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Home Improvement

So sometimes I’m wrong. I don’t even know why I had such an aversion to diaper wipes. It was a combination of my thinking they were made with alcohol that would sting the baby’s bum and give him diaper rash, and my general distrust of large corporations and how they don’t have our best interests at heart. Instead of using diaper wipes, I had us cleaning the baby’s derriere with washcloths and warm water.

Indeed, he rarely got diaper rash. He had one brief bout that lasted just a few days, which we quickly cured with Balmex. Since then, he’s had a nice pristine bottom. Until yesterday, when between his little baby butt cheeks, he developed a big pus-filled boil.

“You don’t think it was the washcloths, do you?” I asked the pediatrician.

“Probably,” she said.

Damn. And I had been very dictatorial about it. It reminded me of the first week the baby was home, and I forbade my mother from picking the baby up every time he cried.

My mother stayed with us early on

“You’re reinforcing that behavior,” I said with authority. “And it’s going to fuck us at four in the morning when he cries for attention.”

But as we listened to the baby cry, and our hearts broke, I pulled three baby books out of the bookcase and handed one to Bruce and one to my mother and we all read from chapters on, “When the Baby Cries,” and they explicitly stated you should not ignore your baby’s cries. He’s not doing it to be manipulative, they said. Infants don’t have such machinations yet. I felt like a heel –though it didn’t temper my dictatorial nature.

Our pediatrician prescribed antibiotics for the boil, to be given both orally and topically. When I returned to her office the next day, as instructed, she said the boil looked larger. When she originally looked at it, it looked like a pea. Now, it looks like a grape, she said.

She instructed me to go to the pediatric emergency room to have the abscess lanced and drained and told me a doctor would be waiting for us. Of course he was not. I called Bruce, who met me there. On the way, I felt like I was going to fall asleep at the wheel. Apparently, my response to stress and fear is narcolepsy. I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts and grabbed a coffee. I ran into the emergency room with the baby, leaving my untouched coffee in the car.

the baby awaiting surgery

When they finally called us, they brought us into the main emergency room, but when I mentioned ‘staph infection,’ they took us into an enclosed room in the back. They then put an IV line into the baby’s tiny hand, which was so small, the port looked like a large torpedo on it that threatened to weigh it down. The nurse attached syringes to the port and drew three vials of blood. Eddie was screaming the whole time and tears were streaming down my face as I kept rubbing his leg and foot.

“When did you first notice it?” the admitting nurse asked.

“Two days ago,” I said.

“Three days ago,” Bruce said.

The nurse looked up at me.

“He saw it first,” I said.

“Three days ago,” he said.

I felt like an imposter. She had been directing much of the conversation to me, referring to me as “the mother,” as in, “Mommy, does the baby have any allergies to anything?” “Does the mother want to come over here and hold the baby’s hand?” “If the mother wants to feed the baby, she can.” “Don’t worry, mommy. This isn’t going to hurt him.” And yet Bruce was the one who noticed the abscess. I hadn’t seen it because Bruce is the one who changes most of the baby’s diapers on weekends. I get so tired caring for the baby all day during the week, breast-feeding him for hours and hours, sometimes, because he rarely reaches the point of satiation. On weekends, Bruce steps in, and I don’t stop him. In fact I didn’t even notice the abscess until Bruce pointed it out to me.

The surgeon came in and said he would nick the abscess with a small razor and then drain it. He would swab the area with a cream that would numb it, but he didn’t recommend administering a local anesthetic because he said it would hurt as much as the razor. Better to just nick the baby once. It would be over in no time.

Until then, I was averse to using a pacifier because everything I’d read about breastfeeding said pacifiers were verboten. They could hinder the breastfeeding process, and I’d worked so hard to make what little strides I’d made. But seeing how upset the baby was getting, we put a pacifier in his mouth, and he seemed to suffer the nick fairly well. Me, I almost threw up and was glad I couldn’t see until afterward the amount of blood that was on the gauze pads they left strewn all over the hospital bed after slicing him.

the baby’s blood got on his onesie

We had to wait another 45 minutes for the doctor to come and remove the IV port from Eddie’s hand. I went out to the nurses’ area three times looking for someone to come back and take out the port. I kept being told they were waiting for our discharge papers, and I was sent back into the room to wait.

After the doctor finally came, Bruce and I walked out to the parking lot. Since he met me there, we had to drive home separately, but he carried the baby in his car seat to my car. As we reached my car, I walked around to the passenger side and opened the door and then flipped the front seat forward so that Bruce could reach in and snap the baby’s car seat into its attachment in the back seat. But instead of coming around to the side of the car, Bruce opened up my hatchback and started pushing the baby into the car through the back door.

As I stood by the side door watching, I thought how Bruce never follows my lead. We’ve worked together on countless home improvement projects, from installing a new wall to putting up a pergola in the backyard, and he never follows my suggestions. Most of the time, he doesn’t’ even hear them. One time, we were trying to plug a hole in a copper water supply line, and as he tried to jerry-rig it with a rubber clamp, I sat next to him trying to figure out how to use the copper pipe cutter we’d bought but had tossed aside because we didn’t understand how it worked. After about 10 minutes, I said, “I got it!” and tried to show Bruce how it worked, so that we could fix the pipe properly rather than using a temporary fix. But Bruce wouldn’t turn around. “I said, ‘I got it!’ “ I said again, but I couldn’t get Bruce’s attention. It wasn’t until I threw the pipe down and stormed out of the house that Bruce looked up and said, “What?”

Given our history with home improvement projects, I wondered when I got pregnant how we’d fair with a baby, our biggest home improvement project to date.

“You can’t follow my lead on anything,” I said, as I stood waiting by the passenger door for naught.

“I was already opening the hatchback when you opened that door,” Bruce said.

“No, you weren’t,” I said. “I got to the car first.”

He ignored me and reaching through the back of the car, snapped the baby’s car seat into place. I walked around the front of my car and got into the driver’s seat.

I rolled down the window and stuck my head out.

“Why didn’t you just say, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m going to put him in the car through the hatchback,’ instead of just leaving me standing there?”

Bruce said nothing and just walked away to his car, which was parked a few spots over. I jumped out of my car and followed him.

“You can’t answer me?” I barked.

He kept walking.

“You’re an asshole,” I said and got back into my car. I turned to the baby and said, “Your father’s an asshole. You know that?” I thought of all the bitter, divorced women before me who have trash-talked their ex-husbands to their children.

We both pulled out of the parking lot and got onto the ocean road to drive home, and at the first traffic light, Bruce pulled next to me and rolled down his window.

I kept looking straight ahead, ignoring him but I soon felt silly. I turned to look at him and as I did, he turned his head away from me, pretending he was now ignoring me.

I laughed, and when he turned and looked at me, I gave him the finger. The light turned green and we drove home, exhausted from our first trip to the emergency room.

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Tug-o-War

The tug-o-war over our son began just minutes after he was born, though my husband, Bruce, had an unfair advantage: As our baby was delivered, I was still in the operating room, my reproductive parts spread out on the table, my arms pinned to the sides like Jesus on a cross, so Bruce got to spend those first precious moments with him. And the baby’s breathing was labored because he had excess liquid in his lungs – a common phenomenon in Caesarean deliveries – so despite the fact that I carried the baby for nine months, giving him my blood, my air, my food, it was Bruce who was there for him as he was rushed off to the neo-natal intensive care unit.

But then Bruce is always there in times of need. His brother, John, has always nurtured a close relationship with their mother, hooking up her computer for her, picking up her mail when she goes away, reporting back to her all of his most important life moments. When she contracted a rare tick-borne disease called Babesiosis several years ago and was in a hospital near their home in Pennsylvania, John visited her every day. Yet it was Bruce who happened to be at her bed side when they decided to transport her to Johns Hopkins hospital down in Washington, DC, and so it was Bruce who rode in the ambulance with her, holding her hand for the four hour journey.

Bruce’s bond with our baby only grew stronger in the hours after the delivery. As I lay in bed anesthetized, feeling like I’d been hit by a car on account of what turned out to be a lengthy surgery, Bruce kept going down to the intensive care unit to visit the baby.

“I helped them bathe the baby,” Bruce said after he returned from one visit.

“You bathed the baby?” I said, incredulously.

Daddys Here.

“Yeah,” he said. I wanted to roll over toward the window and give him my back, like women dramatically do in the old movies, but I was too sore to move.

When he returned from his next visit, he said he’d helped feed the baby.

“You fed the baby? He doesn’t even eat food yet.” I said.

People let me tell you about my be-est friend

When he returned from his third visit, he didn’t even bother telling me what he did. It was understood that he had further cemented his relationship with the baby.

“The nurse in there is nasty. She makes you watch the video about how to wash your hands every time you go in there,” he said, trying to make me feel better.

His visits reminded me of a ferry ride we once took from Italy to Greece. As we laid out on the front of the boat staring up at the night sky, Bruce said, “Did you see that?!? A shooting star!”

“Where?” I said.

“Over there,” he said, pointing off to the left. I turned my head to the left and saw nothing. I continued to stare in that direction when Bruce said, “Did you see that?!? Another one!”

“Where?” I said, searching the sky in vain.

He pointed off to the right. As I desperately searched the sky to the right, he shouted, “There’s another one!”

“Oh, c’mon!” I said. “Where?” He pointed to the middle of the sky.

I panned the sky for several minutes and then gave up.

The truth is, while all Bruce wanted to do that first day was visit the baby in the ICU, I was so tired and achy, I didn’t even feel like it. The ICU was all the way on the other side of the hospital and two floors down. It didn’t help that I had an IV in each arm and a catheter in my bladder in order to pee.

The surgery had been a little more complicated than anticipated. Before we even got to the operating room, it took two different nurses six tries over 45 minutes to get the IV in my arm. They both complained my veins were too skinny and curvy.  When they gave me the anesthesia in my spine, my blood pressure dropped, prompting them to give me a shot of ephedrine to raise it. But I had an allergic reaction to the ephedrine and my heart rate went through the roof. I could hear the sound of alarm in my doctor’s voice as she heard the heart monitor and asked the anesthesiologists what the heck was going on. They had to give me a shot of something else to counteract the ephedrine before my heart rate went back to normal.

After they removed the baby, they found a cyst on my fallopian tube and a growth in my reproductive region that was so odd looking, they had to call in another physician to figure out what it was. It turns out it was one of my ovaries, which had adhered to the side of my uterus and had become misshapen.

Still, I felt a lot of guilt about not wanting to run and see my newborn baby. I’d only seen him for one screaming moment, as they pulled him from my body and held him up over the blue curtain that divided me from the surgical business going on in my lower body. I saw him once again in the early afternoon as they were taking me to my room and stopped by the ICU on the way. But once back in my room, all I wanted to do was sleep and take pain killers. I figured it was okay if I didn’t see the baby until the next morning….until Bruce started visiting him every couple of hours. Bruce brought back a hat the baby had been wearing, which still smelled like him. I held in my hand until I fell asleep, though by that time, I’d sniffed it so many times, it no longer had a smell.

By evening, I was feeling a little less guilty about not visiting the baby until I noticed the time on the clock. Bruce had gone to visit him, and he had been down there nearly an hour! By then, emails began to trickle in from friends responding to the photos we sent out, and most said the baby unequivocally looked like Bruce. I didn’t expect him to look like me as I’d used a donor egg to conceive him, but between Bruce’s numerous visits to the ICU and the baby’s physical appearance, I was starting to feel like little more than the child’s surrogate.

Bruce’s ICU visits that first day also seemed to make him the authority on the baby’s well being. I spent two more days in the hospital, and by the third day, Bruce had become downright bossy, about everything from the baby’s health to how to breastfeed. I’d put the baby on my breast one way, and Bruce would reach in and try to adjust him and my hands another way. Sometimes, as I was trying to attach the baby to my breast, it felt like there were six hands flapping around in there trying to get it right.

A man and his son

When the baby would cry at the end of a feeding, Bruce would grab him and try to quiet him down. He’s actually good at it. He could sometimes get the baby to stop fussing when I couldn’t, and I thought, why can’t I do that? And then sometimes, Bruce couldn’t work his magic and there was a part of me that thought, “Ha! You don’t have such a special way with him after all.”

The night before we left the hospital, I looked down at the baby and thought his coloring looked jaundiced. I started to walk out of our room into the hallway with the baby because I wanted to ask the nurses in the nursery to have a have a look at him. But Bruce pooh poohed the idea and tried to take the baby, saying we couldn’t just walk out into the hallway with him, that he needed to be in his bassinet. I put the baby in the bassinet to wheel him over, but he started to cry so Bruce plucked him out of the bassinet to calm him down. I wanted to swaddle him loosely in a blanket. Bruce wanted to swaddle him more tightly. At one point, we were both standing over the baby trying to swaddle him, with me grabbing one end of the blanket and Bruce grabbing the other.

After we were home for a few days, we must have negotiated some kind of silent settlement over the baby because there wasn’t as much of a tug-o-war over how to handle his every move. But a few days later at the pediatrician’s office, milk oozed out of the side of the baby’s mouth and dripped onto his clothes. I grabbed a tissue and dabbed the little puddle on his collar and began wiping the corner of his mouth. Bruce then picked up a paper towel and started to rub the milk stain on the baby’s collar. Before I knew it, Bruce had inserted his body between mine and the baby’s, and I found myself backing up to let him in.

“I was already cleaning him,” I said from behind them.

“You didn’t get this part,” Bruce said.

“Yes, I did,” I said.

“Well, you missed this bit,” Bruce said.

“No, I didn’t. I just wiped that,” I said.

“Well, you obviously didn’t do a very good job,” Bruce said.

I stood back and watched Bruce dab the baby’s collar and thought, no matter how many collars he dabs and how many times I’m pushed aside, he’ll never be able to nurse him. At least I have that.

Potty Talk Training

When my son was first learning to talk, I remember placing him in his high chair one morning and putting a plate of bananas covered in peanut butter on his tray. He looked up at me with his little pinkies extended, and clearly, as one might say, “Hi,” or “Bye,” he said, “Fuk.”

Yes, I said, "Fuk."

Yes, I said, “Fuk.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Fuk,” he said. And once again with more emphasis, in case I didn’t hear him the first time. “Fuk!”

It was the third time he’d used that word this week, and every time he did, I thought, “Dammit. The fact that I have a foul mouth has finally come home to roost.”

Friends had warned me if I didn’t clean up my language, it was going to rub off on my son. Until now, Eddie wasn’t old enough to understand what I was saying. It appears that’s now changing.

I was never one to care about cursing in front of children. Before I had my son, I even resented having to curb my language. I hated the way when we’d visit friends with children, I couldn’t get a story out without constantly being interrupted with “Shuh!” or “Achem!” every time I said a four letter word. These same friends usually had prohibitions on anyone watching shows like “Law and Order” or “Family Guy,” in their homes because they deemed the language or subject matter to be inappropriate for children.

“So we all have to suffer?” I would think.

My husband has even gotten on my case about word choice.

“You know he said ‘Fuk,’ the other day,” my husband said.

“Yeah, I’ve heard him say that, too. I think he was talking about his ‘truck.’ I don’t know why he calls it that, but he meant ‘truck,’ “ I said.

“Yeah?” my husband said.

“Yeah,” I said.

While using profanity may not be genetic, the idea that it shouldn’t be verboten apparently is. My father thought the prohibition on cursing was ridiculous. But more than that, he thought such a prohibition actually encouraged it. To prove his point, he conducted a scientific experiment in our home when I was young. He told me and my brother that under no circumstance could we ever use the word, “Gherkin.” It was simply forbidden. And don’t you know, whenever I felt angry, the first word I would utter was, “Gherkin!” When I felt defiant? “Gherkin!” Frustrated? “Gherkin!” In our house, this miniature pickle was something to be avoided, not because it tasted bad, but because if you said it, you could get your mouth washed out with soap. When the experiment was over, and I could use the word “Gherkin” as freely as anyone else, I no longer said it, proving his point.

Years later, I replaced “Gherkin” with any number of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The words weren’t just alluring because they were prohibited. When I used them, I seemed to exude toughness, something I didn’t feel as a shy youth who was afraid to express her opinions. People seemed to think a girl who uses foul language eats nails for breakfast and can kick your butt, if not physically then verbally. Nothing says “strength” like a string of sewer-mouthed invectives.

Of course nothing says “disrespect” like a string of sewer-mouthed invectives, and that’s what I’ve finally come to realize. People have strong opinions about cursing. In a crowded room full of chatter, profanity is jarring. It sounds menacing, like shattering glass. When you use it, people form opinions about you that aren’t always good, just as they might form an opinion about someone who has a tattoo or a nose ring. And some of the people forming those opinions will be my son’s teachers or prospective friends. I figure Eddie’s got plenty of time to disenfranchise himself from the people around him. I should at least let him get to second grade before that starts happening.

A wild cussing animal

A wild cussing animal

But I know Eddie doesn’t have a chance in hell of keeping his mouth clean unless I clean up my own mouth, and I need to do it fast. He’s already begun mimicking the things me and my husband do. He’s started calling me, “Scay-bee,” the pet name my husband and I call each other. He takes tissues out of the tissue box and pretends to blow his nose, because he’s seen me do it. He sits briefly on his little training potty, grunts once and then says, “All done,” because he watches us. After seeing me put strips of first-aid tape on my chest so that when I go running, my bra doesn’t give me an abrasion, Eddie now asks for tape and then places it on his own chest, in the same spots I place mine.

My son’s daycare is in a church, and when I attended a Zumba class there the other day, I found myself standing next to the daycare’s director. I turned to her, after a particularly strenuous dance routine, and said, “Oh my god, my f—ing ankle is killing me!” As she looked up at me incredulously, I could feel the words float out of my mouth in slow motion the way people describe that moment in a car accident when their vehicle turns 180 degrees before crashing into the guardrail. It seems I need to curb my cursing not just in front of Eddie but in front of his teachers, lest they think I throw curse words around our home with impunity. Much in life is viewed like the “Broken Window Theory:” People will think if a parent allows cursing at home, what other dirty, filthy habits will they tolerate?

I watched Eddie in his high-chair, and he didn’t seem to be eating his bananas. He just sat there staring at them.

“Fuk,” he said again. He then pointed to a drawer of our kitchen cabinet.

“This?” I said and opened the drawer. “Fork!”

I took a fork out of the utensil tray and handed it to my son.

“Fuk,” he said, holding up the fork. He then speared one of the bananas and stuck it in his mouth and smiled.

There's a fucking WHAT behind me?

There’s a fucking WHAT behind me?

I was given a reprieve, but I knew it was only temporary. With Eddie now two, I was going to have to begin training my potty mouth now. Because I hear it only gets more challenging as time goes on.

Every morning as I wake up and hear my son rustle in his bed, I vow that today, when he asks me to play with him, I’m going to get down on my hands and knees and play. I’ll grab a car or a Thomas the train or a super hero and talk in that little voice he does. Maybe we’ll bang the figurines against each other like they’re fighting, and we’ll play. Because I know that once he goes to school and makes friends and starts playing soccer and video games, he won’t even want to play with me anymore. And I’ll miss him and feel regret.

The spaceship we don't fly

And yet every afternoon, as my son drives his cars on the floor next to me or runs his trains around the track, I not only fail to make good on my vow, I’m barely in the room. Instead, I’m checking my email, thinking about stories I want to pitch, the essays I want to write. Sometimes, I’m taking notes for my parenting blog on raising a toddler — except that I spend more time writing about raising him than actually raising him.

“Mommy, who are you talking to?” my son will sometimes ask, as I whisper into a tape recorder to remind myself of something notable he did.

“I’m, uh, talking to myself. I want to remember what you just said. It was funny,” I’ll say.

The trucks we don't drive

I realize this is bizarre, given that he doesn’t understand what a tape recorder is, what a memory is, and why his mommy no longer has one.

I know I should savor this time with my son, like a peppermint, but I can’t help myself. If I’ve experienced something noteworthy, I want to write about it. And so I walk that tightrope all writers must walk: to live in the moment in order to experience life or to come out of the moment in order to write about it. So when my son does something funny or interesting, my reflex is not to reach for my son but to reach for my pen.

Sometimes I can’t write it down fast enough, so I scribble on my hand, the back of coupons, inside book jackets – sometimes even library books – or I’ll grab my iPhone and type a note or record a phrase. Of course when it’s time to turn these experiences, notes and recordings into prose, I fall asleep, and by the next morning, I forget to look at my hastily written notes or listen to my recordings and those pearls of wisdom just fade away like jotting down a great poem and leaving it out in rain. Instead, I lie in bed, and when I hear my son rustle, I vow to play with him, spend half the day taking notes on what it’s like to half play with him, and the cycle begins anew.

I’m not just distracted from playing with him because I’m a writer. I’m distracted because I’m struggling with the fact that I’m no longer working full time. I had my son at 47 so I’ve spent the last three decades building a career as a journalist, but since I had him, I’ve cut my workload and my paycheck by a third – not to mention the fact that his needs and moods and demands and incessant chatter has destroyed my ability to focus. Stories take five times longer to write, nap time dictates when I can schedule interviews. Worse, I now have severe mommy-brain and can no longer hold a thought for more than a minute. The instant my son interrupts me, which happens all day long, my focus runs off the track like a Thomas train.

While my work schedule has changed dramatically, husband’s job, not surprisingly, has changed little. Except for coming home early one night a week so I can go to yoga, his work hours and job title remain the same, though his office wall is now covered with photos of our son.

The crafts we don't do.

The truth is, I don’t mind putting my career on hold. I get to spend time with my son in these delicious but fleeting formative years. If I could only stop working long enough to enjoy it.

This morning, when I went into my son’s room, I said, “I want to play with you.” He looked surprised but broke out into a big wide smile and hugged me. His response warmed me so deeply, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not about awards or accolades or money. It’s about this. Loving and being loved. Wanting and being wanted.” The experience was so moving, I grabbed a notebook to jot it all down.

DSC_0347
We recently took a two-day train ride from Chicago to Seattle, passing through Glacier National Park, which is part of the reason we took the trip. At 53, I’d never seen a national park. My son is six. I wanted to get him started earlier.

On the train, I met Carol, a woman who has been working for Amtrak for 17 years. For the last several, she’s been working behind the counter of the snack bar, which has everything from sandwiches and hot dogs to candy and beer. Every time she went on break, which she would make an announcement over the loudspeaker telling everyone that the snack bar would be closed for an hour while she was on her lunch break, and then her dinner break, and then her post dinner break. The passage of time on our two-day train journey was marked by Carol’s intermittent meal breaks.

Talking to train employees, I notice that most were either from Chicago or Seattle, which makes sense, given the train’s route. Carol was from Chicago. All the people working the back of the train are from Chicago, she says, as if I should have known that. The employees who come from Seattle work in the front of the train, from the dining car upward, she says. I ask her why. She didn’t know. Maybe because the train is from Seattle, and there aren’t enough people from Seattle to work the train, so they use people from Chicago, she said. I nod my head, even though what she’s saying doesn’t make any sense.DSC_0960

Given how long she’s worked for the railroad, I ask her what’s the weirdest thing she’s seen.

“Weird? I’ve had plenty of weird stuff, but I’m not going to talk to you about that,” she says and pauses. “But I’ll tell you something scary.”

There was a mother and daughter sitting in the lounge upstairs, she said. She’d seen them up there. When she was done with her shift, she went up the stairs, and at the top step was the daughter, who grabbed Carol’s hand. ‘Help me! My mother can’t breathe,’ the girl said. Carol looked over at the mother, who was already turning blue.

She knew the intercom in that car was broken, so she took off toward the front of the train, running through the cars until she reached the intercom that worked. She called for medical help, and within minutes, they were using a defibrillator on the woman, and they saved her life, Carol says.

“We had to keep people out of the car because all these passengers, and there was an EMT there, they were all surrounding the woman. They wanted to see what was going on,” she says.

“But you ran through the cars, to get help,” I say. “You’re a hero.”

She pauses. “Oh, all right, I’ll tell you something weird.”

She says there was a passenger a few years ago who kept coming back for more drinks and was becoming more and more inebriated. Soon, he got into an argument with one of her co-workers, Larry, and the two got into a scuffle down by the doorway of the train as it pulled out of a station, she said. Suddenly, the man opened a window and jumped out, rolling down the hill that runs alongside the tracks.

“He’s lucky the train wasn’t going faster. He would have been a goner,” Carol says. “The suction would have pulled him under the train.”

“Really? Did you ever see that?” I ask.

“No, but I’ll bet it happens.”

That night at dinner, I met a train employee who had been with the railroad almost as long as Carol, and he remembered the man who jumped out the window. He said the man didn’t jump because he was drunk – which he was – but because he was crazy.

“We had to put him in his room because he was out of his mind,” the train employee said.

While in his room, he opened the window and jumped out.

But no, people do not get sucked under the tracks and crushed, he said. Perhaps that was just wishful thinking on Carol’s part.

Every time we hit a town, I’d take a lot of photographs because I was finding that the dramatic landscape I hoped to see was there — but at 60 miles an hour. While the sightseeing was good, my photographs were not. So every time the train would stop, I would rush down to the door to peek my head out and snap a few photos, of the town’s gas station, the local church, the local tavern.DSC_0673

But when I ran downstairs at Glasgow, North Dakota, the door was closed. It was odd because we’d only just arrived at the station. It was too soon for the door to have already opened and shut. A woman with long red hair, glasses, and a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt was waiting by the door with a young man.

“Did they open the door?” she asked me.

“I don’t know. I just got here. Is this your stop?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m meeting someone,” she said.

I peered outside the window of the train door and saw people standing on the platform in front of the depot.

“Maybe it will open in a minute,” I said, thinking perhaps the train hadn’t fully stopped in the station yet.

That’s happened to me many times, where I’m standing at the train door waiting for it to open, and it doesn’t, and I begin to panic, thinking all of the other doors have opened but mine and that the train will soon pull out of the station without my door ever having opened. I started to feel anxiety, and it wasn’t even my stop. The funny thing was, this woman was so calm. If it were me, I’d be bouncing off the walls like a fly trying to find an opening in a window.

Suddenly, the train moved forward a few feet, and then it stopped.

“There you go,” I said, feeling vindicated. “We weren’t in the station yet.”

She was texting someone, presumably the person waiting on the other side of the door.

We waited for the door to open, but instead, the train started to roll forward again, this time leaving the station.

“There he is,” she said, as we passed a man on the platform. “He just gave the conductor an earful.”DSC_0750

He must have told her that in a text. I thought for sure the train was going to stop, given that the conductor now knew there was someone on the train wanting to get off, but but it didn’t. It kept going, until we were well out of Glasgow and back into the flat farmlands of Montana.

“You should tell the conductor,” I said. I looked around. There was no one in sight. It was just the three of us on the lower level by the door. I wasn’t sure if I should press an emergency button. I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself. She was getting off the train. Me, I was going to be on it for another day, beholden to the engineer and all the train’s employees.

I went back upstairs to the lounge car, where my husband and son were playing cards. When I saw one of the conductors walk by, I blurted out, “A woman was trying to get off the train, and the door didn’t open. Do only certain doors open? How do people know which doors are going to open?”

I was concerned for the woman, but equally, I knew it could easily be me in that position when it came to my stop.DSC_0696

“We only open the doors in the cars where people are getting out?”

“How do you know who those people are? Because of their tickets?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“So what if someone moves cars and then tries to get out? They can’t get out?”

“No, they can’t. We can’t open all the doors. We don’t have enough people to stand at every door,” he said.

I didn’t like this system. It anticipated that they knew how people would act. It also seemed like a game where not everyone was told the rules.

We went to lunch, and on the way back to the lounge car, I saw the woman who couldn’t get off the train. She was lounging in her seat, listening to something on her earphones. She looked content. I wished I could be that content when things go awry. And in Montana, missing your stop is no small matter. The next one isn’t for another several hours.DSC_0735

“Is that man going to meet you at the next station?” I asked.

“Yes. That was my husband,” she said.

“How far is it? An hour?”

“A couple of hours, but he works there,” she said.

She told me her husband works for BNSF railways, and he’s been stationed in Havre, Montana for the last several months – about a six-hour drive from where she’s from, in Minot. They were going to meet in Glasgow, which is about four hours from Minot but certainly closer than going all the way to Havre, where he’s been living. She wound up having to go to Havre anyway.

“He only gets four days off a month. We were going to meet in Glasgow, because it’s his birthday,” she said. “I haven’t seen him since January.”IMG_4720

She was drinking a soda her husband had bought her at McDonald’s. He was going to give it to her when she got off the train but when he didn’t see her, he gave it to a train employee with the hopes that it would find its way to her. It did.

Out the window, the farms of Montana rolled by. There would be one farm, and then a long period of rolling hills before you’d see another farm or house. That kind of vastness makes all matters involving people seem small in comparison. It puts it in perspective. The woman went back to whatever she was listening to on her earphones, knowing that if she hadn’t seen her husband in four months, another four or five hours wasn’t going to make that much of a difference.DSC_0711

The juiciest turkey I ever made was Thanksgiving 2001, though it came about by happenstance. I was preparing the meal at my mother’s home in Florida and was supposed to cook the bird for three hours at 350 degrees. Once the plastic meat thermometer popped up, I was to put the bird back in the oven for about 15 minutes at 500 to crisp the skin. But when the alarm rang after three hours, I looked at the turkey and saw the thermometer hadn’t yet popped up, so I left it in the oven longer to continue to cook.

About half an hour later, I checked the bird again and still the thermometer had not yet popped. Thirty minutes later, same thing. This went on for about two and half hours. Finally, my Aunt Gloria came into the kitchen and said, “Caren, it’s almost 8 p.m. The thermometer must be broken. It’s got to be done.”

And sure enough, it was. What I didn’t know about my mother’s stove is that when the timer rings, the oven automatically shuts off. I had been cooking a bird for hours and hours in an oven that was no longer on. The result was a bird that was so moist, it was downright juicy.

My mother didn’t tell me about her oven because she had gone upstairs, locked herself in the bathroom and sat on the side of the bathtub all day. She had refused to come out because she was upset and angry, on account of the fact that my father was dying of cancer. He was so gaunt and withdrawn at that point, we knew it would be his last Thanksgiving.

Given my father’s rapidly deteriorating condition, we’d actually had our Thanksgiving a week earlier, with lobster instead of turkey, because we’d always celebrated birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s Day with lobster. The gravity of my father’s condition was clear even then when he asked me during the meal to open his can of soda, not because he was too weak but because he didn’t understand how the can worked.

When actual Thanksgiving rolled around a week later, it seemed silly to sit there and do nothing. So I went out and bought a turkey and began to cook a meal with all the fixings. But no one was really interested. I’m not even sure my father knew what day it was.

My father died two weeks later, on December 4, 2001. It’s been 11 years, and my life has changed quite a bit since then. I became a full-time freelance writer, bought a brownstone in Harlem, got married and gave birth to a son, whom I named Eddie, after my dad. But every year at this time, as I prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, I remember that the best bird I ever made was the year no one cared about the meal.

My son had his first Thanksgiving today, at school. All of the classes congregated in the church’s Fellowship Hall for a dramatization of a Thanksgiving meal and then grace. They ate Chicken McNuggets and macaroni and cheese. When I dropped him off in the morning, the spot where I usually park was blocked by orange cones. I figured it had something to do with the children’s feast, or even the Thanksgiving dinner the church will be serving to the needy on Thursday. Perhaps it was for a delivery of food. I double-parked, grabbed Eddie out of the car and carried him inside to his classroom. When I got back outside to my car, a hearse was parked in the spot where the cones had been, and soon, I saw several people dressed in black heading toward the church. It saddened me because I knew that like me, not a Thanksgiving will go by that they don’t associate with a death.

While cleaning my apartment in New York City last weekend, I found a box with some old VHS tapes. I got excited because I’ve been searching for two particular tapes since my father died. One is a movie he made of the 1970s that was like a time capsule of events going on at the time: the hairstyles, the clothes, Nixon and the Vietnam War. My father included some animation in the film that he made himself by drawing on pieces of clear plastic with multicolored Sharpie markers and moving the pieces up and down to simulate movement. He made someone talking, for instance, by drawing a mouth, and he filmed a few frames of it open and then a few frames of it closed. In another part of the film, he filmed a map of Asia with little flags on it to show viewers what was going on at the time in Vietnam. Much of the film was set to Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack for the movie, “The Graduate.” When people hear the song “Mrs. Robinson,” some probably think of Dustin Hoffman banging on the windows of a big church yelling, “E-laine! E-laine!” as he tries to stop her from marrying another man. I think of plastic pieces of acetate moving around a white background, showing the U.S. Army’s move into Cambodia.

But the tape I was really hunting for was a recording my father made in the final months of his life. Knowing he would be dying, he sat down in front of the camera and spoke into it. I watched it once, not long after his death, and shockingly, I can’t remember what he talked about. I was still too grief-stricken to absorb it. Since then, I’ve been wanting to watch it again, but I can’t find the tape.

I’m actually afraid to watch the recording. I was so utterly shattered by my father’s death and overwhelmed by the loss of him that I’ve buried the memory of him to avoid the pain. I didn’t cry at his funeral, and I seem to have lost a sense of him, the specifics of what he looked like, the sound of his voice. I’m afraid if I see him talking on the tape, it will bring him back to life, and I will then have to experience his death. You can’t lose something that you forget you had, right?

I brought the bag of VHS tapes into my son’s room, where we have an old VCR player, and sat down on the floor. With Eddie on my lap, I inserted the first tape into the machine and braced myself. There were a few frames of fuzz as the tape was “tracking,” and then the movie began to come into focus. It was a recording of Ken Burns’ epic series, “New York,” the episode where the sewing factory downtown catches fire with the workers inside.

I stuck the second tape in. It was a recording of Peter Jennings covering New Years’ Eve in Time Square, December 1999. The third tape was my accountant, Alan Brachfeld, being interviewed on ABC News. I’m not sure how I came to possess that one.

I braced myself before inserting the final tape. Bored from sitting on my lap, Eddie had started playing with his train set but then went over to the bookshelf which contained his own VHS tapes, plucked out an episode of the Australian group, the Wiggles, and started trying to jam it into the tape machine. I grabbed his tape, put it on the floor and picked up my tape. It had a sticky note taped to it that said, “Jitters” in my mother’s distinct cursive handwriting. I ripped the note off and stuck the tape into the player.

The screen was blue for a while. My heart began to pound. At long last, I was about to be reunited with my father. Suddenly, the picture came on. It was a woman with big wide eyes standing in front of a meat counter. She was flirting with the butcher, who appeared to be an old flame. I was disappointed but relieved. I ejected the tape and threw it in the bag with the others. I’ve gone 10 Thanksgivings without my father now. One more wouldn’t make a difference.

I picked up the Wiggles tape and put it into the player. I then grabbed Eddie and sat him in my lap and wrapped my arms around him, a little more tightly than usual.
 

July 11, 2015 Camp

My son, Eddie, started day camp last week, and the first thing he said the morning of his first day was, “I don’t want to go. I don’t like it.”

“You haven’t even gone yet. How do you know?” I asked.

“I don’t like it,” he said.

“You’re going to love it,” I said. “Camp is great.”

I was lying. I hated camp. I was so filled with self-loathing at that age, I was socially awkward and self-conscious. It didn’t help that I was not very athletic. I remember one particular game of newcomb, a variation of volleyball but instead of hitting the ball back to the other team, you simply caught it. I was standing in the middle of the court, filled with dread that the ball would come near me, when the ball flew over the net and hovered in the air above my head. I made a half-hearted attempt to catch it, but I missed and the ball fell to the ground right in front of me with a thud. “Frosted fleas!” cried one of the more athletic girls on the team, referring to my t-shirt, which had a picture of a box of Frosted Flakes cereal but instead of flakes, the box contained fleas. It was part of the Wacky Packages line of trading cards and t-shirts popular in the 1970s that parodied everyday consumer products. But having just missed the ball so blatantly, I felt like it was I who was covered with fleas. Every day that summer, I prayed for rain so we could do arts and crafts instead of sports.

As we neared my son’s camp, I told him he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to, and he didn’t have to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to. It was the same deal we had with intramural soccer, where he was afraid to go out on the field. I saw no reason to force him. The world is a hard place for people who are socially awkward and bad at sports. I figure he’s allowed a few pressure-free years before being subjected to the cruelties of school and gym.

When we arrived at the camp, I got out of car and opened his door. He climbed out and latched on to my leg like a clamp. I couldn’t move. A counselor and one of the owners of the camp had to peel him off. I wanted to cuddle him but knew that once he was pried off, if I reached out for him, he’d latch on again. As the camp owner carried him off, I could see the corner of his face, and it was red, and I knew he was crying. I shouldn’t have looked. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, you leave and don’t look back. Children need to grow, to leave the womb, to separate. It’s painful but necessary, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

I walked back to my car, and a counselor handed me a sign with our last name on it, to display in my windshield when I picked my son up. When I looked up at her, I started to cry.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, knowing I was making it clear from whom my son inherited the character trait, ‘weakness.’

To make matters worse, I realized I forgot to bring his camp bag, which had his towel, sun block, swimming goggles. I had to drive all the way home to get it. I also forgot to put his name on everything. I had tried to do it with masking tape and a sharpie marker, but the masking tape was so old, it no longer stuck. I tried writing my son’s name directly on the tags on his clothes and towel, but the marker bled, and instead of saying, “Holmes,” all the labels said, “Hams.”

When I arrived back at the camp, the owner greeted me at the gate and took the bag from me so that I wouldn’t get out of the car.

“I don’t want him to see you,” he said and walked off.

Interestingly, there’s another child from my son’s pre-school attending the camp. When I got home, I saw the girl’s mother had posted a photo of her on Facebook. In it, she looks like a cadet: hair quaffed, a magenta backpack that matched her magenta sandals, and she’s carrying what looks like a new plastic lunchbox. The caption said that her daughter had woken up at 4:20 a.m. and said, “I’m ready for camp.” At our house, my son woke up at 6:55 a.m., climbed into bed with me and my husband and announced that he did not want to go to camp. I said, “Oh, please, let me sleep five more minutes,” I said and handed him my phone to occupy him. He pressed each button so loudly and deliberately, I rolled over and gave him my back, resenting the three minutes of sleep he had stolen from me. As for his outfit, I was afraid to comb his hair because he’d fallen this past weekend and had a scab on his head. His sneakers fit so poorly, I have to tell him, “Push your foot toward the front,” every time we put his shoes on. And his lunch bag is oversized and a bit tattered because it was the one my late father used to fill with snacks to take to his chemotherapy appointments, and I refuse to throw it out.

When I picked up my son, I asked him how it went. “Good,” he said, halfheartedly. What did he like best? Swimming. And the Popsicle.

“They had strawberry or blueberry,” he said.

“And you picked strawberry?” I asked.

“No, they said ‘You get what you get, and don’t get upset,’” he said.

Later, he talked about a hockey game similar to the tabletop soccer game we have at home, but the one at camp was medical, he said.

“Metal?” I asked.

“No,” he said adamantly. “Medical.”

He may not know a lot yet, but it doesn’t stop him from having conviction.

When I dropped him off the next morning, he latched on to me again but not as hard. By the end of the week, we had a system. I’d pull in and remain in the car while a counselor took him out of his car seat and carried him through the gate, saying, “Your counselor, Mr. Dane, has been asking about you.”

We’re on week two now, and yesterday, when the counselor came to take my son out of car, he launched into his customary whimpering, saying, “I want Mama,” but then the counselor said, “Eddie, do you know what they found yesterday?”

My son’s eyes widened. “What?”

“A baby turtle,” she said. “You wanna see it?”

“Yeah,” my son said, excitedly, and the two of them walked off.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I could see my son’s car seat in my rear view mirror. Usually, when I angle the mirror toward the back seat, it’s so that I can see him when I’m talking to him. Now, I saw only his seat, and it looked so empty.