Saturday, May 28, 2011
Day 389: For My Son on His Second Birthday
As a parent, it's hard to be fair. You do your best to treat your kids the same, not to compare too much, and in the end I think it's inevitable that you fail. I am sitting here full of the knowledge that I need to write a letter for Augie for his second birthday, as I did for Lenny a few months ago for her fifth. And yet I really don't know what to say.
So until I can figure it out I'll stall a bit. There are a bunch of things I've been thinking about covering in the blog, but I've been too busy doing those things and living my busy life to find the time. To start, I haven't written at all about my two experiences rowing on the river. The first water practice (we go on the water on Mondays, which is the only day I could ever practice, so that works out for me) the six novices who had never rowed before just watched from the dock. We practiced getting in and out of the boat, which really is just as wide as a pretty small person's body. None of this is intuitive and it is nothing at all like the erg, leading me to believe that the two things might as well be unrelated.
But let me back up a bit. In order to get to practice, I had to find the right spot on the river, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It's in Bridgeport, that famous working class south side neighborhood home to the Daley family. You can't actually see the river from the street where you park your car. Instead, you see some chain link fences surrounding a bunch of gravel and weeds. You walk a little farther, and there are a bunch of boats--lots and lots of boats--stored in the middle of the rubble, next to some storage lockers. This area of the city is very industrial, and the river is anything but scenic. In fact, Chicago is the last major city in the country that doesn't treat the sewage out of the river. So over 70% of the water is literally toxic--a toxic waste dump we try to pass off as a tourist destination, Chicago-style. That first practice when we watched the others row, I decided it would be best not to count the condoms, tampons, beer bottles, and other random trash floating past. God help anyone who fell in that water.
The next week, we novices got our chance to row. We all successfully got our oars in, got in the boat, and walked the boat off the dock. There are a bunch of kids from a local Catholic prep school who volunteer for the team, and several of them were rowing with us in our boat. And let me tell you, it was HARD. I felt like a failure for a while, and then I realized that I could do it. If I could watch the kid in front of me and ignore my oar, I could do it. The hardest part is to try not to think about what you're doing. Maybe that's the key to the rest of life too. Just don't think about it too much. Anyway, there we were, rowing down the river while the sun was setting. The river is so narrow on the south branch, and we had run-ins with fishermen in Chinatown, yelling at us when our oars hit their lines because there was nowhere else to go. We had some groupies. I almost lost a shoe off the dock in the lethal water. I missed the following week due to house issues, and then last week I went in for the second time.
They put me in the bow seat, and I had extra responsibility for steering the boat on multiple occasions --leading us to get caught in some trees in a particularly narrow part of the river. I could have felt bad, but I figured I was a woman who had just finished breast cancer treatment six months ago, who had only rowed twice in her life, so I couldn't take too much blame. They had us novices rowing for well over two hours, for forty five minutes longer than everyone else. I had calluses on my hands and everything in my body hurt. During one drill, they had us using our inside arm only to learn how to feather the oar. Doing that just killed my breast, and my chest muscle. (My surgeon told me that radiation weakens your pecs, and that I can expect to have chronic pain in my surgery site forever--that's right, forever). Maybe I'm just that much closer to radiation and surgery than everyone else, and maybe I have too much scar tissue. But man, did it hurt. I was going to say something to the "coach" (the launch following us was led by a kid who just graduated high school, who will be going to Dartmouth in the fall), and then I realized that I couldn't. For a teenage boy, he handles the whole breast cancer thing remarkably well. I have often wondered if he has some personal connection to breast cancer. But I just couldn't say, hey, you might want to avoid that drill for women who aren't far removed from cancer, because damn, my boob really hurts. He had trouble when another coach told us to hold our oar at our bra line, so how could I go there? I know that teenage boys are essentially embarrassed just to be alive, and this kid really does pretty well, considering, so I decided to let it go for the time being.
But hey, here I am, 35 years old, clueless about boats and prep schools and team sports and all the other things related to rowing crew, and I could do it--now I can say I've done it, regardless of how long I can keep it up. The city looks just beautiful if you're a nerdy urban planner type like me and you like reading colorful graffiti and wondering how the taggers get to those places, what the were balancing on, where they came from, and you smell the bread from the factory and realize how hungry you are right after you realize how rare it is to smell something good that is actually being produced in your hometown, and you think about the Chinese immigrant children who hang out after school crouched down over the river and wave to some boats full of women who are in various degrees of cancer survivorship, and some teenagers who probably have much better things to do tell you that you look awesome, and you're so bone tired after you drive home in your one working car to the smaller of the two houses you're crazy enough to own, and your husband is putting your daughter to bed, and you collapse on the couch and think that Chicago is a pretty interesting place after all.
There might be something else I wanted to say before my letter to Augie, but that was long enough, so I'll stop there. Assuming I pass my swimming test this week (I have no memory of how to breathe correctly underwater, though you'd have to be clinically insane to put your face in the Chicago river, so sidestroke or backstroke is more logical anyway) I will keep it up for as long as it makes sense. Until then...
Three years ago, we were fairly certain that you would never be born. While we had no trouble conceiving your sister, by the time she was 20 months old and I was ready to think about going through labor again, both your dad and I had fertility issues. While a relatively simple surgery fixed his, it wasn't clear what was going on with me. Perhaps now we know, as hormones must have wrecked havoc on me in conjunction with contracting cancer, but we couldn't know that at the time. After learning that your dad was back to normal, I immediately called my doctor to ask to put me on Clomid, since I knew I hadn't ovulated since Lenny was born. I took those five pills, went in for an ultrasound, and saw the egg that would eventually become you. We were given instructions that day on how often and when to have sex that weekend, and I decided to throw in that night for good measure. Your dad didn't object, and we were later told that against all odds, on that first try, you were conceived.
I can only imagine how embarrassed you will be to read that when you are a teenager. I hope I am around to see it. The point is, though, that I saw you before you were you. I saw that picture of an egg, the doctor told me it looked like a good one, why not give it a shot? And unbeknownst to me, I was looking at you, or the beginnings of you. Two weeks later, I took the pregnancy test as soon as it made sense, and I saw that faint line. We had tried to conceive for almost a year, so I just assumed it was a mistake. I waited a few days, took another one. The line was faint, but not as faint as before, so I went in for a blood test. When the results came in,my doctor was off for Yom Kippur and I talked to the one Catholic doctor out of the twelve in the practice, since most everyone else was out as well. What am I looking at? She asked me. I said, well, I need to know if I'm pregnant. Oh, well you're definitely pregnant, but you're not very far along. What do you need to know?
I'm pregnant? Me? I asked. I sat there in a stupor in my office, wondering how it was possible. And everything about the beginning of your life was like that. I thought you had died early on when I had horrific cramping and all of my early pregnancy symptoms disappeared overnight. It turned out to be nothing but my uterus contracting and pregnancy with you was relatively easy. Then I had bleeding at 26 weeks and had to go to the ER in the middle of the night, while our sick neighbor from next door came over to sleep on our couch so Lenny would never know we had left. That was just a burst blood vessel. I thought you would be a preemie, so I stopped exercising at 36 weeks when I was told you would be born within a week. At 37 weeks, progress had halted, and I went to water aerobics after taking a long walk. My water broke in a torrential flood at 5:30 the next morning, so much fluid it was laughable and could literally have filled our bathtub, and you were born at 2:18 that afternoon. I pushed your sister for two and a half hours, and I pushed you for 13 minutes. She fought to be born healthy, you just fought to be born. You cried right away, nursed right away, and you were completely, utterly perfect. I thought I could do that again, it was so easy.
But aye, there's the rub. I couldn't know then that I could never do it again, that you were my second and last child. Your father and I thought we would be done with two--he had to be convinced to have you after it was such a struggle, and then he wanted another girl. I figured I would be too old to have any more children, after having you at age 33. I just had no idea what was in store for us. With the thought that you were my last baby, I took a six month leave from work, and had a wonderful summer and fall with my adorable son. The summer was just beautiful, like a California summer, and we went walking together every day. I lost thirty pounds in a month and just kept getting smaller as your boy hormones kicked my metabolism into overdrive. I worried about you as your torticollis refused to go away. I took you to physical therapy every week starting when you were three months old, and watched as young nurses and therapists played with you and cooed at you and wondered how they were doing anything that I couldn't. I nursed you every few hours, and marveled at how easy it was. Even when you weren't good at something, like lying on your tummy, it seemed like it was because you knew you would get to it eventually, that you thought this stage was good enough for now. That is how we began to believe that you had been here before.
You laughed in your sleep when you were three weeks old, a full laugh with your whole belly. You scowled before it should have been possible. At five months old you started kicking all the time you were nursing, laughing, talking to yourself, demanding to be moved from side to side every minute. You never got to move past that phase. Other things happened, your parents went through some tough times, your sister turned four. We couldn't wait for your first birthday.
And then, just like that, your life turned upside down before it had even begun. Less than a month before your first birthday, your mother was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Within six days, you were weaned. If your eyes hadn't seemed like those of an old soul before, they quickly took on that tenor, as you looked at me in the mornings with confusion, as I walked past your bedroom in the mornings crying while your dad fed you a bottle.
I wish I could say that I protected you from cancer, but you were so little that I didn't know how. I made sure to never cry around your sister, but I thought you were too little to notice, so sometimes I just held you and wept. How could I know that you would get angry, refuse to start talking, never let anyone else put you to bed, start to call your pacifier your mama when you did decide to say some words? How I wish I knew what could have been different for you if things had been, well, different.
How I worried that you would never know me, that you would never remember me and I would be a story that someone else told you someday. I still think about that, and I wonder if I will be the mother you remember, or if someone else will take that role. Your father will tell me to never put voice to that idea and he will be angry with me for saying this, but I like to think that you will have a mother, and of course I want that mother to be me. If that isn't in the cards, I want to say on the record that I just don't want you to grow up without that influence.
Mothers can teach sons things, it seems to me. We can teach you to calm down, to clean up after yourselves, to not trust in this idea that boys will just be boys and therefore get away with things that girls cannot. We can teach you what women are really like, even when, or especially when, we are not like what many people expect women to be. But I cannot teach you how to be a different Augie. I cannot teach you to be still, or quiet, to be unhappy. I cannot figure out how you know how to use every piece of technology in our house, why you look through a cooler of juice boxes and pull out a beer, or why you love all animals to such distraction.
I can't even take credit for looking like you. Everyone tells you how much you look like your dad. Until last summer, I at least looked like you in the sense that we were both redheads. No matter how vain you might find this statement, it actually grieves me to not have that in common with you and your sister anymore. I know my hair is dark auburn, but I need to face the fact that I am really not a redhead anymore, not like before. Thirty five years of "redhead" being a huge part of my identity, thirty years of pretty hair getting me a lot of things that I wanted and a lot of other things that I didn't, and chemo has, apparently taken that from me. Lenny will remember being with her mother when strangers stopped us in the streets to comment on our beautiful hair. No one will ever call out my hair as pretty now, and I look just like so many other moms in their thirties--nothing special there, nothing distinctive. But not so for you. Now, when we are out as a family, people ask where you kids get your red hair, and while Lenny looks so sad as she glances sideways at me while I wince, you just laugh and say "hair!." Your dad says we picked it up at the park. I want to say that it was the mailman. The real answer is so much worse. I want to say, I'm a redhead, like my son! He got that wild crazy curly red hair from me!
But who would believe that? While it saddens me, it makes me glad for you. You get to look like yourself, like your sister. You don't have to be so conspicuously associated with your mother. You can look like your dad and be handsome in that unassuming way. And you can remind me that there is something in me that you will always recognize, perhaps even if I am not here. You have given me that gift, among many others. You see pictures of me bald, and you say mommy. Pictures of me with long red hair, short dark hair, and it's still mommy. You see pictures of me as a teenager, as a child even, and you recognize me, when I can't even recognize myself when I look in the mirror every day. You see me, when I find it hard to see myself.
You are so much yourself that you remind me that being yourself is not a choice. It is the only option. If you are devious, and fearless, and empathetic and stubborn and happy and a little bit crazy, you probably always will be that way. The same is true for me, and perhaps I am a little bit of some of those things. Regardless of who we are, you will have spent almost all of your life with a mother who had cancer, you will on some level remember being torn away from me, and I hope that you will forgive me. I tried like hell to have you, and then you were here, and if you hadn't been here before, it at least seemed like you were here as long as I could remember. I will always regret that many of the biggest things of your life, like learning to walk, are but vague memories for me in my surgery and chemo-clouded brain. But they are memories all the same, and that is what I hope to have with you--memories upon memories. You are, after all, my last baby, my only son.
Two years have come and gone, and you will remember next to nothing that happened in this formative time in your life. You are reliant on witnesses, on stories. Let this letter, and this blog, be a part of that story for you. If you cannot remember, or if I am not around to tell you, you will know that you were wanted and loved, that you made us tired and you made us laugh. On some days you even made us remember ourselves in spite of ourselves.
Happy birthday, Augie. I love you.