The Best Gift on Mother’s Day

What’s the best gift on Mother’s Day?  Every mom may have a different answer to this, but here’s mine: healthy children.  Not just my own, but as many healthy children all around the world that we, as a giving, loving, society can afford.

Six hours after my first child was born, one of the maternity ward nurses woke my husband and me in the middle of the night.   My husband was asleep on a daybed under the window and I was resting fitfully.  Our exhilaration at being new parents was tempered by bone-deep exhaustion from the afternoon’s events; my water had broken unexpectedly at home so we rushed to the hospital forty minutes away where I had an emergency C-section.

Hours later, the nurse was in our room.  “We want to send your baby up to the NICU.”

“What’s wrong?”  we asked, frozen with fear.

“Your daughter had an apnea episode.  She didn’t breathe for about twenty seconds and her lips turned blue. We could take a chance and see if she improves, but we’d rather send her upstairs and ensure she is more closely monitored.”

We had to wait an hour before we could visit her in the NICU.  We were buzzed in and passed babies inside incubators, babies with tubes inserted into their abdomens, babies who looked as if they weighed just two or three pounds.  At the end of the hall, we found our daughter wrapped in a receiving blanket under heat lamps and sucking on a green pacifier, her nickel-sized palm wrapped in a heartbeat monitor strap while machines above her beeped and flashed with mechanical precision.  I immediately burst into tears; the site of our tiny six-pound baby hooked up to medical equipment was jarring.  As a parent, it is absolutely awful to feel so out of control.  We spent the next three days in the NICU as doctors monitored her breathing to ensure her oxygen levels were normal.  In the end she was cleared to leave the hospital on time; we considered ourselves extremely fortunate, particularly after passing the other babies who remained hooked to ventilators and feeding tubes.  Our daughter is now a thriving three year old.  What she experienced as a newborn was frightening beyond measure, but we were fortunate, extremely fortunate, to have health insurance and access to quality healthcare.  As a mother, I do not for one second take my children’s health for granted.

It is because of this experience that I passionately support a new organization called Kangu.  Kangu is meant to evoke the Kangaroo, an animal whose young are carried safely, protectively, in the mother’s pouch.  Kangu uses “crowdfunding,” a type of giving that enables individuals to easily co-fund a cause they believe in.  Kangu’s cause is healthcare for mothers who might otherwise not be able to afford it.  Kangu mamas are currently living in places like Nepal, India, and Uganda.  I recently helped fund healthcare services for a mom named Fathima in Hyderabad, India; it was the best investment I’ve made all year. Kangu’s mission is a beautiful, empowering concept; small contributions, when pooled together, can yield disproportionately huge benefits for moms in real need.  A few dollars to you and me can be life-changing for a child gulping in his first breath of air.

So, what’s the best gift on Mother’s Day?  Flowers are beautiful, but their colors eventually fade.  Chocolates are delicious, but in the end you’re left with crinkled wrappers and a healthy dose of Monday morning guilt.  But a donation to Kangu?  That is a gift that will benefit a child in need for many, many years to come.   And on Mother’s Day, that is the best gift any mom could ask for.

To learn more about Kangu, please visit www.kangu.org.

Office Man

Hey, you.  Yeah you, Office Man.  With your chic Prada glasses, your fancy striped tie from Barney’s, your slim black brief case. Cheeks flushed, catching your breath as the PATH doors close behind you.  Wondering why the train smells like poop, then glancing down at my stroller.  I see those glances while you pretend to itch your nose.  Yes, that small pile of dust next to your shoes are Cheerios, Office Man.  I’m soooo sorry that I defiled this God-awful PATH car with my toddler litter.  I’m sorry I brought an open cup of Cheerios on the train, but you try leaving the apartment with toddlers screaming for cake. Don’t judge me, man.

I know it’s rush hour.  I know this stroller is huge.  I get it.  Toddlers and commuters on a cramped train don’t mix.  Yeah, I get it.  You’re soooo busy.  You have your gym appointment to rush home to, your happy hour with college friends, your Thai take-out in front of Breaking Bad.  I know you’re tired.  You slogged into the city, passed by construction equipment that buzzed and hacked and drummed holes into concrete and cement, hiked escalator steps, rushed through turnstiles, pushed past slow tourists who annoyed the piss out of you.  I did that grind for years, Office Man.  But you know what?  You can do all that crap in peace in quiet.  You can tune out to Maroon 5 or Jay-Z or whatever it is you listen to, Office Man.  

I’m soooo sorry my kids are screaming “Thomas!” like banshees.  Yes, I know they’re loud, Office Man. I listen to it. All. Day. Long.  Do not start with me.  Do not-

“Huh?”

Is Office man talking to me?  

“I’m sorry, what was that?  Sorry, I was lost in thought.  Oh!  Yes, I’m getting off at the next stop.  Yes, thank you so much, I’d love some help with my stroller! Thank you so much!” 

“Oh, you have two kids too?  Oh, gosh, please don’t strain yourself, this stroller is so heavy.  Yes, it’s big, and so heavy!  Oh, you have the same stroller?  Your two kids are only eleven months apart?  You’re on your way to pick them up in daycare?  Omigod!  You must be so busy!”

“Yes, you have a nice night too!  Thank you!”

Wow, I’m a real bitch sometimes.  

The Nightcap

“What time are you going?” Her voice was barely a whisper.  The stillness swallowed her words.

“Later.  Let’s talk a bit more.  We still have time.”

She smiled and looked down at her knitting.  The needles went back to life, clicking and sliding the thick yarn into place.  The smell of musty blankets and burnt toast clung to the air.

“What are you making?” he asked.

“It’s a hat.  For John.  I just hope I have enough yarn.  I always seem to run out too soon.”

He rocked as she clicked, a time-perfected synchronicity.

She reached for her glass, took a sip, then noticed the circle of shine surrounded by dust and crumbs from blackened toast.  She hurriedly replaced the glass and swept the crumbs onto the floor, hoping he wouldn’t notice.  She never was one for dust.

The rocking continued.

She told him about the tree in Mr. Magee’s front yard that fell down in the snow storm.  “It was dead long ago, the trunk rotting, the bark peeling into husks that littered the sidewalk.  Now with the tree gone, sunlight dances through the curtains I sewed together before John was born.  Remember?  I used the scraps from the second hand store on Pine Street.  Those were the good days.  We were young and stretched in too many directions.  Too busy, too rushed.”

He nodded, smiling, rocking, his foot tapping on the dusty floorboards.

She told him about the grandkids, how John was now in California, how he called dutifully every Sunday afternoon, at half past two because he knew how much she loved attending the 12:30 mass with Father Bill.

“Doesn’t he know that Father Bill is dead?”

“No, I didn’t bother to tell him.  Don’t want him to worry.”

He smiled, leaned forward in the rocker, elbows on his knees. “Did you invite him back home yet?”

She glanced up, eyes watering and lips pursed.  The clicking stopped.

“Not yet.  I’m not ready. I need more time.”

He nodded, then sank back into the chair.  “Take your time,” he said. “Don’t bother with what your sister says.”

The clicking of the needles resumed, then she looked up, her eyes bright and wide.  “I’ll invite John when the raspberry bushes are in full bloom. We’ll go berry picking, down where the backyard slopes down to the creek.  I’ll take the kids out, we’ll mash the berries and mix with sugar and syrup and make a pie and top it with vanilla ice cream.  Just like we did when John was a boy.”

He nodded, rocking again, the floorboards in rhythm with the sewing needles.  Outside, a sharp wind rattled a loose shutter from its screws.

They sat in silence until the yarn ran out.  Her hands alone again, she looked up at the clock, her eyes red and starting to well with tears.  Exhausted, consumed by another day of isolated grief, she laid down the knitting needles, rose from the rocking chair, and walked quietly up to bed.

The Intimate Recovery from Violence

This post was written shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

What happened in Boston this past week, what veterans see in war, and what inner city kids experience every day is real violence.  Not what the rest of us see on TV or read about on smart phones, but gritty, caustic, nauseating violence.  When violence does hit the headlines, the focus tends to be on the act – the bomb, the gunshots, the means of assault – then a brief period of mourning for those hurt or killed.  What often never gets discussed is what comes after: the private and intimate recovery from violence.

Recovering from violence is like an elevator ride to the depths of hell.  You are alone, in total darkness, surrounded by demons on all sides.  You have no sense of where bottom is until you finally hit it.  All you can do is hold on and try to survive the ride.

I experienced violence eleven years ago when my friend, someone I had dated, was murdered.  Even the most seasoned investigators were shocked by the brutality and randomness of the crime.  My friend was woken from sleep, bound and gagged, tortured for his bank card pin number, then strangled and left alone for two days until, frantic and distraught, we convinced the police to search his locked apartment.  When they found him, they had to identify him through dental records.  During the trial we learned that he had been a victim of chance; the kitchen window in his apartment was close to a drainage pipe that snaked down the side of the building to an alleyway below.  We later found out that his killer, who was tried and convicted, had been abused as a child, lived through foster homes, and attempted suicide in his early teen years; the tragedy, it seemed, knew no bounds.

Did justice through the courts bring closure?  Yes…and no.  Closure is an elusive ghost.  With a trial you have the satisfaction of knowing that someone was punished, that the rules matter.  But closure is about more than justice.  Closure is about reconciling the violence you experience with your previous worldview.  And that reconciliation is an excruciating process to undertake.

The immediate aftermath of violence, particularly when it is newsworthy as it was in my friend’s case, is traumatic from every angle.  There is the trauma of watching law enforcement go about their business; police officers swarming the site of the crime, questioning you as if you’re a suspect and telling you nothing about what is going on. There is the trauma of being questioned by news reporters who are well-coifed and rehearsed in their pity; you see in their eyes that they are looking beyond you to the potential of the story in the days ahead.  There is the trauma of feeling, for the first time in your life, what it is to be in a world without rules.

At some point the shock and awe of the violence slides from the news.  It starts to recede from the memories of those not directly impacted.  That is when you start your descent, alone and in earnest, into the depths of hell.  If you’re lucky, you have access to good healthcare and therapy.  You’ll need it, because your therapist is like the service operator that will help guide you down to hell, and then help you get back up.  If you’re lucky, you have a belief in something larger than yourself to cling to for support during the initial descent, be it God, a pride in country, anything.  But most of all, if you’re lucky, you have family and friends who love you and who are rooting for you.  They are your hope.  Your reason to claw back up after you’ve hit rock bottom.

The initial descent into hell is dominated by a singular revelation: a person’s life, just like a purse or a car or a pack of gum, can be stolen. We see this in TV all the time, but living it is entirely different. That life is so precarious and can be taken so easily, so wantonly, by another person is terrorizing.  For most of us, this concept is foreign because protecting and nurturing life is our state of normalcy; we take it for granted that everyone else feels the same way.  But in hell, it’s the opposite.  This revelation crystalized for me months after the murder when, holding my carving knife in the kitchen, I glanced at my future husband and thought to myself, “I could kill him with this; all I require is the will to do it.”  I quickly put the knife back in the drawer, disturbed by my own thoughts.  When I later told my therapist about it, she said it was normal to have such thoughts.  That your brain has to adapt to the trauma. But learning that these types of thoughts are “normal” after a trauma is cold comfort; you still feel like a freak.  You become afraid of your own humanity.

Being afraid of yourself, and feeling extreme discomfort in your own skin, is what characterizes the next part of your descent into hell.  You are increasingly consumed by a sense of dread.  You are now far enough down that you cannot see the world from which you came, yet you cannot sense where bottom is, either.   You cannot sleep because being alone inside your head is terrifying.  Silence and stillness are enemies.  You start leaving the TV on all the time, your nights bleed into mornings, and then sleep deprivation makes you increasingly irritable, more prone to outbursts and hysterics.  You search for ways to cope.  I chain-smoked for weeks and months afterwards, the smoke scratching down my throat and into my lungs, a searing catharsis to release the mental demons rattling inside my brain.  I understand why some people escape to drugs, alcohol, cutting themselves.  You need a release, any release.  What’s more, the demonic energy you absorb in hell needs an outlet; so what doesn’t get released through coping mechanisms eventually escapes anyway, often irrationally.  Many months after the murder, I became hyper-anxious around my mother; when I visited her, I would cry uncontrollably, sobbing and heaving on the floor anytime she left the house.  I felt despair in my gut, convinced her death was imminent.  The people around you start to grow increasingly concerned.  If you’re lucky, they stick by you, they tell you they love you, they re-assure you and give you time.

For me, the final phase of my descent to hell was characterized by feelings of suicide.  In my mind’s eye I was sitting on the precipice of a bottomless pit filled with dread and despair.  The pit had a pulsating energy to it; it was black nothingness that consumed the light.  I felt this pit swirling within my gut, I suppose within my soul.  When I had these feelings I cried uncontrollably and had specific thoughts about how I would kill myself, such as slitting my wrist with a razor blade or hanging myself from the planter’s hook in my living room.  My therapist told me that these thoughts, too, were normal.  She said that if I was really, truly, suicidal, my “plans” would have been more concrete and foolproof.  Her lack of alarm was a comfort to me, it helped me feel less deranged.  She also informed me that feelings of suicide were as bad as it got, rock bottom.  Somehow, it was extremely validating to learn that it couldn’t get any worse.  It helped to know that I now had a choice: to either stay in hell or start to haul myself back up that elevator shaft to a new normal.

Thanks to therapy, family, friends, and a belief in God, I recovered.  I was fortunate that I had means to make certain adjustments. I moved away from Washington, D.C., putting distance between myself and the countless associations with my life before and after the violence.  I got married and built a new life with someone who loved and supported me, and ultimately helped me move on.  I chose to leave therapy but I had close friends who were trained in psychology and social work; casual calls to catch up were transformed into hour-long discussions about grief and healing.  At some point I was able to finally let go; to say goodbye to my murdered friend and to live within my own skin.  To live within a world in which murder is not just a plot line on a TV show, but a real experience.  Now that I’ve lived through it, I feel tremendous compassion for anyone who must take that elevator ride for the first time.  I cannot imagine how much worse it is to take that ride after having lost a child, a brother or sister, a spouse, or a part of your body to violence.

I used to believe that things happened for a reason.  I now think that is simplistic and naive.  What I now believe is that when violence happens, we can choose to let it define us, or we can try to make sense of it.  We can learn how to prevent it going forward.  We can help shape a future defined by love instead of hate.  These beliefs are part of my recovery.

What happened in Boston this past week will have repercussion in the years to come for so many people who were near the bombs, heard the gun shots, or knew the victims.  It will surely impact those who are physically recovering in the hospitals.  What we can each do is acknowledge that their recovery is far from over.

Paradise

Paradise, I am coming.

Early morning, sun scraping up over the horizon.  Taxi-driven, far from home.  Alone.  Shards of sunlight dance across the cold white metal of the Airbus wing.  Bone tired, crushed with fatigue, I crave teal blue waves crested white with foam.  I long to feel powdered sand slip through fingertips dried and cracked from a winter that refuses to thaw.  I want to escape.

Escape from the kids, who build up my love with each smile, each giggle, each new word spoken, but then suck me dry with sleepless nights, shrieks and whines, and endless demands.  Escape from the chores; dirty diapers, milk-stained clothes, grapes squashed into a scuffed wooden floor, meals to cook, dishes to wash, clothes to fold.  Escape from the elements, which offer no reprieve; from park swings dangling by cold metal chains and mud-tracked slides puddled with day-old rain, from winter jackets, mittens, scarves, and hats; from whipping winds, ice tinged air, and steel gray skies sliced by shallow rays of sun.

The plane soars skyward, through the clouds, away from home, to paradise.  To fields of sugar cane swaying in the balmy breeze.  To bone white beaches and teal blue seas.  To a room that overlooks the sea.  I open the door and find a suitcase against the wall, a toothbrush still wet in a glass by the sink, and crumpled receipts by the phone.  I smile and drop my bags, then pause and take in his cologne that still lingers in the air.  First hints of paradise.

Detoured by a business trip, he finally greets me on the white sand as dusk settles in.  Gentle waves lap against our feet, the salty water licks at our toes.  In one hand, my purple drink, a thick, cold, delicious slush cut with rum.  In my other hand, his fingers linked with mine.  His hand is warm and soft, tender but strong.  I feel the fading Barbadian sun envelop us, love us.  Our hands, our love, our lives intertwined. We talk about home and his work, we talk about the kids, we talk about the mundane moments that add up to a life built together.  I feel the tangled pit of stress in my gut start to unwind, months of pressure uncoiling, disappearing into the balmy breeze. The conversation stops and we sit in comfortable silence, the stillness near-perfect. The marrow-deep fatigue drips away and I look past him to the horizon beyond, where the sun sets slowly, and I smile.

Paradise.

The Princess Firefighter

My daughter and I have a secret: a Princess Firefighter lives in Jersey City.

Her name is Constance Zappella and she is Jersey City’s first female fire captain.  I met Captain Zappella at a meet & greet for toddler girls.  The invitation read “I Want to Be Captain Connie!” so I took the morning off work, pulled my daughter out of daycare, and trekked to the firehouse, determined to show my daughter a woman with guts.  A woman with heart.  A woman who swam against the current and shattered glass ceilings.  The anti-princess if there ever was one.

Captain Connie & Mom
Newly sworn-in Capt. Constance Zappella is kissed by her mother, Maryann, at the end of the ceremony. Photo/Caption by Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal (Article from December 17, 2011 written by Terrence McDonald)

Oh, how I needed an anti-princess.

I was not shocked when my daughter first started showing a preference for all things pink. When she started demanding choice over what she wore – usually with a stamp of the foot and an exasperated “but that onesie doesn’t go with those tights!” – I assumed it was a control issue.  When “princess” started to dominate her vocabulary, I smiled, thinking “so cute that she’s passing through this phase.”  But then it persisted.  “Princess” encapsulated all toddler aesthetics; princess toys, princess shoes, princess toothbrush, princess hat, princess stroller, and so on. She had never seen a Disney movie and her TV was limited to Sesame Street and Thomas the Train; where in God’s name was this coming from? What would happen as she grew older?  Was my daughter going to get sucked into the Cinderella storyline?  Become a Snow White stalwart?  Start to ingest the female-as-submissive fairy tale theme at such a young age?

As my confusion grew into outright concern, I received the invitation to meet Captain Connie.  The perfect opportunity to nip this princess persuasion in the bud.

When we arrived at the fire station, Captain Connie was there to greet us, dressed in navy cargo pants, a short-sleeved navy shirt, and thick-soled boots.  With soft blue eyes, blonde hair swept back into a tight ponytail, and manicured nails painted pearly white, Captain Connie cut against her workplace like a diamond in the rough.  The fire station was all function, no beauty; straight lines of concrete, cold gray steel, and piles of coats and boots stored behind metal cages.  Not exactly princess territory.

IMG_3384
My daughter sitting at the kitchen table inside the Grand Street Fire House in October 2012. The metal cages holding gear are visible in the top left of the photo.

We gathered around Captain Connie as as she knelt down and held out a fire helmet for the little girls to touch and explained how firefighters climbed up ladders to rescue people from burning buildings, wore heavy coats and big boots, ate together in a big kitchen, and rushed off to a fire when the bells rang.   Before long, the firehouse speakers blared to life announcing a fire emergency.  Captain Connie donned the heavy coat and boots and the firetruck roared to life. She jumped into the shotgun seat and, with sirens blaring, bade us farewell.

As I walked home I felt like a failure.  The metal cages filled with gear and the fire truck pealing out of the driveway had frightened my daughter.  The kitchen was all she was interested in, which seemed a pointless reason to drag her out of daycare and miss a day of work.  I felt more confused than before.  I was not connecting with my own child.  Worse yet, I came to a realization – felt it in my gut – that trying to tamp anything she expressed so naturally, so innately, was wrong.

And then fate intervened.

Several weeks later, I was strolling my kids across a busy downtown boulevard in Jersey City when my eye caught three figures marching towards us.  Two men in uniform and a woman wearing a knee-length skirt and heels.  The JCFD Headquarters was across the street so I pegged the men in uniform as firefighters.  The woman’s hair was blonde and it bounced off her shoulders, worthy of a shampoo commercial.   As they approached, I could barely contain my excitement as I leaned down into my daughter’s ear and whispered, “Look, honey! That’s Captain Connie!”  Then, without thinking, I added, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”  My daughter glanced up just as Captain Connie and her colleagues walked by.  “Where is she, Mommy?  Where?”  Her eyes darted in all directions, but Captain Connie had already passed us.  But then, her interest piqued, she proceeded to ask a litany of questions about who Captain Connie was, where she worked, why she was pretty, and why she was walking across the street.  Without so much as a second thought, I found myself telling her that Captain Connie was a princess firefighter, that she was brave and bold, and that she was dressed in her princess clothes because she was going to a big party.

It was a breakthrough moment for me.  I met my daughter on her own turf, using princess power to communicate and connect.  I also realized a grievous shortcoming within myself; I had boxed Captain Zappella into the box of “firefighter” when in truth she was a whole person, a whole woman, more than just a career.  From that day on, I threw aside any fear that using “princess” to describe the life around us would somehow harm my child.  In fact, I have found it is very healthy; it allows us to connect, it validates what comes to her naturally, and I can gain greater insight into what she finds interesting, challenging, and at times frightening.  I march with her through imaginary adventures and join her in a revelry of pink, ruffles, and all things sparkly.

Every child’s life is fraught with complexity as the years progress.  But for a toddler, those years, and those discussions, can wait.  Because for many little girls, mine included, princess power is real.  Princesses can have guts.  Princesses can have heart.  Princesses can swim against the current and shatter glass ceilings.  Just like the Princess Firefighter.

My Speckled Notebook

My favorite place to journal when I was a teenager was my black and white speckled notebook. The smooth laminated cover, the thick white thread cutting the book in half, the dull black tape serving as a spine. It was a companion.  A private space to experience Life through words.

The world has changed dramatically since I was a teenager twenty years ago.  Private thoughts splash through LAN lines, across wireless networks, into living rooms and bedrooms, all in an instant.  We share who we are – sarcastic, introspective, sensitive, vitriolic – through words, sometimes typed carefully but often typed hurriedly, a momentary flash of emotion etched permanently in bits and bytes on server boxes that hum and click in protected solitude.  In this world, now, more than ever, words matter.  They are a record of who we are.  A record of who we become.  They provide a transcription of the journey we take as human beings, as mothers, fathers, children, and as neighbors.

As for my journey, I now stand at a nexus of my own making. I can pivot in many directions, and for the first time in a long time I feel a sense of profound choice.

For eight years I slogged it out at a consulting firm.  Most of my time was spent on PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets, emails, client calls, team meetings, or some form of travel.  The frenzy of life had a cache to it; I was important, critical to the team’s success.  I stayed in five star hotels, traveled in business class, and was on call with high tech devices that I checked, by habit, seven days a week.  My mind was always at the office, always thinking about the next sale, the next project, the peers I had to out-compete.  Fifty plus hour weeks were considered light while eighty hour weeks were unspoken quarterly mandates given the ebb and flow of the work, the constraints of an understaffed team, and the expectations for yearly compensation bumps.  Go, go, go.  Don’t stop. The Job is Life.  Life is the Job.

Then I had kids.

I took on new jobs – mother, nanny, cook, laundress, healer, advocate.  New priorities surfaced. Health, schooling, community, personal growth of toddlers becoming conscious of their world and demanding explanations, insights, knowledge; every day I juggled these priorities, none more important than the other, yet all co-dependent, all critical.  I stretched in different directions, reached for new meaning in the face of observations posited by children who were awakening to a world with no Before, no Later, only Now.  My life demanded a change.

So I quit.

I wrote my first and, until now, only blog post about quitting my career in consulting a few weeks ago.  My friend Patricia, the writer behind GoodMomVsBadMom.com, invited me to write about transitioning from working mom to stay at home mom.  I was surprised at how cathartic it felt.  Putting words to my feelings gave me the same sense of satisfaction that my black and white speckled notebook gave me so many years ago.  Words are gems that can sparkle off the page if we take the time and care to nurture them.  They can help us define ourselves to others.  They can help us come to terms with our own lives; who we are and who we want to be.  So now the journey continues, one word at a time.