I am a midnight writer I am a sole survivor I am chemicals colliding
Awake late in the night with a baby in my lap, I have turned the tv on low, the mist from the nebulizer clouding the screen. Though the steroid drugs wafting from the machine should amp my daughter up, she is limp across my thighs and sweating damply into the crook of my elbow. It takes twenty minutes to give her a full treatment, until the hissing starts breaking up and popping sounds come from the ampule of liquid feeding the machine. I run my finger down her velvety arm, feel my pulse quicken.
Years later, I find that an afternoon Diet Coke takes me past the edge of hyper over-exhaustion and into sleep. What should stimulate me — caffeine — sometimes helps me rest. I drink it in the bright sun streaming through my window and then lay on the couch, drifting. My daughter and I, it seems, have our own rules about sleep.
She was born fourteen years, six months, and thirty days ago, right on her due date, after a quick and powerful birth with most of the labor at home. She was 7 lbs 8 oz, two pounds heavier than her older sister, but we marveled at the similarities — her thick, curly black hair, her deep blue eyes, the slight jaundice that kept her under bilirubin lights for a day or two.
She came home and we all fell in love with her immediately. Her extra two pounds made sleep and nursing and everything so much easier, and it was like a dream compared to her sister’s nightmarish infancy. Like her sister, she was healthy and hearty, and in photos of the two of them at one month, two months, three months, they were impossible to tell apart. Until she got old enough for her eyes to turn the same dark brown as my mother, with long gorgeous eyelashes, they could have been the same baby.
At 12 weeks, I went back to work, photos of my two dark curly girls on my desk, side by side, baby and preschooler, carbon copies. Every few hours, I locked the door and pumped. Every night, I picked them up from daycare and buried my face into their necks that smelled like the daycare’s baby wipes, and we went home and ate takeout or macaroni and cheese and peas, with the baby gleefully nursing and then, eventually, eating jarred sweet potatoes and carrots and bananas and spinach. I felt a twinge of guilt — should I be making baby food? it doesn’t take that long… — but instead, we sat on the living room floor and cheered as the baby crawled between us, filling our time with each other.
I could have applied to graduate school, like I’d planned, but work was going well, so well that I thought I’d give it another year, not shake things up until the baby was two, or maybe three. I got a raise. “I can’t believe how well you’re doing,” my boss told me. “I was a wreck when I had my second baby!”
I was newly a mother of two when a doctor – a kind doctor, a thoughtful doctor – told me that my new daughter would almost certainly end up in the hospital with every respiratory infection she got. Not a great idea, he said about twice-a-week daycare. Probably not, he said about baby-and-parent music classes. No, I don’t think so, was his answer to my hopeful questions about baby swimming, a smaller daycare, a playgroup. After two hospitalizations in her first five months, I believed him.
Through that first winter watched through front windows into an empty courtyard or through car windows into big sister’s preschool, my new daughter and I eyed the world with suspicion: me because it contained too many germs and her because nothing in it made her feel quite right. There was no sleep, no break, no time apart for the two of us to learn the beauty of missing each other and being reunited. There was just us, with the world outside the window a mystery.
The left lung is made smaller than the right lung To make room for that very heart inside of you And your stomach needs to produce a new layer of mucus every two weeks So it won’t digest itself
Listen Don’t you ever become complicit Or live your life on someone’s shelf There is a reason for every limb and interaction Body, it’s like G-d created me like an instrument
– Tank and the Bangas, “Human”
I wish I knew how to begin anything.
Days unroll in front of me when my children leave the house for school, and I sit, my jaw loose, thinking of what to do first. It’s rare that my day must begin in that moment; there is usually time in abundance and potential laid out in front of me. It’s not as though I don’t have tasks ahead and goals to complete, but it’s those first moments when I long for the ritual of the train ride to work, the coffee in the travel mug, the drive to somewhere that expects me at a certain time, the knowledge that someone would notice if I sat in my pajamas until 3pm, watching television.
I don’t sit in my pajamas until 3pm, but I don’t always get dressed right away, and that’s never good.
I just don’t know how to begin, sometimes.
It’s a haphazard lurch toward the day, made slower by this year of nagging body mini-breakdowns that kept me from the start I love the most, a run by the lake or at least on a treadmill. Instead, this year, I earthquaked my brain and followed it with head cold after head cold after ear infections, like my body is aching toward childhood, toward being cared-for, toward clarity. Sick or injured, the answer to “where shall I put my body now?” is obvious: there, on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, basted in tea and soup, held for the moment in suspension.
But when I’m healthy, I don’t know where to go first.
There’s always laundry to start, and that’s a clear beginning with a middle and an end in sight: wash, dry, fold, file away. There’s always the breakfast dishes, and the paperwork, and appointments to make once the clock hits eight. But these things, I tell myself, are housewife things, and I am no housewife. I earmark them for margins, though my whole day is margins around partitions: work/parent/household/write/breathe/act/advocate/prepare.
I have work, paid work, and that seems more sensible, to start with the things that have a tangible reward, a dollar sign at the end of them. True, this isn’t the work I meant to do when I started for real, when I moved fresh and twenty-something to Chicago to save enough money for graduate school and go back to the words that called me from pages of books and pages on blinking computer screens, but it’s the work I got, the work I flopped into like a rag doll, the may-as-well and the that-could-work of a job that let me stay home or in the hospital or in the doctor’s office with my sick baby when I was tired and thirty-something. And tired and forty-something.
She’s not sick anymore, though, that baby, that teenager, that one with a big sister standing one toe out the door to college in a year. And I don’t know how to begin this next act, so I sit in my kitchen and scroll through my phone for half an hour, an hour, too long, stewing in my pajamas and accomplishing nothing, knowing this stew will start simmering an hour earlier when both girls are gone and my husband is the only one who’ll leave me there in the morning, a day and a life spread out before me like white bread.
I heard a song this week, the internet dropping it into my ears like a gift. The singer grins and winks at us, shining, joyful, curious. It’s as though she took Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and put it in a human body, or answered “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” with howandwhy should you do it?
I watched this video a dozen times. Am I very important and very special? I might be. And it’s got to get easier to learn where to begin.
Where am I in my story? Is this the middle, or a beginning, somehow (because I can’t let it be the end)? What’s the next thing? I wish I was better at beginning, which is another way to say I wish I was better at knowing, at clarity, at picking up my feet and pointing my nose in the direction of my one, precious life.
But I’m a life force. That’s a good start.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi at FindingNinee.com. This week’s prompt is “I wish I was better at…”
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…