Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Marriage Playlist

Our first Maritime Ball. 1990.
We both had a lot of hair, didn't we? 


Aquaman is in Alaska. He's been gone 20 days. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is somewhat normal for us. (Seeing normal and us in the same sentence doesn't even look right.) Because Aquaman must be in contact with the ocean somewhat regularly and a job that allows that is basically essential, he is often out on a boat for extended periods while I remain on land to continue life. This is both tough and thrilling.

We met on a boat. A retired WWII ship, The USTS Texas Clipper was a teaching vessel for Texas A&M University at Galveston for many years. It has since been decommissioned and rests at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Artificial Reef program. But in its heydey, it took summer cruises to foreign ports of call with young Prep Cadets aboard taking college classes. This was a pivotal experience for me in so many ways. For one, I realized after about two weeks in my Oceanography class that it was not for me and I would have to give up the idea of being any kind of marine scientist. I was confused and bewildered by the chemistry involved and knew it would only bring frustration. Secondly, I surprised myself by thriving in the regimented environment of the Merchant Marines that I had so dreaded leading up to the trip. I wore the khaki uniform and steel-toed boots, reported for cleaning stations and galley duty, passed inspection and fell in on deck for formation. I never even got seasick. Third, I met the man I would end up marrying. It was 1989, we were both 18 and college freshmen. We had been aboard for about a month before we even met, almost exactly 25 years ago today. It's safe to say that our lives changed forever.

Not too long ago, I posted about an NPR project wherein folks were asked to describe their lives chronologically in six songs. This was great fun, reaching back to my childhood and adolescence and thinking about the songs that had shaped my life. While the last two songs were wrapped up in meeting and marrying Aquaman, it only scratched the surface of the music that is so much a part of our life together. It felt unfinished, that playlist.

Now 2,901 miles separate us. He is out in Prince William Sound on a seine boat, hopefully catching lots of pink salmon and loving his life on the water. He'll come home in September. Before he left, I counted the approximate days that he would be gone. 70 days. It sounds like a long time, but I reasoned with myself that it was only 20 days longer than his longest trip aboard a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico and we had managed to survive that, hadn't we?

The heart doesn't always listen to the brain. I woke up this morning missing him something terrible. I got a letter in the mail from him yesterday. It was a beautiful card of a painting by an Alaskan artist. Written inside were a few lyrics to a song - one of our songs. And that's what got me thinking about all of the songs that have been important to us at one time or another. The songs that we have listened to alone or together, the ones that made us happy or sad, the ones that still make me reach across the armrest for his hand when they come on the car radio. I have limited myself to 6. So here they are, in chronological order - a Marriage Playlist.


1) Somebody by Depeche Mode

Our relationship grew in the early 90s, just like Depeche Mode. This song was the first time that I remember Aquaman copying down the words to a song to give me later. We were still freshmen at A&M. The lyrics and piano are simple and raw, and this official Depeche Mode video features the soundcheck rehearsal version of the song.



2) Lovesong by The Cure

It is so very hard to narrow it down to one song by The Cure (I could include the entire Disintegration album here), but this one stands the test of time. The lyrics are just as true for us today as they were in 1989. I wish I could say the same for their official video, which now looks incredibly dated to me. They filmed it in a cave, for heaven's sake. But here it is - in all its cringeworthy glory. Just listen to the words, people.




3) Built to Last by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Picking one Tom Petty song is almost impossible. We have been to see him multiple times in concert and every time has been an experience. I included "Wildflowers" in my life playlist, but Built to Last gets me every time because of the chorus, which is awesome, and because of this particular line: "She has followed me where the rain would fall in sheets." The rain fell in sheets in Alaska.

This version is live, and involves Tom Petty wearing a bandana headband. You're welcome.



4) Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt

This is the song that I identified with most when I had baby fever. I would listen to it over and over again and finally played it for Aquaman to try and express what I was feeling. It's not that he didn't want to have a baby, it's just that I wanted one more. It took almost one year for me to get pregnant, and this song comforted me during those exasperating days. When I was only four months pregnant, we ended up in Seattle at Bumbershoot and guess who headlined? Bonnie Raitt. Listening to her sing live, with Aquaman's arms wrapped around me and my growing bump of a belly, is one of the best memories I have of pregnancy.



5) Cry by Slaid Cleaves

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, my friends. We have been through some serious shit and this song captures it. Aquaman gets credit for discovering this artist that we have seen live in the very tiny venue, Third Coast Music. Cry is from the album Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. Boy, will it ever.


Album cover from the official Slaid Cleaves website. 


Even though this song symbolizes a very difficult time for us, I still love it. Marriage can be so damn difficult. And sometimes you have to lose it all before you can begin again.

Oh, and by the way...Stephen King wrote the liner notes on this album for Slaid. That's enough of an endorsement, don't you think? If you don't know Slaid Cleaves, it's time you did.
 



6) Better Together by Jack Johnson

Well, I can't get this one off my mind. I love Jack Johnson and love that he appeals to so many different people. He's a uniter! But these also happen to be the lyrics that Aquaman included in his last letter. So I'm a bit obsessed with it right now.


I love this part:

There's no combination of words I could put on the back of a postcard
No song that I could sing, but I can try for your heart
And our dreams, and they are made out of real things
Like a shoebox of photographs
With sepia-toned loving
Love is the answer
At least for most of the questions in my heart
Like why are we here and where do we go
And how come it's so hard?
It's not always easy
And sometimes life can be deceiving
I'll tell you one thing
It's always better when we're together


So that's it. The Marriage Playlist. It's cheesy and embarrassing but magical and wonderful. Like love.

Your turn. What are the 6 songs that describe your marriage?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

So This is What Panic Feels Like

The Redhead and Second Favorite Uncle hanging out in London.


I thought I would be writing about how The Redhead went to London with Favorite Uncle and Second Favorite Uncle and had a fabulous time. But I'm not.

He did, of course, have a fabulous time. From what I can gather (and that comes in bursts of information at random times because that's how teenage boys communicate) he saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and some castle. He took the tube, went on a river tour, and stayed in a flat. He sampled every British candy bar that exists, it sounds like, and is particularly fond of something called the Wispa. The Uncles took him to see numerous theater productions, most of which he slept through, but seemed to appreciate all the same. But I have trouble focusing on these travel tales because it is all such white noise for me compared to the fact that he had a severe allergic reaction and I wasn't there.

I was nervous sending him on his first trip out of the country without us. (To complicate matters, Aquaman left the day before for Alaska where he'll be commercial fishing for the whole summer with limited communication. But that's a whole other post.) We checked and double-checked that he had his Medic-Alert bracelet on his wrist (I would have glued it there if I could have), that Benadryl was stashed in various spots that he could get to easily, and that he had his Epi-Pen and inhaler, just in case. He had instructions to parse out 2 Benadryl each to The Uncles so that if he somehow managed to screw up and forget his, he would still be covered in an emergency. The Uncles are familiar with his food allergies - his most serious ones are to all nuts and fish. They've watched him grow up and seen us navigate the world with dietary restrictions. Favorite Uncle was our nanny one summer when we lived in Alaska and fed, diapered, bathed, and cared for all three boys like a pro. I couldn't have asked for better circumstances under which to have The Redhead venture beyond America's borders.

The Redhead goes International!


This trip was a gift from The Uncles for The Redhead's 15th year. He is old enough to travel without parents and young enough to still want to travel with relatives. Aquaman and I didn't go abroad until we were 18, so he beat us by 3 years, which is some kind of awesome. I dropped him off at the airport on Friday and he flew to Chicago to meet The Uncles. They continued on to London, arriving Sunday. We had limited communication, but I got texts and pictures periodically when they had access to WiFi (international cellular charges can be brutal and are best avoided). A lot of the pictures are of The Redhead sleeping, everywhere they went. Which is probably more because he's a teenager than because of the 6 hour time change.


Teenagers sleep anywhere.

A rare moment of The Redhead awake and Favorite Uncle explaining something British.


Things were going well. I had worried for nothing, as mothers do. Then, on the last day, I got this text from The Redhead around noon:

Guess who fed me cashews 

And the world stopped spinning.

My response?

Oh shit. Are you ok?

And I'm thinking he's GOT to be okay because he's texting me. But maybe it just happened. But still. He's texting. It can't be THAT bad, right?

He texted back that they were at an Indian restaurant and had explained his allergies to nuts and fish. They had all ordered the same thing, but The Redhead's was a smaller version. When the food came, The Uncles saw there was a particularly tasty mint coriander sauce missing from The Redhead's plate. So, naturally Second Favorite Uncle took a chip, dipped up some sauce and handed it to him. "You gotta try this!"

You can hold your breath at this point. I know I did. Like I said, I wasn't there. But here's what I've managed to piece together.

The sauce was definitely tasty. And then tingled the roof of The Redhead's mouth where it first made contact. And then his tongue felt funny. And then his throat felt tight.

"There was definitely something in that," he announced. "Yep. I'm allergic to something. Bad." He popped first one Benadryl, then another for good measure.

The Uncles were floored. "Are you sure it's not just spicy?" they asked.

I snorted at this part in the story. Amateurs. (Perhaps I have some built up resentment that all parents of allergic children have? Or maybe it's just bitter old me. But the fact is no one else really gets it - truly - until they've seen it in person.) This is how it happens. Innocently, as part of sharing a meal. We humans do it three times a day. It is a necessary part of life. And for someone with food allergies, this very act of existing involves inherent danger. And no one's to blame. No one is at fault. It is just reality that things can go from normal to life threatening in seconds.

"Nope. This is the real deal," The Redhead explained. After having to request water and drinking his soda to try and get some relief in his mouth, he announced that he would be throwing up. He made it down the stairs and opened the door to the bathroom and barfed everywhere. (This means he threw up all of the Benadryl he had just taken before it could work.) He had to stay down there for a while until he felt like he was done throwing up and could stand up and walk, during which time several men tried to come in the bathroom and were confronted with a slick of vomit. The Redhead finally made it back upstairs and The Uncles had interrogated the waiter and discovered that the sauce was intentionally left off of The Redhead's plate because it contained cashews.

So I abruptly stopped getting texts from The Redhead and instead got a picture of him sent by Second Favorite Uncle. I think the picture was meant to reassure me, but all I saw was my baby with a slightly swollen eye and lip, which happens during a severe reaction. So I began firing off texts to assess the situation and stationed myself in front of my laptop to quickly refresh myself on the stages of allergic reactions to cashews. Here's a sample of some of the texts flying back and forth between me and Second Favorite Uncle:

Me: 
OMG
Did this just happen?
Has he taken Benadryl?

SFU: (I think it's funny that Second Favorite Uncle's initials contain FU)
Yes
He took it
He's ok

Me:
Is he drooling
Or having trouble breathing

SFU:
And we will watch him closely...try not to worry

Me:
Did his eyes swell

SFU:
He is fine
No
To all 3
I promise I will tell u if he has any trouble

Me:
How long has it been since he took a bite

SFU:
15 mins

Me:
And about 15 min since Benadryl?

SFU:
He just threw up but he is not having trouble breathing

Me:
OMG

SFU:
Yes he took it right away 

Me:
Good that he threw up

SFU:
His eyes are not swelling

Me:
Tongue?
Any hives

SFU:
Nope
Nope

Me:
Good

SFU:
He is moving around just fine

Me:
He is probably freaked out
He may have stomach ache later and diarrhea.
And be very tired.
15-20 minutes is usually the time frame for major reaction so if passed that good

SFU:
It has

Me:
But watch him for next 24 hours. I have heard of secondary reactions later. 

SFU:
He is already joking around again.

Me:
Ok. Take care of my redhead. He's the only one I've got.

Be ready if things get worse. Use the epipen and get to an er if it isn't getting better.


And during the time that I'm texting, I'm searching Google for things like "stages of anaphylaxis" and getting images like this:

Wikipedia image. Creative Commons.
Serious shit, alright? 


Probably not the most reassuring image. I was also looking up cashew allergies and finding articles that proclaim cashews cause the most severe reactions, are worse than those to peanut, and strongly related to anaphylaxis. (This New York Times article about radical treatments for severe food allergies only made me feel worse, but in good company with other parents.) Of course I know all of this already. The Redhead's worst reaction ever was to a cashew nut disguised under a layer of chocolate on Halloween when he was a wee toddler. I am quite familiar with all of the horrors. And I couldn't stop myself from looking it up. And you know what else I looked up? The distance from Dallas to London. 


How bout they just say, "A long fucking way, Momma."?


4,745 miles, folks.  

I hadn't looked it up until that moment. 

And that's when I fell apart. 

Tears came along with the terror of the realization that I could do nothing for my child. Things were beyond my control, out of my hands. I was crying so much that I had to wipe away the tears to be able to focus on the goddamn texts I was sending and receiving. I felt compelled to send The Redhead a text telling him that I loved him.

I felt sick to my stomach. Then I just gave over to it and sobbed, my head in my hands on the desk. 

As I surrendered to helplessness, the desperation I felt reminded me of a book I had just finished reading. Mary Karr's memoir Lit details her battle with alcoholism and spirituality and her finally giving in to praying. A pivotal moment for her was when she got down on her knees in complete agony to pray for the first time. I understand this resistance. And in that moment, I dropped to my knees on the floor beside the desk and whispered, "Please don't take him, God. Please don't. Not now. Not like this. Don't do it. Please. I'm begging." 

I felt worse. Uttering the words "take him" made me feel like I was opening that possibility up to the universe. I jumped up, ran to my bed, and got back down on my knees with a new request. "Please, God, protect him. Send a cloud of goodness around him that nothing can penetrate." I visualized this cloak of healing and recovery, bathing him in light. "Protect him. Protect him. Protect him," I chanted. And that made me feel better. But I kept right on crying.  

The Uncles and The Redhead had to leave WiFi en route to their next destination, another theater. But Second Favorite Uncle left the theater to text me that everything was okay and to try not to worry. They were able to FaceTime with me later so that I could lay eyes on The Redhead, who looked exhausted. He had slept through another theater performance after eating an entire bag of malted milk balls. This made me cringe. I wanted him to eat nothing but plain rice until he got back to me. 

The next afternoon, he was back. I had to banish fears of him having a secondary reaction while they were on the flight from London to Chicago. I was able to breathe again when The Uncles texted that they were back stateside and that all parties were alive and well, but I didn't relax until he was safely in the passenger seat of my car at the airport in Dallas. He then gave me a blow-by-blow account of the whole episode and filled in some of the details - like the part where he took 2 more Benadryl after throwing up the first 2. That might be why he slept through the theater. Just a guess. But it may have saved his life. 

And it's the life taking/life saving part that gets me. All parents worry. I know that. But I have a very legitimate reason to worry. Food allergies mean that something your child eats can kill them. It's just that simple. Which makes parenting just that complicated.

So I'm extra grateful that The Redhead returned safely and he had this amazing international experience at the tender age of 15 thanks to two pretty amazing, generous, and caring individuals who also happen to be his uncles. He's back to his old self. After a short "honeymoon" period wherein he sweetly shared his British candy bars with his brothers, he's back to fighting with them nonstop. He hasn't showered since he came back to America. That sounds really dramatic, doesn't it? It's the reality of living with a teenage boy. And I know how lucky I am to experience it.  

The Redhead and Me.
I look squirrely. With good reason.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Forgetting a Father

My dad. On the farm. 1995.


I lost my father long before he died seven years ago. The irony is that now I am forgetting him - like he forgot me. His forgetting was the result of a disease - the signature plaques and tangles in his brain an undeniable marker of Alzheimer’s. My forgetting is the product of time marching on.

I listen to the radio in the morning and wonder what he would think and say in response to world events and I can’t conjure it up. I try to remember the curve of his hands or the exact color of his eyes and I fail. Instead, he comes to me unexpectedly. Unbidden.

Some of the last words he spoke to me when he was still ambulatory were not kind. He greeted me at the front door when I came to visit, my husband and three babies in tow. His words to me when he saw me? “You always were a big girl.” Ouch. I wanted to turn around and walk away. Yet I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that was exactly the type of thing he would say to me. My entire life, he always - always - remarked on my weight, whether good or bad. No matter the toll Alzheimer’s had already taken, that was him.

So there was some comfort in those harsh words, that criticism. They are the last coherent words I remember him saying to me and they were hurtful. Why couldn’t I remember him saying he loved me or was proud of me? Why did I forget that he could be kind and caring and complimentary, even if I can only summon hurt?

Those last few years of his life are what I’d like to forget. The visits where he never knew I was there, where he never looked in my eyes, never gave any indication of recognition. The visits to see him in the nursing home and hospital when he could no longer walk or speak. I would read to him then - poems from Robert Frost and others he’d long ago recited at the dinner table. One of the last reactions I got was when I played music for him, appallingly loud like he liked it, on a stereo with behemoth speakers. It was a mix I had made of his favorite songs, trying to reach him - to communicate somehow. He mostly seemed asleep the entire time, slumped over in his chair. Until. The Aggie War Hymn - his and my alma mater. He came alive - toes tapping, singing his favorite line at the top of his lungs at precisely the right moment: “Sounds like hell!” Clear as a bell. 

Afterwards, he looked right at me and said, “I always did love you.” Never mind that his words were most likely meant for my mother, his college sweetheart whom he’d met on a blind date. He thought I was her, transported in his mind back to a dorm room on campus. I’ll take it. That’s what I choose to remember. Because that’s easier than the rest of it. So much easier.