Newborn standard time

These are the days of
his small head nestled
against my chest
skin — velvet smooth, unmarred by time —
to
skin — a soft place
to
dream,
drink,
rest,
grow (some days,
I swear, I can see
him thickening
in the shelter of my arms)
and some days blur into nights
cradling him close
feeding
and being fed
by his warmth
our two hearts
beating in sync
his slate blue eyes
searching for mine,
which of course, are bloodshot
and glad (some nights, I swear, holding him
feels like heaven on earth)
some nights
I feel suffocated
by all he needs
and these are the nights that blend into days
when golden light lingers
at the edge of the crib
each day becoming a little longer
as if to say,
“Take heart,
change is coming,
so be sure to
treasure these days.”

Scenes from a pregnancy

nursery

Anxiety loop 

My stomach feels too tight. I shift in my desk chair and place one hand on my pregnant belly, feeling for movement. The pressure remains, so strong I could bounce a penny off of it. The kick never comes; my baby is likely sleeping.

Is this Braxton Hicks? The start of real contractions? Something scary? These questions circle like vultures, eating away at my peace. 

At 38 weeks pregnant, I’ve felt this way before. I know I need to up my water intake and possibly lie down. The problem is, I’m supposed to be working. A full Outlook calendar stares at me from the screen of my laptop. Can I make my 11 a.m. call? Will I have to cancel my 1:30 p.m. interview?

I feel my belly again. No, the answer is obviously no. I guzzle the rest of my water bottle, message my coworkers that I’ll be offline for a bit and waddle over to the couch. 

Smartphone in hand, I summon a message my nurse sent weeks ago after I sent her a frantic note about third trimester belly tightening. On that awful day, I feared I’d missed an important signal from my body. I feared early labor. I feared the worst: damage. Perhaps this is lingering trauma from miscarriage — the inability to trust one’s own womb to carry life. 

The nurse wrote back quickly: “as your uterus continues to grow, the strain will increase, which may bring on Braxton Hicks contractions. No need to be alarmed just make sure you are getting enough rest and water. Pay attention to frequency and if they become painful.” I scanned her words a dozen times until I felt better.

Today I read the message again: No need to be alarmed. The vultures dissipate. I drop my phone on my chest and succumb to a nap.

Joyful bucket list 

I’m not one who enjoys being pregnant. To clarify: I’m deeply grateful to be pregnant, but I don’t love the associated bodily changes. Not the severe nausea nor the  pregnancy insomnia. Neither the back pain nor the sweats (in the middle of winter, no less!). And don’t even get me started on the weight gain. 

From another angle, I see this parade of pregnancy pains telling me that my body is doing a miraculous thing: creating life. 

At the moment, my chest is simmering. Is this the roasted cauliflower I ate for dinner? I dig around in the cabinet for the chalky tablets I take to relieve heartburn, another side effect of pregnancy. I throw back two and remind myself to be grateful that my stomach is no longer tight and the countdown to baby is less than a week away. 

Flipping open the pages of my journal, I make a post-pregnancy bucket list of all things I hope to enjoy once baby has arrived:

An ice cold glass of Riesling
Sushi and sashimi
Turkey sandwiches
NOT having to pee constantly
Soft cheeses
Saunas and hot tubs
Hot yoga class
NOT feeling like a beached whale
Breathing easier
Less worry (maybe?)
Baby snuggles!!

The list does its job. And so has the heartburn medicine. I put down the pen and picture myself holding and nursing our new little boy. I can’t help but smile like crazy. 

How does it feel?

One evening after our son’s asleep, my husband Jay and I cozy up on our leather couch to watch Station Eleven. Here’s a show that projects the future after a deadly pandemic, cast through the eyes of individuals who are inextricably linked by a graphic novel of the same name. Given our current context, we find it both haunting and hopeful.

Tonight’s episode centers on Jeevan, our favorite character. We wince when a crippling accident separates him from the girl he’s been parenting, landing him in a makeshift hospital filled with pregnant ladies. Jeevan’s so sick with worry for the girl he abandoned he looks physically ill. When a patient embraces him, he holds on hard and asks her, “How does it feel to be pregnant?”

I grimace. Countless times throughout this pregnancy I’ve been asked “How are you feeling?” Most of the time I’ve responded with “Fine,” peppered with a physical shift: “Fine, but I’m not sleeping.” “Fine! The baby’s really kicking.” “Fine, but my back aches.”

“How does it feel to be pregnant?” is an entirely different question.

The mama-to-be rests her head on Jeevan’s shoulder and answers honestly: “Scary.” 

Tears arrive unbidden. Never would I ever expect to feel so seen by this show. I turn toward Jay and remark, “That’s it. Sometimes, that’s exactly how I feel being pregnant — scared.”

The promise

When I met my dear friend at Starbucks last summer, we had a lot to catch up on. She told me she’d changed jobs and moved to a different home. We traded updates on our writing. I shared about my miscarriage. 

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Erin,” she said, setting down her coffee. “How are you doing?” 

“Honestly? I’m up and down. I’m still devastated, but I’m also pregnant again…”

She let out a little shriek. “Congratulations!”

“Thank you!” I answered, beaming. “I feel a little guilty for how happy that makes me.” I took a sip of my chai tea latte. “I’m also pretty terrified.”

My friend nodded and furrowed her brow. She asked, “Can I give you some advice?” 

“Yeah, I’ll absolutely take it.” She rarely doles out advice so I knew this was important.

“After I miscarried, then got pregnant again, I felt the same way as you. Actually, I was so anxious I struggled to enjoy it,” she said, her eyes growing a little misty. I clutched my chai, hanging onto her words. “Please don’t forget to enjoy it,” she continued. “Eat the ice cream, buy cute new pregnancy clothes, take pictures of your belly bump. Don’t let worry steal your joy.”

Now my eyes had begun to mist. “I promise,” I said, meeting her gaze. “I promise to enjoy it.”

Nesting   

My task for this weekend is to pack my hospital bag. I’ve been telling everyone who asks that we have everything we need for our new baby, however, once I start packing, I realize there are some things we can’t find in the storage bins from our firstborn’s baby days. 

I pull up my Target app and start searching for the missing items: one new bottle brush for baby — click. New Lansinoh cream for nursing — click. A soft crib sheet studded with stars, a new nursing cover, extra deodorant for my hospital stay. Click, click, click. 

I hit one final click to confirm my purchases and announce to Jay in the kitchen, “That’s the last of it!” 

“The last of what?” he asks, looking up from the dishes. 

“The last of our baby list,” I say, striding to the refrigerator to cross “pack hospital bag” off our baby to-do list. “I just need you to pick up this Target order and we’ll be set.” 

“Sure babe,” Jay replies, turning a dish over in a stream of water.

“This is exciting! Thank you for all your help,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m lucky to have you.”

I turn on my heel and enter our nearby bedroom, which will also serve as a nursery for our newborn. My son’s old crib sits against the far wall by the windows. Kitty-corner stands our maplewood dresser, once covered with picture frames, now donning a changing pad, baby monitor and sound machine. My eyes land on our newest addition: a dove gray glider, a gift from Jay to replace the old rocking chair I used to nurse our son Jack. I settle into the glider and issue a little exhale. It is so comfortable. 

Just then Jack ambles around the corner and leaps into my lap. “Hey buddy,” I say, folding my arms around him and readjusting him so he isn’t pressing on my belly. 

“What are you doing, Mom?”

“Oh just getting some things ready for baby brother,” I say, combing my fingers through his straight blond hair. “Are you ready to be a big brother?”

“Uh-huh… uh, Mom?” he asks, looking up at me. 

“What’s up buddy?”

“Does the baby already know how to swim?”

I giggle and pat my stomach. Jack’s learning to swim himself right now and making good progress in his lessons, that must be where this question came from. “Your little brother’s swimming in my tummy, I suppose. But can he swim like you in the pool? No. Maybe when he’s old enough — closer to your age — you can help teach him?”

“I’m so excited for the baby to come!” he replies, leaning into my arms and gently pressing his arm around my belly.

 “Me too, buddy,” I say, relishing his closeness. “You’re going to be a great big brother.”

Counting kicks  

I’m at my final doctor’s appointment before my scheduled C-section. Two straps belt my belly, one holding a circular device that monitors the baby’s heartbeat. The other holds a piece that monitors my contractions. In my left hand is a clicker I’m using to count baby kicks while I take this non-stress test.

Bah-thump-bah-thump-bah-thump goes the baby’s heartbeat, intermixed with the fake laughter of the daytime talk show playing on the television in this room. I press my clicker on occasion, hearing a delayed beep.

After 25 minutes, my OB arrives to check the monitor. “I want to keep you here a little longer,” he says, eyes still on the screen. “The baby’s heartbeat slowed for a bit. We need some more time to watch him.”

With that, he leaves. My heart pounds in my chest, drowning out the bah-thumps of baby’s heartbeat. The talk show hosts’ chatter grows more annoying by the minute. Time slows to a trickle. The vultures return, nibbling away at my once calm demeanor.

Just when I think I can no longer take it, my OB returns. Suddenly he’s saying, “You’re good to go!” and I’m releasing the breath I didn’t even know I was holding. 

Later, in the exam room, he asks if I have any questions. “Just one,” I answer, gripping the edges of the exam table. “How do I deal with all this anxiety? I’m so nervous for the baby to come . . . Honestly I’ve felt this way a lot while expecting.” I can’t bring myself to add “because of the miscarriage.” He knows though. He has my chart in front of him. 

My OB stands and places one hand on mine and squeezes it. “This baby is healthy and beautiful,” he says, holding eye contact. “You’re going to be fine.” 

I float out of the office, my steps a little lighter.

Cartwheels in the dark 

At 3 a.m., I wake with a string of words in my head. Darkness floods the bedroom. I fling my arm out and scrounge inside my nightstand for a pen and sticky note to scribble the words before I forget them. I’m not sure where this sentence is going, but I know I need to capture it, however illegibly, so I can go back to sleep. 

Finished writing, I reposition myself on my left side, one hand resting over my belly. Mercifully, my baby’s moving. First I feel a flutter, then a jiggle. Next comes the cartwheeling, a pleasant rolling in my womb. 

I recall the promise I made to my friend and my OB’s words about this healthy, beautiful baby. I realize what I’m feeling is joy, pure joy, alongside an ever present twinge of worry. While I can’t extinguish fear completely, I believe I can carry both. I want to savor these magic days before everything changes.

I can’t wait to meet you, I think, imagining some sort of telepathy between me and my baby. “I love you,” I whisper aloud, including his full name, all six syllables of it. His presence is a gift. A miracle. Our hope in the midst of this never-ending pandemic. With every cartwheel in the dark, my joy increases.

Eyes for Easter

One of my favorite Bible stories is that of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. Her grief still fresh and sharp, she believes a visit to Jesus’ burial site promises a private space to mourn.

But when Mary arrives, the stone has been rolled away. The perfume still lingers, but the grave is empty, save for a couple angels. They ask her why she weeps. “They have taken away my Lord,” Mary sobs, hot tears flooding her cheeks.

Nearby a gardener lingers. Mary rushes toward him and begs him for answers. Then, and this is what makes my heart catch every time, the supposed gardener — Jesus — calls Mary by her name. She hears his tender voice, turns to him and cries out, “Rabbouni!” (Teacher.) Jesus is alive; he has risen! Mary sprints to spread the good news.

This moment at the tomb defies all logic and reason and sense. Yet I cling to the resurrection promise because I need Jesus — the master gardener whose radical, inclusive love nourishes new life — alive in my heart today.

If we listen and look closely, signs of the resurrection abound: in the verdant moss covering a fallen tree trunk, the friends who call us by name and hoist us out of depression, in all our endings that offer a fresh beginning.

God, give me eyes for Easter now and all my tomorrows. Alleluia. Amen.

Advice to myself at the close of a pandemic

tulips

Be gentle
with yourself.
Listen closely
to your heart
to the robins’ chirping
to neighbors, far and near.
Speak slowly,
and with intention.

Breathe in the aching beauty
of this strange world — open
restaurants, churches, playgrounds,
children’s laughter sailing in the breeze,
your son hugging his grandparents,
exhaling without fear of harming them.

(You can cry — it’s healthy to cry.)

Unmask your trauma:
name each wound, each loss,
and cradle it close
apply the salve of time
and progress. Remember healing
is rarely linear, rather, it unfolds
mysteriously.

Make plans but hold them loosely.
Let time stretch out before you like
a rolling wave. Savor it.

Stay humble,
and cultivate kindness.
Keep disrupting hate
in all its ugly manifestations
search your heart
call it out
call your reps
send a call up to your Creator.

Keep tending to simple pleasures —
yellow tulips on your table,
mint chip in a sugar cone
from the corner creamery,
a lazy morning snuggling in bed with them,
new library books to devour —
relish their sweetness.

Move at your pace;
don’t let the rush
of hustle lure you
into the race again.

The truth? There is no race.
But there is one sun
around which we all orbit
searching for meaning
and love, and
aren’t you glad you made it this far?
Can you feel the thrill of spring rising?

Dare to dream again
make it bold
make it juicy
make it lavish with hope.
This is your
“one wild and precious life”
said the poet.
Now what will you do with it?


// inspired by Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to myself”; final quotation from Mary Oliver.

The alchemy of delight

“…the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
—Ross Gay

It’s raining again. Gray drenches the sky and crimson leaves confetti slick sidewalks. I sit in my orange writing chair finishing an assignment when my preschooler pretzels his body over mine, presses his face in close and demands, “Dance with me! Dance with me!”

“Not now buddy,” I sigh, patting his back. “I’m working.” I have five more minutes to myself before I begin my *regular* workday.

“Just a little bitty bit?” Jack says, his voice rising. He’s tugging at my hands so I might spin him ’round the living room, serenaded by the soundtrack of Frozen.

“I’m. Working.”

“A teensny bit?”

“I’m sorry honey; I can’t right now,” I say, giving him a half hug. “You know I’d love to, but I have to work. Daddy’s watching you today. Ask Daddy.” Jack scampers off while I turn my attention back to the screen. Damn. Already 9 a.m. I snap my Macbook shut and retrieve my work-issued Surface.

Recently, I scrolled across an Instagram comic called, “A portrait of the artist as a mother with a day job.” With each square the artist at work is interrupted by competing duties the call of “Mom!,” the ding of a text message, a Zoom meeting invitation until she is drowning in word bubbles. Her person and her art aren’t visible in the final picture.

I felt SEEN.

The artist is certainly privileged to have a day job that allows her to work at home, but with her kid in the mix, her time is punctuated by interruptions. All those competing demands for her attention literally bury her joy.

Fingers to keyboard, I rifle through work emails for a bit and then Jack is back, snuggling himself under the blanket that covers my shoulders.

“Jack?” I say in my stern-but-kind teacher voice. “What are you doing over here?”

“Tickle me! Tickle me!” He’s splayed himself out over my lap now, eyes wild.

Raising the Surface up and away from his body, I say, “Not now honey.” My inbox shows I have some magazine galleys to edit. I wiggle my free fingers under Jack’s armpits, half-shouting, “WHERE is your father?” Jack erupts in a fit of laughter; my terse mouth gives way to a smile.

//

At lunchtime, Jack and his father stand in the kitchen, sparring over the menu. As of late, Jack’s “best food ever” is Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup, a one-time purchase for a sick tummy that became an oft-requested grocery item. Jack wants soup today. Jay wants him to eat something substantial. Finally, they settle on Lipton with a hot dog.

Now that the kitchen is tranquil, I slip in to refill my empty water bottle. I’m rubbing my tired eyelids when Jay cocks his head to the side and asks, “How are you doing?”

I take a swig of water before answering. “I got my period this morning,” I say. (I don’t say: Again. After months of us trying for baby.) “You know how I’m doing.”

His lips form a frown and I wave off further discussion. I announce I am going to take a shower.

“That sounds like a good idea,” he says, offering a sad smile. I’m turning toward the stairs when he adds, “These hot dogs are going to go bad tomorrow. What do you wanna do with them?”

In the bathroom, I turn the shower knob up to the hottest setting and step into a steaming stream. Hot water pelts my face, and I think of all the times in 2020 I’ve shared a cry with this shower.

Ross Gay writes in his The Book of Delights about the human need to hold joy alongside hardship. I like that I can claim two emotions side by side and allow one to enhance the other. Like a good cry in a hot shower.

//

Afternoon sun drifts into the kitchen while I slice halved hot dogs down the middle. I nestle thick dominoes of cheddar inside then wrap the affair with a triangle of Pillsbury crescent dough.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Jack’s back in the kitchen.

“Hey bud. I’m making something special for my lunch,” I answer, rolling a dog in dough. “We had some extra hot dogs we needed to use up. Want to help?”

Jack locates his step stool and sidles up beside me to observe the slicing and stuffing. I suggest he help wrap, but he’s already distracted, digging around in his old play drawer in our kitchen. When Jack was a toddler, we filled up this drawer with cooking nicknacks just for him at the urging of his first daycare teacher. The items inside were perfect for busying little hands while we were cooking. Now Jack’s going on 4 and Jay keeps saying we should clean out this drawer and fill it with “useful things,” but I don’t have the heart to change it. Part of me hopes we could use that drawer with another baby.

By the time the cheesy crescent dogs are in the oven, I notice some placemats on the hardwood floor just outside our kitchen.

“Jack-Jack,” I chirp, pointing to the placemats, “what’s that?”

“I’m making a picnic,” he replies, grinning.

“Well, that is just the sweetest thing!” I praise, watching him place tiny wooden appetizer plates onto each placemat. All items from the play drawer.

“Here are extra spoons,” he adds, laying some plastic baby spoons down and pointing to his setup.

“That is very thoughtful, Jack,” I say, turning to slice some Gala apples and cucumbers. “The food should be done in 10 minutes and then we can have our picnic!”

Seated on the dusty hardwood and holding a wooden appetizer plate topped with Gala slices, cucumber and a cheesy crescent dog, I’m grinning. Each doughy, salty morsel transports me back to childhood. I tell Jack that my mom used to make these for me when I was little.

“Well, when I was a little kid… ” he starts, snuggled in the lap of his father, launching into an elaborate, made-up tale about ancient Ooo-gypt (Egypt).

I lock eyes with Jay and we share a chuckle at our little storyteller. He’s shifted the tone of an otherwise dreary day in the time of coronavirus. There are dozens of moments like this one, if we look closely.

Gay in his book of essays goes on to say that “witnessing delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily … requires vigilance.” Life lately feels like being buried in obligations, but ticking back through today prompts me to wonder, are all those little heartaches actually signposts of blessings?

Perhaps digging for delight is an act of faith.

“It’s the little things,” Jay remarks, holding my gaze while Jack chomps his cheesy crescent dog.

“It’s the little things,” I repeat, thinking maybe I will write about this. Then I take another bite of joy.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Unexpected Joy.”

some signs of hope in 2020 (a list)

the faithfulness of wildflowers
& the changing seasons,
children laughing,
for once a good news story,
hot coffee (preferably first thing in
the morning),
dogs, especially puppies,
the friend who texted, “everything ok?” when
you didn’t show up to Zoom book club,
your new haircut, &
this poem that made you realize
you weren’t the only one
who felt like that,
dreams (sweet ones) scrawled in
your notebook
alongside mantras like “one day at a time”
& “you are enough,”
geese soaring someplace warmer,
prayer,
people standing up for racial justice,
voting for kindness,
your son, &
how he beams at you when
you’re holding hands
twirling.

How to survive a pandemic without losing it

The lightning bugs are gone. They’ve been replaced by the cicadas — blaring their calls of chicka-chicka, chicka-chicka, zaazz, zaazz. There are legions of cicadas, I suspect, hiding in the evergreens that overlook our backyard and in old oaks that line our neighborhood, aptly named Forest Glen. Some other writer might romanticize their singing, but me? I can’t stand it.

This week during dinner Jay spied a cicada hovering outside the window, watching us stuff ourselves with pasta. Our son Jack found one belly up in the backyard. I watched another land on my favorite tree outside our bay window and narrowed my eyes. “Move on already; I’ve had enough of you,” I sassed, as if the cicada could understand me. It stayed.

On this Saturday night in August, Jay puts Jack to sleep, I walk our dog Gus and the cicadas chicka-chicka and zaazz at Fortissimo. They are really belting it out and this is not what I want to hear after a day of relentless whining. I am tired of the noise. I am tired period, nevertheless I am walking because Gus needs it and I need it too. I’m only planning to walk him around the block when a slant of gold catches my eye. I realize it’s nearly sunset.

Gus is already trotting toward home, so I tug his leash and redirect us toward the horizon. We veer right at LaPorte, passing a homemade yard sign that says something like “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” which encouraged me at the start of COVID-19 and now reminds me of those cheesy motivational posters with kittens and eagles on them. I’m still thinking about that dumb sign when a gaggle of unmasked teens approach us, forcing me to swerve into the alley. The alley is nearly empty with a good view of the setting sun and I should find this calming, but the cicadas continue their chicka-chicka-zaazzing so I don’t.

Other things that are bothering me: Obviously this pandemic. I desperately miss our friends and family. We’re homeschooling Jack this fall and missing his village. Jay twisted his knee last Saturday and has been grouchy ever since then. Jack’s been especially rebellious, and if I’m not careful, I can let their moods sour mine and I spiral into darkness.

The glow on the horizon propels us forward, toward the train tracks. Gus and I jog up the stairs and take in the view. The last time I was here, Jack and I watched a mid-day train pull into the station. Tonight the sun hangs low, lighting up an entourage of puffy clouds. The cicadas’ song is nearly drowned out by nearby traffic, making Gus bark.

I sit down on the cool pavement, set my dog on my lap and stroke his fur, murmuring, “It’s okay buddy, settle down. Stay.” Gus quiets and his breathing slows.

North of us the sun casts light on cotton candy-colored clouds. This is all I can see from our backyard at sunset, however, up here on the tracks, my perspective broadens to include the city skyline, southeastern clouds blotted with indigo and the sun herself shining in the heavens.

Like a crack of lightning, I remember a mantra I recently heard from author Anne Lamott. Anne was on a podcast with another author I love, Glennon Doyle, and Glennon asked Anne how she found hope amid despair. This episode was recorded years before COVID-19, yet the question is strikingly relevant for 2020. Listening on another walk, I cranked up the volume.

Glennon said, “Anne, how do you find hope?”

Naturally Anne shared a lot of wise and witty advice. What she offered last was so revelatory and practical it stopped me in my tracks — a mantra I had heard before and forgotten.

Anne answered, “Look up.”

Now I tilt my head back and observe the expanse above, rimmed in violet. I imagine black space beyond us, our planet orbiting the sun, the Milky Way galaxy swirling through the universe, and there’s a plane cruising low in its flight path to O’Hare, bringing me back to earth, and there’s a blackbird, flapping across the sunset, and here’s the crescent moon, popping out from behind the clouds. This takes my breath. The moon had been here all this time and I missed him?

Eyes on the moon, arms around Gus, I sit still and keep looking. The constant buzzing — of cicadas and the cars and in my head — falls silent.

A couple strolls the platform and it seems they are on a date, so I stand, take one last glance at the moon and the fading sunset, and lead us home.

Walking Gus down our tree-lined streets, I believe that’s the last time I’ll see the moon, but I’m wrong. Just like Jack’s book, Max and the Tag-Along Moon, at every turn I spot a white crescent winking back at me, reminding me of my smallness in the order of creation.

Max doubted the moon when he couldn’t see it, then at the end of the book, it returns and he understands the moon is constant. This too I’d forgotten: What often appears as chaos is part of God’s cosmos.

The cicadas buzz and this time, I smile and look up.

Light follows us all the way home.

Something of value

rainbow

“There’s no treasure here,”
my son said, shaking his head
while we strolled city sidewalks,
taking in pink tulips and taking care to
keep 6 feet of distance from our neighbors.
(He’d been searching for an X marks the spot,
a close to our winding journey—
no luck.)

I wanted to admit Jack was right,
mind-mapping all the good things we were missing:
the playground and playmates and Grandma and
what it feels like to move about freely.

Then I spotted not an X, but a
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 etched in pastels.
Jack hopped, giggled, whirled to me.
“Mommy, come on! It’s your turn!”
Even though I didn’t feel like it,
I leapt.

Later that day, he spied 
beams of light caught in raindrops, 
Hope
refracted across the sky.

There’s no clear end in sight,
and frankly, I’m weary.
But there’s hopscotch.
And rainbows.
And, arguably, treasure.

Saving daylight — with him

Sunset photo by Hoang Loc
Photo by Hoang Loc

Whenever I replay it in my mind, the scene starts here: Me at the rear car door, hovering. Him with his head craned back, stalling.

“Mommy,” he starts.

“What Jack?” My words are staccato. My toes aren’t tapping, but they might as well be. I’m sandwiched between my three-year-old and the daycare parking lot, the end of one workday and the start of another (Evening Mommy). What I want from him is complete compliance. What he wants, I think, is the same thing he’s wanted since day one of daycare when he rejected all of his bottles — to act in complete defiance.

“I see the moooon!” 

“Where, honey?” my voice softens. 

His pointer finger shoots up, his voice rises, “There! There!” and I follow his gaze to the crescent moon, barely a fingernail clipping, hanging low in the cerulean sky.

“It’s so shiny,” he remarks. And he’s right — it is. We linger, eyes up, heads tipped back, suspended in time. When I finally buckle Jack into his carseat, I thank him for making me notice the beautiful moon. He beams proudly. 

Now in the driver’s seat, I press the ignition button and notice the dashboard clock reads 5:55 p.m. Classical music floods the speakers. I punch the radio off. I can’t shake the feeling I’m doing this wrong — motherhood. That I’m missing out on most of it, the wonder and joy of my son being three, because I work. This hunger for what I can’t have — a different life — wakes with a grumble.

What if all I’m getting is just a measly sliver of the moon? What if all I’m giving is waning light?

“Mah-AhhM! Why are you not moving?”

“Sorry honey,” I say, my voice faltering. I don’t turn around to face him. Careful as ever I check the backup cam, reverse, signal and merge onto Pulaski. Pulaski divides a crowded, crumbling cemetery; tonight the western sky above the gravestones blazes with magenta and persimmon fading into blue. I want to slow the car to a crawl and gape, maybe turn into the cemetery lot to take in the horizon.

Eyes back on the road, I exclaim, “Look honey! Look to your right!”

“What, Mommy?” 

“Honey, there’s a sunset,” I say, motioning toward his window.

“It’s a rainbow!” Jack shouts with glee. Jack loves rainbows, and I hold this fact tenderly, knowing there may come a day when someone tells him it’s not acceptable for a boy to love rainbows. I hope he keeps loving them all the same.  

“Sort of,” I chuckle. “The sky lights up with all kinds of colors when the sun goes down. What colors do you see?”

“I see orange … and pink… and blue…” he trails off.

I glance back at Jack, eyes wide and smiling. I will tell him this, I resolve, that boys shouldn’t be ashamed to love this beautiful world with an open heart.

At Foster, I turn right and drive straight toward the sunset. The skyscape shifts to peach and lavender; the fading light silhouettes a crop of trees in shade. I recall a stanza from John Mayer’s song, “3×5”:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world with both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it when
I’m in the mood to lose my way
But let me say
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life

“What do you see, Mommy?” Jack’s view is a bit obscured now, and I have the better vantage of the sunset. 

“Hmmm… I see new colors — peach and lavender and blue darkening above us.”

I hear him sigh and add, “Almost home, buddy.”

Pulling onto our street I realize Jack and I only have a few more sunsets to watch on our commute home before the light patterns shift. Daylight Saving Time is coming.

For the next three days, Jack will ask me about the sunset. Together, we’ll delight in bright hues painted across each evening sky.

A week after Daylight Saving Time, everything will be different. Daycare will be closed. I’ll receive a mandate to work remote — effective immediately. The social distancing and lockdowns will begin. The grocery store shelves will be picked over. I’ll call my elderly neighbor, my grandmothers and my parents, ending each conversation close to tears. I’ll cling to my husband’s frame in bed, mind churning over the COVID-19 pandemic, body starved for sleep. I’ll hold my head in my hands, stomach knotted with worry, and pray. My son will watch and mimic my motions.

I’ve read that three is when memory begins to form in children. Later, I’ll wonder if Jack will remember any of this — the food rationing, the “staycation with Mommy and Daddy,” the world as we used to know it turning. I hope he’ll remember learning to play Go Fish on the living room carpet, games of tag in the backyard, homemade bread, long baths and daily FaceTime with his grandparents. I hope he’ll remember relishing those sunsets from the car, a fleeting ritual, but one that brought us so much joy.

Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

For the time being, I park the car in our garage, blissfully unaware of the changes to come. Hands busy fixing supper, I wonder:

Am I missing out on moments with Jack because I work too much?

Yes.

Can I still teach him how to savor the light?

Also yes.

Much later, when the pain overwhelms, I’ll return to that night and embrace its delicious normalcy. Old, insignificant worries. A new resolve. My son forever pointing me to beauty — light.

And here, maybe I can save this sunset for us, and maybe my son will read about it someday, when he’s in the mood to find himself in words.

Image by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

I wrote this part as part of a blog hop with Exhale, an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. To read the next post in this series, click here.

Contagion

Your hands are raw from multiple washings. 

In the span of three days, your inbox was flooded with warnings: “School Health Update”; “Office Closure”; “Parenting in the time of Coronavirus”; “Coronavirus in preschoolers: Symptoms and what you need to know.”

This is the one that scared you: “Coronavirus updates: More lockdowns are starting.”

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, March Madness, Church last Sunday — canceled. Daycare is closed. Work is remote until the month’s end. You suspect this will last longer.

You watched the virus numbers climb all weekend. The tone of the news, containment measures grows more urgent. Your stomach churns. You call your elderly neighbor and remind her you are here to help. You call your mom, desperate for the sound of her voice.

At 6 a.m. on Monday, you went to the grocery store wearing plastic gloves. With shaking hands you filled your cart to the brim with dry and frozen goods. There was no toilet paper or bleach to be found. You threw out your gloves afterwards, wiped down your car, washed your hands with scalding water. In the kitchen, unloading groceries, you break down. 

You think of your Dad, a grocery store manager, and all the other grocery store workers. The doctors, nurses, government workers, police officers. The homeless population here, and elsewhere. The vulnerable elderly — your grandmothers, both in their eighties. You bow your head and pray.

Your book club just read Emily St. Mandel’s, Station 11. In it, a virus much worse than this one wipes out the majority of the world’s population, effectively breaking down society. You believe that won’t happen, not with this virus, but the similarities are eerie. And yet Station 11 is a hopeful book, featuring a vagabond band of actors and musicians who travel from town to town spreading cheer. The troupe’s motto: Survival is insufficient.

Your thoughts keep circling back to it.

You know what we’ve forgotten: we rely on each other. 

You do your part to stop the spread, but keep your humanity. You stay home, disinfect surfaces, donate to others, contact your loved ones. You wash your hands again and again and your preschooler’s hands, too. 

You know that so much of this is out of your control. That you are dust. To dust you shall return.

You control what you can. Your fingers tap tap tap, heat up the keyboard, tell a story that’s still unfolding. You hope putting your fears down will make you less scared. You come home.

You look out at the empty streets, witness the neighborly care that’s unfolding. You are not alone.