It has been three years since I wandered the hospital hallways, watching medical personnel fill out paperwork and answer calls, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
It is also one day short of another sort of anniversary: the discovery of a betrayal that left me so raw, I forgot to serve cupcakes for my youngest’s birthday. When I finally arrived–red and swollen–her teacher asked, “What happened to you?” There were no words.
Today is the anniversary of an anxiety attack I had while hosting the same child’s party several years later. To avoid making a scene, I hid in my closet as the guests arrived, giggling, downstairs—until I hyperventilated and passed out on top of my shoes.
I have witnessed life begin and end, graduated several times, ruined a relationship, lost a couple of pets and a friend. Even in years when nothing of much importance happens, early May is a time when issues of mortality, trust, achievement, love, and the great unknown hog pile me until I cry, “uncle.” It’s when my crust is thinnest.
For some reason–the gift of repression?–I’m blindsided each and every year. You’d think I’d have the foresight to write it on the calendar or something—though, what to call it?
This morning, the first thing I encountered was a short story which began: “I call my mom once a year, on the day she died.”
And that’s when I remembered–all at once, mid-way through my daily decaf. Life is short, people we love come, go, and disappoint, jobs are lost, goals may or may not be achieved. Somehow, it is possible to carry on despite this knowledge; that is what makes the sweet moments so very sweet, and the milestones achieved so precious. In the meantime, I will hold my loved ones close, listen more attentively, and stop worrying about things like jobs and dishes.
Acne, drama, self-doubt. Excessive mooning about. A variety of binges and very bad decisions.
I behaved irrationally, irresponsibly, disrespectfully, and the one I treated the worst was me.
Yet having a teenager may be even more terrifying.
Still plagued by acne and self-doubt, my lingering woes are compounded by close proximity to this raw lump of developing human–one who wears her disdain, depression, euphoria, and ill-founded bravado at the very surface. Nothing I can say or do will serve as salve. It is what it is–a tough row to hoe.
Drawing from a menu of punishing mountain bike rides, power tool projects, heavy lifting–plus a litany of other sketchy activities most rational people avoid–this guy regularly attacks his protective coating, limbs, face, whichever part happens to be handy. It’s not unusual to point out a bruise the size of an eggplant, a mysterious swelling, or a bloody gash and watch him strain to recall its antecedent. Pain and injuries happen frequently, and the spouse just plows ahead, ho hum. Very occasionally–if a laceration is deep and dirty enough–he might swing by the hospital, because no one likes to take a Brillo pad to their own raw flesh. Only after stopping for a milkshake and fries, however. “Who wants to wait around in ER on an empty stomach?” he explained.
In his eyes, medical assistance is a nuisance to be avoided whenever possible. He once waited so long to call a doctor, and was so ridiculously cavalier about his symptoms, that by the time his appointment rolled around, the doctor took one look at him and sent him straight to surgery. “You should have mentioned that you’re Australian,” Doc advised. “You Aussies never complain.”
So recently, when he hit a bit of a health snag, I found myself in a bind. How much could I fuss without annoying the crap out of him?
We were on vacation out in rural parts, and I was about to tidy the path to the lake when my normally handsome spouse emerged from the water looking strange. “Are you having some sort of allergic reaction?” I asked him. He said, “Yeah. I think I got some lake water in my sinuses.” He sounded a little strange, too, but he shrugged and continued up to the car to get some tools.
Without giving it a second thought, I raked until he passed me once more, this time carrying lumber to fix the dock. He looked even stranger by now, and puffy. Wandering down to speak to him, I watched him for a minute, pulling off the rotting boards he wanted to replace.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Yeah.” By now his voice was beyond strange; his head and upper body swollen and beet-colored.
I was dubious. “I think we have some Benadryl back at the cabin.” He shrugged again, and started hammering.
Ok, ok. Play it cool. Enough anxious hovering. I quit raking and changed into my swim suit, heading down to the water’s edge. Maybe I should take a quick swim before heading back. But we should really head back soon and look for that Benedryl.
By this point, however, the spouse was unrecognizable. No swim.
“I’ve decided to head back to the cabin now, to see if we have Benadryl,” I said. He mumbled a verbal eyeroll. “It’s just my eyes,” he said, I think. The man sounded like he was chewing socks.
“Your eyes look terrible, but it’s your voice that concerns me; it sounds as if your throat is closing.”
Calling to the girls—out jumping off a raft–I tried so hard not to panic that I couldn’t get their full attention. Clearly they had no idea of the gravity of the situation, which was probably for the best. I left them with their aunt.
Normally quite difficult to corral, I somehow coaxed him into the car with me. “Why don’t you come with me? It’ll be so much faster.” I probably complained lamely about the inconvenience of driving back and forth. Then, once I had him in the car, I realized I could take him wherever I wanted. It’s not like he was going to leap out of a moving vehicle or anything. “You know,” I ventured, “we’re already halfway to the hospital; I think I’ll go there instead.”
He tried to argue—we weren’t halfway at all, and I could tell he was getting frustrated–but his tongue was easily five times its normal size, and we were already rolling. I turned toward the hospital, but not without some lingering doubts.
Now it all seems ridiculous. In the midst of a medical emergency, was I really worrying about him getting pissed at me for seeking help? In essence—I see now–would I rather he was irate or dead?
We walked into Urgent Care, the spouse’s eyes disappearing like two pissholes in the snow. “Um heffng a theveer ahluhgish ryeassion,” he announced. The intake nurse blinked once, looked at me, and pointed down the hall. “That way to emergency,” she said calmly. My first thought was: Thank god. Validation!
We didn’t fill out any paperwork or even make introductions before the wheels started turning. Medical personnel took one look and—all rooms being full–put him on a gurney in the hallway. A crew of four hovered and circled with an endless series of injections and an IV.
Sock Tongue said, “What am I? A pincushion?” It came out: “Wuddammiuhpuhncshnn?”
As the only one who understood him, I got shocked scowls from the doctors for laughing at such a grave situation, but I was thankful for an expression of levity from a man who might have died.
At last, one of the doctors turned to me. “You’re his call button,” she said, so the two of us loitered in the emergency room hallway for the next three hours, both wrapped in sterile blankets against the chill and the unknown. As time ticked on, the spouse looked less like an enflamed Michelin man and more like some distant, swollen relative. His blood pressure stabilized. The visiting doctors and nurses fussed less frequently; even smiled now and then. We picked up an epi pen—a new and permanent accessory due to some unknown allergen. With that in hand, plus the loathsome Prednisone and a boatload of Benadryl, we made our way back to the cabin, where my mom was hosting a strange little dinner party in full swing. Poor timing. What I wanted to do was hold the spouse and weep a little with gratitude. Instead, I tucked him in with a plate of food and a good book, and went back to listen to some mentally ill man yammer on about politics. “Jill Stein! Jill Stein!” he kept insisting. My thoughts wandered.
That means the station wagon we purchased in anticipation of her birth is already a teenager. Believe me, I can tell.
Here’s what’s good about the family truckster: it runs.
The trouble started a year or two after we bought it. The doofus replacing our cracked windshield re-mounted the rear-view mirror upside down. It took us a few months to figure out exactly what was wrong; I suppose that’s why we didn’t just call him back and make him fix it. Though it works, God help you if you try to adjust it. One touch and that thing will be swinging against the dash—leaving you to wonder how to get home without killing anyone. I’ve tried taping it up there, of course, but when the car heats up, the tape peels and dangles like streamers. Adding to the festive ambiance, the two pieces that were supposed to hold the mirror up are tucked in the side of the passenger door, making a little music with the random forks and pens when you open and close it.
Sadly, the mirror was just the beginning of a long, steady decline. Now, over a decade later, the dash and seats are scarred from endless bike and lumber hauling. A hairpin got caught in the cigarette lighter, shorting the system. Knobs were pried off by toddlers when I got tired of watching them destroy the house. The ashtray was kicked one too many times, leaving a gaping, crumb-filled hole between the front seats, and milk has dribbled from abandoned sippy cups into every nook and cranny.
Eyeing the disaster, a friend once mentioned that she kept her car clean by forbidding all food and drink. This confused me. “When do you eat breakfast?” I asked.
But certain issues are especially indicative of its teen years:
It’s sullen, sluggish, and difficult to steer. This vehicle would prefer to lounge at home at all times. When forced to move, it goes where it wants to–making it difficult to park, hurry, make a U-turn, and, of course, avoid disaster.
It needs constant refilling: gas, oil, and especially coolant.
It smells funny. Unlike my child, I am able to bathe it now and then, but for the past year and a half, coolant has been dripping onto the engine block and boiling away, releasing the noxious fumes into our choking faces. As the leak worsened, clouds started to pour through the air circulation system, a development which rendered the windows alarmingly and persistently foggy. (The spouse likes to squirt a bottle of water on the windshield first thing, which does clear it a bit–and might work well with the kid, too, now that I think about it.)
After the fourth unsuccessful trip to the garage, the mechanics gave us an ultimatum: pay two grand to have the entire system ripped out and replaced, or shell out a couple hundred bucks to bypass the whole climate control system. We opted for the latter. The first time, they put the hose in wrong which led to another issue:
It is unexpectedly soggy. Just as thirteen years of bottled emotions erupt in a lake of tears, we discovered about a gallon of chemistry had pooled on the floor of the passenger’s side. I have mopped and scrubbed, but it refuses to be clean or dry, so no one is allowed to place books or bags on the floor. And now that the hose has been properly installed…
It’s permanently unbalanced. Although the fan works, there’s no air conditioning or heat. When it’s hot outside, we’re trapped in a hair dryer; when it’s cold, the North wind blows.
What’s more, our car is dangerously volatile. The wagon has a new trick, which I unfortunately discovered a few days ago. The struts on the trunk gave out just as I was cheerfully stashing backpacks in there. Suddenly the trunk and my face got well acquainted. Not surprisingly, that has caused me the mother of all headaches. Note that the trunk doesn’t always collapse, so we are constantly, gingerly maneuvering around it–dreading the worst, and only slightly placated when it manages to stay open long enough for us to grab a bag without getting a black eye.
The spouse was on the freeway recently when the car in front dropped some large, vital piece onto the roadway. It was sucked up under our wagon, destroying two of the tires. Remarkably calm and clear-thinking under pressure, he managed to steer the car safely onto the shoulder. Later, he put his head in his hands. “Why did I do that?” he asked. “I had the perfect opportunity to steer right into the guard rail and get us a new car.”
He’s got a point. This kind of teenager will never go to college.
I waited until everyone filed to the backyard for the party before locking the door and pulling it closed behind me. Suppressing a bubble of laughter, I picked at my potato salad, waiting for someone to need a fork, a drink, the bathroom.
Instead of a laugh, I got a teetering, terrified trip up an extension ladder to the roof, where I climbed through my sister’s bedroom window–the only one ajar.
Descending the stairs as squeamishly as I had mounted the ladder, I unlocked the door for my mother and a spanking–stinging more for its publicity than pain.
Despite unending mountains of dishes, I love Thanksgiving. Gratitude is a potent tonic for many ills, and all others can be cured by a good meal with loved ones plus a couple of days off.
What I don’t love is the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
Luckily, no one in my posse complained when turkey was jettisoned for the moister, far tastier roast chicken, and banning marshmallows was a breeze. If only they recognized pumpkin pie as the clammy, odd-textured abomination it is. Squash should be savory. Let’s make a nice soup instead–with a little sage, perhaps–and follow with chocolate.
P.S. I thought I was alone in my lukewarm response to the classic turkey dinner until I read a piece in the New Yorker entitled, “Wonton Lust.” Here’s a brief excerpt from Calvin Trillin’s brilliant essay:
“The Thanksgiving ritual is based on eating, and, in that spirit, I particularly want to give thanks for the Immigration Act of 1965. Until then, this country virtually excluded Chinese while letting in as many English people as cared to come–a policy that in culinary terms bordered on the suicidal…. Naturally, I’d speak during [our Thanksgiving] meal about what Americans should be grateful for. ‘If the Pilgrims had been followed to the New World only by other Pilgrims,’ I’d say to the girls between bites of duck with Chinese flowering chives, ‘we would now be eating overcooked cauliflowers and warm gray meat. So count your blessings, ladies.’”
I remember when each hour crawled languorously before me—a caterpillar on sixteen tiny legs, inching from Pensacola to New York City and back before the mantel clock would chime again.
Two days before my birthday, I thought I might be 50 before I turned eleven.
Now the years skip about with surprising unpredictability, and I’m never certain how old I am on any given day. It’s not unusual for me to believe I’m in my late twenties–until I try to stay up past eleven, until I glance at my little ones, and realize we see eye to eye.