Roots and Wings

“There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

They don’t let me write publicly about them anymore. Not by name, anyway.

They captain their own ship now. Except, of course, when they’re steering toward rocky cliffs or when the sea is too stormy, then I get the helm. Or maybe they are the stormy sea, and I’m the boat. Or vice versa. Or maybe I’m a particularly powerful head wind, slowing their course, and try as they might they can’t steer out of it.

Or maybe I don’t yet know what metaphor to use for this time in our lives – a time when our intertangled selves, which has been one whole thing for so long, are disentangling into three separate beings. (But whatever the metaphor is, it involves being yelled at for “all my rules” in the same thirty minute period that I have to remind them – yet again – not to leave trash, dirty socks, and a pile of papers strewn over the living room floor.)

All of which is to say: they’re teenagers now.

By the time I got married at 25, I’d already put two babies up for adoption and gotten one of them back five years later (which is a story I’ve never written, but that lives inside of me, wordless, threatening to erupt like a volcano or boil.) I didn’t want more babies. My ex-husband and I, on our honeymoon, sat in lawn chairs on a golf course in Maui drinking mead in the middle of the night and discussing how we were just going to raise Sierra and then live out the rest of our lives alone, together, traveling the world. But then, on that same island, we had unprotected sex – the one and only time in our, at that point, 4 year relationship. When I went to the doctor to discuss my sterilization options when I returned to Portland, I had to take a pregnancy test. And, of course, I was pregnant. And, of course, I happened to produce two eggs that month.

Honeymoon in Maui

Maui, July 2001

Only, I didn’t know it.

It took my ex-husband and me a long time to adjust to the idea that we would have a baby, after so adamantly agreeing that was the last thing we wanted. But after discussing options and possibilities, we agreed together that we would love and raise our child.

Over the months, I swelled with what I thought was one really healthy baby. I often stood in the shower until the water ran cold, stroking my belly, talking to it, watching the sharp body parts of my son poke out as I spoke.

“I get to keep this one,” I said to myself, often through the happiest tears I’ve ever cried. “I finally get to keep one.”

Then, ten days before I gave birth to my baby, at 36 weeks pregnant, I passed out at work. I’d been doing everything “right” and without insurance – eating healthier than I ever had before, not smoking, drinking plenty of water, and seeing a midwife, who my husband and I paid for out of pocket. I had all the procedures that were necessary, but an ultrasound was never needed. I didn’t care about the sex of my baby and I didn’t want to pay the high out of pocket cost just to see an unclear picture of a human-shaped blob. As far as hearing the heartbeat, I was able to do so at every appointment with my midwife. She would play the sound of a single, strong heartbeat on the monitor, and that was good enough.

But when I passed out at work, it became critical that I get an ultrasound. My midwife was worried about blood clots or some other danger that could harm me or the baby. I made an appointment for an ultrasound that day then called my husband and asked him to please pick our daughter (who he adopted after we got married) up from school and meet me at the imaging center.

A few hours later, I lay on an exam table in the private office of a naturopathic doctor, my husband and 9-year-old daughter by my side. We were all quietly worried. The doctor put jelly on the ultrasound wand and turned on the machine. He placed the wand on my belly and swooped it over the entire surface in big arcs, pausing here and there for a better picture of a specific place. He didn’t say a word, but looked deeply concerned. Finally, he said, “OK. Here’s the problem.”

He ran the wand along the right side of my giant belly and said, “Here’s a spine.” Then he swooped the wand over to my left side and said, “And here’s a spine.”

“Oh my god, my baby has two spines!” I thought, but remained quiet. My husband and Sierra remained silent as well. We all stared nervously at the doctor, not understanding.

He moved to wand to a spot way down by my mons pubis. “Here’s a head.” Then he swooped up near my sternum. “And here’s a head.”

Six confused eyes stared at him. He sighed. “Twins,” he said. “You’re having twins.”

“What?” I asked, feeling the blood drain out of my face. I looked at my husband. “What?”

Then there was laughing and crying and stunned proclamations of, “Holy shit!” followed by more tears and laughter. We three stayed in this trance-like state of giddy disbelief and shock for ten more days while my husband and I acquired extra diapers, clothes, and car seats. We canceled the birthing tub we had reserved for the birth, as, at that time, home births for twins was illegal. My husband called every clinic in town until he found one doctor who was willing to attempt catching twins naturally, even though one of them was breach.

On Valentine’s Day 2002, at 10:30PM, I gave birth in a bright hospital room surrounded by my husband, my daughter, my doula, my dear friend Elaine, the doctor, the nurse, and six residents who stood alongside the wall in surgical scrubs, observing. We were at a training hospital and this was a concession I had to make in order for a doctor to even consider not scheduling me for an immediate C-section. But I didn’t care. Invite the fucking media if need be, I thought. I am having the last babies I’ll ever have. And I get to keep them.

I was prepped with an epidural in case something went wrong and they had to perform a cesarean section after all, but in the end they didn’t. After seven hours of labor, I delivered Baby A, who came out headfirst, gooey and perfect. The nurse cleaned him a bit and handed him to me. It was the first time I got to a hold a baby I gave birth to immediately after his emergence into this world. The nurse placed Baby A on my chest, and right away, he began inching his way toward my breast. I pulled him up to it, with no idea what to do next. But it didn’t matter. Baby A latched on instinctively. He couldn’t even open his eyes yet. He was smaller than a lot of baby dolls. Yet, somehow he knew how to nurse. I began sobbing.

Meanwhile, down at the business-end of my body, the delivery team were preparing for Baby B – the only one I’d ever felt moving. The one way up at the top who did wind-sprints the last month of my pregnancy. The breach one.

A woman I’d never seen before sat down on a stool and faced the target. She slowly and gently reached inside of me all the way up to her elbow. Even with the epidural, I was uncomfortable as she jiggled and punched around inside my womb, feeling around for Baby B’s feet. I was in full-on sensory overload. I clutched Baby A to my breast and watched in the strategically-positioned mirror on the wall in front of me as the woman’s arm slowly withdrew until her hand emerged – and, with it, came feet. Then came a butt. The woman held Baby B by the feet and reached her other hand into the birth canal and carefully twisted out first one, then the other hand. Then the head came out and the woman caught it.

But something was wrong.

I looked from the nursing baby at my breast, who I was never going to let go of, to the residents, nurses, and doctor and tried to make out what they were saying, hearing only a low hum of whispering voices. I heard “not breathing” and looked to my husband, who had joined the crowd of professionals. They had their backs to me and formed a wall over the table where Baby B had been placed.

“What is going on?” I said, panicking. I looked at Baby A. Then at the wall of backs muttering about Baby B. “What is wrong? What’s going on?” I repeated.

“It’s okay. Breathe. You just take care of that guy. We’ve got this,” my husband reassured me.

He walked up to where the crowd of medical professionals stood, assessing, and grabbed Baby B by the foot, then shook it. He called Baby B by name, gently. “You can breathe now,” my husband told our son. At exactly that moment, in what is either a miracle or a coincidence, Baby B took his first breath. Soon after, he was handed to me.

Baby A was already asleep at my breast by the time I got Baby B into my arms. Just like his brother, he instinctively crawled up to my breast to nurse. I held them both there for the first time, staring from one to the other over and over, my mind trying to make sense of what was happening. I looked at my husband and through both manic laughter and heavy sobs, I said, “I get to keep them.”

“You do,” he said.

And then we were a family.

all of us at woodmere babies

2003, Woodmere Elementary

But as things sometimes go, my marriage couldn’t sustain the weight of all the changes and ensuing stress. The attrition. And, anyway, maybe it wasn’t even meant to be. Except that these boys were meant to be. And my daughter and I finally having the same last name and all of us connected as Harrisons – that felt meant to be. My family – the first one I ever wanted – was meant to be.

I left my family home ten years ago, in March, 2007. My sons were five and my daughter was 14. But like my marriage, it was too late to save her. She and I were unable to find our equilibrium in my first post-marriage home, I as a single mom. The animosity between my ex-husband and me was poison, and the imbalance that had created in my relationship with my daughter was incurable. Less than a year after we all moved out, she left and never came back.

My first post-marriage home was a tiny, two bedroom duplex in a part of town where used syringes littered the gutters and prostitutes hung out at the local convenience store. More than once, someone was stabbed to death at the bus stop around the corner from my house. My daughter took the downstairs room, while my sons and I co-slept in the upstairs room, which soon proved to be uninhabitable. It was freezing cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer.

After Sierra left, the boys and I moved down to the bedroom on the main floor. I had been co-sleeping with them since they were born. This was a choice I made intentionally. My ex-husband and I read up on natural attachment parenting and focused on outcomes: a strong bond between children and their parents results in more confident, secure adults. Though my ex-husband and I came from extremely different backgrounds – him, from a financially comfortable upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois and I, from a sometimes impoverished, violent, blue color world in the desert Southwest – we both felt like we “didn’t want to do things the way our parents did.” This meant finding an alternate paradigm, and one that focused on happy, well-adjusted children.

The boys began leaving to be with their dad every other week right after I moved out. This was the most horrifying adjustment of all my post-divorce adjustments – worse than all the firsts (first post-divorce wedding anniversary, first post-divorce Christmas, etc.) I started dating some and tried to find hobbies. But for at least the first six of the last ten years, the ache to see my children again the last three days before they came home was visceral. And the moment they came through my front door at the start of my week, I’d swoop them up in my arms and kiss their beautiful heads.

I co-slept with the boys in the downstairs bedroom until, one night, as I was cuddling A, who was 6, as we were falling asleep, he said decidedly, “Mom. I love you, and I respect you, but I just can’t kiss you anymore.”

“Okay, baby,” I said. And the next week, I got us a bunk bed. I took the top.

The first two and half years in that little duplex were a struggle. I made too little money and there was always too little of everything. Eventually, I got a better job. Then I got promoted. Soon after that, we moved into a new duplex in one of the best neighborhoods in Portland. All the rooms were usable and, for the first time since I left my marriage home, I had a room all to myself! This was the start of the boys sleeping in their own rooms.

We lived in that duplex for four years, and all of us thrived. My sons turned from little boys into just boys.

in treehouse 2010

May, 2010

And I grew from a young woman into just a woman. I grew more confident. But I also drank a lot, a habit I’d formed just before my marriage ended, but that continued during the 26 weeks a year that I didn’t have my boys. I was lonely without their sweet heads to kiss or their loud, boisterous boy noises. But I also often was de-stressing and detoxing from the other parts of parenting them. The parts that involved fist fights, IEP meetings at their school, repeated calls from their school, their multiple suspensions every year until 7th grade, disagreements with their dad about how to handle the behaviors, or B running away from home in the middle of the night to go on his “adventures.”

The years in the second apartment were the years when I couldn’t slow down. I had to fill up all my time. I felt like I was riding a wave of a typhoon – like I was being pushed toward a shore that I’d soon crash upon. When the boys would come home is when I would calm down. Even though they overwhelmed me – and god knows I wasn’t and am not always a good mom – I couldn’t find my center without them.

It was around this time, though, that I’d found my community on Facebook. It is comprised of friends, many of whom I haven’t met in person, but who I’ve known virtually for years. Some are from my writing universe, some are from my parenting universe, and others are people I’ve known for years or met through college. All, though, are pleasant to know. And if they’re not, they’re not one of my Facebook friends.

I mention this because I believe social media saved my sanity and, in a way, became my co-parent. When my water heater started pouring out water, social media came to the rescue. If I needed to vent about my children before I lost my cool, I could take it to Facebook (often to one of several private groups I’m a part of) and be witnessed. But also, I often got great advice. Though, honestly, the commiseration is worth it alone.

I’ve also been able to develop a type of writerly voice via Facebook, one that is lighthearted and often funny. But because of all of this, over the last several years, Facebook has gotten to know my sons by proxy. My friends are often entertained by the boys’ antics, and being able to post about the tomfoolery is a sanity saver. For many years now, Facebook has been my parental saving grace.

The boys and I moved into our third and final post-marriage house four years ago, in 2013. It’s a whole entire house in a price range I can afford, and not only is the neighborhood safe, but my neighbors are lovely. I’ve moved up into progressively better paying jobs with more responsibility. Two years ago, I quit drinking alcohol and I got a cat, Lump.

lump

He’s pretty much the greatest.

Lump has been the answer to all my boy-free-week loneliness. And we are kindred.

The boys haven’t been suspended from school in over 2 years. As a matter of fact, two days from now they finish their first year in high school, and they are crushing it.

Overall, my life is great.

That is a hard-won statement.

About a year ago, A informed me that I can’t post about him on Facebook anymore, except our annual family photos. For a while, I would bug him for his permission to post a story here or there – to not have to keep the experience of raising these two magnificent, gigantic, loud, hilarious, curious boys all to myself. I’ve been sharing them with a very important part of my world for so long, it feels like a personal loss to be forbidden to continue. But, eventually, A said no more. He drew a hard line in the sand. The end.

I still post about B here and there because he’s more generous with his privacy. But in some ways, it’s just not the same.

I guess what’s hardest about this change in my well-worn, much-loved pattern is that I know it’s a beginning of an end. It’s A telling me, “Mom. I love you and I respect you, but I just can’t be intertangled with you anymore.” It’s more of the same development we’ve always been going through, but it’s the final one.

They have their own agency now. We are not one, but three. Yet, we are three that still lie in my bed before it’s time for sleep and do Mad Libs and make sure all the nouns are sexual or scatological (fun fact: “butthole” works as a noun in almost any scenario) and laugh until someone falls out of my bed, which used to be big enough to easily contain all of us, but which we have all, finally, outgrown.

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10:37 AM: Will This Day Ever End?

CHARACTERS

G-mom: a woman, four days from her 41st birthday, who is just finishing her work week and her week on as a single-parent of her 15-year-old twins she shares custody of. It’s been stressful, which is normal, but the amount of stress she faced in the last 7 days was extensive. Her period is imminent. She’s tired and has cleared all of her previously scheduled plans for the weekend, with the exception of the sleepover with her two oldest grandsons, the seven-year-old and the four-year-old. Today is the seven-year-old’s birthday, which is the primary reason she’s gone ahead with the sleepover. Her adrenals are pretty much fried, which she’s pretty sure is not an actual thing actually proven by evidence-based science, but she uses it anyway.

The seven-year-old: G-mom’s oldest of her three grandsons, who was born to his mom, G-mom’s daughter, when she was 17. The seven-year-old is a red-haired, blue-eyed, smart, headstrong first grader who lives with his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, his four-year-old brother, his dad’s girlfriend’s two school-age children, and two small dogs, Zelda and Marcy, in a two bedroom apartment. The seven-year-old has been struggling for quite sometime with toileting, and he often has a stomach ache. Today is his 7th birthday.

The four-year-old: G-mom’s middle grandson, but the youngest of the two born to G-mom’s daughter and the dad of the seven- and four-year-old. He’s also the youngest child in the household. He’ll be five in June, and so will start kindergarten in the fall. The four-year-old is a red-haired, blue-eyed, slight boy, who G-mom used to think was the cutest child to ever be born on the planet. Then he started whining – about everything – and crying when he doesn’t get his way. Now G-mom thinks he’s the cutest child on the planet only when he is sleeping. Continue reading

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When you gonna love you as much as I do?

According to the guy on the radio this morning, Tori Amos’s album Little Earthquakes debuted in the US on this date in 1992. I was 15 and pregnant with my first child when a friend first introduced me to the album. Only a handful of months earlier, I’d moved to Roswell, New Mexico from Guthrie, Oklahoma and had effectively completed one phase of my life. One horrible, abuse-ridden, trauma-filled, shitty, shitty phase. And though I didn’t know it yet, I was about to start another phase that would last into my early 20s. A phase worse in immeasurable ways than anything that had come before. I was a rage-filled, hormone-filled, impulsive, fiery 15-year-old. Basically, I was ripe for Little Earthquakes.

The album was  a point of deviation for me musically. My sister didn’t get it. It wasn’t popular and didn’t produce a single radio hit. But it was mine. This album was MINE. I really wanted people I loved to love it and it hurt my feelings when they didn’t, but I made no apologies. It was their loss, in my opinion. My closest family and friends not liking the album was my reason to retreat further away from the before life and into something else. The else being a thing it would take me a full decade to figure out. This album was often my only torch in the long slog through the darkness toward the light. Does that sound dramatic? Well, I was 15 when the album landed in my life. 15-year-olds are nothing if not dramatic. Nonetheless, it’s still true. Even now, as I write this from the light.  Continue reading

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So, why do I post such personal stuff?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted a blog – basically since I returned to a burgled home in October. I posted the Roger Gillespie piece, but it had been written for a long time, and I shared it only because there’s nowhere for it to go. But I’m fond of it – not only as a piece of writing, but as a memory. It’s so real for me; but no one remembers Roger. I’ve asked around. I’m head injured, have PTSD from multiple and varied traumas, and spent too many years of my life dissociated from my experiences, so I sometimes wonder if anything I remembered was real. Try walking around with that kind of relationship with reality. Or, I don’t know…maybe you do, but for your own reasons. Reality is hard. Right? Still, I know this: Roger was real and the scene with the cigarette happened.

The urgency to synchronize my experiences with some kind of objective reality is, in fact, one of the primary reasons I write. Arguably, I could write in a journal and keep it to myself, which I did for a long time. I’ve been a writer for years, but focused on fiction through my 20s. Years ago, in college, I was given a nonfiction writing assignment involving memory. This was the first time I worked with my personal history in a creative way. The response was surprising. I got an A+ on my homework and my teacher called me aside to tell me to write more. To not stop there. That I had important things to say and that I should hone my craft and keep saying it. It would be quite a while more before I heeded this advice, but I never forgot it.

Important things to say. What does that even mean?  I’m just some lady, right? Who the hell cares?

Turns out, people care. Continue reading

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Jettisoned Scene from Memoir 1: Roger Gillespie

1/12/17

The memoir is clipping along slower than pitch dripping. I’m finally close to figuring out what to include in the final manuscript. (For those of you stalking my writing to see if  you’re there, in the end, you’ll probably discover you’re not.) However, I’m much clearer on what will not be included. There are scenes, like the one below, that I’m fond of, but that don’t belong at all. One-off scenes like this one don’t lend themselves to the narrative, so they have to be abandoned. And, in this case specifically, it seems no one remembers Roger Gillespie but me. Was he even real? Was any of it? If you’re a memoirist, maybe you can relate to this tension.

Roger, if you do exist (and I believe you do), I hope you’re well. 

 

I sat at Roger Gillespie’s patio table picking glass out of my face as I waited for him to come outside. When he came out, we made nervous conversation. I chain smoked cigarettes the whole time, no matter the fact I was recovering from a pneumothorax. Each time I put a cigarette out, I would use the soiled filter to clean a section of the enormous and filthy leaded glass ashtray to gleaming.

“Do you have a trashcan?” I interrupted Roger, looking up.

“Yeah, over there.” He pointed.

I got up, dumped the ashtray, returned to my seat, and lit up another cigarette. I had half the ashtray clean and I felt an overwhelming compulsion to clean the other half. It didn’t even occur to me that I could ask for a wet washcloth or a paper towel. It wouldn’t have been half as satisfying anyway.

At 17, I wasn’t even legally old enough to smoke. But after the accident, after everything, I didn’t feel beholden to most of the rules. Those were for people who were meant to be kept safe. It was too late for me. Besides, who was around to tell me no? Continue reading

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An Open Letter of Thanks to the People in My Life

On October 11th, I was standing in the Denver airport, having just spent four exhausting but incredible days writing my guts out on my memoir, Hell is for Children, in Estes Park. I’d done some intense trauma work with two other beautiful women in this process and was emotionally drained, but satisfied with the path I was on that will end in a completed manuscript.

I’d also seen a bunch of elk, which was very cool.

 

elk1

The first thing I saw when I opened the curtains in my bedroom one morning

 

That day, I’d driven around Denver and caught up with my dear friend Matt, who left Portland four years ago.

 

Matt Bauer

 

And  I finally met Megan Nico DiLullo in person after having first met on The Nervous Breakdown 7 years ago. As per the custom of our people, we had to get a photograph with fake mustaches attached to our face perineums (which is what we chose to call the divot between the nose and the upper lip).

 

mustache

 

By the time I arrived at the airport, I was spent. Ready to process the last five days of my life, but uneager to return to Real Life. After passing through security, I was watching the sky outside the windows of the airport turn dark with the approaching storm, and feeling very much like I didn’t want to return to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t mean to my children, cat, job, friends – but to the dark skies and constant drizzle. The desert is where my heart is.

 

denver sky

 

But then, as the announcement that my flight was boarding came, my phone rang. It was my son, Indigo, one of my two nearly-15-year-old twin boys. He was at Dad’s house for the week, but happened by my house to grab a warmer jacket. “Hey, mom. I just came by your house to grab something,” he said. “The backdoor is standing wide open. Do you know why?” Continue reading

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A Meditation on Taking My Sons to See Swiss Army Man

I took my 14-year-old twin boys to see Swiss Army Man last night. Maybe you’ve never heard of the movie, but it’s kind of an art film (what designates a thing an art film?) and follows a narrative arc that is very much not found in a traditional Hollywood vehicle. It has Paul Dano (who I love – from Little Miss Sunshine to There Will Be Blood and beyond) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, yes, but also a fine actor in his own right – and in this film he plays a freakin’ corpse! How exciting!) as the two leads and it’s about a stranded castaway who saves his own life by utilizing a flatulent corpse as a human multi-tool.

Anyway, I took the boys.

Because Harry Potter. And because farts. And because I’ve paid to see dozens of first run movies, usually animated, that follow the hero’s journey narrative and everyone wins in the end and I’m BORED of it and by god, you’re going to see a mom movie with me! I was so excited to see a story that was brand new, and I was excited to observe the boys’ reactions to doing the same.

Because I am a hope-filled fool.

Because sometimes in wanting a thing bad enough, I can ignore certain warning signs. Continue reading

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