huge kick out of parenting teens and I expected the same to be true in my own mothering. "Of course I loved you all when you were babies, Anna, but I liked it so much more when you became real people!" she said. Sounds weird, but I got what she meant. Each year that passes a mother gets to see her child grow into the person he is meant to be, and she learns to relate to him in a new way.

A note I found tucked in her jewelry box after she died says a lot about the kind of relationships she fostered with her 3 teenagers, even though it deals specifically with my older brother.

It was scrawled on an index card and had been left beside the yellow wall phone in the kitchen by my brother one Friday night:

Mom, If  a girl calls, and it's Sally, tell her I'll be at Steve's party. Do not, I repeat DO NOT ask, "Is this Sally?" Let her tell you who it is. I don't want to scare any new ones away. Love, John

Mom got a kick out of my brother, my sister, and me even when, or maybe especially when, we were teenagers. I felt it and I knew it.

Jack should be entering high school in a few weeks.

High school.

Yep. High school.

Our relationship, built on love, respect and trust, would be entering a new phase if he were still with us, a phase of increased freedom and responsibility, a phase that we'd have to figure out as we went along. I had a great model in my mother about how to parent a teenage boy, and I was really looking forward to it, despite the challenges I know it represents.

Tonight we got back from a week at a vacation house and two of our family members were 14 and 15 year old boys.  I loved talking to them, joking with them, being with them. But it was hard. Seeing how they went from surly and disconnected to loving and cuddly in a millisecond and then cycling back again. Eating everything that wasn't nailed down. Flexing muscles that weren't there two years ago. Having real conversations about things that matter. Hugging their moms whom they'd already passed in height.

I'm having a really hard time not knowing what Jack would look like, what new things we would be talking about, and what issues we would be dealing with, if he were still with us physically today.

And it is crushing me that I'll never receive a note (text, whatever) like the one my brother left my mom that ordinary night almost 30 years ago.

Because you only leave a note like that if you're close to your mom and she really "gets" you.

So tonight is a double whammy as I miss having a mother who "got us" and miss the chance to mother my teenage son.