Thursday was the first day back at school for the children of France after a dozen vacation days off for la Toussaint. Neither of our girls is particularly happy to be in French school, as I may have mentioned once or eighty-five times. So when Abigail realized Wednesday morning that she would be going back to Blah Blah Recess Blah once again, she burst into the angriest and most miserable tears we've seen from her this year. Which is saying something, if you know our Abigail.
I tried to talk her down, but her pathetic wails eventually brought Bill and Grace actually running in alarm. I told them what the matter was, and we all climbed into our big bed together to talk over the problem. Faced with three anxious, loving faces, she started to calm down and tell us why school feels so hard.
She's trying, doing her level best, but is frustrated, not seeing the results of her efforts. She took a big hard test in late October, right before the vacation, and the teacher (sensibly) wouldn't let her copy her answers from the children next to her. A lot of the test was just blank, reinforcing her sense that she's not moving forward. And she misses, misses, misses everything American. Being in France feels like pointless foolishness.
So we told her, again, why we're here and why we're so proud of her: she's learning a new language, but more importantly learning a whole new way of doing things. Knowing the reasons behind something is important to Abigail, and when we told her that the real leaders of the world know how to relate in lots of places, and learn to adapt just like she is doing, that meant something. Grace gave Abigail big-sisterly advice and praised her ability to make new friends at school. We told both of the girls about Barack Obama: born in Hawaii, with grandparents in Africa and Kansas, then living in Indonesia as a child. And we told them that even though they don't see themselves learning, we see it every day, and we're starting to hear it in their accents and their chosen words. "La lune," Abigail will say on the way home from school, pointing up at the huge disc in one side of the sky, then "le soleil," pointing at the other. "J'ai vachement faim," Grace will tell us (Literally, "I have cow-like hunger," slang for "I'm starved.")
We followed up our talk and full-family snuggle with an entire day of things we thought Abigail would like: Pancakes with Nona and Pops's cache of real maple syrup, Monopoly at the kitchen table, a mid-day showing of the Michael Jackson movie (with popcorn and malted milk balls), and even a trip to a street fair that happened to be set up in Draguignan (including bumper cars, midway games, and a jump on an Acro-Bungie trampoline.) For dinner the girls ate one of the boxes of Annie's Mac and Cheese that Buck smuggled over the border to them. Maple, Monopoly, Michael, Malt, Midway, Macaroni: MMMMMM. Just as saying "EEE" makes your face smile against its will, all these MMMs could make you downright serene. But when I asked Abigail at the end of the day what had been the best part of the day, she went back to our talk in the morning. "I liked snuggling with the whole family. You really made me feel better."
Being here is a remarkable gift we have given ourselves. We could have accomplished many of our goals by moving elsewhere, but because we're in Southern France, the sensory experiences of our everyday lives are just incredible. We've already stretched and learned so much just through the process of moving so far away, and trying so many new things all at once. But I think I most value the freedom I have this year to have the time and the emotional energy to be able to give my kids everything I have. To have so much in reserve that I can be present to them in a way I hadn't (ever) really been able to manage before.
But sometimes exactly that presence creates its own dilemmas. Sometimes I worry that I might be paying too much attention, when I perhaps should be forcing the kids to be more independent. Doing too much, and asking too little.
Like Grace, and school. Because as sisterly and grownup as she was in the face of Abigail's tears, she still found it awfully hard to go back today. Unlike Abigail, whose teacher and classmates seem to be helping her out, using plenty of English, Grace is on her own in her class. She's been sick a lot, and upset some, and has missed a lot of school. Nobody really helps her out in class. And while she made a new friend after the Principal gave the kids his be-nice-to-the-foreigner lecture, she accurately recognizes that that friendship is not particularly strong or resilient. She's afraid to lean on it too hard, lest it break like the last one, and drop her hard to the ground.
Still, she seemed just fine in the morning, and even came home wearing the lip gloss that she had shared with the girl who has befriended her. But when it was time to head back to school for the afternoon, it was her turn to be upset and tell me how she was really feeling.
The other kids had been kind for awhile, she said, but eventually had turned back to their own language and shut her out of their games. There were no children in her class to help her. And although she was starting to speak in fits and starts, it was hard to ever get past "Salut." The tears came harder, and she started to struggle a little bit to breathe. We tried our usual tricks to calm down, but nothing seemed to be working. Now she was wailing about missing even more school, knowing that she really really wants to learn French all the sudden. As we walked to the school, we were back to the old misery, but somehow another degree worse.
I wondered if I was somehow making it worse by listening -- somehow giving her fears unnecessary credence.
Because once, a few weeks ago, I had gotten her to the portail and sent her in, where she had quickly been absorbed in a game and had a perfectly nice day. But the closer we got today, the more it became clear that she was not going to be able to stop crying. She started actually to clutch at my down vest, hanging a little bit on my side. Bill had dropped Abigail off, and came back to walk with us, but she couldn't calm down. Her chest hurt, she told us. She couldn't breathe, and she was starting to hyperventilate.
I couldn't think all that clearly, either. Part of me believed that if I could get her into school, she'd be OK. I even feared that she was dramatizing for herself and for us, knowing that it would take a larger-than-usual meltdown to keep her out of school.
But then I heard panic, not just upset, creep into her tears. She was talking about wanting to go back, but feeling like she couldn't. I realized that if we were back home, and she were acting like this, I would have had her in the school nurse's office in minutes. Then, as we walked, I recalled that back at work, I had called 911 in similar situations. The more I looked at her little girl face, and felt the fear stirring in my own heart, I realized that this felt less like a mere going-to-school problem, but instead a question of her actually getting enough air. Whether she was hyperventilating from anxiety or for some other reason didn't matter anymore; despite our calm best efforts, she really was only getting worse.
But we were outside, with no phone. We walked up the hill behind the school to the office of the homeopath, as Grace had seen him a few days before. Grace and I sat on a bench outside his office while Bill tried to get him to answer the door. Nothing. I asked Bill to jog home for the phone, but he couldn't reach either the homeopath or the regular doctor who had seen Grace for her recent flu vaccination.
While I sat with her, and she talked about her throat closing up, my mind raced: was it an allergic reaction? I blamed the shot, blamed the gerbil, blamed the smell of burning grape vines in the air. Her breathing got more ragged, and she looked at me, not just anxious but truly scared.
When Bill came back, he was in the car. I told him we were going to the doctor's, and right away.
Of course (careful readers may have predicted this) it was by then 2:00 P.M. The doctor's, like the bakeries and the stores and the library and the Mayor's office? All fermé. Locked and shuttered tight until 3:00. The only direction on the door was to call 15, the benign-sounding number for French 911.
Being a parent to my particular children is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. Tolstoy famously claimed that all happy families are alike, but I must beg to differ. Although I have to say that while on the whole we are awfully happy, so much of who we are feels specific and difficult, and rarely fits a mold I can quickly understand. Maybe we seem typical to you, but how many happy families do these crazy things, in the ways that we do them?
To be a good mom to this strange happy family of mine, I feel like I have to weigh impossibly vague and subtle factors all day long. Am I over-reacting? Under-reacting? Giving too many choices, or denying the girls their independence? When do I push? When do I pull? When do I let it alone and get out of the way?
This particular hopeless circumstance had quickly turned from pushing her into school to getting her to a doctor. STAT, or whatever they say on those doctor shows. Which meant additionally trying to push Bill in one direction (make the phone call right now; we have to take the car; time to take this seriously as a medical problem, not just Grace faking to get out of school) while keeping the calmest possible voice and face for Grace. But as Grace reads me even better than Bill does, I had to resort to French to communicate my distress to him. Which only made Grace ask, in more panicked tones, why I was speaking French.
Whereas I (generally) worry way too soon and too often, Bill (often) responds to a crisis by aggressively not worrying, with a kind of forced, slow calm recital of the reasons why things are OK. When we hit a fight or flight situation, we head in opposite directions, our baffled children there in the middle not sure what to think. A lot of times he's right. A lot of times I'm right. Which makes it even harder the next time, and the next time after that.
Plus there is this strange phenomenon, probably also specific to my own otherwise happy family: each of the times we've had to take our kids to an ER (there have been way more than I wish to recount here) I have suffered this same shameful fear: might I be just over-reacting? Shouldn’t I just take them home and try a little Tylenol? No matter that in nearly every single case, this fear has actually produced something a lot more like under-reaction than hypochondria.
Full disclosure: we do not always under-react. For example, we went straight to the hospital with the (obviously) broken leg, the (clear) episode of sudden fainting, and the (unmistakeable) febrile seizure Abigail once suffered on an airplane jetway. But in a whole bunch of other situations where they've needed care right away, I've always hesitated, unwilling to believe that yes, this is a real crisis. To paraphrase the immortal MJ, I'm not always clear when This Is It.
Like one time, when my kitchen stove was actually on fire, I stood there on the phone, baby Grace perched on my hip, asking the 911 operator for directions how to put out the stupid fire myself. Only after she insisted, loudly and forcefully, that it was time to leave this to the professionals, who were on their way, did I realize that the apartment was filling with smoke and I'd better get us both down the five flights of stairs to the street.
So here I was with a wheezy little girl who was quite possibly faking it. Me, Little-Miss-I-Can-Handle-All-This, now just as deluded, but in France, where the impulse to under-react seems even more powerful than usual. Freaking out, or even worry, seems so terribly gauche and American all the sudden.
(I must add that this is never true when you call an actual medical professional. They react swiftly and carefully, and really really quickly. If the typical French person is more blasé than I'm used to, the typical French doctor is a whole lot more attentive and eager to please and ease my suffering.)
And just then, I also hated that I was unable to handle the situation on my own in the first place. I still can't reliably make any sort of phone call in French. I have left it to Bill to deal with the doctors, the insurance, the more complicated practical matters requiring language skill and patience with bureaucrats. So even if our disagreement over the proper course of action was going to continue (it didn't) I wouldn't be able to handle this on my own. I thought with a flash of inadequacy and chagrin of my friends who are single parents, and all the times they have had to deal with even worse, without someone else to rely on when things got superbad. So much for Little Miss Handles It All.
When Bill did eventually call 15, instead of sending an ambulance as they would have in New York, they told us to head for the hospital, which is actually pretty far away. But I didn't want to -- couldn't really -- send him alone with Grace in the car the forty minute drive to Draguignan. We needed to do this together, if only because we still had no idea how even to find the hospital, and no idea what to do if Grace got worse, as they said she might, and was beginning to do just then.
But I had Abigail to pick up in a few hours. And we have, really, still just one friend in town for whom we have a phone number. We're not unlike Grace, unwilling to put too much strain on the one relationship we've managed to forge here. Still, I called our angel Jessica, (who might just be starting to see us as the tenants from hell) and told her we were heading to the hospital with Grace. Would she pick up Abigail if we were late? Of course, of course, of course.
I may never be able to repay this lovely woman her kindnesses to us. But I like to think that Bill and I have both paid it forward enough times in the past few years elsewhere to soak in her generosity, now that we're the ones who seem all the time to need more than we can give.
In the car, Grace was incredibly upset. She wanted to be able to breathe, but going to the hospital sounded like even a worse fate than running out of oxygen. So Bill and I started to sing. The call to 15 had turned Bill around to my way of thinking, but also reinforced how important it was for us to keep Grace calm. So as I whipped around the corners and barreled down straightaways, (other French drivers in their stupid little Cleos were still passing us) we sang the lullaby of her childhood, Sweet Baby James.
I sang as slow and strong as I could, wishing away the ragged edges out of Grace's breathing, trying to wash the dead-looking grey resignation away from her face. Bill told me much later, after the dull hours in the ER, after the EKG and the chest X-ray and the temperature scan and glucose test all came out perfectly fine, that he had been out of his mind with worry in the car. That as he looked at her, listening to her wheezing, he wondered for a few long minutes if she were going to die.
So it was that, on the way to the hospital, we finally pulled ourselves both onto the same page, the same team. We were singing together, and Bill was holding Grace's hand in the back seat. He was navigating with the iphone, I was driving like a carefully repressed maniac, but when we made the first wrong turn, we worked it out together. He would go in, I would park, we would get there. We would find her to the help she needed, that we needed for her to find.
A doctor or a savvier parent might have diagnosed this much more quickly than we did: although we hadn't previously known that this was a problem for her, she was having a relatively serious asthma attack. She had been quietly mentioning this tightness in her chest for a few days, particularly after climbing a hill or running too fast. And, although Bill and I both deny it, we each have our own mild degree of the same problem. In fact, we are so in denial that when the doctor asked about family history, we shook our heads no. Liars. But now, she was having her first full-on attack, brought on by crying and walking in the cold air.
It wasn’t actually life threatening, we discovered when we got to the ER. They used that funny little finger machine to tell us that she was getting enough oxygen, and her lungs were working OK, despite the awful rasp of her breathing. She undressed and sat on a gurney in their pediatric room, which differed from the other rooms mainly because it had posters.
As Bill and I have had many occasions to learn, when you have to wait in an E.R., that means that you and your child are stable. Boredom thus eventually displaces terror, and you spend a lot of time looking at the posters. Most of them seemed to be encouraging reading, but our eventual favorite, for its sheer gothic inscrutability, was the one right at the end of the hospital bed. It showed a child's drawing of a Mickey Mouse toy being pulled apart into bits, with an enormous tearful babyhead gazing over the top. From what we could understand, there had been a children's drawing contest on the theme of "les dolours de l'enfant" ("the child's pain,") and this was the winning entry. For some reason, we found the idea of a children's art contest on this topic to be a great source of truly dark humor.
By the time the ER staff had worked through their usual algorhythm, in the usual slow, methodical order, it was nearly 4:30. Grace had been breathing poorly for over three hours, but since the warmth of the hospital had alleviated the wheezing somewhat, and nothing worse had happened in all that time, we had all calmed ourselves down enough to poke fun at the awful poster and speculate on the fun Abigail was likely having with Jessica's kids.
The ER staff finally sent in the pediatric pulmonologist to listen to her atypical breathing and have her blow out the flame on his cigarette lighter. I imagine that only in France could the pediatric pulmonologist keep his lighter in his doctor-jacket pocket and use it to diagnose children. He is an asthmatic himself, with a very bad case, he informed us, but he keeps the lighter there because he is an inveterate smoker. He was a really sweet guy, but I had to say that I seriously questioned his judgment when he admitted his habit to us, right in front of Grace, and in English. When we asked about possible side effects of the medication, he also told us a sweet story about how people in the old days used to think that asthma inhalers killed people. "That was because they were only giving it to old sick people who were going to die anyway. And they hadn't really perfected it anyway. Sometimes I must take even ten puffs on it at a time! Because, as you know, I smoke."
And then he gave her a few magic puffs on this (apparently non-lethal) asthma inhaler, which instantly brought her inhales back to normal and a smile back to her beautiful, beautiful face. Sudden clear skies, angels singing, rays of sunlight filled the now-darkened room.
It all went very quickly from there: a prescription, some recommendations, a suggestion that she shouldn't worry so much. She got dressed, we tried to pay (they would send us the bill later, ne t'inquiete pas), and we left to get Abby and figure out what dinner might be hiding in the fridge back home.
Driving in the dark on the way home, I was wholly wrung out. Grace was relieved, and maybe just a little high from the inhaler. Bill finally admitted how afraid he had been. Instead of cranky and tired, we were all a little giddy with relief, glad to be alone together away from the ER and that awful poster.
We turned on the stereo, playing the CD of our friends' band's setlist. We sang, again, this time belting out harmony to a Honky Tonk cover of the Beatles. I only realized later that I was singing so loudly to my own sweet girls:
Don't pass me by, don't make me cry, don't make me blue.
'Cause you know darling I love only you.
You'll never know it hurt me so;
I hate to see you go.
Don't pass me by.
Don't make me cry.
When we finally collected Abigail, it was almost 7:00. It hadn't unfolded as we intended, but Abigail had had her very first afterschool playdate. She was in great spirits, actually, perhaps grateful to have been with some other more typical kind of happy family for awhile. We chowed down some carb comfort food, and put the kids in front of a movie so we could think. Or maybe so we wouldn't have to anymore, at least for a little while.
For there will be more tears on the way to school. We will be torn again: do we send her to school? How to explain the inhaler? How to keep her from losing the damn thing once she feels great for a few days and it falls to the bottom of her backpack?
Lots of kids get asthma. Lots of kids have to fumble with their inhalers, and losing them is as much a part of normal middle school life as retainers and acne and mean text messages from frenemies. But right now, it all seems a little new, and a lot unfair. What's the best story to tell her about this new wrinkle in her life?
And, to go a little more broadly, what do we do about the girls' feelings of isolation? What about our own? Being in New York means more demands on our attention, but more margin of error. Is it better, or worse, that we have put ourselves in a place without such a wide safety net, so that we fall back only on ourselves again and again when things get tough? When it comes to raising our kids, do we err on the side of the cliché "it takes a village," or side with the French and stay always avec tout la famille?
It's not just France, but the whole project of being a family, that leads us into these confusing combinations of the emotional, the practical, and the impossible. Inevitably, one solution leads to another set of questions. And thus they grow, and so do we.