Sunday, May 31, 2009


I understand now why some blogs lie fallow for a period. And because of what I now understand, I worry about those blog friends who disappear for a while. It could mean they're out under the sky, engaging with their life, hosting visitors, sampling nature, too busy to sit at a computer indoors. Or it could mean they're grappling with feelings they can't manage to set down in cold, unforgiving type. 

This is the limitation of blogging, I suppose. There are people you don't want to hurt, even if they hurt you. That makes this medium hard for one who first came to writing as a way of making sense of her life. I am having a very hard time right now. Crying for no good reason. Or at least no reason I can put my finger on. I want to go away. I want someone to care enough to come and find me.

I thank God for my daughter. Sometimes, I am blown away by her simple goodness, her constancy and lovingness, the fact that she pauses in her day to hug her mother. I am humbled by her and I want to be everything I can for her. I want to be there for her. So I won't give in to this impulse to run away. I won't disappear.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Then and Now

The top picture was taken four years ago at a family wedding. The bottom picture was taken two days ago at our son's graduation. Notice my husband's protective hand on my son's arm in the first picture. Notice the reverse, my son's hand on his dad's shoulder in the second. Time does march on!

250 Men in Bow Ties (Graduation!)

Allow me a moment of basking. Our son pulled down a 3.8 GPA this year and was on the Principal's Honor Roll (the highest honor). He has finished up well, and hopefully is just hitting his stride as he looks toward college. The ceremony itself was lovely. All those young men in white tux jackets and maroon bow ties (school colors). What a sight they were. Tomorrow's leaders. A brotherhood.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"We are the champions..."

This afternoon, my son graduates from high school. I have no words adequate to express what this feels like. So I'll post this pics from Saturday's City Championship meet instead. That's my boy at the left side of the frame, holding the circular plaque. He's surrounded by some of his closest friends, young men with whom he's made the (stunningly fast) four-year journey through high school. Now that we're at the end, I can look back and say the school was an excellent choice for him. Back when he was in eighth grade, he wanted a co-ed high school. He was completely opposed to all boys. But he agreed to look at this school, which his parents had fallen in love with. He had a great time the day he visited, it was called a "shadow day." The teachers made him laugh. The boys made him feel part of the crew. So he went there. Now he says, if he had it to do again, knowing what he knows, he'd choose that school again in a heartbeat. No better endorsement than that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Force of Will

My son decided he wasn't going to miss City Championships. He wasn't going to be absent for the last big track meet of his high school career. I watched him will himself better these last couple of days, and don't you know, he is there now, at Ichan Stadium, competing with his teammates one last time.

He just ran the 110m high hurdles. He was running carefully, making sure not to collide with anything, not hurling his body through space as he usually does, but his dad says he looked steady. Now he's doing high jump.

The nurse from his doctor's office has a son who also runs high school track. When she saw my son at the meet, looking thinner, but hale all the same, her mouth fell open in a perfect O. Can you say miraculous recovery? Still, I feel a secret sense of comfort that she's there.

I know he's not all the way back, though. Last night, at 10:30 pm, he got up from the couch and announced, "Well, I have a meet tomorrow morning. I'm going to bed." That was the first time in his 17 plus years on the planet that he has ever gone to bed voluntarily! Ever since he was a baby, he just passes out, loses consciousness wherever he is when his body runs out of gas for that day, usually on the couch in front of the TV. The only time he ever falls asleep in his bed is when we chase him there, which we don't do anymore because, well, he's almost grown and about to leave home. So last night, when he climbed into his bed and was asleep in minutes, I knew his body still had more recovering to do.

His dad drove him to the meet this morning and stayed with him so he wouldn't have to battle public transportation. This is my husband's last meet too, which makes it bittersweet. He has attended almost every one and most of the soccer games, too, over these last four years. My son says often, "My friends think my dad is mad cool." I totally agree with them.

Update: My son made it into the semifinals, contributed some points to his team, and they won the championship! What a great finish for the senior class. There were some disappointments: A couple of all-stars got edged out of first in their races. And one of my son's closest friends, Jordan, had to take second place in high jump for the first time in his high school career.

Jordan was crushed, especially because he won't have a chance to redeem himself. The other kid PR'ed at a height of six-foot-eight, which Jordan has jumped before but didn't at this meet. He was a good sport about it, but said ruefully, "And I'd been talking so much trash about winning, too." Actually, I think it might be a good thing that he lost. It makes him hungry again right at the moment that he enters college, reminds him of what it feels like to dig deep and compete. But I didn't say that to him when he came by our house. I'm sure he wasn't in the mood to hear that.

Lucky for him, my daughter had made mini fruit tarts for her cousins (both of them left today), and Jordan thoroughly enjoyed two. My son kept rushing him because they were late for a party. "Come on, man, just stuff that in and let's go!" And Jordan, gentleman that he is, replied, "No, this has to be savored." My daughter just beamed and said nothing.

Yes, my son went out to a party after the meet. I take that back about his body needing to recover more. His mind says he's back, so it would seem that he is. I'm glad he's rallied. But now my husband isn't feeling well. I think he'll just stay in bed tomorrow.

Friday, May 22, 2009

How She Became an Addict

The incessant whirring started the night my cousin Pearl was born, her brain a humming circuit of electricity, random spikes and valleys on the fetal monitors mirroring the crescendos and dead spaces of the seizures within. Almost at once, Pearl understood that the world she had arrived in would never march for her in an orderly way. Instead it would lurch and spin and tumble with dizzying irregularity, her whole consciousness coiling finally into an overwhelming desire for an end to the vertigo.

Her mother Ruby, nuzzling the top of her squirming head in the days after her birth, knew only that her late-in-life child was a restless one, bad-tempered and colicky. Ruby tried to soothe her with rocking and soft kisses and, when that failed, her own impatient chile-jus’-stop-yuh-nonsense-now love. Ruby was forty-nine the year Pearl was born. The baby had been a complete surprise to her and her husband Jackson. Ruby’s doctors called Pearl a menopausal miracle, a child who tucked herself into a still-fertile corner of Ruby’s womb and held on for dear life.

Ruby almost miscarried several times during the early months. The doctors gave her drugs to keep baby Pearl in, and Pearl curled up in the warm watery place inside her mother, and drank in the medications that seemed to calm her jangled wires somewhat. She drifted for months in that sedated twilight world, her hair shriveling to tiny kinks that would never quite grow, her nerves and sinews making frail, uncertain connections, and when she at last pushed her way into the bright florescent light of the delivery room, the shock of separation was almost too much for her. The sudden snap and whir of her brain simply couldn’t be quieted, and she couldn’t understand why no one else in this whirling cacophony she had landed in seemed to realize her turmoil.

Later on, they did realize it. “Epilepsy,” the doctors told her mother when Pearl was only eighteen months old. The child had been falling down several times a week, her pupils rolling up behind her eyelids, her jaws clattering, her limbs stuttering without consciousness. “We could give her phenobarbitol to slow down the electrical impulses in her brain,” the doctors said, and Ruby, wanting only what was best for her child, let herself be convinced.

Doctors know better than to give phenobarbitol to children now. They know how it pathologically alters the developing brain. So you could say modern medicine helped make Pearl who she became, a narrow-eyed woman still chasing those electrical impulses, still trying to throttle them back and start them up again, swallowing or sniffing or smoking whatever she could find, year after year, to quiet the buzzing in her brain.

*Names have been changed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cooks I Love

My daughter took time out from homework last night to make paninis for everyone. Mmm. Yummy.

Earlier, her dad had made homemade sushi, which was almost finished by the time I got to it, because I was in the bedroom trying to make my son swallow ice chips so he'd stay hydrated. When I came out to the kitchen, there were two lonely pieces sitting on the plate, and everyone was standing around looking hopefully at me. Their faces said, We exercised great effort and restraint to leave these two pieces for you. Do you really want them? I did indeed. They were delicious, too.

My older niece (the graduate) gave my husband the ultimate compliment the night before, when he made spaghetti with tomato sauce and fresh basil. She said, "When I eat your food, I always feel as if I'm getting the gourmet version of a very simple dish." It's true. He is a master of tasty, unfussy, almost effortlessly elegant fare.

My girl just got home from school. I'm off to get the scoop on her day. I have just a small window of maybe half an hour after she arrives home, when she's still plugged in enough to her school day to cheerfully spill details. After that, it's old news. No longer interesting enough to bother sharing. Being there for that half hour window is one of the reasons I used to love working from home.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life Happens

Sometimes, when there's so much happening, I don't know where to start. I'll start with the good. We went to my niece's college graduation upstate this weekend. It was held in the school's football stadium, on a crystalline blue day, with sweeping carpets of green grass and lush stands of trees greeting us in every direction--beautiful, but cold! We were all wrapped in blankets and scarves, checking and rechecking the program to see how much longer the ceremony would be. But there was a great feeling about the day, and the pride and camaraderie of the company gathered on the field was good to be a part of. In three and then four years, if all goes as planned, we will be back there for my other niece's and then my son's graduation. I'll know to bundle up! So proud of our graduate, of the wise and beautiful adult she's become. I can remember so clearly being where she is now. Every step I take in my life, I understand my parents' journey so much more.

The bad: My son is ill. I feared it was swine flu because he has friends at two of the schools that have closed in New York, and was at a party with some of them last Friday. He has a bad sore throat, a headache that's lasted for days now, and by last night, his body ached so much that his skin hurt if we touched him. He wouldn't eat, had a crazy high fever, and was shivering with chills. My husband and I took him to the doctor this morning to be tested. He lay in the back of the car, lethargic and still, more than six feet tall now, but reminding me so much of when he was a tiny sick baby and my husband and I, silent with worry, would bring him to the doctor's together.

No, it's not swine flu, nor is it strep throat. It might be mono, but that won't be conclusive till next week, when they'll do a blood test if he hasn't shaken this off by then. Sadly, he won't be running in Cities this week. It's one of the last big track meets of the outdoor season. And he won't be partying with his classmates on prom night this Friday either. Not unless this is a passing bug and he makes a quick and miraculous recovery. Actually, he seems somewhat improved already, but it might just be the Motrin.

The sweet: We have a houseful of guests--my two nieces on their way home from college, my sister in law from Antigua, who flew up for the graduation. Every night the kitchen and living room are filled with people and stories and laughter. My daughter thinks this is both wonderful and sucky, because while everyone else is finished with school for the year, she is writing final research papers and taking tests and gearing up for finals. It's tough to be the baby of the family.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cool, Hip Aunt From America

That's my aunt, pictured above, in a portrait made around the time she got married in 1949. She will be 91 this September. I'm sitting here remembering her as she was, the funny, opinionated, energetic woman who used to visit us from New York in the summers, with her curly gray afro and piercing green eyes. We loved her madly. She was the cool, hip aunt from America who understood us better than our parents.

And she was a feisty. Once, when my son was three and came home from preschool with a scratch on his face, she bent all the way down and put her nose to his and said, "Did you hit him back hard?" My son, parroting his parents' instructions, told her, "I don't hit!" She straightened up, looked at him with a frown and said, "So how do you plan to defend yourself?" Her sisters say she was always like that. Figuratively, a brawler.

She was the oldest girl of nine children, a gifted pianist who left Jamaica because she got tired of having to give all her little brothers and sisters piano lessons. "They never practiced," she complained to me once. "My mother cared for them to learn music, but they didn't."

She was the fourth in our family to migrate to America. The hoards came after her. She eventually sponsored all eight of her brothers and sisters, and the multitudes of their children. We have a joke in our family: If the U.S. government had known how many of us would follow my aunt to America, they would never had let her immigrate back in 1947.

She was officially the first Black employee of Barnard College (she says she was the second, that there was one woman there before her, but she was passing for White). My aunt rose through the ranks and eventually ran the college's Department of Office Services. She was the only director who did not have a college degree.

On her annual visits to Jamaica, she lectured her nieces on the importance of getting good grades in high school, and one by one, as we came of age, she had us apply to Barnard. She stressed that our grades would have to get us in, but if we made the cut, she would help to get us decent financial aid. Eventually six of her nieces migrated to New York and enrolled. 

She employed us all. After classes, we xeroxed hundreds upon hundreds of pages of professors' lesson plans, sorted mail, made deliveries of printing plates downtown, and ran the addressograph machine. My years at the college overlapped with three other cousins', and my aunt made sure our work hours seldom coincided, because she didn't want us chatting and socializing on the job.

One cousin and I did manage to work together in my aunt's office one summer. We'd hang out till late at night with our friends on campus, then head off to work each morning. We were living with my aunt. One morning, we didn't wake up on time. My Uncle Charlie, watching my aunt gather her things for work, said, "Aren't you going to wake the girls?" My aunt responded, "Let them sleep. While they're asleep, they still have a job. When they wake up, they'll find out they have no more job." We laugh about that now. But she didn't fire us. She just lectured us and made us work that day for no pay as punishment. Work was serious business.

Ironically, my aunt is the reason we are all here in America and able to take care of her. Two of the six nieces she helped get to Barnard now act as her power of attorney and health care proxy. And when it became clear that her daughter's troubles were putting her 6-year-old grandson in jeopardy, a third niece took him to live with her family in Virginia. The truth is we would all do anything for my aunt, because when she could, she did everything in her power for us. She was so vigorous. Every one of us is who we are today because of who she is and what she taught us and how she has lived her life. She is our beloved matriarch.

Self-Portrait by My Girl

I'm always intrigued to see my daughter trying on different personas in her self-portraits. She took this one yesterday. I can't decide if she's going for sultry or sophisticated. She is pure joy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dear God

I asked my cousin, "Does it seem that a lot of people are getting cancer?" She said, "It's just the age we are." Lately, it does seems that no matter the direction in which I cast my mind, I alight on thoughts of someone who is struggling right now.

One of our much-loved friends has a big tumor inside his digestive tract. When his family visited us last month, he looked like a perfect picture of health. He even played soccer with his boys in the afternoon, before taking his final chemo dose at our home that evening. He's now doing radiation therapy and will undergo surgery June 2.

Another friend, so like a sister, with whom I shared a bedroom and petty squabbles through high school, also found a tumor. Hers was in her chest, behind her lungs, and she blasted it with chemo all last fall and winter. They say it's just a pea size now. I know this worries her. She wants it altogether gone.

I also just learned that my niece's mother is being biopsied this week. Meanwhile, another friend is procrastinating on scheduling her final breast reconstruction surgery.

And now, my mother-in-law is uncharacteristically laid low. Her cancer, which has been quietly contained for 20-plus years, now shows hints of rousing itself from dormancy. Mom is a force of nature. She owns a clothing store and comes to New York quarterly to shop for it. She walks the sidewalks of the city, miles and miles of them, scouring the garment district, choosing items by the dozen for her store. Her energy always astounds me, as does her work ethic. So when she told me last night that she is in too much pain to open her store these days, I realized with a pang of fear that this might really be serious.

Dear God, please take care of her. Please take care of them all.

Update: After more tests, doctors say my mom-in-law's cancer has not returned. The tumors are still there, but they are calcified, which means the tissue isn't alive, ergo, not growing. It's good news. She is still in a lot of pain, through. It travels to different parts of her body. She has a new doctor and they are trying to track down the cause. She has more confidence in this new doctor, and sounds brighter already.

Blind Love

Yesterday, on Mother's Day, we visited my 90-year-old aunt, and sat with her in her living room. My daughter had baked her cupcakes, which she ate with relish. My breath caught each time she raised her fork. I silently rooted for her to find her mouth and not stab her cheek, willing the cake not to fall off the utensil on its precarious way up.

My aunt's hands are crooked now and her fingers numb. Her tongue is also numb. When she speaks, you can barely understand what she's saying, though I can tell by the light flickering in her eyes that the thoughts are flowing fluently in her brain. Her lips move, but she doesn't know the sound is mostly unintelligible. I lean in and try to make out what she's trying to tell me. I grab the random words that come out whole and string them together, repeating them back to her, trying to fill in the gaps.

No, no, no, she says. And tries again.

Her circumstances are so reduced. Yesterday, her daughter sat across the room, eyes glued to the TV, in her nightgown at 5 in the afternoon. (Not judging the nightgown. I have days like that.) She was home and she was sober, but that was it. She did not engage her mother.

The home attendant, with whom my cousin verbally fought last week (it was a big dust up that required calling in my aunt's case worker to help smooth things over), mostly stayed in her room, talking on her cell phone. I didn't fault her. She's a mother, too, and she was away from her family on Mother's Day. Besides, my aunt looked clean and cared for, and after she ate the cake, the home attendant brought her a damp paper towel to wipe her hands.

I wondered what it must be like to just sit all day. Hardly anyone comes by other than my family and my other cousin, the poli sci professor who's doing this eldercare walk with me. When my aunt's son does come to visit, he and his sister argue viciously, leaving their mother in tears. I know. I get the phone calls. "Come now, come now! Things are bad over here!" and in the background, I can hear my two cousins going at it.

They have no love for one another. Instead they fight over their mother's assets, which she put me and the professor in charge of, because she did not trust either one of her children. She let them get away with so much. She became too frail and disillusioned to hold them accountable, and she shielded them, fiercely and irrationally, when other members of the family tried to step in. But they never seemed to give her back the same blind love and loyalty that she showed them. It is such a sad story.

Monday Blues

Felt the ache again this morning, that black hole in the center of my chest, the hollowness. Is it simply the fact of Monday morning that brings on this feeling?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Food Show

An unexpected perk of my new (no longer so new) responsibilities at work is the bimonthly food show. There's one happening today. Every two months, a tester makes six proposed recipes for the food pages and then brings them in so the editors (including me) and the art director and the photo editor and the assistants can critique the appearance of the dish and talk about the color and contrast and styling and props and how to photograph the food to make it look different from the last few shoots. And everybody's happy as we sit around the conference discussing the dishes, each one of us channeling memories of nurture. I so enjoy these sessions. I think it's because my husband loves to cook and my daughter is a foodie who sometimes talks about becoming a food photographer, owning a bakery, being a food stylist, or art directing her own gourmet magazine. Even though I have never had the remotest interest in culinary creations, suddenly, I can appreciate what goes into it, and if I imagine the food show through my daughter's eyes, it's even more fun. She did attend the last one; she came to my office after school and sat in quietly on the proceedings. Her eyes literally glittered with revelation. She arrived home excited to explain to her dad how we do it, the roles of the food tester, the prop stylist, the art director, everyone. I loved that my job afforded her that moment. So now, I'm a fan of the food show.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday's Child

Today is my birthday. It is raining outside, cozy inside, a perfect excuse for staying in the house and puttering. My husband has been very pleased with himself all week, because he says this year he knew just what to get me. By this morning, he was practically levitating with eagerness to have me open my gifts. He woke the kids up at 7 a.m. and they all gathered round to watch me tear off the wrapping paper.

There were four presents, a beautiful green, white and blue cabana-striped tote bag and a small antiqued peppermint tin box from my girl (so this was what she was hiding from me as we shopped in Old Navy yesterday), a very cool key chain with a digital picture frame from my boy (loved the rough, earnest, wrapped-this-himself look of the package), and a photo screen that holds forty images from all of them (they figured I could put it on my desk at work since I'm there so much of the time now). And then my husband held out the last gift, this one from him. Inside was the stylus and pad (with Adobe Elements software) that I have been wanting for my graffiti art! No wonder he was so pleased with himself.

My son had to go to a track meet and my husband drove him, and sat through the morning on a cold bleacher in the rain. Meanwhile my daughter went back to sleep (7 a.m. is way early on a Sunday morning!) and I read and talked on the phone and watched In Treatment on HBO. Then the boys came back home, at which point my husband hooked up my gizmo, and my son stretched out on the couch, cocooned in his comforter, and promptly went to sleep. By then, my daughter was up doing homework.

We were supposed to go out to dinner, but I just felt like staying home, plus my girl was wrestling with a history research paper and a creative writing English assignment, so my chef lover husband rustled up garlic-butter shrimp and scalloped potatoes. Delicious! With all the homework and drawing and sleeping and cooking, we didn't get to the happy birthday singing and the cake eating until almost midnight. Which fit perfectly with the sweetly meandering nature of the rest of my day. Thank you, family! I made out like...well, you know who.

Update on my gizmo: So there's a bit of a learning curve with the stylus. You don't just hook it up and suddenly you're DaVinci. But it is soooo much fun! Art is my path not taken, which could explain my deep admiration for artists. I actually went to college to major in studio art and found creative writing instead. I love both disciplines, but the difference is, writing excites me, art calms me down. Getting back to drawing, even in this super techie way, feels like coming home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Noisy Brain Syndrome

Do other mothers have this crazy, overactive imagination that can devise every possible scenario in every conceivable situation that could render their children unsafe? Really, when my kids are out of the house, I look normal, I speak normally, I function, but underneath I am trying to beat back all the intrusive thoughts of what could go wrong, what harm could befall my beloved children, what lapse in judgment could overtake them. Sometimes if feels as if I don't start breathing again until they are safe and sound inside our front door.

Then I hear stories like this one: Two friends of my daughter, both 15-year-old boys, have formed a band with another boy and a girl, both also 15. The four of them took the MetroNorth train two hours upstate on Friday night, to be picked up by Jim, the father on one of the boys who is friends with my daughter. The plan was for the four kids in the band to stay with Jim overnight and then perform at a bar (that place where they serve alcohol to folks over 21 in New York State) the next afternoon.

I know Jim well. Our kids have been in school together since they were four. We have become friends over the years, both of us always willing to wade into all manner of conspiracy theories. He is probably fierce looking to some people, with his multiple eff-you type tattoos and tee shirts with eff-you type slogans over biker muscled arms.

Once, driving through a town upstate, my husband and I stopped at an eating place and I wondered about going in, because at the front door stood a burly man with tattoos snaking out from under the sleeves of his tee-shirt, clearly designed to intimidate the faint of heart. My husband and I were the only two Black people we had seen for miles, and this man looked like every movie stereotype of a racist with a gun-rack in his pickup truck. And then I thought, No, wait, he looks like Jim, who can be iconoclastic and provocative, but is as non-racist as they come. Looks can be deceiving.

Still, I couldn't help wondering, What were the parents of the lone girl in the band thinking? Almost enviously, I marveled that they could get through the night, not knowing where, or in whose home their teenaged daughter was sleeping. They had never met Jim, and if they had, his appearance would probably not have been reassuring, though a conversation might have set their minds at ease. Yet they let their 15-year-old girl travel to a strange town with three hormonal teenaged boys and more guitars and amps and drums and gear than four scrawny kids could carry, to stay overnight in a strange man's house and play a gig in a bar the next afternoon.

And she was fine. She returned home in one piece, exhilarated to have played a real live gig. Which just goes to show, all those crazy scenarios in my head, they're mostly just straw ghosts, keeping me from fully enjoying my children's enjoyment of their lives.

I once ran across a condition called "Noisy Brain Syndrome" in a psych book. I couldn't believe there was such a descriptive name for the brain I live with every day. But this trait, while it might have been protective in an age when humans could get eaten in the wild, is no longer useful. So how do I quiet this incessantly chattering brain?