Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Elegy on the Open Road

Some weeks get the better of you: The kid gets sick. You get sick. Deadlines pile up. Bills pile up. You want something, badly, but you don't get it. You fear that something terrible will happen, and somehow you believe the fear itself is a talisman against that terrible thing, but it is not.

Where do we find the space to organize our thoughts, to gently coax our disappointment or hope back into its tidy, sturdy crate?

As parents, alone time is rare. For parents of young children, showering and using the toilet become communal acts. Even when we sleep, there's the body knowledge that our kids are near, that someone could need us at any minute. Room and rest are hard to come by.

I spent most of last Saturday morning on the road, driving to a memorial service. A bottle of good wine rolled around in the empty passenger seat, bumping against a box of Dunkin Donuts. Grief, my family taught me, always goes down easier with a little booze and comfort food. My wipers swatted at the drizzle as I sipped hot coffee and watched the Blue Ridge Mountains rise humbly on the horizon.

Back in Alexandria, my husband would have been putting our son down for a nap. I love to watch my son sleep, to see his fat lashes skimming the top of his fat cheeks. When he sucks his thumb, I feel a vicarious comfort. But there was comfort, too, in the shush of highway traffic and in the privacy of my car.

The 3-hour drive to Southwest Virginia was a gift. I lost a respected mentor and felt an achy sadness in my chest, for myself and for his family, but there was a kind of luxury in being able to invest in that sadness. No toddler vied for my attention, no dog nudged me toward her leash, no email required a speedy response.

For a few hours, I listened to my tires wick water from the road and let my mind wander: imagining what it would be like to live in one of the ramshackle farmhouses dotting the hills; wondering whether I'd packed the right shoes; trying to recall a snippet of our last conversation and, failing to do so, rewriting the conversation in my head, making it memorable. Before I even arrived in Roanoke, I had already begun constructing my own closure.

As a kid, I relished a good family road trip. Usually we just schlepped a few hours to Maryland's Eastern Shore for summer vacation, but every few years, the 5 of us crammed ourselves into the Chevy Chevette and made our way into the deep south to visit family. For 2 days, I'd sweat onto the vinyl seat, loll my head against the window, and daydream. There were no DVD players, no tablets, no smart phones to keep my sisters and me occupied. CDs were still a few years off. I'm not even sure that we had seat belts in the back. What we did have, however, were hours of uninterrupted farmland, staticky radio, and head space.

The year after my mother died, we drove to Mississippi to celebrate Easter with my grandmother's sisters. I'd like to say that I spent the hours in the car reminiscing about my mom, and maybe I did, occasionally. Mostly, though, I thought about Prince and about Hall and Oates: Which one would I marry, I wondered. Would they care that I hadn't pierced my ears yet? Would they like my perm? Would it be a problem that I was 9 years old?

My mother had watched Guiding Light religiously. For months, I begged her to let me watch reruns of Popeye, which aired at the same time as her soap, but she never relented. And thus began my own obsession with the show. I'd curl up next to her in the corduroy recliner as Beth Raines pursued a relationship with Lujack, the tough-but-tender leader of the Galahad motorcycle gang. Nestled into the crook of my mom's arm, I quietly swooned as Lujack cruised the beach on his hog, forming giant, loopy hearts in the sand for Beth. Everything I knew about romance and resurrection after death, I learned from Guiding Light.

So, instead of spending the highway hours between Maryland and Mississippi mourning my mother, I revisited our favorite plot lines. I played out my own soap opera love affair. I imagined impossible scenarios: Daryl Hall holding my hand and serenading me with "Maneater." Prince covering my chilly shoulders with his purple leather jacket. And somewhere between Georgia and Alabama, I was racing the surf on the back of Lujack's motorcycle as my mom watched from the worn comfort of our La-Z-Boy and waved a cheerful goodbye.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Woman Formerly Known As

When I was born, I was named Jessica. My dad says he lobbied for Angela or Angelina, but I don't think I've ever had what it takes to be an Angie Rapisarda. And there are only so many times I can explain how someone with a warm Sicilian last name has skin that suggests long hours spent in dark, wood-panelled rooms eating schnitzel. Mediterranean I am not.

So "Jessica" fits. Its anonymity deflects from the conspicuousness of my surname. "Jess" to my husband and my friends. "Jessie" to my immediate family. I don't love my name, but then again, I don't love a glass of water or a gulp of air. It does its job. Its job is important.

Jess, circa May 2012

Then I became pregnant, and with each passing month, as my stomach expanded, my name seemed to contract, shrinking away from me little by little. For everyone who called me "Jess," there was an equal number of folks calling me "mom-to-be."

"How are you feeling, mom-to-be?"

"Hey there, mama-to-be. How many more months to go?"

It was exciting. I felt like a fresh-faced sorority pledge. Granted, it was the least exclusive sorority in the history of womankind, but for 36 years, I'd been watching its secret rites from a quiet, well-rested distance. "Mom-to-be" reminded me that other folks appreciated the importance of my initiation.

And, honestly, when a hugely pregnant woman forgets her keys at the cash register, why bother with a "Miss!" or "Ma'am!" when "Yo there, mom-to-be!" is sure to narrow the field?

Yet a memory, a small and unadorned piece of history, wormed its way out of the dark to nag me. Years before I had even met my husband, let alone married or thought of having kids, I drove from Maryland to Southwest Virginia to visit my dear friend who was several months pregnant with her second child. We hadn't seen each other in months, not since just before she found out that her strange change in appetite was more than just a passing bug.

We stood on her wrap-around porch, in the bracing light of winter, looking out at the dips and curves of the valley surrounding her home. I marveled at her belly, her rosy skin, but mostly we talked about our latest writing ventures, our families, and news of mutual acquaintances.

"It's good to talk to a friend," she said, "someone who remembers your name, ya know?"

I felt my brow crinkle, my look clearly indicating that I did not know.

She rested her forearm across her stomach. "People forget who you are when you become a mom. It's like they forget you're a woman, an individual even. You're suddenly just 'mom.'"

And though I understood her words, I still didn't really know. But by my own second trimester, I was at least getting the gist.

Jess-ish, September 2012

When my son was born in early 2013, "Jessica" was abruptly and thoroughly shunted aside. But it was to be expected for a while. In the first week after his birth, I needed to hear other people say "mother" and know that they were referring to me, to be reminded that, yes, this child was mine. I referred to myself as "mama" while rocking my newborn to sleep. Everyone was trying out the new name, like a freshly minted "husband" and "wife" on their honeymoon.

The Woman Formerly Known as Jess, February 2013

My dad had gently told me, when I was newly pregnant, that life would never be the same. A pretty obvious statement, if I'd ever heard one. Of course life wouldn't be the same, I thought: kids require love, food, money, space. But within a few short weeks of my son's birth, nothing seemed obvious anymore.

Once I was a woman who didn't give a second thought to driving across the state just to eat lunch at my favorite fried chicken joint. Once I was a woman who spent half of an hour each morning applying moisturizer, penciling in her brows, selecting just the right lipstick. Once I was a woman who wrote stories, who read stories, who had time on her hands. Once I was not a mother.

Between the psychological whiplash, the sleep deprivation, and the claustrophobic cold of February, I felt, as my grandmother would have said, a bit touched. Insane. Everyone who called or stopped by or sent a card called me "mom" or "mama" or "mommy" -- as though my one child had multiplied twenty times over.

It took months, frankly, for me to reestablish old routines (like showering and eating breakfast) and to break free of the postpartum haze. I grieved the life I'd had before my son, but I realized that I was no less myself just because my schedule didn't permit a lengthy beauty regimen.

Months rolled by, a year even, and my new world order felt a little more broken in. But coworkers, distant relatives, even the grocery store cashier still echoed the same refrain: "How ya doin', mom?" I thought better of being honest, of saying, "Well, I used to go by Jessica, so I'm experiencing a pretty intense identity crisis right now."

There is no malice in "mom." Honestly, I've dropped the m-word many times myself. "Mom" is shorthand for "I acknowledge that you have a child, congratulations, welcome, try to breathe, this is going to last for at least 18 years."

But "Jessica," my dime-a-dozen first name, is shorthand for something much more complex.  It contains  the little girl playing with Barbies on the front porch and the angsty teenager playing The Cure in her bedroom. It holds my college years, my grad school years, and the years in between when I folded khakis at the mall for a living. There's a career in that name and a marriage and ten different addresses across two different states. "Jessica" wrote poems in her diary when she was 13, and "Jessica" wakes at 5 a.m., a few quiet hours before her son stirs in his crib, to write an essay on her laptop. "Jessica" contains "mother," too.

I love being a mom. I love all the names that come with it: mother, mama, mommy.  Even now, as I watch my son on the baby monitor, curled in a tidy "c" around his trusty stuffed elephant, I am awed that he is of me. And I am not even bothered that my very best piece of work has already been made, that nothing I type will ever top him.

There are times though, when I am out with old friends, when I'm alone with my husband, and I hear my name, and it's as though a door swings open. And inside is a room packed with neatly labeled boxes and bins: "First ballet recital, 1981," "Trip to Madrid, 1999," "Christmas with Shelby, 2012," "Early mornings at the kitchen table, 2014." And I think to myself, "Oh, thank god, it's all still here."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Your Germs, Your Problem

My son is not going back to school. He's 18 months old, so I've got another year or two on my hands before preschool and SAT prep courses begin. That said, my Facebook feed is packed to the hilt with misty-eyed mamas and fresh-faced kids waiting for the first school bus of the year. Oh those bright, young things, looking smart in their new khakis and stiff shoes -- the world is their oyster. And oysters, as we all know, can contain unique and precious pearls, as well as flesh-eating bacteria.

But you want your kid to get the pearl, not the necrotizing fasciitis. Your child's flesh is important to you. Yada yada yada. Dry your eyes and log off of WebMD; I know how to make things better. Not perfect, mind you, not even easy, but better -- more pearls and less disfigurement all around. Here goes, moms and dads: Keep your sick kid home. Yes, your kid. And, yes, in your home. 

Oh, but you have a major deadline to meet at work? Too bad. Keep your sick kid home.

What's that? You're battling your own head cold/stomach flu/bladder infection? Tough break. Keep your sick kid home.

Damn. Your leave is rapidly drying up and there are still 6 months left in the year? Sucks to be you. Keep your sick kid home.

But you've already kept your kid home for 2 days and you're all going batshit crazy and -- would ya look that -- the gym has a yoga class and free child care? Don't be an asshole. Keep your sick kid home.

My husband likes to joke that my immune system and that of our son is less of a defense than a welcome mat. Despite constant hand washing, a regular sleep schedule, vitamins, vegetables, and a live chicken sacrifice, Pork Chop and I pick up every single sniffle, cough, and rash. If I were to hear about a zombie virus on Monday, I can guarantee you that my son and I would be making a meal of my husband and the family dog by Wednesday. This year alone, I have paid for weeks (not days, but weeks) of daycare that my son couldn't even use because he was sick.

Yet, Pork Chop and I are still relatively hardy. We have yet to experience any long-lasting effects from our maladies, and with the exception of my one bean-sprout-induced E. coli infection, we've avoided the hospital. The same cannot always be said for infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and folks with compromised immune systems. One middle schooler's annoying bout of the flu could easily be a newborn's fatal illness.

But you knew that, didn't you, moms and dads? Yet you still dropped Junior off at kindergarten with a fever and a cough.

My family is also financially hardy. If I suddenly lose my job, we will still be able to pay most of our bills. We won't lose heat or water, and certainly not our home. (Although paying for daycare would be a different story entirely.) But I don't expect to lose my job. I have accrued sick days and vacation days. My schedule is somewhat flexible. My company is family friendly, and my boss is understanding. The story, however, can be quite different for single parents, for moms and dads who are paid by the hour, for folks laboring away at companies that think personal leave is akin to personal weakness.

But you still handed your toddler over to her daycare provider, right folks? Despite the night-long vomiting that you failed to mention?

Come the ever-loving-hell on, people. When you knowingly send your sick kid to school or to daycare, when you cart your sick child to the library or to tumbling class or to a play group, you are being careless. Worse, you are being selfish. You are tired. I get it. You have a job. I get it. You don't have backup child care. I get it. I get it. I get it. But that doesn't make your germs someone else's problem.

I'm not typically a soap box kind of gal. I like to tell a good poop story, to keep things light and low class. But I'm sick of being sick. I'm sick of my kid being sick. Can we please attempt to see past our own noses? When we choose to send a sick kid to school or daycare, we are placing our needs above the physical and financial health of others.

Don't let his abs fool you; he's no match for a bad cold.

About this time last year, Pork Chop was in a daycare center while I worked full time in an office park across the street. I got to know many of the women who worked there, and most were either single moms or seasoned grandmothers -- all paid a paltry hourly wage to care for our precious children. And they did care. Day in and day out, they sang to my son, comforted him through new teeth, changed his leaky diapers, and soothed him to sleep in their arms. I am forever grateful to those women, who did nothing less than raise my child 8 hours per day, 5 days per week.

Then, one morning, after I'd dropped Pork Chop off to roll around with his baby cohorts, I overheard a mom chatting on her cellphone in the parking lot.

"Yeah, I gotta run. Need to get into the office ASAP. I'll be lucky to get in 4 hours of work before they call me," she said.

Someone's expecting some important news, I thought to myself.

"Everywhere," she went on. "It was everywhere. All night long. And he just wouldn't stop screaming for me."

Oh my. That sounds juicy, I thought to myself.

"Yeah. Yeah. I know. But I don't have much of a choice. The client rep is really riding me. And I can't take care of two miserable assholes at the same time, ya know. Hahaha!"

My god, we're at a daycare center, lady, I thought to myself. Go be a pervert in some other parking lot.

Fast forward 2 days: After an otherwise uneventful shift at work, I waltz into the daycare center to pick up my son and am greeted by a horror movie scene. Puke. Rivers, streams, and lakes of puke. Children crying and puking. Daycare workers running, clutching paper towels, rending their clothes in sheer terror.

A realization dawned on me, albeit tardily. Ooooooh, I thought to myself, so she wasn't talking about sex.

The daycare manager stopped me before I even made it to Pork Chop's room.

"We've had an outbreak," she explained, gesturing to the room assistant in rubber gloves and a face mask, "We're bleaching everything. Get your son home, give him a bath, burn his clothes, and hope for the best."

In the days that followed, one kid after another came down with the stomach flu. Our office population dipped for a week, as parents burned sick leave to care for their ailing little ones. The daycare staffers were not spared either; the same women who cared so tenderly for my son were stuck at home, presumably trying to care for themselves.

And it didn't have to happen.

Don't think for a minute that I lack sympathy for the parents -- for the single mom who really needs to be on time for her new job, for the stay-at-home dad who just needs a break from being cooped up in the house for days, for the working parents without any family in the area to lend a hand. I have buckets and toilets and bed pans worth of sympathy. I was holed up in the house for over a week during Pork Chop's hand-foot-and-mouth episode. I have been sick with bronchitis at the same time that my son had the croup. Yes, yes, I admit it: It would be so much easier to hand my kid off to someone else so that I could work or recuperate or just have a moment free of bodily fluids. But my kid, my germs, my problem. My deadline or demanding boss or total exhaustion simply do not take priority over your kid's health.

We can talk about the need to change corporate attitudes toward families. We can talk about better and cheaper access to health care and child care. We can talk about forming communities, ones that support parents in need. And we should talk about it, but in the meantime, remember that talking won't stop people from getting sick.

So do me and the other folks a solid: If you know your child is sick, keep your kid home. (Pork Chop and I are one more runny nose away from becoming a CDC case study.)