Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Control Freak

Is there anyone on the planet more controlling than a three-year-old? Okay, is there anyone on the planet more controlling than MY three-year-old? From the moment he's awake until the moment he's asleep, my existence is a complicated dance of compromise (okay, you can ride your bike inside school grounds, but just this once), avoidance (girls, would you like to go to the P-O-O-L? Don't say the word if you don't want to do it - let's not get you-know-who's hopes up) and all out sneaking around (the box from the toy that Grandma got him is collapsed and recycled in his absence not because he loves it so but simply because he wants it to remain in the middle of the living-room).

Mihiretu's control issues are probably more than the average boy his age and with good reason. There's a lot that's happened to him that, plainly speaking, has sucked. He's seen the death and disappearance of his first family, has been landed in an institution he could not escape from, has been taken thousands of miles away from his first home to live with us. And we, though we mean well, have moved twice in a year and his dad who he loves more than anything else leaves frequently and (to a three-year-old) arbitrarily. The boy wants to lay his hands on something and know he can hold it.

That said, it's exhausting to live with. We've learned some of his triggers. He needs to lead the way, for instance. He can't stand anyone leaving him. Which, again, is understandable. And so he needs to be the first to climb the stairs to our house, ride away on his bike, walk into school. If he's not first, he sits down, be it on dirt or pavement, flings his flip-flops as far as he can and howls. This happens many times a day. And so we have learned to accommodate him. The girls, generally, are kind enough to let him ride ahead when we're on our bikes, are even willing to walk back down the stairs and wait until he has begun to climb before they do the same.

If we're not watching what he wants to watch on TV (which most of the time is Caillou), then he turns the TV off. If Lana (his greatest competitor) is watching with him and he decides he doesn't want her to, he turns the TV off. I have, on more than one occasion, seen her sneak into the living-room in the morning and crouch behind our lounge chair in her pajamas, clandestinely watching Caillou - which she doesn't even like - while Lord Mihiretu is snuggled up in a quilt on the couch. It's a rather sad sight.

Bedtime, as with just about any child, is the toughest time of the day. He squirms, he kicks, he screams and when that fails to dissuade us of our evil plan, pleads hungry. His belly can be taut with the three portions of spaghetti and broccoli he just put away and he'll still try to convince us of his terrible hunger.

A friend recently passed on advice she was given on how to deal with her almost-teen-age daughter. When in a power struggle, let go of the rope. And so, when I'm on my game, I don't directly resist whatever power play he's making. I change the subject, I ignore it, I give in to his demands if they're not too big a deal. I pick my battles. I win the war.

Probably his biggest trigger is when Ben or I show him that we're angry. He's defensive, I've realized. If he sees my temper, he insulates that hurt with his own temper. The more I react, the more he acts out, a terrible spiral. "You mad!" he'll accuse me, through tears. When I can get it together, I assure him in these moments that I'm not mad anymore, I wasn't fond of whatever he did that offended me and here's what he could have done instead but that I love him and then hug him and kiss him until he can't resist me any longer or shake the sillies out of him (which involves shaking him - gently - upside down). Anything to make him laugh and break the mood.

When I'm tired, when, as is the case now, I've been on my own with the kids for days on end, it's less pretty. I meet his control issues with my own. Tonight, after a good hour of trying to wrestle him to sleep, after he threw my book across the room and kicked me, when he accused me of being mad, I said, "You're right! I'm mad!" Not so constructive. In the end, we were both in such a state, all I could do was put him in the car and drive him around the block until he fell asleep mid-shriek.

I remember my girls at three. They, too, were often impossible. I comfort myself that things will change, and soon. Though, today Mihiretu threw a full-on hissy fit at Lana's school as we were waiting for her to come out of her classroom. Another mother from Lana's class tried to comfort me by saying that in a few years it'd be better. I told her that I was hoping for better times when he turns four. She said that four was much worse than three for boys. Just a "reality check", she assured me. I just about gave her a reality check between the eyes. I have to hope that we're on the road to better days, easier days. It's got to get better. It just has to.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


There's a restaurant chain in the Bay Area called Cafe Gratitude. The food is mostly raw and completely vegan. The accompanying ethos is neo-hippy and neo-corporate. The overarching theme, "What are you grateful for?", is printed on the menus, the cookbook, even bumper-stickers. Every item on the menu is an affirmation. "You Are Effervescent" is a carbonated ginger lemonade, priced at a mere 4.95 for a small glass and 6.95 for a large. "You Are Whole", my personal favorite, is a bowl of shredded kale, kim chi, tahini, sprouts and a sprinkling of teriyaki almonds (which, if you're craving more, will only cost you $4.95 for an additional fifteen nuts). The correct ordering method is to say, "I am effervescent, please. And I am whole." To which your hippier-than-thou server will respond soothingly, gazing deeply into your eyes, "You ARE effervescent. You ARE whole." At which point the eye-contact will be held a little too long and you will, blushing, sink behind your menu. It is, even for someone born and bred here, someone who canvassed for Obama in Colorado, who brews her own kombucha, who adopted a child from Ethiopia, for God's sake, a little much. If their food wasn't so delicious, their "live pizza" made of buckwheat, olives, cashews, sprouts and "Brazil nut parmesan cheese", their chocolate mousse made of Irish moss (what's Irish moss?), almond milk, dates and agave, their pate made of cashews and bell pepper, if it wasn't so yummy and guiltless, I'd never set foot in the place. But it's a neurotic eater's dream.

If Saturday Night Live ever wanted to parody Cafe Gratitude, they could simply shoot a documentary. It's just too easy, too ripe with earnestness. But, even so, Ben and I aren't above cracking jokes. We call it "Cafe Attitude" or "Cafe Platitude", and invent menu items such as "I Am Broke" because, goddamn, but it's expensive.

The very best/worst practice of Cafe Gratitude is the "question of the day". The server will ask, "What brings joy to you today?" or "Who in your life celebrates you?" My trick for a long time was to answer, "Wow, that's a good question. Let me think about that one. I'll get back to you," and scurry out the back once the bill was paid. Lately, though, they'd get an earful.

Because I am grateful. Beyond the usual daily blessings; Ben, the kids, our health, the warmth of our extended family, the roof over our heads, the beautiful food on our table.

School started this week. My complete community is spread before me in splendor. I walk through the school grounds and I'm greeted by friend after friend. I meet parents of new classmates and often feel sure that they, too, have the potential to be included in the enchanted circle of my nearest and dearest. I ride my bike through the green August morning, Mihiretu greeting cars and pedestrians, Mae speeding ahead on her new, giant mountain bike, the backpack she made on her strong shoulders, Lana careening from left to right just in front of me, always a hair from crashing and taking me down with her but so proud to be getting her own self to school. And everywhere, everywhere, people I know. People I love.

Every Wednesday, first thing, there is what's called "Morning Meeting". The kids sit on the blacktop, each class grouped loyally around their teacher. Parents huddle together in the back, whispering, gossiping, making inappropriate jokes. And the principal makes announcements and leads the school cheer. This first Wednesday, she led us in the school song, "We Are the Brookside Bears".

Our first week of school in San Jose, a year ago now, every time I dropped the kids off and scanned the crowd of strangers for someone I might know, someone I might want to know, as I pushed my bike across concrete and more concrete to the edge of this foreign campus, this song, this little tune about this sweet school by the side of a brook, would play in my head and, ridiculously, I'd fight tears. We are the Brookside (sniff), we are the Brookside (snuffle), we are the Brookside Bears (sob).

This week, as I stood with my pals, many of whom I've known since I was pregnant with Mae, some from as far back as high school, as the kids lifted their small pure voices uncertainly in song, I was filled with what can only be called gratitude. Gratitude that there is a place on this earth where I am so thoroughly among my people, where I am so exactly home.

The next time I order my I Am Whole with a small I Am Effervescent, please, and the stoned-on-vegetables hippy server asks me some drippy variation of "What are you grateful for", he's going to have to take a seat and kick off his Earth shoes because it's going to be a very long answer. I am a lucky girl.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sugar and Bonnie

After the whole Farmel debacle, the next step was deciding on what pet would replace her (him?). I did some research. Turtles and geckos live way too long. I don't want to be cleaning up after Rodriguez the Box Turtle when I'm a grandmother. Gerbils, it turns out, are illegal in the state of California. Does that have anything to do with Richard Gere? Finally, I came to guinea pigs. Their expected lifespan is about four years. They're reportedly friendly. And, if their mess and smell prove to be overwhelming, we can set them up outside.

Next stop, craigslist. Ben and I are big believers in craigslist. We've bought three stoves, two refrigerators, a sixties-era chartreuse sectional sofa, and a playhouse hand-built with all the care one might take with a real house (insulation, double-paned windows, shingled roof), amongst other items. We're more buyers than sellers when it comes to craigslist though we did once give away a washer-dryer set for free only to have the seemingly nice young couple hassle us for three hundred dollars to cover their moving costs when they couldn't figure out how to make it work in their apartment. A good deed never goes unpunished, I suppose.

Craigslist is always a foray into sociology. Meeting a stranger, usually in their home or yours, could be a sketchy situation. Generally, though, it's pretty friendly. Friends always ask if I just trust something is going to work when I buy it. The answer is yes. I know where they live. And, admittedly I'm an optimist, but I like to trust other human beings. That's kind of what craigslist is all about.

A couple days ago I found a listing on craigslist for two female guinea pigs plus their cage for eighty-nine bucks. After a couple emails, I gathered that the dad in the situation was allergic, their house was small, the pigs, though his young daughters loved them, had to go.

And so, yesterday at five o'clock, in 104 degree heat, the kids and I loaded in the van for the hour's drive to Petaluma. We found his house in a neighborhood that had seen better days, boarded-up windows on two buildings on the block, ramshackle dirt patches where lawns once were. We knocked on his door. No answer. We walked up the driveway to the back of the house. Just a very old labrador sleeping in the shade of a shed filled with rusty bikes, cracking plastic kids' toys, and other assorted junk.

We walked back around to the front and planted ourselves on the porch steps. Already I knew that this was probably not a good idea. Given the general tone of neglect that I could already see - and smell - I knew that these guinea pigs were going to be sitting in their own filth, their cage cheap and coated with grime. I also knew that we were past the point of no return. If I'd been alone, I could abort and hit the nearest PetCo. But the kids had firm plans for these particular pigs. That was that.

Moments later, our man pulled up. I'll call him John. John was so sorry he was late, he was just trying to make a sale to his biggest client and well, did I try to call, oh his cell wasn't working, and what cute kids and hey, little one, give me a high five - where's she from - oh he - Ethiopia, wow - and man, he wished his girls were here to meet us but they were with their mom this week. He seemed like a nice guy, a good guy, a guy who didn't have his shit together.

He led us into the house. The actual house was a haze of battered eighties furniture, tired linoleum and the stench of bachelor. John, still chattering, apologizing that he hadn't had time to clean the cage, led us into the living-room. There, on one wall of a tiny room was a giant cage. The cage was just as I thought it might be, with the added bonus of two empty water bottles hanging on the side. They were green with mold. The animal themselves looked healthy enough, though when Mihiretu approached the cage, John quickly warned him that they might bite his finger if he stuck it through the wire. It wasn't their fault, he said, they were just hungry.

By now I was trying to move along the sale, grab the pigs and get out to the fresh, if hot, air. John, sensing that he'd cinched the deal, was on a roll, searching high and low for a guinea pig related "goodie". After a group trip back out to the shed, then when that proved unfruitful, into the kitchen, he produced a leash. A guinea pig leash.

Then, like a flash, he was giving us a tour of his girls' room. Look, he said happily, chalkboard paint! And, indeed, over each bunk was an amoeba-shaped patch of grey paint. Cool, I said, come on, kids, let's get those little ladies into the van.

Finally, what seemed like hours later, John was handing me an uncooked chicken (that's what he sells, apparently) and insisting on a hug. Not lasciviously, I don't think, he was just euphoric that these pets were off his hands and hopefully on to somewhere better and that he had eighty-nine dollars he didn't have before.

And we were off, driving an extra fifteen minutes to get a bombastic Mihiretu to sleep, hauling the cage up to our back patio to hit it with the hose and some dish-soap, finally, way past bedtime, settling the newly named Sugar (she's brown and white, like sugar) and Bonnie (Mae's idea, don't know where it came from but I like it!) into their revitalized home, their scrubbed water bottles full of filtered water.

In the end, it probably all worked out. Farmel, Mae's momentary frog, got to return to his/her home by the wooded lake and Sugar and Bonnie escaped John's grimy cave and emerged into what I can only imagine to be a better situation.

This morning, at seven, Lana was feeding Sugar a carrot and murmuring her private ideas in her little rodent ear while Mae and Mihiretu were far up on the back hill, walking Bonnie on her leash through the shifting brown grass. It seems we have a couple new members of the family.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Today Mae went on a mountain bike ride with Ben, her friend Sasha and his dad. They rode around Lake Lagunitas, tearing uphill and coasting down. They stopped frequently to hunt for frogs. Not to eat, I guess it goes without saying, though those Frenchies like to, but to keep as pets.

They found a few but as the whole pet idea hadn't been cleared with the boss (that'd be me), it was a morning of catch and release. Later in the day we returned to Lake Lagunitas for a picnic with our extended family and that's when I got the plea. Sasha, it seems, caught a frog a year ago and has kept it safe and healthy at home in a terrarium his mom got for free off craigslist. Couldn't she, couldn't she find a frog and take it home?

A lot of back and forth until we finally reached the rather inevitable conclusion. Mae found a frog, stowed it in a tupperware with some creek water and a piece of wood to perch on, and we took it home. Mae decided that she was a she (from what basis I don't know but I wouldn't put it past that kid to know a male frog from a female) and that her name was Farmel. Farmel because she thought first of Farmer but felt it was too masculine. And Farmel sounded like Carmel and what's not to like about Carmel?

As we got ready for bed, we could hear Farmel croaking tentatively, plaintively. I imagined her calling for her people and hearing only us - girls chattering, Mihiretu screaming for "chicken", his reliable last ditch try for food before he falls over asleep. I casually said to Mae as I was urging her towards the bathroom to pee that I felt a little sad for Farmel, so far (ha, ha) from home.

Next thing I knew, Mae was hiding her face in her nightgown, swiping at tears. I immediately assured her that there was nothing to feel bad about, Farmel was doing okay, I hadn't meant to make her feel guilty, but Mae was felled by grief. Slowly we teased out her conflicting feelings of love and excitement over this new pet with pangs of sadness that this wild creature was not where it belonged. Ultimately, we came to the compromise of returning Farmel - tonight - to her natural habitat, the very rock on which Mae found her, and researching a small pet for Mae, a domesticated pet, a pet that might enjoy being in our home. A pet that she must, without fail, feed, water, and clean up after. Yeah, right.

And while I feel a little cornered into taking yet another living creature into my care, I have to admire my girl. She has such a big heart, my Mae. She can see beyond herself and her own desires to the needs of others in a way that seems beyond her age. I guess that kind of heart deserves a little something extra to love. Like a gecko, God help me.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to School

School starts on Monday. So many mothers I talk to proclaim to be sad that summer's ending. All I can think is, for real?

I've been anticipating the beginning of school since the end of school in June. I can not wait to see those kids off Monday morning, backpacks stuffed with waste-free lunches and number-two pencils.

Part of it, I think, is that I loved school. Loved it. Almost more than reading. And lots of times you got to read WHILE you were at school. Pleasure beyond words. My love of school was two-fold. I loved to learn and I was good at learning, which in turn meant that I had success at school and teachers loved me. Add to that my lurking loneliness and school's guarantee of company and you had yourself a winning combination.

As the ramp-up to school begins, as we get the girls' class assignments and, by a flurry of email, discover which friends are in their classes, I am excited both for them, because they, too, up to now have found happiness at school and also for me, reliving those long-gone days of known expectations and achievable goals. And as they re-enter their social scene, I re-enter mine. I'm reunited with my friends, the parents of my girls' friends, whom I've so missed for the past year. Class assignments are as socially important for me as they are for the girls. I don't go out to an office every day. I don't have co-workers. These parents are my compatriots.

The other delicious benefit of school is, of course, six hours per day of free childcare. Rather horrible to put it that way but baldly true. I love my kids. I love spending time with them. But I'm a hell of a lot more fun - and more happy - when I can get a little space. Summer is blackberry picking and lazy hours at the pool and ice cream in the middle of the day but it's also "Mom, I'm bored" and "Mae hit me" and "Make Lana stop singing". We can all drive each other a little crazy. How can I miss you when you don't go away?

Sometimes I wonder how I, of all people, ended up with three kids. Let alone a rambunctious, emotionally scarred, adopted third child. I don't see myself as the most patient of people. My love of order and cleanliness is not conducive to housing three little maniacs. Some of my happiest times are alone in the quiet house, writing, sewing, washing dishes, anything as long as I'm by myself.

I think I had three kids, including my Ethiopian Devil, to shake myself out of my perfection. They are a built-in mechanism to keep me from too much quiet, too much tidiness, too much aloneness. They keep me alive. Not in the sense that I'd be dead without them. But I'd certainly be a lot less interesting, a lot less engaged and a lot less joyful. And what the hell would I write about?

Come Monday, I send these little people, these darlings that make me crazy and make me real, back into the world, send them into that institutional order and routine that I love. For them and hallelujah, for me. And I will undoubtably be working to keep the tears on the inside of my eyelids instead of running down my cheeks as I watch them take one more official step away from me. And then I'll take a deep breath, go home, make a cup of decaf and finish that wrap dress I've been working on, NPR sedate on the radio, the sound of the clock ticking in my ears.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I'm big into sewing. I come by it honestly, it seems. My sister, twelve years older than I, sewed when I was a kid. My mother, I hear, sewed once upon a time. After I was born the sewing came to a stop - too busy with her three kids, most likely. And her mother, the mysterious and long-dead Valeria, was, we're told, a seamstress in her native Romania.

I didn't sew much as a kid, actually. Made a few tiny, malformed, purple pillows on the machine, but that was pretty much the limit of my abilities. I watched my sister, though, and I think I must have picked up something by osmosis. When I was twenty-five, suddenly, in the middle of a career crisis, I started quilting, without a class, without a book, just made up my own method. The ladies at the quilt store literally laughed me out the door when I brought my first one in to get some advice on batting. Sour old bats. I somehow refined my process and got to the point of turning out a consistently well-made and, to my mind, beautiful, modern product. For years, that was what I stuck with but then, like the rest of America, I started watching "Project Runway", the show that has single-handedly brought back the almost-lost art of sewing.

I started with A-line dresses for the girls. Two pieces of fabric - no zippers, no buttons. Then slowly I graduated to simple skirts for me. The sudden freedom to make exactly what I wanted to wear instead of searching for it endlessly and fruitlessly in retail stores was bewitching. I now make shirts and dresses, even jeans. I can think of no better scenario than laying fabric out on the dining table to cut for a new project, "This American Life" playing on the radio, the kids off with Ben - somewhere - anywhere. It's so satisfying that when I contemplated moving to San Jose a year ago, I thought, well, if I can bring my sewing machine, I'll probably be okay. That, it turns out, was a bit of a blinkered view. My happiness, though greatly enhanced by sewing, is not completed by it. Shocking.

No surprise but the girls, Mae especially, have taken a great interest. Mae's consolation prize for being uprooted to San Jose was a pint-sized sewing machine. Last week, she did a sewing camp. Six eight-year-olds, six sewing machine, one very patient teacher and twenty hours to make some magic. Mae returned each day with a finished project - among them, an artfully deconstructed t-shirt, a tie-dyed skirt and, the very best, a sundress. I was bowled over with her blossoming ability. She'd come home from camp and immediately return to the machine, pulling out material from the fabric bins, sewing capes on Lana's t-shirts.

The girls and I are now designing their fall wardrobe. I have a vision of Mae and I side by side on dueling machines, NPR humming in the background, chatting occasionally, deeply content. She's certain to be, if not the best, the most creatively-dressed little lady in her third grade class. That's my girl.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ladies' Man

Mihiretu has an eye for the ladies. He, like many men I know, is particularly impressed with boobs.

We were in line for ice cream yesterday at the Fairfax Scoop (if you're ever within a hundred miles of Fairfax, it's worth the trip) when Mihiretu spotted someone lovely choosing her flavor at the front. She was maybe nineteen, with long blond hair and - here's the best part - she was wearing a bikini top. She had a long flowing skirt on the lower half of her body, but the upper half was almost entirely on display.

Mihiretu saw her from behind, tugged on my hand and said, "Look, Mama, no shirt." Clearly this warranted further investigation so he made his way past the waiting customers and sidled up beside her. He looked her up and down then, and just so no detail would escape him, he scurried behind her to view her from the other side. She was immersed in the decision between Vanilla Honey Lavender and Blackberry Swirl and didn't notice the three-foot Lothario below. After a good long look, Mihiretu, satisfied, threaded back through the throng to me.

Ben said that when he took Mihiretu and Lana canoeing down the Russian River a few weeks ago, Mihiretu would point out any scantily clad woman. The more cleavage, the brighter the swimsuit, the bigger the hussy, the better. "Pitty," he'd tell Ben, with a lascivious smirk, shaking his head slowly in awe. "Pitty, pitty."

Can't wait to see who he drags home in ten years. Seems like he might have a Bill Clinton complex.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Scientific Inquiry

To try to achieve a quick recovery from my so strange pneumonia, I put the girls in an all day camp for the first part of the week. It meant that Mihiretu and I had a couple of afternoons alone, something that is very rare for us. Coupled with my new resolve to be positive with him at all costs, they ended up being really delightful interludes. Maybe I should have been doing this all along. Oh, the gifts of pneumonia.

On Monday, we joined my sister-in-law, Tracy, and her boys at their local pool. This particular facility has an excellent wading pool. It's huge and has a shallow end (one foot) and a deeper end (three feet). It was ideal because it meant I didn't have to get in the pool with him - something my infected lungs would probably not appreciate.

Mihiretu was splashing happily with his cousins when he spotted a very pregnant lady cooling her legs at one end of the pool. I was happily couched in the shade at the other end, feet up on a recliner, chatting with Tracy. I watched as he circled cautiously for a moment, his hands trailing the surface of the water, before he finally approached her, his curiousity overwhelming his reserve.

"What iz zat?" he asked, gesturing to her giant belly.

She kindly explained that there was a baby in there.

"Nooo," he said, smirking and eyeing her sideway. He clearly thought she was having him on. It is a very weird idea.

She said that, yes, indeed, for real, there was a baby in there.

He put a tentative hand on her lycra-covered belly and said, "I wan see it." I sat up a little, waiting, watching, not quite yet ready to do her boundary-making for her.

She laughed and said, "You can't see it. It's in my belly."

Mihiretu moved closer and, with two careful fingers, pinched her swimsuit between her breasts, gingerly pulled the suit away from her body and peered into the abyss.

That's when, pneumonia or no, I leapt from my chaise and scampered to the scene of the crime. She was quite understanding, that nice lady, even if it was her due date. I remember being very crabby on my due dates - both of them.

I found a diving stick to distract Mihiretu and threw it to the other end of the pool for him to fetch. Before he dove under, he smiled at me a little wickedly. I had to smile back.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Exile Island

On past seasons of "Survivor", there has been something called "Exile Island", in which one of the contestants is banished to an island of their own for a couple of days and left to build their own fire and forage for their own food. If I ever actually did make it on the show and then was one of the unlucky ones sent into exile, that's where you'd see Liz go mad.

I'm not good with lonely. Too much isolation as a child and maybe just too social a creature. I like my time by myself, don't get me wrong. It's when I'm alone not by choice, for too long a period, without something to accomplish that I run into trouble. This weekend was such an example. Yes, it was a gift that Ben took the kids out of the house, and yes, I needed that bed-rest to get over this pneumonia. It was all appropriate. It just wasn't comfortable.

I rented some movies on Friday foreseeing the long hours to fill. Unfortunately, I chose those movies while I had a hundred and two degree fever. I even went so far as to forget them at the store, returning an hour later, sheepishly, to retrieve them. I managed somehow to put together the perfect storm of depressing films. At this point, I can barely remember them. Saturday was a blur of fever, violent coughing and some serious spaciness. There were a couple of French films I watched back to back, straining to read the subtitles through my headache. I think one was about Edith Piaf. I do know that children were abandoned and abused, parents were ghoulish, cold, French monsters.

I have been feeling, in this very rough patch with Mihiretu, like a pretty terrible mother. It's been a dark period of snappy, grumpy overwhelm. I haven't been enjoying him, have only wanted to escape, even for a moment. Watching these horrible parents ruin their children, in my haze, I saw myself.

Even though I was so out of it, I knew I was on a downward spiral. I tried to shift gears and put "Survivor" in the DVD player. I can always count on it to make me happy, to help me forget what's bugging me.

But the storm swirled around me again. The episode we had reached was the one "Survivor" episode I can remember that made me cry. Not get a little misty, that happens a lot, but full-on lose it. One of the contestants, a young woman named Jenna, quits the game to return to her mother who is sick with cancer. Her mother has had the disease for many years, she was fairly stable when Jenna left, Jenna had even done "Survivor" once before - we're watching the All-Star season - but for whatever reason, every day on the show, Jenna grows sadder, more concerned, more remote. Ultimately, there's a big scene at a challenge where she reveals to all that she's leaving. Everyone cries. And, yes, that was sad but here's what got me. She gets on the boat and as we watch her go across the sea, we read "Jenna rushed to be at her mother's side. Her mother died eight days later." I can't even write that without tearing up. I, of course, remember being at my dad's side in those last weeks and days, remember how desperately I need to see him, touch him, know that he was there, at least for awhile longer.

By this time I was sitting on my couch sobbing in the dark. I'm failing as a mother, the one thing I really want to be good at, we all just die and leave each other anyway, and, Jesus, I have pneumonia so maybe I'm not Jenna. Maybe I'm Jenna's mother.

Ben called at that moment, thank God. He talked me out of my tree, or at least down a few branches. I turned off the TV and took myself to bed. Sunday I woke up with a much clearer head and, for the first time in five days, no fever.

By the time the kids returned with Ben at midday, I had made some decisions. Beyond my devotion to my husband, I knew that I loved my children and my role as their mother more dearly than anything else in my life. I always know that, I live that, but I because I hadn't seen them in a couple days, I could come to it anew. I resolved to come fresh to Mihiretu, to treat him with as much patience and respect as I could muster. I was going to remember that he was three, that he'd been through a lot, that when he pushed me towards the edge, the edge that I sometimes fear I could very well fall off, it wasn't personal. That when he says he wants a different mommy, he'd probably say that to the different mommy, too.

This morning, when Mihiretu was throwing his egg-covered silverware across the dining room because I wasn't cutting his toast correctly, I looked the other way. I praised Mae for how politely she was eating her meal. When he started to hit me, I got up from the table calmly and went to wash the dishes. When he finally sat down again to eat, I told him how great it was that he was sitting in his seat, that he was eating his eggs. And I wasn't the least bit sarcastic.

Occasionally, someone will go to Exile Island that you just know is going to lose it. They're the super-neurotic or the weeper. But once in a while, someone like that will emerge from the experience stronger and clearer. They'll have the dark night with themselves and it'll strip them to their elements. Maybe I'm one of those. Maybe I'm stronger than I think.