Tag Archives: family

Dear Daughter,

Dear Daughter,

-You will always have more to offer than the shape of your body or the red of your lips. So reach deep within yourself for something substantial to contribute to the world.

-Moments are for living, not for capturing. When you realize that, you hang onto the sacred. The scared is slipping into the darkness of vanity. Don’t let it. Bow, caress, whisper your wishes into the wind. Do things just for the sake of doing them. Not for showing off. For so many centuries, this was how it was done. There is something lacking as we slip into vanity. The sacred is worth hanging onto, I promise.

-There was a time when humans cared about way more than likes and follows. I was there. I remember that time. Laughs were laughed louder then. Breakfasts were enjoyed more fully. When you looked into someone’s eyes, it really meant something. It mattered.  When you looked into the sunset, and really focused, prayers were answered. And if you got to know someone, you really got to know them, not with some device between you.  In junior high, a girlfriend of mine and I sat in a grassy median staring into each others eyes for a full five minutes. Let’s try it sometime. This is called peering in to another’s soul and there’s something to it. Discomfort is a natural part of living. Our addictions try to cover up that discomfort, that natural discord.

-I want you to practice getting up in the morning, making your breakfast, brushing your hair, reading a book, and setting your goals…all without the nagging of your phone and social media. If you watch me, I will show you. I will let my phone get buried in my purse and go dead and I will not worry. I will relish the sound of the natural world buzzing on around me. I will do this for the whole of the weekend until, for work, I must emerge and “connect” with the world again. I will do this and I will fail but I will reset and do it again. Phone dead and buried at the bottom of my purse.

-Take a trip to the sea or mountains or museum…without your device on you. Let’s do it together. Let’s stop and notice what is being offered, what is happening around us. Really noticing this time. Let’s witness some miracle and have it be our little secret.

-Skills like building things and growing things and poetry even and communicating respectfully through eye contact and spontaneous conversation…these things are being lost. I want you to preserve them. I will teach you skills that you will pass down to children, or people older than you or younger than you, it does not matter. Just share them. In real life. Learn to cook. Learn to love to cook.

-If all of your friends jump off bridge, don’t.

-Sparrow recently published a piece in The Sun Magazine stating that meditating is like playing the guitar, except without the guitar. I’d never meditated regularly until I read this, and his bit about meditating four minutes per day, instead of five. Four minutes per day isn’t too torturous in exchange for heightened long-term bliss and contentment, right?

-They call it a feed because it’s taking away our appetite for everything else.

-The people you should be working at impressing are the people around you, through kindness and respect. I vow to do this with you. We will do it together, dear daughter.

Water Signs

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Dad nearly drowned in the mouth of the river in Fort Bragg, California, but that was before I was born. He spent the rest of the summer in the hospital. That didn’t stop him from loving the ocean and water. You can’t trust it, he said. You can’t help but love it either.

Dad was in a coma for most of one month. When he came to he had to learn to talk again. He had to learn to walk again. He was just nine years old at the time. Somehow, though, Dad still knew how to swim. A photo of him and his parents posed alongside the doctor was published in the Fort Bragg newspaper. He was the boy whose life was almost taken by the river at Van Damme State Park. “Miracle Boy” the headline read.

I came thirteen years later. The daughter of Miracle Boy and Moonbeam.

When I was six years old and he was twenty-eight, Dad took us sea-kayaking off the coast of California. If I remember correctly he was trying to impress a woman who wasn’t my mother. We almost got pulled out to sea and I remember being frightened. Or maybe my memory doesn’t serve me right…maybe we did have fun. But the waves, they were so large and I was so little, how could I have? I just remember fearing for my life, I think the girlfriend did too.

I was around one years old when Moonbeam left us (I’m not looking for pity, those are just the facts). Some man I never learned the name of had lured Moonbeam away. I’ll never know the things he promised her. I’ll never know what tempted her. All I know is she took the Ford Pinto when she left. She didn’t go far—just down the road to Eureka. She wasn’t far, no, but she was gone.

Dad took to doing the dishes by hand, very slowly, with hot soapy water. But this wasn’t so strange because Dad did the dishes before she left too. I think he just liked being in the water.

As a toddler, I crawled around on the sticky linoleum floor. I remember looking up at Dad doing my mother’s job. He was in his work clothes and it was after dark. I saw a flash of myself in the kitchen sink before Moonbeam left. I could almost see her standing there washing my body—a dishwater blond with no face, just legs and shoes like the moms in those old cartoons. Comfort just for the fact that they were there. Dish-doers and diaper-changers and dinner-makers and ice-tray-fillers. An essential tool: missing.

Several years later I had my birthday party at the beach. I invited my entire sixth grade class and to my shock everybody showed up. Dad embarrassed me by bannering long streams of white toilet paper from the driftwood poles on the beach, a marker of where the party was. A store-bought stream of purple tissue paper had not been considered.

A couple of the mothers who dropped off their daughters off looked warily around for signs of my mother. But they found none. I just wanted them to go away. I did not even want them to stay because their judgement and misunderstanding was palpable. They finally left, not quite sure what to think. These are the ones who returned first for their daughters.

Dad warmed hot dogs on driftwood sticks over the campfire and we all ran around like we were still kids, which we were, but barely. My peers brought gifts, tons of gifts, each one of them. Dad bought me the expensive black and white Adidas jacket I had wanted so much. The ocean was lapping at the whole scene, father and daughter, fire and friends. The sun went down while we were still out running and playing up and down the beach. And even though I didn’t have a mother…well I thought life was just about perfect.

I had been so excited about my abundance of gifts but was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when tide came in and took my birthday booty— piece by piece into the setting sun. It was all gobbled up by the great inhale-exhale of the Pacific Ocean. And there would be no getting any of it back. It wasn’t far, no, but it was gone.

When Dad was a boy that same beach was at least 70 feet under water. The tsunami of 1964 picked up dive bars and fish n’ chip shacks and set them back down, upside down, right on top of Highway 101. To this day Crescent City, California is the only town in the continental United States where a tsunami has killed people. True story. Eleven people died. You can’t trust the ocean, Dad said. You can’t help but love it either.

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Water Signs is an essay from Earthside and Other Everyday Miracles which I am publishing through Groundwaters this spring. I will keep you updated on all the details here on my blog, and also over on my Instagram page! (See sidebar to follow me there.) Thank you, faithful readers!

Nourishment

I didn’t get published in The Sun Magazine’s “Reader’s Write” section as I had hoped, but I will share my reflection from the January 2020 “Nourishment” prompt below.

“The Sun is an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

NOURISHMENT:

Dad sat me down and told me two things: one, we were now vegetarians and two, we would sing the Mahamantra morning, noon, and night. That was part of being a Hare Krishna. So that’s what we did. No more Kentucky Fried Chicken. No McDonalds. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama. Morning, noon, and night. Every summer we took our epic road trip to the temple in the Bay Area. At the temple we were surrounded by other Hare Krishnas instead of being the only ones in town. At the temple, we rose at four a.m. to shower, which was required. At the temple, brown-skinned women with large, sagging breasts painted red Bindi dots on my forehead and brushed and braided my hair. I felt comforted by the touch of a woman, even though they didn’t speak to me. It was almost like having a mother. Almost. At the temple, I wore my pea-colored sari with little flowers on it every day. I felt so free as I danced with my father in the ballroom before the deities. At the temple, we were sometimes required to fast all day long but come night there was a massive feast with scrumptious vegetarian food—samosas, curried cauliflower, pineapple chutney—all piled high and sufficiently blessed.

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Remember when you lived on that street I can’t remember the name of now—the one way on the outskirts of town, after you moved back to Crescent City for the second time? You were many years sober by then so our conversations happened around mugs of coffee, your second love. 

You had kitschy coffee mugs: Garfield, mugs with quotes about motherhood, one of the lady with the crazy hair, robe, and slippers. You weren’t a grandmother yet, which boggles me now since “Grandma” became your definitive role. Back then your mother-ness extended to me, your niece. 

Remember that night? We were jabbering, catching up. I was visiting from out-of-state and we only had so much time. There were lots of laughs. Cigarettes and ashtrays. If we ever watched television it was just the home videos you’d recorded of our childhood: Your boys reciting Jeff Foxworthy. Me doing cartwheels on the concrete pad outside the trailer on Olive Street. Crystal, who was just a baby then. 

Without having planned it, WHAM, I dropped the bombshell. The bombshell that would blow up your whole world: your present, past, and future. Probably you mentioned his name. My face must have shadowed. And then your openness, your vessel for others pain and suffering, allowed to me tell you—to tell anyone—what had happened to me right there inside our family. It happened in-between recordings, on set, hidden behind the inescapable patriarchy that permeated our culture and society.  

I was seventeen and had never told anyone before. 

I saw the lightbulb go on behind your eyes. This is the moment you that stubbed out your cigarette. Wait, what? 

I saw the quick well of anger and heartbreak rise inside of you. 

Disbelief. 

Guilt. 

Wonder. 

In a dark corner of your mind, I’m sure you were reaching for a gin. 

It was late. Your house was so small. As if turning on my heel, my laughter quickly turned to painful sobs. The burning-apple-in-your-throat-kind of sobs. My racking sobs filled your entire home, probably shook the coffee mugs in your cupboard as you held space for me. 

You didn’t call it that: holding space. Poor, white people don’t have vocabulary for our experiences. But other people do. We live through the tragedies, other people label them. People with food in their bellies and books on their bed stands, free from the everyday challenges we’d faced, free to think things through, I guess. 

Did you know that by now whole fields of study have been dedicated to our resurgence? There are probably university students somewhere right now discussing the phenomenon of the crashing white, rural American class. You would have hated that sentence I know. It made you crawly when I used words like phenomenon because it put you on the spot. You were an Army girl, a farm girl, and to no fault of your own you were never a scholar. We didn’t have the language to get to the bottom of what happened to me–the scary thing that I told you–so we just cussed a lot that night. Fucking sicko. Rot in hell. 

You probably had to go to work at the casino in the morning, but you held space for me. You always did that for others. You always gave more than you had. In the end, I believe, that’s what killed you.  

Cousin John, one year younger than me, must have heard everything that through the thin bedroom wall. In fact I know he did. He told me as much years later. Said he’d pressed his ear up against the wall listening to every word I’d said, welling up with anger, maybe tears. Cousin John is one of those sensitive men—men with single mothers tend to be. Yet another gift that women like you give.

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Do you remember the day you died? What was it like? Was it sunny? Cold? Did you argue with people that day? Hold space? Both? Did you start the day out watching FOX news? Looking at old photographs in your albums? How many cups of coffee did you have? Did you eat breakfast? What did you eat? I want to know. I want to hold space for you. Come back from the dead and tell me.

Years later you admitted that my “telling you” had a hand in your decision (if you can even call it that—the swift, perplexing fall from grace) to drink again. It was a single poke that sent you closer to the edge, eventually to fall from maybe ten years sober. At least over five. (I need to get my facts straight with the family.) 

I myself never felt guilty for that. I can’t take that on. I know there were others things, too. Men, maybe, who drank. You thought you could “be around them.” You couldn’t. No one could. You thought you could walk down the wine isle at the grocery store. You couldn’t. No one could. “And what are we drinking with the steak?” A waiter asked you with a wink, mentioning a wine pairing. You couldn’t. No one could. The billboard with a cold, sweaty beer on a hot, Sacramento day. (You didn’t even look at the billboard but your brain saw it and stored the information.) You couldn’t. No one could. A career waitress at a casino, you served drinks day in and day out. You couldn’t. No one could. 

It was your genes, expressing themselves. You couldn’t. No one could. I myself was never a drinker, but I have my “things.” 

Do you remember the day you died? Was it a pleasant day? Did you catch the sunset? Call your boys? It was springtime, I know that. Cousin John called me, it was two, maybe three, a.m. 

It must have been warm in Oregon because I stepped out on the back porch to take the call, having been alerted from sleep and knowing John wasn’t calling to casually chat.

“She’s gone,” he managed to get out. 

“Hello? John? What?” 

One never says the right things in these moments.

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We spread your ashes up on the hill above the farm. Your baby sister and her husband handled all the arrangements. Rented the town hall down by the river. Sprinkled photographs of you on the tables and designated a childhood friend to make the centerpieces. They managed to serve one hundred people pulled pork, potato salad and fruit. I don’t know if it was pork. I didn’t eat. I was juggling the newborn baby and rubbing John’s back, trying to be a friend to him. Suddenly he was hard to get through to. 

You meant a lot to a lot of people, so a lot of people were there. Later, in photographs taken above the farm on the hill, someone said the plume of your ashes looked just like an angel when the boys blasted it into the air.

It was the kind of thing you anchor to in times like this.

I didn’t know what to believe. I was reeling—angry—from your fall from grace to death at 61. Alcohol poisoning, the coroners report stated. I was thinking: one little sip—one little slip—then blip, you’re done. You were getting sober again. You were always getting sober. News would travel through the family grapevine: Dort hasn’t been drinking, 3 months now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 1 ½ weeks now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 5 months now! Honestly I stopped keeping count. There were so many starts and stops. But that, dear one, is what made you beautiful. Most alcoholics I know don’t even try. 

This was not your legacy. Don’t get me wrong. I am using your lessons to guide my voice. There is a point I we are getting at. I promise. Hang tight. 

You were always transparent about your alcoholism. You were almost curious. You talked to me about AA. How they make you have a sponsor. That they wanted you to pray. You struggled with both of those things. You weren’t vulnerable by nature. Not open with those who you weren’t close to. You just wanted it to be done and dealt with but you lived with a drinker, your second husband, and that, I believe was your biggest downfall…not leaving him to save yourself. 

Vodka in the freezer, you told me. You couldn’t. No one could.

You always gave more of yourself than was even there. Leaving ghosts of yourself behind for others to feed off of. Always wanting to give more, more, more. A pleaser, left thirsty.

I am using your lessons to guide me.

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Man. 

I was so distanced from all of this at the memorial. And now that I’ve said that about your second husband everyone’s going to hate me. At the memorial for me it was just this: one foot in front of the other. Don’t slip like she did. Your message to me seemed loud and clear: Keep your head up, don’t look down. But everyone else was crying and carrying on, while I was in some state of blissed out focus. How was I going to explain this? What was going on with me? 

Back in Oregon it took me many months to come around to how I really felt about your death. I saw posts on Facebook, “I think about her every day. I am so sad. It just makes me want to cry every time I think of her.” 

Why didn’t I want to cry? I did think of you. I looked through the scrapbook you sent me, your script written in black Sharpie: Love you always, sweetie niece, it read. 

I thought of how much you had going for you. I thought, don’t slip. I thought, dead at 61. I thought of you, as a girl, going off to Germany with the Army. Your glory days. You went from California to Connecticut to Germany. You made good friends—eased the awkwardness of socializing by drinking. Most of us do. For you it was different.

You had a boyfriend out there in Connecticut. I wonder if he was as different from you as the Connecticut boyfriend I had was from me. We looked the same: white, young, scrawny. We partied together and all of that. They thought we were “pretty.” They could never know the rural swamp from whence we came. We never knew the dollar amount of the steak on our plate. That the cost of that plate amounted to our weekly grocery allowance. 

I remembered that night you held space for me. How when you ran your hand up your forehead—holding the bangs out of your eyes briefly—I saw we had matching widow peaks and dark, thick hair. I saw we had the same oily, pocky skin. I could have been your daughter. 

I did think of you. Fact I walked out on the porch one day and said your name out loud. It was a rough day for me. I was weighing this and that. I was torn between saying “fuck it” and staying on the strait and narrow. I was grappling with my “things” like we all do. 

Exasperated, I asked you for a sign. I toy with spirituality, having given some of it up with I paired up with an atheist. 

“Just, anything,” I told you, in a way I hoped was sincere. 

I held my coffee mug in both hands. The one that reads “Mom is just Wow upside down.” I latched on to the wisdom that you taught me–dare I say telepathically–with your death: Relationships matter. Don’t do what I did. Don’t throw it away for the brief, frequent explosion of addiction and harm. Turn to the light. Every time. Walk away, completely, utterly committed, from the things that threaten you. Physically. Emotionally. Walk away completely. Don’t look back. 

I was open to receiving it. That’s what I was doing at the memorial, when I couldn’t stare down a gin and cry. Actually, I was honoring you. Head up, focused on the future.

It’s what you wanted me–what you want all of us–to do. Perhaps others have experienced this phenomenon. 

Maybe it was because I was looking for a sign so hard that it actually happened, but just then the wind picked up out on the porch. It was a warm wind on an otherwise calm day. I couldn’t fucking believe it, but I wasn’t going to look away as the breeze carried to one single tree out in the yard. Just one tree. Of all of the trees. And it was the tree that was closest to me, a five leaf maple. The wind blew my hair back just a little, and I closed my eyes, gripping my coffee mug in silence. It was late summer, early autumn, and the leaves had turned but were yet to fall from the trees. When I opened my eyes that breeze—your breeze—was whipping around that maple tree like a whirling dervish or Tasmanian devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. I mean it was really whipping. 

I even thought to run get my phone to capture the odd, rare event but of course I didn’t. You don’t fuck with something that sacred. You don’t exploit messages from the great beyond.  

I watched as that narrow, focused breeze stripped a previously full tree of most of its orange autumn leaves. It was a clear enough message that I thanked you, looking out to see the one bare tree among the others full of leaves. I breathed in, I breathed out. I felt validated and whole again. 

I didn’t care what anyone thought. I only cared that I was around to see my grandkids, should I have them someday. So I was willing to latch on to anything, even this crystal clear sign from the no-longer-living. I only cared that I was downloading the accurate message that you wanted me to have all along: Do not mourn me outright in the traditional way. Please just walk away completely from the things that threaten your health. Walk away and don’t look back. 

And in-between the lines: Spread the message. Relationships matter. Turn to the light, every time. And this: you are worth it. 

Remember that night? You were many years sober. You lived on the outskirts of town on a street I don’t remember the name of. It was your Demi Moore days: short, cropped dark hair. I was visiting from out-of-state. You were a fulltime mom to two teenage boys. You didn’t want them to come home to an empty house anymore, so you were there waiting with your recipe books and kitschy coffee mugs when they got out of school. Even when drinking though, you were a good mom. Excellent even. Clean sheets on the bed and all of that. You threw Thanksgiving together for the family year after year. I remember the time you had us cousins over to make gingerbread cookies during Christmastime at the house on A Street. You set up your camcorder and had the radio on. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which may have been a new song then:

It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face,
you were content to let me shine, that’s your way,
you always walked a step behind.
Thank you, thank you,
thank god for you the
wind beneath my wings. 

 

Love, 

Your niece,

Terah

 

Let Them See The Blood–Finding Gratitude in Grief

I want to Google “How to recover after your child almost dies in your arms,” but I don’t. Just writing about the day—the natural way I process things—would be time better spent. Pen and journal, I lay beside Autumn watching her breathe. It is five a.m. The day after the “incident.”

Becoming a parent must come part and parcel with experiencing “incidents.” That’s what they called Dad’s near-drowning as a boy. An “incident” or an “accident.” Ours wasn’t nearly as bad as Dads. But ours wasn’t nothing, either.

Now, I am not a god-fearing woman. I don’t believe that because I prayed twenty-five-some-odd times that god had a hand in saving our daughters life. That’s just not me. Too many other unhappy endings to be spared ourselves. It’s all hit and miss. Chance. Circumstance. But did praying bring me comfort? Yes, yes it did. Immensely. At times during the “incident,” it was about all I could do. And I’d needed to do something.

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It had been a truly ordinary, yet remarkable, day. Things were just flowing. Our normal Saturday routine included laundry in the morning, cleaning out the refrigerator, some other chores. Autumn was in a breezy, happy mood. Her father was at work but we were expecting him home around five. It was around four o’clock so I put Autumn in my Ergo-pack, facing outward, and we went to collect some eggs from the chicken coop.

We walked from the back porch that overlooks our small farm, through the worn path under the walnut trees, and then through the tall grass scheduled to be hayed in a few short weeks.

As soon as we approached the chickens paddock, ready to step carefully over the hot electro-netting, as we had done one-hundred times, Autumn began making strange choking noises. Because I couldn’t assist her while strapped in the Ergo, I made a quick dash back toward the house—running through the tall grass we had just come through.

It had only been a few brief seconds since we’d turned around and Autumn was still making the strange noises but I couldn’t see her face. I stopped under the walnut trees, where there was a nice flat surface and some shade. I quickly took her out of the Ergo. She appeared to be choking. I opened her mouth with my index, middle finger, and thumb–but I didn’t see anything so I began to smack her back forcefully. I was hoping to dislodge whatever it was that was blocking her passageway. Then she began vomiting. Her face was beet red. Now she was choking and vomiting at the same time. I was perplexed. Heart pounding, I ran with Autumn in my arms into the house.

Not quite sure what to do, I gave her some water to wash down whatever it was. It was too small to see. I was already thinking of the tall grass. But the water didn’t work. So I smacked her back some more. Whack. Whack. Whack. She was still choking. I wasn’t producing any results so, hands shaking and trembling, I called 911 on my cell phone.

Meanwhile, I tried to console Autumn with my words—jagged and fraught, and my touch. I sang her the ABC’s and Spring is Here Said the Bumblebee, two of her favorite songs. Our home is a forty-five minute drive from town and I wasn’t sure how long it would take for help to come. The 911 dispatcher told me not to hit Autumn’s back anymore. She had now spent a full, I would estimate, five to seven minutes choking, sometimes vomiting. But she was somehow able to get in the periodic labored breath.

Along with the 911 call came the madness of repeating my address back to the dispatcher while Autumn struggled for a breath. Then having me describe the color of her face—red, purple, blue?

Suddenly, I was colorblind. This wasn’t happening. “Red. Magenta.” I told her. “Red. Purple.”

I kept telling Autumn, “It’ll be okay babygirl,” and “Mama’s here.” Her gaze was looking straight into mine. Help, she seemed to be saying. Then I just started praying. “Be with us dear Lord.” This was old habit, from Dad and my upbringing. Dad always told me from a young age: If you’re dying, talk to god.

This was like that.

“Is she breathing?” The dispatcher asked.

“She’s vomiting blood. There’s blood. I need them here. NOW.”

“Is she breathing?”

“Not really. I mean, kind of.” Not like she should be, I could have said.

“Okay, I need you to place her on her back. I’m going to instruct you to do CPR.”

“Okay.”

“I want you to locate the space between her nipples. With four fingers, press three times.”

“Okay. Okay.”

I’d learned this in a CPR class years earlier. CPR on an infant seemed horrific and is, verifiably, risky. I did what the dispatcher asked, but Autumn seemed to be breathing, just a little, so I intuitively stopped pumping down on her chest. It just didn’t feel right. As I sat Autumn upright, she continued coughing so hard that blood and saliva were slowly pouring from her mouth. I prayed so fucking hard.

The 911 dispatcher kept trying to engage with me—but trying to focus on the phone screen was distracting. I didn’t want to hold the phone. Autumn seemed distracted by it too, so I gave her my full attention. I held her. I prayed some more. I told her “Mamas here.”

I thought I might lose my little girl in this moment. The blood. Her magenta face. I’ll be damned if it was going to happen with me on my cell phone.

I asked the dispatcher to please refrain from speaking but stay on the line. She agreed but made me vow to tell her if Autumn stopped breathing, or turned blue.

Worst. Day. Of. My. Life.

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A local, rural EMT made it to us first, within 20 minutes of the 911 call. Autumn was still running her cycle of choking, fierce coughing, saliva and blood. I didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the choking. When the EMT saw Autumn’s symptoms, she instinctively propped her over her lap and began smacking her back, just like I did. She also did a flip-flop maneuver. This caused Autumn a lot of distress, so I told her what the 911 dispatcher had told me not to do. Though I could empathize with the instinct.

With A’s condition not improving, I asked the EMT to place her on the floor again in an upright position, and I consoled her as she gasped for enough breath with which to scream and cry. Now, we were both perplexed.

I prayed some more. Out loud. Repeatedly. The EMT, a mother herself, seemed worried. Autumn had another episode—choking, coughing, saliva, blood, as we looked on.

“My partner, Steve, will be coming up the driveway in a few minutes,” I told the volunteer EMT. “If he gets here before the ambulance, I need you to quickly brief him. He has no idea what’s going on.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

“When they get here, we’re going straight to Riverbend Hospital.”

“Grab what you need,” she told me.

I didn’t want to leave Autumn for even a second, but I grabbed a change of clothes for A and I changed my shoes. The diaper bag was in the van in the driveway.

“Where are they?” The EMT questioned.

Finally the paramedics and Steve arrived at the same time. The EMT was able to brief Steve. There were about eight paramedics. They all stood around staring at Autumn and I. I briefed the paramedics.

Autumn was crying, choking, crying, choking; demonstrating the scary sequence of symptoms I had come to fear so much.

“Well?” I finally asked them. “Look if no one’s going to do anything we’re read to get in the ambulance and go!”

I didn’t pause or use commas in my speaking.

An older gentleman who appeared to be the leader of the group clearly approved of my suggestion. A choking infant was pretty difficult territory—it seemed—for the team to navigate. I felt better when, within moments, were in the back of the ambulance: me on the gurney, Autumn on my lap. Steve would be following us in the van. I’d asked him to ride with us but Steve, a little more optimistic, said we’d be needing the car seat for our drive back home.

I was only half-sure we’d make it back with her. Every few minutes Autumn was still choking, turning magenta, and vomiting blood. It had been one hour since the whole ordeal had started.

The “incident.” Our “incident.”

The paramedic hooked her up to some instruments and verified that Autumn had a semi-healthy level of oxygen. “I’m glad she’s crying,” he told me. “That’s a good sign.”

“You cry all you want, sweetheart,” I told her, rocking her gently.

Her blood pressure was stable, but it was clear something was still blocking her passageway. I told the paramedic about the chickens, about the grass.

She’d made a delightful sound when we’d seen the chickens. A sound of glee. A yippie. An inhale. Then the choking had started. Was a grass head lodged in her throat?

When not fighting for her breath, Autumn watched the trees and the hills roll beyond the large, picturesque windows of the ambulance. It was the same scenery she saw every day. With every landmark, we were getting closer to the hospital.

Badger Mountain. Noti. Fern Ridge Reservoir. Beltline.

On the Beltline, Autumn’s oxygen dropped significantly following an episode, and the paramedic called for Code Blue—otherwise known as lights and sirens.

I was so grateful because it meant we’d get to the hospital sooner. I’d already asked for lights and sirens but the paramedic didn’t think it was necessary. Maybe grateful isn’t what I’d call it after all—since it meant we were in danger—but my focus was on getting us to an expert, a doctor, asap.

I was just focused on getting Autumn to the hospital intact. I was still praying. Out loud. Often.

“Thank you. So much. John,” I told the paramedic as we deboarded the ambulance. I do not remember the walk from there to the hospital bed. I do not remember being escorted to the room where we waited for the doctor. Now I was talking in short clips. Get to the point. Save a life.
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Two doctors. Both male. Ended up liking one, not the other. Liked the second one better.

The first one I had to relay the whole story to. He smiled gently while a nurse pounded the keys of a computer. Autumn had another episode. Her blood and saliva were covering the chest of my black dress like a massive bib of slime. The nurse took notice and handed me a cloth, seemingly suggesting that I wipe the blood and saliva from my top.

I gave her the look of death. I said something along the lines of “I do not care about my top, I care about my daughter! Someone needs to do something. Jesus!” I pushed the rag away. I remembered Jackie Kennedy’s words, to the effect of: “Let them see the blood.”

The doctor retreated to his corner office to contemplate our situation and look over his notes. I could see him if I positioned myself right in our temporary pediatric room. Steve sat in a corner chair and closed his eyes.

“How can you sleep at a time like this!” I asked him.

“Hold her for a minute, please,” I demanded.

He didn’t say a word but seemed exhausted, concerned, and happy to lovingly hold his child during such a difficult time.

I stepped out into the hallway and cried.

A few nurses passed me, but they didn’t say a word. A janitor passed me, he said he hopes it all works out for my little girl.

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Doctor #1 came back into the room. We’d been there an hour or more. The doctor didn’t seem convinced that anything was trapped in Autumn’s throat; and yet he didn’t have a clue what was going on. Autumn’s episodes were becoming less, and I asked the doctor if I could nurse her.

“Sure,” he told me, then turned his back to me to talk to Steve.

“I’d appreciate it if you could both observe this,” I asked them. I knew what was about to happen.

Reclined in the hospital bed, with the doctor at my side and Steve at the foot of the bed, I brought Autumn to my breast. She seemed to be relieved to be offered to eat, as she hadn’t been able to for hours—but as just as soon as she latched on, she tried to swallow and something blocked her passageway. She started screaming again, frustrated. She started choking again, visibly in distress.

“Okay, okay.” the doctor said, relenting. “The only option is the OR.”

They were to insert a camera inside her throat, travel down through her esophagus, and into her stomach, if needed, to see what the helk was going on in there.

“We’re not leaving until we know what’s in there. And ‘til she can eat,” I professed.

Autumn had another episode and we all were there to witness it. Steve. Doctor. Me. It seemed a little tamer than the others, and afterward she fell asleep in my arms. My little being was exhausted.

Another hour went by. Autumn woke up as we were being escorted to the OR. At the entrance to the OR, we were doing the paperwork and Autumn perked up at our OR nurse. Then Doctor #2 came out, the surgeon. It didn’t take me long to brief him, as Doctor #1 had already told him the gist of things. Or maybe he was just smart and with it. I liked his speed and no bs-ness. I asked him if he thought Autumn should still go under for the procedure, since her condition had improved. He said that, like me, he was curious to get to the root of this and get us some answers.

So we said goodbye to our little sweetheart and the doctor wheeled her into the Operating Room. He said the procedure would take thirty five minutes.

There was a place for families to sit and wait. Steve and I hadn’t been without Autumn. Ever. I thought of all the sad feelings that must have been experienced in that room. Family members on the brink of death. Ones that didn’t come back. Pain, if alive.

I ran into my hairdresser (I periodically have my hair cut) and she said her daughter had fallen off a horse and broken her arm. We hugged. She was bringing her daughter McDonalds. Worst. Day. Of. Her. Life. She said.

The doctor came back in and said we could go see Autumn. He had a specimen in his hand inside a plastic container. We peered into it. It was a two inch piece of orchard grass.

I brought my hand to my heart. The doctor said Autumn was awake and doing well. We could go see her. I gripped the plastic specimen jar in my hand. It was just as I’d suspected. What I didn’t know was that the head of a blade of grass is naturally engineered to catch on things. The one inch head of grass had burrowed into her throat like a screw—at five months old Autumn’s throat was only about the width of a pencil.

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Witnessing a child choking even once is enough to make a lasting impression. Something you won’t forget. I’d witnessed my daughter choking on that one inch head of grass about fifteen or twenty times over the span of four or five hours. Mahogany face. Saliva. Blood.

It’s four in the morning now. I can’t sleep. I have that PTSDy-feeling. The one where you jump at the slightest rustle and your nerves are frayed.

We live on a farm. I know how fragile life is. Things die. Baby things even. Sometimes there is no good reason for the death. It comes as a mystery. Other times little freaky things happen. Like the time our two year old dog ran into a tree trunk, snapped her neck, and died in my arms.

I think of what a huge responsibility it is being a parent. The huge responsibility of loving something so much that you would be walking dead if they died. That you might could die yourself. That you might could not recover.

I think of all the parents who’ve really lost them. Their children. Because of the freak little accidents like this one.

It hurts. Boy does it hurt. BOY DOES IT HURT! to think like that.

And maybe I am overreacting. Maybe I am taking this too hard. Too seriously. I have something to be happy for! Autumn’s here. Saved by the grace of god. Halleluiah! It wasn’t even that close, some might say. Her father. The doctor. Both sleeping now. In peace.

Who knows. Who knows if that one inch head of grass might have been angled differently, what could have happened. Who knows if Autumn might have given up if the struggle to survive, if the breathing was just too much on her. Who knows. She certainly didn’t have it easy for all those hours she was choking, but who knows.

All I know is I am barely not walking dead. I am jumpy and teary.

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All I know is that now I tell child care providers about the “incident” on intake paperwork and ask that they please be mindful of Autumn playing with anything “smaller than a film canister.” I read that–“smaller than a film canister”–somewhere. All I know is I cringe when Steve leaves beer bottlecaps around. Or even traces of mud from his boots on the floor. All I know is that for the first several weeks after the “incident” I saw flashes of Autumn’s mahogany face and wide, saucer eyes. I couldn’t get that image of her choking out of my mind. All I know is that Autumn amazingly discovered that if she coughs, instead of cries, I come to her rescue quicker. All I know is that now I smash all her food to smithereens. The other kids her age can snack on apples and carrots. I wouldn’t dare! All I know is I want to Google “How to recover after your child almost dies in your arms,” but I know the answer to that: Stop obsessing. Be grateful. Do the yoga. Do the acupuncture. Do the thing. Put mittens on her when you go outside for chores. Also, know that you can’t control everything. Not even close. But yes, as a parent: be vigilant. Scoop the things out of her mouth. The dirt. The coffee beans. All I know is that I was almost walking dead. But I wasn’t. We weren’t. We were spared, not by god, but by circumstance, I believe. God didn’t save us, no. But did praying bring me comfort? Yes, yes it did. Immensely.

The eggs will need to be collected from the coop. I don’t care to collect them this morning, not at all. But I know eventually, we’re going to have to. There are just somethings, no matter how hard, we’re going to have to do. All I know is that I was almost walking dead. But I’m not. We’re not. We are here. Together. Closer than ever.

Some would say my grandmother never really recovered from the “incident” with Dad. He was in a coma for weeks. When he came out of it, he had to learn to speak and walk again. The eight years he’d gained we’re almost lost. For the first time in my life, I feel a kinship with my paternal grandmother. It is my guess that her suffering, her guilt, the shaking her to her very core, was never addressed, never consoled, and never expressed. A drinker, she’d died in her late fifties. The coroners report stated “Respiratory Failure,” but ask anyone in our family and hers was a drowning-related incident.

The responsibility of becoming a parent is immense, just in terms of survival. You don’t think initially that your children will gravitate toward every dangerous thing with no sense about what is hot, what is not. What is just a step versus what is a cliff. What is safe to eat and what is dangerous to ingest. That part comes as a surprise. That part creates a lot of anxiety, compounding already fragile nervous systems inside of mothers with pasts and the simple hope that their children bring with them the promise of a brighter, lovelier future.

The sky is lavender now. The song birds are really going nuts. Do they do this every morning? I clasp my hands together, as if in prayer. I look at Autumn and marvel at the rise and fall of her chest. It’s the little things, they say.

Indeed, I agree, vowing not to let a moment pass without silently whispering, thank you to the gods of transportation, medicine and circumstance.

 

My Guest Interview with Madness Muse Press

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Madness Muse Press is all about “Enacting Social Change Through the Power of Writing.” The founder, Adam Levon Brown, is a poet here in Eugene, Oregon. He features writers both near and far in his “Your Voice” campaign centered around social justice, activism and discussion. In short, he’s right up my alley. Adam is a soft soul with a penchant for social activism via creative expression. I was honored to be a part of his Interview Series over at http://www.madnessmusepress.com.

Check out our interview here! (Excerpt below.)

Q: What time of day do you do most of your writing?

A: People are going to hate this but, whenever it strikes me. Yeah, I mean, I’m not a 9-5 writer. I find the best time to write actually, if you can manage, is right after a life-altering (large or small) event happens. Almost in-the-moment. After a fight. After a job interview. After a psychic reading. When you’re really feeling something. Also, if it works out, writing in the middle of the night is fantastic. So quiet. So people-less.

With Child

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Along the edge of the spilled water, a wavy black line. The length of a hair. It could have been my mothers, mine, my daughters. Indistinguishable, this edge of liquid on the countertop; this long black hair. Was it clean or dirty, the countertop? Should I wipe it or leave it be? Disorder of any kind makes me nervous. A disorder of disorder. That’s me.

Would I make a good mother? Me, who baby talks the dog, hogs all the blankets, possesses a double Scorpio, Aries moon, a combination of eldest-child-and-only-child syndromes, a born and bred rebel, a seeker of balance, the receiver of highs and lows, a giver, a taker, withholder of personal truths, sharer of haphazardly selected anticdotes and flower petals, she who is happy most of the time, plunges into run-and-write-go-panic-go-take-all-my-money-and-hole-up-somewhere-with-chocolate-and-fantasies-in-the-dark-nights, some-beach-that-is-close-enough-to-home-far-enough-to-be-full-of-strangers-days. Me, who waited all this time for for the “right” man to make the “right” baby. Poor guy. Me, with my own apartment at 17, a babys-name list at 22, collecting baby books and sneakers at 23–one-decade ago–me who they told “had a nice stomach” (I never personally loved it til now). Me, afraid of marriage and 2-year contracts of any kind. A sock wearer in summer. A fixer upper. A devotee of solitude, craft, words-on-page, food-on-plate, words-in-brain. A devotee of simplicity.

Do I have it? The patience, the selflessness, the love? If not, where within myself might I find it? The soles of my feet? My stomach? My brain? I’d ask for help if I knew how to receive it. I don’t.

Me. of fierce independence, wild with child.

Me, swollen in summer, begging for rain.

Me, grasping at time for the chunks of it lost, donated to others, these days on the calendar.

Me, the selfish and selfless colliding within me like the earth shifts and tidal waves of impending labor.

Me, melancholy yet smiling in July.

Me, the weight of adult-mother-time anchoring me in bittersweet duty.

Do I have what it takes? Is suddenly irrelevant. The invitation-to-dance has long been RSVP’d within my womb.

My wiser self nudges: do you, with child. Read, write, love. Even if it hurts at first: unearth deep peace. Take baby steps and mine for it. It was yours all along, this peace. It is not in the soles of your feet or the curve of your belly, but down where the spirit meets the bone.

 

Everlast

I have the ideal life
please don’t mess with it
the bow is straight
the self centered
after years, decades,
almost a lifetime of
uncertainty and whim,
certainly the train is rolling now,
the one I’ve been engineering for
some time, piece-by-piece, move-by-move,
lesson-by-lesson, man-by-man, through peaks
and valleys I Am Here now

Course I fear car accidents
and fire and, worse than that,
untapped demons and fury
but then again maybe things can be OK,
ideal,
undisrupted,
normal

the one where children
get driven to their bus stops
warm in their mittens
lunches in their bags
smiles on their faces (!!)

This love, no longer longing but
ACTIVE
This home, no longer empty but
HUMMING
This body, no longer just mine but
part of something bigger,
begging,
him or her?
October or September?
Can you love her enough
to not fuck it up?

This ideal life,
I command you to stay
on track
on point
ON
the opposite of
NO
a blessing, a gift
everlasting


Mother Wasn’t There

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Wounded Deer, Frida Kahlo, 1946

Mother wasn’t there
when I bled in the JR high bathroom
I looked at the gray stall wall for reassurance
I found none
Mother wasn’t there

Mother wasn’t there
when I needed feeding
in the beginning, in the middle, nor in the end
Mother wasn’t there

Mother wasn’t there
when I was felt up under my red primary school dress
Mother wasn’t there so it happened again
and again and again
As it will happen, inevitably,
when a Mother isn’t there

Mother wasn’t there
when I cut my own hair
Mother wasn’t there so
“cut it like Dads” I told the barber,
uncertain of my role in the world,
girl of boy or boy of boy
cause Mother wasn’t there

Mother wasn’t there
but when she was there she covered me
in slobbery, 9-years-over-due kisses
They smelt like smoker’s saliva and
how I hated them and how she always
showed up just under one decade
At 30, that makes it three times mother showed up,
only the third time it didn’t happen

Mother wasn’t there
Mother isn’t there
I regret that someone I so despise personally
can leave a love wound this big within me
like a boy who never, ever deserved it
only not, because this is like the Grand Canyon,
(if I am being honest)
and the boys just leave a rivet in the sand
some laughable could-have-been

I regret the biological yearn for mother, father, whole
I regret, I regret, when Mother wasn’t there
I capitalize her name, the sick parts the sad parts,
she imparted to me insatiable love and passion
and now I can’t get no satisfaction
I am free child, free woman, wild baby, always have been
I built a shelter in my heart, for refuge from the wind
I learned to withstand life’s letdowns on a whim
I laugh in the face of pain, but I still fear it so
Mother wasn’t there when learning
all there is to know