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Archive for April, 2012

About 2 a.m. last Thursday, the recording on my son Eddie’s “Winnie the Pooh” tabletop game began to play. First the music: Buh duh dah, duh duh dah, duh. Then Pooh’s syncopated voice: “Can. You. Help. Me. Find. My. Friend. Eye. Ore.” I don’t know why the toy went on. You either have to press one of its buttons or knock into it as you walk by for it to begin playing. In my semi-consciousness, I decided the cat must have crawled across it. It was either that or an intruder, and I preferred to think it was the former.

It went on by itself.

The next two days were filled with activities, and I didn’t give the Pooh incident a second thought. I stubbed my toe on our kitchen table leg and may have broken it. I frantically made phone calls to report a story on which I’m behind. And Eddie and I went out to lunch with our friend, Doris. We then went to an antique store made up of booths from different dealers, and Eddie ran around lifting small items from one booth and then depositing them in the next when he would find another item more interesting.

Saturday night, after my husband, Bruce, put Eddie to bed, we retired to the living room to watch television. As often happens, I fell asleep on the couch at about 10.30 p.m. and Bruce went upstairs to bed. Around midnight, I was awakened by our cat, who was swatting at something in the next room. I didn’t know what it was, but it’s usually something I care about deeply, so I yelled out her name, “Fish!” and then tried to go back to sleep. But it was fruitless. Once I’m up, I’m up, and so I went upstairs and tiptoed into my office, which is just off of our bedroom where Bruce was asleep, and I turned on the computer.

I checked my email and went on to Facebook, reading posts and clicking on links to stories I would never find interesting during the day. After about an hour, I decided to go to bed. I turned off the light in the office and crept into bed, feeling my way around the metal bars of our iron footboard in the dark. As I lay down on my pillow, I could see the light of the computer monitor emanating from the office, and I considered shutting the office door, but I figured the screen light would shut off soon enough, and I didn’t want to have to get up and negotiate the metal footboard with a broken toe again in the dark.

Our bedroom light mysteriously went on.

About two hours later, something woke me – perhaps Bruce’s snoring — and as I opened my eyes, I had to squint because the overhead light in our bedroom was on. It seemed especially bright, like car headlights. I woke up Bruce.

“Did you turn on our bedroom light?” I asked.

“What light?”

“Our bedroom light. That one,” I said, pointing to it. “Did you turn it on?”

“No. Why?”

“I don’t know how it got on.”

“I don’t know,” he said and rolled over.

When I woke up again the next night and found the light on, I wasn’t even surprised.

“It’s on again,” I said to Bruce.

“So it is,” he said and turned over to go back to sleep.

I view the existence of ghosts much the way I view the existence of God: with a lot of skepticism but a healthy respect that borders on fear. Basically, I don’t believe they’re out there until I’m given reason to believe they are – and then I want to run like hell. Bruce’s sisters say they have heard ghosts in the guest room of his parents’ house. It’s an eighteenth century stone house, and every time we spend the night there, I lay in bed with my eyes wide open for about forty-five minutes, listening to the floor boards creak and the radiators pang before I relax enough to fall asleep.

The haunted guest room

I’m not someone who sees ghosts. My mother is our family’s self-appointed medium. She says moments after my grandfather died, he came to her in her sleep to say goodbye. And she tells the story of how my brother, Steven’s image came into her room one night when he was very young to say he had to go the bathroom. She called it his “astral projection.” A few minutes later, my brother actually did walk into her room to say he had to go.

I may have seen a ghost once, the ghost of my father, about five months after he died. It was 10 years ago, and I was in my parents’ house in Florida, sleeping in the guest room, which is across the hall from my parents’ bedroom where my father died. I was lying in bed not yet asleep, my eyes open, and suddenly a circle of little lights began to dance on the ceiling above me. I assumed it was headlights coming from the street below, though I didn’t hear a car, and I was on the second floor of the house. I watched the lights as they moved up and down, as if someone were holding a dozen little flashlights and shaking them back and forth. I was captivated. After about five minutes, they stopped, and that was that.

At the time, I thought the light display might have been my father, showing me he was there. But it was in a period when I thought lots of things were my father, like a plastic bag that the wind carried next to me one morning as I ran down the boardwalk. The bag followed me for about half a mile before the boardwalk turned right and the bag went straight, getting caught on a metal fence rail. I jogged in place for about 30 seconds hoping the bag would extricate itself, but it didn’t.

When I woke up this morning, I thought about our bedroom light and wondered whether it was caused by an electronic malfunction. We use a remote to turn the light on and off, and I wondered whether we were now on someone else’s frequency. We once installed a battery-operated doorbell that used frequencies like those that open a garage door, and every time our neighbor’s doorbell rang, so did ours.

My father, as a young boy

In fact there are probably logical explanations for all the recent happenings in my house. But I prefer to think it’s my father wanting to visit me and my son, Eddie, who bears my father’s name. After all, today is my father’s birthday. It’s not surprising he’d want to spend it with family.

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I learned to make macaroni and cheese the first time my mother was in traction for her back, because as she lay in a hospital bed, it was me who made dinner for my father and siblings. The second time my mother was in traction, I mastered grilled cheese. By the time she had back surgery when I was in junior high, I could roast a chicken, rubbing its skin with a mixture of vegetable oil and paprika to make it crisp.

My mother’s back went out so often, one of the predominant childhood memories I have is of her standing in her blue and white bathrobe on the white tiled floor of our hallway, her upper body hunched over like an upside down “J,” her right hand holding the spot on her back where it hurt. If you floated her sideways, her arm would look like a shark’s fin. Her back pain was so bad sometimes, she would take painkillers, so when she kissed us goodbye and sent us off to school, her eyelids were sometimes half closed and her speech slightly slurred.

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Heavier than it looks.

I hated that she was incapacitated, I hated that I had to make dinner sometimes because of it, and I hated that the drugs she took for it made her groggy and unavailable….until my own back went out.  I’ve pulled my back out five times in three years now – most recently last week. I was in the shower and bent down to shave my left leg when all of a sudden BAM! I had a back spasm that sent the razor flying, and I couldn’t stand up straight. As I stood hunched over in the shower, I saw that the head of my razor — which is three blades surrounded by a thick waxy wedge of shaving cream and lubricant – was lying directly under the stream of water. These razor heads cost about $4 a piece and don’t last very long, and I’d just put on a new one. I watched the water beating down on the wedge of shaving cream and lubricant, eroding it, and despite my pain, I began kicking it out of the path of the water so that it didn’t waste away.

I hobbled out of the shower with soap still on my body and took a couple of ibuprofen and lay down on the rug in the hall just outside my son, Eddie’s room. He was still in his crib, and I could hear him talking to himself. When he wakes up, he usually talks for about 20 minutes before it descends into whining – the signal that he wants to come out of his crib. I had already gone downstairs and prepared his morning bottle of milk, and I had it in my hand. I continued to lay there waiting for the last possible moment to give it to him because I knew once I did and he’d finished it, he would want to come out of his crib, and at that moment, I didn’t think I could lift him.

As I lay there on the floor, I thought of the night before when I was in a bar, half into a martini, and I was chatting gaily with a waitress about being an older parent.

“Tell your friend she can have a baby at any age!” I said, not quite slurring. “Look at me! I had Eddie at 47! It’s eeee-aaa-sy!”

The very next morning, snap! My back seizes up like a badly-oiled transmission.

It’s not even like I was lifting something heavy. But then these things never happen that way. They occur when you lean over to pick up a crumb or a strand of hair. My mother once dislocated her shoulder playing mah jong.

Laying there, I realized I had no choice but to call our babysitter, Jean, and ask her if she could come over to get Eddie out of his crib and take him for a few hours.

She arrived quickly, changed Eddie’s diaper and got him dressed for the day, as I stood hunched over and watched, my hand holding the spot on my back that was injured. I followed the two of them downstairs to the kitchen and as Jean gave Eddie his breakfast, I sat with them eating a bagel, chatting away until I felt another spasm. And a few minutes later, another.

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For two days, I couldn't reach him.

Jean told me to lie down, and she said she would take Eddie to her house for a few hours. I walked with them to the front door and stood inside the screen door as Jean carried Eddie out to the front porch, down the stairs and buckled him into his stroller. As she unlocked the wheels and was about to leave, I kept trying to say goodbye to Eddie, calling his name and waving, but he wouldn’t even look at me. As she pushed the stroller down the street, Eddie stared straight ahead.

My husband, Bruce, came home from work early, and I remained in bed for about 48 hours, first upstairs in our bedroom and then downstairs on the futon couch, which had been opened up so I could be in the living room with Eddie. By the third morning, I was aching to hold him, but I didn’t think I could handle the weight. I still couldn’t stand up straight, and I continued to have pangs of pain if I turned or leaned the wrong way. I asked Bruce to put Eddie on the futon bed so I could have him near me. He placed the child on the far end of the bed and went into the kitchen to wash dishes. Eddie remained in the farthest corner, playing with a plastic cup holder from his old bottle warmer, despite my calling his name and beckoning him to come over. After a few minutes, he got bored and tried to get down from the futon but chose to do it on the side where the bed meets the wall and got stuck between the two. By the time Bruce heard me calling him for help, Eddie was crying.

“He’s stuck,” I said, stating the obvious.

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Seconds before he got stuck.

Bruce lifted Eddie up and placed him back on the futon and began undressing him for his bath. I started to tell Bruce how an interesting phenomenon had occurred with my back in that in my attempts to avoid pain in one spot, I’d inadvertently pulled muscles and tendons all over my back, effectively distributing the pain everywhere like dots in a Seurat painting. Bruce’s response was, “He’s trying to touch his penis.”

“What?”

“He’s trying to touch his penis. He can’t get to it all day because he’s in a diaper,” he said.

“Did you even hear what I said?” I asked. “I feel like I’ve been trying to talk to you all morning, but when you were in the kitchen, you couldn’t hear me because the music was on, and then the water was running, and now you’re in here, and I’m talking to you, and you’re not even listening.”

If I could sum up most of the fights in our relationship, they would sound like this: “You’re not listening to me!” And then I stomp my foot on the ground, like a petulant child. At least that’s how Bruce sees it. Me, I believe I’m a scintillating conversationalist with keen insights whose brilliance is wasted on a man who doesn’t hear me because his head is often somewhere else, and his ears seem to follow. But having been in pain for two days, and feeling frustrated and sorry for myself, instead of stopping there, I got madder.

“I hate you. You make me unhappy. You make me unhappy for him.”

But my anger was less about Bruce and more about feeling like in the last 48 hours, I had lost Eddie. I’d worked so hard from the moment he was born to entertain him and love him, and wrestle him away from my husband, to whom he seemed so naturally inclined. And after months and months of singing to him, doing vaudeville in front of his crib when he first woke up, playing games with him on the floor during the day, bringing him to the beach, reading to him, buying him soft toys, serenading him with my guitar, I indeed did win his affections. While his first words were “Da! Da!” he soon started saying, “Mumm. Mumm,” and he’s been saying it ever since. And yet in two days, I had lost all of that. There’s an accounting term called Goodwill, which is the value of a business not directly attributable to its assets and liabilities. It refers to things like reputation, the cache of its name, like Bloomingdale’s or Godiva. In 48 hours, I had lost all of the goodwill I had built up with Eddie, like what happened to BP after the oil spill. I thought of a man on my writers’ forum, who, for years, was enormously helpful to everyone when it came to computer-related matters, but one afternoon, as a silly prank, he sent people to a web site that was meant to be funny, but it wound up crashing a lot of peoples’ computers temporarily, and they got really mad. In seconds, he wiped away years of goodwill – poof! — and was nearly blacklisted from the writers’ forum.

Ironically, as my back mended over the next few days, it was not Bruce or the babysitter who took care of Eddie but my mother, who was in town from her home in Florida for a few days. She lifted Eddie out of his crib and would put him in his high chair when it was time to eat. She put him up on the diaper table and got him out of the car seat when we returned from a trip to the supermarket. She was happy to be there for him because living in Florida, she fears she’s missing his formative years.

“Do you think he’ll even remember me? He’s not even going to know who I am,” she said the day she arrived. And as she left, she said, “I hope he remembers me til the next time I see him.”

It seems back pain isn’t the only thing I inherited from my mother. There’s the constant profound fear of being forgotten.

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