Wednesday, January 09, 2008

While the Rest of the World is Asleep

Late, late at night, I hear it again. A quiet, unfamiliar voice in a familiar sort of way calls, "Mommy."

The night seems so very still. More so than usual, which might explain why I've been so restless and unable to get comfortable even in my own bed. Maybe it's time to buy new pillows, I think, as I flip the hot and lumpy shape under my head.


I get up to find out who is having a bad dream or if anyone needs a drink of water. It's not Andy. As I slip into his room I smile when I hear his loud, uneven snoring that reminds me of the noise my grandfather made while he slept. Andy is only eight, though. What will he sound like when he's an old man? Already I feel sorry for his wife.

Andy hasn't called out for me at night in a long time. On the rare occasion that he needs me, he clumsily appears only inches away from my face, talking about how he didn't get dessert that night, so could he please have two Fudgesicles tomorrow.

I pull the blanket up under his chin and kiss his soft cheek as I whisper, "Good night, Andy." He mumbles something about whether tomorrow is a school day or is it still summertime, and I move on to peek in Aimee's room.

She is breathing noisily and deeply in a nest of troll dolls in her bed. The soft glow of her night light is enough to set off an interesting northern lights effect from the flourescent-colored hair of her beloved trolls. When this four-year-old wakes up at night, she either calls me hysterically, because she sees a monster--or very, very softly, because the monster is about to eat her.

Once again, I think I hear a voice. It is clear and quiet, a child's voice. Unlike the ones I know, it is neither afraid nor demanding. I realize once again that I have been blessed to hear the voices of children I have lost: one two years before Andy, the other two years before Aimee.

I walk down the stairs to the living room, where I look out into the darkness and try to catch a glimpse of a star, the moon, or even a porch light. I wonder so many things. Little ones, do you hold hands, and keep each other company? Are you friends? I assume you transcended all sibling rivalry. Does it make you sad that I only think about you sometimes? It's really not that I forget; I just can't let myself think about you all of the time.

I ought to pause more often than I do to whisper a quick prayer or hello to you. Do you miss me, too? I so wish I could have held you, known you. But I did hold you, as only a mother can--as tightly and as closely as I held my other children before they were born.

Do you visit Andy and Aimee too? Aimee told me one night she saw an angel sitting on her bed, and I tried to tell her about you. I was glad that she didn't ask too many questions that I can't even answer for myself. I don't know why two of my children were called so soon and two were not.

"Mommy." It is a gentle, peaceful voice. You are in a better place than the rest of your family; I do not worry about you getting chicken pox, falling off of your bikes, or being taken from our yard by a stranger. But I will always have this lingering sadness of not having met.

I never held them in my arms, I never nursed them to sleep. I never rocked them or sang to them or kissed their little toes. I never said good-bye, because I never really got a chance to say hello. But I trust they know that I hold them deep, deep in my heart, where it still hurts like crazy, but it's a pain I almostly selfishly embrace during quiet moments like these, while the rest of the world sleeps.

I count back to figure out how old they would be now. Wiping away my tears, I say a prayer that they both will continue to check in now and then. And when I'm so sleepy that I can't tell whether that "Mommy" called out in the middle of the night is real or a dream, I will awaken and get up and check. Just in case.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Billable Hours and Sea Monkeys

You arrived just after eleven p.m. and the look on your face told me how grueling your day had been. You were determined to tell me all about it. I was determined to distract you.

Leave it at the office. Take a break. This is your haven, your oasis. Yes, those are still breakfast dishes in the sink, but let me tell you about the sea monkeys! They came!

Intent on describing, blow by blow, your horrible day, you recounted that the alarm didn't go off, or we didn't hear it, or you hit the snooze button one time too many. You had cut your shower short by almost ten minutes. You noticed while getting dressed that both hems were finally falling out of the suit pants you pulled on. You were missing a button on your last clean shirt, and your power tie was determined to pouf out, exposing the red "X" of the discount outlet where I bought it.

Sea monkeys. Remember how much we loved that name when we saw the magazine ad? They're finally here; the mailman even brought them to the door. He saw that the package was marked, "Contents: Sea Monkeys," and he worried that they might be perishable.

You had to run for a bus that had no air conditioning on this sweltering 96 degree, 96% humidity day. The weatherman reminded us over and over that the air quality was in the hazardous range. Which one of us said we wanted to live in the Washington, D.C. area, anyway?

Have you ever seen a real sea monkey? The kids can't wait until they hatch. They checked them every couple of minutes, all day long. They actually believe these things will look just like tiny little monkeys, with cute chimp faces and long, curling tails.

Your secretary didn't show up again, and the temp they sent you brought along an attitude and her own little TV set to put on her desk.

So, we read the directions together right after the mailman brought the package. Andy carefully got the glass of water, and he let Aimee help by pouring in the packet of sea monkeys. They were so excited! Maybe they will stop asking us for a dog or a cat for awhile.

You found out that one of your filings got sent to a client on the opposing side yesterday. "A big no-no," you added for emphasis. You were late getting your billable hours report turned in, so your paycheck didn't come this morning, and how could we be overdrawn again???

They were only $2.98, that is not what caused our account to be overdrawn. The kids have come up with all kinds of names for their soon-to-hatch pets. We have no idea how many will make it, but we have plenty of names, just in case this is a good bunch. Andy wrote most of them down: Zorbud, Titanic, Fuselage, Violet Chloe. Where did "Violet Chloe" come from? Aimee just wants to name them all "Aimee". What are sea monkeys anyway, do you know?

You barely had time to go to the bathroom today. The leftovers you "wolfed down" at your desk for lunch spilled and landed on your shirt. You tried, but tomato sauce only gets worse when you rub it with dry paper towel.

We have to feed these things some kind of protein out of a packet. But we can't feed it to them until they hatch or it will kill them. How do we tell when they have hatched? These guys are microscopic. But they do come with a Limited Life Insurance Policy!

The temp lost an important document on the computer that you'd been working on for two weeks. She says you lost it. She even told your boss's secretary. Your secretary left a message that she'd be out for the rest of the week. She wondered if you still had a copy of her resume that you could fax to her.

We watched and watched for something miraculous to happen in that glass of water. Maybe it will happen during the night. The directions say it can take anywhere from four hours to fourteen days, depending on the conditions. The kids were so afraid they'd miss something while they were asleep.

On your way out of the building tonight, you rode in the elevator with your boss, who mentioned that he was only going out for a quick bite. Another senior attorney on the elevator called you by the other Hispanic associate's last name, and said he hasn't seen you around lately. He glanced first at the place where the button was missing, and then at the big orange splotch.

Finally done pacing, back and forth in the family room, you head into the kitchen for your reprieve--a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. "Okay, okay," you say. "Where is this gimmick you fell for?" You start to mutter again that this has been one of the worst days you've had in a long time.

As I walk into the kitchen, my eyes open wide and I walk right back out. I just don't have the heart to tell you that you've lost another button on your shirt. And that you just drank the sea monkeys.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Life is Short

A mean rumble rose from deep down under my soles. The ground shifted and slid, making long, scary cracks in my basement floor, knocking down my best snowman ever, breaking most of the glass in my house, even almost making my dad cry.

After moving far away, from Alaska to Virginia, Mom wondered why I still slept in bed with my shoes on. I needed to be ready to run. That was a lot of glass.

Years later, another Good Friday approaches. I check for cracks in the basement, and my shoes are always close. My kids aren’t allowed to go barefoot.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stealing Home

In the beginning, he was nervous and unsure—afraid of making a mistake. The brand new gym shorts and t-shirt bore no telltale signs of an athlete. No Gatorade stains, no frayed seams, no unmistakable “I’ve done my workout” aroma. To be honest, he just didn’t look like he belonged in the middle of a ball field, baseball mitt stiff on his unpracticed hand. Even the bright red baseball hat on his head seemed awkward and out of place. It looked like the band was fastened two or three notches too tight, causing his eyebrows to bulge a little. His movements when throwing or running for a ball were short and choppy; similar to advancing a videotape frame by frame with the deliberate clicks of a remote control.

This is now his third season of T-Ball, though, and everything is finally falling into place. He is getting a better grasp of the big picture, both on and off the field. Approaching the outfield, he slips the well-worn faded cap low on his sweaty forehead and hollers, “Let’s play some ball!” He kicks the dirt appropriately, runs the bases with ease, and scoops up those clunking grounders nearly effortlessly, with his beloved glove that feels soft and comfortable. He has learned when to say “Good job,” “Nice swing,” and “Heads up!” And he never stops smiling while on that field, for he is truly in love with this game.

My son enjoys baseball, too, but it is my husband who is in love. My place is on the sidelines. I am the pitcher’s mom, the batgirl’s mom, and the coach’s wife.

He has come a long way and I am so proud. He no longer wears black socks with white shorts to practice. Through a lot of dedication and hard work, he has developed his own philosophy that T-Ball is all about having fun. He carries each rookie five-year-old from home to first, second and third base the very first time, because that is how they come to understand. He loudly cheers for his team and for the opposing team, but quietly whispers the score to his eight-year-old players, because they are the ones who care about who is winning and who is losing. And at night he calls busy, unfamiliar parents to gently explain how much it means to the kids to have their parents stay for an hour or two to watch the practices or games. Come and see how your child is doing, he says.

About a hundred years ago, before I was responsible for little else than getting myself to work at an office every day, I often daydreamed about being a mom. I couldn’t wait to have kids and to be with them every inch of their growing up. Some moms may see themselves as the center of the energy in their family. But being a mother has taught me that my role as vigilant protector and enthusiastic cheerleader is best-suited on the sidelines. I provide emotional support, and dispense cold drinks, snacks, first aid and shuttle service on an as-needed basis. A mother who has many more questions than answers, I am in constant awe of this motherhood hold on me. As-needed is most of my time.

My husband tried, but was never really comfortable with babies. He worried that they would break if he relaxed while he held them. When I needed go on a quick errand by myself on the weekend, he’d ask if I needed him to babysit!

The babies grew into toddlers, but still fatherhood didn’t come easy, probably compounded by the fact that my husband’s wife was too helpful dispensing advice, details and directions. When my daughter kept tripping and tumbling on the sidewalk when she was learning how to walk—don’t run!—he ran to her and made such a fuss about her “big bleeding boo-boo” that she screamed louder. He had no idea that a three-year-old might have trouble eating a one-inch thick “Super Peanut Butter Sandwich” without a glass of milk in sight. He could only think of one song to sing to them: “When I was a little bitty baby,” but those were all the words he knew to the song, so he’d sing that phrase over and over until I started to feel queasy. Moms know to not make a big fuss when kids fall down. We know the regulations on thickness for a peanut butter sandwich. And we know more songs than we’ll ever need.

But then something in me changed. I noticed that my kids loved his singing.

This is the important part. He never stopped trying. In retrospect, it must have been hard to feel comfortable stepping into the hands-on part of the father role for just an hour or less at the end of a stressful day at work, and only on occasional weekends. In his career, working hard is only half of what is required; attorneys must also put in many billable hours. Should he decide to take a risk and see his children much before their bedtime, he must steal home. This creates other worries for him, so before he leaves the office, he makes it a point to keep his light and computer on, and a half of a cup of coffee on his desk.

I recognize that it is his very absence at home, and his commitment to doing a great job at work, that has given me the opportunity to be ever-present with our children. But between you and me, I still go back and forth between feeling grateful for being home, and sad, lonely and resentful that it’s just me raising these kids most of the time. It wasn’t just the kids who missed out during those first years. And now he tries to make up for that lost time by being their friend. This frustrates me, because I don’t always want to be the bad guy when it comes to enforcing everyday rules and precedents.

I know that I have my own idea of what I want him to be as a father, so I remind myself to relinquish the impossible demands I make that he father just as I mother.

After years of awkward stumbling in his role as a father, my husband has discovered a niche, even a comfort zone. That is why I watch this season, happy and relieved in knowing that this job we share, the job of parenting our children, will work out just fine as long as we’re doing it together. Go, Shockwaves!!! That’s our team, the one whose players share huge, giggling group hugs after each game.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Milk leaking from an unseen place
on his tender chin
sugar-coated neon-colored cereal
stuck on the Power Rangers
decorating his jammies
hair uncombed and free
feet folded underneath
fleeced unpadded bottom
eyes clear and wide awake
as mom sits close reading the front page
of the newspaper
my nephew Tommy
who’s all of three
pushes aside the cereal box
and solemnly says, “I didn’t want
all those people to die.”

Friday, January 04, 2008

Past My Bedtime

Mommy, when do the bad guys sleep?
asked my girl from her pillow,
long adolescent form snug
in a flannel pair of white pajamas.

Mommy, do the good guys ever kill anyone?
she wondered, visiting me at 2 a.m.,
shuffling down our dimly lit hall
in lime-colored oversized fuzzy slippers.

Mommy, I don’t ever want to die
because I love this place
she said, spilling tears from brown eyes
into Cocoa Pebbles as the sun rose.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


We are nocturnal
and shaggy buddies,
this pet hamster and I;
tonight his perky companionship
only annoys the heck out of me.
I yawningly glare
at him with my tired
squinting eyes
as we continue
through the night
scurrying and foraging,
he for seeds to sustain
his wheel-running,
me for words to sustain
a poem. Searching
each corner again and again,
distraction wins;
another plane drones unseen
over my roof and I am left
gnawing on my foot.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Hatteras, Remembered

Darkness gulps in the last few patches of light as I bring my family to the Nags Head fishing pier, the same place my dad took me so many years ago. Everyone carries something. My husband Kurt is loaded down with cameras, two oversized boxes of tackle, a gaff and four fishing rods, one for each of us. His is a jazzy new Father’s Day model, deep red, that dismantles into two shorter, handy pieces. He chose it because it has “a lot of give,” which means that when a big fish bites, it will bend nearly in half without snapping. Mine is an old and sturdy, long, brown surf rod that my father eagerly loaned me, his “lucky sea bass rod.” Andy’s is a short, thick, red and white model called an “Ugly Stik,” a Christmas gift from my dad. And Aimee’s is a $14.99 rod/reel combo special we picked up en route at the Tackle Express. We had needed one more rod, the price was right, and most important--this one was pink. Sold! Have you ever known a real fisherman who bought a rod for the color?

Andy, our fisherman-in-training, carries sweatshirts, his fishing box (also a gift from my dad), an old fleece Georgetown U. blanket, and a huge pumpkin-colored, chenille bedspread thing we take in the car wherever we go. These are for us to snuggle up in, to ward off the relentless wind at the end of the pier. Aimee, who is mostly interested in having a picnic, clumsily carries a large, empty Styrofoam cooler that we plan to fill with fish before midnight. The top is blown off at least twenty times before we reach our fishing spot. I follow with-- what else--food. For us, peanut-butter sandwiches, carrot sticks, juice boxes, homemade brownies and a thermos of hot chocolate. For the fish, baggies containing two dozen bloodworms and a plastic cup of frozen shrimp.

We stop at the front counter and pay to be able to fish off the pier. $5 each for Kurt and I. Too much, someone in line mutters. Less than a movie, I say. $2.50 for Andy. And since Aimee is shorter than the yardstick nailed to the wall, she is free. She says this is not fair. Behind the counter, the gnarled and smelly man, wearing a nametag that says only “Hello, My Name Is,” swiftly grabs a part of each of our clothes--a collar, the bill of a baseball hat, the hem of a jacket, another collar--and methodically staples receipts to us. Andy thinks this is cool. Aimee is more than a little huffy that a stranger almost stapled her chin to her favorite fishing shirt, the pink one with Ariel and Flounder on it.

Then we purposefully march almost a half-mile to the end of the pier, right where I used to fish with my dad. “Grandpa used to love it here,” I tell them. Passing other fisherman, we carefully study the tips of their poles for signs of a fish on. Nonchalantly, we glance in each bucket we pass to assess whether anyone is catching much. If someone reels in a fish, we slyly take notice of the type of bait they are using. Show-and-tell begins as I knowingly identify fish we see: sea skates, croakers, bluefish, sea trout, sand sharks. Some people glance up as our small parade passes by. Conscious of their stares, I tell the kids to lower their voices so they won’t scare all the fish away. Most folks just continue to stare out at the water, waiting, waiting.

I notice the familiar bits of dried worms, fish scales and shrimp tails stuck on the bench we share, and I can almost smell Dad’s cigar. A fishy, salty scent fills the air and a fine chilly mist of ocean water occasionally sprays us. The waves splash far below, and the pier gently rocks from the movement of the incoming tide. It’s a good time to catch fish. I hug my kids close as my husband baits our hooks.

"Come on, aren’t we going to fish?” he asks. The lines are ready to be cast, but something is fishy. We are content in our snuggle. No one picks up a fishing pole.

“I love it here,” Aimee says.

“But do we have to fish?” Andy asks.

My husband looks over and stops himself from calling us again. Instead, he cozies in next to us on the bench that was made perfectly for this family of four. Under warm blankets, we munch our brownies, sip hot chocolate, and vote whether to release the bloodworms on the shore or give them to another fisherman.

One by one, stars light up the sky, and an orange crescent moon slowly starts to work its way higher and higher over the horizon. I love it here, too. Now I realize that maybe my dad didn’t bring us here years ago just to catch fish, either.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Rinse and Spit

Rinse & Spit - by Donna DeSoto

I hate dentists. It all started when I was a seven-year-old in Fort Richardson, Alaska, holding onto the railing in our carport. As I bent over the bar at my waist to execute a smooth flip, a slightly wrong estimation that I could clear the space below the frosty black bar caused the too-near cement pavement to end up in my mouth. My frantic Mom scooped me up, threw me into the front seat of our station wagon, and quickly stuck my wooly mitten in my mouth to try and stop the bleeding. Then she collected my three younger siblings, threw them into the car, all howling in unison with sympathy pains, and we raced to the nearest Army dentist.

Without going into too many details, let me just say that the memory of that blood-soaked mitten heavy in my mouth is still with me today. That first miserable trip to the dentist would begin my saga of visits to many dentists over the years. I managed to have straight-enough teeth to not require braces. And some more good news--I didn't have to get my wisdom teeth out, and have not had any type of gum surgery. Yet. But believe me, I've had more than my share of dental problems. Face it, no matter how often you brush and floss, or what toothpaste you use, some of us were just born with lousy teeth.

When your teeth are prone to problems like heavy tartar, it has the effect of putting visits to the dentist low on the "To Do" list, which further aggravates the trouble. I am not a baby and am not prone to whining. I've survived a multitude of fillings, 3 extractions, 2 broken teeth, something called "root sensitivity," 3 root canals and various other caps and crowns. It's only when I open wide that I can blind a passerby with silver. But when I smile, the only visible imperfection is a slight gap between the top front teeth a la David Letterman. (Yes, I more resemble Letterman than Lauren Hutton.) No, I keep telling everyone, I don't care to have that fixed.

I hate dentists. Routine visits every six months involve considerable dread and trepidation, and at least three cancellations before I finally force myself to get it over with. I hate the waiting room: the informative and colorful pamphlets on gingevitis, the receptionist who always counts to see how late I am on the half-yearly check-ups and cleanings, and then announces it for all to hear, and then there is just the whole smell of it all. In the examining room all too soon, my blood pressure skyrockets at the mere glimpse of "The Tray". That morbid collection boasting the most sharp, pokey-looking tools all long and silver known to humankind. All else is forgotten with the sound of the drill revving up.

This is the moment when my teeth begin to scream.

I hate dentists. I see each as a giant praying mantis, looming over me with a blinding strobe attached to the too-tight elastic around a sweaty forehead. Flexing those ever-moving elbows out wide, from side to side, in and out, the engulfing arms are in constant motion, clanking hideous instruments of torture in their pincers.

My last visit was to a dentist my dad holds in high regard. "Try this one, Donna. I really like him. He's very good--and gentle, too." (Come on, Dad-this is no bonus. A dentist is supposed to be gentle.) Unbeknownst to me, the pretty but jumpy hygienist-in-training was quite early on in her training. She had been scraping away for what seemed to be a couple of hours. "Whoops," she suddenly gasped, eyes open wide in fear, then she loudly called for the dentist.

Sorry, Dad, but I hated him. I knew this the moment he walked in, a large man who tripped over something and landed inches away from my face. The man's hands were grotesquely oversized for the rest of him. There should be a maximum hand-size allowable for dental school, don't you think? Anyway, Dr. Donohue murmured "How'd this happen?" to the rookie hygienist, then set to work to repair the damage. As he stuffed wads of gauze way back in my mouth, it all came flooding back. The Mitten.

I hear that all-too-familiar phrase, "Let me know if you feel any discomfort." As I attempt to respond, suddenly I am being attacked by Mr. Slurpee, (otherwise known as "Mr. Thirsty" in different regions of the country) stuck on the inside of my cheek, pulled free, flailing every which way, in search of a pool of spit, then reattaching again to the delicate underside of my tongue, precisely where my tongue is attached to my mouth. "Ubflp, errrr," I gurgle, until it is ripped off my tongue. Off it goes,without wasting a second, in search of another place to grab. As the dentist with the way-too-big hands reaches in to retrieve Mr. Slurpee just before it plunges down my throat, he forgets he is wielding something that resembles a crochet hook in the same hand, and it catches my left nostril.

Now it is his turn to mutter "Whoops".

He gives the hook a small tug, and now I am bleeding from a place besides my gums. Where's that mitten? Nothing like a change of pace.

Maybe you can understand now my nervousness upon looking in my six-year-old daughter's mouth one day and seeing her two new top middle teeth just starting to emerge, with an extra one right in the middle, growing perpendicular to the others. My fears were confirmed by the oral surgeon, who said this tooth, this "supernumerary" tooth, would have to be removed as soon as possible. To make a long story short, I worried and lost much sleep in the five weeks I awaited that appointment to have the tooth taken out. My husband commented that if I was that worried, maybe we should just skip the whole thing, since it was just cosmetic. But I knew better. I knew it was time to be a grown-up and get this taken care of. Besides, this was a dental procedure, not anything that was life-threatening. A little bit of perspective always works wonders. As it turned out, I have discovered that dentistry for kids, thankfully, and maybe even for some adults, is not what it used to be. There are many options available now that have resulted in painless dentistry. My daughter did just fine with her surgery. It was her Mom who had weak knees in the waiting room, not wanting her child to have to ever experience anything as frightening as that dreaded mitten