Sometimes You Go To California

On Tuesday night of this week I stood at a podium in front of a class of about 40 students. In my hands I held out a printed copy of the essay I’d recently had published through the Longreads blog about Whitney Dafoe. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d read it out loud. I’d practiced over a dozen times in the previous few weeks. My voice shook, even when I was alone in my apartment, and sometimes my eyes stung and watered.

“This piece is really raw for me right now,” I said. I didn’t say why, and instead started to read. I would have to explain that I’d been at Whitney’s house the day before. That I saw in a book a photo I’d taken in Alaska of him standing on his work truck to take a picture. That over the weekend, I’d seen his mother burst into tears over hearing the lyrics of a song. And through it all had known, once again, that he had no idea I was there. I’m sure I would have lost my composure halfway through.

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Photo courtesy of the Davis-Dafoe family.

Every time I looked up, I saw blank faces, mouths agape, and one student was audibly crying. I felt horrible, but owned my decision to read the essay. I force ME/CFS in people’s faces so that, someday, it won’t be a depressing conversation.

I’d gained a new person to carry constantly in my pocket that weekend. Jamison Hill and I had been friends through email and text for several months, and a large part of my trip to California was the chance to meet him in person.

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Photo courtesy of Jamison Hill

Jamison, for those who are unfamiliar, was featured in my friend Ryan Prior’s Forgotten Plague along with Whitney. Jamison’s the one in the documentary’s trailer who’s laughing, his dimples going deep into his cheeks, his bright blue eyes shining despite being one of the millions missing from ME/CFS. It’s been six years since, right around Thanksgiving, that Jamison went to the gym early in the morning like he always did, and couldn’t finish a workout he normally did thoughtlessly. His story is one of the terrifying ones: he went from being a physical trainer, a model, an amateur body builder, and otherwise active 22-year-old college student to in bed, sick, getting rapidly worse in a matter of years.
Before Jamison submitted a story for me to publish at the Blue Ribbon Foundation’s “Share your Story” section, I’d only heard that he’d become as bad as Whitney. I’d seen GoFundMe fundraisers to help with housing, medical expenses, and treatment. When Ryan spoke of him, his voice grew soft; a tone I’d come to recognize in the ME/CFS community as a person who’d taken a turn for the worse. A person who was living a form of death.

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Jamison later explained that he’d been in a cave for the last 18 months, unable to tolerate daylight, clothing, speaking, or chewing. Coming out of it through saline IV treatments was a rebirth. Even though he had a chance at a new life, he was still unable to sit up in bed. But he could make sounds that people understood. He could eat food. He could communicate with people through email and text.

I knew most of this through reading a lot of what he’d written, but to see it was something else entirely. Ashley, Whitney’s sister, drove me, my daughter Mia, and Janet, Whitney’s mom, to Jamison’s house three hours east. We arrived at sunset, enamored with the view from the porch. Janet was the first one to go in and visit with Jamison. I was the second.

Before going back to his room, I was worried what germs I might have on my clothes. A simple cold virus could knock him down further. I was worried seeing me would cause him to crash. But mainly I was worried that he’d go beyond his limits and wake up the next morning feeling horrible and unable to move.

When I read what Jamison wrote about meeting me in his blog, what stuck out the most was that he’d hoped seeing him, smiling and sitting up would give us, his largest group of visitors in years, a new hope for Whitney.

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But Jamison’s just like that. He’s easily one of the happiest, lovable humans I know. In the months of us emailing and texting back and forth, he’s gone into frustrated rants maybe twice. And a few times I had to specifically ask for them. Seeing him, sitting there, knowing he hadn’t gotten out of bed in almost two years, I was completely in awe of his ability to maintain any semblance of who he’d been six years earlier.

So we smiled at each other. I hugged him a bunch, and held his hand. We made jokes, told a few dating horror stories, and then it was time for me to give him a break.

We texted late into the night. I kept asking him the next day if he felt all right. He said yes, and said he wanted to see us again. So I bought him some tea from his favorite little shop, and some fudge. We drove up to his house at sunset again, and took some pictures on the porch. I went inside to use the bathroom, and snuck across the hall to Jamison’s room.

He had thick blankets on the windows and the lights off. I couldn’t see anything, then saw the faint light of the screen of his phone–his signal to tell me where he was. I saw his shape then. He wasn’t sitting up. He was on his left side, bent over almost in a fetal position, his cheek pressed against the bed. Crashed.

I felt his hand reach out for mine and sank to my knees at the same time. My other arm went around his back, my right cheek on his head. He only had boxers on with a sheet covering his legs and feet.His mom came in to open the curtains all the way so we could see each other. I stayed that way for a bit, whispering that he should have told me he had what ME/CFS patients call “the world’s worst hangover.”

He wanted to know how long we were staying, and where we were going next, and, of course, offered ideas of where to go eat dinner. He couldn’t talk like he did the day before. Most of this I either figured out through pantomime or he had to type out on his phone.

I went in the second time after everyone else had visited to kneel down by his bed to say goodbye. He held my hand tighter, and whispered “I’m so tired of this shit.” I told him I think about him constantly. That I love him. And that I’d miss him dearly. That I’d be back to visit as soon as I could to be there more than just an hour or two. “I’ll spoon you next time,” I said, and he chuckled.

I stood out in the living room, watching Janet hug Jamison’s mom, Kathleen. “We have amazing sons,” Janet said. They were crying. A stark contrast to the night before, when we’d been celebrating recovery. Kathleen went in to check on Jamison and he wanted us all to come back, stand in the hallway, and wave goodbye one more time.

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Mia Land, Stephanie Land, Jamison Hill, Ashley Haugen, and Janet Dafoe

“He just wants to see your faces again,” his mom said. So we stood there, blowing kisses, waving, watching him do it in return from his dark room. The cave. For the next day, as I told him I was on my way to the airport he’d text “Damn. Don’t go.”

From the moment I’d left the hallway of his room I hadn’t wanted to. I didn’t want to drive away from Whitney’s house, watching Janet and Ron wave goodbye. It’s a different sort of grief, to feel too helpless, too far away, and isolated.

After I read the essay the next night, one of the students asked me if I had any advice on writing. I told them what everyone says: to sit in a chair and motherfucking write. But the next day Jamison reminded me of the necessary part that needs to exist before that.

There is only one thing you should do,” Rilke wrote. “Go into yourself. …confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? …if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity…

Jamison writes everything on his phone. He can’t use a laptop, can’t stand looking at the screen. He wrote the last bit of his book looking at his phone through tanning goggles. That amount of passion, that desire to write words, humbles me. Even though I am finishing this post in the chaos of bedtime with a two-year-old on the floor tearing apart paper and throwing markers, it would take a crazy amount of passion for me to write this out on my phone. I’ve written in journals since I was 10 years old, and I deeply admire Jamison’s amount of “must” to write. To live.

 

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Advocacy in Action: Ryan Prior

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Stephanie and Ryan in Missoula

My friend Ryan takes 20 pills a day to stay well. I heard him tell this to crowds of attentive listeners several times over the weekend. “I give myself one shot a week,” he added, “and get an I.V. treatment once a month.” I watched him take the pills a few times. He carries them around in a large backpack, in one of those containers, separated out by the days of the week. The green one makes him grimace. I don’t ask what they are.

I’d sent Ryan a message on Facebook several months ago after someone who knew him encouraged me to. I’d watched Ryan’s documentary, Forgotten Plagueabout his disease twice in one week. The scenes with my friend Whitney, bent over in his bed, ribs showing, long fingers covering his face, and his scraggly hair emblazoned with a patch of sun, froze the tears in my eyes, planted my hand to my mouth, and made me an activist for myalgic encephalomyelitis, the disease so clearly killing a person I loved.

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Still image from Forgotten Plague

When Ryan visited Jamison for the film, Jamison still lived alone. He could sometimes do the dishes. He laughed. He did a few pushups to show how fast his heartbeat escalated, like he’d just sprinted a mile. When Ryan returned several months later, Jamison sat through the interview. He looked defeated. I wonder sometimes if he knew how bad he’d get. If he thought his trajectory was inability to speak.

I don’t know how many pills Whitney’s prescribed. His dad patiently grinds them in a marble bowl meant for spices, then mixes it with the liquid food they’ll pump into the tube surgically placed in his stomach. I watched his father Ron, a world-renowned scientist, thoughtfully stand at the end of the kitchen island at night, pausing in crushing the pills to look up at nothing. Maybe he thought of a new piece to the puzzle of his son’s disease that he researches full-time to find a cause and cure, or maybe he found the right place to put one.

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Photo courtesy of Jamison Hill

Jamison used to be a body builder. He lost the ability to speak for a year and a half. “He’s almost as bad as Whitney,” people had said, because he also couldn’t chew or sit up in bed. Whitney hasn’t spoken in almost four years. Hasn’t tasted food in at least two. But Jamison came out of it from heavy doses of saline through an I.V., and can tolerate flashes of light and laughing and sitting up. When Jamison first sent me an email to share a story he’d written about it all, I couldn’t help but believe Whitney would someday do the same.

Almost every patient I talk to says these words: When I get better. A form of faith I doubt I could match, and inspires me daily.

The other night Ryan said in front of a group of students, nodding to me, that I was close to Whitney when he could still walk and talk. I’d never thought of it that way. I don’t want this part of his life to be “after.” I hope for it to be the middle. Whitney didn’t just walk and talk. He danced. He climbed to places he wasn’t allowed. He stood, thoughtfully, just like his father, seeing the world framed in a photographic lens.

None of the patients I know think they’ll ever be as bad as Whitney, and I’m not sure Whitney knows he’s the worst. He must know it’s bad, especially on Monday—the day I flew to D.C. to protest—when they had to rush him to the hospital to repair a hole in the tube that gives him food. I know he feels alone in the prison his body has trapped him in. I know this because his mom tells me he cries all the time and she can’t comfort him by touch or word, but only by placing her hand on her heart before leaving him be. img_1413I walked around the United States capitol with Ryan for a few hours before the protest. It was hotter than I thought it’d be, and sweat dripped down my back into the waistband of my jeans. Ryan had changed into a dark shirt before we left, and he fought to keep the sleeves rolled above his elbows. I kept looking for signs he’d had enough. But ever the tour guide, he showed me the town he loved, walking me to the Library of Congress, and through the stuffy viewing platform. We paused to buy food and sat to eat it on a shady bench. We walked down past the Smithsonian, the Washington Memorial, gazed at the Whitehouse from outside the fence with the cops behind us yelling at tourists to behave. We stopped for souvenirs before sitting on the cool floor in the corner of the Lincoln Memorial. I remembered how the statue had been like a giant when I saw him at seven. How I’d looked up so far the back of my head touched my shoulders a little. Now I understood the weight of the words behind him.

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Ryan speaking to a group of visiting interns from the University of Georgia in Washington, D.C.

Ryan spoke a bit at the protest for his disease not even an hour later. I wondered how many times he’d done that. “I’ve lived in five states this month,” he said to a group of students a few hours later. His advocacy work had brought him to Chicago, Palo Alto, my town of Missoula, and Washington, D.C., where we held informational signs about those who suffer from the disease. Hashtagged MillionsMissing, the protest took place across 24 cities on four different continents that day.

I insisted on buying Ryan a fancy dinner after his final talk—the third in two days—and we walked through the dark streets of upscale neighborhoods to an oyster bar. Ryan went from gleefully tasting oysters from different coasts, ordering beer and a porterhouse, to excusing himself quickly. He returned to the table rubbing his eyes and couldn’t finish his meal. Within a few minutes, I’d paid the bill and gotten a car to take us home.

He said at least he’d probably sleep well that night. I wondered if he really would. I wondered if he was okay. Earlier that night, on the way to dinner, I’d told him I hadn’t thought he’d be able to do so much. I guess I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everyone who has the disease is affected differently, but most aren’t able to leave the house or even bed very much. Many hide their disability, spending the weekends recovering, not able to muster up the energy to shower.

Ryan calls himself one of the 10-15% of those who have recovered, as long as he takes those 20 pills a day. As long as he knows when to leave the restaurant and go straight home, and does.

Jamison and I texted later that night, after I dropped Ryan off. I tend to send him a photo of my glass whenever it has Jameson whiskey in it. I wrote for a little while at a bar before deciding I wasn’t writing anything. I couldn’t fall asleep; woke up groggy, dehydrated, and a little hungover. I figured Ryan probably felt the same without the aid of vices or lack of water or sleep. He sent a text and said he felt energized from getting out and walking, and I wondered if he said that so I wouldn’t worry. He swore he didn’t, but I knew if I were him I would have lied to me.

He sent me a few happy texts throughout the day, like Jamison always does. Sometimes late at night I send Whitney’s mom a text with a simple, red heart. Code. For love for each other we cannot explain. And the fiercest love for Whitney we hope he can feel.

For more information on myalgic encephalomyelitis, and to donate to fund research for treatment, go HERE

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Therein Lies your Calling

I used to devour books. Steinbeck had a line in East of Eden about a boy who read books so completely that he’d finish it, only to look up and have book all over his face. I’d read books with an open notebook, pen in hand, to scribble lines and quotations and sayings and thoughts. I read books like texts, whether it was fiction, autobiographical, memoir, or poems. I looked for beauty in words.

Lately, or for the last couple of years since graduating college, I haven’t picked up many books at all. I’ve purchased them. I’ve hoped to get to them someday. But the act of sitting to read a book is difficult because 1) I start to doze off almost immediately and 2) it’s entirely too selfish of an act–I might as well be in a bubble bath with a glass of wine.

I do read all the time, however, in researching topics I write about. Today, in doing that, I found this quote:

“Where the world’s greatest need and your greatest skill meet, therein lies your calling.” 

It’s from Aristotle, quoted in an article by Ryan Prior, who wrote, produced, and directed the documentaryForgotten Plague.”

I read this article written by Ryan because for the last couple of months, the story surrounding a forgotten population of people suffering from an unimaginably terrible disease has been my passion project. I haven’t been able to place any pieces I’ve written on it, though I have tried desperately. I’ve spent a lot of nights, staring at pitches I’ve refined, listening to a song on repeat, wondering how I can convince a publication that my story deserves space on their platform. I do this because an old friend of mine, Whitney Dafoe, is so sick from this horrible disease, unfortunately named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, he’s been bed-ridden and unable to speak for over three years. 

Ryan calls it the most under-reported medical story. An estimated two million people suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS, or anything but calling it “chronic fatigue,” which, as Ryan puts it, is a diagnosis that feels insulting when your entire life has been stolen from you.

I write about this here because a couple of months ago, when I learned my friend was so ill he hadn’t been able to communicate, eat, or move much more than sitting up in bed for a couple of years, I thought, as a writer who’d published stories and had connections with so many editors, that I’d have no problem raising awareness of his condition. I got excited over my ability to give a voice to a population who no longer had one. It was the truest of essence in my calling in life. All writers wish to change the world. To make a difference.

A dozen pitches later, I feel like I’m failing. I’m failing not only Whitney, but his parents who care for him night and day.

Yet, every day I still fight. I make connections whenever I can. I form friendships with people who are patients, and spend their days fighting for the energy to move from one room to the next. One said, “You will actually be healing people just by letting them know you know it’s a serious illness. We’ve been misunderstood and mistreated and you want to tell the truth, get accurate info to the public, to help the public understand. I mean that, you really will be healing people.”

The general population, the medical profession, and often the patients and their families themselves, don’t understand this disease. There is no understanding of what causes it, or how it can be treated. There’s no funding to study it. There’s no insurance to cover people who seek treatment. For some, the only treatment they are given is by telling them it’s all in their head. They’re told they’re totally fine, western medicine proves it, just look at these tests.

whitney2A somewhat precious thing I’ve discovered, despite the sadness involved, is that I knew Whitney before he got sick. I knew him for a short time, over a decade ago, and remember it so clearly because…I’m not sure why exactly. Whitney forced me to see the beauty in myself. He saw only my core. We communicated on a level of raw understanding and deep connection, even though we’d only known each other for a few short weeks. You can chalk it up to whatever you like but in knowing who Whitney is, the words people describe him as are things like magic, and enlightened.

I haven’t written about this in my personal blog. I’m not sure why, really. Maybe I wanted to “break” the story on bigger platform. I thought I’d burst out into the world as an established writer who has a new story to tell, and a big one at that, and people would devour it, just like I did with books. They’d eat it up and ask what they could do to help. I expected that. But after all these rejections from editors, I’m left wondering why. Why wouldn’t you want to publish a story about my friend who’s dying? About hundreds of thousands of people who are in the same position as him and maybe worse because they can’t afford or don’t have access to the treatment he receives? What about this huge, disadvantaged population who aren’t able to find medical coverage for a disease that won’t allow them to get out of bed?

I bought a white board a couple of weeks ago, and hung it by my desk. I have about ten pitches out to editors, and that’s going to double in the next week. I do this for Whitney, his family, and the heartbreaking stories I’ve heard in the last couple of months. As a writer, this is my calling: to bring the disadvantaged to justice. I’m not ignoring that. And now that you’ve read this, neither should you.

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Want to help? Go HERE

A Mother’s Instructions

I’m leaving my kids for a few days. I’m leaving Coraline for pretty much the first time ever. I’m flying out to the East Coast. I haven’t been on a plane in over seven years. My job’s covering all expenses, and it’s blowing my mind a little.

Tonight, past the time I said I should be in bed, I drafted these instructions for their caretakers:

“Cora has a cold. She’s got the sniffles at night. You might have to take her in the bathroom and turn on the shower at its hottest to clear out her nose. Mia’s been coughing. There’s some medicine in the cabinet in the bathroom if she needs it.

Cora gets rashes easily. There’s a bunch of lotions and creams in the bin next to the kitchen table with her wipes.

Mia’s kind of good at regulating herself and her schedule, but she might need help with reminders to get to bed. Bedtime is 8 o’clock. She knows what to do. I turn off the TV at 7.30, and the kitchen is “closed” at that time as well. Don’t let her drink a bunch of juice before bed. She’s usually asleep by 9, but comes out to the couch in the middle of the night. It’s not okay for her to watch TV.

DSCN2272Cora’s clothes are on a shelf in my closet. Her socks are in the top drawer of the pink dresser in my room. For daycare, she needs what’s in the black bag in the bin next to the kitchen table. They go outside, so she needs a warm coat and boots.

There’s a ton of food and coffee. Feel free to help yourself. Non-drip coffee supplies are in the far right cabinet.

Mia will want to pack a lunch, and she’s pretty good at it. She needs help getting up in the morning, and staying on task in getting to the bus, which leaves at 8.10. She comes home at 3.20 or thereabouts. Make sure the back door is open.

Mia can sleep with “magic monkey” if she wants. Try not to let her take any toys/dolls to school.

Cora eats and poops constantly. Best of luck. There are crackers in the middle cabinet. She loves bananas, oranges, and apple slices with the peels removed. Mia is a picky eater, but I bought her some of her favorite junk foods (crackers). Try to get her to eat some protein (cheese, meat, etc.) before letting her pig out on cheese crackers.

I don’t let Mia have her laptop currently, but I’ll leave it on her desk so she can chat with me if she needs. You’ll need to close it at bedtime so she doesn’t wait for messages from me or her dad.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me for any reason.

I don’t know how Cora’s going to react to me being gone. Just remember: putting her in the Ergo and bouncing to Pearl Jam played loud will get her to sleep. She usually naps in the afternoon, and is asleep by 9. She wakes up every couple of hours. I don’t know how that’ll go, given there’s no boob to offer. You might just have to wrestle her back in the Ergo and bounce again.

Thank you, all, for your willingness to care for my children while I’m gone. It’s a huge trip, and a huge opportunity for me to leave. Thank you so much for this.”

I guess these are quirks only a mother knows, or maybe they’re common sense. I’ll post about my trip, I’m sure. I don’t think I realize the magnitude of it yet: a chance to learn how to write op-eds from some of the best.

But all I can think of are the dozen pieces I’m working on, and how wonderful it’ll be to get some time on the plane to write. No kids pulling at me. No toddler nursing all night. Just me, and a focus so strong. It’s like that speech they gave the pilots at the beginning of the first flights in the movie Top Gun. This is what I’ve been trained to do. Now go out and kick some ass.

Which is exactly what I intend to do. Even if I’m wearing unfashionable Carhartt pants.

 

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Here Now

I’m writing this knowing my bank account is overdrawn, because I’m still waiting on four, unexpectedly late paychecks. I’m writing this from my couch, where my 19-month-old is sleepily nursing in my lap. I’m writing this two hours before I was supposed to meet friends for lunch, but had to cancel because of lack of funds. I’m writing this in between the tugs on my heart strings and knots in my stomach and angst of being alone.

Yesterday I went to bring my friend who’d just had a baby dinner. While I sat at her table, doing the familiar action that was holding a small baby while trying to eat, carefully picking food I’d dropped off of her incredibly new little frame, I started to seethe in jealousy and self-loathing.

My friend had a housecleaner. She had a mother-in-law staying with her. She had a husband at work who made enough to support the three of them and their house, two dogs, and two cats. She had a pile of boxes of things people had sent her, and a lot of things she’d planned to return because they ended up not needing them.

IMG_6450I looked over at my girls, playing so sweetly together, and thought of when Coraline was just born. I was completely on my own in an empty house just two days after I’d given birth. My cousin had stayed with us for a few days, and left us with a freezer full of pasta dishes, and some friends had brought us some food. Other than that, I was alone with a newborn who screamed if I put her down, and a rambunctious 7-year-old who, though I didn’t know it at the time, had hair completely full of lice.

Though Cora’s dad wasn’t there then, he’s here now. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen him almost every day. He got a full-time job and has committed to helping me pay for daycare costs while working with me on a schedule that gives him ample time with his daughter.

Mia’s had a hard time with this, of course, since she just returned from being with her dad for a week. Last night, after the visit to my friend’s house, Cora’s dad came to hang out with her for a couple of hours. I turned to Mia and asked her if she wanted to go to the store for cupcakes.

We live next to this ritzy hippie store, full of organic produce, but they also have baked goods that we can purchase with food stamps. On the way there, Mia skipped along next to me, holding my hand.

“Have I told you how much I love you lately?” she said.

I laughed and said not really.

“I love you so much, Mom,” she said. “You’re the best mom anybody could ever have.”

We ate our cupcakes, and I sat across the table from her while she talked about school, and mentioned one of her friends who was really really grumpy that day.

“Am I ever really really grumpy?” I said, knowing I was often.

“Yeah,” she said. “Like if I’m not listening and I know I’m not listening.”

“I feel like I’m kind of hard to live with sometimes,” I said.

“You’re a great mom,” she said. “You get grumpy, but you just had a baby by yourself. I know it’s hard.”

Lately it’s come to my attention that I’ve exhausted myself for a long time, and I’m beginning to feel the mental and physical toll. My hair’s about half as thick, and going gray. I don’t sleep for more than three or four hours. There are always about five things I need to be doing, not including taking a shower or going pee.

I’m looking for a therapist, though I’m not sure what it’ll do to help.

DSCN2248Despite all of this, I’ve already been published several times this year, and am putting the finishing touches on a book proposal that I hope to send out in the next week. My article through the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago made it to print in the newspaper. An essay featured in the Style section.

These last few months have been life-changing with Cora’s grandparents and father becoming a part of our little family. It comes with its own realizations of my own issues revolving around trusting others. In that sense, sometimes it’s easier to be alone.

IMG_6480Coraline took to her dad instantly. I’m pretty sure on some level she knew she was his. Watching them together has been full of moments of unexpected sweetness. She wraps her arms around his whole head, and runs to him for a hug when he leaves.

All of my desires to find a suitable partner have faded. It might be from a mix of no longer having the ability to put energy into it, to wanting to focus on my family’s recent expansion and how that’s affecting everyone. I published a piece about it in the Washington Post the other day, ending with saying I’d try some sort of casual thing, but even that was too much.

I think it’ll be a long while before I can jump into anything like that.

But Coraline’s finally starting daycare two days a week. I don’t think I even need to say what a huge relief that is. It seems like things are always just on the brink of sailing smooth. Or sometimes they do for a while then dip back down to weekends like this where I have absolutely no money.

Darkest light’s before the dawn, you know.

 

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These Twists and Turns of Fate

DSCN2235Christmas comes and goes here. It’s a chaotic whirlwind of buying, wrapping, and opening presents that I spent money on which I didn’t really have. I do this for the joy of watching their faces light up, just like any parent does, I suppose.

Christmas also brings a day of preparing Mia to travel to her dad’s via airplane. She’s grown accustomed to flying alone–she’s been doing it for a few years now. Tonight, the day after Christmas, I got us ready, thinking if we left by 6 o’clock we’d have plenty of time to make the 6:50 flight. Missoula has a tiny, very empty airport. There’s never a line, and usually when we get there 45 minutes early, we end up waiting for a half an hour.

We got there at 6:22. I know this because the woman at the counter said it three times. When she thought it was me traveling with two children, she said there’d be just enough time to make it, since they had just started boarding. When I said Mia was traveling alone, she said she couldn’t let her on.

“What?” I said. “But it would take us ten minutes to get to the gate.”

“There’s paperwork to fill out,” she said. “There’s just not enough time.”

For the first time in my life, I begged and pleaded. I asked her again. And again. She said there was a flight leaving in the morning that she could get us on, and waived the fees and extra cost. Someone called her on the walkie-talkie about a passenger with a medical problem who had to disembark and get on a later flight.

“Is there a delay?” I said.

“No,” she said.

“Please, isn’t there anything you can do to get her on this flight?”

“Ma’am, there’s nothing I can do here. You got here after the 40-minute window to check-in and board. I’m waiving the fees for you to get on the morning flight but that’s all I’m going to do for you here. Now do you want the morning flight or not?”

Mia was openly crying, the baby was squirming in my arms, and I was desperate. I knew Mia’s dad would be upset. Mia was now refusing to go at all. I called to tell her dad about it and he also couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let us through. But he’d missed a flight before, too, for the same reason, and was forgiving. Maybe it was the tone in my cracked voice, and my apologizing. He talked to Mia a bit and I went back to the counter to change the ticket.

I sat with Mia for a few minutes before leaving. I was shaking a little with anger, stunned that we’d missed the flight for the first time in these years of back-and-forth traveling.

“I’m so sorry, Mia,” I said.

“It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

It actually was. I’d taken out the trash, had to defrost the windows of the truck, and ran back inside twice to grab things we’d forgotten before we left. I’d figured if we’d gotten to the airport with 30 minutes to spare we’d be fine, and was obviously wrong.

I got both the girls Happy Meals, got home, and started scrubbing the house, as I do when I’m frustrated with something I can’t control. I took down the tree, picked up the living room a few times, cleaned the kitchen, and scrubbed the bathroom. Mia wouldn’t go to sleep for a couple of hours, a trend she’d started since not going to sleep until two in the morning on Christmas Eve.

We’d gone to Coraline’s grandma’s house for the evening, much to the horror of our dog, who rarely gets left alone for more than an hour. Coraline’s family in town has quickly become ours. Mia calls the parents of Cora’s dad “Granny” and “Grandpa,” and they treat her like a bonus grandchild. We laughed and told stories and the girls opened a small pile of gifts. I even got a scarf and money for coffee, along with a gift certificate to go on an ice skating date with Mia. I got choked up at one point, sitting there amongst Granny, and two aunts, an uncle, and a cousin who is just six weeks younger than Cora.

“Thank you so much for everything,” I said. “And for accepting us like this. This is so unexpected. I haven’t spent the holidays with family in four years.”

DSCN2238Christmas morning came after a few short hours of sleep. Mia quickly tore through her gifts, and pretty much opened Cora’s as well. After the late night, I was so grumpy about basically being a vessel for gifts to flow out of and not much else. But I was able to get Mia one really nice thing, purely by donation of a couple of musicians in town: her very first guitar.

I cringed at her wanting to carry it around, knowing that it was worth almost as much as my new laptop. She spent hours in her room, trying to play “Wagon Wheel” and singing and dancing to Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

Most of the day was spent in pajamas, and by the time we got ready to leave to a friend’s house for dinner I realized the only thing I’d eaten was various chocolate treats and bacon.

Mia joined the crowd of kids at my friend’s house like she always does, while I shyly spoke to the adults like I always do. Coraline walked around, letting people dote on her and pick her up and help her up and down stairs, which has been a new personality trait in the last few months. Before that, if anyone tried to engage with her at all, she clung to me even harder and often cried. Being able to sit and relax knowing other adults were keeping an eye on her was incredible. And so was dinner. And the company. We left with very full bellies and leftovers, which I ate most of today.

I know I probably won’t sleep tonight, nervous about getting up at four, getting everyone out the door, and making the flight in time. Most of the time when Mia’s gone I camp out on the couch watching whatever I can find on Netflix, too mopey to venture out much at all.

This week will be a little different. I have a large book proposal to edit. There’s also this gentleman who wants to cook dinner together and spend afternoons giggling. It all feels so promising I get a little caught up in it all. I guess we’ll just have to see.

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A Letter to my Second Daughter

DSCN1452My dear Coraline Cairn,

We’re sitting at the kitchen table together. You’re eating banana pieces. You pick a chunk up with your long fingers, squish it inside your chubby hand, and raise your fist in the air. I imagine you thinking, “Behold! Banana!” but I know you’re not. Before the banana, you ate a puree that came out of a pouch. Whenever you see me take one of these out of the drawer, you start bouncing in your seat and laugh. Eating’s kind of your favorite thing in the world.

I needed to write this months ago. I should have been writing this sort of stuff down in the past nine months that we’ve been getting to know each other. I hardly have pictures of you, let alone a baby book.

What pains me is I know I’ll forget most of this. I won’t remember the sounds you made this morning as you woke up, but that you screamed at the top of your lungs for a whole month. This first year with you will fade to a blur, like your first months already have. I’ll be left with impossibly small onesies, a few photos, and some Facebook posts. My hope is, when you’re hurt by this as an adult, I’ll whisper that you’ve always been my favorite, and all will be forgiven.

Your sister doesn’t have a baby book, either. I did write about her all the time. I’ve been reading those scenes late at night. I can see your big sister at two so clearly through what I wrote. I remember how wispy her hair felt on my cheek. I remember her voice. I remember how impossible some days felt. Some minutes, even.

Even if I don’t end up writing about you as much as I’d like, or take pictures of you other than crappy ones from my flip phone, know that I am mindful of how short of time you’ll be a baby.

With your sister, I fought to own my physical space again, and spent most of the day preparing for bedtime. Almost every decision I made revolved around 7:30 at night when Mia went to bed. I sat in the next room, hoping she slept long enough to give me a break. Your sister started her years with a mom who clawed up the slippery slope that was completely losing herself in motherhood. She had a mom who struggled through depression, questioning her self-identity. Her mom was insecure, anxious, and so stressed.

You, my darling, don’t have to deal with that shit.

DSCN1431You were born to a mother who’d been doing this on her own for quite some time. Being home with you is like a sweet Saturday afternoon instead of crippling isolation and loneliness. I love our little bubble of an apartment, where I plan to keep all of us in for years, instead of moving every few months.

I kiss your sister goodnight in her own room with her big bunk bed and walk out to her Taylor Swift CD. She sets out her own clothes, bathes herself, and even ties her own shoes. Sometimes I offer to make her pancakes and she’d rather play outside with her friends. She reads to herself at night, and has math homework. She talks about boys and watches horrible TV shows that make me miss that blue puppy.

You watch her dance and jump around and laugh. And you’ll be just as big so fast, oh so fast.

So even though I lack in recording memories, know that I hardly ever put you down. I love when you sleep on my chest so I can rest my lips on your head, inhaling deep enough for your hair to tickle my nose. Know that even though we’ll forget most of these first years, you were rarely far from my arms, looking up and smiling at me.

With love.

 

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