My dad died. And I’m still waiting to cry for real.

I didn’t cry very much at the funeral.

I didn’t cry very much in the days before, either, but that was due to busyness. There were plans to make, flowers to choose, a Mass to plan, a scurry to find an organist to replace the one the church has a contract with but I haven’t ever been able to stand. There was shopping for dresses for myself and my daughters, a new pair of khakis for my son. Details. It was all very busy. There was also the small matter of writing something, since I’d agreed to speak at the funeral. I might claim to be a writer but I am not a public speaker. I have been known to weep while giving poetry awards to middle school students.

Any tears I had inside me must be cemented away, if I was going to get through. Any leaking, the dam would explode.

 

M&D 50th invite

On May 25th, we had a big party to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Steve and his wife Trish arranged everything at their club in Riverside, Connecticut. It was an achingly perfect near-summer day, weatherwise. It was an achingly perfect near-family celebration, too — my cousin Maria and her family from Massachusetts had a conflict, as did my cousins Marcello and John, but nearly everyone else came, including Dad’s brother from Florida, Uncle Jack, who had been struggling with some health issues so the mere fact of his flight was more than remarkable, plus his daughter, my cousin Sue, and her husband, also from Florida, with their adorable daughters whom some of us had never me yet. Aunts, uncles, cousins, generations laughing together, a big blue sky atop a crystal water, all to celebrate my parents’ love story.

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It was kind of idyllic, the oceanfront scenery and the kids frolicking and the grownups talking and everyone laughing and the picture-perfect day that lasted well into the evening. I could almost forget how, despite remembering every tiny detail for my little family’s outing, from bathing suits to changes of clothes and shoes and extra diabetes supplies, I actually forgot the insulin. So Ray had to do a 30-minute-each-way back to my brother’s house after Mitzi announced her pump was empty. Except for that, the day was nearly perfect, full of hugs and laughter and speeches and being-togetherness.
Mom and Dad glowed.

Dad’s cough didn’t seem to trouble him very much that day. IMG_4991

The cough started a few months before, I think. Doctors treated everything from allergies to acid reflux. Often keeping Dad from sleeping, my sister, who had been living with my parents in the past few months, confided that it sounded tubercular, half-joking. I know the cough was exhausting, even preventing him from traveling a few hours north to us in Massachusetts, for my Joanna’s first communion in mid-May. But by the anniversary party, he seemed okay. A rumble here, a rustle there. It didn’t stop him from standing up during the meal and, for the first time in my entire life, overcoming his introversion to talk about his love for my mother, the love they shared, the journey they travelled together.

No, the cough didn’t seem to be a problem whatsoever that day. May 25.

After that weekend, I settled back into the end-of-the-school-year routine at home. Tests, projects, field trips, six sports spread among the four kids. Schedules. A week after we got home, on June 9, Mom called to say Dad was in the hospital with extreme stomach pain. After four days of tests, heart issues, more tests, a couple of biopsies, Dad was released with a diagnosis. Liver cancer. On Monday, June 16th, a meeting with doctors resulted a treatment plan. The news was grim, but we are La Famiglia, and we all rolled up our sleeves. Life had never been easy for Dad or Mom or their road together, and they never did anything but work hard and believe in each other — and the rest of us, well, we were going to give some ass-kicking wherever required on our loved ones’ behalf. Liver cancer was no exception.

During that week, Dad was exhausted, in-and-out-of-awake, sleeping mostly in his office armchair. He had perked up on Father’s Day when some of the local grandchildren came by with cards and hugs, but was too exhausted to talk when we called from Massachusetts. Rest was what he needed, for sure. Phone calls could wait. Father’s Day was just another day, and another day was coming. We believed that.

A PET scan was given on Thursday, June 19, my kids’ last day of school. It was a struggle for Dad to get to the car, let alone into the machine, but surely it was the various medications interacting in bizarre ways. Of course. It couldn’t be more than that. A call was in place to the doctor. Obviously, an adjustment in meds was required, so we wanted to get on that right away.

All along, I talked with Mom every day, as much as I could. She was honest, ever faithful, and always stoic. Always the next step. Always the fight. Never the fear. Always the positive, the what’s next, the pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-get-it-done. Ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Always.

Almost always. I knew things might be serious one day that week when she almost cried. She almost said words of despair. Almost said words that were fatal but she knew if she said them she’d never get to take them back. Almost words. That’s when I started to get scared.

The kids had their last day of school on June 19. On June 20, the phone rang at 7 a.m. Now, in the school year, the phone ringing at 7 a.m. is commonplace. But that day? That day we had no school and the phone rang and the monotone phone voice said “call from CONNECTICUT” and Ray leapt out of bed before I had time to find my glasses on the nightstand and I knew some kind of shit had hit some kind of fan because no one ever calls at 7 a.m. on a non-school day. Ever.

It was my sister. Dad was back in the hospital via ambulance. Unresponsive. No word about anything. No, you don’t need to come yet. I told Ray to get in the shower to go to work. I smoked a cigarette. I made Ray his breakfast and lunch and had some coffee.

Forty-five minutes later, the phone rang again. My sister again. She spoke a bunch of words that made no sense to me, words like system fail. No recovery. Come now. I wasn’t sure if it was her tears that muddled the meaning of her words, or my own mind. I made her put Mom on the phone. Mom didn’t cry or falter. The words were the same as my sister’s had been, but Mom’s words were clear, bold-printed.

Come now. But don’t drive yourself. I don’t want to worry.

Two hours later I was on a train. Three hours after that, I stood in the ICU at the hospital, staring. Dad was hooked up to 19 different tubes. I knew he would be; my brother Harry had told me what was going on when he picked me up at the train. But hearing and seeing were different things. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say or do. Then Mom leaned over and kissed Dad and said, “Honey, Jennifer is here, and look at all her curly hair, and do you know she came down all the way from Massachusetts just now just to see you” and Dad rolled his eyes in my direction and sort of sat up and maybe he saw me so I kissed his forehead and I said, “Hi Daddy. It’s okay. It’s. Okay. I’m here, it’s Jenny and it’s okay.”

Ray drove down that night with the kids. In the meantime, Mom, my three siblings and I had met with doctors and with the hospice team. Dad’s liver was so far gone and his other organs were slowly shutting down that there was nothing left to do but keep him comfortable until the end. Later that evening he was moved to hospice. Until the end.

IMG_7741Less than three weeks earlier we’d been toasting 50 years of marriage. Less than three weeks since we’d spoke and loved and hugged and been alive together.

The next day, my mom’s sister and brother-in-law came down from Massachusetts. Mom’s little brother came up from New Jersey. My kids came to the hospital too. By then, Dad was comfortable, tubeless. He looked like he was sleeping, even snoring hugely from time to time, which made my kids laugh. They murmured to their Pop in varying awkward kid ways, first unsure what to do, then seeing it was okay to give him a kiss and laugh and tell him a story or two. There were muffins. The kids were okay — hugging and touching and awkwardly stroking Dad’s arm — even if the adults were less so. The nurses said Dad wouldn’t last the weekend. But they were wrong.

He was waiting, it was clear, but what for? My oldest nephew, Dad’s oldest grandchild, aged 15, with whom there was a tremendous bond, finally visited, after an understandable internal struggle. My mom’s littlest sister, who was only 12 when Dad and Mom married, and who barely remembered a life without Dad, was able to talk to Dad on the phone. So did Dad’s brother in Florida. Finally, my niece went to the hospital. The same age as my Mitzi, my niece and Dad had more than a tremendous bond, and I know she also struggled with going or not. How to see him last. How to remember him. My heart broke for her.

M&D175And yet Dad waited. There were a couple of times in the next day that he stirred and I smoothed his forehead and he opened one eye and seemed to see me. “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.” And then he’d settle back into a silent sleep, until the next time he stirred and someone else — Mom, Michelle, Harry, Steve — would comfort him once more. Sleep was easy with morphine and Adavan. Michelle and I played the Eagles on our phones propped on his pillow, and the five of us laughed and told stories to Dad (with Dad?) for hours. It was the longest period of time the six of us had been alone together since the summer days of New Hampshire.

On June 24, we half-heartedly wished my brother Steve a happy birthday. I meant to get him a Hostess cupcake from the convenience store on the way to the hospital that morning, but got distracted. By then, the days were weirdly the same, at least for me. The kids and I were staying with my brother Harry and his wife, Michele, since Ray had returned north for work that couldn’t be put off. Harry, Michele, and I would wake up, get the seven kids ready for the day, and take care of morning business. By noon, Michele would take the kids to the pool and Harry and I’d go to the hospital. Around 7, I’d return to give her a break. Harry would usually stay for a bit longer.

On June 24th, Steve’s birthday, Dad had developed a rattle in his throat, due to the failing of his swallowing reflex. I thought he looked uncomfortable; the nurses acknowledged my concern, though all agreed that the brow furrow was a natural wrinkle in his forehead, nothing new, but if it continued and I was still concerned, they’d give more Adavan. I didn’t argue. Usually, Mom and my sister left around 6 p.m., as they’d been there since around 8 a.m. That night, on June 24th, no one seemed eager to go. Finally Mom and Michelle left, Mom remarking that maybe she’d come back with Michelle that night. (Michelle had taken to returning around 9 p.m. Sometimes Steve was there and Harry. Or Michele. The hospice floor had no visiting hours — you could come and go 24/7, because the death watch had no time frame and even the security guards knew it).

 

I left around 7, knowing Michele needed a break from parenting my kids. She brought my brother dinner and some ice cream. They sat with Dad and talked softly with him for awhile. When the nurses came to adjust Dad’s body position, Harry and Michele left to give the nurses space. They probably hung out near the elevators, away from the patient rooms, softly chatting about everything and nothing. A few minutes later, an orderly ran up to them. Come. Now. So they did.

And Dad drew his last breath.

My sister Michelle was on her way to the hospital when Harry called with the news a few minutes later. So Michelle turned around on the highway, to go home to get Mom, who only ever wanted during all of this to be with Dad at the very end.

And Harry called me, too, as I was wrangling a houseful of kids to their beds. When my sister-in-law came home I went to the hospital. Mom and Michelle were already there. I held Dad’s hand until the warmth faded and his skin was cold and still I could not let it go, kissing his forearm repeatedly, like I do sometimes with my children when they let me. And then a few minutes more than that. I finally suggested Mom wanted privacy with Dad. So we all left.

I have no idea what a person says to someone who has been the bulk of her world since age 15 or so. Is there any way to say goodbye to half of yourself?

It was June 24. Less than a month since celebrating 50 years of marriage, plus a few years of love before that. Dad was only 71 years old.M&D200

The next day I told my kids.

Then there was a lot of busy, including the pressure of writing and speaking. As usual, I wrote until the last minute.

I had yet to really cry. Even at the wake, when I watched the grandchildren finally take my advice of writing notes to their Pop — thankfully, Mitzi knows I always keep a notebook in my oversized purse — one by one tucking them into the pocket of his suit coat. At the wake, where so many people came to share their love and shock, some from so very far away it was almost ridiculous and yet so very touching I couldn’t catch my breath.

I had yet to cry.

Even at the funeral. Watching my husband and cousins and friends carry Dad’s coffin to a hearse. Spreading a cloth on the coffin. Listening to the prayers and songs I’d helped to choose, all expressed with supreme love and compassion by people who actually cared about Dad and me and my sister and brothers and mostly my mom. I had yet to cry, even when I had Ellie on my right, silently bawling, and Joanna on my left with her own quiet nonstop tears and next to her was Cooper and then Mitzi and how could my arms ever be that long and strong to comfort them? So I stretched and they cried, and I curled around their tears so tightly that I couldn’t shed my own.

My brothers spoke, at the end of the service, and oh my gosh, so eloquent and they too cried without shame but continued their words even through their tears and those words leveled me. And they broke my heart, with their words and their tears and their nakedness.

I still didn’t cry.

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I’m supposed to be a writer. Not a speaker. My dad wasn’t much of a speaker, but he was overflowing with emotions and words that begged to come out. The only time I heard him talk in front of a crowd was the month before, on May 25th, to honor and express love for my mother.

My dad died on June 24th.

I had to speak. I had to be as brave as he had always been.

So this is what I said. I wrote these words and I stood up and read them out loud and I did not cry.

 

 

I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say today, and some wise writer friends, who have come to know Dad a little bit through Facebook and my own stories, suggested that I just write him a letter.

So I did.

Daddy, 

As I write this, I am sitting on Harry’s deck just after I woke up. It’s the sort of early morning you’d really enjoy. The landscape is glistening with last night’s rain, and the air has a chill that belies the predicted awful humidity. The sun is starting to peek over the tall trees Harry keeps threatening to cut down, and there’s a faraway sound of a neighbor doing yard work. It’s the sort of morning where you’d be up early, as usual, and if you had no appointments or clients, you too would be outside, blowing the mess off your deck, or maybe just sitting, as I am, watching the sun climb in the sky, thanking God for another day to enjoy and for all the people we’re lucky to love.

I was trying to think of my earliest memory of you, but very old memories are my brothers’ area. Sometimes I think I write in order to find my memories, every word scribbled in hopes of unlocking moments in time from long ago when I was very young. It’s often hard to separate true memories from family legend — all the stories told so many times that they have a life of their own, or from the hundreds of familiar photographs in albums or in slides that are burned in my mind 

I guess it doesn’t matter how the memories were created, just that they exist.

I seem to have more of a sense-memory, feelings, recollections of touch and sound. For instance, I remember you hardly ever got to sleep late, but when you did, there was nothing better than to crawl into bed with you, to be silent and close against your still form. Even in those quiet moments, I knew you would always protect me. 

As a child, I took you for granted, as children do. As an adult, I can look back and truly appreciate all the amazing sacrifices you made, your uncomplaining energy and commitment to whatever you were doing. I took for granted that you left the house every day by 6 a.m. to go to work, and didn’t get home again until around 8 p.m. The five-hour-each-way trips you made to New Hampshire every weekend in the summer, just to be with us. I know that you weren’t always able to be there for every performance or field day or tennis game or band competition, but I never resented that, because I knew that you’d be there in a heartbeat if you could, and you were with me in spirit. Because there were so many times you were there for real. The New Hampshire moments, the times at Indian Lake where you pushed me back and forth in that red plastic boat, the time that you and Uncle Jack built the deck and we had lobsters in the wading pool, weekends of raking leaves when we “helped” and you didn’t care that we made a bigger mess for you to clean up, the way you brought me things like Swarovski crystal figurines whenever you took a faraway trip. 

You were also there for the middle and high school years, when drama overflowed in my world. You didn’t always understand what was going on, but you always gave me a hug and assured me that, whatever it was, it was going to be okay. Especially if I went in another room and talked with Mom. Despite the drama, I think it always made you happy to have so many of our friends in and out of the door – especially if it meant that you could advise them on their future, or tease them mercilessly – especially to tease them.

What a teaser you always have been! That sense of humor! It’s hard to picture you without a smile on your face. From corny jokes, to quoting goofy movies with us ad nauseum – there was always a laugh to be had with you. And you took it as well as you gave it, whether it was when we were little and discovered that it REALLY bugged you to have your socks pushed down, so we sat on the floor in front of you and pushed them down. You pulled them up. We pushed them down. This could go on for hours, it seemed. And you never complained! At least to our faces. Or when we were older, and we would brush out teeth in any other room but the bathroom, because it drove you absolutely bananas – it was especially effective if you had your back to us so we could gesture at each other while you pretended not to notice.

No joke ever got too old with us.

And so it went, through my college years (yes, I know, who can keep track of my colleges, ha ha ha) and through first jobs and various moves (let’s not ever speak of Miami), until I wound up in Boston and started a new chapter. For every step you were there, not judging, offering advice when asked (and sometimes when not). You never forgot to remember – every time the mailman brought a white envelope with your caps-only handwriting, I couldn’t wait to see what article you’d clipped from the New York Times just for me. There would also be a short note of love and a sage bit of wisdom – plus a $20 bill, because you not only believed in supporting my spirit, you also believed in supporting my “miscellaneous fund” account.

By the way, I don’t think that any of what I just said is proof that I am your favorite. I know that, like all parents, you never actually had a favorite – you were most happy with whoever was bugging you less at the moment. So, I won’t even mention the idea that you had a favorite, because I know you have always loved us all equally. There are no favorites. [points to self] 

So, okay, I really did enjoy the occasional $20 bill, but especially over the last fifteen years, I mostly enjoyed your words of inspiration. It’s kind of funny how your journey of recovery almost exactly aligns with my journey as a parent and as a serious writer. No one has been a bigger cheerleader for me – not only for my writing, but more for “me.” You learned some tough lessons about taking care of yourself, and you always shared them – you were the first to tell me to leave the dishes or laundry, and go for a walk. Forget the vacuum – work on my books. You always knew I’d be responsible, but you never wanted me to forget myself in the process. You became a person who tried to live entirely in the moment, and how I loved that about you! Especially when it meant a daily Buddha quote in the family email. (Though I really loved it when you started sharing bad jokes, especially the lawyer ones, but don’t tell Ray that.) 

I hope that right now you are enjoying an endless Christmas Eve dinner with all the grandparents, and the Christmas Day dinner too, with Mom’s cioppino and manicotti and bracciole, with Grandpa’s unlimited spoonfuls of pasta, and walnut-stuffed figs and filled cookies and a little anisette in your coffee, and there is card-playing and tons of laughter — and if possible, that this all happens on a forever lake where the sun shimmers off the water and the breeze tickles your face and the air is soft all around you. And even though we never won a single Christmas game as partners all those years, if they have those too where you are, I hope you continue our tradition of always being one of the pair with the best sense of humor. Also that pugnacious thing for which Uncle Frank always threw an award our way. Wise-cracking and never-giving-up, that is us. I couldn’t have asked for a better kindred games spirit. 

Oh, Daddy, how lucky I was to win you and Mommy in the cosmic parent lottery! How lucky my kids are to have you as their Muggy and Pop – and not just for the goodbye Oreos or for the unlimited computer time or the nonstop pool time or Chinese food for twenty. I know you didn’t always think the sun rose and set on the 10 of them, at least not every day, but danged if you and Mom didn’t always made each kid believe it was so.

There is so much to say, Daddy, a million moments to remember…but I think you already know. I think you always did.

And you know what? It turns out, I remember them too.

Every one.

Huh. Imagine that. I remember.

Daddy, I love you.

Take it easy.

 

My dad died on June 24, 2014. He was 71 years old.

The tears have come a bit, here and there. But I’m afraid to let them flow, unchecked. Because if they come, I don’t think they’ll ever stop.

Maybe I just miss him too much to cry.

Or maybe right now, tears are not enough. Not nearly enough.

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Turning into your mother? Why the inevitable is not so bad, after all.

Far more than wrinkles, sagging boobs and loss of flexibility, it seems women everywhere have one giant fear: turning into their mother. 

You know you’ve heard the words from your friends, or uttered them yourself: Oh my god, I canNOT believe it, I sound just like my mother! Or, Please just kill me if you ever see me doing THAT! Or, Help, I’m becoming just like HER!

There are books devoted to the subject, every May women’s magazines and newspapers alike rehash the topic, and if you Google the phrase “turning into Mom”, you’ll get thousands of hits.

Everywhere the very idea of being Mom is mocked, reviled. You may not wear Mom jeans, have Mom hair, observe a practical Mom bedtime. Shame on you if you do.

Ours is a youth-obssessed society; that’s certainly no newslfash. Because “Mom” is somehow synonymous with “old”, women seem desperate to avoid the title, unless it comes attached to a perfectly posed black-and-white image of peaceful Mom cuddling sleeping infant. You can be a Mom, but you can’t look or behave like one.

I don’t get it.

I understand that there are plenty of women out there who grew up with deeply flawed mothers, and that the very idea of turning into that parent — that women — is more than distasteful. It’s downright horrifying. I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about the rest of us. And, believe me, there was a time when I was much younger, that I would cringe whenever someone teased me, saying my words or actions were just like my mother’s. After all, like everyone, I wanted to be me, to be an individual, to be my own person.

But that’s youth. That’s when we’re supposed to flail and search and find a path to becoming ourselves.

Then we grow up a little and realize that particular journey of self is never-ending. At the same time, we figure out that parts of us are immutable — and reflecting our parents is one of those parts.  This article in Psychology Today explores how neuroscience and genetics can help explain this, and offers some insight regarding ways we can alter our Mom “genes” to shape our own relationships.

On the other hand, maybe we don’t want to, not entirely. These days, when someone compares me to my mother, I’m flattered. She is, of course, a flawed human being, as we all are (no, I will not count the ways either of us makes mistakes), but overall, I could do much, much worse than to emulate her — with my own flair, of course.

I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and see a bit of her face etched on mine. When someone doesn’t arrive home when I expect them to, I pace in front of the windows, lips pursed, pretending not to be worried and failing miserably. And while I don’t yet say, “Oh, good Lord,” I have been known to utter a few “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”s from time to time.

I hope I have inherited the good stuff too, her endless generosity and unconditional love. Her daily attitude: “When you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, step out from under it and do something kind for someone else. Lo and behold, just that extension of kindness will lighten your burden, free up your shoulders, and make your world feel a little brighter.” The way she calls me, almost every day at the same time, and doesn’t get upset when I can’t get to the phone. The way she is plunging forward in retirement to immerse herself in her new passions of art and music.

Every day, as I settle a little bit further into who I am, I can’t help but notice the phantom reach of the women who helped me get here — not just my own mother, but my grandmother too, and my aunts, and friends’ mothers — I can’t help but feel the arms that held me and guided me, even when I was fighting against them. They are not me, but they are a part of who I am.

As I’m writing this, I’m wearing a pair of old jeans. You might call them Mom jeans. I’m also wearing my long house sweater — my Mom sweater?

Turning into Mom?

Things could be worse.

An overdue vacation with many winding roads

Ray and I were married in October 2000 — 11 years ago. Because I was a teacher, we took our honeymoon the following spring when I was on break, a wonderful week-long cruise through the Caribbean. We had no idea it would be years before we’d have another vacation, just the two of us.

Life happened. Kids came, 4 bundles in a 5-year span. Jobs came and went and came again. Houses were bought and sold. We moved 4 times in 5 years. Every October we celebrated our anniversary — next year we’ll get away, we promised each other, clinking our wine glasses before one of us had to go upstairs to see which child was awake and crying or needed a cup of water. When our 40th birthdays neared — first his one year, mine the next — we promised again. But life being the way life is, our long-awaited vacation never came. But it was okay. Challenges notwithstanding, life was very, very good. We were happy.  I mean, we still talked about getting away and were a little jealous of those who seemed to do it regularly, with ease, but it wasn’t devastating. It was just a vacation, not life or death.

But we agreed that, with our 10th anniversary approaching, we’d really try to make it happen. We could leave the kids with my parents and scoot off to the Cape for a weekend — offseason, prices are reasonable, and, frankly, Cape Cod is just as beautiful in the fall as in the summer. Why not?

Then, June 2010, Mitzi was diagnosed with diabetes. Our world was turned upside down. While we adjusted to our new normal, October came and went, with hardly a whisper, and with it, our anniversary. Leaving Mitzi, with the complicated system of insulin dosing and food monitoring, was out of the question. And I was still too scared to let her out of my sight for more than the few hours she went to school — where she was monitored constantly by the wonderful, extremely able nurse.

And that’s the way life was. In the scheme of things, taking a vacation is not a big deal — fun, yes, necessary for stress-release, yes, rejuvenating, yes, but not a priority.

A few weeks ago, my friend called me up to ask a favor. She and her husband had the rare chance for an overnight away — she was getting someone to stay with the kids, but would we take their son (one of Cooper’s best friends) to basketball tryouts? I suggested that he just stay over, since it would be fun for the boys and no trouble, and her older daughters (middle and high school students) could easily have sleepovers of their own. She took a little convincing, but accepted my offer. When she picked him up, she was relaxed, gushing thanks, and said it was my turn. Just say when, and we’ll take them all.

I wondered, was I ready to leave Mitzi? Could I ask someone to take the responsibility for her, for Cooper with his new asthma medication regimen, plus the two little girls? It seemed like a lot. But, when we got together on Thanksgiving night, they pressed us, insisted — they even gave us a gift certificate they’d never used for a bed and breakfast, one that had been sitting in a file for 4 years, and probably would never see the light of day. Go away, they said. You can do it.

I thought, we can. This couple is amazing — wonderful, generous, warm, easy-going, responsible, fun — and the kids would have as much fun on their vacation as we would on ours. Mitzi has been using an insulin pump for seven months, and 99 out of 100 days it works the way it’s supposed to. We could get away for less than 24 hours. On Friday we made the quick decision. Called the b&b and confirmed availability. Finished the dishes from the holiday. Showered the kids. Secretly packed one bag for them, one bag for us. The weather — bright sunshine, sixty degrees — spurred us on. And as we predicted, the kids reacted as if they were going to Disney. Not one looked remotely sad to say goodbye to us, not even Joanna

we almost slept here!

who sometimes gets clingy before the bus to kindergarten.

It was good. We drove north for an hour and half, arriving around 4 o’clock in the small town of Rockport in Cape Ann. The inn was adorable, and being off season, quiet. Still. Peaceful. We got a brief tour of the house, settled our bags, and drove into Gloucester to find a place for dinner. (Off season, Rockport eateries are all but shut down until the spring, and we wanted a few more choices than the town offered).

We found a lovely place and because we were so early, enjoyed the attention of Joe, the young waiter who was happy to chat with us, to pace our meal well, letting us take our time as other patrons gradually filled the room. We lingered over appetizers, rested before our entrees, listened to the live music when the band showed up. We contemplated coffee and dessert, but thought maybe buying pastries elsewhere would be fun. Our waiter directed us to an Italian bakery (owned by a member of his family). We were decadent in our choices — cannolli, pignoli cookies, a not-that-small pastry of peanut butter and chocolate. We stopped for a bottle of wine and headed back to the inn.

It was like dating all over again.

Until the phone call. It was Mitzi. Her blood sugar numbers was off-the-chart high. The level of ketones in her blood was also scary high. Something had gone wrong with the pump — the insulin wasn’t getting into her body, causing the ketones to build up, which, if left unchecked, could lead to a life-threatening situation of diabetic ketoacidosis, which is what put her in the intensive care unit when she was first diagnosed.

Normally, if we were at home, I’d give her insulin using a syringe, and figure out how the pump had failed. This far away, all I could do was have her — for the first time ever — change the infusion set (the part that attaches to her body) and give a dose of insulin that way. She put me on speaker phone so I could talk while she and my friend went through all the steps — successfully. I told her to wait 45 minutes and retest her blood, praying the number would come down.

After I hung up, Ray and I just looked at each other. Vacation was over. We’d never even had a chance to unpack our bag.

Even if her number started to come down, the situation would require constant overnight monitoring, something I just couldn’t ask my friend to do. More than that, though, I needed to be with my child. I needed her close. I needed to watch her breathe and make sure she was okay.

It was around 10:15 p.m. when we got back on the road, this time heading south, to home.

I checked in with Mitzi during the trip. The numbers were coming down, the ketones dissipating. The insulin was working. By the time we got there, things were looking good. The numbers were all still high, but not scary. We’d managed to avoid the emergency room or a 911 visit. Being nine years old, Mitzi wanted to stay over, distraught that she’d miss out on the fun of waking up at a friend’s house and breakfast and play time. We insisted, and she cried desperately, all the way home, all the way to her room. I let her get it out of her system. Part of me felt the same way — because part of what we were both railing against was the absolute injustice of it all, of having diabetes, and all the ways it complicates her young life. So much is not carefree for her, and we both know it. Sometimes a good, cleansing tantrum is necessary.

So I sat with her, and held her, and explained that she could feel free to call me the worst mother in the world, tell me that she’d hate me forever, declare that she’d never forgive me. She could say all those things, I explained, but it would never change this — keeping my child was the absolute priority in my life, and I would do anything to keep her safe and healthy. Anything. Even if it made her hate me. Being her parent was not a popularity contest.

It turns out that my precocious child, knowing that if her blood sugar normalized she’d be allowed to stay over, had given herself three times the amount of insulin I’d told her to. Now that we were at home, we had the opposite problem we’d had before — her number was going too low, and there was no telling how fast it would drop. We stayed up to treat with fast-acting sugar, balanced by snacks, and eventually everything was regulated. Ray got up around 3 a.m. to check that she was still in a safe range. By 8 a.m. she was low again. It was a roller coaster.

By 9 a.m., Mitzi wanted to join the other kids for their morning of fun. The dad came to pick her up — they both felt terrible that things had gone so wrong for all of us, and hoped to give us at least a few more kid-free hours today. Like I said, they are pretty amazing people.

So here I sit. The house is quiet — not as quiet as the inn, and not so charmingly decorated, but peaceful. The kids are safe, and Ray and I had a night out. Okay, it was a little more exciting and complicated than we’d envisioned, but a night out nonetheless.

And there were moments of serendipity too. Just before our entrees were served, the first member of the band showed up with a guitar, and, thinking he was alone, I wondered if he would perform singer-songwriter numbers. Then a bass player arrived. After setting up, the guitar player began, alone. I turned to Ray. “Doesn’t he sound like Grandpa?” We listened, thinking our separate thoughts. After the number, Ray spoke to the musician — did he know any Tony Mottola tunes? Turns out, he did. Ray explained the Tony’s granddaughter was here. That’s funny, the musician said, I played at his granddaughter’s wedding, in fact, I played for two of his granddaughter’s weddings. He and Ray talked some more about the coincidence, and the next number was one of my grandfather’s songs.

Our wedding band was Bombay Jim and the Swinging Sapphires. They played at my cousin Maria’s wedding in 2009, and we loved them so much we paid them extra to travel to Connecticut and play for ours. I danced with my grandpa to the song he wrote for me when I was born, just as Maria had at her wedding. At both, Grandpa was thrilled to hear his music emerge under the skilled fingers of another artist, smiling widely to be not only witness to his granddaughters’ happiness, but to experience again the level of joy he’d felt when composing the notes that now played for them on their glorious days.

I sat in that restaurant and listened to the song and remembered.

It had to be more than coincidence.

Our first getaway in 11 years brought us to a small, offseason seaside town north of Boston. A half-hour walk up and down the street, reading menus and making choices led us to a certain restaurant, one of a dozen we could have picked. The performer at our restaurant of choice happened to have played at our wedding — just months before our last vacation.

It could have just been a surprising series of events that brought us there. But I don’t know.

That our night away was cut short by the rare malfunction of the insulin pump — the tiny tube that rests under Mitzi’s skin had bent, probably while she was playing, probably because her stomach muscles tightened and the tube was bumped, probably this because it had been otherwise working all day to that point — doesn’t really matter now.

See, my grandfather was a family man. Over the many years of his career he had opportunities to move, to explore options that were perhaps more glamorous and financially rewarding. But he stayed where he was — building a stellar career and establishing himself as one of the best guitar players in his field — all without sacrificing the stability of his family. La famiglia.

My grandfather was Tony, and his wife was Mitzi.

Ray and I had a wonderful night out — twists and turn and surprises, but also time alone to laugh and talk and for a few hours, feel totally unencumbered. And perhaps throughout it all, my grandparents watched over us, undoubtedly delighted that we were having so much fun. But in the end, la famiglia is what matters.

And the pastries and wine? They’re in the kitchen now, waiting. Everyone is safe and well today.  Perhaps tonight after the kids go to bed, Ray and I will bring out our treats and toast our family and friends.

A vacation isn’t a location, after all. It can be simply a state of mind, if only you know where to look.

In Support of Team Lucy!

Few things are more exhilarating than a walk in crisp fall air.  If you’re going to be doing it, why not do it for a great cause?

 

Dust off your sneakers and join hundreds of other walkers on October 11 in support of the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress.  The 2009 MDSC Buddy Walk and Family Picnic will be held at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield.

 

Some other fall walks garner more publicity and national support (such as the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, which I’ll be participating in that same October weekend), but that doesn’t make the cause less important.  In fact, some would say, perhaps this walk deserves much more attention.

 

10522_128073829348_556624348_2292342_644634_nI’m sad to have already committed last year to the Avon Walk, or I’d be lacing up to join Team Lucy, a group of walkers organized by Boston Globe columnist Beverly Beckham, in honor of her granddaughter Lucy, age 6, who has Down Syndrome.  Lucy is the daughter of Boston Herald columnist Lauren Beckham Falcone, a terrific writer, a great friend, and an inspiring mom.   The team’s goal is to gather 100 walkers and raise $10,000 for the MDSC.

 

Raising a child is never easy under any circumstances, but the hurdles while raising a child with different needs, one that our world is sadly not always prepared for, must seem insurmountable at times.  Lucy is the same age as Cooper.  When Cooper was 15 days old, he was hospitalized for 2 days after contracting RSV (but rebounded quickly and soon grew rather fat while nursing around the clock).  Lucy, meanwhile, underwent multiple surgeries to repair holes in her heart.  I thought our hospital experience was scary — I can only imagine how Lauren and her husband Dave felt each time they took their baby back for more.

 

These days, though, Lucy is a healthy and happy kindergartner, surrounded by an adoring family and a supportive community.  The local paper, the Canton Citizen, recently ran an article about the amazing residents.   

 

At back-to-school time, our society refocuses on kids, encouraging their growth and learning, celebrating their successes and possibilities.  This is the perfect time to also celebrate this amazing group of people — for being exactly as they are.