Saying Grace

Damon and I are chatting and catching up in the kitchen as Damon puts the final touches on dinner—he’s been awesome about picking up more of the cooking duties since my “morning” sickness and fatigue kicked in. Oscar is literally dangling from the hem of my skirt, laughing as he swings and twirls from side to side, hanging on to the fabric. I’m wrinkling my nose up at the eggplant Damon just brought in from the grill—I normally love it, but my pregnant belly isn’t so keen. I’ll try some anyway because it was made with love. I sit on the floor to tickle Oscar before dinner hits the table, and he shines. He just shines.

We have so much for which to be grateful. Of that, there is no doubt.

The fall before my husband and I met, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Shortly thereafter, I had what’s called a cold knife conization to remove the cancerous tissue.

As I woke up in recovery (thankfully lucid enough to push away the proffered saltines, pointing to my allergy bracelet), my fabulous doctor came in to see me. With characteristic frankness, she told me that the lab tests on the excised tissue would give us confirmation in another week or so, but that the surgery itself went great and I would be able to have children in the future, no problem.

I burst into tears of relief.

Which is weird because I didn’t want children. Or I thought I didn’t. Or I had accepted the fact that I never would.

But my body’s reaction, those tears, told a different story. They changed my life. The weeks that followed brought tumultuous change—some good, some less-than-pleasant, all necessary. I knew my life needed to change. I didn’t know if I would ever have children, but I knew that I didn’t want to be living a life in which I knew having a family would not be an option.

Subsequent lab results and follow-up tests showed that I continued to be cancer free, and I found that I didn’t want to “date” anymore or try to shoe-horn myself into someone else’s life. Antoine de St. Exupery once said, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.” That’s what I wanted. I signed up for an online dating service on a whim, and I met Damon. Less than a year later, we were engaged.

That next winter, a follow-up test showed positive for cervical cancer again. I’m so glad Damon was there with me. We once again did the biopsy and confirmed the diagnosis. And once again, I had surgery to remove the affected tissue.

And once again, it was successful. I’ve been cancer-free ever since, about two years now. Our oncologist told us when the second diagnosis came that if we wanted to have children, we might want to “prioritize it,” not put it off. There’s a chance the cancer could return, and a third bout might require different handling, to put it gently.

Damon and I agreed on two things. First, we both very much wanted a family. Second, we did not want to have fear rule our decisions, and neither did we want to postpone something we both wanted so much. We talked, a lot. We planned for our wedding. We celebrated our good fortune and good health with breathless gratitude.

eating ice cream

Damon and Oscar, sharing some ice cream.

Within a month of returning from our honeymoon, we discovered we were pregnant with Oscar. I often marvel that if I had never been diagnosed with cervical cancer, I might never have met Damon, for whom there are not enough superlatives in the world (superlatives, Damon, not expletives 🙂 ). If I hadn’t been diagnosed a second time, Oscar might not be here today. And suffice to say, we would probably not be expecting baby number two.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I am so glad that I had cancer. I’m not ever one to dally with regret, but to think of so much goodness coming from something so frightening, my head just reels.

Now dinner is ready. Oscar wears his enthusiasm for food all over his face (literally). I try the eggplant, compliment the flavor, then predictably focus on the salad instead (sorry, Damon!). Damon laughs, his face split into a huge shining grin, and tells me about the beer he’s drinking. I realize he shines just like Oscar, and vice versa. All that glow, illuminating our meal.

Grace.

Tragedy & Transformation

I’ve had to rewrite this post several times from scratch this week, so murky and tangled are my thoughts and feelings, in hopes the writing will untangle some of the snarl.

tree_b&w

Photo by Anna L. Tulou Orr

This has been a hard week for many. With the incidents in Boston, in West, Texas, and the ongoing strife in many areas of the world, I think many of us are just exhausted. I’ve always been a person who cried readily over movies or books or news stories. Since becoming a mom, I even cry over commercials and storybooks—my paradigm has shifted. Now I see every single human being through a new lens; I see that every single one of them is someone’s child, whether events have cast them as victim or villain or hero. We are all someone’s baby, regardless of what good we’ve done, nor what harm.

So much good can rise out of terrible grief. Extreme circumstances often show us the best of humanity, and I honestly believe (because I must) that this is by far the stronger force. Grief can be cathartic. The Leong family unexpectedly lost their five-year-old son just last weekend—and through their terrible grief, they sought and continue seeking to find light, to find meaning, wanting to arrange to donate their son’s organs to help some other person, calling for random acts of kindness to be shared on their Facebook page (wonderful and heart-lifting to read so many posts), and asking for charitable giving in their son’s memory. I hold them in awe and am so grateful for the example they set, the things they’ve been teaching me and so many others this past week.

To those in Boston who ran to donate blood or ran toward the explosions to help the wounded despite the obvious danger, you are heroes. In the midst of unthinkable violence, you remind all of us of what we hold to be undeniably good. No one can argue it.

When I was in school, a student was shot and killed after a concert for his shoes, a senseless act. His parents came to the school and spoke to us, and I remember, young as I was, being frankly dumbfounded. Their son had been brutally, needlessly killed, and they stood in front us talking about compassion, about forgiveness. I have carried that message with me throughout my adult life, and I thank them for teaching me something very important about the nature of grace, the nature of peace.

My heart breaks for the victims, my heart breaks for the families that are left behind to grieve because all too easily, I can imagine the horror of losing a child, a husband, a parent. The very thought of it makes it hard to breathe.

My heart breaks for the aggressors and their families. It is hard to imagine what happened in their lives to bring them to this place, this harrowing hunt. It is hard to imagine what their families might be going through right now.

My heart breaks when I hear that a Muslim woman out walking with her child in Boston has been assaulted and accused of being a terrorist simply because she was wearing a hijab (revealing her religious affiliation) on a public street.

And my heart breaks when I hear friends, people I believe to be good, compassionate people, talking about what they want to see done to the suspects. Talking about an “eye for an eye,” saying that torture would be a good idea, saying they should hand them over to the bar crowd in Boston for mob justice.

Really?

Much of the talk I hear, I know, may be simply blowing off steam, yet it all adds up to a weirdly accepted public dialogue, a potentially frightening social consciousness and conscience. Consider this: even if you’re blowing off steam and you “don’t really mean it,” perhaps your child hears you. Perhaps your friends don’t realize you don’t mean it, and maybe, just maybe, it makes them feel a little more okay with their own impulses to lash out, to retaliate, to seek revenge, to denounce an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

Small and seemingly innocuous statements add up to become big, ugly social issues. This is where racism comes from. This is why innocent people are attacked. And our children—because everyone is someone’s child—soak it up. It’s not the kind of pay-it-forward that I support.

Let’s be clear: there is a difference between revenge and justice. Due process must not be sacrificed to vigilantism and hatred, not even in jest.

Grief can be cathartic. Great tragedies can allow a great light to shine into the world, standing in stark relief against dark events. Or, grief can turn to anger, intolerance, and further violence.

Grief must and should be struggled with in order to forge a better, stronger community. This is what we have learned from our greatest teachers: Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, to name a few. All witnessed horrendous violence and intolerance and met it, unflinching, with peace and compassion. All changed the world, against all odds. Pacifism is not for the faint of heart.

So here is my plea. Wrestle with your grief and temper your anger—do not let your rage poison you. Be mindful of the voice you are sharing with the world. Let your voice be a light in the darkness. Hold your loved ones close. Seek out opportunities for grace.

We are all of us someone’s child, and children learn.

Baby Steps: Walking Tall

With the proper start of spring came Oscar’s first steps. He’d been walking while holding on to things for a while already, but by “first steps,” I mean he’s walking on his own, unassisted by holding on to anything. He is giddy with the accomplishment.

Weekday evenings go like this. We get home. He protests loudly when I put him in his playpen (so I can let the dogs out). I hear the song “Don’t Fence Me In” in my head as the soundtrack to his complaints. I bring the dogs back in, feed them, and liberate Oscar from his babycage playpen.

Oscar and his walker

Oscar pushing his walker (and wondering why I’m in his way *grin*)

While I prep dinner, little man sets about his work. He grabs his walker—it’s like taking a taxi for a new toddler—and zooms through the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen… and into the back of my legs, often enough. There he stops, grabs the hem of my shirt or scarf, walks around me on tiptoes, grinning up and gleaming with pride. He lets go of my hem, toddles across the kitchen floor, arms outstretched for balance, laughing with raucous glee at his success and sheer daredevilry (is that a word?).

With each step, he laughs harder, till by step eight or nine he’s doubled over and falls down to his knees. He looks up at me again, bright-eyed, then crawls or walks back to his walker, and off he zooms for another cab ride around the house.

Repeat ad infinitum.

We take a break for dinner, then it’s immediately back to the races. He doesn’t even have time for the stairs anymore. Stairs are so two-months-ago. No, now it’s all about the perambulation. He doesn’t even stop for the dogs, poor things—they do their best to stay out of his way.

By seven o’clock, he’s tiring out but far from slowing down. Still zooming and testing and walking and testing in his constant toddler circuit training course. I think he would probably keep going till he just passed out on the floor, legs twitching, but when he starts stumbling and complaining more, Damon and I nod to each other that it’s time to intervene and put him to bed.

I carry him upstairs, and he complains all the way, reaching back, wanting to movemovemove! But by the time he hits the changing table, the thumb’s in his mouth, he’s rubbing his eyes, and his giggles are interrupted here and there with monstrous, jaw-cracking yawns. I take off his shoes (if they even lasted this long) and find his feet steaming hot and damp with sweat. I pull his socks as far as they’ll go before popping off of his feet—this always makes him laugh—and as the cool air hits the hot, damp skin of his feet, he slaps them against the end of the changing table as if to congratulate them on a job well done, flexes his toes, and grins up at me.

I love the punctuation of those smiles, each one marking a beat, an acknowledgment that passes between us. I used to measure out our time together in feedings. But now? Now I measure it in those smiles.

And lots (and lots and lots) of baby steps.

Making Grand Parents

This is one of my favorite pictures from our wedding. Look at them. Aren’t they beautiful?

The Grand Parents

The Grand Parents

Damon and I are blessed with these four incredible parents. We’ve always loved and respected our parents, even though I’m sure we didn’t always act like it. But now that we’re parents and they’re grandparents, I regularly am stopped in my tracks by the sheer force of appreciation of them and admiration for what they’ve done in their lives. People often joke that when your children become parents, then they’ll understand—payback time. Luckily, our parents aren’t jerks about it *grin* but yes, I “get it” a lot better now than I did even just a year ago.

What makes a grandparent? I think the name says it all. These individuals have been in the new parent trenches. Just like us, they often agonized over the little stuff, tiny details of their new baby’s life, concerned with doing their utmost best by their child. Somewhere along the way, they noticed that a bruise didn’t mean the end of the world – in fact, most things just kind of sort themselves out. The important things are bound up in treating your child and your spouse both with love and respect. This big-picture understanding of parenting, knowing that (hopefully) your kids aren’t totally screw-ups despite a mistake here and there, makes them grand.

They’re fun. They can relax. Sure, they can put their foot down when it’s important. They understand the concerns and anxieties of us, the new parents, and they treat us gently. They are more than happy to play with their beautiful grandson while Damon and I catch our breath and stretch our backs. Each of them is going to have something different to teach Oscar. I can’t wait to see the best of each of these good people reflected in his life.

I think back on all the moments we’ve shared as children to our parents in the past, and I think of all the moments Damon and I are sharing now with Oscar. It floors me. This parenting thing isn’t cyclical. You don’t love your children and they love you just as much back. I mean, they love you, but will they ever love you as much? Or more to the point, how could they ever love you the same way you love them?

I love my parents deeply—I always have. They have seen me through some hard, hard times. They’ve also been there when I was bubbling over with enthusiasm and ebullience—and they are still there when I need them. Debbie and David, my in-laws, are amazing individuals and regularly humble me with their openness, love, and acceptance. I look at my husband—their son—and I see them in him. I am so grateful.

Just as I didn’t know my capacity for love until Oscar was born, just as it broadened and deepened my love for Damon, so has being a parent deepened my love for our parents. Each day, each struggle we have with Oscar, each moment of giddy joy, is colored by the awareness that this was a moment they shared with me and Damon as children. I can see them—our grand parents—in us.

So to them, I say thank you. Thank you for taking care of the important stuff. Thank you for loving us even when it hurt—you loved us well. Thank you for keeping us clean sometimes—and letting us get dirty, too. Thank you for playing with us, reading with us, making every little thing into a game. Thank you for accepting us, strengths and foibles, smiles and sullenness. Thank you for giving us life, and for giving and giving and giving and always forgiving. Thank you for all the joy. Thank you for being grand.

Growing Pains: Changing Relationships

When Damon and I first found out we were pregnant with Oscar, I had this bright vision of the future in which all of our friends were totally comfortable with kids, would have plenty of free time, and would stop by often to visit and play with our little bundle of joy. They would all be aunties and uncles. And Damon and I would most definitely have the time and energy for all this visiting and would even go out at least weekly to prove that parents still have social lives.

Flash forward to the present. Winter is begrudgingly giving over to spring, having never really gotten his fair shake. As the chill teases out of air, I reflect that almost all of our relationships have changed in some way—some are better, some are just different, and some we’re still figuring out. Perhaps that bodes well for lessons-learned down the road.

Across the board, all of our close-knit group have been incredibly supportive and positive. Largely, I think these relationship shifts are due to competing priorities, availability, and preferences for all of us. Our lifestyle—Damon’s and mine—as parents is very different to our prior lifestyle. We can’t be as flexible as we once were. Scheduling is a mess, and for a long time evenings out were nixed simply because I was too tired from nighttime feedings, etc. We can’t make plans at the last minute unless Oscar can be included, and a lot of times even when Oscar is welcome to come along, it’s challenging because of his naptime and because it means that at least one of us is going to be only half-present, trying to divide our attention between our child and our friends. It is far easier to have people come to us, though even that can be complicated.

Some of our friends have huge, exciting transitions occurring in their own lives as well – starting a new career, going to school, moving and renovating new homes, and caring for their own families. This past year, it seems everyone has their own “baby” to nurture along. I wish I could be around for more of it. I wish we could have everyone be more a part of our adventures. These new patterns are neither good nor bad. They’re bittersweet. They’re the reality, and I’m guessing they’re the reality of anyone who goes through an enormous transition or growth. There are days when I miss my people like hell. And I wouldn’t trade my young family for the wide world.

Then, these golden moments come blossoming out of nowhere. You know a good friend—a “family” kind of friend—when you can go without seeing him or her for months and then pick up right where you left off. The gap in between is like, I don’t know, like waiting for strawberries to be in-season. When the season hits, you savor the sweetness, and that best-of-all-sweetnesses carries you until the season comes back around.

Like this moment. Two weeks after Oscar was born, our new friends Anna and Jeremy joined us at my parents’ for dinner. Anna is an amazing baker and was super excited about making Oscar his first birthday cake. It still makes me all misty.

Anna & Jeremy

Anna & Jeremy celebrating with newborn Oscar

Stealing by my pal Robbie’s house every couple of months, even if just to run through and get caught up on her renovation projects, a quick hug, and then both of us back to our work.

A weekend visit in December with our friends Kat and Christian in Alexandria, not to mention meeting the newest addition to their family. Enjoying ridiculous spreads of finger foods (who needs a meal when you can gnosh like this?!), copious amounts of ‘80s music, decorating the tree together, this awesome movie, and lots of baby cuddles.

Kat and Anna

Visiting with Kat and Christian and their new buddha-baby

Going to brunch at Anna and Jeremy‘s. Anna just happened to have a tank of helium left over from an office party, and thus Oscar got to play with his first balloon. We ate well. We laughed a lot. We love these people.

Oscar and his blue balloon

Le ballon. Ballon blue. Photo by Anna Strahs Watts

Anna chasing Oscar and his ballon bleu

Anna chasing Oscar and his blue balloon

Reuniting the gang for an amazing evening out at Robbie’s (we got a babysitter, like real grownups!) to celebrate all her hard work renovating her new house. This group has been gathering together for about ten years, I guess. I love these people. Damon loves them, too. (How could he not? That’s one of the litmus tests I used on him when we were first dating. He passed with flying colors). Being all together again after such a long time was nourishing. I floated for days after.

good old friends

Good peeps: me, Robbie, Damon, Nan, and Joe. Not pictured: lovely Pamela. Photo by Pamela Howard, http://www.invokewellness.com

Receiving this note from my pal Lauren, who’s got her hands full with her own two kids and still amazingly finds time and energy to be a superhero/rockstar. She nicely sums up all my thoughts:

“We’ve both been going through a lot in our own ways—maybe it’s time to bump our spheres a little closer together again.”

Yes, please.