You know the saying, “It’s always the things that aren’t toys that they play with the most?”
In that spirit, I give you, “Sock Plinko.”
- Shoe rack
A woman’s best friend in pregnancy isn’t ice cream. Or pickles. Or brownies. Or whatever other non-sense popular media tells you.
No. Her best friend is stretchy pants.
And I was lucky enough to have two best friends.
They weren’t yoga pants.
They weren’t maternity pants.
They were actually Victoria’s Secret Pillowtalk Pajamas.
These pants were truly made of magic and grace. Magic, because they transformed from Smalls to Ex-Larges, right along with me. Grace, because they didn’t make me feel like any of these changes were inconvenient for them. They moved out of the way. They said, Oh, excuse me for not accommodating you more quickly. Here you go.
I wore them so much they frayed at the bottom hems.
I wore them mostly around the house.
I admit, I may have worn them to the gas station.
Maybe also Target.
I’m now about 8 pounds from my pre-pregnancy weight (which means I’m 37 pounds lighter than my last days of pregnancy. Woot.) One more inch off my hips and I’ll be back in my pre-pregnancy pants and a whole new section of my wardrobe opens back up.
When it’s all stacked and folded like this, it feels like a geological record of the last 21 months of my life.
So I say good-bye.
Good-bye to all the postpartum clothes that have served me in all the hard In-Between Phases of transformation.
All those months of looking in the mirror
and not seeing myself at all
and then not really seeing myself
and then not quite seeing myself
and then kind of seeing myself
seeing that first glimpse of the the version of me that I used to be
A lot happens in the last twenty minutes before bedtime.
Today’s installment of Pieces of Parenthood comes to you as a video mash-up.
Movement is physical. It’s maneuvering and taking first steps. It’s also traveling with objects and experimenting with how those objects may travel on their own.
Movement can also be abstract. Photos take us back to moments in history, which proves to be a challenging concept for the growing preschooler. Was that when you and daddy were born, she asked just before the video started.
Movement is also seen in language, in the give-and-take of those first interactions. It’s verbal and non-verbal, words, gestures, smiles, and laughter.
And, of course, peanut butter, which has now been categorized as safe to expose to infants (granted they haven’t had reactions to other foods).
By the way, that’s not just pure peanut butter. It’s mixed with cereal and milk.
I love writing.
But finding time to fully develop and organize a written blog post has proven to be… challenging.
Full-time work. Two kids. House. Life.
It usually takes me at least three or four hours to craft a post that I publish on this blog. And let’s be honest, I’m really stretched for finding that time.
But I really love writing.
So for 2018, I’m going to try a different format and reach beyond the written word.
The theme of the year is “Pieces of Parenthood.”
Each week, I’ll share a picture, a video, a sound file, or maybe just a short written post. The theme of these posts is to give the reader a glimpse into what parenthood looks like in this version of life that our family lives. Since these pieces of media will be curated, I’ll present them like an art exhibition.
Admission is free.
So, here we go.
Format: Digital picture
Feeding is a central theme in the care of infants. It is one of the three-pronged components of an infant’s life: feeding, peeing/pooing, sleeping. To feed a baby is to love a baby. My 11-month-old son is in the midst of transitioning to solid foods. As such, his primary caloric intakes comes from formula (soy-based, to respond to lactose intolerance). In addition, he eats three bowls of some kind of solid, blended food. In this photo, I capture the moment just before I mix together some baby oatmeal cereal with a blueberry/pear blend.
On his face, you can see the eagerness with which he reaches for his food and his recognition of the person who is offering the food.
I’ve recently been called “selfish” by one of my readers for having taken my child to daycare while he had diarrhea.
It’s a heavy, knife-twisting word for women.
There’s nothing worse than a selfish woman.
Except a selfish mother.
How dare I take my child to daycare while he had diarrhea?
I dared because there were three viruses going around in his classroom and every child had at least one of them. (And as you’ll find out later in this post–we got all of them). That’s what daycare centers are. They are veritable petri dishes of illness. Everyone who uses a daycare knows it. And none of us point fingers at each other saying, Ohhh… I’m so mad at you because your kid got my kid sick! That never happens. Ever.
I dared because I had already called the doctor and she told me that we were doing everything we could. The virus would just have to run its course. And this bug lasts about 5-7 days…
I dared because he didn’t have measles or rubella. He had diarrhea.
I dared because he was only having diarrhea when he ate, not continuously throughout the day.
I dared because his teachers said they would call me if he got worse. And because they’re an Amazing Sort of Awesome, they said, “Don’t worry. We can handle poop.”
I dared because every morning, I was up at 5:30, giving him baths and scrubbing poop off laundry before it could actually be washed another two or three times (And then I had to get another child ready.)
I dared because I had been up several times each night that week, changing vile, vile diapers, rocking him when he couldn’t go back to sleep, and then listening to his screams when I couldn’t calm him down.
I dared because I had to work. I didn’t have sick leave and I had to administer and grade final exams before the university’s deadline. (Not a task you can really hand over to a substitute.)
I dared because I was headed for a breakdown in my mental sanity.
That’s how I dared.
Thanks for asking.
What is it about motherhood that makes mothers so quick to point out what they perceive are another mother’s failings?
Honestly, how can you know the whole context of a situation when you’re outside of it?
And why is the word “selfish” just about the worst thing that you can call a mother?
As I sit here now thinking about that word, a knot is forming in my stomach and my heart is thumping.
Are you serious!?!?
Isn’t this reader right?
Aren’t I selfish for wanting someone else to take over some of the burden that both my husband and I had been dealing with all night long for days on end?
Yes. In fact, I was selfish.
Selfish in my need for self-preservation.
But should I be ashamed that I couldn’t handle all of this at the same time?
Should I be ashamed that I desperately wanted out of my life, if only for just those worst, most miserable days in the last few weeks?
After Henry’s diarrhea tapered off, a bad cold hit him–and, subsequently, all of us–hard. We were all plagued with it to varying degrees. Mine lived mostly in my throat and chest. For everyone else, it set up house in their noses.
And then came the Infamous Daycare Puking Bug.
Over last weekend, Henry went through it.
Doug got it.
When it hit me at 10:00 p.m. on Monday night, I was in denial at the first twinges of nausea.
Nope… Nope… That’s not what this is.
All night, I twisted and turned as the first ripples of nausea swelled into cresting ocean waves. At 1:00 a.m., I allowed myself to believe that, yes indeed…
It was happening to me.
I dreamed that instead of puking into the toilet, I puked in the shower.
When 6:00 a.m. came and Henry started crying, I pulled myself out of bed and held the walls as I walked down the hallway. From my toes to my shoulders, everything ached. All the way down into my bones, I ached. When I opened the door and smelled the poop, I turned around and told Doug that I couldn’t do it.
Unsure about what had happened the night before, I checked the bathroom. No puke.
Just unbelievable nausea.
I lay back down until Doug needed me. As I sank into the bed, I was certain that nothing had ever felt so good as to be lying there in the cool sheets, my head against the pillow. When he called for my help, I only did what was absolutely necessary.
I couldn’t hold the baby.
I couldn’t even hold the bags.
I put food in containers for the kids. I sent along extra clothes and bibs.
When they were mercifully gone, I ate six saltines and went back to bed.
I woke up at 12:45 and ate six more saltines.
Then I slept until 2.
Then I ate a banana.
And slept until I heard Henry crying.
I rolled over, blinking. The clock read 5:55. Morning or night? I wasn’t too sure.
It turned out to be night, so I helped put one child to bed.
Then I ate a bowl of cereal.
And went back to bed.
Was it selfish of me to send the kids to daycare while I stayed home sicker than I’ve been in two years?
Is it selfish of me to send my kids to daycare in this last week before Christmas even though I don’t have to teach, simply because we’re paying for it? Is it selfish that I crave this time to work on creative projects that have nothing to do with my kids or my work?
Yep. It sure is. I’m selfish.
You caught me.
But here’s the harder question: Should I be ashamed of being selfish?
I think this is where I disagree with my reader.
I don’t think I should be ashamed of taking time to care for myself–and it shouldn’t matter whether my needs are physical, emotional, or mental. It’s all important. This whole culture of “real parents are the ones who always put their kids first” is setting us up for rampant depression and divorce.
I love my kids, but, nope. They don’t always come first. Especially when I’m on the brink.
I care about having enough wherewithal to get through not only the days, but the weeks, the months, and the years.
So yeah, I’m selfish.
But I’m not going to feel badly about it this time.
Holy Mary, Mother of God…
I’m not Catholic, but this is what I feel like saying when I’ve opened my baby’s diaper lately.
Just… Dear God…
But that’s not where this story starts. No, this story starts way back in a more peaceful, almost utopian, moment in time called “Our Anniversary.”
It was a time of Hotel Bliss. A time of Sleeping In and Room Service. A time of Binge-Watching and Massages. There was even Sex!
Yes, we’ve been married for twelve years.
It was last Saturday afternoon. Snow softly fell outside of our swanky hotel room. We ate a delightful lunch, brought to us on trays and adorned with cloth napkins and adorable bottles of Heinz ketchup. And because I could, I ate that delightful lunch in my bathrobe.
We spend time hammering out several scripts for upcoming episodes for our YouTube channel. (Check it out here).
We talked about the future. Of possible Ph. D. programs and how old we’ll be when the kids graduate.
We talked about politics. Of just how many men in media and politics and business will fall from grace under the crashing wave of sexual harassment allegations. Of the possibility of a pedophile in our U.S. Senate. (Dodged that bullet. Thank God for small favors.)
And of course, we talked about our kids. They’re such good kids, aren’t they? We really lucked out. Felicity has such a big heart. And “my little man”… Oh, I can’t get enough of that face! (taking phone out) I just have to see that face one more time. Oh my God… He is so ridiculously cute. Mama loves you, Big Boy!
It was perfect.
When we arrived home on Sunday afternoon, the Conveyor Belt of Life from which we disembarked on Friday afternoon had accelerated from Challenging-But-Doable to All-Systems-Go.
We still needed to:
This is the point in the story when It All Goes to Shit.
As I was feeding Henry his 3:00 p.m. bottle, Diarrhea was engaged.
Okay. I knew this was coming. My mom (who was watching them while we were away) told me that he was having bad diapers since she picked them up at daycare on Friday (He had an explosion in the highchair… From shoulder blades to knees…)
But we were on vacation.
And Mom had it under control. And when Mom has things under control, everything is fine.
We would come home just as the diarrhea was going away.
Oh, sweet naive little Me.
Sunday evening was unpleasant, but we survived. I explained to Felicity that “the puking bug” that was going around daycare wasn’t something that was going to crawl into her food, like a spider.
“It’s a virus,” I tell her. “It’s a… a… really small germ that can get into your mouth and make you sick.”
Her new saying that she likes to apply to all contexts is, “Well, I was going to…”
So what she said was: “Well, I was not going to eat the puking bug.”
“Good idea,” I told her.
It was early Monday morning.
3:00 a.m. He was crying. A cry that said,
Harmph… What is wrong with me? I don’t like Life. Life blows. Argh… < asleep >
Wait… I still think Life blows… < asleep >
Arghhh! Isn’t anyone going to come help me? < asleep >
As I stared at the ceiling, I kept praying that he’d work it out. That he would eventually go back to sleep. I was going to get up to exercise at 4:30. At least, that was the plan.
I ended up holding him from 4:00 until 5:30 that morning as he softly protested, moaning and groaning, clearly fighting something.
We pulled through. We got them to daycare. We worked. I thought back longingly to the Anniversary Weekend. It felt like that had been months ago instead of the mere 24 hours that it had been. I listened to my co-workers talk about their lazy Sundays of Not Doing Much of Anything.
I was intensely jealous. But I kept it in check. You’re the one who wanted to have kids, my Evil Ego said. Then, there was my Good Ego, saying, Don’t freak out on people who don’t deserve it. This too shall pass.
That evening, the Conveyor Belt of Life kicked into Panic Mode.
We spent an hour just feeding and changing Henry’s diaper. Over and over again. Which doesn’t sound too bad until I tell you what is involved in that process.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Every single time that he poops.
It’s a vicious cycle of, Should I feed him? What should I feed him? He just calmed down. Should I really give him something else? I don’t want him to get dehydrated. But he needs protein. But is soy formula okay? Or not? How many days is this going to go on? Should I call the doctor?
Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday.
A midnight cry that turns quickly into a scream.
It takes a moment to realize, but you do. It starts with unzipping the footed pajamas that you hoped would contain any leakage. (Wishful thinking.)
But it’s on his legs, his belly, even his torso. It’s all over his footed pajamas.
For the love of God, it‘s between his toes.
There’s poop everywhere.
On his sheet. On his blanket.
It’s the definition of Lovely.
Then the screams, the tears, the twisting full-planked baby, fighting your every move to stop you from removing all the shit that is literally everywhere.
It makes you frustrated that you can’t just do the Shitty Job that you have to do.
You have to do the Shitty Job while your ears bleed and you’re tired and you’re angry and you just want to go to sleep and your baby can’t say, Thank you. Hell, your baby isn’t even non-verbally saying thank you by just going to bed.
He’s going to scream way down into the Seventh Circle of Hell while you try to shush and rock and sway him to sleep. You try patting his back and butt the way your husband does (It works every time. He likes it that way.)
All to no avail.
So you leave your baby screaming in his crib, shut the door, and cry in the hallway.
Then, you call in your husband and pray that he’s able to get the baby back to sleep.
It makes you hate your baby.
It makes you sad that you just thought that you hate your baby.
It makes you feel like a failure.
But by the time morning comes, the night terror is a distant memory.
And covered in poop again. (Of course.)
With my hands under his armpits, I carry him at arm’s length directly to the bathtub.
And we try again.
Maybe this will be the last day of this Shit.
To clarify, it’s not like I don’t do anything at work.
But I get to decide what I’m doing.
(At least, it feels like it.)
When I sit down at my desk in the morning and take in a breath, my space transforms. My desk turns into my own little sanctuary from Motherhood, where I can mentally escape from the Tasks that You Do But Are Never Done (dishes, laundry, feeding people, shopping, The Checklist.).
Here, I can finish something.
Here, I can decide to do “That” later.
Here, when the class is over, so are my responsibilities for my students (except for grading. Booooo…). I don’t have to take my students with me everywhere. I don’t have to worry if they haven’t gone to the bathroom in a few hours (I hope she doesn’t need to pee when we’re in the middle of the store). I don’t have to think about when they ate last, or if their runny nose means they’re getting sick (and do we need more Tylenol?)
Here, I can take a break when I want to take a break. I don’t have to eat standing up or devour my lunch in the few minutes before the baby loses his mind about not having the bottle in his mouth.
My good friend, whom I call “Bear,” was telling me about the annoying points of fostering a dog (which he and his wife are currently doing.) The dog whines. The dog makes messes everywhere. You’ve got to worry about what the dog is getting into.
Oh Bear. I love ya, Bear.
Bear is a portrait of me before I had kids.
Sometimes, when I hear him talking, I can almost see myself in 2012.
Look at her in 2012. Going out to dinner. Taking a nap on the weekend. Seeing a New Movie. Sleeping in until 6:30 a.m. Staying up late and drinking too much sometimes.
Bear and I share the pain of the introvert — the person who must have “downtime” away from other people in order to recharge their batteries. But I’ve lost the easy accessibility of recharging mine. I just can’t seem to get away from people for very long. (Maybe that’s why I get up so early to exercise by myself for an hour before the day starts?)
Introvertedness isn’t about being shy (although some introverts are). Being introverted means that you get your energy from inside yourself, not by being around other people. So if you’re constantly surrounded by other people, your energy just goes down, down, down, and down.
Until you just shut down.
Honestly, the scarcity of downtime in parenthood makes me anxious if I think too much about it. I’m a little glad that I didn’t think too much about how this area of my life would change before we had kids. And now that we have two… (Introverted stay-at-home moms… How do you do it?)
Usually, I just think about today. When can I be alone today?
Oftentimes, the answer is: At my work desk.
In between grading and planning and meeting with students, I ferret away time for myself. I check Facebook (because I took it off my phone). I drink something hot (water lately, since I’m cutting way back on coffee). I work a little for this blog (although I often make more drafts than I actually publish. Wonder if this one will make the cut?)
Ahhh… Those two magical words that have become damn near mystical to me.
It really is the hardest part about being a parent for me (right now at least).
Because even when they don’t need anything from you and they’re not interrupting you with feedings, changings, questions, gibberish, crying, or cleverly crafted requests to watch another episode of My Little Pony… (It sure would be nice to see what happens to Pinkie Pie, Mama…)
Even when you can finally sink your eyes into A Dance with Dragons…. You still keep looking up to check whether or not the baby has got something in his mouth that he can choke on (99% of the time, he doesn’t. But that 1%…)
After kids, you need to pay for your Free Time. You want to go out for dinner and a movie? The cost now includes the babysitting bill, which is usually more than the cost of dinner (since we spent all the money on babysitting).
(And if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents nearby that will watch your kids… You lucky dog, you.)
But honestly, we might get to dinner and a movie once per year now. Maybe. What we usually do is go to dinner and then Target. Movies usually happen at home now, but let’s be honest, those movies are usually Carebears and Hello Kitty. If we want an actual adult movie, both kids have to be in bed, so we could start the movie at 8:00, but I would be asleep at 8:25 because I started the day at 4:45 a.m….
You get the picture.
My own mother worked on and off when I was growing up. She was a part-time cake decorator who regularly worked over 40 hours during the months of May and June (graduation and wedding season).
I imagine that she may have had some of the same feelings about working.
Here, I can finish something.
Here, the responsibilities are clear and defined.
Here, I can see be alone with my thoughts.
Here, I can take a break from the Hardest Job Ever.
I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.
To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?
Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)
Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.
Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.
Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.
We called it paranoia. We called it depression.
It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.
Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.
I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.
His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…
“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.
I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”
But he just kept saying,
“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”
Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.
I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”
I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.
We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodiness. We called it angry old man syndrome.
When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.
The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.
But we all knew that wasn’t enough.
More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.
It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?
Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?
Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?
In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.
He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).
The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.
But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.
To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”
“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.
“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”
“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.
My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”
“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”
God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.
My mother. Oh, my mother.
The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.
Sometimes, there are no words.
Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.
We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.
“What are you laughing about?” I asked.
She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.
My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.
“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”
He hit the dashboard harder.
Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.
My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.
Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.
“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.
She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”
How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?
Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?
There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him?
Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?
But then… who would take care of him?
I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.
To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.
To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.
To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:
I promised in sickness or in health.
For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.
But it was different for my mother.
For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.
But she didn’t.
And that is how my mother has schooled me.
She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.
Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.
And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.
It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.
We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.
But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.
Because this wasn’t my dad.
I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.
I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.
I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,
This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.
Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.
Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.
But there were no markers. No maps.
There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.
To move away.
To move away.
Until he was gone.
I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.
This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.
You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.
Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.
And then this song came up on Pandora:
Remember when our songs were just like prayers
Like gospel hymns that you called in the air
Come down, come down sweet reverence
Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…
It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.
I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.
I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!
But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?
Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.
Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.
For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.
And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.
Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.
I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.