Today began the last 9 weeks of the school year for my kids.
The spring season of every school year seems to bring with it a mix of
ill-fitting pants, stomachaches, and nightmares. It’s stressful. And because I
didn’t live my life right to this point, I’m in at least 2 different grades
right now. I won’t tell you which grades or how it’s going. You already know.
I’m losing sleep.
Two nights ago, I fell into a nightmare that I could not
shake out of. I was in a museum, though
it looked an awful lot like an aquarium combined with Wakulla Springs. There
were boardwalks in some places, plexiglass in others. The glass had never been
cleaned. The whole place was a disease just looking for a dirty community in
1818. My entire family was moving through the exhibits at different paces. My
parents and Jenna were just up ahead of me and I was supposedly bringing up the
rear. I don’t know what happened, but I lost Jenna. She vanished around a corner
and was gone. I ran forward, running through room after room, but no Jenna. I
ran backward, hoping to pass her along the way. Still no Jenna. I was completely
panicked at this point. For some reason, my last hope of finding her was in the
final room following a series of connected rooms. It was a long, narrow stretch
with orange shag carpet and dirty windows. I zipped from one person to another,
hoping to lay eyes on the kid who belonged to me. I was ready to give up in
despair when my mom wandered up. She was walking on her own and carrying
herself with confidence. It was the mom of Before. Not After. And though she
didn’t know where Jenna was and hadn’t seen her, I felt instantly and
infinitely better just having her stand there with me.
I hadn’t seen her in so long.
At this point in the dream, I was tied up in a knot thick enough to stow a tall ship. I wanted out of the dream. I was becoming aware that I was indeed dreaming and that if I would only wake up, Jenna would be asleep in her bed down the hall. Everything would be okay again.
Everything except one.
Waking up meant I had to stop talking to my mother. To get
Jenna back, I had to let my mother go. I can’t tell you how hard this decision
was. It is the first dream I’ve had of her where I could hear her voice. The
first dream she was on her feet, advising me. Interacting with me. The first
dream where she was really her.
She didn’t realize how torn I was or that she herself had
been missing for such a long time. She was only interested in helping me find
Jenna. Where had I looked already? When
had I last seen her? What was she wearing? Did she have her ipod and did this
place have wifi?
“You go forward and look that direction,” she offered. “I’ll
backtrack and see if I can find her back there.”
OK. We made a plan. It was a workable plan. I turned to run
in the direction my mother had laid out, but stopped and looked at her one last
“I have to go, Mom,” I said. I knew something she didn’t. “Thank
you for helping.”
She nodded and retreated and I watched her go. In that instant,
just as I found my daughter, I lost my mom again. And I woke up with that feeling
burned into me like a scar that comes from grabbing something hot because you
want it badly enough to take the risk.
All these months I have hoped I would eventually forget the
mother that disease stripped away and twisted up and handed back to me as a
person I didn’t recognize. I have hoped to see her again as she was. And though
it wasn’t the stuff of a Ron Howard movie, it was something.
It was something.
Next time I hope to see her in a lush garden or on the banks of the Hillsborough. Or better yet, shack in the middle of Manhattan. And I hope there are no lost children or windows of germy plexiglass. But I’ll be honest—I’ll take her however she comes.
It was good to see her again.
For now, I gotta go. I have 2 homework assignments and an elementary
school yearbook to finish.
Today is March 24. It is not a birthday. It is not an official anniversary of a marriage or a death. But it is a special day to me. And to you, too, I hope. Two years ago today, the allergic husband said yes to adding you to our family. He said yes to bringing you indoors and we embarked on an adventure for which we were grotesquely under prepared. I said I would never share my home with a beast. I said those words just that way. And I meant them 100%. When we brought you home, I tried to block off the stairs with a twin mattress we were getting rid of. I figured you’d be a downstairs dog only. I tried to get you sleeping in a kennel in the guest room. When that didn’t work, I tried to attach you to Andrew, who has a bedroom downstairs. But things evolved, as things often do. And now, not only do I share my home with a beast, I have on occasion shared my bed with the beast and don’t view you as beastly at all. You attached yourself to me. You are my bdff. Best dog friend forever.
I’m that person now.
When I showed up at the front door of your former owner and
you bolted out the door and down the sidewalk going 55 miles an hour, I wore an
expression of shock. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Were you a
naughty dog? Were you a runner? What I know now is that you love to be outside.
You love your walks. When you get your outside time, you don’t bolt. You weren’t
getting any time outside before you came to live with us.
I’ve wondered 1000 times why 2 different owners gave you
away. What did they know that I didn’t? What about you was hard that would
cause someone to willingly place you somewhere else? I still don’t know the
answer to this one. The only answer I have is that you were born to be with us
and we just weren’t ready to embrace that fact until that day 2 years ago.
You are the perfect dog. Perfectly housebroken. Perfect
happy. Perfectly snuggly. You do become a demon when a golf cart goes by. And
golf carts do go by a lot. But I have to give you a pass on a few things.
They call dogs like you rescues. And in a sense, I do think we rescued you from a situation that wasn’t ideal. But the real truth of the situation is that you rescued us. The whole family came together to adore you in a unity we were really craving. We took walks together with you on the golf course. Together we bathed you about 15 times the first month because we thought we had to for allergies. We came to find out that we were cleaning you to death, so we stopped that business.
There have been a few accidents along the way. A few times we gave you a little too much freedom and almost condemned you to the mouth of a Belgian sheep dog. A few times we didn’t interrupt your need to roll around in another dog’s fresh waste. A few times we backed into you in the kitchen and almost killed the both of us. That one time we tried to teach you to swim. But mostly, we’ve gotten it right. We adore you. You are a hairy 5th child that doesn’t require a lot and rarely talks back. You are the best of all of us.
I don’t know what was wrong with your two previous owners, but I can tell you one thing for certain. We are your family.. We will always be your family. You are home now.
So let me hoist you up onto your dad’s side of the bed and tell you all about what happens when a guy travels to New York City without his wife. This is a good story. You’ll like it. It starts with New York City and it ends like this:
It is the 15th anniversary of the day I first laid eyes on you. I had seen some sonograms. I had spent some time trying to roll with you when you woke up jamming at 4 a.m. But this day was my first meeting in real time, full color. Turns out, as hard as we tried to check you out in advance, test your lungs, and plan every last detail ahead, you still weren’t ready to make your entrance. You’ve never liked getting up or out early. You like your sleep.
You were born on a Tuesday afternoon and placed immediately up against me for a first hold in this world. After about a minute of a strained cry, the doctor determined you weren’t quite all right, so they plucked you from my cradled grip and ushered you away from me for the next 8 hours. That was an exhausting 8 hours, swollen with anxiety about what was actually happening in the NICU. As it turned out, it was fairly standard stuff. But it isn’t standard to not have your arms around the baby you’ve loved for 9 months and who has only been in the world for a few hours. There is nothing that feels standard about that. When they finally let me see you again, it was about 8 p.m. I was shot all to c-section pieces, but still so happy to be headed down that corridor in a wheelchair. You were hungry. And screaming. Really. Really. Screaming. You still make shocking amounts of noise 15 years later. I scrubbed my hands, rolled around by your bassinet, and the nurse handed your pink, wrinkly disgruntled self. I hugged you to me and said quietly,
“Hey, boy. It’s mama.”
And in that exact instant, you stopped crying. Not a peep. And then I started up. Because I couldn’t believe that you were here and you were mine. And that the sound of my words could be a salve to your caterwauling soul. It was a moment I will remember until I don’t remember how to string two words together anymore.
That was the day you became my mama’s boy.
Even today, it is my privilege to be the one to cart you to a trampoline arena with 3 of your buddies and then on to eat our favorite, MEXICAN FOOD. You don’t need me for as much now. You don’t hug me quite as often. You outgrew your rather extreme lisp and don’t look over your shoulder anymore to see where I am in relation to where you are. But you’re still you and I love you exponentially more than I did that day when I suddenly got woozy and handed you back to a nurse right before throwing up in a cup someone handed me.
Hey, it can’t all be swaddles and lullabies.
You are rap music (clean version only), and marching quads, and jokes pushed too far, and extreme sports, and expensive shoes, and so many pairs of shoes, and fluffy hair, and oversleeping, and sidestepping the siblings who take swipes at you when you have poked the bear one time too many. You are kind when you need to be, funny to a fault, and really bad at drawing trees. Your words, not mine.
You will always be my mama’s boy. But we can just keep that between us.
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in August 2015, I felt the ground shift underneath me. No one in my family had ever had any form of dementia. We had no experience or wisdom to draw from. There was a period of shock and denial as we watched the disease pulling her along. I stayed in that state longer than I wish I had. I wish I had been able to digest it quicker, accept it sooner, and embrace it for what it was. Embrace her for what she was becoming.
I did get there. Eventually. I had an aha moment in February about who my mother still was. Her essence. And I was ready to dive in and just take from her whatever she could still offer. On her terms. In her time. But the funny thing about that disease is that it changed the rules constantly and I didn’t always catch up in time. It seemed that the very moment I got comfortable in a spot, my base changed. We were always navigating new terrain.
With that in my head, I sat down and wrote.
Where am I and where are you?
At the corner of grace and comfort I am standing On the line between sand and water, gold and blue, what I’ve always known and what I’ve dreamed would be The air is 78 degrees and I am wearing the salty breeze as a cloak The sand is warm and fleecy under my bare feet where I am standing. But where am I? And where are you? I look down at the place I am standing. If I even am. There is no sand now. Only water. I am on the line between up and down swimming and sinking blue and black what I am seeing and what I clench my eyes in fear against. My salt cloak is sticky and heavy around my shoulders and I want to throw it off. I haven’t moved but nothing is familiar. The dark waters wrap my ankles like an icy tentacle where I am standing – if I even am. But where am I? And where are you? I look down again and my base has shifted. Again. At the corner of life and mercy I am standing On the line between sea and sky ache and acquittal what I want for me and what I now hope for you. The sun sags into a paling horizon , taking with it the day, but leaving behind 1000 streaks of orange so that I can see. And I know Where you are And where I am.
Dedicated to my mom, who suffered patiently. She lost this battle, but most definitely won the war.
Twice a week, from 2:45 to 3:25, I sit in my car and wait. I
wait for my daughter and her two friends to come out of a looming brick building
that houses their middle school. The bell rings and kids spill out from the
gates like they are being poured from a bottle.
Sometimes during the waiting, I write. Sometimes I can’t
think of anything to write so I listen to Ariana Grande or anyone else who
happens to be singing on New York’s pop station, Z100. Today, I listened to
Ariana Grande and then turned off the radio. It was annoying.
The skies are deceptively gray today, constantly tricking me
into believing it is cold. Flint-colored, threatening clouds sit atop a white
Tampa sky and if I didn’t know better, I would tell you it was going to snow.
I do know better. It is not going to snow. It is 74 degrees.
My eye wanders across the road to the fence that lines the sidewalk kids use when they are walking home. Mostly it is a solid fence and it stretches beyond my line of vision. There is one broken section that I could hit with a rock from my car. It is missing its top bar and sags forward without it. In another spot nearby, the fence is torn. Broken and torn fences remind me of a night.
When Brady was in 6th grade and Andrew in 8th, they went to a small Christian school. Andrew was there because it was exactly what he needed at the time. Brady was there because the other options would have killed him on the spot. It was the right fit at the right time for both of them. Some friends were there, too. One of them in particular has captured my heart since she was a baby. And I can’t stand for anything to go bad for the people who have my heart.
I was texting back and forth with this girl’s mom and discovered that she had left her binder on the sidelines of the football field after a practice. The binders were like a ticket to heaven. You didn’t lose, deface, damage, destroy, speak badly about, or misplace even for an hour, the binder. You just didn’t. Everything was in it and it was everything. So my young friend not knowing where hers was became a problem of gargantuan proportions. We had to get that binder.
I had to get that binder.
No one asked me to get it. No one sent me to the school after dark. In fact, when questioned by my family about where I was headed, I was rather cryptic in my replies. Noneya, people. I got business.
I drove the mile and a half to the football field and pulled up to the driveway where I wanted to turn in. But I couldn’t turn in. Because there was a fence. With a gate. And it was locked.
This is the very natural point at which every other 45 year old mother would have gotten back in their car, reversed it, and gone home. I couldn’t quit that easily. That binder was at stake and so was everything tied to it.
I stood there, propped up against my open car door, with cars whizzing past on the highway behind me, and assessed my situation. It wasn’t good. There were fences. Solid, gated fences everywhere. What has the world come to that I can’t retrieve a binder on a football field without threat of arrest or personal injury?
Ah well. There had to be a way. I pulled my car over in the
driveway a little bit and walked over to a section of fence near the baseball
field. After scouting it thoroughly, I determined that this location wasn’t
going to work. I had to move on to Plan B.
Plan B was almost as bad as Plan A. More fences, more gates. But I had improved my situation dramatically in the fact that I was now parked down a long driveway out of the way of traffic. I turned off the car and started to slide my cell phone into my back pocket. I didn’t have pockets. I was wearing my yoga pants and a hoodie. It was dark. Don’t judge. What was I going to do with my cell phone? Was I going to embark on a covert mission in the dark without my phone, or was I going to handicap my mission by tying up the hand that had to carry it? It was a conundrum. In the end, I decided to take the phone and handicap myself for 3 reasons: (1) Where there’s no handicap, there’s no story. (2) I needed the cell phone flashlight. (3) I was pretty sure I was going to have to call 911 at some point.
I looked around as the headlights flickered off. There seemed
no way to enter any side of the school without climbing a fence. I am not a
good climber of anything. Trees scare me. We don’t have hills in Florida. I
once broke my ankle getting out of bed the wrong way. I can’t even do
furniture. I had no business doing fences. These were the voices in my head as
I turned to the right and grabbed a shock of wild hair.
Well, would ya look at that. Another gate. And not a solid
one. This gate was connected by a chain and there was a good 18 inches of gap
to work with. I could make that work for me. With the cell flashlight blazing,
I took off through the gapped gate.
It seemed like such a good idea when I took off running down a trail through the backwoods of the school property. There were no fences. I had been back here before and knew the way. It was a grand path to a binder that waited at the other end of that path.
Only the path was darker than a jaguar’s armpit and equally as frightening. My cell flashlight only managed to twist the shadows of regular plants and trees into the shapes of serial killers. But still I ran on.
That path was longer than I could have imagined when I was
standing at my car. And the darker and narrower it got, the faster I ran. I was
heaving puffs of night air and sucking wind by the time I reached the opening
to the football field.
I jogged to the edge of the field where the bleachers sat
lifeless, glinting silver under a half moon, and shifted my eyes to find a
lonely old binder. There was nothing there. To be certain, I walked the length
of the bleachers and shined my light wherever a binder could possibly be.
Well, shoot. The only other place her mother had said it
might be was on the stone picnic tables outside the portables. Theoretically,
that was a 2 minute walk. That walk was interrupted by yet another gate.
So many fences.
I had another decision to make. I couldn’t go back the way I
came if I wanted to search at the picnic tables. It had come down to this: I
had to climb a fence.
I walked across a short practice field to reach the gate. At
this point, I had to locate a section of fence that I thought I could successfully
climb. I shoved my phone through the links and watched it plunk softly on the
night grass and grabbed the top of the fence with both hands.
I was in trouble from the beginning, because I was wearing my Keens. My Keens have a very wide toe-box and the fence holes were less that half the width of the shoe. Somehow I scrambled up and managed to swing one leg over. And then I sat there, atop a 5 foot fence, straddling it with one leg dangling over each side, swaying like a drunk monkey because I exceeded the maximum weight of the area I was sitting on.
“I’m too old for this mess,” I said to myself, finally pushing off to jump to the other side. I heard a rip as soon as I committed to the jump. When I landed, I reached down for my phone and around to see what I had ripped. My yoga pants. At the butt. Big time. And the rip was accompanied by a little scrape that comes from women in their 40s that try to climb fences in the dark. Shoot, I liked these pants. I knew I should have changed into my renegade pants before coming out tonight. But that would have drawn too much attention.
I limped over to the stone picnic tables, feeling triumphant to still be alive, and began my secondary search for the binder. There were a few things strewn about, left behind by other students. There was no binder. I hung my head, knowing I was not going to deliver any joy to a child tonight. With one last ditch effort, I slinked over to the glass double doors leading into the school’s main hallway and pressed my face to the glass. I could see the outline of the lockers, but nothing else.
Then I looked up.
At the security cameras that had been newly installed this
My eyes dilated in the night like an animal about to be plowed
under by a semi. What if these are
monitored? What if I already set something off? What if they review video after
each night and my boys get booted from the school because their mom is a rebel
wearing torn pants?
And I took off running. I ran like I wasn’t 45 and hadn’t ripped my pants at the butt. I ran like I’d been running for decades. I ran straight down the paved car line path to my car.
Which was blocked by another fence. Are you kidding me with these fences? Right then I knew that my kids were at a REALLY SAFE SCHOOL.
I whipped all the way around, looking for the fastest way to jump another fence. This was going to finish off the pants. I don’t remember much about this last athletic feat. I’m sure it was ugly. I fully expected the way to be lit by primary colored lights but nobody came. There were no late night phone calls or visits from cops. I got back in my van and drove home, trying to normalize the last half hour as I drove. Turns out, you can’t fix in a mile and a half what you broke in 30 minutes.
I walked back through my family room and slipped back into my routine, as if nothing had happened.
“No luck,” I announced nonchalantly. Fortunately, no one wondered why I needed luck and no one made eye contact with the gaping pants hole.
The next morning, around the time of morning drop off, I casually
texted the mother of the binder-less girl.
“Hey, I went to the school last night and tried to find her
binder. Let me know what happens today.”
I was picturing her in the principal’s office, or spending the entire day trying to rebuild a binder from the notes of her friends.
Her mother texted back rather quickly.
“All good,” she replied. “Her binder was in her locker all along.”
My girls are both struggling with styes as of this weekend. They were worsening last night. Maybe there are parents out there who have no experience with styes and no knowledge of what to do when one crops up. I am not that parent.
I know everything there is to know about styes. I know what they look and feel like when they begin. I know what to do to stop them as they are just beginning. And I know when a stye has crossed the threshold into Frankenstein land. Lucy, bless her, had the restraint to not rub her eye. She followed my instructions to a T. Jenna, however, was rubbing her eyes rather generously as I barked orders for her to stop. She didn’t understand why I was barking orders. She doesn’t know that she is likely to wake up in Frankenstein land. She doesn’t know how bad a land it is to live in. She doesn’t know.
But I do.
The first stye I ever got was in 3rd grade. I didn’t need one more strike against me. I had big hair that looked like I had been riding in a truck bed for the last 7 years. My teeth were prominent. Not rich tycoon prominent. More like open wound on your face prominent. My freckles looked like angry fire ants. And my clothing was an ensemble that went perfectly with baggy tube socks.
I didn’t need a stye.
My mother told me not to rub it. She told me what would happen if I did. But it was JUST SO ITCHY.
I can’t describe the itching.
As predicted by my very smart mother, my eye got worse. And lucky for me, all that scratching sent the infection to my other eye, too. By Day 3, I was Grade A Miserable. I went to sleep that night holding a heating pad over my face. Sleep was the only thing that helped.
When I awakened on Day 4, I sat up in bed and swung my legs over the side to look in the mirror that faced me. I couldn’t see myself in that mirror because I couldn’t open my eyes. They were swollen shut and glued in that position by the extra-fun goo my eye had produced overnight.
“MOM!” I screamed. “MOM, MY EYES!” I was screaming like a child going blind. Like Mary Ingalls when she finally lost the last of her sight. I needed Michael Landon to wrap his arms me and apply some salve he made from cow spit out on the prairie. My mother came in and told me to take it down and notch as she assessed my situation.
She spent a few minutes helping me apply hot compresses to my gooped shut eyes. I was directed to massage the tear ducts. I felt like I’d been crying all night but instead of crying tears, I was crying rubber cement. When I got the eyes open enough to take a good look at myself, I was terrified of what I saw. It was the stuff of a professional makeup artist.
Surely she was going to let me stay home from school. She would not send me to school like this.
She sent me to school like that. Actually, she didn’t send me exactly like that. She proudly placed a plastic pair of yellow sunglasses with dark lenses over my swollen eyelids and patted me on both shoulders.
“There,” she said. “You’ll be fine. Just keep those on and no one will know.”
They might not know I have a highly contagious infection in both my eyes, Mom. But they will notice I’m wearing yellow sunglasses.
Every half hour I survived at school that day was a valiant effort and a triumph of my human spirit. I was paranoid on the inside. On the outside, my head was throbbing from the pressure of the extra stuff I was generating. It was beyond gross. At the halfway point in the day, we were lined up in the hallway of Kate Sullivan Elementary. We were lined up for lunch and we were neatly leaning with our backs up against the wall next to our classroom door. It was all very civilized until a cute little un-styed girl stared at me a little too long and decided to get to the bottom of my situation.
“Hey,” she called out, leaning over two people to make eye contact with my shades. “Who do you think you are? A movie star?”
If the movie is Godzilla, little miss.
I had comebacks running through my mind faster than I could kill a plant or burn a kitchen down. But I decided not to say any of them. Because none of them were as effective as letting her see for herself.
I raised my hand slowly to the temples of my shades and lowered them onto the end of my nose so my fat, oozing eyes were clearly visible to her or anyone else in my 3rd grade class that cared to look. Feast your eyes…on my eyes.
This little girl’s eyes grew double in size as she gazed in horror at what I’d revealed. She gasped.
“Never mind,” she said.
Yeah. That’s what I thought she’d say.
One more word and you’ll look just like me in a couple of days, sistah.
It all worked out. The stye went away 3 days later and I didn’t have any more trouble with that little girl.
I don’t want to get all 90210 emotional on people. And the truth is, I didn’t watch a whole lot of 90210 as it was actually happening. I was in my second year of college when the series first aired. TVs were sparse in college dorms back then. The only thing my dorm could agree on was Days of Our Lives, and that practically ruined my life. I’m thankful to say I kicked that habit. If there were girls watching 90210 in the evenings, I wasn’t aware of it. I was a nerd. I was studying.
But even if you didn’t watch 90210, you knew about it. You knew the actors. They were all over the teen magazines. Guys in high school and college were desperately growing their sideburns and trying so very, very hard to be Luke Perry and Jason Priestley. This show was all the talk. In office spaces. Classrooms. On ball fields. I remember sitting in a Creative Writing class as a junior at Florida State and hearing about Dylan and Brenda. More than I even wanted to.
Since then, I’ve watched some reruns. I’ve seen Luke Perry in 8 Seconds and on a corny romance on my beloved Hallmark. I’ve always been thankful that I was not in high school alongside the 90210 characters. It brought teen sex to the forefront of everyone’s minds and suddenly girls who didn’t really want to yet felt like they had to now. Because Dylan and Brenda had. It changed things.
Luke Perry died yesterday morning from the effects of a massive stroke he had last Wednesday. He was 52. I turned 48 fairly recently. 52 does not seem like stroke age to me. 52 is like I’m-getting-myself-together-pretty-good-now age. Part of the reason America is mourning him relates to what he represented and who he was. The other part of that mourning relates to who we are, how old we are, and our fears that if he wasn’t spared, how might we be? When Michael Jackson died at 50, it was because he had a full-time Dr. Jeckyl administering ridiculous amounts of life threatening drugs just to get him to sleep at night. That didn’t hit close to home for me.
But a stroke. Coming out of nowhere. That could happen to anyone.
And anyone is me.
Jill Filipovic of CNN said that “his death is a reminder of a youth that is receding in the rearview mirror, even as mortality is approaching way too fast.”
What do I see when I look in my rearview mirror? My own youth, yes. That one doesn’t bother me at all, actually. I am strangely unconcerned with the passing of my own youth. I have so many good, rich, fun memories of that youth. And we’ve all seen what my youth LOOKED like. It’s not hard to leave that behind. What I see most powerfully in that rearview mirror is the receding youth of my children. That’s the one that puts a lump in my throat. So little time left with the boys. So many things I’d do differently, more gently, or with more structure and discipline if I could just back that car up again.
But I can’t back that car up again. There’s no reverse.
The CNN editor, Jill Filipovic ended her Luke Perry article with this: We may not end up walking as far as we would like. Are we happy with the trail we have left behind us?
The good news is that, as of now, there’s still forward motion. There’s still a road ahead. Where I drive today is what I’ll see in that rearview mirror tomorrow.
I’m sorry Luke Perry’s road ended. He was a positive force. But I think I’ll take it as the gift of a glance into my own rearview mirror and a focused determination to drive on. #onlyforward