Songs in Turns

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“OK, it’s Papo’s turn,” I say, turning in my seat to look at him, his hands on the wheel, eyes straight ahead. “What song would you like?”

“I’d like a nice surprise,” he says, emphasizing nice so that I don’t tease him by playing Sufjan Stevens, whose voice sets my husband on edge. He’s patient with me and my scrolling, trying to decide. So many songs make me think of him, but on this — and maybe only on this — I’m the over-thinker. In the end, I choose a Billy Joel song from the 1990s for him, an upbeat tune I know he likes, a song with a rhythm that seems to hide the wistfulness of the lyrics about searching forever in the water, in the valley, for something sacred, undefined, and lost. My husband, at my side for twenty-five years now, sings along, the crinkles at the edges of his eyes pressing each other. I tangle my fingers in the curls at the nape of his neck, content to be here next to him as he drums the steering wheel with the side of his hand.


The song ends, though, and it’s my older daughter’s turn. She has put her mountain of hair into an enormous bun; is knitting another smart-phone cozy in her lap. Her eyes look up as she considers, and I remember reading Junie B. Jones with her, when Junie B. (“the B stands for Beatrice, but I just like B, and that’s all!”) says “Mother rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. I looked up there, too. But I didn’t see anything.” And there she is, my no-longer-first-grader, no-longer-middle-schooler, almost-college-girl looking at the ceiling, too, trying to decide. I wish I could see inside to guess what she wanted, like when the choices were all songs from The Muppets. Eventually, she says, “Satisfied. And I get Angelica’s part!” She tips her head back and so much sound comes out, so much bravado and beauty, loud held notes, anger, love, desire, somehow accessible in the soul of a girl who used to twirl her finger around one curl as she sucked her thumb. I remember that dreamlike candlelight, like a dream that you can’t quite place… And the world goes by outside her window, so fast I can’t even make out the shapes of the trees.

“Your turn, Sammi,” she says as the song fades into its last notes.

She’s been waiting, my littlest one. She’s clear as a brand new glass of water, ready with her answer. “Scars to Your Beautiful,” she tells me, and I think of course. She’s literal and poetic at once, the message below the surface of her middle school drama and also, of course, right there on her shoulder blade, slit through twice as doctors pushed her rips apart to get to her aorta. The world, I want to tell her, might never change its heart, might always look right over her head at the space above her stature, might look past her unless she leaps into their view. The heart that needed to change was hers, will always be hers. Let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer… But she sings along, trying hard to bring her bell-like voice above the belt of her sister’s. The growing band of bracelets on her wrists slide up and down, her finger curled into one rubber one from camp, a lifeline to people who understand her. I reach my hand back along the door and grab her ankle. She puts her hand on top of mine.

When the song ends, I’m ready with my choice, having considered it carefully. I’m always thinking through a series of eventualities: what will happen then? what will happen if I choose this? that? who will like it? who will sing along? who will listen and fall in love and ask for it again? who will be offended, inspired, bored, annoyed? I’d ruled so much out, scrolling through my lists, but here was just the thing for a rainy day on a road trip, a cover of something nostalgic, a version by William Fitzsimmons of Sarah McLachlan’s “Ice Cream,” dedicated to the precious cargo in the seats around me.

Your love is better than ice cream
Better than anything else that I’ve tried
And your love is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to cry

And it’s a long way down
It’s a long way down
It’s a long way down to the place where we started from

I wish I could touch all of them at once, but in the car, I can only reach one at a time with my hands. Instead, as I sing, I send tendrils out from my heart, bright ropes of light that encircle each one, snared forever, energetically connected to me as I tell them that nothing, nothing is better than them, nothing, not ever.


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, with the prompt “Road Tripping.”

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No, It Doesn’t Get Old

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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

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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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Contrast This

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About six weeks ago, I tripped over a bolt jutting out of the floor of my garage and landed, head-first, on a spare car battery. It became clear within a few hours that I had a whopping concussion. In the impossibly bright lights of the emergency room, a friendly young resident told me she was considering whether or not to give me a CT scan.

“It’s just how tender your skull seems to be,” she said, puzzling it over. “I’m a little worried about whether you’ve fractured it, or whether there’s any bleeding in your brain.”

“What are the reasons for and against it?” my husband, ever the pragmatist, asked her.

“Well, if we did it and found out she has bleeding, we’d definitely keep her overnight, just to be able to check her regularly and get another scan in the morning.”

“So, why not do it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a lot of radiation, is all…hang on a minute,” she mused, paging through my chart. “How old are you, again?”

“Forty-four, last week,” I told her.

She did what looked like some mental calculations in the air above her, then recommended that we do the CT scan. When pressed, she explained that the cancer risk comes about forty years after the exposure to radiation. By then, she calculated, I’d already be pretty old. It was a worthwhile risk, given the math. Continue Reading…

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10 Foods That Saved My Soul

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In 2010, my youngest daughter, Sammi, was diagnosed with a disease called eosinophilic esophagitis. Though it turned out that this diagnosis was incorrect, we didn’t learn that for three more years. During the first year of her diagnosis, we had to eliminate dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, and wheat from her already-vegetarian diet. During that time, these ten foods became the most important staples in my kitchen, making me grateful beyond anything I had ever known before. If you or someone you love is following the “six food elimination diet,”  these foods might be just the things you need, too. Continue Reading…

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