Thursday, December 13, 2012

Calling All Cars

It’s been so long since I’ve written here. The last three months have possibly been the most challenging with Mihiretu yet. That said, I’m caught in a conundrum.  While I so want to share our story because I know there are many people out there who might get something out of it – adoptive parents, parents of kids with special needs, parents of adopted kids with special needs, parents, people who grew up feeling different, anyone who’s ever faced what seemed like an insurmountable hurdle, okay, ANYONE – while I know this story is well worth telling, I don’t want to tell more than Mihiretu, the future Mihiretu, would want me to tell.  He might not grow up to be a blabber-mouth like his mother.  I’m walking a fine line here so bear with me.

It really hasn’t been cute around here lately.  This kid with a long, difficult history and understandable delays hitting the structure of public school has been downright ugly.  The shit has hit the fan, all hell has broken loose, the wheels have come off the wagon, choose your cliché.  There has been a lot of screaming, hitting, throwing of rocks, kicking of chairs, chasing of dogs and climbing of furniture.  Every person in our family has been deeply affected, every relationship strained.  It starts at five in the morning and ends when Mihiretu passes out at seven.

Because of this crisis (of faith and otherwise) we have acquired a behavioral pediatrician, a full-time aide at school, a speech therapist, the talents of the school – and district – psychologists, a male babysitter to run Mihiretu to exhaustion after school, a behavioral consultant for the home and a couples therapist.  It’s been super fun.  Lining all this up, admitting it was needed, finding the money to pay for it, and continuing to work out the kinks has taken almost all we’ve got.  Though I imagine the situation must be improving, I still feel under-fire.  Mihiretu isn’t the only one with PTSD.

There came a point where I sent out an email to a few trusted friends.  The subject line: “Calling all cars”.  The message:  Help, help me, any way you can.  For awhile there, when things were really grim, I had friends taking my girls for play-dates, giving them rides home from school, dropping off dinner.  The very act of admitting that kind of defeat, of showing my need, was out of the boundaries of my character, was certainly out of my comfort level. 

Perhaps Mihiretu has pushed us, quite firmly this last time, towards asking for and receiving the help we need.  That’s growth I suppose.  We have far more support now, from professionals and loved ones, than we did six months ago.  Frankly, our lives have been extremely challenging since Mihiretu came home from Ethiopia, three and a half years ago.  That’s a long time to be overwhelmed.

It occurred to me the other day that I should have a t-shirt made for when I'm out in public with Mihiretu.  It would read "You fucking try it".  Might give the old ladies in line at the grocery store pause before offering advice.  Might quell the glares at the mall from the perfect blonde moms with their perfect blonde children.  Might be a good reminder to me; this is a hard road we've chosen.  I'm doing my best.  Don't believe me?  You fucking try it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Wedding Crashers

Ben and I went to a wedding on Saturday.  It’s been a long couple of months with the whole Mihiretu-kicking-Kingergarten’s-ass debacle so the twenty-four hours away from the kids, dressed in finery, was a welcome departure.

To celebrate his birthday, Ben took the day off on Friday and rode his bike.  For ten hours.  That’s his idea of a really good time.  He did indeed have a really good time but maybe 42 is the magic number because from Friday night on through the weekend he had tummy troubles and non-stop hiccups.  We arrived at the wedding looking good but in full diaphragm spasm.

We’re at a stage where we don’t know a lot of people getting married.  The year I turned thirty, forget about it, lots of weddings, but now it’s pretty much dried up.  We’re in a slump until the second marriages and weddings of offspring start happening.  That said, this particular wedding was a first for both bride and groom.  I don’t know them well but what I know I like an awful lot.  Clearly in love.  No question they have a happy future in front of them.  Those are the kind of weddings you want to go to.

The groom is a cyclist (I can’t get away from them) and so, in the ceremony, along with the customary oaths of mutual respect, death ‘til us part, etc, (all completely within this couple’s capabilities) she vowed “I promise to never get in between you and your bike.”  I muttered to myself, “Whoa, that’s a big promise.  Good luck with that one.”

The event was outside, the couple somehow landing on an eighty degree day at the end of October.  After the ceremony, as the crowd nibbled on crackers and brie, I found myself in the lucky position of chatting with the bride.  Like I said, I don’t know her well, so this was exciting.  In my giddiness, however, in my post-wedding, you’re-meant-for-each-other gush, I managed to gesticulate widely enough to karate-chop her wine glass from her newly bejeweled hand, sending it, and the red wine it held, smashing to the ground at her feet.  The crowd gasped, then seeing it was the bride with red wine splashed up her gown, mysteriously applauded.  Perhaps they thought it was on purpose?  Some sort of vaguely Jewish breaking of glass?  I learned later than everyone thought it was her that dropped the wine.  Criminally unjust.

I apologized, of course, profusely.  The bride was gracious, this woman is so poised it’d take more than red wine on her wedding dress to throw her off her game.  I told her that we were either going to be best friends from here forward or she was never going to talk to me again.  I fear the latter.

Later, much later, my hiccupping groom and I made our way back to our hotel.  At home we have a Tempurpedic mattress and so the hiccups of the previous night hadn’t really affected my sleep.  Here, however, we were on a standard mattress, on what turned out to be the equivalent of a bowl of Jello.  He’d hiccup, the bed would shake.  All night.

It’s kind of marriage in a nutshell, right?  You pledge to never get in between him and his bike.  You get red wine dumped on your white dress by a giggling acquaintance.  You go to bed on a jerking marital mattress.  If you’re lucky, that is, if you’re very, very lucky.

Monday, October 1, 2012


For the last year we’ve been thinking about getting a dog.  If you know me at all, you might think that was a very bad idea.  I’m fastidious; I don’t like to get my hands dirty if I don’t have to, there is nary a crumb on my floor, the bed is always made, the house generally looks ready for a Pottery Barn shoot at any given moment.  Plus, my life is chaotic.  I have three strong-willed children, the youngest possibly the loudest person ever created.

We have thought, though, that a dog would be good for the kids.  Mae is all about animals – I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a vet as an adult – and until very recently the only pets she had at her disposal were three chickens and an elusive black cat who spends the majority of his time outside on the prowl.  Lana, to be frank, doesn’t give a shit about animals beyond naming them but, here too, is an opportunity to broaden her experience, maybe teach her how rewarding a relationship with a pet can be.  And then there’s Mihiretu.  If ever there was a child that could benefit from the non-verbal, unconditional affection of a dog, it’s him.

Because of Mihiretu’s unique history and accompanying set of issues, we considered a service dog.  First we signed up with Guide Dogs for the Blind for a flunkee (they call them “career change” dogs) but these dogs, because of their breeding and temperament, are highly desirable.  We’ve been on that list for a year.  We also applied for a therapy dog from Canine Companions, a service dog non-profit.  We were on the third round of the application process before they decided that Mihiretu was not quite bad off enough to be a recipient.  So we got on their flunkee list, also a long one.

We debated getting a puppy but that just seemed crazy.  I really don’t need more misbehavior in my house.  My friend, Ann, almost conducted a puppy intervention when I broached the subject.

And so we’ve been waiting for the right situation, hoping for a mature, sweet, well-trained dog who will not be freaked out by the loudest boy in the world.  A couple of weeks ago I got a call from my friend, Lisa.  She was in Bolinas at a yard sale and the family running the sale happened to be retired dog breeders and they happened to have two beautiful dogs that needed homes.  Long story short, Lisa adopted one dog, we met the other and said we’d pick her up in a few days.

In those few days, I got cold feet.  The breeders said the dog was a “dominant female”.  What that meant, specific to this dog, I couldn’t really get to the bottom of.  The thought of procuring a four-year-old dog with behavior problems that I couldn’t change was daunting.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  We passed on the dog.

A week ago Saturday, I was, for the first time in a long time, doing errands without children.  I stopped at Anthropologie (my happy place) to return something.  Camped outside was the Milo Foundation, a non-profit that rescues animals from high-kill shelters and fosters them until they find homes.  There were ten dogs or so barking it up and one of them was magic.  I saw her and thought, uh oh.

Sunny is three months old.  She’s some sort of labradoodle with maybe a little something else mixed in.  So far, she is calm, she is sweet, she is trainable, she is tolerant. She has hair instead of fur, for god’s sake.   I love her with an intensity I could not have predicted.  She follows me around the house, gazing at me adoringly.  She whines when she can’t see me.  She sleeps next to my bed.  I had forgotten how uncomplicated the love of a dog is.  Humans, very complicated.  Mihiretu, extremely complicated. This pup, just sunlight.

I wanted a therapy dog.  I just didn’t realize I was the one who needed the therapy.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Eye of the Storm

I would tell you in detail about the hard time that Mihiretu is having in school but that’s his story.  Maybe if you catch him in twenty years he’ll lay it on you.

Suffice it to say, he’s struggling.  He’s acting out at school, he’s acting out at home.  He’s suffering.  As are the rest of us.

I’m on the phone.  With the principal, with neuro-psychologists, with behavioral pediatricians.

Ben is out of town, this week when the shit has really hit the fan.  He’s doing what he can from afar but, between phone calls, it’s up to me to calm myself down.  It was this time last year that I dove deep into depression. There are lots of triggers for me as summer turns to fall; ancient wounds from my childhood, fresher ones from adulthood.  I know that as the light grows golden, as the sun slants lower, I’m in dangerous territory.  Add to this the additional worry of Mihiretu’s school situation and I know I need to tread very carefully.  I take care of myself to take care of him.  The lower my cortisol levels, the lower his will be.

I have a number of tricks to ease my anxiety.  When I pry Mihiretu off me in the morning at school and sprint out the door before he can catch me, I just keep running.  I’m up to seven miles in this effort to quiet my mind.  At this rate, I’ll be marathoning by Christmas.  Or inducing a heart attack.

We acquired a couple of magic kitties a month or so ago – a pair of blue-grey kittens that look almost exactly alike.  They are Lucy and Ethel; Lucy thin and higher-strung, Ethel wider and mellower, with a penchant for flatuence.  They are incredibly tolerant and brave with the kids, particularly the currently shrieky Mihiretu.  In times of extreme tension, after a particularly tough phone call, I pull one – or better both – of these kitties on to my lap.  They purr, I breathe.

My latest crafty endeavor is rescuing old unfinished quilts at flea markets and completing them.  So if I’m really upset you’ll find me cradling kitties and hand-stitching a seventy-year-old quilt all at the same time.

There is my love affair with my cup of coffee in the morning and the glass of Sauvignon Blanc at night.  There is the 8:30 bedtime (yes, for me) and the ten solid hours of sleep (only interrupted to get into bed with Mihiretu once or twice when he stirs).

We will get through this, I suppose.  We will find the right situation for this boy, he will thrive.  I will be able to put down the phone and the kittens and the quilt and join the larger world.  In the meantime, Mihiretu, me, Ben and the girls, we must find our comfort, find our ease, in whatever corner we can.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Brave or Stupid

Mihiretu started kindergarten two weeks ago.  While it's been something I've been looking forward to for, oh, the last three years, it’s been a bit of a rough road.

On the first day of school, there were nineteen five-year-olds on their bottoms in a circle, sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce (no more "Indian-style", I'm afraid), thirty-eight eyes on the teacher, who was reading a book about the first day of school (kind of like a mirror in a mirror).  There was one child, one brown child, the only brown child, alternately clinging to his parents and wandering around the room saying "I see some-ting!"  

Finally, we had to go get the principal to hold Mihiretu so Ben and I could escape, to keep him from chasing us all the way home.  This was witnessed by a group of newbie kindergarten parents who were watching it all through the window (hadn't they read the back-to-school hand-out, god damn it?  No looking through the window?).  As Ben and I fled, they shot us comforting looks, reached out hands.  I wanted to slap them down, these people I’m sure I’ll know and love by the end of the year.  This isn't my first fucking rodeo and you have no idea what you're looking at. 

Over the last couple of days it's become clear that Mihiretu is, essentially, bullying his best friend in class.  He loves this boy; he's known him since the day he came to the United States, this boy's family is, for all intents and purposes, part of our family.  He wants this boy close, this boy is his transitional object.  And yet, like with every other person he loves, he tests him.  He wraps an arm around his friend and then pokes him.  He follows him to recess and then says he's playing a baby game.  If this boy goes to the bathroom without him he gets a swift kick.  I need you, I love you - will you still love me if I do this?  How about this? Will you leave?  Will you?  Ben and I won't.  Mae and Lana won't, at least while Ben and I have anything to say about it.  A five-year-old boy, also in his first days of kindergarten?  Not as sure a bet.

I have seen inside this child's soul.  I have held him just after he's awoken, rubbed his back, run my hands through his soft curls, heard about his dreams.  This child, this kid who is disruptive and troubled and, hell, a bit of a bully, he's also so soft way down deep. And so hurt.  It's so hard to see him causing hurt, both to others and, ultimately, to himself.  It’s so hard to see him struggle.

In the first days that Mihiretu came home to us, I kept thinking, “Am I brave or stupid?”  The answer, in the end, is probably both.  Maybe not stupid, per say,  but terrifically, dangerously optimistic.  I’ll adopt a toddler from a poor African country, it’ll be fine.  It has not been fine, and this is where the brave part comes in.  It has been more than fine, Mihiretu is more everything than almost any other kid I know.  More charming, more maddening, more troubled, more heart-wrenching.  He is the bravest person I know.  I guess I can try to muster up a little bravery myself.  I think we’re going to need it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bike Widow

I’m a bike widow.  Perhaps widow is too strong a word as Ben is, thankfully, alive.  Let me put it this way, Ben is involved in a long-standing affair with a two-wheeled contraption.  It started before he and I ever knew each other.  They are very much in love.  It’s a little like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.  Which puts me, not unflatteringly, in the role of Diana.  I’m working on my shy smile.

He escapes the house, he occasionally escapes the state, even the country, to spend quality time with his gal.  They scale mountains, take in glorious views that can’t be seen by car, sustain dramatic, bonding injuries when they mistakenly fly into trees.   They go where he can’t go with me.  He is king of the mountain and she his trusty mount.

As we eat breakfast he covertly checks Strava on his computer, an ingenius website designed for cyclists to compete with each other without actually riding together - a cyber war of the egos, a high-tech pissing contest.  I awaken to the sound of the Tour playing on his phone.  “It’s the final mountain stage,” he’ll solemnly confide to my half-opened eyes.

Cyclist friends of his can’t get over that I do not ride a bike.  Okay, I do, occasionally, for transportation, but – and this is stunning - I’ve never been on a mountain bike ride.  For these friends, who know him as a U.S. Cup winner, a World Cup champion, this is a little like finding out that Netanyahu is in a raunchy liaison with the Pope.

He has his bike, his one pure passion, his one sure-fire happy pill.  I have my children, my writing, my deep friendships, him.  I run, I do yoga, I sew, all happily.  But is there one thing that totally lights my fire the way the bike does his?  Why, no.

I’ve been grappling lately with this question: How deeply am I living?  It’s no doubt spurred by my mother’s recent death – life is short, blah, blah, blah.  Probably also by my age – who doesn’t think these things in their forties?  Menopause is somewhere on the horizon, a death of sorts.  A friend made me a mixed tape (okay, CD) for my birthday and a song came on the other day that made me happy.  I was singing, I was doing a little car dance, I was, for the moment, fully in the present, feeling my body in the world.  I know that’s how Ben feels on the trail.

Ben has his bike, he has his work.  He has things beyond the sometimes mind-numbing sameness of caring for children and house.  My mother devoted herself to her husband and her children.  When my father died and we kids were gone she didn’t have much left.  The story is more complicated than that, of course, muddied by depression and eventual dementia, by extreme introversion and mortal psychic wounds.  But I can see some parallels.  I pour myself into these people.  I have a very fine mind, well-educated and thirsty, chemically unreliable yes, but intellectually sound.  I am extremely capable in all sorts of settings but in my dark moments it seems like all I do is plump pillows.

It doesn’t help that virtually every message I get from the outside world belittles the work I do. In the novel I'm currently reading, one of the protagonists, a forty-two-year-old, well-educated, deep-thinking housewife is termed (by another – jealous - mother) as “not a feminist” because she doesn’t have a job beyond raising her kids.  Reading this, I felt like I had stepped off a cliff while picking wildflowers.  Really?  I’m categorically denied feminist credentials because I don’t get a paycheck?  Because I don’t “work outside the home” (I guess in that definition carpooling and grocery shopping don’t qualify as work)?   I’d really mean more to the world at large if I dropped the kids at the Y and spent my day at an office?

A fellow parent, a dad, recently asked me, so well-meaning, simply wanting to know me better, what I do while the kids are at school.  I was completely stumped.  I fucking run around is the answer, picking up the four pair of underwear Lana discarded on her floor that morning, filling the fridge with food that the children just might eat, volunteering in loud and sticky classrooms, getting out for a run or a yoga class, shifting the laundry from basket to washer to dryer to basket, scrambling to catch up before I have to fetch the three-ring circus from school.  It’s all so boring, though, as a response, as an encapsulation of my life.  So sad.  Finally, at a loss, he managed, “Well, it’s good you have yoga,” which made us both laugh for its earnest hopelessness.

I love that Ben has something in his life that he loves, something beyond me and the kids.  I love that he’s fit; his body is beautiful.  Our prospects of a long and healthy life together are good.  But I’m jealous.  Maybe, though, I’m not jealous of the bike, that bitch on wheels.  Maybe I’m jealous of him.  Maybe I need to make room for something – or things – that make me feel alive, vital, that I’m living this day like it’s my last.  Something that is just mine, that has nothing to do with my roles as mother and wife.  Something that sets me free.

But in the meantime, maybe less NPR and more music, less Facebook and more writing, less talking and more singing, less running and more dancing, less indoors and more outdoors, less routine and more surprise.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


My kids have never really been stuffed animal people.  Oh sure, the girls would go wild for some cute and cuddly chipmunk or lemur they’d spot at the gift shop at the zoo, beg and plead and carefully carry their new baby to the car.  They’d name it Sarah, snuggle it for the majority of the ride home and then it would join the legions of Sarahs that had come before in the many stuffed-animal-laden wicker baskets in the playroom.

Mae, largely unsentimental, does have Doggie, a small beagle-like creature that she received before she was even born.  That dog has traveled to Ethiopia, Alaska and New York City - where he was mauled by an overly playful Great Dane.  Panicking, I swiftly sewed the pieces of Doggie back together, frantically assuring Mae – and myself - “He’ll be fine, this will be fine.”  Somehow, through great will and fine sewing, he lived to see another day.  His ears are crooked and his nose is in a different place but he’s the more adorable – and adored - for it.

A couple of months ago, shortly after Mihiretu got his cast off his very broken leg, he took up with a large white teddy bear.  This bear had sat on the bunk above him for well over a year, it had been in our family for ten, but it wasn’t until recently that it was deemed important.

Shortly after he began toting the bear around the house, Ben asked Mihiretu if he had a name.  Mihiretu gazed at Ben like he couldn’t quite believe his stupidity and replied, “Teddy.”  The “duh” went unsaid.

Teddy is now a must at bedtime hours.  He is tucked in alongside Mihiretu, he must be retucked if Mihiretu (and Teddy) wake in the night, he journeys in the crook of Mihiretu’s arm into our bed in the morning, where he must be tucked once more.  If there’s a cuter thing than a sleepy, leggy, Ethiopian child hauling around a white fluffy teddy bear, I’d like to see it.

On a recent morning, Mihiretu, breakfasted and dressed, and Teddy, a captive witness to breakfast and dressing, ran into our bedroom at full speed.  They wiped out dramatically.  I dropped the mascara I was applying and ran to Mihiretu’s aid but he had bounced back up before I could reach him.  Teddy, however, was still man-down.

“Oh, Teddy,” Mihiretu squeaked in an even higher voice than usual.  “Are you okay?”

I returned to my eyelash grooming as Mihiretu cradled Teddy, crooning, “Teddy, did you bake yo’ weg?  Oh, Teddy, it gonna be okay.  Here come the ambu-ance –“ lots of Mihiretu-siren wail – “We gonna go ‘ospitle, Teddy.  Don’ worry, Teddy, don’ worry.”

Now this is not unusual behavior for a child I realize, but it is unusual behavior for this child.  This child who spent his first year with us angry and aggressive, a permanent scowl on his gorgeous face, swinging his fists at any opportunity, and his second year slightly less angry and slightly less aggressive, scowling and hitting perhaps only seventy-five percent of his waking hours.   To see him, at the beginning of his fourth year here, show any form of empathy, to a fantasy creature no less, to see him have some understanding of his own trauma around his own broken leg and our parental reaction to it, well, that was really something.

By tending to Teddy as his does, Mihiretu is finally admitting how he wants to be cared for, admitting that he likes the cuddles, the kindness, the nurturing, that perhaps he even needs them.  He is telling us that he is finally, fully, ready to love and be loved.  He’s so filled up he’s got some to give.  For now that love is being spent on a big ball of cotton batting and polyester fur but, hey, first Teddy and then the world.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Good Friends

Mae and I flew to New York City last week for a few days with my friend, Megan.  Megan, as I’ve said here before, is one of my oldest and closest friends.  She and Evany, who completed our threesome in high school, are more sisters than friends.  We grew to the same height, all wear size 9 shoes, have dirty blonde hair (though I’m currently bleached, Megan is red and Evany is a sun-kissed Clairol).  We talk over each other, we bend over with giggles, we can be careless with feelings, we weep on a dime; we behave like the fourteen-year-olds we were when we met.  We are present at births and deaths, unions and break-ups.  We show up and we hold each other’s hands.

I’ve taken many trips to see Megan by myself.  These are girl holidays; marathons of chatting, shopping and downing red wine.  This last time was the first I’ve brought a child.  But let it be said that this is my ten-year-old.  This is Mae who I do believe might be further down the emotional evolutionary chain than yours truly.  She, like her sister, is a good girlfriend.  She knows how to listen, how to gossip and most of all, how to accessorize.

The trip had many highlights (earring hunting on the streets of Soho, two visits to Dylan’s Candy Bar, the careful selection of outfits each morning) but the moment that really stands out, uncharacteristically for me, is when we went to see “Wicked”.

I’m an old actress remember (older by the minute) and, like my grungy, starving, die-hard artistic peers, the Broadway musical has always struck me as, well, too broad.  The constant jazz-hands, the Sondheim minor keys, the big themes and moralistic bents; it can be too much for a girl who has a love affair with subtlety.

That said, “Wicked” is a bit different.  Yes, jazz hands and minor keys, but instead of romance being the central theme, as it often is in these productions, this play instead focuses on a friendship between two women.  The friendship, to be specific, between the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) and Glinda the Good.  Elphaba, in this telling, is dark, heroic and true.  Glinda, while her heart is good, just wants to be popular.  They are opposites but they form a bond early and deep.  In high school, as a matter of fact.

There’s a scene at the end when the two women are taking leave of each other for the last time.  Elphaba says, “You were my only friend.”  Glinda, with a wail of anguish says, “I’ve had so many friends.”  Megan and I howled with laughter because we both have had so many friends.  But Glinda went on and said, “But you were the only one that mattered.”

I have many, many friends that matter.  I love easily and deeply and fervently, in all categories – romantic, platonic and familial.  There is no greater thrill for me than holding the key that unlocks a heart and opening my own in return.  But of all these loves, there are a few that go even deeper.  There are a few people that have seen all sides of me; when I’m green with the stomach flu, when I’m bloated with pregnancy, when I’m near catatonic with depression, when I’m sparkling in my new dress from the Anthropologie sale room.

The lights came up after “Wicked” and the three of us moved with the crowd towards the street.  I was still a bit lost in the story, contemplating my friendships, particularly my bond with Megan, fighting back tears in the crush of humanity that is Manhattan.  Megan and Mae were chatting and then fell silent.  Megan sighed, “Good friends.”  That’s all it took.  I was flapping my hand before my eyes, blinking furiously, trying to swallow the sudden obstruction in my throat.

Good friends.  I am so lucky.  To find these friends, to find them in my daughters, even.  I’ve got jazz hands just thinking about it.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Qualities of Love

Mihiretu’s cast is now off.  He walks with a limp but in time that will go away; there should be no lasting physical effects of his injury.  What will stay, I think, is his newfound softness, his willingness to be vulnerable, his trust in us.

He asks me many times a day, “Mama, do you yuv me?”

Every time I answer, “I love you so much, buddy.  More than I can say.”

“You yuv me mo’ than Lana? Mo’ than Mae?  Mo’ than Daddy?”

Here I explain that I can’t love one of my children more than the other.  That these five people in our immediate family (like any self-respecting New-Age woman, I include myself in that number), that these five are more precious to me than anything in the world.  I love them, I love him, as much as I can possibly love.  From the bottom of my heart, as my parents would say.

In his newly unlocked passion for me, he is jealous of every person that I talk to.  When we go to pick up the girls from school, he watches carefully for my friend, Ann, in the distance.  When he spots her, he yells, “Don’ talk to Ann!  Don’ talk to Ann!”  If I am daring enough to approach her, for a fix of girlfriend to get me through the rest of the day, he pulls on me and pokes at me, wraps his arms around my head and screams in my ear.  It’s not attractive behavior, but I see where it’s coming from.

“How long w’you yuv me, Mama?” he’ll ask.

“Always,” I tell him resolutely.

“Not when yo’ dead,” he’ll say, peeking at me from the corner of his eyes, hoping that he’s wrong.

“I’ll love you after I’m dead,” I say.  “My dad is dead and my mom is dead but I still feel their love.  I’ll keep loving you forever.”

“To ‘finity and be-ond?”  He’s a fan of Toy Story.

“To infinity and beyond,” I assure.

“You yuv me mo’ than yo’ mama?” he’ll ask.

“I love you differently,” I tell him, brushing his curls from his forehead with my palm.  “You know how you feel about me?  That’s how I feel about my mama.  But when you have a kid you’ll know how I feel about you.”

Pacified, he’ll nod his head, skipping ahead to scout for more of my girlfriends, preparing his karate chops to ward them off.

It was my mother’s birthday yesterday, the first one since she died.  I thought of her all day, of how she loved me, of how I loved her, about how that love keeps on going even though she’s not here anymore.

I think, too, about Mihiretu’s birth mother, about how she must have loved him, about how that love must translate, must travel, from whatever world is next.  He’s got to feel it.  That mama’s love and this mama’s love, my mama’s love, all of it whirling around us in the breeze, holding us up.

Friday, May 4, 2012


A couple weeks ago, in the gloom of a rainy Spring Break, with one child recovering from a adenoid/tonsillectomy (Lana), another refusing to walk on his walking cast (Mihiretu) and a third grumping around the house because she was “wasting her vacation” (that’d be Mae), I bleached my hair blonde.

 I say I bleached my hair blonde when in fact I hired a professional. I had fully intended to do it myself (you should have seen my “DIY blonde” google searches) but my sheer-master/hair-management guru, Sloan, made me see the light (Me: “I’m going to fuck myself up, aren’t I?” Sloan, nodding sagely: “You’re going to fuck yourself up.”)

I was blonde as a kid and then, with the help of highlights, had acres of blonde hair in my twenties. When I quit acting at thirty and simultaneously became a mother, I simplified by going brown and short. I never, though, in all those years of real and fake blondeness, have been this blonde. I’m Annie Lennox, Blondie, Billy Idol blonde (I’ve had “Eyes Without a Face” running through my head for days).

Okay, prepare yourself for some generalizations – I’m really good at these. Men, largely, don’t like short hair. I think they find it threatening. Find me a man who genuinely appreciates a pixie cut and I can virtually guarantee that he’s either very cool and sophisticated (like my beloved husband, who, okay, is maybe just humoring me) or, well, gay (and cool and sophisticated).

Women, on the other hand, tend to love short hair. I can’t tell you the number of times – a day – an unknown woman compliments me on my hair and confides that she’d cut hers like that – “but there’s no way I could pull it off”. I think these women are earnest. I think that women also know that men don’t like short hair and it’s nice to have the field narrowed – my short hair makes me less of a threat. 

Men, generally speaking, love blonde hair. There’s almost a Pavlovian aspect to their response. I remember walking down the street in LA and men shouting at me from behind. My ass isn’t J. Lo territory – they were responding to that swinging blondeness. Since dyeing my hair this time, I’ve coincidentally been on a kick to fix everything that’s broken in and around the house (dimmer switches, leaky faucets, peeling paint, cracked windshields). The plumber, the mechanic, even the skylight-guy have been particularly solicitous. I swear I’ve saved money.

Women, on the other hand, can find the blonde a little threatening. If the short hair makes me less appealing to the male species, the blonde makes me more, and the ladies are well aware. For the most part my loving community of women has been enthusiastic about the change but I knew I was really onto something when an acquaintance, someone who refuses to meet my eye though we’ve been at the same school functions for years, said, when introduced to me (again), “Your hair is different,” her nose wrinkling delicately, her sneer barely masked.

I probably sound pretty vain (which I am) and competitive (which I can be) and a slut for attention (why, yes) but I don’t think that’s wholly what this is about. To be honest, my main motivator for changing hair colors was that a lighter shade would hide the silver at my temples more effectively. I’m aging; my blonde bombshell days are behind me. BUT. It’s comforting to add a bit of the terrain of my twenties to the flat (if infinitely more tranquil) landscape of my forties. There’s a woman underneath all these children, I swear there is.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Lover

Mihiretu has been in a cast for close to a month. And while this period has had its inconveniences (don’t even get me started about the wheelchair in the rain, let alone trying to catch his pee in a disposable coffee cup in the wheelchair in the rain), it’s largely been excellent.

Mihiretu is, confoundingly, perfectly happy laying around, soaking up our attention. While I get plenty of sympathy from people imagining that he’d be going crazy with restlessness, given how active he is, the truth is he’s more peaceful than I’ve ever seen him. I’m always up for a pity party but in this case it’s not party time.

I wrote here a while back that this injury has contained him, something we’ve never experienced. We didn’t know him as a baby, only as a terrible two. This time is giving us the opportunity to make up for that. We carry him from room to room, from house to car, from car to wheelchair. We hold him over the toilet when he needs to poop. We spoon cereal in his mouth as he watches Avatar on the IPad. We take him on long, meandering, treat-fueled walks in the jogger stroller. We sleep next to him. We wake up, uncomplaining, in a puddle of his urine. We sponge him clean. We brush his teeth. We meet his every need and he is delighted.

The other night Ben and the girls went out to a friend’s. I stayed home with Mihiretu. At first he was very upset that his dad was leaving without him, that he was missing the party. But when I told him that I really wanted special time with him, the tears stopped on a dime.

I was lying with my head at the opposite end of his bed so that my feet were near his face. He reached out and poked my bare calf, making the lax muscle waggle.

“What is dis fat fing?” he asked. To which, of course, I laughed, my calf being one of the lone bodies parts on which I don’t obsess.

Egged on, he continued, caressing my leg. “I yuv you, you fat fing.”

I put “Toy Story” in the DVD player and snuggled up next to him, “Downton Abbey” playing on my laptop. He held my hand, every once in a while leaned in and whispered, “I yuv you, Mama.” He even told me, offhandedly, that his penis was hard. All in all, it was an excellent date. Just Mihiretu, me and the good Dr. Freud.

Mihiretu, for his out-sized personality, doesn’t want to look different. I guess we brought him home to the wrong county – sorry, kid. But for now it’s not his skin color he’s noticing. It’s his giant orange cast. Whenever we’re out and about, he requires that a blanket cover his lap in the wheelchair, completely hiding his leg. If we weren’t conspicuous before - white mom, loud brown child - now with me hunched over his teeny wheelchair, we make quite an impression. It was weeks before I realized that people were imagining him to be permanently disabled. When my friend, Elizabeth, walked him and the girls down the street for ice cream, she felt impelled to break the tension. “Broken leg, coming through,” she sang cheerfully and watched people sigh with relief. Maybe it’s all these years of people not knowing what to make of our family, but I’m not letting anyone off the hook. There’s a certain passive aggression in me, something that makes me think “I’m not going to put you at ease. I’m tired of putting you at ease.” Mostly, really, I’m just too busy trying to get from Point A to Point B. And so strangers think me some kind of surly saint. Not only do I adopt a black child, but a handicapped one at that. You can almost see my halo if you squint.

And so we wheel on, me and my gorgeous, slightly broken son, him saying, karate hands flying “You wanna piece o’ me?” And more mysteriously, “You wanna piece o’ uncle?”

And: “Mama, I wanna tell you sum-tin. Mama? Mama?”

“Yes, Mihiretu?”

“When yo’ buthday comin’ up?” This is his big pick-up line, when he wants to demonstrate that he’s thinking of me, that he’s fond.

“June, honey.”

Then, reliably, “I yuv you, Mama.” If you had told me three years ago that this boy would be so devoted, this small tornado who glared at me and called me “Poopoomama”, I would have been shocked. And relieved beyond words.

“I love you, too, buddy,” I say, nesting one hand in his curls. “ Like crazy.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

All Apologies

I published something here a few weeks ago (that I’ve since unpublished) in which, I’m now realizing, I made a blunder.

As I grow older, and as I write here, I feel closer to my authentic self. I feel less interested in fitting in, less afraid of what others may make of me. I feel braver, more willing to expose my secrets, my shame, my thumping heart. It is liberating, it connects me with people I never imagined connecting with so intimately. But as I grow bolder, more confident, I’m ever more aware that I need to watch those broad strokes. I can speak my truth, the more the better, but I should only speak for me and, unless I have permission, about me.

The post I wrote a few weeks ago was about how I, probably like most people, can silently judge people. In an effort to speak to my own occasional small-mindedness, my covert bitchiness (the irony, the IRONY!) I used as an example a person I had misjudged and in doing so, depicted her in a less than positive light in a public forum. I didn’t name her but frankly, that’s not the point. The point is that I used this woman for my own purposes, never good, and without checking with her, a cardinal rule for me when I mention someone in these pages.

For this transgression, my deepest apologies. I feel pretty terrible about it, truth be told. I’ve written this current post three different times trying to find the right words. The last thing I want to do, for all my sass and bluster, is to hurt feelings. The true irony is that after writing the piece in question I ended up spending an afternoon with the woman whom I had criticized and found her, of course, to be kind and funny. That sound you just heard was my own foot kicking me in the ass. It was tired of being in my mouth, you see.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Break

Last Saturday, under a clear blue March sky, Mihiretu, hopping with his sisters on the trampoline, fell in just the wrong way. Ben and I, both in the yard, me sweeping, Ben picking up debris, heard his bones break. It sounded like a small dry branch snapped for kindling. In fact, it was Mihiretu’s tibia and fibula, breaking clean through. As a friend said later, way to go big or go home.

When Ben picked him up, it looked as if he had grown an extra knee half way up his calf. A knee that, queasily, moved, shifted as if there was something alive under there.

We spent five hours in the emergency room. Because Mihiretu had eaten Cheetos right before his injury (and let me clarify here, lest you think ill of me, Trader Joe’s Cheetos – somehow they must be healthier, right?), because he had food in his stomach, no matter how non-fortifying, he could not have anesthesia for the setting of his leg. He was allowed a shot of morphine (at the sight of the needle he squeaked, so plaintively, “Save me, save me, save me”, gripping Ben with desperate claws). A shot of morphine doesn’t really do the trick when you’re manipulating broken bones, particularly a child’s. He howled, begged, “Be done, be done, be done”.

The before X-ray was completely terrifying, bones splintered and at odd angles. The after X-ray was, confusingly, not that much different. The orthopedist seemed proud of himself but we left the hospital texting our magical friend and pediatrician, Nelson, for a referral for a second opinion.

Today we went to Children’s Hospital Oakland. Mihiretu went under general anesthesia with a rock star of a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and emerged with a much straighter leg and a bright orange cast.

It’s been a long few days. The pain up until now has been considerable, what with those bones rubbing together so Ben and I have been taking two hour shifts at night. I haven’t left the house beyond leg-related appointments and walking the girls to school. It requires both of us to take our Ethiopian prince to the toilet, Ben carrying him like a bride and me holding his feet (“Hold my feet, Mama, hold my feet!”), trailing like a bridesmaid.

But. Within this bundle of extra work and worry, there is a little gem. He’s vulnerable right now, my Mihiretu. We keep joking about how it’s like having a newborn and today it struck me that this is our newborn time with him. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t know him when he was small, defenseless and all sugar. By the time he came to us, at two and a half, he was all motion, noise and sass. They say that adopted kids often need to return to stages they missed with their adoptive parents, to get “re-parented” in the lingo. It seems like maybe that’s what we’re doing right now. He sleeps (when he sleeps) with his arms twined around our necks. He lays on the couch during the day, watching “Beyblades” on the IPad and snuggling into me as I read my novel. Our house has the quiet, purposeful, satisfied feeling it did when the girls were babes. This boy, who will be in a wheelchair for the next four weeks until he graduates to a walking cast (redefining “hell on wheels”), is finally being forced to stay still so we can love him.

Friday, February 10, 2012

High Point

Since my mother died, I’ve been wandering the hills. Like a modern-day Elizabeth Bennett, I’ve been roaming the heath, though I doubt that she was listening to “This American Life” on her IPhone.

I’ve always loved to hike though I’ve never really done it alone. I’ve always been a runner but, until now, only on the road. I have this great irrational fear of snakes, you see. So much so that when Ben and I are hiking he’s forbidden from making sudden moves or utterances lest I think he’s spotted one. He can’t even say the word “snake”. He must refer to them as “strings” as in “This tall grass too stringy for you, honey?” This I got from “The Poisonwood Bible” – apparently there’s an African tradition that if you say the word “snake” you’ll conjure it.

But my mother died in November and the urge to be outside has outweighed my fear of the (hopefully) hibernating serpents. And so I have been walking or running up on the trails. Alone. I want to be alone not so I can think about my mom but so I cannot think about her. I’m not ready to think about her.

It’s familiar, this phenomenon. When my father died, I spent the first six months busily turning my romantic life upside-down, the perfect twenty-three-year-old solution to avoiding one’s feelings. This time around it’s IKEA shelving units, an age-appropriate substitution. We turned our office into a bedroom for Mae, which has called for a house-wide reorganization. There is an element of, ironically, a snake shedding its skin in the reinvention of my environment. I’m changing my exterior space to echo the changes in my interior space. Today I’ll go to IKEA for the fifth time in two weeks. I even managed to buy the same wrong-sized wardrobe drawers twice. I waited twenty minutes to return them, then promptly made a bee-line to Aisle 12, Bin 24 to buy them again. It wasn’t until I had them home and built that I realized my mistake. It’s easier at this point to think about storage baskets and throw pillows then it is to face the world without my mother in it. Six months after my dad died I went and found a therapist. I imagine that in another couple months I’ll be ready for the grief counseling that hospice so kindly offered.

Along with IKEA, better than IKEA, I have the ridge above our house. I walk the kids to school and then hike up the hill behind it, where I can walk or run for hours on end. Out on the ridge, with the world spread below me, I can get some perspective. There’s more than just me, more than just my mama.

Being in my body feels right because my mind is on vacation, it’s on a grief sabbatical. All I have to do is climb the hill in front of me. Which is an apt metaphor for grief. You put one day in front of the next, allow time to work the rough edges. I put one foot in front of the other and in doing so step away from my mother, which is the only thing I can do. I can’t go backwards, I must go on ahead. She’s gone and so I have to walk away.

Or maybe these wide, open spaces, this big sky, is the only place I have any hope of finding her. Maybe I’m actually walking towards her, trying to locate her amid the hawks and the falcons.

Every night at the dinner table, we each reveal our high points and low points. Mihiretu confuses high and low so he often says something like, “My high poin’ is Teacha Kawi mad at me”. When we ask his low point he says, “Teacha Kawi mad at me.” Ben reliably says his high point is that present moment at the table, reunited with us at the end of the day. If Mae’s friend, Zoe, was absent from school, that’s always her low point. Lana’s reports vary but they’re always long and detailed. I realized today as I was gazing at Mount Tam from the top of Loma Alta, that my high point is literally my high point. Climb high enough and you’ll feel better. Or at very least you’ll feel.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Rock Star

We bought an IPad a couple weeks ago and it has been a hot commodity. Mihiretu plays Angry Birds, Mae plays Spellcraft and Lana, it turns out, uses it for a purpose all her own.

She asked for the IPad last night before she went to bed. Much later, after Ben had tucked her in, he brought it to bed with him. While I read my novels, he surfs craigslist for strange and varied vehicles (“Look, honey, at this old school bus!” or “That’s a cool pick-up” or “Nobody wants the big Airstreams”). This has long been his favorite pastime, first with the computer, then with his IPhone and now, hallelujah, with an IPad. He’s come a long way, baby.

As he turned on the IPad, he saw several videos on the desktop, all of Lana’s face.

There is a Justin Bieber imitation. She’s not a fan – I don’t believe she’s ever even seen a video – but Justin Bieber is this year’s Miley Cyrus so the second graders are all atwitter. In these she’s naked from the waist up (her favorite outfit, really, and what she deemed most Bieberesque). She speaks as if she has a heavy cold, her accent is vaguely Southern. Her hair is swept across her forehead in a cunning imitation of his famous locks.

She says, “Hi, I’m Justin Biebah and I’m gonna SING for ya. But first I have a few words to say.” Here she brings her hands in front of her face in desperate upturned claws, her face contorts with pain and she moans “Nevah say NEVAH!” She drops her hands, relaxes her face, sweeps her hair across her forehead and says, matter-of-factly, “And I just said ‘never” so I should go to jail shouldn’t I? Well, first I’m gonna sing my song and then I’m gonna march to jail.”

Then, nostrils flaring, she sings tunelessly, expressively, “Oh, this is my song. It’s my best one so far.” And it goes from there, something about “I’ve got a chicken and I’m saying HEY!”

My favorite video, I think, is an extreme close-up. She says, very simply, by way of introduction, “I am a girl but I have a very funny name. You will hear it in this song many times. Heeeeere we go.” Her brows draw together, her eyes widen and her voice deepens as she sings, “Bob, Bob, Bob, that is my name. Robert, but Bob for short. Bob, Bob, Bob, that is my name but” here she pans out to a wide shot and her voice raises three octaves “I am a GIRL!”

The best thing about these videos is that she is alone. She has no audience beyond herself and so what we see is very pure. Purely goofy, yes, but here I have evidence of the essential Lana.

The world sees a blond, blue-eyed child, generally quiet in public, seeming particularly so in contrast to a brother who is always either racing, jumping, climbing, teasing or screaming. Acquaintances, until they truly know her, imagine her as docile. In fact, she is possibly the strongest personality of the bunch – and that’s saying something, given the bunch. She is publicly reserved and privately outrageous. She is my secret extrovert while Mae, who strikes the world as bold, is my secret introvert. Mihiretu, of course, is no secret.

I will treasure this bit of – what is it? video? bytes? IPad magic?. Whatever it is, I will hold it close so I can remember this covertly wild girl, this angel with the devilish sense of humor.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Same Shit

I wrote a piece about our trip to the snow, or rather our trip to the “snow” as it’s the driest winter Tahoe has seen in recorded history (you were so right, Al Gore), but my essay got erased. Twice. That’s what you get for having children up your nether-regions – and all over your computer with their sticky little fingers – during the “holidays”. I don’t know who was having a holiday but it certainly wasn’t me.

Here’s the “snow” in a nutshell: one of our party (I won’t say who) subjecting the rest to highly stinky HAFE (high-altitude flatulence explosions, an actual medical ailment, look it up), two different Caprons simultaneously slipping on ice and peeing their pants (I won’t say who), sleeping - or should I say “sleeping” - in five bunks stacked on a wall with children crawling through the beds like a Habitrail at four a.m., Mae violently struck with altitude sickness when we took the tram to the top of Squaw (migraine aura followed by terrible headache followed by vomiting) while Mihiretu and Lana ice-skated with walker-like contraptions, like drunk eighty-year-old hooligans. And, of course, all the discomfort and hassle was worth it with one glimpse of our three children bundled like Michelin Men pulling a red plastic sled up a small hill of icy, muddy snow. That’s pretty much the long and the short of it. Can I call it done now?

In other news, we gave Mae her own room a week ago. Our office is now her lair. My desk is now in the sunny livingroom, one friend’s painting and another friend’s shadow box arranged above it. I’ve given up a room of one’s own but I like my new little space and Mae certainly likes hers. She has escaped her brother and landed in a pre-teen haven, her own private Idaho.

Last night Ben and I listened as Mae sang herself to sleep. “The flower said I wish I was a tree,” she warbled. “The tree said I wish that I could be a different kind of tree. The cat wished that it was a bee. The turtle wished that it could fly really high into the sky over rooftops and then dive deep into the sea.”

It was lovely, her singing. Not that she’s particularly gifted musically but her desire and ability to do it for herself was beautiful. She didn’t know we were listening. This was raising her voice in song for the love of it, for the love of herself.

When she moved on to a different song on the same Kimya Dawson album, a nice little number entitled “Same Shit”, it was clear it was time to pull the plug.

“Go to sleep, Mae,” Ben called.

“Day after day after day, it’s the same shit. Day after day after day, it’s the same shit. Day after day after day, it’s the same shit.”

“Mae!” Ben and I called together.

There was silence and then quietly, happily, “Day after day after day after day after day.”