August Around Here

The month starts on a high note: the baby takes his first steps when I’m at work, and then many more steps not long after. By the end of the month, he is confidently toddling all over everywhere, shaky eggs in hand.

In July, I told my therapist that I was struggling to make time to connect with the big kid. He suggests that putting it on the calendar would be a good start. And so I do, and on Saturday, we bike to the farmers’ market, then to get his hair cut, then to a new-to-us cafe for a brownie, coffee, and chess. It’s a lovely morning in a lovely weekend. In the afternoon, we walk to the campus art museum to take in a remarkable exhibit from Tara Donovan. The big kid comes home and draws pictures of the art to include in one of the near-daily letters to his grandparents.

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Then on Monday, early in the morning, the phone rings. My grandma has declined overnight. I nod in sort of comprehension, finish my breakfast, and unload the dishwasher before leaving for Iowa instead of for work. Grandma is tired, suffering, in and out. When she is present, she is herself. When she isn’t, she calls for help. Everyone looks as exhausted as they must feel: my parents, my aunt, my uncle, the neighbor. We take turns holding her hand, talking to her, listening to the care team, and going through things in her room. I stay until mid-afternoon, when I leave to drive the 3 hours back home in a daze.

Two days later, I am at Maggie Daley Park with the big kid, a visiting friend, her son, and her cousin. The big kid runs ahead into the cauldron-like play area. When we get there, he’s nowhere to be seen. If he hears us calling his name, he doesn’t respond. I run around, half frantic. The park is crowded and maze-like and not a familiar space for any of us. In the midst of this, my phone rings again. I know what the call will be, but I can’t take it because I can’t find my child. Moments later, my friend finds him – he had climbed up into a play structure, got scared, and couldn’t climb back down. I climb up, retrieve him, and hug him, crying and overwhelmed. We decide to get lunch. On our way down Randolph, the phone rings again, and in the middle of noon traffic in downtown Chicago, while the big kid is chattering away about lunch, I learn that my grandma has died. My friend stops in the middle of the street to hug me. We eat lunch – I couldn’t tell you what. I’m too frazzled to explain to the big kid what has happened.

The rest of the day – the week, even – is lost in a daze. A security guard at Whole Foods asks if I’m OK as I cry in the floral section. We take a bottle of wine to the Middle Eastern restaurant and drink a toast over our falafel and salads. I spend two days trying to organize my work life so that I can be out of the office unexpectedly.

Before we leave town, the kids and I make a special trip to the farmers’ market to buy the apples my grandparents grew – Lodi – so that we can turn them into applesauce, a gallon made at my parents’ and another half gallon made at home, the repetitive work of peeling, slicing, and stirring soothing aching hearts, albeit temporarily.

We spend two days at my parents’ house doing whatever we can to help or distract. I take the kids out to harvest beans from the garden, left neglected due to all of the back and forth from the previous week. The baby pulls up on the garden wall and takes a tumble, and I carry him inside covered head to toe in dirt, and happy as can be.

And then we drive to Iowa for the services, and spend a day feeling many things all at once, but mostly feeling exhausted to the bone and turned inside out.

At the end of that week, the baby turns 1. Our wonderful, silly, precious last baby. As with many second-borns, the milestones that were so enormous for the big kid feel slightly less so for the small one, or at least are more easily obscured, or maybe it’s just that everything is happening all at once this month. We celebrate with a beautiful birthday cake at my parents’, and then with a morning trip to the beach, cupcakes and favorite foods, and playtime in the park on his actual birthday. We adore you, little boy.

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And then the next day, we’re off to the northwest suburbs to spend the day celebrating the wedding of a dear friend who snuck off to the courthouse just like we did, opting for a relaxed celebration with a few friends and family months later. It is an idyllic day on the lake – good friends, good food, happy kids – and we feel honored to be included.

I go back to work after a week away, and I’m drowning. Just when I think I might be getting on top of my to do list, I come down with mastitis – I’m fine at noon, but starting to feel unwell at 3, and by 5pm I am in my bed sweating through a high fever. The rest of the week is lost in a fevered haze.

Finally, finally, things start to look up. I work the entire last week of the month, with no sick days or other calamities. We go to a housewarming party, where the big kid kicks off his shoes as if he’s at home. A new coffee chain opens in our neighborhood and we take full advantage of all of the free days and previews. The weather is perfect, and I’m able to go running.

Where did the month go? I don’t really know. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed.

August Reads

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August Eats

My heart wasn’t really in a cooking place this month, but fortunately, it’s high season at the farmers’ market, so we mostly worked with what was available:

  • Tomatoes:
  • Sweet corn, straight into the oven at 350 for about 30 minutes. The kernels steam on the cob, and you can shuck it at the table, using the husk as a handle.
  • Melon upon melon, including a delightful tasting at the farmers’ market of 5 varieties of cantaloupe, 4 watermelon, and 3 honeydew, all delicious.
  • Apples, prepared the way my grandma would: in pies and applesauce.

Also, the first of likely many cakes from Simple Cake – this time the milk and honey cake for the baby’s birthday, with blueberries for the guest of honor, and honey whipped cream for the rest of us.

 

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Kay Fesenmeyer, 1918-2019

My grandmother passed last week, my mom’s mom and the last of my grandparents. It’s been an intense week and I have a lot of things that I’m not quite sure how to say, but I wrote and read the following at her service yesterday, so it will have to suffice


When I was about 10, I came down the stairs at the Bon Ton in tears. I had been reading Bridge to Terabithia and, having gotten to a particularly upsetting part, had sought out comfort. Gram asked me why I was crying, and I explained that one of the main characters had fallen in a river and drowned. Gram replied “Well, that’s what happens when you play by the water.”

That was Gram for you. Unsentimental. Matter-of-fact. Not a fan of the water.

She wasn’t a Hallmark grandmother. Delicious treats, yes, but warm hugs and fun adventures? Not really.

Gram was competent and resourceful, storing up that drawer full of odds and ends for the rainy day when we really would need all of those twist ties from bunches of greens. She had a method and a place for everything and god help us if we didn’t follow it, whether it was hospital corners on the bed, moving one of her piles, or recycling even one of her enormous mayonnaise jars.

She was the consummate hostess – or so it seemed to me as a little girl, fingering well-worn decks of cards and tiny tubes of lipstick in the buffet drawers, hints of what seemed like a wildly glamorous social life. Dishes and glassware and recipes for every occasion. Meals with friends at the Outing Club. Records on the kitchen stereo from way back when. Strawberry sodas for the grandkids. The elegance of shrimp cocktail and a relish tray frequently refilled.

She cared about her friends and family, even though she didn’t always show it. When you called the Bon Ton, both Gram and Gramp would be on the line, even if you just needed to talk to one of them, and even if it made it hard to have a conversation. I can’t remember a single meal with them that didn’t involve a litany of news and gossip about this patient, that neighbor, the other acquaintance.

She was a proud woman. Proud of her accomplishments, like being head nurse on the fancy ward at Harper Hospital, where she out-ranked her doctor husband. Proud of her children’s achievements, like Nanc touring with the Highlanders, Mom doing synchronized swimming, Tom performing with the University Marching Band. She may not have said so at the time, but she paused to tell these stories to me again and again when we looked at photos during my visits. She was proud of her in laws and her grandchildren, too – Mark’s musical abilities, Jenn going to school to become a nurse, Victor off to college. But also the sort of proud that holds on to hurt like armor, reminding us of times when we – or life – let her down. She never finished her degree. She left behind her career to raise a family. Her husband was always busy. Her children grew up to be teenagers and then adults with lives and choices she didn’t always agree with. Her grandchildren got tattoos and divorces. Her body failed her.

As people have expressed their condolences this week, I have said: it’s complicated. She was complicated. And I’ve spent a lot of this last week thinking about that, and how I want to remember her, the wonderful and the complicated.

I don’t remember, for example, the time she spanked me with a pie scooper. I don’t believe it happened, but Mark does: perhaps we have chosen to remember differently. I remember lying across the custom cutting board over the kitchen sink while Gram washed my hair, the cold acidity of the apple cider vinegar she used as a rinse, my legs dangling off the end of the counter.

I remember crackers from the bowl on the kitchen table, and games of cribbage after dinner. Playing dress-up and grocery store with things she’d set aside. The beauty shop on Fridays, and her nails carefully shaped with a file from her red zippered pouch. Sending me out into the backyard to pick raspberries for breakfast, the grass still wet with dew. Signing into AOL to check her stocks, tracking them carefully in her notebook. Taking her rings off to make pie dough, her wedding band paper thin from decades of wear.

I remember her hands resting on Gramp’s shoulder the summer he had his bypass surgery. She opened his collar to show me the top of his scar, and then lingered there behind him, one of the few shared moments of genuine tenderness I can recall. She was from a family and an era that didn’t show affection easily; her love language, like mine, was acts of service. Her love for him – and for her family – was expressed in hundreds of thousands of shirts ironed and eggs poached and pies served. At his services, she patted his bow tie in an approving way, later telling us that she would miss him, but not the way he was at the end.

I don’t think I understood that, not really, until last week, when I saw how frail she was, her body ready to be done. That’s not the Gram I’ll remember.

I’ll remember her in her house slippers and slacks, attending to her piles, the queen of her castle. Or turning on the radio in the kitchen when it was time to go.

October Around Here

We got into a good routine. Up early with both kids, a game of mancala or a phonics lesson over the first cup of coffee. When it was time for the first nap, I would take the baby out for a walk while the big kid played piano or did math. In the afternoon, another walk before dinner. More home cooked meals than I thought possible. Bedtime less of a hassle now that the big kid’s afternoon nap was gone. The overnight still more sweet than frustrating.

And then I went back to work

And it was good in some ways, and challenging in others. First the baby didn’t like the bottle, and then we figured out a bottle that worked. Then the baby decided he didn’t want to take daytime naps, and then they sort of started working, but not always.

On my first day back at work, I also started therapy to help make sense of the grief and anxiety that have weighed me down since the baby’s difficult birth. I sought out therapy after my hospitalization back in March; it took this long – and a referral from a second provider – to actually be seen.

Babies are full of mystery, and every day is a work in progress. I have several weeks of paid and unpaid leave remaining that I will use up by taking Fridays off. This didn’t feel as good initially as taking several more weeks off with my little baby, but now that it’s been a few weeks, the three day weekends are providing to be essential: one day to catch up, one day to relax, one day to prepare for the coming week.

Speaking of which, it’s Sunday afternoon, and that means the Sunday reset: taking every stolen half hour to restock diapers, put away laundry, prepare ingredients for upcoming meals, coo at the baby, or convince the big kid to run another block.

October Reading

October Eating

This.

There’s nowhere I want to be but here.

Nothing I want to do but this.

Nothing I’ll ever do that could be more important than this.

I had no idea.

I don’t ever want to forget.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

September Around Here

We survived the first month with two kids. The baby continues to be easy. The big kid continues to be challenging. I imagine that at some point, these things will meet in the middle.

This month, the big kid turned 4. In past years, we’ve opted for a special outing rather than a party or gifts – this year he got the water bottle he wanted, and we celebrated by going to the Arboretum for “a nice troll hunt” and having pizza for dinner. This year, however, he seemed sad that we weren’t celebrating with others – when we finished making his birthday cupcakes (chocolate blueberry, his request), he asked who would be coming over to share them.

10 days ago, it was 90F when we went to a fall bonfire at the park that is effectively our back yard. We toasted marshmallows and swatted mosquitoes and bounced the baby and assured the big kid that his friend would be there soon – and then comforted him because he hadn’t understood that sharing birthday cupcakes with her meant that they were taking the remaining two cupcakes home.

In 10 days, I go back to work after 8 weeks at home. I have A LOT OF FEELINGS about this, as you might imagine. I’m devastated to be leaving my baby when he’s so small. I’m anxious about the adjustment period for everyone. I’m overwhelmed because if we’ve struggled to stay on top of all of the things with all of us home, how are we going to manage when I’m gone a third of the day? I’m not sure what to anticipate when I go back, workwise, since nearly 6 months have passed since my boss and I were both in the office. I’m worried about finding a balance between work, family, and home responsibilities while still making room for myself. For the last few weeks, I have intended to take some time to think about how I want to try to strike this balance, about my intentions as I return to work, about my expectations as I end my leave. Now, to make time for that.

I feel worn thin. I’ve had complications that have prevented me from exercising yet – and the new schedule means I don’t know when exercise will happen apart from a lot of walking – which is good, but not enough when exercise is the primary way I maintain my mental health. Like many women, I’m struggling with a Supreme Court hearing that is effectively gaslighting half of the population. I’m trying to find space to deal with trauma feelings from a difficult birth on top of existing trauma feelings from my heart crisis. I’m holding my babies close and hoping that we can do a good enough job of parenting them that they don’t grow up to reinforce the patriarchy.

September Reading:

September Eating:

Welcome to the Spinning World

Prologue
We knew that we wanted you, but then your brother turned 2, and then our country descended into madness, and it was some time before we could even consider bringing another person into this world. But against our exhaustion and uncertainty and inertia, you willed yourself into being.

Winter
My body told me you were with me weeks before tests would confirm it. In December, an ultrasound at 5 weeks, and there you were, a tiny bean, enough to share your news with our family. We learned the same day that you would have a new cousin in Holland.

We told your brother right away. I didn’t want to – I wanted to be sure you would stay – but he proved to be good at keeping surprises.

I was so tired, just bone tired, for weeks. I had strong aversions to foods and their smells – fish, raisins, and, horribly, coffee. Your brother and I brought home a terrible stomach bug from the holidays and took turns lying on the bathroom floor in absolute misery.

I set my intentions for the year on the eve of my birthday. In most years, I make a list of things to accomplish. This year’s list focused on doing less, turning inward, setting lower expectations for myself recognizing that one of the things that made adjusting to your brother so difficult was that we thought we would be the same people on the other side.

At the end of January, your brother weaned. It was simultaneously sad and easy – we were both ready, we just didn’t know it.

We settled on a girl’s name easily, but a boy’s name was harder. Your brother had a funny long name for you that was shortened to: Mr. Baby.

We started telling people when occasions presented themselves. It was SO FUN to share the news in person.

At the end of the first trimester, it was like a switch flipped. One day I felt terrible, the next, almost normal.

I went to Denver for work and walked cautiously through the dusting of snow, remembering how I’d almost fallen in Philadelphia at the same conference with your brother newly in my belly.

Spring
I went to Iowa to visit your great grandma and to help clear out her house. The news of you didn’t quite register, but she reminded me that it took seven pregnancies to get her four babies.

A few days later, I blacked out in a restaurant, hitting my head on a table, and ended up in the ER. That is a different story, but it’s yours too, as you were with me while the doctors tried to work out what was happening with my heart. They listened to your heart as well, strong and steady, and you were part of every decision. (Making choices that could mean life or death are hard enough when you’re only making them for yourself.) Your papa felt you move for the first time the day was admitted. The day we left the hospital, we saw you on the ultrasound: Nico.

I was switched to the high risk practice, and to a dream of a doctor who made me feel engaged and supported in our care.

Recovery from the pacemaker was hard. I felt fragile in ways I’d never experienced. I looked for therapy because I knew this wouldn’t be the last big change. I struggled with the physical restrictions, remembering how early I had had to stop running the last time, and resenting my body for not letting me do the things I felt I should be able to do.

Meanwhile you grew steadily, and when the weather suddenly turned at the end of April, the belly I had been hiding under drapey sweaters was obvious.

We canceled our travel plans and burned my vacation time with family outings closer to home. We went to Iowa for your great grandma’s 100th birthday. Your papa and I spent our first night together away from your brother, a relaxed trip to Madison where we walked and talked for hours.

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Summer
Your brother and I went to Rockford to see your cousins and grandparents. In the pool, you flipped around in my belly like a fish.

In nearly every way, this pregnancy felt different than the first. Some of that was your position – you were head down, unlike your brother, who stubbornly refused to flip. Some of that was just being older, in a different body than the 34 year old one that carried your brother.

I had imagined an active pregnancy, but it didn’t work out the way I hoped. Yoga and swimming were off the table initially due to surgery, and then I never got around to making them happen. I stopped running in May. With your brother, I biked into my seventh month; a colleague’s terrible accident struck that off the table. When my gym closed for the summer in June, I started walking everywhere.

You moved all the time, but especially when I had fruit or sweets. I was addicted to Chloe’s mango fruit pops. I would have one after your brother went to bed and then sit on the couch and marvel as my belly rocked from side to side. We didn’t take weekly belly photos; I made up for them with videos of you dancing.

The nesting urge hit early, so we were ready for you by mid July. Every Sunday night I felt sad as the number of weekends left as a family of 3 dwindled. Every weekend we stocked up “just in case”. For weeks, I closed out every work day with the expectation that I might not be there the next.

We rearranged our bedroom in August and moved your brother to his own bed. I cried myself to sleep as another chapter abruptly ended.

Weekly monitoring for a month. A trip to the birth center after I didn’t feel well. A trip to the birth center, bags in hand, after hours of contractions that went nowhere. More days of exhausting, disappointing contractions, of answering a hundred questions about when and why and how uncomfortable I must be.

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The End
We waited, expecting you any day. On your due date, your brother and I went to the beach. Two days later, after a day of big meetings and ongoing contractions, the doctor offered an induction.

The neighborhood is still at 5am. We took a Lyft to the hospital while your brother slept at home. And then we waited for a long, hungry grey day while the induction did very little for my body or spirit. Your papa went home for a few hours. I bounced on an exercise ball and ate lemon Italian ice.

At midnight, they gave my body a break – food and sleep – before round two, more horrible than the first. Labor came, then, hours of contractions moving you closer to our arms. As the sun rose, I fell into a rhythm of breathing through the pain, then floating away in the moments in between.

We were moved to a different room. My water broke not long after, and time went sideways. I worked through the pain for as long as I could, but then it was too much. As I labored down, I could feel you moving through my body like a sled through snow, leaving an impression of your absence.

It was time. I pushed with everything in me. But then it became clear that you had turned your head just enough that you weren’t coming out, and so my doctor asked how I would feel about another c section. I trusted her enough to say yes without question, but cried from pain, exhaustion, and disappointment as I was prepped for surgery.

You were born 36 hours after we arrived at the hospital, 40 weeks and 4 days after you willed yourself into being. Your birth was the easy part; putting me back together was difficult, as the doctors struggled to deal with my bleeding, scars, and pain. We hadn’t planned on any more babies, but the danger of your birth decided that for us once and for all.

But here you are, my last baby, my constant companion through a very strange year. Welcome to the spinning world. We’re so glad you’re here.

40 Months

I think we’re actually done nursing.

I said all along that I would follow his lead, that I would keep going as long as it worked for both of us. That turned out to be 40 months.

For a long time, he would wake up and ask for “mai” (which in the final weeks turned into “maik”), and we would shift out to the couch to nurse before or after breakfast. Sometimes he would nurse for 20 minutes, sometimes less than 2. Sometimes he would ask again during the day. Most of the time he wouldn’t.

For the last month, nursing has been uncomfortable for me. I pumped once over the holidays and barely expressed anything, so I knew that there wasn’t much left – it was more about comfort and connection than slaking the even slightest thirst. So when he asked for “maik”, I would often stall, telling him we could have some after breakfast. Many mornings, he would forget. Some mornings, he insisted, and we would stay in bed and nurse. Once in awhile, he was really upset. Most of the time, it was fine.

The last few times, we talked about how we could try, but if it hurt, we would have to stop right away. He said he didn’t want it to hurt. I said I didn’t want it to hurt either. So we would try, and it would hurt, and then we would stop.

It was the same story last Sunday, the 28th. He asked. We tried. It hurt. We stopped. He hasn’t asked since. And now I think we’re done.

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December 19, 2017