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Archive for September, 2009

I was standing at the sink doing the dishes and M was scraping the last of tonight’s dinner into a bowl for tomorrow’s lunch.  E2 came around the corner and stood in the doorway.

M looked at her for a moment, and then said, “If she were a zombie…”  I thought I’d misheard him, turned the water off for a moment and turned to look at him.  He continued,  “If she were a zombie, and her face were that kind of zombie grey and her eyes were all dead and stuff… could you kill her?”

I was startled, dumbstruck, slightly amused.  I looked at my daughter, standing in the doorway, gazing up at us with that angelic face, those big eyes, a huge grin.   Then, found my voice, indignant, disbelieving: “No! No, I couldn’t!”

“You’d have to.”  He said it as if it were obvious, as if it were… important.

“No! No, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t kill her!”

“She’d be dead already,” his voice was earnest, insistent.  “Well, she’d be undead.  You’d have to kill her.  No choice really.”  The matter thus settled, he turned back to the bowl.

I looked down at my daughter, now standing by my leg and only coming to mid-thigh, her head upturned with that huge grin and her wispy strawberry blond hair falling straggly over one eye.  I picked her up, held her into me, tucked my nose into her hair and breathed her in.  I was supposed to go along with him, I knew, but…  If she were a zombie?!? A zombie! Honestly!  Whatever was in that man’s mind?!?  I’m her mother, she’s my daughter.

He’s… he’s such a boy.

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That I am an American has never been in question.  I need only open my mouth and — if you are a Brit — you will recognise the fact immediately.  If you are an American… well, twenty years ago you would have known right away — these days, you might be a wee bit confused.  But I was born here and grew up here, and — though I know am fully British as well (not half-and-half, but whole-and-whole) — my Americanness is not in question.

And yet my being American is just an accident of birth.  My parents, both Brits, were here only temporarily when I was born, working in the States for a few years — so the plan went — before moving back.  My father’s sudden death turned all that on its head and I ended up growing here… ended up an American.  And yet, if we had stayed in the UK and hadn’t moved back to the US last year, that fact would have become only an anomalous blip in a long and continuous line of Britishness: my parents and grandparents and all my ancestors completely British, my children and all my decedents just as British as well.  Indeed, when we go back to the UK, that will be the case again.  Pulling back and looking at it from afar, these two quick forays into America will become mere  interludes in a long line — generations — of  otherwise unbroken Britishness.

And that feels so very strange to me, because my Americanness is such a big part — such a real part — of who I am.    It’s really quite startling to think of it as an accident, as a blip…

We are going back — that is decided.  We knew it the morning before we left.  We both agreed on it a few months after we moved here.  We have been looking forward to it, and I have waxed lyrical here on my blog about it.  We are both quite settled.  We will all be Brits once again.

Imagine my surprise then when…  well, let me explain…

I was watching one of my favourite telly programmes — this was a couple of weeks ago, M had just got home from his trip to England.  It’s a property programme, a bit of eye candy, in which two experts guide househunters to their dream home.  I always watch it with a mix of excitement, jealousy, despair, and irritation.  The houses are interesting — the voyeurism is too — but the prices are ever eye-watering.  The house we bought here in the US would cost us five times as much in the UK.  And yet, their budget is always astronomical.  Where do these people get their money?!? It intrigues me, frustrates me — I can’t help but watch.

But as I watched it the other week, the sensation was strange, less voyeur and more uncomfortable than usual.  I was thinking about going home, thinking too much.  How will we ever move back? The figures never add up — even a two-up, two-down terrace in a questionable area of town seems beyond our means, and it always depresses me.  But there was more to it today… the sensation was strange…

And then the surprise, a quiet voice in my head: I don’t want to go back.

I stopped dead at that — every thought stopped as my brain tried to comprehend what it had just heard.  It had not been expected, not even suspected.  Had I really said that…?   Why would I not want to go back…?!?  I know I want to!  I didn’t believe it… it’s not true!  And yet… and yet…  I knew right away that it is true, at least in a little.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, rolling that quiet statement around in my mind and trying to make it balance with all the other feelings I hold.  And I think I understand.  Our first year here was rough — we were fighting fires almost from the moment we arrived and we had hardly a moment to draw breath.  But, though we are still fighting a few fires even now, things have begun to slow down considerably.  There’s been a bit more time to to sit and relax, to enjoy the warm air of the summer, to go out and see a bit of the world…  to see a bit of America.

And I am beginning to remember what is wonderful about America.  We have been to fibre festivals, and driven through mountains and farmland and small towns to get there.  We have gone to lovely state parks, with deep woods and vast lakes, and sat in the sun watching the light dance across the water.  We have had dinner at grand and historic inns that sing out the vibrant history of the country.  We went to Gettysburg, and the place affected me profoundly, stopped my heart.  These past few months, I have seen the America that I had remembered, the America that I had hoped for.  These past few months, I have begun to fall in love.

But the problem is that when I say “we”, I mean my mother and I, with the girls.  The fibre festivals were daytrips during the week; the state park was a Tuesday with some old family friends;  Gettysburg was a quick break while M was in England.  My mother is so excited to have her daughter and grandchildren nearby, and she delights in taking us away like that.  M and I don’t have the money for getaways or dinner on our own — he toils away at work all week, and sees the same city neighbourhoods day after day, and then our weekends are spent at home, busy with domestic chores and conserving our pennies.  In the year-and-a-half that we’ve lived here, he’s got away for one weekend: it was a fibre festival that, yes, was set in some beautiful countryside but, to be honest, it’s quite possible he was too bored to notice it.

So we’ve been going on separate emotional journeys, he and I.  I have been discovering what there is to love — and loving it.  And he has been seeing exactly the same thing he’s seen since the day he arrived: the same dirty city from the same van, doing the same dirty jobs in the same dodgy neighbourhoods.  He is not much impressed and wants to go home;  I am being a surprised by that quiet voice in my head.

I’ve been honest with him about: told him about the voice, told him my feelings.  “We need to make sure we go on the same journey,” I said.  “When it comes time to go home, we need to have shared this, so we understand each other’s feelings.”  He agreed with a grunt.  But so far, we haven’t.  This weekend, I will take E1 to her tennis lesson while M works on the furnace.   Next weekend, he is working.  Perhaps in October…  I want so much to take him to Gettysburg…  and there’s another festival in New York, through some beautiful Pennsylvania countryside.  Oh, but the money… the money!

Money or not, I have to make this happen.  He has to get away — heaven knows he needs the break, and he needs to see America too.  But most of all, he and I must — absolutely must — go on this journey together, the same emotional journey.  Because when we do move back to the UK, and I do say goodbye to America… my America…  I will need him to understand what I am leaving.

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This time I spotted the signs much quicker — the belly breathing; the way the base of her neck caved in on the inhale; the listlessness, so much so that she was lying flattened on the floor and wouldn’t even lift her head — and I knew what to do.  My mother held her on her lap as I put the mask over my daughter’s face and turned on the nebuliser.  She would be fine, I knew.  I’d done my bit by spotting the signs and now her breathing treatment would open her airways again.  It would not go to croup this time.

And she did perk up for a time — the adrenaline rush to her system gave her a jolt of energy that spilled out in songs and giggles and, once she was eventually free of the mask and the machine, the kind of crazed dancing that only drugs can produce.  I watched her mania with waves of relief.

So the shock rocked me to the core when I realised only thirty minutes later that she was struggling to breath again.   Again, the belly-breathing.  Again, that horrible pulling at the base of her neck.  It was too soon to use the nebuliser — much too soon, it should have lasted four hours!  How could she have fallen back so badly in only thirty minutes?

A cursory call to the doctor’s office, only to confirm what I already knew — we were to go directly to the Emergency Room, by ambulance if necessary.  I calmed my racing heart, told it that those words came as no surprise — to no avail — and began to pack our bags.  We needed enough nappies to perhaps see us through the night, more wipes, and food.  We can go nowhere without bringing our own food — even the hospital struggles to cope E2’s extensive dietary restrictions.  Last time, it produced an apple and a bowl of plain rice noodles covered in canola oil.  She’s two years old: of course she turned up her nose.

But the timing was terrible and the cupboard was bare.  “I’ll make something,” my mother said, hastily shoving a pair sweet potatoes into the microwave.  “You…” she looked at me, still in my pajamas and with great globs of snot dried in my hair.  E1 had cried through the night with a sore throat so pitifully that I’d slept (or, rather, not) beside  her, contorting my too-long body into her toddler bed, where she’d sneezed repeatedly, violently, all over me.  My mother winced a little, “You have a quick shower — quick — and get dressed while I make the food.”

I looked at my daughter, judging her breath.  She was working at it for sure, much more than she should have been so soon after a treatment, but she was ok for the moment.  I could see that. There was time, I thought, and dashed to the bathroom.  My shower lasted two minutes — soap on, soap off — but  I kicked myself for it the whole time, stepped out onto the bathmat in a guilt-induced near-panic.

In the car as I drove, my mother kept her body turned around in the passenger seat, watching E2’s chest rise and fall, and periodically telling me to slow down.  My wet hair dripped down the back of my neck.  E2 kept breathing.

At the hospital, they issued us with masks first and read the registration paperwork.  “Breathing troubles”, I’d written and they waved us straight in.  Weight, blood pressure, stethoscope — ah yes, that wheeze and rattle — and they settled her down for another breathing treatment, this one lasting an hour.  She perked up again almost immediately and asked to take the mask off so she could dance with her fidgetting, bored sister.  “No, sweetheart.  You just breathe,” I told her.  She sang instead, which was just as good.

The treatment finished, they left us for a while to see how it took.  But when they returned at last, the rattle was still there, so she had another — shorter this time, a steroid.  And that one did the trick.   After another long observation period, made more difficult by one child who was now totally wired and the other who was bored beyond her tolerance, they declared her fit and released us, with a prescription for more steroids.

We drove home in the falling dusk.  E1 succumbed to sleep immediately and, as the adrenaline rush began to die away, her little sister followed suit.  I watched them both in the rear-view mirror: their faces relaxed and angelic, their mouths both hanging open, and their chests rising and falling …easily, rhythmically.  I counted my blessings.

And then I counted something else: four colds so far this year, and all four times, we’ve had to use the treatment to keep her breathing.  Four colds so far this year, and two have ended up in the Emergency Room.  What gave the rest of us sniffles and coughs brought E2 to the edge of disaster every time.

We pulled up to the pharmacy and I turned off the car.  It was dark now and I was exhausted, ready for bed but knowing it would be another long night with two sick little girls.  “Oh, Mum… I hope she outgrows this.”  I reached to open the car door when another, darker thought suddenly chilled me.  “But…”  I turned my head and looked at my mum.  “But if she doesn’t…  if she’s this susceptible to everything…  how will I ever be able to send her to school?!?”

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I pulled on a pair of jeans yesterday that I’d bought on sale for £9 from Marks & Spencer’s in late summer 2005.  I didn’t fit into them then, but I had plans.  My first daughter was a few months old, my second not yet agreed to, and I was working toward…  oh, it makes me laugh now!…  I was working toward “getting myself back again”.

Women so often have this ridiculous idea that they can “get back” after they have their babies — back to their old bodies, back to their careers, back to their interests, back to their lives.  It’s only have you have the baby — quite some time after — that you realise it’s impossible to go back.   There is only going forward.  Even if you resume your career, work off the babyfat, start going out again, the truth is that you have changed forever — everything has changed forever.  There is no going back.

For me, the going forward meant not returning to work (a mix of unforeseen circumstances and my own choice), having another baby in quick succession, and  fourteen months of the most brutal sleep deprivation as we desperately tried to figure out what was wrong with this staving, screaming child.  Getting my figure back fell right off the agenda.  Getting my life back seemed… utterly impossible.  I’d try on the jeans periodically, but it was pointless — they only mocked me and refused to go over my thighs.  Plans indeed!

But here we are, four years later, and things are moving forward again.  E2 has these past few months begun sleeping through the night at last.  And sleep performs miracles: life is beginning to feel manageable — almost normal — again.  There are thoughts of a possible career, and long-untouched hobbies, and I have begun to work out…

As I was getting ready to go out last night, I tried on the jeans again and, to my utter surprise, they slipped on — actually loose at the waistband and with room in the thighs.  I wore them out with a pair of cheeky red heels and a huge grin — standing at the bar with my husband and feeling fantastic, feeling almost skinny, feeling… well, feeling  like myself again!

Getting ready for church this morning, we were late and in a rush.  I stepped out of the shower into a crowded bathroom as two little girls tried to brush their teeth (badly) and their father tried to brush their hair (even worse).  As I hastily rubbed the towel over myself, E1 stopped brushing and looked at me for a moment, before asking, “Mummy, why are your legs so big?!?”

My husband paused in his manic brushing and glanced at my face to gauge my reaction.  Sensing it might not be good, he rushed in to save the day, “They’re not big!  They’re muscular!”  It was a kind reference to my recent attempts to get back to weight-lifting, and it did make me feel a bit better.  Yes, it’s muscle, I reassured myself, looking down at my legs.  It’s all muscle.

“But look!” his daughter protested, still unconvinced. “Look how they go round and round!”  And she plonked a hand on either side of my thigh and began to rotate it back and forth, as you would a ball held between your hands,  and my thigh responded by jiggling  — jiggling! — round and round, just as she’d said.

I looked up at my husband as he looked up at me, pursing his lips to keep from laughing.  My thigh carried on moving back and forth with my daughter’s hands.  I smiled back at him, a little ruefully — last night’s happy illusion was shattered.  There may be no going back, but there is indeed a lot of going forward yet to do before I get to me again.

Or perhaps I am already there.  Mother, wife, jiggle and all… perhaps this is me.

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What I didn’t tell you, in that last post, was that, as M was looking up at the ceiling and crying in the dark after leaving his kids again, he suddenly muttered, “Oh, this is ridiculous!”

I was careful. “What…  err… what is ridiculous?”

“I tear up every day.  Like this.  Every day.”

I paused, calculating what he might mean exactly.  Then asked, “Every day since…  you’ve been back?”

“No.”  He sighed, a slow heavy breath that wavered a bit under the weight of it.  “No… every day.”

I was shocked.  Quickly rolling up onto my elbow to look at his face in the moonlight, I blurted out,  “But… but I never see this!”

“It’s usually on my way to work,”  resignation heavy in his voice.

I paused on my elbow for a moment while I tried to think what to say, and then gave up and rolled back onto my back and stared up at the ceiling too, and we laid side by side in silence for a few minutes while I let this bombshell sink in.  He has welled up with tears every single day for the past 20 months. And I have had no idea.  He’s never told me.

Days later, I am still feeling the shock.  And it is so clear that this changes everything.  What I was thinking of as our decision to go back to the UK is nothing of the sort.  There is no decision, because there is no choice.  There is only what must be done.

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We had both known this trip would be difficult.  We knew it the whole time, and we thought we’d prepared for it.  But, really, there is no preparation — like so many things in life, there is only the getting through it.  And now that he is home, we are going through it.

The night before he flew back to the US — and the first night of the trip that his son didn’t stay in the same house — he couldn’t sleep for panic.  His panics come to him when something in his life is terribly wrong, his mind’s inadequate way of coping with the overwhelming.  And leaving his kids again — all over again — is overwhelming.

The night after he arrived back, he didn’t sleep either.  I woke to find him staring up at the ceiling in the dark, and saw glistening lines running from the corners of his eyes down to his ears.

“Are you alright?”

“No.”  His voice wavered.

“I know.”

“It’s just…” He stopped to steady his breath and then let it all out in a rush.  “It’s so hard to leave them.”  I shut my eyes hard, instinctively trying to block out his words, because I knew… I knew, but I just didn’t want it to be so hard for him.  And  I had nothing useful to offer, so I gave him the only words that came to me…

“I know.”

We carried on talking in the dark, awkwardly and to no purpose, and eventually I faded back to sleep.  When I woke again at 5am, he was still staring at the ceiling.  I tried again to say something useful, but I suspect I managed nothing more than to mumble half-slurred, half-slumbered nonsense before succumbing to unconsciousness and leaving him alone, again, with the overwhelming.

The next day, I sat down with a cup of tea to peruse leisurely the local newspapers he’d brought back for me.  I wanted to read news of the recent agricultural show, check out the pictures of kids going back to school, and sympathise with the locals’ frustration at incoming Londoners.  But instead, I found myself skipping past all that and going straight to the back of the paper, to scan the estate agents’ ads and then the jobs pages with a sense urgency that made my stomach suddenly flip-flop.  I was hoping to find something miraculous, some wild change from the situation we’d left 18 months ago, but I found exactly what I’d known would be there: houses that were half the size at twice the price, and jobs with salaries so low that my heart just sank at the sight of them.  No miracles.  And no idea how to make those conflicting numbers add up.

Suddenly, the panic rose up inside me too — up from my guts and into my chest —  and I had to push the paper away hastily.  How am I going to make this work?  How am I going to fix this? I stared at the table, at the spot where the paper had been.  My heart raced and I ran one hand up through my hair.  He needs me and I have no idea what to do.  What am I going to do?  How am I going to fix this?!? How am I going to fix this?!? How? How…? HowamIhowamIhowamIgoingtofixthis?

We thought we had prepared for M’s trip home.  We’d talked about it, talked through it.   We’d remembered the battles he’d fought when he got back last year, and tried to learn from them.  But the truth is that all the preparation in the world is inadequate to the reality.   And… time had passed and those battlefields had fallen quiet… the casualties buried in their shallow graves, and the ground above them going to seed and turning into peaceful meadows.

We had been fooled by the wildflowers.

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