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.
I’ve had cats for most of my life–all short-haired, lithe creatures with dignity and self-control. I scoffed at other, substandard cats: the ones who binged and barfed, destroyed the furniture, and peed in the corner.
Then came Elsie.
At first she played endless games of fetch and slept on my neck like a tiny scarf. Such charm! Such genius! Once again, I felt pretty smug. Elsie had long hair, which which she deposited generously, and she developed odd habits that made me question her IQ–why would a black cat sleep on the floor right beside my bed, even after being stepped on thirty or forty nights in a row? I’m half-blind with a miniature bladder, and she’s nearly invisible in the dark. Think, cat, think! But then she’d bring her toys and purr in my ear, and all doubt would subside.
Now that her fetch days are over, however, I struggle to entice her with catnip mice, yarn, or even the laser pointer–a toy supposedly irresistible to our feline friends. If I’m lucky, Elsie will drag herself half a yard across the living room rug before flopping in a heap. She still sprawls on my head at night, though, kneading and purring, while dumping her ass-end on the spouse’s pillow. This explains his difficulty sleeping and my recent trips to the chiropractor.
“When did you trade your adorable cat for a giant mop?” a friend asked. A reasonable question, but I don’t really know. It must have happened infinitesimally slowly, in the midst of the chaos and clutter of daily life. We did nothing different with this one: topping up the kibble, checking the litter, letting her in and out ad nauseum. Isn’t that all you need to do with cats?
Recently, I woke in terror as an intruder ascended the stairs. “Calm down,” my bleary-eyed spouse advised. “I set the alarm; no one’s in the house.” Unconvinced, I went to investigate, but all I could find in the shaky circle of my flashlight was my beloved fur turkey. What was happening here? It took half an hour to get my heart rate down and admit that my cat made the stairs creak. Considering Carl Sandburg’s poetic line: “the fog comes on little cat feet,” it was time to do something about my corpulent pal. As a Bay Area resident, I’ve seen the fog roll in a bazillion times, and it never makes a ruckus.
Since Elsie’s unable to reach around her belly to groom herself properly, she has also developed a case of back dandruff and a small mat near her tail. I’ve tried to help. I now own a variety of supposedly life-changing tools—all with names like “The Furminator” and “The Unhairing”–but the only brushing Elsie will tolerate without retribution is on her cheeks. This doesn’t solve any of her developing issues, but man, oh man, are her sideburns soft and sleek.
As her mat grew and multiplied, I began to consider professional grooming services, which felt like some sort of personal failure. After all, I cut my kids’ hair—always have—and only recently graduated from Supercuts myself. How could I drop that kind of cash on a cat, especially since they’re supposed to groom themselves?
To make matters worse, the cat carrier scares the crap out of Elsie. Literally. Ever tried to remove diarrhea from the long fur of a pissy cat? I wasn’t about to shell out for a kitty day spa, only to arrive home with a fecal-crusted ball of claws. Not only did I need a groomer, then, I needed one to magically appear at my doorstep. Too ashamed to ask for recommendations, I rooted around on Yelp.
Apparently magic entails a lot of paperwork. After filling out four pages of disclaimers and waivers–basically assuring the legal team that I would pay for every scratch and tear my pet might inflict–I started to panic. Elsie’s not a fan of strangers, or being held, or grooming, or anything besides eating and hopping on my head in the middle of the night. But what choice did I have? So I continued. I answered all sorts of logistical questions and personal queries and checked a litany of boxes: dry shampoo, thank you very much. I’ve seen what a terror my cat is when she gets wet. Yes, yes. A thorough brushing. Nail clipping. Booty buzz. Extra fees for mats. Dang. This was adding up like a weekend in Napa.
Nine days later, help arrived in what looked like a Frito-Lay truck. Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha was friendly and fierce, with big, brawny arms. Immediately at ease, I handed Elsie over. “Please remove your cat’s claws from my flesh,” Agatha said calmly. She was so calm, in fact, that I thought I had misheard. Next, we reenacted an episode of the Three Stooges before prying my pal off because–let’s face it–Elsie has four paws, and I’ve only got two hands. She proceeded to glue herself to the exam table like a starfish. “Ah,” said Agatha. “The pancake defense.”
Agatha took this moment of paralysis to lecture extensively about reading food labels and calculating the proper caloric content for a cat of this stature. “Even an extra ¼ cup of kibble a day could have caused this,” she said sternly, pointing to Elsie’s swollen torso. She introduced me to the concept of “puzzle feeders,” devices designed to make my cat exercise in order to get her food, and gave me a pep talk about pet health and happiness. She advised me to start setting aside $2,000 for a deep dental cleaning when Elsie turns 10.
Then she went to work. Agatha was not a pushover like me; she gave Elsie a brushing to remember. “I call it ‘making kittens,” Agatha explained, “because there’s a ball of fur big enough to make another cat.” This was no exaggeration. “Look at all that fur you won’t have to eat today,” she said to an aggrieved Elsie, as the hairy mountain continued to grow. She brushed with the fur and against it. She hauled the cat up and brushed her belly, her legs, her tail, her hindquarters. “You need to check her lady parts frequently for foxtails,” she advised.
I’m pretty sure I’ll repress that advice—just like the vet’s recommendation to brush my cat’s teeth.
Agatha clipped claws, removed all mats, and shaved the butt of my yowling cat, even managing to fasten a purple bow-tie around her neck. Elsie looked great—maybe even a few pounds lighter—but she was mad as hell.
I tipped Agatha extremely well. I couldn’t have made kittens without losing a limb.
These days I’m brushing Elsie more regularly–on more than just the cheeks–as well as feeding her more conscientiously. She’s still quite large, but I’m not worried. I’ve got Agatha’s number, so help is just a paycheck away.
I have never parked in a disabled parking space, but I have looked longingly at the empty ones. They are always so tantalizingly convenient–right by the front door of wherever I need to go. I have caught myself wondering why places like Safeway and Home Depot have set aside two, four, or even six spaces, when they often sit there unused. Just look at all that prime parking real estate!
Hey, I think. I’ve been circling for eons and I’m in a ginormous hurry. Or, I grumble about what a pain in the ass it will be to lug the crate of water/shop-vac/propane tank to or from the car. Life would be so much easier if I could just park in one of those geographically desirable spots.Thoughts like these may be accompanied by a twinge of something inappropriate, too–jealousy? resentment? Hopefully not “going to hell”-sized bad feelings, but enough to make me feel a little ashamed.
Likewise, I’m no tri-athlete, but I have occasionally rolled my eyes at the slow movers of the world. The I-need-a-scooter-to-meander-through-Target types, the ten minutes in the crosswalk folks. You know. Those people.
Then, six weeks ago, I leapt off a rock and significantly altered my worldview. I felt a horrible rip and shock in midair, knowing before I landed that the next 24 hours would be spent lying on top of a bag of frozen peas–instead of hiking and frolicking in paradise as I had planned. So much for my trip to Wilson’s Promontory.
It was time to drag my torn calf muscle home. Stubbornly refusing a wheelchair at the airport, declining the boot from the doctor, and hiding my crutches in the hall closet, I started to wonder what my problem was. Weeks passed before it dawned on me: I don’t want to admit that I’m middle aged, let alone mortal. And now that I’ve got the gait of a pirate crossed with a slug, there is visual evidence that both are true. In the frenzied ebb and flow of urban life, I am a visual thorn, causing people to stare before rushing past.
Walking into a store the other day, I heard the greeter say, “How’re you doing today?” Before I could answer he added, “Oh, my.” He grimaced. “Want a cart to lean on?”
No, I don’t want a cart to lean on. I want a new friggin’ leg. This one sucks.
At the crosswalk, people wave for me to cross…then scowl as they realize how long they will have to sit there. At the store, on the street– everywhere I go–I’m the one making you all wait, and I can tell I’m driving you crazy.
Shoot, I’m driving myself crazy. Everything I do takes three times as long as it used to, so I’m doing less and less. Forget something upstairs/in the car/at the store? Oh, well. Can’t find my phone? Make calls later. No shoes handy? Drive carpool in slippers. I make decisions based on how long I might have to stand or how far I will have to walk. If I need milk, I go to the market with the dairy closest to the door. If parking’s tough, I go early and circle like a hawk. And you should see the strategies I’ve adopted for unloading the dishwasher. Thank goodness I work at home, so I can ice and elevate whenever I need to. Theoretically, anyway. Sometimes the freezer just feels too far away.
After my daughter’s piano recital last week, I had to walk from the performance space to the reception. Noticing a couple behind me, I lurched to the side. “Go ahead,” I offered. “I’m terribly slow.” “Not to worry,” the man replied warmly. “We have issues, too.” I saw, then, that his wife had a pronounced limp. We exchanged smiles and hobbled along together for a while–not talking; just understanding. It was a relief to know that at least these two people would not get annoyed or leave me behind.
The past six weeks have felt like an eternity. Despite my frustration, however, I need to keep in mind that while I will start physical therapy next week, some people may never be able to run around. I’m fortunate and I know it, and this injury has given me a lot to think about. What’s been my hurry, anyway? In a hundred years, will anyone care that I had to wait an extra 15 seconds for someone to cross the street or get into their car? I won’t. I’ll be six feet under.
There. I’ve admitted it. I’m mortal.
So, if you need a little more time in the crosswalk, that’s ok by me. I have nothing but empathy for the slow folks out there these days. And don’t worry; I won’t be encroaching on any of those disabled parking spots until biology dictates I must. With any luck, I’ll be getting older and slower someday, so prepare yourself. I’ll be needing your patience and understanding.
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.