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Archive for June, 2011

My husband, Bruce, and I seem to be in a contest over who can make the baby laugh. If Bruce is changing his diaper and I walk over, Eddie will look up, and I’ll make a funny face or sing, “Mr. Big Head, “ a little ditty I made up that’s sung to the tune of “Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think are…” If Eddie laughs, Bruce’s heart sinks just a little bit because it means the baby loves me more. I wish I could say, “Oh, Bruce, don’t be so small,” but there are times I’ve walked over to the diaper table, because I planned to sing, “Mr. Big Head,” and Eddie is so entranced with Bruce, he wouldn’t even look at me.

We love making the baby laugh because his whole face lights up. His mouth opens wide revealing a big gummy grin. His eyes dance like the sun. He looks like joy incarnate. And it warms your heart because it feels like he loves you more than the earth itself. Until you see him make the same exact face at the plastic elephant that dangles like a mobile over his bouncy chair. The thing doesn’t even move. I get a similar feeling when I’m watching television with Bruce, and I’ll say something, and he’ll make a grunt of a laugh, and it feels so satisfying to have made him laugh, and then he’ll turn to me and say, “What?”

He smiles like an angel

Lately, the baby stares up at the ceiling fan in the living room and just smiles. I know that he smiles at inanimate objects, but our friends and neighbors don’t know that. We’ll walk him down the street, and people will come up to the carriage and say, “hello,” and Eddie will flash them that big gummy grin, which will encourage them to get a bit closer to his face and start coo-ing and making funny sounds until he flashes them another smile. And they feel loved, and they think they’re really funny and have a way with children. I used to think that if I were funny, people would like me, much the way everyone in my family seems to orbit my brother, Richie, because he’s so funny. And so I make jokes, and people laugh, and they like me more. But Eddie reminds me that while people like someone who’s funny, more than that, they like someone who makes them feel funny.

It seems a cruel joke that the same smiling face Eddie makes when he’s happy is very similar to the smiling face he makes just before he has a meltdown. It’s like those computer programs that can morph someone’s face into the face of someone else who looks completely different. Eddie will break into a smile that seems to exude utter joy, and yet it can morph into the pouty face that immediately precedes a wail. But there’s a pivotal moment there when he seems to be teetering on the edge of a precipice, and he could go either way, and I’ll know if I play my cards right, if I make the right face or sound, I can keep him from falling into the abyss.

I hate when he cries, particularly after I’ve exhausted all the obvious sources of his pain: is he hungry? No. Dirty diaper? Nope. Is he hot? Nah. Did I burn his penis somehow when I wiped it to change his diaper? (I don’t know. I’m a woman. The way he screams sometimes when he’s on a crying jag, you’d think I’d poured acid on his penis).

They can hear him in China

Once I’ve exhausted the obvious possibilities, I just try to lull him to sleep. I’ll put on music like “Free to Be, You and Me,” by Marlo Thomas, or a Cat Stevens album, and I walk around our small kitchen with him in my arms, going round and round the butcher block cutting board like I’m in a Turkish prison. When I do that, he usually stops crying long enough for me to put him in his little chair. I’ll then put the pacifier in his mouth and softly brush my hand across his forehead, as gently as a spider’s legs, until his lids get heavy and close. But I have to know just when to stop. If I stop too soon, the eyes spring b.ack open and I have to start from scratch.

Sometimes, he’ll inadvertently wake himself because as he’s quietly drifting off to sleep, his body will shudder as if he was at the edge of the bed and suddenly realized he was about to fall off. Again, his eyes bolt open, and I have to start from scratch.

His crying jags are always preceded by a pout that is so clearly delineated, it looks likes a cartoon drawing of a baby pouting. It’s actually the first thing I saw as my OB-GYN pulled him out of me and lifted him high in the air so that I could see him. As Edwin’s little body was aloft, he broke out into the loudest shriek, probably like most babies’ do, but it was his pout that was indelibly etched in my mind. It was a frown that ran from one side of his face to the other like a sock monkey.

Portrait of my son, upon his birth

His crying jags usually start off like a whimper, almost like he’s thinking about something else but is crying out of obligation. But then something kicks into gear, and he raises the volume. Perhaps he’ll throw his hands around. It’s times like these that we call him the Reggie Miller of babies, after the Indiana Pacers basketball player who might be brushed by another player but would fall backward in an exaggerated fashion, his long skinny arms flailing about, until the referees call a foul on the opposing team. If you catch this type of cry before it’s in full swing, there’s a chance it could be diverted.

But if the whimpering goes unheeded, it gets louder and louder, and stronger and stronger with each revolution, until he’s full throttle. At that point he’ll pause, take a deep breath, and let out a wail that’s so loud, it’s like a batter cracking the ball out of the park.

The problem with crying is that if making the baby laugh is an indication of his love, making him cry must be a sign of his disdain. I met a woman the other day who said she worked, and her husband stayed home with the baby, who was colicky. He would call her every day at work and say, “Come home. The baby hates me.”

He sometimes cries out of obligation

The other day, I was going out to dinner with friends, and I was going to bring Edwin with me. I had only an hour to finish an article for a magazine, run upstairs to shower and get dressed, and then feed Edwin. I wanted to feed the baby last so that he would be full and happy during dinner. He’d fallen asleep outside on the back patio as I was working, and I didn’t dare move him upstairs with me when I went up to shower because I knew if I woke him, he’d be crying the whole time I was in there. So I left him out on the patio and ran upstairs, threw on the water in the shower and began to undress. I ran over to the window to see if I could hear him crying on the patio below. His father wouldn’t let him lie there crying, I thought. His father would be bouncing Edwin on his knee, and the child would be laughing with glee. When I heard no crying, I ran into the bathroom, jumped into the shower and scrubbed my hair frantically, quickly ripping at my hair with a brush to get out the knots. Just then, I thought I could hear the baby cry. I ran out of the shower and down the stairs, naked, to the back patio door, but when I got there, I saw he was sleeping soundly in his chair. I ran back upstairs, jumped back into the shower and lathered up my body with soap, and rinsed it right off. I shut off the water, jumped out of the shower and ran back to the window. I couldn’t see him, but I listened for his cries. I heard nothing. I ran into my bedroom, threw on some clothes, threw my hair up in a clip, and as I stood in front of my dresser mirror and began to apply eyeliner, I heard the distinct sound of a baby’s cry. I dropped the eyeliner and ran down the stairs, through the kitchen and threw open the French doors to the back patio only to once again find the baby fast asleep. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that for one more day, the baby didn’t love me any less than he loved his father.

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My grandmother sat on the couch and listened to her friend complain about her daughter-in-law. My grandmother had heard the story before and every so often, as her friend went on and on, my grandmother would roll her eyes. At the end of the story, her friend slapped her hands on her thighs and said, “Okay, I think we’re gonna go.”

Grandma meets baby Eddie

“So, go,” my grandmother said.

“So, go?” her friend said.

“I said goodbye to your husband 20 minutes ago, when I went to the bathroom,” my grandmother said.

Her friend stood up and scoffed and then left.

“Finally,” my grandmother said, and then turned to me. “She said they were leaving 20 minutes ago.”

My grandmother’s always been blunt but never mean. But that changed about five months ago when her husband died, and her health began to fail. No one was surprised about her health. She’ll be 96 next week. Still, while her 98-year old husband was alive, my grandmother’s thin frame managed to hold itself together, as if her health problems were waiting in the wings. As soon as her husband died, the ailments rushed in, like when Wile E. Coyote’s chasing Road Runner, and he runs off a cliff, but he remains suspended in mid-air until he realizes there’s no ground underneath him. It’s only then that he plummets to the ground.

But it’s not just my grandmother’s health. She’s become downright ornery. Until now, the meanest thing I’d ever heard of her doing was to give my mother a verbal lashing on her fifth birthday, because my mother greeted her aunt by saying, “Where’s my birthday present?” But my grandmother is now depressed, she is living in my aunt’s house with a live-in nurse, and when she’s not falling asleep on the couch, she’s snappish. The other day, she said to my mother, “Get me a glass of water, with ice in it.”

My mother says she took the glass and said, “MayI have a glass of water.”

She tried to hold him

“Give me back my glass. I’ll get it myself,” my grandmother said. She then turned to her nurse, Pat, and said, “Get me a glass of ice water.”

She then ignored my mother until she left.

My grandmother enjoys the company of her nurse, Pat, but she complains about her, too.

“She gives me black cooking,” my grandmother said. “She’s going to make me chitlins and grits.”

“You’ve never even had black cooking,” my mother said.

Not surprisingly, as my grandmother’s health has taken a downturn, so has her appearance. She’s lost 20 pounds and now weighs about 97 pounds. Her arms look like chicken wings after all the meat’s been eaten off. Her face looks hollow. Even her signature wigs, which she’s been wearing for fifty years because she once gave herself a home permanent and burnt her hair off, have been looking sickly. It didn’t help that when she was in rehab, she slept in one of the wigs for three weeks because she feared if the nurses knew she was wearing one, they would confiscate it. She wouldn’t even shower for fear her hairpiece would be found out.

“Of course they knew it was a wig. After three weeks, it looked like a rat on her head!” my mother said.

We decided to make a pilgrimage to Florida with our four-and-a-half month old son, Eddie, driving all the way down I-95 from New Jersey to Coral Springs, because we thought it might cheer her up – at least for a couple of minutes. I thought if she saw my son’s big gummy grin, she, too, might smile. I also wanted to make sure Eddie met her and that I saw her one last time, just in case she didn’t make it through the summer.

Our visit did cheer her up, for the several hours we were there. She was more animated and awake when she held Eddie, though after a while, she grew tired and feared she would drop him so she handed him back to me.

Grand mother and great grandmother admire baby

“Why is it so dark in here?” my grandmother asked. “He keeps it so dark here,” she said, referring to my uncle.

“Mom, if you think it’s dark in here, your place is going to feel  like a mausoleum,” my uncle said.

My grandmother didn’t respond. She closed her eyes and started to fall asleep, until my aunt tried to bring a chair over so she could sit near my grandmother and the baby, and she inadvertently nudged an end table next to my grandmother’s arm. My grandmother’s eyes sprang open.

“You’re pushing the table! There’s water on it!” she said.

“You’re right, mom,” my aunt said, and returned the end table to its original position.

It’s hard to cheer someone up when you can understand why they’re depressed. At 95, my grandmother has lost her husband, and nearly all her friends. Her condo complex, which used to be filled with retirees from the Northeast who would have dinners and dances, is now filled with Jamaicans who are half her age. And now her body is beginning to betray her.

We passed a sign on the way down to Florida that said, “Lonely? Depressed? Jesus is still the answer.” I thought, “Still?” And if Jesus really is the answer, then to whom do Jews like my grandmother turn? Mighty Mouse?

Here he comes to save the day

As we were leaving, my mother and my aunt were making plans for my grandmother to return to her condo. She’d gone from the hospital to rehab and then to my aunt’s house, first to recuperate and then an extra few weeks while a leak in the ceiling of her condo is being repaired. In all, she’s been gone from her house for several months. While she’ll be returning with a live-in nurse, I’m sure that going home will bring her husband’s absence back to the surface. Everything she does will be followed by the thought that she’s doing it without her husband, Bob, a man with whom she’d been since she was 18. She’ll have breakfast at the kitchen table, without Bob. She’ll watch television in the living room, without Bob. And she’ll get into bed at night, without Bob.

There’s a scale in my grandmother’s bedroom that checks her vital signs and sends the information directly to her doctor. Every morning when she turns it on, the machine says, “Good morning. Time to get up.” It instructs her to step on the scale. It registers her weight and then tells her to sit down on the bed and place the blood pressure cuff on her left arm above the elbow. “Tighten the cuff. And now wait,” the robotic voice says. The blood pressure cuff inflates, and she’s then told to put the metal clip on her middle finger in order to take her pulse. When all the tests have been completed, the machine says, ‘Thank you. Have a nice day.” Without Bob.

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June 4, 2011 I-95

We decided to drive to Florida to see my ailing 95-year old grandmother. The prospect of a 21-hour car ride seemed grueling, but the alternative – the baby having a meltdown for two hours at 30,000 feet — was just untenable. I couldn’t bear to have people hate me for that long.

I also liked the idea of breastfeeding the child in the car every two-and-a-half hours as we drove down I-95. I’m someone who likes ticking off items on a to-do list. The idea of covering a distance in the car and feeding, which at home is half an hour of dead time in which I can do nothing else, satisfied my sense of accomplishment — until a friend delicately reminded me I could not have the baby out of the car seat while we drove.

“Don’t make me call child services,” she said.

This place was too small

We left at 4:30 a.m. and didn’t stop until about 10 a.m. With the trip being so long, we didn’t want to have to keep stopping to feed Eddie and then feed us so we combined the two. First we tried a Waffle House restaurant, but that was too small. Then we tried a Cracker Barrel restaurant, but that was too large. I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks and the three bears, except I knew I wasn’t going to find a place to breastfeed that was just right. That’s because the problem wasn’t the venue. It was me. Up to that point, I’d never breastfed in public. I just wished my initiation wasn’t at a Cracker Barrel in Virginia, but that’s what we settled on. It felt like a redneck truck stop filled with religious zealots who would probably spit out their coffee at the sight of my breasts. At least that’s what I feared. What made it worse was that I’m old enough to be the child’s grandmother. I took the barrette out of my hair and let my curls hang down on my shoulders to conceal the gray.

I asked the hostess for a table in the corner against a wall. I sat down and slid over to the window only to find it was overlooking Cracker Barrel’s signature porch, with its 25 rocking chairs. If someone sat in one of the chairs nearest my window, they’d be closer to me than my husband, who was sitting across the table.

After the waitress handed us our menus and left, I pulled up my tank top, unbuttoned my bra, pulled out my breast and began to feed the baby, holding the child in one arm and my breast in the other. My husband, Bruce, walked over and draped a blanket over my shoulder to conceal my breast and the baby’s head, but as soon as he sat back down, the blanket slid off my shoulder. My hands were full so there was nothing I could do. Bruce got up and again draped the blanket across my shoulder and breast and sat back down. It stayed there for a couple of minutes until the baby began to fuss, and I had to switch him to my other breast. He does that a lot lately: falls off my nipple, pushes my breast away and then cries and won’t let me put the nipple back in his mouth. And all the while, he’s pinching my breasts with his razor-sharp talons. I have to keep switching him from side to side, again and again, like flipping a hamburger over and over again because it doesn’t seem to be cooking.

One of many rest stops

“Ouch!” I said, pulling one of the baby’s nails off my breast. “This sucks. I was already uncomfortable enough–”

When the waitress came with our coffees, Bruce asked her, “Do people breastfeed in here?”

“Oh, it’s fine,” she said in a thick southern accent. But her voice was so soft and sweet, like Pebbles from The Flintstones, she would probably have responded similarly if I’d asked if it was alright to immolate myself.

By the time I got to my food, it was cold, though it didn’t stop me from eating two eggs, two pancakes, half a bowl of grits, two strips of bacon and a bite of Bruce’s biscuit and gravy. I eat a lot lately.

When the meal was done, I slung the diaper bag over my shoulder so that the strap crossed my chest like a school crossing guard, and I picked up the baby and took him into the bathroom to change his diaper before we got back on the road. I’d never used the flip-down changing stations found in public restrooms, but I always imagined they were filthy, dotted with the feces of babies whose hygiene I knew nothing about. I didn’t want to put the baby down directly on the changing table. I had a mat in the diaper bag, but I couldn’t reach it because I’d slung the diaper bag over my head and couldn’t get it off of me without putting the baby down. But I didn’t want to put the baby down on the changing table without first putting down a mat. It was a catch 22. So I stood there trying to jiggle the diaper bag strap off of my shoulder so that it would slide off and the bag would fall to my feet, like a game of ring toss where I was the peg and the diaper bag was the ring. The bag eventually fell to the floor, and I bent down and plucked out a mat.

Hawaii Five-0

I changed Eddie’s diaper and then carried him over to the sink and stood him on the countertop in front of the mirror, keeping my hands under his armpits to hold him up. I began to sing the theme of Hawaii Five-O, and after each stanza, I would lift him about a quarter of an inch off the counter and then place him back down in a slightly different spot so that with his arms akimbo, it looked like he was trying to keep his balance on a surfboard as he rode a wave. He looked in the mirror, first at himself and then at me, and we both laughed.  And I could see standing behind us was a woman from the restaurant, and she was smiling, too.

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