Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bad News

Today, I received some bad news.  It came via email, and it was not immediately clear to me how bad this news was.  (It pertains to the health of a family member.)  I read the email once, then twice, then forwarded it to my husband, then put my phone away.  On the way from work to pick up my older son from karate class, I came to feel that the news was rather worse than I had first thought, and I took out my phone and wrote a strange, broken message about it to another family member.  On the way home from the karate studio, I spoke with another family member on the phone and came to feel that the news was very bad indeed.  By the time the children and I arrived at home, I was truly distressed.

It can be hard, when you are in distress, to reach out.  You don’t really want to burden anyone - including yourself - with the true depth of your feelings, the full apparent despair of the situation.  And it seems hopeless to do so - what would such a move accomplish, aside from forcing you to articulate your own unhappiness, and to trace it on to someone else?  I decided that I did not really want to tell anyone, did not want to trouble myself with the task of explaining nor anyone else with the task of empathizing.  I made a phone call to a very close friend, had a terse conversation about the matter, hung up before I could start crying, and turned to making dinner.

Try to act normal, I told myself, but my breath kept catching oddly in my throat, and it felt to me that my heart was not beating in a steady rhythm.  Everything around me looked a little blurry, and I could not focus my attention properly.  My younger son kept asking me to open bananas for him - he adores starting bananas but abhors finishing them - and instead of trying to distract him or talk him out of it, I opened banana after banana, leaving a pile quickly-browning, one-bite-eaten bananas on the counter.  I called my husband once, twice, three times on the phone, but found that I had nothing to say and that nothing he said could help me.  Trying to assemble ingredients for soup, I kept running into problems, things that would normally be minor wrinkles but, in the state I was in, became vastly puzzling conundrums.  After several smaller issues, I found that we were out of onions and garlic. I could not quite process this setback, and stood frozen, gaping, in front of the stove for several minutes.  Finally, I pulled myself together and found a couple of old wrinkled cloves of garlic next to the stove behind the ghee as well as some floppy celery in the back of the fridge.  My older son had finished watching his evening video, and my younger son was jumping up and down for my attention, so I let them help me cook - the older dumping ingredients into the pot and the younger putting the dirty dishes and utensils into the sink. I was somewhat surprised to find that, after a certain amount of time, there was a pot of proper soup on the stove.

After the soup was made, though, I realized that I did not have an appetite myself, nor the focus necessary to actually feed it to the children or get them ready for bed.  Instead, with what would normally be dinnertime past and bedtime quickly approaching, I just sat down on the couch and stared at the wall as they ran around the living room.  After awhile, my older son pressed a tin truck into my hand.  “Mama, let’s play cars!”  I made a few desultory gestures with the truck as he started to spin a weird car story.  I began to drift into sleep.  I could hear my older son talking - about mutant fire trucks that were created via lab accidents - but my mind and body felt heavy, shut down.  Slowly, I became aware of the distinct feeling that something was not right.  I opened my eyes.  My older son was still sitting in front of me, talking about cars.  “Where’s your brother?”  “He’s playing with the trash in the kitchen.”  I jumped up from the couch, but it was too late.  A sharp cry came from the kitchen, and rounding the corner of the counter, I saw that my younger son had his thumb caught in a can from the recycling bin.  I pulled it out as gently as I could and found, to my relief, that it was only a small, shallow cut.  I cleaned it, and my older son brought a Spiderman bandage from the bathroom, which my younger son forcefully rejected.

It was around then that my husband got home.  I was too foggy to really figure out what was going on, but I had the impression he might be irritated with me, irritated that I had been strange on the phone, irritated that I could not be easily consoled, irritated that the children had not been fed, and especially irritated that the younger did not have a bandage on his cut.  I could not bring myself to explain that the injury had occurred because I had fallen asleep when I should have been mothering.  After some confusing interaction, I stumbled into the bedroom with my younger son, leaving my husband the task of feeding, pajama-ing, brushing, reading to, and putting to sleep the older one.  I fell asleep immediately.  

After about three hours of heavy dreamless sleep, I woke up, made myself some tea, started the diaper laundry, and sat down to write about my bad news.  To write about this, and to put that writing on the internet, is to run directly counter to my earlier decision to tell no one.  I cannot help it that the two impulses are equally strong, or that the internet allows me to have it both ways.  Now, everyone who reads this will know that I have had bad news and that, at the time of this writing, I don’t wish to discuss the matter.  If they run into me, they will have to decide on their own whether or not to talk to me about it.  It’s a funny thing, that.

Friday, January 25, 2013


In the cold, the children and I move quickly.  We emerge from the subway station, walking into the wind, and our fingers begin to sting right away, and then our knees.  My older son, now 5, whoops that his knees hurt: "WHOOOO!  MY KNEES!  MY KNEES! WHOOO!" He is not complaining - it's a startled exclamation, an alarmed sort of ecstasy - but it makes me angry.  I am angry that his knees hurt, I am angry that he is wearing no legwarmers or long underwear under his thin fleece pants - is that his fault?  Mine?  My husband's?  I am angry that I cannot hold on to our outerwear.  Within the past few days alone, I have lost my younger son's hat, my hat, and my gloves.  The strain of running around the city with two young children is such that my natural inclination towards scatterbrainedness is kicked into high gear.  I usually do okay if I'm just carrying one bag, but as soon as I am carrying two bags or more, all sense of organization, any boundary between Our Things and Things of the Universe, is entirely lost, and we are lucky to make it home wearing our own clothes, let alone with all the toys, books, lunch boxes, water bottles, and other accessories we started out with.  "You have to be more careful," my husband admonished me once, and that was even before my younger son was born, so I cannot imagine what he thinks of my shenanigans now.  In any case, I am especially angry about my hat, because it was the best hat that I have had in a long time, and it was warm and cute too, and L. L. Bean doesn't have it anymore, because despite the fact that it is 18 degrees outside, winter is over in retail land.  I am so angry about my hat that, later in the day, my older son will take pity on me and bring me a piece of candy that he saved from the goody bag he got at the Halloween party that we went to on the morning before Hurricane Sandy hit.  "Here, mommy," he will say.  "Don't be sad about your hat."

It seems like all of Park Slope is miles away from any subway station.  We walk blocks and blocks, and I keep taking my cell phone out of my bag to check the map, my fingers growing more and more numb, and we don't seem to be getting any closer.  "Just a little farther, kiddos," I try to reassure us all, but my voice feels like it is getting lost in the thick cold air.  My younger son, now 18 months old, is riding in a carrier on my chest, and he begins to cry.  His hands - he refuses to wear mittens - are chapped and purple.  Tears roll down his cheeks as he sobs with rage and arches his back.  I have to hold him with both hands to keep him from arching out of the carrier altogether. People stare.  "We're almost there, honey!" I chirp, and I think that my voice may be verging on hysteria.  I unzip the top of my coat, unzip sweater #1, pull up sweater #2, unhook my nursing top, and press the baby's frigid face to my breast.  First he arches, refuses, wants to be angry some more, but then he acquiesces.  I am even colder now, my coast unzipped, my breast exposed and smeared with his snot and his tears, but at least he is nursing and quiet.  I take my older son's hand firmly in mine, and after one last wrong turn, we arrive at the dentist's office. 

After the dentist's office, we embark on the long countermarch back to the train.  My older son and I don't argue at all: we are united against a common enemy, the bitter wind.  He picks up two large sticks, and I let him run with them; when we get to the subway station, he drops them without complaint.  Back in Manhattan, we decide to go to the museum instead of going home, and we are impressed with our own bravery.  By the time we get home, in the late afternoon, we are half-dead from the cold, but exhilarated too, as though we have conquered something. We traipse vacantly around the house in various states of undress, and it probably takes almost an hour for us to begin to feel normal again.

Later that night, I leave the children with my husband and go downtown to teach a childbirth education class.  On the way home, tilting myself into an even more bitter wind, I realize that I feel warmer walking alone.