Gone bad wrong
Every time something bad happens, some disaster — a shooting, a storm — that doesn't discriminate in its violence, people tell each other, "Hug your babies tight." The message I get is that we're supposed to feel a renewed gratitude to be able to draw our children close when others can't. And I do, but I also feel uncomfortable with the admonition. I do hug my babies tight — and for all I know, so did Nancy Lanza.
Where we fail most grievously, I think, is not in loving and accepting our own children, but in loving and accepting those beyond our immediate circle, and beyond our tiny radius of comfort. Did others see Nancy Lanza struggling, and did they enfold her and bear her up? Did people in the community try to reach Adam, insofar as he could be reached? Did they — did we — give the family all the practical assistance the system could bring to bear?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions about how hard we worked, how seriously we took our commitment to each other. That we didn't help them enough, though, seems at this point obvious. I don't know if anyone could. I just know we need to try, all of us — keep trying and do better.
Charlie saw the news on the muted TV screen at a restaurant Friday night.
I told him what had happened, although the chyrons on CNN spelled it out pretty boldly. He didn't ask why, which struck me as strange. I explained anyway, saying that most of us understand certain hard and fast limits about how to handle what hurts us, but that when something has gone bad wrong in our mind — "gone bad wrong," oh, how else is there to say it? — we no longer play by those rules.
He nodded, grasping the metaphor. "Then we make up our own," he suggested. "And then it goes really bad wrong."
An eight-year-old has an intuitive understanding of the consequences of unchecked mental illness. Is it safe to say the same about those entrusted to safeguard our public health?
In the wake of the shooting a friend on Facebook posted a picture of herself at age 5. It's a way of sidling up, I guess, to absorb the meaning of an incalculable loss to so many families and friends. To look at our own kindergarteners and ourselves when we were the same age, to imagine what it would be like to get that call one morning, or to consider — oh, it sickens me — the fear they surely felt. To blend the edges of where we end into where those in Newtown begin.
I've seen pictures of some of the victims, and although I could describe them with a handful of appropriate adjectives — glossy-haired baby-toothed pink-cheeked smiling, God, smiling — the only way I really see them is loved, loved, loved.
I also saw a photo of a young Adam Lanza, age undetermined. You know the one: chin ducked down, slight smile, blue polo shirt buttoned all the way up.
I feel like what I'm about to say is dangerously profane. I feel equally strongly, though, that we need to say it and hear it, while we're still blending our edges to try and understand each other: I can't stop thinking that he was once five, once went to kindergarten, once sat through having his hair combed. Once smiled for the camera.
The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were beautiful, as were the people who fought for them, and those who protected them and kept some safe from harm. And so once was Adam Lanza, before someone — we — failed him.
I saw a photo this weekend of an art teacher setting up wooden angels representing the children who were killed.
I know better than to believe that there was one for Adam, or even to think there should be.
But I also know we have to do better by each other. We have to. We have to. We have to.
Posted by Julie at 09:52 AM | Comments (71)
A dream is a wish your heart makesDidgeridon't
Charlie's been practicing his accents. Unhampered by ever having heard, say, a real live Australian, he nevertheless lets out long strings of conversation that make him sound like Crocodile Dundee and Eliza Doolittle had a baby and taught him to talk by playing "Electric Avenue" on repeat. And then grafted on an extra tongue, removed many important teeth, and replaced his epiglottis with a swim fin. And then stabbed the poor kid in the brain stem with a souvenir icepick. Feyncegggh soom oice enh yo tay, meeight?
Sure and begorrah, kiddo, is all I can say to that.
...Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone
As Ben played happily with his dog school, he noticed I'd slipped in a cat. "No cats allowed," he boomed, and enforced this new rule with vigor.
The cat. Down there. To the left. On the lonely side of the fence.
I'm totally going to fuck with him by gradually removing the dogs and replacing them with Lego Gollums.
...I was not compensated in any way for writing the following review, which will shortly become obvious
I took the boys to Walt Disney World for a surprise trip to celebrate Charlie's birthday. If you're looking for expensive ways to find out your children don't give a shit about theme parks, well, friends, look no further. Five stars!
I don't know; I sort of lost my mind. (One night Paul told me there was a special on JetBlue — kids fly free to Orlando. "Should I take them, you think?" I asked him. He said, "...Someone has to go with them?")
Shortly after booking the trip, I was fairly gripped with remorse, but airlines have rules about these things, including HA HA FUCK YOU NO WAY LADY YOU'RE GOING, so the morning of Charlie's birthday found us getting up before dawn, casually revealing to him that he didn't have to go to school that day, and then trundling off to the airport. Normally I like JetBlue, but, y'all, they let a lady onto the plane wearing a Buzz Lightyear hoodie. I don't mean it had a logo on it, or a tasteful low-key portrait on the front; I mean this, in grown-ass-woman size:
...which she naturally wore hood-up. Given current TSA regulations I assumed her LASER button had been disabled, but since you can't be too careful these days, I spent the duration of the flight nervously searching the flight safety card for info on what to do in case of a giant plastic lady toy sweatshirt space attack. (I mean, when I wasn't watching HGTV on my seatback TV screen.) Alas, I searched in vain. One star, JetBlue, for your cavalier approach to passenger safety. Five stars, Lady Lightyear, for keeping the galaxy safe.
We stayed at the Dolphin — nice hotel, notably devoid of any egregious Disney magic. I like to think I paid extra for that. Otherwise, it was fine: the requisite number of beds, hot and cold running television, and numerous opportunities for my children to come to blows over who got to push the elevator button. My only complaint is that although the JetBlue promotional package included free dining for the kids, I was disappointed to notice that the menu offered no bottlenose, not even on seafood buffet night. Three stars, but only because I was eventually able to get a whaleburger from room service.
As for the parks themselves? Well, everything at Disney is very well done, clean and efficient and carefully planned to deliver a satisfying — if somewhat sterile — guest experience. Charile was left largely unmoved, though, by almost everything but Mission: Space, which he liked well enough that we did it three times. Ben was most struck by the three nanoseconds on the Little Mermaid ride that featured the Sea Witch, a flash of terror that he continues to relish and relive weeks later, allowing me the pleasure of his company at the gently starlit hour of fuck-you-mouse-o'clock.
So it was fine, but overwhelming, I think; by three o'clock each day, Charlie asked nicely if we could go back to the hotel then, a request I was happy to grant — good God, I didn't need another trip through It's a Small World, after all. Not when the first had been such a delight: I swear on Walt's frozen corpse that the man behind us in our boat was singing along the whole time...in accents. As we rounded the curve to France, for example, he started singing, "Eet's uh smohl world ahhhftair all! Eet's uh smohl, smohl, wohrhrhrld!" But that wasn't enough. Then he'd embellish it, replacing some of the lyrics: "Eet's a world of fromage and a world of berets..." et ainsi de suite.
I froze in my seat when he started this, thinking, Surely he's not going to... Ah, mais oui, and don't call me certainement: he did. And it got better, by which I mean it got worse. As we sailed on through Indeterminate Asialand, he changed his lyrics to, "Ching chong, ching chong..." I'd been darting meaningful looks over my shoulder the whole time, but at this point I stopped, afraid to see whether he was making slanty eyes with his fingers. But when we entered the harbor at Generica Panafrica, and he began — forgive me, forgive me — chanting, "Ooga booga, ooga booga," I really did turn and stare openly. I don't know what I'd expected, but in my everyday life I'm so insulated from overt bigotry that it startled me to see just a plain old normal-looking guy there, seeming mildly surprised to be whirled upon. One star, park planners, for not installing a "You Must Be at Least >This Racist< to Ride in That Guy's Boat" sign at the entrance. Five stars, Imagineers, for figuring out a way to make my head explode in a crowd-pleasing cascade of sparks at no expense to Disney.
I don't know, so many people love going to the parks, but the charm of it largely eludes me. I confess I was secretly pleased to see the same was true for my kids. They had a lot more fun playing on the hotel's "beach," and I use the term loosely, than they did at the parks, and in fact we did it every evening and one afternoon. (I had more fun, too, once I discovered the poolside bar would make me a cocktail to go.)
I love that I have kids who get excited about landscaping — "Look, Ben! Look! It's topiary!" — and armrests — "This seat has a place where I can rest my arms!" The animals at Animal Kingdom left Ben momentarily speechless, but then so did the little shampoo bottles on the hotel bathroom counter.
I will recommend one experience without reservation and mostly without snark. There's this thing, this one ruinously expensive activity among many, that kids do at the parks: they exchange Disney-themed enameled pins. I knew about this from the last trip I took there with Charlie, so we went prepared; Charlie had a lanyard from before, and I'd bought Ben an assortment of pins, weird, obscure, and cheap, from eBay. (Seriously cheap. They must add extra lead to those...and pass the savings on to you!)
The idea is that you see someone with a pin you like and you invite them to trade with you. Last time we did it, Charlie was extremely reluctant to approach anyone, so I expected the same this time. But it was different. I'd see a kid with a lot of pins and suggest he go over and say hi...and he would! Overhearing the resulting conversation, the "What's your name?" and the gruff "Pleasure doing business with you," the normal-kid normalcy of it — that alone made the trip worth it.
...Okay, no, it didn't. (Do you know how much whaleburgers cost at that place?) But it did make the trip great when otherwise it was just good. Five stars, Charlie. Five stars, social learning program, to which I give much of the credit. Five stars, Blinc mascara, which didn't run even a little.
...It's not about me, except the part of it that is
On his birthday in November, Charlie turned eight. I'd say I don't know where the time went, but that's not true: when I look at him and Ben I see every second of it. I've changed so much myself, am still changing every day. When women talk about the birth of a child, they say they became a mother. It's not some finite thing, though. I just keep becoming.
The thing I couldn't know while we were still trying to have children is that what you think you wish for is different from what you'll be thankful for. There is no happily-ever-after, not exactly. Or rather, the happily ever after and the sadly — the good, the hard, the unendurable, the amazing, the can't-face-another-day and the please-let-this-time-pass-slowly — all coalesce in a slow unfolding of luckily ever after.
Four: the arguments for
Several weeks ago Ben decided to change his name and asked that we address him as Superman.
Naturally, for Halloween he was...
...not Superman. (I'm pretty sure he's also wearing Spiderman underpants. All the bases covered, that kid. Job worth doing, worth doing thoroughly.)
But I'm in no position to cricitize; apparently my identity is also somewhat fluid. I didn't change my name when I married, which is kind of weird when you think how utterly surrendered I am in every other way, but when Superman says the word...
...I eagerly snort the pixie dust, even if he does have cartoons on his ass. Because he has cartoons on his ass.
...hey, at four he's got plenty of time.
Four: the arguments against
At high volume, in full cry:
"I didn't want a kiss! I can't just wipe it off! Now there's something unpleasant on my cheek!"
"I was watching the swirl in the bathtub as the water went down the drain and you distracted me and now it's gone forever!"
"When you make up my bed you do it wrong! I want you to make a list of the way my blankets should go so you'll make it up right all the time."
[Gnawing on a Sugar Daddy snagged at Halloween, after my warning that it would be hard and chewy.] "I need some help eating this candy!" [You don't have to finish it if you don't want, but that's not something I can help you with.] "But if someone doesn't help me I'll starve!"
"I wanted to high-five someone and Charlie went away! No, I want to high-five someone else! Someone who's not you! And I can't high-five the cat because he has sharp claws!"
I will say it's gotten better. Oh, Charlie's still not sleeping, but it's not weighing on me so heavily these days; once we've sent him along to his room in the evening over his passionate protests, he occupies himself with quiet, constructive pursuits like this:
I'm sure he would use his power responsibly if only we whiny oligarchs were to give him some.
And he's still doing wildly inappropriate anti-social shit like this:
…enshrining a precious memory the other class parents will surely treasure.
And we're still getting notes home from school like this:
According to a 4th grader our friend on the way to school today turned around and slapped him across the face. When I asked him about this today, he said that he never turned around and therefore didn't hit anyone.
I stated that when I get two such different accounts of a situation, I ask the nearest adult to give a little more attention in the future. He didn't like this and stated "why do adult stick their noses where they don't belong." I reiterated that it's only because we care.
And it's hard. (Notice I didn't add a joke to that last?) I can't even describe it. I can't really think of it for too long without feeling frightened and discouraged, which is part of why I'm so quiet here lately. It's hard enough to put into words in the privacy of my own mind; to see it written out somehow makes it scarier. It looks so damning in black and white, even to me, without the moderating presence of the real live technicolor boy — and if it's hard for the one who loves him the most, how can anyone else understand? Finally, it's difficult to expose myself knowingly to judgment, when one likely verdict is certainly fair: I have no idea what I'm doing.
I'm probably screwing this up; I'm surely not making it better.
Yet it is better. Or at least it feels better. I feel better. Part of it — the part where I've thrown up my hands, poured myself a drink, and given the sleepless nights up to Jesus — is because I shared it all here. Sometimes I forget how the process of writing allows me arrive at my own real feelings. And I forget, because I'm new to this webernet communijournal AOLosphlog Geocitisphere 2.0.com thing, what a relief it is to talk to all of you, and to hear you talk back.
But the larger part of it is just...loving my kid. I know, I know: You're going to say I'm crazy because you hate and fear change. But about a century or so after you've sacrificed me to your angry gods for the sake of my radical ideas, I will be revered as a visionary genius.
I love my kid. That doesn't change. I act, I think, most of the time in his best interest. I act, I believe, with concern for him as my prime motivation. I'm teaching him, urging him, disciplining and rewarding him all out of plain old love. But I've realized that in the frustration and worry of the moment, I don't always behave in a way that makes Charlie feel it.
I'm working on that. I am trying to be kinder. To help him feel understood, to offer compromises when I can, to listen; to ask him gently, "What happened on the bus?" instead of "Why did you hit that kid?" Those are the obvious things, but there are the little things, too: letting him have a soda now and then, just because it gives him pleasure, just because why the hell not? Letting him stay up late in the den with me, both of us reading companionably, instead of marching him off to his room at the stroke of oh-my-God-you're-still-up? Offering him an expensive bath bomb to soak with, saying nothing about the glitter — oh, my hell, glitter — it leaves all over the tub, running his towel through the dryer so it'll be nice and warm to fold around him. (Oh, my bathtub-scrubbing hell, glitter mixed with bath oil. I mean really.)
Maybe you do these things as a matter of course — automatic, no big deal. I sure wish I did. But when I'm anxious and irritated, it takes mindfulness, intention, and effort. I work at it, at reaching out to stroke his head with one hand while I'm typing a mortified note to the behavior coach with the other. ("C sez didnt hit & u cant prove it & anyway kid desrvd it. LOL j/k BRB weeping.") I'm making a conscious choice to be nicer to my kid, even when I feel mad and helpless. I'm trying to show him love in ways that let him recognize it.
And it doesn't solve any of the major problems, but I think it's helping some. I'm still exasperated much of the time — if you think I didn't consider Photoshopping that class picture to replace him with a well-behaved ficus, you haven't been reading here long — but I'm finding that when I can nudge my worry aside long enough to ask him to help me with the crossword puzzle, my guilt at failing him eases somewhat. It turns out making my son feel good makes me feel slightly better, too.
Lies I tell my children
The hole in Ben's ear is, variably, a portal for sound, a window into the future, and the warren of a family of tiny raccoons who eavesdrop on his thoughts.
Why does Tintin's co-conspirator Captain Haddock carry a cane? To use in savage beatdowns of the hapless Thomson and Thompson.
It's a matter of simple coincidence that Ben's fortune cookies tell him the same thing very time: "Always do what Dad and Mama say."
Monkey bread's made from monkeys. Baby ones, kind of like veal. Remember this fact for the future, when somebody offers you sweetbreads.
The hollow underneath where the arm joins the body is properly called the nuba, and the passages that go to the lungs and the stomach are collectively called goozlepipes. From the Latin. Look it up. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Chocolate milk comes from brown cows. White milk comes from white cows. Pink milk comes from flamingos, and it tastes a little like shrimp.
It is true, as rumored, that the Tooth Fairy's palace is made from the teeth of children, but it is not true that it is located in a fantastical other realm. It's here on Earth, open for tours, right next to a quaint little church. Someday I'll take you there if you want. Now go and brush your teeth.
Did you mean "retaliation"? I don't know, iTunes — did I?
Oh, my Hell, if school doesn't start soon I am going to run amok. Although it's been a full summer — five different camps that I can think of right offhand — in the last week and a half until the kids go back, Charlie's been home all day. Oh, he's good-natured and not outrageously high maintenance, especially since we've temporarily relaxed any and all rules having to do with the use of electronics, up to and including the one about not making Ben bionic. But there is this unabated thereness that's kind of cramping my style. (Did you know this about having children? They are often around. And they want things. Food and company and love and my laptop so they can play Minecraft. Consider yourself warned; if this comes as some sort of shock, please get a cactus instead. And water it once in a while, you monster. And give it the wifi password, and a recent version of Java.)
He's hilarious, that kid, and cooperative, and game. The days wouldn't be a big problem if we didn't also have the nights. See, Charlie doesn't sleep. He's regularly awake past 10 PM, and often past 11; a few nights ago Paul and I each paid him a courtesy call — okay, spoke to him lovingly but sternly — okay, attempted to smother him with a pillow — at midnight and half-past. Almost eight years in, I have to conclude he's simply not wired for it. (It pains me to acknowledge this because there is nothing I love better than what Wodehouse called 8 h. of the dreamless, except maybe 10 ditto ditto, and I'm pretty sure he's supposed to be like me, or else I've grievously misread the point of this whole parenting gig.)
No sleep, and we've tried everything: an unvarying routine. Reading aloud. Reading silently. Music. White noise. Guided relaxation...
...yeah, hey, iTunes, thanks for the help.
Where was I? Ah: warm milk. Three good thoughts. Snack. Herbal tea. A warm bath. A verbal ritual. A viciously tight tuck-in. Massage. Melatonin. A higher dose and a lower dose of his stimulant meds. An additional dose, then minus a dose, then a different drug as a downer. Meds six ways from Sunday, to the point where I'm mouthing a silent apology to poor dead Judy Garland as I split a pill in half.
The kid just doesn't sleep. His racing mind can't slow down. ("I don't have anything to do," he protests from his darkened bedroom. "There's nothing you should be doing," we answer, "but lie there and wait for rest." And then:
I'm tempted to thunder, "Contemplate your sins," but I love him too much to fuck with him. I mean, in that one particular way.)
It's sad that Charlie can't sleep; it makes him anxious, because it makes us anxious. He can't help it, and I have a lot of sympathy, but to my shame, I also get mad. When I can, in the moment I cling to my mantra, a single lifesaving phrase I heard once from a wise friend: "He's not doing it to you; he's just doing it." And in fact, he's grown accustomed to being left to his own devices and stays in his room alone. He's usually not unruly; he's just...awake, and present, active in my consciousness, even if on the fringes. And at 10:30 at night, after a long day of, oh, just basically everything, the relentlessness of it leads me to a weird kind of outrage and impotent defeat. Like something important's been stolen, with no hope of getting it back.
So between the unstructured days and the unrelieved nights, I've been feeling a little hemmed in. I work at home, but I'm not especially disciplined, so when there's an interruption in my routine — kids leaving later than usual, someone home sick, the jarring sound of unauthorized breathing, child sidling in and draping himself across me like a sweaty human Slanket "juuuust to get a liiiiittle bit closer" — I struggle to recover lost focus and time. As a hardcore introvert, I need time to recharge alone, but that's been impossible; in these last five days without preschool, Ben has easily found every hiding place I know, which can mean only one thing: preschoolers can, in fact, smell fear.
I can't work well. I can't unwind. And forget about time with Paul. There is always someone around. I'm finding this all very stressful. It's bad enough that I struggle to get my job done, and that I've developed an elaborate series of tics that throws me into a spastic macarena every time I hear Ben call, "Maaaaaaamaaaaaaa." And forget an amicable nooner with my also-work-at-home husband — even a midnighter's tough knowing Charlie's lying there awake. All discouraging, no doubt, but what's bothering me most just now is this: There are two unwatched episodes of Breaking Bad on my DVR, and if these fantastic kids, these impossible miracles, these drippy little hearts walking around outside my body don't go to school soon, how will I find out once and for all whether making meth is wrong?
Tomorrow they'll both be off. I'll send them out in style, wearing matching shirts and shy smiles, holding up cute signs, backpacks slung on skinny shoulders; I'll snap an unforgettable picture or two, and I may even get a little teary as I reflect on how far they've come and yet how small they sti — Oh, come on, people: save that shit for Pinterest. Not me. No, I'm going to work all morning, possibly shag my husband, and then spend two whole hours watching TV about drugs, betrayal, arrogance, the corrosive power of thwarted genius, the fallibility of the human soul, and — wait, I know! — man's inhumanity to man (but mostly drugs), and I'm going to watch it loud so I don't miss a single swear. Maybe first, though, I'll go buy a cactus. You know, in case I get lonely.
Where I fall in
Tough summer, this one. There's a post in my drafts folder with just one line in it: Will I ever stop being embarrassed all the time? That's all I could manage to write. (Subject: July 3 meltdown. Venue: the steps of the Vermont State House. Maternal behavior: Suboptimal. Witnesses: Many. Oh, God, oh, God.)
A hundred times since May I've wanted to sit down and bang out a few paragraphs — theme: children, awfulness of, inability to parent, despair therefrom — but found it all too raw in the moment to share. Then by the time I felt good enough, I felt too much better, if that makes sense; I'd gained enough perspective that I was a little bit ashamed of what I'd wanted to write. Which makes for a crappy blog, perhaps, but I still have my self-respect.
Thank you. I'm here all week.
Tough summer, this one, but with some distance, good. In a few short months I've watched Charlie stretch so much, rough days notwithstanding, and although Ben is monstrous, he is also monstrously dear. We took a trip to California; we swam in the neighbor's pool; Charlie went to hip-hop ninja camp and I am not even making that up. Ben turned four; I took on more work; Paul built a laser in the basement. And last week we went to Tyler Place.
I fall in the lake a lot there, it seems. This time around it was during my first try at paddleboarding. Do you know about this sport? Let me tell you all about it, as I am now what you'd call an expert. See, you stand on a...well, a board, and you...paddle. Oh, there are unimportant refinements of technique, I suppose, like the ones that keep you from running aground on slippery rocks, wobbling and flailing like Wile E. goddamn Coyote, falling backward, hitting the slimy lakewater full-out on your back, and bumping your head in the process, but to the true aficionado, the attraction of the sport is in its essential simplicity. Not falling off is for amateurs. If you want to know the truth, I think it's a little showy.
Now, I know when I talk about Tyler Place I get a little culty, to the point of accosting strangers and telling them the Tylers love them and have a wonderful plan for their life. "Sell a kidney," I bark, "if that's what it'll take," and then I stare at their midsection pointedly. I admit I appear sort of wild-eyed to those who aren't ready to hear this transformative truth. But they said the same about Jesus, so, you know, I can take it. In fact, maybe we should kick it up a notch: "I hear you have a blog," said one fellow guest to me, "with millions of followers." "Millions," I said with a solemn nod. "I'm sort of like Mohammed."
Anyway, fine: read what I say with a skeptical eye if you're not the religious type. I will tell you, though, that this year something different happened. Where I'd always felt uncomfortable mixing with people I didn't know, this year I felt enveloped. I relaxed, and I felt welcomed. The adults-only meals that had been something of a trial — "So! Do you like...things? Why, that's a funny coincidence! I also like things myself!" — became something I looked forward to. There were too many people I wanted to sit with and talk to, an astonishing problem to have for an awkward introvert.
And it could be that I'm just getting older, getting tired of my own bullshit. (I've never thought finding it hard to talk to people is interesting or special; it makes me feel sad and stunted, and I'd love to overcome it.) But I also believe there's magic in this place, where I can be myself — my snarky, unstilted self — and feel confident I'll find friends. I can be the clumsiest runner in a session of grown-up lawn games, my goose ducked six ways from Sunday, and still be admired for my shoes.
("They're built for speed," I told the group, then grudgingly added, "...badly.") I can squawk show tunes off-key and loudly, not caring if I'm heard, happy just to sing. I can fall in the lake, come up laughing, and know someone's laughing with me, the friends who'd gone along with me, the friends who remained ostentatiously vertical, but were kind enough not to angle away from my blue-green algae reek. (The laughing at came later, after cocktails. It's that kind of place.)
I don't know how to say it beyond calling it belonging. My kids feel it, too, I know; either my year of patient brainwashing bore fruit — "You looooved going to your group, Ben. Right?! No, darling, you mean LOVED." — or Ben was just ready to embrace it this time, scampering off without a backward look to join the other four-year-olds. And Charlie was utterly at ease among kids he'd never met; if you'd ever seen him hang uncomfortably back even with children he knows, the difference would knock you out.
It helped, I'm sure, that Patrick was there, whom Charlie worships slavishly. A highlight for him was their air hockey game, played in the pre-teens' game space. Their idea to set up an obstacle course on the table using Lego baseplates had the inevitable and unfortunate consequence of jamming the table's slots. Charlie had it all figured out, though, seeing the latch on the side of the table that opened it for maintenance. "Just get a paper clip," he said oh-so-suavely. "I know how to pick locks."
For his part, Ben loved Caroline, and magnanimously acknowledged Edward's existence. Our two families shared a duplex cottage, so occasionally we'd open the doors and let the kids commingle. I temporarily quashed Ben's idea for a sleepover in our half by counting the beds in the kids' room, but he's a can-do problem-solver like his brother and quickly lit on the answer: "Edward and Caroline can sleep between you and Dad!" (Edward hogs the blankets, but Caroline likes to spoon.)
The break was, as always, exactly what we needed. For a whole week, it helped me see my kids in the best possible light — occupied, stretching themselves [.MOV], tired, happy. It let me be a grownup, insofar as I ever am, appreciated independently. It gave me space to hold hands with my husband, have lunch with my mother, and snooze on a chaise longue in perfect peace. It set me up to see the rest of the summer in a slightly more positive light. And if you don't know what a gift that all is, well, you don't deserve those kidneys.
Posted by Julie at 12:45 PM | Comments (28)
Falling boulders...snakes...poisonous iguana...possibly Satan...
Oh oh oh okay so I'll tell it like this: Once upon a time there was this kid who wanted, of all things, a fish. This kid — let's just call him Charlie, no relation — had been finding it tough to bring all his stuff home at the end of the school day, despite his parents trying everything, evvverything, to make it easy for him to remember. Finally his mother — we'll call her Cher — look, who's telling this story, you or me? — hit on something that motivated Charlie. If he could remember to bring home his backpack, school folder, notebook, and coat every school day for three weeks running, she would get him a fish.
Here I am abridging many lectures about responsibility and being dependable and Who's going to feed the fish and clean his tank and see that he gets neutered and make sure he gets plenty of exercise by taking him out in the yard to play Frisbee? because this is the Internet and there are only so many pixels to go around. Assume they took place in plenty.
Anyway, Charlie applied himself to this goal with a diligence that surprised JulI mean Cher — hey, no, wait, can I change that? Because I've always sort of wished my parents had named me Boutros Boutros-Ghali and that is the God's honest truth. Anyway, this mother was surprised and impressed by Charlie's commitment, so duly followed through on her promise. The fifth day of the third week found the two of them at the pet store, selecting an inky-blue half-moon betta to be Charlie's forever fish. "I think he likes me," Charlie said. And although His Excellency the Secretary General privately thought that the fish was at best indifferent, it was sloshed into a bag, purchased, and duly taken home.
Not him, but close enough
After an afternoon of intense deliberation, Charlie christened his new pal Shredder.
And so the fish did thrive, with daily feedings and weekly water changes, and many a bubble nest did he build in his obvious contentment. (It's kind of the fish equivalent of painting the nursery, only finished off with milt instead of Etsy wall clings.)
And then came Charlie's spring break, and the trip we'd planned to Washington. Charlie and I called — whoops, you got me, the majestic pop icon cum illustrious diplomat was actually me all the time — our nice next-door neighbor and asked if she'd care for the fish in our absence. She agreed, but asked, in some trepidation, "What if it dies while it's here?"
I reassured her cheerfully, having seen Shredder merrily dipping and bubbling just that very morni...Huh, wait, when was the last time I really looked at him? Paul and Charlie fed him nightly, and Charlie and I changed his water weekly, and I usually glanced at him absently as I made the bed in the morning, but... As soon as we hung up, I caaaasually went down the hall to check on the fish just to make sure he was fit to travel the 30 long yards up the driveway.
Shredder was lying on his side on the bottom of his tank, looking what you would call bloated but alive-ish. He could swim to the top of his tank, but would sink again almost immediately. A quick perusal of the available literature — a Google search of "betta sinking oh my hell why is this happening NOW" — revealed two likely causes. The more desirable scenario was a swim bladder problem, for which the preferred treatment is to relieve your fish's constipation. (Now Googling "constipated betta I can't believe I'm Googling 'constipated betta'.")
The more troubling possibility was dropsy, in which a fish's organ's fail, causing full-body swelling. A meticulous differential diagnosis — Google "betta swollen scales standing out looks like a tiny blue pinecone that's a good sign right" — revealed that that was the most likely case for poor bottom-dwelling Shredder, who was, by this time, not looking quite so alive-ish. And dropsy is nearly always fatal.
This came to a head the day before leaving, so a few dilemmas unfolded. Do we call Charlie's attention to the fish, whose hours are obviously numbered? Do we say goodbye and euthanize him a scant eight hours before vacation, to let the neighbor off the hook? Do we take him over to the neighbor's house, knowing he's going to die? (No. I like my neighbor far too much to make her take the fall.) Or do we act like everything's normal, wait for a brief break in the weekend's busy schedule, sneak off to the pet store, buy a replacement fish that looks only somewhat like the original because, shit, they're out of half-moons, creep up to Charlie's room while he's briefly distracted, scoop up the sick fish in a yogurt container, nonchalantly take my "yogurt" outside on the deck to "enjoy" despite the 45º drizzle, fling the poor doomed bastard out into the woods with a whispered plea for forgiveness, and hurriedly decant the unsuspecting Shredder II into the now-vacant tank and act like nothing's happened?
Charlie has yet to notice. Nearly a month has passed. I wonder what would happen if I'd replaced Shredder with a blobfish.
I don't know, I wouldn't have minded the opportunity to talk with Charlie about the natural order of things, the sad fact that we generally outlive our pets, the certainty that Shredder Classic had gone to a better place. (Okay, maybe not that; I can't really say that a nest of bracken is actually better, if you're a fish, than a clean, roomy tank filled with sparkly rocks, a hammock, and, you know, water.) The timing was simply ruinous: the fish was going to die while we were gone and there was just no good way to handle it.
Still, I feel bad about killing the fish, bad enough — and cowardly enough — that I have no plans to tell him, although the Internet being what it is, I suppose I can count on a future employer to bring it up in a job interview. It turns out I'm mom enough to do what had to be done, just not so awesomely extreme as to own up after the fact.