The Silent Friend

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got a phone call that no parent ever wants to get. Our oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This post is not about him. There isn’t much to write because we don’t know very much. It is a complicated situation, as these things usually are. The tumor’s location and my son’s age dictate that we must wait to get a biopsy and, in the meantime, carefully watch its growth. Without knowing what type of tumor it is, treatment is impossible. We are reassured by his doctors that the tumor is slow-growing and we have every reason to think it is treatable. And so we wait.

In the days following my son’s diagnosis, I reached out to close friends and family. Partly out of necessity (somebody needed to watch our younger son while we made repeated trips to the hospital for follow-up) and partly because I was floundering emotionally and needed support. As I shared the news, I was amazed at the  range of reactions: complete anguish to absolute silence. Having never been in a situation like this, I didn’t know what to expect of others or myself and often found myself babbling, reassuring me as much as the the other person that, “we are fine.” I was overwhelmed and so grateful for the outpouring of support. Many people were seemingly boundless in their generosity and willingness to help. I was humbled.

(Yes, here it comes – ) But, there were many people I didn’t hear from. I was so buoyed by the support from others that I didn’t give it much thought initially but as days turned to weeks and I still hadn’t heard from some very important people in my life, I had to wonder, “Really?!?! I send an email telling you my son has a brain tumor and your response is to delete it from your inbox and move on with your day? Even after I send another email and message you on Facebook?? Really!?!?”  I have heard the phrase, “It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are”. Mere acquaintances sent heartfelt notes of encouragement, dear friends offered warm hugs and shoulders for my tears. Yet, others said nothing and offered nothing.   Indeed, it’s times like these…

Then I came across an essay by Margaret Feinburg, “The Three Worst Things You Can Say To Someone Battling Cancer or Any Kind of Adversity…”   (I’ll save you the trouble: 1-  I’ll Do Anything To Help; 2- Been there, done that; and 3- Silence). Yep. Check, check and a big fat check. Amen, sister. There it was, someone else validating the dark side of sharing bad news. Yet, something bugged me about this list. I realized I had said the first two things to other people in the past.  Even though I cringe to think that words I spoke may have been insensitive or even hurtful, at least I said something. But the third reaction, silence, is just plain callous.

Then I thought of the reactions from my friends and family. I heard the first two phrases many times but I found I was not actually bothered by them. Most people are not purposely going around saying hurtful things to people going through a tough time. I like to think they are saying those phrases because they believe them to be true or maybe they don’t know what else to say.  Surely, they don’t intend to hurt or be insensitive. I know when someone says they would do “anything” to help they don’t mean it. They are not going to pay our medical bills. They are not going to entertain my son for four hours while we wait in the doctor’s office. “Been there, done that” is a poorly worded attempt to connect over a common experience. Even if it usually is a misperceived commonality, it’s still an attempt to connect.

Some of the hardest experiences in life are moments we must face and endure alone.  It is through meaningless phrases like, “I’ll do anything to help,” that we are trying to acknowledge the loneliness of hardship. I can easily forgive well-intentioned, if mostly empty, offers of support but I can not forgive silence, can I?

Then I heard from a friend who had remained silent in the wake of my news. She apologized for not calling sooner but she had just decided to leave her husband and was trying to navigate the initial stages of separation. She simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to talk to me. Soon thereafter, another silent friend emailed me and said she simply didn’t know what to say and so said nothing. Likewise, our son’s situation can evoke very real fears for other people. One friend told me she didn’t sleep at all the night she received my email because she was petrified something was wrong with her own child.

It was then that I realized two things: 1) a friend’s expression (or lack thereof) of support likely has very little, if anything, to do with me and everything to do with their own emotions or circumstances; and 2) lots and lots and lots of people are overcome with their own life whether it’s a million little things weighing them down or a couple of emotional catastrophes. The burden of my news might be too much for them to deal with at that time.

In reality, it’s not for me to decide if a friend’s silence is a legitimate reaction to bad news. Silence is a legitimate choice for them. It was easy for me to sit in judgment and say that if I could get up every morning and get my kids to school and plan Halloween parties while my son has a brain tumor, someone else should be able to send me a three sentence email. But each person’s ability to cope with their life circumstances ebbs and flows, changes and morphs, depending on all kinds of things I simply know nothing about. Sharing our devastating news, though it is our devastating news and our story to live, impacts those I tell, too. Even silence is okay.

“It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are.” I’m not so sure about that. Friendship spans greater lengths of time than a single life-event. Someone may not be there for me now, but maybe next week or next year or when they live closer or after they change jobs or…or…or…the permutations of life circumstances are infinite. I cannot make or break a friendship on one life event. My list of friends is intact, growing even.  I have deep gratitude for the people in my life – even the silent ones.

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The River

I am sitting on the banks of a river watching my five-year-old boy swim and play in the calm water. He dives underwater, exploring, inventing a new game every few minutes. His water games take him further and further away from the bank, until he drifts away, too far for me to reach him. I stand at the edge of the water bellowing for him to swim to me and come back. Too far away to hear me, he is happily swimming and playing, blissfully unaware of the possible danger and my panic.

And I wake up.

medium_3577182683It’s 4:30 this morning and after regaining my senses I’m disappointed in the transparency of my subconscious. My dream is uncreative in its reflection of what is going on in my life. After much (too much?) deliberation, we decided to enroll our oldest in kindergarten and he starts next week. We not only started him in kindergarten but we chose a Spanish immersion program at our neighborhood public school. After attending an informational meeting last winter and being blown away by the fifth graders in attendance who easily moved between speaking English and Spanish – and had a degree of maturity and confidence that surprised almost everyone in the room – we were sold. We entered in the lottery and were elated when we received notice this summer that Our Boy would be enrolled.

Reality hit hard this week. Much like millions of families across the country this week, we started the back to school shuffle: gathering school supplies, filling out paperwork, buying new clothes and running endless errands. I was fine. I was more than fine! I was excited and relieved to be starting this new chapter. I couldn’t relate to the many Facebook posts from friends sending their little ones off to kindergarten amidst tears and sadness. We had a great summer and I was ready for school to start and so were my kids. Our Boy was showing all the signs of being excited for school and it thrilled me to see him happily exploring reading, writing and math on his own.

We were ready.

Our boy went to his assessment and reported back to us (we weren’t allowed in the room) that the teacher only spoke Spanish but he figured out what she was asking and answered in Spanish when he knew the Spanish words (his numbers and colors) and in English when he didn’t know. He seemed unaffected. I was thrilled for him. But, I was unnerved when I learned the teacher would not speak English in front of the children. Period. I panicked. How was I going to talk to her? She didn’t offer an email or phone number (hopefully that’s coming). I was told by another parent that a separate appointment is needed at a time when the child isn’t present. The logistical nightmare became obvious and I started to worry but took comfort seeing how comfortable Our Son was with this new landscape. He was unphased.

A couple of days later we had Kinder Round-Up, a meeting at school giving kids the chance to meet their teacher and classmates and see their classroom. The teacher, speaking only in Spanish, invited the kids to sit on the carpet with her and read a book.  Predictably, Our Boy sat at the very most outer-edge of the carpet and he kept one eye on the teacher and one eye on me. About half-way through, he finally gave up and came and sat on my lap. The teacher invited him to participate and he refused. He didn’t cry or get upset but he withdrew. He has shown no other real signs of stress (yet) but I couldn’t help but panic a little more.

This panic took grip after the kids went to bed. I eventually fell asleep but then woke at 2:30, never to return to sleep for the night. His little bit of withdrawal threw me. Seeing the teacher interact with the kids only in Spanish threw me. The looks of confusion on the faces of almost every child threw me. I started to think we had made a mistake.  I carried this suspicion with me the entire day. We headed to a playdate organized by the school with other parents of kids in the Spanish immersion program. I sent the kids off to go play and immediately set out to find a parent who could answer some questions:

“Did your kid freak out?” “What happens when they lose it?” “Will the teacher speak to them in English?” “What about in an emergency? Will the teacher speak to the kids in English then?” “If the teacher won’t speak English in front of the children, when will I talk to her?” “Was this a mistake?” “Should I just pull him out and put him in traditional kindergarten?”

I found a group of moms with kids who had been in the program for at least a year. I happened to know one of them and elbowed my way into their circle. I got half-way through my first question before I felt the pinch in my voice that gave me away that I was about to lose it. The mom next to me said in a surprisingly reassuring voice, “He’s going to be fine.”

In my mind, I replied, “No he’s not.  Fear, confusion and intimidation are going to squash his confidence and curiosity. He’s gong to become a shell of his former self, start listening to heavy-metal, death-rock music, completely withdraw and start torturing bugs and small animals. I’ll have to check him into rehab at the age of eight and surrender him to the state before he’s 10. I’m making a colossal parenting mistake. The biggest of my life.” In my mind, the fragments of my dream were starting to form. I could see water swirling around Our Boy and it was dark and moving faster and faster. I swear I could see alligators and sharks circling him, ready to eat him up.

She repeated it again, “He’s going to be fine. Like most things, this is a lot harder on parents than the kids. He’s going to be confused and frustrated for a while but he’s going to be fine.” The other parents nodded in agreement and offered their own stories of sleepless nights, doubt and oaths to “just pull their kid out.”

After talking to these parents, I realized that my anxiety was all about my fears. I’m not afraid because he’s afraid. I’m not panicked because he’s panicked. He’s not losing any sleep. He doesn’t know the difference; he doesn’t know what it’s like to go to a kindergarten class where the teacher speaks English. He doesn’t know that I’m going to have a communication barrier with his teacher and, even if he does, he doesn’t care. He wants to play, learn and make friends. And he’s going to do exactly that.

He needs to play and drift from shore and be oblivious to my shouts for him to come back. I need to stop panicking. Instead of shouting for him to come back, I need to smile and wave and tell him to have fun and go explore. I’ll be right here on the banks of the river, waiting for him to come home and tell me all about the wonderful things he discovered in the water.

Magic

I love this time of year. If I could freeze time and live in any month for the rest of my life, have a Groundhog Month if you will, I would live in October. I can’t find anything wrong with it. I get all four seasons in one month. I can still eat fruits and veggies from summer and I can start cooking soups and breads to get cozy on those cold nights. It might rain, but not a lot. It’s warm. And cold. We can still go to the beach and wine country is in its prime. But more than anything, I love Halloween. I love magic and mystery.

As a kid, during October, I spent my walks home from school swearing I saw fairies flitting in the falling leaves and goblins scurrying on the dark branches in the trees and that every rock was the home of a small troll. And I knew that on Halloween I was going to magically transform into the latest creature of my imagination and defy the laws of gravity and the universe to do whatever I wanted during my brief time as a Fill-In-The-Blank. Nothing was impossible. And nothing needed an explanation. It was perfectly fine if someone wanted to be a mummy princess or punk rock zombie. Nothing had to fit into the confines of our rules.

Our kids have offered a whole new perspective on magic. It’s everywhere and it’s not just about a holiday. To them, so much in the world is magical because they don’t have the comprehension of science, yet. I especially noticed it this summer on our trip to Iowa and watching Carter’s first firefly hunt. He just giggled and giggled and ran and giggled some more. He brought me a container full of fireflies, all of them flashing their little green behinds like crazy. Carter’s eyes were wide, his grin even wider. I asked him what made their little behinds light up like that. And he whispered, “Magic, Mommy.”

And then a couple of weeks ago we finally fulfilled a promise we made to Carter and Mitchell and let them ride in the convertible. Do you remember the first time you rode in a convertible or a motorcycle or a boat or anything that went fast and blew the wind through your hair and made you squint your eyes because of the cool air on your face? I remember riding in my cousin’s jeep with the top off and thinking, “Why the hell doesn’t everyone drive a jeep?!?!” I loved it. There was something about driving a car without a top (or sides in this case). It broke The Rules and invited an up-close interaction with the world around me that engaged my entire being, sense of wonder and didn’t demand an explanation because it was just…So…Cool.

It was magical.

One of the greatest gifts of being a parent is having a front-row seat to a child’s endless stream of “firsts” and encounters with “magic.” Most of them end up ingrained in our memories, maybe we are lucky enough to remember to write them in a journal or baby book, but the real gift is when we happen to catch that moment in a picture or video. We did just that when Carter and Mitchell rode in the convertible for the first time:

And later that day, I asked Carter what he thought of riding in the convertible and he said in his excited four-year-old voice, “It’s magic!” Thank you, My Little Love, for reminding me that magic is still everywhere, all the time. And although my tendency is to jump in with a scientific lesson about why the firefly’s little behind lights up or follow-up your convertible ride with a lesson on driving safety, I will try very hard to keep magic alive for you because all of those lessons will come soon enough. There’s no rush. And I will be on the lookout for more ways to bring magic into your life.

I hope you, reader, find some magic today, too. Go for a bike ride, put the top down or just drive with your windows open. And be on the lookout for fairies in the falling leaves…you never know!

The man on the bike with the baby

We have moved to the set of The Truman Show. At least, that’s what I keep telling my husband. In the movie The Truman Show, a man (Jim Carrey) is going about living his mostly idyllic life that, unbeknownst to him, has been a carefully orchestrated and scripted Hollywood reality show. The houses are charming and the lawns well cared for, the neighbors friendly and helpful, the wives beautiful, the husbands successful and handsome, the kids cute and perfectly behaved. We live a short walk from a cute downtown with a combination of boutiques, cafes, and “everywhere” stores (Gap, Pottery Barn, etc.). Carter rides his bike to school three blocks away with his new best friend who lives across the street. For every three people there is a golden retriever or labradoodle. There is no road-rage. Everyone waves and smiles when they pass each other on the street.  It’s wonderful…and unnerving. I often find myself fighting the urge to walk around saying rather loudly, “This is all a charade! You’re all actors! You can stop it now! I know what’s going on!”

And I feel guilty as hell. The deep, Protestant, you-can’t-go-to-enough-church-to-wash-you-of-your-sins, kind of guilty.

Shortly after we moved here, I was on my way home from driving Justin to work (I was driving our convertible Mercedes because our SUV was in the shop…not because it was broken but because it was getting serviced, what a luxury) when I stopped at a stoplight. I was on a busy street lined with old apartment complexes built in the 40’s and 50’s that haven’t been touched since and are now occupied by low and middle income families. Outside my window, I watched as a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and baseball cap stood in the doorway of his apartment, said his goodbyes with a kiss and hug to a woman and then leaned over and kissed a baby in a stroller. I was struck by how similar that scene looked to the one that had played out countless times in our own house. Justin goes off to work (but dressed in a button down shirt, khakis and dress shoes), kisses me goodbye and hugs and kisses the boys before he goes off to work. For some reason, I was momentarily comforted by watching this universal ritual unfolding in a setting so different from my own.

But then, in a fluid motion, one that revealed it was something this man had done countless times before, he picked up the baby in the stroller (tiny little bundle!), wrapped it in thick blankets, put the baby on his shoulder, hopped on his bike and pedaled down the street, holding the baby with one hand and steering with the other.

I couldn’t believe it. Forget that he didn’t have a helmet on (I could hear my son’s panicked voice in my head, “Mommy! He doesn’t have a helmet!”). Forget that the baby wasn’t wearing a helmet (they don’t even make helmets that small, do they?). Forget that the baby wasn’t even in a baby seat or baby trailer. Forget that the man was riding down one of the busiest streets in the area. I had a million questions flood my mind. Where is he going? Is he taking the baby to work with him? Is the baby sick? Are they going to the doctor (the only legitimate reason I could come up with for why he would put his baby at such risk)? Or is he dropping the baby off at a babysitter or daycare? Where, in God’s name, is he taking a baby wrapped up in a blanket while riding on a bicycle?

As I sat in my convertible Mercedes, I thought of my boys and the obscenely expensive, currently empty car seats carefully and tightly strapped into the rear seats of our SUV and how much energy I had expended in the last four years ensuring my kids were securely strapped into the seats every time we went anywhere in our car. We rode bicycles for fun and only after lengthy lectures on safety and responsibility.

My momentary comfort in the universal ritual of dads saying goodbye to their families in the morning fell away. I had no context or perspective from which to view this scene.

My guilt and confusion was overwhelming. I began to sob. And there I sat in my convertible Mercedes driving back home to our newly painted and decorated house in Burlingame/Truman Show, CA to ride bikes with my four year old who was most certainly already having his Oma help him get the straps to his bike helmet tightened under his chin. And when I got home I would carefully strap my two-year old into our way-too-expensive stroller so we could take a walk to the neighborhood park to play with other kids who were in all likelihood doing just about the exact same thing.

I came home and told my mom who was visiting for a few days what I had seen. I said,  “It’s not fair that I get the luxuries of safety and security and education when so many other people don’t. Why am I any better or more deserving than anyone else?” Because I worked hard? Lots of people work hard and don’t get what I have. Because my parents could afford to send me to college (at a state school with ridiculously low tuition)? Because I can afford to pay my law school loans (because of said ridiculously low tuition)? Because I married a man who also works hard and is smart and works in an industry that compensates him well? Because, frankly, we had also been very lucky?

And then my mom told the story of my great-grandmother whose husband died unexpectedly when my grandmother was a senior in high school. There she was. Mother of four kids aged 17, 16, 14, and 12 years old with a farm in Iowa to run just as the Great Depression was starting. How unfair. She did not wallow. She did not feel sorry for herself (of course she did but no one knew it). No time for that! And she did everything she needed to to keep the farm afloat (it is a business, after all). Rather than sending her two oldest girls to college, as was the plan, she kept them close to home and they worked in town, giving all of their pay to keep the family farm alive. My great-granmother got up before dawn to tend to the farm animals, gather cow pies (that’s dried cow crap for you city slickers) to burn for fuel. She turned her home into a boarding house to help bring in a little more money. Once the two youngest boys were old enough, they started helping with the farm, too. This wasn’t temporary. This was how she spent the majority of the rest of her life. She saved the farm and it’s still in the family. One of her great-grandsons still lives in the house. Below is a picture of it that I took during our trip to Iowa this summer:

The four kids helped my great-grandmother as best they could, all raising their families close to the farm. My grandmother later married my grandfather who also lived in the small Iowa farming town and moved to a nearby farm. Here, they raised my mom and her two sisters. Farming life is not easy nor lucrative. My grandparents worked very hard, lived modest lives and sacrificed like crazy to give their three girls a chance at going to college and having careers. Which they all did (still do).

My mom married my dad, also raised on a farm in the small Iowa farm town. My two aunts married men from the same farming community as well. And they all promptly got the hell out of Dodge. Not in a spiteful way (our family remains close-knit) but in a way that honored the opportunities my grandparents tried to create. And my parents did everything they could to provide me and my siblings the same opportunities, with an exponential increase in expectations and sacrifice. Standing on that foundation created by my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ sacrifices (and the inherent advantages of being a middle-class white female in our society), I went to college and law school and built my career and life with my husband. And then Justin and I made our sacrifices to start a family and began to build a foundation for our children on which to build their futures.

Maybe the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby is doing the same thing…he’s just a couple of generations behind my family. The evolution of wealth is usually slow.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I still feel guilty.

I also told my husband about the-man-on-bike-with-the-baby and in the only way that he can give me an ass-kicking, he gave me an ass-kicking (reason #3 I married him). He said, “How do you know that the man you saw is not actually every bit as happy as you? Maybe his life in the last 10 years has been hell and he’s thrilled to be enjoying the life of a new dad and he’s grateful for a job that makes it possible for him to live in that apartment. Just because the two minutes of his life that you witnessed is shocking to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his life.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Justin was also just trying to make me feel better (reason #8 I married him).

The truth is, I have no idea where the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby was going and whether or not he was happy or satisfied with his life. Just like I have no idea whether the beautiful wives, handsome and successful husbands, and well-behaved children we are now surrounded by are happy or satisfied…or not.

But, right now, I am happy and satisfied. And I’m going to enjoy it and be very, very grateful for this moment in time.  My great-grandmother wouldn’t want me to take my happiness for granted but she’d be damned if I felt guilty for it, too.

Uprooted

Our days in San Jose are down to the single digits and there is the predictable mix of emotions. Of course, excitement for the new house and some panic that we aren’t going to get it all done before Tuesday. But lying underneath it is also sadness for the friends we are leaving and affection for the great memories we have of San Jose and the time we spent here. We are definitely feeling uprooted – in limbo…no longer planted in San Jose but not yet planted in Burlingame.

My dad spent a great deal of energy teaching us kids about the natural world around us and how to be gentle, sympathetic and caring to plants and animals. There were the obvious teachings like “Don’t pull the cat’s tail – it hurts them!” but the more subtle, curiosity inducing, “I wonder how plants feel when it rains?” As a child, when I was helping my mom plant flowers in her flower beds,  we would pull the small flowers from their plastic containers and I could hear their thread-thin roots snapping as I pulled them out. I couldn’t help but wonder what that felt like for the small plants. Clearly, Adult Me knows that plants don’t have nerves and don’t feel anything (right?) but Child Me always winces a little bit when I see a broken tree limb, or a snapped-off flower head.

And so, as we pack up our last boxes, take pictures off the walls, eat one last breakfast/lunch/dinner at our favorite local places, I can hear our own little thread-like roots breaking and snapping. And I don’t have to wonder if it hurts, because I know that it does. It’s hard to leave. San Jose is where we embarked on our first real adventure as a married couple, determined to “give this California thing a shot.” We also knew this is where we would start our family and “put down roots.”

Our time here was only seven years but our roots are snapping nonetheless. We will miss countless people, places and things – friends from Las Madres, friends from Explorer Preschool, priceless and wise nannies, the Rose Garden, the Norman Rockwell-ian tendencies of the neighborhood during all the holidays, the folksiness of Zanotto’s — But really, most of all, the roots that are hardest to hear snap are those of the friendships we are leaving behind – not that all those friendships will end (though some undoubtedly will as that’s just how it goes) but friendships are never the same when geography changes.

These early years of parenthood have been amazing but difficult. It did not come easy for us. Like all major obstacles in life, despite the emotional and physical pain one endures while getting over and through those challenging times, one can’t help but also form strong attachments to the people who got you through it. To the other moms who helped me navigate the transition to motherhood and the families who supported us through the early months of becoming a family of four – to all of you we are eternally grateful. I don’t know how we would have made it without you.

Yesterday, as I stood in the new house in what will be Mitchell’s room, looking out the window at the back lawn where he and Carter will play and cross off many of childood’s major milestones, the sound of roots snapping in my head subsided. And I started to imagine what those little transplanted flowers in my mother’s garden must have felt like after their roots snapped – wilted and bruised, but then their bare, raw roots were placed into the warm, wet earth, free to reach and extend as far as they wished.

We are uprooted but our new plot of earth is waiting for us and we are ready to dig in.