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
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.