Archive for December, 2011

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15 Minutes in Heaven

December 19, 2011

Which is to say, after finally getting Dot to sleep last night (she does love herself a power struggle, my little girl), I turned on the baby monitor, took it into the bathroom with me, locked the door, and proceeded to have a very hot, steamy, long, refreshing, sinus-clearing shower.

I smell good.

And my legs are shaved.

Wishing you something like this – whatever your own 15 minutes in (decidedly earthly) heaven is – in this week in December.

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Surface calm

December 16, 2011

Nothing to see here. All is well. See, I’m planning a holiday letter. All is well.

Look away.

I put out fires at work. Soothe egos, attempt to soothe egos that are, frankly, beyond my soothing. I modulate my voice. I project calm. I make sure the printers are full of paper, the staplers are full of staples. I sit in on meetings with upper administration figures and try to maintain a sense of sanity in the face of what seem to me to be defensive and disruptive petty disputes. I sit in on meetings with upper administration figures and feel relieved when those previous disputes are banished from the forefront of the discussion. I help panicked students find their last-minute research sources and help them calm down in the face of finals week.

I keep my box of tissues in my office. I sneak in and out during the office party so no one knows how bad my cold is. I speak extra clearly to mask the snuffles and snot and sickness beneath my surface.

I plan a spot in my day to wrap presents, box them up and send them to Dot’s wee cousins. Of course I can do it all during my lunch hour. I have to.

I work on two articles at one time, work to meet the end of the year deadlines, to help secure my tenure. I talk about my research intelligently, calmly. I know my stuff.

And underneath all of this, I am rough, choppy, a swirling mess of conflicting tides.

I complain – Why do I have to do all the damned Christmas shopping? Why can’t I have a present that’s just for me instead of something for me that’s really for Dot? Why don’t I have my own fucking space in my own fucking house? Why can’t I breathe through my nose, and why doesn’t someone make me some chicken soup and send me to bed with a pile of novels and some 7-up and orange juice?

I panic – I’ll never get all of this done over my lunch break. Where’s the damned Scotch tape? Why didn’t I write more this summer? There’s so much to write and fact-check and mix together and I know what I want to say but how do I make other people see that it’s important and meaningful? What if they don’t think I’m smart? What if I’m not actually smart? God, this writing is all crap. I suck. How the hell are we going to get all of this done in time to make an eight-hour drive to my parent’s house? An eight-hour drive over the Rocky Mountains, no less.

I worry and grieve – I edit the paragraph about Teddy in my holiday letter down to one line. Don’t want to depress anyone. Well, don’t want to depress anyone more than I absolutely have to. I worry that N won’t like the mention of Teddy even if it’s only one line, but I can’t leave him out of our family, out of Christmas, out in the cold. If I weren’t so worried about other’s feelings, he’d get a whole paragraph, too.  And I may be very unfair to N here. He hasn’t seen the letter yet. He may like it. He may say, this is good, what you said about him. This is perfect.

I need a good romance novel. I need a stiff drink. I need my 18-year-old self’s metabolism back, and a hot bath, and at least three gallons of black coffee.

In spite of all this, I know the holidays will be okay. I’ll get done what needs to get done because that’s what I have to do, and next week I’ll be in my childhood home, letting my mother cook me dinner, and Dad will put a good glug of Bailey’s Irish Creme in my coffee, and I’ll feel my vertebrae slowly un-stiffen. Till then, though, I hide behind this mask of calm and wish for more time to get things done while paradoxically praying for less time to have to deal with this muddle.

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Holiday reading to drive away the Grinch

December 13, 2011

Forgive me as I give in to the temptation to begin this entry with a bit of Joni Mitchell:

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

Okay. That’s out of my system. For now, anyway.

I have a cold. N has a cold. Dot has a cold that will probably turn into another ear infection within the week. I’m still reeling a bit from that conversation N & I had in the kitchen last week, and I’m also feeling insecure about my holiday letter and generally discontented with my lot, for a variety of reasons, most of them petty. I’m rather mad at myself about all this, too, which isn’t improving my mood.

I am the Grinch.

Books are usually the river I prefer to sail away on, as it turns out. And since I seem to be almost irredeemably cranky today, I’m going to attempt to overcome my own Grinchiness by talking about books. Here’s a selection of some favorite holiday-time reads, with annotations:*

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, by Connie Willis: This is a book of short stories, written by someone who really loves Christmas stories. The stories all have some elements of humor to them, but there are romances, mystery, and stories that defy my descriptive abilities. Also the best holiday letter ever. And the word “miracle” is in the title and I don’t hate it, which is saying a lot these days. Willis includes her own list of reading and viewing suggestions at the end of the book, and they are good lists; she knows her stuff.

The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper: This is a book about an epic battle between good and evil, but it’s also a book about snow, Christmas carols, holly, a big family, and magic. The atmosphere of winter is conjured up brilliantly in this book – there menace is truly menacing and the warmth is truly heartening. One of the things that keeps me coming back to this one is the way Cooper weaves mythical and magical elements into an everyday world in ways that never seem overdone or new-age-y. I used to come home from college, check this one out from the library and read it by the fire with a cup of tea – it’s the perfect book for that. One warning – there’s a very tender and very brief mention of a baby who died a few days after he was born.

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett: I’ve written about this one before. I love the way it explores belief and what it means to be human and what it means to be a family. Also, it’s just hilarious.

The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery: A gentle romance about Valancy Sterling, long-suffering captive of her prominent family and their stuffy expectations, and what happens when she finds out she hasn’t long to live. A friend gave this to me one year for Christmas (I believe we were in Junior High) and I’ve loved reading it at this time of year ever since. A warning should go along with this one, too, though. One of the characters, Valancy’s friend, Cissy Gay, is dying and also mourning her baby. There are a few passages when Cissy speaks about her baby that still make me curl up in a corner and cry.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: You’ve read this, or encountered some version of this already, right? Right? The Herdman family takes over the Christmas pageant. Meaningful chaos ensues. What’s best about this book, to me, is the way it talks about expectations and how, sometimes, the best thing that can happen is for them to be completely overturned.

Bellwether, by (again) Connie Willis: This isn’t fantasy or science fiction, in spite of what you may think when looking at the cover, but it is one of the funniest workplace novels ever to be written, with commentaries about fads, libraries, research, paperwork, an exasperating office assistant, and sheep sprinkled in along the way.  There’s a cold weather element, but really I  put this on my list today because it’s as reliable an antidote to my doldrums as any book I know.

 

 

*Links go either to the independent bookstore where I used to work or to a very large, freely accessible online catalog, OCLC WorldCat, but if you have the titles and authors, none of them should be especially elusive.

 

 


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Chasm

December 8, 2011

We were supposed to watch a movie.

I suppose I shouldn’t regret that too much. It would have been some action flick that a student of his gave him – interesting and entertaining, but nothing I’d really wanted to watch.

Dot went to bed early, very early – before 8:00, which happens maybe once every three months. Dot went to bed early and we were going to touch base at 9:00 and watch a movie, and sit on the futon together, and hold hands, and maybe make popcorn. I do regret the loss of the handholding and popcorn.

But, as we were talking in the kitchen about what we’d do this weekend, I brought up the thing I’ve been dreading and needing to bring up, the question of when and how we talk to Dot about her brother. I want to do it now. I want to do it last year. I want his name to be part of the fabric of her life. He is her brother, too. She has some claims to him and to his story. She has claims to our honesty and openness.

N looked at me as though I were some alien creature, and I started to realize how very differently we feel about this, about Teddy. He thinks that telling her she had a brother would be traumatic and scar her for life, that she’s too young to have to know about death and loss. It’s clear, from his tone of voice and the way he looks at me, that he thinks I am an unstable person who will damage my child’s psychological development to serve my own needs to remember.

“When did you envision telling her?” I ask. “When she’s ten? When she’s twenty?” He thinks I’m mocking him, and certainly I could have put that more gently, but I want to know.

“I hadn’t envisioned it,” he says.

It’s clear, as I look at him, that he is an emotionally stunted person who will damage his child’s psychological development to serve his own needs to forget.

I can’t marshal the points of my case – that children have the ability to ask for and process the information they need, and while it may not be easy, it isn’t necessarily scarring; that it is important with me that we be honest with her and that hiding this part of who we are may make her fear death more, trust us less; that his birth and death have shaped us and that she’ll pick up on this even if we don’t tell her and maybe feel like she’s missing a piece of the puzzle; that he’s her brother, too.

I do tell him that I remember Teddy every day, think of him every day.

Later, after I quiet a restless Dot and N emerges from his basement office, he looks at me, shakes his head, and says “You think about Teddy every day?” as though it’s some terrible thing. As though I’m doing this wrong.

I see the chasm opening up between us, right there at my feet. It’s been there all along, even though I’ve only just now seen it, and the shock of it nearly knocks me to my knees. I catch the words, “You don’t?” before they leave my mouth and instead I tell him we don’t have to talk about it any more that night. I apologize for darkening the evening. I take out my contact lenses, curl myself around the sleeping baby in my bed and try to remember when it was, precisely, that we stopped talking to each other about anything real.

I won’t talk to Dot about Teddy behind her father’s back. I can’t do that to him. I feel like I have a choice of betrayals ahead of me – betray N’s trust and need to forget, to not dwell on hard memories, or to betray Dot’s need for honesty and trust, her right to know about her brother. Her right to not be traumatized by a “serious discussion” that comes out of the blue when she’s fifteen, or 25, or whenever N is ready.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if this is something we can bridge. I never expected that the person I’d be most reluctant to talk with about my son would be his father. I’m pretty angry about that, really. And, today, I hate N a little. In those few moments he looked at me and at what I thought was a reasonably healthy grieving process and I think what he saw was depression, abnormality, weakness.

He’d probably be horrified to know that I’ve seen myself as the strong one for a long time, now.

We need to talk more. I dread it, but we do. I need to see if he really does want to forget. I need to see if I can explain to him that when I remember it isn’t all bad, that, for me, there is beauty and love in those memories, too. That I will always think about and miss my boy, and that this isn’t a bad way to react to the loss of someone so dear.

 

 

 

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Lights, angels, wishes & prayers

December 5, 2011

The tree is up, and every time I look at it I smile. I say “fuck you,” to the darkness, and promise myself to get through the dark days of winter, and I bask in my Christmas tree memories, and I miss my boy, and I smile. I’ve been decorating the tree in my office work area for good measure.

I dream of Christmas cookies I’ll never find time to bake, and make a short list of the ones I have to bake: peanut butter cookies with chocolate kisses (N’s favorite), chocolate crinkles (my brother’s favorite), thumbprint cookies with walnuts (my favorite).

I play music and sing carols. Dot now has the first verse of “Away in a Manger” down by heart (Mom taught it to her months ago, and now she keeps asking to sing the “Lowing” song). But I often turn to” The First Noel,” or “Little Town of Bethlehem,” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a lullaby. You’d think “Silent Night” would be the obvious candidate, but 1) I’m still recovering from seeing that damned holiday diaper commercial the first Christmas after Teddy died, and 2) Dot doesn’t seem to like the way I sing it, and often requests that I stop by waving her arm at me and saying, “No. NO!”

Dot has a Fisher Price nativity set. I had no idea such things existed, but my parents found one for us. I have mixed feelings about it. I do not approach the Christmas story with the pure (if largely untested) faith of my youth, and I do not want to approach it with disrespect. I do want Dot exposed to it, but I’m not sure what to tell her about it all yet. It helps that she’s not yet two years old and that she is mainly interested in kissing owies on the faces of Joseph, Jesus and “Murry.” Murry also seems to go on a lot of long walks with the sheep, leaving Joseph and Jesus to fend for themselves. I try to tell myself that this isn’t a reflection of anything worrying. And, by all accounts, Murry has a lot on her mind. Maybe long walks are just what she needs.

……..

It’s a beautiful time of year in so many ways. One of those ways is the way that missing Teddy rises to the surface. Not like August, which is still just a month I want to get through. I think of Teddy when looking at the tree, when wishing for snow, when writing cards, when considering what to bake, when talking to family on the phone. He’s on the tip of my tongue, the tips of my fingers, the top of my mind. I call to him constantly, little boy, little Huckleberry, how I love you, love you still, love you always. I wish you could see this – can you see it? I wish I could save some of this holiday warmth for you – I hope you have your own.

It’s not all beautiful, of course. There are tears and stress and yelling. Sadness because no one mentions him in their holiday letters any more, because people are afraid to talk about him, and because sometimes I’m one of those people, afraid to talk. Because I still think that mentioning my dead baby boy shouldn’t stop the party, and it almost always does. But for the most part, I feel closer to Teddy in December somehow.

……..

Grief Girl nearly charged howling into a Face.book thread on angels started by a friend of hers who is a pastor. Fortunately, maybe, Grief Girl’s alias was able to channel her energies into another venue (my toilets are really, really clean!). My problems with angels, or the stories of angels that you tend to hear on Fac.ebook, are much the same as miracles, and boil down into three main points, two of stabby, stabby rage (as per usual) and one that’s more philosophical:

1) If angels flit around saving lives, well, where was Teddy’s fucking angel? Where? ‘Cause if that fucker was on a coffee break, then I need to talk to his/her/its supervisor. You know, when I’m on speaking terms with the Supervisor again.

2) I can’t think of a good reason for angels to flit around and save some people, children, babies, disaster victims, and not others. And if you buy into free will as the source of all evil in the world (argh, grumble, grumble, argh) then why would you believe that some people aren’t subject to it after all? And there seems to be an element of at least potential self-righteousness (there was a plan for this person/my baby, or this was a reward for his/her faith and good works) in all of this that makes me want to pull hair and kick things.

3) I don’t really believe angels flit around saving people. Usually, from biblical accounts, they tend to do the opposite and get people into massive heaps of trouble. Job probably would have been happier if angels had stayed well away from him. And the Virgin Mary was a very good sport about it all, but how would you like to have to explain to your husband-to-be that you were pregnant by God? Before angels moved into popular culture, angelic intervention seems to have been reserved for people of phenomenal strength, courage, and purpose – people who come along rarely, and a good thing, too, if angels tend to leave paths of chaos, destruction, and disruption in their wakes. I’m not sure I’d cross the street to shake hands with an angel if the opportunity presented itself. Assuming it had hands to shake.

I know enough to know that many people do take great comfort in stories of angels, in the idea of angels, and I don’t want to belittle them for that, or diminish that comfort. But I prefer my angels at a safe distance, singing in the skies over Bethlehem in my favorite carols, or as sombre statues on tombstones in historic cemeteries, or making strange truces with demons in my favorite novels.

Grief Girl makes more appearances this time of year. I should probably mend her cape and get her a fresh box of tissues. And maybe one of those little reindeer antler headbands to wear to parties.

……….

I had a really great conversation with my brother last night. He’s a typical man of my people, and typically not very talkative, so a good long talk is something to be cherished. We talked about work and medical billing procedures and family and the upcoming holidays, about cooking and decorating. And, for the first time, we talked openly about the struggle he and my lovely sister-in-law are having with starting a family. My heart aches for them, aches that the same diaper commercial that stabbed me in the heart years ago will probably be replayed and stab them as well.

I think, like me, they had thought it would be easy. Entry into parenthood is such a perilous thing. I wish, for them, it could be easy. And safe, and certain.

I wish so much for them to be able to be parents that my wishes start to feel like prayers.