In the Fight of His Life

I didn’t have this on my 2020 Apocalypse Bingo Card. Last week, my 28-year-old stepson Andrew had a stroke.

While this isn’t my story to tell, and Andrew is an extremely private person, I want to raise awareness of a form of vasculitis called granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), formerly known as Wegener’s. GPA is a rare disorder characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and damage vital organs and tissues. Besides potential damage to the kidneys and respiratory tract, other serious complications may include vision or hearing loss, heart disease, and stroke. There is no cure, and patients with GPA will experience remission and relapse throughout their lifetime.

We don’t know how Andrew contracted this rare disease that affects just 3 in 100,000 people, but since July 2019, it has nearly cost him his life three times.

I have known Andrew since he was one and have been his and his brother Kevin’s stepmother since 1996. When his father and I divorced, we agreed that our blended family would remain the most important thing in our lives and we have honored that agreement for nearly ten years.

The last time I saw Andrew was a few weeks before Christmas. He and Kevin met me for brunch in Pittsburgh on their way home from visiting their father. Larry and Kevin tried to prepare me for how Andrew’s appearance had changed, but I was shocked to see my tall and once incredibly fit boy so thin and pale. His once robust appetite was reduced to a bit of yogurt and granola. That night, after their long drive back to central New York, Andrew was in renal failure. He has been on dialysis ever since and is on the list for a kidney transplant.

The stroke has set back that timetable, however. Right now, there are more pressing physical issues that he needs to address like learning to speak clearly again and walking unassisted. His mental health needs attention, too. While Andrew has maintained his sense of humor through much of this, he is frustrated and afraid. He is unable to work and is on long-term disability. Because of covid-19, he has no real social life. If not for his cat, Zelda, he would be completely alone most of the time. We can’t visit him in person, although his father, mother, and brother have been allowed to see him for a few minutes each day in the hospital this week.

My birthday is in mid-August and soon I’ll create a fundraiser for the Vasculitis Foundation on my personal Facebook page. If you’d like to make a donation directly to the Vasculitis Foundation, click here.  

If you’re interested, here is one of many blogs and columns I’ve written about my stepsons over the years: The Boys Are Back in Town. I love them both so much, and to see one of them suffering like this is incredibly heartbreaking. But thank you for reading. It helps knowing others are listening. I hope this finds you and yours safe and healthy.

Andrew, Kevin, and Larry having dinner at my house; post-divorce and still family
Uncle Andrew with baby Audrey
Happier times

Reading for Sanity

My twelve-year-old granddaughter Claire (who reminds me every time we talk that she will be thirteen in October) called me yesterday, and we talked about Nerf battles, bears in Yosemite, the view of the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet, the difference between a highway and a freeway, and how the Interstate Highway System works.

Claire knows she can talk to me about anything and yesterday, those were the things.

Claire is a voracious reader, but she’d be bored by the books I read when I was a kid. I told her how I preferred teen detective Trixie Belden over Nancy Drew, but she told me that the new Nancy Drew comics are pretty good. I had always hoped that she would like the books I did as a kid, The Wind in the Willows, The Trumpet of the Swan, Ramona the Pest or the Henry Higgins books, but she likes more angsty, futuristic books. Throw in a little dystopia and she’s all in.

In non-pandemic days, I’m always up for emotionally challenging books, one in which the ending isn’t all tied up in pretty ribbons, and intellectually challenging books that ask me to rethink some long-held (and unearthed) belief or learned prejudice. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent example. I’ve tried reading a few more of those challenging books in the last few months, but I find that the emotional feels are exacerbated by real life. I read newspapers and news magazines and political commentary, and as part of my research for the memoir on grief, I’ve been reading academic papers on loss, bereavement, and the implications of not being able to see a loved one dead. All of that is enough of an emotional challenge right now. This makes reading for fun imperative.

Jennifer Wiener is one of my go-to writers for good endings, and by “good” endings, I mean satisfying; ones that don’t leave me in a heap of tears on the floor. I just finished Big Summer. So much fun! And Mrs. Everything is my favorite JW book to-date. It’s also recently been optioned for a TV show!

In an Instagram post, Weiner recommended books by several Black writers including Jasmine Guillory. I am currently reading her book The Wedding Date. Based on the first half, I will definitely read more Guillory books. Terry McMillan is another Black writer I love to read for that satisfying ending. Ever since How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she’s been a favorite.

Daughters of Erietown by the Pulitzer Prize columnist from Ohio, Connie Schultz, is one I didn’t want to end, and I hope Schultz has another book coming soon.

While the book, It’s OK to Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmort, is written as a series of essays about the life and death of her husband, is not the big downer you’d think a grief memoir would be. Also, Me by Elton John is a delicious piece of writing and includes some fun gossip about people in the recording industry whose names you’ll no doubt recognize.

I was in love with Elton John and Bernie Taupin when I was a kid, much to my father’s dismay. By the time I was twelve, I had bought or been given Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; Rock of the Westies; Greatest Hits Vol. 1; Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player; Mad Man Across the Water; and Caribou. When I wrote a report on Elton John in sixth grade (we had to write about someone famous), Dad told me he didn’t want me buying any more Elton John albums because EJ was gay. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked Dad, “What’s ‘gay’?” He walked away and never brought it up again, and I continued to collect Elton John albums.

Our county library is open again and is offering Grab ‘n Go service. I have three books on reserve to pick up on Saturday: The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews, and Still Life by Louise Penny. I want to start reading the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series before it comes out on Amazon Prime Video. (Do you prefer to read the book first and then watch the show, or vice versa?)

Anyway…back to Claire for a moment. Whenever her name comes up on my cell, whether it’s a phone call or text, it makes my heart skip the same way it did the day she was born. I am still in awe of her, in awe that she exists and is part of my life. Sometimes, like now, when I think too hard on it, I get to crying a little. We play Battleship on Facetime, but it’s not the same as real life. What I wouldn’t give to hug her and to have her spend the weekend. But…I will take what I can get: phone calls, texts, Facetime, appropriately distanced visits.

While these days seem like forever, they will not last forever.  

In the meantime, read for your sanity, read to lift your spirits. And listen to Steve Martin play his banjo!

Writing Out Loud

I started writing him a letter today, but I remembered when someone suggested years ago, right after he died, that I go to a card shop and pick out the Father’s Day card I would have chosen for him for his first Father’s Day. I didn’t do it because it felt silly and because I refused to live in a fantasy in which I bought him a card and maybe a tie and he would open it while he bounced Carlene on his lap, and then I serve him a slice of his favorite cake, German chocolate…

OK, so maybe that’s probably what would have happened if he hadn’t died, but he did die and my feet are planted firmly in reality. No “what ifs” pass through my lips.

Bruce and yours truly, Christmas 1981

But here’s what I wish I could tell him: I’m writing a memoir about our life together and his death and its impact, and while it’s mostly about me, it’s also about him. At times he’s a protagonist and at others, he’s an antagonist. I mean, I know he didn’t mean to die, but nonetheless, his death makes him seem like the bad guy once in a while.

We’ve all been in those two-way conversations that should be three-way conversations in which you’re talking to someone about someone, about what they did or didn’t do that was funny or embarrassing or pissed you off, and they weren’t there to defend or explain themselves. This is a little what writing this book feels like. How do you tell the truth about someone who isn’t around to correct you?

I’ve been thinking about how, at this moment in my life, writing this book, Bruce has book-ended my entire adult life. I met him when I was seventeen and he became everything to me, and here I am, nearly forty years later, putting him front and center again. What I don’t want to do is turn our life into a Glamour shot, blurring it and making it more beautiful than it really was. But since I can’t talk to him, I’m talking to you. Writing this out loud is helping me see things more clearly, holding me accountable to the truth, at least the truth as I remember, and it keeps my feet grounded in what was real then and what is real now. So a big thank you for reading! I feel better already.

A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

cassboys

Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

Kids3
Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

CarleneBurn

My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

Kids5
Oh, the cuteness!

 

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

wedding

Firsts (the Holiday edition)

Last weekend, two of my four grandkids came to stay for a few nights – the oldest, Claire, who is 12, and the youngest, Audrey, who is 6. I live in a small house with only one spare bed in my office, a twin, and an air mattress for company. With floor space at a premium, where we drop the air mattress is decided with careful calculation.

Audrey prefers the air mattress because it’s easier for my dog Zuzu (whose name you have to say in a very high pitch voice to capture the vocal rendition of Audrey saying her name, almost like an angel is singing it) to jump in bed with her. But for this combination of grandchildren, I decided it would be OK if Claire slept on the air mattress in the living room and Audrey slept in the spare bed. That way they’d have room for their bags and a place to change in the office without the acrobatics of maneuvering around a mattress in the middle of an already small room.

“Nooooooooooo!” said Audrey when I told her my plan. “I want to sleep on the air mattress!”

“The air mattress will be in the living room. Do you want to sleep in the living room?” I asked rhetorically.

“Nooooooooooo!”

“Then you’ll sleep in the spare bed.”

“Nooooooooooo!”

This went on for a good five minutes until Claire and I were able to reassure her that Zuzu could, in fact, jump up on the spare bed and would probably happily do so more than once in the middle of the night.

The rest of the weekend was mostly resistance-free. Jim and the girls worked on wood projects in the garage. Claire shot the BB gun. We played Skip-Bo, ate mussels (yes, even Audrey, the pickiest eater ever), went to see the Christmas tree in the rain, and watched Home Alone. Claire also mentioned her grandma Julia intermittently throughout the weekend, in that spontaneous, unconscious way we honor those who have died by recalling the ordinary, everyday things we loved about them. “I remember when Grandma would…” or “Grandma used to say…” and she laughed as she talked, because Grandma Julia was always making her laugh.

Julia died in February after a years-long battle with cancer. It’s been a difficult year of firsts for our grandchildren and the rest of the family, and now here we are at the front door of perhaps the most difficult of firsts: the holidays.

As is the tradition of many families on Thanksgiving, we go around the table and say one thing we’re grateful for. For me this year, that one thing is Julia.

In March I wrote about the last time I saw Julia, but I was too close to the loss to write more. I had to let the grief be there and not try to explain it to myself or anyone else. I needed to simply miss her and to honor the gaping hole in my heart by doing nothing other than feel the wind pass through it. Now, though the tears still come, the sharpness of her death has softened somewhat. With nine months of perspective, I remember more than I would have in the tight confines of grief, and I’m better able to offer a sincere thank you to the powers that be that gave us Julia, where in March, I was angry.

Obviously, without Julia there would be no Matt (my son-in-law) and therefore no Claire, Luca, Mae or Audrey. But what I’m most grateful for is how she lived her life as a grandmother and friend, and even as a woman dying. When I saw her the last time, I held her hand and thanked her for showing me how to be the kind of grandma who keeps a stash of color books and crayons in her car, snacks and wet wipes in her purse, and says yes to drive-through French fries. She looked at me a little confused and said, “Oh, honey, you would have figured it out!” Nope, no I wouldn’t have. Not in that Julia way anyway.

When Claire was born, my heart was full of so many strong emotions. It took me a few weeks to parse and understand them all, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to share her with others. Then when I saw Julia holding Claire and gushing all those same emotions over her, I knew that was the kind of love I wished for my granddaughter, the kind all of us can never have enough of.

There are times when I feel a burden of being Claire, Luca, Mae, and Audrey’s only living grandmother. Then I ask myself, what would Julia do if I was the grandmother who died, and I know for sure that she would share with them her memories of me and would never let them forget how much I loved them.

I know many of you are experiencing similar firsts this year. My hope is you can find peace in those dark places as you miss the person you lost and feel the gravity of their absence. May you be able to say, even under your breath, “I’m glad I knew you.”

20150228_160801_copyClaire took this selfie of me, Claire, and Julia in February 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Honor of All Veterans (and their mothers)

(My column from December 6, 2001)

I’m being weaned, figuratively, from my children by my children. At 17 and 18, Cassie and Carlene don’t need me for many things anymore, except maybe to buy face wash, body lotion, or tampons. Then it’s not really me they need, but my Visa card.

From the minute they were born, I’ve been letting go. I let them go with the nurses to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. I let them get on a bus to go to their first day of kindergarten. I let them go to birthday parties, sleep-overs, field trips, and to the mall and movies with their friends. I’ve even let them go on dates with boys I didn’t like, not because I trusted the boys, but because I trusted my girls. And trust is at the heart of letting go.

While Carlene grew up, her letting go of me was harder than me letting go of her. She hated day care, she wanted her first-grade teacher to call me after a thunderstorm one afternoon, and she usually sat on my lap when strangers or people she hadn’t seen in a while were in the room. As she got older, though, Carlene grew a strong backbone, and combined with her level-headedness, she’s turned into a strong young woman, even though I still buy her razors and shampoo.

On the opposite end of parenting is Cassie. Our letting go experiences have been of her pushing me rather than me pushing her. She had no problem disappearing into clothes racks when she was 2 years old while we were out shopping, leaving me frantic looking for her. She couldn’t wait to go to school, and loved it when I hired a babysitter if I went out. I always knew she needed me in some esoteric way, but she hasn’t given up the secret of why.

She’s done some fast talking and gentle pushing lately to help me face the hardest letting go of her yet. Last Tuesday, I signed a consent form allowing Cassie to join the Army Reserves. She made this decision before September 11, and I was mostly OK with it since she could finish high school without interruption, and go to college while doing her military work. Then as I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse, and saw the Pentagon on fire and the smoldering airplane debris in a field not far south from where we lived, I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let her join anything that might put her in the middle of whatever was coming.

But when she came home from school that day, she was more determined than ever to sign up.

I knew out of my fear I could be the control freak I’m known to be and refuse to let her join, to make her wait until she was 18 and no longer needed my permission. But I’ve spent 17 years reigning in this child, and to hold her back might break her.

After all, this is a girl who, when she was 3, thought she could stick a penny in an outlet like it was a vending machine. When the lights flickered, I heard a “snap” and felt a bump on the floor. I ran in to her room, and there she was, blinking and stunned, with a penny bent and burned near the outlet. I didn’t punish her. I figured the electric shock that sent her flying a foot from the wall was lesson enough.

This is the same girl who, when she was 7, decided to visit her 80-year-old friend for five hours without telling me where she was. How do you get mad at someone who’s doing a good thing, but who didn’t follow the rules?

Just as control defined me as a parent, dichotomy defined Cass.

I read the consent form. It was perfectly clear. My signature meant I understood Cassie might be put in dangerous, life-threatening situations should her reserve unit be activated. It meant I promised to not sue the government if something happened to her while in their care, like a broken leg, loss of eyesight, or death. This form made the paper I signed so she could get her belly button pierced seem like a sales slip for lipstick. I was granting permission for the government I live under and pay taxes to, to use my child’s talents and interests for the country’s best interests. God help me, the government had better appreciate her.

She’ll go to basic training this summer, a complete letting go if there ever was one. If she screws up, it won’t be me talking to her about her mistake or grounding her for a night. She’ll have a drill sergeant in her face calling her names and screaming at her to do 50 pushups. Instead of her favorite mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, and Italian chicken drizzled in butter, she’ll be eating chipped beef on toast. Instead of sleeping in on warm summer mornings, she’ll be up at 4 a.m., running, learning to shoot an M16, and throwing grenades. They’ll even put her in a gas chamber. “Cool,” she said.

So, I signed it. She’ll come home a soldier. A lean, mean fightin’ machine. But she’ll still be my little girl, and she’ll still need me. And my Visa card.

I’m being weaned. Weaned from directing and controlling my girls’ destinies. But you know something? When I look at them, when I think of all we’ve been through, I smile like a Cheshire cat and think, ‘Damn, I’ve done a good job.’

 

 

Families (Un)Defined

I don’t remember what program I was listening to the other day, but what stuck with me was the person being interviewed said that it was his mother’s third husband who was his best father; the man who listened to him and raised him up to be the caring and kind person he is today. Paternal biology had nothing to do with it.

From the outside and in writing, my family history may seem (understandably) complicated to a newcomer. But like all complex family structures, if you take the time to look around it, you’ll see they are often a beautiful amalgamation, a patchwork quilt of daughters and sons and nieces and nephews and friends who are as close as sisters and brothers. No two families are alike, and that is grand!

When my husband died in 1983, my love for his family didn’t die with him. Parts of his family are still my family, 36 years later, and no one dare tell us otherwise. The same is true of my stepsons, now age 26 and 27, both of whom I’ve known since they were born. Their father and I were together for 14 years before we separated in 2010. But even though our marriage broke apart, our family didn’t. The grandkids still have their Papa Larry, and I’m still Evil Stepmother. We’ve remained a family through thick and thin, and right now, things are a little thin, which has me a bit nostalgic, to the days when the boys were little and I was a newbie stepmom.

To all the step and other families…rock on, despite what anyone else thinks. Your support and love for the people you consider family is all that matters.

Little Women Meet Ren and Stimpy

December 1999

If the number of stepfamilies continues to increase in the twenty-first century, as they are expected to, then stepmothers need some better press than they’ve received in the past.

Ever since Cinderella, people have a picture of stepmothers as cruel, mean, nasty creatures who rank just below mothers-in-law as the most ostracized family members. All my life I was sure I never wanted to be a stepmother. But I am one, and life, for the most part, is normal, as normal as it can be when a woman raising two teenage girls meets and marries a man with two young boys.

This coming together of our families is a little like Little Women meet Ren and Stimpy. My girls have learned to accept, or at least ignore, the boys’ burping contests, and the boys pass off the girls singing Dave Matthews songs loudly in the basement or prepping in front of a mirror as just weird.

Bras don’t dry over chairs in the kitchen anymore, and the froufrou lady stuff shares space in the bathroom with bubblegum flavored toothpaste and Star Wars toothbrushes. Marbles are strewn throughout the living room, and plastic bloody eyeballs are sometimes hidden in the refrigerator.

The boys taught the girls their favorite song: “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat the more you…” You can guess the rest. The girls have turned the boys on to “cool” music – no more Raffi in this house.

The girls read Chicken Soup books and Brontë novels. The boys prefer Captain Underpants. The boys tell a lot of stories, usually the “Know what?” variety, and they take every opportunity to say the word “butt.” In their world, having smelly feet is a good thing. So is pro wrestling and Pokémon.

Unlike Cinderella’s stepmother, the chores I make them do are pretty benign. They clear the dinner table, dry dishes, and make sure the toilet lid is down. I’m kidding about the toilet lid. They never remember to do that.

They like to talk about their futures as astronaut paleontologists or anthropologist brain surgeons. We’re especially encouraging Andy’s most recent dream: to be a guitarist and a professional baseball player – professions that are sure to keep his dad and me comfortable in our retirement.

We’re fairly sure Kevin will be a detective or a biologist. He likes to crawl in bed with us and explain how ladybugs eat aphids, and he spies on the girls while they are watching television using his telescope. He also checks the cats for fingerprints.

This quasi Brady Bunch life didn’t just happen. Adjusting to each other’s personalities, needs, fears, and aversions was often difficult. But of all the relationships in this new family, the stepmother-stepson one was the hardest to forge.

By the time I married their father last year, the boys and I had interacted on several occasions, few of which were particularly memorable. Their behavior usually translated into: Who is this strange woman with our dad, and why should we listen to her?

I did few things right in their eyes and spent many frustrated moments in tears asking friends what I was doing wrong.

Finding my place in their lives and they in mine took time. But with each visit, we saw how important we were to their father, and realized, subconsciously of course, that if we wanted a part of him, we had to accept a part of each other as well.

I think our difficulty was mostly due to my desire to nurture them as I nurtured my own children, and their fear of allowing me to nurture them. Since they already had a mother, they didn’t feel they could be true to her while letting me wipe away their tears or laugh at their jokes. The words, “You’re not my mom!” frequently rolled off their tongues, especially if I didn’t allow them to jump on the couch or swing from their bunkbeds. There were times I wanted to give up.

But the tears, the time, the patience, and the prayers gradually paid off. I’m not exactly sure when or how it all happened, but their most recent visit demonstrated how far we’ve come in three years.

Andy, who just turned 8, doesn’t usually want to be hugged. The other night, he had a bad dream. He started crying because he missed his mom, but he let me hold him and stroke his hair and tell him it was OK to be sad. He thanked me the next day for listening to him. I told him I listened because I loved him. He said he loved me, too. I’ll bet Cinderella never said those words to her stepmother.

Kevin, on the other hand, is still a little boy of 6, and likes to be sung to and to sleep with his stuffed dog, “Pup.” He won’t let any of us catch him under the mistletoe, but he and Pup always snuggle on the couch with me while we watch holiday movies. He listens to me when I correct him, holds my hand when we cross the street, and climbs on my lap while we play a game on the computer – oblivious acts now that three years ago would have been met with resistance.

Being a stepmother isn’t about being cruel and nasty or having warts. It’s a lot like mothering, a little like friendship, and a lot like love. In fact, it’s a pretty good deal. I inherited two terrific boys without going through labor, highchairs, or potty training.

It’s a great beginning to happily ever after.

 

Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).
  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.

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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.