The Moment I Learned to Really Love My Child

My mom was on a plane 39,000 feet above me; my husband was at work on the other side of The East River; my nearest friend was one state away; my baby was screaming in the crib, and I was on the living room floor completely losing my shit.

***

She was only a few weeks old, and I lacked experience. I read books, but no parenting book can prepare you to actually be a parent. It had been a nearly sleepless week, and we were both trudging through exhaustion. That day, I tried everything. Everything. Still, she cried. Frustration bubbled up, consuming me, and before the thought of doing something I’d later regret had the chance to wiggle it’s way into my head, I remembered what the nurses said: it’s okay to let her cry sometimes. It’s okay to take a moment to breathe. And never shake the baby.

I couldn’t attempt to soothe her for another bloodcurdling second, so I put her in her crib, shut the door, and walked away.

I pressed my forehead against the cool wood floor, curled my legs into my chest, and left my arms limp at my sides as I wrenched tears from my eyes. I heaved words assembled into desperate pleas at the universe. I prayed to a god I didn’t even know I really believed in for determination and strength to be the mother my crying child needed and deserved.

“Please help me. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to make her stop crying. I’ll do anything,” I begged. “What do I do?”

I rolled over, spread-eagle, and stared at the ceiling. Her cries were reaching decibels so high that the glass chandelier was swaying ever so slightly, reflecting bits of light off the brass. I imagined melting into the floor to disappear from my new role as mother, to hide from that hideous light fixture, to hide from life.

“What do I do?” I repeated in a whisper. I pinched my eyes shut and searched my brain for advice I’d been given and chapters I’d read on this sort of thing. I couldn’t come up with anything that I hadn’t already tried. “Why do I suck at parenting so bad? What am I doing wrong?”

Someone – not me, not anyone in the hallway – someone outside and inside my head simultaneously in the most loving, calming voice said, “Just love her.”

I sat up, eyes wide. I knew that advice. It was something my mother had said to me once.

***

We were taking my dog on a walk through my neighborhood, urging contractions to kick in. I remember flashes of four-family brownstones as the words left her lips. I thought it was awful advice. How could I not love my child?

***

My eyes darted around the living room to see where the voice came from. “Hello?” I asked. No one answered, but I didn’t imagine the voice. It was as real as the cries resonating from behind my child’s bedroom door.  Was it God? Was it my own conscience?  “Just love her?” I asked back. As I repeated the words out loud, something clicked. In the moment when my baby needed me most I wasn’t loving her.

I carefully stood and pushed wet tangles of hair from my face with a fraction of new determination and strength. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, I’m alone, but I have to do it. She and I only have each other.

I opened her door. Her squishy arms, tiny fists, and face the color of confusion, were the first things I saw. Remorse twisted its way through my gut. Am I a horrible mother for letting her cry? I went to her crib with breath stuck in my chest, new tears falling from my eyes. I knew I had to comfort her.

I knew I had to love her.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Sock Surprise

She’s already ten minutes late; the bus is gone.

“Let me grab socks,” I say, unfolding a pair. I look at one purple sock and one green. “Did you do this?”

A small hand stifles her giggle. “Surprise!” She shouts.

“Not again,” I sigh. “Guess you need a new chore.”

Grandpa’s Garden

Before his stroke, Grandpa was my favorite. I would sit on his belly, round like Santa’s, and ask him if the battery above his heart hurt. I’d lightly press my fingers against the square shape protruding from his chest, and Grandpa would smile wide, toothlessly.

“Naw, Baby Girl. That’s my ticker,” he’d say. I imagined a tiny clock inside his chest, sort of like the Tin Man.

Grandpa was a self-proclaimed botanist, without using so many words. He planted tomatoes and other vegetables, mostly for canning to keep Grandma and him fed through the harsh winter months when the junkyard didn’t need his help sorting metals. I used to walk behind him. I watched Grandpa whisper to his green babies and touch the leaves carefully. He taught me about them, but I can’t remember his lessons.

After my grandpa’s stroke, between first and second grade, we moved in with my grandparents. They owned a duplex, and we lived on the second floor so my mom could care for him.

There were times I wanted to climb back on his belly, but Grandpa’s new oxygen tank made my belly do flips. I thought I could catch whatever was making him so sick. If I get too close, I’ll need one of those tubes in my nose too.

I don’t have a single picture of the stairs in my grandparents’ house, but I remember them perfectly in my mind: hand carved wood painted the same shade of red as fallen leaves just before they turn brown and crumble. I wasn’t allowed to play outside, so when I wanted to get away from everyone I would sit on the landing. I could hear my mom on the phone above and my grandparents’ television below. I sat there playing with dolls or staring at the cracks and chips in the yellow walls pretending they were a part of a roadmap to someplace magical where Grandpa wasn’t ill.

His ticker stopped that autumn. I was in school when it happened. He was there when I left and gone when I got home, crumbled and blown away with the leaves.

All I kept thinking was that I didn’t get a chance to hug him once more, or to really listen to his lessons.

This year, I planted an herb and vegetable garden. It’s nothing like Grandpa’s, small in comparison. I thought about him while I was out there with my hands in the dirt. I touched the plants with care like he used to. Small bits of food have managed to grow, regardless of my natural knack for killing anything green. Although, some of them are limp, hanging on for dear life. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or right for that matter. If only I could remember what he taught me.

If only we had more time.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Flight of the Monarch

I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.

My mom died.

My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.

I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.

The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong. 

The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.

My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand. 

After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.

Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun.
It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.

It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.

I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.

I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.

In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.

On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”

My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.

It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.

My mom was free.

Photo courtesy of Mathias Reed/Unsplash

Shayla’s Choice

“I’ll drop you here,” Chris says, parking his blue pick-up next to a meter, three buildings down from the clinic. Downtown has few skyscrapers. Instead, most streets look like this one, with rows of older two-story brick buildings, iron fire escapes hitched sideways against the windows. As a child, Shayla imagined running down them as they lowered to the ground.

“Okay,” she whispers, “but I’m scared.”

He has cheated on her more than once, but she chose to stay. She tries to find something resembling love in his eyes, but he remains focused on the crumbled road. Crews had yet to patch the streets after the harshness of the winter, leaving it broken, like their relationship.

“Go. And call when you’re done,” he says. Shayla brushes a tear from her eye and climbs out of his truck, shutting the door behind her. Chris drives off without a second glance, and the rush of June air his truck leaves behind smells of river water and exhaust fumes. A wave of nausea sweeps over her body.

She grips her stomach and turns in the direction of the old warehouse. A dozen angry protesters separate her from her future. With no one at her side, she swallows hard, never feeling more alone. Her heart begins to palpitate.

“Why didn’t I tell my mom?” Shayla asks herself. She exhales and steadies herself before walking towards the door. Her pale fingers clutch her purse close like a shield against the name calling.

Baby murderer! Killer!

Somehow, she pushes past the protesters, and pulls the door open. Its heaviness reminds her of the consequences she would face for this mistake.

After checking in with reception, a small boxy room with messy stacks of paper piled up in every corner, the clerk points her towards the waiting area. Pine floors stretch the length of the old warehouse, and vintage flower-patterned couches and Venetian rugs placed at odd angles attempt to create definition. She finds a spot on an over-sized beige couch full of soft lines and maroon flowers, and settles deep into its broken cushion. There, she finds a familiar comfort of home.

“Shayla Hutchins?”

Shayla looks up, adjusts her cross-body bag nervously, and smiles at the girl standing in front of her. She glances at the nametag – volunteer. She stands and follows the girl back to a small room with nothing but an exam table and a strange looking machine.

“Change into this. The doctor and I will be back shortly,” the volunteer hands her a hospital gown.

After she closes the door, Shayla changes, and watches the clock.

Knock, knock.

“Come in,” Shayla says, startled.

The doctor and the volunteer file in quietly, and shut the door. The doctor explains the procedure, but Shayla can’t seem to comprehend what she is saying. Everything sounds muffled the way it does after a snowstorm, distant.

“Would you like me to stay and hold your hand?” the volunteer asks. Shayla looks down at her hand, outstretched; her caramel-colored skin looks soft and inviting.

She slowly nods yes, and the volunteer smiles warmly.

“I’ll be right here with you the whole time.”

“Thank you,” Shayla manages to say.

“You’re welcome. And you’re going to be okay,” she says. Her eyes are hot chocolate with a sprinkle of cinnamon, bringing warmth to Shayla’s numbness.

The doctor turns on the contraption and a loud hum fills the room. Shayla closes her eyes, grips the volunteer’s hand, and stifles a scream through gritted teeth.

***

The volunteer rubs Shayla’s shoulder like an old friend and ushers her back to the couch.

“Remember, you are worthy of more,” she says, catching Shayla by surprise. Her cheeks flush.

Shayla sits and dials Chris. He answers right after one ring.

“Meet me at The Twisted Hanger,” he tells her.

“Three blocks away?” Shayla hisses.

“I’m grabbing a beer. Meet me out front in ten.”

“You are unbelievable.” Shayla hangs up.

***

No longer afraid of their words, Shayla easily walks past the protesters. What’s done is done. Rays from the June sun warm her shoulders, and the words from the volunteer replay in her head. Worthy of more.

One foot goes in front of the other until she reaches the blue pick-up. But instead of stopping, she keeps walking, fishing around in her bag until her fingers find her phone.

Shayla dials and listens to the rings.

“Hello?”

“Mom? I really need you. Can you come get me?”

 

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io/Ashton Bingham

The Cancer Chase

Cancer.

Everything about that word makes the bile in my belly rise and the hair follicles on my arms pucker in fear.

Cancer.

Saying or even thinking the word gives me shivers. The difference between the hard and soft ‘c’ sounds make the word sound like a scaly boa constrictor slithering its way around my chest. I’m suffocating from it.

No drinks with sucralose or aspartame.No furniture made with formaldehyde.No more chicken nuggets or hot dogs.Only eat organic fruits and vegetables.No household cleaners.No alcohol.No smoking.No microwaved popcorn.No artificial dyes.Stay out of the sun.Stay away from pollution.

The list of carcinogens, or cancer causing materials, is endless, and if I let myself think about everything I would need to avoid to avoid cancer, I probably wouldn’t ever leave my house.

Complications from cancer have killed strangers, acquaintances, friends, friends of friends, parents of friends, grandparents of friends, and family.

My grandma.

My mom.

My aunt.

It’s everywhere, tightening its grip on my lungs each time I exhale.

Since my mom passed away, I’ve had constant irrational fears that death by cancer will be my unfortunate, inevitable demise. I believe that I will end up just like her: in hospice on a morphine drip for my last days of life. I’m sure that the disease is already lying dormant in some unsuspecting corner of my body – ready to strike and steal everything I love away when I least expect it.

It’s not death that has had me looking over my shoulder in fear. I think the older we get, the more we come to understand that death, like birth, is a part of the cycle. We all must endure it at some point. But the pain, surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation that come with cancer – sometimes lasting for years – have given me the kind of nightmares where I scream myself awake. Nightmares that leave me in sweats with labored breath and a heart pounding through my chest.

And the drugs given to help cancer make me cringe, too. They wreak havoc on your insides, making your organs burn like they are on fire, and cease to function properly. Chemotherapy and radiation can kill your healthy, happy cells along with the sick ones and slowly take you from the life you love.

What happens if It catches up to me? Am I next? Am I strong enough to endure whatever torturous medicines I’m prescribed? Who would protect and provide for my girls and my husband if I were to get sick? Am I destined to die from the disease that keeps stealing the women in my family?

I now realize that these are questions I can’t answer.

The older I get, the more lives I’ve had to watch slip between the cracks of my fragile fingers from this disease. But I’ve decided not to coil away from that monster anymore. Instead, I’m going to look it in the eye, with my fists clenched so hard my fingernails bury themselves deep into the fatty part of my palms, and I’ll acknowledge the possibility of cancer, just like the possibility of no cancer. I’ll let the fear slide off my back instead of continuing to encircle me.

I can’t let cancer control my thoughts anymore.

It’s time to breathe.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

300 Words on 3 Days Sober

Seventy-two hours without a drink in my hand and thoughts are no longer smothered by pressure to reach for a glass, but instead eagerly hovering over the keys with clarity and ambition, reaching for ways to display their excitement through words.

I see expression in myself, my children, and my world that I never knew was there. It’s like I’ve been living with the lights out and ears muffed, stumbling and bumping into things, never quite sure of which direction to take. After making the conscious choice to drink less, the energy around me is palpable and bright.

My lungs are expanding with greater capacity and the crispness of air refreshes my mind, bringing focus to my little space in the universe.

But it’s the moments between each breath, where a feathery touch or tinkling laugh make me realize that staying present will continue to benefit me in ways I never knew were possible with a drink in my hand. These moments were ones the bottle convinced me to ignore most, draining vibrancy from my life.

Though these feelings prove that I am worthy of sobriety, my head continues to persuade me that I am missing out on good times without a glass of my favorite red. It’s a gentle tug pulling me backwards.

I’m hesitant to say that I am free, because I know I’m not. The days ahead of me will be long and filled with uniquely challenging pressures that I haven’t yet prepared myself for. But I will figure them out one by one.

Tonight, I’ll have a glass of wine because it’s the weekend and because I’m flawed. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll have steamy chamomile tea with a teaspoon of honey instead.

And for now, I stand here: three days sober, seeing the clear skies ahead.

Photo courtesy of Annie Spratt/Unsplash