I finished the girls' costumes over the weekend. Yes, I made them myself this year. But don't be too impressed. They're held together by a wild combination of staples, glue, safety pins, duct tape, and, dangerous though it sounds, teeny-tiny nails. I'm pretty sure the costumes are safe to wear, although they will definitely need to avoid airport metal-detectors and MRI machines.
I'm not too worried about the odd variety of hardware I had to use to be the type of mama who makes her kids' costumes by hand. Although I'm glad the girls weren't home when I took hammer and nails to the fancy fringe of eyelashes on Anni's adorable pop-up froggy eyes ("Stay on! Damn you, be pretty! Now, stay!") (Pound! Smash! Pound!).
I am a little worried about the impulse behind my decision to do homemade costumes this year, even though my skill set does not include any facility with needle and thread. I'm usually a firm believer in the value of knowing your own limits. Plus, I have so little time right now for hammering together googly eyes and fake froggy eyelashes, now that my semester is hitting the paper-due phase.
Not that I want to indulge myself overly much in stating the obvious, but the decision to move toward abandoning the stay-at-home mother role is fraught with emotional baggage. And by "emotional baggage," I mostly just mean "guilt." Loads and loads of Guilt. So it doesn't take a psychoanalytic genius to figure out that my staying up until 1 am, armed with a stapler, glue, hammer. assorted pieces of felt and crafty stuff grabbed at random from Hobby Lobby is my demented way of exonerating myself, and reclaiming my role as Good Mother.
Annika is always asking me to tell her stories about when I was a child. I'm not sure what it says about me that I tend to remember mainly the stories in which I freaked out, was really scared, or injured myself. Like I can remember the very first time I worked up the courage to ride my bike down Longwood Avenue (just think of the stripper names the kids on that street now boast!), which was a long downhill run which dead-ended into a stand of trees at the bottom, so you had to make a sharp turn to either the right or left to stay on the street. As I was coasting down the street, picking up speed, hair flying out behind me, tires vibrating subtly as they went faster and faster, I gripped the handlebars in mixed exhilaration and fear.
Then right in front of me at the bottom of the hill was a bulldozer. A huge, freaking bulldozer chugging slowly along, blocking the street like a big, yellow metal mountain of death. Our neighborhood had very little traffic of any sort, and I had never seen anything larger than the occasional pickup truck driving past. I remember a kind of floaty feeling coming over me, all very surreal, even though it was many more years before I had any idea what "surreal" meant. The weirdness of the bulldozer suddenly appearing, so out of place in my conception of what belonged in our neighborhood, made me completely forget how to use the brakes. I ran full speed off the road at the bottom of the hill, and into a tree.
That's not the type of childhood story I want to share with Annika, even though she would probably love it, what with all the drama and the bodily injury and the wacky construction equipment. And then she would refuse to go anywhere near her bike for fear of bulldozers appearing magically in front of her, despite the fact that our neighborhood, former site of corn fields as far as the eye can see, contains few trees out of the sapling stage, more likely to bend agreeably to the ground under a small child's bike than to cause the type of childhood trauma remembered 30 years later.
But the one story that I have told Annika is about the year my mom made me a Blue Fairy costume for Halloween. Really, there's not much to the story at all beyond that one sentence ("My mom, your grandma, made me a Blue Fairy costume"), but Anni wants me to "tell" it to her over and over. She was completely fascinated by the idea that my mother would make a costume, as if that were some magical bit of motherhood I had completely left out of her childhood.
So I glued and stapled and hammered my way into my own bit of motherhood lore.
Honestly, Annika didn't seem any more excited about this costume than in previous years. Frankie was pretty matter-of-fact about it, as well. I'm not even sure either one would remember this year as particularly special, or mention it offhandedly to their own children one day, thus ensuring that they, too, experience the strange pleasure of gluing a pink boa to a green hoodie at midnight in order to live up to the abstract notion of motherhood they create, almost accidentally, in the craziness of parental love.
Annika, Frog Princess:
Frankie is Mercy Watson (A car-driving pig who loves buttered toast. Frankie wanted to carry buttered toast along with her. So people would know who she was supposed to be. Of course. Can you be an inside-joke nerd at the age of 4?):
(Bigger versions of the photos with click. Also, more Halloween photos on my Flickr page.)
Annika grabbed my hand, and swung it back and forth in her own.
"Let's play a guessing game!" she hopped a little hop as she spoke.
"OK, I'm ready."
"Guess what number I'm thinking of. Here's a hint: It's between 1 and 2," she smiled generously, as if she had just handed the answer to me, giftwrapped with a sparkly bow on top.
"Between 1 and 2? Seriously?"
"Yes!" she laughed, just mischievous enough for me to begin to wonder if maybe she meant it all as a joke. Could it be that her understanding of number theory is deeper than I give her credit for? Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Zeno's Paradox is now part of the kindergarten curriculum, given that entry into first-grade is now contingent upon your youngster successfully composing a 5-page essay on global warming. In Latin.
Ever agreeable, even when I'm being laughed at by a kindergartner, I began guessing.
"1.1?" "No!" "1.2?" "No!" "1.3?" "No!" "1.4?" "No!" "1.5?" "No!" "1.6?" "No!" "1.7?" "No!" "1.8?" "No!" "1.9?" "No!"
"No, no, no! Now you are..." Here she paused to grip her tummy a bit, as if to make sure she didn't explode from all the laughter, "...now you are just being SILLY!"
Then she laughed some more, undoubtedly longer than a decimal point number, even a funny decimal point number, deserves. She laughed as if I had just guessed something really outlandish, like "Hot Dog!" or "Knickerbocker!" or, the usual punch line of choice around here, "Underwear!"
"OK, then. I have no idea. I give up. What number are you thinking of?"
"Mom!" she dragged out the vowel in exasperation. "It was 3! The number I was thinking of was 3!!!"
"I think we need to review prepositions, my sweet little Numberhead."
I wrote over the weekend that Jörg's birthday marks the end of our family-wide rapid-fire celebration of aging. Which is, technically, true. But there is another day at the end of October that is kind of like a birthday.
Tomorrow, the 25th of October, will mark 6 years since Annika's first transplant, the one that saved her life the first time. And even though a blood clot in her hepatic artery ruined that first donated liver, she still carries the portal vein from her first donor. That tiny piece of tissue, taken from someone else's body, their last gesture to this physical world, still expands and contracts to the rhythm of a pumping heart. That tiny bit of tissue, given 6 years ago, follows the beat of Annika's life.
Sometimes I think about all the people who have gone into making Annika, the girl who runs into school every morning with her backpack bouncing wildly off her shoulder blades. Of course, Jörg and I would be there, just above Annika, contributing our genetic material and all the social conditioning parents get to inflict upon their kids. Then there would be our respective family trees stretching out behind us. Then, out to the sides, there would be her teachers, who surely have contributed to the making of this child. Of course, her friends would be there, spinning in an orbit that sometimes pulls closer to her, and then farther away as lives and schedules change. Forming a kind of protective circle around her would be all the doctors and nurses and technicians and hospital workers who have made it their job to care for kids like Anni.
But then there would also be Annika's two organ donors: the first, a teenager whose name I still do not know; and the second, my cousin, a living donor who just recently became a father himself. In my symbolic representation, I just don't know where to put them. Because they are, literally, inside of her. To put them anywhere else, outside, would be to lessen what they have given her (and us). But how do you even picture something like that? Two people, one of them a nameless stranger, so intimately important to the existence of your child that they are inside, her blood circulating through the parts of them she shares.
Sometimes, when I think about the relationship between Annika and us and her two organ donors, I suspect I'm complicating the issue because I've misunderstood something small, but critical. Just as I did in Annika's guessing game, I'm jumping into the murkiness of the infinite, when, really, the answer is simple and obvious.
Or maybe my difficulty is just the opposite: I'm guessing the answer is "three," when really I've gotten the question all wrong in the first place, and the actual answer is some unending number, trailing off from the decimal point into joyous randomness, far beyond anything my tiny life can encompass.
Yesterday, I read the ESPN story, Ray of Hope (I also watched the video, although if you don't have an extremely fast internet connection, you might need to just turn off the sound and let the whole video play through while you go do something else. Then when it's all downloaded, you can drag the play button back to the beginning. Apparently, they don't give enough buffer the first time around, which leads to jerky sound and picture.)
It's a wonderful piece of writing, and thought-provoking. What do you do when the parents don't want to donate the child's organs, even when he's made it clear that he wishes to do so? What do you say to them? What are the benefits and drawbacks to keeping the whole process anonymous? How does it change the recipients' feelings about the transplant, once they know something of the life that ended, and made their lives possible? How does knowing something of the recipients impact the family's grief? What does it mean to them to know life went on for others, after and because of their child?
Jason Ray, the college student on the cusp of adulthood, who believed so passionately that organ donation was the right thing to do, was intensely religious. His parents, trying to come to terms with his death, and the effect he's had after death through organ and tissue donation, are also intensely religious. Reading through the article, I was struck by this line, something Jason's father said after meeting the recipients of his son's organs, and hearing their stories of life-and-death struggles:
"And if you hear these stories and don't think that there is some sort of greater architect working here, you've got something wrong with you."
Right there, in one sentence, he's gotten exactly to the point for me. Why it is that I have such trouble every year around this time trying to come up with something to write to Anni's donor family, my letter sent to our area's transplant network and then forwarded on to the family, anonymously, with our address removed.
Because of this life we live, in hospitals and in networks of families with extremely sick kids, I've witnessed the awful fallout caused by the death of a child more times than I care to remember. Because of this life we live, I can imagine us losing Annika in more terrifying detail than is healthy for my psychological well-being. Every mother I've known who has lost a child has also been intensely religious. When I think about how religion must play into that experience, it always seems to me that losing a child must make belief in God simultaneously harder and easier. For myself, I can easily imagine death being It, The End, snip the unspooling ribbon and let it fall onto the ground, finished. But for my kids, imagining that kind of darkness is unbearable. Their ribbons are still too short; I couldn't leave them behind me, and walk on into a future where something of them does not continue. Imagining a heaven above, where my child could lead a parallel existence, happier and healthier and pain-free, is certainly more attractive than the alternative.
But, on the other hand, holding on to belief in a God who would let a child die must be a real test of faith.
I'm not religious. I don't go to church. I don't have any feelings about God, one way or another. On the other hand, I do have strong feelings, most of them angry, about what many religions do in the name of God. What in the world would God care whether two women (or men) fall in love, make a family together, and raise children? Or, rather, doesn't that sound like something a decent God would approve of? Love, caring, tending to the needs of others, and all that? And what kind of detail-oriented, control freak of a God would try to tell us what marriage, even when it's between a man and a woman, should look like? With the whole Submissive Wife stuff? Isn't that weird? And what kind of a God would be OK with the idea that we should believe in or vote for a leader, just because he makes a big deal of his Christianity? And don't even get me started on the wars, oh the many wars, and the anti-science stuff, and it goes on and on.
But when I try to think about how to speak to Annika's donor family, the ones who lost a child who, in turn, saved our own baby, I'm at a loss. The transplant network recommends that recipient thank-you letters avoid making explicit religious references, since people's beliefs can vary so widely. So it shouldn't make so much difference. But it does. My lack of faith makes me feel unworthy, as a parent, to address these other parents, the ones who lost so much. It's as if I'm standing at the top of the Grand Canyon at sunrise, with so much miraculous beauty stretched out before me, and I am staring down at the pebble near my toe instead, crouching to take a closer look at its perfectly smooth roundness.
"Three!" I whisper, in awe, while above my head, unnoticed, an infinite number unspools across the pinkening sky.
When I read Life of Pi all those months ago, I wrote that I disagreed with the narrator's claim that the story of one boy's months on a lifeboat with a tiger would make you believe in God. Contrary to what you might expect, the narrator, Pi, doesn't expect us to believe in God because "Wow! What a miracle! You survived on the boat all that time with a tiger?!" It's not so much that miracles, or answered prayer, like the fact that my baby got the call for a new liver on what might have otherwise been her last night on this earth, should lead us to belief in God.
No, what Pi means us to see (and what this reviewer, for all his intelligent insight, misses) is that the story of life is simply better when you allow yourself to believe in God. Belief in God, in the unprovable and unbelievable and inexplicable, allows us to extract meaning and beauty where there might otherwise be only tragedy and horror.
At the time, back all those months ago, my disagreement with the claim was simply that Pi didn't even try to make the story, the one without the tiger and the flying fish and the banana island, interesting. If the story of the universe without God is less interesting or less beautiful, then that's simply a failure of your imagination, or your appreciation for the beauty of the mundane. It's not so much that one story is inherently more interesting or inspiring than another, but that the telling of the story makes all the difference.
But there's no denying that telling the story of the pebble at my toe, and making it worthwhile, and worthy, is harder than telling the story of the Grand Canyon. It's harder to write to the donor family, and just tell them about how Annika's backpack bounces on her shoulder blades as she runs into school every morning, or how she pumps herself into the sky on our backyard swingset (such small things!), rather than telling them of angels and miracles and spiritual connections.
The last voice on the Ray of Hope video (on the Rebirth tab) is Jeff Oakes, Jason Ray's youth pastor. He says that he thinks that if Jason could say one thing to those who received his organs, it would be to live life to the fullest, to know that "they answered the big questions, and searched out the deep joys of life."
I guess at this age, Annika is more about asking the big questions than answering them (and also about asking the small questions, the medium questions, and the nonsensical questions...repeatedly). But deep joy, that one's a natural for her.
Every year around this time, as we approach the anniversary of the day when life and death collided to make a story that is both joyous and tragic (and, so, in some ways, incomprehensible), I try to figure out how to say something to make sense of it all. Or at least to do it justice.
Every year, I fail.
But every day, without even trying, Annika succeeds. At least, that's what I believe.
Those of you who keep track of these things may have noticed that I neglected to write a birthday post for poor Jörg. This is what happens when you've got the last of four family birthdays all within a few days of each other. I'm just thankful he's not three years old, and can handle the disappointment of birthday burnout.
Don't feel too bad for Jörg, though. He wasn't ignored in real life. We had a little family celebration for him in the afternoon, singing the birthday song while the girls gave him their most earnest and sincere adoring looks. Then we had friends over for a huge feast of carryout from our favorite Chinese place. Then we roasted marshmallows for s'mores over the gas log in our living room. Well, that part was more for us than Jörg, given that he is German and believes marshmallows to be one of the least understandable concepts in American cuisine (not to mention culture).
Finally, after the girls were tucked into bed, we had a rousing game of Siedler over beer (This link to the official Catan website provides a handy flow chart in English for game play, and I notice that there doesn't seem to be a rule against building a settlement in between two of your opponent's roads, as long as your road also abuts the intersection, contrary to Jörg's claim all these many years. This would have made a huge difference in the eventual outcome of Friday's game, is all I'm saying. Not that I would obsess over such a minor point or anything.)
When we were first introduced to Siedler on a trip to Germany shortly after we were married, our friends feared it would be the end of our new marriage. Jörg and I fought over this game like you wouldn't believe. It wasn't just my overly competitive nature, combined with my questionable strategic thinking. It wasn't just that Jörg and I, having enjoyed a close friendship before marriage, felt completely comfortable fighting like cranky preschoolers with one another in public. It was also that Jörg is one of those maddening types who think it is funny to deliberately bait a loved one, when he knows well and good that said loved one does not deal well with deliberate baiting.
So every time we pull out our Siedler board, it is always with that little thrill of impending danger. Will this finally be the game that ends in divorce papers? It really does make the whole thing that much more exciting.
It's amazing how every game always involves the exact same scenario at some point: I really, really need to trade some commodity in order to make a crucially important move, and Jörg is the only person who will have said commodity (usually in abundance). I will telegraph my desperation, and Jörg, grinning wickedly, will steadfastly refuse to trade with me. The Birthday Game was no different:
Me: Would you trade me your wood for a sheep?
Jörg: I don't need any sheep.
Me: All I have is a sheep. But I really need that wood right now.
Jörg: I need coal. Not sheep.
Me: Fine. I promise to trade you coal next time you ask. But I don't have coal right now...
Me: (through clenched teeth) or I would give it to you for just one lousy piece of stinkin' wood.
[vague rumblings from the other players about the legitimacy of trading on futures]
Jörg: I don't think so.
Me: (attempting to change tactics) Jörg, I need some wood from you.
Me: (attempting to wink at him discreetly) Some wood? I need it! (wink, wink)
Me: (remembering that Jörg did not grow up in an American high school, with all its attendant juvenile slang) OK, never mind.
Me: But you're not getting anywhere near my sheep in the foreseeable future, Mister.
Not surprisingly, Jörg did not look at all crestfallen upon hearing this threat. And not just because we've been married 11 years already and, honestly, where's my sheep going to go, anyway? But also because I think he was too busy trying to act all logical and strategic, rather than just admit to the deliberate baiting.
Now that I'm not spending all my free time putting together the ALF walk, I'm trying desperately to catch up with my classwork. So I spent the day at the library while Jörg hung out with the girls.
Everyone was all smiles and happiness when I got home, all limbs still attached and all dirty dishes mostly in the dishwasher. Overall, I was pleased with both the work I got done at the library, and the smooth running of the household in my absence.
Then, as I was brushing my teeth and Jörg was climbing into bed, he announced in a sleepy by-the-way kind of voice, "Oh, yeah. Apparently, I told the girls today that Santa Claus doesn't exist."
I spit in the sink. "Apparently??!"
"Well, yeah. I didn't bring it up, exactly, but we were reading this book about polar bears living at the North Pole, and Frankie wanted to know what would happen if a polar bear bit Santa Claus. She seemed to be really worried, so I just told her that wouldn't happen because Santa Claus doesn't really exist."
I gave him a hard stare. "Well. I guess I'll have to warn the other parents at preschool. You know Frankie is not the type of girl to keep information like this to herself."
"No, no," he reassured me, "It's OK. You don't have to do that."
A short pause, and then he admitted, "I guess they didn't really believe me."
So that's it for the 2007 Birthday Bonanza around here. Here's to many more Octobers together.
Happy Birthday, sweet girl.
You turn seven years old today, and I could (and should) forget all the uncertainty of the future and the past and everything but the fact that today marks another year of life.
I admit that I now sometimes entertain the daydream that you won't need another transplant. And, really, I might as well indulge myself in the far more enjoyable world of optimism. At least we have more reason to be optimistic this year than last. And, anyway, it's better to ignore the way your eyes turn yellow whenever you have a cold, and better to call your spider angiomas "freckles", and clip your fingernails before they curve under into little scoops on the ends of your fingers from the severe clubbing. It's better, and wiser and healthier, not to dwell on all that when you are so happy.
Tonight for story time we read the book you checked out of the school library, The Feel Good Book. After I was done reading, you and Frankie took turns telling me all the things in your life that make you feel good. After 10 minutes or so of unusually polite turn-taking, I asked if we should maybe move on to the next book. But, no, you had more to tell me about all the things in your life that make you happy, from the weirdly specific to the gloriously general, you kept on with your list of all the good in this small life of yours.
I wish had more to say to commemorate the day. But I only have this: I could not love you any more than I do on this day, and every single one to come after. Counting the days is nothing but an exercise.
Our walk here in town raised over $5,000, including offline donations.
Wow! That's 150,000 in Relative Population Dollars!
Pulling off the walk was a lot of work. A lot. And I couldn't have done it without the help of our good friend, Becky the Runner. I was chatting with her husband at the walk about how much work went into coordinating the afternoon, and how responsible I felt for making sure the event was successful both as a social event and as a fundraiser, and how very, very much more money the walk in Chicago raised, and maybe there was a reason ALF tends to focus their fundraising efforts in large metropolitan areas. And, yes, blah blah blah, and don't be silly and inappropriately competitive, Moreena.
But Greg, Becky the Runner's husband, pointed out that, as long as I was comparing runs based on geographic location, I should probably also consider relative size in my calculations. So I've decided to announce our walk fundraising results in Relative Population Dollars (invented symbol for RPD: #%$). How I compute Relative Population Dollars is extremely scientific and accurate (and therefore not to be questioned). Here is how it is done:
Population of Bloomington-Normal: around 100,000
Population of Chicago: around 3 million
Factor by which Chicago population exceeds that of Bloomington-Normal: about 30
Therefore, one should take the "actual" dollars raised at our event (5,000) and multiply it by a factor of 30. Hence, our walk raised 150,000 RPDs (#%$150,000!)! While Chicago, whose figure will only be multiplied by a factor of 1, since it is apparent that Population of Chicago = Population of Chicago, only raised #%$111,000.
#%$150,000! In your face, Chicago!
I'm in the process of sending out thank-yous to every single lovely person who donated to Team Annika, but if you somehow find yourself still wishing you could help fight liver disease, do I have an opportunity for you!
The American Liver Foundation sent me these incredibly awesome Happy Liver Beanies to sell at our walk:
Because our walk was small-ish (although not in Relative Population Walkers, the details of which I will spare you), I have a lot of these adorable guys left over.
In addition to being hilarious, as well as stinkin' cute, these Happy Liver Beanies are educational! For instance, who knew that the liver only had 8 fingers? Not me!
So, with the blessing of ALF, I am offering to mail off a Happy Liver Beanie to anyone who makes a donation of at least $10 to Team Annika. Be sure to include the note "Send me a beanie!" in the notes/comment section of the donation form, and be sure to use an address I can use to mail your Happy Liver Beanie to.
Offer good while supplies last. Not responsible for points lost on the MCAT. Offer void where prohibited by law or by general objection to gross anatomic inaccuracy.
We walked it all the way to Georgia and back. Or maybe that's just my poor, tired legs talking.
Still no word from the American Liver Foundation on what it is supposed to be, but we walked it like crazy, anyway.
My favorite shot of the day:
I just love the expressions of the two girls in this photo, but I also love that you can see Treyton (liver transplant 5 months ago) trying out walking in the background.
Now I'm just hoping that I wasn't grumpy with anyone today out of sheer exhaustion, because it really was fantastic.
In preparing for today's walk/run, I bought approximately 100 bananas in a blind attempt to get "runner-y" snacks. How often do you have a chance to buy 100 bananas for legitmate reasons, anyway?
As I stood in line at the checkout, my cart loaded down with bunches of banana, as if I were caught in a mid-life-crisis manifesting as "Man in the Yellow Hat Syndrome," I sang a little song under my breath:
Monkey Party! Monkey Paaaaaarty!
Monkey, Monkey Par-TAY!
Par-TAY with the Mon-KAYS!
No sun in the forecast for this afternoon, but the rain is supposed to be gone by then, at least.
It's the day before the American Liver Foundation fundraising walk here in town, and I am exhausted. Am I the only person for whom volunteer work can cause a paradoxical reaction of depression? It's really difficult to set up an event when you are trying to spend as little money as possible, given that the idea is to raise money for a good cause. Of course, I, too, have heard the saying that you've got to spend money to make money. But that is exactly why I am not a businessperson, because stuff like that terrifies me.
It can also be disheartening to realize how important connections are for events like these. All the enthusiasm and good intentions in the world don't really make a difference when you're trying to convince businesses to support your cause.
It also helps not to leave everything until the last several weeks before the event, so I'll call a halt to the unjustified complaining. Especially since so many of my online friends have stepped up for the cause, which has just been lovely. I'm going to have a really long Holiday card list this year. Thank you all so much! All those 5- and 10- and 25-dollar donations to the American Liver Foundation from people I've never met outside of my computer (or from long-lost friends who responded to my piteously groveling emails), they are all a real mood booster. Not that boosting my mood is what it's all about (Way to ruin the altruistic moment, Moreena! Geez!).
But meanwhile, I'm barely holding it together. While I've been setting up the ALF fundraising walk, I've fallen woefully behind in my coursework. Then there's the sad fact that Annika turns 7 on Tuesday, and the one thing she wanted for her birthday (the one and only thing) has been recalled. To make matters worse, Anni got so attached to her pumpkin this year (why did we go and get them so early?), that she cried all morning long when I told her we couldn't keep it anymore, since the thing had rotted so badly it was threatening to dissolve in a giant, nasty puddle of pumpkin goo right there in front of the fireplace. (And, no, getting a new pumpkin wouldn't help matters, and what kind of heartless creature are you to suggest such a thing? says Anni through her tears.)
Far worse, it seems like bad news is falling from the sky like fiery meteors, crashing into the houses of friends all around us. The kind of bad news that make the impending goo-collapse of beloved pumpkins seem like the sad nothing it really is.
I hope the sun, at least, comes out tomorrow.
She lay on her back
for a few seconds,
at the textured ceiling
with the mysterious
spaghetti sauce stain.
flapping her arms and legs
there on the floor, as if to swish
the imaginary snow
into a snow angel.
"Falling down is also a gift!" says she.