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Archive for January, 2011

Bruce grabbed a couple of tubes of toothpaste from a cardboard display that said they were on sale for $1.99. But when we got to the cash register, the sale price failed to come up. Even after walking the young manager over to the display, she didn’t have the authority to override the price at which the item was scanning.

“That’s the trouble with retail these days,” Bruce said as we walked out of the store. “They hire all these young people, and then they don’t give them any discretion.”

As we headed toward the car, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea. I contemplated getting in the car and putting down the window, but it felt more urgent than that. I moved quickly to the edge of the parking lot and began vomiting into a snow bank.  When I caught my breath, I saw how ugly the vomit looked on the snow, and I shuffled over a couple of feet to a spot where the snow had melted and ground was exposed, and I began to vomit there.

It tasted better the first time

It was the third time I’d thrown up in two weeks. As I stood there ejecting  the contents of my stomach, which contained little more than water and Tums, I thought of all the women who over the last few months had looked at me enviously and said, “Oh, I loved being pregnant. Enjoy this time.”

Enjoy this time? Which part? The unrelenting nausea in the first several months that limited my diet to saltines, ginger ale and cheddar goldfish? The skanky taste I’ve had in my mouth for eight months? Or perhaps it’s the fiery acid I’ve had for half a year. I eat about half a dozen Tums every day and sleep with my torso elevated on a foam rubber wedge because if it’s prone, the acid will sit in my esophagus all night and inflame it, giving me heartburn the next day that is unbearable. But my belly is so large now, I wake up every morning with just my head on the foam because the weight of my stomach has pulled my body down to the bottom of a wedge the way gravity pulls a child down a playground slide.

Since I’ve been pregnant, I cry at commercials, I forget what I’m saying mid-sentence, and the other day, I meticulously placed toilet paper on a toilet seat in a public bathroom and as I put down the last piece, I began to urinate, forgetting to first turn around and stand over the bowl.

I get so tired walking up stairs, I grab on to the banister with one and then the other hand and then hoist myself upward. When I go into New York, I used to avoid touching anything. Now, I reach out for everything, grasping onto subway poles, stair rails, tile walls, anything to avoid losing my balance.

My body has never been so ugly. My belly button, which was always an “innie”, now protrudes outward like a turkey thermometer indicating the bird is done. I have little brown spots that resemble age spots along the right side of my face. My lower legs and feet have been swollen for so long, I don’t even look for my ankles anymore. I have so many varicose veins in one spot on my leg, Bruce asked me how I got the bruise.

Mysterious Rash

Twice now, I’ve gotten a rash on my hand for several days that looks like scabies. I don’t know if I was bitten by a bug in the night and my incessant scratching made it flare up, or if I have some rare pregnancy-related rash, so I asked  the nearest medical person I could find: the technician giving me an ultrasound. She inspected my hand and made a face of disgust.

“I don’t know what that is, but I do know it has absolutely nothing to do with your pregnancy,” she said.

And if I thought the first trimester was hard, the third has been worse. For months, people remarked at how small I looked. I’ve made up for it in the last two weeks. I’ve ballooned. When I bend down to get something from a lower shelf of the refrigerator, I want to pay someone to come over and help lift me back up. My knees are sore from the weight – it doesn’t help that the body apparently produces a hormone in the third trimester to loosen up the ligaments for delivery. My breathing is so labored, I sound like a fat man who’s just climbed a flight of stairs. And I make this noise every couple of minutes that’s part burp, part hiccup, that sounds like a 10-year old who’s had too much coca cola.

She has big hands

A friend of mine tried to take some maternity photos of me yesterday, similar to those Demi Moore shot for Vanity Fair, but my belly was so grotesquely large, she couldn’t seem to get a photo in which it didn’t look utterly absurd.

“Can you use one arm and hand to cover your breasts, and put your other arm underneath your belly?” she asked. She’d looked at the Vanity Fair spread before coming over. Apparently, having the arm outline the bottom of the belly made it look less freakish.

“I’m trying,” I said.

“But the arm covering your breasts, I can still see your nipples. We want these to be G-rated,” she said.

Either Demi Moore had really small breasts or really large hands, but this ‘cover the breasts with a forearm and a hand’ thing was just not working for me. I was spilling out all over.

And yet as the whole difficult journey comes to an end this week, I’m starting to feel nostalgic. I’ve enjoyed the attention. One friend now comes with me to pick up my bi-weekly delivery of organic produce because the food basket is too heavy for me to lift. When I went to a restaurant recently with another friend, and we were forced to park a few blocks away, she had me wait by the car so she could first make sure the restaurant was open before having me walk all the way over there.

I went to a party last weekend, and the hostess made me a brownie sundae while two other women found a seat for me. One sat me down in a folding chair and the other one carried over a second chair for my feet because I said my legs had swelled.

We went out to dinner at a diner the other night, and the waitress was fawning over me, wanting to know when I was due, the gender of the baby, telling me to eat however much turkey and stuffing and ice cream I wanted. The baby needs his nutrients, she said. When she brought the bill, I pulled my American Express card out of my pocket and accidently dropped it on the floor. Both she and Bruce said, “I’ll get it,” and bent down to pick it up.

It is bah-loon

Whenever we leave the house, Bruce holds onto my arm so I don’t slip on the snow. He doesn’t let me carry anything, not even the newspaper.  He carries the laundry up and down the basement stairs, and if I need anything from the kitchen during dinner, like salt, he says, “Sit. I’ll get it.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever be so pampered again. It’s a pampering perhaps reserved for the handicapped, but I’ve gotten quite used to it. I’ve gone soft. Things I used to be able to do are suddenly difficult on my own. I now wait at the top of the porch steps for Bruce’s hand, like a child might wait for his parent’s hand before crossing the street.  I don’t even like leaving the house without Bruce because I fear I may encounter something too heavy to lift, or if I’m driving, my belly will restrict me so much, I won’t be able to turn my head to see if there’s another car occupying the space before I change lanes.

This pregnancy business has actually given me a sense of entitlement such that when people don’t stand up to give me their seat or inquire how I’m feeling, I want to kick them in the shins and say, “Can you not see I’m with child?”

“People aren’t giving you your props for being pregnant, are they?” Bruce said one day, as I complained about a momentary lapse in the attention.

“No, they’re not,” I said, pouting.

It’s not just the pampering. People are constantly telling me how young I look and that I’m positively glowing. “Pregnancy really suits you. You look like a teenager!” I’m told. A lot. I fear once I give birth, all the life force will be sucked out of me, and I’ll be left depleted, a shriveled balloon. And I tell people so every time they compliment me.

“Oh, just take the compliment,” Bruce finally said recently.

I also haven’t gained much weight  — about 20 lbs. — and yet the baby is relatively large, an indication that he’s been feeding off of me. Not only have I gained little in my face, but my arms and legs are thinner than they were before I was pregnant.  It’s like having a tapeworm or a parasite. But for the ludicrously large belly, I feel downright bony, like Halle Berry.

We had an amniocentesis last week to determine whether the baby was ready to come out, via a c-section, because there’s a risk that if I go into labor, the location of my placenta will cause excessive bleeding –something the doctors want to avoid. But the amnio showed the lungs weren’t developed enough, and so we’re now waiting until this coming Thursday to deliver the baby. The news meant I would remain pregnant for just a little bit longer. I was relieved. I realized I’m not quite ready to give up my special status.

As Bruce and I walked out of the house this afternoon to go to the drugstore, he said, “Remind me when we get back that I have to change the kitty litter.”

Oh, I’ve enjoyed this time.

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January 15, 2011 Caren

This is a guest blog post from Bruce Holmes:

"I can't talk now...."

I knew it was Caren as soon as I heard someone run by. Wearing high tops and a sweater with her bulbous belly popping through, she looked like a turtle — a very fast turtle — as she banked off the turn from the toy and game aisles to one of the main aisles of the store. I had been lingering in the cribs and baby carriages section, not ready to start Christmas shopping in earnest, when she flew by. She was running hard.  I am not sure if I shouted, “Hey!” but she spotted me. She fixed me with a stare, only to communicate that she saw me and she was not going to slow down.

“This is not what Dr. Gonzalez had in mind when he said your placenta previa shouldn’t stop you from going for walks…,” I thought. What I really wanted to say was, “What the f..  are you doing?”  By the time I caught up with her on the other side of the store, she was locked in conversation with an older eastern European woman in a store apron. The woman was saying she had indeed seen Caren’s brown wallet, which we’d left in the shopping cart we abandoned in the Christmas decorations aisle.  Olga pulled out her radio and called to Tyrek, who was already headed to customer service with Caren’s wallet.

As we walked to retrieve it, I tried to find the words to convey that a lost wallet was not worth racing through a store of waxed floors when you are seven months pregnant, but I remembered her determined stare and let it go.  Taking it easy is not in Caren’s repertoire.

Will the real placenta previa please stand up?

We were advised Caren had placenta previa at our second ultrasound with Dr. Gonzalez, an ultrasound specialist. Placenta previa is a condition of pregnancy in which the placenta sits vulnerably close to the cervix. He said back when he was in medical school, the treatment for such a condition was to require women to spend the remainder of their pregnancies on bed rest. But he said he was still hopeful Caren’s placenta might migrate off her cervix as her uterus grew. He did clear Caren to go walking on the boardwalk, which Caren liked hearing more than the earlier advice she received from her obstetrician, who’d said Caren should refrain from exercising altogether. Both doctors warned us to be cautious and look out for excessive bleeding.

This isn't so hard

I’m sure ‘cautious’ didn’t include pushing a half ton pickup truck full of plumber’s equipment up a small incline, something she and I did earlier that same afternoon. Our friend Bob’s truck had died on the Garden State Parkway the night before, and we drove him up to the rest stop where he had left it. The plan was to have Caren sit in the driver’s seat and jumpstart the truck by releasing the clutch with the truck in gear, as Bob and I pushed it to a sufficient speed. But looking at how short a downhill run we had to work with, we realized we were going to have only one or two tries to get the truck started. Because it was Bob’s truck, and he was more familiar with it, and because he had jumpstarted it before, we changed the plan and put 200-pound Bob in driver’s seat. I stood behind the truck and began to push, first slowly and then once it got going, I started to run, moving the truck forward. Bob popped the clutch, and the truck skidded to stop.  We had one more try before we ran out of hill. This time, I was really pushing, and we were going faster. As I looked to my right, I saw Caren was next to me with two outstretched hands on the tailgate, pumping her legs. Bob popped the clutch again. Varoom, the truck turned over and sped off.  We hooted and hollered and celebrated.   I forgot to yell at her.

This pregnancy was not easy to achieve.  Most 47-year-olds in our situation would not need to be scolded about being too active.  Being the lazy one in the marriage, I’d love to be confined to bed rest or told to take it easy.  I could catch up on TV, or read, or just nap. Caren is different.  Right after the implantation, when the pregnancy was just 45 minutes old, she insisted on traveling from the fertility clinic on York Avenue and 70th Street in Manhattan all the way down to her acupuncturist’s office on 29th Street and Fifth Avenue.  I did win the argument about cab versus subway.  Afterward, we took the M7 bus back up to our apartment uptown because she admires the efficiency of its route, which has a stop right around the corner from our home. She got a seat after a couple of stops.  Whatever period of bed rest she was assigned back then, I am sure she cut it in half.  Two weeks later, I attended a freelance writers’ conference with her in Chicago, and two weeks after that, she was riding around Toronto with a cop well-versed in social media for a story.

One of 16 courses

She hasn’t slowed down since. She had some very demanding stories this summer and took on new assignments in the middle them. I know that I had a hard summer and fall, working eight days a week as I’m a lawyer and I had a heavy trial schedule. Every night I went to bed feeling achy and overworked, Caren would still be up clicking on the keyboard.  Every morning, when I was leaving, she would be back on the computer editing a daily online business newsletter.  Between the houses, (we are landlords), the stream of assignments and insisting on an active social life with her friends, her writers group, book group and family, I  gave up trying to slow her down.  I argued against hosting Thanksgiving, against having a pot roast AND a turkey, as well as 11 different side dishes and six desserts. I also argued against us having it in our city apartment, where our kitchen is in a hallway and ill equipped. I definitely did not want to decorate the place, with pine rope and white lights.  I lost on all counts.  It was a great meal.  This summer, I joked to a colleague at work that if the kid cannot survive a little stress in the womb, he or she was not going to make it around us anyway.

Last week, she addressed a heating issue in one of our rental properties by borrowing two guys, who work for our roofer friend, Frank, to tear up and replace the attic insulation. And I’m currently sitting at a makeshift office on the dining room table because I was pushed out of our home office on account of a last minute decision to add a master bath and dressing room next to our bedroom. We’ve been sleeping on the futon in the living room for a month, brushing our teeth in the kitchen sink and plucking clean clothes out of a laundry basket because we can longer access our closets or dressers.

The new bathroom is full of hard-to-find old bathroom parts that Caren was able to locate, and the bathroom and dressing area are lined with old wood paneling. Even our contractor, Bob, went on vacation for Christmas, but Caren spent New Year’s Eve and Day doing some unauthorized scraping, painting and staining.  As with Thanksgiving, I argued against the bathroom project, but it looks beautiful — particularly the 100 square feet of reclaimed oak paneling, now stripped and stained, that I told her not to buy two years ago in Rochester.

Wood is good.

Despite our outward confidence, Caren and I have both been carrying around an unspoken worry that maybe the chickens have come home to roost.  Over the last two months, as her belly has swelled, Caren has maintained almost the same weight. In fact she actually lost a pound in one appointment. And in that time period, we had not had an ultrasound that would at least give us a glimpse of the baby’s development and a report on its size and general health. When we finally met with the obstetrician last week, Caren read to the doctor from a list of questions we had written on a legal pad that morning.  The doctor assured us that the things we noted, like varicose veins, excessive heartburn, even a low-grade fever, were absolutely normal – though we were reminded to get a flu shot.  Apparently, Caren should have gotten one a long time ago.

Even our concerns about Caren’s weight were assuaged. The doctor took out her tape measure and wrapped it around the basketball in Caren’s stomach. The doctor squirted a gel on Caren’s belly and got ready to run a hand-held microphone, almost like a stethoscope, across it.

“Size is not a problem,” the doctor said. “You are actually a little bigger than you should be.”

Through the amplified microphone, we could hear the baby’s heart pounding. “Do you hear that?  The heartbeat is strong,” the doctor said. “It may be feeding off of you a little bit, but you are not emaciated.  Everything looks good.”

It seems like our little family actually thrives on stress.  I hope that is the case because we just got hit with a surprise.  We do not have a month and a half to get ready for baby Eddie.  We are probably going to have a baby on January 29, in thirteen days.  Our ultrasound doctor re-examined the placenta last week and saw that it hasn’t moved much at all, that it still sits perilously close to the cervix. So they decided to move more quickly and deliver the baby about a month ahead of schedule.

We obviously didn’t expect this. Caren has two stories due that weekend and was only then going to begin shopping for items for the nursery. And I was going to be frantically working on the last portions of a trial I had to start a few days ago. So today, we worked in earnest clearing out the baby’s room, where we had dumped three room’s worth of stuff during our construction project. We’ve been painting, dusting, mopping, buffing, and using this time to get rid of things we no longer need, like sweaters with moth holes and books we’ve already read. We booked Caren’s mom a flight for January 28, and we made a clean space for to Caren to work. I prepared a trial witness over the telephone and researched parts of a brief needed for the end of the trial. We need to. This baby is not walking into our lives but running, and he’s taking quite a risk by coming out early. But given the way things roll around here, he sounds like he’s going to fit right in.

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My grandfather

My grandfather has always been a fighter. When he was young, his grandfather, who was a local rabbi, was singing at a nearby synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and my grandfather tried to get in to hear him, despite not having a ticket. When he got kicked out by one of the ushers, he went around the side of the building, climbed up a wrought iron fence that was about a story-high, dropped down the other side, and climbed up a set of side stairs that put him in the women’s balcony, where he sat and listened to his grandfather sing.

the singing rabbi

When he was 17, his mother unexpectedly became pregnant with her fifth child. In a show of protest — because he thought she was too old to be pregnant — he ran away from home, jumping on a train that landed him in New Orleans.

In the family folklore, my grandfather once punched Danny Kaye. I don’t know where my grandfather punched him, or what the song and dance man might have done to provoke it, but I’m sure it was justified.

The Provocateur

Some battles were waged inside my grandfather’s head. Others played out quite publicly. The longest and most visible was probably his war with the board of his condominium in Florida. He remained on the board well into his nineties, fighting what he saw as rampant corruption and waste.

“He stays up nights writing letters to himself about the board,” my grandmother told me on one of my visits down south. “It keeps him up at night. And it gets him up in the morning.”

At 92, after serving 12 years on the board, he was finally elected president. But he held the title only four months before he was stripped of it by unanimous vote. Among those voting against him were two of his oldest friends on the board, Yvonne McNamara and Julio Montoya.

My grandmother said he sat slumped in his chair as they read the vote.

“He looked like a little lost sheep,” she said.

It didn’t come as a surprise. A neighbor had knocked on his door a few weeks earlier to say she’d been asked to sign a petition calling for his removal as president.

My grandfather took it in stride. He knew why they were doing it. He’d driven them to it. That didn’t stop him from attempting a last minute coup, like a captured outlaw might make one last run for it even as the sheriff’s gun is aimed right at him.

My grandfather tossed and turned the night before the meeting, thinking of what he was going to say. When it was time for the meeting, he asked those who wanted him to remain as president to please stand up. More than half the room stood up.

“One of the women who was asked to sign the petition said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself to do something like that to a man like Mr. Taras. He’s so loved,’ “ my grandfather said. “It was really gratifying to see that most of the people were still with me.”

Minutes later, the board voted him out. They then named a man called Danny Ferris to be president. Ferris worked as an auditor for one of the hotel chains in Fort Lauderdale. He also worked for his church.

The board wanted someone who knew something about running the books. And they didn’t want any more controversy. My grandfather stokes controversy like little boys poke sticks at hives. In fact a month earlier, it was my grandfather who was standing before a crowded meeting hall ousting someone from the board. My grandfather was convinced his fellow board member, Bernice, was getting kickbacks from everyone with whom the board did business: the pool contractor, the condo management company, even new tenants. Bernice took prime parking spots from existing tenants and offered them to new tenants for $250, according to my grandfather. She would then tell the old tenants that the new fence posts recently installed had reduced the number of parking spaces and that people had to make do with what they could get.

And she allowed tenants with bad credit to buy into the condo complex — if they agreed to pay six months worth of maintenance in advance. And she asked for it in cash, my grandfather said, conspiratorially.

For years, Bernice was all my grandfather talked about. Bernice is stealing money. Bernice is taking over. Bernice is in charge of everything that has anything to do with money, he would say.

“She was a con artist,” my grandfather said.

He began investigating rumors he’d heard about Bernice, and like a detective, started to collect evidence.

The last straw for him was when Bernice threatened to have five cars towed from the condo’s parking lot for not having the proper sticker, even though she knew the condo complex had run out of them.

My grandfather says he called the board’s president and told him to call Bernice and instruct her to not have the cars towed. The call was made. She had the cars towed anyway. It turns out Bernice had asked those people for money for their new parking spots, and when they refused to pay, she had their cars towed, he said.

“I was so incensed by what she was doing that I sent a petition around to get her out,” my grandfather said.

There were board members willing to continue supporting Bernice, but there were 208 families in the condo complex, and my grandfather got 150 of them to sign on his petition. He presented it to the board.

“She came to the meeting, and when she heard they wanted her off, she picked herself up and left. And that was the end of her,” my grandmother said, with the pride of a damsel whose lover has just slain the dragon.

My grandfather’s activism didn’t begin with Bernice. He led a movement to oust the condo’s former management company, which he said was billing the condo for unnecessary services. For instance, the pool was repaired for $10,000 on account of a few broken tiles. He also said their work quality was poor. Exterior walls had to be repainted because the old color bled through. Sidewalks had to be repaired because in order to paint, the company placed heavy equipment on top of them, and the equipment busted right through.

“Let’s just say someone was in somebody’s pocket,” my grandfather said. “I said let’s get rid of this management company before they milk us dry.”

It took him two years to convince the rest of the board, but he eventually prevailed.

He led a movement to change the condo’s by-laws so people couldn’t rent their units to anyone under the age of 55 (He said school-age children were living in the building and making mischief, resulting in costly repairs). He fought to make sure tenants were creditworthy, after hearing a broker lent money to a prospective tenant for the application fee after the tenant’s first check bounced. He then barred that broker from doing business with the condo.

“The screening committee was a little upset with me,” he said.

It didn’t matter. At that point, my grandfather’s popularity was at an all-time high. Having worked with appliances all his life, he could fix anything in the complex. He was also in charge of the “code room,” where a spare set of everyone’s keys were kept. That meant any time anyone was locked out, they had to go to my grandfather to gain access to their apartment – putting him in an invaluable position. Just last week, a woman in a nightgown rang his bell at 7 a.m. saying she’d gone out to fetch the paper, and her apartment door closed behind her. Could he please let her back in?

“Anybody who has any problem comes down to Bob Taras because he’ll straighten it out for you. It’s always been like that,” he said proudly.

O Canada

But poke enough hives, and you’re bound to get stung. Unpopular as Bernice was, she was friendly with some of the condo’s growing Canadian population, given that her Israeli husband spoke fluent French. And two of those Canadians now sat on the board.

“They were with her, the Frenchies,” my grandfather said. “It’s possible she was telling them what she was doing with the money.”

When the new board met in February to determine who would hold the various positions, my grandfather was named president.

“I was elected president because I was the most popular guy in the condo. No getting away from it,” my grandfather said.

One of the Canadians said he wanted to be financial secretary. The zeal with which he wanted the job fueled my grandfather’s suspicion that Bernice had told him what a cash cow that position could be. My grandfather also didn’t like the fact that the man was only in Florida six months out of the year. One can’t run a multi-million dollar business like a condo in six months, he said.

The problem was, several other board members were also out of town six months of the year. In the end, my grandfather was waging a battle with nearly half the board. He was also trying to obtain the board’s financial records for the last five years because he learned that $50,000 to $60,000 was missing.

My grandfather called an emergency meeting to discuss what was going on, but he didn’t inform the board’s two Canadian members. The Canadians accused him of convening an illegal meeting.

“It wasn’t really supposed to be a meeting, but the Canadians said it was a meeting,” my grandmother said.

“Why didn’t he invite them?” I asked.

“Because he wanted to talk about them,” my grandmother said, in that tone that says, “You must be joking. Isn’t it obvious?”

The board began circulating a petition to strip my grandfather of his title. They voted him out at the next meeting.

The following morning, a woman rang his bell at 10 a.m. to say she’d gone to the pool and had left her keys in the house. My grandfather was about to take a nap, but he got up, went to the code room and gave the woman her key so she could get back into her apartment.

“The new president is in here every day telling him everything that’s going on, and they’re working together,” my grandmother said. “What can I tell you. He’s still in exactly the same position. He’s egging this other fellow on.”

When I stopped by my grandparents house in Florida a couple of years later, my grandfather was then 96 and was no longer on the condo’s board. As we sat around their kitchen table, I began asking them questions about their parents. Soon, my grandmother was rooting through a closet in the guest room and emerged with a box of old photo albums. The albums were so old, every time we turned a page, photos fell onto the table like bird feathers.

My grandfather picked up a photograph of his mother, a stout woman with black eyes, a widow’s peak and wiry long hair wrapped around the top of her head like a crown.

She had a locket around her neck that was caught on a piece of lace and lay diagonally across her blouse. Her stare was vacant, as if she was looking at something in the distance that only she could see.

“She was a wonderful seamstress,” my grandmother said, looking over my grandfather’s shoulder.

Grandpa second from left, Marty on the far right

“She could take a piece of cloth and cut out a design,” my grandfather said, pausing for a moment, “and from that she would make a dress.”

He often paused like that, in the middle of a thought, making even mundane observations seem important.

“But there was one thing she used to do that used to frighten me. And it made me very mad at my brother, Marty,” my grandfather said. “Marty would always sit down and draw. And me, I was mechanical. And my mother would say, ‘Why aren’t you more like him? Why don’t you sit down and draw?’ “

A deep rivalry developed between the two brothers that lasted until each of them got married. At that point, my grandfather says, they just began living their own lives and trying to support their families. My grandfather was busy fixing washing machines and vacuum cleaners, mechanical tasks, while his brother continued to toil away with his art, out in California. He eventually became an animator for Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures and several other studios and went on to create the cartoon character, “Baby Huey.”

“He was a big man out there,” my grandfather said.

I couldn’t tell if he was envious.

“What did Marty die of?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” my grandfather said. His memory had grown a little sketchy. “He was in the hospital at the time he died. We were there. I’ll never forget—“

You were there. I wasn’t,” my grandmother interjected.

“I’ll never forget how they had something down his throat, that permitted him to breathe. And after he passed away, I went over to the body, and I pulled it out,” my grandfather said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I didn’t like the thing sticking out of his mouth after he was dead,” he said.

This week, at the age of 98, it was my grandfather who lay in a hospital bed with tubes hanging out of him because he had stopped eating and could no longer swallow liquid. Over the last few years, his body parts were finally starting to give out. His hearing had deteriorated, preventing him from watching TV. And his eyesight had faded, making it impossible to read – though it didn’t stop him from going from eye doctor to eye doctor in search of eye glasses that worked. He insisted the problem was not his sight but with the skills of the technicians making the glasses. They didn’t know what they were doing, he said.

As he lay in the hospital, his body began to shut down. He had a few final bursts of fight in those last days, in which he ripped out one of his catheters and yanked out his heart monitor, but after a few days, he succumbed. When he died, my mother said his mouth was open, as if he had one more thing to say. But after a couple of minutes his mouth closed, and the fighter was finally at rest.

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Boeuf Bourguignon takes more than an hour to prepare and four hours to cook, an endeavor I wouldn’t even have considered had I not seen a chef make it on television yesterday – in fifteen minutes. It was New Year’s Eve, and it was just going to be me, Bruce and the cat. I thought why not try something festive.

boeuf bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon was one of Julia Child’s signature dishes, but rather than using her version, I opted for the adaptation I’d seen on Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food,” a show that dumbs down recipes so even a caveman can make them. That was my first mistake. The second was failing to use dry red wine, like a Burgundy or Chianti, as the recipe called for, and instead substituting Beaujolais Nouveau – from 2009. I had found the bottle in my basement about two weeks ago and thought, “If I give this to someone, I can say goodbye to the friendship. Better to use it as cooking wine.” Unfortunately, the recipe called for an entire bottle. In retrospect, I should have known better. You can’t make good French toast with bad bread, or good apple cider out of bad apples. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as they say.

I tried to redeem myself by making hot fudge sundaes from coffee ice cream I found in the freezer and heath bar I discovered in the cabinet, but the ice cream had freezer burn, and the heath bar was old, making the toffee stale and the chocolate coating fall right off, like underwear whose waistband has lost its elasticity.

Resolutions

At about 11:30 p.m., I pulled out two pads and pens, and Bruce and I wrote down our resolutions. It was hard for both of us to get our hands around what the new year would behold, given how dramatically our lives were about to change with a new baby coming. But we worked around it. Bruce resolved to look for teaching opportunities on the side and to call his parents more often. I resolved to take on at least two writing assignments that truly inspired me. I also promised myself that every time I had a dire, fearful thought — which happens about once an hour — I would counter it with a positive one.

“Tell me a positive thought,” Bruce said as he read my list.

“Okay. It’s possible I won’t die during childbirth,” I said, and I began to cry.

“You’re not going to die,” Bruce said, with the empathy of a Protestant.

My fear is not as farfetched as it sounds. I had open heart surgery when I was 11 years old to repair a small hole in the wall between the upper chambers of my heart, and at the time, my father told me I didn’t have to have the surgery. But if I chose not to, I would never be able to have children because childbirth would put too much of a strain on my heart. Of course my father wasn’t really leaving the decision of whether to have surgery up to me. He just wanted me to think the choice was mine. I’m not even sure his explanation of what would happen if I didn’t have the surgery was medically accurate. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve now got it in my head that I could die on the delivery table because my heart won’t be able to withstand the strain. Nor does it matter that I actually had the surgery as a child, and that my heart, according to my cardiologist at the time, is now perfectly fine.

I’ve feared giving birth from the moment I was told I was pregnant –- not just the dying part but the pain. It’s as though I’ve been on line for a scary ride at an amusement park — one of those rides that lifts you high up in the air, shakes you up and down like a salt shaker, and then revolves like a plane propeller — and each month that goes by, I inch closer and closer to the front of the line.

La la la la la, I can't hear you!

I’ve tried to avoid hearing people’s birthing stories, but women can’t seem to help themselves.

“Thirty-six hours,” one woman said

“Please. I don’t want to —“ I said.

“Thirty-six hours of labor. Can you believe it? And–”

“Really. I don’t want to—“

“Without anesthesia. They told me the anesthesiologist went off duty for the night,” she said.

“Sounds awful. But—“

“And the pain? Particularly once they gave me Pitocin to speed up the contractions. I’ve never felt cramps like that!“ the woman said. “Do you know your hip bones actually have to move apart? You can almost hear a grinding sound.”

Even before I became pregnant, I used to have visions of myself bleeding on a metallic table in an emergency room, and I was surrounded by doctors who were using sharp instruments to try to save my life. I’d wound up there because of some unintentional accident, like being stabbed by a crazy person who hates white, Jewish women with curly hair, or perhaps I intervened in a situation that was bigger than I anticipated. I wouldn’t call it a prophesy, though I’m not sure what to call it. It’s just an image that’s come into my head a couple of times. One day I mentioned this vision to someone, and she noted that an emergency room operating table would be covered in cloth. If it was a metallic table in my vision, it was more likely a morgue. People can be so helpful.

Well, if I die in childbirth, I thought, Bruce will at least have the baby to remind him of me. Every time he looks down at the baby, he’ll see a piece of me. And then I remember that I used a donor egg, and the baby isn’t going to resemble me at all.

I’ve always had what I’d call a doom complex, my mind gravitating to the most dire place. The other day, I was standing in my office when I heard a high-pitched squeal, almost like a teakettle, coming from beneath my legs. I feared I’d sprung a tiny little leak in my placenta, and the pressure was pushing the air through, and soon the baby and some water would follow. And then I realized I was standing over a heating vent, and when the heat went off, the sound stopped (I’ve also since learned the baby isn’t actually inside the placenta). This morning, as I drove to my OB-GYN, I felt some dampness between my legs that I feared might be my water breaking – until I remembered I’d just gotten out of the shower shortly before I left, and it was likely water leaking out of parts I didn’t dry properly.

The problem with dire thoughts is that they are so irrational, you can’t address them with reason. It’s like trying to use logic to talk someone down from a ledge when they have their hands over their ears, or they don’t speak English. My husband once got on a streetcar in Warsaw and failed to validate his ticket, something you do by sticking your paper ticket into one of the plastic devices located in each train car. The device can be clamped shut onto the ticket, making little holes in it, an indication the ticket has been used. No amount of explaining on Bruce’s part would satisfy the ticket conductor, who spoke only Polish.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to –“

“No perforation. No ticket,” the conductor said.

“But I just got on, and I hadn’t had a chance to—“

“No perforation. No ticket,” the conductor said.

“B—“

“No perforation, no ticket.”

Of course Bruce was trying to beat the fare, but the point is even if he wasn’t, his explanations would have fallen on deaf ears.

Rather than using reason, I resolved this year to simply counter my dire thinking with more optimistic thoughts. So for each and every negative thought I have, I will counterbalance it with a positive one. That way at the end of each day, when I empty my mind of all the coins and lint that accumulated there and do an accounting of my daily thoughts, there are just as many hopeful ones in the ledger as there are cataclysmic. I figure if all I feed my mind all day is a diet of doom, it will only foster a feeling of doom. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

So if I’m afraid to drive into New York City because I fear I won’t get a parking spot, I’ll consider the possibility that maybe I will. And when I wonder whether the sharp pang under my arm is breast cancer, I’ll think it’s probably not. And what if my heart gives out during childbirth? Well, what if it doesn’t?

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