Friday, January 20, 2012

The Reluctant Parent: Riding Out Those Do-I-Have-To? Moments

So here we are. One of those moments when I balk at being a parent. A moment where I wait for the bread to rise and listen to the coffee percolating into the pot and I draw in my breath bracing for yet another social event I don’t really feel like dealing with. Tonight I’m taking my two year old to a pajama pizza party at the local library. I know. Adorable, right? Tots in pajamas with pizza sauce cheeks. What could be cuter?

But you know, we just came from one of those tot music classes at the library which was kind of hard work. I found myself feeling momguilt almost immediately, because all these other moms and their children had clearly come before. They knew the drill. I had not brought my son since last year, and to a different teacher. So we were learning new songs and C is learning to wait his turn and of course the turns went in the other direction so he had to wait till next to last and he was wiggling out of my lap trying to grab the ball and do his alpha male with outside energy thing inside where there was a program and an expectation of a two year old compliance with it.

Somewhere in the midst of his b-lines to the teacher’s electric keyboard I realized he had a serious load in the pants. Always puts him in an animalistic frame of mind And I don’t know if it was when I was deciding to keep him there a little longer despite his rich smell wafting up to civilized noses, or when I was spinning around in the dance and putting a little too much oomph in the song that one or two of those moms shot me that, You’re a Piece of Work Look. You know the look. That Please Don’t Put Any Pressure on Me to Look Ridiculous Like You Look. That Simmer Your Inner Child Look.

So anyway, we had to cut out of that scene early and my momguilt was ratcheted up to high. I must be a lousy mom if I can’t get my kid through forty-five minutes of fun. A good mom would have checked his sweet little diaper ahead of time, and avoided this scenario. Seems everywhere we go we get caught with a load in the di-di, just as all his female peers are going di-di free.

The pizza-sauce cheeks might have greater charm for me if I did not have this claustrophobic feeling as I contemplate the next eighteen years of pizza parties. Bake Sales and home games and PTA and parent-teacher meetings and doing all the admirable role-modely things to help my kid blend in and also stand out enough to get the scholarships.

Sometimes when we go to the Early Childhood Center, which is housed in our local public high school [where my son’s father when to school, and where I used to work] I get this strange feeling, as we walk the long hallway toward his playroom, of being inside a telescope, zooming in on the future. C stops to admire all the trophies in their glass cases, the swimming, football, basketball and baseball trophies. He loves the rubber duckie and the beach ball in the case next to the pool desk, beside the goggles and swim cap, and the garments bearing the local team emblem, the Nantucket Whalers. Even at two he is a Whaler in the making. He walks that hall with pride of ownership. It his place. His domain. And it will be for years to come, for year after year of homecoming games,

Sometimes I watch him and am filled with that soccer-mom pride. And other times, instead of being that role model mom who glows with her inner child, my annoyed, inner teenager rears her ugly head, and she just wants to play hookie on the whole scene.

But alas. The dough has risen. It’s time to go find that cutest-of-cute pair of pj’s, because somebody is all revved up for the pahty. But rest assured, once he falls asleep with his happy pizza face dreams, wine will be poured.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Talking Two

[Some of the things my son is saying at twenty-eight months]

Where EAR you? Where EAR you, Daddy?


Where ARE way?

You HEAR dat? [Cupping ear] You HEAR dat [noise/song] Mommy?

I see Captain Hook! [Holding cardboard telescope] I see Captain Hook in house!

I find Captain Hook lost at sea… Row row boat… down stream.


I do it. I DO-nin it.

YOU do it. YOU do it, Mommy.

You got yogurt all over you face. Me too.

Rudolph A Nose-a Reindeer…

SO much FUN.

Piggy back ride. Piggy back ride to couch.

Turn me ‘round. Flying! I flying!

The milk’s not me. I’m Mickey… Mouse Clubhouse… Come inside, come inside…

Friday, January 13, 2012

Love and Death on Facebook

[In February of 2009, when I was expecting my child, the first child to be born to our generation of the family, I joined Facebook. I was soon followed by my brother Conor, my sister Gaby, and our mother, Colette.]

I’m reading the diary of a madwoman. The entries are the last notes my sister wrote and posted on Facebook in the weeks before she took her own life.

I’m oddly comforted by these notes, although they disturb, and portend the terrible and final thing that was to come. First, I am able to read the comments of the friends that were still willing to reach out to her publicly. It is truly heartwarming to see that people cared, that they tried to get through to her, to pull her back to sanity. But there is also a transparency to the notes that I find satisfying, as well as a freedom and boldness to her expression that seems wholly new.

Sistah’ could write, man. In the midst of her mania, she was also experiencing a liberating creative freedom. And in many ways her Facebook page became the outlet for that freedom of expression. In that sense, Facebook may have fueled her mania. To this day I find myself wondering about the role Facebook played, quite innocently, in fanning the flames of her sickness. She was someone who had always used boundaries to protect her illness, and Facebook, by design, broke those boundaries down. It loosened the boundaries she kept between people, as well as the close, protective guard she had kept on her expressive, creative self. Creative expression had a way of unleashing her illness. That’s perhaps why she preferred to apply her mind to science. Science was strict, controlled, cautious. It would keep those darker demons under wraps.

I am only able to access two of the notes, but it’s more than FB’s administrative powers that be allowed heretofore. She had blocked me and I couldn’t read them at the time she was writing them. I did get to skim them from my mother’s account, on her apartment computer, when we had convened there in the days after she died. But in many ways being blocked got me off the hook with having to muster some kind of adequate response. I have saved them on my hard drive. I get to press my face up to the glass window of her mind and get a good gander. I get to take my time, notice the nuances, close the notes and open them again later. From her last note, entitled Today Really Fucking Sucked.

The subway ride over there was really interesting because David started doing his jumping around in other people's bodies trip and started picking his nose rather thoroughly (rooting around in the nostril would be a more apt description) when he was in this Asian guy's body. I was laughing out loud and had to try really hard to stifle myself because, you know, people really think you're crazy when you laugh out loud all by yourself but really because I thought if I let it rip I might explode or spontaneously combust or something equally inappropriate in a sensible world and you know we can't have that.

At the hospital she’d received a bipolar diagnosis which she staunchly refused, along with any medication. While there she played the savior of her ward mates, who, according to her, were being mistreated. Her rational mind took over. Or a brilliantly conceived duplication of a rational mind, which was in fact the ruse of an exceedingly irrational and sick mind, created to protect itself the same way any disease of the body produces antibodies to fight the antigens, the medicines, that try to kill it. It is that scientific, that cunning, that brilliant.

And that is how my sister, at forty-seven, and as unwell as unwell could be, managed to convince the psychiatrist, the nurses on the ward, and even her own mother, who is a psychologist, that she was exactly the opposite. Even Steven. Good as gold.

Gaby was released after a three week stay at the Elmurst General Hospital psyche ward in Queens, where she had remained unmedicated, and without access to alcohol. She had pulled down tight the lid of her pressure cooker to form an airless, impenetrable seal. Once she got back home, she logged back on, and the lid flew right off, its contents exploded on Facebook.

She didn’t have Facebook in the hospital. She didn’t join Facebook, or any other social network, until the last year and a half of her life.

As Sylvia Plath wrote in her book of poems Ariel, in the weeks before she took her own life:

There is a charge.
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart-----
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The House that Cayce Built

Every morning before his father leaves for work my two year old Cayce builds a fort in a nook he has found between the living room sofa and the wooden toy box. He pulls the pillows down around him, makes a pillow door, and beseeches us. “Come in Mommy. Come in Daddy. Come into my fort.” He opens his pillow door and we go in, sometimes still clutching our cups of coffee, but we abidingly enter and huddle together for a few moments. The space is impossibly small for the three of us, but we make it happen in this land of make believe. This little ritual, each morning, is our pact, our promise that we will play our parts in the story our child is writing, where we stay close together and keep our house whole.

I have always been afraid of love. Love in my family came with great risks. It meant watching your father, your role model, your pillar of strength, fall sick, subsumed by drink and an underlying mental illness. It meant equating loving with making others sick. Because that is just how a child thinks, that everything begins and ends with them. So if things aren’t going well, it must be because of them. And if all they know is the fierce, unconditional love of a child, it just follows in the child’s logic that her love is making her father sick.

As a small child my father was hospitalized several times. At first I was protected from any knowledge of these events. But eventually it became impossible to hide.

I think I was about nine when his delusional state caused him to get severe frostbite in all five toes of his left foot, requiring amputation. Some months later my mother was sending me to visit him in the city. He would be taking me swimming at Jones Beach. I would see his foot, the toeless stump of it, and the scars. I would be full of questions. So the story of my father and his mental illness had to be told. He had become paralyzed, in a delusional state, where he stood on a frozen pond in Martha’s Vineyard, a place where his good friends lived, a lady named Rachel, after whom I was named, and her carpenter husband. He’d become endeared to the Vineyard after many visits, and even some stints of work. On the pond that day in January he stood stock still for hours, terrified of God knows what. There is some story that he perceived the tall pines surrounding the pond pointing down at him, persecuting him. I don’t know to this day whether he was found or whether he walked off the ice on his own, but he would be irrevocably, physically altered by the acts of his own mind that day. It’s kind of a hard thing for a nine year old to process.

He wouldn’t have to live that way for long, though, because it wasn’t much longer before he bit the big one. I was eleven, and had just returned from soccer practice, when I got the news. I guess all that booze on an empty stomach over and over again and then not bothering to go to the doctor till you’re on Death’s door will do that. Death’s doors were the doors to the Emergency Room. He was admitted, and within the hour he was gone.

Because the loss of our father was each of our faults, because that was a truth whose light we could not dim, we continued fumblingly, holding one another at arm’s length, loving from a safe distance. Whenever we came close to one another, we seemed to set off trigger springs of hurt. Then we’d recoil. Hibernate. Come back out again when it felt safe.

My sister Gaby was always better than anyone at cutting herself off. The excuses to get out of family plans were prolific, balancing between work obligations and stomach bugs. Sometimes she’d go for months without talking to anyone in the family. In fourteen years of my living on Nantucket she never once came to visit me. But at Christmas, she’d always get a special gift, and if I made it to the city, she’d take our mom and I out for drinks at a fancy midtown bar. She liked making money, and being able to spend it. And she was always generous with her money.

Although we grew up learning the vernacular of mental illness, and knew full well about its genetic underpinnings, we were slow to recognize its signs in Gaby. I guess it’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees. You are just too close to it. And Denial ain’t a river…it’s an engulfing ocean. And sometimes when you are given the choice between having someone in your life in a denial state, and not having them at all, you choose the denial state.

The arm’s length thing hasn’t improved any since my sister died. Breakage always seems imminent when the ground is laid with freshly cracked shells.

These are the background thoughts that clatter and clank in the winter wind as my son calls me into the present, into the here and now, where love is abundant and undeniable and unafraid. Sometimes it’s the child who teaches the adult the way into the heart.