Relentless, in a word

marc
Me and my brother, Marc.

This week my brother would be 34. This is the second birthday that I will have to celebrate without him.

He was born when I was 4, a month premature, a sick and fragile baby. His illness was mysterious and serious and in my earliest memories meant he was sometimes swept away by an ambulance when he was having trouble breathing. In fact, that is my earliest memory.

His life was marked by medical interventions, diagnoses and a general worry that he would never be OK. When he was young, he had speech problems, heart defects, respiratory issues and physical delays. When he was older, he discovered his Asperger’s, he had OCD and he was obese. When he was alive it was often easier to see all of those things than it was to see all that he did, even in the face of them. But he did many remarkable things, even if they don’t register on a typical scale of success and ambition. And that he had to do them under so much pressure and judgment from the world because he was different, makes his brief life that much more magical.

Marc was mine and I cared for him, in some ways, like a parent and not just a big sister. Together we were latchkey kids, survivors of our dysfunctional family, bookworms, writers, outsiders in the insular world we came from. Pretty much all of my life was defined by the dynamic of me looking out for him, defending him, being older and wiser and more experienced than him.

Marc died on Mother’s Day in 2016 and that all changed instantly. He was on the other side, suddenly ahead of me and now a keeper of life’s biggest secrets. I was left here without a little brother to worry about for the rest of my life. But what I had instead was a whopping, paralyzing, breathtaking pile of grief to dig out from.

Grief demands attention. It consumes you. It hijacks your thoughts, burrows into your body, steals your sleep, sneaks into your dreams and slows you down. It is a profoundly physical experience. My grief over losing Marc came at a moment when I was already so weak, because our father died just three weeks before him. My grief was compounded. And this all happened at a time when I needed to be so strong, because Darry was pregnant with twins, I had a toddler to take care of and our lives were on the verge of becoming impossibly demanding and full.

But grieving, like parenting, is relentless. And I am seeing now how the absence of space for both my grief and the rest of life has put an ugly strain on my physical and emotional health. It’s coming out sideways, like in an occasional, irrational fear that one of the girls is going to become terribly ill beyond recovery. Or in irritable moments where I am not upset with anyone in particular, except with everyone. And despairing moments when it feels like there will never be a day when I can just sit and let this unbelievable string of events wash over me until they make sense. My dad died, my brother died, we had twins. Life now bears no resemblance to my whole life before this all happened.

In the last two weeks, we celebrated Rowan and Mairead’s first birthday and Serafina’s third birthday. My three little libras, just like Marc was. The milestone felt monumental, like we had truly survived something, all of us together. When I try to recall what it was like through those early months with three children, there is just blank space. We were so fundamentally exhausted, so thoroughly depleted, there is no memory there. And I was still so deep in the fog of loss.

There is some light peaking in, now that we are all on our way out of the most intense year, there is definitely more sleep and, I hope, one day there will be more space. Our children toddle around the house, for brief moments, happily together, laying ground, I pray, for their own beautiful sibling relationships. There is enough space, at least, that I was able to force myself to sit and write this, to be quiet and think about the next milestone: getting through another one of my brother’s birthdays.

Marc loved Serafina so much. He loved gift giving so much, too, often planning out what he’d buy everyone for holidays and birthdays, months in advance. And he loved receiving presents, of course. He had two birthdays after Serafina was born and made a point of saying, for each one, she was the best gift he ever got. He couldn’t wait for what we all thought at the time when he died, was going to be just one more baby. He would have been completely delighted by two. I am so sad the girls won’t learn from him about kindness and patience and empathy, which he taught me so much about.

 

Potty-mouth training

“I am trying to play with this, but these fucking babies are in my way!” Serafina said, like it was no big deal, while we were all sitting in the living room on Saturday morning.

When your not-yet-3-year-old drops an F bomb like a seasoned pro, you feel a complicated mix of pride and anxiety. You want to laugh, because it’s funny. You want to respond, but you aren’t sure what the right course is. And you scramble to mentally review all of the times you recently cursed in her presence.

“I can’t get this fucking thing open! I need some scissors!” she declared the next day, like a surly old sailor, while wrestling with the plastic packaging on a new toy.

When your toddler starts regularly inserting “fucking” into her sentences for emphasis, you swell with pride over her nuanced grasp of language, even as shame creeps up from your gut to form a lump in your throat. You shudder to think of all the other things you’ve said in her presence that she silently absorbed and will later, consciously or not, reflect back to you. And you agree with her, that packaging is fucking annoying.

So, Serafina’s been using the word fuck a bit. It started a couple weeks ago with a “fucking god!” when the babies were howling during baby witching hour. Darry and I were doing our circus act to keep everyone calm while also cooking and plating dinner. Serafina offered her “fucking god!” as commentary on the chaos.

She smirked while she said it, like she knew she was trying out something new and possibly dangerous. We didn’t offer any feedback and Darry and I agreed later it would be better to not respond if it happened again.

A few days later, it happened again. She yelled “fuck’s sake!” during another perfectly normal and hysterical moment. We ignored it again and she must have liked the way it felt coming out, because she just kept saying it, in a sing-song kind of way. “Fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake!”

Since then there have been a few more rounds of “fucking god” and “fuck’s sake” — impressively, always applied correctly to a situation. This feels like a sophisticated handle on slang to me. But each incident has, of course, given us pause and prompted us to review how frequently our own language is sprinkled with swear words.

Initially I got all the blame for this. I come from a loud, distinctly not-anglo family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins screaming “shit” and “fuck” and everything else without reserve. Literally screaming, as part of normal conversation. Darry’s family has the pretense of more politeness.

Italian-Americans need these words and phrases to communicate the intensity of their experience every day, so I grew up hearing it all. I was also disciplined with an authoritarian hand and only repeated those words quietly, or when no adults were around. And now I struggle to shake off the verbal vestiges of where I am from. Phrases like “shut the fuck up” just pop into my head as normal speak, because I heard them so often in my young life.

I struggle with this one a lot. It is one of my working class badges. And it pains me to think I already transferred that directly to my kid. But when Serafina dropped the “fuck’s sake” — a Darryism. not mine — there was no denying we were both guilty.

Ahh, the guilt. And the shame. I am not so concerned about the “danger” of foul language. I have watched parents scold other adults when they swear in front of their children, I have seen them suppress and sensor their own vocabularies in ways that have felt arbitrary and artificial. I have seen them punish their kids harshly if they swear. Why scrub foul words but not necessarily foul sentiments?

I feel like we can safely and more effectively — even now, just days before her third birthday — start talking to Serafina about what it means to use words like this and how it might impact other people to hear them coming from her, or us. I also feel like we can just be more conscious because thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character.

But this is easier said then done. We operate with frayed nerves, minimal sleep and an extremely high and persistent set of demands at all times. There will be “fucks.” I am more worried about other, more potent and less visible ways I am modeling to my children, my little sponges. I long for more time, patience and space to be careful. I don’t know how or if it will ever come.

Last night, I demonstrated a moment of restraint with technology while setting up the iPad for Serafina’s daily Daniel Tiger episode. The wifi was out and the PBS app wasn’t loading.  I didn’t have to curse about it. I just had to focus on getting through the moment.

Serafina watched me hold my breath and try to resolve the issue, so I could race off to finish dinner prep. “Fucking god, mama!” she said. “Fucking god.”

Time to teach, nothing that “matters”

Sometimes I look with longing at the single-child families. The time those parents have to share with their children and be intentional about life. How they can all sit together quietly, while teaching their kids to count to 100, identify trees, recite the names of all the planets and how to read and speak two languages, just for fun. All before their 3rd birthday.

I have felt the sting when I hear another preschooler can write their name, or another baby is potty training at 8 months and I have wondered if we are failing to help our own kids along. But, maybe as a way of assuaging my guilt, I have also felt confused by the preoccupation with milestones and put off by the whiff of competitiveness it suggests to me.

When Serafina was 9 months old, another mom with a new baby asked me, “What is she doing these days? What is she into?” I think the answer to the question was supposed to be a list of her latest achievements, followed by a list of enriching activities that brought her joy. The best I could offer was something like, “She’s only waking up three times a night to nurse usually. And she really likes these silicone measuring bowls we have in our kitchen.”

I’m confident our children *will* learn to count to 100 and one day they will read and hopefully even study another language. Does it make a difference if that happens ahead of the typical schedule for these things? Maybe? Maybe not.

I don’t know if it’s true, but all of this also has smelled distinctly American to me, and distinctly privileged American to me. What are the end goals of this early striving? Better test scores? “Smarter” kids. Does it matter when you’re 40 how old you were when you could write every letter in the alphabet? (Which makes me wonder about another question — what does matter when you’re 40? I will find out soon enough.)

I had a wonderful moment of validation a few weeks back when I read this, which called out our American tendency to push hard for early communication, literacy and academic victory and put it in contrast to the milestones that are at the top of the list in other parts of the world. Milestones elsewhere looked less “measurable” — a sense of independence, caring for others, especially younger siblings, social responsibility.

We might be short on time to bake muffins for our new neighbors (a thing I would like to do with Serafina since some new people have moved in), but on our nightly walk last week, we did welcome them warmly and introduce ourselves. It was an act of kindness and generosity that we received from others when we moved to our street two years ago and our friendly, regular chat with neighbors has struck me since then as a fundamental lesson that will be present in our kids’ young lives. I have no idea if this is a thing that will stand out or make an impression on them, but if I had the time to teach Serafina how to count to 100 right, it would be just as much of a guess on the impact of that.

In my own young life, there was very little emphasis on milestones. My own under-educated, working and working class parents operated on the opposite end of the striving spectrum and pushed us to do basically nothing. The upshot was that my brothers and I were free to pursue what we naturally stumbled on as interesting — and that resulted, in my case and my younger brother’s case, in a love for books and early literacy; in my older brother’s case, an ability to pickup basically any trade.

What was noticeably absent for us was a deeper sense of confidence and support to explore more, or any of the funding and parental support (in the way of rides, encouragement) to go beyond that initial discovery if we did. What was emphasized instead was family: we were devoted to our time with grandparents, cousins. We were taught loyalty, to care for them and help them and to rely on them to return that care and help when we needed it. It was my job from as early as I can remember to help in the daily care of my younger brother. I think there is something to that.

But here we are, Darry and I, living the life of socio-economic straddlers — not quite inhabiting the working class space and mindset that kept me in an insular world as young person, also not quite having the wealth and opportunity to feel free as a bird as an adult.

Darry and I are conscious of that straddling, but most especially of what was absent from our own childhood. We want to make sure we are nurturing and present in a way that will help our girls feel safe and invited to pursue what they like. But we can already see the glimmers of the disadvantage they will have next to their peers because we are working people with limited time, money and energy. I hope our priorities of love and happiness for us and our family will be enough to even out any of those gaps.

Two souls lost, two souls found

Tomorrow is September. I have been thinking a lot about this time last year. It was a hard time then. And, in many ways, much harder than it is now.

Darry was enormous, exhausted and uncomfortable. And although she was in excellent health, it was clear that she needed to slow down at work if she wanted to stay that way and get to full term (38 weeks for twins). So she spent the last few weeks of her pregnancy at home, mostly parked in the single air conditioned room of our house, during one of the hottest summers ever, emerging only to eat and drink and go to the bathroom.

I was sick with worry — every time she made a sound I would ask in a panicked voice if she was in labor. There is so much fear imposed on a twin pregnancy, almost like an illicit promise you will have sickly, premature babies who need to spend some time in the NICU. I worried for the little creatures in her belly. I worried about Darry’s health and recovery from the Caesarean we had scheduled, because one baby was breech and not budging. And I worried most of all about my ability to continue taking care of Serafina, the house, our lives, Darry, the babies who would be here so soon, while working full time and trying to push through the fog of a enormous grief.

In the month before we found out we were having twins, my father died from pancreatic cancer, punctuating a brief and sad illness. And then my younger brother died from a blood clot, in a sudden, unexpected and tragic way. I was beaten to a pulp by my father’s death, run over by a train by my brother’s death and shocked into a sort of delirium from the ultrasound where we learned, halfway through Darry’s pregnancy, that her body had made two babies, all on its own.

I feel sometimes like the experience of having twins is not mine to talk about. I do not know the surprise, the awe, the stress or the burden of having a body responsible for making two more lives, nurturing their growth and health and ushering them safely to this side of the womb. I do not know the work of having two tiny mouths attached to my breasts (often at the same time!), wholly dependent on me to feed them, literally keep them alive and help them grow in that intense first year. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up multiple times in the night, quietly pick up one fussing baby, nurse her back to slumber and then pick up her sister to do it all over again, again and again and again. These are the things, plus so many more things, that Darry has done all by herself with the most unbelievable display of patience, endurance, strength and love. Mothers of multiples are truly superheroes.

When we saw those two  heads on the screen for the first time, Darry howled and pleaded with the universe. She wondered how could she possibly do this? She became hysterical. And in the next few weeks, she spiraled into a kind of grief — over the loss of the childbirth experience she thought she would have, over the loss of the whole mothering experience she thought she might have. Grief is such a lonely, individual experience. I could see she was deep in it, because I was in my own.

I spent that whole spring howling and pleading with the universe. During father’s dying and death, I was dragged through painful, dark spaces of our complicated relationship because he was Christian and I am queer. In his final weeks, his wife refused to allow me, Darry and Serafina to visit them as a family; my father’s wish to see his granddaughter one last time was blocked by hate. If visiting without Darry was the only way I could visit, I chose not to; that choice destroyed my relationships with the rest of my father’s family. I was pummeled and the only person who understood and defended me was my baby brother.

Three weeks after our father’s death, my brother started acting strange. Strange enough that my mother took him to the ER; several hours later a giant mass was discovered on his brain. Before we could get a diagnosis, Marc died of a pulmonary embolism on his third day in the hospital. He was so dear to me, he was my responsibility his whole life long. Then so swiftly, so mercilessly, I was dropped into a solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. The ground was gone.

The experience of having twins may not be mine, but the experience of being a parent to what spontaneously felt like a very large family is mine. And the experience of having to meet this challenge in such a difficult, unstable time is mine. I have walked out of the deepest hurt of grief, I have processed so much of it, but the secondary complications, like fatigue, mood swings, sadness and isolation, are all still there.

My grief has been the greatest pain I’ve ever known. Parenting through this pain is, I pray, the hardest work I will ever do. I have wondered so many times how I can do this, even as I am doing it.

I know this, though: the day we learned we were having twins, I felt like the universe was showing me something holy. I lost two souls and two souls found us.

At the end of this month, the twins will be 1. They arrived as we planned, big, healthy and perfect: 7.5 pounds each. Darry’s recovery was easier than any doctor or nurse could have predicted. Within days, she was walking around, pain-free, like nothing had ever happened. The babies have nursed from their first day like experts. They have been easy, happy infants. They have brought an enormous love to our lives, even on the most difficult days, that we never expected we would have. They have been the light that has filled my twice-broken heart.

Daybreak II: Living the dream

1:30am: A sleepy voice floats over the baby monitor from Serafina’s room. Giraffsie.. Giraffsie… I can’t find Giraffsie. I walk upstairs, tiptoe across her room in the dark, pad around her bed until I find the crumpled, filthy lovie she calls Giraffsie, centimeters from her own hand.

4:30am: Mrowww, mrowww, mrowww. The cat enters our room with the ominous, persistent meow that means only one thing: she has caught a mouse. I turn on the light and there it is, a living, wriggling, tiny gray mouse hanging from her mouth. Seconds later, the babies start to whine over their monitor. Darry leaves the room to nurse them for the third time this evening. I close the bedroom door, run to the kitchen to rummage for rubber gloves and a plastic bag, and then entrap myself with the cat and her mouse. The cat tosses the mouse around a few times, threatening to let it run away and hide forever in the room where we sleep. But after one vigorous toss, the mouse falls on its back and is momentarily stupefied. I grab it, throw it in the bag and throw the bag outside on our driveway. I get back in bed and try to sleep, and fail to sleep until Darry returns 15 minutes later.

6:50am: Miraculously we have all slept late. Mamaaaa, mammaaaa. Serafina calls for me from her bed. She is perfectly capable of getting out of it herself, opening the door and coming downstairs but at 2 years and 11 months, she still prefers to call me when she rises and lie still until I pick her up. I guess this is a good thing. We come downstairs and our morning snuggle begins. A minute later the babies are chattering in their cribs. Darry goes upstairs to fetch them, comes down. They nurse again.

7am: We’re getting everyone fed but first, a round of diapers. She’s potty trained, but Serafina still sleeps in a disposable because we can’t fathom cleaning up a soiled toddler bed in the morning right now. This morning when we take her diaper off, there is a surprise, silver dollar-sized raised red bruise on her upper thigh — it was not there last night. I have a small panic attack. Then I remember she did have a spectacular crash on her scooter the previous night. There were no tears when the accident happened, but she did smack the exact spot on her leg where the bruise is now. I still call the doctor for some advice.

7:30-8:30am: We destroy the kitchen with another meal. A blur of babies whining to be picked up and put down whizzes around us. Serafina, excited for a visit to her preschool for orientation, packs a backpack with snacks and a sweater. I throw on clothes. Darry does too. A couple rounds of poopy diapers later, we are almost ready to take the whole family for a visit to the school.

8:40am: We’re outside and the hilarious circus act that is loading three children in a car commences. I notice the plastic bag with the middle-of-the-night mouse is stirring. The mouse lives! I carry it to the woods at the end of our road and liberate the mouse.

9am: We have a lovely visit at preschool. I wish I had no other responsibilities. I wish I could idle the day away with rainbow rice and homemade rain sticks. I wish I could watch Serafina climb on the monkey bars for hours. The babies demand we never leave, but we have to leave because I still have to go to work today and their morning nap is coming.

10:10am: The messages from work start pinging my phone. Am I ready to join the conference call starting at 10am? Haha.

10:15am: I say goodbye to Darry and the babies, who are headed back home. We kiss and sort of make up about the argument we had the previous night when I told her that Serafina was acting like an asshole and she told me it was wrong for me to talk that way.

10:20am: I deliver Serafina to my mother, who will watch her for the rest of the day. But first I have to re-install her carseat in my mother’s car for only the 30th time this summer. I love doing this though. I love installing carseats. So it’s OK.

10:30am: Serafina demands I personally escort her inside, so I do.

10:35am: I am alone. I join the conference call. I am on the call for my entire drive to work, which is one of the only times I can reliably breathe and experience life sort of as the human I once was. The drive is long because, in my haste, I accidentally go the wrong way. The voices on the other end are muffled, like they are traveling light years from another universe where people wake up with the sun, carefully clothe and feed themselves and move freely about their day. I used to live there. I sometimes miss it.

Day break

I think I may have broken a record for the longest inhale in the history of the world today. It started four hours ago when I woke up and I have only just released that breath, here, at my desk, in my first second of quasi-repose.

Mornings are hard. Some are harder than others. These days they seem impossible. When I take a moment to float above the universe we inhabit and gaze down at our three beautiful babies and my beautiful wife, I sometimes wonder: how are people physically able to do the things you must do in the duality of being a human being who works and being a human being who is trying to lovingly care for offspring? The part where you rise early to feed, clothe and cleanup yourself and children each day and then exit the house with some combination of them seems to especially defy physics.

Our twins are at that precious age of babyhood where they don’t want to be in arms but they also don’t want to be out of them. Most of their time in Darry’s presence and even mine involves whining and hollering to go “up” and then whining and hollering to go back down. Their preferred state is for both of us to sprawl on the floor so they can just crawl all over us at will.

Serafina is on the precipice of being a threenager, which, I think, means she is aware of herself on the threshold of bigger-kidness and, in full view of her sisters in babyhood, her exit from that phase. This morning she demanded she sit in one of their high chairs (her old chair) with a bottle full of Darry’s pumped milk and the remains of her breakfast, cut into miniscule bites safe enough for an infant to gum. Seconds later, she insists she wash the dishes “all by self.” We chose to honor these requests today, but there are others like this that we can’t, for lack of time and patience, and there is some protest that I am trying very hard to see and support, but somehow not feel.

Did I mention we’re all in our second round of (thankfully, mild) coxsackie virus? Which sounds either adorable or vile, and this time has brought a crop of mouth sores for me and Darry (not just the kids), a general sense of blech and a fresh veneer of grumpiness to our family dynamic.

When the morning chaos peaks, I feel like I actually might die sometimes. Scene: Both babies are at my feet while Darry is in the bathroom, Serafina is demanding I hold her. I have to poop and maybe even take a shower and get dressed, but how? And then so do all of the children, but how? In my head there is a long stretch of many more mornings like this and cartoon speed lines flying off a history of so many mornings already lived, just like this. There is the epic list of things I haven’t completed at work, still waiting there for me to start, and all the people who will ask my questions as soon as I arrive.

I don’t know what to do with this feeling of impending death, and today, throwing a spoon into the sink for the satisfaction of metal crashing against metal would have to suffice. It’s not my best moment as a parent or person, hurling a spoon from the counter to the sink. But it feels essential to my survival right now.

I start all of my days as a servant to our tiny creatures. But five days a week, I start my day again, in service to my job. I am waking up again, breathing regularly now.

Seeing and loving a serious child

IMG_8780My kid can’t fake it.

When she encounters new people, Serafina is quiet, cautious and observant. She is not the kind of child that leaps into a new social dynamic with abandon or dashes off to see what distraction has captured a group of children. She sticks close by, silently and seriously, and often stays put. Parents and big kids can cajole her, try to lure her or bribe her to participate, but she’s resolute and so solid in her resistance, that they often give up, feeling deflated or even offended.

I sort of hate it.

I sort of hate it because this is not the child I know. At home, Serafina is an exuberant goofball who races around the house and screams with delight when she is surrounded by the people she knows and loves best. She is a downright boss, demanding with such force that we follow her precise orders when we play, eat or read books. She loves to hold court, performing her “ballerina,” singing her own songs or speeches she’s memorized from Daniel Tiger.

I have felt a sting, a sense of judgment when we get together with a group of parents and kids. Everyone else’s offspring is running through a sprinkler while mine is trying to fuse her body with me again. The other kids will giggle if you tickle them, but mine will scream “nooo” and scowl at you. (On two separate occasions, kids in her pre-school cohort have asked me, without any prompting, “why does Serafina only ever say ‘nooo!?'”) Are people asking what I did to make her this way? Are people liking her less because she will not engage?

But she is my child, after all. And this is very much who I was in my young life and now, after years of therapy and reflection, who I still am but now with the capacity to understand it and see how it appears to others. I could never do small talk easily or comfortably. I had no pretense of glee, but when it was real, it was very apparent. I was an introvert in new environments and an extrovert in my comfort zones. I thought for a long time that this is just how I was because I was queer and didn’t “fit” in most spaces neatly. Maybe that was true, or maybe it is/was just who I am. Today, I am a 38 year-old woman married to a woman with three daughters and thanks to brushes with life and death, I have a clear picture of what matters. It is easier now to be who I am than it ever was. The dark, weird, tall girl who did not smile is still there, but she is happy to meet new people and curious to interact with the world.

In this way, I have not loved the praise we give exclusively to the more “outgoing” traits a person might have, especially in children. We celebrate the kids who “flirt” with everyone (a descriptor for kid behavior that I, maybe in my weirdness, feel very funny about). We find it easy to love the kids who are puppy-like and bold. Why don’t we adore introspection and reserve in young people? Sensitive children are brave in their honesty and their vulnerability. Serious children are unique in their thoughtfulness. They are harder to get close to, but they are that much more wonderful perhaps because of what they hold back.

Part of why I love Serafina’s school and her teachers is because they are very intentional about seeing children, listening to them and loving who each child is. Her teachers have helped me feel better and even feel good about her assertiveness (screaming “no!” at boys twice her size) and her deadpan. And Darry too has reminded me that Serafina comes from a long line of spicy, brazen and in-charge ladies, like my fierce Nana, my mom, my aunties and maybe even me.

I want to be so careful to not impose character on Serafina, because her character (like everyone’s, really) is a such work in progress. I resist the way some parents might say “she loves this! and she is *this* way!” because I think children will respond to what we perceive in them, and tell ourselves and tell others. I don’t want to put any pressure on her. I want to work hard to see clearly what she is showing me and to love the wonder of discovering her unique self, every day.