Tuesday, October 30, 2012

To Lois: A Love Story

My mom died when I was twenty-seven.  She was my best friend and my biggest fan.  It’s over ten years ago now, and I still don’t know how to write about her.

So this story isn’t about my mom. 

My dad remarried very soon after she died, about a year later.  This might seem insensitive, or improper, or something, but we, my brothers and I, were all very happy about it.  We were happy because he had been so lost without my mom, so…bereft.  He was eating TV dinners and sleeping in his recliner, and calling me at seven in the morning in a mania about something or other.  Things were not good.  So when he met Lois, we were…relieved.  Happy that he had something to be happy about again.  Happy that he had somebody else to care for, to worry over, to think about.

Lois is quiet.  My family is NOT.  She is reserved, and shy, and hesitant, and sometimes unsure of herself.  She needs time to herself, which is always surprising to us, since my family is social to the point of hysteria.  She is thoughtful and measured where my family is loud and rambunctious and impetuous.  She is a good friend, and a good listener.  She is soft and comforting and gentle. 

We all liked her immediately. 

When Dad and Lois got married, I was pregnant with my first baby.  The wedding was in September, and Eloise was born two months later, in early November.  The pregnancy was difficult.  Not because Eloise and I weren’t healthy; it was just emotionally difficult.  I missed my mom.  She was supposed to BE HERE for this.  She was supposed to help me register for shower gifts and talk me through my worries and spoil me with maternity clothes and sew curtains for the nursery.  I felt her absence every day, all the time.  My dad, as great as he was, and is, just wasn’t the same – and I don’t know if men really can be, in that situation, you know?  I needed my mom to tell me about hemorrhoids and to passive-aggressively criticize my baby name choices.  I wanted her to tell me I was being ridiculous to avoid deli meats since she had smoked throughout her whole pregnancy with me and LOOK AT HOW SMART I TURNED OUT.  I needed her.

To add insult to injury, Mike and I both finished grad school during this time and moved to Houston.  We were selling our first home, trying to buy a new one, and, in the interim, living with my grandmother, which was trying, to say the least.  (My grandmother is lovely, but NO ONE who is twenty-nine and about to give birth wants to be living with her grandma.  NO ONE.)  Plus, we had no money, so I was trying to find and job, and therefore searching vainly for interview clothes that successfully camouflaged my rapidly-swelling belly.  (This is remarkably hard to do.  After much angst, I settled on a boxy Chanel-style knockoff jacket, with a box-pleated skirt.)  Also, Mike was starting his new job, which was very demanding, so I rarely saw him.  Then I got a speeding ticket, and Grandma and I got into an argument about frozen pizza.  Things were rough.  I would sit on the upstairs bathroom floor almost daily, close the door, turn on the bathwater, and sob.

Fast-forward.  We sell the house, and find a new one.  I get a teaching job.  We move.  We settle into suburban life, and I start researching daycare options.  Things get better.

November fourth, Eloise arrives.  The birth ended up being an emergency C-section, after lots of pushing that did nothing productive other than get her stuck in the birth canal…which is a whole other story.  It was scary; I was traumatized.  They had to give me some sort of medicine on the operating table that knocked me out, and I woke up alone, confused and without my baby, which was horrific and surreal.  The hospital was over-crowded, so I had to share a room with a sixteen-year old single mom who watched MTV all night long (no, it’s for real, no lie, I can’t make this stuff up), which meant that Mike wasn’t allowed to stay in the room with Eloise and me.  My stomach muscles were completely useless, due to the surgery, so I couldn’t sit up or lift Eloise out of the bassinette to feed her – the nurses had to be called every time she cried.  I don’t think I closed my eyes for three days straight, until mercifully, we were given the go-ahead to check out.

Those of you who have had a baby know that when you leave the hospital, you are given a number of instructions about when to feed the baby, how to swaddle, how to deal with your C-section wound or episiotomy stitches, what to do about sleep, how to care for the umbilical cord, how to handle engorgement, how to use a breast pump and get the baby latched on, et cetera infinitum.  Then you are given dates and times of follow-up appointments with different doctors, packets of papers and bills to go through, infant eye drops and sample bottles of formula, and medications.  And due to the fact that you’re undergoing the biggest change of your life on absolutely no sleep and (in my case) are simultaneously (and constantly) replaying the grisly birth in your mind a la PTSD, something is going to be forgotten.  Luckily, in my case, it wasn’t the baby.

Unluckily, in my case, it was the stool softeners.

So we get home, where Dad and Lois await us with casseroles and balloons and gifts.  And for a day or so, everything goes okay, or at least as okay as things can be with a brand-new baby that you have no idea what to do with.  At about two in the afternoon, on day two, was when the shit got real. 

(I say that literally.)

So I’m sitting on the couch, with Eloise, and all of a sudden?  Excruciating pain.  More painful than labor, more painful than pushing during a contraction, more painful than my sewn-up abdomen after the C-section.  Worse than all that.  I turn to Mike and say, “Mike.  Mike.  I need you to take this baby.  I need you to GO TO THE DRUGSTORE RIGHT NOW.”  I think he saw the terror in my eyes, because he moved pretty quickly.  In the meantime, Lois grabbed Eloise, my dad hightailed it outta there QUICK, and I raced to the bathroom, dropped trow, and began Lamaze breathing.  I think that’s when the crying began.  Lois held Eloise and stood outside the door.  Then I hear a gentle knock. 

“Sarah, honey, are you okay?”


“Sarah, I’m going to go get you some water.  Sometimes that helps.  You’ve been nursing her so much, you’re probably a little dehydrated, on top of everything else.”

[Ragged breathing.  Groaning.  Sweat.]  Lois leans in with the ice water, all the while singing softly to Eloise.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of ass-blasting, torturous pain, I hear Mike’s car return and I think, Thank God.  He’s back.  Something has got to help, or we’re going to have to call an ambulance, because there’s no way I can get to the hospital on my own.  He walks into the bathroom, averts his eyes from the disturbing scene of me, wild-eyed and naked on the toilet, hair akimbo, drooling, and says, “Here.  I got these two types of laxatives.  They say they are supposed to work within 48 to 72 hours.  Okay?”  Then he darts out.

I don’t really remember what I said at this point, but I’m sure it was not coherent.  Nor was it in any way kind.  It may not have been in English, and it certainly involved profanity.  Here’s the translation:  “WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING, YOU DUMBASS?!?  I NEED SOMETHING THAT WORKS NOW, NOT IN THREE MUTHAFUCKIN’ DAYS!  I AM GOING TO DIE HERE!  DIIIIIEEEEE HEEEEERRRRE!  YOU NEED TO GO BACK TO THAT DRUGSTORE AND GET ME AN ENEMA!  THAT’S WHAT TIME IT IS, MIKE!  IT’S ENEMA TIME!”  Or something to that effect.

He departs, disgraced, for drugstore round number two.

Then my sobbing begins in earnest.  Because I realize now that I have a whole other problem.  Not only am I in torturous pain, and humiliated, and scared, and verbally abusive to my husband, and probably scarring my tiny infant daughter with my shrieking fit, but I’m going to have to have an enema.  Which means someone is going to have to administer it.  And my mom is dead. 

[More weeping.  Possible loss of consciousness, due to tremendous physical and psychological agony.]

I hear the car return.  The front door opens.  Footsteps.  Mike calls to me from outside the bathroom door.  “Hey?  Honey.  Sarah?”

[Grunting.  Inhuman noises.]

“Sarah?  Listen, I love you and all, and I know this is a problem, but I just can’t give you this enema.  I just can’t.  Okay?  I’ll just leave it outside the door.”  And then he slinks off.

At this point, about 95% of my brain matter is encompassed with a sort of animalistic devolution into the pain.  I’m living in the pain.  I’m breathing the pain.  THERE IS ONLY PAIN.  But the other 5% kind of gets it.  I don’t want him to give me an enema, either.  My dreams of an enema-free marriage are being obliterated – sucked down the (toilet) drain.  I want to shield him from that, and even though in that moment I also think him a shameful coward – I kind of understand.  I do.  Now there are more tears, not only from the pain, but from the realization that I WILL DIE HERE.  Because my husband is useless, and also?  I don’t have any friends in the neighborhood, yet.  Nobody that I could call, for instance, and ask, “Hey, can I get that recipe for your cheese dip?  And also, can you stop by now and shoot some liquid up my butt, real quick?”  We’re new in town, remember.

But then. 

Lois returns to the door.  Quietly, and still cradling Eloise she says, “Honey?  Are you listening?  I will give you that enema.  It is no problem.  None at all.  You just say the word and I’m ready.  This is not something you need to worry about, today.  I’m right here.”

All of a sudden, I felt an overwhelming peace move through me.  Things were going to be okay, and I could inhale and exhale again.  At this point, remember, I didn’t know Lois well, at all.  I didn’t yet understand what I could expect from or predict of her, but I pretty much figured that holding the baby and making some pot pies would be the extent of it – which is plenty!  Which is wonderful!  Which is hugely appreciated.  And then out of the blue, this woman stands outside my door and calmly volunteers for the very worst post-baby job imaginable.  Like it’s nothing.  Without a second to think about it, without hesitation or deliberation or embarrassment.  Just offers, because that was what was needed at that moment.  That was where she was called to serve, and she stood, ready to meet it.  I believe that this is what love is. 

And that is the moment when I fell in love with my step-mother, Lois.

(An aside, which might be the moral of the story, altogether:  This enema story is part of why I believe in God – because of those moments of human kindness and generosity and humble service that are completely and absolutely unearned and unexpected.  Also?  This enema story is also why I believe God has a sense of humor – because COME ON.)

Postscript:  In the end (heh), the enema was unnecessary.  I drank some of the ice water she brought me, and in minutes, all was again right in the world.  (Not to be too graphic about things.)  But that doesn’t change the pivotal fact that she offered.  And I’m pretty certain that if I ever find myself in a similar predicament, she’ll be at the ready.  Rectal bulb syringe in hand.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Invisible – Paul Auster

Lately I’ve been reading and sewing, sewing and reading.  Oh, and fighting with my daughter, who is almost eight and all of a sudden, has decided that I’m an IDIOT.  Yes, already.  Homework is taking its toll, my friends, and it’s only early October, which does not bode well for me, either for this school year, or for her looming adolescence in general.  

So books and fabric are much-needed escapes, lately.  I read The Boy in the Suitcase (which was a quick, enjoyable thriller – thanks Emilie, for the recommendation!), and then The Bright Side of Disaster (fluff set in Houston, of all places!).  Both good for a quickie, if you get my drift.

But then I came across Invisible, by Paul Auster, and things got serious up in here.

I do this thing sometimes when I find a new writer I really, really love.  I gobble up all of their stuff in a frenzy, and end up remembering almost none of it, other than how marvelous everything was.  Which is another good reason for the blog.  (An aside:  The last time this happened was about two years ago, when I discovered Barbara Vine.  Have you read her?  I can’t remember if I’ve told you about Vine yet, but if you haven’t read any of her stuff – do so.  She is complicated and brilliant and sweeping, with some of the best character development I’ve seen in modern novels.  (An embedded aside within the aside:  Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell’s pseudonym, but she only uses it for a certain subset of very complicated stories concerned with familial drama.  They are UH-MAY-ZING.)  Anyway, when I discovered Barbara Vine, I devoured all her books IN A ROW without coming up for air for about three months.) 

Is that cover not CREEPY AS FUCK?  I love it.

So Paul Auster is going to be another one of these, for me.  I can’t remember who brought Invisible to my friend Wendy’s book exchange, but I’m the one who ended up with it.  (Kristine - was it you?  I’d love to know who has read it.)  I think I have blog notes scribbled on almost every page of this thing.  This is the type of narrative that I’d spend an entire semester cogitating over in graduate school, but I still think it accessible on a number of levels – the basic plot, on its own, is great.  The challenge for me, in this review, is not to go too crazy on the literary analysis, since Invisible is jam-packed with fun-to-puzzle-over literary stuff as well as just being a plain old good story.

Anyway, the book takes place in three perfectly drawn sections (each, interestingly, told from a different point of view and in a different person, yet telling one continuous and chronological tale) and centers around one solitary, disturbing event,* as well as the main character’s continued reaction to it throughout the rest of his life.  The novel’s organization satisfied my weird (OCD?  Most likely) obsession with order and symmetry.  For example, the first section is written in the first person, the second in the second person (which is particularly unusual, and I bet hard to pull off without sounding hokey), and the third in the, uh…third.  In other words, it struck me as an extremely disciplined piece of writing.  Invisible “grabs” like a thriller, but is meticulously measured and controlled. 

Another thing I loved was the book’s concern with itself as a book.  Each section, you see, encapsulates a “manuscript” (the main action), the circumstances around the “writer’s” or “reader’s” perusal of it, and that character’s response to it.  So the novel uses a sort of metaspeak to position itself as an intertext, which totally turns the idea of “The Novel” on its head, really.  (And is a super SUPER cool technique, to boot.)  Also, Invisible does a kind of riff on the postmodern question of the self’s duality – mind versus body.  The “writer,” Alex Walker, is here, but not:  He’s simultaneously a writer, a character, and gone…yet his words enable a sort of resurrection, both to the “reader” (in the story) and to the (actual) reader.  Indeed, words are of supreme importance in the novel – writers, translators, scholars, speech pathologists, and those without words (by reason of language barrier or shyness or other issues) populate the narrative, books and poetry are bandied about, sexual dirty talk is explored, as is the French tu/vous issue.  Furthermore, characters are drawn either of the body, or of the mind, never both.  On the one hand, we have Margot, who seems defined by her love of food and sex (both utterly corporeal fascinations), and Born (yes, the name is intentional, I am certain), who is, by the end, magnificently obese and sporting only shorts.  (I know.  Put on a robe, dude!)  On the other hand, we have Alex, the unpublished writer whose exceptional mind seems to prevent him from speaking or interacting with the world effectively, and Cecile, the translator who possesses a brilliant intellect but unfortunate looks.  Anyway, it’s great, and I could go on for about ten pages, but I’ll spare you.  Just read it.  It will be time well-spent.

I’ll leave you with this, the fruits of my other obsession – tunics!  And if you haven't yet "liked" Sarah Said Sew on Facebook, please do!  

*No, of course I won’t tell you the event.  Read the book!