7.30.2022

to love life

We sat in the closeness of the sticky mid-morning heat, our bare arms and thighs touching. The rickety bench Woody gave me, one that dropped another screw recently, held us even as it swayed under our weight. I wrapped my hand around hers and kissed her cheek. We drank little rivers—she a sparkling citrus-scented water from a can, and I tap water held in a heavy green glass. We listened to a goldfinch sing as the wind swept through the trees. It felt as if we were the only ones in the world, and tears of sorrow came to us both as we contemplated life's tragedies.

During our walk earlier, she and I talked of mosquito bites, politics, running races, friendships, gardens, daughters, sons. Something flew up the open leg of her shorts and stung her repeatedly. I peeked into the back of her waistband and a bee—or was it a wasp?—flew out. She bent and plucked flat leaves of plantain, put them in her mouth, chewed them into a mash and applied tiny wads to the stings as a medicinal salve meant to draw the poison out.

"Everything we need is here for us," she said, meaning that nature is the original balm, then adding that we've just forgotten how to use it. I thought of Calvin's cannabis oil and how well it seems to help quell at least some of his seizures.

On our walk home, we stopped to cut—with permission—bunches of nodding sunflowers from our friends' backyard. Some of the smaller ones, which were still closed tightly like little fists as if reluctant to open to today's world, reminded me of my newly-born, four-pound, six-week preemie's apple-sized head and cinched brow. What a difficult yet extraordinary road it has been since then.

Later, when early evening came around and as I washed up dishes listening to my Calvin moan and rustle in his bed upstairs, I was again on the verge of weeping. My son is so often out of sorts or miserable, suffering from one thing or another inevitably brought on by seizures and/or their drug treatment. Though it had only been five days since his last grand mal, I could sense one coming by his bad balance, stubbornness, intensity, neediness, sour breath, eye poking, fingers in his mouth and mine, the new moon on the rise. I thought again about my earlier conversation with my friend. While strolling along a wooded path we had discussed abortion and the recent Supreme Court's abysmal decision to reverse Roe. I told her that, had I known for certain early on in my pregnancy that Calvin would be born missing most of the white matter in his brain which would cause him to be legally blind, uncoordinated, nonverbal, incontinent, cognitively impaired and—worst of all—be pummeled by thousands of uncontrollable seizures, I might have chosen to end the pregnancy to spare his suffering. To say that life for him is limited and presents major daily challenges, pain and miseries would be a gross understatement. Lamentably, there is so very little that Calvin seems to enjoy, mostly because he's been ruined by the drugs which cause him, at the very least, to be impossibly restless, making it harder, too, for me to live the life I want to live.

Just before my husband arrived home for the evening, I sat near the open French doors which look out onto the garden. There, while I reflected on my day and wrote this post, I came across this poem by Ellen Bass:

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

    It struck me that I'd come across a poem so fitting for me, for my life with Calvin, and for the day I had just lived. 
    
    Just as Michael and I were sitting down for another sublime dinner in the screen porch, I heard Calvin make a strange noise. In that instant, I thought again about grief—ours, his, my friend's, everyone's—as I bounded up the stairs to find my sweet, pure, innocent beloved son—the boy who rocks my world in the most terrible, lovely, heavy (an obesity of grief) and amazing ways—as he was seizing again. I stroked his thigh and Michael embraced him and kissed his face. We've done the same perhaps thousands of times before and will very likely do the same a thousand times more, because Calvin is our precious son, and because it is our life, and in most ways we love it, and what else is there?
 

7.23.2022

little enigma

I know it's been awhile since I've written. Calvin has had a bit of a hard time lately due to who knows exactly what since he can't tell us—it is always a mystery—but probably some combination of an increase in his newest epilepsy drug, Xcopri, and a recent decrease in his older epilepsy drug, Keppra. My guess is he is experiencing some withdrawal seizures and symptoms, and my bet is that the Xcopri and my homemade THCA cannabis oil is helping to quell some of them.

Suffice to say, I haven't had the wherewithal or the headspace to write. Instead, I've been training for a 10K running race called Beach to Beacon, which happens two weeks from today (I've never done a road race) and I've been taking loads of photographs of trees and flowers and water and my little enigma this past year, which I'll leave here for you to consider. Click on any of them to enlarge.

I hope, dear Reader, that your summer is going well as can be and that you're getting out and about. As for me, I'm enjoying my car rides with Calvin, and my runs and walks on the back roads and trails with or without Smellie, plus a bit of gardening, small and infrequent gatherings with friends, good movies, eating Michael's delicious meals in the screen porch, and this sanctuary of ours. And of course, I continue to live vicariously through others, perhaps even through you.

7.06.2022

like no other

Like wax off of a candle, the days drip, drip, drip. In profound ways, each one is nearly identical to the last and will be very much like the one after. Events beyond the mundane rarely happen. This trend has lasted for nearly two decades and will likely continue for at least as long. I'm not completely sure how I've been able to or will deal with the monotony of it all.

The only real change is that my boy is older and bigger. And yet, at eighteen, every day I still have to spoon food into his mouth. Change his diapers. Give him his medicines. Bathe him. Dress him. Walk him around. Get him to poop. Wipe him up. Put him to bed. Listen for him in the night. I must watch him knit his fingers, poke his eye, stare at the sun, suffer miserable side effects and seize. I have to listen to him moan and grouse and screech and feel him grab and scratch at me. Now and then my patience thins, and when Calvin stretches it to its limits, I become ugly both inside and out. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about.

Monday was one of those days. Though the weather was stellar for riding bikes, boating, fishing, hiking, swimming or going to a park, I was stuck with an out-of-sorts son making circles inside the house, in the yard, in the car. Despite the Independence Day holiday, Michael was off taking pictures, because what is there to do that is any fun for us as a family? It seems we've tried it all before and have met mostly with dismay and frustration. With Calvin in tow, beaches, restaurants, cafes and strolls are all virtually impossible. Adventures of any kind are a major undertaking and often end in disappointment since our son is incapable of sitting still or attending to any activity or subject. I wish that were hyperbole.

And so, again, I sat at home feeling sorry for myself. Perturbed, I pined for an escape—San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Paris, Lisbon, Rome. Places in which I used to live and those I've visited and roamed.

Monday morning, Calvin and I went on our daily drive—a kind of respite for me even though I'm not alone. He bitched the entire time like he used to all too often. On our way home, we drove past a friend's house. She and another gal were outside soaking in the gorgeousness of her perennial garden, lounging in the shade draped in a couple of butterfly chairs. Their sun hats seemed to float over the day lilies beginning to bloom. I felt a pang of jealousy. In waking hours, Michael and I can't take our eyes off of Calvin. We must take turns watching him, staying within arm's reach so he doesn't fall. Can't leave him unattended for a second unless he is secured in his safety bed, and even then we have to listen for him over the baby monitor. There's no escaping him. Can't find real relaxation and solitude. Can't send him anywhere on his own. In that way, we don't have much freedom unless he's with his pal Mary or at school.

In the late afternoon when Michael got home, we all drove to Pennellville to pick up our friends' farm share since they're out of town. Afterward, we drove out to nearby Simpson's Point which is a regular stop on my morning drives with Calvin. We pulled into the turn-around, parked and watched the bathers from the car. Michael spotted a friend and went to say hello. I got out of the car to take a few nearby photos while Calvin sat in the back seat gnawing his toys. Our friend's wife emerged from the waters and came to visit with me. So that I could keep an eye on Calvin, we stood next to the car catching up about our boys, our gardens, our various goings-on. Eventually, I openly lamented the monotony of my days with Calvin. Then, in what I believe was a loving and concerned attempt to level the playing field, she told me that the sameness of days is something everyone experiences, that it was that way for her at work, too. I told her, with gratitude, that I hadn't exactly thought of it in those terms before.

But late that night, after I had gotten out of bed for the third time to lay my restless boy back down, cover him up and to wrestle his bed pad which had gotten untucked and buckled under him, I had a thought: the monotony of my days is wholly different than what my friend was talking about. This was an eighty-plus degree holiday weekend, a day made for barbecues and picnics, watching parades and fireworks or taking a dip in the cove. Michael, Calvin and I were there in our street clothes. We had simply been on an errand and had taken a detour. We were not sunbathers, swimmers or waders. Our teenager was not frolicking in the water with his buddies. We were not there reclined in fold-out chairs reading our favorite novels or sipping iced drinks from a thermos. We were not resting under wide-brim hats in the shade. Those are things we never do, don't have the luxury of doing with Calvin because he can't sit still. We were doing what we always do when he's around, which is practically nothing beyond driving the back roads. And yet, we were grateful for our astoundingly serendipitous "adventure," and to get a slice or scent or taste of what others were able to immerse themselves in, some of them perhaps for hours.

After a short visit (we had to get home for Calvin's evening seizure medicines and early bedtime, otherwise we would have lingered) we said our so-longs to our friends. But before we drove off, I decided I should at least test the waters. I padded down to the boat launch past folks in bikinis and tanks, trunks and sunglasses. Before we had embarked, by a streak of luck I had slipped into my flip-flops for the first time this summer and had rolled my jeans up. I stood at the water's edge and let the gentle waves lap over my feet and ankles. It felt refreshingly cool, though not too cold for a swim. There on the point, I closed my eyes for a moment as if no one were around. Tipping my head back, I felt the sun and the salty wind kiss my face and neck as if a lover. For a split second, I let the elements take me somewhere far away and exotic.

And as I finish writing this, I realize Monday had turned out to be a day like no other.

Simpson's Point

6.28.2022

intimate decisions (american dystopia)

I've been pregnant twice. My sweet, pure, legally blind, nonverbal, incontinent, autistic, cognitively impaired, seizure-plagued son, Calvin, is my only child. At least three of my friends who were in committed relationships when their contraception failed were able to get safe, legal abortions after discussing the intimate decision with their partners. One of them was the mother of two, another went on to have two children, and the third remains child free. I'm not pro-abortion and I've never had one, but after suffering the miscarriage, I underwent a D and C. My only worry was that, because of my age, I might not get pregnant again. That worry was shortly replaced by a wholly different kind of worry: Calvin, my little apogee and abyss.

The recent Supreme Court reversal of Roe vs. Wade, which has eliminated Americans' constitutional right to abortion—aka body autonomy and reproductive freedom—is as astonishing as it disturbing. It serves as evidence of the Conservative majority's callousness, ignorance, and chauvinism.

Callousness—for the blatant disregard of the physical and emotional harm millions of girls, women and their families will suffer when they are forced to carry unplanned, unwanted or medically problematic pregnancies to term. Women and girls will die without access to safe abortion. They'll die in childbirth itself. When they have dangerous complications from miscarriages and stillbirths, they'll die foregoing access to medical care for fear they'll be suspected of attempting to abort in states that have banned the practice. Black girls and women, whose rates of maternal death are three to four times higher than whites, will disproportionately face the most dangers, as will poor people and other people of color. How are these circumstances not examples of depriving women and girls of their constitutional right to pursue life, liberty and happiness? Despite these lethal risks, anti-abortion advocates claim this decision is somehow pro-life. Moreover, anti-abortion advocates tend to oppose measures known to greatly reduce abortions such as easy access to contraception and comprehensive sex education, and social programs such as universal healthcare, paid family leave, childcare, universal pre-k and other programs aimed to help mothers and fathers avoid the financial and logistical hardship of raising children. It sickens and pains me to see and hear them celebrating this decision, this most recent version of American dystopia.

Willful ignorance—for the apparent refusal to seriously consider and truly understand—or care about—the infinite and deeply intimate reasons why millions of women and girls might want or need to have abortions: complications such as ectopic pregnancies, fetal abnormalities, extreme youth or advanced age, family size, financial woes, career aspirations, rape, abusive relationships, health of the fetus or the mother, or simply that they don't want children. Forcing women and girls to unwillingly carry their pregnancies to term is tantamount to torture. But these facts don't matter to a sanctimonious, sexist court which has relied on precedent from a century-and-a-half ago when women were not equal participants in society or government and were barred from voting; Alito cited in his draft decision an English jurist who defended marital rape and had women executed for “witchcraft.”

Chauvinism—for holding the erroneous, absurd and sexist notion that half of all Americans don't have a fundamental right to control their own bodies and destinies. As some wise woman said, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Chauvinism—for the way the decision hastens our nation to a place of (worse) female subjugation and punishment. Chauvinism—for the way the decision thrusts us into an American dystopia where surgical abortions will again be clandestine, will again result in rape, and will again be dangerous and lethal. Again, women and girls forced to carry pregnancies to term will be unjustly denied their constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Conservative Justices have scapegoated and punished girls and women by imposing their fundamentalist, patriarchal, religious and sexist agendas on them, ones to which a growing number of Americans—including some religious people—do not prescribe. The Justices used the absurd originalist argument that, because there is no explicit mention of abortion in the Constitution, women are not guaranteed access to it in their pursuit of liberty. It's worth noting that there is no explicit mention in the Constitution giving men the right to impregnate girls and women.

You know you're living in an American dystopia: when the rights of an eleven-year-old rape victim matter less than the zygote, embryo or fetus inside her resulting from that rape; when a government entity—particularly one made up mostly of conservative religious white men—attempts to control women's and girl's bodies by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term risking dire physical and emotional health outcomes, particularly in a nation that has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world; when imaginary lines drawn on a map of a nation where white colonialists slaughtered indigenous people and stole their land is what determines whether girls and women become the mothers to their rapists' children. Note: beware the anti-abortion push for a federal ban on abortion; if republicans gain control of congress this November, we'll be one step closer to that dystopia.

Our sweet boy Calvin, who I chose to have despite knowing he was missing most of the white matter in his brain, has made life for us very difficult and harrowing at times. I can't say for certain what I'd have done had we known earlier and for certain that things would turn out this way and that Calvin would suffer so. What I do know is that I wouldn't think of making that kind of deeply intimate decision for someone else. When our bodies are not our own to control, when legislators regulate them like commodities, we live in tyranny—an American dystopia—where, one by one, our other rights are at risk of being whittled away by a small group of powerful, callous, willfully ignorant and chauvinistic people who will never choose to hear our stories or walk even a few steps in our shoes.

Back when I was pregnant with Calvin, yet still child-free.
Photo by Michael Kolster

6.24.2022

choices

Awhile ago, while listening to a podcast about abortion, a sickening thought popped into my head: what if my obstetrician concealed the fact that my fetus, who became Calvin, was missing some—perhaps most—of the white matter in his brain?

Michael and I didn't learn of the grave anomaly until a follow-up sonogram when I was thirty-two weeks along. I remember a Boston specialist's surprise that the malformation hadn't presented in one of my earlier sonograms from Maine. It was her opinion it should have. Thinking back, I wonder if it had without us knowing.

With today's news about the Supreme Court reversing Roe vs. Wade, I relive the events of my two pregnancies. I revisit the initial weeks of my first one, and the dreaded feeling at seven weeks that I wasn't pregnant anymore. I remember the sonogram revealing there was no fetal heartbeat—confirming my suspicion—and the gut-wrenching decision to wait for my body to expel the fetal tissue or to undergo dilation and curettage. I then recall my OBGYN moving her practice out of town and, when I got pregnant again, asking friends to recommend a new one. I relive the first few visits to see the new doctor, my request for a CVS test to check for genetic abnormalities early on, her resistance to agree, followed by her comment that if we found something terribly wrong with the fetus we would be "hard-pressed" to find a local doctor to provide an abortion, asserting her refusal to perform the procedure herself.

She offered no further discussion on the topic, no counseling, no support, no understanding, no offer to refer if needed. In my and Michael's minds, she was negligent and indifferent. In the end, a sonogram proved my pregnancy was in its thirteenth week, too far along to undergo the test.

In revisiting these moments from over eighteen years ago, I wonder if my obstetrician secretly knew early on—though concealed it because of her religious beliefs—that Calvin was missing as much as 80% of the white matter in his brain, a percentage that one pediatric neurologist cited after having studied my fetal MRI and sonograms. He later told us our child might never crawl, walk or talk. He never mentioned the possibility of blindness or uncontrolled seizures as possibilities.

If Michael and I had known early on of Calvin's malformed brain, and had we known the dreadful extent to which it might impact his well-being and quality of life, his development, cognition, coordination, communication, happiness, vision, ability to move about and function independently, and his increased odds of having unstoppable seizures, or of being abused and neglected by caregivers, would we have chosen to terminate my pregnancy? I really can't say. But one thing I do know with certainty: it is torturous to see Calvin suffer on a daily basis, to see him seize repeatedly, sometimes for several consecutive days, bite his cheek so bad it bleeds, see the terror in his eyes and malaise on his face, be a veritable guinea pig enduring the miseries of antiepileptic drugs and their heinous side effects, to see him hurt so needlessly.

Especially during rough stints, it's hard not to imagine how life might have been—perhaps easier, calmer, happier, less restricted, less anxious, less heartbreaking—if Calvin had never come into this world. I find myself resentful of still having to spoon-feed him and change his diaper after eighteen years. I get frustrated by the fact he can't do the simplest of things. I'm chronically sleep deprived from his frequent awakenings and seizures. One moment I lament his existence and the next I wonder what I would do without him. And though Calvin brings me immense joy at times, and though he is as precious to me as any mother's child could be, our lives have been profoundly strained by his existence. All three of us suffer, but none more than our sweet Calvin. Life with him, worrying about and watching him endure his maladies—despite, or perhaps owing to, the fact I love him immeasurably—is such a painful and burdensome endeavor that at times I regret ever deciding to have a child.

Years ago, I read a post on social media accompanied by a photograph of a young woman in a long dark dress cupping her pregnant belly, head bowed. The post read:

I’ll be honest. This week’s news cycle has been exhausting and painful. 
This picture is me, taken the night before I terminated my pregnancy. My head is bowed and my hair covers my face, so what you don’t see is the grief, my face and eyes swollen from days of no sleep and constant weeping. After days of research and google and doctors visits and soul-wrenching conversations with my husband about whether we would bring our son into this world knowing he would not survive. 
Women are not waiting until the third trimester and saying “oops, I changed my mind.” They have little outfits in drawers, maybe even have the nursery set up, they have picked out names. And then they’re having their hearts broken after discovering their baby will not come home. Please be kind. Please read our stories. Please research before you post.

None of these situations nor the feelings they induce are easy. There's no black and white, cut and dried logic to apply when pregnant women are faced with these dour choices. Panels of mostly men in suits and ties and robes meeting behind closed doors should not be deciding pregnant women's fate. Sometimes the most intimate and hopeful situations sour. That is when understanding nuance and empathy are required, not hyperbolic, false propaganda, and disingenuous political posturing by men in positions of power who'll never be pregnant, nor their female counterparts who shove their religious, dogmatic agendas down others' throats. We need to listen to women's stories and trust them to make the best, well-informed choices they can when their lives turn upside down by an unplanned pregnancy or one that took a turn for the worse.

To imagine again that someone—a stranger to me—could have decided my fate and the fate of my family in such an intimate and tragic matter is chilling, dystopian, really. With access to safe, legal abortion having just become harder in some states and impossible now in others, our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and partners, especially the poor and people of color, are facing similar peril—forced pregnancy no matter the circumstance, unsafe, back alley abortions, suspicion and punishment in cases of miscarriage—when what they need most is love, understanding, support, and the ability to make their own choices for themselves.


6.10.2022

graduation day

Calvin would be graduating from high school today with so many of his proud, talented, smiling peers if things hadn't gone so terribly wrong from the start. For reasons we will probably never know, life with Calvin didn't turn out like we had hoped. What I thought of as the promises of parenthood did not deliver. 

While in the garden today, throwing mulch down, pruning, mowing the lawn—controlling that over which I have some semblance of control—I thought about all the ways in which the three of us have been cheated. You've probably heard it all before. We have been deprived of: seeing our child in school concerts and plays; cheering him on at athletic events while making friends with the parents of other athletes; joining family potlucks and picnics and pizza parties and movie nights; seeing our boy bring a sweetheart to prom. These are but a smattering of what we have had to forego because of Calvin's conditions, and thinking of them makes me sad second-guessing our decision not to have another child, albeit a healthy one, so we could cash in on some of parenthood's most precious experiences.

Michael and I have missed the chance for dinner conversation with our child, the chance to hang out with him at the beach, the mountains, the swimming hole, the movies, at restaurants and other venues. We have missed sharing our love of camping with him and have had to give up on that venture all together. We have missed the chance to leave him home alone so we can walk the dog or go for an impromptu anything together as a couple. We have been cheated out of seeing our boy excel in whatever he might have enjoyed, and perhaps gracefully endure defeat and failure. We have been robbed of watching him become a man. We've been cheated out of seeing him travel, study, have friends, fall in love. We'll never know the joy of having grandchildren.

While rereading this, I feel like a major whiner. So many people have it so much worse than we do, deprived of their basic freedoms, of food, shelter, water and modern conveniences, of seeing their loved ones. From where I'm sitting outside, I gaze out over a glorious garden of my making, the early-evening sun shimmering through the maples while I hear Calvin upstairs, with Michael, patting on the windowsill of our bedroom. The bell of the college chapel strikes half past four. A soft, warm wind blows a couple of wind chimes. I'm so goddamn lucky, I think to myself.

And so when I see the families of graduates tonight—some of them my friends' sons and daughters—stepping out of their cars parked in front of our house, I'll be both happy and excited, living vicariously through them as I do of other's travels. I'll also be silently heartbroken, and may shed a tear when I look into my husband's eyes tonight over a glass of wine and a lamb burger. But I'll also be full of gratitude looking out over a garden which I have shaped and sheared into a sanctuary I can appreciate as much for its beauty as for all the promises it reliably brings to me each year. Most of all, I'be be grateful for a son who, though he's not destined for college or travel or rocket science or journalism or art or marriage, still gives me what I wager every parent wants most from their child.