Wednesday, November 30, 2005

November, 2005: Thanksgiving in the hospital

I had 12 bags of groceries to unload from the car. Thanksgiving was two days away and we were hosting dinner for 22. As I carried the first bags into the house, I looked at the toys everywhere, the laundry to sort, the pile of mail and school papers on the kitchen table. I decided it would take every free hour from that moment until Thanksgiving just to get the house in presentable shape and the food cooked and ready.
            Bag by bag, I brought the groceries in. Two-year-old Jamilet stood next to the car in the driveway and watched me walk through the garage and  into the house making  the trips.
            “Pretzels,” she said, watching me grab a bag. “Yogurt. Bread. Lunchtime?”
            I told her it would be lunchtime right after I brought in all the groceries, and went into the house. One more bag to go.  I left her leaning casually against the car door.
            “Time for lunch,” I said to Jamilet, when I came back to the car.  I looked down at her. She was holding an empty bottle of prescription allergy pills, the cap in one hand, the bottle in the other. Where had she gotten that? I felt alarm rising within me.
            “Where did you get that bottle?”
            “Bottle in car.”
            “Open your mouth.” I swept her mouth with my fingers. There were no pills in her mouth, but just inside her lip was a white powdery substance. I swallowed.
            “Did you eat the pills?”
            “Empty,” she said.
            I wanted to believe her. I grabbed the bottle, carried her in and called Poison Control.
            “How many did she eat?” the woman on the other end asked me.
            “I’m not sure she ate any,” I said. “The bottle might have been empty. I’m not even sure why the bottle was in the car.”
            “Is it possible she ate 10 pills?” the woman asked.
            “It’s possible. I just don’t know. She was alone for about a minute.”
            “For her weight, 10 pills is lethal. You need to take her to the nearest emergency room. I’ll call ahead so they know you’re coming.”
            I looked at Jamilet.
            “Did you eat these?” I asked, again.
            “Empty,” she said.
            Empty. I strapped her into her car seat. She was probably right, but ten pills were lethal and where had the powdery residue in her mouth come from?
            At the emergency room, they took her temperature and pulse. All were normal, but it suddenly became obvious to me just how serious the situation could become. The nurse on duty said the toxic dose for Jamilet’s weight was really more like five pills than ten. I called Bill, and he left work and sped over. Jamilet stuck by her story as Bill, a doctor, then two nurses, came in to ask her if she ate some pills. The final nurse even tried to lead her into saying she ate the pills.
            “This bottle is empty because you ate the pills up, isn’t it?” the nurse said, smiling. “Were they yummy?”
            “Empty,” Jamilet said.
            Still, as a precaution, the E.R. staff said she should be hooked up to an E.K.G. and be observed for six hours — the amount of time it could take the drugs to activate in her system.
            As they put the stickers with wires all over my baby’s chest and back, the nurse said she would bring in some charcoal for Jamilet to drink. Just in case, she said. The charcoal would absorb the medicine.  I blinked back my tears. I was so sorry I had left her alone. Sorry that Bill or I had been careless enough to leave an allergy bottle—even an empty one—in the car. Sorry that I was putting her through six hours of observation when she had trouble sitting still for a ten-minute book. And to be honest, I was a little sorry for myself, too. With no time to spare before Thanksgiving, I would be spending the next six hours in the E.R. with a child who was possibly not sick at all. 
            An hour went by, with Jamilet sitting quietly on my lap, unusually calm, hooked up to the E.K.G. She cooperatively drank the charcoal drink they gave her, flavored, the nurse said, with six tablespoons of chocolate sauce. After an hour and a half with no change, I was even more convinced she had not eaten any pills. She fell asleep on my chest, and I eased my way back into the bed, and pulled my feet up. For two hours, she slept — her usual naptime. Not wanting to wake her with the T.V., I simply lay in bed and listened to her breathing. She was warm against my body, and looked smaller than usual in her tiny hospital gown. Normally, during Jamilet’s nap, I rush to get a hundred things done—phone interviews for articles, writing, editing, cleaning. And now it was naptime and she was asleep on my chest in a hospital. Bill was grading 8th grade essays on a chair nearby.
As she slept, it occurred to me that she and I had never done this before. I had cradled newborn Jacob and Liam in my arms and held them in wonder as they slept in the hospital after they were born. Jamilet and I had never had that time. She came to us at age 13 months as a foster child, already a good napper and sleeper. There had never been a reason to hold her as she slept. But now there was.
            As she slept, I rubbed her skin, that unbelievably soft baby skin. Trapped in an E.R. room, two days before Thanksgiving, I understood that this was my time to experience newborn Jamilet.
            And so I did. I let go of all the things I had to do, and gave thanks for the emergency that was not. I marveled at my sleeping daughter. I fingered her curls, and gently touched her lips. I watched her heartbeat on the monitor as I felt it against my chest. I prayed for her — thanking God for the gift of her life. Thanking God that our afternoon at the hospital was all for nothing. For nothing at all.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

November, 2005: Last days of fall

It was the end of a beautiful, crisp fall day — probably one of the last warmish days of fall. It was 5:00, and the sun was a pink and purple glow in the west. I should have been drinking in these last few minutes of the day, enjoying the bright reds and yellows of the maple trees in our neighborhood.
I wasn’t though. I was feeling rushed and cranky. Liam, 7, had been home sick all day. He seemed to lack the hand-nose coordination necessary to use a tissue properly, and I found his constant drippiness tiresome. Meanwhile, I had 12 guests coming for dinner the next night—friends from our old neighborhood who had never seen our new house, and I felt compelled to scrub, clean and polish my way into what I hoped was a presentable home. Jamilet, 2, did not appreciate the day’s lack of attention as I cleaned, and was responding by clinging to my leg as I feverishly mopped and dusted. The few times during the day she did play independently, she chose use her time to undo my work. Two baskets of neatly folded laundry were now strewn around the family room. The newspapers I put in a bag for recycling were dumped on the floor next to the laundry. I was also on deadline for two articles and the school committee I was in charge of was meeting that night.
So, at 5:00, low on energy, out of patience, and with no ideas for that night’s dinner, I went to the front porch to get the day’s mail. As I looked at the mix of bills and junk mail, I glanced across the street. There, our elderly neighbor, Mr. Pitt, was painstakingly raking the leaves off his driveway, inch by inch, while sitting in a chair. Mr. Pitt is the kindliest man in the world, and also has horrible knee problems. I stood frozen with my mail. I didn’t want to help him. I didn’t have time to help him. I wasn’t even a big believer in weekly raking, preferring to wait until all the leaves were down for the season, and doing one big job. Mr. Pitt moved his chair up a foot and pushed a small pile of leaves forward towards the street.
Sighing, I grabbed Jamilet, wiped Liam’s nose, and told Jacob, 10, to come help me.
“We’re going to rake your driveway,” I announced to Mr. Pitt as I crossed the street. I set Jamilet down on his grass, and handed Jacob a rake.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” Mr. Pitt said.
“We want to,” I lied. “It will be fun. It’s a beautiful evening to be outside.”
Jacob and I started raking the leaves toward the street, and Jamilet, using her little rake, immediately started to rake the leaves from the street back to the house.
Mr. Pitt thought this was adorable.
Jacob and I raked faster, so she couldn’t keep up.
As Jacob and I raked, Mr. Pitt kept up a running commentary about how fast and amazing we were.
“Look at you go!” Mr. Pitt called from his chair, as we raked in a very mediocre style. “Now don’t work yourself too hard. Take a break.”
When he wasn’t congratulating our zealous raking, Mr. Pitt was busy being enchanted with Jamilet, who was simply wandering about the yard, moving leaves randomly.
“She’s beautiful. And so smart. Look how she moves those leaves just like her mommy and her brother,” he said.
After 45 minutes of raking (“That’s wonderful; look at the size of that pile,”) a break for Oreos and photos (Jamilet in the leaves; Jamilet with the rake; Jacob and Jamilet; Jamilet and I; Jacob and I holding Jamilet) my crankiness started to wear off a bit, and I saw our family through Mr. Pitt’s eyes.
We were all (even me) incredibly young and vital. We were strong and fast and talented with our rakes. Jacob’s smooth skin and quick smile seemed perfect to me as I looked at him as Mr. Pitt did. Looking at myself from the outside (without hearing my grouchy thoughts or worries about dinner or my meeting later), I looked like a helpful and friendly mother of young children. And Jamilet was indeed a wonder. Freely jumping in the leaves, romping across the grass and smiling in the autumn sunset, I saw her as Mr. Pitt did — an amazing tiny person alive with curiosity. I understood why he needed to take 7 pictures of her in less than an hour.
For a fleeting instant, I became 75 or 80 or whatever Mr. Pitt is, and I looked at my 30-something self and my children, and I saw what he saw. I appreciated our energy and our health. For a moment, I appreciated my over-busy life. It seemed charged with excitement and drama. The solitude and quiet I so often longed for didn’t seem quite as appealing, when it became the norm for the day, as it was for Mr. Pitt. 
As I said goodbye to our neighbor that evening, and as he thanked me for the seventeenth time, I mentally thanked him back—for reminding me that I had nothing to be cranky about after all.

November, 2005

For me, the hardest time to be a parent is Sunday mornings. Before kids, I used to love Sunday mornings. Sleeping late, then hot coffee, a thick newspaper, and nowhere to go until 11:00 Mass. After an hour of newspaper reading, maybe some cinnamon toast if I felt really motivated.
            Now Sunday mornings start early—no later than 7—and rather than easing into my day, the day is thrust upon me with toddler Jamie yelling my name from her crib. Lifting her out, I am immediately alerted to her most pressing needs.
            “Mom! Hungry! Eat! Chips?”
             Often, the demands are quickly followed by a debate.
            “No chips for breakfast. You can have cereal.”
            “Chips! Want chips!”
            And so the day begins. A friend of mine, with four children ranging in age from 2 to 10, agrees with me about Sunday morning, but contends every morning is difficult.
            “I hate it that I have to be ‘on’ from the moment I open my eyes,” she told me at a toddlers playgroup one day.
            We could both solve our problem by setting our alarms for an hour before the kids get up, but relentless optimism won’t quite let us do that. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the day that the toddler sleeps til 9 and we can sleep in a bit, too. It’s happened to me exactly twice in the ten years and five children I’ve parented so far, but still, each Saturday night, I go to bed thinking that maybe tomorrow will be the day it happens again.
            In some ways, the Sunday morning epitomizes the sacrificial nature of parenting. While careers can often be juggled to accommodate both the needs of the child and the parent, and parents can get a babysitter for an evening alone, the fact remains that parents are always ‘on.’ Children—especially young ones—have no understanding that this may not be the best time to ask for a snack, to get in a fight with a sibling, to need immediate help getting dressed. Mature parents understand that children cannot yet look outside of themselves and see the impact they are having on others. So we pour the cereal, still half asleep; we tie the shoes while in the middle of an important phone call; we break up the fight while stirring the white sauce that cannot be left alone.
            It is perhaps because of how difficult I find Sunday mornings to be that I am not quick to judge the abusive or neglectful parents that I’ve come in contact with as part of the foster care system. Parenting is challenging enough within a stable marriage blessed with an income and a half, good insurance and savings for college. It’s challenging enough in our medium-sized suburban house. With the support of excellent grandparents, some energetic teenage babysitters, and good friends who will watch the kids in a pinch—it’s still a challenge. Take away one of these factors, take away all of them, and Sunday morning would be the least of my worries. And for many parents, who became parents while still children themselves, the added reality is their own parents could never give to them fully. Never having seen a parent who was always on for them, always there for them, they don’t know how to be that for their own children.
            I don’t always think of these other parents when the baby wakes me at the crack of dawn on a Sunday. Usually, I am thinking of myself, trying to think of some way I could manage to drink a whole cup of coffee, while it is still hot, without having to warm it in the microwave because of a diaper that needs changing, a crayon that needs finding, or a game that needs supervising.  I’m not thinking of these other parents because I am busy remembering the luxurious Sunday mornings of my early adulthood— seven years of Sundays where the only person I was responsible for was myself — seven years that most people living in poverty have never had. It’s not until I start complaining out loud —or in writing — about how much I dislike Sunday mornings, that I really start to think about these other parents. The ones who have twice as many kids as me and half as much money and space. The ones that can’t afford the morning paper or coffee-shop coffee. It’s not until I start listing my Sunday morning frustrations that I realize how little I have to be frustrated about.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

November, 2005 Peace

I’ve always liked the Sign of Peace. As a child, it was my favorite part of our all-school liturgies. The Sign of Peace provided an excuse to move around a little — to stretch across pews and vigorously shake hands with as many classmates as I could before the teacher reined us in for the Lamb of God. In college, when I attended daily Mass at Marquette University’s tiny Joan of Arc Chapel, the Sign of Peace was a chance to hug a friend who had an exam the next day or a roommate whose mom was ill.
It wasn’t until I was married, however, and my husband, Bill, and I had the Big Camping Fight, that I started integrating the Sign of Peace into my daily life.
I don’t remember exactly how the Big Camping Fight started. It was late on a Friday night, and we were scheduled to leave for a camping trip early the next morning. Bill couldn’t find the poles for the tent, I had forgotten to buy batteries for the flashlights, and Jacob, our toddler, had ripped into our food bag like a hungry baby raccoon. There were marshmallows everywhere. As it got later, more and more things went wrong and Bill and I each thought the other was at fault. We both yelled. I cried. And by the time we put Jacob to bed and started tying our duffle bags onto the roof of the car, we weren’t speaking at all.
            We packed in silence for at least an hour. I was so upset I couldn’t think of anything to say. While I knew that I should say I was sorry, I felt that Bill should apologize first, because while I hadn’t behaved perfectly, he was more in the wrong. The longer we went without talking, though, the bigger the gulf between us seemed. By the time my anger had cooled enough for me to begin thinking of apologizing first, the words didn’t seem large enough to cover an entire evening ruined.
            “Peace be with you,” is what I finally said, extending my hand to Bill. He looked surprised, but returned my handshake with an embrace.
            “Peace,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
             In the years since that night, we’ve used the Sign of Peace in a similar way a handful of times. Sometimes Bill has initiated it, sometimes I have, but regardless of who has been the first to extend the hand, our Signs of Peace in the kitchen, the family room and the garage have brought more meaning to our Signs of Peace in church.
What I’ve discovered about the Sign of Peace is that it offers more to the other person than does a simple apology. Peace, as given by Christ, is a gift. An offer of Peace does not so much seek to retract angry words as it seeks to establish something new and better. A Sign of Peace, genuinely given, brings Christ into a situation. While smaller disagreements warrant a quick apology and equally quick forgiveness, larger or more hurtful arguments should remind us that we have, at least momentarily, moved away from God’s love. And as we realize that we have separated ourselves from God, we understand that we must rebuild. Jesus’ first words to his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection were “Peace be with you.” Jesus’ starting point can be our own.
In the liturgy, the prayer that directly precedes the Sign of Peace asks Jesus to "look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.”
Essentially, in this prayer, we’re asking Jesus to look past our sins, to focus on our good parts — our faith — and to give us a slice of heaven on Earth.  It’s a gutsy request. But it’s a request that also requires action on the part of the congregation. After the prayer, the presider says, “Let us offer each other the Sign of Peace.”
With that sentence, our bold prayer for the peace and unity of Christ’s kingdom is tied inextricably with our own offering of peace to one another.
And so we turn to our neighbors and offer peace, believing that somehow, Christ is present in these handshakes and hugs. We offer each other peace believing that the kingdom has already begun. A kingdom not just of stained glass and songbooks and statues, but also of tents and poles and spilled marshmallows.