Monday, December 17, 2012

The Promise of a Hero

Thursday's horrifying elementary school shooting has everyone throwing up thoughts on social media pages like an over-served pledging fraternity boy. Heavy sadness, anger, and grief hurls from guts and those of us who were fortunate enough to be able to pick up our elementary school kids from their “safely” locked building on Thursday afternoon mop up the remaining mental mess with held breath and not nearly enough Fabreezy thoughts to make this terrible thing go away.

Everything is within six degrees of Sandy Hook. Second amendment flags wave and snap too soon, stinging like locker room towels against a quarterback's behind, NRA haters flail fatality statistics, mental illness advocates tell I told-you-so stories, and the West Baptist Little House of Worship Horrors prepares for a Connecticut debut. Some angrily equate this event to the US drone strikes that have killed innocent children in other countries, while others post beautiful spit-shined, toothless school portraits and interviews of young children who were ushered and begged to shush in dark closets while Adam Lonza walked their school halls and killed 20 of their school mates and 6 beloved educators. Even the most talented of surgical hands couldn't stitch this unthinkable mess back together without leaving a scar as thick and as glaring as the one Roger Daltrey bravely dared to bare when his buttons finally bid farewell during “Love Reign O'er Me” during Wednesday's concert for that other horrible Sandy incident.

How can I even begin to explain this to my kids?

To the best of my knowledge and ability my children have not seen a single news report of this event. We've been on media lock down for the entire weekend. I chose to have a very brief discussion with them on Friday, reassuring them with a voice jacked up worse than Hepburn's that while they were very safe and sound, something unusual and terrible had happened at a school in CT and because they may hear others talking about it over the weekend, I felt I needed to mention something. I explained that before I went into any great details I was going to wait a few days for accurate information to surface and that before school on Monday I would tell them things I thought they might need to know. While I would have preferred not to have said anything, I am very well aware that every family handles news like this a bit differently, and some children have quite likely been allowed to watch news coverage along side of their horrified parents. Knowing there were basketball games to attend and kid conversations to take place all weekend long, I wanted to be a little proactive. I'm quite certain by now many children are now prepared to report a third-grader filtered version of whatever their horrified parents posted on Twitter. I decided right away that I wanted to be the one to try and address this before the playground chatter served this up through a gaggle of confused and unsettled children over Monday morning's game of snowball tag.

In true press corps fashion Miller reminded me Sunday morning that I was due for an official news briefing.

I didn't serve up more information than I was asked for, and even that felt like too much to share with my eight and ten year old children who were unfortunately growing up a little bit sooner this morning and right before my very eyes beginning to think of Monday's school day and the world very differently. They are so curious. They ask away and we talked in very general terms about the horribly perfect (and thankfully very unusual) storm caused when a mentally ill person gains unfortunate, inappropriate access to unnecessary assault weapons. We talked about the brave people who helped save so many lives. We talked about all of the ways we work to keep ourselves safe at school and at home and it wasn't long before Jackson had his fill. He is well aware of his limitations regarding things like this and decided it was time to take a personal time out. Miss Miller, however, was just getting started. She waited behind while her brother left to process things over a game of Madden '13 and knowingly shut the door behind him to protect our exiting empath who was suffering enough. She returned to sit on the edge of my unmade bed where this whole conversation was carefully unfolding like a flag before hanging. She stared at me for a good minute before saying anything at all.

“So children died?”

“Yes. Children died.”

We stare again for what feels like hours. We both are putting forth a valiant effort not to cry.

“How many died?”

I don't want to answer. I tell her so. I tell her just one is too many and that the numbers don't matter.

“Well like a hundred?!” There's a bit of panic in her voice.

No, not one hundred.

“Well how many then?”
She is not going to let this go.

I inhale deep, hold my breath like a balloon and eventually exhale a loud slow soul-deflating hiss. I really want to do the right thing here. So I'm stalling. I'm a firm believer in honesty, but I also know it shouldn't always be ultra-specific. I am tired and emotional and completely off my game. I begin to think I'm fucking this up royally. She's waiting, but her patience is running out.

“How many mom?”

I panic. I mumble the word twenty and immediately regret it.

I watch her brow furrow as she sits quietly and does some mental math. “That's like my whole class. Like almost everybody.” I imagine from the look on her face that she's thinking about her classmates, her friends, their faces, and trying to process something like this happening somewhere on her third grade wing. I am pissed that I gave her an actual number and envision pulling my hair and smacking my forehead like the late, hilarious Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney saying something like “ when elementary school was fun? And, uh, you used to only have to worry about being scared that your cranky music teacher with the very high waisted pants might yell at you? Yeah. That was so awesome.”

Miller is still staring and I'm totally failing to find my “The love you take is equal to the love you make” moment.

Cue Farley's “IDIOT! You're so STUPID!!” I want to prat fall into the empty moving boxes that still sit in my room and be done with this. Suddenly, I'm ripped from my fantasy SNL debut by Miller's voice.

“I don't want to die at school, Mom.”

I can't stand it. My eight year old child--barely a year beyond most of the children who lost their lives Thursday--now has to consider the possibility, no matter how slight, that someone could somehow figure out a way to get into her locked elementary school, bust open the door to her classroom and do the previously unthinkable. I watch a bit of innocence evaporate as she stares back into me. Life and love are so not for the faint of heart. I reach over and tighten her pony tail and we sit quietly while I search for some brave new words.

It wasn't long before Miller interrupted the silence to ask me for the impossible. She wanted some sort of promise that something bad like this wasn't going to happen again.

Using the word promise is a really big deal in my house. For me it is a sacred word and it couldn't be clearer. If I use the word promise, my children know that I am guaranteeing something. It's going to 100% abso-fucking-lutely happen. Or not happen. The end. So if I promise I will be home by 9:00 pm to kiss them goodnight, that I will sew the strap onto a dress before Tuesday, that I will not forget to pick them up from a play date, or that I will bring in Newman's lemonade juice boxes in for the holiday party, it's happening. Drink up, Johnny! A promise is a promise. They know this.

This has worked to every one's advantage. I'm no doubt still successfully pulling off this pending Santa business because no one has (likely strategically) elected to officially ask me about the big guy using the P word. No one has dared to ask “Do you prooooomise you're not Santa?” I suspect they are fully aware of the potential implications of that question, and so while they are willing to ask about my “involvement” with Santa, I'm able to act like his half-assed accomplice a la Lt. Debra Morgan and just bumble horribly through half-truths and fibbish responses until they leave me alone.

I'm suddenly well aware that Miller is using a little reverse strategy here. She is in desperate, deserved need of a promise right now. One I so very desperately and deservedly want to give her. But I can't. I mean I could lie, but I can't lie. I can't look my kid in the eye and make a promise that I can't guarantee.

For the last two nights I have barely been able to sleep thinking about the myriad of mentally ill children I have worked with over the past 20 years and how we continue to cut resources for, quickly diagnose, over and half-ass medicate, and isolate these children and families. As someone once responsible for coordinating services for some of the neediest families in our state, I simply could never in my heart promise that something horrible like this is not going to happen again because I am soberly aware that it could happen at any moment in some of the most precious and unthinkable places.

“I can't promise something like this isn't going to happen again. It hopefully won't. I think there's less chance of it happening now that we're all talking about it. I think we'll all work hard to try and make sure it doesn't ever happen again. But I can't promise something bad like this won't ever happen again. But here's something I can promise you. Principal Boodey and Mrs. K and Mr. Roux and Nurse Claudia, and your librarian and Mr. Charlie and allllll of your teachers are your Woodman Park heroes. They are there everyday to teach you and to protect you. You have a school full of superheroes on your side every single day. Teachers are heroes. That I can promise you.”

I'm just getting on a roll, back on my game, prepared to tell her a simplified version of how I can also promise her that I'm going to contact our legislators and advocate more aggressively for the elimination of assault weapons and for better mental health services. But before I can continue, she suddenly stands up.

“OK, Mom.”

She leaves, but not before grabbing the wipe board and orange dry-erase marker she propped up against the wall before we started out chat and says “Let's go, class.” You see, just before this discussion Miller was jotting the names of her stuffed animal students and playing school, as she does in literally every spare moment. My daughter longs to be a teacher. A hero.


“Are you OK, Mill?”

“Yeah. I'm OK.”

With that, she disappears from sight. And as her feet pad down the hallway carrying her very well behaved “students” back to class, I whisper the question I didn't dare to ask straight to her beautiful moonie face for fear of her answer.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Letting Go Of The Grass.

"Hey, Mom. Can we die together? Like at the same time. Or at least on the same day?"

This sudden, scratchy inquiry emerges from the eight year old snuggled under my armpit. One minute we're howling at what Miller inadvertently called Christina Aguilera's "calluses" (she meant cleavage, but noticing how rough around the edges Xtina looks tonight, I think calluses might also be a pretty accurate descriptor) and the next we're having our quarterly "Revolt Against Death" talk. Just one of several heartsick habits here.

"I really want us to die on the same day, Mom. If we can. Because I don't think I could go on without you. That would be too sad for me." Voice now quivering, she is on the verge of tears and I quickly pull her closer so she isn't hit by my falling jaw.

It's at this moment I give brief thanks for the fact I have started feverishly biting my fingernails again. Because that's likely the only thing that's currently preventing me from being able to claw into my chest cavity with my own fingers to pull out my aching heart. Cue my mental Iron and Wine montage. Geese sadly fly south over autumn's ending while I'm quietly whispering the likely sad truth my heart wants to share as beautifully as Sam Beam.

"One of us will die inside these arms
eyes wide open
naked as we came
one will spread our ashes round the yard..."

"That's not the way it works, Miller. It's not up to us. Plus, if I have my way, you are going to live many, many years beyond me into what I imagine will be your really beautiful, wonderful life." That's about all I can muster before I start biting into the east side of my mouth to defer the pain from my chest. And look! Calluses Aguilera is back from her commercial break and so it appears we can thankfully start the laugh tracks again.

"So has anyone ever tried hanging on?"

This was another couch question tossed at me a few weeks later, seemingly from left field. Well, actually from my left armpit where the always curious blondie was again snuggled deep in my side while windshield wipering the top of her lemon Italian ice with her spoon.

"Tried hanging on? Hanging on to what? And who is hanging?" I obviously have no idea what this kid is talking about right now. But if you've ever held court and conversation with an eight year old girl, you know this kind of confusion isn't uncommon.

"You know, like when you die. Has anyone ever tried to hang on to, like, the grass? Or a tree branch? You right before you die and before you're sucked up to heaven or the sky or wherever you go. Has anyone ever tried to hang on to the grass?" She musters up what I imagine is supposed to be some sort of a death face, eyes crossed and rolling up into her noggin while she pretends to grab at something.

How absolutely sweet and amazing and hilarious and wonderful. How absolutely,  annihilatingly Miller. I begin to imagine people frantically hanging onto garden gnomes and grasping flamingo necks...people white-knuckling tree branches and grasping onto fistfuls of grass and I can't help but laugh.

Thankfully, she starts laughing too.

"I don't know, Miller. I just don't think that would actually work, do you?"

She pauses to give it more consideration and smirks.

"Probably not. I mean, I don't see a lot of people hanging around. So that probably wouldn't work even if you tried, I guess." She seems a little bit sad as her raspy voice trails off a bit, but soon we both start a low-grade church giggle that thankfully lasts for the next several minutes and lightens the air.

Death and dying questions and conversations happen frequently in this house. They originate from both the boy and the girlie, who are each pretty thougthful and sensitive souls.

"Why are we even here if we just have to die and leave after? That's just really sad."

"Does everything have to die?"

"What happens when you die?"

"How many dead people do you know?"

"Have you every touched a dead person?"

Most often, when the death chatter comes, it's in response to a very overtired, melancholy voice simply stating the obvious.

"I really don't want to die."

This is probably a great time to give credit and thanks to Leo Buscalgia and Daniel, his calm, knowing leaf, for arming me with some simple, lovely language to comfort my little fretting "Freddies." Death can indeed feel very big and scary if we linger too long, molding our mental death masks.  Instead, let's acknowledge it and move on, loves. Let's try to concentrate on living our best life and doing our individual and collective jobs. Better to "experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain" and to "learn to dance and to laugh."

Because in the end, once all this wonderful living takes place, Daniel the wise, wide leaf gently reminds us, "Everything dies."

That's how it's beautifully described in Buscalgia 's book "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf."  That's the way it's ideally supposed to be.

But as we know, and are sadly reminded, that's not always the way it happens. We were reminded of this recently when a very bright, lovely, and promising 16 year old took his own life as it was seemingly just entering the starting gate.

He was extended family, the son of the cousin of my former husband on the Batchelder side of his family, which comes flanked with an unspoken "once you're in, you're in" motto. Sicilian mafia style. So regardless of things like divorce and time, our family tightly remains family and my kids saw first hand several adult hearts fracture as we all baked and fondled Kleenex and tried to grasp this magnificent loss and what it meant to all who loved him dearly and were left behind to cope.

This prompted the kids to ask some really difficult questions. Being naturally curious and slightly obsessed death themselves, they really wanted to understand why a person would feel the need to end their life. Why would someone actually choose to die?

"But why, mom?" (repeat eight million times)

There are sadly established things that can't be properly compartmentalized with words. Suicide is one. Especially when from the comfortably-seated audience you only see a successful, wonderful, hopeful motion picture playing out. So I've tried to carefully navigate this, explaining that one of the most beautiful things about teenagers is they are often boldly brave and incredibly impulsive.

However, one of the most horrible thing about teenagers is that they are often boldly brave and incredibly impulsive.

I keep telling my kids that it's OK that it doesn't make sense right now. I hug them tightly into my chest, smell their beautiful heads, and tell them how much I love them. Maybe even too much for their own good. I tell them they can, and should, keep asking me questions and that I will always try to help them find the right answers. I will also help them cope with the fact we may never find all of them.

I keep hoping that's enough.

A few weeks after the funeral, the kids randomly asked to see Cody's 16th birthday video again. We sat on the couch, arms and legs tangled, watching on the tiny screen of my phone. The chorus to Fun's "We Are Young" played and both kids began to quietly sing along. I could barely hold my 4.7 ounce phone up. "He was really handsome, Mom," Jackson remarked. I couldn't muster more than a cracked half yes from my throat, which I followed with a nod and a squeeze to his hand. I could feel Miller move her giant blues from the video to my black streaked face, which would have no doubt given Alice Cooper's a solid run for his money back in the day, and she watched and waited as I pushed my sweatshirt sleeve around to mop my face up, soaking the cuff.  She sweetly patted my back to reassure me as the video ended, and with one small, perfect sentence, this eight year old defined this horrible heartbreak better that any adult could on their most articulate day.

"I think Cody just felt like he needed to let go of the grass, Mom."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

It's 2:00 in the afternoon and here I sit after refereeing a tug of war match between two adorably destructive groundhog babes and my delicious dill plant. Tom Waits is hoping he doesn't fall in love with me and I'm drinking lukewarm coffee from a chipped Salmon Falls mug, looking for an "area of opportunity."

To be more specific, I'm LinkedIn-ing and Monstering about, searching for new employment.

How appropriate it seems to "Groundhog Day" back here a minute to a few Thursdays ago when the garden dill had no teeth marks and still stood favorite-leather-knee-boots high. I was happily employed until 1:00 that afternoon when I was suddenly asked to join a meeting which presented me with an unexpected, yet oddly familiar, story about the economy, big business practices and the necessary reduction in force which was erasing my position. All of this was very kindly accompanied by sincerely-said sorries, a manila envelope with a final paycheck, and two empty W.B. Mason boxes to pack up my four month old office up in. There we were--my wonderful ED, our lovely VP of Ops and me, awkwardly making jokes and smallish talk while untacking and packing my kids' wallpaper art collages, one adorable zombie crayon kitty, three appropriately dark, wonderfully obscure photos from the very recent ex, my wilting magnolia plant and the same chipped mug I'm currently sipping this horrible coffee from.

Thank you life IT department for the auto upgrade to unemployment v.2.0.

I'm a bit familiar with this crazy carnival having been through the same thing only eight months earlier with the same company. Cue the circus music, kids! Please draw your attention to the center ring! Fun under the big top begins with getting the Malbec and coffee stains buffed from your molars and dragging your kids along to hang in the oddly mesmerizing waiting room of the local breast imaging center to get things literally handled before your dental and medical insurance runs out at the end of the month.  Hurry! Hurry! You won't believe your eyes! Marvel at the severance options and a few potential internal job opportunities.  Step right up! Test your stomach and skills on the roundup of resume rewrites! Watch as they're dangerously done without an editor in the early afternoon over a basil gimlet because you're unexpectedly unemployed and you should not drink Malbec and risk staining your newly cleaned tusks!

Maybe I can get a temp job barking at the Stratham fair in a few weeks.

The 48 hours following the RIF had me shaking my fist at the universe from various places--from under my jacked up CRV while changing the pancaked tire preventing me from commuting my kids to school, from the drive thru window at Dunkin Donuts where they were out of half and half (and NO young man who looks as though he's enjoyed a full bottle of Lorazepam, I would certainly not like skim milk instead. Look at me for a second, dummy. Do I look like I drink skim milk?!) and from the unemployment office where I sat nodding off next to a man smelling of road tar and pipe tobacco waiting for what seemed like a week to get confirmation that I would not be getting any unemployment benefits for some time. There's nothing like having a few days unravel like this and then, after dragging yourself from the unemployment line to the car, having your iTunes shuffle up The Drams' "Wondrous Life." I briefly considered wandering out into the middle of Old Rochester Road into an oncoming Coast bus.

Yeah. I see what you're up to, universe. Time to cue the awesomely talented stiff upper lip, because unlike moments when I might actually fall for a flirty Basil Hayden-fueled text sent at 1:00 in the morning, I'm not falling for this. Plus, I'm out of tissues to wipe any potential mascara streaks. Oddly enough, they were used to clean up the horrible, sans-skimmed burnt coffee I spilled all over myself after jerking my car out of the Dunkin Donuts drive thru.

After hearing I was looking for work for the second time in the past year, a fabulous friend took me to lunch and ask me if I was getting tired of it all. She's known me for a very long time. You MUST be sick of it by now she challenged, hands quickly miming her fret and frustration (or showing off what I'm guessing would be white belt karate skills) while highlighting what she apparently sees as my constant, convoluted struggles. She also made a quick side note that she's quite convinced that I'm due to fall apart at any moment.

I didn't even bother argue that last point. Because some days I feel like my head might actually launch from my shoulders.

Instead, I told her that what I'm really most tired of is having to talk about it sometimes. It's really hard to tell your friends these parallel tales. Oh sure "it's their job"--a sad, grossly unpaid one--to listen sympathetically, unaffected, and to chant "rah rah" comments while clinking rocks glasses or sending you job leads and nominating dating candidates. And sure, I'll bet there's been days when I must have said some of those same certain words and phrases my friend was using to describe my life in her same silly astoundment. Affair! Divorce! Single! MY POSITION HAS BEEN ELIMINATED!

How astonishing!

Lately, however, I find I'm saying some of these very same words that were perhaps once shared in dismay with a new, slightly reckless and perhaps dangerous sort of exultation.

"Yay! Unemployment!"

O.K., it's not like I'm behaving as though I've been cast in an episode of Glee or living out a horrible scene from the very underwhelming Rock of Ages. Sure, you can thank me later for that. I just really, really, really don't want to be totally identified by these unfortunate events. I would rather be amused by them. I would rather you all be kind of amused by them as well.

Let me be clear for a sec. I do have moments when I feel it's really very unfortunate that I can't change some of the things that have happened to me and my darling deductions.

However, let me also take a sec to thank sweet baby Buddha that I can surely change who I am in relationship to it all.

I've recently watched some of my favorite people redefine themselves. How incredible to watch them move quite gracefully, some rather abruptly, beyond big personal despair or over various roadblocks towards a promissory note of something better. One tossed up a self-proclaimed (and completely beautiful, I must add) Hail Mary and was brave enough to break his own heart and leave the ones he loved because he knew he couldn't stick around here a minute longer and be the person he deserved to become. One friend taught her already sickeningly talented self to make the most amazing silver jewelry that you should immediately go and buy for yourself or for me or for someone you love because it's as strong and beautiful as her spirit and generosity. Another dusted off his former garage band bent and soon discovered that a zillion talented people, and at least one who can't sing for shit, would all love to go and get a room with him. I watched a truly beautiful Miss Somebody pull herself away from an almost deadly deadly siren song sung by a boy in now-tired NY rock boutique finery and sporting a very pretty, shiny Gibson that never held tune to her much shinier charm and class. She walked away and became the hero of a far more well-written, beautifully self-penned love song. I've watched and admired all of these people. And I've taken a few notes.

Father time can shut his pie hole. When you think about it, time isn't really running out. It's here. Right at this moment! Happy fucking Independence Day, kids! And until I make my next career move, I'll invite you watch me as I just allow things to decisively and beautifully fall apart a bit. Just look! Today finds me able to actually write something down. It's been months and months since I have had the ability to sit and focus long enough to write anything other than a grocery list. Let's face it. Some jobs have a terrible way of exhausting us. Some slowly, unknowingly kill important parts of us. Some take a pillow filled with the money needed to knock off the items on that sad bit of flash writing currently known as the grocery list and will push it slowly into our creative faces and asphyxiate the dreams we want to chase most.

I know it's temporary, but damn it's nice to be able to push that pillow off my face for a bit. I'm hoping some of you might get the chance to come for air when you can. Unless you're really into that sort of thing--and more power to you should that be the case. I'm more of a handcuff girl, myself. Either way, let's all try and be brave and even a little bit reckless when we're forced to find the next version of ourselves. Which means I shall now daringly hit publish and hang tightly on to the very alluring thought of being able to do something I love, even for just this day.

I'm telling you, that one thought is my life raft.