i love you, monster

This morning at breakfast Giles put his hands on my face and said, “I love you, monster.”

Later in the morning a dear friend sent me a link to this article, “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” by Rufi Thorpe. 

After a grueling time getting my 2-year-old son down for a nap on a 93 degree, oppressively humid day, I sat down to read the article. My brain popped and sizzled with recognition at every sentence. This is exactly what I was crying about in therapy today. What I have been crying about every night for a week.

(Read the article for yourself, and then come back to this. Or read this first and then read the article. Either way, you should definitely read it, because it’s damn good.)

I’m afraid that I am failing at the life I’ve been building since I was eighteen-years-old. As I entered adulthood, college, the world on my own, I made a decision: I will be an artist who also has a family, a life, kids, love, happiness, and I will not be an asshole.”

An ex-boyfriend once told me about how Albert Einstein’s wife took care of all the daily responsibilities of life so that he could concentrate on being a genius. This was a not-so-subtle hint, I think, at what kind of wife this ex-boyfriend wanted. He also told me about a professor he admired who worked twelve hours a day in his studio with one landline phone that only his wife had the number to, and she was only allowed to use it in case of emergency so that the professor would not be disturbed in his work. This gem of a boyfriend left trash on my kitchen floor and excused himself by saying , “I don’t notice things like that.” He once didn’t call me for three weeks and told me I couldn’t be angry with him because he just wasn’t aware of the need to call me. He was too wrapped up in his art.

I know in my heart of hearts that Einstein would have been a truer and better genius if he had done his own fucking laundry.

The “mundane” things, the daily tasks and responsibilities of life are not boring. They are the beauty, the deepest beauty in the world, and we should be making art about them! Shitty fathers and husbands who also happened to write great novels did not write great novels BECAUSE they were shitty fathers and husbands. I think they would have been even better writers if they had been better fathers and husbands.

I have this memory of something I read that Bruce Springsteen said. I can’t find it, and I’m sorry, and I wish I could quote it directly, but I’ve carried it with me in my mind for a long time. He said he used to think that the moment he had an inspiration for a song, he had to go and write it immediately– disregarding his family in order to do so. But later he learned that the opposite was true: he would notice the inspiration, then let it go, opting to be where he was with his family and not ignore them. Later, when he had time, he’d search for the inspiration and find that by letting it go for a while, it always came back to him better.

And so, I believe that I am (or will be) a better artist because I am a wife and mother. Or, I did believe that until my kid refused to nap for a whole week and did I mention I’m almost 20 weeks pregnant while caring for a 2-year-old boy? It’s really fucking hard.

I’m afraid that my “self” is slipping away. And not slowly either– but off a cliff into the void. It’s not, though. I’m trying to trust that. I am still here. I exist as a mother/artist/person simultaneously. I exist in a deeper way than before. Somehow, by putting my kids first, I am a better artist. Right?

Thorpe writes about all of these ideas with a lot more clarity and elegance than I am doing here, but I’m trying to write some kind of response that echoes what she is saying while adding my own personal thoughts. I want to echo back that we are not alone. You are not alone. You, mother of however many children and trying to be a person, are not alone. This is REALLY FUCKING HARD and we are IN IT. We have to keep climbing this mountain. Because what we are doing matters. The mothering yes, and also the art, whatever your art is.

On Friday, in a text exchange with my sister, I asked her if I am crazy to have another baby. She responded:

“Yes. But full of love.”

 

 

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5 years

Wednesday April 18 marked the 5 year anniversary of my mom’s death.

I don’t know what to do with that.

Five years for anything feels like an important marker: relationships, jobs, the “cancer free” mark that means you’ll probably be okay.

Being pregnant again, another pregnancy without my mom, is carrying me further into the future. I want to ask her just as many questions as I did last time, different questions. How did she feel being pregnant while taking care of a toddler (me)? What was I like then, and how did I respond to news of the baby? When did they tell people? Did they tell anyone the name they were thinking of? How did they prepare their lives to add another child? How did she deal with the intense exhaustion that is being pregnant while caring for a toddler? Was she scared? What foods made her sick? (My dad tells me salad dressing was one, and that she just used lemon juice while pregnant.)

Other people talk about her less. Or, they only talk about her if I bring her up first.

How is it half a decade that she’s been gone? I am two babies deep in a life she will never see or be part of in an earthly way. In the back of my mind somewhere the possibility of her spending time with Giles exists, and it pops up, surprising me. A thought appears, an image of the two of them together: talking, walking, cooking, laughing. I feel a sharp twinge because this will not happen. The pain feels almost new.

I will give birth again, without her. I will touch that line between death and life, feeling for her.

There is still no map. Still no footprints to guide me, and yet I keep going.

Choose joy over fear. Live it, do it, on purpose. 

 

 

mom dispatch: 21 months plus 1 day

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Yesterday was Giles’ 21 month birthday and for the first time in his whole life I forgot to mark this monthly occurrence. Today I realized the date and maybe also realized I don’t need to count by months anymore? When people ask how old he is do I just say, “almost 2”?

But when he turns 22 months I of course want to make an instagram post using lyrics from Taylor Swift’s “22.”

Giles speaks in two and three word sentences now. “Daddy shower.” “Daddy work.” “I see ya!” “Hair up Mommy.” “Thank you Mommy.” “What in there?” “No poops!” This verbal development is my favorite thing so far. I love hearing what’s going on in his head as he plays, or which phrases he chooses to repeat. Seeing his face as he understands how a word fits with a thing– it’s amazing.

He’s also really fun. And throws tantrums. And beams me in the head with a metal Ernie in a bathtub car toy thing from my own 1980s childhood. And now there’s a bump on my head. And I worry about what this aggression means and how to stop it. And about a thousand other things. But he is also sweet and loving and tender– “Hugs, Mommy,” he says. And, “I sorry.” He pats my head, kisses my belly, rests his own little head on my shoulder.

21 months postpartum isn’t how I imagined it would be. I sort of wish I knew what my weight is, but I don’t own a scale and really I’m kind of glad. I keep reminding myself that my body will never be what it was before, and that it’s okay. I feel good and strong, especially since returning from our trip to Chile to visit Phoebe about a month ago. I’m taking Zumba, adult jazz dance, yoga, and I think I’m a vegetarian now? I’m ready to start the journey of making another human person inside my body again. Hormones still go up and down, but less dramatically. My soft belly, which Giles is so interested in lately (“mommy belly!”) is maybe a bit smaller, arms strong from lifting a 30 pound toddler, mind a bit more centered, identity more defined and sure, art time more regular and productive. Viewings of Moana have increased tenfold.

Now that I feel pretty good, pretty much like myself, why would I mess it all up to have another baby?

There are huge moments of fear and doubt and anxiety. Fear of being pregnant while taking care of a toddler. Of giving birth again. Of having a miscarriage. Of losing myself. Of losing my body. My mind. My identity outside of “mom.” How did my mom do this? How did she decide to have another kid? What did she feel as she and my dad made the decision? How did they know what to name her? What was it like taking care of two-year-old me while carrying baby Phoebe in her belly?

I had a moment, though. In yoga class, during shavasanah. Hands resting on my belly, I felt my body make room for the next baby. For my number two. For my “Phoebe,” so to speak.

My mom had a distinct relationship with each of us, my sister and me. Each special in its own way, but very different. Thinking about my mom and Phoebe together, I really look forward to my relationship with my number two, and how it will be just as big, deep, and full as that I have with Giles. But different. My “Phoebe.”

(Calm down, Gramma. I’m not pregnant yet.)

 

big truck

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19 months and 6 days of mothering this human outside of the womb. The top picture is Christmas time last year, and the bottom picture is yesterday. He grows and grows, talks, walks, runs, laughs, makes jokes, dances, throws tantrums, squeals.

My life is so different from a year ago (and my hair is much longer)– mothering is so different now with this toddler than it was with the baby he used to be. My life is almost unrecognizable from what it was pre-motherhood. Though I do recognize something of myself from when I was a kid– long moments of playing, the joy of a car going down a slide, lying on the floor looking up at Christmas tree lights.

I’m still figuring out who I am in this role, though I think I’m pretty good at it. My heart has enough love, so much love, more than enough love– this I know.

I’ve gotten better at cutting his hair. Each time I do it more evenly, more like a real haircut. It’s similar to a 60s shag kind of style: like a Beatle, or Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. My sister says it looks like a bowl cut.

I’ve gotten better at confidence. At letting go.

He’s gotten better at sleeping. Eating. Expressing his needs and wants with some kind of language. He becomes himself more each day as he discovers new ways to be and do. He listens. He puts his hands on each side of my face and says, “Ohhh!”

My body has gotten better at being a body again. It will never be what it was before, and I have to accept that over and over.

One of my favorite conversations so far is this one:
ME: Giles, did you poop?
GILES: Poop!
ME: Is it a big one?
GILES: BIIIIG TWUUUCK!

To be fair, he says “big truck” as a response to lots of things. But I really think in this instance he was using it as a description for the giant turd in his diaper. My kid has a sense of comic timing like no other.

Today I am going to Dana-Farber in Boston for one of my every-six-months checkups. No scans today, but it is always a thing, a vibration under my skin, a whisper of will-they-tell-me-i-have-cancer. This doesn’t make me not want to go. Because if I wasn’t going to these appointments I would be worried every second that I had cancer and wasn’t doing anything about it. Now I get to know definitively twice a year that I do not have cancer, and I get to ask questions and talk out my anxieties with very smart and beautiful doctors. I like the car rides with Greg. I like the tacos. It’s a kind of date, and I will cherish it every time we go.

Giles will stay with Greg’s parents tonight, since we’ll be home late. When I see him in the morning, with his big smiling face (or even possible cranky crying face), I will squeeze him tightly. I will say “I love you I love you I love you.”

He’ll probably say, “Big TWUUUCK!”

 

 

today i did a thing

today i did a thing.

that thing was to climb into the bucket of a tree truck, and be lifted very, very high off the ground to rescue my cat from a tree.

that thing was scary. i shook the entire time. i took deep breaths. i said “i can’t do this” a lot, and the guy on the ground kept telling me i was fine.

i wanted to get down. i wanted someone else to do it.

but up and up i went, until i was right below the branch where my cat was perched. she meowed and meowed and i stuck out an arm, petting her and coaxing her to come closer to me.

“you gotta use both hands,” yelled the guy from below.

i didn’t want to use both hands. i wanted one hand firmly gripping the bucket because i was trembling and it didn’t seem possible that i would not just fall right out.

“you can’t fall,” he said.

finally i reached both hands out and grabbed the cat and pulled her into the bucket with me. i held her down on the floor of the bucket saying, “you dumb cat. don’t ever do that again.” i was still trembling. shaking. scared scared scared.

i got to the ground. i tossed the cat out. i climbed out myself and i thanked the tree guys.

it didn’t occur to me that i had faced one of my fears. i am a total scaredy cat when it comes to heights. i never climb up high and jump off rocks into water. i don’t dive into pools from a diving board. i don’t stand near the edges of places.

it didn’t feel like i was facing a fear. i didn’t feel exhilarated. i felt trembly and weak and like i really didn’t want to do it.

but maybe that’s how it is.

breast MRI

breast MRI

This is a sketchy diary comic of my experience getting my first breast MRI.

There was a small rectangular window where my face was pressed against the head rest; I could see my hair cascading down over the underside of the cot-thing I was laying on. That’s what is depicted in the first and last panels of this comic. Mostly I kept my eyes closed, listening to the loud clanking, and in between when there was silence Greg or the MRI tech talked to me. There were plugs in my ears, so their voices sounded muffled and far away.

The whole thing lasted about 45 minutes. It was fine. I will get one of these once a year for the rest of my life unless I am pregnant.

Sometimes all these medical appointments feel stressful and I wonder why I am doing them. But really, mostly, I feel good to be doing them. It’s the only thing I CAN do in the face of my odds of getting cancer (85% chance over my lifetime). Early screenings are REALLY important because if I do get cancer, it will be diagnosed as early as possible, while it is small and treatable.

“Treatable” is the operative word here, because there is no “cure.”

Even though there is no cure, catching cancer early means it hasn’t spread yet and they can take it out surgically, possibly not needing chemotherapy at all. It means living longer and better. It means being around for my kids as they grow up. A better chance of growing old with my husband. It means maybe not dying the way my mom did.

It is REALLY important that I have health insurance coverage for these early screenings. They are impossibly expensive without that coverage. What I have is technically a “pre-existing condition,” a genetic disorder that I was born with that has been in my family probably forever. It isn’t my fault, or anyone’s fault, that we have this.

I am very nervous about the new “healthcare” bill. I am scared of losing my coverage for these screenings. I’m scared of losing coverage for pregnancy and birth and women’s bodies in general.

I am scared of having to choose not to get medical care because it costs too much money.

I am scared for anyone having to make that choice.

 

 

mother’s day and a one-year-old

May 6 to May 14, it’s been a full week.

First, Giles turned one whole year old. I cannot really believe that it’s been a year since that long 30 hour experience of giving birth. It felt so endless that it seems impossible that I am not still in the hospital room, pushing and pushing and pushing. I can no longer remember the exact feeling of the pain, but I remember my reactions to it. My body has changed many times. Presently: my breasts are empty which is a strange feeling, my tummy is soft with less wrinkles and a bit of strength underneath, my arms are strong from lifting a growing baby, my linea negra is still faintly there and stretch marks too. I am smaller, stronger, more able and better feeling. I do not “have my body back” because that is not a real thing. I have my new mom body, which still changes every couple weeks, but has finally become something I understand (I think).

Giles has changed too. He is standing, crawling, walking while holding onto something. He laughs, chatters in baby talk, says “mama” and “dada” and something that almost sounds like “ball.” He has personality, likes and dislikes, a sense of humor. He loves to dance. He eats almost everything we give him, though he has preferences depending on the day. He has friends. He is more than three times the size he was at birth.

And now, at one week past his birthday, it is Mother’s Day. Last year we spent the holiday in the hospital with 2 day old Giles, still so new, learning how to breastfeed. Now I am done breastfeeding. Now I am a mother on my second Mother’s Day and the fifth Mother’s Day without my own mom.

It’s a complicated day. “Complicated AF” as my friend Ashley says. So true. I am so happy, so full of joy to celebrate being Giles’ mom. And then there is this hole, this cold feeling, tears behind my eyes and knots in my stomach. I miss my mom. I want to make her a card, talk to her, dance with her, help her in the garden or do whatever other chores she wants me to do. I want to have brunch with her and Giles, make waffles in her kitchen, watch her hold him and play with him and talk to him in Spanish.

There’s a lot of things I want but can’t even say.

There’s an envelope in my jewelry box (my mom’s jewelry box which is now mine). It’s a letter from Mama, for me to read when I had a child (or didn’t). I read that letter as soon as I found out I was pregnant, and a few more times since then. I haven’t read it today yet.

Greg and Giles brought me breakfast in bed and the sweetest card. They gave me a truly great Mother’s Day. I also have to make room for the sadness. Joy and grief live together now and always will.

 

4 years

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This photo of Mama was taken in April 2012, at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, a year before she died.

It cuts me how impossible it is that she is dead now, that she died a year after this photo was taken. Despite the bald head, or even because of it (she looks so strikingly beautiful with her bald head), she is so alive here. She was a bit weak, yes, couldn’t stay up too late at the party. But we danced. We swam in the hotel pool. We put on red lipstick.

But it also cuts me how we knew, a little bit, and maybe unconsciously, that our time was limited. I had this constant pain just above my stomach from her fist cancer diagnosis in 2007 until she died in 2013. A tiny pain, subtle and not always noticeable, a tight knot. For three months in 2010 everything I ate made me sick. I went to a doctor about it and she told me nothing was physically wrong.

It’s still a shock  most mornings, that she is not here. Sometimes she is alive in my dreams and everything is normal. In these dreams she has been sick but recovered and I feel such great relief that she is okay. Then I wake up.

Giles doesn’t get to know her except in stories. This is a huge gap, a thing he is missing and will be missing his whole life. She would have been a wonderful grandmother (Meme, as she wanted to be called), a great friend, a huge presence for him.

I’ve always said I have no regrets. Mostly this is true. But there are some living in my shadow, in the back corners of my brain.

I’m angry. I’m also sad, scared, some other feelings I don’t know how to name.

It doesn’t get better. It will never be better. It will just be life. Good and bad at the same time. Heartbreak and joy.

I don’t know what else to say. I have a lot of things to say.

 

 

 

my mom, my mom, my mom

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Seeing my tulips come up– the floppy green leaves and thick stems which have survived several frosts since that warm week in February when they started poking up through the ground– I think of Mama in her garden. My dad has always been a gardener too, they worked together to create the combination of flowers and herbs that surround their house. There are early spring flowers which flow into summer ones, then late summer, then fall. Except for winter, there are always flowers. The mint overtakes one area, a mix of spearmint and chocolate mint which Phoebe chomps on every time she passes it. Garlic. Basil. Soft oregano which the sweet cat Dulcinea sleeps in on a sunny day.

These tulips are really the first thing I have grown myself. I’ve had herb gardens, but never started any plants from scratch before now. My dad and I planted the bulbs last fall, digging up a couple small flower beds by my front walk.

I’ve never really been much of a green thumb, the only one in my family who wasn’t really interested. I didn’t like to cook either. But those loves have grown in me over time. In the cookbook she and my dad made for my sister and me, Mama wrote, “One of you is already a cook and the other promises (without knowing it) to be one someday.”

Every time I walk out my front door or come back inside I say hi to the tulips, checking in on how they are. I say to Giles, “Look at our tulips!”

In six days it will be four years since Mama died.

In 24 days Giles will be one year old.

Things are growing, I am getting stronger, my broken heart breaks and breaks and heals in new ways. Nothing is the same.

The words, “my mom, my mom, my mom” repeat in my head. “I want my mom.”

until the last minute

From my mom’s blog:

…Right now I’m starting to see myself in some new ways:  forgetful and distractable beyond the fog I’d come to know through chemo, radiation, whole brain radiation, radiosurgery and more radiosurgery.  I’ve started to hear my husband and children say things like “Mama, you really did know about that, you just forgot”  more often than ever before. I’ve gotten lost and damaged trying to find a path I use every day….I need help in ways I didn’t think I’d ever accept. I run into things.  I have numb pain from toe to waist on one side.  My head hurts.  I’m so cold.  Then I’m hot.  I’m not allowed to roast the chiles alone anymore.  I use a coffee pot that turns itself off so I don’t burn down the house.  I make brutal decisions about time and energy.  I ask my friends to walk with me, or to sit for me in exchange for my poor company. To give me healing or massage. Mostly I ask them to either paint with me,  or leave me to paint. Often I refuse most food I don’t make. I’m spending my grant money on a sink for the studio and a bed easel so the days I can’t walk down the stairs or just can’t get out of bed, I can still work.  A woman to drive me to drawing groups.  Paint and tubes,,,adding up how much I think I can actually use over the next few months.?  Now they don’t call me a survivor, or cancer clean, or any of those things.  THey tell me I’ll always be STage 4:   Stage 4 metastatic cancer with metastesis to the brain, CNS, around most organs….The only place I don’t seem to have breast cancer is in my breasts–but that may have changed, too. Tenacity is my other name. I ask for help, and I ask for understanding.  I am compassionate to old and infirm people in an even more profound way as I bumble through the woods…

But the main thing that scares me is that my energy level is dropping.  I’m tired.  I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes.   I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.  Help me work, study, think, hold my brush…set up my easel—which way do the knobs go? Righty tighty, lefty lucy. I still have this fiery desire to make my work.  Even drawing boxes to learn linear perspective feels like achieving a goal, gessoing and sanding boards feels like living the dream.  And when I put brush in paint to board I know myself again, still, more deeply…that lets me know I am still here…

And to Life, I add, please help me to choose deep time with my husband and daughters, with my family and my soul friends.  Help me make the most of what is left of my energy.  Give me my husband’s love and help me not think of what it will be to go somewhere without him driving me, without him loving me.

 I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes.   I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.

Love is all there is:  loving the work and loving the ones who share my life.

I now give away things each week, wrap up projects….organize the chaos so my family won’t have to.  I write the letters my daughter asks me for her wedding and when she has a baby.  I remind my daughters and my loving husband that I am on their side—always.  I arrange to make a trip home to Denver to connect with my family and friends.  How many kisses do you want I always ask my youngest nephews and they almost always say 100.  I ask for a million.  A trillion.  I always want more.

I see myself now as a weeping woman who is walking toward the door now, not with arrogance or tenacity or attitude but stooped with humility and deep tiredness, begging for a little more love, a little more work done, a little more time……

Viola Moriarty, 14 October 2012

This was written 6 months and 4 days before she died. I didn’t know then how close we were to the end. But it’s there, in her words:

I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes. I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.

Today is March 24. In 25 days it will be April 18, the four year anniversary of my mom’s death. It is four years, a marriage, and a new human life since she has been gone. I don’t understand it. And yet it’s my whole life. I live inside this fact.

Love is all there is:  loving the work and loving the ones who share my life.

I repeat this in my head. Watch my baby on the monitor as he breathes in and out, steady in his sleep. Paint, draw, write. Dance with my husband in the kitchen.

I don’t know why I’m sharing this today in particular. But here it is. Trying to make my own great work until the last minute.