The Stuff That Matters

Awkward phase, month 4, day 9. Circa 1986.

Awkward phase, month 4, day 9. Circa 1986.

Back in 2012, I posted about a milestone. “Tomorrow,” I wrote, “My child begins middle school.” And now here we are with this: tomorrow, my child ends middle school. “You can do this thing,” I wrote then. “You can have a good heart and a ready smile, even in those ridonkulous gym clothes we had to buy for you emblazoned with ‘Exercise Science’.”

Her set of gym clothes lasted all three years, thanks to her dislike of actual sweating and probably owing in part to the B- she got in PE one semester in seventh grade. I almost wanted to praise her. Way to tell them you don’t give a shit, my dear. Because my child has always been quiet. Meek. Obedient. She cared when it mattered, to her future, and to her. One of the top two science students this year, her teacher said. Hell yeah. She joined the choir, the shy girl who can’t help but sing. We went steely-eyed clenched-jaw on algebra all year together, side by side on the sofa, me “reminding myself,” as I put it, how to do this stuff. We reduced and factored and squared together. She ended the year with an 89.9%. Her teacher called that a B+. We are shaking that off.

Her seventh grade language arts teacher couldn’t figure out subject-verb agreement in her own handouts. This pissed off my Inner Editor. Her math teacher that year didn’t show up one day. She was at Starbucks, my daughter said they learned, somehow confused about the day’s schedule. I think maybe we need a few more good middle school teachers. Her eighth grade social studies teacher professed so often to such an enduring love of the beautiful young eighth graders that we started to worry about the use of hallucinogens. Perhaps middle school teacher gigs could become like national service. One could earn medals for withstanding this age.

Back on that August day in 2012, I wrote, “Dear sweet holy holy Jesus unto heaven eternal, if you do anything for this baby in middle school, help her find the friends she will still be silly with in 30 years.” Did the good Lord oblige? My child was happy enough. She found her clique, girls with braces and good grades who coaxed her playfully at times: “Come on Sophia!,” with a grasp of the wrist. She was never bullied. I still remember when a group of girls called me a lesbian in junior high because I looked at them in the locker room. They told me I had body odor too, for good measure.

There are still Mean Girls, you can be certain, but the children all walk past signs around the school that say things like “Kindness Counts Avenue” and I think it sinks in, or sends it underground, and here’s what the holy holy Jesus unto heaven eternal did provide: he kept my kid off social media. Not a moment did this wee gal spend on any of it, and that’s akin to riding a higher plane of consciousness above the madding fray when you’re that age. Excellent call, dear baby. Well played.

Because kids still bully. They are still little assholes at this age. There are still eighth graders who look 20 (and, adorably, those who still look 9). Whenever she witnessed bullying or someone was obnoxious, I reminded my child that she was traveling through the very Peak of Human Cruelty. She was enduring three years of that merciless minefield in which bodies spring and skin sprouts and everything kicks in, out of synch, at once, and it makes everyone out for hurt.

“It gets better,” I might’ve said, but my kid didn’t really need that salve much. She grew tall and lithe and skipped the stuff I still find cringe-worthy from my own experience: the awkward hair, the awkward clothes, the awkward blue eye shadow, the incredible awkward vomiting in PE we must not forget (I. Threw. Up. In. PE.). Her bus stop had no drama; both years she took the bus, there was only one other kid at the stop. So there was no vomiting in PE and there was no perm, no braces, no leaking out of maxi pads, no zit cream, no handwritten notes tucked in boys’ lockers. She didn’t even use her locker, robbing herself of the junior high stress of rapid-fire recitation of locker combinations.

Instead my child asks me many questions. She became boss at launching “What if?” scenarios. She thinks. I feel as if she has saved her brain for stuff that matters. Last summer we spoke often about Gaza. She regularly catches herself in First World Problems. She can be crafty. She figured out how to play to a teacher’s preferences when writing papers — and her Tea Party social studies teacher gave her more than full credit, a shining A+, for Sophia’s staunch defense of the enduring importance of Second Amendment rights. Ca-ching. She reads people. She reads. She admires Malala. She admires Anne Frank. She discovered 1980s author Cynthia Voigt in a reading marathon throw-back throwdown that her ever-sentimental mama enjoyed.

So it was, in the end, fine. There was nothing to hate about middle school, save for those stinging, slicing subject-verb disagreements from that language arts teacher (language arts, for the love of God). It helps that now the egalitarian student council wears shirts that say “Bullying Stops Here.” It does help. We’ve progressed. My child got lucky too; the Gods of Jaws spared my kid the heavy orthodontia that plagued me at that age, and the Gods of Style spared her the permed hair fad I once embraced wholeheartedly.

And so we arrive at this day with this: getting better. Better for you than for me, dear baby. We talk. We will keep talking. She is nervous about high school, afraid of the Tiger Mom culture, afraid of a college admissions scene that feels rather stark and bleak for the kid like her: the sensible quiet girl who clung to her Malala book for two full months and who looked forward to playing with her baby sister’s friend’s baby sisters. But we will talk our way through it, shake it off when necessary, continue to humor preschoolers. We will hike. We will plan. We should perhaps hunt down and write a note of thanks to the girls who wanted to horrify me in that locker room twenty seven years ago: thank you but no, I’m actually not a lesbian.

We will travel. We will probably have to factor and reduce and square and now we’ll probably have to prove and reverse-triplicate and differentiate too, and we’ll shake it off when they call 89.9% a B+. We will do the things that matter. And this kid — now done with middle school, sweet holy Jesus — will care when it matters. To her. And I could not be more proud that the definition of “matters” is, to this young woman, a lesson in heart, a ballad to her place among many.


A mother’s look back


This is a reprise of an essay I wrote back in April 2009, on the one-year anniversary of my daughter’s diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes

One year ago this afternoon, my baby girl was sick. On and off, she had been fussy for days. Late in the afternoon on the 20th of April, she had vomited. I hoped for the random fleeting-sickness of early childhood. Twelve hours later, in the early morning, we awoke abruptly as she vomited again. And then, she slipped into something unfamiliar: sleepiness? That wasn’t it. It was lethargy. Eventually, non-responsiveness. Her breathing quickened. I remember the sight of her eyelids as I held her in my arms, still hoping for an explanation that would be treatable, something that would disrupt our lives for this day, this week, and then cure itself just like so many viruses, so many quirky kid bugs.

                There is a number when you are diagnosed with diabetes. That is all you need. A measure of blood glucose. It is a simple finger prick, a wait of some seconds, and then a number. 408. And then a rush, shock. For me, of course, who cries monthly, if not weekly, a steady stream of tears began that would not end for hours, as new sights and words urged them on.

                We rushed her ourselves to the children’s hospital. People stare at you, inevitably, when you walk speedily into an ER with that stubborn stream of tears and the baby who does not wake up. And then you yearn for an escape from the foreground, to be seated and anonymous, to believe that no one particularly cares what you’re doing and doesn’t attend to the message of your face. You wish for this: I want to just be, as everyone else.

                She returned to wakefulness the next morning. The nurse had promised it would be a long night. We will get through it. And then, after dawn, there was Gloria, awake, who pointed with a dimpled baby arm and declared, “Rice.” It was her word of the month back then, her catch-all proclamation, and of course I cried.

                And so, here we are, one year later, and I can’t help but reflect on that day. I have an imprintable heart, and I am not one to let dates pass without stirring their meaning in my mind. There is much to dislike about this day for me. My memories still feel young, and they have not taken pity on me yet, nor softened with any note of kindness. It saddens me to think that this is just year one of many, that there is nothing that recedes, there is no “getting better”, no past tense. I do not hope for a cure – there is nothing proximate about such an ending, so talk of a cure feels like folly to me. Neither am I on a journey, for that too suggests an end. Gloria is living her life. I am accompanying her. It is a maddening task, much of her phenomenology opaque to me. It is humbling, frustrating, unceasing. I repeat phrases: we have our good days and our bad days. More accurately, there are things that are good and things that are bad about virtually every day. I try. I have many five-second spans of concern when I wait for the results of a finger prick. Her blood sugar is too high. Her blood sugar is too low. Act. You miscalculated, overshot, undershot, almost got it, didn’t. I use faint praise too much: “decent”.

                I have to find something promising in this day. She is one year older. In that year, she has learned to talk. She has taken on the righteous outrage of the typical two-year-old. She plays. She feeds her baby dolls, puts on her own shoes, hones her toddler humor. She bops, grins, is still a fan of a good round of peek-a-boo. She has been to Disneyland twice, ridden a city bus to the county fair, gone on four camping trips, taken an airplane ride, discussed “Barracko Bama”. The reflection of her cuteness is no less blinding than it would otherwise be – I am overwhelmed by it, as I was and continue to be with my other two children. There are an abundance of moments for which I, like any parent, am grateful: when she rouses from sleep as I sit near her, and she murmurs, “My baby?” and her hand finds her nearby baby doll. She imitates my made-up songs, puts her head on my shoulder, pats my back. “Hold you!” she admonishes me, and I hoist her up another time, and she is back on my hip. I was never going to limit her, never going to sit down, never planning to stop encouraging her to enjoy the diversity of pleasures available for the grasping. Still, I resent everything about her disease, I resent our culture of sugar and of eating, and I resent the questions I have to ask myself every week: is she screaming or is that the diabetes screaming?

                So, we have made it to another April 21st, and it is a blessedly ordinary day. Memories will age, others will form. Eventually she will no longer fit on my hip, but her burden will remain. I am left with a lament known to many others: there is much, much – too much – that a parent cannot do