Monday, June 24, 2013

In a van down by the river

We are on the mainland this summer, and so far I have fallen face-first on the subway, dragged my enormous suitcase up countless flights of stairs, and spent several days cleaning and moving. I have also driven over 1000 miles. I'll get to that in a minute.

Summer in New England is my favorite. I love sitting on the beach, reconnecting with friends and family, sleeping in my childhood bedroom, eating fresh fruit and lobster 3 times a day. It's another version of paradise, and I am constantly reminded that I am blessed to live an amazing life - 10 months in Maui, and summers in Connecticut. It's a good deal.

Each summer we stay in my family home, which now belongs to my aunt. Friends and family consider that our "home base" and everyone knows where to find me. I love to be there in familiar surroundings, close to my girlfriends and the beach. I constantly worry about being an imposition or overstaying my welcome, but I want my kids to know their relatives and have the same summer experiences I had growing up - which is to say, pretty idyllic. At least, as far as the surroundings go. Family can be another story altogether, but because  they are growing up 6,000 miles away Max and Lucy don't have much experience with family dynamics, so I feel like that part is good for them too.

After our long trip East, I was still adjusting - to the time zone, to the close proximity of family, to driving a smaller car (that my brother lent me for the summer because he is rad, and also not a huge fan of driving) and to being in someone else's home and trying to contribute in a helpful and positive way. But the morning I woke up to my aunt climbing into bed with me clutching a chocolate chip cookie and her cellphone - upon which she was having a very animated conversation about a conflict between relatives that I appeared to have instigated - well. That's when I began to reassess.

Which is how it came to be that I started writing this at 2am at a rest area off the New Jersey Turnpike.

The kids are asleep. The supermoon is bright overhead, and I am listening to music and sipping a cup of coffee. It is actually incredibly peaceful. Which begs the question: "Why am I more at peace on the side of the highway, than I was in my bed this morning?"

We are driving to my uncle's house in Virginia. I decided to drive over night to avoid the traffic.

Did you know that the people who drive overnight drive like total assholes? I had no idea. They drive incredibly fast, the weave in and out of lanes, and I just got passed - simultaneous on both sides - by a group of motorcyclists traveling north of 100 miles an hour. I am terrified.

I also decided to drive at night so the kids - who are not used to road tripping due to living on a small island most of the year - can sleep through it. And somehow - even with the roving gangs of motorcyclists and those two assholes who were racing their Audi's down I-95 - they are sound asleep just as I had hoped. Lucy is sprawled out on the back seat, and Max has reclined the front passenger seat and wrapped himself in a quilt where he is snoring quietly. I am fired up with caffeine and adrenaline, excited to get us to my uncle's house for the week.

My uncle lives 7-8 hours away from most of our family. Which explains why he is the sanest one of the group, and also why I want to go stay at his house. After the early morning phone call that led - somehow - to my aunt coming into my bed for moral support, I packed up our things at my aunt's house and called the only person I knew with a few hours free, and a large trunk.

"Mom, you need to come and get us. And our stuff."

Was it a no-brainer to call my mom. Yes, of course. She's my mom, after all. But was it humiliating?

Yup. That too.

To her great credit, she was there in 30 minutes and did not say a word other than "I have plenty of room and would love to have you." I loaded her car, and my brother's car, and we drove to her  new house. She moved out of my childhood home when she remarried. I don't usually stay at her new house for long periods of time because - while she and her husband are extremely welcoming - it is not "home" for me, and also because they have 3 indoor cats that trigger Lucy's asthma. So when we come for the whole summer we stay in my childhood home by the beach, which now belongs to my aunt. Or at least, we used to stay there.

In the past year, my mom's three cat's all died - 2 after long and happy lives of making everyone else miserable with their screeching and sinus infections and litterbox mishaps, and a third after a short but exuberantly joyous life of destroying furniture and sleeping in the dining room table. And so my mom was catless for the first time in 30 years at a time that I needed a place to stay. It was, by all accounts, a fortuitous turn of events.

As I unloaded the car and brought all of our belongings into the guest room, I thanked my mother repeatedly,  while trying to explain what, exactly had happened to cause me to leave my aunt's so abruptly. After several lengthy conversations, it was decided that I would stay with my mom for the rest of the summer. The cat's were gone, the cat hair was slowly disappearing, and the litter boxes and cat toys were put away.

This was going to be great.
I piled our boxes and suitcases into the guestroom, packed a few items back into my brother's car, and we headed to Virginia for a week before the kids' summer camp started, so that I could decompress and reset our vacation. And maybe get some writing done.

The day after we left, my mom went to the animal shelter and picked out 2 new cats.

I am a little nervous about living with cats - never mind new cats - but I know my mom and step dad like to have pets, and they love cats, so really who the hell am I to say anything. I am just the adult daughter who moved her family into their house unexpectedly for the summer. I can't imagine how thrilled they must be about that. Possibly less thrilled than I am about 2 new indoor cats. I really, really don't like living with cats. I like cats, but I think pets in general and cats in particular should be outside as much as possible. There are many reasons for this, but primarily it's because I have turned into quite the germaphobe, so I have lots of issues with fur and litter boxes and finding random piles of pukey hairballs with my bare feet.

In an effort to remain calm, I called mom and asked her to close the door to the guest room, so the cats wouldn't sleep in my suitcases or on my bed and freak me out with their catness all over everything.

"Oh, I can't close that door." she informed me solemnly.
"I know it doesn't latch, but maybe just pull it shut so they don't go in? They won't even know it's there!" I said hopefully.
"I can't close the door - I put their litter box in there."


Meanwhile I got several emails from my aunt, asking me to come back to her house and offering up the privacy of her blessedly cool and quiet cellar - a space which used to be my playroom, and then in high school housed our pool table. Now it houses the litter box.

Such is my lot in life, apparently.

It must be karmic. I have created conflict and drama up and down the eastern seaboard. My belongings are in 5 different houses in 4 states. I have no idea where I am going to sleep next week, or for the next month. My cellphone is dead, I have no GPS, and I am spending the afternoon cruising Craigslist looking at conversion vans with beds in the back. But maybe I should just stay here in Virginia. I am far from home, from the kids day camp, from friends and all of our our summer plans and New England amazingness.

But I can say this: there is not a cat in sight.

Monday, June 17, 2013

All Fall Down - saying good bye to baby, home and dignity

As I lay sprawled on the floor of the subway car, my rapidly bruising knees straddling one suitcase as I desperately grabbed for another, I looked up and saw the faces of my fellow passengers. Startled. Pitying. Unfazed. No one reached to help, of course. This is New York City and as an adult I was expected to be able to ride a subway without falling down, for chrissakes. Even the drunk and staggering homeless guy who had recently struck up his pitch for donations in the middle of the car was still upright.
"Ah." I thought. "It's come to this."
It was the perfect euphemism for my life last week. Try as I might to hold it together, to act like a grownup, to care for my children and get on with things, I find myself, still, with the wind knocked out of me on occasion.
Evie, of course, was the hardest hit. Taken to a new foster home, all while I received a heart-wrenching series of emails telling me alternately that they were "sooo sorry" to do it and then putting more responsibilities for communicating her needs to her future caregivers on my shoulders. And then, in the very next missive, informing me that I shouldn't be upset. Shouldn't care so much. That I was all wrong in my approach to fostering. That I should be wrapping her in my blessings instead of wrapping my arms around myself and rocking silently on the sofa.
And then I found myself in the after hours clinic, with my pants around my ankles getting injections in my, well, let's say hip, because the hours of sobbing and rocking on top of the lingering cough from last week's cold had led to a migraine of soul-crushing proportions, just when I thought my soul had taken all it could bear.
The next morning dawned with just a shadow of the migraine, and a few hours to pack for a two month sojourn to the mainland. I had timed it this way on purpose, thinking that after Evie was taken I would busy myself with packing and readying the house. I had not anticipated the emails and the heartwrenching and the consequences of such. So I worked in a flurry of bed sheets and laundry and scrub brushes and toothbrushes and counting pairs of underwear and socks, trying to fit everything in - into the time and space I had available, neither of which seemed sufficient.
And through all of it was Sam and the kids. Sam took us to the airport early, bidding us an enthusiastic farewell as we shuffled into the agriculture inspection line, waving weakly as he drove away. The kids stayed by my side, as we made out way through, ag and security, the Starbucks line and the Pinkberry line, the line to get on the plane and off, and back on. The ten hour flight from Honolulu to JFK was uneventful. I sniffled and coughed and drank codeine laced cough syrup straight from the bottle and patted Lucy clumsily on the head while Max fetched me endless cups of tea and our seatmate watched nervously.
In New York, we climbed into a cab fresh off the red-eye, with little sleep and even less energy. My brother met us on the sidewalk, also sleepless and bleary. We ate, and then we lay down, all three of us sprawled across the futon in the deep sleep of the terribly sleep deprived. I can tell you with certainty that I slept with the hope that I would awake feeling refreshed and less in need of my cough syrup, because if I kept drinking that shit I was going to give people the wrong impression.
And now here I was two days later, lying on the floor of a subway car with my skirt around my hips and my children looking on in horror. So much for fresh starts and good impressions.
But really. It was fine. I climbed up, brushed myself off, and carried on.
It's what I do best, after all.
And when we got off the train in Connecticut, and began to settle in, I thought that maybe, just maybe, everything would settle down. My health, my emotional state, my sleeping habits.
Which is why it was so startling to find myself on the side of the road at 11pm, an empty solo cup in my cup holder, and a half empty solo cup in my hand, explaining to the police office that I had not been drinking anything - not even cough syrup - as I squinted in the flashing red and blue lights that were blinding me in the rear view mirror.
I pleaded my case, explained that I was sober - had been for 6 months now - and the cups held nothing but club soda. I clarified that I was shaking because I was freezing cold and scared shitless, that I had not been pulled over in at least 20 years. That I had paid that parking ticket I got last summer.
Crowds of people who had also been at the gala walked by. Tux jackets flung over shoulders, high heels in hand, they padded by barefoot - quieting as they neared us, watching me sympathetically in the glow of their neon necklaces.
"Ah," I thought to myself. "It's come to this."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Baby I'm Leaving Behind

This is the last night that Evie will curl up in my arms, her head nestled in the crook of my left elbow, her right hand clutching the underside of my left breast and pressing it to her cheek for dear life, while her left hand tugs at my right bra strap.

If I remember to put on a bra, that is.

As she burps loudly, she falls into a deeper sleep, and I begin to worry.

Will they read the letter I tuck in the diaper bag with all the little details about this precious baby?
Will they remember that she sleeps on her side due to her unfortunate habit of projectile vomiting?
Will they care that she prefers the "forest" setting of the sound machine?
Will they buy Huggies because the other diapers gave her a terrible rash?
Will they use the all-natural cornstarch baby powder I pack for her?
Will they dress her in ugly clothes or will they use the cute things I carefully washed and folded in her bag yesterday?
Will they let her sleep on her favorite blanket, with her stuffed toy that smells like me because I've had it on my pillow for 3 days?

Where will she sleep? Where will she be? Will it be calm and peaceful? Will they love her like I do? How long will she be there?

All of these thoughts race around in my mind, jostling for space with the other more rational thoughts like "this isn't your baby" and "you didn't really want to be on a 10 hour plane ride with a teething 7 week old who has a stuffy nose and poops her diaper all day long".

She looks delicate, but her poop explosions are legendary.

Because she's not my baby, and I look forward to taking a Tylenol PM and sleeping for at least 9 hours of that 10 hour flight. I do.

My conflict at this point is not about "caring too much" or "getting attached" because as I have mentioned, foster parents HAVE to care and children need to feel attached.

My conflict is that I feel guilty. Sarah tells me that she will not have this conversation with me - that my feeling guilty is absolutely ridiculous and that I have done nothing wrong. She worries too, says that I cannot continue to foster if it is going to crush me to part with these babies. And she is right. If I felt this way every time, if I felt helpless and powerless, if I felt like I was a part of something that was detrimental to a child, I wouldn't foster. But I have never felt like this before. I have been all manner of annoyed, angry, frustrated, tired, fed up, disgusted horrified and bewildered. But I have never once felt that I was doing less than the very best for the child in my care.

I don't feel that now. I feel as though I am abandoning Evie. I feel as though I am not following through on my commitment as her parent - the only custodial parent she has at the moment.

I am leaving, flying to New York with Max and Lucy for the summer, as we do every year. And I am not taking Evie with me.

I wanted to.
I asked, and then I pleaded.
I wrote emails and made phone calls, all for naught.

She is going to go live with a new foster family - strangers - for some unknown period of time, and then she will be moved to live with other strangers - ones to whom she has a biological connection but has only spent 3 or 4 hours with in an office downtown a month ago. She may stay with them forever, or not. She may eventually have a relationship with her biological mother, or not. They may eventually figure out who her father is, or not. The only thing that I know for sure is that she won't be with us.

This doesn't feel right, to me. I feel like children should be offered as much continuity as possible. Infants operate almost entirely on the most basic senses - the smell, the touch, the sound of their parent is what bonds them together. So tomorrow night, when someone else is tucking her in, I worry that her very little soul will wonder where her mother is. Who her mother is.

And if she is ever going home.

This is the first time we have found ourselves in our current situation - having a baby moved from our home to a new foster home - and I do not like it one little bit. I have thought a lot about the particulars, about how I came to be in this place at this time, and why it hurts so much. And it is because Evie is not going to her mother, or even her family, or a forever home. She is being shuffled around to another foster home because I am leaving. That is the bottom line. And I can't live with it. So. How do I make sure it never happens again, this terrible thing that feels so painfully wrong?

After a lot of contemplation, I have decided that if I am ever asked to take a case and if I know that I cannot make a long term commitment, then I will not accept the placement. Period. I cannot do it. I have found my line. I have to see each case through to the end.

I cannot do this to another child.
I cannot do this to my family.
I cannot do this to my heart.

Sleep well, my sweet Evie. Stay safe, my little one. Be loved, my darling girl.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

God help me, I'm having a yard sale.

I was not raised in a yard sale-ing family. We did NOT yard sale. The idea of dragging our belongings out into the yard for all to see, and putting prices on things, and then (gasp) haggling over the value of our obviously very tasteful possessions was wasn't happening at my house. And buying someone else's rejected items? No, that wasn't on the agenda either.

So when I was in 3rd or 4th grade I discovered yard sale-ing on my own, during a bike ride around my neighborhood. I am quite sure my mother didn't see this coming - if she had I am confident that I would not have been allowed to stop and browse. But it was impossible to ride by and not stop. We lived in a pretty nice area, right on the ocean in Newport Rhode Island (Castle Hill, if you are familiar) and I am sure my mother assumed that she was surrounded by like-minded individuals who did not air their dirty laundry OR their outdated housewares to be viewed and reviewed and picked over like yesterday's newspaper.

It might have been the moment when I discovered those red ankle boots - the ones that were just like I had seen Pat Benetar wear in a video on MTV (this was, after all, 1984). Or maybe it was the totally obscene Eddie Murphy record album that I snapped up and listened to over and over again on my Fisher Price record player. All I know is, that first yard sale changed my life. It was, by all measures, a really good yard sale *anyway* - my bar for yard sales was set very high indeed that morning, but it was more than that. It was the thrill of the hunt. The love of a bargain. The excitement of finding something unique, that no one else would have.

I love yard sales. I love shopping them and I love having them. And this weekend, I am having a big one. There is usually one of two reasons I decide to have a yard sale. I either find myself overwhelmed with stuff and feel the need to purge, OR I need to make some money. Or both. Both works too.

I don't know what triggered this weekend's yard sale, exactly - but I suspect it was the bags (and bags and bags) of precious schoolwork my kids brought home at the end of the year. Binders and folders with their covers hanging on by a thread, filled with worksheets and drawings and wrinkled pieces of paper covered in scribbles and some with holes in them, along with a healthy dose of pencils without erasers, broken crayons, and markers that lost their caps long ago.

I saw the massive pile by the kitchen door and involuntarily twitched. And then instructed them to pick the 10 best things to go up in the attic to be filed. Everything else?

The circular file.
The one in the driveway.
The one that gets collected twice a week and taken to the landfill.

But I wasn't done.

Because with a few days notice, a friend moved in to our storage shed AKA "The Eyesore" for the summer. And that 120 square feet was being utilized to the max for storage. We needed to get everything out of there pronto, which means it all got piled in my house to be sorted out.

And as that pile grew, and the stack for the attic took over my bedroom, I noticed something else.

The kids were outgrowing everything.

Every pair of their pants hover around their ankles, their t-shirts show flashes of belly button, and the toys are creeping onto every surface and taking over the cupboards. It isn't just their wardrobe that needs refining, however - I can't close my drawers and have run out of hangers - and closet space. There are things in our hall closets - Tupperware, pans, hand towels, and god knows what else - that I have never used. Not even once.

And let's not forget that I have been slowly accumulating excessive amounts of baby gear.

I started by clearing out the storage shed, I moved on to my closet and then the kids' rooms. I am being cold-hearted. Giving up stuff I like, because I just simply do not use it or need it or (sigh) fit into it any more.

So here it comes. The big yard sale. I will drag my belongings out onto the driveway, and be so gauche as to put prices on them. I will allow people to paw over my precious possessions, examining and haggling and buying or rejecting, and there will be those who simply slow down to stare before dismissing my stuff as not even worth parking to check out.

I am ready. I can take it. And god, I hope they take it too. All of it.
I feel lighter already.