On Family


My middle daughter was diagnosed with scoliosis three years ago. For two years we simply monitored it every six months because the doctor believed she was nearing the end of her skeletal growth. Then she shot up five inches (overnight?) and the minor curve grew alarming. A Boston brace was ordered. I cringed in sympathetic embarrassment when the man making a cast of her body stroked the plaster-of-Paris strips tight against her nearly naked adolescent curves. Two weeks later, at the final fitting, the same man walked in holding her brand new torture device. 23 hours a day, seven days a week. He chalked and adjusted, chalked and adjusted, and finally satisfied, pronounced it done. She could get dressed and we could leave. But odd mother and daughter that we are, we laughed hysterically behind the curtain, instead. When she tried to dress, nothing fit and we hadn’t thought to bring clothes a size larger. For five minutes, the absurdity of that awful brace poking out from unzippable pants and a suddenly too-tight shirt superceded the pain of having to start high school being “different” and wretchedly encumbered and so we laughed–laughed until the tears streamed down our faces. I sometimes wonder what the receptionist in the waiting room thought. Do other families laugh at times like this? Or are we the only ones with such absurd coping mechanisms? But we used it as an excuse to buy new clothes and borrowed a few of her older sister’s things, and for six long, hot, summer months she endured that brace, taking it off only to shower and for swim practice and meets (and a few hours in December for a formal dance). She was more faithful to that brace than I can imagine any other teenager being. She cried herself to sleep some nights, but she didn’t take it off. She dealt with it. She bounced tennis balls off her stomach to entertain her friends. She urged, “go ahead, punch me in the abs.” She made humorous sounds by scrunching her stomach under the brace and creating a vacuum of air. She called it her eight-hundred dollar push-up bra. And if a brace was ever going to work, it was going to work this time because my brave young daughter had been so faithful even though she didn’t want to be. Except it didn’t. And her spinal curve progressed six more degrees in six months (from 41 to 48) while wearing that brace that was supposed to correct it. Her orthopedist grimly informed us that she would need spinal fusion surgery to stop it. The x-rays were truly alarming;...

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6. When have you felt that you transcended time and space? Well, there are times when I cultivate such a feeling, and times when it happens without trying. Since the ones that happen on their own are more interesting, I’ll mention one of those. Most recently I think it was when I was in Dominica in February. I was there with my 13 year old daughter, visiting a longtime friend and his wife. They had a new baby who was a little over a month old. She was adorable, and I felt we had an immediate connection. I held her and talked to her and loved on her every chance I had. Late one night, about a week into the visit, I woke to the sound of someone screaming my name. I knew instantly from the awful despair in the voice that something was wrong with the baby. In the next second, I was upstairs seeing my friend howling with grief over his daughter’s limp body, yelling her name over and over. As soon as I touched her, I knew she was not breathing and that life was leaving her body. I said something stupid like, “Give her breath.” Then I started to tell him, “Put your mouth over her nose and mouth…” but the first mention had been enough to move him to action and he initiated CPR. With one breath she stirred. With two breaths, she opened her eyes and we started crooning, “Good girl, Amela, good girl. That’s right, stay here.” We rubbed her limbs which were quite cold and she looked at us with surprise in her eyes. Soon she was alert and nursing at her mother’s breast again. The part that was transcending time and space, though, was how I got upstairs so fast. No one could understand it. His wife, who had run downstairs to get me, was already downstairs when I was upstairs calling, “Where are you?” So, I somehow got out from under my mosquito netting, ran out the door of the room, down the hall, out the front door, left the porch, then took the outside steps two at time (I think) and was inside their apartment before she even had time to call through my window. We must have passed on the stairs, but neither one of us thinks we did. (They weren’t wide stairs.) She said to me later, “How did you get up there so fast. Did you fly?” And I wasn’t sure. But I do know that I woke instantly from a dead sleep and hit the ground running. (My daughter was in the room with...

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I’ve been resisting this meme for several reasons, mostly because I can’t think of ten interesting things about myself that I want to share. But thanks to my friend Cliff, who tagged me, I’ll try: 1. I am always hungry. I love food. It’s one of my great pleasures. I will eat virtually anything… so long as it isn’t flavored with licorice. I hate licorice. Can’t bear it, even the smell of it. Fried baby eels? Yum. Brussel sprouts? You bet! Alligator? Sure! Licorice? Gag-a-maggot. 2. I am a funny person when you talk to me. I love to laugh and joke and I do–lots. But I write dark stuff, depressing stuff, occasionally twisted stuff. So don’t use my writing to judge whether or not you want to hang out. 3. I love my children more than I can ever convey. Having said that, I am NOT afraid to be the parent and play the bad cop. Hate to be the bad guy…have to be the bad guy. It’s my job. I really hope they understand this and we can be pals someday. 4. I plan to spoil my grandchildren so much it isn’t even funny. I want to be called “Nana” and wear an apron and cook myself silly and read books until I’m blue in the face. Then I want to send them home and get on with my life of (whoo-hoo!) freedom. 5. I believe I will be a published author. I can see myself giving readings, answering questions. I can almost touch it. I will not be denied. (That doesn’t mean I picture throngs of people hanging on my every word…maybe scads, but not throngs.) 6. I believe I have a purpose to fulfill in this life. Still trying to figure out what it is, but I really feel like there’s something important I am meant to do before I die. 7. I believe that my grandmother and my father (both deceased) are still looking out for me in their own ways. 8. Animals in my house are very well treated. Adored, even. Held to normal standards of etiquette (get off that table!) but adored, nonetheless. I believe animals are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. They have talents and abilities that we will never understand. 9. I am a manly girl. I love to fix things, cook outdoors, get dirty, be tough. I am also a terrible softy. I cry at the drop of a hat over silly things like Hallmark commercials and touchy-feely notes from my kids and It’s a Wonderful Life. 10. I don’t know myself as...

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I am home after nine days in the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness Area. We spent three days backpacking in remote areas, where we met maybe ten people (and one huge black bear). The streams were beautiful and ice cold, the trees sang, and I worshiped at the altar of those huge boulders left behind when the ancient glaciers receded, huge, moss-covered boulders that only the Adirondacks can claim, wrapped by the encircling roots of trees that began their lives as seedlings way up high, not knowing that the real ground lay much farther below. I love the mountains. They restore my soul. At the summit of Whiteface Mountain (New York’s 5th highest peak), sweaty and exultant, I found cell phone service and phoned to briefly check on my children (yes, I know, technology in nature and all of that horrible stuff, but we have five kids between us, one of whom is about to deliver a baby–we need to check-in occasionally). At that summit, on my first phone call out in days, I learned that my grandmother had died the day before. The news was not delivered gently, as family had been trying to reach me for a full day and my mother assumed I knew. I didn’t. Mountain climbing and hiking require a certain amount of focus and attention to be done well. I am not sure how I managed to descend those 4,000 plus feet safely, wiping tears and snot and sweat on my bandanna every step of the way, but I did. I lost a lot of salt that day. My grandmother was 94. On August 28th, she would be 95, but on my last visit to her in July she told me she hoped she didn’t live to see that birthday and some part of me knew then that she wouldn’t. Still, it was hard. I loved that woman with a fierce, irrational, passionate love. She was cantankerous and outspoken and immovable. She was born in 1910, saw the end of WWI, WWII, and most of the 20th century. She lived in such places as India, Ethiopia, New Zealand and had friends all over the world. She took one of the first transatlantic flights ever, on a double-decker sleeper plane. She drove a VW bug across the African desert surrounded by extra jugs of petrol and water and floated the car across the Nile on a raft of sticks. She kept the home front going as a mother of two young children while my grandfather landed on Iwo Jima and wrote home to “My Beloved Minnow…” Minnow because she swam in Minnesota’s frigid lakes year...

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I have a nine-year-old son and his latest obsession (we have many, frequently, at our house) is weighing decisions. He will be sitting, calmly eating breakfast, when a pensive look will come over his face and he’ll say, “Would you rather…” If one of his older sisters is anywhere around, this will immediately be interrupted with, “No! Oh, my God, not again!” or “Will you stop it??” or “You are such a freak!” But me, I like his questions. I always take the time to consider them. He asks good questions. It’s a special stage in his cognitive and moral development that I cherish. The would-you-rather questions always involve some sort of tough dilemma. For instance, he might ask, “Would you rather burn to death, or freeze to death?” Even though I hate the cold and love a good fire, I say, “Freeze, because I’ve heard you get really warm before you die.” (I make a mental note to find him The Call of the Wild at our next library visit. He’s familiar with The Little Match Girl and I mention that as proof.) Then I say, “But if I could die in my sleep from smoke inhalation first, I might choose fire. You know I want to be cremated anyway, and that would save a step in the process.” He laughs. “Would you rather be pretty or smart?” “Smart,” I say, in a voice that conveys duh! “Smart, because it never goes away.” “Yeah,” he says, “and you just keep getting smarter.” “True.” “But some people get prettier, too.” “You think?” “Yeah. Like you.” (See why I like these discussions?) “Thanks, honey. So do you. Handsome, I mean.” “Yeah.” (We’re still waiting for his modesty to develop.) “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” When he asks this, I suddenly remember going through this stage myself. Asking these tough questions, and really thinking about making a choice between two difficult things. “Deaf,” I say. “You?” “Deaf. Because you could still read and play sports and stuff.” “You can still read when you’re blind.” “Yeah, I know. Braille. And you could listen to books on tape.” “And you’d still have music.” Something we both love. We sit and think about this in silence for a minute. “Would you still get a song stuck in your head if you were deaf?” he asks. “I don’t know. I guess. If you’d heard it before you went deaf. But Beethoven lost his hearing and he still made really beautiful new music. I bet it stays with you.” “Maybe if I could see and hear first and then lost it, it would be...

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It’s not the glass; but the shattered world and its elections and the wars and your father’s suffering and the long days of waiting to grieve and the way he reached up with his shaking hands after days of nothing and said Thank you to the nurse for his morphine and the way your face broke in reply and not these shards at my feet. These are just what was once, once a...

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