Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Best intentions

For a while there--a long while--I felt like I never finished anything I started. My biggest testament to this fact doesn't exist anymore. It was the outside cinderblock wall of the basement apartment my sister and I shared for a year or so after college. I decided it needed painting, so I went out and bought a gallon of brick-red paint, with every intention of improving the looks of the place. Instead, I got about halfway through and decided the weather was too hot for me to finish and that the improvement wouldn't be drastic enough, so why bother. After my sister and I moved out, the building sat there, mocking me, until it was bulldozed over to make room for a highway that was never even started, let alone finished. The ending seemed appropriate.

Ron and I have had our share of arguments during our 15 years of marriage, probably no more than most couples and likely a lot fewer than some. And a good share of those arguments have been over what I consider "done" versus what he considers "done." Our first real fight, as a matter of fact, was over a bookshelf I sanded for him to stain. I thought it was smooth enough and he didn't. He wasn't angry; he just couldn't believe I really thought I was done. I've since told him that he's a perfectionist, which is why he married me, and that I'm not, which is why I married him. (kidding, honey!)

My house is a testament to my willingness to let go, to not obsess over the details. Plastic flower decorations from Emma's party several weeks ago still adorn my kitchen windows. I have three overflowing baskets of laundry in the family room that I'll get to before I got to bed tonight. My refrigerator has out-of-date appointment cards on the outside and out-of-date produce in at least one of the drawers on the inside. An anti-clutter freak would begin hyperventilating just five minutes after entering my house. But it's home. It's at least as cluttered as my mind and therefore I feel it belongs to me.

Like my kids. A friend sent me a link to a "quiz" about her that her young son had taken. I tried some of the questions on my kids. Most of their answers varied quite a bit from each other, but the one all of them answered the same (although they didn't know each other's answers) was this: "What is something your mom says to you all the time?" I was hoping for, "I love you" as the answer. But I got, "Pick up your room," "Put your clothes away," Clean up your mess."

See, I try for perfection, and obviously more often than I realize. I intend for things to be just right, but sometimes they're better just as they are. Simon doesn't want to play the recorder ever again because after a year of being required to play it for his school's music class, he still doesn't "get" it so he said he gives up. Owen bites his nails and hasn't yet figured out how to take his dirty clothes from his bedroom to the laundry chute in the hall. Emma wore an oversized orange t-shirt, striped shorts, white socks, and pink sandals to school today. Ivan can't stand cleaning up his toys or markers or crayons by himself so flatly refuses to until someone at least sits with him while he does it. And I love every single rough spot I see on all of them.

I'll raise them all the way. I'll do my darnedest to make sure everyone of them makes it out of the house one day whole and prepared and happy. Still, I imagine they'll find or recall a few half-painted walls I should have finished for them first. I can only hope they will know I always had the best intentions, even if my execution of those intentions wasn't always perfectly smooth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Slowing down

Last night, Ron and I went for a walk. I started out at a quick pace, and he laughed as he caught up with me. Ron's a full 10 inches taller than I am, so it's not often that I get ahead of him.

We were only gone for about half an hour, not wanting to leave Simon as the babysitter for long, especially so close to bedtime. We talked about his work, my work, the kids, the neighborhood, and looked at old houses I hadn't seen or noticed since we moved here. The weather was perfect for the walk, as I suspect a lot of the upcoming nights will be.

As a kid, I recall always having to jog to keep up with my father when we walked together, particularly on vacations to historical monuments, battlefields, and restored sites. He was purposeful in each step, always knowing exactly where he was going and always wanting to be there right that very moment. In spite of my efforts to keep up, he generally kept pace a few yards ahead of the rest of us, and that's how I see him in my memories of those vacations: from behind.

When Dad was dying, particularly at the very end, the last few weeks, he became more contemplative. Dad was always impulsive, but he was also thoughtful, as in full of thought, always thinking, always wondering, curious, interested, never bored. Once he accepted that death was near, he found a sense of peace for which I think we were all grateful. One of my siblings asked him what he was thinking about then. Dad said, "I'm just glad I get to be the first to go, the first to find out what's on that side." Still purposeful, still curious, still a few paces ahead of us all.

I turned 40 a few days ago. I know it's a milestone, but I don't feel 40, so it wasn't a big deal to me. It wasn't traumatic or even a little unsettling, and, for the most part, it hasn't even been cause for me to be particularly contemplative. It's just another year, not the end of my life.

This afternoon, an elderly couple passed in front of my screened-in porch where I've been working this afternoon. She was using a wheeled walker. He was gently resting his hand on her arm as they strolled, looking as though they felt they have all the time in the world left. Or perhaps little enough of it that hurrying seems a little excessive at this point. His hair was white. Hers was colored a dark reddish-brown. And they appeared to still have plenty to say to each other. And I thought, "That could be Ron and me in another 40 years." Or at least I hope it is.

Years ago, when Simon wasn't even 3 yet and Owen was a newborn, I took them to the library for story hour. On the way home, it began to rain. I had an umbrella, but when the rain turned into a downpour, I struggled to hold Simon, push the stroller, and keep the umbrella above us all. Finally, I gave up and put the umbrella away. As I did, a neighbor drove by and offered me a ride home. At that point, I was only about a block away from our house, and I said no thanks. I was laughing by then and realizing that rain was just rain and that I needed to slow down and just enjoy the moment, regardless of how wet we were all getting. It was the first time as a mother that I felt that way, and it was magnificent.

I'm in a hurry for a lot of things. I don't like being late to church or to concerts or movies or dinner at a friend's house. But I'm also perfectly fine with slowing down now and then.

I loved my father's hurry. I loved watching him so eager for the next thing that he rushed to get there. And while I know I take after him in many ways, I think I'll be doing my best these next 40 years or so to take my life a little slower. I don't want to miss a thing. I have ahead of me too many walks next to my husband and hand in hand with my kids.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"You're beautiful"

Those were the words Ivan greeted me with this morning. I don't know why. I don't know what he was thinking about before coming into my room. I just know that at 6:45 a.m., lying in bed still, my newly chopped hair a mess, my eyes still heavy with sleep, I was far from beautiful . . . at least in the eyes of anyone over the age of 4.

I've kept a journal for each of my kids for quite a few years now. My entries aren't as regular as I would like, but I try not to fall too behind. I update them on what they've been doing lately, who their friends are, what they've enjoyed playing, what funny things they've said. I don't know when I'll give the journals to them. Maybe after college? Maybe when they have their own children? I just want them to know I paid attention, that I loved them, that even in a family of four kids, I always knew each of them individually.

I wonder all of the time what memories of their own my kids will take with them into adulthood, particularly what memories of Ron and me they will take with them, because there is only room for so many memories.

I remember my mom being tired a lot. She worked full time, side by side with my father for most of my childhood, running a bookstore. Then they would come home together and she would make dinner, maybe clean a bathroom or two, vacuum if she could find the energy. I remember my younger brother sitting next to her, his arms wrapped around her, and her saying "stop mauling me" or "love me a little less." She was tired, touched out, ready to just lie down alone for a few hours. I don't recall her losing her temper very often, and when she did, it was generally with this same brother, who could have made a saint weep. In fact, I think my mother could fairly be called a saint for not locking him up in his room until he was ready for college. But then again, I was only 2 years old than he was. Of course, he was supposed to annoy me, fight with me, make me scream and cry . . . and even bleed on occasion. I imagine his memories of having me as an older sister aren't much brighter.

When Mom would lose her temper with the rest of us, it was always as if she was ready to break but wasn't quite there yet. Her jaw would clench and she would speak slowly and evenly through her teeth.

Mainly, however, I recall feeling like we had simply worn her out. Did I feel loved and secure? Yes. But I also felt like I needed to watch my step or she'd finally break and run from the house screaming. I was a good kid--a really, really good kid--for that reason.

I would like to say the extent of my temper is a clenched jaw and slow and even speech. But it's not. I yell, maybe not every day, but often enough. And then I chastise myself afterward, afraid that's what my kids will recall. Their friends will ask them what their mother was like while they were growing up, and they'll say, "She yelled. I think we broke her."

What I would like them to remember is me smiling at them, laughing with them, telling them it wasn't a big deal to break the plate or spill the milk or get cookie sprinkles all over the carpet or eat more dessert than dinner. I'd like them to remember I never for a moment regretted choosing to stay home with them. I'd like them to remember they fascinated me and entertained me and made me wonder how I ended up lucky enough to be their mother.

And if they don't remember crawling up onto my bed in the morning to hug me and tell me I'm beautiful? Well, that's okay. I'll remember.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's daze

I felt pretty sorry for myself yesterday as I realized--or admitted it finally--that I'm not really a big fan of Mother's Day.

It's a hard day for me, and not because I don't have a wonderful mother or because I don't have four great kids and love being a mother. It's because it's the one day I compare myself to other mothers and wonder if I'm really screwing my kids up and wonder how to stop doing it if I am.

Owen's 10th birthday party was last weekend. He had about 10 friends over. They played games, decorated t-shirts to take home, had sub sandwiches, chips, and soda for lunch, and everyone got along.

Emma's 7th birthday party was Saturday. She had 12 friends over. They played games, decorated cloth napkins to take home, had an afternoon tea (little sandwiches made with cookie cutters, veggies and dip, jell-o jigglers, crackers and cheese, and pink lemonade), decorated their own cupcakes, and everyone got along. More or less.

After 2 birthday parties in a row, I was wiped out. I invest way more time and energy into these parties than a sane person would. I want my kids to have fun, to remember the fun, and, I confess, to appreciate the work I put into them. Owen does. Completely.

Emma? Not quite there yet.

And that's part of why Mother's Day following these parties was difficult this year. I wanted thank-yous and hugs and love notes. I wanted someone else to make breakfast. I wanted someone else to clean the kitchen afterward. I wanted something to be different that day compared to other days. I didn't necessarily want Emma to make me coupons that read: "I'll help you clean the guinea pig cage if you give me a dollar" and "I'll help you do dishes for four years for four dollers" or a note that read, "I love my mom because she gives me money."

But my frustration wasn't with my husband or kids. It was with myself for maybe not doing a better job of teaching my kids about gratitude. And it was with myself for feeling pitiful when, really, I have so much. So I know the reason I'm not teaching my kids well is because I haven't learned enough about real gratitude myself yet.

In 1907, two years after her mother died, a woman named Anna Jarvis began a 7-year campaign to make Mother's Day an official holiday. It was to celebrate her mother--not her motherhood. In fact, she never married, never had children. She was insistent that the name be "Mother's Day" and not "Mothers' Day" because it was a day for your mother, not all mothers everywhere. It was supposed to be personal.

By the time she died, she had grown pretty fed up with the holiday, upset by its commercialization and by people's laziness in how they chose to celebrate their mothers. She said, "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A petty sentiment!"

I'm not saying it's time to repeal the holiday. Next year, I imagine I'll feel differently than I did yesterday. In fact, Ivan just told me I'm sweet. And Simon hurried through the door at lunch, excited to tell me about his trip to the science center at school. Emma laughed at my joke. And Owen got excited about what was in the oven.

It's not the commercialization that's the problem. It's the tendency to think it's the commercialization that matters and to overlook the daily celebrations of being a mother.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Relay for Life

Ron and I went shopping a few weeks ago for some dress pants for him to wear to work. We were looking for just 1 pair: grey, wool, no pleats.

Back in January, we went to Macy's and had luck finding a great suit (brown pin-striped... love it!), a couple of shirts, a couple of ties. All set. Done. Great. The man helping us pick out the ties was a little pushy but he was at least pleasant, and he did have a good eye for patterns.

So when we went back for pants, I was not surprised to see him there. However, he wasn't quite as pleasant. In fact, he was downright grumpy, snapping at me for pulling out a pair in the wrong length at one point (wrong in his opinion; turns out I was right). While Ron tried them on, this salesman said, "I just started working again after 6 months in the Mayo Clinic for cancer. I had everything on my left side removed. My leg isn't even real." Wide-eyed, I asked, "Really? What kind of cancer does that?" He said it was brain cancer that had metastisized.

Then he hurried off on his fake leg, which he appears to be getting around on very well, to help a customer looking for a tux.

I told Ron about the cancer. We ended up buying 2 pairs of wool slacks, 3 shirts, and 4 ties.

Everything on the left side. We'll assume we don't have to include the heart on this list. That gives us the gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, a lung, a ureter, a kidney, a testicle. And then there's part of the intestines, part of the bladder, and a good portion of the stomach. All on the left.

Doesn't leave a guy with much, does it?

Before we left, Ron said, "I remember you waiting on us back in January." The salesman said, "Oh, I was back from the Mayo Clinic briefly over the holidays and got in some hours."

Hm. Okay.

I'm not saying I don't believe the man. I'm just shocked at the miracle of him walking, talking, and functioning extremely well from what I could tell.

There's nothing funny about cancer. I don't think there's even anything funny about a man saying he had severe enough cancer to require removal of all organs (and a leg) on his left side. I admit I was a little amused initially, wondering if he was using his cancer to get the bigger sale. But I got over the humor in it.
My father died on June 5, 2004 from cancer of the duodenum. It's an extremely rare cancer and difficult to diagnose because of its rarity and its rather vague symptoms, virtually all of which can simply be associated with growing old: heartburn, diarrhea, loss of appetite. Dad was an extremely healthy 71-year-old man when he was diagnosed. Ten months later, he was gone. The first line of treatment had been a pancreaticoduodenectomy at Johns Hopkins. Here's what it involves (taken from Wikipedia): "It consists of removal of the distal half of the stomach , the gall bladder , the distal portion of the common bile duct ), the head of the pancreas, duodenum, proximal jejunum, and regional lymph nodes . Reconstruction consists of attaching the pancreas to the jejunum and attaching the common bile duct to the jejunum to allow digestive juices and bile to flow into the gastrointestinal tract and attaching the stomach to the jejunum to allow food to pass through."

After the surgery, doctors gave him a few weeks to get some of his strength back, because you obviously don't bounce right back after surgery that major. Then he started radiation and chemotherapy. For a little while there, Dad thought he would be a miracle. Believing he would be is what kept him going, impelled him to keep writing, to keep reading, to keep moving ahead, to get his teeth fixed when he broke one on a piece of peanut brittle. It's also what kept him from making any plans for my mother after he died. He didn't instruct her on what he wanted done with his books or his antiques or his rare document collection. To say she was completely at her wit's end after he died is an understatement.

No, cancer isn't funny at all. It's awful.

Simon is on a Relay for Life team this year with nine other kids in his school. There are about 100 teams in our school district participating this year. Relay for Life is organized by The American Cancer Society. On June 12, Simon's team, C.I.A. (Cancer Is Awful/Cure in Action), is spending the night at the local rec center, walking the track, keeping each other awake, celebrating survivors (one of whom is a 6th grader on his team who, on his final day of chemo, found out his mom had cancer; another of whom is a 6th grader who lost his mother to lung cancer last year--she wasn't a smoker and never had been), and raising money for cancer research. I'm proud of him. I'm proud of all of these kids and of all the survivors and all the survivors' families and of the families of thoses who didn't survive but want others to.

If you want to contribute to Simon's team, go to this website and type in his name.