Posts Tagged ‘family’

What it Means to Be a Mom

May 16, 2013

Untitled-1The quintessential highs and lows of being a parent and the flux of emotions that a mother may experience with regard to her children tend to happen over months, weeks, even days. Until you have a teenager. Then, they tend to occur by the hour.


As Doug and I came in from dinner at La Campagnola, at exactly 6:58pm, I saw my son Julien in the dark, waiting by the door to be let in. I quickly apologized for not being home on time to let him in, although he usually gets in a little after seven on a Tuesday, so I didn’t think I’d be late. He smiled and said, “That’s OK, Mom.” And yet,  I still felt bad for not being home. “Were you waiting long?”

“Twenty minutes!” he said, with so much emphasis as if twenty minutes were actually 20 days. Ugh. I hugged him and apologized again. After we were inside, I quickly turned to him and said, “Where’s your brother?”

He replied, “I don’t know.”


“Well, what do you mean you don’t know where Dani is? It’s seven at night. Wasn’t he over your dad’s with you?” I am divorced and practically remarried, and on Tuesdays my kids go to their father’s until seven. At seven, on the dot, they return home to me. Every week.

“No, he never came home.”

My head grew hot. It was seven at night. That doesn’t make sense.

Usually, Dani comes home on the late bus at 4:30pm and comes here. Now that he’s older, he doesn’t even go to his father’s on Tuesdays.

“Well, did he tell your dad where he was?”

“Yes, he called around 3:30 and let him know he had to do something with the camera club, after school.”

That made me feel slightly better. And yet, that usually meant he would be taking the late bus home. He’s never stayed at school past 4:30, save during soccer season. Despite the fact that he’s been a Freshman for a few months, I still sometimes feel like I have no idea what’s going on. I scurried and made a few calls. I called Dani’s cell and it rang and rang, then went to voicemail. I texted. Twice. “Where the heck are you?” I called their father and asked him to tell me exactly what Dani had said when he spoke to him. Just that he was with the camera club for something happening after school. Well, how long after school? I wanted details and no one could give them to me. And then, I called Dani’s cell again, only this time, it went immediately to voicemail. As if someone turned off the phone, or it went dead.

My stomach took a plunge, and yet, I was trying not to panic simply based on technology. Cell phones fail from time to time. Right? But, oh, the stock we set in them.

“Come on, Julien, we’re going to the school.

It was not like Dani to not contact me or text me or simply not let me know where he was. And yet, it was Dani. He was prone to forgetfulness. I tried to stay calm and not over-react but a mother sometimes can’t help herself. She needs to know where her kids are at all times. Hell, in the span of two months the news reported nothing other than children being abducted.  While I drove, I had Julien search through his list of contacts. Anyone who Dani might be hanging out with. Julien diligently put in a few calls, sent a few text, but no one responded.

Once at the school, we walked through the halls of Shawnee, stopping people along the way. “Excuse me, is there any camera club event going on?” The response was inevitably, “Not that I know of. Are you looking for someone?”

“Yes, my son.”

I always feel so pathetic when I say that. Like I’ve lost my keys, or my purse. Like I can’t keep track of my things. And then, the mommy-guilt kicks in, and the negative self-talk takes over…What mother loses her kid? A bad mother, that’s who. I should have paid more attention to who he was hanging around with. I don’t even know the names or phone numbers of any of his friends. What an idiot I am.

After about ten minutes of self-degrading and worry, the logical brain takes over. I decide that maybe the camera club is filming or taking pictures of another event. There’s several going on. It’s just a matter of which one. I eventually make my way to an event in the auditorium. A pinning ceremony. I scan the crowd, searching for that young person who is essentially an extension of myself. When you cannot find your child, lost in a crowd, it’s as if you’ve lost a limb.  Lo and behold, there he is behind a video camera propped on a tripod, filming a couple of giddily happy girls on a stage receiving their pins. His techie friends are dispersed around him. I exhale at that moment of instinctual recognition of my child; he is safe and good and alive—it’s the kind of moment that changes a mother’s chemistry, like breastfeeding. At the very moment the infant latches on there’s a hormonal flood within the mother, a wash of oxytocin, which tells her, “this is pure pleasure,” despite the cracked and bleeding nipples. Ah, bonding.

I wanted to kill him.


Julien and I walked down to the front row, and sat right behind where he was working. I zoomed in on the back of his head like a hawk about to dive for her prey, a scowl on my face. I could sense his uneasiness. He knew I was angry as hell. I whispered, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick. Why on earth didn’t you call me?” In secret I was thinking, Boys! How can they be so insensitive? So in their own world that they never in a million years realize that they have the power to rip your heart to shreds.

“But, I did contact you. I sent you a text!” he said, pleading.

I reached into my pocket and looked at my phone. Nothing.

“Nothing.” I said.

He quickly pulled out his and showed me the text he wrote, slightly redeeming himself. There it was, at 3:30 p.m. It had never been sent from within the auditorium.


“Look, enough with the texts, OK. You need to talk to me and I need to hear your voice. You can’t just assume I’ve got your message…” Secretly, I’m thinking, You owe me that much, don’t you think? And then, kids are so damn selfish. I’m going to go on Facebook and make a blanket statement that people should not EVER have them if they want to keep their sanity. I remember my father saying this to me and I never quite understood what he meant. I do now.


We drove home quietly. After an hour of decompression, and me doing the usual meditative ritual of going onto the computer and reading mindless posts, trying to get my sanity back, Dani came upstairs, almost as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, mom, did you see this video that’s going around now? Oh my God, You’ll love it.”

“I don’t know, show me.”

He sat on my lap. Yes, my almost 15-year-old son who weighs more than 150 pounds at 5’8″ still sits on my lap, much like I did with my own grandfather well into my 20’s, even when he’d yell, “You’re going to break my legs! Get off of me.” It runs in our family. This is how we love.

He put the youtube video “To This Day” on, and we watched. It’s about bullying. I had seen it before, but I sat still, and watched it again. It’s one of those videos that has gone viral and every time you see it, you can’t help but tear up.

When it was over he moved across the room and sat opposite me and said how much he loved this video. His eyes were red and wet with tears. It wasn’t often that I saw him cry anymore, like he used to, when he was little.

“Maybe because you were bullied as a child, ” I said, and my heart ached a little remembering some of the horrible things kids did to him because he was different. Chasing him on their bikes, threatening to beat him up, hitting him, laughing at him. In seventh grade he came to me once, when I asked him why he never hangs out with anyone anymore and said, “I have no friends, mom. None. No one likes me.” A mother is paralyzed when she hears this kind of stuff. How is it possible that your kid has no friends? Don’t others see what you see? How can I make it better, you think. How can I make people love him.

You can’t. You can only love your child and by virtue of that love, you can give him strength.

“Who me?” he said.  “Nah. I never cared about people making fun of me. I never believed them. I like myself too much.”

He smiled.

We sat there for a minute. I guess he was right. He never really cared if kids picked on him. Or if he had no friends. He always let stuff roll right off of him. He had a rich imagination that could keep him busy for hours. I always envied him for that. I always depended too much on the opinions of others for my self-worth. I was proud that he did not make the same mistake I did.

“Well, something in this video must have touched you,” I said, not needing to point out that his eyes were as wet as mine.

I thought for sure he would say the usual, that he felt sorry for kids that had to go through a life of bullying. I, myself, was bullied as a kid too. Spit balls in the hair, called a dog, tripped, kicked, spit on. The whole shebang. I had told the story to both my kids many times, and how it strengthened me and made the person I am today. Whether they were listening or not, wasn’t exactly the point. It was in the telling. In hoping to give my kids the necessary tools to deal with whatever came their way. In fact, in the video, there’s a segment about a girl who was bullied as a kid and grows up to be a woman who doesn’t believe in herself and still thinks she’s ugly because of a mark on her face. And yet, despite having kids of her own, who love her, she is insecure.


I turned to Dani, “What do you think it was that touched you so much, then?”

“I guess,” he said, his eyes growing a little redder, “I loved the part most when they say, ‘..and they’ll never understand that she’s raising two kids whose definition of the word beauty begins with “mom.'”

Mom. A word that means beauty. How could it be? How could it not be? I guess he was listening.

I hugged him tightly, and told him I loved him. He smiled, said he loved me too, and off he went. Back into his world of being a boy.

If you haven’t already, watch the video.



November 14, 2009


I’m pushing a cart around the perimeter of Whole Foods, doing everything right. Imported Aji from Ecuador and catfish from the Yangtze River. Consuming with purpose, hopeful in the power of these products to cleanse my system of toxic junk and prepare the terrain for procreation. Can I afford it? Probably not. But can any of us afford what it takes these days to create humanity from one simple seed?

Life is fertile and tenacious, the scientists say. Even when I was a little girl, my mother said to me, “Someday you will have a child of your own.” And so every month I await the discovery of my body’s capacity for creation. And every month I am reminded of my body’s knack for destruction. I haven’t given up yet. I’m buying those products, which, I’m told by doctors and specialists, are the key to fertility, the essential building blocks of creation itself.  Shop around the outer edge, they say; it’s the final frontier of real food: the organic produce, the unprocessed cheeses, the wild caught fish, the grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef. Buy local. Forget the Yangtze River. So, I’m taking their advice and orbiting the perimeter and placing in my cart, among other things, dandelion, for folate; maca for progesterone; bee pollen for ovarian health; algae for hormone balance; a statue of the Hindu fertility goddess Lakshmi for luck, and yet another book about proper nutrition for moms.

There were four million, three-hundred, seventeen thousand, one hundred and nineteen babies born in the United States last year; a baby boom, said USA Today. Two-point-one children for each mother. In Niger, the women are having seven-point-five children each. In Burundi, six. They’re baby-making machines over there, eating nothing but bark and crickets, and yet my worship of prenatal vitamins and ovulation calculators only ever gets me closer to a better understanding of the waiting room of the fertility clinic. Seven point five babies to every Niger woman, all without a kit to chart their basal body temperature. I can’t even have one. Did I mention that?

It’s not as if I don’t have a fertile, healthy husband who’s willing to match up every one of my eggs with copious amounts of his own reproductive seed. Jack’s sperm are well over twenty-million per milliliter of semen: he never smoked, he eats well, he doesn’t wear tight jeans (though he did during undergrad). He’s in good shape; he never even rode a bicycle, which is known to damage blood vessels and cause impotence. He’s a runner. He’s even dodged the venereal disease bullet. He’s not the problem.

I’m the problem. Despite having an hourglass figure, a sturdy, medium-framed structure and good, strong bones, despite being told in my teens that the thirty-six inch width of my hips was a good indication of being able to birth babies (lots of them), despite the fact that I dance and teach Pilates and take extra folic acid, despite all the hours I meditate and the eight glasses of water I drink a day, despite the fact that I do everything in my power to be a normal human being, my uterus can’t seem to hold on to an egg. And it’s not like I waited too long to get started either. Twenty-seven, by today’s standards, is early. When I went to my endocrinologist, the doctors (and there were many) tested every level of hormone to make sure I was producing enough progesterone and estrogen and every other kind of hormone necessary for pregnancy. They laid me flat on a tilted table, asked me to place my feet in stirrups, and stuck their hands up inside me, one by one, visit after visit, pressing their fingers against my uterus; three inches long, two inches wide, one inch thick. Your uterus, they all agreed, is exemplary. I have no obstructions in my fallopian tubes, no fibroids or genetic defects, and my eggs are said to be young and plump and still quite perky, if that’s how you can even describe the egg of a woman of thirty-two. I even ovulate on a perfect thirty-day cycle. Without fail, my period arrives on the waxing moon. The waxing. Not the waning or the crescent, but the waxing. The becoming. The growing. That lunar phase which presents every creature on the planet with the promise and the right to a full moon. The promise that, in days to come, the oceans will rise according to the gravitational tug of a ball up in the sky and force life out of the tide and upon the land.

I have been trying for five years and all I have to show for it are three miscarriages, two poorly placed blastocysts, and an Isabelline yellow nursery down the hall from the master bedroom that was preconceived shortly before miscarriage number two. And I can’t deny that I have debris inside me that has built to toxic proportions, namely—a growing, nagging, malignant hatred of pregnant women.  In fact, I’m in the same obnoxious classification with sexist men who look down at women’s breasts before looking into their eyes. My eyes gravitate toward the belly before they do the face.  Which brings me back to Whole Foods; which is why I am surprised I notice this woman’s bag before anything as I make my way out of produce. On any normal day, I wouldn’t. On any normal day, I would be practicing kegel exercises down the aisles, or more likely, focusing on reducing my levels of stress. I would be breathing. Breathing in deeply through the nose; pregnant with the oxygen of the world, ingesting the same floating atoms of Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.

But the planets align themselves in weird ways sometimes and the doctor’s visits over the past few weeks weren’t exactly filled with news I wanted to hear.  It started as it usually does. I was spotting, but I was late; I was nauseous and my breasts hurt, sure signs of pregnancy, despite two negative pregnancy tests. I was still hopeful. So, I went to the doctor for a blood test, only to learn I’m having a bad reaction to the Clomid, and well—It seems, Mrs. Jones, the Clomid is causing hostile fertile mucous and thinning your uterine wall. You’re not pregnant at all, she said. In fact, your progesterone is low. That discovery usually means one thing: more weekly shots of progesterone and possibly months of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or, as Jack calls it, insanity. Something he can no longer deal with anymore despite years of giving me daily injections, coming to scan appointments with me, and holding my hand during embryo transfers. In fact, he’s told me, flat out, this is it. “This is our last chance.” He tells me my health and well-being are in jeopardy, our marriage is in jeopardy, his peace of mind is in jeopardy. That, lately, I’ve turned into a monster because of all these drugs. “Every month that goes by, you lose a little of yourself, Elaine.” And I used to feel sorry for myself. Sure, I did. Many times I felt like giving up. But I’m not a quitter. Everything is in the right place. I’m only waiting for the icing on the cake. I have to give my biology one last shot.

So, I’m right there, scooping out organic oatmeal in bulk and I notice this woman’s bag before anything. She comes swerving into me with this canvas tote bag, hanging by a loop around her arm, as if she’s the only human being within in a five-mile radius of anyone else, and on the bag are the imprinted words, “I’m Saving the Planet, What Are You Doing?”

I’m Saving the Planet, What Are You Doing? The words reverberate through me in a whiny, disparaging voice I imagine is hers. I have until the end of the whole grains aisle to think about it, before we loop around and pass each other again. Until I can figure out which is worse: a woman who flaunts a bag like that, or the fact that I can answer the question so easily.

I recycle all my paper, cans and bottles. I’ve bought fluorescent lights for all my lighting fixtures. I plant trees every spring. And how about this: I’m not repopulating the earth. How about that for doing my part?

It’s not so easy, you know, talking about infertility. People look at you like you’re a freak if you can’t make a baby; if you can’t do the simplest of human tasks. They think that God doesn’t want you to have a baby. If God wanted you to have a baby, you would have had one already, they say. Everything is for a reason. Besides, infertility is part of population control. I’ve heard that one too. It’s the same argument that says that homosexuality and natural disaster and man’s inherent proclivity for war are all part of God’s master plan to weed out the sick and those of us with bad genes; weed out people like us who weren’t supposed to be here in the first place.

But there are young girls in bad neighborhoods having so many babies they’re using abortion as a means of birth control. They’re young girls in good neighborhoods giving birth in toilets in high school locker rooms, or dropping babies into dumpsters. Some are smoking cigarettes and crack and shooting heroin and eating chicken fingers all day—they will spend an entire life time without having eaten the fruit of one organic pear from Whole Foods—and yet, they’re populating the earth.

But this is Berkley Hills. It’s a world of perfection, where you get what you want. Where all things are possible—boob jobs, BMWs and babies.  And no one deviates from the plan. There is a plan. At least that’s what I’ve always believed, or rather, what I’ve always aspired to follow.

Like when Jack and I first got married. Friends were actually jealous. “Hope we don’t have a tough time keeping up with the Joneses,” they said.  And the first thing that everyone asked us on our wedding day was, “When are the babies coming?” My mother came up and nudged me, with a smile upon her face and said, “Make me a grandmother.” Oh, the expectations. We had talked about kids when we got engaged. We wanted two children, a girl and a boy, the perfect nuclear family. But we would wait a few years before having them; we would wait three years. Three years was perfect. It would allow Jack to finish up interning and establish himself in a good architecture firm. We could renovate the old farmhouse we bought in Walnut Creek, and I could finish my graduate work in Sociology. Besides, everyone in our circle was waiting. Brian and Heather had gotten married shortly after us, and they waited. Same with Paul and Gwen. Mark and Laurel married the same year we did. In fact, we were going to synchronize and have our babies at the same time so that our children could play together, grow up together, go to the same schools together and date together.

Those first three years were, what can I say, Utopian. Jack and I spent weekends hiking in Yosemite, up by Tioga and Glacier Point. We skied in Tahoe in the Spring and even spent a meandering, circuitous summer following Sal Paradise’s route through San Francisco, down to Fresno, then Selma, then LA and back up again. I felt free. The heavy burden of becoming a woman had not yet arrived. The literature of infertility had not yet taught me to fear “unnatural” foods, Tupperware and tap water. What did Baby Gap mean to me, then? Nothing but a distant idea, a cultural phenomenon that so many of my friends and I would get sucked into, like shopaholics so easily do with one glossy print ad in a fashion magazine. Little did I know that so much of my pleasure would come from a baby product and not an actual, flesh and blood baby. Jack and I never saw it coming.

When I got pregnant, that first time, along with everyone else, it wasn’t so much a gift or the result of any hard work, but rather a mindless function of my inherent biology. I was happy, sure. But I didn’t feel insane amounts of relief or gratitude as much as I felt the simple ordinariness of entitlement. I was procreating. I was doing what my body was meant to do. I was following the plan. And to have given it any more thought than that would be to express superfluous amounts of giddiness for something like trash pick-up on Mondays, or eggs on the menu at a diner. I had just gone off the pill and Jack and I were pleasantly surprised that it took so quickly. I admit, though it’s hard, but I was smug. And then, after eleven weeks of nausea, sleepiness, sore breasts and the luxury of complete incomprehension of failure, I lost the embryo. It was natural, the docs said. More women than you think miscarry on their first try.  And I believed them. And kept trying. And then “trying” soon replaced “following the plan.” We were deviating from the plan. One year, then two, then three, now five. Soon the plan—that flawless recipe for the perfect life—slumped into abysmal death. Five years of mood-altering fertility drugs and forcing Jack to perform within hours of my ovulating; expecting him to cut client meetings short at the first sign of a rise in body temperature; and then angrily accusing him, after all that, of insensitivity, of not doing enough, not understanding. Sometimes, many times, I hated him for reasons as uncomplicated as the secretly satisfying knowledge he possessed of his ability to produce healthy sperm, and the quiet pleasure he took in recognizing that he wasn’t at fault. I have always resented the fact that he was never half the slave to this as I was. I know the flow of blood between my legs as well as a Buddhist monk knows the sound of his master’s prayer bell.

And it’s not like we were doing something different. It’s not like we asked for anything anyone else didn’t already have. Everyone in Walnut Creek and Berkley Hills drank from the same tap, we all bought the same milk, we all breathed the same air. We were just like everyone else. But when Heather had her first and then her second, and Gwen had a boy, and Laurel had twins right at the three-year mark, I felt an enormous pressure to catch up. And by this point, I felt not so much the need to have a child, but rather to possess a child like one possesses the trendiest car or the latest stainless steel appliance. It was like everyone was getting granite countertops, except us. People weren’t keeping up with the Joneses, the Joneses were trying desperately to keep up with everyone else and failing miserably. I used to have dreams every night that my teeth were falling out, or that I was lost in a house with many rooms and couldn’t find my way out. And each year that passed, and every time we had to attend a child’s party and watch someone else’s baby crawl for the first time, or say its first words, there was a part of me that sunk into oblivion. Soon, we weren’t even invited to the kid-themed parties anymore.

I breathe in and try to remember a happier past—the farm we lived on in New Hampshire when I was seven. It was a hundred acre farm with rolling hills enclosed by a lush forest of tall pines. We lived off the land like early pioneers; we actually had nothing. My father plodded through fields on his tractor and my mother baked her own breads and tended a garden riotous and overgrown with cucumbers and gigantic tomatoes that ended up rotting by the dozens because there were so many. My brothers and I did nothing but lay in the grass all day, looking up a sky popping with cumulonimbus clouds that stretched across an indolent world from one end to the other.  Life was easy and empty. Back then you could smoke a pack a day and have ten healthy kids. I even dare to say that there was space in the atmosphere for carbon dioxide, and acid rain was an easy fix. At least our ignorance made it so. But now this. A woman’s glib reminder of humanity’s conceivably impotent future, scrawled on a canvas bag. It takes away

“Excuse me,” I pluck up the courage to approach her, moving my cart toward the center of the aisle, butting up towards hers. I point to her bag.  “Don’t you think you’re being a little self-righteous? It doesn’t seem likely that the planet’s future lies in whether or not you’ve bought that bag.”

The woman stands in front of me, dumbfounded. And I wait the delayed ten seconds or so it takes for her to have her light bulb moment. I want to see acknowledgment. I suppose I want her to giggle sheepishly and just tell me it was a mindless last minute purchase. She didn’t even realize there was such a ridiculous message on the bag. But that doesn’t happen.  Instead, her face twists into a sneer. She pushes my cart aside with hers, and laughs at me.

“Lighten up, lady. It’s just a bag.” She disappears around the corner.

I stand clenching the handle of the cart, not moving, fuming with anger. Breathe in. Breathe out. The last thing I need is confrontation, but at this point I’m seething with humiliation. As I round the corner, I am in the canned goods aisle and she’s heading my way from the opposite direction, her face still furled with annoyance. I toss a can of organic split pea soup into the cart eying her up with thin, indignant eyes.

I wait till she gets closer. And that’s when I see what I must have known all along. That’s when she parts her coat and stands erect, that’s why she has the right to be so smug, and why she eats the same foods that all American women of child-bearing age are told to eat but probably don’t have to. That’s when I look down and see the globe below her breasts, and know the world is getting bigger. She’s having a baby.

I need something to crush. Something to hit. And as I seal my eyelids shut and brace myself against the metal frame of the cart, the pain is sharp. I see stars; stars that aren’t the infinitely beautiful stars of which we are made, but rather, flashes of red, deathly light that come when your eyeball fluid has been ripped from the back of your eyes by the crack of a blunt object. I am reminded once again of my inability to be a woman, to be normal, to be what I thought nature and God wanted me to be. There’s a toy store on every corner; you can’t walk through the mall without passing a hundred Baby Gaps and Kids Gaps and Gymborees. Disney Land is the fixed fantasy of our nation and I am kept at the gates, shunned, repulsed and barren. The world is made for children, isn’t it? And even the biggest hypocrites can have them.

I stand enraged in the middle of the aisle, fearing that if I move I will destroy something. Is it the trihalomethanes in the tap water? The hormones in the milk? The birth control pills I took during college? Do I use too much bleach for my whites? Do I drink too much coffee? Is it Nutrasweet? Plastic? Mercury in the fish?

“It can’t be just me.” I catch myself saying this out loud, noticing eyes upon me. And for a moment my face feels hot with shame, my knees buckle underneath me. What, after all, is the breaking point of the soul? What does being different look like when it’s so obvious?  I shake my head from side to side as the momentary shame shifts back to anger; a deep, clear, meaningful anger that recognizes the ugliness of truth. I snap to. The lady with the bag must be two aisles ahead of me now; that would be frozen foods. And so I move my cart with its shaky wheels, humming a tuneless mantra in my dry mouth to replace the dearth of focus that I feel consuming me. I just want to mention the absurdity and the hypocrisy of carrying that bag in that condition. That’s all. I just want to let her know that buying one tote bag is nothing compared to the amount of waste and pollution and excess her baby will bring upon the earth. That by her bringing one extra human onto this planet it will cause one hundred and thirty six thousand pounds of garbage to be dumped into some landfill. How’s that for saving the planet?

And then I see her, having forgotten all about me by this point, wearing that kind of self-entitled, superior look that is so common of expectant women. They call it a glow. Her posture yielding, pliant, curving into her spine. Her head lowered, looking in toward the frozen food case. I move close, close enough that I can see that she’s wearing a Tag watch, and that her fingernails are painted pink. But I move subtly, staring into the cases of frozen foods, wondering exactly what to say next, or possibly, what to do. I’m so close I can smell the organic shampoo in her hair.

And then it all kind of happens in a garbled, muddled sort of way, quickly and absurdly, the way things happen when you’re confused and smothered and have no voice, like you’re flailing your arms about in a puddle, trying not to drown. Like a year ago, when Jack told me that was it. “It’s over.” And he had packed his bags and moved in with Mark and Laurel.  He said he couldn’t make me happy. That nothing could make me happy. And he feared that even if we did have a baby, it wouldn’t be enough. “There’s always that next high; you’re never satisfied, never content to just be.” And it was true. Once we were married, I pushed to renovate the house; I pushed for the two cars in the driveway, and I pushed for the kid. Well, I could have everything else, but I couldn’t have the kid. And that made me mad. I blamed everything and everyone and it broke Jack and it isolated me. But when my husband threatened to leave, it frightened the hell out of me the same way death frightens me, or aloneness. Enormous, immobilizing, humbling. Almost too much to comprehend. So I pretended that everything was under control.

Coolly, I said, as if it didn’t matter one way or the other, “Let’s just try one more time.”  And as was his nature, he gave me a second chance. But it would be a lie to say that anything in me ever gave up fighting or believing in the injustice of my life. It would be wrong to think that a woman who cannot have a baby for no apparent reason is capable of just giving up and accepting such a freakish fate.

In my hand I am holding the can of split pea; it just so happens to be the first thing I grab. I’m holding onto it for support, really. And I’m holding it so tightly that my knuckles turn white as death. And, I don’t know, I just begin cornering this woman into the freezer without her realizing it, because it kind of works out that way, because it’s easy. Because no one shops in the frozen foods aisles in the suburbs, midday. Because it’s unfair. And the only words that are about to come out of me are, Why you; why not me? But I don’t say them. Instead, I imagine myself bringing the can I am holding down upon her head in a crushing blow, the edge of it scraping a gash across her face, and I imagine striking her again and again and again and again. And I imagine one gets to a point where the toil of energy lifts and action becomes effortless. How hard could it be, really? To just push her into the freezer, where she can’t run, and hit her over and over and over again with a can until she slumps to the ground in a bloody mess?

When Gwen had her second baby, there was no rhyme or reason to it. The stars were not aligned. She ate burgers and fries long before she conceived. She even took hits off Paul’s cigarettes and drank wine with dinner during her second trimester. At the time, Jack and I weren’t doing very well. We were fighting constantly and we had lost all hope of having a baby as the IVFs weren’t taking—it was right before he threatened to leave for good. But Paul and Gwen invited us to see the new baby. And even though I suspect they pitied us, we went to the hospital anyway, with the honest intention of showing our support and praise. They named the baby David and he was seven pounds ten ounces. He was nineteen and three-fourths inches long and he had ten fingers and ten toes. His hair was a black tuft on the top of his head and he whimpered more than cried. He was a helpless, cherubic ball of life in my arms, when I finally decided to hold him, and though I initially feared I wouldn’t give him back, I did. Almost with pleasure. It was the first time I remember feeling indifferent toward a baby; unmoved. And to be honest, it scared me. I had carried with me the desire to possess something for so long that when I finally found myself in its presence, I could not recognize it as anything remotely familiar to that which I had so desperately wanted all along. Perhaps the smallness of one life has always been too big a gift for me.

There’s a sick, malignant feeling in my stomach as I realize what I am about to do, but it’s too late to remove myself from my guilty proximity, regain composure and go along my merry way. The woman turns, abruptly, from peering into the freezer, and sensing my closeness, screams.

“Get the hell away from me, bitch.”

I try to move out of her way to give her space, she’s got it all wrong, but she panics and slams the freezer door into my face, blinding my left eye. I can feel the cold crack of condensation on my cheekbone, which turns hot from impact. And as she backs into the open aisle, pushing me away, I lose my footing and stumble into my cart, falling backward onto the floor, scraping my head, neck, shoulder, back along the metal of the cart’s frame, which is jammed against the freezer door. Like having an invisible hand drag a sharp, jagged wire across my core, I feel ripped open, slit. The pop of my back or hip or perhaps even my skull draws in the energy and emotion of a crowd. And it’s at this moment I try to reach up to explain to anyone who will listen that it was all a miscalculation, despite the throbbing in my brain, it was a mistake. I didn’t mean to hurt her. But it’s too late. The momentum is there. She is screaming wildly.

“This woman tried to attack me! This woman tried to attack me!”

I feel the heavy, accusatory arms of a security guard, or maybe it’s a bag checker upon me, not helping me up, but holding me down. My face grows hotter as I see others moving in closer, surrounding me, and I can now feel the slow, warm trickle of blood matting my hair and making its way onto the cement floor in a pool around me. I try to speak, to explain that I had just come too close to her, I realize that now, but I wasn’t going to do anything. But no one is listening. And then, things just play out like they do in classic scenarios of disorder and chaos: a stranger gasps—a crowd gathers—the victim points a finger at the accused—police are called in. And before I know it, I am restrained like a wild animal to the floor, a knee thrust into my lower back, shoulders, pinned; my face, tacked to the cement. I’m not fighting back. I don’t have the will. It happens that quickly.

Pain is not something that grows slowly and steadily. Sure, there are instances of that. When the reality of a life not lived strikes you one morning unsuspectingly, there is a dull, moaning pain that makes itself felt in the aching of muscles and bone. But there is another kind of pain that comes without warning, which is so sharp and abrupt that it comes with rage; like the skull-crushing, brain-splitting cracking of a solid wood rafter, crashing down on your head, out of the blue. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you did everything right. You were always so cautious. You were just starting to figure it all out and get there. But then you wake up one day with the chalky white realization that your life is a sham.

My head is throbbing like the hard, heavy pulse of a racing heart, the buzz and hiss of the crowd has encircled me. People want to get a look at “the monster.” And I can’t help but wonder if I am, after all, a monster, just like Jack said.  I am dizzy and can’t breathe well. And I’m shivering and cold and wondering what the likelihood is of getting a blanket, or calling my husband. I’m wondering if he will even come and get me out of this mess; tell the police something as simple as “Look, she’s under a lot of stress. It’s probably just the fertility treatments. Heck, she might even be pregnant.” I’m wondering if this is still a part of our second chance, or if it’s his last straw. I’m guessing it’s the latter. And yet I feel an eerie sense of stillness, something more akin to exhaustion, like when prisoners of war are finally released after captivity and wander into the light blindly, humbled. There’s no fight left in them, no happiness. Only a catastrophic fear of their newly imposed freedom. I think of Emilie Cady’s quote from a Buddhist text I read years ago, “Individual people stumble over pebbles, never over mountains.”

Within my line of sight is the pregnant woman with the bag. Her hand is on her belly, protectively, as she talks to a police officer. I so often remember as a child placing my hand over my distended belly after a big Sunday dinner, or shoving a pillow under a stretched out shirt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror, pretending I was pregnant; heck, I’d even pretend I was giving birth, feigning pain like they do in stupid movies. It was never about a baby. It was about mindless fun. I can’t explain it. It was biology. I just wanted it because it was my nature to want it. I never wanted a baby for the right reasons. I know that now. The universe has a weird way of denying you things it knows you can’t take care of. Or maybe, that’s not the case at all. Maybe nature gives us more than we deserve; more gifts than we know what to do with. And the only way to see the glut and abundance is when we don’t have it, or when it buries us alive.

How Ed Did It

October 25, 2009


This is part of the Meeting Mary Jane series.

When I was about eight and lived up in New Hampshire my dad typed up and printed out about 100,000 copies of a book he wrote and entitled, “Money.” It was a flimsy white book, eight-and-a-half by eleven in size, not much to look at; and, at seventeen cents to the dollar, a wise investment on my father’s part.  But it was simple and to the point. Each page, in fact, was its own chapter, with titles such as “How to Furnish Your Home for Free,” and “How to Live Like a Millionaire with Less than a Hundred Dollars in your Checking Account.” I can’t say I remember the book verbatim, and surprisingly there is no trace of the 100,000 copies anywhere to be found. What I do remember, however, was the last page.

At the end of the book there was an offer. In small print, it said, “To order Ed Taylor’s second book ‘How Ed Did It,’ please send $15 dollars to P.O Box 123, Bedford, NH 03110.” What I remember most was not so much the actual printed offer, but the fact that there wasn’t one. My father had never written a second book. It was a scam, and a brilliant one at that. In his mind, if he only got ten percent of his readers to send in fifteen dollars for the second book, he would have earned himself fifteen thousand dollars. It was always a matter of numbers, he’d say. But more than numbers it was that my father knew that people, for the most part, were stupid; and that in their desperation and hope to become something less unfortunate than what they were, they’d do something even stupider, like send their hard-earned money in an envelope to an unmarked PO Box, all for the promise of making a little money and becoming a better person.

And some of them did. Who, I’m not sure, but in the end, my dad earned about forty-five dollars; just enough to pay for the PO Box. After that, the ninety-nine thousand or so leftover books sat collecting mold and dust in every garage or attic we moved them to, throughout the years, causing expense and undue stress to my mother each time she had to figure out where to stash them, until finally, they dwindled in number and disappeared.

What this says about my dad is not the obvious; that he was a victim of his own stupidity and desperation, that he tried to make a buck and failed, or even that he had a pretty severe case of OCD when it came to paper products.  Rather, it illustrates the foundation on which he built his entire life and the senselessness into which he dragged his family—all of whom went willingly. In that sense, not only was my father a victim, but a genius.


It was in the spring when I decided to visit my dad at the farm and bring my kids up for lunch and to run around the place as they usually did. My boys loved “Grandpaw” and his farm. He’d take them for tractor rides or build mazes and forts with haystacks in the barn.  Sometimes he would take them down by the creek at the front of his property line and pitch a tent. He’d tell them the story of Sacagawea and how her spirit was still roaming around the place, looking for lost ancestors and whispering secrets to my father in Shoshone about hidden treasure—as if he could understand the language; in his mind he probably could. But my kids loved him and he loved them and despite occasional drunkenness or passing out inside a chicken coop or a hayloft, visits to the farm had become pleasantly uneventful.  One afternoon, however, just as we were getting ready to sit down for lunch with my dad and grandmother, who lived there as well, the phone rang.

My dad was a rather soft-spoken man. He rarely yelled unless he was doing business on the phone, in which case, he always yelled because that’s how he did business. In fact, I grew up for the most part thinking that “Jackass, you owe me the fucking money,” was a sort of vox populi of the corporate world.  So, my dad grabbed the phone and took it into the other room and started yelling, saying things like, “Well, tell them I’m out. Tell them I’m in the fucking hospital then.” My children, who were then only three and six could hear this and so I got up and went over to my dad and told him to shut up. “Your grandkids can hear you.” I strategically used the word “grandkids” so that he’d remember to act more like a grandfather. And yet, I knew this was asking too much. Without acknowledging me he slammed the phone down and said, “Shit” and immediately ran upstairs to his room.

I went back into the kitchen where my grandmother was sitting with my boys. She was reciting a poem she had written sixty years ago, about being a little girl in a frilly white dress. It was a typical Little Bo Peepish sort of poem and the kids were getting a kick out of it. We, meaning my entire family of Aunts and Uncles and cousins and brothers, were always so amazed at her ability to remember these things that on holidays we had a special “Watch Grandma Do Tricks” hour in which we had her recite some of her old poetry or sing old songs from her youth in her signature wobbly, shaky grandma voice.

As I was wiping peanut butter and jelly from the boys’ faces and reciting the poem myself, my dad barreled through the kitchen with an overnight bag, grabbing a few items from the kitchen; artificial sweetener, powdered milk, breakfast bars, and shoved them in the bag.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“I’m leaving.”

“Leaving? Like, packing a bag and leaving town?” I thought that was clever, never suspecting it could be true.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to spend the night in a hotel in Philly. I can’t really explain right now.” When the bag was zipped he looked over at the kids and said, “Grandpaw’s gotta go right now, little guys,” and he patted them on the head and gave them kisses.

My grandmother became flustered and stopped reciting.

“Where in god’s name are you going? What about the animals? Why, Ed, you’re supposed to take me to Gail’s tomorrow for our hairdresser’s appointments.” As he whisked his way through the kitchen and wound his way out the front door, pretty much pacifying his mother with an “I’ll call you from the road,” bargain, I ran after him.

“What the hell is going on? Who was on the phone?”

“My attorney,” he says.

“Dad, we drove an hour and forty-five minutes to see you, what the hell are you doing? It’s right in the middle of lunch.” He was obviously perturbed that I was slowing him down with all my questions, so he tossed his bag in the back of his car, hopped in and rolled down the window.

“Look honey, I must have forgotten to show up for a court date or something, you know, parking tickets, and well, I think the police are on their way here right now to arrest me.”

“For parking tickets?” I say.

“Yeah, can you believe it.” He says this as shocked as me. “That’s why I gotta get the hell out of here, honey. We’ll talk later. Tell the kids Grandpaw loves ‘em.” And with that, he did a sloppy K-turn and sped down the driveway, kicking up dirt and rocks all the way to the road.

I immediately ran back into the house and decided to pack up my kids and leave. There was no way I wanted them to be around when god knows who showed up to cart my father off to jail, or wherever. For all I knew it wouldn’t be the police, but more likely loan sharks or, as my mother always referred to them, “shylocks.” I was no stranger to picking up and bolting. It was the way we grew up. We lived in over fourteen different homes across the country within a span of fifteen years. We were always on the run for one reason or another (fear of law enforcement, fear of kidnapping, fear of what a loan shark might do if my dad didn’t pay back his debts). And so, with my usual speed and agility, I threw my boys in the car, kissed my grandma goodbye and went home.

It wasn’t long after that I learned the truth surrounding my dad’s getaway. And, as usual, it had nothing to do with parking tickets. I didn’t believe that old excuse anyway. In fact, any time my dad ever had a problem with the law he always said it was because of parking tickets (no surprise that I would grow up to be an adult who only used public transportation).  And while it was true that he had over seven thousand dollars in unpaid parking violations to the City of Philadelphia, no one ever showed up at his door with a warrant for his arrest on parking ticket delinquency alone.

To be continued…