Wednesday, September 26, 2007

There's Got To Be A Better Way

Urf! has been trying to watch The War this week, and I've been trying not to watch it. I turned it on by accident one night, just as it was starting, and saw the big "graphic depictions of violence ahead" warning. That was pretty much all I needed to see.

It wasn't queasiness or my already firmly established pacifism that made me change the channel, though. It was my dad. Any war images set in the 20th century drive my thoughts to the unpleasant place where my imagination holds a 22-year-old Minnesota boy in jungle-dank fatigues. Seeing photographs or, worse yet, film from WWI, WWII, Korea and of course Vietnam forces me to think about the things he saw himself and the trauma he suffered because of it.

Not that he talked about it, of course. Being both a Norwegian and the son of a WWII veteran, it was natural that he kept the details to himself. Even as a child, however, I knew that his reasons for suppressing discussion of his war experience went much deeper. It wasn't hereditary reticence that caused him to take cover if a late-night phone call startled him awake.

Something about the familial disaster of the past month spurred a sudden outburst, though. As we were gathered together in grief, he shared a story about his last week in-country that he'd never breathed a word of before that night. It was a surprisingly light-hearted anecdote, but it couldn't help but reinforce the knowledge that the vast majority of those 52 weeks would remain unknown to anyone else. Because there was really no way to describe them.

Ken Burns is attempting to dissolve that cloud of mystery, at least for the second World War, but I think I prefer being on the other side of the fog. There's no reason for a daughter to be able to picture so clearly a field of fallen soldiers, the faces of desperate civilians, or the actual second-by-second death of a friend, not while knowing that those same images were burned into her father's brain before he had bought his first car. Burns has said (is actually saying on Letterman right this minute) that the greatest thing about documentary film-making is meeting the people, but knowing my dad as well as I do, there are some things we still don't need to talk about.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hey Baby Hey Baby Hey

Oh, yeah, right, the baby!

In case anyone was going through infant withdrawal, a quick update. As Mr. Baby sneaks up on three whole months old, he's entering that magical state where his personality is emerging but his inconvenience has stayed at its regular, low-grade state. I'm holding my breath, waiting for the post-fourth-trimester wake-up that even the calmest babies seem to go through, but in the meantime, I'm truly enjoying his laid-back, super-smiley self.

As far as milestones, they've been more geographic than developmental. He took his first journey through the air this month, and of the two of us, handled it better than his travel partner. He was an angel during our trip north, chilling out on the flight up (despite my own meltdown when we missed our first plane) and managing to stay calm during a 45-minute ground delay on the way home while I was trying to figure out how to nurse him without elbowing the special double-issue of People out of my neighbor's hands. Even his car behavior is getting better. On any given trip, there's a solid 30% chance that he won't scream his ever-loving head off the entire time. Although I have a feeling that after a weekend of 45- to 90-minute car rides with an utterly inconsolable infant, Cha Cha and Pops won't be gambling on that statistic anytime soon.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Same Old Stupid Boy

I was walking into Bookstar with Mr. Baby the other evening, to pick out a surgery-distraction gift for Miss M, when I heard a polite voice behind me.

"Ma'am? Excuse me, ma'am?"

I turned and saw a youngish person that I'd previously noticed at Petco with two friends. I'd looked kindly at the group, thinking how hard it must be to be transgendered in Memphis. And now this sweet-voiced twentysomething was right behind me and looking directly at Mr. Baby.

"How old is your baby?"

"He's twelve weeks."

I gave my usual humble smile, preparing for the inevitable praise that generally follows any acknowledgment of Mr. Baby. Instead, I heard ...

"I just wanted to tell you ... I know you don't know me, but I wanted to say ... I have a friend who carried her little girl in one of those ... canvas sacks? And her baby got dehydrated from sitting on her legs like that. I'm not saying you're doing something wrong, but ... I just wanted to tell you. She got really sick."

I was so shocked by the ridiculousness that I just stood there with a polite but quizzical raise of my eyebrows. As I was walking back to the car, though, I could hear in my head, clear as anything, the righteously astonished voice of Sassy Molassy saying, "Who wouldn't notice that their baby was dehydrated? And it would take an idiot to think that it was caused by the way she was sitting. And it would take an even bigger idiot to get in someone else's face about it."

Sidenote: When I got home and opened the Disney Princess Dress-Up Activity Storybook (shush, it was for my sick kid) and saw that the Colorforms-esque dresses designed to go over each princess were actually somewhat translucent, allowing an obscured but still obvious view of their princessy underthings, I heard a distinctly different voice in my head, and I'm pretty sure it was RJA's.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Your Pale Blue Eyes

I promise we'll get back to our regularly scheduled snarky SAM soon, but first we'll conclude the synopsis of our Two Weeks Of Drama.

Miss M finally succumbed to the scalpel today, after nearly two years of eye-patching and frequent visits with our friendly neighborhood opthamologist. We came to accept that her left eye just wasn't going to strengthen up on its own and something permanent needed to be done before her vision was affected. It wasn't a way we ever longed to spend a Thursday morning, but it went as well as we could have possibly hoped.

With everything else going on, I'd sort of pushed this particular soul-bruiser to the back of my mind, but there was no getting around the phone calls from the pre-op nurse and anesthesiologist yesterday or the alarm going off at 6:00 this morning. We arrived at the surgery center at 7:30am, armed with the pajama bottoms, blanket and extra lovey (in M's case, a folding feather fan, because I guess looking like an 1880's madam makes her feel secure). A very Grisham-esque medical professional of some unknown title (is there such a thing as a 60-year-old male nurse?) came out right away and tried to warm M up with the booming, cartoony persona that she never really appreciates. He got up to take her back into the check-in area and asked which one of us would be going with her. The Admiral and I looked at each other with barely concealed panic. The pre-op nurse had said we could all stay with her, including her infant sibling, but Murse Oxford seemed to be balking at Mr. Baby's attendance. I wanted to protest but was afraid I'd tear up in front of Miss M (it's been happening a lot lately), so I just said I'd stay with the baby and would see her soon.

While I was trying to figure out how to talk my way back to my child, The Admiral was guiding her through the check-in process. According to him, this went pretty smoothly, with the staff pulling out special pediatric tricks like blowing bubbles and having her reach out to catch them so she'd be distracted while they checked her vitals. The only problem was when they wanted her to change into the cute little hospital gown. As anyone in the waiting area could attest to, she resisted this procedure as if she were being asked to put on a straight-jacket. Made of glass shards and fireants. They finally got the gown on, but she refused the modesty-enhancing pajama bottoms and the non-skid slipper-socks.

This is how she was looking - post-tantrum and half-naked - when I was finally brought back into a conference room for a pre-op chat with Dr. H. I know he really wanted us to have questions, and I desperately wanted to show my parental responsibility by having some, but after three phone calls with surgical staff the day before, I really couldn't think of anything I still needed to know. We got our post-surgical instructions and were ushered into the main waiting room where the time passed surprisingly quickly thanks to the piles of toys and Nurse T's perfectly timed loading of The Little Mermaid video.

M was still telling us that she had no intention of going anywhere without us when the anesthesiologist and her nurse came out for a final briefing. I thought this was just another little conference but it ended with them asking us to follow them out into the fabled Bunny Room, a little narthex outside the surgical area absolutely stocked with brand-new toys. Miss M was given a chance to pick one, and after realizing how overwhelmed she was by her choices, I pointed her towards the familiar Play-Doh logo. Thus distracted (these people are brilliant!), Nurse J gently took her out of The Admiral's arms and let her push the big button to open the automatic doors leading to the unknown. She turned back and waved and said good-bye without a single note of distress in her voice.

Her parents weren't quite as carefree. We headed back to the non-Disneyfied waiting zone and tried to keep our minds on other things. Mr. Baby made this easier with his between-nap fussing and diaper-filling. I was actually kneeling over his changing pad in the bathroom when I heard Dr. H's voice in the hall outside. When I got back outside, The Admiral informed me that the surgery was over (all of 20 minutes after she went in), she'd done great, and that they'd come get us when she started waking up. Dr. H said this would be in about five minutes, but having paid attention to all those details from the anesthesia professionals, I knew it would be more like 20-30.

Sure enough, an hour after our initial separation, we were called back into the recovery area. She was still 93% unconscious, a tiny little oxygen mask blowing into her face. All hair-matted and blanket-bundled, it was a pretty pitiful sight. We sat next to her bed and waited for her to come around completely, which was signaled by her trying desperately to climb out of the bed and onto The Admiral's lap. This effort was stymied by her IV tubing, and I had a moment of queasiness as I remembered the tale of my sister's midnight battle with an IV stand that involved the unsupervised removal of an inserted needle and resulted in my lifelong fear of intravenous ports. Nurse C came over quickly, though, and helped get her out of bed and cuddled into The Admiral's lap. While Mr. Baby and I rocked in the chair beside them, we spent the next half-hour trying to get Miss M fully awake and distracted away from her efforts to rub her eyeball completely out of the socket. Other than being a bit bloodshot and having one pupil all blown so she bore an admirable resemblance to David Bowie, she was already looking much better. After she got down some ice chips and half a popsicle, we were ready to leave the medical bubble and move on to the home-based recuperation.

And now, after an afternoon on the couch followed by a rigorous walk to her bedroom, she's crashed out on crushed Tylenol. As hard as it was to see her in discomfort today, the grogginess was sort of a pleasant change from her usual mania. Tomorrow's going to be a whole new adventure, as she'll likely be feeling like her old self, which exists in direct violation of most post-op instructions. In M's world, a day without excessive activity hardly counts as a day at all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

To Brighten Up Even Your Darkest Nights

Something happened when I got back from Minnesota, something I don't recall happening after any previous trip. After years of traveling away from Memphis, I was, for perhaps the first time, welcomed home.

Those in my household have always noticed my absences (usually, anyway) and seemed grateful for my returns, of course, but after this last, unexpected, nerve-fraying visit to the north, my friends put their collective arms out in sympathy and support. With just simple words like "welcome home" and "glad you're back," they gave me a handrail back to my normal, daily life and the many happinesses within it.

They also reminded me, knowingly or not, about the crucial place friends have in the lives of parents, and parents of young children in particular. Sure, I wish I had the easy babysitting access and travel-free holidays of my cohorts with local family, but if I had to choose between living a mile from my folks and having the close-knit group of friends that occupy practically every day of our week, I'd have to go with my peers. As we raise our kids together, we've been witnesses to the personal triumphs and disasters each of us continuously encounters. We've seen each other at our best and, quite a bit more often in my case, at our weakest, meanest, and most brittle.

I have similar bonds with my family, but they've had my entire lifetime to get accustomed to my quirks (and, let's face it, me to theirs - you can untuck that t-shirt now, Dad). It's not like me to let anyone get within hugging distance unless I've known them for at least a decade, yet most of the people I consider my dearest friends only crossed my path within the last few years. Now I can't imagine how I ever got along without them. As eager as I was to leave town to go mourn with my family, I was just as excited to get back here to regroup with my friends. It's not where I was born, but this is where I've made my home, and these people are the family I've chosen.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life

I'm torn between the impulse to document the heartbreak of this past week and the acute knowledge that no words can really explain the full spectrum of emotions, from horror to hilarity, that fill up the spaces of a true family tragedy.

My cousin TR was born six months after me, 80 miles away. Our whole lives were like that, in a way - very close, but not close enough. My family moved away from Minnesota when I was a baby, and from then on we only saw each other during our yearly pilgrimage back to the homeland or during their very rare trips out east. But then we came back, and our holidays and summer vacations intertwined again. We had run around my parents' small hometown pretending to be twins when we were younger, but being adolescents, we of course shifted into a cooler, more distant relationship. We never detached, though. Partly because my grandmother was just as likely to send me a news clipping about TR's most recent athletic feats as an inspirational Dear Abby, I always knew what was going on in TR's life, and based on the strength of our pre-WWW familial internet, I'm guessing he was pretty aware of mine. As we went off to college and crept up into adulthood, however, we got closer again. We went from mocking each others' first girlfriend/boyfriend to attending each others' weddings. We made extra trips around the holidays so that my sister and I could spend time with him and his brother. We got to know each other as grown-ups, and we got to be not just family but friends. With the recent birth of his first baby, we had all the more in common, and we were looking forward to bringing together the next generation when we were all back home for Christmas.

My family, nuclear and extended, is wrapped around the core of my being, and I have never had an event that shook that core as suddenly and violently as the phone call from my sister telling me that TR had died. There was no immediate explanation, which seemed both fitting and insane. If there was no way to understand it, how could we possibly accept it? If we didn't know what happened, maybe it didn't.

The next few days were a conflict between my regular daily life and the overpowering desire to get the hell out of here and go be with my family. I shrugged off an indecent amount of responsibility to my business and finally caught a plane to Minnesota on Thursday morning, arriving just a few hours before the reviewal service. Or what anyone less Protestant would call a wake, but that term seems to indicate a level of celebration that us grieving Midwesterners couldn't quite muster. We don't celebrate the life lost, we comfort those left behind with buttered ham sandwiches and an almost sinful assemblage of home-made bars.

And there were so, so many left behind. I've been to far too many of these things in my life, but I've never seen a line extend all the way through a church sanctuary and out into the hall. I've also never seen a pastor start crying during his devotional moment with the family, and I felt a strong urge to have him un-ordained for it. We already had a room full of weeping Lutherans; the professional was supposed to keep it together.

No one could blame him, though. He barely even knew TR, but he knew his parents - my godparents, one of them Miss M's namesake - and all it took was one look at their sweet, stoic faces crumpled in grief to break the resolve of the most Nordic. Which is to say, the rest of my family. From the moment I arrived in the homeland until the minute Pops helped me load my diaper bag onto the airport security X-ray, someone in my family was crying. Crying so much that, at least in my case, the act itself caused physical pain - a bloody nose, an upset stomach, actual bruising in one eye. That's not us, that's not what we do, but there was no way around it. How do you not cry when you see the body of a vibrant, healthy 30-year-old lying in front of his wife and baby? How do you keep it together when hearing a younger brother eulogize a man who was clearly his best friend? Even if you didn't know these people, you would weep for them. Knowing them as we did, there was nothing else we could do. And we shared that feeling with the hundreds of friends and relatives who packed into my grandmother's former high school auditorium to remember a very brief but very powerful life.

I expected the weekend of services and family gatherings to be nothing but somber, but there was a surprising amount of humor, too. Not light-heartedness, exactly - our hearts were too badly broken to be light - but the stress of the event forced us to find release wherever we could, from tipsy Trivial Pursuit matches to a highly unexpected Captain Ron quote-off. These less serious moments weren't a testimony to our coping skills but rather a reminder of TR's essential nature. He was a happy young man. Funny, sweet, charming and bright in every sense of the word.

These moments were also a reminder that the reason families come together during times like this is to provide Trivial Pursuit partners and movie quote opponents. For as long as I was in Memphis, I was a solitary mourner, but once I got to Minnesota, we were one big, catastrophe-addled unit, using each other to lean on and gathering enough strength among our numbers to begin healing.

Because of that strength, this family will get through this. But because of TR, we will never be the same.

Monday, September 10, 2007

You Say It's Your Birthday

I can only hope that, from the other side of the wide angle lens of childhood, Miss M won't distinctly recall her fourth birthday as woefully inadequate. Hopefully that will just be my memory, another log on the ever-burning pyre of maternal guilt.

I blame Wednesdays. Wednesday is no reasonable day to have a birthday. It sneaks up in the middle of the week. Monday comes and you think there's so much time left to plan, Tuesday slips away too fast, and then there you are, running out of work on Wednesday night in hopes of getting home in time to supervise the opening of three hours' worth of presents piled up in the living room. The cake and gifts were all Miss M really expected, but I still felt that our scrambling approach to her big day was a pretty weak excuse for a celebration. But no matter, I thought, we'd make it up at her party.

Oh, crap, the party! As of Saturday morning, there was no theme, no decorations, no games, no plan at all. I spent the day wracking my brain and finally McGyvered up some decent ideas. Just before I hit Party City for all the needed gear, I checked the forecast. My entire outdoor-based plan was instantly foiled. Tired, hot, and Rocked'n'Romped out, I went to bed Saturday night with no clear vision as to how we were going to entertain the dozen children about to breach our defenses.

The promised rain was already coming down when I got up and headed to the grocery store at 8:00 Sunday morning. I felt strangely invigorated by the challenge of pulling off a party this close to the last minute, though, and I woke up enough to conjure up a menu that I hoped would, for once, please our small guests as much as the tall ones. I got back home and The Admiral and I set to work preparing the house for the coming onslaught. We were alternatingly cleaning, cooking, and requesting that Miss M please return her new stuff to her room, and after a Twister-offering text from Kristy, I started to feel like we'd actually be able to pull this off.

And then the phone rang. I don't think I want to discuss what that call from my sister was about, not yet, but it put an instant pall on the day's festivities. I tried not to let on to Miss M that anything was going on, and I think I pulled together enough Norseness to keep our adult guests from detecting anything, but I couldn't help feeling like the party ended before it even began.

The show went on, of course. There's no stopping the train of a pre-schooler's birthday party. The children ran happily amok and the adults enjoyed each other's laid-back company, as well as a pleasing variety of Coca Cola-based food products. Based on the contented exhaustion with which Miss M fell into bed last night, she had a full, happy day, and I hope that's how she remembers it. It will stick in my memory for other reasons, while at the same time standing on its own as the marking of another year filled with both sorrow and incredible joy.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Trust In Me When I Say ...

I've been so woefully lacking in posts about the actual agent part of being a secret agent mom lately that I thought I could at least try to make it up by posting some of my basic beliefs about music:

  • "Kokomo" is the worst pop song ever.

  • The little-known "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man" is the best single Prince released.

  • Anyone who can avoid dancing when they hear "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" should look into serious pharmaceutical treatment.

  • There's nothing wrong with any song that can't be fixed with hand claps and a horn breakdown.