Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Death takes a holiday. Then gets back to work.

So it turns out that Grace's little tick bite healed for a full week, then got all bumpy and weird and started to itch. There was no classic bullseye rash. But since Lyme Disease is bad enough that you treat it even when you're not sure, Grace's Brooklyn pediatrician told us to get her checked out.

To add to the medical fun I've been so enjoying this summer, this entailed yet another visit to the E.R. at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

You would suppose that in a civilized town like Hanover, New Hampshire, there might be a walk-in clinic for minor medical events like this one. If you had lived in any other developed nation for any length of time, you would confidently expect there to be something like the cabinet medicales in France, and expect to be able to pay twenty-two euros for the privilege of visiting it and getting a simple blood test.

You would be wrong. Instead, Grace and I were to take up space in an All-American E.R. for an hour and a half, and likely will pay several hundred dollars. This country is completely nuts, making its Emergency Room doctors take up all its slack.

We showed up just before dinner time on a Monday night, only to find the waiting room packed with distressed-looking people sitting under blankets in wheelchairs. Apparently Monday night, after work, is when all the injuries and illnesses of the weekend come in for attention. Nobody was actually bleeding from a gunshot wound in the waiting room (as we once discovered in the Jamaica, Queens E.R.) but a whole lot of people's grandparents looked pretty darn ill. The very nice lady at the intake counter suggested that we might have better luck early Tuesday morning, when sick people tended to be sleeping rather than showing up in droves to the hospital.

So the next morning, I dragged the girls out of bed as early as we could and showed up a little after 6:30 AM. Grace got her hospital bracelet, and went right into one of the little rooms to read and wait. Grace was pretty nervous, and started asking me a series of questions that revealed her vague and dire sense of what might be happening to her.

"What kind of parasites are inhabiting my body right now, Mommy?"

“What are all those tubes and dials on the wall for?”

"Is Lyme Disease like cancer?"

"How do you keep from getting cancer your whole life?"

“How does cancer kill you?”

Having been Grace's mother now for so long, I've gotten pretty good at offering reassuring, yet accurate answers to enormous questions about life and death. I keep it simple and boring, and point gently to the bright side of things, without lying to her about what's actually going to happen. I told her that a lot of people live for a long time, even when they do get cancer, and even gave her some examples of people she knows who have done so.

And today’s visit was a pretty simple matter, I told her. I said, I know that the ER is scary, and even a little bit scarier to you in particular, but all those tubes on the wall don’t mean that they will need those for you. They will use a small needle to take a little bit of blood out of your arm. They will either give you some antibiotic pills, or not. Since we were lucky enough to have noticed the tick, and since we were lucky enough to have good doctors to take care of us, you are going to be just fine. You do not have parasites. Or cancer.

(Which was all to say, without saying it in so many words: don't worry honey, even though we’re sitting in the ER for a simple blood test, you're not going to die. At least not today.)

She smiled a little half-smile, and we both quieted down to read our books and wait.

After a few minutes, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation going on in another room across the hall. We were screened by curtains, but the voices came right through.

First I heard a nurse talking on the telephone, friendly but matter-of-fact. Yes, she said, we need you to come right away. No, not later this week, that wouldn't be a good idea. Sir, I'm telling you as a daughter and as a nurse, it's important that you come here right now so that you can spend some quality time with your father. We've given him some medicine to slow the rise in his potassium levels, but they’re going to go back up very quickly. He wants to see you now. Before it is too late.

I'm no doctor, but I remember how my grandmother June died. She had lymphoma for a long time, but at the end, the tumor took her away on a sea of potassium. She was with us, lucid and clear and herself, and then she was gone. First in a coma, and then gone forever.

While I didn’t tell this to Grace, this is in fact how you die from cancer.

And this was in fact the phone call when somebody told this man's son he was about to lose his Dad.

"Would you like to talk to your father?" the nurse finally asked. "We've just explained what's happening to him, and he understands it all.”

I realized that I had been hoping that nurse had been talking out of earshot of the dying man with the reluctant son. No such luck.

But the father's voice sounded young and strong. He didn't weep, and he didn't curse his fate. He sounded resigned, and philosophical, and like he was talking about the weather. "It's all just happening faster than we thought, James. I'd really like to see you before I go." Eventually it seemed that James got the picture, as his father talked for just a few minutes before signing off. "So long," he said. I couldn’t help but start to weep.

After he and the nurse had lit that awful fire under poor James, they sat and talked for awhile. The nurse had clearly been there before, and she had no trouble letting him know what he was in for. She used his first name a great deal as she spoke, every chance she got. She was speaking straight into the window that had opened to his soul, no pity and no bullshit.

"You know, they say you do fifty percent of your lifetime of psychological learning right before you die. You're going to grow a lot today. Keep growing."

The man replied. “It’s really just so fast. And I had hoped to drag it out a little more, but it’s not to be. I was always a believer in destiny, and I guess this is just a part of it. “

They talked about some of the things he had done in his life. He had fought in Europe during the Second World War. He had sold insurance just outside of New York City for fifty years. After he retired, he and his wife had moved here for the quiet pace of life. She asked him if he’d like to go outside. Or if she could get him something to eat. She didn’t say it, but we all heard it: these were in fact his last chances to do either one.

The dying man was not weeping, but I still was. As silently as I could, and with my head sort of turned to the side so Grace wouldn't see. But she's a smart kid, and has super-hearing for any detail that alludes to illness or death.

She spoke as quietly as she could. "Why are you crying, Mom? Is it because that man is going to die today?" I could only nod.

After some time, at his request, the nurse dialed the phone so that the man could leave a message for his wife. The wife had just left, probably to get a little sleep or walk the dog or something, and she was going to arrive home to the voice mail message that this was his last day. The nurse left the room while he talked, but I still could overhear.

"We need you to come back right away, I guess." He talked for a little while longer, and I tried hard not to listen. After that, he was quiet, except for some little noises in his throat for what felt like a long time. When I poked my head out to go check on Abigail in the waiting room, he called out to me.

Our curtain had been shut, but his was half open. He was holding the phone in one hand. I realized that those little noises were his way of trying to get somebody's attention without his being too demanding. He was a lot older than his voice had sounded.

"Miss," he said, calling to me. "Miss, could you please hang up this telephone for me?"

Mostly these days people have started calling me "Ma'am." I loved that “Miss.” And I loved this sweet, dying man, so polite that he wasn't willing to call out for help, even on his last day, even for this last phone call, ever. I would have hung up a million telephones for him, every phone of his whole life.

I so badly wanted to tell him it was OK for him to tell James "I love you," instead of "So long." But instead, and thank god, I said "You take care," which I hope he knew meant the same thing.

Last night, as I was putting the girls to bed, I stopped to really look into their little faces. Abigail suddenly looked to me a full year older, after just two days away at summer camp. We hadn’t had the best evening together, as they had been tired and cranky, but I wanted to tell her how much I loved her. “You’re getting so big, Abigail. I’m so proud of the way you’re growing up.”

“I know.” She said. “But I don’t like growing up.” And then, although I couldn’t believe my ears, she said exactly the words Grace and I had heard from the dying man. “All of the sudden it feels like it’s just going so fast. I want it to last longer.”

I thought of the man, moving so quickly through that last half of what he had yet to learn. “Maybe growing makes time go faster,” I said. And then, “I love you so.”

Today the girls are at camp. Bill and I are at home. The sun is shining, and I can go outside anytime I want. I can pick up the phone and hang it up. I can have any meal I wish, and be pretty sure it’s not by any means my last. Grace could need some more antibiotics, or maybe she won’t. But today we’re safe. Today we’re whole. Today we are still building up towards that first fifty percent of whatever it is we’re here to learn.

James and his mom and dad are elsewhere. They are in that place from which you never return. I hope somebody eventually convinced them to go outside. I hope he threw off his politeness enough to ask for whatever it was he most loved to eat. I hope James heard him say I love you, even if the words never came out that way.

Thanks to Kristen, whose entries these last few days at set my thoughts off in the direction of the metaphysical. And thanks to the talented staff of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock ER, who treat little girls and dying old men with remarkable professionalism and skill.

Monday, June 28, 2010


We spent our 15th anniversary with the girls, at Storyland, which is the world's cleanest, friendliest, most adorable and un-scary amusement park.

How did our fifteen years pass so quickly? How did Grace's eleven? And Abigail's eight? My forty? I ask myself these questions a lot lately; but here in midlife, I am starting to ask new ones, like how many more years like this one do I get?

And why are so many signs in the world punctuated improperly?

This place made me love America. It was kinda like Wholesomeness Incarnate.

You would think all that wholesomeness, and all those Red Sox hats, would make us Cranky New Yorkers even crankier. But try as we might, grouchy old Bill and I, we couldn't come up with a single legitimate complaint about the place.

This is me on the Raft Ride. I recognize this look on my face. It's that same one from June 25, 1995. It's happiness.

The whole park was simply adorable, as were the girls, all day long. Note the candy necklace and the rainbow swish she asked to have painted around her still-fresh eyebrow scar.

The park was full of kiddie rides, but we all rode them anyway. For once, nobody got scared or overwhelmed.

So yes, enjoy yourself, wherever you are. It is later than you think.

Early Summer in New Hampshire

Our big adventures these days consist of trips to the town library, soft ice-cream cones at the General Store, dinner with the grandparents, and finding beauty everywhere we look.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Moving Day

We moved again on Sunday. Since the first of July of last year, we've played musical houses, moving about a dozen times. Each time we have to pack up all the crap we brought the first time, try to organize it in some sensible fashion, and then cram it into some vehicle (or several vehicles, serially) to get it to some place we've chosen, essentially at random, and often sight-unseen. We now have developed almost a ritual, or at least a satisfactory division of labor, to balance our own family see-saw of chaos and order.

This one was a relatively easy and close move. We packed a few bags and boxes, threw them into our car and my father in law's car, and drove fifteen minutes from their house to a rental house we had actually already seen. Everyone spoke English. There were no trains or airplanes. My mother-in-law even watched the kids while we unpacked their little tshirts and novels and toothbrushes. Now, as I am writing this, everything we own is once again in its appointed place, and neither of us had to shout at anyone to get it there.

Most of our moves were not so sanguine. The very first one caused no end of angst and pain and family-wide distress as we downsized from an entire Brownstone into six cardboard boxes and about duffel bags. Each one since then has gotten progressively simpler, but I still sometimes have terror-stricken flashbacks to the moment that the TGV pulled into the train station in Paris as we were heading back to the U.S. At that moment, we had two children, four regular bags and five elephant-sized ones, and two bad backs between us. We had three minutes -- four at best -- to use those bad backs to get everything off the train.

You don't mess around with the TGV. It arrives on time, and leaves a few minutes later, no matter what group of American idiots is still fussing with heavy baggage. Very unfortunately, our seats were up on the top level of a very full train, which meant that we had had to haul our enormous bags up a flight of stairs. We had thought that we would move some of our bags downstairs as we approached Paris, but by the time we got up to do so, the smarter Parisians had already clotted up the space between our bags and the doors.

As soon as the train doors opened and the line of French people ahead of us started spilling out onto the platform, we began dragging several of the larger bags down the stairs with us. We shooed the girls out onto the crowded platform, forbade them to move from the bags, and then Bill went back inside to rescue the rest of the luggage. I stood blocking open the door of the train, which is something I never do in normal circumstances.

I know that I've maligned the French seven ways to Dimanche in this blog, but I have to credit the two incredibly sweet fellow passengers who realized what a pickle we were in: two Frenchmen on the train -- they themselves with luggage -- got moving to evacuate all our bags, firemen-style.

At the same time that these nice French guys helped us out, two older-lady American tourists stood yelling at us. I'm serious: yelling at us that they were worried about our kids standing there, while we tried desperately to move all those insanely huge bags and end up with all four of us on the same side of the closing doors. Once I realized that they were offering criticism rather than help, I added to the chaos by yelling back at them while throwing bags in and out and using my body as a doorstop.

It was quite a picture: all those Americans yelling, Abigail and Grace frozen in their spaces on my command, and a bucket brigade of smartly dressed Continentals chucking our bags onto the platform. Bill and his human-being-sized backpack came spilling out last, just as the doors slid shut and the train sped its away towards Belgium. After thanking the nice French guys, we just stood there for a minute, panting and cursing our bad backs and the buttinski Americans who shouted at us. Immediate crisis averted, we gathered up our stuff, only to realize that once again, the French had failed to install an elevator where it was most needed.

So in contrast, this was a much less anxiety-ridden situation. We spent the first part of the day, Father's Day, morning lounging around the breakfast table, then tried to cram everything we own (everything that is not in storage, in the dusty Brooklyn apartment, in my parents' house, or still stuffed in a closet at Bill's parents house) into bags and then into our big fat Toyota for one of the shortest trips we've made so far -- just ten miles north of Hanover to Lyme.

I tend to really like unpacking. It's deeply satisfying to put things in their places. In fact, this was actually how I generally played as a child. I'm a sorter, and the idea of taking a whole bunch of disorder and turning it into order feels like fun to me. The house we have rented for the summer is perfect for an unpacking game: it's fairly made of closets and shelves and empty spaces to fill. Unlike the other places we have rented and borrowed this year, this one is short on charm and long on good old bloated American-style convenience. Everything is new. Everything is labeled. Everything works. And while there may be that icky-looking textured sand paint on the ceiling, and the landlord won't let us wear shoes inside or bring our dog, it's also located smack in the middle of a lush pine forest, not even a mile from the town beach on Post Pond.

So tonight, after we finally got the girls to doze off, Bill and I sat together on the deck. We drank a French red wine that Toni and Bud found in Brooklyn, and which tasted pretty much exactly like the kind we liked back there. We looked up at the moon and thought about the solstice. We listened to the frogs down in the marshland below our house, as they beat out the multi-note tattoo of their giant amphibian orgy.

A little over half a moon hung in the sky, just high enough so that we could see it over the trees. The night was deep, deep blue, with the last of the setting solstice sun glowing in the west behind the houses, between the pines. Once again, we find ourselves nowhere in particular, and somehow right at home.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Death Stalks Our Family. In Three Acts.

Act One: Tick. Tock.

Death is after me, I’m sure of it. It all started last Friday, with a tick.

We were visiting Brooklyn, staying at our friends Toni and Bud’s house. Gracie was wandering around instead of getting dressed, as she is wont to do, when she asked me, from the other room, “What’s this black thing on my back, Mom? It hurts.”

As she walked in to show me, I first thought that she had grown an enormous black mole. As I am wont to do, I overreacted. In the speed of a lightning flash, I could suddenly see all the steps – diagnosis, melanoma, terrible surgery, and then my sweet blonde girl wasting away like Amy in Little Women, her lips all stretched and cracked.

It's incredible how quickly my frantic imagination can kill off my kids.

But as she got closer, and I could see more clearly, it was suddenly horribly, awfully worse. There is nothing worse than thinking something is inanimate, and then watching it start to wiggle. Since I had never before seen a tick engorged (what a gross word, don’t you think?) I thought it was a spider there on her back. When I realized that I couldn’t flick it off, the gravity of the real, rather than the fake-frantic situation hit me. Not only was this a tick, the kind that causes Lyme disease – but I was going to have to figure out how to pull it out of my child’s skin.

Where was my damn home family medical book? Oh right. Packed, like just about everything else.

These days we are home – as in no longer in France, where we spent the school year. But since our house is being renovated, "home" is a series of borrowed, rented, improvised, cobbled together places. I prefer to think of us as home-rich, rather than homeless, as there are plenty of people loving and generous enough to take us in. My in-laws in New Hampshire, saints that they are, are hosting not only us, but also our dog. So in case you wondered how Grace got a tick in Brooklyn, you should know that just a day before then, she was at their house, romping and snuggling with our dog, who is both chick magnet and tick magnet.

We’re incredibly grateful to have a place to live, ticks and all. However, the fact that we’re in constantly borrowed digs means that in a time of crisis, confusion, or other sort of upheaval, I’m even less prepared than usual. Even if I knew precisely what tool(s) were required to remove this spiderlike thing embedded and cemented in by its jaws, I wouldn’t know where in Toni’s house to look.

For me, necessity is the mother of panic, but I’m also pretty sure that it, rather than Al Gore, is responsible for the Internet. While I used one hand and one part of my brain to keep Grace calm and quiet on the sofabed, I used the rest of me to google “tick removal” on the iphone.

The instructions were simple. (Now that you are reading this, you are more than prepared for a tick-crisis of your own. Let your gladness at this fact cut down on how much this paragraph grosses you out.) Grasp the tick around its awful little neck with tweezers or a piece of thread. (Toni is the crafty sort, and their spare bedroom is right next to her craft room, so thread was easy enough to find. ) Bill ran down to fetch a plastic bag, so we could save the thing in Toni’s freezer, just in case Grace started later on to fell Lyme-ishly ill.

The next step is for you to yank on it hard enough and long enough and steady enough so that the bug pulls the flesh up into a little skin tent.

In case you didn’t realize, at this point your child will commence yelling bloody murder.

Pull longer and harder than you think you really should have to. The tick will protest by wiggling its little leggies, trying to get away. Eventually, and after a long pull and a lot of yelling, the icky and potentially deadly beastie and a long string of rubber-cement like stuff will detach from your precious child. Now put it in the baggie. No, I mean the tick.

That’s the crisis part. The scarier part, however, is Lyme Disease. Immediately after the tick was out of her skin and she stopped yelling, Grace turned to me and demanded: “What am I going to do if that tick had parasites!?” Since then, there has been no fever, no aches and pains, and no gross red bullseye rash. We’re still watching carefully for the next few weeks, to be sure, but for now it looks as though death has stalked away, thwarted for this moment at least.

(Except for that poor dead tick we left in a plastic bag in Toni and Bud’s freezer. Whoops. Sorry, guys.)

Act Two: Falling. In Love.

We drove back up to New Hampshire the next morning during a rainstorm, sheets of water washing the car as we traveled up I-95 and I-91. It’s likely that these were actually the most dangerous few hours of my week, although driving always feels perfectly safe to me -- as long as I'm the one doing it. My weird anxieties tend to attach to unlikely occurrences, rather than actually dangerous things, like cars.

Monday we got back to the routine of our other borrowed place, with Bill taking Grace to work on her fish project, and me putting Abigail through the paces of her 2nd grade end-of-year math test. After a few days as tout la famille, it's always good to divide and conquer.

Things were going swimmingly, in that Abigail had put on her new sparkly leotard (thanks a million, Toni) with her kneesocks and was acting like some kind of Superhero Girl Genius -- doing gymnastics while solving word problems. Say what you want about the French educational system: that girl certainly learned a whole lot of arithmetic. To get her ready for her test, I was just layering a little bit of thinking on top of her rote skills. "I'm smart at math," she likes to inform anybody who will listen. Sometimes she also does somersaults.

After a solid hour and a half of math review, she was ready for a break. She darted out of the room and Abby-scrabbled as fast as she could up the slippery oak stairs.

Without holding the railing.

And wearing her kneesocks.

You can guess what comes next.

I was about to write the phrase "the worst thing about when your kid has a bad accident," but then I realized that there are myriad worst things, and that they follow one another like possessed dominos.

The first worst thing is the horrific sensation of knowing something bad is happening, and not being able to make it stop. As Abigail was falling down the stairs, I kept hoping she would catch herself. Instead, she just started to screetch louder and louder. I kept hoping that she was screaming in fear rather than in pain. I kept wanting her to fall more gently so she wouldn't break anything, but somehow also wanted the fall to be over already; how could this agony possibly be going on so long?

Time really does slow down when something terrible is unfolding. I thought I was leaping out of my chair to run to her, but by the time I got there, she had already taken three hours to fall all the way down and somehow right herself. She kept screaming and screaming and screaming -- those of you who know Abigail might take this opportunity to imagine just how loud that was. The screaming was the next worst thing, followed by that worst moment when I had to determine whether moving her would make it worse. She tried to crumple into a little pile on the linoleum, but since she was standing up, I figured I could help her to the part of the floor with the carpet instead. I just wanted her to lie down so that I could start figuring out how to fix whatever was wrong. And to be sure she didn't pass out. (Abigail passes out a lot.)

But suddenly, there was a whole lot of blood. She was grabbing her leg, and holding her head, and her hand was covered in it. "My leg! " she screamed, "My leg hurts so badly!" so at first I thought she had cut herself there. But as she pulled her hand away from her face to grab at her leg, I saw her curly blonde hair soaked in angry red. Copious bleeding is another worst part.

Suddenly the (dark-red) linoleum seemed like a far wiser place to be tending to her wounds, wherever they were. Leaving a tick in somebody's freezer is bad enough. Allowing one's child to gush blood all over a white wall-to-wall carpet is inexcusable, no matter how much Grandma dotes and adores. So I dragged my poor daughter back onto the hard surface so she could bleed in peace while I ran to get a towel.

Mid-run-to-towel I remembered my Emergency Voice. This is the voice I first discovered in myself when Grace started having these super-fun inexplicable freakouts at age two and a half. My Emergency Voice sounds a lot like a lady Mr. Rogers, soothing and narrating while my brain races ahead to find the nearest fire alarm. I got to hone and perfect Emergency Voice during terrifying episodes of croup, again when Abigail broke her leg, and then during all of her later thrilling fainting episodes. Emergency Voice was also awfully useful when I had to direct fire drills at school, particularly when the drills were actual fires.

The calm I project when speaking in Emergency Voice is the precise opposite of my ability irrationally to fear things that will never happen. It's as though my brain says, "Well, that worst thing you hoped for is finally here. Now you can stop all that pesky dreading!"

So there I was once again, in crisis mode, but where was that stupid family medical book? Where was the gauze? Where were the Band-Aids? Why did we pick today to run out of paper towels?

All of these questions I asked internally. From the outside, I looked and sounded like I was just strolling out of a yoga class.

As opened all the cupboards looking for something to stanch the blood, I spoke as slowly and quietly as I could. I told Abigail she was going to be OK, that she could let herself stop crying, because I had checked and I was sure her legs were fine, I just had to get this little boo boo on her head to stop bleeding so we could get a nurse to take a look and make her all better.

There was a particularly bad moment when Abigail opened her eyes and noticed how much blood had pooled on the floor. I also had to wonder for a second how the folks at the ER might feel about seeing a kid with a sparkly leotard, knee-high socks, and blood dried in her hair. As I pulled on her regular clothes and put on a ponytail, I kept talking quietly and steadily, telling her how brave she was being, how she was safe and secure, how proud I was of her. The scary thing had happened, and nothing bad was going to happen now. I said this not because it was true, but rather to make it true.

Her sobs started to lengthen out, and her breathing slowed down. "I just feel shocked," she said again and again, but I'm pretty sure she meant that in the emotional rather than the medical sense.

After the bleeding stopped, and her crying quieted, she looked steadily into my eyes. Her fear melted into something more like need, and trust. "Mom," she breathed, "Can you just hold me before we get in the car? I like it when someone helps me when I get hurt." I snuggled there with her for a minute or two, and then she clung onto my side while we walked to the car.

At the ER she lay with her head on my lap for the two hours we waited, an ice pack on her eye and a warm blanket over her body. She was quieter and stiller than I have seen her in years; now that I think of it, the last time she was this quiet and steady was her last visit to the ER. When Abigail stops moving, even for a few minutes, you really notice, and her mind quiets down as well. She just lay there and talked to me as though I were the only person who could protect her. As though I were the only other person in the world.

I tried, for her sake, to be that person. I told her how terrific she was. I told her as honestly as I could what might happen, and what we would do to make it OK, even if there were stitches or needles.

There were. Both. First, the doctor pulled off the bandaid to reveal an inch-and-a-half gash running just under her left eyebrow. It was pretty deep, he said, and if it were his daughter, he'd be sure that she got the stitches.

She nodded as said all this. She liked that he was telling her the truth, that he was being straightforward with her. He would stick a needle in to "put her skin to sleep," and that would certainly sting. The stitches themselves wouldn't hurt; she'd only feel a tugging. But she had a question for him before he got started. She looked up at him, as seriously and thoughtfully as she could, given that one eyebrow was slumping all puffy down into her eye.

"My mom makes me feel safe when I'm afraid," she told him. "I would feel better if she could hold my hand."

Which of course I could. The doctor, the nurse and I all stood in total silence while he stitched. It was gross to watch the needle go in and out of her eyebrow, but less gross than detaching a fishhook when it's catch and release. I held both of her hands, actually, just to help remind her to stay still, although I didn't have to worry. She didn't move a muscle or make a peep.

But as soon as he was done pulling tight his four cool little knots, she hopped right off the table and nearly ran to the vending machine she had scoped out earlier when she had been so weak and scared. Great relief should always be followed by salty snacks.

With this return to perpetual motion, she was my little girl again. Four little stitches in her brow, the thread bristly and black. But she was back: back in the mode of hopping and leaping and wiggling around and demanding treats from the vending machine. She and I back to our version of normal, as we defeated death once more.

Act Three: Groundhog Day

Since we've been out of our house for nearly a full year now, with nine of those months in France, our goofy lab mutt Samson has been in exile from his family, and we from him. However, being a pretty smart dog, he quickly adapted to life with my inlaws. My father-in-law takes him for long walks on the Dartmouth campus, where all the co-eds coo, "Isn't he so cute!" My mother-in-law brings him along in the car on her errands, and he sits under the piano while she plays. He is the granddoggy supreme in their house, and has quickly made himself fully and happily at home.

He's also appointed himself the early warning system and game warden for their entire yard and the giant field that stretches away down the hill. He barks at the postman, who always greets him by name with a biscuit. He barks when he sees his friend Olive, a Great Dane who started out their friendship as a puppy, and now towers over him. But mostly he barks at smaller animals. Squirrels make him go completely nuts, as do cats, and groundhogs. His barking is usually loud and scary enough to ward these little critters away, and once they're gone, he'll stand there barking until he has forgotten why he started.

Until today. When death came silently, and I couldn't chase it away in time.

I was hanging clean laundry on the line outside when he came to the door, apparently just for the innocent purpose of keeping me company. His little floppy black ears appeared in the doorway, and his nose pushed up into the air by the screen door. I let him out and hung my soggy sheets. When I turned back, a few seconds later, he had his jaws clenched around an animal, and he was shaking his head violently. He would unclench for a minute, then bite down harder, his sharp teeth (I guess this is why they call them canines) ripping into the flesh. It was weirdly banal and silent. The only sound I could hear was his jaw opening and closing.

At first I was actually afraid for him. I've always thought of him as a total wimp of a dog, all bark and no guts. I didn't want this icky badger-like thing touching my sweet dog.

I yelled at him in my Stern-This-Is-Danger Voice as loud as I could, trying out commands he had never heard before, like "Leave it!" and "Stop Biting the Groundhog!" But it was as though my mild-mannered dog had gone all bloodlust and vampiric. He couldn't seem to let go. I realized that the groundhog was getting by far the worst of it, and eventually decided it would be most humane to let him finish things off.

This little bloodletting episode also seemed to go on for a long time, although the groundhog stopped moving awfully quickly. Then and only then could I get Samson to listen to me, and to move away from the meaty, bloody lump. I called him over to me, a little afraid that the groundhog was just playing possum (do groundhogs even know that game?) and would hop up and sink its own teeth into me.

It didn't. It just lay there, while Samson slunk over and crouched down at my feet. "Bad dog," I Danger-Shouted, but in retrospect, I'm not sure why. Nobody in their right minds cries over a groundhog, even when that groundhog has been mauled to the point where its eye is hanging out of its socket. And maybe animals are supposed to kill one another. Silently, and without drama, fear, yelling, or guilt. At least this is what I am telling myself so I can still look Mr. Woofums in the eye.

Once again, there I was on my own in someone else's house, without tools or clues. What does one do with a bloody groundhog sitting on Grandma's doorstep? I wracked the Little House on the Prairie part of my brain for the right thing to do, but all I kept thinking of were episodes of The Sopranos. I wiped the blood off of Samson's face as he looked up at me, all happy and proud. Then I went out into the garage and found a shovel with which to fling the dead body into the bushes. My shoveling his groundhog made Samson totally nuts, (as though it were once again alive) so I had to shut him in the side room.

A little later, Grace came home and let him out without asking me, at which point he raced straight down to the bushes. He must dragged the carcass out of the deep grass and onto the lawn and started chewing the groundhog's head off. When I caught him, the top third of the animal was gone, exposing all its guts inside. It was gross, but mostly because my dog decided to treat his murder victim as an afternoon snack and I had to shove it in a garbage bag so he wouldn't finish it off.

This week I have seen it all. Including death.

Death didn't look, or sound, or even smell like what I imagined. It wasn't a predictable, dry-lipped wasting death, or a long dangerous falling death, or anything particularly scary or dramatic. It's nothing like the kinds of things I fear all the time. Instead, it was quick, and nearly silent. A snap of the jaws, a few crunches and silent shakes of a neck, and suddenly no more movement at all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An American Girl

(This is a photograph that Abigail took with my iphone, of a page from the American Girl catalog. It is just one of a series of, oh, like 300 that she took over the course of the year.)

Well she was an American girl / Raised on promises. She couldn't help thinkin' / that there was a little more to life /somewhere else.
After all it was a great big world / with lots of places to run to…

Perhaps it's bad karma to let Tom Petty's anthem to wasted youth waft through one's brain while wandering the American Girl store in midtown Manhattan. It's certainly a recipe for cognitive dissonance. But then again, it's hard to imagine somebody like me feeling any kind of straightforward emotion in a place like that.

I got Abigail and myself there just as the store opened last Friday morning. I had assumed that we would have the place pretty much to ourselves, since even the private schools hadn't yet released their students for summer vacation. But the place was humming with adorable little girls clutching their adorable dolls. Each (live) American girl was tended and buzzed around by at least one beautifully, expensively, conventionally-dressed adult. Often a child would be surrounded by as many as three or four grownups, all cooing and oohing and ahhing over her and the toys.

I liked all the girls. I'm a teacher, after all. To me, just about any kid is like a beautifully wrapped package filled with dreams. I will admit that I even liked the dolls. I particularly liked watching Abigail scamper from room to room seeking out all the stuff she had been lusting for in the catalog she toted to French school for months.

Still, I wasn't so sure about all those other fancy-pants grownups spoiling their kids. As happy as I am to be back in America, with two happy kids, the jury is still out for me on how I feel about all those other people with whom I'm sharing a nation. I love my family, my friends, and the random strangers filling up the streets and avenues of my city.

But I'm just not so crazy about the species of Homo Shoppus Americus -- that bloated desire-balloon armed with a credit card itching to be swiped. I like walking down the streets with my fellow Americans. I just don't like the way they (we) turn into salivating idiots when given the chance to buy things.

For some reason, Abigail's desire for American Girl dolls (or even my own) struck me as wholly deserving and lovely. The poor kid had gone months away from her home. She got herself through the rough patches by re-photographing just about every item for sale in the catalog. Now was her time to be a kid. But everybody else there seemed gripped by less lofty emotions. You know, like wanting to buy things like happiness and joy. (I know, I know. Crazy talking here.)

Why should I be so cranky and conflicted about something as wholesome as American Girl? If the looks on the faces of the other patrons were to be believed, American Girl Place is a paradise of girlhood. A secular temple to all things doll. It is sweet and innocent, tasteful and adorable, and you can even have a prix fixe lunch there for only $24.00 a head (pink lemonade, kid-friendly apps, and a tiny chocolate mousse included.)

So why the trouble, Ms. Conflicted Pants? Well, when I wasn't following Abigail, or checking email on my iphone, or singing Tom Petty under my breath, I came up with the reason.

It's because American Girl Place organizes, displays, and puts a (hefty) price tag on a set of products that tap deeply into the raw ingredients of my own psyche: American History. Beauty. Money. Desire. Order. Motherhood. Girlhood. Independence. Houses. Stuff. A place like the Nintendo store is just as commercial, just as packaged. But it doesn't get to me. American Girl hits me where I live. Abigail and I? We learned this year that we're both American Girls, bigtime. Defiantly so.

I've been to the store before, and here is how it always plays out. We do a little vague wandering, and end up in the fantasy room of dolls with plucky, perky American-History backstories. There is Felicity, the Colonial-Era girl who dares to tame a mean neighbor's horse, and Addy the courageous escaped slave girl, and Rebecca the spunky New York Girl with the toy menorah and all the cool Progressive-Era clothing.

But then, just as soon as I get a little frisson of pleasure in gazing at the neatly ordered fantasy-world of Kit, Depression-Era Girl Reporter -- and all of her related products tidily arrayed behind plate glass -- I am hit by the ask.

"Mom, I really really really want Kit's typewriter" (which, as I have already noticed, is sold with a totally awesome historically-accurate tiny newspaper in a gingham-covered box.) I'm totally taken with the item already, but being the kind of devil-mother I am, I shoot out a reflexive "No!" even before scrutinizing the box for a price ($24.00 for the two small pieces. Add that to our lunches, and we're already approaching ridiculous.)

But then, realizing that my reflexive answer has been unreasonable, I have to weigh all these complicated factors, at a nearly subconscious level.

On Money: Is it worth it?

On Order: Will she lose all the adorable little pieces?

On Girlhood: Does it set a good example for her fantasy play?

On History: Isn't it cool that she wants a historically accurate typewriter?

On Desire (mine): Shouldn't we gaze longingly at every single other possible American Girl accessory item in the entire store before we get our hearts set on this one?

On Houses: Maybe we should get the awesome treehouse as well?

On Existential Dread: Why am I even here in this store in the first place?

My final answers to these questions this time around were, if you're wondering, No, Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No. And then, on the more open-ended question of why I was there in the first place, I will again quote Tom Petty. In this case, the American Girl was me, and she had one little promise she was gonna keep.

Because (as you may recall) this trip to the core of American Girlhood was the result of a particularly desperate bribe. Once she realized that things weren't going to get better for her, yet she was still facing the prospect of several months of French school attendance, Abigail started digging in her heels. Realizing that I'd have to pull out the big guns to keep her walking to le portail, I promised that upon our return, we'd head straight to American Girl Place and find a whole bunch of deeply American things to buy. The trip last week was one American Girl keeping her promise to another.

Go ahead, frown on my judgment if you will. But if this kind of harmless-enough bribe sounds bad to you, presumably you haven't been awfully happy about my other parental antics of late.

Since we're friends here, I hope you won't mind my embarrassing myself even further. I feel the need to admit to you that just behind my feelings of distaste and confusion in the face of all that commerce, I was really, weirdly moved by it all. It sounds ridiculous, but the way those toys evoked the perky, plucky backstories of generations of spirited girls kept tugging at my heart. I'm the kind of person who occasionally weeps at Hallmark commercials, and always weeps at sappy underdog stories. So watching all the real girls look up to their pluckier, historically accurate doll counterparts just made me all misty in ways I can't even start to explain.

As much as the people and the prices and the perfectly dressed suburban parents made me cringe on one level, I must admit how much I liked seeing the little girls, and all the dolls and their overpriced stuff. I loved seeing Abigail so darn happy, and relished the opportunity to practice saying yes more than I said no.

All the yeses we gave each other that day felt so good. The yes to the chicken tenders at lunch, and the yes to the typewriter. Yes even to a hairstyling kit, and believe it or not a 1930's style washtub, drying rack and ironing board. (For the record: I do not even own a real ironing board.)

I had dragged her all that way and back. I had raised her on promises and then finally gave her the keys to the kingdom. We had both earned our share of Yes, even if the yes for me was just a reminder to chill out and go along for the ride.

For, as Tom kept reminding me on that tapeloop in my head:

God its so painful
Something that's so close
And still so far out of reach

Monday, June 14, 2010

J'ai écrit, j'écris, je vais écrire

I've managed not to post (or even really write) anything at all for over two weeks while we've all been adjusting to being back in the U.S. Serious bloggers would find this sort of holiday to be borderline irresponsible, and a few of my more loyal readers, friends, and relatives have pointed out with varying degrees of irritation that I really shouldn't have just left them all hanging this way.

They generally tell me how disappointed they are that I am not writing just a few minutes after they have given me a huge hug and told me how glad they are that we are back. But really, I probably was much more interesting when I was 3,000 miles away, and felt like I pretty much had to write in order to communicate anything of consequence. There, I would sit down for a few hours, think it all through, and spill my guts onto a computer screen. I would polish my thought, give it a shape and a sheen, and send it out to you.

But here, I am sitting with you in your kitchen, blathering on incoherently instead of writing something clear.

The talking part of my brain feels all rusty and weird just now, and I can't always find the right words. It's not like I have the ready excuse that French took over my brain and hasn't given it back, as I was even more hopeless searching for the right words in spoken French. Perhaps my gummed up tongue has more to do with the switch from cooking and typing to talking all day long. Until I am proved wrong, I'm choosing for now to believe that this is a great big cultural-temporal-personal adjustment, rather than early-onset dementia.

But whether or not I can always say what I'm thinking, I've been soaking in the incomparable luxury of being back in a place where everybody speaks English, where things make sense without my having to try too hard to "get it" all the time. I can find nearly anything I need in any grocery store. I can drive nearly anywhere without Diesel Liesel's guidance. I can make small talk with nearly anybody without having to trip over myself just to say the simplest things: I was, I am, and someday, I will be.

Sometimes I get the old urge to write about something, to fix it in time and pull out all the meanings that one moment holds folded up inside. This has been particularly true the last few weeks as the girls have suddenly blossomed into nearly unrecognizable new beings. It's like the American parts of them were those little dry compressed sponges, and as I am pouring on the water of home, they are expanding into the shapes of American adolescents. We seem to have left our little girls behind in France, and arrived home with tweens.

Just a few afternoons with their friends, and now they know who Justin Bieber is, and the whole backstory of Lanie, (the American Girl of the Year, of course) and the names of Coldplay songs. Being around them and watching them grow so fast and grin so largely just about makes my head spin. I am guessing that having my girls enter Teen World will make the puzzles of French culture look like fun and games.

I want to write about them, but then the moment passes, or I have made plans to go do something else with some actual person, and the pleasure of living trumps the desire to write. Surrounded by so many people I love, by so many books and magazines and newspapers -- all published in English -- so many stores that sell exactly the things I've wanted to find for five months now, I'm like a kid in a candy store, or a pig at the trough, a gluttonous gorger just stuffing myself with the sweet savor of familiarity.

Here, I can put my face in any old shape it naturally assumes (which these days is kinda old, and somewhat wrinklish, but happy) and I fit right in. I can jibber-jabber with the Pakistani taxi drivers and the sweet-faced Latina ice-cream scooper and the Polish guys fixing the scary old electrical wiring throughout our house. I can wander onto our block and talk to our neighbors about their kids and my kids as though I never left. We catch up on ten months in two minutes and get back to the serious business of talking about the weather or the food co-op, or where somebody's eleventh grader is looking at colleges.

Since returning, I have walked into no fewer than seven different kitchens and felt as comfortable as though I were in my own. (Which is a good thing, since my own is ripped apart and covered in construction dust.) I had built up this tidal wave of longing to be here, to be with my family and my friends, and now I just feel giddy to be swimming around in the warm shallows of things and people I completely understand. Living, rather than writing.

So, if you've wondered what happened to me and whether I will ever write again, please accept this as an apology. I do have more to say, either on this blog or on another one I'm starting to dream into being, but I'll start with this:

I wrote. I write. And someday, I will write again.