Friday, September 20, 2013

Checking Back In: An Anniversary Tribute

I am not a fan of summer in general, but I have never been so happy to say goodbye to one as this past summer.

I loathe extreme heat; I detest humidity. I flee the sun for shade, for air conditioning. My brain gets muddled, my body uncomfortable. I am always tired, I grow listless and impatient, and I lose all desire to be outside or to do anything that would involve working up a sweat. 

At the same time, summer is truly the busiest season for me at work. There's no time to slow down. The current year's strategic plan is in full swing and we're busy planning the next. Budgets are due. Everyone is up to their ears in spreadsheets and deadlines; some are cranky because they're cutting spending while others are stressed with the excitement of growth. I had both. Cutting meant long meetings and difficult conversations; growth meant extensive travel and a lot of networking. On top of it all, I was also in school two nights a week, taking microeconomics for my MBA. For months on end I was either running to or from work or school or the airport, and all the while the heat was in the mid 90s. I was a sweaty beast, exhausted and always schlepping a heavy bag. I was not running or biking. I was coming home late, usually missing the girls' bedtime and staying up until midnight at the computer or willing myself to do homework, always up early the next morning to do it all over again.

As this summer went on, I took on more and more and was home less and less. And at the same time, I was increasingly distracted. I had a phone in my hand at all times, paying little attention to where I was in the moment. I convinced myself that I wanted to to balance it all, that I could. I found myself devoting time to things and people and situations which took me further away from my three anchors: my spouse, my Teeny, and my Bee.

When my three year old Bee said, upon my return from LA or Chicago or North Carolina or some other place I worked from this summer, "Mama, I don't want you to go away to work ever again ever ever," it vaguely occurred to me that this was not sustainable. But I pushed that thought deep down. I just got myself another iced coffee and kept going. 

One evening at the dining room table surrounded with papers and books and Excel, I suddenly missed my husband. It had been weeks, maybe a month, maybe more since we'd spent an evening together at home watching a movie, talking, reading. I looked up at the calendar; it was already August. My class was nearly over and it was almost finals. My work deadlines were approaching. I was texting someone furiously while juggling it all, but nothing was getting done. I looked over at Johnny, deeply absorbed in Skyrim, just a few feet away from me. His profile, so beautiful in the light of the big screen. He glanced at me. "Everything all right?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question; for months I'd been grunting at my computer screen, offering monosyllabic answers to his attempts at conversation. At this point he didn't even expect a response from me. For too long, I'd been detached, not present except to murmur a quick thank you when he brought me tea or cold water. I put the phone down and closed the laptop. "I miss you," I said. In a flash, he was by my side, ready.

"C'mere," he said, his arms open.

At no point this summer did it occur to me that I might be having a midlife crisis. It would be a blog entry of a completely different nature to describe the many ways in which this manifested itself. But at 40, I am unquestionably approaching what other people call "middle age." At this point in my life I should have been slowing down, but instead I was racing through my days. If I had a dollar for every time I heard "I don't know how you do it all," I could retire now. At one point, I snapped at the person who said it without even thinking. "I'm not doing any of it well, so I wish people would stop saying that already!" I said. That was my first clue. I didn't need to buy myself a red Mustang or get liposuction to understand that I was running myself ragged and building up a lot of resentments. Without realizing it, I'd driven myself into total overload and part of me dreamed of just running away from it all. 

But that is not who I am or who I want to be. In my heart, there is nowhere in the world I'd rather be than with my three anchors, but I was so checked out that I may as well have been on another planet. The truth is that Johnny and I have worked very hard to create the life we have together. I love him more than anyone I've ever known, and I have loved him since the night we met. I love our life and our family. Lucky for me, I also really like him. Not only is he my spouse (a gender-neutral term I generally prefer to husband or wife), he is also my best friend. It's nearly a year now since the MRI that revealed Teeny's brain malformation, and that has without question been the hardest year of our lives. When we got her diagnosis, we talked frankly about this being the sort of devastation that ends marriages. And at that time, we agreed that we were in this together; we would not be a casualty of this awfulness that nobody asked for and nobody wanted. We are people who work hard and play hard, and who love each other passionately. Teeny needs us both, together, and we need each other. And I needed a reminder of all of that. That evening when Johnny came to me at the dining room table and hugged me, it was like a spell had been broken.

(P.S. Happy anniversary, babe. I love you.)

It can be only too easy for me to get caught up in myself and my own drama. I'll think that no one knows what it feels like to be me, no one knows how hard it is. I'll convince myself I am alone, that no one understands, not even the people closest to me. But someone does understand, and that someone is Johnny. The most incredible thing about him is his uncanny ability to read people and situations. I might be book smart, but compared to him I am gullible, naive, too trusting. I don't drill down to get at what motivates people's behavior or question how they really feel. But Johnny doesn't have to drill down. For him, these things are plain as day. It's as if he looks at life through an infrared lens, seeing a dimension that is visible to few others. Because of this, he knows me better than I know myself. He reads me like a book, which is something that even after 12 years continues to amaze me. And when I'm puzzled or frustrated by another person, asking myself "Why did that person say that to me? What does that mean?" he generally gets it right away and can translate for me. What I am most thankful for, though, is the space he gives me when I need it. The last thing I want is to be told what I'm feeling, why I'm acting a certain way, what I should do. Instead, he waits, and he keeps his mouth shut. Although I know it eats at him, he waits for me to figure things out on my own, and he's kind enough not to say I told you so when he turns out to be right. Again.

Once I finally realized that I was behaving as though I'd been on a desert island of me me me, things began to change in our house. I finished up microeconomics and then with work's permission, put the MBA on hold indefinitely. I put work travel on hold, less indefinitely. I made my work days more productive, meeting my deadlines and still making it home for bedtime. While I still had to work some evenings and weekends, we started catching up on movies and TV shows. I read two novels, I went running, I started cooking our dinners again. The best move of all was putting the goddamn iPhones down. I have one for work, another for everything else. I switched them to silent, remembered to check them periodically for emergencies, but otherwise did my best to forget about them when I was carving out time with my family. Occasionally I felt like I was missing something or someone, but more and more I was thankful for the quiet. Once or twice, I even accidentally left them at home. 

You get through the tough stuff not by pretending there is no tough stuff, but by facing it head on and also by celebrating the good. I had been acting like an ostrich with her head in the sand. I was avoiding everything, even the truth about myself and how I cope when things are difficult. I am normally a dweller. Why was I so avoidant all of a sudden?

I don't think there's a person in this world who hasn't successfully weathered a storm without learning to look between the raindrops at the happy moments. I am not impermeable. When it rains, I get wet. At times this summer it felt like the rain would never stop and that I was always the only one caught in the downpour. Like Eeyore, I was plodding through life with my own personal raincloud hovering just above me. Who wouldn't want to try to escape a life like that? But when I stop and think about it, there is unquestionable beauty even in the rain itself. I admit that I sometimes struggle with feeling grateful for the hand we've been dealt, but it is true that there is so also much joy in our lives. We've learned a lot we didn't know, and we realized along the way just how much we took for granted. We see clearly how much love and concern our friends and family have for us and for our girls. I never thought I could love two little girls as much as I do. There is sadness and disappointment, but there is so much to celebrate. Most recently, we got to know the magic of hearing both of our daughters call us mama and dada.

Bee is blossoming, and Teeny is too. Bee is learning to write and to read. She is suddenly a princess with a tutu and ponytails, spinning and dancing and asking for ballet shoes like the ones Katerina on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood wears. She builds cities with Legos and blocks and draws, paints, and types. She wants to learn to ride a bike and she counts the days we can go back to Disney. She picks out her own clothes and helps me cook. When she's not making up her own songs, she's memorizing the lyrics to other songs she loves, insisting the words are how she hears them and not what I tell her they are. (Frustratingly for me, she's just like her dad in that way). She kisses me and hugs me and tells me she loves me a hundred times a day, and each time is as delicious for me as the last. 

And Teeny, sweet and beautiful Teeny. Almost two, she is all but weaned. She learned to say about a dozen words all at once this summer, like pasta, hiya, yeah, tofu, bath, book, car, cat, dada, stop, mine. And she knows far more words than she can actually say. She waves hello and goodbye. You say brush and she points to her teeth. She plays along when you sing head shoulders knees and toes, showing us that she knows most of her body parts. Ask her where her belly is and she pulls her shirt over her head with a goofy grin, pointing at her belly button. She is learning to cruise, ever so slowly. She picked apples off the trees all by herself, clinging to them tightly and so proudly, then dropping them into the bushel bag (relatively) gently. Her hugs are little slivers of heaven; she leans her head on my shoulder, grips my neck tightly with one hand and pats my back lovingly with the other. These hugs keep me grounded. They keep my heart fluttering with love and gratitude.

When the days get cooler, there is a spring in my step. I am happier outside. Nothing makes me smile like a weather report calling for a jacket and a hot tea. The leaves are slowly beginning to turn and with them my mind turns to new beginnings, to school starting, our wedding anniversary, Teeny's birthday, upcoming holidays in New England, apple picking, pumpkin carving, wearing socks to bed, curling up under a blanket with a book, snuggling with my loves in bed on a Saturday morning before we bundle up and head out to the park. 

In the past two weeks both Teeny and Bee have started preschool, which means Johnny and I have to be fully functional, coffeed, showered, exercised and ready to go with three lunches packed and out the door by 8 am. It's not like we're not up at dawn with the girls every day anyway, but being awake and being fit for society are two different things entirely. This was challenging for each of us even back when we were single, so mornings these days are often rushed and tense, especially if we don't remember to laugh about what a circus our household is at that (and every) hour.

Nowadays, nursery schools phase their children in, which means essentially that in the first week or weeks, the school day is an abbreviated one, and a parent attends along with the child. Teeny started first. Nervous about this moment since we enrolled her last March, I experienced some sleepless nights before her first day of class, and yet I was up with the sun that morning, packing her bag of extra clothes and a lunch, also filling an entire grocery bag of extra vegan snacks for her: veggie booty, crackers, and pretzels piled high. Her first week went without a hitch. The teachers took to her as she did to them, and the children were sweet and innocent, too young to know she is different from them. She is in a mainstream setting, among children ranging from 13 months to 2 years. She is one of the oldest, yet because she is with new walkers and still nonverbal toddlers, her delays are far less noticeable than I anticipated. I gave them copies of her many evaluations and they offered to have us meet with their learning specialist to ensure that her needs are being met, but it didn't take meeting with her for me to see not only that her needs are being met, but that she is thriving.  

Her teachers asked me to show them how to help her step, asked me how much intervention and assistance she needs. She answered their questions better than I ever could. I thought she'd need more help, but she showed us all that she is stronger and more stable and far more independent than I gave her credit for. She stands at the sand table, leaning her body against it so she can use both hands to hold shells, scoop sand, and make a happy mess. Her attention span is so long that even when she's the first at an activity, she's also often the last. She sits at the lunch table without needing to be buckled in. I pack finger foods and she helps herself. At the light table, she connects the magnetic tiles on her own. She claps and sings along during music, thwacking away on a drum or a xylophone, wielding a mallet carelessly (and possibly dangerously) always perfectly in time to the beat. For months Johnny and I worried about this moment, but after four days, she was ready, and we left her there on her own.

A week later it was Bee's turn. In addition to phase-in, her school does home visits, so she had a chance to meet her teachers  one morning at home with Daddy while I was at school with Teeny. On Bee's first day, Teeny was happily settled. I could focus without worrying. That morning, we dropped Teeny off at her school as a family and headed up the hill to Bee's school. We had been talking about who she would see and what she would do, and when we arrived a few minutes early she got to watch her friends come through the door one at a time. She stood behind me, hanging on my hip shyly until the door opened and the teachers welcomed us all in. The first day was only an hour. She sat on my lap the entire time. The second day, an hour and a half. That day, she sat next to me and included me in her play until the teachers leaned in and whispered to me, suggesting that I move my seat away from her ever so slightly, giving her the opportunity to engage with the other children. I complied, and by the time the day was over, she was hugging her friends like there had never been a summer break. On day three, I was told I could leave and just return at pickup. Somewhat reluctantly, I gathered my things and prepared for a protracted departure. I knelt down to hug her and kiss her, but she waved me away. "Bye, Mom," she said, and went back to her blue Play-doh.

I left my phone number on the list with the other parents' numbers and wandered through the Columbia University campus, thinking about how much I loved my kids and my life. I made a gratitude list in my head; it was endless. Right at that moment, there was nothing I felt more grateful for than the trees still in bloom, the birds, the beautiful buildings I passed as I walked, the green juice in my hand, a few moments to myself knowing both of my girls were safe and happy in school and my loving, hardworking spouse was home resting. I didn't know what tomorrow would bring, but I felt energized and able to face the rest of today. And that, for today, was enough. 

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