Rain thrashes against a small, wooden bungalow where the floors slope at strange angles. At unpredictable intervals, the neighborhood hills light up with strobe-like flare and the thunder drops like artillery.
I am well accustomed to thunderstorms. Especially lately. But there is something about navigating one in a new place that intensifies the experience. The terrain that lights up is unfamiliar. The shadows are foreign. The echoes of thunder are bouncing off of trees and houses you’ve never seen before. As I listen to the sounds of the weather outside and the alerts about the weather on my phone, I half expect the storm to come inside. I don’t know this house. How do I know it won’t?
Maybe it is this storm or maybe it’s this morning’s walk in the Oakdale Cemetery, but I got to thinking. And it’s long past time to sleep, but I can’t stop myself from thinking. About storms. And storm prep.
I have been sitting here considering what makes one storm more frightening than the next and what makes a storm scary in the first place. I came up with a few things.
Where you are matters. When I was on a 35 foot sailboat with my friend and her dad, I was on the storm’s turf and in the most volatile spot on earth at that moment in time. I felt a little differently about that approaching storm versus the one I watched hit the rented bungalow tonight.
How you prepare matters. When you build a house in Tornado Alley, you can prepare by building a storm cellar. In hurricane season along any coastline, you can prepare by building a hurricane kit and by sandbagging. When there is no weathering the storm, sometimes all you can do is run. I once sandbagged my house for a hurricane that dropped less rain than I bathed my babies in. I was real mad when I had to dispose of 300 filled sandbags. What I wasn’t was scared. I was prepared for that storm.
The intensity of the storm matters. Some storms are worse than others. Some storms are bigger than I am, or bigger than my house or my hurricane kit.
Your focus matters. Where I’m trying to go as a storm approaches is my focus. If I have an outdoor concert, or a ballgame, or a flight to take, I don’t want to see an ominous forecast. A black cloud becomes the worst kind of news. But if I have nowhere to be, a solid roof over my head, a book, a dog, and a content kid around, I would gladly order a storm from a weather vending machine and turn it all the way up.
As I lie here, I can still hear the rain, though the thunder has faded to a rumble. My low rumble is another guy’s artillery. The storm has moved away.
I am not thinking about physical storms this moment. I’m making connections in my mind; thinking about the things that upend me in my life. Thinking about the things I could have done to change my location or my prep so that those things might have been a drizzle and not a devastating flash flood.
I can’t do anything about the fact that I sandbagged my house for Hurricane Georges, which did not even wink at us, and did nothing to prepare for Irma, which did. And I can’t change that I allowed a free PlayStation into my house when Andrew was 10., or that I was bad at chore assignments and enforcement when my kids were tiny. But I can do today. And the future is still out there. It’s summer and the school year will be sitting in my ill-prepared lap before I am ready to acknowledge it. I will have kids in grades 6,8,10, and 12 this year. There will be storms all along the way and life is going to change dramatically in the next year or two. It will take 5 friends, a husband, and a very, very good guidance counselor to lead me through the Senior Year Labyrinth and a therapist to get me over it when it is past. And then I’ll be on to the next thing. Don’t regret, Missy. Do. Put on your rubber shoes and start walking.
That’s a lot of hooey that came up because I am watching the lightning signal threateningly outside a North Carolina window. It’s like the devil doing morse code with a flashlight. Sinister. As the storm fades and a soft rain continues, I think about this specific storm and how I prepared for it. I have only one regret and it’s a big one:
I am staying in a rented house in North Carolina this week, waiting for my boys to finish having the times of their lives at a summer camp just up the mountain. I’m aware that it’s stupid to drive 10 hours for a summer camp when there are plenty of summer camps within an hour of my house. But this one is special. And Florida is more hot and flat and buggy than driving 10 hours was stupid, so we decided to do it.
Getting here wasn’t easy. It involved late night trips to CVS, googling quick fixes for severe constipation while also roadtripping (do not attempt to google this yourself. It only brings up ads for Dulcolax), fixing the constipation (not my own), driving on 3.5 hours of sleep with a car full of smelly boys who discuss their underwear far more than I expected, and then safely dropping them to some people who are willing to parent them in the woods for a week. It was something. Everything that went along with the constipation and its correction truly deserves a blog of its own, but the person in pain those days is a teen boy whom I love and would like to maintain a relationship with. So for now, just picture it and then let it go. I have.
After my friend and I got our respective kids settled at camp, we settled ourselves into the couch of our rented house and sighed with satisfaction. The world was our oyster. What would we do with ourselves for 5 more days? After sitting on our haunches for an hour, we decided to go to dinner. And we carefully selected who would take our money for this first meal without kids.
The first restaurant I came into contact with upon pulling into town Saturday night was Binion’s Roadhouse. I saw the sign, immediately leaped to bunions, pictured my grandmother’s 92 year old feet, and declared we would not be eating at that place.
That all changed after we walked into the posh, trendy, fairly-well-reviewed-on-Yelp Flat Rock Wood Room. Don’t ask me what a wood room is, because I don’t know. I didn’t get to find out. There were a lot of people standing around outside, making me think we might not get seated right away. But there were only two of us. So we did. Get seated. Right away. With menus. And that’s the last good thing that happened to me in the wood room.
Time passed. So much time. More than 15 minutes and not a single employee had made eye contact, told us they’d be right over, smiled. Nothing. So, finally–feeling existential and invisible–we walked out. No one saw us leave. We didn’t get to shake the gravel dust of that awful place off our feet in their direction because there was nobody to shake it on.
We didn’t have a plan B. Half the restaurants in Hendersonville are closed on Sundays. That’s a real thing. So our choices were limited. After driving around and searching our phones for a few minutes, you can guess where we ended up.
Binion’s was the place I’ve looked for all my life, but didn’t know existed. It was homemade squash casserole and buttery yeast rolls and crispy bacon on my Bacon Grilled Cheese sandwich. It was friendly service. It was perfection. It was SO perfect on the heels of the SO terrible Flat Rock, that I came home, picked up my computer, and reviewed Binion’s on Trip Advisor, which our server had said would give her a nice bonus. It is the first review I’ve ever written on a restaurant. I closed the lid of my laptop and the Informinator said, “You’re going to stop there? You’re not going to review Flat Rock?”
She had a point. So I opened my laptop back up and wrote the following.
We were really in the mood to try this place. We were even willing to be patient on a busy Sunday evening. But besides being spoken to and seated by the hostess, who pretty much couldn’t ignore us, not a single other employee looked our direction. We sat at a table with our menus for 15 minutes without a word or even a glance from any passing server. I began to wonder if I was actually there. Maybe no one could see me. We finally walked out because we couldn’t flag anyone down who wanted to feed us or take our money. We then drove across town to Binion’s Roadhouse, where we were served immediately and treated like royalty. Apparently we weren’t invisible after all. Flat Rock, you might be good to some people on some nights, but you stunk like old cheese to us tonight. But thanks for stinking, because we found Binion’s and that was a WIN.
So if you’re ever in Hendersonville, remember that I told you about Binion’s and schedule it into your week. You won’t be disappointed. You know what they say: never judge a restaurant by the bunions on your grandma’s feet.
On a sultry June day in 1984, I made a deal with God. Or at least I thought I did. I tried to. It wasn’t much of a deal, really. I got everything and offered very little in return. That day I asked Him to save my life in exchange for a 13-year-old’s version of devotion. He’d save me and my offering would be me. But I was a wreck, not a prize.
He did save me. I’m still alive. But it was not without some
effort. It was quite a day.
I had just finished 7th grade and managed to
coast into summer break with a couple of friends that I actually had phone
numbers for. One of those friends was Meredith. We had spent most of our 7th
grade year in the same classes and had cultivated a close friendship. We had
promised each other on the last day of school that we’d get together soon.
Soon was today.
Meredith had invited me to go sailing overnight with her and
her father. I hardly took a breath before shouting yes. I was always up for an
adventure. They kept their 35-foot sailboat in a boat slip at Alligator point,
named for the gangly pine trees that towered at the end of the strand in the
formation of an alligator’s open mouth. If you happened to be standing directly
at the pines and looking up, you would never know you were looking into the
mouth of an alligator. But standing on the beach in front of my cottage on St.
Teresa across the reef, it was an alligator, clear as day.
The back side of the point had the marina and a cute little store ideal for two girls who were not contributing to the sailing preparation one bit. We ran up and down the docks, shopped in the store, and then wound our way carefully onto her boat deck. Her dad was checking his lines and loading supplies. I don’t remember him asking us to do anything to help. He must have known that it was easier to do it himself than it was to herd two teen girls into working for him.
I leaned against the cabin and pulled the Eurythmics into my
ears by adjusting my headphones. I watched Meredith as she gazed across the
marina. Her blonde hair and green eyes looked like they were made for a day
like this one. The sky was the color of Easter and dotted with a just enough
wispy white clouds to keep it from looking like eternity. It was perfect.
“Whatcha listening to?” she asked me as her dad began to
back the boat out of the slip with the motor.
“Here Comes the Rain Again,” I answered without pausing the
song. I flashed the cassette cover. “Eurythmics!”
“You’re shouting,” she chuckled. “Turn it down!”
“Oh,” I whispered back. “Sorry!”
“Come on,” she beckoned. “Let’s go get settled up front.”
We climbed over the cabin and scooted our way up to the deck
that was plenty wide enough for both of us to stretch out. I gazed out over the
dignified point of the bow that sliced through dark green waters as we cleared
the last of the slips and left the marina in our wake. We each put a rolled-up
beach towel behind our head and laid down like royalty.
“Man, this is great,” I said, looking over.
“Isn’t it?” she said.
“Thanks for inviting me.”
“Oh, sure,” she smiled. “I’m glad the timing worked out.”
I thought about my parents back in town and wondered if they
were thinking of me with envy. I knew my dad was. He would rather be out on the
water than almost anywhere else. My mother was happy to wave at anyone from
shore. She loved the beach, but was happier to be on the actual beach. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and preferred to be
within an oar’s length of land.
“So,” I said, tugging my headphones off and resting them
around my neck while Annie Lennox continued to sing.
“Yes?” She looked over. I had her full attention.
“We’ve been out of school a couple of weeks now. I’m sure we’re both way more mature.” She turned and propped up on her right elbow. “Nick Rhodes? Where do you stand on him?”
“Oh, brother!” She pulled her towel out from under her head
to smack me with it. “He’s still hot. Maybe THE hottest.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Nothing had changed. During
the school year, several of us had this same conversation about every other day
in the cafeteria at lunch. Who was the best looking member of Duran Duran?
Simon LeBon, clearly and scientifically the cutest one, was always my choice.
He was the winner in the cafeteria poll. He’s since gotten fat and weird
looking. 35 years has a way of twisting those leather pants into the grotesque.
John Taylor was a sometimes choice for Meredith. He was the tall, lean bass
player of the group. He wasn’t my thing, but I readily admitted that he had a
lovely jaw structure. He was otherwise too skinny. But Nick Rhodes– Nick
Rhodes was a choice I never understood. She had a button with his picture on it.
He was the make-up wearing keyboard player.
“He wears lipstick the shade of my grandmother’s couch. It’s
a tiny bit creepy.”
“Oh, Missy, be a little progressive. We’ve had this same
conversation 400 times. When will you agree to disagree?” She stuffed her towel
back under her neck and flipped onto her back again. I couldn’t see her eyes
behind her mirrored sunglasses, as she struggled to get as cozy as she had been
“Probably never,” I answered truthfully. “But not today, for
sure. Simon, always Simon.”
The boat glided along through the emerald gulf waters as we
closed our eyes and let the sun drip down on us like melted butter. We saw a
couple of porpoises that were happy to race us until they got bored and moved
The day went on like that for an hour.
But in the time it took for the second hand of my watch to
tick from one number to the next, we both sat up.
Something had changed.
The wind had been filling the main sail till it was round
and full like the too-tight dress shirt on a chubby waiter. Now the sail seemed
empty and limp, flapping against the mast like the wedding dress of a runaway
The wind was gone.
The skies were flanked with white puffy clouds that seemed to
have thickened and matured as we sat there still in the water.
“This is weird,” I said. “Is this weird?” I looked around
us. We were swaying in the waves in one spot like we were anchored. Like a plastic
bobber on the end of a cane pole. “It’s totally beautiful out. But we aren’t
“Have you ever heard of ‘the calm before the storm?’” She
gave me a sideways glance. “Well, there’s a reason it’s a cliché,” Meredith
replied. “I think this is the calm before the storm.”
I had heard that expression.
I had never experienced it.
Meredith got up and grabbed her towel pillow and stooped
under the boom. The mainsail was fluttering and slapping loudly against the
mast. She shuffled back to the stern of the boat where her dad was 100%
focused. His eyes were the color of a bad omen and he was fixed on the sea
ahead. She was talking to him, but I stayed where I was. I was not a co-pilot.
They didn’t need me trying to hone in on the sailor talk. My stomach rolled
with the lapping waves as we seemed to halt between worlds.
I pushed stop on Annie Lennox, because the more still it
became, the more I felt I needed to see and hear what was around me. Even the
lapping waves had slowed to ripples that looked like small buckles in an endless
I looked over my shoulder again and Meredith was climbing
her way back to me. She didn’t lie down as before. She leaned against the cabin
and held her towel in her lap.
“Well?” I asked.
“A storm is coming,” she said. “Hopefully not too bad. But
we should probably put our stuff in the cabin and do a little prep work.” She
turned and crawled under the boom again and this time I followed her. In the
amount of time it took me to maneuver to the back of the boat like her clumsy
shadow, the buttery sunlight that had set such a cheerful tone succumbed to a
much darker affair. Vengeful clouds, flinty and thick, dropped down from the
wide open and boxed us in. “Come on,” Meredith urged, stepping down the three
steps into the cabin below deck.
When we got down there, Meredith opened an overhead cabinet
and pulled out two life jackets and shoved our towels into the space she had
“Here,” she said. “Buckle top and bottom and pull it snug.”
I took the life vest from her and tried to read in her eyes something more than
the basic instructions she had given me. She didn’t lock eyes with me. She was
concentrating on her own vest. Her dad gripped the helm at 10 and 2 and
whistled lightly as he navigated an entirely different sea.
“I think it’s okay,” I said, looking away from our captain
and back at my friend. “He’s whistling.” I had announced it like it was a
telegram of good news.
“That’s not a good sign,” she said, still fiddling with her
own life jacket. “That’s what he does when he’s nervous.”
Oh. I looked back at him with that new filter applied and
saw a different captain at the helm. He had squeezed the color from his
knuckles and the skin of his face was the color of ash. He was nervous. Suddenly the boat lurched and I jounced awkwardly into
the cabinets we had just pulled our life vests from. Meredith was still
upright, but agitated.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. She didn’t look up.
“I can’t get my lower buckle to work. It won’t stay
clasped.” She kept pushing one side of the plastic into the other, hoping to
hear the satisfying click of safety.
“I’m sure the top buckle is fine,” I reassured her. I tried
to assist but couldn’t get it to lock either. “You want to trade?”
“No, you’ll need it worse than me if it comes to that,” she
chuckled. If it comes to that. If it comes to what?
I didn’t have time to further process the heinous
possibilities because I was having to flex my quads like Arnold Schwartzenegger
just to stay upright. Meredith and I sat down on the padded bench seats on
either side of the boat, facing each other. We each had a small 10” window to
the outside world that was like a movie trailer for the apocalypse. I swayed
dramatically to the rhythm of the boat as she fought the swells. I kept my eyes
glued to that porthole. Because I never took my eyes off of it, I knew the
moment that it changed. Where I had been seeing a dark sky and a darker sea, I
was now seeing only water. It was the view of a person on a submarine. I sucked
in a breath and whispered, “The waves. Over.” I pointed and she nodded. The
swells were now higher than the top of the cabin and were crashing over, making
it appear that we were submerged.
“Girls, come up here for a minute, please,” Meredith’s dad
called to us between his perky little whistles. We both came to the doorway but
didn’t climb all the way out. The rain was pelting us sideways, finding devious
ways to infiltrate the corners that should have been cozy and dry. “I need you
to listen to me carefully.” My stomach became the churning barrel of a concrete
“This is a bad storm and anything could happen,” he said, prying
his gaze from the waves long enough to make intense eye contact with both of
us. I tried hard to hear his words, but I felt woozy and small and wondered if
I looked as strange as I felt.
“We’ll stay below,” I volunteered. Why are you talking, Missy? Goodness. You know literally nothing about
“No,” he countered, with a kind but firm tone. “If this boat
capsizes, being in the cabin is the worst place you can be. I need you by the
door, ready to come up if I tell you to. If we capsize, we will jump from the
high side. Do you understand? You have life vests on and everything will be
okay. Hopefully we won’t have to act on any of this. Do you understand?”
He was finished. Meredith was nodding vigorously but saying
nothing, her voice swallowed by a harsh swirl of salt air. I understood. I
understood I wasn’t safe. I understood we had just been instructed on how to
jump from a sinking ship into a lashing, hostile sea. I understood that I
wanted to be home, in my family room, watching Hee Haw with my grandmother or
scrubbing dirty pots with steel wool or cleaning rain gutters. Vacuuming.
Talking to telemarketers. Anything but dying on a boat with my best friend and
her dad. I understood that sometimes I was a jerk. I needed more time to not be
a jerk. At least to my parents. My brother had it coming.
Meredith continued to press the ends of her life vest’s
buckle together, finally giving up when neither of us could make it work. We
stood there together, at the foot of the tiny staircase, each holding a side
and watching her father fight the storm. We were all silent. Only the sea was
speaking and we didn’t like what it had to say. I tried not to watch the
porthole as the waves broke over the top of the cabin and washed more weakly
over the window on the opposite side. It gave me the nightmarish feeling that I
was trapped in an aquarium with a great white. I stood there, scared, wearing my fear like a
rash. In the meantime, I began to pray. This is when I decided I should try to
enter into an agreement with God. I prayed that God would spare us. That we wouldn’t
have to jump. That I would see my family again. I bargained with collateral I
“If you just get me out of this one, Lord,” I thought, “I
will do better. I will work harder. I’ll become a better version of myself. I’ll
read my Bible more. I’ll be yours for life.”
Time passed. The storm did not. Through the opening to the
stern, I saw a plane charge out from the gray wall of cloud and buzz overhead
“Wonder what that was all about,” I said. “Where was he
“He was buzzing us to tell us to get out of the storm,” she
replied. “That’s why he got so close.”
“Oh, that’s very helpful. If only we’d thought of that
first,” I said.
“Yeah,” she chuckled weakly. “Too little, too late.”
When we had been standing at attention for what seemed like a
generation, Meredith sat down on the edge of the bench seat and patted the seat
beside her. I sat down next to her. We were determined not to get too
My body was exhausted from remaining rigid for so long.
About the time I felt I couldn’t maintain it any more, Meredith’s dad leaned in
and said, “I think the worst is over.”
I closed my eyes and smiled.
Twenty minutes later it was if it had never happened. We
were back in the world of sunshine and lollipops; back on the front deck
thinking about reapplying sunscreen. I needed to sleep. We both nodded off a
couple of times. When I opened my eyes and looked over, she was looking my
“So, now we’ve been through a near-death experience,” I
“My answers will not change. Shut up about it.” She waved
her wand in the air with fake authority. “Do you play Connect 4?”
“I never have,” I answered.
“Good,” she said, closing her eyes again. “I’m going to kick
That evening, we putted into the cove of Dog Island where
Meredith’s dad tied us up to a dock and attempted to hook us up to electricity.
The storm had knocked it out. We settled into a dry and cozy cabin as the
shadows of dusk retreated into the corners and our lantern light spilled across
the table. Meredith pulled the Connect 4 game out of some secret compartment
and began to set it up and explain it. Thirty-four years have passed since that
night, and I still don’t know how to play Connect 4. All I know is that you are
supposed to get 4 of something and nothing is supposed to fall. I never got 4
and my chips fell out of the casing like an overflowing slot machine.
She said she was going to kick my butt and she did. I
usually hate to lose, but that night I didn’t mind so much. That night, losing
at Connect 4, I had more fun than I could remember ever having. The electricity
was restored around 10 p.m. Over the next 14 hours, Meredith continued to beat
me at games, did not change her stance on Duran Duran member hotness, and
almost got her head chomped off by a stingray with a 4 foot wingspan (I’m not
sure I ever told her how close that creature got to her). We strolled the white
sands of Dog Island most of the next day and when we sailed home Saturday
afternoon, we did so without incident.
But I never forgot that storm. Not then. Not 6 months from
then. Not 34 years later. When I walked into my house that Saturday night,
frothing to tell my parents what I’d been through, I found a note telling me
they were at my grandmother’s apartment having dinner. Well, that was an
anticlimactic kick in the lederhosen.
Every step I took was fluid as I crossed the green shag
carpet to the kitchen. My world was still rocking. I dialed 386-6262 and took
in my grandmother’s “hello” like warm mug of cocoa.
“Hey, Mama,” I said. “Can I speak to my mom for a minute?”
“Hello?” My mother’s voice brought the sting of rising mist to
my eyes that I blinked back.
“Mom,” I said.
“Hey, Missy,” she responded happily. “How was your trip?”
“We almost died, but pretty good overall,” I answered
truthfully. She never quite knew how to take me and surely thought I was
joking. “How long till you get home?”
“45 minutes,” she answered, without addressing my death reference.
“You settle in and we’ll see you soon!”
I hung the green handset against the hook gently and leaned
against the kitchen counter. Outside, my dog was roaming in the backyard. Dusk
was settling and fireflies flashed along the edge of the tree line. Across
town, my parents were sitting around a blond 1950s dining table with my Mama, scraping
banana pudding off their plates. The world looked exactly the same as it had on
Friday before I left. But nothing was the same, because I was not the same.
I wondered if what Meredith was doing right now. I wondered
if I’d ever be invited to sail with them again. And if they did invite me, would
I say yes? Would I want to go? I mean, deadly storms aside, it seemed a little
tenuous to put my trust in a vessel where life and limb depended on the strength
of a slip knot. A kid loses focus one Tuesday night in Cub Scouts and people
die. But then, that was my mother’s voice in my head. Of course I’d go again if
given the chance.
As I was wondering what to do to pass the time until they
returned, I suddenly remembered my bargain. If I prayed unwaveringly, read my
bible, and served food at a soup kitchen for the next 11 years, I might be able
to fulfill my end. Without any further thought, I dug my bible out of the
closet under the stairs and sunk into the couch to read.
I haven’t written much or on any kind of schedule for one reason only. May. People warn you about December. No one warns you about May. If you are under 35 and unaware of May and all its tomfoolery and chaos, consider yourself warned. It won’t help you, but at least you were warned. I got married in May, which was a great idea until I was a mother (Mother’s Day), had a son born May 20 (birthday parties), and kids in school (all stupid end-of-year activities and projects and exams everywhere multiplied exponentially by your number of children).
The kids get on me all the time about Buttercup. Why do you like her so much? Why do you give us such a hard time? Why is she your favorite? Sometimes I wave my hand at them dismissively. Oh, kids. She’s not my favorite. But you know what? It’s May. And maybe in May, they deserve to know the truth. You wanna know why Buttercup is my favorite?
Because Buttercup’s version of a crisis is finding just the right scent in a square foot of grass that will then become her toilet.
And because Buttercup can’t text.
Buttercup has never texted me in the middle of a busy morning and said, “I’m not allowed to wear my sweater. Can you pick me up early. I need a diff shirt.” That one came in at 9 a.m. May 16 and was regarding the concert attire for Lucy’s orchestra concert. The concert was that afternoon at 5—on the same afternoon that Jenna also had her play. Of course I wasn’t going to take her out of school early to go shopping. So I did what any other non-self-respecting parent would have done. I drove all over town and bought 11 white shirts of varying styles for my daughter to choose from when she got home that afternoon. I’m still navigating the returns. Ironically, she chose a shirt from my closet that I’ve owned for well over a year. But if I had not gone shopping and had instead suggested that pre-owned, middle-aged-mom shirt, she would have gone Exorcist baby on me. Or something like that.
5 hours passed that day, without 5 minutes of down time,
when I received another text, this time from Brady. It began with ‘also,’ even
though it didn’t seem to go with a previous statement.
“Also can you get a really long sheet of paper” No punctuation. Nobody cares.
“What is this and when is it due?” I responded with punctuation. “Like the next 5 minutes?”
“No tomorrow,” he responded again with no commas. He didn’t
get the tone I intended in my initial response. He thought maybe since I
assumed it was due in 5 minutes, I’d be relieved it wasn’t due until tomorrow.
The problem was, I still had a child to dress and deliver to a play performance I wouldn’t even get to see, due to May, and a child who was going to be topless at her orchestra performance if we couldn’t settle on a shirt. Both children had to be dropped to their schools within 30 minutes of each other. Now I had an errand to the local art supply store for 10 feet of black paper, with which he would fashion a road to be used in a Romeo and Juliet scene. It was part of his final exam.
I went and got the paper. Because I’m spineless. And then I loaned him $5, which is totally unrelated except for the bad parenting it represented.
The day marched on. It took mom, dad, grandparents, and a friend to coordinate the complications of dropping off and picking up at the same times at two schools. Eventually, we were settled at the event itself. I sat on wooden bleachers, twisted into a position that reminded me of sitting for my senior portraits. And we essentially survived both performances. I even caught the end of the play after the concert, which I would get to see in full the following night.
The next morning, Brady texted me early, before his day
“Apparently I forgot the road all together but it’s not a
big deal.” Not to you. You didn’t bust your hump
buying it yesterday.
My finger hovered over my keyboard. I wondered what my next
statement should be, when I saw the three little moving dots indicating that he
was texting me again.
“I’m sorry I made you buy it.”
Well, okay. All was forgiven. But I still had 12 days of May to get through. And there was still a popcorn machine to move. And two large functions to set up for and pretend to host. And a lot of school left to do.
In the middle of all the insanity, there were tears, lost homework assignments ignored homework assignments, exams studied for, exams not studied for, grades deserved, and grades undeserved.
But not with Buttercup. And not from Buttercup. Life with Buttercup went on as normal. Even in May. She followed me around pleasantly, gazed into my eyes lovingly, and settled warmly into my side whenever and wherever I parked myself.
So if questioned by indignant, offended parties, especially if questioned in the month of May, I will readily admit to loving Buttercup in overage. And I will present a solid and pertinent defense for myself. And my dog. And for our survivalist coping mechanisms.
But as much as love my dog and as much as I appreciate her appreciation, I think there’s one thing I love more than Buttercup.
When it was all over for the morning, I stopped in my guest bathroom for two and a half seconds, because that’s all I had, and looked at myself. I was shinier than wet copper and not nearly as pretty to look at. I had been running and hauling and toting and carrying for 4 hours in 94° heat. If I’m being 100% forthcoming, I sweat like a soccer goalie even when I’m under an air vent and only trying to do math. It doesn’t take a lot. Add hauling and ridiculous heat and suddenly I look like something out of Harry Potter. I sweat. I sweat a lot.
What follows is a dark, stream-of-consciousness tale. It is stream-of-consciousness because my consciousness only streams right now. It cannot organize. I’m hoping this will right itself with a single decent night’s sleep and the lack of anywhere to be on a summer morning. And the tale is dark because the popcorn machine was there.
My partner in this dark tale has a name, but for our purposes will be called Squats McGee. That will make more sense shortly.
Squats has been a partner for a long time, years even, because our girls are bffs and because elementary school PTAs have to collect their pound of flesh. Our flesh collection often happened at the same events. We have been together even when we didn’t want to be. But the last week of school, we were inseparable.
On Wednesday of last week, we had a closet full of décor to move from the school’s PTA room to the rec center’s gym next door. I know next door sounds easy enough, but the drive distance wasn’t our real challenge. The true challenge was in the items to be moved and in the fact that they were stacked in that closet like raccoon traps. On top of that, I’ve already mentioned my sweating problem. On the way out my back door that morning, I realized I had forgotten deodorant and rooted through my children’s shoe bins in our mudroom to find some. I came up with only a teen boy’s Axe, which smells like a male armpit in a fancy steak restaurant on a first date. My daughter was strangely attracted to me when I jumped in the car to drive her.
That was 7:15 a.m. And I am off topic.
At least an hour past my deodorant’s application, after pulling most of the décor out of the closet, Squats said, “Hey, we need to get the big Oscar statues from the very back.” It made sense that the big statues would be in the very back. That way, you would definitely die trying to get them. I was already deep in the room, so I reached for the first one and hoisted it toward her. It was taller than most of the cast of Beverly Hills 90210, but lighter than expected. I guessed it was made of plywood.
“This isn’t an Oscar statue,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she argued, because she’s nicer and more accepting than I am.
“Then what are the weird little prongs coming out of its head? Oscar statues are bald. A real Oscar has two things going for it: good pecks and a nicely shaped head. These things have neither.”
The prop had four weird nubs on its head. Like antennae. Or Buckwheat braids. It wasn’t until much later that I noticed the statue was holding a downward-pointing sword instead of crossing its arms like an Oscar statue. Days later, I am still bewildered by these props. It’s keeping me up at night. Did they mean it to be a crown? Who carved it? What was the sword supposed to be doing? I want to understand.
“I don’t know. Get over it. Why does it matter?”
“I just think it’s not an Oscar statue.”
“Listen, Linda,” she said. I didn’t know why she was calling me Linda. It was the first of many Linda references during the day. I’ve since learned that there’s an internet sensation named Mateo that was trying to bully his mother into cupcakes. His mother’s name was Linda. She didn’t have it under control. Neither did I.
With the Nubbie swordmen standing awkwardly next to our vehicles, we decided to retrieve the massive PTA coolers from the cafeteria that we’d need for the following morning. On the way back out to our cars, I noticed that my partner was struggling with hers.
“What’s going on there, sparky? You’re walking funny.” She looked over her shoulder, but kept walking.
“I did 60 squats yesterday in my workout. I’m feeling it today.”
“Why would you voluntarily do 60 squats the day before you had to set up a 5th grade banquet?” I asked. It was a fair question. She answered it with, “Listen, Linda” so I had to let it go.
We had the coolers. We had bins of décor. We had statues. That looked like everything.
“Oh,” Squats said, turning the key back in the lock to reopen the closet. “We have to get the popcorn machine.”
I narrowed my eyes, channeling Linda.
“NO,” I said. “Not that popcorn machine. Someone else signed up for that.”
“But we have to move it there so she can do the popping,” she said.
“I said I would never touch it again,” I countered. “I told you what happened last time.” The bruising had just disappeared. Like 5 minutes ago. Squats sighed deep in her chest and stopped multitasking long enough to make focused eye contact with me.
“We have to move this with the rest of the stuff. It’s going to be fine.”
At least she didn’t call me Linda.
And with that, we were off. We had everything loaded but the popcorn machine, which we wheeled back into the closet temporarily. I didn’t see the point in locking it away. Who would steal that guillotine?
When we finished moving the Oscar statues, we headed to my house to get the golf cart. I had decided that the best way to move the popcorn machine was on the back of the golf cart. Upright. The idea itself was a little bit genius, especially for me. The back seat folded down like a truck bed and I had a bucket full of bungee cords. But in order to transport it on the back of the golf cart, we had to lift it up there.
And that required doing squats. While carrying a 500 pound popcorn machine that was booby trapped with oversized wheels and magnetized doors that never stay shut.
We both got down low, with one hand under the belly of the machine and one hand on the handle. I wasn’t sure once we got down there if Squats would ever get up again, but she was willing to try.
“You got it?” I asked. “You ready?”
“I’m ready,” she said. “On three.”
“Oh boy,” I said, as the top started teetering.
“Hold up, hold up,” Squats called out with a mayday tone. “Put it down.”
We went back down, which proved almost harder than picking it up.
On the third try, we got the wheels up over the back of the golf cart and tied that sucker down like it was joining the Navy SEALS. I only took a door to the head twice before I strapped that down too.
There were speed bumps, sidewalks, curbs, hills, and uneven terrain in the 200 yards we had to drive the popcorn machine. It would be another 26 hours before I had to load it back onto the golf cart and return it to the school.
The entire ordeal was two full days of set up and management that began and ended with popcorn. As I was hoisting Ol’ Pappy back off the cart with the help of two high school boys, Squats spoke up, almost offhandedly, in the middle of another task.
“You know, we probably should have just removed the top and transported it in two pieces.”
I felt my world go black and colorless. My ears started ringing and my throat was drier than a 4-year-old’s Pull-Up.
“It comes OFF?!” I said in disbelief.
“Yeah,” she answered over her shoulder as she grabbed a cooler.
It comes off. What a kick in the knickerbockers.
I learned a few things that last week of school: I learned that kids don’t know what an Oscar statue looks like. I learned that elementary school teachers work harder than any other profession on the planet. I learned that bungee cords are magical. I learned that sometimes you can’t love the punk out of the punk kid. I learned that Billy Ray Cyrus is going to keep reinventing himself until I am dead and he will never go away. I learned that PTA moms are a pretty great breed, but that it feels amazing to take a final bow and walk away. I learned that I love summer. And I learned that I hate popcorn.
Eighteen years ago tonight was a normal Sunday night for me. I don’t remember a single thing about it. But I remember everything–absolutely everything–about the next afternoon. Because on Monday, May 21, 2001, I found out I had a son.
For almost 4 years, I had dreamed about this moment. I had dreamed about everything. The first meeting of cousins. The phone calls to grandparents. The first sighting. Laying around and reading classic literature together for hours.
I had a lot of dreams.
Most of them were 100% false and just as insane.
I’m not sure who I thought I’d become once I had a child. Somewhere in my broken brain, I had dreamed up that when you become a mother, you transform. Suddenly. Into something much better than you were before. To be fair, there are transformations that occur. No one can warn you about the enormous love you suddenly feel for someone that would pluck your eye out accidentally or throw up down your favorite shirt. You learn to run on fumes. You develop willingnesses you never imagined. I cultivated a weird liking for stinky feet. I mean it. I loved the smell. It was embarrassing.
But you–even as a mother who loves exponentially–are still you.
And I was still me. Sometimes unfortunately so.
One thing I wanted to become, couldn’t become, and wasn’t smart enough to stop myself from public appearances during my attempts to become, was a birthday cake maker and party planner. I wanted to give Andrew THE PERFECT PARTY. I wanted to be that mom.
I faked my way through the first few, because he was young and not in school. No one told me I was bad at it. But on his 8th birthday, in 2nd grade, no one had to tell me. I knew.
The first of that day’s fiascos had begun at 10:40 p.m. the previous night, when I attempted to pick out a cake. For the sake of time, here’s a bullet list of the mistakes that followed.
Mistake #1 – Choosing a cake over individual cupcakes. Mistake #2 – Buying a gallon of vanilla ice cream instead of the little cups with the wooden spoons. Mistake #3 – Waiting until 10:40 on a Wednesday night to go cake shopping. Mistake #4 – Deciding to buy yellow frosting to write his name on the cake myself but not deciding to buy Betty Crocker cake piping tips to give myself half a chance of not looking like a sloppy drunk wielding an icing gun. Mistake #5 – Filling a ziplock with icing and thinking I could write Happy Birthday, AG on a round cake at 11:30 at night. There is no day or time of day when I could have pulled this off. But certainly my chances narrowed the closer to midnight it got. That there isn’t a picture of this catastrophic gesture is one of the greater tragedies of my life. And Andrew’s. Mistake #6 – Not getting a babysitter the morning of my attempt to cart the previous mistakes to school for his party. Mistake #7-Loading the cake in the back of the stroller but not using a 5-point harness. Mistake #8 – Curb over ramp. Taking a short cut over the curb, when a perfectly smooth handicap ramp was 20 feet away. Mistake #9-Slow reaction time when the cake fell off the stroller and flopped onto its head. It was 91 degrees outside, the top of the cake actually stayed stuck to the box after I turned it back over. But no one could see how badly my “Happy Birthday, AG” looked anymore. #silverlinings Mistake #10 – Forgetting utensils. Nothing to cut the “cake” with. Nothing to scoop the ice cream with. Nothing for anyone to eat any of it with. I had to send my son into the cafeteria to beg for 20 sets of those cheap forks and napkins that come with Wednesday’s baked chicken and mashed potatoes.
Later that afternoon, I attempted to hold yet another celebration for the boy at my parents’ house. He and three of his friends, their moms and sisters, and my family were present. It all seemed to be going well and the curse lifted until I stood up, smacked a hanging, potted plant with my head, knocked it off it’s roost, and watched as the soil and water poured down into the seams of the pizza box and onto the Meat Lover’s Pizza. Bad news for Meat Lovers. That round went to the Fern.
I learned something about myself that day that I never forgot. From that point forward, I brought cupcakes and baby Bluebell ice creams. I learned I would never be a baker, or a decorator, or a caterer, or an event planner. I learned that to get to mediocrity, I was going to have to first slog through ruination. And I learned that 8-year-olds will eat a cake that looks like compost and pizza that has compost in it.
Eighteen years ago tonight, I didn’t know he was mine. Ten years ago tonight, I was reliving my failures of the day. Tonight, I’m just soaking it all in. The mistakes are just memories. The dreams are up and coming.
Tonight, I am no longer dreaming the dreams for me. I am dreaming them for him.
Your life is just getting started, boy. Grab a cupcake and go get it.
There are days when it is not good to be me. Like Friday
night when I was tasked with rolling the 4-ton, top-heavy, PTA popcorn machine
200 yards from the carnival site to the PTA closet. Twice the rubber stopper
came off one leg and I had to backpedal and lean down to retrieve it without
losing my grip or my balance. Twice the machine almost went over on its
glass-doored head. The second time, it was a done deal. A lost battle. A gory
defeat. It was past the halfway point and I wasn’t going to be able to prevent
it. It careened forward in slow motion on its deceptively stable-looking wheels
and I was already writing the reimbursement check in my head as I threw my body
into stopping it from hitting the ground and shattering.
It didn’t hit the ground.
My knees are tender and the color of a a suitcase full of Muppets.
It wasn’t a good day to be me.
But Saturday everything changed.
On Saturday, I wouldn’t have traded with anyone on earth. Not a millionaire. Not a Size 4 skinny jeans model. Not a New York Times best-selling author. Not a New York Times best-selling author with a sweet apartment in Greenwich Village.
Because on Saturday, I was a mother. A mother with all 4 babies in one van, who drove 2 hours to meet another mother. This meeting had been coming for 17 years, 11 months, and 14 days. I had been waiting for this meeting for 6556 days.
On Saturday, we met with Andrew’s birth mother for the first time since he was 2 days old. We met her family for the first time ever.
When you adopt a child, this day is always in your mind. I
managed to keep it toward the back of my mind most of the time. It wasn’t a
thing of dread. It wasn’t a thing of joyful anticipation. It was simply a thing
of mystery. I knew it was coming. I knew I wouldn’t fight it when it arrived. I
didn’t know when or how the event would unfold and present itself.
Andrew has always known he was adopted. I believe he has never felt strange about it. It is part of his history. It is as much a part of him as his hair color or his gnarly toe-fingers. (Todd says they are finger toes, but we agreed to disagree.) He has never wondered if he was loved. But he has always wondered where exactly he came from.
“I can look at Brady and see that he has neurotic tendencies of both you and Dad,” Andrew said to me 2 weeks ago. “I want to see why I’m NOT neurotic. I want to see why I’m this way.” He was half joking, but right about everything.
One afternoon in early April, he shut the back door behind him as he came home from school and walked through the family room on his way to his room. He usually keeps his message simple and nods and waves. I usually ask questions he doesn’t prefer to answer. This day, he paused.
“So when can I meet my birth family?” he asked. I looked up.
This wasn’t a hypothetical or rhetorical question. It deserved my attention and
“Soon,” I replied. I didn’t have specifics. “I’ll see what I
That answer was enough for him for the moment and he moved on. I did, too. I might have been tempted to file my “soon” answer in the same place where this event has always been. But that evening of that same day, I checked my email and saw that his birth mother had written. Out of the blue. She didn’t ask about a meeting. She has never asked about a meeting. But she asked about him. About us. And the timing was a little too coincidental. Soon was sitting in my lap.
When I finally emailed her an update on us a few days later,
I threw out a fat pitch. She hit it over the fence. May 4 was chosen as a day
to get together.
It’s difficult to articulate everything that went into planning
that one meeting. There was no catering to figure out. No outfits to coordinate.
It seemed like a simple thing to set up. But it was one of the hardest,
most-complicated things I’ve ever done.
By Monday of last week, I began to sleep fitfully and have vivid, inescapable nightmares. In almost every dream, I was looking for something crucial. In one dream, I spent the entire time searching for my cell phone. In another, I had a son named Seth that I let out on a highway and drove away from and could no longer find him when I went back to search. My fears were running rampant as I tried to sleep. I was afraid. I was afraid that if I opened this new door to let the birth family in, Andrew would walk out and not come back. And I would spend the rest of my life looking for him while I second-guessed everything I did for 17 years. I was afraid that he would meet her and no longer need me. And maybe I would know that wasn’t true. But would he think it was?
I knew those were irrational fears. But I couldn’t convince
myself of that when I fell asleep at night.
As Saturday approached, the magnitude of what we were about
to do occurred to all of us in some way. For me, it was sleeplessness and
nightmares. For one or two of the other kids who hoard Saturdays like a winning
lottery ticket, it was the realization that this was going to take the entire
day. They asked for a pass to stay home. This isn’t our deal, they said. You
and Dad just take Andrew and we’ll stay home. We denied that request without a
moment’s consideration. We are Snapps. We are a unit. There would be no way to
honor this event, or Andrew, without all of us present.
With the popcorn machine near-catastrophe behind me and a jumble of thoughts in my head, I put on my jeans with the paint on the butt (because they’re my favorite) and began to herd people toward the garage to leave. Andrew came out wearing his New York Spider-man shirt and flip flops and did not want to shave or comb his hair. We made him shave, because he looked like I imagine Shaggy would look after Scooby Doo had been cancelled and he hadn’t seen daylight or a human for 6 months. We also made him wear actual shoes. Then we all piled into the minivan at 10 a.m.. We loaded up with snacks and drinks for a week. It would take an hour and 49 minutes to get there.
About halfway there, I plugged my phone into the car and played
the music from my Babies playlist. Feels like Home was playing.
“I’m afraid I’m going to do something silly when we see
them, like cry or something,” I said to Todd.
“If you don’t want to cry, I’d stop listening to this song,” he said. He was right. I switched the song immediately to Rush – YYZ and stayed on classic or prog rock for the rest of the journey.
Saturday traffic on I-75 made us 15 minutes late. I hate being late to anything, but I especially hate being late to something big. April and her family were already in the restaurant. She was sitting at a table with her 3-year-old. Her husband and 8-year-old were at the counter ordering. We stood there. None of us knew exactly how to handle this moment. To look as us from across the restaurant, you might think we had chosen not to handle it at all. But soon enough, introductions were made and we were all sitting around a table catching up on a lifetime of two separate worlds.
We had some little things in common. Interests in books and
music. A general dislike for school.
We had one big thing in common.
We all loved Andrew.
We were all there, around that table, because of our common
love for one boy. A boy who started out skinny and had big red lips and long
toes. A boy who sat at a table with two families almost 18 years later, still
skinny with big red lips and long toes. A boy who was the oldest son in my
family, navigating his way with 3 younger siblings. A boy who has 2 half siblings,
the older of whom has longed to meet him since she first heard his name. The younger,
a sweet little blonde with Down syndrome, is just learning to say his name.
The first 60 seconds of awkward melted into an immediate
comfort level that pushed my nightmares of the last week out of my head
forever. We talked and laughed and ate and compared notes for an hour. We were
all happy. But no one more than Andrew.
From that meal, we drove down the road to a bowling alley where the rest of April’s family awaited us. We had gladly agreed to meet her parents, her sister, and her nephew and her niece. We had agreed on the basis that they were not league bowlers. They assured us they were not. They assured us they were bad bowlers.
Their pants caught fire right after the 7th strike.
I found out things on Saturday that I had never known. I learned things about their family and things about the week Andrew was born. I watched this family interact with each other and with Andrew. Toward the end, Amara took Andrew by the arm and asked him to go to the arcade with her. He was more than happy to run off and play video games. They followed that up with a visit to the laser tag room where Jenna and a cousin joined in. The four of them emerged 15 minutes later drenched in sweat and laughing like bad ventilation was the funniest thing on earth. And at that point, it was time to go.
We stood around in the parking lot for a few minutes and Andrew received two very special homemade gifts. He took a few pictures with different groups and gave everyone a hug. Then everyone piled back in their vehicles to return to the life from which they had come. We all returned to the same home we left. But none of us returned the same people.
It has been 3 days now and I’ve slept deeply and peacefully
since. I’ve not had a single nightmare. I’ve put my fears in a drawer with my
shorts that don’t fit and a new life goes on. We are barreling toward the last
day of school at a speed that dries the whites of my eyes. I’ve thought about
Saturday almost non-stop since pulling back into town. During those initial
conversations around the lunch table with his birth mother, something happened.
When Andrew wanted to tell April something about a memory he had or a trait he
wanted to share, he turned to me for the validation. For the details. For the
ending to a sentence that he had started.
She gave him life. But then she gave him to me.
I was his mother.
I am his mother.
For 6556 days, I dreamed about what might be. For 6556 days, I worried about what might lurk under this stone if and when we turned it over. I worried that if I opened this door, even a little, Andrew would use it to escape. But instead, he used it to come home.