The Apple and the Tree

My mother was forty when she gave birth to me. This was in an era when women were generally finished with childbearing around thirty, rather than now when many women are just getting started at that age. When my mom was pregnant there was no such thing as genetic testing, no amniocentesis, no nucal-translucency test and no ultrasounds. It was widely assumed to be very risky for both mother and baby to be pregnant after forty.

Family legend goes my mother spent two years convincing my father they should add a fourth baby to the family. Then it was another couple years of trying until she finally became pregnant with me. My mother didn’t tell anyone she was expecting for the first six months. Instead, she let her friends and neighbors think she was getting fat. She refused to wear maternity clothes and bought larger sized normal clothes instead. My mother was a beautiful and vain woman who looked like Natalie Wood, but she was also superstitious and known to wear a splash of red to ward off the evil eye. Her vanity took a back seat to the combined pressure of her superstitions and intense need to be protective of herself and unborn me. (How my mother ended up with my father, who looked like Larry Fine, was a mystery to me — until she told me he was the nicest and funniest man she ever met, and when I got married I also chose the nicest and funniest man I ever met, but this is story for another time.)

So there my mom was, in all the glory of the late 60’s, the anomaly of being and old new mom. Granted she wasn’t quite pushing fifty, like me, but I find it interesting that we share the experience of having a baby late in life. Once I became a mom, I spent more time thinking about my own mother and trying to figure her out. She died of cancer when I was seventeen, during the normal rite of passage of adolescence that drew me further away from her and toward my own identity. She died before I got through that phase and would have the opportunity to go back to her as a young adult and form a mature relationship. Part of me is forever stuck in teenaged rebellion because of this, but another part is remarkably mature because I had to grow up fast and figure things out for myself.

After my mother died I had the idea I would be a young mom so I could spend as much time as possible with my children. To quote Al Capone in “Thrill Ride,” “Nothing ever goes how you plan.” Even though I met my husband in my 20’s it would be years before we’d start a family together. We thought we were done with babies after two beautiful boys, but we were wrong. Child loss fueled an intense desire in me to have one more, and we had no place else to turn except science.

Like my mother before me, we spent two years discussing whether having another child was the right decision, then another year trying to get pregnant.  And like my mother before me I didn’t tell anyone until nearly the sixth month. But unlike my mother before me I had every test under the sun and nearly constant monitoring to make certain both the baby and I remained healthy and without complications.

My son recently asked me to describe my mother — his grandmother — for him. I said she was beautiful, protective and loyal. I said there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for her family. She knew what was best for others and sometimes herself. I said she was a good bargain shopper but had trouble making decisions so she wound up buying the same blouse in different colors. She liked health food but not exercise. She loved pecan pie. She wore Maybeline liquid eyeliner. She had a temper and was also extremely loving.

My son said she sounded exactly like me, except for the eyeliner.

I never thought about how I’d wind up resembling my mother because, truth is, I don’t know her that well. For years I couldn’t see the traits we shared. Only looking back and after talking with my older siblings do I see her as someone enormously strong and willful, who survived trauma, setbacks and a crazy family to eventually flourish later in life. This description fits me. It probably fits you, too.

And it will also probably fit my daughter.

The arc of a woman’s life isn’t set in stone but there are many things we all share. I’m happy the arc of my life has so much in common with my mother’s. I feel her willfulness and strength supporting me whenever I need it. And I feel her love every time my heart beats.

And so will my daughter.

Mommy’s Magic Eye

A great thing about little kids is they believe everything you say. They think a fat old man breaks into our homes once a year and leaves a pile of presents in the living room. They think a fairy flies all over the world collecting bloody, used teeth and in exchange leaves money under the pillow. (What could The Tooth Fairy possibly do with those teeth? It’s creepy.) They also think a giant bunny sneaks into the house every spring to leave a basket of chocolate on the kitchen table. Each of these scenarios takes place in the middle of the night — It’s a miracle children sleep soundly with the rash of break-ins going on.

I’m just as guilty as any parent who perpetuates the legends of Santa, The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny, but I go even further. I doubled down against my kids’ gullibility and invented the myth of Mommy’s Magic Eye, an all-knowing and all-seeing superpower designed to keep my kids in line when I’m not around. For a good chunk of their childhood, my sons believed I’m part psychic and part wizard with the ability to know if they committed no-nos without me being present.

I’m pretty sure people behave better if we think our mother is watching. My idea was to instill a little dose of healthy paranoia, much like Elf on a Shelf tricks kids into believing the strangely dressed toy has a direct line to Santa and is filing numerous behavior reports prior to Christmas. The difference is Mommy’s Magic Eye works 24/7 and has a direct line to me, my kids’ ultimate boss.

You’d be surprised how effective this was, but eventually things took an unexpected turn. My second son believed in the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye so deeply that for him it evolved into a cross between a Magic Eight Ball and a personalized Google Search. He asked questions like, “Does your Magic Eye know if I’m getting a Happy Meal today?” or “Does your Magic Eye know if we’ll have outside recess?” Then, after losing his older brother, my little guy became anxious and relied on Mommy’s Magic Eye for reassurance. His questions became more existential and worrisome. He’d ask, “How long am I going to live?” or “Is anything bad going to happen today.”

For him, the power of Mommy’s Magic Eye went beyond what I originally intended and I realized it could have therapeutic potential to give him comfort. I used it to calm his fears, of which he had many. I assured him my Magic Eye knew there would be no car accidents, no diseases or tragedies, and everybody we love will be fine. He’d calm down and believe what Mommy’s Magic Eye saw.

There are little lies we tell ourselves to get through our day (this piece of dessert won’t matter, this shirt looks good on me). There are little lies we tell others to help them get through their day (that piece of dessert won’t matter, that shirt looks good on you). Then there are little lies we tell our kids designed to enhance their childhood or make them better people. I’m not sure exactly where Mommy’s Magic Eye fits into all of this, but I wonder — are lies always bad? Maybe not in the moment, but even the most well intentioned lie can boomerang years later.

My oldest son was four when we sat with him by the picture window at his grandparents farm on Christmas Eve to watch for Santa Claus. After a few minutes we saw a figure in a red suit with a large sack slung over his shoulder walk across the meadow and leave footprints in the snow. My son stared, his mouth open in disbelief, too overwhelmed to utter any words. He later told his friends at preschool about the Santa sighting. He was a firm believer for years — after all he saw him with his own eyes.

When he finally learned the truth — that “Santa” was actually his grandfather — the look on his face was devastating. Sure, he was upset to learn Santa wasn’t real, but he was more crushed that I lied to him. My heart sank as the little boy who believed everything I said now saw me in a different light.

You’d think I’d learn my lesson, but I’m a slow learner.

My daughter is starting to potty train. I told her I’d get her anything she wants once she learns to pee and poo in the potty. Without hesitation she said she wants to fly. Now I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to pilot an airplane — she’s talking about full-on Peter Pan levitating. I told her she can start lessons as soon as she gives up her pull-ups. I consider this lie a necessary step in our negotiations. For a little while I will let her believe that learning to fly is a possibility, and then I will gracefully exit our agreement when I tell her the local Park District catalogue doesn’t offer flying lessons.

I haven’t yet told my daughter about Mommy’s Magic Eye, but I doubt she’ll believe me anyway. She surprises me each day with her outsized sense of self-assuredness and sass, so I’m guessing she’d just tell my Magic Eye to buzz off, and then do her own thing like count her teeth and plan what she’ll do with the money from The Tooth Fairy.

When my second son got older I decided it was time to fade out Mommy’s Magic Eye. I told him it got “tired” and couldn’t see the future anymore. Eventually, he caught on and confronted me. I asked if he was mad that I tricked him into believing I had a superpower and he said he wasn’t sure, he’d have to ask his Magic Eight Ball.

 

 

Helicopter Wife

“Do I drain the water before adding the cheese powder?” This question was posed to me by my husband very early in our dating relationship. I thought it was a joke but he was serious. He had no idea how to make mac-n-cheese from a box and instead of reading the directions he asked me for help. After rolling my eyes I’m sure I took over making dinner.

My husband can do a few things in the kitchen like pour cereal, make a sandwich or nuke a Lean Cuisine, but if it requires the cooktop or turning on the oven he’s helpless. Last summer I got so fed up with him saying things like, ‘Those scrambled eggs look good. Can you make me some?” I finally walked him through the one minute process and now he makes them every morning. I understand the phrase “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Except in our house it’s “Get off my nerves and scramble your own damn eggs now that you know how.”

I love my husband and he works very hard for us. I give him tremendous credit for holding a full time job with a helluva long commute, finishing a second advanced degree while also completing a long-term side project. Still I can’t help but wonder if over the years I’ve morphed into a helicopter wife. He rarely makes a decision without consulting me — from the mundane to the important — I am his constant sounding board. He shows me his outfit before he leaves for work and never sends out a project before I read it. He checks with me before he buys things — until he goes off the rails and gets a three foot tall Yoda greeter holding the sign “Welcome, You Are” — and we are reminded why he must check with me before he buys things.

Helicoptering starts slowly in a relationship and builds over time. When we started living together he’d load the dishwasher in such a haphazard way that I’d redo it. I go to the grocery store because if my husband shops he comes home with half the Hostess aisle. I took over the driving because I couldn’t stand the herky-jerky nausea inducing way he’d press and release the gas pedal. It’s progressed to a point if my husband had to endorse a check the bank probably wouldn’t cash it because the signature won’t match.

Does this make me a Helicopter Wife? What is helicoptering anyway? And is it always bad? We are familiar with the term as applied to parenting. The helicopter mom is always hovering waiting to swoop in and fix even the smallest of problems, leaving a child unable to eventually navigate life’s hiccups by themselves. I’m no psychologist, but this sounds like co-dependency and the ultimate goal of parenting is to create a person who can function independently. So maybe helicopter parenting isn’t so good.

But what is marriage if not the ultimate co-dependent relationship? I depend on my husband for things and he depends on me for different things. Put another way, there are certain things I’m good at and certain things he’s good at and we generally stick within our respective wheelhouses. For example, I cook; he kills bugs. Hence, we are co-dependent. But it gets more confusing — if helicoptering is co-dependent then is co-dependency a form of helicoptering? Is your head spinning yet like mine? Is the dress blue or gold?

Anyhoo — back on subject — sometimes I feel my husband deliberately does a task badly so I will take over and let him off the hook. Anybody can load a dishwasher, yet he refuses to learn how to do it properly. Similarly, I’m incapable of learning how to turn on the lawn mower. (It’s a button, but still.) If I ever figure it out (wink, wink) and have to  mow the lawn I guarantee I’d purposely leave so many undone patches it would look like a drunk five year-old did it.

Ultimately, I’m confused about what a Helicopter Wife actually means. It sounds controlling and micromanaging, but I don’t think I do these things. I actually give my husband a lot of space and sometimes don’t even know where he is. Maybe a Helicopter Wife is is protective? I’ll fess up to that. If so, then my husband is a Helicopter Husband because he walks on the side of traffic whenever we cross a street, ready  to swoop in and take the hit from a runaway car.

I think what it comes down to is we are two helicopters hovering over this life we made together, each filled with various emergency services and ready to swoop in, take over and save one other when we are too tired, unwilling or unable to take care of something ourselves.

And that’s pretty much sums up our co-dependent marriage.

 

 

 

The Pineapple Tree

There’s a fat, squat palm tree that looks like a giant pineapple in the courtyard of the elementary school that my oldest son attended for most of his short life. He loved that tree. He ran endless laps around it to burn off his exuberant energy. He climbed up the knotty pieces that jutted out from its sides until a teacher chased him down. He balance walked all over the display of rocks set around the tree, and sometimes he simply stood beneath it and stared up at its miraculous starburst formation and let the golden sun shoot through the empty spaces and illuminate his curious face.

People took note of how much he loved that tree and started calling it “XX’s tree.” Kids told each other to meet at “XX’s tree” to play tag, and of course my son would play too. When we moved away I wondered if they’d still call the tree by his name. A few months after we moved, my son was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. We received a lot of support from my son’s teachers at his old school — XX had the gift of charm and was easy to fall in love with and hard to forget.

After he passed away I ordered a memorial plaque and the aide from his kindergarten class oversaw its installation. I was sent pictures from thousands of miles away. I’m told my son’s friends arranged rocks around the base of the stake for decoration and protection. I was deeply touched by everyone’s expression of love for my son.

Those friends moved on to Junior High and then High School. The kindergarten aide retired. After a while, only three of his teachers remained. The school changed Principals. The building underwent improvements. Years went by before I returned for a visit, and when I did I dropped by to finally see the plaque.

But it was gone.

It was after school when I snuck onto campus and the office was closed. I called the next day and left a detailed message for the Principal. She didn’t return my call. I called and spoke to the office secretary again. The Principal again didn’t return my call. Finally, she told me she’s never seen the plaque and never heard of my son. She’d ask around, but it’s likely gone.

One time when I was in the fifth grade the boy who lived across the street punched me in the stomach and literally knocked the breath out of me, so I know what it feels like to not be able to breath. The feeling I had when I hung up the phone was similar — fast, shocking and unexpected — my breath was gone.

Nobody wants their child forgotten. Nobody wants the memory of their child disrespected, especially in a place that gave him so much pleasure. My son was a friend to everyone who met him. He loved his school and felt love from his teachers.

I needed to find out what happened.

I flew home and waited. A month later I sent an e-mail. Finally seven days later (after a follow-up asking if she received my e-mail) the Principal finally responded.  She said she asked around and nobody knows what happened. Sorry, she said, she tried her best. I got the feeling she wanted me and the whole uncomfortable and inconvenient business about a plaque for a dead child she never knew to simply go away.

But I wasn’t going to go away.

I followed up and urged her to look in closets, boxes, cabinets, everywhere. I figured someone wrapped it up and put it somewhere during the improvements, and with all the staff changes it simply got misplaced. I figured it was somewhere and it could be found if someone looked for it. If I lived closer than 2,000 miles I’d do it myself. I offered to send friends to look, but she didn’t want that.

She did everything she could, she said. I told her — I understand it didn’t go missing on her watch, but it’s kinda her watch now and it falls to her to find it. She said she didn’t see it that way.

I get it that after my son died the world had the audacity to keep spinning. I get it that nobody probably meant to throw away a memorial plaque for my dead son. It’s likely missing because of thoughtlessness. But it’s a thoughtlessness that feels cruel.

If I close my eyes I can see my son’s pineapple tree. It was our meeting spot at the end of the school day. I’d park down the block and walk over to look for his shiny dark hair among the blush of boys, and finally spot him dancing and running around the giant base of his tree. I’d catch his bluish-greenish eyes that changed color depending on the color of the shirt he wore. My heart skipped a beat every time.

And I’d pause to catch my breath at the sight of my beautiful little boy.

 

My Favorite Boob

I definitely like one of my boobs more than the other one. I think I always have. The left one, whom I’ll call Lady Lefty, gave me more trouble over the years. She’s about a cup size larger than Lady Righty so she’s heavier and gets in the way more often. She itches and has these long random hairs that need to be plucked every once in a while. She has more stretch marks and a red dot that marks her North Pole, like a compass. And every time I get my period Lady Lefty complains for days. I always thought she was a troublemaker but it turns out I’m wrong.

Lady Righty, the comfortably-sized non-complaining boob was just diagnosed with two sites of DCIS. The whole thing came as a surprise. I had a clinical exam in November and my Doc said everything felt fine. I had a routine yearly mammogram right after the New Year. They called me back for more views and magnifications, citing calcifications. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. They called me back for a stereotactic biopsy. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. Today they called with the diagnosis. Don’t worry, they said, it’s non-invasive stage 0 grade 2 breast cancer with an excellent prognosis — just a coupla months of utter shit first.

I’ve been through utter shit before but as a caretaker, not a patient. My son’s cancer was hopeless from diagnosis. Mine’s not. He was a child. I’m not. He suffered greatly. I won’t. His fate broke my heart and my spirit. Mine won’t.

I’m really good at keeping things in perspective. My life experience has taught me how to do this at an expert level. My thoughts are with a friend who is a decade younger than me with four young children, who is a vegan and a pilates instructor, fighting stage 2 invasive breast cancer and faces six months of chemo, then surgery, then another six months of chemo. I know so many women who went through breast cancer — different stages, different treatments, different ages, both recently and years ago — and ALL are still here. I understand mine was caught incredibly early. I’m so amazed by the technology that could find something sinister when it’s only millimeters. I keep reminding myself I’m actually lucky. (Well, lucky would be not getting cancer in the first place but like I said I’m trying to keep things in perspective.)

So…I’m sorry Lady Righty, you were my favorite but we will likely part ways. Me and Lady Lefty will miss you but persevere. (Or, Lady Lefty may join you in that great hospital dustbin in the sky — TBD). My husband will also miss you, but he loves me more than the sum of my parts.

(In case you were wondering — no family history.)

Things I Say A Lot (With Exclamation Points)

  1. “I didn’t hear a flush!”
  2. “Stop licking that!”
  3. “Why did you draw on your face with marker?!”
  4. “Are those dried boogers on your shirt?!”
  5. “What’s that smell?!”
  6. “Boogers aren’t food!”
  7. “Don’t throw that away, I’ll eat it!”
  8. “You have two devices going, turn one off!”
  9. “Who’s going to clean this up?!”
  10. “How much longer do I have to stay awake?!”

God Bless America and Other Ironies

When my second son was in the first grade he sang God Bless America as the opening number in the elementary school talent show. He was adorable and when he finished singing he skipped off the stage to a standing ovation. It was one of my proudest moments of motherhood, made even more so by my additional delight from a confluence of ironies only I could appreciate — the Jewish son of progressive atheist parents sang God Bless America on stage at a public school and got a standing ovation.

I’ve written about how weird it is to be one of a few Jewish families in our community, but it’s even weirder being an atheist family at our Jewish temple. The temple we attend is the only one in the county. Not the only one in the neighborhood, or the only one in town  — it’s the only one in the entire county. And still the congregation is pretty small.

My husband was raised Presbyterian and gave up religion as an adult. I was raised a secular Jew in a Jewish community where some weekends I had multiple Bar Mitzvahs to attend. I grew up thinking it was normal to see Temples and delis all over the place. Anyway flash-forward to now, we currently celebrate “Christmukkah,” a made-up holiday that falls on a date most convenient for us, and with a few traditional elements taken from each of our religious and cultural backgrounds, plus the Seinfeld holiday of Festivus. It’s a great dinner party (usually Chinese food or crab legs) where our Feats of Strength are only topped by our Airing of Grievances.

Feats of Strength means something different in our family. When my son came off the stage after his performance he practically floated. The little boy with a severe stutter sang every word perfectly in front of hundreds of people. He experienced a moment of triumph in his little life after having been through so much turmoil. He learned the words to God Bless America at a church preschool my sister directs. He lived with her during the months my husband and I lived at Children’s Hospital with our oldest son during his treatment for brain cancer. God Bless America was the only song that my little guy knew all the words to. His performance at the talent show was quite a feat of strength.

Airing of Grievances has more to do with our grievances with God rather than each other. How can an atheist have a grievance with God, you wonder? It’s because I have grievances with God that I’m an atheist. My second son is very comfortable telling the new Rabbi at Hebrew school that he’s an atheist and argues that the ancient biblical stories defy all reason. The new Rabbi loves these conversations and encourages my son the keep questioning everything and stay engaged. I, in turn, love the new Rabbi for not shaming my son for expressing his religious rebellion.

One day the new Rabbi asked me the obvious question — why did I send my son to Hebrew school? I felt I could be honest with him. I want my son to know the beautiful heritage and culture of Judaism. I want him to respect other people’s religion, and to do so he must first understand his own. I want him to appreciate that he was born into a minority religion and no matter where life takes him he shares a connection with other Jews. And I want to give him a solid foundation from which he could then reject religion when he’s older.

For a long time I felt like Winona Ryder in Realty Bites where she can’t define irony but knows it when she sees it. Irony, in my opinion, exists to remind me of the absurdities and contradictions in life. It tickles and confuses me. I know something is up, but I might not be able to put my finger on it exactly. Irony is defined as a state of affairs or events that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result (I looked it up). My whole life is contrary to what I expect, but unless I’m amused by it it’s not technically ironic.

Nonetheless, I like finding moments of irony because they remind me the universe has a sense of humor. And despite everything that’s happened so should I.