“How old do you think I’ll be when I have my first kiss?” Ryan asked during dinner.
I put down my salad fork and turned to look at my son.
My eleven-year-old son.
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
“I’m just wondering,” he said between bites. “Do you think high school or college?”
I took a sip of water, stalling. Why is he asking me this? I wondered. And as luck would have it, my husband was working a late shift, so it was just Ryan and me. I was on my own with this one.
“I don’t think you can really plan that. It just kinda happens depending on what’s happening in your life.”
“When did you have your first kiss?” Ryan asked.
“During college. Not with Daddy,” I clarified. “But not until college.”
Ryan nodded. “I think it’ll be high school for me.”
I took a bite, thinking about what to say, or not to say, next. Did I let this go? It felt like a door had been opened, and I, as a mother of a son in 2019, had a responsibility to take this further.
We chewed in silence for a minute or two, and then I told Ryan, “You know Ryan you can’t just kiss a girl. You have to ask permission.”
“What do you mean?”
“Daddy asked me if he could kiss me good-night at the end of one of our dates. Like that. You always have to ask a girl permission,” I said.
“Okay.” Ryan turned back to his meal.
Again, I had a choice here. I could stop now, leave it alone. He’s only 11, after all. He’s not anywhere close to having to deal with this.
Or, I could plant the seed.
I’m a gardener.
“Ryan. It’s not just kissing. You always have to ask a girl permission to do anything. To hug her. To hold her hand. To touch her shoulder. You know how I do this to you and tease about your soft shave (I rubbed his cheek with the side of my finger), even something like that, you have to ask a girl permission.
“It’s her body. She’s in charge. If she says no, or something makes her uncomfortable, or she doesn’t like something, then you need to respect that. She’s in charge. Even if you want to. Even if you want to kiss, if the girl says no, then it’s no. She’s the boss. Does that make sense?”
“Okay,” Ryan said.
He took a bite, and began to tell me about the drawing he was working on in his history class.
I listened, but I wondered. Had I gone too far? Had I made too much of a big deal about a seemingly innocent question?
In so many ways, the world is a different place from the one I grew up in. It’s not just the technology. It’s the information. The explicit conversations.
When I was a teenager, I don’t remember my parents telling me about my rights as a young woman. I knew no one should hurt me. I had “the talk” and knew the “facts of life.” But I never had the talk about my power, my rights. It was just implied.
Later at bedtime, Ryan adjusted his blanket and pillow as I stood by and waited for my cue to sit down so we could read.
“Do I have to ask permission each time?”
His question caught me off guard.
“Ask permission for what?” I asked.
“To kiss my girlfriend. Do I need to ask her permission each time?” Ryan looked at me, waiting.
I smiled. He had listened. He had heard. He had learned.
“I think if she says yes that first time, then you’ll know after that. You’ll be able to tell if she’s okay with a kiss goodnight or a kiss hello. Like when you and I look at each other, and we kind of move in, and do our nosey-nosey. I don’t ask you each time, we just both know it’s coming, and it’s okay to do it. But if you ever tell me not to, then I’d respect that.”
He moved his face to mine, and I smiled. Nosey-nosey time.
Ryan put his head on the pillow, and I began to read.
Later, after he was asleep and I was downstairs, I thought about our dinner conversation.
11 years old.
I began reading to Ryan when I was pregnant with him. And now, he’s an enthusiastic reader.
It all starts early.
Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer who finds inspiration in her son and from the experiences of her twelve-year teaching career. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, both in print and online. You can read more from Wendy at www.wendykennar.com where she blogs about books, boys, and bodies (primarily living with an invisible disability).
My daughter’s childhood lives in my attic, among totes, garbage bags, and boxes, in a trunk, on hangers and hooks.
She is 32 with an exciting job– I have not thrown out her school papers, awards, ribbons, and trophies, nor the yearly calendars with outlines of growing hands and feet, traced each year.
She is 32 and married — I have kept all fifty Barbie dolls, Bette Ball and Marie Osmond porcelain dolls, a herd of stuffed animals, Halloween costumes (Raggedy Ann my favorite), nine years of dance tutus, a red tricycle, and blue-reined hobby horse.
She is 32 and a dog parent– I hang on to her Hanson magazines and posters (she loved Taylor and cut her hair to look like him), Mr. Rogers’s trolley, various children’s VHS tapes, an assembly of Fisher Price toys, a beautifully illustrated Mother Goose book.
She is 32 with no children (yet) –-I have saved her holiday dresses and coats, a blue and pink hand knitted blanket we swaddled her in on her car ride home from the hospital, her pristine Christening cap and gown, and angel white First Communion dress and chaplet, each carefully wrapped in tissue paper.
She presently doesn’t cherish these items as I do, but as possessor, I will never throw them out. They are kept so we can revisit days, to remind us of a busy and happy childhood. They are kept to remember what steps we have followed along the way, what we cherished and loved: holidays and playdates and the “first of” and “last of” moments– cradling a tiny neck to holding a small hand and finally to letting go.
You loved to play with your cash register, wanting to work at MacDonald’s, so you could talk into the microphone, “May I take your order,” and make change. You repeatedly watched the movie Tom Thumb, always like you were seeing it for the first time. You tickled the ivories on your tiny piano belting out Good Night Yadies as you couldn’t say your L’s yet.
These voices, these images float in my attic; we open a box, touch a cloth, smell the paper, hear the jingle of toys, see the scenes played out in front of us as if we have stepped back to younger years: a rabbit fur muff worn at Christmas Day mass; Popsicle sticks glued on paper to form a house; three-men-in a-tub toy, sturdy and noisy for a toddler to bat around. The energy exceeds the space where all of this childhood is stored. These items burst at the lids, hoping for another companion, another chance for clothes to be worn, toys to be used, dolls and stuffed animals to be fussed over and hugged, as before. And here all that love will stay packaged up in the attic until that day arrives.
Ann Hultberg is a retired high school English teacher and currently a composition instructor at the local university. Her degrees are in English and reading education and educational psychology. She writes nonfiction stories about her family, especially focusing on her father’s escape from Budapest, Hungary, to the United States. Her stories have been accepted by Drunk Monkeys, Persimmon Tree, Fevers of the Mind, and The Story Pub.
The weighty rose bush I carry impedes my vision, but I can see enough to walk from the Boston Children’s Hospital garage to the sixth floor of the Fegan Building. I could have driven here blindfolded, so often have we been here. Nineteen years ago, our daughter was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. My husband and I had never heard of the disease, even though JIA affects over three hundred thousand children—more than juvenile diabetes, more than all juvenile autoimmune diseases combined. Through the anxiety of dispensing toxic medications, inflicting weekly injections and seeing our daughter in pain, her pediatric rheumatologist saved our sanity.
When Annierose was three years old, we were traveling through the Pacific Northwest. We noticed that her right ankle was swollen. She wanted to be carried. What three-year-old didn’t? Back in Boston, her right knee ballooned with swelling. Our pediatrician immediately sent us to Children’s where she was diagnosed with JIA. At our follow-up appointment the female doctor was clinical, never cracked a smile, and talked only about statistics and medications to me and our bouncy child. In the hall I overheard a doctor speaking compassionately with a young patient’s family. The mother said his name. At the checkout desk the assistant asked me who our doctor was.
“Dr. Sundel,” I said—the doctor in the hall.
Our first appointment with him previewed our future visits.
“Let’s have you run down the hall,” he said.
Annierose threw off her sandals and bolted barefoot down the corridor, pigtails flying.
“She’s kicking her right leg out to the side to avoid bending it,” he said softly. “She’ll need physical therapy.”
Now I understood her unusual gait.
He congratulated her. “Great running!”
In the exam room he asked, “Do your knees hurt?”
Annierose shook her head.
He bent her limbs while examining her joints. It didn’t matter that Annierose denied pain. With his eyes on her face, and his hands on her joints, he detected the slightest flinch, indicating pain and inflammation. He measured her jaw opening, declaring it the biggest he’d ever seen in her age group. That result remained so, provoking laughter from residents, nurses and visiting fellows, and providing relief that her jaw was unaffected.
Controlling JIA is imperative because inflammation can cause joints to grow unevenly, resulting in deformities. Most arthritis medications have not been approved for pediatric use and the options are limited. Twenty years ago, the first biologic (a medication that alters cellular actions) changed the face of JIA, lifting children out of wheelchairs. But these medicines often have severe side effects and they reduce the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to serious infections. Most biologics are administered by injection or infusion. Many children, like ours, develop needle phobias. Injecting our terrified, screaming child every week was a torturous routine for us and for her. We tried everything to mitigate her fear. Squeezing a foam heart was one distraction that Dr. Sundel gave us. Other techniques from psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, parents and a hypnotist, worked for months until she outgrew each trick, requiring a new one.
The journey through a chronic pediatric illness is an overwhelming labyrinth of information and emotion. Through countless joint taps, x-rays, fever spikes, alarmingly high liver enzymes, bleeding ulcers, MRSA and staph infections, Annierose’s doctor has been a trusted travel companion. He tempered our concern about using a chemotherapy drug, by explaining that the dose was a mere fraction of the dose used for cancer treatments. He gave invaluable advice on whether to start soccer in elementary school and how to pace her activities through high school. He cared about Annierose’s spirit. When her hair started to thin, he decreased the dose of the offending medication. He encouraged us to join the Arthritis Foundation, which proved to be a lifeline of contact with other families and a source of in-depth information. Most importantly, the Arthritis Foundation empowered our daughter to have some control over her disease by becoming a representative, fundraiser and activist.
Three weeks ago, Annierose graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Violin Performance. She has played team soccer and quidditch, skis, bikes, plays piano and hikes mountains. The twelve medications she takes daily and Dr. Sundel’s guidance have made this possible.
Today is her last appointment. It is time to transition to an adult rheumatologist. When Dr. Sundel enters the exam room, he beams, but then sobers when he remembers it is our last appointment.
“It’s a sad day,” he says.
He is moved by our gift of a rosebush. During this last exam he keeps his eyes on Annierose, looking for signs of pain. He bends her limbs as if he is training a gymnast, but the trainer is barely 5 feet tall and the gymnast is 5 feet 10. He gives Annierose some parting advice and one last gift—a lollipop from his white coat pocket. My husband and I thank him deeply.
He picks up the rosebush and we file out of the exam room. My eyes are teary from the memories of the nineteen years we have shared raising, “not a JIA girl,” as he once advised, but “a girl who just happens to have JIA.”
Dr. Sundel’s medical knowledge makes him an expert. His wisdom and advice make him a human being.
Elizabeth Reed is a musician, author and activist. She has written personal essays for Entropy, Consequence Magazine, The Rumpus and Cleaning up Glitter.
“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” (Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)
I have learned something important about grief from wound care.
Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.
In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.
At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.
Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human by all accounts, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath just 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. How do I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.
One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.
I know it’s unpleasant. I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to individuals with open hearts and minds. Being resent one on one is what matters – life and death matters.
The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.
The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends, Chase, Brian and Alec. They are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.
Grief needs air to heal.
We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissue below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement, as well.
That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. But, pain plays a role — signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!
Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember our losses and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never completely emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).
With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but it gets stuck in the muck. Pain tells us something is wrong – but wound becomes senescent when it is “old,” when the cells are alive and metabolically active are not capable of dividing and thriving. It is merely surviving, not thriving.
We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.
It’s time to get real – and get present.
Elaine Gantz Wright is a published writer, ghostwriter and artist living in Dallas, Texas. She is the single mother of two extraordinary and brilliant young men — Ian, a gifted visual artist and recent graduate of Purdue University, and Elliot, an insatiable iconoclast and musician, who died suddenly and tragically in a motorcycle accident on August 5, 2018. As Elaine navigates her own grief journey, she is passionate about supporting other shattered hearts on this most agonizing of paths. She studied theater arts at Northwestern University and received an MBA/MA in arts administration from Southern Methodist University.