Released in Retreat

contradictions

A list of contradictions:

  1. I am incredibly grateful that my once-sick child is now healthy, and I am sometimes resentful that I worked so hard to become the mother she needed only to have her needs change entirely.
  2. I feel strong in my conviction that telling the story of my family’s trials and eventual happy ending is important, and I sometimes wonder if there’s anything interesting or unique enough in that story to sustain the interest of my future memoir readers.
  3. I know that the terrible things that happened to my daughter because a doctor didn’t read her chart are the fault of the doctor, and I sometimes look back and see every single time that I failed to push hard enough for better answers.
  4. I know that ending my career in order to care for my daughter has given me the immeasurable gift of being present every morning and afternoon throughout both daughters’ entire childhoods, and I sometimes resent what I know will be a painful and lonely transition when they leave home.
  5. I feel confident that our story’s core lesson — that childhood illness requires attention and respect be paid to the family supporting that child — is a crucial one for doctors and caregivers, and I sometimes question whether I, personally, am really worthy of attention and respect.

These are real conflicts in my head, competing with each other every single time that I sit here, tapping away at my computer to tell this story. Every time I sit down to write, I question all of those things in addition to whether or not this moment is the right time to be writing or whether anything will ever come of my writing or whether the enormous pile of magazine rejections is a message from the universe about my writing or whether what I’m writing is generous or self-indulgent. The arguments inside my head are loud and frustrating. Sometimes they are paralyzing.

So I’m leaving.

I’m leaving my home, I’m leaving my country, and I’m leaving the internet, entirely, for six days on a retreat in the Andes mountains. It will be another series of contradictions: too isolated and too communal; too beautiful and too distracting; too much time alone and too little time to myself. I won’t know what I need until I need it. It won’t be too hot, but it might be too cold. I will come back with my book manuscript complete, however complete is defined when I feel it.

I release myself from the outcome. I release myself into the contradictions and the mystery. Send me love.

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Cream Cheese and Jelly

panini

Last month, my daughter texted me from school to ask me if she could buy a panini press.

“Where would you buy a panini press?” I asked her, mentally picturing the route home from school which includes only an indoor play space for toddlers and a gas station.

“At the school store,” she answered. “With my points!”

It turned out that, against all odds, there was a panini press at the school store where students can “buy” things with the points they earn for good behavior. I tried to figure out how it fit in with the erasers and plastic jewelry and school swag and soccer balls, but I gave up. Maybe it was a toy.

“Sure,” I tapped back into my phone.

By the time she came home, I had already forgotten, but there she was, grinning broadly beneath cheeks flushed with the cold, clutching a gift bag that sagged with the weight of a used panini press. She’d spent half of her points for it, and the teacher who’d packed it away had asked her if it was a gift for me.

“I told her no, it’s for me. I love paninis!” my girl told me triumphantly, hoisting it up onto the kitchen counter. Continue Reading…

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The Meaning of Months

meaning-of-months

When my youngest was an infant, her poor health forced my transition from in-the-workplace to freelance. I had, at the time, a fantastic job, working three days a week in the office and two from home, managing the web site operations of a non-profit organization whose mission was close to my heart. On my last day, I brought my four-month-old daughter to the office. Swinging her carseat into the car in the parking lot when we left, I looked her in the eyes and said, “Well, kid, I guess it’s just us, now.”

Thirteen years later, in a recent meeting with fellow-volunteer members of my synagogue, I found myself floundering, not sure how to begin the conversation with these grown adults — many retired, all without kids at home — without saying, “How was your winter break?” Internally, I rolled my eyes at myself; I didn’t always have children. I didn’t always have two weeks mostly-off, flanking the end of one year and the beginning of another. What do adults without children say to each other at the beginning of January? I asked myself, and the answer was an imaginary shrug. Continue Reading…

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No, It Doesn’t Get Old

restaurant

One evening, almost exactly four years ago, I went out to dinner alone with my nine year old daughter, Sammi. Her older sister had religious school from 6pm to 8pm, and sometimes, I couldn’t bear to drive home, cook something, try to get Sammi to eat quickly, and then scoot back out the door again. The local Thai restaurant was easier, and besides, just a month earlier, I’d been left awestruck when Sammi ate an entire plate of pad woon sen in that very booth.

Six months earlier, she’d undergone major cardio-thoracic surgery to move her meandering aorta away from the places where it was smashing her esophagus nearly closed. Before that surgery, an adult portion of any restaurant meal would spoil in the fridge before she could finish the whole thing; she’d sit at a restaurant, fidgeting and chatting, the bite of tofu speared on her fork going cold. Mealtimes were frustrating slogs through her inability to swallow.

Even once the cause had been discovered and her aorta gently moved to the side and sewed to her sternum, eating was still slow and frustrating for her and us. We’d sent her to feeding therapy, a white flag waved at the eight years of labored eating that had conditioned her to chew slowly, fill her belly with water, and avoid the kind of dense food that would help her grow. Over the entire summer, once-per-week therapy over her lunchtime seemed to do little to help her regain the ground she’d lost. I waited for the growth spurt that didn’t come.

Then, one November day at the thai restaurant down the street, I mentally planned for her leftovers to go in her lunch the next day (and the next, and the next), only to look across at the plate of mild glass noodles and vegetables to see it slowly emptying. By the end of the evening, I was so excited that I took a photo of her empty plate and texted to my husband, my mother-in-law, my parents, and several friends. Continue Reading…

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Being a Child

being-child

More has been written about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal than on most other books on medicine and health, combined. It was reviewed in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and other publications large and small.  Its study of how the medical profession handles the process of dying — whether that process comes at the end of a full life or far too soon — has changed the national narrative. Doctors are coming around to the idea of supporting patients on their own terms as the end draws near, a concept which, to many, seems antithetical to their oaths. After all, are they not charged to “do no harm?” Gawande’s Being Mortal forces the discussion and redefinition of “harm.”

In an early chapter of the book, he writes that there are two kinds of courage. “The first,” he says,  “is the courage to confront the reality of mortality—the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped when one is seriously ill. Such courage is difficult enough, but even more daunting is the second kind of courage—the courage to act on the truth we find.” As he shares the stories of his own patients — choosing between risky surgery and an uncomplicated but speedier end; finding ways to maintain autonomy as they age; managing varying levels of discomfort while remaining lucid and cogent — it is clear that all the scenarios where his courage to “act on the truth we find” are predicated on the first courage to “seek out the truth of what is to be feared.”

In other words, there can be no action toward healing without first determining how his patients define healing. Continue Reading…

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