Saturday, March 21, 2015

Student of the week....of my heart.

I was recently given a super difficult homework assignment. My son was chosen "Student of the Week" for his class. I had to find photos of him from babyhood to present day. We had to fill a tote bag with memorabilia from his life, for him to share with his classmates. He had to bring his very favorite book to discuss with the class. So what's so super difficult about that, you ask?
Well, I was personally tasked with writing a letter to my 9 year old, 4th grade son, to be read aloud by his teacher to his class. The format was flexible. I had a blank slate. I procrastinated until the last minute.

Dear Harrisen:

I have written many letters in my lifetime, but I don't think I've ever had such a hard time starting a letter before!

This is a hard assignment. I will have to speak to your teacher about that. Parents should be given easy assignments because our brains are old.

Why is it hard? It's hard because almost 10 years of awesomeness is hard to put into words. (at least into words that will fit on the amount of paper in the printer, and not keep your friends from missing recess). It's hard because there are literally thousands of memories that come to mind when when I think of you. It's hard because I have to choose the things that mean the most and tell them in a way that other people will understand. It's more complicated that it sounds on that little sheet Mrs. Morrison sent home.

So, I think I will talk about some times when you made me very proud. Why did I choose proud? Why didn't I choose the times when you made me laugh (because there are lots of those.) Or the times you made me so mad I had steam coming out of my ears? (because there are a few of those). Because proud is what parents really love. I'll tell you a secret. Nobody has a baby and immediately knows how to be a parent. You have to learn it. You have to figure it out as you go along, day by day, moment by moment. Many, many times, parents are convinced they are doing it all wrong. But in those moments when our children make us proud, well, that's when we know we must be doing something right.

When you were just a baby, you would sit in the bathtub and play with these stick on foam animal shapes. You learned all of your animals in the bathtub. Cow. Horse. Duck. Sheep. I was convinced you were the most genius of babies. You knew your animals! I was so proud.

Your sister was born. You came to the hospital and peeped at her through the plastic window of her hospital crib. You held her, very very gently in my lap. You patted her soft little head and said “baby sister” over and over and over. You were a loving and good big brother, from the very first minute. I was so proud.

You went to preschool. You were independent and carried your little backpack right into the big schoolroom and didn't look back. You didn't cry or hold onto my leg or even wave “bye”. You were ready. You seemed like just a baby to me, but you walked into that classroom and sat down and I was so proud.

You learned to read. You learned to do math, and spell, and understand science. I watched your understanding of the world around you grow. Our conversations were interesting, and made me think. You sometimes told me things I didn't ever know before. In those moments, when you teach me things that increase my own knowledge, I am so proud.

You became an athlete. You went from a baby in a swim diaper at the Swim School, to attending the State Meet with your swim team last year, and running, biking and swimming in your first triathlons. I love watching you glide through the water, a far better swimmer than I will ever be. I love watching you poised on the blocks, waiting, ready to spring into action and dive into your race when the horn sounds. I love how confident you are in the water, and how you always strive to improve and understand how to be better. I see you being a good student to your coaches and a good teammate to the other swimmers. I see you pushing hard and crossing that finish line at your races, and I am so proud.
You became a Scout. From the moment you learned the Cub Scout motto, and the promise, I knew that you would be an excellent scout. You are all of the things the scouts stand for, and I love watching as your love of nature, camping, paddling, archery, and the outdoors get recognized and celebrated in Scouting. Every time you race a cubmobile, a pinewood derby car, earn a belt-loop or medal, or even just stand respectfully at attention, giving the scout salute to our flag, I am so proud.

You began receiving your sacraments. From your baptism in the dark during Hurricane Rita, to your Reconciliation and First Holy Eucharist, I have watched you grow closer to God and to his Son. Your reverence and love of our Church makes you very, very special to me and to God. You will soon become an altar server, and when I see you up on the altar, I will be so proud.

You became, along the way, a person of great empathy. Empathy is a rare quality in grown ups, and even more rare in a child. I know you know what I mean by empathetic. It means you are able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they are feeling. Good or bad, you are able to think of others and understand how they feel, and how best to be their friend or family member at that time. So many times, I have come home from work tired, and worn out. So many times my own child has patted my shoulder in a way that makes me feel understood and comforted. Many adults never figure that out, and you have figured it out already. Having a child who cares about the hearts and souls of other people makes me incredibly proud.

You grew and grew, and you are still growing, though I hope your feet slow down soon! Some moms don't like their babies growing up. They cry with each little growing-up milestone. I didn't cry because you were growing up. Never. I still love watching you grow. Each new year is full of new experiences and things you can do that you couldn't do before. I love seeing what you do, and what you are becoming. Maybe next year, you will even learn to keep your room clean and pick up your shoes and socks out of the living room. And I will be SO proud.



I suppose it was a success. My son smiled ear to ear at carpool. He read his letter aloud to his sister. He proclaimed it "the best letter yet....but longer that average." 

I share it here, because it was never intended to be private, and because I am SO proud of him. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crowning glory...

This weekend, we tuned in to watch the annual Miss America pageant, televised live as it has been for decades. As we sat down, my seven year old daughter, a girly-girl who loves dress up clothes, Disney movies, singing at the top of her lungs, and playing with her makeup kit, who also happens to be the kid who, earlier that day, finished a kid's triathlon like a boss.....asked "what's Miss America?".

My reaction:

This might come as a surprise to many of my older friends.  You see, I was a child beauty queen. Honey-boo-boo, I was not, but I began competing in pageants at the age of 8, and went all the way to the Miss Louisiana pageant in the Miss America system.  11 years....the most formative of my life....spent navigating the tricky waters of high stakes pageantry. I have many friends whom I dearly love, admire and support who still are very involved in that world.  

As a young girl, it was nothing but fun, from what I remember. Sparkly crowns, numbers magic-marker-ed on paper doilies and prancing around onstage at some random, rural high school....or, if it was a big deal, the stage at the local college in the big city of Shreveport.  I won a lot of trophies. I rode in parades, tossing candy to people on the street with my name on a cardboard sign, taped to the car door. 

As I got a bit older, in middle school, I began entering larger pageants with higher stakes, at one point being crowned "Little Miss Louisiana" and touring the state as such.  That was a really wonderful experience and memory, and while I remember the slightly nasty competitive edge that was building in me, it was still mostly a positive experience, despite that fact that I was mercilessly bullied by middle school peers when my school posted my "title" on the marquee.

As I progressed to adolescence and the state title preliminaries, the game changed. For one thing, the cost rose incredibly. All of the sudden, the "wardrobe" budget was out of control. You just had to travel to Arkansas to meet the man who would provide you the gown.  (and the earrings, and the shoes, and...and...and....) You just had to pay big bucks for a little old lady to sew you a custom swim suit.  After you had done all this and won your title and were basking in the glow of the spotlights with the crown barely settled on your head, your 5'7'', 117 pound self was told that to compete at the state pageant, the first thing you needed to do was lose 15 pounds. Yes. During the "post-win" conference, where you meet with your "handlers"....right after the pageant. 

That's jacked up, people.   And my mother and I knew it. 

I think that was the turning point for me.  I won that preliminary pageant, and went to college 6 weeks later.  I went to college and started figuring out who I was, and who I wanted to be, and "pageant queen" didn't make the short list. Now, I will be the first to admit that some of the skills and talents I acquired through pageantry did indeed help me become who I wanted to be.  The interview skills helped snag a full ride college scholarship.  The voice lessons were absolutely the best investment my parents could have made, as I still sing for the public and for pleasure and my voice and my ability to use it properly brings me great joy.  My stage skills translated to a 20-year-and-counting run in community theatre that has been an absolute building block of my person, and has provided me with lifelong friends and experiences that I would not trade for any amount of money or fame. I'm not exactly sure where I would have acquired these skills had it not been for pageants.  However, looking back, I do wonder about "the chicken or the egg" nature of that rationale.  Was I successful in pageants because I innately had those talents and skills, or was it pageantry that developed them? Are winners born or created? (Yep, that one's for you, Mom)  I have a dear friend with a similar story and journey through pageantry who translated her skills into a successful career as a news anchor, and yet another who is still a talented musician to this day.  I am not dismissing the positives that those years brought into my life, and the possibility that others could have reaped similar benefits. 

I do, however, question the legitimacy of the entire idea of beauty pageants in a very changing world. 

I wonder how a pageant contestant can compete in "physical fitness" in swimsuit, claiming that it's a healthy lifestyle she is promoting, when she is using makeup to enhance her abs and wearing a tiny bikini glued to her butt on TV?  If we want to recognize physical fitness, why doesn't Miss America hold a 10k run during preliminary competitions?  Why the bikini?  Why not bike shorts and a tank, and aerobics?  You see, the "physical fitness" argument rings hollow to me.  Let's be honest. What people really like are pretty girls with perky boobs in bikinis.  They like them prancing around on stage in lots of makeup, on television.  They don't like them hidden under a baggy T shirt and sweating.  Women like showing off hot bodies in small bathing suits, and if you don't believe me, hang out at a beach or water park for an hour.  I have no issue with women choosing to do that.  My issue is having a woman do that as a prerequisite to being selected as a spokesperson for critical issues such as domestic violence, diabetes awareness,  child abuse, and the list goes on. The pageant industry, particularly the Miss America system, has tried to walk a very bizarre tightrope, trying to find a beautiful, strong, passionate woman who is well, spoken, smart and talented, who can be a champion for a cause and make a difference, with one caveat: she also has to look amazing in a bikini and high heels, have no cellulite, and not have her ass jiggle when she walks.  

Wait. Whaaa?

See. It just doesn't make sense.

I wish the pageant industry would just stop trying to change the world. If you want to participate in a throwback from decades ago when women and their bodies were viewed in a much different way than they are now, then just do....that.  Don't try to make her into a Nobel peace prize winner and an ambassador for the rest of us while you are at it, because the fact that she was given the opportunity to become this ambassador wearing a bikini and rhinestones kind of takes away the legitimacy of the entire thing. 

My daughter will not compete in pageants.  Correction.  My daughter will not compete in pageants at my suggestion.  About a year ago, she got a flyer in the mail for some pageant where the big national winners won a trip to Disneyworld.  There were photos of fancy dresses and crowns and all the trappings.  I let her look at the flyer. I asked what she thought about it.  This was more or less the conversation we had:

K: Well, what do you think about that?
E:  These are pretty dresses!
K:  Yep. Very pretty.
E:  You can win a trip to Disney!
K:  Yep. A few people will.  That's true. 
E:  Not everyone will?
K:  No. Not even close.
E:  Could we go to Disneyworld without me having to be in a pageant?
K:  Sure thing.

End of discussion.

You see, I truly believe that I can provide opportunities for my daughter to gain the positive skills and talents I learned through pageantry without submitting her to the dangers of focusing on her appearance and her body, or more specifically, her appearance and her body as they compare to other people's appearance and body.  You see, we can't change that. God gives us those things.  Sure, we can lift weights and eat no carbs and do cardio and make the most of what God gives us, and we should, to an extent.  But I have matured to believe that the amount of time it takes to fashion a body and lifestyle that can compete in pageants at that level is at the expense of developing things that are far more important.  Our body is the vessel. It is the wrapper. It contains what counts, it is not what counts. It contains what we should be judged upon, it is not what we should be judged upon. 

We, as women, have struggled long and hard to be viewed in a light that pageants, in my opinion, simply cannot, by their very nature, promote. We aim, as a modern society, to recognize inherent beauty in a person and value ideas and talents that make an impact on our society.  As the mother of a daughter, and of a son who will one day be a man, I fight photoshopped images, sexist music videos, tween clothing with suggestive, sexualized themes and gender-related stereotypes. These things are important to me.  I  cringe in a tiny way when someone comments on how pretty my daughter is.  I usually respond, "and she is just as sweet and smart as she is beautiful".  We are not there yet in changing the way people think about, speak about and relate to our entire gender. I can no longer make pageantry fit with the way I view myself and my daughter in this world. 

But who knows....maybe the pageant system can survive with its seemingly incongruous focus issues. Miss America this year was crowned to a shriek of horror and gasps of incredulous shock felt round the internet. Why? She is amazingly smart.  By all reports, she is a very well educated and successful human as far as that goes...heading for a doctorate and poised to change the world.  She's fit and pretty.  Maybe not traditionally pageant pretty...but she is attractive in a real sort of way.  Kind of like the woman you see at a restaurant and say, "she looks very well put together."  No, the shock was because her talent consisted of tapping a red plastic cup in rhythm to a very simple song she sang while sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the stage.  A plastic cup.  Yeah.

I keep wondering---Maybe that appealed to the judges because she did not seem to take herself very seriously.  She seemed to think, "Ah, what the hell.  This will be fun."  That's the kind of girl I can get behind: the kind who likely drank a big red solo cup full of beer at a barbecue and started banging it on the ground in front of her law school buddies and said, "Hey, what do you guys think?  I should totally do this for my talent at this pageant I'm entering."  

And guess what? People with balls like that....they DO change the world. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Precious Memories...

Tonight, I was sitting in my living room, watching a movie with my children, and my phone gave it's little blip that a text message had been received. When I glanced down and saw that it was a number I didn't recognize, my heart made a little groaning noise.  Texts like this sometimes end badly, ya know.

What I received was a zooming roller-coaster ride back to my childhood that rather rapidly changed the outlook of my whole evening.

It was a photo:

It was captioned "Precious Memories" and was sent from a very dear childhood friend of mine, who, not so long ago, bought the home I grew up in. She found this messy love letter to my mom, penned by me, 30 or so years ago, in the inside of a bathroom drawer. She could have chosen to smile and think back to those days, and go on about her drawer organizing or whatever she was doing...but instead, she took the time to hunt down my cell number and deliver this memory to my heart.

The fact that the home I grew up in would be for sale to anyone is probably one of the main things in my life I have had difficulty letting go of.  I'm not a grudge holder, and am not the sort to hang on to pain or negativity until it damages,  like some people tend to do. I'm basically a realist, frequently can be heard saying, "it is what it is", and typically bounce back from things that make other people kiss dirt for a good long while. I'm proud of that part of me. Resilient.

However, the fact is that my childhood home, dreamed up by my Mom and built in part by my Dad, is now a place I have to drive by and point out to my children like a historical marker. It is no longer and will never be the place where my kids go to visit grandparents. They will never sleep under the roof that sheltered me during the years that made me who I am. I grieve that. There are tears as I type it. Divorce robs you of certain things, and I know that all too well. My kids know it and live it daily. Maybe the "pink brick house" in the country is just the scapegoat for my grief over more than one family that isn't exactly how it should be. That's a pretty big grief. But, hey, it's a pretty big house. And it was built well, so it can take it.

Lots of people move around a lot as kids. There are families that live in a half-dozen houses or more before their kids hit high school.  They pack up, rearrange, re-negotiate. Their lives are fluid and enviably mobile and exciting. We were not that family. We were planted. We named cabinets and drawers according to their permanent occupants. We were predictable and settled and our home was dependable, so that a young girl had no reason to ever believe a note to her mom in a drawer wouldn't be read over and over again until the end of time. We occupied that piece of earth and those walls that were built on it in a way that I don't feel I have ever occupied a space since.

Until "we" didn't.

When I lived in Africa for a year, and I would feel a bit homesick, I would close my eyes and walk through that home in my mind. I was so incredibly in tune with that physical structure and the sounds and smells within, that I could practically teleport there. I still can.

I can walk into the rose colored carport where the Chrysler Imperial leaves fuzzy gouges in the paneling when careless kids and moms open car doors. I can get the big square Dictograph alarm key off it's brass cup hook in the "ski closet" (remember...we named closets and drawers after their occupants?). It smells of Armour All and slightly mildewed lake water covered rope and life jackets.  I can put it in the fussy lock in the metal plate outside the back door and turn it until the led goes green. Then I can open the back door and step into the hallway of the kitchen, onto that cushy brown vinyl floor that was patterned to resemble wood planks. I can glance in front of the white ceramic flat top cooktop to the place on that floor to where it has a triangular gouge, melted by an exploding plate when I tried to heat a roll on that cooktop on a dinner plate. I can look out into the back yard where I ground corn on a tree stump for hours, dressed in an indian costume, convinced I was a pioneer, over to the tree that I whacked with a stick to make the seed pods flutter down like tiny helicopters, to the big hole Daddy mowed around for years...the one I dug to be the pond for the pet geese my parents led me to believe they would actually allow me to have. (I think they thought the eggs would never really hatch, or that I would lose interest and not really dig a pond. They hadn't had quite as much experience with my tenacity at that point.)

I don't go back into Dad's bathroom, but I know there is a purple bottle of "Gee, your Hair Smells Terrific" in the shower and his hairbrush is hidden above the medicine cabinet so that we might forget it's there and not steal it from him.  I remember the time he drilled a hole through the handle and chained it to the towel rack, but I guess that kept him from using it, too, so that booby trap was short lived, if memory serves me.  His "Re-loading room I don't visit much. I know it is full of muddy boots, ammunition, and strange things I don't understand. I like to steal the pieces of soapstone he uses in the oilfield that always litter the countertop, amongst the quarters and dimes that I also take as my own. They look and feel slippery and comforting in my pocket.

The playroom....past the breakfast room where I sit solitary on "my" side of the dinner table, with Dad to my right, in perfect position to steal my pork chop long before I am ready to give up the bone, and directly across from my brother who is poised to reach with his fork to get whatever else he might grab if I turn my head. Mom is to his right, nestled up against the sewing machine in it's semi-permanent, (except for holidays) position at the head of the table, with square dance costume material under it's presser foot. That playroom, with the jungle patterned wallpaper that is just busy enough to almost cover our clandestine scribbles between the lions and the giraffes....I am fond of coloring in their eyeballs, almost certain nobody will notice but me.

I walk back through to the living room, where the enormous rough beam in the vaulted ceiling always makes me try to imagine the tree it came big it must have been and how on earth someone had created that beam from it....out the front door to the white porch swing where Mom holds us while we watch a storm, singing us hymns so that we might not grow up like she did, with a parent fearful of God's thunder and lightening. I see it clearly now. We all work so hard to not re-create mistakes, don't we?

 "He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone..."

Past the fireplace with the matching rough wood mantle, permanent nails for our red velvet stockings and Dad's gleaming muzzle loader with the inset brass starburst hanging over, like a prize. Or, like Pa Ingalls, which is ok by me.

Down the hall,  the carpet transitions from messy grey, stained by the stray Cocker Spaniel with bladder issues I brought home from a college camping trip, to green shag, which was the base layer to a thousand childhood games.  Won't stop long at brother's never really smells great, and the bare mattress he prefers to sheets and covers skeeves me out.

In the corner of the house, the wind whistles and makes an awful howling noise even when the weather is reasonably fair. This is where I find the square room with the watery ocean-striped wallpaper and the ceramic plaque with my name on the door. Here are the closet doors that always have to be shut and the white eyelet curtains that have to be pulled over "just so" and latched on a nail to hold them closed while I sleep. The waterbed that I begged for mercilessly until I received it for my 9th birthday, sits, warm like a hug. Trophies. Lots of them. Posters of a white fur seal and a cheetah in a tree from World magazine. A record player.  A desk.  A speaker with a creepy talking bear phone. A holy water font decorated with the Blessed Mother that is always dry. This...this... is a space that I occupied as a five year old child, until I returned home from Africa at 22. A lifetime.

Down further is the "blue bathroom" with it's daisy wallpaper and scrolled, swirly fixtures, where I sit and bother my mother as she tries to bathe in our only tub, after picking the lock with a q-tip.  The best of conversations are had while I sit with my back to the wall and bother the hell out of her.  She does protest, but not so much that I feel she really wants me to leave. There is old aquarium tubing and a set of poker chips under the cabinet. I don't know why.

Tucked between the bedrooms is the "office", where Dad's desk limits, especially the gold and black striped pen that sits like the Holy Grail in the top drawer.  I'm not sure how we grow up knowing that if we dare to touch it we had better put it back exactly as found, or....or....I don't even know what would happen. Maybe that was the point.  The "square dance closet" is on the back wall.  It's my fluffy storm shelter. I spend my entire childhood convinced the voluminous piles of sherbet colored net petticoats would protect me from tornadoes.

Mom and Dad's room with the massive wooden furniture is opposite mine...where I stand on the windowsill and get as close as possible to Kirk Cameron on the 19'' tube television.  The ironing board is furniture, it's cover thick with spray starch from my Daddy's habit of crispy jeans. (I was almost an adult before I realized it wasn't supposed to be permanent. I'm often guilty of the same thing in my home today.) I raid Mom's nightgown drawer for her smell during the long weeks she visits Fontana. The bathroom sits at the end of their room where I apply Max Factor Pancake makeup with a wet sea sponge while mom puts spiky hot curlers in my hair, every single morning before school.  There are metallic gold butterflies floating in a yellow wallpaper sky. The avocado green shower is where we were tortured, long after bedtime, forced to wash lake water out of our hair. The cabinets behind us, holding Christmas, Easter, and the T-shirt collection of our lives.

"Hands off my Tuts"

The sink, where I find tiny bits of ash from her Virgina Slims that she forgets to wash away so I won't know... and the cabinet underneath, holding secret and clandestine boxes of Tampax and Always that fascinated me long before I needed them. The vanity, with the rickety white metal chair with avocado green tufted upholstery, where I sit to write a message for her to read. In the drawer. The drawer and the message that are there tonight. . . that will still be there tomorrow.

Places we love and have lost are never really gone. Try it. I'll bet you can teleport to somewhere right now...somewhere lost but not gone.

Some day, I will take the children to visit my childhood friend who is making her own home there, filled with her children and her memories. It will give my son and daughter a concrete vision of where Mommy grew up. It will give me a sense of peace, I think, to breathe air within those walls again.  It will be ok, that it is home to another family. It is ok, I think, because how it was 30 years ago has never changed in my mind.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Growing up.....

Evangeline was lounging in my bed with me and all of the sudden looked up at me, puzzled.

E: "Mommy. What DO you wear to go shopping when you are a grown up?"
K: "What do you mean, baby?"
E: "What do you WEAR to go SHOPPING when you grow up?"
K: "ummm.....I usually wear jeans and a shirt?"
E: (exasperated) "Nooooooo, Mommy....I mean, how do you go shop when you only have kid clothes and you are a grown up?"

I finally figure out Evangeline is under the impression that one day you wake up, and BAM. You are BIG, and all your clothes are still a 5T and there is no way on earth you can go to the Boardwalk to buy big-people clothes because you have popped out of all of your kid-clothes like the Incredible Hulk.

I try to reason with her, explaining that growing up happens slowly and one day you figure out that your clothes are a little tight and you need bigger ones, just like when she grows out of her shoes.  I explain that she will be a teenager before she needs big-people clothes and there are plenty of sizes that get bigger and bigger.

She is clearly not buying it. Not a bit. She looks up at me like I'm the one who just doesn't understand.

K: "Dwen, when you get to be a grownup and your clothes don't fit you can order some off the internet. Then you will have clothes to go shopping in."

(I'm clearly getting better at this parenting thing.)

She grinned and promptly went about her business, having solved the dilemma of clothing herself on the day she wakes up to find she has become a grown up.

In some ways, she's right. There are moments when we realize we are the people making the decisions. We are the ones with the kids. I'm the mom. I'm no longer practicing for life.  I am living it, day by day, and my children are practicing by watching me.  Sometimes it sneaks up quietly like a pair of shoes that get a little tighter on a 4-year-old foot at the end of the summer, and sometimes it is like ripping out of your skin and growing ten sizes overnight.

I'm grateful that kids are like spandex....they hug you tight when you are growing slowly, bit by bit, and stretch at a moment's notice when you need to burst out of your shell to grow up all at once.  Let's hope spandex hasn't gone out of style by the time Evangeline has to shop for her grown-up clothes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Quiet Reassurance....

Harrisen and I have been struggling with some growing-up lately.  Seems he's having a few "growing pains" that could use a little intervention to smooth over so that he has the best chance of being the coolest, happiest, most successful first-grader he can possibly be.

This has meant a significant lack of sleep for me, a single, working-the-night-shift mommy.  I'm pretty exhausted, both physically and emotionally right now and I'm trying my best to hold it together and get us both over this bump in the road unscathed.

I picked Harrisen up from school the other day to take him to his appointment, and in the car, my fatigue and concern got the best of me. Without the constant banter with sister-girl in the backseat, I felt what I perceived as an uncomfortable quiet settle upon us. 

K: "Little H, I'm sorry I'm not very talkative today. I guess I'm just kinda tired and not feeling like talking much."

H: "It's ok to be quiet sometimes, Mommy. I feel like being quiet, too."

I glanced back at him and saw that angelic face, turned toward the sunshine coming through the car window.  He was smiling.  Not a big smile, but a quiet, content smile. One that told me that just being with me, in the car, on a sunny day, was enough. 

It's humbling when our children speak to us with ageless wisdom.  It was refreshing to appreciate the quiet, reach back and hold his hand, and listen to the silence together.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An Apple a Day....

Just about a year ago, to the day, I spent one of the more harrowing nights of my life at the mercy of a Macintosh...and I don't mean the computer.

I remember the evening perfectly. It was a rare quiet evening at home. The kids were at their dad's house, and I was looking forward to a quiet evening on the sofa, curled up with my dog and some reality tv. Now, that almost certainly does not sound like the most exciting evening one could imagine, but for an overworked, overstressed single mom with two kids and a full courseload of nursing school to contend with, it's the little things, ya know?

I remember so well...eating my Lean Cuisine on the sofa. I let Josie lick the little black platter because licking people-platters pleases her so.  I realized I wanted something sweet and crunchy and satisfying to wrap up my fancy-schmancy dinner. I had a big metal bowl full of shiny red apples in the kitchen. I remember the apple being crisp and juicy and fragrant. I remember it being exactly what I wanted at that moment. I remember it also being the object of Josie's desire as well.

Now, for better or for worse, I have always indulged my dog's penchant for people food. My best friend, Clare, gets incredibly irritated at me for sharing little tidbits with the dog.  I have maintained for years that Chinese Crested Dogs are omnivores, and if I only gave her dog kibble I would be denying her an integral component of her intended diet. Josie lived a life full of nibbles of bread, veggies, fruit, pasta, sauces licked from bowls and platters, and apple cores.

Yep, I always gave little Joe the core from my apple. She would gnaw on them for half an hour like a rawhide toy. When it got to be just little crumbs of apple, she would polish them off and look up at me with those big brown eyes and those bat-like ears and I would say, " little fruit bat!"

I would until this night.

No sooner had I handed her the apple core and she had toted it merrily to the rug to enjoy than I heard a commotion that over-rode whatever drivel was being piped out of the television.  I heard wheezing. I heard gagging. I heard hacking. I heard stumbling. I looked over to the dining room and saw my little fruit bat choking on the apple core I had given her.

Now, there are two things so far that have struck fear in the heart of this pet owner like no other. Seizures are one....Josie has mild epilepsy and has suffered seizures since she was a puppy.  They are scary as hell, but she has never suffered any long-term consequences from them. The other heart-stopper is choking. A dog who is choking (or more accurately has something stuck in the esophogus, since the airway is not involved) becomes panicked. They stagger. They grunt. They groan. They fall over and heave and cough and perhaps most troubling of all, they produce copious amounts of thick, frothy white foam that spills forth from their mouths like shaving cream out of a can. It's a terrifying episode to watch.

I tried holding her and massaging her throat to move the lump down to where it belongs. I tried feeling in the back of her mouth and throat with my finger, to see if I could get it up.  No go. It was not going anywhere and Josie was getting more and more lethargic. 

Luckily for me there is an animal emergency clinic in Shreveport. It was now about 10:00 pm and when I burst into the door, the vet tech was waiting for us. She swept Josie away for sedation and x-rays. After an hour long wait, the vet called me back and placed a groggy Josie in my arms.

The news was grim.

He pointed at her x-ray where her lovely arched spine framed a blurry mass not far from her heart. The apple core had lodged itself at the bottom of her esophogus at the sphincter where it dumps into the stomach.  The trouble with this location is that it isn't exactly in the abdominal cavity where it could be easily removed by surgery. It was actually in the chest cavity, and well, you can imagine how that would complicate cracking open a twelve-year-old dog who is already suffering from congestive heart failure.

The vet gave me two options: put her down right then or haul her immediately to Dallas or Baton Rouge where an endoscopic canine surgeon would be waiting to perform emergency surgery. Since neither option #1 nor option #2 were options for ME, I did what any dog owner would do with her 9 pound pile of love sitting on her lap DYING from a treat I had given her with my own hands....I called for backup. 

Within 10 minutes the tiny exam room was full of me and Josie in the corner, my best friend Clare, my other best friend, Ryan and my other friend, Clint. 

It probably goes without saying that I was pretty hysterical. I had my mom on the phone several times. I had my best buddies surrounding me and I still could not come to a decision. After what must have been a half hour of what-ifs and loving, thoughtful input from my support team, I had made the decision to put her down. She was old. She had a chronic condition that already impacted her quality of life. The recuperation would be difficult and painful. I had basically no money as I was mostly unemployed and a full time student. It was an absolutely heart wrenching internal dialogue.

When the vet came back in for my decision, I wasn't even able to make it through the sentence. Somewhere deep inside I knew that I could not give up on her when she had innocently taken a treat from my hands that had caused this. I knew that no matter what the expense, I owed it to her to give her a chance. My decision was made.

Well, sort of.  My decision was made, but I still had to convince the vet. You see, I knew I could not take a road trip with the sick dog. That, my friends, was beyond what even I could do with a soul steeped in guilt. I pleaded with him. I told him I had to give her a chance, and he had to try. He had to try to save her. He said he would, but he gave her a less than 50% chance of survival. He said that if he couldn't get it out, he would have to put her down on the table.

It was now midnight. Clare was begging me to leave her and get some rest.  The surgery was set to begin at 2:00 am. No way was I leaving her. Instead, I wrapped her in a blanket and sat with her in my car for two hours, singing to her, patting her, and cooing in her sweet bat-like ears. I knew that it was as good a chance as not that this was goodbye.  At 2:00 I handed her over to the very young, very un-confident emergency vet.

I went home, took two benadryl and fell into a fitful sleep next to Clare.  I woke to the phone ringing at 4 am. 

K: Hello?
V: WE TOTALLY GOT IT. (told you he was young.)

By his estimation it was nothing short of a miracle that she survived. He went in through her belly, and could not pull it out, so he had to also go down her throat and push from above to dislodge it from below. She was weak, stitched up like Frankenstein's monster and I had just acquired a hunk of brand new shiny debt, but she was alive.

I didn't buy apples for a whole year. Not that I remember anyway. I also didn't give Josie any more people food.

Until yesterday.

I bought apples.

It's fall. The apples were awesomely red and shiny and the kids adore them. I had one after dinner as Eric and I sat on the deck talking. I almost instinctively threw the core in the bushes, but stopped myself in time. I said to him:

K: oh. my. GOD. I almost threw this apple core in the bushes.
E: um. right. cause that's baaaaad, right?
K: dude, you have no idea.

I then proceeded to recount the above story in all its gory detail, the tears, the shooting white foam vomit, the middle of the night phone call. The miracle and the second chance.

E: I'm glad you didn't throw that apple core.
K: I'm gonna throw it. In the trash.

The same trash that was knocked over by an aggressively omnivorous canine who had been long deprived of apple cores while I put on my nightgown and brushed my teeth.

I spit and  turned off the water and that's when I heard it. The hacking. The coughing. The gagging.

When the first stream of white foam shot out onto my floor, I grabbed the phone and called Eric, who had barely made it the few blocks home. I wish I could say I was calm. I was not. The sheer magnitude of the impossibility and nightmare of the situation was too much.

K: She did it again!
E: Wha?
K: The apple core. She's choking.  Again. She got in the trash.
E: I'll be right there.

Thus began, almost a year to the date, another night-long vigil with an apple-choking Josie. I was wracked with guilt and completely overcome with the insanity of the situation...that I had just recounted the story to Eric...relived the gory details and despite my careful avoidance of the situation, it was happening again. This time, however, I was armed with some info. You see, the vet last year had wanted me to drive her to Baton Rouge. That's a five hour drive. I knew I had some time. She was miserable and looked half dead, but she was breathing. We wrapped her in a towel to keep her calm and watched the hours tick by on the clock until her regular vet's office opened. Eric discovered that she was calmer and could even rest if she was swaddled tightly in the towel. Around 3 am, she shook off the towel and stood up.

K: What's up little Joe? You need to go outside?
J: wag. wag. wagwagwag.

I put her on the deck and she took off like a shot across the yard to the water dish, which she lapped up greedily and kept down. The apple core had somehow, miraculously, passed.

In between the two episodes that make the Garden of Eden debacle sound pretty tame, Josie has had three other "incidents". 

-The night she removed all the stuffing from her bed in her kennel and wrapped it impossibly tight around her right forepaw, necessitating removal with scissors, much howling and yelping, and a three-day limp.

-The day she hung herself from my bra strap which was left on a doorknob in the bathroom where she was confined while I was in a 14 hour clincial.  Her eyes were bulging from their sockets and she had splattered blood all over my white tile bathroom from the burst blood vessels in her throat by the time I found her. Despite the crime scene, she escaped with a nasty hematoma, three days of soft diet and no permanent damage.

-The morning I was sure she was dying as she vomited bright red blood all over the house as I slept. I woke up to puddles of blood in every room and a shivering, shaking Josie spewing bright red blood from the "other end" onto my kitchen floor. Hemorrhagic GastroEnteritis. Google it. *shudder*  A two day hospital stay, IV therapy and some TLC got her through that one.

Clare swears she is suicidal. Ryan thinks she is really a cat who is briskly running out of spare lives.  I think she's just tough and has some really crappy luck when it comes to health maintenance. Whatever it may be, little Joe lives to fight another day, chase another squirrel, warm my feet at night, and lick my kids faces in the morning, and St. Francis has a few more grey hairs in that little fuzzy ring-shaped hair-do of his.

I'm considering becoming an apple-free home. You know how some people have to be "nut-free" or "gluten-free" for the sake of their susceptible kids?  I'm just not sure it's worth the risk, seeing as we live with an omnivore, and all.  Applesauce. That's it.  Applesauce.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Trajectory and Intersection...

I have not spent many hours of my life in protestant churches. I'm what they refer to as a "Cradle Catholic".  This means I was raised on a healthy diet of ritual, incense and tradition thousands of years old. Part of what comes along with the sense of home, comfort and familiar that the Mass brings, is the exact opposite feeling when a Catholic enters a different sort of church.  This can be unsettling, but it can sometimes be an impetus to really open your heart and listen.

One of the most soul-sticking sermons I've ever heard was in a Baptist church.  I've oft quoted it to friends who find themselves in dark, uncertain times and have embraced it numerous times this year.  The pastor said, "Wouldn't it be nice if God gave us a big, bright spotlight that shone all the way down our path and illuminated it so that we could see exactly where to go with our lives? But.....He didn't. He gave us a puny little flashlight, and we poke along in the darkness, winding, turning and making choices based on the tiny circle of light a few inches in front of our face. We live, day to day, making choices based on what is illuminated for us by our pathetic little flashlights."

I truly believe that my trajectory in the past 20 years of my life has been a testament to his accurate depiction of how our lives truly unfold.  I look back on decisions I have made with my tiny flashlight-beam-illumination, and see how drastically my path would have veered left or right had I had a little more foresight....a bit stronger batteries in the flashlight.  I have made some decisions that, as it unfolded, were brilliant compared to the amount of available information they were based on.  Conversely, I made some really painful, damaging decisions that will continue to reverberate in my life, never allowing me to forget the path I chose with dim light and poor attention to intuition.  The ghosts of my choices both haunt me and keep me company.  Their presence in my life serves, in alternating cadence,  as an admonition and as warm, satisfying approval.

I look back and realize that we set off as young adults from our launch pad, and our choices, effort and tenacity draw the line of our trajectory.  So often, the arc of  such has no obvious meaning to us until we hit an intersection...a point in time and space where our trajectory crosses that of another.

Sensing that this little essay has gone a bit vague and metaphorical, let me nail down a real-life example.

When my son was born, we struggled as a family to provide the best possible care for him as an infant, considering I had to return to work when he was three months old.  The saga of his childcare ran the gamut of perfect, adequate, horrible, to perfect again....It was a roller coaster, emotionally, financially, and mentally.  When my daughter was born, we were in a very good place with our son, and I felt such tremendous relief that the stress I suffered with her brother would not be repeated. That's, of course, when life began laughing at me.  The rug was pulled out from under us and we were back to square one with our daughter's care.  I cried for two weeks straight.  Little did I know that this subtle arc in my trajectory was lining me up for a point of intersection that would change the course of the rest of my life.  It was, through an act of desperation, that I enrolled Evangeline in a daycare completely across town, and came to know my dear friend, Kandy, whose trajectory had been running parallel with mine, unknown and unnoticed.

Over the next year, our friendship weathered a series of changes in my life that eventually took me to unemployed and searching, with a flashlight whose batteries seemed weaker and weaker as the days went by, until that certain day, I sat...sad, dejected, and without direction, in Kandy's office. Somehow, our conversation took a turn to the left, and a new chapter in my life began--right then and there.  And I felt it...down deep. The light got brighter.  I had energy. I had motivation. I had renewed hope. Part of it was that Kandy is the type of person who is an inspiration without ever trying. She sees the good in people, believes in them, and loves without limits.  She's the kind of person I try to be.  However, the other part was that I had simply come to the place where my life was stripped down, laid open, and in a position to accept a sharp turn away from what I had thought was going to be my future.  It was a perfect storm of vulnerability, fate, serendipity, and miracle. The stars lined up, and I basked in the fleeting glow of certainty. It was one of those points of bliss where trajectory intersects at just the right moment in time and space.

Kandy and I will both graduate from nursing school later this year. We will both be there, for one another, sitting in the audience at our respective ceremonies, with what can only be described as our own little secret.  Only we truly know how it felt to share a moment when we made brave choices, together, to change our trajectory. My career will forever be tied to hers. Our dream was born together, in a moment of illumination.  She will forever be a part of the advent of something beautiful in my life.

So, with that concrete example under my belt, I'll slide back into symbol and say that it strikes me as no coincidence that one year from the date of the hardest, darkest change in trajectory I have ever experienced, I once again find myself in a place of illumination-- a place of light and hope and intersection.

Perhaps the more moments like this we experience, the more comfortable we become with them. When I was younger, with less experience to draw from, moments of clarity brought with them a certain type of fear. Perhaps one of the gifts of age and suffering and living fully is an openness to moments of bliss... times and experiences that can't be explained, described or predicted.

 I have come to peace and terms with the courage it takes to keep taking steps forward, despite the darkness that is all around. The small circle of light is comforting. My flashlight batteries are fresh.