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.

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.)

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.

 

 

How To Not Win Friends And Influence People

We all sat crosslegged on the floor in the playroom of the local library and held our drooly, wobbly babies on our laps. Miss Mary led us in animated baby songs. I looked at this group and was relieved to see several other mommies my age. When we got up to do the hokey-pokey I wasn’t the only one whose joints creaked. A few other mommies looked like they had just recently exited adolescence, which isn’t unusual in the town where we live now. However, it didn’t take long to figure out my contemporaries in this circle were actually grandparents carving out some special time with their grand babies.

I went to mommy-and-me for only one reason, and it wasn’t to enrich my baby’s social and emotional development. I didn’t need to learn another silly song or have my daughter make another sloppy gluey art project with things she’d rather put in her mouth. I came to mommy-and-me for me — I came to find friends.

I had great luck before when I had my first son and joined a mommy-and-me group at a local temple. I clicked with some smart, funny and wonderful women who are still in my heart as I am in theirs, after years and miles apart, and the loss of my son who was the reason I found them in the first place. Those mommies became very close to me. We shared birthdays, playdates, holidays, food, clothes, swimming pools, babysitters, laughs, secrets, advice, tears, you name it. They anchored me in a sprawling city of millions and became my village.

I found that again on a smaller scale with my second son, and I hoped to find it with my daughter in my new, tiny town. Making friends at any age is hard, but making friends after moving across the country and experiencing the loss of a child is extremely difficult. Other mommies who know my story hang back politely, or once they learn my story they don’t know what to say and they hang back politely. I get it — I am the walking embodiment of their worst nightmare. Before I became a bereaved mother I wondered how someone like me even survived.

I don’t know what made me decide I needed new mommy friends. Maybe nostalgia. Maybe self-preservation. All I know is it’s a slow and shaky process to rejoin the world after a tremendous loss and this seemed like a good baby step. I made an effort. I wore actual pants instead of sweats. I even showered before the weekly class. I had high hopes but after a couple of ring-around-the-rosies I realized I wasn’t going to find my tribe in a sunny playroom at the library.

It’s difficult to relate to me. Not many people have a baby in their late forties. I personally don’t know anyone, maybe a few celebrities, but nobody in real life except me. Despite the odds and risks and the tests and the constant doctors appointments (they called it a geriatric pregnancy of all things), I had a baby when other people have grand babies. I don’t know what I have in common with the millennial moms at circle time, I figure they look at me while we sing twinkle twinkle for the millionth time and think that old showered and dressed lady seems pretty cool but I’m not sure we can hang out and eat goldfish crackers together. 

I want to clarify — I have met some terrific mommies since moving here. My second son is great at making friends and I hang out with their parents who are only about one decade younger than me instead of two. These moms are awesome — an artist and a therapist — whom I adore and we love to drink canned wine from Trader Joe’s together, even if we have to drive forty-five minutes to get it.

But middle-aged ladies getting drunk on long-distance canned wine is a story for another day.

 

 

 

Like Space Mother, Like Daughter

My daughter is at an age where she talks a lot of nonsense. Her stories lack focus. Not to be too critical but they generally lack a beginning, middle and end. But hey, she’s not even potty trained so there’s still hope her skills can improve.

She uttered some such nonsense the other night while I was cutting potatoes for roasting. She stood next to me and said, “My diffwent mom teached me to do dat.”

Wait, what? Your different mom? And she let you use a knife? I had so many questions.

“She cut potatoes too,” my baby said.

I had to ask, “You had a different mom? From me?” She nodded. “What did she look like?”

“She have yellow hair. Yike me,” she said. I have brown hair.

“What’s her name?”

“Mom.” And then things got weird. “My baby sistahs ahr cute. Dem Beanie and Dot.”

I’ve heard of kids who sometimes talk about a past life and I wondered if this is what was happening. I actually believe in reincarnation — or I hope in reincarnation. When I was pregnant with my daughter I went to my older son’s grave and begged him to come back to me as the new baby. After she was born I looked for signs of him in her eyes and mannerisms. I never found any.

Something similar happened to me in my childhood. When I was about seven I told my mom she wasn’t my real mom. I said I was from outer space and I was going to wait outside for my space mom until she arrived in her spaceship to get me. I stood on the driveway that evening and looked at the stars. My mother stood at the dining room window and looked at me. It wasn’t until years later did I learn how much this freaked her out.

Now it was my turn to freak out. I looked at my daughter’s stunning green eyes. Mine are brown. “Beanie and Dot,” I said. “Are they twins?”

“Yeth,” she answered. “Dem twins.”

“When did you live with them?”

“Me unknow,” she said. Wow, I thought. She unknows. That’s deep.

The subject of her different mom and baby twin sisters came up again when I packed away some clothes she outgrew. “Don’t give dose away!” She protested. “Save dem for my baby sistahs!”

“Will I ever meet them?” I asked. “Me unknow,” she said.

“What was your different mom like?” I asked. “She never say no to me or yell,” she said. Whoever this different mom is I’m beginning to think she might be a lot better at this motherhood stuff than I am.

I only know a few details about “different mom,” like we have the same kind of slipper-socks, we both watch the news, and we both like hugs. I’m curious why she talks about her. Maybe there are things that feel familiar to us and we don’t understand why, so we make up a story to explain it to ourselves, even at a young age. Or maybe my daughter did have a different mom before she came to me, and is young and pure enough to remember bits and pieces of her previous incarnation.

I also wonder what I felt as a child that led me to tell my own mother that I wasn’t her real daughter, but a child from space abandoned on earth with a strange human family. I vaguely remember the feeling of going outside and waiting. Maybe we all feel like aliens in our own homes, different from the people closest to us and have no explanation for what we’re doing with them while we wait to finally find our home.

And maybe beyond the different hair and eye color, my daughter and I have much more in common. After all, what goes around comes around. Like an orbit.

If My Life Had a Sitcom Title it Would Be “Pushing Fifty and a Stroller”

The other day while we waited to be called for brunch, the overly cheerful hostess said, “I have a granddaughter that age, too!” There’s only one problem. My baby isn’t my granddaughter. She’s my daughter.

I’m old. And I have a baby. I’m an old new mom. But this isn’t my first rodeo. I had my first son at 33, and my second son at 39. I thought I was an old new mom then, but the universe said, “Ha! You think you’re tired now?” I was 47 when I had my daughter. Tired doesn’t even begin to describe what those first few months were like. There was a brief window of time when I was post-natal, perimenopausal, lactating and menstruating all at once.

That deserves repeating. Post-natal (hormone frenzy), perimenopausal (hormone frenzy), lactating (hormone frenzy) and menstruating (hormone frenzy) all at the same time. People think I deserve some kind of medal for living through this without killing my husband, and maybe I do. But let’s consider my husband for a minute. He was living with a woman who was post-natal, perimenopausal, lactating and menstruating all at the same time. I’m pretty sure he deserves the medal.

I’m a much different mom now than when I became one at 33. I’m much more laissez-faire about the whole thing. Chicken nuggets for breakfast? Sure, why not. No bath tonight? Fine, more time to catch up on This is Us. Fell asleep in your clothes again? Great, that will save us time in the morning. At this point I’ve learned what the important things are and what’s not worth sweating. That, and I’m inherently lazy.

Back when I was a first-time mom I needed to be a good mom, whatever that meant. (I let go of that now.) With my oldest son, I was always present. I never checked out mentally when he talked or pretended to be working while actually playing Bubble Mania on my phone. I looked at every ingredient on everything I bought at the grocery store. I read to him. We co-slept. I took him to the park, museums, story time, art time, library time, mommy-and-me, Gymboree, My Gym, bouncy castles, carnivals, play lands, etc. I read parenting books. When he was diagnosed on the spectrum I advocated at his IEPs for the maximum amount of intervention.

He flourished and I thought it was because I did everything right. Then just before he turned ten he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor and only had a few months to live. I bring this up not for sympathy or shock value, but to show that nothing sculpts motherhood into something unrecognizable like losing the baby that made you a mommy. I changed drastically after losing my oldest son, and not for the better. I no longer care if I do everything right. These days I feel accomplished if a can do anything right.

My middle son describes me as badass, mysterious and loving. But if I’m so mysterious then how come he can figure me out so easily? I used to think I was relaxed and sincere. An old friend once described me as down-to-earth, which I immediately confused with back-to-nature and argued that I did in fact wear deodorant.

This blog will be a lot of things because, well, I’m a lot of things. We all are. We are normal and boring and unusual and interesting all at once. I’ve experienced great heartbreak and tremendous joy. I can see the forest and the trees and both have their own beauty.

So join me — or not. It’s up to you. My blog may have a cute sit-commy title but my life isn’t all set up and punch line. Whose life comes with a laughtrack anyway? Nobody I know.