Sunday, August 21, 2016

Minus One

A few days before the birth of our first baby, Mark and I took a walk around our apartment complex. Tired of being pregnant, we walked a lot in those last few weeks in order to move things along with my labor.  This time we walked to a creek with a little wooden bridge over it.  We were leaning over the railing trying to find signs of aquatic life when a group of boys came barreling up on their bikes. Jumping off their Huffys, they all crouched down along the muddy bank and Mark asked them what they were hoping to find. "Crawdads," they all said.  "There's crawdads in this creek." They spent a few minutes poking around until most of them got bored and rode away. Two boys stayed behind keeping up the persistent search until one screamed, "GOT ONE!!!!  GOT A DEAD CRAWDAD PINCHER!" It was a like a call to arms and from every direction the boys who had abandoned the search came pedaling back to the creek to see the dead crawdad pincher for themselves and roll it around in their hands..

"I don't know what this baby is," I said to Mark, "but I've gotta have a boy before my baby making days end."

That first baby was a beautiful girl and a few years would pass before a boy entered our life.  He was a lot like the boys that we saw that day.  He brought home every crawling, slithering, hopping, flying and creeping thing that crossed his path, and our basement and backyard was a temporary nature center for the kinds of living creatures that I would have preferred to have been left where they were found.

*****

Two weeks ago we were eating Sunday dinner when Maggie told us about an accident that she had heard about a few hours earlier at the Schlitterbahn water park.  It happened on the Verrucht slide - the tallest water slide in the world and an ominous presence that all of us have seen dozens of times from the highway.  We read about it before it was built, saw it as it was being built and then the final product.  That final product made my stomach drop whenever I passed it.  There is another water park in town that we had taken our kids to a few times but by the time this one was built our kids were old enough to go on their own if they wanted to.  There were no takers for that kind of thrill seeking.

The initial details of the accident sounded horrific and I chose to believe that they couldn't possibly have been as bad as what people were saying.  The local news media reports were vague about the cause (and to date there are still ongoing investigations) but subsequent reports of the severity of the boy's injuries seem to be as awful as had been initially stated.

I can't stop thinking about this ten year old boy, his mom and dad who left their house that afternoon with four children and came home with three, the two women in the raft with this boy, the lifeguards at the top and bottom of the slide, the older brother who went down the slide first and was waiting for his younger brother to follow, the people in the park who saw too much on their way out, the police and fire department who responded to the accident.

A few days after it happened I was at work heating up my lunch when I said to one of the grad students in our office, "I can't believe what happened on Sunday to that little boy at the water park." And he said, "Geez, thank you.  It's all I can think about and nobody is talking about it around here. I can't even stop with the questions and the wondering and what the heck?  How did this happen?  How did they think that somebody wasn't going to get hurt on that thing?"  Every day that was the daily discussion between us until we exhausted ourselves on velcro straps, weight distribution, metal bars, nets, water slides vs. rollercoasters, a funeral, lawsuits.

Everywhere I have gone recently I keep seeing little boys.  At Target I overheard two boys talking about the pros and cons of a gaming system, on the drive home I passed some boys on their bikes headed to the public pool, at work a little boy came with his mom while she got her new school i.d., the boys up and down the street in my own neighborhood.

It was as if the Universe was saying you need to pay attention to our boys.

A few days after that accident happened two boys in Kansas City were shot and killed in their own home. They were cousins - one eight, the other nine and their grandmother said of the still unknown killers, "They have destroyed us." And then there is the heartbreaking photo of the shell-shocked and bloodied little boy in Syria whose picture will haunt most of us forever.

*****

About a year ago I came across something on a walk along the creek near my house. I didn't know what it was but I stuck it in my pocket and brought it home.  When I showed it to Mark he smiled, handed it back to me and said, "It's a dead crawdad pincher."

We need to pay attention to our boys.


Monday, August 8, 2016

The Innkeepers

Mark:  I'm going to take the extra soap and shampoo.

Me:  Why do you do that?  We don't need mini soaps and mini shampoo bottles.

Mark:  Yeah we do.

********

Mark has been going to Vermont for a bi-annual meeting since 1992 and every time he comes home he tells me that I need to go with him the next time. This summer was next time and he booked us at an inn in the town of Chester. Green, rolling hills and mountains, fresh air, peaceful lakes smooth as glass with not even the whisper of a boat motor or skidoo.  That state is a showstopper in the looks department.

We got into Boston, picked up our rental car and drove to Vermont via a few stops along the way including a fish and chips lunch on a coastal town in New Hampshire.  Land locked in Kansas, we are giddy as soon as we get a glimpse of water.  When we get out of the car and can smell the salty air we are ecstatic.  Things were off to a good start.  Our estimated time of arrival to the inn got delayed a bit by a driving rainstorm but I called to let them know we were on our way and would be there soon.  The inn is owned and operated by a husband and wife and the husband checked us in.  We walked up to the 2nd floor thumping our luggage behind us with each step and opened the door to Country Living circa 1980 and a full-size bed.  Decor wise there was plenty wrong with this room but the most glaring problem was the bed.  We weren't staying with relatives.  We paid for comfort.  "You didn't book a full-size bed, did you?" I asked Mark.  "I don't think so," he said in a manner that conveyed that he had no idea and didn't care.

The next morning we went downstairs to a breakfast buffet of bagels, fruit, waffles and scones.  Oh the scones!! They were fabulous.  We met Mrs. Innkeeper who was running the food show.  The Mr. showed up a bit later and told us that they take Sundays off and we wouldn't see them around after breakfast but that if we needed anything to ring the bell.

Mark had to make a trip to the conference center, register and pick up his packet.  He came back and picked me up and we went back to the opening night happy hour and dinner.  We let ourselves into the inn that night with our front door key and it was quiet.  Very quiet.

The next morning I drove Mark to his meeting and puttered around the small town we were in - going to all the shops and antique stores.  When I came back it was very quiet.  Mark had the afternoons off but he needed the first couple of days to get ready for his talk so we stayed around the inn and not once did I notice anyone else except Mr. Innkeeper who had decided that week to fix the roof that was outside our window. The following morning I drove Mark once again and came back to shower and head out for the day. It was eerily quiet again and when I ran into Mrs. Innkeeper I asked her if there were any other guests staying.  "Nope, you're the only ones.  There's usually not much going on the beginning of the week and then we start getting more guests closer to the weekend."  Oh, so that explains why it feels like we're squatters.

I picked Mark up and told him it was just us and Mr. and Mrs. Creepy Innkeeper.  "I don't like that guy," I said.  "He's not the least bit friendly.  He can't even make small talk.  Who owns an inn and doesn't even say good morning to his guests?"

The next day I overheard the innkeepers talking and he angrily said to his wife, "I'm never using that again. These people didn't even pay full price.  We got ripped off."  Was he talking about us?  I repeated to Mark what I heard and asked him how he booked our room.  "Booking.com."  "Was the rate really discounted because I think it's you and me that that guy was talking about."  Mark couldn't remember as the room had been booked and charged to our credit card months ago.

Going out the following morning there was a breakthrough at the front desk.  Mr. Innkeeper talked to me!!!!  "I have to go up on the roof again today.  Do you  know how hot it is up there?"  I looked at him.  He looked at me.  "I can only imagine," I said but upstairs my head was having a different conversation. What is your problem?  I didn't cause your roof to leak, I didn't put a discounted rate on booking.com and if I were going to complain about somebody who paid to be in my EMPTY inn I'd do it where they couldn't hear me.  How about you tuck that attitude back into your sweaty, innkeeper pants and take an online charm school class. Buster.

After those initial, awkward days we kept busy (and away) from the inn until well after dark - the last day being an incredible drive to Maine.  Upon checking out of the Bates Hotel, Mr. Innkeeper said to us, "Come back again and next time call me direct to book your room."

We flashed him a smile - the kind we usually reserve for door-to-door solicitors and thanked him for his hospitality hostility. On the way to the car Mark said, "That son-of-a-bitch was talking about us."

I patted my purse with its pilfered mini shampoos and soap and the extra scones from breakfast I had taken and wrapped in a napkin to be eaten later.  If the toilet paper wasn't prison grade I would have heisted a couple of rolls of that too.





Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Essentials

Before my daughter gave birth in March to Mabel, I accompanied her to Buy Buy Baby. Out of the newborn business since 1994, it was like stepping off the plane into a foreign country where the language, customs, and terrain were something hinted at in a book I once read but which now only vaguely resembled what I recalled.

I wandered the aisles of that baby megastore in amazement.  A humidifier in the shape of an elephant that blew a cool mist from its trunk, strollers in every shape and size (with a price point equal to the down payment we put on our last car), a warmer for baby wipes, diaper bags with a built-in changing pad, a motorized hammock that played music to lull bambino to sleep, a breathing monitor to clip on to the baby's diaper, a camera that mounts to the crib to watch the baby sleep.

I found myself saying, "I don't think you need that" over and over.  Me, the expert on baby essentials - a product of the 50s before even the most basic car seat had been invented.  While this seems ludicrous and dangerous now (because it was), most homes only had one car that Dad drove to work.  When Mom was home with the kids, Mom was home with the kids.  On those rare occasions when she did finally get to go out she made sure to leave her offspring at home with their father, and while he stood at his workbench in the garage organizing screws and washers into baby food jars, his kids kept busy by shoving things into outlets until they shocked themselves.

Things had changed drastically by the time my firstborn came along which, like me, amazed my mother.  Disposable diapers?  A box of wipes just for cleaning the baby after a diaper change?  A listening device to put in the baby's room so you can hear her while in another room?  What was this? The Jetsons?

In the work of bringing up baby things change fast, and I bet my daughter will feel whip-sawed by the available new breed of baby products in a few short years.  Despite the pressure and heavy marketing, most of the extras - used for a few months over a few years - will be sold for pennies on the dollar at the neighborhood garage sale.  Just as thrilling as it was to unpack the newest gadget to try out on baby, it is just as thrilling to unload it from the basement or garage.

And while all of those things make raising a baby easier the essentials are -

  • A wildly optimistic sense of adventure and humor
  • The ability to roll with the unpredictable
  • A standing agreement with your spouse that being on time for anything ever again is a ridiculous endeavor
  • The steadfast belief that you and your baby (even on your most challenging days) will grow alongside of each other in every way

Everything else ~ like wisdom ~ will get passed on.

*****

Me:  You need to take a long nap this afternoon because Grandma was up too late last night watching videos on YouTube.

Mabel: 

Me:  We'll nap together, bambino!

Mabel:

Me:  Mabel, are you listening?

Mabel:

Me:  Listen, kiddo, I promise you that your activity chair will still be there when we wake up from our, you know, nap.

Mabel:  *big smile*

Me:  Oh geez, Mae, let's skip the nap.  That thing does look pretty fun so I'll just keep staring at you until your mom gets home and thank all the baby stars in the sky that I get to watch you grow.





Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Hot Zone

Two years ago Mark and I took a road trip to Montana.  He was attending a meeting in Hamilton, where nestled in a small town in the Bitterroot Valley is the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.  Highly secure from the general public, it is where diseases, like salmonella, anti-resistant bacterial infections, MRSA, and Lyme are studied. Included in the research done at that facility is bio-terror threats.

Every night there were social events with the conference attendees and their significant others and we met scientists from all over the world.  On the patio of a French restaurant we ate dinner with a Canadian researcher whose team regularly travels back and forth to small African villages to collect samples when there is an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

After the conference was over we began to make our way north to Glacier National Park.  Our first stop was Missoula.  Maybe it was our inner cowboy/cowgirl bubbling to the surface, but it didn't take us long to start imagining ourselves living there one day.  With a farmer's market and summer fair in full swing that Saturday morning, we were smitten.  We parked the car and started hunting for a place to eat breakfast. When we stopped to look at the menu posted in the window of a coffee shop, a guy sitting at a table on the patio said, "If you're looking for the best breakfast in town you've arrived at the right place."  We stayed and he was right.

When we finished eating we wandered into the shops and art galleries and bookstores.  We wanted to stay longer but we had many miles to cover to make it to Glacier by dinnertime and so we headed back to where our car was parked.

A few blocks from the main drag we stood at an intersection waiting for the light to change and I noticed a guy (not much older than high school) standing on the other side of the street waiting to cross.  It looked like he was wearing a uniform and I assumed he was a security guard on his way to work.  When the light changed and we got closer we saw much more - a gun holstered on each hip and the brown uniform of a neo-Nazi.  Mark and I said nothing and walked quickly to the car where we locked the doors and looked at each other with a holy-shit-was-that-what-I-think-it-was-and-where-was-he-going look.

Amid the memories of that trip with its breathtaking landscape and the dozens of scientists committed to eradicating or preventing deadly infectious diseases, was the lone figure of that kid we passed who was no older than my own son.  In beauty and dedication the former should far outweigh the latter and most of the time it does. Sometimes, though, I go back to that crosswalk in Missoula and wonder how somebody gets up in the morning, puts on a uniform associated with Hitler, straps a gun onto each hip and heads towards the Saturday morning farmer's market.

How hard the good and the holy in this world have to work day after day to atone for the destructive.



Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Old Guard

About this time last year we got a save-the-date card for a wedding the following May.  I had no idea who these people were.  There was no return address and only the first names of the couple were on the postcard.  I showed it to Mark and together we studied it for a good long while.  "I got nothing on this one," he said.  It took some digging and with the help of one of Mark's coworkers (who got the same card and was equally perplexed) we found it was the grandson of someone Mark has worked with for years.

The grandson Have we ever met this kid?

This spring the wedding invite came and I balked.  To be present to celebrate the nuptials of two people we didn't know seemed crazy to me.  Mark disagreed.  "This is important to Allen and his family and we should be there." I balked some more.  "You do know we have to get a gift, right?  We have to buy a wedding gift." Mark dug his heels in and since he rarely does that I mailed back the response card saying we would be more than happy to attend.

There we found ourselves with a table full of strangers in one of the loveliest event spaces in Kansas City.  We mingled and said our hellos to Allen and his wife.  Mark's previous boss and his wife, now retired, were there and when he saw his former roofer turned assistant professor hire from 24 years ago he said to me  "Shouldn't your old man be out fixing somebody's roof this summer?"

The food was fabulous, the bride and groom young, gorgeous, happy, and clearly crazy in love.  "What's your connection to the bride and groom?" was the round robin question around our table.  "Actually we don't know either of them but Mark works with his grandfather," I said, and then added, "but they sure seem adorable." If nothing else you can plop Mark and I in with a table of strangers and we can yak our way through the awkwardness.  We got up and danced when Stevie Wonder started playing, ate too many M & Ms off the candy table and had a great time.  Allen thanked us twice for coming and his kind eyes have always conveyed far more than he says.  Before he left, Mark's old boss stopped by our table and asked where Mark had gone off to.  "The bathroom I think."

"And he left you here alone?  That shithead."

These two are but a host of many key players in the early years of Mark's career and our first resources in navigating a new life in Kansas City.  They are brilliant, funny (oh so funny), still crazy about their spouses and their kids, proud of a career that has spanned decades, and proud of their contributions to science.

A few weeks later Allen retired and there was a party in his honor.  We have been to a few of these and often they have a funeral feel to them.  Mark put an end to that when he did a power point presentation that was hilarious and the highlight of the night.  I got a glimpse of the energy he brings to his workplace on a daily basis.

We were one of the last ones to leave the party which gave us a chance to talk to the grandson whose wedding we had just been to a few weeks earlier.  It was apparent how much he admires his grandfather and how much he resembles him in mannerisms and quiet strength.

With Allen retiring the old guard that has shepherded my husband through the trials, tribulations, and politics of a career in academia are mostly gone now.  Though it hardly seems possible Mark is now the old guard and I see in him some of the same traits as his mentors - brilliant, funny, crazy about his spouse and kids, proud of a career that has spanned decades and proud of his own contributions to science.

It has taken me this long to recognize that Mark believes that showing up on a Saturday night is part of his job, and that being present for the personal celebrations of the people who put their faith in him is dotted with fondness, gratitude and respect.  I will pick out a party dress, buy a gift for the young and darling who are madly in love, splash on some perfume, and stop complaining.

And I will remember to glance over my shoulder now and then to take note that his career has been paved with the gold of friendship.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ordinary Summer Days

                                               ** Motor boat motor boat go so slow**
                                               ** Motor boat motor boat go so fast**
                                               ** Motor boat motor boat step on the gas**

In the summer when the kids were little I took them to the public pool every afternoon.  If the day's forecast was hot and sunny (but hot and overcast was never a deal breaker) I'd plow through the housework and laundry at a breakneck speed.  My wee ones would would scurry around picking up their toys under the threat of "We're not going to the pool unless you do your chores."

Who was I kidding?  The pool was as much for me as it was for them.  One time I ran into another mom who said her kids would just as soon not go to the pool and I thought "Not go to the pool?  Then what in the world are you supposed to do with them every day?"

It seemed that just when one Fisher kid graduated from the toddler pool to the main pool another pregnancy would send me and the newest bambino back a grade.  I learned from another mom that freedom for the older kid would come only after finding and buying the brightest colored swimsuit so that you could easily spot them from the confines of the baby pool.  When I was pregnant with Mallory, I befriended another pregnant mom that summer - her with baby #4 on the way to my #3.  Every afternoon we'd talk while entertaining our toddlers while simultaneously telling our older kids "No you absolutely can not have anything from the snack bar and didn't we talk about this before we left."  I wondered if she'd had her baby when a few days had gone by without seeing her.  A week later she was back with her newborn in a stroller parked in the shade.  By the end of July I'd follow her to labor and delivery and by early August my baby was parked next to hers. After that summer I never saw her again until twenty years later when I ran into her at a restaurant. "You probably don't remember me," she said.  "We were friends one summer at the pool."  Who forgets who they shared the foxhole of a summer pregnancy with?

Through those summers I bounced my babies in their floppy hats up and down in the water, held onto chubby toddler fingers saying "kick kick kick" while they proudly wiggled their legs back and forth, caught kids jumping off the side into my arms, heard "Mom watch this" a thousand times, tossed quarters from the side so they could dive for them, was Marco to their Polo, grabbed them when they came up choking on water, and played Motor Boat - twirling them round and round, faster and faster, until they motor boated right out of my hands.

"Again," they'd say over and over.

When it was time to leave we'd pack up our wet towels, sunscreen, and empty baggies of goldfish and drive home in a stifling hot car - bloodshot eyes and a trail of chlorine wafting behind us.  Exhausted from the sun and swimming, the three of them would flop on the floor and watch cartoons - too tired to argue over whose turn it was to pick.

Sometimes we'd go twice in one day - our standing afternoon date and then again after dinner when their dad could come along. He would play monster or dinosaur, chasing them, grabbing a hold of them and flinging them in the air. "Not so high," I would say. "Higher," they'd say and he could motor boat those slippery, little, squealing kids right into the deep end.  Swimming their way back to him they'd tap him and say, "Do it again, Dad."

One by one they peeled away from me and our trips to the pool  What kid in middle school wants to be seen anywhere with their mom and siblings?  My daily appointment with three kids got reduced to two and then one until eventually we stopped going all together.  You would think such a momentous occasion as the last trip to our favorite summertime place would be something I remembered but I don't.  The end came like many ends do - quietly and without a proper farewell.

I went back once more - by myself this time to the adult pool where the grass wasn't nearly as green as I had been led to believe. From where I sat I could see a new group of moms bouncing babies in floppy hats, pulling a toddler by their chubby fingers reminding them to "kick kick kick", all while keeping a watchful eye on the older ones who were step by step inching their brave toes into the deep end.

Take a snapshot, Mama, of these ordinary summer days I was tempted to say.  You don't know it yet but time is the fastest motor boat of all.




Monday, June 13, 2016

A Band of Mothers

"We have to be aware that there are people out there that would kill him for who he is."

"I know that but I am his mother.  If I dwell on that I'd never be able to get out of bed every day."

When our son told us he was gay I held on to that information for quite awhile.  I had to kick it around in my head and come to terms with what that meant for my plans for him.  Eventually, I realized that my plans had nothing to do with any of my kids and that their lives and futures were for them to dream.  Sure I could participate but being Head Planner was never my job. A few years ago I wrote something about that time in my life that got a bit of attention.  His coming out seems like eons ago so I tend to forget about it until I am jolted out of the ordinariness of having a gay kid.

I occasionally get calls from mothers asking for advice on coming to terms with the news they're processing that they have a gay son or daughter.  My first reaction is to cry for them because I know how hard those days are.  I might take it for granted for myself that this is not that big of a deal any more, but that day only came after a bucket of my own tears.  I listen to these moms with their worry and their fear and I get it.  Oh my God do I get it.  But after they've purged all that I tell them something else. 

I tell them that having a gay kid will be the best thing that ever happened to them. 

That this kid that's causing all this anguish at the moment will be the one that will open their eyes to a world that they could never have seen before.  I tell them that this son or daughter will point a very bright light on their preconceived notions about love, about faith, about commitment.  This child, I say, will show you in a thousand different ways how closed-minded you have been about a lot of people.  How quickly you judge, the faint smile of dismissal we are prone to give to someone we just don't care to know, the eye rolls and the heavy sighs because we don't approve.  You will be shocked, I tell them, at the regularity in which you do that, but when it's your own kid that could easily be the subject of that kind of behavior you start to pay attention to how you interact with everyone.  It will shove you so far out of your comfort zone you will think you're on another planet.  And then you will begin to change in ways that will one day make you proud of how far you have come.

Through a comment I made once on a blog, a teenage girl found me and what I had written about my son and started emailing me.  "I saw what you wrote.  Do you really think I can like girls and not go to hell?  My mother asked me once if I liked girls and when I didn't answer no fast enough she slapped me across the face."

"Oh dearie, I promise you that you will not go to hell.  I don't believe that's how this all works."

"I locked myself in my room to read what you wrote about your son and I cried so much.  I wish you were my mom."

We emailed a lot for awhile and then it stopped.  I will never stop wondering what happened to her.  Did her mom find out?  Did she get kicked out of the house?  Is she okay?

I will never know the answers to any of those questions.  I only know how I have chosen to live my life.  I understand the prayers of mothers in the beginning to not have anyone know their kid is gay.  I also know that this sends missed signals because I was guilty of that myself.  "I love you but for the love of God don't tell anyone."

There are some things I would do differently now with my own kid if only I could rewind. With the screw ups, though, comes the learning.  Recently a mom asked me, "How did you handle it with your friends and family? How did you tell them and not succumb to their disapproval?"

"Here's the thing about me:  I think I give off this vibe that I will not put up with that shit with my kid.  It has never been intentional but it's there.  I know it and so nobody has ever given me a hard time or tried to convince me that my kid made a choice that he can get bible-thumped out of.  I do not go there with anyone.  Ever.  My advice would be to do the same.  Don't ever entertain a conversation that isn't completely supportive of your kid.  You betray him when you do and that seems to me to be an especially ugly thing to live with."

The body count in Orlando stands now at 49.  That means forty-nine mothers got the worse news of their life.  Maybe they accepted their kid without hesitation, maybe they slapped them in the face when they didn't renounce their attraction to the same sex fast enough, maybe they didn't even know their kid would go to a gay bar.

The world for mothers in this club just got a lot more dangerous and that is a terrorizing thought to live with. When my son is going out with friends I always say "Please be careful." I say this to my girls, too, but when I say it to him it is code for "Please, please be aware of where you are and who is around you.  Don't get yourself into a place you can't get out of easily."  In other words, be very careful about how gay you are when you are in public.  Chalk that up to another mixed message and a dose of reality.

Will living his life, freely and safely, will always be a worry for his dad and me.  I have learned to live with that fear most of the time.  In Orlando there will be decisions for forty-nine mothers to make.  Funeral homes, pall bearers, the clothes to pick out for their kid to be laid to rest in.

It's not difficult for me to imagine being in their shoes.