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.

This One’s for Pop

After a couple of weeks away, I’ve forced myself to sit my butt in this chair and blog. We were at Mom & Dad’s last week for our annual July trip.  Had a great time, though Mom was under the weather and I did some things alone with the kids that she would normally have done with us.  She was a good sport, though — I mean, four kids under seven isn’t exactly a restful crew when you are convalescing, is it?  She was also trying to have her first full week of retirement.  I assume this week is going much better for her!

But Dad kept asking me when I was going to blog.  Since he is my steadfast reader, I am doing this one for him!  

I don’t have much to say today, or lately.  Have been busy writing, editing manuscripts, submitting here and there, or just wasting time on the SCBWI and blue boards.  I also joined the CBI Clubhouse because I need some more information, inspiration, and intentional time-suckers, since Facebook isn’t doing enough for me lately in the time-sucking category.

Back to vacation.  A wonderful week of busy fun, with enough cousin time to satisfy me, although the kids were disappointed not to have a sleepover this time around.  Gee, too bad!  (Say the weary chaperones)  My favorite part was going with all 9 (poor Aaron couldn’t come, too fidgety) to see the Bridgeport Bluefish play some other team.  We had fun seats on the first base line, the first three rows, and had plenty of room for the gang to be a little wild without bothering anyone.  The 3rd annual Cousin Olympics went well, what with the 400 water balloons I filled and with the addition of new events (3-legged race and water carry).

It is absolutely exhausting, frustrating, annoying, and wonderful getting those 10 kids together.  As they age it becomes both easier and more difficult, but when I step back and forget the stupid stuff, I remember how lucky we are to have 10 healthy, happy, joyful kids to invigorate our lives.  Every day.  

Sometimes, with my writing, I hold these kids out as my inspiration.  I hope that what I write and leave behind, what I put out into the world, can inspire kids to joy or creativity or adventure or wonder, just as these 10 do for me, without me even noticing it.

Pop, that’s for you.  You did a good job with all of us, and continue to do, with the next generation.

Tell that to the man in the mirror.

From Rain to Shine

Day one of our two week Cape Cod vacation was anything but boring.  Okay, it was a little boring, but in that great I’m-on-vacation way.  Ray had to go grocery shopping since we had only a couple of bagels and a variety of spices and condiments in the house.  I convinced him that taking the three girls would be fun, while Cooper, still nursing a fever, could stay home with me.  Great idea!  They left, I showered, we watched Shrek,  I caught up on some reading, and the skies opened.  A beach day didn’t seem to be in the near future.

The hours tick by — one, two, three.  Four?  Cooper practiced reading aloud and I practiced not worrying.  Naturally, the rest of my little family came home just over the four hour mark, setting a record in our house (interestingly, the grocery bill was also a record-setter).  A late lunch was punctuated by Ellie’s nonstop query:  “When are we going to the beach?  Are we going to the beach soon?  When are we going to the beach?”

Here’s why it took Ray so long:  a long list, sure, but Joanna’s vomiting episode mid-shop put them back a bit.  True parents of four kids, we both agreed that after a full clean up and clothing change, finishing the task instead of abandoning it was more prudent.   Joanna, number four, was a trouper.  Parents of one child are probably horrified.   I don’t blame them.  I’m sure all the books and magazines would admonish the dad to leave the full cart behind and head home to tend to sick toddler.   They’re probably right, but we had no food and no one had eaten since that morning.  Hunger prevailed.  Also a factor slowing them down was the traffic both in the store and out of the store was horrible, likely due to the poor weather.  Tourist from Pennsylvania: “Honey, it’s raining!  Let’s go shopping!”  His wife:  “Oh Ed, what a marvelous idea!  First let’s go to the grocery store!’

After a quick nap for Jojo, Ray and I caved to the incessant pleading.  The sun came out — so what if it was five o’clock?  We’re on vacation!  Off we went for an hour, Joanna still feverish and upset, but about as game as one could be in her position.  Cooper had done a turnaround, healthwise, and was angry he wasn’t allowed in the water.  We filled our time with sand castles, Frisbee, hermit crab gathering, and rock jetty exploration. A great way to end our first vacation day.

Vacation!

We’re finally here.  We didn’t leave home until mid-afternoon, about 5 hours after we’d hoped to get on the road, and didn’t arrive to our destination on Cape Cod until almost 4:30.  But we’re here!

Cooper and Ellie are both still feverish and cranky, with little energy or appetites.  Mitzi and Joanna are so full of excitement and energy they can’t stay still.  Makes for an interesting settling in time.  But we’re here!

At nine-thirty all four are still awake, restless in their still-unfamiliar surroundings.  It takes a few days to get used to being in a new place.  Until then, late bedtimes are the norm.  But we are here.

I am using a laptop and wireless internet connection, both sketchy, unreliable, slow.  But at least I can stay in touch while we’re on vacation.  God forbid I couldn’t chat with my sister each night.

Tomorrow we have grocery shopping on our to-do list, but we plan to hit the beach as early as possible.  Even in her feverish state, it was Ellie’s constant question since about 10a.m.  “When are we going to the beach,  Mommy?”

Every day, Ellie Belly.  We are here; we are on vacation.

A Friday Night Pity Party

Another one of just one of those days.  We’ve been on summer vacation since Tuesday, and already the kids are a little restless, ill behaved, seeking a new routine to ground their days.  Unsettled, we are all sniping at one another, navigating the forest of Nothing To Do.

Recently, as we discussed children, in particular how some need to be entertained every moment of the day, Uncle Frank quipped, “I tell them you are not bored, you are boring.”  How great, I thought, how true.  Kids who are bored just don’t know how to be creative.  They never learned that skill.  Not my kids, though.   I am proud of my ability to leave my kids alone to figure out how to amuse themselves.  This creative time for them usually gets them out of the kitchen so I can pry yesterday’s Cheerios from the wall behind Ellie’s booster chair or find out what that hairy thing under the stove really is.

Now if only I could be relaxed about the havoc they wreak during their invented games.

See, that’s my problem.  I can’t let go of my compulsion for tidiness, order, peace.  Since children by their very nature defy these characteristics, I am in big trouble as a parent.

It’s a control thing.  You know, like today.  All we had to do was get to the grocery store to pick up a few things we couldn’t get on our real trip two days ago (super-size pack of toilet paper, diapers, etc.).  Getting to the car took fifteen minutes.  Getting everyone buckled up, another five.  A five minute drive to Stop and Shop.  Getting out of the car and into the store, ten minutes, due to a certain two-year-old’s refusal to do anything but what she wants to do when she wants to do it.  Thirty minutes in the store.  Another ten to load car with purchases and children; another five home; another ten out.

An hour and a half to get six things.  Had I been alone, it would’ve taken fifteen, maybe twenty.

So a summer of this sort of thing lays before me like a choppy sea.  Maybe I could’ve made it fun for them, a treasure hunt, an adventure, something to get them excited about going to the store, being at the store, listening to Mommy, but honestly, I’m tired of being Jenny the Cruise Director.  Tired of having to come up with the nonstop entertainment, menus, sleeping arrangements, maintenance for this Love Boat.  Every day.  Without break.  Since 2002.

Just get in the car, I say. Why?  Because I said so.

Sometimes I envy Moms who go to work, just because they get a change of scene.  Or Moms with regular babysitters, nannies, time on the weekends to do stuff — ridiculous five minute errands! — without the kids in tow.

Sigh.  I know I am having a right old pity party.  I know it goes way too fast, I know I am so so so fortunate to be able to be here with my four children for every second, waking or not, of their rapidly changing lives.  I know.  But every once in a while a vacation is nice too.

Tomorrow we have a family outing for most of the day, Ray’s firm’s summer outing, full of games, fun, food.  The kids will be crazy with fun, sticky and overheated, just the way kids should be in the summertime.  In the evening Ray and I are going to a grownup party.  I’m excited for that, even though a part of me sort of just wants everyone else to go to the party so I can have some peace and quiet.

Even as I type this, Cooper creeps down the stairs (having been tucked in quite a while ago) and stands next to me, trying to be quiet, but unable to stop giggling.  “Mommy, will you have a cuddle with me?”

Yeah, I know.   I can have some peace and quiet right now, but hey.  I may be self-pitying, but I’m no fool.  How much longer will my only son want me to cuddle and sing him to sleep?

Gotta go.  See you tomorrow on the Promenade Deck.