Empty Nest: Someday is Today

Image

A vignette of the youngest of three and only daughter going off to college…

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 9.47.27 AM

It had been looming. But I put it out of my mind. Concerned  myself with matters of the day. Reminding Alexa to write her thank you notes. Going to Target one last time, although we’d said that last time. Keeping up with the laundry. Planning her last meal. It sounded so final. All of it. Though I’d been through it twice before, this was different. This was my daughter. Growing up and moving away. Only for eight months, I told myself, but I knew better. Eight months would turn into years, four if we’re lucky, and then a job and an apartment… And this is my life.

It’s different with girls. The tears for one. Her friends visited in waves. Memories and tears flooded my house and me, too. I remembered them all playing, as little girls. The memories came as fragments. The laughter. The quiet little voices of girls I used to eavesdrop on and secretly smile.

I flashed to a memory of my own. My circle of friends, about Alexa’s age, sitting around my friend Donna’s kitchen table, laughing and talking, and her mother turned to us and said, “I can see you as old ladies doing the very same thing as you are right now.” She must have felt what I am feeling. A little bit of nostalgia wrapped around hope and mourning all at the same time.

The night before, I couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, trying to force the thoughts out of my mind. I willed myself not to think. I prayed, attempted to think of other things instead. The minutes on my bedside clock crawled slowly by. At midnight, I decided to get up, see if she’d come home. She had been out with her “Core Four” for one last hurrah, but I didn’t hear her come in.

I stood at the doorway of her bedroom. She was laying facedown. The dog at the foot of her bed. I stood there for a moment, almost walked back to my room, but something called to me to crawl beside her in her bed and wrap my arm around her. So I did. Seconds later, her sleepy voice whispers, “Mom, are you trying to make me cry?”

Startled, I said no and told her I’d go back to my own room. She replied no, rolled over and said, “I’ve been crying all night anyway.” Alexa isn’t a crier. In fact, she’s usually quite stoic which she got from her dad or mine. She scooched over into the crook of my arm and held me tight.

We talked about the night. She showed me snapchats of the four girls, faces soaked with tears, caught mid-laughter. I gave her advice on letting go and belonging, settling into her new life with new friends. She confided that she was, in fact, excited about college, but sad about all the everyday things she’d miss. Waking up in her own bed, squished between two dogs, hearing about my day or telling me about hers, going to the gym with Morgan or the dog park with Cassidy or watching Hannah Montana with Ally. All the little things. The things that I would miss too. The night went on this way for two and half hours until she fell asleep, comfortable in the crook of my arm. Me listening to her breath rise and fall.

It took me back to a moment when she was just a toddler. I’d written a poem about it. She was laying on my bed because she couldn’t sleep. Together, we said her prayers, the way we did every night and she ended with, “God bless everyone I love,” the way she did every night. Then she fell into a peaceful sleep, next to me on the same pillow, her face facing mine. I watched her, peacefully, breathe— our breaths in sync. And I wrote that I knew someday, our breaths would no longer be in sync.

The thought brought me to this moment. The moment we move out of sync.

Image-1

Advertisements

LEGACY: The People Who Leave

heaven2

The following writing was inspired by my very first creative writing professor at college. Besides instilling a love for the craft, May Harding shared not only herself but her poetry which was meant to inspire each of us, and so it has.

Two Deaths

In middle life death cut him down,

severed blood from mind.

His presence, in an instant lost,

we mourned, we could not find.

You we lost in little ways,

stealthy was the going.

Your body robbed you of yourself,

secretly outflowing.

When you died, thought spent the blow,

anguish was bitter true.

You had left us long ago

we know now… and we knew.

                                                ~ May Harding

When she read this poem, I’d only experienced the death of one person who had been close to me– my paternal grandfather. May’s poem awakened a sense of introspection within me connected with death, one I hadn’t before considered. I began to question it, and, more so, I began to wonder what effects it had on me– still young and vibrant and very much alive, I was naive to life experiences, then.

Since, I have experienced too much death in my life and of those around me. Each time, I am brought back to this singular poem in thinking what effect each posthumously has instilled within.

Some years back, after picking up the pieces from the fourth death of a young child (all four occurred within a five year span), and, while they weren’t of my own children, they were of mothers who were close to me. As a mom, I just couldn’t wrap my head around how one survives such an experience, and, yet, four mothers I knew well were tasked with such a battle of warrior proportions. I wrote a short story entitled, “The People Who Leave,” addressing what the many people who have left my life have left behind and engrained in me. Some time later, I called up the document on my desktop to revisit it, only it was encrypted in some hieroglyphs I did not recognize, nor could I decipher. I cut and pasted various passages of the text into Google looking for a translation I would never find. I took it as a message that for some reason my story shouldn’t be written, at that time.

Now, many years later, I set about to try again. I’m not sure the purpose more than simply wrapping my mind around how I’ve been affected by each I’ve lost. I believe each person is put in my life for a purpose, sometimes unbeknownst until some years later, after much experience and reflection. Moreover, I think, in life, we hope to leave something behind. These are their gifts to me:

 

~ Gustave William ~

My first experience of death. It was cold. You were cold, to me, and distant. You graduated from college and you were an alcoholic. How did I know, then, that you were a paradox to me? I was young. I recall seemingly insignificant details that are sketchy at best. But I remember this: you taught me to cultivate a relationship with my father who idolized you. I think you were the best of friends.

~ Augusta/ Nana ~

My great grandmother. Of all of my great grandparents, I remember you best. You were such a regal presence, so full of life. I looked up to you. Next to the word matriarch in the dictionary should be a photograph of you. Stubbornly German, you made your presence known– your needs and wants too; to me, you embodied strength. You were a collector (of elephants– I became a collector, too) and a giver (your coconut cake recipe has been passed down generations). You were a fighter. I hope I learned that from you.

~ Nonni ~

My beautiful Italian, great grandmother who couldn’t speak much English. She would teach me Italian sayings like, “Come sei bella.” She is always sitting in my memories of her and she would take my hands in hers, so soft and warm, and look right into my eyes. She taught me to be proud of my heritage and to compliment others, often.

~ Aunt Florence ~

I’m not sure why I began visiting you… because you weren’t too far to bike to or because you seemed lonely. I have such fond memories of the smile on your face when I’d arrive, sometimes alone, sometimes with one of my friends. You’d make us tea, and, together, we’d pick grapes from your vine. You taught me how to knit; those knobby fingers made such beautiful things. You talked about your children, as if they’d abandoned you, but, really you just missed them.

~ Carmen/ Carmenucci ~

You, your death had a profound effect on my life, but you know that. You are one of the few people who I really feel hasn’t left me. I believe you watch over me. You were such a scooch when you were alive, always teasing me and preaching words of your wisdom (and how often I’ve come back to those speeches and would give anything to hear them again). It turns out you knew a lot more than I gave you credit for (because, then, I believed I knew more than you– turns out that wasn’t so). You taught me so much about life and war and that sometimes life is war, but, even when we’re afraid, we can find the strength to make it through. You taught me about death– how, even in death, to be valiant. As a result, I live in the present and often remind myself that I must live without fear.

~ Paul, Samuel & Albert Celone ~

An interesting set of brothers, not particularly close, and you came in and out of my life at different times. Yet, what I take away from the sum experiences I had with you is a sense of family, and that, no matter the circumstances, family is always there for one another. I find it peculiar that none of you married, and yet you all were so attentive as uncles; it makes me sad that you made me feel so special, but you never had children of your own.

~ Nancy ~

You were my friend, my “little” sorority sister, the girlfriend of my best friend. So smart and funny and pretty, you had everything going for you or so it seemed. I didn’t understand, until you, the depth of one’s demons and to what extent they could be masked. It must have been so hard to keep up the facade. To smile when you were crumbling inside. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry I couldn’t help. It makes me sad that your parents used you as an example for your friends when I wonder if they played a part in the facade. Your loss hit me hard. It seemed selfish and unfair. But, the adult me understands the angst you must have gone through. You have made me a little more sensitive to the secrets people keep.

~ Kimberly ~

Born with a genetic disorder, we knew you didn’t have long for this world. And you almost made it to two years old. I wanted to help– your mom and you. It was important to give you the best quality of life we could. I grew close to you and felt that I made a difference, even though it was hard. Sometimes, I’d cry the whole way home thinking about your strength in the face of your life sentence. Years don’t necessarily equate to the impact one can leave behind. You are proof of that. I believe you made me stronger, more benevolent, less egocentric.

~ Jamie Lynn ~

Well, you were a force of energy– that’s how I’ll always remember you. When you entered a room, you filled it with sunshine. When I think of you, the image is always of you smiling or laughing or dancing. In your nine years, you proved that you knew how to live. Your loss was devastating. It created a chasm in many lives because it was so abrupt, so senseless– hitting us, in the wake of your death, with the fact that you never know if there will be a tomorrow. You were friends with my children, and to recognize their loss at such a young age was difficult to process. There is a photo of you, Kimberly and Ryan (all born within months of each other) that I look at and still cannot fathom that two of you are gone. With your death, I came to empathize with any mother losing her child, I learned how to support a grieving child (actually, three of them), and I learned how life’s twists and turns can change the compass of a friendship. In a way, I feel like I experienced two losses in yours because your mom and my friendship hasn’t been the same. I’m not sure if I just didn’t know how to be a friend to her during that rough time, I tried, or if she distanced herself from me because that’s what she needed. You taught me hard lessons, little girl, for which I am grateful, but I wish we didn’t have to lose you in the learning of them. Please know you are still very much alive in the hearts of my family.

~ Stephanie ~

Your passing, on the heels of two others so close to me, made me question God and my faith. I didn’t know you well. You were so young. One moment full of life and the next gone, all from a common infection, that mothers, like me, nurse our kids through and back to health– every day. Who knew that a strain of strep could halt a life. I felt so sick from your passing that I couldn’t even bring myself to attend the wake, something I’d never been squeamish about before. It angered me that God had taken you. As a result, I began a long journey reevaluating what I believed in. I’m not sure that I’ve found answers, but I have found peace that for every life and every death there is purpose. I’ve also found a tremendous respect for mothers like yours who have no other choice but to go on living the best they know how, even though a piece of them has been torn away. It’s inspired me, really, to look at my own obstacles through different lenses.

~ Mrs. Carbone/ Grandma Moe ~

I questioned your presence in my life time and time again. If I had to equate it to a symbol, it would be of a wall. I recognized the wall you built around yourself, letting few in, certainly not me, except on very few occasions. I also recognize, now, that you developed in me, perhaps inadvertently, a sense of self confidence I didn’t posses before you because you fought me at every twist and turn. It saddens me that it took your impending death for me to see that soft side that was hidden so far behind the wall. It made me realize how many obstacles you must have faced in your life and overcome. For that, I thank you. I thank you because you have made me a more introspective person, a stronger, wiser person, a more sensitive and loving mother, a more dedicated and considerate wife, and, I hope, one day, a more understanding and accepting mother-in-law.

~ Evan ~

On the cusp of becoming a high school student, you had so much to offer the world until you cut your life short in what some seem to question as the fate of a genetic legacy. You, too, were Ryan’s friend. It seemed unfair that at fourteen years old, he’d already lost three of his friends. We all wish we saw it coming, so we could have caught you– fixed you somehow. Your death made me a better friend to another grieving mother. It made me question why so many young deaths in my life– too many to handle, really. It affected me deeply. I look at your brother and sister, today, and think what a loss for them– how the ghost of you must permeate their lives. Your passing made me realize that no matter how much we want to save someone, a person really can only save him/herself– a lesson deferred from the loss of Nancy, I suppose.

~ Gramma Molly ~

I have met three true matriarchs in my life, and you are one of them. You were one of the sweetest, most compassionate and giving people I’ve known. You raised five boys almost single-handedly who are successful, thoughtful, respectful, compassionate, responsible and kind– a reflection of their mother. I don’t know a family who holds their mother in higher esteem than yours– a true testament to how they were raised, and I so envy you for that. I believe you made everyone you met want to be a better person just for having been in your presence. And I’m glad I was.

~ Angelique/ Angie/ Gigi ~

I think I still have not let go, nor do I think I ever will. I cannot encapsulate in words the effect your life has had on my own. You always were my rock, my infinite source of unconditional love, understanding and acceptance. Aside from my husband and my mother, I have never confided in anyone more than you (and sometimes I think I’ve confided the most in you). You’ve taught me so much about being a good person and mother and wife and friend and teacher– the effects of what I’ve learned from you ripple through so many aspects of my life. I hear your words and feel your soft touch when I need them. Even in my dreams, you are still telling me, you love me no matter what. I know you are my angel, and I know that you’ll never leave me, too.

~ Grandma/ Great Gram ~

I have fond, warm memories of you when I was young– holidays at your house (you weren’t the best cook, but you loved family around and your family always threw the best parties), coming to work with you, and the pretend bar we set up in your recreation room or the office we pretended to work in with the old typewriters, ledgers, and telephones. Then, upstairs, in your attic, there was a secret room, we’d (me, my siblings and cousins) would always find our way into; we’d play with the old stuff, which really were antiques only I didn’t realize it then. I developed a love for antiquity from you. Then Pop-pop died. You seemed to transform so quickly from a woman, dependent and lost, to a woman on a mission to live life fully and on your own terms. I missed you then. It hurt that you became so distant, so otherwise attentive to all things not us, it seemed. No more sleep- overs. No more birthday parties. We gave up depending on you. But hindsight affords us to heal and see outside of our feelings. I forgive you because I think you did what you needed to do for you, not out of malcontent for us, your grandchildren. I admire the woman you became, a career woman, independent, so well traveled, so respected in so many circles. I think one day, I’d like to become her only with a better sense of balance. I remember the end of your life fondly, too, because I saw a lot of you, again, then. It was sad to see your mind slip because I’d remembered you as such a keen woman. You were gentle and graceful, always. I think, in a very quiet way, you were a matriarch for our family– something you never aspired to be but just blossomed into.

~ Donna/ Big “D” ~

Not only my second friend to pass, but also a life force lost. We shared a name. We shared a past rich of common experiences, interests, tastes– even in men, but we never let that come between us. At a young age, you were diagnosed with childhood diabetes, something you would struggle to keep in check throughout your life. I feared that would be the way you would someday go, but someone robbed us of you much sooner than you allowed your disease to, when you died in a tragic car accident. The memory of Renee calling me to ask me if I’d heard and, simultaneously, the image of your car accident on the television are etched in my mind forever. Your loss was devastating to me. We’d been friends since fourth grade. You taught me so much about living with courage and determination, passion and zest. We thought we’d grow old together– two old biddies talking about back-in-the-day. You reaffirmed that I must live in the present because there are so many things between us left unsaid: what a good mother and teacher you were, that there are so many events in my life that I’m glad we shared because I wouldn’t have wanted to share them with anyone other than you, and what a good friend you always were– that I always knew you were there for me (even when life got in the way). The saying Live without Regret is part of my mantra, now, because I thought we had so much time ahead of us. I miss you.

~ Aunt Julia and Uncle Frank ~

The story goes that Uncle Frank was in the armed services and stationed out in California where he met Julia. They fell love and married, which took him away from his family in Connecticut. Then they had a beautiful daughter, Mary Francis, who was about my mother’s age, and, although, they didn’t see each other often, she and my mother grew very close– like twins on separate coasts– until Mary Francis died at the age of twelve because she choked on her own blood in the night while recovering from a tonsillectomy.  I heard stories about them– how close they were, how strong Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia’s love for one another was to survive such a tragic loss. I saw black and white photos of their wedding day, of Mary Francis as a little girl, and photos of she and my mother together on their visits with each other, and, lastly, of Mary Francis in her communion dress. These photographs painted a story. Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia went onto have another daughter, Ann Marie, not much older than I, who would become my pen pal for many of my formative years. We met for the first time when I was in junior high and would only meet again three other times in our lives. The last was several years ago when I visited them in California. I was conscious of the fact that it would probably be the last time I’d see Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia alive, and it was.

The two of you instilled in me an understanding of the quiet strength of a union, a love so deep and strong that it didn’t need to be stated because it was always felt. I always aspired to have that kind of love. You were my example of the way two people should love one another through the best of times and the worst of times. Everyone should have an example of a love story like yours.

 

I suppose I would have come upon this introspection on my own in my own time, but I thank May Harding for helping me to see something differently– a lesson I’ve applied to many aspects of my life.

I know what it’s like to go through a difficult time, but what I take away from that kind of experience is that each process is unique unto itself and the person walking through it. Each one teaches us something different, that when we’re in the vortex of it, we often can’t see, but we have to have faith and trust to know that one day we will see it and gain a better understanding of it and ourselves.

And, in the end, we all leave a legacy– hopefully, it’s a good one.

[Image: http://globeattractions.com/between-heaven-and-earth-sea-sunset-nature/ ]

 

 

 

Honey Boo Boo, Move Over!!

Dysfunctionality and all of it’s implications is a state of being I choose to embrace.

 

 

I love my father’s side of the family; I always have. From the time I was little, they were the fun side: the partiers, the drinkers, the laughers. When spending time with the Normans, the Bruchs and the Madsens, I have been able to lose myself from reality for even just a little bit of time. There’s never been a shift in their devotion to one another; never a family squabble that needs working itself out– just a common level of respect and appreciation for the quirkiest bunch of people I’ve even had the pleasure of surrounding myself with.

So it comes as no surprise that when my parents divorced in 1983 that my mother didn’t want to give that up in the settlement too.

Fast forward to 2012. It’s the second, in just the past year. of anniversary parties: milestones.

Last year, it was for my dad’s sister and her husband, married 50 years. It was an upscale, no holds-barred celebration at an Inn in New Hampshire, where years ago my cousin was married (yet, another one of those memorable family celebrations). It felt good catching up with relatives who span the United States. My husband and I were coming off a difficult time in our marriage, and to see the video of photographs of my aunt and uncle over those 50 years prompted me to hold my husbands hand tight and wish away all of the obstacles we’d recently faced and say a silent prayer to be sitting beside one another in 27 more years.

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of my dad’s cousins whom have been like an aunt and uncle to me throughout my life. When I was a teenager and having a tough time getting along with my mom, it was Jan who would talk to me and set me straight. My siblings and I grew up babysitting for John and Jan’s daughters while our parents got together every single Friday night. Sometimes they’d go out, but most times we’d get pizza and the grown-ups would play card games and board games. I suppose it’s the routines of these formative years that has made my fondness of family so strong.

One of the quirkiest traits of this family is their habit of giving tacky gifts. I’m not sure exactly where it started; I’m thinking at my father’s 30th birthday party (when my parents were still a couple). As I recall, my dad was given a drunk photograph of himself & John framed in a toilet seat. The tacky gifts persisted from there. It was expected that the gifts would be saved, modified in some outrageous way and passed on. In fact, at my wedding shower, I was inducted into the tackiness when I was given a ceramic witch with light up marble eyes by Jan and my Aunt Kathy; only, they were a bit ruffled because I actually liked the gift and use it at Halloween as a decoration each year. In fact, each time I’ve received a tacky gift, I find a way to use it– my own contribution to the tackiness of our family.

Last night there were tacky gifts abounding: leis and silly Hawaiian glasses (because John and Jan and my dad and his wife are celebrating their anniversary with a cruise to Hawaii in two days) also boner squash leis. As good sports, they sit at the center of their guests, opening the gifts and wearing each one they are given. Meanwhile, playing in the background is a video of their lives, a chronicle of not only the two of them but all of the people in their lives who have loved them (me and my family included).

As I’m learning, my father is growing very sentimental with age (I’ve even seen him tear up on  a few occasions, something I never witnessed as a child). In the midst of the celebration last night, my father and mother bound across the room to me and my siblings. My father declares, “In three years is the anniversary of our marriage,” something we’d totally brought up earlier– siblings considering the what ifs. “We want a 50th celebration,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter that we didn’t make it 50 years, it’s just celebrating the fact that 50 years ago we were married.” We all laughed, shaking our heads. They skirted off to their respective spouses, and my wheels began to turn.

My parents didn’t always get along so well post divorce. They were both angry and bitter, my father because my mother sought the divorce, and my mother because when she changed her mind my dad was too hurt to give it another try. They had been together since they were fourteen, and I was the reason they married so young. What I loved and admired most about my parents, growing up, is that they were best friends; it was a trait of their marriage that I sought in my own. I think that was the most difficult part of their divorce, though; no one saw it coming, I guess, except my mom who thought it was what she wanted. They had rarely even argued in our presence. So when it became finally clear that there was no chance of them getting back together, we (my siblings and I) went through a monkey-in-the-middle stage. It took my parents about seven years to heal and become part of each others’ lives again– albeit in a different form. Both of them, by that time, had moved on and married other people. I think my wedding, and then the birth of my children, were a catalyst for them finding their way back to one another as friends.

Eventually, we’d have family functions with them together, and, even, go on vacation together. I refused to choose one over the other, so I let them work it out. Going to Disneyworld with my family is something they both wanted to do, and, so, they found their way. What makes it possible is that their spouses fully supported their decisions. And, because my mom still was very close to members of my dad’s extended family, she’d be included in family functions too.

One thing they’d do, without commonality of my family, is attend Cousin’s Weekend, an annual get-together at my aunt & uncle’s home. It made my mom happy to be included again after a brief hiatus from the belonging to the group. Once, they even went on a cruise all together.

My friends and my husband too, are a bit weirded- out that my parents (and their respective spouses) are one big happy family, but I like it. It makes family get-togethers unstressful. And it comforts me the way my parents still look out for and worry about one another; I think it’s really a testament to the kind of relationship they had.

My father knows that if he tells me something, I’m the one to get it done. That’s what makes me think he’s sincere in his idea. So swirling thoughts went through my mind… wouldn’t it be fun or funny, it goes along perfectly with the tackiness of our parties. A reality show! Honey Boo Boo, move aside. If that redneck family can find an audience, surely we can too.

All night we joked, extended family climbing on board. Every aside became an episode. For example, I told Jan she had more pictures in her video of her father than I even owned. My mom piped in, “No, I have all of the photographs of your father. I’ll give them to you.” I replied, “NO. WAIT! That’s another episode. You keep those photos right where they are.”

So, this is how I’m imaging it. The year in the planning of a crazy f’d up family’s, nearly 30 years- divorced couple who are celebrating what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.

I’d say, that’s quite a pitch! Book it, Mark Burnett!

 

 

 

 

UM: Atonement

In an earlier blog, I wrote about the Summer of Repairs, literally referring to the many things that have broken down and needed fixing this summer. At the time, I didn’t realize how figuratively that title/entry applied to my summer.

I see my life in chapters… time periods of themes, such as the playgroup period when I was all about making mommy connections simultaneous to facilitating connections for my children, or the volunteer period when I spent countless hours devoted to being room parent or P.T.A. co-chair or spear-heading a scholarship program for my children’s youth hockey association. In particular, summers lend themselves to chapters; for a teacher, they are the chunks of time in between the rhythms of the realities and routines of life. There was the summer of block parties and neighbors, the summer of completing my first novel, the summer of panic attacks, the summer of attempting to publish my second novel, the summer of college visits, the first summer of letting go.

This summer has been about atonement.

Like untangling a mass of soft, beautifully colored, balled up yarn, I’ve been weaving in & out of the last four years trying to “find” myself.

The truth is, I thought I’d found myself when I decided to marry the love of my life and again after my second child was born which marked the moment (and it was literally a moment, in the wee hours in the morning, that I held my second newborn– his head resting warmly on my shoulder, in the crook of my neck, and I could feel his breath on my skin and his heart beating against mine) when I recognized a newfound confidence in myself as a mother (something I was only able see in comparison to how unprepared, and scared, and inept I felt with my firstborn). I’d found myself again when I earned my master’s degree (while being a wife and a mother of 3, working thirty hours a week, and completing a graduate teaching assistantship) in only three years, and once again when I’d found the full-time English teaching job in my hometown– the dream job, the Shangri-La of teaching. I’d thought I’d fully evolved, that I had arrived at my destination and could coast.

But things began to stir inside me. Not the way you suddenly feel your stomach turn; it was more of a slow process creeping up on me over a period of years, and, then, suddenly attack. At first I didn’t recognize it as a mid-life crisis, for the term had always seemed to me just a label for bad behavior. Withdrawal was my primary symptom. I felt myself slipping away, sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss I couldn’t identify other than simply being in the middle. In the middle of my life. In the middle of mothering. In the middle of my marriage. In the middle of my career.

I even felt the wide open spaces closing in around me. Suddenly, what had always been a comfortable size home began shrinking and shrinking. My kids took over space. My husband took over space. For the first time, I embodied Virginia Woolf’s sentiment that every woman needs “a room of her own.” And I felt I didn’t have one. I was losing myself and, instead of fighting, giving into to the feeling.

I’d become tired of being a mother, unsatisfied in my marriage, disillusioned at work– feeling like I was treading through my life, sometimes as if I were keeping my head just above the surface. Other times, disconnected, I was a mere observer, on the outside looking in.

The catapult that eventually enabled me to become a conscious participant in this stasis, that I hadn’t– until this point– recognized, was when my firstborn son left for college. It took some time to grasp how difficult that transition had been for me.

For the first time, in too long, I looked into the mirror and saw a stranger staring back at me. I didn’t know who she was. She was changing and questioning in ways she never had before. She was allowing all the things that mattered most to her to fringe and fray.

And it would take the next two years to work through.

This summer, I began on- the- mend, aware of the path, in search of an end to this mangled ball of yarn. While I had been patiently awaiting a moment, not sure that I would even recognize it as such when it arrived, IF it arrived, I approached my summer, not as a project which has sometimes been the case, but more fluidly, taking one day at a time. My girlfriend shared her current mantra with me, “I will be fully present in this moment,” something I heard my conscious self whispering in my ear time and time again.

In addition to being the Summer of Repairs, I have referred to this as the Summer I Lost My Daughter. When Alexa was eleven, I’d attended a summer girl party where the host had hired a psychic who told me to cherish my daughter that summer, for that would be the last summer she would seek me out to spend time with before being all encompassed by her friends. Well, it’s taken her four years, but this is the summer she’s out all day, every day hanging with friends, announcing that suddenly she doesn’t enjoy going out on the boat with her father and I, reneging agreements to join us out for dinner, brooding over visiting relatives, preferring to catch up on The Kardashians instead of swimming and sunning with me in the pool (all things she previously loved)… I knew it was inevitable. I thought the sting, since she is my daughter and friend– my sweet protégée, would be a little sharper than it had been with the boys. But it wasn’t, which came as a surprise to me, for I was dreading it since that afternoon when the psychic heeded me with a warning. Likewise, with Tyler, my second child who I’ll be sending off to college, I’ve been savoring the moments with him instead of dreading his absence and the gap that will be left in the wake of it.

In working through that period of adjustment, letting Ryan go, I have learned to finally enjoy the quality of time we do have together instead of focusing on the quantity. This brings a sense of calm– a sense that it will all be okay.

I’m finding ways to reconnect with my husband, every day, to insure that we remember how and why we fell in love, in addition to  continue nurturing that bond. In recognizing that, although ours lives can change, our relationship can and will grow stronger to adapt to and deal with those changes together.

At work, I’ve decided to focus my attentions on what really matters– educating my students to become lifelong learners (of not only the knowledge they attain from outside themselves, but also the kind of knowledge they attain from within), cultivating professional relationships that matter, and standing up for what I believe in.

Writing this blog has been cathartic for me, in that it’s given me a vehicle to make sense of the reflections I see in the mirror: wife, mom, teacher, friend… This summer has provided me the opportunity to take a good hard look at, not only the past four years when I was stuck in the middle, but what lead up to the feelings, and more so fears, that stirred within. It was in analyzing the unraveling, confronting my demons and making amends where I needed to that I have gained a newfound perspective only possible in hindsight.

I realize, now, that a certain age is not a benchmark, in the sense that one has arrived and can stop to rest, and that I will never really be able to coast except within the moments I allow myself to become lost in. “I will be fully present in this moment.” I hold out my arms to welcome many such moments.

UM: If Walls Could Talk

Born to two teenagers, the first place of my life was in a small, duplex rent on Victory Drive (which is now the fringe of the ghetto in New Haven); I have no recollections of this home, as we fled before I turned two, but my associations of it are fear and a sense of bewilderment.

From there, we moved to a house on Augur Street at the lower end of Hamden (the Putnam Avenue district), also a rent, occupying the bottom floor for about four years. Consequently, my first memories are of this house. Light-hearted, fun-loving, innocent years when it didn’t matter that our furniture was a mish-mosh of unmatched, hand-me-downs, or that my two siblings and I shared the same bedroom, practically sleeping atop of one another, or that we’d walk to and from school in even the harshest conditions (because we only owned one car) and supervised by an adult the year that the pedophile loomed. Mary was my first friend. I peered across the street watching her and her siblings running wild in their yard from behind the chain link fence that enclosed mine. A big Irish family, warm and welcoming, I recall my own mother regarding theirs as a mother-figure to her too, for mine was young and still finding her way. When I look back on Augur Street, I regard us as a family of five children playing house, growing and learning together.

New Road quite literally marked a turning point for our family. It was the first home we’d own and the place where the realities of life and growing up caught up to us. While upon the first introduction, which seemed like a castle or a haunted house– big and dark and mysterious, we ran through the uncut grass that was above our knees and made a club house of the abandoned, chicken coop in the back yard. Hardly noticing, our parents, tearing down walls and making repairs to a house that had been neglected, in order to make it a home for us, we took in stride all of the changes in our lives: a big enough home, perhaps over-big, rooms of our own, even a playroom in the basement (instead of the corner of the living room, which we’d been used to). Unaware that the space would be a metaphor for the events that would come to separate us in the following years.

But, at first, it was a home– the first real home we’d had. Together, my parents planted lovely gardens to pretty our yard with dahlias, irises, lilies, and daisies; inside, they installed a Franklin, wood-burning stove to keep us warm. The smells of cheesecake tarts, French toast, sloppy joes and grilled cheese wafted through the open layout of the first floor where a sheen of newness could be found within the four corners of every room. Upstairs, my sister and I shared a room, under a dormered roof adorned in rainbows. Although our beds were on opposite sides of the room, we began our time here, crawling into each other’s as we’d been accustomed to. Sometimes, our brother, from across the hall, would be found sleeping at the bottom of one of our beds when we awakened in the morning. This is how we’d begun, but it wasn’t how our time, here, ended.

I would consider Hamden High School one of my homes because it is the place I sought solace when home became stressful. Unaware of the moment, if there is a moment, that we began to unravel, I felt each of us on an island. Suddenly, my sister was different, my brother was difficult, and my parents ceased to be friends. Latching onto my friends and eventually my boyfriend became a necessary coping strategy leading up to my parents’ divorce when I was seventeen, an event that would turn my life topsy turvy.

Guilt made me succumb to leaving w/ my mother and sister to move into an apartment on Highland Avenue in Cheshire at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The agreement was that I’d continue attending HamdenHigh School, driving my mother to work and my sister to HamdenMiddle School on a daily basis because we could only afford one car. When that became too much, I’d return home to live with my father and brother on New Road. Only this time, instead of living under the roof of rules and curfews and do’s and don’ts, to which I’d become accustomed, my father’s state of mind prevented him from instituting any guidelines at all. My brother and I were free to do as we’d pleased, and, for any teenager, that’s like opening Pandora’s box. It’s exhilaratingly exciting at first until you come to realize exactly what it means.

After narrowly escaping my father’s home w/ the new wicked Stepmonster, Maryann, and her demon children, Debbie and Mark (who only managed to bring me strife, but it wasn’t their fault; they’d had a tumultuous upbringing) I moved into Fitch/Warner, a college apartment complex on Fitch Street where other S.C.S.U. students resided. My roommate, Patty, was a girl from Cheshire, just a town away from me– someone who was randomly assigned to me because I hadn’t come in w/ a roommate. While we were from neighboring towns, we could not have been more different. Patty and I flip flopped from being bosom buddies to strangers for the entire year we’d live together. We’d had some interesting experiences, primarily in the midst drinking and pot smoking– more me drinking & Patty pot smoking. I tried to calm down her wild side, while she tried to release mine.

After a rollercoaster of a year, or three, I chose to find solace living at my grandparents’ home on Gilbert Avenue, only a 5 minute drive from college. This would mark another turning point for me– one in which I’d decided to become grounded. I needed peace, quiet, security and stability, and that’s exactly what I found. After living there for a year and a half, it came as a shock to me when I returned ‘home’ to find my grandfather had put their home on the market because it had become too much for him to take care of. While I was angry and somewhat confused (the sign and the pending sale of their home had come as much of a shock to me as to my grandmother), it enabled me to make amends with my mother, who had, in the past three years, moved on, married a wonderful man with whom she’d bought a house; they lived on Sharon Drive w/ my sister and brother, so the three of us were together again– and in a much better place (physically and mentally). I took the spare room in the basement which allowed me some independence and privacy, something I’d grown accustomed to since I’d last lived with my family.

I purchased my first official home, along with my then-fiancé, at age 23, months prior to our wedding. It was a new construction, town house condominium in Waterbury, just on the Cheshire/Waterbury line; ironically, while I had begun my life living in the city, I began my married life doing the same. Hitchcock Road would be the beginning of a whole new life for me, one I’d anticipated for seven years. It was there I would have my first two children and establish the foundation of our married life. Since it was new construction, we had choices in the model and its contents; we had the opportunity to see it’s flourishing from breaking ground to move-in day. It immediately felt like home, which it would be for the next five years. While I was sad to move, it had become small for our family of four. We longed to have a yard for our dog and our boys to play and space enough for our family to grow.

While, at first, we looked in Hamden, initially hoping to return to our roots, it was in Cheshire — a lily white suburban community with child-friendly neighborhoods of sidewalks and cul-de-sacs and a good school system– we would find our family home. And so we found this place, a block away from the elementary school my children would attend, nestled in a cluster of streets that housed young families. While the house had all of the amenities we hoped for– a farmhouse colonial, four bedrooms, 2 & 1/2 baths, a finished basement, a two-car garage, good-sized yard with an in-ground pool– it was certainly NOT in move-in condition. It had been a foreclosure our realtor wanted to check out before it ‘officially’ went on the market. We arrived and could hardly see the front of the house, with all of the overgrowth hiding it, and, when we walked inside, the musty smell gave way to a kitchen of unhinged cabinet doors and mouse droppings, a 70’s rust, shag carpet in the too-small family room, and bathrooms with floors that had rotted from water damage. My husband and I tip-toed, room by room, taking it all in. My father is a carpenter and his a handy-man, so as we took in the imperfections, we verbally noted the possibilities aloud, almost in unison. While our realtor waited in the kitchen, on the phone to his next client, we looked at one another, sharing each other’s thoughts. We’d concluded that if the bank would stop the re-furbish they were planning and would come down on the price, we were eager to place a bid. The realtor replied, “Wow, you two have vision.” And we did. After closing on the house, it would be nearly two months of gutting and renovating, mostly on our own, with the help of our fathers– in order to make it in move-in condition. It felt foreign the first night we’d slept here, as if we were in someone else’s home and I’ve often wondered what they’d think of the transformation. As the unfamiliarity of our surroundings waned, almost immediately, we felt a belonging, as we befriended our neighbors whose children befriended one another and we became a chosen family.

This is where the memories of my family have been made, one additional child later, and so many life experiences in between. With in these walls mark the growth of my own family and the lessons we have learned.

Often, I wonder, if walls could talk, what stories would come from them.

UM: Sunshine

I touched my cheek to hers to feel the softness of her skin just the way I had so many dozens of times since her birth, nearly two weeks ago. Heat radiated from her young flesh. It was too warm for her little body. I knew.

                We drove through the dark of night. “Don’t we ever do anything in daylight?” my husband questioned – referring to the births of our three children. Alexa and both of her brothers came through the darkness into the light and into our arms.  He was trying to distract me, make light of the situation, but I ignored him and caressed the softness of her skin and the heat. My eyes gazed out of the window onto the highway. We were alone on the road, just my husband, Alexa and me. He was driving at an unusually high speed which seemed in sync with how my thoughts were going.  I saw a tiny, white coffin, opened and empty.  I thought perhaps I would bury her in the outfit she wore home from the hospital. No, I recanted, I want to keep that a happy memory. In fact, it was one of the happiest of my whole life. A daughter. Mine. I thought about God and now I realized why some people christen their children right away. I thought about the boys and what could I ever say? When I was pregnant with my first, I told my mother I couldn’t wait until the baby was born so I could just know that he or she was okay. Then, I would stop worrying. My mother gave the look she’d given me when passing on some wisdom that she had acquired from her mother and those before her. “Once a mother, you never stop worrying. You always envision the worst and pray for the best.”  Just then, a car sped past. I can remember myself thinking about her words and using them  as an affirmation, “ I’ve envisioned the worst, now it’s time to hope for the best.” I began humming , “You are my sunshine … when skies are grey …” a song I had hummed to her brothers. I looked up to God the whole rest of the way as I whispered the words through a broken melody. I believed they were written for just the two of us.

                The first nurse was all business. “Sit down. What’s the problem? Who’s the doctor? Do you have insurance?”  God, I remember wanting to scream, “This may be your job, lady, but it’s my life! Get the doctor, now!” Instead, my husband answered the business questions. Bless him. He was being strong for me – letting me drift with my thoughts and just hold her as close as possible. But I could see his fear. I could see it behind the glassy curtain in his eyes.

                Placed in a green, grey and cold room, we waited. A male C.N.A entered about, I don’t know, eons later. He began prepping the table. “The doctor will want the works,” he stated, referring to the amount of sterile supplies he was placing on the table. He offered his statement as an explanation, in an attempt to make me feel informed or  better, I don’t know which. “Because she’s so young,” an afterthought, as if it would help. I wondered if he had children, because surely, if he did, he would know that nothing could help short of me waking from a deep sleep in my own bed and realizing it was all a nightmare.

                Alexa slept soundly on the hospital bed, flat and hard, metal frame and white sheets. She looked most peaceful in the midst of all the medical supplies that would soon disrupt her peace, make her cry,  and quite possibly and ultimately save her life. I wanted to continue to hold her, but the C.N.A. had hooked up several monitors to her tiny body. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to ask him if I could hold her. Instead,  I caressed her soft thin hair. I watched her lips quiver with each breathe she took.

                The doctor, a resident, entered. He introduced himself and firmly shook both of our hands. He pulled no punches with us; he was a very matter-of-fact, bottom line kind of guy. “With a fever like this, in a child so young,” he paused between each phrase.  “We worry about,” pause, “a bacterial infection,” pause. “They spread rapidly,” pause, “because infants do not develop an immune system until about three months.” I remember thinking how generous he was to talk parent speak versus medical jargon. “The very worst,” pause, “spinal meningitis. It could be fatal.”  And there I stuck. My mind trying to get beyond those words to the hope. “Hope for the best,” I screamed at myself. Only then, I returned to what he was saying . “If she were my daughter…” There was a softness about him; I’m sure it was not anything he learned in medical school. His eyes looked straight into mine, “I would have it done, all of it.”

                The second nurse came in. She was dark skinned, Indian, I supposed. Her necklace was made of  plastic, colored beads, and I surmised that a child had made them. I wondered if it had been one of her patients. And she wore friendship bracelets, several of them, on her wrists. She had a warmth in her eyes as she looked at my little girl. She took hold of her hand. “She’s beautiful. Is she your first?”

 I  shook my head, “Two boys,” I replied.

                “Oh, she’s your first girl.” She smiled. “We’ll take care of her for you.” I knew that before she even said those words. I knew that she would do all she could.

                First there were the x-rays, then the catheter, then the bloods, then the I.V. drip… and, following, the curdling screams from my baby. When the nurse inserted the needle into her hand, she moved it around under her flesh. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, “her tiny vein moved.” I wanted, from the core of my being, to haul off and punch her. Feel the sting of my fist against her face; I  had never before felt that depth of rage in my life. But I could only hold onto Alexa’s hand and look away.  After a long deep breath, I prayed non-stop through the cries and my husband stood stoic beside me, rubbing my back.

                During the quiet time, after the pain, after the nurses had left the room and finally it was only the three of us again., Alexa fell asleep in my arms, exhausted from the fight. “Alexa,” I whispered, my mouth breathing closely to her ear,  “my sweet angel, you’ll forget all of this. It’s this incredible thing when we’re little; we don’t remember these times. But God will remember. He knows how strong you are. And I hope this is the worst pain you’ll have to endure for your whole life.”

                The doctor returned with the male C.N.A. He looked at me, straight on, as the C.N.A. prepared his supplies. “It’s time for the spinal tap,” he announced. His words seemed to echo off the coldness of the walls. “Do you want to stay for this?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you sure?” He was giving me permission to leave. My husband reiterated, “I’ll be here.” And for an instant, I thought … No, she may not remember, but I will never forget. I, an adult – I  reminded myself, can and need to be strong for her. I will hold her hand and be, at least,  a presence for her. And all the while, I will pray. The doctor talked us through the procedure. “ He,” referring to the C.N.A., “ will hold her back, curved like a “u”. This needle will go into her back and will drain the fluid.”  I nodded and looked away. Holding her hand and sitting beside her bed, I could not look. I did not want to see what they were doing to my baby. I had to rely on trust; I had to rely on my husband, who stood beside the doctor and watched his every move. I bit my bottom lip and closed my eyes each time I felt the tears welling in them. I took a deep breathe as he inserted the needle, in fear that he would miss and cause paralysis. I relaxed once he said the needle was in. The fluid came slowly, three viles of it, in between the bareness of her cries. She stopped crying, my eyes widened and looked frantically at the doctor. He shook his head to reassure me. “She fell asleep,” my husband clarified. It seemed forever, but when they finally finished, I pleaded to hold her. That motherly thing kicked in, as if I could make it better. Well, at least, I could try. I cuddled her. She felt slightly cooler now as I touched her forehead to my cheek and caressed her cheeks with my finger. I began singing “… please don’t take my sunshine away” in my of key and crackling voice, right there in front of the doctor and the C.N.A.. I didn’t care who was there. I just wanted her to know I was there with her. My husband walked over to us and wrapped us up in his arms. His eyes were glassy red and his skin pale, and I’m sure he was very much a mirror of me.

                We remained quiet for a time. The three of us were alone again. Alexa was sleeping and my husband was reclined back in his chair with his eyes closed. My thoughts drifted to our sons who would just be waking up now. I wondered how my mother would explain our whereabouts. I worried what they would think. I remained consumed by my thoughts. They zig zagged back and forth between half full/half empty. And I had just told my  eldest son the other day to try always to see the glass half full. The clock on the wall ticked loudly , and it seemed, as the hours had passed, I had become colder. Alexa, half dressed in the outfit she wore when we brought her in, was loosely wrapped in soft, fluffy, pink receiving blanket. I tightened it around her. Periodically, almost methodically, I kissed her forehead – felt the softness of her against my lips, breathed in the sweetness of her skin. “Please God?” I offered up time and time again. Once, I said it out loud and my husband brushed his hand over mine and squeezed. I wondered if he had been sleeping or thinking with his eyes closed. And I thought how generous he had been in letting me hold her all this time. He knew the depth of my fears. In just the last two years a friend and a cousin lost their babies, both under two years. Any mother hears stories like that and thinks she wears the pain, at least she feels the sympathy. I mean really feels. One doesn’t feel that pain unless she is a mother. But even a mother doesn’t know, absent of the experience: the pain, the anger, the permanent loss, the hole that fixates itself in her heart. Every mother’s nightmare. I witnessed it; I didn’t want to live it too.

                A high-pitched, beep came from one of the monitors on the wall. The nurse rushed in. “What is that noise?” I asked impatiently.

                “Her oxygen saturation level has dropped.” I didn’t really know what that meant until she waved a tube blowing oxygen in front of her nose and her level raised. “ It’s probably all of the congestion,” she reassured me. “Your tests should all be down soon. They’re looking good,” she smiled and scurried off to another patient’s room.

                My husband wanted a girl first. I remember how surprised I was when he said that, now, almost seven years ago. When we were pregnant with our first child, we had chosen Alexa for a girl’s name. Then came baby number two: “A BOY!” my doctor exclaimed in the delivery  room. I think my husband had given up, but I never lost hope. I believed with conviction that Alexa would be our daughter oneday. And in just two short weeks, she had engraved herself into our lives.

                Although worn and evidently in need of sleep, we welcomed the sunshine as my husband opened the doors. The three of us left the hospital together. I sat in the back seat with her again, only this time I smiled as she clutched her tiny fingers tightly around one of mine. She appeared unscathed. I wondered how long it would take her memory of this night to go away; perhaps, it already had. But, from my memory, it will never disappear. I will always appreciate just how close we had come to knowing the fear. She is such a blessing in our lives– our sunshine.

                My husband drove at an anxious speed. We couldn’t wait to get Alexa home to her brothers.

UM: Playgroup

I picked up Tom Perotta’s book Little Children, and, while I loved the book (strictly from a fantasy perspective), I was disappointed by the turn it took. I identified with that playgroup. I lived it, especially the part where the main character forgets her child’s snack, and she becomes the worst mother in playgroup, the one without 2 extra snacks, diapers/clothes enough for the possibility of blow outs, and duplicates of the same toy so the toddlers could “share”(that’s an oxymoron). I too belonged to a playgroup that met every Friday at 9:00 for five years. We had the Barbie doll member who was always dressed to the nines and refused to give up her high heals, we had the perfect Laura-Ashley-mom who all of us strove to emulate, we had the obsessive mom who wiped her son’s hands after each “contact,” and the out-there mom who secretly revealed that the best orgasm she ever experienced was during childbirth. I thought we’d hear about Perotta’s version of what went on during these mommy & me fests, these ritual get togethers that, through the excuse of socializing our young, we were really just holding on to that hour of adult time that seemed to slip like sand through a bottomless hourglass.

Mothers came and went, but our core of three plus one stayed the same. I say plus one because, while Mary Jo was one of us for three years, we have since lost contact, save a Christmas card from time to time. Those Christmas cards are a mother’s showcase. I remember the saying being the focus before I had children. I’d come up with something crafty, perhaps a Charles Dicken’s quote from A Christmas Carole, that I’d fill out all of those square boxes with a friendly closing, post the order of fifty cards, and send it off to be printed with my own personal touch. Details such as this were a priority to me. It said something whether a person designed her own greeting card or picked one up at the local Hallmark. I was one of those women who took the time to put her personal stamp on everything. I called it crafty or even thoughtful; now, I consider it anal and showy. During the playgroup years, however, it was Mary Jo who first turned me onto Christmas cards featuring the faces of our little ones. At first, there was only John, her eldest, two months the senior of my Ryan. Her photograph was taken in her home by a professional photographer. Poinsettias adorned the floor in front of her fireplace where she and her husband, John Sr., knelt down on either side of Johnny, as he was affectionately nicknamed. I bought into the idea, but I took Ryan to J.C. Penney. Relatives loved the idea of the postcard photograph, especially my mother, who still has each and every one, to this day; although, only her favorites are still displayed. It became a competition between me and my friends, both my friends from high school and my new playgroup friends. Who had the best photograph or who received whose first? My first trophy Christmas photograph postcard came when I decided to dress all three of my children in their hockey gear. Alexa couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, at the time, but I schlepped her to the ice rink with her brothers and dressed her up in one of their in-house uniforms for the day the professional sports photographer was there to snap the photographs of all of the youth players. What a racket those photographers had. Photographs of every child for every sport they played, but they took it to a new level when they made photograph sporting cards, or Sports Illustrated covers, magnets, sculptures featuring your child for a mere $56.00 package. That year, Alexa stood in front of Ryan, with his Wallingford Hawk jersey on; only all that could be seen of the hawk was the tips of his wings that looked like devil ears atop Alexa’s head. I received phone calls from those who I sent the picture to asking if we had posed her that way on purpose; of course, we replied, giving way to the future hidden-Carbone’s, as we’d come to affectionately refer to my faux pas, that would ensue on each of our upcoming cards. Renee pulled into the lead the following year, when she had her children, Jamie and Eric, dressed in a velvet and taffeta dress and suit in front of a white backdrop: the first black and white version of a Christmas card postcard. I took the trophy back again when my children were featured in a London phone booth; the hidden-Carbone that year was the revealing college girl photo and phone number on the wall behind them, a detail I hadn’t picked up on before I sent it off to be replicated. The trophy was passed back and forth for most original, most vintage, most creative, earliest in the mail box (I received Karen’s the day before Thanksgiving one year).

Christmas card one-upmanship was among the things I learned to put on the resume of good parenting. Another was the dreaded word: daycare. I was among two of the playgroup moms who worked, who needed to work. It was a status symbol if one didn’t need to work like the Mary Jos and the Kathys and even that woman who ended up moving to New Jersey, her name escapes me now. It was a tradeoff, though; their husbands went away on business trips every other week, it seemed. In fact, the New   Jersey mom’s husband, we learned after the move, found out that instead of traveling for business, her husband was trysting—with another man.

One month after Ryan’s birth, I called my former place of employment, Hamden Adult Education, to ask if I could return to teaching in the fall. My mother had taken time off from work to spend the first two weeks with me as I acclimated to becoming a mom. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was post partum depression. The second was a colicky baby. This seven pound, scrawny-legged, cone-headed, brown-haired, beautiful boy was an angel with a monster set of lungs. The first night home from the hospital, I called the nursery I had just left eight hours before, sobbing because I couldn’t get my little prince to stop crying. I sat up that first night watching the swing soothe him as it swayed back and forth, something my arms just couldn’t manage. In the morning, my mother would arrive to help Anthony and I. He’d begin to fuss, and I’d reassure them both, “No, I’ve got him. We have to get used to each other.” I’d rock him and sway him. I’d sing to him and try to feed him. I’d make sure he wasn’t wet. I’d pace. Nothing. The moment I handed him over to my mother, he’d stop crying. I’d find solace in my room, upstairs, sitting in the rocking chair, without my baby boy and with tears in my own eyes.

The mother role wasn’t working out the way I had planned.

In the hole of my depression, I’d practically shove him in the arms of my mother or my husband, only to plead to have him back, ten or so minutes later, in my arms to hold. One day, I took my purse, my car keys and my breasts and left the house for several hours to lose myself in shopping. It felt good to be free, again, just me, myself and I. In the car, I practically screamed the words to the song on the radio I was singing so loud, trying to drown out my own thoughts that kept repeating, what did I do? Thoroughly enjoying my shopping spree, two full bags in my arms already, I passed a beautiful linen blouse hanging on the rack that I had to try on. Once in the dressing room, I peeled the maternity top off to see little wet spots forming on my bra. My boobs were tingling beneath them. At that moment, I decided, motherhood was something I wanted, something I had yearned for, in fact, but I needed balance, I determined. I’d return to work. Yes, I’d return to work to teach one class.

The experience of my daycares went through phases with each child I had. My mother was my daycare for Ryan. The pluses: she came to my house and she loved him almost as much as me. The minuses: she spoiled him, rotten, and she felt she could mother me mothering him. With Tyler, I searched for a new daycare, a home daycare with just a few children, but with a woman warm enough to love and nurture him. My husband and I took several days to visit daycares. Not one of them was good enough for my son. In fact, he was even turned down by one because of his tendency to projectile vomit (across the room, projectile) after his feedings. How dare she turn my son down for that was his singular flaw and one he’d grow out of once he began eating solids. Thankfully, Karen, from play group, offered to watch Tyler, while Ryan would come to pre-school in the building where I worked. Playgroup was now taking on a new dimension.

She was wonderful with Tyler and she had a son, Christopher, who was just a few weeks older than Tyler. Each time I’d return to pick him up, she’d have a daycare report card that listed what he ate and played with, when he had diaper changes and what was in them, and when he napped. The funniest report card listed a diaper change with a side-note: he has the biggest baby penis I have ever seen. These were the things we discussed as parents. The report cards became something I looked forward to, so I could monitor his schedule while I was away. Handing over control of a child to even one of her best friends is difficult for a mother.

Playgroup became a drop off for some mothers. Would you mind if I dropped her off while I run an errand? We resented these mothers and they were quickly voted out of the group. One mother joined because she wanted to push her multi-level marketing business, her side-job. We got sick of these mothers who wanted an in as networking device, but we weren’t slackers, we caught on quick. Having babies might have sucked all of the time out of our lives, but it didn’t suck the brains out of our heads.

Max’s mom (her name escapes me, too) was one of those nearly middle-aged moms who waited to have a baby only to realize getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. She would also be the orgasm mom; that story, I will not forget until the day I die. Max was approximately twenty pounds and 3 inches taller than the rest of his playgroup friends his age. He walked like a bulldozer with focus and great strength. Each time he bulldozed one of our kids, his mom would take him sternly by the hand, look in his eye and give him a stern rationalization that he should be careful or he’d end up having no friends at all. The rest of us laughed it off; really the boy just had no concept as to where his body began and ended, a concept he’d surely revisit in puberty.

Karen, Kathy and I (the mainstays) whispered a lot about Mary Jo. She tried to project this perfect persona of being a mom and of her children. Mary Jo denied, with every breath she took, that she was stuck living in a condo in the armpit of CT and that she had just given away her dog to make room for her son. If Mary Jo could have put a picket fence up around the outside of her townhouse she would have for both appearance and to mark her territory. Passat was a word she tossed around as if it were a Mercedes, when I simply referred to my vehicle (now equipped with the latest standard car seat)– a car. Mary Jo banked on her Passat as the lotto ticket that would drive her right out of Waterbury. And that, it did, eventually moving them to her husband’s hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. Because John traveled so often, his parents could help with the children. Soon, they moved down to Virginia. And then back up to Bedford. We exchanged cards for a few years, simply for bragging rights. At first, all of us received cards. First, Karen was removed from the list, then Kathy, and, finally, me. The truth was that we wondered if John really was traveling around or sleeping around. Probably a combination of both. These are the things mothers come to talk about to occupy their time. The closer our lives got to STAR magazine, the more alive we felt, and a bit closer to the adult world, too. We learned, as mothers, to live vicariously through others. Characters in books, or soap operas, movies or even in our own living rooms.

We met at 9 a.m., at first, for timing purposes, so we could end just before naptime. As they grew older, we’d linger, sometimes stay for lunch or make an excursion out of it by going to the zoo or the firehouse. As the older children’s siblings came, we weren’t as anal about keeping their schedules, so the young ones learned to nap in car seats, on the floor or on the sofa. I’m not sure who became better friends; the three of us or our children. They grew up together virtually as cousins. Their mothers took friendship to a new level; we shared every thing we could not or did not share with our husbands and even some of the things we had. From the consistency of poop to Martha Stewart to new sexual positions; we discussed it all. While playgroup had started as a guise to socialize our children, it became so much more.

Tom Perotta narrates through the main character who was also “sinking into the rhythm of the kids’ day. The little tasks, the small pleasures. The repetition that goes beyond boredom and becomes a kind of peace. You do it long enough and the adult world starts to drift away. You can’t catch up with it, not even if you try.” But we did. We learned that our lives had become subordinate to our children’s, our days would be dictated by their needs and our friends would be the parents of their friends.

Unfriendly Mirror (UM)

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for some time. When I talk about my past, people (many, many, many people) tell me I should write a book. I’ve written two (what I would consider) publishable fiction novels. I have tried on three separate, legitimate, occasions to have them published. The first two times, I received blatant rejections. The third, I actually was asked to see the whole novel, then turned down because the publishing house experienced budget cuts. The letter read, “If you had submitted this a year ago, I would have been able to work with it, but now they are wanting submissions that need virtually no editing to work within our budget and timeframe.” I considered that a soft rejection. The letter encouraged me to keep on trying because it had a good story and a strong voice.

I am a writer. I know, as a writer, one needs a thick degree of skin to make it. After each attempt, I’ve taken a period of sinking-in, a hiatus of sorts, to rebuild my confidence. And, now, I’m back on the horse that threw me… my novels are out there, inviting, again, to be published.

Writing a memoir requires a different degree of thick skin. While the line between writing fiction and non-fiction, for me, is a thin one (floss-like), with fiction, I can write based on my experiences, but they can be hidden behind the mask of imagination. A memoir requires bravery. Putting my experiences out there, raw and blemished, is a leap of faith that I have decided to take and hope to rise like a phoenix, enriched and triumphantly satisfied.

I am tentatively calling this memoir Unfriendly Mirror. I will publish excerpts of it here.

Judge me kindly but honestly. I value your response.

UM: finding my religion…

At first, it appeared that it was a matter of chance that we drove by and that Daddy decided to stop. He swung our oldPlymouthwagon, tan with burn marks on the front seat from Daddy’s own carelessness, into the parking lot. He told us in his deep, stoic voice to wait for him as we already had scrambled out of the car. We rarely attended church, once a month perhaps; that was after it took Mom three weeks to convince him to go. But then, Pastor Sanderson needed a contractor to build an addition on the church for nursery andBibleSchoolclasses. The congregation had grown so fast. I don’t know if it was Daddy’s workmanship, price or simply his genealogy that got him the job. Twenty five years before, his father, who was very active in the church, befriended a young minister, and, when it came time to build his own church, he chose my grandfather, an established and reputable contractor in the area, for the job. Hence,ChristLutheranChurchbecame mine by inheritance. Then, I believed one inherited religion, and it just stuck whether you liked it or not. It was black and white; just like you were born the color you were born, and you had no other choice than to die that way.

We stopped before the large, heavy and dark doors like little soldiers obeying their sergeant. On the other side of them was the foyer, large and spacious, so Pastor Sanderson could greet his parishioners after each Sunday service. One Sunday, right there in the foyer, Mr. Polk approached Daddy. He was a nice man and a regular churchgoer, very active like I surmised my grandfather to have been. “So, Don, will we see you at church more these days. What’s it been, three weeks in a row? I bet you feel God’s more apt to be on your side with this project if you’re here more often.” He chuckled and shook Daddy’s hand. I was so embarrassed. Fourteen and impressionable, I thought, God, everybody knows we miss church so much. I thought it was just myBibleSchoolteacher who took attendance each Sunday before the service. Then, attending church wasn’t a matter of celebrating God – it was more about what others thought about me. That was really my religion then. Daddy opened a thick, mahogany door. The four of us entered together and then him.

“Don,” my mother exclaimed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She was staring at a plaque, right there, shiny and new, about eight by twelve in size with shiny gold letters. It was a plaque dedicating the church to my grandfather, Gustave William Norman, in big letters for all of the parishioners to see.

“Pastor called me today to let me know he was doing this. He suggested we take a ride by. They’re going to announce it at the service this Sunday, but he wanted us to see it first. That’s not all,” he added and began walking toward the church.

It was such an eerie feeling to be there at night with no one else in the building. Just us alone with God, I remember thinking. At the back of the church was a tiered area for the choir and the organist. I was in the junior choir for about a year before I realized I didn’t have much singing ability. I decided to try it upon my mother’s suggestion. Besides, I liked dressing up in the white robes with the royal blue collars. But the thing that really attracted me most about it was the daughter of the organist and our teacher. She had just become MissConnecticut. Her name was Mary. She was bea-u-ti-ful—long, brown hair, piercing brown eyes, a ski-jump nose, high cheek bones, and she was just as sweet as she was stunning. She was the whole parishes’ shining star. Her voice sounded like an angel’s when she would sing her solo on Sunday mornings. I longed to be as beautiful and to have a voice that brought people to tears as hers did. That was the closest I had appreciated my church and my religion in my whole young life. Wanting to be like Mary was the first holy thing I could identify with; she was about being beautiful on the inside and out.

The second was the crush I had on Craig, a year older than me, a boy in my youth group. I only agreed to continue going to youth group because I had become friends with Craig and Gary. In fact, I don’t recall a thing we did in youth group except me looking at Craig and the three of us cheating on our confirmation exam. Pastor Sanderson had given out the exams, and we began penciling in our answers rapidly (the first of the multi-hour grueling tests in my life). I remember bubbling in responses that I thought made sense, all the while realizing I had not paid sufficient attention in Bible school, nor had I read the Bible as carefully as I should have. Pastor Sanderson had an appointment mid-test, so his daughter, Karen, just a few years our senior, came in to proctor. I’m not sure who whispered the first question to her, but my ears peeled open to listen to her response. Eventually, she was spewing answers at us. I realized it was wrong, but I thought it couldn’t be a sin, for the Pastor’s daughter was just as if not more guilty than we. Back then, I feared God. I teetered between the fear of the unknown and the Catholic guilt my mother didn’t lose from her own childhood. With the help of Karen, the three of us passed, and we were, indeed, confirmed. The real right of passage of that experience for me was the power to decide when I would and would not be attending church. My parent’s rule was and had always been that they would decide when and if we’d be attending church on a Sunday until we were old enough to make that decision for ourselves, and that would be once we made the sacrament of confirmation. I so confirmed that Confirmation day would be my last day of attending Sunday mass for anything other than a wedding, a funeral or a baptism. And, thus, my decision stuck, that is, until I had children of my own.

We waited at the end of the aisle: me, my sister and my brother. I was awestruck by the lighting. The pulpit was lit by a golden light and candles. It was the most peaceful the church had ever been for me. We watched my father move up to the altar. He stepped up onto the altar. I wasn’t sure if that was acceptable or not, for I had only seen Pastor Sanderson on the altar behind the pulpit. The altar had three tiers. The bottom was where the parishioners would kneel before the railing to accept communion. The next tier had two podiums where guest readers would read from, and Pastor Sanderson would talk about community events from. The top tier is where the pulpit was located, a long, high mahogany table where an enormous Bible sat on a pedestal along with the blood and body of Christ. My father walked up to that table and stood in front of the sculpture of Jesus hanging on the cross which hung from the back wall. Meanwhile, Debbie and Michael were giggling and fiddling. My mother held onto to Michael’s hand and tugged it to shush him. Beneath the golden light, my father folded over the cover of the Bible. What he did next, I will not forget as long as I live; he covered his face with his hand and sobbed aloud. It was the first time I’d seen my father cry. I don’t remember as much what the inscription read, as we did eventually join him on the pulpit and my mother read it aloud to us. It was some kind words about my grandfather, a man who just seemed to pass from my life like a casual friend who moved away.

Religion was defined for me on that day as a love so deep within one’s heart that it never passes; one that lives inside forever. My sense of religion has taken many shapes since then. In college, when I was finding myself, I took a Literature of the New Testament course; I learned more about my religion in that literature course than I had in six years of Bible school atChristLutheranChurch. Of course, I believe that in order to understand and accept religion, one has to be ready.

For a while, I considered myself a New Age hippy. I joined a SETH group on Prodigy (the web before the World Wide Web). There were four of us who formed a cyberspace chat group: me, Phyllis fromNew York, Marla fromCalifornia, andGaryfromChicago. We came to know each other very well. At first, we had Jane Roberts channeling SETH in common. We also moved into the realm of Edgar Cayce and Shirley Maclaine among others. I got to meet the ladies of the SETH group when I invited Marla to come stay with me for a weekend (talk about faith), so we could attend The Whole Life Expo inNew Yorkwith Phyllis. I didn’t realize at the time how special that time together was. We had our auras read and met world renowned psychics like Brian Weiss and Ken Eagle Feather; I also learned what chakras are and the different energies of different kinds of stones. Once, Phyllis, an astrologist herself who has gone on to write several astrology books, did my astrological chart. Past life regressions, dreams, reincarnations, psychics, tarot card readers, runes, rising signs all became part of my new vocabulary. It was a very heady time for me trying to figure out how all of this fit into the religion I had grown up on. I managed, over time, to find myself in all of that: to invest in my own beliefs.

Experiences like this one made me believe that we are intuitive selves. My mother and I were on our way to lunch, something we did on very few occasions—meeting to go out for lunch. We happened to be passing by the Masonic Home, an assisted living home for the elderly. My great Uncle Dick and Aunt Marie lived there together. I remember thinking it so sweet that they were able to retire to a nursing home together. As we passed, I turned to my mother and asked, “Mom, when did Uncle Dick pass away?” She looked at me, awestruck and replied, “Uncle Dick didn’t pass away. Where did you get that from?” I explained that I thought I had heard someone tell me such. The very next day, my grandmother called to tell my mother that Uncle Dick had passed the day before. When my mother asked what time, my grandmother responded at1 p.m.

My son, Tyler, has given me insight into the existence of angels in our lives, or spirits who we love that have passed and are watching out for us. Children are said to be very intuitive until we teach them not to be, and I have listened.

The first piece of evidence. Some time after my mother-in-law’s passing, whenTylerwas about four and a half year’s old, we were laying in bed at night saying our prayers, a nightly ritual. After he said, “God blessGrandmaMo,” I asked, “Tyler, do you miss Grandma Mo?” He said, “No, mommy.” I prodded further and asked him why he didn’t miss her. He said, “because I see her all the time, can’t you see her up there,” pointing towards the ceiling, “she’s with all the pretty white ladies dancing and laughing.”

Since, I have learned to be aware of the angels in my life. On one such occasion, my car nearly missed being in the midst of a head-on collision with a mac truck and another car traveling behind me. I watched it in slow motion from my rear view mirror, where the face of my maternal grandfather appeared. Another, more recently, happened when I felt a presence over my shoulder. When I turned to look it seemed that I watch it disappear, but I felt my grandmother. On another occasion, I sniffed the scent of her talcum powder pass before my nose as I was working in my office when no one else was even home.

My grandmother has spoken to me, too, through the medium Suzane Northrop. She mentioned things no one else but my grandmother could have known like the way she wore babushkas to cover her wig, so it wouldn’t fly away in the wind, and that we baked ham pie and Pinole cookies together over the holidays, or the fact that I inherited her rosary beads and had one more made from the flowers I ordered for her funeral.

Tyler, the old soul amongst my children, asked me as a young boy, much before I had even had a conversation with him about reincarnation or afterlife, asked me if in the next life I would be his mother again.

I witnessed my first act of God when my grandfather passed. He had been fighting cancer for over two years, much of that time, I helped my grandmother care for him. I stayed up with her during the night while she tended to him, I held a bowl for him to spit the endless stream of yellow bile after his chemo treatments, I wiped his behind after my grandmother had given him an enema because he had been backed up for days. I held her hand, cold and wrinkled, when she tried so hard to cry, to let it out, she said the tears had all dried up. We’d been through a lot. I was sleeping at her apartment when she got the call from Hospice (he had just agreed to be admitted the day before) that the time was near. We met my mother and my uncle there. We flanked around him in a circle, holding each other, holding him. I found myself mustering up the courage to be strong for my mother and grandmother. We whispered to him to let go, that we’d be okay. For hours, endless hours, we remained by his side. And suddenly, he breathed deeply in, a breath so strong, unlike the labored ones that had come before it, and that was it. He never exhaled. I felt his soul rise from his body at the moment.

The other acts of God quite obviously came with the birth of each of my children. I remember thinking when my eldest, Ryan, was born that here we all were in this room (the nurses, the doctor, Anthony, the baby and me) all experiencing the same act, but differently. Each of us endured a completely different experience. For the nurses and the doctor, it was a day in the life of a job. For Anthony, it was about awaiting the birth of his first child while witnessing his wife going through a great amount of pain to deliver him. For me, it was terror and joy, pain and anticipation, equally and all rolled up in one. For Ryan, it was a rush of fluid and movement, then light and cold, and who knows what more?

I often come back to that moment and all of the moments that have followed in each of my children’s lives, and I ask, “How could anyone conceive of a child and not believe in God?”

Anthony and I married as Catholics. Pastor Sanderson was supposed to perform the ceremony, too, but he said he had forgotten and double-booked (chances are he was back in rehab for alcoholism). Anthony grew up two houses from the neighborhood church, and, coupled with having attended Catholic school for ten years, his family practiced religion much more routinely than mine. At that point, however, I had learned the differences in the Catholic and Protestant religions, a fundamental difference being the Protestants do not believe in original sin; therefore, there is no confession in a protestant church. I decided not to accept communion as a protest to the Catholic belief in original sin. At one point, my mother-in-law refused to come to our wedding unless our ceremony offered communion; I compromised and asked the priest to make communion available at the rehearsal for anyone who wanted it. Secondly, the money rolling in and out of that church became very apparent to me during the pre-Cana process. We were told to buy a certain size of flower arrangement, so they could be seen well from the back of the church, and the caveat that we had to leave them there for mass on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Also that we needed to rent a runner made of material versus plastic because the plastic one looked too cheap for their church. And lastly, the thing that really put me over the edge was the fee, not the donation, for getting married (much higher than some of the other churches because they had just put in a state- of- the- art organ and were saving for an elevator).

I baptized my boys Catholic in the same church we were married in simply because we didn’t decide what to do about church and religion in our family, at that point. After we moved into our house inCheshire, we decided to make a decision about belonging to a church. We chose theFirstChurchon the green. It is quaint, understated, and Congregationalist (a form of the protestant religion). Our daughter, Alexa, was baptized there. Although, we intended to attend on, at least, a semi-regular basis, life took over. Well, we allowed it to. I think my husband was so entrenched in religion his whole life that he has rebelled. I felt I wasn’t getting his support coupled with not being sure of shoving religion down my children’s throats at a young age, as I felt at the time, was the way I wanted them to find themselves in religion. So, in hindsight, I’m not sure that we did the right thing by not bringing our children up in an organized religion. I have made it a point to talk them about religion and God and the Bible, to say prayers at night and in times of need with them, and to show them I believe by my actions. Only time will tell. Perhaps this is one of the ways we will have scarred our children, but we won’t find out until they are too old for us to do anything about it. I have told them, if at any time they want to attend any kind of church, I will take them; not one of them has asked.

I believe religion is something that is part of each of us, not something we necessarily have to practice by attending bible school or mass. Some need organized religion, and this is where these things have their places. I believe in God, and that we, with God, create our destiny—our perfect state of grace, and I believe we may need to incarnate ourselves many times before we achieve it. I believe in soul mates, those who travel with us through lives, and angels, some of our soul mates who look out for us on earth when they have gone before us. I believe that there was a Jesus; I believe he was the son of God, just as we all are the children of God. I believe the Bible is symbolic of the way we should and should not live our lives. I believe the church is a place of wisdom and peace and spirituality.  I cannot pass an old church without wanting to go inside. Once I am inside, I light at least one candle for those in need. The architecture of some churches I’ve been in from Westminster Abbey to The Cathedral of Notre Dame speaks volumes of voices that live within their walls. I find myself mesmerized by the candlelight and the stained glass, the sculptures, the statues the catacombs. I feel completely at peace in these places of worship; I can hear the voices of those who have passed who whisper the miracle of God in my ear. And each time I pass ChristLutheranChurch, a small protestant and modern, brick church, I cannot help but see my father’s tears and remember the first time I contemplated religion.