Archive for April, 2013

Malcolm, my five year old, is the hardest part and the easiest part of beginning to feel better after Marathon Monday. His little brother may have been there with us along the race route, and was certainly a bit confused by all the turmoil, but he’s three, and therefore spends most of his life in a state of fraught confusion. At almost six years, Malcolm is, I am told, unusually worldly and though I tried not to let him see me cry, he heard my voice break and saw me avert my gaze when I told him “Everything’s ok. I know Daddy’s ok.” The first was patently untrue, and the second not at all known to me at that moment. His father was somewhere on the course between mile 22 and the finish.

I try to let him be my guide, following his lead on what he wants to talk about, and most of the time, that’s ninjas and spy craft. Today, we spent two hours catching tadpoles and newts and releasing them again. But the sadness will out, and the anxiety, in us both. I can’t predict when it will hit either of us. Yesterday, I took him for a run with me. Runners run when we’re sad, or scared, or tense, or all of these, and I knew it would do us both good. We ran a mile to his elementary school and stopped for a break. A loud clanking sound came suddenly from behind us, and he asked what it was. “It’s the metal rings that hold the flags on the flagpole,” I told him. It was just louder than he was used to, the flags being half way down to the ground. On our run back, he insisted we start the way the marathon starts, at the cue of race director Dave McGillivray, and he extended his open hand, looked around, and then wordlessly made a little fist. On our many walk breaks, he slipped his hand in mine, a habit he had mostly abandoned until Monday.

IMG_3605Today, it was bombs. All his play with his brother involved bombs. Pinecones, rocks, a soccer ball. He would throw them or lay them on the ground and say, “These are the bombs and they can blow people up and kill them.” I know this is how he’s supposed to work his way through it, but he tossed a football to me and said, “This is a bomb! Like at Boston, right mom?” Yes. That’s right.

When I read about how to talk to kids about tragedy, a lot of what I read focuses on shielding kids from gory news footage, or too much adult talk, or too many reminders. The rules change when the boy was there. The mylar blankets he was wrapped in while we waited for his father are strewn on our floor along with the signs the boys made for him. Marathon detritus is everywhere. And though he has good memories of watching the runners (“they were dressed as sandwiches!”), he heard a police officer say people were dead. That severed legs were lying around in the street. He saw his mother not breaking, but bending, fissure lines opening up. Last night, he told me, he had a dream that we were in one castle and Dad was in a different one and Dad saw a monster with eyes on its cheeks and its forehead.

I’m not so different. I go to work, teach, which helps me feel human again. I have times when I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well, and times when I feel ok. I am grateful that my family is intact, body and spirit, and sorrowing for the bodies and families rent apart. I feel proud of my students who wanted to know how to help and made appointments to give blood, or donated to the charities supported by the runners like the one my husband was running for, Casa Myrna. Three of my students have made appointments with a National Guard recruiter. But the grief ramifies. I went through all my voicemails from Monday, and heard the voices of my friends, my sister, cracking as they pleaded with me to call them. My appetite is gone, and my wrists and shoulder blades weirdly ache somewhere within the bones themselves. I must be clenched most of the day without knowing it, and maybe the night too, when the many-eyed monster breaches the walls and visits me in the castle too.

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The view from a Green Line train: unsung mid-pack runners

The view from a Green Line train: unsung mid-pack runners

My sleep last night was utterly untroubled. Today, I have been overwhelmed several times by a wash of immense gratitude. I did not see any of the horror at the finish line yesterday from where I stood, stranded with my two boys around mile marker 22 of the Boston Marathon. Their father, a charity runner, was suffering cramps and hobbling somewhere between us and Copley, first heading toward it, and then, mercifully heeding my plea, turning back and plodding for us where we waited at a roadblock enforced by B.A.A. volunteers.

That something was wrong at all unfurled slowly for those of us lining the course. We watched Christophe come down the hill at Boston College, hugged and high fived him, and then watched his back recede toward the city as droves of other middling sloggers doggedly trudged along behind him. The boys and I got on the T and were reading a book when we were summarily ordered off. No more trains to Boston. No indication of any buses coming for us either. I hoisted Simon onto my shoulders and took Malcolm’s hand and we trudged off for Boston too. We got a few hundred yards along when I heard an agitated college student pleading with a cop for information. “How bad was the explosion? Did people die?” “Possibly several,” he answered her curtly and told us all to go home if we could. I set Simon onto a high stone wall and stood against it with Malcolm beside me. I didn’t know where this explosion had happened, and I didn’t know where Christophe was on the route. I robotically handed Simon an apple, and, unable to look my sons in the eye, I stared hard at a little twig lying on the mulch. I stared at it, this little gray forked twig, and recalibrated my future as it would be if I never saw him again. If we three weren’t just on our own for this one day.

When we reached the medical aid tent near the 35 kilometer mark, B.A.A. volunteers gently told me I could go no farther. The sky had clouded over and the wind had shifted, coming in off the ocean. A few dejected runners sat on cots wrapped in mylar blankets. The volunteers offered blankets to us, and we donned the metallic capes that usually mark triumphant finishers alone. I had reached Christophe by phone, and knew he was making his way back to us along the deserted race route. Volunteers piled sweatshirts, more blankets, and their own jackets onto me and my kids, hunched on the curb. One volunteer offered his warm car, and I set the boys in the backseat with water, and pretzels and music. I stood outside fixedly watching the little hill where Christophe would eventually appear, pacing a small ellipse on my makeshift widow’s walk, flanked by the folding cots and porta-potties of a partially dismantled medical aid station. All the other runners had been shuttled elsewhere, and these volunteers kept the station open solely for me and my boys, waiting, I insisted, on their father who was certainly coming, but slowly. They would come and stand next to me, asking if I needed anything. I could usually not manage much more than a grateful shake of the head, and I kept my face averted from the car window where I knew the boys would be trying to watch me. Like typical New Englanders, no one tried to hug me, or get too sentimental. I’m grateful for that too. They just stood next to me, and spoke kindly to my sons, and watched with me. A woman from across the street came out and offered extra jackets to my boys.

Would I knew the names of all these volunteers so I could thank each one for their great kindness.

Would I knew the names of all these volunteers so I could thank each one for their great kindness.

When Christophe crested the hill and made his wincing way down to me, and I pulled his salt-encrusted body into an embrace, I heard a small burst of applause and turned to see all the volunteers lined up, clapping.  They drove us all to another aid station, and then to a staging area where runners lay on the floor or sprawled in chairs with none of their belongings and no way to get home. Volunteers brought them pizza, and sandwiches, and coordinated rides.

I didn’t see any news or any footage of what happened until we were home last night. But even after I had, I felt no anger, no defiance, not even any curiosity about who did this, or why. Unlike those of you who saw the events unfold in the familiar modern news way–a repeating reel of wide angle footage of smoke clouds, bloodied bodies in wheelchairs and stretchers–I saw it all like the blind men of the proverb who all describe a different part of the elephant. Our day began watching all the starts at home on tv. Limited mobility racers, wheelchair, elite women, and then elite men just as we left for the train. Changing to the green line, we listened to a man playing Mexican folk songs down in the subway. I understood only a few words of his song, “beautiful” and “children,” but we left him a dollar for the tune that would stay in my head all day. We watched the race from B.C. where beer-fueled throngs of students cheered with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Runners cramped up and grimacing, runners in tutus or top hats, a guys named Charles dressed as a fairy, runners dressed as the full cast of Star Wars, runners wearing hamburger costumes. Regular people doing something enormously hard and regular people cheering them unceasingly. I saw Team Hoyt go by, and the woman pushing her disabled daughter too. The Tufts charity running team, the Children’s Hospital team, all the people who gave money to these causes and who weren’t there but whom these runners carried on their backs too. The names of children, mothers, fathers lost, emblazoned on the shirts and arms and bibs of these runners.

I know how you all feel, watching it all. I understand the shock, the disbelief, the anger and the demands to know why. But from where I stood, my whole day was suffused with the pure good of humanity. And that’s not unique to Boston, or to America. It was a comfort to me to be in a place I know rather than some far distant city, and among strangers who, if nothing else, talk in accents like my family’s. I don’t claim any special privilege for being from here, or for being there yesterday. What I saw was the good. And I see it still. It’s all I see. The lights in New York, Hawaii, Japan. The outpouring from people who desperately want to help somehow, to ease the pain. Gestures small and large, shirts worn in solidarity, hand-made signs, facebook and twitter messages. To everyone who feels helpless to aid us: I’m from here, and I was there. And you are helping. You are the good. And there was so much good.

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The ends of things

Whenever I’m knitting a pair of socks, I finish the first one, and then, for several days, I sulk around and wish I were an amputee. Then I find the will to knit the second.

I have trouble with the ends of things and the nadir in enthusiasm that precedes the beginning of the next thing. I think I’m fairly typical this way. Anticipation is lovely, experience itself almost as good. But the aftermath, memory, and the casting about for something new to look forward to, that can get quite low indeed.

Graduation day with Malcolm, four days old.

Graduation day with Malcolm, four days old.

Six years ago, I had a month left of my first pregnancy and a month left of veterinary school. I was due just about on graduation day. The anticipation of the baby was considerable, but what lay on the other side of graduating was, at best, an abyss of professional emptiness and uncertainty. I had no job lined up, no prospects of one, and not really any desire to find one. I could think of no way to use my newly minted degree that would not make me quite miserable. I was braced for the end of vet school, and though relieved, it also meant I was losing my identity as a smart, promising student and acquiring an identity as a mother. As it turned out, motherhood was not that different than I had expected. And I didn’t miss being a student at all.

What did surprise me was the quiet, subtle mourning I went through for the creature who preceded my son. The creature I had carried for nine months, and whom I had felt somersaulting for nearly five, was gone entirely. Acrobatic, lithe and mobile, submerged within my body, that creature of unknown sex was responsive to light, to sound, to the foods I ate. We called that creature Fetus, unsentimental as I was, and mostly still am, though now with a considerable soft spot concerning the children. Fetus was my lively and undemanding companion, hooking its feet up onto my lowest ribs, it seemed, and hanging upside down like a bat, or jutting a foot sidelong into my bladder. When Malcolm was born, grayish, poorly responsive and oxygen deprived, I missed my creature Fetus immediately. It was a couple weeks before I felt a deep attachment to Malcolm, and in the interim, I missed Fetus. Malcolm was demanding, craving, all-devouring. He gave nothing back. No smiles, no returned gaze, and no acrobatic flipping about. I was becalmed in my own life, walking him in the stroller around the neighborhood, all my vet school friends moved away and starting internships or jobs, my family over an hour away, my husband enslaved by a law firm, and even Fetus gone now. It was like a dream. A very boring dream spanning weeks.

The sensation was more muted when my second son was born. Before he was Simon, he had a fetal name too, dubbed Duckie Hammer by his older brother. I was even slower to warm to Simon when he was born; it was two months, maybe three before I saw both boys equally, before I would have laid down my life for either interchangeably. And I missed Duckie too.

The postpartum interval is rather often a rough patch, whether it’s depression, anxiety, wild mood swings, or a buffet of them all. Hormone withdrawal, hormone surges, sleep deprivation, they all contribute to the run-of-the-mill new mother psychosis. But I think at least a good part of it all is the feeling of something ending. I know it’s a joyous event, the birth of child and all that. But we lose something, every one of us, when a baby is born. Self-absorption, childless freedom, financial stability. When a second one comes, the close orbit of the elder one around his mother is disrupted, becomes eccentric. To pretend otherwise is unfair. There’s a dark time between two knitted socks. And the very start of the second one, that’s a discouragement. Though row by row, it gets better.

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The sex talk

I teach biology, and I am a veterinarian. The latter means that I have been shoulder deep in many a cow’s rectum ineptly pawing around for her uterus (this can be felt through the wall of the rectum) and some evidence of a pregnancy. This never struck me as gross. It was quite fascinating, and when the temperature in the barn is about 10 degrees, the inside of a cow offers at least the palpating arm some welcome warmth. Work with animals, or teaching reproduction to college students, these things tend to leave one unfazed by the relatively tame questions a five year old might ask.

Last week, we were reading Poseidon, an excellent book in an excellent series of graphic novels called The Olympians. In it, a mortal woman sleeps with a mortal king and the god Poseidon both in the same night. In the coming months, it becomes clear she is pregnant, but unclear whose baby she carries. Malcolm picked up on this conundrum and I explained questionable paternity and a little on the nature of sperm competition.

Sometimes they're thinking deep thoughts, and sometimes they're, er...this.

Sometimes they’re thinking deep thoughts, and sometimes they’re, er…this.

This week, his buddy from kindergarten became a big brother once again when his mother had her third child. Malcolm received this news, thought for a moment, and said, “Why don’t you want to have three kids?” I told him I just don’t. Two’s good for me. And then he said, “So, if you don’t want another baby, do you just tell your body that and it’s controlled by your mind? Or not?” Contrary to the views of some cretinous conservative politicians, this is not, of course, the case, and I told Malcolm, “Oh no. If you don’t want to have a baby, you have to very definitely make sure it doesn’t happen.” Then I told him all about how my IUD works.

Sometimes, especially at the two and a half hour mark of a three hour biology lecture, I start to have out of body experiences. During these intervals, I feel myself exit my own body and I watch myself fluently and animatedly speaking about some biological topic. It’s a strange sensation, though brief, and thankfully ends right when I start to think, “Shouldn’t I get back in there? How long can she go on without me?” Parenting is like that sometimes too. As I explained IUDs and birth control pills to my riveted son, part of me was watching and thinking, “Is this it? Is this ‘the’ sex talk?” Nonsense, of course, since ‘the’ sex talk is really many talks and many of those are only partially about sex itself. But I thought how easy it was to do. To be guided by a child’s simple curiousity for now. Answering his questions completely, but simply, and stopping where his interest stops. In adolescence, of course, it will be different, since there will be no more un-self conscious questioning then. But I’d like to think that we will continue this way, respectfully, matter of factly and without hysteria (pardon the uterus pun) for a good long while yet. His 3 year old brother is currently fixated on death, so conversations in this house are profound these days. And for as long as they want to talk to me, I am grateful.

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