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Sitting on the couch watching telly, M turned to and very casually asked, “So, what do you want for your birthday then?”  It was Wednesday of last week, and my birthday — a very Significant Birthday — was only a few days away.  The sound of the telly faded from my consciousness abruptly as I looked at him, dumbfounded.

M has not had a good track record these past few years when it comes to my birthday.  He started out just great a decade ago, when love was fresh and the stakes were high, but these days… Well, I haven’t had a birthday or Christmas present from him for about three years running now, except for one book that he grabbed at the grocery store on Christmas Eve.  And not wanting to continue this trend, I have been reminding him of the Significant Birthday almost every day for the last four months.  So it really did stop me cold when he asked his question.

“Youuuu… ummmm…”  Paused, dumbstruck again, and then found my words, “You haven’t bought me a gift yet?!?”  It was said with calm control, but with a rising irritation he could hear plainly.

He decided to play with fire.  “When have I had time to go shopping for a gift?!?”  It’s true that he works practically every hour God sends, but if he thought that kind of logic was going to help his cause in any way, then he clearly did not understand what he was walking into.

I will spare you the full transcript, but suffice to say I flew almost instantly into a full-blown rage, and proceeded to tear strips off him in a manner that he never saw coming.  Honestly!  When did he have time?!?  He’d had the past four months that I’d been reminding him every other day!  No, he’d had the past YEAR, because — conveniently enough — my birthday rolls round with stunning predictability.  I’d even made a wishlist for him and emailed it to him, as well as my sister and my mother.

He made more feeble attempts, pointing out that he barely knows how to use the computer, let alone how to buy off a wishlist…  and I blasted back that he could have asked my sister, my mother, or even ME to walk him through it.  He made noises about me maybe helping him now…  and I nearly spat that it was too late — most everything on my list was obscure enough to need to be back-ordered, almost nothing could be bought now, with my birthday only a few days away.  He’d blown it!  He’d blown it AGAIN!  And that realisation motivated me to really rip into him in earnest, at full volume and with hands waving wildly, and — I’m quite sure — steam blasting out of my ears.

There was no stopping me and he didn’t fight it.  He sat quietly and let me go on and on and on.  And then, at a moment when I paused to draw breath, he said quietly — so quietly I barely noticed he’d spoken — “Could we…  could we just forget this happened?”

I stopped at that.  This is what psychologists call the “rescue moment” — he was trying to rescue this, to claw it back before it really went too far.  He was presenting me with a fork in the road and I could choose which way to go: to follow his lead and rescue this, or to carry on tearing mercilessly into my husband’s psyche.  I thought about it for a moment, and the sensible part of me decided to stop now, to go with the rescue.

But then, just as I opened my mouth to say something mature and calm, I realised what was about to happen.  I would forgive and forget this ever happened, he would rush out the next day and try to buy something… something…  some little trinket or maybe the easiest thing on the wishlist or, heck, a book from the grocery store again…  And on my birthday I’d stick by the bargain and say, ooooh thank you, thank you, and give him a kiss…  And the whole time — the whole stinking time — I’d know that, actually,  he’d forgotten.  Actually, he’d forgotten my birthday again.  So there was no “forgetting this had happened”. It couldn’t be done — the cat was out of the bag, the truth was told:  he  had  forgotten  my  birthday  again, even though this was an Important Birthday, even though I’d been reminding him, even though I’ve been a GOOD WIFE, DAMMIT!  He hadn’t cared enough about me to make as much paltry effort as was needed to just remember my birthday long enough to order a present off a wishlist.  And now I knew it, and there was no “forgetting” that.

And so when I opened my mouth, instead of going with the rescue moment, I let all of that fury and frustration  fall out instead — very loudly and for a very long time.  And when I was done, I turned back to the telly and just sat staring in its general direction and so angry my stomach ached.

M let out a little groan and I looked at him.  His face was twisted, his jaw clenched at an odd angle, and he was looking at the floor.  Then a glance at me.  And then, “No… wait.”  A pause, a deep slow inhale, and then very quickly, all in one breath: “Look, something’s been done.  It’s… it’s been taken care of.”  And then his eyes back to the floor, and an uncomfortable silence.

Suddenly I understood.  He’d got me a gift.  He’d remembered my birthday — not forgotten me at all.  And he’d just been winding me up and it went too far and he’d not known how to pull it back.  But he hadn’t forgotten me at all.

And it was only then that I felt the full strength of how hurt I’d been by his question.  The feeling took me completely by surprise, and churned violently in my stomach, and mixed with the relief and the regret that were washing over me like waves.  I felt suddenly nauseated.  And all that emotion rose up from my gut so fast that I couldn’t contain it — up through my chest and spilled out across my face, mouth open and pulled tight, eyes closed.  And I managed a soft  “oh no!” before it all escaped from me with a sound a little like belch, and I burst into sobs that racked my whole body and revealed, there for him to see, just how much the being forgotten has hurt these past few years.

“Oh no,” he repeated back, so lost for words that he could only borrow my own, and then sat there, helpless beside his blubbering wife, no idea what to do with her.  This what never what he’d intended — he’d only been taking the mick — and now he wasn’t quite sure how it had gone so far.  He’d never meant to hurt me.  He put his arm around me and pulled me in.  I needed that desperately, but there was no outward sign that it help — I couldn’t stop crying.  He let me go, except for one hand that he held, and stared at the floor.  Eventually, I calmed myself down.  We sat for a while, both a bit shell-shocked, and neither of us knowing what to say.

—————————————————

My birthday was absolutely wonderful.  There were balloons and singing and three cakes and my family all around me.  My children presented me with hand-made gifts.    It was not a big celebration, but it was exactly what I’d hoped for.

Led by M into the next room, I spotted a bouquet of balloons first and then, underneath it, a huge box wrapped in flowered paper.  I knew immediately — there was only one thing that would be in a box so big — and the realisation made my lip quiver.  I tore the wrapping off and spotted that I was right.  “Oh sweetheart, look!” my mother exclaimed to my father, “She’s crying!”,  and her announcement embarrassed me sufficiently to stop the tears before they really started.  But the emotion was the same, and I was overwhelmed.  “Something’s been done,” he’d said and, indeed, something had.  It was the Lendrum spinning wheel I’ve been coveting for a year; the wheel with an 18-month waiting list, and my mother had had to ring a dozen places before she found one in stock; the wheel we couldn’t afford.  I pulled to from the box, put it together there and then, treadled and felt the silky movement of the mechanism, wished for fiber and spun air instead.  Over the moon!  Over the bloody chuffing moon and not knowing how to really tell them all properly and just hoping they could tell by the trance I was in.

Later, after my family had gone back into the kitchen to pick at the leftovers and I was still sat treadling, M came in and knelt next to me.  “Do you like it?”

“Yes!”, with shock and incredulity plain in my voice, feet still treadling, hands spinning air.

“The thing is…  we, um…”  He took my hands.  “I have to pay my portion of it.  Ummm…  I owe your mum.  I don’t really know where that’s going to come from.”  He had to tell me, because I handle the finances and, when money has to be found, I am the one who finds it.

But I didn’t mind, because he hadn’t forgotten me.  He’d got me my heart’s desire, taken that plunge even when he didn’t know how he’d pay for it.  He could have been sensible and bought a book from the list, but he hadn’t.   He’d bought me what he knew I really wanted because he loves me, and love is not sensible.  It was never about the gift — it was about being remembered.

And that was what I’d needed — what I’d been needing for a long time.  And now, to his surprise, I could offer back a little of what he needed.  “I have something we can put toward it, ” I said, as he looked up with surprise.  “About half of it.”  Because I’d gone to my knitting group earlier in the week and cards had suddenly appeared, and some of those cards contained money from new friends who had read my previous post and had taken the opportunity to act like old friends.  “It’s for your Lendrum fund,” one had said, and I nearly cried there too, stunned by their generosity.

There were loud voices from the kitchen and then laughter, and I felt a warmth rush over me.  There is much in our lives that we have to worry about but, at that moment, none of it was touching me.  I had my family gathered around me, a husband who (secretly) loves me, and — after a long time — I have some friends.

And those things alone were gift enough.  But then, there was also the brand new Lendrum, whirring away softly at my feet.

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M was home yesterday when I got some bad news, and he got the full force of my anger and frustration.  It wasn’t fair to take it out on him — he’s got enough on his mind at the moment — but he was there.

He was there because his company had sent him home with no hours.  Again.  It’s become a regular occurrence these past four months.  Every week like clockwork, when the pay-week comes to a close on Thursday, he gets up and gets ready, gets in his truck and heads out for work, and then they send him home with no hours.   Since the beginning of December, he’s had only three weeks of full-time hours, only three paycheques that really cover the bills.

My birthday is coming up in the next couple of weeks, and it’s a big one.  Apparently, Life Begins at this age.  M may be all manner of wonderful things, but he is not good at remembering me when it comes to  important occasions — I have not had a birthday or Christmas gift from him for three years running — so I have been reminding him of this impending event almost every other day since before the turn of the year, like a count down.  This is a Big Birthday, and I do not want to be forgotten this year.

I had emailed out my birthday wishlist to everyone who would likely find it useful but, knowing that M uses a computer about as often as a camel uses an umbrella, I have been coaching him separately for a long time.  More than anything, I want a Lendrum spinning wheel to replace the ancient, second-hand wheel that I have been using (and which has served me well) for the past 12 years.  But a shiny new Lendrum is nothing to be purchased lightly — it’s $622 — and so I’d hoped that maybe if everyone pitched in together, then what remained would be more within our grasp.

And just the day before, I’d made a furtive phone call to a local yarn shop to see if there were any places left on the knitting class they were offering this month with knitting guru Brandon Mably.  I had already taken this same class  six years ago — it was a treat to cheer myself up after I miscarried our first child — and I had enjoyed it so much out of it that when I saw that he was coming to the area, I immediately began to muse over taking the class again.   It was an expensive class, at least for me…  The amount left each month for spending money for me and the girls rarely tops $50 — and that includes everything: shoes, clothes, magazines, coffee — and this one class would blow that out of the water, but how often does one turn…  erm…  How often does Life Begin?  I felt guilty making the call to the yarn shop and I felt guilty at the thought of booking the class…  But there were spaces left!  And I wanted to take it — I really wanted to!  I decided  I’d wait a couple of days to be sure the idea settled right, and then — damn it! — I’d do it!

Yesterday morning I received a bill from the doctor’s office which treated my sprained ankle.  It wasn’t for much — almost exactly the co-pay amount — and so I assumed it was an error.  Somehow, the insurance company must not have realised I’d paid the co-pay on the day, so I picked up the phone to sort it out.  It was a beautiful day, sunny day and my husband was home — I’d get this out the way, it shouldn’t take long.

The lady on the phone sounded weary.  “That’s your deductible amount,” she explained, and then added, slowly and with a tinge of irritation, “You’re responsible for the deductible.”

“Oh, I know!” I said with deliberate cheerfulness, because the lady sounded like she needed it.  “I understand we pay the deductible but… I’m confused…  Before I went to the doctor’s, I spoke to a lady in your office who explained that my husband’s employer pays the first $1000 of the deductible.  Have we gone through a thousand dollars in two visits…?”

She tapped on her keyboard and then paused.  Then a deep breath.  “No, but I’m afraid whoever spoke to you got it wrong.  You’re responsible for the first thousand; your husband’s employer pays the second thousand.”

Oh.

My stomach dropped instantly, and then my mind began tallying, very quickly: doctor’s visit, three x-rays, the airboot, follow-up visit, three more x-rays, the lace-up brace…   How much had we run up?

The lady was tallying too.  “We’ve negotiated a nice discount for you on that bill…”  I could see that they had indeed — they’d reduced the bill by 75%.  “And I can see that you’ll also be receiving a bill from a rehabilitation equipment company…”  Yes, that’d be the airboot.  She told me the amount, and I winced.  “And… let me see…  another bill from the doctor’s office…”  The follow-up appointment.  “And another… oh, from the equipment company again.”  That’d be the brace.  “Let me add that up for you, ” she offered helpfully, her irritation subsided now that she realised I wasn’t going to put up a fight.  The amount came to around $400.

Four hundred dollars…  for one moment of stupidity.  Four hundred dollars, after months and months of short weeks and short pay.  Four hundred dollars!  If I had known that, I never would have taken off the tape that was holding my ankle still and let them replace it with a brand-spanking new lace-up brace.  If I had known that, I would have paused at the offer of the airboot, and grabbed my mobile to ask my mother if her old airboot would fit my foot.  If I had known how much it would cost us, I honestly think I might not have gone to the doctor at all — certainly not to that follow-up appointment.  M had said it was only a sprain and it would heal on its own, and he was right.  I could have gotten by without the doctor.

The day had seemed to have suddenly lost all its sunniness…  I felt sick to my stomach (again! again!) and deflated.  My hoped-for birthday gift now sounded extortionate, and the thought of booking that Brandon Mably class seemed frivolous, if not downright irresponsible.  Spend money on my birthday like that?  Spend money?!? What fool thinks she’d get to spend money on a milestone birthday?!?

And with that, deflation turned to anger — real, seething, boiling, red-hot rage — and  so I yelled.  I yelled and I yelled and I yelled at this country, at this joke of a “system”, at the waste and the complication and the confusion and the callousness of it all.  I yelled at the lack of transparency, at the miscommunications, at M’s lack of hours, at his too-short paycheques when he works so hard, at the recession, and at the ludicrous idea that somehow this is all ok, that this is the American Way.  I yelled because, apparently, going to the doctor when I sprained my ankle was my birthday gift this year.

M thought I was yelling at him.  And he came up and held my hands and, with tears in his eyes, he said, “Your birthday will be alright.  We’ll make it alright.”  And then I felt terrible for all the yelling, and tears came to my eyes too.  Sod my stinkin’ birthday — what I’m really scared of is losing the house.

The door woke me when M left this morning: 6.11am.  That’s early, I thought, and then drifted heavily back to sleep, hopeful that it meant he had a busy day scheduled.  He was back home again just after 1pm, having worked three hours, and then hung around for another three in the hopes that some more work would come in, before he finally gave up and drove back home to us.

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The snow, which has held us captive for over a month now, is slowly beginning to loosen its grip at last, revealing random patches of bare ground where the grass appears so yellowed and flattened in submission that one wonders that it will ever come back to life.

“Weather’s turning,” M observed as we pulled into the driveway.  “We’d best get some of that trimmed back now before Spring hits in and it all goes crazy again.”  This garden had taken us by surprise last year: the shrubs grew alarmingly fast, the ornamental trees at the back had seemed to double in size in one summer, and the grape vine had threatened to push its way right through one window.  This year, we had decided, we’d be on top of it.

Almost immediately we got in the house, the girls wanted to go out again.  They also know the snow is disappearing and are desperate to spend every day it’s still here enjoying it.  But getting them out there is a chaotic process that I don’t enjoy: changing into jeans, jumpers, coats, scarves, finding hats and wayward gloves, digging out socks, fighting reluctant boots…  There is tripping, falling, stuck zippers, shoes on wrong feet…   I slunk down to the family room and left M with the madness, with the good excuse that my ankle was hurting — which it was — but also with the enormous relief that I did not have to be on duty today.  The noise and chaos was just more than my head could bear today.

Eventually the din died down , and then I heard the door shut and the house fell quiet.  I sat for a moment and soaked it in.  Quiet.  Nothing.  Silence.  Even better than the silence of a nap, because that might be rudely broken at any moment.  This was the sure silence of emptiness, something I hardly know any more, and I was going to enjoy it.

Tea first.  A silent house called for a cup of tea.  And then, perhaps I would write an email to an old friend.  I smiled to myself — this was going to be really nice.

I had been sitting at the computer for only a few minutes — my thoughts only just beginning to gather — when the house rumbled for a moment.   Startled and not quite knowing what to think, I just stopped still, fingers suspended over the keyboard.  It came again, the whole right side of the house rumbling and shaking and sounding like it was about to come down.  I grabbed my coat and hobbled out the back door.

The girls stood with the neighbour-kids in a semi-circle around M, who was crouched by the side wall at the base of the grape arbour and cutting through the main vine with the electric reciprocating saw from his truck.  The arbour was shaking violently, the vine was resisting as much as it could.  I cleared my throat.

M looked up and grinned, proud of himself.  “I’m nearly done!” he announced, and pointed to the vine on the other side of the arbour.  “I’ve got through that one already, and I’ve done all the smaller ones on this side.  Just this last one to go.”  And then he spotted the shock on my face, and his grin slid away.

“Ohhhh…” he began, and the shape of the word lingered on his lips for a moment.  “Oh, I thought we’d agreed on this.  We… we had discussed this, hadn’t we?”  He pressed his finger to the trigger of the saw, and it whirled a little, hesitantly.

We had, but my recollection was that we’d settled on perhaps digging up the vines and moving the arbour, and then we’d left the matter unsettled…  His recollection, my recollection…  Husband-wife miscommunications are the stuff that marriage is made of.

“I’ll… um…  I’ll leave this for now, shall I?” he said, a bit sheepishly.  And then pointed to the sagging limbs on the snow-battered lilac tree.  “Should I…  well, how about those?  Should they come down?”  I nodded, and he turned away from the vine — a stay of execution at the last moment — and headed for the lilac.

The children had wandered back to the snow, all but the neighbour boy who, at the age of nine, had spotted the undercurrents in our conversation and was now watching me intently to see where this would go.  I looked at him and smiled.  “Jay, when you get older and get married… and you think you know what your wife wants you to do…  just be sure to go back and double-check with her, ok?  And then… double-check again.”  I winked at him, and he laughed.

And I turned and went back into the house, where everything would be quiet.

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M’s operation was a worry, a relief, and a financial nightmare all in one.  There was the worry, of course, about whether he’d be alright, whether the operation would go well.  And relief that the operation was finally being done.  And a financial nightmare because, although there was money meant to be coming to get us through his time off work, there was hiccup after hiccup that meant we didn’t actually get the cheque until he was actually back at work again.  We stocked up like squirrels, kept our heads down, and got through it — uncomfortably close but ok in the end.

But what surprised me was how M’s operation turned out to be a real godsend for us — him and me — and us as a family.  When couples go through tough times — and I think it’s fair to say that the last two years have been pretty stressful, to say the least — it’s cliche for one of them to say, “Let’s get away, just the two of us.”  I’ve always been suspect about what “getting away” accomplishes, whether any gains made whilst on holiday can translate well into the mundane of life back at home.  But, cliche or not, M’s four weeks at home consitituted something of a “getting away” for us.  We got away from the grind.  We got away from him working until he had nothing more to give, coming home and wishing he were alone, and resenting the burden of we three.  And we got away from me being home alone all day, deep in the chaos of two little girls — screaming, destroying, dancing, flailing, flinging, falling, breaking, crying, whinging, charming, mess-making, and wantingwantingwanting  — and with no real friends to break the cycle, except the oft-troubled company of mum.

He was home for four weeks in the end — a longer time than any getaway could have afforded — and, though the first ten days were exhausting for me (as the only capable person in the house and so doing everything for everyone), once he got enough strength back to start doing things for himself, we settled into a lovely rhythm.  He got into the habit of getting the girls up in the morning and making their porridge.  The girls were thrilled to start the day with him like that, and adored having him home.  They adored it so much that he quickly became the preferred parent, and I sat back and watched in satisfaction as they asked for his help with every task, sought his attention for every achievement, and wanted to crawl into his arms at every bump or scrape.  I should have kept my mouth shut, but I couldn’t: “You see? You see?”  But he kept his humour, bless him, and only nodded.  He was, despite his best intentions, enjoying being with us — really enjoying our company .  And we were enjoying his — all three of us.  For four weeks, real life seemed to be on hold, and we were all in a wonderful kind of limbo.  We’d got away.

And now he is back to work, and everyone is back to the grind.  He comes home exhausted, I am alone with the all-day chaos.  And suddenly, there seems to be so much to do!  I have to make up for lost time and all the stuff that didn’t get done while he was home.  I have a list as long as my arm — which should be frightening me, overwhelming me, but instead I feel energised by it.  I want to get to it, I want to get through it and, what’s more, I believe I can.  Things feel different.

E2 woke me up this morning, singing to Pink Lamb.  “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and…”  I listened for a while, sleepy under the duvet, warmed by the happy voice floating down the hallway.  Suddenly it changed, rising in mock panic, “Daddy!  Daddy, HELP!  I’m a banana! A banana! HELP, DADDY!”  I was confused for a moment, and then remembered: we’d put her to bed in a yellow sleepsuit.   I began chuckling so hard my shoulders shook the duvet.

Loud, urgent, and utter nonsense — this is the stuff of my days and, oh yes, we are very much back to normal on that front.  But… she was calling for her daddy — hopeful that he might be home, he might be the one to open her door and start her day — even though he’s been back to work for over a week now.   Those four weeks made an impact on us.  Those four weeks are still with us.

Long may they remain.

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Just lately, several people have written to me or left comments on the blog, wondering where I am, whether I’m ok.  The happy-spin answer is that I’ve been taking some time off, basking in the glow of the love of my family.  The truth is, it’s felt a lot more like hanging on by the skin of my teeth, and so I’ve found myself  cutting out anything that’s not about what needs to be done now.  With the emphasis firmly on needs and now.

Things began ramping up round about the time we ended up in the Emergency Room three times in five weeks.  That’s going to be a rough time by any standard but, more than that, it was the fear and unsettling of it that exhausted me.   Would it always be like this?  Is this a spate of bad luck, or is this the beginning?  And I wanted to go to bed and curl up for a while.

But there was no going to bed, and no curling up.  There was work, work, and extra work to be done: holding and loving and comforting and night-feeds and breath-watching and breathing treatments and lots of cleaning up.   All mess and the putting away and tidying up seemed to multiply exponentially, and I don’t know why.  But it did and it called my name and I had to answer, because I am the only one who hears it.

And then there was the book-balancing.  For every trip to ER, there was a follow up appointment with the paediatrician (or sometimes two) and then maybe one with the allergist as well (or two),  and a prescription (or… many), and maybe even a vaccine just for good measure.  And so for every one of those, there is also a co-pay.  In a matter of weeks, we racked up hundreds — hundreds — in co-pays.  And this at the same time that M’s hours were going through (yet another) stage of fluctuating wildly.  One week he’d barely get 40 hours, the next he’s scramble to clock up 30… and then would come a week of 60-plus hours, which provided the blessed relief that almost brought us into the black but also tore the stuffing out of M in the process.  And then start over: short week, short week, work-to-death week; short week, short week, work-to-death week.  M was shattered, I was trying to ride this financial roller coaster, and the copays cut right through whatever cushion we might have had.

And the pressure on M to workandworkandwork was immense.  Every day that he came home early felt like storm clouds gathering.  Every day that he worked late was… oh so good as I looked at the clock and watched the hours mount up, but his work is back-breaking and those extra hours exhausted him, and then the girls went to bed before he got home again.  And then the on-call rota changed: instead of being on call every four weeks, it would now be every three — which sounds more benign than it is.  Because they line up the jobs for the on-call days, what this effectively means is that he works a normal week, then twelve days in a row, and then a normal week, and then twelve days in a row…  Combined with the fluctuating paycheques and the feeling that work had become everything and everything was work, the pressure on M cranked up another notch.

M has never been one to handle stress in a particularly healthy way.  He internalises everything, expresses nothing, pushes everyone else away, and allows his mind to run away with worries.  And then the worry increases his stress, and he falls into a vicious spiral, and he can’t break free.  And as I watch him go down and down and down like this, I feel that I must do something — I must do something — to lift the pressure from him.   And then I am heaping the pressure on myself:  I must get a job,  I must start a business,  I must clean the house more… or maybe better.  I must keep the children quiet, I must give him more room, I must try to talk more, I must draw him out, I must leave him alone.  et répéter: I must make some money, I must get a job…  or work from home… start a business.  And he asks me when I’m going to start a business, when I’m going to pull in some money.  And my mother asks me why I don’t just start a business, or find a job working from home…  And a quiet voice in my head tries to point out that if starting a business were easy or work-from-home jobs weren’t like hens’ teeth… but I feel the criticism so keenly that it never gets much further than that.

The truth is, I don’t know how I’d do it.  The balance between us is off-balance: he works (so hard!), and does the grocery run, he takes the trash out, and cooks about half the time; and I do everything else.  By that I mean everything else that keeps our lives running: not just all the housework and the childcare 24/7, but the taxes, the banking, the bill-paying, the letter opening, the form-filling, all the problem solving, the bureaucracy navigation, the appointment making, the car maintaining…  Every decision that impacts our lives rests squarely on my shoulders.   And the more stressed he is, the more I try to take on to lighten his load.  His pressure spills over to become my pressure too.  I want to take as much of his burden as I can, but thought of adding a job to that — or starting a business – just stops me frozen in my tracks.   And so there I stood, frozen, right next to him, frozen.

So it makes sense that, one day a few months ago, something inside him finally snapped — quite literally.  He came home from work and showed me a protrusion in his lower abdomen, an area about the size of his palm where the muscle wall had torn and his intestine was pushing through under his skin.  It’s not the first time he’d had a hernia — he’d had an umbilical hernia all his life that he’d finally had corrected about eight years ago — but that was nothing like this.  This was big and, with his kind of work, it was only going to get worse.  So a specialist was consulted (co-pay!) and a surgery date was scheduled.  And I asked… how long is the recovery?  How long? Because he gets no paid sickdays.

And here was a bright spark of good news!  The hernia was caused by work, so the surgery and recovery would be paid by Workers’ Compensation.  Oh, thank goodness for that.  And though Workers’ Comp pays reduced wages in order to encourage you back to work as soon as possible, it would be enough.  It would be enough.

Ten days before his surgery, I felt a tickle in the back of my throat.  M could not get sick — a delay would put the surgery to the other side of Christmas and mess everything up.   I got worse, he stayed away.  I felt rotten — rotten — and then E1 fell ill too, and he couldn’t take care of either of us.   So I did everything — all the childcare, all the comforting, all the while just wanting to crawl into bed — and waited for E2 to come down and the inevitable trip to ER.  It would surely end in the trip to ER…

And here was another bright spark, shining through the dark: E2 not only didn’t end up in ER, she actually never even got sick.  This child who has not been able to come within ten feet of a single germ without coming to the brink of not breathing, without scaring us all half to death…  this child kissed us, she cuddled us, she shared a drink with her sister (aughhhh!!!) and yet she never even so much as coughed.  Saints be praised!  Steroids, how wrong I was to distrust you!

And then, one last bright, shining spark.  The surgery is  done, the patient recovering and, by coincidental timing, he is enjoying what is truly  Christmas for him: days on end away from work.  Days and days and days to just rest and relax, in a way that I haven’t seen him do since we arrived in the States.  And as the days have passed, the worry has fallen away, the vicious spiral has stopped swirling around him and…  he has changed.  Today, I caught him looking at E2 in wonder — the kind of wonder that parents should have when they contemplate the miracle of their own children…  but which I haven’t seen on his face in months…  or even years?  I had forgotten what that looks like.   And yesterday, as I as dashing out to the shop, he floored me by suddenly looking up and suggesting to the girls that they make the gingerbread house that had been overlooked in the run up to Christmas.  He offered to make the gingerbread house! I left the house in shock.  Dear reader, I say this in all honesty: I had forgotten what it was to have a partner who wanted to be a part of the family.  I had spent so long watching him want to escape us — really wanting to escape us and the bother and the chaos — and suddenly here he was,  sitting the girls at the table and breaking out the icing sugar…  Volunteering to do something with them.  I left the house hardly recognising my own husband.

And as I drove to the shops, I felt like I was floating on air. Floating on air! The way I felt inside, in that space right behind my ribs — so light, so warm — I can hardly describe.  Like… like maybe we weren’t falling apart.  And suddenly I realised that, with a little more of that behind me — just a little more — I could do anything.  I could do everything!  I could keep this house running, I could make some money, I can put our world on track.  I can get us home.  I just need the love in the house, I just need the strength it gives.

I worry that when he goes back to work, the spell will be broken.  I worry that life will overcome us both again and we will slide down again.  But at least we have seen it, seen how it might be if we can make things change.  …If we can make things change, and keep ourselves up here, up here with our heads above the surface.

Here’s to a fresh start and God’s blessings in 2010.  Happy New Year, everyone.

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We went out on Saturday night and I didn’t have much to drink at all — I didn’t! — but I got myself to bed so late again and so, the next morning, I was hung over from pure self-made exhaustion.

M came in the room, banging the door and waking me up with a start.  Sunlight streamed mercilessly through the blinds, and  I could hear the girls downstairs, playing with their breakfasts instead of eating.  “Good morning!” he called cheerily and very loudly.  “It’s a beautiful day, so warm again for November.  Come on, get up!  Time to get ready for church.”  I peeled one eye open, caught his huge grin and felt the throbbing in my head, and collapsed back into the pillow.  “Come on!” he bellowed encouragingly, shaking my shoulder.

I pulled the covers over my head.  “I aaaaaam!”  It came out as a groan and a whinge and was patently untrue.

Ten minutes later, he returned.  He is a the ultimate early riser, a consummate schedule-keeper, and me still face-down in the pillow did not fit in with his plans.  “Come on!  Get up.  It’s TIME!”

I am all about the sleeping, especially in the morning.  Bed is my best friend.  I shifted a bit… couldn’t open my eyes…

“If you don’t get up, I’m going to…”  He paused, trying to come up with a big enough threat to pry me from my warm cocoon.  “I’m going to… ”  He paused again, and then he got it.  “I’m going to ring your mum and I’m going to tell her that she’s right and you’re wrong a-a-and… you really should be best friends with her and… um… you don’t share enough with her and you don’t really appreciate her they way you should and… um… if you were a good daughter you’d…”

Aw, hell!  I couldn’t take this!  He’d beat me.  I got up.

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When my mum stopped by today, I noticed her car was making a funny noise.  She agreed it didn’t sound right, and then described a few other odd things it had done today.  As I listened to the list of symptoms, it suddenly made sense to me and I knew, more or less, what was going wrong with her car.  I was pretty chuffed with myself for putting it all together because, really, I don’t know a thing about cars.

My pride aside, she rang my dad for instructions.  He’s been a mechanic ever since he built his first motorcycle back when he was still too young for his driver’s license.  He’d know what it was for sure and what needed to be done.

My mum described the symptoms again, and then relayed my diagnosis, with me feeding the words into her other ear.  There was a long silence as my dad spoke, and then she went back out to the car to give him a reading off of one dial or another.  I went back into the kitchen to finish making the tea.

When she came back in later and stood holding her steaming cup to warm her chilly fingers, I asked her if my dad had been impressed by my diagnosis.  I certainly was — it had turned out that I was right.  “Oh yes!” she enthused, her face lighting up.  “He was very impressed!”

It felt good to hear and I was pleased.  But…  no.  Something in the way she’d replied just hadn’t convinced me.  It is one of the biggest problems my mother and I have always had: she, so keen to make or keep everyone happy, often says what she thinks others want to hear, regardless of whether the facts or her own feelings agree.  And we all take that into account and so none of us ever take what she says fully at face-value.  And, because she does it so naturally — without even being conscious of it — I think she assumes we all do it as well, and so she never fully believes anything we say either.  It leads to a ludicrous situation in which everyone is second-guessing (upon second-guessing upon second-guessing) everyone else and no one ever knows if anyone is truly speaking their mind.  I find it exhausting, confusing… and so wasteful:  I have a closet full of clothes that she has given to me as gifts even though I told her in the shop that I didn’t like them, because she knew I “did want them really.”

I tackled this head on. “Mum, did he really say that?” I asked.

Yes!”  Then, “Well… no.”  She looked sheepish, and I smiled at her.

“Did you just lie to me?  To make me feel better?”

“Well…  Well, only because he should have!  It was very clever of you!  And I’m sure he would have been impressed if he hadn’t been so worried about the car…  He was preoccupied…”

This was ridiculous.  I am staring down the barrel of 40 and she was protecting me from the perceived disappointment of an excited five year old.  I appreciate the kind intentions but…  please.  I gave her a kiss on the cheek.  “Mum, please don’t lie to me.”

“No…  Yes…  I mean, Ok.”

But I know she will.  She’s a hopeless case.  And more than anything on this earth, she just wants us all to be happy all the time.

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