Friday, June 26, 2009

Learning not to walk

And suddenly it all became more difficult...
I was walking down the basement stairs at a friend's house with Ellis in my arms. A mop at the bottom of the stairs fell in front of me. I missed a step and stepped into mid air. Instead of putting my hands down to catch myself, I threw them forward to cradle Ellis' head as we both hit the concrete floor. And so my foot took the blow. And so Ellis was safe.
The ER on a Saturday night, xrays, catscans. 2 bones broken. No cast (good news). 6 weeks on crutches, no weight on it (bad news)
I engaged in blubbering crying the whole way home e.g.Not fair, Not fair, Not fair, Its the first day of summer...I can't go swimming anymore... I can't PICK UP ELLIS!!! I CAN'T TAKE CARE OF MY CHILD ALONE!
Dave in all his wisdom just said "I know... I know..." over and over...
Its psychological pain more than physical. Checking off the things I cannot do... Trying to come up with solutions for doing the things I have to do...
It is now week one, day five that I have been in this boot cast, and that I have been engaged in rigorous self pity. I thought the universe owed me one...and I feel a little bitch slapped by her. I thought I deserved a summer of canoeing and camping...
The pain is in things turning out differently than you planned...
I can hear my mother, who broke her hip once the cancer reached her bones, standing in front of her walker in her yard, muttering to herself... "What is the purpose of this? What do I need to learn from this?"
She believed that we learn something we need to know from everything that happens, good or bad.
Not that she didn't engage in self pity... I took care of her twice when she was learning how to walk again... She raged, she sulked, she shouted, she moaned, she shook her fist at the sky. But then she always got down to business. She learned how to go up and down the 67 steps to her Amsterdam matter how long it took her. She worked with the physical therapist. She shuffled along with a cane through the city.
Twice. She learned to walk again twice. Once right after her hip was replaced, and once after she hurt it again. And in the last years of her life she was fit, rode her bike everyday all around Amsterdam, enjoyed her physical self.
So, mom, here I am again. Learning about you and your experience after you are gone.
It is so hard to feel helpless. It is so hard to be helped. It is so hard to realize how fragile we are, how these physical selves that carry us through this life, are so vulnerable.
Motherhood is, at least in these first years, such a physical act. Much of my parenting Ellis is about carrying him, being able to put him into his bed...into the high chair, dressing him, changing him, taking him for a walk.
This is the hardest thing... Feeling like a half-mother. Like I am not Dave moves double time to get us both fed and out the door in the mornings...He has to bring Ellis to me to nurse in the middle of the night. Ellis doesn't understand why I am not picking him up, why I am not engaged.


Silver lining inventory: Dave is a professor, off for the summer, and currently Ellis' primary caregiver. He does the cooking in the family. And is capable of taking care of both Ellis and I...
Ellis is safe.
My foot will heal.
There will be other summers.
I can still get into a canoe.
Eventually I will find the lesson in this.
I will learn and examine the parts of mothering that have nothing to do with my physical self, that have to do with my mind and my connection to my child.
When we lived in San Francisco I worked for a disability organization and there was a woman who would come into the office who used a wheelchair. She had a child, then two years old, that rode in a special seat attached to the front of her wheelchair. Parenting happens in all sorts of ways...
There is not one way to do this.
I have lots to learn. I have to learn how to sit and how to ask for help and how to get into the lake on crutches, and how to help Dave in the ways I can. I have to learn how my mother felt those days and weeks and months she couldn't walk, the helplessness of it, the humbling realization that we are not our physical selves, but have to rely on our physical selves to propel us through this life. I have to learn to be patient. I have to learn the time and place for self pity and the time for getting down to business.
Ellis pushes his walking toy around the apartment now, and regularly stands on his own. He is days away from his first steps. And as he learns to walk, I have to learn how to not walk. How to find the lesson in this and enjoy this summer on one foot.

"Once again my adventure, brave and new...."-Robert Browning

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


As Ellis approaches his first birthday this weekend, I contemplate the first year of being a mother. I have learned so much. Maybe because of this one year anniversary of becoming a mother--or maybe because it was her birthday a few weeks ago-- I have been experiencing a new wave of sadness about the loss of my mother. After the first big tidal wave of pain, that is how it happens: in waves, when you least expect it. You think the wound has scabbed over, and then there it is again. Ellis is in a transition phase...somewhere between sleeping and not sleeping, a routine and chaos, nursing and solids, teeth and no teeth, walking and not walking. I am tired. I am too tired to sit down and try to work on a strategy to address any of these issues. I can't think big picture. I can't read books that outline dogmas about weaning or not weaning, cry it out or let them be. I just move forward. I just get through the day. At these moments, I miss being mothered. I miss someone standing ahead of me and telling me that I will ride this wave, that this phase will pass, that this is how it all works, that I am doing a good job.

There was no time for my mother to tell me how to mother.

But one day, when she was in the hospital, during her last weeks, she suddenly offered up a mothering lesson. I listened intently, but at that moment thought, there will be enough time for this later. She will live to see my children. I had told her a few weeks before that we were going to start trying to have children, and so her rallying cry those weeks in the hospital was "I want to see those babies..." And I really thought she would get her wish. I suppose it is almost impossible, even with all evidence to the contrary, even with all the doctors and their bad news, to imagine the world without your mother, until she is suddenly gone.

So that day I thought, there will be time.
But there was not.

This is what she told me. She said, "Really, all you need to know is this: always believe that the child is good. Always orient from that point. They may do bad things. They may make mistakes. They may drive you crazy. But always believe that they are good to their soul. And the child will see that belief reflected back at them in your eyes. And they will become the good person you believe them to be, that they are in essence. They will know that they are loved. You are going to mess up... but if they know they are loved, they will be able to survive anything..."

And that is how I survived my mother's death. Because I was, am, loved. Because she believed in my essential goodness.

A year has passed, and this is what I have learned: Forget the books. Forget the dogmas. Forget people's strong opinions about what you should feed your child, how long you should nurse, when a child is supposed to do this or that. I am going to publish a pamphlet with my mother's words on it, and distribute it to all the mothers I know. It was all she had time to tell me, and all I really needed to know.