Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Taking a Break

Other writing projects are requiring a pause in my regular blogging activities. But I'll be back later. I promise. And I"ll let you know when.

Friday, October 13, 2006

In Defense of the Toddler

I love the toddler more than life itself.

It was another Hospital Day, today. This time, it was the toddler's turn in the Peds Allergy Clinic. Our mission: find out why her nose has been running since August; find out why she's developed a nasty sleep- and exercise-induced cough.

With an investment of 2.5 hours and a $10 co-pay, we left the clinic armed with a special folder of instructions on how to care for our baby who is showing signs of asthma--who is clearly, by result of a subcutaneous reaction to mold spores and dust mites, highly allergic. Our aresnal of supplies include a steroid inhaler and six inch evacuation chamber and rubber face mask (complete with duck-face detailing), a new round of antihistamines, a back-up supply of prednisone, and a fast-acting, "emergencies" inhaler in the case that she starts wheezing after exposure to a hay-filled barn, a pile of leaves, or, more simply, the outdoors in October. We've been reminded of everything we already know in regard to indoor dust-mite allergies: get rid of carptes, curtains, pillows. Encase her mattress in dust-mite-proof barriers. Wash her bedding in near-boiling water every week. Wash Puppy and Blanky every week in water hot enough to skin the dog alive and kill his fleas.

My poor toddler: who's woken every night for the last sixty days with a rattly cough, who runs and rebounds gleefully and precociously on the giant trampoline in the backyard only to stop to catch her breath, ragged on mold spore inhalations, and cough in orgasmic waves.

"Is it truly reasonable to assume that the allergies are the trigger for her cough?" I inquire of the expert-head-of-Peds-Pulmonary-and-Allergy.

"It's very reasonable," he says, "especially given that she's your daughter."

This is no personal jab. Merely the acknowledgement that I have tested allergic to every known allergen (every commonly tested allergen--fifty-some in total) in the state of Iowa, except for the Moth, the Caddis Fly, and the Cockroach. Why did the cards fall such that I tolerate creatures who inhabit greasy spoons and dumpsters and not the fugus that grows on our silver maple tree leaves?

It ocurrs to my the very ornery toddler has been fussy for reasons beyond behavioral imitations of her older sister. Of course I knew this already. But it occurs to me again: She's been miserable for two months. RIght now all I want to do is trot her through the hallways of the Pomerantz Pavillion and put on a show--shine up her shoes, drag out dust-mite-infested Puppy and see if I can't get his internal voice box (water-damaged in the washign machine) to rasp out a bark and catch the attention of a few passers-by for my extroverted Dalai Lama. Let me get the crazily gleeful women from Child Life back to sit with her for a few hours--the women who jumped around our exam room with bubbles and a spinning SpongeBob toy while Evvy was injected five times on each arm, while the male nurse said over and over how she was the best "they'd ever had--at this age" because she didn't even start crying till the sixth injection. Does it matter she is the best? She still wept and tears spilled down her face to her naked shoulder and mixed with blood from the injection sites on her arm. After the shock wore off, she still recoiled from the hold of the foreign Hospital Blanky the nurse had wrapped around her back, between me and Ev, while I held her. And then she asked for Daddy, who walked in the room as if on cue, and she still needed to take turns with each of us holding her for five minutes apiece for the next hour and a half. And, thanks to the brief snippet of Jungle Book she saw on the waiting room television, she announced to us, this day, she is newly scared of elephants.

There is so much to rue.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

How Winter Makes Everything Harder, or How the Toddler Exhibits Borderline Traits

What is it with the children and their stuff? The four year old has amassed mountains of objects all loaded with personal attachment. The standard baby blanket (think Linus) has turned into a collection of five. They are not just blankets—they’ve become proper nouns: Pink Blanky, Blue Blanky, Green Blanky, Purple Blanky, Dora Blanky. She arranged them on her bed in random fashion, every night wanting to be covered in a different order. “Blue blanky first, Dora blanky next. I don’t want Blue tonight.” On top of this she has “Old Puppy” named such in contrast to New Puppy, Old Puppy’s intended replacement at her 2 year birthday. By then Old Puppy was tattered to such distinction that there was no easy trade-off between stuffed animals. New Puppy became an addition to her bedroom collection of stuff, yet was never esteemed as highly as his predecessor.

The four year old has taken to collecting things she needs in bed with her during quiet time and night time. She has a special green cylindrical shaped block, smaller than a thimble, which is Old Puppy’s food, which he can never do without, and which easily gets lost in the middle of a night in the mass of Blankys. Next to the puppy food is the small flashlight keychain in the shape of a computer mouse “so she can see in the dark,” although this aid has never prevented her from storming out of her room at four o’clock in the morning to tell us she’s lost her Smarties.

Against the grain of my dietary values, the husband and I allow her five Smarties after lunch and dinner, along with a chewable calcium supplement in the form of a lion or a cat, depending on what I shake out of the bottle that night. She wants to amass great numbers of the tiny pastel discs on her bed, and saves the candy in neat little rows until she’s accumulated a day’s worth, two day’s worth. Twenty Smarties all lined up in marching order. Or sometimes, she fluffs up Purple Blanky so it forms great peaks and valleys of yarn on the bed and deposits one smarty in each valley.

Today, she peed on the er bed during quiet time and all of these things had to come off before I changed her sheets. The smarties were carefully unloaded into a small cup, the blankys piled on her floor in one corner in order to avoid the rows of wooden blocks she’d arranged on the floor.

The toddler is following suit. It seems she’s adding weekly to her collection of must-haves. They are not just must-haves for bedtime, but necessities for changing location in the house, for hopping in the car with me to pick up her sister at preschool, for sitting on the front porch. She must have Puppy (my father continued the tradition by giving her one of her own). She must have Blanky—which is a knitted white blanket the size of a small afghan. She must have her special plastic sippy cup. And last week she took possession of an old beige headscarf of mine with roses on it that has not been worn with any seriousness since 1999.

Transitions are difficult with her these days, for mysterious reasons. As soon as I announce we are preparing to leave she becomes frantic, clingy, pacing by the back door or following me around the house with her arms loaded down with Puppy, the afghan, the milk, the headscarf, requesting that I “carry you.” I can’t escape to the bathroom to pee before we leave without her standing between my legs and jumping up and down with her arms outstretched. In order to protect my injured shoulder, I wait until the last minute before leaving to heft her and her accoutrements up onto my hip, but before that—inevitably--in her trek across the house in pursuit of my last-minute scrambled, running around the house self, she trips on a block or her plastic phone. This sends her flying onto the floor, where she cries and recovers under a pile of dirty white yarn.

The recent cold weather this week has made the children’s possessions and their toting of them much more burdensome. Today I found myself carrying the toddler out to the car and weighed down with—it seemed—twenty pounds of outerwear, Puppy, the headscarf, the cup, a diaper bag slung over my shoulder carrying my wallet, the presumed diapers, the wipes, the leftover bagel from breakfast in case she got hungry later. The four year old can pitch in these days, and carries her own snack bag for preschool and her pack of epi-pens to the car on her own. Today, after climbing into her booster seat she announced she forgot Old Puppy.

“Oh,” I said with as much empathy as I could muster. “Do you think you can do without him today?”

“I can’t.”

I sigh, but not loud enough to blow my image as an attentive, in-love-with-her mother. “I’ll get it,” I tell her. “Just hang on.” I leave her and the toddler in the car while I run back into the house. The gloves I’d forgotten are sitting on the table. For a split second I wonder if I should take them with me, I have so much stuff. And what can I accomplish with gloves on anyway theses days? Will a gloved hand be able to finger the lock button on the car remote after we park? Will that hand be able to reach into the recesses of the toddler’s carseat and feel for the seatbelt’s release button?

I stuff them into my coat pocket and charge through the house in search of Old Puppy.

When it comes to cold, I’ve always had an every-woman-for-herself philosophy. If the husband and I stop for gas I never volunteer to fill the tank. If I am alone with kids on a tank-empty day, I stand in the cold and jump for warmth while I fill up the car. My eyes, frost-stung, eek out tears. The goal is and always has been: keep the hands in pockets or gloves at all times. Since I got over my junior-high phobia of coats (because coats were fattening), layers and outerwear and covered skin in winter was nonnegotiable. But now, saddled with the two children who can’t even put socks on by themselves (let alone hats and coats), I’m forced to contend with my hands in an ungloved state. I’ve never had sadder winter-hands than I do now. They chip and crackle, breaking open on knuckes and fingernail seams and sometimes on the backs of my palms.

I drop the four year old off at preschool and continue through town to the hospital where I’ll get my allergy shot. It’s insane, I think over and over to myself, to drag the toddler out in the cold, park in the hospital’s monstrous parking ramp, wrestle the umbrella stroller out from the tangle of other strollers in the trunk of our van, lug her out of her carseat, hand off the afghan, the scarf, Puppy, the cup, attach the diaper bag precariously to the stroller handle, and wheel her through a quarter the length of the hospital for this, the subcutaneous injection of mold spores and dust mites, which certainly haven’t prevented my having to take two antihistamines, a nasal spray and a steroid inhaler this fall.

The gloves lie on the passenger seat where I deposited them after turning off the ignition. Should I take them with or shouldn’t I? I know the pores of my hand-skin will begin aching and grow brittle in the short walk in the cold, but I’ll have to take them off anyway, to lock the car, or feel around in the diaper bag for the toddler’s snack. I look at them longingly on the passenger seat and stuff them into my coat pocket.

I wouldn’t mind all this so terribly much except for there is little reward these days. The therapist says four-year-olds are microcosmic teenagers—experimenting with rebellion and needing you at the same time. Love and hate. She hates my singing, the music I want to listen to in the car, and the weird oogly sounds I make to entertain the toddler. Perhaps the love she has for me is implied in the other things she hates: Not getting my full attention at a moment’s notice, i.e. I am handing off an urgent run-down to the husband of the day’s events, activities, food-intake of the children, and dinner menu before I run out the door for an appointment and she wants to tell me about the sudden crumb that made its way into her enchilada sauce. She hates my rules, because one of them means I don’t spend the mid-day quiet-slash-“alone” time with her while the toddler naps, and how sometimes I want to lie on my bed all alone without any conversations about the arsenal of Smarties she’s currently shaping into the numeral six on her bed.

If the four-year-old is modeling fourteen-year-old behavior, then the toddler is modeling the four-year-old-modeling-fourteen-year-olds. “Mommy: Stop singing .” For the first time, the toddler barked at me during a replay of a favorite car song.

“I can sing, Ev.”

“Nooooo!” she screeches without anywhere near a proper buildup of conflict to elicit such a reaction. But that’s what it’s like with the toddler these days. I am never prepared enough to anticipate her objections, nor her spastic arm-flailing which I think is just a mask for an all-out punch at my face. “What do you want for lunch, Ev” I asked yesterday. I got feet stamping and shouts. “NO. It’s NOT lunchtime! NO.”

In the car on the way to the hospital, she dropped the headscarf and began pleading “I drop it my blanky. Get it, Mommy,” she pleaded.

“Sorry, Ev,” I can’t right now. You’ll have to wait till we get to the hospital.”

“Noo,” she yells.

“Sorry, kiddo.”

At this, she launches into a hyena-like pitch and shrieks.

When I’ve unloaded her into the stroller, she frantically asks after the dropped headscarf.

“It’s right here, Ev. I got it.”

“Good JOB, MOMMY!!! You DID IT!!!” she cried with such delight and apparent mirroring of the kind of praise that I give her that that you wouldn’t think she was previously cursing me at heart.

In the hospital, she is Shirley-Temple like, stopping to say hi to Shelly, the janitor we see on our way to Clinic B every week. She holds out her puppy for Shelly to take and giggles when Shelley asks if he is, indeed, her puppy. Her next act is to tell people about the shoes. “I got my shoes on,” she says in a bashful little voice, looking down at her feet and holding one leg up in the air. Everyone goes crazy at this. “Oh, you have shoes on???” they ask in superlative speech and wide smiles, as if this is the greatest breakthrough in toddler communication, when in fact she’s just told every random stranger who stopped to talk about her Stride Rite velcros.

And random strangers do stop to talk. They take her puppy, who is actually equipped with a hand-hole for puppetry, and do a small show there for her in the hallway between Elevators B and C. “She’s such a doll,” they say. And if they don’t say something, most of the women pass by with smiles and nods as if she is the Dalai Lama.

It feels like I’m living with my borderline mother again—jolly and boisterous one minute and raging the next—except this time the crazy one in the family is underage and I’m the grown-up who should be sane enough to know and mature enough to deal with exactly what is going on: The toddler is not-yet two. She has limited powers of communication. And she has a big sister.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, or Why I Like Jesus

In a writing course last year, the instructor assigned such essay topics to the class as you might encounter in sixth grade. "My Pet Peeve" launched me into a 10 page tirade on Christian anxieties. I wish I could land somewhere with the assignment, "What Jesus Means to Me."

Oh God.

(No pun intended.)

It was my third pregnancy after a year of trying to get pregnant and miscarrying. I was at a woman's retreat put on at the pastor's home after having taken a prego test only a day or so before. Every time I went in the bathroom I was swiping for blood, scrutinizing the toilet paper for a full fifteen seconds and wondering, each time, if the tiny red specks I saw in the paper were from its recycled particles or from my uterus recycling its parts. I'd had enough of spotting in the past year. Every trip to the bathroom during a pregnancy was tantamount to preparing to hear a final sentencing. Would this baby live or would it die?

And then, fifteen minutes into the beginning of the retreat my OCD took over and I found myself in the bathroom, swiping and then staring at a small splotch of unmistakeable red that did not come from Soft N' Gentle's manufacturing plant.

Oh, how many times I have wanted to talk about toilet paper, and wiping, for that matter. Toilet paper means everything at the beginning of a pregancy. It's as good as having a daily progesterone or hcg test, as good as having the lab results charted every afternoon. Blood shows up on toilet paper in a pregnancy gone awry, in accord with falling hormone levels. And toilet paper is the eight ball in the whole process. At least, it can be. Sometimes women bleed and it means nothing at all--though not in my experience to date of that pregnancy. Bleeding always meant something bad.

How do I describe the feeling of betrayal in that moment. Soft N Gentle had done nothing wrong. It was me, it was my body, my egg, my uterus, possibly my husband's sperm, that was failing me. I left the women's retreat, the softly-lit living room and musical voices of women who were glad to be together. The worship leader was just playing a chord or two on her guitar in preparation for worship. I left, got in my car, drove through Iowa countryside to get home. I was jerking my knee up and down, unable to sit still, unable to focus on the dark road.

Mark wasn't home when I got there. I ran inside, found the CD, and pressed the repeat button on the CD player.

Carry me. Your love is wider than my need could ever be.

I played it as loud as I thought the neighbors' ears could afford. My need was beyond wide. My need was beyond great. Could love be wider? I needed love to be wider. I slid my torso down the pine cabinets until I sat on the kichen floor. I screamed. I screamed. I screamed.

I screamed like the woman you see in movies whose seven-year-old son just fell over a cliff, the woman you know won't ever be the same because the loss of her son is like the loss of her capacity to breathe. I screamed like that woman even though I hate being that woman, and I never let anyone see that woman (especially the women at the retreat), except maybe Jesus. I sometimes let him see me that way.

I wish I had it in me to let him see me that way more often. Usually its done under my own emotional duress, otherwise he certainly wouldn't force it out of me. He never does.

Maybe this all has to do with why Jesus lately appears to me with the cross in the background, as if I need a reminder that he felt pain, too. Maybe this is why I dig him so much--although I think it's a pretty bleak statement that I connect with him mostly because of pain. I keep thinking that there's this whole other side to Christianity--this side where you're just really joyful all the time and nothing's got you down. But why would I think that? I'm a big believer that shit happens to everyone, Christian or not. I'm a big believer that God brings peace in difficult circumstances. He doesn't load our plates up with trips to the carnival and big band music. He's not Mary Poppins 24/7. Still, there are some pretty sweet deals where Jesus is involved, but nothing about knowing him means I don't hurt. It just means I'm comforted.

Jesus said in one of his teachings, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted." And maybe that's what happened on the kitchen floor on a warm September night when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. He didn't give me any assurances that this pregnancy was going a good direction, although he could have. Really, the only thing he gave me was himself. I felt his presence inside every scream. Felt the weight of comfort bearing down on my chest like a heavy blanket.

Fasting People

Fasting people scare me. Not people who fast, but people in a state of fasting for spiritual purposes. They are much more serious than I feel comfy being around while I'm not-fasting. I also have the slightest inkling they think I'm the shallowest person in the world, so I hardly ever want to mention such things as getting my haircut, our new storm door, or my latest scrapbooking project/Christmas present for the girls.

Fasting people are very serious. I fear they don't have much stamina for excessivity in speech or thought or conversation. I suspect they find radio and television shows irrelevant and boring and probably think I'm very misguided in my weekly taping of Gilmore Girls. I fear, even, to exude too much bodily enthusiasm in their presence; after all, they are weak and sobered by their hunger and/or spiritual revelations of their own depravity and God's great love. Who cares about Lorelei and Rory? Who cares about home repairs or sports.

And rightly so. If I were fasting 40 days, I'm sure I would become socially bankrupt, unable to engage in any of the regular and mundane social interactions that seem to be required of citizens these days. I can presume this because I've fasted, and the hunger and headache alone were enough to keep me locked in the house and ignoring the phone and email. And Gilmore Girls fell so flat when I felt so empty and desperate for Jesus to address my own depraved self.

The pastor and other highly invested members of our church are on day 33 of a 40-day fast. (Does this mean I'm not highly invested?) Now, I should give them credit: They've managed to produce light banter on their ends of conversations. They've laughed and smiled at all the right moments, even cracked a joke or two themselves. But aside from trimming down physically, they have sobered up. I can see the seriousness on them like grim, heavy cloaks. I presume they've been in touch with Raw Need, Desire, and Truth. I presume God's been in touch, too. He usually is, in circumstances like these.

In the meantime, I'm watching to see what comes. I know there'll be rejoicing and celebration next week coinciding with a few bowls of vegetable soup (followed by hot fudge sundaes??). And hopefully, they'll have stocked up enough on Revelation to last them for a long while.

I'm just the teensiest bit jealous about that.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Scare Tactics

I'm on the treadmill last night, walking three miles per hour. Like a magnet, the treadmill draws the children downstairs from all corners of the house. They sit as close as I'll let them come. Sitting on the basement steps, they are mute, wide-eyed as my feet move on the spinning belt. They know they'll be sent upstairs if they make the slightest advance toward the treadmill, which dangers I've articulated graphically, in light of the experience of an acquaintence whose three-year-old stuck his hand under one a few years ago.

I've given similar frightening explanations regarding trampoline safety, to discourage Una from pouncing on Evvy, to drive home the reasoning behind the required time-out for chasing Evvy almost-off the ten-foot-wide tramp.

I say in my most shocked and somber voice, "If Ev were to fall off here, do you know what would happen??? Do you know why you're in time-out?" Invariably, she doesn't know. Saturday I told her about brain damage, how her sister might lose her ability to speak, see, or think if she were to suffer a fall from the tramp. "Imagine what it would be like if you couldn't see where you were going. What if you couldn't find your puppy?"

This registers briefly. "Find my puppy?" And then: "Why couldn't I find my puppy?"

Again: "If you were BLIND..."


The children don't sit still much for anything these days. After a record-breaking ten minutes of watching the treadmill in a state of relative paralysis, the 1-year old shimmies down to a lower step, a step closer to the treadmill.

With admirable reflex and instinct, the 4 year shoots her arm across the baby's chest. "Evvy. Come back. Your skin will peel off."

With equal reflex, Evvy hops back to her original position and ingests the seriousness of her sister's tone. "Oh. Okay, Una."