lucky

The woman flipped open my chart. I was there to talk about my teeth. A routine check up. Count them. Scrape them. Polish them. Set me free.

“Are you still nursing?”

No.

“How old is your baby?”

14 months.

“Do you have other children?”

No.

Silence.

There’s always a silence afterward.

This interaction has become routine. Where I live I could be a grandmother and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of ordinary. I feel her eyes scan my date of birth. Some mental calculations are made. I have a few more years than her notched on my belt. And my son is more than a decade younger than her oldest. I smile.

What I consider saying:

He took a long time to get here. I feel lucky to have him. Every night I thank God my one is in my life. And, yes, it’s none of your damn business.

Instead, I lean back in my chair, look at the tips of my shoes, open my mouth, and wait.

some thoughts on an interview.

Your story is never complete and your work is never done.

Tonight as I listened to an interview for a radio series I’m producing I listened to a man recount how he recovered from addiction. How he’s gone on to help hundreds of other people like him and others with different demons. Domestic violence and rape survivors. Veterans. Kids.

He said we all screw up. We all deserve a second chance. And sometimes a third.

“Redemption has to be for everybody,” he said. “Mental health has to be for everybody.”

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to cut a word from a story. That I could simply push back from my chair and say, hey, people, just listen. Someone important is speaking.

a part removed

My mind will not quiet these days.

Last night, at the park, the sun was slinking off behind the mountains, my friends were sitting in the grass, paper plates balanced on their laps, and my son was gently touching another baby’s belly button. It was, by most accounts, a beautiful scene. And yet. My heart lurched.

I scanned the playground and wondered ‘How many people are going to bed scared tonight?’

Later, over a game of Scrabble with my husband, I checked the news and started to cry. “Families are going to be torn apart,” I said. I studied my letters. I could not find the words.

Today, I find myself Googling terms like ‘how to adopt a DACA child’* and ‘immigration attorney SLC.’ My study is no longer a study, but a room waiting for more important work.

My country feels like an anesthetized patient, cut open, its parts removed. The heart has been misplaced.

——————————————————————————————————————

*Most DACA recipients are adults in their twenties. The majority are employed or in school. Many have children of their own.

lois

IMG_1089

I said goodbye to my nana over the phone last week.

My sister held it to her ear so I could talk to her one last time. Her breathing was rapid. It was her only response when I told her about the drawing I received in the mail that day from my 5 year-old nephew L. It was a picture of our family tree that he had illustrated.

I told Nana that she was perfectly depicted in it – a wisp of a figure with a ring of curly white hair and bright blue eyes. Then I told her I loved her. She died a few hours later.

I regret not thanking her in person for teaching me about badassery. About how to come back after you put your head through a wall and break your neck. About how to continue living after you bury a child. For a woman barely five feet tall and about 90 pounds, Nana was a formidable presence.

She was always calm and claims she never swore once in her 93 years. She said she never felt a need to. She simply did what she felt was right and never looked back, never asked permission, and didn’t always apologize if she was wrong. Nana had a big heart and little tact. And she was a horrible driver.

I will always remember going to dinner with her and my sister one evening in Florida. She drove and got particularly creative in the parking lot. She wedged her vehicle between an occupied police cruiser and a no parking zone, cut the engine, and marched inside the restaurant. J and I just stood on the sidewalk with our mouths agape.

“What’s he going to do, arrest me?” she asked shooting a glance towards the police officer.

The thing is I know he saw her do it. And he likely even heard her say it. But that was Nana. She lived by her own set of rules and she bent them for no one.

Nana appears in some of my earliest memories. I remember climbing over the granite boulders in her backyard to pick wild blackberries and finding a litter of feral kittens she wouldn’t let me keep. I remember waking up on Christmas mornings and her always being there.

I saved most of the notes she wrote me after I graduated college. Words of encouragement. Articles she clipped from magazines that she thought I would enjoy. I know I didn’t always write a thank you note in return.

I’ve had three decades to learn most of her stories. One I have never forgotten is from when she joined the Waves during World War II. She was stationed in California and served as a dental hygienist. That’s where she met my grandfather. But the story I’m referring to isn’t about how they met — although I know that one too — it’s about how sometimes at night, she would sit in the dark, holding the hands of dying soldiers when they no other hands to hold.

Nana didn’t want services. There is to be no funeral. No obituary to mark her passing. I didn’t ask why. I should have, but that would have meant actually acknowledging aloud what was happening. And I guess even at 36, I’m still a little immature.

Instead, I sliced a one inch cube of cantaloupe into 16 pieces hoping she might be able to eat a few. I soaked coffeecake in butter so that she might be able to swallow it. And for the last three nights I spent with her, I sat at her bedside, pulled up her covers, and held her hand.

standing still

At about 19 weeks, human fetuses begin to hear from inside the womb. The first sounds they likely register are the gurgling of their mother’s stomach and the steady drumming of her heart. Her voice will be a sound they recognize and respond to before ever seeing her face. In other words, by 19 weeks, it will never be quiet again.

The value of silence is something I am trying to teach my son to appreciate as he grows. Because the world is a noisy place. It seems that every inch of available concrete is increasingly being used to prime us to open our wallets. Billboards scream at us from across the highway. Our phones nudge us for attention with chronic push notifications. Even my nearest gas station recently installed television screens on its pumps that blast advertisements 24 hours a day – even if no one is around to hear them. I find this disturbing.

The other day as I took refuge in my car from gas station TV, I recalled running errands with my mom as a kid. I remembered the sudden quiet when she’d park and cut the engine. How the radio stalled mid-song and the world outside seemed to operate as if on mute. I can still remember happily sitting in the cocoon of the car in the parking lot of Market Basket while my mom returned the shopping cart. I remember curling into the pocket of sunshine warming the backseat and just watching the world walk by.

That’s what I want for my son. Moments of quiet observation. Moments where he just has to sit and wonder without some device yelling at him. I want him to understand the importance of standing still.

So I started a new tradition this week. I pulled out our copy of A Field Guide to Western Birds and started birding with Gabe in our backyard. Truthfully I can’t say that he understands the point, but he seems to enjoy being plopped in the middle of the grass every afternoon. We sit on a blanket and I listen for birds while Gabe pulls at the blades of green at his feet. Sometimes the cat emerges from a bush and circles the blanket before returning to his hideaway in the garden.

It isn’t long before the chatter of birdsong begins. Within a few minutes a robin will perch in one of our cherry trees and a hummingbird will zip through the yard. While I’m certain Gabe rarely sees any of the birds I point out, he knows to listen for their call. He pauses from playing with the grass and looks to the sky. His eyes widen and he waits. And for now, for me, that is enough.

Dear Gabriel,

Every night before bed I hold you and whisper a prayer into the space between your neck and mine. Sometimes it’s just the standard Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I make up one of my own. Deep down I suspect that these prayers are not really for you. They are for me. I think I am really just praying to be better tomorrow than I was today. For you. And for the world I have brought you into.

Every day I watch you play on a colorful mat with whimsical drawings of turquoise elephants in a place where palm trees are pink and the sun actually smiles back. I watch as you furrow your brow as your try to make sense of the world at your feet. Why does everything you throw ultimately, and always, fall back down? What does the color red taste like? Does everything make a sound?

You do. These days you are testing your little voice. I think that is what is most profound for me to absorb. You have a voice and you are learning how to use it.

Your voice can be loud. You emphatically tell me that you do not like it when I use the blender. Your voice can convey excitement. Nothing seems to delight you more than when the cat comes almost near enough for you to touch. Your voice can be gentle. After we nurse, and right before I lay you down for the night, you stand on my legs and coo into the darkness. In those moments it becomes clear to me that you feel safe. I pray that this is always so.

My job as your mother is constantly changing. In the beginning my mandate was simple: Keep you alive.

Six months later my role has already expanded. I am supposed to create a space where you feel loved enough and secure enough to explore it without me. Because you seem to smile biggest when you are showing me the things you can do all by yourself. Like directing a spoon into your mouth. And banging plastic cups together so that they create a noise. (I am certain that there will be times ahead when I wish you wouldn’t.)

These days I find myself silently adding to the list of things I pray for you. Perhaps one day I will share them all. Perhaps one day I will share both my hopes and my fears with you. But right now, all you need to know is that you are loved, that you are safe, and that you have a voice.

Love,
Mom

everyday conversations. from 2009.

img_5768

I have been living in 2009 for the last week. And it’s been awesome.

It may have been prompted by 2017 swiftly approaching and my apprehension about what the year ahead might bring. It may have been triggered because I spent Christmas running in shorts and a tank top in Texas rather than baking nine different types of cookies with my mom in Massachusetts. Either way, I have been revisiting nostalgia. Hard. I’ve had 2009 streaming from my headphones day and night – the adult version of plugging my ears with my fingers and singing fa la la la la la!

And I am okay with that. Because this week I heard my grandmother’s voice for the first time in seven years.

It was a conversation I had recorded in my grandparents’ kitchen in Quincy. It’s 14 and a half minutes of table talk. About a chip in the enamel of their 60-year-old stove. My nana protesting the need to replace its light bulb that had burned out God knows how long ago. Details about the City of Boston’s memorial service for Ted Kennedy scheduled for the next day.

It was soothing to hear the sounds of our spoons clinking against coffee mugs and familiar wooden chairs scraping against the floor. I was transported back to a time when I was still living in San Francisco, still trying to find someone to love me back, and altogether more comfortable with uncertainty.

It was a time when my nana – a lifelong Republican – and my grandfather – a lifelong Democrat – were not above crossing party lines. 

Once Nana needed oxygen to assist her breathing her voice took on a quality that sounded as though she perpetually had a cold. As I listened to the recordings my voice is different, too. It’s lighter. Perkier. And it talks too much. It’s the voice of a person who doesn’t yet know what she will lose in the months ahead. A voice that doesn’t know enough to just listen.

I recorded my grandparents because I knew they wouldn’t always be here to give advice. To put life in perspective. I had no idea what I would do with the recordings. At the time I just felt a pressing need to capture their voices. I knew my grandmother was sick. We all did. And I knew she would never get better – even if she didn’t believe it herself.

Nana died less than three months later. I burned copies of these conversations onto CDs (!) for my mom for Christmas. For a long time afterward I forgot about the recordings. Then a year ago I moved back to Utah and started working at the local public radio station. I learned how to use the equipment and the editing software. It was time to revisit the recordings. By then, my phone with the original recordings was long deceased, but the copies survived long enough to be returned to me via USB drive. I wrote this post because I wanted to make some of them available for my family to listen to whenever they wanted. The warning I recorded seven years ago still holds today.

Our conversations often start with enthusiasm for one topic and almost immediately take a hard left to discuss muffins, diverge to talk about Chappaquiddick, return three minutes later to the original topic, before shooting off in another direction to discuss Josh Beckett and whether or not Nana saw my parents on TV at the Sox game. 

I think what I love and miss most about these conversations is that nothing special ever happens in them. Deep down I always wanted my grandparents to reveal something important in these recordings so I left the recorder on all the time because I was afraid I would miss something crucial that would die with them. Instead, I captured the dog’s tags jingling as she came in from outside, Nana’s difficulty breathing, and asides that showed how deeply my grandfather loved my grandmother – even if he never said the words on tape.

As the final hours of 2016 ticked down I was still wrapping up the last of the recordings. I had to finish listening to them to meet some inexplicable self-imposed deadline before the new year. I listened to my 28-year-old self speak of my unborn children as though they were a certainty. It would be years more before I would learn of my trouble conceiving. Of the doubt and despair that came with it. But mostly I listened and just laughed. Below are some snippets of my favorite talks. J, M, D, Mother Hen, and Dinosaur – these are for you.

For the rest or you, I was asleep for the first minutes of 2017. I awoke to gray sky and 15 degrees. I clipped on my Yaktrax and ran along the shoreline of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists. Drops of bright red blood from deer or dog dotted the snow. It was so cold my phone battery died halfway through the run. On the way back I just listened to the sounds of the magpies scattering to higher ground as I passed and my own steady breath as I churned up and down the hills.