One of my very favorite memories is making pound cake with my Grandmama. She lived in a large house set way back from the street, and time seemed to stop when I visited her, especially when we baked.
It was that sense of timelessness, and a spate of severe winter rain and windstorms here in the Pacific Northwest, that inspired the story, “Time For Cake”.
If the story inspires you to take the time to make cake, don’t rush bringing all the ingredients to room temperature.
This recipe isn’t exactly the same as my Grandmama’s, but comes pretty daggum close. It’s adapted from the book, “Hungry for Home”, and I use it since I’m too ashamed to let my family know I lost the recipe my Grandmama wrote out for me, in her Perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
Time For Cake Cake
about 12 slices
2 sticks butter, room temperature
5 eggs, room temperature
3 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350
Grease a tube pan.
Using a mix, cream butter and sugar until the mixture is fluffy and the color gets lighter.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
Sift together flour and baking powder.
Stir vanilla extract into milk.
Add 1/3 flour mixture to butter and egg mixture, stir gently by hand until flour is all incorporated.
Add 1/2 cup milk mixture to flour, butter, egg mixture. Stir gently by hand.
Add 1/3 flour mixture, stir by hand.
Add 1/2 cup milk mixture, stir by hand.
Add final 1/3 flour mixture, stir batter gently until smooth.
Pour batter into greased tube pan.
Bake 55-65 minutes at 350 degrees, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Cool cake for ten minutes.
Slide a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, invert onto a cooling rack.
Let cake cool completely before slicing. Wait for it. (Unless it’s the end of the world.)
Mildred woke before the alarm every morning, but she kept setting it anyway because she hated breaking her routine. So much of her day depended on doing everything at the right time, or else it wouldn’t get done at all.
She put on her housecoat and slippers, made the bed, and stood in front of her dresser mirror to brush out her pin curls. Downstairs, she started the coffee percolator and pulled out a box of wheat biscuit cereal. There was only enough for her one bowl, so she walked over to her to-do list and wrote down ‘Buy More Cereal’.
The older Mildred got, the more she had trouble remembering the little things. She’d tell friends that if she didn’t keep a list, “I might forget where I left my head.”
She surveyed the items already on her list and frowned. More than five items and she might not get to any of them. She walked over to the wall phone to tackle the third item down, ‘Schedule Yard Man’. But, when she got there, she noticed something written on the calendar.
The note was in her own perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
It took up the entire square for the day.
It said, “Wait for Weather Rpt.”
Normally, Mildred wouldn’t abbreviate. It didn’t seem ladylike. She knew, then, that she must have really wanted to remember that message. She set down the to-do list, accepting that she might even need to start a second sheet of note paper by the end of the day.
Once the morning dishes were washed and put away, Mildred loved to sit down to the newspaper. That part of her routine disappeared several years earlier when the newspaper in her town closed. Most everyone she knew used the computer to keep up on events, but looking at a screen made Mildred’s eyes hurt. Instead, she picked up her oversized book of crosswords and worked on a half-finished puzzle from the day before.
After a few minutes, she looked out the picture window over her breakfast table to consider the clue, “Slanted column. (9 letters)” So far she had the letters, _ _ I _ O _ _ _ L.
Watching the clouds often helped Mildred come up with the right answer. As she looked up, though, she noticed the clouds moving faster than she could ever remember seeing. Then she looked into her back yard. The wind had knocked her potted geraniums into the azalea bushes. She remembered that was the reason she wanted to get the Yard Man out.
Mildred didn’t like having to ask others to take her of her business. She used to be able to handle everything around the house, and still have time and energy to take a covered dish to a sick friend or drive out to see family in the country. That was before her husband and son died, before her heart attack, before her memory got so bad. But, even back then she knew she wouldn’t be able to do everything forever. “All in the Lord’s time, all in the Lord’s time, ” she said quietly to herself.
Still, she felt stronger than usual that morning, the wind died down a bit, and Mildred decided to cut a few of the last gardenia blossoms. One or two fresh blooms in a juice glass made her whole kitchen smell just like her mother’s perfume.
On her way to put on her gardening dress, Mildred looked out her front windows, through the pine trees in her large front yard. She saw groups of young people stumbling down the street, laughing loudly and singing rude songs. It pained Mildred to see the youth hurt themselves like that. For all the fun they looked like they were having, they’d probably suffer later.
Mildred stepped onto her back patio in the same double breasted chambray smock she’d worn gardening for forty years. She knew it was quality when she bought it. She tried to always choose things that would last. Her clippers weren’t holding up as well, but they were probably sixty years old. Mildred found a can of Rust-B-Gone inside the back door and carefully oiled the joint of the clippers.
She was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped out of her skin when her young neighbor called her name. It was only then that Mildred realized she had forgotten her hearing aid on the night table. However, it didn’t matter that Mildred couldn’t hear the pretty redhead, the woman was already deep into saying something.
Mildred only caught words and phrases, “worried about you”, “we’re trying to make this a celebration”, “don’t be alone”, “no time”. She said “no time” over and over, but Mildred was used to the hurried pace of people half her age.
Mildred remembered when time went slower. She liked the slower life. Radio, television, phones, computers, they all made things go too fast. The faster people went, she noticed, the faster they wanted to go. She only kept clocks in the house to remember her routine, and know when to expect visitors.
Mildred also remembered a time when visitors announced their arrival and didn’t sneak up on people to chatter away without checking to see if the older woman could actually hear.
Before Mildred could say anything back, her neighbor pointed at the sky and ran back to her house. Overhead, a thick black line of clouds moved in from the East. Late summer often brought dramatic thunder storms.
Mildred spent many summer evenings as a child relishing the alternately cool and hot breezes that came before the lightning. While everyone else in her family would rush to tie down the loose items and shut the barn doors, she would smell the ozone and listen to the fevered cricket song, waiting for the bugs to fall silent moments before the drops fell. She couldn’t hear the crickets now, even if they were singing. So, she went back inside to find her hearing aid.
The hearing aid was more trouble than it was worth. By the time Mildred got it loud enough to make out the sounds around her, the little bud squeaked. She couldn’t hear the pitch, so her company often spent most of the visit working with her to get the level just right so they could have a conversation. People never said much new after all that trouble, that’s why she often left it by the bed and just nodded and smiled as people talked. That’s all anyone wanted, anyway, someone to nod and smile while they spilled out all their thoughts.
If she was going to hear the Weather Report, though, Mildred would need her hearing aid. The closed captioning in her area was so bad, it was a puzzle trying to figure out what the people on the television really did say when the words on the screen read, “MY CATS GOT WEEDED DOWN AGAIN.”
After putting on a newly pressed cotton dress, Mildred pulled out a freezer bag of field peas and some rice for lunch. With her aid in, she could hear the sounds of fat rain drops against the sliding glass doors. Dark clouds marched higher in the sky, there was a distinct division between bright blue and roiling black.
Mildred thought of hurricanes, and she hoped the Weather Report wasn’t going to be about another big storm. There had been so many recently, it seemed like more than when she was young. Even the weather got more turbulent over the years.
Mildred decided a piece of cake would be a welcome indulgence if the weather was bad. There were usually a couple frozen pound cakes in her upright, but she let her niece take the last one a few weeks before. Mildred would have to make a new one if she wanted a slice. She walked over to her to-do list and wrote down, “Make Cake”.
Then, she put two sticks of butter, five eggs and a cup of milk on the counter to come to room temperature. Really, that was the hardest part of good baking, the part most of her grandchildren were too impatient to get right. If you want smooth batter, which gives you an even crumb, you need room temperature ingredients, and there is no way to rush it.
Mildred was glad she wrote, “Make Cake” on the list, though. Many times she absentmindedly put all her ingredients back in the ice-box, not remembering why she set them out.
The afternoon passed in the same way it almost always did. Mildred practiced her favorite tunes on the piano, a ragtime song and then hymns. She could hear commotion outside from time to time, but she didn’t hear a single plane. Living so close to the military base, she could usually hear the cargo planes at all hours. She guessed the storm was too dangerous for flying.
She played a few rounds of solitaire, read her Bible, closed her eyes for a short nap and then sat at her desk to write her letters. She pulled out her calendar of important events, every one marked in blue pen with the day she had to mail a card for it to arrive exactly in time. It meant something to get a card on your birthday, that’s why she did it. She liked making others feel remembered.
As Mildred looked at her desk calendar, though, she saw another note to herself, all in capital letters, “WAIT FOR WEATHER RPT.” It seemed odd that she would want to hold off on tending to her calendar just because of the weather. But, she trusted her own instructions. She was always level-headed, if forgetful.
It was almost time for the Weather Report when Mildred looked out at the pines again. They swayed widely, arcing all together as the hard wind blew in from the East. Hurricanes usually brought swirling winds. Something was different, very different. Mildred felt her stomach knot a little with fear.
Luckily, she had a routine for when things veered from her proper routine. She pulled a small, crystal sherry glass from the cabinet that once belonged to her grandmother. She filled the glass halfway from a bottle at the very back of her pantry. It was sweet and hot and absolutely the right tonic for her nerves.
On her way to the den, Mildred picked up her to-do list. She hoped the Weather Report would help her decide which items were the most urgent to get done. She wanted a smaller list, and she wanted to call the Yard Man as soon as the weather cleared.
Mildred was careful as she took the three steps down into the den where her television lived. The room used to be a garage, but her husband had it converted. It was a big room and relaxing, and she decided to sit in her husband’s old leather recliner for a change, since the day was turning out to be different than most.
Mildred’s husband had been dead for twenty years, but she could still smell his cigars and often thought she caught him walking through hallway, just out of the corner of her eye. He loved watching the news, and she mostly still watched it to think of him.
For all the serenity that Mildred cultivated with her simple daily rituals, the television was always chaotic – and that day more than ever. She turned on her local station and saw images of people running and screaming, the newscasters weren’t wearing proper makeup so their faces looked ghastly pale. People talked too fast to understand and the closed captioning was simply a jumble of letters, as though the typist fell asleep at the keyboard.
Finally, the pandemonium switched over to a still shot of the president’s office. The announcers spoke in hushed, anxious tones. The president stepped in front of the camera, looking rumpled and tired.
Mildred was shocked that she lived long enough to see a woman become president. It didn’t really matter to her either way, it just wasn’t anything she expected. If a woman was going to president, though, Mildred wondered why she didn’t look a little more put together.
Then the president began talking, clearly, slowly, in a tone that didn’t hurt Mildred’s ears.
“The storms are definitely coming.
Already the methane rain has started falling in Europe.
We still have had no communication out of China and, based on the chemical makeup of the clouds over Africa, it looks like no life will survive this.
If you are watching this, hold your loved ones.
As humans, we had a good run, but this is how it ends.”
Then the screen went black.
Mildred heard the winds howl and rage. She looked at the bookshelves that held photos of her family. The phone started ringing in the kitchen.
Mildred looked down at her hand where she still held her to-do list. The phone kept ringing, but Mildred took the time to carefully cross through, ‘Schedule Yard Man’, ‘Buy More Cereal’, ‘Call Mabel’, and ‘Birthday Cards’. The last item on the list was ‘Make Cake’.
Mildred held her pen over the ‘M’. She came close to touching the tip to the paper. But, she noticed the electricity was still running, the wind hadn’t broken any windows yet, the clock in the hall still ticked away.
All the ingredients would be at the perfect temperature by now.
She put the list down and headed for the kitchen. There was time for cake.
Rather than joining the throngs of happy, loving couples eating out on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I celebrated with some quick pasta for the whole family at home. We all sat on the couch and ate on trays in front of the television as we watched the nightly Simpson’s syndication on Seattle’s JOE TV.
Early in the show, Lisa spies a boy at the next table through a crack in a restaurant booth. He’s reading “A Farewell to Arms”.
My husband turned to me and said, “Hey, just like your book!”
I’ve been reading “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain. It tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their life together in France during the early 1920’s.
I am not a fan of Hemingway. In his work I’m most likely to identify with the people he hates. As a woman, I feel like I’m not really invited into his world.
A new friend recommended the novel, though. I only agreed to borrow it if she promised that Hemingway didn’t get a whitewash. “‘Cause I think he’s a jerk, okay?” I surprised myself by how emphatic I was, but she said she didn’t like him either and that’s why she wanted me to read it, so she could talk trash about him with someone else. I started reading it a week ago.
In The Simpsons episode, Lisa meets the boy from the booth next door at the dessert buffet. She learns his name is Nick. He quotes Hemingway, Lisa swoons.
Due to my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I don’t know that much about him. But, I felt a little smug at this point in the show because I read in “The Paris Wife” that “Nick Adams” was the main character of many of his short stories about his early life.
Despite my aforementioned distaste of Hemingway, I did get drawn into the novel about his marriage. There’s a scene in “The Paris Wife” soon after they get married. Ernest reveals to Hadley that he has to sleep with the light on, his World War I flashbacks overwhelm him in the dark.
Hadley recognizes his pain. Her father committed suicide when she was a girl. Hadley stays up all night in a chair by the bed, watching over Ernest like he was a newborn. At that point, my heart opened up for them, two lovers bound together by tragedy.
Once the newlyweds move to Paris, though, I struggled to lose myself in their romance. Living off Hadley’s small trust fund, they rent an apartment with communal piss pots on every stair landing. They only escape the squalor of their neighborhood by going to lunches with extravagantly wealthy friends. Ernest refuses any charity from the rich, but he doesn’t resent having Hadley completely pay his way.
She and Ernest drink to oblivion on most nights. She has little interest in creative work of her own, she dedicates herself to supporting her husband’s dream.
Ernest spends his days writing in seclusion and Hadley keeps house and shops by herself. One day, she walks a block away from the dazzling market vendors to find an alley full of rotten meat and garbage and refuse from the week’s unsold goods.
I laughed out loud at the Simpson’s episode, then, when Lisa joins her new beau at “Le Petite Appétit”. She holds up her hands to block out the vision of Barney puking in the dumpster and Gil bathing in the fountain so she only sees a fantasy of Parisian cafe life with Nick.
I said, “That’s what Hadley had to do! Wait a minute. Holy crap. Did the writers also read “The Paris Wife”?” I checked the broadcast date of the show and cross-referenced it to the release of the book. The show aired early in 2012, the book was first released in 2011. It was possible, and I hoped the writers had read the novel because I was having trouble finishing it.
The deeper the novel goes into the Hemingways’ marriage, the harder it was for me to imagine myself in the world. It’s written in Hadley’s voice and I felt trapped in her sad, outsider view. I kept waiting to see her “as wife and as one’s own woman”, like Entertainment Weekly promised in their front page blurb. It never came.
When Hadley accidentally loses the suitcase that holds all of Ernest’s writing, every last sheet of it, I shut the book. I had to go online to make sure the novelist didn’t make it up. She did not.
In real life, Hadley packed a bag with all of his work, including copies and notes, and it got stolen. Ernest gets mad when she tells him, but not nearly as mad as when she tells him she’s pregnant.
Hadley says in the book that she loves Ernest and is happy just to know he couldn’t do his work without her. I don’t love Hemingway and I was unhappy to suffer any of his terrible personality, even through historical fiction. By the time his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, shows up on the scene, a mistress posing as Hadley’s friend, I was ready to leave the whole love triangle between closed covers.
Even the prospect of trash talking Hemingway couldn’t get me through the rest of the book. I still had eighty pages to go in “The Paris Wife” on Valentine’s Day, when we happened upon the re-broadcast of “The Daughter Also Rises”.
In the final scene, Lisa takes off for a romantic rendezvous with Nick, but things go awry. Grandpa Simpson gets pulled over as he drives them to the beach, Nick pushes Lisa until she says “Ow!”, Nick lets a branch smack her in the face as they run through the underbrush, he offers little help rowing the boat to their romantic island destination and he complains of the cold. As they are just about to kiss, Hadley Richardson shows up in Lisa’s imagination.
Hadley advises Lisa against falling for Nick. Then, Pauline appears in the bubble and agrees that “Tortured writers make lousy husbands.”
I whooped out loud, “What are the chances!? JOE TV ran this episode based on the novel I’m pointedly *not* reading right now!” It felt enough like serendipity to inspire me to read the rest of the book. It had to be good if the Simpsons skewered it.
Before I read the last section, I checked online for any reviews of the episode. I wanted to see how someone else interpreted the satire of the book. Surprisingly, no one mentioned it.
The fan reviews of the episode are negative. I agree it’s a pretty shaggy plot. In fact, I remember seeing it the first time it came out and thinking that I could probably give up my appointment watching of the show. But, I wasn’t reading “The Paris Wife” at the time.
I Googled every which way, but I could only find one single reader comment that even mentioned a connection. In all the Internet, just this:
I stayed up late and read the novel through to the end. It was disappointing.
According to the novel, Hadley never stops loving Ernest. She accepts another man, but when she hears of his suicide decades later, she wistfully returns to romantic memories of their time in France. I only remembered the pissoirs, snobbery, and alcoholism.
As I crawled into bed with my husband, he asked, “Well? What’d you get out of the book?” I thought for a long time, looking for the most spare and true way to relate my reaction and came up with, “Meh.” My expectations for books are probably too high.
I woke up this morning with a bad attitude about reading “The Paris Wife”. I felt suckered into spending those hours giving Hemingway’s persona even more validation. I was pissed that I felt compassion for him when he was young and fragile. It hurt me that Hadley never developed her own creative voice. Worst of all, the writer stayed very close to actual events, so I knew it was all really that sad. What’s the use of historical fiction if you don’t rewrite the worst parts?
That’s when I sought refuge in The Simpsons. We actually bought the episode on Amazon to examine it for any hope.
The episode we saw is called, “The Daughter Also Rises”, but the main plot is about Bart and Milhouse cracking school myths in a parody of “MythBusters”. After they dispel everything, including the classic dead girl in the bathroom mirror, Dolf, the bully, says, “So school is just everything we see?” All the kids walk away morose, very similar to my feeling when I finished the novel.
Bart realizes he has to do something. “I can’t be the one who killed everyone’s fun!”
Milhouse and Groundskeeper WereWillie restore the magical fantasy for Springfield Elementary.
For me, the idea of busting myths made sense of “The Paris Wife”. The author, Paula McLain, pops the illusion of Hemingway the “Champ”. His feats of masculinity come across as desperate acts of self-making, funded by wealthy wives and fueled by the kind of smoke and mirrors publicity that was easier before the days of the World Wide Web.
At the end of “The Daughter Also Rises”, Marge braves water walkers to save Lisa from falling for Nick. Once she gets there, Lisa is just fine. She knows how to take care of herself.
Lisa does get a kiss from a true love, her mother. It’s not romantic, of course, but the whole episode starts with Marge sending Homer off with Bart so she can spend Valentine’s with Lisa.
Nurturing, functional, family love, not really the stuff of great literature, possibly a myth as well, is the prize of the episode. It’s what gave Lisa the self-confidence to see past romantic illusions. It’s what both Hadley and Ernest were missing, and what they couldn’t build together.
While I never fell for Hemingway the writer, I have succumbed to romantic illusions and men who were mostly myth. The dream of a dazzling lifestyle as a celebrated artist has also afflicted me, making me feel like my current situation is as bland as Hadley. But now, I have a different perspective on the gift of spending Valentine’s Day dinner eating on the couch with my husband and children.
File this under ‘blog post talking about a cartoon that’s a satire of a novel that’s a historical fiction account of a famous novelist writing about something that actually happened to him because he wanted to be a famous writer who everyone talked about’.
This is the worst oatmeal in the entire world and no one will ever want to eat it.
At least, that’s what my nine-year-old son said when he first made it. Then he ran off to the living room to grouse about his cooking. While he vented, the too-runny oatmeal absorbed the extra water. By the time I coaxed him back into the kitchen, it was perfect. It just needed a little rest, kinda like everyone in my family.
Mornings are a battlefield in my house. My husband leaves for work at 6:00 am, so I’m solo for the whole school preparation. If I only had my son it wouldn’t even be a scuffle. It’s my five-year-old daughter who turns it into the Wake-Up Wars.
My son has always been an early riser. When he was two years old he would start jabbering in his crib at 5:00 am. I thought it would pass when he got better at talking. Instead, he got better at waking up the whole house. Once we taught him how to fix his own breakfast and occupy himself until we got up, though, there was no stress with his morning personality.
My daughter, on the other hand, was born a teenager. She prefers to sleep until 9:00 or 9:30 am, hiding under a mountain of blankets. We know she has risen when we see a shuffling, disheveled creature wander into the dining room. Even then we know not to look at her directly or, heaven forbid, speak to her. She’ll roar like a Wampa.
For this five-year-old girl, school starts when she still needs more time in her meditation chamber. I am the unlucky Admiral who must interrupt her slumber. In doing this I endure crying and screaming and the most vile use of the word ‘stupid’ as I prod her into clothes and shoes and a backpack. No matter how we adjust her bedtime and cultivate nighttime sleep hygiene, the morning brings out the worst in her.
As with most everything I experience as a mother, I am sure this is payback for my childhood. My attitude was so bad that my mother gave up on mornings altogether. My dad was responsible for waking my sisters and me. He had a gift for it.
Like my son, my father was an early riser. Perhaps from his days in the Navy, he had a routine of getting up at the crack of the dawn, making coffee, smoking cigarettes and reading the paper. Lying in bed I could hear him go about the ritual, even loading the dishwasher, and have no problem getting back to sleep. But, the sound of his ankles cracking as he crossed the den would set my heart racing.
He didn’t have to turn on lights or make any threats, he just had to say one word, “Girls”. The word wasn’t the problem, it was his voice. Deep, gravelly, a tone from a black hole, when my dad said, “Guuuuuurrrrrrllllllzzzz,” the sound of his voice irritated my molecules. I’d scream, “Shut UP!” It wouldn’t faze him. He’d keep talking, like the voice of God, “It’s time to gggggeeeeetttt uuuuuppppp”. I’d usually stand up just to get him to be quiet. On the worst days, if I resisted his ear torture, he’d come in and tickle me until I fell out of bed.
There was one time my mother got stuck with the job of waking us. She had to use an Amigo scooter by that time because of Multiple Sclerosis and couldn’t fit through the doorway back to the portion of the house where our bedrooms were. She also didn’t have the vocal magic that my dad possessed. She had to rely on being crafty.
I remember hearing a “THWUMP!”, then silence. I figured something fell in the kitchen and drifted back off. Then, a minute later, “THWUMP!” Then silence. Then “THWUMP!” The sound came at irregular intervals, impossible to sleep through. Finally, I got out of bed and walked into the den to find my mother pulling a book off the shelf, then slamming it back in place. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” I was incredulous. She gave me a syrupy sweet smile and said, “I’m just rearranging the bookcase. Is this not a good time for it? Well, you have to get up anyway.” Then she drove her scooter back to her room for the rest of the morning.
In my memories my parents are the torturers, making me leave the bliss of slumber for the gulag of school. Now that I’m a mother, I am painfully aware of the monster I was. I honestly don’t know why they put up with me. Based on my experience with a cranky daughter, I’d expect them to exile me to the rabbit hutch.
Those memories came rushing back as I faced down the blistering screeches of my own five-year-old teenager the other morning. Sadly, they offered no insight into a possible truce for our Wake-Up Wars. I turned to my husband for advice, “Help me Britton-wan, you’re my only hope.”
Like a good Master, he kept his own counsel on the matter for a couple days and then came back to me, “I’ve been trying to think of what gets me out of bed in the morning. I hate doing it and would scream like that if I could. But, the only reason I get up is coffee.” I considered the possibility of a family espresso machine, but my husband kept talking, “You can’t give her coffee.” Damn. “But, what if you told her she had something she’d like to eat waiting for her? That gives her a reason to get up that seems fun, nice and it’s not just about going to school.” He suggested I enact breakfast.
Breakfast and I are not friends on weekday mornings. Sunday brunch, I love. But on Thursday morning I’m more likely to eat cake at the counter than fix cereal. I took a deep breath, preparing to lecture Jedi Dad about the chains of domesticity, my own aversion to mornings, how Mrs. Brady had a housekeeper and why, in the 21st century, did he think I’d embrace some 1950’s fantasy… We’ve been married fifteen years, I didn’t get a word out before he continued talking.
“Obviously you’re not the one to do the cooking. But, we both know who’s raring to go at oh-dark-thirty…” My son! Yes, there was a reason I had two kids.
My son has been itching to get cooking in the kitchen. He once said, “The best thing about getting older is you get to use more knives.” I didn’t want to unleash him on an omelet bar, but he has been learning how to make slow-cook oatmeal in the microwave.
As a culinary padawan, he jumped at the chance to be responsible for something, “Okay, I can be in charge of breakfast.” We started out this week with three bowls of piping hot oatmeal, set out on the table. My daughter rose for her breakfast without rioting and even smiled at the table. We had restored balance. For the moment.
The rest of this week has been hit and miss. On Tuesday we found that she likes oatmeal, “but not every day”. We made it through breakfast Wednesday, but there was a dresser drawer melt-down. And by today, Friday, my son was taking it personally. My daughter refused to even respond when I asked her to come downstairs. So, when the oatmeal didn’t cook up right, I felt a great disturbance in the Force.
I listened to my son recount the abuses he suffered as breakfast cook and stared at the Pyrex measuring cup full of half-cooked oatmeal. This was not winning the war. I had to re-examine my objectives.
For me, winning the Wake-Up war meant getting a sunshine and roses daughter, one who fluttered her lashes at sunrise and sang gaily as she donned a fresh frock for kindergarten. Basically, I wanted her to be totally unlike herself, and certainly unlike me. I’m still pretty surly before noon.
And that’s when I had an awful realization, it was Luke’s moment “in the cave”.
The only thing I remember about my parents in the morning for most of my childhood is that brief moment of wake-up. After that, I think everyone just steered clear. As far as I know, my parents did consider moving me to the rabbit hutch, but settled on benign neglect once I emerged from the covers. I didn’t grow out of it, I grew into it. I learned over time how to navigate mornings in the way that worked best for me. My daughter is a bad morning person JUST LIKE ME.
As this insight gelled in my head, the oatmeal reached its proper consistency. I called my son in to witness the miracle of transformation and told him how much I appreciated his dedication. Then, I put my arm around his shoulders and told him that his sister would probably always be grumpy in the morning and it wasn’t his responsibility to change her personality.
As with most everything I say to my kids, that last statement also applies to me.
Good Motivator Oatmeal
2 cups water
1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup half-and-half
Stir together water, oats and salt in a microwave-safe bowl or Pyrex measuring cup, 4 cup capacity or larger. (The oatmeal rises a lot during cooking and you don’t want it to overflow or you’ll be scrubbing the microwave.)
Microwave at 50% power for 8 minutes.
Stir oatmeal, then cook at 50% power for another 3-6 minutes, until the oats are thick and creamy and you can no longer see oat flakes. If it’s still a bit watery, try letting it sit for a couple minutes on the counter. It will keep cooking while it rests.
Spoon oatmeal into 3 or 4 small bowls. Sprinkle with brown sugar, drizzle with maple syrup and splash the top with half-and-half. Spoon frozen fruit over the top.
If, like us, you’re running late and don’t have time to take a walk in the woods – or a spin in the TIE Fighter- while your porridge cools, stirring the frozen fruit into the hot oatmeal brings it to a palatable temperature in mere moments.
My father’s autopsy was filed under “Birth Certificates” in my box of important papers. I ran across it accidentally during a start-of-the-year organization flurry a couple weeks ago. He died eleven years ago today.
There’s a post-it note on the autopsy from my sister telling me that “my veterinarian explained ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’. An inflammation of the lining around the heart, for some unknown reason, triggers an immune response against the heart itself.”
That’s the best medical explanation for why he died, but the summary and interpretation at the end of the report reveals why I never tell people my dad died from ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’.
“Alcohol use” is my usual response to, “How did your father die?” I also add, “Plus he was bipolar.”
He was drinking heavily in those last months before his death. Drinking heavily, and then stopping abruptly without the proper detox, drying out, and then drinking heavily again. While my father was in ICU in “an unconscious state”, a friend of his from Alcoholics Anonymous stopped my two sisters and me to tell us how bad things had been during that time. My father was despondent and no one was able to give him the help he wanted, and he wouldn’t take the help he needed.
At one point, my father drove his late model Jaguar down to Pensacola, Florida, where he went through flight school to be a fighter pilot. While he was there, the car got stolen, so the story goes, and he hitchhiked back to Fayetteville.
When my dad collapsed he was in line at the bank waiting to deposit a large check from his mother. He started having seizures in the bank and was rushed to the Emergency Room. Evidently, he wasn’t strapped to the bed in the E/R and got up to leave, fell, hit his head and died. The E/R staff spent twenty minutes resuscitating him. They got a heartbeat – he was technically alive – but he never regained consciousness.
My sister called me here in Tacoma to tell me what happened the same day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. She told me no one was certain whether he would ever wake up or if he might need to be put into a care facility in a vegetative state.
The one thing I knew for certain at that moment was that my father wanted to be dead. As his mental illness got worse, he would occasionally call me at work, frantic to speak to me “while my head is clear”. He’d tell me he loved me and then he would tell me over and over that if he should ever end up on life support, he wanted to be allowed to die. He told both my sisters and me that he had a living will and he expected us to enact it. However, with Daddy lying in limbo the living will was nowhere to be found.
My sister scoured his apartment. He lived a few blocks from his mother in a historic brick building. His family paid the rent. They even bought him a couch and lamps to decorate, but he never took the price tags off. It was immaculately clean and reeked of cigarette smoke.
Even though his behavior was erratic, he kept precise records of everything. When my sister checked his file cabinet for the living will, she found documents of his volatile relationships with banks, being fired from doctors, tirades with various companies about unfair treatment. Each encounter was in its own folder with handwritten labels that said “The Triangle Bank Disaster”, “The Fiasco with Dr. So-and-So”, “The Diamond Services Debacle”. Never fully understanding his illness, things like that always made me think he was faking, that he was playing some elaborate hoax.
The living will wasn’t in the file cabinet, though, and my sister couldn’t find it in the safe on the floor of his closet. Finally, she called me to talk over our options if we couldn’t find it. I said, “Well, I know he doesn’t want to be in that state. I mean, are we not allowed to kill our father?” Dark humor is a hallmark of our family and a gift I inherited from my dad.
In fact, we did have the right to make the call about leaving him on life support. My father’s mother and sisters supported us in making the decision. Talking to me on the phone, though, my sister said she’d feel a whole lot better if she had his official paperwork.
I suggested she sit at his desk and think like him, “He was so persistent in telling us about it, he had to put it somewhere obvious.” My sister sat in his rolling arm chair and spun around as we talked, then she said, “AHA!” From the angle where she was sitting, she could see that my dad’s closet safe had a thin shelf at the very top. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t see if you were standing up and looking into it, but it was, indeed, obvious when you put yourself in my dad’s place.
Our family life had been on the decline for a while. I like to think it’s a William Faulkner kind of downfall, but it’s probably better suited for a Pat Conroy paperback. Before my parents got divorced in 1998, I would wait for the phone call to tell me they died in a murder-suicide. I could never decide who would do which part.
My dad, the bipolar alcoholic, and my mother, the three decade Multiple Sclerosis patient, had a relationship built on biting comments, sarcastic comebacks and tragic misunderstandings. Even though they got divorced, my mother and father could never let each other go. In those last five years of their lives, they still fought on the phone regularly and my dad would occasionally drive the three hours from his place to my mother’s apartment in Columbia, South Carolina, just to knock on her door, say something nasty, and drive back home again. I think that was how they loved each other.
I got a flight on Monday, February 3 and met my sisters in Fayetteville. My mother was too sick to make the trip, so we updated her by phone.
On Tuesday, we went to the hospital with the living will in hand and weren’t afraid to use it. In fact, I think our casual jokes about the whole situation disturbed one of his doctors, the one from India. The doctor from Fayetteville, though, the one who knew Daddy, gave us a compassionate smile when we laughed and said, “Good news! We’re gonna let him die!”
There was time for us to sit with my father, for his mother to sit with him, for his sisters to sit with him. One of his sisters recounted their father’s last days. He was a tyrant of a business man, successful, generous, but with a vicious temper. She said she asked him why he never told his children they did a good job at anything. My grandfather told her, “Because I thought that would make you stop trying.”
My grandmother sat in the room, but only by the door. I never saw her touch him. She looked down and said, “You think you’re doing the right thing…” It was the same day that President Bush spoke at the Space Shuttle Challenger memorial. She said she thought the President’s words were so kind – and then she started to cry. I went over to comfort her, which was the total wrong thing to do. She dried up, picked up her chin, and left.
It was Wednesday afternoon by the time we had everything cleared for my father to be taken off life support. The hospital set him up in a private room and let us know it might be hours, days, even weeks. There was no telling how long he’d live because at that time we weren’t even sure why he was dying. We had the account of his fall in the E/R, but no clear sense of what was really wrong. He had no brain function, but his reflexes remained strong. We hoped the final autopsy would answer the question.
Once he was off the ventilator, my father’s breathing got more labored. He had been a smoker since he was twelve, so it didn’t sound that different than usual.
My sisters and I planned on taking turns sitting by his side. We knew that he could hear us, if he was alive enough to understand it, so we tried talking to him even though it felt like we were just pretending he was listening.
My dad wasn’t always such a mess. He was wickedly smart, a Mensa member, a pilot, a businessman, a salesman, a City Councilman, a church choir member, an actor in community theatre and military training movies. He had a rich, booming voice and loved to dance and tell jokes. Looking at him in the bed I was mostly angry that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. So much of his life had been like a movie, but in the end we didn’t get the cinema farewell, the chance to make peace. It didn’t seem a fitting end for his life.
Before we even had the chance to take shifts, though, it became clear my father wasn’t going to live for days or even hours. His breathing got weaker and his breaths farther apart. My sisters and I held tight and one of his sisters showed up in the room. The four of us held hands and stood around his bed.
I timed his breaths by the sweeping second hand on the clock. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, his breaths got farther apart. Then his chest was still. We waited, but he didn’t breathe again. It was so subtle, the transition from life to death. There was no dramatic moment, just a slow slipping into the ever after. He was gone.
The door to my dad’s room was open, but we didn’t think about closing it. We were too focused on him, shocked into stillness by what happened. So, it was a surprise when a woman walked past, stopped and poked her head in the doorway. She said, “I’m just down the hall visiting with a friend and the Lord called me to come and be with you ladies.” I think we all wanted to close the door, but this being the South we simply couldn’t. That would be rude. Even in death, hospitality rules.
We all gave her weak smiles, but couldn’t say anything. She stepped into our circle, took our hands, closed her eyes and began to pray with passion and no concern for her volume, “LORD, comfort these women at this time of sadness. Let them know that this is YOUR plan, that YOU know what we need and what is right. Don’t let them worry about this man who they love so much, let them know that YOU will take him now, that YOU are the ALMIGHTY and that YOU love every one of us…” She went on and on and mostly what I remember is peeking through the prayer and exchanging glances with my sisters, holding back giggles.
The woman went on for several minutes before concluding and giving each of us long, hard hugs. We barely hug each other in my family, we were not prepared for this stranger. She held our hands again before backing out the door, glancing down the hall and quickly walking in the other direction.
There was nothing left to do but alert the staff and get the final preparations started. As we filed out of the room, though, my younger sister said, “Wait. Just wait. Just stand here for a minute.” So we did. We stood, looking at each other, glancing back at my dad’s body, waiting for her to say something. After about ten seconds she said, “Okay. We can leave. I just didn’t want that woman to be my last memory of Daddy.”
If asked, we wouldn’t have chosen to have that woman’s prayer at my father’s final moment. However, I think it’s what he wanted. He loved the outrageous display, the dramatic flair. He had no problem making a scene. For him, bigger was always better.
We planned a fitting funeral for my dad with a bagpipe player and an organ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Friends who had witnessed his decline came to try to remember who he used to be. My mother’s mother came, even though he had been especially nasty to her, and told me, “I didn’t realize your father was so sick. I just didn’t know that he was really that sick.” She spoke the confusion that had been in the back of my mind as well. Mental illness is an illness, but it’s not always clear what that means until someone dies from it.
After the funeral, we waited more than two weeks for the autopsy, hoping it would reveal something about my father’s death, some hidden something that would explain everything. Perhaps the coroner would discover the reason he fell apart. Instead, we got the report that I quickly filed away in my important papers, a report I didn’t look at again until a couple weeks ago.
Eleven years later, ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’ tells me nothing about what made such a gifted, big-hearted man spiral into such a mess. In all this time, I’ve looked at photos and remembered the good and bad times, but I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfying reason for why he had to die. So, today I dug deeper into the memories from that time that I locked away out of grief. I found the eulogy I gave for my dad.
I remember desperately wanting to be the one to give the eulogy. I didn’t want anyone else to get up there and apologize for him or lament everything he wasted or talk about how God would forgive him. I had been mourning the loss of my father for more than ten years by the time he died and I wanted to find something positive to say about his whole life.
I also remember feeling woefully under-equipped to put a positive spin on his death. Reading it now, I see how much my early training in speech and debate influenced my script. But, eleven years later, I think it may finally be time to take my own advice from 2003.
Here’s what I said:
DADDY WAS USUALLY THE ONE TALKING.
AND THAT WAS THE GREATEST GIFT HE WOULD GIVE – TALKING TO YOU.
WHEN HE SAID, “UH. LEMME TELL YOU SOMETHING” – YOU KNEW IT WOULD PROBABLY BE WORTH YOUR TIME.
YOU ASK ANYONE ABOUT ELBERT, OUR DAD, AND THEY WILL LEAN THEIR HEAD BACK, CLOSE THEIR EYES AND SMILE. THAT MEANS A STORY’S COMIN’. DADDY HAD A LOT OF STORIES AND THEY ARE ALL PRETTY REMARKABLE. YOU SEE, DADDY STEPPED OUT OF THE PAGES OF A GREAT NOVEL, ONE THAT HE WROTE THROUGH LIVING. AND WE SHARE IT WITH OTHERS BY TELLING HIS STORIES.
WE ALL KNOW THAT HE WAS PROUD OF SERVING AS AN F-8 FIGHTER PILOT. THEY DON’T LET JUST ANYONE TOOL AROUND WITH A SUPERSONIC JET AND THEN LAND IT ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER. SOME OF YOU HERE TODAY KNOW THE ADVENTURES FROM THOSE DAYS.
PLEASE, SHARE THOSE STORIES.
• HE ONCE HITCHIKED AROUND THE COUNTRY
• HE COULD LOOK ANYONE IN THE EYE AND SELL HIM A MATTRESS, A CAR, AN ANTIQUE COUCH, A WATCH
• HE WAS A VERY GOOD GOLF PLAYER, A PHOTOGRAPHER AND A FISHER
• HE HAD THE WORLD’S LARGEST VOCABULARY AND COULD DO THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE – IN PEN
• HE TOOK UP ACTING AT THE AGE OF 46. NO PART WAS TOO SMALL FOR HIM TO HAM IT UP. HE WAS MARK TWAIN, THE BUTLER WHO DIDN’T DO IT, JUST A GUY ON THE TRAIN… IF YOU NEEDED A MEMORABLE ENTRANCE OR A ONE-LINE ZINGER TIMED JUST RIGHT – HE WAS YOUR MAN.
IF YOU KNEW ELBERT THE ACTOR, THE SALESMAN, THE PILOT… SHARE THOSE STORIES.
BECAUSE THAT’S REALLY WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO – SHARING THOSE REMARKABLE TALES.
WE LOOK BACK ON DADDY’S LIFE, AND IT IS A KALEIDOSCOPE OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND ESCAPADES – NOT A ONE OF THEM SMALL, TENTATIVE OR BORING.
IF ELBERT WANTED TO DO IT, HE DID IT WITH GUSTO. WE HONOR HIM BY SHARING THOSE STORIES.
WE CELEBRATE HIM BY SHARING THE TALES OF DADDY, ELBERT, ELBERT CURTIS, MR. JACKSON.
HOW DO WE MAKE SENSE OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN LIFE?
HOW DO WE ARRANGE THE JUMBLED FRAGMENTS?
BY REMEMBERING THE DETAILS.
I SEE HIM STANDING IN THE SUN, BESIDE HIS CONVERTIBLE FIAT, VIVALDI BLARING OUT OF THE STEREO, AVIATOR SUNGLASSES, BERMUDA SHORTS AND KNEE SOCKS.
IT’S A DETAIL, A MOMENT.
WHAT’S YOUR PICTURE?
NO ONE PERSON CAN SUM UP HIS LIFE. IT’S UP TO ALL OF US TO SHARE THE ELBERT WE KNEW WITH ONE ANOTHER.
OUR LEGACY IN LIFE COMES FROM WHAT WE HAVE DONE FOR OTHERS,
AND ELBERT DID WONDERFUL THINGS.
LET’S HOLD DEAR THE GOOD TIMES WE HAD WITH HIM AND SHARE THOSE TIMES AND KNOW THAT ELBERT WAS A GOOD MAN AND WE LOVED HIM – ALL OF US.
My son turned nine yesterday and I’ve never written down his birth story.
I hoped I could give him a tale of more courage and less pride,
but I hate lying to kids.
By the time this photo was taken, I was surprised either one of us was alive. It wasn’t the most traumatic birth, but my midwife repeatedly told me that it was “the lousiest labor I’ve seen in a while”.
It started at 8:00 am on January 31, 2005 with a small white pill.
Having been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was lucky that my care providers were willing to let me go forty-one weeks, one week past my due date. Even though I had no other complications, statistics showed that my risk of having a baby too large to birth vaginally got significantly higher the longer the pregnancy went. I fought to postpone intervention since my 38th week, but finally agreed to try inducing labor by taking the drug Cytotec. It’s no longer approved for labor induction, but at the time it was considered a less extreme method than Pitocin.
My older sister flew out from North Carolina to be with me, my husband was by my side and my doula was on call as I sat in the Labor & Delivery Suite of St. Joe’s Hospital in Tacoma. They watched me swallow the pill. Then, we were free to leave and wait for the magic to happen.
On the way out of the hospital we saw another couple in the elevator. The mom-to-be looked discouraged. She had also tried Cytotec, but her labor didn’t start. She was probably going to get even more intervention. I prayed that I wouldn’t. All I wanted was a beautiful, transcendent birth where everything went exactly according to my plan.
My husband and I had taken Bradley Method classes to prepare and I was determined to do the whole thing without any medication. My older sister recommended I take Bradley classes because they had helped her deliver her second two kids naturally after an emergency C-section with her first.
A few weeks earlier I told my midwife I was only worried about the pain, whether I could handle it. She looked at me with a blank face and said, “Well, it’s gonna hurt.” I couldn’t believe her callousness.
My doula, who had four kids of her own, told me to moderate my expectations. She pointed to her own difficult labors, each with complications that required intervention. Only on her fourth birth was she able to deliver according to her wishes, and her description of that one was nothing like the calm, spiritual water birth I felt was necessary to bring my first child into the world. I wondered why my doula was so discouraging, whether she doubted I was strong enough to handle it.
Up until this point in my life, I had been able to will my way through most every challenge. Perhaps because I’m an Aries I found that putting my head down, setting my jaw and plowing forward was an excellent method for getting anything done. I saw no reason that giving birth would be any different. So, when I started getting contractions about 5:00 pm while we walked the neighborhood, I thought, “Bring it on.”
Back in my living room we put Jill Scott’s “Golden” on the stereo.
Feel free to take the time to listen to that song and imagine a kid emerging to his first breath with a voice like that singing about living life like it’s golden.
I felt the first waves of labor and could see the radiant miracle.
If you’d like to keep that image, stop reading here.
Within a couple of hours the contractions got more intense, piling one on top of another. I ended up sitting on the stairs of our house, moaning and rocking. The pain was intense enough that I couldn’t talk or smile or focus on anything except breathing. That’s usually a good indicator that labor is at its peak, the baby’s coming soon.
We packed up and went to the hospital about 10:00 pm. The general agreement was that I’d have the baby by midnight. As we checked in at the front desk, I was doubled over in a wheelchair, moaning loudly. The attendant felt certain I might give birth in the hallway. I only remember the process by people’s voices, I held my face in my hands.
The staff got me into a delivery room, one with a large tub just like I hoped. It seemed like I would get that water birth after all.
Based on my physical state, my midwife said, “I see you’re in pain and I can offer you this comfort, it looks like you’re about to be over with this soon.” But when they got my clothes off and my midwife checked my cervix, I had only dilated 2 centimeters.
The magic number in birth is 10 centimeters. When the cervix is dilated 10 centimeters, the uterus is ready for the baby to be pushed out. Before I got pregnant I didn’t realize that the real hard work and the worst pain of having a baby comes from that dilation. To find out that I was only twenty percent of the way, that everything so far had yielded so little progress, I collapsed onto the bed.
When the staff hooked me up to the labor monitor, the green lines on the black screen showed that my contractions were irregular, random and ineffective. This is the first time I heard my midwife use the term “lousy” with my labor. No one ever said the use of Cyctotec could have been the problem, although it might have contributed. It was used off-label at the time and was known to occasionally induce very hard labors. Instead, I heard “lousy” and thought she was describing me, my efforts at laboring.
I reached deep into my head and screwed down my intention as far as it would go. I told myself I’d make it through the birth without any more medication or I would die. I would not accept that my first act as a mother was “lousy”.
The next ten hours sucked for everyone on that floor of the hospital. I was on the birthing ball, on my knees, in the tub, on the toilet, in the shower, on the bed, never in any clothes. I cried and moaned my way through rounds of contractions that didn’t get me any closer to the magic 10. My body wasn’t following a standard trajectory.
The pain was the worst in my back. My midwife came to the conclusion that the baby wasn’t in the best position. My uterus was spinning him around to get him into the right place. I had the dreaded BACK LABOR.
When I was preparing for natural childbirth, I often tried to imagine the pain. I thought that as long as it wasn’t like getting cut in half with a chainsaw I could probably handle it. For me, back labor was *exactly* like getting cut in half with a chainsaw. I knew I had brought it on myself, like the Ghostbusters getting the Stay-Puft marshmallow man as their destructor.
That night is a blur of faces and voices in my memory, but I do remember wondering if they’d let me leave it all for a few minutes. I thought someone had the authority to let me press pause, put on a coat, go home for a little, especially if I could promise, promise, promise to come back and pick up right where I left off in a day or two. In truth, there was no relief.
My sister got a break and went out to the nurses station in the center of the floor. My moaning echoed off the concrete floors. One of the nurses shivered and said, “I hate hearing that.” My sister found out it wasn’t because of the labor, but because people claim that floor is haunted and I sounded just like a ghost.
I kept thinking, “Surely this is almost over. Surely if I hold on a little longer it will be done. I have to be strong enough, I have to be. I can’t give up. If I’m not dying, then I can and will do this.” Finally, the sun started to rise and the sky outside the window got brighter. My sister politely closed the blinds, knowing the dawn of a second day would discourage me.
At 8:30 am my midwife said the hospital clock was ticking on my labor. My cervix had only dilated to 3 centimeters. She advised that my bag of waters should be broken to help speed labor. She also wanted to start Pitocin, to push the dilation along. For me, speeding labor and pushing dilation would mean increasing the pain.
I’d been laboring intensely for twelve hours by that time. I had been up all night. I was exhausted by pain and crying and that screw down deep in my head was failing. I knew I had to keep going, that to ask for medication, for relief, was to admit complete failure.
The midwife, the doula, my sister and my husband all sat around me, looking at me intently. It was ultimately my decision. I could say no to anything. They just needed to know what I wanted.
I wanted to be in control. I wanted to show them all I was strong enough to withstand the trial of childbirth. I wanted to be better than “lousy”.
My doula said, “Remember Megan when I said you had to check your expectations? You have worked hard and you still have work to do. This isn’t what you wanted, and you need to make a decision based on what IS happening.” My doula said this as she nursed a migraine that came on during the night, probably due to all my screaming.
I looked at my husband and he just cried. He had been holding my hand, my head, my entire weight at various points the whole night. He had gray hairs that weren’t there the morning before.
I looked at my sister. More than anything, I wanted to do it for her. I wanted to make my sister proud that I could do it just like she did. If I asked for help, if I took pain medication, I felt like I’d let her down. I whispered to her, “I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.”
My sister smiled, “There’s a reason there are pain medications, Megan. You’ve done a lot. No one can say you didn’t work, you didn’t put everything into doing what you could. But, you don’t have to keep doing it this way. What do you need?”
I didn’t want to say it. I had hoped at one point that I’d black out or go into a coma and then they’d have no choice but to drug me and take over. Regardless, I stayed conscious and alert and responsible for my medical decisions. If I was going to get relief, I had to say that I wanted it. For me, asking for help is just about the most painful thing. Labor, as it turned out, was the only thing more painful.
I hung my head in shame and said, “I need something to help me with this pain. If I can have help, something, I would like it now.”
The whole room exhaled, the staff sprang into action. Having admitted the pain was too much, it felt worse than ever. I curled up on my side and didn’t care who poked what or where on me. The screw in my mind, the one that held in place the promise that I would “make it through the birth without medication or I would die”, busted loose. As far as I could reason at that moment, I was dying.
One nurse hooked my IV up to fentanyl. A nurse promised the anesthesiologist would arrive in less than twenty minutes and she counted down every minute until he got there. He made it in less than fifteen. As he prepped my back for the epidural, he muttered, “I don’t know why anyone would want to put up with this pain.” My sister glared at him. I accepted his judgment. It sounded to me like, “Sheesh, why would such a lousy woman put everyone else through this when she clearly couldn’t handle it?”
Then the medication took hold and I passed out, feeling like the next few hours would be my last.
Silence returned. My husband crawled into the birthing tub and took a nap. Everyone else tried to get sleep.
My body and the Pitocin worked together for the next eight hours while I slept.
At 4:00 pm on February 1, 2005, my midwife came back to check on me. I was finally dilated to 10 centimeters. The epidural had worn off enough that I was feeling contractions and could move my legs a little. It was the perfect time to push. But, I had no will.
The hard part of me, the part of me that pushed through everything, that knew how to make things happen no matter the odds, was broken. I said, “I don’t feel like doing anything.” I thought for sure that whatever I did I was going to end up with a C-section.
Then, a new nurse came in to the room. Her name was Kevin. She also happened to be a midwife, but was working as a nurse. She was calm and casually tucked in the sheet on the bed.
She said, “Do you mind if I check and see if you are even able to push? Since you had the epidural, you might not be able to push on your own right now. So, if you can just give it a try, I’ll know if it’s even a good idea to ask you to push.” She reminded me of an elementary school teacher, kind of like my mother. She clearly expected very little of me and very little was exactly what I felt like I could do.
So, I gave a little effort. She said, “Hey! That was a better push than I thought. It may have just been lucky, though. Can you do it a second time?” I took the bait. I pushed a second time to show her what was lucky and what wasn’t.
She said, “You know, you don’t have to push now, your body will get around to it anyway. So, what do you say we take another tiny practice here while you’re rested?” Again, it was so non-committal, the stakes were so low, I figured I could give it a try.
In a few minutes, the tiny practice pushes became bona fide baby pushing and I was surrounded by my husband, my doula, my sister, my midwife and two nurses, all yelling at me, “PUSH!” The shift from low pressure to high pressure was so sudden I felt tricked, but I knew deep down that I needed every one of them giving me as much encouragement as they could.
There was a moment when my son’s heartbeat dropped and the crisis team rolled in with more monitors and oxygen. Kevin had me get on my hands and knees. I was scared. When I’m scared, I make jokes – even if I’m in pain. I made a “Blue Velvet” reference through the oxygen mask to see if anyone would laugh.
Everything about birth seems to hold the specter of death. At any moment, it could all go to shit. And, with all the tubes and the machines and the loved ones around me I kept thinking that the last time I’d been in a hospital, I watched my mother die. I watched my father die four months before that. But, I had never seen life begin. My initial expectations had been for a soft-lit, ecstatic delivery. By that time I just hoped we’d both be alive.
Changing positions worked. My baby’s heartbeat came back strong. The pushing got stronger as my body seemed to get the idea and the contractions worked with me. A nurse wheeled in a giant mirror and asked if I wanted to watch the progress as I pushed the baby out. I said, “OH GOD NO!! I’m barely doing this as it is. No WAY I want to SEE IT!”
My midwife sat between my legs, giving me the play by play. “I see the head! Nope, it’s back in. Push a little further. There’s the top of his head again. Dang, if he just had more hair I’d grab it and pull from this end. One of these pushes should work eventually.”
My sister asked if they had a ‘squat bar’. They did. With my legs propped up by my ears, my husband held my shoulders, my doula looked me in the face and said, “PUSH!!” I cried, “Why are you all so mean to me??” I only kept pushing because I didn’t know what everyone would do to me if I stopped.
At 5:16 pm, when I was sure the midwife was going to call it all off, tell me I was “lousy” at pushing, when I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest and it would be the end of me, my son emerged from my body, eyes wide open. He had his left hand against his chin, like a Jack Benny reaction shot. As his shoulders emerged, he took a huge poop. For me, it was the creepiest slippery fish feeling as the rest of his body slid into the open air.
When they put him on my chest, I recognized my eyes. Through all that time, I forgot that he would be a real human being. I had forgotten everything except trying to survive. And yet, there he was. He was clearly my son. And, despite the whole lousy circumstances of his arrival, I was undeniably his mother.
It was another hour before they wheeled me out of the delivery room, but I must have still had a lot of narcotics in my system. I held my infant son and said to my husband, “Ok, so NEXT time I have a baby…”