oh you know, the typical cuts and scrapes of childhood

Today I did, after all, get my opportunity to spend some rather kid-focused time: my oldest child had a horrific crash on their bike while hurtling downhill on Endresen in HQX.

I handle emergencies well. It’s a gift. I maintained a calm voice and did not doubt what it was I had to do. Blood was pouring out of their nose and they were crying. I gently staunched the flow with my extra t-shirt. The sun beat down on us, very bright and hot. I walked us a few feet to the shade at the riverbank, tracking both children and both bikes, and at this point I re-checked the nosebleed; it had slowed. I felt their limbs and examined the many, many scratches and bruises. I looked at their pupils and gently checked their head, ascertained neither nose nor teeth were broken. We sat there for a while, my child’s head in my lap, their brother’s eyes huge, he was worried they would lose too much blood. Blood and tears had flowed liberally and I was stained by both. It was only my calm that kept things from being so much worse than they could have been.

After a time they are ready to go home. I hide their bike in the bushes. I could pack their bike on my own, but I am in too much of a hurry, fuck it if it gets stolen. I need to get us home, to warm water and cold water and Tylenol. I put my coat around them; they are already calming. Their lip has swollen to an alarming degree and this, plus the potential of a dental injury, concerns me; besides water from my water bottle and a t-shirt, I had not yet been able to put a true cold compress on their mouth.

I am on the bike and I’m a determined machine, not at all inconvenienced by the extra weight and the heat. The kids grow still and comforted by the very familiar experience of the bike. Phoenix says, “The wind is starting to soothe me,” and it is this point I am further satisfied: they are going to be okay. We pass through the cluttered backstreets of N. Hoquiam, a pitbull, mamas in halter tops smoking and listening to hip hop. A golden, shirtless young man says, “Hey, that’s cool!” about my bike. I say, “Thanks!” as I hurtle by and he follows up with, “It’s a lovely day out!”

It is a lovely day out; but I must get the children home. I am a steady, alert mother with two children on my bike and the sun is fire on my skin. I am a train engine getting us home surely, and calmly, but now. We pull up to the house and Nels brings blankets; I slip Phoenix’s blood-splattered dress off of them and put them on the couch. Water. Tylenol. Ice compress. I am literally pouring sweat, which physically feels good, later I will wash up. I am calm but focused entirely on the children.

It’s only later – after I’ve given them a bath in warm water with epsom salts, a few drops of tea tree, geranium, and organic lavender; it’s only later after I’ve called the pediatric dentist and we’ve made tomorrow morning’s appointment; it’s only later after their doctor has allowed us to bring them in and performed a very thorough examination, finding, thank goodness, nothing at all worse than my original assessments. It’s only later.

It’s only later that I start to fall apart. I relieve the incident and have my own reactions. I can hear the sounds behind me the wind did not obscure when they started to lose control of the bike and call out for my help. I can feel the fear and experience the terror of such a profound crash, a crash worse than any I remember from childhood. I re-feel, vividly, my concern that they’d busted a bone, if their arm was held out at an angle from a break (it wasn’t). I can feel the hot blood on my face and somehow worst of all, I can taste the grit in my teeth.

They are safe at home, my mother picked up the hidden bike and then swung by for my youngest, Ralph is coming home. And my head begins to throb – I so rarely get headaches – my body slows down. I am weighted down with the precise knowledge this was my fault. This isn’t a decision, this is not a series of facts that bring me to this. My child was hurt rather badly and no matter what anyone says I am responsible. Funny how just the other day I’d told my own mother she worried and over-managed my emotional pains too much as a child. Funny because I am crushed with misery for an event that my child is already moving past.

My child is fine. After I called the doctor, secured an immediate appointment, and told them we’d be heading out they said, “We have to ride up the hill? Can we drive instead?” politely. They fervently wished for swimming tonight (the doctor said no – their many skin abrasions might contract an infection from the public pool). They gardened with their papa, bringing in pints of strawberries for jam. Being home and they are laughing, smiling, and friendly to the doctor, a deformed lip making them all the sweeter and odder.

They are fine. This is a “nothing”. This is a, “kids play rough” kind of injury. They are fine, but I am less so, and it will take a bit more time, and maybe a restful sleep, to feel differently.

P.S., if it was you Ms. Pop Tart, you don’t have much to educate me on nutrition for children!

Today was an odd, ephemeral and lovely day for the most part, consisting of an enjoyable afternoon out first on the bike, then to lunch and grocery shopping with my parents and my children. I can usually only hope to steal my mother away for daily errands in between the events in her busy schedule (said “busyness” sometimes consisting of just being around the house for my dad – it’s very sweet, they like hanging out with each other and almost no one else). And of the four members of my FOO I’m the only one who likes going out to eat (not strictly true: my brother likes eating out but is so tight-fisted with cash he simultaneously judges others or feels guilty himself upon indulging), so it’s rare I have enthusiastic partners in this endeavor.

I may sound like I’m poking fun of my family but the truth is I enjoy spending time with them near as much as my own wee foursome. One of the chief good trappings of this day was that my father came along with us. He has been feeling better, despite new tumor growths in his lungs and bones. His good spirits seem largely due to the fact he’s had more than two months off chemo (his choice). It’s sad to see him off chemo because chemo keeps him alive (albeit tortured and sick). It’s almost, in its way, even sadder to see his hair thicken and his skintone liven and his skinny 6′ 3″ frame gain a few pounds. He starts to look startlingly good. I look at him and think to myself, imagine how healthy and hale he would be now without cancer treatment these last eight years. This is almost the worst kind of thought to think because it takes me back to What Could Have Been, a place I for the most part abandoned and don’t often glance at.

I feel oddly exhausted to recount a strange episode from this morning that almost ruined my day: we were visited by a gentleman from DSHS on an issue of child welfare – in fact my child, Nels. On Saturday afternoon my son had ventured out (in the nintey-plus degree heat making him restless, I suppose) two blocks afield and was asking neighbors for food and drink. A neighbor brought him back straight away (after feeding him bottled water and Pop Tart) and spoke to Ralph, who apologized for the trouble and thanked the neighbor for bringing our son home. My husband was pissed – cranky from the heat, angry at Nels for wandering off, irritated at me for – I’m not sure what. Because I know Nels and know there’s little we can do except to talk to him about what he shouldn’t do and why. But anyone suggesting we “make” him forgo venturing off on his own on some too-grown, precocious endeavor (harmless or otherwise)? Bitch, you don’t know my son!

So imagine my mild surprise, then shock, then bemusement, offense, and small dark cloud of rage forming between my eyes when a stranger showed up and wanted to look at the state of my housekeeping, the food in my fridge, and the nurturing conditions and mental stimulus afforded my children (all of which were running smoothly, of course). Here’s the weird thing: of course I support these programs and am glad to see what I saw operating in Grays Harbor County this morning. And in theory I tell myself I wouldn’t judge nor place myself above the parent who would benefit from these services. But I found out today it’s another thing entirely to have them at my own doorstep.

The gentleman interrupted the kids and I as we were studying world atlases and preparing dough for chocolate croissants (the food tying into the geography lessons: croissants from France, as pointed out on the map, and chocolate from – usually – South America). The social worker – who was completely professional, matter-of-fact, and friendly, none of which made the incident less unpleasant – told me the call was from someone (maybe the neighbors who’d returned Nels, maybe not – who knows?) who had reported this was a “drug-addled” neighborhood (WTF?). The sole purpose of his visit seemed to be – besides “checking us out”, which had included a call to law enforcement – informing us of services we could take advantage of. In fact at no point did I hear an admonishment or feel chastised in any way; rather, I’d seen a window into institutional procedure based around helping people help themselves. This was an odd relief and in accordance with what I would want from social work at large. Still, I couldn’t help wonder: what if my fridge had been empty? What if my house was a pit, or I had a sick kid, or what if Nels runs off again?

Before the social worker left I sat my son on my lap and explained briefly that it’s a lot of trouble (for me), drama (for me), and paperwork (for Mr. DSHS) brought down on us for a four-year old to venture off like that, even once. I don’t think we made it too heavy-handed.

I know Nels couldn’t have known that for me the incident sparked this terrifying, irrational, yet nevertheless thoroughly soul-sickening feeling of the loss of one’s child, a fear that lives in the bottom third of my heart no matter waking or sleeping and pumps a noxious cold blood-substitute whenever circumstances hint toward anything of the kind.

"just like me… empty inside"

Tonight I walked the kids to my mom’s to have dinner. She was in a muddle of what her current state often is: stress / drinking to relax or relieve stress / over-giving / enjoying herself. The part that was enjoying herself was the part that invited us for dinner, made a lovely stew, and had rented some family movies. The part that was over-giving was the part that tried to make the stew “perfect” for us then (and this was the part that was stressed and used drink to manage it so inhibitions were dropped but not the underlying stress) used an angry tone on my children for preferring their cornbread and eating it first. My dad took some special medicine and seemed to be feeling better than he had over the last few days (something tipped this week and he has now become someone “dying”, no longer someone coping with illness. I’d like to feel differently on that one if I could) but this meant he retreated for our viewing of Harry Potter and I didn’t get to see him much. It was a nice dinner and I really did enormously appreciate the night out and the homecooked meal. But I can’t get away from the the strain and bad feelings that my life’s dinnerplate seems to hold when I look down at what I’m eating.

I’m getting that really paranoid, really perfectionist sense of angst. If anything goes wrong I am a wreck (internal, so as not to inconvenience anyone). Sometimes I get a vision of who I might be when age and senility set in. And it feels small, like tiny wheels turning in my head, mucked up and in semi-darkness and doubt, unsure of myself unless someone tells me they love me or not just that they love me, but they promise not to be mean to me. Today I missed two appointments I had. One I was able to recover OK; the other I just completely missed. This is rare for me. And when I screw up like that on a commitment I make to others, or something I told myself I’d do, or whatever, I really just hate myself and it eats away at me for an indeterminate amount of time.

I don’t think but two or three people close to me realize what a perfectionist I am. I laugh at the term “perfectionist” a bit because no one who knows me would think my life looked perfect. Yet that drive, that insatiable unsettledness, has a strong a grip on every aspect of my waking hours. I hold myself to ridiculous standards and then feel bad, like pit-of-the-stomach bad, when I inevitably screw up. I have to have a clean house or if I don’t, a plan to get it clean. I can’t relax until housework is taken care of; then I’d better relax correctly. I hate myself if I have something to drink, or if my husband and I aren’t getting along for the evening, or if somehow during the day I was amiss in my parenting. I have to take care of my kids properly which means clothing and grooming and brushing and flossing and if they miss a night of this I have to demand my husband help but if he doesn’t do it I feel like a failure that we don’t provide this to them. I have to meet my commitments on the three volunteer leadership positions I’m in. If I don’t meet them I feel I can’t get over it or make amends to those I might have (usually only minorly) inconvenienced. No, for me if I mess up, it means people hate me and they have a right to hate me. It takes me a lot of internal thought and sometimes discussion with a friend (Ralph, my mom, or Cyn mostly) to “talk me down” from the ledge of I-Suck.

For a half year I wouldn’t allow myself to buy the family clothes but had to scrump, sew or thrift them. This was a fun and interesting project, sure – but it also became a burden at some point. I hold myself to the standard of preparing nutritious meals without taking culinary shortcuts. I feel bad if I buy anything “extravagant” or even buy anything without having it on a list first – or else I eschew cooking altogether and go out to eat (which, for some reason, feels like a tremendous ease on my daily cooking burdens). I choose to, for God’s sake, plan, write, edit, layout, and design for a zine which I then have to publish on our shoestring budget. I have to balance my marriage such that I support my husband and manage my own needs without asking for his emotional help when I’m fragile – which I am all the time these days, whether it’s apparent to others or not.

Some reading here may think these confessions mean I’m a miserable person all the time. That is precisely the problem; I’m not miserable, I love doing so many of these things. Every effort of mine is born of love and energy. I thrive on creativity, on learning now to do things well, on pushing myself just a little bit because it seems like I can. I do sometimes congratulate myself on the fact that I can “coast” as a housemom on some days and do well at providing for my loved ones. I love every single thing I write, or sew, or every meal I cook or the way my counter looks when I wipe it down. It is precisely the dual love-hate of the work vs. the drive to do the work right, every time, that makes for tricky terrain.

Perfectionism, as far as I can tell, has no easy cure. It isn’t a matter of, “Why don’t you do less?”* That question is like asking, “Why don’t you stop having the Kelly-brain?” or, “Have you thought about leaving your tits at home before you go out in the day?” It’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t follow. My struggle with perfectionism could probably only be helped by – no offense to any reader who thought I was more hip in some way – prayer and discourse with God. My struggle with perfectionism was manageable in PT. It has become at least trebly difficult since moving here. I have my ideas of why this would be; for now it’s enough to recognize it’s happening.

One thing, the walk with the kids over to my parents’ was nice. I’d prepared us for the cold – coats, hats, gloves and good shoes – but the rain started falling intensely and there was nothing to save us from the wet of eight blocks. How to explain a Pacific Northwest winter rain? It is not violent at all but rather like a cold spell that covers us, the air filling with rain that is safe, nourishing, life-giving. You expect rain so you don’t begrudge it except a few weak moments, here and there, in the five solidly soaking months we get per year. You get home and strip off your clothes and put some in the dryer and towel your hair (we don’t generally use umbrellas here) and fix coffee and look outside at our beautiful weather. Tonight I watch my children on the walk. Sophie walks self-protectively. She puts her hat on firmly and zips her coat and steps carefully but purposefully. Nels just barges out into the elements, sure that he will be fine. I start to know he’s cold and wet when his hand creeps into mine and he falls silent. The children act as if they were born for this weather.

* If any well-meaning friend writes or says, “You should relax your housekeeping standards,” or “Why don’t you give up such-and-such?” I will deliver a cock-punch via Airmail.

so where are you going to i don’t mind / if i live too long i’m afraid i’ll die

Insomnia. Again. No external culprits: no late-night caffeine, no alcohol. Exercise earlier in the day. No illness. Just nerves. Alone, abandoned, sad. Listening to my family sleeping. At least the cats are outside cold (yes, I’m about to let them in). At night I tell myself that in the morning I’ll feel better. It doesn’t help much but, of course, eventually I do sleep. If I was prone to ulcers I’d have developed one.

My days are good. I have been so busy lately – in a good way. I’ve been working really hard at helping my daughter’s class in their learning and enjoyment of school. Her teacher is awesome in that she will help me integrate a food or food activity into the lessons they do during the week. Ever since we started dong this stuff my little bird-brain gears spin away, bordering on the way-too-involved. Today was pumpkin pie day, pumpkin pie being the food the kids voted on earlier in the week (I’m sad they didn’t vote for the soup, which would have been more fun to make!). Two-dozen individual pies and one large one for the teachers. The kids sat and unfolded a napkin and we listened to a song about manners while they all ate. It was a nice scene.

Next week I’m even worse. I am currently cooking recipes and planning a little school unit on bread-baking which includes book holds at the library, a Sesame Street video podcast, and a book the kids and I worked on today.

I have been putting together my zine (website pending) which I must finish before I allow myself to sew again (post-Halloween resolution). I am on the preschool board and run little errands for that which aren’t rocket science but nevertheless take up a bit of time. Ralph and I have had two meetings each this week (I missed one), being more active in the film / theatre community here. And just trying to keep on top of housework and stay happy with the children and take Sophie to her swim lessons and enjoy peaceful evenings at home. We’re hitting it dead-on this week, for a change. No strain, just fun.

Here’s the thing: anytime someone tells you they’re busy it’s easy to not care, to tune out what they’re doing. But the point is I decided these things were important. I decided I cared about them, I committed to doing them. It’s different than a paid job where someone gives you a formal accolade or a formal paycheck and says, “Yes, that’s what you should be doing.” It’s a good groove though; I’ll admit. Today after baking pumpernickel bread my children opted out of playing together to come back in the kitchen and help me make two-dozen rolls (homemade burgers tonight for my dad’s dinner). One nice thing about having an at-home parent is your children learn so very much from you. It is truly an honor and inspiration to have them as pupils, too.

The hour grows only later and my body does not feel ready for sleep. Nevertheless I shall try.

nels is across my lap and i’m spanking his tighty-whities to the beat of his favorite lily allen song

I’m nervous about tomorrow morning. My parents are meeting with my father’s oncologist to discuss his recent PET scan. I have been sad about something but haven’t yet said anything: we have some not-good news as of a couple weeks ago. My father’s CEA count (which is basically, a cancer indicator – read some medical jargon here if you really want to) jumped 20 points at the last test (hence the diagnostic PET). One thing this probably means is he will be off his “nice” chemo soon and back to a nasty one that makes him sick most of the week. Really sick. And full of rashes and nausea and all sorts of un-fun things.

I am dumb and superstitious about that CEA number. If it jumps, I think, He’s going to die. It feels like as hard a blow as it did seven years ago when he was first diagnosed. I am just as upset, and I have just as much of a denial reaction, I am angry at anyone who doesn’t understand what this feels like (which is a lot of people).

Yet I also feel like I’m supposed to have some sort of perfect balance of support, optimism, faith, and gritty realism. Somehow I’m required to have this perfect attitude that will tip the balance towards: longer survival. If I don’t stay vigilant (doing what?) then he will get sick and die. Then there are the days I know that no one is assured any number of days, the moments I am at peace with the inevitability of death, they days I am just glad to have another day. These are the days I walk with the kids in the sunlight and am filled with joy. But then the “can do” attitude admonishes me – not to give up, not to get complacent. Be a winner! – somehow… or… he’ll die. I will be partly to blame. It’s exhausting.

It’s also a helpless experience, because as much as I follow his health and ask how he’s doing and try to be there for him, I can’t help him. Not really. First off, he doesn’t ask for help in any clear way (very few people do). Secondly, I can’t take away the sickness and the poison in his veins no matter what I did (I just add other nourishing things like homemade meatballs and fresh lemon meringue pie).

We moved here in large part to be with family while family was sick and struggling. I am daily glad of this choice although it meant leaving things we loved. If I hadn’t moved here I’d get to avoid experiencing these troubling and exhilarating times. That would probably feel more comfortable than it feels right now. But I’m not really a person who seeks comfort above all else.