Single Mom, Profiled

So I recently had an Awful Evening in Parenting. It was more awful because I have no husband, co-parent, or partner to help me deal with this kind of crap. Literally, crap. You’ll see.

I should back up. (Ha! “Back up” is a funny double entendre that totally applies here. You’ll see.)

It was a late Friday night, into Saturday morning. My son, G, woke up screaming. He had localized abdominal pain on one side. I couldn’t even touch his tummy without provoking screams.

I asked G several times, point blank, if this was something we needed to go to he emergency room for. We have never gone before, and I am not one of those moms who runs off to the ER for no good reason. G ensured me that he was in real pain. He had already pooped earlier. This was something else.

So I woke my daughter up, because of course she had to come with us. Like a trooper, she just threw a few books and stuffed animals into her pillow-case and tossed it over her shoulder. She was ready. I was ready too, in that I had at least changed into some actual clothes (not pajamas) and brought a book of my own. I thought I actually had this whole ER in the Middle of the Night With My Kids Thing down.

Once we got checked in, however, the Judginess began. The doctor who was palpatating my son’s abdomen looked at me and Shennie pointedly and asked, “Who else lives with you? Inside the home?” Because someone might live in my back yard, but it is crucial to know who else lives inside of my house. Which would be no one. Which is what I told the doctor. “No one else.” Apologetically. Because of course someone else is supposed to be there. I am clearly at fault for bringing one child in to the ER when there is no other parent around to watch the other kid. We are all showing up to the ER in one hot mess, which is what I can tell he thought of of us. I got the side-eye. I could read his mind and he was saying, “of course…it figures.”

I understand how intake works. I am not an idiot. You ask questions to get information about who you are dealing with. Information is useful. But there is no good way for me to inform the intake people that the reason there is no husband, second parent, or human being at home, is because about 18 months ago that very person was discharged, from an Acute Care Floor in this very building, into Hospice Care, from which he died 20 days later.

To the nurses and doctors and administrators, I might never have had a husband at all. I am just another single mother, with no dad on record, dragging her wild-haired children into the emergency room after hours, probably because of acute bad parenting and bad life choices.

Let me say right now that I know of so many great moms who did it all without a dad in sight, for so many reasons that they never anticipated. I grew up with friends whose dads had suffered breakdowns, or who weren’t allowed to see them, or who had run off with their secretaries. The kids, and their moms, were left navigating a judgey, fatherless world. A world in which the ER intake person would say, “I see you have a ‘Michael’ listed as your emergency contact. Is that still good?” And you would have to say, “no, no it isn’t” and she would say, “no new number?” and you would say “nope, definitely not,” while your daughter is dropping gravel from the parking lot down your pants. And the intake person would look at you and make a quick decision about who you are. Because right now you are the kind of mom who has two kids but no dad around. And of course that is never who you thought you would end up to be.

One X-Ray, one sonogram, and three hours later, we learned that Griffin’s problem was actually some kind of poop blockage in this intestine. Nothing life-threatening or emergency. So I definitely felt stupid because of that. And I’m pretty sure that the intake people were checking the box that said “Fuck-up-single-mom whose kid can’t poop and who drags everyone into the ER on a Friday night because she probably doesn’t have primary care doctor for her kids because she sucks as a parent.”

Yes, I presented with an 11 year old patient and an 8 year old sibling who was just tagging along for fun. No, I have one else living with me and no emergency contact. He is actually dead but I really don’t think I need to have a convo with you about this, even though I can still feel some judginess rolling down off of your chart… Or maybe this is all in my head. Maybe this is me, judging me. Looking at myself from the outside and wondering how this person ever became me.

Good lord. I can only imagine how crappy this would feel if I were 20 years younger (which I totally could be and still have kids this age). Ot truly poor. Or not white. Jesus, those women are probaly treated like crap by professinals all the time, and I can only begin to realize how shitty that feels now that it is happening to me on a much smaller scale.

I am doing the best I can to take care of these two little human beings all by my fucking self. Where is dad? None of your goddamed business. No side-eye. No judgment. Especially not from me. No sad “fuck-up” checked boxes on your forms.

In fact, single mom should get gold stars on those forms, shouldn’t we? No matter why it is that we are single. Because we are still the ones left caring for our kids and doing the best we can with what life has dished out for us.

Hell yes. We should get gold stars, all of us…

Much love…

The Michael Project

Once Michael got his terminal diagnosis, we started documenting his life. It helped that a lot of people we know are gifted artists, writers, and creative types. Our friend Amanda, a professor at the best Journalism school in the country, sat with Michael to interview him for his obituary. I think it took at least three long, rambling, profane, sessions. She took all of the material he gave her and wrote a funny, comprehensive, and heartbreaking Life Story of him for our local newspaper.

Our friend, Shane, did an audio project where he followed Michael around and then interviewed us. He and Michael also did some photography. Then Michael’s sister actually hired Shane to take video of Michael talking to me and the kids – about what, I don’t know, because I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch any of it. I suspect, in light of the amount of time they spent together, and knowing Michael’s propensity to talk that there must be 80 hours of tape out there, with Michael expounding about all manner of things. He even recorded a message, from himself, to play at his memorial service.

At the same time, our friend, Reverend Molly, also sat with Michael for several hours of discussion and reflection, so that she could compose the beautiful eulogy that she would deliver at his first memorial service. Then there was Michael himself, an eloquent, brutally-honest communicator. And there is also the I-Phone, which makes it possible to create an exhaustive photographic record of anyone’s life. After Michael died our amazing friend Stacie came and sat with me while we went through every photo I had, to make the slideshow to play at the memorial services. “Services” was plural: there were three of them and I spoke at each one. I also spoke at a benefit for Camp Kesem. I write stuff for this blog. I find pictures of him to post for his friends and family. On the anniversary of his death I posted a recording of him doing the haka against cancer.

I feel like I am the Keeper of the Story of Michael’s Life.

Here’s the thing: If Michael had never gotten sick, I don’t know if there would have been much of a story to tell. He lived, he became lawyer, he met me, we had kids. Things only really got interesting when he became a dying person at an age that was way too young…

Right now, I’ve just finished another project.  This time it was a video/photo project of the kids talking about their dad, that we will show at the next Camp Kesem fundraiser. Shane did all the actual, time-consuming work, but I still felt responsible for getting the right images, getting the kids to say the right thing on camera.

As always, I sifted through All the Pictures – Michael with the kids when they were babies, us at the beach, us hiking, us biking, a bunch of Christmas mornings when we’re all in PJs, Michael starting chemo, Michael getting his head shaved because his hair was falling out, Michael getting skinny and hollow-cheeked.

I’m not tired of telling the Story of Him. If anything, it gets easier with the telling: He was a smart, handsome guy whose presence could fill up a room. He loved me and the kids fiercely. He was not a person you could imagine ever dying. He died too young but he faced it bravely. It was a fucking tragedy by anyone’s account.

Of course, I am telling only the best parts of the story. In fact, this even didn’t even become a story until he got sick. Before the diagnosis we were just normal people, living unexceptional lives. There was nothing meaningful or noteworthy about us. We weren’t always happy. Or living our lives with intention. We were kind of in a rut, and we could fight like hell. Ours was a house in which doors were frequently slammed. In fact, on the very morning that I took him to get what we thought was a routine endoscopy to diagnose the cause of his heartburn, we were snippy with each other about something, I have no idea what, but he got out of the car when I pulled up into the hospital roundabout, and slammed the door without even saying goodbye.

When the panicked nurse called me back a few hours later I thought maybe Michael had gotten combative with the staff when he was coming out of anesthesia and they needed me to calm him down (a totally realistic scenario). Little did I know that I was about to hear the words “10 centimeter tumor” from a doctor who looked more terrified than I was.

A terminal cancer diagnosis did wonders for our relationship. And for our narrative. We (mostly) stopped fighting. We appreciated each other more and communicated better. We re-wrote our history. He was suffering and dying, and I was there by his side. We had to suck all the meaning out of every precious moment. Our life story suddenly had a defined, tragic ending.

Now I am left to tell the story of him, the story of our life together.

It feels so important to tell it properly. To structure the narrative and describe us characters. I needed the right songs for the slideshow, which I have never been able to actually watch. I obsessed over the right pictures and film clips.

I realize that I got way more stressed out about the Camp Kesem movie than I should have. But I just wanted to get it right. A man grew up and lived and met me and we had children and then he died. This story must mean something more than just that. Lots of people (actually all people) live and die, but surely Michael’s story is different. He was singular and exceptional. There was no one like him, and no one like me who had to go through the loss of him.

Last week a guy came up to me at an event I was speaking at (about law, not death, because I do still have a career). He told me, “My name is — –. I used to work with Michael as an investigator. He was a great lawyer and a great man. He talked about you and the kids all the time. I’m sorry he’s gone.” He was choked up and awkward about this display of emotion. I gave him a half-hug and said “thank you.” And I sincerely meant it. I felt like that guy’s summary was about as close as I might ever get to an accurate, concise version of Michael: good, great, loving, missed.

So, thank you, guy. Thank you for remembering Michael. Thank you for still existing and knowing who he was and for thinking of him in terms that he would have appreciated.

I’ll keep remembering the more complicated version of Michael, which is harder to summarize but still makes for a pretty fucking good story.

A Valentines Day Message From Michael, 2017

“While I love [Griefpants] with all my heart, I have hated Valentine’s Day for as long as I remember being an adult. My contrarian/ libertarian nature hates the group collective telling me to be romantic on a given day. My logic has always been that you should be romantic with that special someone everyday. I must admit that I also resent the uptick in demand for dinners and flowers which makes it difficult/expensive for expressions of love. Also, that the guy is meant to be doing the flowers, chocolates, dinner etc strikes me a sexist.

When we were first going out, I told [Griefpants] this. I also sent her flowers randomly at work and took her out to romantic dinners as often as possible because I was head over heels in love with her.

In response, [Griefpants] told me how none of her other boyfriends had ever done anything nice for her on Valentine’s Day. Instead of taking the hint, I quite happily decided that this meant it wasn’t a deal breaker.

Valentine’s Day 2003 rolled around and I didn’t do anything for [Griefpants]. It was also clear that she was expecting something. When it became clear that I had been serious in my statements on Valentines Day, she was pretty mad and I knew I was in trouble. I hastily got us into our favorite Italian restaurant but the damage was done and we had a rather frosty Valentine’s Day dinner and night thereafter.

I am here to say 14 years later that as with almost everything, [Griefpants] was right and I was wrong. I’ve missed 12 days and nights of giving her my whole love on a principle that is rather silly.

And what did [Griefpants] do both this year and last? She gave me the most romantic gift possible: she’s been here by my side in the chemo ward as we’ve gone on this journey together. So my dear sweet wife, I can only say “I love you very much and will you be my Valentine?” “

Unresolved

Back at the beginning of January I went to church for the New Year’s service and it was all about burning the old bad things and setting goals for the new year. I have been exhausted and miserable this last year for completely logical reasons. I miss Michael. Work is stressful. The holidays were depressing. Even at its most rewarding (and it isn’t always) single-parenting is a full-time job. I decided that day at church that I am tired of feeling like life is something I just have to get through. I decided to actually live my life again. The kids and I took a nice family trip with friends. Then I had a few days off where I was away at a conference. I was able to get a good night’s sleep and have some afternoons to myself. I got all rested and hopeful. I would start getting more sleep, eating better, and engaging in some actual self-care (beyond ordering shoes on the internet and then returning them). January seemed like it was really coming together.

So I wrote an entry for this site about how this year I am going to let go some of the heavy burden of grief I’ve been carrying and try to find my joy and blah blahdy fucking blah…

I’m glad I didn’t post that, because it seems a little ridiculous now, in the middle of February, when I recently spent the fifth snow day of 2019 vomiting uncontrollably, whilst my children watched 9 uninterrupted hours of TV and ate potato chips downstairs.

I should back up and explain –briefly, because it isn’t pleasant – about the last five weeks. In short, life caught right back the fuck up with me. The semester began with multiple deadlines and a heavy teaching load. Then the Midwest dished out an even worse shitshow of a winter than usual – two feet of wet snow, the polar vortex, multiple ice storms. The city kept shutting down. The kids missed an insane amount of school. My deadlines were blown and blown again. Everything at work got re-and re-scheduled. Attempts at exercise were laughable. Eating healthy was impossible. The house was a disaster.

I know it sounds dramatic, but these felt like dangerous times. My emotional health – never great in winter – was on shaky ground. I had family to help – my dad was here and my sister-in-law made a heroic trip out for the weekend of one of the snow storms. And I have great friends. Still, none of them are my husband, and most of the time it has been just me and the kids. Every subfreezing day that I spend at home with them is a day that viscerally reminds me that Michael no longer lives in my house with me with because he is dead. I miss Michael. I need Michael. He used to be the one to help me get through winter and snowdays, who used to talk me down from my work stress and help with the laundry. Without him, this shit is just so goddamn hard.

One night I lost it. It was midnight and I was sobbing in the bathroom. My boy tapped at the door and asked if I was OK. I told him no, that I was tired and I missed daddy. We decided to go downstairs, which is what we usually do when Griff has a bad dream and can’t get back to sleep. He wanted to look at Google Earth pictures on the computer. Eventually he plugged in our home address. The photo must have been taken at least three summers ago. Instead of being covered with dirty snow and broken tree limbs, our lawn is green. Our old Subaru (which we sold two years ago) still sits in the driveway. This means, of course, that Michael was still alive when the picture was taken. In fact, it is likely that he was not yet diagnosed with cancer. Griffin closed the computer. The next thing I knew he was outside barefoot, in the snow that almost reached his waist. I brought him back in. We had some hot cocoa and played cards, mostly in silence, for hours. The next day was President’s Day, so naturally, school was closed. We looked at each other furtively all day, as if we had shared some sweet, sad secret.

Last week I thought we might finally be in the clear. The forecast led me to believe that we would have an actual full week of school. With superhuman effort I might be able to clear one of my much-prolonged deadlines. Then the school called right after lunch on Tuesday because Griff was projectile vomiting, which morphed into diarrhea that night. Needless to say he couldn’t go to school on Wednesday. Wednesday night we were hit by a surprise ice storm. And Thursday, with the town immobilized and the kids home from school yet again, I woke up with Griff’s stomach virus.

Which is how we get to me, head in toilet, realizing that simply deciding to find joy does not equal finding it.

I have always been skeptical of the messages that are usually aimed at women about how it’s up to us to make our own happiness. Even if its true, it sounds to me like a cop-out by a sexist society, that tells us that in addition to everything else we have to deal with, we are also supposed to be in charge of our bliss because nobody else is going to make it happen for us. (Cut to memes of blissful white women smiling out over sunrises and definitely not scraping vomit out of the grout in the bathroom tile.) These messages have sat even worse with me since Michael got his diagnosis.

Nevertheless, I guess I got a little caught up in moment of New Year’s resolutions and I momentarily forgot that, while a positive attitude may be necessary to living a happier life, it is not sufficient in a world of dirty dishes, seasonal depression, work stress, and dead husbands. Apparently, you can’t just take Griefpants off, especially when the hard work of living still needs to be done.

So…I have deleted my positive and hopeful entry and am posting this one instead. I’m sorry it wasn’t more joyful. I’m sorry that I’m not more joyful. But it doesn’t help anyone to sugarcoat this crap. I can say that my attitude will likely improve by April.

In the meantime, much love…

Slipping

Last week something happened that was super shitty. I had been having a pretty nice day – finished up a work project, had lunch with a friend, and was waiting for my latte at the coffee shop when I checked FB on my phone. There was a post from a friend, asking if anyone wanted to see Creed 2 with him this afternoon. When he was home with chemo, Michael was always up for persuading his pals to blow off work and catch matinees with him, especially “dude movies” that I wasn’t terribly interested in. So I thought to myself “I should let Michael know that Shane wants company,” and I started to forward him the message.

And then two seconds later I remembered that Michael is dead.

I can’t even describe how this felt, but here’s a try: Like stepping through an elevator door and realizing there is no elevator there. It triggered the first full-blown panic attack I’ve had in a while, which sucked even more because I was in a busy public place. To get back to my office I had to run down the sidewalk in one of the most crowded parts of town. I left my coffee behind and sprinted, wearing sunglasses even though it was a cloudy day, praying that I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I made it back to my office, where I switched on both my unauthorized space heater and my Happy Light™,made myself a cup of tea with my unauthorized water dispenser, swallowed aClonezepam, and properly lost my shit. I was basically useless for the rest ofthe day, but I was afraid to leave my office, so I just sat there until it was time to pick up the kids.

 Why did this hit me so hard, after all this time? (As I write this he’s been dead 15 months.) I think it’s because it was a genuine mental lapse. I didn’t see the message and think “Michael would have liked to do this if he were still alive.” I thought “Michael would like to do this,” with the embedded assumption that he is still alive. I genuinely forgot for that moment that hewas not home in his sweat pants, bored and looking to hang out with one of his buddies.

In the first few months after he died I would occasionally have these slips – I’d start to call or text him, or see something and think I needed to tell him about it. I eventually deleted his number from my phone because I couldn’t take it. And gradually, after memorial service #3 and multiple scatterings of ashes and the filling out of paperwork and all that shit, I stopped slipping. My subconscious spent most of my waking days, in fact, thinking very specifically: Michael is dead Michael is dead Michael is dead.

Sure, there have been gut punches (when a memory floats out of nowhere and knocks the wind out you) and triggers (when a specific date, or place, sets you off into a panic attack). Those still happen and THEY SUCK. But this was different. This time, I let myself be caught off guard…by myself.

Please please don’t read this and think that this is a good sign. Like I am moving on with my life and getting back to normal. It most definitely is not. Michael is dead. Forgetting that fact is not part of the healing process. (Not feeling like shit about it constantly is part of the healing process, which I suppose I am doing OK with, or as well as can be expected when its dark all the time and I’m busy AF and the holidays are looming…)

So, I am basically doing what people do when we fall, which is get the fuck up and keep going. Not because I am a brave hero, but becausethere is no point in lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of an elevator shaft. But I am kind of scared. If something like that happens again I hope I can handle it better.

If you slip, I hope you get back up too.

Much love…  

Homegoing

Its our second Thanksgiving since Michael died, and once more we will spend the holiday with his family. This involves travelling 1,000 miles on planes, trains, and automobiles, with two rowdy kids who like to make jokes about farts. (Oh, and my prescription for Clonozepam ran out, so you can guess how awesome the experience has been for everyone involved.)

I write this from Michael’s childhood home, where I am confronted at every turn by his things, the room he slept in, pictures of him as a boy. Here is the black polished railing that he would have touched every day going down to breakfast or up to bed. I look out the same bedroom window he would have looked out of as a teenager, probably dreaming of getting away and starting his real life. One a shelf there is a photograph of his 10-year old face. The dark-haired boy is 25 years away from having a boy of his own, 34 years away from dying. My son’s eyes are smiling back at me. My son is calling out for me upstairs because he doesn’t know where the I-Pad charger is.

Michael is not here, and yet Michael is everywhere.

I don’t have deep memories from this house because I didn’t grow up knowing Michael. But… he was staying here when we met, during a transitional time when he was finishing up school, studying for the Bar exam, and preparing to move back to DC. His parents were away a lot. We were trying to be sneaky. It was fun and a little like being back in high school. These memories are fond ones, but discordant now. One minute I am making out furiously with Michael on his parents’ screened porch. A minute – or a lifetime – later I am standing on that same porch with his mother, drinking a cup of tea and discussing where in the garden we should scatter his ashes.

Its important for the kids, and for me, to maintain this connection with Michael’s family. Michael had to suffer through many a wacky holiday with my family. I don’t have a childhood home because my parents got divorced when I was 16. My mom moved to a townhouse where I lived for just one year until it was time for college. My old bedroom became an office. But it is the only place where my awkward high school graduation photos hang from the walls. It is the place I brought Michael back to when it was time for him to understand a little about where I came from, which can only be had by going home.

So I brought him back to my “home” and now we are back at his. Or rather, I am.

Michael’s mother didn’t want to scatter his ashes in the back garden because his parents might sell the house sometime in the next few years. She doesn’t like the idea of moving and leaving him behind. I understand those feelings – this whole week has left me ruminating about places and their meanings. I don’t know what happens to the idea of this home, and the history it contains of the boy who grew up here, when the house belongs to someone else and the boy is no longer alive.

But Michael left specific instructions, and anyone who knew Michael knows that he was a stubborn bastard. So I stuck to my guns and we interred some ashes in a beautiful spot in the garden. I like the idea of a part of him being there. Its nice to imagine him sitting there on the little bench underneath the trees when they flower this spring.

We’ve also scattered some ashes in the front yard of our house in Missouri, where Michael lived the last years of his life and where I am raising our children. They are at the base of a magnolia tree that flowers every April. That place is home now, too.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Much love…

Vital Statistics

As hard as it is to imagine, it’s a true fact that someday your entire tenure as a human on this earth will be reduced to your name and two dates. The first date is one that you have no memory of, and the second date is when all of your memories evaporate into the Universe. They are bookends, of course, and your actual life and all the important stuff is what happens in between them. The day you see your son take his first steps. The week you and your fiancée camped by the ocean in Big Sur. The years you spent getting your degree or building your career. But ultimately your birth and your death are the only dates that will actually matter. I’ve talked a lot about death and deathdays (my pithy new term for the anniversary of a person’s death), so I’d like to spend a little time on birthdays.

I have never been a big birthday person. I was born in December and I’ve been either a teacher or a student for most of my life. Thus, the anniversary of my birth tends to coincide with final exams, darkness, and butt-clenching cold. If I were left to my own devices I would probably forget about my own birthday and then at some point just do math to figure out how old I am. Michael and Jen both believed in celebrating birthdays – mine and theirs. They slowly brought me around to the idea that it is ok to have a day when you celebrate your being here alive on this planet, because why pass up a perfectly good opportunity to celebrate anything?

Jen was born on October 22. For her 32nd birthday a group of us went out to a house in the mountains. It was the most perfect mid-Atlantic fall weekend. We hiked around, made a bonfire, drank wine, talked all night, slept on couches and floors.

Michael was born on November 9. For his 44th birthday we got a big group together for a night of karaoke. His sister was there and most of our friends. We ate sushi, drank beer, and screamed the greatest hits of the Nineties in a microphone together until late in the evening.

Both of these birthdays were memorable and fun. They were also heartbreaking, because we all knew at the time that they would be the last. Jen never got to turn 33. Michael didn’t make it to 45.

No one talks about this, but after someone dies at a relatively young age, what in the hell are you supposed to do with their birthday? Is it happy or sad? For Jen’s first birthday after she died, our same group gathered together at a house in the country, for another weekend of hiking and bonfires. For Michael’s, another group gathered at our favorite restaurant, for a night of toasting him and telling stories. Both events were just what they would have wanted (Michael, in fact, instructed me to do this for his birthday before he died). We all came together to reflect on the life-filled, loving, singular person who we had lost.

Our first post-death birthday celebrations for Jen and Michael were not that much different from their last birthdays. And honestly, their birthdays aren’t much different for me now than their deathdays. Both of them are sweet but mostly sad, because they are ultimately the random calendar dates that define a beginning (which I wasn’t there for, and which was joyous) and an end (which I was there for, and which fucking sucked). I feel responsible for observing these days, even as I recognize this is more for me than it is for Jen and Michael. I’m sure both of them would appreciate it, and I know in particular that it was important for Michael that he be remembered. Though it was kind of dickish for the Universe to make those dates just a few weeks apart.

Neither Jen nor Michael has a gravestone. If they did, the stones would probably just have their names and two dates. Those two dates are now something that those of us who loved them keep in our hearts and our minds forever. I keep the events of their lives in my mind as well. I remember all the paths we travelled together, our moments big and small. But someday, I’ll be gone, too. And eventually our three lives will be defined by six dates. I know five of those dates, and I will do my best to keep observing them until the sixth rolls around.

Much love…

Three Dreams

I am standing in a dark hurricane, or maybe its a tornado. Things are swirling around me and nothing is clear. Suddenly, I see Michael coming towards me, fighting against the wind. It looks like he is swimming against a current. He finally makes it to me and with great effort takes my face in his hands. He looks at me sadly and kisses my forehead. Then he is blasted backward into the darkness.

I’m alone in the darkened funeral parlor. Michael’s body is on a table on the far wall. I have to sit here until morning. Suddenly, I hear a voice talking. It’s him, and I have to listen carefully because this is the last time he is ever going to say anything and I am the only one around to hear it. But the words make no sense. It’s like listening to someone talk in their sleep. I try to shout to let him know I am there, he isn’t alone. But I can’t make a sound. And then he stops talking and is silent again.

Michael and I are cuddling in bed. He is warm and looks healthy, young, vibrant. “Isn’t it great?” he says. “Pretty soon we’ll be together again.” I’m confused. “But wouldn’t that mean I was dead, too?” “Yes,” he smiles. “But I can’t die now!” I say in a panic, “Griffin and Shennie need me. I’m all they have.” He laughs. “Don’t worry sweetie. When I say ‘soon’ it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Time actually works in a much different way than you realize. You’ll see.”

A Perfect Metaphor

When Michael and I moved to our house seven years ago, there was an old garage/outbuilding on the property. It sat there, rotting into decrepitude while we tried to save up the money to fix it. Then Michael got sick and all of our money vanished and he died.

I used some of the life insurance proceeds to hire a contractor who confirmed my suspicion: the building was a total loss and needed to be completely rebuilt. The demo crew took everything that was in the garage and put it under a tarp along the back fence. A few hours later the building was gone. That was two months ago. (Suffice it to say that building something takes a shitload longer than tearing it down.)

Today I ventured back to the pile of garage stuff to see if I could find a rake. That was when I discovered that the tarp had blown off at some point. We’ve had a very rainy October. Think about all of the random shit you have in your garage. Now imagine it heaped in a pile full of slime, mold, stagnant water, rotting leaves, and mosquito larvae. I waded in and started heaving stuff over to dump out the water – storage tubs of toys and garden tools, the kiddie pool, the wheelbarrow, the sleds. It was heavy and gross. I got soaked in the smelliest water imaginable.

I found myself cursing as I sorted through all of the stuff. Goddamn all those gardening supplies Michael bought because he was so excited about finally having a yard. Goddamn those sleds he surprised the kids with, which he only got to use with them twice. Goddamn the moldy rugby balls and the baseball bat and the soccer goals that he bought for all the games he won’t ever be able to play with our kids. Goddamn the now rusted-out grill he used to love manning at backyard parties.

Goddamn him for dying and leaving me to sort through the detritus of the simple happiness that was all he ever wanted.

Its like that dickish Universe decided to send me a perfect metaphor for the life we were supposed to have had: Just another heap of ruined garbage that I’m going to have to figure out a way to deal with.

I admit, I went to a low place and I’m still kind of there. I thought I had already dealt with most of the hard stuff. I packed away Michael’s clothes, put his favorite t-shirts up to may face. I went through the boxes they sent from his office and sobbed at the family photos he’d kept on his desk, the coffee mug Griffin gave him for Father’ Day. But I hadn’t even thought about the garage. It now occurs to me that I’ve also been avoiding the basement, which is full of more ghosts.

I don’t know when this ends. There is still so much baggage, literal and figurative, and no one can carry it but me.

Much love…

Life Won

I have always worked, hard. I have been career-driven since I was 17. Then I had kids and the whole “Work-Life Balance” thing that I had heard about got real. Except “balance” was a zen-like euphemism. There was no tranquil balance. “Cage Match” was more like it, with each side pummeling the other back and forth all day, every day. After Michael got sick, and especially after he died, it became a pure shitshow. I’ve just been plowing ahead, with huge help from my mom and my friends, doing the best I can to stay afloat. On most days, I think I do a reasonably good job.

Friday was not one of those days.

On Thursday, Shennie had gone to the school nurse complaining of a tummyache. The nurse called me on my cell phone, which I had (of course) left at home. Next she tried my office phone, but I was teaching. By the time I got the message a few hours later, Shennie was better and had gone back to her classroom. I felt like a mildly crappy parent for missing the call, but not too bad, since she was fine.

On Friday, Shennie woke up and said her tummy didn’t feel good again. My mom had gone back to the East Coast so I was on my own. We were halfway to school when it occurred to me that Shennie might get sick at school again, so I made a snap decision that, instead of getting out of the car with her brother, she could come to work with me. I hadn’t packed anything: no I-pad, or headphones, or art supplies, or snacks. Her backpack contained only her lunch and one library book.

This was a poorly thought out plan.

I had to teach two classes back to back, one at 9 and one at 10. One of my colleagues thankfully gave Shennie some markers and paper. In my first class, she just sat at a desk and colored and looked cute. I was balancing it LIKE A BOSS.

By the next class Shennie wanted to sit up with me in the front of the lecture hall. She was quiet at first but then started urgently tugging at my shirt. I stopped talking. It occurred to me that might have to go to the bathroom. Thirty-five students stared at me as I bent down to see what was wrong. “Mommy?” she stage-whispered, “I have a question: Are there any animals with blue fur?” Cue class laughter. Things went down-hill from there.

I ended class ten minutes early, much to my students’ delight, and headed back to my office with Shennie. She had fun pushing all of the buttons on the elevator. She showed me how she could cartwheel down the hallway. She commented, loudly, on the portraits of former deans that we have hanging up on the third floor: “Wow, that guy’s OLD!” “That guy’s FAT!” “That guy’s fat AND he has a stupid moustache!”

When we finally got back in my office she announced that it was time for lunch. I said that was fine and turned to put my course materials away. I turned back around 30 SECOND LATER to see that she had cleared off my desk. All the papers I had been grading, books, family photos, hand lotion, pens, etc… were piled up on the floor by the window and her lunch was spread out, picnic-style. “I need water,” she demanded. “At school we always have cups for water.”

“OK,” I said, “We’ll just go back down the hall to the water fountain.” “No, I’m too tired now. And I‘m so thirsty. You can just go find a cup and get me some.” She gave me her sad, puppy eyes. She was sick after all. I had to go down to our break room on the second floor to find a cup. Then up again and all the way down the hall to the water fountain and then back to my office.

I returned to discover that she had rearranged the furniture. Every chair, plus my trash can and recycle bin were stacked up to create an elevated bed of sorts that she could recline on. I handed her the water and went to drag my chair back around to my computer.

“I’m done with my lunch!” she announced. “And now I’m not thirsty anymore so I can water your plants!” Before I could stop her, she emptied the water into the plant on my windowsill – which is fake, because I kept killing my real plants by not watering them. Water spilled everywhere, including on the pile of stuff she had made next to my desk. I shouted at her that the plant was fake. “Why would anyone have a fake plant? That is very weird.”

At this point I realized it was time for me to do a Zoom call with two people who I am collaborating on a casebook with. I gave Shennie my phone to play with and turned to my computer to wait for the e-mail invitation with the link to the call. I waited and waited. No message. I called IT but they said there were no problems with the network. I went to check my day-planner to make sure I had the right date and saw that someone had scrawled “BY PREZENTS FOR SHENNIE” across the week in huge letters.

I finally gave up on the call and got my phone back from Shennie, only to find – you guessed it – that she had been deleting the email invitations as they came in. Then she handed me a picture of a person with a giant ponytail surrounded by rainbows. It was captioned “Mommy is LAW. She is fun and she is awsome.”

Then it was time for a Curriculum Committee meeting. After ten minutes Shennie climbed on my lap. She drew rainbows on the agenda. After 30 minutes she took her shoes off (*stinky feet* in a closed room). By 45 she was loudly saying that she was bored and wanted to leave. We all felt the same, and so we did.

Once we left the meeting room Shennie announced that it was time to go outside. “No sweetie, I have to teach another class in an hour and I need the time to get ready,” I said. “But when do you have recess?” she demanded to know.

“I don’t have recess. I’m the teacher. I usually just work at my desk between classes.”

“Well when do your STUDENTS have recess? They have to have recess.”

It occurred to me that she wasn’t actually sick after all. And that we were definitely going to need recess.

We went outside. We checked out the wacky action at Speaker’s Circle. We held hands and ran around the fountain. We browsed Mizzou-wear and school supplies at the Student Center. “Hey Kathy,” she sang out when we ran into a friend of mine, who also happens to be an MU-employee and the mom of one of her BFFs. We bought gummi worms. She bit off the heads and I ate the bodies.

When we hustled into my 3 o’clock class, I was, to put it mildly, less than fully prepared. It was in the same large lecture room as before. There was a white board in the front on the left side. This time, I at least had a plan: I gave Shennie some dry-erase markers and told her to entertain herself.

I noticed about 20 minutes into my lecture on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 33 that the students were tittering. I looked over and Shennie was just erasing the board. At 30 minutes they were chuckling. By 40, the were roaring with laughter. I looked over and Shennie was beaming in front of a white board that said this:

“Don’t worry!” One of my students finally managed to say through her giggles, “I got pictures of all of them. And I’m handling the Law School’s Instagram account this week. They’re all up there!”

“ALL?” was all I managed to say. Apparently there were many.

Shennie waltzed out to applause, waving at her fans – my students, who told her to come back anytime.

Back in my office, she tossed my stapler into her backpack (because it’s better than the one she has at home), shook up my San Diego souvenir snow globe “extra hard, to last the weekend,” and insisted that I take the elevator while she raced me down the stairs.

We picked Griffin up from school and arrived home. I walked in the door and was greeted by a load of dirty laundry, (which contained soccer uniforms necessary for tomorrow’s games), hungry pets, a full dishwasher, and an empty refrigerator. “It’s like Groundhog Day,” I thought to myself, recalling the Bill Murray movie about the guy who has to live the same day over and over.

Then I had a revelation that tonight we should order pizza and watch Groundhog Day.

Two weeks ago, we did a bereavement exercise on the first anniversary of Michael’s death. I made the kids write out their favorite memories of Daddy. They included him telling stories at dinnertime, going off the diving board together at the pool, and listening to the Beatles. None of them were the “Meaningful Events” – vacations, holidays, birthdays – that we often designate as times for special memories. They were ordinary, everyday occurrences.

The lesson of Groundhog Day, of course, is that in order to escape reliving Feb. 2 over and over, Bill Murray has to live his best, most generous and authentic life, in the context of a very ordinary, annoying, workday.

As the movie was wrapping up, it occurred to me that I had just experienced something like that, with the help of a definitely not-sick Shennie. She may not remember this day when she gets older, but I hope she does. I know I will until I die.

Let it be known, that on Friday, October 5, 2018, in the battle between Life and Work, Life definitely won.