swimming in those waters

This morning while brushing my teeth I discovered a small, irate monster dwelling in my breast: guilt. I’d heard of so-called “survivor’s guilt” but until that moment didn’t realize I’d been mired in it.

It’s useless to try to describe, even though I love to write, I love to come to a point or make a point and feel well-expressed. It’s simple: I feel guilt. I feel guilt no matter how hard I work, how correctly I conduct myself, and especially when I’m not over-working, when I know I could be doing more or better. I feel guilt sometimes (but not always) when I’m going about my business – when I’m telling my mother I’m taking an embroidery class next Monday. What right do I have to make plans, to rub the point in further that I have a life to move on to while my father does not?

I visit my parents this afternoon after the girls I babysat have been picked up by their mother. My mom tentatively feels me out for coming back over at 3:30 to sit with my father while she gets her hair done. I support my mom having time away so much that I’d probably do just about anything to help her acquire it.

So this means instead of coming home and letting my kids play with the new toy I bought them (yay pizza!) while I lie down or take a bath or even sew a little, instead I will come home and take care of my children’s needs quickly then bike back over there and sit with my father and watch him struggle to breathe. This is a decidedly less pleasant affair than watching someone struggle to breathe who is going to recover. This is watching someone over a period of days slowly be strangled, but there’s a lot of free time to say stupid things like, “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” but mostly just sit and feel so completely ineffectual and feel like it’s your fault. True story.

When you are supporting people who are experiencing a loss people will tell you “it must mean so much to them” and “they know you are there and it gives them peace”, but I have no particular knowledge that in any way my presence, my hugs, my deliveries of food or juice or water, my talk, my silence, my prayers do any good at all. I know they comfort my mother; she tells me this. I know in no way if I help my father, at all.

If I wasn’t pressed for time I’d write more: that the idea of “help” is selfish (there is very little I can do), the idea of “guilt” is selfish (it’s all about me!). The concept of being present, while your loved one suffers and dies, is all I can do, and sometimes it’s hard to do even that.

Break time is over. Time to get going back.

make it a regular part of your day

Whatever bits of spare time I thought I had have been taken up by biking and sewing, both of which I’ve been doing quite a bit more. It is merely exhausting pulling my trailer of 100 or so pounds (kids, books, backpacks, groceries) and by the time I get home it’s time to start dinner or finish the dishes or collapse on the bed and wish for a second wife in the family while I wait for my husband to rescue me from some of my work.

Yesterday Nels, E., and I biked down to the bus station to catch a bus to Aberdeen. We shopped for groceries at Safeway (the kids chose a car-like kid cart and were endlessly amused when I’d “drive” it crazily or recklessly) and packed half of the food into my backpack, half into one of those heinous plastic bags that cuts your palm to ribbon as you procced to walk across town. Physically carting one’s own food around town definitely self-moderates any extra purchasing one might be tempted to do; however I can’t bear the annoying extra expense of buying organic milk by the half-gallon.

After the grocery store we visited the local fabric shop for a bit; on next door where I sipped coffee in a cafe – the two children playing perfectly at an adjacent table – before walking the remaining seven blocks to E.s uptown school. The two little ones held up great and just before we got to the school we sat on a bench to have a snack and rest up. The walk and bus ride back home with Nels was less pleasant; I am prone to car sickness and it seems the bus system, already not without problems, hasn’t quite learned to cope with our bridge detour. The result was an extra and unexpected (for me and several other passengers) three mile delay when I was already about to puke my guts. I grimly held on as Nels gamboled about in the backseat flirting with all who came into eye- or earshot. I was never happier to see the station and our locked- up bike apparatus as when I shakily stumbled off the bus and held my breath from the diesel fumes.

I have started to believe that Grays Harbor Transit is underdesigned and largely ignored by those who have the time and influence to improve it. For instance at last week’s HBA meeting there was an anecdotal story about the bus system working well despite our detour – “working well” has not been my experience – and the conversation quickly turned as if we’d merely discussed an quaint irregularity; I’d wager not one other person at this meeting actually uses the system with any frequency. The schedule and routes don’t seem to be built for commuting but rather for those who have no motorized means of transportation and are at the mercy of such a system. In my several times a week riding I do not observe daily white-collar commuters (my husband rides the bus an average of two days a week and reports the same) and I have never seen another white, middle/upper class mum on board. People I do see on the bus: the sick, elderly, morbidly obese, or suffering riding up the hill for medical treatment, those in drug or alcohol counseling programs, those working blue-collar jobs, users with fallen-in mouths, hooded eyes, and dubious personal hygiene, near-silent Latina women and their small children. I have overheard many, many stories of drug use, treatment, and court (in fact, one woman sitting by me yesterday became agitated at the unexpected delay as she was required to be in court at a certain time). I have seen people with plastic bags of their own clothes or cheap Walmart goods huddled in their seat and scarfing food down, their skin tone poor and their eyes tired. People trading stories of methadone, roomates who’ve ripped them off; last week a woman asking another casually, “What are you then? An alcoholic or something?” as if inquiring about a fraternal organization. I feel like an anomoly on the bus.

In any case it doesn’t make sense, I suppose, for the bus system to improve. Even with gas prices rising as they are people are still freely choosing driving as a means of transport. Neither are many carpooling; in my biking about town I’ve taken to counting cars and have found over 80% of car trips to be passenger-free.

Other perils of bussing and biking; I went so long without driving our van that a tiny, tiny light left on managed to drain the battery over the period of three days. Whoops!

six in twelve:

the number of children for the number of hours I cared for them without adult help. Depending on who I had and the time of day this may or may not have included mile-long walks with a backpacked baby cooing in my ear and four preschoolers in tow (and yes, a coffee in hand), then the bike with my own children after a circus-like ringleading of five kids in one diner (splitting steamed milks before we spent fifteen minutes just getting coats on for departure). During the day I employed several very smart Mama tricks (including holding the hands of the clumsiest or spaciest children while walking on HQX’s treacherous sidewalks so if they took a gainer I’d kept them from busting a kneecap) and a few I-thought-it-was-clever ideas that backfired (encouraging the children to each pick a wildflower and then: “Alison took my flower!” “Nels made a bad choice!” “Where’s MY flower?!” for about five thousand blocks). Another impressive stat – minutes of televised entertainment I employed today: twelve.

Taking care of children when things are going smoothly is extremely exhilarating for me; I never would have guessed this before. It’s like running a well-oiled kitten factory except the kittens are smart enough to talk and be interesting with what they say (OK, the baby’s kitten talk is the equivalent of, “Give me fish!” “Change my litter box now!” “Something’s WRONG and I am going to squall until you figure it out!!!” Speaking of baby T., I only hurt him once (by sad and freak accident, not on purpose or due to neglect; I told his mom to bring a helmet next time but instead we’re settling for a Pack N Play or what you old folks know as a “playpen”). If you see a really abused-looking little blue-eyed baby about town just know I feel worse about it than he does.

Apparently 2008 is the Year of Consumerist Lust for me? It goes deeper than wanting to buy something because I have actually been up at night worrying my quilt with my teeth wondering what the heck I’m going to do about my kids growing out of their bike trailer (a Burley with 100 lb. capacity and my children folded in as it is). Last night cruising around the inter-Tron I find BikePortland which leads me (back) to Clever Cycles for a lingering look at my cycling wet dream – and then, suddenly, I see the word “longtail” and read, with increasing interest, a (potential) exact solution to my family needs + my biking life. When I catch the picture of the fellow with two my-size-children and grocery bags to boot I almost throw up in excitement. And this matrix regarding transportation (yes, I’m aware this is basically an advertisement – and to give fair warning, xtracycle’s entire site is rather hype-y) is almost paradigm-shifting in and of itself. “90% of car trips do not carry passengers”; sounds ludicrous and wasteful but, look around and you’ll see it’s true.

In other news, last night my daughter and I watched most of Disney’s 1954 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and I was struck by three things: 1. it’s actually a pretty good movie, and we haven’t even got to the squid yet; 2. Actor James Mason as Captain Nemo (the first I’d ever noticed the acclaimed actor)* has the exact booming voice that I so loved in “Darkplace”‘s Sanchez / Todd Rivers / Matt Berry (huge crush on all three!); and 3. I’ll be stealing the lovely Technicolor look for my third issue of Sure Nail & Fire.

* He also co-authored a book about cats! How sweet.

don’t look under that giant woolen hat – for about four days

I am notoriously bad at “people math” – that is, if we have one guest over I suddenly don’t know how many plates to set out for dinner. So you can imagine the fact that today starting at about 6:30 AM I’m taking four extra children (three from one friend for most of the day; a regular Tuesday three-hour gig with my friend’s daughter E.) and farming out one of my own children (Suse, to school) means that at this very moment I’m not sure how many children I’m taking care of (OK, it’s four now since E. just left).

But I also knew the real dealbreaker would be the 9 month old. I can handle a passel of toddler / preschoolers pretty good but babies – the care of a baby immediately sets you back to this odd formula that is both simple but easily missed. Baby crying inconsolably? You try everything and then you go back to the check-the-diaper and try-to-feed-it ritual, even if you just changed a diaper, even if you just fed them. What’s amazing is how much diaper you change; I forgot about that (two Poo Specials by 8 AM). You also pray for a nap (literally, honest-to-God pray) and tell yourself you’ll rest while they nap but then don’t.

Five minutes ago I finally got the rather sad, very full, completely dry baby sporting a large, quarter-shaped shiny spot on his forehead from either a burn or rug-burn (yes, and I wish I could say I was joking but he did get injured on my watch – I think I’ll spend the afternoon finding and kicking puppies, just to make myself feel better). And don’t think little baby T. isn’t surrounded by as many blanket retaining walls as I could muster! The older three are playing in the living room nicely, I’m listening to Elvis and about to wash dishes – again (I’ve made ten meals so far today! not including the breakfast enchiladas I scarfed for myself). Most of the way through my shift and we’re all safe and (relatively) sound.

The oldest four in my crew are phenomenally well-behaved, sweet children which goes a long way to making the day an enjoyable one. Even amongst the phenomenal task of dressing six people for a walk in our cold sunshine we get these great teaching moments: before embarking for a treasured destination I ask these four, “What happens if we get walking and T. starts crying and crying and crying?” A., the oldest in my flock today says, “We’ll stop to nurse.” Four pairs of child’s eyes beam their headlights on me in silent query and I laugh and say, “Do you think I can do that?” “No but look,” says A., “You trick T. by putting him against you like this and then give him his binkee.” “You know, that is a great idea,” I tell her, “but it doesn’t work – it actually makes him mad. Great thinking though!” How smart are these wee ones?

People that do what I do every day for a job? They deserve more compensation than they get paid, and a lot more accolades for their work. P.S. it took me a full ten seconds to think of the word “accolades” because having a baby also makes you temporarily mentally disabled, apparently when you’re not even sporting nursing hormones.

no really, I like you just fine

Last night my parents watched our children for the first time for a sleepover night. It involved a makeshift bed on the floor with lots of quilts and falling to sleep while watching a kids’ movie. In the morning my mom made them a far better breakfast than I typically do and got them to school on time easily.

So at 9:19 AM – I wake up. The house is calm, there is no breakfast rush or kids teeth to brush or lunch to fix. I do chores, take a hot shower, listen to music loud and make our bed, begin sewing in my new sewing room. I check and re-check my schedule (Sophie gets out early from school today). Having a house to myself and having no risk the home would get messy anytime I turned around was a revelation. What a nice morning.

Then at 12:15, fully 45 minutes past when I was supposed to pick Nels up from preschool, my girlfriend calls on location to ask if I wanted her to bring my son home.

For about thirty minutes the shock I felt at forgetting my son’s pickup time clouded my knowledge of what the chain of events mean – sleepover, then forgetting a child. It’s simple: as a parent of young children, if I slow down my breakneck pace I run the risk of losing my system entirely. A more minor example of this was a girlfriend (the same one who brought Nels home today – thank you) who experienced a nice tea and cookie date at my house and was so enjoying herself she forgot her young baby was in the living room, unsupervised. It was like it took her a few moments of being able to straighten her body and not have someone grabbing at her hair before her mind went, “What’s different right now… Oh right, the baby! Yikes!”

At least I did not forget Sophie’s early release day.

My date night with Ralph was very nice. We both worked on our projects, did a little bit of housework, and watched a movie I’d been meaning to see (it was excellent; my husband didn’t seem too impressed although I would have thought he’d love it), and then had some awesome beard nookie (the beard makes everything awesome). I didn’t even miss the kids although today I was grinning ear-to-ear to see them again.

of goatsbusters and lo-fi

Today I sustained my first new bike injury. While attempting to strap a cardboard box on my rack (taking a moment to giggle immaturely) the bungee I was using, too short, snapped back and whacked my left index fingernail. I was kind of impressed with how badly this hurt. I now have a nasty bruise under the fingernail and I hope something gross and infected doesn’t result. Meanwhile I have Ralph put to work with a Stud Finder (another giggle) to put a hook inside the house for bike storage. Because yes, my bike will be living inside with me.

The local bike shop, I could see myself hanging out there – if I was someone who knew anything about bikes or had more money to spend on them. I have a hard time describing the shop owner T. Firstly, he is a very knowledgeable bike technician and a total pleasure to talk bikes with. Secondly, he is a little bit… different. Personally, I think he’s kind of cute but maybe that’s because I get inexplicable crushes on focussed mechanical savants who look like they don’t have girlfriends. At my parents’ last night while I talked about my new bike my husband asked why all bike shop owners are a little odd (he said “weirdo”, okay) and I said, “No wait, what about…” and then stopped. Because, well. He was right. I guess there was one bike shop owner in PT that wasn’t so much weird as arrogant. But the other two shop owners – woooo! And I had a crush on one of them, too.

Tonight we continued our pleasant weekend experience by a babysitting gift from our friend A. When Ralph and I arrived to pick our children up – after a lovely, lovely dinner at home including uninterrupted conversation – the children were in various states of costumery / undress and watching Ghostbusters (only one of the best family movies ever). On our way out with our two reluctantly-departing children we travelled out the back way to visit A.’s baby goats but the little creatures were apparently sleeping. I didn’t know goats took time off like that especially when there was the off chance we were delivering late-night alfalfa.

Then while home Ralph bathes the children and I start come chocolate rye coffee cake (for tomorrow’s breakfast – I’d love to make this a Saturday night / Sunday morning tradition) and mix up a batch of laundry soap. Sophie mistakes my grating Fels Naptha soap as a cheese operation and asks for a taste, which I oblige and we laugh at her nose-scrunching reaction.

I love weekends. We sleep in, I make Ralph do stuff, I clean the house, I cook for my family and we cuddle late into the night. Good times.

turn around three times and spit on the ground

Have there ever been a more connected brother / sister duo than Sophie and Nels? First there’s the sleep thing. Wherever the kids start out at night, they end up in our bed by early morning (Nels usually joins us between 2 and 4 AM). So today as I am going about my early-morning shower and washing dishes they are in a pile deep in my bed. After our morning guest E. arrives Nels takes time off playing with her to care for his sister (who started feeling better gradually through the day) by getting her water and feeding her hot cereal. Then, at the tail end of the playdate with E. they show her how to play flashcards: my children both sitting, crossed legs and hands in laps, while Sophie goes through the dual-alphabet cards as “teacher” and Nels models “student”. Now as I type this we are at the library, my two taking turns playing on the computer while keeping their voices down. All this in response to my request they not take every board game toy out of the boxes today.

Motherhood has made me superstitious: the moment I give thanks for my children’s good health I ahve doomed one of them to fall ill; here I think aloud on their synchronicity and likely they will embark on a catty fighting phase. Maybe the trick is to make sure one avoids gloating and sticks to praise and thanks. I am really grateful for my children and the way they relate to one another. I count on it most days; today I want to take a moment to be glad for it.

In other events: one thing that’s not so fun is to be hit with cripping, painful Lady Day cramps in the middle of the day when you’re out of home without Midol nor hot water bottle or trashy TV to crash on. What makes it even less fun is for this to happen while bundled up winter-style on a walkabout in HQX, with two young children in tow, needing to do errands then eventually get home and get lunch then dinner (thank you 5 lb. bag of flour!). How I sometimes miss the days where one’s emergencies and illnesses really could be focussed on, rather than the background symphony of larger, sometimes stressful dependent-care duties that no one else can or will do for you.

Library time is about over; time to bundle two coats apiece, hats, and off to a visit to my father.

living, breathing lives

My parents leave at 5; time for a family walk. We bundle everyone up and take to the small trails in the woodsy areas around our home. My daughter gets a rare turn in the jogging stroller, bundled in a quilt sewn by my mother. My eleven-month-old son is happy in his backpack, looking over my left shoulder. This is his preferred mode of transport. His eyes are green, cheeks flushed in the brisk air, and I can smell his milky breath. I feel blissful. Accompanying us is our neighbor’s dog, who we are sitting for 10 days. He is a Naughty Dog at times, but I love him. He chases off a larger dog in the park; then is beset by (count ’em) three dachshunds and a whippet – turns tail and flees. Sometimes I think dogs don’t mind if it’s themselves who come out ahead, they just like figuring out who.

The Husband and I review our weekend so far. Despite the in-laws – and the dogsitting – and the morning full of babysitting our friends’ child – he and I have had a few moments to ourselves. A morning shower together while Nels napped and Sophie played on her own in the living room. Time in the car with three (relatively) quiet little ones, and now this peaceful, invigorating walk.

Arrive home. My doula friend has dropped off our voice recorder gadget which she borrowed for some of her birthing clients. In reviewing what files to keep and delete I hear the powerful, painful sounds of a woman in advanced labor. Her vocalizations are long moans, pained but in control. I hear whispers in the background. Long moments of silence, playful laughter – some of it by the laboring woman. Listening in feels intimate, almost sexual. What a beautiful sound track for one of the most amazing passages in our lives.