Monday, January 31, 2011

This Guy

Mihiretu wakes up at least a couple of times most nights. Generally, if he's woken from a bad dream, or just simply surfaced out of R.E.M., it's Ben he calls for. Ben then climbs into his bed and they fall back asleep together. If, however, Mihiretu has some problem that needs solving in the early hours, I'm his man. I'm the designated two a.m. masseuse if his leg cramps in a growing pain (I get a surprising amount of business for this particular job, that catch-up kid is growing so fast I swear I can see it happening if he stands still long enough). And, if perchance his pull-up doesn't catch all it's supposed to, I'm the one he wants to remedy the soggy situation.

This morning at five, I heard a groggy "Mommy, Mommy". Knowing full well what that foretold, I, wrapped in sleepy denial, still nudged a solidly slumbering Ben and sent him to the rescue. As I knew would happen, he was back in a moment. "Wet bed," he reported, "Puddle of pee."

I pulled the offending puddle off the mattress and fetched some clean pajamas. Ben sponged down the boy with a warm washcloth, clothed him and we all climbed into the big bed.

Mihiretu was snuggled into Ben, perhaps even on top of him, so I edged to my side of our giant mattress and dozed. I'm fairly certain that Mihiretu never did return to sleep because I could hear him talking now and then. That talk colored my dreams, injected them with anxiety. In one, Mihiretu was destroying something (shocking!), in another, my long gone father made an appearance, informing me that I was late for an appointment. When I fully rose to consciousness at seven, Ben and Mihiretu were whispering and tickling.

"Weird dreams," I mumbled.

"Yeah?" Ben said, snaking a finger into a small, brown armpit. "Like what?"

"Mmm," I said, rubbing my palm over my eyes, "I think my dad was in the one I just had."

At the word "dad", Mihiretu's favorite topic, he pushed Ben's hand away and leaned towards me.

"You dad?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, rolling on my side to face him. "I had a dad."

"Daddy?" he asked, trying to put the pieces together. "Who you daddy?"

He then pointed earnestly at Ben, on whom he was now sprawled. "This guy?"

Ben and I laughed. Both at the paging-Dr.-Freud notion of Ben being my daddy and at Mihiretu's casual reference to his favorite person on earth as "this guy". Ben could have been a cab-driver or a plumber who just happened to be in bed with us. Or, say, the guy that brought him here from Ethiopia, the guy that sits him on his lap and feeds him scrambled eggs, the guy that says, "Oh, honey, it looks like you're frustrated" and pulls him into a hug when he's yelling and sobbing and throwing silverware, the guy who sleeps half the night curled around him. This guy. Oh yeah, this guy.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Ben has taken some time off work. It is glorious. Not only because I love his company - I do - but also because it brings the adult-child ration up to a fairly reasonable number. With two full-time parents we're just beginning to be able to cover everyone's needs.

It's been a week now. A week of sleeping until (could it be?) seven because, yes, though I still have to make lunches and breakfasts and beds, Ben's there with me corralling children into clothes, into shoes, into backpacks, and out the door. And if, per chance, I don't manage to reset every room of the house to its proper order by eight a.m., there's magically more opportunity to do it later in the day. Ben might be picking up Mihiretu, say, even taking that rascal to the beach. Loads of leisure time to properly plump pillows and fold quilts.

And at five, when everyone is tired and the wheels start coming off the wagon, when I'm elbow-deep in dinner preparation, Ben can read a story to our small restless natives or, like last night, google Chinese acrobats or world-record high dives, the four of them clustered around the dining table, their gaping mouths lit by the blue of the screen.

There's not a lot of room at the moment to be grumpy. My desperation, my overwhelm, my panic is at bay. I am well-slept, well-exercised and well-fed. The kids haven't sat in front of the TV in a week. There is another adult who can catch my mumbled asides or share a covert roll of the eyes when someone, and I'm not naming names here, puts on five different pairs of socks (some multiple times) before she finally places shoes on her feet and walks out the door to school.

Surprisingly, Mihiretu, though he's gotten hours of dedicated, sister-less, Dad-time and even some solo playtime with me, is still mostly mired in obstinance and defensiveness. A whiff of parental disapproval and he is screeching, intent on hearing-loss, he is throwing rather large metal toy trucks at whomever he perceives to be his enemy, he's proclaiming, "Okay, I no play den." (he believes we will be devastated if deprived of his company). Last night he left the dinner table in a fury because his soup was hot (god forbid). We had a half-hour of "Daddy's poo-poo" from under the table before we got him back on track. It's been two and a half months of terrible behavior, inspired by who know's what. It was easier, when Ben was working, to pin it on the stress his job puts on the family dynamic (he's working too hard, he's gone from the family, I'm on my own, the kids miss him and there isn't enough of me to go around). But now that he's here, now that we've glided into some calm water, now that we can devote our relaxed and patient selves to the kids and especially to Mihiretu, it's especially discouraging to watch him continue to flip out. I have many moments of wondering if it's ever going to get better. Wondering if our life with him is going to be like this, with age-appropriate variations, as long as we're alive.

After we'd finally gotten the kids in bed last night, after we'd settled on the couch and watched a Netflixed episode of the first season of "Lost" (we're regretfully behind on our pop culture), Ben, while the credits rolled, said, "What are we going to do about that guy?"

He was clearly absorbed in the challenges of Mihiretu and not, like me, still pondering who burned the partially constructed life-raft or the mysterious presence of the "others" in the jungle or the sexual tension seemingly between each and every castaway (with the hopeful exception of the ten-year-old boy).

I had no answer. But as I sat and held his hand, I thought of the five really good minutes I had with Mihiretu that evening. Because Ben's here more, he's now viewed by our small boy as the bad guy more often (hence this evening's "Daddy's poo-poo" and not the usual refrain of "Mommy's poo-poo"). Ben always says that scarcity breeds value. I'm more scarce for Mihiretu lately because Ben's more present. And so tonight, while he was busy being mad at Dad, he requested that I brush his teeth, that I help him into pajamas. It's a welcome departure to be the good cop, I have to say. The girls had turned on Toots and the Maytals in the other room and as I held his pajama pants out for him to step into, Mihiretu started to dance. He's got one hell of a funny dance. He sticks his butt behind him and shakes it, he grins maniacally, he half-closes his eyes, pokes his chin in the air and waggles it in opposition to his rear. Do I have to say it? He has rhythm.

And so he danced to "Funky Kingston" in his underwear and I laughed and for the moment I thought, it's worth it. It will get better. We just have to hang on. And at least in the short term, I have the company of my husband to ride the storm. We can only see three feet in front of us in the fog, where Mihiretu's concerned, but for the next three feet I have a hand to hold.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moving Mom

We moved my mom this week. The large assisted-living facility where she's spent the last few years was no longer a good fit. After a lot of searching, my brother, Jean-Paul, his wife, Tracy, and I found what seems to be a good board-and-care. A board-and-care, for those of you blessedly ignorant of the world of elder-care, is a private home that has four to six residents (I want to say "inmates" but I'll refrain). There are more care-givers per person; the care tends to be more personal and, hopefully, better. The one we found, and here it should be said that it was Tracy doing ninety percent of the research, is clean, friendly and somehow even smells good.

It is very difficult to move an Alzheimers patient. Not physically, generally speaking, but emotionally. My mother's world has shrunk. The only truly familiar element of her life is the room where she was living. We took her out of that room and brought her to a new one. She was understandably jarred.

We moved her on Tuesday. I met my brother at the new place, where he was sitting on the new bed with my mom. She was conveying as respectfully as she could - she still worships my brother, even if she's not always clear that he's her son - that she would like to go back to her room now. My brother, as gently as possible, and he is a gentle man, was telling her that this was now her room. She wasn't having it.

Eventually one of the Filipino care-givers brought in a cup of tea and some Chips Ahoy. My mother brightened. Soon she was chomping happily on cookies as I showed her some of the family photos Tracy had brought over from the old place.

It wasn't a surprise that a sweet treat could lift her mood. She, like me, has a great love of dessert. I read, while we were preparing to adopt Mihiretu, that if a person entering a new situation consumes sugar (particularly a child and what is my mother now if not a child?), they are more likely to have positive feelings associated with that new place or set of people. Yay, Chips Ahoy.

As she ate, Jean-Paul and I told her stories about the people in the pictures. She looked closely at an old snapshot of herself, a four-year-old Margaret, long legs and uncertain smile. "That's you, Mom," I said, carefully holding the frame close to her face. "When you were a child."

"I was a child?" she asked earnestly. It did seem unlikely, even to me, that the girl in the sepia print could be the faded, collapsed woman before me.

Still munching, she launched into her happy talk, telling us what wonderful children we were, what wonderful people we have become.

She gritted her teeth and declared, "Altogether, altogether, altogether!" She clapped her hands with each word.

She leaned over her cookies towards me and said, eyes wide and fervent, "You were the best one I ever had!"

I glanced sideways at my brother. "No offense," I said.

"Oh," he said, laughing, "She said I was the best one before you got here."

The joy of the cookies could only last so long. Soon we were making our way to the living-room where the other three inmates/residents, were propped in their wheelchairs, staring vacantly at the Tina Turner concert on the giant TV. I sat with my mother on the couch. She looked warily at her compatriots.

"These aren't the old peoples," she said, suspicious. "These are new peoples."

"Well, yeah, Mom," I said, gesturing to an elderly woman in a blue sweat-suit trying to scoot across the floor by shuffling her slippered feet in front of her wheelchair. "That's Lola, your new friend."

"That blue thing?" my mother said, her lip curling in distaste. "Shitty."

Over the last year, my formally reserved and polite mother has become obsessed with poop. The care in the last place was light on hygiene, which might have a lot to do with it. She has always been meticulous and lately she has been frequently soiled and unable to help herself. And so, when the pendulum has swung negative, everything for her is "shitty" and "crappy". This from the woman whom, until the last few years, only once uttered "shit" in my presence, when she had stalled her old Mercury Zephyr on the hill below our house when we were late to school.

Now my mother had shifted her focus to Tina Turner.

"What is that?" she asked, pointing a wobbly finger at the sequined, seventy-year-old Tina, and her younger but equally sequined dancers. "It's shit," she said, answering her own question.

Sensing that the living-room wasn't her happy place, I got her up and we took a walk into the kitchen. There we met Elvie, the woman who runs the place, also Filipino, tiny and kind. Jean-Paul came in from taking a work call on his cellphone and after my mom introduced him to Elvie as her husband, we explained (not for the first time) that this was Elvie's house, that she did all the cooking, that she worked very hard.

"That must hurt her bottom," my mother observed cheerfully. My brother and I hid our smiles behind our hands as Elvie explained how she loved working with elders, how the Filipino culture reveres older generations. She said that she couldn't care for her own parents, that they were still in the Philippines, but she could give all the love she had to the people that lived in her house. My mother remarked that she was very kind. It did feel gratifying that maybe my mother has landed with a person who is as kind and giving as she once was herself. Karma's got to pay off sometime, right? And time is running out for Margaret.

As I left that day, as I've left every day since, the first gulp of air as I shut the front door behind me was so sweet. Not because it smells bad inside, quite the opposite. It's akin to how I felt when I was sixteen, leaving my parents' house on a fragrant June evening, the keys to the Zephyr in my hand and my newly minted drivers' license in my pocket, knowing that I was free - of them, yes, but also free to go out into the world, to explore, to live my own life separate from them, if only for a few hours. I walk out of Elvie's house and with that first breath, I know that I am not an inmate, of that house, of my own mind. I, at least until my body comes to claim me, am deliciously free.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Message Received

Ben and I were cleaning the kitchen this morning after making pancakes. Mae had a friend spend the night so instead of the din of the usual three kids, we had four sources of sound. The kids had been released from the breakfast counter and were headed down the hall, yelling and stomping. I was wiping down the griddle and Ben was putting the milk back in the fridge when somehow, over all that racket, I heard him sigh.

In an effort to comfort, I said, "Do you remember that we have a date tonight?"

"Didn't you just hear me?" he asked as he shut the fridge.

My hand paused above the griddle. "What'd you say?"

"I asked what we should do on our date tonight." He grinned as he picked up the butter.

I stared at the griddle, sponge poised above it, trying to piece together the previous few minutes. "When did you say that?"

"I was over at the sink." The butter landed in the door compartment.

"Did I answer you?" By now I was searching his face, wondering if it was really this bad.

"I don't know." he said, hand to his forehead. "Maybe I just thought it."

I laughed and returned to the griddle. "It's like that, isn't it?"

We've been together for twelve years now. I know him better than I've ever known anyone - at least anyone I haven't birthed. We have to communicate around children's fists, shrieks, blood. When we're together, most of my thoughts are voiced to him. In the melee, it's become almost impossible to know what we've actually said and what we haven't. Sometimes I repeat something three times. Sometimes I forget to say it all. It's not because he's not important to me. Quite the opposite. It comes from being belly down in the foxholes.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why dates are a good idea.

Friday, January 14, 2011


We will now pause our program for an important announcement.

I finally figured out how to let you subscribe to my blog! Look to your right. See that box that says "Subscribe via email"? Well, guess what? Enter your email address and you'll get a message every time I post. Could you be happier?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Doan Dell Id

Mihiretu, as I've covered here before, likes control. Totally understandable, given his age and history.

It takes a great deal of fortitude for the rest of us to work around his decrees, there's daily emotional massage. When we can, we comply. Sometimes, though, his statutes are in direct opposition to rules of the house and, in order to maintain boundaries, he can't be accommodated. In those cases, if we're feeling patient, we cajole, we distract, we charm him out of his insistence. On occasion, of course, we're just exhausted and can't gild the lily.

Lately when he's been telling me something and Mae or Lana asks what we're talking about, he, in distinct Mihiretu fashion, waggles his hand in front of his face (like a cop stopping traffic and simultaneously waving) and yells "Doan dell id!" I am then, if I'm following the strictures of Mihiretu-land, barred from "telling it".

He's been particularly sensitive lately, our Mihiretu. He's slipped into the negative. Tantrums, violence, defiance, and lots of tears. We finally tested a theory yesterday and put him up against the door-jamb we use for measuring the kids' height. Lo and behold, he's grown three-quarters of an inch in the past month - the exact period of the bad behavior.

We were in the van on Friday. Mihiretu and I had just picked up Lana from school.

"I no go sool day", the king reported from his car-seat throne.

"You didn't go to school today?" Lana asked, turning in her seat, squinting at him skeptically.

"No," he said, triumphant. "Ha, ha."

"Mom," Lana asked, leaning forward, "Did Mihiretu go to school today?"

"No!" he shrieked, waggling his hand at me in the rear-view mirror, "Doan dell id!"

"Did he, Mom?" Lana insisted.

"DOAN DELL ID!" he hollered, both hands waving.

"MOM!" Lana yelled, her own hands clenched. "Did he?"

Imperceptibly, still staring at the road in front of me, I nodded my head once.

Mihiretu, though seated behind me, somehow caught the gesture. He howled in grief and sobbed like I had just shot his dog (and, no, he still doesn't have a dog but I get daily demands). The hysteria lasted the full ten minute drive from school to downtown Fairfax. By the time I finally parked, toweled the tears and snot from his face and pulled him out of the car-seat into a hug, the sobs had abated but his little body was still hiccuping and shuddering.

What do you do in a case like that? Doan dell id, I guess.