Archive for January, 2013

Our gas fireplace has always emitted a slight odor. So when I was sitting in my living room this afternoon reading a book, and I suddenly felt a wave of nausea and a headache come on, I wondered whether it had something to do with the gas.

It’s not actually a fireplace, per se’. It’s a wood stove, or at least it’s shaped like one. But a real wood stove, which is what I really wanted, required a wider chimney than we had, and to build a new one was cost prohibitive. So we opted for the wood stove shape, but the savings and convenience of gas. The fact that instead of the delicious aroma of a wood burning fire it sometimes gave off a noxious chemical smell seemed an unfair reminder of our budget constraints.

The noxious stove

The noxious stove

I tried to finish my book, but I had become so tired, all I wanted to do was put my head down. I thought about calling the gas company to see if we had a leak, but I feared they might shut down our furnace as a precautionary measure. It was too cold to take that kind of risk. But more than that, if there’s one person in my life who makes me feel I’ve over-reacted to a situation, the person whose voice I hear when I get into some kind of trouble, the voice that says, “Lu-cy, what kind of mess have you gotten us into this time,” it’s the voice of my husband, Bruce. He already thinks I’m a hypochondriac and an alarmist. And yet when I tried to chalk my thoughts up to silly paranoia, all I could think of was my son and how bad I would feel if we did have a gas or carbon monoxide leak, and I’d put him in harm’s way just because I feared I was over-reacting.

I called the gas company’s 24-hour gas leak hotline, and they told me that my local fire department responded to such calls but that they would connect me to them through a conference line. I could hear the phone ringing and my local police department picking up. The man from the gas company explained that I was a township resident who had a gas leak.

“Oh, I’m not sure I actually have a leak. I just want to make sure that I don’t have one,” I interrupted. I didn’t want anyone to be alarmed.

The police officer asked for my address. He then asked me if I could wait outside on my front porch.

“My front porch? For how long?”

“M’am, if you have a gas leak, you need to get out of your home immediately,” he said.

This whole process was starting to feel way more serious than I’d hoped. All I wanted was for someone to take a reading as a precautionary measure, to reassure myself that nothing was wrong.

“My husband and child are in the house,” I said. I’m sure that made me sound like a very caring mother and wife.

Emergency ! Emergency!

Emergency ! Emergency!

My two-year-old son, Eddie, had just gone down for a nap, and my husband was upstairs in our office, sketching out a plan for a house renovation we were considering. If the hours in a day were like real estate, Eddie’s nap time would be like oceanfront property. It’s a coveted piece of time because anything and everything we could possibly have wanted to do – from laundry, to home projects, to reading, to lunch – must be squeezed into those few hours he’s napping. I knew as soon as I woke him, all bets were off.

“Everyone needs to get out of the home,” he said.

“You want us all to wait on the porch?” I asked. This must have been how Pandora felt when she’d opened the box. “How long do you think it will be until they get here?”

“The longer you keep me on the phone, the longer it’ll take,” he said.

Policemen are eminently practical.

“I just want to know how long I’m going to have my son on a cold porch. Do you think it will be five minutes, or do you think it will be an hour?” I asked.

“It’s the fire department. They won’t be an hour,” he said.

I walked upstairs to tell Bruce we had to get out of our house. He looked at me, like, “Lu-cy, what have you done this time?”

“Tell me when they get here,” he said, and went back to his sketching.

I milled about the house getting ready to leave at a moment’s notice when outside my window, I spotted a police car slowly drive by. I quickly ran out onto the porch and sat down in one of the chairs, as if I’d been sitting there all along. A police officer walked up to the house holding a large bag.

“Is that a monoxide detector?” I asked.

“It’s oxygen,” he said. “In case you need it.”

Oh, good lord. What have I done?

“I just got over the stomach virus. It’s possible that’s why I’m nauseous. I only called the gas company as a precautionary measure,” I said.

“That’s all right. Is there anyone in the home?”

And then an ambulance came

And then an ambulance came

“My husband and my son,” I said.

“Please tell them to come out,” he said.

At least he was nicer than the other officer, on the telephone. He was very young and had a soft voice and seemed almost apologetic before he’d even said anything. I went up to the office to get my husband.

“We have to wake the baby up from his nap?” Bruce asked.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

Bruce put down his paperwork, and I grabbed the baby, and we all walked outside. Eddie was barely awake, and we left so quickly, he had no shoes on and was missing a sock.

As we stood on the porch, two fire trucks came screaming down the street, sirens blaring. They parked at the end of the street, and six firemen in full gear came bounding toward my house, some in bright yellow vests. A tall man with long hair, wearing civilian clothes, showed up talking into a hand-held radio. He seemed to be in charge.

A white emergency management van then pulled up, and a man with a monoxide meter emerged and started to head up my porch steps. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Truly, I just got over the stomach virus. It’s possible this is —

“If you think there’s a leak, we need to check it out,” he said.

I felt like everyone was looking at me like I had Munchausen syndrome, a disorder in which a person acts as though they have a sickness but in fact they have caused their own symptoms in order to get attention.

Daddy, why is Mommy in a fire truck?

Daddy, why is Mommy in a fire truck?

Hearing the commotion, several of our neighbors began to congregate in the street to see what was going on. I averted their eyes. I once thought the hardest thing about a car accident is not the blood and pain but the embarrassment of people staring at you as they drive by. Our neighbor, Deb, volunteered to take Eddie inside her house as it was about 15 degrees outside. When I checked in on them about five minutes later, to see if Eddie wanted to see the fire trucks, he was sitting on Deb’s couch with her giant Labrador, being fed cookies and watching television. He looked so comfortable, I left him in there.

A couple of minutes later, the man with the meter emerged from my house and said he couldn’t detect anything.

“We got a zero reading. Upstairs. Downstairs. Zero. You can’t get any better than that,” he said.

Just then, an ambulance arrived. They needed to test me for monoxide poisoning. They clipped a plastic device on to my fingertip to get a reading.

“I really don’t think you’re going to get anything. I just got over the stomach virus, and—“

“This is just a precautionary measure, m’am,” the man said.

The machine registered nothing. They had me sign a piece of paper that said I’d refused medical treatment.

And with that, the ambulance left, followed by the man in the emergency van, the two fire trucks and the six firemen, their boss and the police man with the soft voice, though the officer left behind his bag of oxygen and had to come back to get it.

That night, we were sitting in the living room when outside, we heard an ambulance speed by, its siren blaring.

“Uh, oh, mommy has a headache,” my husband said.

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I dropped my 23-month old son, Eddie, off at daycare, and as I opened the door to leave the building, a man in a black t-shirt came through the door, and said, “Thanks. It was locked.”

And it was. Ever since the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down, our daycare, which is in a local church, locks its doors to the public. The school’s director now stands outside the front door of the daycare from 9:00 to 9:15 a.m. to allow everyone to enter. At 9:15 a.m., the door is shut, and you have to buzz the church administrator upstairs to let you in. I know this because I’m late almost every day, and the poor woman upstairs is forced to come down all the stairs to get me and my son. This morning was one of those days.

“Can I help you?” I said to the man, as if I worked for the school.

“I’m with the (inaudible), and I wanted to get myself a cup of coffee. Do you know where the cafeteria is?”

I knew there was a cafeteria down the hall from the daycare. It’s where I take Zumba classes twice a week. But before I could answer him, he was halfway down the stairs and heading for the inner door that led to the daycare. I went down the stairs after him and got to the inner doorway before he did.

“I’ll see if I can help you,” I said and opened the door.

The first person I saw was my neighbor, Meredith, who is a teacher at the daycare.

“This guy says he’s from a church group, and he wants some coffee in a cafeteria?”

“It’s all right. I’ve got it,” Meredith said.

“It’s okay?” I said.

“It’s fine,” she said.

I turned around and walked back out of the daycare. As I emerged at the top of the stairs and walked out of the building, I saw three vans double-parked outside that said Calvary Chapel. There was a caravan of them. They were volunteers, who had been working down by the beach, helping to rebuild the boardwalk in my town which had been badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. For a few months now, these volunteers have been working tirelessly, deconstructing what was left of the boardwalk and then sorting through the debris, dividing them into piles of large pieces, which will be saved and used later, and smallpieces, which will be discarded. The man who had walked in the building was part of that group and had apparently walked in the wrong door of the church in search of coffee.

When I saw the vans, I cried for a moment, for the horror that befell those little children in Newtown, for the horror that at any time could come to my own child, and for the horror we now see when it’s not even there.

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Eddie had a play date the other afternoon with his friend, West. I’d become friendly with West’s mother, and we were looking forward to an hour or two in which our boys, who are both only children, would have someone other than ourselves to entertain them. I poured each of us a glass of wine, put out a plate of cheese, and we both sat down on the couch for some nice adult conversation.

Only a couple of minutes had passed when I got up to close the front door and noticed the cup of tea I’d left on the dining room table was on its side. West had thrown Eddie’s ball across the room, knocked over my cup, and there was now a pool of tea on my table that I didn’t initially notice because my beautiful vintage flowered tablecloth had soaked it all up. The tablecloth, now laden with liquid, left a giant water stain on the wood table beneath.

Organized chaos.

Organized chaos.

As I wiped up the tea, I could hear in the next room the distinct sound of candy canes falling off of my Christmas tree and onto the floor. West had thrown something else — perhaps a block or a car. I didn’t see — and it knocked the canes off the tree. One of them was now in his mouth.

Soon, everything was turned upside down and dumped onto the floor. It’s like when The Cat in the Hat visits those two children on that cold, cold, wet day, and everything – the book and the rake and the picture and the cake – are stacked up in the air until they all come crashing down. There were now puzzle pieces and cars sprinkled around my living room like stars. There were musical instruments and a jug scattered all over my rug.

My home is not neat. In fact my husband, Bruce, is constantly complaining about how much stuff we have. Every shelf, table top and counter has so much stuff on it, there are times I’ll have something in my hand and can’t find a place to put it down. Bruce’s brother’s house recently burnt down after an electrical short in the wall caught fire, and his family lost everything. My husband and I were actually envious. He was given a clean slate. Our lives were cluttered with stuff and nonsense, collected over the years because each item, when considered on its own, seems so very important.

This goes upstairs, this goes downstairs

This goes upstairs, this goes downstairs

Still, our stuff is organized in a manner to which we’re accustomed. I know where everything is. There are toys and games all over the place floor, but the books are in one pile and the puzzles are in another. The legos are in a plastic container by the end table, and the musical instruments are stuffed inside the base of a toy drum. Trains go upstairs in Eddie’s room. Cars stay downstairs, in a cardboard box on the floor. And anything that winds up on the wrong floor, from shoes to bills to sweaters, is placed in a pile on the staircase so that upstairs items can be brought back upstairs as one is climbing up the steps, and downstairs items can be brought back down as one is making their way downward. West was destroying my thin thread of organization like someone might unwittingly destroy a spider’s whole system of order by knocking a few cob webs out of the way with their hand.

But that afternoon, it wasn’t just the mess that was getting to me. It was the constant bickering. Every time one would pick up a toy, the other would tug on it, saying, “Noooooo. Mine.” The whole afternoon was a negotiation. “Well, if you take that one, he can have this other one,” I would say, or “Now, at his house, you played with West’s toys, so now at your house…” I would tell Eddie.

I got up for a minute to get something in the kitchen, when Eddie suddenly began to wail. I ran back into the living room and Eddie was sitting on the couch, and there was a wooden stick next to him that belonged to one of his musical instruments. West had just thrown it at Eddie’s head.

“It didn’t hit him. I watched it!” Kathy said. “It went right by his head, but it didn’t hit him.”

I took my hand and wiped the tears on Eddie’s face and kept asking him, “What? What? Where does it hurt? Did you get hurt?”

Tears kept streaming down his cheeks, and his face was red.

Weapons of mass destruction.

Weapons of mass destruction.

“I saw what happened. It didn’t hit him,” Kathy said.

“He probably just got scared,” I said. “I’ll get ice.”

“I’ll get it,” Kathy said, and she ran into my kitchen.

“Grab the bag of frozen peas. It’s on the door,” I said.

I put the bag on Eddie’s head and within a minute, a little egg the size of a marble formed above his eyebrow. Apparently the stick did hit him. No wonder he’s crying, I thought.

“West. Come over here and say you’re sorry,” Kathy said.

West walked over and didn’t say anything.

“Go on. Tell Eddie you’re sorry.”

“Sorry,” he said. At least that’s what I think he said. His voice was barely audible. He then went back to the more important task of sitting down at Eddie’s toy piano and banging on the keys with Eddie’s drumsticks. After a couple of minutes, Eddie pushed the bag of peas off of his head, hopped down from the couch and walked over to where West was sitting and began bumping into him with his chest, like a basketball player might do when he’s trying to block his opponent from shooting.

I watched with amazement. I’d never seen my son go on the offensive. But after watching West bang on his piano, he’d finally had enough and got up from the couch and went to battle to protect his turf. I was glad my son was defending himself and the things he valued but a little saddened for what it might mean to their friendship.

West soon stood up and moved on to other things. A few minutes later, he was walking into the kitchen with a large pail of building blocks and was about to dump them out onto the floor.

“No, West!” Kathy said.

“It’s okay. Those are fun. He’ll like those,” I said. I hoped it would occupy him for just a couple of minutes so that he didn’t dump something else onto the floor.

Eddie had stopped crying, but his face was still red and his nose was now running. I felt really bad for him. He had been so excited when I told him West was coming over. And yet from his perspective, for the last half an hour, this person came into his house, ransacked his toy box, and then threw one of his toys at him like a cartoon character might fling a brick at someone’s head. I felt like I brought someone into my home who terrorized my son.

The funny thing was, West had actually been excited about the visit as well. In fact the reason they came over was because Kathy said ever since the play date we had in early December, when we made Christmas cookies and danced around the kitchen, West had been saying, “Eddie’s house!. Eddie’s house!” It was only after he began throwing things around the house this time around that I remembered how he’d thrown sprinkles and sugar all over the kitchen when we made cookies and then spit something out onto my bathroom floor.

After about half an hour, Kathy said, “I think we’re going to go.” She quickly packed up their things, and I helped her carry the stroller down my porch steps. When we got it to the bottom, she strapped West in to the carriage, and I ran back inside to grab Eddie, who was pressed against the screen door wanting to come out.

Eddie and I walked over to West’s stroller, and the two boys bid each other goodbye. West then extended his arms out as best he could, given that they were strapped into the stroller, and Eddie reached in, and the two boys gave each other a hug. And with that, the bruises and turf wars fell away and the slate was wiped clean.

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There’s a patch of green space about half a block from my house called Fireman’s Park, named for the big metal bell that sits in the center as a memorial to firemen killed in the line of duty. Every Christmas, our fire department puts up a manger alongside the bell, replete with the baby Jesus, the wise men, a goat and a donkey, and they string multi-colored lights all along the perimeter of the park. On Christmas Eve, four fire trucks pull up to the park, sirens blaring, and one of the firemen, who is dressed as Santa Claus, descends from the hook and ladder. He then takes a seat by the bell, and children wait in line for an opportunity to sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.blog santa fireman's park

This year, I took my 23-month old son, Eddie, to meet him. Eddie had been coughing for the last several days, the kind of cough that sounds like a barking seal, but I thought seeing Santa would cheer him up. As we waited on line, eating ginger snaps and drinking warm cider, we bumped into a boy from Eddie’s class, whose father told me his son had croup but that he had gone to school for several days before being diagnosed. It’s highly contagious, the father added. So that’s what my son has, I thought. Sometimes, your child’s diagnosis comes not from your own doctor but from the doctor of the kid who got him sick.

As we talked, a stout woman with a pony tail and glasses walked down the line telling everyone, “Santa has a hernia. He can’t have anyone on his lap.”

By the time we reached Santa, it was raining.

“Is it true, you have a hernia?” I asked Santa, holding Eddie in the air above the man’s lap.

He didn’t answer. He just reached his arms out for my son and sat him on his knee.

“And what would you like for Christmas?” Santa asked.

Eddie had been saying, “San-ta! San-ta!” over and over again all week, but now that he was face-to-face with the man, he just sat there and said nothing. He didn’t look particularly happy, and yet he didn’t look particularly sad or frightened. He simply sat there as if Santa’s lap was a chair like any other.

“What would you like for Christmas, young man?”

“Tell him what you want,” I said.

Eddie looked up at Santa and then stared out into the park. I shrugged my shoulders, snapped a photo, and then lifted my son off Santa’s lap. A woman dressed as Mrs. Claus then handed Eddie a candy cane filled with green and red Spree, and I was handed a heavy paper bag whose weight made you think it was laden with all kinds of delights but I knew from having received one last year that all it contained was two delicious apples and an orange.

Christmas morning, Eddie opened his gifts and then starting taking other people’s gifts from under the tree, saying, “San-ta! San-ta!” in that syncopated manner in which people talk when they’re speaking a language other than their own.blog santa eddie staring up at rip

A few days after Christmas, we headed upstate to visit my brother and sister. My sister’s boyfriend, Rip, has broad shoulders, a white beard and moustache, rosy cheeks, and a twinkle in his eye. As soon as he walked in the room, Eddie’s eyes grew wide like saucers. “San-ta! San-ta!” he said.
Rip played up the resemblance and lifted his big beefy hands in the air and pretended he had a pen in one hand and a pad in the other, and said, “I have you on my list for next year. You better be good.”

Throughout dinner, Eddie would look up at Rip and stare. Rip would then lift up his hands and pretend to make a list, and Eddie would lean over toward my husband and whisper something, though he doesn’t yet speak in full sentences so much of it was gibberish. After a while, I tried to distract Eddie from staring by placing in front of him a pooping deer I’d just bought on sale at a drug store. The deer is fed brown jelly beans, which then come out his rear end if you press down on his tail. But there was something blocking the hole through which the beans are released, and I spent much of the meal trying to dislodge the blockage.

After dinner, we went back to my brother’s house for dessert. After we finished eating, my nephew brought out his hermit crab and set it on the table. It looked like just a shell until the crab began to crawl out and make its way across the table. Eddie kept saying, “Eeew,” and every time the crab would head toward him, Eddie would shout, “San-ta! San-ta!” and Rip would gently turn the hermit crab so that it veered off in another direction.blog santa rip looks at eddie

Having Santa at our table put me in a dilemma. If I told Eddie that Rip wasn’t really Santa, it would imply that there really was a Santa, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to reinforce that notion. If I told Eddie that Rip couldn’t possibly be Santa because in fact there was no such thing as Santa, it might crush his sugar-coated little heart and all his hopes and dreams. Of course I could just let Eddie believe that Rip was Santa and that our family had really good connections. For simplicity’s sake, that’s just what I did.

By New Year’s Eve, I would have thought Eddie would have forgotten about Santa. But as I got dressed to go out, I propped Eddie up in my desk chair, and as he rifled through my desk drawer, he found my Christmas address labels, each of which had a little cartoon drawing of a snowman, a Christmas tree or Santa Claus. We’d been playing with these address labels since they arrived in late November. Every time he pulled them out of my drawer, I’d ask him which cartoon character he wanted, and once he chose, I would cut the character off the label and stick it on his hand. Santa was the perennial favorite. This particular morning, he bypassed the address labels and reached deeper into the drawer and found a set of Forever postage stamps that had Santa on them. He was about to begin sticking them all over his hands when I caught him and took the sheet away.

“San-ta!!” he shrieked. “San-ta! San-ta!”

“They’re stamps!” I said, folding them up and putting them in my pocket.

That evening, we attended a New Year’s Eve party down the street. There were about 10 of us seated at two tables that had been pushed together to form an “L.” About halfway through dinner, Eddie got up from the table and even though I was seated just one chair away from him, the chairs were jammed up so close to the wall, he had to walk all the way around the entire “L” to reach me. He grabbed my hand and began tugging on it so that I would get up from my seat. He then pulled me to the front door, where outside, he could see the multi-colored Christmas lights of Fireman’s Park. The woman hosting the party lived right across the street.blog santa stuffed sideways

“San-ta,” he said, pointing outside. The lights obviously reminded him of the night he met Santa in the park. “San-ta,” he said again. He was now tugging on my arm to take him outside.

“He’s not out there, buddy. He’ll be back next year,” I said. I was now enlarging the myth of Santa, but my back was against the wall.

Eddie began to cry, and I felt like I’d once again failed to shield him from life’s disappointments. But as we walked back to the dining room, Eddie spotted the wood truck one of the dinner guests had given him earlier in the evening.

“Truck!” he said, and he sat down to play with it.

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