Mother in Chief

Mother in Chief

A man from my past

Monday, July 21, 2014

Like the air rushing out of an untied balloon, the Exploratorium emptied patrons onto San Francisco sidewalks at closing time. I was one of them, along with my children and my friends and their children. I heard “Suzanne” come from behind my shoulder, a man’s voice. It wasn’t a shout of certainty, but more a gentle question. I wasn’t even sure I heard it.

As I turned toward the voice, a familiar frame in a gray suit greeted me with a warm smile. It was my former boss from He was there with his wife, and father, and children. I suspect he snuck out of work early that Thursday afternoon. I haven’t seen him in at least 12 years. We introduced each other to our children, asked how the other was doing, made promises to get together at some point to catch up—which I hope we do.

But what struck me as ironic is that my old boss appeared—a physical reminder of my professional life all those years ago—as I’ve been holding a deep conversation with myself about the road not taken. The one where I went back to work after I had my babies and continued along with my editorial career. What kind of publication would I be working at now? Where would my name fall on the masthead? What jobs would I have used to leapfrog across the editorial pond? What magazines or newspapers would be coveting my skills and leadership with all of my years of experience?

My husband recently passed his 17-year anniversary at his job. And I’ve wondered what I’ve done for more than 17 years, aside from inhale and exhale. The list is short--I lived in the small town where I was born; I’ve lived in California, I’ve been a vegetarian. They are passive things, insignificant things. For nearly a year, my neighbor has been job-hunting for a full-time position after being out of work for more than a decade to be at home with her own babies. She's been facing the challenge of edging her way back into the workforce. It’s all so daunting and humbling and discouraging.

I’m not looking for work. I still have my book to finish—I’m so close! And I still have parenting to do. But it does beg the question.

It is strange to realize I’m so outdated. Instead of dwelling on the fact that the business world, the editorial world went on without me, I need to look ahead. My kids are growing up and I need to begin unraveling the mystery of what I will doing with the next phase of life. I’m certain I can do anything if I only knew what it was I wanted to do. In the meantime, I’ll follow up with my old boss and see when we can catch up.

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The carnivorous husband

Monday, July 14, 2014

My husband is a carnivore. And that has been really hard for me, a vegetarian of more than 25 years. Until we moved in together 18 months ago, I had not lived in a household where the refrigerator stored ham and chicken and other meaty things for more than half my life. The first time we had Thanksgiving together and my step son waved his greasy fingers around, I seriously doubted whether or not my relationship could endure. I cringed at the idea of animal molecules embedding themselves on the walls or on my plates or my cloth napkins. Gasp!

Yes, that is absurd. But decades of vegetarianism and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, and Fast Food Nation, and Super Size Me solidified my viewpoint on loving animals and not eating them, not just because a plant-based diet is healthier, but because factory farms and slaughterhouses are horrible places and overproduction of cows and other livestock contribute to global warming.

Until recently, I even believed that eating meat was a character flaw similar to smoking cigarettes. When I was first dating after my ex and I split, I was unsure if I should even date men who were not vegetarians. Then I reminded myself that I had been married to a vegetarian for 10 years (and with him for most of 20 years), and well, that didn't work out so well.

Fortunately, I am still willing and able to grow as a person. My husband is kind, understanding, generous, affectionate. He listens, reaches for my hand when we walk, and talks me down from my own special brand of crazy on days like these. He is tall and handsome and sensitive. He sang at our wedding because he knew it would make me happy. He often skips shaving because he knows that I think stubble is sexy. He does laundry, walks the dog, and helps the kids with homework. He always kisses me before his first bite of his carnivorous dinner. He introduced me to the joys of sailing and is a patient teacher. He laughs easily and often and even occasionally joins me at my Monday night dance class because he knows I love having him there. When he doesn’t join me at dance (which is most of the time), he entertains Meat Monday. And often, he does so by cooking on the grill in the yard, thus minimizing meaty smells in the house.

So I can say with all honesty, that my husband and my marriage are far more important to me than a cow. And with that, I’m going to suggest we go to his favorite restaurant this weekend for barbeque ribs. I, on the other hand, will be having the baked potato and a salad.

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Can you buy one online?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sucking in, pushing out. That is how it feels to breathe some days. It is not natural or in the background. It is a conscious effort, so very conscious. So very full of effort. My body weight is concentrated in my legs. Lumbering along. Lifting, placing, balancing. Repeat.

These kinds of days happen more frequently when the kids are with their dad. And the kids are with their dad this week. Hours stretch before me and minutes are punctuated by fearful thoughts of which hospital the next doctor appointment will send us to. Of what tests will be performed. Of the risks bulleted in neatly typed rows. Of the consent form to sign. The declaration of bravery. The kiss goodbye just before the gurney rolls beyond the double doors.

And when it’s over for the little boy, it’s really just the beginning. There are the consequences of those tests. The data collected, the discussions, the sharing of medical records. Then there are the speculations, the probabilities, the percentages, and the likelihood of this and that. There’s the portable oxygen concentrator that goes under the seat in front of him.

I have far too much experience navigating these appointments and tests, of reading between the lines. And on days like today, I too easily fall into the dark places of the past. There have been too many ER visits and too many stitches have punctuated a newborn’s skin, a toddler’s skin, a preschooler’s skin, and so on. I also too easily get stuck in the hazy places of the future. The ones that include all of those haunting things and more. There have been few hours in the last 11 ½ years that those images aren’t the undercurrent on which I lumber along, even when I’m not lumbering.

There have been moments that twinkle like glittery flecks in the sand. I see a boy swinging from a rope off the back of a sailboat. I see a boy jumping on a trampoline. I see a boy eating key lime pie. I see a boy pushing pins into a map of the United States that hangs on his bedroom wall. I see a boy selling the lemonade he made from the lemons picked in our yard. I see a boy snagging a fly ball at third base. I see a boy grinning with his Tabasco, his garlic bread, his black pepper and parmesan. I see a boy wearing green. He loves green.

And honestly, the joyful days outnumber the medical days. There are also thousands of beautiful and uneventful regular days. I just don’t know how to quiet those powerful tangents so that I can focus on the sparkly bits. Does anyone have an emotional sieve I can borrow? Do you think they sell one at Target?

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Hospital boy

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

His toes neared the end of the bed, not leaving much room for me. How he’s grown, his long limbs hogging the narrow hospital mattress. Still, I nudged him to the side and managed to squeeze beside him and begin reading a Roald Dahl book as the Versed crept through his bloodstream relaxing his rapidly beating heart.

Doctor after doctor shook our hands and asked if we had any questions. R said no again and again, even though I knew questions silently fired through his brain like bloated synapses.

R had oral surgery this morning to remove a supernumerary tooth—an extra one in his palate that nature slipped in for good measure along with two others that the orthodontist said must go. Due to his medical history and complex anatomy, the 60-minute procedure needed to take place in a fully loaded operating room with cardiologists on hand. It came with the possibility of an all-inclusive overnight stay and at least two missed days of school. The operation took place at UCSF, the same hospital where all of his heart operations and long hospitalizations have unfolded.

In the seven years since his last heart surgery, the hospital hasn’t changed much. There is still the waiting room on the 7th floor with the fish tank, the uncomfortable chairs that flatten into lumpy cots for exhausted parents, the prickly ammonia that assaults the nostrils, the puffy eyes of tired parents, limited cell coverage, blue scrubs and hairnets.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the baby crying on the other side of the curtain, the mother with her full breasts not allowed to nurse her distraught infant because he could have nothing to eat after midnight before an operation. I was that mother so many years ago. Her helpless pacing from her portion of the room to the hall and back again woke the dormant memories I’ve managed to fold and file at the base of my consciousness. Again and again, I turned from R, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply to tame the sobs before they became audible.

Creases on the leather chairs, spots where the upholstery is worn, scrapes on the glass of the fish tank, stains on the wood floor rewound the years. I straddle both worlds—the mother of the infant, the mother of the 11-year-old boy—not just in my writing, but in the physical world on days like today. R's father rocked in the chair and covered his eyes at the sound of the cries too, while my husband was home helping my other children get ready for school.

I wanted to hug that woman and offer her some kind of wisdom, only I had nothing worth saying because I was so clearly still broken. I later realized that I’m only broken part of the time, which is a huge improvement to when I felt broken all of the time. Later still—for better or for worse—I realized that the broken part of me is one of the many jagged and misshapen pieces that fit perfectly together to make me precisely who I am all of the time.


Between past and present

Monday, January 27, 2014

I woke up in my old house on the hill the other day. It was familiar like the shape of my toes and also confusing, like trying to identify the vegetarian options on a menu etched in foreign words in an especially carnivorous country.

I haven’t lived in that house in seven years.

For a split second, an entire world existed. I was married to my high school sweetheart. I typed in a red-walled office. I had two babies. With my eyes yet to open in the morning glow, I could see the way the light sliced through the vertical blinds and landed on the dresser. I could anticipate the sponginess of the carpeting if I’d pushed myself towards the bathroom. I could hear static from the baby monitor.

There was heaviness with each inhale. There was the ache of a strained marriage. There was the uncertainty of hospitals that cinched my world for four-and-a-half years. It was so real and yet, it felt wrong. 

That’s because it wasn't real.

And as quickly as it sprung up, that world vanished. Once I opened my eyes, I was in my current house, married to a different man. My world that includes four kids and two chickens and a rescue dog appeared and relaxed me.

I teeter between these worlds consciously and regularly as I polish my manuscript.

During the day as I write, I live in that house on the hill with the trumpet flowers that line the fence. I am married to the man I made babies with. We trek to the hospital and doctor appointments and blood tests. Our relationship slowly disintegrates as each of us learns to accept our son’s medical diagnosis and physical limitations.

And when I stop typing and editing and shaping that story for the day, I am married to a different man. We help our kids with homework, drive them to swimming lessons, and read Lemony Snicket before bed. And our marriage is new, strong, and brimming with communication, intimacy, and love. We proactively see a family therapist to keep it that way.

I haven't decided if this teetering is healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. But it’s real. And some days, like the other day, it’s very confusing. Straddling these two worlds isn’t forever, but some days I wish the past was just the past.

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My big crack

Friday, September 06, 2013

Like so many others, my phone has a big crack. Hyper-saturation and blurry are the camera’s permanent settings, and voices crackle in my ear in a way that makes me furrow my brow while listening. In other words, it’s crap.

In order to remedy these problems and elevate my phone a tool I enjoy using, I made my way to the Sprint store earlier this week. As the guy working there made his way into my account without my handy account number, he needed some of my super secret passcodes, which aren’t all that secret if you knew me back when and grew up in the same town that I did. It’s possible that you know what street I lived on, my pet’s name, as well as the make and model of my first car.

It was a 1982 Volkswagon Rabbit (please don’t break into my Sprint account unless you plan on paying my bill or purchasing me a new phone because mine is crap for the reasons I mentioned above). My Rabbit was dark green with a cassette player and a sunroof in which my ponytail would escape and ripple in the breeze. It was awesome and it was freedom and I blared The Smiths and New Order as loudly as the speakers could handle. This is what it looked like, only mine was green.

“There was a car called a Rabbit?” he clucked in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m that old, okay.”

“Um, I just never heard of it. Really, a Rabbit?”

“Moving on now…What can we do about my phone?”

I’m going to be 40 next week. I likely had my driver’s license before that guy was even born. And I’m okay with it. I’m actually excited about it. Not everyone gets to be 40. Honestly, I feel pretty damn lucky. Sadly, there is nothing he can do about my phone until next July when I’m eligible for an upgrade. So like turning 40, I’ll embrace my phone—the psychedelic photos (here’s one of R in his new glasses),
text more and talk less, and try to enjoy my big crack, which I’m pretty sure it’s not the new cleavage. Not everything is shiny and new. I’m learning more about that every single day as I need to wear my own glasses more often and must turn on every single light while doing anything related to seeing, and feel achy when I move from the horizontal to the verticle position each morning.

Big kids

Friday, August 23, 2013

We left sunny San Carlos and headed to Half Moon Bay where I’d hoped it would also be sunny (I was wrong). The kids had asked to go to Bean Hollow State Beach, but since I was the only adult overseeing four kids, I opted for the more-contained option outside Sam’s Chowder House. The water ripples like cake icing there and does not roll or tumble.

I spread blankets on the sand and tucked the corners in around me to minimize the fog’s penetrating cold—never mind that the kids were in swimsuits and belly-buttoned in ocean water. I rested my head against a large piece of driftwood. I opened my book and read. It was peaceful.

No one threw sand. No one bit anyone. No one whacked anyone with a shovel—they don’t do that stuff anymore. When they were hungry, they rinsed their hands in ocean water and asked for food using phrases like: “May I please have my sandwich now?” After I handed out caprese sandwiches, “Thank you” fell from their tongues. We would have been fine at Bean Hollow. They would have been fine at Bean Hollow without me.

It’s lovely to have self-sufficient children. It’s also a little bit sad to know that my kids don’t need me that much anymore. No one wanted my hands to build a sand castle or my eyes to scour for crabs. I was simply the conduit for their beach day. I was the planner, the sandwich-maker, the driver. Soon enough, they won’t even need me for that...I should ask my mother about this. I suspect she’ll know just what I’m talking about.

Living with us

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When my eyelids open in the morning, I first notice the light. It’s not harsh, and instead of wanting to hide from it, I roll toward it and immediately notice the green. Leaves from the London Plane diffuse the brightness. I imagine I’m inside of a tree house instead of my bedroom. When C climbed into my bed one morning last week, we wondered how many leaves we could see. We also wondered why the barking, howling dog next door was barking and howling…

So much has happened in the last five years. I went to graduate school. I got divorced. I found dance. I endured 40 mediocre dates and one spectacular one that ended my merry-go-round. From there, life has settled down—my boyfriend and I got engaged in December, we moved in together in February, got married in May, bought a house in June and moved into a place with a big tree that could accommodate two adults and four kids (the house, not the tree).

As my world achieves the stability I’ve been reaching for, I am reminded that there will always be hiccups and challenges. The universe and its inhabitants are unpredictable. We just found out that my step-kids’ mom is moving 90 miles away. Instead of spending half of their time with their mom and half of the time with us, the kids will see her a few weekends a month and during some school breaks. In essence, they will live us.

The first emotion I feel is disbelief. I cannot imagine moving away from my boys. When my ex and his girlfriend moved in together, R was concerned that I would move away, as if I was perhaps obsolete now that one of his two houses had a nuclear family. I gently explained that it doesn’t work that way. The next emotion is sadness. The kids and their mom are losing their day-to-day time with each other—the daily routines around school and homework, rituals synonymous with childhood, rituals I’m gearing up for as we approach the first day of school.

Sure kids are resilient, but the only two people to really know the ramifications of this change are the kids themselves. And probably not until they’re adults. In the meantime, perhaps they’ll join C as we count leaves, right before their dad and I hustle them off to get ready for school.

A little leg

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It was Monday night and it was hot. Really hot. As I rummaged through my closet getting ready for dance class, none of my regular outfits seemed appropriate. My linen pants were too heavy. My flowing ones would keep the heat in. The exercise ones would stick to my legs. Just touching the material made me grimace. I knew that it wasn’t going to get cooler as the night progressed. Body heat contained in our class would only push the temperature up, even if the outside temperature dropped a degree or two during the evening.

So I did something I haven’t done in perhaps 10 or 20 years—I wore a skirt that showed my knees and a half of my thighs. Gasp! I know it sounds silly, even as I tap out the tale here, but fear or shyness or some other ridiculous emotion has prevented me from displaying my legs (and wearing the right clothes on hot days). Whenever I have worn a short skirt, boots were a constant companion. Or tights. Or both. Sure, I’ve worn a bathing suit (water is just as good as a sarong), but not without the accompanying anxiety-driven perspiration as I moved to and from my towel.

I suspect all of us have that thing we don’t like about ourselves. Some people use cover up to hide their complexion, a hat to cover thinning hair, or avoid sandals to hide toes. We wear baggy clothes to hide our shape, and heels to give the impression that we’re taller. The list goes on… But for me, it’s been my legs. For years, I’ve worn long skirts, and pants, or capris. I could outline the boring details of what specifically I don’t like about my legs, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s in my head. I can intellectually say it’s ridiculous, but my emotions have won this battle over and over again.

But on that particular night, I wore the short skirt. As I walked toward the building, I’d wished I’d brought a safety pair of pants in my bag just in case I chickened out. Once inside, I felt as if I wore a gigantic sign above my head pointing to my legs and their flaws. I held my breath as I removed my shoes and self-consciously moved between other bodies as I waited for the music to lead me away from my critical thoughts.

It worked. The music grabbed me and I forgot to care that my bare legs were visible. The pink fabric swished across my skin as I moved. It made waves as I spun. It floated as I leaped. I was alive in a new way. Maybe I’m ready to outgrow caring what other people think—perhaps that’s one of the benefits of approaching 40. 

In the arms of a stranger

Thursday, October 25, 2012

There are no more days where I get to hold little boys in overalls. My littlest boy is six, and while he likes me to tickle him endlessly, he is not really a little boy. He reads books with words like veterinarian and consequently. He ties his own shoes. He likes spinach salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, just like his big brother. My big kid has reached an age where he rolls his eyes at me, rarely holds my hand, and finds making bruschetta and drawing maps much more interesting than reading Richard Scarry together. Thankfully both of my kids still like that I read to them before bed. We’re currently engrossed in “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

So since I no longer have little boys in overalls, yesterday was all that more wonderful and perplexing.

After school, a friend and I (and our combined four kids) acquired treats from a bakery in Hayes Valley and then wandered to a lovely San Francisco park across the street. A variety of kids and their families came and went while we relished the warm, breezeless October afternoon on benches adjacent to the play structure. The kids played tag. They climbed and swung. They tossed a coveted bottle cap and had elaborate rules to support their improvised games.

Maybe an hour into our adventure, a dad with his little boy arrived at the park. The little boy was in blue and white striped overalls—identical to ones R wore when he was about two years old. This little boy had curly blond wisps covering head and he ran and climbed as well as the bigger kids. Before we left, I hoisted myself into the rope structure so that my friend could take a couple of snapshots of me and my boys. The little boy in overalls wanted to be part of our photo. He hustled up the structure and directly into my lap.

His dad tried to retrieve him, but he clung to me. I said I didn’t mind if he was in our family picture, so he stayed perched on my lap. I was reminded of what it felt like to have a little boy. When the shots were taken, I peeled him off of my lap and handed him down to his dad. He reached for me like a child does when it seeks the attention of the other parent—both arms outstretched and body leaning towards the desired torso. I took him and he clung to me, a stranger. As I held him, I told him about how R used to have the same overalls that he was wearing. Then I said we had to leave and gave him back to his dad.

He took my hand and said he wanted to go with me. I said maybe we’d see him again at the park another day. He didn’t want to let go of my hand. When his dad tried to pick him up, he ran ahead yelling, “No, no, no. I go too.”

As lovely as it was to have a little boy’s body in my arms, clinging to me, wanting to hold my hand, sit on my lap, reminding me of something lost through the accumulation of time, I felt bad for the dad. I have no idea where his mom was, but I can’t help but wonder if he lives with her all the time or part of the time or none of the time. It made me think about my own kids. C was younger than that boy when my ex and I split, and even now, almost four years later, my kids still ask me why Dad and I had to get divorced.