Towels and swimsuits crowd the table upstairs, waiting. I stand in front of my laptop watching lines spread across the southern United States. There is no mistaking it. We will drive into the path of Hurricane Irma on our trip.
“So we’re just supposed to die trying to make the beach trip this year?” I say to my husband who is pacing the living room.
Kevin shrugs, his pursed lips blend into a constellation of freckles. “I think we’ll be fine. I’ve been keeping an eye on it.”
I nod and then shrink into the couch to hide the weather updates that are scrolling across my phone screen. Kevin is determined for us to make the annual trip to Virginia Beach to see Lucy, his mother. I am determined not to get us killed. Another part of me is tired of this tradition and wants to start making our own.
We usually pack our luggage each autumn, fly to Virginia, then caravan to the beach with Lucy and Kevin’s sister and her family. Kevin and I punctuate the drive with stories about our lives before we met. I often recall my 8-year-old-self leaning from the backseat during my family’s road trips, watching my parents’ silhouettes whisper as Neapolitan streaks smear the sky. The daydreams end with me wanting to travel the open road with my own children the way my parents shared these experiences with me. I want my children to giggle as they wonder about their parents’ secrets. When I share this with Kevin, he smiles and says, “I want that too.”
During the trips to Virginia Beach, our unrest typically begins in small ways. We leave the caravan to follow winding paths. We slow down to discuss groves and cemeteries. We veer off course to Colonial Williamsburg, delighting in the hours-long retreat. We sample Americana and it alights our souls.
This year, we want to drive to the beach instead of flying. The road trip serves as ballast to our independence. However, with the looming hurricane, Kevin and I look to Irma to provide an excuse for us to go our own way. The news is a swell of misery detailing the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and predicting the devastation of Irma.
We imagine ourselves braving swirling winds and rising floodwaters for the sake of a family vacation. Neither of us can stand that pressure weighing on our conscience. Neither of us wants to endanger Halaina, our daughter. We wait for coworkers and friends to shout us down. We hope our mothers will wring their hands, their voices shaking as they call, begging us to cancel our trip. No one gives us what we want—permission to say no.
This hurricane, powerful and unforgiving, uproots our desires and throws them right at our feet. We want to be respectful of Lucy and all that she has done for us. Yet, we have outgrown the beach tradition in the way that we outgrow our favorite outfit. It never quite fits the same, but we keep it in the back of the closet while we wear something with a better fit.
We pray (and I fast) for clarity. The days drift by and the devastation grows before we find our resolution. We cannot cast away the beach tradition altogether, but we also have to set boundaries. We agree to journey to Virginia Beach, stopping in Alabama to visit my grandaunts. While there we will assess the weather ahead to determine if we should continue or travel to a different destination—just the three of us. We also decide that we should visit the beach every other year, reserving the off years for our own travels.
We load my SUV with luggage and emergency supplies then journey a day behind Irma’s path. When the road ahead is clear, we drive through the Natchez Trace, a parkway lacquered in shades of green, to Virginia. We are the last to arrive at After Ours, our beach house for the week.
On the third day of our stay, the Atlantic climbs closer to the house—another hurricane churns toward us. Lucy, Halaina, and I take our last walk on the beach before the storm hits. We are three generations signaling the start of a new era. I lift Halaina up, her toes leaping over cord grass that carpets the shore. Our steps deepen; our heads bend lower as we march. The wind snatches our words.
Lucy clears her throat. “Do you think you guys will come back next year, or not? We have to reserve a house in the next day or two and we want a good one like this.”
I pause and search for what must be said. Lucy did not give birth to me, but she is still my mother. She sends cards to thank me for raising her granddaughter and for the way I love her son. She sends gifts that anticipate our needs and to say she is thinking of us. She deserves kindness and not rebellion.
Yet, as my own daughter bucks in my arms and stretches away from me so that she can walk on her own, I know that independence is inevitable. My life is changing in ways that I am just beginning to understand. It is leading me on a course that does not mirror my mother-in-law’s. Lucy’s life is changing too. She is holding onto familiarity with her traditions, but these fine grains of sand are slipping through her fingers. We need to let go of her hand and find a path that fits us all the best.
I inhale and blink back the tides cresting my eyes. “No, we probably won’t. We want to do something on our own next year.”
Lucy smiles and nods her head. “I get it,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.” She gazes down at Halaina and smiles. “Come on! Let Grandma hold you so Mommy can get a break.”
Her response surprises me. I expected Lucy to be upset or to challenge me. I know now that this is the way of mothers—to lead their children as they forge the way ahead, to know when to let their children go so that they may lead instead.
As we crest the dunes, I gaze at our footprints trailing to and from the beach, mine crossing over Lucy’s, Halaina’s prints in the middle of mine. Realization crashes over me as I study our tracks. The present parallels the past; the future merges with the present. Lucy has been this way before with her mother—leaving behind old traditions to create her own and merging them when needed. I will take what I need to create new traditions with Halaina. My daughter will do the same until our paths diverge and we go our own way. Until then, we will all enjoy the intersection.
I am thankful for the traditions that have been given to us. I will take the parts that I love and in turn replicate them to delight future generations. By watching the steps of my mother-in-law, I’ve also learned how to be gracious when my own children approach me one day and announce that they want to go their own way. I will tell them that we cannot leave behind the traditions that laid the way for us. We cannot abandon what formed us. But we can take pieces of the past and make them like new.
DW McKinney lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. A former biologist and ethnographer, she proofreads legislation for the state. Mothers Always Write has featured her work. Her non-fiction is forthcoming in TAYO Literary Magazine. She promotes Otherness on her website, www.forlangston.com.
Leaves of sienna and pumpkin and chardonnay hues lay on the ground, leaving the elm and poplar and maple trees bare. The last piece of Thanksgiving apple pie is claimed. Temperatures fall, making crisp the inhaled air and the chill on our skin as we rush between stores. It’s Christmas season, holiday “game on” so to speak. Anticipation builds, children make out their lists. Mall Santas are seasonally employed. A few snowflakes might even begin to dust the roads and the lawns of our brightly lit homes.
It’s a time of preparation, impending celebration.
The story of the Nativity brings with it the joy of a birth, the coming of a baby.
But for mothers, Christmastime is a bit like spring time. Nesting behavior abounds—cleaning the home for guests, decorating, icing cut out cookies, carefully hiding presents. Children and parents pass through our own stages of our lives: we believe in Santa, we don’t believe, we are Santa. No matter where we are in the stage of our life cycle, the expectation of a baby goes together with the anticipation of Christmas in an especially magical way.
For those moms approaching the Decembers of the reproductive years, a pregnancy during the holidays can renew the enchantment of motherhood, and of childhood, invigorating us with anticipation like that of the youngest children peering out the window for a team of reindeer and a chubby bearded man in red.
One particularly frigid fall, I learned that I was expecting my second child, and that’s exactly what happened. I was already three months pregnant, and the holiday to do list was growing fast.
At 39 years old, I was no spring chicken, yet I was about as healthy as I could expect from myself, given my lifestyle, age, and my honest, but not fanatic commitment to exercise. I did the elliptical a few times per week. My weight was normal, my eating habits were balanced. But subtle things were starting to make me feel, as a mother, like my days of summer were being crossed off the calendar, and that each month was a glossy page being yanked off a coiled binding ring, sailing off the calendar, just a little too quickly.
I had just started to notice a few stray gray hairs.
My breasts no longer pointed toward the heavens.
And the upcoming Christmas season was approaching forty years redundant for me.
Even with a giddy eleven year old, the thought of battling the shopping crowds and writing the addresses on piles of Christmas cards and donning the right dress, the right shoes, the right bag, for office parties and block parties and family parties, seemed a touch repetitive. These weren’t unpleasant responsibilities for me, but they were, nonetheless, responsibilities.
And I already had a ton on my plate.
Now my abdomen that had returned to normal after my first baby at 28, seemed to balloon twice as fast. My feet swelled, my breathing was short. There was no doubt that this pregnancy was harder with older maternal age, than the cake walk my first one was for me at 28.
And there was still so much holiday work to do.
Yet as the unique individual within me began to grow, so did my expectancy of motherhood, again. And as Christmastime approached, the suspense built. I imagined the joy of the holidays for our newest addition, a sibling for my son. I read the pregnancy magazines again, comparing the size of my developing baby to fruits of increasing sizes. I likened my baby’s growth to the seasonal delicacies: a fig, an orange infused with cloves, a spiced pomegranate. My baby was getting bigger, and so was I, and I anticipated the baby’s coming with childlike excitement. One evening, while my son and husband and I were trimming the tree, I held a Christmas ornament, a shiny, round bulb, in my hand, saw my reflection in it.
My skin was renewed and supple. My breasts were once again pert. My hair was thicker, fuller. And by five months gestation, I couldn’t help but realizing that my little one was quickly expanding as we awaited the holidays, and a baby’s debut. Perhaps this was all second trimester second wind, but I couldn’t help feeling a renewed sense of seasonal joy.
My first baby, Roman, was now six, and he was just able to feel the gentle baby kicks over my belly. As he patiently awaited Christmas Eve, asking me if Santa might bring him a puppy or the new pair of hockey skates he needed, or the packs of baseball cards he coveted, I nervously awaited my amniocentesis results.
Finally, the call came, revealing something entirely novel, something that removed all redundancy from my life.
I was having a genetically healthy baby girl.
Maybe the extra estrogen explained my healthy glow, but I like to think it was the joy of being a mother all over again. The wonder of the holiday season. Yet I doubted myself. I worried. That night, a group of caroling little girls wearing red taffeta dresses, with braids and patent leather shoes and white tights, holding candles and singing Silent Night, came to our door. I didn’t own any pink onesies yet, didn’t have a single barrette, not one bow. I still had a baby wardrobe of six to nine month denim overalls and a toy box of trucks and dinosaurs, and my son’s hair required only a trim every six to eight weeks.
Our new baby would be a lot of work.
I listened to the girls’ carol. They were selling mint chocolate candy bars for their cheerleading squad, and my cravings for chocolate were insatiable then. I bought a dozen of them, and wished them well. Then, knowing that this would likely be our last child, and that there was likely a woman somewhere across town that had more to worry about than we did, I boxed up my son’s old coats and mittens and play clothes, decided to donate them to a shelter, despite the fact that I still had an emotional connection to them.
The next night I sat and brushed away my worries with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows and big dollops of real whipped cream. From the front window, I sat watching the snow fall. I put my bunny slippers on and my feet up on the chaise. I already had firsthand experience developing a strong mother daughter relationship. I remembered the special Christmas cookie recipe my mother and I shared, the baking that, when I was my son’s age, ended with me and the kitchen covered in sifted sugar and flour. I remembered holding my baby brother, recalled thinking that he looked a bit like a wrinkled little man, and I remembered learning to run the scissors along the ribbons of the Christmas presents so they coiled up in multicolored curlicues.
When I was done with my cocoa, I tiptoed upstairs, peeked beyond Roman’s door.
He was fast asleep.
I crossed out yet another day on the grown up calendar, noting how almost an entire month had flown by, again. Then I opened the 25th door on Roman’s Advent calendar, sneaking a tiny chocolate soldier one day premature, and popped the candy into my mouth. I sat and wrapped the presents from Santa, created those springy curlicues of ribbons with the scissors. I stopped to feel my daughter’s legs stretching out against the wall of my tummy muscles, put my hands over my belly. She was actively stretching, but she was kicking back, too, as we sat waiting for the coming of a baby.
Melissa Franckowiak is an MFA student and writes for Traffic East magazine in Buffalo, NY. Her short fiction piece, The Very Pertinent News of Gabriel Vincent DeVil, recently placed in the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Literary Fiction Awards. Melissa set goals in early childhood to be a best-selling novelist and physician. She writes thrillers as Melissa Crickard. The daughter of an English and a Science teacher, Melissa attended Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Buffalo, and after being awarded two Bachelor’s degrees in Physical Therapy and Chemistry, she advanced toward her M.D. degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, going on to become a diplomat of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Melissa is the mother of two children, the owner of a chatty Panama Amazon parrot and a lover of all things outdoors.
The sky is low, heavy gray threatening more rain. On the pavement my four-year-old son Theo thrashes. It’s afternoon, and we are on a walk with our next-door neighbors, three little boys and their mom Karin. Frozen, I stare down at Theo. Karin swoops down to scoop him up, then strides down the hill toward home.
Still crying, Theo calls back, “I’m sorry, Mama! I’m sorry!”
For the last few weeks, our days are marked by Theo’s apologies. It doesn’t matter what the offense, or if there is any offense at all. If we tell him to follow us into the house? Crumbling into tears, he says sorry again and again. We ask him to move over so his brother can sit down? Hysterics, followed by apologies.
A script starts to follow the apologies. “I’m sorry Mama. I won’t do it anymore. Let’s not have a hard day.” Always those lines, and he wants us to reply: “Okay.” But not just any “Okay;” it must be spoken in a certain tone of voice. If not, tears.
Could this be normal? What is normal? Is this a stage that will pass, or something more?
Questions multiply like mice, our minds full of the sounds they make. Evenings, my husband and I talk about Theo, and search Theo’s symptoms online. Research indicates it could be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; in the night I often wake worrying, our future dark as night around me.
Meanwhile, there is breakfast to make. Breakfast to clean. Snacks to pack for outings. Outings to plan and follow through. Seat belt straps to buckle and unbuckle. Diapers to change, bums to wipe. Groceries to get, unpack. In the midst of all I do, the questions are with me, and all I can do is reassure Theo, again and again: everything is okay.
I consult my aunt, a therapist, and she seems uncertain at first as I describe the symptoms. When I mention the scripted apologies, her voice drops an octave: “Oh. It sounds like OCD.”
OCD. This word thickens the fear already felt. Hanging up the phone, I resolve to get Theo to a doctor, and soon.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), and behaviors that drive the sufferer to do something over and over (compulsions). Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts. Reassurance-seeking is the essence of OCD; it is a means to ensure all is well.
OCD is a greedy disease, never satisfied with the territory it claims. The more it has, the more it wants, until the sufferer’s day is swallowed up by rituals and repetitive behaviors. The only way to reclaim territory lost to OCD is to starve OCD until it withers. The most effective therapy is Exposure/Response Prevention therapy (E/RP), a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which the sufferer is exposed to the anxiety-inducing stimulus, and resists the urge to perform the compulsion. 85 percent of people with OCD respond to E/RP.
Eric and I commit to withdraw OCD-related reassurance from Theo, effective immediately. At first, this refusal causes Theo great anguish, but victory follows. Within a few days, Theo relaxes. Creativity and humor and joy start to seep back in, our days no longer consumed with apologies, tears, screams of frustration. In fact, OCD seems to almost disappear.
Relief settles over me and my husband; the sores of the last months are soothed. Around the fringes of our thoughts, we know that this might not be the end; in all likelihood, it is not. But we are too tired to really give it much thought. Lulled into complacency, we accept this new peaceful season.
When Theo, my first, was a newborn, I remember how over and over, other new mothers and I would muse together. Oh, how our babies changed; nothing ever stayed the same. Sometimes it made us angry, we admitted. We reminded each other to hold expectations loosely.
Newborn Theo resisted sleep, at night, during the day. Expectations gripped my throat like a fist. “He should be asleep.” Rocking, nursing in the dark, high-pitched cries. Two pairs of eyes, sleepless. Diaper changes, fresh sleeper, blanket swaddling his tiny arms. Standing wobbly as he screamed, I felt my surroundings recede, melt as though seen through flames. Exhaustion pouring over like a fever.
I’d place him in the crib and walk away, but never for long. His cries always drew me back, chastened, ready to give in and give up my ideas of how he should behave. It was refinement by fire. There was pain in this struggle to adapt to mothering, to giving all, to adjusting my own expectations of how my child should be behave and what I deserved. Intellectually, I gathered over time just how important it was to hold expectations loosely. But living it out was another thing altogether.
As the newborn season faded, the level of sacrifice, both physical and mental, diminished a bit. Yes, there were changes that surprised, baffled and exasperated me. But Theo no longer lived at my breast, and I slept longer than 1.5 hours at a time. We all settled in, some, and when Willem was born, I was not shaken as in Theo’s newborn days. I’d climbed the learning curve.
With OCD’s arrival, a new learning curve presents itself. It reminds me of the newborn days, in its immediacy and unpredictability, and level of need. Fears of injury and death flood Theo. Tiny playground scratches set off questions: “Will I survive?” Poison is everywhere: our hands, his hands, and on the ground. Every move is one toward protection from contamination.
And then there are attacks of panic, sweat-soaked brown hair, muscles tight with fear. We hold him, breathing, willing calm. On its own time panic subsides, oblivious to our schedule.
An irregular pattern emerges, an uneven wave. Through anxious peaks we are lifted. Then there are dips, the easy times bringing relief. Again, again; waves come, lift us. Set us down again. It is action and surrender at once; we paddle to stay above the surface, but surrender to the waves’ shape and force.
This, I never expected: Theo, full of fear of death at four. Did the cracks in my love, the broken places, bring this to us, to him? If I had never failed to love perfectly, patiently, would he be free? And yet, even as I ask, I know perfect love is an impossibility.
At night, I lay beside Theo as he falls asleep. Prayers form like breath within me; the presence of love curls around us, silent, sustaining. I feel the fragility of his life, and mine. These bodies that contain so much joy and pain. And at the meeting place of joy and pain, there is love. Love that is sacrifice, presence in pain, ushering joy.
My mothering heart cracks, broken by pain and crushed expectations. But the shape it takes is mine to choose; let it always be love.
Laura Urban is the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and studied English Literature at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
“Crazy, right?” whispered the mother standing next to me in “Nursery A,” the room in the NICU for the smallest and sickest newborns. I noticed her baby in the next isolette. With his eyes still fused shut, oversized wool cap, and probes adhering to his translucent skin, he looked like my triplets. Tiny but mighty. I learned that her name was Crystal, and her baby was also born four months too early. As one of the few mothers of “micro-preemies,” we quickly formed our own little club.
I would see her in the “Family Room,” where parents slipped away from their child’s bedside for a few minutes to make calls, to cry, or to stare blankly at the television, lost in their own thoughts. Sometimes we’d sit on the purple vinyl couches, sip coffee out of small styrofoam cups and share news about medical procedures our babies underwent. There were surgeries to close a valve in the heart around Christmas and laser treatments for tiny eyes where blood vessels were growing abnormally.
There were also the milestones, too, like when our babies grew big enough to cradle their tiny heads and feet with our hands, or to fit into newborn-sized clothes. Over time, my infant sons started to move through the myriad of preemie challenges in a linear path. They fought off infections and learned to drink from a bottle and breathe simultaneously. They were finally cleared to come home with us, weighing no more than 5lb each and trailing tanks of oxygen. This was success in the NICU.
But for our daughter Julia and Crystal’s son, with their chronic lung disease, it was a different story. They would show weeks of improvement only to fall apart. One of our favorite doctors, once a physician for the military, would tell us in his straightforward and encouraging way, “Good things happen slowly, bad things happen quickly.” While meant to be a pep talk, these words haunted me.
Not long after our conversation, as I was holding Julia wrapped in a blanket of miniature pink roses, I felt her quick breathing in my arms, and noticed she would not open her eyes. X – rays and blood tests confirmed that her lungs, scarred and inflamed, were failing her yet again. In a brief conversation in the hallway, Crystal shared similar news about her son. For both of us doctors began discussing inserting a tube in the trachea, for “longterm ventilator support.”
One early morning I sat by Julia’s isolette feeling helpless and afraid. Across the room there were a group of doctors and nurses in a huddle, and in the center was Crystal. I noticed the wires connecting her son to another machine, but what stood out more was how she was dressed–in a lilac suit, maybe silk, her hair coiled upwards in braids. It was Palm Sunday; I had forgotten. She walked over to me and held out a long green object which she placed in my hands–a cross formed of palm leaves. She stood silently by Julia for a minute, perhaps praying, while I tucked the cross into Julia’s isolette, next to the rosary from her grandfather.
I did not see Crystal much after that day. My mornings became filled with therapy sessions for my boys who showed signs of developmental delays. When I would arrive at the hospital in the afternoon, I felt late and all business.
But on the evening before my son was to have another eye surgery, my husband took a call outside. I convinced myself that his silence was due to our chronic anxiety over yet another medical issue for our children, but that was only part of the story. Waiting in the cafeteria, my husband gently began to tell me what I knew in my gut to be true: the night before, Crystal’s son had passed away.
My head could process what my heart would not. I had shaped an image after first meeting this other preemie mom in which we were standing in a playground, talking about those “crazy NICU days” while our children ran around together in front of us. We’d make plans to meet the same time next year before hugging goodbye. It was an image that allowed me to cope all these months; I wasn’t ready to let it go. It became much harder to leave Julia at the hospital now, as much as my boys, left in the care of my mother, needed me at home. I would leave the t.v. on overnight because the quiet terrified me. I’d wake at 2:00 am every night to call the hospital.
But I was bracing for something that never came. Julia, slowly and steadily, started to improve. After five months, she was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital a few minutes from our home. Crystal’s cross travelled with her. Eventually, her lungs improved enough that she could be off the ventilator for half the day. She received special education services (“Baby School” as I called it), and learned to sit up by herself. On the day she came home, a few days short of 18 months, the nurses applauded. I could have sworn an image of Crystal in her lilac suit flashed before me.
Ten years have passed now, and I think about Crystal almost daily. When I see Julia running outside with her awkward gait and laughing brown eyes, it strikes me. Over time, I’ve befriended other women whose children have special needs. There are times I’m tempted to share what I’ve learned–that good things can happen slowly, that miracles are real. But life has taught me that this is all a mystery, and sometimes the best way to pass on that cross is to be quiet and listen.
Anne Marie Cellante is the mother of four children- a spirited set of 11 year old triplets with special needs (two boys and a girl), as well as a lovely, “neurotypical” eight year old daughter. I was an elementary teacher for ten years, but my personal journey has shifted my passion towards special education. I’m moving at a snail’s pace to obtain this new certification, but going forward nonetheless. I reside with my family in Tarrytown, NY.