Monday, June 27, 2011

The Helper.

This morning, I announce that I'm heading out to water the flowers and put a few of the veggies into the ground.

Opal scurries up from a seated position, stumbling over herself and tripping her pants to a half-mass position, anxiously exclaiming Opal Hepyoo! (Opal Help You!)
She'd abruptly emerged from intently focusing on the workings of her new Duplo-blocks, namely the Dalmatian with paws that fit like a puzzle into the nodules, so I was shocked by the velocity in which she sped forth.
She is instantly at my feet repeating outside-outside to herself, the way her thoughts often leak out in a kind of a prayer-like whisper, looking up with the eager expression of a little girl who hungers for practice in Big Girl Activities. A look that is oh-so common these days.

She tromps behind me with safer, snub-nosed and plastic versions of gardening tools and crouches next to me, purposefully making messes and flinging dirt in her best interpretation of what mommy is doing. She helps me water the flowers by lifting the elephant watering can, as the water trickles from the holes in it's sturdy trunk, with all her might. Opal Hepyoo! Opal do it! She says, with eyebrows pinched with all seriousness and an impressive amount of dirt smeared masterfully on her shirt and face.

In the house, she steals items that are nestled in their proper places and delivers them to their rightful owners. Shoes from the shoe-rack, (here mama, shoes!!) laptops left overnight on the couch to charge (here mama, pyooter!) and half-glasses of water set too close to the edge are things she sees as her responsibility to announce and deliver. We usually catch her as she heads towards them but there have been a few incidents of laptops dropped right next to toes and glasses of water sloshing about in the hand-over.

She relishes making these kinds of announcements. When we had our dear friend Lisa visit with us for a few chunks of days, Opal noticed Lisa-things more readily because they were new and different. What that, mama? She would say. Those are Lisa's shoes/sunglasses/clothes, honey. To which Opal would immediately reply with LISAAA!!!! SHOOOES!!! Wanting and expecting for Lisa to materialize immediately to receive the blessed found-object.

Ever the helper.

A 30-second trip downstairs to throw the load of laundry into the dryer takes a good 20 minutes with a helping toddler-in-tow. She wants to go down the stairs herself—one at a time, some on her belly, some on her bottom, pausing to consider the cat's scratching post, notches in the paint, fuzzes in the carpet of an eye-catching color—with mama standing by to remind her to keep moving. Once we reach the end of the stairs—hurray!—she races for the cat's food and water, hollering Kitty Food! with the special sense of pride that comes with having noticed something before the adult did. After filling the kitty's food and water and accomplishing the original task at hand whilst keeping an eye on the toddler who roams a very not-child-proof basement, we return upstairs one step at a time. Opal carries an object of interest she discovered during our Voyage Below, a book or a cat toy, in one hand as she shuffles up up up.

Helping daddy get the mail is a responsibility she takes very seriously. He makes a big adorable deal out of the whole thing, saying Opal, Daddy needs help getting the mail! She squeals with delight as he scoops her up and carries her to the mailbox a few houses down. I can hear them coming back up the walk as he says this one's for mommy, this one's for daddy, this one's for Opal (junk mail). She barely waits for her fleshy little feet to touch the floor before barreling over to me with a pile of mail hollering HERE MAMA! HERE MAMA! MAIL!

The overwhelming desire of a child her age to help is heart-wrenching (if not a bit inconvenient at times). When Opal is in mid-tantrum, digging her two tiny heels in the carpet with no desire or intention to budge, moments when a battle of the wits seems immanent, there are times when a simple request for her help dissolves the entire agenda. The NEED to be of assistance trumps whatever bristly emotion was ruling the show for her.

Authors's thought: As I have mentioned before, I work giving massage to ladies with Alzheimer's. There are a few of my clients who like to wander, to walk and pace and constantly be in motion. One, in particular, gets up during our massage sessions and walks down the hall or into her bathroom to fidget with the nozzles on the toiletry bottles. The one thing that brings her back to the couch or edge of the bed is to ask her to come help me with something, something as simple folding a Kleenex.
I have another client who doesn't particularly like to be massaged but it was prescribed by her doctor and is necessary for the circulation of her aging body. When she starts to show resistance I tell her that I'm just learning how to do this and could she please help me to learn by letting me practice on her? Oh sure, dear, she'll say, where you from?

So, from where I stand, the inherent aspiration to be of service is just as present long before the rules of society are imprinted into a person as it is long after those rules have fallen away. And if this need to help is just as much a part of us—a part of our being— as muscles and eyelashes, I must admit I'm a bit curious when and why these actions become subject to feeling like a drag, like something to resist arbitrarily out of habit. It seems to me there is something about speed, the eventual learned need to rush, that threatens to bury the joy in helping, accomplishing, feeling purposeful, all of it.

I'll just say this, it requires some real effort to be humdrum about executing a task when a tinier version of yourself is executing the same task right next to you in her gleeful, unbridled, little-girl way. It also requires effort not to break out into spontaneous song or make a silly face, while the whole thing gets done as smooth as a cat-stretch.

And cat stretches, like toddlers, are not to be rushed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Believe it or not, there used to be a time when I relished being sick.

Back in college, at first sign of weakness or itchy throat, I'd clear my schedule for at least a week and commence to watching daytime television in my jammies, going days without a shower, happily unplugging from any and all social-professional-educational activities. When it was the case, I'd wear a diagnosis of bronchitis or pneumonia as a VIP badge.

I remember one particular bout of pneumonia oh so well. I was living on Pacemont with the roomate that was never there, attending college classes like Dickens and Art History (such deliciousness is ever-wasted on the young) and flirting with a boy named Joe who gelled his hair into a rock-a-billy coif and smelled faintly of mens' clothing stores. I remember being out for the better part of a month with this relentless illness. It was the holiday season.

It must've been a doozy. But since my only memories of that period consist of watching classic holiday movies (that Joe dropped by) and polishing off a handful of memorable art projects—the dress that I still wear to this day, the hodge-podge quilt for Chris, the clever mobile crafted with scrap wood and a dissected poster of a man climbing Mt. Rushmore—I'm required to recall this time as more of a respite, a self-indulgent retreat from the harried throws of work-a-day life, than any kind of forced recovery time.

It's exceedingly different now. Sickness is accompanied by caring for a tiny child and missing work actually means missing the income. I'm a bit more motivated to fight back, or better, be proactive in not getting sick in the first place. My little medicine cabinet overflows with the latest and greatest of recommended potions to stave off even the nastiest bugs: Vitamin D3, Elderberry, Echinacia, Umcka to name a few. I sleep well, I eat well, I exercise and am committed to yoga even when the room gets sweaty-hot in the afternoon sun.

My downfall, admittedly, is a tendency to overdo, to not quite know when to say when. Where the tedious stuffs of to-do lists are concerned, I'm a gobbler rather than a sipper. The vitamin I've consistently been lacking for the entirety of my adult life is open, untouched, unplanned space and time. And although Opal gives it to me in scrumptious short stints—tea while perching leisurely in the front yard and coloring pictures of Snoopy and Woodstock, anyone?—it is a rarity to do it on my own for any length of time.

Now, when sickness strikes, the days of closing the curtains and reading O magazine until either nature or mealtime calls, or a body part has gone numb from lack of circulation, is a thing of the past.

The reality of a sick-mama consists of continuously rallying oneself to give, play, care, clean, fix, entertain and feed until the time comes—the blessed nap and bedtimes—when full and complete crashing can occur. Especially during the acute symptoms, any gap is filled with rest. Forget laundry, grocery and correspondence considerations, forget writing, forget work. Even these gross-level actions take a back-burner to survival.

I've lost track of how many times I've caught cold since Opal started going to daycare. Every few months, at least, she and I both catch some sort of little bug, but they usually disintegrate in a week or so, winding up to be more of a nuisance than any real problem. We both caught cold following 4 out of the 5 times we've flown together. Opal was sick off and on through the entire month of May—though looking back now I think some of it was teething—and after returning from an exhausting flight to Ohio I readily picked up what she was carrying.

She quickly healed. My cold, rather, lasted more than a week before morphing into a nasty sinus infection leaving me frail, nauseous and covered in a shell of hot-ache. It took another solid week (dosing up on good ole' western antibiotics) to begin to feel human again. Days melted into one disorganized mass. Even now, my energy isn't near what it was and I need to implement copious rests throughout the day. A few hours of work is a maximum and being with Opal for any decent stretch exhausts me. I am forced to play catch-up at a snail's pace and the whole dizzying situation has left me totally humbled.

(Jesse requires a merit badge for his indispensability during these sick-spells, especially the most recent one. Upon returning from a long day at work, he swoops in and tirelessly neatens up, makes sure I'm fed, monitors that I remain horizontal. During the weekend, he plays with Opal, allowing longer chunks for me to rest. At night, he sends me downstairs to sleep while he stays in our bedroom with the monitor, taking the role of caring for Opal if she wakes. If it weren't for him, it would have taken exponentially longer for me to heal and the dishwasher would not have been emptied for 3 weeks.)

I sat down with my computer to write yesterday for the first time in weeks and it felt like meeting a lover for a feverish rendezvous after an involuntary hiatus. This morning I went to Costco, which fared to be much less grand, but the free brownies and spring rolls were appreciated and it feels good to no longer have a gaping void in the freezer where the blueberries are supposed to be.

As I sit here getting well, I think of how sickness wipes life perfectly clean, heavy handedly, to be refilled only with what is needed to recover along with the absolute necessities of the day. Then little by little, as one regains their health, the open-gaps are more tempted by the pending demands and mountainous heaps that had been cast aside to heal. But by then, a sort of little relationship and affection has developed for the gaps themselves (separate from the illness). As a mediation practitioner, this is a notion I study in abundance but find it extremely difficult to embrace and implement.

Must I be sick to read 3 books in 3 weeks? Must I be reeling and horizontal to leave my to-do list so severely neglected? In this moment, I confess that I'm feeling protective of the forced-openings that the last three weeks of illness have cultivated and I am tentative to fill them back up again as quickly as the momentum requests.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Short Collections of Ohio Gems.

HI TELLA! Opal greeted her big cousin Stella so often we decided to do a celebratory dance once she reached 40-times and for every count of ten thereafter. (Of which there were many.)
HI TELLA in mid-tea party. HI TELLA in the car. HI TELLA in the middle of lunch, 10, 12 times during the duration of the meal.

Also frequented, but not quite as often, were phrases that included the names of other family members: What Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa doing? Where Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa go? and my personal favorite because it almost always took place in the midst of a tea party or reading a book: Tea party Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa? Read book Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa?
That's exactly what we're doing, honey.

Tella evolved into TellaBella by the end of the trip, as did Abigail from Abby.

There were the toys at Ama and Papa's house, which were graciously included with room and board. The chunky little Fisher Price People that fit into the little school bus (Wheels on the bus!), the motorcycle that fit into the school bus, the tiny matchbox car (just one little coveted thing that was easy to lose—where car??) that fit with the motorcycle into the school bus. There were the tiny plastic dolls, the size of kids-of-barbies that lined up perfectly on a half-folded washcloth to be put to bed, and the cross-sectioned dollhouse with doors and windows to squeeze things through to be—surprise!—discovered on the other side. There was the dolly carriage that carted the green soccer ball as it's most preferred costumer, B riding in the deck below.

Opal loved the length of distance from one end of the family room, through the kitchen and to the other end of the dining room, allowing for even more breadth if she continued left into the living room, to run through as thunderously as her tiny little figure would permit.

There were the child-sized pieces of furniture which Opal greeted like familiar articles from a past life. Finally an object-peer, something me-sized in the midst of this obnoxiously ever-s0-large world. (Note to self, just suck it up and buy that $50 micro-suede baby-size lazy boy I've been eyeing for weeks at Costco.)

The leather chase lounge was my mom's when she was young. She and her brother, both now in their sixties, posed for many pictures—black and white, ruffled edges—on that tiny couch at an age only a few years older than Opal is now. In the photo I'm thinking of, a Christmas tree dripping with tinsel sits off to the side, their Cocker Spaniel Candy lies at their feet.
For Opal, the satisfaction was apparent when it was realized that, yes, it was just that easy. None of the boosting, stacking, climbing that was required for normal-sized furniture. No adults casually loitering by the edges just in case. Each time her feet touched the ground as she sat there, she gave a look as if to say why has no one told me this was possible?
(Alas there was one other time. It was a casual dinner in February at a friend's house who has three small children. They each had name-embroidered, low-to-the-ground wide-armed lounge chairs lined along the wall in their playroom, the same ones we had just ogled at Pottery Barn merely days earlier. When my friend picked up that I recognized the chairs and even knew the exact price with the add-print, add-monogram features, she mentioned casually that the kids' grandma got them for Christmas. Through the course of the entire evening, Opal wanted to do nothing but climb from chair to chair.)

Then there was the toddler-proportioned rocking chair in the living room. Opal was much less stable on that, seeing how it's sole purpose was to tip back and forth, but she derived great pleasure from climbing in and asking Tella to read her a book. She'd hold on to the arms and rock without allowing her focus to even slightly waver.

There was Snickers, the spring-loaded plastic-bouncy horse who lived in the backyard. Stella had an elaborate care-routine for Snickers involving hand-selected snacks—mostly pine needles and fallen leaves—and grooming. She included us all in on the action, putting us to work like well-respected employees. Opal was honored, albeit slightly obsessed, with feeding snickers. She spent long stretches of time gathering yard-bits into her little bowl and placing them into Snickers' slightly chipped plastic mouth, frozen in mid-gape. She was unconcerned with how each of the painstakingly gathered snacks would instantly fall from Snickers' mouth into a heap on the lawn below.
As luck would have it the last night of our visit happened to be, according to Stella, Snickers' 4th birthday. So she fashioned a very special bowl of snacks with 4 small sticks for candles and we—Stella, Opal, Chris and myself—all sang Happy Birthday and helped her blow out the candles. Chris then pulled out his smartphone and played the Beatles' Birthday song—yes we're going to a party, party— while we all danced like loons around the yard and Opal continued to gather snacks for Snickers, looking at us like we were all mad.

While we're talking about Uncle Kees, there were many sweet moments of knuckles and high-fiving and splitting her sides with giggles when he said Blagoyavich in that silly, wacky voice. And there was the time when I was preparing Opal's bedtime milk and wasn't able to pick her up at the same time. She was tired and clinging to my leg and crying when Chris said, do you want me to pick you up, honey?
Yes (sniffle), she said, and reached right for him. The moment was so pure and trusting and one of the many moments where it was apparent how at home Opal felt in the arms of her family.

Opal's bedtime ritual was established on that very first night. She was overtired from the day of travel and unable to settle into the unfamiliar surroundings, in spite of the handful of articles-from-home that always travel with us: B, a home-blanket, the noise machine with projected ceiling frog, favorite books, homeopathic chamomile and milk from her personal sippy. Well after midnight, when Opal was continuing to wail and fuss, Ama brought in a huge, Daytona-beach-worthy boom-box and whispered how about lullabies? She played a lullaby CD that became the cornerstone of all sleeping routines. Music? Opal would say as I layed her in the pack-n-play, as a reminder for me to push the play button before slipping out the door.

Opal adores Abby the dog who, as I mentioned before, became Abigail by the end of the visit. A morning ritual quickly ensued—how I love a vacation's potential for temporary rituals—of taking Opal out of her sleeping room, down the hall into the main bedroom where Abby snored in front of the fan while Opal repeated where Abby? It would take some time to wake her due to the fact that she's lost much of her hearing, and even more time to coax her down the stairs with us. (She's an old girl and has a limit to how much up-and-down she can take in one day.) But the extra challenge only added to our celebration of success, which was often, truth-be-told, motivated with treats.

How lovely were those mornings were when Papa got home from his bus route and we all had full bellies and the coffee was still warm. That time of day, the sun pours so generously through the back door and onto the floor where the grown-ups also sit comfortably in the lap of a two-year old's imagination. I could have spent all morning eavesdropping on—and participating in—the elaborate play-worlds Opal conjured up with her Ama and Papa: the voices,the characters, the laughter. The understanding.
Many of those mornings I thought to myself, maybe we should just cancel our plans for the entire day.

(Xoxoxo to all my precious midwestern kith and kin. This one's for you.)