The Space Between

It took two minutes for the pediatric oncologist to shatter our high. The large tumor found in my daughter was benign and we’d just begun to process our relief and decompress from many nights in the hospital. He stopped us cold. The tumor has a 50/50 chance of recurring, of showing up in other organs, and has a chance of metastisizing as malignant. She had to go through more diagnostic testing. And here I sit, mere hours away from this doctor telling us the results of the latest PET scan. The space between knowing and not knowing.

canstockphoto0912560There have been a lot of spaces like this over the last few weeks. Before this medical drama, I’d been pondering spaces between, mostly from a creative perspective. I’d had trouble settling down to write, often wandering out into the garden to pull weeds or getting distracted by a lit journal. In the past, I’d chide myself for being a typical amateur writer, easily dissuaded from doing the thing which I needed to do in order to be what I wanted to be. Until recently, the spaces between were called procrastination and dilettantism. But I am my own spin master. The space between would hold value.

I decided to lean into it. What was happening between writing sessions? What was happening when my brain unraveled a bit, let down its guard, daydreamed? The answer is obvious to me now – I was writing the next story. Not everything is about writing, but at this particular point in my life, I want it to be. It’s something that keeps me afloat with hope for who I can still become. Or at least it was.

canstockphoto50379204Now the space between is a barren land. Gripped by the worst fear I’ve ever experienced in my life, my brain dare not relax. Daydreams are now nightmares about will readings and empty rooms. There is no inherent value except to keep me at the edge of the cliff. It’s an unsustainable state without there being damage.

I read articles about post-traumatic stress experienced by parents who go through a medical crisis with their child. I know I’m experiencing it. Reliving the moment when the ER doctor said there is a mass in her midsection. Reliving the moment when the surgeon said that there was a 95% chance it was malignant. Unable to sleep well, needing to be in constant motion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hyper-vigilance, alert to the slightest sound, standing over her at 2:30am to see if she is breathing, much like I did the first time she slept through the night as a baby.

There are several bird nests in our yard. We watched, as one by one, fluffy robins began canstockphoto49843428to fall out of the nest in their first attempts at flight. The mother robin was nearby interrupting her coaxing chirrs with sharp chirps of warning. The father swooping past to ward off predators. We watched baby cardinals being fed in turn by mom and then dad. They built their nest in a bush at eye level alongside our driveway. Despite all the activity, the sound of the garage door, the yard work, the mother forced herself to sit on those eggs, alert but motionless. The space between laying eggs and hatching them and sending fledglings off in the world is one of constant vigilance.

I read about post-traumatic stress not because I wish to avoid it, cure it, tamp it down. I only want to be aware of what is happening to me. I’m a fairly unshakeable sort who is now shaken. I feel a fundamental shift in my mental state and I know, at some point, I’ll need to make choices about who I become because of this shift. It’s early yet, but the future seems more uncertain than ever. Can I find value in this space? If I can’t, it will take years off my life, feeding the fear that has dogged me the older I get – that I will waste time.

When we returned home, after many nights hearing the beeping of monitors, the changing of shifts, the weak moans from the bed, it was apparent that nothing else mattered. And it might not again. It’s hard to care about weeds or workouts or washing. My husband and I have become mother hens, constantly milling about, checking up, never out of earshot. We have whispered conversations about meds and pain and temperature checks, even as our daughter has regained her color, her appetite, and her teenage eye rolls.

canstockphoto9520842I called up friends, went out for walks, even managed to get in a few workouts. But these posts are the extent of my writing. Somehow, I have to get back to writing fiction. A friend from my writing group said that she was sure that this time would prove valuable to my writing and she couldn’t wait to see what I would do. This might seem a mercenary perspective, but it was something that I needed to hear – to be reminded that regardless of outcomes, there will be value in this space between. I just have to be willing to look for it.

Update: The scans came back negative, so onto a monitoring plan. Thanks for the kind wishes and bearing with me as I posted my anxieties. Hopefully, I can get back to writing my usual rambling posts.

Adult Education: A Neverending Curriculum

A wave of stale high school sweat wafted over me as I opened the door to the gym. Last week I started a community adult ed class for circuit weight training. I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years – everything from Chinese ink painting to yoga to first aid.

It’s always the same. There’s a group of people who have been taking the class together since the dawn of time, who smell new blood in the water. I end up on email lists,  preceded by an onslaught of handshaking introductions, and unsolicited advice. I take classes because most of them are local, relatively cheap, and I am likely to walk away with something I didn’t have before – a broadened perspective.

I believe in lifelong learning and not as a euphemism for what retired people do. It’s what we all do if we’re paying attention. Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new – about myself or others or the world around me.

*****

It’s been a week of talking people down from trees. This is when the concept of “sandwich generation” hits me like a ton of bricks.

canstockphoto21347802.jpgThe week became about moments. My daughter is now in that world of preteen entanglements – friendships fraught with shifting loyalties. As an adult, I want to laugh it off for all its impermanence, but I know that her present moment is intense and painful. There are tears and conversations and hugs. I try to remember what it was like to be that age. I am not confident in my ability to teach her, but I tap into all that I know to offer her ideas and options. Sometimes I just try to make her laugh. This morning she told me that she dreamed she was being made fun of by high schoolers and that I beat them up. I try to be measured and wise, but sometimes all she hears is that I care. Violently so, apparently.

My mother-in-law was moved to a better room at the nursing home, triggering a cascade of cognitive impairment, common with dementia. She still remembers to call. Pick me up. Take me home. I’m at the casino. The staff expressed concern. She keeps hovering over her roommate, worried that she’s not getting fed. She wants to make sure the baby is okay. There is no baby. We make big decorative signs that say it’s her room. My husband or I visit her twice a day to remind her where she’s at. A palpable sense of relief comes over her when she sees us. At that moment, we are her home.

*****

canstockphoto8525201It might have been the setting, but with 700 stringed instruments, a gym was the only place to have the concert. One of the music teachers exhorted audience members to create an orchestra hall environment by turning off the sound on their cell phones and asking them to pay attention to the performances.

It seems like common sense, but over the last year, I’ve heard Bach and Mozart accompanied by ringtones and followed by hooting, whistling and hollering as if we’d just witnessed a professional wrestling match.

If I’m a snob, I come by it honestly. Growing up poor meant that live performances of music, theater or comedy were a treat. When money is tight, seeing the Cleveland String Quartet is a special occasion. Tickets to many events are expensive. We dressed up, used our best manners and treated the performers with awe.

There is something to the idea of making music accessible to a wider audience by not having etiquette expectations. Which is fine, until you slosh your drink down my back and do a shrill whistle in my ear to let your friends know where you are sitting. Or I can’t see the stage because of all the cell phone ambient lighting and cameras flashing around me. It’s an I hate people moment that I wrestle with every time I go to live performances these days.

My daughter said “Mom, sometimes I feel like crying when I hear live music.” Music does the same thing to me. The start of a symphony or a choir or an acoustic band sends chills up my spine. The ability of human beings to create such beauty, to cooperate and harmonize – this is an amazing thing.

Besides the love of my family and the natural world, the rhapsody of live music is the closest thing to faith that I experience. Hence the conflict between a roller derby audience and what I feel. But gratitude comes in all forms and I have to remind myself of that, next time someone yells woo-hoo! in my ear.

*****

This morning I struggled to write a letter. For several years, I’ve sponsored a girl in Ethiopia who is my daughter’s age through Save the Children. I know there are people who do more than I’ve managed, but I’ve told myself that at least I’m doing something. Perhaps too easy and too convenient, but something.

Ethiopia is now going through a terrible drought. The child I sponsor lists “fetching water” as a typical daily activity. I look at her picture. Her eyes are big, but her body thin. Her shirt has a tear in it. She does not smile. She wants to be a teacher.canstockphoto11235653

I fetch another cup of coffee. I’m thinking about taking a shower. I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Each moment, water taken for granted. What do you say to someone who cannot take water for granted? What do I say to a child in Ethiopia or in Flint, Michigan for that matter? My discomfort in writing a simple letter is nothing.

*****

canstockphoto8176108As I walked tonight, the crows swooped and raucously cackled as I crossed the park. The wind was cold and sharp on my face. The world expanded around me and I exhaled.

Sometimes the weight of my insecurities and fears presses down on me. I hear the voices that tell me that I’m a failure, that what I do matters little, that I’ll never be good enough.

Those thoughts are always there, flapping at the edges of my brain, trying to get my attention. A good week is when I feel strong and intentional and do nothing more than wave them off. This week, I invited them around a campfire. The s’mores of self-loathing were cooking away.

Like the crows, though, I know those thoughts are never going to stay. They can make all the noise in the world and that’s all it is, just noise to distract us from our true intentions. Sort of like politics these days.canstockphoto1392244

Spring couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Wishing you a sense of renewal and happy intentions this week!

Looking for Dad

canstockphoto23635321Years ago, Father’s Day seemed to be mocking me. I had matured just enough to see that it was another holiday designed to sell more shit. My father had left when I was five and committed suicide later in his life. My stepfather was a mean and sometimes dangerous drunk, now also dead. I have never called anyone dad. It rolls off my tongue like a foreign word, unusual and exotic.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I’m not a perky ray of sunshine.  I am, however, a believer in our ability as humans to see things the way we want to see them. My life is a series of truncated and isolated phases. We moved a lot. Connections were broken, addresses lost, time passed. I have forgotten much of my history out of necessity or neglect, but there are some people who have stayed always in my heart. And it’s an important lesson: We can make such a difference to each other.

An Appreciation of Nature

When I was younger, there was an older couple from our church who used to invite us over after service. My brother and I were 8 and 10. The couple were in their 60s. At the time, they seemed ancient. She was plump and severe, often chiding us for getting into things. He was always in motion, starting up the fireplace, walking through his garden, fetching this or that for her.

canstockphoto4041752Sometimes he would take us out to a local lake and even canoeing, if we were lucky. We would hike trails, scramble over logs, tromp through the mud. He knew a lot about plants and animals, always pointing out Dutchman’s Breeches and poison ivy along the paths. He narrated what the animals did and why. We’d look through his giant binoculars at birds, excited by a flash of color. He was interested in everything outdoors, as was I and we often poured through his bird guides to find something seen that day.

As I sit here now, birds are calling outside the study window. Behind me, on my bookshelf, are ten worn and tagged guides for plants, birds and animals. On top of them, a pair of binoculars.

Valuing What I Have to Write

canstockphoto23683471As a painfully shy 5th grader, I had the great fortune of having a teacher who saw me. Always quiet, reading, well-behaved, I learned to fly under the radar as much as possible. Mr. Dunn encouraged me to write. He put one of my poems in the town paper. He encouraged me in writing a parody, the now classic “Snow White and the Five Dorks”, which my classmates were all too happy to perform. My sense of humor had not been honed by subtlety. And still may not be.

I had begun prodigiously scrawling poetry and essays, filling notebooks with inane thoughts. Because I thought it mattered. He made me believe that it was worth doing. It was a kindness that impacted me immeasurably.

Pick Your Battles

One of the most important father figures in my life was my grandfather. He thrived on military history and knew how to do battle with all the women around him without making them mad. At least not for very long. He was gentle, kind and a fantastic storyteller. I miss him greatly.

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I think of Father’s Day with gratitude now. I think of the men who I was so lucky to have met along the way – they were kind, dignified, compassionate and good human beings. I see the relationship of my daughter and her father, knowing that without these examples along the way, I might never have recognized my husband for the friend and mate and the parent that he has become.

It’s easy to get lost in the hostile gender rhetoric of social media and the entertainment portrayals of men and women, that are as baffling as they are unrealistic. In this world, where humans are working so hard to define individuality to the point of isolation and defensiveness, we still need to feel that we matter, that we are valued, that who and what we are has a place in the universe.

You may swiftly forget that moment when you were kind to someone, when you taught them something, when you singled them out and made them feel important. For me, those moments lifted me out of despair and I will carry that gratitude with me always. Happy Father’s Day to you all.

Dear Daughter,

Let’s face it, this Mother’s Day gig is more for businesses than for your mom. Your mom would rather hang out at home than bustle elbow-to-elbow with corsages, pastel dresses and Waldorf salads. I don’t need this day, because being your mother is a privilege and a joy.

I didn’t always think of parenting like this. I grew up believing it was drudgery, dirty hands, noisy squatters who were just bearable – little uncontrollable monsters who made life worse. Children were unending responsibility and to do lists. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to have you – I had to realize that there was another side to the story.canstockphoto13603068What no one told me about was the joy. The joy of watching you grow big and strong and confident. I watched you run across the soccer field this week and felt tears well up. My mind jumped back in time to when you first learned to crawl and then walk and then run, laughing as I would chase you about the house singing “We are the dinosaurs”.

No one told me how much I would learn – about myself, about others and about how to see the world around me. No one told me how much better I would want to be as a human being, in order to be a good example. No one told me I’d spend an afternoon pouring over bug books to figure out what we saw on a walk or sewing a Robin Hood costume because you wanted to be a character in a book.

canstockphoto12183648No one told me how much I’d laugh and giggle at your antics or how much pleasure I’d get having you snuggled up against me, talking about nothing at all. There’s no chapter in the books that would tell me how I’d watch you from the kitchen window, my heart overwhelmed by a song you belted out happily while going back and forth on your swing.

No one told me that when I read a story about the loss of a child, that I’d feel a weight on my chest and a fear creeping at the edge of my mind. No one told me that I’d stop what I was doing, find you and be so grateful for the moment. And that for many moments after, I’d feel my breath catch at the thought of losing you.

There have been many challenges along the way. Most of them had to do with sleep. But those baby days are growing distant in the rear view mirror and here you are, in braces, happily chatting away about this cool computer program you are writing. I am often stunned by how grown up you sound.

You amaze me each and every day with your kindness, your enthusiasm and your open heart.

I don’t need a day. I’ve had years. And I hope for many more.

Love, Your Very Lucky Mom