Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Day 1,535: Reading Minds

Me, reading in my grandparents' back yard when I was 13 years old.

My kids are both readers. My daughter learned to read when she was 3, as I did. No one remembers teaching me how to read. My mother insists that I could just do it. This doesn't seem possible. Reading is not like walking, or eating. You don't have to do it to survive. Someone has to teach you.

I distinctly remember the hand I played in teaching my daughter to read. She was learning letter sounds in the Montessori method. She was sounding everything out: t-h-e. It drove me crazy. I knew something about my daughter that maybe her school didn't know. She is one of the only people I have ever met who has a photographic memory. I once wrote about her, "your perfect memory is one of the things that makes you who you are." I knew that when she was 15 months old and she pointed to a photography book in my mother's house and said "Signs," which is the name of the book. No one could believe it. Someone said, well, she must have seen that group of symbols before and heard someone say the word Signs and figured out that's what it meant.

Right, I thought. That's reading.

So I got frustrated, as I so often do. It is one of my greatest failings, this impatience. I couldn't stand listening to my kid trying to make English into a phonetic language when it is decidedly not a phonetic language. I had been reading to her all her life, as had so many other people. We taught her her letters over Christmas break when she was 21 months old. So one day when she was 3, I said to her: "Don't sound out these words. Just remember them. This word, these symbols, they say THE. Just remember it." If she had been a different person, it wouldn't have worked. But it worked. She could read anything.

But that doesn't mean that she should read anything, or that she wants to, or that she's ready for all those words out there. It's hard to find books for a kid who can read past the 12th grade level but who is only 8 years old. All the books for teens seem to be about vampires and sex and vampire sex. The Trixie Belden mysteries that I grew up on, that we still have and that I still read, have never captured her interest. She only got through the first Harry Potter, and decided it was too scary. She loves books that bored me to tears as a child: Black Beauty, Heidi, A Little Princess. I was reading Robert Cormier books at her age. My favorite book (oh, the irony!) as a child was The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. Because why wouldn't you love a book about cancer and medical experiments and suicide in third grade? You know, youth--when life is such a fancy.

Youth, when everything is so, so hard, and no one talks about it, so you read about it instead.

Lenny has read every classic "children's" book out there, and these books hardly seem to be children's books at all, not in the way we talk down to kids today by thinking we have to write like we think they talk and assume they can't understand big words or learn to use a dictionary. In these classics, the kids are almost always orphans. Their lives are almost impossibly hard, so they make up these fanciful worlds or they get by with their moxie and sometimes they fall in love at the end and supposedly end up happy but it always seems false and forced like the author just didn't know what else to do. She's read the Ramona books and all kinds of other books and I was beginning to get stumped trying to figure out what to get her to read, and then she read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for school last year. She became completely entranced with Narnia and has now read all seven of the Narnia books at least four times. Just like her father. I have tried to read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but people, I just don't CARE. Fantasy books never interested me. The Lord of the Rings? God help me. She really wants me to read these books so we can talk about them, and I've really tried, but I have had to tell her that people are different and like different things. She didn't like Trixie Belden, and I don't like Narnia, so we will need to find something else to agree on, and she seems to take this pretty much in stride.

Lenny, reading under a tree while her brother played baseball in the park.

I've found something we can agree on, but I'll get to that in a minute.

My son is a reader too. I thought it would never happen. I got frustrated that he didn't practice reading in school the way my daughter did, because the teacher said he always "chose" math, and I said, well, I want both kids to do all the things, not just the things that are easiest for them to do. People told me boys are different. Well, Augie is different, that's for sure. Different than all the other boys I know. He sat there in silence for an entire hour last night because he lied to me about washing his hands and no one gets away with lying in my house, and he gets so stubborn and impossible he punishes no one but himself, and it's hard to be his mother, or his father, sometimes. I remember hearing stories about how a certain child might have her will broken by her parents, and I remember my mother laughing, and I know she taught me that my impossible and incorrigible will would not rule our house, and so I don't feel guilty, but I get tired of the yelling.

Anyway I was frustrated not because Augie was taking longer to read, but because I was pretty sure he could read and just didn't feel like admitting it. Gabe didn't learn to read until he was 6 and my brother refused to read until age 7, though all of us in the entire family feel like that is kind of a lie. So I didn't really care when my kids learned to read, but the stubbornness was a bit much. Augie would read the sports page soon after his fourth birthday. People would say, oh, he is just looking at the helmet icons and recognizing them. Sure, sure, I would say. Then he would proceed to tell me the scores and tell me about things that had happened in the games he had not watched but that he found out about through READING THE PAPER. I bought him books about football. I read Bob books with him. He got bored and frustrated and wanted us to do it for him (he would lie on a chaise like Cleopatra allowing others to feed him grapes all his life if we allowed it) and so I gave up on it for a while. And one day he just started reading to me. I think he got tired of pretending. He could read his sister's chapter books. He was put in charge of reading to the class. He is now reading all these Star Wars books and some of them are literally more mature than much of what I read, especially the 700 page comic books with tiny print and extremely complex story lines. I don't relate to this at all. I was better off with football. He is reading Lenny's Little House books (she has read all of them, including the ones written after Laura Ingalls Wilder died), and I'm glad they can talk to each other about those books because again, I wasn't into those. I read poetry when I was a kid.

Augie, reading to his preschool class.

When I was in second grade my favorite book was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but Lenny wasn't into that one. I read books with names like Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. I read books about people who lived in modern times in real cities with real problems. The only two Judy Blume books I liked were Tiger Eyes and Forever. I thought it was realistic the way the girl felt about her father dying in Tiger Eyes, much more realistic than the crap that was being spouted about wanting your period in the other books. Forever seemed somewhat realistic, though how would I know at age 10? I distinctly remember telling myself that no matter what happened in life, I would never have sex with someone who named his penis.

Well ten year old self, your 39 year old counterpart is here to say that at least you kept to that promise.

Sometimes I think we don't need to bond over books, because it is enough to bond over loving to read books. We are old school over here, no matter how much we love our technology. We don't have Kindles and we read the newspaper. Still, Gabe can go on and on with the kids about Star Wars and Narnia and I feel like I must be missing something. Maybe someday Augie will like Harry Potter or Trixie Belden. Maybe he won't want to read about horses and American Girls. Will either of my kids have a bookcase full of poetry and an entire library dedicated to genocide studies when they are grown? Is that a legacy I even want to leave?

Recently, on a whim, I picked out a book called Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech for Lenny. Creech's books were all written after I was grown, or at least after I was 14 or so, so I never read them. Lenny LOVED that book. I ordered a bunch more of her books. Lenny will re-read the same book over and over and over and I try to convince her to try something new. These Creech books have been sitting in her room. I made her bring them on vacation. She sat there re-reading Little House and Narnia. So, I decided to take one of these books with me on the one beach day we've had so far, which was Monday. Since then, I have read three of these books. The first was more of a coming of age story about friends and boys and I understood why maybe Lenny didn't care. The next was also a coming of age story but it was about sailing and adventures and secret code. I practically forced my daughter to read this book and she was all OH OK MOM, WHATEVER. Until later that day when we couldn't pry her away and she looked at me and said:

"Mom. This book is FASCINATING." And we started to go on and on and the guys in this house looked at us like what are they going on about? And I thought I had finally DONE it. I had finally found the thing we could bond over. So I read the last book of hers that we had brought with us, the one that won all the awards: Walk Two Moons. I started this book last night and finished it this morning. I want my daughter to read it and I don't.

Why are the mothers always leaving? Why are the mothers always dead? Why are the fathers always lost in the wake of their absence so much so that you want to reach into the story and tell them to GET IT TOGETHER, there is a CHILD involved, stop making this be all about YOU?

Was childhood always that sad?

And of course, it was. I realize that I have done a great disservice to anyone who reads this blog who thinks they have learned anything about me by reading it. I have never written about the hardest and most formative things. My biggest family secrets are not really secrets at all, as my closest people know, but I don't write about them. I have written about some things, but there are huge gaps, and some people know why. I have written some about Gabe's childhood, and people find it so unbelievable, but I don't, and I never did. I told my brother that it is strange what Gabe and I have in common as far as family is concerned and he said, really? I don't think so. Maybe you knew that about each other when you met. Maybe you could tell.

My brother who didn't want to learn to read became a writer and my husband reads fantasy and I read reality and our son reads epic battles and my daughter reads about orphans. The parents in this family have told ourselves that come hell or high water, our kids will never have the types of hidden stories that we have that make us who we are. We will claim the adversity for ourselves and let them have their childhoods unfettered and carefree.

It's a fiction, and we know it. It's a story we tell in the hopes that it might come true. No one here expects a happy tale, but we would like it to be interesting. We would like to tell each other the story arc and choose our favorite characters.

I once wrote a poem for my husband, who sometimes wonders where my stories are going and if they are going to end. It was a poem about what I had learned from him about marriage. I could not help but get the last word in, so I closed with what I hoped he had learned about marriage from me:

The plot of the story is not the point.
The point is, I am telling it to you.

Gabe reading The Economist while waiting for me to get chemo.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Day 1,530: KatyDid 39

Five birthdays.

I've had five birthdays since finding out I had an aggressive form of cancer.

I've had two birthdays since finding out I had cancer...again.

A year ago, I was recovering from the chemotherapy I received the day before my birthday. I had had less than a month to get used to my mastectomy.

Four years ago, I was at the tail end of AC chemo and I was skinny and tired and working full time and throwing a big party.

Twenty-nine years ago, I was born again into my tenth year, an age I couldn't have foreseen in October the year before, when I learned that death was real and walking was not always possible.

Eleven years ago, I spent my birthday in Maine with my boyfriend of four months, and I didn't know then that he already knew that he wanted to marry me.

Eighteen years ago, I went out to dinner with my boyfriend of more than three years, and I didn't even order a drink, though my mother gave me wine glasses as a present, and I still use those glasses today.

Eight years ago, I spent my first birthday as a mother.

Five years ago, I spent my first birthday as a mother of two.

Sixteen years ago, I woke up in my apartment that I lived in by myself and paid for by having two jobs, including one that led me to lie on a cold basement floor with a blow torch trying to fix an industrial boiler, and I loved it, every moment of my solitude and the things and the moments that were mine alone.

Twenty-three years ago, I got my driver's license; my best friend threw me an amazing party, complete with dozens of pictures that kids drew of me, two dozen roses, my first opportunity to spend the night with a boy, and the whole thing was a complete surprise; and I was allowed to spend the day alone with my boyfriend at his parents' cottage in Michigan (??).

I suppose I could have done things differently. I suppose things could have gone differently. But I didn't, and they didn't. While I would trade cancer away any day of the week, I wouldn't trade the rest of it, and now cancer is a part of it too. I've had many more birthdays than many people. I am now at an age that people pretend to be as they move further into the 40s that I've been dreaming of since 34. There are so many people who have accomplished so many more important things than what small things I have done, and they have done them in less time and with many more challenges.

Six years ago was the last birthday I would have without having written any of this.

And this, this writing, is the one thing I have always done, without feeling like I should be doing something else, without worrying about whether I'm any good at it, without caring if anyone read it, without it seeming like work. I've had 39 years of stories to tell and a way to tell them. I hope to have many more, but I know I might not. These years are something that for all intents and purposes should never have come to pass, not considering everything else that's happened.

So just wait until KatyDid 40.

It doesn't seem so impossible now.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Day 1,525: The Times I Didn't Cry

Maybe one day, I, and the people who love me, will look back on my life and feel it is defined more by what I didn't do when I was expected to do it than by what I did do.

Like all those times I didn't cry.

My kids had their last day of summer camp/school on Friday. For the last six and a half years, we have walked one or both of them to that Montessori school every single day. Gabe cried in the morning on the way over. The teachers cried when we picked them up, joining right along with Gabe and his crying. I didn't cry at all, and not because I didn't love the school, and not because I wasn't thinking about how my kids are getting older. I didn't cry in part because I just don't cry. It's not a thing that comes naturally to me. But that oversimplifies things. I didn't cry because I wasn't sad, I wasn't heartbroken, and I wasn't even sentimental.

I was happy.

I'm excited for my kids as they move on to new things. I've lived my life as if there is always something else to do, another step to take, another phase to move into, and I don't look at parenthood any differently. I don't cry thinking about their baby years; in fact, I don't even MISS the baby years. I don't wish I could hold them again when they were that small. I think instead about how they learned 98% of all the things they would ever need to know in their lives in those first few years, and how amazing that is, considering how helpless they were at the time. I didn't cry last weekend when Augie lost his first tooth, so much earlier than Lenny did, and we were all excited for him. Gabe cried, of course. And luckily it was me, not him, who put Lenny to bed that night. She looked at me and asked me if I had any dollar coins. I looked hard at her and said no, and why would I have them? Oh, no reason, she said. I was just wondering. I mean, mom, what if the tooth fairy forgets or something?

I could've cried to learn that my 8 year old no longer believes in that magic. I could've cried over how she tried to play it off like she still did in order to shield me from the truth. I could've cried over how she was trying to look out for her little brother, however imperfectly. But I didn't. I smiled. I told my mom about it the next day and she sniffed, clearly tearing up; I could tell even over the phone. And I said "Well. She's eight and a half." And what I meant was, now she can play the game with us.

I didn't cry when they were born. I didn't cry when I found out I was pregnant with either of them, even Augie--and I never expected that it was possible for me to get pregnant again. I haven't cried for any of their transitions with schools and child care centers. I can't think of any milestones that made me cry. Of course, this doesn't mean I haven't cried over my kids. I cried a whole hell of a lot when I was first diagnosed with cancer. I cried just from looking at them. The whole thing just broke my heart, to think what I had to give up, what I had to stop doing, what I might miss. I cried when I saw other people's children and teenagers. I just cried and cried and I felt like someone else.

I cried then because I didn't know how it would be, but I knew it would be bad; I cried because the change that was coming was complete bullshit. I cried because it's hard to think about dying for more than a few minutes without crying, taking drugs, or doing something really drastic, and crying was drastic for me. I cried at other points in their childhoods too, but sparingly.

Cancer brought out the crier in me. Lost loves have done the same, but only one of those even compared from a heartbreak perspective. Nothing much else has led me to cry. I have distinct memories of other people crying and realizing it would be normal for me to do so too. When I graduated from high school, my best friend cried and cried. I'm sure it was sadness and happiness all mixed together. I didn't cry. I smiled and laughed and thought about how long I had known her and yet I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there and I talked to people about how we would always write and call and attend each other's weddings even though I knew it was a lie. I only ever saw my best friend from college cry one time, and that was when she walked away from me when we graduated. I looked at her and knew I would miss her--but I didn't cry. I didn't cry at my wedding. Well, a single tear fell when my brother read the poem he had written for us, but everyone else was pretty much bawling in the aisles. I didn't cry over epilepsy, or my car accident, or over losing my breast. I didn't cry when I left for college or when my mother said goodbye to me. I didn't cry when that kid put a gun to my head--I didn't cry then, and I never cried about it later. I didn't cry when I was assaulted--I never cried over any of that, not ever. I cried when I had my head shaved back in July of 2010, but only briefly. I was exhausted from chemo and I weighed 111 pounds and I was convinced I looked like a boy, but this expression of resignation is the one I've always worn, and by always, I mean...pretty much always.

Sometimes, I wonder if there is something in me that is missing. Sometimes, I envy those who can cry so freely, like my husband. For a while there, I thought cancer had changed me, but the idea that cancer changes people is more convenient than it is true. Cancer made me cry for a while, but then I found myself still alive, and I found that I was still the same dry-eyed person. Cancer did not make me sentimental. It gave me reverse nostalgia, or...did it?

I've always thought--always, for as long as I can remember--that it would be wonderful to be old. Not just because I could just finally be the stubborn cantankerous person I really am deep inside and that would be a wonderful way to cap off a life well lived, but because of something my mother once said to me that I secretly agreed with, that I realize makes us different than some other people. She is probably a social loner like me. If you don't know what that means, well, you might not know us. My mother once said she always wanted to be old, living alone on a mountain somewhere, looking at the sky and knowing that everyone was all right. They didn't have to be there. Just knowing it was enough.

I was about 8 years old when I heard this. And I thought, me too.

I still think that. I can't cry as things change and move on because that's all I've ever wanted--to witness that happening, or even just to know about it. I never thought I would live to see my son reach kindergarten, and yet, he's going to start kindergarten in just a few weeks and I don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe when I drop him off at the door, I will cry. But it won't be because my little boy is getting so much bigger. It will be because we made it, both of us, and that means there is the possibility that we will keep on making it, to the next thing, and the next, and the next. These days, if I cry, it's not over what I've lost, but rather over how glad I am to be one step closer to the summit of the mountain, scared and breathless but not looking back.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Day 1,512: The Dog Days

This summer is coming to a close. It hardly seems possible. Didn't summer just begin? How can everything start and end at the same time? Why are we always coming and going? I remember summer stretching before me as an endless series of empty days, but empty in the best way. I remember how much there was to do when I had nothing to do. I work full time and can't give that kind of summer to my kids. Sometimes, I feel guilty about that, but most of the time, I don't. Sometimes I wonder how their summers differ from mine, which exist in some kind of hazy sepia in my mind but were probably really technicolor Koolaid in real life.

I wonder, so I decided to ask.

I asked my kids what they love about summer. What is it about summer that's different than any other time of year, what will they remember?

And they answered me.

Lenny said: going to the pool. going up north. catching fireflies. staying up late-ish. having a lot of time to play outside. no homework. mommy's birthday! riding my bike. seeing my summer school friends. parades. freeze pops.

Augie said: eating corn. waking up later. swimming in the lake and going to the beach. fireworks. popsicles. going to summer school together (with Lenny). minigolf. Daddy's birthday. also, I want to play flag football. and this summer is better than last summer because last summer I was only 4 and Lenny was 6.

And Lenny corrected him: Um, no, I was 7!

And then Augie finished with this: in a few weeks at the end of the summer it will be my very last day of Montessori. on your last day, you get to do whatever you want. you can do big thinking work. or read. or draw. you can do anything. But only on the day you're leaving forever.

OK. Well, what can I say to that? What is there to add? So, I asked Gabe, as he ran around outside cleaning gutters in the rain. What are the best things about summer?

And Gabe said: hammock time. sudden downpours in the sunlight. going from feeling like the humidity is a powerful fist in your face to the soothing cool of the air conditioning. mowing the lawn. sand castles. the clothes Katy wears that show off her legs.

So then I had to think about my own answers. I had a harder time. I guess when push comes to shove I would say:

fruit. the way it's so much cooler in the early mornings when I take my walks. the evening light in June. the beach. freckles. realizing I feel kind of insecure wearing a bikini again and it's because I've gained a little weight, not because I lost a breast. memories of other summers. my front porch. sandwiches for dinner. no socks. no shoes. putting the laundry outside to dry. rainstorms. other people's patios.

And then, there's this:

the best part about summer is this summer, specifically, being what it is. The best part is what my family didn't say. No one said, well, it sure as hell beats last summer. No one said, finally, a summer without cancer! No one reminded me what was going on a year ago. Their minds were lost in other thoughts.

And though my mind was not lost in other thoughts, and I did remember and think about what my family didn't say, now I can know this: I have given my family the kind of summer I remember. Maybe we have had those kinds of summers all along, no matter what else was happening. My children have had summers just like the ones of my childhood: colorful but already faded, busy and lazy, stubbornly placed outside of the real world, full of nothing more than the memories you'd like to keep.