Here’s a crazy story: One week after writing to you about the profound, momentous health you were finally enjoying you ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia and a respiratory virus.
You can’t make this stuff up! It was Thanksgiving week and we were expecting out of town company. It was also the week that we were finally ready to paint our basement. The drywall crew left on Monday at 4:00 p.m. You and Jacob had been coughing for days by then, and Jacob had already been diagnosed with pneumonia. You were both on an antibiotic and so we assumed you’d start to heal, but you just got worse and worse.
We had you in bed about 6:30 that night and you were asleep in minutes, exhausted from night after night of poor sleep and day after day of a wracking cough and shallow lungs. Daddy ran to the hardware store for a tiny item he needed for his next project and I had the paint cans open instantly, ready to start rolling the walls of the guest room we’d host Uncle Peter & Auntie Lyssi in 48 hours from then. Daddy came in, set his shopping bag on the floor where it lay for most of the week: “I think we need to take Merry in. She sounds terrible.”
“Well, at this time of night probably the ER.”
“The ER?” I stopped painting. Stared in blank disgust.
I protested. You were so tired and finally sleeping peacefully. I hated to mess with that. Surely it could wait till morning.
“I can hear her lungs from across the room. My mom says based on how her lungs sound they’re probably going to admit her.”
Your Daddy was an asthmatic as a kid. He still has his occasional problem. I’ve never been thankful for that. The one night he woke with an attack when we were newly weds and struggled for air on the edge of the bed for a long half hour I had dramatic visions of medical crises and I can’t say I wasn’t angry that it had to be this way.
Now I’m thankful. Having never had lung problems or any siblings or friends with them I didn’t know what I was seeing and hearing in your illness. I figured you’d just heal. God made bodies to heal. I don’t sweat much. Daddy knew otherwise and he stepped in and took charge.
Feeling helpless, I packed my very own purse/bag for you full of comfort things. A surrogate for me. And then I let my love take my baby girl away to the hospital that I’ve been too familiar with this year.
And I? I went back to painting. It did not feel good. But the painting was therapy. Those walls experienced how I felt about not being with my sick baby.
You were off on a grand adventure, as far as you could tell. Those eight minutes of sleep had given you a new lease on life. The adrenaline from waking helped, too. So in your darling jammies and your rain boots you tramped off with Daddy and spent the next few hours bravely following orders and happily passing the time with Pixar and Disney shorts.
I made it over to see you shortly after they’d settled you into your own Peds room, a bit after midnight. A night owl friend came over to sit with your sleeping brothers and I found you tucked into a crib forty inches off the ground, surrounded by sturdy hospital bars like a caged animal with an oxygen mask. Mommies don’t like seeing their babies looking like that.
But you were happy, and finally getting a little sleepy, and when I declined spending the night since there was no bed for me you explained what was so obvious to you: I could squeeze into your bed.
So I did, and we snuggled until you were asleep. Really, the whole affair was ordinary, uneventful, calm, OK. It could’ve been a disaster: Daddy’s lungs were so bad that I had visions of spending Thanksgiving running back and forth between his hospital room and yours with my baby in his Moby. But the next day Daddy saw the doctor (he didn’t have pneumonia) and came back to relieve me just as Joshua had had enough of your hospital room. So you and Daddy and the medicine and the oxygen camped out for a day and another night, watched those Pixar movies half a dozen times, flew paper airplanes, raced cars. I came to say goodnight the next night when you were finally almost able to be off oxygen. You were finally feeling strong enough to literally bounce all over the room. And then in a split second you crashed hard and were sound asleep. I’ve rarely seen anything more darling.
For days afterwards you were a hardcore Daddy’s girl. The bond I saw strengthen between you two made the whole mess more than worth it. It wasn’t just you that I saw attach to Daddy. I saw Daddy attach to you. Even more lovely given all this year has held, I saw him rest: sit back and take a load off. With nothing to do, he sank into being present with you and I could see how in love he was with you. That’s my favorite.
You came home around 10 on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and I got a little sneak-preview of that cliche “Home for the Holidays” experience of empty-nesters as I saw the car pull in and watched you climb the steps to the house.
So we were back to normal, and NOW, FINALLY there was health. (Until the next cold, which we are currently on the tail end of.) We didn’t waste time. We had a blast with uncles and aunties (you especially) and every last one of us got down to painting on Black Friday and almost finished the whole basement and new doors for the whole house. Even you and Jacob had trim-sized paint rollers and you helped us prime the drywall until you were becoming a hazard to the well-being of the primer-soaked walls, whereupon we sent you to the dusty new tub with spray bottles and scrubbers and you got the tub and yourselves washed down thoroughly and bought us another hour of painting time without kids to worry about.
Now it’s Advent and every day feels like a celebration of the finally-finished basement. How you danced and tumbled the night the carpet was finished! (And the next day you properly christened the space with your first carpet burn.) We do much less these last two weeks, and I am deeply thankful for that.
I wrote last month that winter is a time for doing less. Advent even moreso. The big business of Advent is, in essence, not doing. It is waiting. Somehow we are managing to mark that well this year and I am so, so, so happy about this. Most nights you’re in bed closer to 6 than to 7. The days follow the cadence of the sun. You clamber up the carpeted stairs, groggy and jammied, around 7:30. You plug in the Christmas tree and play beside it. I emerge bleary-eyed to light a candle and then the sun comes up and starts our day. At the end of the afternoon we tidy, prepare dinner, and eat together. And while I put Joshua to bed you brush your teeth and get your jammies on and then we sit in the dark on the rug and only candles and the tree and a dim lamp or two light the house and we read story after story of people waiting. That’s the end.
Then it’s bedtime and let me tell you how good that feels in the last week and a half since we got your bunk bed built. You’re so proud of those beds. Finally you’re “home,” really settled, after a complete year of epic upheaval. I am so, so, so happy about this, too, and so are you. I have to tell you, you and your brother have been valiant, resilient, amazingly peaceful in all that we’ve put you through this year. The contrast, seeing you asleep in an actual bed on actual carpet after months of making the best of preschoolers sleeping in a construction zone… The contrast was a little horrifying. We put you through a lot, and I want to thank you and honor you for going with the flow.
I’m glad most of the work is done. I’m glad there’s space for us to just be with this new chapter we’ve just emerged into. (It feels like we’ve just come up for air after a dive a lot longer than we had lung capacity for.) I love the moments of holding you, snuggling you, dancing with you. I love the space I have to devote energy to you more now that we’ve laid down the tools. I love that you can paint and craft and bump down the stairs and watch movies. (Oh! the giggles at Paddington’s bathroom flood as we had our first movie night last week…)
Of course I don’t know what a day or a year will bring, but here on the eve of 2016 I have this sneaking suspicion that it is going to bring rest and fun and calm. It’s going to feel stable and comfortable and sweet. I can’t wait to see how you will flourish and blossom and grow in it.
I should end here, but I have more tangential places to go; things I’ve been storing up to say to you. I have to tell you how I wish grown-ups knew how to allow themselves the emotional honesty you exhibited in the hospital. You were stalwart about the whole thing, even cheery. You were having fun. But every once in a while you stopped feeling cheery and got upset, whether it was out of frustration with your itchy mask or the monitor taped to your toe or being cooped up in that sterile room or just plain feeling like crap. Something would trigger you and you would 100% stop having fun and you would cry your precious little eyes out. That finished, you were ready to regroup – to rest or to play again. It was precious to see that, and it made me wonder if a lot of people would be a lot happier if they could be that emotionally honest and free. Once again, you inspired me, baby girl.
I have to tell you about how you need to teach a seminar on talking to bereaved people. How last week when my grandma died and I couldn’t find words, Daddy explained it to you at the dinner table. How I blinked through misty eyes in the kitchen where I’d gone to hide in preparing the cake. How you turned away from Daddy’s explanation to meet me in the eye. How you said all the things that needed to be said, like so many items to check off a list: “Mommy, your grandma is dead…” (This frankness took me aback and for an instant I was horrified at your tactlessness until you went on and I wondered at your perfect wisdom.)
“…Your grandma is dead and her body is going into the grave and she is going to be with Jesus and you are feeling sad but that is OK because now I am going to give you a big hug.”
You said those actual words. I think that was it, word for word. You are not yet three and a half years wise and you said those words and if you could bottle them you could bring comfort to the whole world. I came to you for that hug and you made good on it and I cried my eyes out.
I have to tell you, too, about you and me and how sometimes I don’t cope very well. How I’m exhausted and overwhelmed most of the time these last couple weeks, and how it has nothing to do with you or renovations. It’s just me and my heart and my limited strength. And my grandma dying. The bottom line is I’ve decided motherhood is exhausting. (I know I’m going to win a prize and worldwide notoriety for this observation.) I think about the concept of “decision fatigue” a lot and I realize the reason I’m so tired that I shut myself in the bathroom, so tired that sometimes I feel allergic to the sound of “Hey Mom” said in the particular inflection you and Jacob give to it in your rawest moments of unremarkable, humdrum, daily need. The other day you said it one more time and this visceral urge overcame me to put my hands over my ears. I just couldn’t. Motherhood is exhausting because you can’t just get busy doing your thing that you’re supposed to do like when you “go to work.” Instead you juggle anywhere from 97 to 1052 things in a single day, belonging to about sixty different categories and skill sets, sometimes three at once, sometimes a new one every six seconds, and the successful juggling and processing of all this is what is required not in order to just be abstractly “successful at your job” but to keep Actual Other Humans happy and safe and nurtured and not bringing the house down upon themselves. Having the emotional well-being of other humans as your immediate responsibility and task all day every day is crazy-crazy-hard. I’m feeling that a lot these weeks not just as I deal with my own emotionally over-taxed heart but with your growing and changing needs. (You rarely nap anymore and I spend a lot more time mentally engaged with you and your brother.) The main thing I’m learning these days is that if I want to love you well I have to take care of myself so that I have the reserves to treat you well. If I’m stressed or exhausted you will experience that. I will rush you to sleep or snark at your innocent requests or put my hands over my ears when you say “Hey Mom.” If I take care of myself and fuel up adequately and often then I can remember that you are my absolute favorite and this makes you feel awesome. Which is the whole point. It reminds me of your hospital room and that beeping machine that kept telling us your oxygen levels were dropping too low for your body’s needs. So we’d adjust the oxygen mask and watch the numbers climb back up. This is a separate discussion and I know I already said the bottom line is “motherhood is exhausting,” but the actual bottom line of this paragraph seems to have emerged as my 2015 Life Lesson: Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First.
This leads me to another tangential thing. Last week – that morning I put my hands over my ears actually – we were playing downtown at a community center with some friends. I was not coping well. I was freaking out for so many reasons. I was feeling on the verge of a migraine. I was over-stimulated by the presence of people, of light, of noise. Everything was triggering me. But I noticed myself successfully shielding you from that, going through the motions of how I want to treat you: talking slowly and calmly. Waiting on the sidewalk while you wondered at a helicopter, never betraying a hint of how stressed I felt, how inside I was run-walking down the sidewalk since we were late. That was my inside, but actually I was standing there smiling at you. Letting you count all eight octopus legs on the page of the book I was reading, never betraying a hint of how antsy I was for the book to be over since I was over-stimulated by the noisy environment and wanting to tune back into my friend’s conversation. That was my inside, but for all you knew, I was your awesome mom. Some days I am in a state of mind that wonders at helicopters and enjoys counting octopus legs, and that’s the best. But when I’m not (and that’s often), at least I’m able to protect you from my own stress and overwhelm, and I’m recognizing lately that this is an awesome feat I’m accomplishing: shielding you and making space for your childhood to be as slow and sweet as I believe in, even though inside I might not be able to be there with you because I’m not all I want to be. So instead of criticizing myself for how I feel I’m feeling proud of myself.
The other night I read this beautiful little essay titled You’re Doing A Good Job. It was just what I’m trying to say: I’m not measuring up to my ideals, but this motherhood thing is hard and I am so finite and I’m doing a good job. The point that struck me most poignantly was that, in the eyes of our kids, we mommies are AWESOME. I loved this paragraph:
“What’s important are the big things, and the biggest thing is that your kids know they love you. They may not tell you they love you. They may be all kinds of pissed off at you for various reasons. But they love you. They love you because you kiss them good night. They love you because you get them a new toy when they’re sick. They love you because you played their favorite song for them 712 times in a row. They love you because you wash their favorite shirt. They love you because you remembered a funny thing they did last week. They love you because you take care of them.
I never really thought about it from this angle until reading this paragraph. But when I put “the Crazy Song” on (Trepak from the Nutcracker) for the 20th time in a row so you can dance to it AGAIN you must think “Man, I am super lucky that she does this for me. This is super fun. And when I twirl she thinks it’s cool and she watches me.” It must be a big deal to you. I must be a big deal to you. You must think I am THE BEST.
And this is why I say “Yes” to my kids. This is why I try to make as much of my parenting as possible be Yes, even when it means getting you water at bedtime when I’m so over it or stopping my work to cue up Bobby McFerrin or dance to Tchaikovsky. Because I want you to feel like you are awesome because this person who is awesome (that’s me) makes you feel awesome. Or as Aibileen would say: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
You are, and I am too.
I love you.