Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Wait. Yes there is. Nevermind.

You know that great Motown hit Ain't No Mountain High Enough? It's a lie, friends. A big, fat lie. Because there is a mountain high enough to keep me from gettin' to you, babe. It's in Alaska.

Aquaman is off on another great adventure as one of a three man crew aboard a commercial fishing vessel in Prince William Sound. The captain is awesome, the crew is fantastic and Aquaman is loving every minute of it. He's been there since June and The Wrecking Crew and I decided to take the opportunity to visit in July. So we headed back to Cordova where we lived right after we got married - we had our first jobs, bought our first home and had all of our babies in this tiny fishing village of 2300 people.

The Wrecking Crew and I arrived ready to pack in as much activity as we possibly could in three weeks. There were old friends to see, new friends to make, salmon to eat, berries to pick and trails to hike.

Although The Redhead was actually born here (the twins were born in Anchorage) and all three lived the first 3-4 years of their lives here, they didn't remember much. I felt like a tour guide of amnesiacs, trying to prompt memories and recollections by taking them to places that had been so much a part of their daily lives. It didn't work. It was like they were seeing it all for the first time. Which is kind of wonderful in its own way.

Because the weather in this coastal community can be so extreme (and by extreme I mean 160 inches of precipitation a year), you learn to get outside when the sun is shining. After two days of rain and wind, the sun came out. I felt compelled to make it count. I woke the boys up before noon (Imagine!) and got them fed. It was just The Redhead and Thing 2 because Thing 1 was out on the boat with Aquaman, learning what seining for pink salmon is all about.

That's Thing 1 smiling and Aquaman smiling even bigger
while they are photobombed by another crew member.

"We're climbing Mt. Eyak today!" I announced.

"Can we pick berries?" The Redhead asked. "Is it far?" Thing 2 chimed in.

"You'll see!" I answered. "You're gonna climb a mountain!"

I couldn't contain my excitement. I'd done this hike half a dozen times during the 8 years we lived there. It offered the best views of Orca Inlet and Prince William Sound as well as Eyak Lake and the Copper River Delta. I knew the boys would be impressed. Off we went.

My euphoria was short-lived. The Redhead quickly separated from us - choosing his own path - and then Thing 2 went a different route from mine. I had wrongly assumed they would just follow me. Getting separated is a no-no on Alaska trails. Groups make noise; noise warns off bears. A lone hiker doesn't make noise (unless consciously doing so) and can end up right on top of a very surprised bear. Surprised bear = bad. When our trails again converged at the top of the ski lift, I explained all of this and told them not to leave my sight again.

The beginning. Less than thrilled.
"Whaddya mean we can't leave your sight?" 

The base of the ski hill is 400 feet in elevation and the ski lift ends at 1200 feet with a vertical drop of 800 feet. This is all most people ever see. The single chair ski lift is the oldest operating chairlift in North America (which was no comfort to me when I was on it a handful of times). Mt. Eyak Ski Area is bustling with people when there's fresh powder in the winter and well trafficked in the summer because of its proximity to the center of town.

The trail beyond gets steadily narrower - hard to follow in some places - and the views get more and more spectacular.

Spectacular. But don't those little chairs look scary?

I'm not kidding when I say narrow.
That's the trail - hardly bigger than the width of my feet. 

The Redhead is named after the island pictured behind him. It was pretty cool for him to see this again as a teenager. He was 4 years old the last time we were here.

S'up. That's my island. 


And higher. 

Still higher. 

We had to stop and rest way more frequently than I remember having to rest before.

That water bottle is just about empty. 

Another rest? Really?

The view left them speechless at times. Thankfully.

And do you know what I noticed as we hiked higher and higher? The Redhead and Thing 2 were smiling bigger and bigger.

The rarely seen smile from a teenage boy.

A genuine smile!

At this point, we were out of water. We had one bottle each and it was gone by the time we were halfway there. But we kept on going.

Those little white specks are birds. We're higher than the birds!

When you reach the ridge, you can see over to the other side. That's Eyak Lake.

Awesome, ain't it?

And then you know you're close. The peak looks big and small at the same time. 

It's 2,480 feet. That's a mountain. I know it's not Mt. McKinley (North America's tallest mountain is 20,237 feet - also in Alaska), but it may as well have been for us. 

The peak of Mount Eyak. 

It gets very steep at the end. You can feel the weather when you're up that high. It gets windier. And colder. There were eagles flying around us. And right about that time The Redhead declared, "Yep. I'm good. I don't need to go any higher."

I was surprised. "What do you mean?"

"It's too cliff-y," he said.

He was right. It was much like the side of a cliff now that we were approaching the end. I tried to keep him excited.

"Come on! You've come too far to not go to the top! We'll just take one more rest and then finish. At the end, there are ropes bolted in that you use to climb to the peak! You can do it!"

While we rested one last time, we watched as a hiker came from below us at a brisk pace. Way brisker than ours. Then I realized I knew her. The boys couldn't believe it. "Really Mom? On top of a mountain? You even know someone on top of a mountain?"

My old friend sat and rested with us a while before continuing on to the peak. She was fast - leaving us far behind in minutes. At this point, I realized how foolish I'd been to just take off on a difficult hike that I hadn't done in over 10 years. I accepted how out of shape I was but I still wanted to reach the top. So I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Until I got to the first rope.

Doesn't that bolt seem rusty?

Rather than be reassured that I had something to hold on to, I began focusing on the fact that it was so steep that I needed something to hold on to. I watched my friend reach the summit. Thing 2 was right behind her, hand over hand on the first and then the second rope. I didn't give myself time to think. I just kept going. The Redhead was right behind me.

That is a very worried look on his face.

And then I saw the second rope and the steep rocks beneath it.

Oh dear God what have I gotten myself into?

Some part of me began pleading with the other parts of me to TURN BACK. My friend was already on her way back down. Thing 2 was waiting at the top of the second rope. The Redhead suddenly announced, "I'm done. I'll wait for y'all right here." And I knew he meant it.

I looked around to my left and thought another route without the rope looked easier. This demonstrates how stressed I was - obviously not thinking clearly. After conferring with my friend, I went for it. As I picked my way gingerly along the lesser-used path, rocks slid beneath my feet and kept right on sliding into what seemed an abyss - where I pictured my body going next. And that's when my knees started shaking and my heart started pounding and I looked up at my friend - this friend from a decade before who was just as fit as she had ever been - and I said, "I think I'm done. I can't do it. Fuck."

And do you know what she said? "Well, then, you should stop. Because this is where most people fall."


And she's a nurse at the local hospital, so she would know.

And do you know what she said next? "Do you mind if I take Thing 2 to the top while you make your way back down?"

If I hadn't been busy hanging on to the side of a mountain, I would have hugged her. Instead I just said, "That would be great. Thanks."

At that moment, I wanted to cry and not turn around and figure out how I was going to get back down the lesser-used path with the rock slide and back down the first rope and coach The Redhead back down as well. But I couldn't fall apart because it was just me and Aquaman wasn't there to talk calmly to me and The Redhead was already scared and Thing 2 was well taken care of and going up to the summit like a billy goat. So I held it together and somehow we made it back down to the relative safety of the ridge. My dear friend returned with Thing 2 and then motored down the mountain just as quickly as she had come up.

The Redhead may never trust me again.

The hike down was no picnic. We were exhausted and it was steep. My knees and thighs protested each step. We had all rubbed blisters on our feet. We had no water. I knew that I had to make noise to ward off bears but I was in no mood for singing or talking. So I chanted. "Mud. Rocks. Steep. Bullshit." Over and over. Then I began to sing, "Somebody bring me a wheelchair or a Coast Guard helicopter rescue and a Diet Dr. Pepper!" Then I laughed maniacally.

These rocks are pokey. And it's steep. Bullshit.

We had to rest on the way down, too. 

Just to be clear: I never said I wanted to hike a mountain, Mom.

We might have been delirious at this point.

I was so irritated and angry and just wanted it to be over. I couldn't believe that I had panicked when I was so close to finishing. I had taken those very same steps many times before - even led other people up the path - but this time I had absolutely freaked out. No doubt about it. The hike up had taken us 4 hours. It took us another 2 hours to make it back down to the parking lot. During those 2 hours, I promised myself that I would never hike a mountain again.

Right after I took ibuprofen and crawled into bed that night, the friend that had so graciously taken Thing 2 to the top called and asked me if we'd seen the bear on the way down. She had come upon one that couldn't be bothered to stop eating berries, despite a human's presence. I guess my horrible chanting and singing had worked.

The next day, I slept until noon just like the boys. When Thing 2 showed me the pictures he had taken at the top, that's when I knew that it had been worth it. My failure had not lessened his experience - in fact, it made it even more special because he'd been the only one in our little party to reach the summit.

The obligatory selfie. Thing 2 and his Fearless Guide.

Looking towards Eyak Lake and the Copper River Delta.

On Top of the World!

And that is a pretty cool thing. But I'm still never climbing another mountain.  

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:

Did this just happen?
Has he taken Benadryl?

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

Is he drooling
Or having trouble breathing

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

Did his eyes swell

He is fine
To all 3
I promise I will tell u if he has any trouble

How long has it been since he took a bite

15 mins

And about 15 min since Benadryl?

He just threw up but he is not having trouble breathing


Yes he took it right away 

Good that he threw up

His eyes are not swelling

Any hives



He is moving around just fine

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

It has

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

He is already joking around again.

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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Sex. Or Not. - My Messy Beautiful

A sample from our family library. Real talk. 
Click the pic to learn more about 
Kane/Miller Book Publishers and this amazing series.

Talking about sex has always come easily to me as a parent. This might be surprising to hear from a mother of three boys, but it’s absolutely true.

As preschool and elementary school came and went, so did the inevitable questions.

“Why is that turtle on top of the other turtle?” was pretty easy. I answered questions when they arose. I was matter-of-fact in my answers. Breasts were for nursing babies. There were differences between girls and boys. I didn’t shy away from recounting birth stories. We looked at picture books about the body and all its glorious functions, and as they became pre-teens, I made sure there were several books in the house about puberty. My husband and I have always been very clear that the boys can ask us anything and we will give them a straight answer. Everything is very open and honest. Or so I thought.  

A few days ago during the morning craziness before school, a boy handed me a pen at the kitchen table, and presented a worksheet strategically folded so that only the signature portion was visible. (Note to Teenagers: This is a sure way to provoke parent suspicion.)

“What am I signing here?” I asked, taking the pen.

“Nothing. Just sign it,” the boy replied.

I grasped the paper, unfolding it as the boy’s face fell. “I don’t sign anything without knowing what it is first. You shouldn’t either.”

He sighed. He may have rolled his eyes.

I scanned the page and words popped out. Gonorrhea. Chlamydia. STD. HIV.

Now I understood his hesitation. He had scribbled and scratched out answers, his pencil marks so light I had to squint to read them -  like he was too embarrassed to even touch his pencil to the paper. This was the Health class (I use that term loosely) that my seventh graders were forced to endure instead of Athletics on a sporadic basis. It looked as if the coaches had shown a video and the worksheet had accompanied it. I gathered they were supposed to fill in the blanks as they watched to confirm their understanding. They were required to get their parents to sign their completed work on this most sensitive subject.  

Words like sperm and genitalia and fluid littered the page. The boy was mortified.

“Why can’t you just SIGN IT??!!” he shouted before stomping out of the kitchen.

His twin brother sat calmly, eating his bowl of cereal. They were in the same class.

“Where’s yours?” I asked, continuing to scan the worksheet causing so much angst. He rummaged through his backpack and handed me his. Written in dark black ink, only half of the front side of his was complete.

“You didn’t finish?” I asked.

“Coach said he would tell us the answers, but he never did!” he whined.

“So you just left it blank?”

“I don’t know…” he trailed off.

“Why is your brother’s all filled out then?”

“I don’t know…” another mumble.

I saw that some of his filled-in answers were correct, where his brother's had not been. How was I going to approach that? I took a closer look at the last question.

What is the only way to eliminate the risk of contracting an STD?
The answer?
Don’t have sex.
I was appalled. What a manipulative and emotionally charged question. This abstinence only program had probably scared the crap out of them.

I explained to the boy who was brave enough to remain in the kitchen that while that answer may technically be true, it was unrealistic to act as if you were never going to have sex - ever. I dove right in. “So they should have explained to y’all that there are ways to have sex safely - to protect yourself and reduce the risk by wearing a condom.”

I didn’t expect a response from the boy and I didn’t get one. I took a deep breath as I walked down the hall to the bedroom where the other boy had retreated.

He sat in his desk chair, his back to me. “There are a few answers here that you need to change,” I explained. “This should be bacterial…” The boy sighed, but corrected his answers as I pointed them out.

“Why are you acting so mad?” I asked.

“Why do you have to turn everything bad?” he blurted. As the accusation left his mouth, his voice cracked and tears came. He wiped them away furiously, dragging his forearms across his eyes.

I didn’t give up.

“You can always ask me about any of this stuff. You don’t have to be embarrassed. Or you can ask Dad. Or we can give you books to read that explain everything if you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s life. Sex is part of life. You’re eventually going to have sex and you need to know these things. That’s life.”

“Just go away!” he croaked through more tears.

So I did.

I went to my room and sat at my desk in front of my laptop, pretending to work. I was rattled. Here I was, thinking we had this open and honest relationship with our boys and that they knew they could come to us for information and, most importantly, that they would. And yet I had just been rejected. The boys not only didn’t want to ask me any questions, they didn’t want me involved at all. And could I really blame them?

That I prided myself on being a parent who considered no topic taboo didn’t mean I had kids who felt the same way. Maybe that wasn’t what they needed or wanted. Maybe they wanted a mother who was there, but not pushy. A mother who could be counted on in a pinch, but didn’t insist on doing things her way.

I shudder to think where and how they will acquire their sexual education, but I’m backing off. Because maybe this is less about the type of parent I want to be and more about the type of parent my boys need me to be. And you know what? I think I owe them that.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! To learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry on Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!