When You Mom So Hard…

Today I literally mommed so hard I smelled like corn chips.

***

I was in the middle of some deep, dreamless sleep, drooling like a puppy onto my Egyptian cotton sheets when my kid startled me awake by tapping me on the temple.

“Mommy. I neeeeeed breakfast right now,” she said. I looked at the clock. I slept in again. Crap.

“Okay, okay,” I said groggily, swatting away her hand. “I’m up.” I stumbled down the stairs with one eye opened, served microwaved mini-pancakes for breakfast, and choked down day-old coffee. Once I was adequately caffeinated, the late-start morning routine looked like a circus on speed. Little people were running half-naked, dogs were dancing on their hind legs, waiting for morsels of food and attention, husband was walking a tightrope between all the living things, trying not to get syrup or slobber on his freshly pressed suit, and I was the acclaimed ring mistress at the center of it all.

At that point, I could feel the underneath of my arms moisten. Yes. I said moisten.

After my husband and oldest child headed off for the day, the toddler and I meticulously built a six-foot-tall rainbow Lego tower. Well she watched and chewed on some Legos while I built. Then my half-blind Beagle knocked it over and the toddler cried, so I quickly built it again.

My pits were no longer only moist, but the underarms of my shirt were sticky too.

Then I watched an episode of Shameless during the toddler’s nap while elliptical-ling. Yep. I multitasked the shtuff out of my kid-free time. BOOM. I washed the dishes without breaking any (a feat any day with my butterfingers), mopped the floor whilst calmly shooing the dogs to stay away (thanks to my stress-relieving kava tea), and did two loads of laundry. That’s washed, dried, folded, and placed in a basket until further notice. I don’t bother putting it away, because that, my friend, is a total waste of time.

Sweat was sticking to that…place. You know the one, ladies.

After that, I chased my oversized Double Doodle past two houses, and three acres, down the street in the pouring rain (because it always rains after I mop). The dog, a muddy mess, was chasing an elderly neighbor with a cute little fur-ball of a pup. They were wearing matching rain coats, for God’s sake. I knew he only wanted to play, but their faces were all twisted in terror so I figured it would be best to rein him in before he tackled the frightened pair in a puddle.

When the toddler woke, I corralled my dogs into their kennel, rushed my oldest daughter to dance practice, and shimmied her sweaty legs into tights in the ‘cozy’ bathroom stall.

That is precisely when I noticed the unpleasant smell coming from under my arms – I forgot deodorant.

I know what you’re thinking, but seriously I wasn’t even embarrassed. I had done enough for the day. If the worst thing I did was forget some personal hygiene, then I’m pretty sure I was momming like a master.

I smelled like corn chips and owned that shit like Mary Catherine Gallagher – superstar! I wore my stink like a Girl Scout badge, or a Supermom cape – with pride. I talked with my hands flailing in the air like those inflatable tube people at the car dealers. I let my stench fill that tiny closet of a room with moms and dads piled in like tuna in a can.

“I forgot deodorant, guys,” I said. “My bad. I was in mom-mode.” Every adult shrugged. They knew. They got it. They had likely been there before too.

I smiled.

Photo courtesy of Seth Doyle/Unsplash

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

Light and Love

My daughter shoved her finger at a photo of my mom. “Gigi is up,” she asserted, a story I hadn’t told her.

My mom’s voice echoed, believe in miracles.

That night, darkness unfolded from dusk and I saw her shining among stars.

Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

 

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Adulting in the Digital Age

I have no clue what I’m doing.

Not with parenting. Not with cooking and cleaning. Not with social media. Not with putting on my own damn lipstick. No effing clue.

I mean, I’m sure if you looked at my Pinterest page, you would think that I’m this insanely organized person with perfectly planned kid parties, amazing eye makeup, color-coded closets, and healthy home-cooked meals seven days a week. If you looked at my Facebook and Instagram pages, you would find my kids’ happy faces on vacations, playing family games, and going out to eat wearing clean, matching clothes. I look like I know what I’m doing.

But let’s be honest, Pinterest is a place where dreams of healthy, easy recipes, DIY refinished cabinets, labeled spice racks in alphabetical order, and picture frames hung with precision on a pristine gallery wall are born, then immediately murdered. We’ve all “pinned now, to read later”. Right? Only for me, most laters never come to fruition. They just hang out on my cyber pin board collecting digital dust.

Here are some fun facts: I usually have a full-blown anxiety attack that lasts for weeks every time one of my children has a birthday coming up. It ends only when the party is winding down and people are filing out of my house. Pinterest has amplified that anxiety. Fun fact two: my closets are a disaster, with boots piled in one corner, and clothes that have been pushed and smushed in the other. I have so many of those gross metal hangers from the dry cleaner, but I never remember to take them back so they hang there, taunting me with their rigid ugliness. Three: I try to cook. Sometimes it’s edible, and sometimes we end up ordering Chinese. Four: I don’t have time to paint my 1990s oak cabinets, so I am secretly praying for them to eventually be vintage and cool. Five: most of my photos are floating in cyberspace, or getting dusty in a box, instead of being displayed.

And those moments of perfection posted on Facebook and Instagram? Fake!

When my children are in that moment right before chaos, where they both appear to be civilized, I document it. I #hashtag it. I share it. When we make a dinner that actually looks delectable, I post it for all of Instagram to see. But why? Do I want to make someone jealous of my moment? Have I been programmed by social media to broadcast my life across the web, sharing only the moments that make me look like I actually have my shit together? I don’t know, maybe it’s a little of both.

What if I shared the real life things my family does instead. Like when my kids hit each other or pull on each other’s hair: #sisterlylove. Or when my oldest refuses to eat and my youngest chucks her chicken across the room: #dinnerfun. Or maybe when we barely make it to the bus for the hundredth time #mamaislosinghershitagain.

Being so involved on social media makes my brain hurt. The real honest to God’s truth is that most people don’t care what my kids did today. Most people don’t care what ideas I have saved on Pinterest. And most don’t care what I’m eating for dinner.

It’s okay. I understand. The feeling is pretty mutual. So why, then, do I put it all out there? Why do I pretend like I live in a dollhouse where everything is made of cupcakes and my hair doesn’t move, whenever I go online?

Being a mess is okay!

My kids don’t care that I have three unorganized junk drawers and a constant stream of clothes folded in baskets we have to dig through. And they would rather have their parties at Chuckie Cheese instead of at home under duress. And they definitely prefer to eat pasta every single night of the week, than some homemade Paleo/21 Day Fix friendly meal I pinned for my own waistline.

They want me to close my phone and open my eyes, to make mistakes and problem-solve without parenting ques from Facebook. They want me to be real and present. They want my mess.

So maybe it’s time share and pin less. Maybe it’s time to unplug a little more, and stop worrying about the Joneses, the Facebookers, and the Pinners, so I can connect with the people in my small corner of this big world.

Once I have that down, then maybe I can figure out lipstick.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

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

A Lesson in Speaking Up and Saying Sorry

The neighborhood I grew up in doesn’t look quite like it used to when I was young. Sure, the tiny bungalows and ranches of blues, yellows, whites and brick continue to sit close to the sidewalk with cement slab driveways and manicured lawns framing each one. Mature trees anchor the street firmly in its blue-collar place. And, even today, I could set my watch by the freight trains chugging along two streets over. But it has changed in other ways.

Most noticeably, the neighbors inside the houses seem farther apart. The kids I played with as a child moved out long before I finished high school, and now they have moved on, making families of their own. The houses have changed hands to an older generation who care less about connecting with one another and more about their own to-do lists.

On any given day when I was growing up, a herd of neighborhood kids would congregate in front of my house to play hide-and-seek, red rover and tag. 

I remember one day, in particular, where we were all taking turns with the jump rope and skip-it.

“I dare you to jump rope from the top of the steps,” I said to Douglas, my next-door neighbor. Before the words even finished running out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.

“Yeah, I double dare you!” my step-sister, Steph, exclaimed.

With a wobbly voice, he accepted. I kept my mouth shut and held one end of the jump rope while my stepsister held the other.

We swung the rope around, making it soar up towards the sky. The first couple of times it came down, towards his feet, he cleared it – no problem. But then on the third or fourth time, something happened. I couldn’t tell if he tripped, or maybe lost his footing against the step, but before I could stop it, he fell backwards onto the concrete. It happened in slow motion. First he was midair, face contorting and arms flailing, then he was slamming against the ground beneath him.

Douglas’ head hit the jagged corner of the bottom step, with a loud thunk. Blood started gushing onto the concrete. His face turned chalky as he opened his mouth into a strange shape and screamed. Razor blades scraped against my ears. My feet weighed ten thousand pounds, but somehow I managed to pick them up, one after another. I ran to find my mom.

I thought he would be broken forever.

Another neighbor, Josh, ran over my driveway and through the next front lawn to find Douglas’ parents.

When the adults met back at my steps, harsh words were shouted and all fingers kept pointing to me and my step-sister. My face was hotter than the blood in front of me, and knew I was responsible. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t.

“It was my idea,” I said, accepting the blame.

Douglas was rushed to the hospital and I was sent to my room where I buried my face against the coolness of my favorite pink pillow. I tried to bury my regret, too, but it kept welling back up through my eyes, streaming down my face in hot spurts.

I wanted to hide there forever, but my mom didn’t let me. After my step-sister went home, she took me to the dollar store. She loaned me four quarters and a dime to buy a toy for Douglas as an apology. I picked out a bag of green toy soldiers because soldiers were strong, and so was my friend.

When we got back home, she made me knock on his door, present in hand. A red-faced Douglas answered with his parents at his side.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he responded.

“Are you okay?” I asked sheepishly.

“I got stitches,” he said, pointing to a freshly shaved spot on his head, sewn up with thick black thread. Looking at it made my belly feel like I just went down the first hill of a roller coaster at Cedar Point.

New tears burned the corners of my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said, handing him the bag of plastic army men as an olive branch.

“Cool,” he shrugged. “Wanna play with them?”

I looked up to my mom and she nodded, nudging me into the house. Douglas ripped open the bag and the little plastic soldiers spilled onto the wooden floor. We played with them while our parents drank fizzy cans of R.C Cola and mended the wound festering between them. When I looked up, my mom smiled, letting me know that everything was going to work itself out.

Though many things in my neighborhood have changed over the last thirty years, the bloodstain on my stepdad’s front step remains. It has faded only slightly with time.

Each time I see it, it reminds me to speak up, say sorry, and take care of my friends and neighbors.

***

Right now, more than ever, I need my mom to reassure me with that smile that everything will, again, work itself out.

I tried. I tried to speak up. To do my part, but it wasn’t enough. That roller coaster feeling in my belly won’t go away this time. I keep worrying about what the future holds for my girls, my neighbors, my friends.

Will more blood spill, because we didn’t speak loud enough? What can I do now?

Little plastic soldiers won’t work this time.

Photo courtesy of  Tim Marshall/Stocksnap.io