Heart Exchange

child running

There’s a saying about becoming a mother that, for all its overuse and cliche, is as true as anything I’ve ever heard. It explains perfectly my own experience of mothering, one I’ve tried to capture and describe in other ways only to come back, finally, to this beautiful quote attributed to author Elizabeth Stone. In full, it reads:

Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.

Of course, it’s not exactly my heart that runs off each day with my children. Rather, it is an enormous portion of my emotional power, vulnerability, and grounding to the corporeal world that surrounds each of them when we part. There is a piece of my intention for each day that I lend to them, a chunk of my personal energy that I gladly give away in service to whatever they need. Shorthand: heart.

That floating bit of my spirit is something I trust to do what I can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t in a world they need to learn for themselves. Like a blessing, I picture it keeping them safe. My promise to that end — the heart that goes walking around outside my body — is that the gift of it is irrevocable. I’ve told my daughters over and over that there is nothing they can do to make me stop loving them. They’ve sometimes tested me on this, asking what if I do this or what if I do that, but I always answer, “I will always love you, even if I don’t love the things you do.”

Even if I die? they have never asked, but I do know the answer. Yes, even if you die. Continue Reading…

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Soup Is My Legacy

souppotI hear my daughter Sammi’s steps on the stairs before her voice calls out to me. Still, I don’t run to unlock the door; she has keys, and my hands are covered in a sticky mass of egg and flakes of matzo meal. When I hear the key turn in the lock, I know what I’ll hear next and, still, it thrills me every time.

“Mommy!,” is the beginning and then, barely as that first word ends, the deep inhale begins, followed by, “Oooohhh! Really?!! Matzo ball soup!!! YES!!!”

This is my legacy, every bit of it, from the key in the door to the recognition of home to the smell of what’s cooking and what it means. This is how I want to be remembered.


Sammi has always loved soup. As a toddler, struggling to gain weight after her first cardiac surgery, she deigned to take tiny sips of a soup whose recipe I’d found in an old magazine and adapted. Chickpea soup became our savior, keeping her weight from dropping to the magically low number that would mean feeding tube. We spiked it with extra virgin coconut oil and kept a batch in the fridge at all times. It got so that I could not eat it myself, but never mind that — Sammi ate and did not wither, sipped and did not die.

When Sammi was only two, I brought a batch of that soup — a recipe I could make in my sleep and, half-crazed with insomnia in those years, often nearly did — to the home of parents who had just accepted two little boys as foster children. Sammi sat in her car seat as I hoisted the pot up the stairs and handed it over. There was, of course, another pot at home for her. These days, when I run into that other mother, she often mentions that soup, usually with the two words we use: “I made The Soup. Your soup. You know? The Soup.”

And I know. Of course I know. It’s powerful soup. Continue Reading…

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Hearts Break for Years

Swallow, My Sunshine: The Short Family Tragedy

I have anxiety and nightmares. Certain smells and hallways trigger memories every single time. Yet sometimes the memories return out of nowhere like a beeping sound from someone’s phone reminding you of the monitor alarms. None of this ever got easier…

Those words were written this spring by Megan Short, the mother of a two year old daughter Willow who received a heart transplant as a newborn. In a special post on the Mended Little Hearts of Philadelphia web site, she shares feelings any parent whose child experienced medical trauma can understand: fear and overwhelm, and the sense that her life would never be the same. Any parent who has sent a child — particularly a baby — into the operating room for major surgery can identify with the memories she shares.

What, thankfully, seldom happens to those parents and their families is what happened to the Short family last weekend. In a horrific turn of events that may never been totally understood or unravelled, the entire Short family was found dead in their home, a murder-suicide that took the lives of the parents and their three children, including two-year-old Willow, her transplanted heart lost to a family’s untreated emotional trauma. Continue Reading…

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My Bruised Birthday Heart

My daughter Sammi turns eleven tomorrow, and when I wake up, I will immediately start down the same well-trod path of many mothers: I will relive the day of her birth.

debibirthMy realization of this tradition began with my own mother retelling the story of my entry into the world, something she did with diminishing success over the years. As a child, I remember her tale of the planned induction beginning with the Chinese meal she ate the night before. She always smiled and rolled her eyes in mock-overwhelm as she described the obstetrician who lived across the street from the hospital and who padded back and forth all night to check on her as she labored, wearing his bathrobe. She always laughed when she remembered the paperboy poking his head in the door to sell her a paper a few hours after I was born, only to do a double-take at her feet still up in stirrups as the nurse tended to her underside. As the years have gone on, my mother muses over all these details less and less. After more than forty years of remembering, there are now some pieces of the story that I remember better than she does, just from the repetition.

My oldest child — my daughter Ronni — came into the world memorably, and I begin the memories of her birth more than a day before her birthday. I can recount it by the hours, still, fourteen years later. Although much was painful, and much was frightening, I recall the event with joy and celebration. I labored, I pushed, I struggled, and eventually I felt the indescribable sensation of my child passing through the space between my hip bones, my pelvis, and into the world. The beauty of it brings tears to my eyes, still. I can access those emotions easily, quickly, and feel washed in love and wholeness, knowing as I do now that it was the beginning of a relationship marked by tenderness and discovery.

Sammi’s birth is so much harder to retell.

Sammi 2 days

She was born a week late by emergency c-section, inexplicably tiny and riddled with health issues. For years after that day, there was seldom a break from worrying about her, seldom a moment when my body wasn’t called on to continue carrying her somehow — to nurse her, hold her, rock her, drive her to the hospital, drive her to doctors’ offices, administer medicine, hold a breathing mask over her face in the middle of the night, pull underwear up her legs under a hospital gown. I was constantly peering at her ears, her mouth, her nose, checking to see if her ribs were protruding more than last week, literally and figuratively weighing her. I fed her with the intensity of a brand new mother, always.

In many ways, Sammi’s birth — and my labor — went on for nine years. It started on the day of her birth and stopped one beautiful day in October of 2014 when her good health shone clearly and she was, for me, finally born. Just like other labors, in those nine years were moments of pain I didn’t think I was really able to bear and moments of rest when I gathered strength for the surges that were coming. Just like other labors, sometimes I begged anyone nearby for help and sometimes I silently clenched my jaw and squeezed the hand of my husband alone. Just like other labors, I was often selfish and believed the struggle was mine alone, and there were other times when I remembered that Sammi was trying just as hard as she could and that my husband was watching both of us, helpless to do more than offer comfort.

And just like other labors, it finally ended.

Remembering the day she was born is hard. It was the beginning of an uphill climb, and when you climb a mountain, you celebrate the summit with far more joy than you recall the moment you took the first step. There is too much journey in the middle. Still, I know that the day Sammi came into this world is important. It did not have the funny cast of characters my mother remembers from my birth, and it did not include the stirring, empowering moment of my older daughter’s birth, but it was the first hard leg of a journey that we both weathered in the end. What it lacks in positive imagery, I suppose it makes up for in the stuff of character-building.

I love Sammi with a fierceness I cannot describe, with a quality different — though not more or less — than what accompanies my love for Ronni. Sammi and I were in labor together for years. She may grow to forget as much of it as my mother now forgets about my birth, but I will never forget how our bodies were linked, how we strained, and how when it was done, there we were: born.

born

Happy birthday, Sammi. I’m achingly grateful that you are here.

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Let Me Take You There

doorA hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?

For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.

Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery. Continue Reading…

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